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, February 29, 2012

A Change of Travel Plans - 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 don't get what you want,
but you get what you need.

I have been waiting three years to go snow skiing.
Due to various life circumstances,
I have not been able to hit the slopes
for the past two winters.

And so I was looking forward
to some winter recreation this year.....
that's right, this year,
one of the warmest winters on record
in this part of the country.

If you are a skier,
you know that there is nothing like
standing at the top of a snowpacked mountain
and taking in the quiet and fresh air
that only a mountaintop can give.

There is a grandeur and sacredness
that can not be ignored,
except it seems, by 60 degree temps.

I delayed any trips in search of such grandeur
through December & January
as the forecasts repeatedly
mocked my intentions.

When February arrived
I knew it was now or never.
I planned a ski trip with
a buddy of mine for mid-month.
But the storm that I hoped would finally come,
never came.

Not only was there no big storm,
the temperatures began to soar
to spring like levels.

I was thinking about double diamond trails
while the daffodils were mocking me
as they began to push up through the ground

I was thinking about freshly fallen powder
and the pollen count was already rising.

I was thinking about cocoa in the ski lodge
while crocuses were starting to bloom.

I would have had just as much luck
going ice fishing in Florida,
deer hunting in Manhattan.

And so the night before the trip,
I turned on the weather report,
on my knees
praying for a change.

Oh, I got the change,
just not the change that I wanted.

The word I dreaded.....

came off the forecaster's lips easily.
Of course it did,
he had been practicing it for months.
But then he uttered two other words
that drive ski poles deep into any skier's heart....


The three w's.

You might as well have blogged me on

Back into the closet went the skis.
I called my buddy
and we agreed that skiing under such conditions
would be miserable.

But we both has the time off
and we decided to still take the trip
and find other things to do.

And that's what brought me
to what I needed
rather than what I wanted.

The memorial.

Ironically, it was located only minutes from
the resort where we would have been skiing.

It is the Flight 93 memorial,
the final resting place for the 40
who were aboard that ill fated flight on 9/11.

It is a place where thousand of people pilgrimage
each year to remember the lives of 40 people
who were thrust into the role of defending their nation
while their lives were being taken from them.

10 years after the event,
a national memorial has been raised
to honor the dead
to remind us of the reality of evil,
and the price that is paid when those who seek to terrify,
are given an opportunity.

Some of the other groups at the memorial
were carrying photographs,
possibly friends or relatives of the fallen.

By the calendar,
it wasn't a particularly significant day.
Perhaps it was a birthday or an anniversary....
a holiday known only to those who loved them.

Suddenly my no fun seemed so insignificant.

The memorial, which is still under construction,
allows the general viewer to observe the crater from some distance.
Only family members are allowed immediate access
to that sacred space.

If it hadn't been for warm, wet, and windy,
I probably wouldn't have come to this Holy Ground.

I began my journey praying for favorable weather conditions.
It ended as I prayed for peace with justice,
for comfort for the families,
for a world that does not know how to live under one God.

Sometimes you don't get what you want,
but you get what you need.
I pray it be so for those who have loved and lost.
I pray it be for all the nations of the world,
that we all find ourselves at the mountaintop
as we breathe in the sacredness of where we are.
Come quickly, Lord.
And the wolf will dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the kid.
And the calf and the young lion, and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
They will not hurt or destroy
in all My holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6, 9

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

UMC Ministry in Lithuania Update

     This past summer, Jolita and Andrew visited our church to share with us about how God is at work through the United Methodist Church in Lithuania. At that time, Jolita was finishing her degree work at Asbury seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky and preparing to move back to Lithuania to be the pastor of two churches.
     A portion of our Lent/Easter special offering goes to support the United Methodist ministry in Lithuania thanks to the partnership we have shared over the past seveal years. Here is a letter I received from Jolita and Andrew about how they are doing since their move back to Lithuania. Please keep our Lithuanian United Methodist partners in your prayers.

Erbele Updates
February 2012

           The February European deep freeze included Lithuania. For about a week the thermometer hovered around -10 F. The coldest day we experienced was -22 F. This was on the Sunday when our car died on the way to church. Thankfully, a friend answered our call and was able to give us a ride to church. Emma was at home with Grandma because we did not want her out in that kind of cold.

In our last letter we talked about our housing concerns. This month we are happy to report that the Lithuania UMC will have a parsonage in Vilkaviskis. The district has decided to purchase the apartment we are currently living in. This was made possible by a Kybartai and Pilviskiai partner church, Trinity UMC in Huntsville, Alabama. Trinity UMC took money out of their missions’ budget to pay for the parsonage. They are hoping to find a way to replenish their missions’ budgets. If you or your church would like to contribute we will be very happy to let you join in. We are so very grateful for this place called home. Now we feel like we can really settle into life and ministry in our community. Thank you.
Our month in ministry proved challenging because of the weather. People have not wanted to venture out and freeze in the extreme cold. While we have learned to bundle up and stay warm, it does make sense not to take any unnecessary risks. We canceled a couple of activities for the children and youth. As the weather has been warming up everything is getting back to the life we are used to.

We conducted our first funeral. A member of our church in Kybartai lost her mother. Here funerals are very important events. There are many different stages in the grieving process. Each step has special meaning attached to it. Some are similar to those in the US, yet there are the differences that stand out. The most noticeable is that everyone stands by the grave side to watch the coffin be covered. The pallbearers have the responsibility of closing the grave one shovelful of earth at a time. As each man tired, another came to take his place. This act of love helps those who grieve say goodbye in shovels full of dirt. During this Lenten season we reflect on the words spoken on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Another Lithuanian custom happens on Fat Tuesday. People eat pancakes, wear masks and go door-to-door asking for pancakes or candy. The belief is that we are scaring away the winter and making room for spring. Since the Pilviskiai youth group meets on Tuesdays, we made pancakes. The girls, including Jolita, had fun cooking. The guys, Andrew and the one male youth, got the privilege of washing dishes at the end. Many laughs were heard throughout the time. It was not until we were heading home that we realized youth group lasted three hours. It is a great sign of the fellowship we had. We must have done a good job of scaring away the winter because today it is above freezing and the snow is all melting.

More exciting news is that a member of the youth group joined the church in Kybartai. She has been attending for almost 12 years but never felt led to join. She graduates from high school this spring and is planning to study theology in the fall. Continue to hold her in your prayers as she grows in a greater awareness of God’s call upon her life.

           We thank you for your prayers, for your love and your support.

          You can reach us by email at: pieciaitehope@hotmail.com and follow Andrew’s blog: www.erbele.org.

Emma, Jolita and Andrew Erbele

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sermon (February 26) - "Unbinding Your Heart: The Prayer Plunge"

The Spirit of God is moving in our church. A lot of you have told me stories of the Spirit working as you talk about what’s happening with your small groups, your prayer exercises, and reading the book Unbinding Your Heart.
First thing Monday morning, I received an e-mail from somebody telling me how much she really enjoyed the first session of her “Unbinding Your Heart” small group.  And then, throughout the week, so many more of you shared with me how much you enjoyed the first meeting of your small group. 
If you're a guest today, you have come into a church that is on an exciting adventure with God. We just started a church wide focus on the importance of prayer and faith sharing. We're spending 6 weeks together inviting God to change us in any way that God wants to.
Do you want to join us? Anyone—we invite you to join a small group. You can still sign up by stopping by at the designated table in our parlor following worship today or by going to our church’s web page and you can sign up online.
In this past week, we've acknowledged that mainline Christians are rapidly declining in number and influence in our country. We've admitted our own reluctance to invite new people into the Christian faith.
We've explored why it makes a difference in our lives that we are Christians. We considered what our motivations might be for sharing the Christian faith with people who aren't connected to a church.
This week, we're going to look at what makes faith sharing effective. Are you ready for this?
We church people work really hard. We’re masters at hard work! We do CROP walks and Habitat projects.  We prepare meals and have lots of committee meetings. If you’ve been around churches for a while, you’d never be surprised to hear a story of a small church putting on a garage sale that raises four or five thousand dollars for missions. We publicize the sale, we clear out our closets, haul them over to church, sort them, label them, display them, etc., etc., etc.
Then we drag ourselves home, exhausted! And again the next day. And the next day!
We know church people. We know we’re determined, committed, hard workers for the Lord. Churches sure aren’t shrinking because we’re lazy! In fact, right now, I’m cringing as I think about all the times I’ve preached to an already very busy church to become even busier!
I’m sorry if I have fed into this church culture of busyness. I’m sorry because many of you are already hiking and climbing as hard and as fast as you can. As your pastor, I have unfortunately done my share of loading up your backpack of guilt with more and more baggage! And you keep toiling up that hill, carrying even more weight! From this point on, I will do my best to not have church work feel like just another task in your already busy life.
I wonder if that heavy, guilty backpack feel is what Simon Peter and the other disciples felt when Jesus gave one of my “work-harder/work-harder sermons.” Jesus said,
"Put out into the deep water and let out your nets (again!)" And Simon groaned, "We’ve already been fishing. We didn’t catch anything! But if you say so . . ." So they pulled up the anchor and headed back out to the deep water, this time with Jesus as a fishing partner.
Into the deep waters . . . into the deep waters with Jesus. That’s scary if we don’t know how. Somebody said that learning to scuba dive was one of the scariest things she’d ever done.
You have to jump off the boat and into really deep water. She said it was terrifying. Every muscle tensed, her jaw clenched and she is sure that she burned up a candy bar’s worth of calories every time she tried it! You waste a lot of energy as you learn.
And then the switch flipped! She discovered — All you have to do is relax, breathe, and trust the water to buoy you up! All the frantic kicking and thrashing around, all the trying so hard, all the conscientious striving doesn’t get us as far as relaxing. As trusting.
Trusting the water to hold you up is a little like learning to fish with Jesus. We are working hard at doing a lot of good things. But are we doing the God-things?
Are we experiencing the peace and trust God intends for us, or are we just tensing up and kicking too hard?
How’s our fishing going so far?
Jesus wants these men to join him in his work for God. He’ll soon invite them to become “fishers of people.” But before he signs them up for employment with God, it seems that he wants to be sure they “get” something. He wants them to know that if they’re going to be effective in this new work, they will have to follow his guidance.
They will have to have him along. When St. Luke wrote this story down, it was for a church that was working very hard to pass the gospel on to the next generation.
Maybe, in just a few decades after Jesus’ physical presence, the church had started getting tired with all the work they were doing. Maybe their efforts weren’t producing like they once did. St. Luke gives them, and us, this story to remind us.
Hard work alone doesn’t cut it. Only going to the deep waters with Jesus will be effective. Only trusting Christ’s guidance will produce real results for the church.
Prayer is one way to go into the deep waters with Jesus. Prayer is the most effective way I know to hear and heed Christ’s guidance. Now, it’s not that we don’t pray as a church. But I suspect we work a lot more than we pray.
We pray before our church meetings. But how many times do we meet to pray? What could God do through us if we spent half of our meeting times in prayer?
I’m starting to get nervous just standing up here saying these words. I can feel myself tensing up. I’m going to start kicking too hard and hyperventilating into the mouthpiece that connects me to my air tank!
What wouldn’t get done if we prayed more? What could God get done through us if we prayed more?
In the book we're reading together, Martha Grace Reese tells about a church that made prayer the focus of their meetings rather than just offering a prayer before meetings. Three high-energy, committed women were the new evangelism committee for Benton Street Church.
They were fired up to do great things for God that year. They brought in Martha Grace Reese as a consultant to get some direction about what they could do first. A calling campaign? A bring-a-friend Sunday? Maybe direct mail marketing?
No, the consultant said. Not that. Not yet. She told them to pray for three months before they did anything!!!
The evangelism committee at Benton Street was looking for activity, for hard work, for something to do! But instead, Reese told them to stand still and pray. Stand still for three months!!!
Prayer is a different kind of hard work, of course. Most of us don't know how to do it, at least not for very long. But this evangelism committee learned.
They prayed together for one hour every week. During their board meeting, when it was their turn to report, they would say, "We're still praying. She’s making us do it. We’re just praying."
People would laugh. But soon, board members started giving them prayer requests. After three months of "doing nothing but praying," interest in evangelism had skyrocketed. By the end of the year, 65 people were helping with evangelism.
New visitors came in droves. Twice as many people were baptized as the year before.  There was a new excitement in the church but it wasn’t because they were doing more.  It was because this church made prayer the center for everything.
Sounds like what our Scripture text says. Look at the fifth chapter of Luke, verse 6: "When they had done what Jesus commanded, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break!"
Apparently, going back into the deep waters with Jesus makes a difference. Prayer expresses our willingness to do what Jesus wants us to do. Prayer prepares us to be effective in whatever work we do for Jesus. Prayer helps make room for the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Spirit, instead of our flustered kicking, provides the power!
So let's try it. Some of you already have prayer as a part of your daily life. Many of us do not. But we can all grow in prayer. And so can our church.  For the next month, let's pray as a church like we’ve never prayed before.
Will you pray with us for the next several weeks? You are already using the "40 Days of Prayer" guide if you are in one of our small groups. If not, join one! You can get your copy of Unbinding Your Heart, which includes the prayer journal, right outside the sanctuary.
We're also going to pray right now, as a congregation. Yes, right here in the middle of a sermon. Let’s put our money where our mouths are. Let’s take a moment to pray now.
Since you've been praying with Unbinding your Heart for a couple of weeks, this will be easy! First, fish the sticky Post-It note out of your bulletin. Did you find it? I want you to hold it while you pray. I’m going to explain this first, then we’ll all pray together. Okay?
Hold on to your Post-I note. First we’ll sit quietly and breathe slowly.
First, ask God who you are to pray for in this moment. This is important because many of us have our own agendas when we pray. Who is God calling you to pray for in this moment. Now, here’s where we need to use a little imagination, okay a lot of imagination!  As soon as God gives you a person or a situation to pray for, imagine that person shrunk down so he or she fits into your hands, right in the middle of your Post-It note. Hold whomever God puts into your hands and pray for them. I’ll say “amen” at the end. All right? Any questions? Everyone got it?
Okay, gently breathe and let's pray. [Pause for two minutes.] Amen.
How was that? Thank you for your willingness. What an amazing church to try something out of the ordinary like that! Now write the initials of the person you were led to pray for on this Post-it note. Take a look at this door in our sanctuary.  We’re calling this our prayer door.
The cross on our prayer door was made by our youth.  Following worship, you’re invited to put your post-it on this prayer door.  Maybe you’ll want to add some other notes, or update this one next week, and the week after. What’s most important is that you keep praying for whomever, or whatever, God has asked you to pray.
A lot of us know we should be praying more but we don't. We think we don't have the time. We think there are other important things that must be done.
We want to be responsible and get the "to do " list done before we take the needed time for the luxury of prayer. Today, I'm giving you permission.
Let’s be a lot less busy and let’s be more responsive to God. I know there are some basic things that we need to do in the church during these next several weeks but things can slide a little as long as we’re spending time praying instead.
I can’t believe I just said that! During these several weeks of this season of Lent, I want us to be praying a whole lot, like we’ve never prayed before, even if it means that we have less committee meetings.  And maybe instead of committee meetings, they become prayer meetings.
This week, as I’ve thought about this sermon, I really struggled with this.  Part of me was thinking, “Well, Robert. If all you do as a church is pray, then things are going to fall apart.  There are still meals to cook for the homeless.  There are Sunday School lessons to plan.  There are bulletins to be printed.”
But then another thought came to me.  If all we do as a church is to continue to be busy and we don’t make prayer a priority, then things will most definitely fall apart.  And I think that we know deep down what are those things that we should continue to do during this time and what are some things that we can set aside for these forty days so that prayer is at the center of all we do.  When was the last time that our church had an opportunity to go out into the deep waters like this?  It’s probably been a while.
Let’s agree among ourselves. We are going to make prayer our priority throughout our forty day journey together. Following these forty days, we’ll see what God has done with us . . . and through us.
I believe God will start doing some amazing things with us during this time. I don't know what it will be . . .
Maybe new visitors . . .
maybe a new unity . . .
maybe old wounds healed.
Most likely it will be something we never imagined. I believe making room for prayer always brings new blessings.
But here’s the catch: If we're anything like those totally human disciples of the New Testament, we may not be ready for big blessings! Like them, our response to whatever great thing God does will be, "We're not worthy!"
After Simon sees what success Jesus has given him, he falls to his knees. He says to Jesus, "Go away, Lord! I don't deserve this!"
If we go deep with Jesus, we might find ourselves in deep water! We may have the same reaction. We might feel ourselves resisting the blessings God wants to bring us. We might want to bury our heads and ask God to go away.
Maybe we're not sure God should do something in our lives. We don't feel worthy for God to use us.
Maybe we’re afraid of the change in our lives if God did do something in us. How’s your future mapped out? Peter went from fisherman to traveling preacher. Maybe some of us don’t really believe God can do anything new.
Let’s face it. Staying on the familiar treadmill is a lot less scary than going into the deep with Jesus.
But Jesus says to Simon, "Fear not. From now on, we'll be catching people for God." Then these hard working fishermen anchored their boats and their fish and their nets right there on the shore. They left their work and followed Jesus.
In this next month, let’s leave our work and pray like we’ve never prayed before. Let’s go into the deep waters together with Jesus.

Based on the resource, "Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism," Chalice Press, 2008

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Theology of Confirmation

One of the more misunderstood areas in the life of the church is the process of confirmation.  Here at First UMC, seventh graders participate in a September through May weekly time of learning about the key components of the Christian faith to help them in their journey toward full church membership. 

Confirmation is one of the important ways for young people to respond to God's grace in their lives.  For many of them, confirmation is their response to their baptism which in some cases happened when they were infants.  In this understanding, baptism is God's initiative of grace in their life and their confirmation is their public declaration that they are receiving this grace by faith and now ready to express such faith through membership in a local church.

They don't need to be re-baptized since baptism is primarily God's promise made to us to always be faithful in loving and guiding us in a life of grace.  However, we are called upon to renew our baptism on a daily basis and confirmation is a significant way that we claim who we are in Christ Jesus.

One of my favorite Christian bloggers, Scot McKnight raises an important question about confirmation. Since he appeals to a variety of Christian faith traditions, the responses to his article are interesting.

Our 7th grade confirmation class will be received into membership on Sunday, May 13.

Sunday Worship Preview - March 4

Sunday, March 4 - (9:00 A.M. Traditional Service & 10:30 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, March 7  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Unbinding Your Heart: The Converted Community"

Features - 2nd Sunday in Lent & Holy Communion

Scripture - Acts 2:14, 32-39 & Mark 8:27-38

Theme - Healthy relationships with other people in the church make a big difference in the effectiveness of our witness.  It's part of the process of unbinding our hearts.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A "William Wallace Lent" - 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.
I'm not so much a hater.

I just don't want to be a participator....
But make me a gladiator.
Let me explain.

I'm not a big Fat Tuesday fan.
I don't buy into the eat, drink and be merry,
for tomorrow we die mentality.

I prefer the eat healthy, drink plenty of water,
and exercise regularly so that I can live past tomorrow philosophy.
I work in a place where Fasnachts are made
by the hundreds on the Monday before Ash Wednesday.

For the uninformed,
they are a donut like pastry
made of flour and sugar and deep fried in oil.
It comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition
of clearing the household of all such ingredients
so as to abstain from such things during the
40 days of Lent.

Don't get me wrong,
I am like everyone else.

I eat too many cookies at Christmas.
I've been known to take an extra helping of dessert.
I do not boycott birthday cakes.

It's just that I don't get the connection
of ingesting large quantities of fat and calories one day
for the purpose of depriving the same for forty more days
thus finding favor with the creator of the universe.

And so with my will power intact,
off I went to the gym at lunch on Fat Tuesday,
for my 30 minute treadmill run.

Treadmill # 12 to be exact.

You know the one I mean.

It sits at the end of the row,
next to the physical trainers private room.

The door to the room is normally closed.
But today the door was slightly ajar.
It was at .5 miles that I noticed it.
(When on a treadmill,
one has plenty of time to notice lots of things)

Through the opening of the door,
I could see on the table inside the room,
a big bag of potato chips.

Believing fully in the integrity
of a space set aside for health,
and in the integrity of all the trainers within such said space,

I surmised that the chips must have
been confiscated from some
weightlifter gone mad.
And on I ran.

It was at 1.2 miles the the custodian
came by and entered the trainer's room.
That's when I saw the beverages.

The beverage bar........
sodas, sweet teas, punch,
it was all there
complete with ice.

This was no collection of contraband, I realized.
There was a party brewing six feet from treadmill #12
in the trainers room,
and I was the unfortunate witness.

If my gym had been Scotland,
then I was ready to be William Wallace,
prepared to fight as Braveheart
against the infidels of slothfulness and gluttony.

I raised the incline
and increased the pace,
fully confident that I ran for
all that was noble and good.

It was at the 2.3 mile mark
that the soul of this warrior
was tested to its breaking point.

A trainer entered the gym
with paper bag in hand.

Like a drinker
trying to hide her need within a brown paper bag,
she quickly took the bag
to the trainer's now room of shame,
and closed the door.

But I had seen those brown bags before.
While brown paper could hide the contents,
it could not conceal the telltale sign of grease,
now soaking through the bottom of the bag.
Nor could the paper contain the aroma of freshly baked flour & sugar,
Fashnachts had infiltrated this fair land of health and wellness.

I, William Wallace, of treadmill #12,
had to choose.
Should I run from the battle that I faced,
or should I run into the face of the gluttonous enemy?

Aye, I choose to run for the glory of treadmill #12
Fastnachts may take our lives,
but they will never take our freedom! *

I returned to work after 3 victorious miles,
returning to the smell of grease,
returning to the sound of humanity entering the building
to pick up their Fastnachts,
returning to the aroma of pastry
that seeked to mock my lunch of soup and salad.

Spending the day around Fastnachts
without partaking is not easy.

Neither is living in this world.
Temptations are everywhere,
the obvious and the not so obvious.

To some temptations, we succumb,
to others we triumph.
I don't believe that God expects us to triumph always,
for He knows our weaknesses and our bent to sin.
That's why the 40 day journey of Lent leads to the cross.

What I do believe He expects from His children,
is to live in relationship with Him,
to continually encounter Him,
and to live out our lives as worship
that is a pleasing sacrifice to Him.

You might not feel that you have a warrior heart like William Wallace,
but God wishes to give us hearts that seeks to worship Him.
And when that worship continues to
include all that we think and do,
then we more fully know the heart of God.

May your Lent be a fresh journey to the cross,
and ultimately to the greatest warrior of all,
and to His empty tomb.

I urge you therefore brethren,
by the mercies of God,
to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice,
acceptable to God,
which is your spiritual service of worship.
Romans 12:1

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Services @ First UMC

Ash Wednesday Services - February 22

Noon & 7:30 P.M. @ Church, 163 E. Wheeling St.
6:30 P.M. @ Crossroads, 2095 W. Fair Avenue

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Fat Tuesday Sharing Your Faith Opportunity

Hi Bill.  Hi Sally.  Hey Tom.  How's it going Clarice?  Sometime this morning, check out what I brought to the work room this morning.

Oooh!  What did you bring?  Something good?

It's Fat Tuesday.  I brought some jelly filled, cream filled, and glazed donuts from Donut World.

Oh, that's right!  I forgot that this is that time of year!

Yeah, it's actually one of my favorite days.  It gives me an excuse to have a little sugar high and eat some of my favorite sweets which I don't do too often.  I also put on a pot of coffee for us, so enjoy!

What actually is Fat Tuesday?  Isn't it connected to Lent or something?

That's right.  Tomorrow, you'll see me with some ashes smudged on my forehead so don't think that I replaced the office copier toner cartridge!  It's because I attended the noon Ash Wednesday service at my church.

I remember that from last year and I thought that you had a flat tire on your way in to work.  I thought you got some grease on your forehead or something.

If I had a flat tire, I probably would get grease on my forehead knowing me.  But, no.  It's just ashes from the service.

Don't you feel a little funny wearing those ashes?  I mean, when you go through the check out line at Krogers, isn't that a little weird?

Oh, no doubt!  I'm not the kind of person that likes to draw attention to himself.  But for me, it's a tradition from the time I was growing up in church.  It's just something that we did every year.  If someone asks me about the ashes, I just tell them that it's Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent and that it reminds me of Jesus' death on the cross and how that led to his resurrection on Easter Sunday.  I guess you could say that it's a natural way to share my faith that day!

How do people respond when you explain it?

Well, they usually say something like, "Oh, that's right.  I forgot.  It's Ash Wednesday."  But by sharing a little about Jesus' death and Easter, it helps them to understand the symbolism of the ashes.

What church do you attend, again?

First United Methodist Church. 

You know, my husband and I have been talking about getting back to church.  Since we've moved to Lancaster, we haven't really found a church to call home, yet.  What time are your Sunday services?

9 & 10:30.  Come early because the parking lots fill up quickly.  I attend at the 9 A.M. service.  You want us to pick you up a little after 8:30 this Sunday and we'll attend worship together?

Sure!  Looking forward to it.

Oh, and you'll love the donuts during our Fellowship Hour!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sermon (February 19) - "Unbinding Your Heart: The Paul Problem"

     I have always been jealous of people who have a dramatic conversion story. Some people, like the apostle Paul, have a very clear "before and after" testimony of how Jesus Christ has made a difference in their lives.

     The apostle Paul, known as Saul in this story, did not start out as a fan of Jesus. He thought Jesus and his followers were heretics that needed to be run out of town. But after Jesus appeared to Paul, everything changed. When Ananias put his hands over Paul’s eyes, a whole new world opened for Paul.

     Suddenly, Paul saw grace.  He saw freedom.  He saw forgiveness.  He saw a whole world of people who needed God’s love through this Jesus.

     Paul’s new faith in Christ sent his life in a brand new direction. Instead of being an enemy of Jesus, he was now an envoy for Jesus. He told crowds of people about this good news. He wrote most of our New Testament. He was a new man. Paul knew what a difference it made in his life to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus.

     It's not necessarily so clear to most of us who have grown up in church. Asking us what difference being a Christian makes in our lives is like asking us what it means to us to be able to eat three meals a day. Christian faith is that natural to us. Trying to talk about it is difficult because for many of us, there's not a definitive before and after. It's been with us all our lives.

     Most of us can't remember the first time we knew God loved us. We can't
recall the first time we heard about Jesus. We've always known about baby Jesus in
the manger. For us, the smell of Easter lilies isn't just a beautiful smell in the florist shop. It's the holy smell of Easter morning with dad sitting next to us in the pew and Mom next to him in her beautiful new dress. It’s hard to articulate what we've always been and what we've always known.

     Those of us who have grown up in church may feel somewhat inferior to people like Paul who have a dramatic testimony to tell. It makes sense that we rarely share what our faith means to us. We don't know what we would say! We have the “Paul Problem.”

     We think that we have to have a story like Paul’s to have a “real” testimony.  We think to be able to tell someone about our faith, we need a riveting “I was lost, but now I’m found” kind of story to tell. Since we don’t have a powerful before and after story, we think we don’t have a faith story at all!

     So we clam up about our faith.  We don’t say anything.

     Even pastors have a hard time with this. In Unbinding your Heart, author Martha Grace Reese writes about a group of pastors she took on a retreat. She asked these pastors what difference being a Christian made to them. She says it was extremely painfully quiet for a l-o-n-g time. Just silence for a very l-o-n-g time. Finally, one pastor said, hesitantly, "Because it makes me a better person ???" - Surely there’s more we can say than that! But putting words to our faith is hard for many of us.

     Would you use your imagination with me? Imagine that you do not go to church on Sundays. Ever.  Imagine that you do not know any hymns or Christian songs at all.  Imagine that you do not know any Scripture . . .You don’t know even the simplest Bible stories . . .Imagine that you are not sure if God hears you when you pray, or what words you should use to pray.

     Imagine that you don’t know who to call to pray for you . . .Imagine that you don't know how God feels towards you. What if you didn’t have a church family?  What if you didn’t even know that God exists?


     Now I ask you, What does being a Christian mean to you?

     Judy Norris, a member of our church has graciously offered to share her answer to this very important question.  Judy, come share with us.

     Photos of children and grandchildren, vacations, and pets.  Surprises, desserts, meals, favorite movies, books, playlists.  Most of us take pleasure in sharing things we care about and enjoy.  When Robert asked me to speak about what motivates me to communicate my faith with others, a wave of panic swept over me.  What knowledge or skill could I share with you? Why would anyone listen to me?  The fear of "what ifs" bombarded me.  And then I realized this is why so many of us are  reluctant to share with others what God is doing for us.  If I felt apprehension speaking in the security of my church home, how much harder is it in the so called real world?
     We are more than happy to share photos of loved ones and fun times.  We're more than willing to split a dessert over coffee and even share a secret desire of our heart with a friend.  But we're not afraid of rejection or ridicule in these situations.  In an age where we can "friend" someone a world away with a single keystroke and share a good read on our eBooks with a simple touch of a screen, we're accustomed to easily sharing things we enjoy with people we sometimes don't even know.  But when it comes to communicating our faith face to face with friends and loved ones, it's harder.  Fear clamps one hand around our heart and secures its other hand over our mouth.  We risk being thought of as " one of those people" or we're afraid people will blatantly reject or mock us.  It's hard. 
     I'm a person who grew up in a church. My parents took my 2 brothers and me to church almost every week.  I had wonderful Sunday School teachers who freely shared their love of God with the squirmy, loud children they taught for 45 minutes or so once a week.  We sang, watched flannel board presentations of Bible stories, created many works of art, and learned about God's love for all his children.  I continued with church and Sunday School during my teen and young adult years due to the dedication of a pastor who recognized the need to offer activities in our small church for people in this age range.  And yet, even with church having played such a  major role in my life, it's often hard to share my faith with others. Realizing that many people have been hurt by the church, or have never even been in a church except for maybe weddings or funerals, I hesitate to share what living in faith can mean. My fear is real and sometimes crippling. 
     But the message to convey is just  too exciting not to share.  God's grace is so much more thrilling to reveal than the plot of the last great movie.  God's love is so much more inspiring than the eBook just sent to  e-reader friends.  The significance of God's forgiveness and salvation is so much more vital than the dessert and coffee just shared over conversation with a friend.  I share my faith with others because the desire to share  something I love with people I care about is more powerful than the fear.  It's my joy to tell others about God's grace because God's stories always make me happy. People were, and still are,  willing to pass along God's love to me, and quite honestly, I want to experience the obvious delight they experience when they share with me. The looks on the faces of those who love God when they talk about him is one of pure serenity, total love, complete joy.  I want that feeling for others and I want it for  myself.
     I share my faith because I want others to know that when my heart is broken I have hope because of God's reassuring grace.  I share my faith because I want others to know that when anger envelopes me, God's peace that passes all understanding calms me.  I share my faith because I want others to know that living with God as the center of my life doesn't mean life will be carefree and easy.  We all have speed bumps and road blocks around which we must detour, but the security of knowing God's will is unfolding despite any barriers reminds me that I am unconditionally loved by a caring, compassionate God.  And finally, I share my faith because  like any exciting news, like any undeserved, surprising gift, I just have to share!  I have to tell others about God. God's message cannot be contained.  It overflows all around us.  Quite simply,  I have to relay the message of God's love and forgiveness.  That's the thing about good news.  It has to be shared with others.
     Thank you, Judy.  Once we get clear about what being a Christian means to us, it's more natural to share our faith with others. We can tell our friends who don’t go to church about our faith because we know what it means to us. Think of our motivation for sharing our faith like filling up this glass pitcher.

[Goes over to a empty pitcher of water and a water cup for dipping.]

     Many Christians are highly motivated to share their faith because they believe you must be a Christian to go to heaven. But surely this isn’t the only motivation for sharing our faith! Going to heaven is a big motivation for being a Christian, but it doesn’t have to be our only one. As one new Christian said, "Okay, my soul is saved for when I die, but what do I do about my life now?"

     You’ve just heard Judy share some pretty powerful motivations in sharing her faith with others.  And maybe you’re aware of some of your own motivations.

     Motivations like, "I have comfort from my church." [Fill up pitcher a little.] "I feel a purpose in my life.” [Fill it up a little more.] "I get direction from the Bible." [Fill up more] "I don't ever feel alone." [Fill up a little more.] "I have hope that everything will turn out alright one day." [Fill up again.] “I am a part of God’s work in the world.” [Fill up to the top]

     All of these fill us up so that we are overflowing. We are motivated
to share with others because we know what a difference Jesus Christ makes
in our own lives, right here and right now!

     There are a whole lot of people living in various kinds of hell right here on earth. People like Saul, who had just lost his eyesight. He had been sitting in total darkness for three days. He is so distraught he can't eat or drink. He's probably wondering if God was about to zap him for how he had been rejecting Jesus and his followers.

     Meanwhile, Jesus is working on a guy named Ananias. Ananias was a reluctant evangelist if there ever was one. He had every right to be. Saul was the last person he would have ever tried to tell about Jesus. Saul had been a part of the killing of Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr.

     Christians were running scared because "Saul was breathing threats against them." Saul was an unlikely candidate for evangelism. 

     But do you know what?  So were the prostitutes that loitered on the corner of First Church in Florida. Most people in the congregation were upper-middle class, African-Americans who had been in church all their lives.

     They weren’t happy that the neighborhood was changing. They were really not happy about the prostitution that was creeping into their parking lot. They grumbled over the cigarette butts by the sanctuary steps. They worried about the "bad P.R." the church was getting.

     It never would have occurred to anyone that the women hanging out on the corners were candidates for evangelism. Candidates for jail, maybe, but certainly not candidates for evangelism! Not in their beloved church!

     But one day, a faithful church member, a retired school teacher, left choir practice on a Wednesday evening. She saw one of the prostitutes, leaning against a lamppost, singing, and right by this church member’s parked Camry. She felt pushed by the Spirit.  She couldn’t find other words for it but she felt led to go talk to this woman in the pink leather hot pants.

     “Hi. My name is Mary. I was just singing with my choir in there. You have a

beautiful voice.”  “Yeah, I love singin’,” the young woman mumbled. “I’m Sheena.” “Sheena, you ought to be singing for the Lord.  You want to come to sing with me in my choir?” That sweet church member almost fainted as she heard the words come out of her own mouth! But Sheena finally said yes. She showed up on the corner the next Wednesday before choir practice. Mary took her in. Sheena did have a beautiful voice.

     With the encouragement of the church and with tutoring from Mary, her dear new retired school teacher friend, Sheena got her GED.  She went to college!  She finished medical school. Now, that former prostitute runs a medical clinic. Out of her church.

     What motivated Mary to talk to Sheena? What possessed her to go into that prostitute's personal hell and walk her out? Maybe it was what motivated Ananias to go talk to Saul.

     We don’t know anything about Ananias’ conversion story. Maybe he led a pretty ordinary existence up to this point. Maybe, like us, he didn’t have a dramatic story to tell about his faith. At least, not until now! The Lord Jesus appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him to go visit Saul. This is a powerful moment of truth for Ananias. Will he go talk to Paul? Why would he? Think with me about Acts chapter 9 and verse 15.

     Why does Ananias go talk to Paul about Jesus? First, Jesus told him to go. Obedience to Christ is a major motivation.  I don’t like to admit it, but sometimes, I need more than just knowing that Jesus wants me to do something. Just because I know I should do something doesn’t mean that I will actually do it.

     Look at the 15th verse again. Jesus gives Ananias another motivation. Something besides “because I said so.” Jesus says, "Saul is an instrument I have chosen." Jesus had plans for Saul. Jesus needed Saul for the ministry of God. And Jesus needed Ananias to reach Saul. Ananias gets to be a part of what God is doing in the world. He is a key player in God’s plan to get the gospel outside so that others can hear and receive it.

     He gets to be the domino that tips another person into God’s love.  He gets to be the hands of God that heal someone’s pain.  He gets to be the light that shines on Saul’s dim path.  He gets to do something for God that only he can do.  He gets to be a part of God’s redemption of the world.

     Now, that’s some motivation!  Not guilt . . .  Not, “because I should” . . .  Not, “because it makes me a better person ???”  Not some begrudging obedience . . .Just a sheer, passionate desire to be a part of what God wants to do in the world. Ananias had the opportunity to make a difference in the world by going where God sent him. Verse 17 tells us, "So Ananias went."

     The Paul Problem has an Ananias Answer. No extraordinary born again story is needed in order to share your faith with others. If you have an extraordinary story of how God came into your life, that’s wonderful.  But really, all you and I really need to do is to claim how we have come to faith in Christ.  Just be you.

     And like Ananias, to then willingly and lovingly share what God means to us with others.

     That’s all there is to it.

Based on the resource, "Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism," Chalice Press, 2008