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, September 30, 2009

September 5 Sermon - "Rethink Church"

Sports Announcers & God's Word

NPR recently had a nice article on the impact that famous baseball announcers have on our national consciousness.

Even the casual baseball fan probably would have been able to recognize the voice of Harry Kalas who announced for the Philadelphia Phillies and who died this past April before the season began. Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, I heard his voice often but it wasn't until he passed away that I actually saw a picture of him.

In his commentary on announcers, Frank Deford says, "...when he retired in 2002, (Ernie) Harwell (announcer for the Detroit Tigers) thanked his listeners for 'taking me to the cottage up north, to the beach, to the picnic, your workplace, and your backyard.'"

As I think about Ernie Harwell's comment, isn't this what is going on when we seek to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ? When we are in worship together, we hear God's voice speak to us through the hymns, songs, scriptures, prayers, and sermon. And during those times when we're not physically present in church, God's voice continues to speak to us at the cottage up north, at the beach, at the picnic, our workplace, and in our backyard.

No matter where we may be, we are able to hear God's voice through prayers, through times of listening, in our conversations, and as we read the scriptures and meditate on how they relate to our lives.

God's voice might not sound exactly like Harry Kalas or Ernie Harwell, but whenever we hear it, whether in church or as we go through our week, we know that we are not alone. God is with us.

And the more we listen for God's voice, the more familiar it becomes to us. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Humor and the Christian Faith

This evening, Christian comedian, Mike Williams entertained a nice size crowd at the Crossroads facility of Lancaster: First UMC. Mike travels the country sharing his gift of humor and has an incredible ability to help Christians and the church to laugh even if it's about ourselves!

Near the beginning of his performance, he shared that God created humor and there must be a reason why God allowed it as part of God's creation. He believes it's because humor is one of God's ways of helping us to cope with the challenges and valleys we face in life.

Mike's impersonation of Bruce Springsteen, his invention of a much cheaper hands free bluetooth option for cell phones (a rubber band,) and his samples of stupid sayings found on public signs helped us to laugh and remember to not take ourselves too seriously, even those of us who are very committed in our faith and to the work and ministry of the church.

I've often felt that humor, when appropriately used in sermons, bible studies, worship, and conversation can help us connect with God at a deeper level. Maybe it's because effective humor has a way of dismantling even the coldest of hearts which frees us to be open to new possibilities thanks to the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

How has humor sustained you through difficult times?

October 4 & 7 Worship Preview

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

Sermon - "Roadblocks"

Features - 18th Sunday After Pentecost & World Communion Sunday (Holy Communion)

Scripture - Ephesians 4:1-6 & Mark 10:13-16

Friday, September 25, 2009

Check Out "Christian Young Professionals" Ministry at a United Methodist Church

My good friend, Ed Zeiders, Sr. Pastor at St. Paul's UMC in State College, PA shared with me about a ministry of Christian Young Professionals. It's specifically for 20 to 40 year olds who want to grow in their faith and make a difference in their community for Jesus Christ.

And no, I'm not posting this only because this church is located just off the campus of Penn State. OK, maybe there's a little something to it, but it's more about the ministry. :)

What a joy to see this age segment taking an active part in the life of the church, especially when many mainline churches are seeing a decline of this age segment.
I am so thankful for the christian young professionals who are active here at Lancaster First UMC!

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.

Late summer into fall....
warm afternoons, cool nights
blue skies, the brilliant colors of changing leaves,
the taste of fresh apple cyder.......


It's not that I don't like those things.......
But each fall, my home is invaded by that dreaded insect,
the cricket.

There's nothing wrong with listening to the little guys on the lawn,
chirping the night away.
It's just that I don't really need to be serenaded in my bedroom ................
at 3am.

Scientists say that the male cricket chirps
to entice the female for purposes of mating.

If that's the case,
my home has become a love shack for the little tikes.

It started about 4 days ago...
not just in the bedroom.
There was one also in the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen.
It didn't matter where I went to try to sleep.
They were there....talking to each other, from a distance.

It was the same feeling as if a couple chose to talk in front of me in Spanish,
so I wouldn't know what was being said.

So I laid awake, wide eyed,
listening to their locker room banter....
It went something like this....

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(Hey guys, glad to see you made it into the vault)

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(Yeah! Glad the human of the house left the sliding door ajar.)

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(He's not very smart.)

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(Where are the girls?)

Chirp, Chirp
(I think they are hanging out by the fireplace)

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(It's going to be a wild and crazy night)

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp, Chirp!
(Wait, I see one of them. )

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(I see her too. Jiminy Crickets, she is hot!)

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(Watch your language, let's not take our name in vain.....)

Chirp, Chirp, Chirp
(Let's hit it boys.....)

As the chirping increased to a rapid pace,
I could hear them getting closer together.
I could only imaging what they were about to do....
on my carpet.

By now I was wide awake.
And so I did what any self respecting human would do,
I turned on the lights.


Nothing stops a wild party like a raid.
Nothing stops depravity like shining the light on it.

Jesus spoke how we are like crickets.
We do those things in secret
under the cover of darkness,
that we wouldn't do in the light of day.

That's the nature of sin.

Crickets have an excuse,
they are acting entirely on instinct.
What's our excuse?

As for me.....
I recommend ear plugs.

"For nothing is hidden,
that shall not become evident,
nor anything secret that shall not be known
and come to light."

Luke 8:17

Thursday, September 24, 2009

George Barna: Poverty, Health Care Reform, & American Views

George Barna, probably the most recognized religious research guru who tracks trends, opinions, and views on a variety of contemporary issues facing society and the church, offers this feedback on the topic of poverty and health care reform.

I think it's helpful sometimes, regardless of what opinion we may have, to step back and read the pulse of the country to help us distinguish between popular sentiment and an authentic Christian response.
Below is a portion of Barna's summary of the pulse of our country's worldview regarding the topic of poverty and more specifically, health care reform. The last paragraph which I put in bold is the "catch 22" of the health care reform issue and why this is such a controversial topic that often prevents people from being open minded and having civil discussions.

Views of Poverty:

Our surveys underscore the fact that about three-quarters of all adults believe poverty is one of the most serious issues facing the nation. Even more significantly, most Americans also contend that when it comes to alleviating poverty, that’s mainly the government’s responsibility. Two-thirds of adults look to the government to solve issues related to poverty – including health care deficiencies. Just one out of every five adults believes that solving poverty is an individual duty, and a mere one out of 25 people assigns that task to non-profit organizations, and another one in 25 assigns it to churches.

As we assess how individuals deal with poverty on a personal level, we find that Americans do get involved, but in a kind of arms-length manner. For instance, the most common responses are for people to give money, food, and clothing to someone else to get the job done. In contrast, the most personal responses are the least common. Relatively few Americans talk directly with the needy, tutor them, build homes for them, visit them, befriend them, or engage in other types of personal activities to address the issue.

One might say, then, that we mean well but we’re too busy, too disinterested, or feel too inadequate to actually address poverty personally, head-on. Given that mind set, it’s no wonder that the current health care debate centers not on what every American can personally do to help alleviate human suffering, but on how we can get the government to provide a more efficient alternative that will neither break the bank nor hinder our lifestyle.

In essence, what Americans seem to want is increased government services, more efficient delivery of services, no increase in taxes, and no personal involvement in the process. In a nutshell, our argument is: it’s not my fault and it’s not my job, so let the paid professionals deal with it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Heart for the De-Churched

Yesterday, I attended a seminar in Columbus on helping the church to have a heart for the de-churched, a term that describes people who for whatever reason(s) have become disenfranchised with the church. Many of these folks are open to reconnecting with a church that is clear about its mission and speaks to their needs.

Jim Griffith, a church consultant was the presenter (see picture of Jim leading us yesterday.) Here are some of the gems of his presentation:
  • For churches that are 10 or more years old, it takes 72 members to help one person with no church affiliation to become a member. For churches that are 5 years old, it takes 17 members. And for churches that are 3 or less years old, it only takes two members to reach one person. The point that he was making is that the younger the church or the newer the worship service is, the more people are willing to invite unchurched friends to worship and church events.
  • Even for people who have had a negative experience with the church, our United Methodist brand name is pretty positive in our society thanks to UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) which responds to natural disasters and often makes the news. Plus, our "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" media campaign has been helpful to promote our image.
  • It's important for the Senior Pastor to spend at least 20% of his/her time out in the community, rather than in the church office.

Actually, regarding the last point about the Senior Pastor spending time in the community, I have dedicated time each week to get to know the local businesses. This seminar is prompting me to think of additional ways I can connect with our community.

The other lingering thought from the seminar is how to help the church to always have a heart for the de-churched, especially since statistics tell us that the older the church, the less likely we will invite people to attend church.

This is a lot to think about and all of this from one seminar!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Stewardship Reflections

With the beginning of autumn, many churches offer sermons or even a series of sermons on stewardship and the handling of money, especially as we begin to put together church budgets for the upcoming year. At Lancaster First, we will focus on this important spiritual topic of stewardship in early November.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism, preached, taught, and wrote on the topic of stewardship extensively. Below is one of his famous teachings on the topic of money. This three-part summary is an easy way for us to remember what it means to be good stewards of all that God has given us.

Gain All You Can. However, do this without hurting your neighbor. We cannot ruin our neighbor's trade to advance our own.

Save All You Can. Do not throw precious money and talent away in idle expenses, which is the same as throwing it into the sea.

Give All You Can. First, provide things needed for yourself, your wife, children, and any others who are part of your household including whatever is moderately required to maintain health and strength. If you have a surplus, then "do good to them that are part of the household of faith." If there is still a surplus, "as you have opportunity, do good unto all men."

Instead of trusting riches, Wesley encourages us to “trust in the living God; then we will be safe under the shadow of the Almighty; his faithfulness and truth shall be our shield and buckler.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

The United Methodist Way - We Are a Connectional Church

Yesterday, Cheryl Foulk, Earl Bishop, and I served as presiding Elders for three annual church conferences hosted by Baltimore Christ United Methodist Church in their new facility. The purpose of a church conference is to meet each year to celebrate the past year's ministries, elect new officers, review the membership rolls, certify Lay Speakers, set the pastor's compensation, and eat cookies with icing on top after the meeting.

Cheryl presided for Fairfield Beach, Earl presided for Fletcher Chapel, and I presided for the host church. In addition to those three churches, six other churches met with their designated presiding Elders for their church conferences.

As I attended this church conference cluster of meetings at Baltimore Christ UMC, I was reminded that as United Methodists we are part of a connectional system in which churches support each other in our common mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

By presiding for Christ UMC's church conference, I feel more connected with the hopes and dreams of this beautiful congregation just north of Lancaster.

Our church will be privileged to host another of these cluster church conferences on Sunday, November 8, 3:30 P.M. which will also be the day that the church conference for Lancaster First will be held. All members of our church have voice and vote.

Come and join us on November 8 to celebrate this year's ministries, plan for another wonderful year of ministry in 2010, and offer radical hospitality to other United Methodist churches who will be joining us.

And hopefully, we'll have cookies with icing on top.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Worship Preview - September 27

Sunday, September 27 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service)

Sermon - God Is Real in your Life

Features - 17th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50

Theme - James ends his epistle by giving us some practical ways that we can become more aware of how God is real in our lives. When we practice these ways on a consistent basis, it’s amazing how much more real God becomes for us and how much our faith grows as a result.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How We Interpret the Bible

One of the key and vital focuses for local churches and for individual Christians is in our approach to the scriptures. During our church's staff retreat this past week, we talked a lot about the importance of offering people opportunities to read, study, and discuss the bible in small groups and classes.

I am grateful for the opportunity to teach two bible studies here at Lancaster First UMC which are both designed to help us study the scripture text that will be used for the upcoming Sunday morning in worship.

Dr. Scott McKnight is a New Testament scholar who has written several books to help us think about a helpful approach to our study of the scriptures. Recently, he was the keynote speaker at The Chapel, which is a church near the University of Akron.

Bob Robinson who attended the presentation posted a summary of Scott's message on his web blog. It's an excellent summation of five shortcuts people often use when trying to interpret the bible. Scott McKnight encourages us to not settle for taking a shortcut approach when reading, studying, and applying the bible.

Instead, we are to interpret the bible in its narrative context. When we see the bible as story, it helps us to not interpret the scriptures with our preconceived biases of what we think it means.
As you read Bob's s summary of Scott's presentation, think about the shortcut(s) that you tend to use when reading and interpreting the bible. By being aware of these shortcuts that we often take, we are better able to interpret the scriptures in their original context.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Another September Staff Retreat Picture

Part of our staff group resting during a hike through the beautiful woods and rock formations of Camp Akita.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September Staff Retreat - Inspiration & Renewal

The staff members of Lancaster First UMC participated in a two day overnight retreat at the georgeous (more about the spelling of this word later in this article) Camp Atika, about a twenty minute drive southeast of Lancaster, Ohio.

Nestled in the scenic hills and wooded area of nearby Hocking Hills, this location provided us with lots of inspiration and renewal as we gathered to renew our faith in Jesus Christ and plan ministry for the coming year.

Here are some of the highlights of our time together:
  • Our agenda included worship services, Holy Communion, singing, hiking, free time, eating, laughing, getting better acquainted, and board games.
  • We spent a lot of time sharing our personality profiles based on myers-briggs, enjoyed learning how we are created uniquely by God, and thought about how we might best function as a team based on our personality types and preferred work environments
  • Drawing from our Wesleyan and United Methodist heritage, we developed a staff covenant which will help us to function at a high level as a staff team.
  • We focused on our primary mission as a church which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and our core values which include 1) radical hospitality 2) passionate worship 3) intentional faith development 4) risk-taking mission 5) extravagant generosity.
  • Part of our bible study time was to read Acts 2:42-47 together which includes references to the core values and we discussed the six benchmarks to become an Acts 2 fruit bearing congregation. These benchmarks include 1) increase in membership 2) increase in worship attendance 3) baptisms 4) including new Christians into our church membership 5) seeing an increase of people involved in intentional disciple making small groups 6) paying 100% of our conference apportionments.
  • We spent some time thinking about how we might break the 80/20 barrier (20% of the people doing 80% of the ministries) and how we can increase our level of stewardship commitment within the church, especially in the context of our national economic downturn.
  • What would an overnight staff retreat be without a fun game of "Apples to Apples" and a two hour competitive round of "Trivial Pursuit?" My team lost, partly because I asked the question at one point, "Is the earth considered one of our planets?"
  • We conducted a SWOT analysis of our congregation (S - Strengths, W - Weaknesses, O - Opportunities, T - Threats) and listed our responses on a giant white board which led to a very helpful discussion. From this exercise we developed some key areas that we as a staff will work together to address in helping us in our mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. These include 1) increasing the number of lay people involved in at least one ministry. 2) focusing on how we can continue to maximize the use of our beautiful Crossroads facility as we seek to live out our mission 3) find ways to help our church pay 100% of our conference apportionments 4) increase and expand the number of discipleship making small groups/classes.
  • Since Camp Akita has a beautiful lake, several of us enjoyed boat rides with one staff member (who shall remain nameless) capsizing his boat (did I use a male pronoun?)

OK, now the explanation for the word, "georgeous." I told the staff during the beginning of the retreat that I had misspelled the word, "gorgeous" during one of our Wednesday evening worship services and instead spelled it as "georgeous." So now, we have a new word to describe something as magnificent and wonderful. And that word is "georgeous."

So as you can see in our staff picture above, we had a georgeous retreat together these past few days! The staff would like to thank the congregation for giving us the gift of these two days which inspired and renewed us so that we can offer our very best in ministry.

We are excited about what God is going to do through us for the remainder of 2009 and into the new year.

Monday, September 14, 2009

No Line On the Horizon

Yesterday was the start up of our fall programing here at First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Ohio. The rest and relaxation of the summer and Labor Day weekend are now behind us and new possibilities and dreams are ahead of us.

As we look ahead to what God has in store for our church, I like the image that U2's new album cover offers to help give us a glimpse of the future. It's a picture of a vast body of water and the sky above meeting together and you can't tell exactly where the two meet. No line on the horizon.

Since I wasn't scheduled to preach yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit each of the Sunday School classes both at the church and at Rising House. From pre-school and all the way up to our adult classes, it was great to meet the classes and hear a little about what each class would be studying.

From the junior highs who were learning about the biblical patriarchs to an adult class beginning a study on Philip Yancey's book, "What's So Amazing about Grace?" to 1st through 4th grade Sunday Shop which focused on the importance of making good decisions, I could sense that our church is ready to take on new dreams and possibilities.

Since I didn't preach, yesterday also gave me an opportunity to worship in the balcony at the 8:15 service. I've been wondering what the perspective is like for folks who sit in the balcony and now I know. The large stained glass window was gorgeous and the colors were so vivid.
As I stared at the window during the 8:15 service, I couldn't help but to think...

No line on the horizon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Worship Preview - September 20

Sunday, September 20 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service)

Sermon - Who Is Wise?

Features - 16th Sunday After Pentecost & Commissioning of Adult Mission Team

Scripture - James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a & Mark 7:24-37

Theme - "Who is wise and understanding among you?" This is the question James poses to each of us and to our church on this Sunday. What does James mean by being wise and how do we know if we are wise? It appears that James is writing from personal experience in his focus on the importance of having wisdom. Together, we will discover how true wisdom is directly connected with our experience of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reflections on the 9/11 Anniversary

A friend of mine lost her brother in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. I had the opportunity to meet the young widow who was left to raise her beautiful children. They shared stories of what an incredible man he was and how he was always wanting to make the world a better place.

Less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, the extended family honored their loved one's memory by offering an act of mercy by building a house for a needy family in Tijuana, Mexico. This was their family's way of responding to the tragic events of that day by working to bring more of God's kingdom here on earth.

I do not necessarily like the name that has been given to this day in which we commemorate the 9/11 anniversary. Patriot Day. It feels too confining and too narrow. Instead of waving the flag and getting caught up in national patriotic fervor on this day, I hope families like this will inspire us to join them in planting seeds of hope just as they have done in memory of their loved one.

UMCOR Early Response Training

UMCOR, United Methodist Committee on Relief is offering early response training for anyone sensing a call to help with this wonderful outreach arm of our denomination. UMCOR has a great reputation in providing resources and support in places that have experienced significant hardship.

Whenever we read in the news about a place that is going through a disaster of some sort, it's an incredible feeling to know that our denomination is most likely already on the way to provide help.

A percentage of local church apportionments (money sent to the West Ohio Conference) pays for the administrative costs of UMCOR which makes it possible for 100% of designated gifts given toward UMCOR to go directly toward disaster relief.

Here's the early response training information:

To register for one of these events, contact Jim Rodgers, West Ohio Conference Disaster Response Coordinator at 740-989-2086 or e-mail at jimbarb23@windstream.net

(Both classes start at 9 A.M.)
  • September 26 at Community UMC in Circleville, Ohio

  • October 31 at New Knoxville UMC in New Knoxville, Ohio

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Good Work Out at the Church

I was able to make my first trip to the "Y" for a work out last night. There were probably twenty or so people doing cardio and lifting weights while I was there.

Earlier in the day, I had a spiritual work out at the church as well. It began with a staff worship exercise in the chapel. Pastor Cheryl Foulk led an inspiring service which included holy communion. When you work out in church, it's always good to stay replenished!

From that work out, I went to another room to focus on another exercise...a program staff meeting to help strengthen the ministries of the church. We talked a lot about our fall programing, new member classes, and ministry initiatives which will be coming our way in 2010.
From there, I worked out with a worship planning team and together, we planned future Sunday worship services. Another exercise group called Staff/Parish Relations gathered to see how we can best support our staff leadership to continue to lead us in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Before I left the church work-out, I came across one more group of folks breaking a sweat and that was our global missions team. They wanted to show me what their new Lithuania/Latvia workout machine looks like which will be coming to our church this April.

It was great to see so many people getting a work out in church. These folks motivate me to stay in shape in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Gotta go...I have another church work out this morning.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Statistics & Prayer

After some research, here are the 2009 unemployment rates for the US, for Ohio, and for Fairfield County, Ohio. Together, let's say the following prayer as we observe Labor Day today.

2009 January & July Unemployment Rates
January & July
US - 5.4% & 9.7%
Ohio - 6.4% & 11.1%
Fairfield County, Ohio - 7.9% & 9.3%

Labor Day Prayer
Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sunday Worship Preview - September 13

Sunday, September 13 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional & 9:45 A.M. Contemporary)

Sermon - "The Tongue is a Fire"

Features - 15th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Proverbs 1:20-33 & James 3:1-12

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Proper Dating of United Methodist Church Bicentennials

This is an historical marker in front of Moore's Chapel located in southern, Ohio indicating that it was on this site that the first Methodist Episcopal Church building (a log cabin) was built in Ohio and the Northwest Territory in 1800.

I took the above picture of this marker during my visit to Moore's Chapel as part of last week's annual sermon planning retreat.

There's some "splitting of hairs" with Methodist history as to the oldest Methodist church since this is referring to the first Methodist church building and not to the first Methodist congregation or class meeting. I believe that distinction belongs to Francis McCormick in Milford, Ohio.

Those of you who are Ohio Methodist history buffs can sort this all out!

This does raise a question regarding the proper dating for church bicentennials. I would say that the official beginning of a congregation is when it became an organized "society" which is a specific early Methodist term rather than when a church structure was built. The only problem is that it's often easier to date a building than to find a date for a decision to become a society.

Just think how many West Ohio United Methodist churches have or will be celebrating their bicentennials! I wonder how many of our conference churches have celebrated this milestone already.

Lancaster First UMC in Lancaster, Ohio will be celebrating a bicentennial in 2012.