The Rev. Dr. Jerry Neff delivered the Memorial Service during the Texas Annual Conference (TAC) on Monday, May 29, 2023. He said he was honored to participate in what has long been one of his favorite worship opportunities, which shines light on the importance of connection.

“We honor and remember the lives of those who have shared this calling and served in the Texas Annual Conference with us,” he said. “We celebrate the legacy of love and service they have left behind. We are reminded what a life of faithful service looks like.”

He said that the TAC members lost during the past year stand as testaments of commitment and dedication to Christ.

Neff drew inspiration from Romans 12:2, when Paul writes, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

He explained that in today’s culture, we are inundated with messages of conformity through advertisements on television, the web, billboards and emails “They seek to define us essentially as consumers, individual economic units existing for the sake of larger market shares,” he said.

There is also pressure to “fit in” from families, friends, organizations, religions, political parties and social groups.

“Not being conformed to this world is a tall order,” Neff continued. “The world will fight at every stage to convince us to look the other way rather than glimpse the injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed, and violence that surrounds us.”

Still, Paul implores us to renew the mind – and focus on what matters. “Paul also never forgets that we do not exist as individuals,” Neff said. “We exist as members of the body of Christ.”

No one can do it all, the pastor added, but together we are equipped to make a difference through ministry, discipleship, giving, leading, showing compassion and offering hospitality. “It makes a difference to see church not as a noun, but as a verb, not as a place to go, but as a living offering to God,” Neff said.

God gives us gifts to use for His glory – and shows us a mercy that sets us into motion, he continued.

Neff shared his own story of renewal. After he retired in 2020, he was diagnosed with a hereditary condition, interstitial lung disease, which made it difficult to breathe.

“It got to a point where I was on oxygen 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Neff said. “I was dying an inch at a time.”

In 2019, his identical twin brother had received a double lung transplant for the same condition – and died 300 days after the operation.

“I knew the risk of transplant,” Neff said. “And I knew what was at stake.”

He also knew couldn’t continue living in this condition. He signed up to be placed on the donor list.

First, Neff had to lose 50 pounds to be considered a candidate, an effort that took eight months. Then, after his name was placed on the list, he waited another five weeks before getting the call.

In February 2022, Neff received two lungs. After 13 days in the hospital, he was released and began rehab therapy.

While the identity of his donor had to remain anonymous, Neff learned that he could still send a letter to the donor’s family. He wrote to them, “I cannot take away your loss or grief, but I can pledge to you that I will do all in my power to honor the gift of these lungs.”

During his recovery, Neff witnessed with dismay the growing dissension in the United Methodist Church. He learned that five communities in East Texas voted to disaffiliate.

And only eight months after his transplant, Neff felt a call. He put out the word that if Jasper residents wanted to gather, he would be honored to return from retirement to preach.

By November, a group came together to worship. Trinity Episcopal Church offered their facilities at no charge. The first Sunday, there were United Methodist refugees from seven different towns in attendance.

On April 23, the congregation now called the United Methodist Church of the Pines was officially chartered. There were 73 members in attendance, and three individuals received baptism on the occasion. The congregation plans to move into its own building on Sept. 1.

Neff has told members that supporting this new faith community is his way of honoring his donor’s family.

“God is doing a new thing in our midst,” he said. “When there doesn’t seem to be a way forward,

God makes a way. When there doesn’t seem to be any hope for the future, God says, ‘Step into this hope-filled future I have for you.’”

Neff continued, “When there seems to be nothing but darkness and shadows, God says, ‘I am the light. Come to me. Be my church in the community and let that light shine.’”