Be Concerned, but Don’t Live in Fear

“When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” ~ Psalm 94:19

The global spread of COVID-19 has caused us to rethink how we go about our daily lives. The pandemic has caused churches to consider new ways to be the body of Christ in the world. The world is rapidly changing, but Hebrews 13:8 reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

The concerns are real. As your pastor, I urge you to use wisdom, and stay in touch with what is happening and being recommended in Calvert County. Err on the side of good health practices. We want to be wise in what we do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. I am concerned about the coronavirus but I do not want to live in fear. I am concerned for the elderly, the homeless and those with health concerns who are the most at risk. I am concerned for health care workers and other essential workers. I am concerned about overcrowded hospitals. I am concerned for the homeless and disenfranchised, who have nowhere to go. I am concerned for our economy, for those who could lose their jobs.

Christ walking on the sea, by Amédée Varint

My biggest concern is that fear can control us. People stockpile supplies they do not need, while those who do need them cannot access them. We can become reactionary and take a self- centered approach. We become less generous. As a church we can forget who we are and to whom we belong.

It appears that COVID-19 is not ending soon. Chances are it will hit even closer to home. Be careful. Be cautious. Be wise and practical, but do not live in fear. We have a golden opportunity. Together we can approach this challenge in faith. We can model faith for our families and our neighbors. Care for those who are isolated. Make phone calls and check in with one another. Gather in virtual groups for prayer, studying the Word of God and encourage one another. Make face masks for local hospitals. Find new ways to be generous with our time, talents and our treasure.

As we witness the effects of the pandemic, I encourage those who are in a position to do so, continue giving generously to the ministry of the Lord. I encourage those whose personal finances are damaged by the pandemic: do not be afraid. Remember that God is in control, and will continue to provide for all of our needs.

Philippians 4:6-7 offers a powerful message to us all. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”

 

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What Can We Do?

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of COVID-19. There are boundaries on where we go, who we see and how we interact with people. Businesses are closing their doors, the economy is suffering and people are losing their livelihood.  Many watch events unfold, brace themselves for what might be coming,  and hope these things will pass. We even question God’s involvement in all of this.

I want to offer you some thoughts during this pandemic, because we are NOT powerless.

Job_and_his_friends

Job and His Friends, IIya Repin

We do not suffer alone. God was with Israel during their slavery, the prophets when they were beaten and Paul when he was imprisoned. Most importantly, God identified with our suffering in the person of Jesus Christ.  When suffering doesn’t make sense, look to the cross where God suffered with us.

Grow closer to God through confusion. The very fact we question and even express anger towards God, means we are moving towards God, and not away from Him. Consider the questions and anger to be authentic forms of prayer. To quote C.S. Lewis “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”

Prayer is necessary, but not enough. Pray for scientists to develop a cure, communities to pull together and that assistance will arrive. Pray that each person affected would come to know the love and strength of God. Do this fervently, but often we are God’s answer to prayer.

We are God’s activity. God found us, not the other way around. Be like God and find the needs. Organizations identify needs for us, so be generous with your time and money. But people do fall through the cracks. Who can’t pick up food because of their work schedule? Who is isolated and needs things brought to them? Who is afraid, and needs to hear that God hasn’t forgotten them. We are the hands, feet, eyes and ears of God (Isaiah 52:7).

We can worship without explanations. Job lost most everything – his wealth and his children to tragedy. Job had no explanation, but he said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Those who worship God during these difficult times are especially blessed.

Worship with Huntingtown UMC this Sunday at 10:30am. Our doors will be locked and Celebration Hall will be empty during this pandemic. But we will worship God and we will do it together. Just go to our Facebook page and have a seat: https://www.facebook.com/huntingtownunitedmethodistchurch

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Should We Act Against Our Conscience?

But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  Romans 14:23

The proposed separation in the United Methodist Church has created concerns, one of them being stated in the title of this post.  If changes are made in the UMC, will congregations and clergy who stay with the UMC be pressured to accept beliefs and practices they believe are wrong? Will they be pressured to act against their consciences?

Suovetaurile_Louvre

Suovetaurilia (sacrifice of a pig, sheep and a bull) to the god Mars. Marble, Roman artwork, 1st century CE.

As will all questions and concerns, it’s important to remember that we only have a proposal, and it could be revised or rejected. We don’t know what, if any changes are coming.

That being said, the question of acting against our conscience is important to all disciples at all times. The answer transcends all denominational decisions, congregational votes, and theological labels. It’s about how we follow Jesus every day.

My conscience can be misinformed, distorted, and self centered. When that happens, do I want to follow my conscience into sin? There have been times when my conscience has led me down the wrong path. I must take this seriously, and through prayer, biblical reflection and Godly counsel make sure my conscience is aligned with God’s plan for my life.

However, if I act against my conscience, I can also be guilty of sin. For example, I was taught and once believed that a man having long hair was a sin (1 Corinthians 11:14). Now I understand Scripture differently, and I do not believe long hair is sin. Here the biblical principle of Romans 14:23 comes into play.

Paul has been asked by the Roman church whether or not it was a sin to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He responds:

“…nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.  (Romans 14:14)

For Paul, there was nothing in Scripture that said eating meat that had been offered to idols was a sin. Meat was meat. However, it WOULD be a sin if the person eating that meat was acting their conscience. Had I allowed my hair to grow long 20 years ago, I would have committed an act that I believed to be wrong. My sin would not have been in the length of my hair, but in acting against what I believed to be a command of God. I would be acting against my conscience.

Back to the UMC dilemma: Should the protocol pass, could United Methodist congregations be pressured to act against their consciences? l can’t answer that definitively. Our denominational leaders are far from perfect, but in the past few years they have tried to maintain unity while recognizing that pressuring congregations and pastors to act against their conscience is destructive for Christians and their churches.

Huntingtown United Methodist Church can’t control what happens at General Conference in May. We can listen carefully to the Holy Spirit and align our collective consciences with God’s mission in the world. This will not alway lead to agreement, as the argument over homosexuality has shown us. However, our collective consciences should still be telling us all that Jesus is worthy of worship. Our consciences should be opening our eyes to the poor. Our consciences should be telling us we all need a Savior. We should never act against our consciences.

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Who Should Stay and Who Should Go?

Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated.  Acts 15:39

On January 3 a diverse, 16-member group of United Methodist bishops and other leaders released a nine-page “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.” This proposal, if passed at the May General Conference, would preserve The United Methodist Church while allowing traditionalist-minded congregations to form a new denomination.

Progressives were unhappy, to put it mildly, with the outcome of last year’s General Conference. The delegates passed the ”Traditional Plan” which continues the ban on the ordination and marriage of gay and lesbian persons. As a result, decades of fighting escalated even more.

When it comes to human relationships, God desires nothing less than unity. Paul wrote letters to churches divided over differences, reminding them that there is only head, that being Jesus Christ. And yet one sad way to measure Christian history is through its history of division. People dissatisfied with a denomination leave and form their own. Protestants left the Catholic Church. So did the Church of England. The Methodists left the Church of England. Now traditional and progressive Methodists are seeking a separation.

John_Wesley_preaching_outside_a_church._Engraving._Wellcome_V0006868

Engraving of John Wesley Preaching Outside the Church

Both history and logic dictate that the dissatisfied group leaves if they can no longer tolerate the status quo. So why are the traditionalists the ones to leave? They have the majority vote. They have church law on their side.

These are painful and confusing times for United Methodists, so information is crucial. Before concluding that progressives are forcing the traditionalists to leave, consider the following:

Years ago the traditionalists began noticing the growing divide between traditionalists and progressives. They have been proposing plans for separation long before the 2019 Special General Conference.

John Yambasu, a traditionalist bishop of Sierra Leone, began the private talks that led to the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a network of traditionalist United Methodists, had already taken steps toward forming a new denomination, long before last year’s Special General Conference. For example, they have already drafted policies and doctrines.

So if the protocol passes, why would the traditionalists leave and not the progressives? Rev. Keith Boyette, the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association explains. “Our witness and message is much more important than a name.” Rather than force progressives to leave the United Methodist Church, the traditionalists have agreed and are prepared to leave the denomination voluntarily.

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What Determines a Church’s Direction? Memory or Imagination?

…he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matthew 13:58).

Huntingtown United Methodist Church needs both. I have served churches that were planted in the late 1800s, so I understand the power and value of memory. Memory shows a church how they thrived and grew in the past. Many ministries continue because of the powerful memories associated with them.

But if memory is the default position of HUMC, we will lean heavily upon the familiar and predictable, rather than take bold new steps.  This is sad and ironic, as church memories tell stories of how past leaders once pushed past the limitations of their memories, and imagined new ways to be faithful to Christ in a changing world.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_Question_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_questionnent_Jésus)_-_James_Tissot

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot

Jesus confronted a religious system steeped in powerful memories. He honored tradition, but he demonstrated the power of imagination by rethinking traditional beliefs and practices.

  • Worship was not just about observing Sabbath rules, but offering one’s self completely to God all week.
  • Freedom from sin was not just a matter of following rules, but making sure one’s heart was right with God and neighbors.
  • Traditions can honor God, but not if they keep us from demonstrating love, mercy and compassion.
  • Loving neighbors is not just about those near to us and similar to us. Our neighbors are also those who are different, and can make us comfortable.

While writing my annual pastor’s report to Church Conference I examined my work as a pastor, and wondered what could happen if we pushed past the limitations of our memories and used our imaginations. What is a person or group at HUMC…

  • sees the needs of one of our missional partners, develops a passion for that ministry and forms a team that creates a bolder vision for that missional partnership?
  • sees a homeless person, is overwhelmed with compassion and senses a call to start an outreach ministry to the poor at HUMC?
  • looks at our church building and envisions improvements that create a welcoming environment, enhances our ministries and communicates our mission?
  • looks at the empty house next door and envisions a food pantry or a youth center to increase our outreach?
  • drives by a neighborhood with homes in disrepair, and forms mission teams that make a local impact?

These are a few examples of ways I can imagine HUMC fulfilling Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations,” and answer our call to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” (Matthew 28:19-20; Micah 6:8).

What keeps us from doing these things?  In my Church Conference report I delved into many reasons why we struggle to walk by faith and not by sight.

Our first step towards new ministry and vitality begins with inviting the Holy Spirit  to inhabit our hearts and minds, and give us God-sized imaginations.

(to be continued)

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Illness, Pain and Reviving the Church

“My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

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Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin

God does powerful work through small things. But there is an important difference between small and shrinking; between passion for people and ties to tradition. I see 2 barriers (though not the only ones) to reviving one’s soul and reviving a church: one is spiritual and one is physical/emotional:

  1. Churches panic and look for quick fixes, rather than enter a season of repentance, spiritual discernment, and greater faithfulness. (More on this in a couple of weeks)
  2. People are overwhelmed by sickness, injury and pain. Doctor visits, medical treatments, hospital stays, new medications, grief, loss, distress. They all bring suffering, test one’s faith, and limit one’s ability to serve.

I’m preaching on The Bible and Chronic Illness (#2), and sharing from pastoral and personal experience.  I was diagnosed with Epilepsy when I was in 5th grade, and have been on medication ever since. Like all disorders and diseases, the body resists medication, so other treatment options are considered.

When I was in 18 years old, I went from being passionate about Christ and His church, to being disappointed with God. Doesn’t God heal? I wrestled with this biblically, which is the basis for my 2 part sermon series. Here’s an important passage from Paul that helped me, can help you and our congregation:

“I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited. I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

We don’t know what Paul’s illness was, but he suffered from a chronic condition. It was severe enough for him to plead with God to take it away. People with a chronic illness will have days like that.

Paul’s illness hampered his ministry but not his passion and vision. He traveled and planted churches when he could, and wrote pastoral letters when he couldn’t.
Churches supported him and his ministry when his health failed (Galatians 4:14). Churches thrived, the Gospel spread like wildfire and the world was transformed.

Illness is a reality that affects us all. It can keep us from functioning the way we want, but it doesn’t have to keep us from having a passion for Christ and a vision for his church.

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What do people know about us?

My current sermon series on Daniel ends with the most popular story about Daniel: The Lion’s Den. The retelling of the story tends to focus on what stands out the most: spending the night with flesh eating felines, and waking up to talk about it. The takeaway: God delivered Daniel, and God delivers us.

Daniel's Prayer 1865 by Sir Edward Poynter 1836-1919

Daniel’s Prayer, Sir Edward Poynter

That’s certainly true, but it’s not the main point. The most important part of the story is Daniel’s witness, his testimony. What did people (especially his enemies) know about Daniel?

  1. He was prosperous. (enemies hate that).
  2. He was a man of integrity.
  3. He would not compromise his faith.

His enemies observed these, and tried to use #3 against him. They manipulated King Darius to outlaw all prayers except those directed to him (vv.6-9).

How did his enemies know that Daniel would not compromise his faith, but continue to outwardly express his faith? See 6:10:

Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 

Daniel’s prayer was not just a single act of righteous disobedience, he was just doing what he always did. What did people know about Daniel’s faith? They knew he was dedicated to daily prayer, because he did it publicly. They knew that he would not compromise his faith, despite the cost.

What do people know about us?

Do people ask us to pray for them, because they know we are dedicated to prayer? Do people ask us questions about Jesus, because they know we are dedicated to reading Scripture? Do people see our church as having programs that benefit its members, or as a people that exists for the sake of our community and the world?

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