Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best Thanksgiving movies (& TV)

10) Spider-Man (2002)

9) Home for the Holidays (1995)

8) The Blind Side (2009)

7) Seinfeld: The Mom & Pop Store (1994)

6) Alice's Restaurant (1969)

5) The Last Waltz (1978)

4) Pieces of April (2003)

3) A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

2) Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

1) A Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A "No Pharisee" Holiday

Each year, as the holiday season approaches, the Pharisees come out.

Many of them have been largely dormant since last year, but when the temperatures cool down, the Pharisees awake from their slumber and begin to spout their "holier-than-thou" platitudes about how the holidays ought to be celebrated.

I'm sure you've heard them:

"Stores shouldn't be open on Thanksgiving!"

"Christmas is too commercial!"

"I hate when someone wishes me 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas'!"

"No one should listen to Christmas music till after Thanksgiving!"

And so on.

In the Bible, Pharisees were folks - often well-meaning - who believed that they knew the only proper way to keep God's Law. Their interpretation of culture and faith were, in their minds, the only legitimate interpretation. Anyone who deviated from their views were condemned, often loudly.

Jesus came along with good news for the general population that the Pharisees too often majored on the minors. Many of the things which the Pharisees held of high importance and were often loudest about were minor at best. Jesus freed people to focus on things that really mattered, not the minutiae of Pharisaic arguments.

It's easy to see that in reference to the holidays, Pharisees abound in both Church and culture. Perhaps you are one or you've been one. I have, and I've repented!

I have a few simple suggestions to help us to avoid being Pharisaic at a time of year when people need to hear hope and positivity from the covenant people of God:

1) Before the "holiday season" proper, don't be angry about Halloween. It's harmless. Kids enjoy it. Have fun with it. It's not "the devil's day"; the devil does not get a day. Jesus alone is Lord. Smile, give out candy, let children know they're loved.

2) Good music is good music regardless of how old it is or when you listen to it. Don't be angry when you hear Christmas music before Thanksgiving. It makes people feel good; it makes people smile; it brings back lovely memories; it often puts people back in touch with the best parts of themselves. And, very often, it's well written, well performed music which also in some small way shares the gospel. Just enjoy it.

3) The American economy is in pretty bad shape. There are more people out of work today than ever before, and it doesn't look to get any better any time soon. Don't be angry about Black Friday, stores opening on Thanksgiving, or even stores beginning the shopping season early. Many businesses (and the people they employ) are desperate. If you don't want to shop, don't shop, but don't begrudge other people making money for their families at holiday time. Doctors, nurses, law enforcement and military personnel work on Thanksgiving, too, and their families adapt. Be thankful that in a less-than-robust economy, these persons have jobs.

4) Don't be angry if someone wishes you "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas". It's not like they told you to stick it or flipped you the finger. They said something nice; respond politely. And if you wish to respond with "Merry Christmas", fine. Additionally, it should go without saying that disciples of Jesus don't really care how their coffee cups are decorated.

5) Finally, it's a wonderful time of year to witness to God's grace in Jesus. Don't blow it by being angry, nasty or mean. Always be polite, courteous, and helpful...with a smile. Perhaps your most powerful witness during this season is simply being positive and merry. Practice a little extra patience. Forgive a little easier. The King James translation of the Holy Bible contains a great word which may be helpful: be "longsuffering" at this time of year or, in the words of Bishop Thomas Bickerton, "Lighten up, loosen up and have a little fun."

We don't need more Pharisees in today's Church or today's culture. They're all around us.

It's a simple rule: don't be a jerk. If that simple lesson is all that we learn this year, it will have been a very fruitful, very merry holiday season.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Cost of Proclaiming the Gospel

A reminder that Jesus and his gospel are offensive even to many religious people:

filled with the power of the Spirit,
returned to Galilee,
and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

He began to teach
in their synagogues
and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth,
where he had been brought up,
he went to the synagogue
on the sabbath day,
as was his custom.
He stood up to read,
and the scroll of
the prophet Isaiah
was given to him.
He unrolled the scroll
and found the place
where it was written:
'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them,
'Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled.'

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words
that came from his mouth.
They said, 'Is not this Joseph's son?'

He said to them,
'Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb:
Doctor, cure yourself!
And you will say,
Do here also in your hometown
the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum

And he said, 'Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.
But the truth is,
there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,
when the heaven was shut up three years and six months,
and there was a severe famine over all the land;
yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha,
and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.'

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
They got up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built,
so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way."
- Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV, adapt)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Episcopal Malfeasance

In the days since the Supreme Court of the United States rendered its decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case which has made same gender marriage legal in all 50 states, there have been various reactions from Church leaders. Notably gracious responses were lodged by the Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Anglican Church in North America, and the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. These thoughtful responses have much to teach the Body of Christ in these trying times.

Several United Methodist Bishops have also released statements. Some, such as that of Bishop Lindsey Davis of the Kentucky and Red Bird Conferences, are brief and serve as effective reminders of our commitment to the vows we have taken before Almighty God.
Other United Methodist Bishops have responded in ways that are less than satisfactory. Several episcopal leaders have issued statements urging pastors, laity, and local congregations to remain faithful to our covenant while offering loopholes that might enable us to avoid prosecution while still affirming practices contrary to Church teaching. Heartbreakingly, many of these sad statements come not solely from Bishops in the Northeast, North Central or Western Jurisdictions, which have histories of unfaithfulness to our covenant, but from episcopal leaders in the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions, such as Bishop Bill McAlilly of the Memphis & Tennessee Conferences, Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Conference, and Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference.

Bishops are called according to Chapter Three of our Book of Discipline - 2012, " guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline of the Church." They are to lead, "...using scripture, spiritual disciplines, our Wesleyan heritage, and the history and doctrines of our Church" (emphasis mine). They are to, "...teach and uphold the theological traditions of The United Methodist Church." In my view, they are to embody our covenant, that clergy and laity have faithful examples to hold before the Church and the world.

If a Bishop (or a pastor, frankly) cannot support, proclaim and live into the teaching of The United Methodist Church, there is no shame in stepping away from the clergy role. To continue in a key leadership role (such as that of a Bishop) while being unable or unwilling to embody our covenant (as defined by the General Conference and outlined in our Discipline) is shameful.

What would a Church look like if Bishops stated, "Here is the teaching of the Church; here is why we believe this to be correct; here is how disciples of Jesus live into this teaching"? Instead, we have Bishops essentially ignoring their teaching office, saying, "Here is how you can 'get around' Church teaching while avoiding any legal ramifications." That, in my opinion, is nothing less than episcopal malfeasance and is unworthy of the episcopal office.

Almighty and everlasting Father,
you have given the Holy Spirit to abide with us forever:
Bless, I pray, with the Spirit's grace and presence,
the Bishops of The United Methodist Church,
that they would grow in faith and wisdom
and lead your people with faithfulness,
that your Church,
being preserved in true faith and godly discipline,
may fulfill all the mind of him who loved her
and gave himself for her,
your Son Jesus Christ our Savior;
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Prayer for Annual Conference 2015

O gracious God,
we pray for your holy Church in western Pennsylvania,
meeting this week in Grove City,
that you would be pleased to fill her with all truth,
in all peace.

Where she is corrupt,
purify her;
where she is in error,
direct her;
where in any thing she is amiss,
reform her;
where she is right,
strengthen her;
where she is in want,
provide for her;
where she is divided,
reunite her.

Fill Bishop Bickerton with your Spirit,
that he would preside with justice and obedience.

Guide all who will be leading in various ways,
that their gifts would bear good fruit.

Be with the sessions staff and the youth,
who will be working tirelessly for your glory.

Above all,
lead your people by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that each vote cast, every decision made,
would be in accordance with your perfect will,
that the people of western Pennsylvania and the world
might know your forgiving mercy and your holy justice,
for the sake of him who died and rose again,
and ever lives to make intercession for us,
Jesus the Messiah, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

- adapt. from UM Book of Worship #501

Monday, May 04, 2015

I Took A Vow

In July 1991, I took a vow.

I stood before God at the altar of the local church in Johnstown, PA which had first nurtured my faith and I vowed to God and to a breathtakingly beautiful young woman that I would live with her in holy marriage. I took a vow that I would love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to her as long as we both shall live.

The striking lady who miraculously became my wife that day and the presiding pastor both graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant.

At various points in the 1990s & 2000s, I took a vow.

I stood before God, my wife, and gathered disciples of Jesus Christ at the altars of three different United Methodist churches and I vowed to nurture the children with which God has blessed me in Christ's holy Church, raise them in the Christian faith, teach them the Holy Scriptures and give reverent attendance upon the private and public worship of God, that they might be guided to accept God's saving grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly and to lead Christian lives.

My wife and the various presiding pastors all graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant

In June 2003, I took a vow.

I stood before God and the clergy of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and I vowed that I would preach, support and maintain the doctrines, teachings and polity of The United Methodist Church.

The presiding Bishop, Hae Jong Kim, and the gathered clergy members of the Conference all graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant.

A few days later, I took a vow.

I stood before God, my wife and children and extended family, clergy colleagues, and members of various United Methodist congregations as Bishop Kim charged me "to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the Church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all." I confessed, among other things, that "the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life."

I vowed "to lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people," - not as I define those terms, but as the Church defines those terms. I went on to vow "to be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word," and committed to be accountable with those serving with me, and to the bishop and those appointed to supervise our ministry.

Bishop Kim along with the gathered clergy and laity members of the Conference all graciously affirmed my vow and permitted me to enter into a new covenant.

A vow is, "a solemn promise, pledge, or personal commitment made to a deity, person or group of people committing oneself to an act, service, or condition." It is a reflection of a person's character. One's keeping of vows demonstrates how trustworthy one is.

If I deliberately, unrepentantly break one of the sacred vows I have willingly made, all of my vows may be called into question, as my word would become utterly worthless. My wife and children would have every right to distrust me and to be filled with shame that I am their husband and father. I would be completely without honor as a man and as a human being.

There is no reason to believe that if one breaks their marriage vows, they will be faithful to their ordination vows.

There is no reason to believe that if one breaks their ordination vows, they will be faithful to their wedding vows.

There is a crisis of vow-keeping in the world today as persons freely break vows which they made before God at their wedding.

There is a crisis of vow-keeping in the United States today as persons freely break vows which they made before God at the baptism of their children.

There is a crisis of vow-keeping in The United Methodist Church today as clergy at every level of ecclesial life freely break vows which they made before God at their ordination and/or consecration.

This is the case whether one is teaching that homosexual behavior is acceptable (in clear violation of Church teaching), presiding at a wedding between two persons of the same gender (in clear violation of Church teaching), denying the efficacy of infant baptism (in clear violation of Church teaching) or rebaptizing a person who is already baptized (in clear violation of Church teaching).

The paramount issue is not whether homosexual behavior, gay marriage, infant baptism or rebaptism are theologically acceptable; the issue is whether one will be true to the vows they have made before God, even when they may struggle with those vows. This isn't just a question of inadequate or at times even non-Christian theology; this is a question of a person's character.

May God grant me grace to keep the vows I have made, that my wife and children might know I am a man of my word, and that Jesus will be proud of me. May God grant me grace to stand strong in the vows I have made, to hold accountable in love those who struggle with their own vows, and to maintain a heart of mercy and reconciliation when working with sisters and brothers who have broken their vows.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Celebrating Marriage on Valentine's Day

My Pastor's letter in the church's February newsletter...

“A bowl of vegetables with someone you love
is better than steak with someone you hate.”
Proverbs 15:17 (NLT)

Among the great holidays that mark our cultural year, Valentine’s Day can sometimes be easily dismissed. After all, it isn’t connected to a great theological event (Easter, Christmas) or associated with ethnic heritage (St. Patrick’s Day) or sentimental about our parents (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day) or wrapped up in patriotic ribbon (Independence Day, Memorial Day). For many, it’s just a reason to buy a card or flowers.

But we miss an opportunity when we treat Valentine’s Day so lightly. This day has become a celebration of romantic love, one of God’s great gifts to humankind. It is also, therefore, a chance to honor & celebrate the covenant of marriage, an institution which the Church believes in & cherishes.

Marriage is perhaps the best example we have to understand the relationship between God & his covenant people. In marriage, a husband and a wife promise to stand with one another in difficult times and in joyous times. That’s not easy! It takes hard work over many, many years to make a successful marriage. When a couple in the church celebrates an anniversary, we should shout for joy and celebrate with them! Marriage is a significant achievement made possible by grace.

Likewise, we read in the Scriptures:
“Be strong…it is the Lord your God who goes with you;
he will not fail you or forsake you…”
Deuteronomy 31:6 (NRSV)

God has promised to stand with his covenant people! It takes hard work, even aided & driven by grace, for us to be faithful and for God to be merciful; it took the work of Jesus on the Cross. But, like marriage, it is worth it.

So, this Valentine’s Day, celebrate love. If you are married, thank God for your spouse! If your spouse has passed away, you have every reason to thank God for the love you still share. If you are not married, then praise God for those in your life who are celebrating.

And know that God loves you with a love more wonderful than the best Valentine chocolate!