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Pastor Emily's Blog

Ask just about any church like ours, and you’ll find that church life in the summer takes on a different rhythm than those hard-charging months during the school year. Many folks take vacations. Often, churches pause their Wednesday night gatherings for the summer. Committees and teams don’t meet as frequently. Sometimes even the choir takes a break for a few weeks! (But don’t worry - our red-robed leaders will be back in the loft oh so soon!) Churches submit to the rhythm of work and rest too, letting parts of our shared ground ‘lie fallow’ for a season, so that we can be renewed and ready for the year ahead.

This past Sunday’s study of “keeping sabbath,” reminded us again that rest and fallow seasons are good, right, and sacred. So take that time, and invite God to use it in a meaningful way for you. I know that vacations often stretch to include Sundays, and that there are Sundays that you and I will be away from our beloved community as it gathers for worship and study, fellowship and mission. Of course God is not merely contained within the round walls of our majestic sanctuary. And our television ministry makes it possible to take worship at First on Fifth with you as you go; so many of you tell me how you tune in faithfully at 10:30 at the beach, on the road, and with the grandkids!

But even as we find moments of meaningful rest, might I encourage us all to guard our habits of engaging deeply with our church family? Perhaps as you sit on the beach, you write encouraging notes to members of your Sunday School class. Or in place of weekly Wednesday night gatherings throughout the summer, you invite a different member or family to join you for a meal each week to get to know them better. Maybe you even increase your financial contribution to our church each week you are away (because as the old adage says, “the work of the church doesn’t take a vacation, even when you do!”).

Why nourish our connection to First Baptist even when we’re away? Because our beloved community matters, in all the changing seasons of the year and of our lives.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a couple at First Baptist, who shared with me that one of their life’s dreams was to have a space in the mountains to call their own. But even as that dream became a reality, they made a covenant with God and each other that their weekends away in the mountains would end early on Sunday morning, early enough to arrive back in Winston-Salem in time to worship with their church family.

This couple knows what I do -- that there’s a unique, irreplicable spirit captured as our scattered church becomes a gathered community each week. I hear that same reflection from visitor after visitor at the door each Sunday, who speak of what they have experienced through First on Fifth. They remind me (lest I ever forget!) about what makes our congregation special. A sample from just last week: “I’ve never felt so welcomed in a church before!” “Worship grounded me in a way I haven’t experienced in years.” “This is the place I want to root my family.” You see, when the beloved community gathers in worship of our God whose Love brings us together, that’s when the magic happens!

Together in the work of Love, Pastor Emily 

David and I agreed with each other yesterday -- this summer is whizzing by so fast! It’s mid-July already, which reminded me to check in with all of you about how your $50 “living neighborly” projects are going! In early May, we sent every family home from worship with a $50 bill to go and “live neighborly” with it, to do so by the end of August, and then to tell us about what you did by sending the story of your $50 (and any pictures are an added bonus!) to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Since then, many of you have shared with me ideas and endeavors! I’ve heard about meals with neighbors, mixers and tea parties on your street, opportunities to get to know better the folks you encounter in your everyday life, you name it! You all have caught the neighborly spirit in a major way, and it is making an impact on yourselves, your community, your neighborhood, and your church.


My family’s $50 neighborly projects are still in the process of unfolding, but I wanted to give you a mid-summer update about what we’re doing). Our first goal was to create a more welcoming presence on our house’s highly-trafficked corner. Our across-the-street neighbor, Shelley, has inspired us! We’ve watched countless folks stop and take a turn in her tree swing, grab water and dog treats for their pups, and take a rest on her bench. So we wondered -- what if we could plant an herb garden right out in the front yard and encourage our neighbors to cut and take some for their own use? Ever the clever wordsmith, Josh coined this idea “Herbs at the Curb,” and we got to planting! As of this week, our herbs have finally grown well, and we’re now ready to post up a sign for folks to start cutting! We’ve already met and chatted with a number of our neighbors in the process, so I consider it a win, regardless of how our herbs do!

 

You also might remember that I told a story not too long ago in a sermon about the Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia who posted in their church yard a sign in Spanish, Arabic, and English that read “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor!” Since then, the idea has caught on, and these signs dot yards all across the country. One is now in our front yard too!

 

We’re not done yet with our summer projects -- still need to put up an invitation to get herbs and hoping to host a neighborhood mixer in September too -- but our hope is that these neighborly gestures continue to invite us ever deeper into relationships with God’s children who surround our home. So go forth and live neighborly! (And send your stories to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  -- we’ll share them in a wide way come September!)

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

 

 

My view at the moment is of the screen porch at Amma and Pop’s house. (Amma and Pop are the grandparent names of my parents.) Up above, the whirl of the ceiling fans makes this blazing hot July afternoon in Georgia manageable. To my right, baby Silas is making slurping noises as he downs his bottle hungrily in Josh’s arms. Out in the yard, Knox (the canine part of the family) rolls around happily in the sun. Upstairs, Annabelle catches her nap necessitated by a hot morning running around Amma’s church playground, and Amma cleans up from a delicious lunch. 

Just inside the door, Liam and Pop have taken in a couple episodes of Power Rangers and have now switched over to jumping off furniture. (Pop is watching not jumping!) Liam is already decked out in his bathing suit, goggles, swimming fins, and snorkel, just counting down the moments for Mommy to finish writing and Annabelle to finish napping!

Vacation for these Hull McGees is in full swing, and the slower rhythm of these days could not be sweeter. We arrived to Georgia last night for “Pop Camp” (some quality time for Pop + kiddos), just in time for dinner on the deck, fireworks off in the distance, and lots of giggling on the air mattresses that gave Liam and Annabelle a fun night of squirming and snuggling together.

For the first few days of our vacation week, we traveled with some dearest of friends to the mountains, where we sat on yet another porch overlooking the rolling ridges and hills of our North Carolina landscape. Six kids under six meant a whole lot of “loud love,” but between the squeals and squabbles, we all found deep gladness and infinite gratitude for friendships that know no borders of time or space or years.

This is sabbath! For a tired mama, it is restoring. For a busy pastor, it is renewing. For a follower of Christ, it is a necessary part of the Christian life to which we are called to practice. Thanks be to God for the gift of rest!

 

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

I wrote to you last week about the unusual nature of these past few weeks, which have been so in numerous ways! Sprinkled into all the fullness of June have been several experiences for me which have reminded me of the breadth of God’s work of Love to which we all have been called, and I want to share them with you to encourage us all as we travel the road together.

First was my third of four gatherings of the Convocation of Christian Leaders through Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School in Durham. Alongside 30 or so other young(ish) pastors, seminary professors, and denominational leaders, our June session explored Christian leadership without easy answers, equipping us to be adaptive leaders for a variety of challenges facing today’s Christian institutions. Part of our preparation involved writing up a case study wherein we named a quandary in our ministry contexts (whatever could I write about?!) and asked questions by which our colleagues would help us discern wisdom in our leadership. The hard work our congregation is doing regarding our facilities and mission was fresh on my mind, and these brilliant friends and ministers applauded the bold and courageous work of First on Fifth, the healthy conversations and dialogue around our process, and the sustainable path ahead we are pursuing.

Second was our time shared with CBF Field Personnel, David and Lauren Bass. Through worship and Sunday School, time with children and with seniors, David and Lauren exhibited so much of their grace and calling in full measure. Watching so many of you encourage them and pray for their ministry in Cambodia caused me to swell with pride to be your pastor, as together we are partnering to renew God’s world.

That partnering has extended to this hotel in Atlanta in which I write, the site for the 2017 CBF General Assembly. I’ve only been here a day, and already nearly every conversation I’ve had with folks has highlighted the decision we’ve just made regarding our future facilities needs and mission in the community. Even as I hear story after story of sister churches who share the same building struggles as we do,  have heard so much gratitude for First on Fifth as a leading congregation in our Baptist family in many ways, but profoundly in this particular quandary around facilities and mission. Our beloved community is called a trailblazer around here, and the week has only just begun!

Add to these experiences the countless notes and emails I’ve received from fellow ministers and leaders in Winston-Salem who have offered words of love to build us up as we tackle hard things together, and the word I offer to you today is encouragement. From right down the street to around the country, our larger Christian circle is giving thanks for you, dear church, and I have received it on our behalf to now share with you!

This month and every month, I couldn’t be prouder to be your pastor, forever grateful to be on this road with each and every one of you!

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

You could say it’s been an unusual few weeks around here!

 

I can’t tell you the number of times this month that I’ve wished to have had a course in seminary on engaging the media. The intense interest in our church’s future has, at times, felt like a floodlight has been turned on and aimed in our direction. And like the capacity of a spotlight to starkly illuminate the object of its glare (while emitting some real heat!), the recent news reports have done just that.

Many of these reports have gotten the facts (mostly) straight. Yes, our congregation is readying itself for a vote this Sunday to restore the exterior of our Sanctuary building, renovate its interior, reduce our footprint by razing Buildings B & C and closing the Children’s Center, and reimagine our grounds with the addition of an atrium and planting of an outdoor chapel. Yes, that comes after years -- even decades! -- of careful study of our physical plant. Yes, it directly impacts the lives of those in our Children’s Center community. And yes, it has not been without grief and loss.

What has often failed to convey are the nuances, those subtleties that often lie just outside the spotlight’s direct beam. With the desire for more clicks, more views, and more interest, how might a journalist forgo the salacious lead-ins (“things are on the chopping block down at First Baptist!”) to capture the untold hours of prayer and deep listening to God that has been invested for years as our congregation has looked to its future? In the hurry to publish a story, how might the news media resist the urge to oversimplify the challenge at hand (particularly about our Children’s Center) but instead take the time to understand the countless ways that you, the individual members of our congregation, have given sacrificially for years so that First Baptist could have a substantial role in educating our city’s children in the name of Jesus? In the curiosity about a pastor who is also mama to three little ones, how might a reporter capture all those layers when I can hardly do so myself? These, and countless other examples, are caught around the floodlight’s beam, leaving the story incomplete at best.

But you and I both know that amidst the spotlights, floodlights, and limelight, we are called to be people of the Christ-light. We are called to hold it for one another, bearing witness to the Light of the world that shines in a darkness and cannot be overcome. So many of you have written notes of encouragement to our committee, which along with dozens of others from fellow pastors and community leaders in Winston-Salem, have held up that Christ light for me this month. Like a flame in the night or a burning bush in the wilderness, there is no corner of our lives where this light cannot touch, no parts of the whole it cannot illuminate, no shade or nuance it cannot capture, no hope it cannot keep our eyes from seeing. For such a time as this and for our road that lies ahead, may God equip us to be a people of more light, less heat!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

 

 

Today’s article stems from a recent writing assignment from Ethics Daily in observance of Father’s Day about how my dad has been an encourager for me in ministry, and how other fathers of ministers could do the same. The following is my response. Enjoy, and happy Father’s Day!

Dear Dad,

I often remark to my church about how fortunate I am to have parents who work in my field. The advantages are obvious: “talking shop” all the time, unlimited advice, understanding of the ins and outs of ministry, even planning vacations around Sundays! But really -- advice and shop talk can come from anywhere. What I am learning daily to be true is that my ministry is blossoming and coming to life because of your unique encouragement every step of the way.

The roots of that encouragement run as deep as the towering maple tree in our old parsonage’s backyard. In those childhood years of mine, you opened your ministry up to me, giving me the space to stand alongside of you and find my own place within it. Together, we greeted the congregation side by side at the sanctuary door after worship. Together, we visited church members in the hospital and prayed for healing and restoration. Together, we delighted in the church extrovert’s playground --  denominational gatherings! You must have known the significance of such mirroring experiences as a preacher’s kid yourself.

Even as you gave me space, you also took me seriously. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of my opinionated teenage and young adult years. Nothing escaped my fierce glare, especially when there were hot button issues to debate, flaws in the institution to point out, and hypocrisies in the church to find! But instead of rising to my bait or jumping quickly (and rightly) to the defense of your life’s work, you listened well. You engaged. You sought to understand. You took my passions seriously, seeing wisely the Spirit’s burning light illuminating a call where I could only be blinded by the flames and consumed by the heat.

And now? I’m occupying the same vocational space as did you and your father before you. I’m trying to channel those passions into meaningful, sustainable acts of leadership. All along the way, you are joining God’s work in my life by granting me courage for the living of these days. With each phone call of mine at all hours of the day you take, each Saturday night cry for a sermon illustration on grace you return (oh the irony!), each question about building programs and capital campaigns you patiently answer, you are showing up for me time and time again. And in so doing, the courage I feel to be the minister God has called me to be grows, cascading like branches of the Vine into every corner of my life, my work, my parenting, and my identity,

Giving me space, taking me seriously, and showing up for me -- ordinary attributes of an encouraging dad to a young minister, yet simply extraordinary in the incarnational form of David Hull. Would that every minister be so lucky!

You know, perhaps I should just call you a gardener: helping to create the conditions within my life’s soil for life to thrive, planting seeds of love that can’t help but bear fruit, tilling and pruning away what weeds of doubt and fear you can find, cultivating attentively the gifts of God stirring within. And with the proverbial dirt smeared on your hands and sweat pooled on your brow, you can hold fast to this truth this Father’s Day and every day: the God who binds us up together as father and daughter is the same God who gives us our growth and calls us ‘beloved.”

 

With deepest love,

Emily

I can’t speak for all our staff and Special Committee, but I can say unequivocally for me that this past week has been like no other I’ve ever experienced: where some of the highest highs and lowest lows are bound up and buoyed by the God who never leaves us and the beloved community who surrounds us.

Sunday began with a robust Deacons meeting of passionate engagement with the work of the Special Committee, concluding with a strong and unanimous affirmation of the presentation about our church’s facilities and mission. Our shared worship at Pentecost stirred a new Spirit within so many of us, breathing life into our church as we dream together about where God is leading us through music and prayer, silence and scripture, confession and peace-passing and word.

From there, several of the members of our Special Committee sat with our amazing and loyal Children’s Center staff to share with them the heartbreaking news of our forthcoming closure. Many of our teachers and administrators have been serving here and together with each other for decades; Beverly, our receptionist, began her working career here 42 years ago and has never left! It was a profoundly sad time with them on Sunday afternoon. That same sentiment spilled into the Center this week, as we planted ourselves with parents and staff, doing our best to love well through all the grief and anger. A meeting with Children’s Center parents on Tuesday laid bare all sorts of raw feelings: fear and panic about their children and the huge hole our closure leaves in the community, fierce anger and deep grief that the church cannot continue it, and energy to mobilize for a new center with our incredible staff.

But in the middle of all of this was the Special Committee’s presentation to you, dear church. You packed into a Kelly Auditorium awash in reds and blues, greens and purples, seeds and Spirit. You broke bread together, filled with a holy laughter and friendship with each other in excited anticipation. And you heard, you listened, you engaged deeply in the presentation from our Special Committee. That spirit of hopeful imagination you felt stirring among us on Sunday was none other than the Spirit of God, falling fresh on our beloved community to lead us onward into our faithful future.

In all of this, I can speak with utter confidence and bear witness to this unyielding truth: God is at work within First Baptist Church on Fifth. God is at work, opening ears and arms to bind us up with each other. God is at work, when we watch even the sharpest anger softened. God is at work, in endless words of love and gestures of encouragement just when they are most needed. God is at work, giving us a deep well of strength from which to always draw. God is at work, doing a new thing in our community to lift us all. God is at work, refining and clarifying and transforming us into the church we are called to be for the people of Winston-Salem and beyond. God is at work, friends, and it is the greatest joy to have a front row seat to such movement!

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

June 4 is starred and circled and pinned on my calendar as a benchmark moment in the life of our church. It is, of course, Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the birth of Christ’s church and the unleashing of God’s spirit into the world -- howling, rushing, breathing new life in even the darkest corners of our living. I’m certain that this sweet, sweet Spirit will be among us both in worship that morning which promise to be festive and meaningful, and in the Special Committee on Facilities and Mission’s presentation that night at 5:00 p.m. in Kelly Auditorium. I can’t stress enough how important it is for you and your family to be present that evening, as we discuss this significant moment in our current and future story as a beloved community. Please join us!

The Spirit of God has been moving with the Special Committee these past 18 months, shaping and calling and nudging and transforming us into a more bold and faithful people. We are so excited to share our findings with you all, and I share now some snippets of reflection on our work together from these 13 wonderful folks.

Looking back over the evolution of the last 18 months, I immediately hum, “To God Be the Glory, Great Things He has Done! -- Annice Hogsette

We have studied the needs of the Church and are making recommendations that we believe will best position our Church to devote our efforts and resources more effectively to accomplish our mission of knowing Christ and making Him known, and to seek God’s will as best we can in the furtherance of His Kingdom.  

-- Martha Davis

Now, the time is right for us to move boldly with confidence in the Providence of God and as heirs to our history of innovation, leadership and compassion in doing the work of the Lord in Winston Salem. -- Randy Peters

I have no doubt this process both honors the rich heritage of First on Fifth while also positioning our church to enjoy a healthy future. -- Larry Hovis

I cannot fully express my excitement about what the future of First Baptist is going to be in downtown Winston-Salem, and I look forward to walking that journey with you. -- Preston Cook

Our task has certainly been challenging, and the journey has seen many twists and turns,  but our work together has only reaffirmed and deepened the conviction that God's call and claim upon our congregation is as strong and compelling now as it has ever been.  We at First on Fifth are awash in God's grace.  I'm so excited about the opportunity that lies before us to recommit our facilities and ourselves to loving God and neighbor, and to living out the Gospel in the midst of such a dynamic and changing city and a world beloved by God. -- Mary Foskett

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

This week, our pastoral staff slipped away from the office for two days of retreat at the St. Francis Springs Prayer Center in Stoneville, about 45 minutes away from here. The center itself was so lovely, each brick and beam on the grounds carefully chosen for all people to encounter God in the quiet and contemplation.

And the time we spent together was rich and full of life! I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Stoneville, but it was a place that truly invited us to unplug for two days! With very limited cell service and no wireless internet, we entered into a different kind of working space, one that isn’t easily replicated in the day-to-day work at 501 West Fifth. I have recently begun reading a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and like the title suggests, these days away were the equivalent of “deep work.” Without the regular, round-the-clock dings and emails and calls and notifications that we commonly experience in the course of a hyper-connected, modern work day, we were able to do the kind of “important but not urgent” work that you need us to do: thinking about the church’s systems of committees, teams, and leadership, dreaming about ways to connect members to small groups and Sunday School classes, developing strategies for outreach and meaningful communication to the community, talking about how we offer care for one another, and working on big picture items in worship, missions, age-graded ministries, administration, and preaching.

Over meals and at night, we held deep conversation and story-sharing, all laced with laughter. One of my stated goals for the retreat was to enter as a team of three and emerge a team of four, and I have no doubt that we did so. What a joy it is to have John Thornton join our team!

Lastly, we also spent time in prayer and reflection, holding you - our beloved community - before God as we remember and give thanks for you! We feel the same spirit that so many of you have named to us: that God is at work in our midst doing “a new thing,” and we are honored to serve together with one another and with you, dear church, for such a time as this.

I know I don’t have to tell you this, but Amy, David, and John are some of the finest ministers I know, and we all are immensely lucky to share in the blessing of their ministries they each so freely give. They are creative, dynamic, interested, focused, loving, loyal, and faithful, and it is such a joy to pastor with them! For the gifts of God revealed in a binding together of pastors and church for the work of ministry, I say thanks be to God for God’s indescribable gift!

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

Oh, if you could have seen the looks on your faces!

It’s not often that the pastor starts talking about handing out money, especially cold hard cash at the door. So when I said in Sunday’s sermon that each family unit in the room would receive a $50 bill when they left from worship with which to “go and live neighborly,” the looks of incredulity were everywhere!

The responses that Amy, David, and I heard from you at the door were great. There was some joking (“I’m going to go out two different doors, and get $100 so I can have a steak dinner!”), some stress (“Man, this is a lot of responsibility you’re asking of us!”), some creativity (“I already know what I’m going to do with it! I have a zillion more ideas too!”), and some snark (“Well that will teach people not to skip worship!”).

We even got a beautiful response from a TV viewer who said this:

We often watch your Sunday worship services when we are unable to attend our church. We really enjoy them. Thank you for providing this ministry. … Today you convinced my husband to go back to church, and we are going to take $50 and do something neighborly with it. What a great challenge! Again, thank you for reaching out to those of us at home. Love in Christ, Caroline

Since then, I’ve heard ideas simmering all around our beloved community. A group of men are wondering about pooling their money together to provide a big meal for a downtown apartment complex. One of our members who is an Uber driver has wondered about how he can be neighborly while shuttling people from one destination to another. Still another might take that picnic table idea to heart! People are thinking intentionally about how to be neighborly, simply within in their regular rhythms of life, but in a way that builds relationships.

Regardless of how the money will be spent between now and the end of August, I am most excited to hear stories of the experiences! Don’t forget to write up a brief description of how you spent that money and what you learned, and throw in a picture or two if you’d like! Email them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and we’ll be sharing them together.

May God take these ordinary dollars and transform them into extraordinary love!

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

 

P. S. If you missed Sunday and want to hear more about this initiative, I encourage you to watch the worship service or read the sermon to hear more! You can do so by clicking here: http://www.firstonfifth.org/index.php/resources/media/worship-media-center/sermons

You might remember that last year, I spent a few days in May at what I called “preacher camp”! Nestled in a friend’s family cabin in Black Mountain, five pastor friends and I gathered for this inaugural experience of sermon-planning and story-sharing. We had watched mentors of ours do this each year, emerging from a few days away with gifts both tangible (namely, a year’s worth of sermons mapped out and worship ideas for the liturgical seasons ahead) and intangible (burdens shared, creativity spurred, leadership strengthened, and ideas a-plenty!). And I think I’m telling the truth when I say that each one of us left last year, certain that it was the best use of time away for ministerial renewal we’d had all year.

That same bunch of pastor friends and I are back in Black Mountain for several days this week, and I have been looking forward to this week since driving away from the cabin last year! These dear friends have become some of my most trusted colleagues in ministry, and we’ve cultivated our collegial friendship with one another on a near-daily basis in the year that’s passed. Over all the best digital tools 2017 has to offer -- texts, messages, Skype, emails, you name it! -- we’ve shared stories of wild baptisms and challenging Deacons meetings, sermon illustrations and job descriptions. These friends make me a better pastor and leader, and what I have learned and gleaned from them is impossible to quantify.

This year, we will focus some of our conversation on pastoral leadership, and we’ve reached out to some experts to help us fill in our knowledge gaps. One such expert is none other than my dear old dad (!), who will spend part of a day with us, equipping us with tools that our divinity school education just couldn’t prepare us for. Questions about the administrative part of church life -- building management and capital campaigns, committee structures and stewardship -- will guide our time with him, and I’m eager to let him pass along so much wisdom from 40 years of pastoral ministry to these fellow young pastors!

I’m certain that I will leave Black Mountain from our annual “preacher camp,” renewed and ready for the work of Love through First Baptist Church on Fifth that lies ahead. So thank you, First Baptist, for understanding the need for ministerial renewal! And thanks also to our Personnel Committee, who has been so good at ensuring that all our pastoral staff have both time and resources for professional development. It’s a win-win all around -- a healthier, better equipped minister leads to a healthier, better equipped church!

 

Grateful to be on this journey -- with dear friends, and with you, my beloved community!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

Conventional pastor wisdom tells us that talking about money from the pulpit is a mood-killer. “No one wants to hear that!,” the elusive they say. I suspect it’s hard to talk about money in the church for lots of reasons, chief among them that one’s relationship with money is intensely personal. In the same way that many of us don’t want someone telling us how to spend our time, we sure don’t want anyone telling us how to spend our money! Even the mere conversation about how we as Christians are to be good stewards of the money we receive or earn can suggest that we’re not doing it right, not giving enough, not spending or saving well. Then there’s the added layer of institutional suspicion -- are we talking about money in church just to keep the lights on and the salaries paid?

Before you tune out right now, let me add: but that’s not the whole story! If we learned nothing from the life of Jesus, I hope we’ve learned that he was never one to avoid any hard topic, and money in particular! In fact, one out of every ten verses in the Gospels deals directly with the topic. Money and our use of it constitutes more biblical attention than words about prayer, or even about faith! With that in mind, how can we not talk about money in the church?

Because at the end of the day, the church exists as a worshiping community - a beloved community at that - entrusted with telling the good news of a risen Christ. Wrapped into all that theological truth is the reality that our faith in God through Christ changes us. Our experience of God’s transforming love as revealed in Jesus changes our priorities, makes pliable our opinions, and softens our hardest edges -- even (and especially) as it relates to the intimate, sometimes minute-by-minute decisions about how we use the money we have. And it’s within Christian community that we cultivate practices that give honest space for changed-life behaviors. Prayer, worship, fellowship, testimony, confession, study: all when practiced in community allow us to both soften and sharpen one another.

We’re spending a few post-Easter weeks in worship talking about faithful giving and generosity. An invitation I put forth to you is to conclude our three weeks with a financial response on May 7. Here me say clearly: this is not a fundraising effort for some institutional need, but rather a response to hopeful softening and sharpening that God in Christ through our beloved community is inviting you into in your financial life. Perhaps you have never tithed before (“tithing” is the biblical practice of giving the first 10% of one’s income to God), and have not ever practiced prioritizing such a gift. What if you tried tithing one week and brought those “first fruits” as part of your worship? Or perhaps you have fallen behind on the financial commitment you’ve made to God through First Baptist. Could May 7 be for you a “catch up” Sunday? Or maybe you’ve recently received an unexpected source of money - a tax return, a gift, an investment that’s done well. What might it feel like to give part of that to God?

I shared last week about my own journey of giving, and the very non-linear path I’ve walked thus far and continue to travel. I’m grateful for you: a community of faith that invites and encourages me to deeper practices of generosity and faithful giving, and I hope you’ll join me with the same openness of spirit to God’s transformation. Who knows what might emerge!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

 

Happy Easter, beloved community! What a glorious Easter day celebration we had together on Sunday at First Baptist Church on Fifth. From the breakfast fellowship on the lawn full of people and flowers to fill our cross, to the exuberant dedication of the Ammons-Lolley Commons after years of dreaming about such a possibility, to worship whose sounds of resurrection rang into the rafters, it was a day for the ages. That perfect Easter weather was but the icing on the proverbial cake!

I told you in Sunday’s sermon about the cracked window over my kitchen sink and the cups of plants that sit below it, reminding me each day that resurrection is always emerging in even the most broken, imperfect places. That truth felt significant for me on Easter, as my “happy family Easter photo at the flower cross” attempt was futile. Liam had overindulged on Easter candy the day before, gotten sick in the night, and was miserable on Sunday. Annabelle was squirmy and restless. Silas was starving and angry. Josh was over it. And I was trying to smile big through strep throat! So much for our best-laid plans!

I laughed later about it - the photo attempt was funnier once everyone had eaten and napped - but gave thanks that the One in whom we worship, the One whose power was made perfect in weakness and whose broken body was given new life is the One who asks us to bring our full, imperfect selves to the life of faith. The crucified and resurrected Christ doesn’t ask us to be perfect and whole, but rather transforms our very human selves with a divine purpose. Being Easter people doesn’t mean that we have to clean ourselves up, fix all the broken places, and put on our Sunday finest in order to follow the risen Christ. Nor does it mean our church has to figure out all our challenges and get a game plan before being the beloved community together and for the neighborhood. No - Jesus invites us to come as we are, link arms together, gather up our courage, and follow in his way of Love, all the way to restoration, reconciliation, and new life.

 

And that, my friends, is good news!

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

Some of you might remember my Lenten commitment this year was to meet 40 neighbors in as many days. I’m coming back to tell you that I failed and succeeded, all at the same time!

I failed in that I don’t think I quite met 40 neighbors. I’m honestly not sure how many I met, because I stopped accounting for them. For the first few weeks of Lent, I was keeping a list -- a handy Google Doc that I could pull up on my phone or laptop and add to anytime I met a neighbor. I kept it up a bit obsessively, leaving restaurants and sitting in my driveway and scooting out of Liam’s soccer practice to quickly pull up my list and input the names of neighbors before I forgot! But at some point along the way, I slipped out of that habit and set my list aside even as I continued meeting folks.

I succeeded in that I began to notice neighbors everywhere. Early on in Lent - perhaps because I declared so publicly to you that this was my goal! - I went out of my way to meet people to collect them for the list (and probably because I wanted to too, but oh, that list!). At the grocery, in the coffee shop, on the sidewalk - if there was a neighbor to be met, I’d try to find them. I realized just how often my life puts me in contact with folks to meet, people with whom to share a meaningful conversation, and stories to hear and hold. I met Hannah the barista, Joe the dishwasher, Karen the Lutheran, Elizabeth “around the corner and two houses down on the left,” Leroy and Shirley the kind seniors. I learned from fellow soccer parents - Matt, Samira, Susanna, Jamisiya, Mike, Melissa, and Coach Sarah - that four sisters of our soccer sons were Isabelle, Isabella, Annabelle, and Annabelle! I heard stories about the friend whose funeral Jack had just attended, Jen’s take on what’s happening at Wake Forest these days, and Don’s dreams for downtown Winston-Salem. It seems that neighbors are everywhere, faces full of the image of God and hearts seeking to belong and to matter.

For isn’t that what we all are looking for, to belong and to matter - to God and to one another? As we approach the holiest of days this week, I’m reminded that this is indeed the question and the answer to which we will seek. In breaking bread, washing feet, and calling for remembrance, Jesus looked intimately in the eyes of his friends as if to say, “you matter, you belong.” On that old rugged cross, Jesus gave all that he was and had as if to declare, “you matter, you belong.” And in the haze of the early morning dawn when all hope seemed lost, the risen Christ called Mary by name as if to shout through all time and space, “you matter, you belong.” In basin and bread and cup, cross and crucifixion, silence and transformation, God in Christ’s promises to us never end: you belong and you matter to God, you belong and you matter to one another. That is a truth that has the power to change everything!

I’ve still saved my list, and who knows - I may still add names to it to help me remember as the weeks roll along. But even as I do, my prayer this week is that even as I “neighbor” folks around me, that I do so and remember Jesus, the One to whom we all belong, and in whom we all matter.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

Minister and author Sara Miles tells the story of running into a friend at the farmer’s market one spring weekend. This young dad wasn’t a churchgoer, but knew Sara’s work in the church and was always generous with his questions and interest in her work. “I know you must be busy getting ready for Easter, right? Isn’t it soon?,” he said. “So what’s the thing to say — do you tell people “Happy Holy Week?’” She found herself struggling to respond. How DO you explain the rise and fall of this week, she wondered. She finished by saying, “well, at Easter, you could say ‘Happy Easter!’ Or ‘Christ is Risen!’ But until then it’s kind of confusing: there’s a lot of different stuff going on in Holy Week. You could get whiplash.”

Every year I’ve been in ministry, I too have felt like Sara Miles when Holy Week approaches. So often, it falls just as the buds and bursts of spring are exploding all around. The days are longer, the sun is warmer, and signs of new life are ubiquitous. And into all this color and light, Holy Week invites us to journey through the deepest and darkest of places. Our week begins in the triumph of Palm Sunday, then winds through the remembrance of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the despair of Holy Saturday, to the greatest news ever shared on Easter. Whiplash is right!

And yet, I trust that these weeks of Lent, weeks spent in reflection and meditation, in sacrifice and constraint, have readied us for the events of Holy Week. We will mark them together as a beloved community: waving palms and crying ‘hosanna!’ in worship this Palm Sunday, gathering intimately over bread and cup and basin on Maundy Thursday, surrounded with darkness and deep grief in word and song on Good Friday, and reuniting again in the joy of Easter - this year first on the front lawn, as flowers flow from our gardens to the cross to form a witness of Love to our downtown neighbors. I know this year’s Holy Week will be significant for me, and I do hope that you will create the space to mark these pivotal moments with your church family. These times of worship are formative, and still hold the capacity to transform.

At the conclusion of her essay on Holy Week, Sara Miles says this about our Holy Week work:

There’s no way to contain the mystery of Holy Week in a greeting card; there’s no way to convey the immensity of the Passion through even our most over-the-top, week-long, complicated liturgies. But beginning on Palm Sunday, we have the opportunity once more to witness, receive, and be Christ. Whether we’re walking through the spring sunshine in our neighborhoods, or waiting and worrying by a bedside in the dark hours before dawn; whether we’re rejoicing in the birth of a child or grieving a loss, we are not alone. He is drawing us nearer to each other, nearer to God, and nearer, always, to Easter.

 

May we travel these Holy Week roads together this year, for no less than resurrection awaits!

 Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

“I wanna hold you.”

It’s my new favorite saying from my almost-two year-old daughter, Annabelle. She’s a girl who takes after her mama, as there is rarely a moment in her young, feisty, and independent life where she is quiet. These past few months have brought a burst of language development -- counting and singing and calling the name of every item and person she sees.

But on those occasions where she cries and is in need of comfort -- and partly because we’re attempting to wean her from her beloved pacifier! -- she reaches up her arms and says to me: “I wanna hold you.” The first time I misheard her, repeating back, “you want me to hold you?” Almost as a form of stubborn insistence and not merely a slight rearrangement of a common phrase, she said back to me: “I wanna hold you.”

Awash in the joy of these moments where my girl holds tightly to me for comfort in her tears, I’m reminded of all that we adults hold onto in moments of fear or sadness or crisis. When life begins to spin out of our control -- a new diagnosis, a change at work, a transition in your family or your neighborhood, the ever-increasing and dizzyingly-rapid shifts in our world -- we find things to cling onto instead. The bottle, the pills, the chips, the schedule, the treadmill, the phone, and our opinions all fill our grip when fear or loss grips our heart. The very moment that we could reach arms-outstretched to our Divine Parent and demand to hold on until the fear subsides or the grief lessens is often the very moment we look anywhere but to God.

I’ve watched a sacred unfolding this week, in one of those moments when a community could find countless things to occupy their minds and hands in the wake of a tragic loss. One of our beloved teachers in our FBC Children’s Center, Ms. Katy Sturkie, passed away on Monday after a brief but significant series of health challenges. For many teachers and parents alike, Katy was the emotional rock of our Children’s Center community. With a reassuring smile to nervous parents and an easy laugh with trusted colleagues and friends, Katy’s 17 years at First Baptist endeared her so fully to hundreds - if not thousands - of our community.

In her final hours, the ICU waiting room of Forsyth Hospital filled with dozens of these friends and family members. And in a moment when their own hearts overflowed with staggering grief and anger and despair, they reached for one another, and they reached for God. After news of her passing spread in Tuesday’s early morning hours, parents and students filled our hallways, reaching for one another and reaching for God. As the days have gone on, questions of how best to support our teachers and Katy’s family have spilled into our phones and our inboxes, as Katy’s community is reaching for one another and reaching for God. And on Saturday when we gather to celebrate her life, I anticipate a swell of love even in the ache of grief, and a Holy Reaching, a collective “I wanna hold you” to each other and to God.

For what could bring joy to our God more than such a binding: brother and sister, friend and colleague, stranger and neighbor, child and parent, all reaching for the comfort of Love.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

There’s just something special about being together! That’s the feeling I get nearly anytime I have the good fortune to gather with other Cooperative Baptists for worship, fellowship, and formation. For me and for many, time with fellow CBF Baptists is part-family reunion and part-pep rally, but with ample opportunities for spiritual renewal and transformation.

Next weekend, we have one of those remarkable opportunities to gather with other CBF congregations right here in our state for the CBFNC Annual General Assembly! Next weekend, Thursday, March 30 through Saturday, April 1, Fellowship Baptists from all over the state will gather at First Baptist Church of Hickory for this three-day event. You should know if you don’t already that among CBF Baptists in America, North Carolina is looked to as the leader in equipping and empowering CBF churches. CBFNC, with our own members Larry Hovis, Ka’thy Gore Chappell, and Linda Jones leading the way, is dynamic and healthy, recognizing the needs of all sorts of churches in this unique cultural moment.

CBFNC recognizes that our Christian faith is lived just as much in the office workroom, the school classroom, the soccer field, and the hospital as it is in the church. This year’s General Assembly is titled “As You Go,” reflecting Matthew 28:19 which says, “Therefore, as you go, disciple people in all nations…” Through worship and workshops, mealtimes and training sessions, clergy and laity who participate in the General Assembly will be renewed for their work of ministry. In addition, the Baptist Women in Ministry of North Carolina will hold their annual Convocation on Friday morning to encourage all Baptists in worship and prayer. BWIM Executive Director, Pam Durso, will be the Convocation speaker, and our own Amy McClure will conclude her year of serving as the 2017 Convener of BWIMNC.

Not only have FBC folks Amy McClure, David Williamson, Nancy Baxley, Chris Gambill, and all our members on the CBFNC staff worked hard to bring this event to life, but our 2017 Chair of Deacons, Kelly King, will be the keynote speaker on the Saturday morning lay leader training! As CEO of BB&T, Kelly daily brings his faith to work, letting his commitments to God inform the way he leads and loves. Our own Gary Knight, CEO of ProBenefits, will lead a workshop that day about faith in the workplace. Even our new minister, John Thornton, will lead a workshop on Friday about poverty and the church. Our fellow Baptists across the state will be inspired and encouraged by the leadership of our faithful FBC folks next weekend!

Read more about all the events of the weekend and make your plans to attend at this link: http://www.cbfnc.org/congregations/2017-annual-gathering. Also, if you are interested in traveling with your fellow church members on Saturday for the lay leader training but don’t feel comfortable driving yourself, sign up at the Welcome Center through this Sunday for a ride!

I’m excited to go and learn from all these brilliant and faithful folks, to catch up with my CBFNC family, and to be renewed for the work of Love. Even if you are unable to attend the festivities, I do hope you will join me in praying for the CBFNC General Assembly, particularly for all through the witness of CBFNC who will hear the call of God more clearly “as they go.”

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

I realize that I’m a bit biased, but I was reminded yet again last night that what we do together as a church matters. Last night’s Wednesday fellowship looked like most do: we shared warm and filling fellowship meal around the tables, where conversation connected and bound us up together. We celebrated a half-dozen birthdays of our folks of all ages. We held in prayer those in our community who are sick or suffering. We heard briefly of God’s work of Love all around the world. And we centered ourselves in a confessional time of worship, where we were reminded that as “reactors,” our human nature distances us from God and one another.

Our pastoral intern Jenna Sullivan wrote a beautiful prayer we voiced in last night’s worship:

Leader:  We believe that we should love the Lord and love each other.

Congregation: Yet we react to one another with frustration and fear.

Leader: We believe that all people are worthy of salvation.

Congregation: Yet we react to unfamiliar faces with judgment.

Leader: We believe that prayer and solitude are important spiritual practices.

Congregation: Yet we react to our stress by blaming others, denying our needs, and isolating ourselves.        

Leader: We believe that all are beautifully made in the image of God.

Congregation: Yet we react to our own bodies with contempt, perfectionism, and shame.

Leader: We believe that the world needs God and God is able.

Congregation: Yet we react to the needs of others with quick fixes and assumptions about what is best for others.

Leader: We believe that we are loved fully by God.

All: Yet we react to our lives as if we are unworthy of God’s love.

Leader: God, we often don’t realize that we are stuck in this mode of reaction. Forgive us and open our hearts to You and to be bold actors in the drama of our own life, just as your son Jesus was.  Amen.

I do think our rhythm of fellowship and prayer, connection and confession set the stage each week for God-moments to abound, which they did for me last night! While quietly coloring our Stations of the Cross posters in response to worship, I overheard one of our brilliant elementary schoolers exclaim to her mama (who was coloring a large hand on the Station 3 poster called Condemnation, telling of those who mocked Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God), “Mama, you’re coloring those fingers all different colors!” Without skipping a beat, this equally-brilliant mama asked her child, “do you think Jesus died for just one color of person?” “No,” the child replied. “He died for that color, and that color, and that color…”

Perhaps that was an isolated moment between a mother and child. Or perhaps it was a faithful reflection, informed by their beloved community of many colors who lives life together, a community who confesses our reaction to those who don’t look like ourselves and resolves to bind up with one another even in our differences. Perhaps it was a glimpse of Love.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

I suppose it was only appropriate that last night’s Ash Wednesday service was preceded by a torrential downpour. It’s unusual enough for us to be in the Sanctuary at nighttime, but to hear rumbles of thunder amidst our periods of silence and see flashes of lightning surround the incense that arose like our prayers felt significant to me. Like a thunderstorm, Ash Wednesday has a way of interrupting the flow of things. It falls mid-week, oftentimes mid-month or mid-season or mid-semester. Usually whatever new resolutions or habits you’ve attempted with the new year have either stuck or fallen away. The rhythms of your week or your family’s activities feel rather fixed. And in enters this solemn reminder: “from dust you are, and to the dust you shall return.”

The words are as jarring as the visual reminder we give it -- the smudge of ashes in the shape of a cross that marked our brows last night. From our youngest baby to our oldest senior, we all bore this reminder of our own mortality, our beginnings and our endings, our temporality like the dust of this earth. I quoted poet Jan Richardson’s poem last night called “Return,” but I leave you here to the left another of hers for your meditation this day.

As we enter our Lenten journeys together, may this season be less an interruption and more an invitation -- to return to God, to return to each other, to remember who and whose we are, to repent of where we fall short, to renew our commitment to God, and to be restored to wholeness in all things.

I hope you will take advantage of the opportunities through our beloved community to reflect, renew, repent, and return throughout these forty days. We’ve traded vibrant colors for earthy browns in our Sanctuary to orient our way this season. Around the perimeter of our Sanctuary this year are the Stations of the Cross that you can read about in today’s eBlast. Wednesday night worship in Kelly Auditorium will give an added space for meditation and intergenerational reflection of a different sort. Lenten devotional guides are available for you to pick up and use to frame these days in your life. And worship services during Holy Week will turn our faces squarely to the cross of liberation. It promises to be a most meaningful forty days; I look forward to walking this road together!

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

First Baptist Church, you folks sure know how to party! I had the best time with you all this past weekend, as together we welcomed John Thornton into our midst. I watched you do what you do best, extending warmth and hospitality to our newest and letting your genuine excitement for our future together bubble over in full measure. Elsewhere in today’s eBlast, you’ll find detailed information about John’s timeline of transition. I know you’ll join me in prayer for him, as he concludes his good work at First Baptist Greensboro, shifts into ministry here after Easter, and prepares to be with us fully on June 1.

Also in today’s eBlast is a full compliment of information about the season of Lent. Beginning with our Ash Wednesday service next week, we will spend the next six weeks in a prayerful, reflective posture during this season of sacrifice. Wednesday night worship in Kelly Auditorium will provide space for contemplation in the middle of our busy week. Our Sanctuary will look a bit different: branches in place of flowers, burlap and browns in place of rich color, and a special art display that promises to shape our experience of Lent this year.

My preaching on Sundays during Lent will be oriented around the theme “Constrained But Free.” In their book A Beautiful Constraint, authors Adam Morgan and Mark Barden accurately describe the state of our living today, where we have more possibilities than ever: more access to information, more options about how to spend our time, more choices of all kinds. And yet, we are constrained within these limitless options because of a dearth of time, resources, energy, know-how. Rather than our constraints withholding our potential, Morgan and Barden pose that these constraints offer just the right space for transformation to occur. Similarly, Lent is a constraining season. Many of us “give up” a treat or a habit for these forty days. We add in extra time for prayer and reflection. We limit ourselves just as Jesus did in the wilderness. And yet, it is precisely within these constraints that we are transformed and set free to live more fully into the Way of Jesus.

One commitment I’m making this Lent in our “year of living neighborly” is one I’m calling “40 Days, 40 Neighbors.” In the forty days of Lent, I am covenanting to meet forty new neighbors: neighbors around my house and neighbors around downtown! As much as I love meeting new folks, it does feel a little daunting to meet forty of ‘em in just as many days, so I’m telling you here to help hold me accountable to this commitment! I’d love some company in this -- anyone out there want to meet forty neighbors too?

If our time in the Sermon on the Mount these last five weeks has taught me anything, it’s that living in the way of Christ is wholly transformative. In Christ, the overlooked and underserved become the blessed and included. Christian living becomes salt and light, flavoring and flooding the world around us with a different sort of illumination. Despite our bent towards anger and divisiveness, relationships grounded in Christ are ones of mutual respect, where we honor the image of God in every person we encounter. Enemies become neighbors, and neighbors become friends, and all are loved. May transformation descend for you and me!

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

It’s not everyday that a church calls a minister, so when we do, it’s undoubtedly an occasion to rejoice! I celebrate this day that Rev. John Thornton will be coming to us this weekend in view of a call to become our Associate Pastor for Youth, Adults, and Missions!

You’ll have the chance to read all about John in today’s eBlast, on our website, and through a mailing sent to all our active members. In addition, all are invited to a full weekend full of events to welcome John into our beloved community -- details in all the aforementioned spots. John also will be sharing his faith story with us in worship on Sunday.

Since you’ll have ample opportunity to read and hear about John in all these forums, I want to share here why I’m excited for us to call John to serve in our midst. You may remember that upon Kyle’s departure last spring, our Personnel Committee and a handful of other members with specific interests and/or skills in church staffing met throughout the summer to discern what role we needed to add to our ministerial staff. It showed great wisdom on the part of the Personnel Committee to use that interim for evaluation of our staff responsibilities, potential restructuring of roles, and “blank space” upon which dream big about what we need. That process made our final determination all the more fulfilling when we landed just about where we started! After reviewing all sorts of potential ministerial positions (part-time/full-time, with countless combinations of responsibilities), we determined that this particular blend -- youth + (young & median) adults + missions -- was precisely the blend that would enhance our pastoral team’s capacity to serve the current and future needs of the church well.

I tell you all this because John Thornton is specifically equipped and experienced in each of these areas.

For a season of John’s life, he served as the Middle School Director of the Preston Taylor Ministries after-school program in Nashville, Tennessee. His work in this urban context gave him ample opportunity to coordinate ministry with youth, parents, volunteers, and interns, leading the way for growth in number and in faith formation. While in Nashville, John also served as a co-youth pastor in his church, honing his chops with the bread and butter of youth ministry: Bible study, fellowship, retreats, small groups, you name it.

John comes to us as his Pastoral Residency program draws to a close at our sister church, First Baptist Church of Greensboro. As the inaugural resident in this prestigious two-year program to train young ministers, John has had ample opportunities to lead in adult faith formation. Through Wednesday night teaching and one-on-one relational development, John has become a trusted leader among adults. His particular passion for ministry with young adults (20- and 30-somethings) made him a natural fit to create the church’s young adult ministry. As a young adult himself, John knows what works. His leadership of a Monday night small group, along with numerous events and spaces for young adults to gather (ask him about “Tough Talk Tuesdays”!), has been most effective. Using just about any metric possible, there is a clear change among the young adults at FBC Greensboro, who are larger, stronger, theologically deeper, more interested, and more readily leading within the congregation than they were before John gathered and catalyzed this group.

Finally, John’s calling to missions emerges from ten years he has spent living with, worshiping with, and ministering to people living in poverty. Ministries he sought and served in Boston, Waco, Durham, and Nashville have put him in meaningful relationship with those who are underserved and experience chronic financial hardship. Those experiences inform his work now at First Baptist Greensboro, as he is the primary developer and overseer of the church’s “Christian Restoration Fund,” a sum of money used to walk alongside church and community members in need as they strive to exit poverty and find flourishing in their lives they would not have otherwise.

In each of these areas -- youth, adults, and missions -- John brings passion and experience to serve in this capacity. But beyond his skill in these three spheres of ministry, John is an enthusiastic and engaging natural leader. He loves Jesus, and he loves the church. John has a keen sense of the way God is at work in the world, and he is excited to join us in discovering God’s dream for our beloved community in this time and place. He is a man of great faith and deep convictions, and I see him bringing a measure of courage and joy to our congregation as together we join God in this work of Love. David, Amy, and I have spent good time with John over the last few months, and we already see how his personality and giftedness adds dimensions to our team, dimensions that deepen and broaden our capacity to serve our present and future congregation. We are excited to have him join our team!

In the words of our friend, Mike Queen, I continue to be convinced that “the best is yet to be”! I hope you’ll join me this weekend as we celebrate the calling of John Thornton to join us in God’s work of Love through our beloved community. Thanks be to God!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

There have been (and will be, I’m sure!) many times in ministry where I’ve wondered about the “why” of church. Why do we do this thing called “ministry” when so easily, we the church (“big C” Church universal and “little c” church called First Baptist) can get too distracted. Too bogged down in minutia and the particularities of process, too easily swayed by changing opinions, too worried about our institutional survival, we turn in upon ourselves and spend our time and energy on the small things of church life.

But despite these quirks and challenges that every church I know faces at one time or another, I remain more convinced than ever that our country and our world need the church to be the church.

When first-world humanity exists in a relentless cycle of news and outrage, change and disruption, we need the church to provide space for common worship and common practice. The steady rhythms of our life together -- fellowship and study, prayer and contemplation, song and sermon -- ground our daily disorientation in the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

When disconnection, disintegration, and division run rampant in our communities, friendships, and families, we need the church to insist upon connection, integration, and unity through our diversity, not in spite of it. The relationships we share with those in our beloved community are rooted in love and shared purpose, resilient and bound even in difference.

When fear of harm or evil causes a recoil against some of the world’s most vulnerable people, we need the church to loudly proclaim that Greatest Commandment of Jesus: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Our neighborly living should be shaped by and bear witness to a different way, a countercultural way -- the Way of Love in Christ that embodies the promise of 1 John 4: “there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out all fear."

When so many voices compete loudly for our attention, many promising to provide answers, solutions, and purpose, we need the church to amplify and embody the voice of Jesus. For within that voice, we hear promises of blessing and healing, of meaning and challenge, of saving and transforming, of grace upon grace. His resounds with the promise of abundant life.

Beloved community, let’s continue to be the church -- the steady, unified, countercultural, thriving people of God who live and love in the Way of Jesus. The need is critical.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

It is a remarkably odd place to find oneself on Inauguration Day.

Together with twenty-five other Baptist women in ministry who are part of mentoring small groups, I spent a few days on retreat last week at the Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama.

All of us admitted a little guilt that we weren’t glued to our phones or TVs as this country’s new president was sworn in and promised to uphold the Constitution. “Shouldn’t we be caught up in the frenzy -- catching every pundit’s analysis, every friend’s post or tweet, every ceremonial moment?,” we wondered aloud. But in an attempt to take on the challenge I extended to us all last Sunday, I tried hard to turn my eyes and ears away from the noise of the news and towards the quiet, the “white space,” the margins, the slow.

With our country’s leaders entrenched in the tension of transition, I walked the Stations of the Cross and prayed for courage to lead as one following in the Way of Jesus -- a Way of strength in weakness, power in service, freedom in truth, resurrection through sacrifice.

With protesters and marchers who fill our Capital’s streets on my mind, I walked the labyrinth and prayed for the Spirit of God to move my feet firmly in God’s way of Justice -- towards the last and the least, with the oppressed and the marginalized, for the fearful and the forgotten.

With a noisy, frantic, angry, relentless news media just waiting to burst across my screen, I sat alone by the lake and prayed for the Peace of Christ to persistently and repeatedly envelop us -- binding up the wounds of division, healing relationships that have been scorched this election cycle, and equipping us to be wagers of peace in this world.

With the sounds of bells and birds resounding around me, the sky and wind of Creation stretching above me, and the generations of seeds and soil undergirding me, I gave thanks to God for this abundant, sacred, holy world -- for the people of all nations who are made in the image of their Creator, for the country I love that even in difference, claims to be “out of many, one,” for the church that proclaims a Hope as sure as the rising of the sun.

This is my prayer, my song, my calling -- on this Inauguration Day and for all the days that will follow.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

 

Lots to cover and celebrate today, so I’ll get right to it!

As you will read in today’s eBlast, the church held a Quarterly Church Conference last night, in which we received news of our year-end financials that showed December 2016 to be the strongest December in over five years! Because of your faithful, above-and-beyond giving at year-end, you enabled your church to begin a new year emboldened, encouraged, and free of a substantial deficit that would have burdened ministry in 2017. Beloved community, on behalf of all of us at First Baptist, I say thank you to you! I have deepest gratitude for your commitment, your faithfulness, and your willingness to love God through your ongoing support of the ministries of our church. This is a moment to celebrate!

We celebrated last night at our church conference -- and we did some good ole’ Baptist church business-ing. As a pastor, you know your church is engaged and passionate when conversations around bylaws, proposals, and votes elicit a full house and much hearty dialogue! Joanne Henley said it best at the end of the meeting, where in reflecting on her first month of membership and first business meeting with her new church family, the intentionality expressed in our conversations and concern for a healthy process reaffirmed to her that First Baptist is just the right place for her to be. Thanks be to God for that!

I have been so encouraged by the response and energy of so many of you in these early weeks of discussing our 2017 calling of “living neighborly.” We’ll take the next steps of neighborliness together, as this Wednesday we begin to learn and study what it means to live neighborly. Our children and youth will be engaging these ideas in their own ways, and our adults will have two options to be further equipped to live neighborly. For the next five weeks on Wednesday nights from 6:15-7:15 p.m., Mary Foskett will lead a class called “The Bible and Neighboring,” where participants will explore the thread of neighboring that exists throughout scripture. In addition, Smitty and Meredith Smith will lead a small group book study on the book, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door, where participants will discuss how we become good neighbors to our literal neighbors around us. I am so excited for how these brilliant leaders will equip all of us as we are shaped by this call of neighborly living! You don’t want to miss out -- make your plans now to attend!

Finally, I will miss being with you this Sunday in worship, but I’m thrilled to celebrate the reason why. I am so honored to be preaching the installation sermon for my dear friend from Wake Forest School of Divinity, Steven Fuller, who will be installed as the new senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Gastonia! I will go to this sister church on your behalf, bringing the excitement for God’s work of Love from one beloved community to another. Amy McClure will be the proclaimer, concluding our three-week sermon series by talking about the boundary of fear in neighboring. The same God who says “do not fear, for I have redeemed you and called you by name,” is the God by whom we are called to faithful, honest, neighborly living. I am grateful for a community of faith whose rhythms and priorities guide us all to that God of love!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

Last night, our beloved community gathered to ordain and commission our deacons for their ministry at First Baptist in 2017. It’s a rather curious thing we Christians do -- ordaining men and women for the ministry of the church. For some, it takes on the form of pastoral ministry, or “full-time Christian service” as we once called it. And for others, it looks like lay leadership, where the call to servanthood is one that finds meaning as Christian teachers and business leaders and engineers and parents. For Baptists, this ministry of deaconing is one of servanthood and care.

As I prepared my meditation for last night, I began with the question, “what does First Baptist need from our deacons?” What do we need? I suppose we aren’t all that different from other churches, where committees and teams and groups are a’plenty. It seemed to me that we don’t need another group to deal with our building issues or figure out what faith formation looks like across the ages. We don’t need another group to tackle outreach or to create opportunities for hospitality and fellowship.

But what we do need, I think, is what all people hunger for, perhaps now more than ever. We need our deacons to listen, to care, and to be faithful. We need our deacons to listen and care and be faithful -- to God and God’s continuous beckoning; to our beloved community and the real, personal needs of our people; to their families and friends; and to themselves and their own souls. For it is in so doing that we find transformation, liberation, and wholeness.

I heard a bit of this same theme in President Obama’s farewell address to the nation earlier this week. He ended his speech by reminding our country that “democracy needs you!” America needs less of the “corrosive rancor” in political discourse, and more listening outside of our echo chambers. (A choice quote I’ve heard shared a great deal said this: “if you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.” Imagine!)

In a world that is increasingly faster, louder, angrier, and more fearful than ever at least in my living memory, the slow, quiet, kind, and hopeful work of deaconing -- of serving one another, of listening and caring and being faithful -- is precisely what this world so desperately needs. Join me in praying for our men and women who will do this important, necessary work of deaconing in the year ahead!

Your pastoral team gathered on Tuesday of this week to listen and discern and dream about how God is calling us into the year ahead. 2017 promises to be significant for our beloved community, and I remain full of hope and gratitude for God’s insistent promise of life!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

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