Good Morning, Vermont!

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The new pastor is here! Patti and I arrived in Greensboro full of excitement, anticipation and gratitude. Thanksgiving was a most appropriate season for us to move to Greensboro and to begin serving as pastor of Greensboro United Church of Christ. We are most grateful for those you of who worked so diligently to make the parsonage ready for our arrival. You did a wonderful job. For the many ways you have made us feel welcomed into this community and this church, we thank you.

As I listen to stories about the important work of reflection and self-examination that the congregation has done during the interim time, I am grateful for the ministry of Rev. Rona Kinsley.  Her time here in Greensboro will be a benefit to our congregation for many years to come.

We had our first small group meeting yesterday. We will have two more before this week is finished and there are more opportunities in the following week. The purpose of these meetings is to give me an opportunity to get to know you. If you have not signed up for one already, I hope you will do so in the fellowship hall this Sunday. I am grateful for your willingness to help me get to know you in these small group settings.

Already, we have celebrated the first Sunday of Advent. We are making our way to Bethlehem. In our lives, we are making room for the one for whom there was no room on that long-ago night. As the last few weeks have clearly demonstrated, we live busy and crowded lives. Making room is necessary work. We need to make room, space, time and silence.  There is a child on the way.  God is coming to us, Emmanuel.

Christmas will be here before you know it. While I don’t know all that you have to do to get ready for that day, I hope that you are getting ready to experience again the wonder of God’s presence with you and love for you.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity experience that love and that presence with you.

Joy & peace,

Ed

 

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Thank You, First Baptist Church of Jefferson City.

Today the messengers to the annual meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention voted to not seat the messengers sent to the meeting by the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Tennessee. The overwhelming majority of TBC messengers voted to not seat the messengers from Jefferson City because their church recently called a woman to serve as their pastor.  My personal interest is that I could very well still be opposed to the idea of women pastors if it had not been for the life and witness of a Tennessee Baptist Convention employee.

I enrolled at Roane State Community College for my sophomore year of College. My dad had passed away that summer and staying close to home seemed like a good idea. Before classes started, I had already been introduced to Windie Wilson. She was the BSU Director at the Baptist Student Union at Roane State, a ministry of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. My home church, First Baptist Church of Rockwood, was without a pastor during this time. Somewhere between December and May of that academic year, I realized that the way I thought and felt about women being ministers had changed. I never had any sense that changing my views on women in ministry was Windie’s intention. She was just doing what God had given her to do in that season of her life. She was leading the BSU, doing Bible studies, organizing events, planning mission trips, listening to and loving students. By the time we were packing our bags to head out to our various summer mission assignments, I realized that what Windie had been doing was being my pastor.  Looking back, I am really glad my mind was changed. If it had not been, I might never have married Reverend Patti Sunday-Winters.

Today, I give thanks for all the Tennessee Baptists who had a hand shaping and enriching my journey. At the same time, I pray for the day when all Tennessee Baptists come to understand that God really does mean for our “. . .sons and daughters to prophesy,” and that there really is “. . .no longer male or female: for all of (us) are one in Christ Jesus.” In the meantime, I celebrate the life and witness of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City. The Kingdom of God and all of God’s creation will be better when more of us know what you know. Yes, God does call women to preach and lead churches. Yes, women can tell the story of Jesus in a way that is edifying and formative for those seeking to follow Christ. Yes, women have a voice that ought to be heard, believed and followed. First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, for having the courage and the wisdom to demonstrate the depth, the height and breadth of God’s love, thank you.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving: First Baptist Church of Phenix City

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Last Sunday, I preached for the final time as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Phenix City.  This week, as we transition to a new place of service, I have had time to reflect and to recall the many reasons for which I am thankful to have shared life and ministry with the people of First Baptist.

For an Alabama church willing to call a Tennessean to serve as pastor and decorate the tables at the welcome reception with orange and white,

For a church willing to welcome everyone,

For Country’s, Minnie’s, Chef Lee’s, Ed’s and El Vaquero,

For Bobby, Barbara, Julia, Daniel W, Ben and singers who always sing with heart, soul and voice.

For all the work that so many did to make the parsonage a wonderful place for Patti, Huck, Chloe and I to call home,

For faithful people who always seemed to be there when church was happening,

For merciful folks with loyalties to and love for Alabama, Auburn and Georgia who shared the pain of Tennessee football losses with me.

For the backpacks of food that are packed and delivered each week to help 35 students at Phenix City Elementary have a little extra,

For all the hours of effort and being together to make “The Holy Smoke Barbeque” happen,

For kids, chaperones and weeks spent at PassportKids,

For the sounds and sights that Bryan, Daniel B., Chris and Jeremy brought to us,

For Advent, Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and other special times of worship,

For gifts of food, plants and Diet Coke,

For the times of sharing communion around the Lord’s table and all the other times that the table spoke to us through creative and thoughtful displays,

For baby dedications and baptisms,

For time with Bubba and the youth from Panama City to the Smoky Mountains and lots of cool places in between,

For those who prepared and those who shared breakfast before Sunday School,

For Wednesday mornings at Jack Hughston,

For ministry to families experiencing a housing crisis through partnership with Valley Interfaith Promise,

For special occasions that caused people to mysteriously start singing “Rocky Top.”

For all the times of being witness to amazing outcomes when individuals who were willing to offer what they were able to do in service to God and others,

For being included in family birthday and holiday celebrations,

For church members who became friends,

For every time we gathered in worship to profess our faith in a God who loves us dearly and who always will,

For the future of First Baptist and the promise that it holds,

For these and many other reasons, I am grateful to have served alongside the people of First Baptist to tell the story of a God who loves us all. Amen.

Rush, Reminder & Revival

Monday was my first Martin Luther King Jr. day in Alabama. There was a march this morning. It ended in front of Franchise Missionary Baptist Church here in Phenix City. Before any marchers could be seen from the church, three police officers on motorcycles came into view. The officers were leading the march with their blue lights flashing. I imagine that the same thing was true for parades and marches all over the country today. There were police officers at the front leading the way. While it may be routine now for law enforcement to lead such parades and make sure that they come off in an orderly fashion, such has not always been the case. Their efforts to do so on this day gave me a rush, a reminder and a revival.

The rush was a feeling like the one I get when I see something good and pleasing. It was like the feeling I get when I see a friend or family member that I have not seen in a long time. It may have even approached that feeling I get when I watch a young daughter or son seeing a parent for the first time after a deployment overseas serving our country. The news we hear so often is not good news. Even when we hear good news, there seem to be detractors who try to convince us that it is not as good as we think it is or not good at all. It is possible for us to start thinking that good acts or good words are no longer possible in today’s world. However, good does still happen. I saw it happen as people marched to celebrate progress made and to advocate for even more. I heard it from choirs singing and from a sixth-grader reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The reminder was embodied in the message of the man the day commemorates. Dr. King’s aim in life was not to have a day named after him. His aim was not solely to lead a movement that would achieve civil rights for African-Americans. His focus was larger than that and more profound. Dr. King was a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His concern was for the human race. Like Jesus, he was particularly concerned for those who were poor. He worked on behalf of people, black and white, who suffered in a social and economic system that kept the American dream just out of their reach.

The revival starts when I am mindful of those folks who still live somewhere beyond both the fruits of the American dream and the embrace of Jesus’ just and merciful kingdom. Not just in our country, but in our world there are those who scrape by with inadequate food, water and health care. Jesus had something to say about them. When we see them and give them food, water and treatment, we see Jesus and give him food, water and treatment.

One time a lawyer ask Jesus a question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question still serves as an effective way to shape and form our lives in the image of Christ for the sake of others. Jesus told the lawyer a story about a man who fell among thieves. They beat him and left him to die. A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan passed by where he was laying wounded. One of them stopped to help. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to this man?”

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer forces us to rethink our own answer. Jesus’ answer cuts across boundaries. Human labels and categories do not determine who our neighbor is, at least not as Jesus understands neighbor. Jesus’ approach is simpler. Is the person a person? Is the person created in the image of God? Then the person is a neighbor. Answering the “who is my neighbor?” question is easy for Jesus. The question that is more difficult to answer is implied in the conclusion of Jesus’ story. Will you be a neighbor? Will you be a neighbor to someone different from you?

Dr. King marched to make the neighborhood larger for us all and to show us that there is room for each of us in that neighborhood. I believe he learned about being a neighbor from reading the stories that Jesus told. The Kingdom of God comes near when we recognize the hungering, thirsting, needy Christ in the face of our neighbor. We step into the Kingdom, if for just a moment, when choose to be a neighbor to the person in front us who needs the love and mercy of God.

#PrayingforBoston

Did you find yourself praying for Boston this week? While you were praying for Boston, did you think of Newtown?  As you were thinking of Newtown, did you remember Virginia Tech?  When you were remembering Virginia Tech, did Aurora, Columbine or 9/11 come to mind?

If you found yourself praying, you were not alone. When the news comes that another death-filled event has occurred, instinctively we grieve and we pray for those who have been impacted by the tragic violence. When our prayers are finished and our tears have all been shed, the questions start. Why did this happen?  The explanations, many and varied as they are, are never enough to make what has happened make sense. Somehow someone became hateful enough, angry enough, or mentally deranged enough to think that violence was a good idea. Yes, we can all see that now, but why? As elusive as an answer to the why question is, the answer to the question of whether or not something like this will happen again is painfully obvious. Yes, it will happen.

Our question becomes more pressing once we acknowledge that it could happen again. Our question then becomes: “Could it happen to us? Could it happen to people we know and love?”  Of course, it can happen again and it can happen to us.

Can anything be done to prevent such violence? We would like to think so. We would like to think that law enforcement agencies could be more effective in their task. We would like to think that the people who work in the fields of security and intelligence could make us more secure and better identify potential threats. We would like to think that ordinary citizens would be more diligent in noticing out-of-place strangers doing the unexpected in places where they would not ordinarily be. We would like to think that our political leaders would make reasonable and good laws that would enhance our safety and security. We would like to think all these things and yet we know that a determined person meaning to do evil is not easy to stop.

In light of such sobering reality, what do we expect of people of faith? What do we expect of followers of Jesus Christ? What can we do in the face of evil? We can do what Christ has called us to do, we can love. When violence becomes more and more senseless, we love. When evil seems to surround us like the darkness of the darkest night, we love. When tragedy after tragedy pushes us toward despair, we love. We love because it is what Christ has called us to do.  We love not because it makes sense in a logical, pragmatic way. It does not. We love not because love works in a mechanical or formulaic way. It does not always consistently produce a desired outcome and at times it can seem to produce no results at all.

However, love does work. It works on us. When we love instead of hate we resist becoming the evil that so frightens us. When we forgive instead of letting retribution and revenge take root in our souls we resist becoming the despair and bitterness that nurtures so much of the violence we see in the world. When we show mercy instead of demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, we resist becoming blind to the possibility of new day, a new heaven, and new earth.

We know that we are not living in the world God meant to create. The God who has saved us is the same God who is still reclaiming, reconciling, recreating and redeeming God’s creation. When we love, we join our lives with God who is making all things new.  The agony of the Jesus’ prayer in the garden the night before his crucifixion makes clear the difficulty of choosing to love. The empty tomb on Easter morning makes clear that love is our only hope.

Free at Last

This week marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1969 and I was five years old when I first heard Dr. King’s name. I was sitting in a car listening to a radio report about James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. With the exception of three days in June of 1977, when he and six other inmates made an escape, Ray would spend the remainder of his life at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

When the radio report was complete, an adult in the car said, “I would like to shake his hand.” I remember being uncertain about whose hand was in question, but the conversation that followed among the adults in the car made it clear that Ray’s hand was the one that deserved of a shake. This left me uncertain about what a man might have done that would cause someone to want to shake the hand of the man who had shot him. Up to that point in my life, all the indications I had received were that killing someone was not a good thing to do.

Slowly, but surely over the next several years, I would learn about slavery, race relations, civil rights and the strongly held opinions of people both inside and outside of my family. In college and seminary, I began to see the significance of the role that the church played in motivating Dr. King to do the things that he did. The civil rights movement for Dr. King was an expression of his understanding of the Bible and an outgrowth of his relationship with God. I do not recall many, if any, references to Dr. King’s faith during my growing up years. However, he was a product of the church.  What became the civil rights movement was for him merely doing what God had called him to do as a Baptist, as a preacher, and as a follower of Christ. He was sharing Christ’s love.  Not everyone understood the importance of Christian faith to participants in the civil rights struggle, but Dr. King made the point in a foundational way in his last speech given in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was killed:

Bull Connor (Sheriff in Birmingham, Al) next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.

More to the point of the importance of Dr. King’s faith, as he challenged our nation to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, was the peace and the strength that he found in it in the face of bitter resistance and threats to his life. He obviously spoke out a deep trust in and complete reliance on God that night before he was shot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Let us always choose to love even when others, maybe many others, would choose to hate. Let us have eyes to see all the ways the Lord is coming to us and may the love we share with others be visible sign of the Lord’s coming to them.

Mission Team Report from LaPlace, Louisiana

On August 29, 2012, the home of Valerie and her husband, Wilson, sustained a lot of wind and flood damage as a result of Hurricane Isaac.  In their Saint John the Baptist parish, hundreds of other homes also received flood damage.  Valerie and Wilson moved into their northern LaPlace, LA home about 12 years ago.  During that 12-year period, they never experienced any flooding.

The Mississippi River lies about 2 miles south of Valerie’s home.  Lake Pontchartrain lies about 2 miles to the east, and The Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area lies less than 2 miles north.  Valerie’s home did not flood during Hurricane Katrina 7 years ago, but when Hurricane Isaac churned inland on August 29, it rained for several days over southern Louisiana.  Mass flooding occurred across several river parishes including Saint John the Baptist Parish where LaPlace is located.  In Saint John’s parish more than 3,500 residents were rescued or evacuated, and unprecedented flooding occurred in more than a dozen subdivisions.  Shifting winds whipped up 8-10-foot tidal surges from Lake Pontchartrain.  This surge sent rushing waters into the streets and homes of thousands of residents, many of whom had never experienced flooding before.

New Wine Christian Fellowship Church in LaPlace turned into a staging area where many responders brought residents who were being taken out of Saint John’s parish.  Valerie’s home took on a lot of water which damaged most of her furniture and flooring.  She also needed a new roof.  Water stood for days, and damage was assessed to be in the thousands.

During the week of November 5-9, working under the umbrella of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Ball Camp Baptist Church, Knoxville, TN, worked in LaPlace to help with disaster relief.  Americorps in partnership with New Wine Christian Fellowship, sent our team to Valerie’s home.  Much work was done while we were there, but much remains to be done.  Valerie and her family have been under a lot of stress in past months as she has not been in good health.  She has survived two brain surgeries, and another is soon needed according to her neurosurgeon.  Please don’t forget Valerie and others like her.  In each flood-damaged  home in these river parishes a family resides.  A family undergoing their own unique stresses.  Some have received help.  Some have not.  Volunteers are still needed to work in these areas.  To receive a real blessing, please pray about becoming Christ’s hands and feet in southern Louisiana.

In Christ’s Love,

Ken and Connie Miller

Disaster Relief Coordinators

Ball Camp Baptist Church

Knoxville, Tennessee