Pastor Joseph's Blog

From the Pastor’s Study – August 4, 2022

Recently, I read Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor: A Memoir, and saw a practice that helped his congregation immensely. His Maryland congregation already mailed a weekly newsletter complete with financial reports, upcoming events, and opportunities for service. As Pastor, he included a weekly column with a paragraph or two. In talking with members of the congregation, he discovered that his column was often lost or overlooked in all of the much needed information the weekly newsletter contained. His words of spiritual counsel did not always blend well with the other items passed along to the congregation.

Peterson arranged for a weekly letter to the congregation that was mailed closer to Sunday. This method of pastoral communication allowed space to address deeper spiritual issues and equip the congregation more fully for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. Peterson had a team of church volunteers to help him with stuffing the envelopes and mailing the letters. Would such an effort be fruitful for us? I am willing to experiment to find out. I want to write about the common spiritual issues and questions we face as human beings and less about what is happening at Trinity. I want to offer a pastoral perspective, born of the experience of daily life. If you have a question about faith or the challenges of the spirit that you face, please call or email me. Amanda tells me that the email that is sent with the weekly note can be configured so that you can reply directly to me (but not to everyone on the list) with questions or comments.

See you Sunday,
Joseph

Scripture Lesson for Sunday, Aug 7, 2022
Luke 12:32-34
Questions to ponder and prepare as you read the scripture:

  1. What does it mean to “make purses for yourself that do not wear out”? (12:33) “Fear not” and “do not be afraid.” What other places and times have we heard these words in the scriptures?
  2. What is the treasure of your life?

Trinity Scholarship Fund

United Methodists value education. South Carolina Methodists started Columbia College, Claflin College, Spartanburg Methodist College, and Wofford College. United Methodists from throughout the state work together to fund scholarships to defray college and seminary costs through our missional apportionments. Trinity’s college students at Wofford have benefited from the Dollars for Scholars program. There are over a dozen United Methodist seminaries in the United States. We support higher education with our work with Africa University. United Methodists develop minds through education as well as nurture souls through the ministries of the local church.

Trinity is part of this grand heritage. Now, we break new ground to move to a new area of focus. We extend that commitment to education through the Trinity Scholarship program which benefits Trinity scholars in the realm of higher education. For decades, a fund designated for scholarships and educational assistance has been dormant in the church’s treasury. The missions committee saw the account and organized to meet the need. Proceeds from the scholarship fund will assist four students with higher education costs in the 2022-23 school year. This past Sunday, we recognized Christopher Roberts, Samara Castleberry, Rachel Headden, and Wesley Castleberry.

Other leading United Methodist churches have established an endowment fund that assists not only church members, but also community youth as well as students who are coming out of Epworth Children’s Home and making the transition to college. My hope is that Trinity will lean into such a commitment in order to benefit generations to come. What will be your role to carry on the tradition of valuing education? Please consider making a donation to the Trinity Scholarship fund.

Rev. Joseph R. James, Jr.

Wednesday, March 23rd

Last week, I received an email from Chaplain Bill Jewell, a chaplain at the Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, part of the MUSC system in Charleston. Chaplain Jenkins wrote:

“I came across the wooden crosses in cloth bags with your church’s name and information attached with it. I wanted to share that there have been several families that have appreciated being able to take and hold these crosses during their stay here at Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. I have set out the last of the ones that I have come across, and wanted you to know both that they have been so appreciated, and that they would be happily accepted if you were to send more of them.”

This week, our mission team in Guatemala has over two dozen clutch crosses to hand out to the sick and those in need. Think of the ways the work of volunteers here in Sumter are making a difference for Christ among those who are dealing with challenging times at different places among people we do not know. Our supply of clutch crosses is almost diminished. Are we up to the challenge of making more? Surely, there are carpenters who can cut the cypress wood; others who could prepare the bags, and still others to stuff the bags. Surely, there are people who will pray over each bag. Certainly, all of us can take a clutch cross in the bag with us, put it in a desk drawer at work or in our vehicle, and give it to someone when the opportunity arises.

For more information and to volunteer, I invite you to contact Lynwood Griffin, our clutch cross coordinator, at 1- (910) 237-7619. Trinity UMC, you are making an impact on the world beyond our walls. Thanks be to God.

Peace,

Joseph

Trinity’s Missions in the World (March 2022)

The world is a very big place. It is difficult to envision the distances between points on the globe. Then there are the many cultural differences in the big world. Culture is influenced by geography, history, climate, and many other factors. Our understanding of others is limited by our own experiences and understandings. When Trinity speaks of its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and of its vision of serving God and others from the heart of Sumter, we often think about our neighborhood, our zip code, or city.

However, Trinity UMC Sumter has three opportunities right now to serve others from the heart of Sumter to other points on the globe:

First, we are sponsoring a 13-member mission team to our partners in ministry, Rev. Dr. Luke Rhyee and Healing Guatemala. Our mission team flies out this Saturday (March 19th) to Guatemala for a medical and construction mission. They will be traveling to rural villages providing healthcare to those in need. Trinity has been very generous in their sponsorship of this mission. On the last mission in 2020, there was a significant impact on the ministry in Guatemala as well as on the missioners who made the trip.

Here are the missioners I ask you to pray for:

Mitch Grunsky

Jere Pound

Paige Gregory

Erica Boland

Honey Dawn Chapman

Dave Whaley

Meg Creech

Richard Murrell

Gray Maklary

Brian Hardee

Jessica Hardee

Fede Apencia

Rachel White

We will pray for them in their work until they safely return.

Second, as the war in Ukraine continues to rage, people are displaced, injured, and killed. It ranks as a European humanitarian tragedy as great as World War II. The United Methodist Church, through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), is bringing aid to the refugees and those under siege in Ukraine. Our prayers are one of the best ways for us to focus our efforts. We give our prayers legs by giving donations for relief. If you would like to give for this effort through Trinity and UMCOR, please write “Ukraine” on the memo line of your check or envelope. Remember, 100% of your donation goes directly to this effort.

Third, as a connectional church we work with other United Methodist churches around South Carolina and the world offering relief, scholarships, covering denominational administrative costs, and focusing mission efforts and resources. Our part in this effort comes through our 2022 missional apportionments. For 2022, Trinity will contribute $77,234 for mission and ministry beyond our local church through the United Methodist connectional system. We do this because together, we as individual churches can do more. We do this because we serve God and others from the heart of Sumter

Peace,

Rev. Joseph R. James, Jr.

Senior Pastor, Trinity UMC Sumter

Thursday, March 3, 2022 – Lenten Additions

It is a tradition of Lent to “give something up” until Easter. I have heard of people giving up cheeseburgers or coffee or chocolate. Some decide to give up social media or television. The idea is that in the space (or the cost) of that which was given up, we will use the time for prayer or reading scripture.

We reallocate the money we would have spent on our habit to the church or to a charity. On Easter Sunday we once again pick up those habits and go about our lives.

What if rather than giving something up, we added something? What if we added value to others through acts of kindness or generosity?

Here are a few things to think about adding that can make a difference in the lives of those around you.

  1. Make a Gratitude List: Write each day in a journal or notebook 5 things for which you are thankful.
  2. When standing in line at the drugstore, the grocery store, or in any other line, pray a silent prayer for those working behind the counter, and for those in line with you.
  3. At the end of each day, take three minutes to reflect on the ways you saw God work in your life that day.
  4. Call or text someone in your contact list or address book who you have not spoken to in a while. Pray for them as you dial or text.
  5. Introduce yourself to a neighbor on your street that you have not met.
  6. Buy at least one extra can of food each week to donate to a food bank
  7. Take a dessert dish to a neighbor.
  8. Find a way to care for creation: pick up trash along the road, put the bird feeder out.
  9. Write a card to a family member or friend and simply sign your name. Pray for them as you seal the envelope.
  10. Walk a dog at the local shelter.

Prayer: Almighty God, we walk this Lenten journey with you in small and large ways. Grant us grace to love others in small and large ways in your name.

Amen.

Rev. Joseph James, Jr.

Trinity UMC Senior Pastor

Parts of Our Worship Service – “The Gathering”

Over the next few weeks, I will offer a column explaining the various parts of our 11:00 AM worship service. The United Methodist Book of Worship is the basis for what is offered here.

Trinity uses an order of Sunday worship using the basic pattern (That pattern can be found on pages 3-5 of the United Methodist Hymnal).

The first “element” of our worship service is known as the Gathering. The worship service begins as people come into the sanctuary. As people enter, it is a time of conversation and fellowship. We are coming together as a community of faith.

The carillon offers hymns from the speakers in the steeple on Sunday morning. This is a historic way of calling the community to worship. At about 10:50-1055 AM, a musical selection of the organ, piano, or strings or a combination of these is given. I encourage us to use those moments for quiet meditation or prayer so that we may prepare our hearts for worship.

At the conclusion of the musical offering, we welcome all to worship and two or three announcements and/or parish notices are given. At the conclusion of these announcements, the prelude is offered. The prelude is meant to be another opportunity for private prayer.

The Call to Worship or Greeting comes next. It can be as simple as a scripture sentence, or a responsive act between a worship leader and the people. The ringing of the chimes (three tones) precedes a congregational hymn. As the Book of Worship reads, “The people, having been greeted in the Lord’s name, may return the greeting to God with a hymn of praise.” In pre-COVID days, this was also the processional hymn for the acolyte, the crucifer, the choir and the clergy to enter the worship space.

Next week, we will learn more about the prayer of confession and the words of assurance.

Joseph R. James, Jr.

Welcome Back Sunday 2021

Since March of last year, the COVID virus has taken the wind out of the sails of many churches and institutions. Trinity, like many churches, cancelled in-person and all other church related activities. Yet, by the grace of God, we were still able to broadcast our services on the radio; we adapted and began to livestream our services on Facebook and eventually the church’s website. The church updated the audio-visual technology and thereby our media ministry. These ministries bless the Sumter community even as we are now back to in-person worship. Over the past year and a half, Trinity has continued to adapt, overcome, and thrive. God has blessed us greatly. The stained glass windows have been restored and cleaned; the nursery has been renovated; we hired Rachel White as our director of youth ministries and the youth ministry has flourished; because of the work of Duke Divinity intern, Jay Punt, the church saw what was possible for children’s ministry and has taken steps to hire a full time children’s minister.

This coming Sunday is “Welcome Home, Trinity” Sunday. It is a Sunday we normally celebrate the end of summer and the beginning of our new program year. For me, it is so much more this year. It will be a time for congregational thanksgiving for God’s blessing and guidance of Trinity from March 2020; it will be a time for congregational fellowship so that we can see people we may not have seen over the course of the pandemic. Finally, it is a token of appreciation for you, the members and friends of Trinity. Your energy and devotion to God through this great church has not diminished despite the substantial challenges before us. Thank you, Trinity. Thank you for your perseverance, your faith in God and one another. Thank you for deliberately fulfilling God’s mission for this great church in the most adverse of times.

I look forward to seeing you next Sunday, August 29 at 10:30am on the east lawn near the columbarium. Bring your stadium chairs and tailgate tents. We will serve box lunches following the service. In case of inclement weather, we will meet in the Williams Brice Center.

May God Bless Trinity UMC- her mission, vision, and future.

Joseph James

Making Visitors Feel Welcome

Recently, I read this helpful list for church members as we welcome guests. I hope it is helpful to you as well.

  • Every church member is a host and not a guest. Making visitors feel welcome is primarily the responsibility of members, not the nebulous “church.”
  • The most important person for a visitor to talk to in order to feel at home in a new church is you. It is not the pastor, or the greeter, but a regular attender. Eshleman says “One of the most impressive gestures we can extend to first time visitors is for people with no official position to take the initiative and welcome them.”
  • Treat first time visitors as guests of God, not strangers.
  • Smile at everyone.
  • Look people in the eye and smile.
  • Take the initiative, don’t wait for visitors to initiate conversation with you.
  • Learn people’s names and remember them.
  • Use [only] appropriate and allowed Touch such as a hand shake or a gentle pat on the back.
  • Ask questions and learn about your guests. It is better to express interest in them than it is to try to “sell” your church.
  • Listening is a very effective way to show love.
  • Greet children at their level.
  • Let children be children. Yes, families love children’s church and child care. We also love it when you
  • allow us to decide if our children should remain with us in worship. And even more, when you love
  • our kids as kids (crying, playing, singing!) and don’t expect them to be grown-ups.
  • Invite visitors to join you at something, anything! Invite them to today’s fellowship meal, next Sunday’s Christian Education hour, or to a restaurant for some one on one time.
  • Never let new people sit alone. Eschelman says, “New people should never have to sit alone. Take initiative and go to them without delay.”
  • Help visitors find seating that suits their families needs.
  • Help first time visitors by being their tour guide and helping them find worship resources. Visiting a new church is like a cross-cultural experience, even for those of us who have visited dozens of other churches.
  • Invite people to fill out your church’s visitor registration card or information.
  • Tell people you’re glad they are here.
  • Pray for them throughout your week.
  • Be yourself! You are loving! You have a good thing going! You have the capacity to love more people, and to love more deeply. Eschelman says, “Practice making people feel special, and what you give to others will be returned to you.”

From: Marty Troyer’s blogpost entitled: “20 Ways How to Make Someone Feel Welcome in Church” This list is adapted from the book Now Go Forward by J. David Eschelman

Looking Forward to Labor Day

Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of fall for many people. Schools have started and long vacations are over. September will mark the return of our Wednesday Night Suppers and programs (indoors!). Either on September 12 or 19, the choir will process led by acolytes and the crucifer at the 11am service.

These events do not just spring to life. There is planning, communication, training and coordination that contribute to the fruitfulness of any church ministry effort. In August, we will train greeters and ushers
and teach a set of trainers who will train other volunteers throughout the year. We will train a new class of acolytes and crucifers as well as a team that will coordinate the programs after the Wednesday night suppers.

In September we will train volunteers to be worship assistants, who will learn not only aspects of leading worship but to be more comfortable offering a morning prayer or the children’s sermon. Our church leadership will be asking directly for volunteers to serve in these vital ministries over the next six weeks. Look for additional information as it becomes available.

May God bless Trinity UMC,

Rev. Joseph James

Halfway through 2021!?

Over half of 2021 is over; it has flown by, hasn’t it? So much has happened since the first of the year. We have emerged from most of our COVID restrictions and protocols. Things seem to be on course for some semblance of order, if not normality. Trinity UMC endured the pandemic as it has endured so many trials through its long history. What is the state of the church in our new reality and halfway through 2021?

This Sunday (July 18th) Roy Creech, Trinity’s Lay Leader, and Josh Castleberry, our Associate Lay Leader, will speak at both services about the state of the church. Roy and Josh serve not only on nearly every church committee, they understand the culture and the people of Trinity; they know our potential and our holy calling. They will offer their insights and observations, challenges and affirmations.

Remember, our early service now starts at 9:00am.

Blessings,

Joseph

Our Baptismal Covenant to the Children of our Congregation

A couple brings their child forward in worship for baptism. Part of the vows we take as a congregation in the baptismal covenant is that we will do all in our power to “increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.” (page 38, United Methodist Hymnal). How do we do that as a congregation?

At Trinity, we have several opportunities for children to engage together as they grow in the faith. The Trinity Day School is a well-known ministry that forms young disciples. Trinity UMC sponsors a co-ed Cub Scout Pack, engages children in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and weekly children’s-focused programming. During worship, we have a nursery as well as a children’s church following the children’s sermon. The music program sponsors choirs for all ages. Trinity can be proud of the many ways we seek to grow young disciples for the transformation of the world.

During this summer, Jay Punt has served as our student intern. His area of responsibility encompasses children’s ministries. One of the observations he has offered is that our children may be better served if we had some collaboration among the various ministries; to that end, we are seeking ways to bring to the table the various stakeholders involved in children’s ministry so that we can learn from one another, coordinate our efforts and calendars, and collaborate in the pursuit of our goals with the children we
serve.

How can you fulfill the covenant vows made at the baptism of the children of Trinity? I invite you to pray for our children’s ministry and volunteer your gifts or service. Each of us has a part. What will be yours?

A Reflection on March 2020

Sometime during this week twelve months ago, the decision was made by our church leadership to cancel in-person worship for March 22 and for an indefinite period following. Following the guidance of health officials, it was the best decision to make for the health of our congregation. I remember that week well. We were all afraid. Shortages of supplies loomed around the corner. We began to work from home. School classes were cancelled. It started a time of uncertainty for our nation that we have not experienced in
generations. At that time hospitalizations and deaths remained in single or double digits, there was a sense that worse times were ahead.

Here at Trinity, hurried plans were implemented to livestream the 11am worship services on Facebook and the church’s website. Kyle Kelly, Paula Stover, and Gray Maklary learned what needed to happen and worked toward a solution. We were unsure if all the interfaces would work correctly. Meanwhile, Geoff Roberts and Susan Ward (and when he was not working, Ed Snyder) worked the cameras for the YouTube video recording and the sound system for the live radio broadcast. The choir went from a loft full to a mere handful.

With less than a week’s turn around, could the choir redeploy in a way that was consistent with their high standard while not being able to meet to rehearse the Wednesday before? We would worship with less than 15 people in the sanctuary, with the potential for hundreds more through the radio broadcast and the livestream. To a community hungry for hope, would Trinity be able to meet the need?

By the grace of God, your lay leadership and the church’s music ministry responded so well. That first service on Facebook on March 22 was the first of many. We have opened a door to reaching people we never thought possible. The choir, under the direction of Charles Haraway, adapted and thrived. The quality of their music has remained high; their work has been integral to our remote worship that has inspired so many. Over the course of the year, Worth Lewallen’s violin moved us. Trinity has nurtured Wesley Castleberry and Samara Castleberry throughout their lives; since last March, their musical giftedness they have nurtured us.

Those early days of the pandemic were difficult for all. Yet, we claim the movement of the Holy Spirit at Trinity UMC that strengthened our worship team in those weeks. We could not have made it without God’s blessings and your prayers. A year later, we are still working through the pandemic’s effects on our world. We continue to pray and work for healing and offering hope wherever we can.

Blessings,

Joseph

2020 is Over!

2020 is finally over. In disbelief, we can look back to the year that was. Trinity went months without in-person worship. There was no Living Christmas Story with cars driving through our parking lot. We ended 2020 without a live Christmas Eve service on campus.

The change in the yearly calendar has not made a difference. We are still haunted by the pandemic. In fact, the numbers are peaking at a level higher than in early 2020. We all know someone who has had the virus; many of us know of someone who has died. What does the future hold for us, our families, our church, and our nation?

The Gospel of Matthew tells us the Magi saw Christ’s star at its rising. A star is a difficult thing to follow, even for a short time. Certainly, there were nights where there were fog, clouds or rain blocking the star’s light. What about the terrain? Surely there were canyons, mountains, or other natural obstacles that kept the travelers from taking a straight path to their holy destination. Just because they could not see the star did not mean it was not shining above the clouds; did they keep moving in the right direction without seeing the star? Even as they turned right or left, north or south, the star’s light was a beacon in the sky illuminating the way. With hope and persistence, the Magi completed their journey.

In 2021, we find ourselves on a journey; we cannot go back to the way it was before. The Light of Christ guides us through this journey. But in this present darkness, our sight can be clouded by doubt and fear. Can we have the courage to keep moving forward, reckoning in hope of where the Light was in the murkiness of the pandemic? May we always follow hope in the light of Christ. In this season of Epiphany,

I am reminded of the Magi making their way from distant lands to pay homage to the Christ child. We do not know how long they traveled to see Jesus. Was it months or even years? There were no interstate highways to hasten the way or a highway patrol to protect them from bandits. There was no GPS, and perhaps only an antiquated map. The journey was fraught with danger.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us the Magi saw Christ’s star at its rising. A star is a difficult thing to follow, even for a short time. Certainly, there were nights where there were fog, clouds or rain blocking the star’s light. What about the terrain? Surely there were canyons, mountains, or other natural obstacles that kept the travelers from taking a straight path to their holy destination. Just because they could not see the star did not mean it was not shining above the clouds; did they keep moving in the right direction without seeing the star? Even as they turned right or left, north or south, the star’s light was a beacon in the sky illuminating the way. With hope and persistence, the Magi completed their journey.

In 2021, we find ourselves on a journey; we cannot go back to the way it was before. The Light of Christ guides us through this journey. But in this present darkness, our sight can be clouded by doubt and fear. Can we have the courage to keep moving forward, reckoning in hope of where the Light was in the murkiness of the pandemic? May we always follow hope in the light of Christ.

Worship Matters

With the end of the twelve days of Christmas, Trinity’s worship space is transformed for another season. On January 6th, we commemorate the Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the Magi and their visit to the young Jesus. The weeks beyond mark the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is a season of Ordinary Time, which includes four to nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter. It is called “ordinary” because its Sundays are given ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) after the Feast of Epiphany (January 6). It stands between the two great Christological cycles of Advent-Christmas- Epiphany and Lent-Easter-Pentecost. Its central theme is the calling of disciples and the early ministry of Jesus. The First Sunday focuses on the Baptism of Christ and the Last Sunday on the Transfiguration.

In our 11:00am worship services, we will use white paraments and stoles on the First Sunday (Baptism of the Lord) on January 10th, and the Last Sunday (Transfiguration Sunday) on February 14. On the Sundays in between, we will use green paraments and stoles. During this season, we will celebrate baptism as a way of remembering our call to discipleship and we will consecrate our spiritual leaders who serve on the various church committees for 2021. Our baptismal font will be placed in a prominent space within the sanctuary as we claim the renewing waters of baptism. Hymns, scripture lessons, sermons, anthems, and prayers will have elements and themes that speak of the on-going revelation of God in our lives and our journey as disciples.

May God bless our growth as disciples of Christ in this season of Epiphany.

Christmas Eve at Trinity UMC

Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ was born. Christ came into the world in far less than ideal
circumstances in the geographic, political, and social backwater of the world. We have normalized his birth circumstances over the millennia, making smooth the sharp and rough edges of time, place, and detail. This year, we may understand the coming of Christ into the world’s dire circumstances better than any time in generations.

In years past, Christmas Eve at Trinity meant one service in the late afternoon or early evening; the sanctuary was at near capacity as hundreds gathered for carols, communion, and candlelight. Christmas Eve 2020 at Trinity was a mix of old traditions and new realities.

With a heightened awareness of the COVID-19 virus and potential danger that large crowds packed close together brings, it is not a normal year. We experience the sharp and rough edges of the context of now.

Christmas Eve worship at Trinity this year was a virtual celebration:

  • 5:00 PM Virtual Christmas Eve Service: With the choir and a string quartet, we celebrate the coming of Christ with familiar hymns, scripture readings, and the proclamation of the word. This service will be broadcast on the church’s Facebook page, the church website, and through our radio partner, WIBZ 95.5.

We hope you found a way to celebrate Christmas Eve this year. Surely, Christ comes into the context of our lives, whatever they may be.

IRL

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,

Joseph

Fear Not

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:

“FEAR NOT!”

What will you do?

Peace.

It Was A Very Good Day

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


Peace,
Joseph

Common Things

“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.

The Dawn of Disappointment (sermon for 7/26/2020)

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.