The Miracle of Small Things

We are in the middle of our Back-to-School drive for school supplies and donations to assist kids in our community who are in need, often desperate need, of the basics. Pencils, paper, 3-ring notebooks, composition books, glue sticks, pen, crayons and book bags are not the things we think will change the world, yet such small things are the small miracles that do make a difference.  Throughout the year, contributions are used to provide ongoing support of the most vulnerable children in our community.

An example of this is best told by someone who works with these precious children:

This was supposed to be a typical visit to check on a family which had struggled from time to time.  But today was different. 

When the door opened, the first scene was that of a man sitting incoherent on the sofa.  The squalor in the home indicated poverty and suggested drug use. The woman who had answered the door seemed nervous, wary about the visit from this social worker, an outsider. Immediately and without a word, she appeared with a bottle of bleach and poured it, undiluted, on the floor.  

Only one possibility made sense:  she was trying to cover a smell. The social worker asked to see the children – to make sure they were okay.  The children were brought out, and during the ensuing conversation, one child – of upper elementary school age — began to cry.  The incoherent father made no move from the sofa to respond to his child.

It was obvious that the child was overwhelmed by this situation  and powerless to do anything about it.  However, he was able to talk about another situation, also frightening but easier to grasp:  he was failing all of his classes at school.  He became more agitated, finally exclaiming “how do they expect me to do my work when I don’t even have pencils and paper and a notebook?”

No response from the sofa.  But the woman in the home was adamant:  “the children do too have school supplies!” She left the room and soon returned, waving a sheet of notebook paper.  “See?”

The boy cried even more pitifully.   The social worker perceived multiple problems, some of which defy quick and easy solutions.  But one solution was close at hand.  In her car were school supplies in abundance, including book bags, paper, note books, pens, pencils, crayons, note cards, glue sticks, and markers.  All of these items had been donated by the congregation of North Fayette United Methodist Church. 

The social worker implored the woman in the home to clean up the bleach, and asked,  “Can I take your children outside to get away from the fumes?”  The woman nodded yes.  

The social worker took the children outside to her car, where they picked out new book bags and filled them with all the school supplies they needed.  Their tears began to dry as they picked bags and notebooks in their favorite colors, and smiles lit up their faces.  Truly, God had seen the chaos in this household and made an appearance in the form of pencils and notebooks, covering His children with caring.

The adults charged with caring for them had problems that were so extensive, they were unable to provide even the most basic needs for the children.   Yet, even in such a situation, great good can be done by providing the simple things, things that encourage and enable children to rise above.

We welcome your participation whether you buy the supplies, give a donation or donate gift cards. Such ordinary things make an extraordinary difference.

God bless you.

5 Principles

The North Georgia Annual Conference was held last week at the Classic Center in Athens, GA. I confess that I both look forward to and dread annual conference.

Seeing people you know from seminary, a prior appointment, a seminar, residency group, etc. is wonderful. We rarely see each other otherwise. We just don’t have time. I also enjoy hearing what is being done by local churches and agencies around the conference and beyond. This is always inspirational.

Reverend Gary Moore, a Methodist clergyman from Northern Ireland, led us in a series of sessions on conflict and reconciliation. Having lived through “The Troubles,” witnessing death and destruction for years between Protestants and Catholics, he knows what he is talking about.  Since our theme was “One with Each Other,” and divisiveness is the way of most things these days, his sessions were challenging, inspiring and realistic.

What I generally do not like are the floor debates and General and Jurisdictional Conference elections. This year was different. We did not have many resolutions on which to vote, and the one that might have spiked a bitter debate was introduced by our Youth Delegates (high school age kids from all 12 districts who have full voting rights just like the adults). These youth spoke eloquently during the floor debate, and the resolution passed. And, for once, I was prepared for elections. I, and many of my colleagues, met multiple times to talk with and about who would bring voices of reconciliation to the next gathering of the world-wide UMC.

Many annual conferences were different from prior years as well.  The Greater New Jersey Conference stood out in my mind because of their “5 Principles” developed by Communities of Hope.* Here are excerpts from these guidelines for doing ministry and making decisions in a world that is increasingly partisan and divisive:

1. The Lord loves unity.

Jesus prayed that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11), not only about the disciples, but “also for those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20). That’s us.

Our unity was very important to Jesus, and should be important to us. The call for oneness echoes through the New Testament, with Paul, Peter, and James adding their voices. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” Paul wrote (Ephesians 4:3). Scripture is full of conflict but the message of unity remains.

2. Discern what is essential, and what is not.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, was fond of reminding colleagues and members, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”

This saying was written in the middle of the Thirty Years War, a colossal struggle between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics that tore Europe apart in the 17th century, killing half the population. Originally applied to this misuse of the church by national political entities, Wesley used it in his struggles with opponents to his mission (Methodism) to the unchurched in the Anglican Church.

This quote doesn’t solve our problems, but should cause us to determine how essential our position is. We should ask, “Is there a core aspect of Christianity at stake here, or could we “agree to disagree?’” Christians have split over issues such as the use of alcohol, policy on divorce, ordination of women, slavery, and justification by faith. Which of these call for division, separation and walls?

3. It’s better to be loving than right.

The New Testament refers frequently to the all-importance of love. What’s the greatest commandment? Love God and others (Matthew 22:37-39). It’s how we fulfill God’s law (Romans 13:10). It’s greater than faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13). Even if you do amazing religious things, without love they’re worthless (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Of course we shouldn’t dilute God-given love into the stuff of pop songs and romantic comedies. Love doesn’t mean avoiding all conflict or just doing whatever people want. But it is our ultimate calling to put others first, to live sacrificially in the way of Jesus.

Paul, in his discussion of Christian disagreements in Romans 14-15, was dealing with issues that separated people from Jewish and pagan backgrounds. He assumes a certain liberty in these matters, but challenges people to act in love. “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).

4. We pay attention to our culture, but we don’t follow it.

We want to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, there are culture-following churches that simply go with the flow, blithely accepting the opinions of the prevailing culture on money, marriage, or even morality. Then there are culture-blind churches that pay no attention to the changing attitudes of their communities. Both types become irrelevant. The culture-blind church loses its ability to speak to people in the modern world, and the culture-following church has nothing to say.

We should be leading the culture, speaking prophetically; which means applying the teachings and example of Christ to daily life and decisions. We share the Lord’s passion for this world (John 3:16), but we won’t let the culture decide our priorities. The apostle Paul lived this, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews,” he writes, adding that he had a similar approach to non-Jews. “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).

The important questions to ask are, “What is the most God-honoring stand we can take?” “What is the best witness to the Gospel?”

5. Through the Bible, God still speaks to our world.

Increasingly, Americans see the Bible as a relic of the ancient world. How could it possibly guide us today? Some consider it irrelevant to 21st century issues because ‘things were different back then.’ Others consider this book dangerous, a supporter of violence, slavery, and discrimination against various people groups.

The Bible describes violence and oppression enacted by fallible humans, but it also provides a better way. Only through prayer and studying together can we understand context, intent, audience; and discern modern application: essentially the spirit, not the letter. Current conversations are not in any way a referendum on whether we believe the Bible or not, but rather how we understand it? So, what is God saying to us? And how does he want us to communicate his message to our current culture?

For me, these five principles are helpful – challenging o be sure – but still helpful.

 

* Communities of Hope walks with communities to identify their assets and develop strategic plans for community transformation. During training, local teams develop a Hope Plan for implementation within their communities.

The Challenge of Change: Moving

Since I have talked, taught and preached on the importance of change for growth in discipleship, growth in ministry, and therefore, growth of the church, it seems only fair to balance this with an acknowledgement of some of the negative aspects of change. After all, change describes my personal life in the last couple of months of 2018. Perhaps this is a testimony to the challenges of change that accompany the promises renewal, revival, and growth. I hope it will be helpful.

The blessing of living within the community and only a few miles from the church cannot be overstated. Making the move from the east side of Atlanta (Conyers) to Fayette County means that I no longer spend 2+ hours per day in the car. If (God forbid) there is an emergency, I can respond more quickly. No one needs to refrain from inviting me by for conversation, prayer, a chat, or all of the above. I can, as we say, “drop by.” Living within the city limits of Fayetteville, I can be involved in the events and activities of the community in ways not possible before. This is life-giving change for me and our ministry together. What a great change to make.

As with most important changes; however, it comes with other “stuff” as well. Something is left behind. There is a sense of loss and disruption that cast a cloud.

The Conyers house was home to me and my sons since 1996. Both of my boys grew up there, had triumphs and struggles, went on their first dates and to proms, got into trouble of one kind or another, and had their friends around our dinner table often. We painted and repaired and even laid hardwood floors. Our dogs, Lad Labner and Nicky Houdini, became part of the family and proved that dogs and cats can live together even if one of the cats is named Mr. Black Edward Wilkerson (Black E. to his friends; Mr. Wilkerson to everyone else.) Many, many memories were made …

Yes, the house – and especially the land – was simply too much to maintain at this stage of my life. Repairing and restoring the damage from years with tenants was daunting. Working on it for a year, and then being delayed another six months, I could not wait to finish and be gone. So, why not be totally and completely overjoyed? Why was there an undercurrent of anxiety, even a kind of gnawing fear?

There is sadness in letting go of something that has been a part of your life – both as a home and as a burden – for so long. There is a kind of grief. It is not simply nostalgia for memories made years ago. These sentiments do not account for the disturbance. I think it is the loss of the familiar and the disruptions of well-worn and completely internalized habits. It is going from the known to the unknown: from a set of known repairs and issues, to one that might have bad, unknown things wrong … no matter what the inspection report said.

Doesn’t sound like much to be upset about when I write it down now, but I these things are what make change hard. Change creates uncertainty.

In a move, your things are packed and then unpacked and put away; but not in the same place or same way as before. You have to figure out where to put everything inside cabinets and closets, and in plain sight. You have to remember where you put things that are “out of sight” in those cabinets and closets. Just finding things can be irritating.

Speaking of habits, for a month, I was still turning automatically in the direction that the microwave was located in the kitchen instead of where it is now. You can’t help but roll your eyes or laugh … but at other times, it is just one more unsettling irritation. I had to think about so many things that did not require that previously. Funny how many things we do on auto-pilot. We just know – without thinking about it.

Similar things happen when we change something at church. We have to do things differently: not automatically. Suddenly all the automatic things don’t work. We have to think about who, what, when and where; instead of just knowing that it is “handled.” We might not have known any or all the details before, just that we can count on things to be as they have always been. And it is comforting to have this sameness; this routine, even if the sameness means flat or declining results for mission and ministry, for disciple making.

With change, we have to think things through, decide about who does what, how it is done, when it is done … and most importantly why we do it. We cannot count on old habits, but must develop new ways of doing things that initially require more effort … more patience … a tolerance for initial frustration. I confess to a tendency to go into “blame mode,” including (and especially) blaming myself.

Embracing “what can be” means leaving behind “what was.” Doing something new often means giving up what we had and asking why we even had it … or did it. Change is being uncomfortable when we really want to be comfortable; to think instead of operate on automatic pilot. We are challenged to do something different … which in my personal case means that I continue to get rid of stuff that I have carried around out of habit rather than out of need or any real desire to keep. The long unused stuff we keep in closets “just in case,” become dead weights dragging us down. We only think they are anchors in the storm.

Which leads to questions like, what if I need that thing I threw out later, or bigger still … what if this move to this house doesn’t work out? What if there is a major repair? What if, I don’t like cluster home living? What if the HOA is a pain? What if housing prices bottom out? What if …

This past year we did something new as a church, something that made the statement that we cared about people driving by, something that reached out to passersby, something that said, “a church is here, and we care that you know it.” We did something that literally was as big as life.

We had a life-sized nativity on our front lawn that “moved” as the events in the birth of Jesus unfolded from Advent through Christmas to Epiphany. This year, the hundreds of cars traveling New Hope Road could not drive by without noticing that a body of believers was at 847. We transformed an empty lawn that most passersby did not even notice into a beautiful testimony to the miracle of the incarnation; and our witness to the joy of that event.

We did not know how to do this before we began. There was a learning curve on what to do and how to do it. (For one thing, we had a magi who had problems standing up straight, and lights that won’t behave.) At the start, we were anxious and mostly worried about what might not work; and then something wonderful happened as people were led to become involved. We worked together to learn, fix and adjust. It became a joyous thing. A team of people came together to do something that would touch others, and in the process I believe we were all blessed. Anxiety was replaced with ideas on how to do it better next year: from set-up, to movement, to how to manage the lights. And, I know I heard a lot of laughter along the way, including jokes about the “tipsy” magi

Before Advent, when I introduced myself as the pastor at North Fayette United Methodist Church to someone around here, they would ask where the church is located. Even after telling them the address, I would get a puzzled look. They would say that they know of “the big church,” or “the church with all the blood drives,” and a few even asked if I knew what Seventh Day Adventist’s believe because that was the church that popped into their mind.

Several times recently, I have had occasion to introduce myself as pastor of North Fayette United Methodist Church, and when I told them we are on New Hope Road, their eyes lit up and the response was, “That’s the church that had the nativity scene in front?” or “I love the nativity scene. You changed it around.”

We made a change. We did something new. Thanks to all the folks who helped give birth to this idea and those who worked on every step of bringing it to life. Thanks be to God for the blessings received and shared.

As for me, and my new digs? The car needs a fill-up twice a month instead of twice a week. I’m finding (most) things without it feeling like a scavenger hunt. Yes, the house is going to need some TLC, but what house doesn’t? Neighbors are friendly, and one of the HOA officers has a big heart. I am close to most everything, but the neighborhood is quiet.

It’s beginning to feel like home: a place for the future.

Volunteering

I recently completed a task for the LaGrange District relating to our End of Year (EOY) Reports. These reports provide information on membership (professing and baptized), income, expenses, assets, apportioned and other benevolent giving, and a pastor’s report (the state of the church plans for the future, and their personal plans for continuing education and the like). These reports are for the calendar year, and are compiled in January by the pastor with the assistance of paid and volunteer staff. This year my role is district statistician. Fortunately, there are five assistant statisticians in our district who help me verify the reports from the 95 churches in our district.

Having a view into the ups and downs of local churches in our area, has led me to think about a number of things about being part of a connectional church. So, here goes:

For someone who prefers to cast the vision and the big picture, and really does not enjoy spending time buried in the details, I have found it amusing that I am often asked to step up to a job that requires great attention to detail: District and Conference Boards of Ministry, District Leadership Team, Georgia Pastors’ School registrar and webmaster, training workshop planner, and now as District Statistician. The last, being extremely detail oriented. In popular slang, God’s sense of humor can be wicked, i.e. extremely excellent or awesome, meriting an LOL.

I know that it is good for me to answer these calls to service; that it helps me in my discipleship. I grow and learn with ever task: in knowledge, understanding, humility, and joy. True, sometimes I want to “snatch’m bald-headed,” as my mother would say. These moments of frustration – often with a fellow pastor who does not read much less follow directions or cannot meet a deadline – are opportunities to develop patience and empathy, and to extend grace. At other times, I have learned that grace can be toxic for individuals and the church. Accountability and consequences are part of being just. Mercy is not always what you think. Unconditional grace is a gift from God, but not always what we should do when we love unconditionally, as many (if not most) parents learn as they strive to raise their children.

Pastors are called to volunteer at the district and conference levels and beyond, just as church members are called to duties at the local church and beyond through participation in annual conference, lay servant ministry, volunteers in mission, District and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry, Volunteers in Mission, disaster response, church and district mission bridges to other countries, to mention a few.

You might be surprised that the District and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry are comprised of half clergy and half laity. This balanced perspective is very important as we examine and evaluate candidates for ordination. Perhaps one of the most important questions we must answer for each candidate for ordained ministry – whether elder or deacon – is one that lay members are uniquely qualified to answer, “Would you want him/her to be your pastor?”

The benefits and blessings for the individual volunteer and their church are awesome. I would argue that lay volunteers can be even more effective than their clergy counterparts when it comes to taking something home to their church from their training or service, and making things happen.

As a lay member of annual conference, you gain valuable information about how to do different kinds of ministry, learn about resources available to us, worship and pray together, and participate in decision making for the larger United Methodist connection. You see the missions and ministry of the church in action, in worship, in celebration, and in crisis at all levels: local to global. Clergy are taught much of this in seminary or during the ordination process, but many began to learn as a certified lay servant (a ministry open to all members in good standing) or a delegate to annual conference (each church gets one delegate and one alternate for each ordained pastor appointed to their church). Conference proceedings are particularly blessed when youth delegates participate in the debates and challenge everyone with their insightful and penetrating questions. (Each district selects its youth delegates from the nominees put forward by local churches.)

Participating in the good stuff has obvious blessings, but what is so great about seeing the church at a crisis point? First, not all crises are equal. Some are moments of choice that do not shake the foundations of the church, but do represent change, or stepping out on faith. Regardless of the portent, some of us thrive in such situations, and others don’t – at least not initially. Hence, choices and change are a crisis and stressful for some members of the body of Christ. Because we are each members of the one body, we give and receive care, when our corporate decisions are stressful. Paul taught this in his first letter to the church in Corinth beginning with chapter 12. (Not that the Corinthians got it, unfortunately.) Participating in the process isn’t always easy, but it is a learning experience that can transform our hearts as we learn to discern together.

Wesley referred to our corporate life – our connectional polity – as holy conferencing, because the Holy Spirit is at work when we gather together. Jesus said that when two or more are gathered, He is in our mist. So, think how much Holy Spirit work is happening when there are a couple of thousand of us at the North Georgia Annual Conference, much less when the world-wide church meets in General Conference.

The tough part is discernment: what God is leading us to do versus what we think or want to do. It can be difficult to agree to disagree, to love in spite of difference, and to remain united as children of God when we are of very different opinions. It is easy to pray that God will change the minds of those with whom we disagree, but much harder to ask that they be blessed, and that we all submit to God’s will and not our own.

In a denomination as diverse as the UMC, discerning God’s will and not our own is even more difficult, but perhaps that is why the Methodist Church is still alive and growing despite the many times we have gotten it wrong and had bad family-fights along the way.

The “conventional wisdom” (the worldly way) does not work this way. We are encouraged to love and care only for those with whom we agree. The way of God’s kingdom is considered upside down and even nonsense according to secular thinking. Jesus said not to think like the pagans: those who do not know God and God’s kingdom, worship other things; and give only to receive; love only those like themselves. Not conforming to the world, but to God’s kingdom is a tall order then and now. Jesus in John 17:11 – 13 introduces the idea that we as being in the world but not of the world. (The letters called 1 John & 2 John develop this idea as does Paul throughout his letters to the church in Corinth.)

Odd, how living in the details leads to thinking about the big picture and the big mission we have as members and leaders of local churches. Maybe it isn’t odd all, but a way to see the big picture lived out in the details of 95 different local churches.

Blessings and thanks be to God for the gift of the church.

 

Humility & Gratitude

At least 16 or so of you know about my moving trials and tribulations that began around Thanksgiving and came to an end on December 21st.  I wrote about how even the most positive change – moving into this community – was a good illustration of the challenges of change. I learned some other important things from the experience; namely humility and gratitude and the relationship between the two.

I am by nature and life experiences a very independent and self-reliant person.  I know that one of the important characteristics of the Christian life is that we recognize that we are the opposite: inter-dependent. Our life is supposed to be a life together, a shared experience that including bearing one another’s burdens. Understanding that we are children of God and part of God’s family is supposed to help us embrace and celebrate that we do not have to be self-reliant; that we are God-reliant. Christ’s teaching that we are to love God and neighbor is itself a statement about relationships: our relationship with God shapes our relationship with others; our relationship with others testifies to our relationship with God.

Wow! Did I ever learn that I had to walk that walk and not just talk it.

When first faced with what had to be done in the move, I thought I would just have to “suck it up” as they say, and do it.  There were some persistent voices – and I mean that literally – who kept telling me that I needed help and that there was plenty of it. I have to laugh at how difficult it was for me to accept that help initially, and to realize that I had to grow in humility to receive it.

Why? In this world, we are taught that there has to be reciprocity.  We have to balance the ledger regarding what we give and receive.  If we can give back as good as we get, we are comfortable.  If we cannot repay the debt, we are uncomfortable.  We have been taught that this is what self-respect is made of: pride based on the illusion of self-sufficiency.

I know that to be a true follower of Christ that we have to live “on the vine” connected to one another through Christ.  Dr. Philip P. Kenneson’s book, “Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit” taught me a lot about this. We are to nurture one another. Being able to “pay back” isn’t the point. Most everyone who has done a mission project knows something about this.  We go to the MidWest Food Bank or to Honduras to help other people and find that we are the ones that come back blessed. The trick is to realize that this same principal applies to the folks we know right here at North Fayette UMC; not only for people who are “out there.”

I have often chided others to not take away another person’s blessing by refusing their help.  It was convicting (to say the least) that I was not practicing what I preached! I had my own pride getting in the way of admitting that I really did need help and accepting the help with joy.  I had to learn that humility is one of the first blessings of being a Christ follower.

Humility is not confirmation that you are less but rather that you are worthy, that you are loved; and that being blessed by others is part of being a blessing to others.  Humility allows us to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God. It opens our hearts to receive, but also to give … not to balance the scales but to open the way to abundance for ourselves and others. It puts us in our place, so to speak, in a good way … where we belong, together with each other and God, Our Father.

I have learned that humility makes gratitude not only possible, but amplifies the blessings for ourselves and others.  We are able to receive and rejoice in the love and grace received because we are freed from the chains the world puts on our hearts because it teaches us to shun our better, God-given nature to live in community, in relationship. We are able to give freely because we are not constrained by the idea that there is only so much to go around, that we must be careful not to be “beholden” or endebted; but rather that there is abundance in the family of God. We are all indebted and beholden to God, and since we cannot repay God, we give to each other.

Which gives me the opportunity to provide a mini Bible study interlude to help us understand that Jesus was preaching a message of community and relationship that was intended from the beginning …

In Genesis 2:18 the Lord God says, “It is not good for man to be alone” and begins by forming wild beasts and birds as possible helpers. The Hebrew word adam does not mean a male person, but rather a human being.  Specifically, a human being made out of dust. Many English translations put the article “the” in front of man in this verse, but the original Hebrew does not.

Looking at Genesis 1:27, we read, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The him in this sentence does not mean that the created man was a male as the following phrase clarifies by saying “male and female He created them.”  In this creation story, both male and female genders were created at the same time and they were human beings (adam). It is confusing to many English speakers because English common nouns do not have a gender as they do in Hebrew, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish among other languages.

For example, the Hebrew word for book (sefer) is feminine and the Hebrew word for door (delet) is masculine.  That means that articles such as “the” are different: a feminine article is used before sefer and masculine before delet.  Also, if a pronoun is used it is feminine (she, her, hers) or masculine (he, him, his), respectively.  The common noun adam using masculine articles and pronouns does not mean it is a man.

So, from the beginning human beings were not meant to be alone.  We were to be in relationship: mutual relationship.  We are to be helpers. Our fall was not about simple disobedience alone because we know that God has other ways of dealing with disobedience. This was disobedience that led to the breaking of relationships: between God and humans, between human and human, and between humans and the rest of creation. As followers of Christ, our commandment to love God and neighbor as self was a guide to fulfill of what God created us to be: in relationship with God and each other.

We can’t be self-reliant … as in, not needing anything or anybody … and be in relationship.

We can’t really love our neighbor as ourselves until we see our neighbor as ourself …which means being in relationship.

That we need each other, and that is a very good thing.

I am grateful for every loving heart that gave so freely to me. I am grateful that my independent, self-reliance did not deprive me or anyone else of the abundance that our life together gives us.

Thanks be to God for you!