From Darkness to Light

When I was in college, I joined the Crew Team. We woke up at 4:30am to get out on the water for practice. Needless to say, our day started in the dark. At our leader’s command, we surrounded the boat and picked it up as a team of eight. We slipped it in the water and positioned ourselves starboard or port. Quietly and softly, our paddles took us away from the shallow shoreline. As we warmed up our muscles and shook off our slumber, the sun began to rise, painting the sky orange and pink. As we moved along the bank of the river, a local church’s cross shone in the distance. I looked forward to the comfort of the rising sun and the illuminated cross each new dawn.

In this season of Easter, we have repeatedly said, “We are Easter people.” As Easter people, we watch for this transition, this promised movement from darkness to light. It is our hope and our reward, especially when our mourning hearts need to rejoice again. Each long, dark night of the soul is met with a rising sun; fresh dew of mercy.

I am still not over the beauty of this transition in our text from Sunday. In John 21:1-17, Peter and several other disciples are fishing through the night on a boat. They have caught absolutely nothing underneath the stars and sound of waves. Out of nowhere, a voice calls out to them from the shore to cast their net on the other side of the boat.

Realizing this stranger is the risen Jesus, the scene shifts. John alerts Peter, who seems to be the most reactive and impulsive person in the gospel. Peter jumps into the water and swims to shore. 

beach-fire.jpg

Jesus is there in the sand tending to a charcoal fire. Can you picture its glow? I imagine that fire mirrored Peter’s heart; his dashed dreams and heartache were starting to turn into joy and celebration. 

Jesus was alive. He was present. And he was offering the same thing he did on his last night with the disciples — a seat at the table no matter who they were or what they had done, a gift of nourishment, a meal that symbolized friendship and grace.

According to the gospel of John, this was the third time Jesus reappeared to his disciples. Jesus met Mary at the tomb in the dark. Jesus appeared to his scared disciples behind locked doors in the evening. And here, Jesus met Peter as the stars and sun swapped places.

What does this mean for us? 

It means Jesus will meet us in the dark, when we need him most. It means Jesus will appear to us with resurrection power when death and loss sting beyond our imagining. It means Jesus is still alive; he is still present.

Train your eyes to watch for this transition, this promised movement from darkness to light. It is coming. 

 

Grace and peace,

Pastor Sam 

Our ever-present need for a Savior

As I write this, I’ve just heard about the plight of the young autistic boy from Dickson who has been missing for the last three or four days. Hundreds of volunteers from the community have been scouring the countryside looking for him. His name is Joe Daniel. Now we learn that Little Joe, whose condition makes it difficult for him to speak, was killed by his own father. As of this writing there has been no motive determined.

Motive. What in God’s name could cause a father to murder his son? Apply all the psychology you can to this horrible tale, but don’t forget to include at least a mention of evil. Something evil happened inside this father. That it may have been caused by all manner of trauma in this man’s life will not be a surprise. But it is also unspeakably evil.

Feel free if you like to say “the devil made him do this.” I find that people don’t really need to blame evil acts on any outside agent. We, all of us, apparently are capable under the wrong circumstances of performing evil actions. Maybe this is what the early church meant when it devised a theology of original sin. Or maybe the easier way to say it is how one of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Liston Mills, said it: “When you come right down to it, people are just no damn good.”

My personal heart today is to feel deep sympathy for this boy and his other family. These kinds of stories--schoolyard shootings, horrible abuse, random acts of violence--serve to remind us why the church and our story of death and resurrection are needed now more than ever. The story of God and Christ is not passé. It is as vital as it has ever been. More and more it is clear that left to our own devices, we will destroy each other and our planet.

Our story says there is something better--something more. There is Purpose and Mind behind the universe. And the core of it is Love.  

 
Broken-Heart-Love-HD-Wallpapers.jpg
 

PEACE

Jim
 

Spiritual Reboot

 
cross-symbol-christian-faith-faith-161078.jpeg
 

Palm--Passion--Easter: this is the driving force that lay behind the Christian faith. We call it Holy Week. There’s a lot going on in this week. Fully a third of the gospels are devoted to this last week in the life of Jesus which should serve as a pretty good clue as to how important the early church thought of these last events.

Although there are still some growing churches (including ours), the overall trajectory of American Christianity is declining. Fewer and fewer people are carving the time into their busy lives to observe a Christian life.

I’m not absolutely sure one can draw a straight line from the decline in faith to a decline in the moral fiber of our nation, but I would also challenge you to find a better explanation. The things that were once thought of as right and wrong have now undergone an evolution of their own. Some of that evolution has been necessary. Some have grown and festered like a fungus that is hard to eradicate.

What I do know is that what has always been true about our faith is still true--living a life following Jesus is a better way to live. You and I both know too many people--friends and neighbors and even family members--who are desperately unhappy. The quest for meaning in the acquisition of “stuff” brings temporary smiles, but just like a two-year-old on Christmas morning, we get bored with stuff pretty quickly.

Following Jesus--especially during this week we call “Holy” will not solve every problem you have. But following Jesus is the best way to lean fully into life. A life that values beauty and truth and goodness. A life that respects all other life. A life that says you are loved and valued for no other reason than God says so and with nothing to prove to anyone else. A life that promises you will do some things badly, but that there is forgiveness on the other side and a chance to do better tomorrow what you may have done poorly today.

With all due respect, you can’t get all that at Rotary or Lions Club or Kiwanis or Civitan. All fine organizations, but none that can promise what God does.

So this week is a week to “re-engage” if you’ve been drifting. Holy Week is the account of how God goes “all in” with Jesus. It’s our chance to do the same. Come to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services this week at 6:15 p.m. Come to one of the three Easter services on Sunday at 6:30, 8:30 and 10:30.

The staff at the church will attest that I am woefully ignorant of computer things. I’m learning, but it isn’t “intuitive” to me and so I must depend on their kindness of pulling me through. One thing I HAVE learned, though, is that when the computer starts to act up and not perform correctly, the first thing to be done is to shut it off so that it can “reboot”. Most of the time, this solves the problem.

Would you understand me today if I suggested Holy Week is the perfect, spiritual reboot?

PEACE

Jim

Rest In Peace, Dear Friend

 
michael williams.jpg
 

I don’t even know where to begin. I got the call early Tuesday morning telling me that Michael Williams had died. A sudden death like that comes as a shock and I was having a very difficult time processing it in my mind. I had just seen Michael at the Project Transformation luncheon a few days before. We talked for a few minutes like we always did.

My first reaction was to reach out to colleagues and friends who knew and loved him--to alert them to this sad news. Everyone’s reaction was the same--disbelief.

My mind took me back to a couple of weeks ago to the memorial service for Rick Osgood. This was so eerily similar--such a sudden death to a much-beloved friend. Michael and I had talked about an idea I’ve had about creating a storytelling festival on the west side of town and he was very excited about that and pledged to help make it happen.

We talked about his retirement--just last year. He was now teaching at Martin Methodist College and doing some traveling as a featured storyteller and lecturer. What I remember most that day was him telling me how much fun he was having now that the pressure of leading a church was no longer on him. He was relaxed, light, excited.

I don’t like thinking about the world without him. Michael brought joy, insight, and meaning to life in a unique way. I doubt everyone knows that Michael was once the Associate Pastor at Columbia First UMC. Columbia, TN is the home of the annual Mule Day Festival where some 250,000 people (and mules) descend on the town for what is truly a pure slice of small-town Americana. One of the highlights of the Mule Day Festival is the annual “Liars Contest”--where folks get up and tell outlandish stories, always funny. Michael won that contest several times in a row--so much that he was asked, I’m told, NOT to enter so someone else might have a chance to win. Very cool.

Michael led worship for me on many occasions as a guest preacher. I was always as mesmerized by him as everyone else. And jealous that I didn’t possess his skill. He led youth retreats for me when I worked with the conference youth. Young people, especially, gravitated to Michael--that, in itself, is a rare gift.

We were also kindred spirits in how we understood the faith and the church. I think it’s safe to say that we both had a “lover’s quarrel” with the church at times and sought ways to make her stronger. I always loved him for that.

Michael was your pastor at one time and I know how much you loved him. He was pretty easy to love and I know he loved you, too. I remember Rick Osgood’s service as Michael assisted us with it. They were such good friends and Michael was able to capture Rick’s enthusiasm and spirit in that memorial with the catchphrase Rick used a lot to describe something that impressed him - ”That’s really cool”. He found a way to make us all feel better about Rick’s death--a way to make us grateful we had known him.

Today I can’t help but think exactly the same way about Michael. Kurt Vonnegut was one of our nation’s greatest writers. Vonnegut was a “free thinker” and not known as a person of faith. But in one essay he wrote years ago he was describing a man he knew and this is how he described him: “whenever he was near you he just made you feel better about yourself and the world around you. When he was around it was as if someone, somewhere out there, wanted you to like it here.”

Whenever I was around Michael, it was as if someone, somewhere out there, wanted me to like it here. We will all miss him. Rest in peace, dear friend.

 

PEACE

Jim
 

More reflections on Cuba

The faith of the people we encountered was very strong. It was evident in the worship services and the Bible study I conducted (for 500 people) that the Christians in Cuba take their faith very seriously. The entire team remarked on this when new were able to sit together to talk about the things we saw and heard each day.

As I step back to think about it, I believe there is a reason they seem to be more passionate about their faith and worship than we do—I believe it has to do with their needs. With an average salary of $30 a month and meager subsidies from the government, it is natural to be more dependent on God. This has been true of Christianity from the beginning. Those who seemed to have the deepest faith are the ones who had very little or next to nothing in the way of material goods. In their poverty—maybe even in their desperation—faith in God was the oasis in the desert and the place where one could have hope.

 Photo: Raquel Perez

Photo: Raquel Perez

What I’m about to say may sting, but in the United States where mainline churches are struggling to survive against an increasingly secular culture, and in Europe where the worship attendance now hovers around 6%, the factor listed above for Cuba, namely need, isn’t felt here in the same way. To put it another way, most of us are blessed to meet our own needs. The level of poverty here is very small compared to Cuba and other places like it. And because we feel confident to meet our own needs, we feel less compelled to lean on God. People like us have the power to manufacture our own hope.

Please don’t take this as “America bashing”. It isn’t. It is merely an observation of how faith in God is lived out in two, very different places. I tend to believe that when God equips certain people or nations like us that we have a unique responsibility to reach out and help. We have been blessed in order to become a blessing to others. Our peculiar sin isn’t found in the fact that we have things. Our peculiar sin is that we have allowed the “things” to control us—the quest for them.

I think the old story of Samson is instructive for us. Samson was undeniably a person of great strength—whose strength came from the Lord. Only when he forgot and allowed another to “steal” his strength (by cutting his hair) did he recognize his failure. To press the analogy, our “hair” might just be our wealth. Only when we recognize it as a gift from God and meant to be shared is it sanctified. And only then can we share our Cuban friends' recognition of our own dependence on God.

It’s certainly worth pondering.

 

Peace

Jim
 

Cuba Mission trip

 
 The Team on the Malecon

The Team on the Malecon

 

Your Cuba mission team arrived back safely in Nashville on Friday night. Over the course of time we will find ways to share with you what we learned, what we saw, what needs there are that we, as a congregation, might address. It’s very important to us that you know as much as possible because we believe that there is ample reason to begin a long-term partnership with our brothers and sister of the Vedado Methodist Church.

There would be no way to share everything with you in one article so allow me to give you just a few impressions.

 A Mission Church

A Mission Church

Methodism is very strong in Cuba. There are 450 Methodist Churches in Cuba of various sizes. For instance, the Vedado Church worships about 1800 people a week. Other churches may worship 30. But in addition to those 450 churches, there are another 800 “mission churches”. A mission church is a “house” church. A local pastor will start a church in their own home. These homes are small, but a space is carved out for them to worship maybe twenty or thirty. When a mission church has grown to the 30 to 50 size and sustained it for a few years, they are then allowed to build a church.

I share this first because evangelism—bringing people into a relationship with Jesus Christ—is why they exist. Yes, there are other programs and ministries, but their primary task is to share Jesus. Do you remember my challenge to you at about this time last year?? If each one of us at Belle Meade UMC would reach out and disciple just one other person, our church would be transformed. That challenge stands. Did you attempt to bring others to church last year??

I was blessed to preach one service and teach one Bible Study. The worship service had 800 people. Worship at Vedado is more closely akin to a Pentecostal/ Holiness service than what we would typically expect in an American Methodist Church. Their worship is much louder and features a lot of high energy music. Pastor Lester Fernandez, our host, preaches for about 45 minutes—and he preaches 9 services a week.

I had a wonderful interpreter to assist me. Yes, I preached a 45 minute sermon—maybe I’ll try that here next Sunday. It was a challenge to have someone translate, but we developed a “cadence” of our own and she was so good, it was a smooth experience. Other than the fact that I am not from the Pentecostal experience and so my sermon was, shall we say, somewhat less energetic than they are accustomed.

The Bible study had 500 people and that experience was even better for me because there was interaction between us.

 Reb Ferrell addresses the Vedado Methodist Church

Reb Ferrell addresses the Vedado Methodist Church

Our team was truly blessed to experience Cuba in this way—not as tourists, but as partners in ministry. We will share more with you in the days to come. For now, be thinking about whether you might like to be part of the next team to Cuba. We haven’t made any firm decisions, but we are thinking that every other year would be ideal.

Last thing—If the Vedado Church stresses nothing else, they stress the value of prayer. They are praying for our congregation. They have now received us as a partner. We will do the same and we will pray for their mission and ministry in and around Havana.

PEACE

Jim

Transitions on the Journey

We are now a full week into the season of Lent. During Lent, we participate in inner reflection. Some of us practice fasting, praying, or giving more graciously. I believe these 40 days help us re-focus, turning our hearts and our lives back to God.

One practice that works for me is taking time to read a short devotion each morning in my office before opening up my computer or my calendar. This year, I am reading “The Sanctuary for Lent 2018” by Katie Z. Dawson. In connection to Jesus being led into the wilderness in Luke 4:1, she writes, “The wilderness is liminal space, a threshold. It is the time in between. This transitional space lasts for forty days; for Jesus, it is forty days of discomfort, waiting, fasting, wrestling, and transformation. Forty days of trial and temptation. For Jesus, forty days is the right amount of time it takes to get ready for whatever comes next.”

I am particularly drawn to this idea of transition. Transition can be a very difficult and uncomfortable feeling to sit in. At times it is more scary than exciting to think about what comes next. But it is also true that we are always in transition. We are pilgrims on a spiritual and earthly journey in which destination has never really been the point. We have moments of arrival, but we are always arriving, which means we are always being called by God from one season, one place, one vocation, one action, to the next. An openness to the movement of the Spirit is what helps us grow and transform.

As migrant people, we encounter one another through all sorts of transitions in our lives. Lately, I have been thinking about transitions our older adults make when they can no longer come to church. Dot Turner, one of our faithful 8:30 church-goers, is now experiencing this transition due to her health. Her daughter, Vicki Warren, wrote a note on what Belle Meade has meant to her. With Vicki’s permission, I share it with you:

“Be aware, I have tears in my eyes as I write this. Over the past 2 years that Mom and I have been attending the early service, each and every one of you have reached out to us with loving arms. You have graciously accepted Mom with her advanced dementia and physical limitations.  Though Mom's mental health is practically nil and her physical health is waning, her spiritual health is strong and continues to grow. You have provided us a place for that. As I sit with Mom in church and see her tears when she sings and when she prays, and watch her smile when she is greeted with such loving smiles and hugs, I know that her connection to God remains alive.  During this journey we've shared there have been times when I'm convinced Mom sees some of what is on the other side, where all of our knowledge is useless and only love remains. That is what we feel in this community, and I am so grateful.”

What a gift our community has been to Dot, and what a gift Dot has been to our community. I ask you to hold this transition in your prayers, but I also ask you to pray for what comes next. Dot, like many members of our church who can no longer be physically present, will remain a part of our lives. As one member has said, “I know that she will miss coming to church, but we will continue to bring church to her.” In fact, for the last year, we have been working hard to create a Congregational Care Team. This team visits our homebound members regularly, and as you can guess, the Spirit is seen and experienced in the midst of these sacred encounters.

I would love to tell you what I have witnessed through this team. Since October, we have been gathering once a month to take Communion to our homebound members. Katherine Massey loves taking her 4-year-old daughter, Annie, on these visits, and her people love seeing Annie! Carol Cartwright recently knit a prayer cloth for a church member and had a beautiful experience offering her communion. In the midst of dementia, she lit up and remembered the sacrament. Betty Lassing faithfully visits many members of our church every single week, taking bulletins and sharing devotions. Lindsay Bridges jumps on opportunities to help you write to these members. She will prepare a way for you to send Easter Cards to our friends. David Drummel has been gracious and hospitable in his visits for years, forming deep relationships cherished by so many. Lou Wilkin, a new member of our church, loves singing hymns and taking baked goods to the people she visits. Leigh and Mike Voyles describe themselves as the ones blessed by these moments. 

In Leigh’s own words, she writes, “My mother Sarah had such a generous spirit, and I was truly inspired by her benevolence. She loved our church and its members and we all loved her. I was able to spend most days of the last year of her life by her side at Brookdale Belle Meade. In that time I learned what it meant to simply share a smile, a hug, sing a song or dine with folks whose days had become quieter and lonelier than their earlier years. When mom passed away, I really missed being there and then I heard about our Congregational Care Team and joined in the efforts of this great group! There are currently six of our congregants residing at Brookdale Belle Meade, and I sincerely consider it a privilege to share time with these church members who helped lay the foundation for us. Beyond that, it is a way for me to honor and remember my mother...and it fills my soul.” 

Brookdale Valentines.jpg

Like many on our team who acknowledge holidays and birthdays, Leigh delivered these special Valentine’s bouquets to our congregants at Brookdale Belle Meade. 

We know that transition is difficult, and we should give ourselves the space to grieve what is lost. But let us also look for and anticipate new ways the Spirit will be at work. I hope this season of Lent, this time of preparation and transformation, will bless you with opportunity and hope for whatever comes next on the journey.

Grace and peace,

Pastor Sam

Training for the Season of Lent

 photo credit: http://bit.ly/2CmWqMe

photo credit: http://bit.ly/2CmWqMe

I love the Olympics. In terms of pure sports, I believe the Olympic games offer the most compelling drama on so many different fronts. Take the opening ceremony, for instance. The hand-off of the Olympic Flame to two young, female hockey players—one from South Korea and one from North Korea—was awesome. Will that simple gesture reverse 70 years of hostility? By itself, no. But could that simple gesture change the trajectory of those two nations? We should all hope so.

I’m also struck by the “moment” that occurs in these games. That “moment” happens in every venue and it happens hundreds—even thousands—of times. A tiny, imperceptible slip on the ice—a slip that no one who is not a professional would even notice—is the difference between winning a medal and not. The difference in one one-hundredth of one point.

A downhill skier like Lindsay Vonn catapults down a mountain at 70 miles per hour. Her total run may take a minute and a half, but the difference between her winning run and the last place finisher may be less than 2 seconds. Imagine that. You have trained your whole life for that “moment” and you miss by fractions of a second. It seems almost unfair.

Except for the fact that real life often works this way, too. You and I face any number of “moments”—instances when we have to make a decision and we don’t have time to go think it over. The situation presents itself and we have to decide—right then. If you are like me then you also know that we sometimes come up a fraction of a second slow. Our decision is not “medal worthy”.

I am reminded that the Greek word for “sin” in the Bible is “omartia” which simply means “missing the mark”. Most of us tend to think of sin as missing the mark by a country mile—and maybe sometimes it is. But you can miss the mark by considerably less than a country mile and still miss the mark—like one one-hundredth of a point?

Do you think we Christians ought to consider training ourselves as diligently as Olympic athletes do? We are entering the season of Lent. It begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts through Easter. During this season Christians everywhere are encouraged to practice the “disciplines” of the church—prayer, fasting, study, worship, acts of mercy and justice. These are our training grounds.

I am of the opinion that the better we train in our disciplines, the more ready we will be when our “moments” occur.

PEACE

Jim
    
 

Words Matter

Tari and I like to try and watch as many of the Oscar nominated movies as we can each season. This year we’ve seen most of them. One of those is called “The Darkest Hour” that tells the story of Winston Churchill’s rise to power and his amazing leadership of Great Britain during World War II. Gary Oldman plays the role of Churchill and is remarkable—my pick to win best actor.

One of you recently sent me a series of quotes from Churchill.  I share a few of those with you today for your edification and enjoyment:

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”

“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”

“A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

“There is nothing government can give you that it hasn’t already taken from you in the first place.”

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

“One person with conviction will overwhelm a hundred who have only opinions.”

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.”

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity.  An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

And my personal favorite:

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to Hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Churchill’s genius was his ability to use words. Words matter. Words can change the world—for good or evil.

PEACE

Jim

Our Neighborhood Mission Field

Yet another school shooting. This time closer to home. Marshall County, Kentucky is only about 100 miles from here. Several victims were brought here to Vanderbilt’s trauma center. We don’t yet know any motives for why a 15-year-old would open fire against his classmates. I’m doubtful that uncovering a “motive” will be all that helpful. Did somebody make fun of him? Bullied him? His girlfriend dumped him?

How is it that taking a human life has become so “casual”? And in this and other cases like it, human “lives”—plural. It must be as troubling to you as it is to me. Yes, of course, guns play a role. Yes, of course, guns are too easy to obtain. But what is happening to our society when too many of these shootings serve to remind us in a shocking manner that we have created the “stew” in which such shootings are even thinkable?

Some have long been warning us that our love of violence in movies and television is partly to blame. High tech video games now allow the “players” to kill with abandon. Are those voices right? If so, is there any way to roll back the clock?

There are lots of professional opinions about this crisis—mental health professionals, law enforcement professionals, sociologists and others. I am only qualified to speak to the spiritual dimension—or lack of it. Do we really believe there is no correlation between the decline of religious belief in this country and such violent acts?

I would suggest that there has never been a time when our witness to the life-affirming ethic of Jesus is more needed. We need missionaries and we need them in our own neighborhoods.  And we most definitely need to stop saying, “O, woe is us” and “Ain’t it awful” and start making a difference.  

 photo credit: http://bit.ly/2GIOzGA

photo credit: http://bit.ly/2GIOzGA

Our church is getting ready to launch a partnership through our Missions Council with H.G. Hill Middle School. There will be opportunities for mentoring and reading with students and assisting teachers and serving as field trip chaperones and other services. This is a mission field right across the street from our church. We have the ability and opportunity to transform a school. All it takes is our willingness to share the life-affirming ethic of Jesus. Are you ready to step up?

Stay tuned for announcements about our plan very soon and start praying now about how you can join in. We may not be able to change the entire world, but we absolutely CAN change our little corner of it.

PEACE,

Jim
 

Why 2017 May Have Been The Best Year In History

A couple of weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote an article in the New York Times titled, “Why 2017 Was The Best Year In History”.  The title alone was enough to make me want to read his article because if you listen to our nightly news you might not agree with Kristof about how good a year it’s been.  One of the characteristics we must guard against in our day and age of the non-stop, 24-hour news cycle is the loss of perspective.  We too easily can’t see the forest because of the trees.  We tend to lose sight of the bigger picture—the view from 30,000 feet.

For us, the war of words with North Korea, paralysis in Congress, and the never-ending tweets from our current President lead many of us to feel like things have never been worse.  Kristof would have us consider other facts.  For instance, a smaller share of the world’s people are hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time in history.  A smaller percentage of children died than ever before.

Every day the number of people in the world living in extreme poverty goes down—according to Kristof by over 200,000 a day!  Every day, over 300,000 people gain access to electricity.  Another 300,000 gain access to clean water—every day!

As recently as the late 1960s, a majority of the human beings on this planet were illiterate and lived in abject poverty.  Today, fewer than 15% are illiterate and fewer than 10% are living in dire poverty.  In another 15 years, both illiteracy and life-threatening poverty might be eradicated.

Just since 1990, 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations.

It’s hard for most of us to get our heads around such “good news”.  We are so bombarded by “the sky is falling” type of news, that we become numb to the realities that our efforts around the world are working. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the test of a first rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.  The world we live in is experiencing amazing progress, but our world also faces mortal threats.  The first belief should empower us to act on the second.

 Photo credit:  Wordpress.com

Photo credit: Wordpress.com

Kristof tells of a young Afghan girl named Sultana.  She had been forced to drop out of elementary school.  But her home had access to internet, so she taught herself English, then algebra and calculus.  Without ever leaving her house, she moved on to Physics and string theory.  Long story short, Sultana is now a student at Arizona State University.  She is a living example of the aphorism, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

Yes, there are parts of the world that are a mess—maybe even close to home.  But we must not lose sight of the gains being made in medicine, education, and human welfare around the world.  Every so often we would be wise to turn off our T.V.s and ponder all that is going right.

PEACE

Jim

Time's Up

"Time's Up!" By now you have no doubt heard about the powerful address given by Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes Awards Celebration. She was speaking about the recent "me, too" movement in which women from the entertainment, political, and corporate worlds-women actually from every corner-who are now standing up to predatory men that sit in seats of power and influence. Sparked by the courage of one woman, hundreds of others have now joined in to say, "me, too" - I was also harassed, assaulted, or discriminated against because I am a woman.

Oprah's speech that night took this movement to the next level. "me, too" has now evolved into ''Time's Up!" Their way of saying that those in positions of influence who have abused that influence,­ your time is up and we won't sit quietly and take it any longer. The list of powerful men who have now been called out grows daily.

It seems to me the church of Jesus Christ ought to be the banner carrier for this movement. After all, in our Book - at the very beginning - we are told in no uncertain terms that "God created them, male and female He created them... " All biblical scholars agree that the Hebrew term "adam" did not refer to a man named "Adam". The word simply means "humankind". So that in the beginning, God created all of humankind as equal. This is the foundation of our understanding of one another.

And yet women are to this day still not receiving their due respect within the walls of the church. I have been privileged to serve along side women in five different congregations. I have found them all to be highly intelligent, creative, competent and hard-working colleagues. And in every one of those congregations I have heard congregation members say things like, "you sure are the prettiest preacher we've ever had" or "how does your husband feel about you doing this work?", or worst of all, "no thanks, I'll just wait to talk to Jim."

 Photo credit:  Wordpress.com

Photo credit: Wordpress.com

In our society, it is way past time for us to recognize the full place that women should hold in our world. They are not "decoration." They are not merely "helpers." Woman are leaders and they have been called by God into the church and into the classroom and into the boardrooms of this nation. 

If you are not moved by the power of the ''Time's Up!" movement, I wonder if that's because you don't have a daughter? Would it be OK with you to know that your own daughter was being harassed by someone who thought he could get away with it because he was "in charge?" Have you asked your spouse if this had ever happened to her? I have four daughters and it is not OK with me.

Maybe one thing we can all do is begin now to teach our boys what it is to respect girls. I fear that if we wait until they are young men, it may be too late. But if we start early, we can change the narrative. I'm pretty sure God would approve. 

Peace,

Jim

Benevolence Ministry

I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that one of the hardest jobs of a pastor is having to decide who to help and who NOT to help. It should come as no surprise to you that we get a pretty steady stream of people who call or come by the church seeking financial help. It ranges from help with rent and utilities to help with food and medicine and gas. Often times it is for a place to stay at night. If you are involved with this sort of “rubber meets the road” ministry, you also know that it gets complicated.

Take utilities, for instance. If someone calls us or comes by asking for help with utilities because NES has threatened to cancel their service, that almost always means they are one or two months behind, already. And that usually means needing several hundred dollars just to get caught up so they can keep their electricity running. And if it happens to be 25 degrees outside like it has been lately, then you can imagine the fear of having no heat in your home.

To complicate matters even further, we have a limited amount of funds available at any given time. Our “benevolence fund” is supported solely by communion offerings dedicated for that fund and most of you know that we don’t designate every communion offering toward that fund—in fact, we probably dedicate only half of those 12 communion offerings a year to the benevolent fund. If you make a decision to help one person with a three-months-in-arrears electric bill, you could easily spend 10 to 25% of your available funds on one person.

Another stark reality is that we get calls from folks from all over Nashville. Some of these are “professional beggars”, but it’s very hard to determine that over the phone.

One more thing—sometimes the people who come to the church in person can become angry or belligerent if you tell them you can’t assist them. This has put church staff and church members in occasionally awkward—and even potentially dangerous—situations.

So, we have established a policy for dealing with those who need help. Given the limited amount of resources we have available, we have decided that only the pastoral staff may determine to whom and how much aid can be given. The pastoral staff has the most experience dealing with folks who have this need. This policy includes letting everyone know (church staff and members) that if you are confronted by someone at the church or in the parking lot after worship, we are asking you to gently let these folks know that only a pastor is authorized to offer aid. If it so happens neither Sam or I are available at that moment, we ask that you let them know they will need to wait until they can see one of us—even if that means asking them to come back the next day.

Our policy also includes a stipulation that we are going to try to help those in our immediate neighborhood, first. This is simply a matter of conservation of energy and resources. If we get a call from someone who lives in Madison, we encourage them to try getting assistance from the many churches in their immediate area. This doesn’t mean we don’t think they need help—they probably do. But we feel more responsibility for those who live in the three zip codes that are closest to our church.

We truly do feel a need to help anyone who comes by or calls the church. The list of genuine needs around us are many. We will do the best we can and ask that you keep us in prayer as we try our best to represent the Church of Jesus Christ in the world—as well as the believers of Belle Meade UMC.

Untitled design (3).png

PEACE

Jim

Starting Fresh in 2018

Happy New Year!! We turn the page on our calendars to 2018. The years just seem to fly by, don’t they? It would be easy for us to wax on with nostalgia over things in our past—to talk about “the good old days” or whatever we think those were.

But the bigger truth is that we get to look forward and ponder what changes we might make to improve our lives, the lives around us, and the greater community in which we live. These are commonly called “New Year’s Resolutions”—an occasion to reset the clock and to try and do better some things we may have done poorly, before.

For some of us, it will be trying to get on top of an annoying or even harmful habit. Some of us will try to lose weight (me included), some will try to quit smoking or drinking or whatever other ways we tend to harm ourselves.

Some of us will make a pact that we will be kinder and gentler in the new year. Maybe we’ve all had enough of partisan politics that we will resolve to spend more time listening to the hopes and dreams of each other rather than simply talking over them.

Some of us will seek to renew our connection to God this 2018. I hope that if you have been feeling disconnected from God lately that you will take this moment to start fresh. If you’d like, the pastoral staff can help you with that and there’s nothing we’d like better. Give one of us a call and we’ll sit down over a cup of coffee/tea.

starting fresh in 2018

The Christian Church has long understood the need to start fresh. We have used phrases like “born again” to speak of resetting our clocks in a particular way. For us, it starts with confession and then forgiveness. Once those two moments have occurred, all that’s left is the “NOW WHAT?”

Let me suggest that 2018 could be a wonderful year of “NOW WHAT?” all of us. Who have I been? Who do I seek to be? How can I be a better friend, spouse, citizen?

It’s good to have a chance to start fresh. So Happy New Year!! Here’s to our best year, yet!

 

Peace

Jim
 

Random Acts of Christmas Kindness

More God sightings in Advent.

Sunday a week ago I was finishing up the Sunday morning routine. Both worship services were completed and I had just finished the fourth “impromptu” meeting in the narthex. I made it to my office to put all things away and head home. When I got to the outside door of the office hallway, I could already see it on my car—a flyer. Somebody had taken the liberty to place flyers on all of our cars while we were worshipping.

25073065_10156139982381424_3599832180970601497_o.jpg

This had happened to me before in other settings. A neighborhood church in the town where I served took it upon themselves to place flyers of THEIR worship service times on OUR cars. I thought that was a pretty tacky thing to do. I was expecting that when I got to my car and I don’t mind telling you that I was all ready to explode. 

Then I saw the actual flyer—“YOU’VE BEEN RACK’d” it said—“Random Acts of Christmas Kindness” courtesy of our 2nd and 3rd grade Sunday School class. I was all ready to unleash my anger on someone and now I felt guilty for having such thoughts. That little message stayed with me all day—I’ve Been Rack’d”!! God works in mysterious ways, no?? (P.S.—my message came complete with a small candy cane attached☺)

Just heard today that The Last Minute Toy Store served over 5,400 children. These were children that were NOT being served by any other agency in town. That’s more children than ever before and we United Methodists should all feel gratified that together, we were able to serve our community in such a profound way. So many of you gave gifts and gift cards for the store—thousands of dollars worth of gifts and cards were given.

Please accept our deep gratitude for all you did. A special word of thanks to Anne and Wayne Underhill who were coordinating not just OUR church’s donations, but also the donations of all the other UMC’s in our area. That was a big job and we are especially thankful to them.

You can see God at work all around you if you are willing to look. I promise you will have some God sightings this Sunday, Christmas Eve. In addition to our combined morning worship service at 10:30 (no Sunday School), we will then have our children and family-friendly Christmas Eve service at 3:00. Then at 7:00 and 11:00 we will celebrate with candlelight communion and amazing music from our Chancel Choir and special guests.

 photo credit: http://bit.ly/2BQDEvA

photo credit: http://bit.ly/2BQDEvA

I hope you will make a special effort to attend one of these services and if there was ever a time you would want to invite a guest, a neighbor, a friend or a family member, Christmas Eve is the perfect occasion.

 

PEACE ON EARTH


JIM
 

“God-sightings” in Advent

Does the name Jose Andres mean anything to you?? You are forgiven if it doesn’t. You’d have to be a die-hard “foodie” to recognize his name. Jose is a Michelin-starred chef who is widely credited with bringing the concept of “small plate” dining to America. He owns well-known restaurants in nearly ten cities across the country. He also chairs the advisory board for “L.A. Kitchen”, a social enterprise in Los Angeles aimed at reducing food waste, job training, and nutritious eating.

01JOSE2-master675.jpg

He would be a person much to be admired just for that. But the most important meals he is serving today are free. You see after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico—so many of whom still have no power coming up on three months now—Jose set up portable kitchens—20 of them--and began cooking stews and paella for the storm-torn region.

To date, he has served over 3 million hot meals—more than any other relief agency. One person, one passion, one heart to serve people in need. That’s truly all it takes.

How about something more local? I give you “The Real Mamas of Mt. Juliet”. Catchy name, isn’t it? Four women—four mothers—who recognized an issue that no one was addressing and decided to engage. These aren’t “activists” looking for a fight. These are real moms who noticed that many students in their local, public school were being singled out and ridiculed over the federal lunch program. 

Each student was expected to pay a portion of their meal program funded through the federal government. Many of these students couldn’t make a payment and the connection between hunger and poor performance in school is well-documented. So when these students couldn’t make the payment, they were then sent to the principal who provided for them “an alternative snack”. Until these students could pay off their “debt”, they would remain in the “alternative” program and forbidden to eat with the other students.

real mamas.jpg

So what did these moms do? They decided that feeding every hungry student in their local school might be more than they could manage, but they COULD find ways to pay off the debts of those students who had debts. They made decorative sweatshirts and began selling them. Now, other local businesses are selling those sweatshirts on their behalf.

Four mothers seeing a need not being addressed and being moved with compassion. That’s all it takes to change the world.

As we enter the third week of Advent, can you find some God-sightings to share?

 

PEACE

Jim
 

Advent Surprises

hope (2).png

Advent/Christmas surprises are among my favorite things. The giving and receiving of gifts, though capable of getting stressful and out-of-hand, can be a time of great joy among families and friends. Over the course of the last several years the trend has been for us adults/parents/relatives to give gift cards to our teenagers and older children. I’ll admit that I don’t like to do that. I much prefer to think about what I’m giving to someone and put in the effort. On the other hand, I have also failed miserably at times to choose a great gift—a fact that is immediately recognized by the look on the face of the victim—I mean, recipient. So the gift card route guarantees success on the part of the receiver, which should bring a good feeling to the giver.

More recently, my family has taken to less and less actual gifts given and more choosing of a worthy agency to which to make a donation. That brings joy, too.

My season this year is already off to a great start. Something pretty amazing happened here at the church last week. I imagine most of you are aware that we get a lot of calls and drop ins of folks who need all manner of assistance. Most of them are genuinely in need. Some of them are “professional beggars”. It isn’t easy having to make choices about whom to help with the available resources at our disposal. We can’t help them all. And many of them will gratefully receive our help with a promise to pay us back when they get on their feet. That happens about as frequently as a Halley’s Comet sighting.

Last week a woman came in. She was slight of build and a bit ruffled in her appearance—in other words she looked like someone in need of help. She asked to see a pastor and the staff told me we had someone in the lobby in need of help. I walked out to see her. She spoke with a thick eastern-European accent. I asked, “How can I help you?”

She handed me an envelope with a card inside. She explained that three years earlier she and her family had been in trouble, had come to the church to ask for help, and were given $500. The card inside the envelope contained $200 dollars that she wanted to give us. To pay back our kindness—or to pay it forward.

She gave me a firm hug and went her way.

That’s the kind of Advent/Christmas surprise that can make your season special.

PEACE

JIM
 

Welcome to Advent

Advent Season at Belle Meade UMC

And so it begins—the preparation for Christmas is upon us. For many merchants, this preparation was very evident weeks ago. Many of our merchants depend heavily on a good Christmas season in order to salvage their year so I won’t we shouldn’t forget that when we sometimes gripe about how commercialized Christmas has become.

Having said that, the Christian Church recognized very early on the need to set aside a time for fasting and preparation for the actual Christmas celebration—the birth of the Christ child. It may have begun as early as the 5th century, but the observance of Advent ebbed and flowed over the centuries. No one, even now, pushes the idea of fasting during the Advent season anymore—small wonder with the number of holiday parties we all typically attend.

And so this coming Sunday will mark the beginning of the Advent season. Four Sundays prior to Christmas that allow us to try and focus our attention on what new thing God is trying to do in our midst. It marks the Christian New Year—starting all over telling the story of Jesus. I wonder why we Christians don’t take this Sunday to make our own, unique New Year’s Resolutions? Is it because we have capitulated to the secular culture that surrounds us? Are we afraid our friends and neighbors might snicker at us if they heard we were making New Year’s Resolutions in December? Why? Because then we’d have to explain why our faith causes us to view the world differently?

And there it is—the Advent Season is precisely a sign that we followers of Jesus really DO see the world differently. Or at least we are supposed to. Advent gives us a chance to imagine a different kind of Christmas. When we sing “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to ALL people” that is a statement to the world around us that we believe life is best lived that way. When we make it a point to encourage our members to support The Last Minute Toy Store that is a statement to the world that exchanging gifts just among ourselves is thoughtless and cruel and tone deaf to the misery and needs that surround us.

Advent is an opportunity for the church to make a WITNESS to the world—one of our 5 membership vows. There was a time not all that long ago that no matter where you tried to eat out on a Friday, you could be certain that there would be at least one fish option. Why? Because the Roman Catholic Church “fasted” from eating meat on Fridays and pretty much everybody knew it. You might be hard-pressed to find that emphasis today. Not that long ago our nation observed what were called “Blue Laws”—pretty much everything closed on Sundays so families could attend church and spend the day together. It was our way of observing Sabbath. The culture around us has swallowed such quaint notions whole.

And even though we won’t be turning the clock back on these traditions, I suggest that we CAN still observe Advent as a way of giving witness to the culture around us that there is another way to live. God’s way is a way of peace, of hope, of love. God’s way focuses on a quiet manger where we might meet and be met by God. God’s way involves giving much more than swapping “reasonably priced gifts”.

Welcome to Advent. “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”

PEACE

JIM