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Minister's Musings 2009
December 27, 2009

This is the last musing I will share with you this year, and I think it appropriate to use it to say "Thank you".

First of all, thank you for the usual things: For making this another wonderful Christmas for me and Luanne, for your faithfulness to the church, for the "narthex niceties" that you share with me Sunday after Sunday.

I also thank you for latching on to the new vision we have for our church. With the acquisition of the Eighth Street property we have proclaimed in a mighty way that St. John United Methodist Church is prepared to do its part to assuage the suffering of an increasingly needy world. It would be easy for us to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our corporate labors. We are blessed with people of many gifts - the gift of music, the gift of teaching, the gift of leading, the gift of caring - and it would be so simple to lock our doors and revel in the "clubiness" of all of that, but together we have recognized God's call upon our church, and we are responding. Even as I write this, food is being handed out on Eighth Street that will help folks get through the Christmas season. I am thankful to you for all of that.

I also want to thank you for allowing me to do my job, and not telling me how you would do it. I cannot begin to tell you what a gift that is. Thank you.

Some years ago, when I had been at Flippen for about five years, I came to realize that I would be at Flippen until I retired. That was okay, I figured. After all, I was about 55 years old, and far too old to go to another church, learn another 6 or 7 hundred new names, and try to convince a whole new congregation that I could ably lead them. So, we settled in.

We were most surprised then when at the end of our tenth year at Flippen, we learned that we would be coming to St. John.

"We'll take it a week at a time," I told Luanne. "Maybe they won't catch on."

But it has worked out. On most days I can remember your name, and by God's grace and by God's hand we are being wonderfully led.

So, thank you for another wonderful year.

As we approach the last half of our fourth year together I promise to work as hard as I can to help this church do all that it can do for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

Thank you again for your faithfulness. I give thanks every day for the joy contingent with being your pastor. I count it a gift.

And I'll see you Sunday,

Gary


December 20, 2009

Since so many of my friends are sending out Christmas letters, I thought it would be nice if I sent out one of my own. I thought you might be interested in what's going on in my life, and in the life of my family.

First of all, I've suffered a little with my health, but folks have been around to help me out with that. My gutters broke down and had to be replaced, and my roof started to leak on me. It's embarrassing when these things happen, but it's wonderful to be surrounded by people who love me enough to pay for the care that I need. I still have some problems, but that's the kind of thing that happens when you get a little older. I'm just going to keep on trusting in the youngsters to see to my needs. That's one of the nice things about getting older - folks tend to dote over you a little.

You might be interested in knowing that I've put on a little extra weight this year, too. In fact, I've gained just about a building's worth. You ought to see me. I stretch down the block and around the corner. And I'm doing some wonderful things. Folks bring food in my back door, and I hand it out the front door just as fast as I can. If I sound like I'm bragging, well, that's what a Christmas letter is for.

I haven't been lonely a bit this year. Folks come to see me all the time. In fact, 25 of my visitors liked me so much that they decided to join up with me. It's a wonderful thing to see all of those new faces around the table at suppertime.

And you ought to see all the children since we last talked. They fill up my nursery week after week, and that old preacher has his hands full with the little children who come to hear his story every Sunday. You'd think someone as old as me wouldn't much cotton to the children, but they have filled my life with joy.

You'd be impressed with all the teenagers that are showing up around here since I last wrote to you. They are finding things to do, teachers to lead them, and a place where they are appreciated and loved. It's a sight to behold.

Some of you don't make it around here much, so I suspect some of this is coming as a shock to you. But come see for yourself. These halls are bustling and my walls are getting wider. You'd just have to see it, I guess.

Sadly, some of my favorite children have died this year. I miss seeing them around, but my purpose has always been to get them a little closer to Jesus, so I just can't be as sad as I otherwise might be.

Well, that's about what's been going on with me.

I'd love to hear from you.

In fact, come see me this Sunday.

I'm still standing out here on Greene Street, all decorated for the birth of Jesus.

I'm almost embarrassed at how pretty I look.

You'll just have to see for yourself.

Merry Christmas,

Your Church
December 13, 2009

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read "NO BAD DAYS." At the time of the sighting of said sticker it was drizzling a cold, cold rain, my "Check Engine"light was on, and I was on the highway some 200 miles from my destination, which was home.

NO BAD DAYS. I talk to folks who remember the depression that dominated every persons thoughts in the '30's, and I counsel with people who are most victimized by the economic woes of our present day. Each of those people has something to say about BAD DAYS.

I read my paper every evening, and I can't help but notice the stories of people who are encountering BAD DAYS, and for some those BAD DAYS are becoming an endless refrain to a tired-out song. I read of celebrities who have fallen, lives tragically and senselessly flying apart, and families sadly separated at Christmas time by a call to a husband, wife, or parent to serve his or her country in a foreign war.

I read where alcohol sales have reached a new level, and the divorce rate is on the rise. "They" attribute these things to the economy. BAD DAYS, you know.

But, those folks who speak to me of the days of the depression tell me that church attendance was up in those days. Folks felt a need to pray a little more, they say. So, I counsel my folks who are having a BAD DAY to spend a little more time in prayer.

And I spend a little time each day trying to make BAD DAYS a little less bad for the people I encounter.

There are no bad acts of kindness.

There are no bad expressions of compassion.

There are no bad ways to say I care about you.

There are no bad ways to be thankful, and there are no bad results that ever come for having been thankful in all things.

So, I thanked God for the rain somebody probably needed the rain.

I gave thanks for my engine light - at least that little bulb was working just fine.

And I thanked God that, though far away, I had a home to go to.

NO BAD DAYS. That's just about right.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary


November 29, 2009

I will start hearing it any day now from those people who don't like Christmas: "I will be so glad when Christmas is over." "Christmas is just for the merchants." "If I hear Jingle Bells on my radio one more time I am going to scream." "I hate Christmas." "Gary, I'm so depressed I don't know what I'm going to do with myself."

Every year the experts tell us some chilling statistics as they relate to the Christmas season. Domestic violence is up. Road rage hits a peak. The suicide rate climbs dramatically during the holidays.

Well, why is that? What sets Christmas apart as that special time of the year that causes people to fly apart at a rate not experienced in any other season? I suspect there are many reasons, and I imagine a good psychiatrist would do a better job of writing this than I, but my take is that many of us have accepted disappointment as a foregone conclusion.

Thats understandable, I suppose. I mean, how could Christmas ever match what we remember it to be? There was a day when Mama and Daddy were alive, Santa Claus was just as warm and fuzzy and real as your fleece-lined knickers, and the Christmas tree wasn't just pretty; in your eyes it sparkled, and could keep you enraptured for hour upon endless hour. Your only thoughts were of what you had asked Santa to bring to you, and you hoped he would remember to bring something nice for Mama and Daddy, too. It was a wonderfully fanciful time of life, a time you have spent years mythologizing into perfection.

Some things are just hard to beat. So, what to do? The answer is to get outside yourself this year. Focus a little more on the grown-up approach to Christmas. Spend some time remembering that Jesus came into the world for a reason, and that reason was to redeem the world.

Most of us have experienced that redemption. We know what it is to have Christ in our lives, and we know the responsibilities contingent with being a follower of Christ. To follow Christ is to go the second mile, love one another, even to love our enemies. To follow Christ is to care for the fallen, to love the unlovable, to tell the Good News. To follow Christ is to do those thousands of things that set us apart from those who do not know him.

So, get creative with it this year. Think of something that you could do to make this a better Christmas for someone else.

A few years ago a couple of teenaged sisters in my congregation sat down and made big, red Christmas bows and walked around their neighborhood affixing them to every mailbox they could find. I didn't take a survey, but I suspect that everyone who got one of those bows felt pretty special.

One year I convinced this crotchety old man in my church that he needed to make at least one phone call a day to somebody to wish them a Merry Christmas. I don't know if he did it every day, but he did it enough days that I had people coming to me and saying things like, "You won't ever believe who called me to wish me a Merry Christmas!" He apparently made a good impression, and impressing people with the love that came down at Christmas is what we are about as the community of faith.

There are, of course, many things your church has put in place for you to do. You can adopt a White Christmas kid, or you can bring groceries for the food pantry, or you can volunteer to help decorate the church for the Advent and Christmas season, etc.

But get creative. Send cards, make calls, tip the paper boy. I don't care what you do. The point is, do something this season that will make people know that you believe in the Christ who came at Christmas - the one who came to change us all.

Give the folks you know reason to believe that he changed you, too.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
November 22, 2009

Next Thursday, the 26th, Luanne and I will celebrate 14 and one half years of marriage. We used to celebrate every month, but even the best of homes can handle only so many festivals. So, we're down to two a year.

Every time I reflect on how we met, I am reminded that God is the designer of life's events. Duty most assuredly is ours, but the events belong to God.

It was 1994 when Luanne and Kelly moved to McDonough. In an effort to help Kelly meet some new friends in the new neighborhood, Luanne signed her up for recreational league softball. Well, Kelly never became much of a softball player, but she did meet a little girl named Ashley who invited her to come to her church. Kelly accepted the invitation and went with her the next Sunday to Flippen UMC there in McDonough.

At that point in time I had been in my recovery period for three years, and happened to be worshiping at the Flippen Church.

Some weeks later Kelly invited her mother to worship there. Luanne was an Episcopalian at the time, and didn't really want to switch, but duty causes us to make concessions for our children, doesn't it?

I was singing in the choir in those days, and Luanne, after some several weeks, also joined the choir.

I could bore you with further details, but I won't. Suffice it to say, we met, we married, and I have to find a gift by next Thursday.

Actually, there are more details that are absolutely wonderful.

Ashley became one of my favorite people. Ashley introduced me to her dad one day, after I had become the church pastor, and her dad started coming to church. He became a regular around there, I baptized him, and I now talk to him almost every day of my life.

I went back and conducted Ashley's wedding a couple of years ago, and I was there at the hospital a few months back when she and her husband, Matt, welcomed their new baby boy into the world.

All of that happened, and more, much more, simply because a little girl dutifully invited another little girl, a stranger, to church one day.

I went to my first mentoring session at the local elementary school last week. I have been assigned a wonderful little boy. We just have lunch together, and we talk. There's not that much to it, really, and I did it out of a sense of duty. I figured I had been being a little too selfish lately, and maybe God was wanting more than that of me. As I said, I did it out of a sense of duty.

But God made the event happen. The event was the hug he gave me when it was time for me to go home.

So, let me encourage you to duty.

You can be sure God will provide you with an event that will light up your life.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary


November 15, 2009

It was in April of 2005 when Cha Sa-soon, who is now 68, decided she would fare better in her vegetable-selling business if she just had a vehicle to get around in. In order to drive a car, however, Ms. Cha was going to have to get her first drivers license.

Excited by the prospect of abandoning her pedestrian ways, she made her way to the drivers license agency in her hometown of Jeonju, South Korea, filled out an application, and took the written exam. Regrettably, Ms. Cha failed the test. However, Ms. Cha is not one to be easily defeated, so she returned shortly thereafter to take the test again. Again, she failed. But, Ms. Cha continued to try.

You will be pleased to learn that Ms. Cha has finally passed the test. According to a recent Associated Press story, she passed it on her 950th attempt. Never one to give up, Ms. Cha returned again and again, sometimes on a daily basis, and finally achieved her goal. Over these past four and a half years, Ms. Cha has spent the equivalent of 4,200 U.S. dollars on application fees, which suggests, incidentally, that she must have already been doing quite well in her vegetable-selling business without the aid of a vehicle.

Thats quite a story. And it strikes me that ones own personal story is never played out in a vacuum. There are always others who are effected by, and have a reaction to, your story.

For example, I wonder what the lady who administered the exams thought of Ms. Cha?

What about the bus driver who must have taken her to the agency every day? Will he miss her next week?

What of her family? Surely, there was at least one cousin who long since had told her to give it up.

And what of her friends? Dont you just know they had a laugh or two over afternoon tea every day at the expense of dear, old, addled Sa-soon?

Sometimes, when you are engaged in the extraordinary, there are going to be those who fail to see the big picture, and who might even suggest to you that you have lost your way. Thats understandable, because often you are the only one who has the vision. You are the only one who even knows what the big picture is going to look like.

Noah took forever building a boat while the neighbors laughed, but things turned out okay for Noah.

Moses wandered for 40 years, but never stopped believing in a Promised Land.

Elijah, standing alone, eventually reduced 450 prophets of Baal to a dusty little pile of smoky bones.

I have dreams that I hope I will never abandon. And, I believe by Gods grace, I will one day see those dreams turned into a bright and shining reality.

I suspect you have dreams of your own. Dont give up. God, most assuredly, will never give up on you.

And, by the way, Ms. Cha still has to take the actual driving test. There is always another goal to attain. Praise God for that!

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
November 8, 2008

It seems to happen without fail around this time each year that someone will say to me, "The leaves arent going to be very pretty this year. We've had too much rain." Or, they might tell me there has been too little rain, depending on the given year. It is as though that person is saying to me, "Please allow me to encourage you to anticipate disappointment." I can't begin to tell you how refreshed and uplifted that always makes me feel.

I traveled out of town today to help conduct the funeral of an old friend. As I traveled, I couldn't help but notice how beautiful the fall leaves are this year. Of course, they are beautiful every year. How could they be anything other than beautiful? The different colors that come with fall enable one to better see the depth of the forest. They give the woods definition, as each tree seems to stand unto itself. Suddenly, they're not just trees, but they are elms and maples and oaks and dogwoods and pines, and they seem stunningly proud so to be.

All around us beauty abounds, and yet there are those who would give God an "F" in his fall semester creation class.

I think tonight of a passage in Mark that we so often read right through, never giving much thought to its significance. It is recorded in Mark 6:1-6. It is about Jesus returning to his hometown, and verses 5 and 6 read, "He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith." Without believing people to work with, even Jesus was ineffective.

We humans have trouble believing sometimes. Our faith wanes. And whenever that happens, we don't give God much to work with.

We have trouble believing that God can really be equal to the current crisis before us, whatever it might be.

We have trouble believing that what is happening today is going to have a good and lasting effect on what will happen tomorrow.

We have trouble believing that all things work together for good for those who love him.

We have trouble believing that God wants us to do that awful thing that we simply do not want to do.

We have trouble believing that God is watching over us, especially when we might be feeling our most defeated.

Sometimes we even have trouble believing that our lives can ever be good again, that we can ever feel right again, that things will ever change.

In short, sometimes we have trouble believing that God is merely getting ready for another season.

The lady we laid to rest today was one who never stopped believing. For many years Billie was confined to her home, and to her bed much of the time. She missed out on many of the simple things in life, things that we take for granted going to the store, to church, to family gatherings. There just was not much that she could do. I would go to see her, would ask her what shed been up to, and she would say, "I've just been talking to Jesus. Things are going to get better for me."

Oh, how I loved to go see her.

Billie would have enjoyed the leaves today.

I'll see you Sunday.

Gary


November 1, 2008

It was not my job to keep up with the church calendar when I was a little boy, so whenever All Saints Day rolled around I was always caught off guard and taken aback. I always found myself wishing we had stayed home that day, which was pretty foolish of me, because we never stayed home. To this little boy the remembrance of the saints was an exercise in backward looking, not to mention a little bit frightening and creepy. In my mind it smacked of finality and sadness, and worship seemed less joyous that day.

There were tears in the sanctuary on All Saints Day, and the only tears a little boy understands are his own. There was much talk of Heaven, but to that child sitting on the fifth row, Heaven was still that place where I was going to have to wear my white shirt and skinny striped tie every day. It was where I was going to have to be good all the time and nice to everybody all the time. It was the place where there wasn't going to be much fun at all and the place where old people would gather around the piano and sing. Baseball and roller skates and a Baby Ruth and a six and a half ounce Coke for a quarter were never mentioned in the same breath as Heaven.

All Saints Day was not my favorite day. If death and finality have the guile to charm a child, that charm was certainly lost on me.

Thankfully, though, we do more than get a little taller as the years unfold. Thankfully there is something to that wisdom and stature thing. Thankfully God has a way of painstakingly working with us little ones, always seeking to give us that one understanding that makes everything else work for us: Life is always a forward looking thing.

Even in death, life is a forward looking thing.

And because Jesus lives, we, too, shall live.

That is why I now come to All Saints Day with great joy. You see, I am looking forward.

I am looking forward to seeing - Mama and Daddy and my sister - friends who died young in Vietnam, and friends who just died young - saints of the church who I never had a chance to thank for molding and shaping my ministry - folks I never got around to apologizing to for being so blatantly wrong when they were being so passively and lovingly right.

I am looking forward to understanding - why that had to happen - why the other didn't happen - why what seemed so right turned out so wrong - and why what seemed so wrong wasn't wrong at all.

I am looking forward to finding out what the angel band is and finding out if there are auditions.

The point is, I am looking forward. Forward to life, forward to victory, forward to forever.

Come join us this Sunday as we celebrate the great eternal victory of those who have gone before us in the course of this past year.

The service is one of the most beautiful of the year.

And you can be sure that the angel band will be with us, cheering us on, playing our song.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
October 25, 2009

We laid my mother-in-law, Elizabeth Redwine Fowler, to rest last Friday afternoon.

Elizabeth's funeral service matched the spirit by which she lived. It was joyous, meaningful, and maybe even a bit irreverent. It mirrored who she had been on earth, and it was wonderful.

We held Elizabeth's funeral in the Redwine family cemetery, a place of abiding and compelling memories, and we buried her there, she taking her place among the saints.

Whenever families gather to grieve, or rejoice, or whatever, someone always pulls out the family basket of lore. That is to say that someone starts telling family stories. Basketsful of lore are interesting things. Some of the things in those baskets can be documented, like dates of birth and death, and when folks were baptized and married and such. But some of those things in the basket cannot be documented at all. They are bits and pieces that seem to have no origin, they are little scraps born of a modicum of truth, and then there are stories that stretch any reasonable limits of credulity. Still, they are family stories, and each time they are told, they gain a bit more credibility.

One such story, one I had never heard until Friday, tells the story of the beginnings of the Redwine family cemetery. The story is told that years ago, when the original family came to realize they would one day need a place to be buried, they came to this hillside to determine if this would be an acceptable place for their eternal repose. Upon determining that the site would do nicely, there was one final test to be given. They all gathered on that hillside, they each picked out a place, and they each lay prone upon the ground. After determining that they would all fit, they decreed that this would be the perfect place.

I had a choice this morning of telling you that story, or simply sticking it back in the family basket and pretending I never saw it before. But I decided you needed to know that the basket you carry around with you is not as strange as you might previously have thought.

And I wanted to write about Elizabeth one more time. Oh, how we will miss her.

But her soul was fitted for heaven long, long ago, and she has gone home.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary


October 18, 2009

You can keep all the football there is to yourself as long as there is one more baseball to be tossed around the yard. So, I was looking forward to getting home from Camp meeting on Saturday night so I could watch the divisional playoff baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Colorado Rockies. Since the game was being played in Denver it wasn't going to start until 10 p.m. local time. I love to watch a baseball game, so you can imagine my disappointment when I turned on the television only to find out that the game had been postponed because of snow.

I was as disappointed as I was the year the snow came and buried my brand new little baby cabbage plants, but that's another story.

But that freak storm in Denver reminded me that fall is upon us, and with the fall come the opportunities and challenges that face the church every year at about this time. Our Charge Conference will be Sunday, December 6, and all that we do from henceforth will be in anticipation of that day. Rarely, if ever, do we have a Charge Conference on Sunday at St. John, but I requested to have such this year. I wanted you to have the opportunity to hear your District Superintendent, the Reverend Gary Dean, preach, and I wanted you to be reminded that worship and the glorification of God is why we do all of the other that we do.

On Sunday, November 1, our leadership team will convene at 2 p.m. in my study. We will at that time consider who of our laity might most ably lead our church during calendar year 2010. If you are a committee member I trust you will be giving this much consideration between now and then, and will arrive prepared to share your positions.

We will be distributing pledge cards for the year 2010 on Sundays, October 25, November 1, and November 8. The cards will be in your bulletin each of those Sundays, and we will also be sending one in the newsletter. You will have trouble avoiding tripping over a pledge card, and I trust you will generously pledge when given the opportunity. There will also be a special card in the bulletins inviting you to make a second mile gift to help retire the mortgage on our new acquisition on Eighth Street, as well as to help pay for the 100,000 dollars we need to borrow to make additional upgrades and repairs.

Also, if you are yet to retire the initial pledge you made toward the Eighth Street property, this is your reminder that it is time to do so. Many of you made verbal pledges of 1,000 dollars when we met with the D.S. and approved the purchase. It is up to you to honor that pledge on your own, as we have no formal record of it. I am certain you will. We have not rattled your chain about this, but some of you have actually REQUESTED that we do so, so consider yourself to have been officially rattled.

It is easy to grow complacent when things are going well. I have battled that phenomenon more in the second half of my ministry than I ever had to before. I think that's because I'm doing a better job of loving people at this point in my ministry, and my churches are doing well as a consequence. But sometimes we can do too well, and that makes us lazy. Lets don't let that happen. I don't want to have to answer to my superintendent because the bills aren't getting paid. I want to be able to tell him that the bills are getting paid and that we don't have to beat the drum too loudly to make that happen. God is blessing us in the midst of remarkably good days at St. John. Let's not let the dollar situation mess that up.

I am thankful for each and all of you.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
October 11, 2009

I believe God will lead me and guide me along the way. I believe that more than I believe anything else and I spend more time trying to impress the truth of that upon others than I do anything else.

Funny, I remember a day when that statement was one of life's givens. People then were as people are now; in and out of trouble, wrapped up in their own stuff, trying to make a buck, not being above trying to take advantage of the next guy, cutting corners, wanting a dollar's worth of pay for a dime's worth of effort, gossiping when it seemed in order, and generally being folks.

But, there seemed in that day to be a general understanding that God ultimately was in control. Folks were pretty bad, and folks continued to be pretty bad, but they did so knowing somewhere down deep in their souls that they were out of sync, marching to a three-four rhythm in a four-four world.

You couldn't find many people in those days who denied the existence of God. Only the boldest among us made jokes about God, and those were the folks we were quick to catalog as being perilously close to beyond redemption.

We would see those folks in church on Sunday, and that was good, because we believed that Jesus could change anybody, and whosever wilt may come, and all that other stuff the world now regards as being so very quaint.

The Church meant much to us in those days when we still believed that God leads and guides as along the way. Mainline churches were being built on every city street and in every suburban neighborhood, and people were showing up on Sunday because they still believed what grandma and grandpa believed, and they wanted to give expression to that.

I don't really know what happened to that Church. Oh, there are a thousand theories, maybe more than that. Maybe we preachers grew too fat and sassy. Maybe we quit preaching what we used to preach. Maybe we as a people made too much money and needed to go spend it on Sundays. Maybe we wore ourselves out and needed to rest. Maybe the world got a lot more entertaining than we did. Or maybe we could lay it all at the feet of a sophistication that called into question the old, old story. Whatever, that Church seems a memory.

While all that is not true at St. John; while St. John continues to show up, pay up, and pray up; while St. John is constantly in the process of re-thinking church and adjusting to a changing environment, the core of what I have shared here is glaringly spot on.

For an ever-increasing segment of our society, God is something we sing about during the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game.

All of which is why I want you to invite your friends and neighbors to White Oak Camp Meeting this coming weekend. Camp meeting is a chance for people to get back to their roots. Camp meeting is a decidedly Methodist experience. Camp meeting is probably where your granddaddy gave his life to Jesus, and if camp meeting wasn't the place, there is a good chance it was the place that put him in the notion of it!

It starts on Friday night with worship at 7:30 p.m., and continues on Saturday morning at 11:00, Saturday night at 7:30, and concludes Sunday morning at 11:00. I am the Camp meeting preacher this year, and I am excited about the opportunity to share the good news in that place. As an added bonus, the St. John Choir will be singing on Friday night.

We believe that God will lead us and guide us along the way.

Give a friend of yours the opportunity to come to know that, too.

Gary
October 4, 2009

We Christians can be pretty harsh critics of those who have drifted away from the things of God. While the truth of that is understandable, it is also regrettable.

"Why did George leave the church?"

"I heard he was upset we ordered the red hymnals. He had voted for blue. He said he'd leave if he didn't get his way, and some people have to have their way, you know."

"Have you called him?"

"No, I haven't called him. He knows where the church is. If he wants to quit, let him quit. Besides, that's why we pay the preacher."

"But he was a faithful member for 47 years. Surely he deserves a call from one of us."

"He deserves nothing. We needed him, and he walked away in a color dispute. We'll get along just fine without him. People can be replaced. He's the loser, not us."

"What does George do for a living, anyway?"

"I don't know, I never thought to ask."

The truth is that people do suffer crises of faith, and those crises have nothing to do with hymnal selection. They have to do with what's going on inside of a person. Hymnals and such simply provide a good excuse to excise one's self from the fellowship of believers.

And instead of making contact with that self-excluded soul, we get our back up, feel rejected, get our feelings hurt, and write our brother off with little more than a brief conversation over a doughnut in the fellowship hall before Sunday School.

We need to give old George a call. Something is going on there, and if we don't try to find out what it is, if we don't exercise a bit of Christian compassion, then who will?

Way back in 1758 a 23-year old man named Robert Robinson wrote a hymn entitled, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing." Robert had been something of a wild thing as a teenager, but attended a George Whitefield meeting one night and was converted. Robert would eventually enter the ministry, and would do good things for the kingdom. But something happened along the way and he drifted away from the faith. Shortly before his death, at age 55, someone asked him about that hymn. He replied, "Madam, I am the poor man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds to enjoy again the feelings I had then."

History does not record why Robert Robinson drifted away from the faith, but I can never sing that hymn without being haunted by the final stanza:

O, to grace how great a debtor, Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let that grace, Lord, like a fetter, Bind my wandering soul to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart; Lord, take and seal it; Seal it for Thy courts above.


You will find that hymn in both the red and the blue book.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
September 27, 2009

Driving back from Atlanta last night I witnessed the aftermath of an Interstate accident. Five cars were lined up on the side of the road, each in some state of minor disrepair. There were also a few police cars scattered among them, officers obviously trying to sort out what had happened, and who might have earned the tickets always associated with that kind of thing.

As I continued on, I spotted a wrecker in the median. He apparently had been coming from the other direction and had made the decision to cross the median through the grass. The grass is tall and thick these days, due to the budget cuts, and it's difficult to see where the easiest places to cross might be. We are also in something of a monsoon season in those counties between here and Atlanta, and the driver must not have given much thought to the fact that it might be muddy out there. The end result was that the wrecker was mired up to its wheel wells in mud. There was no way that particular wrecker was going to be of any value to anybody.

You might say the driver of that wrecker had lost his influence. He had taken himself out of the ball game. It is one thing to answer the call, but just answering the call is never enough.

I can imagine the conversation that went on with his dispatcher.

"Hello, dispatch, can you send a wrecker?"

"Bob, you are the wrecker."

"Yeah, well, about that..."

I am not wise enough to know if the ill-advised actions of people are intentional or merely slips of the tongue, reflex actions, or folks getting caught up in the moment. However, I am a pretty good judge of stupid, and I know it when I see it.

Maybe they think stupid sells, but whatever they think, politicians, entertainers, and athletes have spent a great deal of time lately with their wheels stuck in the mud. Folks don't seem to be doing much seeking after righteousness, do they? Doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing seems to be losing favor. That is because doing the right thing takes effort, it takes thought, it takes remembering that we are children of God, and that we are called to something greater than gaining the attention of the crowd.

It is incredibly important in the church that we do the right thing. Doing the right thing means giving great thought to the hard things. It means showing up, giving our money, investing our time, and serving the Lord with gladness. It means remembering that we are God's best hope for this increasingly fractious world. It means never failing to remember that when the world looks at us, it is looking for something to laugh at us about, looking for license to say we are no different than are they, yet quietly hoping that maybe, just maybe, we will turn out to be the harbingers of sanity and hope and light.

More people than you would dare to think are looking at us as we watch the storm clouds gather, and as the rains pour down on Greene Street, just as they do on every street.

We can't afford to let our wheels get stuck in the mud.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary

September 20, 2009

One of my favorite things to do at end of day is to go out to the back porch and read the newspapers. I buy a lot of newspapers. I especially buy a lot of newspapers now that it has been bandied about that newspapers are slowly losing their hallowed place as America evolves into an increasingly more tech-happy society. My newspaper purchases are a silent, one-man protest to all of that. Most assuredly, I purchase and read in vain, but I press on.

I like to get a little printer's ink on my hands as I catch up on what's going on in the world. That doesn't happen when I get my news off the Internet.

I write this to tell you of something that has been happening of late when I go outside to read. Just as I am spreading my newspaper out on the table, a big, fat frog comes out of the bushes and takes up residence next to my foot. And there he sits. If I get up and leave for a moment, he is there when I get back. As I read he sits patiently at my side, occasionally flicking out his tongue to catch whatever is foolish enough to venture into the intimacy of our space.

This strange phenomenon has gone on for about a month now, and I have not known what to make of it. That is, I didn't know what to make of it until my friend Chris called the other night. After a bit of mindless conversation, he inquired, "How's my toad frog?" "Excuse me?" I answered.

He went on to explain that the last time he came to visit he couldn't sleep, so he spent the night out on the porch catching bugs and tossing them to this ever-expanding frog. He commented that once you start feeding one of those guys, he becomes your friend for life.

I asked him if they die in the winter, but he didn't seem to know.

I have thought a lot about that frog; about how he's here, and about how I didn't invite him to be here, and about how uncomfortable he makes me feel sitting there next to my already occupied shoe.

But, I have concluded that I am going to enjoy him. Somebody dear to me, my old friend Chris, brought that frog into my life. He probably didn't consciously do that, but that's what he did, and maybe I should count that corpulent toad's presence in my life to be something of a gift.

It would be easy to see him as an imposition. It would be easier still to ease him into the neighbor's yard. But I have decided to see him in a more positive light. I am already feeling better about myself.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
September 13, 2009

One of the things we learned yesterday at our first Shepherd's meeting of the year is that people are not as informed concerning our work and our intentions at the Eighth Street property as we might have thought they were. Thus, that meeting was dominated by a discussion of that topic. It was thrilling to me to see the incredible level of excitement in that meeting about our present and future plans for that ministry. And it has occurred to me that the rest of you might like to be brought up to date as well.

To begin with, the Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries has been conducting their food bank work in the building for the past month. The DCCM is a group of 12 churches that combine their resources to purchase and distribute food to those in our community who stand in need of such help. This ministry operates Monday through Thursday from 11:00-12:30, and serves approximately 120-160 families a week. There is a list of the churches who are members of the DCCM on file in the office should you wish to see it, but we are the only United Methodist Church involved. It is truly an ecumenical effort, and we learn much from one another as we work together.

The DCCM occupies one full half of the first floor of the building. Plans for the other half include partnering with St. Vincent DePaul and Christ Community Health Services to provide minor health services during the week. We also hope to add a Saturday clinic in the near future. This ministry could well serve as a conduit to get people who need help to the places where they might receive that help. There are also plans to bring in an eye clinic and a dental chair.

Two weeks ago, at the most recent meeting of our Administrative Council, the people voted to authorize the Trustees to obtain an additional $100,000 credit line at the first of the new year to make the upstairs more accessible and user friendly. When this happens we will be able to open up that section for tutoring, literacy classes, a clothes closet, and the list goes on.

The possibilities are seemingly endless when we think about the good things we will be able to do now that we have that wonderful facility. It is remarkable what can happen when we yield to the whisperings of Christ and invest ourselves in His instruction. There are few churches that are blessed with the talent and the resources with which St. John has been blessed, and we recognize our responsibility to move forward in the understanding of that.

Thank you for your enthusiasm for what we are about, and thank you for helping us to move forward. At this writing we owe only $35,000 on our original investment.

By your gifts and by the ever-amazing grace of God we will do all within our strength and reach to place the mark of Christ's love on downtown Augusta, Georgia.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary

September 6, 2009

We didn't have things like "Sesame Street" and "Barney and Friends" and "Sid the Scientific Kid" to educate and teach us life lessons when I was a child. Our lessons came more subtly wrapped in television shows like "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show," and "My Three Sons."

Most people remember those shows with a kind of knowing smile these days, and are quick to point out that those offerings represented a reality that never was. And to some degree those people are right. I don't remember Mama tripping around the kitchen in a party dress and high-heeled shoes a la Donna Reed, and I have no recollection of Daddy owning any of those cool sweaters with the patches on the elbows that the wise Jim Anderson seemed to always be wearing around the house. I admit that those things were a little outside my experience.

However, those shows always seemed to be trying to impart some sort of lesson. Sometimes it was a reach, but they always seemed to be trying to convey the message that there are things we should do and things we shouldn't do. They tried to explain that there are consequences for our behaviors, and that righteous living more often than not leads to a positive outcome in life.

The all-time classic in this regard was "The Andy Griffith Show." My family never missed it when it was new to the airwaves, and I would not be stretching it to say I have seen every episode a hundred times down through the years. The stories never grow old, and the lessons learned are lessons that this jaded old soul needs to reflect upon from time to time.

I bring all this up in order that I might make the following announcement: When our Wednesday Night Suppers resume on September 9, 2009, the program for that night will be a reflection on an episode of "The Andy Griffith Show." We will watch the actual episode, and then I will lead us in a discussion of the moral and theological implications of what we have seen. I think it's going to be pretty wonderful.

I remember back when "The Waltons" was the number one hit on TV. The network, seeking to capitalize on its popularity, created another show not unlike "The Waltons," to run in the next hour behind it. That new show lasted only a few weeks and was cancelled. Nobody watched. I asked my younger brother why he thought this was so. "I dont know," he answered. And then he surmised, "Maybe folks just cant handle two hours of goodness in a row."

We will run the Andy Griffith series for 4 consecutive weeks. Consider it a test of your capacity for goodness.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
August 30, 2009

This would have been Daddy's 95th birthday. As my brother preached from the St. John pulpit yesterday, my mind kept going to how much Daddy would have enjoyed being among us. He would have enjoyed hearing Phil preach, and he would have enjoyed the banter in which Phil and I engage when we get together.

Most of all, he would have enjoyed telling Phil, at the end of the day, that he still had a long way to go to be as good a preacher as Gary. Daddy, you see, was the original banterer, so Phil and I are merely amateurs come to try our hand.

So it is with life: one event begets another; one generation mimics the last; today's tomato reminds of yesterday's garden.

Back in the spring of 2005 when I was in my early recovery from cancer, there wasn't much I could do. I was at the point where I had finished my radiation, had no voice, was very weak, and was quite incapable of doing my job. I was well enough to be up and moving around, but not near so well as to be able to do much.

So, I hit upon the idea of becoming a tomato grower. By this time Luanne had gone back to work, and each day when she left I would drive the 2 miles to Lowe's. Each morning I would buy a five gallon pot, and on those days when I had run out, I would buy more tomato plants and potting soil. I would get home each morning, fill the pot with soil, and plant a tomato. It might seem silly to you that I would go every day. It would have been wise to buy several pots at once, but, as I said before, I was looking for something to do.

By the time Luanne got around to telling me that enough is enough, I had 25 tomato plants growing around the church parsonage yard. She probably would never have said a word, but it turned out that she was the one who had to water them every evening because by close of day I was too worn out to do much of anything. So, she would go to work every day, come home and water my crop, and I would walk around the yard each morning feeling like quite the successful farmer.

You know, I remember those days as some of the best of my life. Sick though I was, I was reminded every day of how much Luanne loved me. Sure, she knew my project was about as stupid a project as I could have chosen, but she never said that. She just watered the plants and made me feel like I was contributing something of value to our circumstance. You see, she knew that those growing and thriving plants were sort of emblematic of my goal, and if you love somebody enough you'll tote a lot of water to make it happen.

That's why I suggested the tomato sandwich luncheon. Tomatoes make me smile. Tomatoes remind me that I am loved. Tomatoes, for me, are a remarkable gift from God.

And so, too, are you. Thank you for being present this past Sunday to take part in my joy.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
August 23, 2009

Our Old Testament lesson on Sunday was from 1 Kings the story of the Lord coming to the young King Solomon in a dream, and giving to him the gift of wisdom. Mark Fissel was our reader on Sunday, and as I listened again to that old, old story, I was reminded of when and where I first heard the telling of it, and of many other stories of the heroes of our faith.

The when and the where of it was the Sunday school of my childhood, to which my parents carried me every Sunday of my life. In those long ago days, I learned of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I learned of Saul and David and Solomon. I learned the incredible story of Jonah. And I learned of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz. I learned about Nehemiah building a wall, and Joshua blowing a horn. I listened as the story was told of Jeremiah fashioning a bowl out of potter's clay, and dropping the bowl, and starting all over with the same wad of clay, and how God used that experience to teach Jeremiah a valuable life lesson.

I couldn't wait to go to Sunday school every week. I knew I was going to learn something new every time I walked into the room. And just as importantly, I knew someone was going to be there to teach me. I remember their names still: Mrs. Dumbleton and Mrs. Beam. Each fall they traded me back and forth. I think they probably did that because I was their prize student. They have both gone on to Heaven now, and I suspect their rewards are great, for they were putting up treasures by the bushel in putting up with me. Somehow I think they knew that at the time.

But the point is that they gave me something that has served me all my days. They gave me a wellspring of knowledge upon which I continue to draw every day of my life.

Oh sure, I learned a lot more of the details about these Bible characters when I got to seminary, but those guys just couldn't tell a story like Mrs. Dumbleton and Mrs. Beam could tell a story. Or, maybe it's that a little boy loves to learn more than a big boy loves to learn. Or maybe the truth is that God has a very special way of speaking to a child in Sunday school, for God is speaking to that child through some very special people.

I am so thankful for our Sunday school teachers here at St. John. If your child has not come under the influence of these good people, then you need to do something about that while your child still has the desire to learn. We need to do the best job we can of loving and guiding our kids.

The neighborhood kids sat with Luanne on Sunday. After church someone came up to Luanne and said, "What you are giving those kids is something they will carry with them the rest of their lives."

As the child who became your pastor, I can attest to the truth of that.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary


August 16, 2009

My Brother Phil retired from the North Georgia Conference in 2004. Phil was wonderful at what he did. He was beloved by those congregations he served. Never did he suffer the indignity of sitting before a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and being told it was time to move on. He did all those difficult things a Methodist preacher is called to do, and he did them with what seemed like tremendous ease. His churches always grew. He never suffered a negative membership year. He never served a church that failed to pay their apportionments in full.

When it came to preaching, one would think he was born to it. In fact, he was, having received his call of God to preach at a very early age. And during his ministry it seemed a year never went by that some church somewhere or some camp meeting somewhere didn't call him to be their preacher for the week. I always felt like his years as a district superintendent were years that could far better have been used filling a pulpit somewhere but the powers that be never have consulted with me on things like that.

I am certain that many people hated to see him retire, but I was chief among them. You see, every Saturday night for decades we would talk to each other on the phone and share our sermon notions for the next day. When he retired I lost that wonderful source. Still, I press on, trooper that I am.

By now I suspect you are waiting to hear that my brother has died. Good news, though. He has not died. I have written this piece about him as prelude to telling you he will be with us in Augusta on Sunday, August 23, 2009. He will be preaching out at Clark Hill for our lake ministry that morning at 8:45, and will be preaching at St. John at 11:00.

The last time Phil preached for me was in the winter and spring of 2005 when I was recovering from my bout with cancer. Phil had been retired for six months when I learned that I was ill. When the radiation treatments started I lost my voice, and my brother filled my pulpit every Sunday for the following six months. Every Sunday he made the 75 mile drive from his home in North Georgia to preach to my people in my stead. What an incredibly selfless act of love that was.

Some things can only be repaid by never forgetting the fact that they happened, and I shall never forget what Phil did for me. Phil often says that he, in fact, did little for me, but that God did much for me in restoring my voice and allowing me to preach again. (Every now and again my brother and I try to out humble each other.)

Anyway, following worship that day we will gather in the fellowship hall to enjoy a summertime luncheon of salads, tomato sandwiches, and ice cream. It already sounds absolutely wonderful to me, and I hope it is sounding just as wonderful to you.

Make certain you are with us on that very special day. Invite your friends. Just don't tell them that Phil doesn't preach every week. Excuse me, there I go being humble again.

And, I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
August 9, 2009

I am not holier-than-thou. Neither art thou holier-than-me. However, we all have our moments, don't we? In fact, I share the following with you with some measure of shame:

I was engaged in my usual Sunday morning ritual of going to the church kitchen to prepare a glass of ice water to carry into the early worship hour. Sometimes our preacher can get pretty boring and the whole experience tends to give me a case of cotton mouth.

At any rate, as I was putting the ice in my glass, I heard a little voice say, "Hello, Mr. Gary." I turned my eyes toward the fellowship hall where five of our little neighborhood children were gathered around a table eating doughnuts. They all, every one of them, had a smile for me, but I fear I did not return their gesture of friendship. You see, I was too busy wondering what they were doing there 75 minutes before Sunday School was even supposed to start. I wondered why they were unsupervised. I wondered if they were going to become my responsibility for the day. I wondered why they considered it okay to be first and why they didn't wait for everybody else. I fairly blanched at their aggression!

Then one of the littlest ones, a six-year old boy, said, "Mr. Gary, when do the Wednesday night suppers start again?"

"I dont know," I replied, "I guess in about a month."

"Oh, boy," he said, "We really like those."

I left them then and headed back up the hall. I guess I had walked all of ten feet when the shame started to set in. We don't know as much as we would like to know about these kids, but that isn't because we haven't tried. We know where they live, and we sometimes drive them home, but it's hard to get a handle on their needs even when we get the opportunity to speak to their parents.

What we do know about them is that they seem to appreciate everything we do for them. They are delighted when I give them a Bible story book or a coloring book. They are thrilled when we call them by name, and they melt into our arms when we give them a hug.

And I couldn't help but notice how that little boys eyes lit up when he asked me about Wednesday night supper. That was the genesis of my sadness and shame. I mean, if a six-year old little boy's major dreams have something to do with food, then that means someone or something has done a bad number on that little boy's dreams. And the thought of that made me feel awful that I had looked on those children, if even for a moment, as an imposition.

Next Sunday morning I will be at the church and in the kitchen by 8:30. I will have with me a bag of grits and a dozen eggs, and if those children show up (sometimes they do and sometimes they don't), I will put the water on to boil. Every kid in the world deserves something a little more substantial than a doughnut for breakfast.

Now, I'm not saying I'll be doing that every Sunday. I'm just saying that experience on Sunday morning reminded me that I need to be paying a little closer attention to the welfare of my immortal soul.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary


August 2, 2009

Jim Rice was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this past Sunday. Jim Rice was a superstar who played his entire career for the Boston Red Sox and would have been on the ESPN highlight reel every night if all that stuff had been around back then. Many was the game when he seemed to single-handedly dismantle my beloved Detroit Tigers. He was wonderful at what he did for a living, and his inclusion in the Hall is testament to that.

Yet the thing that will probably always be best remembered about Jim Rice was something he did one day that had nothing to do with his skills as a baseball player, but had much to do with what kind of a person he is.

On August 27, 1982, during a game against the Chicago White Sox, a foul ball went screaming into the front row seats, striking a four-year old child in the head. Immediately blood came gushing forth from the childs head, and almost as immediately Jim Rice sprung from the dugout, raced to the child, took him in his arms, and ran through the dugout tunnel, through the clubhouse, and to the exit where an ambulance was waiting. Within 30 minutes of the incident the child was laying on the operating table at Bostons Childrens Hospital. Doctors were able to relieve the pressure on his brain and administered anti-seizure medications as a precaution. The doctors were later to say that the quick action of Jim Rice most assuredly saved that childs life.

Most of us remember Jim Rice as being kind of a surly guy. He didn't have much to do with the press, and on his best days was just a step above belligerent. Newspaper people didn't like him much at all, which might explain why it took him until his 15th and final year of eligibility to make it into the Hall, despite glowing numbers on the field of play. For those of you who might not know, the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America are the people who get you in or keep you out by their collective vote.

Still, surly or not, belligerent or not, it was Jim Rice who rose to the occasion that day. 35,000 other people sat frozen in place while he did what seemed to him the right thing to do. In a rare interview from those days he said, "I simply did something anyone would have done."

Our salvation calls us to a higher level of living. Folks should be able to look at us and somehow know that we are those who rise to the occasion. For what it's worth to you, that is exactly what I see when I look at you people. I see folks who see wrongs and seek to right them. I see folks who know what it means to live with a passion for the moment, for you all have come to know that every moment that God has given you is a precious thing.

I am thankful for my salvation for many reasons. It is a wonderful thing to live under grace. I long for everyone to know what I know, and I continue to preach to that end. I am a better person because of my salvation. God has changed me, and most of you can echo that he has changed you, too.

That's not to say that you can't be surly, belligerent, and downright difficult to deal with sometimes, but that's okay. Jesus never said your salvation would turn you into Miss Congeniality. He said your salvation would turn you into a disciple.

And someday when I look back on all this I won't remember you as a doctor or a teacher or a ballplayer or a farmer or a technician or whatever you are. No, I will remember you for what you did for a broken and bloody world. And, despite your shortcomings, I will remember you with great joy, for I will remember you as those who carried mercy into the grandstands while the spectators among us sat frozen by.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
July 19, 2009

James McGuire has written a book entitled, American Bee. It is a book about the National Spelling Bee, held annually in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on five young people who competed in the Bee in 2004, so it is not a brand new book, but it is new to me. I can remember the tension of having competed on the local school level 50 years ago, and can only imagine how the pressure must mount with each succeeding level of the competition.

But, the book is far more than simply the story of the Bee. It also contains sections that tell something about the history of our American English language. As you know, Noah Webster was what we might call the father of the American dictionary, and he had some interesting ideas as to how our words should be spelled. He was put off by foreign influence in our spellings, and he believed that our new English should be phonetically crafted. Thus, tongue would become tung, trouble would be troble, new would be nu, and catch would be cach.

However, Noah didnt understand what kind of troble he was getting himself into. He didnt understand that by and large we Americans want to hang on to our past. To reform spelling too much would be to wipe away part of our cultural memory, and that is not something we are keen to do. Buffay might be easier to spell, and to remember, but buffet reminds us that the word came from the French, and thats okay. In fact, that is the way we prefer it.

Still, we are constantly making little adjustments to our language. Just the other day Merriam-Webster came out with their new preapproved words for 2009. Among them: frenemy, earmark, staycation, and vlog (a blog that contains video material.)

One word not yet approved, but still on the trial list is prepone. Prepone refers to the act of arranging for an event to take place earlier than originally planned the opposite of postpone.

Perhaps a good use of the word would be, Im going to prepone my walk with Christ, for I have put it off far too long.

Prepone just might turn out to be the most valuable word in your vocabulary. Apply it to your work, your faith journey, your home life. Make the act of preponing work for you. Surely the Almighty expects his people to be forward looking so that we might be prepared when the time comes to be engaged. You obviously know this is what the purchase of the Eight Street Property was all about.

And speaking of the Eighth Street Property: I am terribly disappointed that we are still carrying a debt. Perhaps, though, my disappointment should be with myself, for I have failed to keep you apprised of hard numbers. So, here they are: 68,000 dollars will retire the debt. Dollars above and beyond that number will set our course for the future in terms of some of the things we want to do to dress it up and make it more usable for ministry.

In a few short weeks DCCM will be moving into the property to conduct our daily food ministry. That ministry will grow simply by virtue of where it will now be located. It would be nice if we could be debt free by the time they move in. We at St. John are people of means. It is true that the economic downturn is a dreadful thing, but it is equally true that few of us have been terribly hurt by it. While I prefer a staycation, I could afford to go on a vacation if I wanted to. Each of us needs to earmark a portion of our wealth toward the satisfaction of this debt. So, the choice is ours: Will we act as frenemies of the church, smiling pleasantly but doing nothing, or will we act as the responsible citizens of the Kingdom we have promised to be? Now, if you are saying, Hes right. Ill get around to this tomorrow, then you have missed the point of the article, for that would be postponing.

Prepone. It is a Kingdom word. It is a good word for you.

Please dont force me to create a vlog to get my point across.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
July 12, 2009

The preachers who were moving this time around did so about two weeks ago and are now pretty well settled into their new appointments. They have by now had two opportunities to preach, and two opportunities to impress Uncle Fred who always comes around at new appointment time to give the new preacher a listen and a chance.

Uncle Fred is just good like that. Never one to judge, Uncle Fred wants that new young preacher to understand that he will be in his or her corner just as long as he or she preaches the unvarnished Gospel, and preaches it with authority. Uncle Fred is always attendant at the welcome aboard luncheon.

By now Uncle Fred ought to be good to go home and stay there for the next two or three years, for you can be certain that by now that young preacher has failed the test. That young preacher will never have any idea what he or she did wrong, but will feel compelled to carry the guilt of having failed to measure up.

Of course, Uncle Fred is a crackpot, and everybody in the church knows it, and most of the time someone in the church is kind enough to tell the good Reverend Newperson the truth of it. Still, the preacher will struggle with having failed to keep Uncle Fred within the fellowship of the church. Its not an easy job being a Methodist preacher, and usually the hardest part of it is breaking in a new congregation. The laity of the United Methodist Church are among the finest people on Gods earth, but even knowing that is not quite enough to erase the fear and trepidation associated with assuming a new pastorate.

Somehow we anticipate Uncle Fred, and somehow we always find a way to fail him.

So, I write this asking you to be in special prayer for the preachers who have assumed new appointments this year.

Pray that they will remember that their ministry is to all the people, not just the squeaky wheels.

Pray that they will remember that 99 percent of their congregation wants them to succeed.

And pray that they will grow so in grace in their new appointment that they wont feel it necessary to smile at Uncle Fred at the going away luncheon whenever that day might be, for you can be sure that Uncle Fred will be there to bid his pastor a fond farewell.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary

July 5, 2009

It came out of nowhere, violently and with a vengeance, and when it was gone a majestic South Carolina pine lay shattered in its wake.

I had been sitting in the shelter of my porch watching that incredibly swirly-whirly summer storm unfold, musing in that very moment on how that stand alone pine was able to endure all kinds of weather.

In days gone by I have seen its branches carry the burden of the iciness of winter, and have watched it bend virtually to the ground in the most wretched of March winds.

Construction projects that have gone on around here in recent years left that pine tree pretty much on its own, and many have been the times when I have marveled at its ability to continue to stand tall.

But as I write this, about 20 feet of tree trunk is left standing as testament to what was. My sightline over the back fence will forever be altered. Never again will I witness those boughs sway defiantly in the wind.

I will miss seeing that. I will miss watching it do what it did. Something will be missing the next time the clouds gather up and the rains come down.

And though I feel as though I have lost something of value, it would be exceeding silly of me to condemn that tree for having fallen, for sometimes a tree will fall.

And I will remember that the same loving God who created that tree loved it still at its falling.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary

June 28, 2009

I sat with my friend Guy Kent at the Ministers Executive Session at Annual Conference last Tuesday.

I wonder how many more times I will be in a position to write that sentence? So far I have been able to write it 42 times, for that is the number of Annual Conferences we have attended together.

We start out in life thinking we will probably collect a whole bunch of friends along the way, but it never really works out that way. We meet a lot of people, and a lot of people influence our lives for both good and bad, but very few bonds are truly established. Oh, I know you would probably beg to differ. You might say, Gary, Ive got more friends than I can count! And on a certain level you are absolutely right.

But, Im talking about those exceptional few who sort of stick like glue. Im talking about those folks who owe you about as much as you owe them, which is nothing, but would still do anything for you folks who are bound and determined to put up with you in spite of yourself.

You are picturing those people now, and I suspect they number one, maybe two. They are the ones who would bail you out, but are the same ones you would never ask. Still, magically they are there, and you wonder how or why.

They give you counsel without judgment, encouragement when you need it most, hope for the living of your days. In short, they are your friends. They are Gorilla Glue in a world full of wallpaper paste.

Guy offered me some pretty wise guidance the other day as we sat there reviewing the new troops who are about to become new Deacons and Elders in the Church. It was counsel that was both timely and helpful, and I use this space today to thank him.

I remember about 12 years ago when Guy had a heart attack while cutting the grass at his parsonage. We were all rather shocked by that because Guy had always been quite the athlete, running six miles a day. During his recovery he counseled me to start taking better care of myself. You never know, he said, what can happen.

I was thankful for the counsel and immediately stopped running, and just to be safe, I gave away my lawnmower.

God bless you, Guy. I shall always be thankful for you.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary

June 21, 2009

I'm headed out the door to Annual Conference, but one last story before I leave. I have scoured the newspapers and haven't found this story anywhere else, but it made the national radio news at 5 a.m. the other day.

It was reported on the CBS Radio broadcast that the gorilla at the Columbia South Carolina Zoo escaped his enclosure a few days ago. I have never seen his enclosure, but the word "escaped" leads me to believe he found himself in a place where he ought not to have been.

The report said that the handler who was on duty at the time made the foolish mistake of trying to stop him, and was summarily knocked to the ground for his efforts. As I listened, I was expecting quite the dramatic story to unfold, but, amazingly, the announcer said the gorilla then turned around and quietly returned to his enclosure. End of story.

Or, maybe it's not the end of the story. Maybe the rest of the story is that the gorilla thought to himself, Oh, my, what have I done? Boy, was that ever stupid. That's the guy that feeds me that I just knocked to the ground. He's the guy that sprays the cold water on me when it's 105 degrees outside and he knows I could use a little refreshment. He's the one who brings me that great rack of banana when I'm in the mood for something exotic. He's the one who tries to comfort me and tries to calm my nerves when I cant stand it another minute with these goobers walking by and staring at me hour after hour, day after day. What was I thinking? What have I done? Maybe if I just quietly sally on back to my enclosure, nobody will notice. Maybe Mr. Handler wont tell. Maybe he'll forgive me. Maybe I won't make the CBS News. And if I do make the news, maybe that old insomniac in North Augusta wont be listening. Maybe, just maybe. All I know is that I am so embarrassed I can't stand myself.

I write this with a sympathetic bent, for I too have occasioned to wander aimlessly from my enclosure. Sometimes I knew why I did so, and there were other times when I knew not why. But, wander I did. When those times have come upon me I have been alternately ashamed and embarrassed. I would find at those times that I was no longer in the presence of my comforter. I could not help but notice in those days and years that the delicacies and delights of life had lost their flavor. And there was many a time when by my errors I made the news, or at least made it after a fashion.

Like Mr. Gorilla, I managed to make a mess of it all. And, like Mr. Gorilla, I hoped and prayed for forgiveness.

The consequences of my behaviors exacted a tremendous price, but there was good news at the end of the day.

You see, my handler has forgiven me, and all else pales in the joy of that.

I dont know what else might appear on my schedule after Conference, but I know for sure I'll be going to Columbia to visit Mr. Gorilla. I want to thank him for this article. And I want to tell him that he has my sympathies. I mean, sometimes it's just so easy to wander off.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
June 14, 2009

As I sat watching the hockey playoffs the other night, feeling a vague kinship with the other seven hockey enthusiasts in the Augusta viewing area, and wondering if any of them besides me spoke English, I received a telephone call from my brother David, a Detroit resident, and a hockey fan exemplar.

David told me that if you want to get into Joe Louis Arena in Detroit to see the finals between Pittsburgh and Detroit this week it will cost you 1500 dollars for a ticket. The face value of the ticket is about 75 dollars, but the guy on the street corner with the rolled-up newspaper and the turned-up shirt collar will accommodate you to the tune of 15 hundred. Entrepreneurs abound when there is a hot ticket in town, and that holds true for any town.

So, what is it out there that you would pay 20 times face value to see? I suppose this is the real question: Is there anything you can think of for which the price would not be too great for you to pay?

Personally, I'd pay anything to know that my kids and grandkids will always do okay, will have a good handle on what's important, will supremely value a walk with Christ, and will come to the end of their days having journeyed faithfully.

I'd pay a lot to see Elizabeth healthy and whole again, without the confusion, without the fear.

I'd probably give it all away to know that St. John will be right here, ministering to a hungry, halting, hurting community until Jesus comes again to make it all right.

There's a real good chance that whatever it is that is that important to you is something you are already investing in to some degree.

And it's important to remember that not everything is a worthy investment. An alcoholic or a drug addict has those moments when he or she would pay any price for a drink or a hit, often not realizing until it is too late that they have already paid far too great a price.

Where are your priorities? Do they have anything at all to do with the kingdom?

The truth is, we all end up buying a ticket to something. We may not be sitting in the arena, but we are constantly saving up or actually making the purchase to be engaged in something.

It all depends on where you want to go, what you want to see.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary


June 7, 2009

Long years ago I had a district superintendent who liked to say that knowledge is power. He wasnt the only one saying it, but he seemed to enjoy saying it more than most.

Good morning, I might say.

Knowledge is power, he would likely respond.

I understood his point, but am not sure I ever bought into his reasoning. He taught us that if we as clergy could stay on top of everything in the life of the church, then by our knowledge we would naturally hold the reins of authority. That works fine, I suppose, if holding power is ones ultimate goal.

I prefer to think of knowledge as simply being a good thing. If I open a book and read something of value and gain the knowledge therein, thats good.

If you suffer a loss, and if I gain knowledge of that, and if by that knowledge I can offer you the love and encouragement of the church in your loss, thats good.

If your job goes up in a puff of smoke, and if I learn of that, and by that knowledge can counsel you into an understanding that your job has nothing to do with who you are or what you are about, then thats good.

If I learn of a need in the community, and if by that knowledge I work and find others to work to satisfy that need, then thats good.

Long before I ever met that superintendent I had learned that authority and power belong to God. My role is as a facilitator. I suppose I know more about my congregation than any preacher in the Conference. I work hard to know what I know. But, that doesnt give me power. Hopefully it gives me empathy and understanding and a heart that alternately breaks and sings.

The power I will leave in the hands of the Almighty.

Having said all that, let me arm you with a little bit of knowledge. The last few weeks have left us in a bit of a financial quandary. We had to spend about 20 thousand dollars to repair roofs and bathrooms, thus leaving our operating dollars fairly close to being exhausted. It would be helpful if you could find a way to give a little extra in the next couple of weeks. I am not asking you to pay ahead on your pledge, as that will only leave me embarrassed later down the road. I am asking that you give a little extra.

You have the knowledge.

God has the power.

We ought to be fine.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
May 31, 2009

As I write this (on May 26th), it is our wedding anniversary, and I am awaiting Luanne's arrival home on Wednesday night so we can go on a 4-day vacation to celebrate the occasion. Although we don't very often do so, we both like to go to different places and see things we have never seen before.

However, there is that thing about going away. I like to think of myself as a well-grounded, in-touch-with-myself kind of guy, but there are some things about which I can be fairly phobic. Such a thing is a vacation from my work. I live with the fear, hopefully a false one, that if I go away from my job for a few days, someone will take it away from me while I am gone.

I understand the Methodist system, and I understand that we preachers are appointed from year to year and that it would take something pretty bizarre to send me packing in the middle of the stream, but those understandings do little to assuage my fear.

You see, I like what I do. I believe with all my heart that God clearly and decidedly called me to ministry, and I count myself most blessed. Don't think for a minute that it's an easy job, because it's not, but that only seems to intensify the joy of being called of God to do it. I don't even like to think about a day coming when it will no longer be mine to do.

So, I leave town with apprehension, and give the sights along the way but a cursory glance, for there's that road to home that beckons me. Luanne has learned to pack light, never taking but one change of socks.

Anyway, I have used this as introduction to say what I really want to say: I understand that the job I do belongs to you. It is by your kindness that I am blessed to do it. And I have written this to say thank you.

I can't say my usual I'll see you Sunday, because I won't. The Reverend Buddy Holbrook will see you Sunday, and will celebrate Pentecost with you.

Buddy is a wonderful man. He is also a Baptist. He is too Baptist, I think, to want to take away my job. That should make me sleep better while I am on the road.

Bless you,

Gary

May 24, 2009

Mama went on to Heaven 19 years ago. I suspect when she arrived she found it a familiar place to be, for she had spoken of it, sung of it, and I have little doubt had dreamed of it for years.

After these many years I have come to realize that never will Mother's Day roll around that I will not long to see her. One would think that the years would diminish all of that, but that one would be terribly short-sighted and decidedly wrong.

I miss Mama's laughter. Mama had the unique gift of providing the story, the back story, and the story that would materialize in aftermath, and blending them into a hilarity foretold by the laughter she employed in the telling of it all. I have tried to learn to tell a story the way Mama could tell a story, but I lack that voice, that timing, that remarkable ability to read her listener.

I miss Mama's singing, which was not always the case. It's a difficult thing when one is a little boy in church sitting on the pew with his parents, trying to pretend he is with somebody else because his mother is singing so lustily as to draw the attention of saints both past and present. Oh, how I miss that today. Oftentimes when I am at worship these days, I will close my eyes when we are singing, and I can almost hear her voice, pitched high, drawn deep, overflowing with a love for Jesus.

I miss the way Mama ran our household, and run it she did. Mama managed the money, such as it was, and we never seemed to want for those things that were necessary. Mama was good with money, and in those days that was a requirement for survival. I wouldn't really say she pinched pennies, but if you happened to be a penny, and if you were at all shy, it was a good idea to stay away from Mama.

I miss hearing Mama read the Bible before we went to bed at night. Being a normal little guy, I didn't exactly look forward to Bible time, but I realize today that those few well-read words from the writ probably kept me and my brothers from killing each other once we trundled our way upstairs to bed. It's hard to kill your brother after you have been under the influence of the ancient and eternal word of God.

I miss hearing Mama pray. I miss hearing her pray for me, for in her prayer was always that poorly hidden word of instruction for her middle child. Bringing almighty God into the evening conversation has a way of keeping a boy under control.

I miss those daily conversations on the telephone when Mama got a little older. I wonder if her number will ever stop taking up dusty space in my mental Rolodex.

I miss hearing Mama talk about her preacher, whomever that person happened to be at the time. I was always glad Mama was never a member of my church. Some of you might think you are good at it, but, dear as she was, Mama really was good at taking a cheap shot at her preacher. I think she thought a preacher should be perfect, and I live in delight to this day that she loved me. One grants an awful lot of grace, latitude, and mercy to one he or she might love.

I know Mother's Day is well past, and I am a little late with this, but there are reasons for that. The most important reason is that I never could go see Mama on Mother's Day. My work prevented that. I usually couldn't go see her on the Monday following, either, because it's almost impossible to get away from the church on Monday. So, it was usually Tuesday that I would find the time to go see Mama for Mother's Day, which would make the timing of this just about right (if you don't count the week that we missed the newsletter due to equipment problems).

So, this is my Mother's Day missive to Mama.

I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that I will one day see her again.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
May 10, 2009

My brother Phil has a friend who six years ago was diagnosed with ALS. Now, I dont know how you react when you receive a damning diagnosis from your doctor, but this fellow took it to the Lord. He went to his heavenly Father in prayer, and said, Okay, God. Now that Ive got this stuff, what do you want me to do?

The man tells that on that very night he had a dream, and in that dream God told him he wanted him to work to reconcile people. He wanted him to impress upon people who were at odds with one another that forgiveness is just about the best gift we can give to anyone. He told the man he wanted him to bring eight people to reconciliation, and he further told him that it was his job to get out and find them.

The man was to later say that the task given him by the Lord, a task he neither sought nor coveted, made him a better man made him the man he never thought he could be.

This story is in my immediate thoughts this morning because Phil went to North Carolina for this mans funeral one day last week. When the preacher got up, he told the story that I have just told to you. He went on to say that before his death he had brought 30 people into reconciliation with one another. Several stood up and testified that they numbered among the 30. They told how God, through this man, had changed them by helping them to remove from their lives the cancerous elements of hate and mistrust and anger, and replacing those life-sapping encumbrances with the wonderful things that are the byproducts of an act of forgiveness peace and joy and a heart made clean.

It makes one wonder how many seeds of forgiveness were sown as the result of the 30 sown by Phils buddy, doesnt it? How many lives were changed simply by witnessing the powerful Christian witness of forgiveness offered and forgiveness received?

And I need to add that for me this whole story raises the question of What does it take? What does it take for one to realize that there is work to be done? What kind of wake-up call does it require for you? Do our days not become important, do we avoid those things Christ would have us to do, do we think we will live forever, until that day when someone reports to us that our days are sadly numbered?

There may be someone out there who has no idea he or she has hurt you. There may be someone out there who knows full well that he or she has hurt you deeply and may or may not care if he or she has. Whatever the case, you need to forgive that person. That person may say, You forgive me? Im the one who should be forgiving you! If that happens, tell them you have been longing for that very thing to happen. It will change your life.

And when it comes time for your funeral, some preacher somewhere will speak of the joy that seemed to be the hallmark of your life.

And Ill see you Sunday.

Gary

May 3, 2009

As you may recall I wrote to you back in January and shared the very GOOD NEWS that we would soon begin meeting to discuss our programs and initiatives in the preschool, children and youth departments. Well today I want to share some GOOD NEWS.

The GOOD NEWS is that we have been meeting once a month, every third Sunday right after church to talk about Sunday School, VBS, and other children and youth programs. The GOOD NEWS is that we have decided to implement the SS Discipleship Rotation Model again in our Sunday School department. This rotation will begin on Sunday, June 7th and the GOOD NEWS is that we have several opportunities for you to volunteer. You can volunteer to teach one Sunday, lead a craft project, cook in the kitchen or sing with the children. The GOOD NEWS is that if you volunteer you will not be committed each month; this will work on a rotational basis. So if you arent keen on teaching the GOOD NEWS each week, the GOOD NEWS is that we have lots of other things, just for you! And the GOOD NEWS is that while many other churches take the summer months off, we plan to fill our summer at St. John with fun and GOOD NEWS for all! If you are interested in volunteering, please come to our organizational meeting on Saturday, May 9th at 1:00 p.m. The GOOD NEWS is that we will not have many of these meetings as we organize this new model for our church! So please, come.

Can you believe theres more GOOD NEWS? Our VBS will be kicking off on Saturday, June 6th with a church wide, community kick-off party in our parking lot on Telfair! Thats right, the GOOD NEWS is that we will be advertising our VBS in the community with fliers, banners and newspaper ads. We will also be asking church members to come and enjoy an afternoon together in a carnival-type atmosphere. We will have food, jumping units, fun and GOOD NEWS as we kick off VBS 2009. The GOOD NEWS is that you can help us with this event, or VBS, or both.

I hope that as I have shared this GOOD NEWS with you, I have inspired you to make a call and to serve your church in new ways this summer and fall. Furthermore, I hope you will see that this church is alive and doing very well in many, many areas of ministry. I hope that you will want to become a part of our planning meetings each month. And lastly, I hope you will think all of this, my friends, is GREAT NEWS!

Kimberly Blanchard
Childrens Coordinator

April 26, 2009

This Tuesday my niece Leslie is slated to receive an award from the Hall County, Georgia, educational system for having encouraged and inspired her young charges.

This is quite an honor, afforded to few, and I am proud of her.

And, no, this is not an invitation for you to attend the ceremony, but it is an opportunity for you to consider the significance of such an award being offered, and what it might require of a person to be its recipient.

Every week when we gather for worship at St. John United Methodist Church, it is our intention to encourage and inspire you. We have the best choir with which I have ever been associated. They are practiced, disciplined, dedicated and faithful. When you hear them singing, you know they are not simply giving lip service to words on a page. Rather, they are employing their talents in service to a reality that is in their hearts. By their offerings they encourage and they inspire.

Every week your preacher engages in prayer, meditation and study seeking to make room in his soul for the Holy Spirit to do its work through him. Every week I try to bring you a message that is timely and provocative. Every week I make every effort to encourage and inspire.

Every week the people who prepare and teach the Sunday school lessons at St. John are doing so in the hope that you will come and participate in the study. And they do so hoping that you will leave from here having been encouraged and inspired.

Our ushers and greeters are here every week to welcome you warmly and to get you in preparation to be encouraged and inspired.

If you were here this past Sunday you were blessed by the singing of our Junior and Wesley choirs. Their spirited singing bore witness to the encouragement and inspiration given them by the leadership of Nichole Kuehl and Jamie Garvey.

We do our best week after week to tell you of the good works that go on here on a daily basis, hoping you will be encouraged and inspired to continue to support those many ministries.

In short, if you worship in this place, you know something of what it means to be encouraged and inspired.

I hope you are carrying the fruits of all of that back out to your homes, your places of business, and the circles in which you move. I hope you are finding ways to encourage and inspire.

Who knows, one day those people with whom you live, or those people with whom you do business, or those persons who move in your circles just might want to give out an award, an award afforded to few.

And Ill see you Sunday.

Gary


April 19, 2009

Have you heard the good news?

Christ is alive!

I was among his disciples gathered, and I know it is true!

The room where they met was filled to the brim, for others had heard of it, too.

And I heard one exclaim, He is risen, and the collective assurance left no skeptic to doubt.

The eyes of the faithful gave blessed assurance that a new kind of life was abroad.

The trumpets rang out and the timpani roared, and surely the heavenly saints cheered us on!

I saw families together and smiles galore.

Silk neckties, bright bonnets, and new frilly dresses appropriately greeted the day.

A new day of promise with a hope for tomorrow;

A hope for tomorrow that will bring endless day.

A day of reunion, forever and ever;

Forever in glory our Savior will reign.

Have you heard the good news?

Christ is alive!

And the people who love him know it is true!

Ill see you Sunday.

Gary
April 12, 2009

Oh, how I look forward to Easter this year. Both of my brothers will be in worship with me, and I dont remember that ever happening before. Down through the years, whenever David came to visit from Michigan, Phil would be preaching in his church, and I in mine, so it never happened that we could be together. But, together we will be this Sunday. I asked Phil if he would like to preach, and he just gave me one of those DeMore looks. So, I will be preaching to my brothers on Sunday, which is something I did often during our childhood, to no avail.

As wonderful as that will be, there have been other Easters during my lifetime that have been equally as wonderful. I remember all of the Sunrise Services I preached at Flippen over the years. We would walk over to the cemetery for the service, and it would always be freezing cold. What made it wonderful, though, is that Daddy would always come. I can still see him, standing there with his sport coat folded up around his neck, saying "amen" every time he saw my lips move. Daddy was pretty deaf, and he was way too cool to ever wear a top coat, so he would freeze and never hear a word. The beauty of that, of course, is that I have this wonderful memory of my father standing there, simply loving me.

And I remember the Easter egg hunts I used to have for all of the grandnieces and grandnephews. We would have them in the parsonage yard, and I would hide the eggs. I would buy 100 plastic eggs and put a gold dollar in each of them. The kids couldnt wait until time for the Easter egg hunt! Their mothers finally insisted I quit doing that after a few years because the event was beginning to turn into a blood bath. But while it lasted, it was great fun for me and the children.

I remember the year Mama and Daddy bought matching Easter outfits for David and me. We got sport coats of Kelly green and grey pants, and I thought I was about as spiffy as I had ever been. I guess I was 10 years old that year, so David must have been five. I dont remember David being as impressed as I was, but it may be they had already given dear, sweet David his coat of many colors by then.

Then there was the year when Mama served rabbit for Easter dinner. That sort of thing has a tendency to take the edge off the Easter egg hunt in ensuing years, if you know what I mean.

I do have some precious memories, but the most precious of all is the remembrance that it was on that day long ago that they came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away. It was on that day when the faithful were told to fear not, for the greatest good news that humankind could ever know had come to pass! Christ was alive!

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday as we fashion a brand new Easter memory in the presence of the Risen Christ!

Gary

April 5, 2009

A cross hanging from a believer's neck is a beautiful expression of his or her Christian faith, and is something I love to see. However, the people of the world do not always understand the significance of it. I think we are all familiar with the old story of the man who told the jewelry clerk he was interested in purchasing a cross. "Certainly," said the clerk, "Do you want a plain one, or do you want one with the little man on it?"

It is a sad truth that the world knows little of the Cross of Christ, but it is an even sadder thing when we who count ourselves as members of the community of faith lose sight of its power. May we be well reminded as we approach Holy Week that without the Cross of Christ all of our efforts to serve the Kingdom would be in vain.

Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr condemns cross-less Christianity with the following biting sarcasm: "...a God without wrath bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." In short, there is no Christianity without the Cross.

As I said in my sermon this past week, the Cross is indispensable. In it we learn of God's great love for us, and we learn of his willingness to take our sins upon himself. Then, in his kindness, God places his righteousness upon us.

Be with us on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday, and let us come in the spirit of those who serve a crucified and a Risen Lord.

And may we boldly live out the words of the great hymn we sang on Sunday:

"Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free?
No, theres a cross for everyone, and theres a cross for me.
How happy are the saints above, who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love, and joy without a tear.
The consecrated cross Ill bear till death shall set me free;
And then go home my crown to wear, for theres a crown for me."


Ill see you Sunday.

Gary
March 29, 2009

An interesting story came across the wire the other day. That is to say that it was an interesting story to me, and I hope it will peak your interest as well. It has been reported that from the calendar year 2007 until the calendar year 2008 the average gift received from the Tooth Fairy has fallen from $2.09 to $1.88.

That naturally raises a question or two:

In these troubled times has he been forced to take a lesser job, thus affecting his ability to be as benevolent as usual?

Has he completely lost his job? If so, he is to be commended for continuing to give at all.

Has his equipment grown older? If that is the case, it could be argued that he is spending more of his ready cash on things like wing maintenance and repair and such. That would be fairly understandable. Hes been doing this since I was a boy.

Who knows? Maybe he has been feeling underappreciated lately, and when that happens, one rarely gives whatever he is doing his best effort.

The truth is anything I could guess would be just that a guess.

However, what I think we should all note is that somebody noticed. Somebody noticed, and somebody cared, or the story would never have made it across the wire.

And that is a lesson for the church. Somebody out there is watching us, and somebody cares, because that somebody is cold or hungry or naked or homeless, and it is in that persons interest to care.

We would be reminded that excuses will never be very meaningful to the person who is hurting. Maybe tomorrow, or Come see me another time, or Things are tough all over, are not things that person can afford to hear.

No, that person needs us to be the Church. And we will be the Church come what may.

Incidentally, the Tooth Fairy might be a girl. I just didnt know for sure.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary

March 15, 2009

God is ever good and just.

Time will never remove the covenants of God.

There are no uncertain times with Jesus.

Repentance works for everybody.

I have two parents and a sister in Heaven today.

I have the best friends in the world.

I have not yet reached my sell-by date.

Springtime is teasingly upon us.

My internet has not failed me for over a week.

Jesus changed my life.

I helped somebody today.

Someday I will receive the inheritance promised me.

I have much for which to be happy.

So, whats this about? I was just a little tired of the newspapers, radio and television bombarding me with bad news, and needed to remind myself that all the news is not bad news. In fact, all the news that really matters is good news, indeed.

And I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
March 8, 2009
(The following is printed by permission of Jenni Nauright, who can be read daily at www.cleopatrasparachute.blogspot.com. This piece was posted on March 1, 2009.)

The Bunny and a Boggled Brain

When I was first recovering from the stroke, I had some difficulty with symbolism. Okay, I had a LOT of trouble with symbolism. And symbols in general. I could no longer recognize such seemingly simple things like stop signs. I worked really hard, and was making great progress until....Easter.

Easter with its bunnies and peeps and crosses really messed with me. I was fortunate to have a very patient minister with a great sense of humor. During Lent, I bombarded him with great probing questions such as Why is there an Easter bunny? There aren't any bunnies in the Bible. He very kindly and simply gave me answers much like a parent gives a five year old child. He explained that the bunny was a metaphor for new life. I, having forgotten the relationship with bunnies and their proclivity for, well...relationships, didn't quite put it all together, but I trusted Gary. If he said it, it must be so.

The crosses were difficult as well. After all, I had just spent months re-learning road signs and math symbols. A cross looked a lot like the warning sign for trains, or the addition sign. The way I practiced these symbols was with flash cards. I was reminded day after day that the cross was not a plus sign or a warning to get out of the way of a locomotive. Finally, my brain made a connection. I was shown an image of three crosses and declared they stood for Jesus Day! After John and my therapist stopped guffawing, they agreed. They figured it was close enough. When I saw Gary next, I couldn't wait to tell him the latest improvement in my recovery. He did not even crack a smile. When I proudly told him about Jesus Day, he simply said You are absolutely right. I love that man.

Gary was even able to control himself with the hardest concept for me to grasp. For some reason, I became fixated on Easter ham. I could not for the life of me understand why in the world we celebrate Easter with ham. Ham is not kosher. Ham is not something a Jewish person will eat. Jesus was Jewish. It did not compute. By now, you have figured out how mixed up my post-stroke brain was. I have often likened my brain after the stroke to a house re-wired by a toddler. Some switches work, some intended to light a room will turn on the disposal, and some are just fried beyond repair. But, I digress. Gary was stumped. He did not have an answer for me. He did assure me that good Methodists tend to celebrate most every occasion with fried chicken instead. It didn't answer my question, but it did distract me for a bit.

Now if you thought bunnies and ham and crosses were tough, you can only guess how much difficulty I had with Easter bonnets, marshmallow peeps, and plastic eggs. I finally accepted the bunny theory, but bunnies don't lay eggs or wear hats. I was told that little chickies again represented new life, but little chickies are too young to hatch eggs, and.....my brain was on overload. I couldn't take much more.

Then, I attended the Good Friday service at my church. In the most simplistic terms, and in words I could understand, Gary told the story of Easter. He didn't use notes. He walked around those congregated, and in his own words - not the difficult prose of the Gospels - Gary shared with us the last days of Jesus' life. I was enthralled. It was as if I were hearing the story for the very first time. When he finished, his wife, Luanne, sang Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. She sang with no accompaniment. None was needed. The music emanated from her soul.

That Easter was truly Easter for me. I was re-born. I was a newer version of me. I will never forget that Easter, or the lessons I learned anew. I am forever indebted to Gary for his patience and kindness. I will always treasure the Easter that Gary and Luanne made real for me.

Jenni Nauright

March 1, 2009

(We thank Dennis Hollins for the following article. Dr. Hollins, a member of St. John, serves on the board at New Bethlehem.)

The poor you will always have with you, Jesus told us, and one need look no further than the center of the city of Augusta to have proof that his words remain true today.

By any definition the 4000 members of the Bethlehem community represent a neighborhood with big challenges. Approximately 40 percent of the properties in the community are abandoned and of those that are inhabited more than 60 percent are dilapidated and in need of extensive repair.

It is a place that is inhabited by a great many good, law-abiding people, including single mothers and the elderly poor. But many are also drug addicts, substance abusers, prostitutes and those who are involved in some way with the criminal justice system. The median household income is little more than $14,232 a year and nearly half of those who live here are living below the poverty level. All in all, the area sounds like the kind of place where Jesus did some of his best work.

It was in response to the need to continue the work of Jesus that the Methodist Church founded the social settlement for black people in 1911 that would grow to become the Bethlehem Community Center. The Center was started here, because of the location of Paine College in Augusta, founded by members of our own St. John Church. The Methodists wanted to build upon the tradition of support towards this community, already in place from that relationship.

The New Bethlehem Community Center, located at 1336 Conklin Avenue, continues today a history of service and commitment to those who live in need, in the midst of plenty. More than three-fourths of the children who live in this area receive free or reduced lunches through their schools. Along those lines, the center provides an After School Enrichment program which also provides a daily meal.

The Center operates a chapter of Narcotics Anonymous and has programs for seniors, including opportunities to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at low prices. In response to a neighborhood where almost 30 percent of the population has less than a high school education, the Center also provides adult literacy and GED classes.

The New Bethlehem Community Center is almost a home project of St. John. The board chairman is our own Bill Atkinson, and our Parish Nurse, Letha Lierman, serves on the board as well.

In this Lenten season of prayer, meditation and self-denial, please take a moment to remember the New Bethlehem Community Center, the people it lovingly serves each day, and the dedicated, mostly volunteer staff who provide that service. And please continue to support the Center with your prayers, your service and your offerings.
February 22, 2009

The other day I received an invitation from an acquaintance in Atlanta to be her Facebook friend, and do not even know how to respond. Even if I wanted to be her Facebook friend, I dont know how one goes about doing that. I understand that the baby-boomer generation is really into Facebook these days, and I legitimately qualify as a baby-boomer, so I should be hip to this. However, the baby-boomer generation covers a lot of years, and I am closer to the fizzle end than I am to the sizzle end, and I am in the dark about this Facebook stuff.

Along the same theme, saw in the paper a couple of days ago a story about how a new phenomenon has developed on Facebook. People are sending notes to their friends that are called 25 things. In the notes these people apparently list 25 random things about themselves that they wouldnt mind the world knowing about. Things like: I prefer this particular brand of peanut butter, or my favorite color is blue, or red, or whatever, and I tie my shoelaces from left to right and I think everybody else does it the other way. That kind of thing. The article says these notes are being forwarded from person to person kind of like a chain letter, and people are learning more and more about their friends. It also says people are learning more about themselves as they intentionally record their own particular likes and dislikes.

From a pastors point of view I perfectly understand the popularity of this new phenomenon. People want to be seen, heard and known. It is so regrettably true that many of us blast through life looking neither to the right nor to the left, missing a whole lot of what we were sent here to see and hear and know, and if I have to tell you that my favorite color is purple to get you to look at me, then I will be willing to do that. It just seems a shame that I have to do that.

It seems it would be better if you would just take the time to notice that I am a precious child of God, and it wouldnt hurt you much to pay me a little attention.

By the way, I can think of 25 reasons why I dont want to be my friends Facebook friend.

But I can think of one reason why I should, and that reason will win out.

She asked me.

And I want to be counted as one who took the time to notice.

And Ill see you Sunday.

Gary

February 15, 2009

Someone asked me, so here is your answer: Our offerings for January 2009 compared to January 2008 were off 18.94%. I hesitated to share that statistic with you, and I absolutely refuse to engage in the potential conversation that those numbers might engender. Admittedly, times are tough, but let us never forget that we are the Church, and while those around us struggle with the concerns of a global economy, we are those who live in the calming influence of God's economy.

In God's economy:
Anxieties give way to alleluias.
Bleak assessments pale in the light of the blessed assurance that is forever ours.
Cash seems inconsequential in the cathartic joy of salvation.
Doom dares not share the stage with deliverance.
Earning potential stands silly in the light of eternal rejoicing.
Fortune takes on a meaning the world does not know.
Greed gives way to glory, and
Hope translates beautifully for we who are the children of God.
In God's economy, Interest is what we have in each other, and our
Joy is a gift of God a constant reminder that we are forgiven.

Well, you get the idea, I think. In God's economy, all that matters remains very much intact when all is said and done. In God's economy, the homeless are housed and the hungry get fed.

So, the answer is 18.94%, but in God's economy thats really just a number on a page.

Because in God's economy, the worst things are never the last things.

And Ill see you Sunday.

Gary
February 8, 2009

(Written on Ground Hog Day, 2009)

Every Sunday as worship draws to a close I go to the narthex to greet those who have worshiped with us that day. That is my opportunity to tell you face to face how thankful I am for your faithfulness, or to tell you I have been missing you.

It was a special treat for me yesterday to meet a first time visitor. What made this person special was that she had been invited by someone who has been visiting with us for a few weeks and who happens to think we have a good thing going. What a dynamic witness it is for a visitor to be out evangelizing on behalf of our church.

It made me wonder if we who are the old-timers are as faithful to the task. I would hope there is not a week that goes by that you dont tell someone where you go to church, what it means to you, and invite that person to come be among us.

It just might amaze you somewhere down the road what your invitation could mean. I often tell the story of how Kelly was invited to church several years ago by a little girl with whom she played softball. She bugged her mother about it, and her mother allowed her to attend, despite the fact that they had a church of their own. Kelly began worshiping in that new church and invited her mother to come worship with her. Her mother finally acquiesced, and eventually joined the choir of that new church a choir I happened to sing in, and the rest, as they say, is history.

If you invite someone to church, they will get to meet both me and Luanne, and they wont even have to go through all of that business of playing softball, singing in a choir, or getting married.

Seriously, inviting someone to church is one of the most wonderful things you can do. Just by your invitation you are giving someone the opportunity to enter into the Kingdom life. You are offering someone the opportunity to set their course for eternity. You are providing for someone the chance to know joy and peace and deliverance.

Its a perfect opportunity for you to cast your shadow.

And I'll see you, and hopefully your guest, on Sunday.

Gary

February 1, 2009

In the winter of 2004-05, when it was learned I had cancer, the people of Hamilton Mill United Methodist made a prayer quilt for me. It remains among my most prized possessions, and occupies a very special place in my study today.

Because of various complications, my recovery was a long, arduous, and painful one. Many was the night when sleep would not come, and I would spend the night with that wonderful quilt in my lap. I would close my eyes, and as I touched each knot, I would try to picture the people who had offered their prayers on my behalf as they tenderly tied each thread.

I would assign to them faces and occupations. I would give each one purpose and personality. I would picture them walking down the aisle, and would see them assuming a posture of prayer. I would hear the organ playing and I would hear the people singing, and I would sometimes hear myself singing along. Softly and tenderly , Jesus is calling, I would hear the people singing, and I would know as I heard them that Jesus is equal to anything.

Night after night I would sit in that chair, imagining, praying prayers of my own, and watching the people come to tie knots in that quilt, and to say prayers, prayers just for me.

And then I began to notice their hands. They all seemed to have the same hands.

Hands calloused from labors, yet nimble enough to handle the smallest threads.

Hands usually occupied with the chores of the day, come to offer hope for me.

Hands scarred with sacrifice, yet gentle enough to wipe a tear from my eye.

And, I began to realize they all, each one, were tying those knots with the very hands of Jesus.

As healing slowly came to my body, so, too, did it come to my spirit, my heart, my soul.

I watched you as you came forward this past Sunday to tie knots in a quilt that our quilting ministry has prepared for Luannes mother.

When I take it to her next week, I will tell her about you.

I will tell her who you are.

I will tell her what your name is.

I will tell her what you do.

And then I will tell her about your hands.

I'll see you Sunday.

Gary
January 25, 2009

Dear Members,

The New Year is off to a wonderful start and I trust that each of you had a very blessed Holiday Season. As I reflect upon 2008, I bask in the glory of our St. John people and the many areas of ministry that we served in throughout this past year.

Each New Year brings new opportunities for mission and service, hence the purpose of this letter! On December 3, 2008 several parents of our preschool, children and youth members, and our Youth, Children and Preschool Coordinators met with Gloria Hamilton, Program Director. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss our current programs, initiatives and overall direction of these three incredibly important ministry areas of our church. From this meeting, it was decided that we do have a terrific opportunity before us to steer these ministry areas in new direction with the hopes of bringing more members into our community of faith here at St. John. Our nursery area is renovated, beautiful and growing! Our childrens classes continue to have excellent reception and bring joy to our hearts as we see them run to the childrens sermon each week. And wow, I have not seen so many in youth since I was in youth! They are here, they are active and they want more!

Here is where you come in! We would like to 1) Organize a focus group whose sole purpose would be to evaluate what we are doing in these areas, what we have done in these areas and what we think would work in these areas, today. This group would meet on a regular basis and would help steer the implementation of new ministry goals with the assistance of our staff members. 2) Create a list of individuals who would like to assist with programming in any of these ministry areas as to further develop healthy relationships within our church. 3) Determine what we can do to build a stronger ministry of young families in 2009.

We need all of you to help us with this mission. If you are interested in serving on this focus group, volunteering in a ministry area, working with young families or just want to serve your church in new ways this year, we want you to mark your calendars. On Sunday, February 8, 2009 after the 11:00 worship service we will meet to discuss these areas of ministry and the next steps to be taken. Lunch and a nursery will be provided, so please R.S.V.P. to me (706-733-1344) no later than Wednesday, February 4th. Please take time to pray over this letter and then sign up to make a difference in 2009!

His Love,
Kimberly Blanchard
Childrens' Coordinator

January 18, 2009

I gave myself 30 minutes to make the 15 minute trip, and was feeling pretty good about that until I got about a mile down the road and realized I had forgotten my handkerchief. Not a problem, I told myself. Ill just pop into the Kroger and get one.

I looked around for a couple or three minutes, and finally inquired at customer service as to where they kept them. Handkerchiefs? We dont carry handkerchiefs, she said, as I hurried out of their ill-stocked store.

Next I tried Walgreens. They didnt have them either, but the lady said she could sell me a box of Kleenex. I explained to her how the box would no doubt cause an unsightly bulge in my back pocket, but thanks just the same. You might want to try Hammers, she advised, but I have never done well with people telling me what I might like to do.

I then raced across the 13th Street Bridge, convinced that South Carolina has some quirky law against selling hankies without a prescription, and made my way to CVS. This is where it got insulting. No, the lady said. We dont carry handkerchiefs. Youre a real throw back, she said. And then she smiled and asked, Do you wear bow ties, too?

Well, I got to where I was going, and I made my talk without the customary white handkerchief in my back pocket, and spent the whole time I was speaking hoping I would not have to sniff.

That night when I got home, I went through the laundry basket, my dresser drawers, and the foot of my closet and gathered up every handkerchief I could find. I washed, dried, and pressed each and every one, treating them with the respect they most obviously deserve.

I now have a stack of 19 clean and fresh handkerchiefs sitting atop my dresser. I will keep them in plain sight, and I will never again forget to pick one up before I leave the house.

Fresh every morning I will slide a clean handkerchief into my hip pocket.

You know, thats quite Wesleyan, if you think about it in terms of your salvation. Your salvation is to be treated as your most prized possession, and it is to be renewed and restored and refreshed with each new day.

You might have messed up yesterday, figuratively leaving your salvation on the dresser, but as you begin this new day, begin it with prayer, and a few moments with your Bible, and the belief that Jesus is with you.

And when life gets tough, Jesus will be with you. And He will turn what used to be problems into matters that dont amount to a sniffle.

And Ill see you Sunday.

Gary
January 11, 2009
 
(The following article was written on the afternoon of Sunday, January 4, 2009.  The benevolences brought to the altar that morning amounted to $564.00!)

It's pretty remarkable how God is always at work.  I spoke with my brother today, and he was telling me of a very dedicated couple who came to this country with a burning desire to serve the Lord.  Their two brilliant children are now both in college and now dad has lost his source of income.  He and his wife pray that God will work things out for them as this man pursues new employment. At the present time they are living an incredibly Spartan life  no heat, only turning on the gas long enough to heat up water for morning showers, eating the most basic of fare.  These people are not beggars, but that conversation with Phil today placed them on my heart.

Just this morning I was telling you of the many good things that have been recently done through your gifts to the pastors discretionary fund.  These are the gifts you bring with you to the altar each time we celebrate Holy Communion.  Some of you left church today commenting to me that you were until now unaware of the lives touched through these offerings.

When I received that call this afternoon I was made aware of why the Lord led me to address that subject this morning.  Obviously, the Lord knew that with a little reminder you would give generously this morning to the cause, and I feel certain that you did.  I wanted you to know that those funds have not yet been counted, but whatever they are, they will be sent to this family in need.

Yes, the Lord is always at work.

This morning he was at work through you.

I just thought you would like to know.

Bless you, and Ill see you again on Sunday.
 
Gary

January 4, 2009

Many of you have requested a copy of the poem our pastor wrote and read to the children on Christmas Sunday.  As we enter into the new year, it is a good reminder of where we have been in these recent weeks, and of Gods great love for us.

A Gift for the children of St. John UMC
Christmas, 2008
 
Twas the middle of winter,
And the king said to Joe,
Youve taxes to pay,
So get up and go.

So Joseph and Mary,
His beautiful wife,
Set out on a journey
That would end in new life.

A long way it was
To the place they must be;
A place of sweet peace
They would soon have to flee.

But God gave them passage
Through darkness of night
To bring to the world
Heavens glorious light.

The angels reported
To those few who would hear
That a child would live
Who would make life so clear.

A star in the sky
Loomed so low and so bright
That it led from the east
To this place of delight.

The innkeeper said
He was full to the brim.
He just didnt know,
So please dont blame him.

If only hed seen him,
This bright baby boy
Hed have thrilled at the moment 
Hed have brought him a toy.

Those who did see him
Asleep on the hay,
Beheld his great glory
Rejoiced in the day.

For he was our savior,
Our master, our guide.
He was our Jesus,
To ever abide. 

 And that, my dear children,
 All came from above.
 Given at Christmas 
 God's great gift of love.