A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, July 21, 2014

How Big is the United Methodist Theological Umbrella?

The United Methodist Church is known as a denomination of open hearts, open minds, and open doors. Words like pluralism and inclusiveness are frequently used in describing the UMC. I have always appreciated this aspect of United Methodism.

Compared to some other denominations and churches, the UMC prides itself in being open minded about various interpretations of the scriptures and theological perspectives. In other words, we can learn from one another because we all bring our unique backgrounds and understandings to the table.

The Wesleyan quadrilateral which consists of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience is the tool that United Methodists use to explore their faith. We believe that an appreciation of church tradition (how the church has interpreted scripture/social issues over the centuries), rational thinking (reason), and experience (our unique individual understandings) help us to have a wholistic understanding of the scriptures.

For example, I am extremely grateful, that my faith understanding isn't the same as when I started seminary almost thirty years ago. Thanks to an exposure to a wide array of biblical scholarship, a deeper understanding of church history, theological studies and conversations with pastors and friends, and pastoral experiences, my theological understandings have been enriched.

While allowing for a lot of theological perspectives can be a good thing, we also need to be aware of the core beliefs of our faith. Several years ago, I came across this statement of faith of the United Methodist Church. I changed the wording from the plural "we" to the more personal "I."

Do you agree with these core beliefs of our Christian faith? For example, the popular "Left Behind/Rapture" theology is very different from the United Methodist perspective under the "Reign of God" section that God will one day restore all of creation. That's just one example.

So what do you think? Do these central theological beliefs provide you with enough space for your personal theological understandings? How big is the United Methodist theological umbrella?

Central Theological Beliefs
The Trinity:
I believe in one God, who created the world and all that is in it.
I believe that God is sovereign; that is, God is the ruler of the universe.
I believe that God is loving. I can experience God’s love and grace.
I believe that Jesus was human. He lived as a man and died when he was crucified.
I believe that Jesus is divine. He is the Son of God.
I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the risen Christ lives today. 
I believe that Jesus is our Savior. In Christ we receive abundant life and forgiveness of sins.
I believe that Jesus is our Lord and that we are called to pattern our lives after his.
The Holy Spirit
I believe that the Holy Spirit is God with us.
I believe that the Holy Spirit comforts us when we are in need and convicts us when we stray from God.
I believe that the Holy Spirit awakens us to God’s will and implores us to live obediently.

Human Beings:
I believe that God created human beings in God’s image.
I believe that humans can choose to accept or reject a relationship with God.
I believe that all humans need to be in relationship with God in order to be fully human.

The Church:
I believe that the church is the body of Christ, an extension of Christ’s life and ministry in the world today.
I believe that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
I believe that the church is “the communion of saints,” a community made up of all past, present, and future disciples of Christ.
I believe that the church is called to worship God and to support those who participate in its life as they grow in faith.

The Bible:
I believe that the Bible is God’s Word.
I believe that the Bible is the primary authority for our faith and practice.
I believe that Christians need to know and study the Old Testament and the New Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures).

The Reign of God:
I believe that the kingdom or reign of God is both a present reality and future hope.
I believe that wherever God's will is done, the kingdom or reign of God is present. It was present in Jesus' ministry, and it is also present in our world whenever persons and communities experience reconciliation, restoration, and healing.
I believe that the fulfillment of God's kingdom--the complete restoration of creation--is still to come.
I believe that the church is called to be both witness to the vision of what God's kingdom will be like and a participant in helping to bring it to completion.
I believe that the reign of God is both personal and social. Personally, I display the kingdom of God as our hearts and minds are transformed and I become more Christ-like. Socially, God's vision for the kingdom includes the restoration and transformation of all of creation.

The Sacraments:
Through baptism we are joined with the church and with Christians everywhere.
                        Baptism is a symbol of new life and a sign of God's love and forgiveness of our sins.
                        Persons of any age can be baptized.
                        I baptize by sprinkling, immersion or pouring.
                        A person receives the sacrament of baptism only once in his or her life.
        The Lord's Supper (Communion, Eucharist)
                        The Lord's Supper is a holy meal of bread and wine that symbolizes the body and blood of Christ.
                        The Lord's Supper recalls the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and celebrates the unity of all the   
                        members of God's family.
                        By sharing this meal, we give thanks for Christ's sacrifice and we are nourished and implored to go 
                        into the world in mission and ministry.

                        I practice "open Communion;" I welcome all who love Christ, repent of their sin, and seek to live in 
                        peace with one another.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon (July 20) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Chutes & Ladders"

     Do you remember the game, Chutes and Ladders?  It’s been a while since I’ve played this board game, but here’s a quick recap of how it works. 
     You have a game piece, spin the spinner, and hopefully you end up landing on a space that will take you up a ladder so that you can get ahead in the game.  But sometimes, you end up landing on a space that forces you down a chute which is a real bummer.  You don’t want to go backward.
     This simple child’s game encourages players to find where the ladder spaces are on the board and you hope and pray that you will land on the right space.
     It took me a while but I finally bought a ladder that was tall enough to take care of some basic household chores. Without a ladder, it’s kind of hard to get anything done around the house.
     Ladders don’t just help us with projects around the house. They can help us in our faith as well. Sometimes, instead of choosing a ladder that can lift us closer to God we choose a chute instead which ends up spiraling us downward and away from where God wants us to be.
     The story of Jacob from the Old Testament is more a story of chutes than it is of ladders.  Jacob seems to have an uncanny ability to choose chutes over ladders and here’s a quick summary of his life to help us understand the context of our Old Testament scripture for today.
     Many of us are familiar with the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  It would be an understatement to say that Jacob has been a real pain in the backside toward his own family members.
     Jacob is the guy, who when no one is looking, kicks his golf ball from out behind the tree before hitting his next shot.  Jacob is the guy who lies about his past accomplishments if it will help him get a promotion.  Jacob is the guy who sells you a car without telling you that there’s a problem with the transmission.  Jacob is the guy who stabs you in the back, if it will help him to get ahead.
     Jacob began his cheating ways when he was in his mother’s womb, if you can believe that.  Trying to beat his brother Esau by a few seconds so as to be the firstborn, the scriptures tell us that Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel while they were both in their mother’s womb, but to no avail.  And this is where Jacob got his name, which literally means “heel grabber.”
     And from there, he just keeps on choosing chutes over ladders.  One of the most popular stories in the Bible is the one where Jacob ends up taking advantage of Esau’s extreme hunger one day by exchanging some stew straight up for his birthright. 
     But that’s not all.  Heel grabber tricks his own father who is lying on his death bed by impersonating older brother Esau, and Jacob ends up receiving the blessing that was meant for his brother.
     Now, the problem with heel grabbers is that even though they may get what they want, they make a lot of enemies along the way.  And when Esau found out what his brother did, he set out to kill his own twin brother, Jacob. 
     Jacob’s mother, knowing that things are going to get ugly really fast, tells Jacob to run away and hide out at Uncle Laban’s house.  While on the run, Jacob stops for the night, and finding the most comfortable rock he can, he places it under his head like a pillow.  Jacob’s decisions which involved going down one chute after another, has literally led him to hit rock bottom.
     And the really sad part of it all?  I don’t think that Jacob has any clue how far he has fallen or how bad his decisions have been.  You almost get the impression as you read up to this point, that Jacob probably even thinks that rocks are meant to be pillows.
     One of the striking features of the bible is that nobody, not even people who you would think should know better, are immune from making bad decisions or from allowing themselves to drift away from God.  The bible is a frustrating book to read at times, because just when God’s people seem to be moving in the right direction, somebody messes it all up.
     It kind of reminds me of Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island.  Remember how the Skipper and his crew would be this close from being rescued, and then just before the end of the show, Gilligan would do something that caused them to stay stranded?
     But let’s not just blame Jacob.  We can find many more names of people who like Jacob, make decisions that leave us scratching our heads and shouting out, “what were you thinking?”
     And truth be told, if we really think about it, we’re just like them in many ways.  At times, we too, find ourselves drifting away from God.  Sometimes it’s due to our poor choices and sometimes it’s because…well let’s face it.  Life is hard.  And we just say, “What’s the use? I’ll take the easy way.”
     The problem is that when we choose to take one chute, it’s that much easier to take the next one and the next before we find ourselves in a free fall away from God and our faith.
     A while back, a friend of mine who’s a pastor was talking to me about the importance of taking time out of our schedules to just be with God and to find renewal in his faith.  And he said, “Every time I take time to do be with God in an intentional way, God seems to help me to get back on track again.  And I end up feeling stronger in my walk with Christ.  But for some reason, I allow myself to wander away again from the faith.”  And with a puzzled look on his face, his next words were, “It’s the strangest thing.”
     And I thought to myself, “He’s right.  It is so easy to fall away from God, even when we know what we need to do and to whom we should go.”
      A few years ago, a survey was conducted which included several churches in our country and the purpose of this survey was to determine why it is that people end up drifting away from the church.  And the number one reason it gave was that for many people, they just don’t feel challenged enough to grow in their faith.  The people who leave the church, tend to be the people who want more in their faith, but no one seems willing to help them to go to the next level. 
     And that makes sense.  If you reach one level and plateau, it gets kind of old to just stay where you are. 
     In addition to folks who stray away because they aren’t being challenged enough, there are also folks who are falling away because life has been tough on them.  They’re asking questions like, “Why does God allow bad things to happen”  “Why are you allowing me to go through all of this suffering?” 
      And still, there are others, who like Jacob, simply make bad decisions, sending them down one chute after another until they reach a point where they have fallen almost completely out of a relationship with God.

     But here’s the good news for those of us who have gone down our fair share of chutes.  God never gives up on us.  Just like in our Old Testament reading for today.  Here Jacob is on a cold and damp ground with a rock under his head.  He’s drifting off to sleep and he begins to see something that will mark a turn around in his life.
     He sees a ladder set up on earth.  Not a short ladder.  But a tall ladder that reaches up to heaven.  And not only that, but he also sees angels ascending and descending on that ladder.  And as Jacob is given this unexpected glimpse of God’s presence, God speaks to him and reminds him of a promise that was made to his father Isaac, and to his grandfather, Abraham.  And the promise is that through their family, God will bless the world.
     Sometimes, when we end up going down chutes for whatever reason, we forget the bigger picture of God’s promise that one day the sin and brokenness in our world will be overturned and everything will be made new.  And the way that God is going to reclaim his creation and make everything new is through you and me. 
     So God reminds Jacob of this promise which he had forgotten.  God promises to be with Jacob and also assures him that the covenant will be fulfilled through him.
     Jacob then wakes up from his sleep and says, “Surely, the Lord is in this place.”
     In one of the churches I served, a guy in his 20s whose name was Dave, began attending worship services out of the blue.  All I knew about Dave was that he lived a couple of blocks from the church and that was about it.  So, I got to know him a little better and one day I asked him just out of curiosity, “What was it that led you to begin attending church here?”
     And he told me how he had grown up in the church but then when he got out of school, he just kind of drifted away from God and the church.  He told me how he had moved to this neighborhood because of a job transfer.  He wasn’t married and enjoyed his new home and especially liked relaxing on Sunday mornings in his closed-in porch.
     He said that since moving into his new home, he liked drinking his coffee and reading the paper on Sunday mornings.  And he said, “But every Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but listen to your church bells.  At first, I didn’t think a whole lot about it, but one Sunday morning, it was the strangest thing.  I decided to put my paper down.  I got dressed for church, and I’ve been here ever since.  I feel like I’m back home with God again,” he said with a smile.
     One of my favorite hymns is the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessings.” Robert Robinson who lived in England during the 1700’s wrote the lyrics for this hymn. One of the verses says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.” Robinson was known to backslide in his faith which is why he included those words in this great hymn of faith.
     During one of those times when he had backslidden in his faith, Robinson was sitting next to a woman on a stage coach. This woman was quietly humming this tune. Not knowing that she was sitting next to the writer of this hymn, she asked him what he thought of this hymn.
     Robert Robinson said to her, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."
     This woman responded by quoting a phrase from the first verse of that hymn. She said, “Sir, the streams of mercy are still flowing.” The woman on that stage coach ended up helping Robinson to climb back up the ladder in his faith with God.
     Let’s face it.  We are all prone to wander from our faith. All of us land on chutes at one time or another.  We fall away from God and sometimes it even feels like we’re headed the opposite direction.  But then comes along a ladder and it seems to come out of nowhere. 
     You hear those same old church bells.  You sit next to someone humming a tune.  You lay your head on that cold rock.  And guess what?  We discover that we were the ones who moved.  Not God. Jacob, the one who grabbed his brother’s heel, all of the sudden realizes that God has a grab of his heel.  And God isn’t letting go.
     This God is determined to have his way with us.  Whether we’re on the run or we have drifted away without even noticing, at the bottom of every chute is a ladder and this incredible promise:
     “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to do through you.  Through you, I am going to change the world!”
     Never expecting that God would ever catch up with you again, the only words that come to your mind are these words of praise…
     “Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place.”

Sunday Worship Preview - July 27

Sunday, July 27 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, July 30  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 7th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Genesis 29:15-28 & Romans 8:31-39

Sermon - "Deception"

Theme - Jacob and his family are caught in a web of deceptive acts. The story for this Sunday concerns Jacob's desire to marry Rachel, and instead, he was given her sister Leah as his wife. Let's look at deception and its consequences for us. Through God's help, how can we b more truthful in our relationships?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon (July 6) by Rev. Cheryl Foulk - "Love at First Sight"

If you are  looking for a companion, where do you find a true love?  Would you meet someone at work, at church, thru mutual friends, on line, or perhaps your favorite  watering hole?
In the Old Testament we have  stories of couples who actually found each other at the watering hole, the village well!

Moses first saw his future wife at a well; Jacob saw the love of his life, Rachel at a well.   In our story for today, Isaac connected with Rebecca  at a well.

There was a helpful matchmaker involved.  Isaac's family servant prayed to God that he would find a suitable companion for Isaac. Isaac's mother  Sarah has died and Isaac is ready to begin his own family.  The servant goes back to the home country of Abraham and there he  meets Rebecca  at a well.  She appears to be an answer to his prayer.  She is from the right family, and she has the gift of gracious hospitality: she offers him water. 

Gifts of jewelry are given to her, arrangements are made, her consent for marriage is obtained, and before you could say  Bed, Bath and Beyond," Rebeka was on her way to meet her future husband Isaac!  In a movie it would be a romantic scene:  they see each other for the first time across a field.

How did Isaac feel about  this woman chosen for him?   The passage says that  he took her to his home and that he loved Rebeka.   It was love at first sight-  a fairy tale romance.

Unfortunately, Isaac and Rebeka become a very troubled family in years to come. They have twin sons, Essau and Jacob, brothers who hate and distrust one another.  The contentious family dynamics affect generations to come.  Sorrows are in store for Isaac and Rebecca even with such an enchanted beginning.

We know about that heartache: marriages that end, promises broken, commitments that don't last, fighting and discontent within families. We yearn not just for love at first sight, but love that lasts.

When we think of the relationships in our lives , are there things that could be better?
 Dr, John Gottman is on the faculty of the University of Washington, and he has  studied and worked with thousands of couples at his “Love Lab.” In his writings,
he has suggested some simple things that are helpful in any relationship.

We are created  by God for emotional connections with one another ( see that even with a baby who cries out to be held).

We reach out to make contact with other people every day through words, a smile, a touch.  Dr. Gottman writes that when we make a contact, the other person can respond in one of three ways:

     turn towards us-React in a positive, interested fashion
     turn against us –React in a negative, degrading manner 
     turn away from us- Ignore our contact.

 For example, my husband  can come in and ask “When is supper ready?”    
(A) I can say: “Casserole will take about 20 minutes; why don't you set  table, and I'll get you something to drink.”
 ( B)  Or  “Get off my back,  you are always so impatient”
  (C)  Or I can offer no reply, no eye contact, as if I had heard nothing.

Dr. Gottman has observed that the more we choose (A)  the better it is for the relationship. To turn towards a person with our response is one way that we support one another in love.   The more positive contacts in a day is a plus for the relationship.

If our attempts to connect are constantly met with responses of turning against or turning away, we become disheartened.

Dr. Gottman   believes that he can identify  in 10 minutes of time whether a  couple's  relationship will last or  whether they  will have great difficulties. He determines this by how  they reach out and how they respond and pay attention to one another in common interactions.

People that we care about the most- spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings.
How do we respond to their efforts to connect?

Many of us  are busy , stressed, and distracted.   We don't realize the importance of these simple daily connections. Our connections may be minimal at most and not very uplifting.

 These are two heart exercises which may help:

This is the 10/10 exercise. Take 10  ten minutes to share about your day and how you are with the other person.  You talk for 10 minutes ( no interruptions) and your partner listens. Then they share and you listen. For some of us we say “I only get ten minutes ? ”  and others of us may think “ What will I say for ten minutes…”.
This practice can help each of us to keep the connections intact.

Leonard Felder  who is a counselor wrote about these conversations:  “Person I am about to talk to is more important than any client, customer, boss, colleague I've spoken to today. I better show up fully available for the next conversation because nothing else is as important as these precious moments together.” p.94  Make Up or Break Up

The second exercise is to offer affirming statements daily to our loved one. The vast majority of us find it easier to offer criticism!

Accountant was given the assignment to write down what he liked about his wife and what he didn't. He compiled  72 negatives and 4 positives in a week's report!    Counselor suggested that the report was lopsided.  Husband replied “Yes, but I love her any way."

Counselor replied that it was not his wife  but his attention to the negative  that was off base. The husband, like many of us, had to really work at seeing more of what was good in the other person.
 These are some affirming  examples: “I like the way you make me laugh”  “I like the way you cleaned out the garage”  “I  appreciate your concern for my family.”

There was a cartoon that portrayed an older husband and wife at the table first thing in the morning. She has curlers in her hair and he has not yet shaved. The caption reads: “Breakfast is more enjoyable since we agreed not to wear glasses at the table.”
I look at this couple, and  I can see years where they have turned towards each other
so that now they see each other  through the eyes of  a deep love,  with or without glasses.

We are created to be in relationships  that are life giving. As followers of Jesus, we are to care for, to encourage and serve one another. Jesus directive to love one another is not a vague concept but one that comes to life with the people that we live with, that sit around the breakfast table. Let us pray for the people in our homes, for our families, for healing and growth. Let us  pray for all the relationships here-  that the love of Christ is evident and grows in our homes and in our hearts.

“May Christ fill our hearts so that we will be rooted and grounded in love.”