Christian Evidence

By Dee Swanson

“If being a Christian were made illegal tomorrow, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

William E. Gladstone, a statesman and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, posed this question in 1879, yet it is a query that is still worth asking today.  What kind of evidence could we gather for ourselves? Virginia Beach United Methodist Church offers a host of opportunities for service, “evidence” to confirm our Christian stewardship: attending a class, serving as an usher, tithing faithfully, singing in the choir, playing an instrument in the praise band, volunteering at Potter’s House, leading a Life Group, chaperoning a youth group—to name a few.

Perhaps we could think of evidence in a different way. While we imperfect Christians may be searching for evidence to validate our Christian discipleship, there is one group with whom our church works for whom the word “evidence” has a different connotation: the inmates at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center, the largest such facility in the Commonwealth. The inmates are serving a term in the VBCC precisely because sufficient evidence was produced to convict them of a crime and incarcerate them.

In an effort to reach out to these inmates, our church partners with other local churches as part of the international Good News Jail & Prison Ministry and operates on one basic tenet: “No one is beyond Christ’s love and power to redeem.”  Following the motto of “breaking the cycle of crime, one life at a time,” the group aims to use the correctional center as a place for transformation, and research supports the effectiveness of that aim. According to a 15-state study reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Over two-thirds of released prisoners were re-arrested within three years.” Some data suggest that the re-arrest rate could be as high as 80%. According to James Fryer, one of the chaplains at VBCC, “Research conducted by Christian ministries indicates that this figure may drop to as low as 5-20% for inmates who have been exposed to a consistent Christian influence,” such as the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry.

As Jim Eilertsen, a Virginia Beach United Methodist member who has volunteered with the organization for almost 30 years and now serves as board member and chairman of the Virginia Beach Chaplain Support Team, explains, “Jesus teaches us that we must share the good news and work to transform lives, to help people become whole. Our participation is not an option.”

A group of us had an opportunity to see this ministry at work recently during a “Look Behind the Walls” Tour of the VBCC. The women who are housed in the Christian Block admitted that their transformation began “as soon as the doors closed behind them,” and our tour members personally understood the power of that comment. Walking down the narrow cinder block hallways with metal gates along the way, we could feel the finality of the clink of that metal door when it closed behind us.

Incarceration encourages inmates to take an honest look at their lives, to focus and reflect. Talking with the women through the bars in their Christian Block room, we were amazed to hear them speak with optimism as they expressed gratitude toward the volunteers who are dedicated to helping them create a better tomorrow. They commented on “not feeling condemned,” but simply “lost.”  In short, they said they “see God in the volunteers.”

Volunteers help the VBCC through assisting in the Life Empowerment Program, distributing Christian books from the book cart, teaching Bible study classes and lessons, grading tests, and showering the inmates with their Christian love.  Sometimes if inmates have not completed their required 226 lessons, they continue their study after their release. Once the inmate is released, Jim Eilertsen said he has even helped inmates find appropriate housing and jobs.

Virginia Beach United Methodist continues to contribute significantly to this ministry, praying for the program, supplying graders for the Bible study courses, and providing much-needed financial support. No funding is received from local, state, or federal governments. To support the mission, Bob West, a Virginia Beach United Methodist member, serves as the Stewardship Chairman and sponsors two fundraising events each year: a stewardship banquet and a golf tournament. With an annual budget of about $120,000, Bob looks to the faithful stewardship of local church communities to support the program financially, particularly the annual banquet which produces about one-third of the program’s revenues. The 2019 banquet is scheduled for March 8 at the Holiday Inn on Greenwich Road. Bob will supply the congregation with more information about the banquet as we get closer to the March date.  If you want to support the program but cannot attend the banquet, Bob is happy to accept donations for the event.  Many of our members in the past have specifically earmarked donations to be used for that purpose.

The vision for the Good News Ministry includes “work that takes us to places most would never consider—jails and prisons—where we are seeing God do amazing things in the hearts and lives of men, women, and children behind bars.” What a joyous opportunity for us to be part of this vital ministry, another piece of “evidence” to convict us of being a loving, Christian fellowship, acknowledging Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Visit the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry website to find out how you can get involved in this life-changing ministry: https://goodnewsjail.org/

I’m Not Supposed to Judge?

Nobody wants to be a “holier than thou, judgmental hypocrite.”  And most of the time we aren’t.  I often read of surveys where atheists and agnostics suggest that most Christians are “judgmental” and “hateful towards those with different beliefs.”  And I know that there are times when some Christians might demonstrate those traits, but most of the Christians I come across are not that way.   In fact, I find that sometimes, those who accuse Christians of being judgmental are actually more judgmental than the Christians they are accusing.  Still, judgmental-ism is an unattractive quality that we should try to avoid.  But life requires us to make judgments all the time.  So how can we be “discerning” and make wise judgments without being “judgmental?” 

We can cultivate two qualities that Jesus often demonstrated. 

  1. Curiosity.  Curiosity allows me to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions about people and circumstances.  Rather than making assumptions based on limited evidence, we ask questions and seek clarity.  Rather than hurling an insult at someone who has a different political persuasion than me, I choose to ask clarifying questions to try and understand this person’s point of view.  I may end up disagreeing with an opinion, but I don’t have to assume the worst about the person who holds that opinion. I often talk about the importance of turning our frustration into fascination. When I am frustrated, I tend to get judgmental.  When I am fascinated, I tend to get curious.  If I get frustrated with a person, I start to lash out and attack.  But if I will get fascinated, I will seek to understand a person’s story and perspective, which typically helps me respond in a more patient and loving way.  Curiosity about people and perspectives can help us avoid the tendency toward judgmentalism.
  2.  Humility.  Humility isn’t a quality where we beat myself up and tell ourselves how awful we are, but humility does acknowledge our own faults and frailties.  Knowing that I have received God’s grace in spite of my own sinfulness, I can see others through a more gracious perspective.  This is the real beauty of Christianity.  We don’t assume an attitude of arrogance or superiority, we assume an attitude of humble gratitude that recognizes our need for God’s love in our lives.  We then become instruments of God’s love in the lives of others.

When Jesus tells us that we are not to judge, he is not suggesting that we should not make decisions or stand up for what we believe in or stand against evil and injustice.  He is telling us to go through life with a curiosity and a humility that helps us avoid the tendency to become arrogant and assume the worst about others.  Let’s work hard to become discerning, but avoid becoming judgmental.

Pastor Mark Miller

Circle of Friends

Circle of Friends

I attended a friend’s fiftieth birthday party a few months ago and watched as the birthday girl entered a room filled with the people she loved best.  Long after the initial surprise had worn off, we chatted about the diverse array of people in attendance, neighbors, work colleagues, parents of her children’s friends, fellow Navy families, folks from her church, and her closest friends.  These were people she saw all the time, but she had never seen them all in the same place at the same time before.  Her circles had collided, and it brought her great joy. 

It got me thinking about a time not so long ago when my own circles collided.  Those of you who know me know that two years ago I found myself facing a dire prognosis after being diagnosed with stage IV endometrial cancer.  It was a frightening time where I found myself feeling very alone and vulnerable, and had it not been for my circles of friends, many of them from this church, I don’t know that I would have made it.  But God was at work, even before I knew what was happening to me.  As I was transferred from the ER at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital to Virginia Beach General, I was met by church friends who sat with me and offered support to my family while I underwent procedures.  As I was moved to the Oncology unit, I was met by the charge nurse, my kids’ former youth counselor and my dear friend and Emmaus sponsor, who made sure I had the best nursing care available.  Awaiting surgery the next morning, a church staff member came to sit with me and was surprised to see that the anesthesiologist was also a member of Virginia Beach United Methodist.  Friends and family filled my hospital room, many them the faces I saw at Virginia Beach United Methodist on Sunday mornings and throughout the year.  And so it continued over days and months with phone calls, visits, meals, offers for rides, gift cards, and text messages of support.  My family and I were overwhelmed at the sheer army of people, my colleagues at work, members of my life group, orchestra members, fellow mission volunteers, neighbors, family, folks I had served on church committees with, and friends I had met through Bible study, who were there for us through the initial hospitalization and the ensuing year of biopsies, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.  In facing this terrifying medical crisis, my circles collided in an explosion of love and support that allowed my family and me to feel that peace of God that surpasses all understanding.

The crisis is over and I am a year into remission, but all I have to do is ask prior to a routine scan or exam, and my circles collide again to remind me that I am and have been covered in prayer every step of the way.  My cup runneth over.

-Karen Millman

Jesus Didn’t Come to Bring Peace?

​“Tell me about a time that you had to choose between what was easy and what was right.” I was ready for many of the standard job interview questions. Questions like, “What’s your greatest weakness?” This question, though, caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for a question about conflict, but I should have been.     My eventual employer knew, like many of us know, that conflict is inevitable. But how we handle conflict, whether in the workplace, at school, in our homes or in the church, reveals how much we value others. Knowing that conflict is inevitable means we’re called to prepare for it, pray through it and work for peace. Listen to the sermon, “Jesus Didn’t Come to Bring Peace?”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that he did not come to bring peace to the earth but a sword. Read Matthew 10:32-36. This is a difficult passage to understand, because it seems to be in conflict with so much of what Jesus teaches and what scripture tells us about God. Even though it’s tempting to side step these tough words or to try to explain them away, our faith grows when we wrestle with Jesus’ most difficult words. Because they can help us learn how to live wisely and well. 

The context of this passage helps us understand the tone of Jesus’ words. At the start of chapter 10, Jesus commissions the twelve disciples for ministry. He tells them the good news first: they will be given power to heal people, to cast out demons in his name. But there is also bad news: you’ll run into problems, and you will have to make difficult choices. When Jesus offers these words to his disciples—and, by extension, to us—he is sitting them down for a sort of job interview or workplace orientation. He is asking them, “How will you choose between what is easy and what is right?” 

Jesus is not telling the disciples to go out and cause division or pain. Instead, he’s warning them that division will happen, and they’re called to deal with it gracefully. The Gospel will cause division, public and private, because of its power. Division is not the goal but a consequence of Christ’s coming. Jesus exposes our brokenness and weakness and offers a better way. The path to peace doesn’t avoid conflict but confronts and transforms it. 

When Jesus tells his disciples that the members of their own families are their enemies, we would be wise to remember words from elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 12:50, Jesus redefines family, saying “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” So Jesus is establishing a new household in which all are welcomed into God’s loving embrace. And for those who are causing conflict inside and outside of this household, those who would be labeled enemies, he has other words to offer. What are we supposed to do for our enemies? Love them (Matthew 5:44). Pray for them (Luke 6:28). When that happens, our enemies are no longer our enemies, and together we are members of the household of God. 

How do you respond when you have to choose between what’s easy and what’s right? How are you preparing to respond faithfully when you’re presented with a tough choice?

Pastor Matt Potter

Are You a Christian During the Week?

“A man who merely sits in a pew on Sunday morning and calls himself a Christian is like the man who stands in the garage and calls himself a car.” I’m unsure about the author of that quote, but I am sure it sums up for many of us Christians how critical it is for us not only to call ourselves Christians but also to demonstrate our Christ-like behavior in our everyday lives. We had the good fortune to see that Christian discipleship at work when we got to know the Tomlin family.

We first met Jerry Tomlin when he was one of the presenters at our On-Ramp class; later we met three more of the Tomlins when we were classmates in the Financial Peace University course. Impressed with their sincerity and devotion, we knew they were a family we would like to get to know better, so we invited them to join us for dinner one night. Around the dinner table that night we mentioned that we would soon be celebrating our Golden Wedding Anniversary, and the Tomlins happily shared their congratulations.

Fast forward a couple of months. Chatting in the church fellowship hall one Sunday, Jerry and Anne asked how the preparations were going for our big hoopla. “Well,” we replied, “everything is going rather well, except we have so much yard work to complete. We know your son Jerrod already has a couple of part-time jobs, but do you think he would be interested in earning a little extra money doing some yard work for us?”  Jerry’s response, “I’ll ask him, and if he can’t help you, I can.” This was followed by Anne chiming in, “I’m not too great at gardening, but I can pull weeds!”

Like many of us who make statements like that in a social setting, we are totally sincere in our comments, but somehow life gets in the way, and we find ourselves never following through on our goodwill offer. Not so with the Tomlins. To our total surprise, the next week Anne turned up after work, a change of clothes in hand, to make good on her offer to “pull weeds,” which I am happy to report that she did for three tedious hours. Likewise, hubby Jerry showed up after work to trim our much-overgrown hedges. In just a few hours, he tamed the hedges—a task that would have easily required two weeks of our time. Following their parents’ example, son Jarrod came along to cut grass and trim weeds and daughter Sophie got to work vacuuming. Not content with their accomplishments, they came another day to complete what they had begun the week before.

The next time you see the Tomlins in their favorite spot in the upstairs pew on Sunday morning, be aware that we choose to call them Christians not only because they are here on Sunday morning but because they display their Christian faith throughout the week through their service to others. Many thanks to the Tomlins for their generous kindness to us. How lucky we are to have such faithful disciples in our church family.

Dee Swanson – congregation member