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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Tree Surgeons, Jesus and the Church

Our last parsonage had a huge grove of trees in the backyard, several of which had grown to about 25 feet.  We loved their shade and the privacy they provided during the summer. In the fall, however, the trustees noticed they needed attention. The branches were getting thick and rubbing against each other and there were quite a few dead limbs.

I know virtually nothing about trimming trees, so I was glad when the trustees had a tree surgeon inspect the trees. He told us that some posed a safety risk and needed to be removed. Other trees were basically healthy, but they needed pruning. Many trees were no longer beautiful, no longer producing fruit, and served no useful purpose.

Jesus uses a similar analogy for our churches:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:1-2)

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Christ the True Vine, 16th Century Greek Icon

There are negative and positive aspects of this passage, although both involve painful processes.

As hard as it might be to admit, disciples and their churches are not immune to even the worst kinds of sin and evil. Paul writes these words to churches, not to ‘sinners’:  “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”  (Colossians 3:5). Like dead branches on a dying tree, these must be removed completely. Prayer, fasting, seeking forgiveness and repentance are not purely negative: they help a church thrive.

Like a tree with dying branches, churches must go through a process of “pruning their programs” in order to thrive. Programs and events that effectively served the community for years eventually become internal traditions. While they have powerful memories attached to them, they no longer serve the mission of the church in a changing world.

The concept of pruning is clear in John 15. God calls us to prune that which does not bear fruit. We need to understand the effectiveness of our ministries both in hard numbers and spiritual impact, and then be willing to prune thoughtfully so we can focus our time, talents and treasure on what matters most to God.

We might agonize over how this might hurt the church and its people. Whether it be our personal habits or church programs, pruning is a painful process. So, we must remember 2 things: 1) God is the gardener (or the tree surgeon); 2) Removing old branches makes it possible for beautiful, useful and fruitful branches to grow.

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Are Christians Persecuted?

I’ve been preaching a series titled “Leaving Good Things Behind.” Acts shows us that for a church to thrive, Christians must even leave good ministries

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The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, Gustave Dore

behind. The apostles delegated their ministry for widows to 7 men so they could focus on preaching. One of them, Stephen, was killed on the job. He spoke out against the authorities and became the 1st Christian martyr.

On May 11, Vice President Mike Pence warned a crowd of Liberty University (my alma mater) students to prepare to be shunned for their faith: “Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian, but things are different now.”

Globally, Christians face incredible discrimination. In North Korea and many Muslim-governed countries, Christians risk imprisonment and death for their faith. The Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, was exiled, and many Christians are still persecuted by ISIS. American Christians with a global perspective on their faith rightly identify themselves as a part of a persecuted people even today.

American society grows more secular, while public symbols of Christianity disappear from the public square. Christian influence has disappeared from public education.  We hear stories of college faculty shaming Christian students, zoning laws that restrict building expansion, tensions between Christian values and public policy, and of course the war on Christmas.

Films like God’s Not Dead and Persecution, and books like Todd Starnes’ God Less America and the Left Behind series reinforce this American persecution complex.

But American Christians should not confuse their gradual loss of political influence and privilege with persecution. They still receive deference that is taken for granted: holidays in the academic calendar, prayers at presidential inaugurations, and the right to a hearing when unfairly treated.

The New Testament tells stories of actual martyrs who did not play the victim: As Paul died in prison he writes to a young preacher, “share with me in the sufferings for the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:7-8). When Peter and John were beaten for their faith, they “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Stephen showed boldness and compassion as he became the first Christian martyr (Acts 6-7).

Jesus did not promise a life of fairness and privilege, so let’s not complain when we don’t get it.

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Are There Zombies in the Church?

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Several years ago a parishioner recommended that I watch The Walking Dead. I found season 1 mildly entertaining, but could never understand why there was a 2nd season. How many stories can you tell about people who think they are alive, but are actually dead?

Jesus didn’t use the word “zombie,” but he seemed to have a category for religious people who do not realize they are spiritually dead.

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Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Jesus has a late night conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who recognizes that Jesus was sent by God (John 3:2). Rather than affirm Nicodemus for his insight, Jesus bluntly tells him that he is spiritually dead and needs to be brought to life (John 3:3). Pharisees were the most religious group at that time. They took prayer and purity very seriously. Nicodemus was not just a member of this group – he was a leader. And Jesus says he is a walking, religious dead person.

This isn’t the only time Jesus used this category.  He used it when he spoke with a would be disciple in Luke 9:59-60, and to describe the prodigal son in Luke 15:24. They were spiritually dead, and needed to be brought to life.

Nicodemus devoutly practiced his faith and taught other people how to, but he was among the walking, religious dead. He didn’t need to improve his religion, he needed new life. He needed to be born again.

We can be a faithful Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran or Catholic and still be among the walking, religious dead. To those, Jesus would say, “You don’t need a new or improved religion, you need a new life. You need to be born again.”

The prophet Ezekiel provides a wonderful image of becoming spiritually alive (36:26-27):

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws  (36:26-27).

The heart of stone is unresponsive to spiritual truth, the need for repentance, the power of Jesus Christ and the glory of God. In the new birth, God replaces our heart of stone with a heart of flesh.  Our dead, spiritual boredom with Christ is replaced by a heart that responds to spiritual truth, experiences the healing power of Jesus, and lives a life that glorifies God.

Since the way we experience all of this is through faith, the walking religious dead are invited, in the name of Jesus and by the power of his Spirit, to receive Christ as the sin-forgiving, life transforming Lord of their lives.

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