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.

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The Lord Builds This House

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 127:1.

When I was in sixth grade my parents decided to sell our house and build a new house across town. For six months our family of four lived in a two bedroom apartment. I slept on the couch and shared a closet with my brother.

Never.again.

(Not the sleeping on the couch – the sharing the closet with my brother.)

Every Monday through Saturday evening had the same routine:

  • Family came home – from work, school, errands, or activities
  • Family ate dinner together
  • Family loaded into the car to make the three mile drive to see the new house.

Every Monday through Saturday evening for six months.

Never.again.

(Sorry Dad.)

My father wanted daily visual confirmation of what work had been accomplished. He and my mother made quite an investment in that house; they wanted to see the fruit of their investment from dug footers to the shingled roof to everything in between.

(Like any sixth grader, my biggest concern was that I would have the bigger bedroom. After all…I slept on the couch for six months… I did get the bigger bedroom, but Charlie had the bigger closet. Can’t win ’em all.)

I found those daily pilgrimages to the new house very frustrating. I was not interested in how the house was built; I lacked the patience – or maybe it was the attention – to spot what was new each time we pulled up to the curb or crossed the threshold. My priority was that the house was built. Until then, the daily visits were daily reminders of how much longer I had to wait.

(And waiting is the worst…c’mon November.)

My predisposition remains towards that things are made or completed rather than how they are made or completed…which is probably why God continues to draw me into problem solving situations as well as circumstances where I have to move from A to B without knowing the way forward.

(While a straight line would be the quickest commute – the church world tends to prefer winding paths and loop-de-loops…)

Why the winding paths? Why the loop-de-loops? Why the detours or dead ends? There is one common denominator – people.

Whenever I encounter a roadblock in my yoga practice, I acknowledge that there is a person in my way…and that person is me. If I am afraid of a pose, if I fall out of a pose, if I “fake it till I make it” in a pose rather than applying myself to the process of learning the pose from the ground up – the person standing in the way is me.

Similarly, I believe when the church encounters roadblocks in our problem solving or in moving forward, it is usually because of people. Sometimes it is malicious in nature, but more often than not, we stand in our own way because of fear, uncertainty, and uncooperativeness – with God and with one another. God wants the church – the Body of Christ – to accomplish the work before us – to ensure that we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. God also wants the church – each church – our church – to be faithful in figuring out how our work is done.

How the work is done and that the work is done is the responsibility of the whole body of Christ at Tuskawilla. Frustration enters in when this responsibility continually falls on the shoulders of a few.

For Tuskawilla UMC to continue in the way that God intends, we must apply ourselves to both the how and the that. And that we does not just refer to the Executive Council, Leadership Team, retired clergy, present small group and ministry leaders, or pastor – that we applies to all of us. Together God wants us to face our fears, to relinquish our uncertainties, and to cooperatively discern and determine our next steps as a congregation. God wants us to speak truth to one another in love so that we do not hinder or block the next steps God desires us to take. And God wants us to take those steps. One after another after another after another.

God has been about the business of building at Tuskawilla for over three and a half decades. God is not finished yet…and I am eager to see the how and that God will shepherd us to and through next.

Prayer: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home. Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.”* Amen.

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

PictureLent ~ Replace

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Galatians 2:19-21

Every active United Methodist clergy person in the East Central District of our Annual Conference (and some other districts, too) participates in a Clergy Peer Group. These groups meet monthly September through April. We meet for the purposes of walking alongside one another in our ministry offering support, guidance and companionship. We also study a book each semester. This semester we are reading Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster. This text explores the “spiritual movements of prayer” and “helps [readers] understand, experience, and practice the many forms of prayer.”*

One of the chapters I read recently describes Unceasing Prayer. Foster quotes Kallistos, a Byzantine spiritual writer, when defining this sort of prayer: “Unceasing prayer consists in an unceasing invocation of the name of God.”** Foster then quotes St. Francis saying, “[Unceasing prayer] seemed not so much a [human] praying as prayer itself made [human].”**

The Apostle Paul encourages us in I Thessalonians 5:17 to “Pray without ceasing,” but how exactly is that done? It is accomplished with mindfulness and with practice. Foster observes that Christians over the centuries desiring to live into this direction from Paul have settled on what is called aspiratory prayer or breath prayer. Writes Foster, “The idea [of breath prayer] has its roots in the Psalms, where a repeated phrase reminds us of an entire Psalm, for example, O Lord, you have searched me and known me (Ps 139:1). As a result, the concept arose of a short, simple prayer of petition that can be spoken in one breath.”***

The most famous of the breath prayers is the Jesus Prayer: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It is a prayer that can be inhaled and exhaled on a single breath. It is a prayer that can be repeated again and again in its entirety or in pieces. I like to pray the prayer in its entirety and then continue the prayer by removing phrases one at a time:

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Jesus Christ.

I find that when I engage prayers like this one I become calmer and I become more attentive, not to my surroundings, but to God. I am focused. I am primed to receive.

This week our #PictureLent theme is Replace. As we journey deeper into the season of Lent we become more aware of what awaits us and awaits our Christ. We know that Good Friday is coming…but even more importantly, Easter is coming. On the cross Jesus replaced humanity; he took our place. He took our punishment for sin. He took our shame. He took our death and defeated it.

Mindful of what is still to come in the Lenten season – not only spiritually in my walk with Christ, but also schedually (yes, schedually) in the life of the church – I am in need of more moments of quiet and centering and reflection. I often spend my devotional time listening to music and this past week I was introduced to “Here’s My Heart” by I Am They. This song is a breath prayer repeating again and again “Here’s my heart, Lord. Speak what is true.” This song petitions God to speak into our inner most beings the heavenly truth that can and will replace the lies, fears, and doubts that have come to dwell within us.

I am guilty – at times – when praying the Jesus Prayer of focusing on the word sinner. I believe – I am convicted – that we need to recognize and take responsibility for our sins. But we are not the sins. We are ones who receive the truth of mercy. God’s mercy reminds us of our sacred worth. God’s mercy reminds us that we are made in God’s image. God’s mercy nurtures us daily in activities and decisions that lead us in recovering the image in which we are made. God’s mercy plants the seeds that move from our head to our heart. God’s mercy breeds assurance, which opens us further.

Which leads me again in my offering: Here’s my heart, Lord. Speak what is true.

Speak what is true.

Prayer: “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, to bear the dreadful curse for my soul. What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of life to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul, to lay aside his crown for my soul.”**** Amen.

* from the Prayer dustcover

** Prayer 119.

*** Prayer 122.

**** “What Wondrous Love Is This,” The United Methodist Church 292.

Be Still: Be Still and Know

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 46

I am a worrier.  I worry about everything.

Worrying stems from a sense of inadequacy – a place of not being enough.  I have always felt that there is more that I could be doing no matter what I am doing – whether I am working or cleaning or resting or even having fun.  Occasionally Andrew and I have the opportunity to visit one of the local amusement parks in our area and – yes – I admit – that I will think to myself as we are strolling through Adventureland that I could be strolling more productively, or if we had made this turn or that turn we would have missed this whole hoard of folks that have now beat us in line for DoleWhip.

And if you haven’t ever had DoleWhip – you need to get on that.

I think because I am a worrier I always feel that I need to be doing something.  Andrew tells me all the time when we are home, “Sarah – sit down and relax” while I continue to flit around the house doing whatever it is that I am doing.

Why do I do all these things?  Because the opposite of doing these things is stillness.  And why do I not like stillness?

Honestly?  Because I like to be in control.

Today’s confessions – I am a worrier.  I always feel that I need to be doing something.  I like to be in control and I understand stillness as a relinquishing of control.

For some reason I do not take the same posture of finding the more efficient or productive way to be still that I employ in other areas of my life.  Stillness is not about me and what I am doing.  Stillness is a space to sit, hear, and be with what God is doing.

And that is uncomfortable…because if God is in control…then I.am.not.

Why is that so uncomfortable?  Well I am a creature of habit.  I like things the way I like them.  For example, I do not know why I take the time to browse menus at restaurants because I order the same meal without fail according to what that restaurant offers.  As a creature of habit, I have creature comforts.  I have comfort zones.  And what if being still and sitting with, hearing, and being with what God is doing invites me out of my comfort zone?  What if the revelation in the stillness takes me somewhere new?  What if the revelation in the stillness tells me to stop something I love and to start something that before I would not touch with a 27 and 3/8s foot pole??

What if…

But I guess I will not know if I do not become still.

My head knows that God does not want me to worry or find my worth in the tasks I accomplish (or put myself down for the tasks I leave undone) or be controlling.  My head knows.  Sometimes the pathway from my head knowing something and my heart incarnating that knowledge in my life is very fluid…and then other times…not so much.  What will help with that fluidity?  What will reinforce God’s truth in my life?

Stillness.

God you have a funny way of working sometimes…

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

God is exalted by all people all across the earth.  In the stillness I am invited to join their praise.  If I neglect the stillness, God will still be praised, but my voice will not be counted among them.  That hurts me…and I believe that hurts God, too.

I am going to find some time to be still today.  To sit.  To listen.  To be.  To praise.

Will you join me?

Prayer: “Eternal God, the refuge and help of all your children, we praise you for all you have given us, for all you have done for us, for all that you are to us.  In our weakness, you are strength, in our darkness, you are light, in our sorrow, you are comfort and peace.  We cannot number your blessings, we cannot declare your love: For all your blessings we bless you.  May we live as in your presence, and love the things that you love, and serve you in our daily lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”* Amen.

*Prayer of Saint Boniface, http://re-worship.blogspot.ca/2014/06/prayer-of-saint-boniface.html.

The Gospel According to Showtunes: Climb Every Mountain

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

This Sunday is my last Sunday with my Reeves UMC family.  On July 1st I begin serving as the senior pastor at Tuskawilla UMC and my first Sunday will be July 6th.  Below is my farewell letter to Reeves.  I invite you to be in prayer for both of these congregations and for me as I prepare to say “see you later” and “nice to meet you” in the next couple of weeks.

Dear Reeves UMC Family,
It has been my honor and pleasure to serve as your pastor for the past two 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, and embracing my “high taste” for shoes.  Thank you for opening your arms to Andrew and our four-legged children.  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 Reeves 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 Rev. Tracy’s pastoral leadership and grow as disciples so you can transform your church and community.  As I leave you to begin serving as the pastor at Tuskawilla 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.
Love,
Sarah
Philippians 1:3-6
Prayer: “Lord, whose love through humble service bore the weight of human need, who upon the cross, forsaken, offered mercy’s perfect deed: we, your servants, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart, consecrating to your purpose every gift that you impart.  Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go to the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show; hope and health, good will and comfort, counsel, aid, and peace we give, that your servants, Lord, in freedom may your mercy know and live.”* Amen.
*”Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 581.

The Gospel According to Showtunes: No One Is Alone

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Kings 17:8-24

I write this blog post on the eve of my birthday.  Tomorrow I will be 29…and I’m thinking around this time 29 years ago my mother entered into her labor of me.  I was a healthy baby – 9lbs 6oz if I remember correctly what I have been told – so my mother worked hard!  As I age I find myself thinking more of my mother than myself on my birthday.  That day is what it is because of how she labored for what God created.

I was a mild-mannered child, save the colic I had for what seemed like eternity!  And then very quickly into my teenage and young adulthood years I found my own opinions that I expressed with my own voice.  I am not sure that I was ever shy in sharing an opinion – though I have reigned that in a bit nowadays.  Sometimes I would say things and my mother would look at me with a face of, “Where in the world did you get that trait?!”  Certainly not from her, but she claimed me and loved me and claims me and loves me still.

Even when I say things that are the complete opposite of what she believes.

Even when I say things that push her outside her comfort zone.

She claims me.  She loves me.  That is the greatest gift of motherhood a child could ever receive.

Every Sunday night my mother sends me an email and they all start out with variations on this theme:

Dear Sarah, I hope your service went well this morning.  I hope those gathered heard God’s word and felt God’s presence.  I prayed for you and your leadership as you served.

Her prayers, her sincerity, her consistent messages – they are pure gift.  They remind me that no matter how old I get, I am still her little girl.  The little girl that she had to tape bows to my head for pictures because my hair was so few and so fine – you would never believe that if you saw my hair now!  The little girl that she had to coax to wear tights to church.  The little girl who acted tough in public but she would hold as I cried at night.  That happened when I was a child.  That still happens now.

My sweet mother is someone who comes alongside those who are in need and she serves diligently.  She serves not seeking recognition but because she knows in her heart that it is the right thing to do.  In Matthew 6:2-4 Jesus says, “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  My mother does not sound a trumpet.  She gives wholeheartedly.  She serves silently.

She is my example and my hero.

I give thanks that my mother is always there to remind me that I am not alone.  Her companionship is a gift that I will treasure always and it is a gift that I seek to share with all of my family, friends, and the people that I serve.  Our relationship is balanced: I learn from her, she learns from me; I say crazy things and she laughs.  See?  Balanced!  I celebrate her this week as I enter my 29th year of life.

I love you, Mom.  So very much.

Prayer: “For our mothers, who have given us life and love, that we may show them reverence and love, we pray to the Lord…  For mothers who have lost a child through death, that their faith may give them hope, and their family and friends support and console them, we pray to the Lord…  For women, though without children of their own, who like mothers have nurtured and cared for us, we pray to the Lord…  For mothers, who have been unable to be a source of strength, who have not responded to their children and have not sustained their families, we pray to the Lord…  Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children, so you watch over your Church.  Bless these women, that they may be strengthened as Christian mothers.  Let the example of their faith and love shine forth.  Grant that we, their sons and daughters, may honor them always with a spirit of profound respect.  Grant this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”*

*”A Prayer for Mother’s Day,” The United Methodist Book of Worship, 438.

Atonement: Forgiven…Even If

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 23:32-43

We are more than halfway through Lent.  The days till Easter are numbered; yet, the forthcoming days are some of the most troublesome to walk.  Andrew and I gave up bread – wheat and flour – for Easter this year so that space would be created for us to reflect on what it means to ache for daily bread and not receive it.  As the days proceed we have become hyper aware of how bread-centric our society is.  We have become hyper aware of the increasing challenges facing our neighbors as they struggle to secure food – and nutritious food – for themselves and their families.  We have become hyper aware of our neighbor’s innocence in so many of these predicaments and how our society is so quick to say “pull yourself up,” “make better choices,” “you brought this upon yourself.”

From the cross one criminal rebuked the other saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man had done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:40).  And then later from the voice of the centurion, “Certainly this man was innocent” (Lk 23:47).

The mocking soldiers and scoffing leaders – in a modern translation – could have said to Jesus, “Pull yourself up,” “make better choices,” “you brought this upon yourself” as he struggled on the cross.  Lone were the women who wept at the base of the cross.  They knew who Jesus was, they experienced his compassion and his justice, they knew the scandal of his death.  The women’s teary protest was taken up verbally by two other “outsiders” – a criminal and a Gentile centurion.  People, neighbors, children of God who were always in the direct scope of Jesus’ ministry throughout his ministry witnessed to his innocence as he hung dying.  But their witness did not stop his death.

We can know who Jesus is, experience his compassion and his justice, and know the scandal of his death.  We can also resist his love and his truth.  We can push him away.  We can deny.  We can crucify.

And we do.

As I draw towards Easter I become more unsettled because innocents continue to suffer.  Christ suffered and my neighbors suffer.  It is not right.  It cannot continue.  And if I am going to testify to the beauty of the resurrection, then I must have the courage to stand up to injustice and be a voice alongside the innocent.

I cannot live in a world where the innocent unjustly suffer.  Christ left this world because of it and rose that we would be his helpmates in redeeming it.

Prayer: “O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others; open my ears that I may hear their cries; open my heart so that they need not be without succor; let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.  Show me where love and hope and faith are needed, and use me to bring them to those places.  And so open my eyes and my ears that I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee.  Amen.”*

*”For Courage to Do Justice,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 456.