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, April 29, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - When Our Name Is Called

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.

Some might be willing to walk a mile in another’s shoes,
but for me, may I just stay on the bus, please?

I joined the track team in high school for three reasons.
None of them involved running.

I wanted to accomplish something other than in the field of music.
I wanted to earn a varsity letter and jacket, and
I wanted to pole vault.

Most people with normal brain function
have no desire in finding themselves inverted over a slab of concrete.
As a fifteen year old male, I found the idea quite stimulating.

While the rest of the team would be sent off to run  warmup marathons,
the pole vaulters were left to hone their skills.
This usually meant working on suntans while laying in the vaulting pit.

Midway through the season,
our team was on a bus headed for a track meet with two other schools.

From the front of the bus,
I heard the coach shout,
“McDowell, you are running the mile today.

I hoped that what he really said was,
McDowell, you are gunning with style today.”
But he bellowed out the death sentence once again.

The flu had been running through the school that week 
and it seemed that two of our milers were sick.

Now, I had no idea how many times one had to run around the track
in order to run a mile,
but I did know that it was more than I cared to run.

When we stepped off the bus,
I pleaded with the coach to reconsider.
I fired the best line of defense that I could muster,
“I don’t want the mile to interfere with my vaulting”

Oh, there will be plenty of time for you to rest between the mile and the vault competition.” 
he responded.

In my four short weeks on the high school athletic scene,
I, a very intuitive fifteen year old adolescent,
had ascertained that this coach did not know much about track and field.
I was about to be proven correct.

Just before the final call for the mile,
Coach came up to me and offered these wise words.
Just try and stay with the pack and when they ring the bell,
run as fast as you can.”

Sheer genius.

I was just hoping he would have told me in what lane I was supposed to start,
or how many times I needed to run around the track.

A compassionate track judge nudged me to lane five.
Let me say that anxiety rushes are usually not a good thing,
but when running a gazillion times around the track,
it helps.

I yelled to my teammate, “How many laps is this?”
The starter pistol went off.
“Four” he yelled as we began the run
to what I feared was certain disaster.

During the first lap,
I realized that there might not be enough oxygen in the atmosphere
to adequately fill my lungs.

During lap two,
I debated whether or not it was appropriate to cry.

It was during lap three
where I am fairly certain that I saw Jesus.

Lap four. The bell rang.
By this point, I had left my lungs somewhere in the last turn,
and my legs felt like play dough.

My coach’s haunting voice rang in my ears…..
Run as fast as you can.”

By the grace of God, I passed two other runners,
one of them, my teammate
who looked like he was meeting Jesus for the first time.

As an adult, I now know that one lap is 440 yards.
That was close to the number of times that I wanted to wring my coach’s neck.

Just before I crossed the finish line, I passed a poor soul from one of the other schools.
This awarded my team one point because I finished 4th.

I don’t remember much after that except for three things…..

1) I can tell you exactly what I had for lunch that day because it was there 
on the grass for all to see.

2) While I was heaving,  Coach patted me on the back and said
“Great job McDowell. You have a lot of potential!
We’re gonna make you a miler!”

3)And as I was stumbling around, as if in a drunken stupor,
I heard, “First call, pole vault.”

Sometimes, life puts us into roles that we never expected or wanted.

A crisis turns us into a responder,
An absence, turns us into replacement.
A change in the health of a relative or friend turns us into a care provider.
A death changes us from coupled to single, or parented to orphan.

And sometimes, we have a choice  about taking on a role that is not necessarily desired.
I am always struck by the humanness of Jesus when he says,
if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”  (Matt 26:39a)

It’s the next word, that He utters that reveals His heart,


Nevertheless, not as I will but as you will. (Matt 26:39b)

It’s okay to not want to do what we are asked to do.
The Lord isn’t seeking our approval, just our obedience.

I think one of the toughest lessons for a Christian to fully grasp,
is that our lives are not intended to be about serving ourselves, but about serving God and others.
And it is when we figure that out, that we find the joy 
that a self-serving attitude never achieves.

May our lives be filled with “neverthelesses”
so that the one we are pleasing is the One who is worthy of our obedience.

I vaulted once that day before removing myself from the competition.
It was a spectacular attempt…..
In my stupor, I landed 10 feet to the right of the pit,
never making it up to the bar.

If I had been able to jump my normal height, I would have finished 2nd that day,
and would have scored 3 points for the team.

By my math, that cost us two points.
Our team finished in 3rd place, one point behind the 2nd place team.

thank you for giving me the strength to get off the bus,
and do what I am called to do……..

Another "Church on the Hill" Story

During last Sunday's sermon, I shared how someone referred to our church as "that church on the hill." Immediately after he said this, he continued, "Like Jesus said, you're a city set on a hill."

His comment gave me a wonderful image for our church. We are a church set on a hill for a purpose. God placed us in this particular spot to shine the light of Jesus in our community.

I was reminded of this last night when I attended a community meeting. As I was leaving, a woman ran after me shouting, "Robert, Robert!" 

"You are life-savers!"

She said, "I wanted to thank your church for making it possible for my mother to buy medication for her illness. We are both on disability and don't make any money and your church helped us. You are life savers!"

Evidently, our church was able to help her mother through our monthly Local Relief Fund which we receive on the first Sunday of each month. After she shared her gratitude for what our church did for her mother, I gave her a hug, told her that we were glad to help and that we are here to share God's love to as many people as possible.

Her words to me that our church was a "life-saver" were the words I thought about as I drifted off to sleep last night. "You are life savers. You are life savers. You are life savers. You are life savers. You are life..."

Our church is literally saving lives spiritually, emotionally, and physically because we are "the church on the hill." Like Jesus said, "we're a city set on a hill."

Sleep well tonight, Lancaster First UMC. Sleep well.

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - May 3

Sermon (May 3) - "Staying Connected"

I John 4:7-21

The letter of I John focuses on God's love.

For John, love is the continuation of God's love that was manifested in Jesus. Love is self-giving. Love is rooted in Christ's love who laid down his life for us. Because of this love, we are called to love one another.

This passage always reminds me of a song I learned back in my youth group days entitled, "Beloved, Let Us Love One Another." The song ends with everyone shouting, "I John, 4, 7 & 8!" In fact, it would be difficult for me to read this text out loud and not sing that song!

John 15:1-8

This scripture passage includes one of Jesus' famous "I am" statements. Here, it is "I am the vine." The "I am" statements is a play on the "I am" statement from the Old Testament which is the divine name for God (see Exodus, chapter 3 and the story of Moses and God at the burning bush.) All of these "I am" statements point to Jesus' divinity.

Vines and branches are meant to be connected. The focus for this Sunday's sermon will be on how we can stay connected in our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. John Wesley referred to the "means of grace" which are ways that we can stay connected to God.

Think of times when you have become "disconnected" from God. What was that like? How did you get reconnected?

The means of grace are meant to help us stay in a relationship with God for the long-term. List the several means of grace that are available to us to help us stay connected to God.

[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.]

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Church on the Move!

Dear Friends of Lancaster First UMC,

As Penny and I were reflecting on our move to Athens this June, she said, “Do you realize this will be our ninth move?” Wow! I had forgotten just how many times we have ordered bubble wrap and wardrobe boxes over all these years!

Methodist preachers have a long history of moving from one location to another. This is one of the main reasons why Methodism grew so quickly when it first came to America. 

Methodist preachers were always ready to move in order to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Back then, they were known as "Circuit Riders" and rode horses from place to place. Today, we drive Ford Focuses.

"We have a mobile faith!"

This willingness to move is at the heart of the Book of Acts as the early church took the gospel message from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. Today, the church continues to be on the move. We have a mobile faith!

Our church is also on the move. We are sharing the good news of Christ as far away as Lithuania and Zambia. Our youth will be sharing God’s love on their mission trips to Maryland and West Virginia this summer. Our monthly Second Saturday outreach blesses people in a variety of ways throughout Lancaster and the surrounding area. There are also many other ways that we are living out our faith beyond our church walls.

I just want you to know what an honor and a privilege it is has been over these past six years to serve a church that is always on the move.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Robert 

Sunday Worship Preview - May 3

Sunday, May 3 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, May 6  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 5th Sunday of Easter & Holy Communion

Scripture - I John 4:7-21 & John 15:1-8

Sermon "Staying Connected"

Theme - Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him. What does it mean to abide in Christ?

Sermon (April 26) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Use Your Hands"

     Last Sunday, we focused on the importance of using our words as we seek to be witnesses of God’s love with the people around us. We talked about how easy it is for us to get tongue-tied when we are given opportunities to share our faith.
     There are probably a number of reasons why we struggle in sharing our faith with others. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to come across as a religious fanatic. More often than not, I think the bigger reason that we don’t share our faith with others is because we grossly underestimate the impact of our faith story.
     We forget that how God has been faithful in guiding and directing us through the ups and the downs of life just might be what someone else needs to help them get through a difficult time in their life. To help us get into the habit of using our words in sharing our faith, our church is encouraging people to participate in small groups where we can share our faith with each other.
     Last Sunday, I shared with you the three questions that we would like each person in our small groups to focus on whenever we meet. The first of those three questions are, “What was a recent closest to Christ moment for you?”
     I love that question because it’s exciting to think of those special holy moments that happen to each of us on any given week. Some people call these moments, “God Sightings.” When did you feel close to Christ this past week?
     When we start sharing our responses to that question on a regular basis, guess what happens? We become witnesses. We become faith sharers. We begin to use our words in sharing our faith with others.
     The other two questions that we are wanting our small groups to share every time they meet is “When did you deny Christ?” That might be the most difficult of the three questions because we need to be honest about where we might have fallen short of who God has called us to be in any given situation. But remember, confession is good for the soul.
     The third question is, “Where were you the heartbeat of Christ?” This question is asking to share when you recently served others in the name of Christ. It’s exciting to hear how God is prompting each of us to serve in some way in the past week.
     Well, that’s a summary of what we focused on last Sunday in worship. We are to use our words in sharing our faith with others.
     Actually, the third question that I just shared with you, the question, “When were you the heartbeat of Christ this past week,” is a perfect segue into our topic for today. It’s important to use our words if we are to share our faith with others, but we also need to use our hands as well.
     We can’t answer that third question about where we were the heartbeat of Christ and served others unless we actually used our hands to serve in some way. Our hands are a symbol of serving just like our hearts are a symbol of loving and our minds are a symbol of growing in our faith.
     We need all three, hearts, minds, and hands to help us love, grow, and serve. We love through our weekly worship. We grow through our study and exercise of our minds, and we serve as we share our faith and serve through our small group ministry. Love, grow, serve.
     As we think about our hands this morning and serving, we turn to our scripture readings. They are all about serving.
     In our I John reading, we are reminded of what Jesus did for us when he laid his life down on the cross. Jesus gave and served so that we might have life and hope. And we in turn, our to offer ourselves on behalf of others.
     Just listen again to verse 18 from I John, chapter 3.  It says, “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.”
     OK, time out. That doesn’t mean last Sunday’s sermon on using our words is to be disregarded or that we should walk around with tape over our mouths? This verse isn’t saying that we shouldn’t use our words at all. We can’t get off the hook that easily from sharing our faith. It’s saying that that we should back up our words with our actions. In other words, we shouldn’t be all talk and no action.
     This scripture is a little like the James scripture that tells us that faith without works is dead. It doesn’t mean that works are more important than faith. It just means that they need to be integrated so that our witnessing isn’t lopsided.
     People that are all talk about their faith and no actions are like a car that only has two wheels. You’re not going to go very far with just two wheels, right?
     I think it was like two years ago when I last had a flat tire. I was driving up to Mt. Carmel East Hospital to visit a church member who was a patient there. As I was getting closer to the hospital entrance, I heard a noise.
     So I did what I usually do when I hear such a sound when I’m driving in the car. I pretended I didn’t hear it. “Oh, well that was just a bump in the road I ran over. That’s all.”
     But as I continued to drive down the road, that sound kept repeating itself and it was getting louder and louder. Still not convinced, I drove a little farther down the road and this time, it was obvious that I had a problem.
     Have you noticed that cars don’t run well when even one tire isn’t working properly? We need all four tires working if we want to drive the car any distance. The same is true of our faith. Our faith will only take us so far if we are only using our words or if we are only using our hands. God calls us to use our words and our hands.
     Soon after I arrived in Lancaster, the radio station interviewed me since I was the new pastor in town. I’ll never forget what my good friend, Steve Rauch said to me during the interview.
     He said, “Your church does so much good for our community.” And then he said, “Well, you are the church that’s on the hill, right? Like Jesus said, ‘You’re like a city set on a hill.’”
     Of course, Steve was referring to Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount about being the light of the world and a city on a hill. When he said that, it gave me this wonderful image for our church.
     We are a church that is located in the heart of our city and God has called us to not just use our words in sharing our faith but to also use our hands in being a blessing to others.  So whenever you come into our church building, I want you to remember that we are a church set on a hill for a reason. We are on this hill for only one reason – to serve others in the name of Christ.
     One of the ways that we serve, is through our LifeGroup and small group ministry. In addition to sharing our faith with each other, LifeGroups also serve in ministry together.
     Last Sunday, we had some folks demonstrate what a typical LifeGroup meeting looks like when they share their faith with each other. Guess what? Those same folks are back with us this Sunday and they’re going to help us see how their LifeGroup doesn’t just share their faith but also serves together in ministry.
     Let’s eaves drop on their meeting.

     In your bulletin this morning, you should have received a Love-Grow-Serve brochure that includes information about how to get involved or form your own LifeGroup. Not only does a LifeGroup provide encouragement and prayer support, it also helps us to share our faith with each other and serve together in ministry.
     One of the reasons we believe that LifeGroups are vitally important is because Christianity is a religion that isn’t meant to be lived out isolation. Jesus taught us the importance of community when he called the twelve disciples to follow them. They were a small group. They were a LifeGroup.

     Our faith is best lived out when we share with each other. So remember to use your words and to use your hands. Both are important as we seek to love, grow, and serve.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Church Staff Milestone Recognitions - Lancaster First UMC

During our staff dinner tonight, we recognized the following staff for their 10 plus years of service (& counting) on staff. Congratulations to Scott Gottliebson, Mary Grover, John Coen, Jill Warner, Clarence McCoy, & Sandy Roberts.

And of course, what would a night together as a staff be without karaoke? Church staff just want to have fun!