Saturday, December 31, 2016

“Keeping the Faith in the Face of Anxiety & Uncertainty”

            This Sunday (January 1st), we will gather for worship as we “ring out the old year and ring in the new year.”  It will truly be a day of new beginnings.  Of course, new beginnings inevitably entail change.  Change can be good or bad; expected or unexpected; minimal or hugely transformative; expected or unexpected.  Most of us will experience some changes as we move through the next year, 2017.

            For instance, in my family we anticipate my daughter graduating from college in 2017.  This will represent a major change for my daughter, as she moves from the life of a student to becoming a full adult—with all of the freedoms and privileges, as well as responsibilities, inherent in being an adult.  We are looking forward to this milestone in my daughter’s life.  Yet, at the same time, there is uncertainty and some anxiety associated with this change--even though it is a clear, positive change.

            Our society faces some major change, as well, as we move into the next year.  On January 20th, Donald Trump will be sworn in as our next President.  Although we do not know exactly what will happen to our country under the new Trump Administration, there clearly will be significant changes in the laws and policies of our government. 

            Just as with our country as a whole, so also my congregation, Christ United Methodist, is deeply divided over the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump.  On the one hand, a great many in my congregation strongly opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump and voted against him.  These Christians enter the new year with great fear for our country and in deep depression.  On the other hand, many others in my congregation supported Donald Trump for President and voted for him.  Even though their candidate won the election, I think that these Christians must be experiencing some level of uncertainty and anxiety, as well, even if it is more muted than their fellow Christians who opposed Trump.  Although we fully expect change from his Administration, Donald Trump has sent many mixed messages and made rapid, dramatic reversals on positions.  And, we just don’t know what the full ramifications of anticipated policy changes will be.  

            Within my congregation, there seems to be a heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety this year over previous years.  I sense that this same heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety extends beyond my Midwestern congregation to encompass our society as a whole.  Regardless of political beliefs or other differentiating factors, there seems to be a heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety, as we stand on the brink of a new year, 2017.

            As we gather to worship on New Year’s Day, I want our Christ United Methodist community of faith to reflect on this heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety from a biblical and faith perspective.  As my foundational text, I have focused on Jesus’ discussion of worry and anxiety in Luke 12:  22-31.  To fully understand this text, it is important to notice the context in which it appears.  Just before this passage, Jesus has told a parable to the crowd of people who had gathered to listen to him teach. 

            In this parable, which immediately precedes our passage, Jesus tells the story of a rich farmer who has an incredibly good crop yield, one year.  In anticipation of a hugely bountiful harvest, the farmer tears down his barns in order to build bigger barns, in order to hold and store his incredible harvest.  After all of the crops are harvested and stored in the new barns, the rich farmer reasons to himself that he has “amble goods laid up for many years…[so that he can] relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19).  However, in a great reversal, the rich farmer dies that evening.  The point of this parable concerns where we place our trust.  The rich man trusted in his own ingenuity and good fortune as a farmer, and he used his bounty to serve himself alone.  This proved to be a misplaced trust.  By contrast, Jesus calls us to trust and serve God.

            Jesus follows this parable on the basis for trust with a discussion of human worry and anxiety.  He begins by noting that people frequently worry about having enough physical resources, focusing on food and clothing.  Jesus encourages his followers not to succumb to worry and anxiety about these needs.  And, he gives five reasons why we should not be consumed by anxiety and worry:

            1.  First, Jesus reminds his followers that “…life is more than food, and …clothing” (v 23).  It’s important to recognize that Jesus was not speaking to an audience of desperately poor persons, who were living “hand-to-mouth” and were in desperate poverty.  Instead, he was speaking to people who had enough to eat and who had sufficient clothing.  Christ’s basic point was about keeping perspective. 

            It is part of human nature to worry and be anxious.  Sometimes, anxiety breeds more anxiety.  We become like hamsters running on a wheel.  The faster we run, the faster the wheel spins, and the faster we have to run to keep up.  So, we end up running faster and faster.  Similarly, our anxiety breeds more anxiety, which breeds more anxiety and we become more and more anxious and worried about the future.  As we stand on the brink of 2017, we face much uncertainty, and it is tempting to become more and more anxious.  However, I think that Christ’s advice to us in 2017 is that we should remain balanced, keeping our legitimate fears and worries and anxieties in perspective.

            2.  Then, Jesus exhorts his followers to trust in God’s providence.  Using the metaphor of birds, he tells the crowd, “Consider the ravens, they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (v. 24).  This message of faith remains the same for us today, despite the uncertainty and anxiety that we face in 2017.  We should remember and trust that God’s love for us continues and that God will guide and take care of us.

            3.  By contrast, obsessively worrying reveals a lack of faith in God and God’s providential love for us.  Jesus says, “Consider the lilies, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even [King] Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—oh, you people of little faith!” (vv. 27-28)

            4.  Jesus also appeals to our common sense.  He points out that worry and anxiety in the face of uncertainty actually accomplishes nothing.  “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” he asks.  The answer is obvious:  of course, not.  So, why be consumed by worry and anxiety, since it doesn’t really make any actual difference?  Similarly, for today, even though there is high uncertainty around the future and direction of our country, worry, anxiety, and fear do not accomplish anything positive.

            5.  Finally, Jesus observes that when his followers are fully devoted to pursuing and building his Reign, then they will not need to be anxious about other things.  He exhorts his followers, “strive for God’s kingdom, and these things [food and clothing] will be given to you as well” (v. 31).  Similarly, in our 2017 context, we must work to establish God’s Reign here on earth; a Kingdom characterized by justice, equality of opportunity, care for the poor and needy, as well as good stewardship of God’s Creation.  Undoubtedly, this will entail opposing some change, while supporting other change.

            If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, I invite you to come, join us as we celebrate the New Year through Worship this Sunday, January 1st.  As we worship, we will explore Christ’s advice to his followers on coping with uncertainty and anxiety. And, we will remember that Christ calls us to join with him in establishing and building the Kingdom of God in the here and now.  Although we normally have two worship services at 8:30 and 11 am each Sunday, on New Year’s Day we will have a single worship service at 11 am.  Come, join us. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Reflections on the Star, the Wise Men, and Seeking the Divine

             There’s been quite a hiatus since my last blog post.  Over the past weeks, I have taken some vacation time and on many of the other Sunday mornings , the various church choirs at Christ United Methodist Church have been performing.  As a result, I have not been posting to this blog because it is designed principally to preview my sermons and provide more in-depth scriptural interpretation than the worship service allows.

            This Sunday, December 18th, our 8:30 and 11:00 worship services will be led by the “Serenity Singers,” a women’s choral group that is part of Christ Church’s music program.  However, I am collaborating with the Serenity Singers by offering some theological reflections, interspersed with their lovely Christmas music.  So, I thought that I would post a blog about our service this weekend.

            Our focus this Sunday will be on the Christmas Star and the story of the Wise Men, who went to visit and pay homage to Jesus.  The story of the Star and the Wise Men occurs in Matthew 2: 1-12.  Biblical scholars tells us that the Greek word, “magi,” can be translated variously as “wise men,” “astrologers,” “magicians,” or “sorcerers.”  These individuals were affluent scholars, who belonged to the priestly class of Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams. 

Traditionally, we have assumed that there were three wise men because there are three gifts:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  However, the Gospel does not specify the precise number of wise men.  For Matthew, the story of the wise men is important to tell because the Wise Men are pagan, non-Jews who followed the Star they had seen in the sky.[i]

            In the music which the Serenity Singers will be performing during our worship, there are these words which raise an interesting observation:

“When they [the wise men] saw the star, they rejoiced with great joy!
Others saw the star, but they followed it not;
To them it would come and pass.
The wise men kept trusting with all of their hearts
that the star would find the Baby at last.”[ii]
These lyrics raise an interesting question, which I had never thought about much.  According to Matthew, the Wise Men saw the Star in the sky and recognized it as a special sign from God, pointing the way to the Divine.  Yet, if the Star was visible in the night sky, then it was seen by many, many people gazing into the night. 

            This raises a very profound question:  Why is it that, out of the thousands of people who saw the Star, only the Wise Men recognized this Star as a sign from God, pointing the way to the Divine?  Think about it.  Why did only the Wise Men recognize the Star as a sign?  The Wise Men were not even Jews; they were practitioners of pagan religions.  Yet, they recognized the Star as God’s sign to humanity.  Could it be that the Wise Men recognized the Star because they were actively seeking the Divine in their lives? 

            This raises several interesting questions for us today:  Are we actively seeking the Divine in our lives, just as the Wise Men?  What are the signs pointing to the Divine, which God has given to us?  That is, what is our Star today?  Not in a celestial sense, but rather in a symbolic sense.  What are the signs which God has given to us today, that point the way to the Divine?

            During our worship service, we will hear an abbreviated version of “The Story of the Other Wise Man” by Henry van Dyke[iii].  In this imaginative and fictional story, van Dyke imagines an additional Wise Man, named Artaban.  Artaban plans to take three precious jewels as his gift to the Messiah:  a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl.  Artaban has already arranged to rendezvous with the other Wise Men. However, just before he reaches the pre-arranged rendezvous point, Artaban encounters a dying stranger, lying in the middle of the road.  Artaban reluctantly stops to aid the stranger.  As a result of his unplanned stop to aid the stranger, Artaban fails to reach the rendezvous point in time to journey with the other Wise Men.

            Desperate to see the Messiah, Artaban uses one of his jewels to buy camels and supplies so that he can travel across the desert to Bethlehem.  When he reaches Bethlehem, he discovers that he has once again missed the Wise Men.  He has also missed Joseph, Mary, and the young Jesus, who have already fled to Egypt out of fear for King Herod.  So, Artaban decides to follow the Holy Family to Egypt, so that he can see and pay homage to the Messiah. 

As the story unfolds, Artaban spends the next 30 years searching for the Divine in the person of this great King.  Along the way, he helps those around him, performing incredible acts of charity and doing much good.  Artaban decides to travel to Jerusalem, thinking that perhaps the “King of the Jews” can be found in Jerusalem.  When he arrives in Jerusalem, the streets are filled with discussion of the impending crucifixion of Jesus from Nazareth, the “King of the Jews.”  Artaban decides to go the place of Christ’s crucifixion, in order to finally see Jesus.  However, once again, he is asked to defer his trip in order to help someone in need.  Using his last jewel, he helps a young woman pay her father's debts and escape slavery. 

After helping the young woman, Artaban is struck on the head by a falling roof tile, loosed by the earthquake which occurs at Christ’s death on the Cross; see Matthew 27: 50-54.  As he lays dying from the falling tile, Artaban has a vision in which he sees Christ.  In his vision, Artaban laments that he was never able to realize his quest to see Christ, the Messiah.  In reply, Jesus tells Artaban that he has seen Christ multiple times, whenever he has helped someone in need.  Quoting Matthew 25:40, Jesus says:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Since God loves us so much, there is, undoubtedly, no shortage of signs pointing the way to the Divine.  For the Wise Men, it was the Star in the heavens.  For the shepherds, it was the Heavenly Host of Angels.  Sometimes for me, it can be walking in a majestic forest of trees; or being in Worship celebrating The Lord’s Supper.  God provides us with a plethora of signs.  Yet, Christ is very clear that the most important sign pointing to the Divine occurs when we reach out to those in need; when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, build housing for the homeless, care for the sick and lonely, visit the imprisoned.  There, we will see the face of the Divine.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, December 18th, at Christ United Methodist Church.  Together, we will experience an inspiring worship service with the music of the “Serenity Singers” and our reflections on the Star and the Wise Men.  God offers us many signs which lead us back to God and into a loving relationship with the Divine.  I pray that some of these Divine signs will be evident in our worship together.  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] For this paragraph, I drew from Eugen Boring’s exegesis of The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8.  Accessed by CD-ROM.

[ii] “Rejoice with Exceeding Great Joy,” Lanny Wolfe, arr. By Tom Fettke.

[iii] Henry van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man, see

Saturday, November 19, 2016


            This Sunday, November 20th, we enter a special six-week period for both cultural and religious holidays.  It all starts this coming Thursday with Thanksgiving Day, and then ends with New Year’s Day. 

This six-week period is a fun time within secular culture.  It is a time for shopping and preparation; a time for decorating our homes; a time for holiday concerts and programs; a time for holiday parties at the office, and among neighbors, and with family and friends.  For some of us, this is a special time for sporting events; for others it will be a time for travel to see friends or enjoy a vacation. 

In addition to all of the festivities and merriment, this is also a special time to encounter the Divine from a Christian perspective.  Thanksgiving is an opportunity for gratitude to God for all of the blessings which God gives us.  Christmas offers the celebration of Jesus’ birth and God’s love for all of us.  New Year’s Day offers the opportunity to make a new beginning and be mindful of all the opportunities which God offers us as we move into the future. 

The next six weeks are, indeed, a special time during the year.  But, this coming Sunday, November 20th, we will be asking a very foundational question of ourselves:  “How do we intend to celebrate during this special time?  Will we focus on our opportunities to encounter the Divine?  Or, will we be so dazed by many distractions so that we miss the opportunity to encounter the Divine?”

Our anchoring scripture illustrates two very different approaches to these next weeks.  It tells the story of two women and how they responded to an opportunity to meet and welcome Jesus:

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus 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.’” (Luke 10:  38-42)
Martha and Mary present two polar opposite approaches to encountering the Divine in Jesus.  On the one hand, Martha focuses on being the perfect hostess.  She works to insure that her house was clean and refreshments were prepared.  She wants everything to be just right for her guests, especially Jesus.  So, she became distracted by all of the details of hosting people. And, she lost sight of the most important thing:  to meet and engage with the Divine.

            By contrast, her sister Mary sat down at Jesus’ feet and listened intently as he began to teach his disciples and others visiting in Mary and Martha’s house.  Mary kept the most important thing, the most important thing.  She met and engaged with the Divine through Jesus Christ and his teachings.

            As we stand on the cusp of this six-week special time of the year, we must decide how we will approach this time and the opportunities for encountering the Divine.  All of us will embrace and claim Mary’s approach to meet and engage the Divine in Jesus the Christ.  However, the truth is that each of us has a healthy streak of Martha within ourselves, as well.  We can be easily distracted during this period and lose contact with the Divine.  We can become easily distracted and lose our balance.
            To guard against this tendency to become distracted, we must learn to keep our balance by being centered.  In my proclamation, I will suggest that there are several practices which we can follow to stay centered during the next six weeks.  These practices include:

1.  Being intentionally grateful for all that God has already given us.

2.  Being generous, by investing time and money on those who are most needy:  the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the imprisoned, the sick.

3.  Spending some time in corporate worship, celebrating the birth of Christ and the new
     possibilities inherent in new beginnings.

4.  Spending some time appreciating Creation, and actively seeking God within Creation.

This perspective is beautifully summarized in the anthem, which our Chancel Choir will sing during the 11 am service on December 20th:

“Lord, before this fleeting season is upon us,
let me remember to walk slowly.
Lord, bless my heart with Love and with quiet.
Give my heart a leaning to hear carols.
Grace our family with contentment,
and the peace that comes only from You.
Lord, help us to do less this busy season;
Go less; stay closer to home; kneel more.
May our hearts be Your heart.
May we simply, peacefully, celebrate You.”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, November 20th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we worship and center ourselves for the start of the holiday season.  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

“How Christians Can Bring Healing to our Country”

            We are just emerging from the most controversial, bitter, divisive political campaign in the history of our country.  We are no longer the United States of America.  We are deeply, deeply divided.  Although neighbors may live side-by-side in a common neighborhood, they may have completely different perspectives and value systems.  Indeed, we are so polarized that we are really two separate nations overlapping a single geographic territory.  
            This polarization has shredded the fabric of our society, leaving us with deep, gaping holes.  We are all bruised and battered as individuals and as a society.  As a nation, we are in deep need of healing.  In my proclamation this Sunday (November 13th), I will suggest that Christians are uniquely qualified to bring this desperately needed healing to our country.

            The basis for my reflection will be Christ’s teachings in Luke 6: 32-37, 41-42.  There teachings come from his “Sermon on the Plain.”  While these teachings form the basis for a personal ethic, I will suggest that in our current context they make an important contribution to a social ethic.  Jesus begins these teachings by expanding the scope of one’s personal ethic (verses 32-34):

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.”

“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.”

“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”

In these verses, Jesus points to the deficiency of an ethical scope which only focuses on our concern for those who are already our allies.  As such this is a “negative ethic.”  However, in the next verse, he summarizes these claims by flipping them and making a “positive ethic” in the process:  “But, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return.”

            Christ continues his teaching by announcing the consequences of following his ethic:  If we follow Jesus’ ethic, “Your reward will be great, and you will be Children of the Most High [that is, ‘Children of God’], for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”  Then, Jesus continues with an admonishment, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

            In these reflections, Christ calls for an ethic which promotes an all-encompassing love, a commitment to promote the good of others, and a generous and merciful heart.  Jesus continues his ethics teaching with four stipulations, two negative and two positive, with their consequences (verses 37-38):

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged.”

“Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

“Give, and it will be given to you.”

            Finally, Jesus provides a parable, which exemplifies and summarizes the heart of his ethical proposal:  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or, how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (verses 41-42)

            At its heart, Christ’s proposed ethic is one of love that requires a generosity of spirit to those who oppose us.  That is, his ethic requires an attitude of generosity which seeks the good in the other, rather than celebrating and belaboring their faults and failures.  This attitude does not focus on judging and condemning those with whom we disagree.  Instead, Christ’s proposed attitude is one of mercy, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit.

            As I noted above, Christ’s proposed ethic is a personal ethic.  That is, it focuses on how we conduct our personal affairs and interactions.  However, I believe that it might also provide the social ethic which we so desperately need for our society.  Christ calls upon us to treat our political opponents—that is, those with whom we politically disagree—with kindness, generosity, mercy, forgiveness, all while trying to find the good in them.

            In our present, post-election context, Christ’s personal ethic also needs to become our political ethic.  Such a political ethic would be characterized by the following five components:

1.      Forgiveness.  The first step towards healing is for everyone to forgive each other for all of the hurtful things that have been said during this election.

2.      Empathy.  The second step towards healing would be trying to empathize with, and understand, those with whom we disagree.  To a certain extent, this means trying to put ourselves in the shoes of our opponents; trying to see the situation from their perspective; trying to understand their fears, thoughts, and beliefs.  For Trump voters, this means trying to understand why the proponents of “Black Lives Matter” feel as though they cannot trust the police and thus feel disenfranchised.  For Clinton voters, this means trying to understand why so many working class whites feel as though they have been left behind economically and culturally, thus leading to feelings of disenfranchisement. 

3.      Humility.  The old cliché, “Pride goeth before a fall,” remains true to this day.  We need to face the future with a healthy humility that we do not have all of the answers and that our motivations are sometimes flawed.  There are important insights which we can learn from our opponents, and they probably hold important pieces to the puzzle. 

4.      Compromise.  For 240 years, our society has engaged is this “Great Experiment” with Democracy.  Democracy is only possible through the art of compromise—being willing to accept partial victories.  We need to relinquish a “zero-sum” mentality in which the only acceptable resolution is when we get 100% of what we want and the other side gets 0%.

5.      Inclusivity.  Now, in 2016 and beyond, the U.S. is a very diverse society.  If we are to survive as a country and if we are to thrive as a society, then we must re-learn inclusivity.  Another old cliché says, “United we stand, divided we fall.”  If we want to be secure militarily, economically, and politically, then we cannot be divided.  We must be inclusive of everyone.  Rather, than denigrating difference and diversity, we need to celebrate difference and diversity as our greatest national resource.  In order to promote social inclusivity, we must condemn and completely reject racism, misogyny, huge economic disparity, and all forms of discrimination.

At this point, we might well ask, “How can Christians bring healing to our country?”  “How can we move Christ’s teachings from being a personal ethic to a social ethic?” 

In another teaching, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33)  Christians can bring healing to our country by becoming the yeast which leavens the dough of our society.  When we follow our personal ethic in our interactions with others, then we provide the yeast which will leaven the dough and bring healing. 

That is, when we love others; when we are kind and generous and merciful and forgiving, then through our interactions we bring healing.  When we do not judge or condemn, but seek rather to understand and appreciate the fears and anxieties and perspectives of others, then we begin the healing process.  And, when others experience our love and generosity, then their hearts will be transformed and the healing will continue.  This healing will lead to more healing and more healing, rippling out to impact others, until eventually our society is healed.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, November 13th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we explore the possibilities for being instruments of healing for our nation.  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"The Most Important Thing You May Ever Do"

            What is the most important thing that you will ever do in life?  Think about it.  Is the most important thing success and accomplishment in the work that you do?  Is the most important thing making money?  Or, is it how well you love and take care of your family?  Is the most important thing excelling in a game or hobby?   Is the most important thing having time for leisure or travel?  What is the most important thing that you will ever do in life?[i]

             This week, I want to suggest that one of the most important things we can do in life is to invite another person to church and help them establish a meaningful spiritual life with Christ.  Think about it. 

Imagine that you knew someone who did not have a deep, spiritual life.  Perhaps this person was struggling with a job loss or an addictive behavior or a divorce or the death of a loved one and that individual would be really helped by the support of a church.  Or, perhaps that person was not struggling at all; instead, they were gliding through life, doing well.  Yet, even though things were going well, this individual lacked spiritual depth in the enjoyment of their life.  Think about how much this person could benefit by renewing the spiritual dimension of their life through a relationship with a community of faith. 

As Jesus’ disciples, we know how deeply and profoundly our lives can be transformed through our spiritual relationship with Christ.  Think about it.  When we encounter huge challenges in life or deep disappointments or tragic losses, we are sustained by our spiritual relationship with Christ.  Alternatively, when we experience important accomplishments or great joys, these satisfactions are enriched through our spirituality.  Our ability to flourish through good times and bad is enhanced and blessed through our relationship with Christ and our church.

If our Christian faith brings joy and flourishing to our lives, shouldn’t we be interested in sharing that faith with others?  Jesus seemed to think this was extremely important.  In fact, his last earthly instructions to the disciples were simply to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations… .” (Matthew 28:19a)  Inviting others to establish a deeper spiritual relationship with Christ is at the very core of what it means to be a Christian.  It is integral to discipleship.  Some call this process of invitation, evangelism.

Unfortunately, evangelism has acquired a reputation among many American Christians.  When many of us hear the word, “evangelism,” we get tense and nervous.  We think about being asked to go house-to-house, knocking on doors and essentially making “cold calls” in which we encourage complete strangers to attend our church.  Or, we think about handing out pamphlets to complete strangers, giving our “testimony” and asking strangers if they “know Jesus”.  Yuck!

For most of us, the very thought makes us very uncomfortable.  As a result, “evangelism” is just an awful concept and task, which we don’t want any part of.  Interestingly, this aggressive form of evangelism is not Biblical at all. 

Jesus calls upon us to share the good news, he calls us to share the good news by inviting others to simply “come and see.”  As a result, in my message this weekend, I am going to propose a biblical evangelism.  That is, the type of invitation which we see unfolding when Jesus calls together his twelve disciples.  My message is based upon the scripture, John 1: 40-51.

In this passage of scripture, a person named, Andrew, hears Jesus speaking and becomes convinced that Jesus is, indeed, the long-awaited Messiah.  So, Andrew tells his brother, Peter, who also becomes a disciple.  Continuing the story, we learn that Andrew and Peter’s neighbor, Philip, becomes a disciple.  Philip tells Nathanael, who is a friend, that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah.  At first, Nathanael is skeptical.  He asks, “‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’”  Rather than arguing with Nathanael, Philip simply invites him, saying, “‘Come and see.’”  Later, when Nathanael sees and talks with Jesus, he also becomes a disciple.

In the scriptures, evangelism does not involve going house-to-house or handing out pamphlets on a street corner.  For the most part, sharing the gospel in the scriptures does not involve talking with strangers at all.  No.  Instead, evangelism is simply inviting those persons whom we know already—family members, friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues from work, and others—to simply “come and see.” 

In our social networks, each of us knows persons who do not have a church home, where they can feel welcomed, secure, and supported.  Some of these persons are struggling with life’s challenges and disappointments, while others are gliding through life.  It doesn’t matter.  Everyone can have a happier, more flourishing life through developing further the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Isn’t that what we want for our family, our friends, our neighbors, and everyone else who is important to us?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, October 16th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we explore what it means to be an invitational church.  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

                Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] I posted an earlier draft of this blog in 2014.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


            This Sunday, September 25th, I am going to offer an entirely new perspective on the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  In his account of Jesus’ execution, Luke describes a conversation between Christ and the two thieves who were crucified along beside him.  Luke writes:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’   ~ Luke 23:  39-43
            At least for me, the conventional reading of this story is to see it as a story of forgiveness.  That is, Jesus offers repentance to the thief who is remorseful.  While it is true that there is a strong element of repentance and forgiveness in the story, note that neither the thief asks for forgiveness, nor does Christ offer forgiveness. 

            We don’t know what kind of thief this man was.  For instance, was he a career criminal who had been robbing people for years before he was finally captured?  Or, was he someone who only occasionally robbed, when he was hungry?  Or, when his children were hungry?  When he robbed others, did he harm them further?  For example, did he beat up his victims?  (Remember that this is what happened to the man in the parable of the Good Samaritan; he was beaten to a pulp.)  Alternatively, was he kind and gentle with his victims?  We don’t know much about this thief. 
            There are certainly elements of repentance and forgiveness in this story.  Afterall, healing includes repentance and forgiveness.  Yet, there are other elements to healing.  Sometimes healing includes reconciliation in the face of a tremendous loss.  It is important to remember here the difference between curing versus healing.  For instance, to be cured of a cancer would include going into full remission and becoming cancer free.  By contrast, one can receive spiritual and emotional healing from cancer even when it continues to ravage the physical body. 
               I believe that fundamentally the exchange between Jesus and the thief, as they hang on the crosses, is a story of healing.  Fundamentally what Christ offers to the thief is the gift of healing, through the promise of joining Jesus in Paradise.  That is, Jesus offers reconciliation and an invitation for the thief to enter into the Kingdom of God.  Healing.
This Sunday, we will be exploring the concept and role of healing in the Christian faith.  We will learn about how God offers healing to each of us and how we can become instruments of God’s healing for others.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, September 25th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we focus on healing.  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.  Our service this Sunday will include the option of being anointed with oil as a symbol and practice of healing through the love of Jesus Christ.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

"Forgiveness and Self-Compassion"

            For the past month, we have been exploring self-compassion in a series of proclamations, entitled “Self-Compassion, An Overlooked Christian Virtue.”  This Sunday. September 18th, we conclude this series with an examination of the relationship between self-compassion and forgiveness. 

            In her important book, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself,[1] Dr. Kristin Neff begins by observing that most of us constantly subject ourselves to some of the harshest self-criticism.  She writes,

Most of our self-critical thoughts take the form of an inner dialogue, a constant commentary and evaluation of what we are experiencing.  Because there is no social censure when our inner dialogue is harsh or callous, we often talk to ourselves in an especially brutal way.  ‘You’re so fat and disgusting!’  ‘That was a totally stupid thing to say.’  ‘You’re such a loser.  No wonder nobody wants you.’[2]

In my own pastoral ministry, counselling many different parishioners, I have seen Dr. Neff’s observation repeated again and again.  While there are some notable exceptions, most of us are harshly critical of ourselves.  Yet, as I have suggested throughout this series, these patterns of harsh self-criticism are antithetical to the Christian understanding of God and God’s intention for humanity.

From a Christian perspective, God loves all of Creation—both human and non-human.  Further, since humans are created in God’s image, we are given a special privilege and responsibility to care for all of Creation as God’s specially chosen stewards.  From the moment of our birth, God seeks to enter into a special, loving, intimate relationship with us. 

God seeks us out and encourages us to enter into this special Divine relationship through our Christian faith.  God’s love for us is awesome and beyond our comprehension.  Because of this Divine love, we know that God intends for us to practice self-compassion and learn to love ourselves.  Thus, I have argued that self-compassion is a very important Christian virtue and pivotal for faithful discipleship.   

Later in her book, Kristin Neff delineates three core components of self-compassion:  (1) Self-Kindness; (2) Recognizing that Failure and Disappointments are part of the Human Condition; and (3) Mindfulness.[3]  Very little attention is devoted to forgiveness in Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.  I think this omission is a significant flaw in the book.  In fact, I would argue that forgiveness should actually be a fourth core component of self-compassion.

So, to conclude my series on “Self-Compassion, An Overlooked Christian Value,” I will examine the critical importance of forgiveness—both of self and of others.  Our foundational text for the service will be part of Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion (Luke 23:  32-38).  In the Third Gospel, Jesus is taunted by three separate groups of people:  (1) The Jewish leaders who scoff at him, saying “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (2) The Roman soldiers who mocked Christ with the words, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (3) Later, one of the criminals being executed at the same time “derided” Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23: 39)

Further, Jesus suffers the indignity of having the Roman soldiers gamble under the cross for his clothes, as he hangs and suffers above them.  In a sick prank, the soldiers also offer Jesus sour wine to drink as he endures the excruciating pain of crucifixion, while his life all too slowly slips away.

Despite the indignities, the humiliations, and the agony of the trial and cross, Jesus says something remarkable and completely unexpected.  Christ forgives his executors and tormentors.  He prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34a).  Imagine that.  Jesus actually forgives his executors as they make fun of him and gamble for his clothes.
Jesus’ model of forgiveness is repeated by Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as recounted in Luke’s sequel, The Book of Acts.  As Stephen is stoned to death for his Christian faith, he kneels down and prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). 
History records that other Christian martyrs also forgave their executioners, just before death took them.  Similarly, I will argue that all of Christ's followers are called to forgive those who wrong or harm us.

In my proclamation this weekend, I will also argue that before we can truly forgive others out of Christian love, we must first learn to forgive ourselves out of self-compassion.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, September 18th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we conclude our exploration of “Self-Compassion, An Overlooked Christian Virtue."  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Kirstin Neff, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (New York:  William Morro, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).

[2] Neff, 23-24.

[3] Neff develops these three core components in Part Two, pp. 39-106.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

"Self-Compassion In Relation to Compassion for Others"

            For the past month, we have been exploring self-compassion in a series of proclamations, entitled “Self-Compassion, An Overlooked Christian Virtue.”  Recently, there has been a virtual deluge of books promoting self-compassion.  One of these new books, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Dr. Kristin Neff,[i] has served as an inspiration and guide for me as I developed this sermon series.  This Sunday. September 11th, we will explore the relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others.   

            The foundational text for our exploration of compassion and self-compassion is Christ’s well-known parable of “The Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:  25-37.  This text describes an exchange between Jesus and a scribe, or lawyer.  In the early part of this passage, Jesus and the lawyer discuss what one must do to inherit eternal life.  Through a question-and-answer format, they conclude that to inherit eternal life, one must “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Luke 10:  27) 

              However, for our purposes this weekend, the most important portion of this scripture comes next, when the lawyer asks Christ:  “And, who is my neighbor?”  This question was highly charged in the very regimented society of first century Israel.  In Jesus’ society, as in many societies across history, there were clear boundaries which separated people into different groups, with specific rules about how persons were to treat each other.  For instance, there were divisions between men and women, Jews and Gentiles, etc. 

            It is at this point in the debate that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  The parable is his answer to the lawyer’s challenge. Jesus begins the parable with the words:  “A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was very steep, descending nearly 3300 feet over 17 miles.  It winds through many narrow passes, providing excellent locations for bandits to lie in wait of travelers.  Notice that Jesus provides no details about the man who was beaten and robbed.  Based upon Jesus’ description, the man cannot be classified or categorized in any way.  He is simply a human person in need of assistance. 

            Almost immediately after the attack, there is a ray of hope for the victimized man, a priest is also traveling along the road.  Yet, instead of stopping to help the victim, he passes by on the other side.  Similarly, a Levite passes by without offering assistance.  Within Jewish society, both the priest and the Levite were highly respected persons.  Yet, neither offers the victim any help.  At this point, the parable has reached its climax.  We know that a third person will see the victim and this third person will break the pattern by stopping to help the beaten man.  Undoubtedly, Jesus’ listeners would have expected that this third person will be a very faithful, devout Jew. 

            Yet, Jesus has a surprise for his listeners.  The third person is not a kind, faithful Jew.  Instead, he is a despised and hated Samaritan.  Although both Jews and Samaritans shared a similar faith and similar sacred texts, they disagreed bitterly over how to interpret God’s Holy Word and the implications of that interpretation for how they lived their lives.  For the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim should be the center of worship, whereas for the Jews the center of worship was the Temple in Jerusalem.  The animosity between Jews and Samaritans was so great that Jews avoided all social contact with Samaritans out of fear that they would become ritually impure.   

            Of course, the man lying in the ditch couldn’t care less about ritual purity.  He is in desperate need of help.  When the Samaritan sees the beaten man, he is moved by pity and compassion.  He stops and offers first aid to the beaten man.  Then, the Samaritan gets the broken man up on his own animal and gets him to an inn where he can rest and recuperate.  The Samaritan even pays the innkeeper to care for the victim. 

            At this point, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of the three, do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  Still repulsed by the thought of a Samaritan being the hero in the parable, he can only respond:  “The one who showed him compassion.”[ii] 

            This parable is very rich.  It is like a diamond, with many different facets.  However, for our purposes this week, I would like us to focus on a dimension related to our exploration of self-compassion.  We can frame this dimension by asking a question:  “Why did the Samaritan man have compassion on the wounded victim, when the priest and Levite passed by on the other side?”  Afterall, both the priest and Levite were supposed to be men of devout faith and high moral character. 

            It is at this point that research by Dr. Kirstin Neff into self-compassion may prove illuminating in our exploration of the relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others.   

            Dr. Neff is clear that a person can be very compassionate, regardless of whether or not he is self-compassionate to himself.  She writes, “In other research, my colleagues and I have found that self-compassionate people score no higher on general measures of compassionate love, empathy, or altruism—which tap into concern for others’ well-being—than those who lack self-compassion.”[iii]  However, she suggests that having self-compassion for ourselves may help us to cultivate the capacity of compassion for others. 

            As we have already seen in this study of self-compassion, there are certain skills that we can develop in order to promote self-compassion.  These skills of self-compassion can also be important resources for increasing our capacity for compassion of others.   

For instance, one of the three core components of self-compassion is the ability to recognize and acknowledge that we are not the only ones who experience failures, disappointments, and setbacks.  Instead, these negative outcomes are simply part of the shared common human experience.  None of us is perfect; none of us always succeeds at everything we do.   

As Neff observes, “Rather than merely focusing on our own point of view in painful situations…we take the perspective of an ‘other’ toward ourselves.  We respond with kindness and concern to our own human limitations, just as a kind friend or loving parent would.  By seeing our flawed self from an outsider’s perspective, self-compassion allows us to stop judging ourselves so harshly.”[iv] 
But, the ability to take this “outsider’s perspective” to view our own failures and misfortunes also builds our ability to empathize with others.  As Neff continues, “‘Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.’  By its very nature compassion is relational, stepping back and forth between various perspectives to see the mutuality of the human condition.”[v]  

Similarly, cultivating the capacity for self-kindness, which enhances self-compassion, can also be very important in being kind and compassionate toward others.  And, developing the ability to forgive ourselves strengthens our ability to forgive others.   

Kirstin Neff nicely summarizes this relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others, when she writes:  “Compassion engages our capacity for love, wisdom, and generosity.  …By being more understanding and accepting toward ourselves, we can also be more understanding and accepting toward others.  By honoring the limitations of our own human imperfection, we can be more forgiving of others’ mistakes.”[vi] 
Returning to Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, could it be that the Samaritan felt deep compassion towards the bloodied man in the road because he was self-compassionate towards himself?  Whereas, the priest and the Levite did not exhibit compassion and kindness because they were overly active in their criticism of themselves and had stifled their own self-compassion?  Jesus does not provide any clues in his parable.  Yet, these findings by Neff do reiterate once again that in order to love God, our neighbor, and Creation, we must also develop the resources of self-compassion for ourselves.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, September 11th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we continue our exploration of self-compassion as a Christian virtue; this Sunday exploring the relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others.  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
                            Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all

[i] Kirstin Neff, Self-Compassion, The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (New York:  William Morro, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2011).

[ii]This exegetical material on Luke 10: 25-37 is taken from an earlier blog post on the same Biblical passage.  See “Who Is Our Neighbor?” 1 August 2015.

[iii] Neff, 188.

[iv] Neff, 191.

[v] Ibid., Emphasis added.

[vi] Neff, 201.