Thursday, April 30, 2009

What Matters Most- Truth - 5

It seems strange to say that "truth" matters. Do I really have to say it? Truth matters. On one level, I mean that truth, as opposed to lies, is important. It is better to tell the truth. Honesty is the best policy. All of that is right.

Remember when we could count on television news (via Walter Cronkite) could be trusted to give a reasonably objective report of the news. Have you noticed that truth through reporters has gotten less and less objective and more and more subjective.

The truth on which one bases their life does in fact color the view that one has of the news. Whether liberal or conservative we have learned that it is nearly impossible to be completely objective.

Three people see an accident. Likely as not, the three reports are all somewhat different. A network that supports the politics of the president is likely, we have learned, to report only the things that make the president look good. A television network that supports a politics different from the president will likely present stories that are critical of the president. This was so clear in the last election.

Now, we could get very cynical and say that there is no way to know the truth. And yet, maybe we have learned what we, as Christians, should have already known. That is, that truth is not some objective idea or concept. Truth in incarnational (in flesh).

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1) Jesus, the Word, was full of grace and truth. Jesus himself says: "I am the way, the truth, the life..." And, when Jesus was being tried in John's Gospel, Jesus says that he has come to bear witness to the truth. And Pilate asks: "What is truth?"

For Christians, a Jew from Nazareth is the truth. And, all other views of truth and reality are to be judged in the light of Jesus the Christ. Others may find their idea of truth by arguing it out. We find our truth; we meet the truth in and through Jesus.

Truth, for us, is always viewed in light of the cross. The one who seeks to save his/her life will lose it. The one who loses life for Jesus' sake and the Gospel will save it.

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What Matters Most- 4- Family

I write this blog with fear and trembling. Family is certainly an important part of every person's life. And yet, for some, maybe for many, family has also been the place where they have been hurt most.

So, if you're reading this and you've been abused by family, physically, sexually, maybe verbally, then you have issues to work through with family. For some, the best answer to finding redemption of any kind is to separate yourself from family. If someone is abusing you, get out now; get away and get counseling.

For the rest of us, family is the source of who we are generally. We are certainly not limited to our families (where we grew up) but our family of origin is foundational to who we are as people.

I grew up in a broken home, at least that's what we called it back then. My mother and father were separated from each other when I was a baby. Dad came back at least once; my sister was born a year later. My dad worked the Railroad but was an alcoholic, something that my mother could not and would not tolerate. So, she moved us into the same house with her parents. We grew up with mom working to make ends meet and living with our grandmother and grandfather.

I saw my dad once when I was eight years old. Mom picked us up from school and took us to see him. He ran a gasoline station. He stood on the outside of the car and talked to mom in the front seat. My sister and I were in the back seat. I don't remember ever seeing his face.

Then, when I was thirty-five he called and wanted to see us at Christmas. I tried another time to see him, but he was unable to sustain a relationship with me.

You see, the better part of my life, my identity was tied up in not having a father at home. My mother's dad was my dad but he died when I was 13 years old. Things were tough. I went to work shortly after that delivering papers to help out.

Here's what I mean by all this. Somehow, everyone has to come to a point in their lives when they make peace with their family. I'm sure my children have much to forgive me for. Everyone knows who they are by the family they had. And, if there are issues to settle, these issues need to be settled before you can have a full and happy life.

God set up the world in such a way as to give everyone a mother and father, a family. I give thanks to God for the family I had, the one who loved and nurtured me. I forgave my dad a long time ago.

How is it with your family of origin?
Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Friday, April 24, 2009

What Matters Most- 3- Love Matters

You understand that as I'm writing about what matters most that I am writing from the point of view of a Christian pastor, a United Methodist pastor. However, as I'm putting these thoughts together, I am trying to do so also as one who is human living in a human world.

When I say "faith" matters, I am doing so in a world that seems to intent on creating more and more religions and spiritualities. When I say that human beings matter, I am doing so in a world where hungry people have less to eat than our pets.

Now, I want to say that "love" is one of those things that matter most. Now, I know that when I say "love" in the present world that for some it means a kind of fuzzy feeling. If I watch a movie and cry, then it means that I am a sensitive, loving person. When all my children (girls) are home, their mother and they enjoy watching what I call "chick" flicks. You know, a man and woman fall madly in love but face terrible obstacles and separations until finally the movie ends and the strings play loudly. And, they are united in love.

Wait a minute now, I do have some interest in romance. But, this is not the meaning of love entirely. Maybe it's part of it. No, love is about being together, committed to each other- which is a basic human need. I hesitate to use the word "need". Maybe love is a basic human characteristic.

Anyway, we all need to love and be loved. This is at the heart of the Christian faith. We worship a God who creates a world with human beings. Created in a garden with everything we need, with a relationship with God and with each other. We turn away; our love fails. We start acting as if we own the place, as if we're god. We kill a brother, and sin enters the picture.

In the fullness of time, out of love, this intent to be at one with creation and with us, God sent a Son, Jesus, into the world, to bring us back to God. This is the ultimate love.

All love comes from God. We need to love and be loved- family, church, world. Just as in marriage, love requires that we keep up our side of the bargain. If I am to love you, you must in turn make yourself available to be loved. You must not isolate yourself from others and expect that others will not let you be isolated. You must take some responsibility here. You must be present in the relationship: marriage, friendship, faith, community.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Everybody knows that.

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What Matters Most- 2- People

Christianly, people matter. There is no way around it: people do matter. Jesus quotes the Old Testament when he says: "Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as you love yourself." We are to love God as we love noone else. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In a seminary course on Christian ministry, the professor asked the students to tell their stories of how God called them to the ministry. Overwhelmingly, the students answered that God was calling them because they loved people. The professor commented that he wondered if they had actually met any of these people they loved so much.

One of the great tear-jerking songs on the seventies, I think, was Barbara Streisand singing: "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." As a Pastoral Counselor at times, I have learned that sometimes needing people too much is sick.

Having said all that, and knowing just how difficult it is to work out this love when it comes to actual people, people matter to God. And, if we are Christian disciples, people matter to us.

Of course, we in the church are still working out what that means for us. First, how do we love our neighbors in the same Sunday School class and across the sanctuary. I have known people who worshiped together and never spoke to each other because they couldn't stand each other. I have know people, as have you, who believe that some people are more important than others. I have watched as Christians fought for power in a local church.

On the one hand, I can say, and often do say, that people are people. We are, even though we are Christians, human beings. So, we are sinners, too. We fall short, etc. But at some point in our Christian walk, we are expected to move on.

Alcoholics Anonymous does a masterful job, most of the time, teaching its members that they must reconcile with those whom they have hurt in their lives. It's part of the twelve-step program.

We need an equivalent to that in the church. And, in many cases, we do see Christians who are working/praying their way to peace and reconciliation. Our relationship to God is tied closely to our relationships with others.

Love you neighbors- your spouses, your ex-spouses, your children, your parents, your brother/sister, the one across the street or around the world. People matter to God. People matter to Christian disciples.

It bothers me a bit (and I do love animals) that we spend more on our pets in this country than we do on programs to feed the hungry. We justify it by saying that animals are innocent. People have gotten themselves into their own messes.

That's right in many cases. And yet, the church is the people of God in Christ, and Christ died for all. (Romans 5:8)

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What Matters Most - 1- Faith

I will be working, over the next several weeks, on a theme: "What Matters Most". And, since I'm writing this blog, maybe I should call it: What Matters Most to Me. But, I hope that you can resonate with some of what I will share. As I write about what matters most I will do it thinking not just about myself, but about others- people who are Christian or not. Of course, my slant is Methodist Christian. So, here goes.

The first thing that matters most is everyone must have something to believe in. The word for this is faith. Every person needs faith.

Now, I know that for some the only belief that they have is in self. Certainly it is important at some level to believe in yourself, your abilities, your worth, your gifts. If you don't believe in yourself, then you won't have the energy to go about doing anything worthwhile.

The belief I'm talking about that matters most, though, is belief in something bigger than yourself. For me, of course, this means belief in God, the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Paul Tillich says that faith is "Ultimate concern". Whatever we are ultimately concerned about is our faith. So, anyone can have this kind of faith and give themselves to it.

Scripture teaches that there are many gods. Luther says that the human heart is a "factory of idols". If we don't believe in the real God, we will have some kind of god. We will have faith in something.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a twelve step program. The first step is to acknowledge that there is a higher power. Christian faith calls this power God; in the Old Testament god is "Yahweh" and this God comes in the New Testament in Jesus of Nazareth.

After Easter, we Christians trust/believe in a God who brought Jesus back from the dead. Sooner or later, if you're a full human being, you have to put your money down somewhere, you have to put your trust in something. And, whatever you believe/trust in will shape your life.

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Confirmation

Next Sunday, April 19th, is Confirmation Sunday at Bethel UMC. We have 21 young people who will come forward for Confirmation. These 21 have been prayed for and supported by mentors, and parents. They have been taught by Lay people, Clergy, and staff people each week. They have memorized scripture and creed. They have read and studied some on their own. Now, before God and everybody, they will come forward and kneel at the altar to accept the vows of membership in the church for themselves.

17 of them have been baptized as infants and therefore do not need to be baptized again. The first baptism was just fine; God was there. These 17 will be confirmed which means that they will be made firm in their faith.

4 of them will need to be baptized. They will be baptized and then confirmed into the church at the same time.

When we baptize babies we, as a church, take vows to teach them the faith. Parents promise to teach their children faith and to keep them under the guidance of the church. So, when they're around 12 years of age, we invite them to move deeper into faith and commit themselves to Christ and take their own vows.

Now, you might argue that 12 year olds don't know anything and don't know what they're getting in to. Some say that we probably should wait until people are around 30 years of age, fully grown, to confirm them.

But, scripture says that we should "train up a child in the way he/she should go." Others say: "Give me a child until they're four and I'll shape them for the rest of their lives."

Of course, we do leave it up to the child and parents/sponsors to decide. If someone is not ready year, we are ok with them waiting.

Pray for the Confirmands as they come forward on Sunday. It's a dangerous thing to offer yourself to God. These 21 were offered at Baptism as babies. Now, we offer all of them to God in Christ.

They will become a part of that great body, the church, forever.

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Decline and Fall of Christian America

A lot of buzz has been generated by a recent article published by Newsweek magazine. Every Christmas and Easter, journalists often feel the need to write articles that celebrate anything that undermines Christian faith. Articles like "the Real Jesus" appear when Christian celebration is at its best.

The article came as President Obama was speaking to a group of Muslims in Turkey about religion in the United States. He was speaking to a group of people for whom being a Christian is a crime. So, it made sense to talk about our idea of the freedom of religion, and the fact that our government does not endorse any religion as the "state" religion.

I don't see what the big deal is. Statistics have shown for years that since the 1960's, when all institutions were under seige, that those who claim to be Christian has gone down in number. How to explain?

First of all, the assumption is that whatever the public thinks is popular must make it right. In other words, if fewer people believe in and practice Christian faith then that shows it is just not true. The writers say that it is not relevant. Well, who can claim, really, that a life of self-sacrifice is relevant to people whose lives are built around self-worship? If by relevance we mean that something is popular, then the only thing that is popular is money and greed. The value of self-worship is always relevant to the worldly culture.

Second,we are growing more secular. You could say that this is a result of a concerted effort by the media and schools, etc., to reduce the influence of religion. Or, to put it more clearly, when children are taught at school and on television every day, by the absence of any talk about God, that God either doesn't exist or that Christians are just well, stupid, we are seeing those children grow up without any knowledge of anything religious. Parents who want their children to be Christians will have to work harder to teach them. Churches will have to do a better job of teaching children about faith.

Third, some of the decline of Christian faith in our culture can be blamed on Christians and the church. When we say we believe in God and Christ and still live just like everybody else, when we are just as violent, just as racist, just as hateful as everyone else, how can we expect others to pay attention to our faith.

Someone told me recently that in a church in New England, he stopped in to worship and the pastor really said this: "Now, you know I don't believe in God, but if there is a God..." Christian churches who believe nothing, and give nothing, and live nothing can expect nothing as a response.

Having said all this, more people will be in church tomorrow, Easter, than at any other event in the world at any time. Detractors may wish for the demise of Christian faith, but Christian faith, God in Christ, will never be without a witness- even in America.

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Waiting on Easter

From my office, which is within a stone's throw of the sanctuary, I heard the Bible Study Ladies this morning, as always. But, this morning, the leader began the meeting by saying: "Happy Easter!"

I wanted to say, "Wait a minute. Today is Maundy Thursday; tomorrow is Good Friday. There is much to experience and go through before we get to Easter. For most of us, the Season of Lent seems like an encumbrance, a needless downer, when what we need is uppers.

Well, we can learn something from the wisdom of the church. On Maundy Thursday Jesus celebrated Passover with the disciples. It was his Last Supper and what we know now as Holy Communion, Mass, Eucharist. Then, after a long night of beating, a mock trial, the crowd demanded that Jesus be crucified.

The church knows that we need to go through Lent to get ready to celebrate. The church knows that the celebration of Easter is hollow without understanding what Jesus went through to get to Easter.

It's like this: no cross; no Easter. As one of my friends used to say, to be a candidate for resurrection you just have to be dead.

So, on these days of Holy Week, we remember and enter into the story. We are drawn into the story and we can sing: "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" And, of course, the obvious answer is that we were there. All time fades away as we gather to worship.

I know the cross is, according to Paul, a stumbling block, an offense. If you aren't offended by the cross, you aren't looking. For at least a few days, let's meditate on the meaning of the Jesus' crucifixion.

It has something to do with our sin, our separation from God, with our rebellion against God. Jesus, in some sense, takes upon himself the worst of the world's violence and hatred. He comes alongside us. He suffers and dies because you and I have to suffer and die.

Jesus' last word from the cross was: "It is finished." All of the work that he had come to do was now accomplished, complete.

Linger here a bit, and save "Happy Easter" until Easter.

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Holy Week

Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter) is a special week in the life of the church. On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem, the political/religious center of Jewish life. On a donkey, Jesus rides. Roman soldiers and warriors ride horses. Not Jesus. He comes in peace.

Some say that this was Jesus' happiest day. For a few hours at least, everyone put down their defenses, I guess, and laid down palms and cloaks on the way. The long-awaited Messiah has arrived.

The church always assigns that we read the Palm Sunday story (this year Mark 11-1-11) but then calls for us to read the whole passion story at worship. We rarely do this. What congregation would stand to be read to that much in one sitting.

You see, the church knows that in the beauty and joy of Palm Sunday is an underside. Palm Sunday carries in its bosom the cross. Beneath all the palms is our weary longing and unmet needs. Here lie all our prides and prejudices. Jesus will just about offend everybody before the week's out.

A woman will let her hair down. Letting your hair down means the same thing in all cultures. A woman will let her hair down and anoint Jesus' feet. Judas will complain that this perfume should be sold and the money given to the poor. But, this one who has been forgiven much, loves much. She does more than she knows. It is a sign of things to come.

One will betray; all will forsake Jesus after they have had Passover and have prayed at Gethsemane. Roman soldiers will come. A mock trial will follow. He will be beaten, and stripped and hung out to dry.

Holy week? We all know that as we walk these days together that more is going on here than meets the eye. The God of the universe is involved in this somehow. The Son of God will sink to the depths of our human experience. And, for us, all of this will be redemptive. For the one who is lifted up will draw us to himself.

He still does draw us. Across time and space, across the years, Jesus of Nazareth crucified draws us like no other. And, even from the cross offers us forgiveness and hope.

Holy week indeed.
Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Father, into Your Hands, the sixth word

Jesus, nearing the end of the track now, cries out in the words of Psalm 31: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." The words in Psalm 31 are: "Father, into your hand, I commend my spirit." The writer of Luke translated it to the plural in Greek "hands". So, we have: "Father, into your hands..."

It's a prayer of trust. Now, at the end of ego, strength, pride, and humanity Jesus comes to the place where we all sooner or later come. And, he prays the prayer of trust.

This prayer reminds me a bit of the old children's prayer. Remember?

Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Now, I doubt very many pray that prayer now. Our children are so sensitive now; or, parents are so sensitive that the idea that we die seems just too much for a child to handle, especially at bedtime, the time of nightmares and terrors.

Originally it was meant as a prayer of comfort. Even children who have lost puppies know about death. In fact, I find it strange that in a culture as violent as ours, and in a world as violent and death conscious as ours (someone went on a rampage yesterday and killed 14, I think, and then himself) we would be concerned about our children realizing that death is a part of life.

This prayer was meant (Now, I lay me down to sleep...) as a prayer to comfort a child or an adult, for that matter. Scripture knows that the next thing to death is sleep. We're as near to death as we can be most days when we lie down to sleep.

Jesus, now, identifying with us, entering in to the depths of human suffering and sorrow is about to sleep, to really die. There is nothing more to say, is there? "Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit..." Whatever there is of future or meaning is in the hands of God.

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Jesus Christ Superstar

Every Lenten Season I pull out my copy of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar". Superstar was one of those "modern" productions that came out after the sixties, when everything got "looser". The music of Andrew Lloyd Webber brings the Gospel out in a sassy and direct way.

I remember just how upset average church folks were over this production. It seemed to betray the solemnity and dignity of the church's Gospel. It seemed to mock everything that was precious to the church. But, youth groups caught on to it and this kind of raucous presentation of the Gospel was part of a new wave of music to give praise to God.

One of my favorite pieces in "Jesus Christ Superstar" is the piece sung by Mary Magdalene. She sings: "I don't know how to love him; what to do, how to move him..." Herod shouts and sings. The crowd sings: "Crucify him; crucify him."

I enjoy the energy and the power of it. All instruments and voices give God praise.

I saw a story yesterday about a church in England. Out front during Lent the church puts up a crucifix (the cross plus a Jesus figure on it). An outcry came from the community. The complaint was that it was just too gruesome. They said the children who passed by were put off by Jesus on a cross.

And, so it is. The cross, the crucifixion, is still and offense, a stumbling block to the world. It just seems strange to me that in a world where terrorism and violence reign, and where children spend most of their day in front of computers and televisions filled with violence, that a crucifix is what they complain about.

Of course it's gruesome; senseless violence is always gruesome. Innocent suffering is hard to watch. The cross is the way of the world. It was Roman violence at its best/worst. It's a stumbling block. That is, it's hard to understand. Yet, the Gospel is about a God who gave his son, gave him to the worst the world could dish out, and still...

In the cross we see just how far God was willing to go to save us...through suffering and violence, through death. "I don't know how to love him..."

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Discernment

You may or may not find it interesting, that, in my life as a leader/pastor in the United Methodist Church, I am always seeking God's direction. Or, maybe you, if you're a member of my church hope that I'm seeking God's direction. In the midst of all that is going on in the world, and in our lives, and in our church, everyday I feel called to step inside that zone where I can listen for God's guidance. Many of you tell me that you also keep your prayer time with God daily. Many of you tell me that you are praying for me and for the leadership of the church daily. Keep it up. There are always decisions to be made that affect the ministry of the church. We need your prayers.

I ran across something from John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, that is helpful with our prayer times. Here it is:

Before morning prayers:
Did I think of God this morning?
Am I resolved to do all the good I can this day?
What virtue will I exercise today?

Before evening prayers:
Have I done anything without hope of glorifying God?
Have I been zealous in doing good?
Have I rejoiced and grieved with a neighbor today?
Have I been disagreeable?
Have I been overtly concerned about someone else's business?
Have I let someone I knew to be wrong have the last word?
Have I prayed, read and meditated upon the scriptures?

A Methodist Christian ought to ask these questions, if not daily, often.
Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Welcome

Thanks for checking out my blog. I'm new to this, as you can probably see. But, I, like you, have convictions and ideas worth sharing. I hope this will be an opportunity to connect with others who are Christian and/or religious. I am happily United Methodist. I am committed to the basic teachings of our church, and to the compassionate outreach to the world.

I hope these pastoral ponderings will generate something in you that is hopeful.
Blessings!
Dave

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About Me

A graduate of Newberry College and Duke University Divinity School.  I have served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church since 1975.

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