Who Made the Situation in Ferguson? We All Did.

There are two vital elements feeding the situation in Ferguson.  And we (all Americans) have fed it (over the last three decades in particular).  

First, the police in Ferguson, MO are taking a great deal of heat these days.  Personally, I don’t think it is exactly fair.  This is not to say that the Michael Brown situation doesn’t need to be thoroughly investigated, it does.  But all this press about our “militarized” police personnel around the country ignores the fact that our police officers face a far different situation than police personnel faced in days gone by.  It is a dangerous and different world.  And we have made it so.

I grew up in a very gun friendly culture.  No one could accuse the world I grew up in in the 1960s and 1970s as pro-gun control.  Most parents I knew had a gun in their home as a measure of self-defense. No one thought twice when, as a teenager, I went out target shooting, with other teens.  As early as college, I knew more than a few guys who had their own guns – to hunt with and to protect themselves if they lived in a cagey neighborhood.

But, starting in the 1990s, I began to hear the regular drumbeat, particularly in certain political circles, that massive gun-control was right around the corner.  The result has been a rush, not on gun control, but on the purchase of guns.  The gun industry has ratcheted it up too.  Ordinary citizens aren’t just buying handguns, shotguns, and deer rifles (the norm when I was young).  They are buying military grade weapons and any thought offered that ordinary citizens do not need such weapons is met with arguments that a totalitarian government is right around the corner and we “have the right” to buy anything, in any quantity, and take it anywhere without any restrictions whatsoever.  We are cranking out guns and weapons for purchase like popcorn.  And who has let this happen without challenge?  You and I have.  We now live in a world where people (not law enforcement personnel or security people but just some person no one knows) can walk into the grocery store, not just carrying a pistol, but a military grade weapon and we don’t challenge it as crazy.  Our police want and need military hardware because they can find themselves fighting someone like on a battlefield today.  With drug gangs, all armed with weapons made in the US, they might face a platoon of criminals with military weapons.  That’s one piece of the equation.

Second, we have been manufacturing more than just weaponry, we have been building prisons like they are going out of style.  Towns lobby for prisons like they used to for military bases. We imprison people more than any industrialized nation and at a rate higher than many of the nations we consider human rights pariahs in the world.  And who fills these prisons?  At a highly disproportionate rate, minorities do.  And it is easy for a place like Ferguson where minorities make up a majority of the city everywhere, except on the police force, for one situation to set off trouble like lightning hitting a dry forest.

If the response to an event seems disproportionate, on both sides, it is because there is much more at play than just this situation. 

I hope churches wake up and find their voice in this day and age.  It is not going to be easy to get to a better “normal.” We can build something better than more guns and prisons. We don’t have to accept our society the way it is.  And the change needs to start with us.

I still think Jesus points the way.

Pray for peace in Ferguson.  May God be with everyone, on both sides of the line up there.  And may God’s people be the ones who not only pray but work for peace and reconciliation.

What do you think?

Tom 

What Dreams May Come

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One cannot be struck, if you have followed Robin Williams’ film career, at a parallels between an aspect of one of his movies, What Dreams May Come, and his own death.  In the movie (spoilers), Williams portrays a man who lives through the tragedy of the accidental death his children.  He too later dies from a different accident.  But in this movie death is not an end to anything (as I believe it is in real life).

His character awakes in Heaven, which is initially drawn from his own dreams.  He finds family there (his children), friends, and all sorts of new people to meet. But his wife, however, is not there. This is not because she is still alive on earth.  It is because she could not cope with the loss of both children and husband and has committed suicide. Those who commit suicide do not end up in heaven – according to the film. They are in hell (also largely devised by their own imaginations).  Williams’ character heroically decides heaven can’t be heaven if his wife isn’t there – and he goes to get her.

In looking today at the reviews, of which there are many, on the Internet Movie Database – they vary between the great majority of folks loving the movie but about twenty percent giving it the worst rating ever.  Their reason?  Too sappy.  Too melodramatic.  And, I suspect, a target of the neo-atheists who seem to be everywhere on the internet these days poking at anything that has to do with faith.

My reaction to the movie was mixed but for completely different reasons.  It is visually stunning, I liked the characters, and the acting was super.  But theologically I had a big problem with heaven seeming to center on us.  God is not a big part of heaven.  The characters do not focus on God much at all really.  And that, beautifully portrayed or not, is a gaping whole when presenting the “Kingdom of God.”

By contrast, though, what I was intrigued by, was the movie’s implicit critique of hell.  How can we be called to love people in this life and then in the afterlife dismiss them?  How does God love creatures he has created and them send them to torment forever?  The film does underscore that people in hell choose to be there (and stay there by their own choice).  This was largely C.S. Lewis’ concept of hell.  Nevertheless, an underquoted verse in Scripture says that God wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).  Wouldn’t that mean that by there being some permanent hell that we can thwart God’s will?  That, in itself, would be most odd.

I suspect that hell, as presented in the movie, is largely what crushing depression feels like – not in the world to come, but in this world right now. It appears that is what Williams was dealing with.  It is tragic, not only for Williams, but for any human being to deal with this alone. Just as Williams’ character was willing to go into dark places out of love for his wife in the movie – there are lots of people today willing to take that journey to help people out a mental and spiritual dark hole they find themselves if they are willing to let someone in.  There is a way out.

I do believe our lives are a gift.  I think the last thing God wants is for us to take away the precious gift this life is.  An often unspoken aspect of suicide is that when someone we love or admire commits suicide it raises the threat of future suicides of those they have influenced. I always consider suicide like a mental and social deadly virus.  It is a permanent “solution” to problems that most often are not and it is a virus that is contagious. We have to be diligent in fighting this threat.  Who is to say what possible futures are closed with each suicide?

At the same time, I trust in God when it comes to what will come after this life. I think it is going to be even more stunning than we can dream of in our most wonderful moments of inspiration. God loves us.  And I trust in our Creator that what will be – should be.

If you find yourself in a dark place, as Williams must have yesterday, please find someone to talk it through with.  You are not meant to be alone when you find yourself in a dark place.

And know that you are loved by your creator, and very likely, by many many others.

Thank you God for Robin Williams – his wit, his talents, and the gifts he brought all of us. It is my hope that he will be a soul we all encounter in Your Kingdom.  And may our memory of him not exist in the dark place where it ended by in the great light he lived.

Until next time,

Tom

What Does the Presbytery Do for Us?

Note:  I wrote this for churches in the Presbytery of South Louisiana but if you are a Presbyterian elsewhere, it will be easy to extrapolate.  TP
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What Does the Presbytery Do for Us?

Our presbytery is our next higher level of governing body. If you have been in a Presbyterian Church any length of time, you likely have heard someone voice this question. It is a logical question to ask. Every Presbyterian Church has to send funds in every year to the presbytery. Where do they go? What are they used for? How does it benefit our particular congregation?

Presbytery funds are used for a wide variety of missional, organizational, and educational activities. Mission is a great place to start. Our presbytery has banner programs, which include outreach to homeless people, wetlands advocacy, and disaster recovery work. It also directly supports the Feliciana Retreat Center (which particularly benefits children and youth in our presbytery through camp), the Louisiana Presbyterian Pilgrimage (formerly known as Cursillo), which is a purposely-designed program to renew the faith of individuals, and is funding new ministries, such as our new West Bank Evangelism program, and revitalizing new ministries in old locations.

We have a new presbytery youth ministry, which has already conducted retreats to Montreat, Mo Ranch, Blue Bayou, held lock ins, and organized mission trips. Many area churches without a youth group sent their youth on memorable journeys together.

Our presbytery also supports campus ministry at a number of institutions of higher learning. That benefits college students. We have churches in our region that feel called to support this type of ministry, and the presbytery helps it happen.

The presbytery transformation committee is working with twenty-one congregations currently seeking a new beginning and has brought in experts from around the nation to advise them.

The presbytery organizes all regional meetings of the church and picks up two-thirds of all the printing costs. Through the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, the presbytery helps churches seeking new pastors and provides moderators for those without a pastor. They also maintain a pulpit supply list, so churches can find preachers when they need one for a Sunday.

Our presbytery maintains an active relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Cuba. We assist our sister churches in Cuba by sending them volunteers and helping them develop fresh drinking water for their communities. They teach us to be Christians in a different context.

We also fund the salary of a superb executive presbyter, who serves as a pastor to pastors and advises churches and presbytery committees all around South Louisiana on a wide variety of activities.

What is planned for the future? On top of the above, we are partnering with presbyteries around Houston and San Antonio to provide church officer spiritual enrichment, training for clerks of Session, and training for treasurers. We also have had, and will continue to have, Young Adult Volunteers coming in from all over the country to provide energy and new perspectives to a wide variety of ministries and charities in our local area. Our program is one of the most popular nation-wide.

Most years, Committee on Ministry liaisons, drop by local church session meetings to offer support, advice, and counsel to each congregation. They are the local congregation’s direct connection to the larger body, which is in turn part of all the presbyteries throughout the country. Our presbytery staff and members actively participate at both the synod (regional) and General Assembly (national) levels.

And they do even more than is listed here!

So, to answer the question, “What does the Presbytery do for us?” They allow us to be the Body of Christ far beyond our campus. By being a key part of the Presbytery, we are participating in all of this. And we live out one of our basic beliefs, that we are a connectional church. Being Presbyterian means being a part of more than just a congregation. We are a part of Christ’s larger Church.

Our Differences and Commonalities

What do the names Posey, Palmer, Carpenter, Hobbs, Wright, Dearmond, Cone, Bailey, Dean, Mastin, Bullock, Bussey (twice), Baker, Perkins, Runnels, Buatte, Mallet, Helber, Wilt, Stoehr, Kugla, Popwell, Callaway, Kemp, Kulp, Mimms, Smith, Dobbs, Yates, and Paine have in common? They are the family names of thirty one of my thirty two great great grandparents! I can claim no credit for knowing this, the credit all goes to my wife who researches this for me.

I raise this up not because I am special in anyway, I just want to use my family tree as an example. We all have great great grandparents. You can tell from my list – the origins of their families was likely quite different. They lived from 1762-1911 – a time period when many major events occurred. Most were Americans and some lived in the south and some in the north. That means it is possible in the American Civil War I had ancestors shooting at one another! I also know the various families originally came from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Germany – all of whom were at odds with each other at times. I also found out through a DNA test that I have some European Jewish blood in me from somewhere. Heavens knows the Jews were mistreated by all the ethnic groups above at times.

Yet, I would not be here if it were not for all of them (and one great great grandmother we have yet to find as well).

At a time in world history where we hear of so much conflict in the news, perhaps our differences, which can seem so significant to us today, in the end are not. Perhaps we have more in common than we imagine. And even if someone is our enemy today, who is not to say they will be our ally tomorrow? Maybe even more. Maybe even family.

Perhaps, most of all, we as Christians should be leading the way in building bridges between different groups instead of accentuating conflicts.

Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers. How much do we work to be just that? How much do we write, say, or even post that unites versus how much it divides?

Some food for thought before I go to a church meal welcoming a mission group.

Until next time,

Tom

My Politics and My Fear

I was lamenting at lunch today about the state of politics in our country and the astute person I was eating with ventured, “You know, much of our politics is based on fear.” And so, instead of focusing on what I perceive as the fears of others, I started thinking about my own fears and how they influence my perspective. So, what is it that I fear?

I guess, at my core, what I fear is unbelief. Of course, I fear this personally because I am a pastor. If I work in a denomination that historically attracts folks with above average education and our educational system tends to steer young people away from belief and faith and more to what is quantifiable (usually the only thing we use to measure truth these days) then attracting new people into church is challenging. Perhaps Presbyterians need to become comfortable anew with trying to reach the average person rather than the more highly educated person in our society because we can only enact change one person at a time. But this type of unbelief is a fear that has been with me since becoming a pastor.

There is another type of unbelief though that I dwell on more and more. I fear that people do not believe in our society. That might sound like a strong statement but many of the very things I learned growing up that we valued as Americans seem to be fading. We often say America is a melting pot culture and anyone can make it here if they work hard and try hard. But when I see the reaction in our society to immigrants (including legal immigrants) I question if we do value our diversity. From watching kids getting bullied in school to listening to adults lament in the changing ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, I don’t think people value our diversity as I always heard.

I hear people say they value our constitution, which I learned was a distinctive mark of our nation. As am armed service member, that is what my oath is to support and defend. But when people bring up the constitution, they often are either bringing up the second amendment or are citing it as a rationale why they want to opt out of some directive of the government. If people’s freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc are raised, I most often hear people speak against our constitution rather than for it. Just listen to the way people say the word, “Protesters” versus any other word. It is not a term of admiration in our society even though our nation was born out of a protest.

Most of all, I was taught that some of the most admirable people in our society were those who chose to work for the government. We called them public servants when I was a kid. Everyone understood that people could choose to work in the private sector, and make more money, but that some folks, for the sake of our nation/state/county/city sacrificed and worked for the common good. It wasn’t just members of the military that we viewed as public servants. We viewed people who worked for the Highway Department, the Department of Corrections, and the Forestry service in the same light. We very much viewed teachers this way. They were all sacrificing for the greater good.

Yet, today, it seems to be “normal” political dialogue to see how much we can cut government services, government programs, and government employees. We have privatized and contracted work that used to be done by government employees (often at a fraction of the cost today) and then turn around and decry government spending. And we take programs that were for the sake of the average worker, most often being compensated far below what they would in the private sector, and talk of their benefits – their pension, their health care, and even their housing as “entitlements.” It is as if we have bought into the mantra, lock stock and barrel, that if someone isn’t making a profit off of everything we do, then it has no value. Government programs are supposed to be for the good of the people, not in making a simple financial profit! Sure, we need to bring in more income to pay for what we do. But many see taxes, any taxes, as onerous despite living in a country they will turn around and call the best on planet earth. Do we really think they way to make it better and better is to cut off the programs that made our society the place that it is? Are we really so unwilling to fund what our grandparents and parents paid for with little griping?

At the core, what I fear is that if a real genuine crisis came, you could convince many people in our society to shed off our history, heritage, constitution, and rights with little thought. What I fear is it would be none too difficult to turn Americans today against one another as is being done in so many other countries around the world (making citizens of a country begin viewing their neighbor as their enemy rather than as their natural ally). I fear what has been fought for, sacrificed for, and lives given for isn’t as fundamentally valued as it should be.

In the church today, I see people willing to drop denominational affiliations over, at their core, issues that do not really effect most of us. And they are convinced to do this by people appealing to their faith! If we are willing to do it with church, would it be so difficult today to get people to think that a “true patriot” would do away with all the rights guaranteed us in the constitution?

And yet, in the end, I have to remember what Jesus said after the resurrection. His most frequent phrase was, “Fear not.” It is easy to give into fear if we truly believe no one is in charge, no one cares, and the only thing that can and will protect us in the end is our own might (financial, firepower, or even knowledge).

I am called to have faith, faith in the one who created us, redeemed us, and sustains us. I am also called to have faith that despite the fears in our society, and maybe for our society, that our better angels will prevails and we can convince most of our brothers and sisters that we truly are blessed and still live in a very special place and at a very special time. Our neighbors and allies are not our enemies. We are stronger together than we are apart.

We can build for the future. And we are called to build a better place for our children, not bunkers to hunker down in.

That’s my confession for the afternoon. I as much as anyone, maybe more than anyone, needs to make sure I am basing my politics and perspective on hope rather than on fear. Hold me accountable. If you see my fear envelope opening, call me on it. :)

Back to working on Vacation Bible School.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Biblical Innerancy

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Biblical Inerrancy
In•er•ran•cy. (noun) 1. Lack of error, infallibility. In regard to the Bible, the belief that the Bible is free from error in matters of science as well as those of faith.

A topic that is regularly raised against my denomination is that we do not believe in Biblical inerrancy. What is my answer to that? The critics are right, most of us do not. The PC(USA) affirms the Holy Bible is inspired and that it is authoritative for us. In the words of Jack Stotts, who was seminary president of Austin Presbyterian Seminary when I went through, “the Bible is the charter document for the church.” That said, most Presbyterian ministers, elders, and members understand that the Bible is a library of books, written by a wide variety of authors, compiled and edited by others, and translated by more still who lived and understood the world given the context of their times.

Let me use an example to illustrate: In Genesis 1:7-8 it says,
“7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were
under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament
and it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was
evening and there was morning, a second day. (ASV)

Some newer (and older) translations refer to the firmament as a vault. Ancient peoples looked up at the sky, saw that it was blue, and assumed that there was water up there. Why didn’t the water come down? Because God put a firmament/vault up there to hold the water back. Yet, science tells us no such device exists. Is it true that God created the earth? Absolutely. Did God create the atmospheric system that sends us rain? No doubt. Does it make sense to pray for rain? I think so. But did God install a “vault/firmament” in the sky to divide waters from the ground from waters in the sky? Only if you understand that creatively, not as a literal description of a device. And I won’t even go into the fact about the vault being “heaven.”

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We could go through many items on this topic as we scan through the Bible. If you review the various lists of genealogies different names appear at times. If you track the life of Abraham, we are told that he tried to pass off his wife as just his sister (twice) and then Isaac did the exact same thing. Do we think that literally happened? We are told the story of Noah’s ark when all the species of life could not literally fit on one boat (more less be maintained by one family) or even that not all species would survive where Noah lived. We are told people lived sometimes up to nine hundred years. In the New Testament, did Jesus go to Egypt after he was born or back to Nazareth? Did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry or toward the end? Which was the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness? Who was at the foot of the cross? Who was at the empty tomb? It is easy to go on. If you try to approach the text as a literal/scientific description of events, you run across all kinds of problems. Atheists have a field day with all of this. But it is only a problem if you understand the Bible to be written really just by God and for people to really have no part in the process other than to write down dictation.

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Does this weaken the Bible? Not at all! It means God inspired people in that day and time and God can do the same in our own. If we demand biologists, anthropologists, historians, and so many other fields of learning conform to the Bible (since it is without error) aren’t we just inviting people to step away from the Bible? God gave us minds, which God expects us to use.

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Biblical innerancy also demands that the Biblical writers write things that they would never experience and out of context with their own lives. Take, for example, all of the Hebrew Bible prophecies we understand to be about Christ. I think they are about Christ. But if that is all those passages literally are about, God inspired people to write about someone they did not know, and never would know on this earth, and who would not influence anything in their lives. What if we prayed for deliverance and God answered, “I hear your prayer, and I’ll make sure I do something about it in your great-great—great—great grandson’s life.” Instead, couldn’t God answer prayers that mean something to both that person and could also mean something more to that great—great—great—great grandson?

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Most of all, it means that we are held responsible when we pick up a Bible. We are responsible to learn of the time, conditions, knowledge, and norms in their world to discern what God may be saying to us about our world today. The Bible isn’t a simple rule book to be applied in any age. God didn’t just sit back in heaven in one period of time and say, “Well, I will put it all in the Bible, so I don’t need to inspire anyone anymore.” God wants us to seek him with all of our knowledge, learning, and understanding today (fully expecting us to have studied the Bible but not just leave it at that). God did interact people largely from 2000 B.C. to 100 A.D. and blessed us with Scripture to gain understanding on what God has done and what God expects of people. God is still in the process too as new Bibles are being translated into many languages around the globe for both current and future people of faith. But God is not dormant. He didn’t give us a book and walk away. The Bible isn’t God. It is a wonderful tool to give us insight into our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. It also tells us much about the human condition. But God expects us to live in the 21st century, not millennia ago.

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This is why, in full confidence, we can say today that slavery is sinful, that women should vote (or for that matter that anyone should vote), that Christians from different churches should still work together, that God expects us to treat people who practice other religions (or no religion) equitably, and that we should take care of our planet — even though none of this is explicitly spelled out in the Bible.

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For Presbyterians there is no book that reveals God to us like the Bible. It is unique. It is authoritative. It should be studied. It should be proclaimed. It is God’s written word to us and for us. Most of all, it was written (and complied, edited, and translated) by people not automatons. They weren’t tape recorders either. They were people who took God’s inspiration and applied it in their world.

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And that is precisely what we are still called to do today. And we should go further, because we have the Bible!

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What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

3rd Service

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Parkway is still taking the concept of New Beginnings seriously.  We recognize that it probably isn’t going to go well for our congregation in the long run if we simply try to just keep doing what we have been doing for years (no matter how well we work at doing it).  Our world is changing around us.  Society is changing.  People are changing.  So, a strong core group at the church is engaging in discussion about doing something different – really different. What if we developed a third worship service?

What would be different about this third service?  We would hold it off campus.  We would develop it with the express purpose of creating something interesting – not to us – but to others.  We would develop it for all ages.  And we would not lock ourselves into following a standard order of service.  That’s where we were when we began our first meeting last Sunday!

Here are some of the innovative ideas that were shared:

~Have something different each week.  It doesn’t have to be standard each week.  It doesn’t even have to be weekly.

~Have a pet friendly service.

~Have a service at the park like Son Rise on Easter morning.

~Have an activity based event.  Start with a devotion, run/walk/bike in the park.  Gather back to see what everyone’s come up with.

~Hold an event at the YMCA.

~Hold an event at a Coffee Shop.

~Hold an event on the North Shore.

~Have a musical event.

~Attract people to whatever we are doing with music.

~Stick with something awhile.  It needs to be tried much more than once.

~Don’t get stuck into the mindset that it needs to be long.  Give them something valuable and build on it in time.

~Hold an event on Saturdays.

~Bring food.  Bring drinks.

~Tie in community service.  Let them know how we connect our beliefs with our actions (and how they can as well).

~Don’t make this about church membership but about worship of God.

~Be clear on what we do.  Is it worship?  Is it a devotion?  Is it an invitation to social work?  Whatever it is, be clear.

As I consider the above ideas, I think we have the following challenges:

a) Are we developing a devotional/Bible Study or a worship service?

b) Having an irregular program, while it sounds good in theory, is a challenge in the church.  Last year, we tried holding a regular church meeting on Sundays for two months and on Tuesday nights on the 3rd month.  While that may seem straight forward, people were regularly confused as to when the meeting would be.

c)  We fill the room when all of the ideas are on the table.  But we only have so much energy and limited resources.  If we condense/coalesce  the ideas down to one or two main ones – will we keep the momentum?

I do think many of the ideas can work together.  Overall, I believe the worship service idea needs to be outdoors.  This keeps us outside of the box of rigidly developing a service based on the space versus on our goal and reduces the chance that new people will feel perhaps trapped in something they are not sure about yet.  The core of worship is speaking with and being in communion with God (prayer & praise) together.  Whatever we do, however we do it, has to focus on those things.

I also see many of the ideas being excellent, outside of the traditional box, but more in the realm of studies and/or devotionals.  I love the run/exercise one.  I’d be excited to try something in a new location.  But the key to making a new study or devotional work is inviting people.  I don’t think, as one participant aptly put, that if people nearby hear us just talking about something they will be inclined to join in.  But our folks may be much more comfortable asking friends/neighbors to meet them in the park or coffee shop for a devotional/run/biking/discussion event than they would be asking them to come to church.

I also really like the input of keeping it simple, not thinking anything we do has to be long, using music creatively, and bringing food/drinks.  All would work well in our culture.

What ideas do you have?  You can share ideas/suggestions with us even if you are reading this thousands of miles from New Orleans.  Or maybe you were in the meeting and ideas/thoughts have come to you since then.

Our next meeting will be July 13th following the Traditional Service.  Continue to pray on this, think about it, and I look forward to the ongoing discussion.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to go from planing to doing one or two new type activities this fall.

In Christ,

Tom

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