Monday, July 31, 2023

Building Up the Community

 Arise! Shine! Your light has come;

    the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.

Though darkness covers the earth

    and gloom the nations,

    the Lord will shine upon you;

    God’s glory will appear over you.

Isaiah 60:1-2 CEB

I don’t know about you, but I have been feeling a bit down lately, as though there’s been this dark cloud hanging over everything. At first, I thought maybe it was because I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I also know that, at least for me, my diet plays a big part in my mood; garbage in, garbage out as they say, and I have certainly been putting a lot of garbage in. But otherwise, my life in general has been pretty good. I just haven’t been able to nail down where this cloud was coming from. 

But something occurred to me last week, as I was scrolling through the news, online message boards, and social media apps. There is a ton of negativity out there. Every news article I read, nearly every post, and/or comment that I saw, had something negative to say, or some critique needing to be shared. There is always some scandal, there is always some critique, and there is always some mention of violence or someone being nasty to someone else.

As a pastor dealing with pastoral care issues, it’s not uncommon when feeling empathy toward others to absorb some of those emotions. It becomes dangerous, however, when we begin reflecting those emotions back, it’s called countertransference. I think part of the reason I have been feeling this dark cloud lately, is that I have been absorbing some of the negativity found across the media. 

I often wonder if the world is really as horrible as it appears, or if it just seems that way because that is all we tend to see when we turn on the tv, listen to the radio, or scroll through social media. I do believe that our attention tends to be drawn to negative things. Media companies know this and so that is what is put before us. Our attention makes them money. But I also wonder if by constantly absorbing this kind of content, we aren’t engaging in a bit of countertransference by reflecting back some of the negativity we receive. I don’t know how much if any of this is true, but it makes sense to me. 

So as I reflected on this over the last several days, a scripture passage kept coming to me. It’s Ephesians 4:29, “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.” I like to think of these moments as the work of the Holy Spirit. I think it goes without saying, that we are living in difficult times. There are a lot of people suffering in various ways throughout the world. That suffering can’t help but be expressed in popular culture, in the news, and on social media. Folks get angry and they lash out. But this verse from Ephesians reminds me of what my faith is about, and what I am called to do as a follower of Christ.

As a Christian, I am called to share the light of Christ’s love, mercy, compassion, empathy, justice, and hope with a world swimming in darkness. God uses me and my fellow brothers and sisters in the faith to carry out what Isaiah says in our opening verse, “Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you.” 

So here is what I began this week, and maybe you can join me. I began to limit my exposure to social media, the news, and other forms of media so that I can control some of this countertransference I have been experiencing. I sent several short notes to folks who I had been thinking about lately to let them know that they were on my mind and that I was praying for them. And I went with several of my church members after worship to do a service project helping one of our neighbors with some yard work. I have committed to only post positive things on social media to counter some of the negative ones and to smile and wave at those passing by. 

What are some other ways that we can limit the negativity, and build the community up? Maybe buy someone a cup of coffee. Spend some money at a local business, or shop at the farmers market. Give someone a call you haven’t spoken to in a while. Open a door for someone, or offer to take someone’s cart back to a stall at the store. If you see a piece of trash on the side of the road, pick it up. I’m sure you can think of any number of other things. 

I realize none of this will solve the major problems of the world like poverty, climate change, racism, income inequality, the high cost of healthcare, or homelessness, but it’s something everyone can do. Jesus says, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35, CEB) So let's love one another, and shine a bit more of God’s light in the darkness.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Wisdom From Above

On Wednesday, April 19th, 2023, I published an article in my local newspaper, Keith County News. I wanted to reprint it here for those who don't subscribe.

This week our Tuesday Morning Bible Study group will finish a nine-week study on James. James is one of my favorite books in the Bible because it is filled with practical advice on how to live a fruitful Christian life. Though it was not seen as the most important of books by some in the faith, such as Martin Luther who called it an Epistle of Straw due to its focus on works instead of faith, it is still an important book because faith without a faithful response is not much of a faith at all. 

James focuses on two types of wisdom. There is wisdom from above (from God), and there is the wisdom of the world. Worldly wisdom is all those things that the world values apart from God, primarily selfish desire and ambition. Chapter 1:14-15 says, “Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.” In other words, it is our selfish desire and ambition that lure us away from God to pursue what we think is best. This was Adam and Eve’s sin, they were tempted and lured away from God because they thought they knew best (Gen. 3:1-7).

In contrast, James tells us in verses 16-17, “Don't be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.” It is only through God that good things come. We can follow our own guidance which leads to bad things, or we can follow God’s and it will lead to good. 

Some of the advice found in James would certainly benefit the division and ugliness we find in our society today. Chapter 1:19 says, “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” As I think about the angry words on social media by folks who shoot off negative comments, and those in the political arena who can’t help but have something critical to say about the opposing party, I wonder how much better the world would be if we were a bit slower to speak a bit quicker to listen to the other side. James addresses this further in chapter three where he talks about the dangers of the tongue (speech). Verses 7-10, “People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God's likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn't be this way!”

But there is so much more in James that we would all be remiss if we didn’t pay a bit more attention to such as not showing favoritism, especially to the rich and powerful (2:1-13). These verses also speak to mercy over judgment (v.13). Chapter 2:13-18 talks about being humble, truthful, pure, peaceful, gentle, obedient, fair, and genuine. 

In chapter 4, we get some strong words on the root of conflict in and out of the church. Verses 1-2a, “What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don't they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? You long for something you don't have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can't get, so you struggle and fight.” In verses 11-12 we get the antidote, “Brothers and sisters, don't say evil things about each other. Whoever insults or criticizes a brother or sister insults and criticizes the Law. If you find fault with the Law, you are not a doer of the Law but a judge over it. There is only one lawgiver and judge, and he is able to save and to destroy. But you who judge your neighbor, who are you?” In other words, we have the continued theme of selfish desire and ambition leading to trouble, but when we let God be the source of who we are, and respond with humility and mercy, we just might find peace in the midst of our conflict.

James closes his letter in chapter five with some excellent closing words for this message as well. In verse seven he encourages us to be patient as we wait for the Lord. Don’t complain about each other but instead honor each other. In verse 12, James talks about integrity, “speak with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ or else you may fall under judgment.” And finally beginning in verse 13, he calls us to pray for one another when we are sick and sing for joy when we are happy. 

And that is my prayer for us today, that we may love one another, celebrate together in our joys, and offer prayer and support in our struggles. For this is what I believe it means to respond in faith to the one who is the source of every good gift. Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

New Year, New You

Where I live, all the clergy in our community rotate writing an article for the religion section of the local newspaper. I wanted to share my latest article here with you in case you don't subscribe to the Keith County News. 

“Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” John 3:3 CEB

As we enter a new year, it’s tempting to talk about new year resolutions and the many ways in which we fail to keep them. But for me, the new year is a reminder of the new beginning and the new life offered to us by Jesus. Our new life in Jesus isn’t a fad. It isn’t a diet, a program, or a self-help regiment promoted during the new year to line shareholder pockets; it’s a new way of life. In fact, did you know that the early disciples of Jesus didn't call themselves Christian, but instead, they called themselves followers of the way (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22)? Jesus spoke of himself as "the way the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Following Jesus is a new way of being in the world, and through Christ, we are a new creation.

For many of us, January 8th marked Baptism of the Lord Sunday where we explored and remembered John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. On this day, it is tradition to remember our baptism and recommit to following in the Way. Though there are many different theological understandings of baptism between faith traditions, one of the things I believe it represents for all of us is being born again into a new life in Jesus Christ. Passing through the waters of baptism represents the washing away of the old so we can put on the new. 

One of the most common new year's resolutions is to go on a diet, especially after all the holiday sweets (I know I certainly need to). The problem with diets is that once you lose all the weight, it's so easy to gain it all back unless, as many nutritionists like to say, you make it a way of life. The same is true of our discipleship. Unless we make Jesus the center of our lives, unless we make Jesus' way our way, unless Jesus becomes our way and our truth and our life, then we will never be all that God has called us to be. 

I think another reason new year's resolutions don't work is that they often feel like a burden. For some, being a Christian might seem like a burden as well; do this, don't do that. But I don't see it that way. Being a follower of Christ isn't about dos and don'ts, it's about responding to the love that God has freely and abundantly poured into our hearts. We respond to the love of God by centering ourselves in that love and sharing it with the world. Jesus feed the hungry, ate with sinners, showed compassion to those who the world saw as less than, and offered healing of the body, mind, and soul. The salvation Jesus offers us is more than just life after death, it's also new life for the here and now. 

So I pray that in this new year, you will find in Jesus a new you, a new way, a new life. Amen.


Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Meaning of Christmas

The following was an article I wrote for my local newspaper, "Keith County News." I wanted to share it here with you for those who don't get the paper.

In its broadest sense, most of us who have spent any time around the Christian faith know that the “reason for the season” is Jesus. Of course, as studies and surveys have shown, fewer and fewer people are being raised in a church and so the only reference, maybe, that they have is what they see on TV or hear from a friend or family member who tries to pressure them into coming to Christmas Eve services when they come to town. 

There is much I could say about the true meaning of Christmas. I could complain about Christmas decorations showing up at Wal-Mart towards the end of August. I could complain about how commercial the holiday has become, how it’s become all about the presents and the decorations, and making Christmas look like some idyllic movie utopia about falling in love at a ski resort or English castle. I could do a deep dive into the gospels of Matthew and Luke which tell us the Christmas story and explain the theological meaning of those events. I could talk about the historical development of the holiday and how Jesus likely wasn’t even born on December 25th. For the first couple hundred years after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus’ birth wasn’t even celebrated. The Christian faith has always focused more on the seasons of Epiphany, Lent, and Easter.

I could talk about all that in more detail, but you have likely heard it all before. The truth is, though Christmas is about Jesus, I have come to find that what that means is a bit different for everyone. The meaning also seems to change depending on a person’s circumstances year by year. For some, the birth of Jesus is a celebration; the birth of a child is a joyous event that must be celebrated. For others, Jesus may be a light in the darkness of their grief and despair. And yet for others, the birth of Jesus may represent liberation and salvation from oppression. 

For Mary, the mother of Jesus, he represented the fulfillment of the promises of God to show up for the lowly, as well as the hope for an entire people. In Luke 1:46-55, as Mary is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she burst forth with a song of praise for all that Jesus represents. “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. (vv. 46-47, CEB)” “He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. (v. 48)” “He has shown mercy to everyone… (v. 50)” “He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. (vv. 51-52)” She goes on to talk about God filling the hungry with good things and coming to the aid of Israel. 

The meaning of Christmas has changed for me throughout my life. In my youth, it was less about Jesus and more about family gatherings around my grandparent’s living room. After the evening meal, the whole family would gather in the living room to debate who was going to pass out the presents. My grandfather, meanwhile, would sneak off to his bedroom and don the Santa costume, which was handmade, and he would sneak out the back door, walk around the front of the house, and jingle the large bells attached to a leather strap. Inside the adults would all stop and say “do you hear that?” All the kids would listen and pretty soon everyone would shout, “Santa.” Then there would be a knock at the front door and we would let Santa in to pass out presents. No one seemed to realize that grandpa wasn’t there. 

As I grew up and started attending Church on a more regular basis, the meaning of Christmas started to take on a much deeper and richer meaning. Combined with the Christmas’ of the past, each year adds another layer of meaning. This year, I am finding the birth of Jesus to mean something different. 

Many of you reading this likely know that we Methodists have been having some conflict, both nationally and locally. It has been hard and painful. But as we have been journeying through Advent, Christmas has taken on a meaning of unification and hope for a future that is filled with good things. For me, Jesus is a light in the darkness, and a hope that no matter the struggles and conflicts we face in this life, Jesus comes bringing healing and wholeness. “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:3b-5, CEB)

My hope and prayer is that you all find the birth of Christ meaningful in your own way this year. Merry Christmas!!!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Rethinking Traditional Church

What do I mean by traditional church? I mean what I assume most people think of when they hear the word church; Sunday mornings sitting in pews, singing hymns, and listening to a twenty-minute-plus sermon. Traditional church also includes some form of Sunday School for children and adults, and then some form of service/charity work in the community. In the traditional church, 80-90% of the energy put forth by the pastor and staff goes toward worship and discipleship, while a much smaller percentage goes toward charity and justice work. 

I think it's time to begin rethinking this "traditional" model of being the church. Why? Because it appears that this model of church has quit being relevant to the majority of people in the United States. According to a 2020 Gallup poll - before the pandemic - only 47 percent of those in the US said they attend a place of worship. That is less than half, a sharp decline from Gallups first poll in 1937 which had seven out of ten people claiming to attend a house of worship.1 Traditional church has been in decline for years and the pandemic has only served to accelerate this trend. 

I think it's clear to anyone who is paying attention that the world has changed and is continuing to change at a speed that has likely never been seen before throughout history. Yet the church has been extremely slow to change itself. I don't mean to say that the church needs to change its theology necessarily, but the way we share the timeless truth of Christ's life, death, and resurrection should change with the times. But at the same time, how do we do that in such a way as to not alienate those who have grown up with traditional ways of worship and still find great meaning and relevance in it still?

I have been spending a lot of time lately reading and exploring this idea and I find that I have more questions than answers. I was attending an ecumenical church conference called Mosaix a few weeks ago and one of the sessions I was a part of talked about a model of doing church that flips the traditional script of the church on its head. The traditional model says, let's produce amazing worship with great music and preaching so people will want to come to our church, then we can plug them into small groups to help grow them as disciples so that they can go out into the world to serve and bring more people into worship. This new model flips the script by suggesting that instead of spending eighty percent of our energy on worship, we spend eighty percent of our energy on serving and building connections outside the church, then bring them into small groups, and then worship. Traditional worship is the last thing to introduce people to instead of the first. It's an interesting thought. This is called a missional model of church.

I was reading an article from NPR today, which is where I got the information about the Gallup poll results mentioned above. The article is titled, "As attendance dips, churches change to stay relevant for a new wave of worshippers." The article talks about how many people looking for faith communities are burned out by traditional religion and how traditional church isn't connecting with everyday people. The article focused on a faith community called Battlefield Farms. It's a faith community centered around a community garden where folks come together to feed others. They also pray and sometimes worship around a campfire. The thing I found interesting about the article was that the church's center was around building a community around service. Worship and bible study are part of who they are, but it isn't their primary focus. 

I was listening to episode seventeen of the Church is Changing podcast yesterday and they were talking about the changing church as being smaller, more relational, and centered around the community outside the walls of the church building. They talked about Pastors changing their role from primary doers to facilitators, permission givers, and equippers of lay-led ministry. I'm intrigued by this and would love to engage in conversation around this idea. You can listen to the episode here

Anyway, these are some of my initial thoughts about rethinking the traditional church. I plan to begin engaging my congregation after the first of the year in these conversations. I believe God is doing something new in the life of the church, I just don't have it all figured out. So I look forward to the ways the Spirit will speak through these conversations. Feel free to comment below.


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Another Shooting

Pause with me a moment as we let sink in the enormity of the news yesterday about another school shooting, this time in Uvlade, Texas. 


I don't know what I can say that hasn't already been said. On one hand, I feel like I need to say something, as a pastor, isn't it expected of me? Yes, what happened yesterday was wrong. No, I don't believe God had any role in causing it. It wasn't some punishment for the sin of this country or any other reason. It was NOT God's will that this happened. It WAS God's will that those 19 children had a chance to live their lives. It WAS God's will that the gunman used the gift of free will to not go through with his plans. But that isn't what happened. 

I'm feeling a lot of things about this as I am sure many of you are as well. Anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and even a little numbness. But mostly just uncertainty as I try to make sense of things. 

In my community, today is the last day of school. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed this morning, I saw pictures of kids running down the hallways of school celebrating the end of another school year and celebrating all that they have accomplished. I couldn't help but wonder if they knew about what happened a thousand miles away, and if it was on their minds. I am certain that it was on the minds of the teachers. 

As it has been said before, thoughts and prayers, though really important, only go so far. I believe God works through you and me to answer those prayers. Solving the problem of gun violence in this country is no easy matter, but we must do something. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I do know that we can't put our heads in the sand, which is what we are oftentimes tempted to do when the troubles of the world seem so big. So what can we do?

First and foremost, we can pray. Prayer is the first step but can't be the last. I think we need to repent from our love of guns, which only serve one purpose, to kill. Whether it is to kill an animal or to kill another person intentionally or in defense, this is the only purpose they serve. The Jesus I read about in the gospels is a God of peace and love, not death and violence. Though I am not opposed to guns for hunting, we have made owning guns in this country an idol that we need to repent from.

Other things we can do are to have conversations with one another about possible solutions as to why young people feel that shooting up a classroom full of students seems like a reasonable solution to whatever it is they are going through. We need to be informed about the issues and hold our elected officials accountable. Did you vote? Have you made your voice heard? Right after I post this blog article, I will be writing my elected officials and asking that they do something, anything, to prevent our children from dying needlessly. If they really want to be pro-life, they can start there.

That's all.