Stop, watch the Giver at work

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Pastor for Children and Families

The colors are changing again.

Remember when we all went home in March 2020?

Everything stopped.

After a short while, we all went outside. Though activities in our world ceased, spring was coming.

Everywhere I turned, people were noticing the leaves growing day by day, the blossoms, and the colors.

We noticed that we were noticing!

One of my favorite parts of our year of school at home was daily time outside with my kids.

Nearly every day we would go outside for a walk or a bike ride or time in the yard.

I loved the time together and the time outdoors with the trees and the sky.

As time has gone by, things in our world have opened again.

Suddenly, the most I often see of a beautiful day is the sunshine coming in through the window, or perhaps a short walk to the bus stop.

How did I go back to old habits so quickly?

So I made this week different. I went on a field trip with my daughter’s school to the Outdoor Learning Center in Plano.

It was a gorgeous fall day. We spent the whole time intentionally looking at nature, asking questions, and wondering.

That time inspired me to go for a walk I hadn’t done in months in the park near our neighborhood, the one that goes through the woods near the creek.

I loved it so much that I invited a friend to join me the next day.

I don’t know how to make outdoors part of my new routine. I’m still figuring out this balance.

But what is important for me, what is essential is to stop, watch, and pay attention.

The colors are changing! The Giver of all good gifts is at work. The Creator is still creating. The Spirit is still moving.

I don’t want to miss it. I want to see the beautiful fall colors.

I want to listen to stories of families and friends around the feast.

I am ready for a season of getting ready for God’s gift of love to us.

The colors are changing again. Thanks be to God.

Getting ready

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Pastor for Children and Families

This week in children’s Sunday School, we are telling the story of “The Ark and the Tent.” 

It is a favorite story of our children that you can read in full in Exodus 25-31.

For those who may not be familiar with us, our curriculum is based on Godly Play, which makes use of simple, imaginative props to help our children not only ‘learn’ but also ‘experience’ the stories of the Bible. 

For “The Ark and the Tent,” we use a ‘desert bag,’ and how can you not love running your hands through a bag full of sand?

We build the tent out of many different, interlocking pieces of wood, a builder’s and puzzler’s delight.

We also use a basket of artifacts, the sacred pieces that go in and around the tent in the tabernacle, plus the many layers of roof.

So many pieces come together to help the people of God get ready.

I remember one of the first years we shared these stories with our children, we also shared them with any adults who wanted to come on Wednesday evenings.

The adults could have their own time of learning and reflection, and see this transformative way of storytelling and work.

I was the door person for this story and was able to listen and observe as the storyteller carefully added piece after piece, building the tent, adding more and more to help the people of God get ready.

At the end of the story we wondered, thought, and considered.

An adult exclaimed, “Why do they need so much to get ready?”

Why do we need so much to get ready for something like worship, or time with God, or drawing near to God?

It seems the opposite of what the people of God have been learning in the desert all these years, that God is not just here or there, but that all of God is everywhere.

So if God is so near, I wonder what is the purpose of such care in getting ready?

When else do we take this time to prepare?

A wedding. A new baby. Going to college. An important interview. A memorial service.

Perhaps we take the time when we recognize something important is going to happen.

We still tell the story of “The Ark and the Tent.” Maybe God is inviting us to get ready.

I wonder what kind of transformation is about to happen?

Let us draw near to the presence of God, and may we be ready for the future God holds.

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. 

No complaints

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor

I miss Aunt Michelle. 

She was one of the wonderful women that became my family when I married.

We were together at family gatherings, shopping adventures, and she and her family were the only family near us when we lived in Houston.

They took us to eat at some of their favorite restaurants.

One of her favorite adjectives was the word ‘delicious,’ and she was hands down the smartest person in any room.

She died too young after multiple occurrences of breast cancer.

When it was time for her funeral, I stayed home with our oldest, who was still a baby at the time, and Patrick drove many hours across the state with family to attend the service.

He told me about it when he came home.

What I remember to this day was that people talked about how she never complained.

I thought, they are right! I never once heard her complain  About anything. Ever.  

I don’t think I’m called to be Aunt Michelle. We are each fearfully and wonderfully made. I am called, though, to honor her life.

I am invited to learn and grow from her. I am thankful for her witness that inspires me to do better. 

I am thankful for her life and for the nudge I feel when I start to descend the slippery slope of complaining. 

I remember her life, and in that moment I remember so much that I have to be thankful for.  

When the grocery store has stopped carrying my favorite brand, I am thankful for the abundance of food we have in our home. 

When technology won’t play my TV show, I am thankful for leisure time. 

When it rains and soaks our shoes, I am thankful for shelter. 

When the laundry piles up, I am thankful we have more than one set of clothes. 

When I am self-conscious of the medical scars on my skin, I am thankful for access to healthcare. 

When one season ends, I am thankful for the new season that begins. 

When I am uncertain about the future, I am thankful for God who is always present. 

There are times of grief, sadness, anger. We are called to speak up against evil, injustice and oppression. 

These words are also needed to move toward transformation. There is a time for these words. 

On this day, however, I remember Aunt Michelle who reminds me to look for the delicious moments of life, give thanks for them, and enjoy them. 

They are gifts from God.  

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

Listening to God is not always audible

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

The desert us a dangerous place. 

“There is no food or water there. People can die in the desert.

“When the wind blows, the shape of the desert changes. You can lose your way.

“The sun is so hot that people wear many clothes to keep the sun from burning their skin.

“When the wind blows, the sand stings your face and hands. People need protection from the blowing sand.

“At night, it is cold, and you need many clothes to keep warm.

“The desert is a dangerous place. People do not go there unless they have to.”

This is the opening statement to several of the Godly Play stories.

First United Methodist Church Garland recently hosted Core Training for Godly Play.

I attended. Although I don’t have the privilege of teaching on the 2nd floor, as a member/staff, I like to know what/why something is going on in the church.

As a choir director, I tell my people, ‘It’s not only important to know your part, but what you are a part of.”

One of the reasons I am convinced that Godly Play is probably the best curriculum for kids is that it teaches kids to listen for God’s voice.

My heart is full knowing that God is working in and with each of us.

I’m thankful for [Pastor] Caroline [Noll] and all the 2nd floor personnel who are teaching our kids to listen for God’s counseling.

I would love to tell you about my experiences in the desert (in my soul) and how listening (not always audible) for God’s guidance, led me through.

Have you been to the desert? Let’s share!

Dr. Suess has a book titled, Ohthe Places Youll Go

Listening (not always audible) and trusting our God who is love, can lead you to a beautiful life.

This is what we at First United Methodist Garland teach.

This poem by Williams Cowper (pronounced “Cooper,”) expresses my heart overflowing: 

Sometimes a light surprises the child of God who sings:

the light of one who rises with gentle, healing wings.

When comforts are declining, God grants the soul again

a season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation with joy, we shall pursue

the theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.

Set free from present sorrow we cheerfully can say,

let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing but God will bear us through.

Who gives the lilies clothing will clothe the people, too.

Beneath the spreading heavens no creature but is fed:

the one who feeds the ravens will give the children bread.

Though vine and fig tree neither their yearly fruit should bear,

though all the fields should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there,

yet God, the same abiding, through praise shall tune my voice,

for while in love confiding I cannot but rejoice.

And my tree is still up

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Pastor for Children and Families

The seasons are changing.

A new year. A new president. New vaccines.

Christmas has come and gone.

And Epiphany.

And we’re planning for Lent.

And my tree is still up.

The ornaments are packed up.

The nativities have been wrapped up.

The snowmen and penguins and stockings are boxed up.

But the tree remains.

It is currently covered in handmade paper snowflakes.

I expect come February it will be adorned with paper hearts.

Because my kids remembered a story.

I told them about a colleague of mine, the minister of music at the church where I served in the Houston area many years ago, who one year left her tree up the whole year.

With all that was going on in her life, in the church, and with family, she just never got around to taking it down after Christmas.

And then it was Easter.

And then it was summer.

And then she thought, well, by the time I take it down now I’ll just be putting it right back up!

So she left it up. The whole year.

My kids remembered. They begged. Please! Can we leave the tree up!

I guess if there was ever a season to make joyful memories, this is it.

So now that I have this tree in my living room, I wonder…

Well, I wonder how I’m going to dust it.

I wonder if my neighbors will be curious.

I wonder if it will bring joy to my children, excited at creating new decorations throughout the year. 

I wonder how often it will bring to mind other stories of those early days in Houston.

Stories of friends, of nurture, of beginnings.

I wonder if it might be a symbol of steadiness in our lives that seem to change by the week, by the day, sometimes by the hour.

I wonder how often we will tell each other that the evergreen in our midst reminds us of an even greater everlasting life, centered in Christ, the Christ-mas tree now in the center of every season.

I wonder what other practices we have and will discover to center ourselves, to ground ourselves, to stay rooted to who we are and who we were created to be.

I wonder how often it will make us smile.

I wonder what new stories will be born of this story.

The seasons are changing.

The story continues.

The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

Thanks be to God.

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.

Back-to-school blessings

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

At the end of the first day of fourth grade, the school bus dropped me off in front of my family’s home.

My mother greeted me at the front door and asked, “Well, how was the first day of school?” 

Beaming, I replied, “It was great! And my teacher didn’t yell at me for talking one single time!”

(A frequent comment brought up at parent teacher conferences was that the teacher often saw just the back of my head; I often would be turned around, talking to the student behind me.)

My parents had transferred me to a new school the summer before my fourth grade year.

Later, I learned that my parents chose to participate in a school district option called a ‘majority-to-minority transfer.’

I was one of eight white students in the majority African-American Harlem Elementary School.

Our principal, Mr. Colquitt, was an innovative educator, implementing an open classroom model that emphasized self-paced learning.

It was the best school year of my life.

My teacher, Mrs. Jennings, understood and encouraged me, and I thrived in the environment.

I also developed friendships with kids who were different from me, instilling in me a lifelong desire to enter into and nurture relationships with others from diverse backgrounds.

At its best, school is a place where we learn not just subject content, but can learn about our own selves and who we want to become.

We are nurtured by teachers who not only help us get ready for tests, but who assure us that we matter as human beings.

At the beginning of this new school year, with all of its risks, uncertainties, and anxieties, my hope is that each and every student and educator may know that they matter to us.

My prayer is that they remain well and safe.

And never forget that you are a blessing.

The story continues

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor and Pastor for Children and Families

I’ve thought for a long time that it would be so cool to have a Godly Play room at my house.

Be careful what you wish for.

At the beginning of shelter in place, back when we didn’t know how long we’d be in our homes and under what circumstances, while many were hoarding toilet paper and canned soup and ice cream (I’m telling you … the freezer section was bare), I was hoarding stories.

I really didn’t know if I’d have access to the church building for a while, so I took a couple of rolling carts and empty boxes up to the second floor and brought home every Godly Play story that called my name that day.

Plus a few more.

As our ministries quickly transitioned to virtual spaces, we shared the Core Godly Play stories of Jesus, his life, the parables, and stories of the disciples.

Time passed, and as I wondered what we would do in the summer, a wise colleague suggested that I ask the children.

The kids of our church, who have been learning the stories and language of our faith in the style of Godly Play for six years now asked for deeper stories.

You see, there are the Core stories, that physically take up the top shelves of our space, as if the Bible opened up and the stories spilled out into the room.

Then we physically go deeper, to the lower shelves, to enrich and extend the core stories we now have as our foundation.

These stories are different.

For example, the story of Creation as presented in Genesis 1 is on the top shelf, a core story.

Genesis 2-3, the story of Adam and Eve, sits below and extends that story.

The story of the Great Family, the broad sweep of the story of Abraham and Sarah, sits on top, a core story.

Individual stories of Abraham, Sarah and Jacob sit below to extend that story.

As we’ve been telling these deeper stories on that middle shelf, I consistently wonder, Well what in the world happened to us?

The people of God get into some messes.

We rebel. We falter. We get angry.

We become fearful. We are embarrassed. We do not own up to our mistakes.

On the top shelf, it seems things happen to us and for us.

Now on this middle shelf, the people of God have gotten in on the action, and it’s not always pretty!

I feel like that’s our world right now. My world.

When things were going 90 to nothing, it was easier to skim the surface and avoid the deeper realities.

But things have slowed down tremendously, and what we see reflected back isn’t always very flattering.

Our messes catch up with us. We get angry. We are afraid. We’re embarrassed.

It’s hard to look in the mirror and own up to our reality.

Okay, the good news?

Because we seriously need some good news.

These are not separate stories of our faith. One does not exist in isolation from the other.

This is one big story, and it’s a story of love and grace and promise.

Through all the muck and mire and mess the people of God have been through, often times of their own doing, God is steadfast.

God is everlasting.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, ever separates us from the love of God, and the story continues.

The story continues, and God continues to journey with us.

May we welcome that grace and invitation into our hearts and our lives each day.

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