Wednesday, December 7, 2016

ADVENT

I seem to be having a time keeping my appointment with this blog. If you're a regular reader, please forgive me. No excuses. So, for now, I'm back and what a great time to come back to this task.

If there's anything that makes me want to write and reflect, it's Advent/Christimas. It still bothers me that we want to rush to quickly to the Christmas Season. I'm sure that a lot of the cultural stuff is about commerce. Why else would we start playing Christimas music on the radio and TV right after Halloween? When I was a boy, we would wait at least until after Thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving the Macy's parade was held in New York and at the end of the parade was jolly, old, St. Nick. Here we go; Christmas was near.

But, now, without fail, as soon as Halloween is over, the culture just sort of skips over Thanksgiving and goes right to Christmas. I was taught, in the dark ages, that we should teach our people to wait on Christmas, to take advantage of Advent as a time to pray and repent and reflect on the meaning of it all. For instance, don't sing any Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. Then, sing them for the 12 days of Christmas, up to Epiphany. That's what they taught me. And, still I try not to have us sing any Christmas music for a couple of Sundays, though some of you will come to me and say: "Why can't we sing the Christmas carols?" And, of course, the appropriate response is: it isn't Christmas yet. It's like trying to hold back a team of wild horses.

So, why is it that every year we get earlier in our celebration of Christmas? Commercialism? Yes, no doubt, we want our merchants, and therefore, everyone, to benefit from the huge buying and selling of this season. I save for another day any comment about over-commercialization and all that. For now, I acknowledge that we are into that part of it- at least some.

But, I think there's more to it than that. I think there's something about Christmas that makes us want to make it hurry up and get here. What if the world, as we know it, is often so bad and we think of Christmas as so good and happy, that we can't wait for it to get here. Sure, there are some people who are sad, and for good reason. But, on the whole, Christmas brings out the best in people, the best in us. The grouchiest among us find some reason to give and share and be happy, if for only a moment.

There's just something about a young mother and a baby born out there in the middle of nowhere, angels singing, shepherds worshipping, Magi bringing gifts. There where the stench of the world is greatest is that beautiful baby, Son of God.

See, we do need Advent to remind us that deep within and without us is this deep desire and yearning for joy and happiness. And the only joy and happiness that we know that is truly a gift is wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David...Glory to God in the highest and earth...

Joy to the world! Joy Indeed!

Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

KEEPING THE FAITH

I started to write this column several times but shyed away from it. I am always reticent to share my own feelings too much. It's not about me, I tell myself. However, as a pastor in the church, what I think and feel does matter. So here goes...

Several years ago, I was sitting at the Pastor's Convocation at Duke. For many years, I went every year. Regretfully, I have not been back in a while. This particular year the speaker at this gathering was a guy named Rob Bell. Some of you may have heard of him. He was at one time the pastor of a huge church, and he travelled around the country to speak like a rock star. Over the years, he gathered quite a following of young people.

Duke usually likes to be on the cutting edge of change, particularly in the church. So, here was Rob Bell to talk to us about church and the world as he saw it. I have to admit that he is a very good speaker, relying of course on powerpoint and pictures on a screen to speak to us.

The thing that still sticks with me is the first thing he said. He said: "What must it be like to be a pastor in a church that is dying, fading away." This was a while ago, but I still feel the impact of that question. I especially feel the weight of it. I know it's not just about me, but I feel guilty that our church, the United Methodist Church is in this position. And, whether they will admit it or not, the whole Christian Church in the western world is in trouble. Sure, there are some successes out there; new Messiahs arise by the dozens. Mega Church is heralded as the wave of the future, though many prognosticators say that even the large Mega Churches are on the wane, as they draw off members from other more traditional churches. But, on the whole, the western church is in trouble. Some even go so far as to say that Christianity is in trouble.

The fastest growing churches are located in Africa, and now China is beginning to grow some in Christian faith. But, in America, we are praying and searching for ways to listen to where the Holy Spirit is leading us. Even Christians, who are among the most faithful members of the church do not attend worship or study or anything as much as they used to.

In a recent meeting at my church, we went around the circle bemoaning the fact that church attendance is down everywhere. Some said: "When I was a child here, this place was full of people." Well, yes, that was fifty years ago. All churches were filled with people. After some more whining and complaining, I said: "Wait a minute! Go around this room. None of you go to church like you used to." They all had to agree. Talk to any Christian in the Western world and they will tell you that everyone who studies these things says that Christian faith is in trouble- not growing.

So, the question that we ask mostly is: what can we do about it? For much of the church, the blame is laid on the the clergy. We aren't doing things like we used to do them; or, we aren't working hard enough.

And yet, if you asked the average pastor about their work load, you would find that they are usually exhausted and afraid to take a day off. A friend of mine, a pastor in another denomination, went on vacation and came back to find that he had been voted out as pastor. Thankfully, that's not a worry for United Methodists, not usually. Still the stress of working with people alone is enough to break anyone over time. Add to that worries about money and facilities and programs and all the rest and you got the picture.

Now, I would be the first to say that I love what I do. I am doing it still because Jesus came along the shore and said: "Follow me". I went and I've never been sorry. So, I refuse to despair over the mission of Jesus Christ and his church. It's his church after all.

I will over the next few weeks address some of the issues that some see that the modern church faces as we move forward in our faith.

I hope that you will read these articles and join in prayer around the issues raised.
Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Being Religious

Several years ago, a Mega Church pastor had been accused of being hateful toward certain people. So, in an interview, trying to be clever, he said: “I don’t hate anybody but religious people.” I thought immediately: “Does he not think he’s religious?” I listened as he explained that he hated church-goers or people who are religious. I know what he meant. He meant that he hated anyone who wasn’t in his movement and therefore, right and not religious. OK. I get the modern-day attempt by some to play on the cultural idea that all religion is bad. Now, we live in the Bible belt where religion is a lot more popular than in other parts of the country or world. Sure, but there is still this underlying notion that religious people are hypocrites. That’s troubling to a pastor and it should be troubling to church people, Christians. Admittedly, there are some things about religious people that bother me too. Someone once said to me that if you’re going to lose your mind, it’s come to be about money or religion. Well, that is hard to dispute. There are a lot of people who are religious who are off their rockers- though I would argue that there are just as many non-religious people who are off their rockers. And, there is something ugly about religious people who claim to be followers of Jesus who are just a mean and hateful and racist and bigoted as the rest of the world. Certainly, we do expect that following Jesus ought to make some difference in people’s lives, particularly when it comes to how they treat other people. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be followers of Jesus and lose our tendency to sin? No, we’re sinners; I don’t care who baptized us. But, we should be able to expect some progress in faith, shouldn’t we? I mean, a person who hates others should be able to see that over time, in the presence of Jesus and worship and service, that he/she goes from hating to loving others. If not, something is wrong, of course. And, it’s deeply troubling. I would go nuts if I found out that one of my church members/Christians was in the KKK. When I was pastor in Clemson, someone was interviewed in the paper from the KKK and claimed that they had a KKK church. I wrote in our newsletter then that that was impossible. It’s a KKK group, a clan, but never, under any circumstances, a church. That word is reserved for the people of God who are living toward the Kingdom of God, where all are welcomed, where all come from one blood, where all are precious. I would claim that that Mega Church pastor was indeed religious, as religious as I am religious. Religion is about the “ordering” of life in Christ/God. It is an establishing of priorities and the naming of the things that are important. It is claiming and being claimed by God in Christ for the Kingdom of God, and then doing all in the power of the Holy Spirit to live out that faith in love in the world. No one is perfect. And, if we were, you wouldn’t want to be around us. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to goodness, pretends to faith, pretends to love. We should all hate that, even in ourselves. Jesus calls us to lay aside our pretending and to be real before God. We are sinners, that’s for sure. And, somehow, in God’s grace, we are moved from hate to love for all. Jesus said: “Do no practice your religion in front of people to draw attention to yourself…” No, do what you do religiously, regularly, to call attention to Christ and his love. Blessings! Dave Nichols

Thursday, May 5, 2016

We Are One

Recently, the Lectionary has moved us over in to the Gospel of John.  And, If I had to name a theme hymn for John it would be: 

          We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord.
          We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord.
          We pray that all unity will one day be restored, and 
          They'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

Get it?  I'm not sure we do.  Jesus leaves and gives us the eleventh commandment in John: Love one another.  They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another..."  No question about the importance of love here for Jesus, and the church.  But, how does it work itself out in practical terms?  Or does it?

Even the most committed Christian has to admit that we don't always get it right.  You could say that if we loved each other (all Christians) we could get together in one church.  Not!!  Or, you could say that if we truly loved each other we could get along in the church we're in.  Not!!  Rodney King's question echoes down to us: Why can't we all just get along?

Even in the smallest of spiritual entities, the family, we struggle to make love the center of our quest.  So, in church, Jesus brings us together with all our differences.  And, for the most part, we do well with love with those who are like us.  We love those who are like us politically, morally, in terms of belief.  We have so politicized the whole of life in this county.  Politics is God.  We live and die by politics.  Maybe because we expect too much from politics.  I hate to say this but politics is not God.

Never has American life been more fragmented.  Or, maybe we've always been fragmented, but we just didn't have it so in front of us on TV and Internet twenty four hours a day.  I don't know.  But, it seems that we've reached a pinnacle of fragmentation.  

It doesn't explain everything but I think that this is the ultimate outcome of a philosophy of individualism which basically says that there is not central authority..  Every person is their own god, their own religion.  

IN a great book of the last century, a religious sociologist says this same thing.  He describes the typical person as someone name Sheila who lives out her Sheilaism, her religion is herself.  And, the rest of us, well, we're just tolerated so she can get what she wants.  Ourselves, our group, our lives are made the essence of all things.  How it affects me is the great value to be lived.  No concern for the common good or for anyone else other than my own.  

So, here we are.  We Christians are not much of an example for the rest of the world.  We just get in the filth with them.  But, Jesus knows that love matters more than anything.  The community of faith, the church, is to be a body of Christ, a community of love and forgiveness.  Love one another.  Love one another.  

Not tolerate each other, or put up with each other, but love, with all our differences and all our problems.  They will know we are Christians by our love.  Period.

Blessings!
David E. Nichols

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lenten Journeying

Lent started for me and my church on Ash Wednesday.  We all were marked with ashes and heard the historic words of scripture: You are dust and to dust you shall return.  It's a powerful time when we look into each other's eyes and proclaim the truth of what it means to be human.  We could not do this were it not for also knowing that God is love.

Just two days before I was struck by the "crud", cough and cold and had to spend some time at home, away from anyone.  It was a time to get ready for the power of Ash Wednesday.  So, after some time of sickness and prayer time, I came to worship and was able to lead the church in remembering that indeed we are mortal sinners.

Then, immediately two persons died and I was involved in their funerals.  One of the people who died is someone who had been away from this area for over 20 years; the other, was a faithful member of our community of faith.  What followed was typical.  I met with the out of town family and got to know the person who had died, and then I planned the service.  The other person, here and faithful, had a son who was special needs.  I went with family and others to tell him, but before we got it out, he guessed why we were there.  He asked: "Is something wrong with Dad?"  His mother said: "Yes".  Then, he asked: "Did daddy die?"  His mother nodded her head and we went inside to embrace and pray and do what we do in our humanness.

The two funeral services were both on Sunday afternoon: one at 3pm; the other, at 4:30.  Of course, they were at opposite ends of town, but I though I could make it work.  We always try to accommodate the families' needs and the funeral homes needs.  So, in a weak moment, I agreed.

The 3pm service went well but we were not done at the church until nearly 4pm and then it was almost 4:30 by the time we got everyone to the graveside.  So, I did the committal and ran to my car.

I got to the 4:30 service at 4:50 and found a chapel full of people at the Mortuary waiting on me.  I ran in and consulted with everyone, apologized, and we got started.  An hour later, we had worshipped God and it was a time of celebration and emotional sharing.  A number of people shared their love for the deceased and the family.

I went to the door and spoke to as many others as I could.  Then, I went to my car to let Mary know that I was on the way home.  Exhausted, I collapsed in my chair and ate supper.  Watching TV I drifted off to sleep.  

It hit me that this was Lent and a time of greater self-giving and love.  And, it reminded me that in our humanity we meet the love of God with us.  This is what it feels like to give ourselves away for Christ.  It is utterly exhausting and wonderfully fulfilling.  You've felt that way as you've poured yourself out for family or friends or church.  What a way to begin this Season of Lent- on my knees.


Blessings!
Dave Nichols

Monday, February 1, 2016

YOU KNOW IT'S LENT WHEN...

You know it’s Lent when Transfiguration Sunday happens. This is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. You know it’s Lent when people start talking about Easter, although it’s not appropriate yet to talk about it. It doesn’t help that the stores start decorating for Easter with candy and bunnies, etc. You know it’s Lent when the pastor starts looking for ashes to use on Ash Wednesday. Usually, ashes are made by burning last year’s Palm Sunday branches. When that doesn’t work, the Catholics have a great kit to use. Ashes, of course, mean death but it’s more. It also means change, repentance. You know it’s Lent when you see the color purple in the Sanctuary. Lent, like Advent, is a Season of preparation and repentance. Purple means to repent, turn around, in thinking and living. Lent is hopeful. You know it’s Lent when everything points to the cross, when all that we know about Jesus is grounded in the truth that he “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. Blessings! Dave Nichols

Monday, January 11, 2016

I AM BAPTIZED

After Christmas, the church year moves rather rapidly. We go from Jesus as a baby to Jesus being visited by Wise Men about two years later. Then, the next Sunday (this year Jan. 10) is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s always a special time as we spend worship reflecting on Jesus’ baptism and ours. Luke tells the story in the lectionary this year. And, it’s only a few verses. He simply says that while the others were being baptized Jesus also was baptized. Then, Jesus hears a voice and as Jesus prays the Spirit descends like a dove. In Matthew, there’s a brief argument between John and Jesus. John says: “I need to be baptized by you; I can’t baptize you.” But, Jesus (who can argue with Jesus?) says: “Let’s do this for righteousness sake.” We are accustomed to asking: “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” Well, if you’re thinking that John’s baptism was for sinners who needed to be washed up, you’re right; Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. But, maybe he needed to be baptized as part of fulfilling his mission of entering fully into the human experience. He didn’t have to, no. But, Jesus stepped down off the bank, down into the water, into the place of our experience. Here, in the Jordan, Jesus identifies with us, takes his place with us. As the others were being baptized, Jesus showed up and was baptized. A voice came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, my beloved. I am delighted with you.” Then, Jesus prays as the Spirit of God comes upon him. He identifies with us, then, he is identified as the Son of God. Christian faith is a revealed religion. It’s not something that we thought up in our better moments. Our faith story is given to us. Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. Jesus is the One who is sent by God to do God’s work of love. He is the One who sacrifices himself for the sake of the whole world. The voice says: “You are my beloved…I am delighted with you.” So, why do we need to be baptized? As Christians, we follow Jesus in baptism. We are brought as a child or an adult to the place where we are being identified with Jesus. He has loved us; now, we are claimed by his love. The words spoken to Jesus are spoken to us: “You are my beloved; I am delighted with you.” What if we really believed that God loves us? What if we really believed that we are loved? On this Sunday, we invited everyone to come forward to renew, re-live, reaffirm their baptismal vows. It’s all grace/gift. It is grace that God in Christ would claim us, love us, forgive us, make us his own. It is grace that we one day will believe it and live it out for ourselves. It is grace that in baptism, God gives us a whole new family, the church. It is grace that we are all given a ministry to the world. Jesus says: “Go into all the world baptizing…” The water of grace still flows and we get wet with it. We swim in it. We bathe in it. We celebrate it as the source of our life and faith. Martin Luther, great Reformer, in times of great stress and pain would say: “Baptismatus Sum” – which means “ I am baptized.” So may you, when you need it most, be able to say, “I am baptized.” 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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