Monday, August 15, 2022

The Ride or The Journey?

As a pastor, I have a unique vantage point of looking at people.  I get the blessings of seeing the deep beauty, the deep moments and the deep cuts that we all experience.  I get calls about life events ... births, weddings, sickness, milestones, deaths ... from people that were/are part of the congregations I have served.  The life-long connections are deep, wide and lasting.

In saying the above, I want to share a little of my heart today.  This sharing is borne of 28 or so years of serving churches in Kentucky, Florida and Alabama and serving as a layperson in Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama.  In all of these places I have worked and served alongside people who can generally be placed in 2 categories ... riders and journeyers.

I recently met with a person I would classify as a rider.  He talked about how he had attended 5 different churches over the last several years.  He recounted how each of those churches had failed him in some way.  He was disappointed, jaded and almost angry at these people/places that had "failed" him.  My friend was a rider.  He was on the church bus for a ride that was all about what he could get.  He had his agenda, his plan and his needs, all of which constituted his "check-box" for a church that was about him.  And he wondered why all of his needs were not met!  He left disappointed!

I thought about this man's story in the context of the "rich young ruler" from Luke 18:18-23.  The young man asks Jesus "Good teacher ... what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Jesus hears the man give an account of his virtuous life, keeping all the commandments "since he was a boy."  Then Jesus says, "You still lack one thing.  Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me."  The Bible says, "When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy."  This young man left disappointed for the same basic reason my non-wealthy and troubled friend left ... Jesus reminds both of them that faith, church and living with Christ involves something that is probably the hardest thing they will ever do ... giving up self for a deep relationship (a journey) with Jesus.  "Follow me," Jesus said.

So, do we want a ride or a journey?  Because a journey with Jesus is one that starts with giving up self.  I tell people being baptized that going under the water was a "dying to self" ... that being lifted up out of the water was a "being raised to life within the context of an imperfect, flawed but journeying Church."  That Church is about following Jesus' call to 1) "come" and 2) "follow me (Christ)."

So, I leave this reflection with a prayer for you, me and my friend.  The prayer is that my friend "sells all he has."  Sell (get rid of) the baggage, needs, rights, prejudices, control, and attitudes that blind our ability to see the Church Jesus has "called".  That Church is my dream and hope for all of us.  And my prayer is for "Christ to be more and more at home in your hearts, living within you as you trust in him.  May your roots go way down deep into the soil of God's marvelous love, and may you be able to feel and understand, as all God's children should, how long, how wide, how deep and how high his love really is! (Ephesians 3:17-19)"

When you are a rider, trying to get to your destination, you will miss all of that!  But, if you choose the difficult, thankless but wonderful and joyful journey with Jesus, you will have deep roots, deep love, deep understanding and deep respect for who God is, what God has done and what God can do if we leave the non-eternal for the eternal.  That's my prayer for my friend and for all of those who share life, love and journey!  AMEN

Monday, August 8, 2022

Weather Vane

This morning I got a call from a friend who is struggling through the process of what to do about the happenings in the denomination (and truly the entire church).  As we talked, I remembered both the good things and the untruths that are so often found inside our decisions.  I will share a few of these as we try, as a church, to prayerfully proceed with "doing the right thing."

Before I talk about that phone call, I did want to remark about how deeply yesterday's worship moved me.  As always, the music was beautiful and seamless as it led us all into a spirit of worshiping the one true God.  I loved that Nicey shared how our church, as we invest life/love/Gospel into our community, sends little bits of Jesus out into our world as imperfect but Spirit-led messengers.  We go into the schools, into the jails, into the hospitals and nursing homes, into Belize, into community groups, into the sports teams and into the whole world as the Church.  Paul and Wesley reminded us of something we can never forget as we make these journeys into a world God loves ... "offer them Christ, and Christ crucified."

Now, back to the call!  My friend talked about how he had been a Methodist all of his life.  How he worried about getting a preacher, owning the cemetery at his church, having a voice in preacher appointments and other "nuts-and-bolts" issues of being a church.  My answer was, "You (if your church remains Wesleyan) will remain Methodist ... just maybe not United Methodist."  I told him the preacher appointment process, at least under the Global Methodist Church (GMC), would be collaborative.  That the voice of his church would be a strong part of that process as more and more new and old preachers become aligned with the GMC.  And I told him under disaffiliation his congregation would own all of their property, including the cemetery.

Then I changed the subject from the nuts-and-bolts to something more important.  I asked him, "Do you believe in Scripture?  Do you think Scripture should be the foundation of seminary training for your pastors?  Do you think Jesus is who Jesus said He was?  Do you think the Church should follow the ever-changing winds of societal whims, or should we follow the never-changing voice of God?"  Of course, his answer was yes to the first 3 questions and "the voice of God" on the 4th question.  Hopefully I gave him a few things to ponder as he had a churchwide meeting tonight to discuss how his congregation will respond to their own affiliation decisions.

As I talked and listened to my friend, I thought of a statement Dr. Karl Stegall made in a letter you should all have received and read.  Karl remarked, "a conservative bishop remarked, "Our church has traded the cross of Jesus Christ for a weather vane, waking up each day to see which way the wind is blowing."  Paul writes, in Ephesians 4:14, "We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery and by their craftiness in deceitful scheming."  Maybe the choice we are making is that simple.  Are we to be a weather vane for detecting and applying societally-accepted norms, or are we the Church that will 1) stand on the solid rock of Jesus, 2) hold to the cross of Christ and 3) stand and prevail (Matthew 16:18) even against the very gates of hell!?  

Monday, August 1, 2022

An Applied Choice

Sunday is communion.  I looked up the official definition of this word we use so often in the Church.  The word is 2 parts.  Union is one we all should know ... "the action or act of being joined."  Last week my friend Jess joined AUMC!  She and Renee are now in union with our congregation.  And I like the other part of that definition ... "action or act."  Union is an applied choice.

The prefix, "com" is also pretty easy.  Com is "A word-forming element usually meaning together or with (from Latin)."  The prefix forms words like community, common, and complete.  There is a sense that each time a new person becomes part of a congregation and joins with "the body of Christ" that body becomes more complete.  It has been going on since God created people and for some wonderful reason decided to relate to us in a personal way.  My messed-up, sinful and broken self has trouble fathoming why a perfect God would ever want to do that, but God has chosen this relationship in spite of me!  Wow!

Last evening Nicey Eller sent a song to Andy and me.  The title is Communion (go figure) by Brooke Ligertwood.  I would recommend checking it out on YouTube.  As I listened and pondered to lyrics (I am very lyric-focused) I marveled at how music and lyric can be so powerful in conveying a message that has been proclaimed ever since that Passover when Jesus said, "This is my body ... this is my blood."  Jesus chose union with His disciples, and all who have come to the altar since that beautiful and terrible night when He was handed over to the Jewish and Roman authorities.  The song repeats the thought of remembering the sacrifice, the blood, the only Son, the price paid, the wounds and the Lamb slain on the cross.  It is beautiful and, in the words of the song, "a bittersweet cup."

Sunday we will come.  Broken for sure.  Confused about many things, but sure of one great truth ... (again from the song) "His blood has power still and by His wounds we will be healed."  The reason we can make this bold statement of restoration and forgiveness is that the story, challenged by what is called "new" theology, is true, real and life-giving.  I can say this because the Bible is true.  I can say this because Jesus said He is "the way and the life."  I can say this because Jesus' life isn't some made-up story.  I can say this because (contrary to some "modern" theology) Jesus is the "sinless Lamb who was slain for our sins."  I can say this because I affirmed, as a new believer affirmed on Sunday, that "I confessed Jesus Christ as my Savior, placed my whole trust in His grace, and promised to serve HIM as my Lord."  If you haven't made this public statement, please come Sunday and confess your faith in Jesus!  

I hope you do come Sunday.  To be with other struggling sinners who gather to remember the sinless Savior that came to save the world (every person is eligible).  To kneel or stand beside the confused, convicted, the broken, the knocked-down, the self-focused, people.  Take action to join with others who will remember the blood, the sacrifice, the wounds, the only Son, the price paid and the Lamb slain on the cross.  All of this, so we could be with God here, in this life, and in eternity with the one true God.  "His mercy is enough for the many and the one!"  AMEN 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Past The Buzzards

The other day I was traveling down Alabama Hwy. 10, coming from Prattville (a funeral) to Abbeville.  At night the stretch of road is known for deer and dents.  But during the day, the power poles and trees sport the Alabama State Bird ... yes, the buzzard.  The buzzard is an odd and interesting bird.  It is really a member of the hawk family.  Like its fellow raptors, the buzzard has keen eyesight that can (according to Google) spot a carcass from 4 miles away.  They gather in groups called wakes and they are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem.  They are nature's cleanup crew.  But, for sure, they are nasty things!

As I looked at the top of a power pole, I saw 2 buzzards perching and waiting (it's how they roll!).  As I looked at them with thoughts about their presence being an omen of bad things, I looked past them and saw a beautiful sky, the colors approaching sunset, and a reminder that God is in the business of renewal, restoration and the beauty of grace!  It was a great thought!

Elisha and his servant were confronted and surrounded by the enemy (Syrians).  In 2 Kings 6:17 Elisha prays "O Lord, please open his eyes (the servant) that he may see."  Elisha is praying that in the midst of confusion, conflict and danger, the servant would see God's provision and deliverance.  According to 2 Kings, "the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha."  So, a few observations:

1. In the midst of facing conflict and unpleasantness, God is already here.  We are in uncharted waters of decision, division and difficulty.  There are lots of buzzards, including the humanist theology, progressive world-view and political "wokeness" that permeates our society.  It is hard to see past all of this, but I am praying that we (God's servants) can look past the obstacles to the goal.  God is providing, God is speaking and God is living in us, His Church.

2. In the midst of facing conflict and unpleasantness, God is working for our future.  In the 2 Kings story, God provides a plan that leads Elisha to a place of protection and victory.  The enemy is led to Samaria and the Syrian soldiers open their eyes to certain defeat and probable death.  God provides a way, and God gives the victory.

3. In the midst of facing conflict and unpleasantness, God remains graceful.  God, in this story, "prepares a table before them in the presence of their enemies."  The king of Israel feeds the Syrians, and sends them home.  Even the Syrians find beauty beyond their conflict.

We have buzzards galore.  They include people who mean us harm, a worldview that is against our families and children, old prejudices that need to be left behind, disobedient bishops, conferences, seminaries, boards/agencies and even our own conference.  We feel surrounded and persecuted.  But, we must look past all of these things.  We must persist in our efforts to do what God is asking us to do.  We must lift our eyes to the hills, for our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.  We must plan for the days ahead, knowing God will be in those plans.  We must resist becoming buzzards ourselves, and apply a grace that will teach those who oppose us.  We must look past the buzzards on the pole, and see the beauty of a sunset and the promise of a new day.  Randy 

Monday, July 18, 2022

It's Time

In Job 38:11 God is talking to Job after Job has requested an audience with God (because Job believes he has been unjustly punished).  In God's little discussion with Job, God asks Job a very good question.  God establishes the "pecking order" at the beginning of the chapter when Job, full of questions for God, is told by God, "I will question you and you will answer."  This is not the dialogue Job wants, but God is God, and Job learns pretty quickly God makes the rules.  Here are a few of the questions Job is asked:

1. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth (v. 4)? The question is rhetorical ... God knows exactly where Job was!

2. "Who laid its cornerstone  (v. 6)?"  Again, God knows this answer too.

3. "Who shut in the seas with doors, when it burst out from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, 'this far you shall come and no farther ... here your proud waves shall be stayed' (v. 8-11)."

God asks many more questions of Job, without an answer from Job.  Because Job has no adequate answer ... God is God.  Let's spend some time on that last question.  "this far and no farther."  There comes a time when a line is drawn and a stand is taken.

Drawing lines in the sand reminds me of a childhood fight I had because of an argument over scuppernongs and muscadines.  In Wikipedia, scuppernongs are described as "a large variety of muscadines."  9 year olds in North Carolina didn't have Wikipedia ... we didn't even have air conditioning!  So, over this little thing, I punched Chris Venable in the nose.  It was not a proud moment, but kids will be kids.

But what do we do about God's words to Job?  Job 38:8-11 indicates that God creates limits for a purpose, whether we understand it or not.  It (in some pretty beautiful imagery, from what theologians would like to tell you are 'primitive' people) paints a picture of knowledge, intent and purpose as God creates the natural order of the world.  I (and Job for that matter) cannot really tell you how all this was done, but God's action here is one of those things bound up in the passage that says "My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts, and my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine (Isaiah 55:8-9)!"  When God says, "where were you" when all this happened, I think Job is starting to get the point.  There is a creator God, and it isn't Job.  There is a purpose in the universe, but it is beyond Job's ability to fathom.  There is a higher authority that is wiser, more powerful, and more loving than we can even grasp.  Powerful enough to create everything we can see and not see, and loving enough to remove our sins "as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12)."

So ... a quick few thoughts.  1) Do we believe God is wiser than us?  My answer is yes ... His word (Scripture) proclaims this, His action in history demonstrates this (Tradition), my life with God solidifies this (Experience) and my mind, while unable to fully grasp God's vastness, understands this (Reason).  2) Do we believe God knows more than we do?  My answer is yes ... because my choice is to either follow the whirlwind of the world or stand on the solid ground of God.  3) Do we think we (people) can devise a better plan for our world?  This one is a no-brainer!  Humanism does not work, along with a lot of other 'isms' we have tried.

As I look at Job's story here, he (Chapter 40:4) says, "I place my hand over my mouth."  Maybe that is what Adam and Eve should have done, rather than listening to the serpent say, "your eyes will see and you will be like God (Genesis 3:5)" ... this far and no farther!  Maybe this is what we need to say as the proud waves of humanism flow over our church and our nation trying to drown the church in societal wisdom ... this far and no farther!  Maybe, when we hear our own church say "there will always be a place for orthodox believers" (while simultaneously teaching humanism in lieu of Scripture, and overflowing the bounds God has wisely set for a Church He has called out of the world) we need to say, this far and no farther.  Will we, as God's Church, here to save the world by Christ's power, follow the two oldest lies in human history ... "did God really say that (Genesis 3:1) and "your eyes will see, and you will be as God (Genesis 3:5)."  For me, I say ... this far and no farther.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Discernment and Decision

The dictionary definition of discernment is very short and pointed.  Discernment is "the ability to judge well."  Over the past months we have been in a state of discernment.  That discernment has been related to an understanding of 1) who we are as a United Methodist congregation, 2) who we should be as a church and 3) what decisions we need to make so that we can do the work/ministry/worship God has planned for us.  While we should be in a constant state of discernment, this time seems stark, different and important.  We must enter this time in both prayer and in the word of God.

Paul, in speaking to Timothy, knows discernment is important.  God has called Timothy and Paul is sending his friend (that he loves as a son) out into a chaotic world.  Paul knows that this world will not be merciful or graceful to Timothy.  But Paul also knows that Timothy has been doth gifted and equipped for the task.  And Paul's advice is for Timothy to carry with his the tools of discernment.  In Chapter 3 of 2 Timothy, Paul sends Timothy with this advice, " ... you have known the Holy Scriptures that make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."  The advice is sound in a world that needs foundation and discernment.

So, back to the three questions.  Who are we as a United Methodist congregation?  We are good and faithful followers of Jesus with a rich heritage, solid theology and a missional mindset.  Our UM Discipline is, in the Articles of Religion and in statements about the complex issues facing our people and nation, orthodox (conforming to what is generally accepted as right and true).  We can say the creeds without reservation.  We can preach and profess the truth, foundation, sufficiency and necessity of Jesus Christ. 

Who should we be as a congregation?  Paul tells Timothy while the world is operating in opposition to Christ and God, the Church must be different.  Where the world sows hate, the Church sows love.  Where the world says "every man for himself," the Church becomes willing to give up its life for the salvation of others.  Where the world says, "find yourself" the Church says (as Paul shared with Timothy) find "salvation through the savior, Jesus Christ."  And when our denominational structure becomes the wing of a political party, the Church remains true to the foundation of Scripture and Discipline.

What decisions do we need to make so that we can conduct what Paul calls "the good works God has equipped us for?" We do some things that are very "Methodist."  Our Trustees develop/maintain facilities and long-term resources for ministry.  Our Staff Parrish Relations Team makes sure we have people to do this work.  Our Finance Team makes sure that we secure funds for the ministry of the church.  

This is who we are and who we will be.  The old song, "I Have Decided" says, thou none go with me, still I will follow. We (our congregation) must decide whom we will follow.  We will do what Paul says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3 ... 1) we will look around at the brokenness of the world and know that we live/speak/love into that world as a light, 2) we will reflect on our foundations from God's word and from the people who poured that word into us and, 3) we will choose the context out of which we will "do the good works God has planned-out for us."  Let's choose well!  Randy

Discernment

The dictionary definition of this term is very short and pointed.  Discernment is "the ability to judge well."  Over the past months we have been in a state of discernment.  That discernment has been related to an understanding of 1) who we are as a United Methodist congregation, 2) who we should be as a church and 3) what decisions we need to make so that we can do the work/ministry/worship God has planned for us.  While we should be in a constant state of discernment, this time seems stark, different and important.  We must enter this time in both prayer and in the word of God.

Paul, in speaking to Timothy, knows discernment is important.  God has called Timothy and Paul is sending his friend (that he loves as a son) out into a chaotic world.  Paul knows that this world will not be merciful or graceful to Timothy.  But Paul also knows that Timothy has been doth gifted and equipped for the task.  And Paul's advice is for Timothy to carry with his the tools of discernment.  In Chapter 3 of 2 Timothy, Paul sends Timothy with this advice, " ... you have known the Holy Scriptures that make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."  The advice is sound in a world that requires foundation and discernment.

So, back to the three questions.  Who are we as a United Methodist congregation?  We are good and faithful followers of Jesus with a rich heritage, solid theology and a missional mindset.  Our UM Discipline is, in the Articles of Religion and in statements about the complex issues facing our people and nation, orthodox (conforming to what is generally accepted as right and true).  We can say the creeds without reservation.  We can preach and profess the truth, foundation, sufficiency and necessity of Jesus Christ.  But, we are connected to many other UM clergy, conferences, bishops, agencies and even curricula that are inconsistent and even in opposition to the UM Discipline and the Scripture that supposedly support them.

Who should we be as a congregation?  Paul tells Timothy while the world is operating in opposition to Christ and God, the Church must be different.  Where the world sows hate, the Church sows love.  Where the world says "every man for himself," the Church becomes willing to give up its life for the salvation of others.  Where the world says, "find yourself" the Church says (as Paul shared with Timothy) find "salvation through the savior, Jesus Christ."  And when our denominational structure becomes the wing of a political party, the Church remains true to the foundation of Scripture and Discipline.

What decisions do we need to make so that we can conduct what Paul calls "the good works God has equipped us for?" We do some things that are very "Methodist."  Our Trustees develop/maintain facilities and long-term resources for ministry.  Our Staff Parrish Relations Team makes sure we have people to do this work.  Our Finance Team makes sure that we secure funds for the ministry of the church.  And, in the midst of all of these "good" problems, we must try to maintain/develop facilities, hire people and raise funds while the tenor of brothers and sisters all over our nation ignore, oppose and even mock the UM Discipline and the Scriptural basis upon which the Discipline is founded.  "Good works" are hampered because the leadership and the structural support of our denomination has chosen to live in opposition to our basic tenants.  And our friends, neighbors, potential employees and community sees the disconnect.  We must decide/discern who we are and where we are going.

We must judge well.  Randy