As you have likely learned in our nearly seven years together, I don’t like to cancel worship. Rain, sleet, snow, ice, no matter what my motto has always been, “If I can make it to the building, we will have worship.” Of course, that always carries the condition that anyone who can not make it safely should stay home.
Now we are dealing with a very different situation. We aren’t facing a winter storm that will pass quickly. The coronavirus won’t melt away with one sunny, warm day. We must take care of one another and find new ways to be the church in this strange time.
Out of concern for so many of our folks who are vulnerable because of age, illness, or compromised immunity, we are suspending all in-person meetings including worship and regular Sunday activities.
I am looking at ways for us to stay connected.
At this point, we do not have internet access in the sanctuary, so I will be doing a message from my office each week. Something like a sermon, but more conversational. We will post this here on our website, YouTube, and Facebook.
Our office hours will remain the same so that you can connect with us as needed. You can also contact me anytime on my cell phone or email. We will continue to update you through email, phone tree, and Facebook. You can also check our website for any updates.
We want to make sure you have everything you need. If you need groceries or prescriptions picked up and delivered to you, please contact me. I will gladly run any errands you have.
I encourage you to use this time at home to meditate on Scripture, spend more time in prayer, and find ways to encourage one another. We will continue our Lenten bible study, Listen to Him. The daily readings are listed in the weekly email. While we won’t gather in person, we can continue our conversation on Facebook. We are developing a phone tree so we can keep connected with one another. That list will be sent out later this week. I pray this will actually deepen our connections among our congregation.
Please remember to keep tithing. You can mail or bring your offering to the church office. If you need, you can contact the church office and we will have someone come to you. Your faithful generosity is an expression of your love for our church.
I want to leave you with the words of Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, “You actually can't cancel Church. You can close a building, but we are the Church. We do not cease to be the Church!” We may have closed the building for now, but we are the church.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. – Matthew 5:16
Last night my family ran through our schedule for today, which includes an Ash Wednesday service this evening. This morning as we were getting ready for our day, my six-year-old asked me "Do you put ashes on everyone?" I got this mental image of me walking down main street, smudging ashy crosses on the foreheads of everyone I passed. "Not everyone," I said, "just the people who come to the service."
The crosses we take up today are serious reminders of who we are and where we stand. We are sinners standing before the throne of a righteous, holy, merciful God. They are the ashes of repentance, of recognizing that the world is not right and it's our fault. They are the reminders of our need for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for mercy. When we take those crosses on our heads, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) becomes "WE have sinned and fall short." These ashes remind us of our need for a Savior. They remind us of the world's need for a Savior.
The ashes are shaped in a cross as a reminder that sin is not the final word. Our Savior has come, forgiveness is ours. When we repent, when we turn away from the old things and toward the One who makes all things new, we find mercy for our sin and new life we never could have imagined before. So, though this evening is a somber one, it also declares our hope and our joy.
My early morning conversation has had me thinking, though. The ashes of this Wednesday are not just for us. They are not just for the church members who show up tonight. They are not just for the church members who stay home tonight. They are not just for the church, they are for everyone.
As we take the ashes on ourselves today, we are declaring to the world that the world is not right and repentance is needed everywhere, by everyone. We take these ashes not only for ourselves, but for the sake of the world. So that everywhere we go today with cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads, we are saying silently and boldly, "Repent and believe the Good News." And we are declaring that forgiveness has come, mercy is poured out for all who will believe. "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-24)
In my daily devotion recently I was struck by these words:
John Wesley used to say to his preachers: "You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those that want you, but to those that want you most."
Wesley started with the refined elite in the tall steeple churches but soon found himself out in the undignified fields with unsophisticated coal miners. Could this be one of the signs of where the Holy Spirit is working—those that want you the most? Be on the lookout for those people who are eager to "continue in the grace of God." That's where the Spirit is working.
It made me start asking the question, Who wants us most? In the church too often we start with the ones we want—youth, young families, children; those with deeper pockets, people with connections. We look for those who will help us build up the church. But who wants us most? Who are the people who are desperate for God?
We have an opportunity this month to check out a new way of reaching out in our community. The people of Spirit & Truth will be in Tulsa for a training event at a local United Methodist church on Saturday, September 14th, 12:00—3:00 p.m. We have been invited to sit in, to ask our questions, to observe the process.
As I have mentioned before, Spirit & Truth works with United Methodist Churches to equip the church for evangelism and discipleship. Their process is simple: small groups go out from the church into the community to pray with people in public places. For discipleship, people are invited into small groups for prayer and encouragement.
Thinking about their process, it seems to me that they are calling the Church to go out to those who want us most. The whole process is bathed and steeped in prayer. The people who go out to pray with the community ask for the Lord to guide them to the people who need prayer. And time and again they are led to people who deeply need to know the love of God.
Because this kind of outreach is so covered and filled with prayer, it becomes an exercise in trust. We trust that God will give us the words we need to speak, the courage to speak them, and the ability to really listen to the people we meet. We trust that God is leading, that he is already working in the lives of the people we meet. As my devotional said, Could this be one of the signs of where the Holy Spirit is working—those that want you the most?
So, who do you know that needs to know the good news? What people do you see in our community who need to meet God? Where do you think the Spirit is leading us? Who, do you think, needs us the most?
I will be participating in the Spirit & Truth training in Tulsa on Saturday, September 14th and I am inviting you to join me. Bring your questions, your concerns, your worries, and your hopes about the process. Please contact me at email@example.com to let me know if you will join me or if you have any questions.
In the Lenten Bible study, With Jesus in the Upper Room, we have considered what it means to live a servant lifestyle. We know we are called to serve Christ and to serve the world, but sometimes that seems too vague. What does it really mean to be a servant? How can we share the love of Christ with the world around us?
At one point Maxie Dunnam, the author of the study, says that to be a servant is “to be a channel through whom God can love the world, can give grace and hope to the world, can bring light to dark places, and beauty to ugliness.” When I think about being a servant like this, it makes me realize that being a servant isn’t something that I can do short-term. It’s not a quick checklist of things to do. Servanthood is a life. It is a way of living with Jesus and the world around us. It is spending time with our Savior so that he can make us loving, holy, gracious, and merciful. It is spending time with others in a way that they experience Christ’s grace, mercy, love, and holiness in us.
Being “light in dark places” only has an impact as long as the light remains. Sometimes we wonder how we can reach non-Christians with the love of Christ. How can we get them to know his love and mercy? What does it take for them to respond? Mostly, it just takes time and consistency. Keep inviting. Keep sharing. Keep serving. Take them a meal. Pray for them daily. Invite them to your home. Work alongside them. Talk about Jesus. Let them see him at work in your life.
The Holy Spirit goes before us to prepare the way for the Good News. Sometimes, people respond immediately. As soon as they hear the name Jesus they fall down in worship and cling to him as their Lord. But usually it doesn’t happen that way. Most people need more time. They want to see that Jesus really makes a difference. Some have been hurt by the church and they need to see that God’s children can truly love them. Some feel like they aren’t good enough to be in church. They think they have to get their lives together and clean themselves up before they can walk through the doors.
When we are committed and consistent in sharing God’s love with the people around us, no matter how long it may take, eventually some will come to know Christ.
When you think about it, that’s how it happened for us. Jesus loved us and kept reaching out to us. He surrounded us with his people to show us his love and grace. He kept calling out to us until we said yes. If that is how he has loved us, let us love others in the same way.
Leather jackets, tattoos, pierced eyebrows, spiked hair, rough denim, rough couple. Navy suit, starched shirt, clean-cut, striped tie, Bible-toting preacher. These three found themselves travelling together for just a few minutes on an elevator.
The preacher spoke first. “Well, I don’t suppose we are going to the same meeting.” The couple laughed and conversation began. The couple were headed to a tattoo artists’ convention. The pastor was headed to a conservative evangelical ministry meeting. The couple invited the pastor to stop by the convention when he had a chance.
Rev. Jim Smith, the pastor in the elevator, thanked them and headed out to his meeting. When the meeting was over, Rev. Maxie Dunnam invited Smith to get a cup of coffee. Smith told him about the invitation and the two headed to the tattoo convention.
When they arrived, they were greeted by an older man covered in tattoos. He recognized that they had little experience with tattoos, so he invited them to look around as his guests. Putting out his right arm, he showed them a picture of Jesus tattooed onto his forearm.
“Jesus was the son of God,” he said. “His Father sent him into the world to be our savior. He died on the cross to forgive our sins and was raised from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is praying for you.” He then asked his two guests, “Have you ever heard this story before?”
The two men were amazed at the clear, simple presentation of the Gospel. They told him they were Methodist pastors. “Praise God! You’re my brothers!” He exclaimed. Then he hugged them right there in the convention hall.
I first read this story about fifteen years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. I love how willing this man is to share his faith. No questions, no worries, no hesitation, no fears. He just tells people about Jesus. It doesn’t matter that the people he is talking to don’t look like him. It doesn’t matter that they just met. It doesn’t matter that he will likely never see them again. He simply tells them about Jesus.
We have talked about the great commissions Jesus gave his disciples. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” “You will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We are sent out in Jesus’ name to proclaim Good News to the whole world. It’s the teaching of Jesus we struggle with the most. But it’s not really as hard as we’ve made it out to be.
Jesus was the son of God. His Father sent him into the world to be our savior. He died on the cross to forgive our sins and was raised from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is praying for you. Have you ever heard this story before?
Four statements and a question. That’s just how simple it is. Now, practice that last paragraph a few times. Get it in your mind and heart. And be ready for the Holy Spirit to ask you to share those words with someone this week.
The people of Israel had been waiting a long time. They were expecting God to keep his promise. They were waiting for God to show up. They were expecting a king.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. - Zephaniah 3:16-17
I’m sure they had it all thought out. God would send a prophet to anoint a new king from the line of David. Then God’s presence would fill the Temple like it had in days of old. Everything would be right. Everything would be like it had been before, back in the golden days, when David himself ruled from the throne. They had high expectations for their nation, their families, their faith, themselves.And then God did something beyond all their expectations. He arrived not in the Temple, but in a manger. He was wrapped not in majesty and glory, but in swaddling cloths. God himself came to be their King. The Lord, their God, was in their midst, and most of them didn’t even realize what was happening. God kept his promises beyond their expectations.God does the same for us today. We get so wrapped up in what we expect from this world, from each other, from our work, from our families, from our church, from God. We think we have it all figured out. We know exactly how it should all work.And then God shows up. He does something new, something we never could have expected. He meets us in the stables and dark nights of our lives. He comes to live with us, right in our midst. And he makes something new of us.This Advent and Christmas, slow down. Ask God what new thing He wants to do in your life. And be ready for Him to do something beyond all your expectations.
Seeds are the beginning of something new. Plant a few seeds into the ground, water them, feed them, give them good soil and just enough sun, then watch them grow. Carrots, tomatoes, zinnias, morning glories. Vegetables and flowers of all kinds start with just a seed.
But planting the seeds isn’t really the beginning. You have to find just the right place for your garden or flowerbed. You have to prepare the soil, adding fertilizer and loosening the dirt. You have to wait until the last freeze and before the weather gets too hot. Then, once everything is ready, you plant.
We have been preparing the soil. Not the literal dirt around the building, but the soil of our church. We have been preparing and waiting for just the right time to begin planting. And now it’s time! We are starting to plant some seeds of faith in our church and in our community.
We begin with prayer. Prayer is always the first seed we plant because it feeds the others. Prayer supports and strengthens us and connects us to God.
Next up, community. Community is not an easy seed to plant. It takes time. It takes work. It takes constant attention. But when it begins to bear fruit, the fruit it gives is healthy and strong. It draws us into life with others and gives us courage and strength for our faith.
Giving is the next seed. We start small with this seed and then plant more and more. Generosity becomes a plant that strengthens the lives of others and draws them into a deeper relationship with God.
Our next seed is service. As we sow this seed, we develop a heart like God’s. Through our service to Him and to others, we begin to have the compassion and grace for others that God has for us.
Finally, we sow the seed of witness. This seed spreads like a weed, but with the best fruit yet. As we share our faith with the people around us, their lives are filled with a longing to know our God the way we do. They see in us the fire of His love and they want it too.
We are planting all these seeds because we want a harvest. We want our church to be overflowing with an abundance of prayer, people, giving, service, and witness. We want to see the fruit that will grow in our congregation and in our town.
Farmers don’t plant seeds for the sake of the seeds or for the sake of the fields. They plant seeds for the sake of the harvest. That is what we do now. We will plant these seeds for the sake of the harvest to come. That means our field, our church, will start to change with new life cropping up throughout. That means our neighborhood and even our town will begin to change with the new life we will share with it.
So, just one question remains: Are you ready to start planting?
If you want to be good at anything, you have to start with the basics. You need to know how to use the proper tools. You must be familiar with the words used in that field. You have to have the proper technique.
In cooking, you need to be able to use measuring cups, knives, spatulas, and whisks. You must know what words like bake, sauté, fry, roast, dice, chop, julienne, stir, beat, and fold mean. You have to know how to hold a knife, how to fold a meringue, how to beat an egg.
In carpentry you have to know the difference between circular saws, hand saws, miter saws. You have to know how to use hammers, drills, screwdrivers, sanders, and planes. You must know terms like plumb, square, 2x4, finishing nail, Phillips head, and nuts and bolts. You must be able to miter a corner, use the proper grit of sand paper, and use the right nails or screws for a particular project.
If you want to do something well, you must know the basics.
This August and September, we will be getting back to the basics of discipleship. We will look at questions like: Who is God? Why is there evil? Who is Jesus? These and other questions will lead us as we talk about the basics of our faith. We will discover some new tools and some new terms. We will discover new ways to live out our faith. We will get back to the foundation of who we are as Christians.
And as we do, we will draw closer to our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We will discover our purpose and responsibility. We will find hope for our lives and for our world.
Is there someone you know who has questions about Jesus, about God, about the church? Is there someone who is curious about the life of faith? Invite them to join you in church this month. Tell them we will be asking their questions. We will be finding answers together.
Are you looking at your life and thinking, ‘I want my faith to mean more’? Do you want to know more of God? Do you want to be closer to Him? Come to church. Meet together with your brothers and sisters as we learn more about our great God. Come ready to see Him with new eyes and a fresh start in faith.
Do you have a deep and rich faith? Do you hear God’s voice and know His love well? Join with us and share your faith. Come discover new ways to talk about the love and power of God.
If you want to do something well, you have to know the basics. If you want to be a true and faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you gotta know the basics of the faith. Join us as we get back to the basics and rediscover the love and the power of God.
So often in America we talk about our freedoms – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. We talk about our rights – the right to bear arms, the right to assemble, the right to vote. These freedoms and rights were established to protect the citizens of our nation from tyranny. Our founding fathers knew about tyranny. They had seen rulers exploit their subjects. They had experienced oppression at the hands of tax collectors and imperial enforcers.
When we in the church talk about freedom, we also talk about freedom from tyranny. We know the tyranny of fear that washes over us and leaves us unable to move. Fear that trumps our courage and our common sense. We know the tyranny of death that seems to have the last word. Death that leaves us alone and afraid. We know that evil lurks in this world, ready to ensnare and trap us. Evil that waits around every corner. We know we need freedom.
But our freedom, true freedom, real freedom, does not come from a Bill of Rights. It cannot be mandated or legislated. Real freedom cannot be ordered by a legislature or protected by an army. We cannot make ourselves really, truly free.
True freedom comes from Jesus Christ. He alone holds the keys of life and death. He alone can conquer our fears and set us free. He alone can remove from us the stain of sin. He needs no army, no government, no vote, no law, no court to set us free. He has already made us free at Calvary. At the cross, our freedom was won, once and for all.
This month, as we remember those who gave their lives for our American freedoms, let us remember all the more the One who gave his life for true freedom. It is because he laid down his life for us that we can be free from sin. It is because he rose again that we can be free from death. It is because he walks beside us every moment that we can be free from fear.
And our freedom is not for ourselves alone. We are set free so that we may serve. Our freedom comes at a cost to Christ and it comes with a calling to live in his way and to serve him as our Lord. The freedom we know in Christ leads us out of our comfort zones, out of our routines, out of ourselves to serve our Lord and our neighbor.
This month, let freedom ring in our town. Let freedom ring in our neighborhoods. Let freedom ring in our families. Let freedom ring in our lives so that others will hear the song and come to know true freedom in Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of Methodism in America, there were few pastors. Most were not seminary trained or well-educated. They rode circuits visiting town after town, church after church, not stopping for long because there was always another destination on their journey. The churches saw their pastor very rarely, perhaps once a month, perhaps once a quarter, at least once a year.
Can you imagine that? What would it be like to see your pastor only four times a year? How can a church survive that? Yet, they did. Many churches served by circuit riding preachers are still around today. How did they do it? Who preached the Word? Who taught Bible study? Who visited and prayed with the sick? Who taught the children? Who did evangelism? Who encouraged people to live out their faith?
Who did the ministry of the church while the pastor was riding the circuit? The people did. The people preached, taught, prayed, evangelized, planned, welcomed, and encouraged. They did the work of the church because they WERE the church. They knew that they had been brought together by Christ to work together for his glory and for building up of the body of Christ.
There were lay preachers who took to the pulpit while the pastor was not there. These sermons often served as Bible study, times for people to hear the Word of God and reflect on its meaning and importance.
There were class leaders who met weekly with their small groups for accountability and encouragement. These were groups made up of all different kinds of people who prayed for one another and encouraged one another to put their faith into practice every day.
There were other leaders who led ministry to the poor, the sick, the newcomer, the grieving, the unemployed. They saw needs in their community and they met them. They found ways for the church to reach out with the love of Christ and make a real difference in people’s lives.
I wonder how we lost that. I know we have many people who serve the church in many ways. We have dedicated and devoted people who are willing to be on committees, cook meals, make banners, and so much more. But it still seems as though something is missing. I get nervous every year when I begin thinking about vacation. How can I be gone for a whole week? Who will preach? Who will visit the sick? What happens if there is a funeral?
In my opinion, two things have brought us from where we were to where we are. We pastors have convinced ourselves that the church could not possibly survive without us. We are supposed to be doing everything. We tell ourselves, “I have been called to preach the Word, visit the sick, take care of people. I must do it ALL!”
In that same vein, the laity have asked for more professionals. We want to pay ministers to do the ministry for us: youth ministers, music ministers, children’s ministers, seniors ministers, and the list goes on.
We all have forgotten, at one time or another, that we are the church. The pastor is not the only minister in the church. The staff are not the only ministers in the church. The church is full of people called to ministry. Everyday, ordinary people are called to be ministers, teaching Sunday school, preaching the Word, calling on the sick and homebound, sharing the Good News with neighbors and friends.
Where do you hear God calling you to be in ministry? How is Christ asking you to serve? Where will you be the church in our community right now?