Thursday, January 31, 2008

New Church Start

Eighth Avenue Place is a new faith community in nearby Homestead, PA. The pastor is a fellow Pittsburgh Seminary alum named Keith Kaufold, a former Jumonville staffer who, Lord willing, will become a Probationary Elder (what a horrible designation!) at Annual Conference in June.

This "new church start" is unique in our Annual Conference.

First, it's not a "church" in any traditionalist sense; it's a coffee shop. This is a place where people come together throughout the week to drink coffee, tea, and cocoa, play Uno, read the Bible together, listen to (and play) music, and talk. Located next to the Homestead Grays Bridge on the main drag in Homestead (not far from The Waterfront, where Robyn works), it's a great place to go and just "hang out" in a safe environment where everyone is accepted and all views are respected.

Second, Homestead is a community which is almost split 50/50 in terms of racial demographics. In spite of this, folks share a historic mistrust of one another. Given our Conference's near abandonment of the inner city and the fact that we've done little toward strengthening the African-American Church (which is on life support in our Conference), this could be a crucial place to reach a precious group of people we have been ignoring for some time; we can finally do more than just talk about racial reconciliation. I've been there; I can tell you that more is done in an hour toward racial reconciliation at Eighth Avenue Place than in a year of Conference meetings. This is real ministry. Keith has actually done more toward racial reconciliation in the last few months than probably any of our pastors, including myself (shame on me).

Third, Keith is an all-around good egg. When he shares his vision, it becomes immediately clear that he is a PTS grad. I've found that PTS grads, more than any other seminary represented in Western PA Conference, are driven by Christological concerns (this is, no doubt, largely due to the Pittsburgh presence of Andrew Purves, a driving force behind the Christological revival in the Presbyterian Church and throughout the American Mainline..."the Presbyterian Thomas Oden", if you will; Dale Allison, one of the top Jesus scholars of the moment; and Scott Sunquist, one of today's leading missiologists, who has a strong Christological focus). PTS grads also tend to be our strongest Wesleyans, but that's another post for another day.

Keith's vision is very deliberately Christologically driven, and he is quite serious about living out Incarnational doctrine, not simply affirming it in creeds or in paperwork. He has a real passion for sharing Jesus with the poor, the lost, and those who don't realize how important they are to God. It's a wonderful vision to have.

I would urge the readers of this blog (all two of you) to keep Keith and Eighth Avenue Place lifted up in prayer. I urge you to look into ways you could support this new ministry. I urge you to consider visiting the next time you're in Pittsburgh; they're open for coffee from 6 AM till about 9 PM. I also encourage those of you who are pastors in our Conference to vote for Keith when he appears before the Clergy Session this June. And buy him a cup of coffee in Grove City.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

5 Most Played on My iPod right now

Just for fun...

#1 - "Here Comes the Sun (live)" by George Harrison

#2 (tie) - "Nowhere Man"
by the Beatles,
"There She Goes Again"
by the La's

#3 (tie) - "God Only Knows"
by the Beach Boys,
"God's Gonna Cut You Down" by Johnny Cash,
"You Know I'm No Good"
by Amy Winehouse

#4 - "Mama Kin" by Aerosmith

#5 (tie) - "I Feel Fine" by the Beatles,
"Only A Pawn in Their Game" by Bob Dylan

Friday, January 25, 2008

Being Jesus

Today, I had the privilege of visiting seven people in area hospitals. Normally, I'd try to spread that out over a few days, but with the intestinal flu running rampant in the McIlwain household this week, that became impossible.

I started the marathon, I believe, in an exceedingly good mood, and really felt God's empowering grace as I represented the Church at Allegheny General Hospital and then Montefiore Hospital, and eventually Jefferson Hospital. I have to confess, though, that as time went on, I became more and more irritable, and God's ever-present grace began to feel in short supply. By the time my last few visits came around, I did my best to proclaim the loving presence of Christ even as I was thinking, "Lord, get me home. Amen."

And then the power of the words I was sharing hit me. Hard. I was sharing with most of the patients the Gospel selection in the week's lectionary readings, which is also serving as my primary text this Sunday.

"'...the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.' From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" - Matthew 4:16-17 (ESV)
Certainly, Jesus is the Light of lights, and the Gospel prophetically quotes a passage from Isaiah which (in part, at least) looked ahead to the coming of the Messiah, who would bring light into the darkness of this broken world. Light in darkness, then, is (again, in part) the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

In a more immediate way, as a representative of Christ's Holy Church in those hospital rooms, I was also a light, for most of the wonderful people with whom I spent time were in their own kind of darkness...the darkness of disease, illness, and an uncertain tomorrow. They needed to know that in the midst of their darkness, they were loved - not simply by Pastor Keith, but by a living, sovereign God. They needed to experience the kingdom of heaven.

When I finally got back to the office, I looked up a marked passage in a favorite book to which I return often.

"However important other tasks of ministry may seem - sermons, committees, administrative planning, social service - a significant claim upon the pastor's time is the immediate sufferer. Even if the task at times becomes burdensome or distasteful or irksome, visitation of the sick remains a primary duty of representative ministry. Based on the example of Jesus, reinforced by the ordination commission and by centuries of social expectation, the pastor is ill advised to neglect this ministry." - Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology (1983), p. 253

That's when I heard myself. I have said - I've actually spoken aloud - words something like, "I wish folks would recognize that my job as the pastor is not to be the 'visitor-in-chief', but to equip the saints to do ministry and to raise up leaders for the Church."

I remembered my words, and I felt ashamed.

It is absolutely true that my job as pastor is to equip the saints to do ministry and to raise up leaders, and my visitations do not in any way relieve the laity of their own responsibility to visit the sick. But any leader must lead first by example. And, to the kind sisters and brothers I was blessed to visit today, I was a light in their darkness, announcing the inbreaking of the heavenly kingdom. For these beloved souls, for one brief moment, I was Jesus.

How dare I make light of this transformative moment of grace! How dare I deceive myself into thinking that other acts of ministry are simply more important! How dare I allow myself to grow so cynical that I diminish the importance of pastoral visitation!

I'm relieved that the Gospel passage I was sharing concludes with Jesus' call to repent. I need a little of that today. I need some penitence, and need to kneel before my Lord in a sincerely contrite manner.

May God forgive me for ever losing sight of who I am, to what I am called, and what ministry in Jesus' name is truly about.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ramblings on Psalm 40

"I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me
and heard my cry.

"He drew me up
from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD."
- Psalm 40:1-3 (ESV)

Psalm 40 is one of my favorite psalms. It is a song of deliverance from "the miry bog".

A bog is a poorly drained place where dead things have accumulated. Typically, bogs reek of decay, service mosquitoes and similar nasties, and are generally not very pleasant places to visit.

How often I get stuck in the muddy bogs of this life! In many ways a typical male, I hesitate to ask for (or sometimes even to follow) directions, and often end up stuck, surrounded by death and decay. I even try to slog through the bog, believing that by my own strength and abilities, I'll be able to navigate my way to freedom.

The truth is that the Lord is perfectly willing to guide me on my journey, and to keep me from the smells and difficulties of the bogs; I need only listen. He anxiously and excitedly awaits for me to follow his lead and copy his own footsteps.

Preparing to preach on this text, I've noted that the Hebrew words the ESV translates as "pit of destruction" can also mean "noisy dungeon". What a wonderfully rich image!

The dungeon or bog in which I get stuck is a place of death, decay...and noise! Distractions abound on this journey. If I am to follow Jesus faithfully, I need to focus on our mission and destination, and not on those things on the periphery which through babel sounds seek to draw my attention elsewhere and lead me onto alternate paths. In order to focus, I need more of Jesus' presence, more of Jesus' grace...more of Jesus.

Perhaps this is why Psalm 40 is linked in the week's lectionary selections to 1 Corinthians 1, which makes the point that Jesus is the One "who will sustain you to the end".

Friday, January 11, 2008

Farewell Omer

I was saddened a few days ago to hear of the passing of Omer Nichols. Omer was a faithful member of First UMC in Greensburg, PA, and I had the privilege to serve as one of his pastors for two years.

In many ways, Omer represented the best of the so-called "Greatest Generation" of Americans. An Army veteran who served in World War II, he returned home to help build essentially a new nation and a new world. He and his sweet wife Jean raised their children and became very active in their community.

More importantly, in my estimation, Omer was extremely active in Church life. A devoted member and longtime Lay Leader of First church, he served in a variety of roles through the years. He ran the lay speaking school in Greensburg District seemingly since the dawn of time, and also served as the director of Conference lay speaking. Omer was elected by his peers to attend General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference on more than one occasion. He was committed to traditional Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and represented our Conference well. He was a hard worker in every area of his life.

Personally, Omer was a real friend to me during a very difficult time. He often came into my office and reassured me and affirmed my ministry. In many ways, he was a "grumpy old man", and he would likely have admitted that, but that never kept him from letting me know that he appreciated me and my family. On some days, he kept me going when I was ready to pack it in.

Omer's passing is a loss for our Conference and certainly for First church, and especially for Jean. I thank God today for Omer's ministry, and I recognize that I am a part of his legacy.

That's how it works, isn't it? When a saint moves on to glory, those of us who have been touched by their ministry take a little of them with us. So, through me, and through many others (including, perhaps, some readers of this blog), Omer's ministry will continue every time I hug my children or share food with the hungry or proclaim orthodoxy or hold the hand of a dying servant.

I praise the Lord for Omer and for the many saints who have entered the Church Triumphant, who have touched me and helped form me, and who continue to be a blessing through what I do; I pray for Jean and her family, that they would know comfort, peace, and the presence of the living God during this time; I look forward to seeing my friend Omer again someday, and thanking him for his faithful ministry to me.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Holiday Cell phone shots

Randy Costolo, pastor of the Hopwood/Brownfield UM Charge
and brother in Christ

John (elf), Paul (Rudolph), Ringo (Santa), George (angel)
- from my brother's wall

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Thursday, January 03, 2008

For whom should we vote?

Today, the Iowa Caucuses officially launch the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaigns. Of course, some of the candidates have been actively campaigning for a year or more; some have really been campaigning for years.

I'm really not looking forward to the 2008 campaign. These things tend to be so bitter and so divisive that it's next to impossible for the victor to establish any mandate or build any unity. Four years ago, even the sacrament of Holy Communion was actually tossed around as a potential weapon when it was suggested that John Kerry be barred from communing because of his support for legal abortion; I still find that suggestion absolutely appalling. I actually posted briefly about it last year.

How do we as Christians make a choice between candidates? This can be especially difficult if no candidate shares 100% of our views. There are lots of important issues; are some more important than others? Should we weigh some more than others? It's tough.

Years ago, I came to the realization that the likelihood of finding a viable candidate with whom I agreed on all of the important issues was next to impossible. I often seem to be a liberal among conservatives and a conservative among liberals. That's hard to find on the national scene, at least in terms of viable candidates for the presidency.

I am politically liberal enough to oppose capital punishment and war (anytime, anywhere), to support radical gun control and the fight against poverty and HIV/AIDS (not that we as a people have done well in these areas), and to believe that education is a key issue in this world. I am politically conservative enough to oppose abortion, racial quotas (which is, to me , simply racism that we feel good about), and to believe that lowering taxes is a good thing which ultimately helps the economy as well as the poor (at least in theory). Neither side seems to me to be particularly strong on human rights, which should embarrass this nation to no end. Both sides tend to demonize their opposition, most recently the sinful, sub-Christian hate we see directed daily at President Bush from the Left; the Right hasn't been much kinder regarding, say, the Clintons.

How do we then wade through all the crap to determine which candidates are worthy of our support?

While we need to take many issues seriously, in my view there is one issue which trumps the rest. That issue is character. Politico Peggy Noonan said it well:
"In a president, character is everything. A president doesn't have to be brilliant...He doesn't have to be clever; you can hire clever...You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks. But you can't buy courage and decency, you can't rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him...He needs to have, in that much maligned word, but a good one nonetheless, a 'vision' of the future he wishes to create.. But a vision is worth little if a president doesn't have the character - the courage and heart - to see it through."
Too true. Booker T. Washington once said, "Character is power." Richard Nixon once spoke words which came back to haunt him, saying, "Character is the most important qualification the President of the United States can have." One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Martin Luther King: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Incidentally, isn't all that true of Church leadership as well?

A key method of determining someone's personal character, in my view, has to do with the marriage covenant. I believe this to be the most important promise we make this side of heaven. Conservative writer Marvin Olasky said it well in his book The American Leadership Tradition (p. 270):
"Reverence toward God does not confer the ability to have a successful presidency; look at Jimmy Carter. Faithfulness to a wife is no guarantee of faithfulness to the country; look at...Richard Nixon. Faithlessness in both areas, however, is a leading indicator of trouble. Small betrayals in marriage generally lead to larger betrayals, and leaders who break a large vow to one person find it easy to break relatively small vows to millions."
Personal character is, for me, the #1 issue in any campaign. I tend to vote for the candidate whom I feel wins the "character battle". I especially enjoyed the 2006 Senate race in Pennsylvania, when we had two candidates of excellent character running for office - Roman Catholic warrior hero Rick Santorum and the quieter but equally faithful Bob Casey. It seemed to me that whomever won that race, Pennsylvanians won.

There are several worthwhile candidates running this year, in both major parties. Several seem to be of exemplary character. They are worth a look.

I urge all Christians to make character a key issue in 2008. It is even more important than war, poverty, taxes, the environment, or immigration.

Additionally, we need to be in prayer for the process as it unfolds, that God will raise up and anoint the right person for this job which has such drastic implications. We need to be in prayer for President Bush as well as for the two candidates who will ultimately be vying to succeed him. Regardless of our politics, we should faithfully lift up these people and ask that the Spirit will bless them and, through them, this broken world.