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, November 30, 2015

Why I Attend Church

There are many reasons why people attend or don't attend worship at church. Here are a few,

  • I like to hear the choir.
  • Christmas is my favorite time of year.
  • It's good to see my friends.
  • It's become a habit.
  • I want to learn about God.
  • The service is boring.
  • It's the one day I can sleep in.
  • The sermon goes on and on.
  • They just want my money.
Yes, even we preachers think some of these things from time to time! But not yesterday. Not yesterday.

Yesterday was a day that I was reminded of why I enjoy attending worship each week. Besides the fact that it's my job as a pastor, and that it is so ingrained in me to attend that I can't imagine not attending worship, here's the real reason why I attend worship in church....

Are you ready for this?

Are you sitting down?

The real reason I attend worship on a weekly basis is because God seems to always show up there!

God shows up in worship even if the choir isn't singing, even if the refreshment people had to call in sick, even if it's a sermon that doesn't hit it out of the park. God always seems to be present anyway!

Yesterday was a Sunday morning. I woke up with a heavy heart. A good friend of mine, an elderly retired United Methodist pastor who has probably had the biggest spiritual influence in my life recently passed away after a long struggle with leukemia. 

He served many roles in my life. He was my first District Superintendent when I was just beginning pastoral ministry. He asked me to serve as his Associate Pastor for my second church appointment. We traveled to Israel together. He and his wife became surrogate grandparents for our two children when they were young since our parents lived out of state. Even in the years when we didn't live in the same area, we would meet for coffee, lunch, or breakfast and he always had an encouraging word to share with me.

When I served as his Associate Pastor, he taught me what he knew about the daily grind of being a pastor and the importance of staying focused on Christ. Even though he was a father figure, he was also a great friend.

And so, with a  heavy heart, I went to church yesterday to lead our two worship services. I had chosen to wear a tie that I bought from the same store where he liked to buy his ties. My paisley tie looks a little outdated, but it was a small way for me to pay tribute to my friend that day.

Before the second worship service, a church member commented on my tie! She said, "I like the paisley look!" I know this was subtle, but it was like God tapped me on my shoulder after that little comment and whispered in my ear, "I'm here for you."

Following the last worship service, I met a couple who were visiting their family over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. They live in the opposite corner of the state in a town where my friend and I had served together back in the early 90's. I smiled as I thought about that small world moment. "Of all Sundays," I thought to myself. "Thank you, God."

When this young couple told me that they actually attend the same United Methodist Church where my friend and I had served, that's when I felt another little tap on my shoulder from God. 

"Like I told you, I'm here with you today."

No, there were no big flashes of lightening or burning bushes during worship yesterday, but I was reminded of why I attend worship each week. It's because God attends worship, too.

What a novel thought.

Pastoral Prayer (November 29/1st Sunday of Advent) - Athens First UMC

O God, thank you for this new season of Advent that will lead us to a joyous Christmas celebration. We are filled with hope and expectation for the new ways that we will experience your presence throughout these next several weeks.

Will we hear you in the music of our December Christmas cantata? Will we see you when we break bread with a new friend at Monday lunch? Will we feel your presence as we hold up our candles on Christmas Eve? O God, help us to not miss out on the many ways you are revealing yourself to us in this season of Advent. Help us to stay alert, to pray, and to not miss a thing!

You are present with us in the singing of “Silent Night,” but you are also present with us in the loud clank and clatter of coins dropping in metal buckets. Thank you for the opportunity to bless our Athens County Food Pantry through our Noisy Bucket Sunday!

We give you thanks for last Sunday’s Town Hall meeting as we heard about our church’s building improvements plan. During this season of Advent and anticipation, bless our congregation as we prayerfully consider the preferred future that you have in mind for our church.

During this time of year as we think about how you came to the world to be one with us, we lift our prayers for those who are suffering and in need. Help us to not exclude anyone from your unconditional and inclusive love.

We pray for Parisians and Pakistanis, for Refugees and Racists, for Christians and Muslims, for Politicians and Peacekeepers, for Bigots and Activists, for Blacks and for Whites, for Young and the Elderly, for News Reporters and Nigerians, for Americans and Iraqis, for Syrians and Israelis, for the Terrorized and the Terrorist, and for every single person or group that has been given a label, for we all belong to you, and your joy is meant for all the world. *

We offer these prayers to you, knowing that your love is more than able to overcome evil with good, injustice with justice, and hatred with peace. In the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, we pray the words that he taught us to say together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[* This portion of the prayer was written by Tara Wodard-Lehman, from her article, “A Love Letter Instead of Fear.”]

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon (November 29/1st Sunday of Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Who Dey!"

     How do you ever put up with me?  I know it’s bad enough that I’m a Penn State pastor in Bobcat & Buckeye country, but then you also have to deal with this. 

(Pastor Robert waves a Terrible Towel.)
     Yeah, I’m a Steelers fan. I know that my public declaration means I have just been removed from several of your Christmas card lists. Even if you despise the Steelers, hopefully, we can still be friends, at least friends in the Lord.
     For those of you I might have offended, here’s an olive branch. There’s a lot to like about the Browns. They have the dog pound which is pretty cool. And the Bengals play like they have a chip on their shoulder because they don’t feel like they get the respect they deserve.  They love playing the underdog role.  I respect that.
     Who dey!!  Right? Who dey!!
     When our West Ohio Conference was downsizing from having 14 districts to only 8 districts several years ago, they established transition teams in each of the new districts, and one of their purposes was to offer suggestions for new names.  So for example, what was once the Cincinnati District, became what is now, “The Ohio River District.”
     I couldn’t believe that they didn’t go with my suggestion.  I wanted the new Cincinnati area district to become the “Who Dey?” district. 
     What a perfect name! I’m guessing they didn’t go with that name because there are probably more Steelers fans in Cincinnati, than Bengals fans, so maybe that explains it. I think I just got dropped from two more Christmas card lists with that snarky comment.
     By the way, they also didn’t like my suggestion for the Dayton area district which is now called the Miami Valley District.  Miami Valley District. You know, if you’re going to have the word “Valley” in the name, you might as well call it “Happy Valley.”  But once again, I was outvoted.
     The “Who Dey” district.  I still like that.  And I wonder if we shouldn’t be called the “Who Dey” church.
     And the reason that I think this would be a good name for us is because the church is sometimes overlooked in our culture. People wonder if the church is relevant anymore. People often have this image of us that we are behind the times and we don’t have a whole lot to offer in a positive way but nothing could be further from the truth. 
     This is why I think we should be known as the “Who Dey” church. “Who Dey!”  They are a people who actually believe that Jesus Christ is the hope for the world and they are willing to live out this promise of hope every single day.
     It’s no wonder that our Gospel lesson for this First Sunday of the Advent Season is a scripture in which Jesus offers encouraging words to his disciples.  He’s being realistic by helping them to see that there will be days when they will feel like giving up on this thing called “church.”  They’re going to lose their zeal in being his followers and they will be tempted to give up and follow the ways of the world.
     If you have ever set goals in your life, you know exactly what Jesus is talking about here in this scripture passage.  We might start out with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, but after some days pass, maybe we make it to a few weeks, or who knows, even a few months, it gets a little more difficult to keep that goal a priority in your life.
     Jesus tells us in our scripture reading to not let our hearts get weighed down.
     I was in for some blood work, and the lady who checked me in said, “Oh I see you’re a minister.”  And then she said, “Do you know who are the most sour people who come through these doors?”  “No,” I politely said.
     “The most sour people I meet in here are engineers.  They just aren’t a friendly lot…you know what I mean?  But the 2nd most sour people that I see come through here are… ministers.   They’re almost as negative as the engineers!”
    At least ministers weren’t at the very top of her list. Now, I’m not sure why ministers have come across as sour people in her estimation. Even stand-up comedians probably come across grumpy when they’re getting their blood work done. Giving blood is not the most enjoyable thing to do.
     But I hear what this woman is saying.  Ministers can allow the pressures of ministry to get them down.  They can reach a point where they have lost the joy of being in the pastoral ministry.
     A friend of mine who leads seminars for clergy in several states in the Midwest region told me several years ago, “Until I started leading these church seminars, I had no idea that clergy morale was that low.  I see pastors come into our seminars all the time who are beaten down, discouraged, and ready to give up.  Even with positive seminars like the ones we offer, there are some pastors we just don’t reach.”
    But Jesus isn’t just referring to pastors in our Gospel reading.  He’s thinking about all of us.
     When I was a freshman or sophomore in High School in southeastern Pennsylvania, the pastor of my home church, said in a sermon one Sunday for us to not be ashamed of the good news of Jesus Christ and to be willing to share this good news to the people around us.
     And silly me, I actually took that to heart.  I made a commitment that morning in church that I would not be ashamed of my faith in Jesus Christ outside of church.  And so I made up my mind that I would begin to wear my cross necklace to school, not underneath my shirt but on the outside of my shirt, so people would see that I was a Christian.
     Monday morning came around, and sure enough, I put that cross around my neck and over my shirt.  Some time that morning, a friend of mine asked me why I was wearing that cross.  And after I told him that Jesus was my Lord and Savior, he laughed at me as if I was some kind of crazy person.
     And do you know what I did?  Before the end of school, I took the cross off and put it in my pocket.  I didn’t want anybody making fun of me for being a Christian.
     Jesus says, “Be on guard so that you’re hearts are not weighed down.”
     We can so easily become weighed down by so many things, like fear of what other people might think if we express our faith or like the temptation to just follow the ways of the world around us like consumerism and materialism, especially in these weeks leading up to Christmas.
     We also can allow doubts and uncertainties weigh us down because of all of the brokenness and pain we see in the world. We begin to wonder, “God – do you care about all of this pain and suffering?”
     Have you ever been excited about a ministry, only to become discouraged because of less than desirable results?
     Jesus says, “Be on guard so that you’re hearts are not weighed down.”
     Today’s Gospel reading forces us to think about what keeps us going in our faith when things can get so discouraging at times.  What does it mean to be a “Who Dey” church – a church that just won’t give up?
     In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah announces that God will be faithful and will keep his promises.   He will send us One who will bring God’s long awaited justice and righteousness to the world.  But of course, this promise was made 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. 
     This is what amazes me about the generations of people who waited all those years for God to fulfill his promise.  Imagine telling your grandchildren, “Someday, God’s righteousness and justice will come.  Keep waiting.  Keep hoping.”
     Penny and I were standing in line at a fast food restaurant.  “May I take your order,” the nice lady says behind the counter.  Penny orders first, “Well yeah.  I’ll have that chicken sandwich.  I’d like to have that with the new kind of bread you have.” 
     “Actually, you can’t get that particular sandwich on that kind of bread,” she says.  Penny asks, “Well, what other kinds of bread do you have?”
     It was at that point that the person behind me made a snorting noise, the kind of noise that a bull makes.  I dared not turn around in that moment for fear of what he might say.  But obviously, he was in a hurry.
     After Penny gets the bread thing all sorted out, I place my order.  “I’ll take that sandwich and I’d like lettuce, tomatoes, and let’s see…do you have banana peppers?” 
     It was just then that I distinctly heard a second outburst from this man, but I’m thinking, “Is it against the law to ask if they have banana peppers?”
      So I finish my order and she says, “Is that all?”
     And Penny says, “We also need to place a “to go” order.  Do we need to make that a whole different order or can we pay it all together?”  The lady behind the counter says, “No, we have to do this separately.”
     It was at that point, that I discovered that the guy behind me was a Christian, because he began to shout out Jesus’ name for all to hear.
     This guy stomps out of the restaurant, just fuming.  But let’s face it.  He’s not alone.  We don’t like to wait for too long either. 
     Think of the last time you were put on hold on the phone.  They say that we become really impatient at the 9 minute mark.  Think of the last time you sat in a waiting room.  They say that we lose it at around the 17 minute mark.
     And now think about 500 years! That’s how long the people of Israel had to wait before God’s promises were fulfilled when Christ was born! A “Who Dey” church is a church that trusts in God’s promises and is willing to wait on God for however long it takes. 
     Even when our lives can be so messed up with one disappointment after another, we still manage to come to this place week after week and remind each other that God is faithful and will keep his promises.  We just don’t quit, because deep down, we know that God is faithful.  That’s all there is to it!
     And last but not least, another important feature of being a “Who Dey” church is being a people of prayer.  Jesus tells us to “be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength.”
     Prayer.  Prayer is how we stay alert.  Of all the people I’ve known who have persevered, there’s this common theme – they were all rooted in prayer.  Prayer probably ranks at the very top of the spiritual discipline list.
     Prayer is what we do privately as well as together as the church.  It’s a both/and, not an either/or proposition.  
     I was visiting an elderly homebound member in my previous church. She was one of several fifty plus year members in that church.
     During my visit at her home one day, I noticed something familiar that she had displayed on the front of her refrigerator. It was a laminated card that our church had sent out to all of our members several years earlier.
     It was a prayer that our Leadership Board wanted the congregation to pray every single day. We had encouraged everyone to place this prayer somewhere that they would see if often, like on a refrigerator, which is where this dear saint had decided to place it.
     Since it had been several years, I had forgotten all about that prayer, until that day during my visit in her home. Here’s the prayer:
“Dear God, thank you for our church.  Strengthen us through the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.”
     This woman, realizing that I was focusing on that prayer card on her refrigerator, said to me, “Oh, thank you for sending this card to everyone. I pray this prayer several times a day.”
     She’s had been praying that prayer several times a day for the past several years and here I, the pastor of the church, had almost forgotten about it. My prayer card was probably tucked in the back corner of one of my desk drawers at the church.
     I felt so humbled in that moment to know that I was with a saint who understood perseverance. She understood the importance of prayer. And she loved her church.
     God calls each one of us to have a “Who Dey” faith, a faith that is filled with joy and hope even in seasons of waiting.
     Jesus reminds us as we begin this Season of Advent, to not be discouraged, to not put our crosses in our pockets, but to get them out and let people see them.  And better yet, to let people see the Christ in us.
     So don’t be discouraged.  Stay strong.  Pray for strength.  Stay on your knees. 

     And don’t get back up until you hear an angel speak these words of good news, “To you is born this day, in the city of David a Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord.” 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Pastoral Prayer (November 22) - Athens First UMC

Photo taken of Athens First UMC in October, 2015 by Anna King. The rainbow reminds us of our mission as a church to share God's covenant love with our community and world through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.]

Gracious and loving God, you bless us in so many ways. Thank you for past blessings, but even more importantly, thank you for blessings that are to come.

As we prepare for our Thanksgiving meal this week, I’m especially thankful for our Growing Tree pre-school children who have been focusing on Thanksgiving this past week here in our church. Thank you that they were able to learn how there is room for all of us around the Thanksgiving table. Nobody is left out.

For anyone who feels left out at your table, O God, we pray that they would know that we are a church family that welcomes all to this place. We are all part of your family.

We pray for those who are going through difficult challenges in life; those who are out of work, those who are barely making ends meet, those who are troubled with health concerns, and those who are feeling discouraged and lonely.

We live during an anxious and fearful time, O God, much like when the Psalmist lived and yet he was still able to offer these words of thanksgiving, “When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming. Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.”

In a world of terrorism and injustice, we are feeling anxious about the future. We live in fear and uncertainty.

O God, our Psalm today couldn’t have come at a better time. We need to know that our future includes laughter and joyful shouts. We need to know that our best days are not behind us but ahead of us. We need to know that your love is greater than any act of terror. We need to know that we do not need to become the monster in order to defeat the monster. We just need to never stop painting our happiness and to keep painting the world we need to see…

A world that is filled with your love, a world that is filled with you peace, a world of music and laughter, and a world where there is room for everyone around the table and where no one is left out.

Lead us into that better future even as we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, November 22, 2015