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, September 30, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Those Autumn Years

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.

If a picture is worth a thousand words,
then may I will skip the slide show please…….

It was day three of vacation.
The sky was blue and the temps were warm….
and I was headed to the beach.
The day couldn’t get any better.

And then the phone rang.

Caller ID said it was Lois,
a longtime friend of my parents.

Well into her 80’s,
I hadn’t talked to her since my mom’s passing three years ago.

Hello” I said, refraining from saying her name,
and thus needing to explain to her how I knew it was Lois.

Is this you David?” she asked.
Yes Lois, It’s me.  How are you?”

If there were ever three more dangerous words in the English language,
then “ How are you,” I don’t know what they are.

To most of us, they are merely a greeting.
To an 87 year old woman,
it was the starting bell for a horse race.
Out of the gates, Lois bolted like a young thoroughbred.

Oh, things haven’t been good since my surgery.”

I asked God if I should even dare to ask………

“What surgery did you have, Lois” cringing as I asked.

It was my hip, they replaced it.
My bowels haven’t been right ever since.”

We were one minute into the conversation,
and we already went there.

In my earlier days,
TMI  described a nuclear plant that almost had a meltdown.
To most people, it means exactly what Lois was throwing out at me.
For me  in the moment, it meant traumatic mental images.

Two minutes prior, I was singing along with Sirus satellite radio,
anticipating 5 foot waves and the feel of sand between my toes.
Now, I was being given a rundown on the effectiveness of various stool softeners.

“Then this nasal drip started” she lamented.
I realized then, that no bodily fluid was to be free from the conversation.

I haven’t been to ladies Bible study in three months,
and this drip makes me want to cough all the time.
Plus, Paul (her husband) has kidney stones,
and they won’t pass, so we’re just up the creek without a paddle.”

She may have been up a creek,
but I was being avalanched by a tidal wave of unfiltered anatomical notifications.

“And I won’t go to Bible study if Paul can’t take me.” she continued.
“Those kids are probably waiting in the bushes to jump me when I leave.”

The conversation was now moving from unfiltered to unglued.

As I tried to imagine what teenagers would hide in bushes outside a church at 11 in the morning.

I began to think what is like to be 87 and know that your body is betraying you.

There comes a time when everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt, doesn’t work.
It is inevitable for all of us that our bodies begin to fail.

The only way to fully understand what elderly people endure each and every day,
is to go through it yourself. 

As I get older, I am beginning to have much more compassion for the elderly
as I experience changes in my body.

I have always been a lover of the autumn season,
but I’m not so sure how I feel about the impending autumn years of my life.

Yet there is a beauty in those whose hill top has long been traversed.
Scriptures teach us that we should respect and find great value in the elderly.

Job 12:12 says  Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?

There is a common belief that we gradually become less relevant as we grow older.
The world is made for the young. 
Perhaps that is so.

But we are not of this world. When we live our lives for God,
our journey here does not end with our final breath.

I am glad that Lois called that day.
After all, I had three hours to kill till I got to the ocean,
and there likely won’t be that many more conversations with her.

Plus you never can learn too much about stool softeners.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Pastoral Prayer (September 27) - Athens First UMC

God of amazing grace, thank you for always offering us your unconditional love in any given moment. Even when we err from your ways, you never stop loving us. You never stop offering to us your grace that is greater than our sins. You give to us more than we deserve, O God, and we are grateful.

Whenever we begin to think that we have a corner on your grace, remind us that your love extends to every single person, including the people who we consider to be outside our circle of beliefs. Whenever we see goodness being done by those who are within the faith and those who consider themselves to be outside the faith, may we rejoice in knowing that your grace and love are at work in many different ways throughout the world.

Thank you for sending Pope Francis to our country this past week and for his encouragement to be a blessing to all people and especially to those who are poor and who have little or no voice. May our country that is filled with so many material resources be good stewards of what we have been given. We long for the day when it won’t matter where a person is born to determine if that person will live or die at a young age. We long for the day when every newborn will have access to the basic necessities of life.

On this Sunday that we will be receiving an offering with the goal of providing ten PET bikes to people who are in need of transportation, thank you for calling this church in Athens, Ohio to make a difference. Thank you for calling us to share our gifts with others; not so that we can be awarded gold stars for our efforts, but so that we can share your grace with others.

In these moments, we also offer any personal joys and concerns to you silently…

We offer these silent prayers to you in the name of Christ who taught us to pray together saying, “Our Father…”

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon (September 27) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Gold Stars or God's Grace"

    I’m going to say right up front that I like getting credit for accomplishments. Whenever I clean the house when Penny is away, I will send her a text message to let her know that she has a wonderful husband.
     In my previous church, our secretary who was responsible for our monthly newsletters provided a powerful incentive for staff members to turn in their articles by the deadline. She had made a homemade gold star as the reward for the staff member who submitted his or her articles first.
     Whoever won this gold star that month was allowed to wear that gold star on their shirt the entire month. It also gave you bragging rights until the next month. Everybody wanted to win the coveted gold star.
     Whenever I would send my articles in a week ahead of schedule, it was such a disappointment when I learned that some other staff member beat me to it. I wanted that gold star. I wanted people to take notice that I was the newsletter king of the month.
     I don’t think that was the spirit my secretary intended when she came up with this reward idea. It was all in fun, but that monthly gold star contest reminds me of how we can easily do things with the wrong motivation.
     Is my motivation only about getting credit for doing something, or is my primary motivation to make a positive difference in someone’s life through my faith? Our scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel wants us to think about this question because so often, our motivation is more self-serving than it is others-serving.
     One of Jesus’ disciples noticed that someone was casting out demons and so he tried to stop him because he regarded him as a copycat who was stealing their ideas. Jesus, who wasn’t worried about who gets credit for healing people said to him, “Don’t stop him. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”
     Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where people cared more about helping others than about who gets the credit?
     Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our political parties would care less about who gets the credit and more about how we can work together to make this world a better place? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches would care less about who gets the credit and more about how we can work together to share God’s love with our community?
     Jesus is saying to give credit where credit is due even if we may not be particularly fond of the source to whom the credit is due.
     When I first arrived at my previous church, the local Christian radio station wanted to interview me as the new preacher in town. I remember thinking how I would take that opportunity to brag a little bit about my new church.
     The person who interviewed me was also a pastor but of a different denomination. Not too long into the interview, this pastor began to list all of the good things that my church had been doing in that community. He was naming them one by one.
     And here, I had come to the interview ready to toot our own horn, but he beat me to it. He even named some ministries that my church was doing in the community that I didn’t even know about at that time since I was still new. I was so humbled that he would say all of these nice things about my church, knowing that he was also a pastor of a church in the same town.
     This person reminded me that it’s not important who gets the credit. What’s important is that we encourage each other to live out our faith in our community and world. That is what is most important!
     Whenever pastors attend a pastor’s conference, inevitably someone asks those dreaded words. “So, how big is your church?” Have you ever noticed that preachers always round up to the higher number? That’s interesting that we preachers do those kinds of things.
     About three years ago, Penny and I were invited to the retirement celebration of a pastor friend of ours whose last appointment was at a little church. That church was not just the little church in town. That church was one of the most potent little churches in the entire West Ohio Conference.
     Even with a small membership, they were one of the top churches in terms of mission giving and social outreach. Everybody in that town, even the people who didn’t attend there, knew that this little church was making a big difference in their community.
     The mega-churches may get all the press, but proportionally speaking, my friend’s little church was sharing God’s love with their community in quiet but powerful ways. I’m convinced that the reason they were a healthy church was because they weren’t concerned about who was getting the credit. They were more concerned in just being the church of Jesus Christ in that community.
     When Jesus responded to the disciple to not worry about who gets the credit, he was helping them to focus more on having the right motivation.
     If we always want to get the credit for the good that we do, Jesus says that our faith will lose its saltiness. We will be left with a bitter taste in our mouths.
     There’s an old Peanuts cartoon where Schroeder who is known for playing the piano is practicing Beethoven’s sonatas. The ever critical, Lucy interrupts him and asks what prize he is trying to win.
     When Schroder tells her that he isn’t practicing to win a prize, Lucy can’t believe it. She thinks he’s crazy for putting all of that effort into practicing if it won’t help him win a prize. For Lucy, the only things worth doing are when a reward is involved.
     Like this disciple who came to Jesus, sometimes we forget that the reward in serving others is in the act itself. We don’t need to worry about who gets the credit or the recognition.
      Several years ago, I bought a treadmill at a sporting goods store, and the guy who sold it to me mentioned something about his church and after I told him that I was a pastor he said, “Let’s have lunch some time.”
     So we met for lunch one day and I asked him to tell me about his church.  And he said,
     “It’s an interesting story because a few years ago, our church was about to close.  Our pastor at that time announced he would be leaving and since we were declining in numbers and having a hard time financially, our denomination was thinking about closing us.  But at the last minute, they decided to give our church one more try and they sent us a new pastor.”
   And he said, “God has really blessed us because we’re now worshipping over 500 on Sunday mornings and we’re reaching new people in our church.  It’s been a huge turn around for us.”
     So I asked him, “What is the reason your church has made such a dramatic turn around?”  And he said, “It was all because of one question that our new pastor asked our congregation when he first came to our church.”
     At this point, I was on the edge of my seat, curious to know what that pivotal question was.
     He said, “All this pastor asked us was this. ‘If our church would cease to exist, would our community miss us?’  And he kept asking us this question again and again and again.  And that’s when we decided to become more intentional in serving the people outside of our church walls.  And the more we served in our community, the more that people in the community wanted to check out our church and we’ve been growing ever since.”
     After our conversation, I picked up the check and said “This one’s on me.  Thanks for sharing your story.”
     As I drove home from lunch that day, I kept thinking about that question. “If our church would cease to exist, would anybody miss us?”
     That question has stayed with me every since that lunch conversation. If our church would cease to exist, would anybody miss us? Maybe instead of gold stars, our motivation should be more about God’s grace.
     It was God’s grace that led Jesus to do all the things that he did like teach, heal, forgive, and reach people who felt separated from God’s love. Jesus didn’t do all of these things because he was hoping to receive a gold star. He did all of these things for one reason. He was the embodiment of God’s grace for the world.
     Gold stars are about our personal little kingdoms. God’s grace is about God’s kingdom. And here is what is really interesting about this. When we don’t worry about who gets the credit, God’s kingdom is able to grow and grow and grow and grow.
     I read about a church that was declining and really struggling to survive in their community. The pastor felt led to hold a visioning retreat for his congregation to spend time thinking about where God might be leading them as a church.
     During the beginning time of the vision retreat, members continually focused on the need to attract young families and children to their church. As a result, they listed things they might do to reach younger families. They thought about beginning a day care, hosting family friendly events, and giving their children’s Sunday School ministry a makeover.
     While all of these things were good ideas, there were some key leaders who kept mentioning the nursing home that was just down the block from their church. As they continued to pray about God’s vision and how they might attract young families to their church, they couldn’t stop thinking about this nursing home for some reason.
     As the retreat went on, it was becoming apparently clear that the vision God was giving them wasn’t so much about getting more children in their church. It was to be a good neighbor to that nursing home. Even though everybody agreed that starting a ministry with this nursing home was a nice thing to do, they still didn’t see how their church would attract young families.
     Following the vision retreat, they began to reach out to their elderly neighbors just down the block. They visited the nursing home residents on a regular basis. They made little crafts to give to them as presents. They delivered goodie bags that included fruit and cookies and handed them out to the residents and the workers. They provided fun parties and they began offering an informal worship service each month for any resident who desired to come.
     As the church was heavily involved in reaching out to their nursing home neighbors, the strangest thing happened. Church members began to notice that more young families were visiting their church.
     They discovered that many of these young families were the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the residents of that nursing home. The families of the nursing home residents were so appreciative of the church’s ministries with their loved ones that they began to attend their church which was just a block away.
     By not having the focus be on their own interests as a church, and focusing instead on living out God’s vision in being a blessing to their community, the church began to experience new life and vitality. Instead of focusing on gold stars, they were focusing more on God’s grace and sharing that grace with people outside the church. They were once again salty Christians.
     The next time I clean the house when Penny is away, I will still probably take a picture of my masterpiece and send it her way to impress her yet again. And when I send in my newsletter articles days ahead of the deadline, I will still enjoy hearing those words, “Oh, thank you, Pastor Robert. You are once again King of the newsletters this month.”

     My prayer for me and for our church is that there will be something even greater than gold stars to motivate us in living out our faith. Gold stars are nice, but God’s grace is so much better.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - A Perfect Day Off

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.

My eyes opened after a wonderful night’s rest,
and I realized it was Friday,  my day off work.

The sunshine was streaming into the bedroom.
Birds were playfully dancing and chirping outside the window.
My puppies came up and licked my face with a good morning wakeup call.

It was then that I realized…..
this was going to be David’s Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day.

I decided to take a morning swim.
I frolicked in the deliciously refreshing 80 degree water.
Geese flew overhead in perfect formation to entertain me.
Bunnies came out of the fields to join me in my merriment.

As I opened a new box of my favorite cereal,
out fell a paratrooper complete with parachute,
my favorite toy!

I played with my paratrooper for an hour until he landed in enemy territory,
a.k.a. my puppy’s mouth,  and met a most unkind fate.
It was obviously NOT going to be Mr. Paratrooper’s Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day.

After a moving funeral service and burial for Mr. Paratrooper,
I decided to do what any fun loving kid would do on his day off…….
re-bundle his insurance coverage.

I dressed and looked in the mirror as I combed my hair.
Every hair fell into place.
In addition to having a good hair day, I said to myself
“I am at the beginning of a Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day.”

As I turned on the car,
Pharrell’s “Happy” came on the radio.
I sang along as I drove up the highway.
As people passed me, they smiled and waved.
Policeman nodded in approval as I drove past their speed traps.

I went into the insurance office with three separate life, auto and home insurance policies.
I left 60 minutes later with a bundled package and a savings of $1800 annually.
It was evident that I was having a Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day.

I decided to do my grocery shopping while in town.
It was sampler day at the store,
so I got free tastes of crabmeat, bacon bites, and puff pastries.
By the time I got to the cashier,
my tummy was so full with yummies
that I almost decided not to buy any food for the week.

An elderly woman was ahead of me in the cashier line.
She was in an electric scooter.
She was struggling to pull her items out of her basket with her cane
onto the cashier’s counter.
As she labored, I introduced myself and told her
that I was having a Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day,
and that I would like to help her.
I’m not sure, but I do believe as I assisted her with her groceries,
she began to hum Pharrell’s “Happy”.
Perhaps I wasn’t the only one having an Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day!

When it came time for me to checkout,
my day came to a screeching halt.
Uh oh!
I had left at home my coupon that would give me twice as many gas points!
For the first time that day, my smile turned into a frown.
I mentioned my boo boo to the cashier and she said,
“No problem, I have an extra gas coupon right here,
for four times the gas points!”
I did a happy dance as I packaged my broccoli.
I wished the cashier a Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day
and jaunted off into the sun splashed parking lot with my cart.

As I drove home,
sports radio kept talking about how awesome my team was.
I nodded in agreement.

Once in a while,
we have those kinds of days where everything just falls into place.
But they are rare.

Some days, everything seems to go wrong,
but most days are just a mixture of the two.

How do you find your joy each and every day?
If we allow our circumstances to dictate our joy, we are in trouble.
The truth is that circumstances more likely create happiness,
and not deeply rooted joy.

Here is what I have found that works.
First, two things that aren’t innately spiritual but which work very well….

Find humor  and laughter everyday….it releases endorphins in your brain
Exercise……..it really releases endorphins in your brain, lots of them.

Now to some things that the Bible says will deepen your well of joy…..

Practice kindness to strangers
Out of everything good that happened for me that day ,
the thing that I believe that brings me closest to God’s intention for my life,
was when I helped the elderly woman at the cashier’s line.

It made me think about how I would be feeling if my mobility was so restricted 
that I needed to use a cart to accomplish all my activities.
I left feeling grateful that I can move freely.

Doesn’t matter if you have a good voice or not.
The Bible tells us we are to praise Him in song.
Think about this….
A country song makes you want to go buy a dog and a pickup.
A love song males you feel either lonely or sappy 
Think where praising God through song will take you.

Make list of your blessings
I know, it sounds a little cheesy.
And I am not one who likes to journal.
But each day, I make a list in my mind of the things
for which I am grateful.
It develops a heart of gratitude.
And gratitude fosters joy.

God is always with us, 
but there is something to be said for intentionally reaching out to Him.
It makes us far more receptive to what He is trying to say.
It also allows us to give Him the burden that we have been carrying on our own.
Prayer allows us to more fully sense His presence
and experience His love.

And if God’s love doesn’t grant you joy, nothing will.

The next day,
my awesome team lost,
the puppy peed on the carpet,
and I cut through the extension cord while trimming the shrubbery.

But I still had an Wonderful, Amazing, Absolutely Fine, Very Good Day
a.k.a.  a day of joy.

Any reason that you shouldn’t do the same?