Following Christ

August 7, 2019

Once a month, member Sue Loeser spends an afternoon volunteering in First Presbyterian Church’s Loaves and Fishes pantry. Here is one of her experiences from last spring.

Empathy was on my mind in April when I helped Jane (not her real name) as she shopped for her family of six. Jane was my dream client because she liked to cook and was searching for healthy options. We were offering several fresh vegetables that day, and Jane used her points to “buy” everything fresh.

Jane was especially excited about an extra-large bag of salad greens she chose, exclaiming, “My daughters love salad…they will be thrilled!”

Just then, another client entered the vegetable aisle, engaged in a discussion with a volunteer about what that client might like. He spied Jane’s bag of salad greens, pointed to it and said, “I’d like one of those!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I told this second client. “We had just two bags of salad greens and that’s the last one.”

That would have been the end of it, except beside me Jane smiled and said to the young man, “If you give me a bag, I’ll give you half!”


If you give me a bag, I’ll give you half.  You have no idea how often I’ve wondered if I would share my family’s desperately-needed food—food I couldn’t replace—with another person in need.   I can’t say for sure I would.

The people who come to a pantry are screened by the Loaves and Fishes organization. Their need is documented, their visits to a pantry are limited, and they have a referral for our FPC pantry that specific day. No walk-ins are allowed.  The system is well-organized. As a volunteer, I help clients select items from different food groups, using their family size to determine how many points (i.e. currency) they have in each food group.

As we shop together, I talk to my clients about food, and sometimes they move on to stories about their life and family.  What I hear is often heartbreaking.  While we bag their selections, it’s not uncommon for a client to weep with relief and gratitude on seeing all they have to take home to their family.

Yet, in spite of their need, a client like Jane is not rare. I often hear clients say, “I have enough (vegetables, fruit, etc.) so I won’t take any more.”  It would be easy to assume they refuse the items because they can’t carry more cans on the bus, or they don’t have storage at home.  But almost always the client adds, “Leave it for the next person.”

I started volunteering at Loaves and Fishes because I wanted another service opportunity, and I thought the distribution team’s camaraderie would be fun. (And it is!) What I didn’t expect was an education in sacrificial generosity.

—Sue Loeser

February 28, 2018
Debbie Shirkey and her mother-in-law, Kathy Shirkey

I had the unique position of traveling with my mother-in-law the other week and watching her wonderful, dynamic way of noticing others. Kathy Shirkey strikes up conversations everywhere she goes.  And I do mean everywhere—the checkout line in the store, the elevator, with people in line at restaurants, those eating at the table beside her, even people in the restroom stall beside her. She is the definition of “I’ve never met a stranger.”

I’ve always known this about Kathy. She’s outgoing and gregarious, quick with a story and easy to talk to. But on holiday these traits seem to be exaggerated. I must admit, I’m a bit jealous of her ease in talking with others. Conversations seem to flow so effortlessly.

This is also not the first time we’ve traveled together, so I’ve heard a lot of “Kathy stories” before. Like how she lived in Hawaii when she graduated college, or how she met her husband Nick in a bar in California, or how she taught swimming at the Y for years on a lake, but when she saw the ocean the first time, she ripped off her swimming badge because there was no way she was going to dive into that water and try to save someone.

What was different about our recent trip, however, was my focus not on the stories she told, though of course they are great, but on the people with whom she chose to share these stories. The people she befriended both by sharing her stories and by asking others about theirs. I made a conscious effort to watch the reactions of others.

It’s a wonder to behold the dynamic that takes place when Kathy gets going.

“Is that scallops you’re eating? They look good. Would you recommend them?”

“Hi, I see you’re in line for the Polynesian Show. Have you ever been to this show? I hear it’s a hoot.”

From there the conversations usually delve into either a shallow or deep trough of past experiences. “The scallops are great.” “No, this is my first time to Hawaii, and I’ve heard the show tells the history of the islands.” You get the idea. It’s the dance of people making small talk and finding out a little bit about one another.

What I found fascinating was that people, though they knew it was unlikely that their paths would ever cross again, loved being noticed. Someone had taken the time to notice them, to talk to them, to ask about them. To see them. Not the person beside them or behind them, but them.

Yes, there were a few people who didn’t want to engage (like the couple beside us at the fancy French restaurant, who I can only imagine thought Kathy must be an undercover-planted chaperone). But the huge majority seemed to thrive on Kathy’s advances. To have someone take a moment out of their day to ask about theirs.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we all took that time to notice those around us. Not those we already know necessarily, but the strangers whose paths we cross every day. What if we took a note from Kathy’s playbook and said, “Hi, that’s a great smile you have. Are you headed to this corner, too? I’d love to walk with you.”

– Debbie Shirkey

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December 28, 2017

Now the Work of Christmas Begins

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

– Howard Thurman


December 25. It’s a lot of build up to one day.

But when we read the origin story, the birth of Jesus, we see that the story continues beyond that one day. The visit by the shepherds, the gifts from the Magi and the escape to Egypt happen after the birth.

Perhaps my favorite part of the story comes when Mary and Joseph take the week-old baby Jesus to the temple for dedication (Luke 2:21-22). At the temple they meet Anna and Simeon, who recognize Jesus as the savior they have been waiting for. The story suggests they had been waiting a very long time. When he holds the baby Jesus in his arms, Simeon essentially says, “I can now die happy.”

Now that our waiting for Advent is over and Christmas has come, our real work begins, the real work we have been longing for: restoration and reconciliation.

Howard Thurman was an African American poet, a preacher, a civil rights leader and a theologian of liberation. His writings helped Christian activists draw strength from the gospel story. It is true that the work of Christmas for people of faith has just begun, but really it never ended. We begin again each day with renewed strength to work towards an end of suffering and ensure the work of reconciliation. So stay calm and carry on—it’s still Christmas!

– The Reverend Erika Funk

September 8, 2017

Around the corner from our house, along my typical route in to work, there’s a church with a marquee out front. You know the type—they are ubiquitous in the south. They hold removable letters and have space for announcements, preachers’ names, sermon titles, and most commonly, pithy sayings about God, faith, and church.

Whenever I drive by a church with a marquee, I have to check out what it says. I must admit, it’s not always because I’m curious who the preacher is or what she will be preaching on that Sunday. More often than not, I check out those signs to get a chuckle at the puns and turns of phrase that are commonly posted there. And I’ve seen some funny ones. One of my favorites is this:

If you love Jesus, tithe. Anybody can honk.

I usually find the signs amusing, and sometimes they cause me to think a bit, but mostly I have a little laugh and keep driving.

Recently, however, this church near our home has had the following on its marquee:

Church is a gift from God. Assembly required.

Clever, right? And oh, so true. Reading these words each morning as I drive in to my job at this church has inspired and challenged me. Church is a gift from God, ushered in through Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 16:18) and nurtured at the outset by women and men who lived in community as Christ’s followers. Critical to the success of the early church was that communal living—the “assembly” referenced in the church sign.

Too often, people believe that faith is a dyadic relationship, just “me and God” against the world. This belief assumes that God’s primary concern is with the status of their personal faith, and that prayer and scripture reading are sufficient to ensure a robust life of faith. There is absolutely nothing wrong with nurturing personal faith; in fact, it is crucial for all Christians to do so. But if this is where an individual’s faith journey begins and ends, something is missing.

Throughout scripture, we are shown and reminded that life and faith are not individual endeavors. God created us from relationship and for relationship.

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity… For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133:1, 3).

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12:4-5)

Church is a gift. Assembly is required. And that is not always easy. There are lots of other things that crave our attention and attendance on Sunday mornings. There are always chores to be done, papers to be read, coffee to be drunk and snooze buttons to hit. And when we do make it to church, there’s always the chance that something won’t go our way—someone might snub us or the coffee might not meet our standards, we might not like what we hear from the pulpit or feel like our contributions are valued.

Many years ago, my dad and I were talking about some conflict that his church was facing and he was sharing with me the challenge of watching fellow church members act rudely and dismissively to someone for whom he cares deeply. He was trying to wrap his mind around how this could happen at church of all places. I said to him, “Church would be a perfect place, if it weren’t for the people.”

It is no accident that the only perfect human being called us to follow him by surrounding ourselves with other imperfect human beings. We are all in this together, and the only way we can worship, serve, experience and follow God is by acknowledging that truth and getting together anyway.

We’re not called to be perfect, we’re called to be together. We will stumble and fall more times that anyone will care to count, but along the way, some miraculous things will happen.

People will be fed and comforted, challenged and changed. God’s word will be spread and God’s will done—around us, within us, through us and even in spite of us.

It will be amazing to witness. Hope to see you in church.

April 28, 2017

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

Earlier this week, Director of Youth Ministries Jen Evans posted on Facebook the link to a blogpost with the headline:

Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers

My first thought was, Oh this must be the profile of some crazy church where everybody sits around in a circle, sings Kumbaya and waits for God to take care of everything. 

Then I came to my senses and remembered that Jen posted it and she definitely does not take the sit-around-and-wait approach to life.

Still, as the person whose job it is to help members and prospective members explore opportunities for meaningful engagement inside and outside the walls of FPC, the piece intrigued me.

Here’s one thing the blog said that really hit home for me:

“You cannot volunteer at your own church, in the same way you cannot babysit your own kid. Because the church belongs to you in the same way your family does. It’s your own place, your own people…A volunteer, in most cases, is just visiting. A fly-by. Maybe it’s a helpful fly-by, but it’s not the same as belonging to something. It’s not the same as contributing to something bigger than you, something that’s part of who you are… whatever we do, we should remember that we don’t just belong to the church—it belongs to us. And we do not babysit that which is ours.”

Here at FPC, I don’t see us as people who “volunteer,” either. We don’t serve our community as a way to check something off our “Good Christian” checklist. I believe God has a purpose for our lives and that each one of us is called to a particular ministry or service in this world. Frederick Buechner describes “call” or vocation as “Where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

So I ask you:

  • What intrigues you?
  • What makes your heart beat?
  • What sparks your curiosity?
  • Do you want to feel more alive?

Think about these questions as you ponder actively engaging in something bigger than you, something that might become part of who you are!

Call (704.927.0242) or email me if you want to know more about joining God and fellow FPCers meeting the world’s deep hunger with our deep gladness.

– Mary Scott Peterson, Ministry Team Coordinator

April 7, 2017

As I write this reflection, my mind is seared by images of Syrian children fighting for life after exposure to chemical weapons. My heart hurts with the news of Charlotte’s rising murder rate. And my hands are busy trying to find some way to help in response to the Mecklenburg County Economic Opportunity Task Force report that lays out over 90 recommendations that seek to heal the brokenness in our city—a brokenness that I have had privilege to avoid.

I would rather avoid this suffering—but I also write on the precipice of Holy Week, a time in the Christian year when we accompany Jesus in his final days and through his suffering.

So in these days when the suffering of the world feels urgent, I would challenge you—and invite you—to resist the urge to look away. Instead, I would invite you to walk forward.

Come to worship this Palm Sunday, when we remember that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is immediately followed by his Passion.

Come to church on Maundy Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for a service of Tenebrae and communion where we mark Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and when we will recite the story of his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion.

Come, too, on Easter Sunday–to our community Sunrise Service at Romare Bearden Park at 6:30 a.m., or to our services in the Sanctuary at 9 a.m. or 11 a.m.

We cannot avoid the suffering of this world.  But because we follow Jesus, the suffering servant, we can walk through the darkest valleys in the knowledge that suffering does not get the last word.

For your reflection and devotion at the beginning of Holy Week, I offer this prayer by Dr. Walter Brueggemann:

Loss is Indeed Our Gain

The Pushing and Shoving in the world is endless.

We are pushed and shoved.

And we do our share of pushing and shoving

in our great anxiety.

And in the middle of that

you have set down your beloved suffering son

who was like a sheep led to slaughter

who opened not his mouth.

We seem not able,

so we ask you to create space in our life

where we may ponder his suffering

and your summons for us to suffer with him,

suspecting that suffering is the only way to newness.

So we pray for your church in these Lenten days,

when we are driven to denial —

not to notice the suffering,

not to engage it,

not to acknowledge it.

So be that way of truth among us

that we should not deceive ourselves

That we shall see that loss is indeed our gain.

We give you thanks for that mystery from which we live.


– Pen Peery

October 13, 2016

chuck-williamsonIt seems that lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1800s.

First, I’m in a book group that just finished reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (on which the hit Broadway musical is based). And second, out of curiosity, I’ve been rummaging through our church’s archives, reading Miss Madeline Orr’s history of FPC, as well as our Session minutes from the 1850s.

Yes, I’m a history nerd.

Spoiler alert: Alexander Hamilton dies in the end. Here’s how Chernow describes Hamilton’s last hours. He says that Hamilton, who late in life found faith in God, was “preoccupied with spiritual matters.” From his death bed, he asked that someone call the Rev. Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity Church, to bring communion. When Rev. Moore arrived, he refused to comply with the request because Hamilton “had not been a regular churchgoer.” In desperation, Hamilton then turned to a friend, John Mason, who was a Presbyterian pastor, and made the same request. Rev. Mason also refused because “private communion” was against Presbyterian polity.

Something about this scene makes me very sad. Here was a man seeking comfort and an experience of God’s grace in his dying hours, and pastors refused because Hamilton did not come up to their standards, didn’t meet their rules.

I would like to think that incidents like this were rare, isolated. But it seems that was not so.

In 1855, the Session of our church called “Mr. _____” to appear before the Session to give answer to a charge of the sin of “intemperance.” The accused appeared and acknowledged the sin, “expressed a deep feeling of sorrow and penitence on account of it, and a firm determination in dependence upon divine aid to abstain from that vice hereafter.”

The minutes of the meeting continue: “The members of the Session urged on him the importance of living a consistent Christian life and attending regularly upon the ordinances of God’s house. The Session then, on account of the recency and notoriety of the offense, advised the accused to absent himself from the communion table on the following Sabbath.”

This member came before the session with a penitent heart, seeking forgiveness. What he got instead was judgment. Apparently, the Session was not willing to forgive the offence because of the “notoriety”, which meant that people might think them soft on sinners. So they temporarily excommunicated him.

There was a time in our church’s life when, in the days before communion was to be celebrated in worship, elders from the church would visit the members and examine them on their faith and practice. Those members who were found worthy would be given a communion token, and on the following Sunday only those with a token were permitted to take communion. No token…no communion.

I’m glad those days are gone. Yet there are still so many times that we let our judgments of others keep us from reaching out to them and welcoming them and caring for them.

I ask God for forgiveness for those times when my judgments of others create a barrier. And I pray that God will show me how to knock those barriers down.

– Chuck Williamson

September 29, 2016

Pen mug 7-16Last week, in the wake of the protests in uptown Charlotte, I’ve never been so clear that our church’s geography plays a big part in our mission. God planted us here in the center of town 195 years ago for a reason.

God needs First Presbyterian Church to be a place of healing and reconciliation. We must be a place where there is honest speech about brokenness and pain. We are called to demonstrate what the good news of the gospel looks like by the ways that we worship with, serve, learn from and provide welcome to all of those who are seeking to connect to God in Jesus Christ.

Many times last week I was uncomfortable. I attended gatherings with other clergy and was uncomfortable with some of the anger I heard and experienced. I met a group of clergy uptown Thursday night to pray at the site where Justin Carr was shot the previous night. The protests were peaceful, but I felt unsettled as I walked the streets that are usually filled with cars and commerce. I was asked by community organizers to open our church up for a city-wide prayer vigil, as well as to provide access to our campus overnight for protestors to rest and re-group. This was a request I declined – it made me uncomfortable to do so, but not as uncomfortable as leaving our church home vulnerable.

Since last week I have both asked and been asked the question “what can we do?” A lot of my discomfort this past week has been not knowing exactly how to answer that question. I am built to try to find quick solutions. Yet the pain we saw on display in our streets last week is not a result of a one-time incident with a police officer and an African American man, nor is it solvable by a few concrete action steps.

Perhaps what we can “do” for the moment is feel uncomfortable. Maybe our discomfort is the soil from which transformation can grow.

One of the reasons I am confident God is at work among us – providing for us, loving us, challenging us – is because a host of events and experiences had already been planned before last week happened. These events will engage us in conversation about race, or difference. They are experiences that connect us with our neighborhood and our community. You can read more about these opportunities online and in this week’s eFirstNEWS.

My invitation to you is to show up at two or three of these events and see how they affect the discomfort you may be feeling at the moment. I suspect that God will use these next few weeks to transform all of our hearts – hopefully to the point that we will be ready to hear where God calls us to go next.

– Pen Peery

July 25, 2016

From a July 24, 2016, sermon on Acts 9:1-19

Let’s all take a pledge.  The politicians do it – why not us?

Pick a circle of people in your life: not the people that agree with everything you think, but a circle of people that God has put in your path.

Pen mug 7-16Maybe it’s your colleagues at work.

Maybe it’s your classmates at school.

Maybe it’s your Facebook friends, or Twitter followers…

Definitely the people who are your fellow members of this church.

Let’s take a pledge that when we talk with this circle of people, we will use the language of family.  That we will honor and respect difference.  That we will be patient.  That we will assume no malintent. 

Let’s all take the pledge.

As disciples of Jesus Christ in the midst of a world of difference we have a special mandate to treat people well.  We are not only bound by cultural norms, or civic duty – we are bound by our identity as children of God.  Our reasons for treating people with respect have little to do with being polite and well mannered.  They have everything to do with God’s expectations of us.

And who knows?  Maybe our small commitment to faithfulness might rub off on the world around us?

After all, God has been known to accomplish stranger things by way of regular people like you and me.

– Pen Peery