tapestry

In the heart of Missoula...

Jesus

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors
Celebrating God's love since 1871

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" is not just an advertising slogan, but a statement of how First United Methodist Church of Missoula wants to be seen in our community. First Church is a community of open hearts seeking to be a force for God's grace in the "heart" of Missoula's downtown. We are an open minded congregation, respectful of each other yet unafraid of the issues of our time. And we are a church of open doors, welcoming a wide diversity of people to be a part of our congregation. For those who can't manage our stairs, you will find the elevator just inside the street level entrance to the right of the stairs. You will always find a place at First United Methodist Church!
map
Please visit us at 300 E. Main Street.

 

church
star Church services at 8:30 a.m. in the chapel and 10:30 a.m. in the sanctuary

Communion is held each Sunday and all attending are invited to God's Table to share in the meal.
Nursery care will be available to those 5 and under during the services.
There is always a coffee/fellowship time in the Narthex following the service.
You are invited to join us!

sermonby our minister Rev. John Daniels

Sunday Opportunities:
Sunday School: Children ages 3-12 leave the sanctuary following the 10:30 Children's Time and meet on the top floor.

The Faith and Justice Class will meet downstairs at 9:15.
Short Course on Islam - 5 weeks beginning Jan. 17 at 11:45
February - The Heart of Christianity Class will begin.

 

WHAT'S NEW?

umw-umbrellas
cross UMW Sunday January 24 - brought awareness of the Human Trafficking problem in the world. UMW members gathered with their umbrellas (in a snow storm) to express their concern for victims of human trafficking.

Under an Umbrella, we are shielded from the storm and protected from the heat.

crossvideoPublication Notice:  Voices of Reconciling Video Available
Click for more information $ 10 includes shipping, $6 to be picked up at church.

The Missoula Food Bank drive in January resulted in donations of $2,548.49 and 175 pounds of food.

The Church Foundation will be offering two scholarships this spring. Deadline is April 15th.
Click on Foundation to get the applications and criteria to apply.

crossSCAM: A church using the address of 306 E. Main is contacting people saying they have money to donate to them. If you have gotten such a notice please click here.

newsletterfor complete details of all that is happening this month in our church.

FEBRUARY EVENTS

Feb. 4   UMW Meeting, 1 p.m.
Feb. 8 Ad Council, 7 p.m.
Feb. 9 March Tower Tidings submission deadline
Feb. 10 Ash Wednesday Soup Supper, 5:45 p.m.
 Ash Wednesday Service, 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 11 Ruth Fellowship, 10 a.m.
Feb. 12 Friday Night Out, 6 p.m.
Feb. 14 Heart of Christianity class begins
Feb. 17 Vespers Circle, 1 p.m.
Feb. 18 Amazing Grays Trip
Feb. 21 Potluck: Building Project Presentation, noon
Feb. 28 Potluck: Building Project Presentation, noon

New to our Community? Find out about our church:

facebook
Check out our Facebook page. We hope you enjoy it.


Reconcilling logo
MISSOULA FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH is a Reconciling Congregation.
We welcome all people into the full life and membership of this congregation.

Accessibility
Our church is handicap accessible through the street level door on the southeast corner of the building. There is an elevator there that will bring you up to the sanctuary or take you down to fellowship hall. We have large-print bulletins with hymns, large print hymnals, and hearing assistance devices for those that are hard of hearing.
We also have video screens for hymns and scripture. Ask the ushers for help when you arrive and they will find what you need.
Office phone and E-mail contact information on the CONTACT US PAGE.

 

Reaching out with love to our community and the world hearts

Tzedakah Pocket
Family Promise Host
Missoula Interfaith Collaborative & January Food Bank Drive
Host for Homeless Connect
Poverello noon meal 5th Saturdays
Missoula Food Bank and January Food Drive
East Angola Pastor Support
United Methodist Women’s mission projects
SERRV & Fair Trade Products
Intermountain Home
Flathead Lake UMC Camp
Blackfeet United Methodist Parish
(BUMP)
YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter
❤ Cub Scouts
Habitat for Humanity
Salvation Army
❤ UMCOR
❤ U of M Wesley House

 John Daniels
Pastor John Daniels

Staff
Administrative Assistants: Sharon Jackson, Rhanda Johnson and Nancy Eik
Treasurer: Leslie Lindley
Financial Secretary: Kay Duffield

Custodian: John Schaff
Childcare Director: Juliette Viera
Nursery Attendants: Faye Gibson, Audra Clark & Juliette Viera

Music Team:
Greg Boris, Music Director and Chancel Choir Director
Peter Edwards, Pianist/Organist
Laura Jacquette, Pianist/Organist 8:30

Brynn Bellingham, Handbell Choir Director
Rhanda Johnson, Joyful Noise Director

hospital **Please let the office know if you or someone in our church family needs a visit in the hospital or at home.
Church Office (406) 549-6118
or Pastor John's cell phone (406) 396-8966.

Office Hours
Monday - Friday: 9 a.m. - noon.
(subject to change - call 549-6118 before coming in or to make an appointment with the pastor)

The life of our church includes:
(Click on colored words to find out more information.)
Adult Spiritual Growth - class descriptions, online class information and
links to The Book of Discipline
Children's Ministries - You Tube Christmas program video
Youth Ministries - FUMY
U of M Wesley Foundation - Facebook link
Amazing Grays - Trips for seniors
Choirs - Chancel Choir, JuBELLation Handbell Choir, Children's Joyful Noise Choir
Foundation - donations and scholarships
Membership - joining the church
Stephen Ministers - caring for one another as we journey through life
Information on what a Stephen Minister does and training information.
Social Action - Family Promise, Poverello, Habitat for Humanity, Intermountain, UMCOR, Angola Partnership
UMW - United Methodist Women schedule and fellowship group information UMW
UMM - United Methodist Men
Walk to Emmaus - Link to their website

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Choirs
First Church loves music and hopes you will come not only to listen but to participate in it! We sing hymns as well as praise songs, often have special music and enjoy all three of our choirs. Choirs practice from September till May.
We love those who volunteer to provide special music during the summer. Call the office if you would like to bless us with your music.

Chancel Choir - Wednesday practice
FUMC Chancel Choir practices and performs during the school year.  Enthusiasm and love of music a must.  Previous experience is not required.  Choir meets Wednesday at 6:30.  All are welcome.  Please join us!  For more information talk to choir director Greg Boris 239-1828.

You Tube video
Retired ministers Hugh Herbert and Barry Padget lead the congregation in singing
Brother Van's Harvest Time. Click on the arrow above to start the video.



JuBELLation Handbell Choir
- Wednesday practice
Interested in learning/playing a new musical instrument? JuBELLation Handbell Choir, based at The First United Methodist Church, is looking for individuals interested in learning or experienced at playing handbells this season!  There are several ways to get involved and be part of this fun group!  Openings include: Full Time, Part Time, and On-call positions. During the school year practice is each Wednesday from 6-8. Brynn Bellingham, Director.


bunnyJoyful Noise Children's Choir
- Tuesday practice
All children from the 1st through the 8th grade are welcome to participate in making a Joyful Noise. During the school year they participate in worship once a month and rehearse on Tuesdays from 6:00 - 6:45 p.m.
Contact Rhanda Johnson in the office (549-6118) for more information.


Adult Spiritual Growth Groups
Do you feel like you are on a spiritual journey? We hope you will allow us to walk with you on this journey and together we will find the answers to our questions. Classes will meet on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning, and Tuesday evening.

Sunday morning: Faith and Justice at 9:15 in Parlor; and A Short Course on Islam at 11:45 in the Parlor

Tuesday Adult Classes - Covenant Bible Study program on Tuesday mornings at 10 a.m. in Parlor, and the NOOMA series with Rob Bell on Tuesday evenings at 6 p.m. in the Clara Smith Room

New Class begins February 14: A Christianity for the Twenty Frist Century will be at 9:15 in the Church Library.
More information is in the February Tower Tidings.

Interested in online adult classes? Click on UMC classes for more information.
Looking for a specific Bible Verse? Click on Bible Verse Search

The Book of Discipline is available online for your study and review: The Book of Discipline Index, The Book of Discipline Part 1,The Book of Discipline Part 2 and The Book of Resolutions 2012 Part III.

Children's Ministries
Sunday School meets at 9:15 between services and is for  Preschool - 6th grade. Our Rock Solid program is a
Bible study that enables children to experience God through Jesus Christ.  Activities will include stories, crafts, music and scripture. 

Call the church office (549-6118) for more information. Nursery care is available for those not ready for preschool.

Dec. 6, 2015 Children's Christmas Pagaent Photos:
shepherds angel jesus sheep

 

You Tube You can watch a You Tube video of the Twelve Days of Christmas given by the children during church December 8, 2013.
 Click on the You Tube logo.


First United Methodist Youth Fellowship (FUMY)
7th through 12th grade students meet most Wednesday evenings at 5:30 p.m. from September until May.
They do service projects, make discoveries about themselves and others, and have fun!

Wesley Foundation - University of Montana Campus Ministry
New to Campus? Connect with us! Campus Connection
The University of Montana Wesley House is located across the street from the campus and Miller Hall at 1327 Arthur Avenue.
College students and visitors are welcomed to stop by for a vis
it. Sunday evenings are family style dinners and Thursday evenings are a Bible Study.
For more information E-mail the Wesley House or Phone: (406) 274-3346.
Join us on facebook
Local Churches: Please send the names of U of M students from your local church to the Wesley Foundation
so they can be invited to join the
Wesley House activities.
Students are welcomed at either First or Grace UMC in Missoula.


UMW logoUnited Methodist Women Facebook
Our UMW is part of the Yellowstone Conference, which covers Montana, 1/2 Wyoming and a slice of Idaho.
You can find information on Conference and District UMW activities on the conference UMW web page.

The National organization of United Methodist Women also has a website full of information, news, and resources

. UMWUMW is open to any woman who would enjoy the companionship of other women and is someone who is dedicated to supporting missions near and far. UMW raises money for mission projects locally, in Montana, nationally and globally. UMW meets the first Thursday Oct-Dec and Feb-May. All meetings are at 1:00 for dessert, program and business meeting, unless otherwise announced in the church newsletter.
Other activities include: Ash Wednesday Soup Supper, July picnic for families who will attend a community band concert at Bonner Park afterward, October Apple Pie sales, and December Candy Sale.
Contact President Klairaine Nichwander 396-1663 for more information.

** UMW Fellowship Circles meet once a month. Nothing compares to a small supportive group of women!

All women of the church are invited to visit groups that interest them.
GEMS Fellowship meets the third Thursday at 7 p.m. in the church library Sept-May
This group of working women is particularly interested in the UMW Reading program and are supportive of one another.
Chair: Laela Shimer 721-1960

L.A.N.S. Fellowship meets the second Monday at 11:30 a.m. for lunch at a restaurant from Sept-Dec and Feb-May.
They are women Living Actively in the New Society. They are interested in social action in the community as well as fellowship.
Chairman: Ellie Barnes 549-1384
RUTH Fellowship meets the second Thursday at 10:00 a.m. in the church parlor Oct-May.
They invite you to come and share their fellowship, coffee, a monthly program, and outreach to church members who need a little TLC and support of missions like the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter.

Chairmen: Kay Duffield 543-6722 or Judy Whiddon 258-2719
VESPERS Fellowship meets the third Wednesday at 1:00 in homes Sept-May
They have been meeting together for a long time which has led to many long friendships. They invite you to their program and meeting. Chairman: Kay Norum 721-5750

**Special Interest Groups:
Book Group meets the fourth Thursday at 11 a.m. in the church library
year round.
Co-Chair: Laurie Ball 926-1252 & Jackie Krahn 543-3979
Knitting Group meets on Saturdays at 10:00 in homes year round.
Chairman: Carole Addis 721-1817

UMMen logoMen's Fellowship Group
The Mighty Methodist Men meet 1st & 3rd Saturdays, at 8 a.m. in the Church Library.

Stephen Ministry ChurchSM logo
Stephen Ministers help with prayer requests each Sunday and serve communion.
As a congregation we participate in Stephen Ministries, where trained Stephen Ministers walk with those whose lives are in turmoil for one reason or another. Anyone in our church family can request a Stephen Minister for themselves. Members of the congregation are encouraged to consider doing the 50-hours of training and helping others in this way. As a Stephen Minister you often find tools to help in your own life as well as nurture your care receiver. More information can be found at:
What is a Stephen Minister?
Call Kay at 543-6722 or Peg at 542-1543 for more information.

Amazing Grays
The Amazing Grays are a group of church members who have been blessed with some gray hairs. They get together once a month for companionship and an enjoyable time. They go out to dinner, have a pot-luck and game night at the church, a holiday party or sometimes make a day trip by bus to some place in Montana. Friends are always welcome. Rides will be provided for those who no longer drive. Participants may sign up following church for the current activities.

Membership
New Members are received throughout the year. To learn more, please contact Pastor John Daniels by stopping by or calling the church office at 549-6118.
New Member class currently under way.

Missoula First United Methodist Church Foundation:
Donations and bequests to the Foundation are used for charitable giving, scholarships and fulfilling the church's mission. Brochure with more information on charitable giving and bequests to the Foundation is available by clicking on Foundation Brochure.
Foundation Scholarships: The Foundation offers two scholarships each Spring. The Foundation Scholarship is for an active member of our church and The Katie Payne Scholarship is for a woman pursuing a nursing or medical arts career or a career in law, government or public service. Click on the blue scholarship name above for the application.
The packet containing your application, transcript, and two letters of recommendation must be postmarked April 15th or earlier.

Walk to Emmaus Fourth Day groups for men and women also meet at the church. Walk to Emmaus weekends for men and women are held each spring. Please check out the Walk website at: www.WesternMTWalk.com
Members from other Walk communities are welcome and encouraged to help with the Walks, come to Gatherings and join 4h Day groups.
More Emmaus Community Information from Upper Room.

Social Action - Love in Motion

We give of our time, talent and gifts to local agencies such as Poverello and Family Promise, to state agencies such as the Blackfeet Parish and the Intermountain Home in Helena, to national missions through mission shares, and globally we are supporting a pastor in Angola with a monthly check. We are also a Jubilee Church to help poor countries with their debt.

Family promise logoFirst United Methodist Church of Missoula is part of 19+ churches who are working to house 3-4 homeless families with children. For more information or to volunteer please contact Barbara Blanchard Mahoney at 493-6713 or go to their website: http://familypromisemissoula.net/

I was hungry and you fed me...
Come feed God's people lunch 4 or 5 times a year at the Poverello Center.
We work at the Pov whenever there is a 5th Saturday.
Call the church office to sign up (549-6118).

We are a church partner with Missoula's Habitat for Humanity We invite you to join us for a work day! Contact the office at 549-6118 for more information.

Intermountainhttp://www.intermountain.org/
Intermountain is a nationally accredited non-profit organization. They provide mental health and
educational services to effectively meet the diverse needs of children and families facing emotional challenges. Their primary services include: residential treatment, community-based services, and community trainings. Operating for more than 100 years, Intermountain is one of Montana’s oldest child welfare agencies.

UMCOR
We care about others. We participate in giving relief to victims of natural disasters through UMCOR. Our church gives generously to those affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis and will continue to support UMCOR when it heads to new disasters.

Special Days. Special Ways. We reach out to the world with Special Offerings

Human Relations Day -February
One Great Hour of Sharing - March
Native American Ministries - April
Peace With Justice - May
World Communion - October
United Methodist Student Day - November
For more information go to: www.umcgiving.org

 

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Sermons by Pastor John Daniels

2-7-16  Checking Our Spiritual Vision   Scripture:  Luke 9:28-43
Theme:  What do we see?  Or, perhaps more significantly, how do we see?  With eyes alone, or eyes and mind, connecting things to the logic of our upbringing, our education, our experience?  Or is there a better way to see?  With the heart, with the spirit, with God hinting at what there is to be seen and understood for real life?  The transfiguration raises these matters with a resolute response – “this is my son; Listen to him!”

Once upon a time, a businessman came to a small town for the purpose of opening the first tavern in the midst of that community.  To the horror of the townsfolk, who were a God-fearing, church-going sort, the town council granted a permit for the tavern to be built.  The members of a local church were strongly opposed to the bar, so they began to pray that God would intervene; they did this prayer very publically, in front of their church but also outside the site of the new tavern. A few days before the tavern was to open, lightening hit the structure, and it burned to the ground.
The people of the church were surprised, but pleased -- until they received notice that the would-be tavern owner was suing them. He contended that their prayers were responsible for the burning of the building. In a strongly-worded deposition the church denied the charge.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge wryly remarked, "At this point I don't know what my decision will be, but this appears to be the situation: The owner of the tavern believes in the power of prayer, and these church people don't." --From The Prairie Rambler, June 1993, 6.

I love that story, which may or may not be true, but has truth in it, regarding how we choose to see things certain ways.  Ways that make sense to us.  Ways in which we can justify what we do, and how things work.  But also ways in which the activity of the Divine may be completely missed, or worse, misunderstood.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, highlighting the moment in time when something extraordinary happened.  Jesus has taken Peter, John, and James up to a mountaintop to pray – and while praying, things get a little crazy.  The face of Jesus changes; clothes become dazzling white; Moses and Elijah appear; they begin to discuss “his departure” in Jerusalem, something Jesus had spoken about to his disciples just a week before.  Being stunned by all that is going on, Peter makes what seems like a confused offer – “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for each of you.”  A cloud overshadows them and terrifies them, whereupon a voice proclaims “this is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  And instantly, things return to normal.
What the disciples experienced has been called a “thin moment.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of “thin places” in regards to faith experiences?  Thin places are “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as one author puts it, “the Infinite Whatever.”  Thin places tend to disorient, confuse, and shock.  They cause us to lose our old bearings for the purpose of finding new ones.  Such places can include famous locations like Lourdes, France, where apparitions of the virgin Mary were seen by the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous; or locations like Mecca, site of the sacred pilgrimage for Muslims.  Other such thin places might include Stonehenge in England; St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the temple mount in Jerusalem, or the Mayan pyramids.  They are places where God seems especially close to certain people at certain times.
Likewise, thin moments are moments when God seems especially close.  Thin moments work changes in the normalcy of life.  They are not necessarily places, but moments in time, experiences in life, when the sacred and the profane touch, when heaven and earth connect, when the rules of physics and gravity and knowledge seem to bend if not break.  They are moments when God is doing something, saying something, or showing something we could not produce ourselves; they are times of mystery and wonder, fear and joy.
The transfiguration is considered just such a thin moment – and, as such, it defies complete understanding.  But it does establish God as the operative behind the experience, and it does suggest that thin moments are not without purpose.  “THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED; LISTEN TO HIM!”  It’s as if this is God’s chosen message of shouting at God’s people, a way to get an essential message across – and, indeed, if one thing can be said about thin moments, it’s that those experiencing them are paying greater attention, even if they cannot fully understand or handle what is going on.
This brings up another point about thin moments – they are easy to dismiss as lesser events.  Just as Peter assumes what is before him is nothing less than a conference of sorts needing shelter he can build (and thus control and understand), I believe we often find ourselves in the midst of God’s activity and, because we’re not sure what to make of it, we diminish it by forcing our own interpretation or explanation upon the event.  I can’t help thinking about the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in the story A Christmas Carol; when Scrooge was confronted by the ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley, he dismissed the vision by claiming to the apparition “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”  Aren’t we like this, to some degree?  Unwilling to accept the things that exceed our understanding?  But couldn’t this be the strongest evidence of something greater than our understanding at work?
 Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, and contemplative, wrote a prayer where he expresses the both the uncertainty of existence and the solidity of faith as it embraces the uncertain.  In his prayer, he says "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing."  -- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1983), 83.
Perhaps we sometimes feel like this, not sure of where we are going, or what’s going on.  But the point of Merton’s prayer is that perhaps what is more important than what we see is how we see.  Do we see with eyes and mind alone, connecting things to the logic of our upbringing, our education, our experience?  Or is there a better way to see?  With the heart, with the spirit, with God hinting in these regions at what there is to be seen and understood for real life?  Are there better ways of seeing than what comes to the eye?  Are there better ways of understanding than what comes to the mind?
You’ve heard about the glass half-full, half-empty perspectives.  It goes beyond optimism and pessimism.
"An optimist thinks the glass is half full; a pessimist thinks the glass is half empty. An engineer sees a vessel twice as big as it needs to be; a skeptic questions whether the contents are drinkable or poisonous; a cynic wonders who drank the other half; a psychiatrist sees an analogy to a person’s struggle with feeling half real; The physicist says that the glass is not empty at all - it is half-filled with water and half-filled with air; and finally, a realist knows that if he sticks around, either way he's eventually going to have to wash the glass."
How we understand something depends largely upon our vantage point – optimist, pessimist, skeptic, cynic, etc.  are beginning points for perspective.  Our vantage point is faith, faith that God exceeds our complete comprehension, yet faith that God has made himself known – and continues to make himself known --  to each one of us.  Faith is the vantage point that presumes God is alive and active in our lives and in our world.  Our faith provides a vantage point that is anxious to build tents or churches or programs or ministries that will help all to receive what God desires; yet our faith is a vantage point that knows such activity can easily miss the point of it all.  “This is my son, the beloved; LISTEN TO HIM.”  Unless all faith is in tune with the calling of Jesus, his love and compassion, his forgiveness and peace, his outreach and spirit, nothing we do, nothing we build, nothing we create, nothing we stand for will matter from the vantage point of God.  And that is the only vantage point that is real.

Adapted from Diane Gibbons (Rune Hill Newsletter, 20 (Spring/Summer 93)
I can say nothing of God, except that I saw the red flames of a cardinal against the snow this morning as I drank tea.
I can say nothing of God, except that my worry was met by grace as I sat in the hospital awaiting the test results, and met a new friend, whose compassion lifted my shadows.
I can say nothing of God, except that a strange child smiled at me in the supermarket, and I felt my heart warmed in my own spontaneous smile.
         I can say nothing of God, except that the eyes of the refugee being interviewed on TV  radiated with an unreasonable spark of hope that rose above his lostness.
I can say nothing of God, except that in my silent spaces, I sense something more, more than I can know, yet more that I must know, and will know in time, as I stay open to mystery.

I can say nothing of God, except that sparks of possibility continue to ignite as love is trusted and followed.  I can say nothing of God, except that God is.

 

1-31-16  Knowing What Not To Say  Scripture:  Luke 4:21-30
Theme:  There is just as much an art in knowing what not to say as there is in knowing what to say, but this is quite misunderstood in this day and age.  For knowing what not to say has come to mean knowing what things will be hard for people to hear, and avoiding them.  Jesus demonstrates that the real litmus test for saying or not saying something is its inherent truth; discomfort may be one of the greatest proofs of a speech’s necessity.

How do you react when someone tells you something you don’t want to hear?  Especially when it’s something personal?  As in a personal criticism?  I came across some interesting statistics recently, and I’d like to share them with you.  When people are faced with a personal criticism from somebody else:
         93.7% react with indignation, anger, resentment, and offense.
89.3% attempt to break off the conversation in search of more complimentary company.
         84.9% strategize about a counter insult that will put the person in their place.
         81.2% try to change the subject to anything that will take the attention off of themselves.
         76.5% are bold enough to state to the offender that they are being rude and impolite, and tell the person to “mind their own business.”
         72.8% attempt to correct the person making the remarks, searching for flaws in their facts.
         69.4% manage to smile politely and say, “Thank you for telling me,” while plotting in their minds where they intend to hide the body.
         Only 1.3% attempt to really understand what the person is saying to them, and are open to the comments.

I took these figures from the exhaustive statistical data tables as found in the journal called My Human Experience by John Daniels, for they reflect my own tendencies when confronted by personal criticism – I feel inside myself the tendency to get mad, to avoid, to re-interpret, to retaliate, to deny, or otherwise not deal effectively or directly with the criticism.  (and, yes, the numbers are ones conjured up inside my own mind!)
         If you are like me, you don’t like personal criticism.  We don’t like to hear certain things about ourselves, our people, our culture, our families, our church, our habits, or our style of living.
         In this sense we are no different from those in the synagogue surrounding Jesus in our scripture lesson today.  Jesus was home, on familiar ground, with people who knew each other and who knew him.  If we want to think about it in today’s context, Jesus was giving a sermon.  He had just read holy scripture, a passage from Isaiah 61:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Rolling up the scroll, ending the scripture lesson for the day, Jesus proclaims, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
         So far, so good.  Something special is going on here, and the people kind of like it.  After all, Jesus says he’s here to help people who need help, to bring good news, to free oppressed people, to heal, and to share the Lord’s favor.  Good news!
         But then, he drops the bombshell.  To the people in the synagogue, his Jewish brethren, he goes on to say in verses 24-27 that this just might not include YOU!  You may not be so favored as you think – perhaps we could even think of Jesus saying to those people “you may not be so righteous, deserving, or privileged as you think.”  HE WAS ATTACKING THEIR SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS.  This was a very, very personal criticism.  Once they heard this, the people listening to Jesus wanted to kill him.
         Have you ever been personally criticized?  By someone who was close to you?  Whose criticism felt like an arrow to our soul?   By someone whose insight and honesty were treasured, at least up to the point where they criticized us?!?  Have we ever been personally criticized by someone who might just have the knowledge of us and the integrity in their nature to be right in their criticism?
         Boy, I hate that, when it happens to me!  Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been personally criticized – it’s been at least 47 minutes.  Not a major criticism, but still one that was personal, that felt like the sting of a bee on my insides.  Boy, I hate that!  BUT, OH, HOW I NEED THAT!  How valuable are the words that sting when they come from a trusted source; how precious are the criticisms that outline an otherwise missed truth about oneself.  If God is about truth, if Jesus stands for reality, then the things that bring more of that reality to bear are assets to our lives.  For who we really are, and what we really do, are essential to our relationship with God and each other.  We need the critical lens of others to broaden our self-understanding; we need input from beyond ourselves to know what is real.
The late Indian Jesuit priest and psychologist Anthony de Mello liked to tell the story of the two taxidermists who stopped before a window in which an owl was on display. They immediately began to criticize the way it was mounted. Its eyes were not natural; its wings were not in proportion with its head; its feathers were not neatly arranged; and its feet could certainly be improved.  When they finished critiquing the owl, the old owl slowly turned its head ... and blinked its eyes.  The owl was not stuffed; it was real.
I think our vision is largely like this, regarding our world, and especially regarding ourselves.  We see largely what we want to see, what we’re trained to see, what we’re conditioned to see – and this makes us unqualified for the task of perfect vision.  We need input from beyond, from others, and from God.   There is great value in critical feedback that provides such input, for it has the power of bringing to light the most difficult of truths about ourselves.

I came across some words by Rev. Bill Bouknight recently, which I like a lot.  He says, “We despise people who challenge our cherished myths and kick us out of our comfort zones. The truth is that when Jesus sets about the task of saving us, he has to heal us of any myth or prejudice that is contrary to the spirit of Christ.”

Billy Sunday was the Billy Graham of a previous generation. He was conducting a crusade in a particular city. In one of his sermons he said something critical of the labor conditions for workers in that area. After the service, several prominent businessmen sent a message to him by one of the local pastors. The message was this---“Billy, leave labor matters alone. Concentrate on getting people saved. Stay away from political issues. You’re rubbing the fur the wrong way." Billy Sunday sent this message back to them: "If I’m rubbing the fur the wrong way, tell the cats to turn around."
         From time to time, being a Christian will feel like God is trying to rub our fur the wrong way.  It just could be the case that what is really needed is for us to change direction.  Towards others.  Away from ourselves.  Towards Christ and where he leads.  Away from the things that diminish our lives, and the lives of others.  And this will often require checking our tendency towards self-righteousness.  The message of Jesus in today’s scripture is very clear -- the direction of Christ will not be towards a people who feel themselves worthy of divine favor, but towards those who have discovered no one is thus worthy.  The issue is not one of worthiness, but willingness.  Willingness to be checked in our faith; willingness to be open to our real selves, consulting God and others in the process.   For faith is nothing less than willingness to let God be God, and take our proper place under God’s reality. 

         In closing, I would like to offer up a rather difficult prayer to pray; at least, it’s difficult for me; perhaps it will be for you, for it is a prayer thanking God for the difficult people in our lives.  This is adapted from Ruth Myers’ book 31 Days of Praise (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1994).

"Lord of love and challenge, help me appreciate the people in my life who seem to bring me more pain than joy, for I believe you have let our paths cross for important reasons. Work in me a grateful heart for the good things you want to do in my life through the things and people that bother me.  As the irritation of the grain of sand motivates the oyster to create a pearl, help me to work with the thorns in my side in a similar manner, seeking what can be valuable, true, helpful, and good in my distress.  Temper my desire to be seen as righteous and blameless, for these blind one to the insight of others, who may see us truer than we see ourselves.  Make me open to the correction of ones whom I trust, and willing to adjust my life as needed and accordingly; help me adopt a pattern of humility, which seeks truth in all things, and the proper placement of self under that truth.  Lord, help me to value the things and people that cause me pain.  Amen.

 

1-17-16  How to Get People’s Attention  Scripture:  John 2:1-11
Theme:  How to get people’s attention?  PERFORM A MIRACLE!  At least, this seems to be the outward message of scripture.  But there’s another one – meet people, enjoin people in their anxiety, in their perceived need, especially if they share with you their trust.  The response of love is the response that garners attention – and love is best received when identified with an unmet need.

         Ah, yes, we have this story before us once more.  We’ve heard it so many times.  A wedding, a feast, a celebration; they run out of wine, but hey, Jesus is there.  He fixes things, zaps a few jars with his divine power, and everything turns out OK.  Of course this doesn’t happen every day, but back then, Jesus was around.  Hey, this was the Son of God!  It was as easy for Jesus to perform a miracle as it is for us to turn on a light switch; he was doing it all the time; everyone expected it of him – just look at his mother!  No big deal, this wedding at Cana.
         Such are the thought patterns that can lead us astray.  Such are the ways we think about things that can get us off track.  Such are the tendencies we have, each of us, to reduce the miraculous to nothing really surprising at all, nothing life affecting, nothing drastic in this world, or to interpret the miraculous as anything but the direct involvement of God in the world.
There once was an avid duck hunter who was in the market for a new bird dog.  His search ended when he found a dog who would walk on water to retrieve a duck.  Shocked by his discovery, the man wondered how he would break this news to his hunting friends.  No one would believe him.
         So the hunter invited a buddy to go with him.  They made their way to the blind and waited.  When a flock of ducks flew nearby, they drew their guns and shot.  The dog responded by running across the water and retrieving the bird.  However, the friend remained silent.  Not one word about this amazing dog.
         Driving home, the hunter said to his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my dog?”
         “I sure did,” responded the friend, “He can’t swim.”
         We often have a tendency to miss, avoid, downplay, dismiss, or otherwise minimize the miraculous.  And here it is that we may find ourselves ready for renewal. 
Returning to the scripture, we find Jesus involved in a special but regular event – a wedding.  They happened all the time, of course, and pretty much everybody knew how they were to happen.  Preparations were made, events were enjoined to cover a week’s festivities, but in this particular case, on the third day, they ran out of wine.  Not good.  But God was with them.  God was really with them.  In person.  In Christ.  And, behold, a miracle occurred.
That’s the equation.  God was with them.  God was present.  And a miracle occurred.  But what we easily miss is fact that the presence of God itself is a miracle, beyond and greater than the water changed to wine.  God was present; and God caused to happen what otherwise could not.
         Perhaps this is a more helpful definition of miracle – that which God causes to happen which otherwise could not happen.  Such a definition would include water into wine, the parting of the sea, the raising of the dead, and the curing of leprosy; but more to the point, this definition would help to greatly expand our understanding of what comprises the miraculous.  And we would find that miracles are a very regular occurrence in our world, and in our own lives.
Saint Gregory the Great wrote a powerful caution against missing the miraculous.  He said"... if a dead man is raised to life, all men spring up in astonishment. Yet every day one that had no being is born, and no man wonders, though it is plain to all, without doubt, that it is a greater thing for that to be created which was without being than for that which had being to be restored. Because the dry rod of Aaron budded, all men were in astonishment; every day a tree is produced from the dry earth, ... and no man wonders ... Five thousand men were filled with five loaves; ... every day the grains of seed that are sown are multiplied in a fullness of ears, and no man wonders. All ... wondered to see water once turned into wine. Every day the earth's moisture, being drawn into the root of the vine, is turned by the grape into wine, and no man wonders. Full of wonder then are all the things which men never think to wonder at, because ... they are by habit become dull to the consideration of them. " -- --St. Gregory the Great,  Morals on the Book of Job 

God, through Jesus, invites us to re-awaken our willingness to be astonished.  In a life-affecting way.  In a world-changing way.  In the way of God’s miracles, which occur daily.  It is an invitation to consider the truth about Christ who changed water into wine, who walked on water, who healed the sick and brought life to the dead, and performed greater miracles than these – conversing with sinners, loving the lepers, teaching the ignorant, challenging the status quo, helping the untouchables, forgiving the enemy, speaking hope to the despairing, embracing the marginalized.  In my opinion, these were the greater miracles, far exceeding physical acts.  These are the miracles the world needs so much more than water turned into wine.  They are the spiritual acts largely alien to our innate world, yet demonstrated by Jesus to be within our possibility to induce.  They are miracles you and I can introduce into our world through the influence of Christ – his example of long ago and his presence with us now.  It is these kinds of miracles which I believe hold the greatest opportunity to change our world as well as change ourselves.
I decided to test my theory that miracles are happening all the time by taking a look at my recent history – this past week.  And I discovered all kinds of miracles, ones that I passively benefited from, and ones I was invited to be a part of.  I saw a meeting of those working against Islamophobia come together, with Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Wiccans, and non-Christians making progress towards lessening hatred through increasing awareness; the events are being planned, the dates are being set.  I saw a meeting of people seeking ways to address Climate Change through congregational involvement; our first Climate Summit is scheduled for January 26th.  I saw a young man deliver an impactful sermon here last Sunday, with individuals approaching me with obvious appreciation to a relatable message.  I saw, in the middle of a tense day, the clouds open up at just the right time, revealing blue sky and sunlight that seemed to speak to me personally, renewing my spirit.  I saw a commotion down the aisle of a local hardware store where I was shopping; a small crowd had gathered around a shopping cart, where a small child, a year or so old, was delighting people with a very loud “HI!” to everyone who was there – the smiles were contagious.  There were many more experiences like these which filled my week, experiences that some would say bear the marks of normalcy, coincidence, or inauspiciousness.  But I would claim otherwise.  They were each moments in which something beyond the norms of human function were at work, times when something was going on that could not be reduced to simple human understanding.  Something of the miraculous involvement of God seemed strongly evident to me.
It has been said that miracles are the evidence that God is still at work.  I can agree with this, only if we expand our understanding of what comprises a miracle.  For I believe, and continually experience, miracles as a part of every day.  I have learned to look for them, in all of their forms, and I am never disappointed; often surprised, but not disappointed.   There have been, and even perhaps now are, those miracles of water turned to wine, that flow directly through the power of God; but far more numerous are those miracles of exceptional love, sacrificial forgiveness, extraordinary service, internal peace, and unconditional support that the Christian life introduces into the world, miracles that would not occur but for our willingness to love and serve God.  God has chosen to work his wonders through us, through his people; Jesus set the pattern. 
So you say you don’t know how to change water into wine?  How about listening to someone who needs to be heard?  Forgiving the person who hurt you?  Volunteering at the POV center?  Choosing to think the best of a person who is being criticized?  Standing against oppressive laws?  Spending your time tutoring children?  Being patient towards someone of an opposite opinion to your own?  Loving someone who won’t return your love?  These are no lesser miracles than those demonstrated by Jesus.  The world needs them all.

 

1-3-15  When Heaven and Earth Connect  Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12
Theme:  There are places and times where heaven and earth connect.  Often, they are times of uncertainty and excitement, mystery and revelation, danger and safety, none of which cannot be easily or directly predicted or contained.  It can take a lifetime of searching and processing to figure out, and there is no telling where that journey will lead, except to the true God – God’s will, truth, life, and reality.

         Once upon a time, there was a family of mice who lived all of their lives in a large piano.  Music filled their piano-world, swelling all the dark spaces with sound and harmony.  At first the mice were impressed by it.  They drew comfort and wonder from the thought that there was someone close to them – though invisible to them – who made the music.
         They loved to think of the great player whom they could not see.  Then one day a daring mouse climbed up part of the piano and returned very thoughtful.  He had found out how the music was made.  Wires were the secret; tightly stretched wires of graduated lengths that trembled and vibrated.  The mice had to revise all of their old beliefs:  none but the most conservative could any longer believe in the unseen player.
         Later, another explorer carried the explanation further.  Now the secret was hammers, numbers of hammers dancing and leaping on the wires.  This was a more complicated theory, and it showed that the mice lived in a purely mechanical and mathematical world.  The unseen player came to be thought of by the mice as a myth.  But occasionally, a piece of music was played that had some of the mice wondering if strings or hammers or mechanisms could possibly produce such beauty, such wonder.  “Surely,” these mice said to the others, “there must be something more…”

         “Surely, there must be something more.”  This short, six-word sentence marks the beginning of faith.  It marks, for the soul that speaks and believes it, the beginning of a journey that is no longer confined by the world of sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell.  It’s an exciting, scary, wonderful, horrible, glorious, and confusing position at times, to find oneself on the threshold between what is known concretely, and what is believed faithfully.  This is the journey of faith – the movement from physical fact to trusted revelation.
         We find ourselves on the threshold between heaven and earth this morning as we contemplate the Epiphany of the Lord.  This is the traditional Sunday that heralds the first official recognition by representatives of the wider world that God is appearing in the birth of Christ.  The magi were not persons regarded as primarily religious, most certainly not Jewish, but also not representing any faith system prevalent in the day.  They were most likely gentile astronomers, searchers of the sky, the stars, for signs of future happenings.  They were searching for truth, for prophecy, for revelation, for a sense of where the world was heading.  Their search was prompted by their sense that, “surely, there must be more.”  Their journey brought them to a moment in time when heaven and earth connected.
         Have you ever wondered if there wasn’t something more?  Have you ever felt that sense of dissatisfaction with this world, that longed for more complete understanding, for a sense of what is to come, for a hope that is eternal, a direction that is clear, a future that is secure?
         Most likely, that you are here this morning, or any morning, is proof enough that we are all in the same heart and mindframe as the magi.  WE ARE SEARCHERS, TRYING TO BE OPEN TO THE MYSTERY OF TRUTH.  And we have realized that the science, technology, history, formulas physics, processes, and procedures of this world can only take us so far.  THERE IS MORE TO REALITY THAN MEETS THE EYE.
         William Phelps taught English literature at Yale for forty-one years until his retirement in 1933.  Marking an examination paper shortly before Christmas one year, Phelps came across a note scribbled by a student alongside a difficult question.  The note said, “God only knows the answer to this question.  Merry Christmas.”  Phelps returned the paper with a note of his own:  “God gets an A.  You get an F.  Happy New Year.”
         God gets an A.  God knows it all.  God has all the wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and perception contained in this world and far beyond.  God gets an A.
         But here we enter the miracle of incarnation.  We don’t get an F, for God shares his A.  God is willing to let us into His reality.  God has shared with us his Son, that we may have a touchstone, a grab-handle on God’s reality, enough so that we may know how to live and believe in ways that bring us closer to Him, WITHOUT FULLY UNDERSTANDING ALL THE MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE.  We don’t have to understand fully, if we trust fully
I came across a line that I really like recently; it said, “Faith is not belief without proof; it is trust without reservation.” I like that.  I think it describes the journey of the magi toward that inexplicable, illogical occurrence that defied physical laws – stars just do not behave that way in the normal world; angels do not make regular appearances.  But God is both within and beyond the normal world.  And it would therefore be expected that God could and would work in ways that exceed our comprehension.
“Faith is not belief without proof, it is trust without reservation.”  I think this describes our journey as Christians.  So many times, we are anxious to discover proof for our beliefs.  Sometimes we get an answer that strengthens our faith; sometimes we don’t.  But, in general, the game of proving faith is a losing game.  It’s not so much about building up concrete evidence or a solid case for Christ; it’s more about being open to reality, as it has come to us, both in what we can understand and in what we can’t.  Being open to reality faces the fact that there are many, many more things that we don’t understand than things we comprehend.  Einstein said it best, when he said “it has taken me a lifetime of learning to discover just how little I know.” BUT THE LITTLE HE KNEW CHANGED THE WORLD.  So it was with the magi; so it is with us.  The little we know, about God, about his incarnation in Jesus, about the gospel of hope and love, is enough if it establishes a faith that welcomes the mystery of God into our lives.  God may then be free to reveal what is needed for life, that cannot be discovered directly by life itself.
This morning, I would like to leave you with this message from one of the greatest minds in theology – Dr. Seuss.  Dr. Suess wrote a book called On Beyond Zebra, where he entertains the incredible thought of going beyond our normal parameters for life.  It’s a story about going beyond the end of the normal alphabet.  It’s also a story about going beyond the normal world.  Listen to his wonderful theology, set to verse:

Said Conrad Cornelius O'Donnell O'Dell,
my very young friend who was learning to spell,
"The A is for Ape, the B is for Bear,
the C is for Camel, the H is for Hair,
the M is for Mouse, the R is for Rat ...
I know all twenty-six letters like that.
Through to Z is for Zebra, I know them all well,"
said Conrad Cornelius O'Donnell O'Dell.
"Now I know everything anyone knows
from beginning to end, from the start to the close,
because Z is as far as the alphabet goes."
Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
when I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more.
A letter he had never dreamed of before.
And I said, "You can stop if you want with the Z,
and most people stop with the Z, but not me.
In the places I go, there are things that I see
that I never could spell if I stopped with a Z.
"I'm telling you this 'cause you're one of my friends,
my alphabet starts where your alphabet ends.
My alphabet starts with this letter called yezz,
it's the letter I use to spell yezzametezz.
You'll be sort of surprised what there is to be found,
once you go beyond Z and start poking around.
So on beyond zebra explore like Columbus,
discover new letters like wum, which is for wumbus,
my high-spouting whale who lives high on a hill
and who never comes down till it's time to refill.
So on beyond Z, it's high time you were shown
that you really don't know all there is to be known.
And if you want to hear the rest of it through,
see me afterward, and I'll arrange a private reading for
you."

         This is the joy, the adventure, the risk, and the triumph of faith – that it moves beyond Zebra.  The Christian’s alphabet begins where that of the world ends.  It moves on beyond what can be known by sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.  It moves on beyond what can be understood fully by the light of our own understanding, reason, and logic.  In this upcoming year, let us strive to move on beyond Zebra.  Let us trust without reservation the God who gave us Jesus, to face the mystery together.

 

12-24-15  God’s Pin-Drop Moments -- Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20
Theme:  God is constantly doing huge things in quiet ways – as demonstrated by the birth of Jesus.  But those quiet greatnesses happen all the time – to experience this means to quiet down our loud realities enough to hear what God is saying, what God is doing. 

         I recently read a story about a pastor who was taking his family – his wife and two small children -- to the Christmas eve candlelight service he was about to lead.  On their way, the son asked his father a question:  “Dad, are you going to let us enjoy this Christmas this year, or are you going to try to explain it to everybody?"
         That story reminds me of the danger of this moment – when we might miss the significance of the birth of Christ by either trying to explain it to death, or that we treat it as a rather commonplace holiday to get through as quickly as possible.
         A man once applied for a job.  He assembled his resume, lined up his references, and sent them off to the firm he wished to work for.  He was sure he would receive the job, for he had 22 years’ experience in similar work.  After a couple of weeks, he received a letter from the firm; the job had been given to someone else.
         The man was livid.  He would not leave it alone.  He went to the firm, and demanded to see the president of the company.  As it turns out, the president was in, and was free at that moment.  So the man was ushered into the president's office; he aired his complaint.
         "I want to know why you didn't hire me," said the man.  "There can't be many people in this world with 22 years of experience, like I have."
         The president nodded his head.  "Yes, that was in your resume.  But I researched your qualifications, and I checked with your references.  Eventually, something became clear to me.  You say you have 22 years experience, but I believe that you have one year of experience repeated 22 times."
         Sometimes, I wonder if our experiences of Christmas are like this – that we have seen many Christmases come and go, but simply repeat the same experience over and over.  Christmas trees and presents; gatherings and good cheer; candlelight services and caroling.  All well and good, unless we are performing these acts without the heart embracing the truth behind it all, a truth that is meant to be anything but routine, anything but normal, anything but completely understood.
         God became flesh.  God made himself known to us directly.  And, God continues to do so, today and everyday, with us.
         Christmas is the opportunity to allow the heart to connect with the gift of Jesus on the level of the profoundly normal.  One might think that the Lord of the universe, the creator of all things, would choose to shock the world with this message in an explosive revelation dazzling the eyes of history and stunning the collective mind.  But God did no such thing.  God entered the world – quietly, unobtrusively, in the obscurity and scandal of poverty.  What does this say about the nature of God except that God’s ultimacy does not preclude his propensity for the lowest state of human condition – in other words, GOD LIVES IN THE EXTREMES OF HUMANITY.  God lives in each of our extremes; from the ultimate power to create the universe, to the quietness of the manger birth, the message is clear – God is accessible to all. 
         Why, though, this quietness that expressed God’s greatest gift?  Why this humble birth, this quiet beginning, of God’s direct communication of truth?
         I once came upon a sermon written by a former pastor.  It looked kind of like my sermon notes – all typed out, but gone over with a pen, marking important words and ideas in the margin, underlining certain passages to emphasize.  I noticed in the margins that this preacher had put other kinds of notes as well – “quiet prayerfulness” in one place, “loud emphasis” in another place, “look at the congregation” in another.  But one note really caught my attention.  It was about halfway through the sermon, and an entire paragraph was circled with this note in the margin – “Point is weak here; shout louder!”
         Often times, the more important we think something is, the louder we shout.  But consider that the opposite does not follow necessarily at all.  The louder we shout does not make something more important.  More noticed, better heard, more noted, perhaps, but not more important.  It oddly makes me think of the present day status of politics, where there seems to be a lot of shouting going on, but is this evidence of significance, or only competition?
The importance of something must rest inside itself; no amount of shouting in the world will increase its significance; it can only bring what is already there to light.
         Now, let us consider the workings of God.  Consider the whole of God’s revelation in Christ.  This was not a shout, but more of a whisper.
A hushed scene, with Joseph wanting to keep things quiet, divorcing Mary so that there might be no public disgrace.  After all, he was not the father of this child.
A quiet setting, far from any metropolis, any great center of power; a quiet village of Bethlehem, a nowhere place filled with nowhere people; no neon signs, no popular figures, no rock stars or Hollywood personalities.
A silent communication, in dream to Joseph, setting forth the agenda of God through the voice of an angel; words for no one else to hear, spoken only to Joseph’s heart and mind.
         These are quiet things, humble things, ponderous things.  It leaves us asking the question, Why didn’t God shout?  Why such quiet, humble beginnings?  And then, why does God continue to speak often in the still, small voice?  I believe it’s because the world does so much shouting, it pays deeper attention to what is whispered.  The truth, if it is the truth, is much better received through the intimacy of love (a quiet and profound thing), than through the blatancy of force (an aggressive and pushy thing).
         Into this scene of the world intrudes God’s small, quiet, pin-drop moment that demonstrates the better way of love.  Into this world intrudes a message, not of shouting, but of silence, a silence able to be heard by all.  Love is the language of God, a language which will not be lost in translation, due to the insistence of God that we should know Him directly.  Our response is left up to each one of us.
         Sshhh.  Listen.  God is speaking.  Let us hear what He is saying.

 

12-20-15  Shocking World Events  Scripture:  Luke 1:39-45
Theme:  The news of the world is constantly biased towards darkness, for that is often where our attention is aimed.  But the news that came to the world taught us that we can aim differently, if we allow God to affect us.  This is the incarnation of God in Jesus – God’s invitation to choose to be affected by a living, caring, invested God.

Have you been keeping up with the news lately?
From yesterday’s headlines:

Can I tell you some more shocking news, that is, new that is even more shocking?

Why on earth would I call these last news items even more shocking news?  BECAUSE THEY AFFECTED ME PERSONALLY.  These events happened in my life, impacted my days directly, and caused me to change my direction in life.  Not always drastically.  But personally.  And, yes, I will survive.
We are creatures inundated by news of two kinds – that which affects us personally, and that which does not.  Much of the news in today’s world is shocking, hard, painful, and traumatic – but does not affect us personally.  We may indeed feel sympathy or outrage, but for much of the news of the world, our personal lives are not directly affected.

Unless we let it affect us.  Then, it becomes personal.

I believe this is the message we see in both Elizabeth and Mary when they received the shocking news about God’s plan.  Things have become personal.  Elizabeth has embraced the unlikely reality that God is doing something in her life that will have consequences beyond her ability to grasp.  But she grasps God, and allows God’s will to live in and through her.  We see the same thing in Mary, who has heard from the angel, who has felt the stirring in her body, who has little grasp of how these things have come to pass, but has accepted that they have, and has embraced the movement of God in her life.  Elizabeth puts it in words that may sound antiquated, but are quite profound:  “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Perhaps the present-day way to understand this might be this:  “Blessed are they who believe in the news from God.”  Even if it goes against the news of the day.  Especially if it goes against the news of the day, when the news of the day is dark, hopeless, violent, and mournful.  “Blessed are they who believe in the good news from God.”  Blessed are they who allow God to affect their thinking and their living.  Blessed are they who allow God to affect their personal lives.  And especially, blessed are they who allow the hope of God to affect their lives.
The birth of Jesus is nothing less than the realization of God’s hope for the world.  We mattered enough to God that he sent us his Son, to give us hope beyond ourselves, so that life could become more of what it was meant to be, what it should be.  This is personal; this hope is about us, each one of us.  Hope is a leading emotion, a leading thought, in that it can motivate us towards something better that otherwise would be missed, or would perhaps not exist at all.  Hope is essential for life beyond mere existence.
I remember reading about a situation that described the power of hope for life.  There was once a school system in a large city that had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now," the regular teacher said, "and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind." 
The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much. 
But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. "You don't know what I mean. We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live." 
Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?" 
Hope leads life – and allowing hope to affect us leads to life, sometimes physical life, but also progressive life, promising life, productive life that includes health and wholeness.  We need the leading of hope to improve ourselves and our world as God desires – away from despair and toward joy, away from hatred and toward love, away from oppression and towards justice.  The hope of God represented in Jesus is meant to lead our lives in these ways.

Something like this came up in a meeting I attended this week.  I was in a room full of nervous people.  It was a roomful, probably twenty clergy, professors, and community leaders.  We were called together as leaders within our community to address a growing tension here in Missoula.  That tension is Islamophobia, the rising fear and even hatred of Muslims.  It is no wonder why this is happening, with very questionable comments being projected through political maneuvering, media commentary, and emotional dialogue.  As the meeting began, several persons recounted the actual incidents of confrontation, threat, and rhetoric that have occurred, many on the university campus.  The group looking into the possibility of resettling refugees (by the way, not only from Syria, but from around the world) in Missoula is called Soft Landings; the members of their board have received several death threats in the past few weeks.  There was good reason to be nervous.
But as the meeting progressed, I noticed that the nervousness gave way; it was replaced with hope.  Ideas about how to educate people about the issue were brought up; we discussed a rally in which interfaith solidarity might be expressed; we discussed the creation of safe spaces for those who might be targeted by prejudice; we talked about training leaders and community groups in how to respectfully enter into dialogue with those who were antagonistic, afraid, or uninformed about the Muslim faith.  The nervousness was changed, because we were allowing ourselves to be affected by hope.  Hope was bigger than the threats received; hope was bigger than the intimidation in the air; hope provided the energy for the next steps, even if the next steps were uncertain. 

Blessed are they who allow themselves to be affected by hope.

For the Christian, Jesus is God’s statement of hope.  Hope for the world; hope for each one of us.  Hope that God is not done with the world yet.  Hope that God can use any and all of us to further the goodness God desires.  Hope that comes alive once we allow ourselves to be affected by Jesus.
In this Christmas season, it is my prayer that we each go beyond the simple retelling of the story of the birth of Jesus; I pray that we each allow that story of ultimate hope to affect our lives.  I pray that we look for the miraculous in the ordinary; I pray that we search for and discover the guidance God continually provides; and I pray that we more intentionally allow God to work in our lives, that Christ may live more and more through us.  May Christ be reborn – in us!  Amen.

 

12-13-15  The Hardest Gifts to Give  Scripture: Luke 3:7-18
Theme:  This is the season of gift-giving – which ushers in all sorts of counter-messages to the season.  Why we give must come before what we give if any meaning is to be conveyed.  John the Baptist reminds us of our motivation to share whatever we share in this life – to live authentically in God’s eyes.

         Several years ago, when my children were quite small, there came a day when I was picking up my children from school.  I was waiting outside of the school doors for the bell to ring.  If any of you have ever stood outside of a school doorway at the end of the school day, you know that it is a dangerous place, for once that bell rings, a kind of benevolent chaos ensues.  The children burst forth from the school, free to go home, and relishing in it. 
But there is another kind of danger – the form that happens every now and then to probably every parent who waits for their child outside.  During that chaos, a teacher may approach a parent, to tell them some news about their child.   I’ve heard such news given to other parents; I’ve received such news myself, about my own children.  Often, the news is not good.
On this particular day, I found myself being approached by one of my children’s teachers.  It was my seven-year-old son’s teacher.  A teacher I had spoken to before.  About behavior problems.  About attention problems.  About speaking out of turn in class.  I tried as hard as I could to read the expression on her face before she opened her mouth, but I couldn’t tell what was coming.  “Mr. Daniels?” she asked.  “Yes” I said.  “I need to tell you something about Ethan,” she said.  My heart sank.  Bad news.  It had to be.  I prepared myself.
“What happened?” I asked with a trace of panic in my voice.  And she told me.  “Well, I wanted to let you know what happened today.  It was time to have a treat.  Our treat today was chocolate.  All the kids were eating, when I noticed that Ethan and another child were sitting together, concerned over something.  This caught my attention, so I moved closer.  It seems that the other child had no chocolate; somehow he had been missed.  And I watched as Ethan gave this child his chocolate, without being asked.  He made that other child’s day.”
My heart melted.  And if you know my son, even my family, like I do, you know that giving away a chocolate meant for ourselves is no small thing.  Especially for my small son.  But he demonstrated, in that small gesture, a very big thing.
Often, the hardest gifts to give make the greatest difference.
This is an extremely relevant message for us today given that this season has become largely about the giving of gifts.  We spend an amazing amount of time and money strategizing the perfect gifts for all concerned – but sometimes fail to reflect upon the reasons for our giving.   We give because it is expected, we give to impress, we give in competition, we give because they gave to us last year – when we know that the real purpose behind the gifts we share is to demonstrate that we love, we cherish, and we appreciate those in our lives.  It is the motivation behind our giving that matters much more than the gifts themselves; sometimes we forget this.
In our scripture lesson today, John the Baptist is asked how a person can live a life worthy of God.  John’s response was to encourage people in the sharing of their gifts with others:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise;”  to the tax collectors who asked him how they might live lives worthy of God, John says “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To soldiers he says “do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
         In these examples, I don’t think John is really speaking about coats, food, or money.  I think John is speaking more about the motivation behind such gifts – the motivations of compassion, generosity, and fairness.  These are the gifts behind the gifts, the real substance of the transaction.  What the person cold from the weather needs more than a warm coat is the warm attention of someone who cares.  What the person hungry from lack of food needs more than something to eat is the generosity of someone who shares.  What every person needs is fair treatment and balanced responsibility from the society of which they are a part.
         Compassion, generosity, and fairness.  These are harder gifts to give.  But there are harder ones, still.  Ones advocated by John the Baptist.  Ones introduced by Christ.  Ones promoted by God.
         And look – they just happen to be under the tree!  Let’s see what’s inside:

  1. Time (patience; attention) – in today’s world, one of the hardest gifts to give to someone else is our time.  I remember a meeting I had awhile back with an individual; we were going to talk about some important things, things we needed to be fully attentive to, things which needed focus in our time together.  Immediately, I recognized that such was not to be the case, for this individual pulled out an attention-splitter, turned it on, and placed it on the table.  Now, an attention-splitter is a device that splits attention between two or more entities.  Do you know what an attention-splitter is otherwise known as?  A cell phone.  This person had placed his cell phone on the table because he was worried about missing something – I felt like he was missing what was directly in front of him, in terms of my willingness to engage my full attention to our issue.  I did not have the same returned to me, which became clear as he stopped and checked his phone every few minutes.  We didn’t get a lot accomplished.  Giving someone our partial attention can say that we think they partially matter; giving someone our full attention says we think they fully matter.  Giving our full attention, giving our time to another – this is a hard gift to give nowadays.
  2. Respect for differences (agreeing to disagree) – Have you noticed that the political rhetoric is gaining momentum?  And how, in certain spheres, respect for differences is going out the window?  Now I won’t mention any names, such as Donald Trump, but certain persons are sounding quite prejudiced against entire segments of the human population, evoking stereotypes and raising fear to the level of the absurd.  Yes, there is something to fear – that we fail to appreciate and respect the diversity of our world, of God’s world, and the many forms that faith, culture, race, gender, politics, and tradition take, most of which can be maligned into dark purposes, but most of which are centered on how to live healthy, productive lives in a global reality.  There must be more weight given to a respectful dialogue and constructive engagement of differences than given to the outright condemnation and labeling that comes from fear’s blindness.  Respect for differences can be a hard gift to share.
  3. Forgiveness – here is a very difficult gift to give, made more difficult with the degree of the trespass.  And yet, there are few gifts more powerful in the lives of both the forgiver and the forgiven when it is real.  Corrie Ten Boom was a Christian who hid Jews in her home during World War II.  She and her family were discovered, and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for punishment.  Her family died; she survived.  Here is her story in her words:

“It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, that even here, especially here, forgiveness is needed to move forward in life.
The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.  One of the guards from Ravensbruck.  He did not remember me, but I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

These are just some of the hardest gifts to give; there are many others (Tolerance; Acceptance; Unconditional Love; Honesty; Praise; Non-Judgment; The Benefit of the Doubt; Full Attention; A Bitten Tongue; Someone Else Credit; Patience; Apology; Time; Respect for Differences; Forgiveness;)
  They are all hard gifts to share because they require something we have great trouble in giving consistently and authentically – they require personal sacrifice.  They take something from us, whether it be our valuable time, our carefully honed image, or our sense of being right.
         But they give life, to others and to ourselves.  Our greatest example is Jesus himself, the reality of God that was sent to the world, that personal sacrifice that made all things possible.
         Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. "The only true gift is a portion of thyself."  Let us seek to give the harder gifts this season.  Let us seek to give a portion of ourselves to our friends, to our family, to our enemies, to the stranger, to the refugee, to the outcast, to the oppressed, to the misunderstood, to the ones who need what we have to offer the most.

12/6/2015 - Children's Christmas Pageant (no sermon)

11/29/15  Leading, Following, or Getting Out of the Way  Scripture:  Luke 21:25-36
Theme:  Re-aligning ourselves with the birth of Christ means to not only remember, but to reflect, upon God’s revelation.  We go back to go forward in this manner, that we may be future-oriented beings, built upon the foundation of the expectant hope Christ was all about.  Christmas re-introduces this truth – about our need for, and God’s offer of, redemption.

I have a strange question to ask you this morning.  How many of you have a clock radio that you use to wake up in the morning?  It’s a pretty common device in many households; we have several in our home. 
A couple of months ago, I was staying in a motel for a week of clergy meetings in Bozeman.  My motel room had a clock radio that I made sure was set to the time I needed to get up in the morning.  Just like the ones we have at home, there was a choice between “music” or “alarm.”  At home, we almost always move that setting to “music,” and make sure it’s aligned with our favorite station.  The alarm setting is very obnoxious, with a sharp buzz that jolts one out of slumber.  So, on that motel clock radio, I found what seemed like a good station, playing jazz or something, place the setting to “music”, and went to sleep, ready to wake up at 7am.  I awoke to a very pleasant melody playing on the radio, which had as it’s morning program of very soft music.  I felt very rested, until I discovered it was 9am; I think I had been lulled back to sleep, and I had missed my first meeting of the morning, at which I was to make a presentation!
Who doesn’t prefer the “music” setting to the “alarm” setting?  Awaking to music is so much more soothing, so much softer, so much more comforting – and yet, one might not awaken, or awaken fully, to the call of the day.  Awaking to a loud and obnoxious alarm can be abrupt and stressful – but perhaps more certain to do the job, and have one more prepared for the day.
Today is the first day of Advent.  Advent is the season that looks forward to the birth of Christ.  The music of this season is the fond remembrance of that birth – calling to mind the proclamation of the angels, the approach of the wise men, the shepherds in the field, the star overhead, the manger scene with Mary and Joseph, a donkey, a calf or two, and a lot of hay.  And of course the small miracle who is the center of it all, the baby Jesus.  Our hearts are easily warmed by such melodic remembrance.
But today, we receive an alarm of sorts, in the form of our scripture lesson.  We hear of no manger, no holy family, no wise men or shepherds or angels.  We hear, instead, of the coming “distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
That’s no soothing tune!   That is an alarm, full of tension, angst, and fear.  It is meant to awaken the faithful to the future with a jolt.  The theme of the first Sunday in Advent is Preparation or Hope; some traditions have the theme down as Expectation or Anticipation.  In general, the First Sunday of Advent is meant to ask a future oriented question:  WHAT IS COMING?  Often, this is translated in such a manner to speak to the coming of Christmas day, to make sure we are remembering the story of the birth of Jesus -- but this is only a part of the understanding.  In a sense, we are to look back in remembrance not only of the events but the purpose behind those events; the purpose God had in sending Jesus to the world.
          And, just what is God’s purpose?  In today’s lesson, Jesus tells us to  “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day of redemption does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap….Be alert at all times.”

“Be alert at all times.” There is the statement.  But, a question follows:  what does it mean for a Christian to be alert at all times?

I get a question quite often that brings this issue to focus.  The question I get is usually put this way  – “pastor John, things are so bad right now, with the violence and terrorism and breaking up of families and cancer; do you think the end of the world is coming?”  My answer is, indeed, yes.  The end of the world is coming.  It could happen today.  It could happen tomorrow.  And it is just as likely that it will happen in 7.5 billion years, as scientists predict, when our sun will enter its death throes.   In other words, it can happen anytime.  This is not meant to raise anxiety, but to check reality, to make sure we are making the most of the time we have right here and now.
I read about a notice that appears in the window of a coat store in Nottingham, England: It says -- "We have been established for over 100 years and have been pleasing and displeasing customers ever since. We have made money and lost money, suffered the effects of coal nationalization, coat rationing, government control and bad payers. We have been cussed and discussed, messed about, lied to, held up, robbed and swindled. The only reason we stay in business is to see what happens next."

I think Jesus is telling us something incredibly powerful, incredibly helpful that should make us ready and willing to see what happens next, and it is this  – IF WE ARE PREPARED, IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE WHEN THE END OF THE WORLD WILL HAPPEN.  The source of our fear is not so much that we won’t know when the end is coming – the source of our fear is that we won’t be prepared in an eternal sense, in a sense that trusts in God’s provision far beyond the known universe and its discontinuance.  The source of our fear is that we feel we are not prepared for the end.
But God has made it possible for us to be ready for anything that may come, even the end of the world, by giving us a continually renewed beginning in Christ.  This is the real meaning of Christ’s birth – a message of life meant for all who live which prepares all who live for anything that may come.
What does it mean, though, to really be prepared for anything, including the end of the world?  What does it look like to live a life so faithful, so God-centered, as to remove all fear of what may come?
           Some years ago, a young man who wanted to change his life went into a church and sat down in the sanctuary.   He took out a piece of paper and a pencil and began writing down a long list of things that he promised he would do to change his life — a whole page of things — and he signed his name at the bottom. He then took the paper up and placed it on the altar, and sat down again in the sanctuary.
As he was sitting there, however, he began to sense the voice of God speaking softly in his own soul. And the more he listened to it, the more he heard the voice of God saying something clearly to him.  The voice said, “My son, you’ve done it all wrong. I want you to go back up there and get the piece of paper and tear it up. And then I’ll give you another instruction.”
So, the young man got out of his pew and walked up to the altar; he did as the Lord told him.  He then went back to sit down in the pew and waited for the Lord to instruct him.   After awhile, a message came through.   The Lord said to him, very gently, “Take another piece of paper and sign your name to it at the bottom; let me fill in all the rest.”
To be prepared is to allow God to fill in the rest, to set the standards for our living and our believing, to be the first question in our minds and the last thought in our hearts.  To be prepared is to know God as the reason for all that is, and all that we each are.  Christ came for this purpose – to prepare us to live fully and rightly as determined by God.  May we understand the birth of Jesus as the preparation we each need to face any future.

 

7-6-14 - A Final Word from the District Superintendent

Scripture:  Colossians 1:1-14
Theme:  The DS has some insights on the new pastor appointed under his watch – and there are concerns!  But not if we remember what God has said to us consistently, constantly, as reflected in today’s scripture – we share in the inheritance of the saints in the light; we are given the opportunities to grow in the knowledge of God; and God is with us every step of the way. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-XElA0vVI98c/UDUjEPHYqzI/AAAAAAAAuQQ/tg42yGZ4X3k/s1600/harley_davidson_2013_breakout_cvo_in_pagan_gold_paint_marks_110th_anniversary_up5af.jpg

Recently, I made a request of our Bishop Elaine Stanovsky – that she would grant an extension to the position of Western Mountains District Superintendent until 10:30am, July 6th, 2014.  She graciously extended that privilege, and so I stand here before you as the Western Mountains District Superintendent for the next 25 minutes.  I felt this was an important request to make, for as District Superintendent overseeing the new appointment to this church, the First United Methodist Church of Missoula, Montana, I needed to raise up to your awareness some things about your newly appointed pastor.  I am uniquely qualified to make commentary, I believe, for I know this new pastor fairly well – we talk on a regular basis, and have done so for over 40 years.  Let me put it to you directly – there are some things you really ought to know about him. Read more of the message

 

First United Methodist Church of Missoula / Kay Duffield, Webmaster (hart2u2@yahoo.com)