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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Ten New Year's "Covenants" (Or "Resolutions" if You're Not a Christian Nerd)

New Year's Covenant #1 
Avoid eating excessive sugar. See exceptions below...

[Peanut Butter Cups, Cookies, Kit Kats, Sugar in Sugar Bowl, Cakes, Milkshakes, Pies, Strawberry Shortcake, Hershey Anything, Chocolate/Mint Thingies, Caramel Creams]

New Year's Covenant #2
Become a better listener especially after coming home from work.

New Year's Covenant #3
Always remember your main mission in life which is to joyfully live out the good news of Jesus Christ through word and deed so that your family, your church, and your community will know and embrace God’s hope and promises for their daily living.

New Year's Covenant #4 

New Year's Covenant #5
Quit using millennial phrases like "street cred" in your sermons to sound like you are really with it. You are a middle aged mainline denomination pastor. Embrace it!

New Year's Covenant #6
Appreciate the moment but don't use that as an excuse to not plan ahead.

New Year's Covenant #7
Continue to wonder if you are truly a Christian nerd but don't let that stop you from praying and reading scripture at a set time each morning since this seems to have worked well for you over the past several decades.

New Year's Covenant #8
As a pastor, help the congregation to focus on a new ministry that will be sustainable and help people become more fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

New Year's Covenant #9
Do not check the mail when it's a federal holiday.

New Year's Covenant #10
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top 10 Athens First UMC News Stories of 2016

What are the top Athens First UMC news stories from 2016? That's not easy to rank since there have been many, but here is my personal top ten list. It has been a great year of ministry and outreach!


Folk Music Program

This past spring, the music ministry of our church hosted a fun folk music program. It was a groovy and really far-out time as we sang late 60's and early 70's music. We had a lot of families with young children attend along with those of us who grew up before and during the 70's!


Church Talent Night Poem

OK, even most people's top 100 lists would not include this horrendous poem but it's included here because I put a lot of time into writing it (about 15 minutes, but still...it is a tear jerker and it is my blog after-all.)


Kappa Phi Potato Bar with All the Toppings Fundraiser Meals

Kappa Phi hosted several potato bars with all the toppings fundraiser Sunday meals . Since they are known to have the best baked potatoes on this side of the Hocking River, how can they not be included in the top ten somewhere??


Outdoor Prayer Cross

Our Boy Scout troop and our Tuesday prayer ministry team joined together in making this outdoor prayer cross. We mounted it in the ground in front of our church on Scout Sunday which was on February 14. Many students who walk by our church building place prayer cards in the secured box and we lift up these joys and concerns to God every week in prayer.


Sunday 10:30 Worship Moved to Fellowship Hall

Due to our capital improvements which started in early September, our Sunday 10:30 worship service needed to move down to our Fellowship Hall space. Even though it's not technically a sanctuary, we have been blessed to have this secondary space in which to offer our worship to God.


CORE Courses Launch

In September, our church launched six Core Courses which include Christianity 101, United Methodist History & Theology, Personal Finance & Stewardship, Intro to the Bible, Means of Grace, & Spiritual Gifts. Each course last three weeks and are taught by area United Methodist pastors and teachers and are held at various churches.


Small Groups Launch

During the season of Lent, we invited the congregation to participate in one of six new small groups. These groups are designed to be share groups where we share our faith with each other and reflect on the past Sunday's worship theme. These groups continue to meet and are led by trained facilitators.


Athens First Saturday Community Outreach Launch

Our Athens First Saturday community outreach started this past April. Our church gathers in Fellowship hall on the first Saturday morning of each month to be sent out to serve and bless our community. We make blankets to give away to organizations, pick up trash in our community, lead a nursing home worship service, make baked goods to give away, arrange flowers to take to the hospital, write positive sidewalk graffiti in front of our church, as well as many other projects. There is something for all ages to do! 


Tripled Our Giving to Habitat for Humanity!

Our recent Christmas miracle was that we raised $6,218 to give to Habitat for Humanity toward the building of a home for a needy family in 2017. We tripled what we gave to Habitat for Humanity from last year's offering! The picture above is the house that we helped to build last year in nearby Amesville. The 2017 house will be build right next to it.

And coming in as the #1 highlight of 2016 is...

We reached our Capital Campaign Goal!

This past March during worship, we announced the awesome news that we reached our Capital Campaign pledge goal of $696,000 to go toward renovating the sanctuary, adding a front entrance glass atrium, installing an elevator and adding two staff positions for our college and community outreach ministries. Not only did we reach our pledge goal, we had also received $264,175 in cash when we made the announcement to help us begin our building improvements just months later in September. We are now looking at a February completion date of all projects! Praise the Lord!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (Christmas Eve) - Athens First UMC

[We offer two Christmas Eve services. Our first service was a family service that included our puppet ministry team and the use of glowsticks instead of candles. In the picture above, we are singing "Silent Night" as we welcome the coming of Christ into the world. Since Christmas is a season of twelve days, let us continue to shine Christmas light!]

O God, is it really true that tonight is the night that you have come into the world? We had no idea that Mary would deliver her baby so far away from home. This story has caught us off guard. We’re so not prepared. You deserve a better welcoming.

And yet, you chose to come in this way, and at this time, and in this place, to of all people, us! Tonight, can we at least say, “thank you?” Thank you for coming into our world because we have been making a mess of things as of late.

We are a troubled world. We don’t listen to each other. We are divided. We are fearful of what the future holds. We are quick to pass judgment on others, but truth be told, we have to admit that we too, are part of our problems.

Even so, reassure us tonight that there is hope for all of us, no matter what political signs we placed in our front yards. There is hope for the long-term church member just as much as there is hope for the person who isn’t the praying type. There is hope for the believer. There is hope for the non-believer. There is hope for the saint. There is hope for the sinner. There is hope for the middle-aged pastor who tells corny jokes. There is hope for the church member who has to listen to those jokes.

O God, thank you for reassuring us in the most surprising way that there is hope for all of us because we need you, Aleppo needs you, the world needs you. Thank you for the surprise gift of the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ tonight. Thank you for coming into our world just in the nick of time.

Thank you for coming to the Little Town of Athens and thank you for coming to the Little Town of Bethlehem. In the name of the savior of the world, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Sermon (Christmas Eve) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Reclaiming Christmas"

      Over the past several Sundays, we have been focusing on the theme of “Reclaiming Christmas.” This theme might remind you of some other similar sayings we hear around this time of year like, “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
     Some Christians get really bent out of shape with the person working the cash register who tells her customers, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  I really think we need to cut these cashiers some slack because the word “holiday” literally means “holy day” anyway.
     They may think they’re being politically correct, but we know better, right? So let’s just keep this our little secret. By reclaiming Christmas, I don’t mean that we should rebuke cashiers for simply doing what they’ve been trained to do.  
     It also doesn’t mean that we need to get too worried when people write out the short-hand, “X-mas” instead of the full word, “Christmas.”
     Christians have been calling it “X-mas” for the past several centuries. The letter “X” is a symbol of the first letter of the Greek word for “Christ.” So actually, anyone who spells out “Christmas” as “X-mas” is including “Christ” in “Christmas” even if they don’t realize it. Again, let’s just keep this our little secret.
     If the phrase, “reclaiming Christmas” isn’t just about reacting against political correctness, then what does this phrase really mean for us as we gather for this “X-mas Eve service?”
     Christmas is one of those holidays where we can easily lose sight of its true meaning. This is why it’s an tradition in the church to read and hear the nativity story as told by St. Luke.
     “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”  Wait a minute. That’s not it. Here it is.
     “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” And so, this is how the Christmas story begins. It begins with a reminder to file your tax return.
     Now, let’s be clear. This was NOT the Roman Empire’s way of offering a friendly reminder to take advantage of any end of year tax breaks. With Rome, there were no tax extensions, not even for women who were nine months pregnant and who lived a hundred miles from the nearest tax billing office.
     Reclaiming Christmas is to remember that like Mary and Joseph, we are called to live our faith in the real world of tax deadlines, politics, and untimely business trips. It would be nice if our faith could be lived under ideal situations where everything goes as planned. It doesn’t always work that way. In fact, it often doesn’t. What is that famous quote? If you want God to laugh, just tell him your plans.

     As I think back on my pastoral years of ministry, I can think of many times that God has probably laughed at my carefully laid out plans. You know, we pastors have this utopian picture in our minds of how we want things to go for a worship service or an event in the church.
     Here’s just one example among many of when things didn’t go as planned. This happened five and half years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
     It was my first Mother’s Day Sunday in my new church. It was also confirmation Sunday when about twenty 7th graders were being received into church membership that morning. The sanctuary was packed with church members, mothers, our 7th grade confirmands and their families.
     Since this was my first year at that church, I was still trying to impress my new congregation with my outstanding pastoral abilities. I remember working extra hard on the sermon for that special Sunday. For pastors, we need to really hit it out of the park on Mother’s Day, Easter, and Christmas Eve, pretty much in that order.
     I had my Mother’s Day sermon all ready to go.
·     Emotional story about my mother. Check.
·     Encouraging story of faith for our confirmands. Check.
·     Powerful ending to make it memorable. Check.
     It really felt like it was going to be a special day. My new church was going to be so impressed!
     After I confirmed all of those confirmands, it was finally time for me to deliver my carefully crafted sermon. As I started to speak, I remember becoming extremely light headed, and that’s the last thing I remember before I fainted in front of everyone.
     A church member who was in worship that day would later tell me that in a matter of seconds, my face had turned yellow. Some said it was more greenish. Either way, not good.
     As I was being helped out of the sanctuary in the middle of that worship service, I remember one of the 7th grade confirmands who was sitting in the first pew blurt out, “Is he dead?”
     So those were pretty much the highlights from that big Sunday in my new church. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly go as I had planned.
     You know, that’s just the way it is with our faith sometimes. In fact, that’s often the way it is with our faith. We don’t always know the challenges and the adversities that are going to come our way. Sometimes, we wonder if we can handle all that life might throw our way.
     This was the situation Mary and Joseph faced in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. I’m pretty sure that when Mary and Joseph were planning for their baby to be born, that they weren’t thinking about making a very inconvenient one hundred mile trip to pay taxes or having their baby be born in a feed trough because no rooms would be available at the hotel.
     It’s smart to plan ahead and prepare as much as we can, as long as we realize that there will be some detours along the way. Reclaiming Christmas is about trusting in God, especially during those times when things don’t go as expected. God promises to be with us through all of the ups and downs of life.
     There’s a wonderful verse in the bible that says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
     That’s a great verse to memorize as we seek to reclaim Christmas and live out our faith this coming year. “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
      After we blow out our candles and the last verse of “Joy to the World” is sung, know that God promises to go with you and will never leave or forsake you even as we live in the real world.
     Yes, we will face unexpected challenges and adversities in the midst of our carefully laid out plans, but always remember that, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
     To reclaim Christmas means to remember that just like Mary and Joseph, we are called to trust in God especially as we face unforeseen challenges that may come our way, and they will come. That’s life.
     There’s another wonderful thing for us to remember about Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Not only does it remind us that we are called to trust in God as we live out our faith in the real world. It also reminds us that the good news of Christmas offers us great joy and transformation.
     I love the part about the shepherds in the Christmas story. The shepherds were the first people to hear of the good news of Christ’s birth. Here they were, out in the fields doing their job of tending sheep when they encountered something that would change their lives forever.
     Angels appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and announced the good news of Christ’s birth. The angels announced that this was wonderful and joyous news for all people.
     “For all people” is an important phrase to remember because the shepherds were not known to be religious people. They were considered outsiders and yet God chose to first announce the good news of Christ’s birth to them.
     After going to Bethlehem to confirm what they had been told by the angels, Luke tells us that they then returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Reclaiming Christmas means that the good news of Christ’s birth will not leave us the same. It will transform us. It will lead us to praise God.
     There are signs of reclaiming Christmas all around us. I was having a conversation with a pastor of a small little country church that had been struggling to keep its doors open. The pastor is retired, but has been serving this church part-time over the past seven or eight years.
     A couple of years ago, he was getting really discouraged because the church hadn’t baptized anyone or received anyone into membership over the past several years. He began to think that maybe it was time for him to retire once and for all.
     He decided to send a letter to his small congregation  that expressed his feelings that maybe he wasn’t the right pastor for their church. He explained that they weren’t reaching people for Christ and that maybe it was time for a pastoral change even though he enjoyed preaching.
     So I asked him, “So what happened? How did they respond?” With a surprised look in his face he said, “Believe it or not, that one letter has ignited a revival in my little church. Since that letter, I have baptized three adults, a baby, received five new members into the church, and the people are wanting to share their faith with others and they’re starting to reach out.”
     After he shared this with me, he shook his head in disbelief and said, “So much for my retirement plans!”
     Reclaiming Christmas means that we join the shepherds in a revival of transformation that will not only transform our lives but will have a ripple effect on the people around us.
This past August when Christmas was the last thing on my mind because it was in the mid 90s with high humidity, one of our members, Jan Miller-Fox, invited me to visit a newly built Habitat for Humanity house in nearby Amesville. This was a house that our church, along with other area churches helped to build for a family of six. While we were there, the person from Habitat told us that they wanted to build another house next door.
As Jan and I were standing on the site of where they wanted this new house to be built, and with sweat running down our faces in the stifling heat, believe it or not, I started to think about Christmas. I said to Jan,
     “What do you think if we have our church go all out to help make this 2nd house a reality? What if instead of giving $2,000 like we did for this house, we would give three times that amount or even more?!”
     This is what this year’s Christmas is all about. This year, we are reclaiming Christmas because it’s not about us. It’s about Jesus and helping a family in great need to have their own home.
     Like the angels in the Christmas story, I have some good news of great joy to share with you tonight! Friends as of tonight, we have already received $4,500 to go toward this new Habitat for Humanity home.
     Every time we are generous in sharing God’s love with our community and world, we are reclaiming Christmas. And that’s worth celebrating!
    As we leave from this place tonight and go back to the fields to tend our flocks, may the good news of Christ’s birth lead us to glorify and praise God, just like the shepherds did so long ago.

     Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My Most Memorable Christmas Eve Service

Christmas is a special time for many of us. Attending church on a Christmas Eve and holding a lit candle while singing "Silent Night" offers a unique experience like none other.

One year, the Christmas Eve service we had worked so hard on didn't go as we had planned. First of all, the service started ten minutes late because several of the worship leaders hadn't arrived on time. The soloist who was supposed to come on stage near the beginning of the service never appeared. The bulletin listed the name of a former pastor as one of the leaders of the service. The main microphone hadn't been turned on making it difficult to hear what the worship leader was saying. Even the children's Christmas play in the middle of the service had confusing parts and it was difficult to hear the lines.

As we stumbled our way through the service, we finally made it to the end when it was time to light our candles. As the congregation began to sing, "Silent Night" each worshipper raised their lit candle into the darkened sanctuary. In that moment, nothing could rob us of the wonder of that moment. Somehow, we had forgotten about the microphone that didn't work and the bulletin with several mistakes. We were awe struck by the holiness of that moment.

Things didn't go as planned when Jesus was born either; an untimely birth while Mary and Joseph were traveling away from Mary's home, no vacancy signs all over Bethlehem, and a jealous king who felt threatened at the news of a newborn king. But none of those things prevented Mary from pondering and treasuring that holy moment when Christ was born.

After the benediction and as people began to leave the Christmas Eve service, I was surprised to hear several people say what a wonderful service that was. Were they just being nice? No, it was just that like Mary, they allowed the wonder of Christ's birth to overcome all of the other distractions around them.

The Christmas Eve that I thought would be good to forget became the one that I will always cherish and remember. Praise God!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Advent: The Wait is Worth It!

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.

Waiting Story #2

It is said, that all good things are waiting for.
Sometimes, they are worth fighting for,
and sometimes they just surprise you.

The email came on October 11,
my birthday.

It read,
“Happy birthday from an old friend.
I’ll bet I surprised you this morning with a birthday greeting.
There are just some people that I have come to know over the years,
whose birthdays do not escape me.
Perhaps  it’s because I am now living in Pennsylvania,
and perhaps it is simply because I would love to visit with you and catch up
after ALL these years,
if you get a moment, drop me a line.”

After ALL these years…..

That would be 36 years, 3 months, and some change.
The last time I saw her was when I attended her wedding,
the year after graduation from college.

She was one of about ten people
who became very close friends during my undergrad years
at a small college in central PA.

Most of us were music majors,
so we grew out of our adolescence into young adulthood together,
all learning how to live on our own for the first time.

Following graduation, and a parade of weddings that ensued,
I lost touch with all of them.

It was an age without cell phone, internet, and social media.
Most of us relocated and once I moved out of the area,
there was no easy way to find each other.

I emailed her back immediately.
Very soon, we caught up with the 21st century and started texting.
We agreed upon a day in November to meet for lunch.
One very bad cold forced me to cancel that lunch,
and we found a date in early December to meet.

We agreed to meet in the center of a large mall
halfway between our homes.
Upon arrival, I scanned the mall center for a few minutes
and then like a cheesy Hallmark movie,
our eyes met , separated only by Santa’s house and an Orange Julius.

What do you do when you meet a dear friend 36 years down the road?

The first thing you do is laugh and giggle,  A LOT.
Then you hug for a long time while continuing to giggle.

Then, the difficult task began.
Where do start when you need to share 36 years of your life?

We found a place to eat
and enjoyed a four hour lunch.

We talked about college days
all the pranks we pulled,
all the all-nighters studying,
professors who had retired or died,
the friends we had lost touch with.

Then on to our personal lives,
our vocational lives,
our parents who were no longer with us,
our families,
places we had visited,
challenges that we had met,
funny things that had happened to us,
where we were on 9/11,
retirement hopes,
our faith,
things that caused us sorrow,
things that gave us joy,
our hopes for the next years,
politics (only for one minute)
social issues,
our country,
our schools…….

There was more,
but the waiter grew weary of refreshing our drinks,
and our busy lives demanded our return.

But not without the promise of a reunion in the summer.

That is the task of advent…..
waiting for the promised reunion.

We are not guaranteed that we will see the fulfillment of the promise in our earthly lives.
Generations of Jews lived and died with no coming of the Messiah.
Generations of Christians have come and gone with no final coming of Christ.

When whatever you are waiting for, has a fulfillment,
consider yourself blessed.
If your waiting still has unanswered promises,
consider yourself remembered.

God has not forgotten.

This Christmas,
millions around the world now call themselves refugees.
Thousands have died in a genocide not seen since World War II.
A generation that has grown up wrapped in  the internet,
is more content in being spiritual than faithful.

Those with power and money, continue to accumulate,
and those who find themselves as the least, 
remain so.

Except for the internet,
none of the above has changed in 2,000 years.

What should change is our hearts,
Christmas by Christmas,
season by season,
day by day.

The change happens
when our hearts learn to become a Bethlehem stable
that welcomes in the Promised One
rather than remain a Bethlehem inn
that simply has no room for a Savior.

This year as you gaze into the light of your candle,
and sing the verses of Silent Night,
listen, wait for, and expect God to speak,
much like a long lost friend who remembers your birth,
and desires nothing less than 
to know you once again, 
 to love you. 
and to transform your life.

If you get a moment, drop Him a line.
Your wait will be over.

Wishing you and yours, 
the peace, hope, and joy that only Christ can bring.

“And the Word became flesh, and lived among us,
and we beheld His glory,
glory as of the only begotten from the Father,
full of grace and truth.”
                                                        John 1:14