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, January 20, 2020

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 19) Athens First UMC




[The University Singers of Ohio University presented three anthems for our 10:30 worship service on Jan. 19 (MLK Weekend.) The video is “We Shall Overcome” which concluded our service. For the sermon, click here.]


Lord Jesus, on this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, we join together in praying, “thy kingdom come.” May thy kingdom of justice come on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Thy kingdom of equality. Thy kingdom of peace. Thy kingdom of beauty. Thy kingdom of harmony. Thy kingdom of hope. Thy kingdom of righteousness. Thy kingdom of mercy. Thy kingdom of unity. Thy kingdom of love.

 

Forgive us for whenever we have sought to build an alternative kingdom that sows seeds of inequality, injustice, and  exclusiveness. Make us more aware of where we need to grow in what it means to build your kingdom here on earth.

 

 Thank you for prophets of old like Elijah and John the Baptist who cried out in the wilderness. And thank you for more recent prophets like Dr. King and so many others who point us to you and your desire for there to be equality for all.

 

Like them, may we also shine the spotlight of your healing love for the world through our lives. Help each one of us to be the change that we want to see in the world. Take our unique gifts and talents and use them to build up your kingdom her eon earth. 

 

Thank you for this university choir and their willingness to give of their time, especially on a Sunday morning to offer their gift of music here in our church. 

 

And may we all live out the words of our church’s welcome statement that we would continue to celebrate the diversity of the human community and affirm and believe in the sacred worth of each person. And may we always welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or economic condition. Thy kingdom come.

 

We pray this in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sermon (Jan. 19) by Rev. Robert McDowell

 

    Today’s Gospel reading has reminded me of what a super interesting person John the Baptist must have been. A rock star of his day, people flocked to see him. But he also had a lot of idiosyncrasies. I don’t know how he would have ever made it through our rigorous ordination interviews of today.

     “Uh, John. We appreciated our interview with you today, but we need to be honest with you. You have a lot of rough edges to work out if you want to be a pastor in our conference. Love the passion. Love your fiery sermons, but calling people a brood of vipers will most likely mean very short pastorates for you. One or two year, tops. That will preach out in the middle of the wilderness, but in a church, not so much.

     And usually when there’s an interview, the candidate wears shoes. And a tie wouldn’t hurt either. Not absolutely necessary, but it would be nice, not to mention some pants and a shirt. Maybe save the camel’s hair outfit for when you…uh, when you take the youth on a weekend retreat or maybe some other special event. But probably not when you’re leading worship week after week.

     Don’t get us wrong, we like you, John, but we just feel that you need a little more time and seasoning. You’ll note at the bottom of our comments section, that we are suggesting a couple of church growth seminars that will be helpful to you as well as a sermon planning workshop that will give you some more interesting preaching topics to explore, you know, in addition to the repent or else type sermons. It’s just that people don’t want to hear the same sermon all the time and they have only so many toes for you to step on. Maybe listen to some other preachers. I hear the Athens First pastor posts his sermons online. Maybe check those out.

     But here’s what we don’t want you to change, John. Even with all of these things that we want you to improve, keep on pointing people to Jesus like you’ve been doing. We need more people like you. Call us if you have any questions, follow our suggestions and share your progress with us next year.”

     We don’t always know what to make of John the Baptist. What an interesting guy! As I’ve been reflecting on this larger than life biblical character, it occurred to me that he was like a celebrity of his day. People flocked to hear him. They were drawn to his fiery words. Many were even baptized by him. He must have been the talk of the surrounding region.

     Maybe it was the camel’s hair clothing that reminded the people of another celebrity centuries earlier, the prophet Elijah who wore something very similar and who also paved the way for people to see God in a new and fresh way. John was channeling Elijah and helping people to rethink what it means to be God’s people, and to get them ready for the new thing that God was about to do. 

     And this makes me wonder, who are the John the Baptists in your life who have helped you to be open to the new way that God is at work in your life? Who are the John the Baptists along your path who are pointing to a new way of living and a new way of taking that next step in your faith?

     It might not be a man wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey in the middle of nowhere. That was John’s day. But it more likely might be a friend who knows you so well, they always seem to bring the best out in you. It might be that person who sits near you in the same pew every Sunday and who always asks how your week has gone and offers an encouraging word of hope. It might be that teacher or that pastor or that Stephen Minister who helps you to see beyond all the obstacles and the challenges you may be facing into a more hope-filled future.

     The John the Baptists of our lives have this uncanny ability to point beyond themselves to as the Apostle Paul says, a faith that anticipates the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ and to a God who is always faithful. 

     My brother is an ordained Deacon in the United Methodist Church. He serves as the Music Director at our home church in south central, Pennsylvania. He has been in that position for the past thirty years. His ministry in that church has included a summer musical theatre each year which involves over a hundred youth from the local high schools in the surrounding area.

     A lot of these youth are now adults and he has told me how rewarding it is to stay in touch with them and to see how they are doing. Many of them ask him to officiate for their wedding. Some turn to him when they are facing a challenge in their life or the loss of a loved one. Even though they may have moved away from the area, they still see him as a John the Baptist like figure who through his music ministry, pointed them to the loving and guiding presence of Jesus in their lives, something that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

     Who are the John the Baptists in your life?

     This past June, during our West Ohio conference sessions up at Lakeside, Ohio along Lake Erie, Patrick Shannon shared how a United Methodist Church in the Dayton area was like a John the Baptist for him. That church, including the members and the pastor pointed him to the loving grace of Jesus Christ and he says how it saved his life. Let’s listen to Patrick tell his story.



     All this church did was welcome Patrick into their community of faith, point him to Jesus, and provide a community of love and support.

     We live in a celebrity culture where entertainers and sports figures become larger than life. But the real stars are those who point away from their celebrity status and instead point us to a hope that offers transformation and new life.

     Think about a theater, like the one that is in a high school auditorium. Those theaters typically have big old spotlights at the back of the room. Those long cylinder contraptions are designed to have someone swivel and turn the light and to cast a flood of attention on a particular spot on the stage.

     Placed by the stage of the Jordan River in the wilderness, John the Baptist was ready, and was prepared to shine the spotlight on the one who has come to “take away the sins of the world.” John saw his purpose, his life goal in proclaiming, “make the Lord’s path straight” and testifying of Jesus that “this is God’s Son.”

     And this is what makes John the Baptist so special to me. Because he could have said, “I might not be Jesus, but we are related, you know – I’m his cousin, actually. Did you know that? I’m the one you are looking for out here in the wilderness. Bet you haven’t seen anyone wear camel’s hair like this in a long time. Follow me and we can all be famous!”

     John had every opportunity to say something like that. He had a star like personality. Many came to hear him preach. He was the trending story of his day. He could have started his own ministry. 

     But instead, he took his popularity and the recognition he was receiving and pointed people to Jesus. That’s when a star is born. When we point to the one who offers hope, new life, and transformation. 

     That’s why we are remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend who pointed to Jesus. A modern day John the Baptist who cried out in the wilderness shining the light on racism and injustice. A prophet out in the wilderness of America announcing that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

    Like John the Baptist, like Dr. King, and like so many who have gone before us, let’s take our spotlights and shine them on Jesus, the one who offers hope and new life. The one who has come to take away the sins of the world.


A Star is Born
Sermon Discussion Questions
John 1:29-42
January 19, 2020

Pretend that you are on a new pastor search committee and you are going through the resumes. You notice one that states, “Unconventional preacher who is not afraid to point out people’s sins, wear out-of-style clothing, and preach out in the middle of nowhere.”

Would you call this candidate in for an interview? Why or why not?

John the Baptist chose an unconventional style of ministry because he wanted to remind the people of the Prophet Elijah who had lived centuries before him. Elijah was known for preparing people for the new thing that God was about to do.

Who are the “John the Baptists” and the “Elijahs” who have helped you prepare for the new thing that God wanted to do in your life? How did they help you to take a new step in trusting the new future that God had in mind for you?

During the sermon, we showed the video testimony of Patrick Shannon who experienced spiritual transformation thanks to many “John the Baptists” who loved and encouraged him through a United Methodist Church in the Dayton, Ohio area. Like John the Baptist, they pointed him to Jesus who continues to make a difference in his life. Here is his testimony:



How can our church be like John the Baptist for the people in our community? In what ways might God be calling us to be a welcoming, inclusive, encouraging, and nurturing community of faith for the people in our church and community?

Pastor Robert shared in the sermon how pointing people to Jesus is like pointing a spotlight away from ourselves and upon Jesus. When we do that, people are drawn closer to Jesus who offers hope and new life and who takes away the sins of the world.

What can help us remember to shine the spotlight on Jesus rather than upon ourselves?

Monday, January 13, 2020

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 12/Baptism of the Lord Sunday) Athens First UMC



[Each year for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the Holy Spirit invites us to renew our baptisms. People came forward to our baptismal font, touched the water, and took a smooth stone from the font. It’s always encouraging to see people of all ages come forward especially children with their families. For the sermon that includes Pastor Robert’s most memorable baptism he has ever officiated, click here.]


God of renewal, cleansing, transformation, and new life, thank you for the presence of your Holy Spirit in this place. Like a dove, you have descended upon us in a most powerful and very real way. 

 

For some of us, your Holy Spirit has reminded us of just how much you love us and call us your beloved. 

 

Maybe there are others who are finding it difficult to let go of past regrets, past hurts, things we could have done better or differently, and your Spirit fell upon us taking away that heavy weight that has been burdening us for so long.

 

And I wonder as I offer this prayer, if any of us might have felt a tug or even a push to respond to a new calling that you have in mind for us. A calling that would take us our of our comfort zones and lead us into a new direction of faithfulness.

 

Or perhaps there are those of us who are still sorting out what your presence here means for us and we just need to let things settle in our hearts.

 

For all of these possible responses to the descending of your Holy Spirit on our church this morning, we give you thanks for this holy moment and for your presence here in this place.

 

More than ever, the world you created and love so much is in need of Holy Spirit filled people who are willing to step out in faith and work for peace where there is war, hope where there is despair, justice where there is injustice, love where there is hate.

 

O God, send us forth from this place, white knuckles and all, to be your visible expression of love and welcome in all of our encounters. Lead us into the daily disciplines of our faith that would continue to fan the flames of our spiritual renewal and awakening. 

 

We pray this in the name of Jesus who taught us to say together…

 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sermon (Jan. 12/Baptism of the Lord Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Before each chapel service, my seminary president, Dr. Leonard Sweet, would greet us from the pulpit with these words, “Good morning, church!”  I always thought that was a great way to begin a worship service.  Reminding all of us of who we are.

     We are the church of Jesus Christ.  And this must mean something to us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here this morning.  This is who we are. It’s what we do.

     After the birth story and the story of the wisemen in Matthew’s Gospel, we don’t hear from Jesus again until he comes to John to be baptized.

     Baptism.  We read this scripture passage and we wonder why on earth, Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, would need to be baptized.    

     Even John has problems with this because he tells Jesus, “I think we might have this backwards.  Aren’t you supposed to baptize me?” And then Jesus tells John why he was right the first time.  Jesus wants to be baptized so that he will be able to fulfill all righteousness.

     Baptism, for Jesus, isn’t primarily about getting cleansed from sin, since he was totally sinless. For Jesus, it was more about fulfilling all righteousness. But what does that mean? The word, “righteousness” has a heaviness to it. What does it mean to fulfill all righteousness?

     The word, “righteousness” isn’t so much about you and me being moral and nice people who do good things for others, although that is an important dimension of it.

     Righteousness, according to the Bible has a far richer meaning.  It means to live in a covenant relationship with God in which we participate in God’s kingdom of love, justice, equality, and healing for our broken and hurting world. God’s righteousness is about making this world new again the way it was always meant to be. That idea of God’s righteousness is so much larger than our more individualist understanding of that word.

     So when Jesus offers us his personal life mission statement at his baptism by saying that he has come to fulfill all righteousness, he is saying that he has come to launch this massive Kingdom of God mission in our world. That’s the larger meaning of what it means to be baptized. 

     A lot is at stake when we are baptized. Baptism is the beginning of allowing God to have his way with us.  Baptism is a sign of how God wants you and me to let go of our white knuckled grip on our world views, our biases, our assumptions, and where we allow God to have his way with us. In other words, baptism is not for the faint of heart. If we feel a little hesitation about being baptized, that’s actually OK because it is a big deal. 

     The most memorable baptism I have ever conducted was early on in my pastoral ministry.  I was to baptize a six year old child.  I remember meeting earlier that week with the parents and their child in the sanctuary to explain the meaning of baptism. This six year old was just old enough to understand some basic thoughts about baptism, and so I tried my best.

     I have found that it always helps to actually show the child the baptismal font and show them the water so that they know a little of what is going to happen. And so, I had this six year old boy come up to see the water, and I explained that I would put some water on his head. He actually seemed very excited about this whole baptism thing.

     Now, as a pastor, I have faced challenges here and there. Budget deficits. Controversial issues. Relational conflicts. But nothing had prepared me for what I was about to encounter that morning in worship. 

     The first indication that I knew something might go wrong was when the six year old didn’t want to come forward with his parents when it was time for the baptism. He had his arms turn into spaghetti, you know what I mean? He made his arm really loose making it really difficult for his mom to lead him to the front of the church. So she had to pick him up. Miraculously, they made it to the baptism font but he was squirming and crying for dear life.

     Knowing that I was working with very limited time, I buzzed through the baptismal questions as if I was an auctioneer at a sale. “Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”

     Buzzed through the baptismal questions at world record speed. As I began to dip my hand into the water, the six-year old managed to make his escape by running back to the pew where they had been seated.

     With my hand still dipped in the water, I looked at the mother and she looked at me.  And I quietly asked her if we should maybe try this later, maybe we could sing a hymn or something.

    I just want you to know that I have never seen a more determined look on the face of a mother in my life.  She calmly walked to the end of their pew where her little boy was now seated. As she reached her hand toward his hand, he made his way toward the other end of the pew, past his grandparents who were from out of town and seated in that same pew.

     Before the mom could make it to the other side, this little boy wiggled away from grandma and grandpa and darted down the middle aisle toward the back of the sanctuary. Did I mention how determined this mother was? God bless her. This mother runs at full speed down the middle aisle, catches up to him just before he was about to leave the sanctuary. She scoops him up in her arms with such gracefulness that we could all tell she had probably done this many times before, and brings her six year old boy back to me and to the father.

     She looked at me and said, “Sorry about that.” And I proceeded to baptize this six year old boy in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

     This is why I believe in infant baptism. It’s so much easier.

     That memorable baptism has given me a deeper understanding of what is involved when we let go of our white knuckled grasp on the old to make room for the new thing that God wants to do in us. To be baptized is to take on Jesus’ personal mission statement which is to fulfill all righteousness.  To care about the things that Jesus cares about.  To do what Jesus wants us to do. To be open to God’s transformative grace in our day to day living. 

      I often wonder if that six year old little boy has any memory of his baptism that day. It sure has left an impression on me, reminding me again and again, to let go of my white knuckle grip and allow God to continue to shape and mold me into the person he is calling me to be.

     Fulfilling all righteousness by being part of Jesus’ mission in offering God’s healing, restorative, and redeeming gift of grace in our broken and hurting world is not for the faint of heart. Our baptism will remind us of this mission again and again. 

     It will challenge us to let got of our white knuckled grip on the things that keep us from being faithful to Christ. It will prompt us to respond to God’s calling to leave our comfort zones and step out in faith in ways we never imagined all for the sake of God’s kingdom and the fulfilling of all righteousness. It will force us to rethink our long held beliefs because we are now marching to the beat of a different drummer. The kind of righteousness Jesus’ has in mind will always challenge and transform us.

     There is a famous tapestry from the 11th century which depicts the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. Bishop Odo, who was William’s brother is portrayed in this scene as prodding the troops forward with a large spear. The Latin inscription on this tapestry says,“This is Bishop Odo comforting his troops.”

     The old English word, “comfort” is from the Latin phrase, “with strength.” It has the meaning of putting courage into someone.

     I wondering if that’s some of the meaning of what it means to be baptized. In our baptism, God comforts us by giving us a courage within to be the people we are called to be and to be part of that large scale renewal of the world.

     No wonder there are times when we want to dart out of the sanctuary because deep down we know that change doesn’t come easily. We wonder what this new life in Christ will mean for us. We want to be part of this wonderful mission of Jesus, but our our white knuckles won’t seem to let go of the safe and familiar. 

     I was told that I cried at my baptism when I was just a few months old. Baptism isn’t for the faint of heart. And yes, there are times when I don’t want to let go of my tight grip and be open to the new way that God wants to work in and through me.

     Today, we are invited to renew our baptism. To let go so that we can be part of Jesus’ mission of bringing transformation to our community and world. To let go and be intentional in having a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith as we each seek to live out here at Athens First. 

     As we sing hymns together, come as you feel led by Jesus and remember your baptism. Come up the middle aisle. You are invited to touch the water in the baptismal font as a way to remember your baptism and take one of the small stones in that font as a reminder of this day of renewal.

     This is a day to let go of our white knuckle grip and step out in faith in being part of God’s in-breaking kingdom of love, justice, and redemption. 

     Come as you feel led and let’s sing together.


A White Knuckles Grip
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2020

On Baptism of the Lord Sunday we take time to reflect on Jesus’ baptism and the meaning of our own baptism. 

If you have been baptized, do you remember or have others shared what that moment was like? Maybe nervous, or anxious, or excited, or happy? Share any memories you may have when you were baptized.

There are several important theological meanings regarding the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. These include 1) New Birth. 2) Forgiveness of sins. 3) Initiation into the church family. 4) The Presence of the Holy Spirit. 5) We are claimed by God. It’s important to remember each of these meanings because we sometimes only focus on one of them at the expense of the others. 

Which of these five meanings of baptism stand out for you? Which ones are less familiar?

We only recommend the need to be baptized once because we believe that baptism is primarily about God making a covenant with us. Since God is the one who makes the promise, instead of being baptized again, we are called to renew our baptism. Baptism of the Lord Sunday offers us the opportunity to renew our baptism by remembering God’s covenant and promise that we belong to him. 

What are some ways that you can remember your baptism and celebrate God’s claim upon you as his beloved child?

In his sermon, Pastor Robert shared that the original English meaning of the word, “comfort” means “to give strength.” Baptism is a sign of God “comforting” us by giving us the strength to live out our faith. Living out our baptism in being part of God’s in breaking kingdom of love, justice, equality, and righteousness for a broken and hurting world is not for the faint of heart. 

How does God give you strength to remember your baptism and live out your faith on a daily basis?

Close your time by offering this baptism renewal prayer that was shared in Sunday’s worship service:

Beloved God, who calls us together in love, we ask that you would encourage us to take a step of faith today as we remember our baptism and as we renew our covenant with you. Forgive us for when we have gripped tightly on our old ways of living instead of participating with you in offering your healing and redeeming love for the world. Embolden us to be the people you have called us to be. In your mercy and love, we pray. Amen.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

A Brick by Brick Way Forward for the UMC




Just a few weeks ago, we were holding candles singing, “All is calm, all is bright.” How quickly the mood of Christmas Eve has shifted to a not so calm silent night following the breaking news of a possible split in the UMC denomination over LGBTQ issues.

I wonder if this shift in mood was similar to other moments in our denomination’s history like when they received word of a proposed split in 1844 over the divisive issue of slavery. And let’s not forget other controversial debates that our Methodist ancestors have had over issues such as divorce and the ordination of women. For that matter, reading the New Testament and early church history always reminds us that a shortage of controversial issues is usually not a luxury for people of faith. Where there are Christians, there will always be disagreements.

When I arrived at seminary, my hopes were high. To be honest, I was wondering what an academic institution of higher learning would offer someone like me who already had a strong biblical faith. My “all is calm, all is bright” assurance of my faith was suddenly rattled by the remarks of one of the seminary professors at our first day of orientation. 

This wise New Testament scholar offered us this analogy which I continue to remember to this day. 

He said, “Think of your faith as a brick building. Our job at the seminary is to blow up your building and then help you reassemble the bricks so that you will leave from here with an even stronger and more well-rounded faith.” 

I remember shaking my head and thinking to myself, “Yeah. Whatever. Don’t be messing with my bricks. They’re fine the way they are.”

It was only a few months into my first year of seminary, that I began to realize the importance of that brick building analogy. Not only was I being introduced to a variety of biblical and theological perspectives that l never knew even existed, but I was also meeting other seminary students who represented a variety of faith experiences and backgrounds so different from my own. Professors were challenging our long held assumptions and had the audacity to make us think and rethink and then think again! That professor at orientation was right. My faith was beginning to blow up brick by brick. I was not in the mood to sing “all is calm, all is bright,” because I was feeling unsettled, anxious, and even angry at times. I’m not sure when I started to finally begin feeling like the bricks were starting to get reassembled, but I remember leaving seminary with a deep appreciation for that experience as difficult as it was at times.

Our Methodist/Wesleyan faith encourages us to always be moving onto perfection, to always be learning, growing, stretching, tearing down, and reassembling our faith brick by brick. One of the tools that John Wesley taught us to use in this process is the quadrilateral where we approach scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. Tradition is what informs us of how the church over the centuries has grappled with various issues of faith. Reason reminds us of the importance of using critical thinking and rational thought in our approach to faith. And experience opens us up to new perspectives of how God is at work in the world through the eyes of others. Approaching our faith in this way reminds us that we are always a work in progress. We are always learning, discovering and experiencing the Bible in ways that connect to the world in which we live. 

Over the past few years, I have been on an intensive journey in rethinking my biblical/theological understandings regarding LGBTQ issues. 

Applying the Wesleyan quadrilateral has been a process of my faith getting deconstructed but along the way, those same bricks have been slowly coming back together to form an even stronger building.

One of the key growing pains for me in this process has been acknowledging that while the Biblical authors were inspired by God, they were also writing during a particular time, a particular place, and to a particular people who were living in a particular context. All of this needs to be weighed alongside of today’s 21st-century understanding of same-sex orientation vs. what they knew about same-sex relations in ancient times. This is similar to how the creation stories in the book of Genesis are not meant to be based on 21st-century science but based on the science and cultural setting of their day.

Looking at my faith through the lense of experience has also led to a deconstruction/reconstruction in my faith regarding LGBTQ issues. Statistics reveal a much higher rate of suicide for teenagers who are gay vs. those who are straight. Suppressing how God has created you and feeling like you always have to hide who you really are is never healthy and life affirming. When the religious community in which you participate tells you that you are a sinner if you are gay or that you are not worthy to be married to a same sex partner or be considered for ordination, that toxic spiritual environment leads to feelings of dehumanization.

My experiences in getting to know the faith stories of people in the LGBTQ community who love Jesus with all their hearts have been painful to hear. For example, a couple of years ago, I was listening to an interview with Trey Pearson, the former lead singer of the popular Christian band, Everyday Sunday. Here’s one of their popular songs.



During the interview, Trey was talking about what his life has been like since he publicly came out as gay a couple of years ago. It was so sad to hear his story and even sadder when he said during the interview that a concert his band was supposed to give in the community where I serve as pastor was canceled because he had recently announced that he was gay. 

During this interview, he said how his band needed to break up over a long and successful career because Christian venues which are mostly evangelical no longer wanted them to perform. The good news is that Trey has started a new solo career touring around the world to provide a safe space for the LGBTQ community. During the interview, they played the song, “Hey Jesus,” from his new CD. I cried as I listened to it because it is his personal prayer to Jesus since he has come out. 

A few days after I heard his interview, the Holy Spirit started working on my heart to contact Trey and see if he would be able to perform that song at my church the Sunday before the special General Conference last February.

Honestly, I didn’t know how my congregation was going to respond to his story of faith and the singing of his song, but he received a standing ovation of appreciation. It was so moving! It was one of the top worship experiences in my thirty plus years of pastoral ministry and I will never forget it. 



I recently caught up with Trey to let him know of the positive ripple effect that he helped to start just by coming down to share his journey of faith with us. 

My biblical and theological understanding has changed over time because of these kinds of biblical perspectives and experiences.  Like my professor said, my carefully constructed brick building of faith will get knocked down from time to time. 

About three months after last year’s special General Conference, I was feeling very discouraged, irritable, confused, and angry toward my denomination. The bricks of my faith had been thrown everywhere. I wondered how they were going to get reassembled. 

Our church decided to develop a welcome/diversity statement to help people know that we are an inclusive church. Some people have joined our church because of that statement. We are also seeing a more diverse group of people attending our services and church events. I was starting to see a few bricks getting reassembled!



And then one day, the Holy Spirit reminded me of how important the benediction at the end of a worship service is. It’s that final reminder before leaving worship that we are each loved by God. I wrote the first part of that benediction and included a line from a benediction found in our UMC marriage ceremony liturgy. I smiled at the irony of using our own denominational liturgy to arrive at a different theological conclusion regarding the LGBTQ community. We now say this benediction together after each service.



The calmness of “Silent Night” turns into an unsettling period of growth and uncertainty. But through much prayer, discernment, study, wrestling, and experiences, those bricks will get reassembled and our faith will become even stronger. I see this happening in my life and in the life of our church. Praise God!

As we prepare for this May’s General Conference to make key decisions regarding the LGBTQ community who are brothers and sisters in Christ, my prayer is that brick by brick, we will find a way forward and a place where we can sing again, “all is calm, all is bright.”

Monday, January 6, 2020

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 5/Epiphany Sunday) Athens First UMC



[Epiphany Sunday marks the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas season. Members of our congregation put away the chapel and sanctuary Christmas decorations following each worship service which was the topic of the sermon. Click hereThe Advent Wreath above is what we use in our chapel. Notice the short blue candle which we lit every Sunday since the beginning of December when Advent began. It deserves special recognition since it worked harder than the other candles!]


O God, we followed your light to offer our gifts to you on this Epiphany Sunday. There were times that we weren’t sure that we’d find you because it got so dark along the way. 

 

You know the challenges and hardships that we encounter in our everyday lives. You know our doubts, our fears, and our anxieties. We worry about heightened hostilities with Iran. We continue to find it difficult to have any conversation that won’t end up in an argument over politics. Sometimes, the euphoria  over a new year evaporates more quickly than we expected.

 

But just when we were thinking about returning home, we would see your light again, shining ahead of us, pointing us to where we would find you. And now that we are together in this place singing hymns, listening to your Word read and proclaimed, renewing our friendships, and preparing to receive your Sacrament, our hearts are again filled with joy at the news of Christ’s birth.

 

Thank you for shining your light so that we would be able to renew our Christmas joy and offer you the gifts of our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

 

Thank you for shining your light so that Christmas decorations or no Christmas decorations, the joy of this season will lead us into a deeper awareness of your faithfulness and of your presence in our lives.

 

Thank you for shining your light so that we might shine your light for those who are in need of hope, love, joy, and peace.

 

And may we shine your light on the mountain and everywhere even as we pray the prayer you taught us to say together…

 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, January 5, 2020

A Prayer for the United Methodist Church




This prayer was offered during worship at Athens First UMC on January 5 in response to the recent news of legislation being proposed for this May’s General Conference for their to be a split in our denomination over issues related to same sex marriage and ordination. For information related to this legislation and our West Ohio Bishop Gregory Palmer’s letter regarding this news development, click here.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer:

God of love, we thank you for the United Methodist Church and for our witness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ throughout the world. We are grateful for the wonderful ways that we are a connectional church and for the opportunities this offers us to shine your light of hope, peace, joy and love to people representing many different countries, cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds. You also know how difficult it has been over these past several years to be in disagreement over very important social issues that threaten to divide us. We acknowledge that within any church, there will be people who have different views.

As delegates from all around the world prepare for this May’s General Conference in Minnesota, we pray for your Holy Spirit to guide their decision-making in a way that would not only increase our witness of your love throughout the world, but also give us a way forward that would help us to agree to disagree in a spirit of mutual love and respect.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I pray that Athens First UMC would continue to be the welcoming and inclusive church that we are know to be. And may all of your people regardless of gender, orientation, race, or any other identifying label we may use, know that this church will always be a haven of blessing and peace, because we have all been created in your image and there are NO loopholes, asterisks, or exceptions. In humility, we offer this prayer. Amen.