Commitment and Conviction: Instructing Children

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Deuteronomy 6:1-9.

In 2009 I nearly walked away from the ministry.

(I know…it is hard to say! It is still hard for me to believe, even to this day!)

I was serving as a children’s ministry staff member at a large United Methodist Church in Atlanta. The church recently hired a new director of the ministry and our relationship was not going well. We bumped heads (locked horns) frequently. One day while expressing concern that the children – and their families – were not being as supported in their faith development at home as what I thought possible for the children’s ministry staff to provide I was told these words by the director,

“You are not here to worry about the spiritual health and development of the children and families in this program. You are here to sort curriculum, cut shapes out of construction paper, and sharpen pencils.”

I did not agree. And my resignation was on her desk two days later.

I cannot not be who I am – and I am a disciple of Jesus deeply committed to supporting, nurturing, and equipping families – especially children – in their faith development. I am certain that if there ever comes a day where this commitment wanes, then the time has come for me to retire.

I want faith to be accessible. I want to make faith accessible. I want to ask questions, listen to questions, and join people of every age in seeking answers to those questions. I want to stand on chairs alongside others a la Dead Poets Society and holler “I don’t know!” when it comes to a question of faith…and then climb off the chairs and pull them up to a table with others as the first steps in the adventure of finding the answer(s). This is one of my greatest passions…and to live into this passion with others is without age restriction or requirement.

Children are capable of incredibly faithful and faith-filled conversations. Their innocence and wonder makes them so wise. Their ability to imagine reintroduces adults to a world that they (we) see all the time but rarely notice.

I am grateful for South Shore’s welcome and addition of the Children’s Moment in our Sunday services. I boldly confess…it is my favorite time of the whole service! I look forward to supporting, nurturing, and equipping the faiths of these young ones. I am also looking forward to ROAR-ing with them at Vacation Bible School next week!

I am eager to see and celebrate how God will lead me in supporting, nurturing, and equipping the faith of the children at South Shore. And, I am equallyeager to see and celebrate how God will lead our children in supporting, nurturing, and equipping the faith of the adults – including me! – at our church.

Prayer: “Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest; now thee alone I seek, give what is best. This all my prayer shall be: More love, O Christ, to thee; more love to thee, more love to thee!”* Amen.

*”More Love to Thee, O Christ,” The United Methodist Hymnal 453.

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Commitment and Conviction: Sanctification

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Thessalonians 2:13-15.

This past week I had the opportunity to gather for prayer with a group of the South Shore youth before they left for their summer camp experience. They were fully equipped for camp – pillows, donuts, energy drinks, and portable chargers for all.the.devices.

(Let us pray…for their leaders!)

Before leaving the youth leader, Toni, invited the students to sit to review their covenant for their trip together one final time so that everyone was on the same page as far as behavior expectations and accountability.

I submit to you – some of the language and expectations in that document strengthened – a.lot. – from previous iterations.

Why? Because of me.

I could tell some of the students had their feathers ruffled…and so I quickly identified myself as the source of the updated behavior expectations and accountability. In fact, I congratulated the students on being the first group at South Shore to live into new behavior expectations and accountability in our shared ministry together!

They thanked me…? Kinda?

At the end of my conversation with the students I referenced a grout line on the floor of the hospitality area, saying that once they crossed that threshold they would be “going onto perfection” within the boundaries of their new behavior expectations and accountability. One of the adult leaders was already on the other side of that grout line – I affirmed that Jeremy was already before them a shining example of going onto perfection!

They laughed. Heartily!

(I feel like they know something I don’t…!?)

“Going onto perfection” is the work of Sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which we are made holy. We are made holy through our relationship with and experiences of God.

John Wesley uses beautiful imagery of the breath in describing how our souls act and react with God as we are made holy. He writes, “God’s breathing into the soul, and the soul’s breathing back what it first receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, and re-action of the soul upon God; an unceasing presence of God, the loving, pardoning God, manifested in the heart, and perceived by faith; and an unceasing return of love, praise, and prayer, offering up all the thoughts of our hearts, all the words of our tongues, all the works of our hands, all our body, soul, and spirit, to be [a] holy sacrifice, acceptable to God in Christ Jesus. And hence we [may infer] the absolute necessity of this re-action of the soul (whatsoever it be called) in order to the continuance of the divine life therein. For it plainly appears God does not continue to act upon the soul unless the soul re-acts upon God” (The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God III. 2 and 3).

As we grow in our relationships with God and experience God we are continually introduced to greater depths of our covenant with God. This necessarily means that we are also held to higher behavioral expectations and accountabilities as God’s Spirit wholy and holy transforms us into the people that God desires us to be. As I mentioned last Sunday, sometimes this gets under my skin…ruffles my feathers. It is in those moments I am called to meet God in the quiet to share my heart…and ultimately receive God’s heart for that moment and season in my life.

Wesley believed that when we achieved perfection – achieved entire Sanctification – that we would inhale God’s love and exhale God’s praise – in all times in all places with all peoples. That is a goal of mine. Sanctification has the trajectory of my life and my life of faith coursed in that direction.

I am so grateful. I am going onto perfection.

Prayer: “Take my will, and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine. Take my heart, it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne. Take my love, my Lord, I pour at thy feet its treasure-store. Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.”* Amen.

*”Take My Life, And Let It Be,” The United Methodist Hymnal 399.

New Day

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Lamentations 3:22-24.

*Ahh! Posting a Sunday Stilleto! Feels like slipping into a fabulous pair of heels…and I know a thing or two about that…!*

On my final day of renewal leave I decided to get some dirt under my fingernails. Equipped with great advice from my gardening gurus – Nita and Lila – and a very sharp pair of pruning shears, I shaped my grandmother’s crown of thorns and used the trimmings to root plants in six other pots, which are adding much needed color to our new yard. It brings my heart joy that my Nonnie continues to shine beauty on this side of eternity as well as the next.

(My neighbor thought I was a little crazy cutting a cactus by hand without gloves…you can take the girl out of Polk County, but you can’t take the Polk County out of the girl…)

I have been quite like this crown of thorns over the past six weeks: way too hot, out in the elements, in the midst of moving, and at times – prickly. This plant was one of the last items to journey to our new home from our previous parsonage. With its arrival also came the reality that we are not in Kansas – I mean Casselberry – anymore…even though we have been in Riverview close to six weeks. When Andrew unloaded this plant off the truck, the feeling overcame me that this is now our home.

And that, friends, is well with my soul.

Beginning this week at South Shore UMC I finally feel like the in between time of transition is complete. Christian Mystics often refer to “in between times” as thin places – places where the veil between reality and eternity is much thinner, or perhaps, even permeable. It is those times where people either A) really connect and root with God or B) they freeze or flee from God because it can be scary to be near something so holy.

I experienced both in my thin place of transition. I connected with God. I froze. And now – how wonderfully theological and symbolic – I have chosen to root – just as I rooted cuttings from my grandmother’s crown of thorns. I – my family – have chosen to root in this neighborhood with this church family for the Kingdom of God. Just as I took a piece of Nonnie’s original plant to make something new, so God is taking pieces of me – experiences, learnings, failings forward, and most importantly, relationships – to root me in ministry alongside the folks at South Shore.

I reckon I will need daily watering (coffee-ing?) and pruning (accountability) especially if I start to be or am prickly.

I am counting on y’all.

Thank you, South Shore UMC, for the warm welcome we received. Andrew, Joshua, and I are grateful for you and excited to root alongside you in ministry to the God we serve.

See you Sunday!

Prayer: “Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee; surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee. Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, who with his love doth befriend thee.”* Amen.

*”Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” The United Methodist Hymnal 139.

Loved Well and Well Loved

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 13:31-35.

This Sunday is my last Sunday with my Tuskawilla UMC family.  I begin six weeks of renewal leave on May 24. On July 1st I begin serving as the senior pastor at South Shore UMC in Riverview; my first Sunday will be July 7th. I invite you to be in prayer for both these congregations, for the transitions we are all anticipating – including my family. It is an odd place to be – somewhere between “see you later” and “nice to meet you.”

I give thanks, in the tradition of St. Patrick, that in all times – especially this one – that “Christ [is] with [us], Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ in us, Christ beneath us, Christ above us, Christ on our right, Christ on our left, Christ when we lie down, Christ when we sit down, Christ when we arise, Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of us, Christ in the mouth of every person who speaks of us, Christ in every eye that sees us, Christ in every ear that hears us.”*

Dear Tuskawilla UMC Family,

It has been my honor and pleasure to serve as your pastor for the past five years. You have taught me so much about life, about being a pastor, about yourselves, about myself, and about the very real presence of God in our midst. Thank you for putting up with my shenanigans, loving me despite my shortcomings, joining me on taking risks, and embracing my stilettos. Thank you for opening your arms to Andrew and our beloved Joshua. Thank you for allowing me to affirm and challenge you in my sermons and small group studies. Thank you for your prayerful support of the mission and outreach of the church. Thank you for your trust in my leadership and stewardship of your congregation. Thank you for the hugs, handshakes, constructive criticism, affirmation, laughter, and tears.

I felt called to come to Tuskawilla and serve alongside you. I am now called to continue in service in another local church. My love and care for you will continue. I will continue to hold you in prayer as you come under Pastor Heather’s pastoral leadership and continue growing and maturing as disciples. As I leave you to begin serving as the pastor at South Shore United Methodist Church I will remember you fondly and know that we will meet again someday. So this is not good-bye; it is see you down the road. It is because of God’s grace that we travel this road together and this road is leading us to glory.

God’s Sweetest Blessings Be With You Always,

Pastor Sarah

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:3-6

Prayer: “Come, thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.”**

*To read St. Patrick’s full prayer, based on the inscription of his breastplate, visit https://www.ourcatholicprayers.com/st-patricks-breastplate.html. 

 ** “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” The United Methodist Hymnal 400.

Waiting and Watching

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 10:22-30.

I don’t like change.

The frequency I am hearing and saying this sentence increases daily.

It is true – we like what we like. We like what we know. Therefore, we do not like change.

It is also true – if we do not change, we do not achieve our full potential. If we do not change, we deny ourselves growth and maturity.

If we do not change, we die.

During times of change I find comfort by remembering and returning to the constants in my life – God’s faith in me, the love of and for my family, the good news in hymns, and the truth contained in Scripture. These are sure and trustworthy anchors for me.

On Wednesday I had the privilege to preach the chapel service at Westminster Winter Park as I have done quarterly for the last seven years. These mornings spent in worship with this community have been such a blessing. The residents became mentors and friends. They helped shape me as a person and a pastor. I am so grateful.

Many of my chapel visits were on days that one of Westminster’s musical groups offered their leadership in worship; Wednesday was no different. The choir sang a rendition of “God of the Ages.” The last verse of that hymn sings:

Refresh thy people on their toilsome way;
lead us from night to never-ending day;
fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
and glory, laud, and praise be ever thine.

The phrases “refresh thy people” and “lead us from night to never-ending day” speak deeply to my soul in this season of transition. Amidst all the movement and shift associated with change, change is also an opportunity to refresh and to be led. Our God has a very clear idea of who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do. I, for one, am really good at overcomplicating things, most especially myself. The gift of change is the ability to refresh and be led in and for God’s intention for both my life and my ministry.

The same is true for the Tuskawilla UMC Family as you prepare to continue your ministry alongside Pastor Heather.

My prayer for the coming days is that all our lives truly will be filled with love and grace divine as Jesus refreshes and leads us to the new days that await us. Change is not hard; resistance to change is hard. So may we all be encouraged to be refreshed rather than resist the change. The God of the Ages – including this one! – is leading us!

Prayer: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace! My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name.”* Amen.

*”O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing,” The United Methodist Hymnal 57.

Course Correction

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 21:15-19.

In our Scripture text for this week Jesus faces Peter – in the text called Simon son of John – head on and asks him the same question three times in a row.

“Simon son of John, do you love me?”

In the many times I have read this text, my immediate reaction has been towards Peter. Jesus puts him on the spot! Peter publicly denied Jesus, raising his voice so that there would be no question from the passersby of with whom Peter stood…or rather did not stand.

Jesus was in earshot of all of this. Peter was in the courtyard above him while Jesus was in a cellar underground.

I have stood in that tomb. Right in its center. And I looked up towards the windows. I could hear birds chirping outside and the wind blowing through the nearby trees. There is no doubt that Jesus heard Peter’s denial.

“Simon son of John, do you love me?”

What a vulnerable question – and not just for Peter – as it invites him into the heart-work of truth telling. But also for Jesus – as with asking this question our Jesus risks rejection once again.

“Simon son of John, do you love me?” could very easily be adapted to any of our names. To me this question is not only worthy of an answer, it demands an answer. The vast amazing incredible holy God of the universe – the Word incarnate – Love incarnate – calls Peter and you and me by name. God in Jesus faces us and sees us and asks us “Do you love me?”

Three times Simon son of John said yes. And three times Jesus directs Peter to incarnate his yes. To talk the talk and walk the walk. To say it and live it. New Testament and other Early Church writings confirm that Peter did. Peter’s actions restored both his credibility and his faith. Peter’s actions reconnected him to the commitment he made to Christ in becoming a fisher for people.

Peter made a huge mistake in denying Jesus. And that mistake could have been the last we ever heard about him. But Peter did not quit. He did not give up. He faced Jesus. He learned from his mistake. Jesus forgave him. Jesus redeemed him. And Peter lived out his days as a witness – as a martyr – declaring – before the world – our Jesus and his love.

Prayer: “As we worship, grant us vision, till your love’s redeeming light in its height and depth and greatness dawns upon our quickened sight, making known the needs and burdens your compassion bids us bear, stirring us to tireless striving your abundant life to share.”* Amen.

*”Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” The United Methodist Hymnal 581.

 

So I Send You

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 20:19-23.

Y’all. Holy Week Hangover is a real thing.

Apparently, I – and my family – did too much last week. (Oops? I might be a bad influence on them…) And so I am reaping what I sowed this week. Andrew has ear and throat infections. Joshua is a teething monster and fighting sleep like it is an Olympic sport. And I had a migraine earlier this week that could have laid out an entire parade of elephants!

Therefore, I would like to pause on a practice that I seldom do enough of – self care. We cannot just go go go. (Say it louder, Sarah, so you hear yourself! In fact, get up and go say this in front of the mirror a minimum of three times…right now…I’ll wait…) Go go going all the time makes us more susceptible to illness, short-tempered, and neglectful of those things that are truly needful – like spending time with loved ones and connecting with God.

Scripture tells us the story of our God and of his Christ that served and love and gave so much. Scripture also tells us the story of how on the seventh day God rested and that while the disciples were working the nightshift as fishermen, Jesus was napping. It is okay to rest. It is valuable to rest. Those are the opportunities where we reset and reevaluate so that when the time comes we are ready to purposefully reengage in the work that God has before us as individuals and as Christ’s Body, the church.

How do you practice self care? Do you nap, go for a run, read, or listen to music? Do you pray while taking an afternoon stroll, connect with a friend over coffee, get a massage, or sit in silence? Perhaps more importantly to ask, when was the last time you practiced self care? And if you are like me – meaning you can.not.remember – find time for that this week. Find time for that today. You cannot be – I cannot be – the person(s) God desires without caring for the body God gifted.

Take care, friends. Self care, friends. See you Sunday.

Prayer: “He left his Father’s throne above (so free, so infinite his grace!), emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me! ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!”* Amen.

*“And Can It Be that I Should Gain,” The United Methodist Hymnal363.