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, August 31, 2015

Pastoral Prayer (August 30) - Athens First UMC

God of new beginnings, thank you for being with us during times of transitions, like the beginning of a new school year. Yellow school buses, students walking to class, and sign up sheets for our Fall Sunday School program remind us that we are entering into a new season of the year.

As we begin to see the first leaves falling to the ground and feel the cooler temperatures at night, remind us that you are a God who is with us through all the changes of life. We confess that we struggle with change, and yet we know that change is what helps us to grow and to grow in a deeper relationship with you.

O God, we are hearing about some exciting changes for our church to help us in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. Guide and direct us as we begin a pilot small group that will eventually lead to several new small groups so that we can help each other grow in our faith and share our faith with others.

We pray for a new worship service for college students called “Worship U” which will begin in October. May this new Sunday noon worship service be a blessing to those we are seeking to reach.

And Lord, we also pray that you would be with us as we continue to consider capital improvements that are needed to help our church be better equipped to fulfill our mission and vision to reach people for you.

Through all these changes, be with us, O God. Help us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Help us to serve you and others at every opportunity. Empower us to be an Old Time Religion church for a new generation.

And now, teach us to pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray.  “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon (August 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Old Time Religion"

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me.

     Sing those words with me!

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me.

It was good for the Hebrew children
It was good for the Hebrew children
It was good for the Hebrew children
It's good enough for me.

It was good for dad and mother
It was good for dad and mother
It was good for dad and mother
And it's good enough for me.

It will do when I am dyin'
It will do when I am dyin'
It will do when I am dyin'
It's good enough for me.

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me...

     One more time!

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me...

     Wow, you sounded great! It sounds like you want some of that old time religion.    That’s some good stuff!
     Have you ever wondered what we mean when we sing that song? What really is “that old time religion?”
     I looked up this old song and found that it goes back to the 1800’s. They were singing this song just after the Civil War.  Well, so much for the 1950’s being the church’s glory years of that old time religion. I guess it was more like the 1850’s!
     As I thought about the origins of this song, it reminded me of how relative the phrase, “old time” really is. It seems like every generation redefines what is meant by “old times.” “Old times” is often another way of saying, “when I was growing up.” We often think of “old times” as our childhood years.
     Several years ago, I was in a grocery store and a church member came up to me. And this person said, “Why don’t we sing some of the good old hymns anymore?”
     I asked, “What good old hymns do you mean?” She said, “You know, the good old hymns.” I said, “Can you be a little more specific?” And she repeated herself, “The good old ones. Let’s sing more of the good old hymns.”
     I think what she wanted me to know was that we need some of that old time religion, but she wasn’t able to express what she exactly meant by that phrase. What do we really mean by that phrase, “old time religion?”
     This is why our scripture reading from the Letter of James is so important. James is helping us to understand what true religion really is. James refers to a “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”
     In this part of his letter, James provides two important ways to help us have this old time religion.
     The first way is through good old fashioned listening. He writes that we are to be quick to listen and slow to speak. The way to have that old time religion is to first, be a good listener.
     I admit, I have a problem of talking too much when I really should be listening. But can you really blame me? After all, the title of my occupation is “preacher.” I have a former parishioner who still calls me, “Preacher Man.”
     We preachers love to talk. When we preach, we often share more illustrations than we really need to include, we sometimes go off topic, and we don’t always end the sermon when we should.
     Sometimes I wonder if instead of being called, “Preachers,” we should be called, “Listeners.” Try saying that to your friends. “Hey, did you hear that we have a new Listener at our church?”
     “Is that right? Is he a good listener?”
      “He is. You should come to church with me and watch him listen!”
     Several years ago, I attended a two-day clergy retreat at a Roman Catholic retreat center in northwest Ohio. I was with a group of United Methodist pastors and we shared the retreat center with a couple of Catholic groups who were having their own retreats during the same time we were there.
     When we first arrived at the Catholic retreat center, the director welcomed us and explained where our rooms were and what time the meals would be served. She then told us, “Please remember that there are other groups using the retreat center while you’re here.”
     And with a smile on her face, she jokingly told us, “Now, I know that you are all Methodists, so please don’t talk loudly while the other groups are praying.”
     She said this with a smile, but you could tell that she had learned this from experience. And she was right. During those two days there, we really found it difficult to keep our voices down. We Methodists really do like to talk.
     The next morning, our group went to the dining area for breakfast. We were talking about anything and everything and that’s when we noticed that one of the other groups was in a corner of that same dining room quietly reading scripture and praying.
     The lady the night before was right. We really do have a problem with listening and being quiet. That’s not one of our strengths! We're great at making casseroles. Listening? Not so much!
     Having that old time religion means that we spend time listening and being in prayer. It means that before we speak, we first do our best to listen to what God is saying to us.
     James doesn’t beat around the bush about the importance of listening. He says that if we don’t bridle our tongues, our religion is worthless.
     So, tell us how you really feel, James!
     Listening, praying; these are closely related spiritual disciplines. Psychiatrist and author, Scott Peck says that he spends two hours everyday listening.
     He says that listening helps his mind to think through the complex events and situations from the previous day so that he will be able to respond to those situations in appropriate ways.
     Scott Peck says that most of us don’t listen or think nearly enough in our day to day living. Instead, he says that we tend to react impulsively, often in very unhelpful ways.
     I think this is what James has in mind here. He wants us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. This all begins with being good listeners.
     A couple of years ago while I was working out at the gym, one of my older church members came up to me with a spiritual problem he was facing. He said that he felt that God was calling him to join one of our church’s small groups but was feeling a little uneasy about it. He said that he had never been part of a small group in all his years of attending the church and he was nervous about joining one.
     I was about ready to share some words of encouragement, but he didn’t give me the chance. And so I just listened. He continued to talk about how he didn’t know much about the bible, and that he might not fit in with the others who would probably be a lot more knowledgeable.
     I was about ready to tell him that he didn’t need to have a lot of bible knowledge to be part of a small group, but he didn’t give me the chance. He just kept on talking and the Lord reminded me in that moment to just keep my mouth shut.
     He went on to say how he had always wanted to be part of a group that would help him to be a better Christian but he always felt that he was too busy. I was about to offer another brilliant thought that would motivate him to try out a small group, but God silenced me again.
     As it turned out, it didn’t matter because this man just kept right on talking. He then said to me, “You know what? Time really isn’t an issue for me anymore. And who knows, maybe I’ll get something out of it. When I leave from the gym this morning, I’m going to head over to the church and sign up to be in a small group.
     This elderly gentleman then patted me on the shoulder and said, “Thanks for answering my questions. You were a big help!”
     I didn’t know how to respond so I just said, “Oh sure, glad I could be of help.”
     He thought that I had offered words of wisdom, but it was God helping him to answer his own questions. I didn’t say a single word that whole conversation. He literally talked himself into signing up to be in a small group.
     I’m reminded of a quote that has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Sometimes, the best sermons aren’t even spoken. Did I really just say that?

     And this leads us to the other important way for us to have that old time religion.
     Listening and praying is what leads us to becoming doers.  James tells us that “religion that is pure is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” It’s when we listen to what God is saying to us, that we are then prompted to make a difference in our community and world.
     Praying and serving. This was the basic formula of the early church. It’s the foundation of having that old time religion.
     I’ve noticed in my first few months here the many ways that our church serves the needs of others. We serve through a variety of ways from our Monday lunch ministry, to our hosting of the Good Works Walk, to sending a mission team to Nicaragua. We’re not a church that sits on our hands. We are a doing church. We are a Letter of James type of church.
    Last year, I received a call from a member of the community where I lived and this person wanted to know if my church had taken an official stance on a particular political issue that our community was facing at the time.
    This person was upset when I said that we didn’t have an official position, especially the stance that this person wanted us to take. Well, this led this person to say that churches need to take a stand on these kinds of issues facing our community.
     And then this person criticized my church for our weekly lunch ministry to help the poor because it wasn’t really helping people to get jobs. “Why don’t you have some of your church people actually teach them how to get out of poverty? That would be better than just giving them food. Why don’t you do that instead?”
     I think I really startled this person when I said that we do offer something like she was suggesting. My church at that time, along with another church in the community were offering a program called, “Sharing Hope.”
     The program invited people who were living in poverty to be matched up with financially stable people so that together, they would be able to set financial and job related goals to help improve their living situations.
     They were meeting twice a month at my church. They always began with a meal and then they met in a large group for a teaching time, and from there they broke into small groups where they able to share on a more personal level. Thanks to that program, people have been able to set career goals, go to school for training, and find employment.
     After I said shared this, all I heard on the other end of the phone was, “Well, I never heard of that program.” And then this person had something else that was negative to share with me before we finally ended the conversation.
     After I hung up the phone, I remember being thankful that this very negative and critical person had called me. I know. That might sound strange to say that but this negative person reminded me of just how much our church does to help others.
     We weren’t just a church that was all talk. We were a church getting our hands dirty and making a difference in our community.
     When we listen and pray and serve, that’s when we are being an old time religion church. It’s that simple.
     As we prepare to bless backpacks, briefcases, and diaper bags in the beginning of this new school year, let’s remember what Old Time Religion really is according to James. It’s all about listening and serving. Listening and serving.
     Just think of the initials, O-T-R to remind us that God is calling us to have an “Old Time Religion” kind of faith, a religion that draw us closer to God, and a religion that leads us to serve others in humility.

      How does that song go again?

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me.

     Sing with me!

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me.

It was good for the Hebrew children
It was good for the Hebrew children
It was good for the Hebrew children
It's good enough for me.

It was good for dad and mother
It was good for dad and mother
It was good for dad and mother
And it's good enough for me.

It will do when I am dyin'
It will do when I am dyin'
It will do when I am dyin'
It's good enough for me.

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pastoral Prayer (August 23) - Athens First UMC

God of compassion, thank you for this special Sunday in which we recognize those who are serving in our Stephen Ministry. Thank you for our care-givers and our care-receivers. May this ministry continue to be a blessing through our church.

Whenever we go through difficult challenges and transitions in our lives, remind us that we are never alone because you promise to always be with us. We especially lift up to you students, teachers, administrators, and support staff in this new school year.

May our church be a visible expression of your presence in our community, especially for university students who walk by our building on a daily basis. Help us to be a place of hope and refuge for the people of our surrounding community.

We want to be a varsity-faith church where we letter in worship, unity, kindness, growth, spiritual gifts, a spirit-filled life, and prayer. We want to be a church that knows that our best days are ahead of us and not behind us. Keep us on our toes, O God so that we don’t miss out on the next big thing you have in store for us.

On this Sunday that we focus on what it means to letter in prayer in having a varsity of faith, we especially are mindful of those who are in special need of you this day. Surround them with your love and care. Bless those who are in need of healing and for those who have heavy hearts for whatever reason.

And now, as a people of prayer, we join together in saying a prayer that Jesus taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon (August 23) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Varsity Faith: Lettering in Prayer"

     This is a very special day for me. I’m getting a little emotional. This is the last Sunday that I have to wear a thick wool varsity jacket during my sermon. I just want to offer that up as a praise to the Lord today. Thank you, Jesus!
     Next Sunday, I will become a normal pastor again. But it has been fun to show off your varsity jackets each Sunday morning.
     Today is a pretty special Sunday for me because today, I am wearing a varsity jacket that belongs to Hannah Travis who was part of my congregation in Lancaster.
     Hannah lettered in golf at Lancaster High School and she is now on the golf team here at Ohio University. Hannah is with us today. Every Sunday after worship, I would ask Hannah for a new golf tip.
     So Hannah, welcome to Ohio University and your church away from home! Would you welcome, Hannah. This is her first Sunday with us!

     Today's varsity jacket is to remind us of the importance of lettering in prayer. If we want to have a varsity level faith, we need to letter in prayer.
      David Troxel tells about his eight year old son who came home from school one day with a stuffed animal he had won at the class Valentine’s party.  “How did that happen?” he asked.
     “Well,” his son explained, “the teacher put all our names together, and then picked one out.  I cheated, though,” he said, looking guilty.  “I prayed.”
     If only we could approach prayer with even half the confidence of this little boy!
     This morning is the final part of a seven part sermon series from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians on what it takes to have a varsity faith, a mature and growing faith and today we look at one of the most vital topics of the Christian faith, prayer.
     How’s your prayer life?  If you’re like me, there’s always room for growth in this area of our faith.
     Paul ends his letter by emphasizing the vital importance of prayer.  He writes for us to pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.  And specifically, Paul says to pray for one another and to lift each other up. 
     What a powerful thought for us as we conclude this sermon series.  Just dream with me what it would be like if we would take Paul’s words about prayer to heart.  What difference would it make if we as a church would dedicate more of our time and energy to praying for one another?
     I was reading about a church that made prayer a big focus in their church. Three high-energy, committed women were serving on the new evangelism committee for Benton Street Church.
     They were fired up to do great things for God that year. They brought in a church consultant to get some direction about what they could do first. They were thinking that this consultant might suggest a calling campaign, or a bring-a-friend to church Sunday, or maybe a direct mail marketing inviting the community to check out their church.
     “No,” the consultant said. Not that. Not yet. She told them to pray for three months before doing anything! Three months! That seemed like an eternity for these three women.
     The evangelism committee at Benton Street was looking for activity, for hard work, for something to do. But instead, this consultant told them to stand still and pray. Stand still for three months!
     Prayer is a different kind of hard work, of course. Most of us don't know how to do it, at least not for very long, but this evangelism committee learned.
     They prayed together for one hour every week. During their board meeting, when it was their turn to report, they would say, "We're still praying. The consultant is making us do it! And so, we’re just praying."
     People would laugh because this wasn’t what they were expecting when they hired a consultant. As the days and weeks went by, board members started giving the evangelism committee prayer requests.
     After three months of doing nothing but praying, interest in evangelism had skyrocketed. By the end of the year, 65 people were helping with evangelism in that church.
     New visitors were checking out the church. Twice as many people were baptized as the year before.  There was a new excitement in the church, but it wasn’t because they were doing more.  It was because this church made prayer the center for everything.
     Prayer is not always the first thing that comes to our minds when faced with a problem or challenge. Like the evangelism committee of the Benton Street Church, our first thought is usually to do something, try some new strategy, like begin a new church program, anything but wait around for three months praying!
     Paul tells us to pray at all times. Wait a minute. Isn’t this the same man who started at least fourteen churches, traveled on three long missionary journeys, and wrote half of the books in the New Testament? When did he have time to pray? He was always doing something.
     Paul was a doer but he also knew of the importance of prayer. Bible scholars believe that Paul wrote the letter of Ephesians while he was in prison. He probably had a lot of time to pray while he was in prison.
     Being alone with God wasn’t a new thing for Paul. When he first encountered the risen Christ, he was blinded and spent those first three days in prayer. He didn’t begin his mission work until three years later. He needed that time to be alone with God.
     The Benton Street Church thought three months was a long time to pray. Just think, Paul waited three years!
     Of course, Jesus taught us the same thing about prayer. Jesus would often get away by himself to pray, especially after a busy time of teaching and healing. Jesus began his ministry by spending forty days in the wilderness with God. During that time, he fasted and prayed.
     The number, forty seems to be the biblical time frame for intense prayer. Noah was on the boat for forty days. Moses was on the mountain for forty days. The Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years. Elijah was on the mountain for forty days. The disciples spent forty days with Jesus following his resurrection.
     Paul understood that prayer isn’t a peripheral part of the Christian faith. Without it, we just become busy people who do a lot of busy things.
     Between the time it was announced that I would be your pastor back in February until the time we actually moved here to Athens, it felt like an eternity. Those four months felt really awkward.
     I still had a lot of things to do at the church I was serving, but at the same time, I was curious about getting started here. That’s a weird place to be when you are in between churches.
     Whenever a move is announced, the District Superintendent reminds the pastor and the church who will be receiving that new pastor to not engage in any type of ministry until the pastor officially begins at the new church. That all makes perfectly good sense even though it’s difficult to be patient during that time of transition.
     And since I am a doer and like to keep busy, I was finding it difficult to just chill out during those four long months of waiting. It was during the beginning stages of that awkward waiting period that it dawned on me.
     This was an opportunity to spend time praying for you and preparing for the transition. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think about you or pray for you. There were times when I would just mentally picture the people of our Leadership Board. I would visualize each person from that late January introductory meeting and then pray for each person by name.
     Sometimes, it would take some time for me to remember a name, but the more I prayed, the more I was able to get the names right. And then I would pray for the congregation and the ministries and programs of the church. Your church’s Facebook page helped me to see what you were up to during those four months.
     I read about the concerts that were taking place here at the church, your fun Caberet evening back in February, the annual Good Works Walk that you hosted even though it was really cold and snowy that day, the accessibility improvements that you were able to make to the front of the church, the early Growing Tree pre-school enrollment announcements, and the updates on Lara Pickett who passed away just a month after we met over a conference call during my introductory meeting here at the church.
     When I saw the announcement about her death, I remember feeling so humbled that even in her weakened condition, she wanted to meet her new pastor even if it was over a conference call. That memory will always stay with me. On one level, I didn’t know Lara, but on the level of prayer, I think I did know her.
     Yes, you have been in my prayers from the end of January through this very moment and I will continue to pray for you and for us as we share in ministry together. Lord knows that I need you to pray for me!
     During those four long months, I was reminded that prayer isn’t just window dressing. Prayer should be at the heart and soul of everything we do in the church.
    When we gather for worship, let’s remember to pray. When we come together for a church meeting, let’s remember to pray. When we eat together, let’s remember to pray. When we don’t know which direction to go, let’s remember to pray.
     When any of us are hurting or down, let’s remember to pray. When any of us are filled with joy, let’s remember to pray. When Penn State has their first game in two weeks, let’s remember to pray.
     Hey, Paul tells us to pray for every occasion. I’m just being biblical, here!
     We have spent these past several weeks this summer walking through the Letter of Ephesians. I think it’s fitting that we conclude this series with this focus on prayer. Paul ends his letter by emphasizing prayer but remember, he also started this letter with a prayer.
     There must be something about this thing called prayer. It’s something we are called to come back to again and again. Prayer is what makes the difference in everything we do. It reminds us to not trust in our own strength, but in God’s guidance and direction.
     Prayer is mysterious. It opens doors that we never knew even existed. One of the great Christian leaders of the twentieth century, William Temple declared that whatever else one might say about whether prayer worked, he had noticed that when he prayed, “coincidences” happened; and when he stopped praying, the “coincidences” stopped happening.
     The same thing can be said of the golfer who, when someone accused him of being lucky agreed, but commented that he’s noticed that the more he practiced, the luckier he got.
     Paul viewed prayer in the same way. Prayer is something that we are to practice at every opportunity. In the quiet of the morning when you wake up, as you face a difficult decision at work, when you gather in this place to worship, and when you attend that church meeting.
     If we want to have a varsity faith, a mature faith, Paul says that we need to letter in worship, unity, growth, spiritual gifts, kindness, a Spirit-filled life, and prayer. The more we practice these spiritual disciplines, the more we will be the people and the church that God has called us to be.
     Several years ago, I remember reluctantly getting into my car to come to a church meeting one evening.  I knew that it was going to be a controversial meeting and most likely a very long one as such meetings go.
     I had worried about the meeting the entire day. I felt anxious about it because people were let’s just say, passionate about their differing points of view. 
     But when I made the turn to come into the church entrance, I felt this tug at my heart to say a prayer.  And so I prayed. 
     “Dear God, thank you for reminding me to pray to you before going into this meeting tonight.  You know how concerned I am about this meeting.  I pray for the chairperson tonight that he would be guided by your Holy Spirit.  I also pray for the committee members that they too would be open to your Holy Spirit so that we would move into the direction that you would have for us.  I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
     After I said the “Amen” I got out of the car and headed in for the meeting.  It was a strange feeling.  The anxiety and the concern that I had felt during the day was no longer there.  And now in place of that anxiety and concern was God’s peace and assurance.
     While there were some tense moments during the meeting that night, I was amazed at how clearly God was leading us and guiding us in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if left to our own strength and preferences. 
     As we were leaving the meeting that night and heading out to the parking lot, one of the committee members turned to me and said, “You know, even with all of the difficult issues we had to discuss tonight, that was one of the most positive and productive meetings we have ever had. Someone must have been praying.”
     I smiled in agreement as we continued to our cars. 
     And just to think, that earlier that day, I didn’t think we had a prayer.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Who's Behind the Steering Wheel?

This past Sunday, I shared about an elderly saint in my previous church who taught me something very important about being led by the Holy Spirit. 

She told me that after her husband had died, her life totally changed for her. They had a wonderful marriage and they had done everything together. 

"Well, Lord, it’s just you and me now. I know you are with me. Guide and direct me in all that I do."

Whenever they drove somewhere, he was always the one behind the steering wheel driving them places. Now, she was the one behind that steering wheel. She said, "Every time that I got behind the steering wheel, I said a little prayer to God. "Well, Lord, it’s just you and me now. I know you are with me. Guide and direct me in all that I do."

This elderly saint has given me a wonderful image for what it means to live a spirit-filled life! Sometimes, we think that we are the only ones behind that steering wheel, but God is right there with us!

Someone once said that being filled with the Spirit is simply "practicing the presence of God" in our day to day living. I like that! Yes, we are behind the steering wheel, deciding where to go, what to do, how to go about our day, but God is present with us as well.

For those of us who drive, this might be the best way for us to remember to live a spirit led life. Whenever you get behind that steering wheel, remember the words of this elderly saint:

"Well, Lord, it's just you and me now. I know you are with me. Guide and direct me in all that I do." What a great way to remember that God is always with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit!

Remember that it's not just you behind that steering wheel. Practice the presence of God and live a spirit-filled life.