Ephesians 1:3-14 A Call to Love in Troubled Times

 

   
 As I sit at my desk, writing this blog entry; I look out the window to see beautiful clear blue skies and shriveled near dead brown grass. What a shame. The need for rain is at the forefront of most people’s minds with whom I speak. I spoke with a couple people this week who recalled the depression, others with whom I spoke recalled the drought of 1988. This is certainly a troubling summer. The anxiety which this drought is causing is only exaggerated by the uncertainty of the times in which we live. 
Normally in such times, many people have turned to God and their elders; but here we may find ourselves struggling as well. Church membership and attendance is down. At the most recent General Conference it was reported that the average United Methodist is 58 years old. Churches no longer filled with children in Sunday School are filled instead with memories and worry. As we face this fact, we are forced to recognize that the church of yesteryear is no more. We are called by God and add campaigns to “ReThink Church”….but where do we begin?

As a nation, we are grieving as we watch members of what was dubbed by Tom Brokaw “the Greatest Generation” die. These are people who remember the Great Depression, lived through World War II and worked to rebuild the nation into the country that it is today. They have guided us and our parents (or are perhaps our parents). As much as we grieve them individually as they pass, we grieve something else as well: an idea. This generation represents a link to a distant past, a different time. They stand in the American consciousness like a mighty oak: a symbol of strength, wisdom and endurance. When members who were a part of this generation in my church die, I often witness others shaking their heads, asking “What will become of us when this generation is gone”. It is the end of an era.

With all this uncertainty it is no wonder that tensions, in the church and in the nation are high. We are faced with mounting problems. Old solutions aren’t working. So we lash out like a scared and hurt animal- because that is what we are. As we look to the fall and the coming election, I confess I am filled with dread. Yes, I worry deeply about what the results of the election will be when votes are tallied, but I worry as well about the cost of the election- not the financial cost (which will be unimaginably huge) but the psychological and spiritual cost of the fighting which has already begun. 

This Sunday, many churches which follow the Revised Common Lectionary will begin a study of Ephesians. As I reviewed and studied “Ephesians”, I was struck by the ways this ancient text sympathizes with and speaks to our troubled times. This letter, which most likely circulated amongst a number of churches was written after the fall of the temple in 70 AD. The destruction of the temple forced many religious communities to re-think the ways they practiced their faith, and who held religious authority. They were plunged into confusion and uncertainty. Compounding the struggle with a changing religious life was the death of a generation. At the time that this letter was written and circulated, Paul had most likely been executed. The other apostles, those followers of Jesus who walked, talked and learned with him; and who subsequently founded many of the first churches were dying. Faced with new questions and problems, the early church struggled to know where to turn. All too often they chose to turn against one another. 

Confronted with all of the frustrations of their day, the author of Ephesians opens with magnificent praise for the God of heaven and earth. We, the readers are assured that we have a God who is not removed from our problems but who instead is at work for us. Before the beginning of time, God made a plan. That plan is not broken economies, destroyed temples, failed crops or oppression. The writer explains, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:3-14 Common English Bible). This is a plan rooted in love and advanced through grace. God has set aside an inheritance for us. 
Inheritance is given based on who a person is not what they do, we are given this inheritance not because we have always made good choices but because we are a part of God’s creation, because we are God’s children and because we are loved. God has planned this inheritance, saving it and setting it aside for each one of us. Though it is given to us it is not ours, for it was first God’s. We, as God’s benefactors have a choice: we can squander that inheritance or we can use it to honor God by participating in God’s plan. 

The writer explains that God’s design for creation is not something simply of another, heavenly realm. God’s has plans this world, this earth. God plans to see this world reconciled with one another and with God. Because of this, as we approach this election we are called to care for all God’s people and all of the issues that effect them. We are invited to labor in love and make wise decisions based not in malice but in the love God has for each of us. I know that as we near the election, my blood will at times boil. I will be filled with indignation and anger. But as hard as it may be somedays, I am not the only inheritor of God’s love and grace. I am not the only person that God blessed, chose and adopted. Indeed all of us, rich or poor, republican or democrat, of every race, gender, sexual orientation and nationality have been blessed, chosen and adopted by God. So let us then go forth endeavoring to treat one another through our words and  actions with the respect due to a child of God.

 
The Greatest Independence Day, Yet!

My first summer as a pastor in Pontiac, I saw a sight that just tore me into pieces.  A local church had a float in the parade with soldiers holding weapons and a cross painted as or wrapped in the flag.  Why was that troubling?  Well, in my opinion, too much nationalism can be a dangerous thing when it obscures God’s message or when it is put above God’s Word.

I am a patriot.  Absolutely.  I love that I live in this country and I want the best for this country and everyone in it…but I firmly believe that we can not let that obscure that God is above any flag and loves the people under every flag!

God is above any flag and loves the people under every flag!

The message that I read in scripture is that God loves the world and wants the best for everyone in it, not just the United States.  In fact, in history it is the times when nationalism is put above the Word of God that people are hurt.  When the Hebrew people came into the land of Caanan with more nationalism and sense of entitlement than grace of God they slaughtered everyone and took the land by force.  When Europeans put nationalism and a sense of entitlement before God’s grace a native people were ravaged, their people killed, and cultures nearly wiped out.  When Medieval religious zealots put nationalism and a sense of entitlement before God’s grace a long terrible series of “Holy” Crusades tore apart Palestine and Europe and destroyed Muslim, Christian, and Jew, alike.  If you haven’t put it together on your own, let me point out what I see:  In each of these cases (and there are many more examples) religious rhetoric was used to mask what was clearly done out of a sense of selfishness, greed, and national/cultural/ethno-centrism.  Put another way?  Nationalism and a sense of entitlement were put above God’s Word and God’s apparent desires!

So, when I come to each Fourth of July I do feel pride in our nation and I do feel patriotism…but it also reminds me that we are one nation among many and we cannot forget our place and our greatness.  Our greatness stands under God’s and our needs and desires, while important, are not more important than others.  So we can and should love our nation and support our olympians, teams, and troops…but we should do so remembering that we do not have to diminish others or God in order to feel love for our own nation and our actions as a country are not necessarily righteous.

I write this blog out of a love for this nation and because I truly hope for greatness from our country.  I believe there are great things about this country and I believe greater things are possible for us and by us…if we can focus on the sacred worth of all people and ensure that the dignity of all people is upheld…if we look to the ‘least of these’ to provide love, health, hospitality, witness, and safety…if we find creative new ways to work toward peace and God’s-justice in the world!

I am a patriot, but some of the patriotic rhetoric and imagery that confuses nationalism with religion frightens me.  Let us consider, this Fourth of July, the greatness of this nation, but also God’s work we must accomplish to make it ever greater and more grace-filled.  On this Fourth of July let us remember that our forefathers were working to find new forms of freedom and find a more perfect government…and that work, in the history of America, is an unfolding one!!!  May this be the greatest Independence Day yet as we imagine not just an already-great nation, but an even greater nation under God.

blessings this Fourth of July!

Resurrection & New Life: God At Work


Meet Andrew Mortonson





My guest blogger, today, is Andrew Mortonson.  He is a member of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin and is active at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign (UIUC) where he will (in August) finish his Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering.  …And I am really proud of Andrew’s most recent announcement:  He has already gotten a job with Rolls-Royce as an Engineering Associate after graduation!






Beginning to See God at Work



Today’s Scripture:  Luke 24:45-49


There was always a plan – a reason, a goal for tomorrow. I had always known the next step in life and was always fully prepared to take it. I had a stable family, good education, and a loving church home. I knew where I would go to college since before I started high school, and there was never really any question I would get in. I was blessed in many ways as a child. 


I grew up in the church, and for a large part, my faith was always laid out before me. Unlike many of the other kids my age at church, I learned and grew in my faith and continued being an active participant after confirmation. Being an active Christian wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do, but in a Christian community like Green Bay, you never are really challenged in your faith. I often found myself in more discussions with other denominations, especially Catholics. 

When I went to college, I moved into a fraternity, and most of my influences were anything but Godly. I continued to succeed in school, but I felt incomplete and often alone. The summer after my freshman year, people from my home church asked me if I had found a new church to serve at school. When I admitted I hadn’t, they often encouraged me too look, or gave suggestions. I agreed that I would look at the Wesley foundation on campus, partly just to keep people off my back. I fortunately found a new home and gained many new supportive friends.

For the next two years, I felt like I knew where I belonged. While I occasionally struggled with friends and classes, I knew that God was providing for me. However, in my senior year, that feeling began to fade. I thought I had lost God’s call; I wasn’t really sure what my future path should be. I graduated college with Honors, but like far too many people that year, I had no job, and returned to live at home. Once again, I felt very much alone. Even though I was living with my family and had many loving people around me, I was completely lost.

I can understand what the Disciples must have felt around the crucifixion. Only a week before, they entered with Jesus triumphantly into Jerusalem. Going to serve with Jesus was not easy, but I’m sure after a while, they all felt like they were where they belonged. Only a few days later, they were lost, and felt very much alone. 

My story did not turn around in just three days, yet I know that even in those times, God was working in my life. I began to get involved in the praise band at my home church, and the other members often helped remind me that I was not alone. But the real point where I began to see God working was when one of the women in the church came up to me and started asking me details about my life. She knew that I had been looking for a job, and she wanted to know what kind of job, and what I was interested in. Then she told me that she needed to know all of this so she could properly pray for me. She prayed with me, and hugged me and promised me that her prayer group would continue to keep me in her prayers. 

It was about this time that things started to turn around. I applied to grad school and began to attend that fall. Through the two years that I have been studying, I only recently was assured funding for the remainder of my program, but I trusted wholly in God. Within a few months of returning to school, I began dating the woman who became my fiancée, and now within the last week, I was offered a job after graduation. Almost exactly the position I had wanted three years earlier. 

After Jesus arose on Easter, the Disciples went on to spread the gospel throughout the world. But they needed fellowship and support from other believers, and to fully place their trust in Jesus. In the same way, I could not be where I am today without the prayers of family and friends and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even more, I know that I can impact the lives of others simply through words of prayer and support. At our lowest points, the promise of God’s perfect grace, through the resurrection, allows us to put all of our faith in Him. In Luke 24, Jesus appeared before the disciples who had gathered after the crucifixion. 

“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’” Luke 24:45-49 (NIV)




**top image found at:  http://imlivinginadream.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/on-101-goals/
**image of Andrew Mortonson found on his Facebook.

Resurrection & New Life: God’s Word Is Yes!

Meet Rev. Cindy Watson

Rev. Cindy Watson is the senior pastor at West Heights United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas.  She has served in the Kansas West conference for almost 30 years and is a graduate of St. Paul School of Theology.  She is the vice chair of Inter-Faith Ministries in Wichita and I met her as we have served together on the General Commission of Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns of the United Methodist Church.  It is good to call her a friend and welcome her to be my guest blogger today!







God’s Word Is Yes!

A few years ago there was slogan, “love is not a feeling, love is a decision”.  The whole push behind the slogan was an understanding that love takes commitment and dedication.   Falling in and out of love was easy, staying in love was a way of life that lead one to stay the course and see what a long term commitment could mean in terms of the depth of one’s relationship and life.
For Christians, Easter is the same thing  Easter is not a feeling on one Sunday a year, it is a commitment to a moment, an experience, a season.  For the early Christians Easter became a moment and a promise the end was near and the reign of God was coming.  As the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years and the years into decades, believers had to re-imagine what Easter meant for them and for the life of the Church.
Each person who embraces the Christian faith has to come to terms with Easter.  Christmas is easy.  Who doesn’t understand the birth of a baby.  Easter, though, requires a walk through the deep ugliest humanity offers: betrayal, lies, false arrests and capital punishment.  While it is not hard to admire Jesus facing all that hatred, intolerance  and ugliness with grace, forgiveness and love, Good Friday places him in the tomb and the hope and promise of a new day seems to die with him.
Easter is a testament to God’s unwillingness to allow evil, hatred, death and intolerance to have the last word.  God’s word is Yes.  God’s word is Life!  God’s word is Love.  God’s word is Grace!   Easter can not be celebrated in a day or even a season.  Easter invites a commitment to Christ as a way of life, as a way of loving and a way of affirming that despite everything to the contrary, Good will destroy evil, Love wins over hatred and God in Christ will bring all creation into a time of peace, grace and justice.  Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen indeed!


** “Christ is Risen” top image from:  http://bromattisafoth.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/let-the-alleluias-ring-christ-has-risen/
**Picture of Cindy Watson taken by Scott Carnes, from his archives
Weighing In.

Some of you know that Carrie and I joined Weight Watchers last November.  A lot of people seemed confused about it.  They asked why I would need to diet…well, I was overweight!  Yup, my poor eating habits and lack of exercising were slowly but surely catching up to me in a big way and I wanted to make a change.  Okay, I should be honest: my wife wanted to make a change for herself and she insisted that I do the program with her.  Either way, it was the best decision of my life.  With diet and exercise I have hit the middle of my “healthy weight” range, my doctors are happy, and I feel great.  This isn’t just an issue of vanity.  My growing body and bad cholesterol numbers were a symptom of a mistreated body.

This didn’t happen suddenly.  I gained the weight slowly, over time, and when something (like weight change) happens slowly we don’t realize how bad it is getting.  The other thing with being overweight is that we live in America and it is mirrored by many people around us.  In fact, we were less-overweight than many of the people around us.  When we are surrounded by a problem, like obesity, it is easy to feel a false sense of security.  It is easy to feel as though this is “the norm” and so it is okay.

I say all of this, not as a guilt trip.  Lord knows I, of all people, can’t fault anyone for craving pie and over-eating.  I have done plenty of that!  No, I bring this up because my recent experience with weight loss helped me to realize that I had ignored a problem (my weight) because it was all around me (in Wisconsin, at seminary, and now in Pontiac) and it happened slowly over time (I used to be a skinny high school kid, you know).  Eating the way I ate and saying that I was ‘too busy’ to exercise was normative and, yet, I should have been appalled.  I bring this story to you, because it seems to be me that our weight and health are not the only problems that are like this for us.

I think about first about poverty.  It isn’t an easy issue to tackle and lack-of-money, like being overweight, is a symptom of so many underlying causes.  It is ever-present and seems to be an overwhelming issue to tackle.

I think about racism in early America.  People looked at slaves, and, later, freed black people, and because the oppression had grown steadily and because it was so prevalent, it seemed like it was and should be the normal order of things.

I think about civil rights that began to find footing during the middle part of this past century.  Of course, it broke forth suddenly in the sixties, but since then we have struggled as a nation with our racism.  What we fail to see, far too often, is that the racism exists still today, in fact, especially today: Because racism is passed from generation to generation, it is often less overt, and because it is deeply cultural, it is easy to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore when we really should be horrified by it.

I think about genocides that have occurred in places like Rwanda.  It seemed so distant and Americans tended, at the time, to ignore the horrendous crimes against humanity that were being perpetrated because it was so far away, it was happening to “other” people, and, when it was finally shown in the media, it was made “tv-friendly.”  We should have been appalled, but somehow we have an idea that for people in other countries “these things happen.”  It seems normative when we should be disgusted…and appalled!!!

How is it that we allow problems like this to be “normal?”   How is it that we allow ourselves to become used to obesity, racism, poverty, or murder?  How is it that we so often set aside what we know is the right thing to do, and instead, do the comfortable thing.  Why do we allow ourselves to become comfortable with destructive behaviors when we should. instead, be appalled?  Why is it that we would ignore a problem when we should begin re-educating ourselves and our community?

My weight crept up on me.  I ignored the signs of unhealthiness and, even after a stern talk from my doctor, I ignored the problem.  It wasn’t until I had a supportive wife who pushed me and who insisted that I learn and grow (shrink, actually 🙂 that I began to be appalled by the things I had been eating.  If I eat too much grease, now, I feel sick to my stomach- and when I see people standing in lines at walmart with carts filled to the brim with junk food I recoil, even though that was recently me.  Why?  Because I looked at the problem through a new lens, I allowed myself to “get outside” of where I had recently stood and I began to look at myself with a more objective eye.  I began to realize that whether I was “used to it” or not, it was wrong and bad and hurtful:  Hurtful to myself and hurtful to others.

We have become desensitized to any number of troubles in this world.  We have chosen to think of them as normal or usual when we should be appalled.  This is where church is ultimately important.  We are a community and, just as my wife pressed me until I joined Weight-Watchers, good church people must press one another to look at injustice and oppression in this world, learn to “feel” the problem, educate one another and the community, and find a way to act out and improve the situation.

Most importantly, we must not act in judgement or hate, but in love and grace because that is the kind of God we follow.  We have a God who is ready to accept us and work with us no matter how fat we get, how complacent we become, or even how uncaring.  Our God doesn’t, from what I read of the Bible, dwell upon our short-comings, but our God encourages us to grow in love, joy, forgiveness, mercy, and peace.  My wife exemplified that as she encouraged me towards loving and respecting my body.  She regularly helps me grow in acting for justice and showing mercy when she introduces me to any number of concerns in this world (even though I am sometimes reluctant to listen when it makes me uncomfortable or challenges my old ways of thinking), and she shows me love and forgiveness any number of times a day when I act like an idiot with her.

We don’t have to be spouses to play this role for one another.  I pray that all of us will take a moment to look at ourselves and the people around us with new eyes.  I pray that we will surround one another in community and find do-able steps so that we can act out in faith to re-order this world and grow the people and communities around us so that we will leave this world healthier, happier and more faithful!

blessings and peace,
Scott