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July 21, 2015, 12:00 AM

Who Is Welcome Here?


 

 

You are welcome if you are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, trans, or confused. You're welcome if you are filthy rich, but just as welcome if you are dirt poor. If you are black, white, red, brown, yellow or black and blue, you are welcome and you will be safe with us.  We extend a special welcome to crying babies and the parents who worry about them. You’re welcome if you are homies, newbies, or nomads.

 

We welcome you if you can sing like an angel or can’t carry a note in a  very large bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’  or just got out of prison or rehab. You're welcome if you’re more religious than the Pope or haven’t been in church since you were a bridesmaid, groomsman, or a pallbearer.

 

We welcome soccer moms, football dads, starving artists, Cardinal fans, Cub fans, NASCAR  enthusiasts,  opera aficionados, Trekkies, rockers, rednecks, vegans and junk-food junkies.  We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you have issues with ‘organized religion.’ (Don't worry, we can be pretty disorganized.)

 

If you blew your wad at the casino, or came because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church you’re welcome here, along with those who work too hard, don’t work or can't work,.

 

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid  and are afraid you might choke. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, the wounded and wondering.

 

And if we haven't named your issue, yet...well, you're still welcome here, because we all have them.

 

We're here because we believe God loves us, even if we have trouble loving ourselves.  We are loved even with all our differences, issues, faults and foibles.  The church is a place where imperfect people encounter and are transformed by the perfect love of God, as shown to us by Jesus Christ. That means we're in no position to reject you because of your imperfections or differences.  Jesus didn't and wouldn't do that.  Who are we, to disagree with him???




July 7, 2015, 10:26 AM

Getting Out of the Box


In far too many ways, the church has boxed itself in.  We have boxed ourselves into buildings, and into a particular day and time.  We have boxed ourselves into a group that is pretty much the same class, race, and age...and to be honest, that age is pretty old.

The box threatens to become a coffin.

We need to do things differently, and we need to get out of the box.

Here are some things I am proposing...

GO ON A MISSION...The Mission Trip proposed for September (see next article) puts faith into action.  Those who participate will see how our church helps children who have been abused and neglected, provides dignified living for senior citizens, supports higher education, and reaches out to help people afflicted by disasters like the tornadoes ravaged communities here in Illinois.  You won't just hear about this stuff...you will be involved in helping.  You don't have to be wealthy, young, strong, or in perfect health to help.  You just have to want to share the love of Jesus Christ.  This experience can be a tremendous blessing!

JOIN A DYNAMIC NEW GROUP STUDY...Beginning on Sunday, August 16, I will lead a class called, "Re-Creation."  It will meet during the regular Sunday School time.  BUT, if Sunday doesn't work for you, we will also meet on Thursday evenings at 7:00, beginning on August 20.  (If you are interested in meeting at this time, but would need child care, please let the Church Office know, and we will work on that.)  This multi-media class will involve investing in some books, but they are worth it.  The leaders of this new and different study are powerful and innovative new voices in the emergent church, that is meeting the challenges of a changing world.

You can learn more about the study by going here... http://wearesparkhouse.org/adults/animate/

This will replace the Wednesday Night Bible Study.  Frankly, I have found it a bit overwhelming  to lead a Bible Study right after Astra (which is kind of exhausting), especially when we have a meal at the church.  And the current meeting time makes it impossible for Choir members to participate.  They are already excluded from full Sunday School participation.

GO TO TEQUILA'S...Yes, reallly.  It's another way to get out of the box.  I want to start a discussion/study group that would meet upstairs at Tequila's restaurant.  We will start with a once a month gathering called the "Upper Room Conversations."  One of the things I would like this group to do is provide me with ideas, concerns, and questions I can use to shape sermons.  And, of course, we will eat and enjoy fellowship.  If this works well, we may meet more often.  Our first meeting will be on Sunday, July 19 at Noon.

GO ONLINE...This one is an idea that I am tossing out to see if there is interest.  I have no set plan.  People are fond of saying they "just don't have time" to come to a Bible Study.  Part of that time is travel, and sometimes there are child care issues that complicate things, along with works schedules.

One way to change that equation is to move into cyberspace with an online study.  We could set up a Skype-based chatroom in which we could see and hear other from wherever we may be, and conduct a study that would last about 15 minutes.  We could do this later in the evening, after the kids are down...say, 9:00 p.m.

If you don't use your webcam, you can even attend in your jammies! (If you want to wear less, I really don't want to know about it.)  If you are interested in this idea, please e-mail us at cartervillefirstumc@frontier.com and let us know!

It is time to break out of the box, and try something new.  Because, if you always do what you've always done, you will get what you've always gotten.

Is that really good enough?

In Ministry WITH You,

Bob




June 23, 2015, 8:47 PM

Flags Fall and Grace Abounds


   The Apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans..."Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more." (Rom. 5:20)

   In the wake of the atrocity in South Carolina in which a young man poisoned by racism, massacred nine people in a prayer meeting, simply because they were black, something amazing has happened.

   His stated intention had been to ignite a race war.  In pictures posted on the internet, he posed burning the American flag and waving the battle  flag of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which has been erroneously identified as the flag of the Confederacy.  He apparently hoped the white folks would rally around that banner and join him in his "crusade."

   Instead, what has happened in the wake of his despicable act of mass murder has been precisely and spectacularly the opposite.

   The Confederate battle flag, which has flown at the South Carolina state capitol since 1962, appears about to be taken down and consigned to a museum.

   Let's be clear, it was put there, not out of some reverence for brave soldiers who fought a losing battle for state's rights.  It was put there as an act of defiance against the growing Civil Rights Movement which was gaining traction in 1962.  It was intended to be a statement in support of institutionalized racism in the form of segregation.

   In short, the flag was an expression of official racism.  And, it was an inspiration to that young racist who desecrated a church with lethal gunfire.

   He assumed that its continued presence on the grounds of the state capitol meant that there were kindred spirits who would rise to support his bigotry.  It didn't lead him to murder, but its presence was an encouragement to his deluded notion that he would find support for his barbaric attack.

   Now, the governor of the state and legislators from both parties are saying it's time to be rid of this banner which was flown in support of a system of slavery and racism.  Redemption is not to be found in clinging to a discredited past, but to a hopeful future.

   The campaign to be rid of this fossil of the past is spreading rapidly.  Mississippi, once the bulwark of segregation and institutionalized racism, is also considering removing the "Star and Bars" from its state flag.  Virginia looks ready to take it off their license plates.  Amazon, E-Bay, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and other retailers are barring merchandise sporting the Confederate flag motif.

   Not what the shooter intended....at all.

   But wait!  There's more!

   Instead of fomenting a race war, this heinous act has brought people together in surprising ways.  For instance, conservative pundit Glenn Beck's website, has featured an article praising Van Jones, a liberal pundit and former member of the Obama Administration, for Jones' article on the way that the white population of Charleston had rallied in support of the grieving black population.  To say the least, Beck has not been in the habit of praising Jones...or vice versa.  But, they have come together on this matter.

   The man who sought to sow further discord and  racial conflict has seen his gunfire backfire in spectacular ways.  “This racial purist was trying to unloose a tide of hatred, to start a civil war.  But in fact he seems to have touched off a tidal wave of love and reconciliation such that even Glenn Beck and I are on the same page,"  said Jones in an article in the Huffington Post.

   What happened when that deluded racist opened fire in Emmanuel AME Church was most certainly a heinous sin.  What has happened in the wake of that monstrous act, has begun to help heal wounds that go back centuries.  Grace has abounded.

   Perhaps, this response will so shock the killer, that he will be forced to reappraise his worldview.  One can only hope it will lead to his redemption, as well.  I am sure he was more than a little surprised by the forgiveness which was offered to him by the loved ones of people he wantonly gunned down.

   He almost repented before committing his monstrous crime.  He was surprised by the warmth of the welcome a white stranger got to a prayer meeting in a black church.  It made his victims seem more...human.  Now, he has seem them be clearly more noble and gracious than he is.  I suspect, he is utterly mystified how people whom he has caused to suffer so terribly could offer him grace.  It must seem crazy, or at least foolish.

   "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God," Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

    The message of the Gospel is that grace transforms suffering and redeems even terrible injustice.  Cynics may pooh-pooh this.  But, look at what's happening.  The same grace which transformed what was once a symbol of terror, torture and tyranny into the our faith's central symbol of hope, love, and redemption, is still at work in the world.

   And the old banners and hatreds still fall before it.

   Grace abounds.




April 28, 2015, 12:00 AM

Your Tax Dollars at Work?


The renowned astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently posted that we "lose" $71 billion in tax revenue (most of that would be property tax revenue) from the tax exemptions churches receive.  He then noted that the World Food Programme has stated that it would take $3 billion to feed every hungry child in the world, and that with the remaining money, we could provide universal health care in America.

He ended his post with a rather snarky, "Or we could just go to church and pray to God to end disease and hunger."

Dr, Tyson has often expressed his frustration with religious folks who espouse beliefs that evolution is a myth and that the universe was created by God in just six days (or maybe a few thousand years, depending on their interpretation of the relevant Scriptures).  I share his frustration with those folks.  I have no problem with evolution or the idea that the universe is about 14billion years old.  Neither does the Pope, for that matter.

I genuinely like Dr. Tyson and I think he is often a tremendously effective science educator.  I can understand his frustration and I know how easily such feelings bleed over into a general contempt for religious beliefs and institutions.

But, let's look at the evidence.  It's the scientific thing to do...

Actually, those folks who pray to God have built and supported hundreds, if not thousands, of hospitals and clinics around the world.  Many of them are in otherwise unserved areas of profound poverty. Countless thousands would have no medical care without the efforts of churches. Our Conference largely underwrote the building of  Ganta hospital in Liberia which serves an area that had no such facilities, before it came.   We have provided millions of dollars for Imagine No Malaria, a program which has helped to dramatically reduce deaths due to this disease. I suppose you could call that reduction an "answered prayer."

As for feeding the hungry...He might want to check to see how many food pantries are supported and hosted by churches.  That's the case in our community.  The last church I served was the single largest and most consistent supporter of the community food pantry at the local women's shelter.  The Heifer Project, and several other international ministries supported by churches help to promote agricultural development around the world.

We support children's homes like Chaddock School, a world-renowned facility for troubled children, and a second children's home in Mt. Vernon.  In addition, we support the Baby Fold, which provides a school for special needs children as well as adoption services.  The United Methodist Womern formed and help to fund the Cunningham Home in Urbana, which also provides housing, education and counseling for hundreds of troubled children.

Another program we support is the Lessie Bates Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, which provides a wide-range of ministries and programs to help at-risk kids.  (This program recently learned that state grants which it has received for some of its programs have been drastically cut, due to the epic mismanagement of the Illinois state budget.  More on this, later...)

Our Conference has founded and helps to support four excellent retirement facilities that provide care and dignity for the elderly,  thought their work has also been hindered by the state's financial woes.

Within our Conference, there are three institutions of higher learning (McKendree College, MacMurray College, and Illinois Wesleyan University) which were founded by the United Methodist Church.  Overseas, we have been a major supporter of Africa University which has provided quality education for thousands of Africans who would not be able to go to college, otherwise.

The United Methodist Committe on Relief(UMCOR) has helped thousands of families rebuild their homes and lives after floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes...I know, because I have been part of such efforts across the U.S.  With their help, I have also brought medical and humanitarian aid to hospitals and orphanages overseas, which our government never aided.

The rebuilding of Haiti has been largely driven by NGOs and churches because governments only work with the Haitian government, which is still a hot mess of inefficiency and corruption.   My previous church helped send volunteers and building materials to build five homes in that impoverished land.  In Nepal, the government is being accused of gross incompetence and of directing foreign disaster relief to people who are connected to the government and the ruling elites, while leaving the poor (which is most Nepalis) in the lurch. 

As for aiding the homeless here...Well, I have participated in a number of Habitat projects.  Habitat for Humanity is a Christian  organization which has provided about 300,000 families with decent, affordable housing, and it will not accept a dime from any governmental agency.  I have also helped to repair storm damaged homes across the country working with Habitat and UMCOR. 

While working to repair homes in Joplin, MO after it devastating tornado, we met a women who worked with the Salvation Army (yet another church) to coordinate mission teams from across the nation,  She said that in the year after the storm, 120,000 volunteers...the overwhelming majority of whom were praying church folks...donated millions of volunteer hours to help the community rebuild.  How much tax money would a similar effort have cost, I wonder?  By the way, we were housed in a church there which had provided it's hospitality to about 2,000 volunteers over that time, while charging virtually nothing for the use of their facilities...after another church had sent mission teams to help repair the damage they had sustained in the storm.

Our church provides space for the  Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, Narcotics Anonymous, and a Share Grief Support group.  These groups pay little or nothing for our space, and it helps them serve others.  And, we are frequently the venue for community fundraising efforts to help people in crisis.  Because our overhead is low (we don't have to pay property taxes) we don't have to take a cut out of the income from those events.  It all goes to the people in need.

I'm betting that Dr. Tyson doesn't frequent many churches and is largely ignorant of all this. 

Now, the reality is that the church has not, and cannot fix every problem.  Government has a role to play, and sometimes it does a better job.    But that is certainly NOT always the case.

Given the spectacular mismanagement of the Illinois government...would you really trust it to do that great a job with those extra tax revenues?   Might want to look at what they did with the funds they gleaned from the lottery, which was supposed to fix our problems, forty years ago.

Frankly, neither church nor state are perfect tools.  My preference is that the church and private organizations do as much as they can (and I would argue they could certainly do more and work together better).  But, government also has a legitimate role in "promoting the general welfare" and that includes helping the sick, the hungry, and the homeless.  I just do not trust it with the whole task.

While I respect Tyson in many ways, his claim is rather naive.  Does he really think governments wouldn't squander the money to finance misbegotten wars or give tax breaks to plutocrats?  The Pentagon just announced that it cannot account for $45 billion it spent in Afghanistan that probably ended up in the pockets of local warlords, black marketeers, drug kingpins, and even the Taliban. 

His critique is also rather smug. My church has sent me on missions across the earth to help people in desperate need. I wonder how many times he has personally invested time and effort in doing so...or does he just leave that to government functionaries?

Governments have their role, but there's no denying they can be inefficient, sometimes corrupt,  and have poor priorities.  Church-related institutions in this state, like retirement homes, hospitals, and schools for troubled children,  which count on state funds to help them operate are certainly finding the state a less than reliable partner

And yes, we do pray for the people to whom we reach out.  It's one of the ways we become aware of them and remember them, and affirm their value.  We also attach our hands and feet to those prayers.  A fact of which Dr. Tyson seems almost willfully unaware.  We don't see prayer as a replacement for action...we see it as a prelude and a theme for our action.  It's not a zero-sum game.

I would submit that such prayers are a lot more effective than just complaining about what you see as the failings of other people.  That's a bit like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable who offers a self-congratulatory prayer to God, saying he is "not like other people" whom he considers sinners.  Jesus denounces that prayer as self-righteous delusion.

But, you don't have to be a praying person, to be self-righteous, or a tad delusional.




March 23, 2015, 2:49 PM

Correct Tense


There have been countless arguments over whether or not Jesus literally rose from the dead.

Skeptics have pointed out that even the biblical claims are inconsistent.  None of the gospel accounts entirely agrees with any of the others.  I invite you to read them.  They don't.  However, if differing accounts automatically disproves the Resurrection, then it should also disprove the Kennedy assassination.  How many differing accounts and theories are there concerning that event?

"Yes," counter the skeptics, "But we know JFK is dead, because we have it on film, and we have the body." There are some far-out conspiracy theorists who claim that it was a JFK look alike who took the bullets in Dallas.

If  the presence of a corpse is proof of Kennedy's death, what do we take from the absence of one in Jesus' Resurrection?  Skeptics  and  opponents of that time could have pointed to his occupied grave as proof he was dead.  There is no evidence they did so.

The truth is that these arguments will not likely convince anyone one way or another.  Frankly, it wouldn't matter if Jesus rose and emerged from the tomb  in front of a cheering crowd of thousands, if that didn't change our lives.

The only meaningful  evidence that  Jesus lives, is found in the lives of those who profess to follow him.

Many years ago, I upset a woman in a church I was serving by saying, "If they found the body of Jesus tomorrow, I would still be a follower of Jesus the day after tomorrow."  She thought I was somehow denying the Resurrection.  I wasn't.  I was affirming my devotion to Jesus.

She then gave me a book into which she had taped a 3x5 card with what she called "Proof of the Resurrection."  They were various Scripture passages.  The reality is that those passages didn't provide "proof."  They did provide evidence, but that's different. None of them would convince a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic.  And in the end, even if we had absolute proof, with which no one could argue,  it wouldn't matter, if people's lives weren't transformed because of Jesus.

There is no denying that Jesus is a uniquely powerful character in history, but I cannot think of a single individual who met such a catastrophic end...denounced by the crowds and the religious and political establishments and abandoned by his closest friends...and then went on to have anything remotely approaching the impact on the world that Jesus has had.  Not even close.

The proclamation of Easter is not, "Jesus rose."  It is, "Christ IS risen"  Present tense.  He lives here and now.  He lives because people find true life in him and have their own lives transformed, as a result.  He lives when we practice and share the astonishing love which he embodied, for which he lived and died.  If we live in ways that reflect his teaching and example, then he lives.

As the old hymn declares...

You ask me how I know he lives?

He lives within my heart!

If he doesn't live in our hearts, then it doesn't matter that he lives...or lived.

Does he make a real difference in your life?  Does your life make a difference in the world, because of him?

The Resurrection isn't a matter of past tense.  We must repeat the miracle, by giving Jesus life in our time, in our lives.  Be a part of the ongoing miracle!  Let the Risen Christ transform you, and transform the world through you.

You are the only proof of the Resurrection that matters.


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