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

 

Job's Story

Most of us have at least a passing acquaintance with the book of Job.  We know it most as a story of undeserved pain and suffering.  And that is certainly the central theme of Job’s life—he is a “blameless and upright” man who through no fault of his ownis forced to endure indescribable torment.  What we sometimes forget is his passionate response to his fate and how courageous it is.  In his introduction to the book of Job in The Message, Eugene Peterson sums it up like this:

“Job gives voice to his sufferings so well, so accurately and honestly, that anyone who has ever suffered—which includes every last one of us—can recognize his or her personal pain in the voice of Job.  Job says boldly what some of us are too timid to say.  He makes poetry out of what in many of us is only a tangle of confused whimpers.  He shouts out to God what a lot of us mutter behind our sleeves.  He refuses to accept the role of defeated victim.”

            During the month of November, we will be spending some time looking at Job’s story in our worship services.  As we do, we will confront with him some central questions that we all struggle with, beginning with “Why do bad things sometimes happen to good people?”  and “Why does our loving God allow this to happen?”  and “Is it ever acceptable to be angry with God?”  Beyond that, we will learn how to be good friends and companions with those who are suffering by looking at the negative example of Job’s friends, who show us how not to be helpful!

            I hope you will join us for this series, regardless of where you are presently in your journey in life.  For as Eugene Peterson says, there are inevitably times in all of our lives when Job’s story becomes our story.  We all have much to learn from this man and what he experienced in his time of suffering.  

Blessings,

Mark

Just Do It!

Here’s a little quiz:

“Just Do It!” –Is this a slogan once used by a major athletic shoe and clothing manufacturer, or is it the central message of one of the books of the New Testament?  

If you answered “yes” to both possibilities, consider yourself a well-informed consumer and Bible reader!  Most of us are well aware of that slogan that helped make Nike the corporate king of the athletic shoe market.  But those of us who appreciate the Biblical message that we are saved solely by our faith in Christ (that was also stressed by our founder, John Wesley), may not have spent much time reading the book of James, where the verse “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”  (2:12) sums up the author’s contention that we must constantly be living out our faith in order to be the disciples Jesus calls us to be. 

During the first weeks of September, we will spend some time in worship examining this book with an eye toward figuring out the never-ending balance that Christians must achieve between what we believe and what we do.  We will also take a look at what James says about living out our faith by being good listeners and how important our spoken words are to others.  Through it all, we will further understand that when it comes to living out our faith, sometimes the “why” is as important as the “how”.   It’s my opinion that James is a great book to read especially this time of year when new opportunities for service in the church are becoming available in the areas of education, stewardship, and serving on our various ministry teams.  Hopefully our time studying it will energize all of us to look for new ways to enliven our faith. 

Blessings,

Mark

The Armor of God

            My brother, who is a museum curator, likes to tell the story of a trip he made to an auction in Europe with the expressed intent of purchasing a medieval suit of armor for his museum.  The story gets very interesting when he gets to the part when, after the successful purchase of the suit, he was faced with the issue of getting it back to the US.  Suffice to say that he learned how heavy medieval armor can be, and how people look at you funny on an airplane when you have a suit of armor in the seat next to you! 

            The apostle Paul also knew something about suits of armor.  In his letter to the Ephesians, most likely written while in was in prison, he tells them that they must put on “the full armor of God” in order to stand up to the forces that were aligned against them (he calls them the “devil’s schemes”).  When he then goes on to specifically name different parts of what a typical Roman soldier would have worn for protection (helmet, sword, belt, shield, etc.), historians speculate that he was perhaps looking at a prison guard standing outside his cell when he wrote those words. 

            Toward the end of August, we will be looking at this famous passage in detail in our Wednesday and Sunday worship services by examining each piece of armor and the element of faith that Paul assigns to them.  For his audience who faced the daily threat of persecution, these images would have been crucial to their survival.  For us, even though we live in a time and place when any persecution we face for our faith is usually subtle, it is still hard to argue that we don’t need to put on the “full armor of God”.  These days,  the forces aligned against us are things like materialism , individualism, secularism, apathy, and other cultural influences that threaten both our faith as disciples and the existence of our church.  Given the power of these forces, to put on the “belt of truth” and the “shoes of peace” and the rest of the armor is just as critical for us every day is it was for those first Christians.

            So I hope that you will join us for what promises to be a very relevant look at Paul’s timeless image of the “full armor of God.”  My guess is that if you do, you will never look at a suit of armor the same way again!

Blessings,

Mark

Worship Changes and Bible Studies

I share two reminders with you:  First, as our summer worship schedule change takes place over the next few weeks, it’s my hope that you will find the schedule to be amenable to your own summer schedules.  I would also urge you to invite any friends, family members, neighbors, etc. for whom Sunday morning worship doesn’t work for whatever reason to our Wednesday evening services.  As I’ve said before, one of the advantages to offering a service during the week is that it is an opportunity to reach out to persons we might not otherwise.  But it begins with our invitations!   One other note is that the Sunday and Wednesday services will have different themes and messages so that if you attend a Sunday service and then the previous or following Wednesday service, you will not be getting a rerun!   You can see the worship schedule for July elsewhere in The Hotline.

            The other reminder is about our upcoming Bible study opportunities for which you can sign up over the next few weeks.  In the fall, we will begin a 30-week Disciple study entitled “Jesus in the Gospels” as well as an 8-week Invitation to the Old Testament study.  (There will also be an Invitation to the New Testament class offered in early 2016).  These shorter studies are in the style of the Disciple program,  but are designed for those who are unable to commit to the year-long classes.  You will find the sign-up sheets for these opportunities in the narthex where you can also indicate what day and time of week would work best for you.  As always, we will try to schedule the classes to accommodate as many persons as possible.  As always, I look forward to journeying and learning with you! 

Blessings,

Mark

A New Creation

On the last three Sundays in June, we will be exploring some of the major themes of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Corinth was an interesting place—it was a major crossroads of the ancient world, filled with people from all different backgrounds and places.  Members of the Corinthian church struggled both with the outside moral influences brought in by those from diverse cultures, as well as with conflict within the church brought on by perceived feelings of superiority that some had over others due to their advanced education (or “wisdom” as Paul calls it) and wealth. 

            And so while Paul’s theme in 1st  Corinthians focuses on the need for unity within the congregation, the second letter is more about how they are to function as followers of Christ in the outside world.   In the midst of this letter comes one of my favorite verses of the entire Bible when Paul reminds his readers/listeners that “if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation!”  (5:17a).  Actually, the more literal translation of that verse is “if anyone is in Christ—there is a whole new world!”

            And so the questions we will be exploring during these weeks will be ones such as “As you look at your life, can you envision a “whole new world” for you personally”? And keep in mind that Paul is talking about way more than just getting out of the “ ruts” that we may be in—he is talking about a whole new way of living.  And then perhaps a tougher question would be “As you look at the world (and all of the unrest and violence that is all around us), is it even possible to envision the “whole new world” that Jesus came to bring about?

            We can only answer these questions if we can see the promised “whole new world” as being a better place than where we currently are.  When we do that, we realize that Paul is offering us a vision of the kind of new world that is only possible through God’s gifts of grace, hope, and forgiveness.  And the best news of all is that these gifts are offered to us every day as followers of the one whose life, death, and resurrection made them available to us without price.  When we accept these gifts,  we can then joyfully go about the work of bringing about God’s “whole new world” to those around us.

            I would encourage you during the month to take some time to read 2nd Corinthians in its entirety.  You will find in it some great advice on living through the ups and downs of life as those who are recipients of God’s promised “whole new world”. 

Blessings,

Mark

Something New for Summer

  Here is a “heads-up” as you plan your summer schedules!  After much discussion and feedback from individuals and our ministry teams, the Leadership Team has approved a worship schedule change for the weeks between the 4th of July and Labor Day holiday weekends.   So this means that after we have a single worship service at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, July 5th, beginning on July 8th our contemporary service that normally occurs on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. will be moving to Wednesday evenings at 7:00 p.m.  This will also allow our 11:00 a.m. service to move to 10:00 a.m. for the Sundays from July 12th through Labor Day Sunday, September 6th (when we will again have a single service at 10:00 a.m.).  The final Wednesday night service will be on September 2nd .    We will then return to the “normal” schedule on Sunday, September 13th.  The 8:30 a.m. service will continue at its regular time throughout the summer except for the holiday weekends.

     This change is in response to feedback from the large number of individuals and families who are gone during many summer weekends as well as others who would appreciate an earlier time for our latest service of the morning to allow for family outings, etc.   My personal experience also tells me that another result of having a weeknight service is that we might attract some new folks who for whatever reason are unable to attend worship on Sunday mornings.

So…mark your calendars now!  And get the word out to your friends and neighbors.  I look forward to trying this schedule which hopefully is more sensitive to vacations and other summer plans that we all have.  Come fall, we will assess the success of the change as we continue to always look forward with a vision of greater inclusion for all of God’s children in the life of our church.

Confirmation Sunday

One of the greatest joys in my pastoral role is the opportunity I get to carry out the rite of confirmation to students who have completed the requirements of the confirmation program. I am always honored to be a part of such an important time in their faith journey as they become full members of the congregation by answering the questions that for most of them were answered for them by their parents at the time of their baptism.  On Sunday, May 4th, I will have the privilege of confirming Nathan Fox, Maddie Roush, Baylee Yeomans, Tyler Barnes, and Kyra McNulty at the 9:30 a.m. service. (the students will also be recognized at the beginning of the 11:00 a.m. service).   This celebration will be a culmination of a journey that includes participation in classes and field trips as well as an overnight retreat.  The program has been led again this year with great enthusiasm and commitment by Dennis and Debbie Korn. 

Everyone is also invited to a reception in the East Room at 10:30 a.m. that morning to officially greet and welcome the students into the HUMC family.  Please plan to be a part of this celebration!

 Blessings,

Mark 

A Note from Pastor Mark

A while back in our Christian Believer classes, we spent some time studying and discussing the Holy Spirit and how it works in our lives.  As we watched a video presentation by the commentator Gordon Fee, we were somewhat startled when he called the Holy Spirit the “neglected member of the Holy Trinity” and a “sort of Divine step-child”.  But then as we began to discuss our understandings of the Holy Spirit, we realized that we had many different experiences and definitions around the actions of the Holy Spirit.  This was not surprising—for most of us, it is the Father and the Son that are more easily understood and grasped, while the Holy Spirit continues to be the member of the triune God that can often fly under our “spiritual radar”.  And so we do tend to neglect the kind of self-examination and prayer that it takes to fully be aware of the Spirit’s power working in our lives.

            Perhaps a part of our problem in being fully aware of the action of the Holy Spirit is that the Bible gives us so many names for the Holy Spirit, especially in John’s gospel  (“Teacher”, “Advocate”, “Friend”, “Counselor” to name just a few).  And while we are familiar with the story of the Holy Spirit coming down as fire at Pentecost, most of us are less familiar (and comfortable) with so-called “spirit-filled”, “Pentecostal” worship practices.

            On the other hand, the scriptures do give us some helpful reminders of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  For example, in 1 Corinthians 12:3 Paul says that “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, he is stating the reality that the Holy Spirit in within all of us Christians (whether we are always aware of it or not).   Right after that verse, he goes on to list numerous “gifts of the Spirit”, which remind us that the Holy Spirit gives each of us tangible gifts to use in tangible ways to serve others. 

            The book of Acts is also very helpful in showing how the Holy Spirit can act in our lives.  While most of us know this book as the “Acts of the Apostles”, actually it is more accurately an account of the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”, since again and again, the apostles are only able to do their work through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through them.  Given the nature of these stories, I am excited that from the Sunday after Easter (April 12th) through Pentecost Sunday (May 24th), we will be embarking on a worship series entitled “Acts of the Spirit”, where we will be examining a number of these  stories that show clearly the Holy Spirit acting in the lives of the apostles.  It’s my hope that by hearing and studying these stories in creative ways, we will begin to more fully understand how the Holy Spirit works in our lives in the same kinds of ways.  And even more than that, it’s my prayer that we will come to a new assurance that all acts of God are acts of the Holy Spirit!

In the Spirit,

Mark