Listen Closely

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This past week I saw a video on Facebook. The young man in the video, Jefferson Bethke, states that he hates religion but loves Jesus. He claims that Jesus came to abolish religion. The video has gone viral! Many people have responded to the video but I’m not sure many of the responders have listened closely to the poetic prose of this young man. The responders I’ve heard seem to have jumped to a conclusion of what the video was about based on “Why I hate religion.” They claim the man is preaching “cheap grace.” I don’t think so, but rather than focusing on his feelings about grace why not hear his message regarding “religion?” We should listen closely and heed the wakeup call.  His voice is but one of thousands in our communities that are turning away from churches they see as “Religious.”

In preaching through the Sermon on the Mount I showed where Jesus talked about salt that had lost its saltiness and lights hidden under bushel baskets. I related this to what I called “pretend” Christians and “club” churches (that is churches that are really clubs). When I listened to the video I came to the opinion that Mr. Bethke doesn’t have a problem with the Church, he has a problem with people that are pretend Christians or that belong to a club posing as a church.

I’m currently serving my third charge within the United Methodist Church. The first charge had three churches, the second two, and now I serve a station charge meaning one church. In the dozen or so years I’ve been preaching and the forty or so years I’ve been associated with churches and religion I have experienced what Mr. Bethke is exclaiming. Too many people claim the title Christian without allowing Christ into their lives. These pretend Christians go through the motions, proof text the Bible, go to church on Sundays and maybe Wednesdays, and they can mouth the words to most of the hymns. Unfortunately these people fail to act in a Christian manner.

I have a friend that honked at a car that had a “Honk if You Love Jesus” bumper sticker. The person made obscene gestures and yelled at him. Is that being a good witness to Christ? Is that what Jesus would have us do? Maybe the person was simply having a bad day but it served as evidence that Christians are not what they portend to be. This occurs with great regularity. Pretend Christians judging and behaving as if they are something special.

Likewise churches are also failing at their jobs. Too many churches are inwardly focused. It is not that they are not good at loving but rather the object of the love is itself. The people within a congregation are so busy maintaining the status quo and bettering things for themselves that they have forgotten that the role of the church is to reach out to the lost, the marginalized, and the poor. As I was sitting in my office at a previous church a woman came in for help. She told me her story and asked for groceries. I didn’t have any money to give her but invited her to a Wednesday night meal. During the meal the treasurer began a meeting by announcing that the church had $78,000 in the bank. I was so embarrassed. The $78,000 was for a building that still isn’t needed many years later.

Of all the churches I’ve been associated with throughout my life only a couple have had their priorities straight. A tornado went through Hickman County and devastated the Brushy community. Several of the ladies from Littlelot United Methodist Church went and served a hot lunch to the aid workers every day for a week. This church of ten to fifteen people feed almost 75 people a hot meal every day for a week! That is being church rather than being religious! That is being church rather than being a club.

Jesus Christ has set us free. But what have we been set free to do? We have been set free to let other beggars know where they can get bread. We are to witness to the love of God through our actions of being the Church united with Christ, doing God’s work. By doing the work of the Kingdom of God we can lead more people to know Jesus and thus gain help in the ongoing work of easing people’s suffering and pain.

There is a lot of work to do. Won’t you join me? Right now fully commit or recommit yourself to living the live that God desires for you. Begin living in such a way that people can see our Lord and our Savior in and through us. The work is abundant! What say you?

This is this pastor’s opinion.

Blessings,

Pastor Tom

Did Anyone Get the Number of That Bus?

Yellow school bus parked at the side of a road

We all know that feeling. The feeling when someone casually says something that causes us discomfort, embarrassment, or shame. All we see is the taillights of the bus we were just thrown under. Many people seem to do this as a reflex. They seem to be thinking, “People are looking for someone to blame. I’ll deflect it to Mary Joe Bobby Sue*.”

That isn’t the only time people get tossed under the bus. Several of my seminary friends, who shall remain nameless cough Kevin cough Will cough cough**, and I would throw each other under the bus on occasion. Sometimes for amusement and other times to test out new ideas, “Professor, we were talking and Tom was thinking (insert strange thought here.)” I can almost hear the rumbling of the bus.school-bus-pimped-12

Unfortunately most of the time when people throw others under the bus it causes harm. Often it is bearing false witness. We throw them under to deflect attention away from ourselves and what we’ve done wrong. This is sinful behavior not simply because bearing false witness is wrong but because it hurts relationships. It hurts the relationship of the one tossed under the bus and the one who tossed. It also causes problems between the one who got tossed under and the others involved. They may think the tossing is true. This runs afoul of Jesus’ command to love one another.

When we talk about witnessing to God many don’t realize that people are watching us. When we announce or share that we are Christian, people begin to watch how we behave to see if Christianity is something worth their while. When we provide a bad witness through our behavior we may actually be leading people away from Christ. So what are we to do?

On the side of every school bus is a stop sign with flashing lights. We need to pay attention to the stop signals. We need to recognize when we are about to throw somebody under the bus and STOP!!!!! Heed the warning signs, fight the urge, and don’t do it. This may be harder than it appears at first glance. This may involve us taking responsibility for our behaviors including whatever we did that we are deflecting by throwing someone under the bus. Also, I don’t think we can simply cease a negative behavior because that creates a vacuum that has to be filled in. So as we concentrate on not throwing people under the bus let us continue to toss. Confusing right?

busWhat would happen if we heeded the stop sign for the negative behavior and changed it to a positive? For example: Who decided to do that children’s video last Sunday? I did but didn’t Sarah and Jill*** do an awesome job! They really work hard to ensure that the children are included and are getting to know and understand Jesus.

So if we cannot stop throwing people under the bus let us at east make it for positives!

This is this pastor’s opinion.

Blessings,

Pastor Tom

*This is an imaginary name it could have just as easily be John Thomas William Wayne.

** Did you see what I did there? Throwing Kevin and Will under the bus…

***Sarah and Jill do an incredible amount of work for Westview UMC especially the children. They are awesome!

Newsletter Letter

This is simply the letter I wrote for the Westview Newsletter.

Dear Friends of Westview UMC,

I am thankful to be returning to Westview UMC for another year as was announced on Palm Sunday. I cherish the relationships that have been forming here and look forward to our future together. We have a lot happening this month with Holy Week and Easter. Maundy Thursday marks the turn in Jesus’ ministry where he is betrayed and arrested. Good Friday marks the suffering of our Lord and Savior. We have services both nights at 6:30pm. Easter Morning begins early with a service at 6 am at Bowie Park followed by breakfast (back at Westview); our regular services and a potluck lunch and egg hunt. I hope you will join us as we walk with Jesus and grow in our relationships with God and each other.

There have been some rumors floating around that I’m going to attempt to stop. We are having a Vacation Bible School this July from the 23rd to the 29th. This year may look different from previous years but I can only imagine what Sarah and Jill have planned for the children. If you would like to help out please talk with one of them. As for rumors; we need to work on communications within our church. If you hear a rumor find out if it is true before you share it with others. This is an act of Christian love that can save people’s feelings and efforts. If there are misunderstandings please go to the people that can help correct the situation but if things are going well share with all who will listen. Seriously! People tend to find what they look for. If you plant the seed that something tremendously good is happening people will tend to see good stuff.

Again I look forward to serving with you in the coming years.

Blessings in Christ’s Name,

Pastor Tom

That’s Just Silly

Hello,

After two years of neglect I’ve decided to renew my efforts at blogging. I am committing to updating my blog at least once a week. I hope it may prove interesting even if the update is simply a preview of a sermon. You may get to see some of the thought processes that go into sermon preparation. So without further ado here is this pastor’s opinion.

This past week during the children’s message I asked the question, “What are our treasures?” I had a range of ages from two to ten or so. Some of the children know that in church the leader of children’s time is looking for particular answers and they try too oblige. Included in the answers were the fact that Jesus loved them and that we should store treasures in heaven. One young man or seven of eight answered that his treasures were, “bubble gum and comics!”

The congregation loves Children’s time in part because you never know what the children will say. Often times the children say very profound things but usually they are simply cute in their naivety. This day’s bubble gum and comics answer brought some light laughs and a beaming smile from the young man. His most prized possessions were bubble gum and comics. If he had a safe that is what would be in it.

It occurred to me that people thought his treasures were a bit silly.
Sure they are important to a child but not to us as adults. For we have outgrown our childlike ways. Right? Right? Rigggght! What do we consider to be our treasures? Gold, silver, cars and trucks? Maybe our treasures are really important things like houses, guns, and maybe even our routines. I began to wonder if when we talk about our earthly treasures, for that is what most people think about when thinking about treasure, if God and the heavenly host begin to snicker at our naivety.SILLINESS-copy

 

In the grand scheme I doubt any of our earthly treasure will matter. What will count us as God’s children is how we use those treasure to enhance somebody else’s life. All we have is truly a gift from God and like all gifts of God they are intended to remain gifts. If we start to posses gifts they instantly lose the power of being from God. The gifts must continue to be given out to those in need whether that need is economic, cultural, political, physical, or spiritual. We will all suffer from one form of poverty or another at some point in our lives. Our goal, which I believe is God’s will, is to reach out and meet people’s needs with the multiple gifts provided for us by God.

In keeping the gifts circulating as gifts we are able to help people experience the love, mercy, and grace that comes not from us but through us from God. I urge you all to reflect upon your earthly treasures and see how to use them to help fulfill the Kingdom of God here on earth thereby saving treasures in heaven.

That is the pastor’s opinion.

Blessings to you,

Pastor Tom.

I Am the Church, You Are the Church, We Are the Church

Matthew 16:18 NRSV “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

I read a book today by David Platt called A Radical Idea. It came as a two part set with the book The Radical Question. I found that I have very little in common with this author theologically. We come from different places have some different interpretations of scripture. Putting that aside I realized that some very good and important points were being made. Points that need discussion and implementation. Points that could save local churches across the country.

We need to realize that churches are not brick and mortar. The church is not a building, no matter how fancy. Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on which the Church will be built. Peter goes forth, with the other disciples, and witnessed and taught, healed and cared for the people. The church grew and even though the early church faced persecution they continued to proclaim Jesus as Savior. The church had an intensive church growth program. They built buildings, had youth group lock-ins, professional light shows during worship, and nicely manicured lawns. Of course not! They faced persecution unlike we know in the United States. The early church grew because people were passionate about spreading the Gospel message of Jesus Christ particularly to the poor.

Who were the poor? Dr. Doug Meeks, who teaches Wesleyan Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School, rightly claims that poverty has five aspects: Economic, Cultural, Political, Physical, and Spiritual. The cry of the economically poor is we have no bread. God is the bread and giver of life. The culturally poor cry out, “We have no sense of self, no history, no name.” God knows us each by name and calls us to himself. The politically poor have no power, no voice, and no justice. God is power and is just. The physically poor are sick many with no access to care. God is healing. The spiritually poor cry out, “I have no hope.” God is hope! God is the Good news for the poor, all aspects of poverty. Using this paradigm we see that all people are poor or will suffer with some type of poverty in their lives, even if it is just physical.

Who are the rich? If everyone suffers from poverty who are the rich people that are supposed to care for the poor. We all are rich. We need to stop thinking in strictly earthly terms. Everyone has something to offer to others. That makes them rich. They have an abundance of something that can aid others. My mind instantly goes to the completely destitute people living in garbage dumps and landfills and you may be thinking what they could possibly have that I could need or even want. We don’t know until we talk with them, sharing our stories, listening to theirs. We share in relationship and everyone gains something. That something may not be big or elaborate in earthly terms but it is awesome in spiritual terms.

I saw a picture of a little boy being raised in a landfill. He was being held in his mother’s arms. His eyes were absolutely amazing and both he and his mother were smiling. That is something that everyone can give. A smile, hug, conversation, presence are all invaluable gifts. A woman at my first charge in the United Methodist Church was homebound and was unable to walk. Her ministry was to write uplifting cards to people in her community. She started with civic and church leaders and then went through the phone book. She was sharing all she had to give. She was sharing herself with others in an effort to brighten someone’s day.

The church is not huge fancy buildings, or any building for that matter. The church is not elaborate worship that is professionally choreographed. The church is not programs. David Platt warns against requiring people to participate in the programs of the church. He rightly claims that those programs can draw people away from the ministry they are already doing. The church is people that are willing to sacrifice their all for Jesus and His ministry on earth. The church is the lady writing cards, the conversation about God wherever it takes place, the sharing of a meal and conversation. The church is not a place. It is people all over the world coming together in order to transform the world; lifting everyone up toward their full potential, working and living together, loving and caring for each other in peace and love.

That is this pastor’s opinion. What’s yours?

Help Me Do Better

John 14:14 “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

Wesley Chapel UMC in College Grove, TN has a Tuesday morning prayer meeting at 7:15 am. Several of us gather for fellowship and prayer each week and share this time together praying to God for various things. We give thanks, ask for direction, supplication and etcetera. This is an unstructured time. People can pray at the same time, sit quietly, wonder around the church, or whatever else they need to do in order that they may commune with God. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that is vital to our spiritual wellbeing.

Through prayer we build and nourish our relationship with God. Why else would we pray to God who know what we are going to pray about beforehand? Prayer is a conversation with God. All of our relationships are built on communication. The most important of our relationships should be as well. An issue that I’ve often heard as a pastor is that God doesn’t answer our prayers. By the way, God answers all of our prayers. However there are several reasons that it may seem God hasn’t answered our prayers.

Many people spend long hours in prayer but neglect to ever listen for a reply. Remember prayer is a conversation. How long would you talk with someone who never let you speak? God is infinitely patient even in that regard but how do we expect God to answer when we never take the time to look for God’s answer. At least half if not more of our prayer time should be contemplating and listening for God’s answer.

The second reason people miss the answer to their prayers is because the answer is unexpected. God often answers our prayers in ways that we do not understand and are unexpected. Many times God uses the people that are already in our lives to answer our prayers as well. Again we need to take the time to look and see if the prayer is truly unanswered.

A third reason our prayers seem to go unanswered is we tend to forget that no is often a completely understandable and appropriate response to our prayer. Good parents often say no to their children. No can protect us from harm and sinful behavior. God is not a wish fulfillment provider or a genie. No is an answer to a wide range of requests from $1,000,000 to I want to be taller.

The final reason was summed up very well today in the prayer group I mentioned. Often we don’t pray in Jesus name even though we say we are… Let me try to explain. Just because we add, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” at the end of the prayer doesn’t mean we are truly invoking Hid name. When we truly pray in Jesus’ name we are praying as Jesus would pray. We pray that God’s will be done, that we are able to submit, that our actions are pleasing to God, and we are praying not simply for our personal needs but for the Kingdom. Our prayers should line up with our Christian walk. We should pray for our enemies, our foes, and even those we don’t like. Today this was summed up by a man who simply and humbly prayed, “God, help me do better.”

Help me do better. God knows all that happening in our lives. God knows our needs as well as our wants and desires. God knows what aspects of our selves we’ve been working on and those areas that need work. God even knows how we fall short. The prayer to help me be better is great. It encompasses all that we need to say. I have fallen short, I have not given up and am working hard, help me to do better.

My prayer for all of us throughout the world is thus, “God, help us do better.” Amen

This is this pastor’s opinion, what’s yours?

Blessings,

Pastor Tom

Fred Phelps

Luke 6:27-28, “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

I was talking to a friend yesterday and he lamented the joy people are experiencing at the news that Fred Phelps is in hospice care and dying. I understand not liking what he stands for, or what he has done, but to hate the man and take joy in his death strikes me as much the same type of behavior in which he engaged. Mr. Phelps was the founder of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas. He is adamantly and vocally against homosexuality and organized protests at people’s funerals. He even proclaimed that the United States was being punished for allowing homosexuality and therefore picketed at the funerals of soldiers whether or not they were gay.

I don’t know anyone that believes it is proper to picket a funeral. To disrupt the funeral ceremony is an affront to common decency. Funerals are a time to pay respect and surround the grieving family with love and support. To mount a demonstration at that most vulnerable time is at the least insensitive and in my opinion downright mean. I disagree with Mr. Phelps on most of his statements. We do agree that Jesus is Lord…

I have never met Mr. Phelps or any of his church or family. I know of him only through the media, news, and a few interviews that I’ve seen. It seemed to me that much of what he was doing is what I refer to as “look at me” behavior. When I taught school many of the trouble-makers were simply engaged in behaviors that were designed to draw attention to themselves. I found that if I were to pay attention to them for positive behaviors the “look at me” behaviors subsided. People in the media know this and also know that Mr. Phelps controversial, loud, and misguided words and actions sold. They sold newspapers and television ads. If the media had stopped reporting on Westboro Baptist I believe they would have stopped as well.

That being said, the happiness of people regarding his forthcoming death is disturbing. One may not like his positions, statements, philosophy, or theology. One can hate his actions, deeds, and speeches. To go the extra step in celebrating his death is very much like Mr. Phelps’ actions. We are called to love even our enemies. We are called to pray for those who persecute us.

It is an interesting thing to try. If you get really angry with someone. So angry that you in fact feel hate toward them, pray. Then pray some more. As you earnestly pray for them some interesting things begin to happen. It is impossible to hold hate in your heart for someone you are earnestly praying for. I don’t mean praying that they go away or get hurt. I mean that we are praying that God blesses them just as we would like God to bless us. Several things begin to happen. Hearts begin to soften. Sometimes it is even the other person’s heart. Sometimes we see deeper into the situation and understand that they are coming from a different place. Sometimes we just learn to accept that we cannot change the other person. It is however exceedingly difficult to hate someone for whom you are praying.

My friend asked me what I thought of the people that will undoubtedly protest his funeral. I really hope that no one protests with a malignant heart. Mr. Phelps had a heart that hated an entire group of people. Why would anyone want to return his hate and have that hate live on through their own hearts? I told my friend that I would consider going to Mr. Phelps’ funeral with a two sided sign. On one side the sign would read, “God loves you.” The other side would say, “God forgives you.”

When I think of all the ways in which I fall short I am thankful for those two statements. I cannot fathom the depth of God’s love, nor can I understand why God loves us. It is clear however that God does love and care for us. I am reassured by the thought that with all Paul did to the early Church prior to his conversion he was forgiven and loved. If God can deal with that, maybe God can deal with my shortcomings too.

Just this pastor’s opinion, what’s yours?

Blessings in Christ,

Pastor Tom