Moving Forward

            Whenever I go on my iPhone to make a hotel reservation there are always the normal questions: destination, dates of travel, and number of guests.  Upon entering “two adults/three children,” three scroll-down menus appear asking for the age of each of the children.  Even though I am an honest person, I have a confession about answering those three simple age-questions.  Sometimes I don’t put my children’s actual ages.  I put the ages my children were when if I had the ability I would have stopped them from growing.  Do you remember your children at that (those) ages?  When you would have loved to have hit life’s “imaginary pause button” and they would have stayed that way forever?  Instead of 16, 13, and 9, I sometimes put 11, 9, and 4.  Those were the ages.

            Joy fills my heart when I remember those days, when I see those photographs.  When I remember those vacations and when I pass “Land of the Dragons” at Busch Gardens.  Those were great days.

            Anna turned 16 today, Sophie has grown so much in height and maturity this past year, and Laura will be ten in December.  Time is moving on.  There is a lot I miss.  All parents face this, but as our children grow we have a choice.  I can give myself to nostalgia and memories and miss the opportunities that a new day offers, or I can allow my relationship to grow and change and find new joys that exist with older children.  Things will never be the same.  They will never be 11, 9, and 4 again.  No more Chick-Fil-A play spaces or toddler slides at Water Country USA.  I can’t go back.  But, there is so much that offers joy today.  A Ghost Walk in Williamsburg at 10 o’clock at night.  This wasn’t possible at 11, 9, and 4.  A nice dinner at a “fancy” restaurant.  This wasn’t possible when my children were still throwing Gerber Puffs. 

            I could miss all the new joys and hopes and possibilities by trying to bring back the past, the way it was, and if I try hard enough to bring it back it will destroy what I have now.

            I know parents who refuse to have a growing relationship with growing children, and I know parents (and grandparents) who are willing to adjust and change and move into the future.  The difference between the two is the difference between death and life.

            The same is true of churches.  In our changing world it is a reality that we cannot go back to the way things once were.  For good or bad, through celebrations and failures, time moves on in the midst of a changing world.  The question is the same.  Will a church live with a nostalgic backward gaze or be willing to change and grow and move with new possibilities?

            Our God is the God of new life and renewed hope.  I feel that hope this morning.  My children are growing, I honestly could never fathom having a 16 year old.  And what I have learned is that at every turn there is hope and joy.  Thanks be to God.

Communication

            As the deacons are preparing for next month's deacon’s retreat I recall stories of deacon’s retreats in the past.  I have heard many stories of early deacon’s retreats held in Natural Bridge, and the joke was that the “new” deacons were always assigned the room directly adjacent to the railroad tracks resulting in several jolting interruptions during the night.  I remember Williamsburg deacon retreats and dinner at the Seafarer and ordering coffee and the waiter holding the coffee pitcher over his head to pour into a cup on the table.

            But there is another deacon retreat from which there is one line that I hear repeated often.  I’m not sure the location of the retreat, and I don’t know that year’s active deacons.  I don’t know if there was an outside leader or if it was an in house retreat.  But Jesse Green was the interim pastor, and he made this statement: almost every issue that a church faces can be traced back to poor communication.

            I hear this line repeated from time to time, and I think it has never ceased to be as true as when Jesse said it.  Communication is important.  In marriages, in families, in businesses, in schools, and in churches.  I am aware of a church in Goochland who instead of hiring a new secretary re-named and adjusted that position into Communications Coordinator.

            May Memorial spends a great deal of time on communication. 

1.      Weekly Newsletter.  This is the primary method of communication within the church family.  Many churches, even larger churches, only send a monthly newsletter.  May Memorial’s is sent every Monday by email.  There is also a list in the church office for those who do not have access to email and a paper copy is sent through the USPS.  Included in the newsletter is:

·         Prayer list

·         Upcoming events

·         Previous Sunday’s offering total, including special gifts

·         Pastor’s column (almost weekly)

·         Thursday night menu

·         Youth activities

·         Children’s activities

·         Music news

·         Worship theme for the upcoming Sunday

·         Business meeting announcements

·         Business meeting minutes

·         New members

·         Thank You Notes

·         Bible Study Information

·         Special Services

·         Team updates

2.      Sunday Bulletins.  Every Sunday a bulletin is printed that not only includes the order of worship for the day, but announcements.  Because of time constraints all of these announcements are not spoken in worship.  But the bulletin always includes:

·         Calendar for the week

·         Deacons of the Month

·         Who gave that day’s flowers

·         Offering total from previous Sunday

·         Menu for Thursday night

·         Guest/Meal card

·         Youth Activities

·         Children’s Activites

·         Music news

·         Missions news/announcements

3.      Through the week various emails are sent on an “as-need” basis to the church, and often these announcements are also sent on a robo-call.  These announcements include:

·         Hospital admissions

·         Surgeries

·         Urgent health crisis of a member

(When sending information about hospital admissions, surgeries, and health concerns consideration is given to respect a person’s privacy and not to offer private details.  While John Smith may want the church to pray for him, he may not want the church to know the private details of his condition.  Also, I would never want to give incorrect information about a health condition.  The purpose of the emails is to call our church to prayer.)

·         Death of church members and death of church member’s immediate family

·         Occasional reminders from the pastor or from the church office

·         Weather Closings and other calendar changes

4.      Church Website.  The website is updated in the church office, and we work hard to keep information current.  You will find many things on the website, including:

·         Each week’s bulletin

·         Each week’s newsletter

·         Previous sermons

·         Announcements

·         The Church calendar

·         Weather Closings

·         Staff, phone numbers, weekly schedule, address, email addresses, etc.

 

I would offer several requests from you:

1.      If you read through this list and you know of a way that we can communicate more effectively please let us know.  Is there information you need to know and cannot find?  Are you not getting emails?  Robo-Calls?  Please call the church office and we will make sure you are on the list.

2.      Just because you didn’t hear it doesn’t mean it wasn’t announced.  Take time to read the newsletters, the bulletins, and the emails.  And again, going back to number 1, if you are not receiving the newsletter or emails let the church office know.

3.      If there is something you need more information about or clarifications please call me or come to the church.  My door is always open, and if I do not have the information you need I will help you find it.

4.      If you are gifted in the area of communications and technology this could be a great way for you to serve God in the church. 

On MLK Day

It was Wednesday, November 8, 2008 when I walked to my table at McDonalds to have a quick breakfast before starting my workday.  It was the day after the presidential election, and at a nearby table the previous day’s election was the topic of conversation.  “Well, it looks like we have a N for president now.  I never thought I’d see it.”  To say that the statement was offensive is an understatement, but I also must admit that it was not surprising.

            I was sitting in an elementary school classroom in 1981 when a Christian African-American police officer entered the school’s office to enroll her son in kindergarten for the following year.  She was taken into the pastor’s study where he explained to her that because of the school’s “Christian” convictions they did not allow black students.  He told her that he hoped she understood why they would not allow her child the same opportunity for education that virtually every other race received.  Indian students, Chinese students, and Pilipino students were all allowed to attend and learn beside white students, but black students would find no welcome.

             Mary (not her real name) was an elderly member of the first congregation I served as pastor.  She was a seemingly pleasant and sweet lady who had a beauty shop in the front room of her home for years.  She was a children’s Sunday School teacher and a faithful church member.  When I knew her Mary suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and I would frequently talk to her and visit her in her home.  On one such visit she told me that the Saturday before she was passing by the church just as a wedding was ending.  The happy bride and groom were walking out onto the sidewalk, the birdseed was being thrown into the air, and the photographer was capturing the happy moment in pictures.  There was one problem, the couple were African-Americans.  “Michael, I can’t believe we are letting Ns get married in our church now!”  This was in 2005.

            Racism is still alive.  One does not have to look far in our culture to find quiet and not-so-quiet examples of how it still exists in the minds and souls of individuals and institutions.  Racism still surfaces in discrimination of minorities, and racism still surfaces in the way we look at mixed-race couples.  This past year has exhibited many high-profile racial stories that are turned into political talking points, but underneath the 24-hour news channels racism is still real and it still pervades our world.

            I can think of nothing that Jesus addressed more in words and action than this sin of racism.  Talking to the Samaritan woman at the well.  Telling the story of the good Samaritan.  Pointing out that the only leper who returned to give thanks for his healing was a Samaritan.  In all of these are stories we see again and again that our Lord did not adhere to the prejudices of his day but showed the value, equality, and goodness of every person, regardless of their race.

            Over the past few years members of May Memorial have demonstrated great love and cooperation as we have worshiped together with our African American sisters and brothers at Thanksgiving and during the Holy Week services at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.  This past Fall I traded pulpits with Rev. Vera Rhyne, pastor of First Antioch Baptist, an African-American congregation.  One cannot be present at these services and not see the joy and love that exists among all of the worshipers as we worship together, black and white, old and young.  It is a glimpse and taste of God’s heavenly kingdom that re-orders our sinful world according to God’s dream for humankind.

            On this Martin Luther King Jr. day let’s all decide that we will do our part to drive this injustice from our community.  While we may not be able to affect broad sweeping action or reform, we can begin with ourselves.  Don’t listen to a racial joke or keep silent when a racial slur is used.  Have the courage of Jesus and call wrong wrong and allow God’s kingdom to shine a little brighter in our world.

WatchDOG Pastor

 

            Over the past ten years school systems across the country have found great value in having student’s dads (or granddad, or step-dad, or male guardian) in the school each day.  The program came to be known as WatchDOGS, and the DOGS stands for Dads Of Great Students.  The program came to Powhatan a few years ago, and I’ve been involved with it since its inception.  It is easy to volunteer, there is a brief orientation, a background check, and the dad is ready to go.

            When a dad volunteers in the school for the day, he simply spends time with the students.  When dad arrives in the morning he is given a schedule of which classes and resources he will be participating in.  The dad introduces himself during the morning announcements, tells about his children in the school, and what his favorite part of school was when he was a child (which according to the paperwork cannot be recess).  He then goes to classrooms, the gym, the playground, music, art, and the lunchroom.

            I served as the WatchDOG at Flat Rock Elementary the Tuesday before Christmas break, and my day was filled with conversations and jokes and smiles and high fives.  I went to music with Mr. Thomas and spent time playing sharks and minnows on the playground.  I learned that I’m not as quick and agile as I once was, but I must say I held my own.  I spent time with our church’s children and children who attend our VBS.  Laura loves me being there as the WatchDOG, and each day’s schedule is made so the dad can spend extra time with his child(ren).

            I love going to art when I’m the WatchDOG.  The art teacher at Flat Rock is simply wonderful, she is always prepared, she’s creative, the kids listen to her very well, and they are excited to be there.  Being in art is also a good way for me to talk with many of the children (since talking is allowed in art) and give them a little extra help.  I spent several hours in art this past time, and after the last fourth-grade finished the teacher had one more thing for me to do.

            All the kindergartners had made ceramic lollipops which they painted and decorated.  Before the lollipops were sent home for winter break Mrs. Kunka wanted them wrapped in candy paper and a metallic tie so they looked like real lollipops.  That became my job.  It was easy enough, the names were on the back, and I wrapped each one.

            I noticed each child’s name as I was performing my task, initially looking for names that I recognized.  But what happened after a few lollipops passed through my hands is that I began praying for each of those children.  By name I asked God to protect them, watch over them, and that they would have what they needed.  I did this silently, no one was aware this was happening.  I knew several of the names, but most of the names I did not recognize, nor did I know anything they needed in their lives.  I simply lifted their name before God.

            This made me think of how many Christian teachers pray for their students.  Not aloud or with an aggressive voice, but a simple silent prayer, a lifting up of a name before God, that the child will have what he or she needs.  Or live into their full potential.  Or be safe.  To make good decisions.

            I’m grateful for our teachers, those who have no faith and those who have much faith.  I’m grateful for teachers who are in worship on Sunday mornings and I’m grateful for those who claim no religion, because all of them give of their lives and knowledge to educate our children.  I’m grateful for all of them, but I’m particularly grateful to know that there are a few teachers who see my children’s names, or think of them, and lift them up before God.

Waiting

There are not many things in my life that require me to wait.  I can order a book from Amazon, it will be on my front porch in two days, free shipping, and as soon as the transaction is processed I can read it instantly on my phone.  No waiting.  In my study at church I have a Keurig Coffee Machine.  All I have to do is drop in a pod, press the button, and within seconds I have a great cup of coffee.  No waiting.  I can access almost any piece of music on my iPhone and instantly listen to a wide variety of musicians perform the selection.  No waiting.  I can immediately get in touch with my children, wife, family members, and friends by texting.  No waiting.  I have an app on my phone that will give me directions to any location in the world, and if traffic is backed up for any reason the app will automatically re-route me so that I don’t have to wait in stopped traffic.

            Our world, with its technology, has eliminated many of the things that at one time caused us to wait.  In many ways this is a tremendous blessing.  No one likes to wait for coffee, and what a joy it is to access music without going to a store or waiting for a concert.  But this “immediate” world can cause us to think that all things should happen on our schedule, exactly when we want it, and that we should not have to wait for anything.

            Our world has already jumped to Christmas.  There was no waiting, no patience, the culture simply jumped to the holiday full force.  But if Christmas means the Coming of the Holy One, of God with Us, we people of faith know that God does not work on our immediate schedule.  God rarely comes when we’re expecting Him, more often than not God moves in ways that require us to practice patience and faith. God works on God’s schedule, and for us that means waiting with attentive hearts.

            This Sunday we begin the season of Advent.  For us Baptists we begin catching a foretaste of Christmas during the Advent season, but as we slowly light each candle of the Advent Wreath we are reminded that for ages God’s people waited for the coming Messiah.  This also means that we often have to wait for God.

            I could readily name several things for which I’m waiting on God.  Things that I continue to pray about and carry before God, and God has not yet come for me in these places.  Sometimes it would be easy to give up, to despair, and to try to take matters in my own hands.  But I know that for ages and ages God’s people have waited, and even though they didn’t know when it would happen, God came.

            These Advent Sundays are as important for me this year as they ever have been, and I know that for many in our May Memorial family there are important for them too. 

            Be patient, pray, cry out, keep watch, be alert, for God will come.  

Together in Unity

            Yesterday afternoon the Powhatan Pastor’s Fellowship joined our congregations together and offered our thanksgiving to God during a combined worship service.  Our community worshiping together at Thanksgiving is a long tradition, and this service has included an offering that supports the work of the Coalition of Powhatan Churches, and we continued this tradition yesterday.

            When I came to Powhatan over six years ago, there was not a functioning pastor’s fellowship.  Bill Hardison had supported and been a part of a fellowship that had ceased to meet, and when I came there was still a checking account, but no longer a pastor’s group.  After being in Powhatan about 18 months I contacted John Hemming from Powhatan UMC, Bryan Stevens from Mt. Zion Baptist, and Sandi Kerner from St. Luke’s Episcopal.  We met for lunch at the County Seat, and that was the beginning of the re-formation of a pastor’s fellowship in our community.

            I have many Baptist clergy friends, and I’m a part of a group of Baptist pastor’s who meet monthly.  But the Powhatan Pastor’s group is a fellowship that I value more than any other.  The group is made up of different denominations: Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, Episcopal, and non-denominational.  It is made up of varying races, ages, and positions in life.  There are full-time pastors and bi-vocational pastors.  And even in the midst of great diversity there is a unity that exists among our members.  We love each other, support each other, pray for each other, and value each other.  It is a great group of pastors.

            We meet the second Tuesday of each month, still at the County Seat, and we begin about 11:30.  We frequently end about 1:00, but sometimes it is after 2:00.  Sometimes we pray while we’re together, sometimes we welcome guests to share the time with us.  At our last meeting we were blessed with the presence of our Sheriff and one of the Department’s Captains. 

            At one point it was suggested that we meet in a quieter place, a place set apart where we could quietly pray together.  We decided that it is important for us to be together in a visible place at least once a month in our community.  At a table where there is male and female, black and white, young(ish) and old(er), representing Christ’s Church.  This is important to us, because this is what God’s kingdom looks like.

            Worship yesterday was a little foretaste of what it is going to be like when Jesus’ prayer is answered and God’s kingdom will be on earth as it is in heaven.  I’m thankful for my fellow pastors in our community, what a blessing they are to me.

Thankful

            Several weeks ago, I was leaving an area hospital and on my way back to the church it was convenient for me to stop by the local warehouse store for some church kitchen supplies.  It was nearly lunchtime, so I was able to indulge one of my guilty pleasures and grab a hot dog and soda at the lunch counter in the store.  I picked up the supplies, checked out, picked up my lunch, and found a table.  I sat by myself, but soon after I started eating a couple found a seat beside me.  I overheard the conversation at the table next to mine, but it wasn’t so much of a conversation as it was a one-sided monologue made up of a litany of complaints.

            The man complained about the weather, the renovation going on in the store, his lunch, the shape of the parking lot, and how he would have to exit the parking lot to get to the store’s gas pumps.  His wife simply sat and listened.  I couldn’t get away fast enough.

            It occurs to me that there are several ways to approach life in this world.  There are different perspectives with which people may choose to view their lives, circumstances, and general place in the world.  When I am at my best, I choose to approach life as a blessed, precious child of God, blessed beyond all that I deserve.  Some approach life as a victim, and others face the world with a sense of entitlement.  For others, luck seems to play a big part in their worldview, and others come across as A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh character Eor, an eternal pessimist who always carry a sense of impending doom.  I confess that I am prone to each of these, but at my core I believe that we are all blessed by God beyond all that we deserve.

I have a devotional book that offers me a short thought each day, and on many days at the end of the devotion I jot down a list of things for which I’m grateful that day.  It is a simple exercise that sets my world in perspective.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I offer to you a short list of what I am thankful for today:

            I am thankful for my wife of almost 21 years,

                        Who loves unconditionally,

                        And reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

                        And still makes date nights something I always look forward to.

            I am thankful for my three wonderful daughters.

            I am thankful for my May Memorial family.

            I am thankful for my parents and my wife’s parents,

                        That they made us go to church as children—even when it wasn’t fun,

                        That they sent us to college,

And expected us to take responsibility for ourselves when we became adults and were married.

            I am thankful for our home,

                        That it is warm and safe,

                        That it faces east so the sun shines in the front windows in the morning,

                        And that I don’t have to act like a pastor there.

            I am thankful that I have all I need and so much more.

            I am thankful God gives me things for free that I could never afford…

                        Like the joy of sitting by a fire in my yard with my family,

                        And the wonder of a sunset over the ocean on summer vacation.

            I am thankful for the people that I have met that I would have never sought out and the things that I have learned from them.

            I am thankful for the painful experiences that taught me things I would have never learned without them.

            I am thankful for music and people who compose and perform it,

                        Like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Doc Watson,

                        And Vaughan Williams, J.S. Bach, Hubert Parry, and Herbert Howells.

 

            This week leading to Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful, and when we stop to consider it just for a moment, aren’t we all blessed?  Aren’t we all blessed beyond all that we deserve?

Important Things

            By most accounts yesterday was a normal day at May Memorial Baptist Church.  We gathered for Sunday School, a couple of the deacons arrived early to prepared the bread and cup for the Lord’s Supper.  We greeted each other, welcomed a couple of first time guests, sang together, heard a great choral anthem, and remembered our church family members who died this past year.  We read scripture, our youth returned from their weekend retreat, and most significantly we shared a profoundly simple meal at the Table.  We made a couple of mistakes yesterday as we acted out the drama of worship.  They were quickly covered over and corrected, but as normal, we weren’t perfect.  But we were together, and God was with us.

            Yesterday morning as another Baptist congregation was worshiping midway across our country their worship was interrupted with the blasts of gunfire.  Many lives were lost, many more injured.  They were simply trying to do what we did yesterday, but their work was tragically interrupted.

            In response to this violence, and the countless acts of violence in our nation toward “soft targets” such as churches, May Memorial will make some changes to better protect those who gather to worship together in our sacred space.  Details of those changes will be coming soon.

            I cringe at people who always make a tragedy about themselves, but last night and this morning, especially as I watched the news, I couldn’t help but think that this could have been us.  Small community, small church, young children and Sr. Adults, and most directly, pastor’s daughter.

            One response is to do what we can to ensure our safety, to limit our exposure.  And we will do that.  But another response is to consider what is most important.  Yesterday’s mistakes are nothing.  The “one communion plate short” issue that the deacons felt so embarrassed over is of no consequence.  Everyone was welcomed and served at Christ’s table as they should have been.  What is important is that we were together, and that you were with us.  It is important that we sang together, and prayed together, and listened together.  The care we showed for each other is important, and listening to scripture together is important.  And what was most important is that God was with us.  Everything else…no consequence.

            May God loosen the Church’s grip on all of those things that make no difference and may God strengthen us to hold fast to those things that matter.  Amen.

 

Montreat and Jayber Crow

          Last week Beverley, our girls, and I attended the Montreat Conference on Worship and Music.  This was our 18th year attending this conference, and from our first trip it has always been a spiritual highlight of our year.  This year the conference theme was centered around the line from How Great Thou Art “Then Sings My Soul,” and everything revolved around this familiar line.  I attended Bible studies focused on missions and evangelism, a daily lecture on preaching.  Beverley attended offerings for musicians, sang in a choir that rehearsed twice daily, handbell choir, and a daily hymnology lecture.  My family worshiped together each day, hiked in the afternoons, and rested.  It is a great week, and the chance for Beverley and me to be worshipers instead of worship leaders nourishes our souls.
            Several years ago, I also decided to set aside the week to read more than I usually do.  I started working through my reading list while Beverley and I were at Eagle Eyrie at Passport Kids Camp the week before.  I read Robert Jones’s eye-opening The End of White Christian America, started working through John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, and re-read Learning to Breathe Under Water by Richard Rohr.  My favorite, and I didn’t finish it until this past Saturday, is Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow.  Jayber (his given name is Jonah, Jayber is short for his nickname, Jaybird) Crow is the barber in the fictional town of Port William, KY, who sensed a call to ministry early in his life but then dropped out of seminary because he had too many questions that in his mind couldn’t be answered.  He ended up being the town’s barber and farmer.  In Jayber Crow Berry argues for a simple life lived within one’s means and a life lived close to the land.  He stressed the importance of simplicity, community, hard work, and caring for each other.
            After two weeks of Passport Camp, Montreat Worship and Music, and several books, I come away with several realizations about my life as a Christian (and maybe as a pastor).  First, I am convinced that I should spend more time in prayer.  I am like everyone else: very busy.  It is easy in the business of family and church to neglect quiet time in meditation, prayer and scripture reading.  When I get away for these spiritual times I am reminded of how important daily prayer and meditation is for my faith.
            Second, I am reminded that I need more time(s) of Sabbath rest.  Maybe you have noticed that I take (nearly) all my vacation time in the summer.  From September through early June I find it very difficult to be away, but I find myself nearly dried up and worn out at the end of that long stretch.  I need time to be quiet, and listen, and read, and be renewed.
            Third, I am convinced that I must allow God to do His job, and me to do mine.  I like to think that if I have enough time combined with enough effort and enough ingenuity that I can do it all.  I cannot.  But God can.  This is very simple, but sometimes I forget.
            I’m grateful for the week at Passport with the children because it nourishes my soul, and I’m grateful that God has made Montreat a holy place for me and my family.  God truly nourishes our souls and hearts when we draw near to Him, and it is good to live in His presence day by day.

What Kind of Place is This?

            In the book This Odd and Wondrous Calling Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver reveal many of the joys and challenges of being a pastor.  Copenhaver is now a seminary president, but the book was written while both were still serving as UCC pastors, one in Glen Ellyn, IL, and the other in Wellesley, MA.  In one chapter Copenhaver tells of his church deciding to open a “cold weather” homeless shelter.  One morning as he had just begun work in the church office he heard a piano being played at a concert hall level.  He snooped around and saw that it was one of the homeless men who had sat down and began to play.

            Copenhaver formed a relationship with the man, and before long the man had started attending worship and becoming part of the church family.  He was a wonderful musician, but he also suffered from a mental illness.  His untreated mental illness was the reason that he found himself homeless, but he started finding a new home in that church community.  He was generally quiet, would go long periods without speaking, he would avoid eye contact, and he had trouble building relationships.  The most notable symptom of his mental illness would be a rare but suddenly loud shout, even sometimes an animal noise, most commonly barking like a dog.  This didn’t happen often, but when it happened the first time everyone was shocked.

            The man joined the choir, he was a great singer, and most Sundays all was well.  But every so often worship would be disrupted momentarily from the choir loft by a loud BARK.  The church members knew it could happen at any time, and they had grown accustomed to it.  Copenhaver writes that if you were visiting the church, say for your first Sunday, and it happened, it would cause you to nearly jump out of your seat.  He says what was most interesting was to see a visitor shocked and rattled while everyone else didn’t even seem to bat an eyelash.

            One Sunday as worshipers were leaving the sanctuary a visitor said to Copenhaver, “What kind of place is this, where a person can have an outburst like that in worship and no one even notices!?”  That is a great theological question: what kind of place is this where a person who struggles with a mental illness and causes outbursts in the middle of starkly quiet New England worship is included?

            On most Sundays if we have room on our bulletin cover I include the words “This is the House of God:  All Are Welcome.”  I notice from time to time the sign at Powhatan Mennonite Church says:  Everyone Welcome: We Mean Everyone.  This is the invitation from Jesus, and this is the invitation of May Memorial Baptist Church.  Jesus never turned anyone away.  He didn’t require a list of past successes or failures from his would-be followers.  He offered a blanket invitation to follow him.  Some chose to not follow after hearing what Jesus was all about, but all were invited to follow in his way.

            I was at a pastor’s meeting several years ago in Chesterfield, and I was talking to a pastor who I didn’t know very well.  “I heard so and so was at your church this past Sunday.”  I had to think a moment, but then I realized he was talking about a family who had visited May Memorial for the first time the Sunday before.  “That’s right, they were at May Memorial this past Sunday.”  “Well, I hope you understand that they’re on you know.”  He said this, half-jokingly, half-serious, letting me know that he was tired of dealing with them and was glad that they were looking for another church.  He felt that he and his church was better off without this family.

            In a proper understanding of the Church, of God’s family, and of God’s invitation, there is no one that The Church or a church or our church is “better off without.”  Every person is created by God and has a unique calling in God’s family.  Every person is uniquely created and called by God and has a part to play in the ushering in of God’s kingdom. 

            My oldest daughter has become interested in college acceptance percentages these days.  “Did you know that it is harder to get into VCU than into Virginia Tech?”  No, I did not know that.  The acceptance rate at William and Mary, Carolina, U of R, Longwood, all of these have been named and discussed (even though I don’t remember the numbers). 

            What would you guess that the acceptance rate of the church is?  If you had to give it a number, what do you think?  I would have to give it a 100% acceptance rate.

            What kind of place is this?  This is the House of God.  All are welcome.

Camp

I think I was a first grader the first time I went to camp.  A Sunday School teacher took a group for an overnight trip to Camp Waccamaw, which was on Lake Waccamaw in southeastern NC.  When I was a little older, I also went to camp with my church to a camp in the mountains of NC.  Each summer I would spend at least a week at the Wilds, close to Brevard, NC, and the week would be filled with hiking and recreation and Bible studies and worship.  I loved every minute of camp, and it was at camp that God worked in my life in a significant way.

Several years ago I surveyed several hundred Baptist pastors in NC and VA and I asked about their call to ministry and ordination.  Of all the pastors who told me about their call to ministry, many of those mentioned how important a camp experience was in God calling them to vocational ministry as well as to take a step forward in their faith walk.

Next week May Memorial will have a group of children and a group of youth attending Passport Camps.  Beverley and I are taking the children to Passport at Eagle Eyrie, and Constance, Brooks Ann, and Parker Meade are taking the youth to Averett University for Passport Missions.  It takes a lot of work and money to go to camp.  Carla began planning for children’s camp months ago, and Constance started planning for youth camp in the Fall of 2016.  Many people at May Memorial have made donations so our young people can go to camp, and we have a significant monetary investment in the week.  Considering all of the work, and all of the money, I want to be clear: it is worth all of it. 

Sending kids to camp is one of the most important things we do, and I am thankful that May Memorial sees to it that our children have this opportunity.

I am also delighted that Ashley Edwards, our new Minister of Youth and Children, will be spending time with both the youth and with the children during their weeks at camp.  She will be going with Beverley and me to Eagle Eyrie and after a couple of days there will be traveling to Averett from there to spend time with the youth.  This is a great way for Ashley to start building relationships with our youth and children, and there is no better time to join with the youth and children of MMBC than at camp.

Be in prayer for the adults and campers who will be away next week.  Pray for their safety, but also pray that hearts will be open for hearing God’s voice.  

When Wrong...Promptly Admitted It

When I was 16 years old I began my first job working at the local funeral home.  I did everything from putting up tents, cutting grass, opening graves, working visitations and funerals, removals (in funeral home lingo this means picking up a deceased person’s body and bringing it back to the funeral home), cleaning, and general errands “as needed.”  I worked after school each day, weekends, and full days during the summer.  There was one particular day, a Saturday, when I had started work early in the morning by washing cars getting ready for two funerals.  I worked both of the funerals, one that morning and one that afternoon, and the only thing on my mind was getting off that evening and a date I had made with our current Minister of Music.

            We were finishing up at the cemetery when my boss told me that the family from the early funeral called and they wanted their potted plants delivered to their house that evening.  I was tired, I was ready to leave, and I was ready to go out that night.  I was not happy.  It was already after five, but I made plans to deliver the flowers.  I’m not sure how fast I drove to that house, but that I didn’t get a ticket is a miracle.  I arrived at the house in Mt. Olive, threw the van in reverse, screeched to a halt in front of the carport, and began furiously unloading the plants.  A man came out and spoke to me, I probably mumbled something back, not wanting to slow down.  After everything was unloaded I jumped back in the van and sped away.

            I didn’t think anything else about it, until the following week.  When I got to work that afternoon my boss and his son, also a funeral director, asked to talk to me.  They told me that the fellow from the house, the deceased person’s son, had called and was very upset.  He said that “a teenage boy showed up and practically threw the flowers under his carport.”  They asked me what happen, and they asked me if I was willing to call and talk to the gentleman who complained.  Later that day I made the call.  By that time (and even before that time) I knew that I had made a mistake.  I had not behaved properly, and I knew that I was wrong.  I was more concerned about that night’s date than that grieving family, and this came through in my behavior.  On the phone I told the man that I was wrong, that I made a mistake, that I was in a hurry, but that I had no excuse.  I was asked to make that call, but I was sincere.  The man heard me well, and he forgave me.  I know that my boss was looking for it to be made right so he wouldn’t lose a family’s business in the future, but for me I was taking responsibility for my actions.

            It was just before midnight this past Thursday night and my family and I rode by that house on the way to visit my parents.  They house looks the same, the carport is still there.  As I thought about that day and that phone call it is a reminder to me that mistakes are a part of living.  But mistakes can also be corrected and made right.  That was not my first mistake, and it certainly was not my last.  But for every mistake amends can be made.

            Twelve step programs teach that it is important to “keep short lists” of wrongs that we have done.  The wording states “…and when we were wrong we promptly admitted it.”  Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean that we are perfect.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes.  Sometimes we make big mistakes.  But God forgives us, and we have the power to accept responsibility and set things right.

            After the phone call that day I felt a little lighter than before.  I knew that I had done everything I could do to make things right.  I felt forgiven.

Muskrats

            In the early 1970’s the author Annie Dillard spent time close to Roanoke and as a result of her time there came Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It is part spiritual roadmap, part scientific journal, and part geographical narrative of that section of the Virginian mountains and valleys.  I have been re-reading this wonderful book over the past few weeks, and there are passages that I read that I can hardly wait to tell someone about.  The book is full of interesting facts.  She discusses everything from Osage Orange Trees (one of which is in front of Mabel’s Restaurant in the village) to Mantises to the seasons of the year.  She talks about the flooding that came to Virginia after hurricane Agnes in 1972, and she talks about how the lights went out in Richmond after this catastrophic event.

            Perhaps the strongest theme in Dillard’s scientific/spiritual narrative is the need to slow down, stop, and be aware of what is around you.  Early in the book she asks the question of how long it took for the first humans to figure out that the seasons of the year are cyclical.  On a winter day they knew it was cold, and on a summer day they knew it was hot.  But how long would it take them to put together that there was a regular span of time that separates the cold days from the hot days and the greening of the trees to the dying of the leaves.  Of course God told humankind about the seasons, but how long would it take humankind, without God’s instruction, to figure this out.

            She also discusses the muskrat.  The muskrat is actually very similar to a beaver, only smaller, and is not a rat at all.  Dillard had a great desire to see a muskrat swimming down Tinker Creek, but in spite of all of her efforts she was not able to find one.  And then, on one particular day, she happened to be standing still at just the right time at just the right place.  She was noticing what was going on around her, and she saw one.  After this she began to learn where they would appear, and she started noticing them more and more after she got in the habit of finding them.  “After that I knew where they were in numbers, and I knew when to look.”

            The ability to be still and pay attention is indispensable for the person who wants to know God.  God is a God who speaks and appears and interacts with His creatures, but we are so busy and unobservant that we often miss God when God appears in our lives.

            As we move toward Summer, churches like ours scale our activities and schedules back a bit.  This is in part a response to vacations and family activities, but we also slow down to provide space for rest and renewal.  God created us in a way that rest is as essential to work.  We are created in God’s image, and after the Creative Week God took time to rest.  God’s Son also was in the habit of taking time away, in prayer and rest, to find solitude and renewal in his Father’s presence.

            If we do the same, we will experience God’s presence in our lives.  It doesn’t come to us by working harder or smarter or trying to keep more rules or keeping up a good effort.  What is requires is letting go of the world’s distractions and clearing space so that we may notice God around us.