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, January 27, 2020

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 26) Athens First UMC

[For “Ask the Pastor” Sunday, our Leadership Board chairperson, David Koonce invited me to respond to thirteen questions that were submitted by the congregation. For the questions and responses, click here. This is the two of us before one of the worship services. Since David is a graduate of LSU and Joe Burrow is from Athens, Ohio, we decided it would be appropriate to be dressed with purple/gold LSU colors. David also gave me a birthday present. See the picture below.]

O God of wisdom, we again place our trust in you especially when we feel like we have more questions than we do answers. Thank you for always inviting us to dig deeper in our understanding of your Word, to learn from one another, to gain new perspectives in our faith, and to remember that you call each one of us to always be moving onto perfection.


Move us onto perfection in living out who you have called us to be. Move us onto perfection in supporting your church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Move us onto perfection in showing patience with one another. Move us onto perfection in our mission of making disciples for the transformation of our community and world.


O God of wisdom, as we move onto perfection in all of these ways, help us to also be open to the lighter side of our faith, like this past week’s prayer chain that invited us to pray for our church furnace. All it needed was a new belt and a new filter. Thank you for answering our prayers.


You hear all of our prayers, the ones we think are silly and the ones that weigh heavy on our hearts. Hear our prayers for those who are in need of healing, for those who are grieving, for those who are without a loving community of support, for those who are in need of guidance and direction in life, for those who feel unworthy and excluded. O God of wisdom, we offer all of these needs and so many other concerns that are on our hearts and minds this morning. 


And thank you for this church in which we are so blessed. For music that makes our spirits soar, for our many ministries that help us to grow in our faith, for opportunities to bless our community, and for the gift of each other.


We offer this prayer in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray together saying, 


“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[My new LSU dress socks given to me as a birthday gift by Leadership Board, chairperson David Koonce. We like to have fun at this church!] 

Sunday, January 26, 2020

“Ask the Pastor Sunday” (Jan. 26)

[The sermon time for this Sunday was a question/answer time in which Pastor Robert responded to questions that were submitted from the congregation over the past several weeks regarding the Bible, theology, faith, and the church. Thank you for everyone who took the time to submit these questions and for our Leadership Board chairperson, David Koonce serving as the moderator during the discussion.]


Question #1

I say God has a sense of humor. Look at the platypus, I say. Look at the stressful, dark things that happened in our lives and how, over time, they pushed you toward something wonderful. Some of my friends disagree, saying God does not laugh. What is your take?


Pastor Robert:

More humor in the Bible than people realize and God is often portrayed in a way that resembles human personality. For 
example, in Isaiah, we are told that God delights and rejoices over us. That’s kind of difficult to do with a stoic expression! What a wonderful image of God!

The question mentions the dark times of our lives. Even during those times in facing the death of a loved one, while 
there is so much sadness and tears, it is often accompanied unexpectedly with moments of joy and laughter. These aren’t forced moments in denying the sadness of the situation. They come naturally. And I believe those moments are a sign of God’s presence with us. God didn’t create us to be robots without emotion. Joy and sadness often co-mingle in our day to day lives. We sometimes take ourselves way too seriously. There is a lighter side of our faith that we sometimes forget. 

Question #2

How can we as a church do a better job of visiting and staying in touch with our homebound, those in nursing homes, assisted living etc?


Pastor Robert:

Our shut-in members are an important part of our church. People are a little surprised when I say that we only have ten or so shut-ins of which we are aware, about half are home bound and the other half are in assisted living. Personal visits are so important and I whenever I visit with them, I always learn something new about their faith or about our church. One of my favorite pastoral visits was when I visited at an assisted living where three of our members gathered with me. We had prayer, read scripture, shared what was happening at the church. So, I would encourage people to reach out to 
them. And the visits don’t have to be long in order to be meaningful.

I also really appreciate the many ways we stay in touch with our congregation through Telecare, Weekly Email Connections, sending bulletins. 

I’ve been trying to get the word out that in addition to the Sunday radio broadcast, I have web blog called Nikos which includes the sermon & the Pastoral Prayer from the previous Sunday that always includes a church highlight and a corresponding caption from that Sunday or weekend. That’s why you sometimes see me taking a picture or recording a 
video during worship. It’s so that people who aren’t here can feel more connected. 

Question #3

How can we share our faith and reach out to others who might not go to church?  We do things like collect bags for the homeless mats, we deliver flowers, we make & distribute blankets etc but what kinds of things can we do for others to actually connect with the people themselves.


Pastor Robert:

Share our Thin Place Moments with others.

Personal invitation to worship, church events, concerts

Question #4

What is the best way to pray?  Out loud?  In your head?  Alone?  With others?  Are there certain things off limits?  Should you say the Lord's Prayer or one of your own?  Is it ok to ask for things more than once or to lift others/ situations over and over?  Or are you supposed to ask once and then turn it over?  Does everyone pray differently?  Does God hear our prayers if we just think the thoughts without saying the words?  Ahh...so many questions!


Pastor Robert:

Lots of ways! Prayer is “Practicing the presence of God.”

Use the “Larry Prayer” that I shared in a sermon a while back. Larry was a new church member who came to me 

because he wanted to learn how to pray out loud. He was nervous about this. So, I gave him this basic prayer formula to 

help him get started. Begin by addressing God, share what is on your mind, and then say, “Amen” which means, “may 

it be so.” When he first started doing this, his prayers were really short like 3 seconds long, but as he grew in confidence, 

he expanded his prayers. That little structure got him started. 

Discern what are prayers that reflect God’s love for the world. If you don’t know what to pray for, that’s a nice little litmus 

test. Is this prayer expressing God’s love for the world? Is this prayer expressing God’s love for this person or this 


Use ancient prayers, scripted prayers, especially the Lord’s Prayer. Here’s a very short scripted prayer that I found from 

the Anglican Church that is my go to prayer in my daily devotions. Here it is: “Dear Lord Jesus, help me do the things I 

should. To be to others kind and good.And in all I do or say, grow more loving every day. Amen.”

Also, use the Sunday morning prayer that we say together. And remember that most of the hymns we sing are prayers.

Be persistent. Routine can be helpful. Each morning, I pray for my family, the church, and myself.

Pray with others like our weekly Tuesday morning prayer time.

Question #5

Please explain again how God can be so good yet have people killed in the Bible etc.  So many parts of the Bible are so violent I have a hard time reconciling that with a God who is kind, good and loves all.


Pastor Robert:

Remember these three things about the Bible: It is 1) Ancient 2) Ambiguous 3) Diverse. Handle it with care. Part of this is also remembering that the Bible was not written TO us, but it was written FOR us. We are reading someone else’s mail so we need to read it in context.

Accept that there are views of God in the Bible that reflect the author’s view of God and not necessarily the character of who God really is. The truth is that there are problematic scripture passages where God commands or allows for violence against people, like the Noah and the Ark story and like when Israel was commanded to wipe out the people who were living in the Promised Land. 

John Wesley’s quadrilateral approach to the Bible reminds us to interpret the Bible with the use of tradition, reason, and experience. These lenses help us to not interpret the Bible out of context. Regarding God and violence in the Bible, ancient kingdoms like Israel often viewed their God or gods as “warrior gods.” This was the language in describing God during that time. The biblical writers used language reflective of their time period. The Bible can be used as a weapon if we don’t interpret it thoughtfully. 

Come to my pastor’s bible studies where we talk a lot about these problematic parts of the Bible. Right now, we just started a six-week study on the Book of Genesis on Monday evenings at 6:30.

Question #6

Are we worthy or unworthy of God’s grace?


Pastor Robert:

A major point of emphasis in the Bible is that God created us and called us good. God calls us his beloved. Luke 15 parables remind us that God is always reaching out to us to find and redeem us.

How do we see ourselves? Look at yourself through the filter of our identity in Christ.

Our weekly prayers of confession & words of assurance are so important. Just to hear those words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven” can be very freeing and powerful. 

Our weekly benediction is also a powerful reminder that we are worthy of God’s grace. We say, “I am a beautiful and beloved child of God.” That’s Christianity 101 in making that statement.

Question #7

The headline of  a major, provocative story in the Saturday 1/11/20 New York Times is "Why Do People Believe in Hell?" written by David Bentley Hart. What, in view of the UMC mission statement, is your belief on the subject of hell

Pastor Robert:

A lot of misunderstanding about hell. Our picture of hell is largely based on medieval depictions of the devil with horns 

holding a pitchfork. 

Jesus’ word for hell is gehenna which was the garbage dump just outside of Jerusalem. Gehenna (hell) is a metaphor for 

when we live in a non-humane way. Hell is the antithesis of living out our true humanity. 

The Bible’s view of the afterlife developed over time. It started with a belief in a place called, “Sheol” (Place of darkness 

& nothingness) to resurrection of the dead which we get a glimpse of in the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel and then is 

taken to a whole new understanding with the resurrection of Jesus where he was given a new body that could never be 

subject to death again. 

Instead of focusing as hell as a place, the Bible speaks more of evil/injustice that is always seeking to pull us away from 

being fully human and treating others as fully human. That’s the language that I think is more helpful for us than using 

the word, “hell” which has so much baggage to it.

Question #8

Since each generation and culture view morality differently, how does that factor into how God judges our behaviors and attitudes?


Pastor Robert:

Great question! Historical Examples: 1) Treatment of children 2) Divorce 3) Women 4) LGBTQ 5) Racism 6) Everyday 


Great question! And this one wins the prize for stumping the pastor the most! 

Here are some social issues that have changed over time: 1) Our treatment of children 2) Our views of divorce 3) The 

Women’s movement 4) LGBT issues 5) Racism 6) Our use of everyday language and learning to be more respectful. 

The short answer is that I don’t know exactly how God judges all of that. I think to varying degrees, it’s related to the 

cultural norms in which we live. I believe that God uses the church to transform culture, but sometimes God uses culture 

to wake-up the church. For example, I think the awakening of our country to the evil of slavery back in the 19th century, 

had an influence upon the church and vice-versa. Another example is more recent LGBT equal rights, especially the 

Supreme Court decision for all states to allow for gay marriage. This has forced Christians and churches to rethink our 

faith related to this important issue. 

Let me give an example of new understandings of the Bible as it relates to the social issue of divorce and the official 

stance of the Methodist Church over the past several decades. The Bible speaks negatively about divorce because the 

intention is for two people to remain in a caring and loving relationship. But we all know that there are times when 

divorce is needed. So how does the church teach about this? Well, back in the 1870s, the Methodist church took a hard 

line stance on this because of their interpretation of scripture and added prohibitive language to the Book of Discipline 

for clergy to not officiate for a marriage involving a divorce. Sounds a little familiar to our current debate, doesn’t it? That 

prohibitive language stayed in the Book of Discipline until the 1930s at which point it gave Methodist clergy the right to 

officiate a wedding of someone who was divorced. So my question is, “why did that change? Culture changed. And it led 

to the church in reflecting that shift of thinking in culture. 

All of this is to say that I believe that God wants us to wrestle with these very important social issues. Every generation is 

responsible to rethink their faith because that’s how we grow in our faith, by learning, reflection, and being good listeners 

of other points of view in how we approach scripture. Think of the Bible less as an answer book and more as a guide to 

get us thinking.

Here is an example closer to home. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article on my blog that made the biblical case of 

why I believe that being accepting of same sex marriage and the ordination of those who are gay should not be 

prohibited as it presently is in the United Methodist Church. So I made my case. And someone responded to that article 

by complimenting me for a well articulated article but that as a Christian she believes in what the Bible says. That led me 

to wonder if she really read my article fully because it’s not about you believe the Bible and I don’t. It’s about our 

interpretations of the Bible. She is assuming that the lense in which she interprets scripture is the objective and correct 

way. In other words, biblical interpration is way more complicated than what most people realize.

So, back to the original questions, basically I don’t have a good answer to that question! Please make the next question 


Question #9

I would like to know your opinion as to why these three groups of Christians do not cooperate better in carrying out our united mission: Mainline Protestants; Roman Catholics; Evangelicals. In view of the fact that individuals successfully cross over these artificial divisions, why don't the divisions themselves? It is plainly in their united interest to do so in view of rising secularism, atheism, and non-participation in formal worship.


Pastor Robert:

Each of these groups tend to emphasize different dimensions of the Christian faith to varying degrees. Evangelicals tend 

to gravitate toward a more conservative and literal approach to scripture as well as a more personal dimension of faith.

Roman Catholics have a strong emphasis on Christian tradition and more of the mystery and mysticism of faith. Mainline 

Protestants have a more middle of the road approach to faith with an emphasis on social justice. We’re always going to 

have differences. What concerns me is whenever one of these groups gives Christianity a black eye and a bad 

reputation for people outside the church.


Division within the Christian faith will always be a reality. The Bible describes a lot of divisions among God’s people. 1) 

Divided Israel in OT where two kingdoms were set up 2) Jerusalem Council in Book of Acts – Deciding how to 

incorporate Gentiles into the Christian faith. 3) Corinthian Christians were very divided. We are always forming, 



A friend of mine said and I agree with him that a tribalism mentality defined as when you believe that your group has the 

only correct perspectives on issues is the problem. When your group has this tribalism mentality, it prevents you from 

being open to self-critique and common ground with other groups.


Ecumenical relations are one of the ways that these groups might try to work together. For example, there is an Ohio 

Council of Churches in which leaders from several denominations meet on a regular basis to have a unified voice in our 

state and in our society as a whole.


What does the Christian faith have to offer secularism? Hopefully, the major Christian groups can at least agree that we 

all share a particular story of a loving God who created a world he calls good and who seeks to fill this world with beauty, 

goodness, justice, mercy, equality, hope, and peace. And hopefully, the secular world will be able to see our unity in that 

statement of faith more so than where we disagree.

Question #10

Are we one?


Pastor Robert:

In a larger sense of humanity, regardless of one’s religion, answer is yes, we are all created in God’s image. In a 

Christian sense, we all belong to Christ.

In the sense of particular beliefs, we are not all one because we are at different points of our faith journey and reflect 

different perspectives.

Hopefully, at the very least, we can embrace the basic way that we are one and that we are people created in the image 

of God and called to relate to each other by remembering the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and be patient, kind, gentle, 

and loving toward one another.

Question #11

What are your thoughts about the recent news of a possible separation in our denomination related to gay marriage and ordination?


Pastor Robert:

Recently, a group of 16 leaders of opposing viewpoints met with a professional meditator and they developed what is called a 

Protocol legislation to help the United Methodist Church find a way forward since this debate has gone on since 1972. Basically, the 

Proposal is for churches and clergy to remain in the UMC if you approve of removing the prohibitive language about same sex 

weddings and ordination of gay/lesbian clergy. This legislation would allow for those who wish to stay in the UMC to allow churches and clergy 

to decide on these issues individually. For those clergy and churches who do not want the prohibitive language to be 

removed, there will be an opportunity to join a new Methodist denomination without financial penalty. Keep in mind that this is only 

proposed legislation at this point and it needs to go before the General Conference meeting this May in Minneapolis, MN where United 

Methodist delegates from all around the world will consider this proposal. Even it it would be adopted, it would take time for this 

process to move forward.

This possible way forward seems to be already releasing the tremendous pressure like you would from a pressure 

cooker. This is allowing people on all sides of this important issue to agree to disagree with each other and to pray God’s 

blessings upon both those congregations and clergy who would remain in the UMC and those who would choose to 


My personal thoughts is that this kind of proposal should have been presented at last year’s special General Conference 

because it offers the best compromise in my humble opinion. 

[Click here for my blog post about this topic.]

Question #12

What do you think God is trying to reveal to us through a possible denomination split?


Pastor Robert:

By the way, I love this question! That’s a great question to always reflect on when facing a challenge or time of sadness 

in our lives. “Where is God in all of this,” is basically the faith question that is always good to ask.

First of all, sadly, the way we have debated this issue in the past has been very harmful to everyone, but especially to 

those who are in the LGTB community. But secondly and in a more positive way, this whole process forces us to think 

about our faith in ways that many people never considered. Rethinking our faith often leads to growth. Applying our faith 

to social issues is more complex than most people realize.

I think that this process also leads us to relate to other Christians who don’t share our beliefs and keeping in mind that 

we are each at different points of our faith journey. 

Question #13

Share some of the good things that you see happening here at Athens First and maybe some goals you have for our congregation. 

Pastor Robert:

From what I’m hearing in our community, our church is becoming known as an inclusive church that welcomes all. 

People in the community tell me this all the time. And that’s because of all of you! Keep being the church who welcomes 

all. Keep reaching out. Keep loving. Keep blessing others. We have a couple of events this year that will help us to be 

even more connected in our community which are very exciting to announce and I’ll mention here. We are going to host 

our community’s “Take Back the Night” which focuses on resources to help those who have been victims of domestic 

violence. In late August just after the college students are back, we are hosting a Trey Pearson concert which will 

be at a local venue here in town near the campus. Trey is the singer who came to our church last February and shared 

his music that tells the story of his painful journey in coming out as gay. We will be one of his stops for his safe space 

tour. We are excited about that event as well. There are many churches that do not have that openness and I 

am so thankful that we are intentional in being an inclusive church. 

I would also say to keep building on our strengths, like our music program, our small group ministry, and all of the ways 

that we are engaged in our community like through our monthly Athens First Saturday projects.

Some specific goals of our church are to find ways to connect people in our church more. Small groups and bible studies 

help with this, along with our Thirst events where we have different people share their faith testimonies, but we’re also 

looking at starting social dinner groups where people can get together and enjoy a meal and conversation together on a 

monthly basis. You’ll be hearing about that in the near future. We also want to begin a new mentoring program for our 


I’m also looking forward to an upcoming 8-week sermon series on “The Twelve Disciples of Jesus” during the season of