A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sunday Worship Preview - January 4

Sunday, January 4 (8:30 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. Traditional and 9:45 A.M. Contemporary)

Sermon - "High Def Christianity - A Clearer Picture of Jesus"

Features - Epiphany of the Lord & The Sacrament of Holy Communion

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

Theme - As we draw near to the 12th day of Christmas on January 6 (Epiphany) we begin a two-part sermon series on “High Def Christianity.” What does it mean to switch from an analogue faith to a digital faith? The story of the wise men helps us to see a clearer HD picture of who Jesus is.

Friday, December 26, 2008

When a USC Pastor Serves a PSU Church

My older and wiser brother is a United Methodist pastor in our Penn State dominated home church in southeastern, Pennsylvania. He also happens to be a graduate of USC which will be playing Penn State on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl (4:30 P.M., ABC)

Somehow, the local York, PA newspaper found about this little piece of trivia and recently did a story on what it's like to be an SC pastor in a PSU church. You'll find the short video interview on the right side of the link above.

Enjoy the video.

Monday, December 22, 2008

When to Sing Certain Hymns

One of the most misunderstood aspects of church life is the process used in determining which hymns to use in various worship services. This is most pronounced around the Advent season when a number of people are interested in singing Christmas hymns during the month of December, but it also is an issue throughout the year as well.

Here are some reasons why I think this is one of the more misunderstood issues within the worship life of the congregation:

Reason #1 - The liturgical calendar vs. the secular calendar. The liturgical calendar is the church's seasonal approach to the selection of hymns. Liturgically minded churches are churches that take seriously the worship themes of the particular liturgical season the church is experiencing. For example, Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) is not a season to celebrate the birth of Christ but instead is a season in which to repent and wait expectantly for Christ's coming/2nd coming. Liturgically speaking, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve and lasts for 12 days (as in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song) until Epiphany (January 6.)

The secular calendar wants Christmas to begin sometime around Halloween, or at the latest, on the famous "Black Friday" shopping day. The church has said, "wait just a minute!" Christ's birth celebration isn't until the Christmas season. We need the four weeks before Christmas to be a time of preparing for his coming, not a time of celebration.

Reason #2 - Even though United Methodists have deep liturgical roots thanks to our founder, John Wesley and our Anglican heritage, not all pastors are liturgically minded. Some pastors are biased against the liturgical calendar because it feels too "Catholic" even though good liturgical practice isn't confined to the Roman Catholic Church. Liturgy is practiced widely by many strands of Christendom. In fact, several newer evangelical churches are beginning to reclaim the ancient/orthodox liturgical heritage which utilizes the liturgical seasons, the rich symbolism, and the more orderly approach to the Christian faith. How ironic that when some mainline denominational members have given up on liturgy, several new and growing churches are discovering how liturgy is connecting to younger generations who are hungry for this type of liturgical expression in worship.

On the other hand, there are also other United Methodist pastors who have used good liturgical practice in their churches and many UM congregations have enjoyed being faithful to the particular seasons in the church year and being distinctive from the secular culture. If some of these liturgically rooted church members would visit a church that has little sense of liturgy, it would feel strange to them.

Reason #3 - There is a sense among some church goers that pastors and worship leaders should choose the hymn favorites of the congregation. I've actually heard of churches who have conducted surveys on their favorite hymns and the pastor has inserted hymns into worship based on this survey. Well, that's OK if you're not interested at all in matching up the scripture readings for a particular Sunday with the appropriate hymns.

It's ironic that many folks who want favorite hymns are also the same folks who hold great reverence for the Bible, and yet personal hymn preferences are often chosen over against the theme of a given Sunday's scripture readings. Again, the Advent and Christmas seasons are good examples of this! The rule of thumb in choosing hymns for worship is that the theme of the scriptures for that Sunday always rule the roost.

Other thoughts: Having said all of this, believe me, I have my own favorite hymns that I would like to sing more than 2 times a year. Maybe my favorite hymn will be selected but it first has to meet the liturgical and scriptural theme test before it even becomes a candidate.

And last but not least, some of the lesser familiar hymns are chosen less for their singability and more for their very appropriate and deeply rich lyrics. And sometimes, the melody will grow on you and this unfamiliar hymn ends up helping you to worship on a deeper level for that Sunday.

For the liturgical calendar, this website, The Voice, is an excellent resource for folks who want to grow in their appreciation for the seasons of the church year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday Worship Preview - December 28

Sunday, December 28 (8:30 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. Traditional and 9:45 A.M. Contemporary)

Sermon - "A Sign of the Times"

Features - 1st Sunday After Christmas Day

Scriptures - Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; & Luke 2:22-40

Theme - Jesus was a sign of the times for Simeon and Anna. Jesus' presence was a light to the Gentiles and glory to the people of Israel. Simeon and Anna received the Christ child with praise and thanksgiving after Mary and Joseph arrived at the temple. Simeon and Anna encouraged the new parents, blessed their newborn son, and prayed for them day and night. We can find strength in our faith from the people who encourage, bless, and pray for us.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Who Wrote the Book of James?

Yesterday, my Thursday morning bible study began a new series on the Book of James. This first session was only an overview of the book, authorship, dating, primary audience, etc. When we resume on January 8, we will take one chapter at a time and since there are five chapters in this book, we'll be focusing on the Book of James over a five week period.

Real briefly, here are some of the overview highlights and I'll conclude with a summary of the many people with the name of James in the New Testament.

  • The writing style of this book feels less like a letter and more like a summary of proper ethical conduct for Christians within the church.

  • The author presupposes that the Christians are living in an alien world filled with immorality (reminds me of the Book of Revelation in this regard.)

  • The primary audience appears to be Jewish people who have become Christian and who live outside of Palestine.

  • There is an emphasis on the second coming of Jesus Christ.

  • Tradition claims that the author, James, is the brother of Jesus. Because of the sophisticated Greek style of this book and the late acceptance of this book into the biblical canon, some bible scholars think it may have been someone else.

One of the problems in trying to figure out who wrote the Book of James is because James was such a popular name in the 1st century as well as within the New Testament itself. The reason for this is because the English name of James is a variant of the name Jacob from the Old Testament, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. People would have been very proud to name their sons after this Old Testament hero in the faith.

And now to complicate things...which is why it's good to be part of a bible study to sort out some of these unanswered questions! For all we know, there might be only two people with the name of James in the New Testament or as many as eight different people. Here are the eight references:

  • James the Greater (One of the 12 disciples)

  • James the Less (One of the 12 disciples)

  • James the Just (Listed in the Book of Acts & Brother of Jesus)

  • James the Writer (the author of the Book of James)

  • James the Son of Cleopas (Luke 24:10 & John 19:25 - Is this referring to someone other than the mother of Jesus?)

  • James the Kinsman of Jude the Apostle (Luke 6:16)

  • James the Brother of Jude the Writer (from the Book of Jude)

It's interesting that in our last bible study topic on the book, "The Blue Parakeet: How to Study the Bible" by Scot McKnight, the author sees a connection between Mary, the mother of James/Jesus (her focus on God's concern for the poor: see the Magnificat & the focus on taking care of the poor in the Book of James.) Did Mary teach James when he was a child about taking care of the poor and then he focuses on the poor this in his letter?

Finally, I mentioned that the Revised Common Lectionary which is a three year cycle of readings for each Sunday includes six different passages from the Book of James. We are presenting in the middle of the three year cycle which has five of the six James readings. The other James reading appears in the first year of the cycle.

Next summary on the Book of James: January 8 (when our bible study resumes after the holidays.) And of course, the fun part of this bible study series will be to sort out the whole "faith" (Apostle Paul) vs. "works" (James) debate.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Helping the Homeless

Today, Pastor Rick and I, along with a Faith Community member, visited Interfaith Faith Hospitality Network, a homeless shelter in Xenia. Don Schneider was busy at work with other volunteers getting the building ready.

One of the reasons we visited with Don and IHN was to see about the possibility of Faith Community adopting one of the upstairs bedrooms in the new facility which will mean providing furniture, painting the walls, and making it look nice in time for when the facility opens. Three or four other churches have already signed up to adopt some of the other rooms.

Seeing the building getting closer to completion has been exciting. Presently, IHN is only able to provide housing for up to 14 people. When this new facility is ready, they will be able to host around 24 people in need of shelter. In addition to being able to host several more people, the other huge advantage will be that the families won't have to travel from church to church each week. Presently, this is what the families need to do since their current facility doesn't allow for overnight stays.

The picture above is the largest upstairs bedroom facing N. Detroit Street. That's Don on the left with Pastor Rick and one of our church members. This is one of the rooms that is open for adoption by a local church.

As we get closer to the season of Christmas, we are reminded that there was no room in the inn for the baby Jesus. But thankfully, they found a place for Jesus to be born even if it was where the animals stayed at night.

Let's keep Don Schneider, the staff at IHN, and the homeless families of Greene County in our prayers especially during this cold season. May this become a place of refuge for people in need.

I was so proud to hear that several of our church members have been volunteering their time in helping Don and IHN. Way to go, Faith Community!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Worship Preview - December 21

Sunday, December 21 (8:30 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. Traditional and 9:45 A.M. Contemporary)

Sermon - "When Hope Is Not Enough"

Features - 4th Sunday of Advent

Scriptures - II Samuel 7:1-11,16 & Luke 1:26-38

Theme - Sometimes, our level of hope can get so low, that we need something even better than hope. We need to know of God’s presence and faithfulness. Like Mary in our Gospel reading for today, once we are assured of God’s presence, we can’t help but to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Final Week #6 - The Blue Parakeet

Yesterday, my Thursday morning bible study group concluded our focus on the new book, "The Blue Parakeet: How We Study the Bible" by Scot McKnight, a New Testament bible scholar.

This final session was basically a summary of our past sessions regarding the themes in this book which is that we are to see the Bible as a grand narrative (Story) which includes several smaller stories within the story. The key to interpreting the bible is to wisely and prayerfully decide the cultural context of each biblical passage and determine what truths are meant to carry over into our present day and age. The author argues that what we tend to do is take short-cuts in drawing conclusions regarding a particular text in scripture.

One example of this is the whole issue of whether or not women should teach/preach. In the United Methodist Church, my hunch is that most people in our denomination see this as a non-issue since women have been ordained in the Methodist church since 1956, however, based on some things I hear from female clergy colleagues, we still have a ways to go!

Our bible study group must be farther along than most bible study groups because we ended up having an honest and insightful discussion on the controversial topic of homosexuality by applying what we learned from the "Blue Parakeet" book. We shared opinions which represented a variety of perspectives on this issue.

Just to make sure that the readers of this book do not forget that the bible is a grand narrative (Story,) the author points to Stephen, the first martyr of the early church, who tells the story of God, (Acts 7) beginning in the Old Testament the whole way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are to be like Stephen and remember to not take any particular part of the bible out of context but always locate a passage of scripture in the larger grand narrative.

For anyone who is interested, our next bible study topic will be on the Book of James beginning next Thursday at 10 A.M. at the church.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Annual Christmas Staff Dinner

Each year, our Staff/Parish Relations Committee hosts our staff members and their spouses/guests for a festive holiday meal at the church. They always make it very special by including Christmas decorations and Christmas music.

We have twenty-two staff positions in our church including office support, program, preschool, music, custodial, and clergy. It's very rare that all of us are together in the same place at the same time because of our different functions, but the annual Christmas party gives us the opportunity to enjoy fellowship, celebrate our faith, and reconnect with each other.

The Staff/Parish Relations Committee leaves the entertainment for the evening up to me, so every year I come up with a goofy little icebreaker to bring a little holiday cheer. This year, we sang some Christmas carols and then had some fun with the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

Each staff grouping was assigned two different days of the twelve days of Christmas in which they would stand up when it was their turn and sing their particular day in the song which included a gift that pertained to their particular staff needs. So, for the second day of Christmas, the clergy sang, "On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two subscriptions to preaching magazines."

By looking at the picture from last night's Christmas dinner, you can tell that we will never be the same again!

From the Faith Community United Methodist staff in Xenia, Ohio, and to all of you:
May God's love made known to all of us through the coming of Jesus Christ bring peace, mercy, and love to you, your family, and to the whole world this Christmas season.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Post AIDS Exhibit Reflection

Last Monday, I went through the World Vision AIDS exhibit at our Miami Valley District location at Stillwater UMC. The exhibit just ended yesterday. It was a powerful display of the AIDS pandemic that is ravaging our world. For world-wide AIDS statistics, go to another article on this blog. I took this picture at the beginning part of the exhibit.

If you weren't able to walk through the 25 minute exhibit, this brief video will give you an idea of what it was like. http://www.wvexperience.org/video_trailer.asp

As I think about yesterday's 2nd Sunday of Advent scripture readings which include the cries of the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist, I think of how our church can join other United Methodist Churches in offering our prayers, gifts, and love to families and children who are hurting this day because of the terrible disease of AIDS.

"...the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" - Mark 1:3

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday Worship Preview - December 14

Sunday, December 14 (8:30 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. Traditional and 9:45 A.M. Contemporary)

Sermon - "Love is the Brightest Light of All" (8:30 A.M. & 9:45 A.M.)

Features - 3rd Sunday of Advent; Commissioning of Confirmation Mentors; Children's Musical (11 A.M.); Holy Baptism (11 A.M.); & Coins for Missions Sunday (Coins placed in the offering will help support St. Paul UMC Outreach Center in Dayton, FISH Food Pantry, the Caring Place Meal Ministry in Xenia, & IHN which provides temporary housing for families in need)

Scriptures - Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 & John 1:6-8, 19-28

Theme - John the Baptist testifies to the light of Christ. He humbly points people to Jesus by fulfilling the words of the prophet, 'I am the voice of the one crying in the wilderness.' God has sent people into our lives who give testimony to the light of Christ. These people give testimony by serving as leaders in the church, sharing their faith, and offering their gifts. We can thank God for their testimony.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Stewardship Crisis

"Christianity Today" has a recent article on a looming crisis facing the church regarding stewardship and church finances.

First, the bad news:

- Over 25% of Christians give absolutely no financial gift to support the work of the church they attend. I was shocked at this high figure. Does this mean that based on our church membership, that almost 200 of our church members don't give anything at all?

- 36% of church goers give less than 2% of their take home pay to the church.

- The average financial amount that a church attendee gives to his/her local church is approximately $200 a year which represents about a half of one per cent of the average person's after tax income.

Here are some reasons why stewardship is suffering:

- People have overextended themselves with house and cay payments. These overextended financial commitments have caused the percentage of fixed living expenses to go from 54% to 75%. In other words, because of tremendous debt, people don't have anything left to give.

- People have a general mistrust of how organizations and in this case, the church, will spend their money.

- Pastors and church leaders are becoming more and more reluctant to talk about stewardship in church. Sadly, more and more pastors are neglecting their responsibility to tithe and to lead by example.

And now some hopeful news which includes a challenge:

- The key in seeing growth in the joy of extravagant giving to the work of Christ and the church is through discipline and good financial habits. As we all know, habits and discipline are not developed overnight but over the course of several weeks, months, and even years.

As I reflect on this article, I think of how the Apostle Paul wasn't shy about encouraging the churches he founded to be generous in their giving not only for their own ministries but for ministries beyond their local area.

I also believe that one of the reasons why many people haven't adopted biblical stewardship habits is because the church doesn't always do a very good job of sharing how our gifts are transforming people and the world for Jesus Christ. We need to share these stories of transformation at every opportunity.

Effective January 1st, candidates for ordination will be expected to be tithers (give 10% of their income to the work of Christ and the church.) Pastors need to lead by example, so this is a good move for the UMC to take.

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

Today, we commemorate one of the great saints from the 4th century who was a bishop in what is the present day country of Turkey.

St. Nicholas was known to have given anonymous gifts to help out a family in need. From this tradition...well you know the rest!

The Eastern Orthodox church has a much better understanding of this special day on the church calendar as they hold special services and reenact this tradition of gift giving on the eve of St. Nicholas Day.

So for the people who like to point out that there is a secular Christmas with Santa Claus that is separated from the religious meaning of Christmas, St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) reminds us that many of our present day Christmas traditions are very much connected to the Christian faith.

As we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, let us remember to join St. Nicholas in offering our gifts to people in need.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Happy Birthday, Joy Bunch!

Last night, a small group in our church invited me to join them for their December gathering. Not only was the discussion great, (they've been focusing on a small group book on the meaning of Christmas) but one of the couples in the group provided an incredible dinner!

This particular small group began four years ago as part of our church's launch of the PALS model of small group ministry. PALS is based on the four major components for a healthy and growing small group:

P - Prayer. How meaningful to hear the prayer concerns and joys of this small group and to pray with them last night!

A - Action. This small group has reached out to various needs within our congregation and they collect household products for people in need.

L - Learning. One of the members led a discussion on the Christmas bible study book last night.

S - Sharing. This choked me up last night. One of the small group members reminded everyone that December marks the 4th birthday anniversary of this small group. They spent time reflecting on the original members of the group, newer members, marriages, deaths, and other life transitions they have experienced together as a small group. One of their small group members is now home bound but is still part of the small group.

This small group gave themselves the name, "The Joy Bunch" and I can see why. After being at one of their gatherings, you can sense the hope and joy they have through their faith in Jesus Christ. Notice their smiles in the picture from last night's meeting.

Happy birthday, Joy Bunch! And thanks for your Prayers, Action, Learning, & Sharing.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Week #5 - The Blue Parakeet

Here's a quick summary of our Thursday morning bible study discussion today on "The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible," by Scot McKnight. We focused on the author's example of a biblical understanding of women in ministry.

First of all, McKnight points out several examples of women who were involved in ministry which included teaching, preaching, and/or leading from both the Old and New Testaments. His examples from the OT included, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Esther. Examples from the NT included Mary, mother of Jesus; Priscilla, Junia, & Phoebe.

Of those examples, the most interesting one to me was Junia which many bible translations which have a biased against women in ministry have as Junias, a male name. Why the different names in various bibles? An ancient Greek manuscript has "Junias" because the copyist assumed a male name, a forgivable mistake since copying the bible is no easy task. However, there is strong textual evidence that the correct name is the female name of Junia. Attestation for this is provided by one of the early church fathers.

Of course, we still have some scripture passages which seem on the surface to imply that women should not be involved in the teaching/preaching ministry of the church. On closer examination, there are cultural reasons for those passages. Furthermore, why would we allow a couple of brief scripture passages to override the wealth of information of several women who were involved in significant leadership positions such as the women mentioned above?

Last but not least, some people claim that the entry of sin into the world in the Book of Genesis points out that men are to rule over women. But as the author points out, the point isn't that this is to be a permanent condition but as a consequence of what happened when sin entered the world. God desires both men and women to serve side by side in ministry. As Paul writes, "In Christ, there is no male or female..."

Next Thursday, we will wrap up our bible study on "The Blue Parakeet."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hope in Advent

In this beginning week of the Advent season, I am reminded of God's faithfulness even as we patiently wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christmas on Christmas Eve and the season of Christmas. Here's how my day went...

  • I was able to prepare a future sermon and worship service. I'm always in a good mood when I get most of the planning done. Thanks be to God!
  • A parishioner calls me to let me know that she was offered a job after being let go from a previous job. While the salary isn't as high as the previous job, the health insurance is much better. Plus, there's room for advancement. Thanks be to God!

The last Trustees meeting of the year was held at the church tonight and we were able to offer our appreciation to three board members who have faithfully served their term and serve their church well. Plus, someone brought pizza to the meeting and I had missed dinner. Thanks be to God!

For much of the day, a beautiful light snow fell to the ground reminding me of how special this time of year really is. Thanks be to God!

My day started with scripture readings from "The Daily Office" and one of the readings from Isaiah 1 summed up the hope that we find in this season of anticipation and expectation:

26 And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city ofrighteousness, the faithful city. 27 Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.

May this Advent season be filled with the hope and anticipation of the coming fulfillment of God's promises!