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

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I'm Thankful for…Sharing Hope!

During this Thanksgiving week, I'm thankful for…Sharing Hope!  Recently, the Family and Children First Council of Fairfield County presented Sharing Hope with a Firefly award for it's work in helping to eliminate local poverty. Sharing Hope began this past Spring. It's mission is to eliminate local poverty through the building of relationships among people of a variety of economic levels.

Training is provided to help people understand the culture of poverty. Dinner meetings are held twice a month which includes large group training and break out sessions. It's one of the few programs where people who live in poverty and people who are have stable financial environments are able to build relationships and learn from each other. Most programs seek to do something for the poor. This is a program that does something with the poor.

Those who are living in poverty have greatly benefited from the program. They have experienced an increase in their monthly incomes and they no longer rely on cash assistance. One of the participants has been able to get a driver's license and another person is making plans to return to school. More people will be participating in 2014.

Our church hosts the meetings at our Crossroads facility and several of our members are involved in the program. Thank you, Lancaster: First United Methodist Church for being an important community partner in helping to eliminate local poverty one family at a time.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sermon (November 24) by Rev Cheryl Foulk - "First Place"

The celebration of Advent and  Christmas, and  Lent and Easter are holy days and seasons in the church that go back for many centuries.
There was a new recognition added to the church calendar in 1925 through the Catholic Church. The last Sunday before Advent was designated as Christ the King Sunday.  This was done in response to governments  who were seen as abusing their power and to life being lived with little thought of God.

 This  day is a world wide recognition that above all leaders and states is the  rule of Christ.  In the twentieth century, monuments were erected  (like this  statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro) to commemorate  that Christ is indeed over all.  A contemporary song expresses the theme of this Sunday:

 Above all powers, above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and the ways of man
 You were here, before the world began
Above all kingdoms, above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the earth
There's no way to measure what you're worth” 

By Paul Baloche                                and Lenny LeBlanc
In the U.S., a king is not a familiar figure to us.  There are 26 countries in the world that are still headed by kings, queens, emperors, sheikhs, or princes.   We do not live under the ruler ship of a monarch.  However  we do have some interest in kings:
  -Our fascination with British royalty and baby Prince George
  -The Burger king guy  
- the king of rock and roll                
Elvis Presley  was given the title of king because of his popularity. In the mid-70's I worked with a woman  named Linda who adored Elvis. He was doing a show at the Charlotte Coliseum. She had never seen him perform live and  I offered to  give her a ride to the concert which was several hours away. She bought a new outfit and had her hair done in a magnificent  bouffant.  I brought her to the arena  , and returned to pick her up after the concert. For her it was one of the best nights of her life. She had maneuvered her way  to the stage and had touched his shoe. Her intention had been to take his boot off but she had been unsuccessful.
 Linda had polio as a child and consequently had spent time in a hospital. She had listened to Elvis on the radio during her illness and felt that it was his music that gave her hope. Elvis was at the top of her list, and for that one evening, life could not be better.We may have folks we idolize but our understanding of kings in our time is limited…
Let's look at what we can discover  about  Jesus  being a king.
In the Old Testament, kings are described as being like shepherds. A shepherd is to care for his flock, to know them by name, to lead them in the right  direction, to  protect them from those who would harm them. Likewise, the king is to put the welfare of the  people above his own.
Jesus calls himself the Good shepherd. He cared for the hungry, the hurting, those who felt isolated from God. His heart was always  concerned with his flock.

Jesus spoke  a lot about God's kingdom in his teachings. At the ending of his ministry, he is publicly proclaimed  as being the king of the Jewish people. In the last week of his life,Jesus enters into Jerusalem, and weeps for the city. He is accused of coming into Jerusalem to lead a rebellion against the ruling Roman government. He is tried and convicted. The Roman soldiers dressed him in a robe ,put a crown of thorns on his head and mocked him.
The sign above his head on the cross read “King of the Jews.”  A king that is defeated and is killed is not our expectation.

The story of Jesus being a king of course doesn't end there.
 In the letters of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation, we have wonderful  descriptions of the risen Jesus who is  now “king of all kings and lord of all lords.”
 He suffered a cruel death and yet his love rules over all creation. In Colossians, he is described as showing us what God is like ( the invisible is now  visible) and of holding all things together. He is making all things new. He is bringing peace, and restoration.  He is king not for his own glory but he is king in order to bring all people to God.  He is at the very center of everything. He reconciles all things thru death on the cross.
Some years ago  a pastor in Scotland traveled to the Queen’s Highland castle in order to lead the Sunday service at the chapel. He was uncomfortable about how to act around royalty, unsure what to say in her presence. He arrived but there was no one to meet him.
He was taking his suitcase from the car when a woman came into view wearing a tweed jacket, with a scarf tied around her head, and walking three corgis. It was Queen Elizabeth herself!  She apologized that no one had welcomed him   and called for the absent doorman. That evening he joined them for a pleasant supper and  he saw royalty in a new light.
It is almost beyond belief that we have the privilege daily to be in the presence of our king  who gave all so that we might have abundant life.

What is the kingdom of God like?  Jesus shared many stories to describe his kingdom. He  taught that  the kingdom is like the love extended by a father to his son when the son leaves home and takes his inheritance. When the son has nothing left , he returns home and is greeted by  a joyful banquet  hosted by his father who offers forgiveness and love.
Kingdom is like a shepherd who  goes out to find one missing sheep and doesn't give up until it is found. 
Kingdom is like a man who had a party and extends his invitation to all who want to come.  The kingdom is a place where  servants are honored. It is a place of surprises: the last shall be first.
 In the Kingdom, there is justice ; the widows, and poor and children are not forgotten.  It is a kingdom where the king offers not condemnation but forgiveness, not despair but hope, not brokenness but wholeness. It is a kingdom that may seem small like a mustard seed, but grows everyday into a mighty tree.
It is a good day to think about the qualities of our Lord, all the names of honor. It is imperative that we consider Christ being our king. When I hear the news of the world, and become concerned about all the troubles near and far, all the uncertainties, I rejoice that there is One who holds all things together: all space, all time.
When I look ahead to Thanksgiving week, I know that when we offer our thanks that underneath all the blessings of life is the great love of God for us and for this world . We see this so clearly in the way Jesus lived.
A question that needs to be asked: Who has power over us? 
Who influences our lives?  Is Christ in first place?
N.T. Wright,  British pastor and scholar wrote in his book Simply Jesus : “We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world.”  He was acknowledging that there are other kingdoms that can pull for our devotion. They may offer prestige  and security, status and honor but that is not what the kingdom of God is about.
 We make a choice over who we follow and whose guidance we live by.
We invite  Christ to be a part of all areas of our lives as we claim him as king.
But this is the amazing thing about King Jesus.  He will only be recognized as king when  others see his love, compassion, and mercy in us. The kingdom becomes visible thru us and our actions.
Our  hearts change, and our community changes -  God continues to work within creation. We are part of God’s kingdom  happening here  and  now.
There is a carol sung often at Christmas concerning a king who looks out from his castle one cold night . He sees a  man struggling to gather fire wood. He asks his page who the man is and where he lives. Together the king and the page travel to the man's house bringing food and drink.  As they  hike thru the deepening snow, the night becomes more bitter.  The page says that he cannot go on.   The king tells the boy to walk in his footsteps  and he will be able to make it.   He walks in the master's steps and together they bring a blessing.
Whose footsteps are you following?  Who reigns in your heart?
May Christ the king hold first place. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Worship Preview - December 8

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

Sermon - "Peace…Strength to Hold On"

Features - 2nd Sunday of Advent

Scripture - Isaiah 40:1-5 & Matthew 3:11-12

Theme - Reordering our lives with the focus on Jesus in preparation for Christmas and the coming year should include attention for those things that make us both receivers and givers of peace.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Sunday Worship Preview - November 24

Sunday, November 24 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Note: Our November 27 Gathering Worship Will Not Be Held Due to the Holiday. Wednesday Worship Resumes on December 4  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "First Place"

Features - Christ the King Sunday; Thanksgiving Sunday; & Holy Baptism

Scripture - Colossians 1:11-20 & John 6:25-35

Theme - On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we remember who should be in first place in our lives. Christ is King and has blessed us in many ways. Happy Thanksgiving! 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Remembering JFK

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.

Sometimes, things change over long periods of time.
Sometimes, they change in a moment.

We had just returned from our afternoon trip to the cafeteria.
That's what we did in 1st grade.

At 1:45pm every day,
Miss Trout's 1st grade class lined up
and marched to the cafeteria where for a nickel,
one could have the choice of white or chocolate milk.
(That was one of the easiest choices a 1st grader could ever make.)

After a wonderful five minutes of ingesting chocolate milk,
the class would march back to our 1st grade room,
 the last room at the end of the hallway on the right.

The windows offered a wonderful view of the countryside.
It was very easy for an 1st grader's eyes to wander to the outside,
 especially during reading.

I remember the weather that day.
It was a typical late November day temperature,
about 55 degrees, but unusually foggy that day.
I remember that we weren't able to go outside for recess that day.
The weather seemed to foreshadow what we were about to learn.

It wasn't very long following milk break
that I found myself back at my seat.....
 3rd row, 2nd seat from the window.

There are many things that a 1st grader hopes for,
one of which is that you are never seated
next to the girl who pees in her pants.
I must have been the most unlucky 6 year old in the world.
She sat in the 3rd row, 3rd seat from the window.

But it wasn't my next door neighbor's urinary habits
that I remember that day,
Friday, November 22, 1963.

The clock read 2:05pm when the principal walked in the room.
Usually, it meant someone's parent was in the office
needing to pick them up early from school.

But today was different.
I had never seen that look on the principal's face.
Although a 1st grader would not have had the vocabulary to describe that look,
everyone in the room knew something was wrong,
very wrong.

Fifty years later, this 56 year old
would use the vocabulary word, devastated,
to describe our principal.

It was the five words that she spoke
that changed our world...

The president has been killed.

She said more.
I wasn't sure where Dallas was
but I knew it didn't matter.

As a 1st grader,
 I didn't have the resources
to understand the impact of such an event,
but as a 1st grader I knew that the world was going to be very different,
especially during the next few days.

After she said those five awful words,
we prayed.

Not individually.
We prayed as a class.

That was not unusual in 1963.
We prayed every morning
right after we said the Pledge of Allegiance.
Praying as a class was a natural thing.

Another reminder of how the world has changed in fifty years.

I am not sure what we did for the last 60 minutes of school,
but for Miss Trout,
it had to be the longest hour of her teaching career.

The bus ride home was completely quiet,
Another confirmation that the world had changed.

I remember the black and white television was on constantly
throughout the weekend.
All THREE stations were carrying the unfolding events.
I had never before seen Walter Cronkite cry.

For this fifty-something year old,
those "where were you" moments include
the first step by man onto the moon's surface,
the assasinations of MLK & Bobby Kennedy,
the space shuttle explosion,
the twin towers falling.

Life is peppered with those moments,
some are shared by a nation and a world,
others are much more personal.

Those moments change and shape us.

The moment you say, "I do,"
the birth of a child,
the death of a loved one,
the news that the cancer has progressed.

For a Christian,
there is that moment that stands above all other moments,
the moment when one's heart is converted to God's heart.

Sometimes, the change happens in a moment.
Sometimes, the change occurs over time.

The older one gets,
the more one realizes the significance of each life changing moment,
none more important than the day
you become friends with God.

Most people, especially nice people,
 don't realize that they are in rebellion to God
until they realize the need for His mercy and grace.
And that's when life changes forever.

If you are old enough,
you might be asked the "Where were you then?" question this week.

Take time to be sure you know where you were
when you became friends with God,
so that your "where were you"
also gives you the assurance of
"where you will be."

In can happen,
in a moment.
Just don't wait until it is too late.

"And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteous,
and he was called the friend of God."
                                                 James 2:23

Scripture Commentary for November 24

Sermon (November 24) – “First Place”

Colossians 1:11-20

This letter to the church at Colossae beautifully describes how Christ is the beloved Son who establishes God's  kingdom. Being part of the kingdom leads to this hymn of thanksgiving.

Colossians is one of four letters written by the Apostle Paul while he was in prison. He was probably in a prison in Ephesus at the time. Paul was worried that the new church in Colossae would not be prepared for what it means to be a faithful church. Paul does two things to help them since he can’t be with them. He writes this letter and he prays for them.

Paul wants them to know that by living out their faith, they will experience fullness of life (v. 11.)

Notice that Paul writes in v. 12 that we are to give thanks. Being grateful is one of the common themes in this letter. Why? Because when we are grateful to God, this means we are aware of what God has done for us through Christ and what this means about who we are.

Verses 15-20 is a beautiful hymn/poem to help the Colossians celebrate the supremacy of Jesus Christ. This is appropriate for Christ the King Sunday!

John 6:25-35

Jesus has feed a crowd of thousands with a boy's small lunch of fish and bread. Now Jesus is talking with the crowd about the food that does not perish. He shares that he is the true Bread of Life.

What does this text teach us about who Jesus is? 1) v. 27 – He is the one upon whom the father has set his seal. Jesus is living out who God is through this wilderness feeding which reminds us of the wilderness feedings in the story of the Exodus. 2) v. 28 – By participating in this feeding, there is an expectation that the people who have been fed have a responsibility to form a new community by believing in Jesus as the one who has been sent by God.

V. 34 – This is a good prayer for us to help us remember our need to allow God to nourish our deepest hunger, not just physically, but also spiritually!

V. 35 – This is one of the seven “I am” statements that we find in the Gospel of John.  “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the good shepherd,” etc.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Blind Side -Encountering Highly Judgmental Christians

Football teams covet big and strong left tackles to protect their quarterback from 6'6, 280 pound defensive ends whose purpose in life is to blow up every single play. They like to approach from the blind side of the right-handed QB which is why you need an awesome left tackle.

Sometimes pastors need one of these highly coveted and well paid left tackles when they go about their ministry. Every so often we go back in the pocket to set up for a pass and WHAM!, we get hit from the blind side. We didn't see it coming. I'm not talking about NFL defensive lineman. I'm talking about highly judgmental Christians.

Fortunately, these blind side encounters only happen to me about three or four times a year, but when they do, you find yourself staring up into the sky and asking, What just hit me? Here's an experience that comes to mind.

It was around 10 pm on a Saturday night and I was about ready to go to bed. I got a call at the house that so and so was in the hospital which was about an hour drive away. It was a critical situation. No problem. Most pastors are more than willing to do what is necessary during times such as this or to at least arrange for someone to be there with the family.

When I made it to the hospital room late that night, the family was there with their loved one. I shared some scripture and offered a prayer. As I was leaving the hospital room and heading for the elevator door, a family member pulled me aside and said, You do know that his blood is on your hands. He isn't saved and he's a member of your church. What are you going to do about it?

I asked him, Why would you think he's not saved? His response was, He just isn't. I know he isn't. And he's going to go to hell because of you. I felt my blood pressure rising to unprecedented levels. I was being blind sided. Knowing that this man was under stress because of his relative's condition, I knew how important it was to not escalate the situation. As he continued to defiantly stare me down, I tried to bring some calm to the situation by letting him know that I would visit again. He offered no good-bye, no thank you for making the effort to visit them at such a late hour. He just stared me down as I made my way onto the elevator. 

Recently, our church received a highly judgmental email from someone in the community regarding one of our ministry events. After discussing how to respond to this person, I sent an email that was polite, courteous, and answered the person's question in what I thought was a very gracious manner. In return, I received another highly judgmental response from this person. 

We are taught in seminary to not take things personally. People say harsh things out of stress or out of misplaced anger or for other unknown reasons. That was some of the best pieces of pastoral advice I ever received. 

Over the years, I have discovered that it's not a 300 pound left tackle that we need. We just need to remember that the presence of the Holy Spirit is always with us. When those blind side hits come and they will come, remember that you're not alone. God is with you. And as tempting as it might be, don't try to be a defensive end and return the favor. That's not who you are.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

AHOP - A House of Prayer

In the community where I previously served was a non-denomination church that was known as AHOP which stands for "A House of Prayer." It took me about a year before I began to refer to this church as "AHOP" rather than "IHOP." I often thought that this church should serve pancakes on Sunday mornings just in case they got IHOP customers by mistake.

Really, every church should be known as a house of prayer. Prayer is what reminds us that ministry does not depend upon our own strength and cleverness. Thank goodness for that!  Our ministry depends on how open we are to what God wants to do in and through us. It's not about us but it's always about God.

This week, I have been reminded of the importance of prayer on several occasions. Earlier this week, a church member called to let me know that during a recent worship service, she made a commitment to pray on a daily basis. She told me about a friend who was going through a really difficult time. She said that her prayer commitment was helping her to share God's love with this person. At the end of our conversation, we shared in a prayer.

I visited one of our church members who is a patient at the hospital. She is physically unable to attend church but listens to us on the radio. She said to me, "I may not be able to make it to church on Sundays, but I want you to know that I pray for you and the church every single day." I thanked her and told her that her prayers are making a difference.

Today, for our weekly staff meeting, we will be using our church directory to take turns praying for church members with last names beginning with the letter, "B." We have been praying through our directory as a way of being more intentional in the discipline of prayer. Sometimes when we pray out loud for a family, we pause for a moment, knowing that they have recently experienced a joy or sorrow. It's also been meaningful when we also say the names of the children.

The name of our church is First United Methodist but maybe it's time we have a nickname as well. How does "AHOP" sound? Just remember that the last letter stands for prayer.

Even those I will bring to My holy mountain And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples. - Isaiah 56:7

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dave's Deep Thoughts - A Reunion to Remember

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.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Not always....

I'm not sure why I went.
I hadn't been to any of the the others.
That would be my high school class reunion.

Many times, I just couldn't go.
I was either living out of the area,
or had a schedule conflict.

But truth be told,
I just didn't want to go.
Some people have fond memories of school,
 maintaining many friendships throughout life.
Not so much for me.

I do have small group of friends
with whom I have maintained friendship,
but for the most part,
I left high school in the rear view mirror.

My class didn't foster lots of warm fuzzy memories.
There was actually, a lot of painful moments my senior year.
People classified into jocks, band kids, ag and industrial arts kids and such.....
People treating others badly.
Typical adolescent behavior.
There was even a death via a car accident.

It was like a dark cloud followed us our senior year.
I mean that figuratively AND literally.

Our Homecoming game & dance
occured during a driving rain storm.

Our Snow Dance in the winter
was held in 36 degree weather with a touch of drizzle.

The Spring Prom......
let's just say that umbrellas and ponchos
were as in vogue as tuxes and gowns.

That left Graduation.
Did it rain, you ask?
Oh, not just rain,
there were hurricane warnings.

First graduating class in school history
to be rained off the athletic field.
The power went off during the ceremony
in the steamy, cramped auditorium.
They ran out of the fake diplomas by the letter W.
Someone fell off the back row of risers.
I'm not sure he or she ever made it to Pomp and Circumstance.

Oh, there were a lot of good memories, don't misunderstand me.
It's just that most of my deep friendships were fostered outside of my class.

35 years later,
with the urging of my best friend in high school,
I decided to attend the reunion.

In some ways, it was like any other reunion
that had passed the 15 year odometer.

Checking name tags very carefully.
Wondering how people could have changed so much....
Wondering why a certain few HADN'T changed so much.

Who had less hair,
who had more weight,
who had the most wrinkles.

I began to understand something
somewhere between the appetizers and the dessert.

People had changed.
Not just in physical appearance,
but they had changed internally.

Cheryl was seated at table #6.
Diagnosed with diabetes in high school,
Cheryl had physical diabilities that caused her
to live a less than typical high school experience.

She had had a small group of friends
who always helped her navigate the hallways
and other mazes of the daily school schedule.
But for the most part, she had been shunned and overlooked
by many who were too busy to stop and care.

35 years later,
Cheryl sat at table #6.
Legally blind now at the age of 53,
she allowed others to come to greet her.

And come they did.
Not just her close friends.
The jocks, the band kids, the ag & industrial arts kids,
kids now in their fifties.
50 something year old kids who realized how unkind they had been to Cheryl.
Fifty year olds who realized that THEY had missed out on the opportunity
 to know the goodness and grace of Cheryl.

Some apologized for their behavior in high school.
Others asked how she was doing.
Everyone said how good it was to see her. 

People had changed, for the better.
We had matured.
We had become something far better than we had been.

Life has a way of doing that.
Time has a way of nurturing that,
and God insists on that.

I think that is why God gives us time,
whether it be twenty, fifty, eighty, or even a hundred years.
He gives us time to be converted to His heart.

Time to learn how to live in His likeness,
time to live more for others than for self,
time to prepare us for life with Him.

Imagine what needs to be left behind at heaven's door.....
racism, selfishness, impatience,
whatever your shortcoming is.

Imagine hearing
"Please check your unChristlike attitudes and behaviors at the door
before you sit down to the heavenly banquet."

None who claim Christ in this life achieve His likeness fully on this side.
But when we go to our heavenly reunion,,
we will take on His likeness fully.

In heaven, there are no band kids, no jocks, no ag kids,
there is one fellowship.

Though our flaws won't keep us out of heaven,
won't it be better if we have less of them to surrender at the gates?
And won't it make life on this side,
closer to the Kingdom that God intends for us right now?

The more things change,
the more like Christ we can become.

Great reunion with my classmates.
Oh, it rained that night.

Some things NEVER change.

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature;
the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come."
                                                                   2 Corinthians 5:17