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As we enter into this season known as "Lent," we are reminded that this season is the forty days (excluding Sundays) that lead us to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection Celebration!
For many Lent is a time to "give up" something, for others it might be a time to "take on" something (maybe forty days of morning prayers, etc.). Lent is a time to intentionally seek to enhance one's relationship with the God of Easter - Jesus the Christ. As a church, Grosse Pointe UMC has offered an opportunity to do just that - the Lenten Dinners and Program, a time to gather each Sunday evening for a wonderful meal and fellowship followed by a program for all.
On our vacation to Northern Michigan in January, Ricardo and stayed with a colorful cast of old friends along the way. We visited a lawyer turned stay-at-home-dad and his doctor wife; a retired ad executive and magician whose home is a treasure trove of antique music boxes, practical jokes and spooky tricks; a farm that doubles as a music festival and educational center where the founder of my record label was born; a family who recently managed to buy a beautiful home near a lake after the singer-songwriter husband got a boost to his career when he became a top-four finalist on The Voice. By chance, none of these friends identify as Christian. As we went along visiting with them, catching up after my many years away from Michigan and the music scene, they almost always asked the same question (even when they weren't quite sure how to ask it): What's special about the Methodist Church? All of them were curious, to know what kind of church had drawn their old singer/songwriter friend into a career in ministry. Whenever we get this question-what's special about Methodism?-it is a great opportunity to share about our faith, though it can be difficult to articulate what sets the Methodist Church apart specifically. We come by this struggle honestly, because we are such a large and diverse denomination-a mainstay of American life and culture, but also a global church. So really it contains a little bit of everything, and doesn't always have a strong "confessional" identity ("confessional" in this context means "confessing," or subscribing to, a certain set of doctrines or theological emphases). So in response to my friends, I get this problem out of the way first: "Well, Methodism used to be the largest denomination in the US, so it is classic 'mainline Protestant': middle-of-the-road theologically, and adapts itself to the culture from place to place." But I don't stop there. Next I try to get at the heart of what drew me to Methodism in the first place: "In its best expressions, Methodism carries forward the emphasis of the original Methodist movement, which maintains this wonderful balance between a charismatic, heart-oriented religion and a focus on social works of mercy and justice. It recognizes the need for an intimate, transformative relationship with God, but also that this spirituality should lead us to serve others and restructure social relationships." My friends seem satisfied with this answer-it must indicate to them that I haven't gone off the deep end religiously speaking. I may not convert any of these Jewish, Buddhist and spiritually eclectic individuals to Methodism, but there is undoubtedly power in continuing to be witness to what I believe is so fruitful and valuable about my faith, in a disenchanted world that often sees only the ugliest side of organized religion. That is why as I get settled back in after that trip, I am so excited about working with the Confirmands as they discover their own answer to the question: "What's so special about Methodism?" If the next generation of Methodists can articulate this to their friends of all persuasions, and they can be the living example of what they believe, then we will live in a much better world. Rev. Sari Brown
Pastor's Ponderings As I embarked upon writing something of worth for this month's "Pointer," I was reminded of a lunch meeting that I had with a colleague some time ago. The name, church and even the denomination that this person serves in will remain private - it's really not that important as you will see. This friend had been raised in a church (a child of a pastor), serving in all of the positions that one might expect. Upon graduating from college, decided to dedicate their life to serving God as a clergy person. Entered seminary, completing that and embarked upon a life of pastoral ministry. During our lunch time conversation, I discovered a person that struggled with a sense of loneliness due to the "walls of isolation" that had been built even as the various ministries were engaged in. It seemed as though the more this person "lived into" their call to ministry, the more isolated they felt. Each new endeavor, each new "position" brought with it a real (or perceived) need to protect one's image until today, this person, this friend, this colleague and even more importantly - this sacred child of the Living God feels lost and lonely. Reflecting upon this, I suspect that this can (and does) happen with lay persons as well as clergy person. My question is this - Is this really what God intended when Jesus called the disciples to go into the entire world and be witnesses for a greater good? Has the church, as an institution of God, forgotten the example of Jesus Himself who was willing to make himself vulnerable so as to lift another from their sin, hurt or isolation? Or has the church, over the centuries, created an isolated and isolating fraternity that discourages a person from realizing the full potential that God intended for each person? In our United Methodist Book of Discipline, one can find this statement: "Primary for us is the gospel understanding that all persons are important - because they are human beings created by God and loved through and by Jesus Christ and not because they have merited significance." So, our task, as a church and as individuals is to: 1 - See ourselves as loved and accepted 2 - See others as loved and accepted 3 - And work to create an environment, and ministries that all are welcomed by God and welcoming to God's people. My prayer for each of you is that God will bless you abundantly, that 2017 will be filled with wonderful blessings. But most of all, I pray that each of us will find ourselves rejoicing and thanking God for what we do have. And continue the good work of making Grosse Pointe UMC a welcoming congregation! Pastor Ray
Some time ago I came across a "modern day parable" that illustrated the true meaning of Christmas. The parable goes something like this:
A man could not understand or believe the Christian narrative that God had provided a redeemer in the form of a baby, born to a virgin and eventually to be crucified on cross, offering salvation for all. As he did not believe any of this, he also felt hypocritical attending the Christmas Eve Service with his wife and daughter each year. One year he decided that he would stay home as his family went to the service and upon their return they would proceed with the rest of their Christmas traditions.
While his family was attending church, he discovered a flock of birds crashing into a window of his house in an attempt to escape the early winter storm that had arisen. He thought about how foolish the birds had been in delaying their migration south for the winter and were now faced with the possibly of freezing to death. He soon reasoned that the birds were attracted to the light coming from the window and felt that if he could entice them into his barn that they could survive the night and could begin their journey south in the morning.
In an effort to attract them into the safety of his barn, he first opened the barn door and turned on the light inside - no birds entered the offered safety! Next, he brought out bread crumbs and laid a trail of them from the outside into the barn - still no birds entered. Finally, in desperation he began to flap his arms and run about the barnyard hoping that a few birds could be chased into the barn and others would follow - still no birds entered the offered sanctuary of the barn! Dropping to his knees in frustration, he wished that he could become a bird and thereby lead the others to the promised safety.
Just at that moment, the church bells rang out signaling the end of the Christmas Eve service. As he continued to kneel in the barnyard, listening to the church bells ring out, he came to understand that God had become a human being so that others would follow him into the safety and sanctuary of redeeming grace! That night the man realized that God's love was incarnate in the form of the baby Jesus, that he too could walk into the light of salvation and find the security of God's redemptive love. That night the man found the true meaning of Christmas!
This Christmas, may the light of God's love lead you, fill you and bless you and yours throughout the coming year! Merry Christmas!!
Be With Us
an Advent poem by Rev. Sari Brown
Come, oh, come, God.
Be with us.
With the woman whose mind has never fit into this world
Serving pasta in Styrofoam cups for other misfits,
Mourning her brother who just died and praising the Lord.
Be with the man who dresses in flamboyant suits
Who plays gospel piano and prays for work.
He knows with all certainty that he is a precious child of God.
Why don't I?
Come, oh, come. God,
Be with us.
With the teenage boy who has the world at his fingertips
But stops to remember those who don't
Have a reason to hope, and he longs for them to find it.
Be with the sisters and spouses, the fathers and mothers,
The grown-up children who still feel small
When they see a beloved one ravaged by sickness
For no reason at all, besides that we live in a world
Where there is suffering, where things break.
What are we good for?
Come, oh, Come-God!
Be with us!
Be with the parents in Alleppo dodging bombs on the streets
As all that they could take with them is holding their hands-
Forced to become refugees like the Christ child in Egypt,
But with no chapters and verses to assure a safe return.
Be with the men, the women, the little children
Still taken by force to other lands, to work for less than nothing,
To feed people's hollow hunger for more and cheaper things to buy
To feed hungry men who learned never to go without satisfying their desires.
Why have you abandoned me?
Come, oh Come! Emmanuel!
Come not as an idea,
A platitude, a song we sing nostalgically-
But skin, a salty-sweet scent,
Wise old newborn eyes
As we are quickly approaching the Thanksgiving Holiday, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts with you. But first, I would like to share a bit of myself and my childhood memories with you (I hope that it helps to "make the point"). As many of you know, I grew up in a fairly "low income family", but yet, it was our family's tradition to share something that we were thankful for as we assembled around the family thanksgiving table. I do not recall when this tradition had begun; it just seemed to always be there - we gathered at the table, the smell of the turkey drawing us to new levels of hunger and my brother, sister and I anxious to "dig in". And my parents would pause to ask each of us three kids to share one thing that we were thankful for. Some years ago, I came across a story told by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. In it, he tells of a 12 year old boy and his father doing some last minute Christmas shopping. As they were making their way through the crowds and trying to hurry to finish, suddenly, the boy flinched. As someone who appeared to be a "street person", a "beggar" in his words had reached out and touched the boy's arm, hoping the boy would give him some money. The wise father saw what happened and took the boy aside to explain that he should have a more compassionate attitude. His son didn't agree. He saw the old man as nothing more than a dirty bum, but the father saw him as a human being. Pressing a large bill into his son's hand, the boy was encouraged to give it to the beggar in the spirit of Christmas. The boy obeyed his father and when the old beggar received the generous sum, he seemed to stand taller. Suddenly his face took on character and his eyes twinkled. The boy was startled at the dramatic change. The old man bowed to the boy and thanked him - and in the spirit of Christmas he added, "May God bless you". The boy learned a lesson that would stay with him the rest of his life. That day he realized that dignity rests in the soul of every human being, regardless of the outward appearance. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale would know - for he was that young boy. The lessons taught to him in that one incident helped Dr. Peale carry that spirit of human dignity for the other person throughout his life. In that lesson, Norman Vincent Peale learned to carry an attitude of thanksgiving regardless of the season and despite his circumstances. I hope (and suspect) that my parents were teaching their three children a lesson in trying to live everyday with an attitude of thankfulness. And although I may never have the worldwide impact that Dr. Norman Vincent Peale had, I (and all of us) can impact someone's life by living with a thankful spirit, seeking to honor the dignity of whomever we meet in our daily lives. May the spirit of thankfulness remain with each of us as we journey into the tomorrows of our faith walk. Happy Thanksgiving, Pastor Ray
"Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
Before we headed out with a couple of cars full of students and rakes, I read this scripture passage to the youth and parents gathered around in the parking lot for the Rake & Run. I asked the students: "Who are the harassed and helpless in our society today?" One said "the poor," another said, "minorities," and a third said, "immigrants." I was heartened to see these young people being aware of and concerned for the struggles of people who are on the margins of society, and whose experience is so different from theirs. They know the harvest is great.
I told them that today, the harvest we would be collecting was simply raked leaves on behalf of the "helpless" elderly or handicapped individuals who may not have as much physical capability as us to do yard work. Yet we are also harvesting hope and solidarity in doing this simple favor for a few members of our community who could use an extra hand. We may be able to do much more if we "be there," as one youth suggested, for those who need our help, reaching beyond even the vulnerable people in our own community, who enjoy a certain amount of security and stability, to those who have much less protection, support or justice in this society-such as the poor, minorities and immigrants.
At a time of turmoil and division in our country that is felt even on the local level, it may be hard to know what we can do to witness to our faith, to be an ambassador of God's love, justice and peace in this society. It may feel like our small voices and the small things we can offer with the work of our hands are blotted out by the darkness around us.
Yet we can find hope in the new forms of solidarity that are sparked and nurtured by the need to resist the darkness. I was at an interreligious meeting the other day where Christians, Muslims, white people, black people, undocumented and documented immigrants, Latino citizens, men and women, all affirmed their intention to work for each other's benefit now more than ever. Even in the smallest of gestures of reaching across generational, cultural, political, class and gender lines, we are standing up to the power of sin and death to say that Christ's love, saving grace and resurrection will win.
I think our youth and some of older folks experienced a taste of that hope last Sunday at the Rake & Run. Though the idea behind this event is to do the work, ring the doorbell, and literally run away, some church members noticed the youth working and came out of their houses, delighted by this unexpected flurry of helpful young people descending on their yard. Others found out through the grapevine. One of these told us she had been awake in bed the night before worrying about how she was going to rake her yard. This may be small in comparison with the great harvest we are called to reap, but it's also a beautiful demonstration of God's grace, active and working in the world to bring workers to the harvest just when they are needed.
Giving up Everything for the Treasure
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
I Believe a Change is Coming! Rev. Sari Brown “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” - Colossians 1:27 I was up north this past weekend for Earthwork Harvest Gathering, a festival put on by the music collective I’m part of, where hundreds of musicians, most of whom are friends with each other, gather to play music that transforms hearts, enlightens minds, uplifts the soul and delights the body. There are also workshops with themes as diverse as learning about forest plant life to “somatics of social change.” There are local and organic food vendors, a farmer’s market, a re-purposing/recycling shop, and social and environmental organizations with educational booths. I see this vibrant network of connections between the arts and social/ecological causes as providing great models for the church to adapt. However, what I did not expect to see was how much the festival itself has incorporated a spiritual basis. A central moment was a “Water Blessing” ritual in which I participated as a Christian pastor among other religious traditions. We remembered the sacredness and life-giving power of water (also its power to give spiritual life, as in baptism!) and affirmed the need to take care of it for future generations. Then my friend May Erlewine, one of the main organizers of the festival, proclaimed at the end of her set that she does not define hope as believing in that which is always out of reach, but believing that true transformation is within reach, that we can already feel it coming. Is that not what we proclaim as Christians when we say that the risen Christ lives in us? We have already drawn near to God’s kingdom, and are called to live out that reality here on earth. Indeed, May closed her set with a gospel song to express this conviction: “People get ready—there’s a change coming / You don’t need no baggage, just get on board / All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming / Don’t need no ticket, just thank the Lord.” She invited all the women musicians of Earthwork to come up and sing it with her, to represent that the relational, healing leadership of women is needed to lead this change. And as we sang, “I believe, I believe, I do believe!” I felt that the transformative power of the gospel had reached this place, and that through these kinds of creative channels, we as the church could make it reach many more. My vision is to create these kinds of spaces with youth in our church and community. We don’t all have to be singer/songwriters to find creative, inspiring and delightful ways to be transformed and share with others this mysterious love of Christ and this wonderful hope of the Kingdom of God. As I begin my activities with the youth, I hope to discern with them how we can do this with the gifts we have. So this coming Sunday, September 25, we will be setting up the Senior High room (it was just painted so we can arrange it however we want!) and thinking about what our goals are for our youth group and how to design our lives, our times together, and our physical space according to who God has called us to be. In the first weekend of October, the focus will be on service with Hands 4 Detroit and helping with our church’s rummage sale—as loving and serving our neighbor is always integral to growing in God’s love! On a personal note, my husband Ricardo’s visa was just approved and, God willing, he will be arriving near the beginning of the month. Thanks be to God!