28 April 2017

May Events and a New Bible Study Opportunity

May is always a very busy month, from Mother's Day to graduations. And it seems like half of the population has a birthday, including Christy and James in our household! Here's a quick look at some of the upcoming Sundays at Grace, so you can stay ahead of your schedule:

April 30: Women's Sunday. Our guest preacher will be Dr. Sheron Patterson, an Elder in the North Texas Conference. After serving for many years as a local church pastor, Dr. Patterson became the Communications Officer for the NTC five or six years ago. She travels around the country giving lectures, seminars, and sermons on a variety of topics. She'll also lead a program for everyone during the Sunday school hour. You will not forget this Sunday!
May 7: Grillin', Chillin', and Fun! Following the 11:00 service, stick around for a picnic on the church lawn. Dress casually for worship! Hot dogs and burgers will be provided; bring a dessert or side to share.
May 14: Mother's Day. Always one of the largest Sundays of the year, this year will extra special: at 11:00 Erika Bass, one of our confirmands, will be baptized. Expect many guests! Be on the lookout and practice hospitality!
May 21: Youth Sunday. Our youth will lead both hours of worship. We'll also honor our 2017 graduates, Michael Gardner and Amanda Garrett.
June 4: Pentecost Sunday/Confirmation Sunday. Erika Bass, Miles Drenner, and Amanda Wiggins will be confirmed and become members of Grace.
June 18: A new summer sermon series on Genesis begins, continuing through August 6.

Switching gears: Going into the summer months, we'll make a change to our Bible study offering. The Wednesday night Pastor's Bible study has mostly discussed the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday's sermon. It's a very informal, discussion based format- no curriculum. I'd like to change that and offer more in depth studies. The timeframe will be Wednesdays, 5:30-7:00, beginning June 14. Childcare is available. Our first study will be a 10-week Disciple Bible study: Introduction to Genesis. Books are $16. Here's an outline:

1. The Beginning...and What Went Wrong
2. Another Beginning: The Flood...and What Went Wrong
3. Another Beginning: Abraham and the Patriarchs
4. Abraham and a Glimpse to the Future
5. The Promise Fulfilled: Isaac
6. Another Beginning: Jacob and the Uneasy Birth of a People
7. Jacob: The Struggle Continues
8. Another New Beginning: Joseph and the Family of Israel
9. The Trek Into Egypt
10. An End and Another Beginning: Israel's Story

The current format for the Pastor's Bible study will continue through June 7. The Disciple study is a sort of bridge between study formats, since we are preaching on Genesis all summer. If there is interest in continuing a sermon-based discussion group after Genesis, maybe we can meet for an early morning discussion at a local coffee shop starting in September. The next Wednesday night Bible study following Genesis will be Christian Believer, a 24-week study of Christian doctrine, beginning in September. Why is this change in Bible study important? Check out this survey regarding believers' knowledge of the Bible:

Offering more in-depth, high commitment studies will help our members grow into stronger and more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

All Grace is Amazing! Enjoy the wonderful Spring weather while you can- you know summer heat is coming!

26 April 2017

"Is He the One Who..."

My wife Christy and I have three boys. We live in the Dallas area, and only make a handful of trips down here each year, so the boys aren't as acquainted with extended members of our family. And sometimes names overlap, so it can be difficult to keep everyone straight. For example, I have two Kellys in my family, although they spell their names differently. Of course Christy also has aunts and uncles and cousins on her side of the family; in fact we both have Uncle Ronnies! All this is to say when we're sharing stories of relatives with the boys, it can be confusing. So a common response from them is, "Is that the one who..." When we told them my Uncle Donald died, one kid said, "Is that the one who had a part of his ear bitten off by a Marine?" Yup- that's my Uncle Donald, or as we called him, and he called us, "Chuck." Don't know where that came from.

Years from now you might remember snippets from today's service and think, "Was he the one with the memorial service at a Little League Ballpark?" Yup- that's my Uncle Donald. He loved baseball- especially kids' baseball. I'll admit when Kelli mentioned this idea to me I was taken back a bit.. but I quickly warmed up to it. I love baseball too. One of the most unique things about the game Uncle Donald and I loved is how the field is formed. You have the outfield- the grassy area out there- and the infield- this dirt in the middle. Around the infield are bases: 1st, 2nd, 3rd. I decided to speak to Uncle Donald's life in terms of phases, as a runner makes her way around the bases during a game.

1st Base: Early years
Uncle Donald grew up here in Wharton. He was the oldest of four kids in the house, preceded in death by his sister Leoda and brother Ted. He was ten years older than my father, Frank. He grew up in a very difficult home setting, and when he was old enough he left home to join the Navy. This is where the unfortunate interchange between his ear and a Marine happened.

2nd Base: Early adulthood
When his naval service ended, Uncle Donald returned home and married Aunt Geneva. He died just days before what would have been their 55th wedding anniversary. They had three children, Kelli, Michelle, and Donnie. Geneva would often say to him, "You're a rascal, but by grace you're my rascal." Uncle Donald had a long career as an electrician. During this phase of his life, barely short of 30 years ago, Uncle Donald quit drinking. Geneva and Kelli remembered Uncle Donald almost in terms of Jekyll and Hyde: when he was sober he was warm and affable. When he drank he could be mean. When Uncle Donald quit drinking, the ugliness went away, forgiveness became possible within the family, and several lives were changed because of his strength to change. The cycle of dysfunction was broken, making the 3rd Base of his life much, much different.

3rd Base: Twilight years
These are the years I mostly fondly remember my uncle. I remember Thanksgiving dinners at the Wharton house, watching football games one after the other, making constant trips to the refrigerator for his unlimited stash of Dr Pepper. I remember his politically incorrect sense of humor, jokes I thought hilarious when I was a kid, but which made me more and more uncomfortable as I grew older. Chuck: in his recliner, in the corner of the room, wearing a Texas Longhorns or Houston Oilers hat, sipping a never ending stream of Dr Peppers, telling off color jokes. That's the Uncle Donald I will always remember.

He was particularly proud of his grandkids: Megan, Morgan, Trey, and Dylan. They called him "Pap," and there are some wonderful tributes written by them on Facebook. Uncle Donald was a grandfatherly figure to other kids as well: like the kids he coached in Little League, some of whom did not have proper equipment or uniforms so he took them to Denn Bros and paid for their stuff. Or the neighborhood kids who lived across the streets in the apartments who would come to the door and ask, "Can he come out?" He would then spend time "fixing their bikes," which really meant spending time with them.

 We've visited 1st Base, 2nd Base, 3rd Base. But there is no 4th base on the baseball diamond. It's called home plate. And it's even shaped like a house. When a runner scores in baseball, we say he's come home. Friends, Uncle Donald, Pap, whatever you called him, has come home. Jesus said, "In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also."

Uncle Donald had a great faith. He believed the words I just read to you. He had witnessed in his own life and the lives of others the transformation possible in a person by God's grace. Geneva and Donald regularly participated in their church home, Grace Community Fellowship, even after he began to experience health concerns. His faith never wavered throughout his declining health, and the second half of his life was a witness to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He is now in the presence of the Resurrected Lord, at peace, worshipping in glory as one of the saints of light. Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." I texted Dad the other day after hearing of Uncle Donald's death: "The legend!" I said. Dad replied, "Yeah, he was one of a kind." For all that he was to us: husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, coach, mentor, friend, we give thanks to God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. Join me again in prayer.

19 April 2017

The Holy Week That Was

There is a popular meme that runs through Facebook every week following Easter, shared by pastors or church staff. It says, "Jesus is risen!" and "The clergy is dead!"

It's very true. There is no tired like Easter tired (it's like jet lag, lasting for several days), and no nap like Easter Sunday naps! Reflecting on all of Holy Week, I am filled with a combination of exhaustion, gratitude, and joy. Here's a recap:

Monday night: Great worship with the Sherman Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Joyful music and great preaching.

Thursday night: Holy Thursday. About 40 people gathered to remember the institution of the Lord's Supper. My favorite moment of this service was Linus reading the Gospel text.

Friday night: Good Friday. 100 people or so in attendance. The music was incredibly moving, and sixteen readers read the Passion of Jesus Christ. Very emotional.

Saturday afternoon: Egg hunt and walk through Holy Week. A great turnout of kids and families from the neighborhood. The scramble for the eggs was a major competition! Janet did a great job organizing this. Thanks for the adults and youth who served.

Sunday morning: Wow. The service at the park was tremendous-- more people than chairs! Probably a 60/40 split between church folk and not. The youth did a great job re-telling the Passion and Easter story. James participated in the drama. We thought there would be rain, but thankfully that held off until Monday.

We had great energy on campus too: the kids bells were sweet, we played an Easter version of the classic playground game "Statues," the Grace Bells and choir were amazing, and the praise team at 11:00 was great as always. Congratulations to Lori and Anthony Hartman on the birth of Baby Owen-- he was born just after midnight Monday morning. Thanks to Lori, who started feeling contractions during Easter worship, for holding out until the service was over! Also we owe many thanks to Vicki and Tom Busby, who provided snacks at the sunrise service and between services on campus. Vicki had surgery a couple of weeks ago on her foot so getting around was a bit of challenge, but did you really think that would stop her? Of course not.

We also welcomed lots of new faces to Grace! 341 total faces on Easter Sunday. Thanks to everyone who has provided positive feedback on the whole experience. Our family had a great time sharing our first Easter with you. All Grace is Amazing!
- Pastor Frank

16 April 2017

Hidden. With Christ. In God.

The other day I went for my annual pre-Easter haircut. The days before Easter go at roughly 124 miles per hour, so I do not have time to think about setting appointments or anything else. So when I realized I needed my hair cut for today I visited several barber shops around town-- four, in fact. I couldn't get in to any of them. I finally settled on one-- two days ago, inbetween services on Thursday and Friday.

Barber shops are known for their conversations, and in this one the topic of the minute was the sorry state of education today (truthfully, there are only a handful of barbershop conversation subjects; they rotate round and round like a carousel. Education is one of them). They hit all the hits:

  • Teachers only teach to the test
  • Teachers who don't teach to the test get fired
  • Students are learning
  • Kids don't want to work hard enough
  • Parents aren't supporting the kids
  • No one cares about the school board
(And no, the school bond issue didn't come up.)

But then the conversation shifted in a strange direction. One of the guys waiting either works for or runs a local funeral home. So he started sharing stories. This guy died in this place... The body was there this long... The smell was this bad... I couldn't believe it. This was not on the barbershop play list. Plus it was Good Friday, and I was already thinking about Jesus' death on the cross. By the time I was finished I paid my bill quickly and bolted out the door. I had had enough of death.

Which, of course, leads us to today. It is true that death is smelly and messy and gross. It is true that death is one of the things we fear the most. It is true that we spend lots of time, energy, and money to avoid death. And it's also true that try as we do we cannot avoid it. The good news of Easter is that God's story does not end with Jesus' death on Good Friday. His resurrection, which we celebrate today, liberates us from our fear of death and gives us hope for our lives.

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, a holy day for Christians, who celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Here at Grace, and at just about every other church, we waved palm branches and yelled, "Hosanna! Lord save us!" Christians in Egypt joined in that celebration as they have since the 5th century. Then two suicide bombers attacked churches, killing 44 people. ISIS claimed responsibility. What began as a day of celebration ended with profound grief, anger, and horror. The Coptic Church in Egypt has been persecuted for many years. Christians in Egypt comprise only 10% of the country. The government has promised better protection for them. But here's the thing: those same changes are open today. Christians are gathered to worship the Risen Christ on Easter just as we do. They are doing this despite their fear and grief, witnessing to their faith. How is such a thing possible?

Two Marys went to the place where Jesus' body was placed following his crucifixion. It had been two days. We aren't told why they went there; only that they did. As they approached an earthquake shook the place, caused by an angel descending from heaven. He moved the stone from its place at the tomb and sat down on it-- no big deal. The powerful guards, placed there by the religious leaders, fell to the ground, unable to move. To the women, the angel said, "Don't be afraid. You're looking for Jesus; you won't find him here. Check it out for yourself. He's gone ahead to Galilee." As they were leaving the cemetery, they saw Jesus: "Greetings!," he said. "Don't be afraid. Tell the others I will see them in Galilee." And they run away to share what they had seen. They leave behind their fear, grief, and brokenness. How is such a thing possible?

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. - Colossians 3:1-4

If you have been raised with  Christ, your focus changes: you set your mind on things that are above, where Christ is, not on the things that are below. In other words, you are a new person in faith, and when this change happens your life has a new direction. The things of the earth are behaviors like fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Setting your life on things above doesn't mean turning away from bad things like injustice or human suffering on earth-- it's individual, destructive behaviors. If our lives are set on Christ, then we are hidden with Christ in God. Meaning only God, and only godly things, are visible in our lives.

So the Coptic Christians can worship on Easter Sunday without fear, even though they have been persecuted. I read a couple of very brave quotes yesterday: "Egypt's Copts put their trust in God, not in security measures." One woman said, "We do not fear terrorism." Jesus promised: "I will turn your sorrow into joy, and no one will take your joy from you." They can live in to the hope of their faith because their lives are hidden with Christ in God. The two Marys leave the graveyard with hope and joy to share their experiences of seeing the angel and the rock and the statuefied men and seeing Jesus himself resurrected from the dead because their lives are hidden with Christ in God.

This way of living is possible for the one who believes Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. This is the heart of the Easter message.

All of that may sound crazy and impossible. I get it. In a way we are all the women of the story. It's Sunday morning. We've come to see Jesus. But we're not in Jerusalem; we're in Sherman, Texas. We're in a church building, not a cemetery. Where will we find him? This is what he said:
  • "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there amongst them." We find Jesus in the community of believers, not on our own.
  • "Whenever you feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome someone, visit the sick and imprisoned, and clothe the naked, you do it to me." We find Jesus by sharing his love with those in need.
  • "This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you." We find Jesus at his table, where he invites us to share communion with him and each other.
May you live your life in such a way that your focus is above-- where Christ is; not below, where you've thrown off your fears and superstitions and prejudices and worries. May you live your life in such a way that your life is hidden with Christ in God. So that all people see is your witness-- what you believe-- as you serve the needs of others in the name of the Resurrected Christ. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

06 April 2017

Easter 2017

This afternoon I was reading through Easter liturgies and I came across this prayer:

Lord of all life and power, who through the mighty resurrection of your Son overcame the old order of death and sin to make all things new in him: grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ, may reign with him in glory; to whom with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit be praise and honor, glory and might, now and in all eternity. Amen.

That prayer sums up powerfully the whole point of Easter. It isn’t just about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but ours. And not only at the end of our earthly lives; through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are raised to new life and hope today. In this life. Death and sin no longer have dominion over us, and we are free to live in joy. This is good news for all of us, but particularly for those outside the walls of the church. Folk you know. You work with them, go to Bearcats football games with them, attend special events like the recent Celtic Festival with them. These friends and acquaintances without a church home are part of Jesus’ flock, but they are waiting for invitation. They might come to the celebration with you April 16.

Easter Day has always been the pinnacle of Christian worship; in fact, the earliest Christians celebrated Easter long before Christmas. New believers were baptized on Easter. They were dressed in white robes for their baptized, and given new clothes to symbolize their new life in Christ. Some people like to think of Easter as the Church’s Super Bowl, our big event. For me, Easter Day is more like Game Seven of the World Series. It’s the culmination of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunrise, and other special observances.

This will be our first Easter together, and I am already excited. All of our focus on that most holy of days needs to be on the people we do not know. We need to be positive, welcoming, joyful, and excited. You know, we need to be Grace UMC! But on that day let’s place all of our focus on new people, not our regular church friends. This is our best chance to show the community what we believe and why. Will you join me in praying for Easter? Pray for one person. One person who doesn’t know Christ. That one person will worship that day and experience Christ’s resurrection for themselves. Pray that God will reveal to you one person to invite. Pray that God will use you on that morning to make that one person feel welcome and loved. Who’s your one person?

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Spring Black Friday

Yesterday I was driving around town listening to a local radio station when my mind started to drift. When I refocused, I discovered I was in the middle of a commercial. Just as I was about to change the station I heard a term that was new to me:

Spring Black Friday.

My first thought was about Good Friday-- the day Jesus died on the cross (April 14). But no, this wasn't an ad for Holy Week services at a local church. This was an ad for one of the large home improvement stores in town, the orange one, and I was really taken aback. Just in time for Easter (not mentioned), you can get great deals today on mulch, lawn mowers, patio furniture, etc. It's an ongoing sales event for the first couple weeks of April, not necessarily tied to a specific date, like, you know, Good Friday.

I don't know what your outdoor needs are-- I have several myself-- but I do not have the time or energy to pursue them between today and April 16, Easter Sunday. It's another unnecessary layer of distraction. Since the beginning of March, we've journeyed through Lent, 40 days of devotion and spiritual discipline, only to get a great discount on a leaf blower?? Please. No thank you.

Instead, I invite you to devote your time and energy to the events of Holy Week. We'll have several opportunities here at Grace to fully experience the events of the last week of Jesus' life:

  • This Sunday, 8:30 and 11:00: Palm/Passion Sunday. Our kids will wave palm branches and lead a procession through the Celebration Center. We'll quickly move to a reflection on the message of the cross.
  • Monday night, 7:30: Sherman Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance service. Celebrate our unity in Christ with brothers and sisters of other Sherman area churches.
  • Wednesday night, 5:30: The final installment of the "Death of the Messiah" study. We'll examine a couple of classical depictions of Jesus' Passion, then experience the powerful Farewell Discourse, four chapters in the Gospel of John when Jesus prays for and says goodbye to his disciples.
  • Holy Thursday, 7:00: A commemoration of the institution of the Lord's Supper. We'll celebrate communion together.
  • Good Friday, 7:00: Powerful music, prayers, and readings from the Gospel of John create an emotional remembrance of Christ's sacrificial love.
  • Holy Saturday, 2:00-4:00: Walk Through Holy Week and Easter Egg Hunt. Great fun for the kiddos.
  • Easter Day: Sunrise service at Pecan Grove Park West, 7:00; services here at the church at 8:30 and 11:00. Snacks and coffee will be served before and after each service. Be on the lookout for new people!

And after all of that, the highs and lows of the most important week in human history, you may be exhausted-- I will be for sure-- but hopefully the good news will fill you with so much joy that you'll be able to devote every ounce of that energy to... yard work? Decorating? No-- it still doesn't work.

A quick word of thanks to our office and program staff here at Grace-- they really are wonderful. David and Lynda lead the music with such enthusiasm, in addition to planning services and recruiting worship participants. The choir is great. Anthony, Lori, Matt, William, and Laura make for a wonderful experience of praise music. Janet is gearing up for the Walk Through Holy Week and the sunrise service, led by youth. Rhonda handles all the logistics of the church. Jan runs the calendar, maintains the schedules, prints and designs newsletters, emails, and bulletins. Jack keeps everything inside and outside the building looking great. Gerri keeps us current on our bills. Pastor Leon cares for people. I really appreciate the gifts of our talented staff team. And thanks as well for our lay volunteers, who helped clean in and around the building last Saturday, and those who will do everything in their power to make folk feel welcome Easter morning. This includes all of us. There will be much to do! I am excited to join in the celebration April 16!