Summer is in full swing in Florida. Heat. Humidity. Afternoon showers followed by even more humidity. it's summer! I have been working as Organizing Pastor for a new church start near Amelia Island, Florida. We recently made the decision that this work will not continue, so I am seeking another call and wondering what's next. In the meantime, I am doing some interim work for a congregation that has just begun to search for a new pastor.
Just finished Greg Garrett's The Other Jesus. Everyone probably ought to read it.
In fiction, couldn't put down Welcome to the Fallen Paradise by Dayne Sherman. Read it in almost one sitting. Good southern stuff.
John S. Kloppenborg's Q The Earliest Gospel. Interesting, especially the connections between Q and James.
Douglas Ottati's Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species, which I heartily recommend, even for those who will need help getting past that word in the title. I'm with him: either we believe and trust grace, or we don't!
Martin Thielen's What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? Turned out to be less than I had hoped it would be, but still helpful. Would be fun to do a short term discussion with a group.
Right now, I'm indulging myself (Yes, I know it's Lent.) by reading the first four years of New Stories from the South, a collection of stories I've been reading at Christmas for years. Finally got the first four years I didn't have and and treating myself.
Closing a Church before it really got started was not in my plans when I came to Florida to help organize a new congregation. The economy had things other than those we had planned in mind for our work, and now it has ended. for the past several weeks, Deanna and I have continued to meet with a very small group of people from the Providence congregation for worship on Sundays. One of the first things we talked about when we gathered in that small group was how we could continue our participation in the Interfaith Dinner Network, an effort to feed the hungry of our community two nights a week. Our church had been involved in this important ministry from it's planning phase through full implementation. We were privileged to serve the very first meal (to a whopping total of seven people) when the ministry finally began in a former school facility. By the time our church was making plans to close, the program was serving upwards of 30 people two nights a week and making plans to expand to a third night later this year. Our second Thursday night time slot had become a regular fixture on the calendars of those of us committed to this opportunity to serve. One of the things of which I am most proud as I look back over the work we did over the past three years is this ministry with people who would likely never have become part of the congregation even if it had developed. I continue to be proud that a small group of people intend to continue to serve those people supper even now that they are finding other places to worship, learn, serve, and grow. Even though the congregation we had planned will not be a part of the landscape of our community, the desire of this small group to help others will. We've served some mighty fine barbecued chicken, spaghetti and meat balls, shepherd's pie, and lots of other things, we're told. I don't know what will be on the menu for August, but I'm grateful something will. Thanks be to God!
Agnes, Duwon, and Zhou are three Asian students who have been in our community as exchange students this past school year. Their initial home placements in our community didn't work, and they wound up with two families in our little congregation that was trying to come into being. Agnes said she and her family are Christian, but she didn't know there were different kinds until she arrived in the states. Duwon and her family are secular Muslims (whatever that is), and Zhou says her family professes no faith. I don't know the whole story about their initial family placements. One of them changed because of illness in the host family. I'm not sure what happened with another one, but I heard enough about the remaining situation to know it had a lot to do with the host family's intention to share their faith with the student. Sharing faith is a good thing, something we're all called to do. But some of the stories I heard crossed a line. This placement involved one of the non-Christian girls. The initial host family insisted that she attend several activities at their church, often meaning being there at least four nights a week. They took her cell phone away from her, telling her she could only talk with people they approved. Long story short, she asked to live somewhere else. One of the members of our NCD congregation is a teacher at the high school, and she and her family took two of the girls into their home. The third girl moved in with another family in our congregation, and all three of them worshiped with us. Several of us had dinner with the girls last night to celebrate their time with us and to wish them well as head home today and tomorrow. I've been thinking about them a lot as I work with the Great Commission from Matthew's Gospel in preparation for worship this coming Sunday. I'm sure that the faith-sharing family that didn't work out well for one of the girls thought they were doing what Jesus called us all to do by insisting that she participate in their church and its programs. How many times have I as a pastor encouraged people to use the church and its programs to help them share faith with others? Jesus did tell us to make disciples. But the truth of the matter is that we can't make someone believe. What we can do is love people with the love of Christ and let that love do it work as only it can. I hope that's what we tried to do with the girls in worship. I think so because none of their host families from our congregation required them to come, but they came because they wanted to. They developed relationships with people in our little group. We serve a meal to the hungry in our community once a month as part of an ecumenical effort. All three of the girls asked if they could help, and, of course, they could. They not only served food and cleaned up and did all the other things the rest of us do, but they sat and talked with the kids who eat there, something not everyone is comfortable doing. I know our local school requires some community service as a part of the curriculum. But I also know there were lots of other places where the girls could have done that service. I was glad to be able to sign their forms to document their help with the meals. I'm sure all three girls will have all kinds of stories to tell when they get back to their families and communities at home. I hope the stories they tell about their participation in our church are about the welcome they experienced, and the love they found among us. And I know that welcome and that love will continue to work in their lives long after their time among us is over. We'll miss the girls, but we are thankful for their presence among us.
Just a year ago it was Nashville. Inundated by flood waters. Wondering if things would ever been the same. They're still not. Then just last month it was Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and wherever else those storms went before they played out. Long way away from even wondering if normal will ever come again in those parts. Now it's Memphis. Threatened by the Mississippi, which has been the city's lifeblood. Downtown appears to have dodged what might have been. Out east where the Wolf River is running backwards, I'm not so sure. I went to Seminary in Memphis. Have lots of folks I care about there. Lots of places that just feel good to know they're there. So I'm praying for Memphis today. Especially for the poor there who have so much to lose and for those who will help them. They will help them because that's the kind of place Memphis is. It surely helped me when there were important things I needed to know. I invite you to join me in praying for yet another place and countless other people.
Our older son, Blake, lives in Tuscaloosa, AL. We are thankful to be able to say that after this week's storm. We have been in touch with him, and he and his friends are all safe and did not experience loss of property. Many others there, as you know, were not so fortunate. We have also been in touch with friends in the Huntsville area. They are all, so far as we know, safe, too. The area near the church we served there was damaged, but, so far as we know, the church itself was not. Not sure what they will do about worship this week, but, if know them, they will find ways to serve their community, and they will gather with whoever can to give thanks to God together. Please continue to pray for people all across the South who have lost so much. I think the most heart-wrenching thing I've heard so far was a woman on one of the news/weather broadcasts earlier today who said, through tears, "I don't know how to do this." I don't either, so I pray.
Deanna and I had a wonderfully peaceful worship experience last night on Maundy Thursday. Since we weren't having Holy Week services at Providence this year as that ministry winds down, we visited with another congregation in our Presbytery. It was a welcome change not to have to be in charge. Instead of worrying about whether I remembered whether we were saying of singing the "Holy, holy, holy..." part of the Prayer of Thanksgiving at the Table or whether I did the epiclesis at the right time, I could sit and let the liturgy wash over me and do the work it was designed to do. It did. Just before we were invited to the Table, the choir sang "In Remembrance" from CELEBRATE LIFE. I know. Everyone has sung it to death over the years, but it is still a wonderful way to prepare for the Sacrament. As I sat and listened, I remembered all the flap that music like CELEBRATE LIFE and SUPERSTAR, and all the others from that era had caused. People I remember from church life then (but who will remain nameless because some of them are still around) pitched more than one fit when that music became popular among young people in the '60's and '70's. Some of them were the same ones who had pitched other fits when the GOOD NEWS BIBLE appeared a few years earlier. Something about stick figure illustrations and the language of common speech just didn't sit right with some of those folks who thought they were protecting God from all of us. As I sat and listened to the choir sing, I remembered all that conflict from forty years ago, and it all seems so tame now. I tried to remember when that's all we had to worry about: people, young and otherwise, who were so hungry to hear the Gospel that they found ways to hear it in their own contexts. I still have a GOOD NEWS BIBLE somewhere, but I don't read it in the pulpit or even in my own study very often. I still have a score for CELEBRATE LIFE, but last night is the first time I remember hearing any of it sung in a long time. I think I have an old VHS tape of SUPERSTAR SOMEWHERE, but nothing to play it on anymore. What I remember, though, is how all those things and others spoke to so many and kept us faithful when we could easily have wandered off where others went. All that conflict seems so tame in comparison to the issues that divide us these days. It's not just old against young anymore. It seems to be everybody against everybody else. I'd like to think that some of the people we're all knotted up about these days still desperately want to hear some Good News and will continue to state their case until we let them. But I've known too many who have given up on hearing much from us at all, deciding that we're much more concerned with our own internal squabbles than we'll ever be about their well-being. On this Good Friday afternoon and tomorrow when there is time for even God to be quiet for a while, I'm remembering. "In remembrance of me, eat this bread. In remembrance of me, drink this wine. In remembrance of me, pray for the time when God's own will is done....In remembrance of me, search for truth. In remembrance of me, always love." What people tried to dismiss as a bunch of youth ministry stuff sounds like a call to action after all these years. Wonder when we'll ever listen?
I was ordained an elder (what we used to call and, it appears, may be calling again, a ruling elder in 1983, I think. I learned a lot about my faith, the Church, and people during the years I spent as a Session member. Most importantly, I learned that service as a ruling elder was a lot more about serving that it was about ruling. I became a candidate for ministry and left that position about the time that congregation began a search for a new pastor. Some chuckled when they said candidacy was a lot to undertake to avoid being on a search committee. I was ordained a teaching elder or Minister of Word and Sacrament in 1988 after finishing Seminary. I learned a lot more than I expected to about a lot more things than I even knew existed during my preparation for that ordination. My service as this kind of elder continues to be one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have ever done. Right now, it's a little confusing as I try to sort our where God is calling me to serve next, but I know and believe that this role is all about service, and that's as it should be. I became another kind of elder last week. Some of you know my mom died last summer. My dad died last week. Neither of their deaths was altogether unexpected, but we didn't expect either of them when they happened. From a place too close to reflect much, the most identifiable feeling I have experienced so far has to do with the strange reality that my sister and I are now the elders of our tribe. There are two or three (nobody's quite sure about one of them) aunts remaining on my dad's side and one aunt on my mom's. But for our immediate family, my sister and I are now the elders. Both of us have two kids whom we love dearly, and they know it. But the line back from us stops with us. It's a weird feeling. I'm hoping that this way to be an elder is about service, too, that we can do and be things that will be helpful to others, especially to our kids, and, someday, to theirs.
I'm behind the lectionary for a while this winter since I wanted to preach the texts for the Sunday after Christmas on January 2 and that meant either skipping Epiphany or doing it after the fact. We did it on January 9. As I've continued to think about those strange visitors from the East who came to the infant Jesus, we had a couple of gifts from strangers ourselves. On the first Sunday of the New Year (which happened the day after New Year's Day this year. You can imagine what that did for attendance!), visitors were not hard to spot in our congregation. A couple I had never seen before pulled into the parking lot early, while some of us were still setting things up. They sat and waited for a while, and when the few others who came that day began to show up, they got out and came in. They had a cloth tote with them. I'm not usually skittish about such things, but I did wonder what they were doing since I doubted they knew we collect canned and boxed food for a local pantry along with our offering every week. Once they were inside, we discovered them to be very sociable people, talking and visiting with me and with others as though they had known us forever. Then out of that tote they pulled a big assortment of Christmas candy. "Can you find someone to give this to?" they inquired. People mean well when they give us all this, but we really don't need it. It turns out they were from Pennsylvania and were on their way further south in Florida where they intend to spend the rest of the winter. Several of our folks took portions of that candy home, whether we needed it or not, mostly because these who had been strangers had brought it as a gift. I don't know anything about those folks' church history or practice, but they had learned a lot about hospitality somewhere. That Sunday was a Communion Sunday for us. Our guests opted not to participate, which is fine, but I'll admit that I had to wonder what kind of a church background might have helped them become so outgoing, friendly, and generous, but still prevent them from receiving a gift we could have shared with them. Hopefully we were able to share the Gospel with them. Maybe that's gift enough. Add that to the long list of things I'll keep thinking about. On another Sunday a week or two before Christmas, three beautiful poinsettias were waiting outside our worship space when I arrived before others came. No card. No sign of where they may have come from. They added a festive note to our worship space on that Sunday, on Christmas Eve and on the Sundays after Christmas. No one had any idea where they had come from. We put a note in the bulletin to say the flowers were from friends. Another couple who had visited with us before Christmas promised they would return when they got back from being with their family during the holidays. Yesterday, there they were, happy to be back home, and seemingly happy to be in worship with us. As we greeted and got reacquainted, they asked if we had enjoyed the poinsettias! They had them at home and didn't want them not to be enjoyed while they were away, so they dropped them off outside our door on their way out of town. I was preaching yesterday on Paul's mystery revealed in Ephesians. The Christmas flower mystery got solved, too. And we met some great new friends. There's something about strangers bearing gifts. Maybe we all need to try to be those strangers more often.