Pastor Joseph's Blog
A local doctor told me the shocking words he heard from a teenager. Living in isolation, the young man attended school virtually. When asked if he had opportunities to meet people, the teenager said he spends his free time playing multiplayer video games with people from around the world; he finished by saying “I have no friends IRL.” “What is IRL?” the doctor asked. “In real life” said the teenager.
We live in anxious isolation. Resentful of masks and curtailed activities, we are impatient. We are advised not to shake hands or exchange hugs with non-family members. We are deprived of seeing smiles behind cumbersome masks. We miss nights out with friends. We know that we may not see people in vulnerable categories for months; worse, the vulnerable exist in domestic bubbles, wary of what may be lurking beyond. We are bereaved of vital community and life-affirming human touch.
A pastor friend shared with me about life for his children after the family moved this summer. His children were in a new school, which is especially challenging for kids in middle school. Along with their bookbags, the students carry their own plexiglass shields. The shields are placed on their desks before each class begins. In such an environment, it is difficult to make new friends or truly experience life with old friends.
In addition to the return to in-person worship for those who choose that, we at Trinity UMC continue to reach out virtually–where people work, pass the time or escape the reality of now. Our virtual ministry inspires hope to those who need it most through the grace of Jesus Christ and can not or do not feel safe to participate in person at this time.
When the pandemic passes, the impact on our world will continue. Jagged and deep will be the wounds that COVID inflicts on the soul and the mind. We will see the scars of those wounds lived out in harmful and abusive ways on both a personal and societal level for a generation. When restrictions finally cease, people will be longing intently for a safe and meaningful community. Many will not have experienced it for a long time (if at all). Some will not know what they missed. Others will be blinded to it by their scars.
We must be ready for “then” just as we are responsive to the “now.” Just as Jesus went to the hungry, the desperate and the lost, we are called to follow him out of the beautiful sanctuaries to the places of brokenness and pain. We will serve God and others from the heart of Sumter in a holy and wholly different way. Will we be ready to walk beside those who have lived isolated in reality or virtually? How will we do that? In the name of Christ, now is the time to pray and discern, plan and dream together…because the church lives IRL.
May God’s Peace Abide,
November 3rd. Just a few days remain until election day. Millions of people have already voted through the early voting option. This has been a contentious and polarizing time in the life of our nation. We can identify the red states and the blue states and the news channels that each side watches. Few people are undecided about their vote (or, they are not indicating they have a preference).
Surely, politics has been a blood sport at periods throughout American history (look at the early nineteenth century and the rise of political parties through John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s feud). The strength of the American republic and the democratic freedoms enshrined in our constitution brought balance even during the wobbly times of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and McCarthyism. This may be an unsteady time unlike any period in our history. My faith is in the American people and their resilience. Democracy will survive the challenges before us.
The problem of division goes deeper than a preference for one candidate or platform against another. Public dialogue on social media reflects this chasm. Just because we see it there doesn’t mean that social media is the cause of it all. Twitter, Facebook and other applications amplify the fear and doubt that dwells deep within us. COVID isolation has not helped. If we are not careful, our fear of the stranger will morph into hate for the one who looks different, the one who is not from around here, the one whose thinking or habits contrast with our own.
Our fears affect what we buy, how we vote, and whom we befriend. Fear mars our souls and diminishes our trust in God. It robs us of the God-given inheritance of joyous love we graciously receive as the children of God. It fools us into believing that we control life through the strength of our locked doors, our FDIC insured accounts, and our noted accomplishments.
What is the answer? How do we move through this wobbly, distressed time? Answers are not easy. Each one of us cannot control the world by ourselves; we can only change the space between our ears and the practices of our day. As a person of faith, I will dance with the One who brought me this far, for grace will lead me home. I will pray for courage in proportion to the gift of my daily bread. I will look less at small screens and look more in the eyes of those around me–especially into the mask-wearing faces I see beyond my isolation. I will behold those beyond my circle as wonderfully made brothers and sisters of Christ, not as anonymous and forgotten samplings of someone’s demographic pie chart. I will claim the first words the angels spoke to the shepherds on a bleak night outside of Bethlehem. I will repeat them and share them as a holy refrain and a divine reminder on uncertain days and fearful nights:
What will you do?
August 25, 2019. It was the Sunday Trinity’s new scouting ministry was introduced to the congregation. That morning in worship the Scouts and Scouting leaders stood at the front of the congregation and we blessed them for this renewed ministry in the life of the church. The congregation applauded this next exciting chapter in the ministry of Trinity. Our District Superintendent, the Rev. Dr. Robin Dease, preached that morning as she was with us for this and another important and historic event.
The date stands out because it was the culmination of over a year’s worth of work for the Long Range Planning Committee (LRP). In that time, committee members met, planned and prayed. They interviewed principals from area high schools and college presidents, community elected leaders, persons from the neighborhoods around the church, as well as law enforcement leaders. All of this was done to give the committee a picture of life in Sumter-its needs and its blessings. Through these interviews as well as data gathered from the congregation, its history, and the present, the committee prayerfully worked on a vision statement that reflects our heritage and our call. In response to the data and observations they discerned five areas for the church to focus upon for the next five years.
When this was completed, Tyler Brown, chairperson of the Long Range Planning Committee and members of the committee held educational and conversational sessions in the chapel to explain the plan. During these sessions church members were encouraged to ask questions and to learn about the LRP process and the outcome which would become the missional vision for Trinity. Persons interested in volunteering in the areas of emphasis were encouraged to sign up. Next, the church council voted unanimously to approve and adopt the plan and referred it to a church conference. A church conference provides an opportunity for all professing members of the church to vote. On August 25, 2019, the church conference of Trinity UMC, in a meeting held after worship, voted unanimously to adopt the Long Range Plan.
Although COVID may have slowed down our LRP implementation, even now your church leaders are working on the next phases of the Long Range Plan, in the five areas specified, to include: communication, children and youth, hospitality and welcome, connection and fellowship, and mission partnerships. Committees that were formed out of the need to successfully live out the plan that was adopted are beginning to regroup and remind themselves of the mission and the action items to which they were tasked. A task force appointed by the Finance Committee is working with all areas of the church to put together a budget for 2021 that reflects the vision and mission provided in this plan. It is our goal going forward to have all that we do in discipleship, stewardship, education, evangelism, fellowship and all aspects of ministry at Trinity align with the vision that we have discerned is God’s purpose for our church for such a time as this.
Take a moment to remind yourself of and pray about how you will be a part of living out our Long Range Plan as we begin again to live into who we are called to be together as the Body of Christ at Trinity UMC in Sumter.
You can find a copy of the plan as it was adopted on August 25, 2019 on the new church website by following this link: http://trinityumcsumter.umcchurches.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/TUMC-Long-Range-Plan-Final-Approved.pdf
“Christ invites to his table all who love Him…” The last time I presided at the Lord’s Table was Sunday, March 1 at Trinity UMC. It is always a good and joyful thing to gather around the Table and share Holy Communion. It was the first Sunday of Lent, a feast of grace in a penitent season. Who knew that would be our last time around the Table for months?
COVID came. We all withdrew to isolated places and anxious spaces. We were robbed of one of the greatest gifts of the Christian community: fellowship. We missed being in Sunday School classes; we missed singing the songs of faith; we missed extending and receiving the right hand of greeting in the aisles and hallways of our local church. As the weeks passed, we discovered something else we hungered for–Holy Communion.
Yes, there are digital alternatives for Holy Communion that have been adopted in this crisis. The Holy Spirit can certainly bind us together over the internet as surely as any place else. The church universal will have to wrestle with the doctrine and practice of Holy Communion in a post-COVID world. I suspect the use of the common cup and loaf will fade with the heightened anxiety about viruses and germs.
I don’t think it was the common “matter” of Holy Communion that people missed; it was the common moment. The moment when we gathered with others. The hearing of the live, unified response of the people…”Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might…” That sacramental moment when the words of institution are shared and there is the realization that grace has come in this common and shared moment. Holy Communion is not a private meal. It is a sharing of the faith, hope, and life of the church found in Jesus Christ.
How can we safely return to the common community of Holy Communion? The leadership at Trinity UMC is thinking about this in a new way. We will celebrate Holy Communion outside, at the base of the steeple each Wednesday evening at 6pm. We observe social distancing, wear masks, and take prepackaged elements. I will also be available to come to an outdoor gathering of families, Sunday School classes or just plain friends at a mutually convenient time. Already, I have presided at three such gatherings. We prayed the ancient liturgy again, of the presider and people. Together, we were blessed by grace and by seeing and hearing each other.
We are not without hope. We are not alone. For we are “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry until Christ comes and we feast at His heavenly banquet.” We have this in common, together.
We are accustomed to bible heroes being people of sterling faithfulness and character. Then there is Jacob. You remember Jacob. He is the guy who made a great pot of chili to swindle his older brother Esau out of his birthright. He is the one who tricked his blind father by impersonating Esau and stole the family blessing. He’s the one that hears God at Bethel make a covenant with him, to always be with him. Jacob’s response is conditional; telling God that “if” God does these things, he would worship him. In today’s reading, Jacob the trickster finally gets his comeuppance; he is tricked by a master manipulator, his Uncle Laban.
That makes for an entertaining story. Yet, it is also a tragic story that reminds us of the heartbreaking status of women thousands of years ago. Women were property without voice or agency and served as living tokens in the schemes of men; Laban uses his daughters to get 14 years of servitude from Jacob. It is the time when men could have multiple wives.
This is a scripture about high expectations. Jacob expected, after seven long years of servitude to Laban, to marry Rachel, the love of his life. Leah, Rachel’s oldest sister, the one who was supposed to be married first, expected to gain the unconditional love of Jacob with the cover of veils, alcohol, and darkness. Meanwhile, in another tent in the family compound, what were Rachel’s expectations as she spent that dark night in teeth-gnashing anguish and heartache? It was a night of deceit and blind assumption.
In the dim light of the dawn, the dagger of disappointment cuts deep into their souls. In Jacob’s face, Leah sees that although she was the first to be married, she is not first in Jacob’s heart. Jacob, the trickster, is the victim of a grand deception and Rachel is not his wife. Rachel’s anguish is amplified by the bind of protocol and propriety. Jacob is not her husband.
But have we not had our own share of grand expectations forged in the fires of denial and pride? Who has not looked through the eyes of love while dating, and believed if you could just be married to that one who is the apple of your eye, you would live in wedded bliss forever? Or if I could just get that perfect next job, get that fantastic promotion, or get into that favorite school, I would be set. If I join the right church, I can be content spiritually. Everything will work out, life will be excellent after that.
In the harsh dawn of disappointment, Leah, Rachel, and Jacob, feel what we have come to know all too often: bitter disappointment and the pain of unrealized expectations. Throughout life, we experience hurt and anguish when life doesn’t go as expected. Marriage is not always a rose garden. Our relationships with family members can be a roller coaster of miscommunication and competing, sometimes conflicting, expectations. Once the novelty wears off, the dream job or the dream house comes with another set of problems and challenges. We experience disappointment with our church, with ourselves and the things we do or fail to do.
We have experienced a different level of disappointment and frustration in 2020. We thought things would be closer to normal by now; that COVID would be conquered. We are disappointed by our civic leadership for not doing what we think they should do. We are disappointed by our fellow citizens for either their perceived callous disregard for health and safety, or on the other side, their denial of the importance of the economy. We are disappointed that we cannot do the things we want now. Disappointment looms with questions about resuming school, in-person worship, and what the economy is going to do. We do not move through life from peak to peak without experiencing the valleys in between.
Disappointment leaves us sad and angry. It robs us of trust in those that we love. It drains our confidence in ourselves. Disappointment blinds us to the fullness of life and robs us of the life abundant that Christ died and rose to give us. As a result of disappointment, sometimes we withdraw or run away in anger or frustration. Jacob could have done that. Sometimes we stay in place and cut ourselves off from those who disappoint us. Rachel and Leah could have given each other the silent treatment–making it awkward for everyone around them.
Perhaps this scripture offers us a word about what to do when things don’t happen the way we like, when our expectations aren’t met, when disappointment is the theme for the day or the season of life. In that dawn of disappointment long ago, a word comes from the most unlikeliest of sources: Uncle Laban. It is a word that is meant to serve his own selfish purpose, but it is a word that in our times of disappointment we need to hear:
“Wait” “ Wait a week, Jacob, you will get Rachel too.”
The word that we need to hear in our disappointment is Wait. Stick around. Have patience. Sit tight. Maybe it is not Rachel we will get, but something else.
In other words, don’t let your disappointment with its waves of anger and sadness, drive you to cut and run or stay and sulk. In his moment of disappointment, Jacob had to wait and trust God and be faithful to where God led him across the desert 500 miles to see Rachel at the well watering the flock in the first place. Depend on the fact that God knows what God is doing…be faithful to where the Lord has led you. Be true to what you have been called to, to the vows you took, even though you can go back later and say I did not know all the details or the bottom line at the time.
In our deepest disappointment, be assured that the place you find yourself could be exactly where God has been leading you all along. Trust that the God of the Universe is working to bring about glorious and blessed things that are not yet revealed to you or anyone else. Disappointment is not the last word.
As it turns out, Jacob had 12 sons who would be the fathers of the tribes of Israel and Judah; Rachel gave birth to only two of those sons. Imagine the loss of our faith legacy if Jacob had stormed away from Leah. Sometimes in the dawn of disappointment, we realize the place of our true contentment and fulfillment comes as a result of working things through in the place where we are. That means not giving up when we are disappointed or when things do not go as expected.
With the experience of life we learn that disappointment, as well the notions of what is ideal and perfect for us, usually exist only in the six inches between our ears. As long as human beings are involved, there is no perfect church, or job, marriage, or country. Our disappointment reveals this more often that we like to admit. Disappointment is an invitation to wait, trust, and persevere in the name of God; it is a holy summons to move and to act with Godly direction rather than with our own unrealistic notions of what is ideal. In God’s time, the blessing will unfold and be revealed more fully; the next step forward will become apparent. It may not be what you expect. No doubt, we will again know the dawn of disappointment. Disappointment is an invitation to trust God and to move forward past our imperfect expectations.
It is a rough spot on our journey. It is not our final destination.
May God bless you in the dawn of your disappointment that you may move closer to God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus.
As March 15 was Trinity’s last in-person worship service, I want to offer four insights to the congregation and how we have adapted (and thrived) in the pandemic.
First, we have found ways to stay connected with one another. Through cards and calls, we have rediscovered the foundational relationships as the church. I hear stories of how people have reached out to one another. In some cases, we did not know the person we called or who called us; nevertheless, the covenant of connection bloomed. In isolation, we have bridged the distance between us.
Second, we have utilized technology for glorious purposes. Trinity’s worship service has been broadcast live on the radio for years. Recently, the local FTC channel started broadcasting our 11AM service a couple of times a week. Since March 22, we have used Facebook live as an online presence; we are now able to put the worship service on the new church website. We have had people from as far away as California and Illinois watching as well as local people who are not connected to Trinity. When this crisis is over, seekers can discover more about Trinity and feel comfortable when they walk through the door. Charles Haraway and Kyle Kelly have been instrumental in leading us in these changes.
Third, we have found other portals to make our offering to God through Trinity UMC. Historically, most of the weekly offering comes through the offering plate on Sunday. Checking account drafts and checks mailed directly have been favored by many church members over the years. Since the church has not met for in-person worship on four Sundays, more members and friends have discovered our online, text, and phone app portals for giving. Although there are fees associated with these methods, they do make giving easier for some. Regardless of how you give, thank you! Trinity is furthering our God-given ministry because of your gifts.
Fourth, the Trinity UMC staff, leadership and congregation have stepped up and shined this spring. Gwen, Kristi, Amanda, Charlie, Earl, Beth and Sherry have worked to make this chaotic time as smooth as possible for the church. Some staff have been “redeployed” to cover immediate concerns the crisis has brought; others worked on backlogged tasks more easily addressed in an empty building. Church committees and officers are attempting to contact active and local church members on a regular basis to stay connected in this crisis. But the people who have thrived best in these trying days are you, the members and friends of Trinity. Your resilient spirit anchored in your faith has been a living testimony; I experience that in the phone calls and emails I have shared with many of you. You are quick to offer help to others in need and to pray for one another in this crisis. Your prayerful support buoys the work of the worship leadership as we work each week in an empty sanctuary. By God’s grace and your loving and abundant response, I believe we will emerge as a stronger congregation on the other side of this tragedy.
I am honored to be your Pastor.
Grace and Peace,
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 28:1-2
“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”
The details of the Gospels are fascinating. Whereas Mark’s Gospel is sparse, Matthew’s Gospel offers intriguing and extended narration. In Matthew, the women go to the tomb of Jesus and face formidable barriers in the guards patrolling the tomb’s perimeter as well as the heavy stone sealing the tomb’s entrance. The obstacles would be too powerful for the women. Suddenly, there was a great earthquake and an angel, who looked like lightning, rolled back the heavy stone. The angel then leisurely sits on the stone, thereby drawing our eyes to that angelic resting place. The Guards faint in fear at the appearance of the angel.
Can you imagine? This awesome display of light and power, and the angel finishes it with a relaxed demeanor atop the stone that had formerly sealed the tomb. Whether the rock of the stone was igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary, now it had holy purpose serving as a place of angelic proclamation. That stone had once been a sturdy barrier; now, it was a living pulpit where the Good News was proclaimed. That stone had once sealed in the dead; now, it served as a springboard to eternal life. From that perch, the angel tells the women that Jesus is no longer in the tomb; they are told to go tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that he will meet them in Galilee. The seated angel drains the dreaded rock of its dark symbolism.
In our lives, we will face our share of daunting impediments to joy and the fullness of life. We confront stones blocking us from a holy way forward; we encounter stones that seal us away in the dead places of our own making, depriving us of Light and Life, hope and love. Like the women on their way to the tomb of Jesus, we wonder who will remove the obstacles, lest we have to turn around and live in strife and misery.
Today is Easter Sunday. Today is the day when what was an obstacle – a cross, a stone, a bad habit, a hidden sin, a deep fear, or an empty life can be transformed by the power of the Risen Lord, who conquered the greatest obstacle of all– death. We worship the Risen Lord who moves stones and transforms lives, and who makes our stumbling blocks become stepping stones. On this Easter Sunday, may God roll away the obstacles of your life and transform them into holy vantage points, showing you the way to life– abundant and eternal.
Have a blessed and Happy Easter Season!
Rev. Joseph James, Jr.
Senior Pastor, Trinity United Methodist Church
Infinite God of Time,
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” We have claimed those wise words in more finite days. Times when we were able to look back at the eras and epochs of human life. We asserted them at the transitions of our lives, funerals and graduations, baptisms and weddings.
Eternal God of past, present, and future: We are in a stuck season, a frozen moment when the days crawl and the weeks seem like months. We understand in very small measure when the Psalmist said, “a thousand years are like a day.” We escape into a digital world, a place to flee the news and our neighbor. We connect virtually and safely to learn, worship, and make a living. But we were not created to live alone, without the challenging though comforting connection to one another, a connection that cannot thrive at a social distance.
Lord, forgive us for what we have taken for granted in seasons past. The times we could have gone to church but wouldn’t; the times we could have affirmed with a hug or handshake but didn’t. Forgive us for the times we took for granted full grocery shelves and a simple visit to someone in the hospital.
We are thankful for the simplicity of this time, a time when we have discovered yet again, what is true and what is real. We have recognized what we can do without and what is indispensable. We have learned again that little things matter. A microscopic being, a billion times smaller than us. can kill and wreck the world. A phone call, a letter, or chalk on the sidewalk mean more than we can say.
Comfort us in these endless days of loneliness and unpredictability. May we find abundance of life in this season of uncertainty. God, in your mercy, grant us a new day, a new season, free of this plague. Amen.
Lent reminds us that we will never truly understand the depths of the love, grace, and sacrifice of the Cross of Cavalry. But this Lenten season, we have moved a modicum closer. World events have made this move painful and poignant. Pestilence is no longer an old testament problem, but a part of life in 2020.
Lord, we are ready for Easter now.
Fears of Deprivation, isolation, immunosuppression, and depression cloud our conversation and rob our peace of mind. The numbers flashing on the side of a screen of the infected and dead are so commonplace and anonymous that we lose sight of the worth of every single soul known intimately by You.
Lord, we are ready for Easter now.
The nagging questions of “how long?” and “how bad?” and “what’s next?” have no human answers.
Lord, we are ready for Easter now.
We lament that we will not gather as communities of faith as scores of generations past, kneeling next to strangers and friends around the Table, sharing the common cup and partaking of the fragmented and common loaf. We are saddened by the realization that we will not come together on Easter Sunday in the sanctuaries of our choosing. We will not hear the full church singing Alleluia on April 12 and see the arrangement of lilies.
Lord, we are ready for Easter now.
Console us in our fear and anxiety and hopelessness. Strengthen our hope and understanding that Easter is more than a date or a season that passes yearly. May we be your Easter people, raising our voices in times of fear and doubt, being the hands and feet of Jesus and filled with the Spirit in the places bereft of hope. In the depths of Lent and in the circumstances of life, Your ever-present love offers humanity new life and a new future from the brokenness of now.
Lord, we are Easter ready now. Amen.
God of the Wilderness Journey, Like so many of your people throughout time, we are in a season in between. We are a Holy Saturday people, stuck on the boundary of what was and what is yet to be. As the Israelites wandered, not knowing how long they would travel in the wilderness, so too do we wonder about how long the spectres of uncertainty, anxiety and the viral shadow of death will plague us.
In this place and time in between the comfort of the past and the resolution of the future, hear our prayers:
May our leaders have the wisdom and the servant heart of Moses, offering us wise and helpful words with a united voice.
Protect and strengthen your agents of healing in hospitals and private homes, drive-thru test sites and residential care facilities. Bless them despite the chaos and danger of these days.
Guard and guide those who manufacture medical supplies, those who produce and package food and the necessities of daily living, and those who transport these life protecting and life sustaining items.
Preserve and favor the front-line clerks, and cashiers, those who stock the shelves and those who cook and deliver our food; give them patience with us and strength for the task at hand. May we advocate for them a living wage in this time of crisis and beyond.
Be with those who are sick and dying as well as those who love them. We pray for the families of the dead in this tender time of grief.
This boundary in between is not the thin line of a map, O Lord. Nor do we move quickly through it. Sustain us, O Lord. Uphold us with the daily manna of hope realized in the tiny moments of our days. Connect us in our isolation, so that we do not falter but thrive together. Give us patience and persistence to make it through this time in between.
For thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever, amen.
Dear TUMC Family,
The CDC has recommended that all gatherings of 50 or more people be cancelled or postponed. If at all possible, any events of ANY size should be modified into virtual formats to protect vulnerable populations. In light of these recommendations, and out of an abundance of caution for our community and members, we have decided to cancel all gatherings at church for the coming week.
We will not have:
- Wednesday Communion
- Wednesday Night Supper
- Beyond Sunday Choir/ Bell Practice
- Scout Meetings
- Shepard Center
- Bible Studies
- Sunday Early Service
- Sunday School
- Sunday Lenten Supper & Service
For this coming Sunday (3/22/20), we will have our 11:00am Service, but only those crucial to the service should be in attendance. We ask that everyone else worship from home. The service will stream via Facebook Live as we did last week, and we will be on the radio as usual. The Sunday Bulletin will also be posted prior to Sunday morning. If you miss the live service, a full recording will be available on Facebook immediately after the service ends and the sermon recording will be on our YouTube channel by Sunday afternoon.
The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still -Exodus 14:14
By not gathering, we are doing our part to slow the spread of Covid-19, so that if our members and community are severely affected by this virus, our healthcare system will be able to accommodate them. This is why we must be church, even though we are not in the church.
Let each of you look not only into his own interests, but also into the interests of others – Philippians 2:4
During this time of isolation, quarantine and social distancing, we are reaching out to our older members to make sure they know we are here for them. We will be contacting them in the coming days to make sure they are well stocked with food and supplies and to offer them fellowship and connection even if we can not do so in person. Please call the church if you know of a member that may need us to reach out. We may not be together, but we are not alone