Thursday, October 15, 2015

God Is Keeping Us Busy With Joy

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God.  For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

-- Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 NRSV
It was a blessing that I began the day of the Rutledge Ecumenical Social at Sunday School at Rutledge Baptist Church. We studied the passage from Ecclesiastes above: Qoheleth is struggling on the brink of despair. He seems to fall into utter hopelessness only to spring back just enough to hang on to a little glimmer of hope. He sees people toiling and oppressed with little relief in sight. He is saddened about his short, fleeting life and all his accomplishments which he fears amount to only so much dust.

His story is very modern--like someone experiencing clinical depression and struggling to have any faith in God at all. Yet, Qoheleth finds a way to escape all that despair—as the above passage shows, it is possible find joy in the gifts God has given and to simply trust in God in that joy. He shows us how to navigate the dark, scary times of life when we do not know all the answers and when we flounder to find meaning. He offers a guiding light for some of the most difficult parts of the journey.

Baptist congregation member Sharon made this connection between the Ecclesiastes reading and the three church, three congregation ecumenical social that afternoon: “We can have joy together in our mutual love for the Lord,” she said. “We are celebrating that even though we go to different churches, we come together to laugh and for fellowship because we love the Lord, so we are all brothers and sisters.”

That same joy that Qoheleth ultimately finds is the same joy that three Christian congregations in the eastern Tennessee community of Rutledge have found: God is simply keeping them too busy with joy to be preoccupied with anything negative.

L-R: Patty, Fr. Steve, Pastor Chan and Chelsea

The Rutledge Ecumenical Social is the latest in a long line of activities between three distinct churches in rural eastern Tennessee: Rutledge United Methodist Church, Rutledge Baptist Church, and St. John Paul II Mission Catholic parish.
"We have prayed together, served the needy together, but we have yet to party together," said Catholic pastor Fr. Steve Pawelk on his Facebook wall.
Methodist Pastor Ryan Davenport described their process: "Fr. Steve, Pastor "Chan" (Chandler Vinson) and I meet once a month for lunch and for prayer. During those prayer meetings, we think of different ecumenical ministries."
Indeed, the three congregations have twice hosted three-day ecumenical revivals. They operate a year-round food pantry for the hungry, which features a turkey giveaway in November. This past summer, they hosted a joint Vacation Bible School. "We have just not sat down and broken bread together," continued Davenport.
That is exactly what the three congregations did this past weekend. The initial idea this time came from the Baptist congregation. Having graciously hosted the Vacation Bible School, the adults enjoyed themselves so much they looked for a way to continue the partnership. "The pastors texted each other to pitch the idea," recounted Chan. "The answers came back in less than 5-10 minutes--we were all like, 'we need to do this!'"
They picked a neutral location in the center of town. Tasks were divided up and flyers went up around town. On the day of the event, hot dogs were put on the grill and potluck dishes rounded out the meal with a mix of general American picnic fare and a robust selection of Mexican, Filipino and Southern dishes. The fiddler of the Old Time music band Possum Crossing belongs to the JPII congregation and brought his band.
Highlights of the event included a corn hole tournament and spontaneous dancing to accompany the music. The latter featured Fr. Steve, Pastor Chan, as well as some parishioners. One man raised the question whether dancing was itself a sin, which prompted a good-natured theological discussion--the only theological concern raised that day.

A serious game of corn hole.

Possum Crossing keeping the crowd toe tappin' to Old Time music.
Fr. Steve dances with Peggy. Photo by Chander Vinson.
Perhaps most noteworthy was what was not present. There was no noticeable awkwardness or coldness. A bystander such as myself would have had a hard time distinguishing which members belonged to which congregations, since people mixed so well. The few problems were not theological in nature. Rather, they revolved around the predictable logistical details of hosting an event--the normal hustle and bustle of getting the grill set up and working, directing the buffet line and organizing the clean-up. Baptist church secretary Chelsea and congregation member Patty held the nuts and bolts of this event together seamlessly.

"When we first started working together, I expected at least some backlash from the congregation," confessed Pastor Chan. "There was none. Our churches have ended up loving each other. It has been shockingly easy." 

"It is clear that Fr. Steve, Ryan and Chan really enjoy each other’s company," affirmed Patty. That spirit clearly radiates to their congregations, and perhaps it even ripples outward to the larger community.

"Working together [with he other pastors] is always really easy," affirms Pastor Chan.

Non-Competitive Relationships

A key to the success of this three-congregation, three-denomination partnership is the almost total lack of competition between them.

"Competitiveness is a huge hindrance to the mission of God," explained Pastor Ryan. "If we are so worried about how many people are on our rolls, if all we care about is just who we gain or who this building gains, and we are not for the greater good of the community of eradicating drugs, bringing people to Christ and loving 'the least, the last and the lost', then we are not doing our job."

Indeed, even churches that belong to the same denomination rarely get together for common activities in that region. Congregations huddle up and keep to themselves. That makes this three-church partnership a unique witness that participants hope will become more common in time: "I wish that this approach to the faith would be contagious and spread like wildfire everywhere," hoped Pastor Ryan.

"Partnership with the Baptists and Catholics makes the Kingdom of God come more to life. It’s a beautiful thing not to say: 'You’re over there, we’re over here, let’s keep it that way,'" said Pastor Ryan. "That’s not what the Bible ever teaches. What we are trying to do is be faithful to the Bible’s concept of unity.


I have visited these three congregations before and it is always such a wonderful, joyful witness. It is fascinating to ponder what impact this robust partnership can and will have in the larger community.

"I have seen greater friendliness on the streets--at the grocery store and bank,” said Fr. Steve. "There is a greater sense of community. We are constantly building relationships." He said that the congregations originally met as strangers, but through ecumenical events and joint ministry work there are now many lasting friendships that have formed.

"Denominational distinctions are on the outs," predicted Ryan. He used the lunch table where he was seated to illustrate this point. Along with Baptists, Methodists and Catholics were people with a background in the Quaker and Episcopal traditions, for example. Yet, they now worship together, study the Bible together and serve the community together. "There is a slew of different flavors of Christianity at this one table." 

"May I have this dance?"
Patty shared a compatible point: "I was brought up Catholic, but I am non-denominational now." Her church membership is not based on denomination but rather the draw of a particular pastor and the connection and acceptance of a congregation--"That's what drives my train now," she explained.
The overall sentiment is that in the larger community there has been too much focus on differences and not enough on similarities. "When I was growing up as the daughter of a Baptist deacon, there were very definite divisions between denominations," recounted Baptist member Peggy. "We forgot to focus on the fact that we all believe in God and worship God.”
Peggy told the story of her neighbor of 35 years who is a Catholic: “We decided St. Peter’s not going to ask us which denomination we belong to--he is going to ask us: 'Have you been a good and faithful servant?'"
She finds the technical differences between denominations tedious: "It is all very confusing to me, which is why you just have to take it on faith."
The spirituality of that statement is profound in light of the Ecclesiastes reading above, and it is a fitting way to understand the quest for Christian unity. Most groups do not get along as well as these congregations. Sometimes the obstacles between Christian denominations are so strong that it can be all too easy to fall into despair—the theological differences, history of hurt, misconceptions and prejudices can all pile on top of each other to create a multi-layered mess of epic proportions. We can be left not knowing what we could possibly do about it, wondering how these obstacles could ever be overcome.
Still, we can move forward in faith, at ease because we do not need to know all the answers but instead can trust in God's gift of joy, like Qoheleth.
"Some people around town are in such a shock that we do all these things," cited Sharon. They say, ‘You do something with that church?’ They lower their voice when they say that. But we all love the Lord, that’s our foundation… to me, it is a joyful thing to celebrate."
Sharon noticed a signal from the grill master and interrupted what she was saying to announce: "Hot dogs are ready!! Enough about all that," she playfully exclaimed and quickly left behind the talk of differences and negativity to go back to the party.
Indeed: God is keeping this group too busy with joy to dwell on differences.

L-R: Fr. Steve, Pastor Ryan and Pastor Chan.
A polka lesson.

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