Getting ready

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor, Pastor for Children and Families

This week in children’s Sunday School, we are telling the story of “The Ark and the Tent.” 

It is a favorite story of our children that you can read in full in Exodus 25-31.

For those who may not be familiar with us, our curriculum is based on Godly Play, which makes use of simple, imaginative props to help our children not only ‘learn’ but also ‘experience’ the stories of the Bible. 

For “The Ark and the Tent,” we use a ‘desert bag,’ and how can you not love running your hands through a bag full of sand?

We build the tent out of many different, interlocking pieces of wood, a builder’s and puzzler’s delight.

We also use a basket of artifacts, the sacred pieces that go in and around the tent in the tabernacle, plus the many layers of roof.

So many pieces come together to help the people of God get ready.

I remember one of the first years we shared these stories with our children, we also shared them with any adults who wanted to come on Wednesday evenings.

The adults could have their own time of learning and reflection, and see this transformative way of storytelling and work.

I was the door person for this story and was able to listen and observe as the storyteller carefully added piece after piece, building the tent, adding more and more to help the people of God get ready.

At the end of the story we wondered, thought, and considered.

An adult exclaimed, “Why do they need so much to get ready?”

Why do we need so much to get ready for something like worship, or time with God, or drawing near to God?

It seems the opposite of what the people of God have been learning in the desert all these years, that God is not just here or there, but that all of God is everywhere.

So if God is so near, I wonder what is the purpose of such care in getting ready?

When else do we take this time to prepare?

A wedding. A new baby. Going to college. An important interview. A memorial service.

Perhaps we take the time when we recognize something important is going to happen.

We still tell the story of “The Ark and the Tent.” Maybe God is inviting us to get ready.

I wonder what kind of transformation is about to happen?

Let us draw near to the presence of God, and may we be ready for the future God holds.


Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor

It’s funny how perspectives change.

When I was a kid I loved dandelions. Don’t most kids?

Yellow flowers to pick and give to mom or tuck behind your ear or make a flower ring.

Seed heads to blow and poof into the wind. They were so exciting and pretty!

And then one day I’m grown up and we bought a home. With a yard. And weeds!

And I learned all about lawn companies and fertilizers and weed killers.

Who decided that a lawn needs to be monotonous Bermuda grass?

I don’t know, but they did a tremendous sales job, and I too wanted every green thing that was not grass banished from my yard.

Several years ago I started hearing talk about bees and natural pollinators.

I learned that dandelions are actually good and healthy for many things.

Then two years ago I attended a conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

It was June, and there were beautiful yellow flowers, tall, lush with greens, growing everywhere.

I bet the blooms were two inches across easy and the plants were a foot high.

I asked a local what kind of flower they were.


It is against the law to kill them there because they recognize how good they are for the planet.

These days, my kids do the flower picking and dandelion blowing. The rest of the dandelions I leave be.

Sure, we mow, but I’ve just come to see them as part of nature. My perspective has changed, more than once.

It can be a difficult transition to move from something we think is absolutely a pest, wrong, invasive, unwanted, disruptive of our vision toward that moment of acceptance, peace, and understanding of what is best for the wholeness and healing and health of a bigger vision.

It reminds me of the story of Saul.

Scripture tells us he grew up in Tarsus, loved the language of the synagogue, and seriously studied the Hebrew Bible.

He worshipped faithfully and worked hard to keep all the laws of the Torah.

He had no patience for followers who did not. He felt compelled to stop the Followers of the Way, the followers of Jesus.

Saul’s perspective changed.

In Acts 9 we read where his vision was literally changed. His old sight was gone.

With his new sight came a new vision, and new understanding of what God wanted him to do and how he could best serve God.

He began to travel throughout the Roman Empire, using his Roman name, Paul, giving witness of a story changed from hate to love.

I’m thankful Saul got on board.

I’m thinking that working against God’s vision of the kingdom is about as pointless as me pulling dandelions.

Thankfully, there are plenty of children and nature lovers out there blowing dandelions to their hearts’ content.

And thankfully, God’s promise and invitation to journey together toward a kingdom more loving that we can ever imagine is just as abundant.

Let’s journey together with God, with one another, with the world.

The story continues

Rev. Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor and Pastor for Children and Families

I’ve thought for a long time that it would be so cool to have a Godly Play room at my house.

Be careful what you wish for.

At the beginning of shelter in place, back when we didn’t know how long we’d be in our homes and under what circumstances, while many were hoarding toilet paper and canned soup and ice cream (I’m telling you … the freezer section was bare), I was hoarding stories.

I really didn’t know if I’d have access to the church building for a while, so I took a couple of rolling carts and empty boxes up to the second floor and brought home every Godly Play story that called my name that day.

Plus a few more.

As our ministries quickly transitioned to virtual spaces, we shared the Core Godly Play stories of Jesus, his life, the parables, and stories of the disciples.

Time passed, and as I wondered what we would do in the summer, a wise colleague suggested that I ask the children.

The kids of our church, who have been learning the stories and language of our faith in the style of Godly Play for six years now asked for deeper stories.

You see, there are the Core stories, that physically take up the top shelves of our space, as if the Bible opened up and the stories spilled out into the room.

Then we physically go deeper, to the lower shelves, to enrich and extend the core stories we now have as our foundation.

These stories are different.

For example, the story of Creation as presented in Genesis 1 is on the top shelf, a core story.

Genesis 2-3, the story of Adam and Eve, sits below and extends that story.

The story of the Great Family, the broad sweep of the story of Abraham and Sarah, sits on top, a core story.

Individual stories of Abraham, Sarah and Jacob sit below to extend that story.

As we’ve been telling these deeper stories on that middle shelf, I consistently wonder, Well what in the world happened to us?

The people of God get into some messes.

We rebel. We falter. We get angry.

We become fearful. We are embarrassed. We do not own up to our mistakes.

On the top shelf, it seems things happen to us and for us.

Now on this middle shelf, the people of God have gotten in on the action, and it’s not always pretty!

I feel like that’s our world right now. My world.

When things were going 90 to nothing, it was easier to skim the surface and avoid the deeper realities.

But things have slowed down tremendously, and what we see reflected back isn’t always very flattering.

Our messes catch up with us. We get angry. We are afraid. We’re embarrassed.

It’s hard to look in the mirror and own up to our reality.

Okay, the good news?

Because we seriously need some good news.

These are not separate stories of our faith. One does not exist in isolation from the other.

This is one big story, and it’s a story of love and grace and promise.

Through all the muck and mire and mess the people of God have been through, often times of their own doing, God is steadfast.

God is everlasting.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, ever separates us from the love of God, and the story continues.

The story continues, and God continues to journey with us.

May we welcome that grace and invitation into our hearts and our lives each day.

A new way

Caroline Noll, Associate Pastor and Pastor for Children and Families

When we lived in Houston, our church did the same church-wide Christmas pageant every year.

Technically, the music was different, but the middle school girls were always hoop angels and the high school girls were always horn angels, and the same adults were always the magi.

An exasperated kid blurted out, “Why do we tell the same story every year!”

Well, it’s a good story, an important story, and good stories are worth telling again and again.

But not everything is the same.

We are different, our world has changed since we last told the story, and so we encounter the story in a new way.

And so it is today with the narrative of Good Friday.

How many times have we journeyed with Jesus to dark Gethsemane?

Lord, light the darkened places in my soul. In my despair, help me believe and have hope.

How many times have we followed the disciples disappearing into the night, fading into the shadows, leaving Jesus alone with those who would do him harm?

Lord, in this night, in this valley, strengthen those who work in the light, who push back the shadows, who do good, heal, provide and sustain.

How many times have we witnessed the suffering of Christ?

Lord, so many are suffering with sickness. Lord, so many are suffering in fear, are fragile and vulnerable.

O Lord our God, may each one broken in body and spirit be surrounded and filled with your presence, your love, your tender care.

How many times have we heard Jesus’ last words and grasped at their humanity, their divinity?

O Lord, we are fumbling, stumbling, at one moment sure and the next moment lost and falling again.

Our attention turns inward and away in this midst of the greatest display of love.

Forgive us, we pray.

How many times have we watched the sky turn dark?

It is finished.

We are still. We are silent.

But we are not alone.

Because this story does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This story continues, lives on, lives on with life abundant, transformed, made well, made new.

We tell the story, again and again, that we may encounter the living Christ in this day, in this time, in our world, in our homes, and in our very being.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Going home

Valarie Englert, Senior Pastor

Some moments of respite and spiritual nurture I look forward to in these days of “shelter-in-place” are Pastor Caroline Noll’s twice-weekly Godly Play devotions.

Each Wednesday at 10:00am, Caroline goes live on Facebook with “The Faces of Easter” story cycle. On Fridays, Caroline offers “Parables,” also at 10:00am on Facebook.

The first parable Caroline offered was the Parable of the Lost Sheep.

All the pieces were arrayed on the floor in her home: green grass, cool water, the sheep enclosure, the Good Shepherd, the sheep, and the rocks in which one sheep gets lost.

I have been a part of the telling of this parable Godly Play-style several times, and I am always calmed by the steady movement of the sheep across the green grass, of the Good Shepherd moving across the space to rescue the lost sheep in the rocks, and by the movement of them all back to the safety of the enclosure under the caring, watchful eye of the Good Shepherd.

This parable strikes a deep chord these days.

It also reminds me of a story I heard my mother tell more than once as a sermon illustration.

The story goes something like this:

There once was a little girl whose family was living in a homeless shelter.

Each day after school, the school bus would drop her off at a church that provided an after-school program.

She would often be one of the last children picked up in the evening as her parents worked long hours.

The little girl and her parents would return to the homeless shelter when it opened each evening.

The next day the pattern would repeat itself: rise at the shelter; receive breakfast and a bagged lunch from dedicated volunteers; hours at school and work; homework at the after-school program; then back to the shelter for evening dinner and sleep.

The volunteer director of the after-school program noticed that the little girl followed a specific routine.

She would eat the offered snack, do her homework, then play with the same toy each afternoon.

It was a Noah’s Ark set, with a big boat, a set of many types of paired animals, Noah, Noah’s wife, and their children.

The little girl always played with the Noah’s Ark set the same way.

She set up the boat on a table, drew out the gangplank, lined up each set of animals two-by-two, placed Noah’s children behind the animals, then Noah’s wife, and then Noah bringing up the rear.

She would march the animals two-by-two into the ark, lining them up neatly.

Then would come Noah’s children. Noah’s wife would follow, and then Noah.

She would carefully put the gangplank back in its place and close the door.

The crowning, final piece was a dove with a branch in its beak, placed into a notch at the top of the ark.

The little girl would then place the completed ark back onto the shelf from whence it came.

After watching this for several weeks, the volunteer director approached the girl as she was marching the animals into the ark.

The director asked, “Where are they going?”

The little girl replied, “Home. They’re going home.”

My friends, in these days of rocking in a sea of chaos, with so much suffering and uncertainty, may we rest in the promise that God-in-Christ will bring us home.

May the Peace that passes all understanding be with you, and may you be well –

On the mountain

Kitty Williams, Director of Music Ministries

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday!

“What’s that?” one might ask.

Well, it’s a holy day that often gets overlooked. But if the disciple Peter had his way, it would be a huge ordeal.

(You will find the biblical reference in these passages: Matthew 17:2, Mark 9:2-3, Luke 9:28-36 and 2 Peter 1:16-18.)

The gospels are contradictory as to whether the transfiguration took place six or eight days after Jesus told his disciples of his death and resurrection.

The writers all agree that Jesus led Peter, James and John to a mountain.

On the mountain, Jesus’ face and clothes literally began to glow.

Then all of a sudden, Moses and Elijah were standing and talking with him.

Peter was ecstatic!

He wanted to build three shrines in that place, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

Peter’s suggestion was not even acknowledged when a cloud came over them and they heard the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

This gospel witness has so much packed into its implications and meaning.

Peter’s reaction is the focus of this reflection.

Mountaintop experiences are the best!

It’s a time and place where we are given a glimpse of what is true and good.

Mountaintop experiences give us hope and encouragement.

Peter’s first reaction was to build a shrine. Then God spoke.

What if after it was all over, Peter continued to plead to build the shrines?

He would have missed the message, “This is my beloved son – listen to him.” 

My prayer is that we can provide space (time and place) for mountaintop experiences and that we can truly listen for the voice of God.

Here is a prayer by Clara Scott:

Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me;

Place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.

Silently now I wait for thee, Ready, my God, thy will to see.

Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!

The better part

I don’t read as much as I should.

Not sure why that is. I read a lot as a kid. Won a prize in second grade for reading 100 books.

I used to inhale science fiction voraciously. Robert Heinlein. Isaac Asimov. Arthur C. Clarke.

Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. The Illustrated Man.

But I no longer read as much as I should.

Not sure why that is, but I have a few theories.

For one, I grew up in an age where color TV was just past the novelty stage. I loved it! And I spent much of my discretionary time in front of the TV rather than reading.

Which leads to another theory.

I’m something of an impatient person. (Cue the eye roll!) Hence I often prefer a two-hour movie to reading the book.

I’ve also come to realize as I get older that sitting or laying still and reading a book often puts me to sleep. Probably some sort of disorder I should get checked out.

Of course, I read the sports page.

And I have a stack of books at home purchased with every intention of reading them. It just seems I never get around to it. For whatever reason, I just don’t make time.

I did listen to an audio book once on a long car trip. Tom Clancy’s Red Rabbit. (I’m a big Clancy fan, too, by the way. The Hunt for Red October is one of my all-time favorite books. And movies.)

I may pick an audio book this morning as I head out on the road to Pittsburg, Kansas for my aunt’s funeral.

Which leads to another admission. I don’t read the Bible as much as I should.

One good thing about being the Director of Communications at First United Methodist Church Garland is that I’m more or less ‘forced’ to read at least two Bible passages each week – the scripture lesson and the message text for Sunday’s worship service.

I’m reminded of my aunt – Geraldine Buford – as I read Luke 10:38-42, the lesson preceding Senior Pastor Valarie Englert‘s message “Little Icons” this coming Sunday:

Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a 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 [Jesus] and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work 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.”

In many ways the Martha in this story is me. Absorbed and engrossed in, preoccupied and distracted by the many things I have to do.

On the other hand my Aunt Gerry was the epitome of Mary.

She was not worried about or distracted by the things of this life. Her “one thing,” her focus on “the better part” – a deep, abiding love for Christ.

Like my Uncle Charles, who passed in 2013, Aunt Gerry was unequivocal, unwavering in her faith and her love for the Lord.

She never missed an opportunity to share the story of God’s grace with anyone who would listen, nor did she ever tire of sharing it.

Aunt Gerry and Uncle Charles loved to sing. They would strike up an old, traditional hymn at a moment’s notice.

And as my cousins, myself and many more family and friends whose lives she touched gather to celebrate her homegoing, we are secure in the knowledge that she and Uncle Charles are leading the heavenly choir.

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?