Ash Wednesday Worship

Ash Wednesday

Worship

February 26th

7:00 am-7:00 pm

Ashes, Prayer, & The Hard Work of Repentance

Lent begins with a rather outlandish idea: let’s come and remember we’re finite and fallible, imperfect and mortal.  Far from the revelry of Springtime, Mardi Gras, and the planning for March Madness brackets, Lent makes for strange counter-programming, and skipping this time of repentance and deep looks inward would definitely be easier.

However, this crazy idea is also the first step in acknowledging our need for God.  Without confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness, we can never have Christ in our hearts, following him as Lord and Savior.  That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important, and why we’ll have the sanctuary open for twelve hours, from 7am-7pm.  Anytime during these hours, you are welcome to prayerfully begin your Lent in this unique worship experience.  You’ll receive a booklet to guide you through the stations, and your experience will end with ashes in the sign of the cross on your forehead.  There will also be booklets for Children and Youth so that they can go through Ash Wednesday in their own special way.  You can take as long as you need to process through the stations; your pace is between you and God.

During the Sundays in Lent, we’ll be diving into prayer through the Gospel of Matthew.  We’ll ask Jesus to teach us to pray so we learn to love, following Jesus as he is tempted in the wilderness (Ch. 4:1-11) and as he gives his disciples the Lord’s prayer during the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 6.  We’ll also take a Sunday to hear about the work God is doing through our new church start at Lowell Correctional Institute in Reddick.  In all these times of worship, I hope you’ll worship through the ashes of repentant prayer so you may receive the world-changing forgiveness of God’s love.

As outlandish as Lent and Ash Wednesday may seem at first glance, the work to go through them always pays off.  Extracting ourselves from all the distractions around us, we can more effectively work with God to re-make us into the forgiven, loving, joyful, eternally peaceful person God created us to be!

I’ll see you on Ash Wednesday!  ~Robert

 



The Rest of the Story

I remember riding in the car with my sister and my father as we returned from our paternal visitation time, slowly winding over those rural Alabama highways and creating, for my 8-year-old self, one of the most boring drives ever.  One of the highlights of that drive, though, as we began to get within radio range of civilization, was listening to Paul Harvey’s hypnotic storytelling of “the rest of the story.”  Sometimes, unfortunately, we would drive out of civilization again before Mr. Harvey finished telling us the ending, so I was left hanging with interest, but not all of the facts; with some but not all of the context of the story I had just listened to.  It was maddening!

Many of you have told me you’ve felt that same maddening confusion as you’ve read news stories about the future of the United Methodist Church.  So here, in the limited amount of space I have in this newsletter, I want to give you the rest of the story as much as I am able. Here are some assertions I’ve seen personally in articles that I would like to correct in order to give you a better appreciation for the truth behind what you may have read or listened to:

  • “United Methodists could split over LGBTQ Issues” (headline from Los Angeles Times)

True.  Before the current issue in the UMC, other tensions made similar “church split” headlines during

  • racial integration in the 1950-70s,
  • the ordination of women in the 1940s and 50s,
  • alcohol prohibition and divorce in the 1930s and 40s,
  • and a regional split over slavery in the 1840s, to name a few.

News outlets have run with some version of this present split headline since roughly the 1972 General Conference, when a denomination-wide statement was put into our Book of Discipline that declared homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Since this statement was approved, it has remained contested as different groups seek to change it in one direction or the other.  General Conference happens quadrennially and, after decades of arguing over this issue, there are many plans being presented at General Conference 2020 for dividing the denomination.  Which leads me to my next headline:

  • “United Methodist Church Announces Proposal to Split Over Gay Marriage.” (headline from NPR)

While this article is informative, here’s the rest of the story.  First of all, the UMC did not announce anything, much less something as dramatic as a split.  Instead, an unofficial, diverse group of leaders from across the worldwide UMC participated in a professionally mediated discussion on how we, as United Methodists, might resolve this long-standing and bitter battle over human sexuality.  They reached a decision together and then released their proposal to much publicity right after the new year began.  In this mediation group were leaders from across the globe and across the belief spectrum on this issue, reacting to the disunity that was more apparent than ever after the 2019 Special-called General Conference. 

The product of their mediation was a document called “A Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.”  This Protocol has not even been sent to General Conference to be considered, but once it arrives, it will be competing with the 4 other major proposals dealing with the unity of the UMC amidst our disagreement over human sexuality.  Like any proposal at General Conference (similar to our US Government), it passes through committee, then to the floor of the Conference, where it will be put on the agenda with the whole host of other issues to be considered and voted upon.  Once the voting begins, there is the possibility that the 2020 General Conference will not adopt any proposal, and General Conference will reconvene in 2024 to, no doubt, revisit this issue.

Also, I find the word “split” particularly misleading.  It gives the impression of simplicity that does not exist because of our structure as a denomination.  The UMC, unlike other denominations, cannot simply “split.”  We are a complex knot, a connection of local congregations, mission outposts, evangelism efforts, colleges & universities, grade schools, hospitals, seminaries, disaster relief missions, administrative offices, and international conferences.  Our system is a blend of top-down and grassroots, and there are very few decisions made that are not also conversations with another group in the UMC connection.  For instance, decisions made by General Conference do not take effect until the beginning of the following year.  If any changes need to be made to our UMC Constitution, they must be ratified by delegates in Annual Conferences around the globe after General Conference.  Many of these separation plans would probably need that level of ratification.  Are you dizzy yet?  In the UMC, we all work together, and that makes church life more complex than a headline might lead you to believe.

Your church council has been hard at work in the past months to develop a round-table approach to help us all stay united in Christ as these winds of change and disagreement sweep over our United Methodist family.  St. Paul’s is a very friendly church, but it has been my observation, over the past six and a half years as your pastor, that we usually prefer to avoid talking about tough issues with each other.  While this may let us get along with each other on the surface, it can also result in a shallow relationship that does not withstand external pressure.  Both myself and the Church Council want our church family, in all its diversity, to weather this current season of external pressure and be stronger as a result of it.  Remember those moments when you talked about tough issues with a friend or a spouse and found yourself much closer as a result?  Those are the kind of conversations that we are aiming for this Spring as our denomination heads toward another contentious meeting.  With deeper relationships and a stronger sense of love for our neighbors in the pew, we will be better models of Christ’s love to those who don’t know Him yet.  I believe St. Paul’s already has what it takes to be this kind of a church.  In fact, I’ve seen you do it and love each other like this many times!  So this Spring, let’s put that love into practice and become closer friends with each other, even as the rest of the world fights and fumes.

Our Florida Conference website (flumc.org) will feature resources and commentary by our Bishop to help make sense of these confusing times. In addition to praying for the General Conference delegates, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to primary-source material on this upcoming General Conference, to be held May 5-15 in Minneapolis.

  • Let me also recommend the website resourceumc.org, which has many articles and helps on General Conference, as well as some in-depth resources on the different separation plans up for consideration. On this site you can even watch a discussion with the panel who published “the Protocol,” as it’s being called, and I believe it will give you a greater sense of “the rest of the story” with General Conference 2020. 
  • The United Methodist News Service has a website at umnews.org, which often fills in the gaps that secular sources leave out when they report news.

In closing, let me assure you that Christianity has weathered these storms before, and will weather them again.  On Sunday, May 22nd, you will come back to worship here at St. Paul’s. The good news is; you will notice that we will still be worshiping our Lord Jesus Christ and ministry will continue here, regardless of how our General Conference votes.  In the middle of our culture of polarization, violence, and anxiety, it is important that the church be a place of unity, peace, and assurance that God is bigger than the issues we think divide us.  My prayer is that these round-table discussions provide understanding, clarity, and a safe place for difficult conversations during this confusing time.  I encourage you to participate in the Round Table discussions that are being planned.  In the meantime, I am here if you would like to discuss these issues further, and as always, I am honored to serve as your pastor during these important times for our UMC and our witness as disciples of Christ. 



December 2019

What came into being
through the Word was life,
    and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

~The Gospel of John, from The Common English Bible

 

John opens his Gospel, not with the Nativity story like Matthew and Luke, but with a Spirit-filled prelude about God’s Word coming down to earth, or “moving into the neighborhood,” as The Message translation puts it. God’s Word—not words on a page but something deeper—brings life. This life, John analogizes, is like an inextinguishable light shining in the darkness. Give me that light!

Light is a theme we often use during Advent and Christmas. We light the Advent Wreath, each candle pointing to an increased light and the One True Light coming into the world. We might go to a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, singing Silent Night by the light of hundreds of candles. As the days get darker, we talk more about this light and the impact it can have on our world.

This Advent we’ll talk about God’s light as we head toward Christmas. Will God’s light grow in your heart as you get closer to the celebration of the Nativity? How do you access God’s light in the middle of the darkness? How can you use God’s light to see danger ahead? How can Advent be a light to our path and life to our souls all year long?

Join us this Advent as we worship and learn from the light of the world. Each of the four Sundays in Advent (December 1st, 8th, 15th, and 22nd) we’ll delve deeper into this mystery, and we’ll culminate our season on Christmas Eve as we worship at 5:30pm (Service of the Nativity) and 8:00pm (Service of Carols & Candlelight).

Hope to see you there, and may the Light of the World be with you!

Robert

 



Devote Yourselves to Prayer…

Most of us are taught from an early age to live an unsatisfied life. We are trained to see our current situation as unsatisfactory, that if we can just get through the next challenge, get to the next life milestone, that we will have “made it” and life will be better for us. No sooner have we crossed that milestone, however, than we are off to the races again to get ahead of the next challenge or milestone in life. But what if we were just thankful for what we have now? Could gratitude change our life for the better? You bet! That’s exactly why the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Colossae, encourages these early Christians with the scripture verse above. The ethic of gratitude focuses our souls on praising God, it drives us away from selfishness and narcissism, and it helps us enjoy this one life we have here on earth!

My first pastoral appointment began in the summer of 2007, just two months after I graduated seminary. I started that first Sunday morning with the knowledge that, after those three years in graduate school as a working student, a whole new education was about to begin. I’ve been blessed to officiate at many weddings and also presided over many funerals and memorial services. Some were for people I barely knew, while others were for people I had grown to deeply respect and admire. And yes, some were for scoundrels. But in all the services I’ve ever done, I can’t remember a single time the family said, “I wish dad had worked harder and bought us a bigger house,” or “I’m so sorry we didn’t have a nicer car.” Instead, when I hear families talk about their loved one, they talk about how their loved one made them feel. They express gratitude for the good memories, the hard times that they went through together, and the love they often felt, even when it was spoken only with a smile. This gratitude is what allows them to heal and travel through the valley of grief; and I am thankful for how these families have, time and time again, inspired me with their expressions of gratitude for their lived one. Gratitude doesn’t just affect the person feeling it; I’ve come to realize, it is infectious in its ability to inspire others, even when it’s done through the tears of mourning.

This November, I hope you’ll devote yourself to meditate on gratitude as we go from Sunday to Sunday. All Saints Sunday challenges us to be thankful for the Christians who have gone before us; the following Sunday will encourage us to be thankful for those who serve through our military and the service of our United Methodist Men of the year. On November 17th we are thankful for each other and for the work God is doing in our midst as we pledge another year of mission together. On November 24th, we express our gratitude for God’s love by loving those in our community who are less fortunate when we take our worship outside to bring in a harvest for Interfaith Emergency Services’ Food Pantry.

This month will be chock-full of gratitude, and my prayer is that it is infectious to everyone we meet!       

Gratefully Yours,

Robert

 



October 2019

October is the only month of the year that all the “big four” North American Sports Leagues schedule games. In October, the NBA begins basketball, the NHL is about one month into hockey, and both the National Football League and Major League Baseball are in full swing. In fact, there have been 19 days in which all four leagues have played games on the same day – something sports writers have called a “sports equinox.” It’s also interesting to note that the Canadian Football League and Major League Soccer are also playing games during this month, both approaching the ends of their respective regular seasons.
A lot of churches experience the same thing during this month too! It’s Charge Conference season, the Budget for the new year is getting planned out and many churches are doing some sort of Stewardship activity. Also, planning for fall festivals, pumpkin patches, Church School Open Houses and Trunk-or-Treats are going full-bore. Behind the scenes, the worship folks are already finalizing Advent and Christmas.
As we begin this latter-year lively-ness here at St. Paul’s, we begin this month with World Communion Sunday on October 6th, where we celebrate the worldwide church and our fundamental celebration of the Lord’s Supper. If you’ve got some sort of “traditional dress” that marks your heritage or nationality, you’re invited to wear it as we celebrate! October 7th marks our Charge Conference, connecting with other churches in our Mission Field as well as the larger United Methodist Church, certifying connectional items such as new candidates for ordained ministry, pastoral salary, and new officers for the coming year. We’ll be holding ours with the other churches of Mission Field Peter at Nueva Vida Central UMC at 7pm.  All members of St. Paul’s are welcome to come!
October also marks our annual “Trunk or Treat” for our community on October 27th here on the church grounds.  If you’re decorating a trunk for the event, please see the Trunk-or-Treat article for more detailed instructions! Last year we had over 500 people from our community come and get to know our church family!
Just at the beginning of November there is All Saints Sunday, this year on November 3rd during our morning worship. This solemn remembrance is a powerful way to remember our loved ones and friends who have gone to their eternal home during the past year. I hope you’ll choose to come and be a part of this important month in the life of St. Paul’s!
With the Peace of Christ,
Robert



Happy Easter

Happy Easter! Easter Sunday was an amazing celebration and I was blessed to be able to share it with all of you during worship. Thanks to everyone who made Holy Week and Easter so great! From Palm Sunday to Good Friday, the Sunrise service, Breakfast, Easter Egg Hunt and the 10:30 service, I am blessed to be here among you!

Pentecost Sunday is June 9th, so we have the whole month of May to celebrate the resurrection as well as the end of school, the beginning of summer, and the return of our YMCA Summer camp on the grounds of St. Paul’s. We’re glad to have them back for another summer starting May 28th!

May will be a big month on another front, and I want to make sure everyone is in church on May 12th for a special Sunday. During worship I’ll be speaking about our Ministry to Children & Youth, specifically letting you know how the updated Florida Conference Children & Youth Protection Policy will affect St. Paul’s. This year, churches across Florida will be implementing the same updated Protection Policy in order to better protect and minister with their Children, Youth, and families. While some of the specifics will be a part of Children & Youth volunteer training, all of us in worship will learn the basics of the new policy so we can be prepared to create the best environment possible here at St. Paul’s. After all, it takes the whole church family to make sure our Children and Youth are growing their faith in a safe environment!

As summer begins, we will have many special opportunities, from overnight summer camp at Warren Willis, Confirmation Sundays and Day Camp, Annual Conference and more! I look forward to being with you through all of it as we affirm God’s love here at St. Paul’s UMC!

The Lord is Risen Indeed!

Robert

 



Lent: Tell the Story

Each Sunday in Lent, we’ve been examining a particular Disciple’s story in order to better see how we can be more faithful disciples. Each of “The Twelve,” as they’re sometimes called, weren’t superheroes but rather normal people like you and me. Their stories, while located in a certain time period, are still human stories. Like human beings around the world and across time, the original twelve disciples had many of the same issues that we have. Some of them may have come from broken families, and most would have experienced the loss of a parent by the time Jesus called them, among many other events and personal challenges in those turbulent 1st Century time. Even Jesus, with his God-in-man status, was not immune to the ebbs and flows of family fortune. Joseph, Jesus’s earthly “father,” is never mentioned after the birth story, leading many Bible scholars to conclude that he had passed away by the time Jesus began his ministry. Even Jesus would have felt the pangs of grief as he watched Joseph’s passing. All of them had stories, and God loved them. So, what’s your story?

The interaction we’ve been doing during worship this Lent is supposed to help you tell your faith story to others. What brought you to Jesus? What brought you to St. Paul’s? What Disciple do you personally identify with? Is there something in their story that connects with yours? Telling our story is vitally important in forming a healthy church, and joining together to hear how God has worked in someone else’s life is one of the greatest gifts we can give another person. This is essentially what happened in the early Methodist movement, and why it grew with such speed across England in the 18th Century. Fellow disciples, banding together in groups of 6-12 people to pray with each other, share each others’ stories, listen, and together answer the question, “How is it with your soul?”

This Lent, as we listen to the stories of these men who lived with Jesus long ago, let’s ask ourselves, “Is it my story too?”

Repent and believe,

Robert

 



Moving Into Lent

Moving into Lent

 

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love.” —Jesus in John 15:9

The Bible is full of characters, and the four gospels are riddled with the characters of Jesus, John the Baptizer, King Herod, Anna, Mary Magdalene, the woman at the well, Joseph, and many others. It’s because of these characters, and their interaction with God and each other, that we see the profound and eternal truth of God’s message through Jesus Christ.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), in his celebrated treatise called Spiritual Exercises, expounded on a technique of reading the Bible he learned while he was recovering from battle injuries in 1521. Essentially, the technique was to put yourself in the Bible passage you were reading, imagining yourself a character in the story. As he read the Bible this way, he began to see the transforming reality of the Bible in a way that transformed him personally from a life of dueling, vanity, and ambition to a life of Christian service.

We aren’t spectators to the stories of the Bible. Instead, we are meant to relate our own lives to them. The Bible isn’t supposed to be used as a piece of furniture, but rather as a mirror to see our true selves—warts and all—more clearly. It’s in this way we should come to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

This Lent we will be putting ourselves in the story of Jesus through the disciples. Each week we’ll look at a mirror through the story of one disciple and ask ourselves how we can become a more faithful disciple of Christ. In this season of recovery and uncertainty from the high drama of General Conference, let us center ourselves on the main thing in our faith—Jesus the Christ.

 

The peace of Christ be with you,

Robert

 



A Fresh Start

As we begin this new calendar year, we have a lot to celebrate! Josh & Karly have a new arrival named Eden Claire, Christmas Eve services have come and gone, we’ve hopefully reconnected with friends, family, and God over the holidays, and now we await 2019 with yet another sense of expectation. It’s kind of like Advent all over again, come to think of it! Years ago, someone gave me this little recipe and I give it to you for a little New Year inspiration:   Recipe for a Happy New Year (Anonymous) Take twelve fine, full-grown months; see that these are thoroughly free from old memories of bitterness, rancor and hate, cleanse them completely from every clinging spite; pick off all specks of pettiness and littleness; in short, see that these months are freed from all the past—have them as fresh and clean as when they first came from the great storehouse of Time. Cut these months into thirty or thirty-one equal parts. Do not attempt to make up the whole batch at one time (so many persons spoil the entire lot this way) but prepare one day at a time. Into each day put equal parts of faith, patience, courage, work (some people omit this ingredient and so spoil the flavor of the rest), hope, fidelity, liberality, kindness, rest (leaving this out is like leaving the oil out of the salad dressing— don’t do it), prayer, meditation, and one well-selected resolution. Put in about one teaspoonful of good spirits, a dash of fun, a pinch of folly, a sprinkling of play, and a heaping cupful of good humor. May God bless you in 2019! ~Robert  



The Way Forward

The Future of the United Methodist Church— A Way Forward!  

(Published in the Epistle December 2018 edition)
 
You may or may not have heard, but the United Methodist Church has been dealing with some controversies lately. As with all controversial issues, we can be overcome with the shock of the topic and lose our sense of perspective. My job, as your pastor, is to provide information, resources, and a healthy outlook on the place we find ourselves as United Methodists. The coming months will be crucial to the future of our denomination, and I encourage you to read the resources in this article so you have first-hand knowledge when the inevitable rumor mill begins its work in the near future. General Conference meets every four years and is the highest legislative body in the United Methodist Church (UMC). It is only at General Conference that our book of church structure and law, the Book of Discipline, can be revised. The UMC gives full voting rights to international delegates; so this is a worldwide gathering, connecting cultures and Annual Conferences from Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. At every General Conference since 1972, our denomination has debated, voted and re-voted over our position on human sexuality. In 2016, a resolution was passed so that this topic would not grind General Conference to a halt, and a “Commission on a Way Forward” was formed. Their work was to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. This Commission, made up of United Methodist Laity and Clergy, has been working since 2016 to prepare for a special called General Conference to decide on the future of the UMC in light of our impasse on human sexuality. This General Conference will be held in St. Louis, Missouri, from February 23-26, 2019. While there are many options being considered from other groups within the denomination, the Commission has come up with three possible plans for the UMC going forward: The One Church Plan: The One Church Plan provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church. In the One Church Plan, no annual conferences, bishops, congregations, or pastors are compelled to act contrary to their convictions around human sexuality. If approved, changes to the UMC would be phased in after the 2020 General Conference. The Connectional Church Plan: The Connectional Conference Plan, while requiring an almost complete change of our denominational structure, reflects a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services. Under this plan, the UMC is built around three connectional conferences based on theology including perspectives on LGBTQ ministry. Due to the complex nature of this plan, changes will be phased in over the next couple of General Conferences. The Traditionalist Plan: The request for a “Traditionalist” Plan was made to the Commission late in their process. As presented to the Commission, the Traditionalist Plan steps up accountability to the current Book of Discipline language. This Plan requires every Annual Conference to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination. Annual conferences that did not certify would be encouraged to form an “autonomous, affiliated” denomination that would work together with the UMC but no longer be a part of it. As of 2021, annual conferences that did not certify could no longer use the United Methodist name and logo, and they could no longer receive any funds from The United Methodist Church. I encourage you to be in prayer for the delegates and the sensitive, complex matters they will legislate during General Conference. Either way they vote, these issues will affect real people in our churches across the world, and in the pews next to you at St. Paul’s. Our Bishop, Rev. Ken Carter, has encouraged all people in Florida to pray, in the morning or the afternoon, from 2:23-2:26, symbolizing the dates of General Conference. I hope you’ll join me in this prayer vigil over the coming months. In addition to prayer, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to primary-source material on this upcoming General Conference and the Commission on a Way Forward’s work. Each of these plans have their supporters and detractors, and it is important that everyone reads the Way Forward report on the three plans before forming opinions. Our Florida Conference website (www.flumc.org) has an in-depth section devoted to Way Forward resources at www.flumc.org/wayforward. On this site you can read the Commission’s entire report, watch “listening sessions” with Bishop Carter around the conference, read about the history of the UMC and human sexuality, and keep up to date with future developments. In closing, let me assure you that the church of Jesus Christ has weathered these storms before, and will weather them again. On Sunday, March 3, you will come back to worship. The good news is; you will notice that we will still be worshipping our Lord Jesus Christ and ministry will continue here, regardless of how our General Conference votes. In the middle of our culture full of polarization, war, and anxiety, it is important that the church be a place of unity, peace, and assurance that God is bigger than the issues we think divide us. My hope is that this article provides understanding and clarity during this confusing time. I am here if anyone would like to discuss these issues further, and as always, I am honored to serve as your pastor during these important times for our UMC and our witness as disciples of Christ. ~Robert