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, June 27, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (June 26) - Athens First UMC

[It was a great day to be at Athens First UMC. We focused on the Book of Psalms and particularly how the psalms of lament can help us when we experience a loss, sin, or feel disoriented in life. We also offered a congregational blessing upon our summer Honduras missions team.]

O God, thank you for giving us psalms and prayers that remind us that it’s OK to cry out to you. Our hearts are still aching over the mass shooting in Orlando a couple of weeks ago. We continue to offer our tears of faith, longing for a time when there will be no more need for guns or terrorist watchlists.

As we lament acts of terrorism, we also lament our own sinful actions and behaviors that keep us from being the people you have called us to be. Forgive us for our hurtful words, our unwillingness to share with those in need, and our failure to be open minded when listening to different points of view.

And be present with us as we lift up to you tears of faith when we are going through times of grief and sorrow. Remind us that you promise to walk with us through every valley of loss in our lives.

And dear God, you know too well that we often times lose our way and become disoriented in knowing who we are and who you have called us to be. During those times, bring us back to you. As our loving shepherd, lead and guide us into the paths you have in mind for us, both individually and as a church family.

Thank you for the Book of Psalms that help us to express so many different prayers to you. Thank you for the many different images they provide of how you are always a faithful loving God. You are like a strong rock, a mighty fortress, a just judge, and a loving shepherd. You are all of these images and more.

In these moments, we especially pray for people who are in special need of you this day. For those in need of physical healing, for those who are moving to a new home, for those looking for a new church, for those who are in need of a friend who is willing to listen, for those who are in need of encouragement, and for our summer mission team as they prepare to go to Honduras to be a blessing to others.

And as we prepare for our First Saturday Outreach, remind us O God, that any act of kindness, small or large that we do this Saturday morning here in our community, is time well spent. May everything that we do this Saturday morning be done in the name of Jesus Christ who taught us to pray saying,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon (June 26) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Tears of Faith"

     Thank God for the Book of Psalms! They have helped me to express my faith through the good times and the bad times.

     I became facebook friends with someone I met a while back.  I didn’t even know if he was a Christian but this is what he wrote about himself on his facebook profile, which relates to our worship theme today. He writes:

     “Reading the Psalms allowed me to grow into my own haphazard prayers and to inch my way before God with all my conflicting thoughts and feelings. If people in the Bible could shake their fists at God while truly believing in the majesty of God, then maybe I can too.”

     For my friend, it was through the Psalms that he was able to reconnect to his faith.  And I think this is true for a lot of people.

     The Psalms are centuries old prayers grounded in Hebrew spirituality.  The Book of Psalms found in the Old Testament is a collection of 150 biblical psalms.  The psalms emerge from a people who are in love with life and want to see good or better days.  Each generation passes these time-tested prayers on to the next.  Passed on but never passed over – such is the prayer book called Psalms.

     The God of the psalmists is the God of Israel, the God of the covenant.  And this God is interested in human troubles, triumphs and trust.  This God initiated the relationship with Israel in the first place by calling Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and move on to a new place.  The same God invited Moses to come right up to the burning bush and learn God’s name.  The psalms celebrate this relationship that we can have with God.

     There are different types of Psalms to help us express whatever emotion or experience we may be facing in any given moment. There are what I would call the “praise psalms” when everything seems to be just right with the world and you want to offer praise to God.

     There are the “thankful psalms” when we are in need of just the right words to express our gratitude for our blessings or for how God helped us through a challenging situation or problem. You might have offered a thankful prayer that day you were speeding, and for whatever reason, the police officer chose not to give you a ticket.

     There are also fancier psalms called, “enthronement psalms” to praise God for a righteous king or to acknowledge that God is the true king over all creation. These psalms remind us that no matter how crazy this world may seem, God continues to be the true King over all creation. This is particularly helpful if you don't care that much for either presidential candidate.

     And then there is another category of psalms that I like to call, “psalms of tears,” also known as “psalms of lament.”

     So what are Psalms of lament?  To lament is to feel, show, or express grief, sorrow, or regret.  In the Jewish tradition in which these Psalms were written, the initial grief process is known as “shiva.”  This is a time of formal mourning when for at least a full week, you don’t go to work or cook or take care of errands around the house or do anything else.  Other people take care of those things for you.  And the reason for this is to provide you the time to face the reality of your loss and not to minimize or deny it.

     If you have experienced the death of a loved one or have been angry about the unfairness of life, psalms of lament can be an emotionally and spiritually healthy spiritual exercise.  As Renee Rust, author of the book, “Making the Psalms Your Prayer” shares, the Psalms of Lament are the bible’s complaint department.

     Some people attend self-help seminars to reduce stress.  Others might turn to drugs or alcohol. Maybe eating a pint of ice cream while watching “Sleepless in Seattle” is how people try to get rid of the stress in their lives.

     There is a more biblical approach to help you reduce the built up stress in your life. The Psalmist’s program for stress reduction is heard through throbbing wails of lament.  And these wails of lament are ultimately directed to God and this is what helps us to know that not all is lost, because no matter how deep the loss may be, God cares about our pain.

Psalms of Lament: Loss

     There are three main areas that Psalms of lament cover.  And the first area is loss.  Now this can be a death, or another type of loss, like the end of a friendship or another type of significant relationship.

     David from the Old Testament is a good example of how this works.  For anyone who has felt betrayed by a friend as David did, maybe his words from Psalm 55 hit home – “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me: that I could bear.  It is not a rival who taunts me, but you, my other self, my companion and my close friend!”

     But here’s the key to these Psalms of lament.  As I mentioned before, Psalms of lament remind us that no matter what life may throw our way, that not all is lost.  Just a few verses later in that same Psalm, David prays, “But for me, I will call on God who will save me.”

                            Psalms of Lament: Sin

     Another main area of Psalms of lament is in the area of our own sins.  And not only our own personal sins but the sins and brokenness of a whole community.  A lot of the Psalmists express this mourning and sadness because they have sinned against God.

      Instead of Psalms of lament, some people might call these penitential psalms.  Psalms of lament aren’t meant to leave us feeling empty and terrible about ourselves, they are meant to help us face the reality of our unfaithfulness so that we can receive God’s forgiveness and redeeming love.

      Psalms of lament related to our sins are meant to help us to admit what we did, take responsibility for what we can change, and receive God’s healing and forgiving love so that we can move forward in life and learn from our mistakes.

      At the Coventry Cathedral in England there is probably the most dramatic symbol of forgiveness. The old cathedral there was destroyed in the blitzkrieg of World War II, in the constant bombings of England. Only a shell of the old cathedral was left.

     The congregation left it, and built the new cathedral right next to it, so that the entrance into the new is through the ruins of the old. You enter new life through forgiving the past. So in the courtyard of Coventry Cathedral, where the altar was in the old church, there is a cross made out of the charred timbers of the roof of the old cathedral. It says these words, "Father, forgive."

     I remember standing there at that site wondering how this congregation was able to choose forgiveness over hatred and revenge.  This charred cathedral is a testimony to the healing power of God’s love and forgiveness.  But it’s only as we first walk through the charred past of our sins, that we are able to enter into the new future that God has in store for us, a future of love and forgiveness.

     In Psalm 130, we hear these words of hope and new life – “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God; God, hear my voice!  Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.  If you, O God, mark our guilt, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness, and for this we revere you.”

     John Newton who wrote the lyrics of the hymn, “Amazing Grace” is quoted as saying, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly.  I am a great sinner.  And Christ is a great Savior.”

     Newton, who before his conversion was a captain of a ship that transported slaves during the 18th century didn’t deny his many sins when he wrote, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

Psalms of Lament: Feeling Lost

     Psalms of lament help us to not only express our sense of loss and sorrow for our sins, but thirdly, they also help us to express whenever we feel lost.  Have you been there?  Maybe you’re there right now, where you feel disoriented and confused about your direction in life.  Psalms of lament can help us to express that feeling of being lost so that we can find our way again.

     Some people have a better sense of direction than others.  Have you ever noticed that?  When one of our kids was in High School marching band, Penny and I went to MapQuest to get directions to go to one of the away football games which was about a 45 minute drive for us.

     The directions worked really well until we got off the highway.  It had us turn onto this one lane road that went straight down a hill into a secluded wooded area.  It started as a paved road but then turned into a dirt road. 

     I thought that maybe it was a back road that would take us to the high school but instead it became a dead end with thick woods preventing us from going any farther.  I felt embarrassed and confused but then in my rearview mirror there were other cars immediately behind us that had been following us to the game.

     One time, I was in Michigan and driving back to Ohio when I ran into a detour.  My GPS recalculated sending me a different route.  But something didn’t seem right. When I clicked on my GPS to bring up a map of where I was located, it had a picture of my car driving through the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Africa. 

     Even with modern day technology, it’s still easy to get lost.  The bible recognizes this and provides us with psalms of lament whenever we feel disoriented and we get lost in our spiritual journey. This sense of feeling lost may be due to a major change that has happened in our lives and we don’t know what direction to go.

     Sometimes life is unfair and it makes us question our faith and the meaning of life.  It’s times like this that some of the Psalmists offer their psalms of lament expressing that feeling of being lost and in need of direction.

     The Psalmist from our Psalm 77 reading this morning is an example of someone who was feeling lost in life.  “I cried aloud to you, O God, I cried, and you heard me.  In the day of my distress I sought you, Lord, and by night I stretched out my hands in prayer.  I lay sweating and nothing would cool me; I refused all comfort.  When I remembered you, I groaned; as I pondered, darkness came over my spirit.  My eyelids would not close; I was troubled and I could not speak.”

     But then listen to the change of tone by the end of this same Psalm.  The Psalmist says, “Your path led through the sea, your way was through mighty waters, and no one marked your footsteps.  You guide your people like a flock of sheep, under the hand of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”

     Because God has guided and directed the people of Israel in the past, God will do the same for this Psalmist and for us as well. 

     These are the main areas of Psalms of lament – when we have experienced a death or a loss, when we have sinned, and whenever we feel lost and in need of direction.

     The psalms of lament provide a wealth of helpful images of God whenever we express our tears of faith.

     These images include God, the merciful forgiver; the just judge; the healer of confusion & uncertainty; the one who answers our pleas; and the one who promises to one day make all things new.

     The Psalms of lament remind us that God created the world to be a place of love, peace, harmony, joy, and justice.  And whenever this world is anything less than this, we know that God shares in our lament.

     Jesus was no stranger to tears of faith. A great example of this is when he wept at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus who had died. But then those same tears of faith led him tell Mary and Martha who were also grieving, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

     And when Jesus hung on the cross, he was lamenting all three areas that we find in the psalms of lament.  He was experiencing a sense of loss as he was offering his very life by dying on the cross.  He was experiencing the pain of sin as he was taking upon himself the sins of the world.  And he was experiencing loneliness and a sense of abandonment as he hung on the hard wood of the cross.

     We are in good company when we cry tears of faith. We are in the company of so many of the psalmists who cried out to God. We are in the company of Jesus whose tears of faith led him to bring salvation to the world through his life, death, and resurrection.

     We are in good company when we cry tears of faith. Sometimes, our tears of faith happen right here in church when we gather for worship.

     During a Sunday morning in January a couple of years ago in my previous church, I preached a sermon that led me to cry like I had never cried before, right there in the pulpit in the middle of my sermon! I was sharing a personal story about my mother. It’s the same story that I shared in a sermon with you when I first arrived here, but I was much more composed the second time around.

     In this sermon at my last church, I shared how my brother, two sisters, and I met at our family farm in Pennsylvania to prepare our mom’s farm to be sold. The story seemed to be a really good personal illustration for the point I was trying to make.

     And so, I was sharing this story about getting our mom’s farm ready to be sold. Everything was going fine as I was sharing that personal family story until around the middle of it, I started to cry.

     In all of my almost 30 years of preaching, there have been times when I have gotten choked up when I shared a personal story, but I had never, ever cried uncontrollably like I did that Sunday morning in the middle of my sermon.

     I mean, it was so bad that I had to take off my glasses, and I almost couldn’t continue to finish the story. At one point, I just had to wait for a about ten seconds to be able to continue. I was a blubbering mess in front of 300 people.

     Here is why I am telling you all this. After I got home from church that morning, it suddenly dawned on me why that story had caught me off guard, leading me to cry uncontrollably.

     I had never allowed myself to grieve from that day when we had all helped mom move out of the farmhouse. That was the house where she was born, grew up, and raised all of us. Looking back, the four of us didn’t have time to grieve that week when we were together because we had to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time.

     Two months later, though, the emotions of that personal experience had finally caught up with me when I attempted to tell that story in a sermon.

     Psalms of lament remind us that it’s ok to cry out to God. We all experience loss in our lives. We all experience the pain of our own brokenness and sin. We all long for a better world. We all sometimes lose our way in life.

     What do we do? We cry out. We cry out, not because there is no hope. We cry tears of faith, because no matter how heavy our hearts may be, we know this one thing, and it makes all the difference in the world. And the Psalms are here to never let us forget. Through times of both joy and sorrow, the Psalms remind us…

     God is faithful.

Tears of Faith
Small Group Questions
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
June 26, 2016

There are basically four different types of Psalms. These include:
  • Praise Psalms
  • Thankful Psalms
  • Enthronement Psalms
  • Psalms of Lament
The Psalm for this past Sunday is considered a Psalm of Lament. Read Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 as a group.

In his sermon, Pastor Robert shared a personal story of grief and loss and how it's important to allow ourselves to cry so that we can receive comfort from God. How do tears help you to experience God's healing presence when you go through a time of loss?

Our church offers trained Stephen Ministers who are available for one to one peer support when we are going through a difficult transition/loss in our lives. Our Stephen Leaders are Rick Seiter and Sharon Stoltzfus.

In addition to our Stephen Ministers, in what ways can we help people to experience God's comforting presence during times of loss?

Share how you have experienced God's comforting presence when you went through a loss or difficult time in your life.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Blue Bird Still Sings Every Father's Day

My wife, Penny wrote this beautiful poem about my dad just a day or two before his funeral back in 1989. It was read at the funeral service and it was later framed. In just a short amount of time, Penny was able to put into words who this great man was. We will always be grateful for this gift, especially every Fathers' Day. Whenever I see a bluebird, I remember dad and give thanks for this poem.

In Loving Memory of Norman McDowell
November 7, 1928 to June 1, 1989

A quiet man to us God sent
Not ours to keep, but only lent.
He loved the sport, he loved the earth
He loved us all and gave us worth.

She loved the man, she loved his life,
Hand in hand she become his wife.
He was her love, he was her friend,
She loves him now even more than then.

In mountains grand he was at home;
The woods and glades he loved to roam.
His favorite bird is blue and free.
He loved to hear them sing from the trees.

His first has strength just as he had;
The next his joy; she's always glad.
His first-born son is calm and warm.
The last is one in his own form.

A quiet man to us God sent
Not ours to keep,but only lent.
He loved the sport, he loved the earth
He loved us all and gave us worth.

- Penny McDowell, 1989

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (June 12) - Athens First UMC

[Emily helps at our Honduras mission trip pancake fundraiser at church this morning. I ordered mine, medium rare. This mission team will be be leaving for their trip on July 9.]

Yes, O God, make us servants so that we can make a new headline that reads that the hungry are being fed, the brokenhearted comforted, the homeless finding shelter, and injustice being overcome by your righteousness. Make us servants so that we can be the change that you want to see in our broken and hurting world.

Thank you for pancake fundraisers, for our First Saturday Community Outreach, for food pantries, for outdoor prayer crosses, for nursing home worship services, and for Sunday morning offerings that all help to make this world a better place. Help our church to be a place of hope in this community where there is so much need.

We are grateful to be part of a connectional church where our West Ohio Conference was able to contribute 3.6 million dollars to help stop the preventable disease of malaria, where we have been able to start new churches and revitalize existing ones, where we are able to deploy missionaries all around the world, and where we can do far more good together than we would ever be able to do alone. Thank you for being part of your connectional church, O God.

We continue to pray for families who have recently lost loved ones, for those who are feeling lonely or discouraged, for those who can barely make ends meet, and for those who are just in need of a friend. Help us to be that church where lives are transformed and where we are making a difference in our community and world.

We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ whose life, death, and resurrection makes all the difference in the world, and it is in his name that we pray together in unison the prayer that he taught us…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”