Each year in January I work with the Worship Design Team to plan our worship focus and preaching for the coming year. We plan this from July 1 to June 30 each year. This is so that I am planning a year of preaching for which I will be preaching. Usually by January a pastor knows if they’ll be remaining in their current appointment and so it makes sense to plan my next year of preaching.
This past weekend was the time when we did our planning for the coming year. We have been preaching through our Vision Statement: Joyfully reaching out to share God’s love and faith in Jesus with everyone. We are focusing this coming year on the final part – “with everyone.”
This will be a year of invitation, of challenging assumptions, of inviting God to grow our love beyond where it normally tends to have its boundaries. We will be asking ourselves, “Who would God have me love that I’m not loving yet?”
When the team comes together, we start with a little worship and then we brainstorm and come up with ideas. Then we get down to actually creating our worship series for the coming year. It is a process that takes us about four hours.
The amazing thing is that we always start with a blank sheet and just an overall theme. A single idea. And from there we are able to develop 52 sermons. The other day, when we had finished, the team was talking about how miraculous this feels at times. We’ve been planning worship together now for six years. They commented that they figured they would run out of ideas. Yet each year we come up with 52 new sermons. Certainly there are themes that repeat, but the Holy Spirit is also always there providing new inspiration.
This is often how I feel getting up in the pulpit each Sunday – How on earth could I bring a fresh message today? The answer, of course, is that I couldn’t, but the Holy Spirit does. So, each week is something new, different and unique that can speak to our spirits and inspire us to love God more and follow Jesus more closely.
It truly is miraculous. It’s only possible because of the Holy Spirit given to followers of Jesus. Still, even knowing these things, I’m no less amazed at how it happens, how it works, how consistent the Holy Spirit is to show up again and again.
Praise be to God! Where have you seen the Holy Spirit at work lately?
As I opened gifts this Christmas I found myself reflecting on gift giving. What is it that makes for a good gift?
I found myself thinking of two characteristics that make for a good gift, to my mind:
- It’s something that clearly shows the giver knows you.
- It’s something that brings joy to you.
This Christmas, for instance, I was given some Lego™ Muppet™ figurines. I love the Muppets. When I heard they were coming out with these toys, a part of me wanted them, but I figured that was a ridiculous thing to spend money on.
Yet come Christmas I opened a gift and it was some of these figurines. It was a wonderful gift because it showed how much the giver knew me. They knew I loved the Muppets and would enjoy these little figurines. They may have even known that I wasn’t the kind of person to spend my own money on this kind of thing, but who would enjoy having them.
It also was something that gave me great joy. The continue to do so, every time I look at them. They are truly a great gift.
My musings on gifts led me to consider the gift of Jesus this time of year. God’s gift of Jesus truly meets these criteria. First, Jesus comes to fulfill a need we have that really is only apparent because of how deeply God knows us. God knows we need a savior, even when we may be tempted to think we don’t.
Jesus also brings joy. Once we realize how much we need this savior and what he has done for us then we are flooded with joy. Hopefully on a daily basis. The depth of joy in truly understanding our status as forgiven people, even when we feel we could never be forgiven, even when we can’t forgive ourselves – the joy of that knowledge is unending!
Jesus is truly a great gift given because of how much the giver knows us and also to give joy. Jesus accomplishes both (and so much more) in our lives. Praise be to God for this great gift!
Are you recovering on the day after Christmas or are you still in the full swing of celebrations?
For pastors, the days after Christmas are usually quieter. We look forward to that time. At Goodrich UMC, we’re closing the office.
Yet, as is the nature of ministry – even life – something will happen to make life busy even as I seek a little down time. Someone will go into the hospital. Someone will need assistance. Some emergency will present itself.
I will respond. Even Jesus found this to be the nature of ministry. There were times when he tried to get away by himself and the crowds would follow him. He would always minister to them.
In some senses, that’s the best part of ministry. If we are called to do what Jesus did, to be like Jesus, then we have to be ready to serve, even in those times when we’re hoping to experience some rejuvenation.
It’s not that we don’t seek slow times because we know they’ll always be interrupted. No, it’s that we continue to seek those times knowing that often they’ll come as times of rest and other times they’ll present as times of active ministry even as we try to rest.
Jesus found times to rest, pray and reconnect with God just as frequently as he found that those opportunities were interrupted by chances to heal, teach and love people.
The amazing thing is that those moments of ministry are often the most fulfilling. Those times when we thought we’d have a down moment and instead are at someone’s bedside can be powerful – more powerful than the every day ministry we do regularly when we are living life as it usually is.
It’s the day after Christmas. Maybe you’re seeking some down time. Maybe you’re already back to normal. Regardless, be on the lookout for chances to do ministry.
I’ve been talking in worship a lot lately about slowing down in the midst of a very busy time. I’ve also admitted that in many ways I’m not the right person to tell people to slow down because I’m always on the move, always going 1,000 MPH and honestly, don’t always know how to slow down myself.
It doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s important. It’s vital to a life of faith. If we are always on the run and always in motion, we are likely to miss seeing God and noticing what God is doing in our lives and in our world.
I know it’s important to slow down. Yet I still struggle to do it.
I have found one thing that has been helpful to me. It’s called Tactical Breathing. It’s a technique used by the military, first responders and law enforcement in order to slow down in the midst of tense situations. It has the effect of actually calming one down and I’ve found it vital in my process of slowing down and taking notice of the world around me.
It’s a simple process:
You breathe in while counting to 5.
You hold your breath while counting to 5.
You exhale while counting to 5.
You hold for a count of 5.
And you repeat.
You’re encouraged to do this 3-4 times to relax, tune in, calm down and lessen anxiety and stress.
It works for me. I find that it’s the beginning process for me to slow down. Usually I’m rushing because I’m stressed about all I have to do or where I have to be. Tactical Breathing stops me momentarily.
It should be no surprise that breathing can be the gateway to reconnecting with God in the midst of a busy life. After all, God is the one that put breath in us to begin with. God fills us with his spirit, which in Hebrew is the same word for breath. As we breathe in and out we can acknowledge that God is there and in a sense we can actually feel God. If breath is spirit and spirit is God, then as we breathe we welcome God into ourselves once again.
We breathe all of the time. It’s not like God isn’t there, but Tactical Breathing reminds us that God is there. That’s all we need to begin to slow down and focus more on God.
Give it a try.
Last week was a quiet week at church. Our Office Administrator and our Custodian were both on vacation. We weren’t officially open and it was a short work week anyway with the Thanksgiving holiday.
A short week didn’t mean a slow week. In fact, with both of the other staff people out, I was picking up pieces I don’t usually do. Checking the mail, emptying garbage, cleaning, moving tables and chairs, updating the website and scheduling user groups. Phew!
Let me tell you, I was truly thankful on Thanksgiving. I was thankful for the break, but I also found that I was thankful throughout the week for our staff and for all of the people that do different jobs around the church. When I suddenly had to do things I don’t normally do, I was more thankful than ever for the people that normally do those things.
It can be easy to begin to take things for granted. The Thanksgiving holiday has always been an opportunity to stop and consider what we may have started taking for granted and to give thanks and bring a spirit of gratitude back to our lives.
Everything that we have is a gift from God! As the fallen people we are we become ungrateful, we take things for granted, we figure that the things we have are OURS. As people, we must stay connected to the idea of gratitude at all times.
I fail at this as well. It’s why I was SO thankful last week because suddenly I didn’t have the two staff people around that usually do the work they do and so I had to pick up the slack.
As Christian, Thanksgiving is a chance to be thankful again, but each day is also an invitation to be thankful and to reconnect to the reality that we have NOTHING aside from God.
I was reminded of this forcefully this last week. I plan to spend time in prayer this week asking God to help me to not return to that place of taking things for granted, but to instead be thankful at all times.
What are you thankful for?
It’s only been a little over a week since we celebrated the life of the wonderful church member, Chuck Maki.
So often, people say to me after a funeral, “I don’t know how you do it?”
Well, let me tell you. Preparing to celebrate someone’s life in a meaningful way for me is two-fold.
First, it’s about knowing Scripture. One can’t celebrate a Christian’s life outside or away from Scripture. In order to celebrate any life, one has to know Scripture deeply. What it says, what it promises, its stories, and its truths. This is imperative. Again, there is no way to celebrate a Christian’s life away from or apart from Scripture. So you have to know Scripture.
That’s because the second part of this two-fold way for me to create a meaningful celebration of life is that I look for each person’s life in Scripture.
One of the truths of Scripture is that we are made in the image of God. That means that it’s not hard to see glimpses of someone’s life in Scripture. If you can hear about their life and connect it to Scripture, it’s very easy to celebrate their life in a way that people will find unique and meaningful.
Again, all you have to do is know Scripture and see the person in Scripture. To put it another way, you have to know God and then see God in that person.
These are the two things I think about as I look to mark someone’s life. “How do I do it?” It’s incredibly easy, actually, because one can find each person in Scripture because each of us is God’s child and part of God’s creation and part of God’s story and so if we look to God’s story in Scripture, there we are. Scripture is not something separate from us, we are a part of it, just as we are part of God’s story and God’s creation.
That’s how I do it. With Scripture. With God.
Today is All Saints Day. It’s a day to remember those faithful people we have known that have gone to reside with God until we can see them again.
I know many struggle with this term “saints.” It raises ideas for us of the kind of religious people we could never hope to be. However, repeatedly in the Bible the word “saints” is used to apply to those that are living the faith.
Sometimes we live the faith better than other times. Hopefully, in the grand scheme of things people see us as people whose lives have been made different and better because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. If that’s true, then we’re saints. Because this word has its roots in the idea of being “set apart.” We are to be different than the world and different than people expect – something special – not because of who we are, but because of who Jesus is and because we know him.
All of the saints I know were imperfect people, but their lives pointed to Jesus and spoke volumes to who he was and what he can do in one’s life.
In particular, on this All Saints Day, I’m thinking of a guy named Andy. Andy had struggled with addiction, but his life had been transformed by meeting Jesus Christ. Andy was the type of guy that could make anyone feel comfortable and he was perhaps not what people immediately picture when they think of a church-goer. Yet, he was not only a church-goer, he was a church-liver. He spent every moment of his life living for Jesus and sharing that good news with other people.
Sure, his past was not the best, but his future was guaranteed and I know I’ll see him one day in heaven. For that, I give thanks on this All Saints Day.
If you want to understand a little more about All Saints Day in the United Methodist tradition, this is a great article.
What saints are you giving thanks for today?
Editor’s Note: Back when we published a monthly newsletter we always included a column from the Pastor. Some have expressed that they have missed this. In our new digital format, we are bringing back what Pastor Joel always called Pause with Pastor Joel on a bi-weekly basis. A link will be provided in the Bell Notes e-mail and printed copies will be available at church on Sunday mornings.
An expectation of all pastors in our Conference is that we participate in some sort of covenant group with other colleagues. What does covenant group mean? Any Christian can be a part of a covenant group. It is a group of faithful people that promise – covenant – to support one another.
My covenant group consists of six pastors all close in age. We’re all men and serve in a variety of places. We’ve been meeting together for at least 5 years now.
What does a group of United Methodist pastors do when they meet together as a covenant group?
Well, we eat, of course. But we also support one another during difficult times, pray for and with one another, challenge one another, bounce ideas off of one another and offer resources to each other. Oh, we also laugh together a lot!
This is a great list of what any covenant group should do together. In particular it’s important whether we’re part of an official group or not that we have other Christians that support us and challenge us.
I tend to find that we naturally lean towards one or the other more. I know Christians that are great at supporting others, but if they’re asked to challenge them, they don’t think that’s appropriate. I also know Christians that are great at challenging others, sometimes doing so in a way that isn’t very supportive!
We are called to be people who support and challenge one another. We all need support. It is hard to be in the world. It’s hard to be a person of faith in the world. Jesus says this himself when he tells us, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11, NIV). It’s a reality that people may reject us because of our faith. We need to support one another!
However, if all we do is support, we may become complacent. So we need to also challenge one another. We need to point out, kindly and gently, where we each need to grow and move and change and seek Christ!
This isn’t an either/or situation, but a both/and. We need to support and challenge one another. It’s the only way we move forward as Christians in this world. I hope you have people in your life that support and challenge you. If not, then find some! I have found that my covenant group is one of the most life giving parts of my ministry. I want you to experience this same joy in faith.