Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called children of God.
Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
UMH # 577
It is a Monday to be sure and the sorrow of our nation grows once more in response to another act of gun violence. For the many who gathered yesterday to engage the liturgy of an All Saints Sunday, the horrific reality of yesterday’s shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX is an added twist of ironic agony. The people of God gathered to remember and give thanks for the Saints past and present; but who would imagine that the list would grow with such immediacy within the worship hour? Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.
The witness of the prophet Micah—as well as that of Jesus—reminds us of the perceived disconnect between a lasting vision of peace and the warring madness of our present age. Such dissonance often leads to a crisis of faith. Can God really be trusted in the face of such threat and uncertainty? Are there not extra alternative measures of security that the church ought to consider?
I wonder this morning how each congregation will address these underlying fears and varied responses. We sing a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing… but how does that stand up to the presence of evil when armed with an automatic assault rifle? What else might we do in the interest of justice, self-preservation, or protection (and are these interests always one and the same)? In response to this tragedy, how might our ongoing witness be shaped by the gospel?
I would not presume to offer a blanket response here, as each church will need to do the prayerful work of engaging this issue within its own community context. In doing so, however, some may find helpful tools within our United Methodist connection.
First of all, I would call to your attention the following emergency guidelines from the AWF Conference Trustees.
In my own experience as pastor, I have had several members in my congregation who made a habit of carrying firearms into the sanctuary during worship. This was admittedly foreign to my personal sensibilities, but in almost all cases, their military experience, current role in law enforcement, or credibility as a gun safety instructor led them to find a sense of vocation in providing responsible oversight for the common good of the congregation. Though this initiative was not at my request, as pastor, I felt it my task to be respectful of their intention and do my best to promote open communication, collaboration, and consistency for any crisis response plan. For me, the gospel question of “and who is my neighbor?” became an essential element of reflection in devising such protocols.
On the other hand, I will never forget one Sunday when a well-intentioned saint unwittingly lost his pistol within steps of our children’s playground, where it could have easily been retrieved in a potential case of lethal curiosity. The weapon apparently fell out of the side compartment of the owner’s motorized mobility scooter. Fortunately, it was another elderly usher who called the local authorities to report it, but having not considered how he would appropriately present it to law enforcement (yelling “the gun is here in my pocket” outside the door of the church with hands out of sight is never a good lead) there were sheriff’s deputies who had to draw their own weapons on the usher in the church parking lot as a matter of precaution. All of this happened unbeknownst to me while I was in the pulpit. Some witness! It may sound comical now, but I assure you it was not.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing…(UMH #110).
As an additional resource, the General Board of Church and Society has offered a thought provoking Bible Study resource entitled Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities: Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4. I believe this three week Bible Study (found for free at www.umcjustice.org/documents/37) may be useful for individuals or groups as a way of providing a framework for further discussion and discernment.
The debate over gun safety in this country will ramble on in the coming days, as it should. Politicians and special interest groups will certainly have their say. I sincerely hope that the voices of the victims and their families will be heard as well. Still, there are churches of Jesus Christ whose call is to worship in the midst of this reality, in grief, with hope; to bear witness to the power of the Holy Spirit by pressing forward in faith and without fear.
As we await a God-given solution to our communal concerns, my prayer is that your particular congregation will pursue intentional responses that are as practical as they are theological, for the sake of the common good.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.
Grace to You,
This morning my heart is heavy as we read once again of another act of violence in a church where 26 people were killed and 10 injured. It leaves us with questions of, "Why? When will this stop? When will we lay down our prejudices and come together to change the direction of our country and our world?"
I find comfort in these words from Isaiah 40:26-31.
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. God never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of God’s understanding. God gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become weak and tired, and young people will fall into exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”
In the midst of questions and a heavy heart, we as Jesus followers begin a new week to help all of those around us get to a better place. For if we can get to a better place today, there is great hope for tomorrow.
Today, the Council of Bishops will begin our work together at Lake Junaluska around the Way Forward, seeking to give leadership to the United Methodist Church for a better place around our struggle with human sexuality. We appreciate your prayers for us, the families of the church shooting, for all of those who need strength and for those who have become tired and exhausted with life. The Holy Spirit wants to come and fill the weak and weary. They will keep walking, realizing the best is yet to come!
Giving thanks for the people of the Alabama-West Florida Conference!
Bishop David W. Graves
The Alabama-West Florida Conference announces two staff changes in the finance and connectional ministries offices. Mr. Frank Dunnewind, AWF Treasurer and Director of Administrative Services, has announced his retirement effective December 31, 2017. Mr. Dunnewind has served in this role for nineteen years. Under his leadership, the conference office has increased apportionment giving every year since 2011, moved to its current physical location where the conference owns the property, and has transitioned the conference to direct billing, which was a necessary change that resulted in significant savings.
Beebe Frederick, Chair of the AWF Council on Finance and Administration, stated, “Frank has dedicated nearly two decades to the conference and is leaving us in a much better place. He has ensured that the financial health of our conference is strong and I am personally grateful to him for his many years of service. On behalf of the council, we wish Frank and Pat well in their retirement where they will enjoy time traveling and with family.”
An official job posting will be on the Alabama-West Florida Conference Website in the coming weeks.
Mrs. Jenn Lusher, former AWF Director of Leadership Strategies, is now on staff in a local church within the conference. “Jenn is a bright and talented asset to this conference,” said Bishop David Graves. “While we will miss her leadership in our office, she will greatly add value to her local church. She has graciously offered to serve as a liaison, when needed. We wish her well in her ministry and are thankful for her gifts and graces.”
The Commission on a Way Forward, which is working to find unity for The United Methodist Church regarding human sexuality, began its sixth meeting on October 30, 2017, with a devotion that challenged the members to be as one in the body of Christ and to see each person as a reflection of God.
The Rev. Dr. Tom Salsgiver, of the Susquehanna Annual Conference in the U.S., sharing on Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, told his fellow Commission members: “I must be the reflection of the one who created me.”
“These passages say we are part of the body but we are not the head. ... We sure would like to be the one that calls the shots but we are not in the driver’s seat,” Rev. Salsgiver said, noting that “it is about God leading us.”
The 32 members of the Commission were appointed by the Council of Bishops to assist the bishops in their charge from the 2016 General Conference to lead the church forward amid the present impasse related to human sexuality and resulting questions about the unity of the church.
The Commission is holding the three-day meeting at the United Methodist Publishing House headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, a week before the Council of Bishops are meeting in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, to receive the interim report.
The moderators, Bishop David Yemba, Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and Bishop Ken Carter are leading the members of the Commission to delve deeper into LGBTQ identity, guided by the values of multiplying Wesleyan witness, fruitfulness, a heart at peace, de-centralization and simplicity.
Using a clip from The Lion King movie when Simba is reminded that he had forgotten about his father and consequently forgotten who he was, Rev. Salsgiver challenged the members to look in the mirror and reflect on who each one of them is as part of God’s family.
“In the next two days as we pray and listen, I have to remember whose I am. Who do I reflect? I am just a small part of the body, as each of us are a small part. We are certainly individuals, in that body, corporately, we are part of it. We need to reflect the one who created the body,” Salsgiver said.
He pointed out that 1 Corinthians 12 and the third verse of the Roman’s passage make it clear what is a better or more excellent way to do the work. “Don’t misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it to you.”
The members were reminded that God’s grace is for everyone. “My love is not only for those I like or those who believe like I do. I am part of the body not because of my gifts but because God’s arms are open wide and accepted me. God expects and demands I do the same for all of God’s children.”
Members then spent the day discussing models to share with the bishops, expressing the need for the unity of the UMC, yet recognizing the different theological understandings and expressions on human sexuality.
The commission plans to issue an interim report to the bishops at their November 2017 meeting for feedback and direction before the final report is released in 2018. The bishops will present their report to the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference.
For more information on the Commission on a Way Forward, visit umc.org/wayforward.
All he had to do is look around the sanctuary.
Like so many churches across the nation, Christ UMC is surrounded by young people in the 19-to-mid-30s age bracket but can’t seem to draw them in.
"They’re literally right here, but they aren’t here,” said Steele, teaching pastor at the Grelot Road congregation.
That realization, along with more than two years of prayer, research and planning, led to High Point, a new Thursday night worship community that launched in August. Although designed by millennials, and uniquely suited to that demographic, High Point is open to everyone.
“It’s going really well for us,” Steele said. “We kind of treated it like a new church plant even though it was in our church. … It’s in our sanctuary, but it looks very, very different. … We transform it into something much more modern.”
Perhaps the most critical difference is the service itself, which incorporates prayer, praise and communion but is also streamed live on Facebook and includes an 18-minute TED Talk-type sermon, some secular music and time for fellowship.
“The first 15 minutes, after we open and welcome people, we have 15 minutes of coffee time,” Steele said. “We have coffee and we talk. It’s really nothing more than organic getting to know each other.”
This focus on intentional community is vitally important to millennials and something they crave in their church experience, he added.
“One of our core values is real community,” Steele said. “Research shows that … millennials say what church feels like, as far as relationships go, is people sharing space at a public event and not people who are really there for each other.”
Another of their core values is engaging the current culture, and the High Point community takes time out of each week’s service to improve the world in some tangible way.
“This week we are collecting fabric from people that we are going to use to create port pillows and mastectomy pillows to use while they are being treated for breast cancer,” Steele said. “We really wanted to engage in Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”
A few weeks ago, they stuffed envelopes with gift cards donated by Chick-fil-A for families who have infants in a local neo-natal intensive care unit.
“We included a note that said, ‘We’re praying for your baby tonight, and that God would be with you and want you to know that dinner’s on us!’ ” Steele said.
For Alissa Gochey, who is 23 and works as the contemporary worship coordinator at Christ UMC, the community service component is a reflection of how Jesus lived.
“We use what we have—our time, energy, and resources—to make a difference in our world, to love others, and to make earth look more like heaven,” she says. “… In a society that is increasingly focused on self-interest, it’s an incredible thing to be able to gather together in friendship … and love others as Jesus loved.”
For Steele, who at 38 is the oldest on stage, says watching High Point evolve has been exciting. He hopes other churches will try it and is happy to offer guidance.
“I would love to help them walk through it,” he said. “The most important thing is to turn the keys over the millennials in your midst and empower them with the authority and the resources they need to figure out what it means in your context.”
CHECK IT OUT:
If you want more information about High Point and how it got started, contact Rev. Jeremy Steele at email@example.com. Photo courtesy of Christ UMC.