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, November 30, 2011

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.
Sometimes, you just aren't sure which way to go.
I live in a garden.
It is beautiful countryside
with rolling hills, forests, and streams.

I have lived here much of my life,
so you would think I would know my way around by now.
I have lived here long enough,
that when people ask for directions,
I reference them to landmarks
that exist only in my memory.......

I've been known to say.......

Yeah, that's easy to get to.
Go down the road and turn left at the Smith's barn.
They tore it down a few years ago.
Then just turn right at the old Miller farm.
They are all dead now.

Yep, that's me.
Some help, I am.
I am pretty good with directions.
I have a strong sense of north, south, east, and west.
But just across the highway,
there is this town and surrounding region
that even I can't figure out.

The town is located at the base of some extreme hills.
It appropriately has the word Glen in it's name.
It's not an easy place to get to.

School buses have to squeeze their way
through one lane railroad underpasses
as they navigate blind curves and crying children.

I have driven roads over there
with curves that I am sure
far exceed 360 degrees,
thus making me feel like I am being flushed down a toilet.

Every rainstorm
turns into a flash flood
as every drop of rain works its way
to the center of town.

Straight, level roads do not exist in this zipcode.
But it's not just the geography
that confuses me.
It's the road signs.

Many of them start with the word Glen.
Glen Valley Road
Glenvue Road
Glen Ridge Court

My GPS quivers when I punch in this town's name.
Google Maps cringe with fear when I mention this zip code.

Occasionally I take food supplies
to this labyrynth that begins with Glen.
There is a ministry for single woman and children
to which we donate food.

As many times as I have somehow managed to arrive
at this hilly destination,
you would think I would know how to get there.

Not so much.
The folks there consider each donation of food
to be their miracle of the day.
I consider my arrival
to be the true miracle.

A trip to this ministry
is like playing a game of Chutes and Ladders,
but for me there are always more chutes than ladders.

A few days after Thanksgiving,
I was once again dared to cross the highway
and enter this land of hill and dale and misdirection.
This time,
I came away with proof.
It's not just me.
What do you do when you get to an instersection like this?
Sometimes you just reach confusing intersections in life.
Middle school felt like that.
College felt like that.
Many seasons of adulthood have felt like that.
Sometime's it's difficult to know which way to turn.
I am unlike most males.
I believe in asking for directions.
That includes prayer.
Sometimes you receive specific direction.
But sometimes you don't get clearcut answers.
Do I take this job offer,
or should I go another way?
Do I pick this school,
or is there another school out there for me?
Do I stay in this abusive relationship
or should I leave?
Sometimes the Lord give clear direction.
And sometimes, the Lord trusts us enough
to rely on the wisdom, information, and history
that He has provided us.
I believe there are times in our lives
when we aren't sure whether to turn right or left.
But I also believe that God is bigger than our decisions.
That whether we choose this path, or another,
all paths remain in God's ultimate will.
for those who put their trust in Him.
Are you at an intersection in your life,
where the road signs aren't helping?
The disciples were known to cast lots
when a clear decision wasn't on the horizon.
Perhaps the emphasis shouldn't be so much on the decision,
but on the One who will carry us through the decision.
After all, He has a pretty good track record.......
He has never been known to get lost,
even across the highway.
And we know that God causes ALL things
to work together for good
Romans 8:28

Share Your Story - Thank You, Fred Craddock!

Fred Craddock, one of the greatest preachers of our time was recently featured on CNN.  Considered one of the top twelve preachers in the English speaking world, Craddock has been known for his narrative style of preaching.  My preaching class in seminary used his excellent text book on the art of preaching. Thanks to Fred Craddock, preachers have been able to reclaim the importance of storytelling in the crafting of sermons. 

Reading this article on Craddock has reminded me of one of the basic aspects of the Christian faith. We are called to share our faith story.  And yet, sharing our faith story is something that has largely gone by the wayside especially in the mainline church. 

A pastor friend of mine recently told me how his congregation loves it when he weaves in real life and personal stories in his preaching.  Another preacher claims that people in the pews view the sermon time as an opportunity to eavesdrop on hearing how God is active in the day to day life of the preacher.  I like that thought.  People who are curious about faith want to know how God is at work in your life.

And this focus on the importance of sharing your story is a very biblical concept since the bible is largely in story form.  This narrative approach lends itself for us to find where we are located in God's story.  I've been reading the book, "The King Jesus Gospel" by Scott McKnight who makes the point that the word, "gospel" refers to the story of how Jesus is the completion of the Israel story.  His critique is with Christians who have reduced the bible to a set of propositions setting aside the bigger story picture of the scriptures.  McKnight reminds us that the bible is the story of God's salvation and it invites us to see ourselves in this story.

A lot of people shy away from the word, "evangelism" because it has been used in negative ways.  At its heart, evangelism is simply God's people sharing their story of how God is at work in their lives.  It's when we share our faith stories with others that people are able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and see that God is real.

Just think what a difference it would make if we find more ways to share our faith story/stories with people inside and outside the church.  People would be able to see how God's story is being lived out in the day to day living of ordinary people.

Thank you, Fred Craddock for how you have helped the church to share our story.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Christmas Play Introduction - "Democratic Republic of the Congo"

     The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of four United Methodist mission partnerships that our West Ohio Conference has throughout the world.  The others are with United Methodists in Mexico, Russia, and Vietnam.  Our international partnerships remind us that our faith is a global faith and one that includes different customs, languages, and ways of expressing the good news of Jesus Christ. 
     The United Methodist Church has a long and far reaching presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  When fighting broke out in 1999, the local United Methodist Churches reached out to assist the internally displaced persons who had arrived as refugees from the wars in Rwanda and Burundi.  The United Methodist Church of the DRC has been recognized as a major contributor among the faith based community in helping the peace process take hold.
     In 2002, our United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) opened an office in the country to offer programs that focus on health, nutrition, and agriculture.  To date, the United Methodist Church has helped to stop the spread of Malaria through the distribution of 30,000 nets reaching 13,557 households including 15,461 children under the age of 5 and 3,634 pregnant women.
     Over 26,000 individual house to house awareness visits have been made to share information about Malaria and how the United Methodist Church can be of help. 
     72,000 people directly benefit from the food security program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
     I’m pleased to announce that our church will be sending a $1,000 gift out of our church budget to support our United Methodist ministry outreach in the DRC, Mexico, Russia, and Vietnam.
     Christians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have a lot to teach us about preparing for Christmas.  For one thing, they don’t focus on presents like we do here because of their deep poverty.  Instead, they prepare for the holiday by acting out the Christmas story through plays.  On early Christmas Eve, people in the church will gather and act out different scenes from the bible.  They’ll time these skits just right so that when the clock strikes midnight, Jesus is born.  But even then, they continue on through dawn with more skits and the singing of carols.
     Because of this, we thought it would be fun to join our brothers and sisters in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by celebrating our own Christmas play.  So sit back and enjoy.
     And as they say in the DRC, “Mbotama Malamu!”
     Merry Christmas!

1st Sunday of Advent Prayer (Week of November 27)

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - December 4

Sunday, December 4 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 7  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Christmas Around the World: Mexico"

Features - 2nd Sunday of Advent

Scripture - Isaiah 40:3-5, 9-11 & Mark 1:1-8

Theme - This year’s Advent Season will focus on the four mission partnerships of our West Ohio Conference. These include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mexico, Russia, and Vietnam. On this second Sunday, we focus on Mexico and we will participate in a traditional Las Posadas service. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Here's to a Tension Free Thanksgiving!

This has circulated around the cyber world many times but it is worth repeating here during the week of Thanksgiving.  May your holiday be filled with peace and happiness and void of tension and the feeling that everything has to be just perfect.  I think the story below is actually true.  It's the food equivalent to Bridezillas.  Enjoy!

From: Marney

As you all know a fabulous Thanksgiving Dinner does not make itself. I need to ask each of you to help by bringing something to complete the meal. I truly appreciate your offers to assist with the meal preparation.

Now, while I do have quite a sense of humor and joke around all the time, I COULD NOT BE MORE SERIOUS when I am providing you with your Thanksgiving instructions and orders. I am very particular, so please perform your task EXACTLY as I have requested and read your portion very carefully. If I ask you to bring your offering in a container that has a lid, bring your offering in a container WITH A LID, NOT ALUMINUM FOIL! If I ask you to bring a serving spoon for your dish, BRING A SERVING SPOON, NOT A SOUP SPOON! And please do not forget anything.

All food that is to be cooked should already be prepared, bring it hot and ready to serve, warm or room temp. These are your ONLY THREE options. Anything meant to be served cold should, of course, already be cold.

The Mike Byron Family

1. Turnips in a casserole with a lid and a serving spoon. Please do not fill the casserole all the way up to the top, it gets too messy. I know this may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but most of us hate turnips so don’t feel like you a have to feed an army.

2. Two half gallons of ice cream, one must be VANILLA, I don’t care what the other one is. No store brands please. I did see an ad this morning for Hagan Daz Peppermint Bark Ice Cream, yum!! (no pressure here, though).

3. Toppings for the ice cream.

4. A case of bottled water, NOT gallons, any brand is ok.

The Bob Byron Family

1. Green beans or asparagus (not both) in a casserole with a lid and a serving spoon. If you are making the green beans, please prepare FOUR pounds, if you are making asparagus please prepare FIVE pounds. It is up to you how you wish to prepare them, no soupy sauces, no cheese (you know how Mike is), a light sprinkling of toasted nuts, or pancetta, or some EVOO would be a nice way to jazz them up.

2. A case of beer of your choice (I have Coors Light and Corona) or a bottle of clos du bois chardonnay (you will have to let me know which you will bring prior to 11/22).

The Lisa Byron Chesterford Family

1. Lisa as a married woman you are now required to contribute at the adult level. You can bring an hors d’ouvres. A few helpful hints/suggestions. Keep it very light, and non-filling, NO COCKTAIL SAUCE, no beans of any kind. I think your best bet would be a platter of fresh veggies and dip. Not a huge platter mind you (i.e., not the plastic platter from the supermarket).

The Michelle Bobble Family

1. Stuffing in a casserole with a serving spoon. Please make the stuffing sans meat.

2. 2.5-3 qts. of mashed squash in a casserole with a lid and serving spoon

3. Proscuitto pin wheel – please stick to the recipe, no need to bring a plate.

4. A pie knife

The June Davis Family

1. 15 LBS of mashed potatoes in a casserole with a serving spoon. Please do not use the over-size blue serving dish you used last year. Because you are making such a large batch you can do one of two things: put half the mash in a regulation size casserole with lid and put the other half in a plastic container and we can just replenish with that or use two regulation size casserole dishes with lids. Only one serving spoon is needed.

2. A bottle of clos du bois chardonnay

The Amy Misto Family (why do I even bother she will never read this)

1. A pumpkin pie in a pie dish (please use my silver palate recipe) no knife needed.

2. An apple pie in a pie dish, you can use your own recipe, no knife needed.

Looking forward to the 28th!!


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon (November 20) "From Rags to Riches"

     Many of us probably remember the 1960s hit TV series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  This show was all about the Clampetts who were simple folk living off the land.  When Jed Clampett, played by Buddy Ebson, accidentally discovered oil on his property, he and his family became instant millionaires.
     Deciding to move to Beverly Hills to take advantage of their new found wealth, the Clampetts find that their down to earth lifestyle often times clashes with the new suburb and its shielded upper class neighbors.
     This show was a classic “rags to riches” story line.  Poor family becomes rich.
     This reminds me of something the famous oil tycoon, John D. Rockefeller once said about the three simple rules for anyone who wants to become rich.
     Rule #1 – Go to work early.  Rule #2 – Stay at work late.  And Rule #3 – Find oil.
     But do you really need to find oil in order to be rich?
     Regardless of how you or I might define the word “rich,” the Apostle Paul gives us his definition of what it means to be rich from Ephesians chapter 1.
     In verse 18, Paul writes about the riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance among the saints.  The riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance among the saints.
     Paul is saying that your net worth is not tied to your financial assets.  Your net worth is tied to your relationship to Jesus Christ.  For it is through Christ, that we are recipients of the riches of his glorious inheritance.
     That’s an amazing thought.  My net worth has little to do with what I own, and has everything to do with my relationship with Jesus Christ.
     It seems like we get this turned around in our society.  We often fall into the trap in believing that our net worth is tied to our financial assets, but it’s really tied into our relationship with Christ.
     I was reminded of this some years ago during a big snowstorm around Christmas.  When the roads finally got cleared enough Penny and I made our way to the grocery store to get some groceries.
     That grocery store was packed!  Everybody in our community was at that grocery store.  You could hardly make it down the aisles.  It was so crowded.  People were fighting over basic commodities like milk and bread.  It was incredible!  And it was all because the delivery trucks were late because of the snow storm so they were in short supply.
     That little incident reminded me that even though we had money in the bank for groceries, it didn’t mean a whole lot because they were out of a lot of the grocery items that we needed.  It didn’t matter who we were that day – low income, middle income, high income (we were all dependent on those delivery trucks.)
     And I can’t even do justice to comparing this personal incident with the impact our economy is having on so many people today.  People are in need of hope.
     Speaking of hope, the Apostle Paul uses this word in our scripture reading when he writes, “so that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
     When asked about your net worth, Paul says, “don’t forget to include how much hope you have.”
     Riches and wealth are not just about tangible things.  They are about intangible things - things you can’t necessarily touch or feel. 
     We live in a society that values physical touch in order for it to be worth something.  Our society tends to devalue the things you can’t touch.  And yet, which is more important?
     Well.  Let’s not get too carried away with this.  After-all, we do need to have some money to live in this world.  We need to give the cashier something after we put our groceries on that conveyor belt.  And the scriptures certainly do not overlook this simple but important truth that all of us need money to pay for things. 
     But here in our scripture reading from Ephesians, the Apostle Paul makes it very clear to us that our wealth and our value is not measured by our financial portfolio.  Our wealth can be found in Jesus Christ.
     And in Jesus Christ, Paul tells us, “There is immeasurable greatness of his power for those who believe.”
     How can you measure this greatness of Christ’s power?  How can one possibly measure a power that enabled God to raise Christ from death to life on that first Easter Sunday?  How can one ever measure a power in which Jesus Christ is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and who is above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come?  How can someone even attempt to measure the power of God who has put all things under his feet and has made the living Christ the head over all things for the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all?
     Who can measure such a one as this?  This King of King and Lord of Lords.
     The Apostle Paul says that those who have placed their hope in Jesus Christ are recipients of this immeasurable greatness made possible only by a gracious and loving God.
    And I love how Paul begins our passage of scripture by affirming the church for how they love each other.  Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason, I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
     Paul is saying that if you want to know how rich you are, just look around you at all of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Jesus himself talked a lot about giving money to the poor.  How do you give money to the poor, if you have no money to give in the first place?
     The early church during the New Testament time was comprised primarily of people who were economically very poor compared to the rest of society.  That’s why the scriptures often speak of helping the widows and orphans.  These were often fellow church members who barely had two cents to rub together.  The scriptures consistently remind us, “Don’t forget to take care of your own.”
     Just because being rich is primarily about our relationship with Jesus Christ, does not mean that we can just go ahead and shirk our responsibility to feed the hungry, clothe the hungry, and house the homeless.  It’s wonderful that we can have our eye toward our heavenly home, but let’s also keep an eye on our brother and sister in need.  Jesus commands us to do no less.
     In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shares the story about the sheep and the goats.  In referring to those who did not reach out to those who are in need, Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
     “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
     Jesus wants us to see each other as gifts from God and to care for one another.  By doing so, we are caring for Christ.
     Approximately 200 years after the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, a man named Lawrence, was serving as the treasurer of the Church of Rome which included appropriating money for the care of the poor.
     During this time, the Emperor of Rome, Valerian began to persecute the churches by confiscating their property.  As the story goes, Lawrence who was a church treasurer was ordered by a Roman prefect to hand over the wealth of the church or be killed.
     Lawrence agreed, but said that it would take him three days to gather it.  During those three days, Lawrence placed all the money of the church into the hands of trustworthy stewards.  And then he assembled the sick, the aged, and the poor, the widows and orphans of the congregation, presented them to the Roman prefect, and said, “These are the treasures of the church.”
     If you every wonder where we keep the treasures of this church – all you need to do is to look into the eyes of your brothers and sisters in Christ, and there you will see God’s treasure.
     I have a good friend who shared with me his faith story.  He got married to his high school sweetheart and they began living the good life as they say.
     Back in the 70s, the two of them were making six figure incomes, and spending their money basically on themselves.  They were getting promotion after promotion and moving very quickly up the corporate ladder.
     But even with all of this, his wife was feeling pretty empty inside.  She felt rich on the outside but bankrupt on the inside.
     Then in 1979, his wife was watching a Billy Graham Crusade on TV and she made a decision right there on the spot to receive Jesus Christ into her life.  Her life totally changed from that moment on.  And as she became more and more excited about the riches of God’s kingdom, he continued to become emptier inside.
     But then John told me, things changed about three months later.  He said, “I was sitting in a little church and it was during that worship service when I finally realized that all the riches of the world would never be able to make me happy or give me peace.”
     He said, “In that moment, I was thinking about our expensive house, our swimming pool, and our forty cars.”  And then he said, “That’s right Robert.  You heard right.  I didn’t say 14 cars.  I said 40 cars.  I was thinking about all of our wealth, and yet I was feeling so empty from the poverty of my soul.  It was then, as I was sitting in that pew, that God’s love captured me and I became filled with the riches of hope, joy, peace, wisdom, and God’s Spirit.”
     “Here’s the ironic thing in all of this,” he went on to say.  “Since I gave my life to Jesus Christ, I really do feel like I’m the richest man in the world.”

Sunday Worship Preview - November 27

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

Sermon - "Christmas Around the World: Democratic Republic of the Congo"

Features - 1st Sunday of Advent, Holy Communion, & Holy Baptism

Scripture - Mark 13:24-37

Theme - This year’s Advent Season will focus on the four mission partnerships of our West Ohio Conference.  These include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mexico, Russia, and Vietnam. On this first Sunday, we focus on the DRC and their Christian tradition of nativity skits/plays with our own fun Christmas play.

Christ the King Sunday Prayer - November 20

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Look Down Memory Lane - OSU vs. PSU

Ever since Penn State joined the Big Ten in the early 90's, this Pennsylvania boy living in Ohio has enjoyed some good ribbing over the annual OSU vs. PSU football rivaly.  From a Penn State perspective, Ohio State and Michigan have replaced the old Penn State/Pitt annual rivalry in terms of game build-up and excitement.  From an Ohio State perspective, Michigan is still the game circled on the calendar for all Buckeye fans, but the Penn State game is not that far behind.

Having said all of this, what a strange pre-game week this has been!  Gone is the ribbing and the good natured trash talking.  The child abuse scandal at Penn State has changed everything.  While the game today will still be filled with a lot of passion and emotion, the real focus for many who watch this game will be on this tragedy and the missed opportunities by a university that has provided itself in following the motto, "Success with Honor." 

Instead of fun jabs being exchanged between me and my congregation this past week, I have received e-mails, facebook messages, and phone calls from wonderful Buckeye fans offering their support and prayers for everyone involved in this child abuse scandal.  All of this has reminded of how our faith supersedes any pride or passion in winning "the big game."  Another case in point is the recent news of the tragic death of the two basketball coaches of the women's team at Oklahoma State University.  There was definitely a cloud over their game with Iowa State last night on ESPN.  I was moved by what the Iowa State announcer told the people in the stadium just before kick-off last night.  He referred to this being "our" loss as well as "their" loss.   College football tends to be an "us" vs. "them" game, whereas faith is about "us."

While this year is void of any good natured trash-talking due to the nature of the events that have transpired leading up to this game, I thought it would be more appropriate to simply make a trip down memory lane of the OSU vs. PSU rivalry as it relates to a Penn State pastor living in Buckeye country.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • The year that I was forced to wear an OSU varsity jacket during worship after an OSU win.
  • The year that my Associate Pastor (an OSU alum) had to briefly wear a Penn State hat during worship after a PSU win.
  • The year when someone in my congregation kidnapped my Nittany Lion stuffed animal from my office and sent me ransom notices each day leading up to the big game.  The words in the ransom notes were newspaper clippings to protect their anonymity!  Eventually, Nittany was returned to me but only after I interrogated each of my staff members.  I even made the maintenance supervisor put his hand on a stack of bibles by the altar in the sanctuary and proclaim his innocence.  I never did find out who the culprit was.
  • The year when the people of my new church surprised me when I came into worship one Sunday morning and the chancel railing was decorated with OSU items and many in the congregation wore OSU clothing! 
  • The year when I wore my Penn State jersey to the bible study before the big game. (See picture above.)
  • The year when an anonymous OSU gift giver from a previous church sent me a Penn State navy blazer (with Penn State written all over the inside lining) as a Christmas present.
  • The year I officiated a wedding in the Shoe.  The famous "Buckeye Guy" was in attendance and tears came to his face after the service when he told me that he was so moved by my wedding homily.  He gave me an autographed picture.
  • Same wedding but during the rehearsal dinner, the bride and groom gave me a Buckeye necklace that included the letters, "B-E-A-T-P-E-N-N-S-T-A-T-E."
  • The year I officiated at another wedding and the rehearsal dinner was held in the President's suite at the Shoe.  The Buckeye alumni band surprised us by interrupting our dinner and paraded through the room playing, "Hang on Sloopy."
This is why I'm not as concerned about the final score of the big game today.  I will always remember this year as the year where our focus should be on much bigger issues like child abuse prevention and doing the right thing.  My Buckeye church members have taught me this with their kind words and support.

I can't believe I'm about to do what I'm about to do, but only for this one year only! 

                                                                  "O - H!"
                                      "I - O!"

Some things are more important than whether you win or lose a football game. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Some Shopping Tips at Church In the Mall

A church member and I joined a couple of people from another church to check out a new United Methodist church start in Heath, Ohio.  This new church isn't located in a rented out school space or in someone's home.  This church is located in a shopping mall.

After just eight months, they are averaging over a hundred people on Sunday mornings.  The two staff members met with us over coffee in their coffee house feel church space located across from a Deb's clothing store.  Coffee is a theme throughout the worship space.  One of the children's Sunday School class is called, "Little Lattes."  Isn't that cute?  "Little Beans" is the name of another children's Sunday School class.

To encourage mall shoppers to check out the new church, the room is designed to provide a welcoming entry space for people to drop by, get a cup of coffee, and stay as long as they'd like.  One of the striking features of the worship space is the altar. (See above.)  This altar is a beautifully decorated small dining room table with table settings and chairs and a cross behind it, to convey the intimacy of God's desire to dine with us.  What a great way to convey the warmth of the Sacrament of Holy Communion!

Here are some helpful "shopping tips" that "Church In the Mall" uses that are helpful in any setting, including traditional church settings.

#1 - Place people with the gift of hospitality in key places to help people feel welcomed but not overwhelmed.  Their goal is to make sure that each person receives a warm welcome.

#2 - Don't assume that people who visit the church understand church/religious language.  Communicate in a way that people will understand.

#3 - Leaders of the church need to consistently communicate the vision.  This means telling brief faith stories of how the church is making a difference in people's lives.

#4 - Utilize your space as much as possible.  There's a back entrance into the church space that was very unattractive.  As more people were using this back entrance, the leaders realized that they needed to clean that area and decorate it.

#5 - There biggest challenge is in getting small groups started to help people grow in their faith outside of Sunday worship.  Training and equipping mature church volunteers to lead small groups takes a lot of time, effort, and prayer. 

#6 - Be good neighbors to the other mall stores.  Whenever another store person or security guard stopped by, the staff members were great at inviting them in for coffee and engaging in conversation.

#7 - Respect people's desire to be anonymous.  They do not want anyone to feel uncomfortable in their church setting which is why they have several coffee tables in the back of the worship space for people to kind of fly under the radar.  However, each table has a registration card so that they can follow-up with them.

#8 - The church utilizes facebook, twitter, and their website for most of their communication which is typical of what their demographic uses.

Bible Study Summary - Upcoming Sunday's Scriptures

Sermon (Nov. 20) – “From Rags to Riches”

Ephesians 1:15-23
-         Ephesians was written by Paul while he was in prison.
-         The theme of Ephesians is God’s power which is appropriate since the area of Ephesus was a place of imperial power and pagan/magic power. 
-         Paul is pointing them to a different power – the power of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  This is a great text for “Christ the King” Sunday!
-         Jesus was the ultimate/perfect human being image bearer.
-         Paul explains that this power in verses 20 & 21.  Wow!!!
-         Verse 22 – “Under his feet”  A reference to Psalm 8, which was a favorite Psalm of the early church.
-         Verse 17 – You need a fresh gift of wisdom to see this power in Christ.
-         Verse 23 – The church is Jesus’ hands and feet to continue the powerful work of God in the world.  Do we realize this as the church?

Matthew 25:31-46
-         A scripture that points out humanity’s longing for justice in the world.  Justice is the hope that things will be “made right” again. 
-         Central Jewish belief – A loving creator God is seeking to redeem the world and bring justice.
-         Sheep and goats graze together in the Middle East but are often separated at night because the goats need more warmth than the sheep.  It’s difficult to tell them apart.
-         Verse 32 – Jesus’ judgment is on the “nations” and the people who have persecuted God’s people.  Verse 40 – “The least of these” refers to God’s people.  This is a judgment upon the pagan world for how they  have treated God’s people.
-         This passage is often seen as a judgment against us when we don’t care for the poor.  While this is a part of the passage, the main emphasis isn’t so much a judgment against people in general who don’t care for the poor, but it’s a word of comfort for God’s people who suffer injustice from the outside world. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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.
Sometimes cliches are so.........well, cliche
We use them so often that we don't even need to finish them....

There's no place like _________
Any friend of yours is a ______ __ _____
Absence makes the heart grow _________

We say them at funerals in our attempt to comfort people
If you need anything at all, just ____ me.

They pop up when we get philosophical about life....
the best things in life are ____

We use them to encourage people
Everyone has their cross to _______

Graduation ceremonies are littered with them.
My all time favorite.....
Every ending is a _________.

As predictable as cliches can be,
much of the time, they can be true,
because they are often based on the reality of life.

The last two weeks,
as my siblings and I prepared for
an estate sale on the family farm,
we were flooded with memories
of our life together.

As we cleared out room after room,
we were reminded of all those circumstances and events
that had shaped our lives,
that molded us into who we are today..........
that made us family.

The cliches were everywhere.

The couch in the living room
spoke of our mother
who while she worked a night shift,
would come home and sleep on the couch,
so that she could look after our aging grandparents during the day
Mom indeed burned the candle at both ends, and in doing so,
taught me the importance of caring for family.

The table in the dining room
reminded me of all the family holiday gatherings
where the table would be filled to overflow,
and our eyes were larger than our stomachs.
The after-the-meal discomfort
reminded me of how much we had been given.

The upstairs bedrooms
in a farmhouse where only the lower level was heated......
in the winter were as cold as a cucumber,
Yet while my brother and I
would battle it out on the electric football field,
wearing our winter coats,
we were as happy as a lark.
Our playtime in those early years,
forged the deep love we have for each other.

The kitchen was the center of the home.....
and how I loved sneaking to the kitchen, where more than once,
I was caught with my hand in the cookie jar.
It reminded me of all the nourishment we received.....
physically, emotionally, & spiritually.

The paddle in the closet
that mom rarely used but when needed, reminded us of.
Those famous words she would utter
when there was no other recourse....
This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.
My parents were faithful to discipline us,
to teach us about right and wrong,
to teach us about actions and consequences.

I walked outside and looked at the end of the driveway,
where one day I had gotten off the school bus,
THEN remembered that I had driven the car to school that day.
To this day, I continue to forget things,
like where I placed my keys, or my glasses.

I am reminded that I would lose my head if it wasn't attached.
But the bigger lesson I was taught,
was that for those who are patient and who trust
every situation has a way of working itself out.

I looked down at the meadow
and saw the once proud tree that had been reduced to a stub by multiple lightning strikes.
And though it is said that lightning never strikes the same place twice,
the tree tells me otherwise,
and that in life,
anything is possible,
and one is wise to be prepared for that reality.

The sidewalk from the house to garage,
where both mom and dad
would daily pilgrimage to and from work,
to bring home the bacon,
reminded me the extent at which my parents worked
to meet the needs of all 4 children.
I was taught the value of hard work,
work that benefit others.

The barnyard fence,
where as the brother six years older,
I convinced my little brother,
that if he just believed enough,
he could jump off the fence and fly.
To some, this would be flying by the seat of your pants.
For me, I have since learned
that what I say and what I do
influences people,
so I must be wise in both speech and conduct
(and thankful that my brother didn't hurt himself)

Perhaps every ending is a beginning of some kind.

And so, as our preparations for the sale wound down,
my siblings and I journeyed to the center of the farm,
to the grove of pine trees.

The place where family pets were buried,
the place where Christmas trees were cut down
and delivered by Santa's tractor,
the place where one would walk for times of quiet reflection.

In the moments as the four of us looked around
taking in the beauty of the land,
we realized that time flies when you are having fun,
for we all wondered where the years had gone.

Though we were not rich by man's standards,
be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.
None of us would have traded
our childhood for any other.

Because the words farm and extravagance do not exist
well with each other,
we learned that the simplest gifts are indeed the best gifts,
The deer that leaped across the field at just the right moment,
reminded us of that.
Home, health, and love cannot be bought.
As we prayed,
we gave the farm back to God
for we were entrusted with its care for only a while.
We realized that this ending is really a beginning,
that God is always doing a new thing.
And we have every reason
to be thankful for the past, the present,
and the days to come.
Thanks to God,
and to Norman and Janelle McDowell.
We are who we are because of you.
May you find thanks in all the cliches of your life.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
always giving thanks for all things,
in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ
to God, even the Father.
1 Thes 5:20

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Churches Sharing in Ministry Together

This week reminds me of the value of churches sharing in ministry for the sake of God's kingdom.  This morning, I'll be meeting with pastors of six other United Methodist churches in the surrounding area for our monthly small group.

We will spend time praying for each other, sharing our personal and church ministry goals, reading scripture, planning future shared ministry events, and celebrating Holy Communion.  By meeting together, we are seeking to strengthen each other in being faithful followers of Jesus Christ. 

Tonight, I will be presiding for the annual church conference of one of those churches.  In our United Methodist system, the District Superintendent assigns an Elder to preside at this meeting which prepares the congregation for a new year of ministry.  The assigning of another pastor is a powerful reminder that there are no lone ranger churches.  We are connected to one another. 

Tomorrow, I will be joining folks from a non-denominational church to visit and learn from a church that is involved in very innovative ministries in reaching people for Christ.  We will be learning together.  This is another example of the advantage of churches remembering that we are connected through Jesus Christ.

Yes, there are theological differences between churches, but we also seek to live out Jesus' prayer, "I ask not only on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." - John 17:20-21