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. 

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?

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. 

Anticipation

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

June 6 sits boldly on my calendar.
 
It’s the day when we can say that our long 2020 Lenten nightmare is over.
 
When leadership announced our return date, a certain inspiration in my practice sessions that has been missing for 14 months suddenly reappeared.
 
Instead of lying awake at night wondering if music would return to the stage, or if I would have a church to return to, I now lay awake planning and re-planning concerts.
 
My mood is quickened, and I feel a sense of positivity that I hope is infectious.
 
I can’t wait to experience the thrill of leading the congregation through robust hymns of praise from the organ. 

I eagerly anticipate the Chancel Choir filling the loft again, singing joyous anthems to God.
 
In my inner ear, I once again hear the Bell Choir ringing praises to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
 
I can’t wait to reconnect and reacquaint myself with the new Pure Joy! Youth Choir as, in these last 14 months, the membership has changed.
 
My mind hasn’t stopped racing with potential projects, possible serial concerts, or probable theatrical productions for a revived West Avenue B Community Concerts series.
 
While I am thankful to the overlong 2020 Lent for forcing me to get more comfortable with cameras and microphones, I’m raring to move onward and upward.
 
I can’t wait to play for you once again. In real life.
 
I pray I see you soon!

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. 

Alive and well

On March 11, 2020, more than 1,000 people in 40 states had been infected with COVID-19.

At least 31 had already died.

In testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, bluntly warned:

“Bottom line, it’s going to get worse.”

The next day, March 12, Dallas County declared a health emergency. 

A few short hours before, our Pure Joy! Youth Choir returned from a Spring Break tour of St. Louis.

Garland and other area school districts declared a second week of Spring Break as they scrambled to assess the situation and figure out what to do next.

Bishop Mike McKee sent a letter instructing all United Methodist churches in the North Texas Conference to cease in-person worship, presumably for no more than a few weeks.

On March 13, the staff of First United Methodist Garland met via Zoom to brainstorm what to do and how to worship.

Just over a year later, there have been more than 30 million cases and 550,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.

Worldwide, there have been nearly 123 million cases and more than 2.7 million deaths. 

As widespread vaccination escalates, there is hope on the horizon.

But we are a long way from ‘back to normal.’

Some churches have reopened to limited in-person worship. 

For reasons of safety and based on the guidelines of Dallas County Health and Human Services, First United Methodist Garland has not.

Our building remains closed.

But God’s church is alive and well, because we are the church

And God continues to work through us in spite of the pandemic. 

God has a plan for us. 

With God’s guidance and grace, we have learned to worship online. 

This has enabled us to remain connected, albeit virtually, as a community of believers.

And it has positioned us for the future of God’s church.

Online worship won’t go away when we return to our sanctuary. 

It will continue to be offered for those who feel safer and more comfortable remaining at home.

And for those now geographically distant but still desiring a spiritual connection with their home church.

And perhaps most importantly, for that seeker who may find through us an avenue to a new or renewed relationship with God.

We’ve kept other ministries alive online as well. Sunday School. Chancel, Pure Joy! Youth and Children’s Choirs. First Youth fellowship. Even Vacation Bible School and Night in Bethlehem. 

We’ve held online Bible studies and book studies. 

Senior Pastor Rev. Valarie Englert has provided a weekly opportunity to center, meditate and Breathe

And we’ve tried to do our part in combating racism and promoting inclusion through a series of online Conversations About Race.

Our staff and laity have gone out of their way to keep in close touch with our members in spite of social distancing, providing food, pastoral care and other support as needed. 

In spite of the pandemic, God has also led us to remain in mission as well. 

We may not be hammering nails, repairing homes or installing grab bars. 

But we are collecting and contributing food to Good Samaritans of Garland, and helping the Garland Retired School Personnel do the same.

We’ve continued our quarterly commitment to providing Breakfast @ Austin Street.

We provided a socially-distanced distribution point for The Reindeer Project, continuing to help Garland area families in need with gifts and food to ensure a merry Christmas for their children. 

And when an unprecedented, freezing winter storm sent hundreds of our less fortunate neighbors scurrying for shelter, we did our part through donations of time, money and food to the Garland Overnight Warming Station (GLOWS). 

COVID-19 may have slowed us.

COVID-19 may have changed the way we do things. 

But COVID-19 has not stopped us.

It has not stopped God’s church.

It has not stopped God’s plan for us.

We are alive and well! 

Thanks and praise be to God! Amen! 

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.

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.

Zoom Choir

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

Pardon my train of thought –
 
Try a Google search on the benefits of choral singing. There are numerous articles!

Here are six points made by one article: (Choral singing)

  • Strengthens feeling of togetherness
  • Regulates heart rate.
  • Reduces stress levels and depression.
  • Improves symptoms of Parkinson’s and lung disease.
  • Improves feeling of social well-being.
  • Increases life expectancy (possibly)

These benefits are both physical and emotional. This article didn’t mention the spiritual implications.

As a choral conductor, I want to make our virtual choir practices as ‘real’ as possible so that we can reap the true benefits of singing together.

A saying from the ancient Greeks states:

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Choral musicians can really identify with that statement. I can sing in my home, but it is just not the same as breathing and singing with my people.

For our virtual worship, I have lovingly renamed our church choir ‘Zoom Choir.’

Slowly but surely, we are getting the hang of ‘Zooming.’

Thanks to Greg Platt’s audio mixer, each of us is able to clearly hear our music over Zoom. Participants listen with their head phones on their computers and record themselves singing with their smart phones. Then they send me their recordings.

(I put the audio together. It is more difficult than one might think.)

When you see our Zoom choir sing during virtual worship, I am showing the Zoom video with the ‘put together’ voice recording.

One of the reasons I do it this way is to remind us that although we are separate, we are together.

With Zoom Choir, we are able to have people from all over, singing where they live. We are able to breathe and sing together.

Zoom Choir rehearsals remind me of a business plan called “Distributed Workforce.” I learned about this in TED Talk by Matt Mullenweg.

The plan is that each employee is to work from their own location. Matt is deliberate in NOT using the word ‘remote’ because every location and person is important. 

Each worker brings a different understanding of the culture, people and day-to-day life around them.

This style of business network reminds me of a net, which reminds me of Jesus calling to Peter and Andrew:

“Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Each of us are called to be ambassadors of Christ’s love no matter where we are.

When we ‘gather’ as a church (whether in the building or virtually,) we present ourselves before God and are reminded both who we are and whose we are.

Then, with confidence, we are to go spread the love in Christ Jesus.

There is a lot more that I could write on this subject, but you would be sitting there reading.

Instead, get up and go share the love of Christ with someone.

PS – You are invited to come to ZOOM CHOIR! (Email office@fumcgarland.org for an invitation.)

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