Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Sermon: “In The Waters”

Psalm 46
1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Isaiah 43:1-7
43But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

NJ beach

“In the Waters”
Rev. Julie Jensen
FPC Cartersville, GA
August 17. 2014
As a friend of mine used to say, “this week’s been so rough it should count as two.” She worked in the journalism field and this comment often surfaced after weeks where there were many major stories all unfolding all at once on multiple fronts. A local story might need extensive coverage while national news broke overnight, and then a major international incident would get folded into the mix. We have lost touch over the years but I often think of her in weeks like this week. There has been a lot of upheaval in our community, nation, and in the world. When we learn on the same day that people in Gaza are tweeting people in Ferguson, Missouri to offer advice on how to survive in riots, that less than three miles from where we are sitting a shooting rampage ended with a suicide and car crashing into a construction trailer, we might feel a little unsettled. The death of a celebrity that brings issues of mental health and depression front and center might make us feel all sorts of feelings. Added into the mix is all the other news we are exposed to and everything happening in our personal lives. Kids here are back in school, while college students made and are making their journeys back to dorm rooms and classrooms. I could go on and on – illnesses, divorces, job changes, financial stresses, care and concern for those we love, situations we cannot control – each of us deals with that every day.

It is in times like these that I come back to these two scriptures. Over and over again they show me the sovereignty of God, God’s grace and mercy, and remind me that I don’t have to fix it all, that I can’t fix it all. These seemed like words that we may need to hear today, and so I offer them to you.
We spent a good amount of time this summer focusing on the idea of being still. Ted preached a sermon series that led off with this reading. For me, being still is just one facet of this psalm that speaks to me. In 2001, Psalm 46 was the lectionary Psalm for the Sunday after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The first time I ventured alone to Manhattan to explore I felt a little lost. The City is bustling. It is crowded. It is tall. Yet, in the midst of what we may remember from movies, from photos we have seen of Tomes Square, there are pockets of quiet. There are neighborhoods. There are tree lined streets with trash cans at the curbs just like we put out the trash here. There are churches and schools and everyday life. I happened to wander into a church that day and saw the words of verses 5-7 of this Psalm on a banner: 5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. 6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

We all need a place to find refuge. A place to turn down the din that constantly surrounds us. In conversation with colleagues this week we noted that it is hard to find a place to be quiet. You used to be able to sit in a waiting room surrounded by the sounds of a receptionist working and the Muzak in the background. Now folks are on their phones – despite what the signs say, and there are usually multiple TVS showing either commercials disguised as news touting the latest health advances, or a news program at a really loud volume. It’s no wonder my blood pressure goes up in the waiting room. Airports are just as bad. When I was traveling from Minneapolis to Philadelphia this summer to meet the mission trip team, there was some weather that caused enough upheaval in my travel schedule to make me cry. After learning that my luggage was on the standby flight that I wasn’t, being rebooked 3 times, and learning that there were no empty hotel rooms in the city (thanks to the All Star Baseball Game) I was at my wits end. I needed a quiet place to think and figure out what to do next. And there was none. Even the chapel had music playing and a couple had taken refuge in there to have a yelling match about who knows what – I didn’t stay to find out. And in the loudness of the day, all I could do was stop and say a prayer that something would get figured out. And it was. God showed up in ways I did not expect – a text from friends that they had a bed in their room given that they were staying an extra night. A text from the mission trip in the van saying I was in their prayers. I got on the tram and for the first time all day was able to be still and see God in the midst. God in the midst of the chaos, God in the midst of it all. Even here, where we talk about The City and the County, about going into Atlanta for a big event, or for work, we can resonate with these words too. They can be read as “God is in the midst of the places where we think we are safe or secure, places that we think cannot be moved or shaken. God is in the midst of wherever we are, and that cannot be changed.” When it feels as if the nations are in an uproar, or our plans are in an uproar, we remember that God is present.

I was asked this week what we should do about the violence against Christians in Iraq. My immediate response was to pray. God is in the midst of the city. God will help it when the morning dawns. When the rivers of life overwhelm us, as we hear in our reading from Isiah, when the waters rise, God promises to be with us. So I have to believe that for those who are in places where the physical or metaphorical waters are rising, that God is with them. God does not cause the violence, God does not cause the suffering and pain, God does not want that for us. We, as flawed people are the source, we has humans with free will are right in the middle of it. Yet God does not leave us. God does not leave those suffering. So we pray. We pray that we will remember that it is God who is sovereign. We find the silence and stop trying to “do”, to “fix”, or to “solve” and instead pray that God will reign over all.

That sovereignty part is the hinge upon which both of these texts hinge. Neither the prophet or Psalmist denies that the rivers will rise, or that the earth shall not shake or the waves come up from the sea. Neither offers promises of calm, of everything going right. But both affirm that God is the one who takes the lead in providing refuge, in calming the upheaval, and walking with us through the waters. The message of both of these texts is that we can’t do it on our own. We are called as followers of Christ to work for the Kingdom of God, to serve in ways that promote peace and justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with God. But nowhere does God say “you be in charge now and do it yourselves.” We believe that God’s got this, whatever “this” is, and we are called to discern how God calls us to be part of that work.

11 of us answered God’s call this summer to go be part of the work done in rebuilding place where these passages have scary significance. There are families in Point Pleasant, NJ who lost friends and loved ones when the Towers fell. The entire community was devastated when the waters rose. Point Pleasant is surrounded by water – the bay, river, and ocean. Most f the damage done by the superstorm – hurricane – was not from wind, but from rising waters on all sides. During our last night the worship team had a communion service on the beach. I would like to share the words I spoke to them with you:
Whether we realized it or not, the water has played a major role in our trip this week. Each time I stand in the ocean and feel the power of the waves, I feel the power of God. The pull of the tide, the crash of the waves. It makes me feel so small to stand by the edge of what feels infinite. Yet these waves also contain in them the promises of God to each of us – that when we pass through the waters, we are God’s. It is not up to us anymore, but it is up to God. These words can offer comfort to us as we think about the power of water on this part of the country. The damage here from Hurricane Sandy was not from wind, but from the rising water. The ocean and the bay met, the seas rose, and people’s lives were forever turned upside down overnight.

And yet, God is in the midst of this. God is in the midst of the power of the storm, and the power of those who have reached out to rebuild. When we baptize, we promise to love, nurture, care for, and support in the faith the children of God. Those promises were made at our baptisms for us, and we make them each time we sprinkle, dunk or pour and proclaim the work that God has done for each of us in our lives.

The command in the mist of chaos is this – be still. Remember that God is God and we are not God. We cannot control the universe, the world, or one another. We are not in charge – God is. In the stillness we recognize that reality. In the stillness we cry out to God from our hearts and ask that God will impart God’s stillness in us. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we come to God confessing that there are times when we have tried to be God, or be like God. That there are times when we forget God’s promises to be with us, and God’s promises to not overwhelm us. And then we remember that God welcomes us anyway.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Building on One Foundation: Sermon for August 26, 2012

John 15:1-9

1 Corinthains 3:5-16

Building on One Foundation

I had a little extra time on my hands the last month or so, and spent some of it watching home renovations on HGTV.  Lots of them.   One of the shows that I kept running into was a show about converting basements into apartments to create rental income for homeowners. It seemed like every time a basement renovation was begun, there were major issues.  As rooms were reconstructed and the drywall ripped off, moisture was often the culprit of whatever the crisis was.  Water came in through bad foundations and made messes, grew mold, and in one case, peeled paint off the wall.  Time and time again, the necessary repairs to the foundation wound up doubling the cost of the renovation and made homeowners throw up their hands in despair.  I have to admit, it was interesting to see how the foundations of these basements had to be dug up to make the repairs – to fill cracks or seal concrete required excavation on the outside of the house to see what work had been originally done when the house was first built.

            In Paul’s letter today he talks about foundations.  I don’t think he is planning a basement renovation, but he is trying to prove a point to the church at Corinth. In this letter, Paul is attempting to point out to them that some things need to change.  In his absence, the church at Corinth was experiencing some growing pains and a leadership crisis.  The members of the church are rallying behind the work that either he, or Apollos, were doing in the name of Jesus. They were choosing sides offering praise to one and complaints about the other.   The recipients of the letter were more enthralled with the individual messengers of the Gospel rather than the Gospel itself.  The churchgoers are trying to give credit to one and place the blame for failure on the other.  Paul and Apollos, however are untied in their ministry and Paul is writing to re-focus the church.  He uses two metaphors to describe what he sees happening in the church – the metaphor of the garden and the metaphor of a house foundation.  Through these descriptions, Paul reminds the people of whose work is being done in the church at Corinth.

            Let’s go back in time  – 32,000 years.  Way before Paul, into the Upper Paleolithic Era.  This is the time when tools were long stone blades, and some of the well-known cave paintings at Altamira, Lascaux and Coa were created.  Humans lived in houses, some made of mammoth bones, and others with dugout areas for windbreaks, floors, and hearths.  It was during this time that the first hunter-gatherer economy was developed.[1]  And, somewhere in the area we now know as northeastern Siberia, a squirrel was at work.  This squirrel buried a seed deep into the permafrost of the tundra and there it remained.  We don’t know why the squirrel never came back to dig up it’s food.  Maybe it forgot the location, maybe it died, maybe it decided that the other seeds it buried were tastier.  The seed stayed buried for 32,000 years after it was planted.  This winter, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that they had found the seed and cultured some of the cells.  “Team leader Svetlana Yashina re-created Siberian conditions in the lab and watched as the refrigerated tissue sprouted buds that developed into 36 flowering plants within weeks.”[2]  While Paul was writing his letters, those seeds were cocooned in the permafrost of Siberia at a cozy -7 Celsius.  They had been frozen about 30,000 years at that point, and they continued to remain frozen until now.  So, the question becomes, who gets the credit for the blooms that have grown from the cells of this seed?  The scientist who cultured them in the lab and watched and waited?  The team who found the seed and brought it back?  Or the squirrel who buried it?  Perhaps we could read the letter this way:  “The squirrel buried, the scientists cultured, but God provided the growth.”  God provided the growth, and flowers bloomed from a 32,000 year old seed.

In the first passage that Ted read today, we heard from Jesus in the Gospel of John: “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower….Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine and you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me, you can do nothing.”  Apart from God, there is no growth.  Apart from Christ, there is no fruit.  We may begin programs, start Bible Studies or classes, initiate ministries and become frustrated that they are not all we want them to be.  We may even fail sometimes.  But in God’s garden, perhaps it is not a failure, but a seed we have planted.  Perhaps when we say “what if”, someone else tends to that idea and it grows into something beyond recognition.  I think about this when I think about how we raise children in the church.  We plant seeds through their lives – the prayers spoken at baptism, the songs sung in choir, the trips to Montreat, and confirmation class.  We, as the ones who make promises, plant the seeds of faith in their lives.  But, thank God it is not up to the planter to also do the watering and harvesting.  As a family of faith, some of us plant seeds, and some water and tend as god provides the growth.  What a Sunday school teacher says may make a lifelong impact that is not felt for years into the future.  As adults, we are continually watered and fertilized as well.  When we gather together for supper or Sunday School, some seeds are watered, and new ones are planted. However, no matter who plants, or who waters, it is God who provides the growth.

Paul is speaking in a metaphor to tell those at the church in Corinth that it is not about the worker individually, but about the work that God does to provide growth in the church, and growth of those who call themselves disciples.  We are part of the same church that Paul was – sure there have been divisions, expansions, and changes, but at our center, we are all the same.  It has taken the work of many over the centuries for the church to get where we are today.  Seeds were planted long ago, others cared for them, and sometimes we are lucky enough to see them sprout.  God provides the growth, and we bear the fruit.

Once that was made clear, Paul moved on to a new metaphor.  I think one of my High School English teacher would have loved this passage – she liked metaphors.  Just as we settle in the garden and dream about the garden that we may see grow in our lifetimes, Paul directs our attention elsewhere – to the house that is being built next door.  Well, really, it is just the foundation he wants up to look at for now.  When I read the passage from Paul, and the description of the foundation, I immediately thought of 2 things – the first were those renovation shows I mentioned to you before, and the second was the house we worked on in Tuscaloosa last month.  When we arrived on the first day, all that was finished was the foundation.  A stack of cinderblocks in the basic rectangular shape of the house that would be finished there.  The storm room was portioned out as part of this process, and that is where we began.  I remember as we built during the week – well, Ok, for me until Wednesday, that we kept measuring not from the last part of the work that had been finished, but from the foundation.  We knew that the foundation was straight and level, and so relied on it for all of our other measurements.  I did not really understand this until we started laying the floor.  A chalk line was drawn so we would put the individual pieces of wood in a straight row.  If one row was crooked and we measured from it for the next piece, then all the rest after that would be crooked too.  But, by marking our line from the foundation we stayed straight and solid.  Everything that was attached and framed was calibrated as straight and level from the foundation to avoid compounding errors.

Paul describes the church, and us, as what is being built upon a straight and solid foundation.  And he names the foundation as Jesus Christ.  We are to measure what we do based on our lives in Jesus Christ.  The church can be like the Habitat house – one group lays the foundation, the next the floors, the next raises walls and outs on a roof.  The work of each team is dependent on the work of the team that came before.  Each team has to remain true to the measurements of the foundation to ensure that the house will stand.  If the house is solid, it is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  If it is to stand, that must be the case.

One Hundred and Sixty Nine years ago, our congregation was founded.  The foundation of the life and work for this particular community of faith was laid.  Those who began our church founded a place with Christ at the center, and built from there.  It is a solid foundation that has stood strong.  As time has passed, we have continued to build on that foundation of Christ.  We teach, we minister, we worship, we serve in His name and as a response to His love for us.  My prayer is that 500 years from now, we can still say that about ourselves.  That as we move into the future, we do not simply measure and build on the last piece we built, but that we go back to what we hear Christ calling us to do as His people and build from there.

If you were given three words to describe our church, what would you say?  I find myself paying attention to many of the church signs and websites as I travel around, and wonder what another community of faith might be like.  I see words like “committed, connected, rooted, and fellowship”.  Every day in my inbox I get e-mails about how to market the church, how to get our message out to the community, to tell people that we are “contemporary” “Christ seeking” “welcoming” “casual” “inviting” etc etc.  These e-mails remind me of being at the circus or being on the boardwalk surrounded by carnival games.  Voices call out from all sides to step right up and see the oddity or play the game.  Barkers call out that they can guess your weight or age, and you can win a stuffed animal if you shoot straight at the target.  Sometimes, the church landscape can feel a little like the carnival midway, with voices competing for our attention.  “Step right up where our pastor is cool and hip, and we can solve all your problems.  Our band rocks, and we have great powerpoint.  Oh, and our choir is amazing too, and we have the best youth group in town.”  None of those are bad things, and we could say many of them too.  But, on what are those claims based?  If they are not based on a faith community with a firm foundation in Christ, they will leave us feeling empty and deceived, much like when you play the carnival game and walk away empty handed.  What do we claim about ourselves as a congregation, and how do those claims reflect our foundation in Jesus Christ, against which we measure and plan everything else?

Those are not only questions to ask about ourselves as a congregation, but also as individuals who also claim that Christ is our foundation.  Can we really say, deep in our souls, that Jesus Christ is our foundation?  Jesus helped the poor without judgment – do we?  Jesus reached out to those that repulsed most people – what do we do when we encounter someone who is ill, homeless, or dirty?  How about when no one is looking or asking?  When we have a hard day, week, month, or year, who do you turn to for support?  I have seen a saying that asks the question: “Have you prayed about it as much as you have talked about it?”  How did Jesus feel about gossip or the exclusion of others?  When we read in Acts that the members of the first church gave up all their possessions for the common good, do we squirm inside or rant about healthcare and food stamps going to the undeserving?  Yeah, having Jesus Christ as our foundation and measuring point can make us uncomfortable.  But that’s also what makes us able to say that we are Christians – we follow the one who died for all of us, even when we don’t measure up. 

Tonight is the last training class for our 10 new church leaders – 5 Ruling Elders and 5 Deacons.  They have spent weeks learning about what it means to be a leader in the Presbyterian church, and how to think about following Christ as they seek to make decisions, and care for us as this particular congregation.  What are our expectations for them as leaders?  Many times, there can be as many expectations for church leaders as there can be for pastors.  Sessions can be expected to provide every desired program to every age group of the church, keep a pristine and perfect facility, recruit hundreds of new members each year with flashy marketing and ads, all while balancing the budget and paying off the capital debt.  The Deacons are expected to know what is happening with every congregation member at all times – whether that information is given to the church or not – visit everybody who needs visiting, feed the hungry and plan mission trips, pray for everyone and never let a single need of the congregation or community slip through the cracks.  It can leave us with the impression of our leaders as the barkers at the carnival – “step right up and see what we have done to make this a great church!”  But, when you go behind the tent, what do you see?  Do we expect programs and events so that we can say we have them?  “I go to FPC because there are 2 children’s choirs, we feed the hungry, and worship on Sunday is awesome. “  Or, do we have these programs and events because they are foundational to who we are as Christians? 

The ordination vows that our Ruling Elders, Deacons, and Pastors take are all centered around the authority of Jesus Christ, and that first confession that Jesus is Lord.  This is the same confession each of you make when you join a congregation – who is your Lord and Savior?  Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  That is the foundation of our beliefs.  Jesus Christ is the place we begin to measure in all the building that we do.  Perhaps a more fair expectation of our leaders is not flash and awe, not what is cool or sexy, or trendy, but to expect them to begin with Jesus in all that they do, and to support them in that.  To help our leaders ask the questions “how will this help us see Jesus?   How will this help us show Jesus to the world?  What would Jesus think about this?” We support them by helping labor in the vineyard, the garden, and the construction site, recognizing that the outcome of our labor does not come from us, but from Jesus.  I for one am grateful for this new class of leaders, as I am grateful for every class.  They remind me that the work of the church is eternal, stretching out from the past into the future.  They do not have to bring in the kingdom of God in the next three years.  They merely need to plant seeds, water what has been planted before, and get out of the way and let God provide the growth.  So, I encourage each of us to go back and look at our own foundation.  To measure from Christ, and build on him.  Only a house built on a solid, level foundation will rise to stand the test of time.  The only level foundation we have is Jesus Christ – everything rises from there.

Rev. Julie A. Jensen
            First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
            August 26, 2011

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Mission Trip Meditation: Allen Weirick

This is the meditation Allen Weirick preached on Sunday, the 29th of July at First Pres. in Cartersville

We tend to think of nature as a wonderfully beautiful gift of God, and in it we see the glory of God’s creation or a place to commune with God. Many of our favorite hymns or choir anthems deal with one or more of these themes: For the Beauty of the Earth, The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God, This is My Father’s World, and Morning Has Broken, to name just a few. God’s creation does indeed contain incredible beauty and scenes which foster grateful solitude and reflection. But what happens when nature seems to turn against us, as on that day in April last year when tornados ripped through the American south and mid-west with a destructive force that is beyond imagining? When I helped with tornado clean-up efforts here in Bartow County last year I was amazed at the destruction I saw, but as bad as it was it could not compare with the more wide-spread destruction that Tuscaloosa experienced. Having seen that in person, I cannot imagine what Joplin, Missouri experienced with its even larger and more powerful storm.

Numbers don’t give the whole picture, but they do give us an idea of how bad it was:
The guide on our tour of the tornado area told us that enough debris was collected to fill the University of Alabama football stadium – an immense structure that holds over 100,000 spectators – seven times. Over 1200 residential structures were destroyed and another 1600+ were severely damaged, as about 12% of the city of Tuscaloosa was destroyed. The human toll was huge, with 52 people killed by the storm and well over 1000 injured. Thousands of people were temporarily or permanently homeless, thousands of others became unemployed as their workplaces were destroyed, and pretty much everyone in the city was directly or indirectly affected by the storm.
So what happens to people’s faith when faced by such enormity? It is not surprising that some people lost their faith, and some gave up on their hometown, leaving, never to return. Others found strength in their faith and did not falter. By being there to help we were able to increase their hope and their confidence that things would work out for them. I am confident that our presence there and the work we did – along with that of the thousands of other volunteers, literally from around the country – provided part of the answers to many, many prayers by the people of Tuscaloosa.
The people who will be living in the houses we worked on are good examples. The man at the main site was handicapped, but he sat there in the immense heat to be connected with the effort emotionally. His faith was remarkable. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect that he may be weak physically, but he was powerful in prayer, and we witnessed several examples of his powerful prayers.
The owner of the site where I spent most of my time was a disabled veteran of the first Gulf War, and his pelvis was crushed when his house collapsed on him and dragged him several yards. He clearly is not capable of putting in the sweat equity hours that Habitat for Humanity usually requires of people who get their houses, so we unfortunately did not get to meet him. Without Habitat for Humanity and the various groups of volunteers who rebuilt his house he would never have been able to rebuild on his own. His new house, which was on track to be turned over to him this past week, was built on the site of his old one, just better and much more secure. (All Habitat houses built in Tuscaloosa after the storm are built with a safe room in them.)

One of the women of our group spoke with a young man from the university who volunteered on his own at the build site, and he said he was the only one he knew of who was doing that, and added that he was disappointed that most local people seem to think only of themselves, and don’t care enough about others to help out. He didn’t see the big picture, though, and didn’t realize that many people were doing a lot – like the church where we stayed, which had made a mission – which they carried out very well, I might add – of providing space and support for groups to come to help out. They may not have been out on the sites helping to build, but they were making it possible for literally hundreds of outsiders to do more work than their own members ever could have. There are many other examples of churches, other organizations, and individuals who are helping in numerous ways with the rebuilding.

You know when you sign up for a mission trip that you are going to be surrounded by special people; they are pre-selected to include only people who care, because to put it bluntly: jerks don’t go on mission trips. You have people who volunteer to give up their time – in many cases, their valuable vacation time – to work hard to help people who are less fortunate than they are. Some I had known for years and have worked with on the Session like Nanette and Mary, or with other organizations, like Lori, whom I know more from her work with the Friends of the Cartersville Library. Some I barely knew, like the teenagers from our church, while others I met for the first time on the trip, like Xavier, a wonderful young man from Rockmart whom you should get to know if you haven’t already had the pleasure. It’s a whole lot easier to enjoy work when you are sharing it with likable people, and you want to make sure you do your part and don’t let the group down. I quickly learned that I am not capable of keeping up with Paul, whom I think of as the energizer rabbit because he just keeps on going and going, all the time with a great attitude and an ability to explain things and help out without ever talking down to us more-or-less beginners. Seeing these people in action is a very special feeling, and it makes me proud to have been a part of their team. I have always been impressed with the giving spirit of our church, and this mission experience has only strengthened that feeling. As others have said before, when you return from a mission trip, you are strengthened in faith, more connected with your church, and very tired, but it is a good tired, a very good tired.

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Mission Trip Reflections: Sharon Dunlap

On Sunday, July 22 the Mission Trip Team led worship at FPC.  One of the preachers of the day was Sharon Dunlap, and her reflection is here.  Tomorrow I will post Allen’s.

1 Peter 5:5-9 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

1 Peter 4:10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

I think the thing that stayed with me the most from the mission trip to Tuscaloosa, was the work of the youth. I’m not just talking about our youth that went on the trip- even though we had five incredible young men and women who were driven and composed well beyond their years. I was astounded by the number of dedicated young men and women from around the country that devoted their time, effort and energy to such a worthy cause. They didn’t just do it for one day, or one week. They were there week after week, month after month doing God’s work. There was the group from AmeriCorps. Young men and women ages 18-25, who have dedicated ten months of their lives to travel the United States helping communities in need. They worked in teams of 8-12 people and went right to work on whatever project they were given. They radiated a joy and contagious energy that some of us older folks wished we had more of. As we complained and grumbled about the intense heat and how out of shape we were, they lifted, hauled, pounded, and carried whatever like champions for Christ. Then there was Harrison- we called him a Greek god. A handsome, young man who was getting ready to start his first year of college at the University of Alabama, he displayed a maturity and wisdom not often seen in kids his age. He lived across town in an area that was not affected by the tornados. I asked him why he was volunteering his time at the site, and his answer was very genuine. He said, “I had to volunteer. So many people around here who weren’t affected by the tornados have forgotten the people who were. They just don’t care about the things that don’t affect them. I knew that I had to get involved and help where I could, because that is what I would want someone to do for me if I were ever in that situation.” Eighteen years old and he wasn’t thinking about his social life, or how late he got to sleep in that morning, or what latest movie he was going to see, no he was thinking about others and how he could help out their situation. What an inspirational young man. Then there was Chandler, a young girl from the University who was studying to be a civil engineer and volunteered her time at the site gaining experience in her field. I was blown away by the fact that she was studying to be a civil engineer-as a young girl, how do you become interested in that field of work? That was easy she said- she and her parents had been on a number of mission trips where she had grown up helping to rebuild houses for others and just knew that she was destined to become an architect of some kind. I met Beth a local student studying law at the University, who interned at the federal court house in Tuscaloosa. Her boss allowed his interns to come to the Habitat for Humanity work site once a week instead of going to work. She stated that she would much rather be here at the site in the blazing heat and humidity helping others than be in her air-conditioned law office. I couldn’t help thinking what a sacrifice these young people were making. Instead of putting themselves first, they put others ahead of their own needs. From Philippians chapter 2,

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

I choose to go on mission trips because of the joy I receive  from helping others- this time I received an abundance of joy from watching the youth of tomorrow give so much of themselves to help others in need. It offers me a hope, a faith, and the assurance that our young people are compassionate and caring individuals who are willing to be disciples of Jesus Christ in a world that is so in need of God’s grace. These youth did not attain these wonderful attributes all by themselves. It takes a community of faith to grow and nurture these wonderful youth. When a child is baptized, we the congregation answer the following question :  Do you, the people of the church, promise to tell this child the good news of the gospel, to help him/her know all that Christ commands, and, by your fellowship, to strengthen his/her family ties with the household of God?

In making this vow, the congregation reaffirms its understanding that the child is already a part of the covenant family of the church and needs to be nurtured in the Christian faith to the end that the child will one day publicly proclaim Jesus Christ as his, or her, Lord and Savior. We take very seriously this vow we make at each infant baptism. We tell the child about Jesus Christ and God’s love and mercy as revealed in scriptures in several ways such as Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Children’s Choir, Youth Group, Confirmation Class, and mission trips. It is also done informally simply through association by the child with committed Christians at worship and other church functions.

It really does take a village to raise a child and I for one am grateful that all of you have taken that challenge seriously and have given our youth a firm foundation to stand on as they go out into this world to make a difference.

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Gratefully Received

My summer mission trip ended early when I took a bad mis-step on an unsecured porch edge and fell 4 1/2 feet to the ground, breaking both bones in my right ankle.  The last 2 weeks (tomorrow starts the third) have included an ER visit, surgery, a cast, crutches, and now the addition of a knee walker (which I think will be a lot of fun when I figure out how to use it!).  In an instant, my plans for the rest of the summer changed.

To say I was scared and worried in the Tuscaloosa ER would be an understatement.  What I did not know was how worried the rest of the mission team was when they saw me fall off a porch and then get loaded in a car and taken to the ER.  What felt like seconds to me was probably 15 minutes for the rest of them.  Several thought I had hit my head (which I did not!), and some did not get over to where I was before they had me in the car and on my way to the hospital.  When I got back to the church, Pat said to me “be positive”, and then we went in.  When I saw the mission team folks, their relief was palpable.  Their care was evident.  I was flooded with relief and gratitude. While I was being x-rayed and splinted and driven across town, they had made made get well cards (some of which still make me cry!) and packed up my things so I could head home.  The individuals who gathered to say goodbye to Maryellen and me were not just a church mission trip team – they were family.  I knew in that moment that the leadership team was going to be OK for the rest of the week – we had planned together, and they would finish out the week strong.  And they did.

Since the moment my foot hit the ground, I have been surrounded by so much love from our entire congregation (and from Maryellen, the pastor at Rockmart Pres.).  One of the things we talk about when we describe ourselves is our sense of community and how we are a church family.  This is not a trait that can describe every church, and I’m not sure our congregation always understands what a blessing and a gift that they are to each other.  It is a blessing to not have to worry about someone checking on you when there is an illness or surgery – around here, it simply happens.  We are blessed that we feel safe enough with each other to be vulnerable with one another.  I am re-learning the lesson that asking for help with meals means you have to let them in to see the not-perfect parts of your world.  But, there is a gift in being open to be loved, and then returning that love to one another in return.  This may not be the most articulate description, but I am surprised that I was surprised at our church just being who they are and caring for me in the same ways I have seen them care for one another.  That care is a gift I gratefully receive.

I think about how Christ modeled care for us.  I picture his hands breaking bread and feeding total strangers.  I think about him kneeling down to wash the feet of his disciples.  I picture his grief when he realized that Lazarus had really died.  I see the compassion he showed when he allowed an ill woman to simply touch his cloak.  In the meals brought, in the cards sent, in the words said by our congregation, I see the love and compassion and care of Christ.  The way my mother, a stranger to many, has been welcomed and fed and cared for as this church has cared for me reflects the way Christ taught us to live.    I realize that we as a church can take for granted the care we show one another and not realize that it is not natural in every church.  FPC Cartersville has the gifts of compassion, hospitality, love, and care, and I am grateful for them.  Not just tonight as I ice my ankle after a visit from one of our Deacons, but every night as I get to be part of our witness to Christ in the world.

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Mission Trip Countdown

It was about a year ago that a group of 5 of us from First Presbyterian Church in Cartersville, and Rockmart Presbyterian Church in (yup, you guessed it) Rockmart, GA went on a mission trip to Tuscaloosa, AL.  The photos and blog entries from that trip can be found here.  I’m not sure what to expect as we head back a year later.  I remember the shed devastation, that I still struggle to find superlatives to describe.  The foundations that used to be houses and parking lots that used to be businesses.  The erie shell of a building that used to be a Hobby Lobby, now blown completely open and the sign gone.  It has been a year of rebuilding for the city, and I am looking forward to seeing what has changed, and how much is left to be done.

on Sunday, 20 of us will be commissioned and depart for Tuscaloosa (there are a few coming later, bur our group is 20 total.).  We have families that are bringing youth, and I am excited to get to spend time with them.  All of the youth just spent 10 days on a mission trip in Ireland, so this will be quite a temperature difference for them.  We are staying at First Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, and working with Habitat for Humanity – Tuscaloosa.  I’ll be posting some on Facebook, and will also update here throughout the week.  On July 29th, the Mission Team will be leading all of worship, including the sermon, so that we can share our experiences of being the hands and feet of Christ in a devastated world.

Right now, I’m sitting on my couch, in my blue PDA T-shirt that I earned last year, remembering the people we met, and the places we went. My prayer for us is that we will shine the light of Christ to those we meet, and absorb the light that they reflect to us.  Please keep us in your prayers this week!  You can leave comments on the blog (please do!!!) and I will pass them along to team members.  I have a box full of notes and cards from our congregation to distribute during the week, and some surprises planned for the team as well.  The paperwork is finished, directions printed, and all that is left (for me) is to pack and hit the road!

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Mission Trip to Tuscaloosa, AL: Thursday

On April 27th, I had a meeting at church, and came home to watch a little TV and go to bed.  The weather was awful and so we hurried home.  All that was on TV was the news about the weather moving through our area – weather that had moved through Alabama earlier that day.  As I watched the weather people tag-team the storm progress, the sirens for the city sounded, and I herded the cats to our bathroom (and yes, it was herding and chasing cats — only took 4 tries to get them both in there).  Armed with my radio tuned to the local station and still watching the red and yellow and green move across the screen, I waited to see what would happen next.  I prayed, and the news announcers said “if you are in downtown, you are OK, the sirens are for….”  That was the news that I at least was safe.  It was an uneasy night to say the least.

In the months since, I have driven past areas that were damaged.  I have seen snapped trees from the roadside, the town of Ringgold as visible from the interstate just flattened.  In my head, I thought I knew what I was going to see when we came to Tuscaloosa today.  I was wrong.

We thought it was a big deal when our Hobby Lobby closed because the roof caved in after flooding rains.  We drove past one today (that I did not get a picture of) that was demolished.  The letters from the sign gone – rubble being the word to describe what we saw around us in the part of town we drove through.  But it is indiscriminate rubble.  Almost across the street was an upscale shopping center that looked like new – -untouched and undamaged.  War Zones look better than the little bit of what we saw today.  There are bilboards for attorneys who want to expedite tornado claims (ambulance chasers turned storm chasers?) and one billboard that simply said “God Bless Tuscaloosa” with the black and white checked ribbon on it.

Tonight we were welcomed warmly by the folks at University and we went to a local restaurant for dinner.  On the list of suggestions, the places that are still here are marked.  The others are either gone or closed.  It seems there is a strange balance of “normal” and “may never be normal again.”  Our dinner at a local college hangout juxtaposed with the shells of buildings we passed on our way into town will remain a strong memory for me.

As our team is here this weekend, we are going to be asking ourselves where we saw God each day in the midst of where we are.  Today I saw it when Suzanne, the woman who greeted us, said “thank you for coming to help us”, even as I was wondering if we will be able to make much of a dent in what we see.

The six of us on this trip will be blogging about it either while we are here, or when we get back, so you can see our experiences.  Please keep us, and this community in your prayers in the coming days.