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


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy New "Covenant" Year!

Several United Methodist Churches as well as other denominations with Methodist/Wesleyan theological roots will be offering "Wesleyan Covenant Services" in their churches around the New Year's holiday.

The Wesleyan Covenant service was an annual ritual of the early Methodists in London during the 18th century. This service was also used at different times throughout the year whenever John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, would visit the Methodist Societies (Wesley's organized small groups of Christian accountability within the Church of England.)

There's a long version, a shorter version, and sometimes churches simply use the more familiar prayer from this service called "The Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition" (See below.) This prayer is in the United Methodist Hymnal. Here at Lancaster First UMC, I will be using the shorter form of the service for tonight's mid-week worship service and we'll be using the prayer only for all three worship services this Sunday, January 3rd as the prayer following the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

At the heart of the Wesleyan Covenant Service is the foundational Christian belief that God is always faithful in keeping his covenant of love, forgiveness, hope, and salvation. As God's people, we are invited to respond to God's covenant through our faithful and joyful obedience. The Wesleyan Covenant Service helps us to make an intentional commitment in living out our covenantal relationship with Jesus Christ. There is even an opportunity in the service to sign our name and date it signifying that we will live out what we have stated with our lips in The Wesleyan Covenant Service.

Happy New "Covenant" Year, everyone!

Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.



Monday, December 28, 2009

Pastors & Weekly Schedules


What do pastors do with their time? That's a great question! I don't always do a great job of keeping track of my work time during a given week. Thanks to a recent article from "The Christian Post," here's how I spend my time assuming I'm an "average Senior Pastor."
  • Works more than 55 hours/week (42% of us work more than 60 hours.)
  • Most of our time is spent in preparing sermons/worship services.
  • More than 70% of us spend up to 5 hrs. a week in meetings.
  • Half of us spend 2 - 5 hours each week in visitations.
  • More than half of us are praying 1 - 6 hrs. a week and the same percentage of us are setting aside 2 - 5 hrs. in personal devotions a week that are not directly related to sermon preparation.

Here's my basic schedule for an average week: (The picture is where I work on my sermons.)

  • Mondays - Sermon/Worship Service Preparation (All Day)
  • Tuesdays - Staff Meetings, Hospital Visits, (Sometimes Evening Meeting)
  • Wednesdays - Worship Planning, Bible Study Planning, Hospital Visits, Teach Bible Study, Lead Worship Service
  • Thursdays - Office/Maintenance Staff Meetings, Church/Community Visitations, (Sometimes Evening Meeting,) & Teach Bible Study
  • Friday Mornings - Final Editing of Sunday Sermon
  • Saturday Mornings - Varies Depending on Church Schedule & Review Sermon Several Times
  • Sundays - 3 Worship Services
  • Everyday- 30 Minute Early Morning Personal Scripture/Prayer Time

Like any pastor, things change quickly due to funerals, counseling needs, weddings, and pastoral care emergencies. At least one of these ministry areas factors into a given week.

What's my favorite part of ministry? I deeply value my Monday sermon/worship planning time. If you ever notice me in a good mood on a Tuesday morning, it's probably because things went well on Monday! If I'm in a bad mood, then...

Well, let's just say, I appreciate your prayers especially on Mondays!



Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Worship Preview - January 3

January 3 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, January 6 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - “Faith, Film, & Fiction – ‘August Rush’”

Features - Epiphany Sunday & Holy Communion

Scripture - Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12

Theme - Today marks the beginning of a three part sermon series on the theme, “Faith, Film, & Fiction.” As we celebrate Epiphany Sunday and the visit of the wise men to the Christ Child, we will seek to find parallels of this story with the 2007 movie, “August Rush.” We will focus on what it means for us to embark on a long journey that will help us make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. What a great way to begin a new year of ministry together. Join us for the journey.
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1st Sunday After Christmas Day Prayer


The First Sunday After Christmas

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy St. Stephen's Day! (December 26)

On this day each year (December 26) the church gives thanks for Stephen who who read about in the Book of Acts (Acts 6 & 7) and who became the first Christian martyr.

The Christmas song, "Good King Wenceslas" is a song about this day; "Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen..."

Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia during the 10th century A.D. As the song indicates, he was a good, honest, and strongly principled man. He became the Patron Saint of the Czech Republic and his Saint's day is September 28th. His picture appeared on Bohemian coins, and the Crown of Wenceslas became the symbol of Czech independence.


Collect of the Day: Saint Stephen
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sunday Worship Preview - December 27


December 27 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 30 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Jesus: The Teenage Messiah"

Features - Christmas Season

Scripture - I Samuel 2:18-20, 26 & Luke 2:41-52

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 13 Sermon - "Music to Our Ears"






Dave's Deep Thoughts


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.

To everything, there is a season,
and a time for everything under heaven.

I just didn't expect everything with my Lo Mein......

During a recent lunch with a good buddy,
we were catching up with one another,
sharing stories and a few jokes.
A good break from a hard day's work.

I treasure those moments.
They are moments to rejuvenate,
moments to enjoys the simplest
and greatest gifts of life....

food, conversations, friendship

It was somewhere after the Lo Mein
but before the fortune cookie,
when a group of four elderly people passed by our table.

They knew my friend,
and so they all exchanged brief pleasantries
with him as they passed by...

Well, at least the first three did.

The forth stopped and said hello,
and then preceded to say,
I sure hope your church doesn't........

I am not going to finish the sentence.
That's not the point.

Suffice to say, it was about a subject
that some within the church,
would deem controversial.

Let's just substitute the controversial subject
with....oh let's say mud wrestling.

His comment regarding mud wrestling
caught me mid-crunch with my egg roll.

My friend is a leader in his church fellowship.
He is also a man of tact.
He responded in a kind way thus hoping to end the conversation.

But the elderly man persisted.

A nice lunch out was quickly headed towards a theological sparring round.

Care for a little abortion talk with your General Tso chicken?
How about a little legalized gambling chat with your chow mein?

It was obvious that the man
was a commited Christian,
perhaps a leader in his own church.

And he also had a difference of opinion with my friend,
and he was determined to make sure
his opinion was not only heard,
but given the last word.

He began to quote scripture about mud wrestling
He wanted it known,
that his interpretation of the Word
was the correct one.

Five minutes passed.
I put my egg roll down
and began to excuse myself from the table.

The man seemed startled as he realized
how he had had invaded our luncheon.

Oh I am sorry, he said.
I didn't mean to interrupt
but I just had to get this off my chest about mud wrestling

By this time, I had something on my chest.
SIr, I said.
I happen to be a pastor,
and I appreciate that you have an opinion about mud wrestling.
My experience with mud wrestling though is different.

Oh it's not my opinion,
it's God Word, he said
Read (fill in a scripture) about mud wrestling

I know the Scripture well, Sir, I responded,
but I also know (fill in another Scripture)
which offers a different opinion regarding mud wrestling.

The discussion escalated.
So did my blood pressure.
Somebody won,
but it wasn't the elderly man, my friend, or me.
It was the one who loves to see the church
up in arms within itself.
It is the one who will do anything
to distract us from our mission
of spreading the Good News.

The discussion continued out to the parking lot.
As I got into my vehicle,
I felt angry.
Lunch had become a launch for division.

Why do we do that, I thought.
Why do brothers and sisters in the faith
so easily attack one another?

Why do we insist that we have a corner on the Truth?

Don't misunderstand..
we all need to be in agreement on the core principles of the faith.
That's why creeds were written down through the ages....

to state what unifies us

I just don't believe the issue of mud wrestling
is going to be on the final exam.

The disciples and early church were very much
like this elderly man and myself.

Now I exhort you brothers and sisters,
by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that you all agree,
and there be no divisions among you,
but you be made complete in the same mind
and in the same judgment.
I Corinthians 1:10

We quickly allowed our spiritual egos to get in the way.........
get in the way of fellowship,
get in the way of unity,
get in the way of a good lunch,
and that
displeases God.

Are there times to discuss controversial subjects?

Absolutely....

just not over Lo Mein.
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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Prayer




Collect of the Day: Christmas

Eternal God, by the birth of Jesus Christ you gave yourself to the world. Grant that, being born in our hearts, he may save us from all our sins, and restore within us the image and likeness of our Creator, to whom be everlasting praise and glory, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Eve Preview

Christmas Eve - 5 P.M. @ (Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue) & 7 P.M., 9 P.M., & 11 P.M. @ (Downtown Church Building, 163 E. Wheeling St.)

Sermon - "When there's No Room in the Inn"

Features - Christmas Eve

Scripture - Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; & Luke 2:1-20

Theme - The story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus is a story of the holy family needing a home away from home. Christmas is also our story of finding a home with the Christ child. The porch light is on. C'mon in and make yourself at home.
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus!"

Today, we give thanks for St. Nicholas of Myra (south western Asia Minor) from the 4th century who is remembered on the calendar of saints on this date. He is noted for his presence at the Council of Nicaea and as the gift giving personality behind our present day Santa Claus. Below is the story that started the Santa tradition.

There was a very rich man in the city of Mora who lost all his wealth. He had three daughters of the age of marriage and could not marry because of their father's poverty. Satan caused the man to think that he should make his daughters live in sin. God revealed to St. Nicholas the thoughts which were in this man's head. St. Nicholas took one hundred Dinars of his father's money and tied it up in a sack, and during the night, he threw the money into the window of the man's house. When the man found the gold, he was astonished and rejoiced exceedingly and was able to give his eldest daughter away in marriage. During another night, the saint threw another one hundred Dinars into the man's house and the man was able to give his second daughter away in marriage.

The man wanted to know who this charitable person was. The third time when the saint threw the gold into the house, the man was watching and immediately when he felt the thud of the sack dropping, he ran out of his house to see who was throwing the gold to him. He found the kind Bishop St. Nicholas, and the man bowed down at his feet, paid him great homage, and thanked him because he saved his daughters from poverty and from a life of sin. The saint refused to accept any thanks and asked them to thank the Lord Who put this thought in his heart.
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4th Sunday of Advent Prayer (Week of December 20)



Collect of the Day: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent/Christmas Update From Our Italy Missionaries - David & Kristin Markay

Lancaster First United Methodist Church helps to financially support our United Methodist missionaries, David & Kristin Markay who serve the Methodist Church in Milan, Italy. My previous church also supports the Markays' in their mission work so I am very familiar with the great work they do in the name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we can send a mission team to Milan, Italy at some point and see how their ministry is transforming lives. They will be visiting the States this summer so hopefully we'll be able to host them for a meal/program event here at our church.

Below is the mission of their church and a brief update on a social/justice issue facing their city.



Mission of The Methodist Church in Milan, Italy:

The Italian Waldensian/Methodist Church has set as one of its missional goals the hospitality to the stranger. The church seeks to embody the inclusive love of Jesus by offering a spiritual home to persons from places far from their homelands. Intentionally, the Waldensians and Methodists in Italy are striving to "essere chiesa insieme" (be the church together). Therefore, persons with all faith backgrounds, cultural heritage, and church experience are seen as gifts to the community.

The Methodist Church of Milano has members from all over the world: Italy, Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere.


Article by David & Kristin Markay, Missionaries:
We’re dreaming of a multi-colored Christmas…

The police in a northern Italian town chose December as the month to crack down on illegal immigrants. Their code word for the door-to- door document checking operation: “White Christmas.” The press found out about the name and a cultural battle ensued. Some politicians defended it; others attacked it. The Catholic archbishop of Milano, who criticized the plan, was branded “an imam” by one government official. The Protestants organized an ecumenical silent vigil on a main pedestrian thoroughfare in Milano. Pastors and lay people (representing various cultures) stood with signs that read “You know the heart of an alien, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9), and “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35). The most creative sign had a Christmas tree, and an adaptation of Bing Crosby’s classic tune: “In our churches, we’re dreaming of a multi-colored Christmas.”
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Why of Christmas Presents

Yesterday, a staff member told me about how exciting it was to see the many Christmas gifts that have been donated to be given to those who can use a little extra help this Christmas. Whether we buy Christmas gifts for a family member, a friend, or for people in need, the "why" of buying Christmas presents is an interesting question.

My wife, Penny has already told me, "We don't really need to buy anything for each other this Christmas, so let's just keep it simple this year." Fair enough, but c'mon. If I see something that I think she might like, I'm going to buy it. There's just something inside us that wants to give to others.

In the mail yesterday, I received the annual report from York College of Pennsylvania where I graduated in '85. This report is always very well done on glossy paper, with lots of pictures, inspiring stories, and of course, the names of people who have given financially to the college this past year.

Throughout these pages, small boxes appeared which included brief quotes by donors as to why they gave a gift to the college. Here are just a few:

"I give to York College in the hope that other students will have the chance to have their needs met, and their opportunities realized."

"...the staff in the Education Department prepared me to be an excellent elementary school teacher!"

"I want to make sure that other students have the same opportunities that were available to me."

"I give to YCP because I believe in giving back..."

Here's one from one of my History professors: "York College offered us, as members of the faculty, the opportunity to grow professionally, intellectually, and personally. We hope that our gifts will enable others to experience opportunities as fulfilling as those we have enjoyed at YCP."

From these quotes, I notice that the "why" in giving gifts to the college is because these persons have received something from the college that has made an important difference in their lives and they want to give back.

The next time you get an impulse to buy a Christmas gift for someone, think about why you want to buy that gift. As we approach the coming celebration of Christmas, hopefully the biggest reason we want to offer our gifts has something to do with this...

"But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.'" - Luke 2:10-11


Monday, December 14, 2009

The Reason for the Season - A Deeper Look into the Meaning of Christmas

What is the real meaning of Christmas? What is the real meaning of Advent, the weeks preceding Christmas? During this time each year, Christians are know to say, "Remember the reason for the season!" but sometimes, even we forget what is the real meaning for the season (both Advent and Christmas.)

Tom Wright, an Anglican New Testament scholar is working on an Advent Oratorio and has written an article explaining the real meaning of these seasons. One of the things I appreciate most about Tom Wright's scholarship is his constant reminders of the big picture of the biblical narrative which basically goes like this:
  • God created this world and called it good.
  • Humans sinned and and now sin and death are part of God's good creation.
  • God establishes a covenant through Abraham & Israel to rescue creation from sin and death.
  • Jesus fulfills this covenant through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, launching new creation and empowers the church to offer God's healing love.
  • Jesus will come again and God's good creation will no longer be subject to sin and death.
When we remember this overarching theme and big picture of the Bible, it helps us to see the manger scene in it's proper context. While there is so much to ponder about the Christmas story itself (notice how our culture loves to celebrate Christmas) we should also remember to see Christmas within the larger story that the scriptures are pointing us; God's desire for there to be new heavens and a new earth when sin and death will be no more.

If you'd like to read a couple of biblical passages that point us to the future hope of new heavens and a new earth, I recommend Isaiah 11 & Romans 8. The Lord's Prayer also speaks of how God's kingdom will one day come on earth as it is in heaven. And of course, the Book of Revelation offers us a beautiful vision of that time in the future when heaven and earth will be united forever.

As we approach the Christmas celebration, I invite us to ponder the nativity in light of this bigger picture of God's desire to rescue the world from sin and death. In fact, this is a good exercise when reading any biblical text. Always keep the bigger picture in mind.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Worship Preview - December 20


December 20 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 23 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 4th Sunday of Advent & Christmas Cantata "Make His Praise Glorious"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent Prayer (Week of December 13)



Collect of the Day: Third Sunday of Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

First UMC Staff Christmas Lunch/Party


Yesterday, was First UMC's staff Christmas lunch/party. We enjoyed a wonderful meal, exchanged presents, and had a surprise visit from Santa himself.

I wish we would have had our gathering today because of the beautiful white snow that is falling in Lancaster, Ohio.
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Thank you staff for the many ways you are helping and encouraging the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Makes Worship, Worship?

Today, I was in a conversation with someone about what constitutes a "true worship service." It's a good question because so often we assume that we know what a true worship service is or isn't.

As pastor, I've been very specific in my use of the phrase, "worship service" to refer to those specific communal worship services appointed by a local congregation in which people gather in the name of Christ, hear the scriptures read and proclaimed, and respond with joyful obedience.

If you look on p. 2 of the United Methodist hymnal, it offers a very similar basic framework of worship. 1) Entrance 2) Proclamation & Response 3) Thanksgiving 4) Sending Forth

One of the reasons why I use the phrase, "those specific communal worship services appointed by a local congregation..." is because of the Apostle Paul's admonition in I Corinthians 14:40 in referring to worship, "But all things should be done decently and in order."
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This is not to say that folks in the church can't lead worshipful type gatherings in addition to the primary worship services that are offered each week, but it is to say that to ensure the orderly conduct of weekly worship, the appointed pastor needs to provide strong leadership and planning. This can lead into a whole discussion about the role of the ordained clergy but for this topic, there is an important connection between ordination and the leading of worship.

The basic framework for worship that is listed in our hymnal and which I mentioned above helps us to differentiate between preferences and purpose as they relate to a worship service. Preferences can refer to worship styles, music genres, casual vs. formal dress, etc., while purpose refers to the intentionality of at least having the four components of worship.

For example, someone who prefers a more traditional style of worship might not view contemporary worship as a legitimate worship style even though that contemporary service intentionally incorporates the four worship components. In this case, this person is focused on preference more than purpose in defining what true worship is.

By the way, what some people who prefer traditional over contemporary worship easily forget is that their idea of traditional worship can actually be viewed as contemporary by a church that offers even more traditional worship elements than they do!

One of my New Testament professors in seminary always reminded us that the most important element in a worship service is the public reading of scripture. He referred us to Revelation 1:3 "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near."

At the heart of true worship is the reading of scripture and all of the other elements of worship including hymn selections (and hopefully the sermon!) should flow from there.

Whether or not we use praise choruses or hymns or if we worship in a gym or a sanctuary or if we use an organ or drums really misses the point of what true worship is.

The big question is if the worship service includes the four elements of worship (especially the reading of scripture) and if it has been appointed as one of the primary worship services of the congregation.

This is what makes worship, worship.
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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday Worship Preview - December 13

December 13 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 16 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Music to Our Ears"

Features - 3rd Sunday of Advent

Scripture - Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; & Luke 3:7-18

Theme - On this 3rd Sunday of Advent, the prophet Zephaniah calls for us to sing aloud as we prepare for all of the wonderful things God is about to do. Some people struggle with congregational singing in church. Perhaps it’s because we don’t like how our voice sounds or we don’t understand why we should sing out in church. Perhaps it’s another reason. Thanks to our Zephaniah and St. Luke passages of scripture for this Sunday, we will be reminded of the good news of our faith and as a result, we will grow in what it means to sing our hearts out every Sunday morning in worship.
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A Counter Cultural Month of December

Observing the church's Advent Season (four weeks prior to Christmas) in a culture that wants us to celebrate Christmas (see recent Gap commercial for a good cultural definition of Christmas) is one of the most difficult things for a serious minded Christian to do.

The church's liturgical calendar of daily and weekly scripture readings throws phrases our way such as "you bunch of snakes" and today's difficult to swallow message from the prophet Amos, "Woe to those addicted to feeling good—life without pain! those obsessed with looking good—life without wrinkles! They could not care less about their country going to ruin."

There are some options here. The serious minded Christian could just give up and capitulate to the dominating culture and celebrate Christmas early and just brush aside the Advent Season as an outdated liturgical focus that doesn't fit into a capitalistic "feel good at all costs" society.

Or as I tend to do with most challenging scriptural passages like the ones we read in Advent, we could interpret these passages to be about other people and not about us.

The problem with those options, is that they don't help the seriously minded Christian in his or her struggle to get from point "A" to point "B." Point "A" being our present state of not being the person of God I am called to be and point "B" being not so much a point or a finished goal but a process of sanctification in which we are allowing God's grace to mold and shape us into God's likeness.

This is why the month of December is always a counter cultural time for the serious minded Christian. Thankfully, we have the four Sundays of Advent and all of these annoying and challenging scriptures to bring real change and transformation to our lives so that when Christmas does come, there's something to celebrate.

So as we are out doing some Christmas shopping, baking cookies, and enjoying holiday parties, let's be open to the other side of Christmas, the side that the church calendar calls, "Advent." It's during these four weeks, that we can grow the most.
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Friday, December 4, 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent Prayer (Week of December 6)


Collect of the Day: Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Fascinating Story of Music Mission Kiev

During my pastoral ministry at Xenia: Faith Community United Methodist, our church hosted members from Music Mission Kiev, a symphony from the Ukraine during one of their US tours. Their music was breathtaking and we enjoyed providing meals for them during their stay.

I had the privilege of getting to know their director, Roger McMurrin who has Xenia connections and who felt called by God to serve as a missionary in the Ukraine back in 1995. Since classical music often centers around the Christian faith, Roger felt called by God to form a symphony in Kiev to use as a means by which agnostics and atheists would be able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. From this symphony, a church was formed and they provide ministries to support orphans and widows.

Under communist Russian rule, countries such as the Ukraine had not been permitted to hear classical music compositions such as Handel's "Messiah" because of it's focus on the Christian faith. Utilizing the beauty of classical music, Music Mission Kiev is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to a people who are hungry for this particular genre of music that they for so long have been denied.

In this season leading to the birth of Jesus Christ, enjoy this piece, "For Unto Us a Child is Born," from Handel's "Messiah." Since I don't have access to this piece by Music Mission Kiev, here is a performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Enjoy!



Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Best Christmas Ever!

This past Sunday, (1st Sunday of Advent) I preached a sermon based on Jeremiah 33:14-16 in which the prophet announces a word of hope to the people of Israel during one of the lowest points of their history, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah is in a prison cell when he announces this word of hope!

The word of hope is two-fold: 1) God has not forgotten the covenant promise that was made on behalf of Israel. And 2) a day is coming when God will make all things new and the people of God will be able to live in safety.

In my sermon, I referred to Tiny Tim, the crippled boy in the Christmas classic, "A Christmas Carol" and how he represents the positive Christmas spirit even though everything around him seems to be so hopeless. The prophet, Jeremiah, is a lot like Tiny Tim, who in the face of so much despair and hopelessness, offered a word of hope to the people of Israel that their best days were ahead of them and not behind them!

During the sermon, I showed a clip from the Patrick Stewart version of "The Christmas Carol" in which Tiny Tim shows us the hope of the Christmas spirit. Here is the clip (this is a longer clip than what was shown this past Sunday morning.)




Below is an excerpt from my sermon, "The Best Christmas Ever" in which I shared how this will be our best Christmas ever and how 2010 will be our best year of ministry ever here at Lancaster First United Methodist Church.

November 29 Sermon Excerpt from "The Best Christmas Ever" by Pastor Robert McDowell

This year, I invite us to not think of Christmas as a brief celebration that comes and goes but as the birth of new hope and new possibilities.

More specifically, here is why I think this will be our best Christmas and our best year of ministry ever here at First United Methodist Church. And I invite you to join me in praying about these new possibilities.

The first possibility that is waiting to be born through the life of our church is an exciting ministry initiative in which God is calling us to reach Lancaster and our surrounding community with the love of Jesus Christ.

This is a ministry initiative that is so huge that it will take every single one of us to pull it off. In fact, this is a ministry initiative that is so beyond our capabilities that we will have no choice but to trust and depend on God to accomplish our mission.

In addition to the wonderful ministries our church is already doing in our community, imagine our church setting aside the 2nd Saturday morning of every month to gather at our new Crossroads facility for a devotional and prayer, and from there, go out into our community and share the love of Jesus Christ through word and deed. Whether it is in distributing food and clothing, or in hosting neighborhood parties, or by visiting in nursing homes, or by helping at one of the schools, or by handing out tangible reminders of God’s love to people on the street, imagine our church being involved in this kind of intentional outreach on a monthly basis in 2010.

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Many of us have seen or heard about the new advertising campaign of the United Methodist Church, called “Rethink Church.” “Rethink Church” captures what is at the heart of what it means to be the church. More than an advertising slogan, “Rethink Church” focuses on the heart and soul of our Wesleyan theological heritage and what it means to be United Methodists which is all about putting our faith into practice.

A couple of years ago, I bought a treadmill, and the guy who sold it to me mentioned something about his church and after I told him that I was a pastor he said, “Let’s have lunch some time.”

So we met for lunch one day and I asked him to tell me about his church. And he said, “It’s an interesting story because a few years ago, our church was about to close. Our pastor at that time announced he would be leaving and since we were declining in numbers and having a hard time financially, our denomination was thinking about closing us. But at the last minute, they decided to give our church one more try and they sent us a new pastor.”

And he said, “God has really blessed us because we’re now worshipping over 500 on Sunday mornings and we’re reaching new people in our church. It’s been a huge turn around for us.”

So I asked him, “What is the reason your church has made such a dramatic turn around?” And he said, “It was all because of one question that our new pastor asked our congregation when he first came to our church.”

At this point, I was on the edge of my seat, curious to know what that pivotal question was.

He said, “All this pastor asked us was, ‘If our church would cease to exist, would our community miss us?’ And he kept asking us this question again and again. And that’s when we decided to become more intentional in serving the people outside of our church walls. And the more we served in our community, the more that people in the community wanted to check out our church and we’ve been growing ever since.”

After our conversation, I picked up the check and said “This one’s on me. Thanks for sharing your story.”

As we rethink what it means to be the church, I invite us to think about this same question. “If our church would cease to exist, would our community miss us?”

Now, here’s the strategy I have in mind with this 2010 ministry initiative. On Valentine’s Day, which will fall on a Sunday this year, our worship theme we be, “A Heart for Lancaster.” On that Sunday, we’ll have the opportunity to hear about our 2nd Saturday ministry initiative plan and how we can become involved. 2010 is going to be our best year of ministry ever.

But that’s not all. Not only are we going to expand ministry in our community through this monthly ministry initiative, we’re also going to celebrate Christmas in July. How does that sound? Just think about it. We won’t have to go up to Frankenmuth, Michigan in order to celebrate Christmas this summer. We can stay right here in Lancaster, Ohio!

When I was at a sermon planning retreat a couple of months ago, I noticed that July 25 will fall on a Sunday this year. July 25 and December 25. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

Now, I know this falls during the first half of the Lancaster Festival but what would it look like if we offered the Lancaster Festival crowd the opportunity to celebrate a July Christmas with us on that summer Sunday morning?

But it gets even better. When I thought about July 25 falling on a Sunday and how fun it would be to sing Christmas carols and hear a Christmas sermon, and drink hot chocolate during 90 degree weather, I thought of something even better. This is what is really special about a Christmas in July.

What if we continue the same Christmas spirit that we have in December and apply it to our July Christmas as well? You know, for most churches, July is one of the lowest giving months of the whole year. Church Treasurers dread when July 1st rolls around and they stay grumpy until late October when things pick up. Now I know this isn’t true of our treasurer because she is one of the most positive people I know!

But what if we received a Christmas offering on Sunday, July 25 that would be earmarked for missions and helping the poor? And what if that offering was so amazing that it would even surprise us? People would wonder how our church was able to pull off such a large offering to help those in need in the middle of summer. You might get that in the month of December, but can Christians be that generous in July? I think so.

Picture our church celebrating Christmas in July and receiving a December size offering to help missions and those who are in need. This is going to be the best Christmas ever!

I had some more ideas to share with you this morning but that might be enough for now. And here’s what is really exciting to me. Who knows what else God has in store for our church in the coming year? You just never know with this God we serve, a God who speaks a surprising word of hope of new possibilities just when we began to think that things can’t get any better.

Last year, a long standing member of the church I was serving, came up to me after one of our Christmas Eve services and she said, “Pastor Robert, that was probably the best Christmas Eve service I have ever attended. And I’ve been attending these all of my life. Everything from the music, to the candle lighting, to the way the service flowed, to even your sermon.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “What did you mean by ‘even my sermon?” No response. She kept on. “That whole service was just really special tonight,” she said. And off she went into the night.

God is about to do something new and wonderful through our church this Christmas and this coming year. New ministries are about to be born. More people will come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and become connected to a loving church family who will help them grow in their faith.

Ministries that help to feed the hungry, care for people in need, and offer the good news of Jesus Christ will be blessed by an unexpected mid-summer financial gift.

So here’s what I invite us to do on this 1st Sunday of Advent, this season in which we anticipate the birth of Jesus Christ, this season that holds so much hope and promise. First of all, pray about these new ministries for 2010 and how God might use us as a church. Secondly, think about the question that my friend shared with me. “If our church ceased to exist, would our community miss us?”

And last but not least, circle Sunday, February 14th, Valentine’s Day, on your calendar because on that Sunday, we are going to launch our “Heart for Lancaster” ministry initiative.

This is going to be our best Christmas ever! 2010 is going to be our best year of ministry ever!

In the words of Tiny Tim…“God bless us every one!”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

United Methodists & The HIV/AIDS Crisis

The information below is the official United Methodist stance on HIV/AIDS, an excerpt from a sermon I preached a little over a year ago entitled, "What Breaks God's Heart - HIV/AIDS" and a prayer for those who have or care for persons who have HIV/AIDS.

The Official United Methodist stance on HIV/AIDS

The unconditional love of God, witnessed to and manifested through Christ's healing ministry, provides an ever-present sign and call to the church and all persons of faith to join efforts to prevent the spread of HIV, provide care and treatment to those who are already infected and ill, uphold the preciousness of God's creation through proclamation and affirmation, and be harbingers of hope, mercy, goodness, forgiveness, and reconciliation within the world.

The United Methodist Church unequivocally condemns stigmatization and discrimination of persons with HIV/AIDS and violence perpetrated against persons who are or presumed to be infected with HIV. The United Methodist Church advocates the full involvement of the church at all levels to be in ministry with, and to respond fully to the needs of, persons, families, and communities whose lives have been affected by HIV/AIDS. In keeping with our faith in the risen Christ, we confess our belief that God has received those who have died, that the wounds of living loved ones will be healed, and that Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is present among us as we strive to exemplify what it means to be bearers of Christ's name in the midst of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.


—2004 Book of Resolutions ("The Church & The Global HIV/AIDS Pandemic")

Sermon Excerpt - "What Breaks God's Heart - HIV/AIDS" by Pastor Robert McDowell (August, 2008)

For the entire state of Ohio, there are almost 15,000 people who are reported as having HIV/AIDS or HIV. Fifteen thousand people in Ohio. 82% are men. The largest age segment are people between 35 and 54, but we are seeing more and more people in the older age category getting HIV/AIDS. White people, which don’t include Hispanics, have the most reported cases in Ohio at 52%.

Heterosexual relations is the number one form of transmission and injection/drug use is number two. And as I mentioned earlier, there are 1 million people in our country who have this terrible disease.

Now, let’s think globally, but keep in mind that many parts of the world do not even keep statistics on HIV/AIDS. Here’s the number that I have seen several times. Globally, 33.2 million people have HIV/AIDS. 33.2 million people throughout the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa, by far, leads the way with 22.5 million with HIV/AIDS. Then, it’s South/Southeast Asia at 4 million. And as I mentioned, the United States is at a million.

And I can go on and on with many more statistics like the 800,000 orphans in Zimbabwe who are orphans because of HIV/AIDS or how ¼ of adults in Kenya are infected and 1/5 of adults in South Africa.

A Prayer

God of us all,

We pray for the unity of the church, that we may find a unified way to fight this disease of HIV/AIDS. Lead us out of passivity and inappropriate attitudes. Replace ignorance with education. Grant our young people the spiritual strength of self-discipline. Teach the old new ways of caring and compassion.

We pray for the commitment of time and money that will provide crisis intervention, professional guidance, community seminars and outreach programs to provide alternatives to the harmful enticements of the streets.

Grant us, together, a knowledge of what is and what is not, as well as a vision of what can be. In the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Who Will Break The Silence, Liturgical Resources for The Healing of AIDS.

What It Means to Be a Christian

The Anglican Church (Church of England) offers this brief summary of what it means to be a Christian. This is a simple yet profound way to share our faith with others.

As we go through this Season of Advent, I invite us to reflect on this summary of our faith as we await the birth of the Christ Child and anticipate his second coming when God's kingdom of peace and justice will be established for ever.

What it means to be a Christian

Christian life is lived in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and in common with other Christians in the church seeking to deepen that relationship and to follow the way that Jesus taught.

For Christians God is understood and known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

…Father… God is love, caring for creation and for every human being as God's beloved child.

…Son… God is as he has revealed himself to be in the historical person of Jesus Christ. Jesus' life, death and resurrection holds the key to knowing and loving God, and to making sense of life, before and after death.

…and Holy Spirit… God is alive, loving and active today, inspiring faith, justice and truth, sustaining the life of the world, giving spiritual gifts to the church and bearing his spiritual fruit in the world - changed lives and a transformed society.