A Big Announcement by Dennis Perry
A Big Announcement by Dennis Perry
This morning’s snow cancelled our plans for worship. And cancelled a dialogue sermon Emily and I wrote just for you. So, I am sending this note this afternoon with the sermon we preached at the Saturday evening service. In the sermon we announce that I’m retiring this June.
You probably have lots of questions. Our sermon attempts to answer most of your questions. Some of you were able to hear it but most of you were kept away by the snow. So I’m giving you a copy of what we said on Saturday. I am deeply grateful for my 17 years at Aldersgate and look forward to the next six months of our work together. Thank you for all you have allowed me to do. I know Aldersgate’s future is bright.
Sermon Series: Big Little Lies
Dialogue Sermon: “God Is a Divine Santa Claus”
January 12-13, 2019
May we join our hearts in prayer.
PRAYER – May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Emily: There is an old story about a little girl. About 8 years old. She was working hard on something in class one day. And the teacher noticed it clearly did NOT look like what she had asked the students to do, so she decided to investigate. The teacher walked over to the student and asked, “What are you doing?” The little girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher told her, “That’s nice, but that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing right now. Plus,” she felt the need to correct the child. “No one knows what God looks like.” The little girl confidently responded. “Give me a few more minutes, and they will.”
This book – that we have invited you to read – attempts, for better or worse, to paint pictures with words of what God is like. Of what the character and nature of God is like. Of what a relationship with God is like. The book is Lies We Believe About God by Wm. Paul Young, author of the bestselling book The Shack. This book invites us to question phrases and metaphors the church at large and the culture have used for God over the centuries. It’s a book to help us start healthy and lively discussions.
One of the images Young suggests is Santa Claus. Over the years many have thought God is like Santa Claus who “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake” … thinking that, based on this image and our behavior, God will punish or reward us accordingly. With a gift or a lump of coal, so to speak. There are stories in the Bible, such as the book of Job, that are meant to refute such images of God … and there are far more stories asserting that God is a God of grace, a gift given to us that is undeserved. And that when good things, like a new job, come to us, it is not necessarily because God is rewarding us for something like reading the Bible three days in a row … and that when bad things, like losing a job, happen to us it is not a direct punishment from God because we did NOT read the Bible three days in a row. God is not like that. That is not a healthy image of God.
The Bible gives us a wide range of images and metaphors for God … Young writes that such “imagery is a window through which we see aspects and facets of the nature and character of God.”
For instance, scripture suggests …
That God is like a loving Father who paces at the house until he can see us coming home again.
God is like a mother hen who gathers the vulnerable chicks under her wings for protection.
God is like a loving shepherd whose sheep recognize his voice.
God is like a woman searching for a lost coin, going out of her way to find it.
God is like a vine, and we are the branches being fed by it.
God is like a rock in a river, a refuge in a storm.
God is like living water, the bread of life, a fortress, strong tower, mountain, shield.
I wonder … Dennis, what images of God have been most meaningful for you in your life?
Dennis: I was captivated by the Christian faith when I was 17. Before 17, the metaphors I heard used to describe God left me angry and confused. The primary metaphor I heard about God was that God was a father. I had a lousy father. So I rejected God when I rejected the image of God as a father. It was later that I discovered the rich diversity of metaphors the Bible has for God. It was then that I discovered a God I could know.
I later learned that a metaphor, pushed to its extreme, becomes a lie. Like, Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive”; pushed to its extreme you get a divine Santa Claus who can’t say no. Or pushed to its extreme, “God is My Rock” makes no since because a rock can’t listen or communicate. It becomes a lie.
The first image I remember embracing was from the hallelujah chorus where we would sing “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” My life at the time was chaotic. I had a brother using drugs and robbing stores and spending most of his life in prison. Police officers were often at my house. The image of somebody being in charge, a King of Kings and Lord of Lords was exactly what I needed.
Later I was captivated by the image of “the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want” from Psalm 23. And Psalm 18, “the Lord is my rock and my fortress, my deliverer.” And as the faith began to shape me, I was moved by Isaiah 64 that says, “We are the clay and you our potter.” I discovered a God who wasn’t simply one I described with a set of beliefs but one who intimately shaped my life. When I became involved in the charismatic movement, I was inspired by the words of Job, who said “the spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Every decade it seems a different metaphor has captivated me. My favorite passage to describe God over the last 10 years has been from Ephesians by Paul, who described God as one who “is above all, in all, and through all.”
Lately I’ve been moved by a book written by Lauren Winner called Wearing God. She describes being assigned Isaiah to read in college. She came upon a passage in the middle of chapter 42 that arrested her reading. “It says ‘… for a long time I have held my peace. I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.’ ” Lauren goes on to say the passage reminded her of a black-and-white photograph of a blonde woman giving birth. No makeup, her face so twisted in agony you could hear her screams and moans. Lauren writes, “… so there I was sitting on my sofa, reading Isaiah and picturing that blonde anguished woman: God’s face contracted in struggle, God groaning the way that laboring woman in the photograph groaned. I pictured all that and I felt profoundly uncomfortable. I felt disturbed.”
Isaiah 42 is written for the people of Israel after they were ripped out of their homes and taken in exile, now living in a foreign country. Isaiah is redefining their pain as God’s giving birth to something brand new. That metaphor gave them a new life to lean into. And they returned to Israel and rebuilt their country. So, lately I’m noticing God as one giving birth.
How about you Emily? What are some of your favorite images of God over the years?
Emily: Me? As a little girl … God was my constant companion who played with me and climbed trees with me. I talked to God when I would play in the woods, I told God stories when I sat on a rock by the creek, and I would make up songs and sing to God at the top of my lungs when I ran around the yard and the gardens.
As I got older and life grew more difficult, I needed the strength of God to put ground under my feet. For the ground I thought I had was pulled out from under me without my permission. I needed God to be the one thing that was solid and unchanging. God was my refuge, my rock, my sitting place.
There were seasons when I was angry with God and days when I clung to God because I had lost all my other places on which to hold.
Right now, the image of God I find most meaningful is God as my mattress … the one in whom and on whom I can rest and be restored, renewed…. God is also teacher – sometimes whispering, sometimes nudging, sometimes directing, sometimes walking around with a flashlight pointing to what God wants me to notice.
Dennis, what about for you now?
Dennis: I have been captivated again. The words are from the passage we heard read during the service from First Peter. The author takes up Isaiah’s image of describing God’s people as living in exile. He writes a circular letter, that is, a letter to be circulated among a variety of churches in Asia Minor. He writes because Christians have fallen under persecution, both social and official. The social persecution is the discrimination, bullying, and abuse suffered at the hands of average people against the Christians. The official persecution involves Christians going to trial for the offense of following Christ. Peter writes to them that their suffering will last as short time and then they have waiting for them a treasure; like gold. He calls the treasure “imperishable, pure and unfading.” He says that we have been born to a living hope. It is as if something alive is calling our name.
I remember that sense of hearing someone calling my name 43 years ago when I was seated in the pews of Otterbein United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It was a sanctuary with a fan-shaped architecture and a center pulpit and Fred Wyan was preaching. And during the sermon, which I don’t remember, I remember thinking that that is where God wanted me. That that was where I belonged. And in that moment, I said yes. I began to lean into this living hope. I didn’t know that it would take me to Stanley United Methodist Church, where I would serve for three years and help them create their first parsonage. I didn’t know that I would be in Keezletown, the feudingest church in the state of Virginia, for four years and that we would build a brand-new facility. I didn’t know I would spend the next three years in Gordonsville on a two-point charge. Nor that I would be called to start a new congregation that grew from 0 to 1,500 people in worship and Sunday school on 30 acres of land. Nor that 17 years ago I would be asked by Bishop Pennell to become the lead pastor of Aldersgate.
When I arrived here, I was handed a set of blueprints and told they were the dreams of Aldersgate. It included a new three-story educational facility. It included remodeling classrooms, building a ministry center, and remodeling the original sanctuary of the church, Founders Hall. And in 17 years we’ve done it all.
Now, I sense that that living hope, that calling, is changing. In the next chapter of my life I want to give most of my attention to working with couples and individuals one-on-one. So I told the leadership of our church that I would be retiring this June. I know that creates a lot of questions for you. I’ve asked Emily to help as we attempt to answer as many of those questions as we can.
Emily: Different denominations go about this process in different ways. Baptist churches, for example, will have a search committee who reads resumes and interviews potential pastors; then the candidates come for a trial sermon. And the congregation votes on whether they want that person to be their pastor. Presbyterian churches go through a process they refer to as “calling” a new pastor. And they have a direct voice in the selection. How does the United Methodist system work?
Dennis: The United Methodist Church is composed of 70 conferences in the United States. About one for every state. Every conference is led by a bishop and ours is Bishop Sharma Lewis. She provides oversight through 16 people, called district superintendents, who lead 16 geographic areas, known as districts. Jeff Mickle is the district superintendent for the Alexandria district. I told Jeff that I plan to retire. What happens next is that Jeff tells the other district superintendents in Virginia. They come up with a list of people they believe would be a good fit for Aldersgate. Jeff then picks from their list who he thinks is the very best fit. Then the district superintendents vote on who will come to Aldersgate. That process will happen in the month of February. Sometime in March or April they will complete their work and then announce it to pastors and congregations. We will find out for sure in April and announce it. In May they’ll be a goodbye/retirement party for me, I hope. June will be my last Sunday. And the new lead pastor’s first Sunday will be the first Sunday in July.
Emily: I have heard a few questions from those who learned you were leaving. They asked me if there was a chance that Jason would return.
Dennis: Thanks for asking Emily. You should know that I have no input into the decision as to who will come to Aldersgate. I’m locked out of the process. I know that Jason would not be allowed to come since he just started a brand-new assignment last June. I also would love to say that you are guaranteed to return. And I believe you probably will. But you know that we are assigned as Methodist ministers one year at a time. We will find out if you’re coming back probably about the same time we find out the name of the new lead pastor. And when we find out who it is, we will publish the new pastor’s name, biography, picture, and everything about the new pastor’s family.
Emily: You will be our lead pastor here for six months. We still have ministry to do – and God is up to something here. How do we as a church look ahead – and be the body of Christ together knowing your time with us is limited? What do you recommend? How do we link ourselves more closely to God, to each other, to the ministries at Aldersgate when the tendency might be to pull away?
Dennis: When you ask what we can do I think that we can pray for each other and for Aldersgate. I want us to do more than pray though. When Jason left last summer, I watched 75 people stop attending Aldersgate church. It was as if they believed Jason was here to create a fan club and not to build the ministries of Aldersgate. I don’t want to leave and the church find itself weaker because I was here. I want you over the next six to eight months to a year to be more committed than ever. To be all-in for Aldersgate. To volunteer for ministries of the church. To get to know each other well and help each other when there’s need.
Emily: What is next for Dennis? What are you looking forward to about retirement?
Dennis: I will start a new business this spring. I will use the business to work with people one-on-one and with couples. I also hope to spend more time with Sharon. She is an elementary school teacher who works during the week and has the weekends off. I worked during the week but also on weekends. I’m looking forward to our having more time to play together. And I have three incredible grandchildren that I want to play with as well. But that is in the future. Right now, we have more ministry to do.
Emily: First Peter is our scripture for today. And the author is writing to people going through a difficult time. They are experiencing persecution for their faith. We are going through a different kind of difficult time as a church – but it’s interesting to read how Peter responds.
He does not tell them to walk away.
He does not tell them to throw in the towel.
He does not tell them to give up. Or leave.
What he does tell them is to dive even deeper with their commitment to a God bigger than they … and be faithful to the one who is faithful to them. And we know that, right? But when things – perhaps for us, and certainly for the first readers of First Peter – grow difficult …we tend to focus on our fears, the unknowns, and our concerns. And that can become bigger than what is certain. And what is known. And unchanging. So it helps to say it… and name it. Peter does just that.
That we serve a God who is imperishable, pure, and unfading. SAY IT WITH ME – imperishable, pure, and unfading. AND AGAIN – imperishable, pure, and unfading. We have a living hope not a dead one. We do have an anchor. We do have something that is unshakably certain in the midst of what is not.
I am committed to being here with you. To being church together. I hope you are committed, too. I want to be with you. That we may serve and love God together. The God who is imperishable, pure, unfading.