Monday, March 30, 2009

Money, Money, Money

Every Monday morning, I sit down at my desk, usually a bit tired from Sunday, and I make a list of a few things I need to plan for or work toward for the week. The very first thing I put on my list is: PRAY, DO NOT BE ANXIOUS. I put that first on my list because I am prone to be anxious and I am prone to pray when I'm panicking. Are you like this?

I'm sure that you're more zealous about your own prayer life than to allow something like bad news or troublesome news bother you. But, I'm the Senior pastor of a large church and we were running along just fine, doing well, when the bottom fell out of the economy. It is hitting us far more than I suspected that it would. And, just when you think things might be turning around a bit, economically, bad news comes back around to take its toll.

On the one hand, I'm surprised we're doing as well as we are financially. I know personally of at least ten people, breadwinners, who are out of work- laid off for one reason or another. Some of these are tithers. I feel for the church but I also feel for the families who are going through this. Yes, things will get better, but when? Some are hanging on by a thread.

On the other hand, some people are still working and attendance is up. We get regular visitors who become a part of this great church and join at some point. Things are going in the right direction.(You'll tell me if they are not, right?) There is so much for which to be grateful.

I put the PRAY AND DO NOT BE ANXIOUS first on my list to remind me that the answer is prayer not anxiety. NO matter how anxious I get or you get, it won't change anything. My experience tells me that things will turn around and if not, we have to adapt. That's just the way it is.

Being anxious is not the answer; panic is not the answer. It only drives up your blood pressure. So, we pray, and we do the best we can with what we have. We patiently wait, and work this out together- together with God's help.

Honestly, I've served churches where we had to overcome much greater financial obstacles than these. We will overcome these obstacles too. I refuse to get discouraged. "I/We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength." Amen?

Dave Nichols

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Call 2

At eighteen years of age, I was sure that God was calling me to preach. What does an eighteen year old know? So, I told my pastor about it. He immediately tried to talk me out of it. He told me all of the bad things about it and why I should do something else instead. I listened but still felt compelled to preach.

The first step in the process then was to appear before the Charge Conference, that's the Church Council plus the District Superintendent. Everyone who goes into ministry in the church must appear and be voted on by the Charge Conference at some point. Back when I did it this was the first step. At eighteen I appeared before the people who reared me and loved me and nurtured me in the faith. They voted. Then it had to be 100% affirmative; now, I think it's 3/4's or something like that. The vote was taken by secret ballot and I passed.

One of the children in the congregation was there with dad and she asked: "Did David win?" From there I went on, at eighteen, to appear before the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. The Chair of the committee was Dr. Francis Cunningham, Senior Pastor of Bethel UMC, where I serve now. Dr. Adlai Holler was the District Superintendent. Two of my best friends are from that family of Methodist preachers. The Committee passed on me and I went off to Duke Divinity School for two weeks for Licensing School. When I returned, the Committee on Ordained Ministry awarded my a License to Preach.

In the process, of preaching some and serving and working my way through college, my family Physician, whom I was seeing because I had a cold, said he wanted to talk to me. He said: "I understand you're going to seminary." I said: "Yes." He said: "I don't have any children and I was wondering. I will send you to Medical School and set you up in my practice when you graduate. You can do ministry right here."

It was the best offer anybody ever made me. Dr. Switzer was single and unmarried. He was genuine in his offer. I told him I didn't dislike science but it was not my favorite subject. I was going to seminary.

Armed with a License to Preach I preached some to fill in for preachers in their churches. Then, when I was a junior in college, I was hired to be Minister of Youth at Grace UMC Union. I spent two years and a half there before going to Duke.

Every once in a while it's good to remember what it was that brought you to where you are now- God, the church, family, friends. During Lent, when the cross is so real to us, we are minded that this God is still making himself a people, one person at a time.

Dave Nichols

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Call

I've spent the better part of my life working on the Christian faith. Asking questions about it, struggling with it, wrestling with the God of our faith. I have wanted more than anything else to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I have been privileged to do so.

When I was just 18 years old, I was sure of God's call on my life. Even if I wasn't called to preach, I wouldn't have been able to get away from the claim of the church on my life. From my birth, mother, who was separated from my father when I was a year old, my grandmother and grandfather took me to church. You could say, well, there wasn't much else to do then. But, as I remember it no one else in my grandmother's family went to church.

Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night we were there. We were there, not because we thought we had to go, but because my family could not imagine life that was not shaped by the church.

Now, all this doesn't mean that our little church was perfect. It most certainly was not perfect. It was a mill church and there were times when I remember shouting matches and fierce disagreements. But, through it all, in spite of some of it, I met Jesus Christ. I was drawn into this fellowship.

No matter whether I was a preacher or not, I would have not been able to construct my life without the church. At eighteen, I was sure I was called to preach. I can't explain it really. It was a feeling, a notion, an idea, but it was more than that. It was a compulsion to preach.

I knew that the stories of the Bible were mine, and that I would spend my life working for and with Christian faith. My favorite verse when I was struggling with God's call was from Jeremiah chapter 20. Jeremiah says: "If I say I will not mention him (God) or speak anymore in his name there is, as it were, a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with keeping it in and I cannot."

I still feel the same compulsion to preach. What a privilege to be able to stand in the pulpit at Bethel Church and offer God's word. God help me to do it faithfully.

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Sunday, March 22, 2009

My God, My God...

This morning's sermon was the 4th in a series on the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the cross. It was based on Jesus word: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is a difficult word, to say the least. For Jesus to cry this from the cross is incredible. What can it mean?

I answered that question by saying:

1. It is a cry of delirium. Jesus, sinking into pain, crosses that threshold that few of us, thank God, will eve have to cross. But, those who were crucified crossed this threshold often. Innocent suffering puts us off and here innocent suffering is hard to watch. Jesus experiences the loneliness of human beings.

2. It is a cry of forsakeness, or else why would he have said it. "My God, my God..."
And yet, can God ever forsake this one. From my study of scripture, if there's any forsaking going on, it's from our side.

3. It is a cry of hope which means that Jesus is not so much crying out to God as he is quoting scripture (Psalm 22). And, by quoting this verse, he implies the whole Psalm. He is giving this quote as a gift. Use it when you need it. He is also giving us hope, for no one will every have to cry "my God, my God" again without hope.

Dave Nichols

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Any Loss Causes Grief

Below, two blogs ago, I wrote about grief that comes when someone we love dies. There is also the grief that comes with losing. Many people are going through grief right now as they lose a job or a career or a dream. The economic realities have caused many to be displaced and may cause many to have to re-locate. Not only will they have to relocate where they live but they will also have to relocate their ideas, their dreams.

People have certain things in their minds as to what makes a meaningful life. They buy a house. They join a church. They send their children to school. No one counts on economic changes and downturns. We all expect that life will go on as usual.

Well, when it doesn't, we adjust and move on. Or, sometimes people get locked in anger or fear or worse. When we are going through change, aging, job loss, divorce, whatever, we experience grief.

Grief is God's way of moving us back to healing. Here are the stages of grief that I mentioned with death below:

* Denial (this isn't happening to me!)
* Anger (why is this happening to me?)
* Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if...)
* Depression (I don't care anymore)
* Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes)

These apply to any loss in life. We lived in a community years ago where many people were from somewhere else. That is, they grew up in another part of the country and they only reason they lived near us was because their work had brought them there.

I have never lived in the middle of such anger before. Most of the people there would not commit themselves to church or anything in depth. They only lived dreaming of the past or the future when they would get back where they wanted to be.

What a shame to be stuck in anger or denial or depression. "A mighty fortress is our God." Those who have faith know that no given moment lasts forever, not even bad moments.

Have faith and move forward. Learn from yourself and the circumstance. Adjust where you can. Know that life is more than stuff. And, know that it's not just happening to you. It's happening to all of us, at one time or another.

God is still God!
Dave Nichols

Friday, March 20, 2009


I don't know if you can see it in the picture here or not (click on picture to enlarge), but maybe enough time has passed to make a comment. Several weeks ago, outside the Unitarian Church in town the following words were put on their sign: Happy Birthday Charles Darwin! It is so good that I had to comment on it.

At Christmas, there were not "happy birthday Jesus" words on the sign, not even Merry Christmas (that too is passe). But, now to honor Darwin, who was an atheist, by the way, the UU Church proudly displays its allegiance.

Now, I'm not saying that Darwin wasn't right about many things. I'm certainly no scientist. Everyone knows that if there's any truth in Darwin's theories that truth is from God.

I think what got me about this proud demonstration was the audacity of it. I saw it as an attempt to "make fun" of anyone who "believes" Holy Scripture. They (the UU's) are intelligent and open and anybody else is dumb and closed. My experience with the UU's is that they are open to anyone who agrees with them- that religion at its best is politics. And God, well...

Several years ago when I was pastor of a church in the Charleston area, the UU Church in Charleston had a pastor who was young and popular in the community. One day I read in the Charleston paper that he was fired, get this, for having preached a sermon in which he used the name "God".

OK. I know I'm not very smart, but I thought open-ness ought to include open-ness to God. I can hear and accept the truth of Darwin while at the same time knowing, in faith, that the Biblical story is more true than we know. God speaks and it comes to be. The Word of God goes forth and accomplishes its task.

There are a lot of birthdays to celebrate. John Wesley was born on June 17. In the Church we celebrate a lot of holidays. And, all of them point to some part of the wonderful story of God's creation, and redemption.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Day After Grief

Yesterday, we had our fourth funeral in a month. We've gone for awhile without any deaths; so, we knew that our time was coming again. All of the funerals (Services of Death and Resurrection) were for the families of people who died in their eighties (one was 91).

So, all of these saints lived long lives. There is much for which to be grateful. And, in some ways, death comes as a blessing, a relief from suffering or pain. So many memories, so much time, and in a service of worship we gather to praise God and give thanks. We are surrounded by family, friends, and the church. It is the church at one of its best moments.

And yet, it's still sad. No matter how old our mother or our father, their loss is still significant. Grief is still a part of the experience.

Most of us know the stages of grief as outlined by the great German Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:

* Denial (this isn't happening to me!)
* Anger (why is this happening to me?)
* Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if...)
* Depression (I don't care anymore)
* Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes)

Now, some may experience some or all of these stages. Different people may experience them in a different order with acceptance always coming last, of course.

What strikes me about grief as we go through it, is that there never seems to be enough time to do all the crying and grieving that we need to do. We take a few days. We have the funeral. There is this flurry of activity when people are coming in, bringing food, and praying for us and with us. (No one is better at this than Bethel folks) Then, we have the funeral. And, usually, the day after we are expected to get back to work, back to life as usual.

It just all seems to be too quick for me. On this day after a funeral, I am struggling to get going. Sometimes my own grief gets the best of me.

When I was a boy, our family doctor was Dr. Switzer. He was a great man back in the days when doctors came to the house when needed. It was said of him that when one of his patients died he would go off somewhere, get away.

Grief stacks up for all of us. Take the time to grieve when you need to and let this wonderful process of grief that God has given you move you back to life. Jesus stood at the grave of Lazarus and wept (John 11). So do we.

Dave Nichols

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Power is Off

Today, I'm working at home getting ready for a funeral this afternoon. I'm at home because the power company is working on the system at and around the church. So, that wonderful building where we work is dark and cold. We can't use the phones; they need power, too.

The computers, of course, need power. So, we made the decision to come in around 2pm when the power is supposed to be back on. If it is, we will have spaghetti at our usual Wednesday meal. The sauce was prepared early. If power is not on, we'll have to do something else.

When a recent storm knocked out the power, one of our church members said to me: "when you're preaching just say that all we really need is electricity..."

We do rely heavily on power to our homes and churches. What a wonderful gift is electricity. Electricity gives us convenience, but more, it gives us the power to do so much more in our lives.

Just remember that at church, with God's people, God has assured us that we won't be powerless. Even when we're weak, when we don't have all the answers, when life runs out for us, God, through his Holy Spirit, promises to give us power.

How are you feeling today? Powerless? You're not. Rely on God's power and get moving.

Dave Nichols

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What is Lent?

United Methodists are not always familiar with the season of Lent. As a child, I don't remember much about Lent. It was not until I went to seminary and became aware of what is known as liturgical renewal (talks among the mainline denominations about using a common lectionary and church year)that I really began to understand. Methodists have always had a lectionary, assigned scriptures, but did not use them regularly until we joined the other churches in following a three-year lectionary.

Lent is that season of preparation and study prior to Easter. We usually encourage it to be a time of self-examination (ouch) and prayer, a time to deepen our relationship to God. The word Lent comes from an anglo-saxon word for the Lengthening days of the year during spring.

Charlie Graves, Minister Emeritus at Bethel, tells me that someone asked him recently to explain Lent. He remembered a hymn that we sung on Ash Wednesday and he gave that hymn to the person as an explanation. He's right; this hymn does give a good description of Lent. So, here in the middle of Lent, I offer it to you.

Lord, who throughout these forty days for us did fast and pray,
teach us with thee to mourn our sins and close by thee to stay.

As thou with Satan didst contend, and didst the victory win,
O give us strength in thee to fight, in thee to conquer sin.

As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst, so teach us, gracious Lord,
to die to self, and chiefly life by thy most holy word.

And through these days of penitence, and through thy passiontide,
yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.

Abide with us, that so, this life of suffering over past,
an Easter of unending joy we may attain at last.

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Behold, Your Mother

During this Lenten Season at Bethel we have walking the way of the cross and working/praying our way through Jesus seven last words from the cross. When Jesus hung on the cross he joined all the others who were being crucified. Everyone who was ever crucified cried out. For sure, they expected him to cry, but they didn't expect him to cry this: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do..." That was Jesus' first word.

Then, last week set between two others, criminals, thieves, or revolutionaries, you be the judge. One derided Jesus and said: "Save yourself and us." That's always the cry of the crowd, the cry of the world. Save yourself. The other crucified one turned to Jesus in humility and said: "Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom..." And, without a moment's hesitation, Jesus said: "Today, today, you will be with me in paradise."

With all these words, Jesus was identifying with us. Tomorrow morning we will work with Jesus' third word: "Behold your mother; behold your son." Jesus is never more human than here. In the last moment of his life he turns to his friend and says: "Behold, your mother." Take care of my mother; take care of this son (John)

Never is Jesus more human; never is he more worthy of being called Son of God. No one ever dies like this.

Look up at that hill; see, three crosses are there. Wait a minute! If you look closely, there is fourth cross. The fourth cross belongs to Mary.

Blessed Lent!
Dave Nichols

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Staff at a Funeral

When a member of our families dies we, as a staff, try to go. Yesterday, we attended a funeral for a sister of one of us. It was a wonderful service. I am always fascinated by the traditions and practices of the African American Church. The Choruses that everybody seems to know. One line songs like: "God allowed us to come here one more time." It's sung over and over and each time with more emotion and power. When there's a solo, it turns into a congregational song.

Then, there's the freedom of expression. Sure, there's an order of worship which we followed, but people respond in any way they want, or better, in any way they feel led. People stand, or clap, or shout, or shake their heads or sit. It's like everyone is invited to join in the service in some way. No one gets to be just a spectator.

There's the preaching. There is nothing like the cadence and the movement of African American preaching. In this service there was one preacher, the pastor of the church. He was young enough to be my grandson. He gave a wonderful, inspiring message of hope to the family.

The prayers, like other parts of the service, are led by someone, but everybody joins in.

The service also included witnesses to the family about the deceased. These are personal stories or expressions of love for the one who is gone. Apparently, the family chooses someone to do this for them.

In and through all this is the freedom of emotion, the open-ness of emotion. People cry, laugh, wail, if they need to. They throw themselves upon the deceased giving physical expression to their grief. Caringly, and lovingly, the congregation waited as family members did what they needed to do to get on with it. It was and is very moving.

Coming from my antiseptic white church where some folk would rather burst wide open than shed a tear, this service was impressive. Now, for sure, even in white worship, we've loosened up a bit, and people do actually cry and sometimes say "Amen."

We were welcomed warmly to worship by the congregation. I am grateful to be a part of a staff that comes to each other's aid when there is a need or a loss.

Dave Nichols

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

PreMarital Counseling

I am currently counseling two couples who are preparing for marriage in the next few months at Bethel. They are terrific young couples. At this point in my ministry, I sometimes wonder if pre-marital counseling really does any good? Or, for that matter, if counseling does any good? Not that I'm cynical, just realistic. (That's what all cynical people say)

I determined that I would go at this with a new attitude and enjoy it. They really are good kids (?). Nervously, they come into the Pastor's Study and sit in the chairs I had for them. They don't really know what to expect. I explain that I am not there as their judge. I'm there as a servant of the church. For one thing, the counseling time is a chance to get to know the couple better and for them to get to know me better so that, when we stand up together at the altar, we won't be total strangers to each other. We will have shared some meaningful time with each other.

I explain that sometimes in counseling we uncover issues that are important to discuss before they get married. Or, we meet up with problems that we can identify and understand better before the vows are spoken.

One of the things we talk about is based on the three biggest problems in modern marriages. What would you say are the three biggest problems. They are: money (no surprise there), in-laws, and communication.

Money is one of those things that causes problems in most marriages. I ask questions like: who will handle the money, pay the bills? I talk about debt and the way in which a lot of couples want everything now and go too far in debt and spend their whole lives trying to get out of it. I share with them John Wesley's guidance about money. Wesley says that we should, as Christians, live on 80% of our income. He says that if we're living on more than that, we're living too high. He then says to save 10% and give 10% to the church.

We talk about other things like that. The last session we look at the service of worship and we talk about marriage as covenant not contract. We even discuss such mundane things like: how many children do you want.

I look forward to the day when I will stand in front of these couples and share a holly moment with them. Hopefully, this counseling opens a door to God and the church, immeasurable partners in marriage.

Dave Nichols

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Friend Dies

A couple of years ago, I was in the room (I've done this hundreds of times) at the hospital where one of my members, an older man, was dying. His three daughters where there. They were in their mid to late fifties and, you would think, experienced a lot of life. But, in that moment they were frantic, asking questions about their dad's every noise and move.

I wanted to say: "Just be quiet and watch. This is a holy moment. Watch, listen, God is here. But, it occurred to me that these three women, mature you could say, had never experienced death. It seemed weird to me. By the time I was 13 I had experienced the deaths of at least three relatives. One was my grandfather, who was in effect my father.

Today I attended the death of a friend who was ten years older than I. He was one of my preachers when I was a district superintendent in Rock Hill, SC. I moved him my last year and he came down with cancer. After receiving a liver transplant, he died. It just didn't work this time.

The service was a great celebration of his life. We sang, and cried, and prayed, and then we left the church. I was a Pall Bearer. I've been one several times. It's an honor and a privilege. It's also a daunting task.

My friend was heavy in life and heavy, now, in death. We lifted his casket to the hearse, and then to the grave. We Pall Bearers, all pastors, walked alongside that casket like little soldiers escorting someone to the dance, the last dance.

My tears were over his loss. He was a good man, a loving father, an effective United Methodist Pastor. We will miss him.

I go to funerals all the time. Sometimes I go to the funeral of someone who was a close friend. Today I went to carry my friend the last yard to his resting place. As scripture says: "And their works do follow them..."

When a pastor dies, other United Methodist pastors, are honorary Pall Bearers. We are part of this great line of witnesses. What a great fellowship it is.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Organizing for Evangelism

We started working/praying on/about evangelism at Bethel when our survey for Natural Church Development showed need-oriented evangelism as our lowest minimum factor. This means that we need to work on make evangelism a more prominent ministry of our church.

This doesn't mean that we aren't doing anything in this area. At the meeting last night to organize our Evangelism Team it was obvious that we were already doing evangelism in many ways at Bethel. Some members of the team told about people they are working on to lead them to Christ. We get regular visitors on Sunday and we are growing in membership and worship attendance. We just need to put more of an emphasis on evangelism.

It is not surprise that we, as a mainline church, struggle with evangelism. This is a common problem in many United Methodist and many other mainline churches. Reasons go from: "We don't know what evangelism is." to "We are afraid." We live in a area where there are people who are considered predatory evangelists. People often feel "stalked" by Christians.

So, being United Methodists, who do believe in Jesus, we are very sure that we don't want to be the kind of Christians who are condemnatory of others and we certainly don't want to be perceived as manipulative of others.

Grace is the main belief of United Methodists. We are saved by grace and brought in to the community of faith. It has nothing to do with our own works. We respond to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

The Natural Church Development Team now turns its work over to this new Evangelism Team under the direction of Bob Handell. And, we are all praying to be under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

We had a great beginning for this new team. Please pray for us as we move forward in improving our work of bringing people into the community of faith, and to Christ.

Dave Nichols

Monday, March 2, 2009

Spartanburg Hospice

My first exposure to Hospice Care was back in the eighties when I was serving a church in the Charleston area. I was a volunteer Chaplain. Every week, the volunteer staff would meet with the paid staff to plan care for patients. Nurses, visitors, doctors, and a couple of pastors would meet to collaborate on the needs of patients.

Hospice is designed to be religious without being offensive. If someone who didn't have a pastor needed a pastor, and many who are dying, do need a pastor, then I or another pastor would visit them for prayer and support. Hospice is an attempt to support terminally ill patients and their families.

I was reminded of the beauty of Hospice care when I recently had several church members in and out of Spartanburg Hospice House. Sure, everybody knows that when someone they love is put in Hospice care that the end is near. Families gather with some freedom to come and go. A huge room makes it possible for those who love the patient most to surround them and be with them. No one should have to die alone.

The patient is made comfortable. Families and pastors and others who are there to care are welcomed with joy.

Upon entering the Hospice House in Spartanburg, you get a feeling of peace and comfort. The air is full of love as gentle music plays in the background. In this busy world, where people can't take time for very much. It is reassuring to know that at Hospice House people are encouraged to take the time they need to die, to care for the dying, and to process the meaning of it all.

Give to and support Hospice when you can.

One of Those Weeks

Last week was one of those weeks. My Associate Pastor and I did one funeral each in October 08; so, we knew that it would happen. Last week I had three funerals. That's enough, but I also did the devotion for our District Clergy meeting and then, of course, I had to prepare for the Ash Wednesday Service. All of this comes alongside the usual Sunday morning preparation. Also, on last Thursday I had to spend the afternoon in Mauldin for Mentor Training. Mentors serve people who are just getting started in the ministry process.

I'm not complaining, mind you. This is the way it goes in ministry. You will go for a while without much in terms of people in the hospital, and funerals. Then, it seems to happen all at once. At one time last week, we had five people in the hospital, and one person was in hospice.

On top of this, on Saturday, I attended the funeral for a father of one of our members. It was a touchy family situation but we went to support our member.

Again, I'm not complaining. It's just that this many services, with sermons to prepare, and this many hospital visits, and this many funerals to plan, you run out of time as well as energy. So, it was really good to get a day to chill (as my children say) when snow covered everything today.

I am grateful for the people who are constantly praying for their leaders. Bethel church is so supportive that you can't help but be encouraged and strengthened.

I just got word yesterday that someone else is in Hospice Care. Doing ministry in the church is often a busy thing. But, it is also making the most of these moments in poeple lives- death, sickness, worship- when the door is open to God.

Every week is a week to give glory to God for the privilege of serving.
See you in Church!

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