Monday, July 1, 2019

2019-20 Small Group Bible Studies




Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)

As God’s people, one of the tools we’re given to discover, grow, and mature in Christian faith is the Bible.  Unfortunately, many spiritual people have never unlocked the power of this God-given tool because they’ve never taken time to actually study it in-depth with others.

That’s why each year our church offers various small-group experiences where you can spiritually learn and grow together with other Christians as you study God’s word.  Through daily readings and guided discussions once each week, participants not only come to understand the Bible better, but come to discover its relevance and power in and for their daily lives, while at the same time developing rich and long-lasting friendships with fellow participants.  I’ve personally witnessed many lives changed and transformed in remarkable ways through the power of group Bible studies.

Granted... such studies are not for the casual Christian.  They usually involve hard work, commitment, and diligence – but the rewards are literally “out of this world!”  I’ve heard many spiritual people talk about their desire to grow in and learn more about faith – being part of a group Bible study is one of the best ways around to help each of us do just that!

Next school year (2019-20), our church will be offering at least three signature small group Bible studies:

Disciple I -- a 34-week introduction and overview of the entire Bible. This course is the prerequisite to any other "Disciple" course.  We’ll have two Disciple 1 groups beginning in August, one offered on Sunday mornings, and another offered on Wednesday evenings. Find out more about this study HERE.

Alpha – an 11-week introduction to the basics of Christian faith – what it means to be a Christian and live life as a Christian.  We’ll be offering this study on Sunday afternoons beginning in August.  Find out more about this study HERE.

Financial Peace University – a 9-lesson study in which participants will learn biblical principles and practices for better personal use of money and possessions.   Learn to get out (and stay out) of debt, how to budget properly, and how to be better at saving and giving.  This study will begin in September on a date TBD.  Find out more about this study HERE.

In addition, we’ll also continue to offer additional short-term small group studies like Wednesday Night “Hot Topics,” Sunday morning “Connect Groups,” and others. 

So if you’re serious about your faith growth and want to find out more, then I invite you to worship at any of our services on Sunday, July 21st for “Grow in Love Sunday to hear how our group Bible studies from this past year have impacted the hearts and lives of some of your fellow church family, and how you can experience these and others for yourself beginning this Fall. We’ll also feature more details about each of these opportunities in upcoming Sunday bulletins and weekly church-wide “Happenings” eBlasts.

Your life will never be the same after you take a group Bible Study class!  So what are you waiting for? Remember that God loves you and I do, too!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

2019 North Georgia Annual Conference


“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

June 11-14, over 2800 delegates representing the 1000 churches and 350,000+ United Methodists in North Georgia will gather at the Classic Center in Athens, Georgia for the North Georgia Annual Conference with the theme “One With Each Other.”  Linda Kent, Danielle Neal, Ryan Miller, and myself are all attending as our church’s delegates, and several other McKendree members will also be attending as general delegates from our Atlanta-Emory District.

Each year's Annual Conference makes important decisions that affect every United Methodist church in our geographic area: approval and ordination of new clergy and retirement of older ones (we celebrate that a former Youth and Associate Minister, Joe Palmer, will be commissioned this year!); appointments of pastors to local churches are finalized (both Ryan and I celebrate that we will be re-appointed as your Pastors here at McKendree UMC); adoption of the conference budget; support for and reports from conference missions and ministries; exciting worship and bible study opportunities to enrich our spiritual lives; present our “Bishop’s Offering” (this year, it will support the pastoral care program of Wesley Woods Senior Centers); and more! And this year, we will also be electing clergy and laity delegates to represent us all at the regular session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in May 2020.

Upon our return, we’ll give a report on important decisions that were made, and how these might affect us as a congregation.  In the meantime, you can find more information about Annual Conference (as well as “real time” updates) on our North Georgia Conference website (HERE),  Also, thank you for your prayers, both for ourselves as your representatives, and for the Conference itself.  Always remember, God loves you and I do too!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Spring: Signs of New Life


“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” (Mark 13:28)

If you’re like me, apart from the pollen, Spring is among my most favorite times of the year. Plants begin to bud, trees and flowers start to bloom, there is a warmth in the air, and everywhere one can see signs of new life springing up after the cold and apparent deadness of winter.

This is, of course, why springtime is often used as a metaphor for the Christian season of Easter (which is not just a day but an entire season lasting for 40 days after Easter Sunday!).  During this time, we celebrate the new life that Jesus spent with his disciples following his resurrection.

But Spring is also a metaphor for our own personal lives – for the fact that every one of us has “winters” from which God’s power can wake us up and bring us back to life through the warmth and new life of his “Son” Jesus.  For some of us, those “winters” take the form of grief, job loss, pain and hurt from the severing of a relationship, financial insecurities, and other things.  But the resurrection of Jesus can give us not only hope for a better future, but actually begin in us a new life in that hope, as well.

Yet, I believe that Spring is also a fitting metaphor for what our church here at McKendree UMC is experiencing this year, as well.  While we certainly have a strong past to celebrate, this Spring we are also seeing signs of renewed life and vitality in and through our church’s ministries and programs.  If you were around for Holy Week, you know that we experienced very meaningful and moving services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. But in addition, we also saw over 1100 people in worship on Easter Sunday itself, we welcomed 30 new members into our fellowship on April 28th (including 19 youth confirmands!), we’ve experienced increased financial giving in April, are already having great response to signs up for our upcoming children’s Vacation Bible School, summer camps, and Fall 2019 Preschool program, and our church’s Vision Team continues their good and fruitful work on our behalf to discern God’s future for all of us.

As with Spring and Jesus’ resurrection, all of these things are indicators that something good is happening here at McKendree, and that even greater things are still to come!  So, wherever you find yourself in your own personal spiritual walk with God, my prayer is that you will use this season of Spring as a time to re-engage and re-connect with the God’s work through McKendree UMC.  You’ll be blessed when you do!  Remember that God loves you and I do, too!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Christ Is Risen!!!

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!” (Luke 24:5)

“Christ is risen! Shout Hosanna! Celebrate this day of days.
Christ is risen! Hush in wonder; all creation is amazed.
In the desert all surrounding, see, a spreading tree has grown.
Healing leaves of grace abounding bring a taste of love unknown.

Christ is risen! Raise your spirits from the caverns of despair.
Walk with gladness in the morning. See what love can do and dare.
Drink the wine of resurrection, not a servant, but a friend;
Jesus is our strong companion. Joy and peace shall never end.

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus: 'Christ is risen! Get you gone!'
God the First and Last is with us. Sing Hosanna everyone!”
       [–Brian Wren, from The United Methodist Hymnal, #307]

What appropriate words! After all, isn't that the message of Easter?... that suffering and pain and death and evil are never the last word? All the sacrifices of Lent, and all of the tragedies and struggles of life merely lead us to the new life of Easter, just as Christ's own sacrifice and suffering led him to the victory of the Resurrection.

So remember, no matter what you're facing today, Easter has come to tell us that through faith in Jesus, God's victory can be ours, as well! So along with the hymn-writer, this Sunday our hearts all join to sing: “Christ is risen! Shout Hosanna! Celebrate this day of days!”

All of these things should help enable us to focus more on the reason for the day: Jesus Is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

Friday, March 29, 2019

Fast and Feast


“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call an assembly” (Joel 2:15)

A number of years ago, Dr. Kevin LaGree, former Dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, once shared a message about the spiritual disciplines of the Christian season of Lent (the 40 days before Easter), which we are currently a little more than halfway through.  

Most of us are familiar with the custom of “fasting” (e.g., giving up) certain things during this period, especially certain types of food.  But Dr. LaGree also challenged those who were listening that the taking on of certain spiritual things is just as vital as the things that we “give up.”

During that message, he said, “Lent is a time to FAST from certain things and FEAST on others.  For example, during Lent, we should….

FAST from judging others; FEAST on Christ dwelling in them.

FAST from discontent; FEAST on gratitude.

FAST from complaining; FEAST on appreciation.        

FAST from bitterness; FEAST on forgiveness.

FAST from discouragement; FEAST on hope.

FAST from apathy; FEAST on enthusiasm.

FAST from suspicion; FEAST on truth.

FAST from thoughts that weaken; FEAST on promises that inspire.

FAST from idle gossip; FEAST on purposeful silence.

FAST from problems that overwhelm; FEAST on prayer that sustains.”

LENT is indeed a time for both fasting and feasting.  My prayer is that as we continue in the remaining weeks and days of this season before Easter, if we haven’t already, each of us will take time to look deep within our lives first to discover those things from which we need to FAST from (give up).  Then, let us also FEAST upon (take on) good things that can draw us closer to God’s presence, plan, and purpose in and for our lives.  

Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Remembering Our Brokenness


“Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love! Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion! Wash me completely clean of my guilt; purify me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:1-2, CEB)

This Wednesday (March 6, “Ash Wednesday”), Christians around the world will begin our annual journey towards Easter with 40 days (not including Sundays) of spiritual preparation.  Known as “Lent” (from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, “spring”), it’s a season in which we are reminded of how – like springtime bringing life back to the deadness of winter – the “winters” of our spiritual lives can be brought back to life through Jesus Christ.

As such, one of the major themes of this season is the remembrance of our brokenness and inclination toward sin and wrongdoing as human beings.  In the words of one traditional liturgy for the receiving of ashes, we are asked to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  All of this invites us to confront our own mortality, and to confess our own sin and shortcomings before God within His imperfect community of faith, the Church.

When we recall this reality, it tends to put all of our prideful human wisdom and knowledge into proper perspective.  In our human divisions, no longer can we arrogantly proclaim that our “side” has all the “answers” to life, or holds the one and only “correct” view about truth or God’s kingdom.  It reminds us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 about the dangers of judging others of the unrepentant sin in their life before we first judge ourselves for the unrepentant sin in our own – “first take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye,” Jesus says there.

The reality, you see, is that none of us as broken and imperfect human beings is worthy of the love of a holy and perfect God.  Consequently, a major message of Lent is that we ALL stand in need of prayer, repentance, and God’s healing and forgiveness.  And the good news is that Lent is also a recognition of God’s power and ability (and desire) to do all of these in our lives!  The ashes that we place on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a way of God saying to each one of us, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).  The entire Lenten season, in fact, is God’s way of saying that our human brokenness – though significant and deep – is never the end of the story… that His power through Jesus overcomes even our human brokenness and sin.

So, I don’t know what you stand in need of forgiveness from God for in your life today.  Perhaps it’s a spouse or family member who has hurt you that you are holding a grudge against.  Perhaps it’s something you did or said that you know you shouldn’t have done or said.  Perhaps it’s the way you treated a workmate, schoolmate, or fellow member of your church.  Perhaps it’s a feeling of despair or even anger over the recent General Conference decision.  As for me (while much improved)… I still am in need of healing from a hardness of heart I allowed to develop within me from my experiences at a previous church – that is my brokenness.

But whatever it is for you, this Lenten season, I encourage and invite you to allow God to bring you His healing and forgiveness, so that you may be whole once again.  Remember the words of Psalm 51 at the top of this post – God always has “faithful love” and “great compassion” towards us, and that it’s that love and compassion which enables Him to “Wipe away [our] wrongdoings…”, to “wash [us] completely clean of [our] guilt” and to “purify [us] from [our] sin!”

Yes, you and I (and all around us, in the church and outside it) are broken human beings.  However, through Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven, healed and made whole again!  During these next 40 days of Lent, will you claim his wholeness for you? Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Results of General Conference 2019

"With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…" (Ephesians 4:2-3)

I

As most of you may now know, 864 delegates (half lay, half clergy) from United Methodist churches all over the world met for a called special session of General Conference in St. Louis, MO through yesterday afternoon (February 26) to discuss and act on the report called the “Commission on a Way Forward” relating to the matter of human sexuality.   After passionate debate, two efforts to pass what was known as the “One Church Plan” failed by small margins, and the delegates instead passed what is known as the “Traditional Plan” by a vote of 438 to 384 (52% approval rate).

This plan essentially leaves intact the current denominational policies that do not allow ordination of LGBTQ clergy candidates, and which do not allow our clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.  However, it also adds new mandatory accountability structures for clergy who violate these policies.  While it’s unclear how constitutional these new structures will end up being, the intent was clearly to uphold and better enforce our current policies regarding human sexuality.  A minority report petition on “disaffiliation” also passed, which would potentially allow graceful exits from the denomination for clergy and churches who disagree.  (For a more complete article on the results, read HERE, or also find a variety of result links from our North Georgia delegation HERE).

II

In light of this decision, some UMs are ecstatic and have a great sense of satisfaction. Others are in great shock, anguish, and deeply hurt by what transpired.  Regardless of where you are personally, please know that I am praying for you -- that God would be with you wherever you are, and will use this decision to bring about a more perfect and faithful church, even while using broken and imperfect people like you and me to do it.

To those who hold traditional views, I would invite and urge you not to gloat or feel smug in this decision, which was by no means a mandate (the Traditional plan passed by a slim 54 votes; nearly half of the delegates did NOT vote for it). Instead I encourage you to exhibit humility in what transpired, and invite you to reach out and extend biblical charity and comfort to your brothers and sisters who have felt deeply hurt and betrayed by this decision. Practice the words of 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” You may not agree with them theologically, but they are still your sisters and brothers in Christ.

To those who feel hurt, I would likewise urge you not to do anything rash, but instead to trust that God is working even now to bring about a greater good that we can’t yet see -- God always has a way of doing that through the biggest and most painful disappointments in our lives!  Please remember, too, that 2/3 of American United Methodists do not and did not support the plan that was adopted – its support came from a coalition of 1/3 of the American delegates and almost all of the international delegates (who make up 40% of our denomination’s membership).  Also, we do not really yet know how this decision will play out (or if it will):  the adopted plan (or parts of it) may be ruled unconstitutional by our denomination’s Judicial Council at its meeting April 23-25;  there are also rumors of a new denomination that may emerge to more faithfully represent a different vision for the UMC.  My point is that since God is bigger than this decision, you do not need to fear the present or future -- He will be with you and us all!

III

On a personal basis, I feel it important to share full disclosure that I am among those who are deeply disappointed by this decision. …not because I am “progressive” in my views of human sexuality – in general, I am not.  No. I am disappointed because the approach taken by the Traditional Plan, in my opinion, lacked charity and a gracious spirit in failing to acknowledge or even allow for the reality that deeply committed Christians can, do, and will continue to hold differing views on this and many other subjects, and yet still be faithful, deeply committed, biblical followers of Jesus Christ

The adopted plan mandates that all United Methodists must think exactly the same on this particular subject, with no room for any contrary opinions – a view which I believe is not only unbiblical, but inconsistent with a truly Methodist vision of Christianity.  In his 1771 sermon “Catholic Spirit,” the founder of Methodism John Wesley once wrote “although a difference in opinions 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. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works” (Paragraph 4 of his sermon Intro; Read the entire sermon HERE). 

Some have tried to frame this debate in terms of biblical authority – as if one “side” is based on scripture and the other is not.  But nothing could be further from the truth. In my humble opinion, this debate was not (and still is not) about biblical authority but about biblical interpretation -- both conservatives and progressives claim the Bible to be God’s authoritative word.  What’s under debate is not the authority of scripture, but what exactly that means.  Wesley’s words above illustrate that for centuries, Methodist Christians have felt it possible to have a gracious spirit that allows for differences of biblical interpretation, while still holding to the fundamental authority of scripture itself.

What I fear that this decision will do is embolden some (as others already have done) to create within the church a pharisaical atmosphere similar to the one that Jesus experienced in his own ministry -- one where genuine, prayerful, Spirit-led dialogue and debate is not only discouraged, but is at times ruthlessly silenced (we’ve seen that multiple times throughout church history, in fact).  Such an environment stifles the God-created, God-inspired diversity found in holy scripture, and is inconsistent with the diversity of our God who is “three in one” and “one in three” (the Holy Trinity).  Consequently, I believe that adoption of this plan will not really “settle” the debate, but may instead actually inflame and invigorate it even more (which may be a good thing).

From a legal standpoint, in mandating prescribed punishments for clergy who violate its rules, the plan deprives offenders of due process -- something alone which may be ruled unconstitutional in April by our Judicial Council. 

Finally, contrary to scripture itself, I believe this decision has sent a signal to the world -- however unintentionally -- that truth is indeed more important to us United Methodists than love, and that the legalism of the Pharisees (holding to the “letter” of the law) is more valuable to us than the gracious spirit of Jesus (holding to the “spirit” of the law).

So yes, I am hurting for my more “progressive” friends and colleagues who hold a different view than my own, and who (I fear) think that their voice and presence in the church is not  welcomed or important.  Consequently, I still dream of a church where people can honor and respect one another’s differing views without the need question their fidelity to scripture or their faithfulness to God’s word. Unfortunately, this is not what was adopted yesterday.

IV

Despite all that I have said, however, I do need to point out that while the adopted plan will not change our current official UM view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that LGBTQ persons cannot be ordained as clergy, it nevertheless also continues to affirm (paragraph 161(G) of our Book of Discipline) that…All persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” Consequently, we will still accept LGBTQ persons into church membership and engage in ministry with them – this decision does not change that reality, even for my Traditionalist friends.  After all, Jesus did not come to call people to their need for a particular sexual orientation, but to their need for a Savior. As Gods church, we should do no less.

As to where we are headed as a denomination generally (and as McKendree UMC specifically), at this point it is really too soon to say.  There are many things still be worked through from this decision.  I and other clergy and laity throughout our North Georgia United Methodist Conference will be meeting with our Bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson on March 21, and will be with others in our Atlanta-Emory District on March 24 to debrief about what happened and talk about “next steps.”  After that, I should hopefully be in a better position to answer specific questions about where all this will take us.  In the meantime, I urge you to stay the course!

As I was writing this, I was inspired by a very helpful, pastoral, and affirming video message from Bishop Sue that I encourage you to watch HERE.  She ended with words that I feel are very important to remember:  "At the end of the day, the most important thing is our life together as followers of Jesus Christ, and the mission that we share together" of making disciples for the transformation of the world. I couldn't have said it better myself!

Regardless of who or where you are in all of this – whether you are lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, conservative, traditionalist, evangelical, centrist, liberal, progressive, or anything else you can label -- I want you to know that as your Senior Pastor at McKendree UMC, I love you, care about you, and if you’ll allow me the chance, I want to honor and respect what you feel God is calling you to in this matter, even if or where it may not be my own. As always, my “door” is open if you want to talk with me about what you are feeling or struggling with related to this or any other subject.

As we continue to prayerfully discern where all of this takes us, most importantly let’s also continue our work and ministry together here in Gwinnett County, seeking to be God’s “nurturing community, connecting all through Christ.”  And please never, ever forget that God loves you and I do, too (I mean that!)

Friday, February 1, 2019

United Methodist Called Special General Conference


“Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans...  to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

As many of you already know, our United Methodist Church’s top legislative body will be meet later this month (February 23-26) in St. Louis, Missouri for a called, special session of General Conference.  The purpose of this gathering will be specifically to address our denomination’s approach to the issue and experiences of human sexuality.

For those who may not be aware, General Conference (GC) is the only body that can speak for our entire United Methodist Church in matters of organization and belief, and is comprised of an equal number of both clergy and laity delegates.  As we are a representative system of church government, we at McKendree UMC are represented at GC through the 22 North Georgia Conference delegates that our local church helped to elect.

Regarding the content of this month’s GC, you may remember that this past Fall, we hosted
a series of “Finding Our Way Forward” sessions in which we shared and discussed the three major proposals that will be presented.  If you missed those, you can read a brief summary of these (plus several others) HERE or HERE
or you can also read the complete, detailed 99-page report that’s being presented HERE. All of these proposals are grounded in different interpretations of God’s holy scripture, and they each have their merits and challenges. However, since it’s unlikely that any one of them will be adopted unanimously by all delegates, there will probably be much discussion as delegates seek to prayerfully discern God’s wisdom regarding a possible decision to guide us in addressing these issues and experiences.

In the meantime, I invite you to join Pastor Ryan and myself in doing several things:

1) BECOME KNOWLEDGEABLE about the topics and proposals about human sexuality that are being voted on. You can find a variety of resources to help with this through our North Georgia Conference’s General Conference 2019 page HERE.

2) STAY INFORMED with correct information.  As with most gatherings of this kind, the controversial nature of the topics being discussed often cause debates and decisions to get mis-reported by the secular press.  So, please get correct information before you form personal opinions about what did or did not happen.  You can do this by subscribing to follow GC’s daily proceedings HERE (check “General Conference Updates” at bottom of page). You can also live stream General Conference sessions HERE.

3) Most importantly, please PRAY for the delegates and their work and deliberations... that God's will would be done through them in a spirit and way that both honors Him and draws others to Him.

When GC2019 is completed, I’ll share more about how their decisions may or may not affect us locally at McKendree. Meanwhile, always remember that God loves you and I do, too!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year's Gift

"If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

“In your hand has been placed a priceless gift. Look at it closely. There is no price maker stamped on it. It cannot be weighed, because no scale can balance its value. A king's ransom in comparison is as nothing yet it is given to beggar and prince alike. The giver asks only that it be used wisely and well.

This jewel, rare and unique, is not displayed in any shop window. It cannot be purchased, cannot be sold. No other treasure holds the possibilities this gift offers -- none can surpass its golden splendor.

Of all gifts, this is one of the most precious. It has been offered many times before; today, from the depths of a limitless love it will be given again. It will be left to you to find the golden thread running through it. Only with great care will the jewel retain its luster. Carelessness, ingratitude and selfishness will tarnish the brilliance, break the unspoiled thread, mar the perfection.

Guard it closely, lest through weak fingers it slip from the hand. Look often at its faultless beauty. Accept it as it is offered from the heart of the giver. Consider it is the most treasured of possessions, for of all gifts it is by far the greatest. It is the gift of the New Year.”

           [--Cited from timothyreport.com,  December 27, 2004]

As we begin a new year, I hope and pray that you will keep and use each moment to God’s glory. If you’ve gotten out of the habit of weekly worship, now’s an excellent time to start back. We're beginning a new series called The Gift That Keeps Giving, exploring six things that God's gift of Jesus gives us not just during the holiday season, but the whole year long. I hope to see you in worship this new year!  Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Mary's Dream

"Mary treasured all these words [of the Shepherds] and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

“I had a strange dream, Joseph. I'm not sure, but I think it was about a birthday for our son. The people had been preparing for it for six weeks by decorating the house and buying new clothes. They'd gone shopping many times and bought elaborate gifts. It was peculiar, though, because the presents weren't for our Son. They were wrapped in beautiful paper and tied with lovely bows and stacked under trees. Yes, Joseph, a tree, right in their house -- with branches decorated and full of glowing balls and sparkling ornaments. And there was a figure on the top of the tree -- an angel I think.

Everyone was laughing and happy and all excited about the gifts, and they gave the gifts to each other, Joseph, not to our Son. I don't think they even knew Him. They never mentioned His name. Doesn't it seem odd for people to go to all that trouble to celebrate someone's birthday if they don't know Him? I had the strangest feeling that if our Son had gone to this celebration, He would have been intruding. Everything was so beautiful, Joseph, and everyone so happy, but it made me want to cry. How sad for Jesus -- not to be wanted at His own birthday party. I'm glad it was only a dream, though. How terrible, Joseph, if it had been real.”
[–by Lloyd D. Lance]

As we prepare for Christmas, please don’t get so caught in all the consumerism, partying, and family get togethers that you forget Jesus as the real “reason for the season”! Instead, invite your friends and family to join you this December in participating in some of the many special activities and services that are designed to help us focus on the one who’s birth is the reason why we celebrate in the first place:

“It’s A Wonderful Life” worship series each Sunday December 2-23 at 9:30am and 11:00am.
“God With Us!” Music Program December 9 at both morning services, featuring our adult Chancel Choir, Orchestra and Handbells.
Living Nativity December 15, 6pm-8pm, featuring a chance to experience what it might have been like the night Jesus was born. See the wisemen, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and even live animals
Happy Birthday Jesus! December 16, 11:00am – a chance for children ages 3yrs - 4th grade to celebrate Jesus’ birthday during our morning children’s worship time.
Blue Christmas December 21, 7:00pm – A service offering hope and healing for those who’ve suffered loss. Childcare available for ages 0-5.
Christmas Eve Services December 24:
            --2:00pm, Family Christmas Celebration, featuring “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!” for kids of all ages and child-friendly candlelighting
            --8:00pm, Lessons and Carols, featuring a scripture, music, message and candlelighting
            --11:00pm, Candlelight Communion, featuring upbeat Christmas music, message and candlelighting

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth again on Sunday December 30th (the “first Sunday of Christmas”) with one combined worship service at 10:30am before we return to our regular two services on January 6th.

Whatever you choose to participate in this month, let it be your way of celebrating the true reason for the season.  And always remember that God loves you and I do, too!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

What I'm Thankful For



“In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

This past year I have had much to give God thanks for -- here are just a few.  I am thankful...

...for a wife, Trish, who models the love of God by loving me just as I am, warts and all!

...for our daughter Jennifer, who makes Trish and I proud, not only because of what she does but more importantly because of who she is and the beautiful woman of God she’s become.

…for our son-in-law Zach, who we are proud to call “son” because of the good husband he is for our daughter, and the great father he is for our granddaughter.

…for our granddaughter Hannah who is so full of life, energy, excitement and curiosity about the new world that she is discovering at nearly age 4.

...for parents who raised me in church to love, understand, and eventually follow the ways of God.

...for a church family who loves, supports, and prays for both my family and myself daily.

...for all of my fellow staff members – Ryan, Nada, Devon, Shannon, Lisa, Susan, Paul, Mary, Jen, Karla, Tracey, Janice, Derrick, Emilee, Alison, and Julie -- who, together with me, share in the cause and work of Christ through our church.

…for church members who love me in spite of the fact that we sometimes “go over” in Sunday worship due to long-winded preaching!

...for Sunday School, Bible study, and small group facilitators and leaders who live out their faith in the selfless way they teach and/or lead.

...for committee and ministry team chairpersons and members who give “above and beyond” to the work of Christ through their participation in and leadership of our church’s ministries.

...for the “behind-the-scenes” members of our sound, multi-media, welcome desk, greeter and usher ministries in the essential work that they do.

...for the members of our praise team, adult, children’s, and youth choirs and band (and don’t forget our handbell choir members!) for the blessing and inspiration they share through their music.

…for all the staff of our church nursery who give tirelessly of themselves to make sure our children are safe and happy.

…for the staff and teachers of our Preschool, in keeping us in touch with the needs of the community that we are called to serve.

...for church members who roll up their sleeves and pitch in to be part of "the answer," rather than whining about what someone else is not doing to fix "the problem."

...for all the great volunteers who lovingly help in all of our Wednesday evening activities.
...for church members who are willing to make God a priority through their financial giving to His church.

...for fellow Christians who’re willing to step outside themselves by participating in serving and/or sharing ministries both locally, nationally, and overseas.

…most importantly, for God who gave his son for me to give me forgiveness and salvation when I didn’t deserve it, and for giving me life and hope in the midst of a hectic and mixed up world!

Of course, there’s many, many more, but have you “counted your blessings” lately?  When you do, I’m sure you’ll find that, like me, you have many things for which to “give thanks.”  This Thanksgiving holiday and for the entire month of November, I invite you to join me in striving to live out our thankfulness!  Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

FOR WHAT ARE YOU THANKFUL???

Monday, October 29, 2018

Let Peace Begin With Me

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21)
“Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. (Psalm 34:14)

From the October 20th killing of one of our own Gwinnett County Police Department officers, to last week’s mail-delivery of pipe bombs around the country, to the 11 victims slain this past Saturday at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the recent news has yet again been filled with stories of hatred and violence.

If you were at worship yesterday, you heard me condemn these senseless acts, and stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters in prayer against the continued prejudice and violence of our world.  As followers of Christ, there is simply no room in either our words or our behaviors for anti-Semitism or other forms of bigotry, racism, or prejudice -- anything to the contrary clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the true ways and teachings of Jesus found in the Bible.  In his care for and ministry with Samaritans, “ladies of the night,” lepers, and even Gentiles, Jesus reached beyond the established racial and social customs of the day and sought to love everyone.  As his followers, we are called to do the same.

And yet, even if we know and understand this call, the love and peace of Christ is nevertheless sometimes elusive because there are forces within ourselves that are, at times, vying to be heard. For example, the biblical story of Pilate asking the crowd to choose between releasing either Barabbas or Jesus metaphorically also asks them to choose between the way of violence and hate (represented by Barabbas), and the way of love and compassion (represented by Jesus).  Read this story in Matthew 27:15-23, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:18-25, and John 18:39-40. In many ways, this choice haunts us today, and challenges each of us to ask ourselves, “What part am I playing in enabling peace and love to win out over prejudice, violence, and hate?

The plot of the 1986 movie The Mission highlights this choice between choosing the way of love or choosing the way of violence, and how – just as with Jesus – too often we choose the latter.  The very last scene of the movie shows a 18th-century religious leader in Paraguay who had ordered the removal of missionaries by force questioning those who carried it out about why they felt that the brutality and slaughter that was used was necessary.  One of them replies, “You had no alternative, your Eminence. We work in the world, and the world is thus.”  The religious leader replies, “No, SeƱor Hontes. Thus have we made the world….  Thus have I made it.”

So, before we go around complaining about what someone else is not doing to bring peace and understanding, we need to first look deep inside ourselves and ask what we are doing to help foster them, and to make sure our words and/or actions are not the inadvertent cause of strife, prejudice and hatred.  The words of a famous hymn say it well:

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me;
 Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
 With God our creator, children all are we.
 Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony.
 Let peace begin with me; let this be the moment now.
 With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow:
 To take each moment and live each moment
            in peace eternally.
 Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
            [--Words by Sy Miller and Jill Jackson (1955), 
                    cited from the United Methodist Hymnal #431]

May this be our prayer as we struggle in our world to choose the ways of Jesus (the “prince of peace”).  Always remember that God loves you and I do, too!

NOTE: Find more resources for confronting and responding to violence HERE, and a response from the UMC Bishop of the Western Pennsylvania Conference in light of the synagogue shooting HERE.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Rice to Diamonds


“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,and with all your soul, and with all your strength,and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27)

A long time ago, a beggar had begged for rice and had gone to the city gates to cook a meal of it. While he was making the fire, he heard a caravan coming.  He quickly moved towards the travelers.  Alms, alms!” he cried, and more loudly when he saw that it was the prince. The prince said to the beggar, “What have you to give me for the alms I might give to you?” The beggar fingered his 25-30 grains of rice and offered three grains to the prince.  The prince took the three grains of rice and held them for a moment.  Then he took the beggar’s hand, carefully laid the three grains of rice in the moist palm, and folded the beggar’s fingers over them. He left the beggar and entered the city.  As the beggar walked back, he opened his hand.  To his surprise and amazement, there lay three brilliant diamonds.  He gasped and then wept, “If only I had give all! If only I had given all!”

Quite often, God asks of us as Christians, “What will you give?” In response, we too often give Him the money we think we can spare, the abilities that we can easily give, and the “left overs” of our time that we don’t really need anyway.  Yet, God wants and invites us to make Him our priority, giving generously of our time, talents and money out of a grateful and cheerful heart.  After all, the Bible teaches that the person who can share generously with others will discover and know life’s true riches (Read 1 Timothy 6:18-19, and 2 Corinthians 9:6-7).

This month during our annual stewardship journey, we’re all invited to consider how we can grow in our generosity towards others as we celebrate God’s generosity to us. This theme of “Climbing Higher: Taking the Next Step in our Life with God” will be a time for us all to focus on individual and collective progress along our spiritual journeys of faith:  to prayerfully consider growing as God leads towards greater levels of faith by becoming either a first-time giver, intentional giver, growing giver, a tither, or perhaps even an extravagant giver; and to prayerfully ask ourselves “Lord, where do you want me to be in my giving?”

Each Sunday in October, you’ll hear inspiring and creative ways that our theme impacts us in daily life, and be lovingly challenged to consider how to grow your faith through these.  Then, on October 28th (“Celebration Sunday”), each of us will be invited to share our response to God based on His love and grace towards us. Through our commitments of time, talent and money through God’s church, not only will we be “climbing higher” in our love for Him, but will also be surprised to discover “diamonds” of blessing from God in our personal lives, as well.

So, I challenge us each of us to prayerfully consider becoming more generous in our “grains” of response to God through His church for 2019!  Remember that God loves you and I do, too!