Monthly Archives: November 2006

Thankful in ALL Things

I was the speaker for the Reynoldsville area community Thanksgiving service this evening. These notes, based on an original sermon I wrote in the late ’90s, were the basis of my message.

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“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” –Philippians 4:4-8 (NIV)

Thanksgiving. I love this holiday. It’s one of the most peaceful, deeply spiritual holidays for me. Yeah, I know Christmas and Easter are the biggies in the realm of religious holidays, but this one is SPIRITUAL…. there’s no big religious festival, no ritual, no special call to worship prescribed in some book. In the Revised Common Lectionary there’s not even a special Thanksgiving set of passages like the other religious days.

It’s not a religious holiday, because it’s not one prescribed by the church… not the church throughout the ages, not the Roman Catholics, not the Eastern Orthodox churches, not the Protestant churches, not even my own United Methodist Church.

But it is a spiritual holiday… and for me it is a Holy Day.

Why? Because it calls each of us to consider our lot in life and to be thankful… But not even to just be thankful, but to go beyond being thankful and actually give thanks. It’s wonderful to be full of thanks, but you gotta do something with all of that thanks or else it means nothing except a warm feeling.

With Thanksgiving, as we have it here in America, our government asks us to give thanks to God… yes, I said the government asks us to give thanks to God. They may not highlight that aspect, but that’s where it comes from isn’t it? You go to Canada and this week is not Thanksgiving week. You go to Mexico and this week is not Thanksgiving week. You go to Britain and this week is not Thanksgiving week. You go to Israel, the one place where God’s religious holidays are still observed, at least in part, and you’ll find that this week is not Thanksgiving week. Only in America, where we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.

Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? If I ask school children, they might tell me stories of pilgrims and Indians and a cold winter and then a fruitful harvest and a big feast with plenty to spare and the pilgrims proclaiming a day to give thanks to God. Yep. That’s part of what we remember this week.

After that first harvest was brought in, it was the Governor of the colony, William Bradford, in 1621, who proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer.

It was an American President that asked us….”to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November…,” not just to be thankful, but listen to President Lincoln’s words: “…as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens…”

And every year since then, whichever President is in that office has asked us to do the same thing. And so we celebrate Thanksgiving… and we give thanks and praise to GOD, because our government has asked us to.

Separation of church and state? Yeah, right.

Now, before you think this preacher is getting too strange, I just want to clarify something here. I am not complaining that the government calls us to prayer. I happen to like that a whole lot.

(Although I’m not convinced that even us Christians use it as a day of prayer and giving thanks. Unfortunately for many of us, if you watch us on Thanksgiving Day, you would think the day should be called THANKS-PIGGING, instead of Thanksgiving.)

My concern about the Thanksgiving proclamation is much more Christian…. not governmental.

You see, I am afraid that since we find Paul and others reminding us so often to “give thanks” and then even the government of the United States has to set aside a day for us to give thanks, that maybe it is a sad indicator that we, the Christians, instead of entering the gates of our Lord with praise and entering His courts with thanksgiving, are actually nothing more than an ungrateful bunch of hypocrites.

Let’s take a minute, shall we, and just do a reality check. Consider with me the following items:

– When we pray, are we praising and thanking God… or just asking for stuff and for blessings or healings or whatever? Are we thankful people?

– When we are at church, are we in an attitude of gratefulness and worship… or are we looking for what someone else does wrong or does that annoys us? Or checking to see if the preacher makes a mistake? Are we thankful people?

– When we meet with the other people in our town are we focusing on the positives and the good things, the things someone has done well and praising them for a good job… or are we sitting there like vultures just looking for a weakness so that we may attack? Are we thankful people?

– Do we look around us in this country where we have the right to select our leaders, worship as we desire, and even are encouraged unwittingly by the government to have days of thanks and prayer and to praise God for a great land where we still live as One Nation Under God… or do we deliberately badmouth and curse our leaders rather than pray for them? Are we thankful people?

This passage of Scripture that says “THINK ON THESE THINGS” isn’t just a nice suggestion… It is Scripture. There is a life-giving, life-fulfilling dimension of following the principles of Scripture. If we were to look at all aspects of our lives through the glasses of this Scripture, we truly could give God thanks and praise in all of life… no matter what may come our way… Because we would see things as God sees them.

It all boils down to a pretty easy mind-picture for me:

Imagine with me that we are at the mall in some other community where no one knows us and we are walking into a bookstore. There’s the magazine section off to our left. We walk towards it and there are all kinds of magazines there, aren’t there?

I am waiting for my wife shop for whatever it is she’s shopping for, I am bored stiff, and so I have come to look through the magazines…. If I find one I really like, I may even pay money for it so that I can keep it.

What magazine to choose?

I see some of the titles: People, Us, Seventeen, Biblical Archaeology, Reader’s Digest, Billy Graham’s Decision magazine, Guideposts, US News and World Report, Teenbeat, Newsweek, Playboy, Penthouse… and the list goes on, because there are hundreds of magazines.

Now, do I begin picking up each and every magazine, reading it cover to cover? NO! Because for me, some of those titles are AUTOMATICALLY ruled out, because they are advocate and support behaviors and actions that are contrary to what I believe. I won’t even consider buying them and I won’t even consider looking inside them. I do not want my mind filled with the images that are contained in their pages.

That’s EXACTLY what Paul’s saying here, my brothers and sisters. Every single day of our life, in every waking moment, we will choose things for our mind to dwell on and to think about. And Paul says we, as Christians, need to be keeping our minds on the things that are true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. The things that are worthwhile and worthy of praise.

To allow our minds to focus otherwise is a direct contradiction to what we as Christians are to do.

It would be just like you or I going into that bookstore and making poor choices in our magazine reading.

That’s how we can easily become thankful again… by deliberately choosing what we’re going to focus on in our minds, in our thoughts. Rather than looking for negatives (which is SO easy), we’re going to start focusing on the things in our lives the way God does… by looking for the good in each situation, the lovely, the pure… by looking for the “thanksgiving” moment in each situation… the part of the situation that we can turn into a praise to God.

Yeah, we’ll still encounter people who annoy us and do things wrong… they may even do a job differently than we like. And they may even do something in the church in a way that we think is ridiculous and so very inefficient. Oh well. Too bad.

God didn’t ask you or I to be his efficiency experts, we weren’t called to right all the other Christians in the world… let alone stand as their judge.

Rather, we were called to shine a light… so that everyone who sees us will want what we have. If all we do is focus on the bad and focus on the faults of other people, then all the others will see in us is vinegar… and instead of drawing others to our churches and to our God, we will see them staying away from us like the plague.

Paul hits this message pretty hard and pretty personal… because it’s a message that we seem intent on forgetting. God is to be approached with praise and with the giving of thanks… and we are to approach our very lives with praise and the giving of thanks… and that’s pretty hard to do if we’re looking for the what’s wrong around us.

Let’s approach this Thanksgiving time, and then the season of Christmas which so quickly follows, with the positive, affirming, praising, thankful approach.

And maybe we won’t need the government to remind us to give thanks.

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Remembering Baptism…

One of the all-time highlights for me as a pastor, and as a father, has been the privilege and honor of being a part of the baptism of my daughters, Michele and Sarah.

With the help of Pastors Joe Short and Dave Heckman and with 170 people from six different United Methodist churches watching from the shore of Glendale Lake, Michele was baptized on August 18, 2001. And on September 17, 2006, with the help of Pastor Seth McClymonds and some 40 people from the Reynoldsville United Methodist Church watching on the banks of the Parker Dam resevoir, Sarah was baptized. Each girl publicly affirmed her relationship with Jesus Christ as her Lord and proclaimed that she was turning her back on evil in order to live her life for Christ.

But, as proud as I’ve been of my girls, there was more going on at their baptism than just their commitment. There was more than just saying the words and then baptizing them by immersing them in the waters of those two lakes.

As United Methodists we teach how baptism and communion are called “sacraments” because they are the two things that Jesus Christ instructed us to go do. We do a lot of things in the church, but these two are commands from Christ Himself. So part of what was going on on those two occasions at those two lakes was simply a matter of obedience. Jesus said that we were to do it, so we did it.

The greatest part of our understanding of baptism, however, is that it is one of the ways we know that God uses to pour out His grace on people. Baptism is a physical symbol that gives us a “picture” of God’s acceptance of us through His Son Jesus and symbolizes the way that God showered us with his grace. That’s why United Methodists don’t re-baptize. Since baptism is a picture of what GOD did, then why would we then picture Him as having to do it over? It’s not like God is in Heaven saying: “Oops… I guess that one’s baptism didn’t take. I must have messed up my aim the first time… the grace didn’t stick. I’d better get them baptized again and try to get them with my grace this time.” Jesus Christ, God’s Son, paid the price of our salvation once, and it was good for all time. We NEVER need another sacrifice to satisfy God. Nor do we ever need a second (or third or tenth) baptism, no matter how many times we might mess up. Because baptism’s not about us and what we’ve done… It’s about what HE does… and what HE did.

It’s this dimension of God pouring out His grace on the one being baptized that has helped convince the Church through the centuries of the appropriateness of baptizing babies and children. We were able to accept Christ even though we don’t personally remember His crucifixion or His resurrection. But by faith, we “remember.” So too, baptism, done at any age is valid and acceptable, even if you cannot remember the historic event of being in the waters of baptism.

The specific act of being baptized, whether as an infant, a child, or as an adult, is a reflection of God’s work… and our work is to live life in remembrance of that baptism and the work that God did.

Another part of our understanding of baptism is centered in the ancient baptismal rituals of the early church, which focused on the welcoming of someone new into the community of the people of God called “Christians.” Baptism, in a sense, is partly an “initiation rite” that identifies the baptized one as part of the Christian group, similar to how circumcision of a baby Jewish boy identified him as a part of the Jewish community of faith (even though the baby boy will never remember the act of circumcision). That’s another reason why United Methodists, and the early church, included infants in baptism. We baptize babies, in part, as a “welcome to the family” event where the parents and the congregation dedicate themselves to helping the baptized ones grow in the knowledge of the Christian faith so that they may be introduced to Jesus Christ and then, hopefully, one day accept Him as their Savior and Lord as well.

One more thing happens in baptism: the congregation renews their commitment to Christ and to living out their faith individually and corporately as a congregation. They promise the baptized one that we, the church, are going to be there for them to help them walk the faith walk and to look to Christ throughout their lives. This is why in United Methodism we don’t need to specifically have “godparents” in baptism; the whole congregation makes a vow to God that we together will take on the role of godparents.

How many times have we been in the service of baptism, and not understood? Or worse, have not taken seriously the vow to “nurture” these ones we are welcoming to the community?

Maybe, in the words of our Wesleyan tradition, it’s time to “remember our baptism” once again.

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Thanksgiving… Monopoly-style?

A friend recently called me to task for not updating this blog recently… What can I say? I promised that my life, my family, and my ministry would be more important than blogging! I guess you could call me honest! Anyways, there are still a couple of projects that still demand my attention, so I’m publishing one of my favorite Thanksgiving-themed pastoral newsletter articles I wrote originally in 2000. A version of this appeared in my new church’s November newsletter.

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I love playing the board game, Monopoly. I like the way this game helps to teach my girls about handling and counting money, making change, and thinking ahead. And if I just happen to smirk a little bit with a sense of glee as they head towards my hotel on Boardwalk, who can blame me, right? It’s just a game.

I actually read a book about playing Monopoly last week. It was a small, “insiders” book called The Monopoly Companion and I breezed through it in just a couple of nights before bed. I found interesting trivia like there were only three railroads that went into Atlantic City in the 1930s (Pennsylvania, Reading, B&O) and that the ‘Shortline’ was a bus company. Also, that Marvin Gardens is actually a pretty ritzy place outside of the city and is actually misspelled on the gameboard (It‘s Marven Gardens). I also found out that the ‘Chance’ cards usually will send you somewhere else on the board and the ‘Community Chest’ cards will most likely give you money you had no way of counting on.

I read how playing Monopoly properly is to try and squeeze your opponents out of their money as quickly as possible. I learned that you should never make loans, never let anyone change the rules by putting money on the ‘Free Parking’ space or try to talk you into doubling earnings when you land on ‘GO’ because those things just make the game longer and drag out the bankruptcies that are the whole object of the game. Be thankful when you’re the winner. Be thankful that you didn’t go bankrupt.

As we approach Thanksgiving, especially as a Christian, I wonder how many of us are approaching this holiday the same way we are taught to approach Monopoly: Be thankful for the good stuff you get and the good that happens to you… or for the bad that doesn’t.

We do it all the time don’t we? An earthquake rocks the west coast and those of us in the east thank God that we don’t live there. We hear of violence in the streets of Jerusalem and we condemn them for being so ungodly and pray a prayer of thankfulness that we live in a fairly peaceful country. Or we hear that our President or our neighbor has been caught in sin, and we rage with righteous anger out loud while secretly breathing a prayer of thanks that we have never been caught in our sins.

Most of us only express thankfulness to God in the matters that have no real spiritual significance. We’re thankful when the other team loses the baseball game and our team wins. We’re thankful we beat that guy in the wheelchair to the closest parking space. We’re thankful that thousands of people lost money so that we could ‘win’ the lottery. We’re thankful that farmers aren’t making as much money so that our milk can be a nickel cheaper. Who cares about those people anyway!

That’s not the Christian idea of giving thanks… that’s the American culture idea of ‘getting ahead’ and ‘looking out for number one.’ That’s the Monopoly idea of get them before they get you. Is that the best Christianity has to offer? Is that what it means when we are told in Scripture to follow Christ?

This Thanksgiving, let’s change this around, shall we? Let’s begin by thanking God that he loves us…. As well as all those others around us as well. And let’s look at those many blessings that we are counting, and realize that God only gave them to us so that he could use us to give them out to others with greater need. Let’s be thankful that He chooses to trust us with HIS wealth and trusts us to use it to help others.

For you see, in the ‘game’ of living everyday life, we Christians are not supposed to be the landlords greedily trying to bankrupt those around us, but rather we are supposed to be the ‘Community chest’ cards… offering the hope of sharing our blessings to those around us. And THEN we will truly be giving thanks!

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