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On the fourth Sunday of every month, one of us on the pastoral staff helps to lead a service of worship at Riverbend prison. Either John, Mark or I will drive out to Cockrill Bend Boulevard early in the morning to be with the Riverbend congregation of Christ United Methodist Church. We pray, read scripture and share communion together, and every time I go I am blessed. This past Sunday was no exception. As I pulled into the driveway of Riverbend at about 7:15 a.m., I looked to my left and saw through the mist a whole flock of deer grazing in the lush green grass. It was a beautiful scene that took my breath away. I stopped my car just to look at them, silent and peaceful as they stood there together. Some of them serenely looked back at me, unafraid.

Something about those deer reminded me of God’s silent, strong presence. It’s as if they were keeping watch. The concrete walls and barbed wire fences of the prison did not scare them or keep them away. They didn’t even seem to notice them. They seemed to feel just at home on that lawn as they would anywhere on earth. There they stood, almost in solidarity with those inside the walls, keeping watch and standing close.

After the other volunteers and I got through security, we made our way across the prison yard toward the chapel. Toward the bottom of the hill, I saw three cats—no, four!—running and playing inside the barbed wire fence. Apparently, there’s a family of cats that has decided to make their home inside the walls of Riverbend! They were skipping and jumping and chasing like they were the happiest kittens in the world. They didn’t see the walls either. They didn’t notice the fence. They just seemed happy to have a lot of people around and some green grass to jump in. I later learned from some of our brothers there that these little cats have brought a spark of humanity back into the hearts of many who walk across that quad every day.

A flock of deer. A family of cats. It’s amazing what God can use to get into the hearts of people. On Sunday, October 5, at 4:00, we will host a Blessing of the Animals service out at the pavilion. Many of you have animals in your family, and you know firsthand how you experience God’s love, comfort and companionship through them. Before I became a dog-owner, I used to misunderstand the attachment that people had with their pets. Now I get it. Boy, do I get it.

And as I have been re-reading my way through the scriptures this fall, I have been amazed at how many times animals are mentioned. They are an integral part of the story, and we are meant to be good stewards of them and of all the earth. In return we get to experience a unique kind of companionship—a love that is not afraid of our walls or turned away by our barbed wire.

I hope you’ll come to the pavilion on Sunday afternoon, even if you don’t have an animal to bring with you. Let’s join together in thanking God for the beauty and wonder of God’s creatures, and let’s recommit ourselves to being good stewards of all of creation!

 

Most folks in our congregation could tell you what our mission statement is. The guiding principle of our church is (say it with me): “We are about relationships: with God, with one another and with God’s hurting world.” You know it. I know it. The children and the youth know it. But one of the things I love about this congregation and about our mission statement is that it’s not just printed on posters around the building. It’s not just a tag-line at the end of every official email. It is lived out in hundreds of different ways   every week. Let me tell you about just a few of the ways I’ve seen relationships at work over the past few days.

If you were in worship at 11:00 this past Sunday, you may have met Chester, a church member who had just been released from Riverbend Maximum Security prison on Monday. Chester’s regular mentor was unable to pick him up that morning, so another loving church member volunteered. He picked Chester up, took him to breakfast, and brought him to church to pick out some clothes. Later in the week, another church member took him to navigate the Social Security office and get his identification cards. When I saw Chester on Sunday and complimented his sport coat, he said that another church member, one who had also been an inmate at RMSI at one time, had taken him to do some shopping. After church, Chester and a whole group of people went out to lunch together, a spontaneous celebration!

During the Sunday School hour I met with the Inquirers Class in the Library. This was our third week together, and I have really enjoyed getting to know these new friends. Apparently, they have enjoyed getting to know each other as well, because one of the couples in the class invited everyone over for chili after the class wraps up! They too are about relationships as they become a new and important part of this congregation.

On Sunday afternoon I came back to the church to drop Tate off for youth choir and to prepare for our Disciple Bible Study class. I had an hour to prepare, so I decided to sit outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. While outside, I ran into two of our church members who lead small groups with the youth. Neither of them is the parent of a teenager. They are both young adults, and yet they choose every Sunday evening to come to the church and be loving, supportive mentors in the lives of young people.

I left the playground and headed into Disciple class, where I sat with a diverse group of adults, many of whom did not know each other before the study started. In the course of two hours we laughed and cried together, and we struggled over some of the deepest questions of life: the nature of God, human nature, sin, temptation, repentance, grace. As we wrapped up, I had to run upstairs to get Tate so that Paul and Doug could turn out the lights and go home, but I left a group of classmates hanging out in the classroom, sharing stories and hugs and life together.

I am amazed at the way God is building relationships in this place. We live in a county, in a city, where it’s easy to feel isolated. People don’t always know their neighbors. They don’t always have a place to belong. What we have here at Christ UMC is what Martin Luther King, Jr., called a “beloved community,” and it is worth sharing with others.

This is just a gentle reminder, then, to be aware and mindful of others in our community. Reach out and offer kindness to others. Invite them to church. Or when you’re here on Sundays, introduce yourself to someone new. Invite someone to sit at your table on Wednesday night. Bring someone with you to Sunday School. Stand at the coffee pot on Sunday morning and make new connections. Together, let’s continue to “draw the circle” of relationships wider still!

 

Praise God!

Our Disciple I Bible Study class has gotten off to a great start. There are fifteen of us committed to reading the Bible through together for the next thirty-four weeks. We’ll be meeting for two hours every Sunday evening to talk about what we’ve read and to explore questions and reactions together. The group is a wonderful cross-section of our congregation–young adults, older adults, brand new and long-time members–and we bring all of our life experiences with us as we gather around the scriptures every week. Just two weeks into the journey, we’ve had some amazing conversations!

Last night some of us got into a conversation about “praise.” The theme word for the week was “Wonder,” and we had read the two creation stories, as well as parts of Job and several psalms. (If you want to sample some of what we read, you can read Psalm 8. It’s short but powerful!) Each of the scripture passages points to the glory of God, the wonder of God’s creation, the beauty of the world that God has created and the amazing truth that God has asked humankind to care for it all. It was hard to read all of those texts and not shout, “Wow! Praise God!” There are so many scripture texts, especially the psalms, that call us to “Praise God!” But what does it mean to you to praise God? How do you express your joy and gratitude to God? When was the last time you really felt full of praise for God? Unreserved, uninhibited praise?

On Sunday night, I learned a thing or two about praise. After our Disciple group finished, we headed upstairs to the sanctuary for the Imani African Children’s Choir program. It was a fundraiser for Raise the Roof, the ministry started by David and Marlene Ssebulime, with which we have partnered to build a school and sponsor children for education in Uganda. The house was packed, and the energy in the room was amazing. Then the drummers walked onto the chancel with their bright clothing and easy smiles. They began to play with all their might as the rest of the choir walked, skipped and jumped down the aisles singing God’s praises all the way. Watching their faces and seeing how they moved their bodies in full praise to God throughout the concert was inspiring to me. I thought, “I want to praise God with that kind of spirit!” As I reflect on that experience, I realize that I do not praise God nearly enough. Of course, I am a bit of an introvert and our culture is more reserved in a lot of ways than Ugandan or even ancient Israelite culture.

And I don’t believe that the only way to praise is with singing and dancing and waving my hands in the air. I can praise God with a whispered “Wow,” when I see the full moon, or with a quiet “Thank you,” when I see my children sleeping soundly. But what I realized on Sunday night was that my attitude toward God is not often an attitude of praise. Even in worship, as we’re singing hymns together, my mind is often wandering around other things. Ugh. I don’t want to be that way. I want to praise God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength, with all my mind, with my whole body, with my voice–with all that I am. God deserves no less from me and you. So next time we are in worship together, let’s give ourselves permission to praise God in whatever way we feel led. Praise God!

 

Journey Through the Wilderness

Our journey together through the Bible is well on its way. We began on August 3 with the creation story, and this past Sunday we found ourselves in the Book of Numbers traveling through the wilderness with the Israelites. They are on their way to the Promised Land, but they have a long journey ahead of them. In fact, they have forty years of wandering ahead of them. In the desert. Without a road map. With only water and manna to eat. No wonder they complained.

In Exodus 16 and in Numbers 11 we hear about the manna that God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness. God gave them manna every day, just enough for each day. They couldn’t store it up or save it for later. They got what they needed one day at a time, no more, no less.

As we explored this powerful story on Sunday, we talked about how each one of us has at times walked in the wilderness. We’ve had the experience of feeling afraid, lost, sad or stuck, not knowing what the future holds. In my family right now, we’re walking through a wilderness of grief. When my mother died in October, it meant that both of my parents were gone. A few weeks after her death, I realized how different the world felt. Something underneath me shifted, and in some ways I’m still getting my bearings. Then, when David’s father passed away last month, we weren’t ready. It was too soon. It happened too fast. And some days, it just doesn’t seem real that he is no longer with us.

There have been many wilderness seasons in my life, as I’m sure there have been for you. Whether you’ve lost a job, moved to a new town, been through a divorce, struggled with physical or emotional pain or gone through a dry spell in your faith, wilderness experiences are simply part of the human experience.

But what the story of the Israelites tells me is that there is always manna in the wilderness. God is always there, providing us what we need for the day. We may just get one day at a time, but God is with us.

So, what has been manna for you lately? Where have you experienced nourishment from God in your daily life? Starting today, I am making a daily practice of writing down what manna I have received each day. Some people practice keeping a “Gratitude Journal,” where they write down at least five things every day for which they are grateful. For my part, I’m calling it my “Manna Manual.”

Here’s what I have so far today: When I woke up this morning, I actually felt rested. David had made the coffee, as he does every morning, and it was just right. Tate put the butter away without being asked. Martha let me hug her at the door when I walked her to school. I had a heartfelt conversation over coffee. Anne Hook sent a text message that made me laugh.

That’s six things, and it’s only 10:30 in the morning! Who knew? This “Manna Manual” might do me some real good. Maybe you’d like to join me in the practice? It might do all of us some good!

 

Endowment Fund

I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I opened that letter. It was addressed to the church from a local attorney, and I had a hard time imagining what it might contain. Was it good news or bad news? Was someone in our congregation in trouble? Was it a marketing letter? Was I in trouble?

Then I opened it and began to read. What the letter contained took my breath away. A dear member of our church who had passed away had made a gift to the church in his will. In fact, he had designated one tenth of his estate—a tithe—to the church. He had never told me about his plans, but in many ways I wasn’t surprised. He had tithed to the church from the moment he joined. It was part of who he was. It was one of the ways he followed Jesus. He had been a faithful and generous disciple in life and was now continuing that discipleship even beyond his death.

To be honest, I had never thought about designating a tithe to the church in my will.   David and I have wills. After all, he’s an attorney and works with estates all the time, and we know how important it is to talk openly and to plan. We know how much comfort it can bring to a family when someone has already decided how they want their possessions to be shared after their death. And after receiving this letter, I have some   new ideas about how to continue supporting the ministry of the church after we are gone.

Christ UMC has grown to be the vibrant congregation we are today through the grace of God and the generosity of many faithful disciples who have given generously over the years so that we might have a place to deepen our relationship with God, with one another and with God’s hurting world. Many of you have faithfully supported the ministries of this congregation and would like to continue that support after you are gone. To help us talk about these important issues, Christ UMC has established an Endowment Fund. Here are a few words from the chair of our Endowment Committee, Harry Boyko:

“The Endowment Fund was formally established on February 26, 2014, by the unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees. Its purpose is to provide members and friends the opportunity to make charitable gifts to Christ UMC that will become a permanent endowment of financial support and a living memorial. The Fund is intended for purposes that are beyond the church’s regular programs, which are funded through the annual operating budget and the regular giving of its members.

The Endowment Fund is administered by a committee of nine members, which include the Lead Pastor, Church Treasurer, representatives from the Finance Committee and/or Board of Trustees, and six people nominated by the Lay Leadership Development Committee.”

You will be hearing more about the Endowment Fund in the weeks and months to come. For more information, we have a brochure available in the church office. If you have questions, please contact Harry Boyko at 615-377-0056 or Rev. Carol at 615-790-2112.

I am so grateful for all of the faithful disciples who have built the foundations of this congregation’s vital ministry and have led the way with extravagant generosity.

 

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