Today we continue the conversations between Dr. Cynthia Davis and me as we think about spiritual and emotional care. We have a team that is working on a plan to deepen the resources offered through Spiritual Direction, Coaching and Counseling.
It is our hope that by Annual Conference we will be able to offer specific opportunities to support your journey.
Spanish subtitles are available under the “CC” tab on the right side of the play bar. Los subtítulos en español están disponibles en la pestaña “CC” en el lado derecho de la barra de reproducción.
Across the last 12 months I have become increasingly aware of the challenges facing our pastors as they have navigated the unevenness of the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and racism. I have observed in my own spirit weariness of social distancing and the loss of our normal ways of doing and being as the body of Christ.
As your Chief Shepherd, it is my desire to find ways to assist our pastoral leaders in strengthening their resilience through tending to their spiritual and emotional care. What follows today and next week are conversations between Dr. Cynthia Davis and me as we think about spiritual and emotional care. We have a team that is working on a plan to deepen the resources offered through Spiritual Direction, Coaching and Counseling.
It is our hope that by Annual Conference we will be able to offer specific opportunities to support your journey.
Spanish subtitles are available under the “CC” tab on the right side of the play bar.
Los subtítulos en español están disponibles en la pestaña “CC” en el lado derecho de la barra de reproducción.
Please receive this a few days later than I had hoped.
Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee
12 Now when Jesus[a] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[b]
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.23 Jesus[c] went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news[d] of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Spirit of the living God, we pray for all people everywhere who seek to answer your call. Guide us as we face further decisions and strengthen us when the path of discipleship is difficult. Keep us open to your call in our own lives as we go out with you to invite all to be a part of your kingdom. Give us wisdom and courage to be willing to walk the road less travelled into the hard places of need. Forgive us for our failure of heart and our failure of nerve. We make this prayer in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.
One of the things I love about Jesus is that he reaches out to ordinary people when he begins his mission. I’m especially fond of the fact that he called fishermen—not that I’ve ever been a particularly successful fisherman. My childhood friend and fellow PK, Ricky Wiygul was the best I have ever known at catching fish. He always seemed to have the touch to catch fish when no one else could.
I also love how Matthew’s Gospel places before us the high standards for the followers of Jesus. If you read the Gospel of Matthew carefully, you will notice that Matthew doesn’t give us Jesus lite. Or as a friend of mine said, the diet version of Jesus.
Even so, the gospel, right at the beginning, tells us Jesus calls the ordinary ones, telling them extraordinary things. He tells them he will empower them to do that which he himself does—which is to announce and invite folks into this kingdom.
Biblical scholar Tom Wright writes in his book Jesus and the Victory of God that the two most characteristic aspects of Jesus’ ministry are announcement and invitation. Not only does Jesus announce the advent of God’s promised kingdom, he also invites people to come forward and to be a part of that kingdom. Will Willimon reminds us that Jesus basically has one question, “Will you join me?” Simple agreement with the gospel is not enough. There is always an invitation and a response required from Jesus.
Is it enough to say that without an invitation, without an opportunity to respond in worship, we have failed the Biblical mandate of the Gospel? Before we are sent into all the world, Jesus says, “Come, follow me.” May I go so far to say that a church that is not inviting may not be fulfilling it’s call to be a disciple-making church. For in the end, our faithful call is to follow Jesus—to be those who fish for people.
One of the models for ministry I learned from my father was to be inviting and to include people in the journey. In every congregation he ever served across 40 or more years of ministry there were always professions of faith and positive growth. Usually, the people who came along side him in the congregations across North Mississippi were ordinary people.
Upon reflection, he must have learned that from Matthew’s Gospel—Jesus calling fisherman to help him do his work. Jesus needed these ordinary people to help him. Then, he issued the call to change. The message of Matthew 4 is: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (vs. 17).
I learned very early in ministry that I could not “see all the people” on my own if the churches I served were to grow. I needed to enlist some help. So every Monday night, a group of laypersons from the congregation I served would join me in visiting. We would go in teams of two. I think Jesus taught that, too.
A friend of mine, a pastor, tells the story of a church he served that took some ordinary people, a couple of grandparents, and sent them into the mission field. They decided at the Administrative Council meeting that they would visit every baby that was born within a mile radius of the church. They simply drew a one-mile circle around the church. Then, they voted on which members looked most like grandparents and sent this couple out to visit the babies. They took a little packet of information about caring for a newborn, a few coupons from local businesses, and some information about the church.
The visiting grandparents were always welcome. They would enter the home and say, “A new baby! You are in for some changes! If you need any help, please call us. We have been in the baby business a long time.”
He said, “What the church lacked in many things, they did have one thing in their favor: a surplus of grandparents. We turned that into an advantage.” In a society where the family is in big trouble, just something as simple as grandparenting can be used in Jesus’ consistent call to reach people.
My friend later said, “Here’s what we learned: it goes to show you that when people are terrified they are good subjects for the church’s evangelism.”
Maybe you remember that terror when you were a new parent. You are extremely vulnerable when that first baby comes. You do not know what you do not know. In short, most of us were and are ill equipped to raise a human being. Being desperate for help, new parents are open to the support from the Church. All we have to say is “We care; we can help.”
Maybe you have heard me say that none of us got into the Christian Family on our own. Someone brought us, invited us, or maybe even dragged us to Church. When did Jesus come calling your name? Maybe this is why we need to think about those in our one-mile circle who need a friend. Perhaps, also, you might consider what your gift is that could be shared. A former church member, Nanny Mae Underwood, made a wonderful homemade chicken pot pie. Often she would bake one and take it to a new neighbor with an invitation to our church. What might you offer? To befriend a child? To tutor a child in the summer to strengthen their reading skills?
Many of you already know how to do many things but maybe it has not registered that Jesus might use you and your gifts to connect with people, to become fishers of people for the kingdom.
Remember: Jesus calls us to be disciples. He promises that he will teach us how. In that promise we become part of his embrace of the world. In your journey, listen, watch, consider, what God might be calling you to do for the sake of His kingdom.
As we journey this Lenten season, may we listen for God’s holy invitation to fish for people.
This week, the Nashville Area Cabinet met to continue the work of the appointive cabinet for this conference year. We began by praying for each pastoral family and each congregation, seeking the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We are far too mindful of our own human shortcomings as we do this work for we “see through a glass darkly.”
Still, it is the task for which we have been called and which we believe offers us the best opportunity to give the best leadership available to the congregations under our care. Over the last several weeks, District Superintendents have been in consultation with pastors and congregations seeking wisdom and understanding for the work that is before us. We ask for your prayers.
Perhaps you will recall reading the covenant around which we order our lives. The following exerpt relates to our appointive work:
Remember that we belong to the Annual Conference and, as so, our individual contribution to Cabinet Work is toward the economy of the whole. The mission of the Church is our first priority. In our appointive work, we hold these convictions in common and allow them to characterize our work:
- We cannot do enough consultation.
- It is better to make no appointment than to make the wrong appointment.
- We will only reward those who have been fruitful with the responsibility they have been given.
In all our work, we will maintain the practice and spirit of confidentiality by adopting the following practices:
- Hold all cabinet meeting conversations in strictest confidence unless/until permission is granted to share information with others.
- Hold all personal conversations between the bishop and cabinet members in strictest confidence unless/until permission is granted to share information with others.
- Ensure that Administrative Assistants hold conversations with the superintendents and communications between superintendents and episcopal office in strictest confidence.
- Embrace the most confidential use of technology for cabinet and district office communications.
Always during this season, I am reminded of God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12.
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.
From the beginning of the Methodist Movement, pastors have been sent. It is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the United Methodist Church. Since 1746 when John Wesley appointed lay preachers whom he called “helpers” to definitive circuits, we have followed this practice. I suspect that sometime in the future, this practice will be modified to address the changes in life patterns of 21st-century people. Until then, we continue to practice the gift of itinerancy.
May each of you be a blessing in the places God has called you.
Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
In these strange and unusual days, when darkness wants to defeat us
and the futility of life oppresses so many souls,
when belief and unbelief appear indifferent
and what is left
is natural passion to express the pride of life,
or the empty void of nothingness
when the nerve to live and to create is weakened and suicides increase—
O Lord, forgive the failures of your Church to witness to the world
that justice should run down as water
and righteousness a mighty stream,
O Lord, forgive the failure of the Christian life
That lives so worldly
That few can see the Spirit that must proclaim the Kingdom of God’s love to
to glorify His Name.
Fr. Gilbert Shaw, 1886-1967 in George Appleton, ed., The Oxford Book of Prayer, Oxford University Press
I love the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t give us flowery language. He doesn’t elaborate in great detail the events of Jesus’ life. He gives us the clearest version of the life of Jesus. In Mark, Jesus’ primary vocation is that of a teacher, preaching the Kingdom of God. He is also a healer. However, in this text from Mark 8, he is teaching.
Most of us would have dropped the course after this lesson—when he tells his disciples that he must suffer many things…be rejected…and be killed. (vs. 31) With that, Peter gets on his soapbox and rebukes Jesus.
Then, Jesus turns and rebukes Peter calling him “Satan.” Whew!
Next the teaching begins…not only is a cross ahead for him, but for them as well. (vs 34)
We don’t speak of cross bearing much these days but the Gospels are clear…cross bearing and discipleship go together. Faithful discipleship is cross bearing.
The season of Lent focuses on the cross. Jesus points us there early in the gospel and the Church has taken the Lenten journey seriously to lead in the path of the cross. Here Jesus lays aside the pursuit of pleasure. He doesn’t do what we choose so often to do—avoid pain, sacrifice, gaining not losing. Mark tells us that Jesus lays these aside.
Bishop Will Willimon reminds us that these are laid aside for us. Not only is Jesus saying my way will be difficult. He is telling us, the way for us will not be free of struggle, pain or suffering. Peter really doesn’t want to hear this. And Willimon reminds us that this is no way for disciples to behave either.
I came across a story in my files this week. I don’t remember where I found it or if I ever used it in a sermon. However, as we come to end of Black History month and as I reflect on the racial tension that continues to find its way into our world and, unfortunately, the Church, it struck me as a call to discipleship for our time.
The writer begins:
I remember the day I learned to hate racism. I was five years old. The walk home from school was only about five blocks. I usually walked with some friends. On this day I walked alone. Happy, but in a hurry, I decided to take the shortcut through the ally. Without a care in world I careened around the corner. Then I looked up—too late to change course. I had walked in on a back-ally beating.
There were three big white kids. In retrospect they were probably no more than sixth graders, but they looked like giants from my kindergarten perspective. There was one black kid. He was standing against a garage, his hands behind his back. The three white kids were taking turns punching him. They laughed. He stood silently except for the involuntary groans that followed each blow.
And now I was caught. One of the three grabbed me and stood me in front of their victim. “You take a turn,” he said. “ Hit the boy!” I stood paralyzed. “Hit him or you’re next!” the giant shouted at me.
So I did. I feigned a punch. I can still feel the soft fuzz of that boy’s turquoise sweater as my knuckles gently touched his stomach. I don’t know how many punches there were. I don’t know how long he had to stand backed up against the garage. After my minute participation in the conspiracy they let me go and I ran. I ran home crying and sick to my stomach. I have never forgotten.
Thirty-five years later that event still preaches a sermon to me every time I remember it. One can despise, decry, denounce, and deplore something without ever being willing to suffer, or even be inconvenienced, to bring about change. If there is one thing that Jesus taught us it was how to suffer with and for others.
Jesus walked the way of the cross. He taught us the meaning of suffering as a servant. Perhaps my first chance to follow that example came in an ally by a garage thirty-five years ago.
I don’t know if that black boy from the alley grew up, or where he lives, or what he does today. I never knew his name. I wish I did. I wish I could find him. I need to ask his forgiveness—not for the blow I delivered—it was nothing, but for the blows I refused to stand by and receive. I think that’s what it takes. Source: Pulpit Resource Vol. 22, No. 1 January-March 1994 (Peter Velander—Editor’s Clip Sheets)
I can’t help but wonder today, how many of us fail in our willingness to take up our cross, to stand with those on the margins, to not shrink back. I invite you to reflect in these cross-bearing days of Lent to ask forgiveness for those failures of nerve and those failures of heart when we stood by or walked away or turned our head, shut our eyes to the pain and suffering and injustice around us. Then pick up whatever cross you have been given and walk to Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, to Calvary and the Empty Tomb.
For, in the end, we are Easter People. We are those whose power comes from two sources—the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit.
On this Sunday, the day when, in the midst of the 40-day journey of Lent, we celebrate the power of Easter, let us rise with Jesus.
Yesterday, the Commission on the General Conference announced that General Conference 2020 has been postponed yet again. This postponement is a result of the Global pandemic with which we have all come far too familiar. Additionally, the Council of Bishops have set May 8, 2021 for a Special Called Session of the General Conference to be convened virtually across the world.
The purpose of the Special Called Session is in order to suspend the rules of the General Conference to consider using paper balloting for 12 items of legislation. As you may now know, the Book of Discipline is not designed to assist the Church in functioning well during a global pandemic. By approving these 12 items, the Church will be able to move forward until it becomes reasonable to hold an in person General Conference. By exercising the use of paper ballots, we will experience the best possible opportunity for all delegates to participate.
Attached you will find a General Conference FAQ which will assist in answering your questions. I suspect these answers are inadequate to fully respond to all of your questions. These are unprecedented times and we are seeking to be adaptive to the circumstances that this Global Pandemic has created.
I will be meeting next week with our General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference delegates to explore what this means for our life together. I anticipate the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference will meet in July of 2021 at which time those bishops eligible to retire would do so. It is also my hope that the final vote for the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference would be held. It is the Jurisdictional Conference that sets Conferences’ boundaries, so this is the last vote necessary for us to fully embrace our new conference. We then would anticipate our organizing conference to be in the fall of 2021.
While I understand the frustration of many regarding these decisions, the desire of both the Commission on the General Conference and the Council of Bishops is to allow our delegates to fully participate in the legislative process without disenfranchising anyone from full participation.
As we continue walking through this season of Lent, let us remember that our particular work in the Nashville Episcopal Area is to strengthen local churches to make Disciples of Jesus Christ so that the world might be changed. We continue to press forward with our work “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith.”
May the peace of Christ dwell richly within you.
Matthew 6:1-6, 19-21
These are strange times. It is as if Mother Nature wanted to remind us yet again with these winter storms that we are not in control—as if we had not already learned that lesson a hundredfold since Ash Wednesday last year. It seems as if we have been in a perpetual Lenten season for almost a year. It’s enough to wear even the most faithful of us to a frazzle as my daddy would say.
The observance of Lent is a call to a deeper faithfulness.
What is Ash Wednesday if not a reminder of our own humanity and the acknowledgement that we will all face the limits of life, one day coming face to face with our own frailty.
We’ve seen that frailty all around us. On March 13 a year ago, my mother crossed over to the church triumphant just fifteen months after my father’s death. Who of us has not known of a friend or a neighbor—a family member or a coworker who has succumbed to Covid-19? It reminds me of the words from our service of Death and Resurrection…in life we are in death.
Caught between the light of Epiphany and Easter we come to observe this Lenten season. “Lent is a time to stand against the strings someone else pulls,” Howard Thurman once said.
It is a time to look within, to determine that which I want to relinquish and that to which I want to give myself. This is, finally, the Lenten question.
In the words of Parker Palmer, “What can you not, not give yourself to?”
The corporate nature of our world is rooted in effectiveness. Stephen Covey captured our attention 25 years ago with his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I took the course. I got the big notebook. “Begin with the end in mind.”
And yet, what Covey did not ask was, what does it mean to be faithful? Is the Lenten journey one of effectiveness or one of faithfulness? Is your walk with Jesus one seeking to get results or is it one of faithfulness? In the end, with God, there are no final results.
St. Benedict said, “Daily keep death before your eyes.” This, above all, is the Lenten call. If we follow the lectionary readings for the season of Lent, our journey will take us along familiar roads. The Gospel readings for Lent place us within the heart of Jesus’ ministry. There is no avoiding the steps Jesus walked on our behalf. Pay close attention. Lent is not a time to have an egocentric posture about your faith journey.
In fact, in Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is taken from Matthew 6, right in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus begins in 6:1 with a warning: Beware.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
“Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms.”
“When you pray, go to your room and shut the door. God will see you and hear you.”
Then Jesus teaches us how to pray… my Catholic friends refer to this as the “Our Father.”
We say “The Lord’s Prayer.”
In verse 16, Jesus says…oh yes… “and when you fast…don’t look so dismal.”
Lynn and I have been doing the intermittent fasting thing…and I can tell you, it’s easy to look dismal.
Finally, in verse 19—Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures on earth…but store up treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is…there will your heart be also.”
For me, beginning this Lenten journey is an examination of heart. I pray with the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Before the Christian walk can be a journey outward, it is a journey inward. Yet, often, we fall into the category against which Jesus is teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount.
We resemble Paul’s words in Romans 7, “The very good I would do I do not do.” In short, we are more concerned about how we appear than about who we are.
Let me illustrate with a story from the Jewish Talmud.
There is an old Hasidic tale about three pious Jews who decided to travel to a distant city to spend the high holy days with a famous rabbi. They set out on their journey, without food or money, intending to walk the entire way.
Several days into the journey, weak from hunger and still a long way from their destination, they knew they had made a mistake and they must do something. They came up with a plan. They decided that one of them would disguise himself as a rabbi. That way, when they came to the next village, the people would offer them food, honored to have a rabbi visit their town. None of the three, being pious, wished to be the deceitful one, so they drew straws, and the unlucky one who drew the short straw had to don the clothing of a rabbi. Another dressed as his assistant.
When they drew near to the next village, they were greeted with excited cries of joy, “A rabbi is coming! A rabbi is coming!” Escorted with great ceremony to the local inn, the hungry threesome was treated to a delicious meal.
When the meal was done, however, the innkeeper approached the “rabbi” and spoke with great sorrow. “Rabbi, you must pray for my son,” he said. “He is dying and the doctors have given up hope. But the Holy One, blessed be his name, may respond to our prayers.”
The counterfeit rabbi looked desperately to his friends for help. They motioned for him to go with the innkeeper to his son’s bedside. They had begun this hypocritical game, and now there was no choice but to keep on playing the game. The mock rabbi accompanied the distraught father to his son’s sick bed.
That night, the three travelers slept fitfully. They were eager to get out of town before their deception was discovered. In the morning, the innkeeper, still hoping for a miracle and grateful for the prayer of this visiting “rabbi,” sent the party off with the loan of a carriage and a team of horses.
They left the village and traveled to the great city where they spent magnificent holy days under the spell of the famous rabbi. His teaching of the Torah carried their spirits to the very vault of heaven. But too soon, the holy days were at an end, and the three companions had to go back home through the same village to return the borrowed carriage and horses.
Terrified, the mock rabbi resumed his disguise; his heart was in his throat as they approached the village, especially when he saw the innkeeper running toward them, waving his arms furiously. But to the pretender’s delight and surprise, the innkeeper embraced him with joy, exclaiming, “Thank you, rabbi. Only one hour after you left our village, my son arose from his bed well and strong. The doctors were amazed, but my son lives, and I am grateful for your faithful prayer.”
The two companions looked with astonishment at their phony “rabbi” companion. What had happened? Had his prayer healed the boy? Was he truly a rabbi all along, without telling them? When they were alone, they turned on him with their questions. “What had he done at the boy’s death bed?” they demanded to know.
He replied that he had stood at the boy’s side in silence and then began to lift his thought to heaven: “Master of the universe, please; this father and son should not be punished because they think I am a rabbi. What am I? I am nothing! A pretender! If this child dies, his father will think a rabbi can do nothing. So, Master of the universe, not because of me, but because of his father and his faith, can it hurt that his son would be healed?”
The Hasidim tell this story because of its profound insight into all of us. We are all pretenders, fall short of what God’s desire of us is.
My prayer for myself and for you is that this Lenten season, we remove the masks we hide behind. Take the inward, healing, cleansing journey and allow God’s gracious, merciful, and redemptive work to begin in us.
So that…by Easter Sunday, God will have renewed our spirits by the transforming of our minds.
I look forward to the journey with you.
We have learned much about ourselves, and our ability to adapt in the past year. The arrival of COVID-19 has had some impact on all of us, and tremendous impacts on many.
Our guest post today is from Richard H. Gentzler, Director of the Encore Ministry, part of the Golden Cross Foundation for the Tennessee Conference. Today, Richard brings us hope for a brighter tomorrow as well as words for the care of not just ourselves, but also our neighbor.
The Bible begins with God taking a formless, empty, and dark earth and creating life in God’s image and declaring everything good (Genesis 1:1-31). Since we are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), we understand ourselves to be co-creators with God. As co-creators, we can be grateful for the fact that the world’s scientists collaborated in new ways over a very short time frame to create several vaccines at an unprecedented speed. The development and rollout of the various vaccines to combat COVID-19 is a great benefit to humankind.
However, the virus is still present. We must keep in mind the pre-existing health conditions of many older adults. Even with the vaccines’ effectiveness and speed of their rollout, many more people will likely die in the months ahead. What continues to be of upmost importance for older adults’ safety over the next few months is a combination of mask wearing, social distancing, and getting vaccinated.
As church leaders, let us be vigilant and help older adults continue taking all necessary safety precautions. Encourage all members, including older adults, to get vaccinated. The State of Tennessee’s website, https://covid19.tn.gov/covid-19-vaccines/, informs Tennesseans about COVID-19 vaccinations and enables each person to sign up for special COVID-19 announcements from the state. Similar information for Kentuckians can be found at https://govstatus.egov.com/ky-covid-vaccine.
Share with your congregation the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines concerning daily activities during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- In general, the more closely you interact with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread
- If you engage in public activities, continue to protect yourself by practicing everyday preventive actions such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing or sanitizing your hands frequently
- Keep these items on hand when venturing out: a face mask, tissue, and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol
Prayerfully, the pandemic won’t last forever and we will begin a new normal. May God bless and guide you in your ministry by, with, and for older adults.
Grace and peace,
Richard H. Gentzler, Jr., D.Min.
Director, ENCORE Ministry
In observation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, the Council of Bishops President Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey has issued a call to action letter.
A Call to Action for The United Methodist Church in Times of Challenge
Grace and Peace to you, Sisters and Brothers in Christ. These are challenging times that we live in. The continued rise of COVID-19 infections and deaths around the world, the attack on the US Capitol last week, and the undeniable expressions of racism, white supremacy and systemic inequity in our communities have provided a sobering start to the new year. And yet, I find that the upcoming commemoration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Inauguration Day in the US provide us, in the midst of turmoil, with much needed opportunities for reflection and rededication.
The images of insurrectionists storming the hallowed halls of the Capitol cannot be unseen. For the first time in history the President of the United States has been impeached for the second time. The deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to Washington, DC for the inauguration appear as scenes from a movie. As one who sits in a state capitol preparing for further disruption, I grieve for America, for democracy and for our Christian witness.
I ask myself, “what would Dr. King say? What would he do?”
Dr. King lived during challenging times as well. In his sermon, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, he says, “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Dr. King proclaimed and demonstrated a picture of peace for our world that has been so deeply violated. Those who participated in the act of sedition last week wanted the world to believe that it was a revolution, but it was not. It was insurrection rooted in racism.
The majority of persons on the capitol grounds were white.
The slurs shouted were not Christian.
The signs invoking the name of Jesus in the midst of these violations offensive.
The destruction of property is inexcusable.
The Confederate flag waving in the Rotunda was abhorrent.
All were signs of white supremacy that runs rampant in America today.
Despite this disheartening event and the history of violence and harm that has been fueling it for generations, I believe that we are in the midst of the revolution that Dr. King references. Social change is happening. Peaceful protests for racial justice which declare that Black Lives Matter are helping to make our voices heard and are changing the way we live together.
The lectionary gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:43-51) finds Jesus issuing a call to one of the disciples, Philip, to “follow me” and another, Nathaniel, deciding whether or not to say yes. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked. There are many who look upon the blemished history of our denomination and wonder if we will sleep through this revolution. They wonder if anything good can come from The United Methodist Church in the movement to dismantle racism. As members of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, we have rededicated ourselves to this work and are responding to this query as Phillip did saying, “Come and see.”
We invite you to join us as we take seriously the call to follow Jesus during these challenging times by renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world and repenting of our sin. In the coming weeks we will be offering and highlighting opportunities for spiritual formation, dialogue, and action so that we might, like Dr. King, serve as the ambassadors of love, grace, peace and justice that once and for all tear down the strongholds of hatred, oppression, and division among us.
My prayer is that the people of The United Methodist Church will not sleep through this revolution. We must be willing to adopt the new hearts, minds and skills necessary to build a church and world where all belong and are embraced as beloved of God.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey
President-Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church
It’s been my pleasure to participate in some way at Warmth in Winter over the past few years, and this year is no exception. Even though the event will look very different than in the past, our young people and youth leaders will still come together virtually for a weekend of worship, music and fun. I am looking forward to being there to worship with them!
For those of you new to this event, Warmth in Winter is a place for our teens to deepen their faith, connect as a group, and grow together with the larger church. We usually host over 2,000 youth who gather together in a big hall. The pandemic has forced a redesign of the event for 2021.
The team planning Warmth in Winter put together a brief video to explain how things will work this year. I’m including it on my blog to help them get out the word – to the entire Episcopal Area. One of the big advantages of holding this event online is that ALL of our churches to the east AND west can easily participate. I encourage you to do so.
Over the past 40 years, Warmth in Winter has transformed the lives of many young people. I have no doubt it will again this year. I hope to “see” you there!
Message from WnW planning team members
While we know this is a little different, we are excited about what God is going to do through this new, and outside the box, year!
The cost is $35 per person and for all supplies -except for food- including a t-shirt for every person signed up. But, register soon! This cost will go up to $45 per person after January 15.
In the midst of an unusual year, many of our ministries found ways to flourish and grow. Trinity Community Commons is one such ministry. Our guest post today is from Nate Paulk, Director of Trinity Community Commons in East Nashville, a part of East Nashville that has not re-gentrified.
Trinity Community Commons is an example of a ministry that is seeing all the people and investing in their neighbors. For the last several years, TCC has been reaching the surrounding community, building relationships so that when schools went virtual the team at Trinity was able to provide a safe, virtual learning environment for children who otherwise would not have been able to receive online learning.
Seven years ago, I sat alone in an empty church building and wondered how it might be useful to the community.
This past year I caught a glimpse of what was possible. TCC quietly continued to be a gift to its community in ways that I could not really imagine. In a year that was so hard for so many of our community members, the space and the organization of TCC remained a refuge and a beacon of light when it was needed most.
Our team is entering into 2021 with clarity and vision: We leverage sacred space to affirm and activate the worth and potential of all people in our community.
There are so many accomplishments from this year which were unimaginable to me seven years ago. One of the most obvious was our creation of a Virtual Learning Support program for neighborhood families. Additionally, supplies were deployed, people were fed, families were supported, people were connected with resources to help them cope with an unbearable 2020.
All of this was achieved by a team of common people with a shared vision and belief that this sacred space says something about a community. We hold powerful beliefs about our community: that people are worthy of every gift, experience and opportunity that comes their way and the potential held in each child and adult will transform our world.
Thank you for your investment in the work of becoming common. Happy New Year!
TCC Executive Director
One hundred sixty-eight years ago this Advent season, the priest and the organist of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church combined their talents to create a carol which is perfect in its simplicity and wonder. For Phillip Brooks, the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were inspired by the profound memory of his 1865 visit to the Holy Land.
In the summer and fall of 1865, Brooks had the great joy of traveling in Europe.
By December, his travels took him to the holy places in Israel and Palestine. On Christmas Eve, he arrived in the little town across the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem. For those who have travelled to the Holy Land in recent years, Bethlehem is anything but a small quaint village. But in 1865, Bethlehem was a quaint small town. That night, Brooks visited the old Church of the Nativity where tradition indicates the birth of Jesus occurred. Brooks wrote: “I stood close to the spot where Jesus was born. The whole Church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”
If life allows it, how wonderful it would be to spend Christmas in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity! Here’s the truth of the Advent journey: every Advent we are invited to go to Bethlehem. It is the culmination of our spiritual pilgrimage every Advent.
I contend that we need this Advent journey this year as desperately as we have needed it in my lifetime. As I write this, 300,000 persons have died from Covid-19. I dare say not one of us is untouched by some friend or family member who has been infected. We know what it is to sing, “where in thy dark streets shineth” and “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”
The beauty of this simple yet profound hymn is that God comes. God comes to the small, the insignificant. God came at Christmas through the lowly—a baby, a manger, a place called Bethlehem, to Mary and Joseph, shepherds far from the seat of power in Rome. To make this journey is to discover that truth.
Not only does God come to the small and insignificant, God comes in the silence. The hymn, “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. No ear can hear his coming.” It strikes me, when I read the Bible, that the world was created in silence. In the beginning. In creation…silence.
When I was a young adult, I did a little duck hunting. I remember going out before daylight in a boat to a duck blind and waiting in silence until the first light of day came through the trees. I can still hear the sound of ducks landing or taking off, breaking the silence of the morning. I gladly would go again and sit in the cold just to hear the profound sound of hundreds of ducks landing or taking flight.
I’m quite sure the first Christmas was not silent. Most certainly the baby Jesus cried. The barnyard animals made their noises. Mary and Joseph, no doubt, discussed this moment. Here’s the truth of it: God makes and remakes a world out of silence and saves it. The final word of truth from the hymn is this: God comes to bring salvation. Brooks penned these powerful words: “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
Theologically, Brooks makes a move here few of us do in Advent and Christmas. He links the child to the savior who will cast out our sin. We are drawn, if we are paying any attention at all this Christmas, to the brokenness of our world. You know too well the brokenness of our country, the death of thousands, the suffering of many more. People are dying alone. Socially distanced funerals are the norm. We do not live in peace. Food lines are lengthening while our leaders in Washington debate a relief package for US citizens. Many have been unemployed for far too long. Others fear unemployment will soon come. Evictions from homes are dreaded. How we need the hope and confidence of these words today.
1. O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
2. For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together,
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the king,
and peace to all on earth!
3. How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
4. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
o come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
In the spirit of Lectio Divina, I invite you to write down the word or phrase that speaks to you this day. Meditate on that phrase. Write it on your heart. Write as many word associations as you can think of to this phrase. Think deeply about your life. Offer your thoughts as a prayer. And trust that God will hear and shape your responding in ways you could never imagine.
For me this day, I pray “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” My longings for normalcy in this season are growing stronger every day. Too much of my time is lost in fretting over what I cannot control. So again, this Advent, I invite the Holy child of Bethlehem to come, to abide, to be little, Emmanuel.
This morning, in Sunday School, we reflected on memorable Christmas Eve Services. From the time I was 13 years old, my church home was First United Methodist Church, New Albany, MS. It remains to this day the place of meeting our Lord. It is my Bethel. From 13 until I was 28 years old, we celebrated Christmas Eve in the sanctuary there. In the years beyond college, I was often the liturgist in the service. Always, Phillip Brooks was with us in spirit as we sang this hymn.
As you journey to Bethlehem this year, reach back and touch your Bethel. Remember where Jesus entered in and sin no longer had power over you. Pray that God will impart God’s richest blessings on you and your family.
Until we can be together singing hymns and lifting candles, let God’s presence surround you with great grace and peace and hope.
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The lectionary Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent always centers on John the Baptist, “the voice crying in the wilderness.” In just a few verses, Mark will send Jesus out into the wilderness where he experiences temptation.
Mark was well acquainted with the wilderness, as was Jesus. In terms of the geography of the Holy Land, there is Galilee where things are lush and green and water is plentiful. Less than 100 miles to the south, there is the stark contrast of the wilderness where the land is barren and dry and dusty.
John the Baptizer was well acquainted with the wilderness.
So here he is, “A voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare. Make straight.” Get your affairs in order. There is One coming whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
The wilderness isn’t a Condo at the beach.
The wilderness is not just somewhere out there.
For some of us, the wilderness is a place inside our hearts. It is an emptiness. It is longing.
It is an absence of the presence of God. It is a place where no grace is found.
In the Biblical sense, wilderness was a place where Israel lost its way. It was a place where there was no home. It was a place where the children of Israel bowed before other gods.
Wilderness, we will remember in just a few weeks, was the place where Jesus was tempted to abandon God’s will.
To be clear, wilderness is not so much a place as it is a terrifying experience. There are no clear paths. Much chaos, plenty of temptation and bewilderment sets in.
And yet, the music this text sings is that out in the wilderness God comes. In a wild place where the screams of wild animals are heard, there is a different song being sung.
“Prepare Ye the way of Lord.”
I can still hear in my mind the pure, steady voices from the musical Godspell (https://youtu.be/qzLrs3eKbXk ) that many church youth choirs sang in my years as a youth.
Maybe the reason John comes pointing the way to Jesus is that we can’t find our way to him on our own, so God has to come to us.
And this voice crying out is calling us to a different way of living—a call to listen to a different kind of voice. Not the voices that demand you to do something or go somewhere but rather a voice that calls for a change in direction. A chance to come clean. An opportunity to stop pretending. To start over. To get washed clean. This is the Lord’s voice, spoken through one of his very own.
This call is more than a mild adjustment to our attitude or practices. It is an invitation to rewrite the script of our lives. It is an invitation to encounter the past we have lived through but have not fully experienced. It is to remember. Before we can more forward, we remember.
Eudora Welty comes close to this when she writes in her small volume, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” about what deep insight can come when people explore memories of experiences they thought they already fully understood. She writes, “connections slowly emerge…cause and effect begin to align themselves…and suddenly a light is thrown back, like when a train rounds a curve showing there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you have come…and is rising still.”
This is the terrain about which John is preaching. This is the territory of repentance.
Sometimes, if we are not careful, because of our familiarity with a particular passage of scripture, we will gloss over a text or will try to make it say something it does not mean.
There are other times when because of the circumstances of life or what we are enduring in a season we pause in a different way and hear the scripture anew. When we allow the Holy Spirit to speak in that way, the Bible will encounter us anew. The demanding possibilities will come front and center, and we will receive that new word for our lives. That is when, I contend, we are in a posture of repentance. We rise and go in a different direction, follow Christ into new places, in new ways.
And we see more of God’s hand at work than we ever knew or expected.
Then, then, we, too, begin to sing…prepare ye the way of the Lord.
I’m listening. The world needs your voice to join with the voices already singing. Together we can prepare to receive the Christ anew.
Bishop William T. McAlilly
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
In 1744, Charles Wesley penned these familiar words to this powerful Advent hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Second only in popularity to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” this hymn ushers the Church into Advent by reminding us of the long awaited return of Jesus. In fact, Advent is a looking forward with expectation of that time when Jesus will return and looking back at a journey to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Both sentiments find voice in this powerful hymn.
Charles Wesley was captured by the words of Haggai 2:7: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” After reflecting on this text, Wesley began to imagine what the birth of the Christ child might mean to his community, indeed, to the entire world. In England in the mid 1700’s many were suffering in hunger and poverty. Children were abandoned and left as orphans. There were class distinctions, and slavery was on the rise. To Wesley, it seemed little had changed in the 1700 years since Christ was born. In fact, he wondered if humanity had improved at all.
In spite of the bleakness of the conditions around Wesley, a thread of hope began to emerge in his mind as he thought of Jesus’ birth. He found himself hoping for the return of Christ, likening that thought to the expectation of Haggai as he looked forward to the birth of Christ. In that hope, he penned the expectant words of this hymn.
1. Come thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
2. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit, Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Wesley understood the power of the Christ to set people free. Jesus is the fulfilling of prophecy and the answer to the problems all persons know, as well as to the world. The hymn embraced both the loving nature of Christ and the power of that love to deliver the world from sin. Ultimately, it was the love of Christ that would change us into being more Christ like.
The year 2020 has been a year of waiting. And while we wait expectantly for some semblance of normalcy—in respect to the pandemic of Covid-19, the healing of relationships due to systemic racism, political divisions in the land—we are reminded in the lectionary texts for the Season of Advent that wilderness is a part of the journey to Bethlehem. John the Baptist quotes Isaiah in John 1:23, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
We have felt some sense of wilderness this year. Sometimes our wilderness is of our own making. At other times wilderness visits us and thrusts us into an unfamiliar place emotionally and sometimes physically. In that space, we hold on to one another even when we are distanced. We love each other well by distancing and mask-wearing. We stay connected via Zoom, texts, calls, Face Time, and FaceBook live. We trust that God is with us. We trust that God is calling us to a deeper walk in this wilderness time.
We pray, come thou long expected Jesus. Let our hearts rest in thee. Deliver us. Free us from the chains that bind us. Fill us with love that conquers. Let power and love combine to free us from fear and anxiety. Let us live with holiness of heart and life.
Advent is a season of waiting. It is the metaphor for 2020. We are waiting, Lord.
Make us whole.
Let us live with great expectation for a world that is healing in body, mind and spirit.
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, United Methodist Hymnal No. 196, 1989.
Collins, Ace (2006). “13: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”. More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Zondervan. p. 102. ISBN 0-310-26314-X.