A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What If We Had Church Media Days Like the BIG 10?

The Big 10 football coaches and top players of each team will be participating in the conference annual "Media Days" in Chicago over the next few days. Every college football fan looks forward to hearing from the coaches and players of their favorite team about the upcoming season.

It's not like we don't already know that Ohio State will be the early favorite to win the conference this year or that Purdue will probably not make it to a bowl game this year. The Big 10 College Football Media Days reminds us that Saturday afternoons will soon have something meaningful to offer besides ho-hum baseball games.

Recently, I was part of a pre-fall Sunday School planning meeting at my church. We discussed our strengths, weaknesses, and what we might do differently this year to help our congregation grow deeper in our faith. There was a sense of excitement as we thought about the approaching new season. This has led me to wonder if churches should participate in a conference wide "Media Days" event around this time of year that is similar to the Big Ten gathering that will be meeting in Chicago. 

What would that look like? Maybe something like this...

Pastor Jones: "Our starting nursery helper from last year had to have foot surgery and won't be ready for our September Kick-Off. We're a little thin in this area, but like I always say, our motto around here is, 'Next volunteer up!'"

Pastor Thompson: "We had a really productive VBS this past summer that brought in a lot of kids, so we are entering the new season with some positive momentum. We're expecting a big crowd when we begin the new season in September. Barring any unexpected vacations next month, there's no reason why we shouldn't fill our pews after Labor Day weekend."

Pastor Smith: "There are a lot of strong churches in our town, so we will have our work cut our for us this year. We are going to need some of our younger members to really step it up if we want to have a decent year."

Pastor Hughes: "We are a senior laden team this year. Several of our members have been around here for over 50 years. There's no reason why we can't be one of the better churches in our conference when it's all said and done. I'd be disappointed if we don't see a lot of new families join the church."

Pastor Lowe: "Our focus is on that first Sunday after Labor Day Weekend, but we also want to be ready for Christmas when we will be putting together a big children's musical this year. We need to begin strong and finish strong. I keep preaching to my flock that we need to be patient and focus on one Sunday at a time."

If we had church "Media Days," what would you be able to share about your church for the upcoming Fall season? What signs of optimism is God offering you during this season of "new beginnings?"

"O God, bless each church in our conference as we plan for our fall season of ministry. May this be a year of new opportunities as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen."

Monday, July 27, 2015

Pastoral Prayer (July 26) - Athens First UMC

O God, even in the middle of these summer months with many of us traveling and enjoying a slower pace, you continue to call us to grow in our faith. While most of the year is filled with holidays and the school season, you give us this time to slow down and spend more time reflecting on what it means to follow you in our everyday lives. Thank you for this long season of growth as we seek to be your faithful disciples.

As the pace of life takes on a different feel this time of year, help us to use this time of reflection to sense your presence in our lives and through the people we meet.

We were able to see you this past week during our Wonderful Wednesday program as we made birdhouses to give to Habitat for Humanity. We were able to see you when we served a meal to those who attended the Monday lunch outreach here in our church. We were able to see you when we helped someone find an AA meeting that was being held here in our building. We were able to see you when we met a neighbor for the first time and invited them to join us for worship.

In all these ways, and so many more, we have encountered your presence and experienced these “thin place holy moments” all because you have helped us to slow down and become more aware of your presence at work in our lives.

Help us to have a varsity level faith where we letter in worship, unity, and growing in our faith.

As we think about the high school varsity jacket of our District Superintendent, Rev. Dennis Miller, we think of the trip that he will make on August 1st as he travels by motorcycle all the way to Alaska to raise money for Imagine No Malaria.  Bless Dennis and surround him with your presence as he prepares to make this trip.

We also pray for those who are facing medical challenges, who may be grieving, or who may be going through a difficult time in their life. Remind them that they are not alone. Remind them of the Apostle Paul’s prayer from our Ephesians scripture reading this morning that is meant for each and every one of us.

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

And now, as God’s people who are seeking to grow in our faith, we pray the words that Jesus taught his disciples, “Our Father, who art in heaven...”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sermon (July 26) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Varsity Faith: Growth"

     Each week, I have been wearing someone’s varsity jacket during our summer sermon series on having a varsity level faith. We are reading through Paul’s Letter of Ephesians during this series.
     Today, I am very proud to wear the varsity jacket that belongs to our District Superintendent, Rev. Dennis Miller. He attended Philo High School in the Zanesville area.
     This man was an athlete back in the day. He received varsity letters in volleyball and basketball. He was concerned that it doesn’t look clean, but I think it’s in pretty good shape after all of these years.
     It was always on my bucket list to wear my District Superintendent’s varsity jacket so I can now cross that off my list! Today’s varsity letter stands for growth and growing in our faith.
     Did you know that before you woke up this morning, somebody had already prayed for you?
     And not only has somebody already prayed for you, but somebody has written you a letter with your name on it.  Have you opened the letter?
     For the past couple of weeks, we have been reading a letter that is meant for each and every one of us.  It’s a letter written by the Apostle Paul and he wrote it for you and for me.
     OK, so maybe this letter wasn’t originally addressed to us, but I’m sure that Paul meant for as many people as possible to read it. It’s a fascinating letter that helps us to see what it means to have a mature faith in Jesus Christ. 
     And this morning, as we open this letter, we find that the Apostle Paul has said a prayer for us.
     What is his prayer?  Paul writes, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” 
     “I pray that you Robert McDowell, may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
     What a prayer!  And just to think that this prayer is meant for each and every one of us. 
     Well that’s all well and good.  In a way, just knowing that Paul prayed this prayer for us can make us feel good and we can know that somebody cares about us, and we can just go home and leave it at that.  But that’s not Paul’s goal for us.  No.  Paul has something much more in mind in this prayer from Ephesians chapter 3. 
     The purpose of Paul’s prayer is for each one of us to be involved in a daily journey in which we grow in being the people God has called us to be.
     In his book, First Things First, Roger Merrill tells of a business consultant who decided to landscape his grounds.  He hired a woman with a doctorate in horticulture who was extremely knowledgeable.
     Because the business consultant was very busy and traveled a lot, he kept emphasizing to her the need to create his garden in a way that would require little or no maintenance on his part.  He insisted on automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices.
     Finally she stopped and said, “There’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further.  If there’s no gardener, there’s no garden!”
     I wonder if we’re more like this businessman than we would like to admit.  Sometimes we think that we can have a mature and varsity level type of faith that involves little or no maintenance.  But that’s not how our faith works. 
     Our faith is like a garden that needs to be watered, maintained, and given plenty of time and attention.  And we are the gardeners.  We have an important role to play in having a growing and mature faith in Jesus Christ.
     I’d like to focus on three important ways for us to live out the Apostle Paul’s prayer for us.  These are three ways that I have found extremely helpful in my own life and which continue to undergird my faith today.
     The first way to have a growing faith is to worship God with the gathered community of faith.  That seems simple enough.  Just check out the worship schedule and come to one of the worship services, right?  Well yes, but…
     The writer of Hebrews reminds us to not neglect to meet together as is the habit of some.  I like that word “habit.”  Worship helps us to get into God’s rhythm. 
     Just as we have four seasons in the year; Winter, Spring, Summer, and the College Football Season, (I mean Fall), the church has seasons as well.  We call these “liturgical seasons.”
     For example, we are now in the church season known as Ordinary Time. This liturgical season which lasts from late Spring until the end of November is a season which is also known as “A season of growth.” 
     This is  why green is often associated with this season.  Green reminds us of the importance of growing in our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ.
      After this liturgical season concludes at the end of November, we begin a new cycle with the season of Advent, which will then lead us to Christmas and eventually to the Easter season.
     This is how we Christians grow. We allow the church year to get us into the rhythm of following the life of Christ. We grow in our relationship with Christ through weekly worship.
     The second way that we grow is by being involved in a small group that meets on a regular basis. There are all kinds of small groups but I like small groups that include the acronym, PALS.
     The first letter is “P” which stands for Prayer.  Small groups pray for each other.
     A pastor shared with me that she had formed a small group that included some of the youth of her church. During one of their meetings, the pastor asked for the group to pray for her because she had been asked to speak at a large denominational gathering and she was really nervous about it.
     A couple of weeks later, this pastor was at her kitchen table and the phone rang. It was one of the youth in her small group. This youth wanted her pastor to know that she was praying for the big talk she was about to give the next day.
     This pastor felt so blessed that someone in her small group called to say that she was praying for her. She didn’t feel as nervous or anxious about her talk thanks to the prayers and support of the people in her small group.
     Prayer is an important part of any small group.
     The 2nd letter of the word, PALS is the letter “A” which stands for Action. Small groups are meant to serve together. There are some small groups that are intentional about serving in some type of ministry every month.
     They might serve at a homeless shelter or tutor children or visit people at a nursing home. There are all kinds of ways a small group might want to put their faith into action.
     The letter “L” in PALS stands for learning.  Learning involves focusing on scripture and topical studies related to our faith. It may be as simple as reading the scripture from the previous Sunday’s worship service and reflecting on its meaning.
     And the final letter is “S” which stands for sharing.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism encouraged those early Methodists to take turns sharing their faith with each other. The question he would have them ask each other was, “How is it with your soul?”
     That’s a great question. Some small groups like to ask the question, “What was your closest moment to Christ since we last met?” When we share our answer to that question with each other on a regular basis, it becomes a little easier to share our faith outside our small group as well. Sharing our faith with others shows that we are growing in our faith.
    Carl Conner shares this story after a heavy snowstorm hit North Carolina one winter.  Along Interstate 40 stood several large groves of tall, young pine trees.  The branches were bowed down with the heavy snow – so low that branches from one tree were often leaning against the trunk or branches of another.
     Where trees stood alone, however, the effect of the heavy snow was different.  The branches had become heavier, but without other trees to lean against, the branches snapped.  They lay on the ground, dark and alone in the cold snow.
     Carl Conner goes on to say, “When the storms of life hit, we need to be standing close to other Christians.  The closer we stand, the more we will be able to hold up.”
     I think that’s true.  I have noticed that I have grown more in my faith through the help of other Christians than I have in trying to live out my faith without the help of others.
     Attending weekly worship at church and being part of a small group that emphasizes the PALS model of sharing in prayer, action, learning, and sharing is an important way to grow in your faith.
     A third way to grow in our faith is through personal time with God.  Personal time with God can involve a lot of different disciplines, such as daily prayer and scripture.  I have found it extremely helpful to set aside a certain time each day to be with God.
     Personal time with God helps us to grow and live out Paul’s prayer for us to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breath and length and height and depth of God’s love.
     Methodists have long been known as people who are intentional and methodical about growing in our faith. I always find the history of the churches I serve very fascinating.
     In one of the churches I served, I read about John Mitten who was one of the founding members of that church dating back to the early 1800’s.
     He was one of the seven original Trustees of the Meeting House as they were known in those early years.  These small groups of Christians would gather on a weekly basis to hold each other accountable in their Christian growth.
     The leader of the class would keep a record of attendance and monies paid.  And yes, they had a specific amount in mind.  If you were in good standing, the leader of your small group would give you a ticket which you would then present to the visiting circuit riding Methodist preacher.
     Only then, were you permitted to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. You needed to present that ticket.
     Can you imagine that? What if we would have to hand someone a ticket before we could receive Holy Communion? That ticket meant something. It meant that you were actively growing in your faith through worship, your small group, and your personal daily time with God.
     In the early 1800’s, the Methodist class leader was responsible for keeping a record of the state of each person’s soul.  In order to be in good standing in the church, you were expected to attend every single class meeting, unless of course you were sick and couldn’t come.
     But this poor John Mitten.  According to church records, he quit attending those mandatory Methodist class meetings.  And wouldn’t you know it…they expelled him and kicked him out of the church.  They gave him the boot. And he was one of the founding members of that church!
     I’ve been thinking about this story and what it would be like to resort to such tactics in the church today. What if we started using a ticket system to show that we were actively growing in our Christian faith?
     Even though the ticket system probably isn’t going to come back anytime soon, it is a good reminder of just how important our individual spiritual growth is. The Apostle Paul seemed to think so.
     Last week, I received an invitation to attend the 100th birthday party of a member of my previous church. Mary joined that church back in 1925 when she was only ten years old. She’s been a member of that church for 90 years, more years than anyone else in that church.
     Even at 100 years of age, Mary still lives in her own home, and is doing pretty well. On occasion, I would stop by and make a pastoral visit to see Mary.
     During one of those visits, she said to me, “Pastor Robert, do you know what? After all of these years, I can still recite the books of the Bible by memory. Do you want me to recite them for you now?”
     And right there in her living room, Mary recited all 66 books of the Bible. She didn’t pause or stumble during that whole time. When she was finally done, she asked me what I thought.
     And I said, “Mary, since I can’t do what you just did, it sure sounded like you got every one of them.” I can’t stand it when parishioners show off in front of me.
     And then, she says to me, “And I can recite all twelve of Jesus’ disciples, too.” And again, she flawlessly recited each of their names.
     And then she said to me, “Guess where I learned how to do all of this?” I asked, “Where, Mary?”
     “There in the basement of our church during Sunday School back in 1925, the year I joined,” she said. After that conversation, I made Mary the poster child of our church for the importance of growing in our faith throughout our lives.
     At 100 years old, Mary is still growing in the Lord by reading her bible, praying, and being an inspiration in her church.

     Along with worship and unity, Christian growth is how we can have a varsity faith.

Friday, July 24, 2015

If John Wesley Played Golf

To the best of my knowledge, John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism never played golf. That's too bad because the strategy behind playing a good round of golf matches his view on his theological understand of "sanctification" to a "tee." Did I just make a pun?

Wesley taught that we are to strive for Christian perfection which he defined as being in a state of loving God and neighbor completely. Wesley also took sin seriously and was well aware that sin can keep us from being made perfect in love in any given moment. 

For Wesley, perfection is a good news/bad news kind of thing. The good news is that in any given moment, God's grace is being extended to us to enable us to love God and neighbor completely. The bad news is that we do not always avail ourselves to God's grace and we allow sin to keep us from being made perfect in this life.

Like Wesley's understanding of Christian perfection, golf is also a good news/bad news sport. The good news is that in any given moment, we can get a hole in one or at least make par. The bad news is that we do not always avail ourselves to what we need to do to make this happen. We might have a poor swing technique, choose the wrong club, or utilize a bad strategy. Any of these variables can lead to a golf shot that is less than perfect.

My computer wallpaper photo of a par three tee shot that landed an inch from the hole reminds me that golf perfection is always possible. It's not very often that my par 3 tee shot lands on the green or gets that close to the hole which is why I took this photo to savor that moment!

In a similar way, we may not reach Christian perfection in this life like John Wesley said was possible, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Remember, in any given moment, God's grace is always being extended to us so that we can love God and neighbor fully. God is always giving us the right swing technique, the perfect club choice, and the best strategy in any given situation, but it's up to us to receive these gifts and live out our faith the way God intends.

Any golfer will tell you that what keeps them coming back to play golf is that one really good shot they had during the previous round. Just because you don't get a hole in one doesn't mean you should give up on the game of golf. 

Getting closer to perfection is the name of the game. It's also the name for how we are to live out our faith each day.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Pastoral Prayer (July 19) - Athens First UMC

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you, O God for helping us to have a varsity level faith as we focus on Paul’s Letter to Ephesians during these summer Sundays.

Help us to be the people you have called us to be by making worship a priority and by practicing Christian unity where we are able to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ even though we might have very different opinions on a variety of topics. You are the reason that we are able to have unity in the church. You are the reason why we are no longer strangers, but citizens of the household of God.

In a world where there is so much discord and disunity, may we as co-workers in your kingdom, seek peace and reconciliation in our community and throughout the world. Thank you for the safe return of our mission team and for the new friendships they formed during their time in Nicaragua this past week. May the seeds that they planted through their sharing and labor of love be a blessing to that community.

O God, our hearts are heavy over the recent shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Comfort the families who have lost loved ones with your love. Even in the midst of this tragedy, thank you for Olivet Baptist Church and for the hundreds of people including both the Christian and Muslim communities of that area who gathered for a vigil on Friday night. May all faith communities promote unity, peace, and respect as we seek to make this world a better place.

We pray for individuals, families, and loved ones who may be on our minds this day. Bless them in whatever they may be facing and remind them that they are not alone and they are being lifted in prayer this day.

And Lord, I want to thank you for blessing us all this morning with yet another “Thin Place” moment, a holy moment when we were drawn closer to you when we stood and held each other’s hands at the end of the sermon. That was a moment that will stay with us, because you were right here in our midst in that special time.

As we begin a new week, may we continue to be open to the “Thin Place” moments you have in store for us this week through our daily routine, through the people we meet, and as we spend time with you. Thank you for the joy we receive in these holy moments and for reminding us that heaven is closer than we think.

And now, as brothers and sisters in Christ, united by your presence with us, we join together in saying the Lord’s Prayer…”Our Father, who art in heaven…”