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, November 30, 2016

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Sometimes You Need to Be "That Guy"

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.

Nobody wants to be THAT guy.
But what if THE guy tells you to be THAT guy?

The storm was quickly rolling in.
It was the type of storm that ushered us from fall to winter.
In a matter of 90 minutes,
the temperature would drop 30 degrees,
the winds would gust up to 35 miles per hour,
and the rain would come in waves.

Any remaining leaves on trees would be swept away
and the residue warmth of autumn transformed into winter chill.

I spent the first half of the afternoon outside in T-shirt and shorts,
battening down anything that could blow away.

Just as I was ready to go inside for the day,
I heard my dog barking.
He was focused towards the base of my driveway.

I looked down to the road and saw a gentleman with backpack,
walking roadside.

My first emotion was pity.
But pity was not what was needed.

I can’t say that I physically heard the voice of God,
but I heard His instruction imprinted on my spirit….

Help him.”

I am no different than anyone else.
I have reservations about reaching out to strangers.
The “what ifs” swarmed through my mind,
but the voice was speaking calmly to my spirit.

Help him!”

I jumped into my car, 
along with my dog who had heralded the need.

I pulled up alongside the sojourner, rolled down the window and said,
Sir, I saw you walking along the road. Can I help you?”

The winds were picking up and dark ominous clouds were quickly erasing the warm sunshine of the day.

“I’m okay,” he said.

I asked him his destination and told him that he was traveling in the wrong direction.
He was a young man, likely early thirties,
and he was about to be punished by nature in a matter of minutes.

I explained to him the severity of the impending storm
and invited him to get inside the car.

He was intending to walk to his father’s home,
which by his description, was a 25 minute trip by auto.

I asked him, “Would you let me take you there,
I’d be glad to do it.”

Perhaps he trusted me 
as I was quickly trusting him,
or perhaps the sudden gust of cold wind reasoned with him.

I had 25 minutes to learn his story.

His name was Tim.
He had been on his own for 2 ½  years,
2 ½ years since he had seen his father.
2 ½ years since he walked away from his auto mechanic job,
and from a family that had been ripped apart by divorce and drugs.

When given the choice,
he decided that being on his own was better.
And so, he had traveled the country,
much of it by hopping on rail cars.

After the divorce, Tim’s  father had moved to the region.
Tim would call him occasionally,
the last call was a request to come and see his father
before he moved on again.

For the past week, Tim had been living without his tent and sleeping bag
having left it on a railcar as it moved away.

I gasped.
I had just put a sleeping bag in the back seat of my car
the previous day.
I told him it was now his.

The rain started to hit the windshield
as he turned and asked me,
Why are you helping me?”

I told him the truth as I knew it,
God told me to help you,
because you matter to God.”

He was silent for a while. 
I have learned to respect silence,
as it is often the best preacher.

He explained to me that his dad would not be off work for a couple of hours,
and that he planned to meet him at a local restaurant.

I knew the location of the restaurant.
When we arrived, I said,
I haven’t eaten all afternoon,
I would enjoy eating some dinner with you while you wait.”

People who are without home and meal
often don’t like to let you know how hungry they are.
But because I was also hungry,
we enjoyed a good meal and good conversation.

Tim also had another hunger.
It is the same hunger that we all have…….
to know that we all matter to Jesus and to others.

As he was drinking a cup of post dinner coffee,
Tim’s eyes widened.
I knew that behind me stood his father.

The hug was long and genuine.
I wished them well, left them to their reunion,
and returned to my car and my dog, the herald angel of the day.

On the trip home the rain changed to snowflakes,
and I could only pray that Tim’s life would change for the better.

There is nothing that I did that day that I take pride in.
All I did was be THAT guy,
the guy that God used to speak to another one of his children.

Most of us don’t wish to be THAT guy or gal.
Joseph wasn’t exactly thrilled with the news that Mary was with child.
Scriptures tell us that Mary’s first response was to be troubled.
The shepherds first response to the angelic host was to be terrified.

But God had the same message for each of them………..
“Be not afraid.”

I know many people who live in fear.
Fear of strangers, fear of tomorrow,
fear of death,  fear of the unknown,
fear of being asked to be THAT guy.

As far as the human condition goes,
the world really isn’t much different than it was 2,000 years ago.

Bad things still happen to good people,
violence still raises its ugly voice,
and life, for many, is still a difficult odyssey.

What also remains the same is that God promises His peace.

That peace is not promised to all,
just to those with whom God is pleased,
just to those who are of good will,
just to those whose hearts are reconciled to God,
just to those whose lives express the will of God to others,
just to those who are THAT guy.

This advent take time to ponder……
are you THAT guy?

If not,
God has at least three words for you,
Be not afraid”

Maybe six words,
Be not afraid to be THAT guy”

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased
                        Luke 2:14

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (November 27) - Athens First UMC

[Our congregaiton experienced an early Christmas miracle Sunday morning when one of the two altar candles burst into full flame during the 10:30 service. See picture above. Evidently, when this candle was lighted at the beginning of the service, it became just a flicker due to a lot of wax build up. During the sermon, "Shine Christmas Light" (click here) the flame suddenly awoke and ended up shining brightly the rest of the service! What a great reminder that we are to be like that candle and shine our light especially during those times that we feel like we are just a flicker. Join us next Sunday as our focus will be on, "Offer Christmas Love!"]

O God, as our opening prayer has reminded us on this 1st Sunday of Advent, we are on our tiptoes in great anticipation of what you are about to do in and through us as we reclaim the true meaning of Christmas this year. Help us to be a church of Great Expectations rather than a church of small hopes and dreams.

May our Reclaim Christmas wish lists come true as we shine your light wherever there is darkness and despair. Thank you in advance for all the good that our church will do to be a blessing in our community and world this year. Thank you for our upcoming Athens First Saturday community outreach and our hot chocolate give away. We pray that these random acts of kindness will shine Christmas light brightly here in our community.

On this Sunday when we think about those who are facing some darkness in their lives, we pray for those who are struggling to make ends meet. During the holidays, we especially pray for those who are recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. O God, thank you that our church hosts several AA groups especially during this time of year.

We also lift up to you those who are facing difficult medical decisions or who may be recovering from recent surgeries. Bless them as they continue on the road to recovery. 

In these early weeks following the election, we continue to pray for our president, our president elect, and all of our elected officials at the local, state, and national levels that we would be a country that pursues liberty and justice for all regardless of class, creed, race, political party, gender, or sexual orientation. O God, raise up leaders in our country who will speak a word of assurance and hope especially to those who feel marginalized, who are the victims of hateful speech, and who feel like their voices are not being heard.  

O God, just as you used Isaiah to shine your light to the people of Israel who were living during a time of darkness, use us to shine your light to brighten someone’s day. Use us to shine your light and help provide a home for a needy family in Amesville. Use us to shine your light as we seek to bless our college students as they get ready for their final exams. Use us to shine your light as we care for our Growing Tree pre-school children who meet here each week. Use us to shine your light and offer a word of hope to those who come to Monday Lunch.

Use us to shine your light even as you teach us to pray together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sermon (November 27) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Shine Christmas Light!"

     A couple of years ago, Pew Research conducted a poll of a random selection of people in our country regarding their thoughts about Christmas. The encouraging news is that 92% of those who were sampled say that they celebrate Christmas. The discouraging news is that only half of those said that they view Christmas as a religious holiday.
     Here are some other results from the survey. Attending Christmas Eve services is on the decline. It has gone from 69% to just 54%. This next statistic doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with my main message for today but I did find this other survey response interesting. Sending Christmas cards through the mail is also on the decline from 81% to now just 65% of us.
     So just think about this. While the religious meaning of the Christmas holiday is gradually falling by the wayside, listen to how people responded to this other survey question. And again, this is from just a few years ago.
     They asked people, “What do you like least about Christmas?” The top three responses were commercialism, all the extra shopping, and trying to get through all of the crowded stores.
     I don’t know about you, but I find these Pew Research survey responses a bit contradictory. On one hand, we are seeing Christmas as less of a religious holiday and more of a secular holiday. But on the other hand, we are reacting more and more negatively toward the non-religious practices of the holiday such as commercialism.
     The commercialism side of Christmas has really gotten out of hand for both the religious and the non-religious. That’s why I believe our scripture readings for this morning offer us a much better way of preparing for Christmas.
     Writing hundred of years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah, speaking to a very tired and weary people wanted them to know that something incredibly wonderful would happen to them. God was about to turn their darkness into light. The people would be able to experience joy and hope.
      God will send a child who will be born unto them. All authority will rest upon his shoulders and he will be known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This child will continue the throne of David and he will uphold it with justice and righteousness.
     It is no coincidence that when Jesus began his public ministry hundreds of years after these words were first spoken, that he said that he came to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
     Helping people who are struggling to find hope and freedom from despair is at the heart of the Christmas story.   But somehow, we as a culture have lost sight of the true meaning of this season. Instead of it being about Jesus’ presence, we have made it about getting presents under the tree.
     That’s why this Season of Advent and preparation is so important for us during these weeks leading up to Christmas. This is a time for us to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas.
     The way we reclaim Christmas is the really fun part in all of this. We reclaim Christmas by allowing God to use us to make a difference in the world. God didn’t send us Jesus so that we can sit back and sing Christmas carols. God sent us Jesus so that we would become his followers and live out his mission of bringing transformation to our community and world in very real and practical ways.
    The story of God becoming human in the person of Jesus is the miracle of all miracles. But what’s even greater than that is in how God continues to work through ordinary people like you and me to make a difference in the lives of others.
     The question is if we are willing to sacrifice some of our own comfort for the good of others. That’s what is involved in having great expectations this Christmas.
     Everything about our culture tells us that Christmas is about us. Maybe this is a year when we can reclaim these words of Isaiah and offer good news to people who are walking in the darkness of unemployment, the darkness of poverty, the darkness of loneliness or some other kind of darkness. Christmas is about how God’s light can remove the darkness in people’s lives.
     I enjoyed reading Pope Francis’s ten-point outline plan for happiness. It was released a couple of years ago to celebrate his first five hundred days in office. Coming in at number two on his list of being happy is to give yourself to others.
     Pope Francis is constantly reminding people that charity shouldn’t stop at giving money to help others. Charity should also include giving one’s time to someone who needs it. He says that if we think of only ourselves, we run the risk of living stagnant lives.
     Who are the people who are waiting to see a great light? Is God calling you to share Christmas light to someone in need? These are important questions for us during these weeks of Advent if we want to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas.
     In one of the churches I served during the time leading up to Christmas, we helped a man who was in his 50s.  If anything can help us keep shine Christmas light a little brighter this year, it would be this man’s letter. Here’s what he wrote and these are totally his words:
     “I receive disability and both kids live with me right now.  Me and my wife separated a year ago and in February, we learned that our son who was 5 at the time was being sexually abused by a cousin.
     My wife had a mental breakdown and had to stay in a hospital for a while and we both agreed that it would be best for the kids to live with me but while my wife was in and out of the hospitals, me and the kids were homeless and we stayed in a shelter for a couple of months and recently received help to get me and my kids into an apartment.
     From April to July, me and the kids have lived in a tent, took baths in creek water, cook food over an open fire. Community Action helped us get into an apartment.
     In September, I had a heart attack and found out I have a big blood clot in my heart.  They say I have not got much time so I hope that this Christmas will be a good one for me and the kids. The kids and I don’t have much but at least we have a home thanks to people who have helped us.”
     I called this dad to let him know that I received his letter and that our church was glad to help them for Christmas. I offered him words of support and shared in a prayer with him, reminding him that God was with him and that God loved him.
     After I hung up the phone, I remember thinking that Christmas never felt more real to me than it did in that moment. And I know it had something to do with our church shining a little Christmas light for this family.
     I have learned over the years that shining God’s light doesn’t have to be all that complicated. It’s just a matter of being open to those nudges and seeing what God will do in and through us.
     If you received a Sunday bulletin this morning, I left a space after the order of worship where you can list three or four items for your Christmas wish list this year. Next to each Christmas wish, you might want to write down at least one specific way that you can be part of making that wish come true in somebody’s life.

      It might include volunteering to hand out hot chocolate to students who will be walking by our church building during finals week. Remember, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It might be doing a simple thing like offering your time and just being there for someone in the midst of their darkness.     

     Sometime before leaving church today or even by the end of this week, share your list with at least one other person or with the members of your small group. Invite them to share their wish list with you and offer encouragement.

     I also want you to know about our church-wide Christmas wish list. For Christmas this year, our church has great expectations to financially support our Christmas missions offering which will be used to help build a home for a needy family through Habitat for Humanity. Next Sunday, a representative from the Athens County Habitat for Humanity will be sharing with us about this house that we are going to help build. By giving to our Christmas offering, we are going to be able to keep shining Christmas light throughout the year.
     Our expectations are related to our views on the true meaning of Christmas. Is Christmas about us or is it really about what God can accomplish in and through us? Is Christmas really just about going shopping or is it about bringing God’s light to where there is darkness? What sacrifices will we need to make so that the good news of Christmas will help others experience transformation in their lives?
     This past summer, Penny and I bought lights for our deck. We strung them around the boards that surround our deck. It looked beautiful when we had them on during the evening hours.
     We hosted an evening event at our house and we were looking forward to showing off our deck lights to everyone. When we plugged in those lights for that special occasion, there was this big popping sound. The string of lights were now broken. We were so disappointed! We wanted our company to enjoy those lights around our deck.
     The next day, we talked about replacing those string of lights. We decided to not get the same kind of lights that went out. Penny said, “We should just get a string of Christmas lights like you wrap around the tree. Those lights are what we probably need.”
     She was right. Our new Christmas lights that now wrap around our deck have worked a lot better than the other kind of lights. We are literally shining the light of Christmas out on our deck.
     On this first Sunday of Advent, we are reminded to shine Christmas light by serving others and to make their Christmas a lot brighter. This is the true meaning of Christmas, not the shallow understanding of Christmas that is so much part of our culture.
     Christmas is about great expectations. It’s about a prophet who announces to a disheartened people that God will send a child who will be known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
     This year, let’s reclaim Christmas. May this season be a time where we allow God to use us to bring light to those who are in darkness. Let’s shine the light of Christmas and make a difference in people’s lives.
     You know, sometimes I wonder what is the most important part of the worship service. Is it the singing of our favorite hymns? Is it the great music? Is it the above average sermons?
     No. All of those things are important. Don’t get me wrong.
     The best part of the worship service is at the very end when the acolyte carries the light of Christ out of the room. That is such a powerful reminder to each one of us that whenever we leave this place, we too are called to shine the light of Christmas wherever we go.
     Church, for Christmas this year, let’s shine our light!

Shine Christmas Light!
Small Group Questions
Isaiah 9:2-7
November 27, 2016

A Pew Research poll that was conducted in 2013 indicates that only half of Americans view Christmas as a religious holiday. Attending Christmas Eve worship is on the decline. Fewer people are sending out Christmas cards. The poll also found that most Americans do not like the commercialism of Christmas.

Why do you think people are viewing Christmas more as a secular rather than a religious holiday? 

During the season of Advent, our church is seeking to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas. To reclaim Christmas is to put the focus on Christ's birth rather than upon on ourselves. One of the ways we can reclaim Christmas is to develop a "Reclaim Christmas Wish List" that includes doing things during these weeks leading up to Christmas that will be a blessing to others.

Below, list items that you want to do this year in order to "Reclaim Christmas" and be a blessing to others.

1. ______________________________________________
2. ______________________________________________
3. ______________________________________________

One of the ways that we can reclaim Christmas this year and shine Christmas light for others is to offer a gift toward our missions offering which will be used to build an Athens County Habitat for Humanity home for a needy family. Take a moment as a group to pray for a generous response from our congregation as we offer our gifts toward this year's missions offering.

Share a time where you experienced someone reclaim the true meaning of Christmas by blessing others.