From Our Rector

From Our Rector: November 2014
By the Rev. Dave Johnson

Posted November 4, 2014


Dear Friends,

My article for The Vineyard this month is the text of my address at the “We Love Christ Church” dinner on November 3. I hope this will be helpful and encouraging for you…

I want to begin by reiterating how grateful my family and I are for the exceptionally warm welcome we have received from you all. It is an absolute joy to be here—thank you!

I also want to thank the staff and vestry for all their hard work and support during our transition here to Christ Church Valdosta—thank you!

Again, special thanks to our Stewardship Committee for all their work for our stewardship campaign and for making tonight’s event possible—thank you!

I also want to thank Father Peter and Happy Ingeman, who could not have been more kind and welcoming to me and my family. I have the utmost respect for them and their rich ministry here at Christ Church and deeply appreciate their gracious support—thank you!

On June 29, my first Sunday here I shared three things that I hope will characterize everything we do here at Christ Church:

  • Preach the gospel.
  • Love one another.
  • Follow the Holy Spirit.

Preach the gospel—The gospel is centered on the unconditional love of God for all of us in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the liberating truth that we are fully known, fully forgiven, and fully loved by God as expressed definitively once for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is centered on grace, the one-way love of God for us—no grace, no gospel. As the late Brennan Manning wrote, “God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be” (All is Grace, 192). Preaching the gospel is more than preaching about this unconditional love of God from the pulpit each week; it’s everything we do to share that love with others—as St. Francis famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

Love one another—This may sound trite or obvious but the truth is there are some churches that are known for their stance on social issues, or whether they are “traditional” or “contemporary”, or “evangelical” or “Anglo-Catholic,” or any number of things. We need to remember what Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). As we move forward as a church how we treat one another is ultimately much more important than what we accomplish—regardless of how many things get done, it must all be characterized by love.

Follow the Holy Spirit—In his Letter to the Galatians the Apostle Paul wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). I trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us as we go forward—and my personal experience is that the Holy Spirit may lead us through circumstances that are challenging and difficult, but will ultimately to a place different and much better than anything we could have imagined.

As Jeff Hanson mentioned, and as you are already fully aware, there are many good things happening at Christ Church. Rather than reiterating that, I want to look ahead with you for a moment.

Based on studying the Parish Profile, and based on doing a lot of listening these past four months, at Christ Church we long to deepen our sense of community and expand our outreach ministries. It is not either/or, but rather both/and.

As far as deepening our sense of community we will continue to increase our efforts with providing educational opportunities for all ages. Elise Sandbach is doing an outstanding job leading the Christ Church Preschool, and Stefani Carroll is also doing an outstanding job as our Children’s Minister. We will continue to offer adult Sunday School series as well as opportunities during the week for further worship and Bible Study. We will also continue our annual community-building events like Oktoberfest (that will definitely continue J) and the Parish Picnic. Being intentional about deepening our sense of community will also be important as we consider if, when, and how to add another Sunday service.

In addition, I have penciled in Christ Church to have a parish retreat at Honey Creek May 15-17 and would like to see as many of you as would like to go, join us as we spend a weekend together celebrating the love of God, furthering friendships with one another, and enjoying God’s creation. I think it could be a fun end to the academic program year, and I invite you to put it on your calendar.

There are several outstanding outreach ministries at Christ Church, from local ministries like Lunch Bunch to international ministries like the annual mission trip to the Dominican Republic. As we move forward I believe God is calling us to expand our outreach ministries especially in the area of youth and college ministry.

Along these lines I see three priorities for adding to our Christ Church staff:

First, a part-time youth minister who will focus primarily on developing our ministry to high school students. Prior to being ordained a priest I served as a youth minister for ten years and am a firm believer in the importance of a solid youth ministry in the life of a parish.

Second, an Associate Rector, who will assist with parish ministry but whose primary focus will be developing a ministry with Valdosta State University (a vast mission field literally across the street), and integrating that ministry with the life of Christ Church.

Third, a Fellows Program, which would offer recent college graduates the opportunity to serve part time on our staff for a year, be immersed in parish life and ministry, be mentored by the rector, and discern a possible call to ordained ministry. I oversaw the Fellows Program at Christ Church, Charlottesville for five years and have seen firsthand the abundant fruit that can be borne from it. This is also in line with the identity of Christ Church as being an incubator for clergy.

If we hire the right people at the right time, these additional staff positions could go a long way toward helping Christ Church both deepen our sense of community and expand our outreach ministries.

As far as church property is concerned, we will continue to maintain what we have been given (no small task) and looking ahead we have a gifted committee working on addressing the needs surrounding the development of the Memorial Garden. As we were reminded on All Saints Sunday yesterday, the Memorial Garden is an important part of Christ Church and we are proceeding prayerfully and sensitively on this. In addition, we have received significant financial gifts earmarked to help pay down the remaining debt for the Gabard Education Building. If we can retire that remaining debt, significant funds currently going toward interest would be freed up to go toward ministry instead.

When it comes to giving to the church, I do not believe in strong-arming people or guilt-tripping people, or loading people down with biblical reasons why they need to give more money. I don’t see any gospel or grace in any of those approaches.

Instead, I believe in a grace-based approach to stewardship, that giving to the church is simply a Spirit-led response of gratitude to God’s love for us.

When Jesus sent out the disciples two-by-two he had this to say to them about stewardship: “Freely ye have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8, KJV). Grace-based stewardship means that in response to the love God freely gives us, we are free to give with no ulterior motives, no catch, no strings attached.

In the Apostle Paul’s most vulnerable letter, his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). The Greek word for “cheerful” here is the word from which we derive the English word “hilarious”—in other words, God loves a hilarious giver.

In short, grace-based stewardship simply means freely and cheerfully giving whatever God puts on your heart to give. That’s it.

As we move forward together in preaching the gospel, loving one another, and following the Holy Spirit—as we move forward together in deepening our sense of community, expanding our outreach ministries, and tending to our property needs, I trust the Lord will provide for us as we go, and we will move forward accordingly.

Before closing in prayer I would like to read one of my favorite poems, The Giving Tree (1964) by Shel Silverstein:

Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy
And every day the boy would come
And he would gather her leaves
And make them into crowns
And play king of the forest
He would climb up her trunk
And swing from her branches
And eat apples
And they would play hide-and-go-seek
And when he was tired he would sleep in her shade
And the boy loved the tree very much
And the tree was happy

But time went by and the boy grew older
And the tree was often left alone
And then one day the boy came to the tree
And the tree said, Come, boy, come and climb up my trunk
And swing from my branches
And eat apples and play in my shade
I am too big to climb and play, said the boy
I want to buy things and have fun
I want some money
Can you give me some money?
I’m sorry, said the tree, but I have no money
I have only leaves and apples
But take my apples, boy, and sell them in the city
And then you will have money and you will be happy
And so the boy gathered up her apples and carried them away
And the tree was happy

But the boy stayed away for a long time
And then one day the boy came back
And the tree shook with joy and she said
Come, boy, climb up my trunk
And swing from my branches and have fun
I am too busy to climb trees, said the boy
I need a house to keep me warm
I want a wife and I want children, and so I need a house
Can you give me a house?
I have no house, said the tree, the forest is my house
But you may cut off my branches and build a house
And so the boy cut off her branches
And carried them away to build his house
And the tree was happy

But the boy stayed away for a long, long time
And when he came back, the tree was so happy she could hardly speak
Come boy, she whispered, come and play and have fun again
I am too old and sad to play, said the boy
Life is not fun
I want a boat that will take me far away from here
Can you give me a boat?
I have no boat, said the tree, but you can cut down my trunk and make a boat
And you can sail away and be happy
And so the boy cut down her trunk
And he made a boat and sailed away
And the tree was happy

And after a long time the boy came back again
I am sorry, boy, said the tree, I have nothing left to give you
My apples are gone
My teeth are too weak for apples now, said the boy
My branches are gone too, said the tree, you cannot swing on them
I am too old to swing on branches, said the boy
Even my trunk is gone, said the tree, you cannot climb
I am too tired to climb, said the boy
I am sorry, sighed the tree
I wish that I could give you something but I have nothing left
I am just an old stump, I’m sorry
I don’t need very much now, said the boy
Just a place to sit and rest
I am very tired
Well, said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could
Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting
Come, boy, come sit down, sit down and rest
And the boy did
And the tree was happy

As we respond to the unconditional love of Jesus expressed on the Ultimate Giving Tree, the cross, imagine what it could be like for Christ Church to be a Giving Tree for one another, for Valdosta, and beyond.

All this is expressed in the following prayer for mission from The Book of Common Prayer, the prayer with which we close every vestry meeting. Let us pray:

“Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen” (BCP, 101).

Yours in Christ,