God in The Flesh – The Incarnation and the Birth of Christ

Today around the globe millions of Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the Christmas Season.  We will do so with services of worship, singing of carols, the sharing of word and table, in dozens of language, in numerous liturgies, all proclaiming the birth of Jesus.

So why is the birth of Jesus a big deal?  I mean, isn’t his death and resurrection the cornerstone of our faith?  Isn’t it Christ’s gift to us through the cross that is the very center of Christianity? Yes, but Christmas reminds us why Jesus’ gift of giving his life for us matters so very much.  It is Christmas that reminds us that Jesus’ birth is about God being with us, God being in the flesh, God being present here and now.

The incarnation is one of those bits of theology than confuses people.  We contend as Christians that Jesus is both human and divine.  It sounds like an esoteric truth, something that does not matter to our every day faith.  But in truth it really does matter a great deal to our understanding of how God is present with us how God does God’s work among us, and how God through Christ redeems us.

Because Jesus is human and life the life of a human being here on this earth he has walked and lived among us.  He is “Emmanuel, God with us.”  It means that God is not far off and inaccessible but instead is near to us.  It means that God understand loss, sickness, death, pain, sorry, joy, hunger, poverty, and plenty.  Jesus has, so to speak, walked in our shoes.

But also because Jesus is the very son of God, as Jesus said, “one with the Father” Jesus also can offer us the gift of God’s grace which is always there for us, always reaching out to us, always pursuing us, always seeking us always wanting to redeem us.

Christmas is so wonderful because it reminds us that God isn’t just up there in heaven, God is here among us walking with us, traveling with us, supporting us, sustaining us.   God wants to be there not just at the beginning of our faith journey and not just at the end of life’s journey, but with us every day and every step.

Too often we focus on the Jesus of the afterlife or the Jesus of the “end times” all in the future.  Andre Crouch, gospel singer and composer, wrote, “If heaven was never promised to me, even God’s promise to live eternally, it has been worth just having the Lord in my life.  Because living in a world of darkness he brought me the light.”

What we celebrate on this holy evening is that we who live in the darkness have seen the light of God through Jesus Christ.  It is a light that guides us, it is a light that lives with us and in us, it is a light that warms us on a cold bleak night, and it is the light we hope against hope to share with love and grace with others.

May you have a blessed and holy experience of the presence of Christ as we celebrate Christ’s birth in this holy season!

No Prayer, No Power. Little Prayer, Little Power. Much Prayer, Much Power!

“No prayer, no power.  Little prayer, little power.  Much prayer, much power!” – Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble, Bishop for the Iowa Conference UMC.

The above statement was repeated several times this week by our Bishop during the Iowa Annual Conference as we participated in holy conferencing this week in Des Moines.  This simple statement speaks volumes about the spiritual strength and focus of our Bishop who is obviously a man of deep faith and prayer.  Bishop Trimble often reminded us and brought as back to our faith just as it might appear we were being bogged down in the business of being a conference.

The idea of the connection of prayer with the power of the Holy Spirit reminded me how much prayer was central to my decision to become a United Methodist.  More than three years ago when I felt led to follow my heart and my growing Wesleyan spirituality into ministry in the UMC I felt compelled to be in constant prayer about God’s direction in my life.  During this time I believe I prayed more and more often than I had previously in any other time in my life.  I needed to the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit to help me to make the right decisions about the future of my ministry and calling.

The more I prayed, the more I read, the more I studied United Methodism the more I became convinced that this is where God wanted me to be.   Wesley’s descriptions of God’s grace captured me and would not let go, even as I continued to serve in another family of faith for quite a few years.

I started this blog in July of 2010 as I was starting my first appointment in the UMC.  This weekend at the Iowa Annual Conference of the UMC I because an Elder in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church.

While this is opportunity to celebrate God’s work in my life it is also just a beginning.  Now and in the future, with God’s help, I will have the opportunity to continue living out the itinerant ministry of a United Methodist Elder.  It is a ministry that I have just begun.  It is a ministry that I am experiencing with great joy, and it is a ministry that I have now dedicated the rest of my life to.

Now that I have reached one of the goals I set which prompted the beginning of this blog, I will be changing the direction of my blog to posts about my impressions of ministry and mission in the UMC, the work of my current appointment at Grace UMC in Sioux City, and the day to day issues of ministry and faith in a world that still needs to hear about the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

It was Prevenient Grace, as described in the Emmaus Walk and by John Wesley, that first started to transform me into a Methodist Christian.  It is God’s grace that continues to lead me onward as I am blessed and honored to serve as a United Methodist Elder within the United Methodist family of faith.

Thanks be to God!

 

Milestones of God’s Grace

I started this blog almost three years ago to talk about God leading me to change the direction of my ministry and became a pastor in the United Methodist Church.  For those of you who have read my posts you probably have noticed that my posting has been much less frequent in recent months.  Well, life has just been both good and busy.  

I have been blessed these past nine months to serve in my new appointment at Grace UMC in Sioux City.  It has been a lot of fun getting to know the people of Grace, learning my way around Sioux City, and working in ministry with my new charge.  As the same time I have been continuing the process of working with the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church to complete my transfer of orders to the UMC and seek recognition as an Elder in Full Connection.  

Part of the requirements of receiving such a recommendation involved me completing courses in UMC history, doctrine, and polity.  I completed all of those classes in February of this year.  Also in February I had what will probably be my last meeting with an examining committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry.  And I am pleased to say that the BoOM has recommended me for full membership in the Iowa Conference!

This means that my name will come before the Clergy Session of the Conference in June for a vote.  If I receive an affirmative vote from those eligible to vote in the Clergy Session I will be an Elder in Full Connection in the UMC.  

For me this is a milestone in a lot of ways.  It is a milestone in completing the process with the BoOM.  In that process I felt very encouraged and affirmed while the examining committee members continued to ask good questions, seek understanding of my ministry and calling, and make decisions about my progress in the process.

It is also a milestone for me because, as I’ve shared many times now, I have felt for a long time that God wanted me to be a United Methodist serving God in a UM local churches.   I’ve shared here in this blog how I believe God nudged me and guided me over the years into a Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith which led me to seek out the UMC as my church home.

Each Christian tradition has its strengths.  But what has continued to attract me and continues to pull me into the UMC has been John Wesley’s teaching and understanding of Grace.  God’s gracious love, described by Wesley as Prevenient, Justifying, and Sanctifying continues to capture my heart and my imagination.  What Wesley called the scripture way of salvation with its emphasis on the work of God’s grace in each of our lives throughout our lives colors and enriches everything that is best about United Methodists.  

I am also empowered and enriched by the sacramental theology of the UMC.  I was reminded again this Sunday in Communion how much my heart is warmed by the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving and in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup.  There is something so right and so heavenly to bend down on one knee so that a small child can take a piece of bread and dip it in the cup with a joyful smile on her face as she is told that the body of Christ was given for her!  There is such Holy Spirit power in the voices of the congregation declaring as one that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”  Some Sundays I can only think to myself, “it just doesn’t get any better than this!”

Yes indeed, I am deeply honored that the clergy of the Iowa Conference will consider my credentials this June, and I am deeply blessed to be serving the Lord in the Iowa Annual Conference of the UMC and here in Sioux City at Grace Church.  I am very glad to be a United Methodist!

May each of you be blessed as we continued to celebrate the Risen Christ in these Great Fifty Days of the Easter Season.  “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!  Alleluia!”

Remember Your Baptism And Be Thankful

Anytime the church has the opportunity to sharing in the sacrament of Holy Baptism with a child in the church it is an opportunity for thanksgiving!  Today I had the privilege of baptizing a beautiful little girl into the church as her parents shared in her baptismal vows and friends and relatives looked on.  I got to introduce her to her new church family and give thanks for the grace of God that is poured out on her in baptism.

For me it also was special for another reason.  This was my first opportunity to perform a baptism since receiving my first appointment in the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church.  If you’ve read my blog you would know that I had previously served as a pastor in the American Baptist denomination where immersion baptism of professing members is the normal practice.

So you might wonder how it felt to baptize an infant for the first time.  Well, it was a wonderful experience!  It was a wonderful experience because infant baptism is such a powerful picture of God’s love and prevenient grace.  In a Wesleyan understanding of baptism the sacrament is a gift from God and not an act of the candidate for baptism.  God loves all of us, and like a helpless infant, we are unable to understand God’s love fully or at times to even respond to it.  But God loves us simply because we are his children.

In truth when we act like we can fully explain, comprehend, or describe God’s love we’ve forgotten that the salvation we have in Jesus Christ is from God who is beyond our full understanding.  The purpose of baptism isn’t to understand or comprehend God’s love.  The purpose of baptism is to receive God’s love and, when we are able, to accept it.

It was also a wonderful experience because there is nothing quite like welcoming children into God’s house and sharing the joy that new parents have at the birth of a new and precious life.  Jesus loved children and welcomed them into his presence and told us that they are a part of the Kingdom of God and that if we want to be a part of God’s kingdom we better be ready to accept God as a child.  What that means to me is that we accept Christ with child like joy accepting God’s love even though God’s grace and love is sometimes beyond our understanding.

Remember your baptism and be thankful!

Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season

Today is Ash Wednesday the beginning of the Lenten Season.  In many ways it is a season that is less popular and less enthusiastically observed than some of the more celebratory seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Easter.  It is easy to talk about the birth of Jesus in a manger and it is easy to talk about the joy and victory of resurrection.  But it is hard to talk about our need for cleansing, healing, and forgiveness.

We want to talk about the empty tomb and not the agony of the cross.  We want to talk about the revelation on the road to Emmaus and not the despair the Disciples felt after Jesus death.  We want to talk about forgiveness without talking about repentance.

Some people do not like Lent because they feel that it is about self pity or becoming maudlin about our sinfulness.  But that is a parody of Lent.  Lent is about recognizing our humaness, our fallen nature, and our deep abiding need for God in our lives.  It is about remembering that we were not created to go it alone in this world.  We were created to experience and express the loving mercy of God and share God’s love with the world.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are part of our acknowledgement that the grace of God in our lives is indeed unmerited favor.  God in is all powerful prevenient love and grace has cared about us and loved us even when we are our worst selves, even when we did not know or even denied that we needed God’s love.

Today and tonight around the world millions of Christians will kneel and have ashes placed on our foreheads as a reminding that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return.  We are created beings created in the image of God and our very life, our very existence, the very breath we breath is an unmerited gift of God.  And that is one of the messages of Lent.  It is all grace!   It is all unmerited favor!  And it is all a gift!  We celebrate this Holy Lent not because we deserve anything from God but because, thanks be to God, he has given us all things!

May you have a blessed Lenten Season and may you experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ in your lives in these forty days.  Thanks be to God!

Finding a Passion for Holy Living!

Right now I’m in the process of taking a course on United Methodist History.  I’m currently reading about the early years of John and Charles Wesley’s ministries.  And, though I’ve read about them before, I am again struck with John Wesley’s passion and drive to seek to live a holy Christian life.  His careful journaling of his daily activities including his triumphs and his failures show us a man who to the very fiber of his being wants to be what God wants and created him to be.

I am not yet to the part of Wesley’s experience where his “heart is strangely warmed.”  And this is before Wesley has developed his understanding of grace, particularly Prevenient Grace.   So I know that he is in the early stages of his spiritual development.  But I am reminded also that another reformer, Martin Luther, was also very concerned with pleasing God and holy living.

And it makes me ask the question, where has our passion gone for seeking to be a holy and set apart people as Christians?  Some Christians seem to focus on the moment of justification and once they feel like they’ve had a justifying experience with God they feel like they are “saved” and no longer have to worry about God stuff.

In other words we’ve turned being a Christian into a transaction or a commodity.  Much of our Christian culture tends to think of salvation as something in the past.  And this thinking of our faith as a past thing kills any desire for holy living.

Others become discouraged and believe deep down that God really can’t change them.  They have missed the gospel message that what God is about isn’t a transaction or a done deal in the past but about making us into followers/disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are to be a community growing and learning in God’s grace.

But we can grow in God’s grace because God provides us, as Wesley called them, omeans of grace.

By means of grace Wesley meant “By means of grace I understand outward signs words or actions ordained of God and appointed for this end to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing justifying or sanctifying grace.”  (Sermon XVI Means of Grace.)

He listed as ordinary means of grace prayer, searching the scriptures, and receiving the Lord’s Supper, and healthy living.  He also lists baptism, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy.

As Christians we should be attending daily to our prayer lives, reading, study, and hearing sermons from the Bible, participating in the sacramental life of the church, ministry together, and doing good to and for others in the name of Jesus.

The Christian life isn’t a spectator sport.  It isn’t a club we join to then sit on the sidelines.  As one of the recent UMC emphasis called “Rethink Church” says we should think of church not as a noun but as a verb.

We need to recapture and re-emphasize John Wesley’s focus on holy living, through both personal and social holiness.  It isn’t enough to just become a Christian any more than it is just enough to be born.  We must have a passion for growth, maturity, and change.  It are to seek after the goal of being made perfect in love.

Would that we would all recapture the passion of the reformers for not just knowing Christianity in our heads but living faith of Jesus Christ in our hearts and with our hands!

 

Transformation, Sanctification, Perfection

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2

Spiritual transformation is the goal of the Christian life.  The motto of the United Methodist Church is “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.”  Why transformation?  Because transformation because doesn’t just want to forgive us of our sins, God doesn’t just want to redeem us, God wants to sanctify us and transform us.

In other words God wants us to change, grow, mature, be more like Him and His Son Jesus Christ every day.  He wants us to progress and move forward.  He doesn’t want things to stay the same for us leaving us in our old barren and empty lives.  He was to transform our life of sin and loss into a life of love, grace, peace, and joy.

Sometimes some Christians will say words like “I was saved on…..” and then give you a day in which they what they perceive as a their first experience with Christ.  Now the truth is that the day you became a professing Christian is not at all the day you had your first experience with God.

Before you even knew that God was there, before you could respond to God love, before you can move towards God he loved you and offered you his love through his Prevenient Grace.  But then when you first experience the Justifying Grace of God that doesn’t end the story.  No!  the first time reconciled with God through Christ was only the beginning!!

Now God’s Sanctifying Grace has been working, is working, and will work to make you more like Jesus every day, to transform you life, and yes to seek to lead you on to perfection (that is the full measure of Christian maturity God wants for you.)   Perfection, in a Wesleyan sense doesn’t mean you are perfect but that Christ is working perfectly in you.

When I attended my first Annual Conference of the Iowa UMC I heard the Bishop talk about “perfecting a motion.”  It wasn’t terminology I was familiar with.  But it was clear what it meant.  That the product the conference was seeking to create could be made better, fuller, more whole, and more worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The rough draft (you and me) needs to be made whole.

It isn’t enough for a Christian to declare “I was saved on…”  That’s talking about the past.  The truth is that God has redeemed us, is redeeming us, will redeem us and will work on us to make us the people he created us to be.

I want to be forgiven.  But I don’t just want to be forgiven.  I want to be transformed!!