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, December 31, 2014

Top Ten Lancaster First UMC News Stories - 2014

What are the top Lancaster First UMC news stories from 2014? That's not easy to rank with so many highlights, but here is my personal top ten list. And no, my infatuation with taking selfies with church members didn't even make the list!


Singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" for Easter Sunday

Our wonderful music ministry leads us in singing this amazing piece each year for thee most triumphant Sunday on our church worship calendar. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I can't wait for next Easter Sunday!


Youth serving Holy Communion 
Our youth sit together every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion at the 10:30 am service. They also serve at several of the communion stations. It's always nice to know I have a fan club close by. It's also wonderful that they are providing leadership every time we receive this Sacrament that reminds us that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are invited to receive new life.


Holy Week Services - Last Supper Drama

Most churches have average to low worship attendance for their Holy Week services (Maundy Thursday & Good Friday.) Our church experienced record numbers in attendance because of our Last Supper drama that tied into our Lenten sermon series on "Who Were the Twelve Disciples of Jesus." This drama was done several years ago at our church so it was nice to continue this tradition.


The Twelve Disciples of Jesus Lent Sermon Series

This Season of Lent sermon series gave our church the opportunity to learn about the twelve disciples of Jesus and why Leonardo da Vinci depicted them the way he did in his famous painting. 


Church Float Prize - Holiday Parade

Our Creative Ministries Team did a great job with our holiday parade float. We won one of the prizes for best floats. Way to go First UMC!


Four New Staff Members

It's not often for a church to hire four new staff members in one year, but that's what we did. Due to retirements and staff changes, we now have a new Discipleship & Outreach Director, a new Youth Director, a new Maintenance Tech, and a new Discipleship & Outreach Administration Assistant! Around this time last year, I told our Staff/Parish Relations Committee that we shouldn't be too busy in 2014. Boy, was I wrong! We owe a lot of gratitude to this committee for hiring wonderful people to equip us to serve in ministry in the name of Christ.


Crossroads building debt dips under $800,000!

To help put our church in a better financial position for the near future, we decided a few years ago to accelerate the pay off of our large Crossroads building debt. We are presently in the middle of the fourth of a five year campaign with the goal of being debt free by June, 2016. We hit a milestone this year when we dipped under the $800,000 mark. Thank to pledges, memorial gifts, rentals, and many fundraisers, we are rapidly seeing our debt drop lower and lower! This is great news!


Congregational Church Photo for New Pictorial Directory

Our combined worship service back in September, gave us the opportunity to be in a church wide group photo in the shape of a heart. Over 400 of us are in this photo. A colorized version of this photo is the front cover of our new church pictorial directory. By being in the shape of a heart, we are reminding ourselves that God is calling us to Love First, just like our church logo says.


September combined worship service at Crossroads.

On the same day that we took the large church wide photo, we also worshipped together for the first time at our beautiful Crossroads facility. It was a great day. We also worshipped with Grace Fellowship Community which worships every Sunday morning in our Crossroads facility. It was an inspiring day of worship, singing, and celebrating our unity in Jesus Christ.


Launching of new Love-Grow-Serve church vision and discipleship process

Our church is excited about our new vision and discipleship process of Love-Grow-Serve. Those three words are simple, but powerful! We love through weekly worship. We grow through classes that cover the core areas of our faith. We serve by being part of a LifeGroup of 3 to 12 people where we not only share our faith with each other but serve in ministry as a small group. Expect to hear a lot more about Love-Grow-Serve in 2015!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Drum Roll Please...The Winner of the 2014 Christmas Sweater Sunday Is...

Dottie Shaffer!

While there is no exact science in determining the most interesting Christmas sweater for our church's annual Christmas Sweater Sunday, this sweater offers a very unique feature this year. We liked the vintage Year 2000 Millennium themed sweater which caught us a bit off guard. Yes, one could argue that this is not technically a Christmas sweater since it is more about the New Year holiday, but it does have some Christmas like features.

These include festive symbols and a lot of red and green coloring. The best feature of all is the over the top large lettering that says, "Hey, you can't help but to look at my sweater!"

Please join me in congratulating Dottie as our newly crowned Christmas Sweater Sunday person of the year at First United Methodist Church. We thank everyone who submitted a Christmas sweater photo for the contest but we could only pick one.  To view random Christmas sweaters from Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday, click on this link.

The good news is that there are only 364 days left before the next Christmas Sweater Sunday!

                                                        2012 - Clarence McCoy
                                                        2013 - Jeff Campbell
                                                        2014 - Dottie Shaffer

"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth (the first Christmas sweater?) and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." - Luke 2:7

Sermon (December 28) by Joe Palmer, Youth Director - "The Spirit"

Merry Christmas everyone. Even though I am wearing a very nice summer outfit today, I do really enjoy the winter season, although it has been too wintery yet. This season is a special one. Once you get past the frenzy of insanity that you find in the stores, everyone seems to be in a more giving spirit. Many call it the Christmas Spirit. However, I feel that the Christmas Spirit is in reality he Holy Sprit working through us.

In both of the New Testament and Gospel reading today that Hattie and Carynn / Tanner and Harrison read for us, there is a common theme that emerges, the Holy Spirit. In Galatians we were reminded that God sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts. In Luke, we saw how the Holy Spirit was guiding Simeon into the temple so that he might see the Lord. 

Now, unfortunately for many, the idea of the Holy Spirit is a difficult one to wrap our minds around. It is by far the most abstract portion of the Holy Trinity. God, as the Father, we understand. We all have fathers and/or father figures in our lives. Jesus as the Son of God and our savior is also fairly easy comprehended. However, the Holy Sprit is a little harder for us wrap our minds around. When teaching Confirmation, I try to use visuals and scripture for the Confirmands to better understand the Holy Spirit. So, I am going to take everyone back to Confirmation this morning.

There are a multiple symbols and elements that we use, given to us through scripture, to try and understand the actions, desires, and idea of the Holy Spirit. While Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God, the animal that is used to represent the Holy Spirit is the Dove.

A dove represents love, grace, and is an emblem of purity and harmlessness. All four Gospels refer to the baptism of Jesus by John at the Jordan. The Luke account reads “And the Holy Spirit came down in a bodily shape, like a dove on Him.”  The form of the dove was assumed on this occasion to signify that the Spirit with which Jesus would be endowed would be one of purity and innocence.  This symbol of the Holy Spirit is present in our sanctuary as well. The dove is carved into the Alter. It is also prominently displayed on our baptismal font, referencing Jesus’ baptism.

After talking about the significance of the dove at Jesus’ baptism, I like to segue into the discussion of water.  Water signifies birth and life. It represents the cleansing and life giving action of the Holy Spirit at Baptism. In Matthew Chapter 3, John the Baptist preaches stating, “I am baptizing you with water… but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”

The Spirit is the living water that comes from Christ, cleansing us all.
The next element is fire and it is one of the most popular representations of the Holy Spirit. We begin and end each service with the flame.  Fire is shown in the Pentecost story in Acts Chapter 2, “Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” The fiery presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts provides light and guidance. Fire calls attention to the strength and force of the Holy Spirit.

The last symbols that I use for the Confirmands is Wind.  This is by far my favorite representation of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the breathe of God that fills us with life. We see this in Genesis 2, when God breathes life into Adam’s nostrils. It is like the wind, invisible but powerful, moving things around as it will. John 3:8 reads, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

While none of these images fully describes or explains the Holy Spirit, each image gives us a better idea of how the Spirit works in the world.

Now for me, I struggled being able to be cognitively aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence. And many of you know that after I graduated from college I had a difficult time finding my place in the church as a young adult. I wasn’t sure where I belonged, if anywhere. I felt void of the Spirit. Little did I know that the Spirit was guiding me to my new place in the church. During the fall of 2010 I was asked to be on the Staff Parrish Relations committee. I wasn’t really sure who thought that it would be a good idea for a 23 year old to serve on that committee but I was like…ok I guess. Little did I know that was the first push I was given in finding my place in then church. It guided me then to my Unbinding your Heart group that has developed in to great friendships. It also, ultimately guided me to the Youth Director Position. 

When I look back on these last 4 years, I am able to see how the Spirit was blowing me down paths that I would not have be willing to venture by myself. When I was in those moments, I just didn’t have the ability to recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence.
It wasn’t until his past summer’s mission trip that I became more truly in tune with the Holy Spirit’s presence. I was incredibly lucky to capture this moment and would like to share it with you all today.

This is the exact moment in my life when I was able to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in real time.  During the evening service one night on the mission trip we were sitting with our work crews, so our youth group was scattered all over the gymnasium. Towards the end of the service, at this moment, we were asked to take a step closer to the cross if we wanted a deeper relationship with Christ. As individuals were stepping closer the young man, to the left of the cross, beneath the speaker, and with the baseball hat stepped out into the light. 

This is one of our youth. I had had a serious conversation with him the day before about his relationship with Christ. At that exact moment, I was cognitively aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence guiding him. This was the first time I was ever able to see the Holy Spirit working in real time.
Since then, I have been more aware and have been able to recognize the spirit working in other and me. 

More recently, I saw the spirit in the eyes and words of a five year old. A couple of Friday’s ago, I was working out at Crossroads at the Nativity display when a young couple came in with their 2 children. After heading through the nativity and sending the kids on the animal scavenger hunt, the young girl, about 8 years of age, wanted to show me he favorite figurine. She took my hand and led me to this angel.

In reality, she has always been my favorite as well. After hearing his sister’s words and mine of agreement, her 5-year-old brother scoffed and said, verbatim, “That’s not right! Baby Jesus is my favorite and he she be your favorite too!” Touché little boy touché. It was so obvious that night that the Holy Spirit was with this young boy and was so apparent with the way that he looked at the baby Jesus.

As a lot of you know, I made a Facebook Christmas Photo-a-day challenge, inviting anyone to participate. Each day there was a daily word for us to interpreter, like Share, Lights, Love, Tradition, Joy, Family, Peace, and Spirit. You then were supposed to post a picture that you feel best represented that word. Not only was it great to get to see a glimpse of everyone’s lives, it was amazing to get to see how the Holy Spirit was moving through our congregation.

And somehow, a certain couple felt that their Westie best represented the word of the day, every day.

Each week during advent Pastor Robert and Pastor Cheryl spoke of Reclaiming Christmas. We were challenged to reclaim Christmas by allowing God to make a difference in the world, listening to the guiding Spirit, so we can move accordingly helping those in need. We were reminded to give up on having a perfect Christmas. We as humans are not perfect, however, even in our own struggles, we are called to shine the Spirit’s light through acts of kindness. We heard about God’s scandalous love that he has for us. A love that we didn’t do anything to deserve but is also there for us. We were reminded that we can be part of the miracle where people receive hope, the hungry are fed, and lives are saved through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we progressed through Advent, it became more and more evident that the Holy Spirit was working through each and everyone of us. That is why I love this season so much. It isn’t the Christmas Spirit that grabs a hold of us. It is the Holy Spirit. This is the time of year that the Holy Spirit is most palpable. This is the time of year that the Holy Spirit is the most recognizable. Are you aware of its presence?

My Christmas wish for all of you is that you are able to recognize the Holy Spirit working in your life and that you are able react to where it is guiding you in your life this Christmas season and throughout the year to come.

Christmas Sweater Sunday Highlights! - Sunday, December 28

It was another banner year for Christmas Sweater Sunday at Lancaster First United Methodist Church! Enjoy these photos from today's worship services!

Ugly Christmas Sweater Prayer (Sunday After Christmas Day)

Sunday After Christmas Day Prayer (Contemporary Version)

Lord, on this Sunday after Christmas Day, we thank you that we can continue to live out the Christmas spirit by wearing our ugly Christmas sweaters to church. Some of these sweaters have puffy large snowmen, some remind us of a Perry Como Christmas special, and others even include blinking lights. Remind us that all Christmas sweaters are beautiful in their own special way. May they all all remind us of the celebration of the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Eve Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Reclaim Christmas"

     Over the past several Sundays, we have been focusing on the theme of “Reclaiming Christmas.” This theme might remind you of some other similar sayings we hear around this time of year like, “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
     Some Christians get really bent out of shape with the person working the cash register who tells her customers, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  I really think we need to cut these cashiers some slack because the word “holiday” literally means “holy day” anyway.
     They may think they’re being politically correct, but we know better. Let’s just keep this our little secret. By reclaiming Christmas, I don’t mean that we should rebuke cashiers for simply doing what they’ve been trained to do.  It also doesn’t mean that we need to get too worried when people say “X-mas” instead of the full word, “Christmas.”
     Christians have been calling it “X-mas” for the past several centuries. The letter “x” is a symbol of the first letter of the Greek word for “Christ.” So actually, anyone who spells out “Christmas” as “X-mas” is including “Christ” in “Christmas” even if they don’t realize it.
     If the phrase, “reclaiming Christmas” isn’t just about reacting against political correctness, then what does this phrase really mean for us as we gather for this “X-mas Eve service?” Christmas is one of those holidays where we can easily lose sight of its true meaning. This is why it’s a tradition in the church to read and hear the nativity story each year as told by St. Luke.
     “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”  Wait a minute. That’s not it. Here it is.
     “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” And so, this is how the Christmas story begins. It begins with a reminder to file your tax return.
     Now, this was NOT the Roman Empire’s way of offering a friendly reminder to take advantage of any end of year tax breaks. With Rome, there were no tax extensions, not even for women who were nine months pregnant and who lived a hundred miles from the nearest tax billing office.
     Reclaiming Christmas is to remember that like Mary and Joseph, we are called to live our faith in the real world of tax deadlines, politics, and untimely business trips. It would be nice if our faith could be lived under ideal situations where everything goes as planned. It doesn’t always work that way. In fact, it often doesn’t. What is that famous quote? If you want God to laugh, just tell him your plans.
     As I think back on my pastoral years of ministry, I can think of many times that God has probably laughed at my carefully laid out plans. You know, we pastors have this utopian picture in our minds of how we want things to go for a worship service or an event in the church.
     Here’s just one example among many of when things didn’t go as planned. Many of you will never let me forget this one. You are still talking about even though it happened five years ago.
     It was my first Mother’s Day Sunday here with you, my first year as your pastor. It was also confirmation Sunday when about twenty seventh graders were being received into membership. This place was packed, almost as crowded as it is tonight.
     Since this was my first year here, I was still trying to impress you with my outstanding pastoral abilities. I remember working extra hard on the sermon for that special Sunday. For pastors, we need to really hit it out of the park on Mother’s Day, Easter,  and Christmas Eve, in that order.
     I had my Mother’s Day sermon all ready to go.  Emotional story about my mother. Check. Encouraging story of faith for our confirmands. Check. Powerful ending to make it memorable. Check. It really felt like it was going to be a special day. You were going to be so impressed!
     After we confirmed all of those confirmands, it was finally time for me to deliver my carefully crafted sermon. As I just started to speak, I remember becoming very light headed and that’s the last thing I remember before I fainted.
     One of you would later tell me that my face had turned yellow. Some said it was more greenish. Either way, not good.
     As I was being helped out of the sanctuary in the middle of that worship service, I remember one of the confirmands who was sitting in the first pew ask, “Is he dead?”
     So those are pretty much the highlights from that big Sunday with you. It didn’t exactly go as I had planned.
     You know, that’s just the way it is with our faith sometimes. In fact, that’s often the way it is with our faith. We don’t always know the challenges and the adversities that are going to come our way. Sometimes, we wonder if we can handle all that life might throw our way.
     This was the situation Mary and Joseph faced in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. I’m pretty sure that when Mary and Joseph were planning for their baby to be born, that they weren’t thinking about making a very inconvenient one hundred mile trip to pay taxes or having their baby be born in a feed trough because there was no room in the inn.
     It’s OK to plan ahead and prepare as much as we can, as long as we realize that there will be some detours along the way. Reclaiming Christmas is about trusting in God especially during those times when things don’t go as expected. God promises to be with us through all of the ups and downs of life.
     There’s a wonderful verse in the bible that says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” That’s a great verse to memorize as we seek to reclaim Christmas and live out our faith this coming year.
      After the candles are extinguished and the last verse of “Joy to the World” is sung, know that God promises to go with you and will never leave or forsake you even as we live in the real world. Yes, we will face unexpected challenges and adversities in the midst of our carefully laid out plans, but always remember that, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
     To reclaim Christmas means to remember that just like Mary and Joseph, we are called to trust in God especially as we face unforeseen challenges that may come our way and they will come. That’s life.
     There’s another wonderful thing for us to remember about Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Not only does it remind us that we are called to trust in God as we live out our faith in the real world. It also reminds us that the good news of Christmas offers us great joy and transformation.
     I love the part about the shepherds in the Christmas story. The shepherds were the first people to hear of the good news of Christ’s birth. Here they were out in the fields doing their job of tending sheep when they encountered something that would change their lives forever.
     Angels appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and announced the good news of Christ’s birth. The angels announced that this was wonderful and joyous news for all people.
     “For all people” is an important phrase to remember because the shepherds were not known to be religious people. They were considered people who were on the outside and yet God chose to first announce the good news of Christ’s birth to them.
     After going to Bethlehem to confirm what they had been told by the angels, Luke tells us that they then returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Reclaiming Christmas means that the good news of Christ’s birth will not leave us the same. It will transform us. It will lead us to praise God.
     There are signs of reclaiming Christmas all around us. This past fall, I was having a conversation with a pastor of a small country church. He’s retired but has been serving this church part-time over the past four or five years.
     About a year ago, he was getting really discouraged because the church hadn’t baptized anyone or received anyone into membership during these past few years. He began to think that maybe it was time for him to retire once and for all.
     He decided to send a letter to his small congregation this past June that expressed his feelings that maybe he wasn’t the right pastor for their church. He explained that they weren’t reaching people for Christ and that maybe it was time for a pastoral change even though he enjoyed preaching.
     So I asked him, “So what happened? How did they respond?” With a surprised look in his face he said, “Believe it or not, that one letter has ignited a revival in my little church. Since that letter, I have baptized three adults, a baby, received five new members into the church, and the people are wanting to share their faith with others and they’re starting to reach out.”
     After he shared this with me, he shook his head in disbelief and said, “I guess I’m not going to retire. God still has more work for me to do.”
     Reclaiming Christmas means that we join the shepherds in a revival of transformation that will not only transform our lives but will have a ripple effect on the people around us.
     Over the past several weeks, our church has been thinking and praying about what it means to reclaim Christmas here at First United Methodist Church. I want to share some of the ways you have been reclaiming Christmas and offering God’s transforming love to our community and world.
     A year and a half ago, our church accepted a pretty big challenge from our West Ohio Conference to give $25,000 over a three-year period toward Imagine No Malaria. Our gifts help to buy mosquito nets to protect children in Africa from the deadly but preventable disease of malaria.
     We almost decided to not accept that challenge because of several other financial commitments that we were facing as a congregation. But after praying about it, we stepped out in faith and made a commitment to raise the $25,000 over three years.
     Friends, even though we are only half way through our three year pledge, it looks like we will make that goal a year and a half early! We will be sending the remaining portion of our $25,000 commitment to Imagine No Malaria in early January. Way to go First United Methodist Church!
     But that’s not all. Thanks to your generosity, you provided several Christmas presents for thirteen needy families here in Lancaster. May that warm our hearts when we wake up on Christmas morning.
     Many of you know about our Local Relief Fund that we use to help people who are going through difficult times. It used to be called the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund, same fund, new name. We have given a total of $22,236 toward this fund this year, almost $4,000 more than we did the previous year.
     Every time we are generous in sharing God’s love with our community and world, we are reclaiming Christmas! And that’s worth celebrating!
    As we leave from this place tonight, may the good news of Christ’s birth lead us to glorify and praise God, just like the shepherds did so long ago.

     Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Very "Rotary" Christmas for Sharing Hope

[Pictured (from left) are: Bill Haase, rotarian; Donna Stalter, Rotary president; Rev. Robert McDowell, First United Methodist Church Senior Pastor; and Kristin Ankrom, Information and Referral executive director and rotarian.]

Christmas came early for Sharing Hope, a county-wide program that seeks to eliminate local poverty. Initiated two years ago by Rev. Matthew Richardson of First Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Sharing Hope brings people together from various socio-economic backgrounds.

Participants come together twice a month at our church's Crossroads facility on W. Fair Avenue for a meal, group discussion, an educational piece regarding poverty, and small groups that offer peer support and encouragement. The program is helping people to move toward long-term financial stability.

"We utilize the Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World curriculum to build relationships between the community members who want to be a part of the solution and community members living in poverty," said Kristin Ankrom, Information and Referral executive director and Lancaster rotarian. "We have had much success over the past couple of years and can't thank Rotary enough for this donation."

When the Rotary Club heard about Sharing Hope's desire to have a special Christmas night for their recent December gathering, they offered a generous donation to help us purchase gifts for the children who are part of the program. And yes, the man in the red suit made a surprise appearance to hand out the goodies.

"Rotary is a strong supporter of the Lancaster community and we felt a need to help those struggling during the holidays by donating to this cause," said Donna Stalter, Rotary president. "The Sharing Hope Leadership Team shares the same goals as we do to promote a better community and life for people."

I am so grateful that our church has several people volunteering in this much needed outreach for our community. Thank you, Rotary Club for making Christmas a little brighter in our community!