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

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Dave's Deep Thoughts - A Skiing Like Faith

[My brother on the slopes. Notice the "nightmare" sign coincidentially pointing right at him!]

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.

They say to watch out for the fast ball,
but sometimes it's the ol’ curve ball that gets you.

I am a risk taker.
It's in my personality makeup.
It's who I am.

I haven't quite reached sky diving status yet,
but I already have passed paragliding and am quickly approaching bull riding.

When I was building my house a few years ago,
(talk about a risky move............)
I thought nothing of climbing a 20 foot wall to tack down a few nails.

Being a risk taker while living among more conservative types is a challenge.
I find that I have far more mothers than I know what to do.

Sometimes this fifty-something guy feels like Ralphie in "A Christmas Story"
with multiple mother types ready to invoke the
"You're going to shoot your eye out" warning of doom.

As a child,
I survived my BB gun days with full eyesight,
I emerged with some hard earned scars from my mini-bike expeditions,
and I always crawled back into the sunlight after my spelunking adventures.  

Now-a-days it’s about skiing.
Whenever I am heading out on a ski trip, this is what I usually get......

"Now don't break a leg"  (never have)
"Stay off those really steep hills"  (that's what they are there for)

or my personal favorite........

"Be sure to come home in one piece." (which is always my  personal preference)

I have been a skier for 40 years
and except for one fateful early spring ski day in '93
when my skis tried to cross dirt rather than snow,
I have stayed out of the ER.

Last month I went on a skiing expedition with a buddy.
We took on everything that the ski slopes in northern PA could offer.
We spent the afternoon ripping down every diamond and double diamond slope that we could find

I can't say that I have never had any anxious moments while on the slopes.
Unexpected patches of ice, sudden gusts of wind, or narrow terrain on a 40% incline,
can cause anyone to see Jesus.

I usually see Jesus offering me cocoa 
as blinding snow spritzes my face at 30 miles per hour
Trust me, 30 miles per hour is a very good time for cocoa, and Jesus.

After about 20 rips down the inclines that day, I had not seen Jesus.......
that is until the accident.

For all my multiple mothers who are about to say "I told you so"
I would not be referring to any accident on the slopes.

That would be my accident.....................
in the locker room.

That's right,  the locker room.
After 4 hours of double diamond skiing,
I hurt myself in the locker room.

Of all the mothers that I have,
it would be my biological mother
who gave me her arthritic fingers with swollen knuckles.
These are the kind of knuckles that get caught in locker door handles as you are closing them,
thus causing massive pain and primal screams.

I left the ski lodge with my middle finger imbedded in a cup of snow
and my tail dragging between my legs.

My locker room accident won't keep me from skiing again.
Sometimes just life throws you a curve ball when you are expecting a fastball.
That happens whether your personality profile tells you to ski or just lay by the pool.

What it does tell me is that nothing in life is guaranteed,
except that God loves us and He will always be with us in each and every circumstance. (Romans 8:38)

It also reminds me that while it is my responsibility to make wise and prayer bathed 
decisions about what I choose  to do, I must be willing to accept the results. (Psalm 27)

It also tells me that while worrying is unhealthy and faithless.
The better path is to keep alert in all things.( Luke 21:36)

And for me that includes locker #423

Now go enjoy your day,
and be careful not to shoot your eye out.

The Lord is my light and my salvation.
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the defense of my life.
Whom shall I dread?

When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,
my adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.

Though a host encamp against me,
my heart will not fear;

Though wars arise against me,
in spite of this, I shall be confident.
                                               Psalm 27:1-3

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sermon (February 7/Transfiguration Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Shining Example"

     Transfiguration Sunday comes just at the right time on the church calendar. It’s the perfect bridge between the Sundays following the celebration of Christmas and the more reflective and somber season of Lent.
     Transfiguration Sunday is considered one of the more special Sundays on the church calendar because this is the day that we celebrate when Jesus was transfigured and the glory of God shone upon him.
     And spoiler alert…Jesus’ transfiguration serves as a little hint of Easter when God’s glory will surround him as he emerges from the tomb in his resurrected body. 
      When Jesus was transfigured, he was showing us that God sent him to be a shining example of God’s love for the world. Transfiguration Sunday invites us to think about how we are to be God’s shining examples with the people we meet.
     The Kappa Phi Club is a national sisterhood for college women that began in 1916 in Kansas.
     The Phi Chapter here at Ohio University was started in 1928. There are chapters at over 25 colleges across the country. Our church is privileged to be a host church for Kappa Phi.
     They meet every week here in our church. The Kappa Phi ladies are shining examples of God’s love in our university community.
     I have asked them to take a few minutes to share how they are serving as God’s shining lights in our community.

     The members of Kappa Phi are a shining example of what it means to live out God’s purpose in our community. They also provide the “best baked potato with all the toppings” fundraiser this side of the Hocking River. They will be offering lunch for us again on Sunday, February 21st as part of our upcoming Capital Campaign Vision Preview meeting that day.
     On this transfiguration Sunday, God wants each of us to be his shining examples. One of the best ways to be shining examples is by participating in a small group where we can share our faith with each other. I have found that when I am in a small group where people share their faith, it encourages me to be more of a shining example for God.
     We are offering seven new small group opportunities during the five weeks of the season of Lent and they will all begin meeting next week. Before leaving today, consider signing up for one of these small groups. These groups are designed to help us grow in what it means to be shining examples for God.
     Thankfully, the church has been blessed with a long history of people who have been shining examples for God. One of these shining examples was the Christian saint, known as Antony.
     Athanasius, who also was himself a saint and a shining example of God’s love, wrote a biography on the life of Antony. 
     In his biography, Athanasius summed up Antony’s life in a beautiful way by asking this very simple rhetorical question about him, “Who has ever met Antony grieving, and failed to go away rejoicing?” 
     I love that rhetorical question. May that question refer to all of us!
·     Who has ever met Dave & Sally Bayless grieving, and failed to go away rejoicing?
·     Who has ever met Michelle Shively grieving, and failed to go away rejoicing?
·     Who has ever met Wendy Merb-Brown grieving, and failed to go away rejoicing?
·     Who has ever met Helen Slater grieving, and failed to go away rejoicing?
·     Who has ever met Giles Lee grieving, and failed to go away rejoicing?
     Sorry that I don’t have time to insert four hundred names into that rhetorical question, but I think we all get the point.

     On this Transfiguration Sunday, may all of us be Christ’s shining examples, so that when people come to us grieving, they will go away rejoicing, because they are able to see the love of Christ in us.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (January 31) - Athens First UMC

O God, teach us how to fish.  Give us that little fishing tip that will open our church doors a little wider for more and more people to come within your saving embrace.

When we get discouraged with less than hoped for results, help us to listen to where you would have us put down our nets, so that your kingdom can be extended right here in our community.

Thank you for surprising us with the good news of the early financial gift that will help our church let down our nets in new and exciting ways right here in our Athens community. We haven’t even officially begun our capital campaign of “Putting Athens First,” and you are already at work through our church in new and exciting ways.

We are already wondering what the next big surprise will be when we lower our nets on the other side of the boat. Thank you for being a God who can turn a discouraging night of fishing into an incredible day of celebration. You never cease to amaze us, O God!

We ask your blessings to be upon our capital campaign planning team as they give of their time to serve on our behalf. We also lift up to you our Honduras missions team as they begin to plan for their trip this summer.

We also pray for those who are discouraged, those who are struggling with medical challenges, those who are looking for work, and those who are going through a difficult transition in their lives.

Dear God, I give you thanks for the opportunity we had two weeks ago to encourage the high school students who were part of the OU Honor Choir. Thank you for those who stayed after worship to serve them lunch and to get to know them. Be with them as they continue in their High School studies and as they think about where you may be leading them. Whenever they become discouraged, remind them that they have been created in your image and that you have a purpose for each of them.

With the confidence of children of God, we now pray the Lord’s Prayer together, saying,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon (January 31) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Nothing But Net"

    What do you do when you have a bad day?  We all have them.  Maybe you’re like me and you like to read about other peoples’ bad days.  At least you know that it could have been worse.
     If you’ve had a bad day recently where nothing seemed to go your way, maybe these examples of bad days will make you feel a little better.
     You know you had a bad day when your twin sister forgets your birthday.  That would be a bad day, wouldn’t it?
     Or, if your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles.
     The bird singing outside your house is a vulture.
     Your doctor tells you that you’re allergic to chocolate.
     The worst player on the golf course wants to play you for money.
     Did anyone have all of these things happen to you this past week?  See – maybe things aren’t so bad after all.
     I can’t think of a more frustrating thing than fishing.  My dad took me fishing a few times, and I never really got into it.  And I know that some of you love to fish and you’re quite good at it.  Maybe you can help me understand our Gospel reading this morning because it’s about fishing.
     The disciples were having a really bad day.  Check that.  Actually they had a bad night.  Fished all night and didn’t catch a thing.
     I understand from people who know a little about fishing, that night time fishing is the way to go, but not that night for some reason.  The disciples didn’t catch a thing, Luke tells us.
     When fishing is your hobby, that’s one thing.  But when it’s your livelihood, it’s quite another.  So I would think that the disciples were pretty discouraged when morning finally came.  Tired, grumpy, disappointed.
     Have you ever been there?  We all have.  Who hasn’t been discouraged at some point or who hasn’t had a bad day when nothing went right?
     Have you ever had one of those “nothing but net” days?  You know, one of those days where you throw out the net, and it always seems to come back empty?  No fish, but plenty of net!
     Jesus, sensing the discouragement of the disciples after a long night of fishing, goes against conventional wisdom by telling Simon, one of the disciples to give it another try. 
     “I know it’s broad daylight, but go out to the deep water again, and let your nets down again, and see if you won’t catch some fish this time.”
     And believe it or not, Simon takes Jesus up on this offer.  What?  Is he crazy?  He knows they’re probably not going to catch any fish, especially at that time of the day!
     Have you ever had someone do this for you?  Someone who was able to reach into your discouragement and help you look at the same situation in a whole new light? 
     That’s why consultants can be really helpful to a business or an organization.  A good consultant will come in, and maybe all it takes is one little comment about something, but that’s all that company needs to turn things around.
     And pretty soon, people start getting excited again.  “Yeah.  Why not?  Let’s give it a try!”
     And just like that Simon and the disciples reluctantly shove off from the shore.
     I guess, to understand why these tired and discouraged disciples would have been willing to do such a crazy thing, you have to think about the typical amateur golfer.
     I consider myself a typical average golfer.  My scores aren’t that great.  And no, the worst player on the course has never made a wager with me, just in case you were wondering.
     But only golfers will appreciate this.  Why do amateur golfers who aren’t that good keep playing this silly game?  Because somewhere in those 100 swings during your last round of golf, you actually hit one pretty good shot. 
     It’s that one shot that keeps you coming back.  Golf is like caffeine!  It’s very addictive!
     So maybe this is why those fishermen were willing to get their nets ready again, and give it one more try.  They can remember how they felt the last time they had a big catch. 
     There’s nothing like it in the world.  Am I right, fishermen? Sure! That’s what keeps you coming back to your favorite hobby.
     And of course, you know the story.  The disciples put down their nets and surprise, surprise.  Jesus was right!  They had the biggest catch of their lives. 
     Even their nets were breaking because of all the fish.  Signaling for some help, some other fishermen came out and they ended up filling two boats with all the fish they caught.
     I think Jesus made his point.  Hook, line, and sinker.  I totally apologize for that really, really bad pun, but you did fall for the bait. Alright, moving on…
     Here’s another part of Luke’s gospel which has us stop in our tracks, scratch our heads, and say to ourselves, “Who is this man we have been following?”
     Actually, Simon does something even better.  He goes a step further.  After the catch of fish, he falls down at Jesus’ feet, and he says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
     Words that remind us of what a prophet said centuries before Simon as he stood in the presence of God’s holiness.  “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
     Being in the presence of God has that effect, doesn’t it?
     God’s holiness caught me by surprise when I attended a community Thanksgiving service that was held at an Episcopal church one year.  I was sitting near the front of the sanctuary all by myself, when they began the liturgy for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
     The words that were being shared were familiar to me even though I was in a different setting. Everything was going as I expected until…
     …until an usher stood next to me and invited me to go forward and kneel at the altar railing to receive the Sacrament. This took me off guard since I was new to the church and I was the first person to go forward.
     I nervously got up, walked toward the altar, and knelt down, all the time wondering if I was doing this the right way. I felt so humbled in that moment. I was out of my comfort zone.
     But just like that, I wasn’t self-conscious anymore, because I could sense that this had become a holy moment. I, a sinner, an outsider, was in the very presence of a holy God. 
     And when the communion steward gave me the piece of bread and the cup to drink, I also realized in that moment that I was unconditionally loved by this holy God.
     Whenever we come face to face with our sinfulness, our feelings of being out of place, and gaze upon God’s holiness, how can this not lead us to confession and worship and praise? 
     Perhaps the best part of our Gospel reading this morning is in what Jesus does next.  He says to Simon, “Do not be afraid.  From now on, you will be catching people.”      
     While Simon’s response to the miracle of the large catch of fish was a very appropriate one, that is, to remove himself from the presence of God’s holiness, the bigger point of the miracle was to help the disciples to follow Jesus in reaching out to a world of great need and to be prepared for surprises of some large catches along the way.
     Have you noticed how like the disciples in this Gospel reading, we too, continue to be surprised by this God who makes all things possible?
     Every year, I spend a few days up at a cottage along Lake Erie for a sermon planning retreat. It’s a great time to just get away from my daily routine to pray and plan out my sermons for the coming year.
     I stay at a friend’s cottage and Lake Erie is only about thirty yards from the back of my friend’s house. It’s a beautiful, beautiful setting.
     During those days at his cottage, I like to sit at a table near his sliding glass doors. As I sit there with my bible, laptop, and notepad, I have a great view of the Lake. I love to see the sailboats go by and I often think about the many stories of when Jesus was with his disciples along the Sea of Galilee, like the one from our Gospel reading today.
     During my time at Lake Erie this past August, it was time for me to leave and come back to Athens. My friend was leaving at the same time to go back to Cincinnati, so he was closing windows and locking up the house. As he was getting in his car to go home, I told him that I wanted to spend some quiet time by the lake before leaving.
     As he drove off, I walked down to my friend’s beautiful stone patio that overlooks the lake. And I just stood there taking in the fresh breeze and the mist of the water that was splashing up at me from the rocks below.
     I stared ahead at the beautiful vast lake with no end in sight. It was in that holy moment that God was telling me that there is no limit to what our church can do. There is no limit to the great things we can do for God as long as we let down our fishing nets into the deep waters.
     I just stood there for a few minutes looking at that huge body of water and thinking, “There is really no limit to what God will accomplish through our church. There is no limit.” Many of you know that I like to use the phrase, “Thin place moment.”
     A thin place moment is when heaven and earth mysteriously overlap and we experience the presence of God in a powerful moment. Looking out over the lake that day was a “Thin Place” moment for me.
     The prophet Isaiah had a thin place moment as he heard a heavenly chorus of “Holy, holy, holy.” There is no limit to what God wants to accomplish through our church. No limit, if we simply let down our nets into the deep waters.
     Several years ago, I was surprised to learn that Sports Illustrated and the United Methodist Church had formed a partnership. What could we possibly have in common, I wondered.
     Rick Reilly, a sports writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, had written an article about a campaign to save the lives of children in Africa who were stricken by Malaria. 
     Rick Reilly called the campaign “Nothing but Net.”  It was the precursor for what would later become known as “Imagine No Malaria.”
     For every $10 that is donated to this cause, an insecticide treated bed net can be purchased to cut down on mosquito bites while children sleep at night.  Malaria has been the leading cause of death in Africa and one of the most preventable diseases world-wide. 
     Thanks to Rick Reilly’s article and his partnership with the United Methodist Church, over 1.2 million dollars had been raised to help purchase 120,000 nets for the people of Nigeria. That was back in 2006.
     Fast forward to today. The United Methodist Church continues to be generous in raising money for Imagine No Malaria. In the past three years alone, our West Ohio Conference has raised over 3.6 million dollars to help save the lives of children from the deadly disease of Malaria.
     Who would have ever thought that Sports Illustrated and the United Methodist Church would come together as partners to help stop the spread of Malaria in Africa?  God never ceases to surprise us.
     Just when we’re discouraged and it seems like there’s nothing but net, Jesus says, “I can do something with those empty nets, thank you.”  To think that we can help prevent the leading cause of death on a whole continent by purchasing nets, gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase, “Nothing But Net.”
     When Jesus told the disciples to let down their nets again, they were shocked when they caught an incredible amount of fish. Their catch of fish was so great that their nets were breaking!
     Jesus turned a bad day of empty fishing nets into a really awesome day of nets filled with fish. Jesus wasn’t just offering the disciples practical fishing tips. He was helping them to see that by following and trusting him, they would have a hand in helping God’s kingdom to grow. Jesus tells them, “From now on, you’ll be catching people.”
     In the early 1900s, an Episcopal Priest by the name of Sam Shoemaker was sent to serve a big church in New York City.  Sam immediately began to help the congregation claim every person in that area of the city for Christ, especially those who were struggling with alcohol addiction.
     One of those persons was Bill Wilson.  Through the outreach of this Episcopal parish, Bill was able to stay sober.  With Sam, they developed what is now known as “The Twelve Steps” which Alcoholics Anonymous uses to help people stay sober.
     Sam Shoemaker saw himself as a fisher of people.  His desire was for all people to come to know the saving and healing grace of Jesus Christ for their lives.  All people.  He wrote a poem entitled “I Stand by the Door” and I’d like to read it.
     “I admire the people who go way in.  But I wish they would not forget how it was before they got in.  Then they would be able to help the people who have not yet even found the door, or the people who want to run away again from God.  You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long, And forget the people outside the door.”
    “As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place, near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there, but not so far away from people as not to hear them, and remember they are there, too.  Where?  Outside the door – thousands of them, millions of them.  But – more importantly for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them, whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.  So I shall stand by the door and wait for those who seek it.  I had rather be a door keeper…So I stand by the door.”
     This poem reminds us of the heart and soul of the mission of the church – To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  That’s why our church exists.  People need Jesus.  It’s that simple.
     To borrow from Rick Reilly’s Sport’s Illustrated article, he writes, “We need nets.  Not hoop nets, soccer nets, or lacrosse nets.  Not New Jersey Nets, or dot-nets, or clarinets.”
     He’s right. We need nets. And we are part of a church that is providing those nets to save lives.
     Jesus wants our nets. To be used to stop the spread of malaria.  To reach people outside the doors of the church.  To share God’s love with our university community. To help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. To share God’s love through our prison ministry. To provide food for children at Trimble Elementary School. To help stock our local food pantry. To include more people in our church through our small group ministry.
     To walk with Good Works on behalf of the homeless. To offer a kind word to the person working at the restaurant. To invite a neighbor to join you for church. To speak out against injustice. To serve meals for Monday lunch.  To buy a meal for the person behind you in the drive-through lane. To turn someone’s bad day into a really good day.

     Church – Let down your nets!