Pastor’s Blog for April 2021

The Lord’s eyes watch the righteous, his ears listen to their cries for help. (Psalm 34:15)

I spent over half an hour this morning trying to renew my driver’s license online.  This is a service the Department of Driver’s Services (DDS) has introduced for our convenience.  Unfortunately, since my last license renewal, I have been prescribed glasses to help with my long-distance vision and wear them when I go to the theatre, to sporting events, and when I drive.  The online form asks if you wear glasses to drive; I truthfully answered “yes”.  This resulted in me disqualifying myself for online renewal and now I have to go into the DDS office for an eye exam.  Since they told me this after 30 minutes of messing with the “convenient” online form, when I arrived at what I thought was the final stage and conclusion of the process, you can imagine my frustration when I was disqualified.  So much for “convenience”.

In our modern lives, when so much of everything is available right at our fingertips or without much wait, we tend to complain when things become inconvenient.  The internet and cable tv are out-of-service, (in my case for several days due to the recent tornado), and people complain.  The website isn’t working right.  I don’t have any cell service. The lines at the grocery store were sooooo long. The wait at the Emergency Room was a nightmare….

Have you ever stepped back from our “first world problems” and taken a self-critical look at how we act?  We have become so accustomed (some would use the word “spoiled”) by our modern conveniences that we tend to forget that we are very blessed to have them.  Can you imagine a villager in the Brazilian rain forest complaining “the internet is out”? There are millions of people around the world who have never been to a website (let alone operated a computer). There is more area on this planet not covered by cell service than is.  There are places in the world, many in this country, where food is scarce, and people would gladly get in line to wait for it.  Maybe the person being helped in the ER that is making your wait so long is in such bad shape they do not have any concept of time anymore; they are solely concentrating on taking their next breath.

As we emerge from the “inconvenience” that the Covid-19 pandemic has been, I hope and pray that the world, our community, and our congregation do so with a renewed perspective.  Yes, the closed church doors were an inconvenience to many, but North Fayette UMC emerges from this crisis, (Lord, may this blessing continue), without any known Covid-19 related congregational deaths.  To put this in perspective, I spoke with a pastor friend this past week who performed 11 Covid-19 related funerals over the course of the pandemic.

As we cautiously, with measured steps, reopen and resume church functions, I ask for your patience, your prayers, and your participation at your wise discretion.  God has got this.  We trust and we follow knowing that God’s eyes do not grow dim or weary.  We trust in God’s vision and plan, trying to maintain a loving, proper perspective.

For some Biblical point-of-view on this, I invite you to spend some time, slowly and pensively, with Psalm 34.  Note how the Psalm engages the senses, especially sight. 

See you around soon,

Rev. John

Pastor’s Blog for March 2021: Turning a Corner

Have you ever turned a corner and almost run into someone? Often, turning a corner in a busy work environment, on city sidewalks, or even in a home hallway is an uneventful experience.  Sometimes, however, it is not.  Anyone who has ever walked right into someone else coming the other direction around a bend, or collided with, or tripped over, an unseen object around a corner, knows the awkward and unpleasant, sometimes painful, feeling that comes from such a mishap.

We are, as a world population, a nation, and as a local community of faith, preparing to turn a corner to a post-pandemic world. What will that be like? As much as I like to think that it will be no large matter, I cannot help but worry that something else lies around the bend we cannot see.  Is something there that will trip us up?  Is something, or someone, coming the other way we do not expect?

The crazy truth is that the answer to that question, in many ways, is always “yes”.  As much as we would like to, especially in cases like playing the lottery, predict the future, we are not so blessed. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic crept up on an unsuspecting and unprepared world, there is always something ahead we do not, and cannot, know about.  Yes, leadership at all levels from the North Fayette UMC Board of Servants to the United Nations are all trying to plan months, seasons, and years ahead, but even those plans must be flexible and able to adapt to varying conditions. 

In addition, there are known variables, such as the changes in our congregation’s age, leadership, health, and composition, that have changed much since the last time this church has met.  We cannot, as much as we want to, assume that when we reconvene everything will be going back to the exact way things were before the pandemic started.  Things are not going to be the same because we are not the same.  We are older; we are wiser; we are different than we were a year ago.

As we prepare to turn the corner on the global health crisis, we trepidatiously peek around the corner to try and see what is next only to have our view partially obstructed by a busy sidewalk, full of hustle and bustle, with another corner to go around at the end of the next block.  It is with faith we take the next step, placing our safety, health, and success of our mission in the hands of the one who set us on our journey, our savior and lord Jesus Christ.  Friends, put on your shoes and jackets; after many months, it is almost time to open the door and step outside. 

See you soon, Rev. John

Pastor John’s Blog for February 2021

As a culture, we tend to think in dualistic terms.  We boil problems and situations down to two sides, often setting them up as opposites.  This tendency goes back thousands of years and can be seen in ancient philosophy and the Christian scriptures.  Examples of this include: light and dark, good and evil, love and hate, hot and cold, yes and no, friend or foe, sick and healthy, life and death.  January’s events highlighted how extremely divided our nation has become and how far apart different elements of society have decided to set up camp. As the distance between factions on numerous issues continues to widen, the space between them seems to be shifting from a place of dialogue and discourse into a battleground filled with trenches.  Some pundits have stated lately that today’s geo-political climate reflects that of the late 1920s and 1930s, which boiled over into the world-wide conflict of World War 2.  I would like to suggest it also echoes the trenches of World War 1, a drawn-out stalemate that exacted a horrifying toll on millions.  

How did we get here?  Did ultra-polarization become popularized, standardized, and/or even deemed patriotic when Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death”?  Has college sports fan culture contributed to the problem as team loyalists praise their colors while weekly denouncing the opponents and urging for them to be destroyed?  Political opponents on ballots are routinely in media said to represent “rival” parties and labeled “enemies”, which are much more divisive terms. Slowly, it seems our dualistic tendencies have led us, in my opinion, to conflating and confusing which things are and are not true opposites, failing to understand when opponents are enemies, and broken down our ability to recognize when the concept of opposites should not be employed.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we find the beautiful opening passage:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light.

The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
10 The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light,
        but the world didn’t recognize the light.            
(John 1:5–10, CEB)

Here we see the opposites of light and dark being used to amazing effect.  The light is Christ, coming into the world. But do you notice where the man from God named John (this is not yours truly) is?  Do you recognize where the people, the world, are?  If darkness is pierced by unextinguishable light, then logically it is not darkness anymore.  So then, what is it?  Where are they? If the world was not in the light, but there was light, does that mean the world is actually in some hazy, gray area in between light and dark?

Friends, I ask you to consider, how much of life happens in the murky, unclear, gray?  Choices are not always cut and dry, black and white, or simply this or that.  The pandemic church leadership experience has been one fuzzy decision after another, moving forward in faith through a fog of unknowns and swirling clouds of doubt.  If we consider where, in the hazy environment of John 1, the one sent to represent God is, we note that he was right there in the middle of the fog, preaching so that others may find their way.

As we enter into February, which in Georgia is often a murky experience in itself pandemic or not, let us remember that we are called to represent Christ, the light of the world. Let us not do this by setting up camp with ourselves and ostracizing or criminalizing others who do not know the light we have to share. Friends, I urge you to prayerfully go and carry Christ’s light out into the uncertain middle and share that light with those who need it, lovingly finding ways to meet them in the spaces in between. 

-Rev. John

Pastor John’s Blog for January 2021

It is easy to rant.

It is easy to complain.

It is a lamentable thing that we, humankind in general, default to complaining.  Sure, there are optimists out there, but they tend to mocked nowadays (or complained about as being “just too perky”.)

Normally, as we look forward to a new year every January, we do so with hope and optimism.  We set goals and make resolutions, fully expecting we will achieve them or keep them.  We enter into a new year with a positive attitude that the year ahead will be better than the one behind.  I am not sure you have noticed, but this New Year has been a mixed bag.  For every neighbor celebrating that 2020 is behind us, I have heard a television commentator or government prognosticator giving a dire warning that 2021 is going to be a lot worse.  Who do we listen to?

One major complaint it is easy to voice is that in this age of subjective truths, we do not know who to listen to or trust.  Do we listen to the optimistic neighbor down the street who leaves his Christmas lights up year-round or the journalist on the screen whose paycheck is tied to ratings which are often driven by sensationalized journalism?  There seem to be a cacophony of voices out there all clamoring to be the one that people listen to. It is hard to know who to trust.

At times like these, I like to go to the Psalms.  I invite you this January to spend some time with Psalm 31; it is full of hope and helps keep us oriented to placing our faith and trust in God above.  Parts of it are written like a conversation between a believer and God and it is easy to make the words our own. And the key line?  Verse 6 says “I hate those who embrace what is completely worthless. I myself trust the Lord.” (CEB) 

Friends, what are you embracing?  Are you clinging to sketchy human promises or the trustworthy words of God found in the Holy Scriptures?  Are you embracing despair or the hope found in trusting an omnipotent, loving God? Tune in this January as we explore the scriptures together with a focus on hearing and responding to God’s voice. 

Emmanuel, God is with us!  Spring is coming,

-Rev. John

Pastor John’s Blog for December 2020: A December to Remember

Psalm 30:4–5 (NRSV)

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
    and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
    his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

It’s been a long year, and one we will not soon forget.  I do not think I need to give the reasons why this is the case. As someone who can now count himself among the many who have been through, and recovered from, the illness that continues to grip the world in fear, panic, and suffering, I can honestly say it was a long couple of weeks.  In time, the memory of what those days of illness were like will fade.  As grateful as we are that 2020 is almost behind us, and as joyful as we are that a Christmas vaccine is coming, the fact that few people are commenting on how fast this year has flown by, as we often do in December, is an interesting observation worth noting.

One blessing many people have counted this long, difficult year is how, thanks to quarantines and sheltering and cancelations of most things on our calendars, the pace of life in 2020 ground to a very welcome crawl.  Families celebrated the rediscovery of eating dinner together several nights a week, playing board games and card games, and having family movie nights.  The world gasped as photos showed dolphins playing in Venice’s canals, which had turned clear as pollution dissipated.  Scientists cheered as carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere showed a significant decrease and literally gave the environment a breather.  Reminders of ways to count blessing appeared from many unexpected directions.

Innovation became the new norm in 2020, and not just in terms of technology.  Churches, communities, individuals, and extended families found new ways to circumvent isolation, loneliness, boredom, and distance. “Zoomsgiving” dinners linked families electronically who usually gather in person.  Baby Boomers reached out, calling each other like they were teenagers again.  Millennials stayed in touch with friends via group texts while acting as tech support for their parents and grandparents.  As society has now adjusted to living with this pandemic, January’s way of life, just 11 months ago, seems like a distant memory.

The New Revised Standard Version labels Psalm 30 a “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Grave Illness”.  I encourage you to read the whole psalm on your own, taking some time this month to prayerfully dwell upon it.  The whole concept of the Lord being angry is an interesting one; many people have wondered if today’s challenges are a result of God’s displeasure with humanity.  We cannot focus too much on the concept of the Lord’s anger out of context of the sentence it is in; it is a double-couplet with two sets of opposites. It would be dangerous to separate the short-lived nature of the Lord’s anger from the life-long nature of his favor; doing so would lead to hopelessness and despair. The next sentence, still part of verse 5, is another double-couplet that focuses on our human experience and response to the Lord’s favor.  The two sentences are another couplet entirely, juxtaposing Creator and the created.

     Anger and favor.

     Moment and lifetime.

     Weeping and joy.

     Night and morning.

     God above and us below.

As we approach Christmas, when we remember the ultimate expression of hope and companionship God ever gave us, Emmanuel, “God with us”, we celebrate the duel nature of Christ, where God above came down to be with us below, while never abandoning his heavenly nature. In other words, the Lord we praise broke the opposite of the couplet!  In those scary times of first century Judea, in an occupied country to an oppressed people, when there was much weeping, joy came on Christmas morning.  Friends, do not lose hope, for morning is coming and joy will come with it!  As verse 4 says, “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.”

I give thanks to the Lord and am thankful for each of you, dear friends, and pray you find peace this holiday season. God is with us!

 

Merry Christmas,

Pastor John