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,” Crosswalk.com 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 …

A Blessing For the Turn of the Year

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

“… blessings enable us to perceive the ways the sacred inhabits the ordinary, impressing upon us that every moment and each place lies within the circle of God’s care.” 

– Jan Richardson

The year ends, another begins;
but the weariness has sunk into the bones; weight gathers weight, sighs deepen, eyes and hearts yearn for light.

This blessing is for that weight,
those sighs,
those searching eyes and hearts.

This blessing asks to crawl in beside, offering the promise that Dawn will appear – a pinprick of Light in the darkness.


It is already there, the Light:
and this blessing will bear us on,
urging us to remember:
“Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made…
through him all things were made …”

We are one with this Light,
weariness, sighs, and all.
 
Remember:
carry this with you,
this blessing for the turn of the year.

Carols, tunes and melodies for Christmas redux

Dr. Eldred Marshall, Artist-in-Residence and Associate Director of Music Ministries

EDITOR’S NOTE: This replaces yesterday’s First Reflections, which included a version of the video that was not final.

We apologize for any confusion, and hope you will enjoy – and share with your friends – this very special Christmas gift, albeit a day late, from the Music Ministry of First United Methodist Church Garland. 

On this day after Christmas, please accept a gift of music.

It is a ‘concert’ of sorts, featuring various instrumentalists and performers from local orchestras playing favorite Christmas carols.

Feel free to listen and share with family, friends and neighbors.

Merry Christmas!

God waits with us

Josh Medlock, Director of Student Ministries

This has been a year like no other. Not only for me, not only for you, but for the entire world.

We have all been in a state of suspension since early this year.

Waiting, watching and wondering what comes next.

I look back to March and here is what I remember.

I remember waiting for Bee, my oldest child, to return from choir tour.

The Pure Joy! Youth Choir went to St. Louis this year and they were returning by train.

I waited and wondered if any of our youth would catch the new coronavirus on this trip.

They shut down the trains two days later. 

I remember when the decision came to close our church.

I waited and wondered how long this would last and what it would mean for our congregation.

We planned and prepared, but none of us imagined it would be December and we would still be waiting.

I look back to this summer and here is what I remember.

I remember waiting and wondering if our Bridgeport Junior and Senior High trips would be postponed, reduced in size or canceled altogether.

Would our mission trip to the UMCOR Sager Brown Depot in Louisiana be canceled?

All three were canceled, with Bridgeport offering only virtual curriculum. 

I remember waiting each week to see if our First Youth summer activities would go on or be canceled.

We did not meet.

I look back to this Fall and Winter and here is what I remember.

I remember waiting each month for word from Dallas County and our bishop on when we could gather again for in-person worship.

Waiting each day to see what would come next. 

I remember waiting and wondering who would be elected president of the United States.

I remember waiting to see what a virtual Night in Bethlehem would look like. 

I remember waiting. 

I felt like all this waiting was causing me to stay in one place too long.

It was almost as though I was standing in quicksand or a bog that had reached up a twisted root of some unseen tree and snared my ankles.

I felt like I was sinking. 

I found myself not waiting anymore.

It wasn’t necessarily that I had given up. It was just that I didn’t really see the point of waiting anymore.

I accepted where we are in the world and resigned myself to the knowledge that whatever was going on was bigger than me, and that all of this waiting was just causing me anxiety and stress.

So I quit waiting and started moving toward the future.

I started moving past all of this.

I started wondering what things will be like when the pandemic, the election, the struggles and the civil unrest settle.

I wanted to just get moving again. To leave all this behind and quit waiting.

Then I remembered something Pastor Caroline Noll taught me.

She taught me about the “U.”

Do you remember the U?

It is the journey we take in life and our faith that leads to transformation through our experiences by embracing that part that is difficult and hard.

It is the realization that God is with us at the bottom of the U.

The bottom of the U is an uncomfortable place to be and can be extremely difficult for some.

But transformation happens there. God shows up. 

Sometimes I forget that God shows up.

Just like in Bethlehem, God shows up in unexpected ways.

I was so focused on things that didn’t happen that I stopped focusing on things that were happening.

Our online worship is reaching people we have never met that have been waiting to find a church home.

Our online Sunday School gatherings are giving our congregation the opportunity to see each other every week regardless of where they are in the world.

Some of these members have been waiting for months to see each other because of medical conditions or living circumstances.

Our children are able to sing together.

Our youth are able to journey together in fellowship and discussion.

Our ministries of outreach are still reaching people who have been waiting for help.

God shows up. God always shows up.

Advent is all about waiting.

The world was waiting for God and God showed up in the form of a child.

Nothing was ever the same again.

When we follow the ministry of Jesus we see things play out in ways the world did not expect.

The world had become so bogged down and stuck in the waiting that it wasn’t prepared when God showed up.

If you are like me and find yourself uncomfortable with the waiting, remember those in the world around you who are also waiting.

How can we reach them? How is God calling us to show up?

The world waited and God showed up in a child.

We wait now, together, and my friends, God is here waiting with us.

Christmas treasures

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor

I finally brought out all the Christmas boxes today.

Not that they’ve all been unpacked, but I did pull them out of the closet, staged and ready to go.

The tree went up the day before Thanksgiving this year, but it stayed bare for several days.

Tonight we finished hanging the first box of ornaments, some of our favorites that I got when the kids were tiny.

Then I opened a second box that has many things I remember from my childhood.

I slowly unwrapped each item, found a place on the bookshelf for the angels and sheep, and tied the handmade ornaments on the tree.

A couple of the handmade ornaments were falling apart.

I found the craft glue and tried to fix them.

We’ll see in the morning whether I was successful or whether they will go back in the box.

I watched my kids handling all the decorations.

They are old enough to know how to be careful, but sometimes accidents do happen, and some items are just old.

Part of me cringed as I watched them, fearful that things would break, but I didn’t interfere.

I didn’t interfere because I remember being allowed to tie the handmade ornaments on the tree as a child (after I was “allowed” to iron the ribbons).

I remember sitting with my mom unwrapping the tissue-packed nativity.

I remember untangling strings of lights with my dad.

I remember crowding around the tree with my brother finding where our favorite ornaments were hung.

So the kids rearranged the nativity.

They hung ornaments on the tree, even the fragile ones.

And the collection of nutcrackers were lip syncing Christmas carols.

Will these treasures eventually fall apart? Of course.

But the deeper work will remain. The work of sharing story, time and love together.

It is the same with our faith.

Our journey with God is not something to be kept away for safe-keeping.

Our faith is meant to be interacted with, used, be part of our life.

It is meant to be shared with others, to bring joy, to share story, to bring hope, to remind us who we are.

Let’s be bold and get our faith out of the box!

It might get some wear along the way, but oh the shared stories, the new memories, the bold work, the ties formed.

It’s what we’re meant for.

It’s what we’re made for.

You are blessed to be a blessing.

Bringing home Bethlehem

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

On the way home from recording our video segment for A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, my husband Rick and I began to sniff.

Cumin! Fennel! Cinnamon!

This took us back to late nights after A Night in Bethlehem in past years.

Since Rick and I host the spices booth with awesome volunteers each year, we’ve come to expect and enjoy the scent of spices lingering in our nostrils and clothes.

We recalled stories from A Night in Bethlehem, and felt pangs of sadness at not being able to enjoy the wonder of Bethlehem in our church building this year.

But we also felt a sense of connection.

This year – on Friday, December 11 at 7:00pm – First United Methodist Church Garland will host A Virtual Night in Bethlehem, ushering the village of Jesus’ birth with all its swirling activity right into our homes. 

It’s a meaningful connection, don’t you think?

Along with all the sadness and frustration of our current crisis, we are being given the gift of relating what goes on in the church building with our homes.

Our dining tables have become altars, our living rooms and home offices sanctuaries for worship. 

It’s a “Temple-synagogue” dynamic. 

In ancient Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the locus of worship, sacrifice and festivals.

God’s Presence was understood to dwell in the Temple. But the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 BCE.

Great swaths of the population were deported into forced exile hundreds of miles away.

And so the question arose, “If we can’t worship in the Temple, then where is God? And how do we worship?”

The synagogue was the answer to that dilemma. 

Groups of exiles began gathering to read the scriptures, to chant the Psalms, and to pray together.

(The word “synagogue” comes from a Greek noun that means “assembly” or “gathering.”)

The gatherings of worship cropped up wherever the people of God lived.

As they worshipped, they realized God wasn’t confined to the Temple.

God was with them, wherever they were! 

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were a lay-reform movement that sought to bring the practice of worship and Torah beyond even the synagogue.

They wanted to bring faith practice into everyday life.

Blessings, ushering in the Sabbath, communing at the table over a meal, welcoming the stranger as guest – all of these were part of worship practice that moved into the homes of practicing Jews.

(One of the things Jesus argued with the Pharisees about centered around some of these very questions – How do we worship God with our whole being, day in and day out? How do we practice Torah in any given situation?)

The early Christians experienced something similar: since there were occasions they weren’t welcome in the synagogue, or if they found themselves in a town where there was no synagogue, then how would they worship?

They gathered in homes, sharing the Lord’s Supper, searching the scriptures, praying together.

And God was with them.

Our virtual worship invites us to engage in these very questions ourselves.

We gather virtually, making our homes places of worship that connect to other worshippers.

Some segments are recorded in our sanctuary, inviting us to mirror what’s happening in the sanctuary in our own homes.

In the coming season of Advent and Christmas, you will see the Advent candles being lit in the sanctuary.

In addition, families will lead us in lighting the Advent candles in their own homes, connecting our home space with the formal worship space of the sanctuary ever more deeply.

We miss our sanctuary – especially at this time of the year.

Pandemic fatigue compounds this.

But God is with us, wherever we are. All the time.

Connecting us to each other and to the world through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

We can trust God’s presence with us, and give thanks.

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.

Pray. 

Goodbye, farewell and amen.

So we wait

Josh Medlock, Director of Student Ministries

Were you one of the millions of people watching the election results this past Tuesday night?

Were you surprised that we didn’t have a clear winner that evening?

Are you surprised that as of this morning, we still haven’t had an official winner declared for the office of President of the United States?

My friends, the statement “It’s 2020” applies here.

We say that now whenever something happens that is unusual, unplanned, or seems to affect everyone all at once.

This year has been one of firsts for all of humanity in many regards.

It has been a year filled with uncertainty and the inability to plan ahead. At least it has for me.

Many of you know that I am indeed a planner. All of the events for First Youth this year were planned in 2019.

Of course with the pandemic almost all of those plans fell through or had to be radically changed.

So here we are in November.

Halloween has passed. Thanksgiving is coming.

I waited patiently for Halloween to see how many kids would actually knock on my door this year.

The bell rang seven times. Then it was over.

I have to be honest and tell you that I really didn’t feel anything once it was gone and over with.

Nor was I upset that the bell only rang seven times.

I felt a slight twinge of sadness for the little ones who were denied the opportunity to go out and celebrate the holiday with friends and family.

But at the end of the day I was actually glad more people weren’t out. It meant many chose to stay home and stay safe.

It’s 2020. 

Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

Usually by now we have had conversations about whose house we celebrate at this year, the menu, what time we are eating, who is bringing what … you know, all the normal stuff that families do to get ready to gather for a holiday.

This year is different. We are just now talking about it at my house.

Determining whether we will gather with a lot of family is difficult this year. Do we risk it? Who is going to wear a mask and who isn’t? Will anyone be sick?

I am not really worried about the menu or whose house we will be at.

I am now wondering if we will know who the President will be by then. Surely we will … right?

It’s 2020. 

Christmas is coming!!! Christmas is coming!!!

I am one of those dads who waits until AFTER Thanksgiving to put up any Christmas decorations.

This year, I found myself hunting for the Christmas boxes yesterday in the garage.

I am thinking we will have ours up by the end of next week. That will be a first for me.

I am feeling uncertain and would like to surround myself with a little joy and happiness.

Hard not to be joyful during Christmas.

The music, the trees, the lights, the nativity set.

We get to celebrate the biggest thing to happen to humanity…the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.

So move over Thanksgiving, Christmas is coming early at my house this year.

It’s 2020. 

Right now I find it difficult to navigate social media without getting angry or frustrated.

I find it increasingly difficult to watch the news and try to wade through what is accurate and what is not.

I am realizing that not everyone is seeing what I am seeing or hearing what I am hearing, and that makes it difficult to have meaningful and transformative conversations.

I am not sure if any of you are having the same problems or feelings right now.

If you are, then like me, you find yourself once again waiting.

Waiting for the chaos to settle.

Waiting for love to replace the hate filled speech and actions of those around us.

Waiting for discernment and wisdom to replace ignorance and selfish ambition.

We wait.

The whole world waited over 2000 years ago, when God chose to be among us in human form through Jesus the Christ.

A new way, a new beginning, a new wisdom was shared with us and transformation began.

Through his suffering and death, that transformation is still happening.

We struggle to see transformation right now because our eyes are focused on worldly things.

These things have distracted us and distanced us from being in relationship with one another and with God.

We recently discussed the word HOPE in First Youth during one of our virtual lessons.

I reminded them that we can have hope because we have made it through dark times before.

Every one of us, at some point in our lives, has been through a trauma or situation that we could refer to as “dark times.”

Some of us have been through these times more often than others.

But one thing remains true for all of us … we are still here.

If you are reading this, then you made it through.

It may not have turned out the way you hoped. You may not have gotten the results you wanted.

Things are most certainly different because of it. But you made it through.

And we will make it through 2020. Things may not turn out the way you hoped. You may not get what you wanted. Things will definitely be different.

God is transforming the world. We are being transformed.

God is with us, always. Now and forever. So have hope.

The light is going to turn green and we are all going to go through the intersection.

We have no idea what that road looks like right now, but we will navigate it together and God will be with us.

We just have to wait.

I think I am going to dig out the Christmas boxes today.

Maybe the neighbors won’t be too upset if I hang the outside lights up next week.

Guess I will have to wait and see.

Blessings and the Peace of Christ be with each of you.

Focus on Him

Dr. Eldred Marshall, Artist-in-Residence, Associate Director of Music Ministries

For all of my 20s, Election Day results meant the difference between employment and unemployment.

Be it the fate of my internship or my positions as a senior aide, or desire to maintain my reputation as a campaign manager, the unpredictability made me anxious.

Further, the incessant data analysis, poll watching, get-out-the-vote efforts, fundraisers, news media stories, speeches and writing drained me by the weekend before Election Day.
 
I say this as a preface to tell you that I totally empathize with everyone’s Election Day anxiety.
 
However, I would like to bring God into this landscape, as He reminds us what is truly important in times like these.
 
…He removes kings and raises up kings…

– Daniel 2:21 (NKJV) 

Election results are predetermined.

He already knows who won, and He has already accounted for these people in His plan.

He just doesn’t clue us in to the future because that’s “grown folks’ business.”

Focus on Him, not some man or woman.

“The king’s heart is a waterway in the hand of the LORD; He directs it where He pleases.”

– Proverbs 21:1 (Berean Study Bible)


To put this into the US context, every president, House Speaker, Supreme Court justice, and every other official is under the watchful eye of God.

Pray for them.

Communicate with them, and do not hide your light while doing so.
 
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of righteousness.”

– Isaiah 41:10 (KJV)


There is nothing to fear about a future led by your political opponent.

In fact: 

“Cursed is the person who trusts in humankind…” 

– Jeremiah 17:5 (LEB)


And in my view, “humankind” includes human governmental systems.

Instead, choose God.

He will grant you the strength and the courage needed to be an advocate for justice and righteousness.
 
Irrespective of what happens on Tuesday and beyond, let us all be on the forefront of bringing unity and humanity back into our sphere.

There is more that unites us than divides us.
 
In the midst of the rumors of post-election violence, let’s be unequivocal advocates for peace.
 
There is much work for us to do as Christians to repair our society, regardless of who temporarily resides in the White House.

Let’s do it together, in the name of our Lord, Savior, and Eternal King, Jesus Christ.

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