The Call of God, Near and Far

Grace to you, and peace, in the name of Jesus Christ.

Abraham and Sarah hear the voice of God and go, trusting that the God who speaks is trustworthy. The call of God and our faithful response is the essence of faith. I am filled with joy each time I think of all the ways this congregation discerns the call in our own time, and follows in faith.

It was hard not to think about the most recent example from within our church of this call and response during the commissioning service for the Living Waters for the World mission trip to Haiti. A group of ten members of our church will lead Vacation Bible School and install a clean water filtration system in that decimated country over the next ten days. I hope you will take time in the next ten days to be in prayer for all the trip participants – Chandler Joiner, Kim Joiner, Kris McCain, Cathy McCall, Matthew McCall, Jessica Queen, Alex Quintana, Sharon Roumen, John Wade, and Tom Wilhoite.

We also are coming to the end of another season of Room in the Inn. Once again we were able to provide a warm bed and great food for our guests, but even more importantly we were able to show them hospitality around the tables in Wilson Hall, sharing in conversation. Thanks to Sue Banner and the dozens of volunteers who make this ministry possible.

Over the next several weeks of spring and on into the summer we will be hosting Presbyterian Disaster Assistance work teams who are coming to the area to do flood relief work. We are providing food, beds, and hospitality as they work in the Nashville and Williamson County area. I hope you will take time to get to know our guests and thank them for their service to our community.

These are just a few of the many ways our congregation engages in and helps facilitate the mission of God locally and globally. The call of Abraham and Sarah still echoes in our own time – trust in the promise of God, and go into the world, blessed to be a blessing.

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Lent Reflections

The Lenten season this year occurs while the world prays for the people of Japan. The earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed have left large swaths of the country obliterated, and the death toll continues to rise. In the midst of a very bad situation, the leaking of radiation from a damaged nuclear power plant remains a real threat. Our congregation joins with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and with Christians and other persons of faith around the world in praying for for the people of Japan, for those who grieve loss of life, for those made homeless, and for those hungry and alone. Mindful of the prayer we often pray in worship, that “in all the things for which we pray, give us the will to bring them about,” I encourage you to visit www.pcusa.org/news/2011/3/11/pcusa-framing-response-japan-earthquake-tsunami/. There you will find the latest news about our Presbyterian mission co-workers in Japan and the opportunity to give through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Even as we pray for Japan, we remember that the the people of Haiti still suffer tremendously from the earthquake that wiped out much of their already weak infrastructure, leaving tens of thousands homeless. A group of mission co-workers from our congregation are answering the call of God to be with the people in Haiti. The group will install a water purification system through Living Waters for the World and lead Vacation Bible School March 22-April 1. Please be in prayer for the team – Kris McCain (team leader), Chandler Joiner, Kim Joiner, Cathy McCall, Matthew McCall, Jessica Queen, Alex Quintana, Sharon Roumen, John Wade, and Tom Wilhoite.

Sunday’s worship included the Baptism of Elic Ball at 8:30, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in both services, and the Annual Meeting of the congregation. On such a full Sunday the signs of God’s grace were as abundant as the water, bread, and wine. The bell choir prelude was an advanced arrangement the choir learned while at the Montreat Music and Worship Conference last summer, and when they were done I was grateful for their willingness to take on such a beautiful piece of music. The choral arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by the flute, helped us all to hear that hymn as if for the first time, taking in new experiences of grace in the hearing. As I was preaching on the Garden of Eden, it was easy to see that each time we hear the beauty of worship music, engage in intimate prayer, and listen for the Word of God, we catch a glimpse of that Garden and a foretaste of the Kingdom to come.

Sunday ended with “40 Days and 40 Nights,” a gathering of over 60 people to hear a presentation on the congregational Lent book, “Soulfeast,” by Marjorie Thompson, and to share memories and dreams concerning our congregation in its bicentennial year. You will see elsewhere a brief report on some of the ideas shared during the event, but in this space I want to thank the Vision Team – Bill Bastl, Bill Carver, Lashlee Garafola, Phil Leftwich, Kathy Morris, and Anne Parsons. Each of them contributed to the success of the evening. One participant emailed me the following – “I was inspired, encouraged, and just plain had fun Sunday night. It made me feel included, and sparked my imagination about the future of the church. Participating in the exercises, listening, and being inspired by others was just wonderful.” We will gather again during Lent. Be sure to watch this space for the day and time.

It is on Sundays like last Sunday when I come to the end of the day thankful to God for a congregation filled with so many and diverse gifts. Whether it is in mission work, sacramental worship, music, education, or discernment of our future, God is definitely at work among us. Thanks be to God.

Peace,
Pastor Chris

Rob Bell and the "Fellowship"

Rob Bell, a provocative – and popular – evangelical pastor with a large following among younger adults, has created some heated conversation among evangelicals with his upcoming book, “Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” While I have not yet read Bell’s book, the reaction he is getting from supporters and detractors within evangelicalism suggests that many of the topics he considers are challenging some long-held doctrines in the largely conservative movement.

However, I’m less concerned with Bell’s arguments than with the kinds of responses he is receiving. As reported in the New York Times, leading evangelical John Piper, of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis wrote, rather cryptically, “Farewell, John Bell.” Albert Mohler, Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that a promotional video put out by Bell asking if it can be true that Mahatma Gandhi, a non-Christian, is burning in hell, was the “sad equivalent of a theological striptease.”

No matter what you think of Bell’s arguments (and I look forward to reading them for myself), the dismissive responses of some of his critics points to a particularly troubling way of being church. This way is marked by a careful drawing of the lines that constitute “orthodoxy,” lines that, once drawn, serve to define who is or is not a “true believer.” Those whose views do not fit within the lines are no longer welcome at the table.

There is a place for orthodoxy. A community of faith is by definition a community that shares certain common beliefs and commitments. The question for me is whether those lines are drawn widely or narrowly, and whether, once drawn, they are forever closed to reform. I belong to a tradition that lives by the motto “Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” a motto which suggests at least an openness to the work of the Spirit in helping us interpret God’s Word for our own time, even if this means challenging human constructions of “orthodoxy.” We do continue to believe, after all, that God is bigger than human thoughts can conceive.

Which is why it is troubling to see a group right now in the Presbyterian Church USA (my denomination), calling for consideration of presbyteries (regional groupings of congregations) created or re-organized to reflect persons of “like minds.” In other words, presbyteries would be organized not by geography, but by certain shared views. There would be, according to their vision it seems, “liberal” presbyteries and “conservative” presbyteries. We could focus on mission, they say, because we would stop spending all our time disagreeing about things like theology and social issues. We would get along because we would all be of “like mind.” They call themselves, ironically enough, “The Fellowship.”

I can’t think of a more horrendous vision for the church of Jesus Christ or one more antithetical to the clear call passages like 1 Corinthians 12-13. At a time when our culture is polarized more and more along lines of politics and ideology, the mainline church in North America provides a much needed witness to the power of unity-in-diversity. To give in to a hopelessness that suggests it is not possible for Christians to live and work together in unity, despite our differences, is to me an affront to Christ.

Rob Bell is learning the hard way what can happen when the lines are drawn hard and fast. If things go badly for him in his own denomination, I invite him to consider the Presbyterians. We still allow for a healthy give and take. We still value different opinions. We still believe God’s Spirit can reform us. We still believe the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.”

At least for now…

Psalms and Dreams

Grace to you, and peace, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a joy it was to be surrounded by the Psalms last Sunday. The Psalter was and is not only the hymnbook of the Hebrew people, but a deep well of liturgy and devotion for us today. The Psalms express the full range of human emotion before God – awe and wonder, despair and pain, resilient hope and bracing honesty. In the psalms we can soar into the heavens – “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens” – or descend into the pit – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” They lay out for us the living memory of God’s graciousness in the past -“I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old” – and the full hope of God’s coming future – “May the LORD give you increase, both you and your children. May you be blessed by the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

The joy of the day was only magnified by the presence of the combined adult choirs and the brass ensemble for both services, who were able to capture all the emotions conveyed by the psalms and direct them in worship to God. Thanks to all whose leadership inspires our worship.

We remembered on Sunday how important the psalms are to the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. In the earliest days of the Reformation, the psalms were the central expression of worship, and they remain important in our self-identity. They help us remember the past, even as they point us toward God’s future.

I hope those of you who are members and regular guests in our worship are making plans to be with us on March 13 at 6:00 p.m. for the first of several events throughout 2011 helping us commemorate our bicentennial as a congregation. It will be a time of hearing about the book the congregation is invited to read for Lent, “SoulFeast,” by Marjorie Thompson, as well as sharing in smaller groups. In addition, we will spend a portion of the time remembering and taking note of our rich history and dreaming together about our future. The memories and dreams gleaned from this and future gatherings will help the session as it evaluates our mission statement and program focus as we anticipate the next decade of ministry in this place.

It would be easy for a congregation like ours – blessed with abundant resources, continued growth, and vibrant worship and programs – to rest on the success previous generations achieved. In doing so, we are tempted to forget that the church’s traditions are living traditions, forged out of each generation’s discernment of God’s call. It remains the task of each generation of faith to listen for God’s call afresh. As Presbyterians, we believe that call is most clearly articulated when all voices have a place at the table; God’s voice is heard as we listen to each other’s memories and dreams. I pray your voice will be heard at the table on March 13.

Like the psalmist, we gather strength from our rich history and tradition even as we listen together for God’s call to the future, captured most profoundly in the 23rd Psalm – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”