Bethlehem United Methodist Church Building Destroyed by Fire

Last week, this beautiful, historic, rural church building was destroyed by a fire. On Sunday, the congregation met on the grounds for worship.

I’ve found myself thinking about and crying over the loss off and on since I heard the news and saw the terrible pictures of the fire and it’s aftermath. Bethlehem was a part of my life for only two years. However, they were particularly difficult years for me and the people of that church were so gracious. In May, I was privileged to visit Bethlehem with my family at the end of a camping trip. While there, that feeling of grace and love for the people of Bethlehem United Methodist Church was renewed. I can only imagine how painful the loss of there church building is for them.

While I was there, I took a picture of one of my favorite memories of the church grounds: the adjacent cemetery. During my time as pastor at Bethlehem, I learned that its cemetery was as much a place for the living as it was a place for the dead. On warm spring days the children of the church would dart around the headstones playing tag. At Easter, the people processed into the sanctuary from the graves with the Easter Vigil fire, representing the light of the risen Christ. After the Easter Service, the children searched there for candy eggs. Dinner-on-the-grounds, weather permitting, sometimes spilled over onto the edge of the graveyard.

The people of Bethlehem have experienced a death in the loss of their church building. They will spend an indefinite period of time mourning. But their faith will not leave them dead and lifeless. Death is a part of life. Death is a part of creation. Storms happen. Lightening strikes. Fire burns and destroys. Death comes. I do not believe God caused the fire that burned the Bethlehem church building. I do believe that, now that it’s happened, God wants for the people of Bethlehem United Methodist Church the best of all possibilities. God is with them. They will continue to hurt and to mourn, but they will also experience the power of resurrection. They will know new life.

I don’t know what it will look like. Getting there won’t be easy. But I believe with all my being that the people of Bethlehem United Methodist Church will run, play, eat, and most importantly, experience resurrection among the graves once again.

May they know the fullness of the peace of Christ as they move toward the day of resurrection.

Frank on Disciple Bible Study

My partner, Frank, recently spoke to the members of our church at Belmont UMC about his experience leading Disciple Bible Study. His words moved us all. Here is what he said:

My Journey Through Disciple 1
(September 2008 – June 2009)

Last September a small group of us got together for our first meeting of the Disciple I Bible Study. I remember being very nervous. My role was to make everyone feel comfortable in our study of the Bible and to facilitate conversation and learning. I’ve had Bible study with first graders and youth before, but never with other adults.

We began with Genesis and Exodus, reading those wonderful old stories. Then we moved on to Leviticus and Deuteronomy and I admit to sometimes feeling lost during my reading because the histories could be very dry. But then we would get together in class and share our thoughts and feelings and breathe life into the text.

As we moved through the Old Testament, I kept thinking “How do I create conversation on THIS?” “What is it about these Law or these Prophets or these Kings that I’m missing that leaves me feeling like I’m not getting it?” My friends and I met in class on Sunday evenings and we shared some of the same thoughts with each other, we discussed the context of the writings, the authors, the time periods. We attempted to discover what God would have us learn from these ancient writings. What we did learn was the value of perseverance. We learned that sometimes we must just hang on and be faithful.

We created a safe place to share our questions and not feel stupid. None of us felt out of place. Together, we made every question and concern valid. We lifted our hearts to God to bless us as we learned. We prayed that, like the Disciples, we would be filled with the Holy Spirit. And we were.

We found Jesus in the Word, right where he said he’d be, in the gospel, the New Testament. We found him in the nooks and crannies of our Bibles. We found him in the footnotes and the concordances, the commentaries, and even the atlases. Jesus was always there with us.

We read that we didn’t really need to do anything to be right with God, and it is true, we don’t have to do anything to obtain God’s grace. We found that to be of and with Christ, action is a personal imperative.

As we moved through the study, we found that we had become a small community that loved and shared and cared for one another, and we wanted to be a part of the larger church community and love and share and care.

We were needed and missed when one of us was gone. We prayed for each other and called and emailed often. We shared our concerns and prayed continually for our new family in Christ. I imagine we always will.

We made many realizations in our discussions of the scriptures. We found that it wasn’t all Eve’s fault, Adam could have said no, we saw that water is one of God’s favorite things, that fig trees are often abused, and that size really doesn’t matter, especially when it comes to mustard seeds and faith.

We were guided to consider our own spiritual gifts—things that would have never crossed our minds—and we helped each other to understand how they applied to our lives and how God could use us in our local and global communities.

We read, we prayed, we talked, we went down rabbit holes, we chatted, we hugged, we talked some more, we often got off topic and then amazingly got back on track. We cried, we laughed, and we grew into a family.

I would like to refer back to Hebrews 12:1-2. This verse was my epiphany moment when I first joined a Disciple Study five years ago. It reads:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

I stand here grateful and humbled for the opportunity to experience the love and grace of God with these amazing people. Thank you to Rebecca, Grace, Kimball, Laura, Mark, Jeff, and to my brother, Mike. May God bless each of you and all that you do.

Thank you to Lisa, and to you, the congregation of Belmont UMC for your support.

Let us always remember that God loves us. Now let us also love us.

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icanhasgrace? TN Annual Conference Sez DO NOT WANT

Thirty-five annual conferences of the United Methodist Church across the country are voting this summer on whether or not to amend the denominations inclusiveness statement. Here’s what that statement says now:

All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.

Here’s the language Amendment One would introduce:

All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon Baptism, be admitted as baptized members. All persons upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection.

The Tennessee Annual Conference voted 285 in favor of Amendment One and 340 against, a difference of 65 votes. Ouch. I remain grateful that God’s grace continues to flow through other means.

You can get updates about this issue and follow the voting in other annual conferences by clicking here.

And God Said, “Let There Be Brands.”

A Two-Liter Bottle of Coca-ColaThe title of this post comes from my misunderstanding of the concept of branding, mixed with some frustration, anger, fear, and sarcasm. You see, I’m about to lose my job.

On December 31, 2009, the imprint for which I edit books will no longer publish new material. I’m not in full panic mode yet; there are some possibilities for employment that may present themselves before the year-end deadline. However, I watched as coworkers and friends lost their jobs and I imagine we share similar feelings. The loss of a job means more than the loss of financial security, even though that’s a huge concern. Losing a job also brings into question one’s self worth.

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Muddy Water

On the Sunday of our recent camping trip, we decided to go to church at Bethlehem United Methodist Church near Clarksville, Tennessee. I served that church as pastor for two years and it was a joy to worship there once more and to see the people again. It was also heartwarming to watch Sam and Ben remember the place and the people. (Ruth was only two-years-old when we were there before.)

After the service, Jimmy and Miriam invited us to their home for lunch where we ate bbq and fixin’s left over from their son’s graduation party. They set before us enough food to feed twenty people and did their best to catch us up on several years-worth of Bethlehem news. At some point, they introduced us to Muddy Water by Trace Adkins.

The video for Muddy Water was filmed at Bethlehem. As Jimmy talked about what it was like to have a video crew, a well-known actor (Stephen Baldwin), and a country music star (Trace Adkins) descend upon this small country church, I got a sense of the excitement it caused. Eventually, Miriam brought out a laptop, pulled up the video, and we crowded around their dining-room table to watch.

I didn’t listen very closely to the words of the song, but the images of the church, the creek, and the baptism deeply moved me. Adult baptisms don’t happen very often in small, rural congregations. However, I could remember having officiated for at least one baptism while I was at Bethlehem.

As I remember it, after the sermon on the Sunday of the baptism the congregation walked down the road past the cemetery and stood on the bridge overlooking the creek, hymnals in hand. The person being baptized and I walked through the brush to stand on the rocky bank of the creek. I looked up from below and began the ritual:

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Sometimes You Gotta Show Up for Grace

Bible at ChurchI tweeted something this morning along the lines of, “I’m not very excited about going to church today.” Even though I felt that way, somehow we managed to get there. Our commitment to the experience remained low, however, as evidenced in the amount of time we remained standing outside the sanctuary door. Having made it to Sunday school, we stood there before worship, trying to decide if we could make it that one extra hour.

I think everyone over the age of sixteen in our little family unit realized how silly we were being so we decided to stay. Unfortunately, we took so long to decide that we lost our usual seats and had to sit in the balcony. It was like going to a different church.

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