Saturday, February 3, 2018

“Finding God In the Midst of Doubt”

            This Sunday, February 4th, I will resume my focus on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine in everyday life because we are not actively seeking God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in our everyday lives.  This week our focus shifts somewhat as we explore finding God in doubt.  In these circumstances, we may be actually searching for God—or, at least seeking some fleeting evidence of God’s existence.  Yet, despite our best intentions, God seems aloof or—perhaps—absent altogether. 

We begin to doubt God’s existence.  Or, we encounter the hypocrisy, greed, and sinfulness of God’s Church and the self-proclaimed faithful who call themselves “Christians.”  Under these circumstances we begin to question whether or not a God of love and peace would tolerate such apostasy.  Since God seems to tolerate specifically anti-Christian attitudes and behaviors in the Church, we question whether there really is a “God.” 

            This is a difficult exploration, which is not easily presented in a worship setting.  I have struggled with how to develop this question in a sermon.  Ultimately, I decided that the best I can do is to simply tell my story of doubt and then how I re-claimed my Christian faith.  I grew up in a small Southern town which was religiously quite homogeneous.  Everyone in my small town was either Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist.  There were really no other options—just these three mainline Protestant denominations.  Further, pretty much everyone in town attended one of these three churches; there was a sparse handful of people who did not regularly attend one of the churches.  So, as I grew older, I did not really question my Christian faith that deeply.  I just more or less took it for granted.

            After graduating from high school, I matriculated to a very diverse, cosmopolitan university.  In that context, I quickly encountered people who were religiously very different from me: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, as well as agnostics and atheists and persons exploring indigenous spirituality.  I soon developed friendships with other students who had very different faiths—or, no religious faith at all. 

Over time, I began to see my Christian faith differently.  I took advantage of the University’s Department of Religion to study other religions.  Jainism, in particular, made an impression on me.  Some of my studies challenged my faith, such as the claim by Karl Marx that “Religion is the opium of the people.”  Some of my new friends were not at all hesitant to critique my Christian faith.  I became acutely aware of how Christianity falls far short of the lofty ideals taught by Christ Jesus.  For the first time, I began to see clearly the hypocrisy, greed, and sinfulness rampant in the Christian Church—and especially among many Christians who proclaimed—even bragged about—how devout they were.  I began to doubt whether God even existed.  By the fall semester of my Sophomore year, I had become an atheist.

            For the next three semesters, I was something of an atheist.  Oh, I continued to dabble in religion.  I took some more college courses.  I especially loved ethics.  There were also those occasional moments when I had a deep spiritual experience, which didn’t jibe with my intellectual position of atheism.  For instance, sometimes when I was running in the forest, I would be overcome with a spiritual feeling of being in harmony with Creation.  These were small, first steps back to my Christian faith.

            The big step came when a professor suggested that I read Gustavo Gutierrez’ book, A Theology of Liberation, which had just been translated into English.  Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest who had a doctorate in theology, argued that God makes a preferential option for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized people within our midst.  Although God loves all people, God makes a preferential option for those who are suffering the most, just as a parent will devote extra care and attention to a sick child, temporarily elevating the sick child and their care above their other healthy children.  Building upon this theological claim about God, Gutierrez argued that faithful followers of Christ must give special attention to those who are hungry, homeless, poor, or oppressed.  This attention could not simply be acts of charity, as important as these acts are.  Instead, Christians must analyze and work for structural change in the socio-economic system which held the poor and exploited down.

            For me, A Theology of Liberation was transformative.   It offered me a bridge back to the Christian faith.  I began to see that Christianity did not have to be a trite, clich├ęd opium, which kept us from focusing on what is really important in life.  Instead, it offered a lifestyle and an avenue for genuinely changing the socio-economic structures so that justice, abundance, peace, and love all grew and flourished.  Gutierrez’ book helped me see Christian faith from a completely different perspective:  not as an “opium for the people,” but rather as a potent, potential force for peace, justice, and the flourishing of all persons—and of Creation.

Gradually, little-by-little, my faith began to be restored.  However, it was not the same Christian faith as my childhood.  Now, my faith was much deeper, much more fully examined, much more nuanced, much more mature—and, much stronger.  Looking back on this process, I can see how much my Christian faith grew as a result of my doubt.  More profoundly, I can see how I experienced God in the process; not in a manipulative way, but rather as never abandoning me throughout my journey of doubt.

As I grew through my reclaimed Christian faith, I began to read passages of scripture from a different perspective.  One of the more dramatic shifts in my perspective occurred in my reading and understanding of Isaiah 6:  6-8.  In this chapter, we hear the “call story” of how Isaiah was called by God to become a prophet:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Now, instead of reading this text as just the account of how God called Isaiah to his prophetic mission, I began to see this as a question which God was asking me.  That is, literally, God was asking me:  “Whom shall I send?  Richard, will you go?”  And, I saw myself replying, “Here am I; send me!”  And so, I moved from doubting God’s existence to believing that God had given me a special call to help with the work of establishing the Kingdom of God.  As my faith deepened over the years, I have come to see that God’s call is not restricted to just Isaiah—or, just me.  No.  Instead, God calls each of us to the task of establishing God’s Reign by working for justice, peace, and the flourishing of all Creation.  Each of the faithful has a special, unique role to play in creating the socio-economic structures needed so that everyone experiences justice, abundance, peace, justice, and love.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, February 4th, as we explore how we can experience the Divine in everyday life.  In addition, to my proclamation, others from our church will share how they experience the Divine through parenting, how they experience the Divine even in the midst of doubt, and how they experience the Divine through their work as an attorney.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.  

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

“Giving Is Transformational”

            This Sunday, January 21st, we continue our focus on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine in everyday life because we are not actively seeking God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in our everyday lives.  This week, we will focus on “Finding God through Generosity.”  Our reflections will be informed by the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth.

            The first theological dilemma encountered by the early Christian Church concerned the status of Gentiles, or non-Jews, who wished to become Christians.  Initially, Christianity began as something of a spiritual renewal movement within Judaism.  However, as the Gospel began to spread beyond Jerusalem, a growing number of Gentiles wanted to become Christians.  This raised an important theological question:  Was it necessary for Gentiles to convert to Judaism, before being welcomed into the new Christian churches?  This was a critical question, especially for Gentile men, who would have to go through the rite of circumcision in order to become a Jew.

            The Apostle Paul met with the other Apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem to resolve this dilemma.  After much prayer and discussion, they agreed that Gentiles could become Christians directly—without first converting to Judaism.  That is, the Christian Church would be united, receiving both Gentile and Jewish persons.  It was agreed that the Apostle Paul and his colleagues would focus their missionary work on the Gentiles, while some of the other Apostles would stay in Jerusalem and focus on the Temple and Jews.  At the end of this first Jerusalem Council, the Apostles remaining in Jerusalem asked Paul and his colleagues to “remember the poor” in Jerusalem.

            Paul readily agreed to their request to help the poor in Jerusalem.  He interpreted this request as an opportunity to raise money from the churches which he had already established in other cities.  So, he began to write letters, asking these predominantly Gentile churches to receive a special collection, which he would pick up and take back to Jerusalem.  For Paul, in addition to helping the poor in Jerusalem, this collection also symbolizes the new reciprocal partnership between Jewish and Gentile believers in the rapidly growing Christian Church.

            In our passage of scripture this week, Paul writes to remind the Corinthian Church about this collection, which he will be coming to pick up in the near future.  As part of that reminder, Paul writes these words:
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians also provide a basis for our understanding of how we should experience the Divine through generous giving. 

            Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians that “we reap what we sow.” That is, when we give generously, we shall also receive generously back from God.  In the next verse, Paul continues by laying down three guidelines for the Corinthians to follow in deciding how much to give:

1.      They should not give reluctantly, but gladly
2.      They should not feel under compulsion, but voluntarily
3.      “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Essentially, Paul calls upon us to give freely and voluntarily and cheerfully.

            In verse 8, Paul continues, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”  In this verse, Paul reassures the Corinthians that they should not fear making a gift for the poor in Jerusalem because God’s grace will surround and support them.  That is, God will move within their lives to insure that they have adequate resources in order to share abundantly in the “good work” of helping the poor. 

In more theological terms, the Apostle reassures that God’s grace—that is, God’s assistance—will be present to help and empower the Corinthians in making a gift.  Further, Paul urges the Corinthians to share abundantly.  To share abundantly may require the Corinthians to make sacrifices in order to give.  Yet, the Apostle is convinced that God’s grace will sustain even sacrificial giving. 

In verse 9, Paul quotes from Psalm 112:9.  In this quotation, Paul connects God’s grace with God’s justice.  Grace once received from God also requires that we work for justice.  In working for justice, Christians unite with God as God’s created co-creators—or, junior partners—in working to establish the Kingdom of God here on Earth.

Finally, in the final verses (10-11), Paul reassures the Corinthians that God will enrich them because of their generosity.  “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…” (verse 11a).  While it is tempting to interpret these last two verses as providing scriptural warrant for “prosperity theology,” this would actually be a gross misunderstanding of the Apostle’s intent.  “Prosperity theology” is a shallow and flawed misunderstanding that Christians can guarantee health and wealth for themselves through faith and making large donations to churches and other religious causes. 

The Prosperity doctrine misunderstands what Paul means when he promises the Corinthians that God will enrich them in every way.  Instead being enriched through money and material goods, Paul is referring to being enriched through a greater experience of God’s love and closer relationship with the Divine.  In other words, Paul claims that when we give generously and joyfully, then we will experience a closer relationship with the Divine through our generosity.  For Paul, this closer relationship with the Divine will transform our lives, as we experience a richness and closeness with God.
      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 21st, as we explore how we can experience the Divine through generosity.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 


Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

“What Martha Can Teach Us”

            Our current worship theme at Christ United Methodist Church focuses on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  Although the Divine is always present in our lives—even in the everyday routines which we have—we sometimes find it hard to experience God in our everyday lives. 

            I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine because we are not expecting to encounter God in everyday life.  In other words, we are not actively opening ourselves to God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the next few weeks, we will examine and reflect on ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in everyday life.  Our focus this Sunday, January 14th, will be exploring ways the Divine is present in our work of volunteering. 

            According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 62.5 million Americans volunteer some time to various organizations each year, with 33% of persons volunteering to help religious organizations.[1]  These approximately 62 million people comprise 25% of the overall population.  Another organization, the “Corporation for National Community Service,” estimates that the typical volunteer averages “32.1 volunteer hours per person, per year, which comes to 7.9 billion hours of service, the equivalent of $184 billion.”[2]  In addition to supporting our church or religious organization, we also volunteer for educational and youth service, community and civic organizations, environmental groups, and hobbies, in addition to a whole host of other causes and endeavors.

            From a Christian perspective, volunteering to help support our church or other groups, which are dedicated to the betterment of humanity and the environment, are important means of serving Christ and establishing God’s Reign here on Earth.  Volunteerism is important, especially in the church which depends upon volunteers to support and strengthen all of its ministries.  However, the question I want to examine this week is how we experience the Divine when we engage in volunteer activity—either in the church or the broader community?

            To ground and guide our examination of this question, I will be drawing from the story of Christ’s friends, Mary and Martha.  Since the story is short, I have included all of it below:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In addition to this story from the Gospel of Luke, the two sisters also appear in the Gospel of John (see 11:1-16 and 12:1-8).  Taking these stories together, Martha comes across as something of enigma.  In our story from Luke, Martha appears about what is truly important.  Whereas, in the stories from John, Martha is depicted as a woman of great faith and discernment.  Let’s take a deeper look at Martha.

In the story from Luke, Jesus arrives unexpectedly, seeking a place to rest on his journey to Jerusalem.  Martha immediately welcomes Jesus and his entire entourage of disciples and friends into their home and assumes the role of host.  While Martha scurries about caring for the various needs of her guests, Jesus sits down and begins teaching his disciples.  Mary also “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”  In sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary takes the usual place for one of the disciples and, in so doing, violates a clear social boundary of the time.  As the scholar R. Alan Culpepper observes, “By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is acting like a male.  She neglects her duty to assist her sister in the preparation of the meal, and…is bringing shame upon her house.”[3]  Yet, Mary is so captivated with the teachings of Jesus that she doesn’t care.  She just wants to absorb as much as possible.

As she continues to scurry about, caring for the needs of her many guests, Martha’s frustration with her sister begins to grow and grow.  Eventually, Martha can take it no longer and so she appeals to Jesus, asking that he tell Mary to do her fair share of the work.  Instead of taking Martha’s side, Jesus reprimands her, saying:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Perhaps it’s because I was the oldest child in my family, but there is a part of me that really identifies with Martha.  I feel as though Martha comes off badly in this passage and that not even Jesus properly appreciates her work of hospitality for him and his entourage.  Can you just imagine the scene, if Martha had sat down beside Mary at the feet of Christ and listened intently to his teachings?  There would have been no water for Jesus and his entourage to wash their feet after a long, dusty journey on the unpaved road.  There would have been no food or other refreshments for the entourage to enjoy after their long walk.  Heck, the visitors may not even have known where to go to relieve themselves after their long journey.  So, Martha in her scurrying about provides important resources for Jesus and her entourage.

While Martha does not come across well in this story from Luke. She fares much better in the Gospel of John.  In John, Martha is depicted not just as a good friend of Jesus, but also as a woman of great faith.  In John, chapter 11, Lazarus, who was the brother of Martha and Mary, becomes sick and dies before Jesus can reach their home.  When Jesus draws near to Bethany, their village, Martha goes out to meet him.  Revealing her deep faith, Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (Verses 21-22)  Then, Martha adds this conviction, “…Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (Verse 27)

As noted above, Martha appears as something of an enigma in the two gospels.  On the one hand, Martha appears to have a very superficial faith in the story from Luke, where she obsesses on her domestic chores of hospitality, while losing sight of the opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from his teachings. Yet, on the other hand, in the Gospel of John, Martha has a deep and mature faith in Jesus as the Messiah.  Who is the real Martha?  I believe that we should view Martha as the woman depicted in the story from John, with a deep, mature, discerning faith.  If this is so, then we can ask what happened to Martha in the story from Luke?

Let me suggest a theory.  I believe that in the Lukan story Martha saw her hospitality as a duty or obligation to be fulfilled, rather than as an opportunity to experience God’s presence.  Rather than being open to experiencing God through her work of hospitality, Martha “was distracted by her many tasks.”  As she became obsessed with the work of hospitality, Martha also became resentful of her sister, who was sitting at the feet of Jesus, enjoying being in his presence and listening to his teachings.

I believe that the same thing can happen to each of us when we perform volunteer work.  Regardless of how good and important our volunteer work is intrinsically, our attitude remains critical.  If we see our volunteer work as a means of fulfilling duties or obligations, then we close off the possibility of experiencing the Divine in the volunteering, just as Martha when she hosted Jesus and his entourage.  However, if we approach volunteer work as an opportunity to serve the Divine by establishing and furthering the Reign of God on Earth, then we simultaneously open up ourselves to experiencing the Divine through our volunteer work.  The Divine become present through our volunteer work.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 14th.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, “Volunteering in the United States,” accessed online at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.toc.htm, on 11 January 2018.
[2] The “Corporation for National Community Service” is cited by Marc Johnson, “America Does Not Have Enough Volunteers” in “The Huffington Post,” 31 January 2016, updated 31 January 2017, accessed online at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-joseph/america-does-not-have-eno_b_9032152.html, on 12 January 2018.
[3] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

“Finding God in the Cold, Cold Winter”

Happy New Year!!

            As we begin 2018, our worship focus at Christ United Methodist Church will be on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  The spiritual basis for this exploration is a claim that the Divine is always present in our lives, even in the everyday routines which we all have.  However, many of us rarely experience God in our everyday lives, although we do experience the Divine in worship or in those life altering moments, such as the birth of a child or death of a parent.  Why is that?

            Our guiding thesis in this series is that we do not experience the Divine in everyday life because we are not expecting to encounter God in everyday life.  In other words, we are not listening for God to speak in our ordinary affairs; we are not open to experiencing God’s presence in the mundane.  So, the goal of this series is to help us hone our openness and sensitivity to God’s presence in everyday affairs.  We begin this Sunday, January 7th, by examining how to become more aware of God’s presence through nature—even in the cold, cold winter, which we are experiencing.

            The scriptural grounding for my reflections on this week has been Psalm 19: 1-6:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.  Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.”

I remember twenty years ago, when the comet Hale-Bopp was so evident in the night skies over the United States.  To see this astronomical marvel most vividly, a friend and I took our children camping at Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California.  When the sun set and darkness was complete, we walked down to the beach, built a fire to keep warm, and spent a good deal of time gazing up into the night sky at Hale-Bopp.  Our view of the comet remains vivid to me, even 20 years later.  
           
            With the comet brightly splashing light across the night sky, I simultaneously felt two remarkable feelings.  First, I was mindful—in a new way—of how small and insignificant we are in the grand universe—and, how awesome God truly is.  Secondly, I experienced a new and special closeness to God the Creator that evening.

            Perhaps the psalmist had a similar experience, gazing up into the desert night sky centuries ago.  Perhaps the psalmist was first overcome—as I was—with the awesome glory of God manifested by the heavenly bodies on a clear, starry night sky.  To paraphrase his thoughts into the conceptual framework of contemporary scientific cosmology, our Earth, our sun, other planets and stars, galaxies, nebulae, black holes, and novae all manifest the glory and greatness of God the Creator.  Through Creation, we also see God’s rich creativity and ingenuity, from the tiniest quark to immense galaxies and mysterious black holes. 

            Secondly, in viewing its magnificence, perhaps the psalmist also experienced God’s presence through Creation.  Perhaps—as with me—the psalmist experiences a special closeness to God as he gazed up at the night sky.  For the psalmist, this experience of God’s presence is constant, “from day to day” and “night to night,” all of Creation proclaims, although not with human language.  Left implied is the psalmist’s understanding that we must open ourselves to Creation’s unique forms of manifesting God’s presence.

            At the end of our passage, the focus shifts to the sun which rises and sets each day.  Biblical scholars remind us that, in the ancient world, the sun was an object of religious worship for many of the nations surrounding Israel.  In implicit contradiction of the sun as a deity, the psalmist asserts that the sun is a created object, just as all of the other astronomical bodies in the sky.  Rather than viewing the sun as a deity, the psalmist depicts the sun as manifesting the majesty of the true God, whom all of Creation worships and glorifies.  Instead of being a deity, the sun points to the glory of the Creator and becomes an instrument through which we can experience the true divine Creator.

            Psalm 19:1-6 provides a strong scriptural warrant for experiencing the presence of the Divine, when we lift our gaze to the night sky or trace the course of the sun on its journey each day.  But what about experiencing God’s presence here on our home planet, teeming with an abundance and diversity of life?  In our worship this Sunday, January 7th, I will suggest that God’s presence can always be experienced in the nature of our home planet—even, now, in the middle of a cold, cold winter here in Nebraska and many other parts of the United States.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 7th.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Even in Chaos, Joy”

This Sunday, we begin “Advent,” that four-week period of preparation for the celebration of Christmas and the birth of the Messiah.  In the Proclamations during these weeks, I will reflect on the four key themes of Advent:

1.      Joy
2.      Love
3.      Peace
4.      Hope

The scriptural basis for these reflections will come from one of the suggested Lectionary readings for that particular Sunday in Advent.  We begin with the theme of joy and a passage from the Gospel of Mark—13:24-37.

            In order to fully understand this biblical passage, a bit of background is necessary.  It is important to remember that the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were not written immediately after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension.  At first, writing a biographical account of Christ was not necessary because there were plenty of eyewitnesses who had been with Jesus and heard his teaching.  However, as the years passed by and the eyewitnesses began to die, an urgent need to write biographical accounts of his life, death, and resurrection arose.  Thus, the Gospels did not begin to emerge until some 70 years after Christ.

            Biblical scholars believe that each of the four Gospels was written within a particular community of faith and that these churches were geographically dispersed from one another.  Each of the gospelers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—had information about Jesus from within their local community of faith.  As with any other biographer, each of the Gospel writers had to pick and choose from the information which they had about Jesus.  Although all four Gospels tell the story of the Messiah, each Gospel is unique because each gospeler had to make decisions about how to tell the story of Jesus, including choices about what material to include and what material to exclude.  To some extent, these choices reflect the unique questions and concerns which existed in each of the four gospel communities.

            Today, when we study the Gospels we can deduce what some of the community concerns were by looking at what each Gospel emphasizes in its biography of Jesus.  Our scriptural passage this week offers a perfect example.  The Bible is a diverse collection of different types of literature, including poetry, history, and wisdom teachings, among others.  Our passage from Mark 13 would be characterized as “apocalyptic,” which means that it describes or foretells the end-time.  Look at how the passage begins, in verses 24-25:

 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’ 

In these verses, Jesus speaks using apocalyptic images, which his disciples would have understood to describe the end of time.  One of the techniques of apocalyptic speaking is to describe how astronomical bodies will cease to function as they should.  For example, the sun and moon will cease to provide light, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  (To see how the Hebrew prophets used the failure of astronomical bodies to function normally in their apocalyptic writings, see Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4, Ezekiel 32: 7-8, and Joel 2:10-11.)

            After describing the apocalypse, Jesus then reassures his disciples that “they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (verses 26-27)  After describing his triumphal Second Coming, Jesus then moves to the description of signs that the end of the age is imminent.  Finally, he concludes by urging his disciples to be watchful and alert for the coming apocalypse, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”  (verse 33)

            Now, with this background, we can ask, Why did Mark choose to emphasize these teachings of Jesus in his Gospel?  Why not some other story or teaching from Jesus?  Most likely Mark emphasized these apocalyptic teachings of Jesus because he thought that they would comfort the Christians in his community of faith.  In other words, Mark would emphasize these teachings because his Christian friends were experiencing persecution and chaos and crisis.  Biblical scholars have several theories about what Christians in the Markan church were facing.  Some believe that it was the persecutions of Christians after the Jewish revolt against Rome, which resulted in the Roman soldiers destroying the Temple in Jerusalem.  Other scholars suggest the chaos and crisis occurred when the Emperor Caligula demanded that the Jews erect a statue of him in their Temple. 

            The actual historical events are not crucial to our understanding of the truth of this passage.  The point is that the Christians in Mark’s home church were living through a chaotic time, in which they suffered marginalization, persecution, and sometimes death itself.  Because of their situation, these apocalyptic teachings of Christ are important for Mark to include—even feature—in his Gospel.  By emphasizing these teachings from Jesus, Mark reminds his Christian friends that despite the chaos which they must endure, ultimately God is with them through Jesus Christ. 

Even though these Christians must endure chaos and perhaps even death, ultimately they have the assurance that Christ will come again “with great power and glory” to establish God’s Reign forever.  In the end, God will prevail.  Thus, even in the midst of chaos, there is joy—and hope. 

God’s ultimate control over our destiny is the basis for Christian hope and joy, especially during the season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of the Messiah.  That is, each year, at Christmas, we celebrate anew, as Joy and Hope come again.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church.  This Sunday, in the proclamation, I will suggest some parallels between the context of the Markan church and our own time and context.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
 
Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

“The Power of Negativity to Undermine Our Faith”

            This week, we conclude our eight-week reflections on “God’s Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Over these past weeks, we have discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.  And, we have focused on visioning a new future for the Church.  I have shared how much I love the community of faith, which I serve, Christ United Methodist Church, Lincoln.  And, I have also shared how thankful I am for Christ UMC. 

In concluding our reflections this weekend on the future of the Church, I want to address a threat which all churches face, when envisioning a bold, new future.  This threat undermines perhaps more ministry programs in churches than any other challenge.  It also disempowers more individual Christian disciples than perhaps any other cause.  I call this threat:  negativity.  But, there are other terms for the problem, as well.  For instance, within psychotherapy, it is frequently labelled, “filtering.”

            In his online article, Dr. John Grohol lists “filtering” as the first of “15 Common Cognitive Disorders.”  He describes filtering as occurring when…

“We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.”[1]

            We practice negativity all of the time in the church.  We take the negative possibilities and magnify them and we magnify their probability, while minimizing positive possibilities and their chances. 

As an illustration, consider this exchange that I heard years ago, when I was pastoring a church in Maryland.  The Chairperson of the Finance Committee was reporting on the recently completed stewardship campaign.  She enthusiastically made her report, concluding:  “Thanks to the commitment of our new members, overall pledges were up 8% over last year.”  As soon as she said this, another member of the committee responded:  “Yeah, but how do we know that these new people will really pay their pledges?”  This is an example of “filtering” or negativity.  There was absolutely no reason to suspect that the new members were not pledging in good faith.  Negativity destroys enthusiasm and excitement and creativity.

Negativity doesn’t just afflict congregations, either.  Negativity also undermines and stymies persons.  As individuals, when we magnify our individual deficiencies and failures, while minimizing our individual strengths and accomplishments, then we have succumbed to negativity. 

When I was in school, I had a friend who needed to pass a language proficiency exam in order to graduate with her degree.  She studied and studied before taking the exam, but she failed it.  So, she had to re-take the exam until she passed it.  My friend began to develop a really negative attitude about this exam, telling herself that she wasn’t smart enough to pass the exam and that she would never be able to graduate.  I, along with many of our classmates, tried to tell her that she could certainly pass this test.  Yet, she continued to focus on the negative.  When she took the exam a second time, she failed; a third time, and she failed; a fourth time, and she failed.  Finally, on about the fifth time, she passed the exam.  Yet, for six months, she became a poster child for the power of negativity to undermine who we are and what we can do.

I believe that negativity is unchristian.  We know from Genesis 1 that each of us has been created in God’s image.  As Christians, we are persons of faith, trusting that we are never alone.  Instead, we trust that God is always with us—in good times and bad.  Through faith, we know that God is watching over us, strengthening and guiding us.  Most importantly, we know that God’s love for us is greater than anything we will ever encounter.  Given this reality, the life of a Christian should always be filled with hope. 

By contrast, negativity empties our lives of hope and prevents us from seeing God’s presence in our lives.  I believe that negativity is unchristian because it involves an insidious agnosticism.  That is, in “filtering,” when we magnify all of the negative details, we block—or filter out—God’s work in our lives.  That is tantamount to questioning or denying God’s existence.  When we magnify the negative, we prevent God from being God in our lives.  We become “Christian agnostics” because we can no longer see God’s presence in our lives and in our churches.

In negativity, we rely only upon ourselves and our own resources; we judge that our resources are not sufficient enough to succeed and so we conclude that our hopes and our visions will never work.  But, that is a form of idolatry, as well as agnosticism.  When we attempt to rely only upon ourselves; when we essentially exclude God from our lives, then we have taken the place of God.  Instead of having God at the center of our lives, we put ourselves in the center, in God’s place.  This is the very definition of idolatry.   

My scripture reading this Sunday comes from Matthew 12:  33-37, which says in part:

Jesus said, ‘Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’

In this teaching, Jesus argues that the tree “is known by is fruit.”  That is, the character of a person is revealed by their words and actions.  Similarly, Jesus says that the faith of a person is revealed by their words and actions.  When an individual person becomes filled with negativity, constantly “filtering” out the positive and magnifying the negative, then they close themselves to the possibilities and presence of God.  This has the effect of blocking God’s presence in our lives and putting ourselves at the center, taking the place of God.

For faithful Christians, who know God’s love, there can be no room in our lives—or in our church—for negativity.  God intends for us to live positively; to be happy and fulfilled; to excel and to flourish.  And, God calls us together into communities of faith where we praise and serve together.  God expects our church to make a real difference in people’s lives.  And, God expects for us to take chances and trust in God’s providence to carry us through.  Negativity undermines all of these dimensions of living faithfully and positively—and happily.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 26th.  Join us as we seek to understand the power of negativity to undermine our faith.  Then, join us in seeking to counteract this power through the faith and hope and positivity of Christian discipleship.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

       Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.




[1] John Grohol, “15 Common Cognitive Disorders,” Psych Central, an online article available at http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions, accessed 6 November 2013.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

“Give Thanks to the Lord”

We are approaching the end of my reflections on “God’s Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Over the past several weeks, we have discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.  And, we have focused on visioning a new future for the Church.  There are two remaining topics which I would like to discuss, before bringing this series to a close:  (1) gratitude towards God and (2) the destructive role of negativity in undermining our capacity for vision and faithfulness.

As we approach Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to reflect on gratitude this Sunday, November 19th, while deferring negativity to the following Sunday.  To guide our reflections on gratitude, I have chosen two passages of scripture.  The first is from 1 Chronicles 16: 23-36.  This passage occurs after King David has successfully moved the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-edom, the Gittite to Jerusalem. 

In Jerusalem, King David has set up a tent to house the Ark of the Covenant.  Ultimately, the Jerusalem Temple will be constructed as a permanent home for the Ark.  After the Ark of the Covenant has safely arrived in Jerusalem and been placed in the tent, King David holds an exuberant religious celebration for the safe arrival of the Ark.  Our scriptural passage in verses 23-26 contains part of the thanksgiving poem offered up that day.

Biblical scholars remind us that this thanksgiving poem draws elements and inferences from Psalms 105, 96, and 106.  The poem has four stanzas:[i]

1.      A call to Israel to praise God (verses 8-22)
2.      A call to praise God throughout the earth (verses 23-30)
3.      A call for cosmic praise (verses 31-33)
4.      A call for Israel to not only praise but also pray to God (verses 34-36)

In what follows, I will focus on the last three stanzas. 

In our passage, the chronicler begins by calling on all peoples from all over the earth to praise God.  He says: 

Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. 
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised…” (verses 23-25a). 

In the chronicler’s perspective, God is the Creator of all the world.  Therefore, it follows that God is God for all people on earth.  So, the poem continues with a comparison of God with all of the other gods and idols which other people worship.  At this point, the chronicler observes, “the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place” (verses 26b-27).

In the next stanza (verses 31-33), the chronicler broadens his scope beyond humankind to include all of Creation.  This scope includes not only living organisms—all plants and animals—but also nonliving creation as well, such as rock formations and seas.  He writes: 

“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,
and let them say among the nations, “The Lord is king!” 
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. 
Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.” (verses 31-33)

In the final stanza, the chronicler calls not only for praise of God, but he also prays that God will continue to look after the people and that the people will always be grateful to God, giving thanks for all of God’s blessings.  He writes, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” (verse 34).

I really appreciate this poem because I believe that the chronicler very skillfully interweaves the themes of gratitude, praise, and service, or faithfulness, to God.  In the chronicler’s perspective, we begin by simply pausing and counting all of the blessings and gifts, which we have received from God.  These gifts include even life itself.  In response to God’s love and generosity, we praise God.  Our praise is free and genuinely given.  Then, in response to God’s love for us, we commit ourselves to working for God, to help further and eventually establish God’s Reign on Earth, recognizing that God loves all peoples and, indeed, all of Creation.  That is, God’s Reign is identifiable because it promotes peace, justice, and love for all peoples—and, indeed, all of Creation.

Our second scripture from Colossians 3: 16-17 extends these themes suggested by the chronicler.  Our passage from Colossians is provided below:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Again, the themes of gratitude, praise, and faithfulness are interwoven.  The writer begins by encouraging the Colossians to be guided and sustained by the teachings of Christ.  Further, they are to teach and admonish one another.  The teachings of Christ are to transform the Colossian Christians into different persons, with a different world view and lifestyle that is much better than their previous lives.  Out of gratitude for Christ, they worship and praise God.  The writer summarizes by encouraging the Colossians to do everything “in word or deed” in Christ’s name.  And, in everything—“in word or deed”—they are to give thanks to God through Christ. 

            Taken together, these two scriptural guides lift up two important forms of thanksgiving and gratitude to God.  We begin by simply acknowledging how generous and gracious God has been to each of us.  Then, first, our gratitude should be expressed in our worship, as we praise God.  In fact, these two passages assert that thanksgiving should be a major, integral part of all true worship of God.  Then, secondly, our thanksgiving towards God should be expressed in a different worldview and lifestyle.  We lift up thanksgiving to God in all of our “words and deeds,” which are done in faithfulness to God, as we seek to help build the Kingdom of God on Earth.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 19th.  Join us as we explore what it means to be fully thankful to God through our worship and our everyday life.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[i] Leslie C. Allen commentary on “The First Book of Chronicles,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 3 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM version.