Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

In United Methodism pastors are subject to appointment and that means we go as the Spirit leads the church. A particular pastor can serve as short as one year in a particular place and some can serve one church for their entire vocation. The point of itinerancy is to be subject to the movement of the Spirit and to go where you can best serve the Lord.

I just finished my first full week as the pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA after serving St. John’s UMC in Staunton since 2013. Like all churches, Cokesbury is unique in a number of ways and has been around longer than I’ve been around (and will be here long after I’m gone). Below are ten things I learned from my first week in the new appointment.

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  1. Names Are Important

Of course names are important, but they can mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people during the first week. I did my best to match names to faces as quickly as possible such that when I was serving communion for the first time I was able to call a few people by name as I handed them the body of Christ. After the first service was over, the individuals whom I had called by name all made comments about how valued they felt because I had made the effort to know them. Names are important and learning the names of the people you serve God with is the beginning to a strong ministry.

 

  1. You’re Not The Only Visitor

On Sunday morning I stood in the parking lot greeting people on their way into church and welcomed them even though I had never been there before. I made a lot of jokes about welcoming people into their own church and when a younger couple walked up I did the same thing. However, it was their very first time at Cokesbury just as much as it was my first time. It was an important lesson to learn before the service because it reminded me not to use “insider language” and therefore made it as welcoming to people as possible whether they’d been in the church every Sunday of their life or if it was their first Sunday.

 

  1. Prepare To Be Surprised

You can plan a whole worship service and line up all the hymns and the prayers and the liturgist but something will always spring out of nowhere. I hadn’t even made it to the scripture reading when a group of lay leaders brought forth a prepared liturgy to welcome me as the new pastor of the church. At the moment I was so consumed by the feeling that I needed to get everything right that I reeled when the service was taken by other people in order to ask God’s to lead me and guide me in the best ways possible for the church. I needed those words and prayers more than I can describe.

 

  1. Something Will Go Wrong

Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.

 

  1. God Is In The Business Of Doing New Things

Just because the church has done something a certain way, that doesn’t mean it has to continue that way. This can be true on a number of levels from how many committees there are to what kind of songs is the church supposed to sing. For the first service at Cokesbury I tweaked the order of worship around a little bit but biggest change came during communion; instead of allowing the gathered people to tear their own piece of bread from the common loaf I offered a piece to each individual and instructed them to come forward with their hands outstretched in order to recognize the gift they were receiving. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I felt led to change it this way but in response to the change in communion many people remarked about how holy it felt and how the experienced the Spirit’s presence in worship. God is in the business of doing new things, some big and some small but all for the glory of the kingdom.

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  1. God Provides

After preaching nearly 250 sermons in once place I was nervous and anxious about preaching to a relatively unknown congregation. I knew what the last church needed to hear and what they were familiar with and what kind of stories would resonate in their heart of hearts. And even though I stressed about the words for the first sermon, God provided the words I needed to hear and the words Cokesbury needed to hear. The sermon came when I remembered that I am not the one called to provide for the church, only God can do that. And when I submitted to God’s will, the right sermon came forth.

 

  1. A Familiar Face Can Go A Long Way

We had already started worship when I saw one of my oldest friends walk into the back of the sanctuary with her infant daughter. She lives about 30 min away and made the drive down my first Sunday to be there in worship. I cannot convey in words how humbling it was to see her sitting in the back pew and how much it helped me to feel God’s presence in the midst of worship. A familiar face can go a really long way during the first worship service.

 

  1. Hope Does Not Disappoint

After the first service I showed up at the church every day for work this week and people from the community kept swinging by. Some wanted to ask questions, other wanted to offer advice, but all of them were filled with the hope that comes from the Lord; hope for things unseen; hope for new life and new ministries; hope for resurrection. Their hope in the Lord is infectious and I can’t wait to see what God is going to do next for Cokesbury.

 

  1. The Church Is Not A Building

One of the strongest ministries of Cokesbury is a weekly flea market that takes place in the parking lot every Saturday morning. I drove over to the church this morning to check it out for the first time and I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and by the interactions between people from the church and people from the community. In my limited ministry experience there are too many programs that feel like “us and them” whereby there is a divide between those who serve and those who are served. But this morning there was no line. Instead I saw conversations and interactions that triumphantly declared the church is not a building!

 

  1. Christ Is Alive

Christ is alive in the community of Woodbridge, VA and in the community of Cokesbury Church. Whether singing or praying, worshipping or praising, talking or eating, Christ has been fully present in the interactions I’ve had during my first week and is surely alive in this place. Thanks be to God.

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O To Be Wise – Sermon on Proverbs 1.20-33

Proverbs 1.20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity come like a whirlwind, when distress and anger come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, there they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

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Wisdom is standing on the street corner shouting at anyone within distance. In all the town squares she is that preacher standing on a box yelling at the crowds to repent from their ways. At the entrance of the largest cities she is the one holding up the signs about our idiocy and the power of God’s wrath. She is all the preachers, prophets, and teachers that weep in sadness that their words are no longer heeded. Wisdom is frightening and demanding.

How long, all you simple minded people in this congregation, how long will you love to remain being so simple in your thoughts and reflections? How long will you enjoy scoffing at the events in your life and hate the knowledge that is given to you in scripture and in church?

Listen to Wisdom right now, because she is pouring out all her thoughts to you and making all of her words known in this place.

Yet, she has called and called, she has screamed and screamed, and none of us have listened. We ignored her words and demands, and now she laughs at our suffering and at us. She will relish in the calamities that come like a whirlwind, she will delight in our frustration and anger. She knows that when we are at the end of our ropes, when we have nowhere else to turn, that we will turn back to her, but it will be too late.

Because we have so consistently hated knowledge and did not fear the Lord, we will eat the fruit of our way, and be sated with our own devices.

Wisdom cries out from the streets, yells at us in our cars and in our pews: “Waywardness kills the simple, and our complacency as fools will be our undoing. But whoever listens to Wisdom will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? When you heard me rambling up here about Wisdom’s disposition, did you squirm in your pews? This is one tough scripture precisely because Wisdom does not mince her words and comes with a clear and stern warning. We can continue in our stupidity that leads to suffering, or we can listen to Wisdom and live in peace.

For a long time, the book of Proverbs has been marginalized and forgotten in contemporary American Christianity. Similarly the church might confess that our wisdom has suffered a similar fate in culture. Many of us no longer read our bibles, we no longer know what it means to pray, and we live in fear rather than in hope.

But are we really at fault? The church has not done the best job of equipping Christians for the work of discipleship, and the world is full of other options for Wisdom. We are constantly overwhelmed with choices and advice. For instance: The front of our church right now is filled with most of the books that I was assigned to read in seminary. You can read about what it means to do church, you can read books about preaching and teaching, you can read about suffering and temptation, but none of those books taught me the true wisdom of what it means to be a pastor.

Any of us can read about the importance of praying for our enemies in scripture, but the words cannot possibly prepare us for the moment when someone grabs us by the hands and actually asks us to pray for them.

Any of us can turn on the news, or search online to hear about the refugee/migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, but all we hear and learn means very little unless we ourselves are forced to flee our home in hopes that someone else will welcome us in.

So it’s not so much that we have not been given the chance to learn and become wise, but because there are so many options out there, we run the risk of feeling like we just walked into at an all-you-can-eat-buffet prepared for people who ate before they arrived.

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Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but lady Wisdom will more often show up in the places where we live our lives. She shows up in the busy streets, in the public squares, and at the bustling intersections. Wisdom appears in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance, and in the quick responses of our children.

On Wednesday night St. John’s hosted the first meeting of “The Circle.” It was designed as a space where the youth of the church can feel comfortable sharing reflections on their own discipleship and partake in communion with one another. Our first meeting went pretty well, the conversation flowed naturally, and I was incredibly impressed by the youth’s ability to convey how Jesus is real for them.

But toward the end of the meeting, I saw the youth really come alive. We were sitting around the table with our bibles opened to Proverbs 1.20-33. We read together about Wisdom yelling out from the streets and then I asked them to share pieces of advice they wished they could tell their parents without fear of getting in trouble.

Up to that point I thought all the youth were really enjoying The Circle, but with one question about advice for their parents, they all became animated and had more advice than I could possibly write down. We went back and forth for at least fifteen minutes before we were able to agree on a solid list that everyone agreed on and, in the true spirit of Wisdom, I am now going to share the list with all of you.

Disclaimer: Parents, your children were vulnerably honest about their responses and they knew I would be sharing them in church. I will not tell you who said what, but listen carefully, because the advice might be for you…

I wish my parents knew that nobody is perfect.

            I wish my parents knew that is not worth it to takes things so seriously all the time.

            I wish my parents knew that they could trust me; after all, I trust them.

           I wish my parents knew how much it hurts when they interrupt me.

            I wish my parents knew that patience is still a virtue, even when you’re old.

            I wish my parents knew that I am smarter than they think I am.

            I wish my parents knew that if they tell me “not to have an attitude,” I am DEFINITELY going to have an attitude.

            I wish my parents knew that I love them, but sometimes I don’t love their cooking.

Wisdom is a tough pill to swallow. But even as difficult as it is to hear Wisdom speak to us this way, whether it be the dreadful warnings in scripture or the advice from our children, it is difficult to argue with her warnings. The advice the youth offered was so profound that it not only applies to parents but to all people. We could read about how we are supposed to behave as rational human beings, but having a youth tells us that patience is a virtue, and to remember that nobody is perfect actually affects us in all the right ways.

It shocks us to hear something so right from someone we least expect. It bewilders us to hear Wisdom crying out in the streets when we would otherwise like to ignore her.

To walk in the way of Wisdom is incredibly demanding. We cannot claim to be wise by reading a lot of books and watching a lot of television, true wisdom requires us to act and move in the world.

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When Wisdom cries out, when we hear about what our children wish they could say to us, it hurts (or at least cuts deep), but it makes sense. When we forget about who we are and whose we are, when we forget about the ways of God built on love, we often get ourselves in terrible predicaments. We say things without thinking, we act without conscience, and we believe we are smarter than the people around us.

I regularly discover wisdom in the people from this church who listen for the still small voice of God while the world is screaming and spinning. I will be in my office after a difficult phone call, or standing outside shaking hands following worship, or walking through the grocery store, when one of you will come up to me and say something that just reorients my entire being. Something like: “Remember God loves you too

Wisdom is all around us, particularly in the people in the pews next to us, calling to us to start behaving like God wants us to. Because Wisdom is finally approachable and possible as we participate in the practices of God, who is Wisdom. We start to see and hear the Wisdom around us as we search for ways to love like God, listen like God, and even laugh like God, in the complicated and ordinary places of life.

I experienced the depth of Wisdom this week when our youth spoke far beyond their ages and dropped some important knowledge on me. In them I experienced a power greater than my own, and realized that if I gave up my false assumption that I was greater than, or wiser than, those youth, I would start to recognize the true wisdom around me and actually listen.

Where do you hear Wisdom? Do you hear her in the scriptures you read? Do you find her in the worship services at St. John’s? Have you seen her shouting through a parent or a spouse or a child? Does she make you uncomfortable when she shows up?

Wisdom speaks to us all the time; we only need the patience to hear her, and the strength to respond. Amen.

What’s The Point? – Sermon on 1 John 1.1-4

1 John 1.1-4

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

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Graveside services makes me nervous.

If we have a funeral at the church, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and witness to the ways that God moved through the person who we are celebrating.

But when you’re at the grave, things are often out of your control. You might be driving in the sunshine to the cemetery but the minute you arrive clouds appear and rain begins to fall. You might have your bible opened to a particular passage and the wind will begin to howl and when you look down you’ve gone from John to Nehemiah. And personally, I’m usually pretty nervous about getting lost so I always make sure to arrive exceptionally early.

A young pastor was once asked to do a graveside service for an older man from the community who had no friends and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrived he got in his car and headed out for the country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.

He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his GPS device, and he even stopped at a gas station to ask for local directions and he eventually arrived an hour late.

As he drove across the open landscape the hearse was nowhere in sight, the backhoe was next to the open hole, and he was a group of men under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked to the open grave and discovered the the lid was already in place and dirt had already been sprinkled across the top.

Feeling incredibly guilty for being late the young man began preaching a sermon like he had never done before. He put every ounce of his faith into his words to proclaim all that God had done in the world from creation to resurrection.

When he returned to his car, sweating from his passionately delivered sermon, he overheard one of the men under the tree saying to the others, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for years and I ain’t never seen anything like that.

When you laugh in church does it feel joyful? Does anything about worship make you experience joy?

When I read through the beginning of 1 John this week I felt particularly convicted by the final verse: We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. I started wondering about how we experience joy in our faith, and if we experience it at all.

So I decided to pick up my phone and start calling people to ask them about church, worship, and joy. I started by calling friends of mine who no longer attend church and I was not surprised to discover that most of them explained that they stopped attending because church stopped bringing them joy. Many of them said that they often left church feeling bad about themselves and they had a harder and harder time going back each week. At some point church was joyful, but now the joy was gone.

Next I picked up our church directory and started making other phone calls asking everyone the same question: What is the most joyful part of worship for you? From the moment you arrive on Sunday morning till you go home, when do you feel joy? Here are some of the responses I received:

“I feel joy when I see people that I know and love. It’s the fellowship, I guess, but at the same time I can be joyful during the music, whether its the choir or when we are all singing a hymn together.”

“There is nothing more joyful than receiving communion and praying at the altar afterwards. Whatever I have going on in my life is remarkably replaced with a feeling of joy when I feast at God’s table and pray at God’s altar.”

“Having a community makes me feel joyful, when someone takes the time to come find me and seek me out to check on me. That’s when I experience joy in church.”

“When I see children in line for communion I am struck by the joyfulness of God’s grace. I remember that Jesus called the children to himself, and when they are invited to the table it makes me so happy.”

“I absolutely love hugging all the people who come to church, if I can make them happy I am filled with nothing but joy.”

“The height of joy for me happens when I get to serve communion. I love to receive it, but when I get to hold the cup I am actually sharing Jesus with another person and we become connected.”

“Taylor, you know that I can’t sing worth a bean, but when we sing hymns together I feel joyful, I find myself smiling simply because I am singing my faith.”

Now, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when, after polling a number of people from our community, no one said that they experienced joy during the sermon! But then again, the point of a sermon is not to just make us feel joyful but it is to proclaim God’s Word and sometimes we need to leave feeling convicted, but that’s for another sermon.

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If John was writing to a community for the purpose of making their joy complete, then we should be doing church and discipleship in such a way that our joy may be complete with one another. The church can be many things for many people but if there is no joy in our faithfulness then it will become harder and harder to give ourselves to Jesus.

While phoning people this week I also asked them a second question: Where have you seen God’s majesty?: Here are some of the responses I received:

“The natural beauty in the world. Like, if I’m walking through the woods and I start to see the trees swaying together, it feels like God’s majesty.”

“In creation. Walking outside and looking up at the stars or the clouds. When I run my fingers through a cold stream or drag them across rough bark.”

“When I hold a child in my arms and look into the depth of their eyes I catch a glimpse of God’s majesty.”

“In the sunrise every morning. When I see greenery and new life during the spring. I see God’s majesty through the beauty of the earth.”

Most of the responses were completely beautiful and inspiring. But not a single person said they saw or felt God’s majesty in church.

At first I was frightened by this realization. If people are not experiencing God’s majesty in a place like this then we are in trouble. But the more I thought about it, it began to make sense…

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Most of the time that I discover God’s majesty it is in the world outside of this building at 11am on Sunday mornings. However, it is precisely at a time and place such as this that I learned to speak the language of faith, to look at the world through a faithful perspective, and use my hands and feet to experience God’s majesty. Church, at its best, is the place where we learn a new language to speak truthfully about God’s majesty in the world. If and when we experience joy in our discipleship we begin to remember that God is the one from whom all blessings flow perfecting the saints below.

The whole point of 1 John is to proclaim the message of the reality of God revealed in Christ. As a church we proclaim all that God has done so that we can recognize God’s signature and handiwork in the world around us. Faithful worship equips us to feel God’s majesty during our lives. 

Whatever messages and proclamations we make on Sunday mornings are meant to be felt and experienced on a personal level if it is to bear fruit in the world. If what we do here does not take hold in the days in between services than we are no better than words on a piece of paper. It is our personal experience of God’s majesty that seals the truth of what we hold dear and claim as truth.

I experience God’s majesty whenever I work with youth, and particularly during mission trips. The first days are usually filled with painfully shy teenagers who are wrestling with their own identities and what it means to be in relationships with others. They work and work and by the end of the week they are scattered throughout the larger community with all of their new brothers and sisters in faith. I see how far they move from the first forced conversations to the natural dialogue that flows from their souls.

Yet, I can only claim that as God’s majesty because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read stories about the Israelites leaving Egypt and growing into a new nation together. I hear about the disciples embarking in a new community after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And then I realize I am seeing the same thing happening again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.

I feel the greatest amount of joy during worship when we celebrate communion with each other. For years I dreamt about what it would mean to be a pastor, from the hospital visits, to the funerals, to the weddings, and to worship. But the thing that I was most excited about was breaking bread at the table together. When I see people lining up with their hands outstretched I am overfilled with joy because I see faithful people living out their faith. From those who are young in their faith to those who have journeyed to the table many times before, I feel the greatest sense of joy when we feast together.

Yet, I can only claim that as joyful because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read about the disciples gathering in the upper room with Jesus the night before he was betrayed. I hear about the new community of faith gathering together to break bread after Jesus was resurrected to continually remember all he was willing to do. And then I realize that I am seeing the same thing happen again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.

Joy is supposed to motivate our lives as Christians. Christ sought out people in Galilee who were lost and alone and brought them a sense of newness and joy. It is with thankful and joyful hearts that we may enter into the world to be Christ for others.

Joy is that tingling sensation we feel when we begin to grasp our part in God’s cosmic plan. Whether in the midst of a hymn or a hug we live into the Lord’s divine reality and we witness his kingdom on earth.

Joy is that beautiful moment when our cheeks begin to hurt because we have been smiling so much. As we gather for worship we can reach out to strangers and friends to demonstrate how wonderful they are to us and to God.

We spend time together as a community every week to worship so that our joy may be complete.

Joy is worth working for because if we’re not feeling joy in our discipleship, then what’s the point? Amen.