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, February 27, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Feb. 26) Athens First UMC

[Our youth presented a skit during worship that encouraged people to sign up for our Saturday, March 11, 8:30 am to 11:30 am church-wide hospitality training at the OU Inn. The first scene in the skit shows a church NOT doing a very good job of welcoming new people on Sunday morning. In the photo above, the person in the back chair is the guest and the youth who is standing is pretending to be a church member telling the new person to move because that is HER seat. The last scene shows how our church welcomes new people by warmly greeting them, handing them a bulletin, and helping them to find a place to sit.]

O God, truth be told, whenever get a glimpse of your presence we feel a little out of our element because of the overwhelming radiance of your glory.

We are taken aback when we see a breathtaking sunset from the back porch of our house. Our hands shake when we receive the bread and the juice for Holy Communion and think about what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross. Our heart beats a little faster as we hold a newborn baby and think about the miracle of birth. We have to catch our breath when some extra funds appear just when we needed it the most.

Yes, O God, your presence here in worship and in our everyday lives can sometimes leave us feeling a little out of our element. Even when these holy “thin place” moments may take us a little off guard at times, remind us that they are always meant to draw us into a closer relationship with you.

O God, whenever we celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus, we are also mindful that the beginning of Lent is only a few days away. As we prepare for our Ash Wednesday services and the season of Lent, may this be a time where we gain a greater appreciation for what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross. Thank you for this incredible opportunity we will have to deepen our faith as we focus on the meaning of the cross during Sunday worship, in our private devotions, and in our small groups.

We also offer prayers for people in our congregation this morning who are ill, facing medical tests and treatments, or who are struggling with some other challenge or problem. Bless them as they draw strength from you. Remind them that they are not alone and that with you, all things are possible.

And dear God, thank you for the early taste of spring that we are not used to having here in Ohio. Some of us were able to go for a walk, leave our coats at home, and open up some windows. More of this kind of weather would be greatly appreciated.

Regardless of the weather outside, we just want you to know that we are thankful for the many ways you shine the presence of Christ in our everyday lives. Thank you for these holy moments.

And now, as your grateful people, we join together in saying the Lord’s Prayer… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon (February 26/Transfiguration Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Out of Our Element"

    Have you ever felt like you were out of your element in a big way?
     Many of you might not know this piece of personal trivia but I used to take organ lessons when I was in elementary school.
     Do you remember those days when it seemed like every shopping mall had an organ store?  Well, every Friday, my parents would drive about twenty minutes to the York Mall, in York, Pennsylvania to make an organist out of me.
     Pat was the name of my organ teacher.  I remember her having really dark hair and had the patience of an angel.  She would ask me about my day, about school, and how things were going.  I liked Pat a lot.
    She had me practice and practice a particular piece of music that I was to perform for an upcoming organ recital.
     The name of the piece?  None other of course, then the classical piece from the folk genre entitled, “Go tell Aunt Nancy, the Old Gray Goose is Dead.”
     You see, my organ teacher could tell talent when she saw it, and that’s why I was playing songs like “Go tell Aunt Nancy” so quickly in my organ playing career.
     The lyrics of this beloved piece of music begins with:  “Go tell Aunt Nancy, go tell Aunt Nancy.  Go tell Aunt Nancy, the old gray goose is dead.”
     I’ve contemplated long and hard about those lyrics, but they continue to be a mystery to me.
     Penny tells me that she learned this song a bit differently.  Instead of Aunt Nancy, it was Aunt Rhody.  But she’s from northern Pennsylvania and they taught it the wrong way.
     So anyway, I practiced and practiced this classical piece for hours and hours, and Pat patiently helped me week after week to get the notes just right.  I mean, after all, this song had two sharps.  I don’t remember what sharps are, but I remember them being quite a challenge to play.
     Well…it was now time for the organ recital.  Pat was just one of several organ teachers at this organ store so it kind of surprised me as the organ recital was about to begin, that there were all of these other students packed into this little organ store, and most of them were a lot older than I was.
     We were all waiting until our names would be called to play our musical pieces for what seemed to be about a hundred people who were seated out in front of the store in this shopping Mall.  It was a Sunday afternoon and they had reserved this large seating area for this recital.
     I was somewhere in the middle of the program, nervous as anything, when I heard my name called.  “Robert McDowell will now play ‘Go Tell Aunt Nancy.’”
     I walk from inside the organ store to the just outside of the store and proudly jump up on the organ bench placing my “Go Tell Aunt Nancy” sheet music on the sheet music stand.  I look intently at the score and collect my thoughts.
     It was a very good thing that I collected my thoughts, because, I noticed that my feet were dangling in mid air.  My toes could not reach the organ pedals.  And then I notice that this organ had a whole lot more keys than what I had been using for my Friday night lessons.  And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out which of the three manuals to play. 
     And so there I sat…just kind of helpless and not knowing what to do.
     And after a few awkward moments, I feel these hands reach underneath my armpits.  And my organ teacher, Pat lifts me from the giant size organ, and carries me over to the little organ.  And honestly, I can’t remember much after that.  It’s all a blurr to me now.
     All I know was that I was out of my element that day, because later in that recital, I heard the bigger kids playing more advanced pieces of music.  And that’s when I realized that there was a whole lot more to organ music than Aunt Nancy and a dead goose.
     What do you do when you are put in a situation where you are out of your element?
     That’s why I feel for the disciples of Jesus in our scripture reading this morning.  Those poor guys!  They probably figured that something extraordinary was about to happen when Jesus singled them out from the other followers to follow him up a high mountain.
     “What’s Jesus going to do?  Where are you taking us?  Will we be back by lunch? Hey this climb is pretty steep!  Slow down Jesus.  We can’t keep up.”
     And just like that, Mark tells us that Jesus was transfigured right there in front of the three of them.
     Transfigured.  I’ve often tried to get a mental picture of what this probably looked like for the disciples.  Mark tells us that just like that, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white.  Dazzling.  The Greek word is “stilbo” which can be translated as dazzling, radiant, shining.
     And if that wasn’t enough, Elijah and Moses, these ancient figures and heroes of the faith from many centuries ago, appear out of nowhere and they are talking to Jesus.
     What are the disciples to make of this strange and glorious scene?
     Mark tells us that the disciples were scared out of their wits.  I can understand why.  This is a life shaping event and it just kind of happened.  No advance warning.  No hints or clues that this was going to happen.  It just happened.  To them.
     Peter, not knowing what to say that would make any sense, offers to assemble some sort of dwelling places for each of these individuals, a request which goes unheeded by Jesus.
     I really feel for Peter in this situation.  It was kind of like his feet were dangling on the bench of a three manual organ, not knowing how to play the music that was given to him.  He was out of his element.
     Can you imagine the disciples trying to describe what happened up there on that mountain?  “Well, it’s like this.  We were hiking up the mountain, when we stopped for a rest.  And all of the sudden, there was this ‘white-out.’  We looked around to see if everyone was OK.  But when we looked for Jesus, that’s when we realized that he was the one causing the white-out.”
     If you were one of the disciples, would you even dare to mention to your friends that you also saw Moses and Elijah?  How would you ever explain that?
     And what about the voice we heard from the cloud?  Don’t even go there.  Try explaining that to someone.
     Don’t you feel a bit awkward and out of your element when you encounter those moments when God is so unmistakably present?  I know I do.
     Our small groups are always focused on asking ourselves the question, “Where have you experienced the presence of Christ this past week?” It’s an important question because God is present in our everyday lives. We just need to be open to these holy moments.
     We have a name for these holy moments. We call them, “Thin Place” moments because there is a thin place between heaven which is God’s space, and our space where we live out our lives. These thin place moments happen all of the time.
     Most of the time, these thin place moments do not appear to be overly dramatic or life changing events, but if we take the time to notice them, they do make us stop and say, “Christ was so present in that moment.”
     One of my “closest to Christ” moments occurred when I was driving back from Ohio Wesleyan University after dropping off our daughter.  I was feeling a little down and a little tired as I began my journey home.  From Rt. 42, I got on to 70 West to make the long journey home. We lived in the Dayton area at the time.
     As I continued to go a few miles west on 70, that’s when I had a one of those “thin place” moments.  Maybe you have seen this billboard, but as you go west on 70 toward Dayton, you see a large billboard that says, “Jesus Is Real.” Maybe it’s not there anymore. I don’t know.
     I had seen that billboard many, many times before that day, but this time, it became something more for me, because one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen for quite some time, was shining from behind it.  It was so beautiful.  It was like God was saying, “If the awesome sunset behind this sign doesn’t get your attention, maybe this will, Robert.  Jesus is real!”
     God works in mysterious ways. There are transfiguration stories like this all around us. And like the disciples, we are reminded that heaven is a lot closer than we may think.
     I wonder how many of these transfiguration moments I miss. And yet, when I do have the eyes of faith, these ordinary events all of the sudden become dazzling spectacles of God’s presence.
     Several years ago, around this time of year, a pastor called me to see if I would be open to the possibility of working on staff with him at a large United Methodist Church in northwest, Ohio.  He invited me to pray about it and give it some thought.
     A few days later, I called him back and told him that Penny and I wanted to learn more about this new ministry opportunity and so he invited us to come up, see the church, and have lunch with him.
     On the day that Penny and I were to leave to visit this pastor and his church, we prayed together that morning, asking God to show us a sign of what we should do.  Even our devotional reading that morning talked about being open to God’s presence and that God would help us in making the right decision.
     We had a two hour drive ahead of us.  It was a strange kind of day weather-wise.  Somewhat sunny, chilly, but then to the west were these very dark ominous clouds.
     We were about another 30 minutes away from our destination, when Penny and I noticed this large rainbow up ahead of us.  It was in the direction of the church we were going to visit, this wonderful, dazzling rainbow contrasted by the dark gray clouds.       
     This dazzling display of God’s presence took us both by surprise. 
     It was like the heavens were telling this young and naïve couple, “Jesus is real.” Friends, these transfiguration moments happen all of the time.

     Four years ago, while I was attending our West Ohio Annual Conference up at Lakeside, along Lake Erie, I was able to spend the day with a friend of mine who was a retired United Methodist pastor. I served as his associate pastor several years ago and he had been a spiritual mentor for me over these many years. He died a couple of years ago and I still miss him greatly.
     It was the first time in five years that he was able to attend Annual Conference due to his failing health. A friend in his church drove him up from Columbus just for the day. His Leukemia had been taking a toll on him and he now was walking with a cane.
     I told him that I would buy him an ice cream cone and take him to the pier of the lake since it was a beautiful day that day. He walked very slowly, but we finally made it to the pier and we sat on a bench overlooking Lake Erie and taking in the sunshine and the slight cool breeze.
     As we were reminiscing and catching up with each other, a friend of mine who serves a church in the Dayton area walked by us. I invited Brian to join us and introduced him to my friend.
     Brian asked my friend how long he had been a member of the West Ohio Conference. And my friend said, “It’s interesting you should ask me that question because this year is my 60th anniversary of being a member of this conference.”
     He then asked him how he came to our conference since my friend had shared with him that he had been raised in Philadelphia.  And my friend told him that while he was at Union Seminary in New York, a clergy representative from the West Ohio Conference had traveled to his seminary in New York to recruit students to come and serve in West Ohio.
     And when he shared the name of the pastor who recruited him from West Ohio, my friend, Brian said, “That was my grandfather.” My friend went on to tell Brian what a great person his grandfather was and that if it wasn’t for him, he wouldn’t have come to this conference.
     As I listened to this conversation, I realized that this was one of those transfiguration “thin place” moments. This was a sacramental and holy time for all three of us; for my friend because he got to meet the grandson of a dear friend of his; for Brian because he got to hear what a wonderful man his grandfather was; and for me, because my time with my friend that day couldn’t have been scripted any better.
     Like the disciple Peter, we don’t always know what to do when we experience these holy moments as we go through our day to day living. These dazzling displays of God’s presence will often times leave us speechless.
     So if you ever feel a little out of your element because of these transfiguration like moments, and you kind of feel like your feet are dangling in mid-air, don’t be surprised if you feel someone lifting you up, and a voice offering these reassuring words to you, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

     Happy Transfiguration Sunday!

Out of Our Element
Small Group Questions
Mark 9:2-9
February 26, 2017

Pastor Robert shared about his "out of his element" experience when he shared his organ recital story as a child. These moments in life can be a little embarrassing and humbling.

Share a time when you had a similar experience where you were put in a situation where you felt "out of your element." How did you feel in that moment? Scared? Worried? Confused?

The Transfiguration story is when Jesus was on the mountain with his closest disciples and all of the sudden his clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appeared beside him, two famous Old Testament figures who had lived several centuries before the time of Christ. The disciples felt out of their element in that moment.

Share a time when you experienced God's presence in a mysterious way. What was that experience like?

Our small groups are designed to be times where we share with each other about the "transfiguration" moments of God's presence in our everyday lives. Some of these moments are more dramatic than others, but clearly, God's presence is made known to us during these times.

Share with each other how your small group helps you to notice these "transfiguration" moments in your life. Also share how these moments can be a blessing to everyone in your group.

The season of Lent begins next week. Our church is encouraging people who are not in a small group to consider joining one of our existing small groups or form new ones. 

How might your small group help people in our congregation consider joining your group during the seasons of Lent? Pray as a group that people will sign up to be in a small group. The focus of our small groups during the six weeks of Lent will be on the topic, "Crosses of Jesus." Also, consider attending our Ash Wednesday service which will be at noon and 7 pm this Wednesday.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dave's Deep Thoughts - When You're In the No Fly Zone

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.

It has been said “If everyone would start the day off singing,
just think how much happier the world would be.”

In my case, I just doubled the joy.

Only wedding singers will understand this.
There is something about singing at a wedding
that can be very frustrating.

Maybe it’s because it is a captive audience,
most of whom do not come to hear the singer.

While singing pre-service music for weddings,
I have seen people roll their eyes,
take a nap,
turn their heads to see who was in attendance,
and worst of all,
carry on loud conversations.

It’s enough to make this troubadour feel insignificant,
like the guy dressed like the Statue of Liberty  on the sidewalk
trying in vain to get you to come inside to do your taxes.

Recently I was asked to sing at a wedding,
a wedding where I knew many of the people.
I was hoping because of familiarity, things would be different.

I picked out my best suit,
ironed my shirt……
I might have even combed my hair.

It was an unusual space in which to sing.
The pianist was in the rear of the sanctuary
which placed her about 70 feet away from me.

I had two songs to sing.
I sang them with great expression
as I sought to make eye contact with everyone in the audience.

It was working.
People were not distracted.
They were focused.
Many, including people I did not know, smiled at me.

I returned to the rear of the sanctuary
and sat down next to the pianist.

“I thought that went really well,’” I said.

Without hesitation, she said,
“Your fly is down.”

My sense of fulfillment popped 
like a balloon in a pin factory.

“Do you think anyone noticed?” I asked.
She only glanced at me.
Sometimes words are just not necessary.

Sitting in embarrassment through the “I do’s” was bad enough.
The reception was worse.

During the hors d’oeuvres, I heard
“I’m sorry, this is a no fly zone.”

While the main entrée was served,
“Sir, you need to bring your tray table to the upright
and locked position.”

As the couple cut the cake,
“Looks like you’ve got a security breach at Los Pantalones.”

And as the bridal bouquet was thrown,
“I see you’ve got Windows on your laptop.”

Even a groomsman walking by whistled “Zippity Doo Dah”

and these were my friends.

There are days when you do the best you can,
and it is just not enough.

Parents have days like that.
Employees dread workdays like that.
And wedding singers sing their hearts out,
only to fall short.

The world in which we live
doesn’t give much leeway to falling short.
The world gauges success based on absolute performance
whether it be an athlete, a tax accountant, or a factory worker.

God’s economy is different.
Only He knows the full extent of what each person is handling.

From a worldly perspective, 
the prophet Jeremiah was a failure.
Though he preached faithfully and did everything God asked of him,
his life’s work failed to produce a single convert.

But Biblical success is all about faithfulness to God.
Jeremiah was a success because he remained faithful to God’s calling on his life.

People aren’t created to please people,
they are created to please God.
And He is ALREADY pleased with those who are doing
the most they can with their time and resources.

It doesn’t matter if those around you think you are incompetent or scatterbrained.
God knows who you are. 
And HE couldn’t possibly love you more.

Three weeks later I received a thank you from the bridal couple.
The bride said she was able to hear the songs from her preparatory room,
and the music calmed her spirit as she prepared for the biggest moment of her life.
They were extremely grateful.

And that’s how God is.
He sees the whole picture.
And when He sees His child being faithful,
it is enough.

As for me,
let me walk in grace,
and also in front of a full length mirror.

 “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

                                                                                                         2 Corinthians 12:9