Wednesday, August 25, 2021

I Think the Camera Makes My Face Look Fat!

I've been involved in the recording of worship for a while now.  I can still remember as a child when Boston Avenue United Methodist Church put in cameras for a broadcast of their worship at the 11:00 hour on ABC in Tulsa.  I liked to sit in the balcony and I remember when they put in these huge spotlights that would shine down on the pulpit area so that it wouldn't appear too dark on television.

Toward the end of my appointment to Piedmont, we put in video equipment primarily to record sermons at the 8:30 service for broadcast at the Cashion church later that morning.  Because of a tight window and poor upload speeds, we would drive it out on a flash drive!  One of the by-products of this mission outreach was the ability to livestream our worship services to reach a wider congregation.  This was back in 2013.

Picture by Kathryn Witzel.  Used by permission.
When the pandemic shut everything down, we began to prerecord our worship at Edmond First UMC and release it as video on Sunday morning on YouTube and Facebook platforms.  Since this is a costlier option, we went back to livestreaming the services when it looked like things were beginning to return to normal.

I remember hearing that we would go back and forth with waves of infection before we conquered COVID-19 but when things were looking good, I didn't want to think about losing any ground.  Like most, I was ready to put it all behind me!  

I have heard that having a video option of your worship service is here to stay.  It is something that church members are beginning to expect and is more likely the way that people "visit" your church for the first time.

Many of us began to project online worship on the fly when our churches were closed in the spring of 2020.  We learned about our internet broadband capabilities and found that not all Wi-Fi speeds are created equal!  Platforms also had their share of trouble with the added traffic on Sunday mornings which caused more glitches at the onset.

As we see our hospitals and ICUs filling up again, many people and some churches are returning to online participation.  Since we've been at this a while, it is good for us to evaluate how we are doing and to think about what we could improve.

A good first look would be to your church website and Facebook pages.  As I've been scheduling to be in worship in multiple venues, it has been surprisingly difficult to find out what times worship is offered.  This should be on the front page along with information on online services if you offer them.  In the Facebook page, it should be in the "About" section of the church and is easily added.

If you are still having problems with livestreaming your service because of bandwidth, it may be easier to record the worship service and then upload it for a later Sunday broadcast.  The advantage of online worship is that a participant has the advantage of watching it literally anytime after you post it.

If you display the service on the church Facebook page, is someone from the church responding to all of the comments made?  Acknowledging those who are participating online may be good work for church members who are staying home right now.  And the more participation your worship feed garners as it is ongoing, the more people are likely to see it show up in their browsing.

We are developing a team of mystery shoppers for the Crossroads district.  Rather than attend in person, these volunteers will worship online and answer questions from a survey I've helped develop.  Our goal is not to criticize but to help our online worship offerings to move on to perfection!  We may even have money to put toward needed upgrades or training.  Of course, churches are encouraged to fill out this survey for themselves as well!  If you are interested in helping with our online task force, please contact me at spowers@okumc.org. 

What I've discovered during this time is that our people are resilient.  Our congregations have continued to support our churches even when they couldn't be there in person.  But we have also seen our clergy find ingenuity they didn't know they had as we have been forced into new arenas.  As we continue to be the church during a pandemic, may God bless our offerings to a world wide web!


Thursday, July 15, 2021

Called to Superintend

This is me in my new office.  I would
love to have you stop by to visit!
So I've come to a new appointment in life!

Within my new position as the Crossroads District Superintendent of the Oklahoma Conference, I have not previously wrestled with what it means to be called by God to "superintend" over an area.  

As a United Methodist Elder, I am called to Sacrament, Word, Service and Order.  Of course, the ordering of the church means that we are responsible for implementing the Book of Discipline within a local congregation.  This is our methodical and agreed upon way of living out the Christian ideals together as a church.  While I have operated in this role for four different local churches (three in Crossroads district) in my career, I have now taken on the wider responsibility for a larger gathering.

This is a little daunting considering all that the church faces right now:

*Returning from a global pandemic - the first time in people's lives where the physical doors of the church were closed to them for more than one Sunday.

*A widening polarization of how people identify politically.

*The looming General Conference (which may or may not happen in 2022 depending on world-vaccination rates) which will wrestle with schism through a legislative process.

As a pastor, any one of these items would be stressful in trying to hold a congregation together.  It becomes important during times of stress to revisit one's narrative.  As we define ourselves by fundamentals rather than as reactions to various stimuli, this helps us to hold onto healthy boundaries that might otherwise erode under the anxiety of the moment.

For me, Wesleyan grace is my touchstone understanding of identity.

*I am loved fundamentally simply for being through God's preceding or prevenient grace.

*I am made right with God in Christ through justifying grace.

*I am seeking to become more Christ-like daily through God's sanctifying grace.  This means that I endeavor to increase my love for God and my neighbor so that it occupies more of me.  The beauty of this grace is that it's not exclusive but all-inclusive.  

        For God so loved the world...

Jesus challenges my notions of family and makes it difficult on me to categorize people into friends and enemies.  As I think about the very difficult situations that the apostle Paul found himself in, I remember that above all, he prioritized Christ.  

This is what I hope to do as a superintendent.  Sometimes this priority may seem to get lost in all the forms we require.  We do like to gather data!  But hopefully we can look at the larger story this information is providing - that we are seeking to share Christ with a world that is trembling.

I look forward to superintending my area!  I look forward to working with the pastors and the laity as an encourager and a reminder of who we are.

In Christ,

Sam


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Contending with Giants

Lectionary Reading: 1 Samuel 17:32-49

It seems like my time as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Edmond has been rushing to a close.  When it was announced it seemed like we would have lots of time together but that may have been an illusion!

Sheryl is expressing her enjoyment
of our wonderful congregation!
I so appreciate all of the kind words expressed in cards, emails, texts, Facebook messages and letters!  And of course, the conversations have been so uplifting.  When we planned the Ice Cream Social for June 13th, we were having such pleasant weather and forgot about how brutal the Oklahoma heat could be!  Thanks to all who braved the sun and I know I didn't get a chance to speak to everyone who came but I appreciate your presence regardless.

It may have been a little confusing on the timing of my leaving.  Because of the afternoon's "goodbye" event, some concluded that this was my last Sunday.  I'll actually be here for one more Sunday - June 20th will be my last Sunday in the pulpit before Rev. Scott Keneda takes over.  Our reasoning for having the farewell party a week early was that this Sunday is Father's Day and we didn't want to intrude on people's family gatherings or events.

I have appreciated all of the warmth expressed toward my preaching.  The sermon is a medium that is unique to worship in our culture today.  Speeches in general are not as common and most lecturers in education settings are moving to more interactive lessons.  Sermons have also evolved over the years and are now much shorter than they used to be.  Within my own career, I would say that I've made an effort to shorten my preaching time (although some days I don't always hit this attempt!).

Of course how one feels about the preacher often also affects the reception of the sermon.  I'm a much better preacher in the estimation of those who like me compared to those who don't!  Psychologically, as a pastor prepares to leave, his or her sermons may actually seem to get better and this may be due to a factor of nostalgia.  I'll take whatever I can get!

Some were also confused as to what exactly I'll be doing from here.  I won't be going to a church but to more of an administrative position.  As an Elder in The United Methodist Church, I was ordained to Sacrament, Word, Service and Order.  As a Senior Pastor, I enjoy sharing in the sacraments (Baptism and Holy Communion), sharing the Word (preaching and teaching) and sharing in service with the congregation through mission work we've done together.  Being responsible to the Order of the church is more of an administrative calling.  It means keeping a church within its budget and making sure the committees are running smoothly according to our agreed upon polity (the Book of Discipline).

Starting July 1, I'll be the next District Superintendent of the Crossroads District (shown on the map in purple) where Edmond First happens to reside.  This means I'm taking the position of my direct supervisor.  While I will continue to lead through all four components, I will be leaning more heavily on order in this position.  

Our church is one of fifty different congregations that I'll oversee in this post.  I will be traveling each week and it will be my goal to worship in each of our churches within the first calendar year.  My intent is to bring the same joy to this work that I've tried to bring to the local church.  It is a privilege to serve as a pastor and the covenant we keep with the congregation and God is sacred.  As we have been apart during the pandemic, this tie that binds may be more precious than we realized.

I'm excited about the possibilities for ministry that Scott will bring to Edmond.  I'm praying for him during this transition and I would encourage you to do the same.  I'm confident that he'll be uplifted by the generosity of spirit that I've found among the laity of our church!  

My words are inadequate to express my appreciation for our congregation.  I'm looking forward to seeing the work that God continues in this church in the near future!  This Sunday, I'll be preaching on David and Goliath and my sermon title will be "Contending with Giants."  This story is a good reminder that faith helps us face change with courage!

In Christ,

Sam


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Looking for Assurance

Lectionary Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 (NRSV)

Last week, we had a vision of the prophet Ezekiel as he experienced the valley of the dry bones.  This week, we have a vision of the prophet Isaiah as he is in the presence of God in heaven.  He doesn’t envision the angels as young men dressed in white.  Rather, they seem much more other-worldly.

In the midst of this holiness, Isaiah has a strong impression of his own unworthiness.  He is afraid that he will die.

This may come from the tradition of Exodus 33:20 where God states directly, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

There was a strong sense of danger in coming too close to the divine.

Is Isaiah actually fearful for his life or is he possibly looking for some assurance through his statement?

He may have been thinking, "I'm not dead yet, maybe there's still hope for me!"

As we think about interactive worship experiences, touching a live coal to people's lips is not one that we have repeated!

Once at a church camp worship, however, we did use Icy Hot applied to people's hands to give them a sense of the burning sensation that Isaiah must have felt.  It was a reminder of the cost of the cleansing we receive while at the same time an assurance that we do not have to have the sin burned out of us in such a dramatic fashion to answer God's call upon our lives.

As we gear up for camp, I want to say "thank you" to all the people who have donated for our youth to attend this summer.  Church camp is such an important part of our spiritual formation and I love each of our retreat settings that we have in Oklahoma as a part of The United Methodist Church.

Here's our church getting ready
to attend Camp Spark in 2019. 
Everyone looks a lot younger!
Last week at a meeting, we heard that Camp Spark (the church camp that our youth attend at Canyon Camp) led our camping program with 200 registrations.  Edmond FUMC is leading the way with 40 of those!  To keep in line with safety, we will be having more outdoor activities this year so you may need to pack more t-shirts if you are planning on attending!  I will be going and this will be my last time to spend as Edmond First's senior pastor - I find it fitting to do so since this was such an important part of who I've been as a pastor.

Interestingly enough, I will spend my first week as a district superintendent (the very next week) at Camp Lead which is designed for leadership for youth in middle and high school.  I truly believe that this is the perfect place for us to nurture young leadership for the church of today.  My hope is that I can continue to support camps financially as well as through my presence.  If we can generate this kind of interest in camping through the variety of churches that I'll help oversee, I will consider it a job well-done.

As we consider Isaiah's call by God in today's text, my own call was realized through our church camps.  The template of retreat and re-entry into the world is modeled by Jesus and continues to work for people today.  

Because our church camps operate on income received from non-church revenue throughout the year who utilize the space as a retreat center, we have unfortunately operated at a loss through the pandemic.  If you would like to make a contribution to sending our kids to camp, you may do so here.  If you would like to contribute directly to our camping program, you may do so here.

On Sunday, we'll worship together as we consider our own need for assurance these days.  God's presence is not feared in this day as it was in Isaiah's.  But God's call continues to come to our lives in lots of ways. 

I hope you'll join us for worship on Sunday at 8:30, 9:45 (outdoors - weather providing) or 11 am.  We'll be live-streaming on YouTube at 8:30 and Facebook at 11 am for those out of our area or who aren't ready to join us in person.

In Christ,

Sam


All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Monday, May 17, 2021

Can These Bones Live?

Lectionary Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NRSV)

It's been exciting to see people return to in-person worship.

Each week I hear another person tell me, "This is the first time I've been in the church in over a year."  They are obviously moved and it is moving for me to be a part of this sacred moment.

Our church followed the guidelines from the Oklahoma Conference early on when all United Methodist churches suspended in-person worship.  

We re-opened on Father's Day of 2020 in our Christian Activity Center and slowly moved back into the sanctuary.  Mask-wearing and distancing have been key components to our safety measures for meeting in person.  As Oklahoma cases began to really increase and our hospitals were at capacity late last fall, our local church suspended in-person services once more.

We re-opened this spring after seeing the case-levels and hospitalizations ease to more manageable levels.

It should not come as a shock that we've lost people to churches that have a more libertine policy on mask-wearing and meeting.  Some have expressed their disappointment to me directly but more have slipped away without any communication.

Fortunately, we have seen the case levels in our state continue to drop.  Within our own congregation, we haven't had an active case reported to us in months.  I am also happy to report that we never had to alert anyone who has attended any of our in-person worship that they were unwittingly exposed to the coronavirus at one of our services. 

Now the Centers for Disease Control have loosened the guidelines on mask-wearing for those who are fully vaccinated.  In my conversations with those who have been attending in person, I would guess that our congregation has a much higher rate of vaccination than the state of Oklahoma right now.

Because we have been following CDC guidelines, some have felt more comfortable in attending worship in-person.  For others, the church's mask policy kept them from attending for a variety of reasons.  In fact, the church may be the only place where they still wear a mask.  

With the vaccine now available to ages 12-15,
we now have a wider population accessible.

As fully vaccinated attendees take off their masks, some who may have felt comfortable attending may now revert to watching online again.  It feels like being between a rock and a hard place as far as trying to meet expectations of a diverse membership.  Most families that I know have somewhat differing views among their own family members for their own safety response to COVID-19.  This should illustrate the problem any large group will have in addressing these policies!  

Amazingly, this Sunday, we will be celebrating Pentecost - which we think of as the birthday of the Church!  The lectionary text I have chosen will be the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel.  As Ezekiel finds himself amid all the signs of death and decay, God asks him, "Can these bones live?"  Ezekiel properly responds, "God, you know."  In one sense, this gets Ezekiel off the hook but in another, it is a fundamental realization that it is out of his control.  For some reason, I think this is an appropriate text for our times!

We will continue to worship together.  Some will wear masks and other vaccinated people may forego them.  As we know that outdoor activities are safer, we will continue to offer our outdoor service at 9:45 am backed by our Worship on Hurd band.  The last two weeks we've had inclement weather that has moved us into Wesley Hall - to let people know in the future, we'll try to post on our Facebook page if we are going to be inside or not.  Of course, we will continue to offer live stream on YouTube at 8:30 am and Facebook at 11 am for those that are not quite ready or able to return in person.

While this is a stressful time to be in leadership, I am still excited to lead in worship for our congregation.  Sunday mornings have always been the highlight of my ministry and they continue to be so for me.  There is a blessing in gathering together and I've missed seeing everyone!  

Can these bones live?  

God does know.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

When Do I Get to See God?

Scripture Reading: 1 John 5:9-13

When we all get to heaven,

what a day of rejoicing that will be!

When we all see Jesus,

we'll sing and shout the victory!

This hymn was composed by Eliza E. Hewitt and Emily D. Wilson in 1898.  According to C. Michael Hawn, this was composed under the influence of Methodist camp meetings at Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

This enthusiastic hymn speaks to me of God's prevenient grace where God reaches out to all humankind.  It is optimistic in its nature and inclusivity.  There are many times when Christianity has emphasized the limited nature of salvation and encouraged others to doubt whether or not they would make it to heaven.  I think this was done in order to challenge people in their faithfulness.  This would theoretically keep people from backsliding.  Fear was designed to keep us on the right path.

Personally, I don't like this approach and prefer the idea that heaven is something that we can't achieve until we're all present.  I'm not sure how this works but I believe that this is God's desire as well.

The butterfly is often a symbol of the
resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.
The epistle reading for this week reminds us that we have eternal life in Christ.  Sometimes we get caught up in the idea that this doesn't start until we're dead.  In essence, this is true.  But we have to look at our death on a different time line.  When we are in Christ, we die to sin according to Paul.  We die to our old selves.  We die to a world that wants to define us as less-than or as not-quite-good-enough.  

Rather, when we are justified to God in Christ, we are born anew.  We begin to live the life eternal in the here and now.

When we do imagine God, many people envision what they might ask God in person when they actually get to heaven and see God for the first time.  Rather, as Christians, we are learning to see differently.  We begin to see God working all around us in the here and now.  We work on God's behalf to shape the world as we envision heaven to be.  

So we don't wait for eternal life as if it was something we achieve in the life to come.  We have already begun eternity.  Some theologians say it begins at our baptism.  If this is the case, when we sing, "When We All Get to Heaven", it may take on a different meaning for us.

We'll continue to look at this text and subject matter in worship on Sunday.  We are still getting our live-stream chops back but you can join us in person or online.  Some of our Sunday school classes have started back up at 9:45 am and we also have our more contemporary offering (Worship on Hurd) outside at 9:45 as well.  

If you are not able to sign up online in advance, we would love to have you join us regardless!

In Christ,

Sam


 Photo by Heidi via Flick.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.



Monday, May 3, 2021

I'm King of the World!

Scripture Reading: 1 John 5:1-6 

I like how this passage declares victory for those of us in the faith!  I'm reminded of the iconic film Titanic when Jack spreads his arms wide on the bow of the ship and yells out, "I'm king of the world!"

There are times in life when we feel like we are indeed masters of all we survey.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we may not always share the same enthusiasm in quite the same moment as those around us.  This picture laughably reminds us that our sense of victory may not be a communal feeling!

As I am winding up my time as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Edmond, I am excited about my upcoming post as the Crossroads District Superintendent.  But when people ask me about it, I have not always responded very enthusiastically.  A part of this is the weight of responsibility that I feel in taking on this position.  As we come off a pandemic in a very divisive time in our country, I recognize that pastors are more stressed than at any time in my life.  Of course, we also have the divisiveness within The United Methodist Church with some pastors, congregations and individual church members seeking to start a new denomination.  

So with my job largely being to bring stability during anxiety, I may sometimes feel like the man in the picture above!  

Another reason for downplaying my new appointment is the sense that I don't want my current congregation to feel jilted by my leaving.  There is always going to be some of this when a pastor moves from one congregation to another whether the system is done by appointments like ours or in a call system like a Baptist church.  But it is important that a congregation do not see themselves as victims in a system that is out to get them.  If this were the case, I would never have been appointed to this congregation in the first place.  Rather, pastoral change is inevitable.  The reason may be a church opening, retirement or even death.  For the congregant, unless they are trying to oust the pastor, these changes do not come at times of our planning!  We often experience grief at these changes just like we do at the loss of a loved one.

While there are now different stages of grief postulated, the classic five are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  It is quite natural to experience one or more of these emotions during change in our lives and we've experienced a lot of change in the last couple of years!

So how does our faith allow us to be victors during a time when we are experiencing change?

One of the main things is to realize that God is not going anywhere.  It sounds kind of simplistic to remind us that God remains with us through our changes but we might actually forget this important fact sometimes!

Another thing that is kind of exciting is getting to know a new pastor.  It is not cheating on me to like the new pastor!  I have every confidence in Scott Keneda and my hope is that he'll continue to nurture you in the faith, picking up right where I leave off.  

Our conquering in the faith is different than conquering in a military skirmish or in the business world or even in a pickup game of basketball.  In faith, we recognize that change happens all the time and while we may grieve it for a time, we don't fear it.  We understand that change promotes growth - in fact, our spiritual growth often comes during times that we never asked for!

We'll continue to explore this idea of being victorious in the faith on Sunday.  Catch us in the sanctuary at 8:30 and 11 am or outdoors at 9:45 am with our Worship on Hurd band.  We'll also be live streaming on YouTube at 8:30 and Facebook at 11.  I hope you'll be able to join us.  Worshipping with your church family in some form or fashion will be a wonderful way to celebrate Mother's Day together!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by The Joneses via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.