Hospitality time

August is an important month in the life of our church. We expect to welcome another huge crowd for vacation Bible School on August 8-11. Throughout the month, we welcome back our friends who have spent their summer traveling. All the school programs start to ramp up, with sports and band camps. First-year college students move in on the 19th, followed the next two days by everyone else, and classes start on Monday, the 22nd. So we might see a student or two on the 21st for worship, and a few more on the 28th (except those who make a trip home for all the things they forgot).

All of these August happenings are hospitality opportunities for the church, which probably explains why I’m preaching specifically about hospitality on July 31, and August 7 and 14. I want to make sure we’re ready.

The rest of this message was originally written for folks who are already “church people.” So if you’re just checking us out at the moment, I hope you’ll understand… and maybe you’ll think about becoming one of those crazy church people sometime!

Preaching is all good and well, but sooner or later we have to do a few things! We’re going to start by practicing on college students, and then hopefully grow this to include anyone who comes to the church for the first time. So, here are the things for which I need volunteers between now and then:

  • Make a strong commitment to befriend one college student. This means:
    1. providing them a Sunday lunch, perhaps at your home, at least once a month while they’re here at school.
    2. knowing their name, and using it, and inviting (not obliging) them to sit with you.
    3. knowing their birthday, and what’s important to them.
    4. contacting them if they’re not at church, saying you missed them (but not guilting them!)
    5. For everyone’s wellbeing, make sure you’re not alone with a student at home or in your car. Invite someone else as well!
  • Keep those monthly potlucks coming! Encourage students and all our guests to invite friends on days with potlucks!
  • As we did last year, I hope that the college will share with us a list of students to whom we can send a welcome card. So we’ll need writers!

As Lois Fennimore has done a good job of telling us: hospitality is everyone’s job! One of the things we’ll talk about this month is the skill of having a better conversation with someone you’re meeting for the first time. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, even after twenty-one years as a pastor! But it’s good for God and for the community if we can work on it a bit.

God bless you!

Jeremy

Community Vacation Bible School

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August 8-11, 5:30-8 p.m. each day.

At First United Methodist Church.

A shared ministry of First UMC, Lewis Chapel AME Church, and several other congregations.

We’ll be following the Cave Quest VBS plan this year, and as always, kids begin the evening with a meal. VBS is always free, and tons of fun.

If you’re interested in helping, please stay tuned for an organizational meeting coming soon. We’re sorry for the short notice on dates: summer has a lot of unexpected responsibilities and activities to work around for everyone involved. But we still hope to beat last year’s record for attendance, with a total number over 200! We have service as well as learning opportunities for every age, from 4 to senior citizens.

Please be there. It’ll be awesome!

I’ve Got People

I’ve got people. When I have a question about church money, I ask Sally. When I want someone to start a visitation ministry, I mention it to Lois. When there’s ice building up on the sidewalk, I mention it to Larry. When I want someone to update an event on the calendar, or redraft a policy, I ask Cindi. When I need to understand a budget question, Rick is on it. When we need part of the building to look better and be more welcoming, Barb is all over it. And when it comes to food for a funeral or anything else, it’s another Barb. If we need to put music together for Easter or Christmas, we can depend on Jan (and Drew, Ken, Ken, Phil, and Torrey). This isn’t a catalog of all the people I depend on—just a hint about how deeply we depend on one another all the time. Being me, I also have people to call on when I want to play some music!

It seems especially important to point out our interdependence as our western world continues to pursue its ideal of individualism to absurd levels. Read this from psychologist Martin Seligman: “In the past quarter-century, events occurred that so weakened our commitment to larger entities as to leave us almost naked before the ordinary assaults of life … Where can one now turn for identity, for purpose, and for hope? When we need spiritual furniture, we look around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs have been removed and all that’s left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair: the self.”

Seligman is clear that if we want to recover our optimism, our positive outlook on the world and our future, we need to be fully engaged in a network of people. Depression and isolation are two beasts feeding on one another. I can see the truth in this from my own life. I have usually been pretty good at finding a few friends to connect with—people who will notice when I look down-in-the-mouth, who will listen to what’s going on, and invite me over to their house on a whim. At those times when I haven’t had those supports at the ready, I’ve slipped pretty close to depression a few times. In Sligman’s words, they are the “comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs” that make up the furniture of my internal home.

Where’s God in all this? Everywhere! God is the glue holding so many of these relationships together. God is the maker who made us to live in community. God is the one who rejoices when we live together in harmony, creating villages of relationships. And God is the first and final friend, from the beginning to the end of our lives. The relationship modeling faithfulness for every other relationship is the holy relationship we have with God. Now let’s go and make it real!

 

Pastor Jeremy

That Time Again

Hang out with United Methodists long enough, and you’ll eventually hear about Annual Conference. Not General Conference–the thing that ended a little while ago in Portland, Oregon–but Annual Conference. You probably figured out how often this one meets. It includes (in theory) an equal number of clergy and non-clergy (laity). What’s not obvious from the name is that it has to do with all the pastors and lay church representatives from a geographical area, which we, never tired of the word, call the annual conference. Go figure. Here in Albion, we’re part of the West Michigan Annual Conference. The other half of the state is called the Detroit Annual Conference, and it includes the U.P. Because once upon a time, that made sense to someone. In a couple of years, this information won’t matter, because we’re in the process of becoming one conference for all of Michigan.

This year, we’re meeting at the Breslin Center in Lansing. We chose such a big place because both conferences are meeting in the same place, and overlapping our times. We’re hoping this makes us friendly, but it’s possible we’ll all just be cranky from not knowing where anything is. Next year, we’ll be meeting up near Traverse City, where they know what to do with tourists.

Apart from the new conference thing, we have to discuss and vote on a few things–fewer than usual, because General Conference just ended, and there’s no point sending them new resolutions for a few more years. We have to discuss and vote on whether to affirm a sort of promise that we’ll keep loving each other and working together even though we disagree about sexuality, and immigrants, and some other things. And we’ll set a budget and change a few small rules.

Because we like the word so much, we (OK, not I) call the process “holy conferencing.” To be honest, the original verb was “confer,” so the gerund should be “conferring.” Instead we took the original verb, turned it into a noun by adding “-ence,” and then added “-ing,” as if we wanted to make doubly sure that no verbs got into the room.

My favorite part of Annual Conference is not the abuse of the English language, but the people. It is an extrovert’s paradise, which leaves the rest of us rather exhausted by the end. But it is a place for catching up and sharing with old friends, and now and then encouraging someone who is preparing to begin a life of ministry.

We’ll also worship and hear bishops preach, and we’ll eat lots of food. The worship will be well thought-out and of high quality. I know because my son is involved with that.

After I get back home, I promise to tell you about it.

Conflicting Loyalties

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church is over for another four years. It left unresolved the question of what to do about sexuality in the denomination. The conference voted instead to appoint a committee to look at solutions. It’s not clear that we’ll agree at the end of another two years of conversation.

Despite its importance as an issue in America, sexuality is not the most urgent problem faced by United Methodists around the world, who are subject to mass tribal violence in parts of Africa, and religious persecution in some Asian countries. Unfortunately, even a worldwide Christian denomination can do little more than raise awareness and make statements.

So our denomination still cannot affirm the call of a gay man to be a pastor, of two women to marry one another, and we haven’t even begun with gender identity. You may wonder why I stay United Methodist. Apart from pension, insurance, and salary, there’s the covenant I entered, to receive the appointments I was given, to be under orders rather than to work for my own interest. Within the denomination, I can continue to be one of the people who continue to stand up and speak for full inclusion. I have a loyalty to work within this denomination, my community.

Against all that, consider my loyalty to the many good and faithful people who are excluded from ordination, and even from public church marriage, by the position of my denomination. Does my remaining a United Methodist betray them? Am I insulting or lessening them if I continue to represent the United Methodist Church?

Conflicting loyalties tear at all of us who love our church and also love people of all kinds. How can I give a full commitment to love all people, and remain committed to the Church that does not? These are the questions that tear us apart, that divide Christians from one another.

Christians have always been good at finding things to fight about. The Orthodox and Catholic split over when Easter should be. The earliest Church split over whether non-Jews had to follow the Jewish law when they became Christians. The list could easily go on. I don’t intend to follow the age-old habit of drawing lines that separate people according to whether we agree. We need to practice what all people are bad at: getting along, and seeing the beauty in one another. Who knows: if we get good at this, we may eventually learn to accept all people into full participation in the life of the Church.

Pastor Jeremy

 

Strengthening Albion one block at a time.

Yesterday’s sermon was about the challenges that face families in Albion. Those include mass incarceration of fathers, a changing economic world, generational poverty, and changes in culture, among other things. After the service, eleven of us gathered for conversation (you should join us next week!). Here’s what we talked about:

Some of us remember a time when if you were a kid or teenager anywhere in town, getting up to no good, a phone call would quickly get to your mom, and you’d hear about it no uncertain terms the moment you arrived home. Not all of us grew up in communities like that, but Albion was one. The best result of this kind of system was that kids grew up knowing that they were accountable. What they did mattered, and had consequences. One of the best things we could do for young people in Albion is to bring back the sense of community that is the foundation of accountability for life.

This is 2016, and there’s probably not a town in America that still has that network of parent communication, at least no town with a population over 100. But what were the key things that would make it possible? Can (or should) we work toward any of them? Some of the prerequisites are not going to come back, especially the time when most mothers are home. Partly because of work, those same moms have less time for knowing the kids in the community, and even less time to know the other adults in the community. It’s impossible in 2016 to demand that every family have two parents, and only one working. That’s not an economic possibility for most families today, and many wouldn’t do it if they could. All of this work and no play–and plenty of TV–means that lots of people don’t know their neighbors. That may be something we can help fix.

Walk down some of the older streets in Albion, and you’ll see lots of houses close to the street, close to one another, and with front porches. Over the decades many of those front porches have been turned into windowed rooms, and many people don’t even use their front doors, because we arrive home in our cars and walk from the driveway into the house through a side door. Once there, we don’t emerge again until the next day, to go to work or school.

It wasn’t always this way. In the days before TV, people sat out on those front porches, and would walk up the block, stopping to visit with their neighbors who were sitting on their own front porches. The kids would play in the street, under the watchful eyes of the neighbors, who would hardly ever intervene. And people knew their neighbors, and their neighbors’ kids.

Let’s not simply be sentimental. Those were not perfect times. We don’t want to go back to McCarthyism and the KKK. We wish we could go back to a time when everyone was home at the same time, and that isn’t going to happen. But we need to take some very low-tech, low-cost steps to strengthen the community among us. It begins with getting to know our neighbors, perhaps by walking up the block and chatting with them. Perhaps that would be helped if we declared a day for strolling up the block, perhaps the first Sunday of every warm month, at 6 p.m. We may have to declare this on Facebook and Twitter to make it happen. But let’s give it a try.

Mother’s Day

People in Albion have a historical association with Mother’s Day–a mother famously stood up to preach when her husband, the pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church (that’s us in the past) was too upset about what had happened to their son to do his usual job. Mother’s Day was then a celebration of the toughness of a mother–a pre-feminist ideal for women.

My wife and I send something to our mothers for Mother’s Day. Perhaps you do as well. That’s a fine way to observe this day. I’ve come to believe, however, that Mother’s Day is not something we need to observe in church. As I talk to people I know, I hear more and more agreeing.

Why not preach a sermon on the merits of mothers? Why not hand out carnations or roses to moms? Why not sing “Faith of Our Mothers?” I do personally honor mothers for what they are able to do. I also grieve with those people for whom Mother’s Day is a time for grief or bitterness. Some have lost their mothers to death. Some have been unable to have children, and have never lived into a role they dreamed of. Some have suffered abuse at the hands and tongues of abusive or alcoholic or unaccepting mothers. Others have had children die, and had the role of mother stripped away, or had children taken away through divorce or other situation. How can I blithely talk about mothers, and not make those broken hearts the focus of my message?

A woman stood up in the crowd Jesus was teaching, and proclaimed that his mother was blessed for having had him. It seems in fact that Jesus’ mother was sometimes sure he was crazy. But Jesus said to the woman and to the crowd, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? The ones who hear my word and do it.” Jesus was not sentimental about his own mother, which is awkward on Mother’s Day. If you yourself have awkwardness on this occasion, you are in the best company.

Every Mother’s Day, hurting people sit through sentimentalities about mothers that ring empty and paternalistic–even insulting. So I’m not taking part. For all those whose wounds are painfully raked over on Mother’s Day, please accept instead a blessing, and a hope that you find grace and love on every day this year.

Post-election blues

We received the news that annexation passed. Albion is now part of the Marshall School District. So far the crowing has been kept to a minimum, at least on my Facebook feed. It needs to stay that way.

Even though annexation seems to have passed in every polling place, it was really close in some, especially our poorest precincts. That means that a lot of the most vulnerable folks in Albion are heartbroken today over seeing the last nail in the coffin of the Albion School District, and local autonomy over schools. There is real fear over the loss of tradition, loss of cultural respect and identity, and forever being under the influence of Marshall. There is real grief, and it will take a long time to heal.

We have had a divisive campaign, with a surprising quantity of dirty tricks. Not everyone has been open to conversation, and not everyone has played by the rules. Church leaders have openly taken sides, calling themselves prophetic, and really being divisive instead. This will take healing, a regaining of trust, and I believe that it has hurt the place of churches in Albion.

Meanwhile, other people have pursued open conversation, and have tried to understand one another’s points of view. These people are scattered throughout the community, and they are showing the best of Albion. I am thankful to them for their commitment to community and to mutual understanding.

The collapse of Albion schools did not happen all at once. The failure of discipline forty years ago, a huge decline in population, Schools of Choice, and insurmountable debt all led to where we are today. Racism remains a huge part of the story, but it is not nearly enough to explain it. Racism was likely a part of the Schools of Choice plan, that took the legs out from a lot of schools in communities that were already struggling. But Racism didn’t close the foundries, or change the remaining jobs to high-skilled positions. Racism didn’t weaken our economy in 2008.

Many years ago, one of my predecessors as pastor at First, Rev. John Tennant, was proud to have taken part in the marches against segregation in Albion. He was proud that Albion had finally allowed a black family to buy a house on the east side of town. I am proud that black people in Albion didn’t stop with one house east of Eaton Street! I wish that our churches had become as integrated as our real estate market.

The protests of the fifties did some important things, including breaking down segregation. Albion is more integrated than are most communities in America, but that’s really not saying much. We have so far to go, if we are going to resemble God’s hope for us!  This election has stirred up some of the business that we left unfinished in the fifties and sixties. It has reminded us that a big section of our community has been left behind over the last seventy years, and they know it every day.

Where does healing begin? It begins with understanding the disease. Understanding comes from conversation, from relationships, and from earning trust. Don’t let the pot settle: keep stirring it up! And in the middle of that, do what Jesus said: Love one another.

Pastor Jeremy

 

Bringing It Home to Albion

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The current message series on Social Principles ends May 8th. Then the students go home, and we settle in for a quiet summer in Albion. It’s a good time to think about our town, as it’s going through some changes–a new hotel arriving, changing the character of downtown; a couple of major renovations on Superior Street, providing a place for the college to be part of our downtown; a new Taco Bell, and rumors of another new restaurant on the east side of town. All of this pales in comparison to the vote May 3rd about annexing the Albion Schools into the Marshall School District. No wonder we feel topsy-turvy these days! Here’s an outline of the series:

May 15 (Pentecost): Strengthening Families in Albion

Families have come in for much of the blame, as Albion schools have weakened. There are lots of reasons why, from mass incarceration that takes men out of the home, to the loss of jobs, to changes in culture generation by generation. What’s clear is that we have a duty to do what we can to strengthen and support families, helping them have the spiritual, education, social and economic resources to provide a safe and steady place for children.

May 22: A Deeper Diversity

We have not overcome the racial divisions that people protested about fifty years ago. The school issue has brought this back to the fore, and that’s good, if it causes us to move toward deeper healing and greater wisdom in Albion. And that’s not all. We still paper over the divisions between Christians, between rich and poor, and we still haven’t succeeded at proving that the church is good at welcoming people of all gender and sexual identities. How can we use the current moment to move forward?

May 29: Beyond Charity to Community

It’s one thing to give money to people in serious need. It makes us feel good, and Jesus told us to do it. But $100 here or there is not really fixing anything. People come to us for help because they are disconnected from the community, because the whole community suffers from that characteristic American problem of keeping separate from one another. How can we address that?

June 5: What a Church Can Do

I believe a church can do a lot. It is really easy to list the things we can’t do, but that doesn’t help anything. This church has a history of being active in the community. God is asking us to take it to the next level.

Our Share, and Your Questions

Friends:

I have two things to share with you.

First, on May 22nd, we’re going to have a very special offering, a time for extra special generosity, to raise funds to pay our ministry shares. Ministry shares are our biggest mission giving, supporting everything from Africa University and seminary scholarships to community ministries in Grand Rapids. This year, our church’s share is over $28,000, and we’re hoping to pay it all with the help of this Sunday of generosity. Soon you’ll receive a letter giving more information and encouraging you to give with a special generosity on May 22. See you then!

Here’s the second thing:

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to take a few days out of town to plan my messages for the next year, from July through June. I did this last May for the first time, and it’s been enormously helpful to me through the year. Planning ahead means that I can make sure that I cover in a year a wide range of issues and questions. I plan ahead, to make sure I spend a good number of weeks teaching about the Bible, some on personal issues, some on social issues (like our current series on the Social Principles), and a few weeks talking about what it means to be the church. I’m thankful to the Staff-Pastor-Parish committee (the committee that evaluates me and gives me guidance), because they’ve seen the importance of taking this time for this important purpose.

This November and December, I hope to have a series on your questions. That means, of course, that I need you to send me your questions below in the comment box, or by email at pastorjeremywilliams@gmail.com. Hearing your questions is also helpful because it gives me a better idea where you are, and that helps shape my messages all year through.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Pastor Jeremy