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Looking up

Mark Buford, Director of Communications

Sorry I’m late. 

This past Friday was my turn to provide First Reflections, but I didn’t feel like writing.

I was angry with God.

On Wednesday, my wife Marcy and I found out that Murphy, our mixed-breed rescue dog and loving companion of 12 years, had a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Short of chemotherapy or other ridiculously expensive forms of therapy, none of which guaranteed an extension of life or freedom from pain, there was nothing we could do for her.

And I was angry with God.

We made an appointment to have her euthanized this morning, but she took a turn for the worse on Friday.

So we had her put down that evening to make sure she didn’t suffer.

And I was angry with God.

For the past couple of days, I fought back tears as we put away her toys, her leash, her sweater and her raincoat.

I fought back tears as fur she shed around the house and other little things reminded me of her.

And I was angry with God.

Only today did it dawn on me that my anger was unjustified. 

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 

– Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

Humans and animals. We all live. We all die. And we are all gifts to one another from God.

Murphy loved Marcy and I unconditionally, just as God loves us unconditionally.

Murphy was a gift of love to us from God, and I will be eternally grateful for the time we had together.

In Wendy Francisco’s beautiful GoD and DoG, she says: 

I look up and I see God. I look down and see my dog.

Today, I’m looking up and seeing them both. 

Through faith

… for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 

– Galatians 3:26 NRSV

I am a child of God through faith. So says the scripture.

Not sure I always believed that, but I do now.

Throughout my 67-plus years on this earth, I have had good times and bad. Blessings and challenges.

The good times, the blessings, I’m convinced are not of my own doing, but of God’s mercy and grace.

The bad times, the challenges, God has been right there with me, seeing me through.

I know this through faith.

Faith sustains me in good times and bad … because I am a child of God. 

None of this can be considered earth-shattering revelation.

Believers have known for years. Faithful readers of the Bible have known for years.

I was reminded of this as I read Galatians 3:25-28, the text of this coming Sunday morning’s message, “Children of God,” from Rev. Caroline Noll, our Associate Pastor and Pastor for Children and Families.

And as I pondered this simple yet profound idea, a song came to mind. A favorite, but one I hadn’t heard or thought about for years.

The song – I Am a Friend of God by Israel Houghton – reminds me that I am not only a child of God, but a friend as well.

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 

– John 15:15 NRSV

I am a child of God. I am a friend of God. He calls me friend.

And I know this, through faith. 

Simply because God loves us

My wife Marcy and I are blessed.

Our home came through last week’s historic winter storm with relatively minor damage from a water leak.

We have electricity. We have heat.

And our insurance company found us a hotel for a few days while we were without water.

We and our immediate family members are, thus far at least, COVID-free.

We’ve had our first vaccinations and expect to get our second in the next week or so.

My mother has had both, and she seems happy, healthy and safe since she moved into a senior living facility in January. 

I’m still employed. Marcy is still providing piano lessons, some in person, some online.

We’ve had unexpected expenses, but we’re managing without going too much further into debt.

Yes, we are blessed. But not for these reasons.

To say we are blessed because of our good fortune implies that those less fortunate are not.

And I don’t believe that’s the case.

No, we’re blessed – all of us are blessed – because God loves us.

That was true before the pandemic. That was true before the storm. And it continues to be true. 

Because God gave his only Son for us.

Because God’s grace is available and free, regardless of our faults. Regardless of our iniquities.

Simply because God loves us.

In all of our trials and tribulations, in all of our fortune and misfortune, may God continue to bless us all.

Thanks be to God!


A prayer for the struggling soul

Each week as we begin our ministry staff meeting, Senior Pastor Valarie Englert asks us, “How’s your soul?”

I missed this week’s meeting because I was helping move my 86-year-old mother into an assisted living facility.

But if I had been there to respond, my answer would have been – and still is – that my soul is struggling.

Struggling with guilt over not being able to adequately care for my mom.

Struggling with finding any semblance of a safe, normal work and personal life in the middle of a pandemic now at 10 months and counting.

Struggling to recognize and understand a country torn asunder by continuing, systemic racial strife.

Struggling to comprehend what I’m watching as a mob carrying American and “Jesus” flags storms and vandalizes the very seat of our democracy, with several people losing their lives in the process.

Struggling with what to do, knowing full well the answer – pray.

But what should I pray?

Throughout my church and spiritual life, I’ve known some very powerful prayer warriors. Living saints who knew exactly what words to pray and when to pray them.

And even though I know God listens regardless, I’ve always been jealous of their ability to pray so eloquently.

With that in mind, I’ve been struggling to find the right words to pray.

I may have found them this morning.

In “A Prayer for the Struggling Soul,” Contributing Writer Jolene Underwood offers comforting words for seeking God’s blessings in times of struggle, and scriptures assuring us of God’s grace.

I share them here with the knowledge that I’m not the only one struggling, and with the hope that you might find them comforting as well.

God bless …

Goodbye, farewell and amen

Ring a bell?

If not, two things are certain: 

  • you’re young 
  • you need to find and watch the final episode of the TV series M*A*S*H

First aired on February 28, 1983, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” chronicles the final days of the fictitious 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital as the Korean War comes to an end.

It remains one of the most-watched series episodes in TV history. 

As my wife Marcy and I enjoyed watching it again a few nights ago on MeTV, I was struck by the significance of the title.

Not just to an all-time great TV show, but also to the troubled times in which we live. 

Goodbye, farewell and amen. 

More than eight months into a global pandemic with no end in sight, it’s time to say goodbye to our lives, indeed our world, as we know them. 

There will be a new normal. We are becoming a new church

“Behold, I am doing a new thing …” – Isaiah 43:19 (ESV) 

We will, for example, worship in our Sanctuary again. 

But we will also continue to worship and study and teach in cyberspace. 

Answering God’s call beyond our walls in a manner we never previously imagined.

Goodbye, farewell and amen.

It’s time to bid farewell to partisan politics and racial divisiveness. 

To set aside our differences and love one another as brothers and sisters. 

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.– 1 John 4:7 (NRSV) 

Republicans and Democrats.

Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists.

Doesn’t matter. We’re all human.

We’re all children of God. Loved by God.

Worthy of God’s love, are we not also worthy of love from one another?

Regardless of our differences? 

Goodbye, farewell and amen.

Last but certainly not least, it’s time to say amen.

To assert our faith. To pray. 

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.– 1Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NRSV) 

 Pray for our church.

Pray for our families.

Pray for our brothers and sisters.

Pray for our world.


Goodbye, farewell and amen.

Mixing politics and religion

I hate politics.

OK, maybe hate is a bit strong.

Particularly in a world where there’s way too much hate right now.

Let me rephrase.

I am dismayed and disheartened by the extremely polarized state of politics in America today. 

If you’re a Republican, Democrats are wrong.

Liberal. Socialist. Unchristian.

If you’re a Democrat (full disclosure, I am), Republicans are wrong.

Capitalist. Nationalist. Racist.

Oh, and unchristian, too.

You’re red or you’re blue. White or black. Good or evil. 

There’s no middle ground. No gray area. No room for compromise.

“As a species, we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”

– Stephen King

OK, I take it back. I do hate it. It’s just plain wrong.

Yet some would argue this is not the place to talk about it.

I am, after all, representing a church.

And there’s a widely though not universally held belief that politics and religion don’t mix.

“Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure ruins the ice cream.”

– Tony Campolo

But the Bible does have something to say about politics:* 

And nowhere can I find evidence this guidance is meant only for one political party or another.

It’s meant for all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Imperfect human beings all. Sometimes right. Sometimes wrong.

All of us – all Republicans, all Democrats – are children of God.

All worthy to be loved, just as God loves us all (John 15:12). 

I pray each of us keep our spiritual duty in mind as we exercise our civic duty to vote. 

What the Bible Really Says About Politics, Jesse Carey, RELEVANT, February 25, 2016

Hope for the future

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 

– Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV) 

My life is not my own.

I was reminded of this on Friday as another hectic week came to a close, this one with a surprise, socially-distanced 86th birthday lunch for my mother.

Between care giving for her, a wife recovering from rotator cuff surgery, a pinched nerve in my back, two dogs, a cat and a job, that realization once again became top-of-mind for me.

So much so that I was tempted to feel sorry for myself.

When did I lose control?

It was then that I remembered two very important things …

  • I am extremely fortunate and extremely blessed. Not rich, but certainly not poor. A roof over my head. Food on the table. A fulfilling job. A family I love and that loves me. And no COVID-19. 
  • I serve a loving God, who has plans for me. My life is not my own. Never was. It belongs to the one who created me. Who put me on this earth to serve others, after the example of Jesus’ service to others.

God is in control, not me.

And in these trying times, that gives me hope for the future.

Servant leaders

With all due respect and affection for John Cravens, Randy Adair and Josh Medlock, the best youth director I’ve ever worked with was my wife Marcy Buford.

I met Marcy about 38 years ago when she was the youth director at Satellite Beach United Methodist Church in Florida.

We were married at that same church 37 years ago – on July 1, 1983.

As one of her volunteer youth counselors, I learned about something called ‘servant leadership’ – a philosophy where a leader’s goal is not to ‘lead,’ per se, but rather to serve.

She ingrained this philosophy in everything we did with the youth at Satellite Beach, and later at Custer Road and St. Andrew United Methodist in Plano, Brentwood United Methodist in Tennessee, and White’s Chapel United Methodist in Southlake.

And I’d like to think it stayed with me as I transitioned from corporate America to my own ministry career nearly 10 years ago.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of history’s most renowned servant leaders, once said:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?'”

Never has this question been more urgent than now, when so many are suffering from the physical, emotional, financial and spiritual effects of COVID-19.

Let alone problems that have gone almost forgotten in its wake – like hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, and immigrants seeking better and safer lives.

Or systemic racism, the issue against which Dr. King advocated and which ultimately claimed his life. 

Now more than ever, we need servant leaders.

People willing to put the needs of others first, and trust that someone else has their back. 

Jesus, of course, was the ultimate servant leader.

And he not only exhibited servant leadership, but commanded his disciples – and ultimately us – to do the same. 

The Bible cites numerous examples of this, including the scripture I’ll be reading as part of our Virtual Worship service this coming Sunday morning:

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” 

– John 13:14-15

Washing one another’s feet – doing for others – is ingrained in our church mission statement:

Cultivating Christian Community:
Loving God, Living Faith, Serving Others, Inspiring Hope

It’s why we are the church.

It’s why we continue to give and worship and serve, even as our church building remains closed.

It’s why we are called to prioritize the needs of others, even in the face of our own seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

Many of us – myself included – wonder if we’re equipped to handle our own problems, let alone someone else’s.

And though I’m not advocating for ignoring our own situations in favor of others, it’s important to remember as Christians that God ‘has our back.’

So the question I’m asking myself each morning – the one Dr. King asked – is also the one I challenge you to ask as well:

What are you doing for others?

No longer good enough

The way it always was
is no longer good enough

Funny how inspiration strikes when you least expect it. 

How when you’re not looking for it, or don’t know exactly where to look, ‘BOOM,’ it’s there. 

I’ve often heard our Senior Pastor Valarie Englert and others speak of flipping the Bible open to a random page and finding just the right word or phrase in scripture to illustrate a point or a message or a devotional.

Well, that’s sorta what happened to me.

Except it wasn’t the Bible. It was a song.

Brave by Nicole Nordeman.

(I once sang harmony on the chorus of this song with a young lady who was a far more gifted vocalist than I.) 

An accomplished contemporary Christian music artist, Nordeman was inspired to write Brave as she was overcoming doubts about being a good parent to her first child.

The title comes from the bravery God gave her to stand up and assert herself.

Amazingly, the chorus could have been written for the challenge we now face, best summed up I think by author and poet Sonya Renee Taylor: 

Normal no longer exists.

But we are being given a new opportunity.

One that takes courage.

One that takes bravery, backed by the knowledge that God is in our corner.

Or as Nordeman sings:

So long, status quo,
I think I just let go
You make me wanna be brave
The way it always was
is no longer good enough
You make we wanna be brave 

When it rains, it pours

It’s been a tough week in the Buford household, over here northwest of Dallas in Flower Mound.

Not that things aren’t tough all over. Obviously, they are.

And believe me when I tell you I know how blessed we are that things aren’t worse under these surreal COVID-19 circumstances.

But allow me wallow in self pity for a moment.

My 85-year-old mother Eudella moved in with Marcy and I about two weeks ago.

Mom and I drove from Florida in her car, a U-Haul trailer in tow and her dog Tiger in the back seat.

Of course, this was all happening as schools, businesses and churches began closing down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

That left us to deal with a displaced mother coming to grips with a new life and new circumstances, essentially without being able to leave the house.

Then there’s the dog. Or should I say dogs.

Tiger is actually very sweet and very well-behaved. It’s our dog Murphy who is the problem.

Murphy is not at all happy about sharing her house with this interloper.

We’re having to keep them separated while we desperately try to get them better acquainted – with the help of a trainer who, of course, can no longer come in the house.

One dog sleeps upstairs, the other downstairs. We feed them separately. We walk them separately.

It was on one of these walks when things really took a turn for the worse. We were coming back from walking Tiger on Thursday evening when Mom fell in the doorway and broke her hip.

She had surgery the next morning and remains in Medical City Lewisville, where of course we are not allowed to visit. She is moving to in-patient rehab today, and we expect her to remain there for a week to 10 days.

As one might expect, I texted the church staff with news about my mother’s fall when it happened.

I needed support and prayers, and the pastors and staff have been a rock of encouragement and support to me and my family from the day I began working at First United Methodist Garland.

My text began with “When it rains, it pours,” which brings me to the point of this long-winded tale.

One of the first responses, and one I will remember for the rest of my life, came from Pastor Caroline Noll, our Associate and Pastor for Children and Families.

I didn’t keep the exact words (should have), but the gist of it was this:

“I’ll be praying for an umbrella for you and your family.”

Never has a prayer touched me more deeply.

Pastor Caroline is a gifted servant of God, one I’m blessed to know and to work with in ministry.

And on this particular day, I believe her comforting words were a gift from God, delivered through her.

God speaks to all of us in many different ways. He asks only that we listen.

Especially in this time when the rain is falling, and we all need an umbrella.