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 18, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (June 17) Athens First UMC

[This past Thursday through Sunday, our church hosted 28 youth and adults who are part of the Rocky River UMC in Cleveland. We provided lodging for them and also made them a taco meal on Friday evening which they loved! They did home repairs for an elderly woman in Athens County and some projects at Camp Otterbein. They attended our 9 am worship service before leaving to go back to Cleveland. The picture above is one of the youth wearing a mission t-shirt that says, “Our Faith Can Move Mountains.” Below is a picture of their group when they arrived at our church on Thursday evening.]

O Lord, who calls us based on our heart, not our height; our readiness, not our resume; our humility, not our heredity; our openness, not our opinions; our devotion, not our degrees; and our trust, not our talk; like David, use us to be part of the building of your kingdom here on earth.

When you call our name to follow you, remind us to simply say, “Here I am, Lord. Use me.” Use me to pray. Use me to worship. Use me to give. Use me to serve. Use me to witness. Even with all of our imperfections, insecurities, and uncertainties, thank you for calling each one of us; young and old, rich and poor, tall and short, to follow you and to live out our faith. 

On this day, we are especially grateful for fathers who have given us life and love. Our hearts go out to fathers who have lost a child through death, that their faith may give them hope, and their family and friends support and comfort them.

We also pray for men without children of their own who like fathers have nurtured and cared for us. And we pray for fathers who for whatever reasons have been unable to be a source of strength, who have not been responsive to their children, and who have not sustained their families.

God, our Father, in your wisdom and love you made all things. On this Father’s Day, we ask that you would bless all men. Let the example of their faith and love shine forth. And grant that we, their sons and daughters, may also aspire to be the people you are calling us to be. 

Lord, we thank you for the Rocky River United Methodist Church mission team who stayed at our church this past weekend and served in your name. Thank you for empowering them to bless our community through their service. Our faith really can move mountains!

And Lord, on this Sunday following the summit between our President and the leader of North Korea, we join all of our Korean brothers and sisters who worship here in our church, in praying for a more peaceful and just world.

We pray this in the name of the Prince of Peace, who taught us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sermon (June 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Life of David: Looks Can Be Deceiving”


    A small country church was in need of a guest preacher to fill the pulpit one Sunday morning so the pastor arranged for someone he knew to come and preach that morning.  The person who was asked to preach had never been to this church before and he also had a heart for missions and the homeless.

     Since the congregation had never met him before, he decided to take advantage of his anonymity by being a little sneaky but also creative in preparing for his sermon.  Here’s what he did.  He dressed up as a homeless man and arrived at the church long before the first people arrived.  

     Wearing a tattered old coat, smelly jeans, and torn shoes, he huddled near the entrance of the church to see how the church members would react.  When it would be time for worship, his plan was to then enter the sanctuary and surprise the people by being their guest speaker.  He was then going to preach a sermon on how God calls us to reach out to people in need.  That was the plan, anyway.  

     The first few people who arrived that morning were horrified to find this man huddled next to their church door.  They didn’t know what to do so they ignored him and came into the church and found their place in the pew.  This was pretty much the response of everyone else who arrived that chilly fall Sunday morning.  They just walked right by this man in disguise and prepared for worship.

     It was time for the service to begin but there was still no sign of the guest speaker.  The congregation assumed that he had either gotten lost or that he simply forgot.  One man decided to use their extra time to take care of the problem of the homeless man and so he called the police. 

     My pastor friend who was telling me this story said that his guest speaker friend was startled when the police cruiser pulled into the tiny church parking lot.  His plan had taken a twist that he didn’t anticipate.  After explaining to the officer that he wasn’t really homeless and that he was actually the guest preacher, can you imagine the expressions of shock and horror as this man took his place in the seat next to the pulpit?

     You have to hand it to him.  He made his point.  Looks can be very deceiving!  One thing is for sure.  The people in that little country church will probably never forget that Sunday when a homeless man preached the sermon.

     The Story of the choosing of David as the King is one of the most familiar and favorite of the Old Testament stories. We already heard the story. 

     Samuel is sent to Bethlehem to find the farmer Jesse to select from among Jesse's sons a new king for Israel because the sitting King of Israel, Saul has lost God's favor.  So one after the other, the sons of Jesse are paraded before Samuel. 

     And what a family this is.  What a proud father, Jesse must have been.  He had it all.  He was a prominent man in his community and probably well off.  And just look at his picture-perfect family.  We’re introduced to Jesse’s first son, Eliab.  Picture in your mind, six foot five, 220 lbs., handsome.  And he’s just the first of several sons introduced to Samuel.  I mean, any of his sons would be potential recruits for Urban Meyer.  These are five star prospects.

     This is the family that would definitely want to send out Christmas cards with a family photo and a description of how each son is either in law school, studying to be a doctor, or won a medal at this past Winter’s Olympics.  This is that kind of family! 

     Samuel immediately thought Eliab was the one.  “Well that was easy.  Eliab, the Lord has chosen you to be…Wait a minute, what was that Lord?  What do you mean he’s not the one to be the next King?  He’s perfect.  Why wouldn’t you want him?”

     But the Lord tells Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And one after the other, each of Jesse’s impressive sons are rejected by the Lord. 

     Finally, the youngest of the sons, David, is brought forward—almost as an afterthought.  Compared to his brothers, David is more of a delicate and ruddy-skinned boy. “This is the one who is to be King,” the Lord whispers in Samuel's ear. Samuel immediately anoints David as king in the presence of his brothers, and “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David.” For God sees what we cannot see. 

     Looks can be deceiving, can’t they?

      I must say that I’m a little conscientious of this whole height thing.  The McDowell family has never been known for being that tall.  Taking a family picture when we get together is a problem because when the person with the camera asks the taller people to stand behind the others, nobody moves. None of us are that tall.

     My brother has a sign at the top of his stairs leading to his home office warning people to duck because of the low ceiling.  The sign says, “If you are taller than a McDowell, you’d better duck your head!”

     About ten years ago, I got to meet basketball legend, Jerry Lucas. Here’s a picture of Jerry and me during his visit with us.  I’m the guy on the right if you can’t tell.

     I served a church in which the pastor before me AND the pastor who followed me were both body builders. And there I was in the middle of these two chiseled physical specimens. 
     But looks aren’t everything, because I have dimples and they don’t, so there!

     This story about God choosing one of Jesse’s sons to be the next King of Israel reminds us that God’s calling isn’t just for the one with the degrees, the charismatic personality, and the movie star looks.  God’s call also comes to the one you’d least expect, especially to the one you’d least expect.  Like my father.           

     Dad always felt like he lived in the shadows of his older brother.  I remember him telling me several times how he always wanted to be more like my Uncle Mac.  When my dad would be out in the garage having trouble fixing a motor, he would say, “Your Uncle Mac would have been able to fix this in no time.”

     In one way, dad was complimenting his brother when he said those things.  But I don’t think he truly realized what a wonderful man he was as well.

     The story is told that when mom and dad came back from their Florida honeymoon in 1950, dad was the one who suggested which church they should begin attending together as a married couple.  That Methodist church located in a small south central Pennsylvania town became the place where they would raise their four children in the Christian faith and where two of those children would go on to become United Methodist pastors.

     Several years ago, the four of us were cleaning out our mom’s attic, and we were surprised to find a diary that belonged to our grandmother, our dad’s mother.  It only covered three years from 1970 to 1972 and each entry was only a sentence or two.  One of the entries talked about the astronauts being in trouble.  That’s all it said.  She was referring to the astronauts that were on the Apollo 13 mission.

     In another diary entry, my grandmother wrote that my dad had stopped by to visit with her after he had dropped me off for a youth group meeting at the church.  That little diary entry reminded me that even though dad didn’t talk a lot about his faith, his church and his faith were very important to him.

     When I went to college, somebody in the church told my mom and dad about a troubled teen who was homeless.  It was my dad who said, “We have room in our home.”  It was the love of my mom and dad that helped this person know that somebody cared.

     My dad didn’t need to live in his brother’s shadow.  He was quietly living out his calling to be a great dad and a follower of Jesus.

     In this story of the Lord calling David, the last of Jesse’s sons to become the new King of Israel, there’s a very important verse that I want to leave us with today.  It’s the last verse, verse 13.  “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed David in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”

     The reason that the Lord doesn’t worry about our outward appearance or how tall we are is because when God calls us, it’s the Holy Spirit that empowers us to do what we are being called to do.  We can step out in faith because it’s not about our strength or our looks.  It’s about the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.

     In one of the churches I served, someone shared with me how someone in our church responded to God’s calling following worship one Sunday morning.  It was the Sunday that we had focused on the importance of prayer and praying for others.  

     We had these little heart post-it stickers where we invited the congregation to write a prayer request on the heart and then stick it to a large prayer door that we had made.

     This person in our church felt called by God to take this idea beyond our church walls that very day.  After worship, this person went to the prayer door and peeled off several blank heart post-it notes that were next to that prayer door.

     This person then went to the hospital and gave several patients one of these hearts in which this church member had written the words, “Praying for you.” And next to that line, this person included the name of our church.

     But that’s not all.  This person then left the hospital and visited one of the nursing homes giving people these hearts with the same message.  This person responded to God’s calling that Sunday morning.

     And my goodness. And just to think, that person who did this was probably only half as tall as I am.

     Not bad for a seven year old.

Life of David: Looks Can Be Deceiving
Small Group Questions
I Samuel 15:34-16:13
June 17, 2018

This week’s scripture reading on the life of David is when Samuel came to the home of Jesse to select one of his sons to be the next king of Israel. Instead of choosing one of the older and more experienced sons, the Lord chose the least likely son, David who was the youngest and least experienced to become the next king.
Share a time when you were asked to take on an important task even though it seemed like there were other more qualified people. How did you respond?
At the end of our scripture reading on the selection of David as king, we are told that the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Pastor Robert shared this thought: “The reason that the Lord doesn’t worry about our outward appearance or how tall we are is because when God calls us, it’s the Holy Spirit that empowers us to do what we are being called to do.  We can step out in faith because it’s not about our strength or our looks.  It’s about the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.” 
Share how you have sensed the Holy Spirit empower you to follow God’s calling in your life? What helps you to be open to God’s empowering Spirit?
Pastor Robert ended his sermon by talking about someone who responded to God’s calling after worship one Sunday by giving heart-shaped encouragement notes to people at the the local hospital and to a nursing home. Those notes blessed the people who received them. The person who did all of this was just 7 years old!
Share some other examples of where you have seen God use people in surprising ways to bless others.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

In Loving Memory of Joanne McDowell (Nov. 1, 1945 to June 11, 2018)

[Joanne not only rooted for the Steelers, but she also had a “Steel Curtain” faith in the many ways she loved her family and friends, served through her church, and put up a tenacious battle with cancer over the past several years. Pictured above is Joanne front and center. She always made awesome tailgate chili! Joanne was married to my cousin, Gene, far right. I am standing in the back right of the photo. Below is the prayer I offered at her funeral service which was held at Second Presbyterian Church, Oil City, PA.]

God of love, surround all of us as we gather to give you thanks for the life of Joanne McDowell. Even as we shrink before the mystery of life and death, help us to see the light of eternity. Be with us during this time of awesome wonder and gratitude as we reflect upon the many ways that Joanne has touched each of our lives. 

We are grateful for the many signs of your presence in the midst of our grief and loss. Thank you for reminding us of so many special memories we had with Joanne. Thank you for all of the ways that she made a difference in people’s lives through her teaching career. Thank you for how she expressed her faith by serving others through the ministries of her church. Thank you for her love of her family and friends. And thank you O God, for how she lived her life so joyfully even as she battled with cancer these past several years. 

O God, our hearts are filled with sorrow but they are also filled with great love and gratitude as we remember how Joanne has blessed us in so many different ways. As we walk through this valley of the shadow of death, replace our fear with trust, our grief with hope, and our sorrow with the promise of resurrection. Thank you that there is nothing that can ever separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord, not even death, for you are our steel curtain. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (June 10) Athens First UMC

[Our first “Thirst” covered dish/testimony gathering was held last week. In addition to enjoying a great meal together, we were blessed to hear Jenaye Hill share her faith story. The next “Thirst” gatherings will be on July 12, August 9, & September 6. They are always from 6 pm to 7 pm in Fellowship Hall. All are welcome! We also launched our summer long sermon series on “The Life of David.” For Sunday’s sermon, click here.]

O God who turns deserts into rivers, famines into feasts, dead ends into highways, floods into rainbows, and crosses into empty tombs, we come before you to boldly offer our prayers to you this morning.

Hear our prayers for those who are in need of healing and hope this day.
Hear our prayers for communities being destroyed by the opioid epidemic.

Hear our prayers for families caught in the cycle of domestic abuse.

Hear our prayers for people who don’t know where to go for their next meal.

Hear our prayers for churches that are in need of a new vision.

Hear our prayers for a country that is so divided over politics.

Hear our prayers for your love to fill every human heart.

Hear our prayers for new ministries waiting to get off the ground.

Hear our prayers for every single person who walks by our church.

Hear our prayers for our church to stay focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.

Hear our prayers for every person in our church to know and offer their spiritual gifts for the building up of your kingdom here on earth. 

[The congregation was also invited to share their bold prayer requests out loud.]

We offer our bold and audacious prayers in the name of the Risen Christ who taught us to pray together, saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sermon (June 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Life of David: Watch Out What You Pray For!”

    Several years ago, I was serving a church that was considering a major change.  Some of my key leaders felt that God was calling us to begin a new ministry that if implemented would dramatically change our church.  

     While we were looking forward to the possibilities this new ministry would bring, we also knew that not everybody in the church would share in our excitement.  It would involve a significant rethinking of what it means to be the church in a new day and age.  And it would involve a lot of adjustment and commitment on the part of the congregation.  

     One of those key leaders who felt God was calling our church to move in this direction was a retired accountant.  He called me one morning and said, “Let me pick you up for lunch so we can think about this new possible direction together.”  

     When he arrived at the church, I got in his car.  And off we went.  I didn’t realize how fast retired accountants like to drive.  He pulled out of the church parking lot as if he was responding to a fire.  I checked again to make sure my seat belt was firmly buckled.

     As we were driving down the highway at Daytona 500 like speed, I was sharing with him how I had been praying for our church and this new ministry opportunity.  He responded by telling me something that I will never forget.  Weaving in and out of traffic, he said to me, “Watch out what you pray for because you just might get it!” This wise and experienced member of my church who was ready to take on the challenge of this new ministry just wanted to make sure that this young and naive pastor knew what he was getting himself into.

     “Watch out what you pray for because you just might get it!”  

     When the Israelites gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, this is the kind of message that Samuel offered to them.  The Israelites were tired of the injustice they had been experiencing as well as the poor leadership they had been given.  They wanted to be like the other nations who had kings, highly organized militaries, state of the art weapons, and plenty of wealth.

     The request for a king was understandable.  At the time, Israel was a very poor nation with no centralized leadership and they were at the mercy of the mighty Philistines who lived on the coast, were successful traders, had a highly organized military with iron weapons, and controlled the strategic geo-political highway between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent.

     While Samuel was well aware of Israel’s limitations and the advantages in having a king, he also knew that there were also many disadvantages.  The biggest disadvantage was that Israel already had a king, the Lord.  If only they would have obeyed the Lord as their king, they wouldn’t be in the position they were in now.  

     The second disadvantage was that an earthly king would demand tremendous sacrifice on the part of the people.  And Samuel goes on to spell this out.  “He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his couriers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.” 
     And then Samuel asks them one more time: “Do you still want a king?  Be careful what you pray for because you just might get it.”

     Samuel then consults the Lord about this and surprisingly the Lord tells Samuel to go ahead and grant their request.  Samuel had done his job.  He warned them that a monarchy would come with a great price.  

     So Israel got their first king when Samuel anointed Saul just three chapters later.  Over time, Samuel’s words of warning proved to be true.  Some of the kings were good and some were not.  More battles were lost than won.  At one point, the whole nation was carried off into exile and for several centuries, they didn’t even have a homeland to protect!

     Over the next several weeks, our Old Testament readings will focus on the life of one of the greatest names in the entire bible, David.  David became Israel’s second king after Saul, and is known as the man who was after God’s own heart.  This doesn’t mean that David was perfect, far from it.  But as king, David led the people of Israel during their glory years.  And it was through David’s lineage that Jesus Christ, God’s own Son became king and who continues to reign as king forever and ever.  Because of all of these reasons, David will be our main focus throughout these summer weeks.

     For today, as we set the context for David’s arrival on the scene and Israel’s desire to become a monarchy, I want us to think about the importance of being bold with our prayers.  That’s the way our prayers need to be.  Bold!  Audacious!  Risk-Taking!  They need to be the kind of prayers where someone like Samuel or my retired accountant friend are prompted to remind us, “Watch out what you pray for because you just might get it.”

     Be bold!

     A church began preparing for a church wide focus on prayer and faith sharing. They had a very ambitious goal of having 40 small groups with 400 people participating in those small groups.  They couldn’t have picked a more difficult time to begin forming these small groups, right before the Christmas and New Year’s holiday! 

     They were nowhere near their goal when their team met to discuss the situation.  They felt discouraged and very overwhelmed coming into that pre-holiday meeting.  They didn’t have a lot of positive responses with potential small group leaders and it looked like they might have to settle for half that number.

     But somebody at that meeting broke through the status-quo and reminded them that all they needed to do was pray.  And right there on the spot, they prayed and they gave their concerns to God.  

     It wasn’t that long after they had celebrated Christmas Eve and the birth of Jesus Christ that a miracle happened.  In a matter of a week and a half, the number of people willing to lead a small group almost doubled.  They were now in a position to reach their ambitious goal.

     They had ordered 450 small group books to give out to their congregation over the span of the next six weeks.  After just one Sunday, they had already handed out all of those books and they needed to order another 150 books!  The response was phenomenal!  God was answering their prayers.

     When their planning group met later that same week, the pastor jokingly told them that maybe they needed to stop praying because now they were at a point where they couldn’t keep up with God!

     “Watch out what you pray for because you just might get it.”

     Many of you know that my brother is the Music Director in our home church located in south central Pennsylvania. For the past couple of months, he has been praying to God about the possibility of his church performing the musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

     After he had seen the TV performance of this musical, he felt a tug at his heart that maybe God was calling his church to use this musical as a way to connect with the unchurched population of the surrounding area. 

     This would be no small feat because there were a lot of unanswered questions like would he have the musicians and the singers to pull something like that off? Where would they be able to perform the musical? It would need to be at a place that would be able to attract a large crowd with plenty of space for the performance. 

     Those were just a couple of the things that would need to begin to fall into place before he would be able to move forward to turn this bold dream into a reality.

     A couple of weeks ago, he called me to tell me how God was answering his prayer. He said that he was beginning to get discouraged because the places where he thought it could be held were just too expensive and not practical, so he said a prayer one morning. He said, “God, if you really want this thing to happen, you’re going to need to give me a sign that this is what you really want me to do.”

     He said to me over the phone, “You won’t believe what happened to me yesterday after I prayed that prayer. Somebody told me about the perfect venue to hold the musical. 

     It’s a place that holds lots of community festivals so people are used to going there and when I talked to the owners about our church performing “Jesus Christ Superstar,” they were so excited about hosting the event, that they are going to give us the space at a much lower rate.”

     My brother said, “That was the sign from God that I needed.” And then he said, “But that’s not all, on that same day, I go back to the church. And as I’m walking down the hallway, you won’t believe this, but our church custodian is casually singing one of the songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

     Now, this custodian had no idea that my brother was thinking about performing this musical, and here he was singing one of the songs. 

     My brother said, “It’s pretty obvious that I need to go after this.”

    “Watch out what you pray for because you just might get it.”

     The Israelites who came to Samuel might not have had the best of intentions when they asked Samuel to give them a king.  Like us so much of the time, they didn’t fully realize the impact that their request would have on them and on the nation as a whole.  Having a king would set them on a whole new direction, a bold future, and an exciting adventure in being God’s people.

     David was certainly a man who lived boldly, who prayed fervently, and who lived courageously.

     Which reminds me. My brother’s name is David.

     Join us for our summer journey as we follow these Old Testament stories about the life of David.

     And remember to be bold! And pray bold! Because you just might get what you pray for!

Life of David: Watch Out What You Pray For!”
Small Group Questions
I Samuel 8:4-20 & 11:14-15
June 10, 2018

This week marks the beginning of a twelve week summer sermon series on the life of David from the Old Testament. 
What do you know about David from the Old Testament?
Our series on the life of David begins with the people of Israel demanding Samuel to anoint a king to rule over them. Samuel reluctantly agrees because he doesn’t want the people to forget who their true king is. The Lord is their true King!
What helps you to remember that the Lord is the true King over all creation?
Israel’s request to have a king to rule over them was risky because they didn’t know what kind of king they might get. At least, they were willing to be bold and try something new.
In what ways can we be more bold in our faith and be open to new ideas, new ministries, and new possibilities?
Pastor Robert shared about a church that set a lofty goal of creating 40 new small groups in their church. They stepped out in faith and ordered 450 small group discussion books which was a large expense to the church. On the first Sunday of signing up people for small groups, they ended up giving away all of the books! They had to order another 150 books for the people who signed up later! They attributed this incredible response to the many bold prayers several weeks leading up to the start of these new small groups. 
When have you experienced a breakthrough in prayer where God exceeded your expectations?
Close your time together by praying this incomplete prayer where you can fill in the blank:
“Almighty God, today, we pray boldly for.....”