Be Not Afraid

            In the opening chapter of his latest book Unafraid, best-selling author and UM pastor Adam Hamilton shares the findings of an informal survey that he took in his large suburban Kansas City church.  Of the 2,400 persons surveyed, nearly half reported living with a moderate amount of fear every day, and another 35% said that they lived each day with a significant amount of fear.  So in total, 85% of the people surveyed disclosed that fear was a factor in their everyday lives, affecting decisions they made, places they went (or didn’t go), and how they viewed their futures as well as many other aspects of their lives.   Due largely to these results, Rev. Hamilton decided to address the issue of fear first in a sermon series and now in his new book.

            There is little doubt that there is a lot to be afraid of these days.  Political and economic uncertainty, violence, and the terrorist acts we see on the news are among those events and issues that can keep even the most faithful of us awake at night.  And in the book, Rev. Hamilton covers just about every issue and situation that can cause us fear.  But he also writes of the ways that as followers of Christ, we have been gifted with spiritual resources upon which we can draw to better cope with the scary times of life.   In summary, I have found the book to be tremendously helpful and uplifting even amidst the chaos and craziness of the world around us.

            I am excited that during the month of September we are embarking on a church-wide study of Unafraid.  During our worship services, I will be highlighting some of the points in the book that are particularly relevant, and we will also be offering discussion groups at various times throughout the week for all persons who wish to delve deeper into this timeless topic.   Be watching during August for the opportunity to sign up for the group(s) that best fit your schedule.   We will have plenty of books available for any who wish to participate in these groups or simply read the book on their own.    These will be available in the church office also by mid-August. 

 

Blessings,

Mark

An Outreach of Hope

            Might you be willing to share the gift of hope with Hope?  A couple of weeks ago, a small group of us from HUMC met with administrators at Hope Middle School to see how we might as a church be helpful to them in their quest to make HMS a safe and productive place for 5th and 6th graders from our own neighborhood.  This discussion grew out of ongoing conversations I had been having with Dr. David Hornak, the superintendent of the Holt Public Schools as to how our church might increase our outreach to the children and families in our immediate community, even beyond our long-time support of the Give-A-Kid program (an outreach ministry that was birthed in our church many years ago).  When Dr. Hornak put the word out that we are interested in supporting our schools in any way that we can, the response from Jennifer Goodman, the principal at Hope, was immediate and enthusiastic.

            At our meeting, we discovered that there are many challenges for the administrators and teachers of HMS.  And so we began to vision together just a few of the ways that our church could be supportive.  The ideas that were discussed included the furnishing of some school supplies for teachers as well as other “teacher appreciation” efforts.  We also talked about mentoring opportunities such as church members sharing their interests/hobbies with small groups of interested students.  As we begin our partnership, there will no doubt be other ways that will arise through which we can be of assistance to the teachers and students at  Hope, particularly given the reality that public funding of our schools continues to be an issue for all school districts throughout the state.

            So stay tuned!  If you are interested in participating in this projected partnership, be watching for a meeting sometime in August which will be another opportunity to converse with school administrators so that we can begin our work together in some ways this fall.  In the meantime, we have asked the teachers at Hope to come up with “wish lists” of classroom items that we might be able to assist in supplying for them.  So keep an eye out also for that opportunity at some point during this summer.   

            In Romans 15:13, Paul shares these words:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  As those who have been filled with the “overflowing hope” of God, what a great opportunity this promises to be for us to share that hope with Hope!

Blessings,

Mark 

Overcoming the Insurmountable

Beginning June 10th, we will continue our ongoing look at some of the most familiar and well-loved passages/stories in the Bible with a short series focusing on the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17.  Like the other passages we have examined like the story of Jonah and the 23rd Psalm, the story of the young shepherd David taking on and defeating the giant Goliath is one that is very well-known to persons both inside and outside the church.  In fact, the use of David vs. Goliath as a metaphor has become synonymous with any seemingly uneven contest in sports, politics, business, or anywhere else such confrontations occur. 

What is clear is that for all of us, it is much easier to identify with David in the story.  After all, who doesn’t love an underdog?  Didn’t we all cheer when #16-seed Maryland-Baltimore County slayed the giant #1-seed Virginia in the recent NCAA basketball tournament? And the truth of this story is that this contest between the shepherd boy and the 9-foot behemoth represents a contest that should have been even more lopsided than a #16 vs. #1 matchup in any kind of tournament!  And so in those times of life when we feel like the underdog, this story speaks to the reality of God’s presence and power with us when some “Goliath” is making us fearful or miserable for whatever reason. 

But here’s another way to think about the story that we will be exploring as well:   Living as we do in a culture that promotes power and in a place where we have so much compared to the vast majority of the rest of the world, it is hard to argue that we 21st century American Christians are in any way “underdogs”.  And so like it or not, in the big picture we may have more in common with Goliath than David.  And so the question becomes how do we use our power to reach out to those beneath us in positive and responsible ways? 

So it will be these issues and others that we will be pondering in this story.  Because like all good (and familiar) stories in the Bible, there is always more than meets the eye, or more to them than we may have learned in Sunday School!  

Blessings,
Pastor Mark

Speaking the Language

As the Sunday of Pentecost fast approaches (it is on May 20th this year), I am again pondering the amazing details of the story.  Obviously the most spectacular part is when the Holy Spirit descends upon the crowd in fiery tongues of flame.  The fact that our United Methodist symbol of the cross and the flame are reminiscent of this event shows how important the story and the action of the Holy Spirit have been in our own tradition.

What also intrigues me is how the Holy Spirit empowers the Lord’s followers to begin to speak in languages not their own, but instead in the dialects of the widely varied members of the crowd that had gathered in Jerusalem for the annual festival.  As we remember this action of the Spirit, it has implications both within and outside the church even today.

 First of all, consider the fact that if this newly-birthed community was really the first “church”, then the fact that they all could understand each other despite their different cultures and backgrounds might just be a timeless reminder for how any church can function in a healthy way through the power of the Spirit.  For our church, like any other, is filled with folks from different backgrounds who have different opinions and experiences.  And yet despite our differences, the Holy Spirit empowers us to “speak the same language” so that we can converse with and listen to each other so that we can worship and work together as a community of faith.  William Willimon sums it up like this:  “At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends and gathers a crowd, makes a family out of anybody and everybody—the church.”

Second, the Pentecost story is a reminder that in our secular age, as the church, sometimes we have a “language problem” when it comes to reaching out to and/or attracting other persons.  To a lot of people, especially those who haven’t been in the church for a while or who never have been a part of a church,  the language that we speak in worship and in what we do within and outside our doors doesn’t always translate very well.  Sometimes we assume that since we understand perfectly well the “churchy” language that we use and keep doing things “that we’ve always done that way”, that we are speaking effectively to people who are foreign to the church.   And in those assumptions comes the disconnect between the church and the outside world. If nothing else, the story of Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit can and does empower us to speak a language that others will understand.  This reality then hopefully can embolden us to begin to “speak a different language” in how we carry out our ministry to our community, whatever that might look and sound like.    

So my prayer this year is that we can be “Pentecost people”—speaking and listening to each other and to those outside our church with a sense of common understanding   and with the same excitement as those first followers of Jesus who first received the gift of the Spirit.   

In the Spirit,

Pastor Mark

Psalm 23

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” If you were to ask almost any Christian (or even a good number of non-Christians) to tell you where those words come from in the Bible, or even to say what comes next, you might be surprised at how many could do so.  For there is no other scriptural passage that is as well-known or well-loved as the 23rd Psalm (the Lord’s Prayer is probably a close second, although many folks aren’t as sure as to where that is found in the Bible).  I have always been fascinated in reading accounts of how this Psalm has become as well-known as it has.  From Garrison Keillor’s fictional account of a child in Lake Wobegon being called on to recite it at the town’s annual Memorial Day celebration (he was always afraid it would be him and he’d forget the words!) to the in-depth epilogue to William Halliday’s book The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years entitled “How the Twenty-Third Psalm Became a Secular Icon”, many writers of both fiction and non-fiction have attempted to discover why this particular Psalm has become so familiar to so many people both inside and outside the church.   

In Christian worship, it has long been the tradition to read the 23rd Psalm on “Good Shepherd’s Sunday”, which is always the third Sunday after Easter.  As I saw this Sunday approaching again, I thought it might be time in my own devotional and preaching routine to spend a little more time with the 23rd Psalm than just one Sunday this year. For I too have seen over the years how people are affected by hearing these familiar words being spoken at funerals, in Bible studies, and in many other settings.  So in that spirit, I invite you to join me in worship as we spend a few Sundays with the 23rd Psalm, beginning on April 15th.  As I have begun pondering it in smaller sections, I am beginning to understand why this Psalm speaks to so many people in so many situations of their lives.  For there is indeed a wide theological scope that is covered in these few verses.  The other thing I am realizing again is how its message is still relevant for us in the world in which we live today.    In the end, it is perhaps for those reasons that we all love the 23rd Psalm.

In the Name of the Shepherd,

Pastor Mark

 

Shouting Stones

Is it possible to have a Palm Sunday story without palms?  Have you ever heard a stone shout out?

On Palm Sunday, (March 25th) we will begin our observance of Holy Week by remembering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  This story appears in all four of the Gospels, and each account of these familiar events is unique in its own way.  It is always interesting to compare and contrast the stories in order to figure out the agendas of the Gospel writers and their original audiences, as well as to discern how those elements that are unique to a single version might be instructive to us as modern-day readers.

This year we will be hearing Luke’s version of the Palm Sunday story.  While this account has many similarities with the other Gospel stories, there are two significant differences.  First, there are no palms waved by the cheering crowds—Luke reports only that they laid their cloaks on the road in front of Jesus as he paraded into town.  (But don’t worry—in spite of their absence in the story, we still will have our traditional palm processional!)  Second, at the very end of the story, in response to the Pharisees’ angry demands that he silence his disciples, Jesus replies, “I tell you, if (the disciples) were silent, the stones would shout!”  (In no other version are there angry Pharisees and shouting stones).

Those distinguishing elements bring to mind a number of questions apart from the two obvious ones mentioned above—questions that have to do with our own response when Jesus comes into our lives as he did for those in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.  If nothing else, Luke’s version invites us to explore how in the face of resistance, we might respond to and celebrate the coming of Christ in exceptional ways so that others might see and hear in us the great Good News of the one who came to save not just us, but the world.  In the end, perhaps Jesus is reminding us that we are to be like shouting stones!

 I hope you will join us on this important day in our Lenten journey as we consider this distinctive version of the familiar story.

Blessings on your journey!
Pastor Mark

 

What constitutes "blessedness"?

           Can you think of times in your life when you have felt especially “blessed”?  For most of us, the experiences that probably come to mind are those when something really “good” has happened to us—perhaps the birth of our child, or a marriage, or a career advancement, etc.  And if we see God’s hand in these experiences, then they certainly are blessed times.

            In the well-known portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel that has  come to be known as the Beatitudes  (Matt. 5:2-10), he gives us a list of “blessed’s” that suggests very different times and situations in which we are blessed by God.  These verses include phrases such as “Blessed are those who mourn” and “Blessed are those who are meek” and  “Blessed are those who are persecuted”.  At first glance, and especiallly if we have been through times of mourning and meekness and persecution, we may realize that Jesus is broadening our definition of what it means to be blessed.  For example, to be “meek” these days is usually no way to get ahead in the world!   We might go as far as to say that Jesus is effectively turning the traditional cultural understanding of what constitutes  “blessedness”  completely upside-down in many of the Beatitudes.

            During the season of Lent, we will be exploring a number of the Beatitudes in our worship services.  We will examine how it is indeed possible to feel “blessed” by God even in what we have previously considered to be difficult times in life.   And since time will not allow us to closely examine all of them, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Erik Kolbell’s excellent little commentary on the Beatitudes entitled What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life in the church office and make the reading of it a part of your Lenten discipline this year.  

            In the forward to the book, the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin shares these words that remind us of the transforming power of Jesus’ Beatitudes:

           “…the Beatitudes  challenge today’s habitual expectations.  They shake up our usual                    criteria of normalcy by presenting a new view of reality…they are at heart
                   profound and passionate, full of insights and authority for those of us prepared,                  in these precarious times, to reevaluate matters at the very core of our individual                               and collective lives.”

   I hope that your Lenten journey will include your participation in this valuable examination of all of the ways and times in which we are blessed by God, and even more importantly, how we might share those blessings with others. 

Blessings
Pastor Mark

More Than a Fish Story

Do you know a good “fish story”?  Anyone who has ever gone fishing probably has a tale or two to tell.  I didn’t do much fishing growing up, but I do remember the time I caught a 14-inch sucker (a very ugly fish!) in the Red Cedar River at Ferguson Park in Okemos and was so proud of my catch, I rushed it a couple of blocks home so I could keep it alive in a bucket of water so that all my friends could see it.  Needless to say, the poor fish didn’t last long in that bucket!

If you ask anyone to name a fish story in the Bible, they will no doubt begin with the story of Jonah in the Old Testament (and it is a “big fish” and not a whale in the actual story).  It is indeed an amazing tale when Jonah winds up in the belly of the fish for three days—which tops any fish story we could come up with!  But a closer examination shows us that there a number of issues being addressed that make the whole “big fish thing” a secondary part of the story. 

On the last three Sundays of January and the first Sunday in February we will be spending some quality time with Jonah’s fish story in worship.  By breaking it down, we will be able to see the important points being made—from things like the human tendency of running the opposite direction when God calls us to somewhere we’d rather not go,  to God’s amazing grace that was actually “aggravating grace” in the opinion of Jonah when God saves a group of people that Jonah was sure didn’t deserve it.  In other words,  we will discover that this little story is loaded with timeless truths about ourselves and God.

So I hope you can join us as we examine this fish story that is way more than just a fish story.   For I believe that it is a fish story that belongs to us all as we find ourselves somewhere within it. 

Blessings,

Mark

Promised Gifts

So as Christmas quickly approaches, do you have your gift lists finished (both what you want to get and to give)?  As you glance at those lists, are you stressed out, wondering if you have asked for what you really want and also wondering if you’ll ever have the time and money to purchase everything on your “give” list? 

There is no doubt that our culture continues to emphasize this frenzy of getting and giving during this season.  When the Christmas ads begin on November 1st, it’s hard to argue that!  While there is certainly nothing wrong with being generous this time of year, it is easy for the whole “gifting” thing to become all-consuming at the expense of what the season should really be all about.

Did you know that according to the scriptures that we read during Advent it is clear that God has a very different kind of gift list of things to give to us?  That as we read the words of the prophets and others who were predicting the coming of the Messiah into the world we hear of gifts that we probably wouldn’t think of including on our lists?   Do you have things like “hope” and “patience” and “peace” and “light” on any of your lists this year?  During the Sundays of Advent, those are the gifts of God that we will be focusing on that are promised in the scriptures that we will read.  And then on Christmas Eve we will celebrate the greatest gift of all that God has given us—the Christ Child himself.  Throughout the Advent season, we will also be celebrating the reality that unlike those material gifts we will receive this year, the items of God’s list last forever.  In other words, they are gifts we get to open and then share every day of our lives!

I hope you will join us in worship during
December to hear more about these promised gifts.  When you do, my guess is that you may begin to look at your own “get” and “give” lists a little
differently!

Blessings,

Mark

 

On the Path to Perfection

Are you a perfectionist?  Or if not, do you sometimes have the vague notion that you could do more to be a better person and follower of Christ?  If you fall into either group, rest assured, you are not alone!   For through God’s grace that is offered to us all, we all have planted within us the desire to truly be the people God calls us to be. 

At the end of his letter to the Philippians, Paul shares his own understanding and experience with the notion of perfection.  He recalls his life before his conversion to Christ as a classic perfectionist as he attempted, and in his own mind at the time succeeded,  in becoming the perfect Pharisee, with all the right practices, all the right teachers, and all of the accompanying self-righteousness.  But then he says that when Christ came into his life, all of those accomplishments meant nothing anymore as he turned his life toward the example of Jesus. His new understanding was that true perfection is a spiritual issue, and that we are constantly on a path to perfection throughout our lives that never really ends until we go on to true and eternal perfection in heaven.  The famous analogy he uses is that this journey is like running a race in which we are constantly striving for the finish line. 

For us, these words offer both comfort and challenge.  On the one hand, we are assured that we don’t have to be perfect, and that God loves us even in our imperfections.  On the other hand, Paul is clear that we are constantly to be striving toward being more like Christ in how we live and how we treat other people.  And as we see in Philippians, he gives us some specific spiritual practices to develop and use in order to advance in that never-ending race.

My plan is that we will spend the last two Sundays in November examining this “path to perfection” that Paul lays out before us.  My guess is that if you struggle with perfectionism in any way, you will find something helpful in his words

Continued blessings,

Mark

 

Health Update

I wanted to use this opportunity to update our church family on my health status following my bicycle accident on Labor Day morning.  After a couple of days of observation in the hospital due to a serious concussion, and now a couple of weeks at home, I am happy to say that my “outside injuries” (i.e. abrasions, bruises, scrapes, etc.) have healed quickly with the exception of a still large hematoma above my right eye that was the point of impact with the pavement. What I am also discovering is that a brain injury like post-concussion syndrome takes a much longer, even indeterminate, amount of time to heal. Thankfully my symptoms consist mainly of persistent dizziness and light-headedness and there seems to be no loss of memory or cognitive ability at this time.

While I am trying my best to accept this reality, please know that my patience is being greatly tested!   I have been told by numerous doctors that rushing back from a concussion only leads to a greater recovery time. And I say this as a pastor who had never missed a worship service for health reasons in twenty-three years of ministry. I wish to thank all who have and will continue to step up in leadership, especially Carolin and the other staff members, as well as our Lay Servants who will be leading worship during October.  Continued thanks for all of your prayers and support--they mean more to Annette and me than any of you could ever imagine.

Continued blessings,

Mark

 

Wilderness Experience

 Have you ever spent time in the wilderness?  When I ponder that question, I remember the times backpacking the Appalachian Mountains on trails where other hikers wouldn’t be seen for days.  I also remember the importance of having a good trail map so that you didn’t lose your way through the wilderness.  From mid-September through the first Sunday of October, we will be spending some time in the wilderness with the Israelites in the book of Exodus as they trek from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Their handling of their “wilderness experience” speaks volumes as to the human condition any time we spend time in the wilderness, whether that is a literal or figurative place.

Whether it is their longing to go back to Egypt, where they were slaves but at least they knew where their next meal was coming from, or their complaining that God is no longer providing for them, the Israelites are typical in their reaction to being in the wilderness.  I can remember while hiking through a couple of days of steady rain longing for the warmth of my car that I had left some miles back, and praying to God to provide some sunshine!  Similarly, in times of our “spiritual wilderness” wanderings, typically there is often a longing for a return to the “good old days” (even if they really weren’t all that great), and complaining to God that God would have the audacity to allow the tough times that we have to endure.

What we will discover in these familiar stories is that despite our longings to go back, God is always out ahead of us leading us forward, showing us the way through the wilderness.  And despite our grumbling and complaining (and the Israelites were world-class whiners!) God tends to provide for us what we need to get through to the other side of the wilderness. 

I hope you can join us for these services, particularly if you feel like you are presently on a journey through some wilderness in your life.   The stories we will hear are a reminder that God never deserts us on those journeys.

Blessings,

Mark

 

True Happiness

Over the last couple of months I’ve had the opportunity to read two interesting and in some ways similar books as a participant in our Wednesday and Thursday morning study groups.  On Wednesday mornings we read A Complaint Free World” by Will Bowen and on Thursdays it was the book Happy? What it is and How to Find It by Matt Miofsky (a book that others of you read in one of our Sunday morning groups).  Both of these books deal with ways to develop a more positive outlook on life and the spiritual benefits that come when we can manage to do so.

At the same time, I was preparing for our summer sermon series on the fruit of the Spirit from the book of Galatians.  As I studied and pondered this important passage, I realized that many of these qualities that Paul listed here as signs that a person is “guided by the Spirit” were the same ones as those listed in the other two books as ways to have a more “glass half-full” view of the world.   And so I began to make the connection between “happiness” and “fruitfulness”.  In other words, as we begin to cultivate and live out fruits of the Spirit such as joy, peace, and patience, it may just change the way we look at the world for the better. 

As both books (and the Bible) point out, we can try to root our happiness in the material things of the world—wealth, possessions, etc.  But as Jesus says more than once, true contentment cannot be found in things that don’t last and/or that we can’t take with us.  On the other hand, if we were to truly grow and share the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—do you think we might find true and lasting happiness in that way of life?  I have a feeling that both Jesus and Paul would answer that question with a resounding “yes!”  And further, I am realizing that in gifting us with these fruits and then calling us to grow and share them, God really does desire that we live more meaningful and even more contented lives. 

So you can consider this another invitation to join us in worship on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings during July as we continue to unpack the fruit of the Spirit.  As we learn how to be more fruitful in all of these ways, I understand now even further the impact on our lives that comes from living each of them out in new and deeper ways.

Blessings,

Mark

 

Being Fruit-full

Carolin and I were recently called to a meeting with all other ordained pastors of the Michigan area with our new Bishop, Rev.
David Bard.  This event was held as a ”get to know each other” time, since Bishop Bard has been our resident bishop for less than a year.
At the worship service, he preached in part on the “Fruits of the Spirit” passage from the book of Galatians, and concluded by telling us pastors that we could do nothing better than living by and teaching these fruits to our congregation.  In his opinion, if all of us Christians lived out the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, both the church and the world would be a much better place.  The irony in all of this is that we had already decided to cover the Fruits of the Spirit collectively and then individually during a good portion of our summer worship services (beginning on Sunday, June 18th and then in both the Sunday and Wednesday evening services through the end of July).  It was good to know that according to our Bishop, we were on the right track!

As I have begun to ponder these ways of living and treating other people, I am realizing even more that Bishop Bard (and Paul before him) was absolutely on target.  As I look at the list of the Fruits of the Spirit, I am also understanding once more that for all of us, some are easier to live out than others.  After seeing the list again, you may already be asking yourself question like “How am I at being patient when something or someone is slowing me down?  How can I ever be kind to that person who drives me absolutely crazy?  How am I at showing self-control in the face ofsomething that really tempts me? —on and on the questions go!   I am sure that as we address many of these questions in the weeks to come, we will all come to the conclusion that bearing these fruits in our daily life is no easy task.  But the truth in all of this is that unlike when we go fruit shopping at the grocery store, when it comes to the Fruits of the Spirit, we can’t pick and choose as to which ones we like the most!   May that challenge be an encouragement for you to join with us in worship as we discuss and celebrate these fruits that God has planted within each of us. 

Peace,

Pastor Mark

The Resurrection Road

             I’ve always found it interesting that there is sometimes the attitude among Christians that the Easter story is the conclusion of the story of Jesus’ earthly life.  While it is true that any story pales in comparison to the stunning tale of the empty tomb and resurrection, at the same time, the forty days betweenEaster and Jesus’ ascension into heaven was a time when the risen Jesus seemed to be all over the place—breaking into locked rooms, teaching the disciples how to more successfully fish, forgiving them when that was the last thing they deserved,  breaking bread at a dinner, and perhaps most importantly, giving us the Great Commission (“go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”)

As we’ve given some attention to these stories in worship these weeks after Easter, I am realizing again that we forget these stories at our own peril. For when we realize that Easter is not the end of Jesus’ earthly story, we can only come to the conclusion that the risen Christ, with all of the hope and forgiveness that he brings, still is “all over the place” today.   When we hear these stories as those who still experience his presence with us, we get the full power of the Easter event.  And as those who like to call ourselves “Easter people”, we can really only do so if we profess a belief that Easter wasn’t a one-time event long ago, but an ongoing promise of God’s new life through Christ working in us and through us.  

The Lord's Prayer

A study of the stories of Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament shows that generally speaking, the disciples asked very little of Jesus.  But there was a time when apparently they had witnessed some Pharisees (who were highly educated teachers of the Old Testament) praying long and flowery prayers, as was their custom.  Remember that in terms of training and Biblical understanding, the disciples were the exact opposite of the Pharisees—having come to follow Jesus from careers as fishermen, tax collectors, etc.   And so the request the disciples make to Jesus is a simple one—“Teach us how to pray.”  (Luke 11:1) 

If they were expecting a long theological treatise on the practice of prayer, they got anything but.  Instead Jesus gave them a few lines of what he considered to be the “ideal” prayer, and the rest is history.  What has come to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer” says as much about what we believe about God and what God can do for us and through us as any passage of scripture or creed.  Stewardship, forgiveness, temptation, heaven, holiness, the Kingdom—all of these issues and more are contained in this brief, “unflowery” prayer. 

All of these years later, the danger for us is one of over-familiarity.  I often wonder if we really fully grasp the prayer’s meaning when we pray it as a community every Sunday.  So to address this issue, during the season of Lent, we will be focusing on the Lord’s Prayer a line or two at a time in our Sunday worship services.  It’s my hope that by doing so, we will all come to a better (or even new) appreciation of this timeless answer of our great Teacher as to how we are to pray. 

We are also offering a companion book to read during Lent if you want to know more about the Lord’s Prayer.  Pray Like Jesus: Rediscovering the Lord’s Prayer is a brand new book by the UM pastor and writer/blogger Don Underwood.  You can pick up a copy in the church office for $10 to either read on your own, or join the Wednesday morning men’s group (that meets at Flap Jack at 6:00 a.m.), the Thursday morning study group (that meets at Bob Evans at 7:30 a.m.), or the Sunday morning adult class that meets at 11:00 a.m. if you would like to be a part of a group discussion of the book and the prayer. 

In the meantime, begin to ponder what the Lord’s Prayer means to you.  As you pray the familiar words, alone or in community, know that if your desire is to have a well-rounded prayer life, you could do no better than to pray this great prayer.

In prayer,

Mark

Maturity of Heart

On the last two Sundays in February, we will be tackling in our worship services one of the more difficult passages in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (which is really saying something!).  My experience is that these verses, while they are well-known to most of us, are dealt with very little in worship and Bible studies simply because they seem so counter to our sensibilities and to our culture.  To “turn the other cheek”  (which we’ll talk about on the first Sunday) and to “love our enemies” (the topic on the second Sunday) hardly seem to be the way that we are encouraged to operate these days in our polarized times. 

The title for this worship “mini-series” will be “Grow Up!”, which is taken from The Message translation of Matthew 5:48, where Jesus issues this command to his disciples and to us.   While these words can seem harsh coming from Jesus,  what he is telling us isthatwe can only turn the other cheek and love our enemies if we have a certain maturity of our hearts.  The Message continues with Jesus saying, “You are Kingdom subjects.  Now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity…”   In these words is the reminder that we are called to help bring about God’s Kingdom, which Jesus described as a place of unconditional love and acceptance for all people.  Obviously, we can only do this if we practice the kind of radical reconciliation and forgiveness suggested from the rest of the passage. But the good news comes in the reality that we have been given a “God-created identity” which is in God’s image.  And so because God created us this way, we can love as God loves, and we can forgive as God forgives.  And so with that assurance, even in the difficult times of life, even when we are in the midst of difficult people, may we all continue to “Grow Up!” with God’s assistance and after God’s example

In God’s peace,

Mark

 

The "Why" Questions

Like all children, when our kids were toddlers, they went through what could be called the “Why?” phase.  At that point, they had a deep curiosity simply to know why things worked the way they did.  Those who study child development tell us that this is a normal part of a child’s intellectual growth.  We also noticed that as they became adolescents, they entered another “Why?” phase—at this point, they often wondered what the purpose was behind what they were being asked to do at home or at school.  Again, this was another normal phase of development during which they were beginning to make life choices and deciding where to invest their time and efforts.  And if their “Why?” question wasn’t answered to their satisfaction, they often moved on to other pursuits that they perceived to be more purposeful, if that was an option.

I believe that we live in a culture that is constantly asking “Why?” questions.  Like our teenaged children, we are busy people, with many options as to where we spend our time and resources.  This includes our religious life and the choices available to all of us as to how we fulfill our spiritual needs.  Unfortunately, we who choose the church as the place where that happens are not always very adept at answering the “Why?” questions.  And so when someone asks us why we believe what we do or why the church is important to us, we are not sure exactly how to answer. 

With this dilemma in mind, I am looking forward to our upcoming worship series entitled “Why?”  On successive weeks beginning on Sunday,  January 15th, , we will talk about the following essential “Why?” questions:  “Why God?” , “Why Jesus?”, “Why the Church?”  and “Why Our Church?”  What I’ve discovered as I’ve pondered these questions over the years is that if I can’t answer them succinctly and satisfactorily for myself, it is very difficult to give a good answer to someone who asks me a question like “Can’t I be a Christian without going to church?”  What I’ve also learned is that the Bible has many answers to these questions, so we will take a look at some of the helpful passages that we can use to formulate our answers.  I hope to also take some time for open sharing during the services as well so that you might share your answers to these questions. 

Two things are clear in considering these questions:  First, until we figure out why we are a part of a church together, it is difficult to be focused on our mission and vision.  Second,  it may not be an overstatement to say that the future of our church and the universal church depends on us being able to know and then share why we believe what we believe and then why we live out our beliefs as we do.  Because the reality is that there are countless people who are searching for answers and for a community in which to grow in spirit.  If we can be clear in what Jesus and the church mean to us, then we will be more effective in inviting others to join us!

Blessings,

 Mark

 

Advent Journeys

One of the meaningful metaphors for the Christian life of faith is that it is like a “journey”.  This image implies that as disciples, we are always moving forward in our understanding of Christ and how he is calling us to new places in our walk of faith.  If your experience is like mine, you know that sometimes this journey is a literal/physical one, where God has called us to go to some actual new place in order to fulfill the claim on our life.  Other times the journeys we take are spiritual in nature, where through some experience (participation in a Bible study, an answered prayer, a worship experience, etc.) we sense that we have come to a new place in our relationship with Christ.  Perhaps the most helpful reminder in this image is that we are never to be stagnant or immovable in any facet of our discipleship. 

The book we are studying as a church during Advent, The Journey by Adam Hamilton shows that the characters in the Christmas story were no different.  While the book is arranged according to the geographical journeys that mark the story (Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, for example), it also stresses the spiritual journeys that these familiar figures undertook.  We can hardly imagine the journey that Mary took when she discovered that God had chosen her to bear the Messiah, or the inner journey that Joseph took toward acceptance of her when he found out she was pregnant.  In our small groups and in worship, we will be studying these journeys, and no doubt finding relevance in them in relation to our own. It’s my hope and prayer as we take this particular Advent journey together, we will move closer not just to the true meaning of Christmas, but also closer to a fuller understanding of the sacrifice and growth that are a part of all of our journeys of faith. 

A final reminder that it’s not too late to pick up a book (or the companion devotional book) and join a group.  The sign-ups remain in the welcome area at the church.

Blessings on your Advent journey

Thanks-Living

As I have been participating in our current Bible studies on the Psalms, I have again been struck by how many of them are what could only be classified as prayers of thanksgiving.  What is even more amazing is that many of these Psalms were written and used in worship in tough times for the people of Israel—times when we would least expect a spirit of thanksgiving from that community.  And so a big part of our class discussions have centered on the ability of those people to hang on to their willingness to give thanks to God even in the midst of dire circumstances (and how it can be difficult for us to follow their example). 

Perhaps a clue to all of this is found in the fact that the verb “to thank” in ancient Hebrew is an action verb that means far more than just being grateful.  The word actually implies an active commitment to the one who has supplied for our needs and/or brought us out of our own dire situations.  It is this kind of thankfulness that Paul speaks to much later when he reminds us that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

On the two Sundays leading up to Thanksgiving Day, we will spend some time in worship talking about the necessity for each of us to be thankful in all circumstances and in all of our prayers.  On the topic of thanksgiving prayers, I will refer to Anne Lamott’s practical and even humorous little book on prayer entitled Thanks, Help, Wow in which she recognizes that while these three kinds of prayers are necessary parts of our prayer life, the “thanks” prayers should always come first!

So in anticipation of this worship mini-series we are entitling “Thanks-Living”, I would urge us all to spend a little more time in giving thanks to our Creator God,  not just in our prayers, but also in re-committing ourselves to the One who makes all things possible, who always brings us up out of our own desperate situations.  It is also my hope that these services will be real thanksgiving celebrations that will sustain and empower us to be truly thankful to our loving God well beyond Thanksgiving Day!

In a spirit of thanksgiving,

Mark