Radical Life Changes

One of the most familiar conversion stories not just in the Bible, but in the consciousness of even non-Christians is the story of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in Acts 9.   The story is so well-known that the phrase “Damascus Road experience” has become synonymous with a moment of radical life change for persons of all backgrounds.  And it is a spectacular story -- of a man then known as Saul on his way to Damascus in order to persecute Christians only to be encountered by the voice of Christ in a blinding light calling him to continue on to the city for further instructions.

Did you know that as Saul reaches Damascus another conversion story is played out?  This comes when the Lord speaks to a Christian man named Ananias, telling him to find and then care for and even heal Saul of his blindness.  Ananias’ first response to this call is to be expected as one whom Saul was probably coming to town to persecute.  He tells the Lord basically that Saul’s reputation has preceded him to Damascus.  Inherent in his words is the fear he must have been feeling in the wake of this call by God to reach out to a man he would have considered a mortal enemy.   And we can easily forget that without Ananias’ willingness to answer his call, the completion of Saul’s conversion experience would not have happened.

On the first two Sundays of May, we will be examining both call stories within the larger story in worship.  This will allow us to think about how God’s call can happen in our lives—perhaps a call like Saul’s that is so spectacular it takes us in a totally different direction on our life journey.  Or maybe we are sensing a quieter call like Ananias’ to overcome our fear in order to reach out to a person we’ve been avoiding, even for very good reasons.   In either case, there is much to be learned from this familiar story.  I hope you will join us for this series we are calling “Change Happens!”

 

Blessings,

 Mark

Options In the Midst of Uncertainty

As I shared a couple of weeks ago in an email sent to everyone on our list, the recent United Methodist General Conference made decisions that will keep the restrictions in our Book of Discipline dealing with same-sex marriages and the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing “ LGBTQIA  persons (the so-called “Traditional Plan”).  This plan was passed very narrowly over a plan that would have given churches, pastors, and annual conferences choices in how inclusive they wish to be toward the LGBTQIA community.   In the midst of the uncertainty following the conference, Bishop David Bard of our Michigan Area has met with all pastors and also sent a letter to all churches (that was shared in worship at HUMC on March 3rd) and then a separate letter to all laypersons in leadership in our churches.  I thought it would be helpful to share portions of this letter with all of you, for his words have great wisdom in these times of upheaval in our denomination:

“I know that that among (our) congregations there are a variety of reactions to General Conference, from pleased to pained, from deep disappointment to a deep sense of relief…the realities in our congregations are complicated…What most agree upon is that this is a challenging and difficult time for the UMC. Emotions continue to run high…How might we lead together in such a time as this?   I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to lead from a place that acknowledges all the thoughts, feelings, and experiences within you and within the people in your places of ministry.  I invite you to encourage others to such acknowledgement…The future may include a United Methodist Church that is no longer united.  General Conference starkly revealed the depth of our divisions and some of the animosity they generate.  Might those who seek more space for LGBTQIA persons and ministry with these persons seek a new expression of Methodism?  Might those who fully support the Traditional Plan decide to do something new?  Might there be as yet unexplored possibilities for a new kind of connectionalism?  Uncertainty remains, but I am committed to thinking creatively with you and others about options in the midst of uncertainty…Though this is a difficult time for the UMC, with feelings running high and uncertainty in the air, the ministry to which God called all of us remains.  Hungry people need feeding. Those mired in poverty need people to accompany them…People feeling unloved need to be loved and welcomed…” 

As I shared in my earlier email, my commitment (and I’m sure yours too!) will continue to be that our church remain loving, welcoming, and inclusive of all of God’s children.  I celebrate HUMC’s long tradition of having these values, and in these increasingly uncertain times (not just in our denomination) we must continue to follow the way of Jesus, who was and still is the embodiment of them.

 

Embracing the Uncertain

            During the season of Lent, we will as a community be studying the book Embracing the Uncertain:  A Lenten Study for Unsteady Times by Margrey deVega, a UM pastor from Florida.  All are invited to participate in discussion groups that will be happening during the weeks of Lent (sign-ups are in the welcome area), or you can pick up a book in the church office to read on your own.   On Sunday mornings, we will be further examining each chapter as well. 

            “Embracing the Uncertain”—in all honesty, as I have been pondering the title of the book, my first reaction has been to wonder if this is at the very least an oxymoron (like “jumbo shrimp”, etc.) or simply a very counterintuitive suggestion.  After all, who wants to embrace the uncertainties of life?  If you are like me, when areas of uncertainties arise in my day-to-day existence,  I am more likely to try to deny them or even escape them in a haze of false assurances that “everything is going to be okay.”   But embrace them? 

            In the forward to the book, Rev. deVega reminds us that the season of Lent in many ways is a time filled with uncertainty, at least Biblically speaking.  Imagine that you are one of the disciples journeying with Jesus in his final days on earth.  Imagine the uncertainties you would feel as you hear the predictions that he is making about his own fate.  Stand alongside Peter, who more than once basically told Jesus to “stop talking like that!”  (a classic case of denial if there ever was one).   But as the book says, “Lent is an invitation for us to engage life’s uncertainties, not ignore them.”

            This study is especially important for us living as we do in a world that is filled with uncertainties.  As the subtitle suggests, we are in “unsteady times” in the world, in our country and in the church.  Even our denomination faces uncertain times in light of our special General Conference that will have been held by the time you read this.  And it can be easy to feel overwhelmed in the midst of it all.  But for us followers of Christ, there is assurance to be found at the end of our Lenten journey.   As Rev. deVega writes:

            “It is only by embracing the uncertain that we can fully acknowledge the power

            and the proof of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is at the empty tomb that

            we discover that the ground has settled, our footing is sure, and that there is only

            one source for a firm foundation upon which to build our lives.”

 

            So it is my hope that you will be able to participate in our communal discussion of this very helpful book.  And that you will, with the power of the Resurrection guiding you and empowering you, gain strength in your life of faith by embracing your uncertainties.

 

In faith,

Mark

Living Out Love

            “Love is patient, love is kind…”  My guess is that many of us could continue this line almost by rote.  As you probably know, it comes from 1 Corinthians 13, the so-called “Love Chapter”, which is one of the most familiar Biblical passages even for the general public (perhaps even more than Psalm 23).  The reason for this is that anyone who has been to weddings has probably heard it in those settings any number of times.  In my role, I long ago lost count of how many times I have read this at weddings.   

            While I am more than happy to read this chapter for wedding ceremonies when asked to do so, at the same time, I try to explain to the couple and the congregation at the service that Paul didn’t intend this to be a passage read in that setting.  No, he wrote this out of his concern for a larger group of people than a couple getting married,  namely the congregation in that new church in Corinth.  If you read 1 Corinthians in its entirety, it’s easy to see why Paul felt the need to write these words for them.  What is clear is that they were struggling to get along with each other for a number of reasons--each person assuming they were more gifted than the others, those who were wealthy lording their privilege over those who were less fortunate, etc.  And so to that audience, Paul begins the passage by saying that even if we have exquisite gifts to share, and we do so without a spirit of love, we are “noisy gong or a clashing cymbal”.  In other words, it’s nothing but noise! 

            To me, these words speak to us not just when we are in church, but when we are a part of any community (even the community of marriage and family).  If we are to live out the kind of love of which Paul speaks, the kind of love we have all received from our loving God, we have no choice but to treat others with patience and kindness, and without any trace of arrogance or rudeness.  

            In the three Sundays after Valentine’s Day (which seemed appropriate!), we will be examining the entire Love Chapter together in worship.  Hopefully we will learn together about how to live in the kind of love that Paul is advocating in all of the communities in which we find ourselves. 

 

In Christian Love,

Mark

A Way Forward

As you may be aware, there will be a special General Conference of the United Methodist Church held in St. Louis, MO on February 23rd-26th.    The sole purpose of this meeting will be to discern the way forward for the UMC on the issue of inclusion of the LGBTQ community.  Our denomination has wrestled with this matter since 1972, so the hope is that some resolutions can be agreed upon.  Here is a brief summary of what has happened up to this point in preparation for the Conference.  This is information that can be found in much greater detail on our Conference website (www.michiganumc.org/resources/a-way-forward/),

At the 2016 General Conference, a Commission on the Way Forward was established in order to formulate possible plans that could be adopted so that the UMC could address perhaps in new ways the inclusion of LGBTQ persons.  Currently, there are restrictions in our Book of Discipline that forbid pastors from officiating at same-sex weddings (and for churches to host them), as well as for the ordination and licensing of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” as pastors.  Over the last two years, the diverse group of persons who make up the Commission have met frequently and have subsequently come up with three possible ways forward for the denomination that will be considered and voted upon at the General Conference.   Their full report can be accessed on the above website, but very briefly, these plans are:

The One Church Plan would remove the restrictive language from the Discipline and at the same time allow pastors and churches who wish to retain the restrictions to do so without penalty.  While no official “church vote” would be needed, a church may desire to change its wedding policies.   A majority of UM bishops are in support of this plan.

The Connectional Conference Plan would replace our current geographically-based Jurisdictional Conferences (we are in the North Central Jurisdiction) with three affinity-based conferences—Progressive (which would remove all restrictions), Unity (which would be similar to the One Church plan), and Traditional (which would retain the restrictions).  Annual Conferences, local churches, pastors, and bishops would choose in which new Jurisdictional Conference to have membership. 

The Traditionalist Plan would retain all restrictions as well as standardize the penalties for pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings.  This plan would also offer a path for churches who desire to be more inclusive to exit the denomination.  Exactly what this would look like has not yet been fully determined. 

In addition to many anticipated motions to amend the above plans, there are also other plans that will be brought before the Conference from individuals and/or groups other than the  Commission on the Way Forward.  So in conclusion, there is no way to know exactly what the outcome of the Conference will be.  In the meantime, I am encouraging all of us to be as informed as possible.  There are detailed summaries of the three plans and a resource list on the table outside the sanctuary.   This list includes two helpful books available for purchase in the church office—Is It Time:  Helping Laity and Clergy Discuss Homosexuality One Question at a Time and Living Faithfully:  Human Sexuality and the United Methodist Church.  This second book is designed as a four-week small group study.  I would be happy to lead a group during February if there is sufficient interest, so watch for a sign-up opportunity in January. 

In the meantime, I would urge you to pray!  Pray for the four delegates from our Michigan Annual Conference who will represent us at the General Conference, and pray for our denomination that we might find a “way forward” in being the church into the future. 

Blessings,

 Pastor Mark

Signs of Advent

                 So have you seen the signs that Christmas is coming?  It’s hard to miss them, when by October the stores already have Christmas displays front and center.  Or maybe you are a fan of the Hallmark channel, where there seem to be Christmas movies on all year round! I remember as a kid that there was a radio station in town that played Christmas carols at a certain time of day all year round as well, and then hearing those carols as a student being played over the sound system in the halls at Kinawa Middle School in Okemos.

A more difficult question may be to ask ourselves where we see signs of the coming of Christ this time of year.  Living amidst the rampant commercialism, the lights, clamor and chaos of our times, those signs can be easy to miss.  This is not true in the Bible, where in the Old Testament, particularly in the books telling the stories and sharing the messages of prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, the signs of the coming Messiah are everywhere.  And during the season of Advent, these are the stories that we typically read.   And if we are paying attention, we hear how the prophets were able to see signs that the people around them did not, often at their own peril. 

During this season of Advent we will be focusing in worship on some of these signs that the prophets saw and pondering not just what they might be telling us about the Messiah who is coming again, but also what signs of the coming Christ may be out there in our own times that we might be missing.  We will also be focusing on how we might become signs of Christ ourselves in a world where it has become common to leave the “Christ” out of “Christmas”. I hope you can join us for this celebration of the signs of Advent, both back then and today. 

In Christ,

 Pastor Mark

God's Providence

Throughout 2018, we have had the opportunity in worship to spend some time in a few of the most familiar passages and stories of the Old Testament.  So far this journey has taken us through the stories of Jonah and the Big Fish, David and Goliath, and the 23rd Psalm.  As the year comes to an end, we will be making one more stop by spending the last two Sundays of November immersed in the story of Ruth. 

If you are not familiar with this story of Ruth, her mother-in-law Naomi, and her husband Boaz, rest assured that just like the other Old Testament stories we have examined, this is a tale that resonates with contemporary implications for all of us.  Among the issues that will be in front of us include the effects of loss and grief, family relationships, treatment of outsiders/immigrants, the call for us to walk with others through their difficulties, and most of all the providence of God in our times of emptiness.   Ruth’s story is also a perfect one to read in the weeks leading up to Advent, for at the end of the book we are reminded that Ruth is a part of the family tree of King David (specifically she was his great-grandmother) and thus is a part of Jesus’ lineage as well.  This connection will be made clear on the first Sunday of Advent (December 2nd) when we will read the words of the prophet Jeremiah who speaks of One who is coming as a “righteous branch from David’s (and Ruth’s) line.” 

I hope you will plan to join us on these Sundays to hear and ponder this poignant story that is filled with sorrow, empathy, love, and in the end, joy. 

 

4 C's of Stewardship

How familiar are you with the story (or actually the stories) of Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes?  It is actually one of the few stories that appear at least once in all four of the Gospels in the New Testament, which shows its important role in the ministry of Jesus.  And those are accounts that I had always thought I knew pretty well until I read the book The God Guarantee by Jack Alexander, a successful businessman who accepted Christ relatively late in his life.  In the book, he takes this story in its various versions and turns it into a multi-faceted lesson on Christian stewardship.  And he does it in ways that are so instructive that the decision was made to use the book as a basis for our annual stewardship campaign in October.

In summary, Alexander uses the story of the loaves and
fishes to illustrate what could be called the “four C’s of stewardship.”   We will be talking about them in some detail during our worship services on the last three Sundays of October, but to review them briefly, they consist of:

Capacity—When Jesus took the loaves and fishes, he was able to see the capacity in them that no one else did at that moment to feed thousands of people.   Likewise, we need to be aware of the abundant capacity God places within us and around us every day. 

Consecration—When Jesus broke the bread and blessed it, he was actually dedicating or consecrating it to God’s glory.  Can we do the same with the gifts that God has given us?

Challenge—As Jesus broke the bread, so too he occasionally “breaks” into our lives and challenges us with times that lead us to reorder our priorities for him and his kingdom.

Community—When Jesus gave the bread and fish to others to distribute to the crowd, it is a reminder that by nature, stewardship is an act that involves one community (the church) working together to serve the greater community. 

If you would be interested in reading the book as a part of your own devotional life, there will be copies of it available in the church office.

As a part of the stewardship campaign, all households will be receiving a mailing in mid-October that will contain a commitment card along with additional information.  You will also have the opportunity to opt for electronic giving to the church if that is more convenient for you.  And then on Sunday, October 28th, as a part of our Consecration Sunday, we will have an ingathering of both your commitment cards as well as canned goods for the Holt Food Bank (thus further emphasizing the “community” part of our stewardship).   I look forward to your active participation in what promises to be a meaningful time together where we will celebrate the generosity of our HUMC family in the past and into the future!

Blessings,

Pastor Mark

 

Perfection

Are you a perfectionist?  From personal experience, and as a “recovering perfectionist”, I know the dangers that can come from such a way of living!   To live a life that is driven by self-imposed expectations to reach a bar that it always just a little too high can be exhausting and stressful at the very least.

                  As I have been reading ahead in the book Unafraid by Adam Hamilton that is the focus of our church-wide study and worship in September, the chapter that has perhaps jumped out at me the most is the one entitled “Desperate to Please”. (This chapter will be the emphasis in our worship services on September 23rd).  In it, Rev. Hamilton reminds us that the roots of our perfectionism lay in our fears—the fear of not measuring up, the fear of letting people down, and most of all, the fear of letting ourselves down. 

There is little doubt that we live in a culture that almost expects perfection.  We have all heard the stories (or lived them out ourselves) of students who study endless hours to get the best grades so that they can get into the best universities.  We have heard about or experienced workplaces where expectations are so high for employees that only those who are “perfect” have any chance of reaching them.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, often spoke and wrote on the topic of human perfection.  While he was clear that in this life we need to strive to be the best disciples we can be, at the same time, he reminded us that true perfection is only achieved when we get to heaven in the presence of the only perfect One, Jesus.  And the healing stories we heard in our Wednesday night worship services during August were a further reminder that again and again, Jesus reached out to those who the world saw as the most imperfect with his love and compassion and healing.  And further, Rev. Hamilton notes that the gift of God’s grace offered to each of us is given to us not because we deserve it, not because we are perfect, but simply because God loves us despite our imperfections.

 Since perfection is such a pervasive trait for so many of us, I am sure that the small group discussions of that section of Unafraid will be very interesting!  And if perfection is something you struggle with, I hope you will join us in worship throughout the month of
September and especially on the 23rd when we will tackle the subject head-on.

Blessings,
Pastor Mark

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