5 Tips For A Fruitful Vacation Bible School

I just finished leading Vacation Bible School for Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA and the experience led me to write 5 tips for a fruitful VBS:

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  1. Learn The Names

There are few things as important as learning the names of the participants at Vacation Bible School. Whether the kids are regulars in worship or if it’s the first time they’ve entered a church, learning names shows that the church cares about who they are. I am new in my current appointment and am still learning the names of most people but I’ve made it a priority to learn the names of the children and the youth. We are blessed at the church I serve to be situated in a very diverse community and therefore the children at our VBS are all very different. It is good and right to learn the “Sallys” and the “Jims” but it means that much more when you take the time to learn how to appropriately pronounce the names of the children from other countries. On the first day of our VBS I called a couple of the kids by name and they responded with surprised looks and huge grins. Over and over again in scripture we learn about God calling people BY NAME! If we cannot learn the names of the children who come into our buildings for VBS, then we are failing to be the church God is calling us to be.

 

  1. Ditch The Phone

Go to any restaurant, or any large area of commerce, and you will see individuals (and families) with their heads down in their hands. The proliferation of portable devices has greatly transformed the cultural landscape in a tremendous way such that an entire family can sit down for a meal without ever uttering a word. At Vacation Bible School the phones and the tablets should completely disappear. Unless it’s an emergency, there is nothing so important that it should take attention away from the children and the youth that have arrived to learn about the love of God. By ditching the phones we are showing them that we, like God, care about them and we love them. Whereas many of them will return to homes with parents and older siblings sucked into the deceptive worlds of Twitter and Facebook, the participants can experience a little slice of being known and cared about in God’s kingdom at VBS if we believe our literal and physical relationships are more important than our digital ones.

  1. Get On Their Level

At VBS this week I have been the storyteller and have been tasked with sharing stories about David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost. But before ever helping the children and youth enter the strange new world of the bible, I asked them about their favorite movie (almost all of them said Moana), or about their favorite meal (mostly chicken nuggets), or about their superhero (Wonder Woman). The Bible no longer offers an instant connection for children today and it is often experienced like an ancient relic from the past. By showing them that we care about what they value, and then demonstrating the value of scripture for our lives, it makes a connection between the things in a way previously unknown. Regardless of age, racial, and socio-economic divisions there is a need for connection between leaders and participants that can be achieved simply by getting on their level.

  1. Make Connections

VBS does not end when the children leave for the day. When they return home or move on to the next activity they are still absorbing what they’ve learned and experienced. Similarly, the church is tasked with making connections between sessions such that the kids know we’ve been thinking about them as well. For instance: one of our kids this week shared that he was excited about going to football practice after VBS ended that day. The next morning the first thing I asked him was: “How was your football practice yesterday?” The boy responded by staring at me and then saying, “How did you remember that?” (as if it was the greatest accomplishment in the world). The children and youth that attend VBS are more than the means by which we can grow the church, they are more than numbers on a piece of paper, they are more than the hope for the future. The children and youth that attend VBS are very much the church RIGHT NOW and they deserve to be known and heard just as much as anyone else in the church.

 

  1. Invite, Invite, Invite

Today, at least in the United Methodist Church, “invite” seems like a dirty word. Rather than offend or inconvenience anyone, we’ve simply stopped inviting people to church. Whenever leaders from the UMC get together we hear about a frightening statistic that should leave us shaking in our boots: “The average person in a UMC invites another person to worship once every 33 years.” At the very least the children and youth at VBS should be invited to attend worship the following Sunday to share a few songs they learned during the week. They should know that we want them to join us, not to increase numbers or to fill pews, but because we want them to continually know and experience the love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t take much to invite someone to church, particularly young children and youth that have been running around the church for a week, but it must be done with love, care, and with intentionality.

Devotional – Hebrews 12.1-2

Devotional:

Hebrews 12.1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Weekly Devotional Image             On Saturday afternoon, by God’s will, we will gather on the front lawn of St. John’s UMC with a cohort from the community. Our third Annual Community Cook-Out will be filled with familiar and strange faces, we will have more food than we’ll know what to do with, we’ll have children jumping on bouncy houses, and we’ll even have a dunk tank set up (I’ll be the first to be knocked in!). For years and years this church has stood in the middle of the community, but for too long it has been disconnected from the lives of the people in the immediate neighborhood. Therefore, the Cook-Out is our opportunity to share Christ’s love with those who surround us.

During the last two Cook-Outs it has been a joy to see strangers becoming friends through a shared meal and fellowship, but there is always the temptation to stay where we feel comfortable and only talk to the people we know. The Cook-Out is by no means an attempt to “evangelize the neighborhood” and get everyone saved. But if we are not willing to follow the example of Christ by reaching out to strangers, then the church is failing to be the body of Christ for the world.

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St. John’s exists and thrives because of the great cloud of witnesses that brought us to where we are. We owe a great deal to the saints who have come before us, the ones who first invited us to discover God’s love in a place like this, and now the time has come for us to follow them on the path to Christlikeness. For it is when we humble ourselves, when we disregard the shame of embarrassment, we join together with the one who never knew a stranger, the one who came to change the world, the one who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

To follow Jesus on the way that leads to life requires us to actually act like him here and now. It means crucifying our selfish ways and opinions so that we might encounter the other without pretense. It means laying aside every weight that prevents us from sharing the Good News. It means running the race with perseverance so that we might bless others in the same ways we that we have been blessed.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 3.12

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 3.12

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.

Weekly Devotional Image

God loves to surprise us. We will be worried about a particular event in our lives when God will use a friend or family member to speak a word of hope that we need to hear. We will have anxiety over a relationship when God will speak through the words of scripture to remind us about what we are called to do. We will be afraid about a current event when God will use a pastor to proclaim bold words about the power of God’s grace and mercy. God loves to surprise us.

As I was preparing for worship last week I knew that I needed to make an announcement about the importance of inviting someone to discover God’s love at St. John’s. We have embraced this as a congregational goal for the year and I put little inserts in the bulletin that anyone could use to invite someone to church. But on Saturday afternoon, I did not know how I would share this endeavor with the church, short of holding up the insert and asking people to invite others. And then when I was walking the dog on Saturday night, she got out of her harness and bolted into the darkness.

I went home to grab the flashlight, hiking boots, and a fleece cap and went searching. I looked and looked all over the neighborhood, I got in the car and combed the surrounding blocks, and I called out her name with as much love as I could muster. When I finally found her behind a neighbor’s house I quickly grabbed her and (because I forgot the leash) I carried her all the way home.

God loves to surprise us. As I carried the dog in my arms I was struck by how God loves me the same way. God will never stop searching for me when I am lost, God will use others to redirect me to the right path, and God will always be ready to carry me home. When I finally got home and the dog nuzzled up next to me on the couch I realized that I had my illustration for inviting others to discover God’s love.

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Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica and prayed for the Lord to “make [them] increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” It is a good and right thing to grow the church because it allows us to bear fruit in the world and seek out the lost. If we believe the church has done some remarkable and transformative things in our lives then we should naturally want to share that gift with everyone around us.

This week, let us pray for God to give us the strength and courage to invite someone to discover the love of God in church. Let us seek out the lost and offer to bring them home. And let us increase and abound in love for one another and for all.

 

How The Dishwasher Taught Me To Pray – Sermon on Ephesians 3.14-21

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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I loved my college roommates. Some of us knew each other from high school, and others were grafted in along the way, but nevertheless, when we lived together it felt like a little family. We tried our best to communicate needs within the domicile, we kept it quiet when someone had a midterm the next morning, and we quickly learned to share common appliances for the betterment of the entire living situation.

Between us we would come to earn Bachelor degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Biology, Communications, and History. I always kind of imagined that we would be a awesome group Jeopardy team with the wealth of knowledge spread between us. Living together in college was great, but it wasn’t always easy.

There was the time we discovered mice in the house. We did our best to keep the kitchen clean, and spread mouse traps throughout the house, but during the cold winter months they came back like clockwork.

There was the time a huge snow storm came through, trapping all of our cars, and we ran out of heating oil to keep the house warm.

There was the time that we all contracted swine flu at different intervals. As one person became sicker and sicker, those of us who were well shared the responsibility of caretaker, until we started displaying our own symptoms.

Part of the beauty of living with other people was the sharing of life experiences. We celebrated each others successes, and grew to really rely on one another. Part of the challenge of living with other people was learning how to change our habits and needs based upon the habits and needs of other people.

Ephesians 3.14-21 is a prayer. Paul is writing to this new faith community in the hopes that his prayers will be answered by the Lord of hosts. He prays for the congregation because he knows that he cannot give them what they need in order to grow, but through prayer the church will learn to fully rely upon God.

The beginning of the prayer establishes the main focus: Paul prays for the church to be strengthened in its inner being, from the inside out, by the power of God. He hopes that the individuals that make of the community will see the vital importance of letting Christ into their lives and then change accordingly.

If Christ dwells in the hearts of the people, if they are rooted and grounded in love, then they may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses all knowledge.

During college, I was the only person from the house that went to church. While my roommates enjoyed the comfort of their beds on Sunday mornings, I was making my way out the door to worship the Lord. I learned to accept their priorities, and on some level they learned to accept mine.

For instance: I made them pray with me whenever we ate dinner that I had prepared. I felt that if I was willing to go through all of the steps necessary to make a dinner for all of us, then they could bow their heads with me in prayer. So once a week, we would sit in our living room, eating on paper plates with plastic silverware, and they would listen to me pray.

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It is difficult for many of us to hear about God’s unending love, particularly a group of college-age men who just wanted to eat. It may seem so obvious to us that it no longer strikes at the core of our being. We hear “God is love,” and “love is patient, love is kind,” and “Love you neighbor as yourself,” and “God’s love knows no bounds” and instead of that love becoming clearer, it just floats around in the air.

Faithful love is even harder to grasp for those of us who do come to church because we hear about all these beautiful and wonderful things, we look around at a church filled with people who appear to have their lives figured out, when in reality we are all struggling with a myriad of secrets, private disappointments, lost hopes, and frustrations.

It’s hard to hear about love, when we don’t feel love in our lives.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is all about letting Christ in to change lives: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Letting Christ into our hearts is like moving in with a new roommate. At first, we spend a lot of joyful time getting to know one another, discovering common likes and interests. We do a great job putting all the dishes away and keeping the house clean, but then we have to start making compromises, whether we want to or not.

I learned about this type of faithful living the right way through my wife Lindsey. When we were dating, and I was getting ready to ask her to marry me, I dreamed about what it would be like to live together. I imagined the way we would set up our living room, where we would put the record player, and even where we would dance to all of our old jazz 33s.

After the wedding, while we were still giddy from the honeymoon, we decided to tackle the challenge of combining all of our possessions in the kitchen. We debated the value of keeping our plates in one cabinet versus putting the coffee cups near the coffee pot. We worried about the safety of keeping our knives in a drawer or right on the counter top. And we experimented with the location of the microwave in relation to the toaster and whether or not we would blow the fuse if they were both on at the same time.

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The real challenge came to the precipice over the dishwasher. I was of the opinion that it did not matter where dishes and cups were placed in the dishwasher, so long as we could fit as many things as possible. Lindsey was not of the same opinion. For the first few weeks, whenever I put a plate away, she would come behind me and rearrange the dishwasher. It got to a point that I started purposely putting items wherever I wanted because I didn’t think it mattered, but sweet Lindsey would watch me live out my frustration, and then when I left the room, she would bring order to the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this continued, but I do know when it stopped. Lindsey was working late one night, and the dishwasher was almost full. I saw my opportunity to prove that the dishwasher works fine no matter where the dishes are placed. So with a mischievous grin on my face I rearranged the order into chaos, I started the dishwasher. I couldn’t wait to see her face when she got home, I imagined the apology she would offer me regarding her wrong interpretation of dishwasher etiquette, it was going to be something beautiful.

But when the dishwasher cycle finished, I knew I was in trouble.

How could this have happened? Whenever Lindsey ran the dishwasher, everything came out all nice and clean and ready to use. But this time, there was still food on a few of the dishes, and some of the utensils looked worse than when I put them in!

I was wrong, and I learned to change. Now I will freely admit that sometimes I still place something in the wrong place, but after my passive-aggressive experiment, I have learned to alter my focus because Lindsey was right.

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The incident with the dishwasher taught me that prayer is about change. When I forced my roommates to pray in college, was I doing it because I was concerned about them, or was I doing it because I thought I was better than them? Did I earnestly pray to the Lord during that time, or did I just want them to hear the sound of my voice?

The beauty of prayer comes to fruition when we let Christ in to change us, and when we are willing to give up some of our space for the Lord. The dishwasher taught me that if prayer is only about myself, that if I am only concerned with my thoughts and actions, then I am neglecting to let God in to make some important changes.

Faithful living is about giving up those habits and behaviors that are no longer fruitful, reprioritizing and reorganizing our lives, so that God can make us clean.

In a few moments we are going to end our service not here in the sanctuary, but outside on the front lawn. We are going to gather in a group and we are going to pray.

First we will pray for God to give us the strength to give up some room, and let Christ in. That instead of focusing on just our needs and wants that we will begin to comprehend the love of Christ and the fullness of God.

Then we will face the sanctuary and we are going to pray for our church. So many of us, myself included, get caught up in such a tunnel-visioned view of prayer that we neglect to pray, like Paul did, for the community of faith.

And finally we will turn to face the community around us and pray once more. Prayer is not just about you and me, and it is not just about the church, prayer is about communing with the Lord about the very fabric of life.

If we want our lives to change, if we want our church to change, if we want to let God’s love reign, then we have to be willing to give up some space. We have to learn to rearrange the dishwashers of our lives so that everything can be made clean.

Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 85.12

Devotional:

Psalm 85.12

The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

Weekly Devotional Image

When I was appointed to serve St. John’s UMC two years ago I asked a number of people about the goals of the church: What do we want to look like in five years? What ministries need greater attention? Where is the church heading? I asked and asked and was surprised to discover that our collective vision did not extend past next Sunday; so long as our doors stayed open, and we had people sitting in the pews, we would be content.

For two years this limited vision permeated everything we did as a church and we have been far more concerned with maintenance than mission. Yet at the same time our church has grown in numbers and faithfulness as we continue to discern the will of God for our lives and for the church. In light of this, I grew so accustomed to the status quo, and the consistent growth, that I neglected to start looking toward the future until I heard a sobering statistic at Annual Conference this year: The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.

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In the wake of discovering this frightening statistic, I felt convicted by the Lord so start looking further than next Sunday and create goals for our church.

1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time every day to God in prayer.

2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.

3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.

If the mission of the church is to form disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then it is our responsibility to pray faithfully, invite lovingly, and give generously. We are called to be Christ’s body for the world and are equipped by the Lord to do so.

Our first goal is to grow through prayer so that we might be transformed into better disciples. By giving time to God every day in prayer we will start to see how true the psalmist really was: “The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.” The Lord will grow our faithfulness, attendance, and stability so long as we are willing to play a part in this mission as well.

As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us take time to reflect on the church that God has so graciously given to us. How can we be better stewards of this place? Where is God calling us to serve within the community? What goals do we have for the church?

Devotional – John 15.1-2

Devotional:

John 15.1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Sometimes I speak before thinking. The Bishop had come into town to address a gathering of clergy about upcoming initiatives and events in the life of our Annual Conference. We spent a significant amount of time addressing the metrics that all United Methodist Churches are required to measure and report on a weekly basis including: Worship Attendance, Weekly Offering, Professions of Faith, Christian Formation Groups, Mission Giving/Persons in Mission. When the presentation came to a conclusion, the Bishop opened the floor for questions. A few timid hands rose from the pews with standard questions about particular theological issues that the church is still wrestling with, and before I knew it I had my hand sticking straight up in the air and the bishop asked for my question.

I thanked the bishop for taking time to speak with us and then I launched right into my question. It went something like this: “I can appreciate the need to log our metric data every week as we seek to be better stewards of our churches and continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, what are we doing about the churches that are no longer fruitful? Are we addressing their negative data? Because I seem to remember a time when Jesus said ‘I am the vine, and my Father in the vinegrower, and he removes the branches that no longer bear fruit.’” At that moment a number of the clergy in the room began to laugh nervously and I continued on, “I’m not kidding around. If we’re serious about living into God’s kingdom here and now, then are we willing to cut off the branches that are no longer bearing fruit?”

The silence that followed was palpable.

The Bishop took his time to address my question and explained that we need to mourn the loss of any church, but the coming reality is that some churches are no longer bearing fruit and we will have to do something about it eventually. I recognize now that I could’ve articulated my question in a gentler fashion, but I still stand by Christ’s words.

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In our faith journeys, and in our churches, we tend to desire change by addition while Christ articulated an alternative. If something is not bearing fruit in our churches or in our lives, what would it look like for us to cut them away? The future of our faith and church is largely dependent on our willingness to sacrifice the branches that have continued to wither away while other branches are bearing fruit in other places.

This week, let us take a good look at our lives to see whether or not we are bearing fruit. Let us pray to the Lord for guidance about how we can be better stewards of our churches and bear fruit for God’s kingdom.

Living in Harmony – Sermon on Romans 12.9-18

We tried something different in church this week. Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.

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Living in Harmony

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversation during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 
  2. Ask everyone to share their name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below are a list of questions to ask of the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask them to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen. 

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Homily:

I have wanted to do this activity since I arrived at St. John’s. We do such a good job at welcoming and connecting with one another on Sunday mornings, and during other church activities, but I’m not sure how well we really know one another.

I once knew a man who said the loneliest times in his life occurred at 11am every Sunday morning when he was sitting in our packed sanctuary. For years he was a regular worshipper, and for year no one bothered to reach out; no one knew his name, where he was from, or what was going on in his life. Ever since I was appointed here I thought about breaking us into groups to combat the exact type of loneliness that man described.

I waited and waited and then last week something happened that made me realize how desperately we needed to do what we just did.

Our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man began to cry. He said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future. These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.

I don’t want to be part of a church that does not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I don’t want our sanctuary to be the loneliest place on Sunday mornings. We did not ask and answer the questions today to just learn superficial facts about one another; we did so with the hope that these facts would spark new and lasting relationships. This church should be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness. Amen.