A word about blessings.

Dear Church,

The other day I got a hesitant request from a Court Streeter who has just moved into a new home.  “Pastor,” she said, “I’d like to have you come and say a blessing for my new home, but I’m worried that you’ll think that’s weird.  Do Methodists do that?  Do you bless stuff?”  “Of course!” I told her - “Blessing stuff is one of my favorite things!”

The idea of giving blessings goes back to a time long before the Christian faith.  In one of the earliest stories in the Bible, God says to a man named Abram, “I will bless you, and…you will be a blessing…  In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  When God said, “I will bless you,” God meant that God would watch over Abram, walk beside Abram, lend assistance and protection to Abram.  When God said, “You will be a blessing,” God meant that Abram was to watch over others, to walk beside them, to lend assistance and protection to them.  From the very beginning of the Bible story, we find that blessings are a powerful way of thinking about our relationship with God.  God blesses us, that we might bless others.

Blessings became an important part of Jewish identity.  Our Jewish friends say dozens of blessings each day.  There are blessings for different parts of the day, blessings for each meal, blessings for lighting candles.  Interestingly, our Jewish friends don’t begin a meal by saying, “God bless this food.”  Instead, they begin each meal by saying, “God, we bless you and thank you for this food.”  Blessings for our Jewish friends are a way of saying thanks and giving praise to God the source of every good thing.

I went to the Court Streeter’s new house, and we made our way through the home, saying a blessing for every room.  I blessed the kitchen, and prayed that it would be a place of sustenance and fellowship.  I blessed the back porch, and prayed that it would be a place of rest and meditation.  We came to the bathroom, and the Court Streeter said, “Surely you won’t say a blessing for the bathroom?”  “Why not?” I asked.  “We believe that God is present everywhere, and God can work through every thing!”

Today’s festivities will include lots of blessings.  We will bless backpacks, students, and teachers.  We will bless babies and teenagers.  We will bless water and new members.  We will bless barbecue and ice cream.  We will bless God, and we will bless you.  All of these blessings are a way of remembering the God who is the source of every blessing.  Each blessing is a way of giving thanks, and a way of saying to God, “Thank you for being in our lives - we need you!”

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

You are welcome here.

Dear Church,

Two news stories this week got my attention and broke my heart.

The first was a story about a boy in Denver, Colorado.  Jamel Myles was nine years old this summer when he announced to his family that he was gay.  Jamel didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but he decided he wasn’t going to hide who he was when he went back to school.  Jamel started the fourth grade this week.  For four days he endured tormen at the hands of his peers, some of whom told him that he should kill himself.  After four days of bullying, he did.

The second was a story out of Greece.  On the island of Lesbos there is a desperately overcrowded refugee camp.  The camp, which was intended to temporarily house up to 2,000 people, is now a sort of indefinite home to more than 8,000 Kurdish, Syrian, and Afghan refugees.  People spend all day in line just hoping to get some food, and there are around 70 people per toilet.  Children suffer from skin diseases caused by poor hygiene, and they also suffer from lung diseases caused by tear gas.  This week charity workers announced that children are suffering so much that they are seeing frequent suicide attempts by children as young as ten years old.

These two stories got me thinking about just what an inhospitable place this world can be.  So many children are told in so many ways, “You’re not welcome here.  There’s no place for you.  The world doesn’t need you.”  So many children are hearing that message and taking it to heart.  The New York Times reports that the suicide rate in America has increased twenty-five percent in the last twenty years.  Middle schoolers are now as likely to die from suicide as they are from a car crash.

These stories and statistics reveal just how vitally important God’s work at Court Street Church truly is.  If we were to do nothing but offer people a welcoming word and warm hospitality, that alone would be reason enough to keep the doors of the church open.  This world needs places and people who say, “You are welcome here.  I will make a place for you.  This world needs you.”  Greeting one another, learning people’s names, going out of our way to make room for children and people with special needs - this is the work God has given us.  This is how we save people’s lives.  This is how we save the world.  

Thank you for being here.  You are important.  You matter.  If you need someone to talk to, we are here for you.

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word about our excavation project.

Dear Church,

I recently had a conversation with a Court Streeter who never fails to amaze me with her sunny attitude.  When I ran into her at the church one morning, I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “I’m doing great!  On my way into the church today, I ran into this great big mess of construction.  While I was stopped,” she said, “I gave thanks to God that some of our roads are finally getting fixed!”

I confess that getting stopped for construction is usually more likely to make me grumpy than it is to cause me to give thanks.  I so appreciate the ability some people have to see the good even in trying or difficult situations!  Speaking of which…

You’ve probably noticed that we had a significant delay in our big excavation project.  You may remember that we are planning on doing some much-needed work on the drainage pipes all around the church.  The project will involve digging a deep trench around a good portion of the building, replacing lines that have long since deteriorated, allowing us to fix sinkholes, stairways, and treacherous sidewalks.  You may also remember that we had hoped to begin that project at the beginning of June.  Clearly, that didn’t happen!

Long story short, the excavators got hung up on another job.  You can imagine how that might happen - you plan so long for a project, then you actually start digging and you discover all sorts of things going on underground that you hadn’t anticipated.  The long delay was frustrating for everyone involved.  This week, we are pleased to say, the excavators are free and the work is beginning!

One of our office staff workers even pointed out a silver lining in this delay: If the work had started on time, our church and roads would have been all torn up during the Crim!  This weekend was a lot smoother than it otherwise might have been!  Like I said, it’s always nice to be around people who see the bright side in a difficult situation.

At any rate, please be advised that the digging is about to commence!  Expect to find construction equipment in the south parking lot.  If possible, park on the east side of the church in the pay lot (which is free on Sunday mornings).  When you come to the church and find yourself inconvenienced a bit, lift a prayer of thanks that we will no longer have sinkholes in the parking lot.  And if the pastors look a bit grumpy, take a moment to help us remember the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness could not overcome!

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word about Methodism.

Dear Church,

I first went to church camp when I was ten years old.  My home church, Menominee First UMC, sent me up to Camp Michigamme, not far from Marquette.  Michigamme was (and is) a beautiful place, perched on a hill overlooking a lake.  I have many happy memories of swimming at the beach, hiking through the woods, and roasting marshmallows around the campfire.

Michigamme is most significant, however, as the place where I first became aware of God’s presence in a powerful, life-transforming way.  There in the wilderness I was able to hear God’s voice and feel God’s love in a way that I never had before, and that experience changed my life.  One of the reasons I go up to Lake Louise Christian Community (near Boyne) to lead a church camp each summer is that I want more children to have that powerful, life-transforming experience of God’s deep and unbreakable love.

I grew up as a United Methodist, was sent by a United Methodist church to a United Methodist camp - I’ve spent my whole life in the UMC!  That’s not true of everyone in the pews, of course.  Most United Methodist congregations are a fascinating mix of people who grew up Baptist, people who started out Presbyterian, Lutherans who married Catholics and then looked for a suitable compromise.  If the church is doing the work Jesus commanded us to do, we will also find people in the church who didn’t grow up with any church background at all, people who experienced God’s love through the ministries of the church and are now taking their first steps in relationship with Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why so many different sorts of people are able to feel comfortable in a United Methodist church?  Have you ever wondered what United Methodists have in common with Baptists, or what makes us different from Presbyterians?  Have you ever been curious about the history of Court Street Church?  If so, then I’ve got good news for you!  This Fall, I will be leading a six-week “Methodism 101” study on Sunday mornings.  These conversations, primarily geared towards those who are new to Methodism or new to Court Street, will take place on Sunday mornings at 9am, beginning Kickoff Sunday.  We will learn about where Methodism falls on the Christian family tree, we will learn the story of the Methodist movement, we will talk about distinctive Methodist beliefs, and we will learn the basics of how the United Methodist Church works.  If you’re interested in being part of these conversations, we encourage you to contact the church office to RSVP.  Wherever you are in your walk with Jesus, we’re glad that God brought you to Court Street Church!

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word about Lake Louise Family Camp.

Dear Church,

Wondering where your pastors are?  We’re still at camp!  Wondering what we’re doing?  I’m glad you asked!  Rev. Christy and I just wrapped up a week of leadership at Lake Louise Christian Community in beautiful northern Michigan.  We helped lead Elementary Bear Camp - all week long we’ve been singing songs, telling stories, and eating s’mores with 3rd-6th grade campers.  We aren’t ready to come home yet, though!

Now that Elementary Bear Camp is over, it’s our turn to be the campers.  This afternoon, pastors and their families will be traveling to Lake Louise from around the state for an event called “Family Camp for Clergy and Ministry Professionals.”  This gathering is unique - as far as I know, nothing like this camp exists outside the state of Michigan.

Clergy Family Camp started years ago when a number of young pastors, just starting families, were all asked to move to new churches.  Those pastors realized that moving is an inescapable reality for the families of United Methodist pastors.  Preachers’ kids and spouses know that any year they could be asked to go to a new community, a new neighborhood, a new workplace, a new school.  Those young pastors looked at their growing families and wondered if maybe there was a way they could have a set of friends who would always be a part of their lives, no matter how many times they moved.  After some brainstorming and headscratching, Clergy Family Camp was born!

The Peters children have been part of Family Camp for as long as they can remember.  They look forward to seeing their camp friends each summer.  Pastors and their spouses look forward to Family Camp, too.  Each summer we take this opportunity to study and reflect together.  We learn about church leadership, time management, preaching, family dynamics…  Some summers we spend time collaborating to create new sermon series, and some of the series we’ve preached at Court Street came from those brainstorming sessions at Family Camp!

I come back from camp each year with a renewed appreciation for the gift that God has given us in this thing we call the church.  Everything is easier when we do it together.  Everything is less scary when we know we’re not alone.  When we step away from our cell phones and all of the busy-ness of the world and spend time singing, praying, and telling stories together, God does powerful things.  I pray that you experience God’s presence this morning at Court Street, even as we are experiencing God’s presence up north at Lake Louise!  See you soon!

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word about summer camp.

Dear Church,

Wondering where your pastors are?  We’re at camp!  Wondering what we’re doing?  I’m glad you asked!  Each August, Rev. Christy and I head up north to a place called Lake Louise Christian Community.  Lake Louise is located on Thumb Lake, not far from Boyne City.  Thumb Lake is a beautiful, deep, spring-fed lake, and there has been a Methodist summer camp on the shores of Thumb Lake for more than a hundred years.

Your pastors head to Lake Louise to help lead something called “Elementary Bear Camp.”  Bear Camp is all about helping young people who are new to camp get over their anxieties and experience God’s love out in the wilderness.  Teddy Bears are the youngest campers - they come with their guardians and stay for just a little more than a day.  Black Bears are a little bit older.  They bring grown ups to camp with them, too, but at night they sleep in a cabin, just like the big kids do.  Rev. Christy and I help lead camp for the oldest campers, the Polar Bears.  Polar Bears are in the 3rd-6th grade, and they are ready to spend an entire week at camp without their guardians tagging along.

Each day we roust the campers out of bed at 7:30am.  After a hearty breakfast and a good-faith effort to tidy the cabins, we take to the fields for some energetic, running-around-type games.  Once campers have got all the wiggles out, we settle in for a time of worship.  Worship at camp involves lots of skits and singing.  This year our theme is, “Let there be light!”  All week long we will be talking about how God turns on the light in our most desperate moments. 

The rest of our morning is filled with various activities.  One day we will make water rockets out of pop bottles, another day we will run ragged playing capture the flag.  After lunch, everyone is ready for a quiet hour of rest!  When we’re good and recharged, the whole camp heads down to the beach.  Some campers play on the giant inflatables, some just splash around, and others scour the beach looking for Petoskey stones.  After supper we gather for an evening activity - we might watch a movie and eat popcorn, or we might have the campers put on a variety show.  Every day ends with a time of reflection around the campfire, complete with silly songs, s’mores, and prayer.  

We are so grateful to be part of a church that encourages its pastors and young people to be a part of camping ministries.  We hope you’ll take some time to pray for the Court Streeters at camp this week.  Pray that we will experience God’s love in a powerful and personal way!  Thanks for your prayers, and thank you for helping to make this week of camp possible!  

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word about vacation bible school.

Dear Church,

One of the most disturbing stories in all of the Bible happens just at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew.  Jerusalem is abuzz with rumors - a Messiah, a new king of the Jews has been born!  King Herod, the man in charge, is shaking in his boots.  He knows that he is not beloved by his people, and his grasp on power is tenuous at best.  He can’t afford to have rival kings popping up all over the countryside.  He decides to take decisive action.  He asks his advisers where the Messiah is supposed to be born (Herod never paid much attention in Sabbath School).  “Bethlehem,” they tell him.  So Herod orders his soldiers to go to Bethlehem and carry out a horrific massacre.  They slaughter all of the male infants, up to two years old.  Jesus and his family barely escape, fleeing to Egypt as refugees.

I wonder if Jesus heard this story growing up.  Did his parents tell him what a narrow escape it had been?  Did they tell him to thank God for rescuing him from the massacre?  Or was this perhaps one of those things that the family didn’t talk about, a chapter in their story too horrible to remember?  Did Jesus learn about the massacre years later, through whispers and schoolyard gossip?

We don’t know how Jesus found out about the Bethlehem Massacre.  What we do know is that he was determine to be a different kind of king, exercising a different kind of power in a different kind of kingdom.  One of the remarkable things about Matthew’s Gospel is just how often we see Jesus interacting with children.  Jesus raises a girl from the dead, turning a funeral into a jamboree.  Jesus casts a demon out of the daughter of a Canaanite woman.  Jesus cures a boy of his epilepsy.  When his disciples are arguing about who is the greatest in God’s eyes, Jesus points to a child and says, “If you want to become great in God’s eyes, you must become humble like this child.”  When his disciples get irritated by all of the children who are always hanging around Jesus, he tells them that the kingdom of God belongs to the little ones.  When Jesus enters Jerusalem to carry the cross and confront the powers of evil, children line the streets and sing his praise.

These stories help us to remember the reason ministries like Vacation Bible School/Sports Camp in the Park are so important.  We tend to think of these ministries as opportunities to take Jesus to the children, but that’s not what is happening at all!  The truth is that Jesus is already among the children - he always has been.  We don’t put on ministries like VBS so the children can encounter Jesus; we do these ministries because when we spend time with the children, we encounter him!  Thanks to everyone who helped make VBS happen this week!

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word about our pastors.

Dear Church,

Did you ever wonder what pastors do all week?  The last couple weeks, your pastors have been busy engaging in ministry with children and young people!  Rev. Christy has been gearing up for Vacation Bible School/Summer Sports Camp, lining up volunteers, gathering materials, planning which stories about Jesus to share with the kids in our neighborhood.  Somehow, in the middle of all that preparation, she arranged for us to go over to Eisenhower Elementary to help with their summer arts camp.  For an hour and a half, we got to explore drama and storytelling with eight first graders.  They were lively and creative and their energy was contagious!  

This last week I was also honored to be asked to participate in a youth mission experience.  Each summer, around twenty teens from a Nazarene church in Illinois come to spend the week in Flint.  This year they helped to build a playground and paint some houses.  Each evening they gathered for a time of worship, and I was invited to give the messages at their chapel gatherings.  Each night we studied the Book of Acts, and we talked about how God’s Spirit tears down walls and helps us see each other the way that God sees us.  These Nazarene youth stayed in a Presbyterian church and got United Methodist preaching - it was a beautiful thing to see God’s people working together all week long!

On top of all the evening preaching, I made a trip down to Southfield: Hope United Methodist Church one morning this week.  Southfield: Hope is a historically-black United Methodist Church that hosts a ten-week camp for children in the church and the neighborhood.  In the morning the campers gather in a chapel for music, prayer, and storytelling, and I was honored to be one of this week’s guest storytellers!  What a joy it was to share a story about the power of community with eighty enthusiastic campers!

As we prepare for another week of ministry with children, my prayer for our VBS volunteers is simple: I pray that when the week is over, you will be able to say, “I am so glad I said yes to this!”  I pray that you will find your time with the children of our neighborhood invigorating.  I pray that God’s love would fill Memorial Park and your hearts, and I pray that the mustard seeds of faith we plant this week would grow into towering trees of the kingdom in years and decades to come.  We can never know what God will do when we agree to be in ministry with children, but we know that our time with children is never wasted, and God always, always, always does something!

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word on heroes and courage.

Dear Church,

Did you know that if not for the Methodists, there might not be a United States of America? It’s true! The Methodist movement got started at Oxford University when two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, felt like they were spiritually stuck. They became part of a small group that met regularly for service, study, and prayer. Other students mockingly referred to these young men as “Method-ists,” that is, people who did the same thing over and over again.

One member of this group, George Whitefield, went on to become a priest in the Church of England. The young Whitefield wanted to become a missionary, and he set sail for the American colonies. Whitefield started traveling up and down the colonies, preaching along the way. Whitefield was a dynamic and dramatic preacher at a time when sermons were mostly long, dusty lectures. He called on people to be born again, and they were, in droves!

Whitefield became the most famous person in the colonies. There are many historians who believe that his travels and revivals laid the foundation for independence. Before George Whitefield, people didn’t think of themselves as Americans - they thought of themselves as Pennsylvanians, Rhode Islanders, or Georgians. Whitefield’s revivals gave the Americans their first truly shared experience, an event that transcended any one colony, something they had gone through together. Without that sense of “us-ness,” it’s possible that the Americans never would have been able to put aside their differences and unite in independence.

Ironically, John Wesley opposed the American Revolution. Wesley preached sermons and wrote pamphlets calling on the Americans to seek peace. Wesley was concerned about the atmosphere of division and bloodshed that was developing in America. He saw that people were afraid to speak their opinions freely for fear of violence. Wesley also pointed out how ironic it was for Americans to use the language of freedom and liberty while keeping their African brothers and sisters in chains. Because he spoke for peace, Wesley became deeply unpopular in America - he was called a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a madman, and a traitor.

As you celebrate American independence this week, take a moment to give thanks for the courage of missionaries like George Whitefield, without whom there would be no United States of America. Give thanks also for people who, like John Wesley, call America to live up to the highest ideals of peace and justice, even when those words are unfashionable. Most of all, pray that this generation of believers would fill the shoes of those heroes who came before us!

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy

A word on hospitality and loving immigrants.

Dear Church,

Like you, I have been following the unfolding tragedy of children being separated from their parents at the US border.  I have had some tense and not necessarily productive conversations with friends and neighbors - maybe you have, too.  These are difficult times and difficult conversations.

I am not an expert in immigration policy; I have a degree in theology, not in political science.  As a pastor I look at these situations not from a legal perspective but instead from the perspective of the Christian scriptures and the Christian faith.  And when it comes to foreigners and immigrants, the Christian faith has a lot to say.  Many of the key figures in the Bible story were immigrants and refugees: Jacob’s family went to Egypt because of a famine, Ruth and Naomi lived as strangers in a foreign land, and the family of Jesus fled to Egypt in the face of persecution.  

The command to show hospitality to foreigners and immigrants runs throughout the Bible.  In Exodus 22:21, God commands the Israelites, “You shall not wrong or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”  This command is repeated throughout the Old Testament.  The New Testament considers the practice of hospitality to be central to the Christian faith.  Just recently I was reminded that the Greek word that is often translated as “hospitality” is philo-xenosPhilo means “love” - from philo we get words like “philosophy” (the love of wisdom) and “Philadelphia” (brotherly love).  The word xenos means “foreigner” or “immigrant.”   From xenos we get the word “xenophobia,” the fear of foreigners.  In other words, when the New Testament calls us to hospitality, it is calling us to love foreigners and immigrants.  This sort of hospitality is an essential mark of the Christian faith.  The apostle Paul lists the love of immigrants as one of the qualifications of a leader in the church (Titus 1:8), and he advises that any widow receiving support from the church should have a good reputation as a lover of foreigners (1 Timothy 5:10).  

Other people will be able to tell you how to make your voice heard.  Other people will be able to guide you to charities and organizations that care for immigrants and those seeking asylum.  All I can offer today is this: if your heart has been broken at what we see happening on the border, you are not alone.  Our faith teaches us that God’s heart is broken, too.  

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Jeremy