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Pastor Emily's Blog

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

Happy new year, First Baptist Church! I hope this note finds each of you well and warm, your spirits renewed from our Advent & Christmas together and your souls ready for what 2017 has in store for our beloved community. Speaking of “beloved community” and the year ahead…

We’ve spent a good year and a half together talking about our church as the “beloved community.” I’ve preached about it a great deal, we’ve prayed and worshiped around it, we’ve studied that image in Sunday School and dissected it on Wednesday nights, and our kids and youth have learned and created tools and artwork around this concept. In all of this, we’ve learned and experienced the ways that our church IS, in fact, our “beloved community.” We are a community of love, where no one is excluded and all are invited to bring their full selves - however flawed or wounded or ambivalent or anxious or restless or hopeful -- to our practice of life together. I always love to hear how you’ve experienced that here, because I have too! The “beloved community” has become a beautiful expression for describing our church that many of us now use, one that holds great meaning for me and (I hope!) for many of you!

With our language of “beloved community” and our understanding of what it means firmly at hand, I am now sensing God’s beckoning to us to spend intentional time as a beloved community talking about what it means tolive neighborly.

When asked which commandment was the greatest of them all, Jesus said, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Since that lawyer first asked Jesus this question, followers of Jesus have - in many beautiful ways - considered this call to love our neighbors in a conceptual way. “Neighbors” could be anyone! The wealthy man down the street to the underserved on the other side of the world -- all are worthy and demand our love and compassion as directed by Jesus.

As beautiful as this image of neighbors is - and frankly, one I’ve held for most of my life! - I wonder what would it look like if we as a church got serious about ‘neighboring’ those people, businesses, communities, homes, and organizations that are literally outside our doors? How might our church be better neighbors to downtown Winston right around us? How can we equip and encourage each other to neighbor the men, women, and children in our actual neighborhoods? How might we be transformed by all these relationships with our neighbors by the God in Christ who calls us to love?

I’ve got a nickname in mind for 2017 in our beloved community: “The Year of Living Neighborly.” We’ll spend intentional time and energy in a myriad of ways this year unpacking this idea and incarnating it among us! We’ll start first with a three-week sermon series:

 

January 8: “The Year of Living Neighborly”
Matthew 22:34-40
Emily Hull McGee, proclaimer

January 15: “Living Neighborly: The Boundary of Time”
Luke 10:38-42
Emily Hull McGee, proclaimer

January 22: “Living Neighborly: The Boundary of Fear”
Luke 10:25-37
Amy McClure, proclaimer

 

My hope is that these ideas will then begin to trickle into our Wednesday night teachings, our Deacons, committees, and ministry team initiatives, our building, our outreach, our way of living life together, our homes and families and calendars, and even our very being as followers of Christ. It feels ambitious, but why not start the new year with big hopes, right?

Stay tuned for more as we live neighborly in 2017!

Another way we’ll begin this new year is by ordaining and commissioning our deacons for their year of service ahead. The ministry of deaconing is one of servanthood, of pastoral care, of discernment and wisdom-seeking and wisdom-sharing. During our Service of Ordination and Commissioning, one new deacon will be ordained and all 32 women and men who heard God’s call to serve in this capacity and said ‘yes’ will be sent forth for their ministry at First Baptist this year. Plan to join us this Wednesday, January 11, at 6:15 p.m. in the Sanctuary for what promises to be a meaningful time of ordination and celebration!

God is at work in our beloved community -- calling, equipping, empowering, neighboring, and restoring us for the work of Love to which we have been called this year! So grateful to be on this road with each and every one of you.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

I count myself among the millions of others (surely there are millions?!) who are still finalizing all their Christmas tasks in these last days before Christmas. While all the decorations are up and parties are completed, I still see a list of what is left to accomplish. My tree is decorated, but no presents yet encircle it. Most are bought, just waiting to be wrapped away from the prying hands of curious little ones. My Christmas cards have yet to be created. Final preparations for our weekend worship services are underway. It’s not yet time to pause.

But my prayer for you and for me is that the time will soon arrive where we pause at the manger. Because isn’t that what Advent prepares us to do? I need that reminder each year, that Advent is not merely the weeks to accomplish all the Christmas tasks, but rather that holy season that readies us for the coming of the Christ child.

Together, we will stop at the manger this weekend, and I do hope you’ll be a part of these sacred moments! First on Saturday - Christmas Eve - for a candlelight service at 5:00 p.m. On that holy night, we will join with the familiar cast of characters that dot our nativity scenes to welcome the One that comes as Love made flesh. And on Sunday - Christmas Day - we’ll come again to announce with joy that Christ is born! I do hope you’ll make space in your Christmas this year to pause in wonder at the baby who changes everything.

This year where Christmas Day falls on a Sunday recalled a poem I read recently. If we’re not aware, if we don’t set aside our tasks and lists and traditions long enough to notice, Christmas will pass us by in its very ordinariness. But if this Advent season has sparked within us a holy awareness that leads to a sacred pause at the manger… well, that could change the world!

 

A poem by U.A. Fanthorpe, entitled “BC:AD”:

This was the moment when Before

Turned into After, and the future's

Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

 

This was the moment when nothing

Happened. Only dull peace

Sprawled boringly over the earth.

 

This was the moment when even energetic Romans

Could find nothing better to do

Than counting heads in remote provinces.

 

And this was the moment

When a few farm workers and three

Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight

Into the kingdom of heaven.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

My first experience of a Lessons & Carols service came in college. I was one of twenty students who sang in our school’s Chamber Choir, and each Advent season, we led the folks of Furman University in this traditional service that tells the story of Jesus through scripture and song. First introduced to the world on Christmas Eve 1918, a Festival of Lessons & Carols originated at King’s College of Oxford University in Oxford, England. The college had recently appointed a new young Dean of the school, and his desire for an imaginative worship experience gave birth to an enduring tradition.

Save for a few minor tweaks, the basic pattern of nine scripture lessons interspersed with carols and prayers has remained constant each year. The story of Jesus, that sacred mystery of God incarnate, begins from origin of humanity in Genesis. As the fallenness of Adam and Eve find hope in the blessing of Abraham, the prophecies of Isaiah ignite a great possibility of One who comes into a hurting world to resist the darkness and bear the light. Soon the familiar story of the holy family and all the characters who form their nativity narrative fill in the story. The ninth lesson from John 1 unfolds that great mystery of the incarnation with the otherworldly Word and words, “In the beginning was the Word…”

A Service of Lessons & Carols became widely popular and adapted by other churches after 1928, when the King’s College service was first broadcast on the radio. With the exception of the year 1930, this service has been broadcast each year, now to millions of listeners worldwide. Even in the face of the grim realities of World War Two, when in the chapel, the ancient stained glass had to be removed, the heat cut off, and the name of the event withheld all for security reasons, this observance of Lessons and Carols persisted.

And now? The service has been borrowed and personalized by people and traditions all around the world. The folks at King’s College have heard stories of the service practiced in the West Indies or the far east, a tent on the foothills of Mount Everest and in the stark chill of the desert at night. But no matter how it finds new life and meaning, the story of God’s work of Love in this world remains the same. Into the horrors and anxieties and indifference of the world, this service of Lessons and Carols persists. And through it, millions are called each year to resist the darkness and bear witness to the Light.

You and I will have the opportunity this Sunday to practice that resistance and again be transformed by this story that changes everything! I poked my head into choir rehearsal last night, and our choir is excited and ready to lead us in worship on Sunday. The halls are decked, the trees are trimmed, an orchestra will fill the platform and singers will pack the loft. It will be the church at Christmas in all its glory!

But in the fullness of the day, may all of us hear anew the story of a God who so loved this world that a son was sent, Love was made flesh, Hope was born anew in that little town of Bethlehem. Who in your life needs to hear this good news on Sunday? I do hope you’ll bring a friend and join with us this week as we celebrate the One whose life changes everything!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

Parenting a four year-old has its challenges, of course, but its perks include getting a front-row seat for a bevy of birthday parties! Liam and his classroom friends from the Children’s Center are in the stretch of the year where they all turn four, and their adorable birthday parties now dot the landscape of our weekends.

Last Saturday afternoon, I stood at the Winston-Salem Sportsplex, watching dozens of little ones run and squeal around an indoor soccer field. Watching right along with me was another mom whose son is one of Liam’s classmates. Our conversations usually consist of the two or three-sentence greetings we share when running into each other at drop off and pick up, usually breathless and hurried as we attempt (however successfully) to get our kids from Point A to Point B.

The great thing about these kids’ birthday parties come as they afford us parents time together too. The kids are usually otherwise engaged with an activity, and as we watch them, we have time to get to know each other. Our conversations are generally still about parenting and family life, but this one on Saturday took a different turn.

“So I saw the notice in my kid’s cubby about your church’s Advent services, and we’re thinking about coming! But I need to know if there are any rules you have that we should know about ahead of time,” she begins rather shyly. Those wonderful Advent cards that Amy Turner created for us had been passed out to all 150 kids in our Children’s Center as an extended invitation to come and worship with us this season. She had grown up Catholic, you see, but her practice of the faith had lapsed. She remembered her upbringing, though, and wasn’t sure what rules and restrictions we might have on who takes communion, or who is allowed into worship, or what she should wear, or if she needed to bring anything with her.

What followed was one of the best parts of my line of work, where in places as mundane as a kid’s birthday party, opportunities for outreach and meaningful conversation about faith open up. I delighted in telling her about our Sunday worship, describing what Christmas Eve would look like, and sharing stories of you and our beloved community. Even with kids screaming and running around us, I think that perhaps she heard a word about God and the people of God that form the church in a new way that day.

I don’t know if she and her family will end up worshiping with us. And we don’t know how many of all the folks who have received one of our Advent cards this week will join us. But what I do know is that seeds were planted, that a door opened, and that our next conversation has the promise to build meaningfully upon this one.

As you move throughout these busy December days, how might you find ways to invite your friends and family, neighbors and strangers to hear anew God’s message of Love this Advent? Will you gather up the courage needed to extend an invitation and plant a seed? Just imagine what might blossom...

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

The first few days and week or so of Advent are always a bit disorienting for me, and this year is no different. All around us, our malls and shops have - for weeks! - had their Christmas decorations up on display and radio stations already on the holiday channel, some since Halloween or before. Thanksgiving comes and goes, and officially “Christmas” is unleashed.

And then a congregation fills a sanctuary, where sparkling trees flank the choir loft and poinsettias sprawl across the platform. Many of you come excitedly in your Christmas sweaters and dresses and ties. We hang the greens that day as we do each year, each wreath and candle and nativity piece looking very much like those amidst the holiday hubbub outside our walls, but insisting that these here call us to tell a different story.

Because even amidst the flurry and excitement inherent this time of year is a realization that all is not calm and bright in our lives. I found myself surprised to nod in agreement with Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in a piece he wrote on this Advent/Christmas tension this week, saying:

In the kingdom [of God], we receive comfort in a very different way than we’re taught to in American culture. We receive comfort not from faking cheerfulness or trying to drown out the throbbing of our souls with holly jolly sentimentality. We are comforted when we see our sin, our brokenness, our desperate circumstances, and we grieve and cry out for deliverance. In a time when we seem to learn of a new tragedy each day, the unbearable lightness of Christmas seems absurd to the watching world. But, even in the best of times, we all know that we live in a groaning universe, a world of divorce courts and cancer cells and concentration camps. Just as we sing with joy about the coming of the Promised One, we ought also to sing with groaning that he is not back yet (Rom. 8:23), sometimes with groanings too deep for lyrics.

Nowhere was the truth of this dissonance more profound for me than during last night’s Healing for the Holidays service. After song and prayer, silence and scripture, those that gathered in the chapel streamed forward from their seats. We shared in communion, and then one by one, members of our beloved community came to Amy and me to voice a prayer stirring within them and receive anointing for healing. Groaning and grief were palpable in these prayers: prayers for loneliness after a spouse’s death, for family members whose cancer had spread, for grandchildren who struggle to know their belovedness, for weariness from the tasks of everyday life, for fear of the hatred that seems newly awakened in our country, for strength and wisdom in facing significant challenges at work. As I grasped your hands and looked deeply into so many beloved eyes filled with tears, I felt the great heaviness of these burdens you carry.

But surrounding us all last night (and every night) like stubborn seeds that insist upon growing even in the deadest and darkest of places, was the hope of Advent. Hope that delivers and binds us up, shooting out from the stump and shining out in a darkness that cannot overcome it. Hope that is born anew in our hearts and in a manger. Hope that is the Hope of the world!

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

I want you to know about some visitors we will have in our midst this weekend! This summer and early fall, our Outreach Ministry Team has been hard at work considering how we tell our church’s story to the wider community around us. Those in the business world might call this process “branding” or “marketing,” but we continue to frame this around the idea of story. Who are we, First Baptist Church on Fifth? What words or phrases do we use to describe both who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do? What images help to tell that story to Winston-Salem? How does our website function as a “virtual front door” to the vast majority of visitors who check out a church’s website before ever entering its doors?

Fortunately, we have some new friends that will help us discern some answers to these questions! We have begun working with FaithLab, a team of storytellers and communicators out of Macon, Georgia who help churches tell their stories using the tools of this generation - web, media, photography, video, and design. FaithLab comes highly recommended by our friends within churches and organizations of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Check out the work they’ve done at many of our sister churches around the Southeast at http://faithlab.com! Folks from FaithLab will join us throughout the weekend to meet with our Outreach team and do a good deal of photography and videos of our congregation at play, in worship, and in fellowship together, photos and videos which will eventually be used on a newly-designed website in 2017! I hope you’ll plan to be here on Sunday to welcome them - and be captured in these beautiful new photographs!

You’ll also want to be here Sunday as we gather after worship for our Quarterly Church Conference at pot-luck lunch. Make a delicious dish, and come on down for fellowship with your beloved community and a time to do the work of the church. Sometimes just the thought of a “church business meeting” can make even the churchiest among us run for the hills! But fortunately, with a bit of fried chicken, casseroles, and pound cakes, along with stories and reports about what God is up to in our midst, and grand fellowship around the tables, you will leave energized about what lies ahead for our beloved community.

I have great anticipation for what is to come in the next months and year of our life together at First on Fifth! Between our global missions emphasis this month in worship, our ongoing conversations about the building and the ministries contained within, our various groups and classes and teams who are doing meaningful Kingdom work each week, and our excellent staff and lay leaders who are shepherding us all, God is at work in this place!

On a personal note, the next time I write you - God-willing! - my new baby will have arrived into the world! I’ll be taking a break in these weekly missives while on maternity leave, but promise to check in with a report and pictures from the home front. I’m reminded that while my rhythm of life will change for a brief season, it will be a rhythm fully interwoven with the great mysteries and delights of this world. I give thanks for all of you who continue to keep our family in your prayers during this time of transition! We can’t wait for you to meet our little boy!

Together in the work of Love,

Emily

I had the great fortune to travel last week - first to Washington, DC, and then to Durham - for two experiences about which I’d like to share with you! My first stop in Washington was for the annual board meeting of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC for short). I’m going to quote now from the BJC website, as they’ve described best the work they do: The mission of the BJC is to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, furthering the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. Composed of representatives of 15 national, state and regional Baptist bodies in the United States and supported by thousands of churches and individuals across the country, the BJC is the only faith-based agency devoted solely to religious liberty and the institutional separation of church and state. (From http://bjconline.org)

One of the bedrock, historic Baptist principles that shaped not only our founding as a Christian people, but our country’s founding as a free people is that of the freedom for and from religion. Some of our earliest heroes like Baptist Colonel Roger Williams talked of the “wall of separation” that exists between the church and the state, allowing religious liberty to be best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other. You can imagine that in our current political and social climate, the wonderful staff of the BJC is working tirelessly to defend and extend that religious liberty - for us and for people of all faiths. I left recommitted to doing my part in this good work, and I hope that you will read more about their work on their website or in their monthly “Report from the Capitol” newsletters that are available for you to take in the hallway just outside the Sanctuary.

The second stop on my trip is one I covenant to share more about with you over the coming year. I have been invited to participate in a year-long program called “A Convocation of Christian Leaders,” hosted by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School in a series of four three-day gatherings this year. Together with other young pastors, theological educators, and denominational leaders from around the country seeking extended conversation about the theology and practice of leadership in Christian institutions, I enjoyed three wonderful days of creative thinking and dialogue about what it means to practice leading in faithful abundance.

Part of what will make this experience so different from most other professional development gatherings I have completed is that I am among perhaps the most ecumenically-diverse group of Christian leaders I know! I was the only Baptist - I tried to represent us well! - and loved gathering with these other dynamic, creative, and faithful young leaders and our exceptional conveners who are among the finest in the country in teaching Christian leadership right now. I am certain this experience will be a rich, meaningful, and immensely formative one for me and for us as a church! Throughout the year, I will be tasked with writing and speaking some about what I’m learning, so look for more in-depth reflection from me in the months to come.

Together, these experiences reminded me yet again of how intimately connected we are in the practice of our faith with people of faith all over the world! Thanks be to God for this good gift.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Emily

You may have noticed that I’m pregnant!

I say that in jest, as I’m now officially considered “full term” and today am marking 37 weeks along in my pregnancy. Preparing for our new arrival involves everything from picking a name (still thinking!), completing a nursery (still working on it!), and emotionally readying ourselves to become a family of five (is one EVER emotionally ready for that?!). All in all, no matter where we are on the ‘readiness’ scale, Josh and I are beyond overjoyed to meet this little one and welcome a new baby boy into our family.

Ironically, I’m perhaps most prepared for our impending arrival in my work here at church! Much like raising a child, stepping away from hourly/daily/weekly responsibilities of pastoring takes a village, and I am so grateful for the village - staff, the Personnel Committee, and lay leaders in particular - who are making it possible for me to do so. I wanted to take this space to let all of you know about ‘what to expect’ (pun intended!) in the coming weeks ahead.

First of all, should baby arrive around his expected due date of October 20, I will be out of the office for five weeks and the pulpit for five Sundays. In those weeks, you are in for a preaching treat! You will be joined by familiar faces and voices in preaching, ones who will stimulate and challenge your thinking in these fall weeks. The schedule for preachers will be:

  • October 23 - David Hull, Interim Pastor at FBC Augusta, GA (and yes, my dear dad!)

  • October 30 - Amy McClure, Associate Pastor for Children, Seniors, and Pastoral Care

  • November 6 - David Hughes, Executive Director of The Transforming Center and beloved former pastor of First Baptist Church on Fifth

  • November 13 - Jenna Sullivan, Pastoral Intern at First Baptist and second-year student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity

  • November 20 - Larry Hovis, Executive Director for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina and interim preacher of First Baptist Church on Fifth

Should baby arrive early, I have standby preachers at the ready!

Second of all, for the daily rhythms of ministerial and administrative leadership in these five weeks, you will be in the best of all possible hands. I don’t have to convince a single one of you of the incredible capacity and reach of our staff! David, Amy M, Amy T, Sally, John, Steve, Cynthia, and Jenna will keep our shared work of ministry moving forward and thriving this fall. I have prepared the various committees and ministry teams that I work with of my upcoming absence, and their capable chairs and leaders will continue their work in this season.

Third of all, our Wednesday night fellowship gatherings will welcome a variety of voices and topics this fall. Following the conclusion of our “Being a Faithful Church” series on October 19, we will celebrate autumn with our annual Fall Festival on October 26. Our dear friend Dr. Bill Leonard, Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Church History at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, will join us for a three-week series called “A Shelter of Conscience: Baptist Identity and American Politics” on November 2, 9, and 16. In these weeks surrounding the election, we will be expertly led by the preeminent Baptist and church historian to make meaning of our uniquely Baptist response in this moment of our country’s life together. More to come on this exciting series in the weeks ahead! As is our custom on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we’ll take November 23 off and gather again the following week.

Finally, the unpredictable nature of labor and delivery has many of you asking our staff about what our plan will be should I go into labor on a Sunday or Wednesday when we are gathered. Please be assured that we will respond with a good deal of common sense! I’ll do as countless woman do when going into labor - gather helpers around, go to the hospital, and bring life into the world. As it is for any of us when dealing with bodily changes or the need for medical care, I trust you understand the way in which it can feel exposing, even among friends. Know that I receive your questions in the spirit of love and concern in which they are offered, and gratefully return back to you the same respect you have granted to me.   

We are so delighted to celebrate our baby’s birth with you, our beloved community! We’ll send out word after his arrival (and pictures, of course!), and will look forward to bringing him to church soon thereafter to meet you.

I will be back fully in the pulpit on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, and will resume time in the office that next day. My weekday work schedule will remain flexible throughout December - working from home a little more than usual, traveling to see family over the Christmas holidays - and my sweet boy will begin his full-time care at our wonderful Children’s Center on January 3.

In all the preparation, I am struck again and again by the reminder that our God is an incarnational God. In the fully human, vulnerable state of swollen ankles and discomfort and unknown timing for delivery, Mary brought forth the son of God into this world. This baby boy is no Jesus, but I remain ever grateful in these late-term days that it is through the beautiful, messy, unpredictable, abundant joy of birth that Hope was delivered, Peace was made known, Joy arrived, and Love became flesh.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

Lots to write about today, friends.

First, Sunday’s celebration of our church’s 145th anniversary was a significant marker for me and I hope for many of you! It felt like a homecoming, as Randall Lolley and his family, Fred Kelly and his family, and countless longtime members and friends of First Baptist returned home to give thanks for and remember all this church has meant to them over the years. In the midst of countless stories about ministries and missions and moments from years gone by, I felt a renewed sense of vision and hope for what lies ahead! God has been at work in and through First Baptist Church on Fifth for 145 years, and I give thanks for each of you who has rooted your lives in this place along the way and have now covenanted to walk into our shared future together with courage and excitement for what is yet to be.

Second, in the coming week and a half, we will begin again and start anew three weekly small groups to deepen faith formation and our relationships with each other. They will cover the gamut: studying Christian classics in the early hours of the morning, exploring disciplines of prayer at midday, and reading and discussing together at night about how we live in God’s heart of Love. Together with our Sunday morning Sunday School classes, Wednesday night faith formation for all ages, and weekday Circle groups, prayer groups, discussion groups, I trust that every single one of you is finding one way or one group to be engaged in deeper Christian community for encouragement and challenge in your walk of faith. My life has been changed time and time again in small group Christian community, and I hope that all of you can make room in your lives for such transformation and engagement!

Third, you will see in today’s eBlast an invitation from the Special Committee on Facilities and Mission to come for a time of lunch and presentation on Sunday, October 2, immediately following worship. You might remember that it was this time last year that the Special Committee was formed, and since then, they have offered regular updates and a presentation this past March. In the midst of this challenging yet life-giving work of discerning together how God is calling our church to use its facilities for ministry and mission, it is time again to broaden this conversation to the congregation. This group needs to hear from you! Please make every effort to be present that day, and then for the follow-up discussion on October 12.

Finally, we awoke this morning to news of emergency just down the road from us in Charlotte as a second night of protesting has again turned violent. In the midst of these complicated issues and heated rhetoric, may we commit ourselves ever more fully to Christ’s way of peace. May we resist the urge to pit ‘black lives’ against ‘blue lives’, but reaffirm always God’s infinite love for every life. And may we have the courage to live out that truth in ways that both interrupt yet transform our own lives, and thus cultivate the beloved community all around us.

 

Together in the work of Love,

Pastor Emily

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