July 2017

Column for July, 2017

A couple of months ago, Katrina Bostick stopped by my office.  Katrina is the Executive Director of Family Promise of Greater Savannah.  As I hope most of us know, Family Promise (formerly called Interfaith Hospitality Network) is an organization which helps homeless families with temporary shelter and support to find long-term stability.  We are a founding congregation with Family Promise, playing an important part in the organization for almost 20 years.  As a part of our support, about three times each year, we host up to 3 families for a week in our Education Building, providing them with a meal each night and a safe and comfortable place to stay as they search for permanent housing.


Katrina brought with her a wonderful gift for our congregation.  All non-profit organizations have to keep detailed statistics to show that they really make an impact on the lives of the people they serve and on the whole community.  Donors, especially organizations which give grants, insist that every agency has to prove their worth using those numbers.  Because churches are key to much of the services they provide, Family Promise had broken their numbers down to show the impact each congregation has on our community through our work with Family Promise.


Did you know that in 2016 alone, our congregation provided:

  • 3 weeks of shelter for families (or 21 “bed nights”)
  • 294 volunteers
  • 1281 volunteer hours
  • 796 meals
  • $17,353 in services


Surely some among you will ask how they reached that total value.  They assume that one “bed night” is $35, one “meal day” is $17, and a volunteer’s time is worth about $10 per hour.


Just imagine that:  our congregation made a total contribution to Family Promise of over $17,000 last year.  And that is just one program we do as a congregation.  Imagine putting a value on our total contribution to our community:  our service at Inner City Night Shelter, our Tutoring Program, our Scouting programs, and more.  And what if we add to that the value we contribute to groups which meet in our building and don’t have any money to pay us, such as the Neighborhood Association, scouting groups, various civic groups, and others.  Our contribution to our community is astounding!


We do good, faithful work here.  Sometimes the work is frustrating.  Sometimes it is exhausting.  Usually it does not reap easy harvests.  After the work is done, we still look around to see fewer people in worship each Sunday than there used to be, smaller Sunday School classes and groups, and a precarious bottom line on our financial statements.


Most of those things are related to factors which are out of our control.  But the factors which we control, like how we use our time, our effort, our buildings, and our money, show our ongoing faithfulness.  In addition to the abundant and eternal value of simply worshipping our God, we continue to seek to follow Christ’s commands.  We continue to love our neighbors, to welcome strangers, to share our bread and open our homes to the poor, and to build the kingdom of heaven so people can experience the peace and the joy which God intends for them, even in hard times.  That work has both spiritual and material value.


I am grateful that Katrina gave us this little glimpse of the numbers, and I pray that we will continue to seek ways to have an impact on the lives of our neighbors and our community!


July 2017

Column for June, 2017

In early May, many of you know that I had to go to a meeting in Denver, Colorado, for a committee I am on for our General Assembly.  I decided to take a couple of days after my meeting to go to a small town high in the Colorado Rockies called Gunnison.  My family moved to Gunnison when I was six, and we moved from there to California when I was ten.  I had not really spent any time there since about 1983 when we moved away, so it was a trip through some old memories I didn’t even know I had.  But it was also a chance to see a landscape which is very, very different than what we have around here in coastal Georgia.


There are a lot of really big mountains in Colorado.  Looking at the map before I went, I saw the mountain ranges with peak after peak after peak stretching high into the atmosphere.  There is really only one direct way to get to Gunnison from the east, and that is by crossing the Continental Divide on Highway 50 over Monarch Pass, which tops out at 11,312 feet above sea level.  The town itself is in a valley with an elevation of about 7,700 feet, and within a 45-minute drive, you can get to vistas of mountains which top 14,000 feet.


Like many people of their time and place, the ancient Hebrews believed that the mountains are pillars which hold the sky in place.  The mountains are strong and sturdy, giving structure to our world.  When God gets angry, the pillars shake, and the whole of creation threatens to collapse (see Job 26:11).  The Hebrews’ neighbors believed that some of their gods lived in the highest of the mountains, which served as natural palaces.  But the Hebrews, as God’s own people, had no reason to see the mountains that way.  God’s presence was not restricted to any particular place, but filled God’s whole creation at all times, and so they were called to worship everywhere.  When the Psalmist says in Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where will my help come?” he is mimicking those neighbors, who would expect their gods to come down from the mountains in order to help them.  The Psalmist answers his own question:  “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!”  He does not expect his help to come from the mountains, but from the One who created the world and everything in it, including the mountains.


When we look at the mountains, we see that God is in charge.  Everything is under God’s control, even the mountains themselves.  God uses the mountains to protect us; the sky will stay in place because God put the mountains in place to hold it up, and even when God gets angry and the mountains quake, they never fall, and we are safe.  Because they are under God’s control, the mountains reverberate with the glory of God, showing God’s people that even in our toughest times, God leads us, protects us, loves us, and welcomes us home.


In the time of the prophet Isaiah, God’s people were far from home, exiled into Babylon after their own cities and homes were destroyed or seized from them.  But the prophet still spoke to them on behalf of God.  He said that things are rough now, but in the future, “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  The mountains are not too big, too sturdy, or too strong that they are unable to sing praises to the God who made them, echoing with their own chorus and the applause of the trees as the people take the road back home.


And so on my quick journey, I found myself praising God “in the heights,” as the Psalmist encourages:  “Mountains and all hills…praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven!” (Psalm 148:1, 9, 13)

Christ Is Risen!

May 2017

Column for May, 2017

Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Each year, we greet each other enthusiastically with that traditional reminder of Easter.  We begin in our worship for the Great Festival of Easter on Easter Sunday.  This year, it was during the children’s time that I taught the call-and-response.  When I said the first phrase, “Christ is risen!” many of the children just looked at me blankly.  I was heartened, though, when I heard many of you in the congregation respond enthusiastically, “Christ is risen, indeed!”  I said it again at the end of the sermon, and by the end of the service, when I said it as part of the benediction, everyone in the room seemed to get it.


The greeting is traditional in Eastern Orthodox churches.  Often in those traditions, it is spoken in Greek; you can see it in the Greek letters above, although I couldn’t figure out how to get the right accent marks to work on my computer.  It is called the Paschal greeting; the word “Paschal” just means “Easter.”  There is even an article on Wikipedia which lists how it is printed (and, if you can pronounce the letters, how it is spoken!) in scores of other languages.  That article notes that in Russian traditions, you follow the Paschal greeting with three kisses on alternating cheeks.  We Presbyterians don’t tend to be that familiar with each other, so we don’t usually practice that part of the tradition.


The greeting is not just exchanged for the one day, though, because Easter lasts for an entire season.  The season of Easter will carry us all the way through May this year.  It goes for a total of seven weeks, beginning with Easter Sunday and ending the week before Pentecost.  I usually try to integrate the Paschal greeting into the Call to Worship, the sermon, or some other part of the service throughout the whole season.  I will be honest:  it gets a little tough by the end of the season.  By then, it feels like we are so far away from Easter Sunday that the whole rest of the world has moved on.  The fact is that the whole rest of the world has moved on.  By the end of May, the stores have long ago put away their chocolate bunnies, pastel baskets, and those Cadbury eggs filled with gooey, rich, sugary filling that is supposed to look like the egg yolks and whites.  They have replaced Easter with the beach-themed decorations for summer, or even their red, white, and blue tchotchkes out for the Fourth of July.  But not the church.  In the church, the good news of Easter is at the center of our faith, so we keep the white and gold cloths on the pulpit and communion table through the whole season.  It is the best news the world has ever heard, so we take our time with it:  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!


This year, I am going to make an effort to keep the Paschal greeting in worship all the way through the seven Sundays of Easter, no matter how far it seems like we are stretching the season.  I will do that because we have some wonderful celebrations coming up to help us understand the meaning of Easter for our lives.  May will be a full month in our worship life!  You will see more information about what is going on in the rest of this newsletter, but a couple of highlights:

  • Sunday, May 7, we will have our Graduation Sunday, the Church Picnic, and Communion
  • Sunday, May 14, we will recognize all of the women who provide, protect, nurture, and otherwise “mother” in our church, whether they have children or not
  • Sunday, May 21, we will have a special presentation from Thornwell about Building Families
  • Sunday, May 28, we will celebrate Ascension Sunday (if you don’t know what that is, see Acts 1:1-11)

All of these special days will help us understand the meaning of that phrase:  Christ is risen!  They will help us to celebrate and feel festive.  They will help us to know what it means to be a part of the community of people who come together around our faith in Christ’s resurrection.  They will help us to perceive God’s call to us, too, to love and to serve our neighbors with the same love God has shown us.


I hope you will join us for all of these special celebrations!  And mostly, I hope you will join us in celebrating the best news the world has ever heard:  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!

The First Fire

April 2017

Column for April, 2017

Last year about this time, we started cleaning out the office.  We had papers and files which were important to keep at one time, but which had piled up over the years.  We found offering counting tallies from the mid-1980s.  We found letters from brides requesting the use of the sanctuary for their weddings who now have children graduating from college.  We found extra copies of minutes, bulletins, and newsletters reporting events and incidents long since forgotten.  There was a lot of paper, and while we knew we had to keep the really important stuff, much of it needed to be removed from the office.


We recycled most of the everyday stuff, but some of the papers needed to be shredded, just to make sure we were not spreading any information around that people would not want spread.  About the same time, we were celebrating Easter.  And so, I had an idea.


One of the ancient traditions of the church is to kindle a new fire at the first service of the Great Festival of Easter.  The new fire is symbolic of Jesus’ resurrection.  At the end of the Maundy Thursday service, the Christ candle, which represents the light of Christ in the world, exits the darkened sanctuary last.  On Good Friday, there is no candle in the sanctuary.  These moves communicate the painful truth of those days:  when Jesus died on the cross, it is as if the Light of the World had left the world.


But on Easter, everything begins fresh again.  The tomb was empty.  The angels declared, “he is not here; he is risen!”  Jesus was raised to a new kind of life: an abundant and eternal life-after-death.  And so we kindle a new fire, and from that fire, we light the Christ candle anew and carry it back into the sanctuary to illuminate our highest celebration of the year.  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!


When I was preparing for our first service of Easter, which is our SonRise service in our cemetery on Easter morning at 8 a.m., I thought, “What would make better fuel to start a new fire than 30-year-old papers which need to be destroyed anyway?”  So that is what I used.  I was a bit nervous.  The morning was a bit damp from rain the night before.  I found some dry kindling under the eaves of the buildings, but still:  what if the fire refused to light?  If the “special effects” didn’t work, then we would not be able to complete the service as planned!  Whose silly idea was this?!?


Isn’t that the truth of Easter, though?  For those women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning, things certainly did not come off as planned.  They had everything prepared, but when they arrived at the tomb, there were some tense moments of worry and waiting.  Then, slowly, they uncovered the story, and they came to understand what happened.  Jesus’ body, which was 30 years old and lifeless, had been kindled into new life for himself and for the whole world!


The fire ignited by the 30-year-old offering tally sheets worked.  After we gathered on the walkway between the Education Building and the Sanctuary, I read a bit of scripture, we sang our opening chant, and then I stepped out into the drizzle to our makeshift fire pit with the lighter.  And by the grace of God, the papers lit well.  The fire started right on cue.  We read some more, we prayed some more, we sang some more as we processed, and the Alleluias of Easter rang again.


I hope you will join us as we reenact that drama in our worship once again this year.  The schedule for our Holy Week and Easter Sunday services is later in this newsletter.  Mark your calendars to join us for as many of those services as you can.  If you need a ride, call us in the church office and we will help you make arrangements.  Do whatever is necessary, because it is the greatest story we can tell and share and use to praise God together:  the Light of the World shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.


Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen.

An Invitation

March 2017

Column for March, 2017

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ,

to observe a holy Lent

by self-examination and penitence,

by prayer and fasting,

by works of love,

and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.”

Every year, we begin the church’s season of Lent when I offer you those words.  They are from our liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent.  They lay out the theme of the season and the disciplines of the spirit to which believers have traditionally paid special attention during Lent.


On the one hand, any talk about Lent, with all of its traditions, darkness, and especially discipline, sounds like a drag.  At best, Lent seems a bit dour; at worst, it seems like a time when pious people seek to become more self-righteous.  Give up chocolate or coffee or meat or whatever else tastes and feels really good.  Spend time examining your sins.  Read more, study more, pray more, or do something else more.  And in the process, make up for all of the things you do wrong, and all the things you fail to do right, for the rest of the year.  It doesn’t sound like any fun.


Of course, Lent is not supposed to be dour, pious, and especially not self-righteous.  The word “Lent” comes from the old English word “lencten,” which simply means “spring.”  Lent at its best corresponds to the season of nature we are in now (and, inexplicably, we seem to have been in since our one and only freeze in January!).  Think about this season a bit:  there is more light, as the days get longer.  The air is warmer, though without that stifling humidity which makes us all want to slow down and take it easy during the summer.  The trees bud out; the flowers come up, and life unfurls again.  This season is a part of the annual pattern, but every time it comes around, it feels like a new gift again.


And that is what Lent is.  It is a time of darkness which gradually dawns to light.  It is a time of building warmth, but the kind of warmth that gives us energy to do new work, not the kind which stifles us and makes us lazy.  It is a time for growth, when new life emerges and our lives unfurl to become more open, more receptive, more vigorous, and more ready to broadcast beauty.


Throughout the rest of this newsletter, I hope you will see some ways you can observe a holy Lent at White Bluff Presbyterian Church.  There are opportunities for us to learn something about ourselves and our neighbors; we hope you will join us for the Evening with Robert Lupton on March 30.  There are opportunities for fasting and giving alms through our Lent Food Drive.  There are chances for us to contemplate works of love, especially as we continue to develop our Building Families program.  There are opportunities for us to pray, lifting up our sisters and brothers on the prayer list and giving thanks to God for the many ways that all of us work to build up the church and community.  And there are chances for us to read and meditate on the Word, through the studies of the Presbyterian Women’s circles and through the work of the Sunday School.


I hope you will hear these words of invitation again to join together in the light, the warmth, and the growth which are the gifts of Lent:

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ,

to observe a holy Lent…

Let us bow before God our Creator and Redeemer.”