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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Greetings from Bishop Ough of West Ohio Conference UMC

I greet you on the eve of a New Year with the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ whose coming among us we have just celebrated.

Culturally, the New Year is a time of resolutions. This is the season when many quickly resolve to make themselves over. Occasionally, our resolutions are for 'extreme makeovers' or extraordinary transformations. This is the moment we seize to begin anew, to do over, to redefine ourselves.

But, for disciples of Jesus, the New Year is a time to renew our covenant with God. It is a season to recall that we do not make ourselves over, but we are made over through Christ alive in us. It is a time to acknowledge that God is our covenant Friend:

  • the One who gives us life and hope,
  • the One who fills our hearts with hunger for truth and righteousness,
  • the One who is our light in darkness,
  • the One who remembers us when we forget God.

For followers of Jesus, this is a season of renewal, not resolutions.

As a local church pastor, I would invite my congregation to participate in our United Methodist Covenant Renewal Service every New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. John Wesley, primary author of our "methodist" revival movement, developed and published several versions of a Covenant Service. The very first real celebration of the Covenant Service in the Methodist movement was held on Monday, August 11, 1755. Around England, the Covenant Service was conducted whenever John Wesley visited the Methodist Societies. In short order, covenant renewal services were being held on New Year's Day in the class meetings and societies of the Methodist movement.

Many United Methodists can recite all or portions of Wesley's invitation to his Covenant Service as deftly as they can recite the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed or Psalm 23. The words are powerful and provocative. They invite a measure of humility, denial and surrender that is often discomforting. They clearly remind us that we belong to Christ, and that to give up ourselves to Christ in all things is the only "resolution" we need to make.

So as you prepare for the New Year and all the blessings it will hold for you, I invite you to renew your covenant with God and to join with me and Methodist people throughout the ages as we pray:

Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands;
put me to doing, put me to suffering,
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with willing heart
give it all to your pleasure and disposal. Amen.

New Year's Resolutions Or New Year's Covenants?

Another New Year is upon us which means the opportunity to make another set of resolutions for us to break by the end of January.  Sorry for this cynical comment but I think most of us share in the frustration of matching our good intentions with year long follow-through.

For example, every year one of my resolutions is to read more books to stimulate my thinking and knowledge base.  Guess what?  The books look great on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and after I buy some they don't look as sparkling on my desk covered with dust!

One of the strengths of John Wesley and the early Methodist movement was in their emphasis on covenants rather than resolutions.  By using covenant language, those early Methodists were drawing on the scriptural  understanding of God's loving faithfulness.  God is always faithful!  And because God is ALWAYS faithful, we can draw on a strength to help us keep our commitments.

We modern day United Methodists often forget that Wesley and the early Methodists had a very strong emphasis on the importance of the Holy Spirit.  We don't speak much about the Holy Spirit today but we should since it's through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can live out our faith from day to day.  Without the Holy Spirit guiding and directing us, it's all up to us.  And we know how relying on our own strength works for us!

So this year, instead of New Year's resolutions, think about New Year's covenants.  Pray about the lifestyle changes that are needed in order to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ in 2012.  Enter into covenant with God and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength and guidance to live out these changes.  Give thanks for God's faithfulness which will sustain you throughout the year.  And if you really want to live out your New Year's covenants, participate in a small group, class, or bible study, where people you trust can encourage and pray for you throughout the year.

"Dear God, for 2012, help me to remember your faithfulness and depend on your Holy Spirit as I read more books that will stimulate my thinking so that I can be a more dedicated follower of your Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen."

Now, where's my Kindle?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

And the Christmas Gifts Keep Coming!

During these days following Christmas gift giving day, I have experienced additional Christmas gifts during this holiday season.  These are gifts that remind me of the true meaning of Christmas.

The first gift  is the beautiful green Christmas tree ornament (see above) that a friend of mine sent me recently.  We served together on a mission trip to Guatemala in 2009.  This past summer, he felt nudged by God to return to Guatemala on his own this fall to help one of the families build a much needed  home.  The ornament was something he bought for me while he was in Guatemala.

In the card, my friend wrote, "Worked hard for six days.  It was a great success!  Alroldo will soon have a new house!  I am fortunate to have the privilege to help!" - Mike

The second gift came to me today via an e-mail.  A staff member received a note from a shut-in member of our church and wanted me to know about it.  The note refers to our monthly Second Saturday outreach ministry to our community.  Here's the note:

"I had a pleasant surprise from my church on the 2nd Saturday; a delicious package at my door.  I am very thankful, all the things I can use.  It was such a blessing to me.  Really made my Christmas for life gets hard some times alone.  I am grateful for you and yours.  God bless."

The third gift came from my brother.  It was a package that arrived late (five days past Christmas.)  He kept asking me last week if I had received it and I kept saying, "No, it hasn't arrived yet."  Well, it finally came today with a big message on the package that said, "Don't open until Christmas!"  I sure hope he didn't mean next Christmas!

The package contained a family calendar with pictures from our family farm house in Pennsylvania along with several old family photos.  My brother has a gift for creating these special Christmas gifts that connect with your heart.

I got more gifts than I needed last week on Christmas morning.  But these gifts that I received this week remind me that Christmas is about a God who never stops giving.  May we continue to offer the gift of Christ's love to those around us.

Merry Christmas...again!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Celebrating a 2nd Christmas this Year!

Our church, First UMC will be celebrating a 2nd Christmas this year.  We will be praying for our West Ohio Conference mission's team as they prepare to leave for Samara, Russia (January 1-9.)  They will be spending time at a United Methodist orphanage.  Since Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7th, through our prayers, we can celebrate a 2nd Christmas with the team!

Dee Stickley-Miner who is leading this mission trip offered greetings to our church during our "Christmas Around the World" Advent sermon series on Sunday, December 11th as we focused on our mission partnership with Russia.  Some of our children presented Dee with Christmas cards that our Sunday School classes had made for the team to take with them for their trip. The cards will be given to children at an orphanage in Samara, Russia.

Thankfully, Dee has a web blog which will offer highlights of each day of the mission trip.  I will be posting her daily web blog here on Nikos to help us to continue to pray for her, the team, and our partner United Methodist Church in Russia.

As they say in Russia, S Rozhdestvom

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - January 1

Sunday, January 1 - (9:00 A.M. Traditional Service & 10:30 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, January 4  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "New Year's Covenants"

Features - New Year's Day; Holy Communion; & Commissioning of 2012 Church Leaders

Scripture - II Kings 23:1-3 & John 15:1-8

Theme - The new year is a time to think about making resolutions.  The bible doesn't talk about resolutions.  Instead, it uses the word, "covenant."  When we allow Jesus to be our vine and remember that we are his branches, then we will be able to bear fruit through the covenants we make.  Join us on this Sunday as we make some important New Year's covenants for 2012.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sermon (Christmas Eve) "The Time Came"

     Leave it to Jesus to burst into the world at the most awkward of times and in the most awkward of places. 
     Mary and Joseph are miles and miles from their home up north in Nazareth.  They are now in Bethlehem but not because of choice.  Luke is careful to tell us that “all went to their own towns to be registered.”  This was census time.  We do this every ten years.  During biblical times, the Roman Empire liked to do it every 14 years.  And this was the 14th year.
     No questions about what is your religious preference or how far do you commute to work.  No.  This census was to make sure of one thing – that they knew you had a pulse so they could tax you to support the mighty Roman Empire and King, Augustus.  If we think our holiday preparations have been crazy, think about a pregnant woman forced to ride a donkey 80 miles.
     So you try to check in at an inn.  I remember reading somewhere about hotel hospitality.  Hotels, most of them anyway, work really hard to meet your needs as soon as you walk into the door of their lobby because they know that you’re probably tired, maybe disoriented since you’re in a different place, and maybe even a little grumpy from the long drive.
     I was out of town at a seminar with a friend of mine and I asked him where he was staying.  Immediately, this disgusted look came to his face, and with a scowl, he said the name of some inexpensive and cheap motel.  He said, “I can’t believe I did this.  I went on-line and found this motel and when I saw the price, I decided to try it and save a little money.”
     I said, “Well, what’s it like?”  Looking look he didn’t get much sleep the night before he said, “Well first of all, I have to sit on my bed the whole time because the only chair in my room has a terrible smell to it.  There’s no lobby and the worst thing of all happened this afternoon.  I got back from our sessions, and when I got to my room, the door was wide open and I knew that I had shut it earlier in the morning.  I went to the person sitting at the desk and his response was, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, it was probably just the maid.’”  He said, “It was all I could do to not reach over the counter and strangle the guy.”
     And then my friend asked me what I was afraid he was going to ask me, “What’s the place like where you’re staying?” 
     I felt bad for him but I couldn’t lie.  And so I told him about my spacious room with the refrigerator and how I enjoyed talking with some friends in the lobby the night before and how every morning, they had a nice breakfast of eggs, toast, and pastries.
     For some reason, he didn’t share in my happiness.
     But Mary and Joseph had it a lot worse than my friend.  Instead of a cheap motel, they had to sleep in a room where the animals were often kept for the night. 
     And Luke tells us that it was while they were in that room that “the time came.”  And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in one of the feed troughs since that’s all there was. 
     “The time came,” the Christmas story tells us.  Whether you’re ready or not, “the time came.”
     Is there every really a good time to give birth?
     For Penny’s first pregnancy, we kept waiting and waiting for the time to come.  We were so excited.  Our first child! 
     Now, Penny and I are both planners.  We like to prepare ahead and have everything in place.
     But guess what?  Having kids will mess with your neatly organized life.  At 12:35 P.M. on a Saturday, our daughter was born.  And in just an hour and a half, I was to officiate at a wedding!  I had just enough time to drive the 30 minutes back to the church and be ready to go.  It was the only wedding where I was more jittery than the groom.
     But our beautiful daughter was born.  Like St. Luke tells us, “The time came.”
     And so, for our second time around, we couldn’t help but wonder when the next one would be born.
     This one needed a little coaxing and our doctor told us that we were to go to the hospital so that Penny could be induced.  The doctor couldn’t have picked a worse time.  That was my church basketball night.  I suggested that if there was no hurry, that we just delay this for another day or two?   
     This guy had absolutely no sense of humor.
     So anyway, we go to the hospital and it takes forever for our son to be born.  He was born 7:30 in the morning on April 10th. 
     It was that morning that I had my big ordination interview meeting in Columbus – the meeting where they decide if you are ready to be ordained.  The meeting where they ask you all kinds of difficult theological and ministry type questions.  The meeting where you need to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep the night before – not 1 to 2 hours.  The kind of meeting where both socks should probably match.  The kind of meeting where you use coherent sentences and you kind of know what Holy Communion is all about.  That kind of meeting.
     Here’s why we should all believe that God is real.  I passed that interview!  I nailed it!  God is real, friends.  God is real!
     But the really great thing was – our son was born.  Like Luke said, “The time came.”
     When Luke sneaks in this little phrase that the time came, I think he’s pointing us to an important expectation and hope that we find throughout the bible.  This hope that is rooted in the Old Testament was that someday, somehow, God would be faithful in fulfilling the covenant to bring salvation to the world. 
     This hope which begins with the covenant that God had made with Abraham and later with the people of Israel was to remove sin and death once and for all.  This baby who Mary placed in a manger would be the one who would fulfill that which God had in mind from the very beginning of creation – for this world to be a place of joy, peace, and love.
     And this is why we celebrate tonight, because Luke tells us, “And the time came.” 
     This time of good news is available to each and every one of us on this Christmas Eve, just like it was for Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds that night so long ago.
     The time came for me during my sophomore year of college.  Lacking direction and purpose, I was struggling with my grades and wondering what possible future there was for my life.
     I remember one day, I was feeling really low and discouraged and I decided to try something I hadn’t done in quite a while.  I prayed.  And it was because of that prayer that I could sense that God was calling me to surrender and to start putting God first in my life.
     I got down on my knees and told God that from that point on I was going to put him first in every decision.  As I stood up from that prayer, it felt like this huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  I knew that I wasn’t alone.  I knew that God had created me for a purpose and that I wasn’t a failure.  I knew that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior.
     The time came.  Thank God.  The time came.
     This past summer, I was attending a seminar on evangelism with other pastors and lay people.  The speaker was talking about how important it was for people in the church to share their faith story with others even though that can feel intimidating for many of us to do.  During that session, the speaker had us get into groups of two to three people to very briefly share our faith journey and pray for each other.
     Later that summer, just this past August, a friend of mine who had attended that same evangelism seminar was at a meeting with me.  Knowing that he had attended the seminar, I asked him what he thought about it.
     And he said, “Something really incredible happened to me at that seminar.”  He said, “Do you remember when the speaker asked us to break into small groups of 2 to 3 people?  Well, before she asked us to break into these groups, I overheard a conversation of two people who were sitting right behind me.  And the one woman was upset about something and she was asking questions about God.”
     “So when it was time to break into the small groups, I decided to see if I could be of help.  I found out that this woman wasn’t a Christian and that out of curiosity she had wandered into our evangelism seminar. 
     She was going through a difficult time in her life and she was feeling pretty low.  So I shared my faith story with her and told her about Jesus. 
     And there, in the middle of that evangelism seminar, she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.  I said a prayer for her and encouraged her to find a church near where she lived.  It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced.  I helped someone to know Christ at an evangelism seminar.”
     Like Luke said, “The time came.”
     A few years ago, I was on a flight from Atlanta to Kansas City to attend a church event when the pilot made an announcement that I’ll always remember.
     “I have some bad news to share with you,” he said.  And then there was a long and very uncomfortable pause.  It’s amazing how quickly those little beads of sweat can form on your forehead in a matter of only two seconds.
     Finally, the pilot began his next sentence.  “We’re going to need to land in Memphis because our weather radar isn’t working.  When we get to Memphis, we’ll switch planes and be on our way again.  We apologize for any inconvenience.”
     After I offered a quick prayer of thanksgiving to almighty God, I looked at the person who was sitting next to me, and we both agreed that this pilot could have thought of a much better lead-in sentence.  Anything but, “I have some bad news to share with you.”
     Tonight, St. Luke says, “I have some good news to share with you.” Good news of great joy for all the people.”  “What’s the good news, Luke?”
     “The good news is, the time had come.”
     Tonight, as you hold your lit candle as we sing, know that this good news is meant for you.  God has a purpose and a plan for your life. 
     Tonight as you hold your lit candle, know that this good news is also meant for those around us.  For the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the person who is discouraged and wanders into an evangelism seminar, the college sophomore who feels like a failure.
     Friends:  I have some good news to share with you. 
     It’s Christmas Eve.  The time has come. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Prayer

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - December 25

Sunday, December 25 - (10 A.M. Service Only)

Features - Christmas Day 

Scripture - Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Micah 4:2-5a; Luke 1:26-35, 38; Luke 2:1-7; Luke 2:8-16; Matthew 2:1-11; & John 1:1-14

Theme - The youth of our church will lead us in a festival of lessons and carols.  This traditional service began in England and continues to be a wonderful way of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holding CBS & Dan Bernstein Accountable

Here is my response to CBS regarding the inappropriate comment made by journalist, Dan Bernstein in a recent article.  While offering a needed critical perspective on the response of former Penn State football players in support of their former coach, Mr. Bernstein went out of bounds with his comment about Joe Paterno (see below.)  Please note how my outrage doesn't include any statement regarding my opinion on how long this journalist should live. :)

If you would like to express your thoughts regarding Dan Bernstein's article, contact CBS at Comments@670thescore.com

Dear CBS,

   As a sports fan I was very surprised that a comment by Dan Bernstein regarding Joe Paterno was allowed to be printed. The specific comment, “Paterno is almost dead, thankfully” is unethical for a professional journalist to use in an article. 

   As a United Methodist pastor, I am even more outraged that such a comment would be included. Mr. Bernstein should be held accountable for this very unprofessional statement and a public apology should be issued.

Rev. Robert McDowell
Senior Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Lancaster, Ohio

King Size Bed

This sums it up pretty well.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Where Is Baby Jesus?

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.
Personally, I prefer my Jesus to be detachable.

Now don't get me wrong,
I like having Jesus around.

But during the 4 weeks of advent,
I prefer an empty manger, please.

I have several nativity scenes
that I place around my home during the season.

They vary in style and look
but they all have one thing in common.....
a detachable Jesus.

When it comes to creche (nativity) scenes,
I am very mindful of protocol and order.

Week one of Advent, there is only a lamb in the stable.

Week two, the cattle shows up
According to the carol, Away In A Manger, they are lowing.
If you assume the title is true in Silent Night,
then I don't really know what the cattle were doing.

By week three,
the rest of the animals wander in.

Week four,
the innkeeper (that's the guy holding the lantern)
starts hanging around.

On Christmas Eve afternoon,
just before I leave for church,
Joseph and Mary come a knocking

The detachable Jesus makes His appearance
only after I return home at midnight.
The shepherds usually crawl in about 1am.

Let's not even talk about the Wise Men.....
they best not show up til Jan 6,
long after the shepherds go back to abiding in the fields.

No, I Iike my Jesus detachable.
There's only one problem with a detachable Jesus....
where do you put him during advent??

Last year, when I came home from church services at midnight
I did my usual routine
and slipped into my pajamas and slippers
(sorry, no cap for me, no kerchief for mama either).

I turned on a Christmas broadcast from a
world-renowned cathedral,
and let the music bathe the house.

Then I went in search of the Alpha & Omega.

Now I am sure that you have your special place that you put your Emmanuel.
Mine is in the silverware drawer of the hutch,
cradled in the slotted spoon.

I'm not sure why the slotted spoon,
except that it kind of looks like a good place
to cradle a baby Jesus.

I opened the drawer
as I very appropriately sang Joy to the World.
As I reached let earth receive her king,
I gasped.
There was no king to receive.

The Savior was not in the slotted spoon.
I looked under the ladle for the Lord of Lords.
under the pickle fork for the Prince of Peace
under the butter knife for the Bright Morning Star.

The King of Kings was no where to be found.
The Christ Child had escaped from the cutlery.

I was devastated.

As a pastor,
you learn to adapt
when things don't go as you planned in worship.

But as a common man
in search of my ceramic Jesus,
I was lost.

After several minutes
of searching every nook and cranny of the hutch,
I accepted Christmas Eve news that was even worse
than being placed on the naughty list.

My Mighty God
was missing in action.

I did the next best thing.
Since my Rose of Sharon was no where to be found,
I pulled a cloth rose out of a nearby decoration
and laid it in the manger.

I went to bed saddened that
I had somehow misplaced the Wonderful Counselor.

While it is true that the Everlasting Father
never abandons His children,
it is true that His children
often walk away from Him.

Apart from having a liturgical correct creche,
having a detachable Jesus
is not a good thing.

If I couldn't detach Him,
then I couldn't walk away from Him.

If I couldn't walk away from Him,
then I wouldn't fall into the darkness of my sin.

I closed my eyes and slept into the darkness of that night.

Christmas morning last year was a beautiful, sunny morning.

As an adult,
my first instinct Christmas morning
is to go to the kitchen for a hot beverage.
The days of running down the stairs to the Christmas tree
are long since gone.

As I waited for my tea to boil,
I remembered that my Lion of Judah was missing.
The sadness of the night began to return.

Then as surely as the light of Christmas morning
filled my home,
light filled my head and I remembered.....

I had polished the silver last month.....
at the beginning of advent.

4 weeks before there was no room at the inn for the great I AM,
there was no room in the cutlery draw for my Messiah!
I remembered.

The Bread of Life was lying in the bread basket!
The Hallelujah Chorus erupted
as the Word become flesh took His rightful place in a humble manger.

As we approach another celebration of Christmas,
many of us are saddened by the rampant commercialism
and the inordinate distractions
that the season brings.

Let the cash register continue to ring up its purchases,.....
Meanwhile the Good Shepherd continues to account for each of His flock.

Let the electric meters continue to whirl out of control......
Meanwhile the Consolation of Heaven continues to pray on our behalf.

Let the ovens continue to bake up confectionary delights........
Meanwhile the Bread of Life had been offered to the world.

Let the world do what it has always done,
it is no less busy or distracted then it was in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

What matters the most
is our attachment to Jesus.

This year, I know He is safely cradled in the slotted spoon for a few more days.
More importantly, He is cradled in my heart.
May He be cradled in yours
and may your celebration of Christmas stir your heart and soul.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the fields,
keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And an angel of the Lord stood before them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them
and they were terribly frightened.
And the angel of the Lord said to them,
do not be afraid;
for behold I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be for all people;
for today in the city of David, there has been born for you,
a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:8-11

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Greetings from Bishop Ough

This Christmas Eve, as you gather in your churches and homes to again read, hear and, perhaps, even enact the nativity account from Luke's Gospel, I invite you to pay particular attention to the manger. Like the shepherds we are called to the manger to witness and experience the "good news of great joy for all the people."

The manger is one of the most important elements in Luke's Christmas story. Three times the narrative in Luke chapter 2 tells us that after his birth Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger:

[Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (verse 7)

This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.
(verse 12)

[The shepherds] went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.
(verse 16)

We generally associate the manger with a lowly, impoverished birth. It is true, God chose to become flesh and make His home among us in the most uncommonly common way. A manger is a trough for farm animals -- a place to feed them hay and grain. But, in scripture, it is more. In Isaiah 1:3, the manger -- the crib -- of the ox and donkey is the place where creatures know their benefactor. The manger is a place of sustenance, solace and security. A farm animal, let out in the morning to freely roam, will always return by day's end to the manger.

Isaiah laments that God's people no longer know their benefactor. They have forgotten and no longer understand what God has done for them. They wander afield and do not return to their manger.

In the Christmas story, the manger is the symbol of God's compassion, nurture, salvation. It is in the Bethlehem manger that God's incarnation is cradled. It is to the Bethlehem manger that the shepherds -- the nobodies, ruffians and marginalized -- are called to witness and acknowledge their Lord. It is from the Bethlehem manger that the message of God's redemptive presence in the world goes forth to all people in all generations. It is Emmanuel -- God with us -- that fills the Bethlehem manger with love, forgiveness, joy.

This Christmas, each of us is being called by the angel of the Lord to come to the manger. We are being called to return to the source of our salvation and shalom. Like the shepherds, we are being called to the manger where the unlimited love of God enfolds and nurtures us. And, like the shepherds, we will receive our mission at the manger: to go and tell everyone what we know about the child of Christmas -- God with us!

Let us dance with delight in the Lord

and let our hearts be filled with rejoicing

for eternal salvation has appeared on the earth --

in a manger!

I pray that each of you and each of our congregations will return to the manger this Christmas to remember, once again, what God is doing in our lives and in all of creation. May it be so!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Bishop Bruce R. Ough

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas & Easter

I'm confused.  It's the week before Christmas and I'm reading about the resurrection in John's Gospel.  This happens every year.  I like to begin preparing sermons several months in advance which at this points puts me around Easter Sunday (April 8.)

Some of my friends think I'm a little too forward thinking in my planning and they'll say things to me like, "So, Robert, do you have your 2014 Christmas sermon ready yet?"  It seems like a lot of pastors like to use the college term paper timeline, although I hope they aren't pulling all nighters on Saturday night!

There are some real advantages to planning this far in advance.  For one thing, it helps me to dream ahead to how God wants to speak a word of grace to us.  It's exciting to think how God is already ahead of us preparing the way.  Secondly, if I think of an idea that will need advanced preparation time, planning ahead allows this to happen.  And finally, planning ahead, gives me a sense of peace in knowing that there's been a lot of time put into the planning of a worship service.

But even with these advantages, it's still a little weird to be thinking about Easter this week when I still have last minute Christmas shopping to do.  Even so, I recall something the Scottish New Testament scholar, William Barclay stated about the Christmas Story.  Evidently there is a painting of the baby Jesus and the sun is shining on him in such a way that a shadow of a cross is cast in front of him on the ground.

The meaning is clear.  Jesus didn't just come into the world as a cute and cuddly baby.  Jesus came into the world to be our Lord and Savior.  So this Christmas Eve, as we sing Christmas carols and hold up our lit candles in a darkened sanctuary, let's not forget that the cross and the empty tomb are not that far in the future.

Merry Christmas and  Happy Easter!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Miracle

Celebrating the burning of one of two Crossroads building loan notes during worship this morning (Dec. 18) at Lancaster First UMC. Miracles happen! Let's do this again with the final loan note in May, 2016 when we cross the finish line.

Picture: Randy Williams, Chairperson of Church Council & Lay Leader

Sermon (December 18) "Christmas Around the World: Vietnam"

     One year just before Christmas, I pulled up to a traffic light, and as I looked toward my left I noticed some steps leading from the sidewalk down to a very modest apartment.  I remember thinking that I had never realized that an apartment had ever existed in that section of the street.
     And there it was.  And on the door of this hidden apartment was a sign that had the words, “We Still Believe.”
     A smile came to my face as I thought about the child or the children who were living in that apartment and who wanted to make sure that Santa wouldn’t forget them.
     That sign reminds me of the unbridled and confident faith that the scriptures tell us that we can have as we go through life.  A faith in a God who knows all about us – where we live, our hopes, our dreams, our joys, and our deepest longings.
     The Christians in Vietnam have a lot to teach us about what it means to keep believing against all odds.  The Vietnamese artist, Le Van Tai painted a Nativity scene with encouragement from the Hong Kong Fellowship of Christian artists while he spent four years in a Hong Kong refugee camp.
     Why did Le flee Vietnam to endure 4 years in a refugee camp? Why was he separated from his family for 11 years? How did he get to Hong Kong? 
     During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Le, along with nearly 2 million South Vietnamese escaped their new communist rulers by risking their lives on rickety boats that departed into the South China Sea at night, evading communist gun boats.
     About one third of the escapees died at sea, by drowning, exposure, or piracy. The more fortunate ones eventually got to places like Hong Kong, where they hoped for eventual resettlement in America, Australia, or elsewhere in the West.
      Presumably Le escaped capture, had a sturdy boat, avoided pirates, and arrived in Hong Kong safely. But he still had to languish for 4 years in a camp. And he endured an 11 year separation from his family in Vietnam, whose communist tyrants were not always eager to allow wives, parents and children of capitalist-loving escaped boat people to rejoin their loved ones in the West, except for a price. What would compel a Vietnamese to risk the nightmare of unsafe travel on the South China Sea, with a 30 percent chance of death, not to mention an uncertain future in a camp and years of separation from family?
     From a little of our modern history, we remember how in 1975, what was then North Vietnam took control of South Vietnam and they set up a very vicious communist dictatorship.  The new regime imprisoned over a million people and murdered tens of thousands of suspected counter-revolutionaries.  They were now a one party state that banned all political opposition, took away any right to private property and free speech, and prohibited the Christian faith.  The Catholic Church which represented about 8 to 10% of the population thanks to the French influence in Vietnam was forced to celebrate Christmas privately during that time.
     The story of Christmas in Vietnam has some similarities with the Christmas story we find in the bible.  Both stories speak of danger, uncertainty, and fear.  Jesus was born within the Roman Empire which had control over the people of Israel.  And Rome wasn’t about to welcome any newborn King.  There was only room for one King.
     The Christmas story isn’t just a story about a baby born in a manger.  It’s a story of a young woman who discovers that she will conceive and give birth to this newborn King.  Because of the nature of this pregnancy, she will have to endure the ridicule and the hurtful rumors that will most definitely surround her at every turn.  It’s a story of a King doing everything in his power to try to kill this newborn King.  And like Le, the Vietnamese artist who was forced to flee for his life, the Christmas story is a story of a family fleeing to Egypt and becoming refugees in seek of safety.
     As I mentioned earlier, the Christians in Vietnam have a lot to teach us about what it means to keep believing against all odds. 
     Around the same time that Le, the Vietnamese artist who I was talking about a little bit ago was finally reunited with his family after spending several years away as a refugee, two Vietnamese American UM pastors, Ut To and Karen Vo To, had a dream and that dream is now a reality. The Lord laid on their hearts the vision of starting up the United Methodist Church in Vietnam.

     In 1998, the United Methodist Church began its work in Vietnam when a small team traveled to Vietnam to visit with Christians there and especially to visit and learn about the ministry of Rev. and Mrs. Ma Nguyen, who were persecuted for their faith. Having experienced United Methodism in the United States, the Reverend Ut and Karen Vo To wanted to take the church to their people. And in February 2002 the United Methodist Church in Vietnam was born when they were sent to the nation of their ancestors as General Board of Global missionaries!
     Just this past year, Vietnam has granted legal status for the United Methodist Church to exist in Vietnam.  Today there are over 200 United Methodist Churches representing over 11,000 church members and the church in Vietnam continues to grow!
     Let’s watch a video that shows how the United Methodist Church is making a difference in Vietnam.  (Show video.)
     Like the family who had that sign on the front door of their modest apartment, “We Still Believe,” the Christians in Vietnam remind us to not stop believing, especially as we draw close to the Christmas celebration.
     This belief against all odds has rubbed off on the United Methodists of our own West Ohio Conference.
     April 19, 2010 was an historic day.  It was on that day that our Bishop along with representatives from our West Ohio Conference joined the United Methodists in Vietnam to dedicate a 7,800 square foot ministry center in Ho Chi Minh City.  It was a day to remember.
     One of the miracles in our conference’s partnership with this ministry center was in the money that was raised to make this become a reality.  Shawnee Valley is one of the eight districts of our West Ohio Conference.  Located in the southern part of our state where there is very high poverty and unemployment, this impoverished district raised what they called a “miracle offering” to be used for this ministry center in Vietnam. 
      This one district of mostly small, rural churches on the edge of Appalachia has pulled together to raise nearly $295,000 for the conference’s support of Vietnam churches through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
     The district has held four “Rally in the Valley” events for Vietnam.  Key to their fundraising success has been the decision to treat the 159 churches in the district — which spans nine counties and 4,700 square miles — as one large congregation.
     Their motto during this miracle offering has been, “If we’re going to move a mountain, what would happen if we put all our shovels together on one single initiative?”
     It’s like each one of those churches had a sign on front of their church that said, “We Still Believe.”
     This past week, a pastor in our West Ohio Conference told me that she will be traveling to Vietnam with our Bishop to represent our conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry.  Through our partnership with the United Methodist Church in Vietnam, our Bishop is serving as their Bishop.  They will be making this trip to credential new Vietnamese pastors to serve the new churches.
     They already have several churches that have over 200 hundred members.  Praise God that the United Methodist Church is growing in Vietnam!
     Well, so much more could be said about the church in Vietnam and what they can teach us about believing against all odds. 
     On the Vietnamese United Methodist website, they talk about how they enjoy making lanterns to use to decorate for Christmas and that’s why we have several lanterns in our sanctuary today.  We celebrate how the light of Christ always burns brightly at Christmas and how miracles are just around the corner.
     Speaking of miracles, I want to share a Christmas miracle that has happened right here in our own church just three weeks ago.  Many of us know about our beautiful Crossroads facility located on West Fair Avenue, just three miles from here.  Opened in May of 2007, Crossroads provides space for weekly worship, creative ministries, events for youth and young families, and meeting space for numerous community groups.
     This past October, we had over 500 people from our church and community attend our Halloween Carnival Outreach where we were able to share God’s love and invite people to Sunday worship and future ministry and outreach events.  Crossroads is helping us reach people for Jesus Christ.
     This past May, we began a new aggressive five-year campaign with the goal of totally pay off the remaining 2.4 million dollars building debt, which was a huge step of faith for us.  A little over a year ago, our church membership voted to go with this five-year pay off strategy rather than continue to make minimum payments on our two loans over the next seventeen years.
    During the first few months of our new five-year campaign, it looked like we were still only going to be able to make the minimum payments required on the two loans.  We are able to make those minimum payments through your pledged gifts to Crossroads and through the rental income from groups that use our Crossroads facility during the year.  By the way, we receive approximately $60,000 in rental income on an annual basis through community groups who use Crossroads.  Crossroads is a busy place!
     So here’s the Christmas miracle.  As of November 30th, we have totally paid off one of those two loans. 
     Thanks to over $600,000 from undesignated endowment funds, $94,000 from our Board of Trustees, and over $30,000 of pledge and rental surplus funds, God has put us in a position to pay off all of this debt by 2016.  This is now an attainable goal.
     With this Christmas miracle, and knowing that you and I will continue to be generous financial givers to Crossroads in these remaining four and a half years of our pledge commitments, we are in a much better position to cross the finish line in May of 2016.
     If you believe in Christmas miracles, can I hear an “Amen?”
     To help us celebrate this recent pay-off of one of our two loans, I have asked Randy Williams, our Church Council Chairperson and our Lay Leader, to do us the honor of burning the loan note.
(The loan note is burnt over a pan in front of the altar.)
     Christmas miracles still happen!
     I want to close by sharing from a United Methodist Vietnamese pastor who writes these words of Christmas greeting to all who have partnered with them over the years. 
     “Among the many highlights we thank God for the many who came to Jesus over the past year and for the spiritual and numerical growth in our United Methodist Churches in Vietnam; for eighteen new United Methodist Churches in Vietnam; for several professors who came from United Methodist seminaries to teach at Wesley Theological College in Vietnam; for several wonderful teams who came to support, encourage, and bless us; for the funds to purchase the United Methodist Center building; and for the aid for hundreds of orphans, widows, and children with food, medical care, clothes, eye glasses, and clean drinking water.
     Hundreds of thousands more continue to wait for somebody to love them.  Children, widows, and orphans wait for helping hands that would come to their aid.  As people wait in villages, towns, and cities for somebody to bring them the gospel.  We want to be that somebody.  We are planning and preparing ourselves to do more in the coming year.”
     “Thank you so much for your faithfulness in prayer and support.  May the Lord grant you peace and joy this Christmas and throughout the year.”
     The Christians in Vietnam remind us that miracles still happen not only in Southeast Asia, but also right here in Lancaster, Ohio!  Thanks be to God!

Christmas Eve Worship Preview - December 24

December 24 - (5:30 P.M., 8 P.M., & 11 P.M.)

Sermon - "The Time Came"

Features - Christmas Eve Candlelight Services

Scripture - Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14: & Luke 2:1-20

Theme - The gospel writer, Luke offers a brief phrase in his Christmas story when he says that "the time came."  Is Luke only referring to the time when Mary was to give birth or is there also a deeper meaning behind this phrase?

4th Sunday of Advent Prayer (Week of December 18)

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Bible & The Ancient Near East

Here are some gems from the book I've been reading, "Ancient Near Eastern Thought & the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible" by John H. Walton.
  • The cultures of this time period had no dichotomy between natural and supernatural.  Everything was supernatural regardless if you were an Israelite or some other religion.  Religion was life.  This different worldview has so many implications for Christians today since we tend to think of God who intervenes once in a while (miracles.)  Actually, the ancient mindset was that God is constantly interacting within creation.  This makes me think of how we tend to view miracles as only special events when they really happen all of the time since God is always interacting within the cosmos.
  • The Garden of Eden story is really a story of the garden being like the holy of  holies in the Temple.  The created world served as God's Temple.  The actual Temple had symbols of the Garden of Eden like the menorah which is a symbol of the tree of life.  In short, the Garden of Eden story uses Temple language.
  • When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, the biggest loss wasn't paradise but losing out on God's presence.
  • The Tower of Babel story which I always assumed was a story about humans trying to get to God is really a story of trying to get God to come down to them.  The ancient Near East is filled with stories of towers that serve this purpose.  Bible translations misinterpret this story because of a lack of understanding of the ancient worldview.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Message from Rev. Barb Sholis, Capitol Area South District Superintendent

As This Year Draws to a Close

I was one of those children. Maybe one lives under your roof right now. Or maybe you were a 'kindred spirit' of mine. It actually started when I was quite young. About 4:30 a.m. tiptoe, tiptoe...a finger poking the arm of my sleeping mother:

"Mommy, I think Santa's been here."

"No honey. Go back to bed; it's not time to get up."

That was not the right answer! I was far too excited! The next year, I grew braver - creeping down the stairs until I hit that one step-you know the one - three steps from the bottom that always creaked.

"Go back to bed; it's not time to get up."

The following year, my ballet lessons began paying off. I practiced balancing along the baseboards that ran down either side of the stairs. Yes! I finally made it all the way to the living room. There in the darkened room, over in the corner, stood the unlit Christmas tree. I could make out the shapes of presents, why I could even figure out a toy or two, but I stopped and stared in the silence. Something was missing: my family. It wasn't the same without them. So I quietly snuck back upstairs and waited-for what seemed like eternity-but it wasn't the same without my family. They were part of the joy of the special day.

As I reflect back on these first five months as your District Superintendent, the joy I feel is because I am getting to know you, the Capitol Area South Family. Some of you I've known for many years, and some of you I've just met. Nonetheless, there has been true joy for me in renewing my connection with our UM connection. There is something quite essential and formative that comes from spending time listening to the stories of one another, what you hold dear. I also listened to you express challenges and the hope/dreams that lie ahead. Isn't that the point of this season in some ways?

As James Sharrett wrote, "God pitches his fleshly tent in silence on straw, in a stable, under a star. The cry from that infant's throat pierced the silence of centuries. God's voice could actually be heard coming from human vocal cords. That's the joy of it. God has come to be with us. Nothing in this world can separate any of God's children from his love. Not even our prodigal rebellions, nor our adult indifferences; our sins nor our sufferings. No experience goes unattended by God. Cradles of insecurity -- he is there; deserts of temptation -- he is there; gardens of indecision -- he is there; crosses of suffering -- he is there. He is in them all. This is the God of Christmas!"

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." Oswald Chambers wrote: "There is only one relationship that matters, and that is your personal relationship to a personal Redeemer and Lord. Let everything else go, but maintain that at all costs, and God will fulfill His purpose through your life."

This is Good News dear colleagues and friends. As 2011 draws to a close, we at the District Office wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas! May you be filled with wonder and touched anew by the miracle of the in-breaking of the kingdom through the birth of the Christ child -- Emmanuel-- God with Us!