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The Microclimate of Community

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It was such a joy to share the sermon at Floris UMC this Sunday that I wanted to share an additional story that didn't quite make the cut. For those of you who weren't with us (or need help remembering), the main point came from John 13:31-35, in which Jesus told his disciples about a new commandment to love one another as a distinctive marker of Christian community. The disciples had a role to play in developing the climate in which they would continue to exist, grow and thrive in Christ. And, as we know, climate is crucial for things to grow.

The story I want to share further illustrates the importance of climate. In May 2007, my family faced a difficult transition. My parents had to leave Western New York (which has been their home for their entire lives) for my dad's new job in North Carolina. As a teenager at the time, I found opportunities to connect with new people through school, church, etc. But we all faced some culture shock when we 'Yankees' moved to North Carolina. The climate, both cultural and physical, was challenging in so many ways, especially as we experienced heat and humidity like we had never known before. That summer was one of the hottest on record, and our AC unit (and new love) in our home simply couldn't handle it. We had never hador needed to haveair conditioning in our house before. But pretty soon after our move, we had to make a call to a repair company.

My mom and I were both home during the day when the repairman came. And let's just say we had a hard time communicating. My mom (who had worked professional jobs in Western New York her whole life) and the repairman (who, to my memory, had been born and raised in rural North Carolina) simply couldn't understand each other. The main cooling unit had rusted through, including a coil in the unit. As the repairman tried to tell my mom that he had to order a new coil (pronounced "coal") for the unit, my mom looked back in disbelief, wondering why there was coal in the unit to begin with.

Luckily, I was able to finish the conversation with the repairman. As he left, I looked back at my mom expecting to laugh about the whole ordeal. But our joy rather quickly turned to sadness. The exchange plainly reminded us of how disconnected we felt, even in our own home. Just as a home with a broken AC unit in July can surround us with sweltering heat and humidity, disconnectedness and brokenness can surround us with anxiety and sadness. In more ways than one, our climate wasn't necessarily conducive to our growth.

Don't discount how your environment affects your life and don't discount how you can contribute to your own environment. Perhaps you can be a climate changer for good, creating spaces at church, work or wherever you are that are conducive to your own growth and the growth of those around you.

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Creativity Crisis

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I'm still relatively new to Northern Virginia, but in my year of living here, one thing stands out far more than the horrific traffic, the well-educated population and even some of the social and political crises we face on a regular basis. Our busyness requires so much attention for the things we have to do that we have squelched our creative capacities for thinking about the people and communities we could become. Of course, bright lights of imagination and innovation pop up around us all the time. But I think we can all identify with the rut that work days and weeks can become.

In this rut, we rush past our neighbors (if we even know their names to begin with) to get to our cars, become our worst selves as our rage boils over in traffic, work with only the day's end in mind, endure more traffic and come home to more tasks, crises or sheer exhaustion. Our tasks dictate our lives beyond a reasonable measure of responsibility. Do we ever ask, "Does it have to be this way?"

Yes, work is good and necessary. And yes, not everyone has the privilege of asking these kinds of questions. But no matter your career or professional trajectory, Jesus offers something far more meaningful than a monotonous daily grind.

You don't have to quit, retire or get fired to experience the new life Jesus offers. In fact, Jesus offers us the Holy Spirit, whom we can invite into every moment of our lives as God's constant, loving presence. This gift isn't confined to your particular worship community on a given day, but can in fact fuel your imagination for a new routine.

Imagine what could happen if we took Jesus' call to love our neighbors seriously, beginning with those who live right next door. Imagine what could happen if our commutes turned into opportunities to (safely and hands-free) call friends or partners in faith to encourage and stay connected to one another. Imagine what could happen if we saw our co-workers as fellow human beings who experience joy, sorrow, beauty and pain just like we do. Imagine what could happen if home became a rejuvenating place, even as you check items off your to-do list.

My generalizations cannot possibly give you solutions to breaking out of your own rut, but right now, take five minutes and ask that question: "Does it have to be this way?" Like we encourage recent college graduates in Wesley Fellows, you do not have to join a convent or work at a church to take Jesus' call to discipleship seriously in your life. However, you do need to take time to imagine who you want to be and consider what steps you can take to get there. Don't be afraid to unleash your creativity; this God-given gift, expressed in countless different ways, helps us achieve the unimaginable.

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We Are All Neighbors

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I was reminded about how connected we all are when I was in the grocery store the other day. From a distance, I recognized a woman who I've met twice during the Floris Guest House, our church's week of hosting homeless guests. I smiled as I remembered meeting her and felt grateful that we'd been able to help her for at least two winters. I smiled at the thought of seeing her in the grocery store just as I would a neighbor. In the next instant, I also felt hopeful that she was heading to a warm place to sleep that night. She and her shopping mate were gone so quickly that I didn't have a chance to say hello, nor to see if they had transportation. I offered a silent prayer in the moment, but her face stayed in my mind all week.

A few days earlier, there was another incident as I was driving home from church that stuck in my mind. I happened past an area frequented by day laborers in search of work. The fact that they gather there is sometimes controversial, and in today's turbulent social and political climate, I couldn't help but wonder about their safety. Whether you agree with what they are doing or not, one thing is true: they are there in search of work. The concern nagged at me so much that I brought it to my small group the next night and asked if others might join me in praying for them.

The third reminder I experienced was even more disturbing. I was leaving a shopping center and noticed two cars pulling in at high speed as I waited to exit at the traffic light. A very tall, muscular man leapt out of the first car and strode purposefully toward the second car. The man in the second car rolled down his window and started yelling at the first man. Soon, heated words were exchanged by both men. Friends, minus the aggressive posture, both men looked as though they could just as likely be driving a car pool or exiting our church parking lot. What could have happened moments before to spark such reactions? The first man nearly reached through the window toward the second man. Then the light changed and other cars started to honk impatiently. The first man got back into his car and drove off.

As I drove away, I found myself thinking about so many things. This was a small neighborhood shopping center, so it is likely that both men live nearby. What responsibility do we all have for creating the kind of world that we want to live in? In other words, would anyone have stepped out from behind his or her own steering wheel to intervene if the altercation had continued? I'll admit that it happened so fast, and was so surprising to me, that I felt a little helpless. It wasn't until I saw that there were young children in the back seats of both cars that I felt a sadness and determination to dial 911 if necessary.

All three of these brief events really got me thinking about the concept of community and what it means to be neighbors. The primary definition of the word "neighbor" is a person who lives near another. A secondary meaning of the word is "a person who shows kindliness or helpfulness toward his or her fellow humans." So, who is our neighbor? How intentional are we about treating others like our neighbor?

Each of these events inspired me to hop onto BibleGateway.com to see how many times the word "neighbor" comes up in the Bible. Answer: 203. It is the secondary meaning of the word that seems most fitting when I read this passage from Deuteronomy 15:7: "If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor."

I think there are perhaps as many ways to define a need as there are ways to define a neighbor. Our neighbors may need resources or a job. They may need a sense of community and connection. They may need the assurance that Jesus loves them unconditionally. I have a feeling that all three of these events, and others to come, will keep challenging me to think about the concept of need, community and neighbor in new ways. What about you?

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The Love o' the Irish

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It's a day that means so much more than alcohol, green rivers and Irish culture. In fact, St. Patrick's Day is, at its core, a day about restoration, which is exactly what we are talking about at Floris UMC this Lent in our sermon series, "Restored." Patrick asked questions about living a restored life in community with others, questions so central to our practice of Christian faith.

If you have never heard anything about who St. Patrick was or what he did, I encourage you to watch this short video featured in an episode of VeggieTales. It's a fun, informative video for the whole family! In short, Patrick grew up in England, was captured as a slave and taken to Ireland, escaped home to England and received a call from God to minister back in Ireland. Patrick helped change the trajectory of an entire people, which explains his veneration in Irish cultural memory and Christian history.

The often-untold story of Patrick's life, however, tells exactly how he reached the Irish people and taught them the ways of Jesus. Outlined in detail in George G. Hunter III's "The Celtic Way of Evangelism,"Patrick's method serves as an incredible example for any Christian serving in a cross-cultural context.

Patrick would, initially with a few others, travel to a village and spend his time getting to know the people. He also worked to understand how and why they did things in their context so he could become a genuinely accepted part of any community he entered. He never sought to change a place he visited so it would be more conducive to his brand of Christianity; rather, Patrick learned about a place so he could best understand how Christianity could speak to people there.

As Patrick and his posse passed through different places, they focused their time on creating meaningful community experiences. They shared meals together and spent time studying scripture, much like the first Christians did in Acts 2:42-47.

Patrick had a deep devotion to scripture, but his devotion to Christ ran even deeper. In order to welcome people into the communities he shaped, he always emphasized inclusive belonging over a checklist of "correct" beliefs. To Patrick, people always belonged at the table, and he couldn't impose his own expectations on them until they were known and welcomed.

As history tells us, Patrick's method worked exquisitely. But Patrick did not become the superstar pastor of a multisite, nationwide church. Patrick worked to make each community self-sustaining, so even when he had to move on to another village, the young church would continue meeting together, serving one another and caring for the community. Patrick consistently worked himself out of a job as he equipped a new generation of leaders to continue guiding their community toward Christ.

Lent is a holy season, and throughout church history, days on which we venerate saints are holy days. Perhaps St. Patrick's Day has been nothing more for you than a bizarre cultural holiday when people pinch you if you don't wear green. But St. Patrick's Day can be a holy day too.

Lent forces us to be introspective about the ways our sinfulness holds us back from the best that God has for us. Maybe this St. Patrick's Day, we can ask some of the same questions Patrick asked, like, "How do I communicate that all people are welcome in God's church?" "Does my life reflect this gracious hospitality?" and "Is my faith about me, or is it about God?"

Before we believe or behave correctly, we belong. Christ welcomes us to God's table. May we, like Christ and Patrick, extend that same grace to others.

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Surprised by Community

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Editor's Note: This week 30 high school students and sixleaders traveled to Alajuela,Costa Ricato help with construction projects, work with children at a Vacation Bible School program and help meet the needs of the local, under-resourced community. The following is a blog post from one of the students, Erin Dare.

Going into this mission trip, my anxiety was through the roof. Not only was this my first mission trip, but also my first mission trip would be in another country. I kept putting off the fact that the trip was approaching up until the day that we actually left. My first thought when I got to Costa Rica was that it was going to be a long week.

On the first day we went around the village to pass out packages of rice and beans to families. It was probably one of the most eye-opening experiences of the whole trip because I really got to see the living conditions of the families in Costa Rica. Even the nicer houses still seemed to have problems. I began to feel confusion and anger toward God. I didn't understand why God would put people in these kinds of situations, where they may not have proper living conditions or enough food to eat.

I was confused as to why I felt like this on a mission trip, considering they're supposed to strengthen relationships with God. Monday seemed to drag on forever, and I found myself questioning why I came on this trip in the first place. I was very sleep-deprived, constantly confused about what time it was and just overwhelmed overall.

It wasn't until Vacation Bible School (VBS) on Thursday that everything really began to click. Although language was still a barrier, the kids and I somehow figured out a way to communicate and come together as one. Being around the kids filled me with overwhelming joy and gave me a new appreciation for their lifestyle. Even though the kids might not have all the materials that kids in Northern Virginia have, they are still blessed with so much. The kids were so full of happiness, joy and pure silliness.

I got alone really well with one little girl named Susanna who is about 8 or 9 years old. Susanna immediately taught me so much about how to love others unconditionally. She showered me with hugs and giggles. When Susanna was given a snack, she cared more about giving her snack to her mom and little brothers at home, to make sure they were fed first, than she did about eating it right away.

Later that day, during construction, I really saw God in one of the construction workers. During VBS, Susanna loved writing her name all over my arms and legs with a marker so I had her name "tattooed" on me. A worker came up to me and began to point at my arm and speak Spanish. Confused, I told him that I didn't speak Spanish and also that my name wasn't Susanna. He began to motion to come with him. I followed him to a porch, and he began to show me pictures, a smile stretching ear to ear. On his phone were pictures of him and Susanna, his daughter, doing different activities. I had never had such a heart-warming moment with someone; we didn't need any words. I felt how close this community is and how happy he was to see that I knew his daughter.

I'm not finished with my trip, and this has already been one of the best experiences of my life. I was most surprised with the community. Everyone that I have interacted with has been so welcoming and kind. The couple that lives at the place where we are staying have gone above and beyond to make sure that everyone feels at home and is always full with some great food.

The community at the church is also amazing. We had the opportunity to go to two different churches: one on Wednesday night and one on Thursday night. The church experience here is so different but amazing to watch and be a part of at the same time. On Wednesday night we had little girls come pull us up to the front of the church so we could dance in front of everyone at the service during the worship songs. Although dance isn't usually something you see at church services, it was one of the coolest things that I've ever done at church, and it put the biggest smile on my face.

At first I was scared to go to the different church services because of the language barrier. Surprisingly though, I think I felt and heard the sermon better in Spanish than I would have in English. I know that sounds weird, but I heard the emotion and strength of both pastors while they were preaching and really felt God's strength in those moments of praise.

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