Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Even in Chaos, Joy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

“The Power of Negativity to Undermine Our Faith”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] John Grohol, “15 Common Cognitive Disorders,” Psych Central, an online article available at, accessed 6 November 2013.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

“Give Thanks to the Lord”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

“Dream with Jesus – And Live”

            This week we continue our reflections on “God’s Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Over the past several weeks, we have looked at the statistical decline experienced by the institutional Church in the U.S.  We have also discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.  This Sunday, November 12th, we will look at “Vision” from a different perspective.  The question I would like for us to address asks, “What is Jesus’ Vision for the Future Church?”

            To guide our reflections on Jesus’ Vision for the future Church, we will use the story of Zacchaeus the “chief tax collector” in the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10.  To truly understand this passage of scripture, we must begin with a look at the social and political context of Jesus’ ministry.  At the time of Christ’s ministry, the people of Israel were conquered and oppressed by the Roman Empire and its legions of soldiers.  From the Roman perspective, the land of Israel was just a backwater country to be taxed and exploited.  And so, the Romans taxed everything.  There were indirect sales taxes, tolls for roads and the use of various public goods, tariffs, customs fees, taxes, taxes, and more taxes. 

Collecting all of these taxes required a great deal of time and energy, so the Romans came up with an ingenious scheme.  They co-opted entrepreneurs from among the Jewish people themselves to collect all of the taxes.  These Jewish entrepreneurs were called “chief tax collectors.”  Each was given a region of the country and told how much revenue they needed to raise from the various tax schemes for the occupying Roman Empire.  The “chief tax collectors” then hired others to help them and they collected the taxes.  Now, the Romans never offered the “chief tax collectors” a salary or any form of payment for this service.  Instead, it was just assumed that the “chief tax collectors” would lie and cheat their fellow Jewish countrymen and make a profit by over-charging on the taxes.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector for the area around the town of Jericho.  Naturally, he was widely despised by everyone in Jericho.  Put yourself in the shoes—or, rather sandals—of someone living in Jericho.  Here is a man who has betrayed his own people and his own country by openly collaborating with the occupying Romans.  This man has probably cheated you on all the taxes that you owe to the occupying Empire.  And yet, even if he has cheated you, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that you can do.  If you refuse to pay the amount of taxes, then they will simply summon a nearby Roman soldier who will beat you to a pulp—or, worse they will make you watch while they beat up your daughter or your mother or your grandfather.  And, finally, here is a man who is extremely wealthy, while you are struggling just to feed your family the bare minimum amount of food.  Just like the people in Jericho, you would hate Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was very, very, very rich.  We can assume that he lived in one of the largest houses in Jericho.  He wore the finest clothes; he ate the best foods; and he drank the finest wines.  All of his physical needs were met in abundance, and he still had more money to spend.  But, Zacchaeus was not happy; his life was empty of meaning and joy.  Despite all of his luxurious material possessions, despite all of the fine food and beautiful clothes, Zacchaeus was not happy; that is to say, Zacchaeus was not flourishing. 

            One day, Zacchaeus heard about a new teacher, a rabbi, whom people said could teach him how to have happiness and live a life of meaning and fulfillment.  So, Zacchaeus went out to see this wise, new rabbi as he passed through Jericho.  Of course, the crowd around Jesus was so great that Zacchaeus could not get a glimpse of Jesus.  And so, lifting up the hems of his rich, flowing robes, Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up in a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.  Biblical scholars tell us that in Israel at this time, it was considered humiliating for a grown man to run and climb trees.

            So, we can imagine how all of the crowd began to mock and poke fun at the hated Zacchaeus, as he ran down the street and climbed up into the tree.  But, Zacchaeus did it anyway.  Zacchaeus humiliated himself because he just wanted to see Jesus; he just wanted to see this new rabbi who might be able to help him live a full and joyful life.  Zacchaeus humiliated himself, but then Jesus honored him.  When Jesus got to that sycamore tree, he looked up and said:  “Zacchaeus come down out that tree now because I am going to your house for dinner.”  Jesus had lots of dinner options that evening.  He would have been welcomed in any house in Jericho that day; people would have served him their best food.  However, Jesus chose Zacchaeus.

            The Bible doesn’t tell us what went on at the meal that night.  We don’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus.  But, we do know that at the end of the evening Zacchaeus promised to give half of his wealth to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone whom he had defrauded.  And, we do know that Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

            But, here’s the question:  Why did Zacchaeus promise to give away all that money when he was having dinner with Jesus?  As I said above, we really don’t know what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about that night.  However, I think that we can probably infer that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream with him about a new life, with new priorities and a new lifestyle.  Rather than focusing so much on accumulating more and more wealth, I suspect that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to focus on something much bigger than material possessions.  I believe that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream boldly and be willing to take chances.  I believe that Jesus encouraged Zacchaeus to dream about investing himself in Jesus’ dream for him.  That is, Zacchaeus re-committed his life to dream with Jesus about a world in which God’s Reign becomes completed—and to imagine himself as working with Jesus to establish God’s Reign.

            In his song, “Untitled Hymn,” contemporary Christian musician Chris Rice has a verse that goes like this:

O, and when the love spills over
And music fills the night
And when you can't contain your joy inside, then
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus
Dance for Jesus and live!”[1]

            I really appreciate “Untitled Hymn” and especially this verse.  However, I would add another verse that encourages all Christians to “Dream with Jesus and Live!”  I believe that Jesus encourages each of us to dream and envision a better world, where God’s Reign is established; where we live in peace and justice with one another—and sustainably with the rest of Creation.  Further, I believe that Jesus calls upon us dedicate our lives, both individually and as faith communities to work as God’s co-creators in establishing the Divine Reign.  I believe that Jesus encourages us to dream boldly and be willing to take some chances.  This quest to establish God’s Reign is a decision to re-orient our priorities and our lifestyles, so that building God’s Kingdom becomes the central commitment in our lives.  When we make that commitment to this vision, then we will truly live.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 12th.  This Sunday, we will reflect on what it means to “Dream with Jesus—and Live.”  We will also be honoring and recognizing all of the 50-year members of our church.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 
Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Chris Rice, “Untitled Hymn” (2003), on his album, Run the Earth, Watch the Sky, accessed online at, 4 November 2017.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

“Grieving with Hope”

            This Sunday, November 5th, is “All Saints Sunday,” a Sunday we set aside in the Church to remember and celebrate our friends and family members who have died.  This can be a bittersweet worship service.  On the one hand, we may be sad, as we grieve and lament the loss of our loved ones.  On the other hand, we may be joyful, as we recall pleasant memories of shared times with our loved ones.  We can also be joyful, as we recall—and, perhaps, re-affirm—the conviction of the Christian faith that death is not the termination of our existence, but rather our transformation into a far better existence as New Creations in Christ Jesus.

            Our reflections on the “All Saints Sunday” will be informed by a passage from the Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians.  To fully appreciate this scriptural passage, it is important to recognize that the early Church just assumed that Jesus would return to earth very shortly after his Ascension into Heaven (see Acts 1:6-11).  In other words, they thought that the parousia—a Greek word, referring to the Second Coming of Christ—would occur within their lifetimes. 

            As time went on and the parousia did not immediately occur, some of the earliest Christians began to die.  As a result, their friends in the faith began to worry about what had happened to these first Christians, since they had died before Christ returned.  In his letter, the Apostle Paul seeks to comfort and re-assure the Thessalonian Christians.  Our passage begins with these words:  But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  So, rather than hopeless grieving the loss of their friends who have died, the Apostle Paul wants to offer the Thessalonian Christians hope in the midst of their sorrow and grief.

            And, what is this hope which Paul seeks to give the grieving Thessalonians? 

            Paul writes, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died (v. 14).  The hope which the Apostle Paul has is that the deceased will be resurrected when Christ returns to earth.  Death is not the termination of our existence, but, rather, a transformation of our existence.  For Paul, the resurrection of the dead is not wishful fantasy.  Instead, he is convinced that those deceased Christians will be resurrected at the end time.  Paul bases his assurance of everyone’s resurrection on the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning. 

For Paul, the Resurrection of Christ marks a climatic tipping point in cosmic history.  The Resurrection of Christ divides the Old Age, characterized by sin and death, from the New Age, when God’s Reign will be fully established and all of Creation will be transformed.  Paul sees the Resurrection of Christ as God’s reassurance and guarantee of our resurrection at the parousia.  That is, the Resurrection of Christ marks the cosmic in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.  For Paul, God’s Reign has begun, but is not yet fully established.  Eventually, God’s Reign will be fully established and all of Creation will be transformed into New Creatures.

Paul’s assurance that God’s Reign will be fully established in God’s good time gives him confidence that the Thessalonian Christians will ultimately be reunited with their friends and loved ones who have already died.  So, Paul offers these words of reassurance in his letter:  “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.”  (v. 15) 

Paul believes that this Second Coming of Crist will be awesome and powerful.  So, in the verses that follow, he resorts to apocalyptic images,[1] common to his time and culture, to describe the parousia.  Paul writes in verses 16-17 that:

1.      God will announce the parousia with a “cry of military command” to charge into battle
2.      God will announce Christ’s Second Coming with “the archangel’s call”
3.      God will announce the end of the word with “God’s trumpet.”

Still using apocalyptic images common to his time and culture, Paul describes how God “will descend from heaven” and how those who have already died will be resurrected.  Then, those who are still alive “will be caught up in the clouds” together with those who have been resurrected “to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”  Finally the passage ends with Paul urging the Thessalonians to “encourage one another with these words” (v. 18).

            Surely these words from Paul’s letter must have offered much comfort, healing, and joy to the Thessalonian Christians who grieved the deaths of their friends and loved ones.  Again, to reiterate, for Paul the Resurrection of Christ was the guarantee and the assurance that we will be resurrected in the end-time. 

But, can these words offer the same comfort, healing, and joy to us today, as we commemorate our loved ones on All Saints Day?  Afterall, the Apostle Paul was a pre-scientific man writing at a time when superstition was rampant in his culture.  We know that the resurrection of the dead runs counter to the laws of science.  For contemporary Christians living in the twenty-first century, what is the basis for believing in the eventual resurrection of our friends and family?

One possible response to this question has been suggested by the Christian theologians John Polkinghorne and Robert Russell, both of whom are also physicists.  In his book, The Faith of a Physicist,[2] Polkinghorne focuses on God’s role as Creator.  From a Christian perspective, God creates in two ways.  First, God was active as Creator of the world at the beginning, creating the world out of nothing (or, in Latin, creatio ex nihilo).  Second, God’s work of Creation continues, even up to the present.  That is, God is continuing to create (in Latin, creatio continua). 

At this point, Polkinghorne suggests that God may also be engaged in a third form of Creation; a form which he terms, creatio ex vetere—that is, literally, Creation from the old.  What Polkinghorne is suggesting here is that God is continuing God’s creative work by healing and redeeming the old creation and making a New Creation, as suggested by the Apostle Paul.

Building on the earlier work of Polkinghorne, Bob Russell observes that modern scientific cosmology posits the possibility that there is more than one universe.  In fact, within modern cosmology, there are many proposals for “multiverses,” that is, the existence of multiple universes.  String theory, which is one branch of contemporary physics, even proposes that there may be multiple universes, some of which have up to eleven space-time dimensions, as compared to the four space-time dimensions of our universe.  These scientific theories also hypothesize that each unique universe would probably have its own unique laws of nature, which were different from other universes.

            Russell then writes, “God must have created [our] universe such that it is transformable, that is, that it can be transformed by God’s action.  In particular…God must have created it with precisely those conditions and characteristics which will be part of the New Creation.”[3]  Russell goes on to suggest that it may be part of God’s redemption plan to change the laws of nature at the parousia, such that the resurrection of the dead would no longer be counter to the new, transformed laws of nature. 

            Putting the two theologians’ ideas together, we could suggest that God continues God’s creative activity, working now to redeem and transform the world into a New Creation.  As part of that redemptive creation, we believe that at the end-time God will transform the world so that our resurrection from the dead as new creatures in Christ is consistent with the new, transformed laws of nature.  The Resurrection of Christ at Easter thus marks that turning point in cosmic history, which points ahead to a future time, when we, too, will be resurrected. 

This perspective fits with what Paul writes to the Thessalonians.  The Resurrection of Christ marks that turning point from the old age to the new age, and the Resurrection serves as God’s reassurance and guarantee of our resurrection at the end-time. 

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 5th.  This Sunday, we will remember and celebrate the lives of our friends and loved ones who are dead.  We will also reflect on the Apostle Paul’s reassurances to the Thessalonians that Christ’s Resurrection serves as God’s reassurance and guarantee that we, too, will become new creatures in Christ and be resurrected at the parousia.

Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

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

[1] “Apocalyptic language” refers to descriptions of the end of the world that may be either momentous or catastrophic.
[2] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1996).
[3] Robert John Russell, “Resurrection of the Body, Eschatology, and Cosmology:  Theology and Science in Creative Mutual Interaction” in Cosmology, From Alpha to Omega:  The Creative Mutual Interaction of Theology and Science (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2008), 308.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

“Why I Love the Church”

            This week we continue our reflections on “God’s Envision for the Future of the Church.”  However, this week marks a significant shift in our focus.  Over the past several weeks, we have looked at the statistical decline, experienced by the institutional Church in the U.S.  We have also discussed how the future Church must shift from an “attractional” model of ministry to a “missional” approach.

            This week, I want to shift focus to the present Church and why I love it so much.  My foundational scripture this week is Philippians 1: 3-11:

"I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."

Biblical scholars[i] believe that Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians for two reasons.  First, to update and reassure the Philippians about his own situation.  Secondly, to commend Epaphroditus to the Philippians, as he returned to them after helping Paul.

When we consider these 8 verses, I believe that they should be read as a love letter from the Apostle Paul to the Philippian Church.  This passage reveals a special bond and relationship, which exists between Paul and the Philippians.  Paul begins his letter with gratitude, writing that he thanks God for the Philippians, whenever he prays for them.  Further, Paul’s prayers are always filled with joy because of the love and support, which the Philippian congregation has given to him.  This joy indicates the depth of Paul’s gratitude for the Philippian church.

Paul lifts up their “sharing in the gospel from the first day until now…”.  Biblical scholars debate what he means by “sharing in the gospel.”  Regardless of the various interpretations, it seems clear that at its core, “sharing in the gospel” refers to the Philippians helping Paul in his ministry. The Philippians have been strong co-workers or partners in the Gospel.  Paul may also be referring to financial support provided by the Philippians.  Professor Hooker notes that the Greek word which he uses, koinoneo, is used in other letters “with reference to financial contributions.” (See Romans 15:26 2 Corinthians 8:4, 9:13.  See also Romans 12:13 and Galatians 6:6.  Similarly, Paul uses a cognate of this word later in Philippians; see 4:15.)[ii]  

Further, Paul is confident that God, “who began a good work…will bring it to completion…”  That is to say, Paul believes that the Philippian Christians will continue growing in faith and love, until completed in “the day of Jesus Christ;” that is, the end of the age.

Paul claims that the Philippian Christians “share in God’s grace,” both while he was imprisoned for his faith and in the “defense and confirmation of the gospel.”  Notice that Paul does not claim that the Philippians have shared in his missionary work or in the sufferings he has endured because of that work.  Rather, Paul claims that they have shared in the grace from God, which has sustained and inspired him throughout his work and suffering.  Finally, Paul concludes this passage by remarking about how much he misses the Philippian church and how much he loves the Philippian Christians.

To summarize verses 3 - 8, Paul writes a love letter to the Philippian Church, in which he lifts up the following dimensions:

1.      Gratitude
2.      Joy
3.      Partnership in the Gospel; or partnership in discipleship
4.      Spiritual growth in faith and love, which is ongoing
5.      Sharing God’s grace
6.      Love

In the final verses of this love letter (vv. 9-11), Paul closes by offering up a prayer, or blessing, for the Philippian Christians.  Paul prays that the Philippians’ love may overflow more and more as they grow in their relationship with God.  Paul prays that their love may be informed by knowledge and insight, so that the Philippians may live lives that are “pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ...”. 

Paul understands that authentic Christian faith changes and shapes the lives of Christians—both individually and in community.  Our close relationship of love with the Divine transforms who we are and how we act.  For Paul, these transformed lives lead to glory and praise for God.  That is, Christians experience a transformation through the love and grace of God.  This transformation leads to new lives defined by love, moral purity, righteousness, and justice.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, October 29th.  This Sunday, I will use this Paul’s love letter to the Philippian Church as the framework and basis to share my deep love for the congregation, which I have been appointed to pastor.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

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

[i] Morna D. Hooker commentary on “The Letter to the Philippians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 11 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM version.

[ii] Ibid.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

“What Does God Envision for the Church?”

            Over the past weeks, we have been asking, “What Does God Envision for the Future of the Church?”  We began by noting that over the past 50 years the American Church has been in statistical decline as measured in terms of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance.  We also observed that this statistical decline has been matched by a decline in the social and moral influence of the Church in society.  As its relevance to society has declined, the Church has been increasingly marginalized.  This has created a crisis within the Church.

            Then, last week we saw that with crisis comes opportunity.  A crisis can jerk us out of the complacency of the routine.  Although it hurts and is uncomfortable, a crisis opens us to envisioning a new and better future.  But, what counts as a faithful vision for the future of the Church?  I suggested that a faithful vision for the future must encompass four distinct dimension of the Church.  That is, a faithful vision for the future must include four dimensions of churches as communities of faith:

1.      A community of faith.
2.      A commitment to spiritual growth.
3.      A commitment to mercy, justice, and love.
4.      A community which worships together.

As we continue our reflections this week, I would like for us to focus on the inevitable fear and anxiety which inevitably accompanies change and adaptation. With any major change in our lives there is always uncertainty.  We don’t know how the adaptation will work out.  Will it succeed?  Or, fail?  We don’t know how a major change will affect us.  Will the change hurt us?  Or embarrass us?

Since there is uncertainty, we seek to avoid adaptation and change.  Even though the status quo may no longer be working; even though it may clearly harm us, there is something comfortable about the status quo because the status quo is a known.  By contrast, change and adaptation is always uncertain and, therefore, risky.  As a result, it is natural to resist change and adaptation.  We seek to avoid the unknown and uncertain.  Change and adaptation are inherently risky.

There is good reason to be prudent with change and adaptation.  We should never change just for the sake of change.  Instead, we should carefully assess and weigh the risks before embracing change.  On the one hand, we should avoid the extreme of recklessness; throwing caution to the wind and plunging into change without first counting the costs and assessing the risks.  On the other hand, we should also avoid an extreme caution which paralyses us and prevents the implementation of needed adaptation.  We must chart a middle course between extreme recklessness and extreme caution.

Yet, what if it is God who is calling us to change and adapt?  

My reflections this week are informed by a scriptural passage from Joel 2:28-29.

“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
 For much of my life, I have not fully understood this passage from the prophet Joel.  I have always skimmed over the first part of the passage and focused on prophecy, dreams, and visions.  These are important concepts in the passage.  Yet, note that they are framed at the beginning and ending with these words from God:  “I will pour out my spirit.”

            “I will pour out my spirit.”  This promise is critical to understanding the entire passage.  Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier provides the critical interpretative key, when she writes:  “God promises to pour out the Spirit, on ‘all flesh’ …The Spirit of God throughout the OT was a gift of power, given in order that the recipient might do a particular job for God…”.[i]  In other words, when God calls upon us to change and adapt; when God calls upon us to undertake the risks and uncertainty of change and adaptation, God also provides the power and ability to change.  When we are confronted by fear and anxiety in the face of needed change, we should also be re-assured by the faith that God will provide the power to change and adapt.  God will provide a way.  We just need to trust God.

            However, trusting that God will provide can be a bigger challenge than the discomfort which comes from change and adaptation.  You see, I prefer to rely upon myself, rather than to trust others—even God.  I have spent my whole life relying upon myself and my abilities; trying to be independent and self-sufficient.  From an early age in American culture, each of us is taught to stand on our own; to take care of ourselves and our own; to be independent.  Unfortunately, a byproduct of that self-reliance is difficulty in trusting others, especially God. 

As I have reflected on my own inability to trust fully, I have come to see that my lack of trust in God is fundamentally a form of agnosticism.  That is, my reluctance to trust that God will guide and sustain me through important changes actually boils down to a small residue of doubt in God and God’s providence.  Thus, to recognize the need for change and to trust that God will guide us through that change is actually an opportunity for spiritual growth.  It is, fundamentally, an opportunity to grow in our Christian faith; to become deeper in our faith by developing a stronger capacity to trust that we are not alone.  God is with us.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, October 22nd, as we continue this very important series of reflections on “A Vision for the Future of the Church.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

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

[i] Elizabeth Achtemeier commentary on Joel in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 7 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM version.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

“Envisioning a Faithful Future for the Church”

            This Sunday, October 15th, we continue our series exploring the future of the Christian Church in general and the future of Christ United Methodist Church in particular. 

            In my initial post on this topic last week, I focused on the crisis facing American Christianity.  Over the past 50 years, the major statistical measures of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance have all been in decline for Christian churches.  For instance, over the past 30 years, membership in The United Methodist Church has declined by approximately 2 million people, from 9 million to 7 million.  During this same period of time, there were similar declines at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, the congregation where I serve as Senior Pastor. 

            This statistical decline is matched by a decline in the social and moral influence of the Church in society.  As its relevance to society has declined, the Church has been increasingly marginalized.  We can say with confidence that the Church is in crisis. 

            Yet, with crisis comes opportunity.  Based upon history and my experiences in life, I believe that frequently an individual or organization must suffer a catastrophic failure before gaining the vision and drive to achieve phenomenal results in the future.  It is easy to slip into the complacency of the routine; to follow the same patterns again and again because they have always worked in the past and, as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  When we slip into the complacency of the routine, we no longer see new and different possibilities.  Further the complacency of the routine provides security and assurance.  As a result, we become resistant to change; we find ourselves saying, “But, we’ve never done it that way before.” 

            A crisis can jerk us out of the complacency of the routine.  Although it hurts and is uncomfortable, a crisis open us to envisioning a new and better future.  With crisis comes opportunity.  So, despite the staggering statistical decline of the Church, I am extremely optimistic about its future.  I believe that the Church will shrug off its complacency of the routine and experience a renewal that is not only statistical and social, but also spiritual.  This renewal must begin by trying to envision a new future for the Church that is faithful to God.

            How do we envision a faithful future for the Church?

            To envision a faithful future, I believe that we must begin with the fundamental structure and pattern of the early Church, as summarized in Acts 2: 42-47:

"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2: 42-47)
            In this description, I discern four distinct requirements for envisioning a faithful future for the future Church:

1.      A Community of Faith.  The early church was a community of the faithful.  In Acts’ summary of the early church, it says that the first Christians devoted themselves to fellowship; that they broke bread together in their homes and shared their food with glad and generous hearts.  Most importantly, these early community of faith were growing “day by day.”  While contemporary churches frequently cultivate community among their members, these communities are not growing “day by day.”  Instead, many communities of faith are stagnant or declining.  In addition, most communities of faith are very homogeneous, in terms of race, economic class, and social perspective.  Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the most segregated hour in America was the Sunday hour of Christian worship.  A faithful vision of the future of the Church must include building communities of faith, which are “diversity oriented” and radically inclusive.

2.      Committed to Spiritual Growth.  In the early church, the first Christians were constantly listening to the apostle’s teachings.  The apostles were the living eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Of course, the contemporary situation is different, but spiritual growth remains an important component of the church.  Much spiritual growth occurs through Bible studies.  Other types of studies are important, as well, such as studies of spiritual practices or of special topics.  We also grow spiritually by learning from different perspectives.

3.      Committed to Mercy, Justice, and Love. The first Christians shared their possessions in common with one another and distributed goods to everyone as they had need.  Essentially, the first Christians lived in a religious commune, sharing with one another.  Our context in the twenty-first century is radically different.  Yet, a commitment to mercy, justice, and love remains.  By mercy, I mean the care of those who have severe needs.  Mercy ministries include feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and welcoming the stranger or refugee.  Mercy ministries may also include visiting those in prison, sitting with those who are lonely, or comforting those who are grieving.  Sometimes, it is unfair political structures or an economic system, which has been rigged so that it deprives persons of the resources which they need to care for themselves.  So, out of love for all human persons, Christ’s disciples must work for justice, so that everyone may have the basic necessities needed in order to care for themselves and thrive.

4.      Worship Together.  Finally, the early Christians prayed together, spent time in the Temple together, and praised God together.  In other words, the first Christians worshipped together.  For most of church history, Christians have worshiped in the similar manner and time, without much diversity.  However, in the twenty-first century, churches developed several different styles of worship, as well as diversifying the times and places in which we worship.  This is an important development because Christians have different tastes and preferences for worship.  One of the challenges for envisioning a faithful future for the Church is to expand the scope of worship, so that it is more inclusive of different people and circumstances.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, October 15th, as we continue this very important series of reflections on “”A Vision for the Church.”  This Sunday, I will discuss these four criteria for envisioning a faithful future, as they may apply to Christ United Methodist Church.  Christ United is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

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