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Monday, January 4, 2021

2021 State of the Communion Address

Today, as we gather for worship on this first Sunday of 2021, I want to pause for a moment to look back at the previous year and then look forward to the new one.  2020 proved the ancient truth written in Proverbs 19:21, “You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.”

As we leave 2020 behind, there is hope the new year will be better (even though COVID cases in our area are at their highest level so far).  No one really knows what 2021 has in store.  We hope the new vaccines are effective, cases will decline, and soon the dreadful word COVID will become a relic of the past.  The reality is, we don’t know how long the current crisis will continue or if a new one will arise.  Prudence calls us to be hopeful, but also cautious.  It also calls for faith because we know Jesus holds the future in his hands.  He walked with us through a very difficult year and we must trust He will continue through the remainder of this crisis and in whatever the future holds.

New Members: Jon, Andrea,
& Andrew Adams
Looking Back at 2020
We began 2020 like most years.  We were full of hope, doing God’s work, and enjoying life together in a brand new decade.  We welcomed our 98th, 99th, and 100th new members of the last decade--Jon, Andrea, and Andrew Adams.  People were posting pictures on social media for the #10YearChallenge, showing how they’d changed over the previous decade.  Our youth members led youth Sunday in January.  Coach Lamb was our guest speaker at a very successful Super Bowl Sunday worship service.  We enjoyed our annual sweethearts banquet with music by Heather Petero.
We had a 24 hour prayer vigil on Feb. 27, 2020

But some sensed trouble in our world--in politics, in our United Methodist denomination, and even in nature as natural disasters wracked our world.  We called for a day of prayer and fasting.  For 24 hours on February 27th, members of our church prayed and fasted.  Looking back at the troubles of 2020, some may question why so many disasters befell our world if we were praying so hard?  My faith leads me in a different direction.  I see that our prayer vigil prepared and fortified us for what was to be a very difficult year.  It was only 2 weeks later that the COVID-19 pandemic reached Georgia with its full force, causing the shut down of our schools, businesses, and even churches.

Fire in Australia in early 2020
Our 2020 experience was unprecedented.  The world has experienced plagues before--some far deadlier than COVID-19.  But never before had a plague spanned the whole globe all at once while reported on the news for everyone to see.  The economy suffered.  People were out of work.  Millions died and the random way the virus affected different people--mild symptoms for some and death for others--left everyone in doubt and fear.  Added to the virus were other serious troubles in our world--deep divisions, mistrust, racial injustice, and violence were plagues that spread as fast as COVID.

Building a Wheel Chair Ramp
And as sad as I am to think of the hurt and suffering and death that visited so many this past year, I am just as proud of the people of this church for finding so many ways to share the light of Christ in the darkness.  Let’s review.

We helped build a porch for the Teasley/Head family while Terry was recovering from kidney surgery. We also built a wheelchair ramp for Debby Castillo in preparation for her knee surgery.
We donated face masks and shields to the DEO Clinic

In lieu of a community Easter Egg Hunt, we gave candy filled Easter eggs to families in our community. People picked up Easter packets and had their own private, family Easter Egg Hunt.

New Flooring in the Sunday School Wing
With school canceled, we shifted our snack pack program from feeding school children to feeding refugees recovering from the Easter tornadoes that damaged Chattanooga and Murray County.

During the shortage, we donated masks and face shields to help volunteers at the DEO medical clinic, which provides free medical care to the neediest people in our community. These helped protect these brave volunteers so they could continue providing essential medical services to people in our community who might die without it.

We placed church yard signs around our community and displayed red ribbons to show support.

Donations from the Sara Brooker estate and others enabled us to renovate the floors in our SS wing and install a new digital LED sign.
Drive-Thru Trunk or Treaters

After months of isolation, we needed fellowship. So we had our summer Family Fun Days.

To help our burgeoning tech ministries, we hired Jeremy Barfield to take our online ministry to the next level.

We delivered dinners to feed the NW Bruins football team and also the CCHS marching band.

When everyone else canceled theirs, we offered a drive-thru trunk or treat.
We collected 91 boxes for Operation Christmas child.

During the pandemic, we went from having only one Sunday morning worship service to three: 9:00 AM, 10:55 AM and a full online worship service (at 10:55 AM). We have just added a call-in service where you can use a telephone to call in and listen to the service; so technically that makes four services. Despite shutting down on-site services for over two months in the spring (including Easter), and despite severe disruption for the rest of the year, our combined average worship attendance from online and onsite services was 145 (that’s an increase from 114 in 2019 to 145 in 2020). And despite all the disruption, our church finances were better in 2020 than any other time in the last ten years I’ve served as pastor of Pleasant Grove Methodist Church.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that these are only stats for church-sponsored events.  I can’t even begin to list all the ways individual members of our church have made a distinct difference in a hundred thousand ways just by living out your lives as followers of Christ in your everyday lives--at home, at work, in school, wherever you are.  For among our number are teachers, government leaders, law enforcement officers, healthcare workers, retail workers, and many essential workers who kept our community going through the most difficult year I can ever remember.

That was 2020. And though I am saddened by the hurt and loss so many have experienced, I couldn’t be prouder of my church.  The church is not the building.  The church is people.

Looking Ahead
One thing I want you to know as we look to the future God wants for us is this:  You are capable of far more than you think you are.  You have adapted and thrived in a very difficult year.  You can do anything you put your mind to if you have faith and work hard.  I hope you will take hold of this new confidence.  As an individual, you can do amazing things and I hope you will work hard to do whatever God calls you to do.  Do not fear.  For the Lord almighty empowers you when you have faith in Christ. 

Whatever 2021 holds, I am confident Pleasant Grove will tenaciously find ways to do the things God calls us to do.  We will have many activities and accomplish a lot this year.  I won’t try to list them all (for I can’t even imagine them all).  Right now, I just want to share three essential things we need to do in 2021.

A Day of Prayer and Fasting - February 17
We need to have another day of prayer and fasting.  I don’t know what 2021 holds, but I know who holds 2021 in His hands.  Therefore, I want our church to have another day of prayer and fasting to make sure our spirits are in tune with God’s Holy Spirit.  This will give us courage and strength and wisdom for whatever 2021 brings.  I want to set aside February 17, which is Ash Wednesday, for 24 hours of prayer and fasting.  I invite each of you to participate by fasting from food (or some other item) and to also sign up to pray for at least 30 minutes sometime during that day.  We will have 30 minute time slots for the whole day and I want to see someone praying during every time slot.

A Service of Celebration/Thanksgiving 
At some point, we will have a service of celebration and Thanksgiving.  No one knows what will happen, but we anticipate life will eventually go back to normal (whatever that means). At some point, we hope the new vaccines will be widely distributed, COVID cases will drastically decrease, lockdowns and quarantines will be a thing of the past.  That will take time.  Unfortunately, I don’t think we will be able to announce it’s all over in one day.  It will happen gradually and even then it will take time for people to overcome their fear and accept it. Eventually, we will be able to look back and recognize things have gone back to normal.

Whenever that happens, I would like to have a special service of Thanksgiving to celebrate.  Like I said, I don’t know when that will be.  Right now, in my own mind, I’m thinking sometime in November--around Thanksgiving.  That seems to be the fitting time to do it.  Though I believe (and hope) we will move beyond COVID much sooner than November, I sense it may take until November before we actually all realize and agree that we have.  Whenever we can, we will give thanks and celebrate.

A New Vision for a New Normal
Speaking of going back to normal, I think we need to understand that it will be a new normal.  In some ways, life will go back to being just the way it was before COVID.  In other ways, it won’t.  Will people ever feel comfortable shaking hands, hugging, gathering in large crowds? I don't know; we will see.  

In some ways, I hope we don’t go back to the normal way we were before COVID.  Prior o COVID, most people took gathering in a crowd to worship at church for granted. I hope we never again take worshipping together for granted.  I hope we all continue to wash our hands and avoid being in public when we are sick, and maybe even wearing a mask when we are sick so we don't spread our germs; these are good, healthy habits I hope we keep.

Furthermore, I believe God has given the church a unique opportunity to reset.  I don’t want to waste this opportunity.  I invite you to personally consider what your “new” normal will be.  How do you want to live life when life goes back to normal?  Make your goals now and make a plan to accomplish your new way of living.

As for our church, I want to gather a group of visionary leaders from our church to discuss what our new normal will be.  What ministries and activities do we feel God wants us to pursue in the future?  Will we just go back to doing everything the way we were doing it prior to COVID?  Or are there some things we want to change or stop doing? And is there anything new we need to do instead?  Where can we improve our efforts?  We need leaders with vision to consider these things and chart a new path for Pleasant Grove going forward.
  I plan to gather some key leaders for a vision summit sometime this year so we will be ready for to hit the ground running when things return to normal.  We will probably have multiple meetings to help us chart the best course into a new future.

Other Things You Can Do to Help
I’m almost done, but I want to finish by offering a few things you can do in 2021 to help Pleasant Grove. First of all "Like" and "Follow" our Facebook page. Follow us on Instagram. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.  I would like to set some goals to get 1,000 likes on our church Facebook page; 500 followers on Instagram, and 100 subscribers to our YouTube channel.  So please, go over and like, follow, and subscribe.  This may seem insignificant, but it really helps our church increase our ability to share God’s Word as far as possible.

Join a small group.  I want you to be part of a small group at our church.  Attend an onsite Sunday school class or join Sherry’s online Zoom class or attend my morning devotions on Facebook Live at 8 AM.  I want everyone to engage in one of these small group offerings (however you feel most comfortable).  The Christian life is not passive but active. It requires more than just to sit passively in a pew in a worship service. It requires more than merely watching a service online. YOu need to engage with a small group of believers to encourage and learn from one another.

Lastly, make a commitment.  Have you been baptized?  Have you decided to follow Jesus?  Do you want to join our church?  Let’s not put these off any longer.  Let’s find ways to do these in 2021. For much of 2020, we mput this important commitments off, hoping the pandemic would go away and we would then be free to safely make our commitments. Let's not put these off any longer. There are safe ways for people to be baptized, profess their faith in Jesus, join as members of the church, or make other commitments. Let's not put these important things off; we can find safe ways to do these. Let's make our commitments in 2021. What commitment do you need to make? How can we help you mark that commitment and encourage you to live it out? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Send me a message.

If we put our faith in Christ and follow the Holy Spirit's guidance, I believe 2021 will be a great year, whatever it may bring.  Join with me as I renew my commitment to serve the Lord in everything I do.

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