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

 

Defying Gravity

“Have you ever felt that you are being pulled by an invisible force, that there is something beyond your rational mind and thinking that directs your behavior?”…so begins Tom Berlin’s new book Defying Gravity:  Break Free from the Culture of More which is the centerpiece of our annual stewardship campaign that officially begins on Sunday, October 9th and concludes with a commitment celebration on Sunday, October 30th.  As I have pondered that question, I am starting to better recognize all of the forces in my own life (often that I’m not even totally aware are influencing me) that effect my generosity in sharing the gifts that God has given me, both materially and spiritually, back to God and his Kingdom.

I am also more fully realizing the power of these seen and unseen forces that influence us.  You can call them materialism, consumerism, peer pressure, coveting what our neighbor has (and we don’t), or simply the need to be busy all the time in order to build our self-image.  This last force is one that is so critical for us to break free from if we are to be as generous with our time in service to God as God calls us to be as his disciples.  

Over the four weeks of the campaign, we will be exploring in worship not just these forces, but steps to take to break free from them—ways that we might “defy the gravity” of the world and its ways in order to live more generously and faithfully for God’s Kingdom, which is a place where the forces are very different.  In the Kingdom, it is the forces of justice and mercy that determine how we use our time, treasure, and talents. 

It is my hope that you will join me in reading this important book.  We have copies available in the church office for $10. You will also be receiving a mailing from the church that will include a commitment card for you to prayerfully complete and bring with you to worship on October 30th (or send in to the church if you cannot be with us that morning).  Cards will be available to pick up at church any time during the campaign. 

As I’ve been looking ahead to the campaign with this theme of “defying gravity” I keep returning to the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus asking him what it would take for him to have a place in the Kingdom.  When Jesus answers that he must break free from his need to accumulate and consume more and more and give what he has to the poor, the story ends with the man going away with sadness, knowing that he is unable to defy the gravity of the world in that way.  It is my prayer that as we study and talk about (and are honest about) the forces in our own lives that have kept us from full participation in the Kingdom, unlike this man, we will be empowered not just to recognize them, but to break free from them and soar upward and onward in our journey toward true discipleship!

Blessings,

Mark

 

From Despair to Hope

Do you ever watch the news on television or read the newspaper and feel like weeping?  In our tumultuous times, there are days when it is hard not to react that way to what is going on in the world.  What I have learned over the years is that when that feeling of despair is creeping into my spirit, I could do no better than to turn to the words of the prophet Jeremiah.  The reason for this is that Jeremiah lived in equally turbulent times—times when the culture and nation of Israel were collapsing all around him.  In the midst of all of the trials and tribulations, Jeremiah refused to be in denial, speaking words of judgment (that never failed to get him in trouble with the authorities), and at the same time, offering a vision of a “new covenant” as a sign of hope for his people.

The other interesting thing about Jeremiah’s life and words was his tendency to use concrete objects and actions to symbolize his message.  A potter’s wheel, a cracked cistern, the buying of a field, the building of houses, the planting of gardens—all of these and more are examples of everyday items and activities that Jeremiah used (or actually did) to make his points of evil, repentance, and faith.  Beginning in mid-September, we will be exploring some of these timeless images in our worship services to see how they might speak to us in our own unsettling times. As Eugene Peterson has written:

“Anyone who lives in disruptive times looks for companions who have been through them earlier, wanting to know how they went through it, how they made it, what it was like. In looking for a companion who has lived through catastrophic disruption and survived with grace,…people more often than not come upon Jeremiah and receive him as a true, honest, and God-revealing companion for the worst of times.”

If you feel the need for a companion through your own disruptive times, I hope you will join us for these services as we journey with Jeremiah from despair to hope.

Blessings,

 Mark

 

A Helping Attitude

            I, like all of you, have been greatly disturbed and saddened by the numerous stories of violence and death that have rocked our nation over the last few weeks.  But amidst the horror and hopelessness, I couldn’t fail to notice how the scripture stories that we were dealing with in worship during July were so appropriate and helpful in how we might respond as Christians.   These stories in which Jesus emphasizes what it takes to be a good neighbor and how we might turn our own neighborhoods into glimpses of God’s Kingdom could not have been more relevant.  Whether it was the Good Samaritan stopping to offer help to the man alongside the road, or the man himself accepting that help, or the stories about how to be hospitable to all of our neighbors, Jesus’ words to us offer a prescription of how to bring all people closer to each other.   They also emphasize the necessity of attitudes like empathy, compassion, and concern for our neighbors—or even more, these stories speak of the necessity of turning those attitudes into actions. 

            At one point during worship, I shared a portion of a longer prayer that I received from United Theological Seminary (where I attended) that included these words that spoke to my heart in the midst of all of the tragedies:

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
 In Jesus we find rescue over sin.
 In Jesus violence and death are overcome.
 In Jesus all persons receive grace.
 In Jesus all are laid bare so that all can be made holy.
 In Jesus perfect love casts out fear.
 Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

            I think these words spoke to me because they emphasize inclusion and love—two elements that seem sorely lacking in our culture these days.  They also speak to the promise of Christ to come and make the world right, and in the meantime, the role we have as his followers to bring about this vision in our own neighborhoods.  May God be with you as you do what you can to share God’s grace and to cast out fear through your perfect love of all persons. 

In the name of the Prince of Peace,

Mark

Neighbor Encounter

            During our July worship services on Sundays and Wednesday evenings, we will be exploring the gospel of Luke, especially the stories in chapters 10-12.  The centerpiece of this section is the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.   As I ponder this story again, I am realizing that both the question that Jesus is answering by telling the story (“Who is my neighbor?”),   and the story itself are becoming more and more vital to our understanding of discipleship and service in our increasingly diverse world.

            I have always believed that we need to look at this story from two perspectives.  First, through the eyes of the Samaritan, who is willing to stop to assist the man alongside the road who should have been his enemy, we understand just how wide Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” really is (that would be everyone!).  But we also need to appreciate the actions of the injured man, who is able to accept help from another person who he would previously considered the “lowest of the low” to the point of being untouchable.  For some of us, his behavior is more difficult to accept because following his example means swallowing our pride at the very least.  My experience is that many of us good Christian folks are better at giving aid than receiving it, especially from people we don’t know and/or are different than us.

            Again, all of this is more and more relevant in a world in which cultural boundaries are rapidly disappearing.  The reality is that we don’t have to go far to encounter neighbors that are radically dissimilar to us.  The question remains whether we are able to expand our understanding of “neighbor” as much as the Samaritan, the man who accepted his assistance, and Jesus himself.

Blessings,

Mar

Moving Backward

Whenever I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I am reminded of the analogy made by the commentator Mary Hinkle Shore about its overall message:

“If you have ever returned a rental car, you have driven over those spikes that are made to ensure that the rental cars are not stolen out of the lot.  The spikes collapse when you drive forward over them, but if you were to back up, the spikes would presumably stay upright and cause, as the sign says, “severe tire damage”.  To read Galatians is to witness Paul trying to spare the damage caused by backing up.  The Galatians are easing the car into reverse, and Paul is waving his arms and shouting, “No!”

For Paul, the specific issue was that the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians in the region of Galatia were being persuaded by the formerly Jewish Christians to “back up” intoOld Testament practices such as circumcision and strict observance of kosher rules about cleanliness in order to be accepted as members of this new movement.  Paul saw all of this as being unnecessary—for him, their faith in Christ was enough to include them in their communities of faith. 

When I read this letter with fresh eyes, I always realize again all of the ways we modern Christians can fall into the trap of moving backward rather than forward.  Obsessing with where we have fallen short, where we have made mistakes, where we have failed to forgive others or ourselves—all of these are examples of how we can do damage to our spirits by always “backing up”.  To use another “automotive analogy”, it is a dangerous thing to always be looking in the rear-view mirror instead of through the windshield!

During June, we will spend some time in worship on some crucial passages from this important and timeless letter.  Specifically, we will see how Paul’s response to the threat to these new Christians is summed up by the phrase that appears over and over—that because of their faith, they have been given the gift of “freedom in Christ”.  Through Paul’s words, we will see how Christ frees us from all of the things that hold us back in spirit and in practice.  Further, we will celebrate this kind of freedom that instead of giving us the opportunity to do whatever we want, actually focuses us on new opportunities for service and witness.  In other words, the bottom line of Paul’s message is that through Christ, we are freed to be the disciples he calls us to be!  

Blessings,

Pastor Mark

Which Jesus?

Recently in our Jesus in the Gospels classes, we spent a session reading and discussing the events of Holy Week, especially the actions of Jesus.  Our study books ended the lesson with this thought-provoking passage:

 “(Holy Week) presents two differing images of Jesus—the humble, silent man riding into Jerusalem and the assertive figure striding into the Temple.  Disciples might therefore conclude that they may choose which Jesus to regard as the model to be followed.  But choosing either image, we would—unwittingly—replace following a whole Jesus with following that aspect of Jesus that confirms what we prefer. But is not the whole point of following Jesus that we should be more challenged than reinforced?”

Reading these words led to discussion of “which Jesus” is more likely to be found not just as our own preference, but as the preference of the church.  And there was general agreement that most of us have heard much more about the “humble Jesus” than the assertive, more prophetic Jesus.  This is not surprising, since the former image of him is much more comforting, while the latter forces us into a mode of self-examination (as individuals and as the church).  And the further truth is that it is not just in the midst of the Holy Week stories that we get these contrasting views of Jesus, they occur throughout the gospel accounts of his life.   In many places we see Jesus alternating between “servant” and “prophet”, often within the same story.

As we prepare to hear the Holy Week stories again, the call for each of us is to feel both the comfort (that Jesus would die for us as the ultimate act of humility and servanthood) and at the same time to be confronted by the reality that there are times when we deny and betray Jesus ourselves. We need to remember that when Jesus says to his disciples that “one of you will betray me”, he is not just talking about Judas.  These dual views of Jesus and his message are necessary for us to embrace if we are to grow in our discipleship, for when we follow the “whole Jesus”, the truth is that comfort and challenge always go hand-in-hand. 

Blessings,

Mark

 

Lenten Journey

                  As Christians, we frequently compare our faith development to a life-long journey where we progress along the road to fuller maturity in our understanding of and living for Christ and his message.  Every year at this time, we also speak of a “Lenten journey” as we travel in a symbolic sense with Jesus toward Jerusalem and what awaits him there.  For us, the journey of Lent is one of contemplation and repentance as we grow in our appreciation of God’s sacrifice for our sake. 

It’s my hope that our church-wide small group and worship resource for Lent, the book The Gift of New Creation by Thomas Ehrich will deepen our understanding of the journey of this season.  Ehrich is a former Wall Street Journal reporter turned Episcopal priest turned radio host and blogger who in the book examines the traditional Lectionary scriptural passages for each Sunday through the lens of a cross-country journey that he took a few years ago.  What he learned on his journey (among other things) was that the call of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets for justice and mercy for all people is one that still resonates today.  He also writes eloquently of the desired end for all of our faith journeys—that of transformation and new life in Christ. 

As in the past, there are numerous small group meeting days and times to enable the participation of as many folks as possible (see the article elsewhere in this issue of The Hotline or check out the sign-up sheets in the welcome area at church).  I will also be speaking on one of the Biblical passages discussed in the book every Sunday in worship.  I hope that we all will be able to participate in this congregation-wide journey with Jesus to the cross and beyond. 

Blessings on the journey!

 Mark

 

God with Us

Over the years, the season of Epiphany has become much more to me than simply a “filler” between Christmas and Lent.   Actually, the observance of Epiphany in the Christian church—both the day (January 6th, twelve days after Christmas) and the season, is older than the actual celebration of Christmas on December 25th.  And the name comes from a Latin word meaning “manifestation” (or “appearance”), which explains both the significance of the season and the Bible stories that are traditionally read during this time.   As we will see and hear during worship, the stories offer us signs or symbols of how and why Jesus is the true manifestation of God on earth.  From the star that the wise men follow, to the dove that comes down on Jesus at his baptism, to the water jars at Cana that are suddenly filled with wine, the traditional stories of Epiphany show us through these signs that Jesus was (and still is) the ultimate and eternal sign of God’s presence on earth.

The meaning of the season for us 21st-century Christians is significant.  In a time when it can be seen as a weakness of faith to look or ask for signs of God’s presence with us, the season and the stories are reminders that even today, Jesus has a way of manifesting God’s presence in our lives if we are willing to step out in faith and see him in the world and in other people.  The question you might ask yourself during these weeks is “How is God made manifest in and through my life?”  As the question implies, during the season of Epiphany, we are also to consider the ways in which we might be “signs” of God’s presence in the world.  

There is a wonderful traditional prayer from the Church of England that is prayed on the Day of Epiphany:

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples on earth; Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the  Holy Spirit, one God , now and forever,  Amen. 

May this prayer be yours as you journey through the season!

Blessings,

Mark

 

The Questions of Advent

As I have looked forward to our Advent worship series entitled “The Questions of Advent”, I have been remembering the questions of the season that would have concerned me most when I was a kid.  Back then, the main question I had as Christmas approached was probably “I wonder what Santa will bring me this year?”  As I’ve gotten older, I must admit that there is still the tendency to be consumed by material questions such as “I wonder when I will be able to do my Christmas shopping?”  and “What do I get for people who don’t need much?”  In all of this, I am realizing that the stress that many of us feel this time of year has to do with our frantic attempts to come up with answers to questions like those.

On the other hand, the Adventstories contained in the gospel of Luke offer us questions of a very different nature.  As the well-known characters of the story (Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, etc.) are confronted with the opportunity to play a role in the story of Jesus’ birth, without exception their first reaction is to ask a question of the messenger (usually the angel Gabriel).  And while their questions are very natural ones to ask given their situations, they are also of a much deeper, more spiritual tone than the ones that we obsess about this time of year.  And they are questions that face us (whether we realize it or not) any time we sense God calling us to a new opportunity to serve.  For example, Elizabeth’s question in relation to her assigned role as the mother of John the Baptist (especially as a woman who considered herself much too old to give birth to a child)—“Why has this happened to me?” is one that we can’t help but ask of God when we sense He is calling us in a new or unexpected direction. 

It is my hope that as we examine these characters and their questions in the weeks before and after Christmas, we will come to a deeper understanding not just of the Christmas story, but also how this familiar story can bring us to some deeper, more personal questions about its meaning in our lives.   My sense is that if we begin toponder some of Luke’s questions,  those more material questions that have been weighing on us will have much less pull on our thoughts and our time. 

You will also have an opportunity to participate in a deeper way by taking part in a small discussion/study group (on Tuesday or Sunday mornings).  These groups will focus on the book Exploring Advent with Luke:  Four Questions for Spiritual Growth.  In this book, author Timothy Clayton discusses the questions asked by Luke’s characters in greater depth than will be possible during the worship services.  If you are unable to attend the small group sessions, we have extra books available in the office (including study guides) for anyone who is interested in learning more.

I hope you will plan to join us for these meaningful services.  And I also hope you will bring those Advent questions that are causing stress in your life with you—hopefully after hearing and pondering the questions of those original players in the Christmas story, you will be able to leave them behind!  

Blessings,

Mark