A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Monday, December 30, 2013

Winner of Ugly Christmas Sweater (UCS) Sunday - Parishioner #10

Results of the 2013 Ugly Christmas Sweater (UCS) contest ("contest" is too strong of a word.) At least by my count with votes on our church fb page as well as votes submitted directly to me, here is the final tally:

The winner is Parishioner #10 (Jeff Campbell) & his sad and dying Charlie Brown Christmas tree sweater.

Runner-up goes to Parishioner #17 (Jeff Cherry) & his busy Christmas sweater vest that clashes horribly with his Christmas tie.

Thank you to all the parishioners who participated in this year's Ugly Christmas Sweater (UCS) Sunday. You are all winners in the eyes of the Christ Child.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Photos from Ugly Christmas Sweater (UCS) Sunday - December 29

Here are photos from our Ugly Christmas Sweater (UCS) Sunday (December 29.) I can see that Lancaster First UMC is a pioneer congregation in helping UCS Sunday become a new liturgical holy day for the Christian calendar. 

Thank you everyone for making this year's UCS Sunday one of our best ever! Make sure you put your sweaters back in the corner of the closet next to the mothballs so they will be ready to go for next year's UCS Sunday.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sunday Worship Preview - January 5

Sunday, January 5 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday January 8 (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - When to Box Up the Christmas Lights

Features - Epiphany Sunday & Holy Communion

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

Theme - How long do you keep up your Christmas lights? The Prophet, Isaiah has some thoughts on this as we near the end of the Christmas holiday.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sermon (Christmas Eve) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Keeping It Real"

     According to an NBC news affiliate which aired around this time last year, well over half of us prefer an artificial Christmas tree instead of a real one. According to this report, only 18% of us are old school when it comes to our Christmas trees.

     My brother happens to part of that 18% and he proudly reminds me of this every single Christmas. He knows that Penny and I sold out a long time ago when it comes to buying real Christmas trees. We think we have a very beautiful Christmas tree, but all he can see are the metal tubes and the fake pine needles.

     I must admit that I’m envious every time I see his 12 foot tall authentic Christmas tree that has been freshly cut down and always includes the delightful smell of pine throughout his house. That’s something you just don’t get with an artificial tree that gets stored in a box year round.

     In one of the churches I pastored, the young adult Sunday School class invited me to a Christmas decorating party that was held in their classroom. When I arrived, they had punch and cookies and after about ten minutes, somebody said, “Let’s start decorating.”

     I watched as a couple of the class members walked to a nearby storage closet and carried out an artificial Christmas tree that still had the lights and the decorations on it from the previous year. They stood up the tree in the corner of their classroom, plugged in the lights, and someone yelled out, “We’re done. Help yourself to some more punch and cookies.”

     I guess there is something to be said for real Christmas trees.

     Whether you have a real Christmas tree or an artificial one isn’t really the point. The real question is if our faith is real or not. 

     The Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is all about keeping it real. The gospel writer reminds us that God risked everything by sending us Jesus.

     The one who would be given the title the King of Kings was first born in the shadow of the mighty Roman Emperor Augustus who claimed this title for himself.

     The one who would go on to heal the sick, calm the storm, and feed the multitude would first be placed in a lowly manger upon his birth. 

     And the one who would face rejection and betrayal, would be turned away at his birth because there was no room in the inn.

     Yes, the Christmas story itself is a story that helps us to keep it real.

     Over the past several Sundays here in church, we have been asking ourselves this very important question. Are we keeping Christmas real?

     During the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at how we can keep Christmas real by embracing the hope of the coming of Christ into the world. George Iles once said, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” A little later in our service tonight, we will be doing just that. We will be lifting our lit candles in the dark of the sanctuary and the hope of Christ will bring light to this place.

     To help make hope more real, some of us have been doing some fridge journaling where every time we open the refrigerator we jot down on a note pad, a time when God got us through what seemed at the time like a hopeless situation.

     And then we were given the challenge to share some of these experiences of hope with the people around us. Sharing hope with others is a way to keep Christmas real.

     On the second Sunday of Advent, we focused on embracing the peace of Christmas. When we put our focus on Christ, rather than on the materialism of Christmas, we experience a deeper sense of God’s peace in our lives.

     Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” One of the ways we can keep it real this Christmas is by seeking peace rather than division. We will discover that it’s when we are actively seeking peace, that we will experience a peace that passes all understanding.

     On the third Sunday of Advent, we discovered that we can keep it real through an attitude of joy. That’s why one of the candles around the Advent wreath is pink and not blue like all the others. Blue reminds us to patiently wait for the coming of Christmas but the color pink reminds us that we can experience joy along the journey.

     The pink candle represents the third Sunday of Advent leading up to Christmas. The church refers to this Sunday of Advent as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word that means “Rejoice.”

     Helen Keller once said, “Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence a glow.” If you want to keep Christmas real, just look around at how God is at work in our world, and you this will lead you to a Gaudete moment of rejoicing.

     And this past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, we gave some thought to how love helps us to keep it real at Christmas. It’s when we share the love of Jesus that we experience the deepest kind of love there is. This love is an unconditional love that accepts us for who we are and loves us just the way we are.

     Morrie Schwartz once said, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and let it come in.”

     I see so many examples of people sharing God’s love through our church and it’s all because God’s love is just too incredible to keep to ourselves. It’s the kind of love that fills us and we can’t help but to share it with the people around us.

     If you are looking to keep it real this Christmas, just remember these four themes of our Advent season. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These Advent Candles remind us of how we can keep it real this Christmas and beyond.

     For the past four years, people in our church and from the community gather at our church’s Crossroads facility on West Fair Avenue from 8:30 am to noon on the second Saturday of each month.  Our mission is simple.  We want to be a blessing in our community. We call this our Second Saturday outreach ministry.

     We have painted several of the city’s fire hydrants, painted over graffiti on bridges, served as volunteers for charity events, helped with house repairs, laid new flooring at Foundation Dinners, given away quarters to people at the Laundromat, helped residents at a nursing home play bingo and chair volleyball, taken bags of fruit and cookies to first time responders and to people who are shut-in, raked people’s yards, helped with the Habitat for Humanity resale store, made warm blankets for nursing home and hospice patients, helped build a tree house for the students at Forrest Rose school for Developmental Disabilities, along with several other projects just to give you an idea of what Second Saturday is all about.

     A couple of weeks ago, we had fun assembling and wrapping Christmas presents for several needy families in our community.  I am terrible at gift wrapping and even I ended up wrapping several gifts that somehow passed inspection.

     One of the people we helped for Christmas last year is a man in his 50s who shared this letter with us. If anything can help us keep Christmas real this year, it would be this man’s letter. Here’s what he wrote and these are totally his words:

     “I receive disability and both kids live with me right now.  Me and my wife separated a year ago and in February, we learned that our son who was 5 at the time was being sexually abused by a cousin.

     My wife had a mental breakdown and had to stay in a hospital for a while and we both agreed that it would be best for the kids to live with me but while my wife was in and out of the hospitals, me and the kids were homeless and we stayed in a shelter for a couple of months and recently received help to get me and my kids into an apartment.

     From April to July, me and the kids have lived in a tent, took baths in creek water, cook food over an open fire. Community Action helped us get into an apartment.

     In September, I had a heart attack and found out I have a big blood clot in my heart.  They say I have not got much time so I hope that this Christmas will be a good one for me and the kids. The kids and I don’t have much but at least we have a home thanks to people who have helped us.”

     I called this dad to let him know that I received his letter and that our church was glad to help them for Christmas. I offered him words of support and shared in a prayer with him, reminding him that God was with him and that God loved him.

     After I hung up the phone, I remember thinking that Christmas never felt more real to me than it did in that moment. And I know it had something to do with hope, peace, joy, and love.

     This past week, I was on the phone with my insurance agent. As she was pulling up my policy, she noticed that I was a minister. To kill time she said, “So Rob, are you ready for your Christmas Eve services? I mean, this is a really busy time of year for you.”

     I told her that I was close to being ready. She said, “Well, that’s good, Rob.”

     Since the computer was slow in pulling up my information she asked me another question just to pass the time. “So, it must be really hard to preach on Christmas Eve. Don’t you ever run out of something new to say?”

     Now, up until that very moment, I had been feeling pretty good about tonight’s sermon. All of the sudden, I wasn’t so sure anymore.

     So I told her, “Yeah, it is a challenge, but I think I’m ready again this year.” She said, “Well, that’s good to hear, Rob.”

     Ok everyone, so here’s my super insightful and genius thought to leave with you tonight. Are you ready for this? This is going to blow you away. Here’s my genius thought.

     This Christmas, remember to keep it real.

     Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Worship Preview - December 29

Sunday, December 29 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services); [Please Note: We will not have the Wednesday, January 1 Gathering Worship]  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - Christmas Season & Unofficial UCS (Ugly Christmas Sweater) Sunday

Scripture - Hebrews 2:10-18 & Matthew 2:13-23

Theme - We continue to celebrate the Christmas season. The youth of our church will be leading worship. If you have an "interesting" Christmas sweater, please wear it to church on this Sunday. We'd like to see it!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ugly Christmas Sweater (UCS) Sunday

You've heard of Christmas and Easter. You've also heard of Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday, but have you heard of "Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday?"

Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday (UCS) is the newest addition to the Christian calendar and it always falls on the Sunday after Christmas Day. It's becoming a new tradition in churches all around the world. Some churches do not even know it exists even though their church members dress as if they did know.

Sanctuaries will be filled to overflowing on Christmas Eve but the energy in church on that first Sunday after Christmas Day is like no other. People look forward to this neglected Sunday all year long.

There is hope for that really deplorable Christmas sweater that we saved because it was a gift but vowed that we would never wear in public. UCS Sunday is the perfect day to wear that sweater!  Knowing that your friends and fellow church goers will be wearing their ugly Christmas sweaters to church gives you the needed confidence to wear your sweater as well.

It's that time of year to dig through your closet and rummage through the garbage bags in the basement that are filled with clothes from your past and find that Christmas sweater you were hoping to never lay eyes on again. UCS Sunday is just around the corner. You might need to clean it up a bit and have it ready to wear. There is nothing more embarrassing than attending a UCS Sunday worship service and wearing your normal church clothes. That is so uncool. People might snicker at you.

Remember, the uglier the better, as long as it is rated G for all audiences. Just remember to not do what I did one UCS Sunday. I complimented someone on their ugly Christmas sweater and they had no idea what I was talking about.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Message from Our Church Council Chairperson/Lay Leader - Lancaster First UMC

[Randy Williams, the chairperson of our Church Council & Lay Leader shared these remarks at our December, 2013 Church Council meeting.]

This month ends 3 wonderful years of serving as chairman of this church council.  It has been a blessing and an honor.  But more importantly is to understand where we are and where we need to go. 
First, we need to continue to reflect on our past, not in a prideful manner as if to gloat, but strictly to avoid repeating the errors of the past.  When I reflect on the past, 3 important issues come to mind:

1.   We must continue to strive to have leadership which is not dependent on the pastorate.  We have wonderful pastors in this congregation.  Robert and Cheryl have led us with great theological wisdom as well as working by example.   But if they were not here tomorrow, this United Methodist community should continue on in the most seamless way possible.  We got away from this goal several years ago and I feel confident we are back in the right direction and, into the foreseeable future, we will not stumble into this pitfall again.

2.    We must effectively monitor our activities.  The first area to come to mind is with our church finances, where we now have an active audit committee performing due diligence to ensure we protect the finances which our congregation cheerfully gives but also to have a known check and balance system which may keep an otherwise honest employee from being tempted when faced with a financial difficulty.  This also applies to the Staff Parish Relations Committee which is a very active committee and very concerned with the effective use of staff to perform function vs. the use of the laity.  Sometimes, hiring staff to perform necessary functions has taken opportunities away from the lay members of our congregation to develop and grow in their faith and dedication to First United Methodist.  We have seen the same with our Permanent Endowment Committee which now closely monitors our funds, pays close attention to the investment vehicles being used, and, in a very dedicated fashion, sees that the earnings and principal are applied strictly in the manner prescribed by the giver.

3.    Finally, we must live within our means.  When the financial conditions in our country produced a severe recession, if not a depression in Lancaster, and throughout the world, we had to make serious, and many times painful, decisions on staffing, materials, and ministries.  We had for several years relied on our earnings to overspend our annual givings.  This worked when the endowment was returning 10% or more earnings. But when we had an actual loss in the value of our endowment, we encountered a massive financial roadblock.  This should never have been the case.  We had to reduce staff, cut the pay of the remaining staff, and shrink some ministries.  We must live within the constraints of the ministries our givings will support.  Some have blamed our financial hardship on a theft problem, but it was really a result of poor stewardship.  The Crossroads project is another example of not living within our means.  We built a wonderful facility to minister to our congregation and the Fairfield County community on West Fair Avenue.  We should be rightfully proud.  However, with pledges for the first 3 years of under $1,000,000, we probably overbuilt a $4,000,000 project.  This has put a severe strain on our congregation during a period of national financial difficulty.  I would anticipate, we should have planned resources of commitments and endowed funds at  near the 50% level if we ever have another significant project.  Maybe we should have built in phases, maybe we should have had the 3 year campaign completed before commencing construction, maybe, maybe, maybe.  However, this community of faith has come through and stood by our commitment and we should completely eliminate, or be close, within the next 30 months.    

3 weeks ago we celebrated “Christ the King” Sunday, the culmination of our Christian year.  Now we are 3 Sundays into Advent, a time of hope, of waiting, of preparation.  We sing familiar carols and try to keep our holiday attention in the right direction.  But just like we faithfully look forward to the new year of leadership in the laity of this church , we look expectantly to a continuing new experience in our church life.  

We may be coming off of a committee which has been challenging but rewarding.  We may be making new commitments to work with a study group.  We may want to reach out to explore what service projects may enrich our faith while serving our fellow men and women in Lancaster, our community, and the world.  Maybe it is a commitment outside our First United Methodist fellowship.  We may be contemplating a new work experience and trying to approaching it not only from a financial perspective but also with consideration for job satisfaction and freedom to support our families.  Maybe we are thinking of reaching out in a fraternal or civic organization to assume leadership where we extend our faith in service to the organization’s members or in projects in our community.  Maybe you have political aspirations and want to run for city council, township trustee, or state representative.  

However, the one constant which we all need to remember is where the Christ Child belongs in this process.  He even came to earth in the form of a baby to teach us a new way and became a living sacrifice for our human shortcomings.  He brought a new law to the Earth, that we should love one another, even as he loves us, that we should love one another.  He also taught us he would send the advocate to us, that Holy Spirit which came to the multitudes on Pentecost and is there for each one of us if we but take the first step and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  Our Heavenly Father provided a vehicle to reach out and ask for direction when making important decisions.    

It is called PRAYER!!!  This should always be asking for what you want and then listening for what we need and asking for where we want to go and listening for where God needs us to go.  Do you hear that, God will put us where we need to be if we will but listen.  Listening is the most forgotten part of prayer sometimes.    We ask for help, health, healing, direction, blessing,  etc. but then we fail to listen for God’s response.  It will come in God’s time, not when we want it but when we need it.  So here we are in the heart of Advent, that time of hope, anticipation, quiet waiting.  Let us all spend time praying our requests to God but also taking time to listen daily for His response.

Almighty Father,  To you is all the praise, glory, and honor.  We ask that you continue to shine your blessing upon this congregation and that we continue as a people of Yours to recognize that You are the source of all our success, all our joy, all our possessions.  As we approach the day commemorating the birth of Jesus, may we each renew our commitment to rejoice in that little baby who came to Earth to take all our sins and burdens so we may have life and life abundantly.  And now we each have some personal prayers which we need to speak this day and we ask that you hear each of our thoughts.  Amen. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dave's Deep Thoughts - A Seeker Sensitive Service for Deer Hunters?

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.

That's how it was,
back in the day.

Or was it?

The Saturday after Thanksgiving
was always a long awaited holiday for my dad.

Deer Hunter Week

It was the time my dad would leave for the mountains
along with many of his life long buddies.

DHW was the one time during the year
where Dad was able to do what he wanted.

My dad was a hard working farmer
(I realize that is redundant)
Raising four children and caring for a farm
took all of his time.

He was a man of the woods and field.
Even though he filled a pew seat every week,
being in the outdoors was likely where he felt closest to his Maker.

And so he and his buddies would leave for five days.
There was a schedule for DHW by which you could set your clock.
Saturday was travel day.
Sunday was prep day
Monday through Thursday were hunting days.

But it was the evenings that were a question mark.
Back home, we had heard stories of what hunters did in the evenings....
card games, joke telling, inbibing various liquid spirits, to name a few.
It fell under "the less known, the better" category.

We never asked about much that.
Now my dad was by no means a party guy.
He was a quiet man, but definately not the "center of attention guy."

Occasionally mom would ask
what they had done when off the fields, and he would say,
"Nothing much, sit around and relax, go to church"

I remember laughing on the inside at that comment.
Knowing my dad's sense of humor
it sounded like something he would say.

I had no problem envisioning my dad going to church,
but as for a few of his buddies.........well.....

When I was 13,
I was old enough to join my dad.
It was one of those moments when a boy
realizes he is becoming a man.

Saturday evening was just what I thought it would be,
poker seemed to be the game of choice,
lot's of cigars.

Sunday evening,
he said,  "we're going to church"
At first, I thought he was kidding,
but when he took me to the car,
I began to wonder.

The only clothes we had were deer hunting geer.
Somehow church and camouflage didn't seem to go together.

We pulled up to this small white chapel
nestled between the mountains.
 Cars pulled up,
everyone in hunting boots.
Orange was the color of choice.

The sign on the chapel announcement said it all....

"Hunters Hymn Sing"

My dad was coming to a hymn sing.
That was the equivalent
of a vegetarian attending a bratwurst festival.

Despite the best attempts by his son,
my dad was not a singer.
His lips would barely move on Sunday mornings.

The chapel held maybe 60 people,
and by 7pm, the pews were almost filled.
Some churches hold perfume free services.
Such a prohibition was not needed at a hunters hymn sing.
I remember smelling an overpowering smell,
but it was definately not incense.

As a singer,
it was hard to describe what I heard......
Perhaps a cross between
a barge sounding its horn
and the cry of a sea walrus.
Let's just say tenors were at a premium.

What they lacked in pitch
(and rhythm, and tone, and diction)
they made up for in energy.
I had never before been in a room
with so many people who could not sing,
who were singing as loudly as possible....
 Dad was actually moving his lips.

There was no piano in the chapel,
just one overmatched songleader who tried desperately
to steer 60 pitch-challenged woodsmen
to melodic clarity.
He might as well have been the watchman on the Titanic crow's nest
as this vocal ship was headed towards a melodic iceburg
and he could do nothing about it.

As the group bludgeoned it's way through the hymnal,
I longed to hear something that I recognized,
but quickly resigned myself
that a joyful noise was indeed the order for the evening.

Oddly enough for a musician,
Sunday evening of DHW was the high point of my week.
I have never had a passion for hunting,
but what I felt in that room was something
that I would never forget.

Men singing the songs of their faith unashamedly,
lifting up prayers of safety for their comrades and themselves,
and greeting each other with a fervor not always seen in churches.

It was real.
It was authentic.
While it wouldn't have placed in any singing festivals,
it surely registered to the heart of God

And that's what I remembers from 43 years ago.

Authentic worship can happen anywhere, in good and bad times.
Remember, Paul and Silas led a midnight prison hymn sing (Acts 16: 25)

Authentic worship builds community. It is contagious.
These hunters had not seen each other in a year.
The fellowship that night was genuine.

Authentic worship captures God's attention.
How could God not be pleased with such passion from His children?

Authentic worship leads others to Christ.
I am sure that there were those in attendance that night
who did not had a living relationship with Christ.
How could they not be moved?

That's how it was back in the day,
43 years ago.

But things change.
In a culture that continues to distance itself from God,
hunters don't go to hymn sings anymore.
 Or do they?

Three weeks ago,
I was up in the area where my dad hunted.
I drove by the white chapel
and this is what I saw.......

Hunters Hymn Sing
scheduled Sunday evening of DHW.

That's how it was back in the day.
Thank the Lord,
 that's how it still is.

Next Sunday morningas you sing your first hymn,
you might not be dressed in camouflage,
you might not be ready to bag your buck,
but for your sake, and for the pleasure of the Father,
be ready to sing your heart out.

You just might end up touching someone else's heart.

But about midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God,
and the prisoners were listening to them,
and suddenly there came a great earthquake,
so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken;
and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's chains were unfastened.

                                                    Acts 16: 25-26