“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”
(Eph 1:16-18, ESV)
59 months ago, to the day, I sat down to write my first Pastor’s Column for our monthly newsletter here at Marble, and today I sit down to write my last … admittedly, with mixed emotions. A part of me feels the sting of knowing that Rochelle and I will be leaving the faith family we have lived with for these past five years and that we have come to know and love. But another part is feeling an excitement around what the future is bringing for that same faith family, including Rochelle and me. So, with such mixed emotions, I reflect on these past five years, and consider what lies ahead.
First and foremost, and on behalf of Rochelle and myself, please know that we are grateful beyond words for all the love and compassion we have experienced through you here at Marble. You have embraced us as both friends and fellow disciples of Christ, and we are better people for all we have learned and experienced because of this time that we have shared together. For this, we are humbly grateful.
Looking back on our time together, my heart is warmed by the worship, ministry, and spiritual formation we have shared, and the transformative journey we have travelled together. How much I cherish our walking together as our hearts have further deepened, our doors have opened wider, our presence in this community has become more impactful, and our understanding of our God given purpose has become clearer. Together, we have each gained and grown in our respective and important ways. I am leaving a better person and Christian disciple because of the time we have spent together. My hope is that you may be able to say similar things about yourself from our time together.
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places… And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church.”
(Ephesians 1:20 & 22, NRSV)
One thing for sure, this past April has been anything but boring. We entered it with an amazing celebration of Resurrection Sunday on the 1st, and closed it with the Spirit-filled Vital Church Consultation Weekend and receipt of our Vital Church Ministry Plan. Chances are, as you read this, we will be in the midst of holding our three Town Halls whereby we will be in Holy Conversation, asking questions and understanding the details, around that Ministry Plan, all in discernment and preparation for our Church Conference vote of that plan on May 20. If you’re like me, you probably feel like the train we are riding on just picked up a good dose of speed. But I am reminded that our “train conductor” is really our Triune God, whose guiding and sustaining Spirit is both among and within us every step of the way. I personally find that little tidbit incredibly assuring and life-giving.
Still, who can help but feel a little nervous, and perhaps a little overwhelmed? After all, this Ministry Plan has a lot of detail, requires deep introspection into things that have been a part of Marble for quite some time, and most every one of us will find ourselves challenged in some way or another. For sure, we will look somewhat different 2 years from now when we complete all the details of the plan.
But perhaps, that is the overarching point. That is exactly what this Ministry Plan is intended to do. For us to be in a better place 2 years from now—not to mention 5 and 10—there are areas of our church that need to look different. (I say “our” church, but it is really our particular segment of “Christ’s Church”). Christ, who is “the head over all things for the church,” desires for all of us to know the joy that comes from being in full connection and mission with him. This Ministry Plan comprehends our God given gifts and passions, our history and local community, and the best wisdom and practices of thriving church congregations. This Ministry Plan is a tailor-made step-by-step action plan, combined with on-going coaching and personal support, aimed at guiding us to the place in Christ’s Church that Christ desires for us to be. This I also find assuring and life-giving. For sure, there is substantial effort and dedication involved, but if faithfully pursued, I believe the rewards to be beyond our current imagination.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” - John 3:16 CEB
In this year, 2018, April 1st marks the end of Lent and the start of the Easter season. The older I get, and the more years I spend experiencing and studying the presence of God in this world and in my life, the more and more meaning Easter has for me. The late Rev. Reuben Job, a past Bishop in the United Methodist Church, captured these words with respect to Easter:
As I reread these words heading into this year’s Easter season, I am even more struck by their relevance given the journey we have been on, and the place we stand today. Certainly, we can see the connection from the perspective of worldly events and national turmoil. From such perspective, these words remind us that we have every good reason to hope for a future that may turn cries of grief to songs of joy … a hope that perseveres “to every Christian in every age and circumstance.”
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
(1 John 3:1, NRSV)
As we enter into the month of March, we come toward the completion of the Christian season of Lent and our entrance into the Paschal Mystery with the renewal of life and hope that follows. And just like my opening sentence, there is a lot packed into the words and traditions of the Lenten season. This year during Lent, we will be completing our church-wide study and unpacking the substantive insights contained in Gordon MacDonald’s book, Who Stole My Church? Our study overtly included open and respectful conversation and dialog around long held questions and beliefs, and how we might be informed by God’s leading. To say that many of us have found this experience transformational as individual Christians and as members of Christ’s Church would be an understatement. I have felt blessed and privileged to have been a part of our various study groups and discussions.
Another wonderful and related read, especially in the Lenten season, is a short but rather packed book by Bishop Reuben Job, entitled Three Simple Questions; which asks “Who is God?,” “Who am I?” and “Who are we together?” And in the end, as is so often the case, these simple questions have enormous significance, and Bishop Job’s answers are strikingly simple, albeit with a fullness and substance that we can spend a lifetime unpacking. First, God is love beyond our wildest imaginations, and the ways God has and will manifest that love number beyond any capacity to count. Secondly, Jesus Christ demonstrated that God considers every single one of us as God’s children. Thirdly, together we are God’s family, and as Christians we are the living body of Christ.
“No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
(Romans 4:20-21, NRSV)
You know that metaphorical idiom: “The elephant in the room.” It speaks to the obvious that no one wants to discuss. These such elephants present themselves in virtually every aspect of human life—the work place, social institutions, family dynamics, and even churches. They also can be found at almost every level, from the most serious, to even the lighthearted. The problem is, wherever and however they exist, by not discussing those things, by not acknowledging their existence, by refusing to name them, we ultimately give those things power over the things we truly want.
I have been privileged to witness and recognize one such elephant that is particularly pertinent at this time in our communal faith walk and journey here at Marble; and that is our church-wide book study of author Gordon MacDonald’s work, Who Stole My Church. Interestingly, this book has generated a wide range of initial reactions, ranging from curiosity to irritation to amusement to even anger. Some of us were unable to put the book down once started, and others of us had to set the book aside after only a few chapters unable to keep reading.
“All this also comes from the Lord Almighty, whose plan is wonderful,
whose wisdom is magnificent.”
(Isa 28:29, NIV)
I would like to share with you a reading I recently came across that I found particularly striking for me in the book, A Guide to Spiritual Discernment, by Janet Wolf:
Our Wednesday night Bible study group has become a rather odd community of sorts. There are usually six to ten of us—two or three people who are struggling with mental health problems, three men who are homeless, several dealing with time in prison, and others wrestling with emotional and physical scars. Folks come with a hunger for healing, wanting food for the body and soul and a place to be at home.
John, one of the men who is currently homeless and staying, as the others who are homeless do, at the downtown mission, started out one night: “Stayed down at the mission again last night—house of pain for real. Woke up this morning and my shoes were gone. Somebody stole my shoes. I didn’t even have to think about what to do—I pulled out my knife and I went looking. I was walking all up and down the dining hall, table by table, and I meant to get my shoes back. Kept thinking: in the old days wouldn’t anybody tried to touch my shoes—‘cause they’d know I’d get ‘em ‘fore they could ever put ‘em on. Oh, yeah. I was mean and folks knew it. Didn’t care. And that’s how it was this morning. It’s one thing to give up drinking and drugging. It’s another thing when they steal your shoes.
“And I’m hollering, threatening, and walking up and down with my knife out where everyone can see. I’m going to get my shoes. Then old Jim here (points to another homeless man in the group) starts hollering from the other side of the room: ‘Bible says if they take one cloak give them your other one; if they took your shoes, give ‘em your socks. Put that knife away and give ‘em your socks.’
“And I’m swearing and getting madder. Ain’t givin’ nobody nothin’! I want my shoes! And old Jim, he just keeps hollering: ‘Give ‘em your socks, John!’
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
(Isa 9:6, NRSV)
Okay … time to be honest. This year, as we have been approaching Advent and the Christmas Season, I have newly discovered the Hallmark Movie Channel. Actually, I have known of its existence for many years previous, and it has historically been the central issue behind struggles for possession of the TV remote control, especially with their Christmas movie marathons. These mushy, extremely predictable, “chick-flick” stories were hard for me to make all the way through—and don’t even try to get me to take in two in a row. Now having confessed all this, I would not be at all surprised if a number of you “Ladies” are thinking to yourself, “Typical man!” And I would have to further confess, “Guilty as charged.”
But I have to also confess that I am this year finding myself actually keying in that channel number on the remote, and doing so without any “traditional” prompting. This year, I find myself looking forward to the predictable endings, when all the misunderstandings and contention between the characters gets resolved. I catch myself being drawn into the “mushy” plots where the happy ending always involves characters patching up broken relationships and at least one new couple lives happily ever after. And as far as the “chick-flickyness” goes, my official position is that I tune into that channel strictly to honor my wife’s wishes (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
“Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices.” (Hebrews 13:16, CEB)
I had the good opportunity very recently of chatting over a cup of coffee with our Executive Director of the Milan Main Street organization, Jill Tewsley. It wasn’t long into our conversation when the topic of 3rd Thursdays came up. Now I obviously could not see my own face, but I could see Jill’s, and there was an instant radiance of excitement on hers when we came upon this topic … and I am guessing that she saw the same in mine.
3rd Thursdays was a special day each month between May and October, when our downtown pulled out all the stops, stores and eateries remained open longer, lots of vendors put up their canopies in Tolan Square, and the east end of Main Street became “Kid’s Zone.” And while it sounded like a really good idea when we kicked it off this past spring, we never imagined it being so successful.
“…they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he said, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.’ ” (Matthew 9:11-13, CEB)
Jesus was always challenging the established norms of the day. Often this involved him engaging with those whom the religious elite and aware would not be caught dead with, i.e., sinners. And often, those ultra-religious types would challenge Jesus about such associated practices. It was after such a challenge when Jesus responded with the quote from Matthew above. Now, I don’t know about you, but I find immense personal comfort in Jesus’ response. Because, if Jesus came to identify and validate the already righteous that they may proceed to Heaven, I am afraid my name would not be on that list. But if Jesus came to offer guidance and opportunity for the unrighteous—i.e., sinners—to find their way to righteousness, well then there is hope for me.
Perhaps this hope is not so different from the hope we have upon going to the doctor when we are ill or there is something not quite right with us. Our hope is that the doctor will know what our problem is, and then offer us the way to become healthy. Some continue this line of thought to draw parallels between a hospital and the church, that is, a place where people who are sick can go to find credible knowledge, support, and healing.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
(Matt 28:19-20, NRSV)
I was recently reminded of a rather “spirited” meeting I attended many years ago of the church Missions Committee. The main objective of that particular meeting was to create the prioritized list of missions that church would focus on in the next calendar year. Many very good options were raised and captured. But when it came time to identify the top contenders, a rather heated debate ensued. The gist of the disagreement centered around the distance from the church that was required in order to consider an idea a true mission. Some felt that it was not truly “missional” unless it required travel to a foreign country. Others were fixed on doing “mission” work locally to keep mission dollars in “our own back yard.” Sadly, the meeting ended with many hurt feelings with some people eventually dropping off of the committee.
Reading this, you may be curious as to which side ended up “winning.” As well, I suspect that many of you have already concluded that no one really “won.” Missions in that church took a major hit that day. But what saddens me the most, is that they were not even arguing about “missions” in the first place—at least, not the “missions” that Jesus was talking about when he spoke the Great Commission to his disciples …or possibly better written, the Great Co-Mission.