This week as I studied the Bulgarian language, I learned the word for monument: Паметник (pametnik). In his book, Bulgaria 1300 Years, Hristo Hristov connects the historical narratives of the Bulgarian people with the many incredible monuments that pepper the city and countryside of Bulgaria. From the villages of Stara Zagora to the great city of Sofia, from the Sredna Gora to the Danubian plain, and from the Black Sea to the Balkan Mountains these markers of history and identity interrupt and define the Bulgarian landscape as a testament to centuries of life. These stand as opportunities for Bulgarian parents to teach their children about the heritage and remember it for themselves.
I am writing this blog from my house, which sits on land adjacent to the Stone River Battle field where the monuments in Tennessee give us the same opportunity. Memorials come in a dazzling diversity of shapes, colors, and sizes, but every one begs the onlooker to hear a story. This is in perfect keeping with the Christian life. After all, way back in the book of Joshua the people of God are told to erect a pile of stones by the Jordan River as a monument that will give an opportunity to teach their children about the glorious story of God’s provision: “this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ Then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So, these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” Recounting God’s faithfulness in the past has always been a way to move hopefully into the future.
Sunday felt like a “monumental day” from beginning to end. It started off at Blackman Community Church of the Nazarene and ended at Hilltop Church of the Nazarene. Throughout the day I found myself remembering, recounting, and experiencing a swelling of hope for the future as a result.
The morning started like so many others over the past few years. We got up, got ready, and made the blessedly short drive to BCC. It takes us over the interstate and I have looked so many times at the traffic below and wondered, “How many stories in those cars. How many people. How many need to know Christ?!” I remember thinking that as we planted BCC and wondered where the journey would take us. We arrived at BCC in time to sit down to some hospitality with the setup team. It was like walking into your family’s house and knowing you don’t ever need to knock. We just walked in, sat down, and joined in the laughing, chatting, and hospitality that defines this church. It was extra special to be back among the people of our home church after a month away. It was good to catch up, to just see the faces, hear the voices, to worship, pray, and sing with our BCC family. As Jude made his way to the back of the room for the children’s’ activities, I stepped to the back of the sanctuary to pause and consider this monument made of flesh and faith.
Blackman Community Church Worship Service
I remember riding in my car on the way to the city of Murfreesboro, having tearfully left our house in Cowan, and listening to radio as the host asked, “If perfect love could cast out all your fear, and with the knowledge that you only have one life to live, what would do today to have the greatest Kingdom impact?” I knew I was living the answer to that question. But at that point I could not see, though God had given vision, into the future. I could not have known that there would be a church called Blackman Community Church, I could not have known that it would be a place of thriving life, ministry, and worship. I could not have known that these people would love God and be loved by God, share life and service together, and be sent out for God’s mission in the world in and for the blessing of a particular community in the Blackman area. At that point I did not even know there was a “Blackman” community in Murfreesboro. All I knew was that God had called Katie and I to a new, wonderful, incredible, and overwhelming ministry in this city. I was so intimidated by the task. I knew God would have to become our strength. I remember saying to Katie in that first month, and I would say it again many times, “If God does not get directly involved and make this happen, we will fail miserably. We need God to show up!” I think that is how I knew that it was God’s vision and not mine. It would take God’s work for it to be accomplished. My gifts, strength, talent, and knowledge alone would not be enough.
Has God ever called you to something so incredible that you knew only God could accomplish it? I could not have known that one day I would stand in the back of a rented facility and look upon that church God had called us to plant and tearfully recount and remember God’s faithfulness in accomplishing more than I could have dreamed. As I stood in that back corner, I whispered a prayer, “Lord, do it again, and again, and again. My hope is in you.” I am just as intimidated, just as overwhelmed, and I am just as certain that this new calling will have to be the work of God if it is to be accomplished. Blackman Community Church has become a monument to the Lord.
It was a wonderful service full of passionate praise, giggling children, smiles, laughs, and inside jokes. We finished and the time we spent after the service just talking, sharing, answering questions, and talking about our own ministry and the ongoing ministry of the church was as wonderful as the service itself. It is a special reality in the Kingdom that we can pastor such a wonderful church and then return to be sent by it. God is so good. God’s body is so good. We had a great lunch with Mary Schmitt and the Dahlke family and by the time we finished it was time to jet to Hilltop Church of the Nazarene.
Pastor Mary Schmitt: Interim Pastor and Family Ministries Director at Blackman Community Church
To get to Hilltop we drove through Shelbyville, past Himesville Church of the Nazarene, and up through beautiful county in Bedford County, TN. As we drove, I recounted and remembered the days I spent as a pastor’s kid when my father pastored Himesville Church of the Nazarene. I remember riding to Bible quizzes with youth from Hilltop, I recounted memories of sunrise Easter services on the stone platform between the parsonage and the church facility, taking piano lessons from an elderly Julliard grad, and all the other ways that I could imagine God shaping and preparing my life to drive on those same roads, passing that same house, on my way to share a missionary calling with those who had been a part of that shaping. It was a beautiful drive, for more reasons than one, and as we topped the hill where the church facility is located and lost our breath at the beauty of this small, simple, beautiful, church facility surrounded by Bradford Pears, that could stand as a monument to the faithful generations that have worshipped Christ in these country settings.
Hilltop Church of the Nazarene's Worship Facility
We were greeted by Pastor John Burge, who served as a missionary with the Church of the Nazarene for 20 years in Haiti and Suriname. To my joyous surprise, when I asked John what he did on the field in his own time of missionary ministry he said simply, “We planted churches.” We began to talk and as he shared some experience, advice, joys, and some sorrows surrounding the planting of numerous churches over 20 years of ministry in 3 different languages I began to think, “Here is a man whose life is a monument of God’s work.” John offered to get together for a coffee and share more and that is definitely one of the greatest resources I have been given.
Pastor John Burge from Hilltop
Five churches gathered at Hilltop for the service. We are so grateful for the work that Gail Nelson put into organizing it, and for the other churches for coming to connect with us. When Bro. Bender began to lead us in the singing of the hymns my heart skipped a beat as I heard the cacophony of voices raised in praise. The voices of believers echoed off the walls and Katie looked over at me with a smile and raised eyebrows. Later, when we sat in the car silently riding home she remarked, “When people sing together with that much strength and passion you cannot help but be moved and chilled by it.” The entire service was filled with that kind of passion! It was so wonderful to share our story and our calling with people so attentive, so joyful, so genuinely concerned and invested. The proof of this was the promise of prayer. One wonderful elderly saint came up to me after service, she grabbed my arm and looked at me with fiery eyes over her facemask and said, “I will be praying for you every single day. I pray for one other missionary and now your family will be my second. I will be praying every single day!” Her grip and the way that she shook me with the ferocity of her promise moved me so deeply. Only one who truly understands the resource and the power of intercessory prayer can so deeply feel and know the treasure that such a promise is. On difficult days I will remember her grip… and her promise.
We ate sandwiches sealed in bags, with chips and cookies done in the same fashion to safeguard from the pandemic, but these were the sidepieces of the feast of fellowship. So many gracious people sat and listened as I went on and on about what I am learning about Bulgarian history, politics, business, life, and culture from a distance. We hesitated for as long as we could in the company of such wonderful people. When the time came to depart it was with a certain reluctance that comes from knowing a place should not be hastily released. As we got in the car, we marveled at this treasure resting on the Hilltop, and of all the churches that form the community we experienced in that gathering.
Gail Nelson: NMI President for Hilltop Church of the Nazarene
As we headed home, we rolled the windows down and enjoyed the evening breeze. We just sat in the evening silence for some time. Then, as always, we began to remember and recount all the treasured moments and people from the day. Maybe monuments are not always made of stone or timber. We are fashioning our own, as Mary did, treasuring them up and pondering them in our hearts. What is every day, every service, every prayer, every gathering, every moment is a monument to God’s work in our lives? What a life!