Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Remembering William "Dave" Jackson

William “Dave” Jackson, 62 of Hookstown, died Sunday, June 28, 2009 in his home.

He was born August 24, 1946 in Steubenville, OH a son of the late Edward and Dorothy Walker Jackson. Mr. Jackson was employed by Union Electric in Burgettstown. He was a U.S. Navy veteran during the Vietnam War. He was a member of the Shriner’s, Masons and the VFW in Chester, WV and the Harley Owners Group. He enjoyed golfing, riding his motorcycle and jetski.

Surviving are:
  • Daughter: Nicole (David) Steding of Weirton, WV
  • Son: Michael Jackson of Milan, PA
  • Grandson: Jackson David Steding and a special child in his life, Morgan Abbott.
  • 1 Brother: Edward Jackson of Annadale, VA
  • 3 Sisters: Barbara Hall of Hookstown, Sandra Sullivan of Fleming, WV, Jeannie Shane of Weirton, WV

Friends will be received from 6-8 PM Tuesday and 2-4 & 6-8 Wednesday in the Taucher Funeral Home, 23 Erie Mine Road, Burgettstown, where services will be held at 10:00 AM Thursday with the Rev. Ed Rudiger officiating. Interment will follow in Chestnut Ridge Cemetery, Paris.

Reluctant about Evangelism

Mead, Hoey present attitudes, styles that can overcome fears

by Bill LancasterSpecial to Presbyterian News Service

ATLANTA - Presbyterians only have two issues when it comes to evangelism: their reluctance to do it and how to do it effectively, two experts on the subject told the Evangelism Conference here June 12, part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s inaugural Big Tent event.

The Rev. Jim Mead, former vice-moderator of the General Assembly and associate pastor of fast-growing Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor, WA, and the Rev. Eric Hoey, director of Evangelism and Church Growth for the denomination's General Assembly Council, addressed those two key issues in back-to-back workshops.

"If you try to introduce evangelism to your congregation, you will hear a lot of what people don't want to be," Mead said. 'We don't want to be high pressure. We don't want to be slick. We don't want to be religious fanatics. We don't want to be like 'that church' that works manipulatively singing the contemporary version of 'Just as I Am' for 15 verses until somebody finally comes down front."

While most Presbyterians know what they don't want to do evangelistically, "only one percent of us ever use our Holy Spirit-given gift of evangelism." Mead said, introducing a story about when he was a younger pastor having a discussion with another minister about evangelism.

Mead said he expressed problems with each method the other man suggested until the other pastor said, "'I believe I like my method of doing something better than your method of doing nothing.'"

Mead said that caused him to reexamine his thinking about evangelism.

Hoey presented six styles of evangelism, all found in the Bible:
  • Peter's confrontational approach found in Acts 2:22-41 - Peter confronted a huge crowd with a bold speech telling them they crucified Christ. They were cut to the heart, and repented and were baptized. "This approach is hard hitting, direct, and challenges hearers to get off the fence. This is the style that Presbyterians say is not for them. It works in Brazil, but not for us here," Hoey said.
  • Paul's intellectual approach found in Acts 17:15-34 - Paul went to Athens where Greek philosophers loved to gather to hear and debate. Paul pointed to an altar to an unknown god, then claimed "unknown" gods to be the God and father of Jesus Christ. "Different contexts show us different opportunities to present the gospel," Hoey said.The blind man's testimonial approach as found in John 9:1-15 - Here Jesus put mud on the eyes of a man born blind and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam. This caused suspicion among the scribes and Pharisees. The formerly-blind man simply told his experience, "'Though I was blind, now I see.'" Hoey said. "This is the testimonial approach. It is one of the most powerful approaches. We should write our testimony and be able to give it in three minutes. There are three parts: how you were before experiencing Jesus' love; your experience of Jesus' love; and the difference in you afterwards. With this, you have a story you can use at any particular time," Hoey said.
  • Matthew's interpersonal approach as found in Luke 5:27-29 - Levi the tax collector left everything and followed Jesus. Then Levi held a great banquet at his house with Jesus and his disciples present and invited a large group of tax collectors and others to eat with him. "Levi is someone who creates opportunities where Christians commingle with those outside the church," Hoey said.
  • The Samaritan woman's invitational approach as found in John 4 - After Jesus confronted the woman at the well, the woman went back to the village and said, "Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this man be the Messiah?" Hoey said she was very relational, extroverted, known by everyone in the village and she invited her friends.
  • Dorcas' service approach as found in Acts 9:36-42 - Dorcas was always doing good and helping people. She died and Jesus came. "Her house was filled with her friends who showed Jesus all the robes and clothes she had made while she was with them. They were drawn to her and to Jesus because of her service," Hoey said. Jesus raised her from the dead.

Bill Lancaster is associate executive for Foothills Presbytery and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Sermon: From Fear to Faith

Mark 5:21-43 - And after Jesus had crossed over again in the boat, a great crowd came together before him, and he was beside the lake. And one of the rulers of the synagogue came who’s name was Jarius, and when he saw him, he fell down before his feet. And he called out earnestly saying, "My daughter has come to the end. Come so that you might lay hands upon her so that she might be saved and live." And [Jesus] went with him.
And a great crowded followed him and pressed upon him. And there was a women who had a flow of blood for twelve years and who had endured much suffering from many doctors and had spent all she had and was no better but rather grew worse. Because she heard things concerning Jesus, she came behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. For she said, "If I might only touch his cloak, then I will be saved." And immediately her flow of blood was dried, and she knew that she was healed of her affliction. And immediately Jesus was aware within himself that power had gone out from him, and he turned around in the crowd and said, "Who touched my cloak?" And his disciples said to him, "Do you see the crowd pressing on you and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’" And he looked around to see the one who did this. And the woman was afraid and trembling because she knew what had happened to her. And she went and fell before him and said to him the whole truth. And he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be well from your affliction."
While he was speaking, a person from the ruler of the synagogue came and said, "Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher anymore?" But when Jesus overheard the words that had been spoken, he said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Don’t be afraid. Keep on believing." And he didn’t allow anyone to accompany him, except Peter and James and John, the brother of James. And when they came into the house of the ruler of the synagogue and looked at the uproar and lamenting and all who were weeping. And after he’d gone in, he said to them, "Why the uproar and lamenting? The child isn’t dead but sleeping. And they ridiculed him. But he cast them all out and after taking along the father of the child and the mother and those who were with him, and he went in to where the child was. And after he took hold of the child’s hand, he said to her, "Talitha cumi," which is when translated "Little girl, I say to you, get up." And immediately the little girl rose and walked, for she was twelve. And immediately they were astonished in utter amazement. And he gave them all instructions so that no one should know this. And he said to bring her something to eat.


You know, there’s no shortage of reasons for fear. On Friday, I went to a website called "The Phobia List" and found six hundred, twenty-eight different phobias. It included everything from ablutophobia, the fear of washing or bathing, something that seems out-of-control in some parts of Virginia, to zoophobia, fear of animals, which may or may not include some folks with ablutophobia, at least if they’re down wind. Six hundred, twenty-eight phobias, and these are just the irrational fears. I’m telling you, if you include the rational stuff, there’s all kinds of reasons to be afraid.
And you know, if you think about it, there’s a lot of fear in the passage we just read. I mean, remember what happened, first with the woman who had the flow of blood and then with Jarius, the guy who’s daughter died. According to Mark, both felt fear, didn’t they? But I’ll tell you, I don’t think you could call either case a phobia, because, when you get right down to it, I think both of them had good reason to be afraid.
My goodness, just think about that woman. After she crept up behind Jesus, you know, to touch his cloak, Mark wrote that "immediately Jesus was aware within himself that power had gone out from him, and he turned around in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my cloak?’ And he looked around to see the one who did this. And the woman was afraid and trembling because she knew what had happened to her."
I’m telling you, that woman was scared to death, and she had good reason. What right did she have to touch anything that belonged to Jesus? Man, she knew what she was doing, and she also knew that it could get her in big trouble. You see, in an ancient court of law, she could have been convicted of taking a little bit of his power without paying for it, and just like it is today, that’s stealing. And so of course she was afraid when confronted with what she did. And to make matters worse, the flow of blood made her "unclean" according to Jewish law; the minute she touched Jesus she transferred a little bit of that nastiness to him.
And you know, it was the same with Jarius right after getting word that his daughter died. I mean, didn’t the guy with the message say, "Your daughter has died. Why bother the teacher anymore?" In other words, he’d just be making himself a pest by insisting that Jesus come and heal someone who was already dead. Daa. It would be like giving her an aspirin. And again to make matters worse, touching a corpse was just as bad as touching a person who was bleeding. And I’m telling you, that must have scared Jarius. Why else would Jesus, after he’d heard the conversation say, "Don’t be afraid. Keep on believing." You see, in these verses we’ve got two frightened people.
And I’ll tell you, I think we face the same kind of thing out there in the world and right here in the church. And I’ll tell you something else, you don’t have to go online to find out why. My goodness, we’re surrounded by fear, and a lot of it I think you could call spiritual. I mean, not only are folks afraid of what’s going to happen in the economy tomorrow, they’re also afraid of what’s going to happen to them and the people they love when they die. And not only are they afraid of feeling isolated in the middle of a community, they’re also afraid of never feeling close to the one who is greater then they, someone they believe is out there but whom they just don’t know. And not only are they afraid that they may never meet the love of their lives, they’re also afraid they may never even know what it feels like to love and be loved. I’m telling you, there’s a world out there and right in here full of people who are desperately seeking a place where they can belong and a relationship that’s safe because they are absolutely terrified that they’re going to live and die alone.
And here we are, the church, the body of Christ, the people of God. And we have the good news of Jesus, a message of grace and mercy and love. Man, we have what they need. We have something that can address their fear. But sadly, far too often, what Christians offer to these frightened people is rejection and shame and of course more fear. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why. My goodness, because they feel that God wants Christians to be comfortable, you know, like a slug under a rock, these believers carefully exclude and ignore anything or anyone who asks questions that they don’t want to answer and that may, heaven forbid, cause them to question the neat and predictable world they’ve created. And because they assume all real believers are suppose to be exactly the same, you know, clone-like, these folks use names and labels to humiliate and even crush the spirits of people who are frantically seeking something in which the can believe. And because they’ve bought into the lie that Jesus came to bring conformity, to squeeze everyone in the same box, they take for themselves the roles of judge and executioner. Therefore, those who don’t, maybe those who can’t do it their way, the right way, the only way, man, they are guilty and damned. Hallelujah. Praise the Lord. All for the glory of God. In other words, if they’d been in this passage, these misguided Christians would be trying their hardest to shame that woman out of the crowd and that man into returning home alone. Those two desperate people would have walked away from Jesus, with all their fears reenforced.
But you know, that’s not what Jesus did. That’s not what he did when he looked that trembling woman in the face and said, "Daughter, your faith has saved you." And that’s certainly not what he did when he went with Jarius and after enduring the ridicule of the folks who knew the girl was dead, took that child by the hand and caused her to rise from her death bed. No, Jesus didn’t allow fear to win. Instead he moved those two people from fear to faith.
And I’ll tell you, we can be a part of that process too. Brothers and sisters, I’m absolutely convinced that God can use us to help folks get past their fear so that they can begin to trust the one who came to save them. Man, we can be a part of that. But I’ll tell you, I think it’s only going to happen when we make a conscious decision to do two things.
I mean, first, I think we need to guard against those words and attitudes and actions that cause people to be afraid to enter into God’s presence, specifically God’s church. My gosh, unless God has communicated something to you that he hasn’t to me, I don’t think any of us have been made Kingdom of God bouncers; therefore, maybe we should be doing what’s necessary to encourage people to come to our Lord rather than to screen those applicants we don’t think belong.
And to do that, well that may mean making a few changes. O my goodness, did he say use the word change? Yeah I did, because we might need to start valuing spiritual humility above spiritual arrogance. And we may need to allow people to ask the hard questions before whipping out the pat answers, even if that means we might end up saying three words that have become almost unthinkable in a lot of churches, and I’m talking about the words "I don’t know." My gosh, we need to get it into our heads that every time a person walks pass those doors because they think they’re not good enough or smart enough or spiritual enough to come inside, in other words, that they just don’t and can’t belong, we are doing a disservice to God. But more than that, they are just plain wrong. I’ll tell you, Jesus came to save broken people, people like them and to be honest with you, if we take a good, hard look in the mirror, people like us. Man, we’ve got to knock down the barriers that we’ve created, even if that makes us uncomfortable.
And I’ll tell you, that’s going to be a whole let easier when we remind ourselves and others that Jesus didn’t come either to support the status quo or to condone the bad. Instead he came to redeem the lost. That’s the second thing we can do. You see, I think even when Christians get past this obsession with comfort and their desire to feel spiritually superior, it’s still hard really to open up. It’s hard to accept folks that make us uneasy. It’s hard to do the sort of things Jesus did, you know to hang with and invite in the scum of the earth. I mean, not only do we have to worry about the carpet, but doesn’t one rotten apple spoil the whole barrel? I’ll tell you, as a former teacher, I know one problem child can have a whole lot influence over ten hard working kids than those kids can have over that one child. Now, that’s just the way it is, and we can use that to justify keeping those rotten apples, those problem children, those unclean people away.
We can do that until we remember that Jesus has the power to make that rotten apple absolute delicious and that problem child completely focused and that dirty person clean. Man, if he can do it to a bleeding woman and a dead child, I bet he can transform those who feel trapped and crushed and isolated. And think about it, when that apple or that child or that person is made, through the power of the Christ, good and holy, how do you think that’s going to effect that barrel or that classroom or that church? I’ll tell you, we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face if we push away a potential child of God just because he makes us uncomfortable. That’s just plain nuts, when we remember that Christ can make all things new.
Now, I doubt that the list of phobias is going to get shorter any time soon, just like I doubt that a lot of the people will have a new confidence as they approach God. And as long as some Christians want to define what righteousness is and isn’t, most of those same people will continue to walk past the church doors. But that doesn’t have to be the case with us. I mean, we can make an intentional effort to get rid of some of the stuff that intimidates the pudding out of folks on the other side of the stained glass and we can remember that if Christ can stop blood from flowing and raise the dead, man, he can sure redeem the lost, even an arrogant sinner like me. These two things we can do. And if we do, although it’s still his work, not ours, we can put ourselves in a perfect position to see people move from fear to faith.

Producing Passionate Pastors

Church, seminary leaders discuss ideas for improving leadership development
Special to the Presbyterian News Service

ATLANTA - "The pastors we produce must be passionate about their own faith and willing to share it with others," the Rev. Liza Hendricks told the Healthy Ministry Conference here June 13. "They need to believe that with God on their side they can change the world."

Hendricks, general presbyter for the Presbytery of Western Reserve in Ohio, spoke as Presbyterian church and seminary leaders exchanged ideas for improving leadership development here during the final session of the biennial conference.

Seeking change has its hazards, cautioned the Rev. Thomas E. Evans, executive presbyter for Sheppards and Lapsley Presbytery in Alabama. He said he has seen presbyteries and churches "punish" pastors and elders for being adaptive.

"Pastors naively come out of seminary believing they can change things." Unprepared in how to initiate and institute change, they fail, are criticized and eventually stop trying."

Hendricks responded, saying that presbyteries should become involved earlier in attempts to bring on major changes - before disputes between pastor and congregation reach a breaking point - and instead help the congregation understand the need for change.

Building congregational/community support for change is important when taking on "sacred cows," agreed the Rev. Marcia Myers, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Office of Vocation.

The panel also touched on the topic of financing the increasing costs of seminary education.
The model for financing theological education is "not broken, but distorted," said the Rev. Cam Murchison, executive vice president and dean of students at Columbia Theological Seminary, who lead the discussion panel. "Is the cost of theological education worth it? We have to decide together (church and seminary) what it's worth."

Speaking from the audience, the Rev. Charles Marks, chaplain and associate professor of ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary, said churches and seminaries need to explore what options there are "for meeting halfway (on financing seminary education)."

Murchison also suggested that seminaries consider extending their degree programs from three to four years, and instituting year-long internships so that new pastors have more on-the-job training before graduation.

Noting that more churches are closing and presbyteries shrinking, Evans suggested that fewer denominational seminaries might be needed, and that those we have should do more elder training.

Speaking to the perception that seminary professors often are out of touch with congregational life, Rose Niles, PC(USA) associate for theological education and seminary relations, said the denomination's Committee on Theological Education is working on a proposal to support sabbaticals for the professors in churches or on presbytery staff.

Murchison, however, said he believes the perception is overblown, as it has been his experience that many seminary professors are active in congregations, if not as pastors.

Another somewhat radical suggestion for seminaries came from the Rev. Jill Hudson, the PC(USA)'s coordinator for middle governing body relations. Speaking from the audience she said that instead of emphasizing learning Greek and Hebrew, seminaries should offer languages such as Spanish and Korean, which would have more everyday use among rapidly expanding populations in our culture and church.

Back to matters related mainly to congregations, Niles noted that the popular "missonal church" concept is not new, adding, "I'm a product of one." What Presbyterians do need to do is to commit to the model "and give our lives back to it," she said.

Niles said she is inspired by churches that may not be growing numerically, but nevertheless "grow missionally."

The 2009 Healthy Ministry Conference was held June 11-13 in conjunction with the PC(USA)'s first-ever Big Tent event, which attracted about 1,400 participants to 10 separate conferences. Response to holding the events concurrently - and sharing worship and fellowship time - was positive.

"The Big Tent is a wonderful first step," said Marks during the closing panel discussion. "It provided inspiration in an unpressured situation. It's part of the model for a new beginning."

John Sniffen is associate editor of Presbyterians Today magazine.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering the Stoops Family in Our Prayers

Betty Rogers, the mother of Terry Stoops, a former pastor at Cove, passed away Wednesday, June 24, in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. She was eighty-seven years old. The funeral will be conducted at the Marshall Funeral Home, 200 Fountain Avenue, Ellwood City. There'll be calling on Sunday, from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. with the service at 7:00 p.m. Sunday at the funeral home. Please visit the website for directions.

Betty Jane (Stoops) Rogers was born October 6, 1921 in New Castle, she was the daughter of the late Lyle and Clara Krosen Himebaugh. She married Frederick Thomas Rogers in October 1962. He died October 14, 1975.

Betty loved roller skating; she skated in competition in artistic dance and figure categories until 1980 when she began to prepare others for skating. She was a member of the Roller Skating Teachers of America, skating until the age of eighty one. She was a graduate of New Castle High School. She enjoyed yard sales and flea markets. Betty was a member of the First Baptist Church of Ellwood City. She also attended Calvin Presbyterian Church. B.J., as she was affectionately called, retired from Pennsylvania Power where she worked as a cashier. She was also employed by the borough of Ellwood City as a meter maid and school crossing guard. She also worked at the Ellwood City Family Center. Betty volunteered at the snack bar of the Ellwood City Hospital.

Survivors include two sons and three daughters in laws; Reverend Terry and Janet Stoops of Gibsonia, Pa.; Frederick Thomas and Lisa Rogers of New Port Richey, FL, and Beverly Stoops of New Castle. Eight grandchildren and eight great grandchildren complete the family circle.

In addition to her husband, she was preceded in death by a son, David R. Stoops; a brother, Vern Himebaugh, and a sister, Shirley Binder and grandson, Dr. Todd L. Stoops.

Donations may be made to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation 810 River Ave. Suite 100 Pittsburgh, pa. 15212

Online condolences may be sent to marshallsfh.com.

Fear and Faith

I hope you are having a great Friday and are looking forward to a wonderful weekend. Now, if the weather holds, I'm sure some of y'all may be heading to amusement parks. In fact, I know that next week a group from Casey's Sisters Dance Studio will be going to Disney World. Now I think that's super, and I'm confident that they'll have a good time.

Of course, if I were in their position, I'm not sure I'd be looking forward to a "fun" park. You see, I'm deathly afraid of heights; therefore, I'm not crazy about going on a lot of rides. In the past, I've generally been the one to watch the cameras while everyone else has what they consider fun. That's not exactly the recipe for a great time. But what else can I do; I'm afraid of heights.

But this is just one reason to be afraid. If you take some time, I think a semi-creative person can come up with a lot more, like the fear of not being accepted, of not fitting in, of not being a part of the group, of not being good enough. And just like my fear of heights has kept me off roller coaster for the last 51 years, this fear of not belonging prevents people from becoming involved in groups, even the church. I mean, if I sound and act as though you're not spiritual enough to be accepted or righteousness enough to become a part of the body of Christ, then you're probably not going to even come through the door. And sadly, I think we do that kind of thing all the time, either by exalting ourselves or condemning others.

But maybe, now is the time to stop, because this wasn't how Jesus saw himself or treated others. In fact, he sought out those who'd be excluded and called "unclean," people like sinners and lepers. As we can read in Mark 5:21-43, he even touched a women with a flow of blood, something that was just plain wrong according to the law, and a little girl who'd died, knowing that touching a corpse made you unclean. You see, Jesus defied the rules and reached out to these folks, because he came to redeem the unclean. He ate with the riffraff and cleansed polluted. He offered wholeness to the broken and included in his kingdom the very folks who are easy to ignore. In other words, he took those who were afraid that they could never be good enough and moved them to genuine faith. And on Sunday, during the sermon, we'll talk about how we can do this too.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sermon: Why Faith Is Worth the Effort

Mark 4:35-41 - And he said to them on that day when early evening had come, "Let us go across to the other side." And after he sent away the crowds, they took him along as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him. And there came a great squall of wind, and the waves broke over the boat so that already the boat was filling. And he was in the stern upon a cushion sleeping. And they awoke him and said to him, "Teacher, you care that we are perishing, don’t you?" And after he woke up, he rebuked the wind, and he said to the sea, "Be silent. Be still." And the wind dropped. And there was a great calm. And he said to them, "Why are you cowardly? How is it that you have no faith?" And they feared a great fear, and they said to one another, "Who then is he that even the wind and the sea obey him?"


As you can see from the sermon title, this morning we’re going to talk about faith, you know, trust; And I’ll tell you, that kind of thing really came in handy about ten years ago when I was back in Indianapolis. And although it really didn’t have anything to do with God or Christ, you know, spiritual stuff, at least for me, it hit at the very center of what’s going on in the passage we just read. But let me explain.
As a lot of y’all know, I’m a big fan of the Indianapolis Colts. And you know, although this may be shocking here in Weirton, it’s really understandable. My goodness, I’ve only lived near the Mecca of football and hockey for two seasons while I lived in Indianapolis for ten years, eight of which I had season tickets. And during that time, I didn’t miss a single game at the RCA Dome, and I’ll tell you, that really showed dedication because Peyton Manning didn’t come until somewhere around year seven, and before that, the Colts generally stunk up the place. Man, they gave away season tickets with Happy Meals, and they still couldn’t fill the dome. It was sort of like being a Pirates fan around here. Back then the Colts were usually mathematically eliminated from the play-offs by mid-October. Still it was fun going to the games and watching the other teams win and thinking, "Maybe next year." I’m telling you, those were some good times.
Anyway, about ten years ago, while I was still in Indy, there was a rumor that the Colts were leaving town. Just like they left Baltimore, they were heading out of Indianapolis and moving to LA. But you know, it was really more than just a rumor. You see, there was some dispute over the lease at the Dome, and it was assumed the Irsay was just looking for excuse to load up the U-haul and to head into the sunset. Man, even the guy on ESPN confirmed it. They were going.
And I’ll tell you, it affected the whole city. I mean, going into what was probably their last season in town, the fans in Indianapolis were so convinced that the rumors were gospel that during half-time of the first preseason game, they booed the owner when he presented the United Way with this oversized check. I’m telling you, going into that season, we were all bummed because our team was as good as gone.
There was just one problem. Jim Irsay, the owner, kept on saying there was no truth to the rumors; the Colts weren’t going anywhere. Now, that’s what he said. And I guess because of that, as I sat in my season ticket seat and watched the good people of our fair city show just how much we appreciated his generosity, I made a decision that completely changed that season, maybe the last season I’d ever be able to enjoy. I made the decision to trust Jim Irsay, the son of the guy who lied through his teeth to Baltimore. I decided to believe what he said.

Of course, that sounds easier than it actually was. I can’t tell you how many times I was called "stupid" by people who didn’t know I was a minister and "naive" and "innocent" by those who did. My gosh, every time a group conversation drifted to football, man, we didn’t talk about Jim Haughbaugh or the Colt defense or lack thereof. No sir, it was all about when and how they were going to leaving. Little did I know at the time that our brother Rob was probably praying that they’d go. I mean, how much can you make on a football team moving across country? No, they were heading out the door. And so each game that season felt a little like you were going to a wake, because people were sure that they were just one game closer to the end.
Man everybody I knew felt that way with one exception...me. You see, I made the decision to trust, and I’ve got to tell you, I really enjoyed each and every game that season without concerns or worries, except of course, for the lousy Colt defense. I was relaxed. I simply didn’t let the people around me, even the people in my church, drag me down. Instead I had this sense of peace that somehow enabled me to see pass the mess that was going on between the city and the team and all the rumors that were bouncing around all over the place, I could see past that, and so I was able to enjoy the present and even look into the future with hope and confidence. I had a great time, because I believed. You see, that’s my faith story.
And I think you can see the same sort of thing going on within the passage we read and even in our own lives. I mean, when you think about it, faith really isn’t easy, now is it? Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to talk about it, but it’s not easy to show it. And I know that sometimes we sound like it’s as natural and as simple as falling off a log, but let’s get real, it’s hard to trust someone even God and Christ when there’s so much craziness going on around you. When you get right down to it, faith demands a real effort on our part, one that’s may be even greater than trusting Jim Irsay.
My goodness, that was certainly the case in the passage we just read, wasn’t it? I don’t see a lot of faith shown by those disciples and they saw Jesus every day. But then, why should they? I mean, they must have been in the middle of one whale of a storm. I’m telling you, it was bad enough to make some veteran fishermen shake in their sandals. The wind was blowing and the waves were pounding and the boat was filling up with water. These guys weren’t idiots. They’d seen storms, but this was like the perfect storm. Man, they knew that they were goners; therefore, it was going to take an awful lot for them to move anywhere in the neighborhood of faith. According to their experience, they had no reason to be confident. They had no reason to hope. The had no reason to believe.
And you something, I can really identify with what they were feeling, because I’ve got a confession to make, sometimes faith is tough for me too, and of course, I’m talking about feelings, not words. And again, when you think about it, why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t it be for me? Why shouldn’t it be for you? Let’s face it, although my mother used to say, "Into every life a little rain must fall," sometimes, from where I stand, it feels like a monsoon. And I’ve been pretty lucky. I know, right this minute there are people here this morning who are struggling to come to grips with some kind of sickness in your life or the life of someone you love. Or maybe you’re facing some kind of problem or conflict, maybe within your family or workplace, maybe even in this congregation. But you know, even if the all the external stuff is alright for the moment, I know there are folks here who are struggling internally, with things like confusion and doubt, frustration and anger, sadness and depression, maybe even some kind of addiction or abuse, I’m talking about things like that; in other words, thoughts and feelings that Christians aren’t suppose to have. If we did, my goodness, what would the neighbors think? But no matter how good we get at pretending, you know, looking like we’ve got it all together, when all this junk starts crashing down, and we feel like we’re drowning, at those times I think faith, trust demands a real effort on our part.
But you know something, when we’re in the middle of this struggle and our ability to trust anybody, including God, has been stretched pretty thin, it’s right at that point that I believe faith, and I’m talking faith in Almighty God and his son Jesus Christ is worth the effort. And I’ll tell you why.
Just think about that story in Mark. While that storm was raging and the disciples were running around, expecting to meet their maker, let me ask you, what was Jesus doing? He was asleep in the boat. I’m telling you, the wind and the waves were so bad that professional sailors were ready to cash in their chips, and Jesus was curled up on a cushion in the stern. In fact, he was sleeping so soundly that they had to wake him up just to see if he even cared. You see, his trust level was so high, he was so sure that the boat wasn’t going to sink, he was so confident in the power that he’d received from his heavenly father, that he could take a stupid nap in the middle of the storm. And I’ll tell you right here and right now, we can do the exact same thing ourselves. And you know, it really doesn’t matter what we face. I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s something hitting you from the outside or gnawing on you from within, we can trust the one who has the power to still the worst storm we can image and who loves us so much that he’s going to use that power for our sakes. You see, right now, right this minute, we can stop being cowards, you know, like we have no faith, afraid that the world is stronger than God.
And then we can start believing that the same one who created universe and who broke forever the power of death and who continues to inspire men and women to do things that are way beyond their ability, man, we can trust that he’s going to take care of us.Now, I’m not talking about something that’s all or nothing, because I’m not sure we’ll ever get to 100%. But you know, it’s amazing. The more we do it, the more we decide to trust in the power and love of God, the stronger it’s going to become.
But beyond that, as our faith grows, so will our sense of confidence and excitement as we look into the future and peace and joy as we live in the present. Who knows, we just might be able to take a nap in the middle of our storms, free from having to worry about what’s going to happen, curled up like a little child, safe and secure in our Father’s arms. And I’ll tell you, when we get to that point, I think we all agree that faith is certainly be worth the effort.
As it turned out, the Colts didn’t leave Indianapolis at the end of the season. As a matter of fact, we moved to Virginia in 2001 and the Colts are playing in their brand new, state-of-the-art downtown stadium. You see, all those people I knew could have saved themselves a lot of worry and stress if they’d just done what I did. Of course, when you’re dealing with people, trust always carries risks, because Irsay certainly could have pulled out of town in the middle of the night, in a string of Starck Van Line trucks, whistling "California, here I come." Still, I’m glad I did what I did. I’m glad I was able to step away from the crowd and believe. But you know what, I’m even more glad I’ve decided to trust in Jesus. Because even though I still have a lot of growing to do, that trust offers me, I’ll tell you, it can offer us the possibility of moving forward even when our storms are intense.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Faith Is Worth the Effort

Well, here we are. Another week is in the book. And although it's cloudy here in Weirton, the assurance that we're loved by God can offer a lot of comfort, even in the face of a storm.

And you know, it's interesting, the scripture on which I'll preach this Sunday involves a storm. In Mark 4:35-41 (a passage you can find at Bible Talk), Jesus and his disciples are going across the Sea of Galilee. Right in the middle of the lake, they get caught in this horrible storm. Now it must have been awful, because we're talking about veteran fisherman who are terrified. Yet, as this storm is raging, Jesus remains asleep in the boat.

Now to me, that seems important. I think it points to the difference between trusting God and not. You see, faith/trust doesn't cause the storms to go away, even though Jesus has to the power to still them. Rather, it gives us the ability to experience a sense of peace in the middle of whatever mess we're facing. In other words, no matter what is happening around and within us, God is going to see us through. And just believing that can give us the strength and the hope to keep moving forward. You see, that's the reason, I believe faith is worth the effort.

Monday, June 15, 2009

From Maintenance to Mission

PC(USA) McDonald challenges disciple workshop to become sacrificial

Bill Lancaster Special to the Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Glen McDonald challenged 42 workshop participants at the first ever Big Tent event here to become sacrificial in moving their congregations from "maintenance mode to missional mode."

He told people in a "Disciple-Making Church" workshop - part of the Evangelism Conference at Big Tent - "God has called us to go from maintenance mode to missional mode. We need to be congregations for the next 100 members, not the 100 who are already here."

The pastor of the Zionsville (IN) Presbyterian Church told about asking a group of church members who would be willing to sacrifice their lives to save the life of a child or grandchild. All hands went up. He then asked, "Who would be willing to change the music in your worship service in order to appeal to your child or grandchild?" No hands went up.

"A sacrifice might be necessary," he said, and challenged them to be willing to give up some things in order to move the church to a new way of being.

He also told Evangelism Conference participants that they might have to give up some of their valuable time to become mentors to help at least one person move forward in their faith.
"This area of mentoring needs to explode," he said. "It takes time. We have to let go of certain things in order to be able to do this.

"Jesus asks for the sacrifice of your whole life," McDonald said. "When church people tell others this and say, 'This is incredibly hard, but the Spirit of Jesus is helping us. Will you walk with us for a while,' they say 'Yes.' They want a faith that is authentic."

McDonald also told participants that this is not a job that is ever done so it can be checked off. "Every day we are at a new place, and we go forward from there."

Bill Lancaster is associate executive for Foothills Presbytery and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

Sermon - Freedom from Control and Expectation

Mark 4:26-34 - And he said, "Thus is the Kingdom of God, like a man who might throw the seeds upon the earth. And he might sleep and rise night and day, and the seed might sprout and grow; he doesn’t know how. By itself the earth bears fruit, first a blade, then an ear of grain, then full grain in the ear. And when the fruit is ripe, immediately he sends the sickle, because the harvest has come."
And he said, "How might we compare the Kingdom of God, or by what parable might we set it forth? [It’s] like a mustard seed, which when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds upon the earth. And when it’s sown, it comes up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and it puts out large branches, so that the birds of the heavens are able to roost in its shade."
And with many such parables he spoke to them the word, so that they were able to hear. And without parables he didn’t speak to them, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.


Well, although it’s still a week away, for me at least, summer has begun. I mean, give me a break, it’s just getting too hot and humid to call it spring any more. And since summer is now here, that means we better do something we haven’t been able to do all winter, and no, I’m not talking about complaining about the heat. I mean, if we haven’t done it already, we had better get ourselves outside and plant whatever kind of garden we’re going to have. Because let’s face it, if we don’t do it now, it doesn’t make much sense doing it later. Now that’s something I know, even though nobody would ever accuse me of being a junior Mr. Green Jeans (now I understand everyone under forty-five is saying, "Huh, who’s Mr. Green Jeans?" Ask your mother).
Anyway, for that reason, a couple of weeks ago I planted some stuff around the house. I went over to Kmart and bought a stick that was advertised as a raspberry plant, four leaves on a stick that was supposed to grow into a lilac bush and ten root knots in a bag of dirt that the label said would produce strawberries. Now that’s what I bought, and I’ve got to tell you, I was really excited when I planted them. Man, I could just taste those strawberries, covering some vanilla ice cream. And could see myself mixing those raspberries in with the Toasteos I have every single morning for breakfast. And I could almost smell those lilacs as I walk beside the garage after I pull out my car. Man, my hopes were high. But I knew that when you get right down to it, whether those plants lived or died, well, that was pretty much up to me. I mean, if I ever wanted get that fruit or smell those flowers, I was going to have to plant the sticks and knots carefully, water them diligently and of course, encourage them sweetly.
And I’ll tell you, that’s exact what I did, but there was just one problem: nothing much happened. After about a week, one stick was still a stick. The other almost immediately lost one of its leaves. And if it weren’t for the dandelions, my strawberry patch looked as dead as the surface of the moon. And you know, personally, I’ve found all that both frustrating and disappointing. I mean, what do those sticks and knots expect? I gave them a good home. If it weren’t for me, they might have ended up in a dumpster, right? And you know (and I hope I don’t get too emotional about this), my ice cream is still uncovered, naked as it were, and my cereal is still unmixed and my nose is still...well, y’all get the picture. Man, I was frustrated and disappointed. But what else could I feel, especially since I did what I was supposed to do and yet my hopes were disappointed.
And you know, I think this same sort of thing happens to a lot of Christians as they approach God. I mean, based on what I hear them saying, it seems to me that a lot of believers, you know, folks like us, make two assumptions that nearly always get them into trouble. You see, first, they kind of assume that they have a fair amount of control over God and his kingdom. In other words, although they may pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done," if you listen to them talk or watch what they do, they sure sound and act like it’s ultimately up to them. If I do what I’m suppose to do, I’ll see results. And like I said last week, maybe that explains why we sing so many hymns that start with the word "I" and then talk about what I’ve done or what I’ve decided or what I’ve given. We may pay lip service to the sovereignty of God, but when push comes to shove, it’s really about me, isn’t it? Why? Because I’m the one in control. Now that’s one assumption.
And second, I think a lot of Christians assume that when they approach God and do everything they’ve been told to do, they know exactly what they’re going to get. It’s like putting money in a gum ball machine. And really, that only makes sense. For heaven’s sake, if I decided to follow Jesus and gave him my life, there should be something in it for me, right? I’m telling you, at the least God should give me, oh, maybe a car that doesn’t have the holes filled with foam insulation or a another TV so that I don’t have to watch Hannah Montana every night or at the very least a growing raspberry stick. My gosh, I found him, for crying out loud. That’s what we say, isn’t it? I found God. How about a little gratitude. God was lost but now he’s been found; BY ME! Now I ask you, is that too much to expect from the creator of the universe, especially after everything I’ve done for him? Absolutely not, or so they assume. Man, a lot of Christians have some real control issues and expectations to burn.
And although that may be all very socially acceptable, maybe even natural, what do you think happens when those same folks suddenly realize that they really can’t control the future of the tin mill or the behavior of their teenage daughter or their own test results. And if they can’t control any of that stuff, how can they possibly control God’s kingdom and their eternal destinies? Man, that’s frustrating, isn’t it? But more than that, how are they going to react when they expect God to make them inside, outside happy all the time only to find that those tests didn’t turn out too the way they wanted and their daughter has gotten herself into some kind of trouble they wouldn’t have wished on any child and there’s still not much happening in Weirton economically on which you could slap a smiley face. Disappointing, right? And although it’s really the same in most aspects of life, when you approach God with a false sense of control and a duffle sack full of expectations, you can pretty much count on ending up feeling frustrated and disappointed.
But you know, I think that’s exactly why Jesus gave his disciples these two parables we read this morning, because in them, I think he warns us to keep both these assumptions under control. I mean, just think about the parable of the sower. Isn’t the point that like the crop grows sort of on it’s own, that God’s kingdom isn’t going to come thanks to what we do anymore than it can be stopped by us sitting on our hands. No sir, growth is the work of God, and even though we may need to get off our...pews when it’s time to plant and to reap, the harvest is both a gift and a miracle. Like the Apostle Paul wrote, "I planted. Apollos watered. But God made it grow." I’m telling you, on my best day, I can’t facilitate nor can I frustrate the will of God. His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Man, that’s beyond my control.
And in the second parable, you know the one about the mustard seed, isn’t Christ kind of pushing us to get past our expectations? I mean, would you expect anything big to come from a mustard seed? It’s the tiniest of all seeds for crying out loud. Of course not, and yet there it is. But even more amazing than that, would anyone expect Jesus to compare the Kingdom of God to a mustard plant? I mean, look at the cover of the bulletin. He’s not saying it’s like that those trees, you know, well rooted, strong and solid. It’s like those things with the yellow flowers, frankly those weeds growing underneath. It would be like him saying that the Kingdom of God is like a dandelion or some crab grass. Nobody in his right mind would expect anything like that, and yet, I’m telling you, that’s exactly what Jesus said.
And praise the Lord that he did. Praise the Lord that he said that we don’t have nearly as much control as we think we have. We don’t, but God does and more. And praise the Lord that he told us that neither God nor his kingdom is bound to our expectations. He’s just a tad bit bigger than what we want and dream and desire. I’m telling you, we should be down on our knees, praising God that through his son, he let us in on this stuff, and I’ll tell you why.
Finally, we can relax a little bit, can’t we? Now I’m not saying this as an excuse to be lazy and just kind of lounge around the church, protected from the realities out there in the world. I’m not saying that at all. Still, I don’t know about you, but it’s a load off my shoulders not to have to control the universe. I mean, being responsible to move the earth around the sun and to rescue the polar bears and to save souls for Jesus Christ, well, not only is that exhausting, it’s really outside my job description and above my pay scale. You see, knowing that all these things, in fact, knowing that all things are in the loving hands of Gods, well, now I can stop feeling a lot of the frustration that comes from trying to do things I just wasn’t created to do. Instead, I can devote my time doing the things that are part to my job, like pastoring a church in Weirton, WV and trying to make a difference in this community, and helping to raise a little girl named Maggie and being the best husband and father and son and friend I’m able to be. I’m telling you, when we accept that we don’t have to be in control, the pressure’s off and we can become the people God created us to be.
And you know, when we put aside the expectations and inevitable disappointments that trail along, finally we can be grateful, and I mean really grateful for what we do have. I remember, mom used to say to us, "I felt bad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet." You know, we have a pretty good life. We may complain, but compared to the rest of the world, it’s pretty good. There’s food on our tables and roofs over our heads. And in spite of all the stuff that could be better, God has lead us into a Christian family right here in this church, that may not be perfect by a long-shot, but that’s filled with people who are at least trying to be sincere and positive and caring. And even though there are times we might prefer a new car or a big screen TV, we have a heavenly father who loved us before the foundation of the world and who sent his son into our space so that we could know him and he could really know us and who right now has filled us with his Spirit so that we can stand up on our hind legs and say "I believe." I’m telling you, we have a lot for which to be grateful. Wouldn’t it be sad if a bunch of disappointed expectations got in the way and prevented us from thanking God for all he’s already done. You see, when expectations drop, gratitude rises.

Remember how I was telling you about the stuff I planted a couple of weeks ago. Well, you’ll never believe it. The day I decided to accept that I was not in control and dropped the unreasonable expectations, guess what happened? That’s right, the raspberry is still a stick. The lilac lost another leaf. But in my strawberry patch, I’m going to have a fine harvest soon, of course not of strawberries. I’m talking about dandelions. But you know, that’s O.K. I guess right now, it’s all in God’s hands anyway. And I’ve learned not to buy plants that are on sale at Kmart. And you know, if we can take that same attitude and apply it to God and his kingdom, I think we’re going to see the frustrations and disappointments replaced by a new spirit that’s relaxed and grateful. I’m telling you, that’s going happen when we’re freed from control and expectations.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A New Way to View Change

Well, although it's still a week off, for me summer has started. And of course, that means that I can begin complaining about the heat. And you know, that's the wonder of seasons. Each one gives us something special about which we can complain.

Of course we don't just complain about heat or summer. It seems as though humans have an almost limitless capacity to complain. In fact, we can even find reason to complain about not having anything to complain about. Gripping, next to football, is the national pastime. And within the church, the one thing we probably complain about most is change. My goodness gracious, by its very nature, change has got to be bad. I mean, didn't creation reach perfection and didn't God Kingdom come sometime in the 1950s? You back then, morality was like the schools down south: things were either black or white. And we didn't need to worry about all this new fangled technology. Electric typewriters were on the cutting edge. And of course, kids weren't exposed to the kind of immorality that's present today. Yes sir, change is often both scary and threatening; therefore, it makes a lot of sense to complain.

And although that's understandable, it might be worth our while to take a breath and see the changes that are occurring around us as a unique opportunity to serve God. You see, change isn't bad by its nature; it's really all in what you make it. I mean, isn't it wonderful that the prejudices that divided Christian brothers and sisters are breaking down, and we can learn from one another? And isn't it great that I can send this message out to about 150 households by pushing a button? And doesn't the changes that we see in our culture offer us the chance to share the good news of God's love to a generation who isn't weighed down with a lot of preconceptions? No, change is no reason to complain, not if we use it to glorify Christ.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Blessed, Warm Fog

A monthly column for the church-at-large by the Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) This month’s article has been written by the Reverend Thomas Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly.

June 2009

It is not the clear-sighted who rule the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm fog.

Only a writer as accomplished as Joseph Conrad could get away with that misdirection. You know the fog-minded feeling of a too-early morning or a very late night, of being overwhelmed by too much information or too much stress. It is no fun to be in such a fog.

But a detail-blurring fog can sometimes offer us the clarity of purpose we need to accomplish great things. Perhaps we see best when we can’t see everything.

In biblical times, God was seen through a kind of fog. God covered Moses’ face and revealed only the renderings of glory. Elijah heard just a wee small voice. The disciples saw the Spirit of God as a dove. Yet, without the details they all accomplished great things of faith. Even Jesus had to deal with those without ears to hear or eyes to see.

Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm fog.

In 2006, the 217th General Assembly created the Form of Government Task Force (FOG) to draft a revised polity for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The 218th General Assembly (2008) heard the task force report, then recommissioned and renamed them the New Form of Government Task Force (nFOG). The nFOG is to consult with the church and bring a new draft to the 219th GA in 2010.

What great blessings can be perceived in this fog?

The season of consultation with the church has been ongoing for the last several months. If you have yet to review the proposed new Form of Government and submit your comments, please do so soon. The deadline to give feedback to the task force is June 30.

You will find the proposed new Form of Government and study materials at www.pcusa.org/formofgovernment.

Join in helping to accomplish great things in the service of our Savior.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sermon - There's No I in Grace

John 3:1-17 - And there was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to [Jesus] during the night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one is able to do the signs which you do, unless God is with him."
Jesus answered and said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a person might be born from above, then he is not able to see the Kingdom of God."
Nicodemus said to him, "How is a person able to be born when he is an old man? He isn’t able to enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born, is he?"
Jesus answered, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a person might be born from water and spirit, then he is not about to enter into the Kingdom of God. Those who are born from the flesh are flesh. And those who are born from the spirit are spirit. Don’t be amazed that I say to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wants, and it’s sound you hear, but you don’t know where it’s going and where it’s been. Thus it is with all who are born from the spirit."
Nicodemus answered and said to him, "How are these things able to occur?"
Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you yourself the teacher of Israel and these things you don’t know? Amen, amen, I say to you that what we know, we speak, and what we have seen, we bear witness, and our witness you haven’t received. If earthly things I said to you and you didn’t believe, how, if I might say to you heavenly things will you believe? And no one goes up to heaven, except the one who has come down from heaven, the son of man.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus the son of man must be lifted up, so that all who believes in him might have life eternal. For thus God loved the world, that the only begotten son he gave, so that all who believe in him might not perish might have life eternal. For God didn’t send the son into the world in order to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him."


You know, it’s interesting, as you get older, what’s considered "play" changes. I know for me, as I move through my forties, again, it tends to involve less and less physical activity. In fact, I think I’ve probably hit a point in my life when I prefer watching others play than actually getting on the field myself. And even if one day I decide to take up golf, one of the real pluses are those carts that you can drive around between shots. If they could only figure out how to do that with basketball... No, let’s just say that my concept of playing has become less active over the years.
But of course, that wasn’t the case when I was younger, and I’m talking about when I was under twenty. Like all the guys I hung with, I played a lot of sports. And it was great. And you know, what’s really amazing, not only can I remember every single team, when I close my eyes, I can see every single coach I ever had: some of the names are a little foggy, but I can still see the men.
But more than that, I can remember some of the things that they said. For example, I remember one practice when I was around fifteen, Coach Russell chewing out a kid for not doing something, I don’t remember what. And when the kid kind of walked away, you know, looking sad and discouraged, I remember the coach going up to him and putting his arm around his shoulder and saying, "You know, I only yell at the players who have potential." And that seemed to make the kid feel better. Of course, it kind of worried me, because the coach never yelled at me. Sometimes he even seemed to forget my name. But after talking it over with mom, we decided that I must have been so good he didn’t need to yell at me and that helped, but it never really explained why he didn’t play me either. Maybe I was really too good.
Anyway, one of the things I think every coach I ever had said at one time or another is this, and see if it sounds familiar: There’s no "I" in team. There’s no "I" in team. Of course, when you’re about eleven and hear this for the first time, it’s really cool, right; sort of like when you first hear what happens when you assume. But after hearing it for the hundred and first time, it’s just doesn’t seem quite as clever. Still, it’s pretty accurate, isn’t it? I mean, no group can really be successful until each member decides to put aside his own ego and to see himself as part of something bigger, you know, part of a team. In other words, I’m missing something fundamental if I’m playing on a team but spend all my time focusing on myself.
And you know, I think the exact same thing can be said about our relationship with God. We’re going to miss out on some things that are absolutely fundamental, essential if we can’t see beyond ourselves. And yet, that’s often exactly what Christians tend to do, isn’t it; focus on "us," on "me." Sure it is. That becomes the center of faith: I/me, us/we. My gosh, if you any doubts, open up the hymnal to the index in the back, and compare the number of hymns that start with the words "I" and "we" with the ones that begin with "Christ" and "Jesus" and "God." Now, you don’t really need to count. Man, it’s not even close.
Let’s face it, for a lot of sincere but misinformed Christians, our relationship with God ultimately comes down to what we’ve done. For me, it comes down to what I’ve decided and what I’ve given and then of course, what I’ve gotten. You see, it really is all about me: what I think, what I know, what I think I know. In fact, God is generally bound to what I think is reasonable and appropriate. I mean, how could he possibly violate what I know to be true. No way, Jose.Or so I believe. You see, this is what happens when we move ourselves into the center of God’s universe. But we’re not alone.
As a matter of fact we become exactly like good old Nicodemus who just couldn’t see beyond himself and what he knew was right and what he knew was possible. My goodness, before he said much of anything else, he told Jesus what he already knew: "We know you’re a teacher sent by God." Man, we know because of the signs. Oh yes, Nicodemus knows, doesn’t he? And that’s why, right after Jesus said, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a person might be born from above, then he is not able to see the Kingdom of God," he asked, "How is a person able to be born when he is an old man? He isn’t able to enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born, is he?" Man, he knew that didn’t make sense. Daa. That kind of talk was just stupid. And you know, since it didn’t make sense to him, it couldn’t be right. No wonder Jesus said to him, "Are you yourself the teacher of Israel and these things you don’t know? Amen, amen, I say to you that what we know, we speak, and what we have seen, we bear witness, and our witness you haven’t received. If earthly things I said to you and you didn’t believe, how, if I might say to you heavenly things will you believe?" He just didn’t get it. What he thought he knew got in the way. And I’ll tell you, because of that he completely missed the good news and I’m talking about the stuff Jesus taught in the rest of the passage.
And I’ll tell you something else, brothers and sisters, the same thing can happen to us. If I can’t get pass me and what I think and what I know, I’m going to miss completely who God really is and what he did and continues to do. And brace yourselves, right here is where the trinity comes in.
You see, as long as I think it’s all about me, as long as I’m in the center, as long as God is limited to what I already know, I’m never going to appreciate the Spirit that Jesus described in this passage. I mean, if I believe the Holy Spirit is limited and controlled by what I think, you tell me, how in heaven’s name am I going to ever realize that the spirit of God is like the wind, and that "the wind blows where it wants, and it’s sound you hear, but you don’t know where it’s going and where it’s been. Thus it is with all who are born from the spirit." Man, unless you’re like Kreskin you know the guy who could bend spoons with his mind, we are never going to control the wind. All we can do, as a good friend reminded me a couple of days ago, when a cool breeze moves past us on a hot summer evening, all we can do is to sigh and smile and say "thank God."
And you know, that’s also all we can really do when the Spirit moves around and through us, giving us the opportunity to believe and bringing to us a new life, a birth from above, the kind of relationship with the Father through the Son that’s close and intimate and eternal. I’m telling you, when we feel that Spirit which is always, and I mean always beyond our understanding and control, when we feel that Spirit which is flowing all around us this morning, I’m telling you, when we feel that Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit touch our lives, maybe all we can do is to smile and to sigh and to say a quiet "thank God." You see, I’m going to miss all this, when I assume that I must know it all.
But that’s not all I’m going to miss. If it really all comes down to what I think and do, I’m never going to appreciate what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Light of the world, has already done. You see, it’s just like he said in the verses we read, "...just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus the son of man [was] lifted up." Man, we’ve heard the story of Easter: how he was lifted up on a cross and he rose from dead and he returned to his father. You see, this is what Jesus chose to do, and he did it without my help or permission.
And the reason, well that’s pretty clear, "so that all who believe in him might have life eternal." You see, it’s just like the story from the Old Testament. According to the Book of Numbers, when poisonous snakes were biting the children of Israel, God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole. And although it didn’t make the snakes go away, it did offer life to those who’d been bit.
And you know, in the exact same way, Jesus offers life to us. Although he doesn’t lift us out of this world, a place that loves darkness more than the light and always will, nor does he eliminate from us all those signs of sin that weigh us down, like pride and hatred and shame, just to name a few, to those whom the Spirit has touched and who believe, he offers to us a new life, a new relationship with God. This is what he, not we, has done. But I’m going to miss it, if I keep getting in the way.
And finally, I don’t know how I’m ever going to accept God, the Father, if I assume that it’s really all about me. You see, I think something sad happens when I buy into this "it’s up to me" kind of Christian, a set of beliefs that’s really popular because they stroke the ego but ultimately leave the soul pretty empty. I mean, as soon as I say that God loves me because... or God loves me when... or God loves me if... and then follow it with something I have to do or give and decide, his love becomes a wage for services rendered and I’m left with a God who is, at best, a passive and disconnected judge who gives me what I deserve or at worse a boss who’s actually pretty cold, even cruel, because he’s constantly looking for an excuse to give me nothing at all. That becomes my God.
And how different is that image from what we see in this passage. I mean, why does the Father send the spirit to inspire us? And why did he send the Son to heal us? Just listen: "For thus God loved the world, that the only begotten son he gave, so that all who believe in him might not perish but might have life eternal. For God didn’t send the son into the world in order to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him."
You see what I’m talking about? God loves us; daddy just plain loves us and since that’s not something we’ve earned, it’s not something we can lose. And isn’t that what Paul was getting at when he wrote to the Romans: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." It’s like a minister told me I guess about twenty-five years ago, we’re going to live with the fact that God loves us. Now we have to decide what we’re going to do about it. But let’s face it, that’s something I’ll never know, if God’s love is based on what I’ve done.
Maybe it’s the nature of the world within which we live. Maybe it’s the way we were raised. Or maybe it’s some kind of inner voice that tells us that we really are the center of the universe; therefore, the Father’s love and the Son’s death and resurrection and the Spirit’s movement is all dependent on us. I really don’t know the reason. All that does seem clear to me is that often we kind of slip into the same mind set that confused poor, old Nicodemus, a self-centered perspective that caused him and causes a lot of sincere believers to miss some things that are fundament to our relationship with God. But you know, that just doesn’t have to be the case, not if we decide to do the same sort thing those coaches taught me years ago. In other words, I think it’s time for us to remember that, just like it is with the word "team," there’s no I in grace either.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Trinity - As Simple as a Two Word Sentence

Just a few minutes ago, Marcia, the church secretary, told me that she was going up to the sanctuary to turn the paraments from red, the color for Pentecost, to white. You see, this Sunday we remember the Trinity and white happens to be the color. Anyway, she said that she was doing that because she was caught up with everything that needed to be done, and then she asked me if I had anything else for her to do. And of course, being a little bit of a wise-guy, I said something like, "Well, I wouldn't mind if you could wipe up a sermon outline for me."

"What's the topic?"

"The nature of the trinity. In other words, how we can remain monotheists yet worship a triune God."

Now, like I said, I admit that I was being a wise-guy (and pretty arrogant to boot), but you know, what she said really hit the nail right on the head. In fact, it was so good that I couldn't think of any way to respond, at least for a few seconds. She said, "We trust." That's it; "We trust." And I'll tell you, although she's never been to seminary like me (see, I can be pretty arrogant), she was right on the mark. We trust; it's as simple as that.

But you know, although it's simple, trusting isn't necessarily easy. As we'll talk about during worship on Sunday, trusting is really where Nicodemus missed the boat. You see, he wanted to understand. I mean, when he heard Jesus say, "You must be born from above," he wanted to understand how. How can this be done? How was this possible? What did he need to do for this to happen? And even though Jesus was crystal clear in explaining that this new birth was the result of the actions of the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit is no more controllable than the wind, Nicodemus still wanted an explanation. He just couldn't trust God.

And sadly, I think that applies to a lot of us. Tell us what to do and we'll do it; that's easy. But trusting that it's already been done and there's really nothing for us to do, that's tough. But without that trust, we can never appreciate the simplicity of the good news: the father loves us and the son died and rose for us and the Spirit enables us to believe and to enter a new relationship with God right now. You see, without trust, the trinity becomes very complex. But when we simply relax and believe, it becomes as simple and clear as a two-word sentence: we trust.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sermon: The Fire Still Burns

Acts 2:1-21 - And when the day of Pentecost was coming to a end, they were all together in one place. And suddenly out of the heavens came a sound like a strong wind rushing by, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. And there appeared to them divided tongues as of fire, and they settled on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other tongues, just as the spirit gave them to utter.

And there were Jews who were living in Jerusalem, men who were devote from every nation under heaven. And when this sound came, the crowd came together and were confused, because each one heard in their own dialect, them speaking to them. And they were amazed and marveled, saying, "Behold, all these who are speaking are from Galilee, aren’t they? And how is it that we hear this in our own dialect in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Lybia about Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we heard them speaking in our tongues the mighty deeds of God."

And they were all amazed and completely at a loss, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others jeered and said, "They’re filled with new wine."

And then Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Man of the Jews and all those who are living in Jerusalem, let this be made known to you and give ear to my words. For don’t suppose that they are drunk, for it’s the third hour of the day. But this was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘And it will be, in the last days, God says, I will pour my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons will prophesy and your daughters. And your young men will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. And upon my male and female slaves, in those days I will pour out my spirit, and they will prophesy. And I will give wonders in the heavens above, and signs upon the earth below, blood and fire and clouds of smoke. The sun will turn into darkness and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and glorious day of the lord. And all who call upon the name of the lord will be saved.’"


As some of y’all know, I really enjoy sending out what I think you could call e-cards, you know for special days. Of course I understand that not all of y’all have e-mail, and I really wish I could send through the mail everything we send out over the internet (I’m sorry; we just don’t have the money or the time to make and mail all those copies). But if you do have an e-mail address, you’ve probably gotten a few cards from me. I know I sent out about one hundred and thirty for Memorial Day.

Anyway, on Friday morning, I decided to send something out for Pentecost, you know, the day described in the passage we read a little while ago. There was just one problem; I couldn’t find any e-cards for Pentecost. I mean, I checked out all the places I usually go. I went to the Hallmark and American Greeting websites. I looked at Blue Mountain. I even went to a site I really like called DaySpring that specializes in Christian material, but I found nothing, nothing focused on Pentecost. Of course I found an a lot of other special days, you know, like Poetry Day, which happens to be today, or Slug Day, May 28th, or (and I’m sure this was something everyone already celebrated) Naked Day, May 4th. But Pentecost, not a whisper.

Of course, I really wasn’t surprised. I mean, I haven’t seen Pentecost decorations going up in Wal Mart. And I haven’t heard folks complaining about all the stuff they had to get done before family comes in from out of town, of course, with the exception of my house. And I sure haven’t gotten any of those spirit-filled cookies or prime rib that I remember from childhood. No, even for Christians, Pentecost is kind of a forgotten day. And why shouldn’t it be? I mean, we’re Presbyterians for crying out loud, God’s frozen chosen. Man, we’re about as far from Pentecostal as you can get, and we’re proud of it.

But you know, even if we do remember Pentecost, generally, it’s just a story of something that happened in the distant and dusty past. I mean, once upon a time, after Jesus had gone into heaven, the disciples were together. And all of a sudden, there was a sound like a strong wind, you know, like a hurricane, and no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread out among them, and they started speaking in all kinds of different languages as the Spirit gave them the ability. And everybody lived happily ever after.

Now that’s usually what we talk about, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. And even if a minister calls it the Birthday of the Church, which by the way it is, generally Pentecost kind of stays back there, with not a whole lot of relevance to people who are worried about whether or not they’re going to keep their jobs or to have enough left in the pension to retire or to trust that their children will grow up to have some kind of moral compass. I’ll tell you, in the modern church, I don’t think the Pentecost has much going for it, beyond turning the paraments from white to red.

But you know, personally, I think that’s a real shame, and I’ll tell you why. I think if we spend some time thinking about what happened at Pentecost, I believe we’ll see something here that’s just as real and relevant for us today as it was for those disciples two thousand years ago. And I say that for three reasons.

You see, first, I believe as sure as I’m standing up here today that the Holy Spirit is still filling the church, this body of gathered believers just like it did on Pentecost. I’m telling you, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or accept it or even want it, the Spirit is right here with us now. And although we may not feel it like a strong wind rushing by, it’s still flowing around and through us. And even though we may not see it as tongues of fire, it’s still filling us with more energy and power than a whole case of Red Bulls. That’s happening now.

And I’ll tell you why that’s important. Through the Holy Spirit, we have something that you’re not going to find in the world. I mean, as those around us sort of slugg through life, not particularly enthused by much of anything, desperately trying to find something or someone that makes them excited, thanks to the Spirit, we can feel genuine passion, and I’m talking about a feeling of real intimacy and closeness as we consider our relationship with God and a sense of honest-to-goodness unity and purpose within this body, something that’s strong and personal and profound. I’m telling you, the spirit brings us together.

But you know, it also send us out. It makes us so fired up by the possibilities and opportunities within our community and world that we’re actually willing to leave the comfort of these padded pews and to move outside these walls and to share the love and the grace and the sheer wonder of Jesus through our words we say, but more importantly, through the lives that we live. You see, every time we bring something to food pantry or offer some encouragement to a friend who’s down or my gosh, just smile and nod to someone we pass in the mall, we’re sharing Jesus Christ with others. And this is something we all can do, because the Spirit is still filling the church. That’s one.

And second, the story of Pentecost reminds us that the message of the Gospel still has a universal appeal. Remember, when those disciples started sharing the mighty deeds of God, all those devout men in Jerusalem, people whom Luke wrote came "from every nation under heaven," they understood. They understood the message, because those spirit-filled disciples were speaking their language.

And I’ll tell you, that’s still the case two thousand years later. Although I don’t like to admit it, minister-types like me have taken the message of Jesus Christ, the simple message of grace, and made so complicated and filled with so many spiritual-sounding words it’s a wonder that anyone understands, much less believes. "Believing themselves to be wise, they became fools." And you know, that’s a real tragedy because, when you get right down to it, the gospel of Christ is incredibly simple: God loves us and Jesus died for us and the Spirit enables us to believe, to trust. That’s it. That’s the good news. You see, it’s not complicated at all.

But you know, in a world where love seems in pretty short supply and where people feel increasingly isolated and alone and where we’re told on a daily basis that we should be afraid and that we’re in decline and we’re just stupid if we trust anyone beyond ourselves, maybe this simple gospel is exactly what the world needs to hear. You see, I’m absolutely convinced that just like it did on Pentecost, the message we have can still change the lives of people, regardless of the language they speak. And that’s number two.

And third, the story we just read can remind us that God is still working within his world, man, he’s still active within his creation. You see, although it may have started two thousand years ago, the prophesy of Joel is still being fulfilled, because the Spirit of God is still being poured upon all flesh; men and women, young and old, enslaved and free are still offering prophesies and seeing visions and dreaming dreams; and for those who call upon the name of the lord, they can still trust that through his mercy and grace, they will be saved.

I’ll tell you, that’s the same today as it was back then. And because of that, we still have reason to feel hope as we look into the future and confidence as we live in the present, knowing that it’s all in his hands not ours. You see, finally we can relax a little bit, because God isn’t finished with his world nor with us. And this is something else we can see happening in Pentecost.

Now, if you have e-mail and I have your address, I hope you got an e-card from me Friday afternoon. If you haven’t seen it, check your mail or maybe yours was one the bunch of cards I got back because for some reason they were not deliverable. I can’t even pretend that I understand the internet. You see, I googled "Pentecost Cards," and I finally found four Pentecost cards at a site called Annie’s Card Shop. And I sent them out. I guess Pentecost is more important to Annie than Naked Day.

But you know, that still doesn’t change the fact that for most people, even Christians, Pentecost is an after-though, if they even think about it at all. But you know, for us, well, let’s not run with the crowd. And instead of seeing it as another "nice to know" story from the past, let’s see Pentecost as something that’s important right now in the present. And you know, that’ll be easy to do, when we remember that the Spirit is still filling the church and that the message still has a universal appeal and that God is still active in the world. You see, as we leave church, let’s all remember that, because of Pentecost, the fire still burns.

Remembering Yvette Carpenter

Yvette D. Carpenter
Born in Weirton, WV
Departed on May 29, 2009 and resided in Boynton Beach, FL.

Visitation: Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2009
Service: Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2009
Cemetery: Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens
Please click on the links above for locations, times, maps, and directions.

Yvette D. Carpenter, 80, of Boynton Beach, FL, formerly of Weirton, WV, passed away Friday, May 29, 2009 at Heartland Health Care Center in Boynton Beach, where she was an Alzheimer patient for 3 years. She was preceded in death by her parents Joseph H. and Audrey Dorrance Morrison; sisters Yvonne Stacy and Sally Morrison and brother Joseph Morrison all from Weirton.
She is survived by her husband Donovan Carpenter of Boynton Beach; two sons Ricky (Kathy) Carpenter of Boynton Beach; Robert (Joann) Carpenter of Browns Mills, NJ; daughter Sharleen K. Chamberlain of Delray Beach, FL; three grandchildren and two great-grandchilden.
Friends and family will be received from 10AM until the noon service on Wednesday, June 3, 2009 at the Greco-Hertnick Funeral Home, 3219 Main Street, Weirton, WV. Reverend Ed Rudiger will officiate. Interment will be in Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens, Weirton.