December 2020 Pastor’s Corner – The Importance of Advent

“The special note of Advent is its primary focus on the second coming of Christ, who will arrive in glory on the last day to consummate the kingdom of God — its orientation toward the promised future.  Advent…differs from the other seasons in that it looks beyond history altogether and awaits Jesus Christ’s coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead.” — Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ

This past Sunday, November 29, was the First Sunday in Advent.  It marks the beginning of the Christian year.  For most of us, Advent is the season preparing us for Christmas, as if it were simply the pre-Christmas season… after all, it does end on Christmas Eve.  But Advent isn’t pointing to Christmas at all, it points far past Christmas.  As the quote from Fleming Rutledge above states, Advent points not to Christ’s first coming, but to his Second.  While we tend to treat Advent as a “countdown to Christmas,” it’s actually far deeper and meaningful.

It seems that, each year, we are in a bigger and bigger rush to get to Christmas.  Stores have been pushing the “unofficial” beginning of the Christmas season earlier and earlier, and this year has pushed it even further — I saw Christmas decorations in stores this year weeks before Halloween!  It is a strange and confusing thing to see Halloween and Christmas decorations side-by-side.  Jack Skellington would be furious!  But I also get it — 2020 has been an amazingly difficult year (although not even close to the worst year ever.  That honor goes to 536 AD.  No, seriously.  Look it up).  After months and months of the pandemic and social distancing, a terribly contentious presidential election cycle, murder hornets, and record-breaking natural disasters, we’re all pretty desperate for a little light and a dash of Christmas cheer.  While I’m personally a staunch “no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving” Scrooge, I won’t judge anyone who has already put up a Christmas tree, some decorations, or gone all-in on Christmas music.

But don’t rush past Advent in order to get to Christmas.  While Advent has a particular emphasis on the Second Coming of Christ, it does so with its feet firmly grounded in the present reality.  As Fleming Rutledge explains, “Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not-yet that our faith requires. [T]his book will explore this theme in relation to the yearly frenzy of “holiday” time in which the commercial Christmas music insists that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” and Starbucks invites everyone to “feel the merry.” The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come. In that Advent tension, the church lives its life…The Advent season encourages us to resist denial and face our situation as it really is” (Advent pp. 7-8).  The hope of Christ’s Second Coming, even the joy of celebrating his First coming at Christmas, is all the more bright and joyous because of the dark, brokenness of this present world, not in spite of it.

Advent is not for the faint of heart.  But there is a gift waiting for you, if you are willing to slow down and find it.  They say it’s always darkest just before the dawn…is it not the darkness of the night that causes us to appreciate the light all the more?  Allow yourself to be present in the hardness and pain of 2020 and in Advent’s much-needed reminder that, one day, Jesus Christ will come back and make everything sad untrue and make everything broken whole.  In doing so, we find that Christmas takes a place in our life and our hearts far more true than decorations, songs and presents.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:5)

Blessings,

Rev. David Garrison


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November 2020 Pastor’s Corner – Being, Having, Giving Thanks

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. — Colossians 3:17

 
As I’m sitting down to write this article, I’m also preparing a sermon on Colossians 3:12-17, which I’ve probably already preached before you’ve read this (if you missed it, you can find it here).  But it’s worth taking a bit of extra time in this space on it, particularly as we begin the month of November.  Three times in three verses Paul stresses thankfulness.  “Be thankful” (v.15), have “thankfulness in your hearts to God” (v.16), “give thanks to God” (v.17).  Paul uses three different Greek words, which our English translations capture pretty well.  Being, having, giving.  As we begin this month in which we are intentional in giving thanks, I find myself particularly doing those very things: being thankful, having thankfulness, and giving thanks.
 

Being Thankful

Whenever I have opportunity to talk with the Presbytery leadership about Northminster, I am always quick to talk about how loving and supportive you are of my family and me.  Over the past month, we have been overwhelmed with the cards and gifts you have sent for Pastor Appreciation Month.  What I appreciate even more is that you share your appreciation throughout the entire year.  I am so grateful and thankful to have the opportunity to serve alongside you in service to our Lord and Savior.  It is easy to “be thankful” when one gets to serve a congregation as wonderful as you are.

Having Thankfulness

This has been a very challenging year, to say it lightly.  We have all faced difficulties we never would have expected or anticipated, both individually and as a society.  But even in the midst of the hardship, God is still good and His blessings abound.  Each day, the sun continues to shine, our lungs fill with air, we have clothes on our backs, food on our tables, and a roof over our heads.  While we all wish and yearn for this pandemic to come to an end, there are countless blessings for which we can have thankfulness in our hearts to God.  If “being thankful” is something we do in a moment, “having thankfulness” is more of a continuous state of being.  I invite you to think about ways you can cultivate an “attitude of gratitude,” even in these difficult times.

Giving Thanks

An important part of that “attitude of gratitude” is to express it by giving thanks.  On behalf of the Session, I’d like to give thanks to God the Father for each of you.  Throughout the difficulties and challenges of this year, you have faithfully continued to support the work and ministry of this church.  Your monthly giving has exceeded last year’s every month except for two, and our income has exceeded our expenses each month except for two.  Where last year at this time we were facing an uncertain financial situation, because of your generosity we are much more stable this year.  We do not know what the future holds, but we know the One who holds the future.  We are excited, even in the midst of the uncertainty, about what God has done, is doing and even more for what God has yet to do through you and this church in the months and years to come.

Blessings,

Rev. David Garrison


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October 2020 Pastor’s Corner – Pulling Together — For The Kingdom

He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christians in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.— Eph. 4:11–13 THE MESSAGE)
 
I’ve been watching a trend recently that has me concerned. It has become increasingly difficult to find people who are able and willing to serve in the various ministries and missions of the church. Our committees have been shrinking and appeals for folks to get involved and help out have gone unanswered. As a pastor, I am concerned about this trend and spend much of my time praying about why this is and what we might do about it.
 
Perhaps you might be thinking, well, we are in a pandemic. We are discouraged from participating in the very things that are part-and-parcel of church ministry. This is true. But what the pandemic has done is accelerate what was already happening. Even in my short three years at Northminster, I’ve noticed a very steady decrease in volunteer activity in the church. The pandemic creates problems with solving this issue; it doesn’t explain the cause.
 
A better diagnosis might be found in the reality that we are an aging congregation. Many of you have served the Kingdom of God and this congregation faithfully for decades. You have tirelessly poured yourselves out for the sake of Northminster, and have done so willingly and gladly. There are not enough words to express the gratitude I, and everyone else, feels, for your service. You have earned a rest, and you deserve a rest.
 
The hard truth is that aging congregation or not, global pandemic or not, the work, ministry and mission of the church goes forward. No church can function without its volunteers — for small churches like ours, though, it’s more than essential. God has gathered this congregation together, and He has given each of us gifts and abilities meant to be used for the building up of the Body of Christ. An essential part of our growth as disciples, of our maturing as Christians, is putting into practice “skilled servant work” as we read above. In order for the church to be healthy, we all need to participate. How we go about that work might look a little bit different in the midst of a pandemic, but nevertheless the work goes on.
 
Why do I bring this up? For several reasons. While some ministries are still on hold due to the pandemic, others are still moving forward and we need folks to serve in those areas. One such example is the youth ministry — we have enough students and a broad enough age range that we need to have separate high school and middle school groups. But more than that, it’s time to find our next class of elders to begin serving in 2021. We have two or three elder positions to fill. One of those positions has remained empty since I arrived in 2017. Each year, the challenge before the nominating committee to fill the open seats has increased. This year, we go about this work in the midst of a pandemic.
 
I invite you to search your heart humbly and prayerfully to see if the Holy Spirit is prompting you to step into one of those positions. Under normal circumstances, that can be an intimidating nudge. I know that under these circumstances it’s even moreso. I leave you with these verses to guide your prayers:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. — 2 Tim. 1:6–7
 
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. — 1 Tim. 3:1
 
Blessings,
Rev. David Garrison

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Pastor’s Mid-Week Bible Study Begins This Week!

These are strange and unusual times. Last week, the students of Amherst County went back to school – some are going in person, but only two days a week, some are 4 days a week; and others are returning to school virtually. And the life of the church is beginning to adapt to this “new normal” as well. Other than worship and a few circle meetings, for the past 6 months the ministry and life of Northminster has been on pause. It’s time to start some things back up.
 
One of the primary purposes of the church is discipling its members, helping us all grow in the grace and truth of our Lord Jesus Christ. To that end, we are beginning a mid-week pastor’s bible study, starting Wednesday, September 16 from 10:30-11:30am. This bible study will meet in-person and online, at the same time. If you would like to join us in person, we’ll be appropriately socially distanced in the fellowship hall. If you’d prefer to join us online, you can do so through Zoom.
 
We do ask that you please sign up for one of the two groups – you can change between the two at any time, or just sign up for both if you’re feeling indecisive. Signing up will enable us to set up the Fellowship Hall appropriately, and also let us know how many to expect in-person and online. Click on this link to sign up.
 
If you have any questions, please let me know.
 
I look forward to exploring God’s Word with you, beginning this Wednesday.

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Weekly Youth Group Meetings Resume September 27, 2020!

Youth Group met for the first time in 6 months last night – it was so good seeing all of the students after so long, although we missed those who weren’t able to attend.
 
We are planning to resume in two weeks on Sunday, September 27. We’ll meet at Northminster at the usual time, 6:00-7:15pm. We’ll do our best to practice appropriate distancing and mask-wearing, and try to keep either outside or to the largest rooms available.
 
We are also looking at having separate High School and Middle School groups, either for part of the time or all of it. We have quite an age spread now, 6th grade is our youngest, all the way up to 11th grade, and we think we have enough participants to warrant two groups.
 
BUT! If we’re going to do that, we need help. Right now, it’s just me and Karey, and if we’re going to have two separate groups, we need at least two others to help out. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, please let me know.
 
You can learn more about our youth ministry and what we’ll be talking about by clicking here.
 
We look forward to seeing everyone in two weeks!
Rev. David Garrison

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September 2020 Pastor’s Corner – How to Vote in November

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33)
 
In a couple of months we will vote for who will serve as President of the United States of America for the next four years. We now know definitively that it will either be Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Many Christians are wondering how they should vote in the upcoming election. Some Christians have already declared that the only “true” Christian vote is for the candidate they support. Well, let this article serve as the definitive guidance on how Christians should vote in November.
 

There’s More Than Just the Presidency

It is important to remember that there is more happening this November than just the presidency, and it is quite possible that the various local governing offices and the issues on the ballot could well have a greater impact on your day-to-day living than who is elected President. So often, we are so focused on the one office that we don’t pay as much attention to the other issues or political offices that are more local to us and therefore have greater impact on our lives. The presidency is important, and certainly grabs all of the headlines and news, but don’t miss the rest of the electoral forest for this one, admittedly big, tree.
 

Vote for the Kingdom of God

The most foundational objective for every Christian is to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. In addition to the verse at the beginning of this article, most all of us pray for this every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10). As you look at the candidates for office (including but not limited to the presidency) and the issues on the ballot, how can your vote contribute to bringing the Kingdom of God here on earth? Perhaps the first question to ask is, what are the values and character of the Kingdom of God? Jesus lays out his most succinct and thorough vision for the Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Over the next weeks and months, take time to read through the Sermon on the Mount prayerfully and intentionally and ask the Holy Spirit to guide your discernment as you look at the candidates and issues on the ballot.
 

Vote Your Conscience

One of the most beautiful hallmarks of both our faith and our democratic process is that we are all free to vote our conscience. I’ve seen a lot of folks make comments to the effect of, “if you don’t vote for _________, then you aren’t really a Christian.” That statement is, to quote one of my seminary professors, ‘straight from the pit of hell and smells like smoke.’ People will want to know who and how you are voting, but you are under no obligation to answer those questions — and, to be honest, I encourage you not to answer them. How you vote is between you, your ballot, and God. The beauty of our process is that the only vote that is “thrown away” is a vote not cast.
 

Disagree with Grace

This election seems to be more emotionally charged than any I can remember before, which amazes me because I didn’t think things could get more charged than the last one. It is more important than ever before that we learn to disagree with grace. Faithful, God-honoring and -loving Christians are going to discern how to vote for the Kingdom of God and their conscience in very different, and opposing ways. As Augustine once said (and is the motto of our denomination), “Unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials, and in all things charity (love).” How we vote is not an essential of our faith, and we need to be able to dialogue and disagree with love and grace.
 

Accept the Results with Humility and Submission

The person and issues you vote for won’t win every time. It’s entirely possible that the issues you care about most end up with the result you would least like to see. No matter how things go, accept the results with humility and submission. If your candidate wins, be excited, but don’t gloat. As Paul reminds us in Romans 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Rom. 13:1–2) Keep in mind that Paul wrote this when Nero was emperor of the Roman Empire, one of the most tyrannical emperors ever seen. If Paul could encourage the Christians of his day to submit to Nero, we can submit to the candidate that wins the election.
 
So there you have it. The definitive guide to how a true Christian should vote in November. May God bless you as you seek to discern how to vote in November, and may His Kingdom come.
 
Blessings,
Rev. David Garrison

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August 2020 Pastor’s Corner – Essential?

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14–17)
 

Essential?

As state and local governments imposed increasingly strict rules regarding public gatherings in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic this past spring, churches found themselves facing a difficult position. “Essential” businesses were somewhat exempt from the closures, but most states did not classify churches as “essential.” While most churches and pastors submitted to the guidance (and thanks to the blessings of modern technology were able to continue worshipping online or in outdoor settings), the restrictions chafed, particularly the determination that churches were not “essential.” To be honest, for many of us pastors, it chafed because the government was saying out loud what most of us have been feeling for a long time. It’s one thing to feel like you don’t matter… it’s entirely different when someone else says it.
 
As Virginia and many other states have begun reopening and churches, including ours, have resumed in-person worship, this question briefly moved to the background. But as the COVID-19 numbers continue to increase rapidly, many people think it’s just a matter of time before public gatherings are again restricted. Additionally, the Supreme Court recently ruled on a case in Nevada that imposed tighter regulations on churches than on casinos. In his minority dissent, Justice Gorsuch wrote, “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion.” This has returned the question of whether churches are essential or not to the foreground.
 

The Essential Church?

What is it that makes a church “essential”? Frankly, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter what any government says. The Church is not subject to the government, but to Christ. The First Amendment doesn’t give the Church its authority or make it essential, it merely affirms and protects the authority given through Christ to the Church. As Edmund Clowney writes, “The great mark of the church is in the message it proclaims: the gospel of salvation from sin and eternal death through the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (The Church, pg 103). The proclamation of this message comes through what we say and what we do. We proclaim the Gospel through our words by preaching and sharing our testimony and lives with others. We proclaim the Gospel through our actions by the administration of the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and acts of service and ministry in which we love our neighbors as ourselves and care for “the orphans and widows” (James 1:27). It is my belief that we, the church in general, have become “non-essential” because we have failed to love and serve our communities well in Jesus’ name. A question I often ask myself and the Session is this: “If Northminster (both the building and the congregation) were to disappear from the corner of Clearview Road and Route 29, would anyone notice?” If the answer to that question is “no” then we have made ourselves non-essential.
 
But there is another reason the Church is essential, one that likely won’t be discussed in many of these conversations. One of the roles of the church is to intercede on behalf of the world. In addition to the call to pray for governing authorities (1 Timothy 2:2), there’s the example of Abraham’s intercession for Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:22-33). We are here to seek God’s healing and blessing for Caesar, our communities and the world. The opportunity we have through our corporate prayer on behalf of the communities and world around us is an enormous privilege and opportunity.
 
As we continue through this pandemic, may the question of whether Northminster is essential or not be answered, not by a government edict, but by the ongoing faithful proclamation of the Word through our words and even more through our acts of love and service to our community.
 
Blessings,
Rev. David Garrison

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July 2020 Pastor’s Corner – Masking Our Freedom?

A rather surprisingly enormous debate has erupted over whether the government should or should not mandate the wearing of masks. As Romans 13:1-7 makes clear, we should submit to our governing authorities, and the Commonwealth has instituted a mandatory mask policy. Now, there is some question whether this is an example of government overreach, but I’d like to look at the issue from a different angle. While we are citizens of the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia, and should therefore abide by its governance, we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God. How might wearing a mask fit into the values of the Kingdom of God? Conveniently, Paul points us toward an answer in the verses following the passage I just referenced.
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom. 13:8–10)
 
Some argue that we are obligated to wear a mask, but I think Paul would disagree (“Owe no one anything…”). Rather than obligation, Paul points to the rule of love: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Yes, there is a lot of debate about the efficacy of mask wearing, but there is a lot of agreement that it goes a long way toward protecting others from what germs you may have. And there is even more evidence that we become contagious before we exhibit symptoms, meaning I can make others sick before I am aware that I am sick. I might be doing wrong to my neighbor without even knowing it, so to love my neighbor as myself means I should wear a mask. Not because I owe them or am obligated to do so, but as an act of love and service.
 
A few verses later, Paul makes an equally important point: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions,” (Rom. 14:1) and then a few verses after that: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” (Rom. 14:13) We may disagree over whether masks are truly effective or whether the mandate is an example of government overreach, but it does no harm to the individual to wear a mask and is quite likely to do a lot of good in protecting others from what we might not know we have. Be entitled to your opinion, but let us not make our opinions into a stumbling block or hindrance that might keep someone else from growing in their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
 
Blessings,
Rev. David Garrison

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What to Expect When Northminster Reopens

This coming Sunday, June 28, we are resuming in-person worship at Northminster. We’ve missed seeing you each and every Sunday and look forward to having you with us. As with most other places, things won’t entirely be normal, so here’s what you can expect when you join us this Sunday:
 

Social Distancing

  • Plan to practice appropriate social distancing. Try to limit hand shaking and hugs.
  • Every other pew will be closed to help facilitate social distancing.
  • Bulletins will be placed on the table outside the sanctuary. Please pick one up on your way in as we will not be handing them out.
  • Offering plates will be on a table just inside the sanctuary doors. Please place your offering in the plate on your way in or out of the sanctuary. We will not be passing them during the service.
 

Masks

  • Masks are encouraged, but not required.
  • Whether you wear a mask or not, we will not judge or criticize your decision.
 

Communion

  • Instead of passing the elements out, each person will come forward to pick up the elements.
  • An elder will dismiss each row at the appropriate time.
  • Please come down the center aisle, and return to your seat by way of the outside aisles, maintaining appropriate social distancing with the person(s) in front of you.
  • The bread and juice will be served in individual, disposable cups. Please pick up both elements and take them back to your seat. We will partake of them together as is our custom.
 

Sanitation

  • The church will be thoroughly cleaned before and after the service.
  • Most doors will be propped open to minimize contact with surfaces.
 
If you have symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, we encourage you to err on the side of caution and stay home. If you are anxious about returning to public spaces, please feel free to stay home. We will continue to broadcast the livestream on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/npcmh) for those who are not able to join us in person.
 
At this time, all other programs and ministries are still postponed. The Session will continue to monitor how things are going and make further decisions at their meeting in July. We appreciate your prayers and support for one another during these highly unusual times, and look forward to seeing you this Sunday, June 28!
 
Blessings,
Rev. David Garrison

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June 2020 Pastor’s Corner – How’s This for Unexpected Irony?

Pentecost brings to a close the first half of the Christian year.  The seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter trace the grand arc of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ.  In addition to that rhythm, we have spent the past 90 days reading through the entire Bible.  It’s felt something like a whirlwind.  Then add in the chaos we’ve all experienced in our lives and our world with the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s enough to leave you dizzy, confused and probably a little overwhelmed.  At this point, most all of us are yearning for just a little bit of ordinary. 

The second half of the Christian year is one long season called Ordinary Time. This year, Ordinary Time begins today, June 1. As Philip Reindeers explains, ‘“Ordinary” doesn’t mean boring or second-rate but simply “every­day.” The Christian faith is not an otherworldly faith; it’s about this creation, your life, these days. Ordinary Time gives us the space to consider all the implications of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ for our day by day, week-in, week-out lives.’  As we find ourselves yearning for something of the ordinary in these very extraordinary times, the Christian calendar offers an invitation to consider the implications not just of all that God’s salvation in Christ means for our daily lives, but also how this pandemic is impacting us as well — and perhaps even to ask how does the Gospel inform and affect our understanding of the pandemic’s impact?

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Rom. 12:1–2 MESSAGE)

Blessings,

Rev. David Garrison


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