What Does It Mean to Be a Member of the Church?

On Sunday, April 21st, I had the privilege of teaching our confirmation class. How stimulating and what a joy! The first thing that struck me was the students, eighth grade students who are beginning their lives of faith. They were polite and engaging. The second thing I noticed was the leaders: David and Jennifer Simms, Marian Woerner, and Don and Alice Searcy. The passion, years of commitment, and love of these students is an invigorating and encouraging example of servanthood. I am grateful to be a part of a church where so many adults pour out their lives for children and youth. I have seen and still rejoice in the impact their serving has on our students. But back to church membership, which was the topic on which I taught.

If someone were to ask you, “What does it mean to be a church member?” What would you say? A good question for us to ponder.

The first thing we discussed was “what is the church?” We often say, “I’m going to church,” which implies the church is a place or building. The New Testament word for church is “EKKLESIA,” which means “assembly of people.” We are the church. It’s also important to remember whose church we are; we belong to Jesus Christ. Colossians 1:18 reveals, “And he (Christ) is the head of the body, the church.” Since we belong to Christ, it behooves us to handle one another (the church) with great care.

What affirmations does one need to make in order to join Covenant?
Acknowledge our sinfulness and our need of Jesus Christ to save us.
Believe in Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God and our Savior and Lord.
Commit to live as a follower of Jesus Christ, depending on the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Committing to active involvement in the life, worship, and ministry of Covenant.
Baptism if you have never been baptized.
Pretty simple yet profound beliefs.

Another thing to remember is that God has chosen us to be part of His Church. Ephesians 4:4 says, “For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ (v.11) In Him we were chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” In other words, we are a part of Christ’s Church by an act of God’s grace, the result of his deep love for us. We are not Christ’s Church because of our good works or because we are better than others. No, we are who we are by the grace of God. (See I Corinthians 15:10.)

What does God want his church to look like? Let me mention just a few things.

God created us to glorify God and enjoy God forever (Westminster Confession of Faith, shorter catechism). How do we glorify God? John 15:8 reveals, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” What does God mean by fruit? Galatians 5:22-23 says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” – to name a few.
I Corinthians 12 reveals how God intends we use our gifts to build up the Body of Christ. Building upon this concept, Mark 10:45 reminds us that if we want to follow Jesus and become more like him, then we are servants, putting other before ourselves.
These are some of the things we discussed in confirmation. Again, if someone were to ask you, “What does it mean to be a member of the Church?” what would you say?” Think about it.

Blessed to be a Blessing,

Hal

Christ on the Road to Emmaus

During the season of Easter (Easter Sunday, March 31—Pentecost, May 19), our worship bulletin will depict a work of art from the 14th century artist, Duccio, entitled, “Christ on the Road to Emmaus.” This painting draws on Luke’s story of one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples on a road to Emmaus.

For your devotional journey in this Easter Season, may I suggest you spend some time reflecting upon this story in Luke and Duccio’s artistic rendering. First, place the picture before you, or cut it out from your bulletin and carry it around with you. Second, read Luke’s story— Luke 24:13-32 every day. Surely one of the blessings you will experience is that you will know this story like the back of your hand—a good thing. Thirdly, each day reflect upon some aspect of Luke’s story that is depicted or pointed to in the painting. [Copies of the painting with the scripture are available in the atrium]

For example, Luke’s story has three settings: a conversation on the road to Emmaus, a shared meal in Emmaus, and Jerusalem. It is interesting that most artistic paintings of this story focus on the supper scene in which the two disciples recognize Jesus as they are breaking bread. This painting, however, depicts the conversation between the Risen Jesus and the two disciples as they enter Emmaus.

What point of the conversation do you think is depicted in this painting? One disciple is named Cleopas; the other is unnamed. What do we learn from an historical point of view? When I look at this painting, it appears that the two disciples, still unaware to whom they are speaking, appear to be inviting this “stranger” to have a meal with them. How does this artist interpret the story?

Finally, if you choose to take this devotional journey reflecting upon Luke’s story and Duccio’s painting, keep a journal recording how God speaks to you. In this time may you “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

Experiencing God’s Blessings,
Hal

Change

Someone once said, “the only constant in life is change”. In my experience there is a least a hint of truth there. Change seems to be around every corner of life. As soon as I get used to the way things are, something changes, and I have to adjust. Let me share with you two changes we will be experiencing within the life of Covenant.

First, Adriana Perera, our organist/pianist since 2007, will be leaving us in May. She is pursuing an opportunity to serve God as a worship consultant within the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Her love of God, her heart to worship God, and her musical gifts have equipped her to help churches bridge the divide between traditional and contemporary worship and discover unity in their desire to worship God in Spirit and Truth.

Adriana has been an excellent musical leader among us and an absolutely delightful colleague with whom to serve. We will miss her and wish for her and her family every good thing. Our Session has authorized Mary Witherspoon, Andy Huttula (our Worship Team elders), Bryan Page, and me to establish a new search team for our organist/piano accompanist.

Second, in our Youth Ministry we have been blessed to have Rob McAlister serve as our Interim Director. He will serve with us through May, then move on to new things. We knew from the outset that Rob would be here for just nine months. Yet, it has been worth it. Rob has been a good fit among us, building good relationships with students, parents, and other adult leaders. We are thankful for his friendship and his ministry among us.

Our Youth Director Search Team (Jeff Baker- chair, Linda Brouwer – vice chair, Jean Oakley, Don and Alice Searcy, Loree Gieger, Salley Walker, and Tom Pendergrass) is hard at work. Please pray for them.

We have experienced change before; more change is in store for us. Change is constantly with us. Though this is true, it’s equally important to remember other constants.

God is faithful still. Psalm 46 reminds us, “though earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…though the mountains quake,…there is….the holy place where the Most High dwell… Be still and know that I am God.”

In the midst of these and other changes, we know and serve a God whose love for us is steadfast and endures forever. Lamentations cries out,

Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for God’s compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait on Him. The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him…

In these waves of change, God is faithful. This is the most important constant in my life. How about yours?

Blessed,
Hal

Preparing Our Hearts

I love “Thanksgiving”.  It’s my favorite holiday.  It revolves around food, family, sports, my annual bicycle ride around Cades Cove (one of my favorite places in Smoky Mountains National Park), and it is not fraught with high-powered commercialization. For these reasons, it is easy for me to spend time thinking about the many blessings for which I am thankful.

Jean and I are still giving thanks for our Covenant family following last month’s celebration. At first we felt a little uncomfortable being singled out for attention, but after conversations with many of you, we realized this was a good opportunity to celebrate our life together and God’s faithful provision among us. We are grateful to the Leadership Team, our children, staff, and so many of you who shared in the laughter. We were reminded of the truth of Proverbs 17:22 (A cheerful heart is good medicine- or- laughter is good medicine.)

Indeed we appreciate your grace, love, patience and encouragement through the years. We have learned important lessons from you as you have modeled a life of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, you have nurtured us toward a deeper and more transformative walk with Christ.

As we move into the Christmas Season it behooves us to remember that Advent is a good time to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, God’s coming into the world in human flesh. The intense commercialization of Christmas can distract us from it’s true meaning. How will you keep your mind on our Lord Jesus Christ?

Let me suggest some ways:

  • Use Covenant’s or another Advent Devotional
  • Participate in and support the Children’s Advent Program and Potluck Dinner (Finger Food) on Sunday, December 2
  • Participate in the Advent Summit, a prayer and meditation retreat on Saturday,

December 8

  • Worship each Sabbath and on Christmas Eve
  • Enjoy the music of the season; it is sublime!
  • Reflect on the painting, “Madonna and Child,” by Pompeo Batoni.

 
My prayer for all of us, for our world, is that Christmas will awaken within all of us the God-shaped hole God desires to fill with his Son, Jesus Christ. May we experience Jesus in such a way that we grow more like him. What might that mean for you?
 

The Lord bless you and keep you,

Hal

Mark’s Margin: Thanksgiving

Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote: “Earth’s crammed with Heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes . . .” Having the eyes to see God’s goodness in daily life is essential for the growth and vibrancy of one’s spiritual life and the well-being of every other aspect of life. Yet, staying attuned to God’s goodness in daily life can be difficult. At times, we struggle to see our family or other relationships as gifts from a good God. God’s goodness can become blurred and muted by difficulties and limitations. Our experience can become one of anxiety, stress, and loneliness. Though the mundane may be ablaze with God’s fruitful presence, provision, and purposes, at times we perceive only overgrown scrub brush and tumbleweed.

The apostle Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).” God is good (Psalm 100). It is therefore good to give thanks to the LORD even when we cannot see his goodness clearly (Psalm 92:1). I did a word search on “thanks” and on “praise.” Combined, one or the other appears more than four hundred sixty times in the Bible. It would seem giving thanks and praise to God is to be a foundational part of our way of life. I believe this is because God inhabits the praises of his people (Psalm 22:3), and as the psalmist declares, thanksgiving and praise bring a person’s heart into the presence of God (Psalm 95:2). Nancy DeMoss captures the warmth of this life-giving connection as she writes in her book on  Gratitude, “If we want to be where He is, we need to go to His address . . . Thanksgiving puts us in God’s living room. It paves the way to His presence.”

I am learning this is true with people too. Expressing thanks is so important to the connection we experience with one another. Perhaps that’s why in a recent Gallup study of more than 800 traits, “grateful” was rated in the top four percent in terms of likeability. In contrast, “ungrateful” was rated as one of the most negative traits, found in the bottom 1.7%. It’s true, we were created for community. It’s also true that expressing thanks is a primary gateway God has given us for entry into the embrace, life, and empowerment of that community.

That’s why I love Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving gives us the space and the context not only for eating delicious food and for watching football, but to reflect on our lives, our relationships, and our hardships with thanksgiving (Phil 4:6-7). It gives us the opportunity to reconnect with God and those we love in a deeper and more significant way.

How will you express thanks this Thanksgiving? How  will you enter through gratitude’s gate into the fellowship of communion with God and those you love? Thanks to my mother-in-law, we have established a tradition that is fun for our kids and for us adults too. We pass our toy stuffed turkey (with a gobble gobble sound) from person to person around the table after we have all finished our meal. The person with the turkey is to share something they are thankful for from God and about their life. It is a pretty simple tradition really, but perhaps that’s what makes it so repeatable every year. I have to say it has really made our Thanksgivings memorable. I guess, however it takes shape, what is most important is being intentional about slowing down enough to say thank you. When we do, we enter God’s presence and the presence of those we love in a deeper and more significant way.

In closing, Leigh Ann and I would like to publicly give thanks for the community God has given to us with y’all, our Covenant family. You all have blessed our family in so many ways. Thank you for allowing us to use our gifts and to grow along side of you as brothers and sisters in Christ. Thank you for helping us to raise our three children with hearts that love Jesus. And thank you for the times you have expressed care and encouragement to us through kind words and gestures. We give thanks to God when we think of you and for our life together.

Happy Thanksgiving Covenant,

Mark, Leigh Ann, Caleb, Evan, & Cariann

 

 

Stewardship! What Does It Mean?

In the past three weeks three people have asked me how I (or Jean and I) practice stewardship.  In each instance, these people were genuinely interested in growing as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  It excites me when I see God stirring people’s hearts and minds.  Now to the question.

It begins with our desire and commitment to live with a sense of purpose, based on certain beliefs.  For example, we believe God, Creator, owns everything.  God owns our lives, our time, and our material possessions.  Knowing we belong to God influences the decisions we make.

When God commands us to tithe, give at least ten percent of our income to his Church, we understand that God is telling us to give back what already belongs to Him.  Thus, it makes sense to us to obey God, especially since we, and everything we have, belong to God anyway.

But we are also aware that God gave everything to us in his Son, Jesus.  Moreover, God commands us to give generously and sacrificially, as he has given to us.  We take this seriously and realize that we are able to give more than 10%, so we have gradually inched our way toward giving away 14% of our gross income each year.

God is true to his word.  In Malachi 3, God commands us to tithe (10%), to give faithfully, and promises his faithful provision.  We have experienced God’s provision.

Thus we give because God commands us.  And we know God leads us in ways that are ultimately good for us (Romans 8:28). We also give out of gratitude for blessings God has showered upon us.  We have learned that living gratefully is good for us; we are happier for it.

This God thing really works! It makes a difference in our lives.  Living gratefully motivates us to give our time and talent for others.  While it can be tiring, even difficult, the rewards are certain and extravagant.  When we give to others, we experience blessing from God.  Amazingly, it really works!

Stewardship is about recognizing that God is our Creator who provides everything for us; that God intends that we would use His precious gifts for His Church and for others.  It is about living and giving gratefully and cheerfully.  But it is more than that.

Stewardship reflection leads us to a deeper appreciation for God’s creation.  We enjoy the beauty of God’s creation and are moved not only to appreciate it, but to care to it.  This is why we practice recycling in our home and here at Covenant.

As you look at the two pledge cards you will receive for our 2013 Ministry Budget and for our Building Fund, I hope you will reflect at a deep level what is most important to you.  I also hope that ALL of us, 100% of us, will join together in supporting our 2013 ministry and paying down our debt.  We need all of us!

 

 

 

The Unexamined Life

It was the Greek philosopher, Socrates (469-399 BCE) who famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  The Greeks often used hyperbole to make a point, thus the stern sounding statement.  But what does it mean?  Why would Socrates have made such a strong, unequivocal statement?

Robert Gerzon, in his article “The Unexamined Life,” says that “Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth.  We are unable to grow toward greater understanding of our true nature unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon our lives.”

This past month we paused in worship to consider the value of and our appreciation for the most senior members of our community.  It was good for all of us to stop in the busyness of our lives to examine, to ponder their value in our lives.  We are richer for our relationships and we are richer for taking the time to consider them.

On Sunday, September 23rd, we paused in worship to consider the gifts of our children and grandchildren to us in families and the community of faith.  Many of us chose to dedicate our children—no matter their age—to God, and then we took time to think about what that means, to examine our act of dedication.  I believe we are the richer for doing so.

As we enter October we will examine why outreach mission is important to us as we welcome Ben Mathes and others to our worship on October 14th.

We will also take time to examine the concept of stewardship and the implication it has for living the Christian life.

Finally, we will gather on Sunday, October 28th to give thanks for God’s work among us in the last twenty-six years, and then to consider what God has in store for us as we walk into the future.  I am thankful to have enjoyed examining our lives together.

Blessed,

Hal

Thoughts for September

School is in session as we march into a new season.  Many new things are upon us.  For me, this time of year is an opportunity for new beginnings, which I find very freeing.  Below are some things to think about as you consider renewing old commitments and trying new ones.

1. Keeping Sabbath Holy—Someone pointed out to me that Genesis reveals that God made the Sabbath Holy ; it is our job to “keep” it holy.  How will you keep the Sabbath holy as you move into the future? How might that be good for us?

2. Recommitting to involvement with a group Bible study.  Psalm 1:1-3 notes that spending time in God’s Word is good for us.  Hebrews 10: 24-25 reveals how good it is for us to enjoy fellowship.  Many opportunities are available for studying God’s Word in fellowship with others.  This is one way we grow as disciples.  Get involved in a group on Sunday morning or Wednesday night.  Start your own group.  On Sunday, September 9, we will recognize and commission those who are serving as discipleship leaders of children, youth, and adults.  You will be amazed at how many people are serving among us.  I hope you will thank them.

3. As a youngish adult (Yes, I still claim to be a young adult—note that Seth lived to be 807 years of age, Genesis 5:7).  I am mindful of the contribution my elders (those other than I) have made in  my life.  I am thankful to have shared the journey with people who are older than I.  You/they have taught me what it means to follow Jesus; you/they have modeled holy marriage relationships; you/they have welcomed me into fellowship with you.  I am richer for it.  Thank you.  I value your fortitude and experience.  On Sunday, September 16th, we will recognize our Super Seniors and give thanks for you.

4. Psalm 127 says that children are a heritage from the Lord, a reward from God, whether we receive them naturally or through adoption, they are special gifts to us.  How we raise them, nurture and mold them is important to God and to us.  On Sunday, September 23, we as parents will have the opportunity to dedicate our children (no matter their or our age) and grandchildren to God.  We will pray over them and consider the important leadership role God have given to us.

May we seek to glorify God in all our endeavors.

Joyfully serving the King of Kings,

Hal

Reflections after Vacation

Jean and I have just returned from sunny southern California, where we stayed with our daughter and son-in-love, Shelton and Scott. They are happily married after their wedding last October and blessing last March. We rejoiced together in your many expressions of love and support. Scott is finishing his year of post doctoral research in Atmospheric Chemistry at Caltech and Shelton is serving an internship with a refugee resettlement organization as the concluding requirement of her master’s program in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Please keep them in your prayers as they discern God’s leading toward international missions. They were such gracious hosts in allowing us to enter into their lives for two weeks. During our time together, I spent a week planning preaching and worship through next June, and reading a book on youth ministry, Sustainable Youth Ministry. In addition Jean and I enjoyed some recreation with Scott and Shelton, and as a couple. Some highlights were worshiping in two churches: one an inner city fellowship, another a new church of mostly twenty-somethings. We also visited Catalina Island, Huntington Gardens and Museum and the San Fernando Mission (one of the original 21 missions established in the 1700’s). We discovered that Bob and Delores Hope are buried on these mission grounds. For many of us (older ones), Bob Hope is an iconic figure. We remember his warm and self-deprecating humor, his wholesome movies and, most importantly, his outreach performances to our armed forces, especially during times of war. He and his wife celebrated 69 years of marriage just before he died at the ripe old age of 100. His wife, Delores, died at 102 years of age. One of God’s serendipitous gifts was a conversation with a Muslim man who came from Afghanistan to America in 1982, after the Soviet invasion. Our lives were richly blessed by another of God’s amazing interruptions.

While I have your attention, let me share with you three things about which I am very excited. First, our Session recently approved the calling of Rob McAlister as our Interim Director of Youth Ministry. Rob is a new graduate of Sewanee, having majored in religious studies, and is a close friend of Lizzie Walker (daughter of John and Salley). He grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and has been involved as an intern at Covenant Presbyterian Church  there. Is God’s providence something to behold?! The day after Dave Reiss informed us of his plans to leave for San Antonio, Liz Walker told us about Rob. Our Youth Discipleship Team began the process of interviewing Rob, checking references, etc. and concluded that Rob was one of those immediate answers to prayer. Rob plans to join us September 1st and is committed to serving among us through next May. This will give us time to search for a permanent staff leader in youth ministry. The strength of our youth ministry is the many dedicated, grace-filled volunteers who give generously of their time and energy to serve. Having Rob join us will only add to the strong ministry which is in place.

Second, during August we will be thinking together about Sabbath. Sabbath? What’s that? Well, it’s the practice of setting aside a day of each week for rest and worship. We’re going to reflect upon what Sabbath is, what it means to “keep the Sabbath holy” (you know, one of the Ten Commandments? ), why and how we worship. One of our priorities is to love God well. Keeping Sabbath is a primary way of loving God well. We will also celebrate, give thanks for and commission our worship and music leadership teams on Sunday, August 26th.

Third, during September and October we are challenging Covenant to become involved in “The Big Give.” What is this? For the past three years we have celebrated Compassion Week during this time, where we go out to serve in our community through various outreach projects. This year we are focusing on being good neighbors, that is, giving to our neighbors. Who are Covenant’s neighbors? One might think they are the ones who live within a mile or so of our facility. No, that’s not it. Covenant’s neighbors are those who live near, or work around, all of us. We are challenging everyone to come up with an idea (yourselves or with a group of people) to serve your neighborhood in some way. That might include making cookies and taking them to your neighbors with a welcome to Covenant. It might include welcoming neighbors to a fellowship event . It could be getting together with other Covenant members and doing improvement for your neighborhood school, or a senior neighbor. It could be joining with others to give out bottled water to people in one of our city parks. Or, you could hold a party for your neighbors at Covenant’s facility. You come up with your own ideas and go to work. The idea? GIVING OURSELVES AWAY FOR OUR NEIGHBORS.

May God be honored and glorified in our good work.

In Christ’s Service,

Hal

The Fellowship of Presbyterians

Our Session (elected elders) decided at our May 20, 2012 meeting to affiliate with The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP).  After four months of discussion and prayer, we believe it is important that we associate with the FOP.

 

What does this mean? It does not mean we have left the Presbyterian Church USA. The FOP is not a new denomination. The FOP is an organized effort of mostly evangelical Presbyterians (USA) who are concerned about the health and direction of the church. We are choosing to live in an affiliate relationship with the FOP, other Presbyterians who share our concerns. In doing so, we are committed to living in a special relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ who share a belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord, the authority of Scripture as God’s Word, a reformed perspective, a disciplined, accountable community of faith, the celebration of gifts of men and women, and the priority of making disciples of Jesus Christ and reaching the world for Jesus Christ. We would also be associating with other churches who have and value articulating the essential beliefs of the Christian faith, something the larger PCUSA has refrained from doing. You can google Fellowship of Presbyterians and learn more about the organization which is made up mostly of evangelical PCUSA churches (www.fellowship-pres.org).

 

Why are we affiliating with FOP and will we benefit from this association? Those who have attended at least one of the two conferences (Bob Barnes, Earl and Kay Eastin, Hal Oakley, Don Searcy and Art Woodling) came away from the events encouraged by the experience. In February, they unanimously recommended to our Session that we affiliate with FOP.  As a group they were not in favor of leaving the PCUSA, but thought our affiliation with FOP would be stimulating and encouraging for us at Covenant. What I and others find exciting is that many new and creative ideas for being the church are emerging from this large group and we will benefit from our representation and leadership within the group. I believe it is a good step as we seek to move faithfully into the future.

 

We will be holding two informational meetings for anyone who has questions and/or would like more information. They are scheduled for :

 

Sunday, June 3 at 2:00PM in Fellowship Hall

Thursday, June 7 at 12:00PM in the Chapel

 

Of course, you are welcome to contact me personally as I would be happy to listen and talk with you. Please pray for us, your Session, as we seek to lead us faithfully in the work of God’s kingdom.

Hal

May! What a month!

May is one of my favorite months, and this May promises to be very special indeed. Not only is the weather usually sublime, the explosion of lush greenery reminds me once again of God’s glorious creation. It is also the month of Mother’s Day, on which I give thanks for my mother, Jean’s mother and Jean as the mother of our children. Moreover, it is a time of transition, as school ends and summer begins. May! What a month!

This May we will experience in worship some extraordinary celebrations of  God’s presence among us. On Sunday, May 6, we will celebrate our Stephen Ministry and commission our new class of eighteen people. We began SM at Covenant in 1990; we are now twenty-two years strong. I rejoice when I think of the people whose lives have been touched in one on one relationships with our Stephen Ministers. In addition, our Bereavement/Grief Ministry (which meets Thursday nights at 6pm) grew out of SM. A special thank you to Peggy Hase, Janet Szofran, Jean Oakley and Mark Looyenga for their leadership. I hope you will join us in encouraging these who have the gift of compassion and have accepted the call to care for others in Jesus’ name.

On Sunday, May 13 (Mother’s Day) we will celebrate God’s gift of Motherhood, recognize our mothers and we will extend a Blessing on the more than 200 dresses and 100 shorts that will be sent to Zambia. Over fifty people have made these clothes. We will pray for the children who will wear these dresses and shorts and give thanks for those who gave generously of their time and energy in making them. This ministry grew out of the hearts of Biddie Royster, Martha Lehmann, Nita Maddox, and Jean Roberts. Join us as we celebrate what God is doing among us. (II Timothy 3:17)

On Sunday, May 20, we will celebrate under the leadership of our High School Seniors. Soon you will get to know them from their Senior Boards which will be set up in the hallway outside our worship center. God has grown and shaped these young people into faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Just think about the churches that will be blessed by their presence and leadership as they move into the wider world. Furthermore, we will celebrate the lives and professions of faith of our Confirmation Group. Under the leadership of Don and Alice Searcy, David and Jennifer Simms, Marian Woerner, Dave Reiss, and many other adult leaders (who have taught classes and mentored confirmands), these young people have participated in this confirmation process since last August. They probably know as much or more about the Christian faith and its history than most of us. I hope you will join us as we surround them in love and affirmation as they profess their faith.

On Sunday, May 27, we will, well, just celebrate God’s gift of Sabbath worship and rest. We will remember those who have sacrificed their lives in order to provide our freedom—something we often take for granted. We will remember their gift to us and consider what that might mean for our lives today.

Worship is the most distinctive thing we Christians do. God provided a seven day rhythm for us to work, rest and worship. Join us as we worship and serve the One and Only—The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is present with us through the Holy Spirit.

Blessed to be a Blessing,

Hal

 

 

 

 

 

A message from Hal and Jean

Jean and I are overwhelmed with gratitude as we reflect on Shelton and Scott’s Blessing of Marriage.  Last May, we were trying to figure out how to celebrate their upcoming marriage. Should they hold it here at Covenant where Shelton grew up? Or, should they have it in California where they enjoy a close and supportive community? It was a difficult dilemma for Shelton and Scott, and for us as parents. We all had to sort through our hopes and dreams, and our expectations of one another. Fortunately, God gave precious wisdom to Jean and Shelton.

Why not have two celebrations? One in California and one in Huntsville? So we began planning the wedding and the blessing. In late October we celebrated with family, a few friends, and Shelton and Scott’s community in Pasadena. The wedding experience was more than we could have imagined, a very special memory of worship and fellowship.

And then, on to the blessing. First of all, we could not have pulled it off—both financially and logistically- without the help of so many people. One wedding requires a monumental effort. Two weddings (blessing) was more than we could have afforded or handled. Thank you to so many who helped plan and implement the reception, making food and drink, stocking tables, decorating, housing family and friends, hosting meals, and assisting in worship leadership. Thank you to all who joined us with your presence and/or your prayers.

In all honesty, the week prior to the blessing, the thought crossed our mind: did we make a mistake in doing this twice? We felt overwhelmed and we knew so many were working hard to help pull this off. We were struggling to received such gifts of time and effort, all offered in love.

Looking back, we know it was good and right to have had two celebrations. You have been a rich part of our lives. You have helped shape and mold our children in faith; you have mentored us in our marriage relationship. We hold you in highest esteem and now could not imagine not having enjoyed such a celebration as we had a few weeks ago. So many of you have confirmed our decision, telling us how much it meant to you. We wanted it to be a celebration of God’s love for all of us. Thank you for your support and encouragement. We trust and hope that God was glorified and that all were strengthened in fellowship and love.

Once again, we are reminded that we know and serve a great God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Truly Blessed,

Hal and Jean

P.S. We are giving a special gift to Second Mile Development as a tangible expression of our gratitude for your help with the Blessing

 

The Fellowship of Presbyterians

Don Searcy and I recently attended the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) gathering in Orlando (January 21-22, 2012).  Over 2100 people representing 765 Presbyterian congregations took part in the two-day event.  The conference consisted of enthusiastic worship, plenary speakers, small group conversations around our tables, learning seminars, and informal fellowship and conversation.  Personal highlights for us included time with Rocky Stone (former associated pastor) and Jill Williams (former director of Youth Ministry).

What is the FOP and why does it exist?  The FOP being in January 2011 as a conversation between seven Presbyterian pastors who wanted to find new ways to encourage on another in faith and mission.  They were concerned that the Presbyterian Church USA had become dangerously ill as a denomination as membership has declined every year since 1965.  They shared their desire to gather a community of Presbyterian Churches who want to live within a covenanted biblical community where unity is derived from a shared mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

From this small beginning, 2000 people form 900+ Presbyterian congregations gathered in Minneapolis last August.  We sent Earl and Kay Eastin, Bob Barnes, Art Woodling, and myself to that conference.  The FOP’s mission is to build flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Presently it is functioning as a gathering poin and resource for Presbyterian congregations who desire to stimulate and encourage each other in ministry and mission.  It is NOT a denomination, new or otherwise.  It is an ordered community that includes hundreds of Presbyterian Churches who are focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ, who desire to be stimulated and held accountable in our common mission.

What is or will be Covenant’s relationship with the FOP?  Presently we have no official relationship.  The six Covenant representatives who have attended one of the conferences have discussed our experiences and informally recommended that we, Covenant, remain a part of the Presbyterian Church USA and affiliate with FOP.  We see our affiliation as a resource for helping us explore new ways to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Our session received their informal recommendation, had an initial conversation, and will pray about whether we affiliate with FOP, using them as an encouraging resource.  We would likely make a decision about this in April or May.  We welcome your feedback.

In addition to the FOP, which is an umbrella organization serving Presbyterian churches, a new denomination has emerged for those who desire to leave the Presbyterian Church USA at this time.  It is called ECO or ECOop (Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians).  Presently several dozen churches are preparing to leave the Presbyterian Church USA to join ECO.  ECO is in its beginning stage and is currently working out its polity and theology.

At this time Covenant’s session is praying for God’s wisdom and strength as we discern how best to go forward.  We are currently considering affiliation with FOP, but have no plans to join ECO.  We plan to hold informational meetings in the near future.

Even as we observe and participate in the FOP, as we walk into the future, we are keeping our eyes on the main thing:

Making disciples of Jesus Christ, who love God, love one another, and serve in the world.

In Christ’s Service,

Hal

What is Stephen Ministry?

This past weekend twenty-two people met in retreat at the Snoddy’s farm (January 13-15). They met for the purpose of training for an important ministry of Covenant: Stephen Ministry. What is Stephen Ministry? It is a compassionate caring ministry through which people care about others. People who have the gift of compassion commit to learning and growing to become better listeners and more effective caregivers. They are assigned one on one with others who might be going through a life crisis. They carefully guard the confidentiality of their conversations, communicate God’s and their genuine love for the person, actively listen and convey acceptance of the person wherever that person may be. Our desire is to be instruments of God’s amazing grace, so that others will experience the gracious love of God.

Stephen Ministry began at Covenant in 1990 and Stephen Ministers have cared for numerous people in ways I as a pastor would never have had time to do. The idea is that God has bestowed spiritual gifts upon all of us and in Stephen Ministry, we help people to develop and grow their gifts of compassionate love. When someone is going through a crisis (death of loved one, illness, divorce, anxiety, loss of job, any stressful time) they can contact Peggy Hase, Janet Szofran, Jean Oakley, Mark or me, and we will match them with one of our Stephen Ministers. Generally, the Stephen Ministers will meet personally with someone on a weekly or biweekly basis. As the relationship matures, they might change to meeting monthly; after a while, they decide they no longer need to meet. Quite often, they become friends and continue to relate in a friendship.

Jesus commanded us to “love one another. As I have loved you, love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, IF you love one another.” (capitals mine). (John 13:34-35). The Apostle Paul said we are to “bear one anothers’ burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Stephen Ministry is one important way we are trying to follow Jesus. Please pray for our Stephen Ministers and their leaders as they undergo training to serve God more effectively.

Leaders: Janet Szofran, Peggy Hase, Mark Looyenga, and Jean Oakley

Active Stephen Ministers: Susan Pendergrass, Martha Lehmann, Alice Horn, Mary Gray, Frieda Howell, Isabel Blue, Wanda Baumgartner, Grace Dailey, Betty Collins, Betty Hopper, Ted Lehmann, Larry Lawson, Don Searcy

Stephen Minister Trainees:  Liza Avery, Susan Bailey, Deborah Bailey, Vicki Cape, Fran Gibbons, Ashley Huttula, Suzanne Lai, Phil Maddox, Nita Maddox, Bonnie Moore, Bryan Stone, Debbie Stone, Esther Thornton, Beth Vest, Peggy Walker, Liz Zeman

To God Be The Glory

Hal

Counting Blessings

As I write, Thanksgiving is approaching; Advent, Christmas and the New Year are waiting in line just behind it. Life moves at a steady pace, reminding us how precious is each moment. Beginning our twenty-sixth year in Covenant, we are counting our blessings.

We would like to thank you for your heartfelt prayers and support of our family in the context of Shelton and Scott’s wedding. That evening as we were celebrating their union among their friends in California, we wished we could have stopped time, pushed the pause button. We realized that life doesn’t work that way; at the same time, we remembered that we get to do it all over again on March 10, the blessing of their marriage among our Covenant community. How thrilled we are! And thankful, too, for the many who will be helping with the event.

To prepare our hearts for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we are practicing gratitude. Thank you for loving our family during these past twenty-five years. We well remember the first, and most important, item on my job description: to nurture our relationship with God, and to nurture our family. With your blessing and encouragement, we have tried to do that. Our marriage has benefitted from your love, and our children have been blessed to see numerous examples of faithful obedience to Jesus Christ in you. Thank you for making clear to all of us the importance and value of growing as Christ’s disciples.

Thank you for serving alongside us and joining us in mission. You have been and continue to be delightful witnesses to our Lord and Savior. We have been strengthened in our faith by your dedicated service. You have inspired us to worship as you served in our choirs, praise and tech teams. You have taught our children about the love of God in Jesus Christ, and you have helped them experience His love. You have rubbed elbows with them in youth events and helped them see what a disciple looks like. Thank you.

Thank you for allowing us to serve together. You have cared for us as a couple and accepted our ministry. We enjoy being and serving together and you have supported our efforts. In so doing, you have strengthened our marriage. We hope our team-oriented ministry has helped you grow as well.

Thank you for accepting a young, inexperienced pastor (I had just turned 34 years of age when we arrived.), exercising patience with my many flaws, and for those moments of encouragement, counsel and love that you gave to me. I can remember moments of discouragement when some of you came alongside me and gave me a word of encouragement that lifted me and gave me the strength to go another day. You have given me grace when I needed it and your commitment to Christ has challenged me to resist mediocrity, and strive for excellence. Thank you for loving and growing us well. You stand as a shining example of a church that loves and grows its leaders well. We believe this is the kind of church Jesus envisions.

Thank you for being a church that offers gracious love to each other and to those outside our fellowship. In moments of failure and weakness, you have extended the gracious love of Jesus Christ to those who are hurting. In doing so, you confirmed for us that Jesus is alive within and among us. You have championed our efforts to move beyond our walls into our community and world. Thank you. You have favored opening doors to everyone who has come to live and serve among us. In your grace, you remind us of Jesus, who surprised many religious leaders when he accepted Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and many others who were different and often outcast. Once again, you remind us of our heavenly Father, who crawled over every barrier in Jesus to love us, even when we were not (or are not) easy to love. Thank you.

As we walk through this Advent journey, we will not be thinking of the gifts we will receive on Christmas Day. Rather, we will be keeping our eyes on the gifts we have already received.

“O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

Sing with us one of our favorite hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

 Come, thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above;

Praise His name-I’m fixed upon it-Name of God’s redeeming love.

Hither to Thy love has blest me; Thou hast brought me to this place;

And I know Thy hand will bring me Safely home by Thy good grace.

Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God;

He, to rescue me from danger, Bought me with His precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it; Seal it for Thy courts above.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas,

 

Hal and Jean

Nathan, Chantel, Peyton, Brooks and McClain

Hayden, Jennifer, Camden and McCoy

Scott and Shelton

 

 

A Time of Reflection

In Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  What do you think this means?  Is it a valid statement?  As we approach the end of 2011, this is a good opportunity to reflect upon life, our lives as followers of Christ, and our life together as the Church of Jesus Christ.

 

What is life worth?  How do we value life itself?  Are we taking life for granted?  Or, do we understand and accept life as a gift of God?

 

What am I doing with this life God has given me?  Is it my life to live as only I desire?  Is my life positively impacting the lives of those around me?  In what ways?  Are there things I would like to change?  Is my life glorifying God?  Do others see Christ alive in me?  What will be my greatest legacy?  What do I want my legacy to be?

 

How have I experienced God in my life at Covenant?  Where or in what ways do I see God at work?  What part am I playing in help to grow disciples of Jesus Christ who love God, love others, and serve in the world?  How am I growing in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ?  How does my relationship with God impact my other relationships?  My marriage?  My family?  My friends?  My co-workers?

 

How are we, Covenant, making a positive impact on our community?  Our world?  What difference does it make that we welcome groups like AA, Al-Anon, Al-A-Teen into God’s facility?  What do we communicate to those whom we welcome into this building?  If we were to close Covenant, board up the windows and go away, what would our community think? Would they miss us?  Would they even notice?

 

As you approach the end of 2011, I encourage you to take time to reflect, to examine your life.

 

1. What are you doing to grow disciples of Jesus Christ in your family/home?  Within Covenant’s community? Outside Covenant?

2. What passions, skills, talents, time might you offer to God for building his kingdom?

3. How can I walk more closely with God?  As a husband or wife?  As a father or mother or grandparent?

4. What will I give financially to the building of God’s kingdom?  What will I give toward Covenant’s 2012 Ministry Budget?  Covenant’s Building Fund?

 

Karl Pelachuk, in his book, Relax, Focus, Succeed, suggests that people who “examine their lives, who think about where they’ve been, how they got there, and where they’re going, are much happier people.”

 

Join me in some reflection, some self-examination.  For me, this is a pathway to a grateful and generous life.

 

To the Glory of God,

 Hal

 

Our Culture is Changing

Our culture is changing.  One of the changes we are seeing, according to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey, is that the number of adults who claim no religious affiliation is growing.  In 2000, approximately 8% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  In comparison, today 16.1% claim no religious affiliation.

Another change we see is that most people have no qualms about moving from one church to another, e.g., one denomination to another, or one religion to another.

Some of the highlights of this study are as follows:

78.4% claim to be Christian

51.3% claim to be Protestant Christian

23.9% claim to be Catholic Christian

1.9% claim Judaism

0.7% claim Buddhism

0.6% claim Islam

What are the implications for us, the Church of Jesus Christ – or, the Christians?  These are options:

  1. We can become anxious and fearful, turn our backs upon those different from us, put our heads in the sand, and keep doing church the way we always have done it.  Many, if not most, Christian churches appear to be following this path.  In my opinion, if we continue this direction, we will not grow and we will continue to lose our joy in Christ.
  2. We can grieve some of the changes in healthy ways, but then see in this emerging culture opportunities to extend God’s kingdom.  We can embrace opportunities to change the way we do church.  (Not the theological and biblical foundations).  What adaptive changes might we make?
    1. Renew our dedication to model and teach the gracious love of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.  This would transform bad and mediocre marriages into good ones, and serve as winsome examples to our children.
    2. Renew our dedication to reach our children for Jesus Christ, loving them into faithful discipleship.
    3. Choose to see the world, and all the diverse people groups in it as God see it/them.  Remember John 3:16 teaches that “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.”  Rather than become anxious, fearful, and disrespectful toward those who are different from us, why not choose to love them?  More than that, we could find ways to show them the love of God.
    4.  See the Church as a lighthouse for lost people, not just a protective haven for Christians.  Sometimes we act like the Church is an exclusive club.  Rather, we could keep one eye on the lookout for those in our families and community who do not know or follow God.  We could love them into Christ’s Church.
    5. As a community of faith, we could look for opportunities to reach our neighbors in the name of Christ.

One of the findings of this Pew survey was that a substantial number of people (4% of overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group.  This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with a particular religious group as a child now say they are associated with a religious group.  What might this mean for us?

It’s a good idea to be on the lookout and invite people to church, and/or engage in a spiritual conversation.

Our American culture is changing.  As a result of these changes God is laying before us opportunities.  What we do with these opportunities will affect our families, our children, our neighbors, our communities, our country, and ultimately, the world.

Will we be found faithful followers of Jesus Christ?

To God’s Glory,

Hal