Friday, November 29, 2013

Preparing for the Unknown

            This weekend (Nov 30 & Dec 1), we enter a special time of preparation before the celebration of Christ’s birth.  Within the church, this is a period of sacrifice, confession, reaching out to others, and purification so that we are ready and worthy for the Christmas celebration.  While Advent is a time for looking to the past and remembering Christ’s birth in that cold stable long ago, it is also a time for looking forward to that future time, when Christ will return and fully establish God’s Reign on earth.

            There is another preparation for Christmas that is also underway.  This secular preparation is radically different from the preparation of Advent.  By secular preparation, I am referring to the hectic pre-Christmas period of parties, dinners and, of course, shopping. 

            These two types of preparation are actually two separate “realities.”  Whereas Advent is a time of sacrifice, forgiveness, and purification, the secular preparation encourages and promotes extravagance.  Whereas Advent looks from the past towards the future Kingdom of God, the secular preparation focuses on indulgence in the present.  As faithful Christians, each of us today must live in both realities, the reality of Advent and the secular reality of the larger society around us. 

In a real sense, we have a foot in both realities.  We believe that the Reign of God has already been established through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Yet, when we look around our world and see hunger, war, and environmental challenges, we know that God’s Reign is not fully established.  So, God’s Reign is already here, but not yet complete.  Two realities remain.  Christians currently live in a long interim period, as we wait for Jesus to come again and fully complete God’s Reign. 

            Each year during Advent, there are traditional scripture readings which ground my messages for this time.  This Sunday, I will be preaching on one of these traditional scriptures, Matthew 24: 36-44.  Of course, contemporary Christians are not the only ones who have found themselves living in two worlds, defined by two realities.  Even Jesus’ first followers struggled with the two worlds.  In the passage from Matthew, Jesus emphasizes these two realities as a conflict between two kingdoms.  At the same time, Jesus looks toward the future, to the time when he will return to earth and God’s Reign will be fully established. 

            At the same time, Jesus cautions his disciples that no one knows when this future Reign of God will become the one reality.  He says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  (v. 36)  Instead, Jesus encourages his disciples to be prepared for that future day, when he will come again and God’s Reign becomes completely established.

            Essentially, Jesus is urging the first disciples—as well as us, living in the 21st century—to prepare for the unknown.  But, how do we do that?  For Jesus, the best preparation is to live faithfully in both of the competing realities.  On the one hand, we live faithfully when we allow God’s Reign to increase within us through spiritual growth.  So, we must prepare ourselves spiritually during Advent through confession and purification.  On the other hand, we live faithfully  when we work to establish God’s Reign in the secular world.  As persons with one of our feet in the secular world, it is hard to avoid the pre-Christmas period, including all of that hectic shopping.  However, even in the secular reality hustle and bustle of pre-Christmas preparation, we can work to establish God’s Reign through making some sacrifices and through reaching out to others in need.

If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church.  I especially invite you to make attending this weekend and throughout Advent, as a core part of your Christmas preparations.  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, November 22, 2013

The Power of Negativity to Undermine Our Faith

            This weekend, I’m going to preach on a topic which is rarely addressed from the pulpits of Christian churches.  In fact, to be honest, this is the first time that I, myself, have ever preached on this topic.  Yet, my topic this week is a problem that undermines perhaps more ministry programs in churches than any other issue.  It also disempowers more individual Christian disciples than perhaps any other cause.  I call this problem:  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.[i]

            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?” 

That’s negativity.  And, it is a very destructive force within a congregation.  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 can even comprehend.  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.  Thus, 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.  Negativity undermines all of these dimensions of living faithfully and positively—and happily.


If you live in the Meriden-area and do not have a regular church home, please consider attending Meriden United Methodist Church.  I especially invite you to attend this weekend, as I venture into uncharted ground with my message and discuss the problems of negativity.  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] John Grohol, “15 Common Cognitive Disorders,” Psych Central, an online article available at, accessed 6 November 2013.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What Do You Really Trust?

            What do you really trust?  In a crisis, what do you trust to protect and help you?  In everyday life, what do you count on to sustain you?  Most of us have several different resources that we trust.  Some of us rely on our knowledge; others rely on our personality and popularity; others rely on the social power that we have amassed at work and in our community; others rely on family and friends.  We can put our trust in many different places.  Most of us would answer that we have several “go to” sources of trust. 

Of course different persons have different sources of trust.  One individual may place a lot of trust in his intelligence and education, while another person may trust her power and popularity.  While some of our sources of trust may vary from person to person, most of us share one source of trust in common:  we trust our money.  Whether we are fabulously wealthy or just in the middle of the financial road, almost all of us trust our financial resources—our savings, retirement plans, insurance policies, etc.—to be there, if and when we need them.

But is it good to trust in our financial resources?  For that matter, is it smart to trust in our knowledge and education?  Or, our power?   Or, even our family and friends?  Where should we place our trust?

In my message this weekend (November 9 and 10), I will explore the question of where we should place our trust.  My foundational scripture this weekend is Mark 10: 13-22.  This passage of scripture opens with parents bringing their children to Jesus, as he is sitting and teaching.  Some of the disciples try to shoo the children away, but Jesus rebukes them, saying:  “‘Let the little children come to me…for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’”

Our scripture continues with the story of a rich ruler who comes up to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life.  The ruler’s exchange with Jesus helps us learn that he is devoutly religious, keeping all of the Jewish laws.  Yet, there is still something missing in his life—and, in his faith.  Jesus sees this and tells him, “‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.’”  Mark tells us that the rich ruler was shocked and went away grieving because he had many possessions.

These two stories are contained in all three of the “synoptic gospels” (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and they are familiar to many Christians.  We usually think about the story of the rich young ruler as Jesus’ indictment of material wealth and affluence.  This is a very obvious interpretation, especially since Jesus follows up his encounter with the rich ruler by saying:  “‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”

However, this weekend I’d like for us to look at this story from a new and different angle.  I’d like for us to ask what was it that Jesus saw in this rich ruler?  Jesus did not always tell people to sell all of their possessions.  Why did Jesus specifically tell this man to see all of his possessions? 

What did Jesus see about this man?  I think that we can answer this question by taking both stories as single unit.  Viewed from this perspective, we begin with Jesus’ claim that in order to enter the Kingdom of God, we must receive it “as a little child.” 

I suggest that we receive “as a child” when we trust “as a child.”  Children do not trust the same way as adults trust.  Children do not trust in their intelligence or education or personality or popularity or power or money.  Children do trust their family and trusted others, such as teachers, coaches, pastors, and God.  When they do trust someone, children trust completely and without reservation.

Could that be what Jesus saw about the rich ruler?  I believe that what Jesus saw was a person who primarily trusted his wealth and power.  Sure, the rich ruler wanted to be accepted by God; to inherit eternal life and to be a part of the Kingdom of God.  But, deep down, his trust was primarily rooted in his wealth and power.  His trust in God could never be complete and without reservation because of the temptation to trust in his wealth and power.

Jesus saw that this man’s trust in his riches had become an un-moveable obstacle, preventing him from having the faith of a small child.  So, recognizing this, Jesus told the rich ruler that he needed to get rid of all his possessions because he could only “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” if he first purged himself of this wealth.  Jesus recognized that as long as this particular man had wealth, he would trust in that before God.

While we may not be exactly like the rich ruler in the story, most of us are a little like him.  We put at least partial trust in our financial resources, our power, our education, etc.  That’s why giving generously to our church is so important for our spiritual growth.  Through our financial giving, we remember and reorient ourselves  towards trusting God as a small child—completely and without reservation.

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 explore what it means to trust God as a little child.  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.