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Look forward to the future

The Service of Confirmation always gives me hope. As I looked out on Sunday morning and saw all of those young people professing their faith in Jesus Christ and promising to serve “as Christ’s representatives in the world,” I was overwhelmed. In light of all of the bad news we have heard this past week–bombings and manhunts in Boston, a fertilizer plant exploding in Texas, an earthquake in China–it is inspiring and hopeful to see these young people preparing to carry the light of Christ into dark and hurting places.

The Service of Confirmation gave me hope not only for the world around us but also for our congregation. We continue to grow in many ways. We are growing in numbers, yes, but we are also growing in ministry. Just this past week at our Administrative Council meeting, we heard about a new ministry, Justice for Our Neighbors, which is an outreach ministry with immigrants in our community. Also at that Ad Council meeting, we endorsed David Ssebulime as a candidate for ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church. If my counting is right, David is the sixth person we have endorsed since I became Lead Pastor in 2009. That, my friends, is a sign of a faithful church!

As we look into God’s future together, I want to share with you something else that the Administrative Council decided last week. Our faithful Finance Committee has done an amazing job keeping our budget balanced and finances healthy. As they look at our budget, they have recognized how much our mortgage payments cost us each month. They see the strain that our debt puts on our budget, and they have begun to dream about what our congregation could do and be if we were free of that debt.

The Finance Committee and the Administrative Council have cast a vision for us: What if we could be free of debt by 2020? Imagine the ministries we could do if we freed up the nearly $170,000 a year that we currently pay on our mortgage!

The first step toward this goal is a capital campaign this fall to raise $500,000. We plan for 10% of whatever we raise to go toward missions with the poor, as a sign of our continued commitment to the world around us. You will hear more as the fall approaches, but we wanted to invite everyone to our first “Town Hall Meeting” on Sunday, May 5, at 9:45 in the sanctuary.

We have many new members who have joined our church since the opening of the new sanctuary, and this is an opportunity for you to help in a new way. There are others, I know, who participated in the building campaign and in the most recent debt-reduction campaign, and you may wonder why we need another. Please bring your questions, your thoughts, your enthusiasm, or your concerns to the Town Hall meeting on May 5. We want everyone to be informed, to have a voice and to consider what we could be!

 

Taking a vow to love, support, and pray for our confirmands

Wasn’t this weekend gorgeous? One of the things I love doing when the weather is nice is going on a drive, and on Saturday morning I got to take a beautiful drive up to Fountain Run, Kentucky, where a group of confirmands and their mentors were gathering for their final retreat.
I just spent a few hours with them up there, but even in that short time I experienced amazing love and connection and joy. When I arrived, they were divided up into small groups, working on writing a creed together. I watched these groups of adults and children sharing ideas, laughing together and talking about their faith, and my first thought was, “This is what Christian relationship is all about. This is what church is meant to be.”
Whenever a baby is baptized in our congregation, the congregation takes a vow to love, support and pray for that child. Actually, what we say is: “We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
These young people going through confirmation have been surrounded with a community of love and forgiveness. From everyone who has taught them Sunday School to the mentors who have walked with them for the past eight months, they have been nurtured, loved and encouraged in their faith.
Going back to that baptismal covenant, when a child is baptized, his or her parents are asked the following question: “Will you nurture this child in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”

On Sunday morning at the 11:00 service, these dedicated confirmands will be “accepting God’s grace for themselves and professing their faith openly.” They will be confirmed as disciples of Jesus Christ and as members of the church. This is a huge moment for them and for our congregation! I hope you can be there. And if you can’t be there, I hope you will pray for them, will write notes of support to them or will find other ways to encourage them.

From what I have seen in this group of young people, they understand a lot about what it means to love God and love their neighbors. They really do love each other, and they want to make a difference in God’s world. To put it another way, they know what it means to be in relationship with Christ, with one another and with God’s world. They have learned that from you. May all of us continue to learn together what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ, and may we welcome joyfully our newest companions on the journey!

On Saturday my kids and I participated in our spring Hearts and Hands Day. We went with several other church members to the Campus for Human Development, which is the agency in downtown Nashville that coordinates Room in the Inn. It is a multi-faceted ministry that helps our homeless neighbors find hospitality and help every day of the week.

When we first arrived, we took a tour of the facility. We heard about the Campus’s programs for daily feeding, for temporary and permanent housing, for drug and alcohol treatment, for job training, for health and for hospitality. I watched my children as we took the tour, glad that they had a chance to learn about how some of our brothers and sisters live and the struggles they must deal with on the street.

Once the tour was over we were put to work. Some of us had the job of painting “cubbies” that the guests use for their backpacks and belongings. After several months of use, they were scratched and chipped and scarred. Others in our group went outside to clean the courtyard. A few lucky kids got to scrape up chewing gum off of the concrete. And, believe me, there was a lot of it. At one point I looked out at those kids scraping gum up off the sidewalk. They were on the ground, wearing latex gloves, using nothing but plastic scrapers. They worked for several hours, and there was still gum on the ground when we left. I wondered if they felt like their work was worthwhile.

Scraping chewing gum might not seem like a big thing, and it’s certainly a dirty thankless job, but I think it made a huge difference. Imagine being a homeless person who has walked eight miles to get to the Campus in downtown Nashville in the only pair of boots you own. It’s a hot day, and as soon as you step into the courtyard your foot lands in a wad of gum. And then another. And another. How frustrating and demoralizing that could be. You could end up feeling like the discarded piece of trash that has now ruined the only shoes you have.

As I watched the Christ UMC volunteers scraping gum and washing the sidewalk and painting the cubbies, the image of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet came into my mind. Washing those feet was a dirty and thankless job. And those feet were going to get dirty again as soon as they left for the Garden of Gethsemane. But that tender act of love and hospitality made all the difference in the world. Literally.

Now, when one of our homeless neighbors makes his way to the Campus for Human Development, he will find a beautiful courtyard where he can sit, soak in the sun and rest his tired feet. And when someone drags the heavy backpack that she’s been toting around all day into the common area inside, she will find a newly painted cubbyhole where her belongings will be safe and cared for. These friends will never know who made the space more welcoming for them. They might not even notice. But that’s not the point. The point is that a group of people went out in the name of Jesus Christ to make the world a more beautiful, safe and hospitable place for those who need more beauty, safety and hospitality in their lives.

May we all look for ways to “go and do likewise.”

Having a Serving Heart

The season of Lent is drawing to a close. On Thursday night we will gather around the table of Christ’s last supper, to remember his sacrifice and to reenact his final act of washing his disciples’ feet. On Friday night we will hear the story of his arrest, his torture and his crucifixion, told through music and the Gospel of Luke. My prayer is that as many of us as possible will gather for worship on these two holy nights so that the power and hope of Easter will resonate more deeply within us on Sunday morning.

Throughout this season we have been exploring some of the basic practices that shape our lives as Christian disciples, and we have devoted each Sunday of Lent to a different practice: reading Scripture, giving, praying, inviting, sharing in covenant and worshiping. If you remember, though, we began the season with seven spiritual practices. But we only had six Sundays of Lent. So, which one have we not explored yet?

Serving. Serving will be our theme on Thursday night, as we gather for Maundy Thursday worship. It is in that service that we read John 13 and remember how Jesus knelt before his disciples and washed their feet. We will hear him say to us, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” We will remember that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to give ourselves away for others.

To serve is to love. To serve as Jesus serves means we set aside ego and convenience. To serve means we give up controlling the results. To serve others in Jesus’ name means we do not worry about their deserving or their worthiness. We do not ask whether others can return the favor or give back. We simply give. Help. Feed. Build. Tend. Clothe. Visit. Love.

This congregation has a serving heart. There are countless ways that we are sharing the love and grace of Christ in the world. We are visiting the imprisoned every week. We are feeding and housing the homeless through Room in the Inn and Open Table. We are sharing clothing with the poor through Christ’s Closet. We are building homes through Habitat. We are helping children in Sierra Leone and Uganda to go to school, to be healthy and to feel loved. We are helping to educate children in Nicaragua. And, as you know, the list goes on and on.

And then there are the myriad ways that we serve one another within the church: teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, helping with Wednesday Night supper, being a Stephen Minister, giving rides to church on Sunday, etc. For our congregation to be who God is calling us to be, each one of us must find ways to give of ourselves and to serve. Not everyone can teach Sunday School. Not everyone can go to the prison. But every one of us can serve in some way.

One of the things that we must guard against as we grow is the 80-20 rule. You’ve heard it before: eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people. This congregation has never lived by that rule. We have always had widespread participation in ministry and service. Let’s keep it up! Let’s help each other find ways to serve. Let’s look for new ways to spread God’s love in the world. The world needs us to be servants. Our own souls need us to be servants. As we move through this Holy Week experiencing how much God has done for us, let us gratefully respond by asking what we can do for others.

 

 

Binding ourselves to each other

Not too long ago I was talking with a friend of mine who was planning a birthday party for her daughter. She had invited about ten children and was working on plans for food, decorations, party favors and all the stuff that comes with putting on a birthday party. The only problem was, she had no idea how many kids were coming. When I asked her about her party plans, she said, “I don’t know. Only two people have responded to the invitation. I can’t get anyone else to RSVP.” By the time the party rolled around, she still had no idea how many children were coming and was worried about having enough goodies for everyone.

I understood my friend’s dilemma. It happens all the time. I don’t know what’s at the root of it—lack of manners? Fear of commitment? Busy lives? Lack of planning? My mother used to think that people who didn’t respond to invitations were “waiting to see if they could get a better deal.” She could be cynical at times, but my mother was also brutally honest.

For whatever reason it seems that our culture is growing more and more reluctant to commit. I’ve heard complaints on all sides. And I wonder if it’s the natural consequence of our individualism. We enjoy our freedom. We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do. We want to be able to go where we want, when we want and with whom we want. If we commit to something—especially too far in advance—then we might not be free to do what we want to do when the moment comes.

Well, while individual freedom is a tremendous gift, our Christian faith teaches about something that’s even more important: covenant. This Sunday in worship, we’re going to be talking about covenant and what it means to be part of a covenant community. And the more I ponder what covenant means, the more
I realize how counter-cultural it really is.

It is clear throughout the Bible that God is a covenant-making God. God initiates a covenant with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses and the Israelites. God promises to be faithful and steadfast in God’s love. The people, in return, are expected to be faithful to God and to live as God would have them live. And once the covenant is made, it is binding. Permanent. The people break it repeatedly, but God never lets them go.

I remember hearing David Lowes Watson describe covenant on a video at the end of the Disciple I Bible study. He said that “covenant” comes from the word for “tether.” So in a covenant we make a promise and bind ourselves to others. We bind ourselves in a moment of strength, so that in a moment of weakness we cannot be unbound.

I invite you this week to be reflecting on what “covenant” means for you. How are we in the church part of a covenant community? How do we live up to that promise? How do we fail to live up to it? If I were really to consider my participation in the church as a covenant between God, the congregation and me, what would it demand of me? Bring these questions with you when you come on Sunday. I don’t promise to have all the answers, but I’ll be there with you in the questions.

 

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