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Many local churches feel squeamish about leading mission efforts – thinking they will be drawing upon the same overtaxed leaders one too many times and may fall short of their goals. But then there’s Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church. This congregation of about 100 members (most of whom live in poverty) know obstacles – but they have one strength that many small-sized, non-denominational churches don’t have: connection. It’s the connectionalism of The United Methodist Church that makes them strong – and that connectionalism has now made a big difference in the lives of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.

Connecting with Rev. Jodi McCullah of Austin Peay State University’s Wesley Foundation and SAFE (Soldiers and Families Embraced) Network, we learned of a need to encourage troops deployed to Afghanistan by sending care packages. Lay Leader and UMW co-chair Brenda Hix began notifying the United Methodist churches who have ongoing relationships with Sixty-First Avenue so they could contribute to the collection of socks, crossword puzzles, candy and more. Jackie Shields of Brentwood UMC said, “My interest in facilitating donations of items for the deployment kits was a response that embraces John 13:35, plus a long time personal association and respect for the military members, their service and their needs. I also wanted to connect members of my Sunday School class to America’s Sunday Supper, our conference and national ministries. This is a way to demonstrate first hand we are The UNITED Methodist Church and what that looks like real time.”

Lucille Jackson adds handwritten notes to care kits.

Lucille Jackson adds handwritten notes to care kits.

Roger Parker, retired elder from Franklin First UMC, regularly organizes a “Lunch and Learn” for senior citizens in the Sixty-First Avenue community. So at the “Lunch and Learn” on Monday, January 21, we concluded the session with packaging items for the deployment care kits. Lucille Jackson was one of the senior citizens who participated in the activities. “We’re feeling the happiness now that the soldiers will feel when they open this package!”

Delivering the kits to the SAFE Network.

Delivering the kits to the SAFE Network.

A total of 49 care kits were assembled that day and driven to Clarksville (along with an additional 31 previously packaged at United Methodist Communications) where they were accepted by two Army wives of husbands who will receive the kits and a staff sergeant from the same platoon. “With this war having gone on for over 10 years, many people have moved on and forgotten about those still fighting.” said Sergeant Longest.

In addition to the support from the connection, we also had strangers who learned about what we were doing online and participated in a variety of ways. A young woman from Texas passing through town, delivered over 100 handwritten notes to encourage the troops; an elderly man from a close by retirement home brought a bag filled with treats; and a student from Vanderbilt Medical School came to help assemble the kits. Sixty-First Avenue’s youth group donated treats to the effort – giving from their own stock.

Faith as small as the grain of a mustard seed can still yield results – especially when it’s watered by the connection and has the light of Christ shining on it. Local churches are never too small to make a big difference.

This effort was part of America’s Sunday Supper – a nationwide effort to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., through dialog and service, which Hicks promoted as part of her work at United Methodist Communications. Learn more at www.sundaysupperumc.org or http://www.pointsoflight.org/mlk

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Troops are coming home from war each day – not redeploying as they have over the last twelve years – but trying to find new ways of reintegrating with what was once familiar. Families, friends, workplace, faith communities – you name it. None of it will ever be the same. They’ve seen too much…felt too much…experienced the wounds of war spiritually, emotionally, physically.

Many Americans who disagree with war itself also turn a blind eye to veterans – personifying war with these men and women who joined the military to better themselves, their families and honor their country. Where has that blind eye gotten us? Today, thousands of veterans are living on America’s streets – many addicted to drugs or alcohol. Others may be keeping “their chin up” – doing everything they feel is right – but suffering a darkness that is unimaginable to those of us who’ve never experienced war. Others still quietly suffer, sometimes ending their lives to quiet the pain that feels irreparable.

You may have heard the parable of the river.

“Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river…One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more! One day, someone raised the question, “But where are all these babies coming from? Let’s head upstream and find out who’s throwing all of these babies into the river in the first place!”

The complexity of war demands a comprehensive response. We don’t have the luxury of choosing only one approach to heal the wounds of war and prevent it from happening again. We must care for those who return home, even as we work towards new means of conflict resolution that help humanity rise above violence that only begets more violence.

America’s Sunday Supper is an event that’s happening once again this January in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service (January 21, 2013). King gave his life to matters of justice like those we face today and fought against the military industrial complex. What he said in the 1960s resonates today:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

After increasing the national deficit by spending trillions of dollars on war, many are now calling for “entitlement” cuts as a means of fiscal responsibility. Yet, if the opportunity presented itself, these same people would also rally for new wars against nations they hate. So, it’s not really about the money. It’s about priorities.

How can we work towards new priorities as a nation? How can we honor those who’ve given – in many cases, the best part of their lives – even as we fight the systems that promote war?

We’ve often romanticized war as a solution because we don’t bother learning about its damage to individuals and to nations. America’s Sunday Supper can be an opportunity to raise awareness, promote dialog, and participate in service.  Watch a movie together, dialogue, do something. For more information, go to www.sundaysupperumc.org.

Operation Homecoming is a movie that you can screen without charge in your church or community setting. Note: language, violence.

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No Social Security, no Medicare, no retirement account. What is life like when you can’t work anymore and there are no safety nets? For United Methodist pastors in the Central Conferences (Africa, Philippines & Europe) there is reliance on God providing daily bread, and on the generosity of strangers. In a way, it’s a life put into reverse…while they spent their lives caring for others, they are now living at the mercy of those who will show God’s love to them.

Rev. Karmah Early, Liberia, heard God’s call to ministry when she was a little girl and says she was “happy” to be a pastor. She has been blind for several years.

In these parts of the world, local communities provide what they can for one another, and simple gifts of shared grain may prompt a celebration of how God has provided. But when the body aches from aging, and there is no Tylenol or Advil, no affordable or free clinics, these pastors just suffer. There’s nothing much that the local community can do when so many are also living in poverty.

I remember once seeing a commercial about starving children, and my mom angrily saying, “If there is a god, why would he let children suffer like that?” I think God might say the same about us. God has given creation enough for everyone to have what they need.  Either we don’t like to share, or we don’t know how best to share with those who need it the most.

CCPI (Central Conference Pension Initiative) is addressing the pension crisis for pastors in Africa, Asia and Europe problem in a just, equitable and compassionate way. I don’t give that much but because of automated withdrawal, it’s consistent. I think of it as if I’m taking a couple of these pastors out to a restaurant monthly. If each U.S. pastor who has a retirement plan did something similar, together we could make a huge difference. Some facts about CCPI:

“The Initiative has two objectives. One is to provide pension support to central conference clergy and surviving spouses already retired or when they retire. The other is to help define and establish long-term self-funded sustainable pension programs, so all future retirees will receive support. There are now ten CCPI-sponsored pension projects approved across the central conferences (Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Russia, Nigeria, Philippines and East Africa), and three more programs currently in development. By the end of 2012, all thirteen pension programs will be operational – two years ahead of schedule. CCPI is focused on helping these conferences create pension plans they will fund themselves so that, over time, all pension plans will be self-funded and self-sustaining.”

It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve made creation a better place…to those who’ve increased the world’s joy through weddings and baptisms, at the birth of children and the milemarkers of life that without ritual would go unnoticed. It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve helped the world bear its sorrows – in death both natural and death from war, poverty and disease; in hardship that if suffered in isolation may have blanketed the light that God still shines. It’s a blessing to give.

Watch this video,  donate online or get resources to share CCPI with others.

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Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Elizabeth Michelle Smith…a member of 61st Avenue UMC. “Liz” as we all called her died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago. The last time I saw her was three days before she passed. She excitedly told me that she had finally gotten a disability hearing scheduled – hopeful that she’d start getting disability pay.

She was one year younger than me, but she had illnesses that took away her vitality. I remember the time when she had her first amputation and I was with her at the hospital. She leaned over and touched my foot to show me what they were going to remove from her foot. That hit me hard –it made me feel her pain a little deeper.

When Liz got off the streets, she was so happy – not simply because she would have a place to stay, but excited because she was going to take in all of her friends who didn’t have a home. It was her way of living! If she got something good, she had to share it with other people – whether it was information or her “own” things. In the end, a few of her street friends spoke at the service – one of them calling Liz his godmother, and saying that it’s because of her that he enrolled in barber school and is living into her belief that he is “too smart” to not better his life.

In attendance at the service was another lady who is so dear to me – Linda. Linda is intellectually disabled and her appearance is one that I’ve written about before. Linda came to me after the service and said that even when she passes she will pray for me every day. Because of her looks and disabilities, she’s gotten ridiculed and put down all her life. She told me that she loved me, Pastor Paul, and Brenda because we’ve been kind to her. I thought when I left there that I feel more privileged being loved by someone like her than if I were loved by a superstar.

Leaving the church, there was a man lying by the side of the road – in the opposite direction from where I was going. The weather here in Nashville was 109 yesterday! I drove to him and got out of the car. He had collapsed and couldn’t walk, so I called 911. People from the church all walked down the street once they knew so they could be there for him as well. He was treated with care and taken to the hospital accompanied by his girlfriend.

Just a little while before this incident, I’d heard the medical caseworker at Liz’s service say, “No one is a nobody in Christ Jesus.” Truer words could not have been spoken in a church where the down and out are received and welcomed as loved guests. This is my church home. This is where I’m planted and growing in faith because I come face to face with some pretty hard stuff every day. So when I write about my support of “Obamacare,” equal rights for gay and lesbians, the right to vote for those who do not drive and have no home, immigrants, etc. you’ll know why. I sit amongst people who are rejected by society because they may not contribute to the financial growth of this country. But for a country of so many citizens who claim we are a Christian nation and that we should be pro-life, I say, these lives are worthy of fighting for as well…they are worth listening to and letting their opinions count.

Christ said that when we serve the naked, hungry, thirsty, poor, those in prison, we serve him. Yesterday I got a good taste of Christ’s presence, in the broken hearted and outcasts. The taste was sweet…God was touchable and real among those who embody the scriptures:

Matthew 5 (The Message)
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

So, rest in peace, Liz. We’ll do our best to care for those you loved. And say a prayer for the rest of us, ok? We need it.

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Have you heard of the “two wolves” story? Inner wolves at war within us? Here is a very personal look at this struggle within me – in light of what is going on in Washington.

“They should just go to the banks to worship on Sundays . That’s where their god is.” The words of my friend Wafa still echo in my mind all these years after her death. Having moved to the U.S. from Syria, she was tired of being evangelized by clients whose lives seemed to resonate more with goods than with the good of humanity. I’m certain she would have a colorful commentary today on those who so loudly proclaim that this is a Christian nation, all the while cutting benefits from those who can least afford it.

I can’t reconcile the two – being Christian and not caring enough to create a just and equitable system for the economically disadvantaged.  I just don’t get it. So I’m trying to see another side….to hear another argument…another solution – one that involves limited government with vastly reduced social programs. Here goes.

Social Security goes away and becomes a self-guided, saving program. We Americans have proven in the recent recession how well we save for a rainy day. We don’t need government bailouts. If we invest in Wall Street and it crashes, well, stuff happens. To each his own. Squirrelling money away in the mattresses worked for our ancestors.

Health insurance goes back to what it was pre-health reform. If someone has a pre-existing condition, they will just have to pay for their own treatment. If they can’t afford treatment, maybe it’s just “their time.”  The poor have always had to make decisions like this. There was a young woman at church who died this year from such an event.

No more government housing programs…shacks are an acceptable way to live in (so long as it’s not in my neighborhood). It’s how people lived in the olden days (and how people in tent cities across the U.S. still live). I’ve been to plenty of countries where the government doesn’t help with housing. People can survive in tin homes and lean-to’s. I’ve got some great pictures from Africa to show what it could look like.

Let each family decide how its children should be educated…no interference and no government funding. The school system is broken and private corporations will deal with it much better than legislators. Other countries don’t provide free education. I’ve helped pay tuition in Honduras and Zimbabwe before…I could do that here as well. Children who can’t afford to go to school could be eligible for labor pools (the best parents could learn from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”) They’re adding beds at the new privatized prison down the street in expectation of new “clients”….so still there’s still a chance they’ll have a bed and a roof.

I’ve thought this through and yet it still doesn’t feel right to me. Maybe after a while, I can just get numb to the sadness of it all and quit caring. Does the bank have Sunday morning hours?

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Walking through a neighborhood the other day, my husband noticed how beautiful a large oak tree was, but lamented that the yard around it was so dry and desolate. It was obvious that in the heat of Nashville, that tree had soaked up so much water for itself that it left little behind for grass, flowers, or anything else to grow.

Later in the week, I sat around a table with the women of Sixty First Avenue United Methodist Church at what became for me a deeply meaningful experience. I began to think of that tree as a metaphor for what is happening in the U.S. these days. For the common laborer, years of working hard has provided little to live on and nothing to save. Many laborers (laid off, retired or disabled) now stand just beyond the shade of these vast “trees” in what has become a barren space in America’s landscape.

The little they’ve come to depend upon is drying up further. Distant bickering of elected leaders echoes in their daily lives, as they worry if a father will get the medicine he needs to prevent heart failure; if insurance will pay to stop infection in a friend’s recently amputated leg; and how they’ll survive if Social Security cuts are made. People who have contributed much in their lifetimes have so often been used up and tossed aside for cheaper labor pools, and greater profit. I’m reminded of a favorite movie quote: “A country’s character is defined by its “everyday rustics”…They are the legs you stand on and that position demands respect.” (Ever After, 1998)

Distinctions between “the wealthy” and “the poor” become chasms if we fail to engage one another, especially if we do not relate with persons living in poverty. It’s easy to judge a group of people, if you’ve only labeled them generically and remained at a distance. When you come to know “the poor” by name, hear their stories and realize their gifts, preconceived notions dissolve. Complexities arise. Shades of gray become varied, and what used to be easy judgment becomes greater understanding.

In the humble walls of Sixty First Avenue’s sanctuary, I’ve realized that perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge is to love more than we think possible. If we leave presumptions on the altar and let something new arise, maybe we’ll be able to mimic the love that Jesus showed others while on earth. When we love more, we think beyond our own endless desires, personal growth and financial independence. The barren spaces start to matter and we imagine how we too can be suppliers of lifegiving water.

For further reflection:

Check out this living wage calculator and compare it with the minimum wage those who serve you may be making: http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/

 

 

 

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This story from 61st Avenue United Methodist Church is a poignant message of Christ’s love exemplified through a humble servant. It was written by the pastor, Rev. Paul Slentz. I hope that it touches you as it did me. The church is located at 6018 New York Avenue, Nashville, TN 37209.

“…As part of this thanks, let me share with you something that happened here just a couple of Saturdays ago that reminded me of why the ministry here is important. This is a story that features Brenda Hix, our lay leader, who many of you know.

It started with my driving the church van down to the park across from the Downtown Library to pick up homeless folks to come have a meal and worship with us. I saw that a young woman and her boyfriend who had worshiped with us for the first time the week before wanted to come again. They are both very young, appearing to be in their early twenties, and the young woman has a severe disability that keeps her in a wheel chair. She also has a love of music. The first week I picked her up, she sang along with the Christian songs playing on the radio to and from church.

Well, this second week, with some difficulty we lifted her up into the front seat of the van and got her wheel chair situated as well. I could see that she looked very depressed. But what really hit me and made me feel so badly for her was that she was just terribly filthy. She was wearing the exact same clothing she had had on the week before, it had been very hot in the intervening days, and the pad she sat on was urine soaked. Frankly, the smell was so overwhelming that it was hard to sit next to her on the van. She did not sing along with the radio this time.

When we got to the church, I immediately went to Brenda and explained the situation. Without blinking an eye, Brenda took that sad young woman into the woman’s room, bathed her, clothed her, cleaned her wheel chair, and, most important of all, spoke comforting words to her. At one point Brenda had to come out of the restroom just to get some air, and she was even gagging a bit. But she stuck with it, and after about half an hour that young woman emerged clean as a whistle and with a smile on her face. She then ate supper and joined us for worship, where once again she sang her heart out and clearly was enjoying herself.

After the service was over, I thanked Brenda profusely and told her that she had loved that woman with Christ-like love. And indeed Jesus did love people in that same up-close way. Jesus’ love was incarnated love, in-the-flesh love. My guess is that some of the folk he placed his healing hands on didn’t smell so good either. I am so grateful that his love continues to be expressed in an incarnated way through the hands of somebody like Brenda.”

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