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On January 1, 2020, we began a new decade! We celebrated with family and friends and wondered what this new beginning in time would bring. Most of us were likely very optimistic and had no clue of what 2020 would ACTUALLY bring.
I like to think that the craziness of 2020 started for me in February. On Tuesday, February 11th, my dad went to a doctor for the first time in a long time to be formally diagnosed and begin treatments for basal cell skin cancer. By the end of that day, I was working on an e-mail with my senior pastor to send out to the congregation to let them know of what treatment would likely mean for me (lots of traveling to be with family) and I was also informing my District Superintendent (one of my supervisors) of the news. On Wednesday, February 12th, I was going about my regular morning business when I heard my phone ring. It was my District Superintendent. I knew cabinet was meeting...but I had also just told him about my dad. It was honestly a toss up as to why I got the phone call. I answered it and he asked how I was doing. I took a sigh of relief, realizing he was calling to ask about my dad. Then he said, "Well, that's not why I'm calling. Are you alone?" I knew what was happening then--I was being reappointed.
I snuck off to an empty room in an empty building and was told what was going on. "A church has opened up in your home district and the bishop and your new DS and all of us on cabinet think you'd be perfect for this opportunity." They told me all about Centerville and all that they do, especially their focus on children and youth. They were right--it was a great appointment and opportunity for me and my skill set.
I numbly walked to my office and closed the door, taking deep breaths. Within a matter of 24 hours, my world literally turned upside down. Dad's diagnosis was real and he was seeking treatment. He was sick and we didn't know what was going to happen. I was moving. I would be leaving people I had grown to know, love, and care for over the past three years and start all over again. What on earth was happening?!? So much change and transition and anticipation of that change and transition set in. While it was exciting to be reappointed to a church that I knew fit me well, with everything else going on, I just felt overwhelmed. By Sunday evening, I had met everyone in Centerville and made the announcement in-person to our youth and by e-mail to adults. It was official. Oh, and by the way, that Tuesday I got on a plane to go to Universal/Disneyworld for a week! So, yeah, life was a little crazy!
I've never had a "normal" appointment experience, and this would be no different. Sunday, March 15th, was the last "normal" Sunday I would have at Athens FUMC. It was the last time I would preach in all three services in person. It was the last time I would stand in the Revival service that I loved so much. It was the last time I'd start in the Traditional service, quickly finish my sermon and run over to the Modern service. It was the last time I would stand on the preaching riser in the Modern Worship service in front of a group of people. I wish I had known that was the last time--I think I would have cherished that moment a little longer.
The pandemic was in full-swing after that. Nothing was normal. We did online-only worship for nearly two months. I was honestly afraid I would not get to say goodbye (I did, but it wasn't the same as in a non-pandemic time) and I was afraid that I would not get to properly get to know everyone in Centerville (which kind of happened...it has been a much slower getting-to-know-you process than I have wanted!). I began to worry about things I never thought I'd have to worry about and all the while, the picture of life in America was growing dim. People lost their jobs, retirement accounts dropped in value (yours truly included), children were not in school and therefore were not being watched to be sure they were being cared for properly, those in nursing homes suddenly were feeling like they were prisoners, and the joys of life could no longer be celebrated in-person but instead via Zoom. No hugging (honestly, my favorite part of it all--not a hugger!), no handshakes (this one killed me), no close in-person contact. These are just a few examples of how life had changed--there are so many more I could list, but this is a blog, not a book.
It's easy as we look back on 2020 to look at all the negative things that have happened. It's easy to miss out on the blessings we still had throughout the year. I, for one, have many to be grateful for! I got a personal record in the Disney Princess half marathon on that trip to Florida. I completed my first (and let's be real, probably only) marathon! I learned that I have high-functioning anxiety and that there are excellent medicines out there that can help me feel normal. I moved closer to home and into a beautiful home that is probably three times bigger than where I used to live. I am the pastor of an AMAZING congregation of people. I got a dog who has become my whole world. My dad's been going through treatments which includes what we call a miracle drug that has melted years of cancer off of his skin. We even walked a 5K together before Thanksgiving! Speaking of Thanksgiving, I hosted it for the first time ever--that was fun! My brother got engaged to an amazing woman and I finally get a sister and a nephew (officially)!
Don't get me wrong--this year has been tough on us all. But I refuse to let the bad days and the tough moments define the ENTIRE year for me. And I hope you don't let all the negative things let it define the year for you! 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." We are not to dwell on all the negative things, but instead be grateful for the good things around us. Absolutely take time to grieve the losses and change of the year, but don't let that be all you do. Before the year ends, I encourage you to take some time and think about where you have seen God this year and what your blessings have been. If you take the time to focus on gratitude, maybe you won't think this year was a complete waste (even though it sometimes feels like it has been).
But even still, I hope you all have a safe and Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and an even better 2021!
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One of my favorite times each week is getting to help out and volunteer with our Children's Choir group on Mondays. They are all cute and friendly. It is heartwarming when they see your face, known your name, come give you a hug, and want to tell you ALL about their day and what's going on in their lives! It gives me such joy each week to be there and to see each of them, too.
What always amazes me about these precious kiddos is their boldness. They are not afraid to step up and volunteer, even if they don't quite know what they're doing! Each week, we say a prayer for their snack and we say closing prayers. I ask for a volunteer to pray for the snack and Mrs. Lana asks for a volunteer to say the closing prayer. Without fail, any time either of us asks for a volunteer, at least 20 hands immediately shoot up into the air. These kids want to pray! And when one of them is chosen, the others get sad looks on their faces, some complain, some say, "But I never get to say the prayer!" The one who is chosen, of course, gets excited. There is a spark of joy that flashes on their face when they find out they get to pray for everyone! And when they pray, their prayers are perfectly imperfect--sometimes they forget words they wanted to say, sometimes they pause because they are nervous, but each time one of them prays, I can feel the Holy Spirit at work within them and within us.
For some reason, it hit me strongly just how excited kids were to pray. When I asked for a prayer over the snack, a little boy shot his hand into the air and even sat up in his seat to make sure he was the first and most bold kid ready to pray. I let him pray and the smile on his face got 10 times bigger, if that was even possible.
As adults, we have opportunities to pray every single day. Most of them are opportunities to pray silently. However, there are also times we can pray out loud, with others around us. When those opportunities present themselves, we don't typically shoot our hand into the air and say, "I want to pray!" We put our eyes down, we shrink even a little. We get quiet. We don't want to be the one to say the prayer. Somehow, between childhood and adulthood, we learned that prayers have to be perfect. That others will judge us when we say the "wrong" things or when we mess up our words in prayer. So we don't want to be embarrassed. We don't want all eyes on us if we get something "wrong." Somehow, as adults, prayers have become more about perfection and less out what's truly on our hearts.
This is not how God calls us to live. We are not called to wonder what others will think of us if we get it "wrong" when we pray. We are not called to shrink, get quiet, or hide when the opportunity for prayer is there for us. We are supposed to be as bold as the children in Children's Choir, shooting our hands up in the air and with a loud voice declare, "I want to say the prayer!" And then, no matter how "right" or "wrong" our prayer is, use our hearts to say what needs to be said in prayer. I hope that next time you have the opportunity to pray, you don't shy away from saying one out loud. Instead, I hope you boldly say you will pray and then pray from your heart. Be bold in your faith and be bold in your willingness to show it publicly through prayer!
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Ten years ago, I experienced a call from God to start a youth group at my home church. I was 18 (would turn 19 by the end of that summer) at the time and I remember thinking, "Am I qualified to do this with no funding and no help?" So, I got some help! I asked a friend of mine who grew up with me at my home church, as well as her husband, to help lead the youth group. They were on board, the families were on board with us being in charge and bringing their kids to youth...now we just had to make them a place that felt like their own.
In my home church, the basement was traditionally the place where youth were placed (when we had a youth group in my junior high days!). So it was only natural that would be their place again. The problem is, at one point between youth groups, it had been designated as a special event and special meeting room. It had been painted a *lovely* brown/yellow and had small, thin, brown vines by some of the windows. It was clearly not a fun space for youth. On top of that, the furniture in the basement was ancient! The pool table was old when I was in junior high and they had purchased the foosball table (that was beat up like all foosball tables become) when I was in youth. We had brown, metal chairs, chipping paint, and old furniture and items stored in this space. It was covered in dust and dirt.
So transformed the space. We cleaned. We swept. We mopped. We moved things around. But there was no funding for paint at the time. We were going to need some nice, comfy seating for the kids, so we had our pastor at the time announce in church that we were looking for someone to bring an old couch up for the youth.
When we asked for volunteers to give us old couches, we envisioned maybe a member or two getting new furniture and needing to give their furniture to a worthy cause. We envisioned soft, comfortable seating. We imagined clean material. Our hopes were too high.
One Sunday, the three of us walked in to our space to find an old, yellow couch. It was a two-toned yellow--one part had only a semi-dirt-covered yellow and the other had a dirt-covered yellow. It was an old sleeper sofa, but you wouldn't have known by looking at it. When you took the cushions off and pulled the bed out, the mattress was maybe an inch thick, still had old sheets on it, and smelled horribly. Even taking the cushions off was an adventure. Dust flew everywhere. And the cushions had been well used. It was clear this had been in someone's storage shed, untouched for decades.
Perhaps what felt like a kind gesture from a well-meaning member was not received as such (and if you're reading this blog and you're the one who donated it--I'm not trying to say you are a bad person--you probably were truly well-meaning and wanted to see the group start). I remember the kids walking in, saying, "Oooohh, a couch!" They ran over to it so they could jump on it, but upon further inspection, they stopped themselves short and said, "GROSS!!! Why is it so old and dirty?" Their faces fell. They felt what we leaders had been feeling--we felt incredibly discouraged. We knew our church was struggling financially--that wasn't what we were upset about. We were upset that someone thought, "I have an old couch that hasn't been used in decades! It's dirty, it's dusty, and I wouldn't sit on it...but they're kids, they won't care." They did care...and so did we. We would have rather had no couch than have felt as though our youth room was a garbage dump for old furniture others would never sit on themselves again.
I've been thinking about this yellow couch lately. I think it's a good, physical representation of the ways we fall short as Christians. If you're going to believe in and follow Christ, you can't do it half way. You can't join a church and say, "Yes, I commit to giving my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness" and then only pray on Sunday with the pastor, only show up to church for Christmas and Easter, only place some spare change in the plate once in a while, show up to no events or activities, and not share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. When you show up halfway, others notice it. When you only put half of yourself into being a disciple, it's like you're trying to skate in flip-flops or you're trying to cook a steak with no heat. It doesn't work. If you truly seek to be a follower of Christ, to give all that you have, you're going to be there 100%. You're going to give it your all, so much so that everything you do, every decision you make, will be based on where you are in your relationship with Christ.
A couple months after the yellow couch arrived, the married youth leaders helping me brought in their old, sectional couch. It was far from perfect, but it was clean, it was comfortable, and it wasn't so new that the youth couldn't enjoy it. It was perfect and was used for years! For those youth leaders, it was a sacrifice to give their old couch--they could have sold it and made some money for their young family. Instead, they chose to give their all to the youth and give their all to God.
We cannot truly say we are living in a relationship with Christ if we are not putting our all into it. Christ is always all-in. Christ wants the relationship with us! It's us who gets to choose whether or not we will go all-in in return. The easy thing to do is to give a "yellow couch" worth of an effort--enough to say you did something, but not enough to truly benefit you. The more difficult thing to do is to follow God in an "old, sectional couch" way--serving others, sacrificing time you could be on social media to pray instead, give an intentional monetary gift to the church or a charity each month, and volunteer at church or community activities where you can share God's love with others. Following Christ is not easy--it's tough. But it's worth it!