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, February 28, 2011

Sermon (February 27) - "Movie Month: Chocolat"

Today, we’re going to focus on the movie, Chocolat, which helps us to wrestle with the issue of having a rules oriented religion vs. a more relational and life giving faith. This movie seems to be pretty popular because of the number of people who have told me that they have seen it. Its popularity coupled with how the plot centers around a church located in a small community during the season of Lent, makes this movie a good choice for us during our Movie Month sermon series.

So let’s set the context for the movie.

One blustery winter’s day, near the beginning of Lent, a woman named Vianne and her daughter Anouk, arrive in a small village, and rent the old, run down pastry shop where they plan to open a chocolate shop.

Vianne is a wanderer, and she has moved her daughter many times, never staying long in one place.

The mayor of the village, who keeps everyone in their places and clings to tradition, comes to call on Vianne and Anouk. He invites them to worship at mass and she replies that they do not go to church.

He addresses her as Madame, and she corrects him that she is a Madamoiselle, since she has never been married.

Finally, he gently chastises her for opening a pastry shop during Lent, since it is a time of fasting. Vianne tells him that she is not opening a pastry shop, but the type of shop she will be opening is a surprise.
News begins to spread about the new woman in town. Let’s watch this clip to see what type of shop Vianne is opening.

[Movie Clip]

As the movie develops, we discover that the people in town are stuck in their ways. Each person in town has his or her own set of troubles, which they stuff way down inside. They are bound and held prisoner by their troubles. For them, their religion is all about looking good on the outside and keeping their religious rules rather than about having an authentic and life-giving faith in Christ.

There is Madame Clarimont, a widow who is over-protective of her son, Luc. She is also estranged from her mother, and will not let her see her grandson.

Then there is the lonely widower Monsieur Bleurot, who has a fancy for the widow Madame Audel. But she is still mourning her husband who died in the war—the first world war—more than 52 years ago.

There is Josephine Muscat whose husband, Serge, is abusive toward her, made worse by his heavy drinking.

There is the mayor himself, who cannot admit, even to himself, that his wife, who he always says is traveling throughout Europe, has really left him, and she is never coming back.

And, there is the priest, Father Henri, who is dominated and manipulated by the mayor, the Comte de Reynaud.

Vianne tries to make friends with Josephine who is abused and intimidated by her husband. She tells Vianne that the mayor tells everyone in town what a bad influence Vianne is since she doesn’t follow the town’s customs or attend church. He tells everyone in the village to stay away from her and her shop.

Let’s watch this scene from the movie when Vianne goes to confront the mayor.

[Movie Clip]

Even though she is still new to the town, Vianne can easily see through the hypocrisy of the mayor and of the small village in general. Instead of allowing their faith to bring freedom and new life, their over-emphasis on rules and outward appearances was actually turning people away from God and perpetuating dysfunctional behavior.

This struggle between having a rules oriented religion vs. having a more relational and life-giving faith is nothing new for the church. If it was, the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have needed to write one of his letters – his letter to the Galatians.

Instead of the modern day French village setting of the movie, Chocolat, think of the first century setting of the region of Galatia located in the southern part of modern day Turkey. The main reason Paul needed to write this letter was because the church in that area was missing the point of what was at the heart of the Christian faith. For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t about setting up rules and regulations that include some people at the exclusion of others. The good news of our faith is in how Jesus’ death and resurrection has broken down the barriers that divide people so that all of God’s people can be included in God’s saving and healing love.

Just like Vianne confronted the hypocrisy of the Mayor and the town, the Apostle Paul confronted the hypocrisy of Christians in the Galatia area who were using their faith to exclude others.

In Paul’s day when he wrote this letter, Greek theater make-up wasn’t very advanced and they used a clever technique to help the audience. They had the actors and actresses hold masks which they would put in front of their faces. In Greek theater, this became known as “play acting” referring to people who were pretending to be something when they were in fact something else. This is the Greek phrase from which we get our words, “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” meaning someone who pretends to be something they aren’t. And this is the same word Paul uses her in our Galatians passage.

It’s in this letter from Paul that we get this wonderful verse speaking of how all are included in God’s family when he writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus uses the same word to describe the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day when they confronted him about whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. It was a trick question and they were hoping to trap Jesus into saying something that they could use against him.

As Jesus did so many times when people were trying to trip him up with a challenging question, he outflanked them and made them think about what it means to be the people of God in a new and different way.

In the movie, Chocolat, Vianne is able to see through the hypocrisy of the Mayor and many of the town’s people and she meets resistance.

Vianne still seeks to make friends. She hires Luc to draw a sketched portrait. He comes to the chocolate shop on the sly, while his mother is at her weekly hair appointment. Vianne has hired him to draw a portrait of his grandmother. It is the first time they’ve been able to see each other in a long, long time.

One night, Josephine shows up at Vianne’s door. She has been beaten by her husband, and she has gotten up the courage to leave him. She seeks shelter and sanctuary at the chocolate shop, with the only person in town who has ever befriended her.

Word soon gets out that Josephine is staying with Vianne. The mayor shows up at the store.

The mayor is angry with Serge Muscart for abusing Josephine; he sets out to reform him with repentance and contrition.

Meanwhile, Lent is slowing passing, and the chocolate shop is doing a good business despite the mayor trying to shut it down.

One day, some vagabonds glide into town on the river. They live on their boats and go from town to town seeking to do odd jobs for money. But, they are not received well in this small, French town.

[Movie Clip]

The town council cannot force the river rats to move from the river bank as it is public land. That may be true, but the mayor implores the townspeople to make sure to let them know that they are not welcome in this town. He calls them ruthless, godless drifters, who will contaminate the spirit of their quiet town, and the innocence of their children.

The mayor starts a campaign to boycott immorality, and posts flyers all over town in all the shops – well, all the shops but one – that the river rats aren’t welcome.

Vianne befriends Roux, played by Johnny Depp, and hires him to fix the front door to her shop.

The mayor continues his campaign against the river rats, and Vianne and the Chocolate Shop. Some customers stop patronizing her shop, and one day her daughter comes home from school after being teased at school about her mother being ‘Satan’s helper’ a term the mayor uses to refer to Vianne.

Vianne gets frustrated, and goes to talk to Armande. Armande suggests that Vianne throw her a 70th birthday party; they will not give in to the bigots in town who are against them for being different. So the invitations go out for the party.

Vianne and Josephine begin lots of preparations for the party cooking and baking sumptuous dishes to eat. The day of the party arrives.

Everyone enjoys the party, a feast of delicious food and wine. Vianne exclaims that if they like the food at the party, they will love the food at the chocolate festival on Easter Sunday. Then she tells them that dessert is being served on Roux’s boat; you can see the shock and dismay on the guests’ faces.

The party moves down to the riverside on the boats, where music and joyous dancing break out.

Serge stumbles upon the party and goes and gets the mayor so he can see for himself.

The party goes on, and eventually winds down as the night grows longer. Serge takes the mayors words to heart, “something must be done…something must be done.”

He sneaks down to the river after everyone is asleep on the boats and pours gasoline on the boats, lights the fire, and sets the boats adrift into the middle of the river. It is a horrific scene.

Luc takes his grandmother home to her house, and he washes up the dishes while she takes it easy in her chair. When he goes in to check on her, he discovers that she has died peacefully in her chair.

Vianne decides that it is time for her to leave this small, provincial town where she and her daughter are not accepted and never will be.

One evening, Serge comes to see the mayor.

When Josephine finds out that Vianne and Anouk are leaving the town, she is certain that everything will go back to the way it always was before she came. She seeks the help of the townspeople to stand by Vianne.

They come to her aid, and help prepare for the Easter chocolate festival.

The mayor feels like he has lost control of his town. In despair he breaks into Vianne’s chocolatier. In what is probably the most famous scene from the movie, let’s watch as the hypocrisy of the Mayor catches up with him.

[Movie Clip]

One of my favorite parts of that scene is in how Vianne extends grace and mercy to the Mayor even though he had broken into her shop and had caused her so much grief ever since she first came to town. The irony of the movie is that it was the people who were outside the church who taught the people who were inside the church the meaning of grace and acceptance.

Like the Galatian Christians and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, sometimes we who are in the church forget just how wide and all embracing God’s love is. And as a result, we trade a faith that is meant to be dynamic and relational for a faith that is focused primarily on rules and boundaries of who’s in and who’s out.

Several weeks ago, a staff member told me about a member of our church who prayed one morning that God would help her live her life so that people would see her faith in the love she showed to them.
Little did this church member know how God would answer that prayer! She came to the church that day to help with a ministry project and while here, she met a 21 year old man at our High Street entrance. This man went on to tell her about his struggle with drugs and how he had been off drugs for a week. He said how he wanted to straighten his life out. She invited him to church and he said to her, “You mean, they wouldn’t tell me to get out?” She assured him that our church would welcome him.

She then met a 70 year old woman who was looking for a room in our church where she could pray. She shared that she was homeless and needed God’s help. When the member invited her to go with her into the sanctuary to pray, the woman hesitated because she felt that she wasn’t dressed nice enough to come into the sanctuary.

She assured her that it was OK and together they came into the sanctuary where this woman told her story. She talked about being homeless and losing her teeth and not being able to get a job.

This woman then asked the member of our church if she would be willing to write a letter to her ex-husband to invite him to come to church since he used to attend here a long time ago. She agreed to write the letter.

I celebrate the many ways that we are a church that reaches out to all people because God has reached out to us.

At the end of the movie, the pastor finally preaches the Easter sermon. It’s a sermon that sums up what this little French town and church learned about God’s grace from an outsider, the woman who became known for her chocolatier.

Let’s listen and allow his sermon to be the ending for our sermon today.

[Movie Clip]

What's Exciting about Jesus?

Lent and Easter must be around the corner because I'm beginning to see secular news articles on the topic of who Jesus of Nazareth was. What can we know about Jesus? Do the four gospels portray a historically reliable portrait of Jesus?

Today's CNN article about who Jesus was takes up this question. It's interesting that most articles like this do not focus on the classic/orthodox approach on the identity of Jesus. There is an assumption that a hidden understanding of the real identity of Jesus is much more exciting to people. So in this article, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan argues for a picture of Jesus who primarily offered a non-violent revolt against Rome and their oppression of the Jewish people.

The famous "Jesus Seminar" a collection of scholars who lean toward this direction in their understanding of Jesus made news several years ago when they met to paint an alternative portrait of Jesus. Since the Jesus Seminar, I have met several people inside and outside the church who say that this kind of scholarship has helped them to see their faith in a new way. For many people, this is a more palatable understanding of Jesus and fits into their 21st century post-enlightenment "closed universe" worldview. I would imagine that a lot of these folks wouldn't admit that they are influenced by this worldview, but it is so embedded in our thought process, that we don't realize that we have settled for a more deistic faith. A deistic approach can be summed up as the belief that God is way up there in heaven somewhere and we are way down here and once in a while God intervenes. In contrast, the biblical understanding is that God is active in our world in a much more dynamic way.

Fortunately, scholars such as Ben Withingerton, Craig Evans, N.T. Wright, and others have used the same 1st century historical context of Israel/Rome and have drawn very different conclusions from Crossan and the Jesus Seminar scholars. Instead of trying to explain away the miracles of Jesus and conclude that many of Jesus' sayings were not originated by him but inserted by the gospel writers, they claim the gospel portrait of Jesus makes sense from a historical perspective when seen in Jesus' Jewish/1st century context. In other words, the gospel writers did not need to add or edit what Jesus' said and did to make this fit into their motivation in writing the gospel accounts.

The Jesus Seminar and scholars such as Crossan have helped to raise interest on who Jesus really was. This is a positive thing even though I don't accept their conclusions because of the reasons stated above. Contrary to what the secular media assumes, the more classic/orthodox understanding of Jesus is as exciting if not more so than what the Jesus Seminar scholars propose.

When we set aside our modern day biases and allow the gospels to speak for themselves in light of their historical context, we discover a Jesus who not only fits into the ancient creeds, but who challenges us to take our faith to a deeper level. If we're looking for an exiting and fresh adventure in the study of who Jesus really is, this approach will fill that need quite well.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - March 6

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

Sermon - "An App for That: Finding Our Way Again"

Features - Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday & Holy Communion

Scripture - Exodus 24:12-18 & Matthew 17:1-9
Theme - Transfiguration Sunday is a day to remember how Jesus invited his disciples to journey with him up the mountain. This gives us the opportunity to see the Season of Lent which will begin on Wednesday of this week as a journey as well. By being intentional in following Jesus, we will be able to find our way again.

Across Political Lines

The voters clearly spoke. Cut government spending! But the voters couldn't cast a vote on what programs should be cut. Education? Health services? Military? Social benefits? This article in my local newspaper this morning prompted me to blog on this topic.

What is a politician to do? Reduce taxes? That was decided when our representatives voted to continue the Bush tax cuts.

So we're going down the road of having the government play a smaller role in the affairs of our day to day living. But who is going to pick up the slack?

Regardless of where people lean in this precarious time of political maneuvering, it's an important time for the church and followers of Jesus to step to the plate. First of all, with so much anger, frustration and political posturing, people like never before are in need of hope and a sense of God's peace. Secondly, as the government shrinks, the church needs to find ways to be there for people who will be most impacted by our political decisions.

Yes, personal responsibility is important for people to get on their feet, but in many cases, the solution is a lot more complicated. Case in point - To discover this truth, I invite anyone to hang out at my church during a given week to encounter the many people who stop by looking for help and guidance. In most circumstances, telling someone to be more responsible will not solve the problem. The elderly woman who can't pay her rent because of overwhelming medical bills is a very responsible person but life has thrown her a bad situation and she is facing an eviction. Thankfully, our church is helping her to stay in her apartment...for this month.

The problems and issues facing our country really do cut across political lines. It's not about which party is in power. It's about finding solutions without settling for easy answers.

While politicians and voters argue, flee, shout, and point the finger, the church is called to take a different path - the way of Jesus and the cross.

Friday, February 25, 2011

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.

Feb. 27 Sermon – Movie Month: “Chocolat”

Galatians 2:11-21
- Galatians & Thessalonians were the very first letters that Paul wrote.
- Christians in the Galatia region of south central Turkey when Claudius was emperor.
- Most citizens worship several gods along racial lines. There are Jews and a minority of Christians.
- Problem facing the Galatian Christians – Who’s in and who’s out of God’s family. Table fellowship is at the center of the controversy and the tension between Jewish/Christian believers and Gentile believers.
- Paul tells the story of when he and Peter argued over the issue of who is in and who is out.
- What does this argument between Peter and Paul tell us about the early church? What does it tell us about arguments in the church today?
- What are the essentials and non-essentials for Christian unity?

Matthew 22:15-22
- Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus in an argument regarding whether they should pay taxes to Rome or not?
- People use questions like this to trap people today especially in the political world.
- Jesus asks them to show him a coin which has the image of the emperor which is a “no-no” for a pious Jew and yet they had a coin! The coin also used the title, “Son of God” to describe the emperor, another “no-no” for a pious Jew.
- Jesus doesn’t answer the question about religion/politics directly because he wants to expose their hypocrisy.
- Different political parties in Jesus’ day – 1) Zealots 2) Pharisees/Sadducees 3) Compromisers 4) Essenes (withdraw from society) Jesus offered a new way of living out his faith – the way of the cross.
- How can we be on the guard against hypocrisy as we live out our faith?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

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.

(and yes, this is a true story)

The usual response is...
I'm sorry, you have the wrong number

But after two months it became....
I'm sorry, but you have the wrong person,
or maybe not......

Let me explain.

The first call, she left a voicemail on my house phone.
She sounded like she was 102,
with a crackly voice,
and she spoke very slowly.

"Floyd, this is Emma, please call me."

Since I have never been christened a "Floyd",
I chalked it up as a wrong number.

A couple of days later,
another voice mail.

"Floyd, this is Emma, I need to talk to you"

Evidently Floyd must have a similar phone number to mine, I thought.
I let it go.

A week went by.
Then, another voice mail from Emma.

"Floyd, this is Emma,
I'm worried about you....I haven't heard from you.
Please call me."

I stared at the phone.....
okay, now I have a lady who is older than dirt worried that Floyd has been abducted.
But I didn't know how to call and tell her that Floyd was probably just fine....
just at another telephone number!

Another week....
like clockwork Emma called again during daytime hours...

"Floyd, this is Emma.
Meryl has been asking for you to visit him at the nursing home.
He's worried about you, and so am I.
Please call me."

Now she had me.............
Emma was worried,
Meryl was worried.
and for all I knew,
maybe Floyd had been abducted.

If only 102 year old ladies could tweet,
or chat, or text......
But it wouldn't matter
I am not a techie.
I have no interest in pushing buttons,
and I have no desire how to learn about the latest gizmo.

But I looked at my phone closely for the first time.
There was a button marked menu.
I pushed it.
It said, "received calls"
I pushed on that,
and up came a list of phone numbers,
including a local number that was consistent with the days and times that Emma had called.

I debated whether to call Emma.
I'd like to say that compassion motivated me,
but I was more concerned that eventually Emma,
in an effort to rescue Floyd,
would call 911
and give them my phone number.

I picked up the phone and dialed.
That now familiar, older than dirt voice answered.

Ma'am, my name is David.
My name is David.
My name is David, You have been calling for me several weeks now by mistake.
"I don't know any David"

Emma proceeded to hang up on me.

Okay, now Emma was starting to tick me off.
And I wasn't making her very happy either.

2 days later, Emma called.
"Floyd, this is Emma.
Meryl's not doing too well
and he wants to see you.
Please visit him.

Okay, now I am envisioning Meryl on his death bed,
wishing to tell Floyd his last thoughts.

Sometimes guilt can motivate you.
One more call to Emma
(without mentioning that my mother named me David).

I have been receiving calls from you about a man named Meryl.

"Oh no, is Meryl dead?"

No Ma'am,
but you have been calling me to visit him

"Is this an insurance agent?"

No Ma'am, I am a pastor.

Emma hung up on me again.
It appears she wasn't interested in a pastoral visit.

I gave up .........
sorry that Emma couldn't find the right phone number,
hoping that Floyd hadn't been abducted,
and praying that Meryl wasn't dead.

Three weeks later,
I was visiting my aunt,
in a nursing home.
It was my first visit to see her there,
so I was checking the room numbers as I walked down the hallway
Just before I got to her room, #106
room #104.........
and a gentleman named Meryl was listed.

It can't be, I thought
I can't, I tried to convince myself.
But it could be
and I could.
I knocked on the door jam and entered.

Pardon me,
but are you Meryl?
He acknowledged that he was.
Do you happen to know someone named Emma or Floyd?
He acknowledged that his wife was named Emma, and he had a friend named Floyd.

Chills went down my spine.
The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways.

I didn't bother to explain the craziness of wrong phone numbers.
But I did ask him if he wanted to pray.
He did, and we did.
He had never been a church goer,
but he believed that it wouldn't be very long till He met the Lord,
and he wanted to be ready.

I left a note at the nurse's station,
for Emma.....
Explaining to her that she had been calling me for weeks by accident,
that she needed to correct Floyd's number if she wanted to reach him,
and that I, by chance (not really) had come and met Meryl.
And if she needed any pastoral assistance, she could call me.
(She certainly knew my number)

I never heard from Emma again,
the wrong numbers ceased.
But I am convinced that nothing happens by chance,
that all that we do is ultimately under the Lord's authority,
and that He can and will use the strangest circumstances
for purposes that we can't imagine.

So if you think that God is calling the wrong person, when He calls you,
think again.
There are no wrong numbers, when it is God calling.

I know it, Meryl now knows it.
I hope you do as well.

I am the Lord.
I have called you in righteousness.
Isaiah 42:6

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Amen to that!"

Have you ever wondered why we say "Amen" at the end of our prayers?

In the daily office scripture readings for today, Paul is writing to the Corinthians Christians and reminds them that since God is always faithful, our only proper response is to say, "Amen" which means, "so be it" or "I agree."

In this past Sunday's sermon, I mentioned that God is always faithful to us and that our baptism is meant to remind us of God's faithfulness in our lives. Think of the many ways that God is faithful - a love that is unconditional and overflowing, joy and peace in the midst of trying times, guidance for when the way gets confusing, new beginnings and transformation, and blessings that sustain us in our day to day living.

Can I get an "amen" to that?

For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God. - II Corinthians 1:20

Monday, February 21, 2011

Guns & Religion?

Ben Witherington, New Testament professor at Asbury Seminary weighs in on the topic of guns and religions on his blog.

I was surprised when a nationally known conservative megachurch pastor who appeared on Larry King Live a few years back actually claimed that Jesus taught that we as private citizens should have guns and use them when necessary.

Even if you are one that supports the right for private citizens to use guns for protection, Dr. Witherington correctly points out that this stance runs counter to the teachings of Jesus.

Any thoughts on this from the blogosphere?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sermon (February 20) "Movie Month: Toy Story 3"

Years ago, a little publication called The Electric Experimenter calculated what the average person weighing 150 pounds was worth. When the raw components were considered, it was determined that the average person was composed of 3,500 feet of oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen; enough fats to make a candle weighing fifteen pounds; enough carbon to make 9,360 lead pencils; fifty-four ounces of phosphorus to make 800,000 matches; enough sugar to make six little sugar cubes; enough iron to make a ten-penny nail; enough lime to mark off the batter’s box on a baseball diamond; twenty spoonfuls of salt; and various other chemicals and water which collectively totaled $8.50.

When you factor in for inflation, this means that a 150 pound person is valued at about fifteen dollars.

Maybe there have been times when you felt like you were worth only about $15. Do you ever go through times like that when you don’t seem to fit in and you don’t seem to measure up? It really doesn’t matter how much money you have or how many of the right people you know. You can have all of those things and still feel empty inside.

Every single person must face the question of what it means to be fully human. Why have we been put here on this earth to begin with? What does it mean to be fully human?

As part of our February movie month, today we look at the movie, “Toy Story 3” which focuses on this very question of what it means to be fully human, or maybe we could say, “fully a toy,” since the toys come across very human-like in the movie. The movie helps us to identify with the hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, and questions we often have about who we are and to whom we belong.

The voices for the movie characters are very familiar and include Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, as well as other well known people. When I bought the DVD of the movie this past November, I remember reading somewhere that this movie was already the 5th highest grossing film world wide of all time.

Here’s a quick summary of the opening of the movie. A group of toys who have a strong bond with each other in spite of their many idiosyncrasies are owned by a little boy named, Andy. Whenever Andy is not in the room, these toys come to life.

Andy’s toys include Woody the cowboy sheriff; Buz Lightyear, a space toy; Jessie, a yodeling cowgirl; Rex the Dinasaur; Hamm the piggy bank; Slinky Dog, a slinky toy; Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head; Bo Peep; Bullseye, a non speaking horse; The 3 squeeze toy rubber aliens; Barbie; Sarge and the bucket of green soldiers; and other some other toys as well. Here’s the opening scene from the movie.

(Video Clip)

In that scene, Andy was still a little boy, but the movie quickly moves ahead in time to when Andy is older and is getting ready to leave for his first year at college. For the past few years, Andy has been outgrowing the toys making the toys feel sad and lonely. And now, he has to decide on which toys he is going to take with him and which ones he’s going to put into a garbage bag and take to the attic.

His mother sees the garbage bag of toys that Andy had collected and doesn’t know that Andy had intended for them for the attic. Instead, she thinks the bag is meant to be taken out to the curb with the rest of the garbage.

Let’s watch this scene of how the toys feel when they are trying to figure out what is going on.

(Video Clip)

Fortunately, the toys were able to escape from the garbage and end up getting into a box to be donated to the Sunnyside Daycare. At first the toys are happy when they arrive at the daycare because they know that there will be lots of children who will want to play with them every day.

While at sunnyside daycare, the toys encounter the harshness of life. Some of the children are too rough and end up breaking them making the toys want to leave the daycare. But the biggest challenge for them comes when one of the other toys, a stuffed bear named Lotso, is mean to them and treats them harshly.

The reason Latso is a mean toy is because he and two of the other toys used to be owned by a little girl who accidentally lost them. When these three toys made their way back to the little girl’s home, she had already replaced them with newer toys. From that moment on, they felt rejected and unloved, and that’s why they became mean.

In this next scene, Lotso has the other toys trapped and tells them that they aren’t worth anything. Here’s the scene.

(Video Clip)

So here we have Lotso, a toy who feels rejected, unloved, and unwanted. And we also have Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the other toys who throughout the movie have also felt rejected, unloved, and unwanted. And all of these toys are struggling with who they are and to whom they belong.

When I was in college, I reached a point in my life where I was really struggling with who I was and to whom I belonged. I was getting failing grades in college and I was also feeling lonely. To add to the feeling of rejection, I was also cut from the baseball team adding to my feelings of low self-esteem.

It was a real low point in my life and I began to believe that I served no real purpose in this world. Until that is when God reminded me of who I was. I remember one night, feeling particularly low, and it was like I heard this voice saying to me, “I love you Robert. But you need to make a decision to allow me to be first in your life. You’re not junk. You’re my child.”
I fell to my knees by my bed, and I remember telling God that I had wandered away from my faith and that I had forgotten who I was.

You see, my parents had raised me in the church. They had me baptized when I was just months old. And it was just now, 18 or 19 years later that I was finally realizing what my baptism meant and who I was and to whom I belonged. When I was baptized, God had claimed me as his child and promised to never leave or forsake me. And in that moment as I was on my knees, I claimed my identity in Jesus Christ. I belonged to God.

And from that moment on, I began to sense God’s presence in a very real way. I began to see God at work in my life. And I began to see myself the way that God sees me. As someone who is loved, forgiven, and made in God’s image.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is when Woody remembers to look under his cowboy boot and he sees the name, “Andy,” the name of the little boy who played with him as a child. Seeing that name on his boot was how Woody and the other toys were reminded of who they were and that they were loved and that someone had claimed them as their own.

Let’s watch this clip when Woody was reminded to whom he belonged.

(Video Clip)

In the Book of Genesis, when we read about the creation of the world, we read that we were created in the image of God. We were created to be in relationship with God and God has stamped his name on each of our lives.

And when God sent his son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins, he did this so that we would be able to be the people that God created us to be, God’s image bearers who offer God’s healing and saving love through word and deed to the people around us.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that we don’t have to worry about what we should wear or what we should drink. And then he points to the beauty of the lilies of the field and how God created them. He then points out the birds of the air and how God feeds them. And then Jesus says, “Are you not of more value than they?”

Just like Woody needed to remind himself to whom he belonged, we too need to remind ourselves again and again to whom we belong. It can be easy to forget who we are especially when we don’t stop from time to time to remind ourselves.

In his book on baptism, Lawrence Hull Stookey refers to how we often get “spiritual amnesia.” But thankfully, God who created us is constantly seeking after us to remind us of who we are and that we have been claimed by God.

Toward the end of the movie, Woody and the toys escape from the daycare and the mean bear and make it back to Andy’s house just before he is about to leave for college. Andy decides to take Woody and the toys to the home of a little girl, named Bonnie so that she would be able to enjoy the toys as much as he did when he was a little boy.

And in what is perhaps the most moving scene of the entire movie, Andy introduces each of the toys to the little girl and when he gets to Woody, he tells her all about his wonderful traits. Let’s watch this very emotional and closing scene from Toy Story 3.

(Video Clip)

As Andy tells Bonnie all about Woody, you can’t help but to wonder how good this made Woody feel. And even though Andy drove off to college, Woody and the other toys knew they were home again and that they were loved.

A couple of months ago, one of our members here came up to me after a church meeting and said, “I can’t believe all of this.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “What I mean is, I can’t believe I’m here in the church. Just ten years ago, my life was at its lowest point. I was feeling pretty bad about my life. But thanks to God, I’ve been able to find my way again. And here I am serving in the church and growing in my faith.”

God can really make an incredible difference in our lives, no matter how low we may feel and no matter what we may be facing in life.

As I close the sermon on Toy Story 3 and how it helps us to think about who we are and to whom we belong, I would like the bible to have the final word. I’ve asked several people in our congregation to share different bible verses that tell us who we are and to whom we belong.

And as you listen to these several different bible verses, remember that this is God speaking to you, reminding you of who you are and to whom you belong. And remember, you are worth a whole lot more than $15! Your worth is immeasurable.

(Several people come forward and share different bible verses.)

Sunday Worship Preview - February 27

February 27 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, March 2 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Movie Month: Chocolat"

Features - 8th Sunday After the Epiphany

Scripture -Galatians 5:1-6, 13-14 & Matthew 22:15-22

Theme - The movie, “Chocolat” helps us to wrestle with the theme of a rules oriented religion vs. a more relational and dynamic approach to faith. This is an issue that confronted Jesus and the Apostle Paul in their ministries and is also an important one for us in our day and age.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Death Bed Conversion Questions - My Response

These questions come from a member of the church and are important to think about from a Christian perspective. Here's what this person wrote to me:

The other day the subject of death bed conversions came up in a conversation. I was wondering if you could do a blog on Nikos about this subject. I know how I feel about it, but since I was raised in a Christan home my beliefs may be some what distorted. Questions such as the following were asked:

1. Do you believe in death bed conversions?

2. Are death bed conversions real? Or do they only happen because some one is dying?

3. What happens to those people who don't have the opportunity to have a death bed conversion? (For example, you may be killed instantly in an auto accident)

4. Do those people who have death bed conversions, enjoy the same joys of heaven as someone who has always lead a Christian life? If they do, is this fair to the person that has always led a Christian life?

I hope that you do not think that these are silly questions. I know what I believe, but I would like to know what an United Methodist Minister such as yourself believes. Any references to scripture would be very helpful in discussing this topic.

My Response:

Great questions! First, I would like to offer a normative statement about people receiving the gift of salvation. God's grace is a gift that we do not earn. We can only receive it and live our lives in response to that gift of grace.

Many verses come to mind like this one from Romans 6:23 - "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

It's very humbling to know that God's gift of salvation through Jesus Christ (forgiveness of sins, eternal life, abundant life, & assurance of faith) is not something we earn. We can only receive it by faith and be thankful.

But once we accept God's grace, our process of salvation is not over. Yes, we can have assurance that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (not even death) and we can look forward to spending eternity with God. However, the whole point of God's gift of grace isn't just so that it becomes my ticket into heaven but that I allow God's grace to work in my life to sanctify me and to help me to be the person God created me to be. And this is a life-long process!

For some people, this is a life long process because they received God's grace early in their life. For others, it may come later for a variety of reason. The thief on the cross next to Jesus is a good example. Even though he was dying on the cross, Jesus said, "Today you will be with me in paradise."

All of this is to say that when someone receives Christ the issue isn't really about when they did this. Yes, an impending death does cause many people to think about God and their faith, but I don't see how that would be different from somebody who earlier in life might have faced a scary life situation and that led them to receive Christ.

The more difficult of your questions is the one about a sudden death for a person who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. My first thought is that only God can make that determination. Yes, we form opinions about what was in that person's heart, but ultimately that is a matter between God and that person.

I am not a universalist, the belief that all will be saved and redeemed. I do believe that each person has a choice to receive or not receive the gift of salvation. But this also raises some complicated issues such as "What about someone who was not exposed to hear the message of God's salvation?" or What about people who are not mentally/emotionally able to receive or not receive God's offer of salvation?" Does God take these complexities into consideration?

I think God does and this is the reason that I lean toward a sense of humility in responding to these kinds of questions. I believe that God's mercy is much greater than what I or any one of us can fathom. There's a hymn in our United Methodist hymn book called, "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy." How true!
If somebody has lived a life a part from God and has a deathbed conversion, I don't feel that this is unfair to people who have lived their lives in a manner that is godly. Since living for God is what we were created to do and this is what brings us the most joy and peace, it's actually more unfair for the person who didn't receive Christ until the last minute. They were the ones who missed out on what it means to be fully human and fully alive in God.
Hope this helps!

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 is said,
if it is too hot,
stay out of the kitchen.

But what are you supposed to do if you are really hungry?

Each Tuesday I have dinner with a gathering of friends.
We rotate the location of the dinner weekly
between each of our four homes.

It's a great way to catch up
on what is happening in our lives......
and 3 weeks out of 4
I get to enjoy
a hot meal
without having to cook.

It's a win-win deal.....
well except for the blast furnace that occurs on week two.

Let me explain.....
During the winter months
my one friend uses a wood stove to heat his home.,
and his home might be described as "toasty"
to say the least.

Now I admit that I favor cooler temperatures.
I have been known to wear shorts throughout the winter,
and I prefer to sleep in a bedroom that feels like a freezer.

But I don't think I am alone in this
when I say that dinner at my friend's home,
is similar to a picnic..........
that would be a picnic in the Sahara Desert.

When you walk into the home,
the heat hits you like a punch in the face,
only this is a punch that keeps on giving,
all the way through dessert.

I have learned to come dressed in layers
when dining in this lava zone,
but one can only "unlayer" so far,
without breaking social rules of etiquette,
and civil laws.

Even the host's pets seem affected...

I have seen the tropical parakeet
passed out in it's cage.

The cat is curled up
under the toilet bowl
in an fruitless effort to find relief,

and when the front door opens,
Fido sees it as a chance to escape from the furnace of hell.

Now I am sure there is a good reason
for my friend's preoccupation with heat.

Perhaps he is on a mega dose of blood thinner,
or maybe he grew up near the equator.

Whatever the reason,
I always take a deep breath
as I sit down to the table,

I always hope that the menu will offer some relief.....
maybe some chicken salad,
or COLD cuts
or a popsicle souffle.

This evening, I sat down
to a bowl of spicy hot chile.

You can hide many things in life.

You can hide your emotions.
You can hide Easter eggs,
but you cannot hide perspiration.

Sweat was beading up on my forehead
as I complimented the host on
his four alarm chile.

Somewhere between the garlic bread
and the shredded cheese,
I was tempted to bury my face in the apple sauce.

I vowed silently to wrap ice packs around
my neck the next time I visited..

I remembered how often I am told
that God never gives us more than we can handle.

I quoted this thought
as I felt the heat coming off the oven
while the dessert brownies were baking.

I tried not to think about the house that puts hell's thermometer to shame
even as the host bragged that his wood stove
could pump out 50,000 BTUs of heat
on even the frostiest of nights.

Sometimes the good is mixed with the bad in life.

The day that my mother celebrated her retirement,
was the day that my father died.

The promise of recovery from an illness or an injury,
is also accompanied by the painful journey of healing.

The beauty of the first spring flowers
must first endure the cold thaw of winter.

Yes, the good comes with the bad.
Jesus said as much.
It comes to both good and evil people
and is not so much an indictment about our lives,
as it is a statement about life.

Life includes both joy and sorrow,
pain and pleasure,
light and darkness.

What is revealing is not so much
whether we receive more good than bad,
but that we receive fully the grace
that allows us to savor the good,
and overcome the bad.

So the next time you are going through the fires of hell,
don't view it as a judgement from God,
but as an opportunity to once again
place your trust in the One
who carries you through all things.

As for me, mental note........

take a 10 minute ice cold shower
before I come to my friend's house next month.

for He causes His sun to rise on the evil, and the good,
and sends rain on the righteous, and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:45b

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lessons this Pastor Has Learned: Twenty-Five Years of Ministry

I began pastoring a small rural church in 1986 while attending seminary. In total, I have had the honor and priviledge of serving in five church appointments during the course of my first twenty-five years of ministry.

In celebration of the first twenty-five years, here are ten lessons I have learned about being a pastor. Once in a while, it's good to reflect on the lighter side of church life. Enjoy!

"I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord.'" - Psalm 122:1

Lesson #1
When the notes of the processional hymn are about to begin, you never know when someone might frantically come up to you just as you’re entering the sanctuary with the choir and say, “The toilet is broken!” You couldn’t get those words out of your mind for the entire service. In fact, they’re still ringing in your ears. Mundane things are often intertwined with high spiritual moments.

Lesson #2
Just before you walk into the sanctuary with the groom and groomsmen for the wedding, always make one last check to make sure you have your wedding ritual. While extemporaneous prayers and vows are sweet, you just can’t replace the words in that ritual that have been tested over the centuries.

Lesson #3
For the announcements one Sunday, you were asked to announce that everyone was invited to go to Lee’s that day for a meal to support the youth mission trip. How were you supposed to know that they meant Lee’s Chicken and not the home of one of your staff members whose name was Lee? It's always good to clarify those announcements first!

Lesson #4
At one of your churches, the congregation enjoyed having worship service on the church lawn during the summer each year. That ended the year when a stray dog was in heat and just wouldn’t go away. It's ok to break from some traditions!

Lesson #5
Note to self: When serving Holy Communion at the home of a homebound member, be careful not to spill the grape juice on her beautiful table cloth especially if you just complimented her on how beautiful it is. Just saying.

Lesson #6
When officiating for a wedding, be prepared for anything, like a bride who just before the wedding vows needs to sit down in the choir loft so she can discreetly throw up. Make sure one of the groomsmen gets a damp cloth and a glass of water. That always helps. And when you’re finally ready to resume the wedding, just because she doesn’t faint again, you’re still not home free. Remember, it’s going to be really awkward when you look at the groom and say, “You may kiss the bride.”

Lesson #7
Don’t fool yourself, you can plan for that special Christmas Eve service all you want, but just know that something weird is going to happen, like a dog who starts walking down the sanctuary aisle during your opening welcome.

Lesson #8
If you have a contemporary worship service and use a midi and recorded music instead of a live praise band, make sure that a parishioner doesn’t accidentally pull the extension cord out of the wall socket as you’re singing, “Lord I Lift Your Name on High.”

Lesson #9
I know that your organist has never missed a wedding in his thirty years of being a church organist, but hey, it can happen. And it did. I liked your idea of reading I Corinthians 13 as the bridesmaids and the bride came forward so that special moment wouldn’t be in complete silence. That kind of worked. But when you announced they were husband and wife, and they recessed out of the sanctuary in silence, that was weird, just really weird.
Lesson #10
If you're going to get food poisoning and pass out in church, here's a helpful tip for the future. DON'T COME TO CHURCH, especially if it's a combined Mothers' Day and confirmation Sunday with a packed house. The 7th grade confirmand girl who sat in the first pew and had to watch you pass out during your sermon and then be carried out in front of her is still a bit traumatized by the whole thing. But hey, look at it this way - she'll never forget her special day.

Check Out My New Poem!

When I was walking along one of the nice beaches during my recent Bahama's mission trip, I looked behind me and noticed one set of footprints in the sand. This gave me the inspiration to write a new poem which I have entitled, "Footprints in the Sand."

It's so good that I'm thinking about putting it on coffee mugs and calendars and marketing it.

But seriously, I did think of this poem when I saw my footprints behind me. In the Wesleyan tradition, this poem reminds us of God's prevenient grace, the grace that goes before us. Even when we are not aware of God's presence, we can know that God is indeed with us extending grace, mercy, and love and inviting us into a covenant relationship of love.

Here's the poem:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?”

The Lord replied,
“The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand,
is when I carried you.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bible Study Summary - Sunday's Upcoming 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.

Sermon – Sunday, February 20 “Toy Story 3”

Genesis 2:4-9
- Version #2 of the creation story. It emphasizes the intimate relationship between the Lord and creation itself, especially with humans.
- 1st creation account presents humanity as the climactic event of the six-day creation period, this account focuses on humanity as the centerpiece of the beautiful garden.
- Verse 7 – The Lord is a potter in fashioning humans.
- This story of creation which includes the garden and the tree of life resurfaces in the Book of Revelation when God will one day bring heaven and earth together and the garden will be renewed and restored.
- What does this story teach us about God and about who we are?

Matthew 6:25-34
- This passages leads us to ask the question, “was Jesus happy?” We tend to focus on how Jesus was a man of sorrows but sometimes we miss out on noticing how he also was filled with happiness.
- Jesus points to plants and birds to show that it really doesn’t require a lot of effort to be happy. They seem to have happiness without much thought or effort.
- God’s creation is beautiful (refer back to the creation story in the Book of Genesis.)
- The Bahamas mission trip reminded me of God’s beauty with the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. My friend’s mission trip to Haiti reminded him that Haitians are very happy people and yet they live in one of the poorest countries in the world!
- The key to happiness – remember that God created the world and called it good and loves us and made us uniquely so that we can have a relationship with God. Jesus was able to live in the present moment and not be anxious about the future.
- What does it mean to not worry about what we eat or wear? It doesn’t mean that we should simply go without and live minimally but it does mean to enjoy God’s creation and to be good stewards of God’s creation sharing what we have with others.
- Jesus’ teachings at the Sermon on the Mount invite us to experience the happiness that Jesus had in his life and ministry.
- In what ways can this scripture make a difference in our personal lives and in the life of our church?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Impact of Social Networking on Worship Attendance

A big thanks to Scot McKnight who referenced this article by Professor Richard Beck who claims that social networking is the primary reason why the younger generation is opting out of worship/church attendance.

After reading this article, the obvious question becomes, "How should the church respond to this reality?" This question makes me wonder what the church offers in terms of connecting people that is not already offered by social networking. Before we answer with "face to face communication" we need to say why "face to face" is better than online communication.

A second but related thought is how can the church use social networking to enhance our ministry and outreach, especially to the younger generation?

Sermon (February 13) - "Movie Month: The Enchanted Cottage"

The bible tells us that we are often quick to judge other people by outward appearances. But unlike us, God is more concerned about what people are like on the inside.

We are a nation obsessed with outward appearances. We spend billions of dollars to lose weight, gain muscle, and to have plastic surgery every year.

And it seems that Hollywood projects an unrealistic image of what it means to be beautiful.

But one Hollywood film, way back in 1945, explored what it means to be beautiful both inside and out, in the eyes of two people who love each other.

In the first film of our Movie Month sermon series, we’re going to look at this theme through the film, “The Enchanted Cottage,” starring Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young.

The story is about a WWII airplane pilot, Oliver Bradford, whose face is disfigured and body maimed in a crash. Wanting to hide from family and friends he moved to a seaside cottage.

There, he befriends Laura Pennington, a homely girl to whom love has not been kind. Let’s watch the opening scene of the movie.

[Video Clip]

Over the years, the cottage has been rented to newly married couples to spend their honeymoon years. Now, a lonely widow lives in and owns the cottage. She and her husband were the last to honeymoon there many years before.

Laura Pennington has returned home to the seaside village after some years away. Let’s watch.

[Video Clip]

So, Mrs. Minnett, the owner and caretaker has rented the cottage to a young engaged couple who are soon to be married, Mr. Bradford and Miss Alexander. They come to show Miss Alexander the cottage, as she has not seen it yet.

They decide to rent the cottage, but Mr. Bradford has applied for commission in the Army Air Corp. He expects that he won’t receive orders for several months. But he receives his orders immediately, and goes off to the war. The wedding is postponed until after Mr. Bradford comes home from the war. So, they send a note to Mrs. Minnett explaining their change in plans. Let’s watch this scene.

[Video Clip

Laura Pennington begins to work at the local canteen. After working there for six months, Halloween arrives, and they are throwing a party for the servicemen at the canteen. The woman who runs the canteen insists that Laura come out of the kitchen where she washes dishes alone, to meet some of the good-looking servicemen. There are more men than women, so the picking should be good for Laura. But let’s watch and see what happens.

[Video Clip]

One day, a telegram arrives from Mr. Bradford. He wants to rent the cottage for an indefinite period of time. But he will be coming alone. He and Beatrice Alexander never married.

He arrives, and goes straight to his room, where he stays in seclusion. Nothing can persuade him to come out of his room—not his family, nor his former fiancĂ©e. He is ashamed and angry over the way he looks after his wartime airplane accident. Oliver is so despondent that he makes an attempt to kill himself with a gun. Laura enters the room and sees him standing with the gun, and she takes it from his hand.

Later that evening, she brings him his supper. Here’s the scene.

[Video Clip]

Slowly, Oliver and Laura develop a friendship. They spend time talking in the cottage garden.

One day, Major John Hillgrove, himself a wounded airman who had been made blind in the First World War, came to call on his neighbor, Oliver Bradford. Although he is blind, Major Hillgrove “sees” things as they really are better than most people. Let’s take a look.

[Video Clip]

Mr. Bradford’s angry interior gradually begins to thaw, and he begins to enjoy taking walks with Miss Pennington down by the seashore.

Eventually Oliver proposes marriage to Laura, and she accepts. They see beyond appearances, and see the inner beauty in each other. And so, in their eyes, they are the most beautiful people in the world, both inside and out.

Then something extraordinary happens, and Oliver and Laura send for Mr. Hillgrove.

They experience a physical change in each other. They wonder if it is only the enchantment of the cottage, and that they will become homely again if they leave the cottage. They don’t want to lose what they have gained.

Mr. Hillgrove tells them to accept the gift that has been given to them. Accept it as the miracle that it is.

They enjoy the happiness they have found in each other, and the love that they share.

Then, one day, Oliver’s mother and step-father come to call on Oliver and Laura. They haven’t seen them since their wedding.

Mr. Hillgrove tries to prepare them for what they will see while Oliver and Laura are still upstairs getting ready. He tells them that they will not see Oliver and Laura as they see themselves. However, Oliver’s mother and step-father don’t seem to understand.

Finally, Olive and Laura come downstairs. Let’s see what happens when they meet up with each other.

[Video Clip]

Finally, Oliver and Laura realize that their true beauty lies inside, but not in outward appearances. Their true beauty lies in the fact that they love one another.

Our true beauty, the beautiful and unique way that God has made each and every one of us, also lies in our inner being. Our worth and beauty comes because God has given it to us, and because God loves us.

In many ways, we must be like Mr. Hillgrove, the blind man in the movie. He is truly the one whose sight is most keen, because he does not rely on his eyes to see, nor does he get distracted by outward appearances.

When God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to select a new King of Israel, he thought for sure that the first of Jesse’s sons was the one to be king. He was tall and he seemed like the ideal king. But the Lord told Samuel to not focus on outward appearances, but to look at what was in the person’s heart instead.

In other words, it’s our character, our integrity, and our love of God that matters most.

As each of Jesse’s sons is presented to him one by one, God keeps telling Samuel to wait. After the last son is presented, Samuel asks Jesse if there’s anyone left. And that’s when the youngest, the one you’d least expect was chosen to be the next king and his name was David.

Centuries after this story about Samuel selecting David as the next King, the prophet Isaiah was also thinking about what the future king of Israel would look like.

Isaiah says that this new King will have no form or majesty that anyone will take notice of him. And there will be nothing about his appearance that will lead you to think that he is the one.

As we read the four gospel accounts, we find out that Isaiah was right. Many didn’t notice that Jesus was the one, including the religious leaders of his day.

But it was through what Jesus did for us by dying on a cross to take away our sins, that we know that he truly is the true King and Savior of the world.

This is the love that is the most important love of all. This is the love that can make all the difference in the world in our relationships, in our friendships, in our family relationships, in our marriages, and in the relationships with the people we encounter.

It’s God’s love made known to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are able to see what true love is which makes this story on our first Sunday of Movie Month, a true classic.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - February 20

February 20 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, February 23 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Movie Month: Toy Story 3"

Features - 7th Sunday After the Epiphany

Scripture -Genesis 2:4-9 & Matthew 6:25-34

Theme - Toy Story 3 is a movie about Woody, the cowboy and other toys who long for someone to play with them and to know that they are loved. This movie helps us to explore the questions of who we are and to whom we belong.

Bahamas Mission Trip - Day #7 (Saturday, February 5)

Here are the highlights from each day of our Lancaster, Ohio First United Methodist Church Bahamas mission trip to the island of Eleuthera January 30 - February 5, 2011. We partnered with the Bahamas Methodist Habitat mission outreach ministry during the week.

Today was our travel day back home. We flew out of the southern small airport on the island to Nassau and then to DC and finally to Columbus.

During the week, we worked very hard and surpassed the expectations of the Bahamas Methodist Habitat staff. This made us feel really good that we had made a difference for a family of seven who needed to have a home following a fire that destroyed their previous home. We bonded as a group and grew in our faith as a result of our week together.

One of the highlights of our week from a scenery standpoint (in addition to the beaches!) was when we went to the famous Glass Window Bridge. This is a one lane bridge (concrete, not glass) with only 100 feet separating the crashing waves of the Atlantic ocean on the east side and the still Caribbean Sea on the west side. It is known as the most narrow land mass in the world.

Tim, one of our work team members said to me, "Robert, I see a future sermon illustration with this site. Sometimes our faith and life can feel turbulent like the Atlantic side and other times it can feel peaceful like the Caribbean side."

So don't be surprised if I use this image in a future illustration. The picture above is the Atlantic side of the bridge. Enjoy the video which includes both the Atlantic and the Caribbean sides.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bible Study Summary - Sunday's Upcoming 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.

New Sermon Series – “Movie Month”
Movies & Faith

February 13 – Movie: “The Enchanted Cottage”

I Samuel 16:2-12
- V. 4 – The fear of the people might reflect north/south tension of Israel
- V. 7 – This is a direct contrast to Saul who had the external appearance of a king but lacked the internal qualities.
- The same story appears in I Chronicles 2:13-14. That passage only includes 7 sons.
- V. 11 – David wasn’t present reminding us of the story when Saul wasn’t present either when he was to be selected King. The stories of Saul & David play off of each other by the biblical writers.
- Questions for Discussion: 1) If the outward appearance isn’t important to God, then why does verse 12 refer to David as being handsome? 2) What are the inner qualities that God is looking for in his followers? 3) How can this scripture help us today, especially since we live in a very outward appearance driven society with celebrities and stardom?
4) How can we focus more on someone’s internal character rather than on his/her outward looks?

Isaiah 53:1-7
- Isaiah is broken into three authors/historical periods of Israel’s history – 1) pre-Babylonian exile - chapters 1-39 2) Babylonian exile – chapters 40 – 55 3) post-Babylonian exile – chapters 56 – 66
As a prophet, Isaiah was warning people of their sins and injustice as well as announcing hope for God’s redemption and future messianic kingdom.
- Isaiah speaks of a “suffering servant.” It’s unclear if this is referring to the prophet himself, to Israel as a whole, to a future king, or a blending of all of these possibilities.
- Verses 4-6 In this passage, the suffering of the servant will be on behalf of others.
- Verse 6 refers to the scapegoat from Lev. 16:20-22 in which a sheep was driven from the camp of Israel as a visible sign of God removing Israel’s sins.
- The gospel writers saw this passage and the suffering servant as referring to Jesus. See Matt. 8:17, I Peter 2:22-25, & Phil. 2:6-11
- John Wesley saw these verses along with this text from Isaiah as the heart of the good news of our faith. This is how we are saved from our sins and made right with God.

Bahamas Mission Trip - Day #6 (Friday, February 4)

Here are the highlights from each day of our Lancaster, Ohio First United Methodist Church Bahamas mission trip to the island of Eleuthera January 30 - February 5, 2011. We partnered with the Bahamas Methodist Habitat mission outreach ministry during the week.

We did some sight-seeing. Went to Preacher's Cave where Puritans shipwrecked on northern part of island and named the island after the Greek word for freedom. The cave had a natural pulpit where I offered devotions for the group. We spent some time at a nearby beach.

From there, we drove to center of island and visited Governor's Harbor. The highlight of the trip was when we visited the two homes that our group worked on last year. The ladies of the two homes were so appreciative that we stopped by. It was a tearful moment as I watched this reunion. I was so proud of our church to know what a difference last year's team made in the lives of these two older women.

We joined another group visiting from Florida. They were there to prepare for their churches to send mission teams later in the year. It's amazing how people who have never met can be make instant friendships through our faith in Jesus Christ.

In the afternoon, we saw where the movie, "Why Did We Get Married To" with Tyler Perry was made at Club Med beach. We got to see where singer Lenny Kravitz lives. Evidently, actor Robert De Niro who likes to vacation here was nowhere in sight. :)
The beach was beautiful. We spent a couple of hours swimming, snorkeling, and walking the beach. All of the beaches were beautiful but this one was the best.
Here's one of the beaches we got to enjoy following our work week.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

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 has garnered the stares of cashiers
It has captivated the attention of store clerks.
It has amazed businessmen, and entrepreneurs.

No it's not my dashing good looks.

I am speaking of my wallet.

Rarely a day goes by that someone
doesn't remark about my unusual man purse.

Isn't it time for a new wallet?
You walk around with that thing?
If you are hard up for cash buddy, I can loan you some cash

It began as a tribute to the memory of my dad,
who was never eager to purchase a new wallet,
(or any other personal item for that matter)
when the old one worked just fine.

I think of him every time I reach for the debit card.

This would be the man who wore a leisure suit
10 years after they went out of style.

But there is another side to the ridicule that I receive daily.

It' s also about the number of items that I have
carefully stored inside it.

I also receive comments such as

What all do you have in that thing?
Why not buy a European hand bag? It would be less embarrassing....
What? Can't you afford to rent a storage unit?

I've been charged for extra baggage at airports because of it.

Homeless people, at times, have offered to buy me a hot dog.

The good news is that I have never been pick pocketed.

There is probably an unspoken rule among thieves
not to steal anything from a pocket that weighs over 10 lbs.

No I am proud of my wallet.
It is a testament to family frugality,
and perhaps to my closeted nature as a pack rat.

I am often encouraged by friends who care,
to schedule a day to houseclean day my wallet.

And so one day,
to prove them wrong
and to avoid a group intervention,
I decided to clean out my wallet.

Beyond the usual credit, debit & insurance cards
these are some of the things that I found.....

a photo of a 3rd world child that I sponsor
(shouldn't be any haters for that one)

a reminder note (that looks at least 7 years old) to call Sue asap
(I know at least 7 women named Sue)

a membership card from a video store in California
(I live on the east coast)

a gift card for a book store that closed 10 years ago
(maybe it will work on e bay)

a key to who knows what......

a card for a free appetizer at a popular chain restaurant
(you never know when you are going to be in the mood for a bloomin' onion)

individual credit cards to 8 stores that I have only been to once

a free pass to play miniature golf
(Hey! it's not easy to get that hole-in-one on the 19th hole)

a key card to some hotel room
(I wonder if it will still work....)

and finally,

my drivers license
which is barely clinging on to dear life
in it's shredded plastic pocket.

Okay, so maybe I do carry around some excess baggage.
And perhaps I need to accept change more easily.

Most of us are guilty of those things.

Excess baggage only bogs us down.
and refusing to change with the times doesn't prevent change from happening.

These are things that in the long run, cause us needless anxiety.

Jesus spoke of such anxiety.
The word anxiety that He used in the Gospel of Matthew
translates best in English as "mental strangulation".

So the next time you want to hold on to
something from the past,
remember who the One holds the keys to your future.

The next time you want to resist change
for fear of the unknown,
remember the One who knows everything
and has promised to be faithful to us.

As for my wallet,
yeah, I am going out and purchasing a new one.
As for the leisure suit,
I'd prefer if you can't say anything good about it,
that you say nothing at all.

And which of you by being anxious,
can add a single day to your life?
Matthew 6:27

Bahamas Mission Trip - Day #5 (Thursday, February 3)

Here are the highlights from each day of our Lancaster, Ohio First United Methodist Church Bahamas mission trip to the island of Eleuthera January 30 - February 5, 2011. We partnered with the Bahamas Methodist Habitat mission outreach ministry during the week.

Finished work at house. Doors installed and more drywall completed. At end of workday, we had a circle prayer of blessing with someone from the family who will be living in the house.

Went to Navy Beach on Atlantic Ocean side. Beautiful pink sand beach! I rode the waves for about an hour.

Garnett "Smokey" Thompson - Presentation

Grew up in James Cistern.
Island was poor. Only farming/fishing. Farmed corn, bananas, sugar cane. At 16, started masonry.

US military and space program brought business to the island. Astronauts landed near island from first moon landing.

Today's fishing industry is lucrative.

Eleuthera became independent in 1973.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bahamas Mission Trip - Day #4 (Wednesday, February 2)

Here are the highlights from each day of our Lancaster, Ohio First United Methodist Church Bahamas mission trip to the island of Eleuthera January 30 - February 5, 2011. We partnered with the Bahamas Methodist Habitat mission outreach ministry during the week.

Day #4 - Wednesday, February 2

Worked at the house and got a lot done - more drywall and door work.

After work, we went to a really nice beach along the Caribbean Sea. I snorkeled for the first time and it was amazing to see such beauty in the water. It was also another incredible sunset.

During the evening, we provided crafts for the Wesley Methodist Church's mid-week children's program. At the end, the children and youth sang for us. The youth rapped a song that they created with the lyrics:

"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, can't you see, every word you speak hypnotizes me."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bahamas Mission Trip - Day #3 (Tuesday, February 1)

Here are the highlights from each day of our Lancaster, Ohio First United Methodist Church Bahamas mission trip to the island of Eleuthera January 30 - February 5, 2011. We partnered with the Bahamas Methodist Habitat mission outreach ministry during the week.

Day #3 - Tuesday, February 1

More of the same work at the house. Our team eats our packed lunch just outside of a primary school. The children join us everyday because this is their lunch time as well. They wear school uniforms, dresses for the girls and dress shirts/pants and ties for the boys. They love to sing to us and ask us to share our favorite songs for them to sing. They mostly sing familiar Christian songs but they also like Justin Bieber! Lunch has become a time to enjoy talking to the children and letting them entertain us. Our time with them often included dancing in the gazebo shelter as they sang and brightened our day.

In the evening, we went to the Wesley Methodist Church bible study. The pastor talked about spiritual gifts and at the end we had the most incredible pineapple cake and lemonade. Walked to a nearby beach along the Caribbean Sea and saw a beautiful clear sky filled with bright stars.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bahamas Mission Trip - Day #2 (Monday, January 31)

Here are the highlights from each day of our Lancaster, Ohio First United Methodist Church Bahamas mission trip to the island of Eleuthera January 30 - February 5, 2011. We partnered with the Bahamas Methodist Habitat mission outreach ministry during the week.

Day #2 - Monday, January 31

Helped rebuild a house for a family of 7 whose house had burnt down from an electrical fire.

Drywall and installing new windows and doors.

Went to Rainbow Beach on Caribbean Sea side of island. Saw a beautiful sunset.

Heard a presentation on the ministry of Methodist Habitat and the Methodist Church in the Caribbean.
Bahamas Methodist Habitat:

Est. 1992 after Hurricane Andrew.

Methodists in Bahamas come from English Methodists and are not directly connected with the world-wide United Methodist Church.

Started own conference. Wanted to be more congregational focused.

From hurricane relief, went to sub-standard housing relief work.

Camp Symonette Mission and Retreat Center:

Hosts Methodist youth summer camps for conference.

They like to use Mother Teresa's quote - "Come and See." When we "come and see" we are able to see the pain and brokenness and to make a difference in the lives of others through Jesus Christ.

The video shows some of the window work our team did during the first two days.


Davie'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.

Life is confusing enough,
do we need to make it more confusing?

I wake up each day to a world
where the rules are constantly changing.

I can't even get past breakfast
without wondering if I am doing the right things.

Am I eating healthy
or am I chewing myself one step closer to the grim reaper?

Eggs used to be healthy,
then they weren't,
now I think they are again.

Margarine was better for you than butter,
then they turned that around.

I opened the newspaper
and found out that my cell phone
might be radiating waves into my brain.

A commercial on the TV told
me I had better get a radon detector

I turned on the internet and was told
that kittens are dangerous!

It seems that kittens often carry toxiplasmosis,
a parasitic disease,
that is transmitted through fecal material.
It can cause inflammation of the brain,
scarring of the eyes,
and skin lesions.

Let's just call the kitty litter box
deathtrap #471 in my house of horrors.

My inclination was to crawl into bed
and hide under the sheets...
that is, until I learned that certain detergents
can give you a rash.

It takes courage to get up and face the world every day,
let alone make decisions how to live in it.

As I drove to work,
A car passed me going the other direction
driven by a man who was shaving .

Now I consider myself a multi-tasker,
but my anxiety level went up another notch.

Surely when I got to work
I would feel secure and safe......
after all,
I work at a church.

I walked up to the entrance,
when I saw posted on the door....(see picture above)

and I realized that I had left my respirator at home....

Life is confusing,
and conflicting.
At times, do we make is more confusing than it needs to be?

It's hard to know sometimes what is right and what is wrong.....
what is good for you,
and what is bad for you

Some say that people of faith need to live black and white
in a world where it all seems gray.

I say that we need to see the gray in a world
that is forever black and white.

Politics, social topics, religious views.
There are so many things that offer us opposing views
the world is filled with black versus white.
And we are left to choose.

Is there anyone who thinks abortion is always the answer?
Is there anyone who thinks abortion is never the answer?

Should political views need to be to the extreme left or right?
Should Christians agree on all social issues?

Probably not.

The Pharisees made it their life goal to entrap Jesus into black or white answers.
He never fell into that trap.

Nicodemus tried to take spiritual truths
and whittle them down to specific life situations.

Nicodemus wanted to know whether to choose butter or margarine.
But Jesus wouldn't give him a dietary recommendation.

Instead, He gave Him eternal Truth.
Truth that embraces all of life
and reveals itself to all of humanity.
The only thing that Jesus asks for,
is a surrendered heart.

So the next time you need to make a decision,
about your breakfast,
about your choice of pets,
about your vote in a political election,

it's not so much about the choice you make,
as it is about who is guiding you in your choosing.

I need to get my respirator,
so I can get back to work.

If you abide in My word,
the, you are true disciples of mine;
and you shall know the truth,
and the truth shall make you free.
John 8:31b-32