A Double Blessing

Today was my first Sunday serving the two church of the charge I have been given.  In both churches, communion was served.  This means I had the privilege of being blessed twice through taking of the sacrament with God’s people at both churches.  I can understand the joy and commitment found in John Wesley’s exhortation to take communion as often as we can.  I was almost brought to tears in the joy that I felt.

Communion is a means of grace.  To come to the Lord’s table in remembrance and in worship, receiving the body and blood of Christ, joining with other believers in anticipation and expectation can be a glimpse into the joy that is ours to come and yet already is.  In Eucharist the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is strengthened.

Communion for me is an act of intimacy.  It is time of remembering what has been and looking forward to what is to come.  It is a reminder that the Lord is with us always even to the end of the age.  What great love is found is this most blest of sacraments.  Today, with believers I have been called to pastor, it was truly a time of loving the Lord.

God is Not Eros

I picked up a journal from a seminary in Texas and was drawn to an article that promoted the idea of eros (a Greek word translated as passion or love) as a key element is spiritual formation.  I was bothered by the shoddy scholarship of the article (trying to impose meaning beyond what linguistic studies would be comfortable with) and the overt accommodation of the argument to ideas that seemed to be a rehashing of certain views of Gnostic Christianity rather than speaking to true Biblical faith.

OK, so what.  Why care about the article?   If there is one thing our culture has problems with, it is desire.  Our consumer oriented culture is driven by creating desire.  Many of the current debates concerning the Christian faith are driven by desire more than the actualization of the Scripture to our current setting.   The blatant ignoring of Scriptural references or the creation of misleading interpretation of these references in at least one current debate is soundly rooted in a view that sees eros (desire) as justification for ignoring centuries of church tradition and accepted hermeneutical processes.  A liberated eros is seen as being of more significance than tempered, mature discipleship formation.

It is sad that are those within the church who have allowed eros to be elevated to the status of true love.  When John writes God is love he is not referring to God as erosEros seeks to satisfy the self.  Eros strives for the ecstatic.  If eros is restricted, it rallies to its defense license disguised as freedom and preference as liberty.  It makes itself out to be the victim while it seduces the unaware into acceptance.  It been very effective in this practice (Even as I write this post I feel the need to be guarded or risk being viewed as a bigot or as someone who has an abnormal psychologically based fear).  Eros demands for itself acceptance no matter what the Scripture has stated in the past.

True love does desire.  However, what true love desires is grounded in truth.  What true love desires is subject to sacrifice if that is what is required to be obedient to the truth.  True love is about a desire of service to the object of one’s love rather than being served.

These are difficult days for the church.   One community of faith after another have accommodated to the demands of eros without regard for the consequences of doing so.  Human history has shown this does not end well.  If we are to be loving Christians we must be vigilant in regard to how we allow our faith to be defined and the words we use to do so.

The Importance of Gathering

I look forward to Sunday mornings and the worship hour that takes place then.

But of course I do, I am a pastor!

Even when I was not the pastor of a church I looked forward to Sunday morning worship times.  I did so because of the fellowship.  I did so for the singing to my Lord (who does not care if I am off key or not).  I also looked forward to what I could learn from a sermon.  I deeply enjoyed having communion and experiencing the presence of the Lord during that time of remembrance.

However, when the attendance was down at a worship service I can remember the feeling that something just wasn’t as upbeat or as fulfilling as it was when the church membership was in high attendance.  There is a let down when you realize that others do not make attending worship a priority.

We are told that church attendance is down all across the country.  We are told that church is not that important to people anymore.  This is a disturbing revelation.

Well maybe if church were more entertaining or if it placated our wants and desires then perhaps people would attend more.   Maybe we need to give people gifts every Sunday for attending or have a meal every time we meet.  After all we modern people don’t have time to sit around for an hour on Sunday.  We have too much we want to do.  Surely God understands.

The church is a gift of grace.  It is a shelter in the storms of life when they come (or it used to be).  Church is about a covenant community that comes together to serve one another not just a gathering to be served.  These are things that are missing in our culture.

There are still some places where people do look forward to going to church.  There are places that many people still make the church a priority in their lives.  Every church still has the possibility to be like this – for now.  The question is will its members understand the importance of what true church is all about?

Wow, just five days till it is time to come again and worship.  I can hardly wait.

Christian Community

I serve a church in a denomination that views baptism as an entrance into what we call a covenant community.  It is because of our belief in a covenant community that people of all ages may be baptized.  Baptism is seen as an entry point into the community.   Entrance in the covenant community is not salvation.   Salvation still only can be obtained by being born again (event or process).

As I serve in local churches I am becoming more and more concerned about the state of spiritual health of our covenant community.  We believe the covenant comes to us from God.  It is a great privilege to be in covenant with God.  Being in a covenant community means that God has made promises that God most assuredly will meet.  However, being joined in covenant has its responsibilities as well.  There are expectations.  Most important of these expectation is that we are faithful to God.

The problem: faithfulness to God is not in fashion.  In fact, I am afraid that God gets very little thought much less obedient faithfulness from the vast majority of God’s covenant community.  I dare not say that I know the emotional state of the divine but I know that it breaks my heart.

In a recent discussion a friend asked me what percentage of our local covenant community was active.  By active he meant that they attended our Sunday morning worship gathering on a regular basis.  I had to answer that was pretty sure it was less than 15%.  If we were talking about the percentage who are involved in the financial support of the church and actively involved in the mission of making disciples I believe the number would drop to less than 5% (and I am being optimist).

Human beings flourish the most when we live in well organized and active communities.  This is true of us in secular as well as spiritual definitions. When a covenant community, a spiritual community, is organized and active there are the added benefits of spiritual gifts and strength to meet the challenges that come from living in an environment that is hostile to our existence.  I believe the weakening of commitment to the covenant community is going to have frightening consequences in our culture in days to come.  I believe that if were not for God’s prevenient grace these consequences would have already overwhelmed us.

Those of us who care about our current condition could probably name many reasons for why we believe this lack of commitment to the community has evolved, but reasons to often become excuses and excuses do nothing to change the situation.  What can happen is that those who are faithful can work to make the cords that bind us even stronger.   There is a reason God has created the community.  We need to be sure we are ready when it becomes evident what this reason is.

What Does our Giving have to do with Our Love?

This is my body given for you. What do we give to show our love to Him?

All the church is interest in is money!

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this statement.  However, is this statement a true accusation or a attempt to avoid facing a real spiritual threat?

Below are three verses, one from the Old Testament, one from the Gospels, and one from a Pauline epistle.  In these three verses we find three warnings that must be taken seriously if we are to be true followers of our Lord.

Ecclesiastes 5:10  Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. (NIV)

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

1 Timothy 6:10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

If you are a member of a United Methodist church, you took a vow (Methodist are a people of accountability).  The following statement is a major emphasis of that vow.

As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?

If you look up the definition of vow you will find it is a solemn promise, pledge, or personal commitment to make a vow of; promise by a vow, as to God.  God takes our vows seriously, as should we.  This is my body given for you. What do we give to show our love to Him?This is my body given for you.
What do we give to show our love to Him?

(Note:  Ecclesiastes 5:4-5  When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  5 It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.)

 
This is my body given for you.
What do we give to show our love to Him?

I am not talking about legalism.  This short discourse is about relational responsibility.  If a parent says to a child, “I love you”, but does not meet the child’s needs, the words do not match the behavior.  If a spouse says to their mate, “I love you”, but is not faithful and is selfish the words do not match the behavior.  If a person says, “I love you Lord”, yet does not support or give to the God’s physical presence the church, then the words do not match the behavior.

It really hurts to say this, but our church has a behavior problem.

As a new pastor to the United Methodist church I feel duty bound to carry out my job as I am direc

ted by the Discipline, my DS, and my Bishop.  My main task is the making of disciples and equipping the saints for ministry.  l am supervised, mentored, trained and directed to give the best pastoral care I can.  One of the tools I have been told to use is the church’s record of contributions.  I have been told it is clergy malpractice to not know who is giving and who is not.  The reason and theology behind this directive is that how we support the church does indicate our level of spiritual maturity, commitment, and discipleship.

Folks, to look at the giving records of our church is a painful thing right now.   Yes, we have a surplus of funds.  However, this surplus is because the faithful have been giving more.  Still, the surplus is not the issue.  If we had a billion dollars in the bank I would still need to  bring our behavior problem to you.  Giving is about faith not about bottom lines.

Some would say, “tithing is an Old Testament concept.”  The problem is not about tithing and this is not a debate about 10% of the gross or net.  The problem is about giving out of love.  The problem is about being faithful to God’s word.  The problem is about our commitment to the church we profess we love.  Thus, the point is this:  What does your giving say about your love for the Lord?

Please pray.  I am.

 

The Joy of Committees

Yesterday was marathon committee day at church.  The meetings began at 2:30 PM and finished at 7 PM.  In this period of time I met with five different committees (thank goodness for OneNote that keeps me organized).

Who is to blame for this marathon of meetings, this congregation of committees?  Well, I am to blame.  I schedule these marathon meeting days so that we are not having committee meetings every Sunday afternoon (especially during football season).

And while I finished the day in a rather blissful exhaustion, I also finished the day with a great sense of satisfaction.  The satisfaction came for what was accomplished by the members of the committees and teams that I met with.  Plans were made, problems were solved and possibilities  were explored by people who want to see our church live out its mission to make disciples and to have an impact for the Lord on our community.

We did not have a single meaningless meeting.  Every minute was used as a positive progress toward ministry.  There was laughter, fellowship, fun and creative cooperation.  It was a joy and privileged to work with the laity leaders of this church.

Committee meetings may be a drudgery for some but as for me and my house they are a joy in our serving the Lord.

Critics of the Labyrinth

Last night I spent time researching articles on the Web critical of using the labyrinth in spiritual formation.  Most of the arguments reminded me of those that were critical of contemporary Christian Music 30 years ago.  I cannot remember how many times I was told that anything with a drum beat was “of the devil”.  My answer to those critics is the same I would offer to the critics of the labyrinth: Music is morally neutral.  It functions within God’s natural physical laws.  We must give the music its meaning.

Labyrinths are patterns.  They are morally neutral.  It is we who give their usage meaning.

As I read most of the critics, their main target was Dr. Lauren Artress of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  She is the author of “Walking the Sacred Path” which is a book about using the labyrinth as a spiritual tool.  I have read her book and have found it to be one of those books which must be read with an understanding that the author has attached some personal perspectives which other Christians could disagree with along with the Christian focus they offer.

I do believe the labyrinth can be a positive tool in spiritual formation. I do have the credentials to evaluate it from a position which holds a high view of Scripture and an evangelical motivation and desire.

The labyrinth can be used as a means of discerning God’s will for a person.  It can be a tool used for self-introspection.  It can be a means of making communion more meaningful.  It can be used as a time of intercession and thanksgiving.  It offers opportunity for worship in unique ways.

Sadly, as in the time of Jesus, there will always be those critics who view anything that outside of their comfort zone as “of the devil” and feel compelled to try and scare others into embracing their paranoia.  I feel sorry for them and the opportunities they miss.

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The Bishop’s Blog

The following is from the Central Texas Conference Bishop’s Blog.   I believe it shows the heart of the man God has called to lead the CTC Conference.  Please add him to your prayer list and pray for him daily.

His blog is found at:   http://www.bishopmikelowry.com/

COME HOLY SPIRIT — Report from Taize 4

June 14, 2013

Today [May 25] we left for Cluny right after worship. The great Cluny Abbey fills me with awe. It once was the “major ecclesia” – the largest church in Christendom. Cluny Abbey started over 1,000 satellite abbeys. Its influence spread far and wide. In the French Revolution, it was dismantled stone by stone down to the very foundation in most places by an angry mob. A beacon of care and compassion, faith and hope, had become a citadel of despotism and greed.

And yet, it is only a short distance from Taize, a new beacon of hope and faith, reconciliation and love. This is not a mere accident of history and happenstance of geography. I believe God through the Holy Spirit is speaking to me (and to us) in the resurrection life of Christ. Rising north of the ruins of the great Cluny Abbey is the light of Christ in the simplicity of Taize.

I came to Taize in some angst, if not despair, over the state of the United Methodist Church. Eight days before leaving, I had participated in a meeting of officers of the Council of Bishops, General Secretaries, Board and Agency Presidents, and leadership from the Connectional Table. It was a gathering highlighted by a false politeness and sabotaged by wanton political maneuvering – the church at its worst. The week that followed was filled with a funeral, two days of hard work in making appointments (appointments made without good options and in facing of difficult choices), then three more days of hard digging through administrative work. I commented to a fellow bishop that the UM church was going down (meaning the image of a boxer being knocked to the ground).

Here at Taize for the second time, the Spirit clearly spoke to me. The shadow of Cluny is being erased by the light of Taize. “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Even as vast segments of the UMC and the larger Christian witness in America dissolve in a voracious black hole of enlightenment’s legacy, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is making something new. The soaring songs in candlelight service of resurrection called me forward in commitment to Christ.

As if compelled, for I believe I was, I found myself standing and walking forward to kneel with others before the icon of Jesus at the Table with His followers. In the time of renewal, prayer, and commitment, the words of the songs washed over me as some 2,000+ faithful (mostly young people) sing our faith.

Afterward, a surprise meeting with Christoph Benn, a doctor with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He drove up from Geneva because the brothers of Taize told him there was a UM bishop up here and he wanted to share appreciation and offer encouragement for the Imagine No Malaria campaign. Amazing how the Spirit intervenes …. God is at work.

Where do We go from Here?

labyrinth1

The figure at the right is called a labyrinth.  I plan to make one in the in fence in area at the back of the church. The labyrinth has been used by Christians for centuries as a tool to help them in prayer walking and in meditation. At the spiritual retreat I went to a few months back there was a labyrinth that Juanell and I walked and prayed on together. It was an uplifting experience.

The thing about a labyrinth is that you are always progressing toward a goal but sometimes the path seems to lead away from the center.  If you trace the labyrinth at the right you will discover this for yourself.

This last Sunday we had several meetings.  The trustees met and discussed the things we need to do to take care of the facilities we now use.  We talked about the old building.  We talked about parking lots.  We talked about air conditioners, fans, exit signs, insurance, utilities, and making at least one bathroom ADA compliant for any challenged folks who might come to our meeting place.  We also talked about speakers, the gas leak, and the work day we had just completed.  The discussion had a lot of passion, truth, compassion, differing opinions but all with hearts wanting to do what is best for our church and ministry.  We are fortunate to have such good trustees.

We do have a problem.  We have a lot of things needing to be done and a limited amount of resources.  Our trustees understand this and will do the best they can to prioritize and organize to make the most of what we have.  It is going to be a lot of hard work.  The meeting went longer than the hour set aside.  Still, it was a needed and good meeting.

Next we had a finance committee meeting.  Again good people met and had serious discussions.  I talked too much, but I felt as pastor in need to say what I said.  It too was a good meeting.  Responsible and thoughtful steps were taken to help this committee have a better handle on our finances and set some priorities as well.

After this meeting we had a VBS planning meeting.  We want to reach children AND their families.  VBS can be a good tool to help us in this cause.  This year we want to do a VBS that involves the majority of the members of our church.  Hopefully everyone will be willing to give some time to this project.  Prayerfully everyone will be willing to be stretched a bit in their comfort zones.  But again, this is a concern of finances.  Those planning VBS also know our resources are limited.  The is agreement on the part of everyone that we should not spend what we do not have!

Finances, faith, and the future are like a labyrinth.  The journey to where we want to be can at times be confusing.  However, if one sticks to the path and continues to move forward the goal will be obtained—UNLESS, unless we do not know what the goal is or if we do not think the goal is worth the effort or time.

There are those who claim to know exactly what God’s will is for everything the church does (I am speaking of the church in general not our church).  I do not make such claims.  I do know that God gives visions and missions like the ones God gave to Nehemiah and to Paul.  I do pray for direction in the things I try to bring to the attention of our church.  I believe if what I bring up is good then it will be affirmed by the majority of the people who have the responsibility for the oversight of that area.  I have no problem being told no, nor do I believe those who say no (or yes) are any less in the will of our Lord than I.   I do, however, believe it is wrong to just try and maintain where we are.  The church is a living organism.  If it is not growing, moving, thriving, it is dying.  The book of Revelation has something to say about churches on that subject.   If we will not be used of the Lord, then the Lord will use someone else.  Where there is no vision the people perish.

So, the question for us is, “Where do we go from here?”  What is the goal(s)?  Are we making sure we are on the journey together?

I am going to make a labyrinth.  I hope you will walk it and pray we me.

The Desire to Worship

NIV Psalm 95:6  Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;

I use the book “Divine Hours” by Phyllis Tickle as a prayer guide in my daily prayers.  I deeply enjoy the discipline of keeping the offices of prayer.  It has been a very rewarding (and at times) challenging practice.  The office allow God to speak to me in ways I might have missed otherwise.

One of yesterdays readings caused me a bit of uneasiness.   It had to do with God’s desire for authentic worship and God’s disdain for “playing” at worship.  It also reminded me of a quote I used to keep on my desk:

“Most middle-class Americans tend to:
worship their work;
work at their play; and
play at their worship.
That which we worship, we serve,
and that which we serve we will give our all–heart, soul, mind and body.”

-Gordon Dahl

The last thing I want to do is to “play” at my worship.  However, staying true to doing liturgy (the work of the people) is not easy when the culture looks at worship simply as an option in their lives.  Worship becomes something we attend.  It becomes something we chose to do.  It is something which should meet our “needs” or we will not attend (since we “pay” i.e., give money we should get what we want).

In our culture going to church or worshiping is something we do when we have the time or the inclination or it does not conflict with our schedule.  We pick the church or churches we attend based not on seeking true worship but on the style, comfort, familiarity, or the church’s potential to be used to meet other selfish needs.  The the rise of the market-driven “church” that is more focused on niche marketing and be specialty shop that a vessel for the worship of God and the presence of Jesus on this earth.

Isaiah 29:13  The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.  These words are echoed by Jesus:  Matthew 15:7-9  You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:  “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”

The above verses were used by some to blast the traditions of worship handed down by the church.  However, it is not the tradition that is being condemned but the attitude of the heart.

Is this where we are at?

John 4:23-24  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

The word for truth also carries with it the meaning of genuine, real.  It is my prayer and growing desire that in God’s bringing about perfection in me that I willingly and eagerly seek to be above all a true worshiper who lives not by the desire of my selfish nature but through the altruistic nature of the Spirit of God that draws me to gather with others who:  Psalm 95:6   Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.