Sunday, September 30, 2012

Climbing Higher

“Lead me to the rock that is higher than I…” (Psalm 61:2b)

There is perhaps no greater sense of joy and satisfaction than that found when one is standing on top of a hill or mountain that you have labored long and hard to climb.  I remember feeling this, for one, as an exchange student in Norway, following a guide with fellow International Summer School students from the University of Oslo along a steep but well-travelled trail to the top of a famous mountain in the Jotenheimen National Park that country called Besseggen (literally meaning “dragon’s edge”).  It took us two days to reach the summit (which, in fairness, was more like a wide plateau) but it was nevertheless an impressive feat (at least for me), and to this day is the highest mountain I’ve ever climbed. There were many challenges along the way (not the least of which was my fear of heights!), and it’s a feat I would be hard pressed to do today, but I wouldn’t trade that original experience for anything!

In our own spiritual lives, we’re all called to make similar journeys -- to follow spiritual guides who know the way along challenging but well-travelled trails so that we can experience higher and higher expressions of God’s love and presence in our lives.  We may not ever actually reach the spiritual “summit” in this life (because with God there’s always a “higher place” to experience), but every single one of us is called to climb towards it, nevertheless.

So, during the coming month (October 2012), I’m inviting you to join me on a spiritual journey with God -- one in which we’ll learn the value, importance, and benefits of CLIMBING HIGHER in our relationship with God through various strategies of stewardship.  The messages, videos, and materials you’ll hear and experience during this time are geared to help each of us not only understand but also to claim the great rewards and satisfaction that come from a life committed to intentional stewardship growth.

My hope and prayer is that you will join me and many, many others as we together take a journey “climbing higher” in our faith and in our relationship with God.  Always remember that God loves you and I do, too!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who To Welcome?

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
(Romans 15:7)

Several weeks ago our Minister of Music and Worship Arts shared a blog with me that was so profound that it was simply too good not to pass on. It was about the importance of God’s church learning to welcome all people. Welcoming others in the name of Christ doesn’t mean that we have to agree with their beliefs, values, or behaviors. But it does mean that we offer them respect and hospitality just as Jesus did for all people who he met.

Within the blog was a poster seen at a church that described this kind of radical hospitality and welcome that we’re to imitate:

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail, or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woke up, or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been to church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, or you’re down in the dumps, or if you don’t like ‘organized religion” - we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced, or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid, or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers, doubters, bleeding hearts… and you!”

[--From “Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community”, cited in the Blog of Jon Acuff]

Wow! Those are tough words to live up to! But they describe an attitude that we are to offer to all people as God’s church, for -- in the words of Paul’s scripture above -- “just as Christ welcomed [us]… [we are to] welcome one another.” Dear Lord, may it be so among all the churches of God! Remember that He loves you and I do, too!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Love Above All

“No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies....

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: TRUST steadily in God, HOPE unswervingly, LOVE extravagantly. And the best of the three is LOVE.”
                                [--1 Corinthians 13:3b-8a,12-13, from THE MESSAGE]

As we share in several sermons on the controversial topic of homosexuality, my prayer and desire is that -- regardless of what we think or believe about this topic -- each of us would allow “extravagant,” sacrificial love to be the guiding principle behind our actions and interactions with others, even if and when we disagree with their beliefs and/or behaviors. And never forget that we’re called to love others because God loves you, and that I do, too!

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Word from our Muslim Neighbors About Recent Middle-East Violence

East Cobb UMC members and friends,
The following is part of an email I received this past week from one of the leaders of the East Cobb Islamic Center (the mosque near our church that we have been in dialogue with this past year), and wanted to pass it on to you.
I hopefully don’t have to tell you that the sentiment advocating peace that they as Muslims express is the same sentiment that Jesus challenges us as Christians to have, and that I truly appreciate them taking the time to share this message with us to avoid any further misunderstanding.
Here is part of the original email, along with the message they wanted us to know about from their I.S.B. (Islamic Speaker’s Bureau… kind of like our North GA UMC Annual Conference office):
Pastor Brian,
I wanted to share the announcement below with you and want you to know that I (and numerous reasonable Muslims) join you and all our fellow citizens in mourning the loss of the members of our embassy staff including our Ambassador to Libya, and for the loss of reason. I pray for reason and peace to return to the world where hate and prejudice reign. Amen.
ISB Atlanta Condemns Violence in Libya and Egypt
Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta condemns in the strongest possible terms the extremist attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Libya and Egypt on Tuesday, September 11th, one of which killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens along with three of his staff members. The parties responsible for these events in both nations claimed to be reacting to an online film considered offensive to Islam.

It is important to emphasize that it is a greater defamation of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an to react with violence and murder of innocent people – one of the greatest sins in Islam – than any claimed insult from an Islamophobic film. Those who responded in such a manner should instead study the Prophet Muhammad’s example in the face of harm. On a daily basis, Muhammad was exposed to demeaning abuse for 13 years during the early years of his mission. His response was not to return insult for insult or hurt for hurt, but to pray for his persecutors and overlook their insults. In a famous Islamic tradition, he stated: “It is not allowed to cause harm to others or to return harm for harm.”

It is also an Islamic principle that one does not blame or punish another for the crimes of another. The employees at the embassies were in no way responsible for the actions of either Terry Jones or the producers of the film. Such extreme responses, in fact, can only help Islamophobic interests. Such actions and reactions are but a useless cycle of hate that benefit no one and as occurred yesterday, can be potentially dangerous and even deadly.

ISB Atlanta is committed to upholding the right to freedom of expression and unconditionally condemn any use of violence as a means to protest offensive or hateful speech. In the United States, this fundamental, inalienable right is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The answer to speech we find deeply offensive is more speech — speech that tells the true story of Islam — not censorship or violence. Acts of violence carried out in the name of Islam are a greater offense against Islam than the content of any film or speech.

ISB Atlanta Executive Director Soumaya Khalifa urges both fellow Muslims and fellow Americans to “Work together for a more peaceful world and take this opportunity to redouble efforts towards peace and harmony through increased outreach, dialogue, and understanding.”

The Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta is a 501©(3) non-profit, apolitical educational organization that provides certified Muslim speakers to promote awareness about Islam and Muslims. The ISB is a local affiliate of the Islamic Networks Group (ING). ISB Atlanta, P.O. Box 2608, Peachtree City, Georgia 30269. Telephone: 404-377-8380
 Please join me in praying for peace not only in the Middle East but that it would start with better understanding with our Muslim neighbors here at home. Pastor Brian

Sunday, September 9, 2012

John Wesley's "Catholic Spirit" - Dealing With Christians With Whom We Disagree

“‘Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?’ Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ Jehu said, ‘If it is, give me your hand.’ So he gave him his hand.” (2 Kings 10:15)

When dealing with Christians with whom we disagree, the founder of Methodism John Wesley had some helpful advice in one of his sermons on this very subject. Titled “Catholic Spirit,” it had nothing to do with the Roman Catholic tradition, but everything to do with how followers of Jesus are called to treat those who differ from them but who share the same “universal” (or “catholic”) spirit of love in their work in the world on behalf of Christ. Let me share a few quotes from that sermon:

“Although a difference of opinion or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

“How shall we choose among so much variety [of worship styles]? No [one] can choose for or prescribe to another, but every one must follow the dictates of [their] own conscience in simplicity and godly sincerity. [They] must be fully persuaded in [their] own mind, and then act according to the best light [they] have.”

“Is your heart right with God?...then give me your hand.”

“While [one] is steadily fixed in [their] religious principles, in what [one] believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus, while [they] firmly adhere to that worship of God which [one] judges to be most acceptable in [God's] sight, and while... united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation, [one's] heart is enlarged toward all [humanity], those [one] knows and those...[whom one knows] not.”

Wesley is also remembered for something he said regarding the nature and character of all true Methodist Christians, “As to opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think (From Wesley’s tract “The Character of A Methodist”).

His point (and my point today) is that we don’t all have to agree on every piece of theology or scripture in order to work together for and on behalf of the cause of Christ in our world. So, my prayer for you (and for myself) is that God would give us each a truly “catholic spirit” in all we say and do, that we may give glory to God our heavenly Father by the very way that we conduct ourselves with Christians (and even non-believers) with whom we disagree. Always remember that God loves you and I do, too!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Just Suppose...

"Commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed" (Proverbs 16:3, NIV)

I once read the following article in a newsletter from Sandy Springs U.M.C. As we continue a new school year, I invite you to let these thoughts challenge you the way they did me...

• Just Suppose that your church membership was good only for one year at a time, and that its renewal depended upon your faithfulness to your church through your prayers, presence in worship and a small group, stewardship of gifts, your volunteer service, and witness of your faith by word and deed. Would you retain your membership?

• Just Suppose that church membership was limited to those who could give a valid excuse for absences. Would your absences be acceptable?

• Just Suppose that other church members were as enthusiastic about our events, programs, and ministries as they are about sporting events or shopping. Would there be a marked difference in the life of our church?

• Just Suppose that every member of our church attended as often as you. Would we need more seating or less?

• Just Suppose that every member gave to the church financially each year what you give. Would there be less money or more for the cause of Christ through our ministries?

• Just Suppose that we stopped “supposing” and instead renew our dedication and commitment to the high calling of Jesus Christ and His church.

What great thoughts to consider! I hope to see you this week at church! Remember, God loves you and I do, too!