Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mother of God

Next Sunday the Gospel takes us to Nazareth where the angel Gabriel is giving Mary a message of utmost important. Whenever you see angels in scripture, something big is about to take place. God is on the move and he sends out heavenly messengers.

We Protestants have never known quite what to do with Mary. We are leery about giving attention to anybody but God or Jesus. We wonder about the adoration of Mary. Oh, we’ll worship a car, mind you, but we can’t allow ourselves to be drawn into the exaltation of Mary. We’ll worship political or athletic figures, but Mary?

Mary and I were sitting in a restaurant with friends recently. It was the night before the big Republican presidential nominee debate in Spartanburg. We were eating away when all of a sudden in comes a large entourage of people. They were moving someone along in a hurry. It was Rick Perry. They shuffled him over to a booth in the back where no one could get to him. Mary and I commented how strange it was that he didn’t speak to a person in the restaurant. It was interesting to note our interest in this public figure. He’s not even the front-runner and we were looking to see what we could see. We do that with celebrities all the time.

This led to a conversation about the times when we had seen famous people. Once, when Mary, my wife, worked in a newspaper office in Moncks Corner, SC, Fritz Hollings, the Senator was up for re-election. He walked in to their office and shook hands. Mary was surprised at how big and good looking he was. She still tells that with her mouth gaping open.

Back when I was in college, we went to Columbia Airport to see Richard Nixon ride by in a convertible. He was a small man with a great tan. This was before Watergate had broken loose.

You see my point. We Protestants are so scared we will worship the wrong thing when it comes to God, but we readily turn our worship to celebs and others, not thinking that we are elevating them to godlike status.

I wouldn’t say that we should worship Mary but we should honor her. She is, after all, the “mother of God”. It’s hard to imagine that she was a virgin. In our modern culture, we don’t know what that is anymore. It’s even more difficult to imagine that she was only about fourteen years of age. You had to grow up fast in those days.

Bright-eyed, fourteen, she is a woman of faith. The long history and heritage of Jewish hope and expectation are in her body, mind and spirit. Soon, in her body will be a miracle of miracles. She will bring forth for the world the one who is Savior. And, how does she respond to the angel’s message. She says: “Let it be…” Let it be to me as you have said. Let the will of God come to me and through me. Let my life be a sacrifice to God’s purposes and ways.

This Sunday, in the grand parade of Christmas characters, Mary passes. Look at how young she looks. See how beautiful she is. Notice that, in spite of what is going on in the world, in spite of the Romans, in spite of the fact that she has every reason not to hope, she hopes and is faithful. Can you hear? She is telling God: “Let it be…” Let the great move that you are doing come to me. Honor her as one of the most faithful people ever to live. I can understand a bit if you want to talk to her.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The End is Near

I have often said to you that the Gospel often gets lost in our culture. Even among Christians, we often think of the Gospel as the minimum that we have to do to get to heaven- when the truth is that the Gospel is about getting you to heaven before you die.

Last Sunday, we started that slow and steady journey toward joy. The first candle on the Advent Wreath was lighted; the Chrismon tree already shines it light. A new Church/Christian year begins. Purple adorns the altar to remind us to get ready.

The First Sunday in Advent, the Gospel is always about what we call the “second coming”. This year, Mark (in the lectionary) gets to tell the story. Mark 13 is called by scholars the “little apocalypse”. That chapter is a mixture of stuff about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple that everyone said would never happen. It also has images from Old Testament apocalyptic literature. When it’s all done here on earth, the sun will grow dark. The stars will fall from the sky. The whole universe will celebrate as Jesus Messiah comes on the clouds.

The Bible teaches us about beginnings and endings. Everything has a beginning and an ending. It all gets caught up in God’s great purposes for his world. There will be an end- to us- to the world.

When? Now, that’s the question, isn’t it? Some talk a lot about that. Announce that you’re doing a study on the Book of Revelation; a crowd will gather. But, as soon as they see that you aren’t getting caught up in a literal kind of interpretation and predicting the future, they fall away.

Remember poor Harold Camping who predicted the end in the spring of 2011? Then, when that didn’t happen, he set another date. Oh well, what are you going to do?

Mr. Camping read every verse of Holy Scripture but the one that says: “No one knows the day or the hour, not the son, not the angels, only God knows.”

No one knows. And yet, there’s something about the end that captivates us. The Psalmist says: “Lord, teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom…” As if, knowing that we end, that time runs out sooner or later, makes us wiser.

So, on the first Sunday in Advent, the church has us look at the great backdrop of God’s drama. One day, sooner or later, the end will come- mine or the world’s. So, be ready. Be on your guard. Watch!

If you need forgiveness, don’t wait; get it now. If you need to forgive someone, don’t wait; do it now. If you need to get your life straightened out, do it now. If you need to get back on track, do it now. You do not know the day or the hour; so, get ready. Get prepared. No one knows what tomorrow holds.

Advent begins with this pause on the journey. It is a time to reflect on the truth that all our times are in God’s hands. It’s a time to get our priorities right. So, we pray, and worship. We give extra to the church and to the needy. We open our hearts a little more because we know that one day it will be…over.

One day, God’s kingdom will finally come. God will overcome evil; love will overcome hatred. Someday. In God’s good time.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Not Losing Heart

You might find it hard to believe that a pastor would be tempted to lose heart. But, the times are so difficult for so many still that it is difficult to...You understand. Some of you know that I served as a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church for a while, and I have been a pastor for a long time.

I have discovered that there are many temptations for all of us Christians. The usual temptations are easy to define: money, sex, power. These are the temptations that Richard Foster writes about. Many of the things that happen to hurt us in our world have to do with money, sex, or power. But, there is a greater and sometimes overlooked temptation for the Christian. We are tempted to lose heart.

In the midst of the way things are, in an increasingly hostile-to-faith world, in and through all of the changes that this world is going through, we are tempted to lost heart, to give up on our faith, on the God-thing, on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. It is easy to be lured into a kind of funk about money and about the chaos around us.

But, often our memory of faith is our teacher. When we look back over our lives, we can see the work of God, mostly hidden. I am here where I am today because of the grace of God. You are where you are today because of the grace of God. Remember that.

Thanksgiving is next week. Remember the things and people for which you are grateful. Each person that God has given you is a unique and wonderful gift. Each year, each day, each moment is a gift of God.

The Apostle Paul was tempted to lost heart. Paul, who had been beaten and whipped and spat upon, tried in the courts, locked in prison, Paul could say: "Therefore having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lost heart." He says: "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

With the economy as it is, we are tempted to feel it as a huge dark cloud hanging over us. That's the temptation, isn't it? The temptation to lose heart, to give up, on our faith in God is real.

We can get by this temptation, the greatest temptation of all, by remembering with Paul: "Therefore having this ministry by the mercy of God..." Therefore having this ministry, this day, this life, by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.

We do not lose heart, not because of our own power or strength or good works. We do not lost heart not because of our own ingenuity. We do not lose heart because of the mercy of God.

Whatever you're going through at any given moment cannot compare to the great and wonderful mercy of God. The mercy of God is that love that is as tender as a mother's love for her children.

So, say it with me, "We do not lost heart because of the mercy of God."
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Dave Nichols

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Normal Day

It was a normal day, as normal as my day gets. I was in my office on Thursday working on my day and week, moving toward Sunday with sermon on my mind. The phone rang. Again, that’s perfectly normal, but it was my wife. She was at the doctor’s office. She said: “They think I’ve had a heart attack.” Of course, I hung up the phone and went immediately.

I rushed to the doctor’s where I found my wife who looked pale and scared. Now, my own heart is thumping. I gathered her in my arms and put her in my car and we went to the emergency where they took off her clothes and put her in own of those gowns. They hooked up monitors to keep a check on her heart, blood pressure, etc. We were there about an hour, maybe, when she sat up on the gurney saying that she was going to throw up.

She sat up and passed out cold. She stopped breathing and laid back as if asleep. Her heart had stopped. I stepped out of the room and looked back to see them working on her doing CPR, getting ready to do the paddles on her when she came to.

Everyone in the room applauded. We were then rushed to the heart center nearby where they prepped her for a catherization. When that was over the doctor said that they found nothing wrong, no blockages, or problems that he could see.

I said to him that she had flat-lined in the emergency room. He said that they had overreacted. OK. Her heart stops. How can you overreact to that? They kept her in the hospital for the night and her heart dropped to 30 beats per minute. Again, rushing around, phone calls, then her heart beat returned to normal.

After wearing a heart monitor for three weeks, they put in a pacemaker for arrhythmia problems. After several weeks of that, she is returning to normal. And, I think I am, too.

I am writing about this experience to process it for myself. This is what they usually call journaling. It’s a way of working through the stuff that happens to you or what’s going on inside you.

My wife is only in her mid-fifties, not old by any measure today. But, let us say, we feel blessed that she is still around.

Several things struck me during this. One, it happened so fast. Looking back over the last six months or so, I would say that she has not felt good for a while. They said that her heart was stopping for 10 seconds at a time. 10 seconds is a long time.

It seemed to happen so fast. From my office to the doctor’s and then to the emergency room, and seeing her lying on the table completely out. It reminded me that in a moment, in the “twinkling of an eye” life can be over. I thought it was over for her.

As a pastor, I have seen a lot of people die. And, I have seen many ways to come to the end of life. But, this…was different. I was sort of numb going through it all. Sure, I was there but it didn’t seem real. It seemed like I was watching a movie of something happening to someone else. I remember thinking: “Wow. If Mary’s dead, that’s the easiest death I’ve ever seen.”

Thankfully, she is alive and well.

The other thing that occurred to me was what people my age go through all the time when something like this happens. Mortality looks you square in the face. I go on but it’s too morbid too think about. Ha. Ha.

I am grateful for a faith that gives us strength when we run up against the edge of it all. I am a praying man, but that day I prayed with more intensity. I have prayed that way ever since.

I am so grateful to God for the great gift of life and life eternal. I am grateful for my wife. I am grateful for a faith “that will not shrink”, no matter what.

Dave Nichols

Being a Pastor

After doing this pastoral thing for nearly 40 years, I am still excited by most of what I am called to do. I wish I could do more spiritual direction with people. Call it spiritual counseling or whatever, it's the wish to help people, guide people, in their efforts to be Christian. It's being involved intimately with people as they struggle with "real" life and helping to move them to the next level, so to speak. I feel that most people who call themselves Christians live it superficially. Church membership for some is just a name on a roll, but not anything that deeply captivates them. And, I know that the only thing that can deeply captivate them is when they are actually in love with God. Years ago I feel deeply in love with God in Jesus. And, I'm still not over it. I yearn to help others find that love and depth of life that I know. It still excites me.

And, most of the work of spiritual growth is done in small groups and one-on-one. It would take enormous time to do this, but I yearn to be able to do this one person at a time.

I'm not saying that I don't get to do any spiritual direction. Preaching is a wonderful experience for me. I get to study the scriptures deeply and then stand up in the Holy Spirit's power and give what I have seen or heard or experienced to others. Worship is a powerful thing.

But, one hour on Sunday morning doesn't do all that needs to be done. I yearn to do and be more as a pastoral leader.

This time of year we have to delve into the issue of stewardship. And, whether I want to or not, we have to talk about money and giving to the church. Institutionally I am called to lead my congregaton in seeing that giving money, tithing, is part of the whole work of being a Christian.

You see, Christian faith is material. Some religions are about pure spirituality, whatever that is. But, Christian faith is about material, like a cup of wine or a loaf of bread, being the body and blood of Christ. Christian stewardship is about bringing myself and all of my life under the judgement and redemption of God.

I cannot love God (Carlyle Marney) if I love something else more (security, money, things, self).

I yearn to help people see this. We do this kind of stewardship not just to maintain the institution but to give God something to work with in our lives. The greater my investment in God's work, the greater my love for God. Where my treasure is, there is my heart. The greater my investment- a tithe is 10% for everybody as a start. A person of great wealth has something to give; a person who has little still has much to give.

Being a pastor means that I am involved in peoples lives at every level, as deeply as people want me to be. It means that my main calling and joy is in pointing people to the life that God wishes to give us all- abundant life.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Frustrations in MInistry

My greatest frustration these days in ministry is something different from any other frustration that I have had over the years. Ministry is a tough thing sometimes. It’s hard to see any real accomplishments sometimes. You plant seeds and someone else harvests. Or, you pour yourself into someone or someones only to see little result. All who do ministry do so in faith that God will bring about his will in it all. And, in spite of the frustrations it is entirely worth it to be a servant of Jesus Christ.

Nowadays, my frustration is different. Bethel is a wonderful church that is set right in the middle of town and the surrounding area is becoming more and more urbanized. The church is located in a strategic place. It’s easy to find; it sits on a hill and proclaims the Gospel just by the presence of its huge buildings. A friend’s daughter calls Bethel “church on sterroids”. My frustration these days comes from the human traffic that comes here every day looking for help.

We have a Fellowship of Suffering and every once in a while some persons give us monies to be used to help people. So, we do as much as we can, judging if the need is legitimate.

My friend Michael was by here again today. I met Michael several years ago. We were working around the church on Saturday when Michael showed up. He’s a big ole guy. He asked to talk to me. We sat in my office and I listened as he cried. We prayed and I did a little bit to help. Michael takes care of his special needs wife. So far as I can tell he works as much as he can find work, but sometimes he gets behind and he’ll call and come by. I helped him a little today and prayed for him.

My frustration is that we can help everybody. There’s not enough money in the world to help everybody. My associate and I help people until we’re out of money. People keep coming by with needs but we have to tell them that we’re out for now.

I got a call today from a young woman who lives in Pacolet. She has three small children and works at Huddle House for $2.82 an hour. Her husband left her and won’t pay child support. Courts threaten him; he just goes his way. My heart breaks for a family like this.

I know in my head that I can’t do everything for everybody. We can’t even do a little for everybody. We do what we can. We do the best that we can.

Well, I’m grateful to people who give to the Fellowship of Suffering so that we can help some. It is a real blessing to be able to assist people in need.

With the economy being so bad right now, it’s not likely to get better for a while. God has put us right here, right now, to be a blessing to the world around us. My prayer is that we are doing all we can to do God’s will here.

I am so proud to be a part of a great church. I am so glad that when people can’t find hope anywhere else they can always find hope at church and in the followers of Jesus Christ. I’ll get over my frustration; I can’t get over being a follower of Jesus.

Dave Nichols

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Everything Changes

I have been away from this blog for a few weeks. Like anything else, one sometimes needs a break from writing if you’re doing it regularly. I hope to be back at it for now. My mind is on September 11 which will be next Sunday. There will be prayer meetings and commemorations, etc. Bethel will hold a prayer time 4-6pm on September 11. It will be a time to pray for our city, state, nation and world leaders.

I remember where I was and what I was doing on September 11. I was sitting in front of the television putting on my shoes to go to the office when the first plane hit. Cameras showed it sticking in the side of the World Trade Center, smoke billowing from it. Mary said: “What an accident…” I said: “Do you think that’s an accident.” I just had the feeling that something was not right about a huge plane like that hitting a building accidentally.

None of us could have conceived of such an attack before. Then, to watch over and over on replay the falling of the twin towers. For days and weeks, we were glued to the television as we watched the results of the attack. Debris, dirt, bodies flying through the air, and reporters were on screen. We could see it with our eyes but we didn’t want to believe it was real. An Israeli woman was heard to say: “Not in Disneyland…” This couldn’t happen in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Many stories followed about the heroic efforts of first responders and others who saved lives and gave themselves to whatever was needed. President Bush’s face changed. Remember he was reading to a kindergarten class of children when an aide whispered in his ear. You could see his face visibly change. That was ten years ago.

So much has been said about what we learned from it and how it changed things for us. And, it seems that since that day things have been hurtling out of control. We have been involved in a war, several wars, and we have seen the American economy/world economy tumbling down.

It’s hard to say really what the impact of September 11 is. It’s one of those events that will keep us thinking for a long time.

One of the big changes that we have seen is in our thinking about security. We are still living in probably the safest and most secure country in the world. But, September 11 made us think. No place in this world is totally safe and secure. We are doing, I believe, all that we can to keep our citizens safe from another such attack. But, even security people know that nothing can keep us 100% secure.

So, as people of faith, we ask: “Where is our security?” Money? Towers of pride? The Past? We know as people of faith that our only true security is in God. Everybody dies someday. And, although we are living longer, one day we will all lie down in death. Security comes to all who have faith in God in Jesus Christ. Ultimately we know that living or dead we belong to God. Scripture is forever telling us to be ready. You do not know the day or the hour; so, be ready. Put your faith and trust in the only One who is truly God.

As Christians, we know that times change. We know that sometimes evil wins; but we know that God rules. And, in God’s good time, all evil will be uprooted. If you’re on the right side, you don’t have anything to worry about.

Be thankful for each day that God gives you and do your best to love and live out the faith that God has given us freely in Jesus Christ.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Common English Bible

I have always been a fan of newer and better translations of the Bible. I have never been on the side of those condemning the “new” translations, and I am not now. I can remember as a boy in my early teens, when the Good News For Modern Man came out, going door to door in my neighborhood handing out New Testaments. My little church’s pastor led us to promote this new translation of the Bible. At that time, there weren’t many to choose from. Of course, we had the Revised Standard Version which was good but still sounded King James-ish.

Good News for Modern Man is now Today’s English Version. I still turn to it often. Around that time the Living Bible was published. I got a free copy from Christianity Today Magazine. It was fun to read the freer verse Bible. But the Living Bible was a paraphrase; so, you knew that it was not as true to the Hebrew and English texts. But, I still loved it. I use it now sometimes. It has been updated and made more of a translation now in the New Living Bible. It’s pretty good.

While I was in seminary in the late seventies, another translation was published called The New International Version or NIV. It has proved to be a popular translation. I use it often. It was an attempt to translate the original texts but keep close to the King James Bible. It sounded like a Bible that most of us had been reading or hearing all our lives. This version too has been updated in 2011 and is very good. I just bought a new copy of it.

In the eighties, the Revised Standard Version was updated and became the New Revised Standard Version. This is the text that I usually read on Sundays.

2011 was the 400th birthday of the King James Version of the Bible. I still like some of the poetic sounding language. I still like to read at Christmas the Luke 2 KJV: “It came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…Mary was great with child.” It has the sound of Shakespearean English. At the time, it was a monumental translation of the Bible. But, we have much better access to original manuscripts.

There is value in all of these translations. Every translation is a study of the original language to be accurate and faithful to the texts as we have them. It is amazing how much agreement there is on the Bible’s text translation. All of the above major translations are faithful to the text, and helpful in understanding the meaning.

Just recently, there is another translation called the Common English Bible. It is a faithful and accurate translation mostly. I really love the way in which it is translated for the most part. I got really excited about it at first. Only one thing bothers me about it. In all of the other translations Jesus calls himself the Son of Man which is an accurate translation of the Greek. In this CEB translation Jesus is the Human One.

Ok. I know that Son of Man means human being. Yes, that’s true. Jesus was truly human. I’m ok with that. It’s historically and theologically correct to say that. But, in my study, the term Son of Man has all kinds of meanings other than that. It’s kind of a title that Jesus used to talk about himself in the third person. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
As I often do in such situations, I looked at the list of those who helped with the translation and found a friend, one whom I trust, a conservative friend, certainly not a radical. I emailed him about this “human one” thing. He said that “human one” was an accurate translation. When I asked him about the meaning of “son of man” he said that “human one” conveys the meaning. He said that most people don’t know what “son of man” means either.

Still, I think we are losing something here. If “human one” is such an accurate way to translate this, then why have no other translations done it this way? I wonder if this “human one” isn’t more politically correct than accurate.

That’s my only beef with the CEB. Otherwise it’s very good. For me, I will stick with the NRSV and NIV mainly and maybe refer to the CEB on occasion.

As Luke 19:10 says: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Jesus is human, yes. But, not just any human one came to seek and save the lost. Jesus came to seek and save the lost.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, June 30, 2011

I Believe in the Resurrection

The Apostles’ Creed comes to a resounding conclusion with the last phrase: I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. With this, everything is resolved. Everything comes to its full fruition.

Everybody seems to believe in eternal life. Even the most pagan among us tends to profess some vague feeling that life has an eternal quality. Most believe that they are going to heaven say the statistics.

Some of that comes from those who look at the church and those of us in it. They see how human and sinful we are and say: “If they’re going to heaven, so am I.” As if somehow we are in church to show how good we are, instead of being in church to meet the resources that God gives us.

First, we believe in life. Christians believe in life. Every life born into this world is important. All life is a gift of God. When God made the world and all that’s in it, he made human beings and then he said: “It is very good.”

Jesus says that he has come to give us life in all of its abundance. As Christians with faith, we don’t just survive, we thrive. Every minute of every hour, every hour of every day, every day of every year is a good and gracious gift of God.

In an old Charlie Brown cartoon, Linus says to Charlie Brown: “Do you ever feel that life has passed you by?” Charlie says: “Sometimes I feel that life and I are going in different directions.” Life is beautiful and wonderful and a free gift of God.

We also believe in the resurrection of the body. In John’s Gospel when Jesus appears to his disciples he goes through locked doors to get to them. But, he is not a ghost, he is recognizable in his body. In this body, they can see and touch his wounds.

Paul says in 1 Thessalonians that when Jesus comes back to earth the dead in Christ will rise first, then all others. Some asked what about those who are still alive when Jesus comes. Paul says: “We will all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye…”

You see we are not disembodied spirits, unlike what we hear about in our culture. Our bodies are our souls. We are our bodies and souls. So, when we die and rise, we will have spiritual bodies but bodies nonetheless. We will be recognizable as the persons we are. Our personhood will remain intact and we will know each other in heave. We will know our mothers and fathers…and…

In Jesus Christ, God came in flesh to save us. And, all who believe in him and accept the way of Jesus to God will be saved. Heaven means to be in God’s presence. Hell means to be separated from God and others forever- eternal separation.

God loves us too much to force us to accept him or his love. God loves us so much that he wants to leave it to us to decide to believe or not.

Karl Barth says that you can’t believe in the resurrection without going around with a smile of your face.

Do you believe? Then, smile.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Forgiveness of Sins

Nothing is more precious than forgiveness. In a recent survey, one of those that asks for the top three answers for something, surveyors asked people what are the three top things that you most like to hear someone say. People who answered the survey said: I love you; I forgive you; and, come to supper.

Last Sunday we were at that point in our sermon series when we were working on “I believe in the forgiveness of sins…” What a precious phrase that is. It’s almost like the creed is saying that if you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, if you believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered, died and was buried and on the third day rose from the dead, if you believe in the Holy Spirit, then you will believe in the forgiveness of sins.

The one part of the sermon that most people seem to have found most helpful was my point that said: “Forgive yourself…”

We, most of us, believe that God can and will forgive anything if you ask. We, most of us, believe that God forgives other people their sins and failures. But, most of us have trouble believing actually believing that god forgives me. I’m not sure why.

Maybe it’s because we have such high expectations of ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with high expectations of ourselves, but, let’s be honest. We all sin; we all fail. We make wrong decisions; we set the wrong priorities. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “I do the things I don’t want to do and I don’t do the things I know I should do…”

We have high expectations of ourselves. Also, maybe we get defensive and try to justify ourselves and our actions. If I did that, I had a good reason. I know people who sit at home on Sunday morning and say, “What has the church done for me?” As a good book says, “I have sinned, but I have several great excuses.” The rich young ruler came up to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to find eternal life. The scripture says that he was trying to justify himself. He was trying to justify himself rather than accept the justification and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.

Do you know how arrogant it is to think that God has forgiven every sin in the universe but yours?

The text for last Sunday was Matthew 18: 21-35. Peter asks Jesus: “How many times should we forgive someone? Seven times?” Seven times seems like a good number of times to forgive someone, doesn’t it? Jewish law said you should forgive someone three times. Peter doubled it knowing that he was dealing with Jesus who was always generous and always talked about going the second mile. Forgive someone seven times?

Jesus says: “No, seventy-seven times.” Some translations say: “Seventy times seven.” The Greek here is difficult to translate. But, either way the meaning is clear. There is no end to the need to forgive others.
Do you know how many divorces could be stopped if forgiveness were present? Do you know how many family squabbles could be settled with forgiveness? Do you know how many people in this world could be happier and healthier if they could receive forgiveness?

If you’re reading this, I know you need to be forgiven. Just ask. “O God, hear me now. You know me better than I know myself. You know everything about me. Yet, your Word tells me that you love me still. Forgive me of all me sins (name some). I believe that you have forgiven me and I receive it fully and wholeheartedly. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

You are forgiven and loved. Stop going around unforgiven. Go out into the world and act forgiven for a change. Act forgiving.

Dave Nichols

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Communion of Saints

The Communion of Saints is an almost mystical belief. I mean that it is mysterious to talk about the dead and the living in the same breath. A friend of mine served a church in Columbia a few years ago and he offered to take my underneath the church where it gets so small that you have to crawl. I declined the invitation. I’m not much on small spaces or closed-in spaces.

Underneath that great church there are people buried; the tombs are under the church.

Many of you know that I graduated from Duke University Divinity School; so, I went to church often at Duke Chapel right next door to the Divinity School. Often people take tours of the chapel; sometimes classes of children are brought on a field trip. One of the docents says that the most asked question that children ask is: “Can we see the dead bodies?”

The Dukes are there in cement. Children’s eyes open wide as they are paraded by the bodies.

Protestants are sometimes squeamish about Saints. We’re suspicious of anybody who is elevated to that status, though in the modern world many Protestants worship their leaders who are bigger than life on TV. And, sometimes Christians do divide up into who is the greatest Christian.

Even within a local congregation, people so easily set themselves up as “better” than the rest of us. So, we are suspicious of anyone who is called Saint. Certainly, if someone showed up and started saying they were a Saint, we would laugh at them.

And yet, we all know people who live such lives of faith that we call them Saints. They are exemplary like Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi. Usually the people that we call Saints are dead and gone. So, their reputation grows in our nostalgic remembrances.

One church I served sat right in the middle of a cemetery. I had to walk through the dead to get to work every morning. You might think that’s a pretty depressing way to start the day.

Buried in church, under the church, or around the church, the dead are all around us in memories and in history. But, the dead and the living are one in God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom of God destroys all boundaries of space and time and age. The Kingdom of God in Jesus even blurs the line between life and death. As Paul says: “Living or dead we still belong to God.”

There’s a beautiful image of heaven in the Book of Revelation. It’s like a church. There’s much singing and praise. God is present. There’s an altar and underneath the altar the Saints are singing and crying out to God.

When I preached this sermon we were celebrating Holy Communion. What better setting in which to share in the meaning of Communion of Saints. We are one with God and one with all the Saints who have gone before. We are one with each other (present day Saints). And, we are one with all the Saints who will come in the future.

In the meantime, the New Testament image in Hebrews 11 is that of an Arena. We are on the playing field and the Saints who have gone before us are in the stands cheering us on. Can’t you hear them saying: “Keep the faith?”

Dave Nichols

Monday, June 13, 2011

Final Comments on SC Annual Conference

Everyone who is a United Methodist should experience a trip to the Annual Conference at least once. For clergy, the Annual Conference is their church, in a sense. Clergy church membership is held in the Annual Conference. Pastors are likely to know each other across the years; so, Annual Conference is for them a time of fellowship and catching up with friends that they haven't seen since last year. The Annual Conference receives those who are called to full-time ministry and examines them. Through the Annual Conference pastors as they start out are tested and tried. If they pass the tests, they are admitted to membership in the conference and ordained to service. Clergy/pastors are ordained to serve now in two ways as Deacon or Elder. Deacons are ordained to service in the local church and may serve as ministers in areas of music, youth, or education. Some serve as Associate pastors in churches but may not be the Senior/lead pastor of a church. They may assist Elders in serving Holy Communion.

Elders are the pastors of churches or chaplains in the military or other settings. Elders are ordained to preach the word, administer the sacraments, order the life of the congregation and serve in the world.

For the clergy, the Conference is their church. For lay people the Annual Conference is an extension of the work and ministry of the local church. Through the Annual Conference we share in common ministry in a larger way than we could possibly do alone. Each church is given a certain number of delegates based on membership. And, Annual Conference membership is adjusted to make sure there are an equal number of lay and clergy members.

Annual Conference also affords us the opportunity to worship in a large setting, and experience the diversity of worship styles throughout the conference.

This year we approved a budget for the Annual Conference that is lower than this year's budget based on the still-sluggish economy. We elected our officers from nominations. And, we established a Task Force to study the number of disticts (currently 12) to determine where the SC population has shifted and how many districts we might now need.

Our Bishop will have been in the SC Annual Conference for eight years next year. The term is eight years in one place, but can be extended for four more years is needed. So, we might have a new bishop appointed next year depending on the needs of the whole Jurisdiction (southeastern).

We elected 36 lay and clergy delegates to attend General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2012. And, those delegates unananimously approve Dr. Tim McClendon as the episcopal candidate (to run for bishop) next year at Jurisdictional Conference at Lake Junaluska.

It was an exhausting and exilerating week as we worked and prayed and worshiped together. Your pastors are back for another year, appointed by the bishop. I am happy to be at Bethtel Church. What a great church.

Dave Nichols

Sunday, June 12, 2011

SC Annual Conference- Days 3 and 4

It's early Sunday morning and we're at the last day of Annual Conference. This year I got a Lay Speaker to preach the traditional services and the Youth Pastor to preach at the contemporary service. And, I am here today for the duration.

I have failed to write at the end of days 3 and 4 because they were long days and when I got back to my room I was too tired to do anything. So, let me summarize the days here and now.

Over the last two days we heard various reports from our seminaries and from our colleges. We listened to a moving report about Epworth Children's Home. We spent a lot of time debating about a resolution on immigration. The resolution which called for us Methodist Christians to be hospitable to immigrants passed but only by a slim margin. It reflected the conflicted feelings that exist in our culture as a whole.

We approved the closing of two churches and we approved some charge line changes- that means some pastors serve more than one church.

We celebrated some new church starts- at least four that are thriving. WE were challenged to consider every church as a parent church for another church. Congregational Development told us that they would give grants to churches that are creating new ministries.

Over and over we were reminded that we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We joined in worship in the African American tradition and a contemporary service with praise band.

Yesterday was an emotional day for me. We had in the morning the service of retirement for pastors who are retiring. As others start their ministries these pastors are coming to retirement. Now, we know that God's call knows no retirement but these are coming to that point in their lives when they will step out of being under appointment by the bishop and do ministry in different ways. We have several retired pastors as a part of Bethel Church: Thurman Anderson, Charlie Graves, Bob Strother, and Ken Bobo. They have continued their ministries among us.

Each gets to says something to the rest of us.

Then, after lunch we came back for the memorial service. We celebrated the lives of those pastors, spouses and others who died since last Annual Conference. Several died who have meant much to me over the years. I did the funeral of one of them. It was an intense and moving experience.

Balloting is done and we have elected all of the clergy and lay delegates for General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.

Today we will have our Ordination Service. In the United Methodist Church, the Bishop ordains pastors. It is always a great service as we set aside those whom God has called to serve the church.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, June 9, 2011

SC Annual Conference - Day 2

Today, started with Holy Communion. At one time, communion was held each morning in a chapel apart from the meeting area. Now, we start the day in the same place where we do other business with a service of worship and Holy Communion. A pastor is assigned the task and leads us. This is a wholy appropriate and wonderful way to begin our work. It is, of course, where we meet Christ at table, in bread and juice. It reminds us that all our work, be it business and discussions about money, or mission, is the Father's business, a holy task.

In addition to celebrating Africa University, our United Methodist University built by and with the whole church, specifically South Carolina Methodists, we talked about a lot of things. Did you know that most of the growth in the United Methodist Church is in Africa? On that troubled continent, in the midst of all kinds of horrors, is our great university. Every church contributes to its support.

We also celebrated our Spartanburg Methodist College, a place rich in history and alive with its modern ministry to students.

We worked on pension and insurance issues for Conference employees and pastors. The church, like all institutions is facing the challenge of rising health costs. With some minor tweaking, we were able to keep premiums the same for 2012.

We also worked on some structural changes. We Methodists like to tinker with structure. But, the trend is toward moving more and more toward the ministry of the local church, where ministry action takes place. We are trying to better connect our churches to resources to enhance their ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

We had another lecture on leadership, and more ballots to elect delegates for General Conference.

Tonight we had a rousing worship experience with an African American Choir and preacher. It was a good experience and a celebration of some of the diversity in our Annual Conference. An offering was taken for the mission to rid Africa of malaria.

We had another full and blessed day of doing God's work together.
Dave Nichols

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Report from Annual Conference - Day 1

I promised to blog each day about Annual Conference to keep you informed about the things going on here.

We left Spartanburg this morning at around 7am and started on our journey to Florence for the SC Annual Conference. We had to be there by 10:30 to register. Then, I went to the clergy session where we approved new pastors for ordination or provisional membership in the conference. Lay delegates had their orientation session at the same time.

After a lunch break the session started at 2pm with organizational stuff. Any group gathering must agree on the rules by which to govern themselves. We establish those rules and then live by them the rest of the week.

At 2:30 or so we had a worship service and sang as every Annual Conference has since the beginning: “And Are We Yet Alive…” The Bishop, Mary Virginia Taylor, preached calling us to remember why were are here- to do God’s work.

Then, we had the first ballot to elect lay and clergy delegates to General Conference. Each Annual Conference gets an equal number of clergy and lay delegates to represent them at General Conference, the national/international body of the church that meets every four years. We get nine lay and nine clergy representatives.

After we have elected the delegates for General Conference, we elect nine lay and nine clergy delegates to go to Jurisdictional Conference at Lake Junaluska. The Jurisdictional Conference elects bishops.

After the ballot we had the report of the Nominating Committee which nominates people for leadership in the conference. Then, we had the first reading of the budget for 2012. Both of these things- the nominations and the budget- will be acted on the last day of Annual Conference.

At around 4:30 we had an hour-long presentation on leadership.

We came back after dinner for a worship service. Then, we had another ballot, and were dismissed for the evening

Bethel Church has five lay delegates plus your two pastors to represent. The number of lay delegates is based on membership. Since we have over 1300 members, we have five lay delegates.

This is a week of doing business, of debating priorities, of sharing worship and fellowship so that we can return to our local churches renewed and inspired to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Apostles' Creed- Holy Catholic Church

In the sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we now come to that phrase that causes some among us to stumble when we say it. I believe in the Holy catholic Church…

Sometimes on Sunday morning it’s interesting to watch those people who get to this phrase and pause. Sometimes visitors don’t know what to do with it. Even our own people who have said this for a lifetime will not feel the most comfortable about saying it.

A friend of mind asked what I was preaching on Sunday last and when I told him “The Holy catholic Church” said, “That’s my least favorite part of the creed.”

Well it’s one of my favorite parts of the creed mainly because I do believe in the church of Jesus Christ spread across the boundaries of age and race and nation. Everyone in every church who follows Jesus Christ is part of the Holy catholic Church.

We are not affirming faith in the Roman Catholic Church, not claiming that we agree with our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church or the Baptist Church, for that matter. We are divided in the Christian church by denomination, by non-denomination, and by independent churches. We are divided by belief and race and practice. We are divided in just about every way you can imagine.

I still find among us Protestants a bit of anti-Catholicism. Not understanding the practices of our brothers and sisters in that church, we put them in a category apart from us. I hesitate to say this but we Christians need someone to look down on- to hate. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?

Jesus never intended that we would be so divided, on the one hand. Read John 17. Jesus prayed for his followers to be one. And, we are one in intention and in devotion to Jesus Christ. One the other hand, God has created us as diverse people. I always say that God sure must love diversity; he sure made a lot of it. It would be nearly impossible for all of us human being Christians to fit into one box or two or three. One of my dear professors used to say that it was good that if a person has to leave one church he/she has some place to go.

I think that we need to work as Christians to love our fellow Christians. Now, I know that there are churches that think that the United Methodist Church is no church. We know better. And, we know that we must work hard to love and forgive each other.

Some of my most memorable experiences as a Christian are those times when I was able to join with Christians of other churches in some practice. We didn’t agree on everything but we did agree on Jesus.

Way back in one of my churches we initiated a week of services during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. That week is January 18-25 every year. We would worship in all our churches that week. I preached one year in the Catholic Church. One year I preached at the Church of God. We may never be the same, but we can be friends in Christ to each other.

What a different world this might be were we to learn to love our fellow Christians. I believe in the Holy catholic Church, the “Universal” church, that whole church of every tribe and nation and age, united in God’s great kingdom of love and grace.

Dave Nichols

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Apostles' Creed- I Believe in the Holy Spirit

I believe in the Holy Spirit. Theologians have said that the Holy Spirit is the least known member of the trinity. God the father is a familiar image- maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ is the savior, God’s only Son, send to save us. In the fullness of time, God sent forth Jesus into the world, born of a woman, born under the law, a full and complete human being. He was human. He was redeemer. He was King of Kings who comes to judge the living and the dead.

Now, I believe in the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Apostles’ Creed is organized around the church’s understanding of the trinity.

In John chapter 14, Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. You can almost sense the deep emotion as you read through the words. Jesus says: “I am going away. I will prepare a place for you so that where I am there you may be also. I will come back for you.” He says: “I will not leave you orphaned.”

The Holy Spirit is the presence of the living God with us. Jesus says: “In the meantime, I will send you the paraclete, the advocate, to be with you forever…” After resurrection, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit…”

I believe that every Christian, every person who has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, is filled with the Holy Spirit. When you receive Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within. Now, that’s not to say that the Spirit has not been present with you from the beginning. We believe that God’s grace is with you from your first breath. But, now when you accept Christ for yourself, the Holy Spirit, God’s own presence fills you. YOU ARE NEVER ALONE!

No matter where you go, or where you find yourself, God is with you. On his death bed, John Wesley said: “the best of all is God is with us…”

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God as close to you as your breath. You’ve all said: “when I pray my prayers don’t get through the ceiling.” But your prayers only have to get as far as your mouth. God is with you.

The Holy Spirit is also about community. In the power of the Spirit, we are given the church. We are given each other so that we won’t get picked off. Watch how people gather. A group is over here. On the other side of the room is another group. Over there is one person alone. Who’s more likely to be picked off? The one who is alone.

God gives us by the Holy Spirit’s power the church so that we have someone always watching out backs. The devil is always looking for ways to pick us off, to isolate us from the groups, to take advantage of the fact that we are alone.

Third, the Holy Spirit is about ministry. Every Christian is given a ministry by the Holy Spirit. We are given gifts to be used for the church and the world. Many and varied gifts are a part of the community of faith. No gift is more important than the others. All gifts give glory to God.

Jacob’s name was changed to Israel which means: “One who wrestles with God.” If we do anything that is less than wrestling with God we are misusing God’s great gifts.

All this is to say that by the Holy Spirit God/Jesus is alive and well and living on planet earth, working and willing his way among us. In addition to being filled by the Holy Spirit we may in fact experience new life and hope when the Spirit comes upon us anew. May we all pray for the further gift of the Holy Spirit giving us all that God has in store for us.

I believe in the Holy Spirit.

Dave Nichols

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Apostles' Creed- Jesus

Continuing with the Apostles’ Creed, I want to comment more on what we are doing with it. I said at the outset that some thinkers say that we don’t know what we believe until we say it. I’ve thought a lot about that. Why is that? Is it because we are more committed to what we believe when we put it into words in public? A wedding is real when, in front of God and everybody, the bride and the groom say: “I will…”

Maybe that’s part of it, but I think there’s more. I think that there is something about our mouths and our voices that seals the deal. Now, the Bible teaches us to be careful about our tongues. Read the Book of James. The tongue is compared to a rudder on a large ship. It’s a small thing but can steer the whole body. Use it carefully.

So, our mouths, our tongues, are instruments of expressing our deepest convictions. We are living in a time when it is getting more and more difficult to say: “I believe in God…” Just say it out loud. Or, say in a group some time when you don’t know the folks well. See what reaction you get.

Even more difficult to say out loud, “I believe in Jesus Christ…” To believe in Jesus these days is to invite ridicule from some. Admittedly, we are living in the Bible belt, so there are a lot of church folks around us. And, we are likely to be friends who are also Christians. But, there are a growing number of people who are not just non-Christians but are hostile to any mention of Jesus.

A creed reminds us of the importance of declaring with our mouths our convictions. Sunday, I said that we believe in Jesus Christ as a human being, as someone who has experienced all of life, even life unto death. Yet, in him was more of God than we have ever seen before. God was in Christ, says Paul, reconciling the world to himself. Jesus gives us the gift of redemption. He, mysteriously, in the cross, gives us God’s love is its fullness. He is the one who seeks to set things right. We’ve messed up, that’s for sure. Jesus comes to make it right again.

Jesus is also the King of Kings. He is exalted. He who descended also ascended to the right hand of God, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. On the third day, he rose from the dead triumphant over sin and death. In victory, Jesus gives us new life, abundant life, eternal life. If…if we go through the gate, the door, that is Jesus.

Jesus is the one who has done something about death forever. All who choose to be in his company, to respond to his love, to accept his gracious gift, are assured of life forever.

Jesus is the one who calls us into the future. He calls us home. Say it out loud: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord….”

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Apostles Creed

I am doing a series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed. We say it every Sunday at church and with our modern fear that we will do something twice, some may have concerns about overdoing it. That is, if you say it too much, you won’t appreciate it. It will become rote and lose its meaning.

People used to be afraid of communion that way. So, it was argued that if you had communion too much you wouldn’t appreciate it. If you had it only once a quarter or so, then you would more likely know its true meaning. Of course, it’s not true that we necessarily lose the meaning of the things we do a lot.

There is always a danger that something will become too routine and lose its orginal meaning, that we will just get tired of it. To avoid this, some try to do something new in worship every week. Variety, while a good thing, doesn’t necessarily give us more of God. We try new things all the time in worship. But, there are things that we do over and over again.

We say the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday for several reasons. One, as someone has said, “You don’t’ know what you believe until you say it…” So, we say what we believe to remind ourselves of the basics of our faith. Sometimes we come to church through struggle and we stand together in church and say the words that are a comfort to us. We say them in church to remember that we are not alone. Even when we can’t say them easily, the others in church help me to say them out loud.

Another reason that we say the Creed every Sunday is because of the age in which we are living. Everything, almost everything, works against our belief in this God of the Christian faith. Also, we are living in an age when many are not reared in the church, as in past times, and they do not know what we believe. So, when they come to church or visit, the Creed helps us say in a few words what we believe.

I have often said that I like to say it every Sunday if for no other reason than to say: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins…”

The Apostles’ Creed comes from an earlier version, probably called the Roman Creed. It probably was put into its current shape by the 8th or 9th century. Originally, we believe that it was a baptismal creed. Persons who were converted to Christ were trained in the substance of faith, belief in the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to be able to say it at baptism. “I believe in God, the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”

I have in my ministry run into some persons who resented any creed, remembering a time when they felt forced to say the right words. Maybe that’s true for some. Maybe some have come from a setting in which they were manipulated and “made” to say something. However, for most of us the creed stands as a guard against believing in a generic god.

Our God is specific. What we know about this God is what has been revealed to us through the scriptures. Our God is a god who has done certain things and made certain moves in history and in our lives. We proclaim it gladly and offer it joyfully.

I believe. Stand up and say it boldly, freely, I believe. It’s a good feeling to believe.

Dave Nichols

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Dawn of Easter

Easter comes out of the long night of darkness, sin, and despair. When everything else had run its course, when there was no other hope, then God his own Son into the world to save us. God sent Jesus to show us just how far he would go to have us.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem on that donkey to show that he is truly king. Jesus, his feet dangling, rides right down the center of Main Street of the world into the teeth of power, earthly power and dominion. Without fear of what they could do to him, without fear for the greatest empire that maybe the world has ever seen, Jesus came. Jesus came with only the power of love to counter the power of might.

But, maybe Rome wouldn’t notice this Galilean if his own people had not been so agitated. The religious leaders were the ones so much offended that they were willing to join Rome in doing away with him. Just stop this Jesus from talking.

After the darkness of his suffering and death, the disciples hid away wondering what might happen to them now. But, on the dawn of the first day of the week, according to Matthew, the women went early to the tomb. They went to see dead Jesus, when the earth shook and an angel descended to sit on the stone rolled away from the tomb. In a last act of defiance the angel sat on the very stone that had kept the tomb closed. The angel said: “He is not here; he is risen…gone ahead of you into Galilee.

Then, the women saw Jesus; out of nowhere Jesus came to them and said: “Greetings.” The women took hold of his feet. In all of the Gospel stories about Jesus’ resurrection, they touch Jesus’ body. In Matthew, they take hold of his feet, as if to say: “Are you real? Is it really you?”

And, while the women were filled with life, there before the tomb the Roman guards who had been so powerful in the darkness on Thursday night and outside Jesus’ tomb, were now like…dead.

In God’s great Kingdom, the powers of this world are no power. Nothing, not even, death has the last word. In this Kingdom, injustice is made right and hope wins.

A friend of mine says that he was visiting a man just before his death, actually only two days before he died. My friend, a pastor, asked the dying man what he was going through. The man said: “I’m not afraid because of Jesus.”

My friend said something pious like: “Well, we all have hope in what God will do for us in the future…”

The man said: “No, I have hope because of what Jesus did for me in the past. When I turned away from Jesus, and went my own way, or got lost, or misplaced my values, or moved away from him, he always came back for me. Even when I was not looking for him he was looking for me. He always came back for me. So, I don’t think something as silly as death is going to keep his love for coming back for me one more time…”

Such is our Easter faith and hope. Such is the God who went the distance and brought Jesus forth on Easter Day at dawn. What a dawn it was!

Dave Nichols

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Good Grief

I’m finally getting back to posting here after a time away from it. It’s just been, shall we say, interesting around here, the last month. So, here goes. I am in the middle of my sermon series for Lent called: “I want to…” The idea is that Lent has a lot to do with desire and passion. Lent is the season of Jesus’ passion (desire to do the Father’s will). Passion also means suffering and devotion.

Lent, also, is about our passions and desires, as we seek to draw closer to God through sacrifice, giving, and worship. Using the Gospel Lessons I have work around this theme. Sunday, April 10th, I am working with John Chapter 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus.

There are so many interesting details in this passage. John tells us that Jesus is close friends with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. So, someone makes sure that Jesus knows that Lazarus is sick. But, Jesus does not go immediately; he continues his mission.

Then, word comes that Lazarus is dead. That’s when Jesus makes preparations to go to Bethany. The disciples warn Jesus that the last time they were there things got testy. Still Jesus goes. Thomas, we know Thomas, says: “We will go with you to death, if need be…” Really?

Jesus arrives and the wake is still going on. Drinks and food and support for the family. Martha comes running to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died.” How many times have I heard you and me say that: “Jesus, if you had been here…?”

Jesus tells her that line that we quote at every funeral: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die yet shall they live. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die…”

Lots of tears- even Jesus weeps. Then after prayer, Jesus tells them to take the stone away. He calls to Lazarus: “Lazarus, come forth…” And, Lazarus stumbles out of the grave looking like a mummy. Jesus says: “Unbind him and let him go…” The Greek word behind “unbind” is the same word used in the Gospels for the time when Jesus sent his disciples for a donkey to ride on Palm Sunday. Jesus says: “Untie him and bring him to me…” Untie him, unbind him and let him go.

The stone rolled away, women weeping at the tomb, grief, all bring us a glimpse of the coming Easter.

This Sunday I am working around the notion: “I Want to Get Past My Grief”. I will use the image of Mary and Martha in grief. Jesus experiences grief and is present and brings resurrection.

All the big holidays- Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day- are a mixture of joy and sadness for many. Even as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter we are remembering sadly those who are not here now.

Most of us live our lives in shallow ways, avoiding anything that will send us into a struggle. But, grief always moves us into the deep waters of life. So we come on Sundays bringing our griefs and sorrows with us to meet Jesus. At every grave we stand and wait for the day when Jesus will say to us: “Unbind him/her and set them free…”

Dave Nichols

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Holy Lent

The church teaches us that every season of celebration (Easter and Christmas) needs a season of preparation. Lent (spring) is that time of preparation for Easter. For forty days and nights, excluding Sundays, we are invited to keep a holy Lent to get ready for what’s coming.

Some still say that Lent is Catholic and we shouldn’t do anything that comes from the Catholic Church. My response is: “Everything came from the Catholic Church.” In the beginning, the Catholic Church was all there was; so, everything that we have or do or practice had its origins in the Catholic Church. Those who still persist in this are Anti-Catholic, and I can’t imagine why- unless they decide that they have all the answers and all the truth. If that’s true they don’t like Methodists very much either. Don’t get me started

Lent, then, is a time of preparation for the Easter celebration. It’s forty days and nights, reminiscent of Moses on Mount Pisgah. Scripture says that Moses did not eat or drink anything for 40 days while he met with God. It also reminds us of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years. And, Lent begins with the reading, in this year, of Matthew 4:1-11, in which Jesus is tempted after 40 days of fasting and prayer.

We prepare for celebration by drawing close to God through the practices of the church. Often churches offer more studies and prayer groups. Some churches in our community are holding other weekly worship services. Of course, we worship on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. We invite each other to engage in prayer and study and fasting and service. Some will skip a meal a week and give the money to feed the hungry.

All of this is to help us. God is close to us for all of God. It is we who need some extra time of preparation, some extra time of consideration about the meaning of it all.

Some will give something up. I invited the congregation on Ash Wednesday to “give it up” for Lent. I even offered a top ten list of some options. One was to fast from all electronics during Lent. Some of our people nearly had a heart attack just thinking about giving up computers (I’m tying on one now), and Iphones, and televisions, and…

A friend of mine told me something –food- that he was giving up during Lent. I said: “Oh, you like that a lot…” He said: “No, I hate it…” I told him that the point was give up something that we liked to make us think for a time seriously about God instead.

Lent is the time when we join Jesus on his way to the cross. At Transfiguration, we saw Jesus high and lifted up with Moses and Elijah, a vision of beauty and wonder. The very next Sunday, Jesus is in the desert being tempted by the devil. Jesus has made the big turn now; he has turned toward Jerusalem.

So, as we study and pray and serve and fast and give up, we do so because of the one, Jesus, who crawled up on a cross and gave everything up for us.

So, let us during this season, give everything up for…him.

Dave Nichols

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Everyone knows the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference, the one from the other.

We come now to the last phrase: the wisdom to know. Proverbs Chapter 9 is at the heart of Biblical wisdom. This wisdom is knowledge but it’s more than that. This wisdom is information but it’s more. This wisdom comes to all who know God, and therefore is a gift of God.

There are three ways that we search for the wisdom of faith and the faith of wisdom. God grant me the wisdom to know…

The first is with trembling. Ellen Davis, Wisdom literature scholar, says that this “fear of the Lord” has an element of “ordinary” fear in it. Then, she points to the time in Exodus when Moses is meeting with God and the people are waiting on a word and they are trembling. At the heart of Biblical wisdom is that verse: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Alyce McKenzie says that Biblical wisdom has this in it- the bended knee. We come to this God overwhelmed by his power and love.

Like the Lenten hymn says: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble…”

She grew up in the church attending with her family every Sunday. When she was a teen, she joined the youth group and rose through the ranks of leadership. She went to college and got married. Now, 31, she has two children and she and her family go to church, serve on committees, and are active in every aspect.

She went to a rather ordinary meeting with a friend and something that was said or done moved her to take a fresh look at her faith. The next week she said to her pastor: “I grew up in the church. I have heard and seen the cross so much that am numb to it. I have been playing church. I am not ready to stop all the game playing and make Jesus my savior.”

To meet this God is to come to the realization that all of this is real. To fear the Lord is to take God and our faith seriously.

The second way that we attain to this wisdom is through trusting.

Ben Patterson tells this story: “In 1988, three friends and I climbed Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park. Two of us were experienced mountaineers. I was not one of the experienced two. Our base camp was less than 2,000 feet from the peak, but the climb to the top and back was to take the better part of a day, due in large part to the difficulty of the glacier one must cross to get to the top. The morning of the climb we started out chattering and cracking jokes.

As the hours passed, the two mountaineers opened up a wide gap between me and my less-experienced companion. Being competitive by nature, I began to look for shortcuts to beat them to the top. I thought I saw one to the right of an outcropping of rock - so I went, deaf to the protests of my companion.

Perhaps it was the effect of the high altitude, but the significance of the two experienced climbers not choosing this path did not register in my consciousness. It should have, for 30 minutes later I was trapped in a cul-de-sac of rock atop the Lyell Glacier, looking down several hundred feet of a sheer slope of ice, pitched at about a 45 degree angle. ... I was only about 10 feet from the safety of a rock, but one little slip and I wouldn't stop sliding until I landed in the valley floor some 50 miles away! It was nearly noon, and the warm sun had the glacier glistening with slippery ice. I was stuck and I was scared.

It took an hour for my experienced climbing friends to find me. Standing on the rock I wanted to reach, one of them leaned out and used an ice ax to chip two little footsteps in the glacier. Then he gave me the following instructions: Ben, you must step out from where you are and put your foot where the first foothold is. When your foot touches it, without a moment's hesitation swing your other foot across and land it on the next step. When you do that, reach out and I will take your hand and pull you to safety.

That sounded real good to me. It was the next thing he said that made me more frightened than ever. But listen carefully: As you step across, do not lean into the mountain! If anything, lean out a bit. Otherwise, your feet may fly out from under you, and you will start sliding down.

I don't like precipices. When I am on the edge of a cliff, my instincts are to lie down and hug the mountain, to become one with it, not to lean away from it! But that was what my good friend was telling me to do. I looked at him real hard. ... Was there any reason, any reason at all, that I should not trust him? I certainly hoped not! So for a moment, based solely on what I believed to be the good will and good sense of my friend, I decided to say no to what I felt, to stifle my impulse to cling to the security of the mountain, to lean out, step out, and traverse the ice to safety. It took less than two seconds to find out if my faith was well founded. It was.

To save us, God often tells us to do things that are the opposite of our natural inclination. Is God loving and faithful? Can we trust him?

He is. We can.
-Ben Patterson, Waiting, Leadership, Vol. 15, Number 1.

A man lay in the hospital bed when a nurse came in to draw blood for what seemed like the tenth time. The nurse was gracious. She said: “I am sorry to have to do this to you again.”

The man said, with arms open, “I am in your hands; do with me as you need to do…”

We open our hearts, our lives, to God and we say in faith: “I am in your hands; do with me as you want to do…”

A third way that we attain to this Biblical wisdom is by taking directions.

I don’t have a GPS in my car but my friend does. He showed me how it works. A woman with a British accent tells him to turn in 1.4 miles. He loves that. But, instead he turns left, and the voice doesn’t know what to do. It says:

A man was lost on a country road in rural Alabama. He saw a farmer sitting on a fence and asked him the way to Montgomery. The man listened, thanked him, and drove on. Thirty minutes later he was back where he started. The same farmer was still sitting on the fence. The man said: “I am back where I started from. What happened?”

The farmer said: “I wasn’t about to give you directions to Montgomery until I knew that you could take directions.

Philip Yancey tells the story of a friend of his who went swimming in a large lake at dusk. As he was paddling at a leisurely pace about a hundred yards offshore, a freak evening fog rolled in across the water. Suddenly he could see nothing: no horizon, no landmarks, no objects or lights on shore. Because the fog diffused all light, he could not even make out the direction of the setting sun. Yancey then tells how his friend splashed about in absolute panic. He would start off in one direction, lose confidence, and turn 90 degrees to the right. Or left - it made no difference which way he turned. He could feel his heart racing uncontrollably. He would stop and float, trying to conserve energy and force himself to breathe slower. Then he would blindly strike out again. At last he heard a faint voice calling from shore. He pointed his body to the sounds and followed them to safety.
Disappointment With God
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1988), 203

God promises that if we seek his wisdom and ask him that when things get foggy and scary we will hear his voice saying: “come this way…”

As Proverbs says: “This is the way; walk in it. This is the way that leads to life.”

Dave Nichols

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Faith to Accept

This is the second in the series of sermons on The Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference

Last week I took the second phrase and looked at the courage to change. This past Sunday I took the first phrase and worked on the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

One the one hand I hesitate to say that there are things that you and I cannot change. There have been some things in history that were declared unchangeable that people of good will changed. I’m an optimist in faith; so, I have been reared to think of myself in this world as a change agent. But, says the prayer, there are simply some things in life that cannot be changed.

Three areas where this might apply are: 1. Past regrets, 2. Unchangeable situations, and 3. other people.

Do you have any past regrets? Someone on the way out of church Sunday said: “I don’t have any regrets…” Then, he followed his words with hearty laughter. We do all of us have things that we regret, but the prayer helps us to remember that they are past and hopefully done.

Reynolds Price tells the story about his professor at Cambridge in England. Professor Nigel went to see his mother who was near death. She was lying in the bed, her eyes closed. Thinking her asleep he stayed awhile and then left. As he opened the door to leave, his mother said clearly, “Nigel, my only regret is my economies…” Price explains that the British use this word “economies” to mean stinginess. I regret my stinginess in giving love, in helping when I could have, in giving as much as I might have. My economies.

God grant me the serenity to accept past regrets and let them go…

There any many unchangeable situations in life. Sometimes things happen to us that have nothing directly to do with us but still they affect us. Sometimes someone does something to us or we do something that creates an unchangeable situation.

A man learning to fly felt suddenly abandoned by his teacher. Seated beside him in the plane, the teacher suddenly cut the plane’s engine and the plan started to spin out of control. The student said to the teacher: “How dare you desert me now.” After a while the teacher took charge of the plane and landed it. The teacher said to the student: “There is no situation in that plane that I could not get you out of…”

The student said that it was like God was saying to him: “There is no situation in life that that I cannot get you through or out of…there is nothing that can happen to you that I cannot help you through…I am with you always…It will be alright.

There are things in my life that I wish were different back there in my past, but some things cannot be changed, even by me or you.

Then, there’s the reality of other people. Some people live in deep anguish that they are unable to change other people. And yet, we who have lived long enough know that no person can change another. The only person who can change you is you.

Young couples planning to get married sitting in my office are so much in love. I love to ask them: “What do you think needs to be changed in the other?” They struggle to think of something. After all, they are in love. The other is at this moment perfect. But, if you probe enough, something comes out. Then, I say, you cannot change the other. He can change him. She can change her. All you can do is love them as they are.

You can have an influence on someone. You have the power to lead someone maybe, but change must come when the other decides.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

One person says that we crucify ourselves between two thieves: “Fear of the future and past regrets…”

We all long for serenity, and serenity comes only from the grace of God.

Winston Churchill planned his own funeral. At the end of a powerful service, a bugler arose on one side of the altar and play taps. “Day is done”. It’s over. Then, on the other side a bugler played Reveille: “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning…”

John Claypool says that this was to say: “All your worst times are not your last times…”

God give us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change…

Dave Nichols

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Faith to Change

I am beginning a three-part sermon series on the Serenity Prayer. I have always been fascinated by that prayer, maybe because I yearn for serenity. Serenity means simply “peace”. And, who doesn’t want it. When I think of peace in this sense, I think of that tough inner security that nothing can fully take away. Surely, no one has a peace that cannot be touched at all by the circumstances of life, but all who profess to be followers of Jesus have access to a power that nothing can fully take away. Serenity.

There’s no doubt about it. We all yearn for it.

Where did the Serenity Prayer come from? We don’t know for sure. Some say that it goes back as far as the year 500 AD, or maybe earlier. What we do know is that in 1934, Reinhold Neibuhr used a form of it in a chapel service at Union Theological Seminary.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference one from the other.

We do know that around 1941 AA started picking it up as the prayer that best expressed what they were doing and going through. At first, everything that they sent out had the Serenity Prayer on it. Every communication, every meeting, was saturated with this prayer. You can still find it in some of the literature of AA and you might still hear it prayed at some of their meetings.

The first sermon I am going with the second petition: the faith to change.

Change is in everything. Of all the things in life that you can’t count on, one thing you can count on for sure is that things change. And, living in this world we are in now, we might as that things change fast. Just when you get used to things being one way, they change. It’s been said of the weather in South Carolina: if you don’t like it, wait a day or two and it will change.

The world around us changes. Politics change. And, we, from the first moment of birth, are on this movement of change. We move from one house to another, from one town to another. Some today are moving from one country to another for work. Sickness, death, stress, all bring us change. And, we can fight the change that comes into our lives or we can find a way to embrace change as God’s way of making us.

God give me the courage to change the things I can. Often I am praying for others to change; very seldom am I praying that I will change myself. And, yet, this is where the prayer takes us. What about you needs changing? Admit what needs to be changed. Is it anger, fear, the need to control, the need to believe that everything has to be perfect, the need to be right? What needs to be changed in you?

As some people say today: denial is not a river in Egypt. Stop denying and confess, admit the changes that you need to make in your own life.

Then, the prayer invites us to let God do the changing. Instead of turning to God, we often just try harder or try to change ourselves. And, usually, our attempts at change on our own result in frustration. Just think of the New Year’s resolutions that you and I make.

Let God in Christ be your guide. Tell God what you want to change- or to show you what you need to change. And, then ask God to lead you in the change.

One of the main principles of Christian faith is the notion that people can change. We don’t have to stay the way we are. Things can get better.

God grant us the courage to change.

Dave Nichols

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Last Sunday, we celebrated the Baptism of our Lord Sunday by reaffirmation of our Baptism or renewal of our baptism. And, during the service, the pastor tells the congregation: Remember your Baptism and be thankful.

In Holy Communion, Jesus says: “Do this in remembrance of me…”

Remember is a big word with the church. Now, in our world of literal truth, some try to make this word “remember” a flat, literal, thing. Remember is reduced to a simple thing like remembering an appointment or remembering to lock the doors at night. You know, you’re driving down the road and you forget where you’re going. You can’t remember.

One of the most frightening things for many in old age is a disease that robs a person of memory. George Bush, the Elder, was president and visited in a nursing home. He came up to a lady in a wheel chair and shook her hand. He said to her: “Do you know who I am?” She said: “No, but the lady at the desk can tell you…”

Remember your baptism and do this in remembrance of me is more than just remembering to pick up the eggs. Now, some say that it’s nothing more. You receive Holy Communion and you think a nice thought about the meaning of it. You remember it; you remember Jesus.

It’s more than that. We do forget- almost everything. We say we won’t; but we do forget.

When Israel was ready to move into the Promised Land, Moses begged them: “When you get there, remember the Lord your God. When you eat fruit that you didn’t harvest, and you live in houses that you didn’t build- when you get wealthy remember that it was God who gave you the power to get this wealth. Remember the Lord your God.

When we are baptized, as a baby or an adult, we are given a great gift. We are given a relationship to God in Jesus Christ, and we are enrolled in a memory, a history, a story.

In church we call this “anamnesis” which is a Greek word that means “remembrance”. See how close the word is to “amnesia” which means to forget.

It’s more than just think a nice thought about it; we remember. In church, we enter into the memory and the memory overtakes us. So, we sing at Lent, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord….” Forget being literal…when we’re gathered at table, there’s the juice and cup, there are the other disciples and right across from us is Jesus of Nazareth.

People who are baptized as babies are accustomed to saying: “I don’t remember when I was baptized…” Well, if all you can remember is what you have experienced, then you’re lost. We remember the whole story; I wasn’t there or was I?”

We read about Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan, and for a moment we’re there. Standing among the others by the Jordan, we see the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.

Remember your baptism. Do this in remembrance of me. It all comes together in church. Open your heart and your mind; you’re more than just remembering to get a loaf of bread. We remember when we were slaves in Egypt and God sent Moses. We remember when David was anointed King and…We remember that Job lost everything. We remember that night in Bethlehem and that day in Jerusalem. It’s all ours; we remember.

See you in Church!
Dave Nichols

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Next Sunday, January 9, is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. And, it’s Matthew’s year to tell the story. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. Baptism has some history in Judaism. If you converted to Judaism, you were bathed, to move you from one way of living to another.

John’s Baptism was for the repentance of sins, to get people ready for the coming Kingdom of God. Some scholars believe that John was a member of the Essene community which was a group that had moved out to the desert, away from the evil city, to get ready for the coming Kingdom of God. We learned about the Essenes when we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.

See Jesus coming up out of nowhere. John is in the River Jordan baptizing. Others are waiting. All of a sudden, John turns around and there in front of him is Jesus of Nazareth. “Baptize me,” says Jesus.

John protests: “You come to be baptized by me; you need to baptize me.” Jesus is the coming Kingdom of God. John has prophesied that he is baptizing with water but there is one coming after me who will baptize you with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Scholars say that reflected in that conversation is the church’s embarrassment that Jesus would be baptized. If John’s baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, they why would Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus simply says: “Let’s do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus is saying: “I am coming down here, down into the water, down to your level. I am standing with you in this. Let me come to this place of beginning, just as you have come to this place of beginning.”

Jesus is baptized and there’s a dove and a voice from heaven.

I do think it’s interesting that Jesus, rather than identifying himself with the Pharisees or the Sadducees, he identifies himself with the Essene community.
Not with the keepers of the law who spend their time arguing the minutest detail of its meaning, but he comes to the Essene community that is getting ready for the Kingdom of God.

Did Jesus need to be baptized or not? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was baptized and with that he has launched his public ministry. We believe that Jesus is about 30 years old here.

Every year we rehearse the story of Jesus: birth, life, death, resurrection. Jesus was baptized.

The United Methodist Church will baptize a person in any of the three historic modes: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. Every once in a while, someone who has not been baptized will request to be immersed. And, we will do it.

And, like the majority of the Christian church we baptize babies who are children of Christian parents. In the New Testament, there is evidence that when someone was converted to Christian faith the whole “household” was baptized.

Just as a child receives the gift of American citizenship by being the child of an American, a child of Christians is given Christian identity. It is a gift. Someone may say: we should wait until the child is old enough to choose to be an American for himself; no, we give them that identity for themselves- before they can think or choose for themselves. That decision is just too important to leave to later. They will as adults choose whether to accept that identity or not.

The same is true with baptism. We baptize the baby, nurture and teach the baby, until that child is old enough to decide for himself or herself whether to accept that identity and Jesus Christ for him/herself. Some scholars say that that baby is as much a Christian as he/she will ever be- since we are Christians because of the grace of God.

Everyone who comes into the church must be baptized. It is an initiation rite. It is the way in. It is the door to the body of Christ.

Jesus, freshly baptized, is now ready to do battle with the devil.

Dave Nichols

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