Happy New Year!
It's time to turn to New Year's resolutions.
What kind of goals are you setting?
Health and fitness?
There are so many kinds, aren't there?
Mine always include how many books I'm going to read, how many Divine Offices I will pray, how many Jesus Prayers I'll say each day, how much I will meditate, how much I will write, and yes, how much weight I will (no I won't!) lose! Some of these are mundane, some are vital to who I am. You can try to guess which ones are in which category.
The spiritual goals are the best, because they are farther -reaching than the more mundane ones. I think of reading as a spiritual exercise (although I admit that I will read several collections of ghost stories just for fun in among all the other reading I do). I try to set a percentage of spiritual books and non-fiction books in amongst the others, but that's me. Too many years spent among scholars and monks, I think, has warped me in some peculiar ways, but they are ways that I pretty much like.
I encourage people to set goals that are interesting and won't fall by the wayside. Give some consideration to serious and growth-inspiring resolutions these coming weeks. Think about them. Write them down. Print them out. Put them somewhere you can see them. Maybe you could resolve to listen to a Psalm every day on the way to work. Maybe find a serious spiritual podcast and listen to it a couple of times a week. You could resolve to spend five minutes three times a week in total silence, just following your breathing and listening for God. How about going for a walk outdoors somewhere and watch how the natural world changes through the year?
There are so many good ones! Whatever you do, don't beat yourself up for failures. When you break one, re-adjust your resolutions. Save something for Lent!
Let's agree to make 2023 a year of personal growth.
Your growth might be infectious, and inspire some of the rest of us to follow your lead!
We're all in this together!
God bless your 2023,
First Christian Wilson Interim Minister
We are deep into autumn, arguably my favorite time of year. Technically, Christmas happens in winter, but Advent is really a fall season that ends about the time that winter arrives. Doesn't matter to me: once the Halloween decorations hit the yards, I'm ready for lights, cold temps, and Christmas carols starting two months out! For those of you who will tire of Christmas quickly, I understand. Sometimes, it's too much.
But when I combine the sacred and the secular things that go with the season, I'm a junkie: there's never enough for me. It's not Christmas presents that get me going. It's the challenge of discovering again the meanings of all these special times that hit us from mid-October until Epiphany in early January.
The liturgical year winds down with what some call "Christ the King Sunday" just before Thanksgiving, then revs up with Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving. "Happy New (liturgical) Year" will be on my lips on Advent One, causing some people to grab their phones to see if by some chance they slept through December. Luckily, my reputation as a weird person allows me a certain amount of leeway when it comes to the strange things I bring to faith. I like marching to a different drummer, though: it challenges me to try to figure out how to be taken seriously while offering to people, those who also hear their own drum, a kindred spirit, one who won't always understand them but will accept them, no matter what, because we know, don't we?
Christians are all supposed to be oddballs.
We don't march to anyone's tune but God's.
We listen for that tune, we hope to get our marching orders from it.
Our "orders" are simply to love God, to love each other, and to love the people and the world that is all around us: NO EXCEPTIONS! In a time and in a nation that is full of people trying to separate "us" from "them," Christians have a message: THERE IS NO "THEM!" Shout it from the mountaintops and from the shorelines, in the stadiums and at the voting places: we are Christians, and we are, like God, in love with everyone.
The Prince of Peace is coming, and at the end of this coming month, we will begin to get ready. November worship begins with All Saints Day, when we will remember our congregational brothers and sisters who entered their eternal rest this past year and joined all the saints of all time. We will be inspired to think about and share our Thanksgiving Offering for support of Disciples Higher Education ministries.
Some of us will donate food for those who won't have a Thanksgiving meal without us. We will give thanks by sharing our blood at the next Red Cross Blood Drive. The church will be decorated for Advent. Youth and Adults will continue with fellowship groups and Christian education. And we will begin planning for the Great Feast which we will serve to the community on Christmas Day.
Why wouldn't I be as excited as a child?
This is our faith, this is who we are:
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Wilson, North Carolina!
Our Season of Faith is well under way now, and we are moving through our Age of Aquarius theme, which may seem a little at odds with Christian faith. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. One of the things people struggle with in a pluralistic society such as ours is how much do we take from the culture at large and how much do we leave alone?
George Washington Carver says this: "If you love it enough, anything will talk with you." In our faith, I paraphrase it this way: If you love God enough, everything will speak to you."
What I mean by that is, God is not limited to just the Bible, or just to a church building, or to just our own narrow ways of looking at anything. The most open-minded of us are still narrow in our views when we compare ourselves to God!
I believe, with all my heart, mind, and strength, that God will stop at nothing to get our attention and to draw us closer. Beautiful nature speaks to most of us, yet very rarely do cross-shaped things show up to us on most days. A flower fairly screams at us that God is trying to get our attention, but flowers never say, "I believe in Jesus." Lots of us like to go to the beach, or to a river or stream, or to the mountains; others love to look at the night sky; still others look at moving clouds and see all kinds of messages there.
God hasn't called us to agree with each other: Disciples of Christ are notorious in our varied ways of interpreting scripture. What we ARE called to do is love one another. And God. And the world.
Our Season of Faith challenges us to go deeper. It is being presented to us in songs that sometimes disturb us, in images that don't contain an ounce of a picture of Jesus in them, in sermons and prayers that don't seem quite to fit in to our usual mode, and even the way we dress (well, the way I dress!) may be a little out of sync with "normal."
God loves us, and nothing can separate us from that love! Never fear: God is walking through this season of faith with us!
I am a felon.
The origin word for felon in old French is fel, which means evil. By archaic definition, I am someone with an undermining hand of dark corruption. That’s bad enough. In medical terms, a felon is an infection that can lead to horrible swelling and intense, throbbing pain. That’s awful.
I am a felon.
I have been accused of high crimes against the Divine. At a church, when I was in my late 20’s, from questions that I raised (Huh? Really?) came allegations that I did not, in fact, know God. And never had. I traveled occasionally on I-40 to Greensboro for work. During the hours I was on the highway, a group concerned about my soul prayed for me to have an I-40 conversion so profound that my eyes would be opened and that I’d be born again before I got home. I always disappointed them and their three-hour prayers. In the manner they’d hoped, a light never shone, and a voice never called my name.
And they gave up.
I remained an infection.
And I changed churches.
I am a felon.
At my next stop, I just sat in my pew quietly Sunday after Sunday. And I smiled, and I greeted. And I wondered about the condition of my affliction. Did anyone notice? It wasn’t long before I was judged just the right person (He’s so nice and smart.) to teach adult Sunday School. Now I was in my early 30’s. The class wanted to study a Christian’s approach to death and dying. We used the classic study about the five stages of grief by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross as our guide. One Sunday, a representative from Hospice visited class at my invitation to talk about palliative care for those with a terminal illness. By the end of the day, I stood before my pastor accused of disavowing the power and possibility of God’s healing miracles. Huh? Really? Convicted and sentenced. I was relieved of my duties.
And I left organized church.
I am a felon.
I decided to keep my infected soul away from church for a while. Absence turned into years. Into my 40’s. Turn the pages past a decade of wanderings, and I found First Christian Church. And somehow, today I find myself an elder among you. I’m praying out loud at the Table, I’m delivering communion and I am writing columns. How did that happen? That’s my most amazing, unanswered question. Maybe I serve only because I’ve been tagged as nice and smart again. (Easily not so true. Ask around.) Maybe there’s another reason, yet unrevealed, for which I am still searching … because I am still infected. Uncured. Huh? Really?
So, what’s my point? Here it is. If a faith felon like me can finish five terms as an elder in December, you can begin your first in January. My battle with the hands of dark corruptions continues, and yet I have served, without disqualification, the loving hands of the Creator. There are only six elders now. Once there were twelve. If the call comes with an invitation for you to join the circle, say, “Huh? Really?” And then say, “Yes.” Imagine what God could do with you.
I am a felon.
A word from the interim minister 50 years ago this third week in August (when I am writing this), I moved to Wilson to begin my college career a few blocks from here at Atlantic Christian College (I'm not one of the alumni who still don't accept the change: “a rose by any other name”. I tell you this only because it was the beginning of my relationship with this city which has played such an important part in my life.
This place saw some of the biggest changes in my attitudes and practices that have ever happened, and planted seeds that are still producing. I drive around the neighborhood sometimes and think, "Didn't so-and-so live there?" or "I remember a party we went to there!" and "I helped move a fridge, stove, washer, and dryer up those stairs."
And so on.
Houses have changed, as has the person having these memories. Everything changes. Some things appear to stay the same. Whether we like change or not, change is the way that we stay alive. Refusing to change things in our lives can literally kill us. We can fuss about change all we want, but the truth is this, as my great-grandmother used to say: "If you're not changing and growing, you're either dead or dying!"
Churches are like big ships: it's difficult to get them turned to go in another direction! Some changes we make are superficial, like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. There are times when we need to slow the ship down a bit so we can figure out which direction we need to go.
At other times we have to flip a coin and pray for God's protection as we venture into a dark and foreboding sea. At still other times, we have to make immediate changes just because there is danger ahead.
There are some approaches I want to suggest for weathering these changes. They won't only help us in our church life, but may even effect our daily living in good ways.
Here are my suggestions:
1. Pray daily.
You don't have to be a saint or a mystic, just be totally honest as you talk to God or sit in silence with God.
2. When anger and frustration strike wherever you are, take a deep breath (maybe your mom or dad or teacher told you to count to 10 before acting in anger?). Put a picture in your mind of Jesus loving you. Say a faith word: love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, kindness, etc.
3. Talk calmly with people you trust. Actually saying some of the things that bother you out loud, and having a trusted friend or relative nod and say, "I understand, but also consider..." can help you work it out. It's okay to reply, "I know that, but still..." and so on! It might even turn humorous, like every time Renae reminds me to be a Christian, and I pout, which can be a funny sight!
4. Pray again.
It's okay to say to God, "HELP!" But listen and watch and feel for God's reply.
5. Pray again.
Nothing's so small that you should leave God out of it. No, this will not solve all your problems or frustrations. However, I believe that when we try to approach life in a Christian manner, we begin to practice in our daily life real Christianity.
If we stand on faith that God lives with us, we discover that God really does! It's an amazing and wonderful and scary thing to encounter the living God; after the shock wears off, we find always that God was there all along.
That's a change we can, literally, live with!
With the heat usually comes a need for more rest, for a slower pace, perhaps a sense of idleness; yet here at First Christian, very little of that is happening!
Still, there is a need for a slower pace. I recommend to everyone, "Go slower."
Years ago, my kid brother, Joel, taught at the Eastern NC School for the Deaf. I worked at the Wilson Mall, at B. Dalton, Booksellers. Perhaps you and I passed each other in the store! Joel was close to a group of young high school students at the school who seemed, almost weekly, to show up at the bookstore, signing to each other the sign for "Joel's brother," which I seem to recall was a combination of sign's meaning, "Joel - boy - same." They would run to me excitedly at the cash register and begin talking to me in signs, and I would hold my palms out to them, shaking my head "no" and saying that I did sign. They were kind, laughing hysterically and continuing to sign to me, as though I would somehow, miraculously, be able to understand them.
So, I asked Joel to teach me to sign some basic things, and to try to understand when someone signed an answer or a statement back at me. "How are you?" What are you doing?" "Are you all having fun?" "Do you want to buy a book?" All of which were seldom answered with anything but more hysterical laughter at my attempts to communicate, which usually came out to a sentence like, "How are you having a book?"
So, I asked Joel to teach me how to say, "Go slower." It is, perhaps, besides "good," the only phrase I remember.
As I've gotten older, the phrase is more important to me. It's something I want to try to do. It's something we all need to try to do. Our culture wants us to cram more and more "experiences" into our lives, so we drive to a waterfall in the mountains, jump out, take selfies or family photos, thus recording our experience at the water fall, then jump back into our cars to drive quickly to the next scenic view. We fill our time with being present for a few minutes, then are off to be present somewhere else; but we are never really present.
So, go outdoors for a few minutes. Feel the heat. Maybe there's a breeze: feel that, too. Breathe. Bask in the warmth, in the air moving around you. Look at grass, trees, flowers, stars, clouds, birds. Listen. I think God lives in those spaces "between."
Remember the scripture: "Be still, and know that I am God."
In this visioning journey on which we've set sail, I volunteered to serve on the committee that writes a state-of-the-church narrative. Producing the narrative was one of the five recommendations in the Report on Congregational Health that a consultation generated last summer.
So when the five committees gather regularly around five tables in the Fellowship Hall to talk and plan, I sit at my table alone with enough pens and paper and markers for a whole team. Theresa Mathis moves among the tables, guiding and encouraging. Keeping tabs. When she gets to mine, she asks the same question she's posed to all the others, “Well, Bob, how's the conversation going here?”
“Fascinating,” I say. I guess I'm the only one who enjoys researching the past to write about the present. Chasing after the future must suit everyone else far better.
You can read the report when I'm done. It's six single-spaced pages so far. And growing. I'm sure it will be fascinating. So here are a few early fascinating observations. Back in 2005, there was another consultation. Maybe you remember. Average church attendance was 212 back then, and Sunday School was at 90 percent capacity for all ages. And yet, we lamented our present. “Where are the old days when we were better?” The church in decline needed help, a new direction.
The consultation talked about repairing the organ, building ramps, fixing lights, shortening pews, widening spaces, adding signs, changing here and there, inventing this and that. Since it seems I'm stuck on the word fascinating, I find it fascinating that 17 years later, in 2022, with daily church attendance far below 100 and Sunday School on life support, the laments of our latest consultation are essential the same as before. And again we are changing and inventing.
Father Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, wrote in a recent daily meditation about German scholar Heinrich Zimmer (1890–1943), who studied sacred images and their relationship to spirituality. Zimmer concluded, “The best things can’t be told: the second-best are misunderstood.” So we settle for easy talk about the “third-best things” – things like lamenting attendance and counting money and fixing things and changing here and there. It's a conversation that generates a reassuring sense of our own authority and a “sense of certitude, order and control.”
We ask third-best questions that require only third-best answers.
Those questions are necessary for forecasting and rebuilding structures and programs. But if they're all we ask, then our inquiries reveal a very common degree of spiritual poverty, Father Rohr says. There are also richer questions to ask. And richer answers to contemplate. Admission of that poverty, Father Rohr writes, “should keep us humble, curious, and searching for God. I offer that as hard-won wisdom.”
So, maybe while Jamie's here, he can help redirect someone like me, who spends hours and days fascinated about answering third-best questions, to admit his spiritual poverty. Maybe he can point the way to second-best things that point to first-best things. Maybe he can clear up misunderstandings. Maybe he can lead a new, richer and deeper, spiritual consultation. Maybe we'll learn both to work and to wonder. Maybe someone else will join my table.
Watch for my report soon.
Now entering my third week here, I’m slowly beginning to figure out what I’m doing, and praying that your patience will hold out! I’ve already made one mistake (I forgot to tell you to pick up the yard signs for Pentecost on May 22!) and am setting up a file to record my future ones, which I am sure will be many. But patience is a good trait, and we talked about it some at the recent Young at Heart lunch, so I have high expectations that you will consider any mistakes I make in the near future just one more opportunity to practice that virtue.
Pentecost will soon be upon us, and it’s my prayer that many of you will be in town to celebrate the birth of the church universal that day. I’m asking you to wear something noticeably RED, the liturgical color for the day. An interesting (to me) side note is that we ministers have red stoles we use only one day each year, Pentecost, unless we are attending an ordination, in which case we get to dig out the red stole again and wear it. You’ll find me robed and red on Pentecost, so someone please remember to turn on the A/C a few hours ahead of worship time!!
There is a lot going on here. I’m especially intrigued by the vision teams and what they are trying to do. I hope at some point in September we’ll all sit down over a big meal together and discuss the implications of doing this work as opposed to NOT doing it. From what I can tell, the vision teams are putting together plans that the whole church needs embrace and actually do. Christianity is not as much about beliefs as it is about doing (as illustrated by my favorite parable, the Sheep and the Goats). Doing nothing is just saying, “Lord, Lord,” and Jesus was pretty clear about the dangers of taking that route.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was talking with a church researcher from the Alban Institute, Rev. Loren Mead. Mead said to him that the church has three tasks to perform, and all are important and necessary to stay alive: love God (worship and personal prayer); love each other (looking after our own within these walls); and loving the world (service and mission outside these walls). We cannot neglect any of these and call ourselves “Christian.” Saint Teresa of Avila said that we are the body of Christ: his hands, his feet, his voice. Un-saint Jamie says unless we do the things that Jesus would do, unless Christ is our first and basic foundation, then the Church, and Christianity, will be nothing but one more fairy tale that no one really believes.
How about it?
Let’s be the church!!!
Spending most of my summer and fall after graduating from N.C. Wesleyan College in 1970 at Fort Polk, Louisiana, was not part of my plans. I'd studied four years to be a biologist. Now Army basic training and advanced individual training were to be my new courses. I'd graduate again in November, this time in uniform with a rank and a military occupational specialty. Infantry.
Basic training, in addition to fundamental military skills, taught the men in my training company, Alpha One One, a new way of thinking. During nine hot weeks, we set aside the old, sometimes not very willingly, and absorbed Army new.
One July afternoon, during hand-to-hand combat training in the sawdust pit, I had a nose-tonose conversation with Drill Sergeant Reno, who didn't care for my morning shave. I was only 22, and I didn't shave every day yet – there were no whiskers. Only a little fuzz. Like a tender peach.
“Your face isn't up to standard, trainee! Do you understand me?” “Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
From then on, I took the razor every morning, and I shaved my face naked. That six-month journey was the transition from civilian to soldier. From old to new. From fuzz to whiskers. Drill Sergeant Reno made his point loudly, and I learned a valuable lesson – just let
It wasn't easy.
This next period of time at First Christian Church is only weeks old and could stretch months and months and months. Maybe beyond. For me, it will be a kind of spiritual basic training – a time to set aside the old, to await actively what will be new. What I recall fondly about my church and hope to be true once more, what I didn't care for and want no part of again, what I wish to be fresh in the future belong to me alone. They're old baggage, really. And they will get in my way. They will interfere with my waiting. I took thoughts like those about my own young life to Louisiana more than 50 years ago. And I left them there. And I came home new. And far better.
Almost seven years ago, Gary preached a sermon titled “Leader of the Band.” It's one of the fabulous dozen in kernels from a farmer's pulpit.
He wrote and spoke:
“What if he means to say that it is so easy to make our accommodation with the existing order that we stop raising our eyes to the horizon and believing in something better … something more holy?
How, after all, shall we prepare the way of the Lord if our lives are filled with everything else?
How can we open ourselves to new ways of thinking and acting and seeing the world until we clear some room? And yes, it may feel like trauma … upheaval … something crashing down. But the surest way to avoid the new is to hold fast to the old.”
We've published our call for new leadership and a new tomorrow. It's time to let change happen. It's time to clear some room. It's time to look to the horizon. It's time to wait for something new because new is coming … if only we will let it.
Old is already here.
Let it go.
I have it on good authority.
Drill Sergeant Reno said so.
March 1, 2022
Hello from the Elders,
At each bi-monthly meeting (and at other times individually), the Elders pray by name for those among us who need special care. We receive those names and circumstances primarily from the senior minister. Those prayer concerns are up-to-the-moment current and correspond to the list shared during Sunday worship.
Until an interim minister arrives, and probably beyond, the Elders will assume the primary responsibility for gathering/receiving information about those who need prayer (and their circumstances).
If you have an emergency, new or ongoing prayer requests or updates you'd like to share about those already on our prayer list, please direct that information to Jeannette Etheridge. Jeannette will share with the Elders or others as situations require and with the congregation during Sunday worship prior to a pastoral prayer offered by one of our upcoming visiting ministers. The Elders are bound by the same discretions about sharing personal information that you would expect from clergy.
Consistent with our call to be the spiritual leaders of the church, the Elders are committed to continuing a deep level of pastoral care and concern during the weeks ahead when ministerial leadership will be absent. Our ability to fulfill our role depends on the congregation's devotion to identifying and sharing concerns about those who might need care.
As Elders, our responsibility to this congregation is a full-time duty. However, we are not fully present in the daily traffic that directs the course of each church day. And we do not hold special pastoral privilege, nor are we privy to the trusted channels of communication that a senior minister cultivates over time. The seven Elders will depend on you to help us continue to share the love and concern that makes this congregation special.
On behalf of Todd Brame, Wanda Brown, Jeannette Etheridge, Kathy Sandifer, Tish Scott and Wanda Sutton, and with prayers for peace and good,
Chair of the Elders
These thoughts and reflections come from our Senior Minister, Minister of Music and Board Chair. We hope that they provide both challenge and inspiration for your spiritual life.