Pastor John’s Blog – September 2020

To state the obvious, 2020 has been a year people will remember.  I am already hearing about how some folks are planning significant New Year’s Eve celebrations; these are not so much to welcome 2021, but to say “goodbye and good riddance” to 2020.    The leadership team at North Fayette United Methodist Church is already looking ahead, too.  We are not just planning how we will celebrate Advent in the year of COVID-19, but next year’s January and February activities, as well.  Included in this planning are things like the annual church Leadership Retreat and continued work to develop a vision for how North Fayette UMC carries out its mission over the next decade.  Speaking plainly, planning anything right now is difficult and slightly stressful.  Populating a calendar with all the things that used to be routine is hard to do when routines have been, and remain, so disrupted. 

That is why it is with much joy that I express my appreciation for this congregation’s faithful and continued support for this church with its prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  In August, the church expense to income deficit has shrunk considerably, while generosity for the annual Wesley Woods Offering and School Supply Drive, combined, exceeded $2700!  The volunteerism by people helping out with the food drive for Fayette Samaritans, lending a hand with our Sunday parking-lot worship and Sunday school, and getting our worship service recordings online have all been amazing. As we all prepare to undertake the annual Aramis Alvarez Memorial 5k, which we are combining with a parking lot Fall Festival on October 31st, these signs of life and activity encourage us that things are slowly returning to normal (even if “normal” has changed).

September is Stewardship month, and we are again asking that you share with church leadership your commitment for next year.  Planning is considerably easier when we have a good idea of what we have to work with, and your commitment of gifts, service, and presence are a blessing to many, many people in many, many ways.  As always, your prayers are felt and appreciated and your witness to the world about our Savior Christ Jesus is inspiring. 

Thank-you for your remarkable generosity,

Rev. John Tomlin

Welcome North Fayette!

Greetings Brothers and Sisters in Christ!  I am Reverend John “New Guy” Tomlin and my family and I are excited to be appointed here to North Fayette United Methodist Church.

I am a pastor who likes to theme each week’s service. Oftentimes, those weekly themes tie into a greater, overarching theme for a month.  Sometimes these themes are tied to a season like Advent or Lent.  Other times, such as this when North Fayette is looking to soon begin a time of visioning, our weekly and monthly theme may tie into something broader.

My initial impression this first week on the job, getting to know people and snooping around the church grounds and buildings (and even closets!), is that North Fayette is ready to reinvent itself in some way and may need to start by dealing with obstacles, some of which are of our own making.  This influences theme selection.

July’s worship and sermons are focused on “First Principles”, the fundamentals of Wesleyan theology.  My hope is that by reminding ourselves of the basics about what we think and how we operate as Methodists, we will set all future planning on some solid ground.  My background is in mining and civil engineering. I know that to build something solid, you need to start with a firm foundation.  Our broader theme for the next few months, therefore, is “Ground Up”.

Please, please, please, however, I strongly request that in these times of COVID-19, if you have reservations about joining us for in-person worship, or if you are not feeling well, please stay home and stay safe. I look forward to meeting you all soon.

Rev. John

Then everything changed …

One day, life goes on as expected. And then, everything changed.

About a month ago, I am preparing for the Board of Ordained Ministry interviews of candidates for commissioning and ordination; reading pages and pages of their required materials. I am preparing with joy and excitement for my son, Jacob’s, wedding to Ann: rehearsal, dinner, wedding, reception and after party.

The interviews take four days and nights, and then it’s on to the wedding prep and festivities. We were just ahead of the wave of change. Over days and then from hour to hour, changes that disrupt all the mundane things of life begin to roll in. It feels like an ocean wave. Even a relatively gentle one moves the sand under your feet and challenges your balance. A bit of undercurrent or surge and we are knocked off our feet.

At first it is nothing much, but then … everything changed.

The rhythm of everyday and church life become uncertain and then very different. It is unsettling.

We want to know when will we get back to ‘normal?’

In the Gospel of John, chapter 9 through 10:21, Jesus is in Jerusalem for Succoth, and not only heals a blind man, but teaches about spiritual sight, and describes himself in “I AM” terms. Everything is going well. He didn’t keep a low profile in the face of dangers, and all worked out really well.

And then, there’s Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem for Passover. Everything is going really well then, too. The disciples must have been elated.

Jesus enters the city to accolades.

He challenges the corruption that has invaded His father’s house.

Teaches in the temple precincts.

Wins every argument with those among the religious leadership who have lost the spirit of the law in favor of a personal piety that cares for self and outward appearances. He isn’t intimidated by, but bests the Sadducees, outright collaborators with Rome.

The period we call Holy Week was not just going well, but was a great success until …

After a Passover meal together that leaves the disciples full and sleepy, everything changes.

As unnerved as we are by the disruptions and uncertainties we are experiencing, can you imagine how completely disoriented the disciples were? Despite all that Jesus had told them about what would take place, none of them ever seemed to understand much less believe. Messiahs triumph. They aren’t executed as a criminal and traitor. What happened?

The disciples were not in touch with the realities of life under Roman domination. They failed to understand the fear of religious authorities about what might happen to them and the people if the Romans sensed any form of resistance. The disciples did not anticipate what these leaders were prepared to do to eliminate the threat. They saw only what they wanted to see; a very human tendency.

Maybe our present situation does not have the same weight … which itself should give us a more balanced perspective for today … but it does lead me to think about how much we rely on our own habits of thought, of life and of how things are and will be. And, it makes me think about how we react when we are faced with a situation we cannot control; a situation that disrupts our habits and our expectations.

We didn’t see this pandemic coming even though epidemiologists, virologists and disease control experts have been concerned for some time, and not been silent. Many movies, short stories and novels have been written about global diseases. Think, Stephen King’s novel, The Strand. We seem to have a collective amnesia when it comes to the plagues, pandemic flus, polio, and numerous other outbreaks that enveloped entire continents and sometimes spread around the globe across human history.

The disruption of almost everything hasn’t sent us into hiding like the disciples, but rather, we have been sent to our homes. We aren’t hiding out from Roman soldiers, but seeking protection from something unseen. I imagine that all of us have had a range of reactions including disbelief, anxiety, and outright irritation to being confined. We think that this cannot be real, but it is. There is a sense of shock. Sometimes even our brains seem shut up as life’s routines are suspended. We are engaged in finding a new daily normal.

As we shelter in place to flatten the curve, the repercussions of shutting down all but the essential businesses are also on our minds. Pandemics threaten life in more than one way. We suspect that rocky and painful things still lie ahead. It is only human to be anxious as the weeks pass into months. We are asked to be patient and obedient and especially kind. Even commercials call us to be united and kind, thankful and helpful.

It might be easier to be firm in our resolve if we had a deadline, an end date. The disciples were told that they had three days to wait. Apparently no one remembered that either. As far as they were concerned, this wasn’t a temporary change in their lives. During those three days, their only option seemed to be a return to their former lives; to pick up where they left off … where they left their nets by the Sea of Galilee. After a miraculous catch of fish, a charcoal fire and breakfast will be waiting for them on the shore prepared by the risen Christ. (John 21)

Matthew 28 recounts the resurrection of Jesus. Prominent in this account are the instructions that the women are given, first by the angel and then by Jesus himself: tell the disciples that He is raised and will be going ahead of them to Galilee to meet them. Meet them he does, and with a commission to teach, baptize and make disciples.

Seeing was believing for the disciples. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:28) That’s you and me.

In various ways, Jesus assures the disciples that he will be with them always. The gift of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22, Acts 2) is His and the Father’s guiding presence. That’s for you and me, too. We are not alone.

We aren’t hiding out like the disciples, but we are asked to stay at home and away from one another. We are asked to be obedient for the sake of others as well as ourselves. We are asked to trust that the advice we are getting will get us through. We are trying to brace ourselves for the lasting effects and repercussions; even as we are hopeful that lessons have been learned and there will be changes at all levels and areas of leadership so that we will remember, listen better, act with wisdom and do better. May our prayer be for wisdom in these things, and for us to do our part.

As we ride out this silent storm, be assured that Jesus is in the boat with us. God doesn’t sit in judgment but in solidarity. And, He is in it with us always, and for the long haul.

Unity, Liberty & Charity

Music by LuAnn Latzanich to accompany your reading

Two weeks ago, the Board of Ordained Ministry of the North Georgia Conference conducted examination of candidates for commissioning (provisional membership) and ordination (full connection) in the orders of elder or deacon. I have been a member of the board for eight years; that’s two terms (quadrennia in Methodist terminology). Serving on the board has been a sacred responsibility: one of the hardest and most rewarding assignments I have had.

Both laity and clergy are members of the board. Some of our lay members are quick to say that clergy are best equipped to evaluate theology and doctrine, but I have found that many of them are well versed in this area, too. Together we evaluate sermons, Bible studies, call to ministry, leadership and other aspects of the called life. After all this we must say whether they pass, are deferred (which means they have to come back because of a deficiency) or are denied (discontinued). We are asked to use our best judgment and our collective discernment. Sometimes it is easy and other times really hard.

The chair of the board, Rev. Glenn Etheridge, stepped down this year as he continues to fight cancer; and Rev. Julie Boone stepped up a year early to be our chair. Usually the vice chair has a year to learn from the chair before taking over; but Julie had to assume this responsibility without a transitional year. She did a great job, but we all knew that she needed us to be especially supportive if for no other reason than the details of Robert’s Rules of Order. She asked for our grace as she learned. Our guiding principle for the entire time was intentionally that of grace.

It helped all of us accomplish our difficult tasks. Whenever we became a bit too engaged in our discussions, someone would simply shout out, “Grace!” That made us all laugh at ourselves and reengage in, let us say, a more grace-filled manner.

Grace is always a part of the process of the board as we strive to be faithful to the call placed upon the lives of the candidates and our evaluation of their readiness for commissioning and fruitfulness for ordination. It was more important than ever this year as division and strife seem to permeate so many aspects of our lives. Our ability to work together without regard to non-essential differences has been a huge blessing to me, and I think, to all the board members.

Those that we interview are a diverse group: age, gender, background, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. We need this diversity to serve all the people within the denomination. Wesley said that the world is our parish, and if we are to reach others for Christ, we need many different kinds of pastors who can relate to and converse with the diversity of people we find in our parish.

Candidates are always very nervous. Speaking for myself, it was hard not to feel like a deer in the headlights, when I came before the board. And, we know that controversies in the church and divisions in society can contribute to nerves. Candidates cannot help but wonder if the position of the board or individual members of the board in such matters will influence their decision to pass, defer or even deny/discontinue them.

We worship together before each set of interviews and our chair addresses the candidates to assure them that we have no other agenda than determining their readiness for ministry (commissioning) or fruitfulness in ministry (ordination) in the UMC. There are some things that are not part of our discernment. This year, the chair made it a point to assure the candidates that they would not be asked about the upcoming General Conference, the proposals before it or their position on these proposals.

A part of the chair of the board’s address to the candidates every year goes something like this:

We are here to engage you in conversations about theology and doctrine, and to examine you in that area as well as the areas of leadership, practice of ministry and a called and disciplined life. If you are theologically conservative, you will leave here thinking that this is the most liberal group of people you have ever conversed with; and if you are liberal, you will think that this is the most conservative group ever.

We are not here to determine if you are progressive or conservative, liberal or orthodox; or to approve you based upon these. To use an analogy, if you say something is white we will ask why it isn’t black. If you say it is black, we will ask you why it isn’t white. And, if you say it is gray, we will ask why you are so indecisive. Our purpose is to push you beyond quotes from The Book of Discipline into deeper conversations, and to see if you can think on your feet. After all most of the most important conversations you will have with people as a pastor will require you to think on your feet.

This is an application of the historical position of the Methodist movement. In the Book of Discipline of the UMC, it is stated in this way:

Beyond the essentials of vital religion, United Methodists respect the diversity of opinions held by conscientious persons of faith. Wesley followed a time-tested approach: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity.” (The essentials are clearly detailed in the The Book of Discipline, ¶ 104, section 3)

The spirit of charity takes into consideration the limits of human understanding. “To be ignorant of many things and to be mistaken in some,” Wesley observed, “is the necessary condition of humanity.” The crucial matter in religion is steadfast love for God and neighbor, empowered by the redeeming and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. (The Book of Discipline, ¶ 103. Section 2)

This is a counter-cultural position, and one that is not easy to hold as it seems our culture demands that every position/opinion be essential. It is hard to practice tolerance much less charity. Yet, if the church and its leadership cannot evidence this, we have missed somethings that are central to the gospel: the actual example and teachings of Christ. Jesus was a Jew who ate with sinners (non-believers, tax collectors, people of ill repute), talked to a Samaritan woman and responded to the pleas of a Roman officer.

The UMC is a denomination that has always sought to preach the gospel of grace in daily life to the ends of the earth. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is to grow in love, and to make love of neighbor our guiding principle and visible evidence of our love of God; however we have often failed to achieve and sustain Wesley’s vision for an inclusive church.

The UMC is a denomination that has spawned many others such as Wesleyan, Nazarene, and Pentecostal over doctrinal matters and worship styles. Shamefully, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into northern and southern denominations because the southern bishops were slave holders and would not concede such was incompatible with Christian doctrine and free their slaves. The Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches came into being because of racism in the north because people of color were not allowed to sit with whites, and were required to receive communion only after the white congregants were finished. The sin of the original designation of a Central Conference to which all non-whites were segregated was not lifted until we became the United Methodist Church. This happened because the United Brethren would not agree to the merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church until that happened. We are still dealing with the harm that was done because of this segregation.

Overall, the history of the Christian church demonstrates that we have often failed to be united and allow for differing opinions of any kind, much less extend charity. Church trials, labels such as heretic, and schisms have marked our history. We have fought with each other over orthodoxy and reformation; and have had regular bouts with science as if God is not responsible for this amazing and orderly creation as well as the human brain that has been gifted to examine, and often, figure out biological and physical laws. The apostle Paul might well have accused us of being too much of the flesh (the human world) and too little of the spirit (the kingdom of God) in these matters.

Some denominations believe that they are the only ones to get it right, and will state that only their members are heaven bound. The rest of us are crispy critters in the hereafter. This fear-based theology misses a really big point: it is not our ability to get it right or even to be righteous enough that earns us a heavenly reward. That was done by Christ for us.

So, when we examine those who have answered the call to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church we are examining them on the essentials. That is how we have what we have referred to as a big tent. That is why Methodists have claimed a position in the extreme center. We have always recognized that we could be wrong, others could be right and none of us have all the right answers … as Wesley said, we acknowledge that we are “ignorant of many things and … mistaken in some.”

It is harder than ever to remain true and faithful in these ways. Some of our brothers and sisters want us all to think alike about something that many of us think of as non-essentials, and have now come to the point that they want to separate from the UMC. This group calls their position orthodox which leaves everyone else in the heterodox (aka heretic) category. This possibility of schism is heartbreaking to many of us, as we still ask ourselves if this is the only way.

There is a story in the Acts of the Apostles about the apostles teaching in the temple after the resurrection. They are arrested, and once freed go right back to teaching in the temple, much to the aggravation of others who view them as heretics and want to put an end to this by putting an end to them. I believe this story should call us away from conflict and toward liberty and charity because of who is really in charge:

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34 – 39)

Something to think about.

 

 

 

 

If you have any questions about the ordination process, what deacons do, or even (deep breath), The Book of Discipline, do not hesitate to e-mail me pastor@nfumc.com. You can find a free version of The Discipline and The Book of Resolutions on this Cokesbury site. The latter contains the documents that the General Conference passes stating our positions and actions on a wide range of subjects.

 

More Than A Miracle

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now, I’m found.

Was blind, but now I see.

The story of the man born blind (John 9:1 – 41) is the text for this, the 4th Sunday in Lent, and the basis of the hymn Amazing Grace. It is a long text, but the lectionary reading ends before John is finished relating all there is to see and hear. Jesus does not stop talking in verse 41, but continues to 10:21.

Before you read on here, read John 9:1 – 10:41. Darkness and light. Blindness and sight. Hearing, recognizing and following. These central themes of the Gospel of John playout in this sign story.

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths (Succoth). As a faithful Jew, Jesus will not stay away from Jerusalem during this festival even if it is dangerous (7:1 – 9). He just won’t go with his brothers, perhaps for more than one reason.

Jesus has been busy in Jerusalem, and is walking with his disciples when they come upon a blind man. We are told that he is blind from birth, and Jesus’ disciples immediately want to know who sinned to cause this. Jesus dismisses this, and that is our clue to move on as well, to the revelation of God’s presence in, and work through, Jesus in what happens next.

Jesus has to work while there is still light … before it gets dark. The light of the world (8:12 – 20) has work to do, more to make visible about who he is – who God is – before his hour comes (8: 21 – 30).

This blind man does not ask to be healed. We may assume that the man overheard Jesus’ conversation, but are told only that Jesus immediately makes a mud plaster. Made with his saliva no less.

Jesus addresses the man only after putting the mud on the man’s eyes, giving him instructions but nothing else, not even anything about what will happen. The man does what he is told, receives his sight, and Jesus removes himself from this brief encounter.

There is a huge temptation to focus on the failings in this story primarily as a contrast to the man. It is true that everyone is in the dark about what has happened to the man, seeking an explanation that makes sense to them. Actually, the man himself is clueless about what happened or who did it. At least at first, but let’s pay more attention to him.

Blind from birth is blind for life. That is what anyone, everyone would know; including the man himself.

Despite this, he allowed a stranger to put mud on his eyes. He listened and followed instructions. He may well have had no expectation that something would happen. Yet, he listened to an unknown man’s voice. Did he have only a foolish hope without any real reason to think something would happen? Probably, but he was willing to listen. Did he have faith? We don’t know that either, only that he was willing to ‘step out.’

The once blind man knows how he had always been and how he is now. The change – the before and after – is what is important to him. He seems baffled that no one else thinks that receiving his sight isn’t the big thing to be excited about. Everyone is missing the point.

The only other thing that is central to him is the stranger who performed this miracle, and what this miracle says about who this man is. While he doesn’t understand it, for the newly sighted man, this man is special.

In the course of things, the man is asked over and over about what happens, and he recounts the little that he knows about the specifics; which isn’t much. As he retells the experience over and over, he thinks more and more deeply about who did this and how. His ability to ‘see’ becomes more clear: he has met a man who has to be powered by the divine, whoever he is. When he sees Jesus for the first time he is ready to listen again, and believe. (Meanwhile, everyone else keeps asking the wrong questions and remain ‘in the dark.’)

Now, you know from reading the text that sin is a big topic in this story. Sin is of great concern to most people in the story, but not to Jesus and not to the man born blind. Neither sinfulness nor piety or merit play a role in this story. Rather, the power of God to overcome sin and to bring about radical transformation in every individual’s life is the thing.

The blind man is not described by Jesus as in special need due to sinfulness or of being especially worthy because of merit. The man doesn’t even ask to be healed. He is only willing to respond and receive. That is his only contribution to the miracle. After that, everything changes.

This comes to know who Jesus is, and to understand God in a new way. It is not a matter of having enough faith, of being worthy or anything else that humans establish as criteria. It is all about God’s love and the incarnation of that love in Jesus. It is a free gift that is priceless. A gift that we simply have to receive. After that, everything changes as we listen to the shepherd’s voice and follow.

The transformation is noticeable. And, even today, the noticeably different way of being in the world by followers of Christ can be unnerving to others. It begs for an explanation if for no other reason than the world views it as illogical to be known by love – love of God and neighbor – rather than by material achievements. (And, that’s before we get into the definition of neighbor Jesus teaches.)

Yes, it is all about God’s grace, and it is amazing.