Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Positive Provocation

24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
--Hebrews 10:24-25

At the outset of the sermon on Sunday at Advent UMC, I stated my goal: To convince everyone who is not currently a part of a small group (Sunday school class, home group, or small group Bible study) to take a leap of faith and find a group to join.  The reason?  Because growth happens in groups.  Spiritual growth happens as we connect to God and each other in community focused on the study of Scripture and prayer.  With that in mind, we turned to the book of Hebrews and the author’s admonition to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  
Again, provocation generally has a negative connotation, but here in Hebrews we are encouraged toward positive provocation, provocation to love and good deeds.  
Left to our own devices, we usually choose to maintain the status quo.  This is true in many areas of our lives--our fitness level, our bad habits, our spiritual lives, etc.--which is why we need each other.  We need trusted friends to walk this journey with us, hold our hands occasionally, pick us up when we get down, pray for us--especially when we can’t pray ourselves.  Occasionally, we need someone to challenge us and jar us out of a faith rut.  We all need a group to help “provoke us to love and good deeds.” 
So, who in your life provokes you to love and good deeds? Do you have a group that is encouraging you, spurring you on, praying for you? Do you have people in your life, trusted friends, who are fostering growth in your relationship with Jesus?  Are you provoked?  
Growth happens in groups.

Positively provoked,
Pastor Michael

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


I recently saw a picture of a Facebook friend whose family went whitewater rafting.  It was one of those action shots, in the middle of a rapid, snapped at the precise moment when it seemed everyone in the raft was caught with mouth and eyes wide open, rapt in a strange mix of exhilaration and fear.  
I recognized the expression.  It’s been years ago now, but I’ve been rafting on the New River in West Virginia, which has Class IV and Class V rapids (or, as my five-year-old would call them, “mack daddy” rapids).  For five hours, the people on my raft did the best we could do to navigate the whitewater, but we often felt anxious, fearful, and afraid of what was just beyond our sight--a white-knuckled loss of control.  
My suspicion is that we have all felt that way in our lives, regardless of whether or not we were on a raft at the time.  Many of life’s circumstances can produce this kind of anxiety and angst.  Grief.  The unknown.  Change.
As a congregation, Advent has experienced all of the above over the last few years and months.  There have been significant changes in pastors and staff: Beloved pastors moving on to new areas of service, deeply loved staff members leaving, new pastors and staff arriving.  Grief.  The unknown.  Change.  
In fact, we have just welcomed a new Associate Pastor, Laura-Allen Kerlin, and have two search committees in place right now.  (Names of those serving on these committees will be listed in an update from SPRC in the E-news.  Please pray for them.)  Those search committees are working to fill vacant positions on our staff: Director of Music Ministries and Director of Children’s Ministry.
Significant change.
In times of significant change, I always find it helpful to focus on the things that are NOT changing to offer a sense of stability and calm.  Most importantly, Advent’s DNA is not changing.  What is Advent’s DNA?  
First, at our core, we are a church that is passionate about worship.  Worship is the heartbeat of the church, and we are proud to offer God our best in two different styles of worship (traditional and contemporary).  Due to space constraints, these services take place at three different times.  However, even though we worship at three different times in two different styles, we are one church with one mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our focus on excellence in each of our worship styles will not change.
A key part of our DNA is our emphasis on youth and children.  Advent has a proud history of excellence in growing and shaping young people into servant-leaders in God’s church.  We don’t believe that children and youth are tomorrow’s church leaders.  We believe that they are today’s church leaders.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for such is the Kingdom of God.”  As a congregation, we have been blessed with many young families including lots of children and youth.  Their formation as disciples of Jesus will always be a focal point for our faith family.  
Missions is vital to our identity as a congregation.  For Methodists throughout history, faith and action have been inextricably linked.  It is not enough to simply tell people that God loves them; Jesus has called us to show and share God’s love with the world.  Advent is and will continue to be a leader in reaching outside our walls to be in ministry with the people to whom Jesus ministered--the least, last, and lost. 
Another Wesleyan/Methodist emphasis that is integral to our congregation is on spiritual growth.  In keeping with Scripture, our founder, John Wesley, thought that Christians should never be satisfied in our faith journeys.  Instead, he thought that we should gather with others in small groups, study Scripture, pray together, and always seek to grow closer to Christ.  Sunday school and small groups (Disciple Bible Study, Christian Believer, etc.) have always been important at Advent, and they will continue to be.
There are many other things that are not changing, but, from my ten months as your pastor, I have discerned these to be essential to who we are as a congregation.  These core parts of our identity will continue to shape us long into the future.
As I think back to my time on the New River, there was one key to my sense of ease, one thing that gave me comfort: our guide.  We had an experienced guide on our raft, someone who had navigated those waters thousands of times, someone who knew what he was doing.  
We, too, have a guide.  No matter what pastors are appointed to serve Advent, no matter which staff members come and go, our Guide is the Holy Spirit.  That means we are in good hands and can navigate any water.

Pastor Michael

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Be A Quitter at Being Bitter

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
--Ephesians 4:31-32

 It was a powerful sound--snapping sticks popping like popcorn in each service at Advent UMC on Sunday, symbolic of the bonds of bitterness breaking with the first steps of forgiveness.  Bitterness can certainly hold us hostage, but it was truly awe-inspiring to see so many people make a conscious decision to be a quitter at being bitter.
I talked with one person today who took the two broken pieces of his bitterness board, drilled holes in them, and put them on his keychain as a reminder that the bonds of bitterness have been broken.  
Many were inspired by Ann Gale’s story of forgiveness following the murder of her best friend and her children.  Compared to what Ann has forgiven, the hurts done to me by others seem rather pedestrian and insignificant.  Ann’s magnanimity was inspiring to me.
However, there were things that I wanted to share about forgiveness that time simply would not allow.  So, I want to share them here in brief outline.  In particular, I want to share some things that forgiveness is NOT: 
  1. Optional--Jesus is pretty clear on this matter: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”--Matthew 6:14-15
  2. Saying it’s okay--forgiving somebody is very different from saying that what they did is okay.  Heather and I have taught our children that when they apologize to each other for wrongs, the offended party should never say, “It’s okay.”  Instead, they say, “It’s not okay, but I forgive you.” 
  3. Forgetting--Forgiveness is harder than forgetting.  It would be a lot easier to take a blow to the head and get amnesia, than to remember how you have been hurt and choose to forgive anyway.  Forgiveness is remembering the pain and choosing to let go anyway.
  4. Reconciliation--There are some people who are so toxic that they have hurt you over and over and over again.  You have to forgive them.  But, sometimes, out of self-preservation, the relationship cannot be restored to the place it was before.
  5. Easy--This is a no-brainer.  Forgiveness is difficult.  It is oftentimes a process, a journey.  There may be many times along the way when you think you have forgiven something only to have it resurface at inopportune times.  Sometimes we have to wake up every morning, make a conscious effort to let go again, pray for our offender, and choose to push beyond it.  There is nothing easy about forgiveness, but, it frees us from the bonds of bitterness. 

Working at Being a Quitter at Being Bitter,
Pastor Michael

Thursday, February 28, 2013


14 Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.
--Hebrews 12:14-15

 By far, my most read blog post ever was “Further Thoughts on Fourth Grade Forgiveness.”  As the title indicates, it was about forgiving others and its popularity, I think, is indicative of the struggle we can sometimes have with this onerous challenge given us by Jesus. 
Forgiveness is something we all long to receive, but begrudgingly give.  We love to garner grace, but dole out justice.  Plus, when we’ve been hurt badly, holding a grudge certainly beats holding our hurts.
The problem is that, if we hold grudges long enough, they have a way of morphing on us.  Grudges become bitterness.  Bitterness spreads in our souls like kudzu.  It doesn’t take long before we are overcome and enslaved to it and it drains the joy from our lives. 
This Sunday at Advent, we will continue our Hostage series by continuing our Lenten look at the ties that can bind us.  We will look to Scripture and the life of Jesus to discover what forgiveness is, what it isn’t, and how to break the bonds of bitterness.  I hope to see you there.  Invite a friend!

Trying to break the bonds of bitterness,
Pastor Michael

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why Ask Why? (Part 2)

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.   14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
--Psalm 22:1-2; 14-16

 Sunday we began our Why? series.  “Why?” is a question on many people’s minds.  Why?  God, why?  Why this?  Why now?  Why me?  Why my children?  Why cancer?  Why an earthquake?  Why a car accident?  Why an innocent baby?  Why so much suffering?  Why so much pain?  Why?  God, why? 
Growing up, I often heard that you shouldn’t ask why, that “questioning God” was somehow off limits.  You know what I wondered when I was taught that?  Why?  Can God not handle our questions?  Does the God of the Universe not understand when we get angry and want to know why?  
On Sunday, part of what we did was look at some reasons, I think, it’s okay to ask why.  So, let’s review.  Why Ask Why?
  1. People of faith always have--All throughout Scripture are stories of people who suffered terrible tragedies and pain.  Time and again, they asked why.  The Psalmist in Psalm 22, prays, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Did you know that 70% of the psalms are psalms of lament?  The Book of Psalms is Israel’s prayer book, and 70% of them are psalms of lament where the psalmist prays to God, “God, where are you?  It feels like I’m all alone down here.  God, why are staying so far from me?  God, why?”  If Israel’s prayer book is composed of prayers like that, I think it’s okay to question, and cry out to God that way too.  There is an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations.  Guess what’s in that?  That’s right.  Laments.  Complaints to God.  Honest, authentic relationship with God requires honest, authentic prayer.  Job and his friends questioned why Job’s fate had befallen him.  He was a good and upright man, yet he suffered tremendously.  Why?  That was the question they repeatedly asked.  Jesus, even asked why.  From the cross, he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God why?”  See, God desires an authentic relationship with us.  God doesn’t want us to hide stuff from him, why to keep from hurting his feelings?  
  2. That brings me to the second thing: God is big enough to handle our little questions--This is the God of the universe we’re talking about here.  God created everything there is.  By the power of the divine voice, this world was spoken into existence.  God just said, “Let there be light,” and there was.  I doubt that our questions will threaten God.
  3. Third, God’s not going to be threatened by our anger, either.  And, let’s face it: Why is a question we generally ask out of anger and a place of deep pain and grief. It’s not often you hear somebody say, “God, why did you let me land this great job?  I don’t deserve it.  God, why would you let this happen to me?”  Just doesn’t happen.  Why is a question we ask in the midst of our anger.  And that’s okay.  
  4. Since Sunday I thought of a fourth reason: “Why?” is a faith question.  You don’t bother asking why unless you believe there is some sort of an answer.  You don’t bother asking, “Why God?” unless you believe in God.  So, at its core, “why?” is a question asked in faith.
So, the overwhelming weight of Scripture suggests that “Why?” is a perfectly natural question to ask, especially in times of pain, sorrow, and grief.
The answer?  Well, that’s a good bit tougher. 

Looking forward to this Sunday,
Pastor Michael

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why Ask Why? (Part 1)

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 
--Genesis 1:1-3

Yesterday, at Advent, we began our Why Series.  In trying to start to put our arms around the colossal question of why bad things happen to good people, we began--like Adam Hamilton’s book on the same subject--with the creation story. 
My thoughts about the creation story have forever been shaped by my friend, former professor, and mentor, Bishop Will Willimon, who was the first to point out to me the depth of the Hebrew word translated “formless void” in our English translations.  “Formless void” is an adequate rendering of the Hebrew, but it doesn’t quite capture the menacing nature of the dark nothingness of the tohuw wabohuw (click on each word to see a small word study, hear the pronunciation, and see other instances of the word in the Old Testament).  In the beginning, there was already this brooding emptiness, chaos.
Bishop Willimon’s insights on this passage were revelatory to me.  God did not create the tohuw wahohuw.  It was already there.  But, God went to work on it.  God spoke light out of the darkness, and started bringing order out of the chaos. 
If you’re in the throes of chaos, grief and pain, I’m not sure this helps, but it certainly helped me to try and make sense of the problem of suffering and evil.

Asking Why,
Pastor Michael

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jordan River

34 The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
--Acts 8:34-39

On Sunday we had wonderful worship services remembering Jesus’ baptism and celebrating our own.  It was powerful for me to see so many people  come forward to touch the water and renew their baptismal vows and commitment to Christ.   
When it comes to baptism in the Christian tradition, there is quite a variety of thought.  What happens in baptism?  Who should be baptized?  And, how much water should be used?  These are all questions about which faithful Christians have disagreed.  
When it comes to how much water should be used, some of our Christian brothers and sisters from other denominations teach and practice only immersion.  For these Christians, baptism is only baptism if it is by immersion.  So, it takes a lot of water, because you literally have to  go under the water and come back up.  A little dab won’t do you.  You need a lot.  
In the United Methodist Church, we will actually baptize by any method.  We will immerse--I have baptized folks in a swimming pool before--but we also baptize by pouring and by sprinkling.  We believe that God is working in this sacrament of baptism regardless of the amount of water.  
Another big area where Christians disagree on baptism.  Some of our Christian brothers and sisters practice only a believer’s baptism (these are the folks who consider baptism an ordinance as opposed to a sacrament).  The way that they read and interpret Scripture leads them to contend that you should only be baptized after you place your faith and trust in Christ.  That’s what believer’s baptism means--that you have already become a believer and baptism is just a public symbol of something that has happened already.  
According to Christians who teach believer’s baptism, you shouldn’t be baptized until you intellectually understand salvation and baptism.  
When we’re discussing this, I always like to ask my believer’s baptism friends: Well, what about the severely mentally handicapped?  Should they never be baptized because they are intellectually unable to understand what’s going on with salvation and baptism?  And, who among us completely understands what God has done for us through Jesus Christ our Lord?  Doesn’t that understanding evolve over time for all of us?  At what point of that evolution should we be baptized?
As United Methodists, we believe that we’re always growing in our understanding of salvation and our life of faith.  We have never arrived.  If waiting until a certain level of understanding or faithfulness is achieved must be a prerequisite for baptism, then some of us would be waiting a very long time.
That’s why, in the United Methodist Church (along with Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.), we baptize infants as well as adults.  In the Book of Acts, we learn that when people would hear the good news of the Gospel, they would be baptized along with their entire households--including infants and small children.
So, we do baptize babies.  In fact, we think that there’s not a better sign of our position before God.  A baby is completely helpless, utterly dependent upon her parents to do everything for her.  When it comes to our salvation, we are completely helpless to earn it.  We are utterly dependent upon God.  Salvation is a free gift of grace that we can do nothing to earn.  We can only receive it.  
Make no mistake: We always baptize people on faith.  In the case of an infant, we baptize him or her on the faith of the parents and the faith of the local congregation promising to help raise the child in the faith.  We claim the faith for the child until that time when the child grows up and can claim the faith for him or herself.  Eventually, every person must profess the faith as his or her personal faith. 
Trying To Live As One Marked,
Pastor Michael

Monday, January 14, 2013

That'll Leave A Mark

A photo I shot of the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee.

4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
--Mark 1:4-11

Yesterday, we had the great privilege of baptizing four people and, after taking a long hard look at what Scripture and The United Methodist Church teaches about baptism, we all had an opportunity to remember our baptisms and renew our baptismal vows.  
This week, by way of this blog (or e-mail...however you are receiving this) I plan on sharing with you some teaching material on baptism that I had to cut from yesterday’s sermon, but for today a quick recap.
In The United Methodist Church--along with our Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we refer to baptism as one of two sacraments (the other being Holy Communion).  While other denominations might call baptism an ordinance, we insist that it is a sacrament.  This is more than just semantics.  At stake is what we believe happens in baptism.  
For those who use the language of ordinance, baptism is merely a symbol of something that has already taken place.  The person has already given his or her life over to the Lordship of Christ and baptism is the symbolic action publicly declaring that.  Nothing really happens at baptism that hasn’t already happened in the person’s life.  The primary actor is the person who is coming by faith to be baptized.
For those who use the language of sacrament, however, baptism is more than simply a symbol of something that has already taken place.  We believe that God is really doing something through water and the Holy Spirit, that God is marking us, claiming us as God’s own.  Baptism is a sign and seal of a covenant between us and God whereby God washes, cleanses, and marks us as we, in turn, pledge our lives to God.  The primary actor is God.  The action is what God does for us.
The Greek word used by the earliest Christians for baptism and Holy Communion was mysterium, which means mystery.  They believed that God was busy in baptism and Communion, conveying grace, and transforming lives, but exactly how and what God was doing remained a mystery.  
When it came time to translate the Greek into Latin, though, the earliest Christians had a very difficult time with the word mysterium.  There was no Latin word that corresponded to it.  Eventually, they started using the Latin word sacramentum, to translate mysterium, but where did they get that word and why did they choose it?  The answer is: In a general sense, sacramentum in the Roman world was an oath that rendered the person making it “belonging to the gods.”  In a more specific context, sacramentum was the Roman Army’s process for transforming a civilian recruit for the Roman army into a soldier.  That process of transformation that had two parts: 1) the soldier took an oath of office, and 2) the Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion.
Branding, obviously, leaves a mark.  The sacramentum for Roman soldiers involved their promises and oaths to the army and involved them being marked.  A Roman soldier was different than a civilian recruit.  Once they went through the sacramentum, transformation happened.  They were branded.  Marked.  They were no longer free to do whatever they wanted.  Their lives didn’t belong to them any more.  They belonged to the Army.   They had new responsibilities and duties.  They a whole new life.
It is easy to see why the early Christians would have latched onto that word to describe what happens to us in baptism.  In baptism we are branded, we are marked by God as children.  We are no longer free to do whatever we want.  Our lives don’t belong to us anymore.  We belong to God.  We have new responsibilities and duties.  We have a whole new life!  We have been marked! 

Branded By Grace,
Pastor Michael