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, March 30, 2015

Holy Week - Permission to Grieve

With so much focus on the Easter Sunday celebration, we often neglect to reflect deeply on the events of Holy Week. Holy Week is a time to grieve over the suffering and death of Christ, but also other losses in our lives.

We mourn the loss of loved ones, the ending of relationships, the loss of employment, brokenness from our past, changes in our lives that are beyond our control, and the heartache of suffering throughout our world. In a society that seeks to bypass the sting of loss at all costs, Holy Week gives us permission to grieve.

When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, all of life's pain, sin, and brokenness died with him. When I reflect on Jesus praying alone in the garden or hanging from the cross, I sense the weight of the world's pain resting on his shoulders in those last moments of his life. When Jesus died, so did the sting of pain and death.

It's not a pretty sight to follow the events of Holy Week which ends with Jesus' body being placed in a tomb. Holy Saturday is a day of rest, silence, and reflection. We have permission to grieve.

The liturgical church calendar offers us sacred times throughout the year to reflect, mourn, and express our longings to God. These seasons include, Advent, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and All Saints' Sunday. The scriptures remind us that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. God is faithful! The good news of our faith doesn't end with a cross! The victory ("nikos" in greek) is won because of the cross AND an empty tomb!

With this in mind, Holy Week gives us permission to grieve as we follow the last days of Jesus' life. I often listen to the musical piece, "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber during this time. This beautiful music helps me to reflect on Jesus' suffering and death. It also helps me to reflect on the losses and pain I have experienced in life.

When we give ourselves permission to grieve, it makes the singing of the "Hallelujah Chorus" on Easter Sunday even more of a celebration.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Worship Preview - April 5

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

Features - Easter Sunday

Sermon - "Different Robes of Jesus: Rolled Up Robe"

Scripture - II Corinthians 5:1-5 & John 20:1-18

Theme - During the Season of Lent, we have ben focusing on the different robes related to Jesus and his ministry leading up to his death and resurrection based on the cantata, "Come, Touch the Robe." On this Easter Day of celebration, we will focus on the rolled up robe that was found in the empty tomb.

Holy Week Schedule - Lancaster First United Methodist Church

Maundy Thursday (April 2)
Service Times12:00 P.M. (Half Hour Service) & 7:30 P.M.
Features - "In Remembrance of Me" Drama & Holy Communion

Good Friday (April 3)

Service Times - 12:00 P.M. (Half Hour Service) & 7:30 P.M.
Features - Good Friday Tenebrae (Extinguishing of Candles) - Featuring a string ensemble at the 7:30 pm service.

All Services at Lancaster First United Methodist Church, 163 E. Wheeling Street, Lancaster, OH

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - I Love Easter!

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.

I love Easter……
I don’t love Easter…..

Before I am called up on charges of blasphemy  for that last comment,
I would say the same thing about Christmas.

Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Let’s start with the date.
It’s like playing whack-a-mole at the carnival.

Always changing,
no one ever knows where it is till it pops up.

Christmas is always December 25
How else would shoppers know how many shopping days remain?
The 4th of July is of course,  July 4th,
and Thanksgiving is always the  4th Thursday of November,
unless you are Canadian.

Easter is determined by the cycles of the moon.
Say what?
Can we get away from the lunar calendar thing?

In case you wanted to put this in your smart phone,
it is the first Sunday after the first full moon 
following the March equinox.
This was decided at the 1st council of Nicea in 325AD.
This means it can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

And to make it more confusing,
the Eastern Orthodox branch of the church
celebrates on a different day because they follow the Julian calendar
rather than the Gregorian calendar,

Got that?  Good. Now you can plan your life.

How about the pope, a few cardinals,
and some nuns get together,
check their calendars and say,
how about we do this the third Sunday of April every year?”

Which leads me to the second thing…..
the weather.
Because of the lunar thing,
Easter can be somewhat, let’s say chilly……

Last week around these parts,
they did an Easter Egg hunt
in the snow
Now I know why they paint the eggs.

One Easter morning in March it snowed 2 inches during worship.
As a church musician,
I was very tempted to lead
“Christ the Lord is risen today,

Christ was indeed risen,
but my daffodils were nowhere to be found.

Been to an outside Easter sunrise service lately in Pennsylvania?
I would suggest you wear the same outfit you wear on your ski trip.

Then there is the issue of the mascots.
The 4th of July has Uncle Sam.
Christmas has jolly old Saint Nicholas.
St Patrick’s Day has a cool little leprechaun.

Easter has a rabbit.

Now I am not morally opposed to rabbits.
But I am a little freaked out.
Maybe it’s because as a child
I ended up on an Easter Bunny railroad excursion.
I remember being trapped in an overheated railroad car
next to the “Easter Bunny.”

To some children, this might have been a magical adventure
but this “bunny” had a goatee,
was perspiring profusely through his fur,
and by smell, was obviously a chain smoker.

And then he wanted to give me some candy…..
My momma warned me about such situations.

Let’s talk decorations.
Hands down, Easter is the worst decorated holiday
Nothing sends my spirit soaring
like pastel plastic eggs hanging in a dormant maple tree.

Inflatable bunnies in your yard?
Well, that just sends me back to my railroad trauma.

I think I saw the tackiest Easter decoration ever created
last year when I saw a plastic tomb at the end of a driveway
which could also be used to store garbage cans.

And how about the food at Easter?
Ham, scalloped potatoes, coconut cake,
jelly beans, anything with chocolate and peanut butter…..

Okay, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that menu.
Score one for Easter.

Easter, like all religious holidays
has its pluses and minuses.

Because most of them are so intertwined
with religious and secular traditions,
it is easy to have many differing feelings about them.

But of all the holidays,
Easter claims THE defining moment in human history.

Either the tomb was empty or it was not.

If it was not empty, that’s a major con for you and for me.
for there is simply then no hope after the grave.

But if it was empty,
then you and I have every reason to awake each morning
and put on our dancing shoes,
because the holiday is in full gear,
and shows no signs of ending.

And that’s the part of Easter that I love.

Thanks be to God who has won the victory through Christ Jesus!

“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn,
they came to the tomb, bringing the spices which had been prepared.
And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it happened that while they were perplexed about this, behold, 
two men  suddenly stood near them in dazzling apparel;
and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground,
the men said to them, ‘why do you seek the living One among the dead?
He is not here, but He has risen.’ ”

                                                                                                                               Luke 24: 1-6a

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - March 29 (Palm Sunday)

Philippians 2:5-11

The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Philippi while he was in prison for his faith. Philippi, located in northern Greece wast the first place in Europe to hear the good news that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is the true King of all creation. This church had a special place in Paul's heart. It gave him the most joy. One of the reasons he wrote this letter was to thank them for a gift they had given him.

The generosity of the Philippians to provide Paul with a  gift was significant. Even though they were separated by many miles, someone from their church was willing to make the dangerous journey to deliver this gift to Paul while he was in prison.

This passage is really an early Christian poem that Paul includes. It's a poem that offers a radically different picture of how the true King (Jesus) is vastly different from the present power and authority of the Roman empire.

Verse 7 speaks of how Christ emptied himself. God became human to show us who God is. God is loving and self-giving. This is made most evident through the cross.

Verse 9 - Jesus did what Israel and we have not been able to do - to fully give ourselves in love and humility for the sake of the world.

This passage helps us to see who God is. God is self-giving and loving. Is this the picture that people in our culture have about who God is?

Mark 11:1-11

The Jewish festival of Passover was a time of great celebration. People traveled from all over to the beautiful city of Jerusalem to gather with family and friends. It was a great big holiday.

Passover is the Jewish national day of independence. It was a time to remember how God rescued the Israelites centuries earlier from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

This is the context for when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. There was already a spirit of joy in the air. Jesus' entry into the city fed off of this spirit of celebration.

The crowd spread their robes on the pathway for Jesus as he rode into the city. This was something you would only do for royalty. They saw Jesus as an emerging king for their people. This was the same thing that was done 200 years earlier when a Jew named Judas Maccabaeus came into the city to begin a royal dynasty that briefly ended foreign rule over the people of Israel.

The word, "hosanna" has the meaning of offering praise to God with the hope that God will save the people right away. This fanfare is risky business because there is a strong sense that Jesus is riding into Jerusalem to become the King. The Roman Empire will not take kindly to such a challenge and neither will Israel's own religious leaders.

Yes, Palm Sunday is a day of celebration and excitement, but things will quickly unravel to the point where Jesus will be crucified on a cross just a few days later. Jesus will be ascend to his throne, but his throne will be a cross. Thankfully, the cross will lead to an empty tomb and resurrection.

Certified Lay Ministry: Congratulations, Judy Hug!

Congratulations to our own, Judy Hug who completed her 2013-2015 studies as a Certified Lay Minister in the United Methodist Church. She is one of 15 lay persons in our West Ohio Conference who will be recognized at this June's West Ohio Conference gathering at Lakeside, Ohio. Judy has been instrumental in helping us launch our church's new and exciting vision of Love-Grow-Serve.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Worship Preview - March 29

Sunday, March 29 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, April 1  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - Palm Sunday & "Come, Touch the Robe" Cantata

Scripture - Philippians 2:5-11

Theme - During the Season of Lent, we are focusing on the different robes related to Jesus and his ministry leading up to his death and resurrection based on the cantata, "Come, Touch the Robe." On this Palm Sunday, we will hear the full cantata at both worship services.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Common Phrases You Hear in Church & Their Real Meanings

As I have been watching March Madness basketball games, several catch phrases have been used again and again by the announcers. Even if you're not that much of a basketball fan, you have probably heard these common expressions at one point or another.

  • "Shooting a brick" - The ball hits hard on the front of the rim.
  • "Burying a three" - Player shoots from "3-point land." (I'm using another catch phrase to   explain the catch phrase!)
  • "Coast to Coast"- Player takes the ball from one end of the court to the other.
  • "Crash the Boards" - Team doing a good job trying to get rebounds.
  • "In the paint" - A lot of the plays are taking place under the basket.
  • "Kiss off the window" - Player makes a bank shot.

The church has common catch phrases as well. Here are some examples along with their tongue in cheek translations. Remember, it's OK to poke a little fun at ourselves once in a while!

  • "Feeding the flock" - Refers to biblical preaching/teaching to hep the congregation grow in their faith. That sounds so much better than saying, "Learn'n the people."
  • "Sending Forth" - Also known as the blessing or the benediction at the end of a service. It's the signal that you need to make sure you have all your belongings before leaving the pew.
  • "Let us now partake" - Used during Holy Communion. I don't know why we preachers just don't tell people to "eat" the bread and "drink" from the cup, but it doesn't sound as religious. Have you ever used the word "partake" in everyday conversation? Exactly.
  • "I want to encourage you to..." - Used frequently at the beginning of an announcement in which the pastor wants you to volunteer for something.
  • "Time for our tithes and offerings" - Translation: Put some money in the plate when it's passed through the pews.
  • "Offer the grace" - The prayer prior to the church's covered dish meal and it better be really short. We're hungry.
  • "We'll begin with some devotions" - The sharing of a spiritual thought/scripture passage prior to a church meeting so that the church meeting remains civil and people still like each other when it's all over. 
  • "Give 'em heaven!" - A quick pep talk offered to a preacher by a kind soul before he/she delivers the sermon. 
  • "As you feel led by the Spirit" - This is what a pastor tells a congregation when no ushers are available to direct each row of people to come to the front of the sanctuary during a worship service.
  • "I love ya in the Lord" - Our way of telling others that you care about them even though you wouldn't necessarily want to socialize with them outside of church.
  • "Let's sing that again, but this time, sing it like you mean it!" - We have some time to kill so let's sing the same verse again. It might also mean that the person working the sound equipment  needs some time to put a new battery in one of the microphones.
  • "Oh, bless your heart!" Often heard in the Deep South, this is when somebody in the church is trying to be polite by not saying what they really mean which is, "You are a really weird person and I don't want to be around you." 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Sorrow & Happiness

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.

(this story happened a few years ago, but still one of my favorites)

Sometimes you need to raise the glass
But there are times too put it down as well.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love Shamrock Shakes.
I love them so much that for sake of health and body mass,
I restrict myself to one shake a year,
That would be one Extra Big Biggie on St Patrick's Day.

Several years ago,
I ran into problems regarding my Shamrock Shake tradition.
There was the I'm sorry but we're out of them debacle of '07, 
and the pistachio con job in '08.

In 2009, I was determined to let nothing stop me
from getting my Extra Big Biggie Shake.
And yes, unfortunately, this story is true.

It was the year that I was also in search of chocolate coins for an upcoming fundraiser.
When I was younger, the coins used to be easy to find 
in most drugstores and supermarkets around St Patrick's Day.

In recent years though, they were difficult to locate.
A friend of mine told me they could be found in a chocolate shop located in a nearby mall.
Since there was a McDonald's located in the mall,
I planned a trip on March 17th to get both my Shamrock Shake and the chocolate coins.

Once in the mall,
I hightailed it immediately to the McDonalds.
My three year Shamrock Shake drought was about to end.

As I left the restaurant,
I let the first taste of the green nectar slip down my throat.
There is nothing else quite like the first taste of a creamy mint.

Unmitigated joy
This time, I was not to be denied my Shamrock Shake fest.
That was, until I headed over to the chocolate shop.

Upon entry, I greeted the cashier and explained that I was in search of chocolate coins.
While she apportioned the number of coins that I needed,
I explained that I needed them for an upcoming fundraiser.
I continued to take slow deep sips of the minty confection as we continued to chit chat.
I was in heaven and heaven was painted green.

Out of nowhere, the conversation quickly changed
as the cashier abruptly commented,
"My cat just died"

There was that brief moment when I pondered whether or not 
to continue to enjoy my Extra Big Biggie pleasure
at the expense of someone's sorrow……
I opted for selfishness
and took another deep sip
as I offered a perfunctory expression of sympathy.

"Her name was Flickers" she whimpered.
I was in trouble.
She had named it.
She had made it personal.
She wasn't going to stop.

There are cultural norms to observe when someone is mourning........
flowers are sent,
meals are provided,
hugs are offered,
expressions of sympathy are extended.

I continued to ponder the morality
of enjoying a long awaited culinary pleasure
while in the presence of someone who was hurting.

And so I reasoned.......
since the Extra Big Biggie Cup was opaque,
and my minty pleasure was unknown to her.
I could continue to savor my frosty delight
while offering sympathetic expressions on behalf of Flickers.
Everyone would get a ribbon!

"The last few weeks were terrible," she said
I paused, and then I slurped once again.
"It was Feline Leukemia" she said as she bared her soul to me.
Slurp, slurp.

"She really suffered in the end" the cashier continued.
Slower slurp as guilt began to set in.
" In the last days, it was awful,
she was in a lot of pain,
and there was this green cat diarrhea."

Mid-slurp……… STOP

"It was thick and so messy. Just awful"
I put my Shamrock Shake down.
Party now officially interrupted.
If there were three words that I didn't need to hear
while inhaling my Shamrock Shake,
it was green cat diarrhea.

My love fest with sugar and cream
needed to be exchanged for moments of compassionate listening.
I told her that I understood the pain of letting a pet go.
I told her that I would be praying for her 
that she would find a happiness to eventually replace the sorrow she was experiencing.

Life is filled with a mixture of sorrow and happiness.
Sometimes they happen simultaneously.
Sometimes, they come out of nowhere.
The repentant criminal on the cross next to Jesus,
experienced the joy of salvation
while enduring the agony of crucifixion.

The unrepentant criminal on the other side
knew only pain and agony.
Two men.
Two attitudes, two responses
And One in the middle to meet them both.

Joy and sorrow
all converging on a wooden cross.

The cashier I met,
needed someone to listen to her pain.
Sometimes, that means setting aside one's glass of happiness for a while.
Eventually, the glass will be raised again.
Whether you cross paths with someone whose glass is raised in celebration
or is presently put to the side in despair,
believe that you were placed in that person's life for a reason,
if only for a moment.
That moment may make all the difference in the world to that person.
The response you give, will make all the difference in you.

To Flickers' owner,
I will raise my glass to you on this St. Patrick's Day.
My prayer is that you found happiness once again,
and that your glass is once again raised.

As for me and my Shamrock Shake,
Maybe next year………….(sigh)

"Truly I say to you, 
today you shall be with me in Paradise."
Luke 23:43

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - March 22

Sermon (March 22) - "Different Robes of Jesus: Burial Robe"

I Corinthians 15:53-57

This is TOTALLY at the very top of my favorite scriptures list! In this chapter of his letter, the Apostle Paul explains the meaning of "resurrection." By resurrection, Paul is NOT referring to a "spiritual" non-physical state of being. The resurrection body is physical, just not subject to sin, illness, and death. This is what resurrection meant in the 1st century Jewish world.

This chapter depends on the readers having the particular Jewish worldview that there is the present age and a time is coming when heaven and earth will fully overlap and sin and death will be no more. When heaven and earth come together completely, God will give raise up the faithful and give them resurrected bodies. Jesus' resurrection was a foretaste of what awaits God's people at the close of the present age.

When people are given resurrection bodies, they will be changed and transformed and this will happen in an instant.

Many people today misinterpret this passage because our culture's worldview has changed significantly since the Jewish worldview of the 1st century. Their worldview believed that heaven and earth were two separate parts of God's creation. Today, we often see heaven and earth as far away from each other. The Jewish worldview believes that they are closer than we think and the future hope is that one day they will fully unite.

The word, "victory" is the greek word, "Nikos," the name of my blog.

Matthew 27:57-61

Matthew creatively helps us to see how this burial story of Jesus actually hints at what is to happen on Easter morning. We are told that Jesus was placed in a new tomb and it sealed with a large stone. In the 1st century, the body would have been wrapped, placed on one of the shelves. Tombs contained several shelves and several bodies. After the body decomposed, the bones would have been gathered and placed in a box.

In our Gospel reading, since the tomb was new, there were no other bodies. Jesus' body was the first one. Also, since Joseph had to request Pilate for the body, Matthew is showing us that Jesus had really died. People who believe that Jesus' really didn't die and somehow escaped and got married and lived a normal life, etc., etc.,  do not understand Roman crucifixion.

Jesus' main disciples were in hiding which tells us that there was no plot by the primary followers of Jesus to steal the body and then invent a resurrection story to make everybody feel good about a tragic situation.

Finally, Matthew is also careful to let us know that the women who found the tomb on Easter morning were the same women who were at the tomb on Friday evening so they knew which tomb to visit.

None of these details provided by the gospel writer, Matthew prove that Jesus' was resurrected. It does raise the question, if these details were reported correctly, why wouldn't we be open to the possibility that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? For many people, our worldview will not allow us to be open to this possibility. Maybe, something is wrong with our worldview that says that things like this cannot happen!

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