A History Nerd Looks at Judgment, Forgiveness and Knocking Down Barriers

chuck-williamsonIt seems that lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1800s.

First, I’m in a book group that just finished reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (on which the hit Broadway musical is based). And second, out of curiosity, I’ve been rummaging through our church’s archives, reading Miss Madeline Orr’s history of FPC, as well as our Session minutes from the 1850s.

Yes, I’m a history nerd.

Spoiler alert: Alexander Hamilton dies in the end. Here’s how Chernow describes Hamilton’s last hours. He says that Hamilton, who late in life found faith in God, was “preoccupied with spiritual matters.” From his death bed, he asked that someone call the Rev. Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity Church, to bring communion. When Rev. Moore arrived, he refused to comply with the request because Hamilton “had not been a regular churchgoer.” In desperation, Hamilton then turned to a friend, John Mason, who was a Presbyterian pastor, and made the same request. Rev. Mason also refused because “private communion” was against Presbyterian polity.

Something about this scene makes me very sad. Here was a man seeking comfort and an experience of God’s grace in his dying hours, and pastors refused because Hamilton did not come up to their standards, didn’t meet their rules.

I would like to think that incidents like this were rare, isolated. But it seems that was not so.

In 1855, the Session of our church called “Mr. _____” to appear before the Session to give answer to a charge of the sin of “intemperance.” The accused appeared and acknowledged the sin, “expressed a deep feeling of sorrow and penitence on account of it, and a firm determination in dependence upon divine aid to abstain from that vice hereafter.”

The minutes of the meeting continue: “The members of the Session urged on him the importance of living a consistent Christian life and attending regularly upon the ordinances of God’s house. The Session then, on account of the recency and notoriety of the offense, advised the accused to absent himself from the communion table on the following Sabbath.”

This member came before the session with a penitent heart, seeking forgiveness. What he got instead was judgment. Apparently, the Session was not willing to forgive the offence because of the “notoriety”, which meant that people might think them soft on sinners. So they temporarily excommunicated him.

There was a time in our church’s life when, in the days before communion was to be celebrated in worship, elders from the church would visit the members and examine them on their faith and practice. Those members who were found worthy would be given a communion token, and on the following Sunday only those with a token were permitted to take communion. No token…no communion.

I’m glad those days are gone. Yet there are still so many times that we let our judgments of others keep us from reaching out to them and welcoming them and caring for them.

I ask God for forgiveness for those times when my judgments of others create a barrier. And I pray that God will show me how to knock those barriers down.

– Chuck Williamson

Discomfort: The Soil from which Transformation Grows

Pen mug 7-16Last week, in the wake of the protests in uptown Charlotte, I’ve never been so clear that our church’s geography plays a big part in our mission. God planted us here in the center of town 195 years ago for a reason.

God needs First Presbyterian Church to be a place of healing and reconciliation. We must be a place where there is honest speech about brokenness and pain. We are called to demonstrate what the good news of the gospel looks like by the ways that we worship with, serve, learn from and provide welcome to all of those who are seeking to connect to God in Jesus Christ.

Many times last week I was uncomfortable. I attended gatherings with other clergy and was uncomfortable with some of the anger I heard and experienced. I met a group of clergy uptown Thursday night to pray at the site where Justin Carr was shot the previous night. The protests were peaceful, but I felt unsettled as I walked the streets that are usually filled with cars and commerce. I was asked by community organizers to open our church up for a city-wide prayer vigil, as well as to provide access to our campus overnight for protestors to rest and re-group. This was a request I declined – it made me uncomfortable to do so, but not as uncomfortable as leaving our church home vulnerable.

Since last week I have both asked and been asked the question “what can we do?” A lot of my discomfort this past week has been not knowing exactly how to answer that question. I am built to try to find quick solutions. Yet the pain we saw on display in our streets last week is not a result of a one-time incident with a police officer and an African American man, nor is it solvable by a few concrete action steps.

Perhaps what we can “do” for the moment is feel uncomfortable. Maybe our discomfort is the soil from which transformation can grow.

One of the reasons I am confident God is at work among us – providing for us, loving us, challenging us – is because a host of events and experiences had already been planned before last week happened. These events will engage us in conversation about race, or difference. They are experiences that connect us with our neighborhood and our community. You can read more about these opportunities online and in this week’s eFirstNEWS.

My invitation to you is to show up at two or three of these events and see how they affect the discomfort you may be feeling at the moment. I suspect that God will use these next few weeks to transform all of our hearts – hopefully to the point that we will be ready to hear where God calls us to go next.

– Pen Peery

This Sunday: Comfort, Hope and a Glimpse of Healing

welcome-sign-croppedAs a church family whose home is in the heart of Charlotte, this has been a heartbreaking week. All of us have hurt and wept and prayed while seeking to understand how God would have us stand for Christ while violence disrupts the streets of our neighborhood.

So many things are unclear, and may continue to be for some time to come.  But this much is clear: The events of the week serve as evidence that there is much for us to do as a church in the center of our city.

Your clergy and staff want you to know that all is well here at the corner of Trade and Church streets. We want you to know that we are eager to gather as a family on Sunday morning, to take comfort in music, to find hope in the liturgy, and to glimpse healing in the warm welcome we always experience from one another.

After our services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., we will take time in the chapel for prayer for our city and for our neighbors as we all seek wisdom in answering God’s call to reconcile.

We hope to see you in worship on Sunday.

– Pen Peery, Katherine Kerr, Erika Funk, Katelyn Gordon, Chuck Williamson


Erika croppedOcean waves are intimidating. Growing up close enough to the Pacific to hear the waves crashing at night, I find the beach is a safe and familiar place. I also developed a healthy fear of the ocean.  Tsunamis, tidal waves, storms at sea filled my nightmares as a child. I will not see movies like The Perfect Storm or Titanic.  Sorry, George and Leo, your beauty is not enough to overcome my fears of giant waves and sinking ships.

But fears are worth confronting. And the sea has long been a symbol in the Judeo Christian faith for God’s mighty hand guiding a chaotic world. So a few years ago I had the word “aWake” tattooed on my wrist as a reminder of this. A “wake” is the joyous bump that comes after a wave.  Picture swimming in the ocean or a lake and the lovely little lift you get when a boat passes nearby. That is a “wake,” but you have to get in the water to enjoy it; in fact you have to get close enough to the larger waves to even feel that lift.

The psalmist sings of this wake in Psalm 57:

“Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.”

When we draw ourselves near to God’s presence, even when it seems frightening or risky, we ride that wake. We receive a lift to our souls. To be awake as a Christian is to stay aware of the risks and dangers of the world but not be intimidated by them. Every week we are called into community worship carrying the burdens of the week and the hopefulness of our faith with us. I have heard people say that often times an hour on Sunday is not enough to sustain us and so FPC offers a second time of worship, every Wednesday at noon. It serves as another “bump”, another opportunity to lift our souls to God and be lifted up in spirit. We read scripture together, we sing songs and we pray for one another and the world.

Wednesday Worship kicks off September 7 and the new series is called Awake my soul. For seven weeks we’ll use a combination of scripture and top 40 songs to lift our spirits and open ourselves to God’s voice. Check out the playlist for the series, Awake my soul, on Spotify. And join us at noon on Wednesday to find out what we might learn from Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah.

– Erika Funk

Getting Hooked on Stories

Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor

I’m totally hooked on the TV show Friday Night Lights. Yes, I know the show has actually been off the air since 2011; I tend not to catch on to the good stuff until it’s released in box set. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix, I don’t have to wait a week to watch the next episode, so I’ve been watching an episode or two almost every night for the past few weeks.

It’s gotten to the point (the sad point?) where I think of the characters on the show as real people.  I find myself seeking out friends who’ve watched the show and saying things like, “Don’t you just love Matt Saracen?” Or “Buddy Garrity drives me crazy,” and “I can’t believe Lila did that!”  Events in everyday life make me think of something that happened two episodes ago, and I wonder WWCTD (What Would Coach Taylor Do?).  I bring up Friday Night Lights in conversation and encourage people who haven’t seen it to start watching it.

I’m now in the last season of the show, and I’m trying to slow myself down so I don’t get to the finale too soon.  I’m not ready for it to be over.As silly as it may seem to feel so strongly about a TV show and its characters, I’m guessing I’m not the only one.  Maybe for you it’s West Wing, Friends, LOST, Breaking Bad, or The Good Wife.  (If you’re a fellow Friday Night Lights groupie, let me know!)  Our love for these shows and their characters is a testament to the power of stories.  A good story captures our attention and sticks with us even when it’s over.  A good story can challenge us and inspire us to make a change in our lives, to work to heal a relationship, to try again.

This understanding of the power of stories is what’s behind “The Stories We Tell,” our formation theme this year.  As Christians, we learn and study the stories of the Bible, trusting that they help us better understand who we are and who God is.  We share our own stories – stories of success and loss, stories of defining moments in our lives and of mundane daily routines – and we listen to the stories of others.

The more I think about it, the more I think that story may be one of the greatest gifts we share with each other as the church.  This community is one where we practice being honest about our own stories and where we open ourselves to being transformed by the stories of Scripture and our neighbors.

As we begin this new program year at FPC, I hope you’ll find a place to connect with the story of our church and our ministries and a place to share your own story.  Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens next in the story God is telling through the people of First Presbyterian.

– Katelyn Gordon

What’s Up in the Kitchen? More Than Just Food

Nick Kepp cropped

Nick Kepp Chef, Eat@First

As a professional cook, my focus when I’m in the kitchen is constantly changing.

In the beginning, my focus was very narrow, almost as if my white jacket and the bandana I used to wear before I cut my hair so short had come with a pair of blinders. Those blinders directed my view to a very specific spot. Let’s call it the Don’t Screw Up and Get Yelled At spot. I suppose a lot of us focus on that spot early on, no matter what career we’re in.

Once cooks get that down, our focus begins to change as we think about creating new flavors and dishes, being different, having our own style.

Then, as we gain more control over that area, our focus broadens more. The focus may evolve into creating a great experience as a whole, understanding now that the bigger picture includes more than food on a plate. The bigger picture involves how a server interacts with guests, the timing of food coming to the table, the ambiance of the dining room, the music, the temperature and so much more.

After that is locked down, the focus broadens even more. Cooks who really get the power of food begin to focus on how food impacts their community, outside the walls of the kitchen, the dining room, the business.

This is where I am at now. I feel I skipped a few steps as a technician of food because cooking here at First Presbyterian Church challenged me very quickly to broaden my viewpoint and mindset beyond just the food on the plate.  Today I view food as a catalyst to provide fellowship, to help establish relationships with those in need, to support a community, and (most importantly) bring people together.

The impact I wish to make has more to do with people and their stories than it does items on a menu.  My focus as a cook is to use my gift to bring people together, to break bread together, and to impact each other’s lives through our interactions around the table.

I have been passionate about food for many years now.  It has taken this long for me to mature enough to realize that what is on the plate isn’t the most important thing about being a cook; what’s most important is how the food acts as a catalyst to have impact on the community.

– Nick Kepp

Charlotte: Witnessing a City in Need Gnaws at Me

Pen mug 7-16Most afternoons, on my drive home from church, I witness a scene that has been gnawing at me since I arrived at First Presbyterian four years ago. It’s a bus stop where some of the people whom I have met over the past few years are settling down to sleep for the night, their belongings stuffed into bags that they hold close.  Other people at that bus stop aren’t there to sleep, but they look tired. I can see the stress of being overworked in their eyes and in their posture. They are on their way home after a long day and, even though they have spent their day surrounded by people, I see loneliness in their faces.

Seeing these people, day after day, suggests to me that there is more work God calls the church to do.

These two groups of people need different things. Some need food, access to healthcare, and a place to lay their head. Others need community, an opportunity to interact in ways that go beyond a transaction, and a place where they can have the space to explore the things that really matter.

Charlotte has a lot going for it, but we are still a city in need. We need more affordable housing. We need better economic mobility and access to opportunity. We need more early childhood education. We also need deeper faith, and places to be vulnerable, and an increased awareness of the holy.

In the heart of all this is our church home, with its mission to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote to God’s people who found themselves in an urban environment, surrounded by need.  “Seek the welfare of the city,” Jeremiah wrote, “for in its welfare you will find your own…” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Over the past six to nine months I have been spending time with some leaders in our church thinking about the ways we might let Jeremiah’s words inform our actions. In the near-term we are considering God’s call for us in 2017, as we prepare for stewardship season this fall. In the mid-term, a committee called the Balcony Group is working to develop a strategic plan to guide the Session and the church for the next 3-5 years. In the long-term, members of the West Campus Visioning Committee are continuing their work to discern God’s call for the incredible asset that is our parking lot, a vision we expect to impact this church and how it serves the needs of our city well into our third century here in the center city.

I believe God’s purpose for us as a church is bound up in our willingness to seek the welfare of our city. That’s why we were founded almost 200 years ago, and it needs to be why we exist 100 years from now.

There is great work being done to embrace this particular calling for our church. In the coming months, you will be invited to contribute your voice to this planning effort—through surveys, focus groups, and neighborhood gatherings.

This is an exciting time to be a part of First Presbyterian Church. The need for our witness and ministry has never been more urgent. And as we look into the future, God’s providence and promise to be with us in our life together has never been more sure.

What if the people I pass each afternoon at that bus stop experienced First Presbyterian Church as a place of welcome, a source of strength and a community where they could deepen their faith?  If they knew us that way, I think we would be fulfilling our vision as the body of Christ that God sent into the world to save.

– Pen Peery

What TO Say When People Are Grieving

Katherine and her mom, Genie Cooke

Katherine and her mom, Genie Cooke

The night before my mother’s memorial service, our extended family and close friends gathered at my parents’ house for dinner. People spilled from the kitchen into the family room and out onto the porch. It was December in Florida and the weather was sublime.

A group from the church had brought dinner and everything needed to serve it, and they stood ready to meet any need, from a napkin to a dinner roll or a drink refill. Though I fussed around for a bit and tried to be helpful, I finally realized that they weren’t going to let me lift a finger, and so I turned my attention toward the gathered crowd.

Standing in Mom’s kitchen, I saw my family—three generations gathered from North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, California and Wyoming. Everyone was eating and talking and enjoying being together. It was a beautiful scene. And I started to cry.

Seeing this, one of the people there came up and hugged me. “She should be here for this,” I said, giving voice to my overwhelming feelings at the time. “She is here,” was the response.

I know this person meant well, and I know the words were intended to bring comfort, but in that moment, they were exactly what I didn’t need to hear. Because they weren’t true. She wasn’t, in fact, there, and that was the problem. My whole family was gathered for dinner and my mom wasn’t there, and she wasn’t ever going to be there again. I was beginning to absorb that truth, and it hurt.

It is a seemingly universal truth that people don’t know what to say to people in pain. Much has been written about it, and still we all struggle when we see someone we care about going through something difficult. We want to be helpful, we want to provide comfort, but the fear of saying the wrong thing or adding to someone’s pain can paralyze us.

I have had countless conversations with people who worry about saying the wrong thing, and I’ve run across several articles that include lists of things one should not say to a person who is grieving.

In this social media age, the “listicle” has become a common means for getting information across to large groups. From “10 organization hacks that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE” to “8 foods you should NEVER feed your children,” these pseudo-articles scream from our screens to let us know exactly how many ways we are messing up every day. While these lists can be helpful, I think they can also be a bit too focused on the negative, adding to the inherent anxiety we feel around many of the issues we face in life.

I respond more positively to, well, positivity, and so I offer not 10, not 8, but 3 simple things TO say to someone who is in pain.

  1. “I am sorry.” Yes, just that. Though it may feel simple or even inadequate, this little phrase says a great deal. It conveys sympathy and empathy, and it is enough. Really, it is enough. But if you feel the need to say more, try this:
  2. “Do you want to talk about it?” The thing with people is that we are all different, and most of us are even a little bit different depending upon the day. People who are hurting may want to talk one day, and not want to talk the next. The only real way to know is to ask. And it is okay to ask. Just make sure you are ready to listen if they say yes, and respect them if they say no.
  3. “I hear you.” This one can be expressed verbally or physically (through presence, eye contact and body language). Truly hearing someone without trying to talk them out of their feelings or share your own experience is a gift that cannot be measured. It is not possible to talk someone out of grief or sorrow. But it is possible to provide space for a person to express how they feel and know that they are heard and accepted where they are, and that can bring deep healing.

Supporting someone who is grieving is not simple, but it need not be complicated. Keeping in mind the importance of true acceptance and genuine listening will help anyone to be a positive support to someone in pain.

As I move through this year following my mother’s death, I am overwhelmed by the power of the support I have received. I do not remember many words that have been said to me, but I do remember the people who have shown up and told me that they think about me, that they pray for my family, that they love us. No one has uttered the magical sentence that has made it all better because that sentence doesn’t exist. But in being present, in listening when I want to talk and in honoring my desire not to talk, countless people have shown me grace beyond measure, and for that I will forever be grateful.

– Katherine Cooke Kerr

Seeing God in the Faces of Presbyterian Youth

Have you ever gotten together a group of youth who feel passionate about how we can Kingdom-build on earth?

That’s what I did one week this summer—gathered with 5000 Presbyterian high school youth to explore, listen, and share at a national convention called Triennium…so they could then be sent back out into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet.

jen youth on the hill

Being invited to be part of stage leadership for Triennium was a huge gift to me—but it terrified me. I was so nervous about whether God could find a way to use good-ole-average-person Jen, but every time I was on stage, it really was like the Spirit carried me. When I stepped on stage, I knew that God was with me, with them, and creating a space where stage leaders were in conversation with the congregation.

jen rocks

We were in a huge auditorium with two levels of balconies up top. Imagine, for a moment, 5,000 high school youth running to get a great spot in worship, jumping, dancing, singing…shaking the balconies with energy to join together and worship God. It was like Montreat on steroids!jen triennium auditorium


I asked God to use me but instead God used them to teach me. Instead, I was intently listening to young people, being fully present with them, laughing, dancing and crying together. They made more than 350 pairs of shoes for children in Uganda, using old jeans, as part of a project called Sole Hope, then taped shoe messages all over the campus.shoes


They made a giant light board and filled sidewalks with messages of love and hope!jen sidewalk


These youth are the church. We had great conversations around politics, inequality, foreign policy, injustice, and much more—they have a voice and they want to be heard. And, it should be heard.jen lights2

They have some really awesome ideas about how to provide good education for everyone regardless of their street address. How to squash gender inequality. How to move forward on gun ownership & violence. Even how to openly and honestly talk about mental health and identity struggles.jen love wins


Sure, youth still have a lot of life lessons to learn. But they also have a perspective that is fresh, different, and valuable. If everyone sees things from the airplane view, we’ll never see the beautiful flowers and watch birds migrate. The view that young people have is just as important as everyone else’s view…not to mention essential if we want to truly be the church.

How can we hear their ideas?  Invite them to be part of every discussion, actively listen to their thoughts, and have the courage to admit when they are right.jen forgive me

Imagine what it would be like to be church if every person had a voice that was heard, young people were part of the everyday life of the church and in the community. I am convinced that before the church or community makes any major decisions, they should have some discussions with a group of youth first.

Here’s what I know: I was changed by this experience.   I saw God. I saw God in their faces, in their ideas, in the ways in which they weren’t afraid to talk about hard topics.

Can you tell my cup runneth over?

– Jen Evans

jen triennium leaders