There’s Still Good News In the Gospel

I was going to write about the new “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” enacted by our legislature and Governor, but I think our bishop addressed it pretty well here.  With all the vitriolic social media posts and news reports floating around, I thought’d I’d go in another direction this morning and boldly proclaim: There’s still Good News in the Gospel!

It’s funny to me, in a sad sort of way, that this statement might be considered a ‘bold’ thing to say.  It seems fitting, however.  Sometimes I read comments and listen to opinions about a wide variety of subjects – not just the RFRA – that are so…ungracious, inhospitable, dark, merciless, and incapable of listening to and understanding someone who does not share their opinion.  I hear people brandishing the sword of scripture in every ‘fight’ – it’s as though they’ve forgotten Jesus’ words to Peter: “put your sword away” (John 18:11).  

So I’m not going to do that today.

Instead, I’m going to share with you about some ‘fights’ we’re in here at Otterbein United Methodist Church.  We’re not wielding swords.  Rather, we’re learning what Jesus meant when he said: “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.”  And there is plenty of Good News Gospel stories unfolding here because of it.

– DRUGS, JAIL, AND VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL –

Last Tuesday, our local paper ran a front page story about some young people who were incarcerated for selling heroine, cocaine, and marijuana.  This isn’t a surprising or uncommon headline, unfortunately, as Lebanon is located on “Heroine Highway” that runs between Chicago and Indianapolis.  One of these headlining young people, however, happens to be my neighbor. I’ve gotten to know him thanks to a basketball goal in our church parking lot that youth from our neighborhood use frequently.  At one point, he shared with me that he’d like to be a chef one day.  I hope that will still be possible, and pray that the local prison will let me visit with him.  If you are reading this, will you say a quick pryer that they would let me?  Our local prison has increased their restrictions, even for pastors.  Thanks for your prayer.

This young man’s story isn’t over, however.  We have people here at the church – one who was baptized last summer – who are living and breathing Resurrection Good News Stories.  They are leaving lives of addictions, and are charting new paths.  With the help of mentors and a community of encouragement and support, they are welcomed here and are given opportunities to change their lives.  But here’s the other awesome part – ‘they’ are changing ‘us’ too.  At our monthly Men’s Breakfast, the same man who was baptized shared his life story.  But his story isn’t over.  He’s got pages and pages to write – pages that include college plans and the desire to be a counselor that helps young men like himself.  After he shared with us, a ‘group of grandpas’ around the table told him how proud they were of him.  They had heard and were watching the resurrection unfold before their eyes.  I LOVE intergenerational ministry!  Praise God!

And here’s the third part to this section’s title: we are also working hard to prevent kids from going down paths they are statistically destined for.  We are doing this by setting two goals: that we’ll have at least 15 mentors in our local schools by this fall, and that we’ll have at least 50 kids attend our summer Vacation Bible School ministry.  Our VBS ministry creates the space for us to get to know one another, and our neighbors.  Just last week, three boys who attended VBS last year came to my house and essentially asked if they could start having youth group.  Glory to God, they’d better believe they can!  Statistics be damned – we’ve got too much Good News Gospel to let them go down roads they’re supposedly destined for!  

– COMMUNITY GROUPS – 

During this Lenten Season we offered four ‘small groups’ for people to join.  We want 100% participation this year, so we needed to give people opportunities to participate!  We offered: Before Amen – a book introducing people to prayer, Covenant Bible Study, and two Dave Ramsey financed-based groups: Financial Peace University, and The Legacy Journey.  The conversations and interactions coming out of them have been incredibly encouraging as people are getting to know God and one another in new and deeper ways.  It’s the finance classes, however, that I’m especially excited about.  Financial Peace University is not the be-all end-all of finance curriculums, but we have found it to be incredibly effective.  Ramsey presents a clear and understandable plan to get people out debt, live within their means, and invest wisely.  This class is also an incredible outreach tool.  Why?  Because people hear clear and tangible ways the Good News of Jesus can affect their lives.  Jesus can help me get out of debt and stop living paycheck to paycheck?  You bet!  You mean Christians struggle financially too?  That there are places where we can actually talk about our debts and struggles and not be embarrassed to do so?  You got it!  The Good News of the Gospel is terribly tangible.  Jesus actually makes a real life, here and now impact in this world.  The Kingdom of God isn’t just “up there” but is also here “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Lives are being changed.  That’s not just Good News, that’s GREAT NEWS!

900 words is enough for now, but I could go on and on about all the wonderful things God is doing in this place at this time with these people in this community.  Yeah things are rough in the world, but fear not!  “I have told to you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble, but take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  And the Good News of the Gospel continues to march on…

When God Spoke through an Imam

I’m learning more and more how God speaks through the unlikeliest of people.

For Moses, God spoke out of a burning bush.  For King Saul, it was a shepherd boy named David.  For devout followers of YHWH, it was a wild man in the wilderness named John who was baptizing people in the Jordan River.  For Jesus’ disciples, it was children, a bleeding woman, a man lowered through a roof, a samaritan, and a weeping woman with an alabaster jar.  And the list goes on.

God speaks through the strangest of people, those most “outside” from where we’d expect God to speak.  Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.  Indeed.

For me, God spoke through a Muslim chaplain named Abdullah Antepli.  One of my favorite parts of attending Duke was the ability to regularly interact with a wide diversity of people.  Sometimes these interactions occurred on buses, other times they occurred in more structured settings.  When God spoke to me through Abdullah it was in the form of the latter during an interfaith panel set up in the Divinity School.  Abdullah and a professor of evangelism talked about their respective religions before answering questions from students and one another.  It was an incredibly gracious and jovial room to be in as the two bantered back and forth before a room packed full of 200+ persons from throughout the university.

At one point, the Muslim Imam thoughtfully began…~“We Muslims have daily prayers, dietary restrictions, read our scriptures faithfully, but when we look around at the Christians on campus we wonder, ‘What do Christians take on?'”

You could hear a pin drop after that one.

I don’t remember what our professor said, but I do remember seeing Abdullah’s face as he respectfully and genuinely asked his question.  He really wanted to know.  And…the response he was waiting to hear actually seemed to be important to him.

His question is one, I think, many people in this world are asking.  What do Christians take on?  How we answer actually matters.

This is the grand opportunity Christians have today, to live in such ways that tell the world our faith can actually make tangible differences in this world.  What we take on and what we lay aside provide our faith with some integrity.  People want to see if what we claim to believe actually matters, and what’s so ‘good’ about it.

The possibilities are boundless for anyone with at least a reasonably thoughtful Christian imagination.  What we eat or don’t, from where we eat, how we live without debt, how we vet our portfolio investments, our willingness to live within our means, our generosity, our desire to listen – all of these are just a few ways in which a Christian life might be thoughtfully lived, and are ways that differ drastically from the world.

What an incredible opportunity we have, to live lives that offer the world an alternative.  Perhaps our lives might even make our faith interesting again.  Perhaps…we might even show people the Good News of Jesus…

Why I’m a United Methodist Christian.

Due to my profession and personal interests, I hear a lot of Christian ‘voices’ in my daily life via Facebook posts, twitter messages, and – yes – even real actual person-to-person conversations.  Many of these voices are encouraging and challenging, even inspirational.  Others, however, are discouraging.  This morning one such voice made its way to me through twitter that linked to an article lamenting the fourth generational decline for young persons who consider themselves to be ‘religious.’

I don’t know why we feel compelled to keep restating the obvious and already over-stated.  I get it, young people aren’t regular Sunday morning church attenders anymore.  Is this really still a surprise for people over 50?  How long – to use our scriptural imaginations – will we, like Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John on that fateful Sunday morning, keep peering into an empty tomb?  My friend Adam Joyce has some thoughtful reflections on how institutions can die well in his Christian Century article, but this morning I’m thinking about something different.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Walt Disney: “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long.  We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

For the purposes of this blog post, I want to look backward before moving forward in hopes that by identifying why I am a Christian, and a United Methodist one at that, future insights may be developed.  If I’m being honest, I hope there might even be some good news and hope and grace and love and beauty and a whole lot of Jesus in my experiences as well.

  • I am foremost a Christian because of Jesus.  I hope this doesn’t sound trite, though I can certainly understand if it does.  “Jesus” gets tossed around too flippantly, too easily.  I love the way renowned preacher Fred Craddock similarly likens tension-free grace to melted ice cream – it’s slimy, easy, and cheap. God coming to the world in Jesus is anything but melted ice cream.  The totality of the scriptural narrative culminates in the God-man, Jesus.  Time and time again, humanity turns away from God.  Our United Methodist communion liturgy reminds us of this reality every time we partake of the Eucharist – God’s good (eu) gift (charis) to us – in its words, “When we turned away and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.”  Both Testaments but especially the Old, recount stories of God’s steadfast love and God’s relentless pursuit of humanity.  In Jesus, we hear how the Almighty, the High and Lifted Up One, comes down off the throne and into the messiness of our world.  In Jesus, we see the God who loves and laughs and cries and eats and heals and walks and talks and touches this world.  In Jesus, we hear how God becomes one of us in order that we might become like God.  In the megaphone of Jesus, we hear the LORD saying, “I love you.  I am with you.  I am for you.”  I am a Christian because God has come to this world in Jesus.
  • I am a United Methodist Christian because we are compelled to love God and this world with the totality of who we are.  Our brains need not be checked at the doorway of our faith, but neither are we allowed to set aside our wallets either.  My experiences within the United Methodist denomination have affirmed time and again that I am not only allowed to serve God with my heart, soul, mind, and strength, but that I am also expected to do so.  This leads me to another reason…
  • I am a United Methodist Christian because our theology forces us to grapple with the complexities of the world we live in.  To state it another way, being a United Methodist Christian necessitates our engagement with the world.  We do not have the luxury of waiting for the ‘sweet by and by.’  Rather, we must take seriously God’s relentless activity to make God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  Faith as such makes a tangible difference in our families, our careers, our investments, our budgets, our votes, what we eat and won’t eat, the kinds of gardens we grow, the friends we have, the ministries we do, the vehicles we drive, and the ways in which we involve ourselves in our respective communities.  The implications for this “Kingdom come” faith are endless.  It is an all-in kind of faith that makes its way into every facet of our lives, kind of like yeast in dough.  It sounds beautiful, but it’s not easy.  I think that leads me to the next reason.
  • I am United Methodist Christian because it is fundamentally a participatory faith.  By that I mean that God has chosen to change this world incarnationally.  That’s the theological term.  In ordinary words, it means that God has chosen to change this world through people like you and me.  Such a methodology is most clearly embodied and made manifest in God becoming incarnate in Jesus the Christ.  He is the model, the Reality, God.  God’s coming in Jesus, however, is the same God who chose to work through people like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Being a Christian is to be invited to participate in the ongoing mission of God.  It is an invitation to give your life over to a mission that actually matters and to grapple with the challenges of this world.  It’s an invitation; it isn’t forced.  God doesn’t make us attend the Wedding Party, but God does invite us. The choice is ours whether or not we will “die to ourselves, take up the cross” of God’s resurrection mission, and to involve all of ourselves in God’s Kingdom work.  I like that, but I’m also thankful we aren’t left to do it on our own.  I like that we don’t take the lead in this dance.  God’s done that, and God is doing that.  God just wants us to join the fun.
  • Finally – for now – I am a United Methodist Christian because I love our connection.  “Connectionalism” is a United Methodist buzzword that goes back to our beginning – spelled with a much more sensible “x” by the early British Methodists.  We are connected in this global denomination with Christians throughout the world.  This connection has pragmatic benefits such as when disasters strike and Methodists on the ground can be financed by Methodists thousands of miles away with the click of an electronic fund transfer.  I like that we are connected missionally, that we are on the same team.  I like that when we gather in a room of pastors throughout our district, conference, and global general conference, we know the same songs, drink from the same cup, and partake of the same loaf.  I like that I am, quite literally in those moments, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  The gray-haired folk remind me that I drink deeply from wells that I myself did not help dig.  It’s humbling.  And I need that.  We all need that, to be reminded that we stand on the shoulders’ of others, that we need each other, and that is not only ok but is how it’s supposed to be.  We are, after all, made in the image and likeness of the God who is the Blessed Trinity.  We are relational beings, even the most introverted of us all.

That’s a lot for today.  But before I conclude, I want to share one more reason for why I am and continue to be a United Methodist Christian – because of the countless people who walked with me, cried with me, laughed with me, and cared for me.  More succinctly put, I am a United Methodist Christian thanks to people who have been Jesus to me.  Sunday school teachers, local churches, grandparents and parents, professors, friends, my wife, and many, many others have continually made the Good News of Jesus a reality for me.  Sure we all fall short.  Sure there are bad theologies and even bad local churches.  Shoot, I have bad theology and I behave badly in my local christian church community.  It can be ugly. I can be ugly.  But when I have friends who will gather round me in moments and seasons of distress, pray for me, uphold me, wrap their arms around me, and continually walk with me…it’s beautiful.  It’s Jesus.  And they – YOU – are the reasons for why I am a Christian and a United Methodist one at that.

Grace and peace my friends.

6 Weeks. 6 Contributions.

So I’m still trying out this 6×6 living, living into my Word of the Year:BALANCE, and trying to keep my work, worship, love, and play in relatively equal tension with one another.  I want to keep moving FORWARD and becoming a healthier person as I strive to become more confident, more like Jesus, a great father and husband, and a better steward of who I am and what I have.

With that being said, here is my 6×6 – the 6 “contributions” I’m going to make in the next 6 weeks:

  1.  with God
    • read and journal through Galatians and Ephesians
    • being present during Lent
  2.  Kate
    • 2 TBD dates
  3.  Jath
    • 2 daddy-daughter dates
    • finish making a ‘kitchen’ for her birthday
  4. Work
    • slow down and work toward making Easter Sunday “awesome”
  5. Me
    • Read
      • finish Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
      • read The Externally Focused Church
      • begin another book – TBD
    • Exercise
      • 3 days a week
  6. Bonus
    • finish box-joint jig

There’s my list.  This time I’m not going to pressure myself or beat myself up if I don’t do everything.  It’s just a list of goals/contributions that will help keep me moving forward.

Time to go play in the snow. Hoping to get our church kids to help me make the biggest snowman in our town!

It’s been a few weeks since my last post.  I didn’t realize it had been so long!  We were on vacation last week (last one before baby #2 arrives) and I don’t have any good excuses for the other two weeks, other than I’m pretty sure I have been combating a case of “seasonal affective disorder” also known as S.A.D.  That’s a fitting acronym for something that’s more than just the ‘winter blues.’  Now that I’ve played doctor and used the internet to diagnose myself (always a good and reliable thing to do), I want to check in with my 6 week goals.

At the beginning of the year, I chose a new ‘word of the year’ – BALANCE – and set some corresponding goals to help me live a more balanced life.  The idea behind using 6 weeks came from Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek Church, who talked about energy bursts and 6×6 living – 6 weeks, 6 contributions.  My hope is that as I continue to live into this word and model that my life will become more balanced and my seasonal depression will be alleviated or at least mitigated by living a healthier life.

Of course as I reread my original goal list, I now recognize that it was way more than 6 ‘contributions.’  I took off more than I could chew.  There’s a reason why it takes nine weeks to get someone from being a couch potato to running their first 5k – we’re out of shape, have bad habits, and need to make lifestyle changes so that our successes have staying power in our lives.  I’ll revamp accordingly as I look at the next six weeks, but here’s how I did in the previous ones:

WORSHIP

  • I ‘discovered’ a new-for-me group called Bethel Music.  Bethel is a community of musicians based in California who are ‘sharing life together’ (a personal favorite motto of mine) as they compose ‘fresh expressions of worship in every season.’  Their song “It Is Well” has become a personal favorite.  I shared it with a pastors’ group I am a part of it, and it was fun to see the ways in which the song also spoke to them.
  • I did not read through Galatians and Ephesians, I’m ashamed to admit.  My personal, non-pastor-related bible reading has been dismal.  This will be a priority of mine as I look ahead.

LOVE

  • Kate and I have successfully held to our once-a-month dates, but we haven’t stretched it two yet.  That will change in March as we have two dates planned.  We are being forced to be more creative with these.  We are fortunate to have family and church members who can watch our daughter for free, but even with that help going out adds up quickly and it can be difficult to think of cheap/free things to do in the winter time.  This is an area for us to try and be more creative – beyond a $1.29 redbox movie.
  • Jath and I went on a super fun daddy-daughter date before vacation.  We spent an entire Saturday morning running errands, eating chicken nuggets, and playing at a nearby indoor playground.  We had a blast!

WORK

  • Personal
    • I read half of Doing the Math of Mission…until I lost it on a RIM (Residence in Ministry) retreat.  It was a great book too. I think I’m going to reorder it because it was that good.
    • I also read But I Don’t See You as Asian and am 2/3 of the way through Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Both are great for very different reasons. I’ll try to write more about them later.
  • Church
    • I started some days praying in the sanctuary.  I great improvement from what I was doing previously and it helped “set the tone” for the day.  I’m going to continue living into that.
    • The Vision Series – For Such a Time as This – was great.  We paired images with the verbs of our new vision statement and created posters that will be hung in the sanctuary along with our vision statement so that it is ever before us.  We tied some big hairy audacious, only-God goals for how we can measure if we are living into our vision.  Immediate feedback and measure markers have manifested themselves in our Lenten Small Groups.  This is the first major small group push this church has had since at least I’ve been here and probably a lot, lot longer than that.  We introduced 4 small groups – two around finances, one about prayer, and a fourth is the Covenant Bible Study.  OVER HALF our congregation signed up to be part of one of these groups!  This was a tremendous and affirming response that the Vision Series went well.
    • As we are now in lent, our series is called “To the Cross” and will be based out of the New Testament lectionary readings.

PLAY

  • I’ve been doing wood-working.  I purchased plans and most of the materials to make a finger/box-joint jig.  I’ve made a lot of progress on this, but haven’t lately due to the cold weather.  I have a propane heater in the garage, but it only does so much.  Plus it makes the whole house smell like propane and I’m afraid I’m going to blow us up 🙂
  • I went skiing with my brother-in-law in Colorado and had a BLAST!  I loved it!  Why do I live in Indiana again??
  • And the 30th birthday…that didn’t really happen.  The church trip got canceled and the friends get together didn’t happen due to scheduling stuff.

That’s me checking in.  I’ll think through new goals for the next six weeks and add those later today.