Thursday, October 24, 2013

What Is God Calling Me to Do Next?

           One of the core themes in Christian thought is that all persons are created in God’s image and that each of us is unique.  From a Christian perspective, God has given each of us many special abilities and talents.  For instance, some of us have musical gifts, while others are skilled in plumbing or carpentry or dry wall.  Still others have the gift for teaching or cooking or caring for others or financial administration.  (See Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). 

It is not as though we have only one special gift, either.  Actually, each of us has a unique constellation of special abilities and talents.  For instance, the same individual may be a gifted musician, a skilled carpenter, and a great teacher.  From a Christian perspective, Jesus calls his disciples to use their special gifts and talents, not just for their personal gain, but also to work towards making the world a better place and establishing God’s Reign.  This means that Christians should be in a continual process of discernment, asking ourselves:  “What Is God Calling Me to Do Next with My Unique Set of Talents and Abilities?”

            This process of continual discernment is part of faithful stewardship of our gifts.  Stewardship is a very important concept within Christian thought.  A steward is someone who manages and cares for someone else’s property.  For example, a portfolio manager who invests clients’ money in order to earn a return is a steward of those financial resources. 

As Christians, we believe that Jesus calls each of his disciples to be good stewards of our special talents and abilities; to use these gifts wisely and to be in continual discernment of what God is calling us to do next.  Since the church is largely staffed through volunteers, we usually associate stewardship of our gifts and talents with various leadership positions in the church.  While this is a vitally important focus of our gifts, it is also important to note that we can use our special gifts and talents outside of the Church, to heal the world and make it a better place.  For instance, if we spend an afternoon raking leaves for a neighbor who can’t get outside—or, if we volunteer to read to kids at the elementary school—then we are being good stewards of our time, energy, and talents.

My message this weekend is grounded in the story of Stephen in Acts 6: 1-8.  Stephen was one of the first leaders in the early church.  Stephen’s leadership role was that of an administrator, insuring that all of the early Christians had their basic physical needs met.  This administrative role of Stephen and six other “Deacons” arose because of the rapid growth of the first church in Jerusalem, immediately after Christ’s ascension.

            I believe that the story of Stephen provides several new insights into our understanding of church volunteers and what it means to be good stewards of our unique gifts and talents:

Ø  Each of us must be open to new possibilities and new tasks which God may be calling us to undertake.

Ø  Church leaders must be willing to share their power and authority so that the mission of the Church is never limited.

Ø  God may call us individually to more than one task at the same time.

Ø  The church has a duty and responsibility to be good stewards of individuals’ time and energy.
If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this weekend, and see how I develop the four points above in my proclamation.  Meriden United Methodist Church is located at the corner of Dawson and Main Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.

Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

                Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Friday, October 18, 2013

"Health and Happiness"

            This weekend (October 19 & 20), I conclude my seven-week sermon series on Becoming a Happier Person.  The final proclamation in this series explores the relationship between physical health and authentic happiness. 

            This relationship between health and happiness has been one of the foci in the recent avalanche of research, investigating the core components for a happy and flourishing life.  This research suggests that physical exercise has a huge, positive effect on mood and well-being.  And, after reviewing 23 of the most rigorous studies on the relationship between exercise and depression, the Cochrane Review concluded that exercise has a “large clinical impact” on fighting depression.  While there is a strong consensus on the relationship between physical exercise and mental well-being, researchers are less certain about how to explain the reasons for this relationship.[i]  Still, the “take home message” seems clear enough:  Physical exercise and self-care contributes significantly to a happy and flourishing life.

            Although researchers have shown that living a healthy lifestyle contributes to our happiness, they have also discovered that persons who suffer from diseases, such as cancer, or other “life-altering disabilities” often live lives that are “just as happy as those in good health.”  The only exceptions were individuals whose daily lives were disrupted by their conditions, such as patients suffering from severe chronic pain.[ii] 

            So, current research indicates that taking care of ourselves physically can significantly help us to enjoy lives characterized by authentic happiness and flourishing.  Yet for the most part, those who suffer from disease or life-altering disabilities are not precluded by those physical conditions from also achieving authentic happiness and flourishing.

            The parallels between this empirical research and Christian discipleship are very intriguing.  My message this weekend will be grounded in two verses from the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Christians in Corinth.  Paul writes:  “Or do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”  (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20.)

            These two verses form the third in a series of three rhetorical questions, which Paul asks the Corinthians.  In these two verses, Paul affirms the goodness of our physical bodies, but he goes much further.  Through our faith, the physical bodies of Christians become a temple, or sanctuary, for the Holy Spirit.  As one Biblical interpreter writes, “The Holy Spirit resides in the believers in such a way that their bodies, their very selves, have been transformed into a shrine dedicated to God, who gave them the Holy Spirit and thereby constituted them a temple.”[iii] 

This transformation is possible because we do not own ourselves.  Instead, all that we are, and all that we have, belongs to God.  In verse 20, Paul uses a metaphor which would have been familiar to the Corinthians, living under the Roman Empire.  Alluding to the slave market in the Roman agora or forum, Paul tells the Corinthians that God has purchased them with great price.  Yet, in purchasing us, God also sets us free from our failures and sins, as well as setting us free from our dread and anxiety at the prospect of death.

Among contemporary, twenty-first century Christians, the concept of stewardship is readily appreciated and used in three important contexts.  First, there is stewardship of the environment.  As Christians, we are familiar with the importance of serving as stewards of God’s good Creation, tasked with the important responsibility of caring for the natural environment. 

Secondly, the term stewardship can refer to the special gifts, talents, and experiences that make us unique, one-of-a-kind persons.  God calls each of us to be good stewards of our unique skills and abilities, to do the work of the church and to help build God’s Kingdom, here on Earth.  For example, persons who are gifted with musical ability may use their abilities to sing in the Choir.

Thirdly, the term stewardship can be used to refer to our financial resources.  To be a good steward of our finances and other possessions means to use these resources wisely, including the financial support of our church’s ministries and operating expenses.

In this passage from his Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul suggests a fourth understanding of stewardship.  If our physical bodies are not really our own, but God’s—and, if God intends for our physical bodies to be, literally, a Sanctuary for God’s Presence—then we must be good stewards of our physical bodies, by taking good care of our physical bodies through:

Ø  Appropriate exercise and conditioning

Ø  Proper nutrition

Ø  Preventive healthcare

Ø  Appropriate sleep and rest

Ø  Avoiding addictive and compulsive behaviors

In short, everything required to maintain good physical health is not optional for Christians.  Instead, they are required in order to be good stewards of our physical bodies, which God has entrusted to us.

            In this series of sermons on happiness, we have seen again and again that the core components for authentic happiness are also core components for faithful Christian discipleship.  For instance, earlier in the series we explored how serving others is a critical component for happiness, just as it is for faithful discipleship.  Again this week, the pattern continues:  Just as physical self-care—or, stewardship of our physical bodies—is an important contributor to a happy and flourishing life, so also it is key for faithful discipleship. 

            To summarize this series, God calls Christians to faithful discipleship and that in turn leads to happy and flourishing lives.

If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this weekend, as we continue our exploration of becoming happier persons.  Meriden United Methodist Church is located at the corner of Dawson and Main Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.

Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] The Pursuit of Happiness web-page, “Health and Wellness,”, accessed 14 October 2013.
[ii] Salynn Boyles, “Health and Happiness Are Not Always Linked,” WebMD,, accessed 5 August 2013.
[iii] The New Interpreter’s Bible.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Towards a "Green" Happiness

I should probably begin this blog with a confession. 

This weekend (October 12th and 13th), I am focusing on “green” or environmental happiness, as part of my proclamation series on becoming happier persons.  Now, in preparing for this sermon series, I dived into all of the contemporary literature on happiness, including the many empirical surveys conducted by various researchers.  Although there is not perfect agreement among all of the researchers, there is a broad consensus that the following components are essential for authentic, lasting happiness:

Ø  Personal Growth

Ø  Positive Attitudes

Ø  Strong Inter-Personal Relationships

Ø  A Sense of Gratitude

Ø  A Strong Sense of Meaning and a Commitment to Something Greater than Ourselves  (For Christians, this component is fulfilled through our faith and commitment to following Jesus.)

Ø  Serving Others & Working to Heal Brokenness in the World.

For the most part, I have focused this series of proclamations around these six, empirically-verified components of happiness.  Please note that “green happiness” is not part of the consensus list of core components. 

            So, why did “green happiness” not make the list of essential components?  Could it be that enjoying nature and working to care for the environment is not important for happiness? 

I don’t think so; I believe that having a healthy relationship with Creation all around us is an essential ingredient for a life of flourishing and happiness.  Instead, I think this omission is primarily because psychologists and other researchers have not yet really studied the role that the environment plays in our happiness.  A significant exception might be Catherine O’Brien, an Associate Professor of Education at Cape Breton University in Canada.  Dr. O’Brien has developed a very interesting concept of “sustainable happiness.”  (See her website at: )  As psychologists, sociologists, and others continue their research into what give us happiness, I believe that more and more will begin adding a “green” component.

So, here’s my confession:  Even though it is not yet recognized as one of the essential components of a happy and flourishing life, I decided to include a message on “enjoying nature and working to care for it” as part of this series on becoming happier persons.  I decided to add it for three reasons:

First, I believe God intended for there to be a “green” component to human happiness.  The scriptural text for this weekend is Genesis 2: 4b-9.  The Bible contains two distinct creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis.  Even though Biblical scholars tell us that this story is chronologically older, it is less familiar that the other creation story in which God creates the world in six days (see Genesis 1).  Instead, in this story, God “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” (verse 7).  The name of this first person was Adam; his wife, Eve, was created a few verses later.

We can imagine that when God created Adam, God was so excited about this first human person and that God immediately loved Adam.  God wanted to give Adam a gift, to show God’s love and excitement.  Think of it as God’s “baby shower” for Adam.  So God next created a gift for Adam.  Here’s how Genesis describes that gift in verse 8, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  In the Genesis story, the Garden of Eden represents all of God’s good Creation.  In other words, God gave us all of Creation, but not to dominate and abuse as we like.  No. Instead, God created all of Creation in order for us to enjoy and to flourish.  God intended for the enjoyment of Creation to be one of the essential components of happiness.

A second reason for this particular sermon is my own practical experience.  Ever since I was a little boy, playing in my Grandfather’s woodland, I have found that time with nature is an essential component for my happiness.  For me, nature is a core ingredient for happiness.  This engagement with nature does not always have to be some rugged, “mountain-man” immersion into the wild.  By engagement with nature, I also mean spending time with pets, or caring for a house plant, or simply sitting by the window and drinking in the beauty of a winter’s snow storm.  All of these possibilities are avenues for including the enjoyment of Creation as an essential component of happiness.

Finally, the third reason, for this particular message is simply my local congregation’s decision earlier this year to become a green, sustainable church.  When the Administrative Council made this commitment, it was with the understanding that we would have to “live into” this new way of “being church.”  I added this sermon because I believe that “living into” this new commitment should certainly be something that we do when we worship, as well as when we conduct our financial and administrative business.

So, this weekend, I am going to invite all of us to reflect on how “enjoying nature and working to care for it” contributes something important and unique to our genuine happiness and flourishing.  If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this weekend, to see how this message works out, as we explore becoming happier persons.  Meriden United Methodist Church is located at the corner of Dawson and Main Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.

Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Serving Makes Us Happy

Remember the last time that you helped someone else?  Was it caring for a sick friend or helping a neighbor with yard work or volunteering for an organization or helping a stranger who was lost.  Almost all of us have helped someone or some deserving organization at some point in our lives. 

            Why do we do that?  Why do we help others?

            There are many reasons why we sometimes help others: 

Ø  We may feel obligated to help others out of a sense of debt or duty. 
Ø  We hope to gain recognition and impress our family, friends, peers, or boss. 
Ø  It looks good on our resume for admission to school or to get a new job.  
Ø  We volunteer because all of our friends are volunteering and the event looks like it would be fun to do together.

Many times, Christians help others for religious reasons:

Ø  We want to show others how strong our faith is and how committed we are.
Ø  We feel a need to make up for sins and previous mistakes.
Ø  We want to earn “brownie points with God” in order to receive mercy and grace from God in the future.  (In other words, we want to bribe God by helping others and doing good works.)
Ø  We hope that helping others will convince God to prevent bad things from happening to us in the future.  (This is sort of like trying to buy an insurance policy with God.)

This weekend at Meriden UMC, we will continue our series on “Becoming a Happier Persons,” and I will be preaching on how serving and helping others can lead to an authentic happiness.  My message will be based upon the Epistle of James 2: 14-24, 26. 

In this passage, James claims that all of the reasons listed above for helping others are wrong.  For James, we do not help others because of what we hope to gain.  Rather, we help and serve others, out of our faith in Jesus Christ.  That is, helping and serving others are the fruits of our Christian faith.  In essence, we can’t help but help because helping is who we are—and, what we do—as disciples of Christ.  Or, as James expresses it:  “For just as a human body without breathing is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (v. 26~my paraphrase) 

Our help and service grows out of our Christian faith.  They are in response to God’s love already given to us.  No matter who we have been or what we have done, we know that God restores us to our true identity through our faith in Christ.  It is easy to forget the order of how God works.  Most of us believe that we are inadequate failures, when we compare who we are with who we have always expected ourselves to become.  Sometimes we think that we must help and serve others in order for God to love and restore us.  But, this approach puts the proverbial “cart before the horse.”  God doesn’t work this way.

In his Epistle, James reminds us that God actually works in the opposite direction.  Despite our fractured brokenness, God is always ready to love and restore us, when we turn in faith to God.  When we are reconciled and restored, we help and serve others in response to God’s love already bestowed upon us.  But, a parishioner reminded me this week that it is very tempting to keep trying to put that cart in front of the horse, and try to earn God’s love.  Or, as she put it, “There is such a huge difference between intellectually hearing the Gospel and internalizing it in your heart and actions.”

So, Christians help and serve others because it is in our faith-DNA—not in order to influence God or others.  Interestingly, researchers studying what creates authentic happiness have discovered something similar.  While we have known for some time that one of the keys to living a happy and flourishing life is to help and serve others, newer studies have shown that if you only help and serve others as a means to guarantee your own happiness, then you probably won’t be happy. 

This is actually true of all the components that lead to happiness.  The more you try to be happy, the more elusive happiness becomes.  As the psychologist Todd B. Kashdan observes in an article, “In sum, the more you value happiness, try to be happy, organize your life around trying to become happy, the less happy you end up.”[1]  So, helping and serving others only makes us happy when we focus on giving to others, rather than focusing on making ourselves happy.  Our happiness emerges as a by-product from serving others because—just as in Christian discipleship—serving others is in the DNA of the truly happy and flourishing person.

If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this weekend, as we continue our exploration of becoming happier persons.  Meriden United Methodist Church is located at the corner of Dawson and Main Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  We have two worship services each weekend:

Ø  Our contemporary service starts at 6 pm on Saturday evenings.
Ø  Our classic service starts on at 10 am on Sunday mornings.

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1] Todd B. Kashdan, “The Problem with Happiness,” the Huffington Post, posted online on 30 September 2010,, accessed 3 October 2013.