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, November 29, 2010

1st Sunday of Advent Prayer

Collect of the Day: First Sunday of Advent

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Quote of the Week

"She's like a magician who puts the rabbit in the hat but when she pulls it out, she is still surprised that she pulled a rabbit from the hat."

- Songwriter, Bono describing the creativity of Director Julie Taymor in putting together the musical, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."

Two TVs - One Happy Family

This past week, Penny and I hosted the family for Thanksgiving from Wednesday through Saturday. There were twelve of us of all ages and political leanings.

The tv in one of the rooms was reserved for FOX news watchers while another tv was available for CNN watchers. It was a great compromise!

Yes, there was some good natured ribbing between the blue supporters and the red supporters, but mostly, we simply enjoyed catching up with each other and sharing in some great meals. After watching the painful negative ads from the recent mid-term elections, I'm thinking that both political parties need to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal together.

All you need for peace and harmony are two tvs, great food, football, and the game, "Taboo," but most importantly, a prayer before each meal in which God is invited to be present in every conversation.

A belated Thanksgiving to the Nikos reading community!

Sunday Worship Preview - December 5

December 5 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 8 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "'Tis the Season before the Season"

Features - 2nd Sunday of Advent & Advent Candle Lighting

Scripture - Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matthew 3:1-12

Theme - The season of Advent is often overlooked in our rush to celebrate the Christmas season. What is the purpose of the Advent season and what is God calling us to do during these four weeks to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Conversation about Ministry with Young Adults

Yesterday, I had lunch with a lay member of a church who has a passion for ministering to young adults, particularly twenty year olds. He just turned 50 and it was exciting for me to see just how important this ministry is for him.

Here are some gems that I received from our conversation regarding reaching young adults through the church:
  • First of all, his passion was very evident, partly because he has two daughters who are now in their 20's and he knows how important it is for the church to include this vital generation.
  • Here's an example of a ministry that would probably work: Have a coffee hangout time for twenty year olds with some music and conversation on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning, offer an opportunity to be involved in a hands on ministry outreach in the community.
  • This relates to the above point, but don't simply focus on invitations to Sunday morning worship. Help young adults to gather in more casual settings with outreach offerings.
  • Be open to hosting "spontaneous" gatherings of young adults. We need to be flexible and look for those opportunities. My friend shared how some friends of his daughter were in town visiting and they invited them to their house for dinner and conversation.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sermon (November 21) "Qualities of a Good Leader"

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

I finally completed my Annual Church Conference forms! And that’s a good thing since our Church Conference meeting was held this past Monday!

One of the forms I get to help complete year in and year is a Nominations form for the upcoming year. We have 140 program and administrative positions that are listed on our Nominations form.

And of those 140 total positions, from August through October, the Nominations Committee needed to fill 45 of those positions. 45 positions. I am pleased to announce that we did it! This past Monday evening, our congregation approved those 45 names who will help lead us in ministry for the upcoming year.

In addition to our administrative and program leaders, there are many other ways that people provide leadership throughout the church. Leadership is a vital part of any church. I strongly believe that the church will only go as far as the leadership of the church, under the authority and direction of the Lord Jesus, will take them.

I was in a meeting with our Bishop a few years ago and a lay person who was also at the meeting was complaining about the poor pastoral leadership at her church. And she said, “Bishop, you need to do something about this.” Referring to the poor leadership of her pastor.

And the Bishop responded that his goal is to equip the pastors of the Conference to be the best possible leaders that they can be. And then he asked us this question: What are the three most important qualities that a church needs in a pastor? He answered his own question. He said the first most important quality is leadership. The second most important quality is leadership. And the third most important quality is leadership. Leadership. Leadership. Leadership.

About 600 years before the birth of Christ, the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah of just how important it is for God’s people to have strong leaders. The Lord said, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.”

This just goes to show how much God cares for His people. And then the Lord says through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

The Lord wants to call forth leaders for the purpose of caring for all of His people, especially for those, who for whatever reasons, are outside of the sheep fold.

What are the qualities of a good leader in God’s eyes? These qualities come from Colossians chapter 1, verses 11-20.

A good leader knows where his or her strength is found. A good leader knows where his or her strength is found.

The Apostle Paul writes in verse 11, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his (meaning Christ’s) glorious power.” Isn’t it great to know that to be a good leader has nothing to do with our strength but it has everything to do with relying on God’s strength?

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year before we begin the Season of Advent which prepares us for Christ’s birth.

Christ the King Sunday is a day to celebrate Christ’s glorious reign over all the earth. It’s a day to remember that Jesus Christ wants to reign in our lives, have supreme control over our lives, and give us the strength that we need to accomplish whatever He wants to accomplish through us.

When I was in college, I attended a revival at a nearby United Methodist Church. I can’t even remember the name of the guest preacher but he was an awesome speaker. And he described a time in his life which has always stuck with me even to this day about the importance of relying on God’s strength for ministry.

He said how he was pastoring a church and he couldn’t get it to grow. He said that even though he would put in 70 hours a week by visiting the sick, going door to door in the community to invite people to church, work on his sermons, and attend church meetings, the church just didn’t grow.

He was reaching a point of burn-out in his ministry and ready to call it quits. But one day, he felt the Lord calling him to use a different strategy. During his personal devotions one morning, he felt the Lord telling him to quit relying on his own strength to grow the church, and to start relying on Christ's strength through prayer.

The next day, he went into the church office like he normally did, and told his church secretary to call every denominational committee and community board and inform them that he was resigning as of that day.

He then proceeded to walk into his pastor’s study and throw away all of the paper work that was cluttering his desk. And then he walked over to the middle of his office floor, sat down on the carpet, and spent the rest of his morning in prayer.

This went on for the next several days and the people in his church began to wonder if their pastor was OK. But over a period of time something wonderful began to happen. The church gradually began to grow. The church began to grow because this pastor and soon after, the majority of the congregation, began to make prayer and dependence on God, their first priority in everything they did.

If nothing else, Christ the King Sunday, has a way of knocking us to our knees to the point where we realize that it’s not our strength or our busyness, but it’s God’s strength working through us that makes all things possible.

The second quality of a good leader. A good leader is patient. Paul writes in our Colossians scripture to endure everything with patience.

Do you know why patience is so important for a leader? It’s because leaders are in the people business. If you think about it, any healthy relationship involves patience.

One of my favorite all time TV shows is Greene Acres. Poor Mr. Douglass. He had to exercise his patience everyday with some of those townspeople. He had to deal with Mr. Haney who would try to sell him anything under the sun. And then there was Eb, the bizarre hired hand. Fred & Doris Ziffel, his crazy neighbors who were also the proud parents of Arnold the Pig. And last but not least, his wife Lisa, who wasn’t always with it, if you know what I mean.

What always amazed me about this show was in how Mr. Douglass was able to show patience. Watch this scene when Mr. Douglass tries to explain to Lisa about their fuse box.

(Green Acres Clip)

I came across these five points to help leaders in having patience in working with people so that we can endure with patience.

Number one - We are patient when we remain positive under pressure. Have you ever been in a meeting or a conversation and things turned negative and sour? When we remain hopeful, even though problems come our way, others see that positive attitude and it can make all the difference in the world.

Second, in order to endure with patience, we need to be sensitive to people. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, Jesus tells us.

Third, we endure with patience by controlling what we say. When we speak, it should be to build others up and not to tear them down.

Fourth, we endure with patience by being peacemakers. The scriptures consistently tell us to refrain from quarrels and arguments that get in the way of our main mission of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with a lost and hurting world.

And fifth, we endure with patience by being a people of prayer. Prayer is probably the best way to have more patience in our lives. Prayer is how we hand our problems over to God.
And then there’s this third quality of a good leader found in our Colossians’ text. A good leader is filled with joyful thanksgiving. Paul writes in verses 11 & 12 for us to joyfully give thanks to the Father.

Notice how I am able to weave Thanksgiving into this sermon.

Good leaders and good shepherds are people who are constantly aware of the blessings that are all around us. Their faith doesn’t become dull and boring. Their lives are filled with expectation about what God is going to do next.

“I wish I had never read Huckleberry Finn,” a man once told its author, Mark Twain. With a scowl, the great humorist asked the reason for such a remark. “So that I could have the pleasure again of reading it for the first time” came the reply.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said about the stars, that if the constellations appeared only once in a thousand years, imagine what an exciting event it would be. But because they’re there every night, we barely give them a look.

Rev. William Secker once said, “The Lord Jesus spreads a large table every day.” Really, if you think about it, that spread of food that graces our tables on Thanksgiving Day represents a very small portion of the many blessings that God has poured out upon us.

One of the qualities of being a good leader is to keep a thanksgiving spirit fresh in our lives.
Panera Bread is a restaurant that is known for their fresh breads. Their philosophy is to always have fresh bread for their customers. No bakery would ever try to advertise by saying that they offer “unfresh bread.”

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” Not our weekly bread. Not our monthly bread. But our daily bread. Sometimes, we as Christians, forget that Jesus wants to give us fresh bread each day. It’s this fresh bread that leads us to be filled with joyful thanksgiving on a daily basis.

And I just don’t mean white, wheat, asiago, or rye bread. I’m talking about spiritual bread that feeds our souls, that inspires us in our faith, that gives us energy to spread the good news of Jesus Christ wherever we go.

Christians who are filled with joyful thanksgiving are those who are filled with passion, energy, and an anticipation of what God is going to do next.

Rev. Dick Lyndon became Senior Pastor of Goshen First United Methodist Church, in Goshen, Indiana, in 1991. Goshen First United Methodist Church was a declining downtown church which had very little vision for the future.

Through Dick’s inspirational leadership and through the renewed life and energy among the congregation, new discipling groups and Bible Studies were started along with a midweek ministry that offered a meal and small group opportunities, and the congregation also added a new facility to reach a rapidly growing unchurched population on the growing west side of the city.

This church, which had been in steady decline, has been reaching all ages with the message of Jesus Christ’s love.

Not only did Dick’s leadership have an impact upon this church, his influence and expertise has had a national impact on churches across the country. In 1995, there were less than ten multi-site congregations in the country, but as of 2003, there were more than 1,200 churches that elected to reach people in multiple sites.

Dick Lyndon’s high energy pastoral leadership has had a tremendous impact upon my life. I got to know Dick in 1997 when I visited his church in Goshen, Indiana and came away inspired and excited about the new life that was being breathed into this congregation. Dick and I talked on the phone and would e-mail back and forth about ministry ideas and what he thought would work and not work at the church I was serving in Toledo at the time. But even more than his helpful thoughts and ideas, his high energy for the sake of the Gospel is what has meant the most to me.

In 2004, after a six week illness, Dick Lyndon passed away at the age of 62.

I knew Dick Lyndon to be a person of joyful thanksgiving. Someone who was truly a great shepherd. Someone who cared about God’s sheep, both in the fold and outside of the fold. Someone who was filled with passion, energy, and an anticipation of what God would do next.
God is looking for good leaders. Leaders who have these three qualities. 1) They draw their strength from Jesus Christ, who is the King of Kings and the Lord of lords. 2) They know how to be patient and build people up. And number 3) They are filled with joyful thanksgiving. They are inspiring to be around. They have a vision for the future.

There are others that I could have lifted up who have served as positive leaders in the church and I’m sure that you can do the same. But here’s what I want to have us think about before I close this sermon. To various degrees, God is calling each one of us to serve as caring shepherds for people who are inside or who are feeling outside of God’s fold. That’s the focus of our Jeremiah scripture this morning.

Now, you might not think of yourself as one of the many leaders in the church or as one of the shepherds that God has called to serve in and through the church, but really, we’re all called to have a part in being God’s shepherds.

Or let me put it this way. Anytime that you are involved in a ministry that involves making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world, then you are a leader in the church. The question is what kind of leaders are we? Do we have the qualities of a leader that we have been looking at this morning?

Are we relying on God’s strength and not our own? Are we a people of patience which we need when we are in relationship with other people? And are we leaders who offer joyful thanksgiving and have a positive expectation of what God is going to do in and through us?

I mentioned earlier that our Nominations form lists 140 positions which include serving on our Church Council to serving on our Board of Trustees, to Finance, to Staff/Parish, to Worship as well as several other committees and program areas. If you will be serving in one of those 140 positions in the coming year, if you’re able, I invite you to stand and remain standing as I pray this prayer.

And I invite all of us to bow our heads as I lead in this prayer for all of our leaders here at First Church:

Lord Jesus, on this Christ the King Sunday, you invite us to be leaders and shepherds for the people in our church and community. Raise up within our own congregation more leaders and shepherds who have a heart for reaching people. And for those new shepherds and leaders who you are calling in this moment, may they remember to always draw their strength from you, may they remember to be patient and seek ways to affirm people and build them up, and may they inspire others through joyful and thankful living. We pray this in your name, the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords. Amen.

Sunday Worship Preview - November 28

November 28 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 1 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Hope: Things Will Change"

Features - First Sunday of Advent; Lighting of Advent Candle; & Holy Communion

Scripture - Isaiah 2:1-5 & Romans 13:11-14

Theme - During these four weeks of Advent leading to the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, our theme is "Child of the Light." On this first Sunday, the light of Christ helps us to have hope in our faith.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Royal Wedding

The recent engagement announcement of Prince William and Kate Middleton is creating quite a stir in the media. We love royal weddings! When the wedding takes place, all eyes will be fixed on the ceremony.

Weddings give us an opportunity to anticipate that time in the future when heaven and earth will become one. As the Lord's Prayer states it so well, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

At the end of the bible in the Book of Revelation, we have this beautiful picture of the heavenly Jerusalem descending upon earth. "He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more." - Revelation 21:3

The bible often uses the image of a wedding or a marriage to symbolize this relationship between God and creation. In the New Testament, it becomes even more particular with Jesus Christ (the groom) and the church (the bride.)

This is one of the main reasons why the covenant of Christian marriage is considered one of the seven Sacraments of the Catholic church and at least seen as "sacramental" in many Protestant traditions. The coming together of a husband and wife is a reflection of the marriage of God and creation (heaven and earth.)

As we near Christ the King Sunday this Sunday, this is the ultimate royal wedding that we anticipate and even begin to celebrate now.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bible Study Summary - Upcoming Sunday's Scriptures

Here at Lancaster First UMC, I am privileged to be part of two weekly bible study groups that study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday worship services.

November 21 Scriptures - Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Colossians 1:11-14
Christ the King & Thanksgiving Sunday

Jeremiah 23:1-6
- Jeremiah was one of the patriarchs we focused on in August as part of the “Matriarchs & Patriarchs sermon series.
- Historical Context – Northern Kingdom (Israel) taken over by Assyria (722 BC) & Southern Kingdom (Judah) taken over by Babylonia (586 BC). Jeremiah prophesied during the Judah/Babylonian take over period. Took another 50 years before people of Judah were able to return to Jerusalem.
- Present passage is a word of “woe” toward the Judean Kings who were not caring for the people.
- Verses 5 & 6 point toward a future king who will be righteous (Jesus Christ.) This is a play on words with the name of the present and incompetent King (Zedekiah) which means, “The Lord is Our Righteousness.”
- Verses 7 & 8 look toward a 2nd exodus like event for the people of God.
- Questions from Text:
1. What are some qualities of a loving shepherd leader found in this text?

Colossians 1:11-14
- Context – Paul is writing from prison, probably in Ephesus (sea coast of modern Turkey) to the Christians in Colossae which is 100 miles inland. Paul is glad that the gospel that has been planted in Colossae is bearing fruit and growing. Paul wants them to continue to bear fruit. Since Colossae is a new church, they might not be aware of pending dangers and challenges that may be coming their way.
- Verses 11 & 12 – Paul encourages them by praying for them. Paul is being a loving shepherd to them even though he can’t be with them in person.
- Thought: In what ways can a letter or other form of communication help those in your care when you cannot be present in person?
- Specific parts of Paul’s prayer – For them to be patient, steadfast, joyful, & thankful.
- Learning to be thankful is a theme in this letter. Paul wants them to always be grateful for the extraordinary things God has done and continues to do through Jesus Christ.
- Verses 13 & 14 – Paul uses exodus language to help us remember how God has delivered us.
- Thought: How can we be reminded of all of the good things God has done and is doing?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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 am not afraid of heights,
nor am I afraid of insects....

But put the two together,
and it's a different story

This past summer, I needed to bring down a banner
that had being hanging over a local street.

It seemed like a relatively simple task,
just one that required the right tools and time.

My biggest concern wasn't the heighth I would have to climb,
nor was it that the ladder had to be placed in the mushy side of a hill for footing.

It was the electrical connectors that were located
at the same heighth where the banner was hanging.

They looked rather menacing,
and seemed to have enough voltage to light up
a small country.

No, I don't fear heighths.
But electrocution at 20 feet is another story.

I began my climb,
tools in hand...

As I approached 2,343,000 watts
I realized I didn't have any free hands
to navigate around the cables of current.

There is something to be said for creativity.
A screw driver placed under the chin,
a hammer conveniently tucked under the arm....

A strange thing happens to you
when you are up on a ladder
in a small town where everyone knows everyone....

as they drive by, people wave at you.

Now I consider myself a friendly person,
but the good Lord only gave me two hands
so I opted for a steady grip onto ladder and life
rather than a gesture of hospitality.

I was beginning to untie the extensive knot sytem of the first rope
which was inches away from the electric cable of death,
when this enormous bug decide to pay me a visit.
I had never seen anything quite like it,
except perhaps from the flying monkey scene in the Wizard of Oz.
It had a wingspan large enough to command a small aircraft
and furry arms that would make King Kong proud.

I am sure that entomologists might disagree with me on this,
but the dude had teeth,
or at least something with the capability
of having me for lunch.

It must have read my mind,
for the hairy little beast decided
that landing on my neck
was a nice little respite.

My worst fear now moved from electrocution
to having all the blood sucked out of my body.

With no free hands,
I decided that my next best option
was to cough,
hoping the force of the expulsion would scare
this African Killer Bee onto some other poor soul who was walking by 20 feet below.

The beast would have nothing of it.

After three more waves by well meaning passer byers,
(who had no clue that this little vampire was about to suck the life out of me)
I decided that my only chance for survival
was the screwdriver.

I thought about stabbing the beast who was encroached onto my neck,
but common sense prevailed.
I was ready to gently nudge it with my screwdriver,
when this massive insect from the dark side,
decided to venture into the neckline of my shirt.

Suddenly electrocution didn't seem like such a bad option.

Which leads me to Thanksgiving......

I am thankful that the beast wasn't particularly hungry
when he paid me a visit.

I am thankful that I wasn't electrocuted that day.

I am thankful that I got the banner down.

I am also thankful,
that each and everyday
the Lord carrys me through each and every circumstance of my life,
no matter how strange or unexpected they may be.

I am thankful for strength and physical health
to be able to climb ladders.

I am thankful for having the mental resources
to make decisions,
particularly when 20 feet above ground.

Most of all I am thankful
that He is faithful in ALL things

As I sit down to table this Thanksgiving,
I will remember all these things and more,
as I take time to give thanks.

May you do the same.

Have a wonderful experience of thanks giving.

Just do it a ground level,
and be sure to bring insect repellent.

"Let us come before His presence
with Thanksgiving." -
Psalm 95:2

Quote of the Week

"I do not despair of you," Hugh said to him at their first interview; "I know how much your many occupations interfere with the health of your soul."

Hugh of Lincoln (12th century), spiritual advisor to King Henry II during their introductory meeting. Thought for this week: Who in your life knows about the health of your soul and is willing to serve as a guide, mentor, and friend in your walk with Christ?

Today, (November 17) Hugh of Lincoln is remembered on the calendar of saints.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Post Church Wide Fast Reflections

My church recently participated in a church wide fast in conjunction with our annual business meeting in which we prepare for our coming year of ministry. Below are some of my reflections on yesterday's day of fasting:
  • Let me cut to the chase - Fasting isn't my favorite thing to do! I like to eat! Around noon when I get particularly hungry, the smell of the lunch meal we serve at the church was really getting to me. And then the church staff got this announcement over our intercom system: "We have extra food down here if you want a hot lunch." Ouch!
  • I'm not as disciplined in my faith as I would like to be. About a month ago, I began to fast for my Friday lunches. While that may be a noble new commitment, I notice that my Friday dinner intake has increased! So I wonder, "Am I really getting the most out of this spiritual discipline?"
  • Since our church has been preparing for a fast day, I have noticed more and more fasting references in the bible. It's funny how that is often the case.
  • When I had some blood work done last week, the nurse asked me if I had fasted. She then said, "I hate fasting." I'm not alone, I guess.
  • In a book I recently read about the spiritual discipline of fasting I was surprised to learn the following: 1) fasting isn't really about us receiving a blessing. It's simply a way for our body/spirit to respond to a crisis/significant spiritual situation that is happening. I'm so accustomed to the modern view of "what's in it for me?" 2) fasting is not a health benefit. Our bodies are meant to take in healthy food on a consistent basis. Again, the question isn't "how is this going to help me?"
  • At the end of our church wide fasting/prayer service yesterday, we broke our fast by receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion, something that the early Christians did when they would conclude a time of fasting. Receiving the Sacrament was seen as the beginning of a time of joy and celebration after having gone through a time of no food. I told the congregation that it's important for us to go from our service to offer God's healing love and the good news of our faith to all of those around us. There's a time for fasting but there is also a time to celebrate.

I am curious to hear from others on how the spiritual discipline of fasting has been a part of your faith journey.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Sermon (November 14) "A New Earth"

OK. I admit it. I’m really into new things.

When Penny and I clean our house together I’m in charge of cleaning the kitchen sink. And one of the things I get to do when I clean the kitchen sink is to replace our old sponge with a brand new sponge.
I can tell by your reaction that you’re not quite catching on as to what a new kitchen sink sponge means to me. There is nothing like breaking out a bright yellow porous cleaning device and throwing the old grimy and stained one away. I love new things.

Another favorite thing for me is when I take a ride in a brand new car. How many of you just love the smell of a brand new car? Absolutely.

This is the bible I use every Sunday in worship. It’s an NRSV bible which stands for “New Revised Standard Version.” The former translation was simply called “The Revised Standard Version.” How many ways can you say that something is “new?” We’ll leave that up to the folks in marketing.

And what’s up with worship attendance being really high on the Sunday that a newly appointed pastor is introduced to the congregation for the very first time? Is that why we Methodist preachers move from church to church? People like new pastors? And when do we become old pastors?

If you are into new things, you’re not alone, because so did the prophet Isaiah. Writing during one of Israel’s most painful moments in history, when God’s people had been sent into exile and were just beginning to return to the Promised Land after several decades of being away from their homes, the prophet paints a beautiful picture of hope and promise.

“The Lord is about to create new heavens and a new earth,” he says. New heavens and a new earth.

Just what does this prophet mean when he says, “a new earth?”

Imagine a world in which people will live healthy lives, where everyone has a place to live, where people will be able to grow food and have plenty to eat, and picture this in your mind… imagine a world in which even a wolf and a lamb feed together.

A wolf and a lamb feeding together.

Or a Buckeye and a Nittany Lion embracing?

Or how about a Buckeye and a Wolverine acting like they like each other?

Or a Republican and a Democrat shaking hands and smiling. Remember those days?

Or a famous rapper apologizing to a former President?

A wolf and a lamb feeding together.

By the way, did you hear the story about the two rabbits who were being chased by a pack of wolves? The wolves chased the rabbits into a thicket.

After a few minutes, one rabbit turned to the other and said, "Well, do you want to make a run for it or stay here a few days and outnumber them?"

The new earth that Isaiah has in mind is a world that is filled with harmony and where even wildlife peacefully coexist in God’s created world.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of the painting by the 19th century artist, Edward Hicks entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom.” The painting includes several different species of animals gathered together and enjoying God’s creation and just down the hill from these animals is an even greater scene – Native Americans and white Europeans gathered together in fellowship and friendship.

Edward Hicks did with the brush what Isaiah was doing with his spoken word – helping us to imagine a new earth.

One of the foundational beliefs of our faith is that we believe in a loving God who created this wonderful world which includes meadows and fields, mountains and plains, sunsets and rainbows, cattle and fish, trees and flowers, and every creature on the face of the earth. God created all of this and called all of his creation good. And we had this wonderful garden filled with beauty, harmony, and loving human interaction. So if it’s helpful for you in trying to picture what Isaiah might mean by a new earth, we might want to start from the beginning and think about the Garden of Eden, because that was God’s original intention for creation.

And of course, the story of those early chapters of Genesis tells us that we disobeyed God and because of our rebellion against God, we don’t have to look around for too long to painfully realize that we have a long way to go if that’s how God’s creation was intended to be. A place of peace, justice, harmony, and where all of creation celebrated and worshiped God.

I was looking through the tie rack at a well known department store when I heard a mother yelling at her child who was probably only in the 1st or 2nd grade. “You shut your mouth,” she angrily yelled at her daughter, “You shut your mouth or I’ll haul off and hit you upside the head and then you’ll know to shut your trap.” On and on, she made these verbal threats to her daughter.

Surely, this isn’t the way God intended this world to be. Today, the prophet invites us to imagine a new earth the way that God has always intended for it to be.

Christians have mostly gone one of two ways in interpreting passages like this one from the prophet Isaiah. Many Christians see this vision of a new earth as something that has nothing at all to do with this present earth. They believe that what the prophet really means is that one day God will do away completely with this earth and that what’s really important is heaven, a place that is beyond time and space.

One of the reasons that people see it this way is because they believe that our world as we know it is beyond redeeming. Things have gotten so bad that the only way to solve the problems of the world, is for God to do away with his creation all together and to have us focus on heaven instead. This interpretation is understandable at first glance, especially when we read about the problems in our world such as child abuse, crime, oil spills, wars, nuclear capability, global warming, and the list just goes on and on.

But the problem with that interpretation is that it fails to take seriously the first two chapters of the Bible where we are told that God created this earth and everything in it and called it good. And if God called his creation good, it doesn’t make sense that God will one day just do away with it. And beyond the first two chapters of Genesis, it’s also important to remember that the way that God decided to deal with the problem of sin and evil in the world, was to establish a covenant with Abraham and through this covenant, God would form the people of Israel, so that they would become a light to the nations and a blessing to the entire earth.

If this earth was beyond redeeming, why would God have gone to all this trouble? No. God created this earth and everything in it and called it good. And in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul calls people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, people of the new creation. In other words, Paul wants us to know that through Christ, God wants to bring about his new creation on this earth.

Any time that we take care of God’s creation, we are announcing to the world that we believe in a God who wants to make all things new, including this earth. Through the power and strength of Jesus Christ in our lives, we are called by God to live in such a way that Isaiah’s vision of a new earth will become more and more real through us.

A church bible study group was actually studying this very topic of the importance of being good stewards of God’s creation and for one of their outreach projects, they chose to pick up litter along the highway one morning. It was a small but significant way of expressing their faith in a God who created this world and called it good. People took notice of them and many thanked them for taking time out of their schedule to serve in this way.

These conversations provided an opportunity for bible study members to share their faith. They explained that they were part of a bible study group of a nearby United Methodist Church and had been studying the creation story from the Book of Genesis and how through Christ they were called to participate in God’s new creation of the world. Picking up litter along the road was just a small way that they were seeking to live out their faith.

A few years ago, I was with several other church leaders attending a continuing education seminar where the walls of the room were all glass so that we could see everything that was going on outside of our building. In a way, it was a little depressing since every day of that seminar was sunny and beautiful outside!

Since the location of the seminar also had a preschool next to it, we couldn’t help but to take great delight in watching these adorable children walking hand in hand with their parents to the preschool entrance every morning.

And in the afternoon, we would watch the parents pick up their children. There were some days during that seminar, where I kind of tuned out from what the speaker was saying because I was more interested in watching these children. They would often be smiling as they walked hand in hand with mommy and daddy and once in a while, they would even look in the window and smile at those of us who were watching them from inside the church building.

Watching those children smile at us each day was a true gift to help break up the day a bit. Isaiah reminds us that God’s new earth will include the care and protection of children.
During that same week long seminar, a United Methodist layman who was probably somewhere in his late 70s and who was sitting at my table during one of those days, shared with me that he really appreciated the opportunity to be part of this time of learning.

He said that since he retired, the world has kind of said to him that his life was pretty much over and there wasn’t a whole lot left for him to do. And he said that thanks to the week long seminar, he was learning that God isn’t finished with him yet.

And I said, “Well, Bob, what do you do in your church?” And he said, “Well, I serve on some committees. I volunteer at the hospital. And I help recruit people to serve on retreat weekends.” He went on to share several more things that he does in his church and community.

And I said, “Bob, it doesn’t sound like you’re slowing down at all.”

And he said, “Oh, there’s a lot more that I think God wants me to do and this seminar is helping me to realize that.”

Isaiah also includes older persons in his vision of a new earth, doesn’t he? All of us are called to live out our faith in Jesus Christ and work toward Isaiah’s vision of a new earth.

An extraordinary work of art was put together by very creative artists from Mozambique after the end of that country’s long and bitter civil war. The work is a sculpture of the tree of life which is the tree we find in the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis when God created the earth.

The artists sculpted this tree and it stands about ten feet tall, with spreading branches of another ten feet in all directions. In it, and under its shade, are birds and animals.

And the whole thing, tree, creatures and all, is made entirely from decommissioned weapons: bits and pieces of old AK 47s, bullets and machetes and all the horrible paraphernalia of war, most of them made in peaceful western countries and exported to Mozambique so that the government aid given by the west to that poor country would flow back to our own industries.
But the whole point of this extraordinary work of art is that it reminds us that God created this earth and wants there to be nothing but God’s peace, justice, and love for all people. All people.

Any time that someone turns away from evil and sin and accepts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior by faith, God’s world is being made new. Any time that you feed a meal to the hungry or clothe those who are in need or help carry groceries to someone’s car or welcome the stranger or collect food for a food pantry or give up a morning to rake people’s leaves or donate gently used children’s coats or offer hope to someone in despair, God’s world is being made new.

During visits with church members in a nursing home, I shared this same scripture from the prophet Isaiah about God’s desire to create new heavens and a new earth. I invited each of those shut-ins to imagine this earth as a place of no suffering, no war, no pollution, no pain, and no death.

I could tell I struck a chord especially with one of the nursing home residents. After a few moments of imagining this earth totally renewed by God, she then looked at me and said, “Reverend, this world needs to hear these words from Isaiah.”

She said it with a conviction that would rival any evangelist. “The world needs to hear these words.” She’s totally right. There is no better time than right now, right now, to share this tremendous word of hope to a broken and hurting world.

So let’s continue to share this good news of our faith throughout our community and world. It’s a message that points us to a picture of God’s preferred future.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Worship Preview - November 21

November 21 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, November 24 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Qualities of a Good Leader"

Features -Christ the King Sunday & the Sunday Before Thanksgiving

Scripture -Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; & Luke 23:33-43

Theme - As our church has been in the process of electing new leaders for 2011, this is a good time to hear a word from the prophet Jeremiah on the importance of leadership in the church. The prophet refers to leaders as shepherds who care for God’s sheep. In our Colossians text, the Apostle Paul also speaks about important characteristics that we need to keep in mind as we serve Christ and his church.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Walk On" - A Tribute to the Release of Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on November 13th. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest because of her fight for democracy in the nation formerly known as Burma. In 1990 she won in a general election to become the Prime Minister, but the ruling military put her under house arrest. Her stand against injustice has also been a stand for freedom.

The rock group, U2 has been one of the leaders of a campaign over the past several years to raise awareness of her imprisonment. Their song, "Walk On" is dedicated to her brave witness in standing up for what is right at the cost of her own freedom. During their most recent world wide 360 tour, U2 invites people to wear an Aung San Suu Kyi mask and walk on the stage as the band plays their song, "Walk On" which was written a few years ago in recognition of her courage.

Below are some of the lyrics of the song:

You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom

Walk on, walk on
What you got they can't deny it
Can't sell it or buy it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bible Study Summary - Upcoming Sunday's Scriptures

Here at Lancaster First UMC, I am privileged to be part of two weekly bible study groups that study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday worship services.

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Focus – November 14

Isaiah 65:17-25 (Main Text)

Context of passage – Isaiah prophesied to the southern kingdom, Judah in the 8th century BC. His ministry lasted until around 700 or late 600’s BC. Most scholars believe that Isaiah 65 reflects a later prophet who was prophesying after the people had returned from Babylonian exile in the early 500’s BC. The Temple is still in ruins and the people are in need of a word of hope upon their return.

Chapter 65 is a wonderful eschatological picture of the Judeo/Christian hope of a new earth.
- It’s poetic writing.
- Emphasizes newness of a restored creation.
- Age won’t be an issue.
- People will enjoy fruits of their labor.
- There will be peace (echoing Isaiah 11) like the Garden of Eden.

This passage is what I would call a response to the problem posed by theodicy (how can a good and loving God allow bad things to happen?) While it doesn’t address this question directly, it lifts up the ultimate hope that one day, God the creator will restore creation and God’s justice and love will fill the earth.

Thoughts on Text:
1. Does knowing that God will one day restore all things speak a word of comfort to those who have recently experienced death or hardship?
2. Why do you think the Bible is silent in directly answering the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?”
3. In what ways can the church point people to the good news of this future hope of a restored creation?
4. Does this eschatological hope mean that Nittany Lions and Buckeyes can live together in peace?

Luke 21:5-19

This passage has often been interpreted as events describing when the end of the world is near. Instead, it is really a passage regarding the destruction of the Temple which would take place 30-40 after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Jewish people in the 1st century would have scoffed at such a prediction. But Jesus is warning them of that approaching time. It would be a life changing event and would lead to war and persecution. Jesus promises to give them the words to say when that time would come.

When the church faces challenging times today, we can also take to heart Jesus’ word of hope that he will give us the strength to tell our story (share our faith) and be patient.

1. In what ways does this scripture speak to our church today?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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.

It's not that the Hatfields and McCoys aren't nice people,

but sometimes it is a better idea to let them be nice......
in different time zones....
or at least in different dentist offices.

Twice a year I take that journey to the dentist office.
I don't know of anyone who actually enjoys
going to the dentist.

I consider it one of those necessary evils,
like taxes and skydiving.

This year I looked forward to it even less.
For you see, my dentist is a McCoy.
He roots for the other team.
You know who I mean,
the arch rival of my football team.

Now I am sure that otherwise,
my dentist is a morally upright person,
but when it comes to football,
let's just say that I pray for him,
especially when he has his hands in my mouth.

The thing with the Hatfields and the McCoys is
no one knows who started it.
All they know
is that it started...

On this particular trip to Dr McCoy,
it was game day for my team,
so I knew it was going to be a challenging road trip for me.

Particularly when I knew
that on game day,
I was morally obligated to wear my team jersey.

I was in trouble as soon as I entered the waiting room....

Catcalls from the receptionist,
cold glares from waiting patients,
even a six year old who brazenly said.....
Your team stinks!

After 10 uncomfortable minutes of mental anguish,
I was ushered into a cubicle
to await my punishment.
I began to perspire as I looked around at all the
weapons that Dr McCoy had at his disposal
to inflict pain on this poor Hatfield.

A glimmer of hope appeared
as the dental assistant entered.
I was lucky.
She was a Hatfield too.

In past visits,
she had my back.
If I ever needed a dental hygienist as a bodyguard,
today was the day.

We high fived and and traded jokes about the other team
I even learned the art of talking smack talk
between flossing and rinsing.

Dental Hygienist Hatfield had lifted my spirits....
that is,
until Dr McCoy entered.

The cubicle became quiet.
I knew I was in for a time of testing.
Who knew what manner of punishment Dr McCoy was concocting....

Perhaps cavities that were "created',
a root canal for fun....

He glared down at me.
He didn't ask if I had been flossing,
oh no......
he asked who was goin to the Super Bowl.

I had the answer.......
but he had the drill.

With a supportive glance from dental hygienist Hatfield,
I looked him in the eye and said...
We are. You're going down!

It was then that Dr McCoy decided to "go down"
that is into my gums.

I can't say that the next 10 minutes
were the worst 10 minutes of my life,
but how I wish I had saved one of my time outs for now......

We live in a culture
where we are to stand up and loudly cheer for our team,
but we are told to keep quiet about our salvation.

I find that strange.
As much as I like the game of football,
it has no significance when compared to the eternity.

And from a spiritual perspective,
there are no Hatfields and McCoys,
just one pool of humanity,
all of whom needs the saving grace of God.

I think about the times that I have remained silent
when I could have spoken about the Savior's victory over death for me.

That's a victory that has far greater effect upon me
than any football win.

So the next time
I feel like a Hatfield in a McCoy world......
Lord, help me to testify
about the greatest win of all.

PS. The Hatfields won that evening.

"You shall be brought before
governors and kings for My sake,
as a testimony to them and to the world.
But when they deliver you up,
do not become anxious
about how or what you will speak;
for it shall be given to you in that hour
what you are to speak.
For it is not you who speak,
but it is the Spirit of Your Father who speaks in you."
Matthew 10:17-20

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Ultimate Thanksgiving Dinner Prayer

Do you ever wonder how you can possibly express your full gratitude to God during the prayer before the big Thanksgiving meal? A spontaneous prayer is totally appropriate and this is usually what our family does when we gather around the table. Usually, this is offered by our mom who is the honored matriarch of our family.

But if you don't go the spontaneous prayer route, you might be interested in this wonderful prayer of thanksgiving that is found in the prayer book. It's a general thanksgiving prayer that can be used for a variety of occasions, but especially for Thanksgiving Day.

This prayer brings to mind many reasons for us to be thankful and it represents good theology.
  • This prayer puts the focus on God.
  • It honors God as the creator and source of all our blessings.
  • It acknowledges God's love for the world through Christ and that we can know and experience that love through God's means of grace (worship, Holy Communion, prayer, etc.)
  • We have hope because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.
  • We are called to respond to these blessings with thankful hearts and in serving others.

If not used around the thanksgiving table, this prayer is a good one to say each day leading up to the holiday.

"Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen."


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sunday Worship Preview - November 14

November 14 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, November 17 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "A New Earth"

Features - 25th Sunday After Pentecost & Receiving of New Members
Scripture - Isaiah 65:17-25 & Luke 21:5-19

Theme - The prophet Isaiah offers a vision of God’s intention for all of creation – a vision which includes harmony, peace, and justice for all people. During this Sunday as we near Thanksgiving, Isaiah will help us to think about what it means for us to be a people who long to participate in helping to make a new earth.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Six C's of the Bible

I've heard this comment or others like it many times in my years of pastoral ministry. "I'm learning more than the kids!" It's usually spoken by Sunday School teachers, youth confirmation mentors, and children's bible study leaders.

This past week, I poked my head into a classrooom filled with children learning about the Bible and one of the adult helpers said something close to this. "These classes are helping me to know more about my bible."

They say that the best way to learn is by becoming a teacher. Hopefully, the bible resources that we use are ones that provide a solid biblical foundation. Recent studies reveal that atheists know more about the Bible than most Christians.

I forget where I found this summary of the Bible, but it's a very helpful way to keep scripture passages in context. Context is a vital part of any bible study, sermon, or personal devotional time.

I call it the six C's.
  • Creation - God created the world and called it good.
  • Corrumption - We sinned and God's creation became corrupted but not unredeemable.
  • Covenant - God makes a covenant with Abraham and with God's people that through them creation will be redeemed.
  • Christ - Jesus was able to do what we were unable to do by fulfilling God's covenant through his life, death, and resurrection.
  • Church - Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church lives out the good news of Jesus' resurrection, making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world.
  • Consummation - Jesus will reappear and heaven and earth will become one and God's people will received resurrected bodies.
When we read a passage of the bible, it's always important to be mindful of where we are on the six c's map. Do you find the six "c's" helpful?


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bible Study Summary - Upcoming Sunday's Scriptures

Here at Lancaster First UMC, I am privileged to be part of two weekly bible study groups that study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday worship services.

All Saints’ Sunday – November 7
What is All Saints’ Sunday? A day to give thanks for those who have faithfully lived and died and who now are in glory forever and who await the coming resurrection.
Who are the saints?
Scripture – Luke 6:20-31

Jesus has just called 12 men to be his disciples. This echoes God’s calling of the 12 tribes of Israel to be God’s people.

1st Century Context: Prosperity was viewed as divine favor. John Wesley said that prosperity is “a sweet poison.”

Jesus offers the 12 a vision for what it means to be God’s people: 4 promises and 4 warnings. This is similar to the blessings and cursing from the Book of Deuteronomy.
The good news of God’s kingdom will include an upside down change.

Love your enemies – Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person and do it! God is generous to his people. We too, are called to be generous to everyone.

What would our community and world look like if a lot of people lived out Jesus’ vision for his kingdom? What if even just a small number lived out this new vision?

John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules 1) Do no harm 2) Do good 3) Stay in love with God.

Covenant Groups – Small groups of people who meet weekly to share how each is doing in the areas of acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion.

1. The church year has built in times to help us remember, grieve, and give thanks for those who have gone before us. All Saints’ Sunday & Ash Wednesday. What are the stages of grief that can help us to find healing?
2. All Saints’ Sunday raises the question of what happens to people after they die. The bible offers us the hope and promise of eternal life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

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.

They say you can't judge a book by it's cover.
Perhaps the same can be said for a car and its driver

One beautiful morning last summer,
I was leaving to go to work.
It was one of those summer days
when you wish you could be outside all day...
clear skies, soft breeze,
temperatures in the low 80's.

It was a great day to put the top down on the car,
except that I don't have a convertible.

But apparently,
the Amish do.

As I reached the end of my driveway,
I noticed a blue sports car coming down the road.

Now I am not a car junkie.
I see them as transportation, not hobbies.
However, when a sleak, sports car
comes across my path on a beautiful summer morning,
I tend to take notice.

As it got closer,
I really did take notice.

There, in front of my eyes,
was this beautiful blue corvette convertible,
being driven my an Amishman.

Now I must confess
that I don't have proof that he was Amish,
but the dude was wearing the plain clothing of the Amish
complete with suspenders, hat, and beard

He was smoking a pipe
and looking like he was on top of the world.

Now my first question was obvious.....
Why is an Amish man driving a car,
let alone a sports car?
Did his horse have a wounded foot?

But the first question prompted the second......
How did the dude keep
from losing his hat?

He wasn't going fast,
but even the Amish must obey the laws of physics.

I had visions of him waking up before dawn
to milk the cows,
then eating a hearty breakfast,
and then asking his wife to use bobby pins to secure his hat
for his ride to the market.

We expect to see things that make sense
But sometimes things just don't seem to fit....

a tuxedo at a football game,
a Donald Trump at a soup kitchen,
a priest at a tattoo parlor.

Perhaps that is our problem,
we want to make everything fit
into nice convenient categories.

For Christians, that should seem odd,
because we serve a master who was anything but conventional,
when he walked this earth.

He was born in a feeding trough....
He walked the countryside unencumbered by a mortgage payment...
He broke bread with the dregs of society, in their homes
He took his final breath while nailed to a tree.

Maybe the Amish guy with the bobby pins had it right.
Maybe Christians need to be far less predictable.

Do I practice compassion and mercy
to the extent that it turns heads?

Do I live fully willing
to let the things I own
be used of God for His purposes?

Do I practice forgiveness to extravagance
because I have been extravagantly forgiven?

The Apostle Paul said
our citizenship is in heaven, not here on earth.
We should feel out of place in this temporary home called earth.
We should live according the standards of our home yet unseen.

But do we act as if we are out of place?

I must admit my first instinct was to judge the Amish sports car guy.
But as I thought about it,
I realized he was teaching me a lesson.

If I live under the command of Christ,
I will do things far more unusual
than an Amish guy driving a sports car.

I do have one suggestion for the guy....
Get rid of the bobby pins dude.
Take your hat off while driving.
Feel the breeze through your hair.
That's why guys own convertibles.

Now go and surprise someone for Christ
as you let your hair down.....

For our citizenship is in heaven,
from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior,
the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philippians 3:20


Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Day Prayer

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of our country and local communities in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon (October 31) "Marks of a Christian: Commitment"

Well here we are. We’re at the end of our month long focus on what it means to offer our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness for Christ and his church as we prepare for a new year of ministry together.

Over the past several Sundays, we have been seeing how these five membership vows are important marks of a Christian. And being faithful in these five areas are at the heart of what it means to have a vibrant and growing church.

I’ve noticed in my own life that when I make a personal commitment in each of these areas; prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness, my faith becomes more alive and I feel like I’m making an impact through the life of the church. I believe God is calling our church to be a fruitful, life transforming, and Christ centered community of faith so that we can fulfill our mission which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.

This is the kind of church that I hope and pray we all want to have, a church that’s making a difference in the name of Jesus Christ.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to google the phrase “boring churches” on the computer just to see what I would get. I thought the first website it gave me was some sort of joke. It was a website on how to find 25 boring churches. And then I found out that it was simply a website that had a list of 25 churches located in the city of Boring, Oregon.

And then I thought to myself, “What would it be like if I was the pastor of First Boring United Methodist Church in Boring Oregon?” And so I did a little search and discovered that there are no Boring United Methodist Churches in Boring, Oregon.

Now, maybe somebody here has been to the city of Boring, Oregon. I haven’t. It’s probably not a bad place to live, but I wonder how their Chamber of Commerce puts a positive spin on the name of their city.

As we conclude our “Marks of a Christian” month long journey, I want us to think about the early church and how it was anything but boring. In fact, it was in party mode, ever since the Holy Spirit came upon it on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days following Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The Holy Spirit was forming those early Christians into an exciting, life transforming, world view altering, hope-filled, resurrection-empowered, risk-taking community of faith. We can see the five marks of a Christian that we have been looking at this past month right here in our Acts scripture passage.

First of all, notice they’re emphasis on prayers. We are told that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Notice that offering our prayers is the very first vow we make when we join the church. They could have gone alphabetically with these five marks with the first one being gifts. Instead, the list begins with prayers.

I don’t think that it’s by accident that prayers lead off the list. The Acts 2 church knew the importance of making prayer a priority in all that they did. And it wasn’t just something they did once the Holy Spirit had come upon them on the Day of Pentecost. They had been praying in the Upper Room together ever since Jesus had ascended to heaven. In fact, one chapter earlier in Acts chapter one, Luke is careful to point out that they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.

What a great way to describe the people of a church! They devoted themselves to prayer. I can’t think of a higher compliment to give to a church. That church is known for their prayers.
The Acts 2 church was not only devoted to prayers. They also offered their presence in worship. They were a church of both prayers and presence. In Acts 2:46, Luke tells us, “Day by day, as they spent much time in the Temple.”

In their Jewish tradition, the Temple was the central place where everyone gathered for worship. Why the Temple? The Temple was the place where heaven and earth overlapped. Even though the early Christians believed that God was present everywhere, the Temple was seen as that central place where God was uniquely present.

A friend of mine who’s a pastor told me about an embarrassing thing that happened to him one Christmas Eve at his church. When the service began, he got up to welcome everyone and he said, “It’s so good to welcome you to our Christmas Eve service tonight. I haven’t seen many of you since last Christmas Eve.”

He said that people in the congregation started laughing because they thought he was referring to the Christmas and Easter crowd who only come to those two services each year. But he was innocently referring to the people who travel from out of state each year to see their families at Christmas time.

Perhaps the reason people laughed at his unintended joke, was because deep down, we know that our presence in worship on a regular basis is an important part of what it means to be followers of Jesus. Weekly worship attendance offers us a rhythm that helps our faith to deepen and grow.

The church year is divided into distinctive seasons that are designed to help us as a community of faith to experience the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. A month from now, the church year will begin with the four week season of Advent to prepare us for the birth of Jesus Christ, which then leads us to the Christmas season as we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world to be our Lord and Savior.

From Christmas, we enter a season of growth as we reflect on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. From there, we begin the Season of Lent, a 40 day period that is meant to help us think about our sins and our need to be completely dependent upon God, just as Jesus was when he was in the wilderness for 40 days and nights when he was tempted by the devil.

Following those several weeks of self-denial and contemplation for what Jesus did for us when he suffered and died on the cross, we celebrate Easter and Jesus’ resurrection and we call this time, “The Great Fifty Days,” which concludes on Pentecost Sunday, the day when God sent the Holy Spirit upon the church.

And then, for the next several months, from June through the end of November, we go back to reflecting on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. This is a time for steady growth as we worship together as disciples of Jesus Christ.

By worshipping regularly throughout the year, we actually experience the fullness of who Jesus Christ is. Presence in worship is a key mark of a healthy and growing church.

The Acts 2 church was also involved in gifts and service, two other marks of a Christian that we have focused on during this sermon series. For gifts, notice how Luke says that they had all things in common and would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.

And for service, we are told that many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles and toward the end of the Acts passage, Luke tells us that they had the good will of all the people. In other words, it was through their service to their neighbors and to their community that people were being drawn to the good news of Jesus Christ.

And the fifth mark, witness. Notice that the church was growing because of the witness of the Acts 2 church. The last verse of that chapter says, “Day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The people of the church were sharing their faith with those around them and letting them know why they were doing what they were doing. It was all because of the power of the risen Christ.

As we conclude our sermon series on “Marks of a Christian,” I want to spend some time thinking about the importance of commitment as we offer our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to Christ and his church in this coming year. I mean, we can have the best intentions in living out these five marks of a Christian, but without commitment or setting some goals, we’re going to be less likely to follow through and be the church that God is calling us to be.

If you read the daily devotional readings this past week on the theme of commitment, you probably noticed that one of those daily readings was from Ohio State football coach, Jim Tressel. Jim Tressel is a member of “Thee Northwest United Methodist Church” in Columbus, and he has written the book, “The Winner’s Manual.”

In that daily reading, Coach Tressel refers to “The Goal Sheet” which he invites each of his players to complete. He writes, “In the yearly evaluation process, I’ll talk with a player about something he’s written down. In the ‘General Thoughts’ section beside the Spiritual/Moral component, it says, ‘Above all else, I realize that my spiritual beliefs and my moral values will shape my life. I will do what is right.’

“If a player writes in that section of his goal sheet, ‘I want to go to church more,’ I may look at him and say, ‘Okay. That’s a good goal. But define ‘more’ for me. What is it? Do you want to go to church once a month? Twice a month? Every week? This is your goal, not mine.’

Coach Tressel goes on to write, “We urge each player to get as specific as possible so that we can evaluate how he’s doing with that goal. If the player is a Christian and writes down, ‘I want to read the Bible more,’ I’ll have him put a number on that. Do you want to read the Bible every night? Twice a week? This type of exercise helps a player focus and decide what’s really important in that particular area of his life.”

Hopefully, many of us have received this 2011 “Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Witness commitment form” in the mail this past week. Coach Tressel would call this our goal sheet in what it means to live out our faith. We were invited in this mailing to prayerfully consider making specific commitments in each of these areas. Those of you who didn’t receive this mailing, we actually have extra forms in your pew for you to complete in church today or you can take it home with you and return it later.

You’ll notice that at the bottom of the one side of this commitment form, there are small boxes corresponding with each of the five marks. By checking those boxes, you are indicating that you are making a commitment in each of those areas.

If you’re not a member of the church, you’re more than welcome to fill out this form, but we certainly do not expect you to do so. You are our guest. This is something that our church membership focuses on each year around this time.

The form is pretty simple. For prayers, we are asked to indicate that we will intentionally pray for the church, for its leaders and it’s ministries on a regular basis.

For presence, there’s a checkbox that says we will be physically present in worship when we are in town and are able to attend.

For gifts, we are to indicate how much of our financial resources we will give to Christ and the work of His church.

For service, it’s a little more extensive of a process because this commitment form lists over one hundred different ministries and opportunities to serve through the church. We’re to check the ministries that we are serving in now as well as other ministries in which we have an interest.

And for witness, we are asked to signify that we will be intentional in sharing with others the good news of Jesus Christ and invite people to church.

A little later in the service, during the offering time, we are invited to come forward and place our completed commitment forms as well as our regular Sunday offering in a designated basket. After we have come forward, I’ll lead us in saying the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer together which is a prayer of commitment.

I want to close by going back to that first Acts 2 congregation for just a moment. I can’t help but notice that we are told that there was a sense of celebration among those first Christians. Eugene Peterson, in his translation, says that they were exuberant.

Exuberant. It means full of unrestrained enthusiasm and joy. It also means to grow and produce abundantly. They were exuberant because they were an Easter people who were living out the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When I was a junior in college, and announced to a fellow student that I had accepted a call to go into the ordained ministry, she gave me some of the best words of advice anyone could ever give.

She said without any hesitation, “Promise me that you will help your future church to have fun because that’s why I don’t attend church. Christians are some of the most boring people I know.”

I remember her grabbing me by my shirt with both fists, and with this determined look in her face as if she knew what she was talking about, she said it again, “Promise me!”

And I told her, “I promise you, I won’t allow my church to be boring.”

Thank God, there are no boring United Methodist churches in Boring, Oregon.

And let’s make sure there aren’t any in Lancaster, Ohio either.

A promise is a promise.

Marks of a Christian - Commitment
Pastor Robert McDowell
Acts 2:41-47
October 31, 2010

“Marks of a Christian” Sermon Series:

• October 10 – Prayers & Presence
• October 17 – Gifts & Service
• October 24 – Witness
• October 31 - Commitment

Boring Churches

Non-Boring Churches:


“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Acts 2:42


“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple…” – Acts 2:46a


“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and good and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” – Acts 2:44,45


“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles…and having the good will of all the people.” – Acts 2:43,47a


“And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:47b

A High Level of Commitment

• Coach Jim Tressel, “The Winner’s Manual”
• 2011 Commitment Form

A Promise

1) Prayers for the church
2) Be in worship unless out of town or unable to attend.
3) Financially support the work of Christ and his church.
4) Be involved in at least one ministry in the life of the church.
5) Share your faith with others.