31 May 2017

Three Invitations

Dear Grace Family:
We have lots to celebrate around Grace! I just returned from a volunteer appreciation luncheon where nine Grace members were honored for serving at Wakefield Elementary: Tom and Vicki Busby, Le Lange, Ron Woodworth, Rodney Ward and Sue Ann Spencer, Rhonda Luckett, and Christy and me. It was a very moving occasion. The Wakefield Blitz has been a tremendous success for the school and us. Thank you to everyone who supported it. School starts again August 16!


Speaking of celebrating, we have several receptions happening at Grace in the next ten days: Joan Douglass, who has taught children's Sunday school here for 37 years, is retiring from teaching. We're honoring her with a reception June 4 during the Sunday school hour. There is a memory book and cards near the Celebration Center if you'd like to leave a note or well wishes.

That same day is Confirmation Sunday. You’ll have a chance to hear from our three confirmands: Erika, Miles, and Amanda, at both services this week. Following 11:00 worship we’ll have Confirmation SUNDAEs (get it?) for our confirmands. Stay after for a few moments, enjoy some ice cream, and hang out with these amazing kids and their mentors.

The following Sunday June 11 at 9:45 you are invited to an appreciation reception for Pastor Leon and Dee Ann Veazey. We'll enjoy light breakfast food and contribute to a love offering. Please make plans to join in the celebration of this great couple as we thank both of them for their ministry at Grace. It has been a privilege to serve alongside both Dee Ann and Leon this past year.

Saying thank you is an important part of ministry. Serving is a joy and we do it as a response to God’s grace, not for the attention. Sure. But it’s important to recognize folk who make an impact on the lives of others. At Grace UMC we are privileged to have so many who serve in so many various places. Thank you for exercising your faith in the community!

15 May 2017

A Prayer to Welcome the Sabbath

I concluded my sermon yesterday with this prayer, found in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Only $6 on Amazon! What a steal for an amazing daily devotional.

Lord of Creation,
create in us a new rhythm of life
composed of hours that sustain rather than stress,
of days that deliver rather than destroy,
of time that tickles rather than tackles.

Lord of Liberation,
by the rhythm of your truth, set us free
from the bondage and baggage that break us,
from the Pharaohs and fellows who fail us,
from the plans and pursuits that prey upon us.

Lord of Resurrection,
may we be raised into the rhythm of your new life,
dead to deceitful calendars,
dead to fleeting friend requests,
dead to the empty peace of our accomplishments.

To our packed-full planners, we bid, "Peace!"
To our over-caffeinated consciences, we say, "Cease!"
To our suffering selves, Lord, grant release.

Drowning in a sea of deadlines and death chimes,
we rest in you, our lifeline.

By your ever-restful grace,
allow us to enter your Sabbath rest
as your Sabbath rest enters into us.

In the name of our Creator,
our Liberator,
our Resurrection and Life,
we pray.

12 May 2017

Progress in the Healthy Church Initiative

Grace UMC recently decided to continue in the Healthy Church Initiative. If that doesn't ring a church bell for you, click here. It's been a very exciting process. The layfolk at Grace leading us through the Healthy Church Initiative are Tom Busby, Janet Chester, Stephen Clayton, Frank Holcomb, Carol Kennedy, John Murphy, Carolyn and Jim Nicholson, Cindy Pressley, and Jim Williams. These are amazing, dedicated people who love Grace. It's been wonderful just to listen and learn from their various perspectives. We've read six books together and met once a month to discuss how they apply to Grace. The lay team meets monthly with a similar team from Leonard UMC. Likewise, I meet monthly with a clergy group of pastors of several churches, each with very different histories and experiences. Both of those groups are led by a trained Healthy Church Initiative facilitator.

How can you get involved? Thanks for asking! Join in the conversation. Ask questions of the people named above. They are eager to share. Buy one of the books we read and form your own thoughts of how the ideas there may impact Grace UMC. Here's the reading list:

Renovate or Die- Bob Farr
Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church- Jim Ozier and Fiona Haworth
The Externally Focused Church – Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson
Get Their Name -Doug Anderson, Bob Farr, Kay Kotan
Simple Church
 -Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger
Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results– Lovett H.Weems, Jr. & Tom Berlin

You can also join the prayer team we are forming for the Healthy Church Initiative. You can email Carolyn Nicholson to sign up! (I think she's the contact person; if not, she'll point you in the correct direction.) 🙂

To get an idea for where the process may lead us (it's not set in stone; who knows where the Holy Spirit will move Grace?), here are some sample guidelines for the prayer team to pray over:

  • The congregation embraces an outward-focused mission that puts the spiritual needs of those in the community above the need of the congregation.
  • For a compelling vision that will motivate and drive the congregation to great acts of ministry.
  • That the congregation sees the urgency for such a mission and vision.
  • The pastor and one or two key lay leaders should communicate this type of purpose each time the team meets.
  • Pray for the community needs and officials. Be specific if there are clear issues that are part of the community conversation or agenda. Pray for the community leaders by name (i.e. Fire Chief so and so, Chief of Police so and so, etc.). List as many officials as possible.
  • Pray for the changes that are needed, that we might “embrace” them and be willing and able to make these changes. Pray for the community to be impacted by the church like never.
  • Pray for unchurched. Pray in general that unchurched people in your community can find Christ through this church. Pray specifically for unchristian friends you know. Pray that you and your church will find ways to invite these people and to make it comfortable for them to explore what Jesus and God and church are all about.

I am very excited about where this process will lead us as a church. I have already seen changes in how these leaders are engaged with the congregation. Multiply that by everyone who worships here and we will be much more effective in reaching a new generation with the love of Jesus Christ!

11 May 2017

Put Your $$ Where Your Faith Is

I want to take a moment to brag on Grace UMC. Our church is known as a missions-oriented place. There are abundant opportunities here to serve God's people in our local community and around the world. It is one thing to say we believe serving others is important; it's a better thing to do it. One of my favorite verses is James 1:25: "But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-- they will be blessed in their doing." So thank you to the folk here who serve in a hands-on way: Share: Taking It to the Streets brings food directly to those in our area who are hungry. We have members who volunteer with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, and Grand Central Station. Our monthly Legal Clinic will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. And as we come near to the end of a school year we received a note from the Wakefield Elementary staff thanking us for partnering with them through mentoring, reading, and donated supplies.

We also give money to support vital missions. Last Sunday for our communion/Bean Pot offering we received over $1000 for Blue Sunday, supporting kids in foster care in Grayson County. Check out our other Bean Pot offerings this year:

  • January: Grayson County Habitat for Humanity $435
  • February: Child and Family Guidance Center $405
  • March: United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR; disaster relief): $860
  • April: Sherman Interdenominational Ministers Alliance (SIMA): $413. This money is used for Thanksgiving baskets, scholarships for local kids, and emergency needs

On Christmas Eve we received an offering to benefit Syrian refugees through the global ministries of the United Methodist Church. We raised over $800. None of these funds are provided through the budget. This is extra giving, beyond what we contribute in the plates or online each week. Thank you for your generosity.

Our annual church budget has funds built into it to help others. Recently I have used money in my Pastor's Discretionary Fund to help three Grace households with rent (about $1200 total, some of which was helped by a family contribution and a gift from one of our Sunday school classes). Our Missions Board has dispensed two $1500 gifts to support local efforts. Family Promise of Grayson County is a new ministry to homeless people, which allows families to stay for a week at a time in various partner churches (four times a year) while they seek permanent housing. The other gift was for Wakefield Elementary, for their new playground. And of course through the connectional nature of our denomination a portion of our giving (roughly 8-10%) is distributed to various regional and international ministries. Thank you.

All of these gifts, and so many more, are possible because Grace families see real needs, hear the call to respond, and do so with generous hearts. This should make you feel proud. The good kind of pride, the one exhibited through humility. Following worship one of our members pulled me aside. He had a $2 bill he planned to contribute to the communion offering. But after hearing the sermon, seeing a video for Blue Sunday, and hearing Christy's words encouraging folk to give, he put away the $2 bill and gave a $10 bill. I suspect many others gave more than they planned at the beginning of the day.

Talking about money in the church can be uncomfortable for some. We'll have families who will consciously decide to worship elsewhere or remain home during our stewardship campaign this Fall. But when we do not discuss Christian approaches to giving we give in to to the overly materialistic nature of our society, which says what we have should only be used for ourselves. We also rob ourselves of an opportunity to say "thank you" to God, who provides all we have to live a full life.  When we join a church, we pledge to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Thank you for the many ways you fulfill all of those commitments-- especially your giving!

07 May 2017

Finding Meaning in Suffering

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" is a timeless question, one that most or all of us has asked before. I know I have. One of my first experiences in ministry was working as a chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas while I was in seminary. Most of the time I was on-call, the only chaplain on the overnight shift in one of the busiest trauma-1 hospitals in the country. My pager would buzz and I wouldn't know where I was needed: the ER? The burn unit? The neo-natal unit? I would call the nurse station, rush to the elevator, then silently pray: "God, the odds are good I will not be able to deal with the situation I am about to enter. At least not without your help." Invariably I found myself in the hospital chapel asking myself, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

In North Texas this week, there were several opportunities to ask that question. A fifteen year old black student named Jordan Edwards was killed by a police officer in Balch Springs. The officer was subsequently fired and arrested for murder. A standoff in East Dallas ended with a murder/suicide and a paramedic in the hospital. A worker was killed and another seriously injured at an apartment complex just a few minutes from here. Tornadoes ripped through East Texas, killing five people. Congress voted to change the health care system, potentially jeopardizing the well being of millions of Americans, particularly the poorest among us. "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

And today is Blue Sunday at Grace, where we will receive an offering to support victims of child abuse in our area through the Grayson County Child Welfare Board. The statistics are staggering:

  • Over 1600 children die annually because of abuse
  • Most are under age 3. 
  • Most were victims of neglect.
  • Most were boys.
  • Most deaths were caused by family members.
  • There are 6 million new cases of abuse every year.
  • 2/3 of those in drug treatment were victims of abuse.
  • 80% of the prison population were once in foster care.
  • 2/3 of those in foster care die, are homeless, or are in jail within a year of aging out
These statistics do not have to be the final story. I printed off some activities for families to do together; you'll find them on a table in the hallway. They're printed on bright pink paper; only after copying did I think to put them on blue paper for blue Sunday! There was a disclaimer after those harrowing stats on the Blue Sunday materials: "Do not let these statistics discourage you. Use the information to empower you to pray and seek God in these kids' behalf." And we can also do our best to develop an understanding of suffering that expresses the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than trying to blame God or rationalize human suffering. I often say, "The best answer to bad theology is good theology."

On first reading, the 1 Peter text assigned for today text doesn't help: 

For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 
‘He committed no sin,
   and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ 
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

It sounds like the text is legitimizing suffering: "If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." Does that mean God is causing this suffering? Or is God looking the way when a child is abused or a spouse is beaten or a natural disaster destroys a home? Does the insurance industry still classify those things as acts of God? People who attend the Wednesday Bible study can tell you: I really struggled with this text this week! How can we read such a thing on the same day as we're supporting child abuse prevention? 

For help I especially leaned on the wisdom of scholars from historically oppressed communities: a women's commentary and a commentary from the African American experience. I learned that 1 Peter has been used across the centuries to justify the oppression of others. But the text does not endorse human suffering. It does not say God causes suffering. In fact, the text isn't even about suffering. It's about faithful endurance.

First Peter was not written by the apostle Peter; Peter is believed to have been martyred around the year 62 or 64. 1 Peter was written closer to the year 90, and named in honor of the apostle. It was not written in Jerusalem or Rome, but modern day Turkey: it's a letter, or more accurately a sermon, addressed to Christians in "Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythnia." It's a word of encouragement to Christians, former pagans, who are suffering for their faith-- not necessarily tortured like the namesake Peter himself, but more likely dismissed or shamed or cast away from friends and family. See, this context helps us understand the passage better: these Christians are hurting because of their faith: "For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly... But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval." The text does not dismiss human suffering. It embraces Christian hope in the midst of suffering. 

One of my favorite Christian thinkers, William Sloane Coffin, said this about hope: "Hope has nothing to do with optimism. Its opposite is not pessimism but despair. And if Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, clearly we as Christians shouldn't either." 

Yesterday our confirmation class participated in an amazing ministry called Bed Start. We traveled to Plano to serve alongside members of my former church, Custer Road UMC, and others to deliver beds and furniture to those in need. Our crew arrived at a home in East McKinney with a trailer full of donated beds, couches, chairs, and bedding. We walked inside the house to see a woman, her mother in law, and two daughters who had just relocated to Texas from Ohio. Fleeing an abusive situation, they came here to be near family carrying only two suitcases. The only furniture in the home was a couch they had pulled out of a dumpster a couple of days before. When we left, they had four beds, a new couch, a recliner, books shelves, dressers... and the love of Jesus Christ. The woman told me she had just been placed with a full time job. Hope has nothing to do with optimism. It's about overcoming despair. 

In her classic book Suffering, Dorothee Soelle reminded me this week that the Bible speaks of God as the "lover of life" (Wisdom of Solomon 11:26)-- not the cause of suffering. God loves life. So Jesus, Soelle says, 

...drew himself precisely to those who lived on the fringes or were cast out, like women and children, prostitutes and collaborators. He affirmed those who were everywhere rejected and compelled to reject themselves. It is from the background of this affirmation of life, even the life of those who were sick, disabled, or too weak to accomplish much, that one must see the understanding of the acceptance of suffering as it developed in Christianity. It is an attempt to see life as a whole as meaningful and to shape it as happiness. The God who is the lover of life does not desire the suffering of people... but instead their happiness.

First Peter encourages the suffering Christians to find comfort in the example of Christ, who endured the cross, but by accepting it forever changed its meaning. The cross is no longer an instrument of death and shame; it is a symbol of hope and endurance for those who have faith. Through the cross, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, brings us to a place of comfort and peace. "You lead me besides still waters. You restore my soul. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all of my days, and I will walk in the house of the Lord forever." Jesus said, "I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly."

It's been a very challenging week. There is injustice, the threat of war, the loss of life and resources. But in the midst of that and more is the message of the gospel. May we all find hope and meaning in the sufferings of others and in whatever challenges we face. May we find comfort and strength in God, the lover of life. And may Christ's example of accepting his cross fill us with righteousness, that we may return with confidence to the green pastures of our Good Shepherd. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

04 May 2017

Life Long Learning

Several years ago I saw an advertisement in a church magazine for an event called the Festival of Homiletics. It was a gathering of hundreds of preachers from around the country for a week of worship and learning from leading pastors of mainline denomination churches (Presbyterians, United Methodists, Lutherans, etc). I had some continuing education funds to spend, so I signed up. I think the conference that year was in Atlanta. I loved it. It was great to sit in gigantic, beautiful churches, like Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, and listen and learn without having to do any of the difficult work of planning. It was a rare opportunity to be a participant in worship, not a leader.

That was probably the year 2000 or so. Since then I have attended the Festival of Homiletics (homiletics is the study/art of preaching) in cities across the country: Minneapolis, Denver, Atlanta again, Nashville, Washington, DC. I took a few years off while I was working on my doctorate in preaching (2007-2009), and the last few years I have not attended; the speakers, while still great, are mostly the same every year. When I was exploring opportunities for continuing education this year I discovered the Festival would be in our own backyard: the Riverwalk in San Antonio. So I'll be there May 15-19.

One of the featured speakers is Rob Bell, who produced the wonderful Nooma DVD series a decade or so ago, as well as several very thought provoking books, like Velvet Elvis and Love Wins. Another presenter this year, whom I know well because we did our doctoral work together, is Dr Amy Butler, senior pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. Another voice I am excited to hear is Nadia Bolz-Weber, lead pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints in the Denver area. And there will be the usual suspects who speak at the Festival every year: legends like Barbara Brown Talyor and Walter Brueggemann. I would invite you to remember me and the thousand or so other preachers in attendance, that this would be a week of renewal of energy and spirit. While it is an amazing privilege to be a preacher, it is exhausting and stressful work. Thanks for listening every week!

Speaking of listening, we're trying to share the good things happening here at Grace with more people in our community. There are several ways you can participate in this effort. They are easy and cost nothing. What's to lose?

  1. Facebook has more than a billion daily users. If it was a country it would be the world's third largest, trailing only China and India. If you are on Facebook, like Grace's Facebook page (click on the link to go there now). Liking the Facebook page will keep you up to date on events, like this Sunday's Grillin Chillin and Fun church picnic. Then you just click share to invite others. Easy!
  2. Write a Google or Facebook review of the church. Share what you like: music, a sermon, Bible study lesson, service opportunity, whatever. People are looking for a place to learn, grow, and help others. Help them find us!
  3. Check in on Facebook when you come to worship. Open up Facebook, click check-in, then click Grace UMC. Say something like, "I love my church family!" or "Excited to be here today!"
You'll hear more about these and other tips to tell others about Grace in the coming weeks.You are the most effective tool we have to reach others for Christ! If you invite, they will come. So join the effort! Go Grace Team!

Peace and Joy,
Pastor Frank