A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, October 2018

Have you ever had a pen pal?

I’ll never forget learning about this thrilling prospect of “pen pal” when I was in the 6th grade. My French teacher, Mrs. Wiltshire, announced one afternoon that she had signed up every member of our class for an international pen pal program. The next morning, she passed around a large manilla envelope so that my classmates and I could pluck out random cards containing names and addresses of Western European students who had also signed up for the program. And that was that. Voila! Suddenly I had a new letter-writing friend named Cara who lived in Germany and kept pet gerbils and lived with her grandmother and seemed to have a certain affinity for coins. I remember the twin feelings of anticipation and exhilaration associated with this year of my life: the anticipation as I attached a fancy overseas stamp and set my letter free to travel (unfathomably) over the Atlantic Ocean to a part of the world I had not yet been, and the exhilaration of receiving back an interestingly colored envelope with cursive lettering (that in and of itself looked other-worldly) and contained a small peek into a stranger’s life abroad. Cara and I kept in touch for that year I was in Mrs. Wiltshire’s French class, sharing all sorts of tidbits about our days, our schools, and often including photographs that we paid to develop and print for each other. We were curious about each other and perhaps more than a little intrigued to think of our own lives as exotic when viewed through the lens of another’s perspective. I now wonder who sent the last letter to whom, as our devotion to letter-writing faded away with the tide of a new summer.

Pen pals have been on my mind lately because I reckon that is what Doug Tilton, a Presbyterian missionary who serves churches across southern Africa, has been to me for the past two years. When I joined the Presbyterian Women’s Circle 4 in the fall of 2016, a similar moment occurred that swept me right back to Mrs. Wiltshire’s class. After I agreed to be our Circle’s “Foreign Missionary Liason” (which I learned simply meant sending an encouraging email once a month to check in and ask for prayer requests), our wonderful Circle leaders handed me a folder full of several missionaries’ info-cards. Doug Tilton’s caught my eye with this line: “Wherever I go, I am often surprised and profoundly moved by the ways in which God works through the mutual recognition, affirmation, and encouragement shared among brothers and sisters in faith from different parts of the world.” What a beautiful sentiment. When we make connections with people who live on the other side of the planet from us, we celebrate the ways we are gloriously different yet miraculously connected as a global family. Since that day in 2016 when God nudged me toward Doug, we have kept in frequent contact with each other, sharing humorous anecdotes from our days as well as heavy-hearted requests for prayer.

The ease of internet communication has quelled some of that wondrous anticipation and exhilaration from the letter-writing days of yore, but I am as amazed as ever at the sheer magnitude of this awe-inspiring world we share. God is so much bigger and grander and more mysterious than I can conceive, and somehow communicating with Doug has sublimely reminded me of this. Inevitably, we all can become too bothered by the small details of our daily grind. Isn’t it refreshing, then, to untangle ourselves from narrow-minded pettiness with the reminder that our world is VAST and VARIED beyond our wildest dreams? And moreover, what a much needed reminder that God’s love is infinitely BIGGER than the problems lingering on our to do lists.

This week, my South African missionary pen pal came to Nashville for a visit. Doug is in the States visiting family and serving several churches sprinkled throughout the country, and he asked if we might like to have him “swing through Nashville for a visit.” It has been surreal to meet him in person, see him wearing the Nashville shirt that our Circle included in his care package last year, and hear first hand about his travels. What a gift. If you were fortunate enough to meet Doug on his visit and ask him about his life’s passion, he may have told you that it is “exploring ways of working together and building the capacity of the global church to bear witness to the good news of Christ’s redeeming love for ALL humanity.”

Doug has reminded us to take a step back to gain a greater view, to adjust our eyes to the bigger picture, and relearn that each of our missions in this grand world is to love God and love each other well. Amen.

 

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletters, October 2018

In the past, our country solely relied on the justice system to convict people of their crimes. Now, we have another force at work. Now, we can lean upon the media to convict people. In some ways, this has worked against our nation. People have made accusations that are unsubstantiated and simply unprovable. People’s lives have been ruined by claims that may or may not be true. That is an issue. Seemingly, the media and the masses aren’t concerned with the truth, only the effect a claim may have on any given situation.  The justice system isn’t any better at times. We have observed our justice system consistently fail to convict those that have committed substantiated and provable crimes. Bill Cosby may only serve three years in prison for sexually assaulting 60 women. That is an issue.

People have responded to the current climate of our culture in all kinds of ways. Some refuse to believe anything that media reports. That is an issue. Some have accepted everything the media reports. That is an issue. Others have found themselves in a rather unsatisfying place of simply not knowing who to believe, or what to accept as truth. Likely, most of us find ourselves in the third category. What is a faithful response/posture in the third category?

This month First Pres. Nashville is going to begin a study, through communities of belonging, on the Six Great Ends of the Church. We will study, as a faith community, what we believe are the ultimate purposes of the church. One of the ends is the, “Preservation of Truth.”  I don’t have a pretty answer for how we interact with all of this at this point in time. I trust Truth in this setting will help me. Whatever you believe, however you make decisions, don’t do it absent of your faith in Jesus, in a faith community. Wherever we land, we can’t get there alone, and we shouldn’t get there without Jesus. If you want to be part of this conversation in our community, let me know.

Blessings,

Josh

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletter, September 2018

Butts in seats. The Lord may require you to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him, but the church requires your butt in a seat. Some of my time is spent inviting people, likely via text, to participate in something that requires them to show up. In our world today, that is unique. Most of what the world asks of us is to like, swipe, or view. The best organizations have figured out how to avoid the expectation of getting people to actually show up. The church isn’t amongst these. Well, I suppose some churches have taken on the task that our culture has put before us. Some churches have chosen to compete with the trends of our time. God bless their efforts.

This dynamic isn’t new. The church has always had to take an inventory of the tides and figure out how they will chose to navigate the waters. Paul had to address meat sacrificed to idols. The Reformers had to figure out the separation of church and state. We have our own issues to address. Do we try to get people to show up or do we avoid the ask all together?

Someone told me the church can receive, reject, or redeem what culture has to offer. I think there are a lot of benefits to receiving the cultural trend of ministering to people with technology; phones, video games, etc. In fact, I think some people who have social anxieties or particular diagnoses benefit from ministers who have been creative enough to incarnate virtual spaces. I think others have simply rejected the cultural trends. I understand the benefit of avoiding competition with devices that welcome our dwindling attention spans by the second. Some have chosen to attempt the route of redemption. All of the responses have the potential to be faithful for any given community in any given place.

However we choose to engage culture, we must remember that the Christian faith requires all of us, individually and communally. The communion table welcomes all of Jesus. Paul names every christian as a part of the body. Our butts matter, so does Jesus’ for that matter. How have you shown up in your faith lately? If you are a person of faith, how do you know right now?

Blessings,

Josh

A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, September 2018

I have been thinking a lot lately about… Seamus Heaney. Some of you may know him? A Nobel-Prize winning poet hailing from Northern Ireland, Heaney was one of the most prolific and lauded poets of the 20th Century. I vividly remember studying his poetry for the first time as an undergrad at Sewanee and feeling captivated by his masterful use of gritty, gripping language.

Why has he been on my mind lately? Well, not only was the fifth anniversary of his passing last week, but I have also spent the past month immersed in his revolutionary translation of the ancient epic, Beowulf, with a most eager 11th grade student whom I tutor each Wednesday.

Do you know the feeling when you are in the midst of engaging in something that feels bigger and far more powerful than yourself? Perhaps it’s when you are playing an instrument or running the trails or delivering a presentation at work or watching your child succeed for the first time in a new skill you taught her. When I teach literature, especially the literature of a beloved author, I feel naturally swept up in a cloud of exhilaration, as if I am a mere element of something far greater than any one of the gathered parts. I believe this feeling must be an example of God’s graciousness. When we pursue and give life to our inborn interests and talents, this must be an act of gratitude to God’s goodness for the unique gifts He bestows upon each of us.

I confess, Seamus Heaney also holds a particular place in my heart because I had the distinct honor of meeting him after sitting for hours on the edge of my seat in an old barn outside Middlebury, VT, where he delivered a lecture to my graduate school class. At one point in this lecture, he recited (off the cuff and in his thick, gravely Irish accent) one of his most famous poems entitled “Digging.”* If there is something more beautiful in this world than listening to someone bare his soul or share his deepest truths to others, then I cannot name it. So goes my treasured memory of hearing Heaney recite his poem. The truth of one’s deepest being rings differently in the ears and tugs more fervently at the heart. In that cramped, over-heated Vermont barn on that long past summer night, I was witnessing an old master lost in the cloud of his God-given art. And I will remember it always.

As I have spent my past several Wednesdays teaching Heaney’s work and delighting in my student’s budding passion for his words, I am reminded of Apostle Peter’s encouraging words from 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

What gifts will you use to lift up your family or friend or community today? Is it your gift of empathy? Of administration? Of healing? Of humor? Of leadership? Of parenting? How will you intentionally connect today to those skills God has embedded inside you, so that you may push yourself and others closer to living out the glory of God’s kingdom? May we each work toward moments of mutual transcendence, when God’s gifts and our willingness to be conduits of His grace allow us to be swept up and bonded together as something bigger, far better than the summation of our individual parts.

 

*There is no video of Heaney spontaneously reciting “Digging” on the night I describe in 2005 at the Bread Loaf School of English, but for reference, here is a clip from Villanova University in 2010: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNRkPU1LSUg

A Note from Josh – August 2018 Newsletters

Do you need God to get through your day? How about to get through the fall season that is quickly approaching? Will you need God this fall? My sense is that most people, myself included, have figured out a rhythm to life that isn’t dependent upon God, and in that, I see a lot of potential.

In July I had the privilege of leading a group from First Pres. to Varadero Cuba, to partner with a Presbyterian Church there in providing a vacation bible school for the children of an under resourced community. It was a wonderful time of being in mission together with my Cuban brothers and sisters.

First Pres. has been sending groups to Cuba for 13 years. 99 people from our community have gone, most of them several times. I have been to Cuba four times now, and as I have reflected on our relationship with that church, it occured to me that we don’t really need each other. They don’t need us to come down every year. Their church will likely continue to thrive without our presence. We don’t need to visit them for First Pres. to continue on here in Nashville. But the more I reflected, the more I thought that is what makes the relationship so sweet. We don’t need each other, but we are committed to being in relationship with one another, and when we are in relationship together, life is simply more full.

Perhaps, that is how we might think about our relationship with God this coming season. Most people tell me they don’t go to God until they need God, typically because of a crisis of some sort, which I am not condemning. I believe God welcomes us whenever we pursue him. God is always committed to relationship with us; seemingly, because he wants to be. Perhaps this season of life we can commit to being in relationship with God, because we want to be.

Now, some may say, theologically speaking, we absolutely need God every day. Sure, I get that. And I celebrate the sentiment, but I am thinking more along the lines of a daily experience than an eschatological worldview. Anyway, that is another blog post.

Consider this coming season how you might commit to being in relationship with God. Let me know what you come up with.

Blessings,

Josh

A Note from Josh – July 2018 Newsletter

Anytime my wife and I buy something that requires directions or a manual, I take the ridiculous route of assuming I can get the thing put together without looking at the directions. My wife on the other hand takes the time to read the manual, to look through the directions. Inevitably, I’ll get to a point when I say, “I don’t know what to do.” She will ask something like, “Do you have the A piece connected with the B piece?” She knows I don’t. So I say something like, “I don’t know what any of that means.” It is a wonderful moment of humility. The scene typically plays out by me finally taking the time to read the directions and listen to her guidance. The lesson I have learned over and again – it is easier to put something together, and to good use, if you read the manual.

I think the same is true for the bible.

In the Study Catechism, question 57, it says, “Scriptures basic function is to deepen our love, knowledge and service of Jesus as our Savior and Lord. And its ultimate origin is in the Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets and apostles, and who inspires us with eager desire for the truths that Scripture contains.”

Does the bible function this way in your life? Do you sense the Holy Spirit inspiring you through Scripture? If you say, “yes.” Great. Keeping reading the bible like you are. If you say, “no.” Maybe it is time for a change. Maybe it is time to read a manual, or some directions.

A few weeks ago I led a bible study with some young people. We are studying the bible and reading What is the Bible, by Rob Bell. Bell asks this question, “But isn’t the Bible ultimately about Jesus and how there’s a narrow way and a few people will find it and everyone else is going to burn in hell?” He responds, “No, it’s not. It’s bigger and more expansive and inclusive and embracing and enlightened than that because the Jesus story is bigger and more expansive and inclusive and challenging and dangerous and enlightened than that.”

Do you think of the bible as expansive, inclusive, and dangerous?

During our study, we read Bell’s chapter on Revelations. Bell suggests reading Revelations more historically, that is to say that it had something to offer the people who read it a couple thousand years ago. That would mean that maybe it wasn’t written by someone who thought, “this won’t make any sense to anyone now, but in a few thousand years, it will all be clear.” One of the young people asked me, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me this before?”

If Bell is right, along with a plethora of others, suggesting that Revelations is written to a people in a particular time who are in need of a word from God, but this young person has only ever read it as a book that had nothing to offer the Christians of that day and age, perhaps they have been reading the book all wrong.

I think the Bible has a lot to offer, but it requires a manual, some understanding. I’m not suggesting that Rob Bell is THE manual for reading the bible, but I do believe he has written a helpful manual for reading the bible.

What is your relationship like with the bible? I know that might be an odd question, but lean into it a little. Do you read it often and regularly find it enlightening? Do you read it alone or with others? Do you read it sporadically? Do you just feel guilty for not reading it enough? Do you read it plenty, but mostly out of Christian duty? Do you want to read it more?

Before you buckle down and just keep reading the bible as usual, try reading Bell’s book first, and see how or if it changes things. My sense is that you will not be disappointed.

Blessings,

Josh

A Note from Josh – June 2018 Newsletter

“Don’t let anyone use your truth against you.” That is somewhat of a mantra for Lenard McKelvey, also known as, Charlamagne tha God, an American radio presenter and television personality. I first heard him use the phrase in an interview, and later in his book, Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Make It. It stuck out to me because so often I experience people, myself included, sharing partial truth, omitting truth, or simply avoiding their truth.

On the West Virginia Mission Trip, I had the opportunity to spend the first weekend with the rising seniors. During this time the seniors and staff spend time writing and sharing their stories with one another. Adam DeVries, the youth pastor here at FPC, created a liturgical call and response to begin each story sharing session. It went like this:

Leader: Vulnerability is not a weakness.

People: It is our most accurate measure of courage.

As each senior shared their story, their truth, I was amazed at the grace, love, and care that the other seniors offered one another. It was an incredible picture of the kingdom of God. What became obvious though, is that in a number of their stories, there was a hardship, a painful happening, or a truth that many people were unaware of. I don’t think our seniors are unique. I think most people withhold truths about themselves. There are good reasons for this. People don’t want to be judged. People don’t want others to think less of them. People can be vicious. I get it. When we are people who weaponize truth against others we miss out on experiencing someone’s whole self. And Everyone knows how unsatisfying it is to be in a relationship with someone else that only shares part of themself, or when you only share part of yourself. It’s exhausting or just… blah.

Jesus says that the truth has the power to set people free. In that freedom I believe there is a fullness in life that we can experience in relationship with one another to know and be known for all of who we are. Sure, there will be hard and painful truth we must sit with, but I think most people are like those seniors, they will rise to the occasion to offer grace, love, and care. My hope is that our community is one where we don’t feel the need to hide our truth or our self, that we would be marked by an openness, a vulnerability, and a courage that testifies to the kingdom of God. Amen? Amen. See you at church and around town.

A Note from Josh – May 2018 Newsletter

#blessed

What does it mean to be blessed? That is the question that my friend asked me over the phone a couple weeks ago. Simple curiosity did not birth her question. Her sister’s barren womb birthed her question. Her sister is in her mid 30’s, has struggled to get pregnant for over a decade, and upon her second round of In Vitro, the first being a failure, has finally succeeded in getting pregnant. After sharing this news with a friend, they proclaimed, “You are blessed!” She responded, “Really? What was I before? Cursed? You sure this is God? Why now? What was God doing before? Seems more like science than divine favor…”

In the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5) Jesus proclaims blessings over an eclectic group. He blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, you, when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

In our culture, blessings typically are reserved for the prosperous, the smiling, the successful, the leaders, the winners, the pregnant, and those who are spoken of with great revere, and whose lives we are slightly envious.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran Pastor, writes in her book, Accidental Saints, “Maybe the Sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’s lavish blessing of the people around him on that hillside, blessing all the accidental saints of this world, especially those who that world-like ours-didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. Maybe Jesus was simply blessing the ones around him that day who didn’t otherwise receive blessing, who had come to believe that, for them, blessings would never be in the cards. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?”

Google defines blessing as, “God’s favor and protection” a fine definition. Our culture says God’s favor and protection are for those who have achieved comfort, have acquired wealth, and lack nothing. Jesus disagrees. Jesus blesses those who are weak, have nothing, and need anything. Perhaps we ought to reconsider what a blessing is, who is blessed, and the God who blesses. If we are willing to give up prosperity as a marker for God’s favor and protection, we will begin to see what Jesus has to offer, for those on the hillside that day, and for our world today.

Josh

A Note from Josh – College & Center Newsletter, April 2018

“What is it like to be transgender and follow Jesus?” That is the question that I was asking myself as I walked into the lecture last month at the Why Christian conference hosted at Duke University. Admittedly, I know very little about the Transgender community. I grew up in the heart of  the middle west, small town Indiana, where there are males, females, some tomboys, and some “dudes who act like girls,” but rarely did a word like, “Transgender” get tossed around. So I decided this lecture would require the most of me, so I went hear Austen Hartke’s lecture on the subject of the Transgender community and Biblical exegesis.

The room was nearly full by the time I entered. There were a few seats front and center, the perfect seat for a curious pastor in a foreign setting. I began people watching almost immediately. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people came to this lecture, like me, out of curiosity, or because they identified as Transgender. My estimate is about 50/50.

After a few minutes of attempting to play it cool, like I was familiar in any way with the content about to be discussed, the lecture began, and I found myself on the edge of my seat obviously impressed by Austen’s care and concern for scripture and the people present. Austen began with an introduction, he provided his name and his preferred pronouns; he, him, and his. Austen seemed young and nervous, but there was an eagerness in his presence. He took time to define transgender and even share part of his story in “transforming” from female to male. Austen was smart, gracious and direct, which was incredibly helpful for an ignorant pastor from the midwest, who was doing his best to track with the conversation. Austen spent his time walking through scripture, specifically those that have been weaponized against the transgender community, and scriptures that the transgender community has strongly identified with. Austen maintained a non-anxious presence as he graciously walked through each slide; offering a glimpse into the topic.

At some point the question occurred to me, “What if God provided a home in scripture for the transgender community to reside?” Every Christian community I have ever existed in has attempted, some better than others, to posture themselves before scripture in an effort to guide their understanding of God and how they ought to live in light of God’s word. Most people make massive strides forward when they begin to see themselves in scripture. Consider, the first time  you realized that you have denied Jesus just like Peter did. Or when you realized, like Jonah, had run from God’s calling in your life. Maybe even when you felt compelled to share the good news of Jesus with a friend, just like Mary Magdelene did. It’s hard to see yourself in scripture when people have told you that God and the bible condemn your very presence. So, what if God provided enough in the creation account, the prophets, and the New Testament, for the transgender community to see themselves in scripture?

By the end of the lecture a sanctified smirk had settled upon my face; a look set aside for moments in this life when God surprises me in the most subtle of ways. I still have all sorts of questions about the transgender community, and scripture for that matter. Of course a one hour lecture didn’t answer everything. I left the lecture wondering, “Would God be so gracious to provide enough in scripture to make a way forward for my transgender brothers and sisters to read his word and walk faithfully in following Jesus?” Perhaps. That certainly seems like something God would do.

Got questions? Me too. Let’s get coffee and ask them together.

A Note From Ashley – Covenant Newsletter, April 2018

Barbara Brown Taylor asks the question, “What is saving your life right now?” What is that thing, that person, that situation, that whatever that is bringing you hope, keeping you sane, calling you back from the edge of whatever ledge you find yourself peering over, back to life? I think about this question often. (Husband has said to me more than once, “People like you are really serious about self-reflection, aren’t they?”) Among the things that have made my list in the past six months are:

  • girl scout cookies
  • people who have taken care of my kid
  • the FPC faith community
  • girl scout cookies (so we bought a lot this year…)
  • birds in our yard that start their glorious days with singing at 4:45am most mornings (“saving my life” is not exactly the first thought I have when woken by them BUT they do remind me to be a little less bitter and a little more grateful for a new day)
  • iron infusions
  • people praying for me and my family

What would you say? What is saving your life right now? Perhaps a co-worker? Time away with your family? A loved one? A conversation with a friend (or stranger)? A book? A sermon? Girl scout cookies?

Conversely, what is just sucking the gosh darn life out of you? I won’t share my list but if you’re like me, I wonder if that list comes to mind quicker. The things that drag us down, that even sometimes feel like death… don’t they often seem to scream a little louder?

For better or for worse, we live lives filled with both life giving and life sucking seasons, relationships, situations, and always will, forever and ever amen. In her book, Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved), Kate Bowlin says, “What if being people of ‘the gospel’ meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.” Because of the things saving your life, in spite of the things sucking the life out of you. God is here. You are loved. It is enough. Sound too pie in the sky for you? Yeah, me too sometimes. But if that isn’t truth I don’t know what is. Feels like enough to stake a life on, don’t you think?

God is here. You are loved. It is enough.

See you at church and around town,

Ashley

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