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, October 28, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Halloween: Be Not Afraid

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.

What a difference a day makes.

24 hours
1440 minutes
1 Cyclops

The perfect fall day.
Blue skies, puffy white clouds,
and the trees  of the woods majestically presenting their colors.
Birds were chirping and frolicking in flight,
and the air was a delightful 70 degrees with a gentle breeze.

It could have been the front cover of any autumnal magazine.

My dog, Bushy and I were out on the lawn
playing his favorite game,  fetch.

With each throw, my Springer Spaniel galloped with delight.
He would circle around his Master with ball in mouth,
proudly parading his find.

On a day that anyone would wish would never end,
Bushy knew that fetch, would be followed by a treat and a belly rub.
Life was good.

FRIDAY (24 hours earlier)

A beautiful autumn day
The sun was shining, 
the trees were painting a Picasso over the landscape,
and the afternoon temperatures warmed the earth.

My dog, Bushy and I were out on the lawn
playing his favorite game,  fetch.
Life was good……..for now.

It wasn’t obvious right away.
The first hint was the ceasing of the birds’ singing.

As the creation got quiet,
it was replaced by a roar that started off in the distance
but with each second began to swell like an incoming ocean wave.

Bushy stopped and stared out onto the horizon.
After a momentary inspection, he resumed his game.
In all of his prancing,
he didn’t noticed that a dust cloud was building just over the hill.
With each passing moment,
the cloud rose higher into the sky.
The roar was closer.

Something was coming and it demanded his attention.
Bushy dropped his ball to the ground and laid down to face the distraction.

But this was not a distraction. It was an invasion.
The dust cloud beyond the horizon was now so large that particles of leaves 
began to fall to the earth on its periphery.

Bushy had defended the land in the past.
There had been the potbellied pig that had come up the hill in search of food,
numerous cats out on nocturnal searches,
deer who emerged at dusk from the woodlands,
rabbits and squirrels who dared to call the land their home.
and humans who for whatever reason, sought to plunder the land.

Bushy lay on the ground and stared toward the rumble. 
His response began with a low growl
but the invader’s roar only grew louder in response.
Bushy arose to full attention, his tail moved to the alert position.
Then he saw it……

It was beyond big, it was mammoth
it was devouring everything in its path.
And it was headed directly toward Master, home, hearth, and all that Bushy held so dearly.

David had faced his Goliath.
But proportionally, this Goliath was 30 stories tall.

The watchman in the Titanic’s crow’s nest saw the iceberg,
but this impending disaster did not wait for its prey,
but moved steadily towards it.

Homer had his Cyclops,
but this beast dwarfed the classical giant.

If my dog were a Bible reading canine,
this would be Revelations Chapter 13,
the seven headed, ten horned Beast coming out of the sea.

The Beast fully emerged from over the horizon.
Bushy stared it down.
A low growl matured into a five alarm bark.

But the Beast was unfazed.
It’s roar turned into a deafening growl.
Dust swirled like a tornado as it drew closer.

Bushy got up on his hindquarters 
and dared Cyclops to come closer.
Cyclops did not care.

There is a moment in each man or dog’s life when he must decide what to do…..
to fight or to flee.

As the beast from the pit came within yards of the property line
Bushy did what any self-respecting 52lb ball of furry cuteness would do………..

He ran and hid under the porch
and whimpered like a little baby.

Halloween is a lot like a dog who sees a farm combine for the first time.
Halloween is all about fear……
fear of the unknown,
fear of being alone,
fear of death and what happens thereafter,
fear of the Cyclopses in our lives.

Fear is not necessarily a bad thing.
It is an emotion that is built into us if we believe we are in mortal danger.
It is a survival emotion.

But fear also arises if we feel disconnected from our Savior and the rest of the world.
When we feel disconnected, isolated, unheard, unseen, shameful, guilty, and alone,
fear is a natural response.

Fear is an impulse endowed by our Creator to help us 
not only to survive but to return to Him for shelter and safety.

But, like anything else, when it is not in balance, it can cause all kinds of mayhem in our lives. And unbalanced anything leads to disaster.

Because we fear, doesn’t mean God isn’t with us.
It simply means we have yet to learn how to trust him with those things that cause fear.

Is your life more like October 31 than November 1?
Is your life governed more by fear or by hope?
That’s the difference between a Halloween or All Saints Day faith.

24 hours   
It’s the difference of one day.
And it makes all the difference in your life.

24 hours
That’s about how long it took me to get Bushy out from under the porch.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Pastoral Prayer (October 25) Athens First UMC

O God, even when we face times of doubt and adversity, you are present with us in a variety of ways.

You comfort us with an encouragement card that we receive in the mail from a friend, when after a long day, we see a beautiful sun set in our back yard, when a project that began three years ago, finally comes together, during a small group meeting where people take turns sharing their faith, when someone drops off a casserole as a way of expressing sympathy at the loss of a loved one, and when a church member says, “It was because of your phone call, that I am coming to church again.”

O God, in all these ways, you are present with us, reminding us that we are not alone as we face the daily struggles and challenges of life. Thank you for the story of Job and how it teaches us that it’s OK to question our faith when we come face to face with suffering and injustice in our world.

And while we all want to have the patience of Job, thank you for loving us even when we are impatient. When we are face to face with things we just cannot understand or comprehend, help us to simply trust in you by taking your hand and following you where you lead us.

We especially pray for those who are pursuing their education here at the university that they would be able to use their gifts and the knowledge they attain to make a difference in the world.  May our church be a place where people who are away from home, can come here and be strengthened in their faith.

We pray for families who are experiencing loss and grief and who are going through a difficult time of transition in their lives. When life knocks us to our knees and when we are left with more questions than we have answers, bring us again to that place where we can say with Job, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

With trust in your guiding hand leading us, even without knowing what tomorrow may bring, teach us to pray the words that Jesus taught his disciples, and now teaches us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sermon (October 25) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Book of Job: Trust Me!"

    One of my least favorite memories as a father is the time when our son was in Middle School and we were living in Toledo, Ohio at the time.  I was clearly reminded before the day even began, to not forget to pick up our son after school that day.
     “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I know.  I know.  You don’t have to remind me!”  Famous last words!
     I totally forgot all about it.  Actually, I arrived an hour after I was suppose to pick him up.  And there he was in front of the school, just shaking his head at me.  That’s no fun to be standing there all alone, not knowing what’s going on.
     That little memory which my family will not allow me to forget, reminds me of just how important it is to keep our word.
     I’m reminded of the Peanuts comic strip where every Fall, Lucy promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick it.  And every year, Charlie Brown falls for it.  Literally.
     How many of you think Lucy is funny?  (You sick people!)
     I must admit that Lucy has some good lines when she pulls this prank.  Here are a few of my favorite ones and again these are Lucy’s comments immediately following her yearly prank of yanking the football away from Charlie Brown: 
     One year, Lucy explained to Charlie Brown,
     “A peculiar thing about this document that states I will not take away the football is that it was never officially notarized, so I’m legally off the hook.”
     Another year has Lucy saying,“Charlie Brown.  Would you like to see how that looked on instant replay?”
     One other year has Lucy saying, “This year’s football was pulled away from you through the courtesy of women’s lib.”
      Charlie Brown was dealing with trust issues every year when it came time for him to kick the football.
      Trust is the central theme of the Book of Job.  And there are different dimensions of trust in this book.  One dimension is concerned with whether or not Job will be found trustworthy.
     From the get go, we are told that Job was a righteous man who feared God.  And one of God’s heavenly beings, Satan, tries to convince God that the only reason Job fears God is because of Job’s many possessions and that Job was well to do.  And he was. 
     We are told that Job had a multitude of camels, oxen, donkeys, and servants.  And on top of that, Job was also blessed with a large family who enjoyed scrumptious feasts and the good life.  Job had everything.
     And Satan tells God, “Job doesn’t fear you because of who you are.  The only reason he worships you is because he has all this stuff, like his membership at the Mediterranean Sea Country Club.  Just throw some adversity his way, and before too long, his favorite seat in church will be empty.  Just watch and tell me I’m not right.”
     God, not buying into Satan’s line, says, “Go at it.  Just don’t kill him.  You’ll see that my servant Job won’t cash in.  You’re underestimating him.”
     With that, Satan goes to work.  Job loses his possessions, his servants, many of his loved ones, and he even loses his health, and not because of anything he had done wrong.  But even after all of this, Job is able to say, “The Lord gives.  The Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
     You go Job! 
     But Satan isn’t through with trying to prove his point.  This time, he backs off and lets Job’s friends do the dirty work.  And Job’s friends do what they do best.  They cherry pick some bible verses and pass judgment. 
   “We got this all figured out.  You’ve sinned against God and now God is punishing you, Job.  Never mind that we’ve probably sinned as well and we haven’t been punished for it.  But rather than try to figure that all out, we find it much easier to simply quote scripture and label you an unrepentant sinner, not to mention a liar.”
     After all, what are friends for?
     I find it interesting that it wasn’t the loss of possessions, or his family, or the sores that tried Job’s patience.  It was these blasted friends of his that led him to say, “I wish I had never been born.”
     And yet, even with that statement, Job didn’t totally give up on God.  He just couldn’t figure out why he was suffering so much.  Unlike we, the readers of this book, Job has no idea that Satan had set this whole thing up.
     We find in Job, a person of genuine faith. 
      But in addition to this story being a story of Job’s trustworthiness, this is also a story about how we are called to trust in God.   Not only does God do a remarkable thing by appearing before Job and responding to his cry for help, but in our scripture reading this morning, we find that God restores Job’s possessions and enables him to have a family again.
     Surely, this is not just a story of God being able to trust Job.  This is also a story that we can trust in God whenever we face trials and adversity which we all certainly do from time to time.
     Now, I must admit, that I do have a problem with the ending of this book.  After several chapters of tremendous loss, not to mention a long-term torturous inner struggle, tear drenched prayers into the night, and unanswered questions, we get this final chapter of recompense. 
     God gives Job even more livestock than he had before as well as a brand new family.  You know, I don’t think it’s possible to replace your old family, but at least Job was able to start a new chapter in his life.
     This past week, Penny and I received an invitation from a former church member and neighbor to attend a house warming party. She and her husband around our age, attended worship every Sunday together. It was a second marriage for each of them. They both had really good jobs and lived in a very beautiful home.
    They always joked how they would arrive late each Sunday for worship even though they lived only thirty seconds away from the church. Around the 2nd verse of the opening hymn, I could always count on them finding their way to their favorite seats in the balcony.
     As they would get their hymnal open, they would always look down at me and I would motion to my watch, to let them know that they were right on time! They would smile and I would smile back.
     A couple of years ago, something terrible happened. The husband was diagnosed with a rare illness and he ended up dying about a year ago. I had made many hospital and home visits with both of them during that difficult time. When I would visit him, we would talk about everything and anything.
     We found out that we had very little in common regarding our favorite sports teams and politics, but none of that really mattered because we had our faith in common. And he would always amaze me at how he was always somehow able to get through each day.
     He told me that it was God’s presence that made all the difference in the world. He would often say how the church was such an important part of his life.
     After the funeral, his wife was facing many life changing decisions. The house was much too big for her so she needed to think about a new place to live. She also had to begin a new journey of being single again.
     That’s why this past week’s house warming invitation meant so much to me. On her invitation, she wrote the words, “Hope you can come – your prayers and support made a difference to Alan and me.”
     And all around the border of that house warming invitation were words and phrases of how God has slowly helped her to get back on her feet again. Here are some of these words and phrases of how friends and people in the church have reached out to her.
     Notes, feeding the cats, not giving up on me, friendship, dog sitting, encouragement, running errands, casseroles, wise counsel, cards, hugs, prayers, food and wine, mowing and shoveling, more prayers.
     When I think of this invitation, it gives me a deeper appreciation for the ending of the Book of Job where God gives Job a new family and even more possessions than what he had.
     This isn’t to say that we won’t have even more questions when we started this book, but it is good for us to remember that it wasn’t God that caused these bad things to happen to Job.  It was that God allowed Satan to do these things.  And here at the end of the book, God wants to bless Job.
     Before we’re tempted to believe that this book advocates a theology that says that we are blessed according to our faithfulness to God or that we are cursed according to our lack of faith, let’s remember the main point of this book. 
     It’s to show that there are no simple answers to why bad things happen to good people, regardless of what Job’s friends believed.  Certainly, there are consequences to our actions and behaviors, but the larger question of suffering and pain are much more complex.
     This final chapter is simply reminding us that God can be trusted.  That God is not some arbitrary deity who dishes out blessings and punishment, but is a God who wants nothing more than for us to live in a covenant relationship with Him, even if that means not knowing why bad things happen to good people.
     Job is a book about trust especially when we go through times of tremendous pain and struggle.
     Almost thirty years ago up in the northwest Ohio area, a friend of mine was involved in a car accident on the interstate.  He wasn’t hurt too badly, but he did end up making an appointment with his family doctor who was also a member of his church. 
     The doctor realizes that this wasn’t just an accident.  This man had really tried to end his life by swerving his car into the pathway of an oncoming truck.  This man needed help. 
     So his doctor made arrangements to have him admitted to a psychiatric hospital so he could begin the road toward emotional and mental recovery.
     For the next several months, my friend was away from his wife, from his work, and from his church family.  He became angry that he had been forced to go to this hospital.   Everyday felt like he was in a living hell.  He didn’t want to cooperate with the hospital staff and all he knew was that he was in darkness.
     One day, he was walking down the hallway of that hospital, and he noticed a piano that had a hymn book that was open.  He was curious to know which hymn was on the page.  It was opened to the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
     And for some reason, his eyes focused on verse 3 of that wonderful old hymn.  “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
     “And grace will lead me home.”  This little phrase from a hymn book, along with the prayers of his family, friends, and church family is what gave him the faith that he needed to trust in Jesus just when he was ready to give up all hope.
     After he got out of the hospital, he wanted to share with others how God had been faithful to him during the darkest time of his life.  This would be his way of responding to God’s goodness and grace.
     And so, he had hundreds of business size cards printed to hand out to people, all with the same simple message:
     “Trust Me.  I have everything under control. – Jesus”
     “Trust Me.  I have everything under control.”
     Following his accident and time in the hospital, this man ended up becoming an incredible spiritual mentor in my life. We were in the same small group together, and thanks to him, I was able to learn what it means to trust in God, especially during times of pain and adversity.
     I will never forget those cards that he gave out to his friends. “Trust me, I have everything under control. – Jesus.”
     The main reason that the Book of Job is in the bible is to help us see that there are no simple answers for why bad things happen to good people. But it also helps us to see that God is with us in a special way whenever we are going through a difficult time.
     Early on a Friday morning in June of 1989, I received a phone call from my brother in southcentral, Pennsylvania telling me that our dad had died suddenly that morning.  He was only 60 years old and it was a shock to the entire family.
     That day, I frantically hurried to get things ready for church that Sunday and find a guest speaker. One of the phone calls I made was to my District Superintendent to let him know what had happened.  And he told me something I have never forgotten. 
     He didn’t just offer sympathy or try to soften the painful reality of death.  Instead he said to me, “Robert, go and be with your family and comfort one another.  And as a person of faith, remember to go and bear witness of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
     Unlike Job’s friends, he didn’t try to offer easy explanations. He simply wanted to remind me that God was with me during that dark time of my life. It was an opportunity for me to trust God through the storm.
     Whenever I face things that are too difficult for me to understand, I am always drawn to the cross. Jesus, the full embodiment of God understood what it meant to be fully human. He felt the pain, the anxieties, the struggles, and the anguish that we experience from time to time. He even tasted death on a hard wooden cross.
     When he was hanging on the cross, even Jesus said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
     Come to think of it, like Job, Jesus’ friends weren’t very helpful when he needed them the most. Most of them fled out of fear, although a few stayed there by the cross that had been lifted up on a hill called, Calvary.
     Those that stayed on that dark hill would later find themselves by an empty tomb, and hear these incredible words of good news, “He is not here. He is risen!”
     The Book of Job may not offer the answers we were hoping for as to why bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, life just happens. Bad things happen to all of us from time to time.
     Instead of an answer to an age-old question, the Book of Job gives us something so much better.
     Instead of answers, we get something so much better.

     We get…God’s presence.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Happy Back to the Future Day!

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.

Wednesday is October 21, 2015
the date in Back to the Future II
that Marty McFly time travels to.

In honor of one of my favorite movie trilogies,
I re-share this……..

Some may want to go back to the past,
others, Back to the Future.
As for me, I just want to get back to living.

It was her 16th birthday party.
The year was 1967.

My sister was  six years older than me.
As a young boy, 
I had learned to endure parties 
where teenage girls invaded the house.

Answer…..about a gazillion girls were there,
all weekend.

For a ten year old boy,
this was a sentence of death.

Marty McFly may have thought he had it bad in 1985
but life for Davy McDowell in 1967 was no picnic either.

I wasn’t the only male child facing such agony.
My brother, five years younger than me, had to endure it as well,
except that at age five, he was less aware of the GRAVITY OF THE SITUATION. *

As the cars continued to turn into the driveway,
and as the GIGIWATT *  level of girlish giggles reached painful proportions,
I did what any ten year old would do…..

That took me to the front yard
where I thought I was alone with my baseball bat.

It was there behind a bush that I took my first powerful practice swing…….
a swing that ended up in my brother’s skull.

I had forgotten that as a five year old brother,
he was more like a puppy dog.
He would follow me everywhere…….

That day, 48 years ago, on my sister’s 16th birthday,
he followed me right into a swing of the bat
as I was chasing an imaginary ball over the right corner of the plate.

I don’t remember much after that except blood,
a lot of blood…..
and that the giggles of teenage girls turned to screams.

somehow I knew that I had altered history.

What if I had never hit my brother in the head with the baseball bat?

He would have likely gotten better grades in high school.

He never would have had to listen to the
“Boy you had better buckle down and get better grades”
speech from our father.

Instead, he would have gone to Harvard,
and then Duke Divinity School
instead of attending the local commuter school.

He would never have transferred from the local commuter school
to Temple University.

He would have never met his wife.

He would have never moved to Ohio
and entertained everyone with his endless selfies and Face Book posts.

He would never have had his two wonderful children,
nor had his cute Westies  as pets.

All because of one swing of the bat in April of 1967.

I used to think I should apologize to my brother 
for slamming him  in the head with a large piece of wood,
but now I realize that he should be thanking me.

That traumatic blow to the noggin
wrote his future.

Doc Brown quoted

I’d like to think that my mistimed swing
paved the wave for my brother to become an excellent pastor.

Theologians and people of faith have for centuries
debated over man’s free will versus God’s sovereignty.

Is life really scripted out for us beforehand and we are merely actors,
or do we really have a choice in determining our destiny?

I would say yes and yes.

When Moses goes before Pharaoh
in that dramatic account of the Exodus from Egypt,
several times Scripture says:
But Pharaoh hardened his heart at that time also; neither would he let the people go.”  (Exodus 8:32)
In the same account, Scripture also says that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart….
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.” (Exodus 9:12)

I believe that our free will can only operate within God’s sovereignty.
Are we responsible for our actions?

Is God in charge?

And because of that, I offer to my brother……
I’m sorry  for not looking to see where you were in that  moment” and
I am glad God purposed me to have a brother who is living out the intentions for his life.”

And as Doc Brown put it,
for those who know and love the Lord,

And in the meantime,
choose to live out well the purposes that he intended for you before you were even born.