Devotional – Psalm 96.1

Devotional:

Psalm 96.1

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.

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I love the so-called “good ol’ hymns.” I love them because I grew up with them, because they remind me of particular people in particular places, and because the theology behind them is remarkable. All I need are the first verses of “Amazing Grace” to draw me to all of the saints that have gone on to glory during my life, or the opening melody of “Jesus Calls Us O’er The Tumult” will bring forth memories of my grandmother humming the tune in her kitchen, or I’ll read through the words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and it will give me goose-bumps thinking about how Christians have used those words for over a thousand years.

The “good ol’ hymns” are called as such accordingly; they are good and they are old.

In the church today, however, there is a strong temptation to employ something new simply for the sake of being new. Rather than relying on tradition or theology, we’re inclined to pull out the shiny new songs in hopes that they will bring about some sort of change or transformation. And, though many new songs are ripe with good theology, many of them fail in that particular category. New songs can have catchy melodies, and stir up emotional responses, but if the words we proclaim are unfaithful, we have to ask ourselves: “Is this the new song God wants us to sing?”

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking with the choir at Cokesbury about new and different ways to praise God through voice and song; but not necessarily with new songs. So, we prayed about it, and on Sunday morning I got out my cajon and started playing along with our pianist to the tune of “I Surrender All.” For what it’s worth: “I Surrender All” was written in 1896 and it has been a favorite of Christians for more than a century. But for us on Sunday morning, it felt new. It felt new because we did not somber along with the verses, we did not say the words devoid of meaning. Instead we passed around a microphone to members of the choir, some over 70 and some under 17, and let them sing the verses as the Spirit led them.

It was beautiful, it was powerful, and it was new.

What songs from the hymnal move you the most? What is it about those particular hymns that resonate with you? How has God used a particular song to speak a new word at a particular moment in your life?

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Devotional – Acts 2.1

Devotional:

Acts 2.1

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

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When was the last time your entire family was together in one place? For some it probably occurred around a holiday like Christmas or Easter, for others it might have occurred at a funeral service or a wedding celebration, and for others the possibility of having everyone together might simply be an impossibility.

When an entire family is together in one place, magnificent things can take place. All the sudden you might overhear a distant cousin telling a story when you realize he or she sounds exactly like you, or you’ll notice that that you have the same color hair as an aunt, or you begin to see how really connected you are even without seeing the whole family very often.

However, being together with an entire family in one place can also bring about conflict. Old disagreements from the distant past can percolate to the surface, political differences can ruin an otherwise wonderful afternoon, or the swift judgments of family members about their family members can show the true colors of brokenness even within a group of people who share the same genes.

When was the last time the entire church was in one place? Across the country, at least in mainline Protestantism, most churches see the majority of their members only once a month. That is why there is such an abundance of churches with upwards of 400 members, but they see less than 100 on Sunday mornings. And, even if everyone showed up to be together in one place, you would get the good and the bad just like when an entire family gets together.

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But can you imagine what our churches would look like if we were all together in one place? And, if you can, think beyond the local church, what if The Church came together in one place? That, among many other wonderful blessings, is the miracle of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in a new and transformative way, they were all together in one place even though they were not of one mind. The whole of Acts reads like a bad family reunion in that whenever they gathered together they were forever disagreeing about some tenet of theology, and it is why Paul’s letters were necessary and instructional for the Church to figure out what it meant to be the Church.

Pentecost, though we celebrate it once a year, is actually still taking place in all of our churches whenever we gather together (whether we have all our people or not). The journey and mystery of the church is a group of people striving to be together without agreeing together, it is a miracle made possible by the grace of the Spirit that binds us together particularly when we don’t want it, and it is nothing short of a miracle.

When was the last time you were together with everyone in church? This Sunday might be a great chance to encounter the story of Pentecost that is still being written whenever we gather together.

On Why Christians Should Not Read The Bible

A reflection on Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture:

I was 9 years old and sitting in one of the front pews at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia when I was called up to the altar and given a red hardback copy of the New Revised Stand Version of the Bible. I can remember feeling the thin pages in my fingers while I flipped between the Old and New Testaments and ignored whatever the preacher was preaching about. I knew it was the same bible as the one sitting on the back of the pew in front of me, but there was something different about it being my bible. From that point forward, whenever I grew tired or distracted by whatever was going on in the pulpit, I always knew I could open up the book in front of me and enter the strange new world of the bible.

I still have that bible that was given to me almost 20 years ago; it sits on one of my shelves next to the never-ending row of different translations that I have accumulated over the years. I had it with me in college when I grew frustrated with different campus ministries, I had it with me in seminary while I was helping multiple churches, and I still have it now while pastoring a church. For years I came to rely on that bible’s words to reveal something to me about the nature of God, particularly when I felt like worship was not making the cut.

This is why, according to Stanley Hauerwas in Unleashing the Scripture, we need to take the bible away from North American Christians.

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Most American Christians believe they have a right and obligation to regularly read from the bible. Ask almost anyone in the church I serve and they will tell you about how important it is for them to start their mornings by reading scripture. As Protestants we celebrate the great availability of the Bible and regularly call for individuals to read it on a daily basis. But through the privatization of scripture we have transformed our understanding of the bible into it being treated like any other book, rather than the living Word of God.

The scriptures we affirm as the holy and living Word of the Lord cannot be properly understood outside of the church community that gathers around the Word every week. Or, to put it another way, to read scripture in isolation without the community of faith assumes that the text of scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense.

Reading in isolation, or believing that having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ revealed through scripture alone (sola scriptura) is enough, has led to some of the most profound abuses of scripture through a practice called proof-texting (Cherry-picking particular verses to make a singular argument).

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The collection of both the Old and New Testaments contain a remarkable number of stories and teaching that make it difficult to treat as a whole. Whenever someone makes the comment, “The Bible says…” I am always thinking of another place in the Bible that says something contrary to the first point. The bible is a strange and beautiful thing that cannot be limited to a handful of verses.

However, this is exactly what many Christians do when they want to argue a very specific position. For instance, there are passages in both the Old and New Testaments that advocate for the subjugation or lower status of women (ex. 1 Corinthians 11.8-9), but these verses can only be properly understood in the light of scripture as a whole and within the worshipping community. Because only in a worshipping community can the scriptures be read, debated, and proclaimed. Only in a worshipping community can a differing opinion be brought forth and used to consider the first scripture at hand. Only in a worshipping community that gathers at the table are we forced to confront the deep and profound truth that we (men and women) have been created in God’s image, that we (men and women) are invited to partake without cost, and we (men and women) are offered the body and the blood of the Lord.

Similarly, proof-texting has been used to advocate for the horrific treatment of members of the LGBTQ community by reading verses from the likes of Leviticus and the letters of Paul without confronting the fact that Jesus never says anything about homosexuality in the four gospels. It is only in the community of faith that we are challenged to read the scriptures that go against our opinion and then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are we able to take steps forward in faith.

The temptation to read our bibles in isolation results in the Scripture being broken up as separate texts, commandments, and opinions. The Church, as the body of Christ, is the corrective to this temptation and is the place where scripture lives and becomes incarnate in the way we live.

It is good and right for us to have our own bibles and to read from them from time to time. I’ll admit that to call for the Bible to be taken away from individuals who wish to read the Word of God is an absurd proposition. Yet, in the Church’s current situation, the overwhelming opinion that every person has the “right” to interpret scripture has led to the fractured and divisive nature of the Church.

Instead, we are most faithful when we turn in our bibles together in the midst of worship, when we pray for the Lord to speak to us once again through the Word, and when we wrestle with what God is saying as a community.

Unity in the UMC

Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

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I love meeting people in our community and introducing myself as a pastor for the United Methodist Church. I love doing this because I never know what people will say in return.

“Oh, you must be that pastor who encouraged his church to start wearing hardhats to worship because God has a knack for tearing down walls…”

“No, you’re thinking of Clayton Payne at Cherryvale UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves shouting things like ‘Mercy!’ and ‘Praise the Lord!’ in the pulpit”

“No, you’re thinking of Bryson Smith at St. Paul’s UMC

“Oh, you must be the pastor who is forever mentioning apple butter and its many uses and applications.”

“No, you’re thinking of Sarah Locke at Christ UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who is absolutely obsessed with the Washington Redskins and even had the office painted burgundy and gold.”

“No, you’re thinking of Bob Sharp from Marquis Memorial UMC. Though I wish my office looked like his.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves using objects in sermons, like handing out mirrors for people to remember the need to shine Jesus’ light.”

“No, you’re thinking of Janet Knott at Jollivue UMC.”

“Oh, well you don’t look Korean…”

“No, you’re thinking of Won Un at Central UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor everyone raves about with a particular gift for preaching, handsome features, and can get congregations to shout ‘Amen!’ with feeling.”

(Sigh) “No, you’re thinking of John Benson at Augusta Street UMC.

“Oh, well then who are you?”

All of us pastors, and all of our churches are known for a variety of things. We’re known for our community engagement: Fish Fries, Apple Days, and Christmas Tree Sales. We’re known for the ways that our pastors like to preach and pray. We are known for a variety of things. We are known for how different we are from one another.

But the one thing I wish all people in Staunton knew about the United Methodist Church is that we love and worship the living God.

 

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

The psalmist is right. We all know, on some level, the beauty of a community in unity. When we are working in one accord, when we harmonize with one another, it is very good and pleasant. But then we grimace at the way the psalmist talks about the beauty of unity. Can you imagine what would happen if I pulled John Benson up to the front of the sanctuary and poured extra virgin olive oil all over his head? And what is it about heavy dew that it supposed to elevate the blessing of unity?

Well, in the world of the psalmist, oil and dew were signs of God’s blessing. Like manna in the wilderness and the anointing of the prophets, these images speak to something greater at work than mere mortals. Yet, we are so removed from the time of the psalmist that these images no longer carry the weight they once did. Perhaps we need a new way of imagining the beauty of unity in community.

About a year ago, we started putting plans together for a community wide Trunk-or-Treat. Many of our churches had participated in some sort of Halloween celebration over the last few years, but we began imagining how much of an impact we could have if we worked together.

By the time October came around, all of the pieces were set and we were ready to host the Trunk-or-Treat at Gypsy Hill Park. On the day of the event I arrived super-early with hopes of setting the area up and organizing volunteers. We really had no idea how many people would show up but we were prepared for whatever would happen.

We handed out extra candy to all of the trunks, we set up safe areas for children to wander around, and we passed out orange vests to volunteers. The whole afternoon honestly felt like a whirlwind as we were trying to get everything together.

At the height of our preparations I noticed a small family off to the side of the parking lot watching us run around. They must’ve been standing there for ten minutes when I finally walked over to introduce myself.

What are you all doing?” the mother asked while keeping her three young boys close.

I said, “We’re calling it a Trunk-or-Treat, it’s a safe way to celebrate Halloween. We’ll be finished setting up in about an hour and we’d love it if you’d come through.” And with that she smiled shyly smiled and left the park.

Hours later, after 3,500 people came through the Trunk-or-Treat I was exhausted. Some of the last families were making their way through the few trunks that still had candy when I noticed the small family from earlier standing by the edge of the lot. The boys were not wearing costumes, but each of them held a bag full of candy with huge grins across their faces. I started walking over to find out if they had enjoyed themselves, but as I got closer I realized that even though the children were smiling, the mother was crying.

Is everything okay?” I asked.

With a wipe of her sleeve she tried to cover her tears and then said, “My boys have never had a Halloween before. All these people gave them candy and talked to us and asked us questions and they don’t even know us. You invited us to come earlier and you don’t even know us.

I replied, “You’re right. I don’t know you. But God does. And God loves you.

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How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a mother all on her own, trying to raise her boys, who is treated with love and dignity by a strange community called the church. It is like the tears of a young mother rolling down her cheeks in recognition that she is not alone, and that she is loved no matter what.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a group of people striving to be Christ’s body for the world through acts of grace and mercy. It is like volunteers giving out candy to countless children for no other reason than the fact that they too are children of God.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a church that no longer treats other churches as competition, but instead sees them as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is like a group of people who believe that need trumps greed, that there can be unity in community, and that by the power of God’s grace the world can be transformed.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. Amen.

Devotional – Mark 4.37-38

Devotional:

Mark 4.37-38

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

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In a few days thousands of United Methodists will gather in Roanoke for Annual Conference. Once a year clergy and lay representatives throughout the state meet for a couple days of holy conferencing in order to prayerfully discern the future of the denomination. Annual Conference provides opportunities for clergy peers to reconnect, lay people to learn about our organizational structure, and helps to reignite the flame of faith in our churches.

The first time I went to Annual Conference was years ago and I was completely overwhelmed. I was a lay delegate for my home church and was supposed to vote on matters of church polity that made very little sense (I didn’t even know what ‘polity’ meant at the time). When I think back on that first conference it felt like a blur and I hope that I voted according to the Lord’s will. However, the one thing I do remember with accuracy was the Statistician’s Report.

Every year the Statistician from the Conference announces our net gain or loss of members over the last 12 months. During my first Annual Conference the Statistician announced that we had grown by ~200 members to which the entire arena erupted with applause. I remember thinking, “200? That’s all? And why is everyone celebrating such a low number for the entire state of Virginia?” I only learned later that it was the first time we had a positive growth in a very long time.

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Sometimes when I am sitting at Annual Conference I feel as if the great windstorm is rolling and the waves are beating us down. I listen to report after report pleading for more money, more resources, and more volunteers. I witness people approach the microphones to make comments about other human beings that should have been left in the 1950’s. I meet people from churches that will be closing their doors in the next few years and see the tears welling up in their eyes. I feel like one of the disciples on a boat that is already being swamped.

But then I remember that after the disciples woke Jesus up, he quickly calmed the storm, and then questioned their faith. When we am confronted with the waves of conference we need to remember that Jesus is the one who controls the wind and the sea. When we witness events that make us feel like the ship is sinking, we need to remember that Jesus is the one who walks on water. So long as we keep believing that we control the church, Jesus will keep sleeping in the stern while we run around in fear. We need a change of heart and perspective to remember that Jesus is Lord, not us.

This week, let us pray for the renewal of the church. As delegates gather in Roanoke, let us pray for wisdom and discernment of God’s will rather than our will. And let us all remember that even when the ship of life is being attacked by waves, Jesus is the one who calms the storm, and puts our faith into perspective.

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