The gift of figs

Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

We have a fig tree in our back yard that is outdoing itself this summer – it is loaded with figs!

We pick them every day, and there are plenty to share with the birds and the squirrels; for making preserves; eating fresh; and bringing to the office for others to enjoy.

I’m pretty partial to this particular fig tree.

Several years ago, Rick and I prepared to put an addition on the back of our house. This required cutting down the fig tree to make way for the new construction. I shed tears as Rick cut it down to the ground.

Rick made other adjustments to the yard so that a pier-drilling truck could enter and do its work.

A week or two later in the wee hours of the morning, our daughter Eva appeared in the bedroom doorway. “Mom, Dad, there’s water all over the kitchen floor.”

We heard the noise before we reached the kitchen: rushing water splashing from our busted hot water heater.

As a result of that busted water heater, we decided to put the addition on hold and remodel the existing house.

As we shifted our focus and made new plans over the ensuing weeks, the roots of the fig tree began to send up shoots. And wonder of wonders! That little fig tree produced seven figs that summer.

This now big fig tree is a botanical reminder of God’s abundant grace; there is plenty for all.

Even during the winter, when the tree is bare, energy and sugars are stored in the roots, preparing for a new season of long days and warm sun, leaves and fruit.

The gift of figs never ceases to amaze me.

As one young friend reminded me, God’s abundant gifts are all around us, overflowing and ready to be shared.

When we share God’s gifts – whether they be figs or other signs of God’s love – that divine grace grows more and more in us.

There is a rippling, snowball effect: the more we allow our inner vision to “see” God’s grace around us, the more that grace takes hold in us, and the more we can be conduits of that grace.

This summer in worship, we have spent time considering the good news of God’s grace using the gifts offered to us through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

As an ordained minister, Fred Rogers understood his call to be that of offering unconditional love and acceptance to young children and their families.

Mister Rogers spoke frequently about “growing:” not only growing up, but growing in character, in patience, and in understanding – both of ourselves and others.

Mister Rogers reminds us that we “grow” inside and out – just as trees grow, and grass, and flowers, and birds, and mammals.

God’s grace is not only the glue that holds us all together, but it is the medium and fuel for our growth into the ever-present, overflowing abundance of our ever-loving God-in-Christ.

May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to accept the ever-present, abundant grace of God!

Musical diversity

Eldred Marshall Artist-in-Residence and Associate Director of Music Ministries

While planning the music for the July 7 worship services at First United Methodist Garland, I reflected on Senior Pastor Valarie Englert‘s message “The Gift of Diversity” (from our Summer Worship Series on “The Gospel According to Mister Rogers” and what that would entail, musically.

As Pastor Valarie shared, Mister Rogers did not teach “tolerance,” but rather that we embrace the different people around us – all our neighbors. In this, our lives, our expressions, our experiences would be forever enriched.

Interestingly, music does this sort of embrace far more easily than the people who create it.

Hence, I chose to highlight piano pieces that bend the genre in which they reside or thoroughly incorporate musical diversity, opening the musician and the listener to a new musical world.

For the prelude, I chose to make a personal arrangement of Richard Smallwood’s most famous gospel anthem Total Praise, with stylistic embellishments.

Even though the music is rooted in traditional Black Church musical expressions, Mr. Smallwood is a classically-trained pianist and composer who never hesitates to incorporate Western classical tradition in his compositions and improvisations.

In this respect, Mr. Smallwood and I share a common, and unique, musical language.

For the offertory at the 8:30am service, and for the first work in the 10:50am communion service, I chose to play Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2.

Gershwin felt most at home in his era’s popular musical forms: jazz, blues, rag-time, stride, etc. However, he loved classical music and strove to find ways to incorporate what he learned from that genre into his own musical language.

The piano prelude is a bluesy meditation that mixes the best of Romantic-era “absolute music” traditions of Brahms and Rachmaninoff and Tin Pan Alley.

For communion at both services, I played the Forlane movement from the piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Firstly, a forlane is a French baroque aristocratic dance, commonly performed during the time of Louis XIV. Ravel maintained traditional baroque forlane characteristics (triple meter; ABACADA+Coda form), but chose to update the musical language to his present day.

Around this time, Ravel befriended George Gershwin and became intimately familiar with American jazz. By incorporating the new music and art forms around him, Ravel embraced the “gift of diversity.”

As a result, we have an entire suite of music that is a special mix of 20th century French impressionism, early American jazz, and 16th century French dance music.

In this acceptance and appreciation of his neighbor’s music, Ravel managed to become the first French exponent of a sub genre called neoclassicism, which would take hold in Western music long after his death.

Be it Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X’s blockbuster 2019 hit song Old Country Road, or the frequent collaborations between southern gospel artists like Bill and Gloria Gaither with the late Andrae Crouch back in the 1970s and 1980s, music has always given us a living example of the fruits of diversity.

May we be inspired to follow its lead – and reap the same rewards.

The neighborhood of Bridgeport

Josh Medlock, Director of Missions and Student Ministries

Growing up I remember sitting in the morning with my bowl of cereal watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I vividly remember episodes where I would walk away feeling like things were better somehow. Things young as I was, I couldn’t put into words or understand.

Now that I’m an adult and can reflect back, I realize that’s what Mister Rogers was doing – reaching out to children in a way they could understand and that would help transform their lives. 

This week I’ve had the pleasure of attending Senior High Summer Camp at Bridgeport. And once again I am reminded of a neighborhood that encourages transformation.

The work done here is work I have not witnessed anywhere else.

Perhaps it’s the environment or maybe the adults and teenagers that are here seeking the face of God, but I do see God at work here.

Very much like Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, this is a place where people are welcoming and want to be on this journey with you. 

For me, Bridgeport is a neighborhood that welcomes all regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or faith.

All are welcome here. And those who are here want you to know that nothing will separate you from the love of God.

Mister Rogers expertly crafted a neighborhood where every child in the world was welcome.

It was a safe neighborhood. A neighborhood where understanding and transformation happened. 

I thank God every day for visionaries like Mister Rogers, and for those who reach out in ways that are unexpected and truly magnificent for the glory of God’s kingdom here on Earth.

Our children truly are the future and are constantly seeking that relationship with God.

We must continue to be the face of God for them and for all those we meet. 

I hope and pray we never lose sight of our incredibly important ministry to children and teenagers. 

May God bless each and every one of you on your journey, today and always.

Relishing the moments

Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Pastor for Children and Families

I love summer ministries with the church.

Yes, they are hard work and we are all exhausted at the end of the week.

During these weeks, however, we are given the opportunity, the invitation, permission to focus on the work of the spirit in the life of the church and in the lives of children.

I love that I have a job that says, “Go! Spend time with children!”

It is a blessing!
During this past week of K.A.M.P! (Kids for Arts, Music and Praise!), my primary job was to take pictures.

(Now to be clear, Jim Bird takes the beautiful photos. They are truly works of art!) 

I zip from room to room, pop in here and there, crash every class, and try to capture the week, the faces and the moments.

I want our church and our families to witness parts of our children’s lives that sometimes escape our notice.

Did you know your kid could get lost in painting and shapes and textures?

Look at the new friends and community they are surrounded with, all here to encourage and laugh and create!

Look at their focus, determination and imagination!

With pictures we capture a bit of joy and presence and wonder.
Being able to take a week to take pictures reminds me of the Mary and Martha story.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 

She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ 

But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 

there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”
– Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV) 

Yes, summer can be busy and full and demand as much energy as it gives.

But there’s also a beautiful invitation to be in the moment, to notice what is going on around us, to be a part of the work of the spirit.

We can do that when, like our camera, we zoom in, focus, relish the moments and give thanks to God for the people, the ministries, the kingdom of God we witness in part.

May such moments be yours this season.

Caroline Noll
Associate Pastor
Pastor for Children and Families

For such a time as this

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther 4:14b

That’s our verse for the day??? It’s a question, not a commandment.

Have you ever had that kind of memory verse? Well in all my years, this was the first.

Last week, First United Methodist Garland went rogue!

Even though published Vacation Bible School (VBS) materials are wonderful and fun, our VBS leaders took the leap of writing our own curriculum.

(We have some very talented and inspired people here!)

The Bible story, music, art, science and more were catered to our prescribed scripture topics under a rainbow of hands theme called Blessed to be a Blessing.

Bible school week was wonderful! Our children are precious.

I was privileged to teach with the Bible story team.

Brandi Bender paraphrased the stories for the children (and the rest of us who like things simplified.) Her work was superb!

On Tuesday of VBS, we studied Esther. She was a beautiful Jewish woman who became queen to the Persian king Xerxes.

If you read the whole book of Esther, you might think this is the basis for a soap opera.

For the children, we kept to the ‘gold nuggets’ of the story.


The king had great affection for Esther because of her beauty and kindness. There were actually two stories within this story.

1) Once Esther’s cousin Mordecai (who was also her adoptive father) learned the plot of two servants to kill the king.

Mordecai sent a message to Esther. She then told the king. The plot was spoiled!

2) Another time, a bad guy, Haman, was promoted to the highest ranking official.

This honor went to his head and he ordered that everyone should bow down to him.

Mordecai refused to bow because he only bowed to God.

Haman got angry and ordered that all Jews in the kingdom be killed.

Mordecai sent a message to Esther and asked her to influence King Xerxes to stop this action.

Esther was in a dilemma because she wasn’t supposed to approach the king unless he called for her.

(This is where the verse comes!)

Mordecai said to her:

Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

So Esther prayed, and God gave her the strength to talk with the king.

Not only were the Jewish people saved, but Mordecai was promoted to the highest ranking official.

This was a period in human history when women were barely valued as human.

Yet through her humility and bravery, Esther’s actions saved a nation.

She set aright the situation for those who could not defend themselves.

When we find ourselves in a difficult state of affairs, preferring to read a book, watch a movie or play a computer game to avoid being in any controversy, perhaps we should consider Mordecai’s question:

Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?