Divide Us, Smide Us!

I am at my first General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I can only say that within 10 minutes of the first general assembly, I was frustrated and very disappointed. I left the room wondering, “What in the world is in store for the future of my church?” Not only can we not get along, but one side is bullying the other side and attempting to stifle any conversation regarding our differences. “God,” I reasoned, “please speak through your people, in spite of your people.”

I am reminded that we all have different versions or sides to a story. Each of us interprets each act of love and hate in our own way. Our language is not the same. To make the assumption that we all speak of God, in the same way, is to grossly misjudge our sense of individuality and personal sacred worth. We should never assume that we have a monopoly on the truth. We are not God, nor are we appointed to serve as judge and jury regarding other people’s perceptions. Our task is to love God and love others.

Perhaps this conference reminds me that I serve an incredible congregation of believers. My prayer is that we will continue to grow in our tiny part of the world, and not allow those who are governed by politics and hatred to spread their doctrines into the doors of our church. May they take their “stuff” elsewhere. As for us, we will hold fast to the truth that we are all loved by our amazing Creator.

The reality is that we are a loving congregation. We rejoice in the miraculous events that happen in the life of our community, and we mourn with one another when unimaginable events knock us to our knees. Though we are different, we are united in our love and passion for God and God’s people. Praise be to the One, who fashions us in His image and creates in us a new heart and a new spirit.

When the World Spins Way Too Fast!

Last week I hit the ground running.  My week consisted of running from meeting to meeting, dealing with issues both in the church and beyond, and trying to find some time to write a sermon.  I didn’t even mention fighting for family time.  When each day ended, I felt overwhelmed and unable to feel like I accomplished the tasks that needed to be achieved.

All of the chaos of the week reminded me of what is most important in the life and work of the pastor.  It is maintaining and leading the body of Christ in worship.  I felt stressed because everything that pressed upon my time took me far away from what I was called to do.  While I know that all that I do contributes to the welfare of the church, there are times that I just want to stop the craziness and refocus my attention on the One who called me into ministry.

We all have the kind of weeks that I described.  Our children get sick, we have to manage people who are not so good at managing themselves, or we must press on due to a diagnosis that we didn’t expect to hear.  It is difficult, to say the least.  Whatever the issue may be, we must set our eyes on Christ, who leads us through the chaos, and continues to create beauty.

Praise be to God, who leads us through the rough times.  I remember reading a passage by a writer who once said, “God never promised to stop the storm that a rough sea may bring.  He promised to calm the storm in us.”  This is where the greatest of work is done.  It is performed in the heart.

May we embrace the message of hope that is found in God, and be comforted.  We are children of the Most-High God.  Let us live like it, and remember whose we are.  Through this, we will claim the promise of a peace that passes anything that we can ever hope to understand.

The Beauty of the Sacred

My preaching text this week is John 12:1-8.  It is one of the few passages in the Gospel of John that is mentioned in the other Gospels.  It is the story of Mary washing the feet of Jesus with oil and then drying them with her hair.  There is a certain intimacy and holiness that comes out of this tender moment of reverence.  The power of the story is in the nuance.  No one else but Mary, a female disciple, dares to treat the savior of the world with such compassion and devotion.  The event is holy and set apart.

I am led to Mary’s observance of divine adoration and of her brazen and faithful devotion to her Lord.  Her attention could have carried her away to any other chore in the room, but she chose to fix her eyes on Jesus.  She could have tried to carry on a conversation with her brother, Lazarus.  He seemed to be doing nothing other than lounging around the house.  Or, she could have helped Mary prepare the finishing touches of the meal.  Perhaps she could have calmed Judas down and attended to the needs of the other disciples gathered in her house.  She did none of those things.  Instead, she worshipped at the feet of her master. 

The moments that Mary shared with Jesus are the times I long to experience.  I mean those moments that seem to transcend time.  We wish sacred encounters, much like the one in the Gospel reading, would never end.  There is a connection with God, an enlightenment beyond our understanding, and a transformation that allows us to glimpse all that we are created to be.  We sit at the feet of our Savior, and are content with just being in His holy presence.

We are called to embrace these unexpected moments of faith, drowning out the naysayers who want to do nothing but diminish our time.  But if we are faithful, God will indeed reveal himself to us.  He will speak.  Maybe not in the way we ever would expect divine words to come to us, but He will let His presence be known.

What do we do with such a gift?  With which character do you best identify?  Could it be Lazarus, who does nothing but observes the scene?  How about Judas, who can’t seem to get past his earthly desires?  How about Martha, who once again is at the heart of preparing a meal for a bevy of guests?

For me, I would hope to be like Mary.  The one who fell at the feet of her Lord, and did nothing but worship.  Despite cost.  Despite what others may say.  Her heart and soul were with her Savior.

At the feet of Jesus.  What better place to be?  This is where a disciple is called to serve.  This is where hope and faith converge.

A Change of Perspective

As a pastor, I am faced with deadlines all of the time.  I have to submit my bulletin information on Monday, prepare the rough draft of my sermon by Wednesday (if I want to practice for Sunday), prepare newsletter articles, and the list continues.  I even find a little stress when writing my blog post each week.  All of the sudden, I find that I robbed myself of the joy of some of the most fulfilling parts of my work.  I am left with a sense of being a casualty to the demands of day to day living.  Where can I find satisfaction in looking at everything as a chore?

When I find myself overwhelmed, I take a moment, and simply stop what I am doing.  I remind myself that there is joy to be found in even the most ordinary and routine of duties.  Preparing the bulletin for the next Sunday, allows me to begin the process of focusing on our next day of celebrating the resurrected Christ.  I set my sights on the next project, the next time that I will stand before my congregation and lead my fellow believers in the liturgy of a Sunday morning.  And this preparation includes writing, insights into the Biblical text, and how our narratives merge together with the sacred writings of an ancient people.  Contentment is found in the process, the journey to another feast day.

What seems overwhelming is the reminder that there is a lot of work to be done before we celebrate another Sunday morning.  Preparation becomes my companion, my guide, and not my enemy.  It becomes my sacred time throughout the week.  It just takes a change of perspective; a new way of looking at the journey.  Praise be to God, who gives us the task of creating a weekly work of art for the human soul each and every week.

My hope for all of us this week is that we transcend our thought patterns, and serve with a spirit of hope.  Let us leave the drudgery of completing tasks to another day.  For this moment in time, let us remember that our preparation gives way to the presence of our amazing creator.  I hope that we grasp on to the reality that God gives us ways to remain connected to the joy that sustains us, cares for us, and constantly recreates us each and every day.

Lent is the Season of…

When I left my childhood faith and embraced the United Methodist tradition, one of the many practices that I never observed until converting was Lent.  I just thought the season was reserved for Catholics, and I didn’t give it a further thought.  I also assumed that Lent was just about giving up things.  Little did I realize that the observance of a “Holy Lent” would become a very important part of my faith practice.

I first approached my first Lenten season with fear and trepidation.  I thought to myself, “This is a dreary and depressing season.  Who in the world wants to observe this time of the year?”  Everything seemed to suggest mourning and sadness.  I was uncomfortable and did not like the tone of the church.

As I grew in my faith, I found that Lent offered me a way to rediscover the very basics of my belief in God.  I learned the importance of remembering my mortality and searching the very depths of my soul for the things that brought me closer to death.  I kept asking myself, “What separates me from my creator?”

Over time, my practice grew to include things that I could add to my day to remind me of God’s love and kindness.  Last year I added a commitment to writing a blog each day, this year I will pray the daily prayers of the Office of the Divine Hours.  Whatever I chose, I hope to increase my awareness of the presence of the Holy One, and to once again offer myself to His service.  I pray that I may grow in the love and knowledge of Christ, and develop something far beyond a faith practice.  I hope to begin a life commitment.

Praise be to God, who constantly reminds us of His love for us. 

Are Our Traditions Inclusive?

I once heard a pastor comment on how his congregation “speaks their own language.”  The key to becoming accepted into this body of believers is to understand and use the language of the congregation.  I started thinking about this bold claim and was a little indignant to say the least.  I began to question whether or not this man really understood the people in our church.  What was he talking about?  There was no secret handshake nor was their unspoken ways that we excluded those who would not follow us in our worship.
Well, I began to think a little bit more about what this pastor said and began to realize that he was not very far off the mark.  For instance, many of our congregations say the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) in our worship.  It has become a tradition that our congregation recites the prayer from memory and assumes that we will hear most of the voices around us saying the text as one body.
What about those who visit who have never been in worship?  This is their first time in a church in years.  Maybe there are those who have never set foot in a church.  How can they join in with us without being considered the “other?”  It is our task to include all to participate in worship.  If that is the case, we need to make sure that we have resources by which all people may fully participate.
How about the prayers of the congregation?  Once again, we are challenged to include the entire body of believers while continuing our established traditions that transcend the word community and develop our sense of family.  We come together to celebrate the risen Christ.  In what ways do we lift up our prayers in worship that seem to exclude new comers?
By suggesting that “first time visitors come back so that they may feel more at home” is a way in which the issue has been previously addressed.  Unfortunately, that does not work in our modern age.  Many times, we have one shot to develop a complete sense of inclusivity in our churches.  Is it possible to provide a platform by which everyone present on a Sunday morning, members and visitors alike, will be able to fully share in the good news of salvation?
I struggle as a pastor to provide the space in which all are welcome.  I utilize media and worship aides to assist everyone who worships with us, but I am still afraid that there are some portions of our worship experience that excludes people who have never participated in our particular church.  The main idea that I want people to take with them is that the Gospel of Christ is for all and not just for those who finally get the language and the unwritten rules of our congregation.  
I am not suggesting that we eradicate those moments in worship that remind us of who we are and what it means to be a part of a particular congregation.  I believe that tradition is very important in helping us to establish our identity.  Liturgy serves to allow us to feel a sense of belonging and a space by which we can call a particular place of worship our home.  I want to honor our history by providing others who visit us the opportunity to call my space their home.  The central message being that Christ came for all and not just those who pray and worship just like us.
As you attend your church this coming weekend be fully aware of times in your service that may appear exclusive to newcomers.  Sit next to someone who appears to be in worship with you for the first time.  As the service continues be that source by which they can be made more familiar with your church’s practices and customs.  Be the one who is that welcoming spirit that delivers the good news of salvation that all are welcome to the table of God.

The View Is Amazing!

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8: 3-5 NRSV).
How wonderful and liberating it is to gaze into the stars on a clear night.  In New Mexico, the view is exceptionally breath taking.  There is a wonder to the incredible sunsets and evening skies that are often difficult to describe.  My family and I have taken many photos of the views that surround us, but the pictures can never capture the true essence of how incredible the area is in which we live. 
The writer of Psalm 8 shares the same vantage point.  He is staring into the vastness of the sky and marvels over the works of God in creation.  It appears as if the author shares in a love of nature that surrounds him.  As he stands in amazement, there are several questions that spring up from such wonder.  How can a God who creates such splendor be remotely concerned with humanity?  Better yet, how could God care about a little speck on this planet known as me?
The answer to the question above is what brings me to a humble recognition that the God who designed the world cared for me enough to send His Son to be the atonement for my sins.  I, who can claim the seat for which I was created, can celebrate this wonder with the power of love which is just as bold and magnificent.  I, who looks up at the stars and am captivated by its beauty, know that the creator of this amazing greatness loves me more than my incredible view.  I have the opportunity to be reminded of this great love every time I look up at the stars.  I join with the psalmist in saying “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:9 NRSV).

Our Intentional Worship

It is hard to believe that we are coming up to the first Sunday in October. Where has the year gone? As typical of just about every first Sunday of the month, our church celebrates Communion. As part of my sermon series “Read Through the Bible in a Year” I have chosen to step away from the lectionary and focus on major themes throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This week’s focus is on the preparation for the Passover or Seder Meal as found in Luke 22:7-13.

“Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.’ They asked him, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for it?’ ‘Listen,’ he said to them, ‘when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ ” He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.’ So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal” (Luke 22:7-13 NRSV).

The message that I hear from this passage is one that reminds me to be purposeful in my acts of worship and reverence. Jesus models this sense of intentional preparation by sending Peter and John ahead to prepare the important meal of Passover. There is no half-hazardness about this feast. Instructions are specific and direct.

Our offering to God should include everything that we have to give. Is it really our complete selves when all we offer are left overs? We are asked to bring to the table our completeness. As we come to the table we intentionally leave behind the idea that God could never embrace us or love us in a radical and transforming way. In offering all of ourselves we do include our imperfections. The blood that is offered at the table redeems those parts of us which need to be restored to wholeness.

As we prepare and celebrate the sacrament of Communion in our churches let us remember to be fully present. We are asked to give all of who and what we are to God. We are reminded of the sacrifices of both God and humanity in the sacrament of Communion. We come to the table with an awareness that something empowering and impossible is being made known. Our God is reminding us that the Divine is present among us, through us, and yes, even in spite of us.

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