Monday, July 31, 2006

21st Century Numerology

I read a fascinating little article today which caused me to say, "Amen" more than once. The article, found here, was written by Matt Friedman, a professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.

In his article, Professor Friedman analyzes a report by "Church Growth Today" (found here) which names the Top 50 Most Influential Churches in America. An interesting list, Friedman correctly points to some flaws and qualifiers regarding the list.

First, the report only consulted non-Roman Catholic clergy and only included non-Roman Catholic churches on its list. Is it that unreasonable to expect at least one congregation of the largest denomination in the country might make the list? What is "Church Growth Today" afraid of? Yes, Roman Catholic ministry tends to be very different from much Protestant ministry, but that doesn't invalidate an entire denomination.

Second, the report only consulted the pastors of the nation's largest (non-Roman Catholic) congregations. In other words, the report tells us how large church pastors influence one another, but may not say much about how influential these churches are among the majority of Christians in America, who do not worship in these "megachurches".

Finally, Professor Friedman properly asks if this poll is a fair and accurate measure of actual ministry. A rural congregation of 50 might be doing miraculous ministry in its context, and may be producing far more tasty fruit than a large megachurch; this little church may ultimately have far more influence than a megachurch.

Why does it seem that so many Christians in America are obsessed with size? Why do so many of us play the numbers game? Why are we at times seemingly unable to focus on people?

Now, that said, many of the churches which made the list are doing wonderful things. There's no denying the influence of Willow Creek and Saddleback. Southeast, Resurrection, Mars Hill, Frazer, and Windsor Village are all doing tremendous things. Some of the churches on the list have serious theological problems. Some present a very watered-down Gospel.

The point is that a tree which produces a great deal of fruit is not necessarily a tree which produces the best quality fruit or the tastiest fruit. Let us not get too preoccupied with contemporary numerology, which emphasizes numbers, at the expense of faithfully harvesting excellent fruit.

A Vision of Peace

"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
- Isaiah 11:1-9 (NRSV)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Great Thanksgiving During a Time of Fear in the Holy Land

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
always and everywhere to give thanks to you,
Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
You created all humankind to live together
as one family, at peace,
serving you and one another
with mercy and grace.

During this time of worldwide strife and fear,
when misunderstanding, hatred, and violence
seem to reign in your world,
remind us of your intent at creation,
and give us your vision for the future,
that your people might effectively call all peoples
to live in peace,
working toward the possibility of harmony and understanding,
for our sinful hearts are filled
with confusion and selfishness.

When we turned away and our love failed,
your love remained steadfast,
working through your people throughout history
to call all creation to peace, justice and reconciliation.

And so,
with your people on earth
and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ.
Through Jesus Christ, you have taught us a new way,
a way which favors turning the other cheek
and loving our enemies,
finding our security only in you,
rather than seeking a false security through violence,
or vengeance through gunfire, bombs and death.

By the baptism of his suffering, death and resurrection
you gave birth to your church,
delivered us from slavery to sin and death,
and made with us a new covenant
by water and the Spirit.

On the night in which he gave himself up for us
he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread,
gave it to his disciples, and said:
"Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me."

When the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
"Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the new covenant,
poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me."

And so,
in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ's offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them to be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood,
and called to the ministry of reconciliation.

By your Spirit, make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world,
until Christ comes in final victory,
and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

Through your Son Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit in your holy church,
All honor and glory is yours, almighty Father,
Now and for ever.


- written by Rev. Keith H. McIlwain of Jefferson Hills, PA, 7/06, released into the public domain, and free to use by any and all who desire to go on to perfection in love

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Pirate movies

I finally saw Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest...what a disappointing film. The first one was so good; this one is an incoherent mess.

Here are my picks for the Top Pirate movies ever made...

#10 - Captain Kidd starring Charles Laughton
#9 - Blackbeard the Pirate starring Linda Darnell
#8 - Peter Pan...the Walt Disney version
#7 - Treasure Island...the old one, with Jackie Cooper as Jim
#6 - Captain Blood...the film that made Errol Flynn a star
#5 - Sinbad the Sailor starring Maureen O'Hara
#4 - The Spanish Main starring Maureen O'Hara
#3 - The Black Swan starring Maureen O'Hara
#2 - Against All Flags starring Maureen O'Hara
#1 - Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
...surprisingly excellent, it's the "gold standard" for pirate movies now, even without Maureen O'Hara

Prayer for Peace

Lord God,
bless all your children in the Middle East with the gift of peace.
Reach out and embrace
Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Dry their tears with your gentle hands.
Surround their trembling bodies with your loving arms.
Replace their fears with the hope and vision
of peaceful times to come.
Speak to the people of the region today,
that violence, terror, and war would be rejected,
in favor of love, justice, and true peace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- The Reverend Said Ailabouni,
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Chicago, IL

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Football Hall

With the Steelers reporting to Latrobe next week for training camp, it's time for those of us in the McIlwain household to begin to get into "football mode" again. What a season it will be as the Steelers defend their Super Bowl title!

To set the mood, I'd like to post briefly about the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of all the sports Halls, this seems the most "elite"; excellent players don't always make it into the Hall. Players need that certain "something extra" to enjoy induction.

As for future inductees, here are my picks as to "locks" (who are a sure thing) and other possibilities...

* Shaun Alexander, RB, Seattle Seahwaks - POSSIBLE (another few excellent seasons needed)
* Larry Allen, G, Dallas/San Francisco - LOCK
* Bill Belichick, Head Coach, Cleveland/New England - LOCK
* Jerome Bettis, RB, Rams/Pittsburgh - LOCK
* Brian Billick, Head Coach, Baltimore Ravens - POSSIBLE
* Drew Bledsoe, QB, New England/Buffalo/Dallas - LONGSHOT
* Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots - LOCK
* Cris Carter, WR, Minnesota Vikings - PROBABLE
* Bill Cowher, Head Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers - LOCK
* Dermotti Dawson, C, Pittsburgh Steelers - POSSIBLE
* Alan Faneca, G, Pittsburgh Steelers - POSSIBLE
* Marshall Faulk, RB, Indianapolis/St. Louis - LOCK
* Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers - LOCK
* Dennis Green, Head Coach, Minnesota/Arizona - LONGSHOT
* Marvin Harrison, WR, Indianapolis Colts - PROBABLE
* Mike Holmgren, Head Coach, Green Bay/Seattle - POSSIBLE
* Michael Irvin, WR, Dallas Cowboys - LOCK
* Edgerrin James, RB, Indianapolis/Arizona - POSSIBLE
* Jimmy Johnson, Head Coach, Dallas/Miami - POSSIBLE
* Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts - PROBABLE (a few more astounding seasons or a Super Bowl ring will make him a lock)
* Curtis Martin, RB, New England/New York Jets - LOCK
* Steve McNair, QB, Houston/Tennessee/Baltimore - POSSIBLE
* Donovan McNabb, QB, Phildelphia Eagles - POSSIBLE (needs to win without T.O., and probably needs a Super Bowl ring)
* Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota/Oakland - POSSIBLE (maybe the most talented athlete in NFL history, he just hasn't produced enough)
* Terrell Owens, WR, San Francisco/Philadelphia/Dallas - POSSIBLE (a great playmaker who needs a bit more success)
* Bill Parcells, Head Coach, Giants/New England/Jets/Dallas - LOCK
* Willie Roaf, T, New Orleans/Kansas City - POSSIBLE (excellent stats but not a dominant figure)
* Deion Sanders, CB, Atlanta/San Francisco/Dallas/Washington/Baltimore - LOCK
* Marty Schottenheimer, Head Coach, Cleveland/Kansas City/Washington/San Diego - POSSIBLE
* Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas/Arizona - LOCK
* Junior Seau, LB, San Diego/Miami - NEAR-LOCK
* Mike Shanahan, Head Coach, Raiders/Denver - POSSIBLE (needs to win the big one without Elway)
* Will Shields, G, Kansas City Chiefs - POSSIBLE (excellent stats but not a dominant figure)
* Michael Strahan, DE, New York Giants - PROBABLE (I'm not completely sold on his status as a "lock"...excellent player but not a dominant defender a la White or Taylor)
* Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers - PROBABLE (another great season or 2 will lock him in)
* Rod Woodson, DB, Pittsburgh/San Francisco/Baltimore - LOCK

Friday, July 21, 2006

Sunday's Gospel lesson

This Sunday, I'll be preaching on the Gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary, and focusing on the compassion of Jesus.

"The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

He said to them, 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.'

For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.

When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him,
and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.

And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed."

- Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (NRSV)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lawtons, etc.

We are FINALLY back online (and also now FINALLY have our cable TV hooked up). I feel like we're officially moved now, though there are still a few boxes around. Robyn did a TREMENDOUS job packing and unpacking. Sure, the rest of us helped, but she did the bulk of it all. All that ability, and she's easy on the eyes...I'm blessed!

We also had a visit today from the Rev. Dennis and Doreen Lawton and their children Devon and Owen. The Lawtons served in Western PA Conference before accepting an appointment in Dunkineely in the Methodist Church of Ireland. They landed in the USA yesterday and will be spending most of their trip with Dennis' family in was wonderful to see them.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Overdue update

The move went extremely well last week, and we are settled in. Still lots of boxes to unpack (God bless my beautiful wife), but the move is behind us now...thanks be to God! The church had a nice little dinner for our family the night of the move...quiet and just what we needed. I've hit the ground running, already doing several visits and making several connections. The second Sunday service went very well, with a "welcome brunch" to follow, at which we got to meet lots of folks. We are now in the midst of Vacation Bible School...I'm leading the music, Christian is a teen helper, and our other three kids are students...Robyn is using the time to unpack. Busy, busy, busy, and it's great. The Lord is blessing us!

We won't have Internet capabilities (or cable TV) until July 19, so I'm posting from the local library. There probably won't be many updates before next week.

But God is good! So, so good!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence Day

If you've never seen it, I would encourage everyone to see the musical "1776", which tells the story in song of the writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It simplifies history, obviously, but is an excellent musical. For a preview, click on the picture of Howard Da Silva (as Ben Franklin) and William Daniels (brilliant as John Adams).

Monday, July 03, 2006

Jesus heals Blind Bartimaeus

This Sunday I'll be deviating from the lectionary to preach on Mark 10:46-52. A wonderful text.

"...they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means 'son of Timaeus'), was sitting by the roadside begging.

When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!'

Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, 'Son of David, have mercy on me!'

Jesus stopped and said, 'Call him.' So they called to the blind man, 'Cheer up! On your feet! He's calling you.'

Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

'What do you want me to do for you?' Jesus asked him. The blind man said, 'Rabbi, I want to see.'

'Go,' said Jesus, 'your faith has healed you.' Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road." (TNIV)

JUMC - Sunday #1

We had our first Sunday at JUMC, and it was great. Kind people, nice reception, good feedback. A good start...God is good and we are blessed. The new journey begins!

AntiChrist 7/3/06

I'm not a big literalist when it comes to "end times" theology. Frankly, a lot of my sisters and brothers who take the "left behind" stuff too seriously give me the creeps. Jesus will come back when the Father is good and ready; I'm not going to waste time looking for clues while there are plenty of folks who don't know Jesus, who live in poverty, and who are oppressed and in despair.

Having said that, sometimes I humorously pick candidates saying, "Maybe that one is the AntiChrist!" From time to time on my blog, I may mention some who could be candidates. Today it's Oprah Winfrey. She is a very powerful, very wealthy talk-show host who "earned" her money like talk-show hosts generally exploiting the pain of other people. So many folks just adore Oprah, clinging to her every word (and, yes, I know she gives to a lot of charities). She has a definite spiritual side, though it seems to me to be very syncretistic and vague, not specifically Christian. For more on her spirituality, see here.

At any rate, she gives me the willies. She's today's possible candidate for the AntiChrist.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Pittsburgh Magazine

The community of Jefferson Hills has been featured in the July 2006 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine as one of "10 Neighborhoods You Need to Know About". The article also features a picture of Jefferson United Methodist Church. You can read the online article here.

Tomorrow, I preach my first sermon at JUMC. The text is Acts 2:42-47, the sermon title is "A Vision for the Church". We'll also be sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Again, we'd appreciate any and all prayers as we begin the exciting and challenging journey in our new appointment.