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.

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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.

It is That Important

Last year, I had the responsibility of planning daily Holy Week services in Mercer County. It was the second year I had this responsibility, and I enjoyed gathering an ecumenical body together each day for worship and reflection.

What I remember the most about last year’s worship services was an interview I had with a reporter from the local newspaper. We were talking about why Holy Week is important and I used a phrase similar to this:

It is the Super Bowl, Daytona 500, Indy 500, March Madness, and Game 7 all rolled into one week.

That idea was the main point used in the article. It is still the main point today. Holy Week is our Super Bowl. Holy Week is our Daytona 500. Holy Week is our Indy 500. Holy Week is our March Madness. Holy Week is our Game 7.

It is that important.

Holy WeekCross Of Christ Religious Stock Photo begins Sunday on Palm Sunday and runs through sunset on Holy Saturday. It is the most important week of the Christian calendar, as we will celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and reflect upon what it means for us today. We need Holy Week, because we need to hear the story again and again.

It is easy to assume we do not need Holy Week. We’ve heard the story before. We know Jesus. We know what the days means. All of this we will convince ourselves of as we make other things – personal lives, schedules, finances – more important than our faith and relationship with Jesus. We disconnect ourselves from the story as the same time as we allow other ideas and influences claim authority in our lives.

We need Holy Week because it reminds us that Jesus is Lord. On Palm Sunday, we will remember how Jesus entered Jerusalem as the heralded Messiah and King of all. We need that reminder of how Jesus is our Lord and King. Jesus lovingly desires to guide us to live out what it means to be in an intimate relationship and connection with God.

On Maundy Thursday we will remember how we often want something else besides Jesus all together. We will remember how we turned our back on Jesus – an act we will do today through our words, actions, and deeds – because Jesus isn’t what we often expect.

On Good Friday we will remember how Jesus loves us unconditionally. That no matter what we’ve done or who we are Jesus desires to be in relationship with us.

On Easter morning we will celebrate that there is hope in the world. Even when it seems like there is nothing to be hopeful about, the message of the empty tomb reminds us that God is in control and Jesus lives and reigns.

I don’t know about you, but I believe those are messages we need today. Those are messages that I need today.

Messages that we need as our lives become over scheduled by agendas that seek to control our time and connections. Messages we need as we seek to make power and politics as our primary concern instead of love and connection with God. Messages we need as we seek to be more focused on ourselves instead of the greater good.

We need Holy Week, because it is that important for our lives.

I hope you will join us throughout Holy Week at Ogden Memorial this year. More importantly, my prayer is that this week will be an opportunity to encounter the presence of God in your life and in our community.

How Are We the Church

This past Sunday we continued our sermon series “I Believe” by looking at the phrase “I believe in the holy catholic church and the communion of Saints.” We made the bold profession that we are the church. We are God’s mission in the earth to share the glory of the Lord. How amazing it is to be part of what God is doing in the world to share hope and love!

So, how are we being the church here at Ogden?

It is easy to focus on what is not – attendance, offering, discipleship, etc. – but I believe we build on what is

, so we may be the church that God is calling us to be in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world here in Princeton. I want you to know how proud I am to be your pastor and walk with you, because you inspire me in how you desire to be the church.472017_436765336365086_256924354_o

See, I believe Ogden is a church that seeks to support ministries and mission. Yesterday, our Finance Team made the decision to support our college ministries, camps, missions, and UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) through our voluntary apportionments throughout the year. A couple of years ago, support for our camps, college ministries, and mission groups were cut along with apportionment requests. It was asked that local churches build partnerships with these groups to strengthen their ministries.

We as United Methodists believe we are in connection with one another, which means that we are all in this together. We do not exist on our own. We are part of a larger connection of churches and ministries throughout Kentucky and around the world. A Wesley Foundation, for instance, at Western Kentucky or Eastern Kentucky is your college ministry, because they are part of our shared life together. As it has been said before we are one church just in 800 locations throughout Kentucky. We are in this together.

It is because of your generous giving that we are able to be a church that builds partnerships and connections with our colleges, camps, and mission organizations.

I believe Ogden is a church, also, that cares for our youth and children. One of my joys has been watching our youth and children grow in their love of God. Through our Kids 4 Christ and youth ministries, I’ve seen our youth come together and share life with each other. I’ve seen our children ask questions about faith that our deep and holy. I’m thankful for Lisa Shaffer and our volunteers who make these ministries possible. We often believe our children are the future but let me say this … they are our present.

Finally, I believe Ogden is a church that loves each other. I see your love for one another in conversations after worship, throughout the week, and in your concern for people who are going through difficult life moments. The church is a fellowship of connection and concern – a family – and I appreciate your love for each other.

This is a great congregation. You are great people.

Now, let me say this … there is work still to be done. Work to build deeper partnerships with our connectional ministries. Work to help inspire people. Work to share the love of God with others.

What would it look like for Ogden to not just give money and send students to Loucon, but to volunteer and help as needed? What would it look like for you to come along side our youth and children to help them grow in their faith and love of God? What would it look like for you to share the love of God with people who believe the church is not for them?

As we said and sung Sunday, we are the church so let us be the church. Let us continue to be the church that God calls us to be. Let us be the church that makes disciples and finds new ways to reach new people.

I know we can, because I already see it here at Ogden and I can only imagine what God will continue to do in us moving forward.