Sometimes a light surprises

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

“Liminal space” is a popular phrase lately.

When I looked it up, this is the description I found: 

The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen,’ which means threshold. To be in a liminal space means to be on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet. You can be in a liminal space physically, emotionally, or metaphorically. Being in a liminal space can be incredibly uncomfortable for most people. 

My life is that kind of place right now. I’m thankful that there is a different kind of liminal space.

Godly Play describes a place like this for the prophet:

“When God comes so close to them and they come so close to God, that they know what is most important …”

We, too, can come close to God and find healing and understanding.

Hymn writer William Cowper describes this space well: 

Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while she sings: 
It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings. 
When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again 
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain. 

In holy contemplation, we sweetly then pursue 
The theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new. 
Set free from present sorrow we cheerfully can say, 
E’en let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may: 

It can bring with it nothing but he will bear us through: 
Who gives the lilies clothing will clothe his people too: 
Beneath the spreading heavens no creature but is fed; 
And he who feeds the ravens will give his children bread. 

Though vine nor fig-tree neither their wonted fruit should bear, 
Though all the field should wither, nor flocks, nor herds be there, 
Yet, God the same abiding, his praise shall tune my voice; 
For, while in him confiding, I cannot but rejoice. 

I hope you can find space for gratitude, trust, healing and rejoicing.

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. 

Lamenting

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Our Church Council has been taking up some very important work in the last several months.

We are having small group discussions around how we as a congregation emerge from this pandemic a more vital and faithful congregation.

Our discussion is being guided by five questions or considerations: 

1) Set aside time and space to grieve and lament: 

  • What have we lost? 
  • What can we name that’s slipping away? 

2) What is our “Why?” 

  • How do we restate our central purpose?
  • What difference is God calling us to make? 

3) How do we reintroduce ourselves to our neighbors? 

  • Who can teach us what we need to know?
  • What wisdom is resident and available in the community? 

4) How can we redistribute power? 

  • How can we (re)enact the priesthood of all believers? 
  • How do we live more deeply into and out of our baptismal vows? 

5) How do we expand our imagination? 

  • What are the impediments to starting things that might fail? 
  • How do we identify the differences between “adaptation” and “innovation?” 
  • How do we discern between healthy innovation and innovation for its own sake? 

The first consideration is one of the most difficult.

Our culture isn’t comfortable with grief and loss.

The values of continual growth and prosperity are prominent in our models of working and living.

The Christian story, however, is one that has death at its center – the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross.

On one side of that death is “life as usual.”

On the other side is life transformed – resurrection and new life.

To walk the road of transformation is to enter into that dark valley of the “shadow of death” and allow the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ to rework us and make us anew.

No wonder we often resist the central part of our story. It’s hard work. It hurts.

This is where lament comes in – the expression of our sadness and grief.

One writer describes lament this way: 

 “When we hurt physically, we cry out in pain; when we hurt religiously, we cry out in lament. Lamentation can be described as a loud, religious ‘Ouch!’” 

“Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith. We cry out directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.”

(from franciscanmedia.org; “Biblical Laments: Prayer Out of Pain”) 

Our Church Council has begun giving voice to lament through the use of a Wailing Cross.

We have deployed the cross we use for the Lenten and Easter seasons.

It is set up in our Garden Room with expressions of grief, sadness and lament written on little colored pieces of paper and then attached to the cross. 

You are invited to cast your sadness and grief on the Wailing Cross.

There are materials at the Welcome Center in the Garden Room for your use in doing so.

The expressions are your own and are confidential. 

After a season, we will remove the Wailing Cross and give praise and thanksgiving to God for God’s provision and care during this time of transition and change.

And we will pray that God’s will and way will guide us into a more vital and faithful future. 

Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
Psalm 30.5b NRSV

God’s got this

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Steven Charleston, a retired Episcopal bishop and spiritual elder in the Choctaw Nation, asked a question over social media awhile back that has had me musing and pondering ever since.

He asked: “If you got your 15 minutes of fame, which today would probably be closer to your 15 seconds of fame, and you could use those seconds to share one message with the world, what would you say? What do you think humankind needs to hear the most?”

Given a 15-second global microphone, Bishop Charleston would say: “do not give in to fear. I think fear is at the root, the deep root, of what is driving our battered world. If we can diminish fear, we can increase hope.”

I think the bishop is on to something.

The biblical witness offers God’s words to “not be afraid” in many places (Psalm 27:1 and Isaiah 12:2 are two examples among many); Jesus spent a lot of time asking his disciples to have faith and not be afraid (Matthew 10:31 and Luke 12:32 are two beautiful passages).

We have a lot to be afraid of, don’t we?

A pandemic that just won’t calm down; escalating climate change; a deeply divided nation; denominational and congregational change; change with a capital “C,” period.
 
So many cultural forces pander to our fears, making us feel unprepared or ashamed (or both) if we don’t hedge against the worst, building fortresses to try to keep the thing we’re afraid of out, or at least at bay.
 
But there’s this thing about fear.

When we are really afraid, we retract, coil up, tighten.

Fear can literally restrict our breathing.

When we give in to fear, it compromises our faith and our ability to trust that God’s got this.
 
Through the power of the Spirit, we can handle anything the world throws at us.

We may not like what the world is throwing at us, but the Holy Spirit helps us to stand firm, breathing the God-given free air of grace and abundance.
 
Trusting in God’s presence doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer; the witness of God-in-Christ tells us we will indeed suffer.

But in the midst of hardship and suffering, God is with us, providing a way through the sea, a way through the fire, a way through the desert.
 

Surely it is God who saves me;
I will trust, and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,
And he will be my savior.
Isaiah 12:2 RSV


My friends, God is with us in this very moment, and in each and every moment.
 
So wear your mask, and take care of our children and vulnerable adults by doing so.

God is with us.

By his love

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? 
Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace! 

Charles Wesley, master hymn writer, brother of John Wesley, and our ancestor in Methodism, penned these words in 1749.

This hymn (sung to the tune of Blest Be the Tie That Binds) was popular at annual meetings of the Methodist Societies in England. 

Times could be hard, and the lyrics of this hymn recognized that, giving the gathered body the opportunity to sing of what they had struggled with over the last year:

What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, 
Fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last. 

This hymn feels like it was written just for us – the people called Methodist – who have lived through a year beyond our imagining. 

Yet we are coming through this, all the while holding in our hearts the suffering of people across the globe who continue to struggle with the effects of COVID-19. 

And joy of joys, we will be able to see each other’s face as we gather for in-person worship on June 6 for the first time in 15 months! 

We are re-entering in a careful fashion, paying attention to CDC and Dallas County guidelines.

We want to “do no harm,” to keep everyone as healthy and safe as possible. 

But we will gather for worship again – to pray together, praise together, see each other, give thanks that God has been faithful through this ordeal. 

Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love; 
and still he doth his help afford, and hides our life above. 

I am excited to gather again, and to see you, my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. 

May God bless this new stage of our journey together! 

Then let us make our boast of his redeeming power, 
which saves us to the uttermost, till we can sin no more. 

Let us take up the cross till we the crown attain, 
and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain. 

It takes a lot

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

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 

– Hebrews 11:1, NKJV


While venting with two of my best friends from Yale about the constant, soul-crushing news …

about hunted Black people and Breonna Taylor’s killer signing a book deal …

about Pfizer announcing a third COVID-19 shot, thanks to the quick spread of variants that defy our two-shot scheme …

about mass shootings …

about the universal church’s problems with the LGBTQIA community …

among many, many other things …

one of my friends said something that really stuck out to me:

“It takes a lot of faith to keep a faith.” 

It takes a lot of faith to keep a faith. 

I often remind myself that we are in a Genesis 3 state, and that “thorns and thistles” will follow all of us for the rest of our lives. 

Job encapsulates this sense. 

Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and fades away; he flees like a shadow and does not continue. 

– Job 14:1-2, NKJV 


At the same time, God’s grace is never beyond the reach of anyone. 

We as Christians are to love the people of the world as God loves them.

This is a tough act to follow, as God sent his Son to pay the ultimate sacrifice, to show the depths of His love.

But in order to get there, it requires us to work at keeping our faith. 

Let us never tire of doing the work God sets out for us to do, even when the circumstances induce anxiety. 

It takes a lot of faith to keep a faith. 

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 …

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.

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