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What then are we to say?

July 11, 2016

The apostle Paul asks, “what then are we to say about these things?” (Romans 8:31)

The truth is that sometimes I am not sure what to say about these things.

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

Brent Thompson.

Patrick Zamarripa.

Michael Krol.

Michael Smith.

Lorne Ahrens.

It’s not just that I fail to understand our addiction to violence that makes taking a life too easy, or that I fail to understand unbridled hate (in the case of the five Dallas law enforcement officials who lost their lives to a man filled with rage).

What this latest chapter in our country’s unfolding series of tragic events has taught me is that as a white man in a “white collar” job in America, I will never understand what it feels like to be black or to wear blue.

That may sound obvious, but I think the events of this week may, finally, begin to disabuse many of us of our need to understand and explain away these kinds of tragedies.

For too long, people (like me) have heard, discussed, commented, debated, and—in many cases—judged these compounding American tragedies as if we had the perspective to offer wisdom.  People—like me—who will never know what it is to teach our children how the color of their skin might impact the way they are viewed by the police, or what it is like for a law enforcement officer to see every encounter as a potential for danger.

What we were really doing is exposing our privilege.

Maybe instead of feeling the need to say something about these things we might try to listen.

If we are white, maybe we might ask a friend who is a person of color what these things are like for them.  Or ask a police officer how these things impact their oath to protect and serve.

And then we might remember that Paul’s question isn’t really an invitation for us to fill the space with our feeble words.  For it is God who speaks the answers to the questions that arise from things like these.  And that answer is found in the person of Jesus, who knows what it is to suffer, and to love.

– Pen Peery


Mission Trip to Russia: A Gracious Welcome Despite Difficult Lives

July 8, 2016

presenting gifts
Katelyn presents one of FPC’s gifts to Hope Baptist: a communion set from this year’s PC(USA) General Assembly meeting in Portland in June

Our last two days (Wednesday and Thursday, July 6-7) have been full and our hosts extremely gracious.  On Wednesday, they showed us a bit of the Ryazan area, with a tour of a 19th century poet’s village and a picnic on the bluffs of the Oka River.  Later, Tamara, one of the leaders in the church, invited us to dine in her garden, under the cherry trees. Two meals outside in idyllic settings!

On Thursday, we traveled to Ryaszhk to visit our fifth small rural Baptist church.  The missionary, Sasha, with his wife and four children greeted us and we all shared our motivations and goals in mission. We drank Russian tea and ate sweets (a common practice each day, whether standalone or after dinner).  Tonight we participated in the women’s fellowship at Hope Baptist, hearing a message about how parents and grandparents can teach their children about God and Jesus.

bluffs of the oka river
Bluffs of the Oka River where we had a picnic lunch on Wednesday

The Russian Christians we have met have been so welcoming to us, but we can see that they lead difficult lives. Neighbors avoid them (Sasha said none of his neighbors spoke to him for three years, until one of them finally did); they are viewed with suspicion; and in some towns the authorities can put obstacles in their way, or shut down their plans.  We must pray for them, as they do for us.

– Barb Neidinger

Mission Trip to Russia: Seeing the Future

July 6, 2016

Yuri, a deacon at Hope Baptist and leader of the construction project, shows us the plans for their new building

Since our partnership with Hope Baptist began in 2003, we have seen improvements and additions to the worship space. The kitchen and office have been in multiple locations in the building, each one better than the last, and the sanctuary has been expanded. With the support of First Presbyterian, Hope Baptist purchased their worship space and gained greater stability.

Even with all of the remodeling and ownership of the space, the dream has always been to have a church building. Baptists are viewed as a dangerous cult in Russia, and having a space that looks like a church lends the congregation greater legitimacy and the ability to design their space to accommodate their growing programs. They have also struggled with current neighbors who are suspicious and harass the congregation.

We have been privileged to witness the next exciting stage of their church life. Hope Baptist had purchased land and drawn up plans for a three-story building. The basement will house the kitchen and a fellowship space for conferences, wedding receptions, and other celebrations. The ground floor is reserved for the sanctuary, and the Sunday school spaces and offices will be on the second floor.

The foundation of Hope Baptist’s new building

First Presbyterian has supported this project financially and will continue to send funds through the Global Mission committee. Hope Baptist is very grateful for our partnership. Church members have also all pledged money for the church. During worship on Sunday, they took up two collections, one for the regular offering and one for the building. Additionally, church members are giving their time and energy to help build the structure. Our support is greatly appreciated, but this project’s heart is found in the investment of resources, energy, and sweat from the members.

This morning, we got to tour the foundation. It is so easy to look at the foundation and imagine the completed building, full of life and joy and grace. There are 160 members and children. It is undoubtedly a group that will fill the sanctuary with singing, prayer, and community.

Our trip to Russia has been filled with many, many blessings, but seeing the future home of Hope Baptist is one of the highlights. Scripture tells us that space to worship God and celebrate baptisms, marriages, and deaths is important. It is a joy to be part of Hope Baptist’s journey to build their new home.

– Mary Elizabeth Coley

Mission Trip to Russia: Responding with Good

building new church in kasimov
Visit to Kasim, where members have been working together to build the new church. Left to right, Mary Elizabeth, Ellen, Katelyn, Barb, Rich, Alexsi (pastor) and his family. More photos on our Facebook page.

We have been traveling around the state seeing town churches that cooperate together with Hope Baptist. So far, we have visited 4, all with different interesting and moving stories. We also saw a newly purchased camp and retreat site on beautiful land with a pond, wildflowers and a forest edge.

I could write paragraphs about each church but I’ll try to hit a few highlights.

The churches do struggle with discrimination, so that they need their own land and building to do much ministry.  One home church, dating from the days of true persecution, just constructed a good-size two-story building from ground to roof — all done by Christian brothers from around the state in one season!

Another church just starting to grow had their donated space destroyed by fire one month ago.  They have purchased land in the town center but need prayers to help them overcome problems with commercial pipelines on the property.

One older woman sums up the attitudes, saying, “We trust the Lord; in the face of evil, we respond with good.”

– Rich Neidinger

Mission Trip to Russia: God’s Steadfast Care

July 5, 2016

“And why do you worry about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” – Matthew 6:28-29

Monday, July 4

First Night at Hope Baptist
Dinner at Hope Baptist on our first night in Ryazan. From left to right, Olga, Ellen, Katelyn, Pavel, Mary Elizabeth, Barb.

It has been a full three days in Russia!  Our intrepid group (as Erika has described us) of me, Mary Elizabeth Coley, Barb and Rich Neidinger arrived safely to Moscow on Saturday afternoon and discovered that our bags hadn’t made the trip quite as smoothly as we did.  

After meeting up with Ellen Smith, our PC(USA) missionary partner, at the airport, we took a train from Moscow to Ryazan and got our first glimpses of the Russian countryside.  It was beautiful, and seeing Pavel and Olga waiting for us on the train platform in Ryazan was the best welcome!

It had been a long day (days, really) of planes and car rides and trains, and after we checked into the hotel, Pavel and Olga drove us to Hope Baptist for dinner.  When I walked in the dining room of the church and saw the table set for us with dishes of pasta, chicken, rice, fresh vegetables, and bread, I couldn’t help but cry.  Such a feast prepared for us — three of us strangers to the church but all of us sisters and brothers in Christ — it was humbling, grace-filled, and delicious.

inside the hope baptist sanctuary
Inside the sanctuary of Hope Baptist

The hospitality of our Russian sisters and brothers has been incredible.  They’ve welcomed us in their worship, fed us homemade meals, prayed for us, and literally given us their clothes to wear while we are waiting (hoping! praying!) to hear something about our luggage. 

In these first few days, it would be easy to get caught up in the fact that we are suitcase-less, and I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been some moments of frustration about that.  But the bigger takeaway from the luggage debacle is the reminder that we are not in control.  God is, though, and God is good.  God’s steadfast care comes to us in all kinds of forms — a late night dinner with new friends in the back room of a church, a bag of clean clothes offered from those same new friends so you don’t have to wear the same shirt for four days in a row, a patient teacher helping us learn to sing “Happy Birthday” in Russian so we could celebrate our dinner hostess, and the embodied reminder that we are all one in Christ.  Slava Bogu!  Praise God!

– Katelyn Gordon

Salt and Light: Nurturing Our City’s Children

July 1, 2016

“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world…in the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)

BELL 2016 little sisterIf you want to see what church looks like when we are really being church, come to the campus of First Presbyterian the first six weeks of the summer.

We are about halfway through hosting the BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) program – a tutoring initiative that provides experiences in the classroom and the uptown community for 60 students from the K-8th grade Westerly Hills Academy, with whom our church has a partnership.

These six weeks our campus is buzzing: in the courtyard at drop-off, in the Wood Fellowship Hall for breakfast, on the third floor for classes, and through the hallways as children make this church their home.

Additionally, in the summer our church also makes a commitment to send children to Camp Grier for a total of 65 camper weeks.

Our summer program is one of the finest examples of where our faith and our stewardship become salt and light in our community. These programs make an impact. Reading scores go up. Parents are more plugged in. Children grow in confidence. And God is glorified.

We’re about halfway through the summer and our fundraising for BELL and Camp Grier (total of $60,000) is about halfway finished, too. Whether you are a member of First Presbyterian or a fan, I encourage you to help us make a difference in the lives of dozens of children by supporting this vital ministry of the church.

– Pen Peery

A Quiet Reunion with a Former Choir Member

June 29, 2016

Amy Gray harpsichord 1
Former choir member and artist Amy Gray talks with Will Young about the design for FPC’s hand-painted harpsichord

While the reunion of the 1974 youth mission trip to Haiti received attention last Sunday, a more quiet reunion was also taking place—a reunion that contributed to the selection of one anthem the choir will sing during worship on July 3.

Former choir member Amy Gray, who left for seminary in Washington, D.C., in 2009, was back in the choir loft last Sunday for the first time in eight years. While in Charlotte, Amy also visited with Director of Music Ministries Will Young to tell him her history with the hand-painted harpsichord in the Lema Howerton Room.

A graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design, Amy’s passion for art had been sidelined when she injured her drawing hand during her senior year. She had turned her attention to music, another gift she had practiced since childhood. She moved to Charlotte, started singing in the choir at First Pres and took up the harp in 2003. At the choir Christmas party that year, then-choir director Bob Ivey approached Amy with news that an anonymous donor had given funds to build a harpsichord for the church.

He wondered if Amy would be interested in hand-decorating the harpsichord.

Amy had been seeking clarity in her prayers about whether it was time for her to take up art again, despite her fears of re-injuring her hand. This request, she thought, might be the answer to her prayers.

The donor had requested that Psalm 150 be incorporated into the design, so Amy used language from the psalm along the exterior of the harpsichord: Praise God in His sanctuary with the lute and harp. On the interior, she included an image from her favorite psalm, Psalm 84: Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself.

“Working on the harpsichord was my first experience practicing art as conscious prayer,” said Amy, who is completing her MFA, with a focus on making art as a spiritual practice.

During their conversation, Will and Amy discovered that her favorite arrangement of Psalm 84 was the very arrangement Will had come across a few hours earlier when searching for music for this Sunday’s service—Psalm 84/Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Faure, arranged by Hal Hopson. Amy finished the conversation happy to recognize a small bit of synchronicity at First Presbyterian, where her spiritual journey had blossomed.

“The Cantique was the reason I didn’t leave the choir loft at times in my life when I was struggling,” Amy said as her visit to the church drew to an end on Monday afternoon. “The hardest part of leaving Charlotte was walking away from First Presbyterian Church. Every time I’m here, there is connectivity, synchronicity. This place is magical for me.”

Reunion: FPC’s First International Youth Mission Trip

June 23, 2016

Haiti Group 1974

This Sunday during worship, we’ll recognize a dozen people from around the country who were part of the first international mission trip for youth in 1974—a trip to Haiti so profound that participants have traveled from across the country for a reunion during worship here on Sunday.

“It was eye-opening,” said Ben Williams, who celebrated his sixteenth birthday during that mission trip. “Our senses came alive to the plight of this poverty-stricken island.”

You can watch video from that trip more than 40 years ago, a mission trip that continues to echo for Ben and the other participants who are gathered in Charlotte this weekend, including Nel Hobbie (Hill), Eve Baker (Bennett), Elizabeth Barefoot (Vinson), Betsy Barry (Dreier), Charlie Durham, Jeff Gaines, Tom Higgins, Kathrine Horn (Coggins), Amy Petris (Capps), Dick Ridenhour, Ken Roberts and Kay Sullivan (Johnston). Dorathy Stewart (Link) will be unable to attend.


Lord, hear our prayer…

June 22, 2016

Photo by Nuchylee

During last week’s mission trip to Atlanta, six First Pres middle schoolers wrote prayers to capture their reactions to all that they had experienced and learned. Excerpts of their prayers are found in this week’s issue of FirstNEWS. Here are their prayers.

Gracious God, Watch over all your children in the days to come but in particular watch over those who are struggling with homelessness, who are out on the streets, weary, hot, and in despair. And in particular, watch over those individuals we have met this week, over Teddy, and Davis, and the Cleveland Cav fan, Isaiah and his brother, the fortune teller, and those at the Urban Recipe who are working so hard to provide for their families. Keep us always mindful of them: help us to keep it going.

Lord, hear our prayer.

I pray that people struggling in any way will have faith that everything will be all right. I pray that one day, the violence that has emerged on this planet will cease. I pray that people will learn to love one another regardless of how they look, their sexuality, or their beliefs.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Help our friends on the street find guidance to a better life. Make sure that no one else enters homelessness. Help the hurting and the sick get over their troubles.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Thank you for all that we have. And please help all of our friends to guide them to getting a job. Help them off the street and under a shelter. Give them water to cool themselves off and quench their thirst on these hot days. And food to feed them.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Please be with us as we go out into the world. We pray for those who are experiencing homelessness, we pray for the people that are ill/sick.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Please be with those at Loaves & Fishes, Urban Recipe, and Gateway. Also please be with those who are out on the streets tonight living an unfair and “abnormal” life. Also please be with those sick and injured and need your help. Help these people to take flight. Also help me with my worries and stress and to have a safe rest of the trip. Be with those to not be afraid at night and help them to find food resources in the morning.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Please be with all the homeless people who are on the street with nowhere to go. Please help me, Lord, with not getting homesick…Thank you for giving me a roof over my head and food in my belly. Thank you, Lord, for everything.

Lord, hear our prayer.

I pray that I will not go home and return to status quo but rather that I have the faith to see and the courage to do what is right. I pray that I remember.

Lord, hear our prayer.  Lord, please hear our prayer. 

In the strong name of Christ, Amen.

What’s on Your Summer Reading List?

June 21, 2016

Summer reading lists sometimes lean toward lighter beach reads. But books with some weight—emotional, spiritual or literary substance—can be a good choice when you’re packing your beach bag, too. Here are some suggestions for your summer reading list—fiction and non-fiction—from First Pres clergy.

From Erika Funk: 

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyles – I return to this memoir again and again. Boyle came to the barrios of Los Angeles 20 years ago as a Jesuit priest hoping to bring peace between the gangs. Realizing that lack of jobs was the real issue, he founded Homeboy Industries, an economic development and jobs program for at-risk and gang-involved youth. Each chapter is a compelling and often sorrowful story, easy to read, but impossible to forget. Each time I read it compassion is made flesh and I am encouraged for what is possible.

Prayers for a Privileged People by Walter Brueggemann – Brueggemann never disappoints and his book of prayers is challenging, hopeful and biblically based. I have used it countless times for group devotions, staff training and personal prayer.  It always lands on a shelf not far from my desk or bedside.

Designer Living: What Happens When the Real You Meets the Real God by Susan Sutton – On my “to read” list is this book handed to me by the author’s sister in law, a member of FPC. The author and her husband are missionaries with WEC International in Singapore. FPC has supported their work for many years and they will be speaking here in January for Global Mission month.

Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds – The list of contributors to this book made me want to read this book, which is also on my “to read” list. Writers, pastors and faithful activists share their thoughts on the church’s role in discussing and dismantling racism in America.

From Katelyn Gordon:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – A friend lent this book to me a few summers ago, and I doubted her recommendation for the first half of the book because it moved slowly. By the end, I was convinced. This is an adventure story for adults and raises questions about what motivates us, the people who are in our lives for a season, and how we reconcile ourselves to those things in our lives that are beyond our control.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – One of my top five favorite novels of all time. John Wheelwright tells the story of growing up in small town New Hampshire in the 1950s with his best friend Owen Meany, who believes himself to be an instrument of God. The book has serious themes, but Irving approaches them with humor and wit. I love how Irving tackles questions of faith, the complexity of relationships, and the beauty of people who are broken (which is all of us in one way or another!).

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor – My go-to book when I’m feeling stuck spiritually. BBT (as I affectionately call her) describes spiritual practices that most of us are familiar with, but she gives her reader a new framework for understanding them and practicing them in their own lives. Her chapter on prayer—particularly her paragraphs about struggling with prayer—has been especially helpful for me.

From Katherine Kerr:

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman – This is a surprisingly charming novel about a curmudgeonly Swedish widower named Ove. Despite his best efforts to shut out the outside world and do things his way (which he knows is the right way), Ove finds himself surrounded by people who might actually be friends. This is an easy to read, entertaining and inspiring novel that reminds us all of the power of community.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, by Rachel Held Evans – This faith memoir is a beautifully written, honest account of Evans’ experiences in a wide range of church communities.  From her childhood in a southern Evangelical church to participation in a small church plant, years away from the church and eventually finding a home in a mainline protestant denomination, Evans chronicles her journey to find her place in Christ’s church with candor and humor.

From Pen Peery:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – A work of non-fiction that tells the story of a world we never see. It’s a bracing look at the thorny issues around globalization in the new city of Mumbai (that sits on the old city of Bombay).

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit (2015) – I read this after our trip to Israel/Palestine this spring and it is an honest view of the complex history of how the nation of Israel came to be.

Christianity After Religion, by Diana Butler Bass (2013) – A compelling and hopeful look into the seismic change that is effecting the church in America. This book has a lot to say to FPC Charlotte and how we might be called by God to embrace our neighbors who are “spiritual but not religious.” I have used this book with the West Campus Visioning Committee.

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K. A. Smith (2014) – Written in response to Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A Secular Age, this book is on my list per a recommendation from two of my colleagues.

Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, by Ebo Patel (2013) – I read this book as a part of my Doctor of Ministry project. Written by a young Muslim American, the book calls upon “our better angels” and calls our country to embrace the promise of a pluralistic future.