There is Joy in Your Call

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org.

            Every one of us has been called by Christ to enter the broken places of our world and bring healing.  Some are called into full-time ministry where our calling is live out through our careers in a religious organization. Some live out their call in what many would classify as secular jobs like in the fields of education or medicine for example. Others will find they’re called to live out their call in volunteer positions.  We are not all called into full-time ministry, but we are all called and gifted to be in ministry. 

            Living out our call whether paid or unpaid can be rewarding when we see Christ healing the broken through what we do. However, once you say yes to your call don’t expect everything to be easy and comfortable.  Our ministry can be painful at times.  We are, after all, called to be in the broken places in our world.  Being with the physically, spiritually, or emotionally broken can be difficult and exhausting. However, just as Christ will gift you for your calling, Christ we also give you the strength for the painful days. 

            I have known unbelievable joy throughout my ministry, but not always happiness. Happiness is situational. Something good and positive must be happening in our lives for us to know happiness.  However, joy comes from a place much deeper. Joy is not rooted in what is happening around us at any given moment. Joy comes for a deep and abiding relationship with Christ. The joy we have in Christ Jesus will keep us from despair, even though we might be overwhelmed by the hurt we find in the broken places in our world.

            Ministry is hard because we are usually with people when they are hurting the most. Being able to hear Christ call and have the faith to follow is only the beginning. We will fall into despair unless we continue to nurture our relationship with Christ.  Only you know what nourishes your soul.  Some people find nourishment through prayer, or scripture, or music or conversations with friends or meditation.  What’s important is that find what works for you and then do it, if not, burnout will some follow.  

            Christ will not call you and then abandon you.  Jesus promised over and over again that he would be with us always. However, we must do our part to stay in relationship with him. 

            There is nothing more rewarding and joyful than living out our call, even in the broken places of our world.  

Unpaid Work is Important!

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org.

            We started a new sermon series this week: The Work of the People.  The first sermon emphasized that we were created to work. God in the very beginning commissioned Adam to till and care for the Garden of Eden. The kinds of work we do varies great, while some come with a paycheck others do not.  However, some of the most important work we do will not come with a paycheck.

            During this sermon series it will tempting to always associate work with what we do to get a paycheck.  However, important work will be done by those who do not get paid. 

Although we do not consider it work to love and care for our family and friends it is part of the work we do. Grandparents provide a vital work in loving their grandchildren while passing on wisdom to the next generation.  Work exist in many different forms all of which have the potential it make a difference in our world.

            Middletown UMC and other congregations are filled with people who give sacrificially of their time for no monetary reward.  They serve as ushers, or in the music ministry, or help with children or youth. They will teach classes, or care for the homeless, or provide medical care, or give guidance to committees, or go on mission trips.  Some of the most important work will accomplished by those who can’t do the physical tasks, but who send cards and most of all pray.   

            Therefore, as we preach about work over these next few weeks, retirees are to be reminded, you provide a valuable work for Christ and his Church. I am grateful for all those who give of your time for the work of Christ in our congregation.  Middletown UMC can only provide our ministries because of all those hours of unpaid work. 

The Church is Changing

           

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org. 

We live in a world where the church is no longer the center of the community.  This situation is our greatest challenge to reaching people with the love of Christ. A time existed not too long ago when it was much easier to get people to be a part of the church. Tod Bolsinger told of a conversation with a church member in Alabama. The man told Bolsinger that not too many years ago they didn’t have to worry about worship attendance, because if you weren’t in worship you knew your boss would ask you on Monday morning where you were.  Today involvement in church is not at the top of most people’s priority list. However, that doesn’t mean God is any less relevant.  

            We live in a world with four types of people as they relate to the church. First, people will be moving into our community looking for a church home.  If they visit with us, there is a good chance they will stay.  Second, there are those who have, for whatever reason, become dissatisfied with their current church.  If they visit with us, there is a good chance they will stay. Since worship attendance in North America has been declining for the last fifty years, these two groups will be getting smaller and smaller. The third group is those people who have given up on church.  They may have been hurt by the church or feel the church is not relevant, or for a whole host of other reasons they have left the church. Most of these people have given up on the church, but they haven’t given up on God. The final group is those people who have never been involved in the life of the church or if they have it has been sparse.  These two groups will be more difficult to reach and will take a different approach to ministry than the church is offering today.  Unlike the first two groups, the last two are increasing in numbers. These are the ones when asked about religious affiliation on a survey will mark “none.”  They have been labeled as the “nones.”  

            We live in a unique time in the life of the Church. We are at one of those 500-year intervals when the Church is going to see a dramatic shift.  We have a choice to approach the future with fear and dread or with anticipation and excitement.  I choose to approach the future with anticipation and excitement. It is exciting to be living in a time in history when God is going to do something new in the Church.  We have the opportunity shape the future of the Church if we have the courage to follow where God is leading.

            Congregations will need to offer two parallel tracks of ministry in order to reach people in all four groups I described earlier.  One track will be to continue to do what we are doing now.  Current forms of ministry are still speaking to a large number of people.  This will be the easier part of ministry now and in the future. The second track will be ministries that will reach the people in those last two groups.  This will be much more difficult.  Ministry in this track will require an abundance of experiments most of which will fail.  We will learn from those failures and try again until we find a way of successfully sharing the love of Christ.  One thing is for sure, the ministry in the second track will not be centered around having people come into our building.  Those ministries will begin with relationships where people live, work, shop, and play. These ministries will require a plenty of patience.  

            We may despair with the obstacles before us, but we serve a God who knows no obstacles.  May we see opportunities and not obstacles as we journey with God into an exciting future for the Church.  God is about to do a new thing and I want to be a part of it.  

The Courage to be Welcoming

            I preached at our Eastwood Campus on Sunday, August 18, so, there is no Facebook video of the message.  Therefore, instead of adding one more thing to the message I will share a synopsis of the message. 

            The message was The Courage to be Welcoming.The fifteenth chapter of Luke begins with the Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners.  In response to the Pharisees complaining Jesus tells three parable The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son.  All three parables are about something of value that was lost, but then found and the celebrating that occurred. I chose to focus on the lost son – The Prodigal Son. 

            This is a parable about scandalous grace.  The full impact of this parable is only understood when we understand first century Middle Eastern cultural values. It was expected even demanded that children would stay with their families to work the land and care for their parents. So for the younger son to ask for his inheritance was completely unheard of, it was greatly offensive to the father. It was an insult and shameful to ask for the inheritance. It was like saying to the father I wish you were dead. However, it was even more out of character that the father would agree to give him the inheritance. Any other father would have told the son you’re out of your mind, get back to work. 

This would have been a land-based economy. A family’s wealth would have been their land. The land would have been sacred. So, the father would have divided the land gave the younger son his portion which he promptly sold, again a great insult to the father, one’s whole life and identity was tied to the land. To sell the land was to completely reject one’s family identity. He then took the money squandered it away in the foreign land. So, for the father to receive the young son back with such a welcome would have been a grace filled moment, a moment of scandalous grace. This parable would have been shocking to Jesus’ hearers, it would have been so out of character to be almost unbelievable.

The younger son after squandering all his heritance found himself with nothing. The only job he could find was feeding pigs, which would have been the worst possible job for a Jew. The son realized his father’s hired hands had more than he did. He decided to go home confess his sin and ask his father to hire him as a servant. However, when the father saw him coming he ran to his son put a robe on him, a ring on his finger, sandals on this feet, killed the fatted calf and threw a party for his son who was dead and is now alive, who was lost and is now found.

We so much like to identify with the younger brother. We like to have the assurance that regardless of what we did God will welcome us home with scandalous grace. The focus of parable is almost always on the Father and the younger son. The older brother is usually an afterthought. 

Remember Jesus told the parable in response to the Pharisees complaining because they were offended that Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners. I believe the older son is the point of the parable. The older brother was offended by everything his younger brother had done.  The younger brother had offended and insulted not only his father, but the entire family. Therefore, the older brother refused to go into the party and welcome his brother home. 

It is little more prickly for us to identify with the older brother.  Who offends you? Who is it that offends you, that would make it difficult for you to eat the person whose theological position is different than yours, person whose political views are different than yours, the person whose cultural values are different than yours, the person who doesn’t look like you or speak your language and the listgoes on.

            Who is it that you or we as a congregation need to extend scandalous grace?  We live in a polarized world and if a Christian and/or the church cannot offer scandalous grace and receivethose who offend us, who will? We need to set the example for our community and the world. 

However, it takes courage to be welcoming to those who offend us.

*I do not remember where I read the information about first century Middle Eastern culture values. I apologize for no footnote giving credit to the original author.

Fear Does not Disappear

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org.

            In my message Sunday I gave a definition of “courage” as the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. without fear.  After the 11:00 service Dean Donohue offered an alternative definition that I like much better.  His definition was courage is the strength to face a difficult situation even in the presence of fear.  The definition I used indicates that courage replaces fear while Dean’s definition states that even in the presence of fear we can have the strength to act. I obviously didn’t think through my definition sufficiently.  Courage doesn’t make fear simply disappear.  We may still have a racing heart, sweaty palms, a knot in our stomach, but are still able to take the first difficult steps.  If we wait for all feelings of fear to disappear, we may never act.  

            God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline. (2Tim. 1:7) Our fear comes not from God but from trusting in our own human strength. When we trust only in our own strength and abilities, we have good reason to fear. However, God has given us a spirit of power to stand in the face of fear and do the task before us.

            If you are radically rethinking the direction of your life, and you determine your life needs to go in a new direction you will need courage. We cannot face a life changing events without the courage to face down our human fears.  An important point to consider, is a new life direction initiated by God or is it just something you want to do.  Sometimes it is helpful to at least acknowledge our fears, they may have something important to tell particularly if we are changing direction for selfish reasons.  Even when we initiate change fear can be present and when change is thrust upon us, we are more likely to experience fear. Regardless of how life change comes God gives a spirit of power to face down our fears.  

Navigating Our Journeys

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org.

The question from yesterday’s message was, “Do we have the courage to take the inward journey of self-examination and the courage to take the outward journey of acting on what we discover?”  We do not take the outward or inward journey alone; the Holy Spirit journeys with us.  It is impossible to successfully navigate the inward journey alone. God gives us, through the Holy Spirit, the spirit of power, love and self-discipline.  None of us are prefect, so without the spirit of power we will be too fearful to truthfully acknowledge our imperfection. The inward journey will reveal the aspects of our lives where we are fruitful and with those discovers we can celebrate.  However, the same inward journey will reveal where we have failed.  

            We can rejoice in our fruitfulness and ignore our failures, but this approach leaves us stagnate. The only for us to grow is to learn from our failures and correct them. Our outward journey will require some action on our part. The necessary actions will be challenging, if not we would have already been executing them.  The same Holy Spirit who gave the power to look inward will also give us the power to act. 

            Receiving the promised spirit of power assumes a very important component.  Most of us believe in God or some concept of a god. We have no problem professing what we believe using the Apostle’s Creed either out of rote or conviction. However, belief is simply the intellectual accent to an idea, concept, or doctrine. Belief falls just short of where we need to be to receive the spirit of power needed to live as fully committed followers of Christ.  We need to be able to trust God with our lives.  

            Believing in God is one thing, but to fully trusting God with our lives is something completely different.  Where is your trust; in your own abilities and intellect, in your wealth, in your job, in another person, in blind hope?  All of these things can fail you; God is the only one that will not fail you.  We may think God has failed us in the midst of a tragedy, but that is a result of faulty theology (which is more than this post can address). Trust means being able to honestly pray a prayer of indifference. 

            The prayer of indifference is not about being apathic it is about being willing to trust God with our lives regardless of what may come. The prayer of indifference is Mary’s prayer, “Let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38) Praying a prayer of indifference and more importantly being able to successfully navigate our journeys require us to trust God.   

Self-Examination

This blog is to add “One More Thing” or two to Sunday’s message. You can’t always say everything in a message, so the blog is designed to expand on the message. If you weren’t in worship, you can watch the message on Middletown UMC’s Facebook page or listen to it on our website at middletownumc.org.

The message from Sunday is what I call bridge message.  It was the last message in the series Discovering the Deepest Desires of Our Heartand the first message in the series Courage. Over the last few weeks I have addressed what it means to discover our deepest desire.  Whether we have named it not our deepest desire is to know and love God. I looked at spiritual practices which help us name that desire – prayer, scripture reading, discernment. The spiritual practice for Sunday was self-examination. 

It takes a great deal of courage to honestly and completely look at ourselves. A close examination might reveal where we have fallen short, however, there is opportunity to discover where we are getting right.  The better we know ourselves the better we can know and love God. Practicing self-examination may reveal what is standing between us and knowing and loving God. Those barriers between us and God might be fear, our jobs, relationships just to name a few possibilities.  

More that 400 years ago St. Ignatius Loyola proposed a prayer that has become known as the Daily Examen. ( You may want to check our this website on Ingnatian Spirituality, https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/) There is a great app for your phone or table to help you with this prayer time.  It is designed to be used at the end of the day, a way of looking back over you day to see where you may have experienced God or perhaps missed God. It is also an opportunity to see where  you lived as a faithful disciple or missed it.

The following is a blueprint for the Daily Examen if you don’t want to us the app.

The Practice of Self-Examination

Preparation: Take a few moments to be still and silent. Read a favorite scripture or prayer, spiritual reading to focus your attention on God.

Invitation: Invite God to go with you in search of evidence of God’s presence that day.

Review the Day: Identify the major events of the day noticing where God seemed to be loving you, speaking to you, guiding you or showing you something new.

Give Thanks:  Thank God for all the time you experienced God’s presence. If there are any unresolved issues or questions take them to God.

Confess:  Using Psalm 139:23-24 as your prayer asking God to bring to mind attitudes, actions, or moments where you fell short of exhibiting the character of Christ or the fruit of the Spirit.

Ask for Forgiveness:  Seek God’s forgiveness for those places you fell short.  Determine if you hurt anyone and need to seek their forgiveness.

Seek Out Spiritual Friendship: Share with someone what you are discovering and any actions you need to take.1

  1. Barton, Ruth Haley, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2006, pp. 108-109.   

A New Name & Purpose

My blog has a new name and a new purpose.  I have recently returned to pastoring a local congregation after two years as a District Superintendent.  I was not very disciplined in writing my blog while I was serving as DS.  I hope to be more disciplined moving forward.

The primary purpose, but not exclusively, will be follow up thoughts from my Sunday messages.  I will use the blog for additional thoughts that I didn’t have time for on Sunday morning. There may be times when the post will be questions to ponder which relate to the message. The post could be used for additional challenges or application from the message. My hope to start this the week of July 28.

 

Thoughts on General Conference

A lot of ink has been spilled on General Conference, most of it digital. Some of what has been written is accurate, some less that accurate, some good, some bad, some mean spirited, and some hope filled. I hesitated to add to the volumes already written but writing helps me process my own feeling.  I didn’t have to post this, but my hope is it will help someone else process their feelings.

I was in St. Louis for General Conference and it was a painful few days. Regardless of one’s position, the pain of the LBGTQ community was undeniable.  Their pain came from feeling rejected by a denomination they deeply love, most grew up in, and feel a calling to serve.

In addition to all the words written there were a lot of words spoken from the floor and dais of General Conference. Some of the words were authentic expressions of love, support, and hospitality from the traditionalist to the LBGTQ community. However authentic those words may have been they rang hollow when you know there is a “but” either spoken or implied.  “We love you, you are welcome here, we want to be in ministry with you, butwe won’t affirm your call by ordaining you or celebrate your love by officiating at your wedding.

After all the words were spoken at General Conference, the Traditional Plan was passed by just over 50 votes. I deeply appreciate the traditionalist restraint by not clapping or celebrating the vote.  Much of the plan was ruled earlier in the day to be unconstitutional or had legality issues. In reality, nothing much changed.  The original language in the Book of Discipline 2016 remains the same. The issue of human sexuality will surely be revisited at the 2020 General Conference in a short 14 months.

I understand the position of the two basic groups in this conversation.  The LGBTQ community feels they are loved by God as much as anyone else and that love justifies full inclusion into the life of the church.  The Traditionalist feel a call to scriptural holiness and that understand the Traditional Plan uphold scriptural holiness.

I was not raised in The United Methodist Church, I joined as an adult.  I did not join because of the institutional church, I joined because of the love and grace that was shown me by individuals in a local congregation.  We saw the institutional church at its worst in St. Louis. There were moments when people from both sides of human sexuality debate got it wrong and acted less than Christian. The ministry of The United Methodist Church doesn’t happen a few days every few years at General Conference, it happens daily through local congregations.  It happens in large cities, small villages, in the open country.  Ministry happens among the poor and the rich, the young and the old, gays and straight, educated and uneducated.  The congregations I have had the privilege to serve ministered to whomever walked in the door or met on the street.  They never asked questions about the person’s stand on issues, their personal preferences, or their bank account.

I realize that the General Conference does speak for The United Methodist Church and that local congregations are a part of the institutional church. However, it is in the local congregation that incarnational ministry happens.  I also realize the great disappointment and frustration many feel as a result of the actions of General Conference.  I understand the convictions of those who feel they must leave the denomination because of its lack of inclusion.  I ask you to not make those decisions too quickly, but to keep focused on the ministry of the local congregation.  Many of our congregations are doing great ministries, ministries that are truly touching lives and making a difference in their communities and around the world.  These are difficult days for The United Methodist Church, and it isn’t the first time we have seen difficult days.  Our communities are filled with hurting searching people. Let us keep our focus on the local congregations’ ministries and the difference we can make in our communities.

 

Good News for All People!!

Do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”  Luke 2:10b-11a

This was the angel’s message to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Even though the shepherds provide a much-needed service of caring for the sheep, they were at the bottom of social ladder.  They we dirty and smelly, but yet they were the first to hear about the birth of Jesus.  The angel’s message to the shepherds legitimizes the message of “good news of great joy for all people.

You don’t have to live in a certain zip code, you don’t have to have a particular balance in your bank account, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, or the country of origin, it doesn’t matter your resume, or job title, or even if you’re unemployed, it doesn’t matter if you are struggling in your relationships, or if you’re struggling to get sober or clean, or even if your life is nearly perfect this good news is for you.

The good news the angel was proclaiming was that God has come to be with all people. The day didn’t go as hoped for by Mary and Joseph. They didn’t have the convenience of going on Travelocity and guaranteeing them a room at the Inn. They thought surely when we get to Bethlehem there will be a place to stay, they just weren’t expecting that place to be a stable. We tend not to think about how scary this must have been for Mary. When we think of this event, we see the cute little perfect nativity sets we have set up in our home. Can you imagine how frightened you would be if you were about to give birth and there was nothing available but a cow stable? The good news is that when things don’t go as planned, God shows up. Even though that day didn’t go as planned for Mary and Joseph Jesus still showed up. The good news is that Jesus still shows up. Things may not have gone the way you planned. The marriage didn’t last or never happened, who plans for cancer or a heart attack, your career isn’t where you had hoped it would be, you didn’t plan to make bad decisions. Even in all of life that didn’t go as planned Jesus still shows up in your life which is good news for all people.

However, he doesn’t come as we might expect or hope. Who would have thought that the birth of the Savior would have been announced to lowly outsiders like the shepherds or that he would be born in a stable to peasant parents? If we were the directors of this scene the Savior would have arrived with blasting trumpets, fanfare, announced to the powerful of our world. So, when Jesus shows up in your life it may be in ways youdidn’t expect. Jesus will show up in your life, I hope you have eyes to see him in the expected, but more especially in the unexpected.

I hope you have a very Merry Christmas!!