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.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Touching God

Lectionary Reading: 1 John 4:7-21


We had a wonderful confirmation Sunday and this is one of the highlights of my year.  I had kind of a bittersweet moment as I recognized that I won't be leading in a confirmation service as a district superintendent.  There is not often the opportunity to baptize in this position.  A part of this is by design - the individuals becoming a part of a church should be baptized by the pastor of the local church in which they will take part.

My hope is that I will be encouraging pastors across our district to heighten their own confirmation programs for the youth in their church.

My last Sunday to preach in Edmond as your Senior Pastor will be June 20th.   This will likely come faster than I would like but I wanted you to have the date.  As I move into the supervision of pastors within the district, I recognize that our church has prepared me for this ministry.  I've enjoyed working with a variety of professionals within our congregation including other clergy in both active and retired status.  Your leadership has challenged me to hone my own skills as a pastor and a leader.  As we look at this week's scripture, I can easily see how I am being led in love.  I'm trying to expand my own offering of the love of God by leading pastors and congregations within our area.

Furthermore, it seems that our church has become a cradle of leadership - nurturing the call of those seeking to serve as ministers in the world.  For lay leadership, we have recently seen two of our former UCO Wesley Foundation interns take full-time positions in ministry within our conference office.  


Roxie Hacker is the new Director of Project Transformation for the Oklahoma Conference which is a ministry that connects churches with schools to enhance the learning opportunities of children in their communities.  I've known Roxie for a long time and was able to confirm her in the faith back in Piedmont in 2009.


Wanda Clark is the new Administrative Coordinator for the Camp and Retreat Ministries for the Oklahoma Conference.  Of course, the camping ministry is near and dear to my heart and will remain so even as I move into my new position.  Wanda is also a member of our church and it is exciting to have this connection in the conference office!  


We also have laity from our church moving into clergy status which is also transformative!

Recently, our minister of music, Tim Navis, passed his interviews with the conference Board of Ordained Ministry and he will be commissioned a deacon at the upcoming Annual Conference.  Tim has been nurtured by our church and will serve our church as clergy after this time.  He will continue to offer the love of God within our church setting but as Reverend Navis!

Michaela Drain also passed her interviews and will be commissioned as an elder at the same conference service.  Michaela worked for a number of years with our youth before serving as the Wesley Foundation Director.  Michaela is now serving as a Chaplain Candidate (1st Lieutenant) as a part of the 45th Field Artillery Brigade in the Oklahoma Army National Guard.  She will be able to move from candidate to actual chaplain which is quite an accomplishment!

We will get to see them both commissioned on Friday, October 8th at 7:00 pm at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City.  No congregation will be prouder than ours at this service!

And while we get to enjoy Tim's gifts as he serves this church, we can also take heart in knowing that we have prepared others to serve the wider world.  

My hope is that this congregation will continue to offer up leadership in this manner.  It means that we are in touch with the call of God upon our lives.  It means that we have talent that should be shared with our neighbors!  Which of our recent confirmands will feel the call of God upon their lives to lead the church into the future?

This Sunday, I'll continue to preach on the series, "Abiding in the Resurrection" and we'll look at how this scripture seems to equate or blend the loving of God with the loving of our neighbor.  It seems that Christians can't do one without doing the other.  

I hope you'll join us - we'll meet in the sanctuary at 8:30 and 11 am or outside at 9:45 am.  We'll also resume the live-streaming of our service this Sunday at 8:30 and 11 am.  

In Christ,

Sam


Monday, April 19, 2021

Marks of Resurrection

Lectionary Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24

"All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them."

This is the verse immediately preceding today's reading.  It refers to Cain murdering his brother Abel and makes the jump that hate equals murder.

This is a tough scripture and John juxtapositions it with the love that Jesus has for us.  Rather than taking life, Jesus lays down his life for us.  I'm reminded of Thomas asking to see the marks in his hands and side.  These places of wounding mark Jesus as authentic in his eyes.  Thomas may have even seen the wounds inflicted from a distance.  

They become marks of resurrection in the risen Lord.

Sometimes we have our own marks.   If we are in relationship, we usually gain scars along the way.  Most relationships require us to forgive somewhere or they would have already ended.  There are likely also places we can recall where others had to forgive us as well!

Some places are trickier
to move into than others.
In order to be sincere, our love must take some kind of action.  We can talk a good game but when push comes to shove, we've got to show up.  I can remember being newlyweds headed to graduate school together.  Sheryl and I arrived in Atlanta with our U-Haul full of all our belongings.  We had to park it on a hill and our apartment was then on the second floor - who doesn't want to help move furniture up stairs?

Our neighbors could have hidden in their apartment - but they helped us move our junk up the stairs.  Luckily we didn't have a couch with a hide-a-bed in it.  But it was still a lot of work.

Later, we tried to help others move when the opportunity arose.  I remember one neighbor in particular that we helped move (he had a lot of stuff) and when it came time to help us, he was nowhere to be found.  Sometimes this happens and we may even feel a little used.  

But if love becomes transactional, we may start looking for more gain than what we put into it.  This is a recipe for becoming a user in a relationship rather than a giver.

The example of Jesus is that we give and do not count the cost.  While we may end up giving more than receiving, I don't think this is really true.  If I try to take advantage of someone, I find myself diminished rather than enriched.  It's strange how life works that way!  It may be that we need to consider the people we have forgiven as our own marks of resurrection.

I hope you'll join us as we continue to explore this theme on Sunday.  We'll gather online as always although this will be our last preproduced Sunday before we go back to live-streaming.  We meet in the sanctuary at 8:30 and 11 am and have an outdoor service at 9:45 am (featuring our band).  This Sunday, we will be confirming (finally) our 2020 class of youth at the outdoor service if you would like to support them (but you'll need to bring a blanket or lawn chair).  I'm looking forward to a wonderful Sunday and this will be my first one fully vaccinated!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Jacob Wolman via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Moving Forward as the Church

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Global Methodist Church as they have made recent headlines in the Oklahoman.

I want to point out some important facts about The United Methodist Church as I have been ordained to uphold the order of the church and have represented our denomination through the Oklahoma Conference delegation since 2004.  As a recent appointee to become the next Crossroads District Superintendent in July, I also represent United Methodists across this region as well as our conference.

The General Conference is the only organization that has the authority to pass legislation that would allow any kind of formal exit to a different denomination.  Currently, local churches may leave the denomination if they work out an agreement with the annual conference Board of Trustees.  This is because all United Methodist property is owned by the annual conference where it resides.

There is a trust clause in the deed of all United Methodist property that states this.

One of the other sticking points for leaving would be for a congregation to continue to cover the pension payments for all the years of clergy who served their church.  Most annual conferences will come up with a dollar amount that is fair.  This ensures that these churches are paying their fair share for services received through the years (and those of us who are remaining are not stuck with their bill).

For longer than I have been in ministry, there have been groups that have sought to remove the trust clause from the Discipline which is our governing document.  There have been a variety of reasons for leaving the denomination.  The latest seems to revolve around how we are in ministry with LGBTQ persons.  

Currently, our Discipline does not allow for same gender weddings or for clergy who are in a same gender relationship to serve.  The penalties for violating these policies come through the annual conference and there are places within United Methodism which ignore this language.  In other words, the feeling in those regions is that these behaviors are not punishable.  Others in more conservative regions disagree.

I know of no public violations of these policies within the Oklahoma Conference.  No one is currently on trial in our conference for these violations.

Some in our conference feel that violations in other annual conferences are too close for comfort.  They are seeking to leave (with others) to start the Global Methodist Church.  Currently, this denomination does not yet exist.  There is also movement to start a more progressive denomination called the Liberation Methodist Connexion.  So far, I've not heard of any Oklahoma churches seeking to join this denomination.  The United Methodist Church remains in the center.  There is no guarantee that any legislation will be passed that will pave the way for an easier exit toward any other denomination.

General Conference has been postponed due to the pandemic to August of 2022.  Because we have delegates attending from Africa, Asia and Europe, it would be impossible to gather at this time.  Because of our rules (and time zones and translation issues and sheer size), we are not able to gather online.  How quickly the world can successfully vaccinate will largely determine whether General Conference is able to meet in 2022.  

I have always been outspoken in my desire to stay within The United Methodist Church.  Even though not all agree about this particular issue, there are far greater things that we accomplish together.  When I have worked on ecumenical groups that seek to bring denominations together, we never start with the things on which we disagree.  

As we move through a pandemic, we have seen a lot of division occur.  The election, race issues and how we respond to the coronavirus have all been things on which we have polarized as a country.  Not being able to worship together as a whole and not being able to sit down with one another in Sunday school makes it easier to go our separate ways.  We have had some in our congregation choose to leave because they believed that I was too lenient on the matter of how we should be in ministry with our LGBTQ siblings.  I would be naïve if I thought that the issues I mentioned above did not also contribute.  However, I try to lead with grace as a pastor and this has always been how I would prefer to characterize my ministry.  I wish those who seek to find other places of worship blessing.  I give thanks for the gifts and talents they shared with us.

When we lose people over any issue, it is always difficult.  We grieve and sometimes those who are left behind feel like this position was more important to them than our relationship.  As we see emails and groups trying to pull others away from The United Methodist Church, this is the easiest time to sow division.  We aren't able to meet as we normally would.  

When we walk the road together,
we find strength for the journey.
I have faith that we will hold together.  The love of Christ allows me to stay in community with others who both agree and disagree with me on a wide variety of issues.  As a group seeks to divide over any issue, when they find that they are finally free to determine their own future, it is often the case that they start looking for the next fight.  This doesn't happen on purpose.  If the system is geared toward critique and blame, it is hard to simply set these notions aside after a separation occurs.

The harder thing is often to stay in relationship with one another, but as we consider that we will be reunited in heaven, it makes sense to me that we should seek to work out our disagreements here.

I'm proud of our church.  I'm proud of our denomination.  I would seek for others to be in Christ with us through our Wesleyan understanding of grace.  This Sunday, we'll continue to share in faith through our Easter series, "Abiding in the Resurrection" on First John.  My sermon title is "What if the Sin Just Sneaks Up on Me?" and is based on 1 John 3:1-7.  I would invite you to join us!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Ian Sane via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 5, 2021

But You're Still A Bigger Sinner Than I Am

Lectionary Reading: 1 John 1-2:2

One of the things (among many) that I will miss about preaching in a single church setting will be the ability to look at one book of the Bible over many Sundays.  If you've followed my lectionary devotions, you can tell that I enjoy exploring the various themes that the authors project across an entire work.

I believe that the individual books of the Bible are richer when we can ingest them as a whole.

That being said, I will enjoy looking at the first letter of John over the Easter season which will carry through seven Sundays ending with May 16.  My series is entitled, "Abiding in the Resurrection" and we'll explore how our lives are influenced by our resurrection faith.

Is there less judgment if 
this is part of a contest?
This letter is actually more of a sermon or essay rather than an epistle.  Scholars think that it was written after John's Gospel and likely from a different author.  The targeted audience was dealing with church schism and were likely experiencing a variety of teaching - some of which questioned the physical presence of Jesus in the flesh at any time in his life (not just post-resurrection).  Of course, the physical presence is important to our theology of God knowing our short-comings and difficulties as mortals.

Evidently, some of these false teachers were claiming to be without sin.  This is a judgmental attitude that also belies the ability to relate to others.  Rather than approaching one another with humility, as if we are on a level playing field, we may look down upon those whom we feel are spiritually inferior to us.  So the author whom I'll refer to as John reminds us that a person making this claim is a liar which, of course, is a sin!

The need to place ourselves above our peers is part of the human condition.  It doesn't seem to be a part of what God calls us to be but that hasn't kept people from engaging in this behavior throughout Christian history.  And while some might begrudgingly admit to past sins, we might like to rank ourselves as less odious in God's eyes!

This Sunday, I hope that you'll join us for worship as we continue to explore this theme.  We'll gather in the sanctuary at 8:30 and 11 am and we'll also gather outside at 9:45 am across the street next to the Wesley Foundation building on the lawn.  We appreciate everyone signing in prior to the service for reservations!  We'll also continue to offer the safest option which is online worship via YouTube or Facebook!

I look forward engaging with you in one way or another on Sunday!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by opus moreschi via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Daily Devotion for Easter 2021

Scripture Reading: Philemon

I've enjoyed working through the earliest letters of Paul starting with 1st Thessalonians and then moving to Galatians and then ending with 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  Of course, there is always debate over which was the earliest and how we might ascribe a chronology to the epistles.  But this particular order worked out to cover each of these four letters by looking at one chapter each of the forty days of Lent.  

While I didn't cover Sundays this year, I usually wrap up the series on Easter Sunday and so I thought I would look at Philemon on Easter since some scholars place it next in order.  The fact that it was only a chapter seemed to lend credence to this idea as well!

How are broken shackles an
image of the resurrection?
As we look at Philemon, it definitely has some important themes of resurrection which coincides well with Easter.  Paul is writing to Philemon who is likely a member of the church at Colossae with a rather specific request in the faith.  It seems that Philemon's slave Onesimus has made his way to Paul and become a Christian.  Paul is sending Onesimus back with the instruction that he would no longer be a slave but a brother in Christ.  

Here Paul is asking Philemon to put the theory of Galatians 3:28, "there is no longer slave or free...for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" into practice.

Paul is willing to cover any cost but also emphasizes Philemon's own debt to him by stating, "I say nothing about your owing me even your own self."

And in case Philemon is having other thoughts about how he will treat Onesimus, Paul lets him know that he's going to be coming for a visit.  He doesn't state explicitly that things better go the way he has laid them out but it is pretty easy to read between the lines!

As we consider a living resurrection faith on Easter Sunday, Paul's letter to Philemon shows us practical value.  Our idea of a risen Lord is put into reality when we conform to his teachings and find our own freedom in bringing love and respect to places in the world where they are absent.  

Onesimus finds resurrection in his own physical freedom - he is no longer a slave.  

Philemon finds resurrection in granting freedom to Onesimus and seeing him as a brother in Christ.

Paul finds resurrection in the guidelines he lays out - they were surely followed or this letter would have been destroyed rather than copied!

How is resurrection present in your life today?  Where might you add life to the world around you?

Prayer for the day:

Living Lord, we know in our hearts how we should treat others.  But often our heads justify lesser behavior.  As we celebrate Jesus risen from the dead, this reminds us that suffering and cruelty are not the final word.  Help us to see that our participation in them is a denial to the resurrection faith that we claim.  May you rise again in our lives so that our actions might reflect resurrection for all.  We pray these things in the name of the risen Christ.  Amen.


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

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.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 40

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 13

We conclude our time with Corinth today as Paul looks toward another visit.  The fact that we have these letters at all gives us an indication that perhaps this visit went well.  

For the church, we must continue
to ask ourselves, how do 
we make room for one more?
What is interesting is that Paul uses his opponents dependence on the Law to his advantage.  His quotation about charges being sustained by two or three witnesses in the first verse refers to Deuteronomy 19:15.  This is a reminder that many times those who stress that you are breaking this or that point in scripture are often not adhering to other parts of the Bible.

Paul, like any parent, hopes that his spiritual children will discipline themselves according to the faith that he has set out for them.  Paul's letter may be like the phone call from the parents letting the teenagers know that they are on the way home: "We expect the house to be in order when we get home and the chores we laid out to be finished."

Paul's advice is timeless: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith."

In case we miss what this should be, he sums it up in verse 11: "Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you."

In this day and age of going to our separate corners (so that we can come out fighting), Paul is reminding us that being in Christ is primary above our differences.  Christians like United Methodists who are ecumenical believe that ultimately, a great variety of denominations shall dwell together in Christ in the life eternal.  All of the differences - whether they be political or doctrinal - seem insignificant on the death bed.  Many times at this point, we see old grievances fall away and we want to die in peace.  The God of love and peace is truly in these moments with us.

I think what Paul is trying to accomplish is for us to live in peace.

That seems to be a worthy goal for us as we wrap up the Lenten season and await the Resurrection.  

How will we show Christ to be alive in us?

Prayer for the Day:

Loving God, we have journeyed with Paul during this Lenten season.  We have seen how he was a man of faith and a man of conviction.  But we also see how he was driven by love.  Help us to love you more fully - where trust comes more easily.  Allow this to drive our love for all your children in ways that let your peace reign.  We pray these things in the name of Jesus the Christ.  Amen.


Photo by Mike Cardus via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 39

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12

Heaven may be about perspective.
Shoe Heaven for me would
mean I don't have to shop for them!
Here we have this fascinating reference to one experiencing a vision or revelation of Christ.  The phrase "caught up to the third heaven" is assuming a spiritual enlightenment but we have no reference to this type of language in any of Paul's other letters or in the rest of scripture for that matter.  

Most scholars believe that he is speaking of himself as verse seven indicates "to keep me from being too elated..." and I tend to agree.  I wonder if this might refer to his Damascus conversion but since Luke wrote about this quite a while after Paul's death, it lacks the detail we would like to make a definitive connection.  

William James, in his landmark work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, shares that one of the hallmarks of a mystical experience is that it is ineffable or hard to describe.  This certainly fits as Paul is not even sure if this displacement was physical or immaterial.

James also states that a mystical experience has a noetic quality where the recipient gains special knowledge or insight.  Paul certainly finds this as he states he "heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat."

Paul sees his thorn in the flesh as a consequence from this vision that will keep him humble and grounded.  It is difficult to know whether this was a physical malady or if it was an actual person who Paul saw as a particularly difficult opponent.

We could probably relate to either one.  If we have a physical ailment that pesters or plagues us, we might pray for relief and still find it persistent.  If we have a person that seems to be adept at getting under our skin, we might also pray for refuge from this person and yet find our orbits continuing to pass too close for comfort.  

Can we re-tell the story in a new way?  Is there something positive that can come from this - possibly a little humility when dealing with life?  Maybe a little perspective?

As we look at this on Good Friday, it may be that re-imagining our own suffering can be done without as much complaint on our part!

Prayer for the Day:

Gracious God, we would seek to know you more readily.  We may long for a special experience that is powerful and distinct.  Yet, we also know that consistency in our prayer life is probably more important and likely has more impact on us in the long run.  Help us to find meaning in things that may be mundane or even troubling.  We pray these things in the name of the Crucified One.  Amen.


Photo by Jeff Brooks via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 37

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 11

Paul is expressing his tension in dealing with other apostles who are opposing his teaching.  He is a little disgruntled with the Corinthians in that he accuses them of wavering back and forth in verse four.  In their defense, it would be difficult for them to know who is legitimate and who is false.  Both groups were likely very sincere in their beliefs.  

It seems to come down to an age-old issue theologically: as followers of Jesus, are we more concerned primarily about purifying ourselves before God or are we more concerned primarily about being a light to the nations?  You can have a primary focus and still include the other so they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

But for Paul, if our primary concern is light to the nations, we are trying to reach mostly Gentiles.  Some of their cultural differences make it important to jettison circumcision and dietary laws.  Those who are interested in purity state that anyone coming to faith in Christ must follow these important rites and practices.  There is something about the discipline of behavior that can help us spiritually.

But if these rites and practices become a stumbling block for people to hear the good news, Paul is ready to set them aside.  This is what lessens him in the eyes of so many of the faithful.  When he mentions that he has "received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one" it is a referenced to Deuteronomy 25:3 which prescribes the maximum number of lashes:
Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.

We endure what it takes
for those we love.
So Paul got whipped with forty lashes minus one so that the person administering the punishment doesn't accidently lose count and go against the law!  I'm sure Paul would have told them, if you forego the lashes altogether, this would absolutely make sure you didn't break this law.  Paul writes that at the time he was penning this, he had already been given this five times!

He lists a litany of things that he has already endured for the sake of the gospel.  As we move later into Holy Week, we are reminded of the suffering of Jesus.  Paul's imitation of Christ makes for a good résumé that would be hard for the "super-apostles" to match.  Paul seems to be saying that this is how you should be able to tell the difference in authenticity! 

People come to know the good news in a variety of ways.  There are ways that each of us are especially suited to share.  Is there a particular way for you to share the love of Christ with the world that you wouldn't care what you had to endure to share it?


Prayer for the day:

Gracious God, we confess that suffering is not something we would ever seek out.  In fact, when we are honest, suffering often works as a deterrent for lots of our behaviors.  When it comes to the important work in the world, we ask that you would give us courage.  Let us stand up for those who can't stand on their own.  Let us be the voice for the voiceless.  We pray these things in the name of Jesus.  Amen.


Photo by United Nations Photo via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 37

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 10

We have here a break in tone which seems to be a different letter.  At the very least, Paul picked up his writing after taking a break from the previous letter.  When the letters of Paul were copied, there could have easily been various pieces of correspondence that all got copied into one parchment for simplicity's sake.  Unfortunately, we don't have any of Paul's original manuscripts.

Is this how the opposing
apostles saw Paul?

Earlier in 2 Corinthians 2:4, Paul states, "For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you."  Some have postured that starting with chapter 10, this is the painful letter referenced earlier.

We definitely see the tension within the early church.  What would it have been like to be Christians in Corinth?  It would almost seem like you were in a tugging match between these authorities who keep visiting you.  Each one is claiming to have the truth.  

We can see that Paul's opponents are not afraid to slander him in his absence.  This is not surprising as he has been treated even more harshly in person throughout his ministry. 

Paul reminds the Corinthians that he was the first to reach them with the "good news of Christ" as he is a missionary willing to reach the Gentiles.  Of course, Paul's stance is that the Gentiles do not need to be circumcised or practice the dietary laws of Judaism in order to share in the faith of Christ.  History shows us that in time, Paul's point of view became the orthodox position.  I think this was because he didn't treat the Gentiles as second-class Christians.

As we consider our own authenticity during Holy Week, we might think about our own humility.  It takes humility to raise up Gentiles as equals.  But the humility of God who came to us as a human being is also a part of our faith tradition.  How can we offer faith to people without seeing them as less-than?

Prayer for the Day:

Eternal God, you shunned the infinite for the temporal and limited.  You humbled yourself as a human being that would know rejection and pain and death.  Help us to see where our fears of these very things keep us from being an authentic witness.  Strengthen our love so that we might have the courage to be vulnerable.  We pray these things in the name of Jesus.  Amen.


Photo by Mark Turnauckas via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 36

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 9

There is a fundamental joy
in sharing with others.

We are continuing in Paul's laying out the Christian responsibility for financially supporting the mission.  As we look at this particular part of his letter, we can see that not everyone was likely on board for sharing in this gift to be delivered to Jerusalem.  Anytime, you feel the need to remind the hearers that this is a "voluntary gift" rather than "extortion" is a good litmus test that not everyone is on board!

Pastors may have overused this text for stewardship sermons and emphasized the phrase, "God loves a cheerful giver."  Of course, it is equally valid theologically to say that God loves a grouchy miser but this may not open the checkbooks quite as effectively!

As I think about my own stance, I am what you would call fiscally conservative.  I don't like to spend money frivolously and there are lots of stories about me being cheap.

Once when Sheryl and I were dating, we were at a cheap theater with some of her family members.  They were looking at getting some snacks and I noticed that they had free refills on the large popcorn bucket and Coke.  I showed them the seven straws I had procured and convinced them this would be the most economical deal.  I think Sheryl's younger cousin was unfortunately on the end and was the one we kept sending for refills.

Somehow, I managed to convince Sheryl to marry me anyway!

While I do like to be thrifty in how I spend my money, I have always cheerfully written my check to the church for our tithe.  Because we are a two-income household that tithes, we have always been one of the larger giving units in the congregation.  I do not begrudge this giving because I see it as a part of our mission to fund God's work in the world.  Just as the mission needed funding at Jerusalem, I have been happy to support works both near and far through the church.

If I think about spending that money on myself, I doubt if my lifestyle would have changed all that much.  I can honestly attest that "the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully."  I don't use this as a prosperity gospel where our gifts become an investment.  Rather, I believe that as I sow good cheer in my life through my giving or through other endeavors, I reap the harvest of that same good cheer.  

And I think the world could use some more cheerfulness, don't you?

Prayer for the day:

Blessed God, we give thanks for all of the gifts we have received in this life.  As we examine our lives, we find that blessings abound.  May we trust in this promise.  And help us to sow goodness and generosity and kindness.  Grant us the foresight to look forward to this harvest!  In Christ's name we pray.  Amen.


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

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, March 29, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 35

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 8

If this is what the preacher starts to 
look like to the parishioners, the
effectiveness starts to really drop!
Here we can see one of the earliest stewardship drives in the church.  Paul seems to be indicating that the church at Corinth may be better off financially than some of the other churches in the Mediterranean.  Corinth, as an important port, may have been a wealthier city and the church there may have had wealthier members.

There may have been questions about why Corinth had already given more than these other places and Paul is trying to show them that it was balanced with their ability.  As we look at percentage giving, if a person making six figures gives 10%, they would out-give in sheer volume someone making five figures who also donated 10%.  However, the person making five figures would likely find it impacting their lifestyle more.

Paul utilizes the idea of Jesus Christ becoming poor for our sakes.  We see here the concept of the eternal nature of Christ which stretches both ways in time.  The idea that he was at first rich indicates his heavenly glory prior to becoming mortal.  John's Gospel will later expound on this theology in the beginning of his telling.  But Paul relates to us how Jesus was willing to give up all for our sakes and how we should then be willing to provide the same for others.

This may have been as difficult in Paul's day as it is in ours.  If a person feels a disconnect with the ministry, it is much more likely that this person's support will wane.  But if they hear the story from the visiting missionaries from time to time, they are more likely to feel engaged.  Titus and other "brothers" are regularly making the rounds to the churches to keep them engaged in the mission.

As we think about this, would we even have the faith that comforts us today if they had not made these journeys and asked for support to expand the mission?

Today, we have some of the same difficulties.  Churches everywhere are trying to stay engaged with congregants during a pandemic.  We try to communicate the message in different formats and reach those who are unable to join us physically with varying results.  What might be effective for some - where they feel connected - may feel distant for others.  Fortunately, we are hopefully seeing the light at the end of this tunnel!

As things continue to change, how will we fund the ministries that will reach the generations to come?

Prayer for the day:

Generous God, we do understand that riches come in a variety of ways.  Some people who have great financial wealth may be impoverished spiritually.  Connect us with your mission once more so that our sense of purpose gives us greater peace.  May we see where our own generosity is connected with transformation.  We pray these things in Jesus' name.  Amen.


Photo by Mike Mozart via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.

 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 34

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 7

As we have seen Paul's afflictions in the previous chapter, we get the sense that God has helped alleviate them - at least helped to make them bearable.  

How does God accomplish this?  Certainly through various means but here Paul shows that God is actually working through the Corinthians in order to lift Paul's spirits during hardship.  In verse four, Paul writes, "I have great pride in you; I am filled with consolation; I am overjoyed in all our affliction."

When we are trying to be change agents - and certainly, this was a change in the way many people came to know God - there is often great resistance.  For the most part, people are not excited to have you change their way of thinking.  They will often punish the inciter of the change and this often happened to Paul.  This work can be discouraging and this was likely happening to Paul in Macedonia.  Then he hears from Titus about the church at Corinth and his discouragement turns to rejoicing.

For Paul, leaving a new congregation must have been like turning over the keys to the car for the first time to a new teenage driver.  Before, you have always been in the car with them, tamping on imaginary breaks in the passenger seat while you suck in your breath and tell them to "SLOW DOWN!!"  But eventually they get their own license.  They have passed all the tests.  Are they really ready?  Only time will tell but we have to trust them to try.  When they come back from that first drive alone and the car is undamaged, we feel pride and some measure of relief and there may be some joy.  

The faith that lived in Paul has taken root.  It has sprung up in others and they did receive his disciple Titus with hospitality and anticipation just has he had hoped.  When we are vindicated in our hope, this is a cause for celebration and it does lift us up.  And we may think, the present troubles we are enduring are all worth it.

How are the seeds of faith being sown in the generation to come?  Are we trusting others to lead in ways that will provide enough risk for them to either succeed or fail?  As we think back to our best learning experiences, they may have been accompanied with a little fear and trembling.  But as we understand God to be with us, we often find that these are the lessons that stick with us the best.

Prayer for the day:

Living God, we give thanks that you continue to trust human beings and that you have specifically trusted us.  We are grateful for the times we have been able to step up and share your grace with the world.  And for those times, we have stumbled in our sharing, forgive us.  We give thanks that we can learn from our failures as much as from our successes.  May our achievements in the faith give pride and joy to those who led us along the way.  In Christ's name we pray.  Amen.


Photo by Gordon Bell via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.


Friday, March 26, 2021

Daily Devotion for Lent 2021 - Day 33

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 6

Paul is pushing on toward salvation in Christ for the Corinthians.  He quotes from Isaiah 49:8 which reads in its entirety:

Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages;

The idea of God giving Israel as a covenant to the people is a strong theme in Isaiah and also becomes the narrative for the people following Christ.

I've always found going uphill 
is easier with friends.
Paul holds onto this mission as he lists all of the things he has endured through verses 4 and 5.  Many of that day might look at all of these things and ask, "Are you sure that you are doing God's will?"  

Paul's faith is an optimism that allows for suffering in the world and may even expect it.  But Paul's faith transforms suffering.  Paul sees hardships through the lens of faith in Christ as opportunities to show others how they too can overcome suffering.  

The challenge for us comes when Paul speaks of his love being wide open without restriction for the Corinthians.  But he also acknowledges that this affection may not be reciprocated.  

Have you ever loved a child that was angry with you?  In our most immature moments, we may yell back if they have hurt our feelings with a particularly effective barb.   But at our finest, we don't regress to that level and continue to remain calm and offer love and guidance.  Paul references this image as he states, "I speak as to children" and implores them to "open wide your hearts also."

It is important for us to remain open hearted to those who may not be at the same place.  This is a characteristic of Christians and our interactions may give us our own list of hardships and endurances!  

Paul's letter takes a turn here to speak of marriage with a non-Christian through 7:1.  Then it picks back up where verse 13 left off in 7:2.  Some scholars think that this was a fragment from another letter that was inserted here.  It seems to refute what he said to them earlier in 1 Corinthians 7:14: 

For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.

Paul finishes with words from the Hebrew Bible.  The material seems to be a mashup of Leviticus 26:12, Ezekiel 37:27, Isaiah 52:11 and 2 Samuel 7:14.  

Why the seeming switch in thought?  Possibly, the community during his earlier letter was not large enough for marrying within the congregation.  As the church began to branch out, it also might be difficult for a fledgling faith to hold onto its identity if there was a lot of pagan thought influencing the church through multiple spouses that believed otherwise.

Today, we do not prohibit marriage with non-Christians.  For this we tend to rely on the earlier thought of Paul rather than the latter!  Maybe this is the way that we are opening wide our hearts today!

Prayer for the day:

Blessed God, we give thanks that you live in us and walk among us.  You are our God and we are your people.  Help us to remain faithful to you no matter the hardship.  May our suffering be transformed so as to remove any obstacles that would cause someone to stumble.  Amen.


Photo by Gordon Bell via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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.