There is a flow to our worship life . . . a mood, if you will. Not every worship experience is supposed to be the same as the one before or the one to come. And so, there are seasons for our worshipping.
There is a flow to our worship life, and this, of course, derives from the fact that there is a flow to our lives and hence to our faith. While we may strive for some consistency, the reality is that we find ourselves up or down at any given moment which means the particular word that we most need may differ in any given moment: encouragement or caution . . . forgiveness or a calling to account . . . a plea for understanding or a push toward conviction.
There is a flow to our worship life, which is why I have found the lectionary so useful over the years of my preaching. It covers the landscape. It takes me to the passages I might not have gotten to on my own. And it has born out my belief that rather than vertical, truth is always discovered in the tension of opposing attributes. Grace would seem to be everything, yet it means nothing without taking judgment seriously. Guilt and
Forgiveness are both true, but each is revealed in its relationship with the other. Get too far to one side of the tension, and the truth erodes.
There is a flow to our worship life. This notion presses on me especially during Holy Week each year. It is easy to be in such a rush to get to Easter that we rush through the week . . . we just drop the palms and run to the empty tomb . . . move straight from our hosannas to our alleluias. Of course, the opposite can be true. Some people are mesmerized by the thirty-nine lashes and the nailed hands – it is all sacrifice and suffering. And, we have witnessed people whose faith is expressed in each of these extremes – a dreariness that pushes people away or an enthusiasm that cannot relate to real life.
Take the week – the entirety of it – as the horrible and lovely gift that it is. Hear the shouting crowds – plural remember – the crowd that shouted for him and the one later in the week who called for his crucifixion. Consider whether you can hear your own voice in the screams of either or both of the masses. Go to the upper room – chew and sip. Visit Gethsemane. Stand out in the cold and see if anyone accuses you of being one of his followers.
Get acquainted with Barabbas and make up your mind again about which man you prefer to see set free. Do what ever helps you to experience the highs and the lows of these days. (I will confess to having spent some Holy Saturday hours walking through cemeteries.)
There is a flow to our worship life.
Blessings and Peace,
I forgot Ash Wednesday. A year ago. I was in Chicago for the first week of my sabbatical, untethered from every device and schedule that frames my days and weeks and months. I even remember walking out of the Divinity House where I was staying, glancing across the courtyard and seeing some lights on in the Chapel. I thought, I wonder, but I was headed out for a walk and I just took a left and kept on stepping. Sometime later, for the first time in forty-four years of congregational ministry, it occurred to me that I had forgotten Ash Wednesday. For the first time since I can remember, Lent began without my assent – I went to bed without washing off any smudges.
It occurs to me that I only did what we are prone to do as we live out our days. I forgot as we constantly forget. It is not that we don’t carry the marks of our mortality constantly, but nothing forces us to take notice. Though we may rarely be aware and probably have no mind of it most of the time, we are creatures. We have been created by another whether we are focused on that truth at any given moment or not. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. And sinners – we are sinners whether we have considered that reality or not. We live much of our lives having forgotten – not a day so much as the truth of our existences.
Lent offers a possibility to be intentional – an opportunity to take our lives off cruise control. It invites us to spend some time thinking about those truths in our beings that we regularly forget. Some years, I do better than others. Some years I have gotten down to the probing of who and why I am; other years, I have just let my busyness rule.
That is one of the aims when we choose something to “give up for Lent.” Those who have more expertise than I in this discipline might tell us that within the act of giving something up lies the opportunity to turn away from some bad habit (smoking) or even some sin (gossiping) . . . or doing without might in some very small way lead us to connect to Jesus’ suffering . . . or it may be an act of giving up something insignificant because we are called to something better. But for me, giving something up for a time – like any act of fasting – puts an ever-present reminder in our days. Giving up chocolate, for instance, may not move you one step closer to sainthood. But for forty days, every time you see a piece of fudge pie or a Hershey’s bar, every time someone offers you a brownie or a chocolate-iced doughnut, your obliviousness is cracked. Oh yes – a mortal creature . . . a sinful being . . . that is who I am. Wow.
It strikes me that if ever there was a year to forget Ash Wednesday, this is it. Keeping our distance . . . worship services shipwrecked . . . and enough other misery in the wake of the pandemic to keep us self-absorbed. If ever there was a year when the pain of the season could slide right past us, 2021 is probably the year.
Don’t let it happen. Do better than your minister did last year in the Windy City. On Ash Wednesday, we are going to do open a few stations in the sanctuary for some of us to pass through – you may have already read about it on the front page. We will be keeping our distance in both time and space that afternoon and evening, but still, we know this is not for all of us. And if your health makes it unwise for you to participate in person, just know that there are other, more private ways to enter into this season. Just do it. Find a way to remember the creature that you are.
Blessings and Peace,
What is the definition? A one-hundred-and fiftieth anniversary.
What is its part of speech? Adjective.
What is its language of origin? Latin.
Use “sesquicentennial” in a sentence? This year, First Christian Church will cele-brate its sesquicentennial anniversary.
Yes, in 2021, our congregation will be 150 years old. The hard date was Thurs-day evening, April 27th, 1871 when seventeen people met and signed the Charter through which First Christian Church came into existence. Two months later, a piece of property at the intersection of Goldsboro and Academy (now Vance) Streets was se-cured. The rest is history, though it is history that we will have ample time upon which to reflect this year. We will launch our formal celebration on Tuesday, April 27th, and a series of events will take us to the weekend of September 24th-26th, when we plan to blow the roof off this place.
Kathy Daughety has been leading a committee that started planning our celebra-tion. The group includes Doug Boone, Todd Brame, Casey Childers, Jeannette Ether-idge, Patsy Ferrell, Bob Kendall, Theresa Mathis, Cathy Mount, Linda Walling and me. Very soon, we will have some smaller groups working on some of the activities that will be part of the grand celebration, so there is a place for you as our work proceeds.
There will updates and promotional information every month, beginning here in January. But our work has already begun, and you can help. First, start helping us compile information about the church’s history – photographs, written materials, newspaper clippings . . . whatever you may have tucked away in your drawers, closets and scrapbooks. We need to assemble and document these resources soon. Second, we are trying to compile a list of people who will be interested in celebrating our Ses-quicentennial along with email or mailing addresses – former members and people who grew up in the church, those who married or had babies dedicated in our sanctu-aries, friends, relatives, former staff members and more. Our sesquicentennial is not just for us – it is for all of the people who have been part of or been impacted by the faith and witness of First Christian Church. So, start your rummaging, check you ad-dress files and let’s get to work.
Your first assignment: make sure you can spell “sesquicentennial.” It is going to be a huge word for us this year, and I don’t mean the number of letters it contains.
Blessings and Peace,
A few days ago, I ran into Katie Brinson as we were walking into Harris Teeter. She may have been trying to dart in and out quickly for something, but I brought her errand to a standstill. I peppered her with questions – how are you? . . . how is your family? . . . are you working at home? . . . and so forth. At one point, she looked at me and said, I see you every Sunday; I guess I forget that you haven’t seen me.
Well, I guess that is right.
So, it was wonderful to sit on the church lawn this past Monday and see folks I have come to love over the past nine years. To be close . . . as close as experts advise we should be. To hear their voices. We talked for 45 minutes or so about what these months have been like for each of us. A little irritation got shared . . . and a little frustration . . . and a little fear. All of that, I expected. Whatever church has been in this past half-year, it has not been what any of us want it to be. And there was a yearning to come together again . . . kind of. And we are moving in that direction, with Monday’s gathering as a good start. It was a manageable size – 19 people – and it was outdoors, and we maintained our distance. But it encouraged me that perhaps we can do more of the same in the next few weeks.
Staff is looking at getting together again soon to talk and listen . . . to share a devotion or some vespers . . . to begin again. Towards that end, let me update you on our progress toward resuming worship. (It seems that this is my only topic for Wanderings of late.) With delays in getting the equipment we have ordered delivered, along with the shifts in how community behavior is evolving, we have shifted our efforts from creating worship in the fellowship hall to resuming our worship in the sanctuary. Our first attempts to record worship in one take (over against our current piecemeal recording/editing approach) is scheduled to begin next week. When we feel confident that we can conduct and record a service in one continuous session and make in available on the Internet after minimal editing, we will move those recordings back to Sunday morning, hopefully by the middle of this month.
At that time, we can begin to consider having small groups of worshippers participate, as the state of the virus allows. Our target-date for resuming worship as usual (though no such “normal” will exist for some time, of course) is currently Nov 29th, the First Sunday of Advent. This timeline is built on using the equipment that we are currently using, which is essentially Charles Cauley’s cameras, tripods, and lights. When we begin running worship straight through, of course, we will have to stop moving cameras around the sanctuary.
Plus, when we shift back to Sundays, we will have to be able to turn around an edited version much faster than we can do that now so it can be made available almost immediately for those who will continue to view the service at home. When the equipment we have ordered does arrive, it will have to be tested, installed and integrated into our sanctuary worship structure. This is to say that the timeline I am laying out is flexible as it depends both upon elements we can control and elements we cannot control. I expect that we will begin to be able to worship soon, at least in small gatherings.
A whole other checklist of procedures will be instituted to keep us safe – cleaning, what will replace those items that require multiple touches (bulletins, communion trays, offering plates and such), flow and movement, marking pews to ensure distancing, and much more. I do know this: there is a hunger in me and in our staff and in the people who are sharing with me for that day when we will be together again – the church in body as we have been in spirit.
Let that day come, O Lord. Let that day come soon.
Blessings and Peace, Gary
Wanderings . . .
Sunday morning, my day began like this:
Linda: I can’t offer you a choice between good and bad news. The only news is bad.
Me: OK, hit me with the bad news.
Linda: Greenlight is out.
Me: Well Linda, it is not going to kill you to go without a Hallmark movie today.
Linda: Fine, wise guy, but how are you going to do the Zoom wedding without the internet.
Me: [XX – language not appropriate for decent Christian people – XX]
Okay, the backstory. Meagan Crowley and Kristen have been friends since elementary school, and our families have spent more than a few holidays together. A typical year was Easter at the Crowleys, Memorial Day at the Nezamzedahs July 4th at the Wallings. We repeated the schedule for Labor Day, and Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grace Loudenstein was usually there . . . the Phelps if they were in town . . . other families depending on travel plans. The key with this collection of families was the abundance of children roughly in the same age range. Anyway, the Linda and I have treasured Allen and Valerie as friends for 25 years.
So maybe 10 months ago, I get a phone call inquiring as to whether I would travel to Texas to preside over a wedding. March 29th. Yes, I would. And all was set until . . . well, you know. The Covid-19 thing – it has been in all the papers. Meagan and David rescheduled . . . for August 30th, because really, how long can a pandemic last? (Answer: longer than 154 days.)
So, my plans were to be in the Dallas/Fort Worth area this past weekend. Until a couple of weeks ago when I checked in to say that I was not liking the numbers I was seeing. They assured me that they understood and asked if I could help locate a minister in the D/FW metro area. I’ve been thinking, I said, what about a Zoom wedding. They bought it. I get to do it, distanced not 6 feet but like 6 states. And, after all, what could go wrong with an internet wedding? (Answer: well, now we know.)
Anyway, I finished getting dressed and went to the church. I worked with Greenlight to resolve the outage – their technicians worked madly, and I strummed my fingers. At some point, unbeknownst to my local internet provider, I gave up on them and set Plan B into motion. Plan B was taking my laptop to a different municipality and tapping into their internet. I called Morgan Daughety and inquired about using First Christian, Farmville’s internet. He agreed. (He agreed though I suspect he spent the rest of the day bemoaning the quality of friends he has acquired to this point in his life . . . who calls up someone on a lovely weekend morning to ask that you drop all of your plans so you can do what he wants you to do?.)
I end up in the Farmville FCC sanctuary, on Wi-Fi to an Internet connection linked to a video company out of Texas. We – meaning “they” – spent an hour troubleshooting a series of glitches while I stummed my fingers. The ceremony launched 32 minutes late. About 20 seconds into the processional, I realized that I could neither view nor hear the wedding venue. I was without sight and hearing. I spent the next 25 minutes estimating: Repeat after me, “I David take you Meagan to be my wife” . . . 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . . . to be my wife . . . Too long a pause? Did I cut him off? Who knows? Anyway, I did what ministers are so adept at doing – I faked it. I bluffed. I acted like I knew what I was doing.
And this morning when I awoke, David and Meagan were married. And Greenlight was back on and Morgan was working on getting a higher class of friends. And like most days, I am in my office, still acting like I know what I’m doing.
Blessings and Peace,
My goodness, a lot has happened since my last Bell article! Back then I said that during this Lenten season we would focus on stories from the wilderness. Little did I know we would be entering an uncharted wilderness of our own… It seems like the Coronavirus has changed almost everything about our daily patterns of living. In fact, I didn’t realize just how much of my time was spent out and about until we were ordered to stay home. In addition to these minor inconveniences, I know there are members of our community who have had to cancel or postpone major life events – e.g. weddings, graduations, even medical procedures - due to this crisis. Please know that my heart breaks for the pain these cancelations have inflicted on you.
My original plan for this article was to share some thoughts on our virtual worship services. Instead, I’d like to first address the ancient Biblical tradition of lament. I have noticed that when asked how you are doing, many folks in our congregation are hesitant to express their hurts or frustrations, especially when they think others may be suffering more acutely. To this I want to say that while it is always wise to keep our grievances in perspective, being honest about the vicissitudes of life is a both healthy and faithful practice. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, faith and lament have always existed side by side. Nearly half of all the psalms are expressions of lament, meaning they acknowledge (often in excruciating detail) themes of conflict, sorrow, sin, loneliness, betrayal and hopelessness.
A person who laments may sound like a “complainer,” but lament goes much deeper than a complaint. Lament involves the energy to search; it seeks to comprehend the heart of God, rather than simply react from previously reached conclusions. One of the most famous lament prayers is Psalm 22, which Jesus himself quotes in the Garden of Gethsemane: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? - Psalm 22:1
Like his ancestors before him, Jesus cries out in painful confusion to a God who promised him goodness and mercy. This snapshot from Jesus’ final days is often overlooked in our celebrations of Holy Week, but the authors of the Bible included it in their portraits of Jesus for a reason.
I’ll let you decide why…
As the fallout of this pandemic continues, I encourage you to bring your full selves – the good, bad, and ugly - before both God and neighbor. This kind of vulnerability takes practice, but it just so happens that right now many of us have extra time on our hands. Friends, I am convinced that whenever we go deeper with God - even if it is to protest, questions, or lament - our faith becomes stronger.
Thank you all for graciously supporting myself and the rest of the First Christian leadership during this unprecedented crisis. Our lay leaders have gone above and beyond in their care for the congregation. I could not have made it through the past few weeks without them! Please keep sharing our online services with anyone you think could use some encouragement.
And until next time, be safe First Christian Church!
Grace and Peace,
Interim Minister, FCC of Wilson
Grace and peace to you!
It is with much excitement that I step into the role of Interim Minister at First Christian Church! Already so many of you have gone out of your way to affirm and encourage me in this role. I am grateful for your trust and hope you will turn to me with any questions or concerns you might have over the next three months.
Thrilled as I am to begin this journey with you, I am equally thrilled for Rev. Walling as he embarks on a well-deserved sabbatical. The Lilly Endowment's Clergy Renewal Program awards sabbatical grants to congregations they feel will benefit from the experience on both ends. For Gary, this will be a critical time for renewal and reflection, a time to regain enthusiasm and creativity for ministry. On the other hand, it is an opportunity for us to take greater ownership of our faith and imagine new possibilities for growth. Confident of the Spirit’s guidance, we will continue to hold he and Linda in our prayers throughout this period of discovery.
It just so happens that our transition coincides with the beginning Lent. Lent is a season of forty days (not counting Sundays), which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day before Easter, known as Holy Saturday. The English word “Lent” comes from the Anglo–Saxon word lencten, meaning “lengthen,” a reference to the lengthening days of Spring. Historically, the season of Lent was a time for new converts to fast and pray before receiving the rite of baptism. Eventually, however, it became a time of repentance for all Christians.
In the Bible the number forty is used to signify a period of uncertainty and temptation. The Old Testament is replete with examples of this, most importantly the story of Exodus, when the Hebrew people wandered through the desert for forty years in search of a Promised Land. In the New Testament, we find Jesus fasting and praying for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil. The Lenten journey invites us to reflect on our own “wilderness” experiences, past or present, and testifies to the great cloud of witnesses who have braved this journey before us.
Over the next six Sundays we will explore these “stories from the wilderness,” each week focusing on a different character from scripture who found themselves in a place of fear, shame, uncertainty, or temptation. My hope is that these stories will offer us guidance and encouragement as we make our way to Holy Week.
Again, I look forward to discovering what we can create together over the next few months. My office hours will be Tuesday thru Thursday from 9am-3pm. It may be that my schedule at the hospital interrupts one or more of these days, but I will always be reachable so please give me a call or send me an email if you need to chat. I am a chaplain at heart and would love to know how I can support you and your family during my time here.
Yes, my sabbatical is about to begin. I am getting more and more questions by the day, so I thought this might be a time to say a little more about what is ahead for me and for all of you.
When I came to FCC eight years ago, our contract included a three-month sabbatical after seven years of service. Congregations and clergy have discovered the merits of including sabbatical time in their relationships as a way of revitalizing and energizing ministry. Obviously, I am a year late in taking this time – a result of pursuing a grant from the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program which I received. This program gives sabbatical grants to about 150 ministers each year from a number of different denominations. Each grant can be as much as $50,000 which can be used for the activities detailed in the grant application. The grant I have received is for $39,000. Of that, $24,000 is set aside for my sabbatical activities.
Now, what will I be doing with these monies? The broad direction of my sabbatical will be to look at the church in an increasingly secular world. The life and work of Paul – the apostle who carried the Gospel to the Gentile world – will be the framework for my study and reflections.
I will start by spending a week at the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago Divinity School – to separate, to take a breath, and to begin. I have three other trips budgeted to visit ministers and congregations which are flourishing and experiencing renewal in settings like ours – towns that are not in high-growth areas. What is behind their successes?
I also will be spending a week taking a course on church consultation where I will be looking at some core elements of renewal. The big part of the sabbatical will be a three-week trip Linda and I will take to Rome, the Greek islands and Athens where I can track Paul’s footsteps. Finally, there will be some sessions with a health coach sprinkled in in hopes of helping me lock-in to a healthier and more balanced lifestyle.
Our mathematicians will be wanting to ask about the $15,000 which is not for me. This may be the most beautiful aspect of the grant – money has been awarded to the congregation to do two things.
First, there is money to cover some of the church’s needs in allowing me to be absent. There is money which will be used in calling Leigh Finnegan-Hosey to the interim position of Sabbatical Minister. Leigh will be working at the church about half-time during my absence. She will preach and work with Casey to plan worship, including during the Lenten/Easter season. In addition, she will cover most of our major pastoral needs during that time.
Finally, she will lend some expertise to our church programming and administration. She won’t be doing everything, but having Leigh should allow FCC’s ministry to proceed with few hiccups. We are most fortunate that she will be able to share her time and gifts with us. The other piece of the grant for the congregation will cover the expense of a consultation with some experts in congregational renewal. This will be a gift as we think about celebrating 150 years of ministry and consider what lies beyond.
Anyway, I hope this helps you get a feel for what lies ahead for all of us. Every day, I seem to be fielding more and more questions about when and where . . . a little anxiety about what is ahead, I think. I will not be gone for three months, though it is my intention to separate
. . . to separate because I must to do what I am being allowed to do, and to separate because Leigh and Kathy and Theresa and all the rest of our leadership cannot do what they need to do if I am hovering nearby.
So, I expect I will bump into you at Harris Teeter or Chili’s.
In fact, I look forward to it. I expect to have some stories to tell.
Blessings and Peace,
A few days ago, our Office Administrator, Kathy Hudson, asked if I had a few minutes to talk. That is never a good request . . . and it was not this time. Kathy was tendering her resignation as our Administrator/Secretary/Phone Voice/Backstop/Go To Person, effective December 5th. Casey is on record saying that Kathy’s presence is going to be irreplaceable – her warm voice is the first sound you hear when you call the office or walk through the door. I am on record saying, “#&*%$!” Which brings me to another point – I can’t say anything about Kathy because church secretaries can tell more stories about ministers than we can tell about them – they have seen and heard us at our worst. And besides, she has never yelled at me even one time because of missed deadlines or strange behavior.
First, let me say a word about what Kathy will be doing. She will be joining the family firm. Her husband Jody started his own house construction company several years ago and like most solo ventures, he has found himself gasping for air most days. He has won some awards for houses he has built in the Fuquay-Varina/Wake County area and needs more than a little help most days running the office, doing the books, running errands and marketing. So, he poached our office administrator. No, I did not provide a reference. Had he asked, I would have said, Yes, she does a remarkable amount of work considering how much she sleeps on the job. But Jody knows his wife and probably wouldn’t have paid attention to me anyway. Anyway, she is excited about this new challenge and what it will mean for her and her family.
And what about us? Well, we will get along without Kathy though at the moment, I do not know exactly how. But we will. I have talked to Pat Campbell about getting a search process under way, so we are beginning a process that will lead us to someone else. During the next few weeks, we will probably be able to use some temp help in the office. I know we are moving into the holidays, but if you have some hours to give, let me know. And maybe even more importantly, I ask you to think about any folks you know who might be interested in a job: 20 hours a week working for a great church and working along side a delightful musician, a charming bookkeeper and one other guy.
So, when you see or talk to Kathy in the next couple of weeks, let her know how much you have appreciated her kind spirit and her hard work over these past years. The best thing about all this, of course, is that she will still be around. We will see her regularly, I am sure. So, while we will miss her, this is something of a soft rather than a hard goodbye.
Blessings and Peace,
It is that time of year again. Commitment time. The Finance Committee met a night or two ago and the results are not complete for this year’s Season of Faith, but it appears that we had another good Season . . . and I am not just talking about the coloring all of us did. In my years here, this congregation has demonstrated time and time again a remarkable capacity for faithful generosity. Maybe that is the upside to having a congregation tilted toward the, shall we say “mature” end of the age spectrum. Perhaps we have a larger share of folks who have finished careers and accumulated the resources to make financial campaigns end well.
Of course, money is not the only test of our commitment that is taken at this time each year. Pat Campbell has been working to assemble a Nominating Committee. Now Pat is a consistently positive person, but she has admitted that she has found this to be challenging work. Quite a few “no’s,” she has said sheepishly. And if this year is to be like recent years, there will be even more folks politely declining when we get to the part where we are asking people to serve as Elders, Deacons, Deaconesses, Officers, Committee Heads and the like.
Now I am inclined to think that a little guilt goes a long way. And I am pretty sure that religion and church life has been over-fed at the trough of guilt. But I also suspect that when we are totally free of any sense of guilt, it is probably because we are not being truthful with ourselves rather than that we have behaved wonderfully. So, take my words here as defensively as you will. Still, I wonder if the number of “no’s” we take in this time of year is not a sign that not all is well with our spirits. Sure, life and culture and church have changed since the golden age of church life in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. I read an article just this week about how Millennials are different, but before that, they were writing about Gen X and before that, we were trying to understand the Baby Boomers. The way people relate to institutions, including the church, is not the way it used to be. It doesn’t mean any person is better or worse than anyone born before or after them, but it does mean that in a congregation like ours, it is challenging. Some folks have graduated or retired; others are just not as in to meetings.
Most of that, I can process. But I think we are still left to ask what the “no’s” say about our commitment . . . to the institution of church in some ways, but also to God . . . and maybe even to our own sense of what is important at the core of our lives.
What I mean to say that there may be some disconnect when I can talk about how we need to be doing more for our children and youth, but I say “no” to teaching, serving on the education committee or helping with Vacation Bible School. Does it really tell you nothing about my values when you have heard me say dozens of times that Communion is the heart of our worship, but I don’t want to accept a position that will obligate me to be present some Sundays to serve at the Table? I could go on, but I suspect you hear me. And besides, I have about had my fill of the guilt I am serving.
I wonder sometimes what the one who called fishermen to leave their nets would think about people who readily call him “Lord” but whose lives are too full to take on this duty or that. You recall that he once said that where our money is, there our hearts would be also. But ours is a culture where time can be valued even more than money.
Anyway, if Pat or someone from the Nominating Committee asks you to consider doing some job in 2020, give it some thought.
Blessings and Peace,
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.