How Do You See Yourself?

On my desk is a devotional book from the Francis Asbury Society in Wilmore. A pastoral mentor of mine created a covenant group of clergy who are in prayer and devotions with one another.

I have to be honest and admit there are times when the book stares at me on top of all the other things that need to be accomplished. How easy it is for us to go through life checking off things to do before concerning ourselves with our relationship with God! Yet, today’s devotion struck me as a wise and needed word for today, and maybe it might be also for you.

The devotion, written by former Asbury University president Dennis Kinlaw, focuses on Acts 9:1-30. It is the story of Saul’s awakening to Christ and how Ananias went to find him so he may be baptized and see again. Kinlaw writes about how we often do not see ourselves in the manner of how God’s sees us. That we are often too busy concerning ourselves with how others perceive us and whether we match-up compared to them.

I can relate.

It is easy for me, as a pastor and as a follower of Christ, to compare myself to other pastors, ministries, and leaders. When I’m around other clergy, I easily begin to think I am inadequate as a pastor when someone talks about doing something I’ve dreamt about doing. I can look with rose-colored glasses about what has taken place at other churches and forget about the issues that were present or the struggles. When I do this, I am unable to see God’s worth within me.

We all can do this.

We live in a time where we find ourselves instantly comparing our lives with others. Social media, for instance, gives us the ability to edit the difficulties out of our lives and only show the “highlights.” (Have you ever seen a parent post the details of their arguments with their kids to get them to eat their vegetables?) We don’t have to limit ourselves to social media to see how we only show one another the highlights. In our interactions with others, we often only allow people to see the good moments, because we never want people to see our weaknesses, struggles, or concerns.

What happens as a result? If we are already feeling down or struggling, when we encounter other people or communities that “have it all together” we immediately perceive ourselves as less that. Our eyes blind us to the realities of what is truly taking place and, thus, what we see is just a distortion.

The truth is God sees more in us than we often see in ourselves. God sees beyond what we often define ourselves by – our weaknesses, struggles, and past mistakes – and sees us for who we are and can be. God sees us as beloved children of a loving Father who are called to be not someone else, but to be ourselves as a light of Christ.

If we try to be someone who we are not then we will never see ourselves as God sees us. We will only see what we are not instead of who we are. People of faith, and to be honest churches, limit their full potential by only trying to live as a carbon copy of someone else.

God doesn’t call us to be just like another disciple or church. God calls us to reflect God’s love for us and to be the people and church we are created and capable of being.

True spiritual growth comes when we are willing to let go of perceiving ourselves based upon the measurements of the world, but see ourselves as God sees us. We are children of God. We are beloved by the Lord. We are God’s witnesses.

That is a far better way of how to see ourselves.

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Claiming Our Values

Throughout September, we have shared our values at Ogden Memorial UMC. It has been an intentional process of prayer and discernment as we have sought to work on claiming the five central values for our church.

Each of our five core values – love, discipleship, prayer, worship, and community – are the essence of what it means to be the people of God. Keep in mind we claim that these values are the foundational principles that define our mission as we seek to be a living witness of Jesus Christ and make disciples here in Princeton. They are unchangeable and permanent. Ministries may change, but our values stay as what will always define who we are and whose we are.

As we move forward, we will ask our ministries and missions of Ogden Memorial to consider how their work is defined by these values. How are we being people of love? How is what we are doing leading people to a deeper walk with Jesus? Are we living a life of prayer? Are we doing everything with a sense of worship? Are we living in true community with one another?

These are important and holy questions that we will consider and live into over the coming months. To answer any of these questions we will need the value we will discuss Sunday, and that is prayer. To be honest, without prayer we cannot be the people of God or live out our mission to be a witness of Jesus Christ. Prayer is everything.

On Sunday morning, we will talk about how we view prayer as a central part of not just our life together at Ogden Memorial but our life in Christ. You’ll hear from a member of the vision team about how prayer has impacted their life. Most importantly, though, you will have the opportunity to begin to live out this value of prayer.

During worship, you will have a time to pray for one another. In lieu of the pastoral prayer, we will have a time of congregational prayer where you will be invited to get into a group of 3-4 people to pray and encourage one another. We hope that you will find someone who is not related to or, even more, someone that perhaps you need to seek forgiveness or healing from.

Following worship, we invite you to stay after for a prayer walk. Members of our vision team will lead us into the community for a time of intentional prayer. For those who are unfamiliar with a prayer walk, you will be invited to pray in silent reflection as we walk to our destination, paying attention to what you see around you, and lifting the people, places, and our entire community to God. We will stop at specific places for an intentional time of prayer.

We are looking forward to Sunday. This is an important time at Ogden Memorial, and we believe God is up to something here. We hope you will be a part of that excitement on Sunday.

 

Our Values: Foundational Principles for Ogden Memorial

Today is the first day of school in Caldwell County. This has been a day, personally, I’ve been looking forward to for some time since it is Noah’s first day in kindergarten.

The fact schools are back in session reminds me of my educational experiences in Raleigh County Schools in West Virginia. Each of my teachers invested in my life. They sought to teach me how to write, read, and understand the world we live in. I am who I am because of the teachers who invested in me.

Most importantly, though, my teachers tried to instill within me values that would define who I am. Values like treating my classmates with respect, living with kindness, and being patient. Those values are still important to me some 30 years later.

When we think of values our minds go to the core foundational principles that define who we live and interact with others. They are what inspire our words and actions even when we are not aware of them.

Christ calls us to claim values in our journey together. Values that serve as an outflow of our relationship with the Lord and define how we live out our love of God. We see our values being expressed through the Beatitudes, Jesus’ prayers, ministries, and common life with his believers. Jesus often called us to go and do likewise. We follow in the footsteps of Christ by taking on the same values and core principles we see reflected in Jesus as an aspect of who we are in Christ’s love.

Throughout 2018, our vision team has been working with me in prayerful conversations about the values that define our common life at Ogden Memorial. I am appreciative of Sara Brown, Jae Englebright, Elaine Overhults, Mary Rohrer, and Emory Spradlin for their dedication and work. They have blessed me with their prayers, laughter, and desire to see the church come alive.

We began our work with a focus on our values, first, because we wanted to set our mind on common principles that define who we are at Ogden. Values that are unchanging. We recognize that leaders may change, ministries may change, pastors may change, but the values of a community are constant. They define our work and how we live out our purpose of loving God and making disciples.

Together we discerned five core values that will define our work moving forward at Ogden Memorial. They are: love, discipleship, prayer, worship, and community. We believe these are values best described how God is leading us forward at Ogden Memorial. Each of the values have statements that were written by members of the team in collaboration with one another.

Beginning September 2, you will hear more about how these values will shape our mission together during worship. Members of the vision team will share about the values and the sermon will reflect on their meaning and purpose for our shared life together. We will celebrate our values on September 30 with a potluck following worship.

Our values. That is what they are. These are the values God has blessed us with to define our relationships with one another and ministry with our community.

I believe, as I have always, that Ogden Memorial is sleeping giant waiting to come alive with fruitful and vibrant ministry. These values and the work of the church coming together to get to this point are a positive step towards that direction.

I’m excited about what is next for Ogden Memorial. I hope you are, as well.

Love Your Enemy: How Christ Calls Us to Love People We Disagree With

One of my favorite television shows is “The West Wing.” The classic Aaron Sorkin drama about life in the White House was one of the best written dramas and more than 10 years after its last episode aired it still fascinates viewers with its impressive dialogue and storytelling.

The show is one I turn to when I want to get away from the world. Abbi in her loving kindness gave me the entire series for Christmas one year, and life has never been the same for my viewing habits.

The other day I had an episode on in the background while sitting in my home office. It was an episode I’ve seen dozens of time. A Republican lawyer outwits the deputy speechwriter on a national public affairs program. This led to the president wanting to hire her, which led to the frustration of key staff members. At the end of the episode, she is in the chief of staff’s office waiting to give her response to the job offer when she meets the deputy chief of staff and the same deputy speechwriter she debated. Their conversation quickly turned to one of the issues discussed in the episode – gun control in the aftermath of a presidential assassination attempt. After a lengthy discussion, the lawyer ended the conversation by saying the problem with their position was that they didn’t like people who who like guns.

I mention the story not to talk about guns or even gun control, but to reflect upon the meaning of that line. She essentially said, “You don’t like people who disagree with you.” Something about it, even though I’ve heard it time and time again, stayed with me. I believe it is because I see it in our conversations today.

We don’t like people who disagree with us.

It shouldn’t take us long to recognize this issue. We struggle with loving and respecting anyone who disagree with us.

This is something I pay a lot of attention to, both as a pastor and also someone who is interested in public theology (how Christ moves us into the public square to be a faithful witness of Jesus Christ in the world). We are experiencing the rise of what I call “acceptable anger” towards those we disagree with. What I mean is that we find it within the boundaries of normal behavior to demean or ridicule personally those who have a different view than what we may hold. Our actions and words are intended not to discuss the issues, but to dismiss those who would dare to see things from a different perspective. We find it acceptable, because we believe that if we are right then it makes our response towards others automatically virtuous and righteous.

One of the places “acceptable anger” is displayed is on social media platforms. Facebook groups and posts that deal with various issues are often highlighted by resentment towards the people who have a different view. We write in such a way that we seek to separate ourselves from those who offer another perspective.

It is easy to dismiss this as a social media problem, and in some ways, it is because we are unable to personally interact with someone through the words we type it is not. Social media is a user-generated platform, which means how we engage social media is often a reflection of who we are and who we have become.

Where I notice this being especially bad is among fellow United Methodists as it relates to conversations on human sexuality and the upcoming 2019 General Conference. I am a member of several clergy online groups. The intent of these groups is to seek practical advice, discuss issues, and encourage one another in ministry. What often happens is that these platforms can be used by people to demean those who disagree with an interpretation of Scripture, perspective on the future of the church, and the issues facing the global movement of God’s kingdom. Posts quickly turn towards name calling towards anyone who has a different perspective.

These posts and comments are from pastors. If the shepherd of a congregation – the pastor – is dismissive towards others, how can the sheep – the flock of a congregation – know the way to truly loving others as God calls us to love?

I have always been struck by how Jesus’ words to love your enemies from Matthew 5:43 is one of the hardest to apply to our lives. An enemy is more than someone who seeks to do harm towards you. An enemy can be someone you disagree with and do not value because of their opinion. So, how do we love our enemy if our enemy is someone we disagree with?

Perhaps it is found in living out the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love means we give of ourselves in deep connection and commitment to God. This is our response to God’s love towards us, which is reflected in God’s creation and presence in our lives.

Our love of God, then, shapes how we respond to one another. We are called to treat each other with the same love we would want shown towards us. That means we value people for who they are and meet them where they are. We can only do this when we see the imago Dei – the image of God – in those we disagree with. Genesis 1:27 reminds of how each person was created in the image of God to reflect the very character of God. Every person is of sacred worth, even those we disagree with, because they are beloved by God.

This changes our response to people. To treat people with love is to see them as someone of worth. It changes the conversation from seeing someone as an enemy, but as a person God loves in the same ways God loves us.

Richard Mouw, a Christian ethicist who wrote the book “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Word.” In the book, he shares how kindness and gentleness should be the defining mark of our relationship with others, especially with those we disagree with on certain issues. Mouw writes, “When Christians fail to measure up to the standards of kindness and gentleness, we are not the people God meant us to be.”

He is right. Our calling as Christ followers is to be above the practices of the world, especially as it relates to our conversations with one another about what it means to be the church. Being people of holy love doesn’t mean we cannot disagree with issues nor does it mean we ignore real issues so as not to offend anyone. What it means that in our conversations about the serious issues that face the church and, truly, the world, we must be ever mindful that within the person we disagree with is the imago Dei.

How different would our world be if we enter into them remembering that God’s image is in the person we disagree with?

Seeking the Kingdom of God in Times of Anxiety

I worry a lot.

I worry about trivial things, such as whether it is possible West Virginia University will ever win a national title in anything beyond rifle. I worry about my family, such as whether we can find adequate care for Noah’s needs. I worry about things that involve the ministry of the church, such as whether we are being faithful in our common mission as United Methodists of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

There are times when being worried about something is necessary, such as when we are concerned for our family’s needs. That is true to a point, because sometimes we allow our natural worries about life’s concerns consume us. Worrying that consumes us can bring us into to a state of anxiety, which can hinder our lives by controlling our thoughts, actions, and perspectives upon the future.

I believe we are in a time of anxiety in the United Methodist Church about what may happen in February at the called General Conference. As we get closer to the called conference, we have allowed the natural concern for the church move us into a state of tension and anxiety.

This tension and anxiety is centered on several elements. It is focused on the issues of human sexuality (which we will begin conversations on later this month). There is also tension surrounding what the General Conference may decide and how it will affect our community. We are focused on the unknown.

I know this anxiety and I have experienced it myself. There have been moments when I’ve felt my own anxiety about what will happen come February. My conversations with friends and family can easily turn towards General Conference and the back-and-forth dialogues that are taking places on social media in the perspective caucuses of the church.

None of this is helpful. None of this has been helpful in my own life. None of this is helpful for us as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 6:25-33. He says there is nothing that can be added to our lives through worry and anxiety. We can only cripple our lives when we are consumed by worry and anxiety.

When we think about the life of the church there is nothing that can be gained towards our mission of making disciples if we are worried about the unknown. The only thing that happens when we worry is it leads us to fear, distrust, and discouragement about where God is leading us. None of these are values that are helpful for the mission of the church today or in the future.

What is helpful is to find the places of hope and to seek the kingdom of God. It is the life Jesus invites us into when we are filled with worry and anxiety. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says it is the kingdom of God that should be our focus and not things that can easily distract and consume our lives.

It is not always easy to do this. That is because when we focus on our worries and anxieties all we see are the negatives. The kingdom of God’s focus for us can get lost through our concerns about what is wrong. When all we see are the negatives we lose sight of the work of the kingdom in our midst and where God is leading us.

We are at our best when our primary focus is not on our worries and anxieties – as real as they may be – but on where God is leading us as a community to be the hands and feet of Christ. The main thing of making disciples of Jesus Christ must be our primary concern. When we take our eyes off of this and place it more upon the concerns of the moment we lose sight of the people Jesus calls us to love – the hurting, the lost, and the forgotten.

The kingdom of God is here. We are a part of God’s kingdom and called to live into the realities of God’s leading, even as we await what may happen in February. No matter what happens in February there will be work of sharing love, planting seeds of hope, and extending grace to the people of Princeton. As long as there are people who need to know God’s love there will be work for the church to do in our community.

Let us make our focus the work of sharing God’s love and seeking the kingdom of God. Nothing can be added to our church and witness by worrying about what may happen. When our focus, though, is on the kingdom of God we will see the possibilities of sharing God’s love all around us and the work that needs to be done to let our community know, truly, that God loves them and so do we.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Every morning growing up, I would look forward to the simple and melodious sounds coming from my television. They would announce the start to one of my favorite shows. One that would draw me into a world of creativity, imagination, and hope.

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, staring Fred Rogers, aired in our homes for 31 seasons. It ended in 2001, but the show and Rogers’ legacy lives on with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which seeks to promote the same values as the original classic. Though Rogers passed away in 2003, his legacy of encouraging imagination and welcoming all people into our lives regardless of their background is still an important and needed message today. He taught us how to be, well, neighborly to one another.

The idea of neighbor is one that has been on my mind this week, especially in the context we find it addressed in the Great Commandment. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe a variation of Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor as we would want to be loved. Our love for each other should be the same as the love God shows for us.

So, what do we mean by loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?” (Mark 12:30)

The word “love” comes from a Greek word agape. The Greek language used in Scripture has four different words used to describe love. This particular usage is the highest form of love in the Greek language and references one of commitment to God and to one another. When we see Jesus use this word, especially in Mark 12:30, he invites us to love God with every ounce of our being. That everything we are and strive to be is wrapped up in our love and connection to God. Our love of God is to be the most important thing in our lives and it its to define everything about who we are.

That is especially the case in regards to our relationships with one another. Jesus says we are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) The idea of neighbor is described in the story of the Great Samaritan in Luke 11:25-37. There we see Jesus encourage us to expand the idea of neighbor – those whom we have a direct connection and identity with – to include more than simply the people we like and get along with. He invites us to treat everyone as our neighbor. The bonds of community Christ are to be extended to all people because of our love of God.

This idea of neighbor was expressed throughout Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, especially in one classic episode. Francois Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons, was the first African-American to have a regular role on a children’s television show. In a 1969 episode, Clemmons visited Rogers’ home on a hot day and the two sat together in a children’s pool cooling off their feet. The image of the two men – one black and the other white – sitting with their feet touching came during a period of racial unrest in America. It was one that Clemmons would go on to say deeply touched him, because of its embrace and welcome of all people. Rogers’ act was a physical expression of God’s call to treat all people with love and equal care.

Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if we lived out the Great Commandment in our relationships with one another?

So often our relationships are defined by the standards of the world. Is the person acceptable? Are they safe? Are they from a good background? Do we agree with them politically and socially? These are questions that society teaches us. Society would like for us to believe that the idea of the Great Commandment is a good story, but not practical in our relationships with one another.

Jesus never taught that the Great Commandment wasn’t practical or easy. Jesus saw the idea of loving God and loving our neighbor as a core value for all who would desire to be in relationship with the Lord. The call to do likewise from Luke 10:37 is a reminder of how Jesus expects those who follow in his footsteps to love the Lord completely and to love all people the same.

How we seek to love one another is never defined by our connections to the political world, but to the worldview Christ instills within us. We are to make room for people even when it is difficult. Jesus calls us to welcome the unwelcomed. Jesus calls us to love the unlovable. Jesus calls us to embrace people who are different than us. Jesus invites us to make room for people who have special needs.

Jesus invites us to be, well … neighbors.

What would it look like if, because of the Great Commandment, we hear the refrain from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” as sung by those who are crying out for love today?

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please

Please won’t you be my neighbor?

Music of My Soul

My copy of the United Methodist Hymnal is special to me. It is a well-worn book, because of how much I use it in the preparation of worship and in my own life. There are red dots that mark beloved songs. There are scribbles throughout several pages where Noah has offered his own edits. For instance, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” has something like a rest note written over two stanzas.

What I love the most about our hymnal is it is the music of our collective souls. There are songs throughout the book that take me back to important moments in my faith journey and ministry. When we sing these songs, I’m often reminded of people who have inspired me, guided me, and pointed me towards God’s love.

Some stand out among the rest. I want to share with you what some of my most beloved songs – those songs with the red dots – mean to me.

Here I Am, Lord (593) – If there is one song that serves as the soundtrack for my call story it is this hymn by Dan Schutte. It reminds me of how God desires a willing heart among the Lord’s people to make a difference in this world. When I began to sense God’s calling again to ministry it was this song that was playing in my heart. It still does to this day.

O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing (57) – This classic Charles Wesley hymn has been the leadoff hymn in Methodist hymnals since 1780. It reminds me of the Offerings community in Lexington. This campus of First UMC had this song as its regular rotation for the praise band. It is a beautiful reminder of how the entire church global comes together to praise God.

Lord of the Dance (261) – What amazes me about this song is, like many others in our hymnal, is its use of a contemporary melody to add a worshipful nature to the music. The music comes from a Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” In this song, the joy of a gift is connected to the relationship of the Triune God in a beautiful way.

Up from the Grave He Arose (322) – This classic Easter hymn takes me to the back rows of Perry Memorial UMC and trying hard to not sing “Up from the gravy he arose.” I’m certain I would get some looks from my family if I managed to say gravy. Still today, it is a favorite hymn because of its joyous celebration of the Resurrection.

And Can it Be that I Should Gain (363) – It is the Methodist fight song! Well, really it is just the Asbury Theological Seminary fight song, but it really should be our movement’s song that moves us out of the pews and into our communities. That is because this song gets to the heart of faith. How amazing it is that God would give of himself for us! That is what this powerful Charles Wesley song is all about.

My life would not be the same without these songs. I give thanks to God for them.