Saturday, May 18, 2013

What the Church and Sharks Have In Common

            Marine biologists tell us that some species of shark—including the great white shark, the mako shark, and the hammerhead shark—must continually swim without rest, throughout their lives.  These sharks are called obligate ram ventilators.  They no longer have the ability to pump water through their gills, while at rest.  Instead, they must continually swim in order for the water to pass through their gills, enabling them to “breathe” and take in oxygen.  Presumably if these sharks ever stopped swimming, they would asphyxiate and die.  Thus, these sharks must continually move in order to live.

            Churches are like these obligate ram ventilator species of sharks.  If churches stop moving, then they will die, as well.  Churches stop moving when they become complacent, self-satisfied, and inward looking; that is, when they cease to be faithful to God.  Churches that are faithful to God are constantly on the move.  These churches are constantly asking, “What is God calling us to do now?”  What new ministry or program should we be starting?  These churches are continually looking for and moving towards new opportunities.  They are willing to take risks, try out new possibilities, and be uncomfortable in response to God’s call—these churches are constantly on the move.

            This Sunday at Meriden United Methodist Church we will celebrate Pentecost, which is the anniversary marking the creation of the Christian Church in Jerusalem, after the resurrected Jesus had ascended into Heaven.  Our scripture reading will be Acts 2: 1—21, which describes this formation of the first church.  During the Worship Service, we will also celebrate Confirmation Sunday, as we welcome our young confirmands into full church membership.  My sermon will focus primarily on our church in Meriden and where we may be called upon to move next in faithfulness to God.  That is, where is God calling upon us to swim next?


If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church this Sunday.  Meriden UMC is located at the corner of Dawson and Main.  Our worship service starts on Sundays at 10 am.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

My weekly blog will take a brief one-week hiatus next week, while I enjoy some vacation time with my family.  The next post will be uploaded at the end of May for Sunday, June 2nd. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Memories of My Mother

            I must confess that as a Pastor, I dread preaching on Mother’s Day.  Don’t get me wrong:  it is important to set aside a day to remember our mothers and the countless sacrifices that many of them make for their children.  Yet, at the same time, when our society celebrates Mother’s Day we tend to glorify the virtues of motherhood and place all mothers high up on a lofty pedestal.  The difficulty with preaching on Mother’s Day is that not everyone experienced a saintly mother, growing up.  At the extreme, consider mothers such as Andrea Yates, who confessed to drowning her five children in the bathtub in 2001.  In addition, there are always women in any congregation who have never been mothers—or, who have lost children. 

This spring, Amy Young posted an open letter to clergy on her blog, The Messy Middle.  In her open letter, she discussed how hard it is for some women to attend Worship on Mother’s Day and how well-meaning, but clueless, pastors make the day even more difficult by the thoughtless things we say and do in our attempt to honor and recognize mothers.  Here’s a link to her post:  Ms. Young’s blog post went viral, with over 36,000 views and almost 1,000 comments.  So, she posted a follow-up blog on what she had learned from all the comments,

Against this backdrop, I should also observe that this coming Sunday will be the first Mother’s Day, since my own mother died just after the 2012 Memorial Day.  So, even before I read Ms. Young’s blog, I had already decided that this year I would preach perhaps a bit more personally—by focusing more on what I learned about being a Christian from my mother.  (I wrote about grieving my mother’s death in my Pastor’s Column for the March church newsletter at Meriden UMC where I pastor, but this is the first time that I’ve really focused on personal memories of my mother.) 

My text this Sunday is Luke 10: 38-42.  This passage tells the story of Jesus visiting the home of Martha and her sister, Mary.  While Jesus settles in their home and begins teaching, Martha busies herself with being “the hostess with the mostest.”  Luke explains that Martha “was distracted by many things.”  By contrast, her sister, Mary, sits down at Jesus’ feet and listens intently to his words.  Martha becomes exasperated with Mary and asks Jesus to rebuke her for not doing her share of the chores.  At this point, the first-time reader expects Jesus to condemn Mary.  However, to the surprise of Martha and the first-time reader, Jesus actually exonerates Mary and compliments her for listening to his teachings.

In their interpretation of this passage, Biblical scholars point out that by sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teachings, Mary is rebelling against the social mores of the Jewish culture.  At the time of Jesus’ ministry, women were completely marginalized within the culture.  As one interpreter explains, “Mary is acting like a male.  She neglects her duty to assist her sister in the preparation of the meal, and by violating a clear social boundary she is bringing shame upon her house.”[1]  By contrast, Martha is adhering to the social customs of the day by focusing on the details of being a great hostess.

So, the story of Martha-versus-Mary presents two models of what it means to be the ideal woman.  On the one hand, it’s Martha, the domestic servant.  On the other hand, it’s Mary, the curious and engaged Christian disciple.  Jesus is very clear that God prefers Mary as the ideal model of what it means to flourish as a woman.  Unfortunately, this dichotomy has not changed all that much over the past 2000 years.  Sociologists tell us that today women do considerably more domestic work than men, and this is true even in dual-career households where both the husband and wife have full-time jobs outside the home.  WebMD claims that “men reported performing 32% of total housework and women reported 74%.[2]  And, a study done at the University of Michigan found that having a husband creates an additional 7 hours of extra household work per week for wives.[3]

For my mother, the Martha-versus-Mary choice would be a false dichotomy.  My mother was a high school Home Economics teacher.  So, it was important for her to have a clean, well maintained household, with plenty of excellent, nutritious food.  At the same time, my mother’s Christian faith was very important, as well.  Consequently, it was important for her to attend church and maintain a strong personal, devotional life.  It was also essential that she teach her faith to her children.  So, for Mom, it was more a matter of Martha-and-Mary, a both/and, rather than an either/or.

When I was a child, my mother struggled with cataracts and some other illnesses.  It became necessary for my two siblings and I—along with my father—to take on much of the domestic work.  We learned to cook, wash dishes, clean the house, and do our own laundry.  My mother continued to teach her faith to us, maintain her own, active devotional life, and attend church activities regularly.  So, my most vivid memories of time with my mom involve doing household chores, having a devotional life, and attending various church activities. 

In reflecting back on these memories, I believe my mother’s intuition about Martha-and-Mary is correct.  You see, women should not have to choose between being a Martha or a Mary.  Instead, women should be able to choose being both Martha and Mary, at the same time.  But, in order to choose both Martha and Mary, women need the support of their family—and, their community of faith. 

This is what I learned from my mom.  Of course, it’s not just mothers who need the support of their families and their communities of faith; all of us who strive to be faithful disciples need support.  And, regardless of whether or not we are mothers; regardless of whether we have good or bad memories of our own mothers; regardless of all the other factors that make each of us unique; we all share this in common:  We can support others in our community of faith to be both Martha’s and Mary’s; to serve the world and also grow spiritually closer to God.

If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church this Sunday.  Meriden UMC is located at the corner of Dawson and Main.  Our worship service starts on Sundays at 10 am.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Will I See My Pet Animals in Heaven?

            The sermon this Sunday, May 5th, is “Will I See My Pet Animals in Heaven?”  This is the sixth and final sermon in the Easter series, “What Happens to Me After I Die?”  This particular topic on pets in heaven was not part of my original vision for this series on life after death.  However, when I presented my plans for the sermon series to the Worship Committee at Meriden UMC, they suggested adding this topic.

            Many American Christians have pets as a part of their households.  For many of us, these pets literally become “part of the family.”  We develop a deep love for our pets; we cherish their companionship, as well as appreciating their unique personalities and their quirky traits and habits.  We care about our pets and their well-being.  Just as our love for family members and friends extends beyond death to the next life, so also the scope of our love for our pets extends beyond this present time to life after death.  We wonder if we will see our pets in heaven.

            (Will I see my pets in heaven?  This is certainly an important question for me.  As I’m writing this blog, my dog, “Mr. Snuggles,” is curled up, sleeping at my feet, while my cat, “Jaguar,” keeps batting my arm with his paw because he wants to me to scratch him behind the ears and rub his back.  When I pause to rub Jaguar, I can hear him begin to purr.)

            Christians are divided on the question of whether we will see our pets in heaven.  A quick search on the internet reveals the division of opinions on this question. 

Some Christians believe that animals do not go to heaven.  Christians holding this position can build a persuasive argument, which is thoroughly grounded based upon a number of passages from scripture.  For instance, Pastor Jeffrey Hamilton of La Vista Church of Christ in La Vista, Nebraska, quotes 27 different passages of scripture in his sermon, “Dogs Don’t Go to Heaven”.[1]  Among the reasons that Pastor Hamilton believes that dogs do not go to heaven are his claims that dogs are lazy, greedy, and “have disgusting habits.”

Other Christians believe that animals to go to heaven.  Christians holding this position can also build a persuasive argument and they also base their argument on numerous passages from scripture.  For instance, in preparation for this sermon I read a book by Steven Woodward, entitled:  Biblical Proof:  Animals Do Go to Heaven.[2]  In this book, the author offers extensive biblical proof that animals do go to heaven, in contrast to Pastor Hamilton above.

Will I see my pet animals in heaven?  On this question, many Christians of good obviously disagree—as evidenced by the two Christian writers above.  Readers of this blog may well disagree with me on this question.  If you do, I hope that you will respond to this blog and share why you disagree with me.  I find that I always learn and grow through considering viewpoints that are different from my own.  However, with that said, my own position is that animals do go to heaven, and that we will see our pets there.

My reasons for believing that animals go to heaven are not based primarily upon arguments from scriptural proof-tests, such as those used by Steven Woodward in his book.  I believe that the scriptural arguments on both sides of this question are rather superficial and shallow.  I really appreciate a sentence written by Wesley Smith in an article for the magazine Christianity Today.  Like me, Smith is critical of stringing together various scriptural texts to argue that animals do—or, do not—go to heaven.  He writes, “Instead of speculating or making strained proof-texts, let us instead give thanks to God for the great gift of joy he has given us in our pets.”[3]

Instead of stringing together proof-texts about whether animals go to heaven, I have come to my position because this claim fits consistently into our understanding of who God is and what God will do at the End Times.  In this sermon series, I have suggested that we need to take a broader view, which sees the Resurrection of Jesus, the promise of eternal life, and the End Times as all inter-connected with one another.  Indeed, our view needs to be broader, yet, so that we also include our understanding of God’s work as the Creator.

One of the fundamental Christian beliefs is that God created the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and indeed the entire universe.  In Genesis 1, God surveys all that God created and saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31), and Genesis 2 says that God created all of life on planet Earth as a gift for humans, who are to serve as stewards and caretakers of this beautiful blue-green planet.  But, God’s creative work did not stop with the Big Bang.  Instead, God continues to create and redeem all of Creation.

My sermon this week is based upon Romans 8: 18-25.  In this passage, the Apostle Paul writes that all of creation “has been groaning in labor pains” as it awaits final redemption, when Jesus will come again.  But, this suffering of the creation is not in vain.  Rather, at the End Times, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

The full and total redemption of Creation will not be completed until the End Times.  When redemption is completed, humans and all of Creation will be completely transformed.  As Revelation 21: 1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”  God not only promises us that we and all of Creation will be renewed and transformed, God also guarantees it through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on the first Easter.  As I suggested at the beginning of this sermon series, Jesus’ Resurrection was a physical resurrection.  Yet, at the same time, the resurrected Jesus was in some way transformed so that his disciples and closest friends did not recognize him at first.

My hope is based upon this conviction that God will redeem all of Creation at the End Times—including Jaguar, Mr. Snuggles, and all of my other beloved pets.   This conviction is based upon Romans 8, Revelation 21, and other scriptural passages.  So, it is consistent with our understanding of God’s Redemption of Creation to believe that I will see Jaguar, Mr. Snuggles, as well as all of my other beloved pets, in Heaven.  God loves and redeems all of Creation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church this Sunday.  Meriden UMC is located at the corner of Dawson and Main.  Our worship service starts on Sundays at 10 am.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] La Vista Church of Christ, “Dogs Don’t Go to Heaven,” access online at on 30 April 2013.
[2] Steven H. Woodward, Biblical Proof:  Animals Do Go to Heaven (Xulon Press, 2012).
[3] Wesley Smith, Karen Swallow Prior, and Ben DeVries, “Do Pets Go to Heaven? In Christianity Today, 12 April 2012, accessed online at 23 April 2013.