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A Message from Pastor Matt

May 22, 2019

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Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Five or six years ago I attended a pastor’s conference at Church of the Resurrection, the largest United Methodist Church in the world located in Kansas City, KS.  They had a number of speakers, mostly mega church pastors lecturing us about church growth strategies, programming, and the tricks of hospitality.  The content was good even if contextual understanding was lacking.  The assumption at most of those types of conferences is that if we hear from some pastors of really big churches (all with memberships over 5,000) somehow the growth mojo will rub off on the rest of us, regardless of the realities of demographics and context.

I don’t remember most of the speakers, except one young woman who stuck out from the crowded field of white, middle-aged men.  Rachel Held Evans was not a reverend, nor did she possess a terminal degree in theology or church growth.  Rachel, a 32 year-old small town newspaper reporter from Dayton, TN had over the preceding 2 years accidentally garnered quite a following because of her blog posts and a New York Times best selling book dealing with Christian faith.  She had experienced somewhat of a religious awakening that stirred the waters of her own Christian Fundamentalist upbringing.  Her awakening sprung out of the tension between the moralistic rigidity of the faith community of her childhood and Christ’s abundant love that included everyone in God’s saving work.  Where the church of her childhood excluded people who didn’t fit in their mold of discipleship, Rachel found in the stories of Jesus a God who welcomed and loved everyone.  Her eloquent writings about her new found understanding of the church and Jesus resonated with a growing audience of readers, especially youth and young adults, and those who had been hurt by the church.

Following one of the plenary sessions my friend and I had the opportunity to chat with Rachel.  She was very approachable, funny, and disarmingly humble.  After introducing ourselves,  Rachel quickly offered affirmations to us regarding the importance of pastors she said, “I have no idea why people invite me to talk at these kinds of events.  They should be listening to you!”  I was touched by her kind words, but also a bit chagrined knowing that pastors often don’t say what ought to be said, either out of a lack of courage or because of wrong-headed convictions.  

Hanging on the wall above the desk where Rachel sat to write blog posts, articles, or one of her best selling books is a sign that simply says, “Tell the truth.”  Perhaps that was what made Rachel so popular in parts of the church and society at large.  She told the truth where others failed.  She candidly and kindly reminded the world that Jesus welcomed everyone and turned away no one, therefore the church should follow suit.  Marginalized groups in the church felt the power of Christ’s affirming love through Rachel’s work.  Women, persons of color, and members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community discovered a Savior who welcomed them through Rachel’s faithful interpretation of scripture and Jesus’ teachings.  Her plea was for a church who would tell the truth and follow Christ’s example of radical welcome of all people.

Despite all of the Twitter followers, blog readers, her New York Times bestselling books, or being a nationally recognized religious commentator on CNN, Rachel remained humble.  She used her platform to advance the thoughts and careers of others, giving additional voice to those who are often marginalized by culture.  Rachel’s love of God, the church, others, and especially her conviction to tell the truth, helped to strengthen Christ’s church.  

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Rachel’s life and work.  On May 4th she died after a sudden illness that caused her to have seizures and traumatic brain swelling.  Rachel leaves behind her husband Dan and two little kids.  Making sense of her death has been challenging, especially in this season of resurrection.  The 37 year-old mom and Christian leader had so much more to contribute to our shared existence.  

The world is full of losses that cause people to ask the great why questions of life as they search for understanding and meaning.  In fact, a number of you have experienced such loss at one time or another.  The great mystery and miracle of Easter is that God enters fully into loss and does something totally unexpected.  New life, resurrection springs forth from death.  The trauma of life’s losses have no power over the redemptive love of God.

This may seem little consolation to those whose experience with death is quite fresh and the pain is quite real.  Feeling the storm of emotions that are present in the aftermath of a loved one’s death is normal.  Even in the midst of the sorrow, pain, and anger we may be feeling, Jesus Christ is reclaiming life so that in the fullness of time we all will live within God’s eternal self.  As for the rest of us, those still living each day in this part of creation, it’s up to us to continue Christ’s life-saving work of love.  It’s up to us to tell the truth.  People need to hear that they are unconditionally loved by their creator and that they are welcome to participate fully in the Body of Christ, the church.  We must also reckon with the powers of destruction that try to stir up division and hate within God’s beloved creation.  These evil forces are not of the spiritual realm, but are flesh and blood, powers and principalities that seek to divide for personal gain.

Christ’s saving work is not only discovered in the writings of Rachel Held Evans, but in any place where the truth of God’s unconditional love and inclusion are being spoken or practiced.  God’s call to us is simple, to love as Christ loved:  unconditionally, generously, and graciously.  Through loving we enter into God’s presence.  And that’s the gospel truth!  

Blessings on your journey,

Pastor Matt

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