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.

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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.

Answering Important Questions

These are interesting times in the life of the United Methodist Church. We are in a period of discernment about who we are and where we are going as a community. We’ve known this for some time, but the reality is ever more present as we approach the called General Conference in 2019.

Who we are is a pressing question for me, today, because I believe it is one we are not wrestling with as United Methodists as it relates to questions regarding Scripture, accountability, and, yes, human sexuality. It is also one I believe connects to some of our larger questions in society. Who are we as it relates to our divisions between larger churches and smaller churches? Who are we as it relates to our divisions between rural and urban culture? Who are we as it relates to our divisions between Republicans and Democrats?

Who are we? Continue reading

What is a Disciple?

Recently I read an article from the Barna Group that startled me. The Barna Group is a research and polling organization that focuses on Christianity in the United States. Its research has helped to provide new perspectives on Millennials and the changing landscape for the church in our country.

This specific article, though, discussed how 51 percent of people who attend church cannot recognize the Great Commission. It was startling to read and I hope it is for you as well, because our very existence as a United Methodist congregation is centered on the Great Commission.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20b, NRSV)

That is the Great Commission and it is our mission. You have heard me say time and time again that our calling is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world here in Princeton, Kentucky.” We are called to make disciples in our local community who then go and change the world.

So, what is a disciple?

I believe this is a question that we all struggle to answer. That is because we don’t discuss much about what we mean we say “disciple.” We assume people know what we are talking about and then wonder why people struggle to understand the life of a disciple and what it means to make a disciple.

When we define a disciple, we mean someone who seeks to dedicate themselves to following Jesus. Matthew uses a word in Matthew 28:19 to define a disciple as a “pupil.” We know a pupil is a student who follows the teaching of their mentor, teacher, or guide. That is what a disciple of Jesus Christ does. They follow in the teaching and life of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

This means a disciple of Jesus Christ has values we must take seriously.

A disciple of Jesus Christ has a value of the Great Commandment. We must hold both the Great Commission (make disciples) and the Great Commandment (love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself). Disciples of Jesus Christ are devoted to God and seek to share the love of God freely with all people. Love is the most important component of discipleship, because it is the commandment Jesus gave that summed up the entire law of God.

A disciple of Jesus Christ has a value of seeking to live in community with other disciples. Jesus calls his followers into community. We cannot be disciples by seeking to be individuals in isolation from other believers. Disciples are called into a community with other believers for prayer, worship, accountability, and encouragement.

A disciple of Jesus Christ has a value of surrendering themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Surrendering is not something we always talk about. To surrender means to let go of our need to be in control. When we surrender ourselves to Jesus’ Lordship, we humble ourselves and let go of our need to have power and control of who we are, where we are going, or even the life of the community of believers. Disciples allow Jesus to direct their lives and how they relate to other people.

A disciple of Jesus Christ values making commitments to God and other believers. Disciples of Jesus Christ make a promise to God and to other believers that we will be committed in our walk with God. Our commitments are to be in prayer for one another, to be faithful in worship attendance, to give ourselves through our gifts and talents, and to serve by witnessing of God’s love through our words, actions, and deeds.

This is what we mean when we use the word disciple. We are called to make disciples as a church and we do so through worship, study, and service.

Discipleship and making disciples must be at the core of who we are as a church and a people. The question we must always be willing to ask ourselves is this: Is what we are doing at Ogden Memorial making disciples?

This is not a question that can be answered immediately, but it is a question that we must be willing to ask. It is the evaluative question that gets to the heart of fruitfulness and moves us beyond from thinking of survival, but towards thriving.

My prayer for us at Ogden Memorial is for us to thrive in our ministries and witness to God. I pray we will be a disciple-making church that is willing to do the things necessary to lead us into long-term fruitfulness of living out the Great Commission’s call to make disciples.