Laugh at the darkness

By Casey Weatherford Special Contributor The brewery taproom is crowded tonight. Stools line long community tables. Seats and pint glasses are full. Their contents are as varied as the crowd: pale ale, porter, or Belgian wheat; root beer, Cabernet, or Diet Coke. The place is humming with conversation. At one end of the room, an older couple laughs with church friends. At the other, a bearded man watches football on the big screen. Young parents entertain a baby with brewery coasters. Bartenders chat with regulars. In the corner, there is a woman who almost didn’t come, until she felt a nudge from God in the grocery store parking lot.  Suddenly, the strum of a guitar draws all attention to the front of the taproom, and we sing:  All creatures of our God and King Lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia! Alleluia! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam! O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! We finish the last rousing refrain and go right into “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing,” then “Be Thou My Vision.” Then it’s on to the barnstompers: a medley of “I’ll Fly Away,” “I Saw the Light,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The set list is also dotted with cover songs following a monthly theme: Love Songs (February), Flower Power (May) or Back to School (August). This is Beer and Hymns. This motley mix of locals gathers on a weekend evening once a month, shaking hands and passing song sheets. Some know these hymns by heart; others have never sung them before. Some are regular churchgoers; others have sworn off organized religion. But in this place, something special happens. As voices and glasses are raised, divisions dissolve and hearts are softened. Hands reach across tables, and powerful connections are made. This is a truly communal experience, bringing people together and reminding us that we’re not that different after all.  My husband, Ken, and I are the leaders of Bentonville Beer and Hymns, and each time I stand on the tiny stage and gaze out over my microphone, I am astounded and moved by this phenomenon.  Each time, I hear echoes: Echoes of the camaraderie at Cana. Echoes of the 12 friends around the table with their teacher.  Echoes of the Wesley brothers singing and laughing with parishioners. Echoes of all the times in our travels that we have gathered around tables and shook a hand, shared a story, and toasted to life.   We end every Beer and Hymns gathering with the same song, called “All of the Hard Days are Gone.” People throw arms around shoulders, sway, and sing with gusto:  We’ll laugh at the darkness and dance until dawn All of the hard days are gone. It is here that we laugh at the darkness: the darkness that claims our differences are too great; the darkness that keeps us sheltered and comfortable; the darkness that denies a brewery can be holy ground. Pull up a stool. Let’s laugh at the darkness together. Weatherford, a graphic designer, lives in Bentonville, where she is an active member of First...

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Vital

By Gary E. Mueller The trajectory of the Arkansas Annual Conference is to create vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world. It’s not just a statement. Rather, it articulates what United Methodists of Arkansas understand about our purpose, vision of the future, what we are going to invest in and what shapes our life together. Whenever I hear the phrase “vital congregation,” I think of a church that is vibrant, passionate, energetic, excited, enthusiastic, hopeful and fruitful. I imagine a congregation that is alive and making a real difference. I picture a church fueled by the Holy Spirit, and dream of a church that really does keep the main thing—Jesus—the main thing in all it does.     I am focused on the critical importance of vital congregations because bishops, annual conferences, district superintendents and conference staff do not make disciples of Jesus Christ who in turn make disciples involved in God’s work of transformation. Congregations do. And that’s why I long to see more congregations become more vital. So what are the marks of a vital congregation? • A vital congregation seeks spiritual revival, because no congregation can be vital without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit unleashing it to do what it otherwise cannot do on its own. • A vital congregation puts into place those things that bring about vitality through a discipleship formation process, ways of getting to know and reach out to the community, growth in stewardship and equipping laity. Vitality doesn’t just happen. It takes prayer, intentionality and work.  • A vital congregation experiences increases in numbers in worship attendance, professions of faith, number of first-time visitors, people involved in discipleship formation groups, baptisms, participation of young adults and those involved in mission in the community. Remember, however, that numbers are always in comparison to the recent past, and not the “glory days” of long ago; they must be read in context of the current reality of the community. • A vital congregation discovers stories of transformation involving real people and real life. These accounts range from how an individual’s life has dramatically changed to how a church has reduced childhood hunger in its neighborhood, because what ultimately matters to God is how real lives have been transformed in real ways through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I hope it’s obvious how passionate I am about there being more vital congregations that are more vital in Arkansas. Here’s why: Jesus loves us enough to save us through the cross. Jesus has given us the mission of making disciples who have had a life-transforming relationship with him. And Jesus longs for all people to experience the abundant and eternal life he offers.  I believe from the bottom of my heart that United Methodists in Arkansas want more congregations to be more vital. I hope you believe it, too. Even more importantly, I look forward to joining hands to do it together! Come, Holy Spirit!  Grace and peace, Gary E....

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Quit inviting your friends to church

By Ed Seay Special Contributor I remember as a youngster growing up at First United Methodist Church Dardanelle, we would have “Invite a F riend to Church Sunday” every year. I cannot recall if I ever invited a friend, but I figure I did.  The idea is good for a couple of reasons. First, you already have a relationship with your friends. You know what they like and dislike, and what their interests are. Second, there is a familiarity that gives you freedom to ask them to come to church that would be awkward with a stranger. Finally (and this is the “churchy” reason), if everyone brought one friend we would double our attendance that Sunday.  Now while I cannot remember if I invited a friend on that Sunday or not, I can remember we never doubled our attendance on that Sunday. This has now morphed into “National Back to Church Sunday,” which encourages regular church attendees to invite friends and neighbors to church. Considering the declining attendance in churches across our nation, this is a noble idea, but it is largely ineffective.  A 2015 article, “Which Friendships Last the Longest?” appearing on socialpsychonline.com, cites a study finding that friendships last based on similarities and dissolve due to differences. The familiar phrase “irreconcilable differences” has more application with friendships dissolving than Hollywood marriages, I would presume. If you examine your circle of close friends, not acquaintances or Facebook friends, I imagine you would find they are a lot like you. They likely make a similar salary, live in a similar size house and have similar family structures. And just like you, they likely attend church with the same dedication you do. They may attend a different denomination, even strikingly different, but they love God, love Jesus and are members of a church. No amount of invitation will convince them to leave their church, just as it would not you. (One exception: If they share with you, because you are friends, that they are dissatisfied with their church, it may be an opportunity to invite them to yours.)  The same goes for your neighbors. I live in an upper middle-class neighborhood, and my neighbors, by and large, go to church. Pew Research studies show that only 50 percent of residents in a city go to church, but a large percentage of that number will be concentrated in a couple of areas.  So quit inviting your friends to church.  I can hear you saying, “But who are we supposed to invite? Strangers?” No, because that is awkward and unlikely. How are we supposed to do evangelism if we don’t invite our friends to church?  Author Kay Kotan said at last year’s Grow By One Summit that we should “go where those who don’t go to church are.” For Shiloh UMC and Pruett’s Chapel UMC, this means we go to the homeless shelter. And we go twice a month (I hope we will expand to four nights a month soon).  The shelter feeds 60 to 80 people every night. These children of God are often times going through hell on earth. They often were not raised in church. They often feel that church has nothing to offer them. And so we go to serve them and to love them.  We share stories...

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Editor’s Corner: From home to home—again

My first column for this publication was titled, “On leaving home to go home.” And wouldn’t you know it, nearly seven years later, I’m doing it again. The role of Arkansas United Methodist editor brought my husband and me back to our home state in 2010. Leaving the life we had built in Texas wasn’t easy, but we believed God had provided an opportunity to be closer to our families. And so we reoriented our lives, sold our house, uprooted ourselves and made the transition. This time, I once again believe God has provided this opportunity for change, though the current uprooting doesn’t involve quite so many drastic adjustments. Instead of relocating every element of my life, I’ll lengthen my commute, making the daily drive from Little Rock to Conway to work as director of communications for my United Methodist-related alma mater. I won’t be able to join the same buddies for lunch or visit with as many clergy friends, as most of them won’t have nearly as much business that would take them through my new office. So much shapes us as we learn and grow: the people around us, our environment, our socioeconomic status, the faith our families choose and the faith we ultimately choose for ourselves. Two organizations have played key parts in shaping who I am. For the past 16 years, from local church staff to church-related organization to the Arkansas Annual Conference, I have had the privilege of orienting my daily work to serve one of them, the United Methodist Church. Now, I have the opportunity to do the same for the other one, Hendrix College. As the announcement of this change made its way around social media, a Hendrix professor and friend responded with the comment, “Welcome home, Amy!” It’s true. Hendrix is one of the places I’ve called home. Yet, I’ve learned something from returning “home” over the years: Home doesn’t stay where I left it. In the case of higher education, a college becomes a different place every semester, and many semesters have gone by since my days of hanging around on campus. I’ll have much to learn as I settle into my new digs (on a piece of property that the college didn’t even own when I was a student). The Arkansas Conference has become home to me, too, just as the Little Rock Conference was when I was a child (there we go again, with “home” changing). I’ll still be part of one of her congregations, and I’ll still be working with a number of her people. Thank you, readers, for helping me find home at the Arkansas United Methodist for a season. May God’s blessings and grace be with each of you, and may you be at home wherever God leads. Reach the Center for Technology staff at...

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Grannyland

By Charles Cooper Special Contributor After reading my last piece in the Arkansas United Methodist (“Lying down in green pastures,” Nov. 4, 2016), a friend observed, “Dinosaur Rex ate your mother-in-law.” “Yes, he did.” “You and your mother-in-law had an interesting relationship.” “No, that was Dinosaur Rex.” Amber and I had a negotiated relationship—good thing, since she had powers that could defeat spiders, dinosaurs and sons-in-law. She was Granny in a cape. Amber had a bond with nature, as does Lady Wisdom, who was present with the Creator for the scattering of stars, the digging out of rivers and the carving of mountains (Proverbs 8:22-31). Amber spent a lot of time in her yard and with her flowers. They bloomed nearly year round, crocuses, jonquils, hyacinths, crepe myrtles, mums, pansies—late into winter, for pansies are no pansies—and, of course, roses. After she died in 2012, we transplanted her irises into our backyard: lavender and a mix of dark purple and white, and all with loud yellow stamens and pistils, as if they were visually calling her name, “Amber.” So, Granny was in her backyard one evening and saw a dragonfly. She told the dragonfly to go away, but the dragonfly said, “No, Granny, I’m useful. I eat mosquitoes. You don’t want Beth and Sarah to be bitten by mosquitoes, do you?” So, Granny left the dragonfly alone. The next day Granny saw a toad, which looks like a frog with warts and stumpy legs. Granny said, “Go away!” But the toad said, “I may not be as pretty as a dragonfly or even a frog, but I eat mosquitoes. You don’t want Beth and Sarah to be bitten by mosquitoes, do you?” So, Granny left the toad alone. The next day, Granny was perched in her favorite lawn chair, and she saw a mosquito. This time she rolled up the newspaper that was across her lap, and she reached back her arm to smash the mosquito on its head, but it buzzed, “The last two evenings you let a dragonfly and a toad go free and seemed happy to have them as your friends. Is it any way to treat your friends to smash their supper against a rock?” Granny had to think about this, but when she had thought long enough, she looked up and there on the rock was a smiling toad. Amber spent her weekdays volunteering in a thrift shop. People would unload their old clothes, furniture and toys. Amber would borrow from the stock when my children came to see her. She would fill the house with stuffed animals, dolls, games and baubles for parties; any day is a birthday if it’s a secondhand birthday. It was not an arbitrary tossing of stuff, for “the clever consider their steps” (Proverbs 14:15). There were strategic surprises—a glamorous doll preening behind a curtain, a wind up frog in the tub, huggables in ambush. It was Grannyland. When the kids left, she took it all back to the thrift shop and sold what would sell for next to nothing, and she gave the rest away to those in need. All proceeds went to help the local nursing home provide comforts to the old and dying, comforts not provided by the State. So much good was done with hand-me-downs....

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