Over the past few Sundays, I have had the pleasure of worshiping with several churches in our district. It feels great to be out and about! I am grateful for the new members’ class who joined at one church, to witness an adult baptism that day, to experience choir music again, to sing hymns among congregations, to sit among the people of the United Methodist Church as we hear the Word read and proclaimed. I am delighted to shake hands, hang around for conversations after church, go out to lunch to share our experiences and to laugh. God’s provision and faithfulness are powerful forces; we are seeing God at work among us as we gather for worship, connection and witness. Thanks be to God! My great hope is to continue to be among you in the weeks and months to come!
Many of you are wondering what is to come: will our churches grow back strong and healthy? Will we find a new normal? What will happen within the UMC as we wait for General Conference and beyond? What will our local church do? How do we navigate this time? It feels like worries abound even in the midst of storing our masks more than wearing them. We have been back and forth around COVID so many times, some days we aren’t sure whether to trust in the good times.
Our memories focus on “remember the last time when we thought things were safe. . .” and we grow cautious not by what is happening in the present but by what we recall from the past.
We worry about the General Conference and what the decisions there will bring. And while we do need to consider the future, to prepare ourselves to navigate the decisions which will come, it is not helpful to worry about what may come our way.
The way to cope with this memory, when we fear what is ahead because of what has happened in the past, is to pray, joining our words with other faithful, yet sometimes fearful, followers. In the Psalms we are offered the gift of songs and prayers lifted to God by people who were wandering and wondering through life. The psalms are prayers of thanksgiving and lament and joy and grasping for strength when all is crumbling. I was taught by Dr. Grant Wacker, while I was in seminary, to pray the psalms; each class opened with such centering.
Consider praying Psalm 126, this week’s lectionary Psalm. The author of this week’s Disciplines devotion urges us to pray this psalm three ways: make all the verbs past tense (making it a prayer of thanksgiving), make all verbs present tense (making it a prayer for help), then pray as it is written in many translations: verses 1-3 in past tense and verses 4-6 future tense (‘results in remembering God’s past acts of salvation and requesting help from God now’). (2022 Disciplines, Jones, p. 114)
Psalm 126 (CEB)
1 When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming.
2 Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts. It was even said, at that time, among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them!”
3 Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.
4 Lord, change our circumstances for the better, like dry streams in the desert waste!
5 Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
6 Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!
How might your spirit move from fearful to faithful, by engaging in prayer? Set aside time to pray these six verses a few different ways. Allow the Spirit in!
And, after you pray, ….
Engage in fruitful conversation, pastor to pastor, pastors and laity, about the fears, hopes and dreams for your congregation.
Engage in study, collective prayer, focus on how your congregation of Christ’s church will lift up the mission even in the midst of these uncertain times.
Engage around the story of your congregation and the United Methodist Church, learning how we made it this far along the journey, looking for insights on what and who and how you will step forward in faith from here.
This past Sunday, many of you heard sermons or preached sermons focused on the Prodigal Son story. The story is one where a family’s world and specifically one son’s world, is turned upside down. The one son squanders his inheritance and then comes crawling back to his family to get a job so that he can eat, now that he has nothing. The other son, the one who remained (to care for family and farm), feels unseen for his faithfulness. The father welcomes the wayward son home and throws a party, with a feast, to welcome home the one who was lost. Sometimes we focus on which son we are most like and how our father’s actions would make us feel. Maybe we are like one of the sons. The good news is that this father deeply loves both sons, welcoming one home with open arms despite how he treated his inheritance and reminding the other son that everything he has belongs to him.
This parable is a beautiful reminder of how God sees us, and our church, welcoming us all home. No matter what has happened or how wrong things have gone, how much worry we carry, how we have lived or scraped by through a dry season, God embraces us and shares with us all of God’s gifts, mercy and grace. As I heard this preached this weekend in the church I was attending, I thought of our late colleague, Junius B. Dotson, from Discipleship Ministries of the UMC. He hosted a series called “See All the People” which I often used as a pastor. I was inspired by his joy and caught the excitement and great need for this message. In the parable, God sees all the people; and we have the opportunity to model our ministry in the same way – to see ALL the people. We model welcoming ALL people so that ALL may know love, ALL may know the warmth of a church home, ALL may become their full selves and live out their calling, and so our fellow Christians would also welcome ALL.
God welcomes us home, God’s loving arms. Don’t let the memories of a difficult season wear you out. Let those memories go, so that you may lean into the loving arms of God, who embraces all of who we are and says, “I love you. Welcome home.” As we look to the future, our Bishop, Leonard Fairley, quotes Corrie Ten Boom well: “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” Amen and amen.
If you would like to pray the psalms together, join me on Tuesdays and Thursdays for Morning Prayer throughout the season of Lent. We pray for our world and one another at 8am via zoom, and wrap up before 8:30. The link is in the newsletter or available from firstname.lastname@example.org. On Thursdays, we especially pray a psalm together.