Dec 25, 2015

An Advent Devotion: III

Read: Matthew 1:18-25

I came across this story from a Christmas Eve Pageant of years ago. The writer was a member of a church youth group at the time.

I was chosen to play Joseph and believe it or not, my future wife, Allison, was chosen to play Mary. We did our parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as possible. And then it came time for the shepherds to enter. The choir was singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” and some of our fellow young people dressed in flannel bathrobes and appropriate headgear proceeded to the altar steps where Allison and I looked reverently at the straw, which contained a naked light bulb. With his back to the congregation, one of our peer shepherds said in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear, “Well, Joe, when you gonna pass out cigars?”
 The spell of that occasion was not simply broken by his remark, it was exploded. Our Mary and Joseph cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter. The chief angel, standing on a chair behind us was the worst. She shook so hard that she fell off her chair and simply rolled over on the floor, holding her stomach. The strains of “Silent Night” or “0 Little Town of Bethlehem” were sufficient to cover the uncontrolled snorts of the main characters. Our much upset but good-sported youth advisor said, “The only thing that didn't go to pieces was the light bulb in the manger, it never went out.”

The light in/from the manger never goes out! This, my friends, is a first-rate image for our days (Hebrews 1:1).

Prayer: “All Knowing God, give us the hope we need in the light of Jesus.” Amen.

Talk time: Ask your family what their favorite memory of Christmas was.

Love during Advent: Encourage your family to work for a day at a homeless shelter or at Salvation Army.

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Dec 18, 2015

An Advent Devotion: II

Read: Hebrews 1:1-4

Years ago researchers performed an experiment to see the effect hope has on those undergoing hardship. The researchers placed two sets of laboratory rats in separate tubs of water. The researchers left one set in the water and found that within an hour they had all drowned. They periodically lifted other rats out of the water and then returned them. When that happened, the second set of rats swam for over 24 hours. 1Why? 

Not because they were given a rest, but because they suddenly had hope! Those animals somehow hoped that if they could stay afloat just a little longer, someone would reach down and rescue them. If hope holds such power for unthinking rodents, how much greater should its effect be on our lives? Our hope resides in the promise that “in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1).

Prayer: “Gracious God, come again and give us the promise of hope in Jesus.” Amen.

Talk time: Ask your children what God thinks about Christmas.

Love during Advent: Let your family make some gifts and visit a home for the aged.

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Dec 11, 2015

An Advent Devotion: I

Read: Luke 1:47-55

Most of us, like Mary, live un-amazing and uneventful lives. But that is where God lives with us. Jesus was willing to accept the lowliest of births, an ordinary, mundane, and obscure life, and the lowest, most degrading form of death—death on a cross. Why did Jesus do that? Jesus died such a death to fulfill his mother’s song before his birth: “the Mighty One has done great things” for you and for me.

Millions of people this year and every year will sing carols about the savior of the world and yet have no room for Jesus in their lives, just as there was no room at the inn on the night of his birth. Each Christmas God gives us the opening to do something wonderful for ourselves and our souls. Receive Jesus and make room in your heart for him, and enable him to enable you to love others.

Prayer:  “Lord, during this season, help us remember your gift of mercy.” Amen.

Talk time: Offer God a word of thanksgiving as a gift today.

Love during Advent: Give something to someone you don’t know.

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Dec 4, 2015

A Christmas Parable

My friend Will Willimon, professor at Duke and Bishop of the UMC wrote this a few years ago and I share it with you:

A Christmas story, can’t remember where I heard it, but I tell it to you as you begin your own celebration of Christmastide.

There was a time when all the angels where gathered about the heavenly throne for a discussion. Things were in a mess down on earth. (What else is new?) The Creator had become concerned about the state of the Creation–wars, fighting, famine, bloodshed all over.

“I’ve tried everything,” God complained. “I have spoken to them some of the most beautiful words they could ever hope to hear. Think of the glorious Psalms, the hymns, the poetic passages of Isaiah. They love to read about peace and goodwill, but they don’t like to live it!”

God continued, “Then I sent them the prophets. They love Isaiah, the promises of release from their sufferings, freedom from their exile. But do they follow the precepts of the prophets about justice and righteousness rolling down like waters? Never!”

There was widespread discussion of the sad state of affairs on earth. Many of the angels–Gabriel, Michael, and others had been on earth on many an occasion. They had seen for themselves the sources of God’s lament and shared God’s concern.

“I think the only thing left is for one of you, a member of the heavenly court, to go down to earth. Live with them, not just for a moment, but every day. Get to know them, become one of them, live with them, and let them get to know you. Only then will heaven’s intent be truly communicated to them. Only then will they take notice of the great gap between the way they have been living and the way they were created. Only then will we be able to reveal to them who I created them to be.”

The angels stood in awkward silence. They had been to earth before, to deliver messages from God or to effect some momentary intervention in human affairs. They weren’t about to volunteer for long term duty in such a murderous, difficult place.

The silence lasted for an eternity. Finally, God broke the silence. Quietly, determinedly, but without resignation and no bitterness, God said, “Then I will go.”

This is a parable of Incarnation.            

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Nov 27, 2015

And Now by Way of Thanks

Text for Meditation: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deuteronomy 26:11).

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day and I remember a travel agent friend of mine who remarked that she and her family were going to New York City for Thanksgiving. I ventured, “Are you going to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade?” And she responded, almost matter-of-factly, “Yes. It is one of the best things a person can do for Thanksgiving.” She made me think: “What do modern people think about when they hear the word ‘Thanksgiving’?”

What comes to my mind are a range of images that include a cornucopia, turkeys, families gathered around the television watching football, and a group of pilgrims thanking God that their Native American friends were generous enough with food to save their lives in the New World. Whether or not these are everyone’s images of thanksgiving, I cannot say, but I know they are mine.

If we modern people had a little more sense of history, then we would recognize that thanksgiving has been around a very lengthy time. As far back as Moses, the word “thanksgiving” has been part of Israel’s worship life. According to the New Revised Standard Translation (NRSV) of the Bible, thanksgiving first makes its appearance in the book of Leviticus. There in Leviticus we find the Lord telling Moses, “If you offer it for thanksgiving, you shall offer with the thank offering unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour well soaked in oil” (7:12).

For the Hebrew people, thanksgiving was part of the ritual system in which people worshipped the Lord their God. Sometimes we Americans turn out to be shortsighted. We believe that thanksgiving came about because our first president George Washington made a proclamation about thanksgiving for the newly founded nation. Nevertheless, from the beginning God created God’s community to be those who are a thankful people. Indeed every Sabbath day is a day of thanksgiving.

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Nov 20, 2015

Bible Sunday

The Bible has many surprises for those who wade into its pages. For example, my friend, Kent Millard, shared with me part of an absorbing speech by Dr. Leonard Sweet. Sweet offers a quirky illustration derived from the book of Lamentations. Dr. Sweet told in his speech that hanging down in the center of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a huge ostrich egg. In fact, many churches in the Middle East have an ostrich egg hanging in the sanctuary. 

Lamentations 4:3 refers to the ostrich as a creature of the desert. In order to protect the egg from predators, the ostrich buries the egg very deep in the desert sand so it will be safe while the mother ostrich searches for food. However, sometimes the mother buries the egg so deeply that the mother bird loses the location and can’t find the egg to continue sitting on it until the birth of the baby ostrich. Consequently, the ostrich developed the ability to keep one eye on the location of the ostrich egg and the other on looking for food. Middle Eastern churches developed the tradition of hanging an ostrich egg in the center of their sanctuary to remind the congregation to keep one eye on Christ while they were out caring for their own needs. 

It’s a worthy image. We always should keep one eye on Christ while we are out in the world looking after our own needs or else we may lose the most valuable thing in the world. Can we so live our lives so that we always have one eye on Christ, asking what Jesus would do and what is Jesus doing while we are living our lives out in the world. Without our continuous effort it is easy for us to lose focus on Christ and allow other concerns and commitments to take over our lives (Thanks to Kent Millard for this illustration).

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Nov 13, 2015

Veteran’s Day 2015

This past week we have observed Veteran’s Day and I wanted to share one of my favorite stories of a president who grieved mightily over the sacrifices made by American soldiers during the Civil War.

Sometime prior to November 1863, the committee in charge of the official dedication for the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, asked President Abraham Lincoln to speak. Yet, Lincoln was not the principal speaker. The primary speaker that day was Edward Everett. The following day, Everett wrote Lincoln in a pronounced gesture of charity: “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

Although he was not the featured orator that day, America remembered Lincoln’s 272-word address as one of the most significant speeches in American history. In it, Lincoln summoned the principles of human equality contained in the Declaration of Independence. He also linked the sacrifices of the Civil War with the desire for “a new birth of freedom,” as well as the all-important preservation of the Union and its ideal of self-government created in 1776.

Friends of FUMC, Arlington, I ask you to say a prayer for all our service men and women who protect our rights and liberty. 

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Nov 6, 2015

Givers, Matchers, and Takers

Thanks to Rev. David Williamson of St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, IN    

Imagine that you and a stranger will both receive some money. You have three choices about what you and the stranger will receive, and you’ll never see or meet the stranger. If you have only one of the three options below to choose from, which would you choose?

a. You get $5, and the stranger gets $5.
b. You get $8, and the stranger gets $4.
c. You get $5, and the stranger gets $7.

How you answer that question may say a lot about you. The question comes from a test developed by Adam Grant. Each of the possible answers correlates to a different personality type-what Adam calls “Givers,” “Matchers,” and “Takers.”

These categories describe how we view reciprocity in relationship with others. If you are a taker, you might help others only when the benefits to you outweigh the costs. A giver, however, uses a different cost-benefit analysis, measuring when the benefits to others outweigh the personal costs. A matcher falls somewhere in between, operating out of a strong sense of fairness and working to keep an equal balance.

A number of years ago there was a movie called Instinct starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins plays the role of a biologist who has lived in the wild with gorillas, and is struggling to return to society; Gooding Jr. role is as the psychologist who tries to help him. As often happens, the one in the “helping” position ends up learning the most. One of the lessons Hopkins teaches Gooding is the difference between givers and takers.

Givers contribute more back to the world than they consume. They never acquire more than they need, never plow more land than required, and so on. Takers, in contrast, see the world as theirs for the taking. The question the film puts forward is simple: When your life is all done and accounted for, will you have given back more than you consumed?

It’s a valid question for anyone in today’s society, where it is easy to accumulate and consume more than we realize (often because the costs of our consumption are hidden). But what struck me when I read Adam’s research is that he offers a third possibility, something beyond the category of taker or giver. I found myself wondering how Hopkins’ fictional character might describe a matcher: someone who, when life was all done, netted out to nothing. Contributions evenly balanced by subtractions. An equal measure of success and failure. In sum, a zero.

Not very aspirational, is it?

The truth is that most people aspire to be givers—they wish to leave something good in the world, for their positive deeds to outweigh their failures. The irony is that a majority of people don’t live as givers. Rather, the overwhelming majority behave as matchers. We are born with an innate sense of fairness. To take the question above, few of us opt to send the stranger away with half the money we receive. But by the same token, just as few reward the stranger with extra money, even when that extra comes at no cost to us personally.

The Bible makes a daring claim that we are created in God’s image. So does this mean that God is a “matcher?” Certainly, I believe our sense of fairness and justice comes from some part of God’s character. But I also believe that God’s image is best seen in our aspiration to be givers. We are better people—and we bear God’s image more justly—when we live out of that impulse.

So next time you interact with a stranger, think about that question from Adam’s test. Do you take what you can and move on? Or do you seek to leave an extra blessing behind? My hope for you—and for me—is that we will choose the latter.

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Oct 30, 2015

Glad and Generous Hearts: III—The Saints

Revelation’s author, known to Christian tradition as Saint John the Divine, finds himself in the heavenly throne room. To this point in the Apocalypse, John is earth-bound, but now John finds himself transported to the throne of God. John writes, “At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne” (Revelation 4:2). Our text, Revelation 7:9-17 furnishes a description of but one of the many things John sees in the throne room. Among the visions is “a great multitude.” When John suggests that these are those who “who have come out of the great ordeal,” John implies those who have been faithful to Christ’s ministry with their lives—they are martyrs. In this sense, they are the convincing stewards. These stewards have offered everything to God’s Realm.

All Saints Sunday is the day that the church celebrates those believers who have died in Christ. It is a day of remembrance. On occasion believers ask, “How does a person become a saint?” All Saints Day and Revelation bring this sort of question to mind.

Chapter seven provides strangely contrasting visions of the church militant and the church triumphant. First, there is a specifically calculated throng of 144,000 contrasted to “a great multitude that no one could count.” Second, John contrasts the twelve tribes of Israel to “a multitude from every nation.” Third, John describes the church militant as a company prepared for threatening peril and distinguishes it from the victorious and secure counted in the church triumphant. Whatever this chapter wants to impart, above all, it is John’s attempt to describe a vision of heaven.

Over the centuries the concept of heaven has fueled much speculation—regularly confused and confusing to those on this side of death. A cartoon once appeared in The New Yorker Magazine. It showed a group of heaven-bound saints lined-up just outside the heavenly gates. Peter stood at a podium; reading off the answers to the most frequently asked questions on earth, now finally and decisively answered in heaven.  Saint Peter reads the list: “# 48, true; # 49, false; # 50, William Shatner; # 51, yes; # 52, the Ponderosa; # 53, every other Tuesday . . . .” People have inquiring minds and we want to know. John’s heavenly apocalyptic vision offers us one such image.

“How does a person become a saint?” For stewards this is a controlling question, for we all believe that our response to God offers us a just “reward.” But however we conceive of heaven, John writes at least this much: heaven is the place where saints or believers—they amount to the same thing—commune with God.

Our efforts do not make us saints. Rather, we become saints when God confers on us “gifts and graces” to handle as stewards. When we use God’s resources for shaping God’s Realm, then God develops us into true saints. God bestows sainthood at the point where God’s grace encounters our stewardship. There, we find God and God’s saints.

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Oct 23, 2015

Glad and Generous Hearts: II

Adam Hamilton shares the following story in his book with the title Enough: Discovery Joy through Simplicity and Generosity:

There was a man who gave millions to establish a university in Texas. Several years later he lost nearly everything. Someone asked him if he regretted giving all he had given to the university. His response was telling. “Regret it?” he said, “Look, that school is the only lasting thing I’ve done with my money. Had I not given for the school, I would have lost that money too, and there would be nothing to show for it.”

This man knew that we were created to give, not to hoard. He knew that hoarding his money not only would have been futile; it would have been fruitless (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TX, 2009, page 77).

Over the last twelve years our FUMC of Arlington finance committee and church staff have worked vigorously to operate our church ministries by principles of good stewardship. We are a remarkably transparent church. We believe in accountability to our congregation. Those responsible to help our congregation raise our church ministry budget for 2016 have a scheduled Q&A session. The purpose is for church members who may have questions about our church budget will have an opportunity to get those questions answered. The day chosen is 1 November 2015 at 9:30 am, in the Banquet Room.

Now we ask our church members to be accountable to your own church. We ask you to pledge for a simple reason: Because we wish to prudently plan for ministry next year—2016. If you give and don’t pledge however, our finance committee cannot and will not take your gift into planning. This position diminishes our ministry. We are clearly responsible to you; all we ask in return is that you be responsible to God and our congregation.

In Acts, Luke gives us a picture of what the early church looked like. Like the Garden of Eden, this portrait offers us a glimpse of what God intended at creation—a creation that looks much like heavenly perfection. Notice Luke’s image of a group of dissimilar people who submit to God’s authority and for whom the Holy Spirit guides life:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:44-47).

Here is a good proverb for us to all consider: “You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.”
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