Adjusting to Being a Dad-to-Be

You can imagine my shock one early morning when my wife greeted me with one simple sentence.

I’m pregnant.

The shock didn’t come in not knowing how that event took place – I did pay attention in anatomy class – but in how our life changed in just one quick moment. We went to bed not knowing if we were finally pregnant and woke up to the realization that a child – our child – was in development.

For the last 11 weeks, my wife and I have tried to adjust to what it means for us to be expecting and what it means to be a parent to this child even now. There is a lot for any parent to consider when raising a child, such as disciplining, dietary choices, and how soon will we take the child to a WVU football game. You know the important questions of raising a child. We’ve also looked at what it will mean for us to raise this child in the church, especially given my role as a pastor. That’s a new one that none in our family have had to work with.

All these are, perhaps, normal questions for the expectant family. I’m also wrestling with another parenting topic. That is simply how to be a father. Now, everything dad-to-be struggles with what it means to be a father. I am no different in that. Where I struggle is not knowing what a father is truly supposed to look like.

I have never hid the fact that I never knew my biological father and my stepfather was never there and when he was I was on the receiving end of his abuse. I do not have a picture of a father that is supportive or encouraging. I don’t have a positive experience with fathers. I would be lying if the prospect of being a father, with this history, doesn’t scare me.

So, what do I hold on to? Who do I go to for support when I am struggling with what it means to be a father? Fortunately, I have several examples.

First, there are great men in my life that I can look to as great fathers. My grandfather is a perfect example. When my stepfather refused to be a father, he took on that role for me and my brother. For my brother, he taught him everything he knew about tools, which fostered his career as a mechanic. For myself, my grandfather was always there at my sporting events and other activities. It is the memories of my grandfather driving me to wrestling tournaments that I remember the most from my time in the sport. His presence helped to develop my lifelong interest in sports as a hobby.

I also have some great friends who are amazing fathers. I have been able to watch from the sidelines as my friends have become incredible dads to their children. Their experiences in raising their children will be a great benefit to me as I prepare to raise my child.

Most importantly, I have the Heavenly Father as my guide. Even when I didn’t think I had a father in my life, God was there and served as my Father. I might not have known it fully then, but I do now. God’s presence was there is bringing people in my life who helped to cultivate in me the gifts and talents given to me by the Father in Heaven. I was never alone when my biological father was not a part of my life, because God was with me. I was never alone when my stepfather ignored me or abused me, because God was there.

In the last few days, people have told me that I will be a great father. I hope so. If nothing else, I hope to be a presence to my child that will inspire him or her to live a life that seeks God, serves God, and loves others.

That is what I hope will define me as a father to my child.

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Sunday’s Sermon: A Culture of Love

One of my favorite television shows is “How I Met Your Mother.” I enjoy watching Ted Mosby’s ongoing story to his children about how he met their mother. Ultimately, what the show has focused on is how a close group of friends became a family.

The show is entering what could be its final season in September. There are several episodes I love to watch when they come on. That includes a special episode from its second season. The entire season focused on how Marshall and Lilly, two of Ted’s best friends and roommates, reunited, after separating at the end of the first season, and got married. Their wedding is a two-part episode with the second part titled “Something Blue.”

The focus is on the events leading up to the wedding, including Ted’s break-up with Robin, another main character in the series. One of the scenes shows the friends gathered in Ted’s apartment. They are working on a list of “overused wedding cliches” for Marshall and Lilly to avoid, such as dancing a conga line and doing a photo slideshow. The joke is these cliches end up part of the wedding. As the friends discuss the list, Barney, the show’s lovable womanizer, enters and suggests 1 Corinthians 13. After Marshall recites the passage, the entire gang pans it and the passage is placed on the list.

Perhaps we have placed this passage on our own list of “wedding cliches.” Much in the same way as the group of friends from “How I Met Your Mother,” we approach 1 Corinthians 13 as if it only speaks to the love between a man and a woman. This passage is most often read during the wedding ceremony as the picture of what “true love” looks like. Because of this, it is one of the most recognizable passages of Scripture. Paul’s words are familiar to us regardless of what translation of the Bible we use. Think of the prose of Paul’s thoughts beginning with verse 4: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

It is simply beautiful. What Paul writes may, indeed, be a wonderful expression of what should define a marriage. Too bad that is not Paul’s focus is in this passage.

By seeing 1 Corinthians 13 as only a description of romantic love, we limit what Paul is truly trying to tell us. It has been disconnected from its context and the depths of Paul’s thought. Paul’s expressions of love cannot be limited to just marriage. Sure, his thoughts are applicable to this area, but they go deeper than that. Marriage should be defined by love that is patient and kind, among other identifiers, but so should our entire lives. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 cannot be limited to a context that is appropriate for this passage. Paul is specifically addressing situations that were occurring in Corinth and continue to plague our churches, where something was missing in their devotion and fellowship. With these words, Paul gives us a deep picture of what it means to follow Christ. The way of follow Christ, Paul says, is to be defined by love.

This path of a life defined by love goes along with what Paul has been said throughout 1 Corinthians. Paul’s thoughts on love are not disconnected from the entire letter, but are central to his thoughts in 1 Corinthians and in all of his writings. Love must be our guide. It is an appropriate follow up to what he says in 1 Corinthians 12.

In that passage, Paul writes that we have various gifts, or talents, that God has given us. He also says we are connected to each other as the body of Christ. This is crucial to understanding what Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is reacting to a situation in Corinth. The people there believed that because they had these gifts or that they did some great things that they were special in their fellowship with Christ. Paul will have none of this thinking. Gifts and our actions do not define our walk with Christ. Love must be the ultimate definition of what it means to follow Christ.

Paul walks this out beginning with 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. He lists some of the same gifts that he mentions in 1 Corinthians 12. What Paul says is that doing these things is not enough. Love must be a part of our ministry, lives, and acts of giving. Paul is alerting us to the fact that the absence of love limits the potential of our gifts and acts of service. No matter what good we do in our lives, if it is not done in an attitude of love something is missing.

Paul is speaking to specific attitudes in Corinth, but we can bring this forward to our time. When we pray, if we do not do so out of our love of God then we are missing something. If we give to the poor because it is an “expectation,” and not because we want to show our love to the “least of these,” then something is missing. If we try to help someone through a difficult situation and do not show love, then we are not helping the individual. No matter how good our intention might be, if our acts and life are not lived in a posture of love then we are missing the point.

We are also missing the nature of who God is. The biggest definition we can use about God is this: God is love. This is the definition we see throughout Scripture. It is love that led God to create this world. It is love that led God to continue caring for humanity, even after it has been disobedient. It is love that led God to send Christ. God is truly love.

Paul builds on this and gives us the beautiful words we see in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. He is building on the characteristics of God’s love and calls each of us to be defined by these things. God’s love is patient with humanity, so we are called to be patient with others. God’s love is kind, so we are called to be the same to those around us. The love of God is everything and more that Paul describes in these words. Paul could keep going and add in other descriptions, such as hospitality and giving. Paul isn’t intent on building a lasting definition, but only a glimpse of the quality of love and the ways we are to as we love others.

It is a quality that should define who we are as followers of Christ. We’ve seen what happens when love is not what defines us. When we are defined by anger, hostility, resentment, frustration, greed, power, or anything else, we are fall short of the beauty of God’s love. As followers of Christ, we are to reflect the love of God in our relationships with others, whether it is with members of our families, the people in our communities, or the person whom we may never meet. If we are not defined by love, then we are distorting the message of the Gospel that has love as one of its key aspects.

It’s also the only thing that will never fail. God’s love will never fail. Everything else will fade away, but the love of God, the presence of Christ, will return and last forever. The kingdom will come and our love of others points to this moment. Even more, the things we do in this world are for a moment. The gifts we share with others are for a specific moment. Love has no expiration date. It can lead to moments of transformation and reflection in someone’s life. It can also serve as a reminder of Christ’s love when someone is struggling in their life. Nothing that we can ever give is more important than sharing the love of Christ with those who need to feel that they are loved.

Of course, love is not easy. We all struggle with loving people. There are people in this world who are difficult to love. If we were honest, there are times when we are difficult to love. When it is difficult to love, ask the Holy Spirit to guide your heart to be loving. Take the challenging step to ask God to transform your heart so that you can be love to someone who needs to be loved. Even more, ask God to transform you so that you will be able to be loved. The Spirit is our guide to love others and to be loved ourselves.

God’s love calls us to a life of love. It reminds us that we are loved and in return we are called to love others. In a world that can be so often defined by hostility and bitterness, being a people who are defined by love might be the most important witness of Jesus Christ that we can share with others. Our communities and our world need to see people living as a people of love.

As we conclude, I want you to take a moment to reflect. Most likely, there is someone that you know who needs to know that they are loved. There is probably someone who you need to love better in your life. Maybe it is someone you know and maybe it is someone you only met for a second. Perhaps, maybe you need to be a person more defined by love than the attitudes of this world. Whoever it is as we prepare to pray, give that person, or yourself, over to God. Ask God to define for you what it means to love that person or yourself, so that you may reflect God’s love.

Take this all in. We can be a community defined by love. You can be a person defined by love. It is not hard. All that is asked is that we reflect the same love that characterizes who God is and how God relates to us. Love is important and it is central to the kingdom of God.

If we get love wrong, then we’ve missed what it means to be the church and followers of Christ.

A Modern Day 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Love exists as long as you are happy. You can treat people however you want. It desires the newest Apple gadget. It brags about all of my accomplishments. It lets you know how I am always right. It has no problem telling you how things should be, especially if you are wrong. It is always about my agenda. It certainly remembers who has used me. It always protects my own interests. Love celebrates when my enemies are harmed. It only protects my interests. I only trust myself. I can only hope in what I can do with my two hands. Love perseveres, unless I can find an easier way and a higher salary.

Love is always and only about me.

Sunday Sermon: Kingdom Hope

Hope can be difficult to proclaim, especially after these past few days. It can be hard to proclaim hope considering recent events, and with the realities of our current time.

Do not believe it is easy for a pastor, whether it is myself or someone else, to proclaim hope in difficult seasons. Like you, we struggle with wrapping our minds around the senseless and the profane. We are sometimes dumbfounded by the way this world can be and often is.

It is difficult to proclaim hope when there is so much pain in our world. For roughly four years, the world’s economy has struggled with one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. It is difficult to proclaim hope when so many are facing economic hardships.

It is difficult to proclaim hope when there is so much division. Our country is divided along lines of “progressive” and “conservative.” Lives are affected by broken families. As well, we pursue consumeristic wants and desires that makes us always wanting something more or new.

It is difficult to proclaim hope when we hear of violence in our world and country. Syria is in the middle of a seemingly unending civil war. Various uprisings in the Middle East have, at times, been violent. Iran provides a tense international situation. To put it in context, children in elementary school (5th grade and below) do not know of a time when we were not at war.

As well, two mass shootings affected us all this week. On Tuesday, 17 people were injured in a bar near the University of Alabama. Then early Friday morning an unthinkable event occurred. Twelve people were killed and another 58 injured when a gunman opened fire during a midnight showing of “The Dark Night Rises” in Aurora, Colorado.

It is difficult to always proclaim hope. My friends, today I am here to do just that.

We have a hope to proclaim to our community and world. Our hope is not diminished by the world’s darkness. True hope is not built on the world’s promises, but upon something more lasting. Our hope is built on the “solid rock” of “Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Hope is built on the foundation of grace expressed through the self-giving and loving nature of Jesus Christ. This hope “exceeds anything that we can understand.”

When we face difficult moments we can proclaim our hope. Hope is our confidence in the goodness of the Lord and in the Lord’s promises. We cannot do this on our own. It is only because we are justified by faith that we can have hope. This is a key idea in the Paul’s writing, and is expressed in our passage from Romans 5:1-5. Paul takes a legal team, which means pardoned, and applies it to our relationship with Jesus Christ.

The story of our hope and our status as justified is best understood by going back to the beginning. Our world is not as it was intended. It was not supposed to be filled with these difficult moments. Creation was made perfect and we were intended for a perfect relationship with God. Genesis 1-2 tells of the story of how God’s creation took shape over time. Our part in the story begins with Genesis 1:27. We are created in the image of God. Humanity reflects the character and love of God. We were created perfect and called to be in relationship with God.

However, what was created perfect became marred by sin. Genesis 3:1-7 tells of the story of how sin, disobedience to a known will of God, entered creation. It was not because of something God did, but because humanity, in Adam and Eve, disobeyed God. Each of us continue to disobey God today. We take our freedom to make choices and use it to turn from God’s desires. Creation and humanity were tainted by the cost of our sin.

Since then, God has been in a process of reclaiming creation and humanity. It is a process of bringing everyone back into a relationship with God. The Old Testament tells of how salvation progressed through the era of judges and prophets. It all led to when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, entered the world. From the incarnation to cross, Jesus was actively restoring the relationship between God and humanity. On the cross, Jesus took on our sin. He stood in our place and because Christ died for us and lives today we are free from the guilt and the cost of our sin.

Jesus’ death pardoned us of our sin. We are justified by God because of this. God’s grace redeems us. We did nothing to redeem ourselves. It is entirely the work of God, expressed through Jesus’ self-sacrificial act on the cross. Our part is to accept the free gift of grace, which allows us to experience a renewed relationship with God. That is the essence of being justified by faith. We have faith that Christ died for us on the cross, rose from the grave, and sits at God’s right hand. Truly, we have a “blessed assurance” that Jesus paid the price of our sin.

Assurance of our salvation brings us to a place of deep peace with God. Our status of being at peace with God is a fruit of this renewed relationship. It is a relationship that is no longer defined by distance, but of harmony and unity. No longer is our relationship with God broken, but we are united with God through God’s love. We do not enter this peaceful condition on our own. Peace comes from Christ. We receive this peaceful relationship through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Peace reminds us that Christ is with us, which is one of the blessings of salvation.

Our faith Christ and our peaceful existence with God is why we can have hope. When we think of hope, we mean our confidence in good things. It is the confidence in the promises of God and the truth of God’s love for us. By having hope in Christ, we are placing our trust that we believe Christ’s salvation is real and God’s promises are true. We can hope in the good times, because Christ’s presence is with us.

It is easy to hope in the good times. It is easy to hope when the blessings are present and continually flowing. Few doubt God’s presence when life is easy. The true test of our faith comes in how we maintain our hope in difficult times. Do we abandon our hope in Christ or do we persevere by clinging to the promises of God?

Paul reminds us that part of our fellowship with Christ means having hope in the difficult. We are called to a life of perseverance. It is a life of staying on the path of following the Spirit’s direction and to maintain our hope in Christ. A Christian’s character is not developed by how much they prosper. One’s prosperity is not a gauge of the strength of a person’s faith. Christian character is developed by maintaining our faith through the temptations and difficulties we experience.

Christian character is not simply about moral ethical character. It is about the content of our faith being shown as real and strong by a faith lived through the good and the difficult These difficult times strengthen our faith and deepens our relationship with Christ. Our struggles, doubts, and difficulties are not times for us to run away from faith, but to embrace God and to grow deeper in our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In times of difficulty, C.K. Barrett writes, we learn that life is not about looking for ourselves, but to look upon God for guidance and protection. The character of our faith is part of our witness of our faith in Jesus Christ to our communities and world.

As people of the Kingdom of God, we are called to live in hope in the good and bad. We proclaim hope in something greater and deeper to our communities. We proclaim a hope that God will never abandon us and that God’s promises are true. It is a hope that guides us through the ups and the downs.

We can hope through injustice, because we have true hope. When the world tries to tell us to live in a constant state of fear, we are not deterred. We proclaim a deeper and more lasting hope than anything the world can offer. Christ’s peace and presence is in the process of bringing true justice and is reconciling the world back to God. We have hope because of God’s justice and reconciliation.

We can hope in times of economic struggles and droughts, because of our hope in the promises of God. We know that God is our provider. Our promise is that God will provide for our basic needs. We have hope because God has never failed in one of his promises.

We can hope in challenging times, because we are never alone. It may seem like we face our struggles and challenges on our own, but that is not true. We are never alone. When we are struggling, the presence of the Holy Spirit is with us as our comforter, healer, and guide. God never abandons us. We have hope because God is always with us.

We can hope when the church fails to be the church, because we are God’s vessel to proclaiming the truth of God’s great love. There are many things to love about the church, but there are many things to be frustrated by the church. Yet, God loves the church – in its strengths and its weaknesses. The church is the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ in a broken world.  God may call us to repentance and may desperately seek our renewal. God will never abandon the church and neither should we. We have hope because God will never abandon the church.

Finally, we can hope in the Lord when we hear of acts of violence, whether they be in a movie theatre in Colorado or in streets of the Middle East. We can hope, because God was there. It may not seem like it, but it is true. God was there in providing comfort to the families. God was there in providing help to the survivors. God was there in bringing the police to the scene before the shooting could get any worse. God was there and continues to be there. God is wiping away the tears we felt and embraces the hurts we feel. We have hope because God’s presence is always with us, especially in these painful moments.

Having hope is not always easy, but it is our loving response to the world. When the world proclaims fear and frustrations, we proclaim something deeper. We proclaim hope. When the world wants to be scared, we proclaim something lasting. We proclaim our hope in Jesus Christ, a hope that cannot, will not, and has not failed us.

We hope in the Lord, which builds love, patience, and character in us all.

Political Strategies Have No Place in the Church

In an election year, political strategy is an important topic. You have to determine the right path to take to accomplish a certain goal, whether it is an election victory or to pass a piece of legislation. Political strategy is also important for articulating the message that will be used that will define an election or the reason for a legislation’s passage.

Political strategy is great for politics. Unfortunately, the practices of our partisan election process continually finds its way into the life and ministry of the church. Too often, the church takes on and uses the same words, strategies, and practices that define our partisan world.

Especially in the United Methodist Church, which is my denomination, I have noticed a trend where political strategies have defined the engagement of various groups in attempting to accomplish different agenda items. This is true of evangelicals and progressives. These practices work well in an election year, but have no place in the church.

For too long, the church, regardless of its denomination, has been too interested in making disciples of the Church of the Republican Party or the Fellowship of the Democratic Party. The same talking points, strategies, and arguments that have led to a polarized political landscape too often find their way into the church’s theological and practical engagement.

This leads to a broken and fractured church. Speaking strictly about the United Methodist Church, the utilization of political strategies and rhetoric have created a sense of distrust throughout the denomination. This was evident at General Conference and it has been on display, in some cases, during this week’s Jurisdictional Conferences. When we are defined more by political realities and theory instead of the reality of Jesus Christ’s love and grace, we pave the way for bitterness, brokenness, and resentment.

It may make for great political theatre, but political strategies make a poor witness of the Christian truth. A campaign may thrive by using class warfare tactics and offensive language, but it makes for poor theology in the church. A politician may be elected by announcing his or her victories against an opponent, but it causes divide and separation in the church. A political group may succeed in calling the other side “evil,” but it destroys the body of Christ.

We are all guilty of this – old and young, clergy and laity, left and right. We all must repent of how we have led the church to be more political than theological. No one is immune from the blame.

As leaders in the church, let us move away from being like the world and our obsession with being a representation of our favorite political theory. Let us embrace the difficult call of being Christ followers, who express the truth in love with compassion and desire to lead the entire church to the mountain tops of faith.

Teaching Infant Baptism in Rural America

If there was a seminary course that focused on “things you do not discuss” in the church, I believe infant baptism in rural America would be on the syllabus.

Fortunately for me (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), I failed to take that class. I probably wouldn’t have attended it if it was offered. I believe in teaching the difficult and embracing the challenging. That means teaching why I support infant baptism.

Infant baptism is a frowned upon practice in some rural communities in America. Defined by a belief in the practice of believers baptism, infant baptism is seen as going against Scripture or a bad theology. It is one of the United Methodist Church’s practices that prevents some in rural America from understanding our theology and mission. It is also one of the least understood practices.

In his book “Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality,” Rob Staples discusses the theological history and tradition that informs our practice of infant baptism. He focuses on five areas that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, used in articulating his support for infant baptism.

  1. “Infants are proper subjects of baptism because of the sin of Adam in which all persons participated (169).” In other words, we were created pure in the image of God. Adam’s act of disobedience altered that creation. This is what is known as “original sin.” Humanity is not as it was intended because of this act of disobedience. The same is true for infants, which makes them appropriate candidates for baptism.
  2. “Baptism is proper for children because of the continuity of the covenant of grace God made with Abraham (169).” The covenant with Abraham was confirmed with circumcision, which was a ritual that was done very early in the young child’s life. Baptism serves as the “seal of the covenant established by Christ,” which means it is available for infants (170).
  3. “Small children should be brought to Christ, and that therefore they are capable of coming to Him and being admitted into the church (170).” With this line of thought, Wesley builds a theology around Matthew 19:13-14. In this passage, Christ calls for the children to be brought to him.” He also says we should not “hinder” them from experiencing Christ. Part of this includes, Wesley believed, the administration of baptism. If children are to be brought to Christ in a relationship, how can we deny an infant baptism?
  4. “If they (Apostles) baptized infants, then infants are proper subjects of baptism (171).” Wesley, as well as Martin Luther, looked at the ministry of the Apostles in Acts and assumes that infants were baptized, especially in references to entire households being baptized. Staples also makes references to Peter’s Pentecost sermon of the promise being given to the children in Acts 2:39, which would likely include infants.
  5. “Wesley finds support for infant baptism in the practice of the church (171).” Wesley looks at the entire history of the church and sees that no theologian denied infant baptism. If they did, they would have wrote about it.

Of course, baptism is both a divine and human act. It is the divine act of God’s grace working in our lives, and it is a human act of our recognition of God’s activity in us. With infant baptism, the parent makes the announcement of recognition of what Christ has already done in the child’s life by dying for the child’s sin on the cross. Christ’s grace doesn’t begin to work on us the moment we believe, but is present in our life from the time we were being developed in the womb. This makes infants eligible for baptism as much as an adult.

There is much we can say about infant baptism. We could write posts after posts on the subject. That being said, we should not ignore deep theological principles simply because they might go against the prevailing practices of our communities. You gain more respect in a community for being open and willing to discuss these topics than you would by running away from them.

Ten Hard Questions, Part II

Here are 10 more thought-provoking questions that I should be asking, but struggle with asking:

1) Would we rather see someone succeed in life or see a successful person fall?

2) When we say we are a church that teaches the entire Bible, do we really believe that? In other words, do we teach difficult passages in our churches or just our favorite topics?

3) What is the message about the reason for church our churches are sending to the community?

4) Do pastors lose their identity in communities that have pre-defined roles for a pastor?

5) What would John Wesley say about the church in America?

6) Is our idea of church more defined by what we think it should look like or by what God thinks it should look like?

7) Do we teach our people how to think theologically?

8) Who have we forgotten that we need to have a relationship with?

9) Who in our communities is missing from our congregations?

10) Would we rather be right or loved?