THE CONNECTION

 

October 2021 Connection

Does Prayer Work?

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” –  Philippians 4:6
 
Odds are good that you’ve heard my theology of prayer before, but in case you haven’t, I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version of it: Sometimes, we think about prayer as God’s newspaper. We let God know what is going on in our lives and in the world, and God chooses how to respond to the things we’ve made God aware of. The problem with this way of thinking about prayer is that it forgets that God is all knowing. In other words, God already knows the things we raise up in prayer long before we ever pray the words or think the thoughts. So, are we just wasting our breath with prayer? No! We’re not wasting our time or our breath. Rather, I believe that God uses prayer as a time for us to accomplish two things: (1) First, we
become more acutely aware of the needs of our neighbors and our world. Prayer forces us to come face to face with the celebrations and concerns of those around us. (2) Secondly, we become more intimately aware of what matters most to God, how God is responding in our world, and how God is (not “might be”) calling us to be God’s hands and feet in the world, responding to needs.
 
With that understanding of prayer, let’s ask the question again, “Does prayer work?” Our good Christian instincts might have us shouting, “YES!” but let’s think through why it is. In Philippians, we are encouraged to lift every petition, thanksgiving and request to God. We are to do this in all situations, even those that might cause us anxiety.
 
As I’m writing this, I’m only 22 hours removed from praying inside an ambulance as our one year old daughter, Jane, was being taken to the hospital following a 5 minute seizure during which this scared-half-to-death dad held her in my arms just hoping and praying that her breathing would continue. As we were rushed to the ER, I remember looking out the backdoor window, trying to determine how far away
we were, only able to pray the deep guttural prayers – the kind for which no words can be found. I firmly believe God heard my prayer, even though I wasn’t sure what I was praying, exactly. As I stood by her gurney in the ER bay, surrounded by doctors and nurses, I texted a quick prayer request to some clergy friends of mine who I was supposed to be with on retreat. For that whole afternoon, I received messages that they were praying for us. With only Stephanie, Jane, and I in the ER room waiting for test results, we felt an acute awareness that we weren’t alone in that moment. Not only was God’s Spirit present with us, but so were the spirits of all who were praying. As our prayer request made its way to the church prayer
chain, we immediately began feeling as though we were surrounded by our church family.
 
So, how did the wordless prayers of a frightened dad work? Or the prayers of a near breathless mom hurrying from her office to the ER? Or the prayers of friends and church families? How did they work? I believe that it was those prayers that helped to remind Stephanie and I that we weren’t alone in a scary moment. It was those prayers that allowed God to dispatch so many words of love, support, care, and concern from so many who love us. It was those prayers that bolstered the energy of doctors, nurses, techs, EMTs, and hospital staff, and reminded them of the sacred task of life and compassion to which they, too, are called. It was those prayers that made space for the hand of God to be laid upon a little girl who was scared and not feeling well.
 
But, What About When the Prayers Don’t Seem to Work?
Even as I write this, I’m sitting in the living room defending my keyboard from the alsdkjfskldfjskdjf energized fingers of the same little girl who is now feeling much better, and my heart is aching for those
parents whose experiences are not as reassuring, or medical emergencies without good outcomes. Did
prayer not work there? Did God simply not care enough? Did God forget to bolster the energy of the
doctors, or were the prayers of friends and churches just not effective? It can be tempted to think that,
can’t it? But notice that it was never about God interjecting in the situation to defend certain nerve-endings in Jane’s brain and not in other children. It was never about God’s preference for one child or another, or the sins of the parents visited upon the children. As much as it breaks my heart to say, there are times when the body does not work the way it is supposed to. Sometimes microscopic cells misbehave, and sometimes accidents occur because the laws of physics always remain constant. Sometimes the amazing accomplishments achieved though chemotherapy work, and sometimes it’s just not enough or in time.  These aren’t things I say lightly, but things we must acknowledge.
 
And so, when our hearts break in this world, we find comfort in God’s dispatch of those who have been
praying who now surround us in our grieving. We find comfort that the peace we’ve prayed for is still
possible, and that suffering is no longer endured.
 
It’s never that our prayers didn’t work! Prayer just doesn’t work that way! The joy of prayer is that we become more connected to one another and to God, and God becomes more connected to us! And when we are connected in that way, we can journey every storm…together.
 
Pastor Brian
 
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September 2021 Connection

If you remember back to the August Connection, reading part 2 of 3 of our story about the fictional “Cheer Team,” you’ll remember that we left our TBall parents, Courtney and Dave having a night’s-end conversation about the church-sent cheerleaders who had a pretty great mission: make sure every
kid had someone cheering them on! You might also remember that, thus far in our example of a different kind of evangelism, no pamphlets have been given, no bullhorns made an appearance, and the book of Habakkuk remains unquoted! This must be a different kind of evangelism! Well, let’s see what
happens next!

Checking In On Our Family:

A couple more games have been played since we listened in on Dave and Courtney’s conversation about the church’s Cheer Team, and you better believe, that Cheer Team was present for each one of those games. Dave, sitting in the stands for each of the games, got to know the cheering churchgoer better and better. Finally, during the last game of the season, one of the Cheer Team members who has come to know Dave better and better offers these daring and bold words of evangelism. “Dave it was really
great to meet you! You have a great family! I wanted to let you know that if you ever want to come by our church on a Sunday, we’ve always got room in our row, and we’d be happy to sit with you guys!”
Okay, well, those words weren’t too bold, I suppose. But, consider how it would have felt like to make that invitation without ever having met, talked to, or learned about Dave. Awkward, right?! When we take time to build relationships with folks, invitations to church become much easier, and are actually received much better. Think about what keeps you a part of GBUMC. I’d be willing to bet that relationships, of some form, have something to do with it, right?

Fast Forward A Few Weeks…

It’s been a few weeks since the baseball game ended. Our Cheer Team member hasn’t seen Dave, Courtney and their son, Michael, since the T-Ball season ended, but he thinks about them from time to time and remembers them in his prayers, at least. But, one Sunday, Dave, Courtney and Michael walk into the sanctuary about 5 minutes before the start of the service. They take a seat at the back of the sanctuary in the first empty pew. Without hesitation, our Cheer Team member quietly walks up to them and asks if he could join them (did you catch that…he met the visitors where they were – in their comfort zone).

What Then:

Our mission as a church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world . Sometimes that can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Is that something I can even do? The answer is yes, and sometimes it’s as easy as going and sitting in the bleachers in order to make sure kids have someone cheering. It’s as simple as getting to know someone in order that a relationship can form and a sincere invitation can be made. It’s through evangelism – no longer a scary word, I hope – that we
can grow God’s kingdom, and make the world a little better place.
 
~ Pastor Brian
 
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August 2021 Connection

Last Time, on Pastor Brian’s Newsletter Article:

Every evening, Grand Blanc’s Bicentennial Park is flooded with families all summer long. We’re talking kids of all ages, parents, grandparents, aunts uncles, etc. And they’re all there for the same purpose: little league sports! Now, imagine you’re part of a group from Grand Blanc UMC that commits to going to some of the games, all the while wearing a shirt with the Church name on the front and the words “Cheer Team” on the back. When you arrive at the fields, you simply sit in the stands and do the best job in the world: cheer on the kids! Now, one or two nights would pass by with out much comment, but eventually, a parent walks up to you and says, “Someone was here yesterday and the game before with that same shirt on. I’m just curious.” Your response is this simple: “Oh, yeah! I’m from Grand Blanc United Methodist Church. We’re really wanting to commit ourselves to caring for families in our community, and we thought an easy way to do that would be to make sure that every kid here would have at least one more person cheering them on.”

Evangelism, Right?

This is where we left our intrepid “Cheer Team” member in June’s article as we talked about the often-feared word, “evangelism.” Once more, my hope is that this word has shed some of the baggage it often comes with. Evangelism, after all, is simply the sharing of God’s good news. Sounds right up our alley, doesn’t it? So, how is cheering on little leaguers from a bench full of proud parents and even prouder grandparents evangelism? Let’s continue our story.

Continued…

After hearing the reason for church members gathering to cheer on kids to whom they are not even related, the parent turns and says the words almost no one associates with evangelism: “That’s great! Thanks for doing that!”
 
As the game continues, our cheering member keeps cheering on the kids, our curious parent does the next most surprising thing. He starts to tell our cheerleader a few things: “By the way, my name is Dave and my wife, Courtney, is the coach. That’s our son at first base, Michael.”
Pretty normal still, isn’t it?
 
With all of the courage in the world, you’re now ready to become a true evangelist. You turn to Dave and say, “It’s great to meet you guys. It’s been a long time since our kids played little league. It’s a real blast from the past sitting here again.”
 
Despite my feeble attempts at humor, did you notice that this conversation had between our Cheer Team church member and Dave sounds a lot like any other conversation you’ve ever had with anyone?! No pamphlets were handed out, scripture from the book of Habakkuk wasn’t recited by memory, and the bullhorn and floppy-paged Bible never made an appearance. But, still, it was evangelism.

How Was That Evangelism?

I’m happy you asked! (You did ask, didn’t you?) You see, you would likely never identify this bleacher-based conversation as evangelism, simply because 99.9% of people think of evangelism as a I’m-gonna-push-my-religion-in-your-face kind of thing, rather than a relationship kind of thing. But, this really was evangelism! This conversation, believe it or not, did share God’s good news with someone else. To see what I mean, listen in on this conversation had between Dave and Courtney after they got home from the baseball game, put kids to bed, and kicked their feet up for the evening:
 
Dave: (Using the remote to find their current binge-worthy show): Hey Courtney, did Michael go down okay? I think the snack that one of the moms brought had him pretty sugared-up!
 
Courtney: It took a little while, but he finally settled down. Then he looked at me and said, “Mommy, you’re the best coach!” You know, I didn’t really think I would like coaching, but I really do! I don’t really know what I’m doing, but its fun! And he says things like that!
 
Dave: (Laughing in agreement): You’re doing a great job. A bunch of the parents were talking about how great you are with the kids. By the way, did you see that guy from the church?
 
Courtney: If he wasn’t picking dandelions, you’ll have to be a bit more specific.
 
Dave: He was sitting next to me. He and his wife are from the Methodist Church, I think it was, and they just go and cheer on kids at the games.
 
Courtney: That’s kind of weird.
 
Dave: (Laughing) No! It’s a whole bunch of them. They try to go to every game. He told me that it’s their goal to make sure that every kid has someone to cheer them on.
 
Courtney: Okay, that’s actually kind of sweet.
 
Dave: They even had shirts! I don’t know, I thought it was cool!
 
For now, we’ll just leave Courtney and Dave in their living room and check in with the next article. But 2/3 of the way into the story, we have Dave and Courtney, young parents, feeling good knowing that there are people from a church nearby who care enough about kids to make sure every kid has someone cheering them on. Sounds like good news to me. I’m pretty sure Jesus would approve.
 
And that, friends, is evangelism done well. More to come next time.
 
Pastor Brian
 
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July 2021 Connection

“An ING Kind of Church”

ING

I remember years ago while watching the Superbowl, there was a commercial that came on somewhere between the Budweiser Clydesdales and a Doritos ad that caused quite a bit of confusion. That commercial was for something called “ING.” The commercial simply showed a pristine park on a beautiful spring day with a park bench that simply displayed the letters “ING.” An intrigued passerby asked the gentleman sitting there on the bench, “What is ING?” The gentleman simply shrugged his shoulders. Then, fade to black. No answer, no information, no catchy jingle to play in your head for the next three
days. Just those three letters: “ING.”
 
Almost immediately, conversations online began: what is ING? It began to trend as a top search on Google.com and eventually, you found yourself down the rabbit hole of ING U.S., an investment and retirement group. A commercial for a company that would have likely served as the Superbowl half-time bathroom break suddenly turned into the talk of the town, asking the same question as the commercial’s passerby: “What is ING?” 

The “E” Word

The word “Evangelism” has garnered for itself a bad reputation. Maybe it’s due to the seemingly endless number of times we’ve been subjected to the street corner signs reading “Repent” and “Are you going to heaven?” while the bullhorn guy shouts about hell while waving a well-worn leather Bible. Or maybe we’ve simply received too many tract pamphlets that serve more to instill fear about salvation rather than hope about God’s grace. Was it the distrust instilled by televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? Or maybe the images of the hate spread by the few at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka,Kansas. But I want to introduce to you the idea that “Evangelism” is, in actuality, a wonderful thing and something that ought to be part of our practice as a church…just maybe not in the way you might think.
 
Let’s start with the word itself. The word “Evangelist” is derived from the Latin,“Evangelista” which literally means, “bringer of good news.” Hard to be upset with that, right? You’ll discover within the word an even more familiar one: Ev-angel-ist. Do you see it? Even the word “angel,” with its meaning of “messenger,” is
part of this idea of evangelism. Putting the etymology aside, “evangelism” is really just about being a messenger of good news! Again, hard to be upset with that, right?
 

Back to ING

It strikes me as interesting that ING’s marketing department was able to convince its budget manager to invest in a multi-million dollar Superbowl commercial that does not tell viewers what ING is all about! Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that meeting! But, consider the genius of it all. By giving almost no information – by refusing to begin with the tagline, what was sparked was interest. Interest in something that would have been otherwise ignored, no less!  It was a clever away of saying, “We’re here!” without inundating the audience right off the bat. It allowed the viewers’ interest, coupled with the power of internet search engines, to dive deeper – deeper than anyone would have otherwise.
 

An ING Kind of Church

Every evening, Grand Blanc’s Bicentennial Park is flooded with families all summer long. We’re talking kids of all ages, parents, grandparents, aunts uncles, etc. And they’re all there for the same purpose: little league sports! Now, imagine you’re part of a group from Grand Blanc UMC that commits to going to some of the games, all the while wearing a shirt with the Church name on the front and the words “Cheer Team” on the back. When you arrive at the fields, you simply sit in the stands and do the best job in the world: cheer on the kids! Now, one or two nights would pass by with out much comment, but eventually, a parent walks up to you and says, “Someone was here yesterday and the game before with that same shirt on. I’m just curious.” Your response is this simple: “Oh, yeah!  I’m from Grand Blanc United Methodist Church. We’re really wanting to commit ourselves to caring for families in our community, and we thought an easy way to do that would be to make sure that every kid here would have at least one more person cheering them on.”
 
That’s it! No pamphlets. No scripture passages to recite. Not even a commercial about our worship services. It’s almost like sitting on a park bench with ING printed on the back, except now it simply reads “Grand Blanc UMC.”

But Isn’t There More?

But isn’t there more? Sure, there is! But we’re not there yet. No one started an account with ING simply because they saw the commercial. The commercial sparked an interest. What comes next is the connection…and that will be next month’s article. But until then, let’s cheer!
 
~ Pastor Brian
 
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June 2021 Connection

Traditions: The What, the Why, and the That

Each summer, my family would take a two-day road trip out east to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts for a few weeks of vacation. This was all due to the beautiful gift of tradition my grandparents gave to our family when, in 1960, they bought a small little gingerbread cottage in the Oak Bluffs campground. It was there that we’d gather just about every summer with friends, traditions and memories. One tradition we had, no matter the circumstances, is that we’d listen to Carly Simon’s song, “Never Been Gone,” a song she’d written while on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, as we’d disembark the ferry with our feet planted firmly on the island home.
 
The list of traditions went on from there, of course! Pancakes at Linda Jean’s restaurant, rides on the Flying Horses Carousel, one of the oldest remaining carousels in America (you can still catch the brass ring to win a free ride), fresh donuts at midnight from Backdoor Donuts, cookouts on the beach at the Menemsha fishing wharf, a last-night pizza at Giordano’s, etc. The list goes on and on.
 
The other day, I was driving down Center Rd toward Flint when I had this overwhelming desire to hear “Never Been Gone.” It has become a little trick of mine when I just need to escape for a few minutes. I swear I can smell the saltwater as the song plays. As the song played, I found myself remembering all the trips we took as kids, as teens, and even into adulthood to this home away from home. I remembered the many little things my sister and I would do with my parents each trip. I recalled the little traditions that somehow made these weeks away into an almost sacred time.
 
I also remembered how it felt when Stephanie and I first took our kids to Martha’s Vineyard when Matthew and Micah were just 2 years old. I began to smile as I thought about the traditions we’d created in subsequent trips – early morning walks, walking donuts (so mom wouldn’t find out), trips to the beach, and those same Flying Horses. But we’ve also mixed in new traditions. Things that will just be ours.
 
It’s funny how traditions work, isn’t it? We rarely know that they are traditions when they’re being formed. It’s later as their repetition becomes meaningful that we realize their importance. However, that being said, I often wonder what is most meaningful to us about traditions? Is it the activity or action being repeated, or is it what that activity or action represents to us? I realized as I listened to Carly Simon sing that the latter is the case. The song is beautiful, and it will always be one of my favorites. But as I hear it, I can still picture my dad driving off of the ferry. I can still smell the coffee my mom would brew in the morning. I can still hear the carousel music play in the background, and feel the sand between my toes. For me, that song will always be about family. It will always be a meeting place for me and my dad’s memory. It will be played at family gatherings and everyone will just have to suffer for a moment as my mom, sister and I sing along at the top of our lungs.
 
The same is with traditions in the church. We base traditions on actions and activities: the singing of Silent Night on Christmas Eve; the movement of an action item from one committee to the next for votes and vetoes; choirs, classes, and more. The truth, though, is that over time, the actions we take may change. They have before, and they will again. But that doesn’t mean that the traditions disappear or that we’re being less faithful than those who took charge before us. It means that the tradition of faith is not wrapped up in what we do or even how we do it. Instead, the tradition of faith is wrapped up in that we do it: that we worship, that we serve, that we give, that we share, and that we witness.
 
I am immensely grateful for those who have been a part of the tradition of the church. Though the way we serve as a church may change as we discover, evolve, and grow, the tradition remains the same: faithfulness.
 
Peace,
Pastor Brian
 
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May 2021

Imagine

In 1971, a Beatle turned solo artist released a song that quickly became one of the hallmarks of the global music stage. The song, “Imagine” was written and sung by the late John Lennon, and it captured the imagination (pun intended) of the world as he invited all those with ears to hear to imagine a world with the central goal of uniting one another rather than breaking down and breaking apart an already fractured world. It was then, following each movement of imagination, that Lennon provided this well known chorus:
“You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us,
and the world will be as one”
 
As I write this, I’ve had the song playing in my head all morning, and I’ve been reflecting on these words, considering what it means to be a dreamer. To me, it seems that dreaming for something that can be – that needs to be – is more than just a matter of hoping. Dreaming, in Lennon’s sense, meant that we must actively pursue what it is we dream of. For Christians, we actually have a name for that: we call it “God’s kingdom.” And John Lennon isn’t the only one with a catchy chorus. Let’s say it together:
 
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
 
As strange as it may seem to compare the two – and it’s admittedly strange – this part of the Lord’s Prayer is very much our Imagine chorus! And like Lennon’s invitation to join the dreamers, this prayer is God’s invitation for us to join God – to join God in bringing about a world that more closely resembles God’s vision of kingdom. And now, for the million-dollar question: How do we get there? To answer that, we turn to Scripture (big surprise, right?).
 
“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
 
To be fair, I share this scripture passage a lot, but I think with really good reason. When we ask the question, “How can we achieve God’s vision of kingdom, here on earth as it is in heaven?” I find myself beginning right here with what I argue is Jesus central teaching. If what we are doing in our effort to bring about God’s kingdom vision is loving God and loving all our neighbors, then we are on the right track! If our efforts do not love God and do not fully love our neighbor, then we are actively working against the kingdom goal. I know that sounds extreme, but I believe we must begin to understand that when we, especially as Christians, fail to love God and neighbor, we are actively causing ourselves and others to take steps backward from that kingdom goal. And when we do so in the name of God, perhaps the failure is even greater.
 
And so, in all that we do, say, believe and teach, let it be in complete, whole, and beautiful love for God and for neighbor. May it inspire us to imagine a world in which fractures are mended, brother and sister may stand with brother and sister, and the strife of this world caused by our collective hands would cease.
 
In the name of God, I offer this prayer. 
Amen.
 
~Pastor Brian
 
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April 2021 Connection

A Reason to Come to the Tomb

When my sister, Mallory and I were kids, our school’s Spring Break was always scheduled for the week following Easter.  Whenever Easter was, Spring Break always followed.  At that time, my aunt and uncle lived in Newport Beach, California, and, for years, invited my sister and me out to visit for that Spring Break week so that we could do lots of fun things without our parents!  After all, isn’t that every kids’ dream?  And so, we’d fly there by ourselves, go to Mighty Ducks hockey games, visit Mickey at Disney Land, and eat delicious Ruben Sandwiches at Ruby’s on the Pier.  This was always a highlight week.
 
When I think back on those Spring Break trips, some of my best memories are of the leadup time that preceded.  The week prior (which happened to be Holy Week), Mallory and I could barely contain our excitement.  We’d count the hours until our plane would take off and we could sit in our coach seats, sip that first parent-free Pepsi (that’s when they used to give you the whole can), and await warmth, palm trees, and Mickey Mouse.  It just so happened that Holy Week, every year, seemed to be the slowest week of the year.  All that we wanted to do was be on that plane.  If we would have been granted just one wish, it would have been that we could just skip ahead to Easter and get on with the California-bound show!  But, alas, we couldn’t.  We still had school Monday through Wednesday, Maundy Thursday services, Good Friday services, and of course Easter.  But, at least Easter felt like we were on the precipice of the excitement.
 
As an adult, I still look forward to Easter, and some of those memories still come flooding back to me.  But one thing I have come to discover about Holy Week and the celebration of Easter is that Easter loses so much of its zeal if we skip over the more difficult parts of Holy Week.  In a book titled Falling Upward by a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr, he makes special note of this: like Easter, no resurrection of any kind as ever taken place without there first being a death.  Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are absolutely essential to make it possible for us to celebrate a resurrection!  If we jump to Easter because we simply cannot wait to celebrate; or if we jump to Easter because Jesus’ talk of death and the cross is just too uncomfortable, then we really will never discover the true depth of Easter’s celebration.
 
To this end, I want to invite you to fully experience and embrace the discomfort of Holy Week this year, and fight the temptation to jump right to Easter Sunday.  As a church, we will be sharing in these experiences with two unique and very meaningful virtual services.  On both Maundy Thursday (April 1) and Good Friday (April 2), the services will be posted to our various streaming platforms at noon, as well as transmitted in our parking lot via FM radio.   Whether by yourself or with loved ones, I want to encourage you to take part in them.  Easter will come, but it only truly comes if we have a reason to visit the tomb in the first place.
 
On Easter Sunday, we’ll gather in the parking lot and online from the many places we will call holy ground, and we’ll sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and hear a message of victory over the grave and sin.  We’ll greet one another with smiling eyes and with shouts of Alleluia.  But first, like Mary, we need a reason to come to the tomb with burial spices.
 
Let us not rush through this Holy Week.  Instead, let us embrace it all.  Only then will we truly appreciate the unmistakable gap between the stone and the tomb.
 

Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again!

Pastor Brian

 
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March 2021 Connection

We are Still Being the Church

As you’re reading this, you might be realizing that we are quickly approaching the one year mark of making the decision to cancel in-person gatherings at the church, of course including in-person worship. At that time, there was so much uncertainty around how the Coronavirus would impact our lives, for how long its impact would last, and what the future would hold for the church. As the year has gone on, some of our questions have been answered while still, others have not. Certainly, far more could be said (and has been said) about the pandemic’s impact, it seems a fair summary to say that this past year has been a distinct challenge for each one of us. As we see the staggering number of people who have lost their lives to COVID-19 and the countless others who have survived, and yet have had their lives and health forever affected, we take time to pause and grieve.
 
Stephanie and I have a love for the decades long-running show, “Saturday Night Live.” Not terribly long ago, there was a character played by Rachel Dratch named Debbie Downer. As her name might suggest, she had an annoyingly funny way of taking any moment and turning into a downer of a time. It would eventually get to the point that, despite the otherwise good circumstances, everyone else in the scene would eventually get so frustrated and “down” by her attitude that they’d all turn on one another until the only one left in the scene would be Debbie Downer, herself.
 
It seems like a silly comparison, but I think about just how much our attitudes and outlook are linked to our choices. You know, is the glass half full or half empty? Is the forecast partly cloudy or partly sunny? Our outlook on the world and our circumstances matters.
 
And so, we might be tempted to look at this past year and only see that its been a year since we last sat in pews together. As the one writing this letter, I grieve that I’ve yet to sit in the pews with you, at all. And that grief is real, acknowledged and needs not be dismissed! We might also be tempted to review the year, and think only of the gatherings we missed, holidays that were non-traditional, and friendships that have been strained. Those things are true, as well. But it’s also important that we name, acknowledge, and refuse to dismiss all that is good! Here are some examples coming from the church:
  • Our online worship attendance, based on a formulation of 1.8 people per view on either Facebook or YouTube means that there have been services where we’ve estimated approximately 500+ people worshiping with us. Most services are somewhere around 300 people “attending”!
  • We are currently working on the necessary technical infrastructure to be able to continue live streaming worship once we are able to safely regather indoors so that we can maintain a strong online presence.
  •  With our online presence, including daily devotionals, Wednesday Dinners, etc., we have been able to connect with people from all over the country (even one view from Australia, if you can believe that!)
  • At the time of writing this, I have hosted 3 different Zoom Bible Studies, and we’ve discovered ways of connecting with folks who otherwise would not be able to commute to church if we were only meeting in person.
  • Despite fear of financial hardship (please note that it hasn’t been easy by any means), your pledges have continued to roll in, reflecting your generosity, and the Finance Committee is now working with a balanced 2021 budget!
  • The Finance Committee was also able to pay 100% of our ministry shares as part of our connectional ministry with the Michigan Conference of the UMC! Additionally, our Outreach and Missions team accomplished amazing goals in our mission giving!
  • On March 6th, I will be holding a New Member Class over Zoom, and will be meeting with nearly a dozen perspective new members to the church.
  • In the next few months, we’ll be welcoming two little ones into the family of God through the sacrament of baptism.
  • Our Christmas Eve worship services in the parking lot made it possible for us to travel to Bethlehem and the entrance of the stable where we celebrated the birth of Christ! The drive-in environment was a pleasant experience for many!
  • Our youth groups and their leaders have continued to engage middle and high school youth through zoom and safe outdoor gatherings (sledding, anyone?).
  • Our church’s J.A.M.-aged children have been cared for via deliveries of goods and other fun stuff to their homes, as well as digital content created just for them!
You see, the intent of this list is not to diminish the hurt and loss that has taken place over this past year. But, what it is, is permission to enter into the Debbie Downer sketches and remain determined and resolved to stay positive and confident in God’s presence and guidance through this storm. In other words, its an invitation to remember that nothing during the past 365 days has had the power to keep us from being the church!
 
As we look forward, this resolve will need to be a permanent part of who we are. Good news greets us as we discover that positive COVID-19 cases are slowly decreasing, as is hospital occupancy! This is good news, indeed! What we know is that this is a result of a number of things: we are far enough removed from holidays that the impact of those surges is waning. We’re also now able to vaccinate our frontline medical staff, other frontline workers, and some of those who are most vulnerable to the Coronavirus, which will also have a meaningful impact as time goes on! Though, perhaps the greatest reason for this decrease is that many are remaining vigilant, safe, and refraining from unnecessary gatherings. Even with masks and 6 feet of distance which can help mitigate the spread, in-person gatherings still remain the greatest means of spreading the virus, especially by those who are asymptomatic or unaware of their symptom’s severity.
 
And so, for the meantime, we will continue to do our part as a church and refrain from in-person gatherings. This is neither out of fear or over reaction, but rather an action of love for our neighbor and faithfulness that God will see us through. Hopefully the need for such precautions will change sooner rather than later, and we’ll be able to resume in-person ministries and gatherings that we’ve been missing, but it will still take time, patience, and love for one another!
 
But in the meantime, let us become so resolved to remain in love with one another, patient with one another, an example of safety as we continue to thrive, and a beacon of what unprecedented ministry can look like if we simply believe in our God who is already guiding us.
 
What do you say?
 
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February 2021

“In All Things”

I recently read a newsletter article written by a friend and colleague of mine,  offering this bit of wisdom and permission: “It’s okay if you’re enjoying some of what’s going on right now.” To be clear, he isn’t advocating that we should be okay with the state of division in our nation and world, nor should we be content with the rate at which people are becoming sick with COVID-19. No one should be taking
pleasure in those things. Instead, what he’s referring to is this: it’s okay if you’ve been enjoying worship from your couch while resting with a cup of coffee. It’s okay if you’re enjoying more time at home with family. It’s even okay if you found some solitude around Christmas to be a bit of necessary rest. It’s okay if you’re not missing your commute to work. It’s even okay if you find yourself cooking more meals at home rather than eating out. To reiterate, it’s okay if you’re enjoying some of what’s going one right now.
 
As a frequent listener of podcasts, most of what I listen to are interview shows.  Some are faith-based, others political and news oriented, while the rest are often themed with pop-culture TV shows, music, or movies. During this past year, it seems as though just about every interview begins with the question, “How have you been doing during the pandemic?” Almost as if every interviewee read some sort of memo before the show, they all reply with the same basic formula. At first, they lament at how hard it’s been – something we can all relate to. Second, they share some of what they’ve been up to, often regaling the audience of their new sourdough bread hobby. Third, they start to reflect on the positive side of things –
the silver linings. And then, finally, they offer a clause that sounds something like this: “None of this is to say this whole thing isn’t awful, because it is!” It’s almost as if they feel the need to apologize for experiencing happiness and something good during a very challenging and scary time.
 
I’m wondering if we can trade one feeling for the other. With nearly a year of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, likely with months still to go, I suspect we can adopt a new posture, and this should come as no surprise to you: Gratitude.
 
“Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
        -1Thesselonians 5:18 CEB
 
To be clear, Paul isn’t suggesting that hard and scary circumstances are God’s will for us. Rather, Paul is saying that a posture of gratitude is required for us to really tap into the Joy of Christ. This also doesn’t mean that we should ignore all that is going on around us and focus only on happy things! Instead, gratitude provides a new lens – new glasses, if you will – to see the world through. Let’s take a look at
some practical examples:

• If you’ve been worshiping with us from home using Facebook or YouTube, or maybe even from the parking lot with your radio, take time to marvel at the fact that, as a church, we have the ability to record and share a whole worship service over the internet. While there is lots about the internet that is regrettable, we can give thanks for this small glimmer of light, can’t we?

• I was talking with a church member the other day who was planning to prepare a meal to take and deliver to one of our church’s shut-ins. I have to wonder if we’d think to do that regularly if we were more preoccupied with the busyness of life? Has slowing down caused us to think of others a
bit more?

• On New Years Eve, as much as we would have loved to gather with friends to celebrate the New Year and watch our similarly-aged children run around and have fun, Stephanie and I sat with our kids on the couch and did an early countdown with cups of sparkling grape juice for the kids. It
wasn’t what we’d hoped for, but it was beautiful in it’s own way.
 
Once again, this isn’t to suggest that the hardships people are facing are not real. It’s certainly not to suggest that we shouldn’t mourn the 400,000 plus deaths in the United States from COVID-19, and weep with families as loved ones pass away. What I’m suggesting is that it’s okay not to apologize when
you have an opportunity to give thanks in this season of life. Perhaps it’s those moments of gratitude that will help us to see how God is walking with us through the storms of life.
 
Peace, 
Pastor Brian
 
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January 2021 Connection

Enrich All Lives

…To enrich all lives.  This is how Grand Blanc UMC’s mission and vision statement ends.  And, not coincidently, it’s how this series of Connection newsletter articles will conclude before moving on to something new in February.  Over the last four months, I’ve spent time on this page expressing my impressions and thoughts about the mission and vision statement of this church.  I’ve explored the idea of being “friends in Christ,” I dared to utter that word “exercise,” and we talked, of course, about
hope, love, and grace.  But now, the crux of the whole statement: “…to enrich all lives.”

While it may be the greatest cliché, it seems important to say this.  Mariam-Webster Dictionary defines “Enrich” as to make rich or richer especially by the addition or increase of some desirable quality, attribute, or ingredient. 

Why is this definition important?  It’s important – even vital – because these final last words of our statement identify the purpose for which we are bothering to do any of this!  We call ourselves friends is Christ, and live into that identity; we exercise hope, love and grace with one another, and extend it into the world, understanding that God is still working on each of us in a perfect-making sort of way; we do all of this, we extend all of this, we embrace all of this, and we believe all of this all for the purpose of enriching all lives.  All that we do has no other purpose!  The work of the church is not primarily about providing a social network for all of us to enjoy.  It’s not about creating a status that emboldens us in the social and economic community.  It’s not even about fostering a righteousness within us that we can measure ourselves against others with.  It is all about enriching all lives.

To be sure, there is other language that we use in the church to talk about enriching all lives.  One of my favorite is when we talk about “kingdom-making.”  You see, here we’re talking about God’s kingdom (often written “kin-dom” as a way of reminding us that we’re not talking about a monarchy, but something altogether different…the reign of God)!  And God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (sound familiar?) is about ensuring that all lives – all lives – are made richer (no, not money) by the addition and increase of a remarkable quality, attribute and ingredient that we call GRACE! 

And so, we are, by the statement we have adopted as a church, a kingdom-making church!  We are in the business of enriching the lives of all people with the grace, love, hope, peace, promise, and joy of Jesus Christ!  We proclaim that all – everyone – excluding no one – is invited into this amazing and grace-filled covenant with Jesus Christ.  The door is open, the admission is free, the result is freeing!  This is what we are about and nothing more!

My prayer as you come to the end of this article is that you will read our mission statement once more, and read it as a prayer for this church.  Where we are already living into it, let us rejoice!  Where we are not yet living into it – where we’re still holding on to a part of what we want it to be rather than what God wants it to be – let us draw closer to God who, with amazing grace, forgiveness and love, calls us back into even deeper relationship with our Creator!

A few years back, I had a conversation with an upset parishioner of another church who insisted that “everyone needs to stop trying to take over my church” (the great offense was that the food bank volunteers had temporarily placed food donations on a table in the fellowship hall).  I calmly replied, “we need to remember that this church is not ours. We are simply stewards of it. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to God and to the person who has yet to walk through its doors.”
 
When we say that we’re here to “enrich all lives,” we have to remember that this means we are here with a dedicated purpose to welcome and serve the person who walks through our church doors for the first time. We are here, and function as a church for the child who has been told many things throughout his life, except for that fact that he is lovable and loved. We are here for the woman who stands before a judge and learns that she’ll be incarcerated. We are here for the grieving person, so hurt that they have stopped praying
.
We are here – the church is here – God is here…to enrich all lives.
Peace, Pastor Brian
 
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