Playing in the sanctuary

Scot Bontrager, Senior Pastor

When I was a kid I loved to make and fly paper airplanes. 

After church my brothers and I would collect used worship bulletins, take them home, and recycle them into our various flying creations. 

Sometimes I’d go back to church (First United Methodist, Garden City, Kansas) and sneak into the sanctuary, go up to the balcony, and see how many airplanes I could land on the chancel. 

Or better yet, all the way to the high altar at the far back of the chancel. 

I knew I had to do it at times when no one else was around, lest I get scolded for playing in the sanctuary. 

Imagine my delight when, during Vacation Bible School here at First United Methodist Garland last week, we made paper airplanes in the science room.

My muscle memory took over as I folded a couple of my favorite designs, something I’d not done in over 30 years.

The youth helpers kept saying, “No way!”

My two creations didn’t fly particularly well – certainly not as well as I remembered – but well enough to inspire others to try my designs for themselves. 

I didn’t encourage anyone to try letting one sail from the sanctuary balcony, but I wonder if next year we might need to give that a try. 

So often when people have an experience of being “born again,” they lose their childlike sense of playfulness. 

I think somehow “holy” got confused with “dour.” 

The sanctuary is holy space, space set apart for the worship of God.

But it isn’t, and ought not be, dour space.

If setting a paper airplane free awakens us to the presence of the Holy Spirit and gives us joy, then we should take time to refold our bulletins and find a nice place to see how far they will sail.

Worship should frequently fill us with joy, and should always remind us that we are children; we are children who are loved by God. 

A prayer for fathers and equality

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

Dear Heavenly Father,

We thank you for the fathers in our lives: biological and otherwise. 

We thank you for the wisdom they taught us, the protection they provided us. 

We thank you for the leadership they provided when we needed it. 

Please continue to bless the father figures who surround us with love, encouragement, and support. 

We pray that more men seek to follow you and obey your will, for in doing so it will strengthen our society. 

Further, Father God, we pray for our nation on this Juneteenth holiday, as it has yet to overcome the legacy of slavery and segregation. 

We implore your Spirit to move the hearts of men towards reparations. 

We remind you of the words you gave to Amos: let your righteous justice flow like a mighty stream. 

Please move this nation to rectify inequality in all forms.

In Jesus’ name, 

Amen

God is in it all

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Director of Children’s and Family Ministries

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every
matter under heaven:

a time to be born,
and a time to die; 

a time to plant, and a time
to pluck up what is planted; 

a time to kill,
and a time to heal; 

a time to break down,
and a time to build up; 

a time to weep,
and a time to laugh; 

a time to mourn,
and a time to dance; 

a time to throw away stones,
and a time to gather
stones together; 

a time to embrace, and a time
to refrain from embracing; 

a time to seek,
and a time to lose; 

a time to keep,
and a time to throw away; 

a time to tear,
and a time to sew; 

a time to keep silence,
and a time to speak; 

a time to love,
and a time to hate; 

a time for war,
and a time for peace.


– Ecclesiastes 3:1-8


I have turned to this scripture again and again over the past few years.

It speaks to me in so many seasons, perhaps because it names so many seasons.

I love the breadth and depth of human experience and emotions named.

God is in it all.

Even though I have correctly quoted and cited these verses, I have mistakenly misinterpreted them in my mind and heart.

The conjunction used is “AND.”

In my mind and practice, I have, unawares, substituted the conjunction “OR.”

One joins together.

The other separates.

These scriptures, with their repeated “and,” link them all together. 

Birth AND death.

Breaking down AND building up.

Weeping AND laughing.

They are all happening together.

One does not cease to let the other have space.

One does not stand still while the other stands front and center.

Life is messy, complicated, and layered.

Some days the movements are small and holding them together feels normal, the everyday challenges and gratitudes.

Other days the mountains are high, the valleys are low, and my mind and heart are stretched and ache to contain it all. 

Today, then, I give thanks that I do not have to contain it all.

God is in these seasons, too, and I can offer those highs and lows to God.

All the joy, all the celebrations, the proud moments, the full hearts, the soaring spirits, and the contented breaths.

All the headaches, heartaches, tears, heaviness, tired weariness.

I do not have to carry it all.

We do not have to carry it all. 

We offer these to God.

In prayer, in song, in journaling, conversations with those who love and care for us, reading the scriptures, gathering at the Lord’s table, sharing a restoring meal with those who love us.

God works in us and through us, the Holy Spirit moves and breathes in us, AND Jesus shows us the way.

Thanks be to God.

Graduations

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

On a local newscast last night, the anchor person said:

“It’s finally here! The season of graduations!”

I thought back on my graduations, my husband’s, my children’s and my mom’s graduations.

For our family, each graduation was a celebration of accomplishments with great anticipation and hopes yet to come.

Then I thought of all the students who have come through our First United Methodist Garland children’s and youth programs.

I am thankful for the privilege to work with so many wonderful students who have gone on to become doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers, analysts, philanthropists, musicians and much more.

Each year, if seniors have been active throughout their high school years, I allow them to choose the choir tour destinations, Dessert Show themes, and most importantly, our theme verse or quote for the year.

I am so thankful for seniors who come to their year with anticipation and willingness to take leadership.

The younger youth appreciate when the older youth lovingly include them.

Together, we all grow in faith.

Madeline Watkins and Liberty Cowan are outstanding seniors. They take initiative, showing creativity and ingenuity.

Although Pure Joy! Youth Choir has been small this year, they are one of the most talented groups around!

I credit Madeline and Liberty for not only singing in tune, but also keeping our group in harmonious unity!

This year, they chose this quote as our theme:

“God can give you peace for the past, purpose for the present and hope for the future.”

There are many verses that support this quote.

Because Ascension Sunday is in one week, the passage brought to this reflection is John 14:25-27.

Before Jesus ascends, he assures his followers:

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Prayer:

Loving God, life keeps changing and sometimes that causes anxiety.

Thank you for the calm assurance that your peace can be in us.

Without fear, help us to bring peace and assurance to those around us.

Gratitudes

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Musician, poet, and essayist Carrie Newcomer penned a poem that has been ringing in my heart and mind these last few weeks.

It’s titled “Three Gratitudes.”

Here are a few lines:

‘Every night before I go to sleep 
I say out loud 
Three things that I am grateful for, 
All the significant, insignificant 
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life. 
It’s a small practice and humble, 
And yet, I find I sleep better 
Holding what lightens and softens my life 
Ever so briefly at the end of the day … 

… And after three things, 
More often than not, 
I get on a roll and just keep on going, 
I keep naming and listing, 

Until I lie grinning, 
Blankets pulled up to my chin, 
Awash with wonder 
At the sweetness of it all.” 

(From “A Permeable Life,” pp 9-10)

As I ponder what I am thankful for in my eight years at First United Methodist Church Garland, I find that I get on a roll like the poet describes.

My list keeps getting longer and longer, full of ordinary and extraordinary gratitudes. 

Here are just a few:

Music sung and played by kids, youth and adults that speaks to the soul and lifts the heart. 

Stained glass windows that wow the senses. 

Leadership who offered loving support during hard times. 

A wise, kind and amazing staff. 

Members who ‘show up,’ pitching in and taking care of whatever needs attention. 

Laughter in the office. 

Smiles in worship. 

And the list grows ever longer, until I am smiling with the wonder of it all. 

Thank you for being you.

It has been a blessing to be your pastor. 

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. 

Old Faithful

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Director of Children’s and Family Ministries

“I have to go do my homework now.”

“What’s your homework?”

“I have to finish the treasurer’s report for the PTA meeting.

“And I need to write a reflection paper for church. I don’t know what I’ll write about yet. Do you have any ideas?”

“What’s a reflection paper?”

“Well, sometimes people write about a story or something they saw or a song and how it made them think about God.”

“Hmm… Write about Yellowstone! How God is like Old Faithful, springing up from the ground!”

Thank you God for the gift of our children.

Old Faithful as a metaphor for God. 

God is ever present in our world, bursting forth in mighty and magnificent ways.

Higher and more beautiful than we ever imagined.

Even when we think we remember from days of old, God continues to surprise and amaze.

God is faithful.

Sometimes we must be patient, waiting for that we yearn for, wondering if God hears our prayers.

And yet when we wait upon the Lord, our joy is complete.

God’s love runs deep, down into the core of creation. From God’s love, miraculous life wells forth.

God’s love takes many forms, some in amazing colors and forms, some pouring forth in abundance, others a gentle simmer, a wisp of a reminder.

Sometimes we encounter parts of this world that offend our sensitivities, but many times, underneath, are miracles of creation.

God’s love calls us back, draws us in, and restores our soul.

We sit in awe and cannot help but tell others of the wonders of God’s love.

Amen.

Love one another

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace
From verse 3, “O Holy Night”

O God of love:

On this day of Epiphany, we recall the story of travelers from the East
            who experienced the light of your glory –
            glory shining forth from a baby’s face,
            God-with-us in a most surprising way.

Truly, you came to the world – to us – in that baby to teach us to love one another,
            and to walk in the way of peace.

But our confession, dear God, is that we still struggle
to walk in your way of peace and love.
The Epiphany of your glory is hidden from our view,
            the path of peace and love is cloudy. 

We are mired in doubt and fear, division and blame.
Our lives are marked with a cautious distrust and avoidance of the other. 

Lord, have mercy on us. 

Clear our vision,
            make our hearts soft,
                        may our hands reach out in an offering of care,
                                    our feet firm on the path of peace.

May your glory dawn upon us again.  Amen.

What are we waiting for?

Rev. Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Our wait is almost over.

In our worship services tonight, and in congregations all over the globe, the faithful will gather and light the Christ candle and sing of Christ’s birth.

We have spent four weeks preparing, attending to spiritual disciplines both communal and individual to make room in our hearts for the birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby.

We’ve decked the halls, sent holiday cards, prepared for gift exchanges.

Some are preparing for travel to see loved ones for the first time in many months.

In the home I share with my spouse, we have marked the waiting time with lighting our own Advent candles on Sunday evenings.

Each day, I attach a little Velcro figure to a cloth Advent calendar depicting the nativity with all the characters (the animals are my personal favorites – there’s even a cat at the manger).

On this day, there is only one more candle to light – the Christ candle.

There is only one more little Velcro figure to attach to the cloth Advent calendar – that of the baby Jesus.

The story of Christmas tells us that our waiting has not been in vain.

We have faithfully prepared, and we will enter the season of joy that follows.

God has taken on flesh, and dwells among us, “full of wisdom and truth.”

It is curious, though. We already know the end of this story.

Jesus will be born, ready or not. And there is grace in that.

But there’s also a potential trap.

We can be fooled into thinking that the efforts around our preparation and waiting produce something.

Plainly described, we perform X number of actions during this season of preparation, and at the end Y happens – the birth of the babe.

Maybe we can flip this formula on its head:

What if God is the one doing the waiting?

… waiting on us to trust the unbounded grace God offers – no matter what we do

… waiting on us to love who and what God loves

… waiting on us to hear the divine “yes:” “You are mine, and I love you. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that”

… waiting on us to deeply understand that our hearts are already ready to receive God-in-Christ. Our hearts (and our entire beings) are created by a loving Creator. There’s already a God-shaped space in our hearts (with special thanks to St. Augustine for that insight).

May this Christmas be our season of joy, of grace, of mercy, of a communal “yes.”

What are we waiting for?

It came upon a midnight clear

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

“Season of Hope!” is our advent theme this year.

The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of my favorites. It’s an old black and white movie.

At the beginning of the movie, a senior angel is talking to a junior, telling him about George Bailey.

The scene is set with a star-lit sky.

Although it’s two stars blinking at each other, it is evident that angels are talking to each other.

Clarence is the junior. Here is a bit of the conversation: 

Senior Angel: A man down on earth needs our help. 

Clarence: Splendid. Is he sick? 

Senior Angel: No, worse. He’s discouraged. 

It is easy to get discouraged and lose hope. Life happens.

For young ones, it’s falling off a bike, making a poor grade, losing a game or parents divorcing.

For young adults, it is not getting a job, house, or family that was hoped for in younger years.

For older adults, it can be that things are changing – new technologies, kids moving away or age discrimination.

For all ages, it’s broken relationships, losing loved ones and unrest in the world.

You name yours. There are numerous reasons that we get discouraged and lose hope.

There are so many wonderful Christmas carols. We have so little time to sing them all.

Often times in our haste to sing them all, we only sing one or two verses of each.

Sometimes, however, the most significant verses are in the middle.
 
This is true in the song, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

For background, the Greek word for “angel” means “messenger.”

This song describes angel messengers coming throughout all times, bringing us the message of peace and love.

Three of the verses speak of world conditions.

But the third verse, which is most often omitted, says this: 

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
 
As many of you know, my father died the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

I grieve for myself, but mostly for my mom, who literally lost her life-long love.

I’m thankful for those of you who have modeled “good grieving.”

I recognize that you put your trust in our merciful Lord in times of both sorrow and joy.

I find it ironic that I can feel both joy/peace and sorrow/grief at the same time. 
 
As I “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing,” these scriptures come to my mind:
 
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
 the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
 his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
 and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
 and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
 they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
 they shall walk and not faint. 

– Isaiah 40:28-31


But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

– Titus 3:4-5

 
Prayer:
Loving God, help me to take time to rest, to listen and to be renewed by your Holy
Spirit.

Help me to be the person you need me to be to bring peace on earth (or a least to those who are near me.)
 
Blessing:
May your hope be renewed this advent season.

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