Tag Archives: acts of piety

How does our church interpret Christianity?

Sermon given on Sunday, November 12, 2017:  We lost one of our members at the age of 97 this week, and while preparing for the funeral, I could not get rid of the lessons that she taught our community.  Please understand that the audience knew Ms. Bonnie very well, but any reader may insert those people in your own lives who you know are true Christian models.

 

Spending the week reminiscing about Ms. Bonnie lead me to thinking about her model of Christianity, and that lead me to thinking about how our congregation models or interprets Christianity. Using the term ‘interpret’ may not seem appropriate, but our lives reflect what we believe. Our actions are stronger than our words.

All week long, Ms. Bonnie’s life has been reviewed by most all of us in the church and the community. The fact that she had not lived among us for the past few years did not matter. Ms. Bonnie is entwined with those who make up the Chilhowee community.

The adjectives/descriptions shared about Ms. Bonnie included words that create pictures in our minds of this incredible woman: pioneer spirit, servant, worker, gardener, country, leader, teacher, mother, grandmother, friend, neighbor, selfless, giving, and the list continues to grow. These words are filled with compliments and are worthy qualities for any of us to work towards.

For our congregation, we can add to the list of qualities that she was a 71-year member of our church family. She never missed church unless she was sick or away from home. She was a tireless worker for all the activities in the church, and the only time we witnessed her unhappy was when we tried to surprise her for her birthday—you don’t fool Ms. Bonnie!

Ms. Bonnie lived Christianity boldly, and we were fortunate to have witnessed her demonstration. What better time than today to reflect on how our church models or interprets Christianity too. What stories would others tell of our church? What adjectives, titles or descriptions would others use to tell about our church?

At first I thought maybe we could describe the church as a Mary-style or a Martha-style, but then that might not be too clear. The scripture tells us that Mary was an eager listener to Jesus and would put aside any traditional, female roles in order to sit at his feet and listen to his words. Her sister Martha was more traditional and was concerned with all the appropriate tasks involved in providing for a visitor’s needs whether it was food, rest, comfort, and maybe even overnight arrangements.

[Luke 10:38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 40 But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

41 But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! 42 There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” The NLT]

Defining our church as a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha’ really is not possible. We are a church and not a person. Therefore, I stopped and considered what other way could the church be identified, and I turned to John Wesley. He grouped certain behaviors into two categories: acts of mercy and acts of piety. I mulled over those two terms and considered whether that would be a reasonable way to evaluate the church.

First, does the church demonstrate acts of mercy. To answer that one has to know what acts of mercy are. The list that Wesley outlined includes:

  • Individual Practices– doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others
  • Communal Practices– seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination (for instance Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery), and addressing the needs of the poor [Accessed on November 10, 2017, at http://www.umc.org/how-we-serve/the-wesleyan-means-of-grace]

This list covers a great deal and has given United Methodist a reputation of being active for social justice.

            Ms. Bonnie certainly did demonstrate acts of mercy. How many in the community learned how to cook and to sew as she taught these skills through 4-H? How many families received the gifts of fresh food from her gardens? How many times did Ms. Bonnie step up to fix clothes or a meal or reach out to others in need?

            Does our church demonstrate grace to others through acts of mercy? Individually is not the question, but as a community do we seek justice, work to end oppression or discrimination, or address the needs of the poor?

            This is a tough question to answer. One way we can answer in the affirmative is that we have diligently paid the district and state apportionments. The United Methodist Church has a connectional approach to working with other congregations to affect change in a range of different areas. Paying the apportionments does demonstrate the church’s efforts to address the needs of others beyond our immediate community. Sadly, the financial health of our church may limit the extent of our connectional works of piety for the first time in the past decade or longer.

The second group of behaviors that Wesley identified was the acts of piety. These behaviors are more closely aligned to the ‘Mary’ style of Christian practices than the ‘Martha’ style. These behaviors are identified on the UMC’s website, too:

Individual Practices – reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others

Communal Practices – regularly share in the sacraments, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another), and Bible study. [Ibid.]

            Again, Ms. Bonnie demonstrated an understanding of the individual practices of piety, but does the church do so. On the surface(pardon the cliché) , the answer is yes. The sacrament of communion is available on a regular basis, and baptism is offered upon request. But no one inside or outside the church’s congregation can judge whether the church as a group fully incorporate the acts of piety honestly. Only God, Jesus his son, and the Holy Spirit—the Triune God—can judge the integrity of the church’s acts of piety.

            The individual acts of piety include a personal list of practices that may be available through Sunday School and Ladies Aid, but is that adequate. Should the church provide more opportunities or assistance for the practices of these acts of piety? A ‘Mary’ style church would place the priority on these acts of piety, often referred to as discipleship when in district or conference meetings.

The church year is winding down, so considering how our church interprets Christianity is a timely task. Review what the mission is for the church and the goals for the upcoming year. Maybe we should ask ourselves “What would Ms. Bonnie do?” We can honor her by exemplifying the stewardship and the acts of mercy and piety she modeled.

[Titus 3:Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. But—

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.[a] He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior.Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.

This is a trustworthy saying, and I want you to insist on these teachings so that all who trust in God will devote themselves to doing good. These teachings are good and beneficial for everyone.

Do not get involved in foolish discussions about spiritual pedigrees[b] or in quarrels and fights about obedience to Jewish laws. These things are useless and a waste of time. 10 If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them. 11 For people like that have turned away from the truth, and their own sins condemn them. The NLT]

Closing prayer

Dear God, Father Almighty,

 

We mourn the loss of one of our family,

But let us remember her

By following the model of faith

She exhibited in all that she did.

 

Help us to demonstrate

The Christian qualities

That Paul listed in his letters

To the early churches and disciples.

 

Help us to follow Wesley’s practices

Both the acts of piety

and the acts of mercy

as we work together in your name.

 

May we recognize your presence

Through the power of the Holy Spirit

As we make decisions individually

And communally to love one another.

 

In your name, the Father, the Son,

And the Holy Spirit, amen.

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What a Difference Faith makes!

given on Sunday, August 7, 2016

Scripture connection: Hebrews 11:1-16, NLT

11 Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.

By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.

It was by faith that Abel brought a more acceptable offering to God than Cain did. Abel’s offering gave evidence that he was a righteous man, and God showed his approval of his gifts. Although Abel is long dead, he still speaks to us by his example of faith.

It was by faith that Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying—“he disappeared, because God took him.”[a] For before he was taken up, he was known as a person who pleased God. And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.

It was by faith that Noah built a large boat to save his family from the flood. He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. By his faith Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith.

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. 10 Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.

11 It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed[b] that God would keep his promise. 12 And so a whole nation came from this one man who was as good as dead—a nation with so many people that, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, there is no way to count them.

13 All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. 14 Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. 15 If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. 16 But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Key questions: Why difference does faith in God make in my life?

  • What does faith look like?
  • How do I develop faith?
  • How does faith change my life?

 

Reflection: What a difference faith makes!

             Surely you have noticed that it is August and there is something decidedly different about this August—it is as green and colorful as though it were still May, right after the April showers when everything looks bright green with an array of rainbow colors glowing in the sunlight.

August in the Midwest typically looks quite different—brown, brittle grass. Tired, worn out gardens usually struggle with little color left from the annuals planted around the walks or in flowerpots. The only thing that seems to do well is the spindly okra soaking up the sun and thriving on very little water. But not this year. This year our late summer world is green and colorful.

What a difference God’s rain and sunshine make in our world today. Farmers and gardeners know that planting seeds is an exercise in faith. The conditions that surround the seed and seedling are critical to the entire growing process. During the growing season, conditions vary dramatically, but somehow the majority of seeds does germinate, grow, and mature. The yield varies depending on the quality of the growing conditions that nurtured those crops to fruition.

Faith is much like the seed we place in the ground. Faith begins as a tiny little idea that dropped into our lives at any time. Sometimes the seed is planted by accident and sometimes it is carefully, lovingly placed by parents who know the difference faith makes in one’s life.

Yes, faith makes a difference in our lives; what type of difference depends so much on the circumstances, the challenges, the failures and the successes. Faith becomes a powerful force yielding the greatest reward imaginable—salvation and the life eternal alongside Jesus Christ and a host of faithful souls including those who have made a difference in our earthly journey.

In Hebrews, the definition of faith is given: Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. The verse is used so repeatedly that it has become a cliché and possibly has lost its value as a life-changing principle. Still, faith makes such a difference in the quality of one’s life.

Unfortunately, many cannot identify faith in their own lives and struggle to figure out what makes life journey fruitful. The Old Testament stories that are included in Hebrews 11 provide evidence of how faith supports even the most faithful during the most difficult trials. The stories begin with Cain and Able and continue through even the books of the prophets.

Still understanding faith today is difficult. Because faith is not a product that one goes to a store or gets on line to purchase, faith sometimes fails to be planted in our lives. Maybe our parents did not plant faith’s seed because they were not equipped to plant and nurture that seedling. Perhaps the parents did plant the seed, but then the environment or circumstances interfered and the seed of faith sat fallow, not germinating but remaining as a faint promise.

Today faith is evident around us even though many argue that is not. Evidence of faith may not sound like the Old Testament or even the New Testament stories, but they are listed there, too. Consider the stories of the woman who had such strong faith in Jesus’ healing power that all she wanted was to touch his robe in order to heal. And her faith did heal her. Lazarus’s family believed and Jesus raised him from the dead.

Even the circumstances of the Last Supper paint a picture of how the brutal ending of Jesus’ life fueled the earliest Christians to band together and carry God’s message forward. Those disciples who shared the bread and the cup with Jesus certainly had their faith challenged, but despite the negative growing conditions, the church did grow.

Faith is essential to the quality of our lives. Faith is a seed sitting there just waiting to grow. We need to know that we are equipped to nurture that faith and encourage it to grow to fruition so God can harvest it when the growing season ends.

How does faith grow? The directions are sprinkled throughout the Bible. We must read and study the Bible in order to fertilize our faith. John Wesley was educated and still he struggled to understand how faith operated. His own brother served as an agent of change for Wesley. John and Charles were both raised in the church, and it took Charles’s recommendation to continue in reading the Bible and praying. And John did. He placed himself into a disciplined environment and continued his ministry right up until his personal moment of enlightenment referred to as his Aldersgate Moment when he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed.’

Life is going to challenge each and every one of us in ways that we cannot predict. Watching the Olympics opening ceremonies, I was reminded how unifying the games can be. The inclusion of a team of refugees is a testimony in faith. The discipline of Olympian athletes is often a quality reflected in their lives whether on or off the competition. The discipline carries them to the finish line and the refugees maintained that discipline even when they had no country, no alliance.

We have the tools to grow faith, we just must be disciplined enough to do it. Wesley explained that we are to practices the acts of piety and the acts of mercy to develop the fruitfulness of faith. We are to join in fellowship with other Christians to worship, to pray, and to serve together.

Faith is knowing that God is with us throughout the challenges in our lives and trusting that we will receive the ultimate reward. Faith is knowing that we can manage the ups and downs in life because God is with us always.   Faith takes work but it is easier to do when working together with others who believe.

Today we join together at the table to renew our connection to God through the bread and the cup. We are practicing the very same methods God taught the first disciples to strengthen our faith. May the ancient words from scripture, from the liturgy, from the hymns, and from those around us so we may find the peace, the joy, and the contentment that enriches our faith-filled lives.

Closing prayer:

Dear loving Father,

Thank you for the words of encouragement shared in the Bible.

Thank you for the guidance of the faithful surrounding us.

Thank you for your patience as we struggle to understand faith.

Fill us with the Holy Spirit as we share in the bread and the cup.

Fill us with the joy of knowing your grace and your love.

Fill us with the courage to battle the challenges to our faith.

May we take our faith and use it to share your grace with others.

May we demonstrate our faith so others may see it in action.

May we lead others to identify the power of faith in their lives, too.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen

 

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Mission Control: Jesus & Us

Scripture connections: (from the Common Lectionary for Year C)

  • Joshua 5:9-12
  • Psalm 32 (UMH )
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
  • Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Reflection:

Years ago, a movie about a mission’s failure came out—Apollo 13—that provided a breath-taking account of how a mission doomed to failure was salvaged by two teams working together yet separate. The spacecraft circling the moon was doomed to failure if a solution was not found. NASA’s Mission Control frantically working to find a solution on earth with the Apollo 13 crew working within the confines of their own craft circling the moon kept in communication while searching for redemption.

The mission came so close to utter failure with the loss of an American astronaut crew looming. There was no giving up. There had to be a solution. At that time, there was no shuttle between earth and space; only oral communication linked the two physical settings. NASA may have been the creator of the mission, but it took all the teams in the control center and in the spacecraft to assure the mission succeeded.

During the past few Sundays, the mission God established for his chosen people arose out of the need to shut down the evil that existed. His creation was an entire world, but only one people successfully practiced faithfulness—the ancient Israelites. God needed a solution so he turned to Abraham and his descendants to serve as God’s messengers to spread the good news and transform the world.

The centuries recorded in the Old Testament includes the good versus evil conflicts that demonstrate God’s efforts to keep evil from spreading. The mission remained constant, but the efforts were inconsistent. Even the warnings from the prophets did not provide the lasting change God was seeking. The Old Testament concludes and God’s mission is in crisis.

In the Apollo 13 mission, failure was not an option nor is God’s mission. For thousands of years, by human standards, the mission was failing, repeatedly. God could no longer wait for humans to complete the mission. Time had arrived to fulfill the prophets’ warnings—a savior was needed.

The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are four different records of God’s personal solution to prevent his mission’s failure. God intervened by joining his chosen people on the earth he created. He was born as Jesus of Nazareth.

Why? Why would God decide he personally had to intervene and to teach his people what the mission was and how to accomplish it? Why?

In the Christopher Wright’s study, the problem is the world was evil, as evil as Sodom and Gomorrah; and the temptation to sin continued to grow. Scripture readings this week focus on God’s forgiveness, and the commentary develops the arguments for Jesus to intervene:

  • Joshua 5:9-12 emphasizes that God keeps His promises: the Israelites leave Egypt, are fed manna until they can produce their own food crops in the new, promised land.
  • Psalms 32 tells us that nothing is better than forgiveness.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 explains that forgiveness transforms one’s life and that by accepting forgiveness there is an inherent responsibility to share that experience with others—another words to accept God’s mission to share the good news.
  • Luke 15:1-3, 111b-32 is the recognizable story of the Prodigal Son; a parable that illustrates the importance of reconciliation with God; even the most broken relationship with God can be forgiven.[*]

 

Today’s world continues to be evil filled. The faithful seem forlorn with how to carry the mission further. American society no longer seems to reflect the faith-based principles upon which it was founded; instead society has shifted to a more-secular, legalistic base that complicates the simplicity of God’s one commandment—love one another. The free will of man places self-centered life before a God-centered life. This shift makes it so much easier for Satan (evil) to take control. Humans are again living in a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like world.

How does one resume a God-centered world? Begin with confession. One must acknowledge that God is not the center of his or her life. When life seems comfortable and no major problems are interrupting daily life, losing sight of God and his law is easy. When life around us gets busy and Sunday morning arrives, going to worship loses out to a few more hours of rest and relaxation.   When finances become tight and the only solution seems to be work more, the practices of one’s faith lose priority.

In the lectionary’s commentary, sin is defined

“in biblical terms, [as] a condition from which none of us is free (Rom. 3:23); it is also a self-chosen act, like knowing the good and not doing it (James 4:17).[†]

 

Sin breaks the relationship with God, and identifying our sin must happen before God forgives you. Wright separates sin from forgiveness:

. . . “the ache deep in our hearts that comes from recognizing the hurts inflicted on ourselves or others that litter the landscape of our lives.[‡]

 

An ache—in other words we find ourselves hurting because of sin. Additionally, what we did has hurt our own self and/or others in the process. The action may have been only once, but maybe it is ongoing. Once we identify the cause of the ache, confession begins the return to a God-centered life.

Confessing one’s sin is not a quick, one-time fix. Once we confess our sin, then God expects us to return to the faithful practices that John Wesley referred to as the acts of piety and the acts of mercy. Confessing is simply step one in re-establishing a relationship with God, one that returns us to his mission to reclaim his creation from evil.

Is returning from sin possible? Absolutely. With God, it is possible. God forgives us as long as “[we deliberately release] the claim we have on another [focus]. “[§] God and his mission must be the focus. We must deliberately return to God by following the very teachings provided by Jesus as preserved in the four books of the gospel.

God did not give up on his mission. During the thousands of years that passed since he identified Abraham and his descendants to take control of God’s mission, God did not reach its ultimate goal. God’s concern that the mission would fail led him to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament by the birth of Jesus.

The four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and resurrection. God’s mission is retold and the team is identified to spread the gospel of the good news forward—in time and in new locations.

The movie Apollo 13, illustrates how teamwork between Mission Control and the crew can successfully solve a problem. God needed an earthly team to fight evil, so he selected Abraham and his descendants. In the end, he stepped onto the earth to work with the earthly team as Jesus.

Today, we are Abraham’s descendants because we accept Jesus, also a descendant, as our redeemer. He lived on this earth, teaching and modeling how to be God’s co-worker on this earth.

To be part of the earthly team, we can find success as long as we deliberately confess our sins, return to the teachings of Jesus, know the story that we are to share, and then do all we can to see that God’s mission continues.

[Let us now join in the Responsive Reading, UMH 766, Psalm 32, as our confession of sin as we share in the Service of the Word and Table, UMH p. 12.]

 

Closing prayer:

Dear God of All,

As we open our hearts to you,

help us to deliberately name our human errors.

As we listen to words of scripture,

help us to find the guidance we need to live God-centered lives.

As we work hand in hand as a team,

help us to share your story in words and ways others hear.

As we continue through the season of reflection,

help us recommit ourselves to your mission. –Amen.

 

 

[*] (Wilson 2012) p. 86.

[†] Ibid, p. 87.

[‡] Ibid, p. 89.

[§] Ibid

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Theology in action: Praise the Lord!

Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2015

Scripture references: Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

Psalm 65:9-13

Acts 14:8-19

Do you have Fall Fever? This is an entirely new malady, and unlike Spring Fever, this is much easier to treat.   First, the mild temperatures provide much relief from those sweltering, muggy summer days. Second, the shortening days make it easier to get needed rest. Thirdly, the sunshine provides a healthy dose of vitamin D, if you can get outside during or after lunch.   And finally, the dose of an apple a day is one of the most cost effective and tasty prescriptions any doctor can recommend for patients of all ages.

Another Christian malady is one John Wesley called poor holy tempers. Certainly the medical field has advanced significantly since Wesley’s lifetime, but this particular issue needs little modern intervention. Rather, the treatment directly affects one’s spiritual health.

In the Wesley Study Bible (NRSV), the core term holy tempers is defined within the book of Psalms. Holy tempers are more than feelings. According to the notes, feelings are “simply passing temptations”:

Our tempers are discerned in the shape and quality of our lives. Most clearly, our tempers are seen in our relationships with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. . . . a life of holy tempers is seen when our joy comes when freely giving service to the needy, when injustice kindles our indignation, when God’s forgiveness inspires a life-changing gratitude. (p. 679)

If you are suffering with a malady you thought was Fall Fever, maybe you really are struggling with your holy tempers.   Reading Psalms 65 and 104 certainly will improve your holy tempers and for those with Fall Fever to experience the delight of God’s creation we witness this week.

The beauty of our mid-American fall or autumn (which sounds more poetic) has included blue skies, warm sun, and delightful colors. We are witnessing the type of October that creates a ‘heaven on earth.’ Try googling autumn versus fall images and you will discover the power of a word’s connotative meanings.

Reading the two psalms create vivid pictures in our minds that relate God’s creative power. The psalmists wrote these hymns as praise. They put theology in action through the power of words. They followed Psalm 104’s closing instruction—“Praise the Lord.”

How does one praise the Lord in a world racing from point A to point B failing to see the glory of these autumn days? The pressures we have placed upon ourselves seem to squeeze out the healthy spiritual practices God expects from us. Wesley, over 300 years ago, knew that humans could be so focused on the basics of living that maintaining holy tempers would not be a priority.

Are we in the same crisis as the working people in Wesley’s England or the Americans struggling to survive in the young nation when he rode the circuit? Our lives are either too busy or too challenged by economic stress, health issues, or family obligations that maintaining healthy spirituality or holy tempers loses priority status. Holy tempers are in critical condition.

Consider the autumn beauty that you are witnessing this year. The colors are vivid, the temperatures are mild, and the sky is sparkling blue during the day and filled with twinkling jewels at night. There are moments that one’s breath is literally ripped away as the eyes fill with the beauty of this earth.

And what do we do in these moments? Do we connect the sense of delight we experience to God or do we ignore Him? These are the moments that Wesley would probably check on one’s spiritual health. He would probably prescribe some work to improve holy tempers.

The praise that we utter when we see the glory of these autumn days go to God. If our holy tempers are functioning well, then Fall Fever is not an illness it is an act of praise. Wesley would acknowledge that praising the Lord is proof that one is spiritually healthy. Just try driving along our Ozark roads that wrap around the lakes here in Missouri. The glory of God is breathtaking!

This breathtaking experience is how spiritual respiration feels. For Wesley, faithful Christians “. . . must breathe God in order to live spiritually.” Spiritual respiration is a core term also explained in the Wesley Study Bible:

. . . When God fills our lives the way that air fills our lungs, we are refreshed, alert and energized for God’s work. . . . If we stop breathing God, we lose the connection that is essential to our spiritual lives. . . .so we have to concentrate on it through prayer, Bible study, worship and other practices that help us cultivate our spiritual lives. (p.755)

The practices are the Wesleyan acts of piety. Fall Fever has hit, but if we are not spiritually healthy, we will not praise the Lord for all that he provides, for his grace, and for the promise of life eternal.

On delightful autumn days we have very little trouble praising God for all He has provided. But what if we were living in challenging crisis day after day? Would we be spiritually healthy enough to see God’s glory despite the challenges? Paul is an example of one who lived in crisis. His ministry established the universal church. His own life is a testimony of God’s grace and the transforming power of loving one another

In Acts 14, Luke the physician again shares Paul’s challenges in Christian ministry. The struggle to demonstrate God’s healing power ended in stoning. Yet in those verses 14-17, Luke reports how Paul and Barnabas respond to the Lystrians’ misplaced praise:

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard what was happening, they tore their clothing in dismay and ran out among the people, shouting, 15 “Friends,[a] why are you doing this? We are merely human beings—just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. 16 In the past he permitted all the nations to go their own ways, 17 but he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness. (emphasis added) For instance, he sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joyful hearts.”

Paul and Barnabas, in the midst of the hysteria, demonstrate their holy tempers. There efforts to share the good news may not have been easy, but even in this personal crisis, Paul praised God for all the goodness he provides.

Are your holy tempers so healthy that the Fall Fever is not an illness but is evidence of healthy spiritual respiration?

If you are unsure, consider Paul’s situation and whether or not you are able to share God’s good news even in the midst of a challenge/crisis. This fall the prescription for improving spiritual health surely includes a look around this world God created for us. One study note put it this way: “When in doubt about God, look around and you will see abundant evidence that he is at work in our world.” (Life Application Bible, p. 1983)

If your holy tempers are healthy, then you are praising the Lord with every breath. You are “breathing God.” You are experiencing “joy [that] comes when freely giving service to the needy, when injustice kindles our indignation, when God’s forgiveness inspires a life-changing gratitude.” And when you look at God’s creation and your breath is taken away, you praise the Lord!

Wesley understood how important praising the Lord is to maintaining one’s spiritual health. When we are beaten down, worn out, persecuted, or even suffering with debilitating illness, our spiritual health or holy tempers will keep our spiritual respiration strong. Paul’s stoning is just one example how important breathing God regularly, automatically, is.

Practice praising the Lord. Each week, attend worship service as a spiritual practice. Worship includes praises. Read the Bible regularly so you can hear God speaking to you and you can develop your holy tempers. Praise the Lord for all the glory he created, but also for all the grace, the love, and the strength to live healthy, spiritual lives so we can put our theology into action.

Closing prayer

Dear Glorious Father,

Thank you for the beauty of the earth

You have created for us this autumn day.

Thank you for lessons written into scripture

That guide us in keeping our spirituality healthy.

Thank you for all the leaders of our church:

Paul , Wesley, and even today’s theologians.

Help us improve our spiritual health

By improving the use of Wesley’s acts of piety.

We want to breathe in God each day.

We want to feel our lungs fill with the Holy Spirit.

We want to breathe out the love of one another.

We want to live our theology

In praise of you, Lord.   –Amen

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Theology in Action: Esther’s Story

given on Sunday, September 27

Scripture reference:  Old Testament book of Esther

I met Esther this week. A delightful woman living a God-centered life despite challenges that easily could have caused her to live in self-pity. Her example of living her faith is theology in action.

Esther was orphaned as a child, but her uncle raised her in the Jewish tradition and trained her to follow God’s direction. Life circumstances did not interfere with Esther’s reliance on her uncle. She followed her training, respected her uncle, and developed a strong faith in God.

Esther’s story may not match today’s culture; but for many young people today, the parallels are there. In a sense the story is a Cinderella story, too. An orphan or a stepchild living with at least one non-birth parent is a familiar arrangement in today’s world.

Sadly, many young people are entangled in homes where God is far from the center and that makes Esther’s story different. She had a loving, faithful Jewish uncle who raised her as his own which included religious training.

Granted, Esther’s life story may not match those of our young people today, but her story reflects the culture in which she was raised.   The message, though, is the same: despite all life’s circumstances, keep God-centered above all else.

Esther’s story began around 500 years before Christ was born. The culture was so very different than it is today, yet the human nature tends to follow the same patterns. The three other primary characters in Esther’s story are her uncle Mordecai, the king Xerxes, and Haman, the number two guy in the king’s court.

Reading through the brief biographies of Mordecai and Haman, the conflict is defined primarily as a cultural clash. Mordecai was a Jew and Haman was an Amalekite. Today we might ask why that is significant, and the answer is the long-standing dislike between the two peoples. Haman despised the Jewish people. Mordecai was a Jew who still lived under the Persian rule as a captured slave.

Mordecai gained so much respect within his own community; he became a trusted leader among the Jews. When Persia took control, his leadership role continued to earn respect even from the Persian court. His faith-centered life dictated how he lived and that earned him respect and his continued leadership role.

King Xerxes is a key player in Esther’s story, but he is not part of the conflict. He is the official whose decisions lead to the story. His first queen refuses his summon, and upon counsel with his advisors, he decrees she is no longer his queen and cannot even be seen by him. A life long and non-reversible decree that once his anger subsided, he may have realized his error.

Enter Esther. Mordecia’s position and the search for a new queen placed Esther into a position to become the key to the entire Jewish people. Trained by Mordecia in the Jewish faith, to trust God above all others, and do what she was called to do. Her natural beauty and her character brought Xerxes to choose her as his next queen.

Telling Esther’s story can sound complicated but there is one simple theme to remember: We must have faith that God is in control. [from the Life Application Study Bible introduction to Esther]. Today’s culture promotes we in are charge of our own lives, so giving over control to God does not make sense. We make our own decisions.

Yes, we do make our own decisions, and that turns the focus back to Mordecai. He was a God-centered man. He followed God’s expectations to practice his faith much as John Wesley expects from us. What began as a story of a young woman being chosen to serve as a queen, changes each time we read it. The lesson in one reading seems the most important one, but a second reading adds another one.

In fact, the Life Application Study Bible, includes a chart at the end of the chapter that outlines three topics and how we can plan, pray and trust-and-obey even in today’s world. The three ways that God uses to get something done are identified as natural order (God’s creation has a normal working process), miracles (God can interrupt the natural order), and providence (God can overrule the natural order). Esther’s story provides examples of each one:

  • Natural order—God gave Esther her natural beauty and the ability to plan.
  • Miracles—God allowed Esther to speak to the king (which was not typical in the royal tradition); and the Jewish people did pray and fast for three days at Esther’s request.
  • Providence—God allowed Mordecai to overhear the plot to assassinate the king and Mordecai trusted God to accomplish the impossible.

Even today, the same processes are available for God to use in our own lives. The decisive actions we take, also outlined in the chart, are to plan or disobey, pray or demand, or trust-and-obey or despair. We have a choice to make. All decisions we make, with God at the center, will determine the quality of our life and the final judgment God makes upon our death.

Where does this leave us? We have very different culture now, but much that Esther’s story shares are echoed in some of Pope Francis’ words this week. Remember he asked that we pray for him. We are to love one another, as we want to be loved. We are to be good stewards of our earth. We cannot remain faith-centered if we do not work at putting our theology into action.

Theology is the study of God. More importantly theology in action is developing a system—or a lifestyle—that puts belief in God into practice. What you believe must be lived out loud and that allows others to see your theology in action just like we see in Esther’s story.

The results, you ask? Life that centers on the triune God–the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost/Spirit—will lead to salvation. Faith-filled lives reflect God’s glory and others are drawn to people filled with that love.

Life is not about quantity. No matter how much money or wealth or power or control one accumulates, life is about quality. We have a choice to make: Do we follow God’s law or do we presume that we have full control of our lives?

Mordecai taught Esther that following God was the answer. Her story, as well as Mordecai’s, provides us one example for us to follow. Life’s challenges will not always feel like God is present in our lives, but it is our own decision whether to trust and obey or whether to despair.

Certainly despair will not improve the quality of one’s life. Trusting and obeying God’s laws will allow us to live life with an abundance of joy. By trusting and obeying God, we will know we are saved and others will see how God-centered lives provide riches beyond human measure.

So read and study scripture, pray all the time, worship regularly, participate in communion, and fast or abstain as a practice of discipline. These are the acts of piety that will guide you to a God-centered life and salvation.

Closing prayer: This is a prayer I received from BJ and a friend Mary this week. Please join me. . .

Father,

Thank You for each and every day

You have blessed us here on earth.

Thank You for Your tender mercies.

Thank You for giving us friends and family

to share joys and sorrows with.

I ask You to bless my friends,

relatives, brothers and sisters in Christ

and those I care deeply for,

who are reading this right now.

Where there is joy, give them continued joy.

Where there is pain or sorrow,

give them your peace and mercy.

Where there is self-doubt,

release a renewed confidence.

Where there is need, fulfill their needs.

Bless their homes, families, finances,

their goings and their comings.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Building Our Christian Foundation Series: 3. Defining church

given on Sunday, January 25, 2015

Defining church usually seems a textbook issue, but church is a word that takes on several different meanings considering the context of the situation. For instance, this morning we woke up knowing that we were going to have a little breakfast and go to church. In this reference the word means a structure located in a specific place in our community.

Yet as we read in the scriptures, church is not just a building. The scripture challenges us to decide how literal God wants us to read the words or understand the metaphor the writers used. The first foundation of our faith is scripture and we need to remember that the scripture is literature, written in all types of situations and in all types of literary forms.

John Wesley lived well over 300 years ago, and he insisted that all Christians read and study the scripture. This is one of the works of piety and a church can be the setting for that work. Scripture provides an allegorical meaning to church. Certainly a building provides a structure to meet for study and worship, but defining church according to scripture becomes a practical task but adds to the importance of defining church.

Beginning with the question of who is the church, the scripture in Matthew establishes the very first stone, brick, or concrete footing of the church—Jesus. The church when Jesus was growing up was the Jewish tabernacle and was the site of worship each Saturday, which was the Sabbath day for the Jewish.

But as Jesus began his ministry and was calling the Apostles to join him in building the Christian church, the building was not the church–it was the people. The who of the church was Jesus, his apostles, and all the people who began following him, listening to his message and sharing it. The church today is not the building in which we meet, it is the people sitting beside you, in the church next door or in the community. It is all Christian people, not the denomination—not United Methodist only, but also the Baptists, the Catholics, and all the many, many protestant Christians, even the Orthodox Christians.

What is the church then? The church is the people who have accepted Jesus as their savior. The church grows each time a person is baptized and declares his/her belief that Christ lived, Christ died, and Christ lived again so that we might have salvation or eternal life right along his and God’s side.

The ‘what’ of church really is a common belief in the power of God’s love. God created us. God loves us and grants grace to all, even those who do not believe. Since God is love, the church is love. For those who follow the Methodist doctrine, that love is shown by doing all we can for all the people we can in as many different ways as we can so that others may experience God’s love and grace. The church is believers living as Jesus taught through the sacred words of the Bible.

Defining church as those with a common belief in God and his son, does lead to another set of characteristics: when and where. Certainly the common belief is a unifying quality of the church, and that means the questions of when and where is the church can be as simple as saying wherever a professing Christian stands, the church stands.

Yet, the church strengthens as the believers join together to meet for worship, study and fellowship. The when and where of the church becomes a time and a location where the believers meet. In our community we know that there is a church building located at a specific place a few feet or a few miles from us at any one time. The church building we does have designated times for services and various other Christian activities. At times the buildings change, the times change, but the purpose of Christians coming together does not.

The purpose of the church answers why is it important to have a church. Certainly God’s expectation that we worship him is why we have a church building. Even Jesus went to the temple to worship. Attending church is a discipline demonstrated by Jesus and his disciples we follow today.

Wesley asked his followers to attend worship as an act of piety, also. Worship strengthens and renews our resolve to live Christian lives. But worship is also when we join together to thank God for his grace and forgiveness. We share our stories of how God works in our lives and how he blesses us. We join together at church to plan and to do whatever we can for others—believers and non-believers—because we are the church.

How can we be the church? The words of scripture tell us to love one another. The lyrics found in the hymns guide us. The prayers written and shared keep us connected to God. Quiet time by ourselves open us to hear God talk to us.

How to be a church is living the Christian lifestyle. A church building is built with that purpose in mind. The church identifies what it can do in a community and uses the building to reach out to others. The doors are opened so others may seek answers in their lives. The people inside are there to welcome others so they may experience the greatest love ever, the love of God. The Church’s space is God’s space. It provides sanctuary to the weary. It serves as a holy place for worship, for baptisms, for weddings, and for funerals.

The challenge in defining church is being the church. Paul, the missionary, knew that church was the people, but he also pushed the boundaries of the church to reach beyond those miles Jesus traveled. He walked and walked, he sat in foreign prisons, he wrote letters, he took ships, and he witnessed how the church carried God’s love to others.

In Luke’s writing, Acts 20:28, the instructions are clear:

 

28 “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood[a]—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders.[b]

 

We are the church right here in our communities. The who, what, when, where, why and how of church is only answered by who we are and what we do. We are the church; we are the ones who show others God’s love and grace. We define church by defining ourselves as Christians. God asks us to be the church and we are. We build our church by building our own foundation as Christians right here, right now.

Closing prayer:

Dear Father, founder of our church,

Lead us in building our Christian foundation

So we may continue building your church

Guide the church in helping one another.

May we do all we can to grow in faith,

To thank you for all your blessings,

Sharing the Word with others.

Thank you for loving us so much

You gave your son to be the foundation

In our lives and in our church.

Thank you for the leaders like Paul

Who built the church

Reaching around this world. –Amen

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Prepare Ye!

given on Sunday, April 6, 2014

Prepare. What a packed word! There are so many different ways to talk about that one word and it seems to affect our lives—prepare. Prepare a meal, prepare for guests, prepare for the day’s work, prepare for a trip, prepare for retirement, even prepare for the end.

Prepare ye! Just one more word added on, but it changes the entire perspective. Why prepare ye, or in today’s vernacular, prepare yourself? Adding yourself to that verb creates a simple phrase with an entirely different perspective. Preparing yourself is much more than following a morning routine getting ready for the new day.

When Mark used Isaiah 40:3 to open his gospel, he invoked a reference familiar to the Jewish people yet he was talking to the new Christians of Rome. The reference provides a historical connection to the prophecies the Jewish people knew so well. Using such a key verse can preserve the link of modern humanity to historical humanity.

Prepare Ye the Way. The words woke me. They circle around and around in my head. It triggered memories, questions, and ideas. Why? Each extra word that adds to the phrase becomes more and more weighted. Prepare yourself the way. Now the verb, the personal connection is moving toward the Way.

What way? How does one prepare for the way when it is an unclear destination? Back to the Biblical verses:

 

Isaiah 40:3 [the NIRV]:

A messenger is calling out,
“In the desert prepare
the way for the Lord.
Make a straight road through it
for our God.

 

Mark 1:3 [the NIRV]:

“A messenger is calling out in the desert,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord.
Make straight paths for him.’”

 

The way is to the Lord. Prepare yourself for the way to the Lord. Isaiah the prophet told his people they needed to prepare the way for the Lord in roughly 681 BC while Mark was repeating the same words to the newest Christians about 750 years later around 60 AD. Here today, in 2014 AD, almost two full millenniums later, these words pop up and circle through my brain.

The common thread continues to weave the generations together; it continues to direct our thinking, our actions, and our purposes toward the Lord, our father, creator, protector, and comforter. The way to the Lord is not a simple path.

Growing up on the farm, preparation is part of the structure of daily life as well as the year’s growing cycle. The farmer follows the cycle God provided for waking up, for working, and for resting. It is a cycle for the day as much as it is for the entire year. Whether it is January or July, the farmer’s pattern is set by the very world God created. Separating God from that life risks the very source of life—God’s creation meant to meet the needs of all.

After the week when farmers tackled the fields to prepare them for the seeds, planted the seeds, and left them to God’s care in the soil to warm and to water for germination is a clear example of preparing the way for the Lord. Once the preparation is complete, farmers know they must place their faith in the Creator.

This same process is what the prophets in the Old Testament had to do with preparing the people for the way of the Lord. Isaiah is full of messages trying to prepare the Jewish people for the way of the Lord. The Bible we know is filled with Old Testament prophets who tried to prepare people. If the people had listened and followed the way of the Lord—loving each other and being good stewards of the earth, would the way to the Lord have included the stories of the New Testament?

In Mark, invoking the words of Isaiah set up the connection to John the Baptist. Rather than starting his gospel with the birth of Jesus, Mark chose to begin with the work of John the Baptist. He reports the preparation that John did to prepare the people for Jesus:

And so John came. He baptized people in the desert. He also preached that people should be baptized and turn away from their sins. Then God would forgive them. All the people from the countryside of Judea went out to him. All the people from Jerusalem went too. When they admitted they had sinned, John baptized them in the Jordan River.

 

John was preparing the way for the Lord. And the way was through the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Lord’s son sent to teach all, not just the Israelites, how to live so that all could have eternal life–the way to the Lord.

Prepare Ye the Way! Our millennium is over 2,000 years after Christ walked this earth. Are we listening? Have prophets been carrying the message to the generations since Jesus’ death and resurrection? Have we prepared each other for the coming of Jesus Christ?

During the late 1960’s the chaos that spread through our country seemed to spark a movement that destroyed all the preparation Jesus and the Apostles had done. A survey of history shows that Jesus’ message had been carried by disciples/priests from the cross on the hill to the European continent and across the oceans.

The way has not been easy. The conflicts between men created much of the evil that was witnessed by the Israelites and the earliest Christians. During the 1960s that chaos included the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights, the War on Poverty, and even the Equal Rights Movement. In the middle of this came modern prophecies:

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good

            His love endures forever

            Hallelujah, oh, my soul

            Praise God, all my life long I will praise God

            Singing songs to my God as long as I will live

 

            I will praise you, oh Lord, with all my heart

            Before the Gods I will sing Your praise

            I will bow down toward Your holy temple

            And will praise Your name for Your loge and Your faithfulness

 

            Prepare ye the way

            Prepare ye the way of the Lord. . .

            –from Michael W. Smith’s lyrics “Prepare Ye the Way” in the musical Godspell

 

Prepare.

            Prepare ye/yourself.

            Prepare ye for the way.

            Prepare ye for the way for the Lord.

 

In today’s society we do not talk about prophets instead the term used is futurists. Typically futurists do not focus on spiritual topics but trends in the lifestyles and/or business. They look at what may be next in how we conduct business. The think tanks do not spend time assessing how humans live as much as they look at what can be done to improve quality of earthly life. Yet, the prophets are there we just do not want to hear the messages.

Godspell prophesized we need to prepare ye the way for the Lord. Just like Mark, the musical goes directly to the prophet Isaiah’s words to prepare ye the way for the Lord. Undoubtedly the parallels are too uncomfortable to discuss, yet in the 1960’s the truth is in the words, not only in Godspellbut in another rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. In the theme song, Judas says:

Ev’ry time I look at you

            I don’t understand

            Why you let the things you did

            Get so out of hand

            You’d have managed better

            If you’d had it planned

            Now why’d you choose such a backward time

            And such a strange land?

 

            If you’d come today

            You could have reached a whole nation

            Isreal in 4 BC

            Had no mass communication . . .

           

            Don’t get me wrong, now . . .

            Only want to know . . .

            Jesus Christ

            Who are you? What have you sacrificed . . .

            Do you think you’re what they say you are? . . .

 

            Tell me what you think

            About your friends at the top

            Now who d’you think besides yourself

            Was the pick of the crop?

            Buddah was he where it’s at?

            Is he where you are?

            Could Mohomet move a mountain

            Or was that just PR?

            Did you mean to die like that?

            Was that a mistake or

            Did you know your messy death

            Would be a record breaker?

 

            Don’t get me wrong, now . . .

            Only want to know . . .

            Jesus Christ

            Who are you? What have you sacrificed . . .

            Do you think you’re what they say you are?

                  –from the lyrics of Jesus Christ Superstar

 

Judas set into motion the end of Jesus’ story. He betrayed Jesus, and Jesus knew he would betray him:

17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were at the table eating, Jesus said, “What I’m about to tell you is true. One of you who is eating with me will hand me over to my enemies.”

19 The disciples became sad. One by one they said to him, “It’s not I, is it?”

20 “It is one of the Twelve,” Jesus replied. “It is the one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But how terrible it will be for the one who hands over the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

 

Place yourself in Judas’ place. Did he prepare the way of the Lord or not? Had the prophets known that Jesus’ ministry would end in such a betrayal and gruesome manner? Was it part of the plan? During Jesus’ last supper with his family and friends, was he continuing to prepare the way for the Lord?

When we come to the Lord’s table, are we preparing our way to the Lord? Are we a Judas? Are we a Peter? Are we prepared to carry on Jesus’ work or not? Are we prepared?

Today as we share the bread and the cup, do we hear today’s prophets telling us to prepare the way for the Lord or do we just go through the motions with no understanding?

22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread. He gave thanks and broke it. He handed it to his disciples and said, “Take it. This is my body.”

23 Then he took the cup. He gave thanks and handed it to them. All of them drank from it.

24 “This is my blood of the new covenant,” he said to them. “It is poured out for many. 25 What I’m about to tell you is true. I won’t drink wine with you again until the day I drink it in God’s kingdom.”

 

Prepare. Get busy. Make sure you have done what God has asked you to do. Live the life given you by God. Share the stories of Jesus. Demonstrate God’s love to one and to all.

Prepare yourself. Do not slide on the very acts of piety needed to keep your Christian faith strong. Pray. Study the Bible. Worship—privately and corporately.

Prepare yourself for the way. The work never stops. Farmers know this all too well, but so do successful parents, businessmen, artists, and more. Preparation is not just an occasional process; it is a daily even lifelong process.

Prepare yourself for the way of the Lord. Buried in this phrase is a tiny little word that can make such a difference: of. Think about the implications of that one tiny word:

  • . . . the way of the Lord: OF seems to indicate that we are to follow the way of the Lord, not our way—but His way.
  • . . . the way to the Lord: TO indicates that through preparation, we will reach God’s side; a goal filled with hope.
  • . . . the way for the Lord: FOR the Lord implies that one needs to be open to the possibilities the Lord may have for one’s life; a promise.

 

What a challenge! What a thrill! What a reward! Prepare yourself for the way of the Lord. The prophets have spoken. Jesus has lived. We are the ones who are to prepare the way.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

We hear you.

We know you.

We prepare for you.

Guide us as we prepare

not only ourselves

but others

for the way

of the Lord,

for the way

to the Lord

and to eternal life

by your side. –Amen

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