Friday, April 29, 2011

Update on Grace UMC During the Storms

This has been a difficult week for folks in the South after the devastating storms hit Alabama and other states. There are over 230 deaths reported in Alabama alone. My prayers and my heart go out to so many who are hurting. It has been difficult to get news and communicate, so I'm blogging this while I'm briefly out of town in hopes that it reaches those praying for us in Huntsville and Madison.

My family is fine and our house had only minor damage. Our power will be out for possibly another week and I'm getting poor mobile phone reception so texting and talking is very spotty. So here's my chance to give everyone an update.

As far as church, Grace UMC will indeed hold worship this Sunday at 8:30 and 10:45 and pray for Ford's Chapel and many others affected by the tornadoes. We will not have nursery or Sunday School (since there are no windows for light in some rooms). Youth Sunday will be rescheduled for later. We will not have power but the water is fine and the building was undamaged. Bring flashlights for the bathroom! Simple and warm worship of prayer and singing. We need to gather. Come as you are.

Thankfully, as far as I know no one at Grace UMC was hurt and no one lost their home. Pray for the Blackwells, the Hardins, the McMullins, and the Pizitz's who I know have had significant damage to their homes. Also pray for Emily Parker, one of our students in Tuscaloosa who I've heard from. She's fine, but she lost a sorority sister and another friend and roommates to death.

My family spent part of yesterday with our friend Rev. Dorothy Ann Webster viewing Ford's Chapel UMC's destruction and visiting families in Anderson Hills neighborhood. They are only about 15 minutes from my church. Their historic chapel built in 1870 was destroyed when a tornado ripped through Harvest, Alabama. But the other buildings can be repaired. Many of the homes in that area near Sparkman High School were destroyed and there were a few deaths. Praying for their ministry there in the community during this difficult time.

The church office will reopen when power is restored. My mobile phone is not getting much reception so I can't talk, text, email, etc. If you need something please feel free to come by the church or the house. Let's all help others get through this.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Memorial for Rev. Levi Garrison of South Carolina

I am an 8th generation Methodist on one side of my family and at least a 7th generation Methodist on the other. This is part of the fiber of who I am.

One of the most fascinating characters of my direct ancestry is Rev. Levi Garrison, an early American circuit rider. He is an ancestor of my father and his West relatives. This is the text of an online memorial I have recently placed on

Rev. Levi Garrison

Birth: Jan. 10, 1779
Alamance County, NC
Death: 1855
Anderson County, SC

Rev. Levi Garrison was the son of Jedediah Garrison and Jane Candice Williams Garrison of the Mt. Pleasant community near Homer, Georgia. His parents constituted one of two families who founded a Methodist society there before the denomination was officially organized. His father Jedediah was a local pastor.

Levi was ordained by Francis Asbury and was a circuit riding Methodist preacher from 1800-1807. Refusing to stay in an appointment because of a yellow fever epidemic, he was "located" and served for several decades as a local pastor in Anderson, SC. The vote at Annual Conference to reduce his status from elder to local pastor as a result of his refusal to itenerate was 15-14. Yet he did not stop doing what God was calling him to do. 
Historical records show that in subsequent years as a local pastor, he dedicated the buildings of three churches in the Anderson area: Smith's Chapel, Ruhama (originally Methodist but now Baptist), and Old Providence Methodist Churches.

There is a letter in the archives at Wofford College that he wrote to members of the South Carolina Conference concerning his views on the episcopacy in 1831. He refers to himself as and "old souldier among you" recounting his ministry history. The archives also hold a beautifully written obituary he wrote concerning his son Osborn.

He married Martha Patsy Meaders of the Mt. Pleasant community. Their children were Elizabeth B. Garrison, Osborn B. Garrison, Matilda A. Garrison, Margaret Garrison, Nancy N. Garrison, Foster Washington Garrison, T. Garrison, Henry W. Garrison, David Hughes Garrison, Jesse Clark Garrison, Levi B. Garrison, and Melssa Garrison. Elizabeth married Simpson Hagood of South Carolina and they moved to Alpharetta, GA (I am descended from them).

Interestingly, Levi's brother, David, was also a Methodist preacher and served in Georgia. Records show he was ordained by Francis Asbury. As strange as it may sound, they had a younger set of cousins, also brothers named Levi and David Garrison, who were Methodist preachers. This set of brothers served churches in South Alabama and are buried there in Covington County. These pastors are related to several others in the Garrison and Meaders lines who were Methodist clergy in early America. Levi and David were common names in several lines of the family. The Garrison legacy in early frontier Methodism is great.

Historical records show that Levi Garrison was buried in the Old Providence Methodist Church graveyard. However, if so his grave is unmarked. Pictured is the most prominent of the several unmarked graves. The grave of his daughter Matilda is found in the graveyard, clearly marked. Providence is still a well-kept, active United Methodist Church in a resort community (it meets during the summer months).

To see the original memorial, go to

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Way of the Cross

This morning I walked the Grace UMC prayer trail and meditated on the stations of the cross. I love doing this, especially during Holy Week.

The meditation guide we publish reads "The Stations of the Cross invite us into an ancient and wonderful form of walking meditation. This is a powerful way to contemplate, and enter into, the mystery of Jesus' gift of himself to us. As we reflect on the passion, it moves the experience fr
om one of the head to one of the heart. It becomes an imaginative exercise of the senses and emotions."

It seems like it is always a new experience. I reflected on how grateful I am for 7 wonderful years at Grace and for my call to take up the cross and serve Saint Mark. I thought of all the struggles and internal wrestlings that I face as a Christian in ministry. I thought of the joy of walking through it with the help of God and many friends. As I meditated about each point along the way of Jesus, I connected the dots with my own experiences spanning different situations.

Christ walked the way of redemption for me, so he knew the depths of my struggle as well as the heights of my joy. My story makes sense in light of the larger story of redeeming love. The Christian journey is a path, a pilgrimage. When ancient Christians journeyed to Jerusalem, they established the tradition of walking the path he walked. In time, when this became impractical, replicas of the way of the cross developed in villages in Europe. Many, many people have walked this walk. And I walk it today.

God is good. Life is good. Love is good.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Moving to Saint Mark UMC

It was announced this morning that I will become the senior pastor of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in the Vestavia area of Birmingham this June. I am sorry to move from Grace UMC that we love so much, yet I'm excited to be going to such a wonderful church.

I can’t believe it has been 7 years. Grace is a marvelous church and I felt the Spirit at work when I got the opportunity to come here 7 years ago. Several years prior to my arrival, the previous pastor, Fred, asked me to be the speaker for the annual church retreat at Sumatanga … and I have been in love with Grace UMC ever since. I began to keep track of Grace and longed to perhaps serve here one day. When it actually transpired, I just couldn’t believe it. My family was so very excited about coming to such a wonderful church.

In the same way, becoming senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham is an extraordinary opportunity. Like Grace, Saint Mark is a church that I have had spiritual nudges about serving someday … though I was surprised that “someday” is today.

I’ve known people at Saint Mark for years because of my involvement in Music and Arts Week at Sumatanga. In addition, Sandy and I have spent most of our years in Birmingham. We will be living 10 minutes from my brother and 30 minutes from my dad and another brother. We will be 2 hours closer to all our relatives, including Sandy’s parents in their later years. And though we have never relished the idea of moving our son during high school, this particular church is the one church he would be excited about going to. He already knows many of the youth from camp.

We love Grace very much. At any point in history I would hate to move from such a wonderful church. But now that I am processing this I realize what a good time this is for Grace to make a transition. We built our new building and settled into a new “normal” for a year. We have an excellent staff and fine leaders equipped and organized to lead us into the future. We are not planning on a capital campaign related to the new building for another year and a half, giving a new pastor time to get acclimated. This year is better than next year, and better than last year, for a move.

I could not be more excited about the pastor and family who is coming to Grace. I have known Bryan Sisson for many years. His father, Jerry Sisson, was a prominent pastor in our conference and served in Huntsville. Bryan’s sister lives here and her kids go to Westminster. Bryan is an excellent preacher and organizer, sound in his theology and loving as a pastor. He is about the same age I was when I came to Grace (thanks for coaching me like I know you will help him!). His wife and two young girls are very much looking forward to living in the parsonage and being part of this great church.

As my family prepares for the transition of moving to Birmingham, and Grace UMC prepares for the transition of receiving the Sissons in June, we can all know that God is good.

Check out Saint Mark UMC on the web.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Discovering My Wills and Thompson Ancestors

Discovering my ancestors has been an amazing journey. Last week, I gave my dad the gift of getting in touch with his own heritage. I took him on a graveyard tour of north Georgia and showed him 26 graves of our ancestors. It was a mystical whirlwind, an adventure I am still unpacking from emotionally and spiritually.

One of the highlights was going to the Midway UMC in Cumming, GA to trace Virginia Wills West’s heritage. She was Dad's grandmother. Her parents, John and Sarah Thompson Wills, are buried there. In addition, both sets of their parents, Mastin and Susan Spruce Wills and James and Martha Garner Thompson, are buried. Both sets of Dad’s 2nd great grandparents were charter members of the church, which is indicated on their gravestones.

Midway UMC is a growing church with new buildings but they have a historic chapel pictured above. It was an awesome experience to see the Wills Memorial window. I did not realize until we got there that it was the most prominent window of the chapel, the highest in the center. The names of Maston Wills (Dad’s 2nd great grandfather) and his three sons, John (our ancestor), William, and Andrew, are in the window itself. It speaks volumes of their deep roots here in this church.

A real serendipity was going up to the main office and new sanctuary and suddenly noticing the stone memorial embedded in the brick by the door. It lists Harrison Wills first among the names the building was built in memory of. Harrison was Virginia Wills West’s brother, Dad’s Great Uncle. This spurred wonderful conversation about Dad’s memories of Uncle Harrison.

He told me about Uncle Harrison taking him a couple of times to the Indian Springs Camp Meeting, the largest camp meeting in Georgia, when Dad was a teenager. This was probably around 1945, and I enjoyed hearing about the sawdust floor and piano under the open air chapel. Dad could even remember the three points of the preacher's sermon one of those days on the text “Prepare to meet thy God” ... 1) There is a God, 2) You will meet him, 3) You'd better get ready!

Dad has another story I will share about Uncle Harrison. I share it in Dad's own words:

"As a youth I went with my father to visit his uncle, Harrison Wills. One of the stories I remember Uncle Harrison telling was that when he, in his retirement years, decided to sell of his chicken houses and much of his land, he advertised the sale in the Atlanta papers. A group of business men came to look at the property and purchase it. One of them said, 'Where did you acquire all of this? Did you inherit it?' He replied, 'Let me show you where I got my inheritance.' He drove them down to the little church in which he had been raised, took the key from his pocket, and ushered them inside. Pointing to the altar rail at the front of the church, he said, 'This is where my inheritance came from. I can remember that my father brought me here as a child, knelt at the altar with me, put his hands on my head, and prayed that I would be the person God wanted me to be.' He concluded, 'I can still feel the hands of my father on my head'."

That chapel would be the original building built earlier on that same site. I took a picture of that original chapel that was in the office of the church. That father who laid his hands on Harrison would have been John Wills, memorialized on the window.