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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dave's Deep Thoughts - A "Plane" Faith

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.

What's in a number?
In my case, 38 rows and a bag of pretzels.


It was the last seat available on the plane.
Needing to get home, I took it.

I knew it was near the back.
What I didn't realize was that in the case of a water landing
I would be the last to get wet.


Not only was it the last row,
it was the seat next to the window.
Row 38 has as its claim to fame
having LESS leg and head room than all the other seats.
With the lavatory just behind the seat,
 38F needed to be compressed by several inches.
The frame of the lavatory jutted outward over my head
taking even more precious overhead space.

Getting into the seat took more precise moves than open heart surgery.
I am not claustrophobic per say,
but there is a reason I have chosen to be cremated rather than buried.

Alright, I am claustrophobic.
38F was my worst nightmare.

As I wedged into my seat,
I had only one prayer .....
(okay, 2 if you count the plane not crashing)
that there be no coughers/sneezers near me.

Prayer 1 was not to be answered in the way I wished.
The sneezer was quickly located in row 36.
This was not a good sign as the air vents
(which were only a foot away from my face)
were blowing hot, stuffy air into the cabin.
I was in an incubator and I was the incubatee.

Actually, I have three airplane players.
prayer #3...........  no crying babies please.

It is often said, "God only gives you what you can handle....."
Then consider myself a baby handler.

She was the last one onto the plane.
Flight attendants were scrambling
to get her and her histrionic infant to seat 38E.

The baby was not happy.
Neither was anyone in rows 30 through 38, particularly me. 
Lullabies might have had a chance to soothe this child
but not when accompanied by jet rockets.

I could hear one last sneeze over the din of the baby's screams.
At that moment,
I would have given anything for a pair of earplugs and air mask.

Everytime the baby would begin to quiet,
she would be awakened by someone opening the lavatory door.
This happened on average every 62 seconds.
Let me say, there is nothing quite like the antiseptic smell
of an airborne toilet mixed in with hot stuffy air.

By the time we reached 36,000 feet in altitude,
the mother tried to walk her.
When you are in row 38, your walk to the rear is 3 feet.
Eventually the child calmed.
The same could not be said for the sneezer.

Meanwhile, the flight attendant was working her way back
with drinks and snacks.
I desperately wished to get up and stretch my legs
which had lost blood flow since 15,000 feet.
But that meant disrupting a now quiet child.

I opted for silence over ambulatory movement.
Numbness began to set in.

Much like Tom Hanks focusing on the volleyball for survival in the movie "Castaway,"
I created an inner place of hope by  focusing on the bag of peanuts
that I was soon to receive.

I love peanuts.
I also love to to eat in general.
That hadn't happened before takeoff.
If I hadn't been sitting directly above a turbo jet engine,
you could have heard my stomach growling.

My dream died at row 36
as I heard the attendant tell the sneezer,
"I'm sorry, we're out of peanuts. Would you like some pretzels?"

I consider myself a strong person,
but even I have my limits.
My spirit cracked like an empty peanut shell.

I heard rumors that in first class rows 1-5
they had received peanut parfaits.
It was the last straw.

That's when the mother in 38E and I began to talk.
She told me how her husband found out
while she was pregnant that he had cancer.
She was just returning from visiting with her parents.
While the prognosis was not good,
they still had hope that he would survive.

Within moments,
my fear of catching a cold,
my numb legs,
the smell of the lavatory,
my tired ears,
and my hungry stomach
didn't seem to matter so much.

Annoyances are small things.
Facing widowhood with a newborn child is not small.

I offered to pray with her.
Suddenly 38F didn't seem so bad.
First class seat 1A is a far different experience than coach seat 38F
My life experience is far different than my friend in 38E.

I don't know what the outcome will be for her.
I have known for a long time that life isn't fair.
And I have also begun to learn that perhaps God isn't fair.

If God was fair, then He would hold us accountable for our sin.
He lovingly forgives us
and gives us a far better promise of eternity than we deserve.

Perhaps life and God is not about fairness,
but about trust.
 Trust that God is bigger than life,
and that no matter what we face,
God will love us into where we need to go.

Maybe your day is filled with unfair circumstances.
But for those who trust in a loving God,
He promises to lead His children through any adversities
 to a place where love triumphs.

And that, my friend, is far better than peanuts.
Now pass the Nyquil. I feel a cold coming on.

For the mountains may be removed
and the hills may shake,
but my lovingkindness will not be removed from you,
and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,"
says the Lord God who has compassion on you.
                                          Isaiah 54:10

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - February 2

February 2 Sermon – “Blessed”

Micah 6:6-8

The prophet Micah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. This was a troubling time. Assyria has already taken over parts of Israel. Internally, there Israel’s leader are corrupt and have forgotten the poor and the marginalized.

These words are from Micah, a prophet in the Jerusalem area in the 8th. century BCE. Micah is concerned because the people have forgotten their covenant with God.  He responds to the question: what does God want from the people?

Micah uses the scene of a law court to describe what God wants of Israel. God is accusing Israel of forgetting that God had saved them. VV. 3-5 – God asks, “What more could I have done for you that I haven’t already done?”

V. 6 – Portrayed as the defendant, Israel pleads her case and asks, “What can we do?” Can we offer calves for sacrifice? Calves were very valuable in that time period. Should we sacrifice our eldest sons like the neighboring Canaanites are known to do?

V. 8 – No. What the Lord wants us for Israel to act with justice and treat people who are marginalized with compassion.

Matthew 5:1-12

The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7)

Jesus is saying that these blessings are part of what it means for God’s kingdom to come on earth.

“Blessed” means “wonderful news.” God is working through Jesus to turn the world upside down to the point that God’s kingdom is being made real on earth.

This passage is based on the Book of Deuteronomy when God brought the people of Israel through the wilderness and told them about future blessings and curses depending on their obedience and faithfulness to God.  Matthew is creatively using the Old Testament exodus story to tell the Jesus story. Jesus came out of Egypt (2:15), through the water and the wilderness (chapters 3 & 4), and into the land of promise (4:12-25.)

Jesus is teaching a large crowd on the hillside and his sayings are recorded in Matthew. What does the kingdom of heaven look like?  Who is honored in the kingdom?

The blessings listed here are meant to be lived out on earth!

[Note: The resources used for these scripture reading commentaries are based on the Everyone series by NT Wright, The Wesley Study Bible, and the “Montreal-Anglican”lectionary commentaries.] 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Snow References in the Bible

Since we are having a snowy winter, I began to wonder how many references there are to snow in the bible. My concordance for the (NRSV) New Revised Standard Version lists 27 references.

The first reference is from Exodus 4:6 - Again, the Lord said to him, "Put your hand inside your cloak." He put his hand into his cloak; and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow.

The last reference to snow in the bible is regarding Christ and is found in Revelation 1:14 - His head and his hair were as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire."

These references simply use snow as a way of describing something.

In Job 24:19, snow is used to illustrate a spiritual point. Just as drought and heat can snatch away the snow, so does Sheol (dark place of death) snatch away those who have sinned.

Also, in the Book of Job, we are reminded that God is the one who orders the weather. For to the snow he says, "Fall on the earth."

It's interesting that there are only two references to snow in the New Testament. I already mentioned the Revelation 1:14 reference. The other one is found in Matthew 28:3 in describing an angel of the Lord at the empty tomb.

Matthew tells us, His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

All of this is to say that snow helps describe significant events in the biblical story, it is an important part of God's creation, and it refers to the holiness of Jesus Christ.

Yes, we can continue to complain about it, but it does serve a biblical purpose.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - February 9

Sunday, February 9 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday February 12 (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Who Is Your Isaiah?"

Features - 5th Sunday After the Epiphany & Boy Scout Sunday

Scripture - Isaiah 58:1-9a & Matthew 5:13-20

Theme - We all need someone who can remind us of who we are called to be. We forget sometimes. Who is the person or persons who help you to remember?

Sunday Worship Preview - January 26

Sunday, January 26 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday January 29 (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - The Invitation

Features - Third Sunday After the Epiphany

Scripture - Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matthew 4:12-23

Theme - Jesus invites some fishermen to follow him. Little did they know where this new calling would lead them. They were about to join the Kingdom of Heaven party. What does it mean to follow Jesus day to day?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sunday Scripture Commentary for January 26

January 26 Sermon – “The Invitation”

Isaiah 9:1-4

Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 9:1-4 refers to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. These are the same places that are mentioned in our Gospel reading for this same Sunday when Jesus calls and invites some fishermen to come and follow him.

Zebulun & Naphtali - These regions were annexed by Assyria in 733 BC. The people of Israel had been taken captive.

V. 4 – yoke, bar, and rod were symbols of being enslaved by another power.

Matthew 4:12-23

In our Gospel reading, Jesus begins his public ministry by calling some fishermen to follow him. When people respond to Jesus, they move from darkness into God's light.

This scripture comes immediately after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. He is now ready to launch his public ministry and he calls some fishermen to follow him.

V. 13 – Zebulun & Naphtali point us to the Isaiah passage which is one of our readings on this Sunday. Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s light will be extended to God’s people.

V. 17 – Matthew uses the phrase, “Kingdom of Heaven.” This is often a misunderstood phrase. Since it says, “heaven” people immediately assume that it is referring to a kingdom that is beyond our earthly time and space. In truth, Matthew only uses the word “heaven” because he doesn’t want to be disrespectful and use God’s name in this phrase. By “kingdom of heaven” Matthew is referring to the biblical belief that a time is coming when heaven and earth will become one and everything will be made new again. Jesus’ resurrection was the launching of this kingdom, although we still await it’s final consummation.

VV. 18-22 – Jesus’ calls some fishermen to come and follow him and they do! The sermon this Sunday will explore why these fishermen were willing to leave everything behind in order to follow Jesus. The more important question is if we are willing to leave everything to follow Jesus and be part of God’s in-breaking kingdom in the world and in our day to day living.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Crossroads Campaign Update (First UMC) - Sunday Worship, January 19

The worship attendance may have been significantly down due to snow but spirits were soaring high on Sunday, January 19 when our church's Finance Chairperson, Scott Reed presented an update on our present Faith Forward to the Finish Line five year pay-off campaign.

Scott began his presentation by offering some historical context regarding our beautiful and spacious Crossroads facility located on W. Fair Avenue.

  • Construction on our 4.2 million dollar facility began in 2006.
  • A grand opening was held in 2007.
  • 1st Campaign (2005 to 2008) - Giving in Ministry & Branching Out in Faith
  • 2nd Campaign (2008 to 2011) - The Living Vine
  • 3rd & Current Campaign (2011 to 2016) - Faith Forward to the Finish Line
We are nearing the end of the third of five laps (years) in our present campaign. I have some really good news to share with you. 

Drum roll, please...

Our Crossroads debt is now UNDER a million dollars!

Thank you for your faithfulness in helping us to keep pace in our efforts to pay off our facility debt by May, 2016! This is being made possible because of your generous support.

Our Crossroads facility is being used in many significant ways including our Second Saturday Outreach, large-scale ministry events to reach out to our community such as Eggstravaganza & the Halloween Carnival, Sharing Hope dinner meetings to help eliminate local poverty, Wednesday Fellowship Dinners, and many community organizations.

As we approach the beginning of lap #4 of our five-lap campaign this May, let's celebrate our progress and give thanks to God that we are nearing the finish line!

Lord, our church celebrates the good news of the progress of our present campaign. We know that we still have a little over two more laps to go, but we're getting there! Thank you for the generous support of this congregation. More importantly, thank you for the many ways that we are sharing the love of Jesus Christ with our community through our beautiful Crossroads facility. With grateful hearts for what you have already been able to accomplish in and through us, we offer this prayer. Amen.

[For information on how to financially support our present Crossroads "Faith to the Finish Line" five-year campaign, contact our church's business office, 740-653-3330 or debsilvia@lancasterfumc.org and ask for our Business Manager, Deb Silvia.]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - February 2

Sunday, February 2 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday February 5 (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Blessed"

Features - 4th Sunday After the Epiphany & Holy Communion

Scripture - Micah 6:6-8 & Matthew 5:1-12

Theme - Jesus points out the blessings from God that are available to many people in a variety of situations. Happiness is not limited or determined by your circumstances.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Just When You Need an Epiphany

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.

It's all about the calendar.
The question is, which one?

By now, 98% of the trees are down.
Many bring them down on Jan 1.
A smaller group holds out till Jan 6
when the church celebrates Epiphany,
the arrival of the Magi to see the Christ child.

That is all good when you are living by the Gregorian calendar.
But what if you are still on the Julian calendar?
Or how about the Lunar calendar, or the Chinese calendar?
Or what if you adhere to the belief held by many Biblical scholars,
that Christ was actually born in the spring?

As for me and my tree,
we are on a Superbowlian calendar.
My tree stands proud and strong until the day before the Super Bowl.
If I had my way,
it would stay up into April when it was no longer dark
when I arrive home from work.

The needles that free fall from the branches by late January
 tell me otherwise.

I like keeping my tree up into January
 because I like the extra light during the short days of winter.

Light is what we all seek.
It is key in the story of the Magi.
During the Advent season
(or Christmas shopping season depending on your calendar observance)
I was  in my home office during the early morning hours.
It was still dark as I sat at my desk paying some monthly bills.

Nothing says holiday cheer
like paying bills.

As I worked through my checkbook register,
I began to think how much had changed in my life
during the past two years.
This Christmas was just going to feel different.

The early morning darkness
and the thought of celebrating Christmas without some of my loved ones,
left me with a sadness in my spirit.

I was looking for light
and all I could feel was darkness.

Have you ever had a moment like that?

Then it happened.

From the corner of my eye,
I saw a soft glow of light appear.
 At first I thought it was merely a reflection,
but then I saw it.

It was the memorial candle
given to me the previous year at an All Saints service
to remember my mom.
Months ago, I had placed it in a cup on my desk.
I had forgotten about it as it was hidden between pens, pencils, and markers.

But in that dark hour of early morning,  it came on and glowed brightly.

Some would call it a coincidence,
Some would say, I must have accidentally touched it.

But it wasn't.
And I didn't

For this type of candle to glow,
one needed to firmly push down on the bulb to ignite it.
I  hadn't touched it.

But there it was, my mom's memorial candle glowing brightly.
It could have come on at  anytime when I wasn't in the office.
But it came on when I was there,
and when I needed the encouragement.

Was that any less of a sign then the star of the magi?
(that by the way would have had to have traveled
east to west, THEN turned north to south,
to go from Jersalem to Bethlehem according to the narrative in Matthew CH 2)

I don't believe in the dead communicating with the living.
But I do believe in a God who wishes to speak to His children,
particularly when they are looking for light in a dark place.

So for me,
my Epiphany occured in December.
It was the day that I was reminded that darkness does not drown out the light,
that death doesn't trump life,
the evil does does not win out over good.

Because the light of the world is in charge.
And nothing will ever change that.

May you celebrate an Epiphany when you need it the most.
May the light of your Christmas tree glow as long you wish.
May any darkness you encounter be engulfed by the light
of our God who loves  you too much to leave you in darkness.

And that can happen any day of the year,
no matter what calendar you observe.

Now I need to get back to paying bills.
Next bill up ......
the electric bill of course.

Goodbye darkness.

"I am the light of the world; those who follow me
shall not walk in the darkness,
but have the light of life."
                                                 John 8:12