Thursday, June 29, 2017

Gideon, Part 4

This week has been a reply of my notes for a Sunday School lesson I taught at Annual Conference using Judges 6:11-18.  Today's post concerns our discussion regarding application of what we can learn from the scriputre.

Fear:  Gideon and the Israelites were living in constant fear.  Think about it for a moment - what is it like to live in constant fear?  Can you think of a place in the world where the people live in constant fear? Has your safety and/or security ever been threatened? How did you respond?  This is a sidenote, but I wonder if understanding what it is like to live in fear or to have your security threatened can help increase our kindness to other people who are experiencing life like that.

Abandonment: Gideon has grown up with stories told about how God rescued the Israelites from Pharaoh through the work of Moses. He has heard about God working through Joseph in Egypt. He has heard great stories about God doing wonderful, fantastic, unbelievable things.  And Gideon wonders – has God abandoned us? Why would God do that? Have you ever been in a difficult situation and felt like God had abandoned you? Can you imagine that people would feel that way?

Doubt: Gideon experiences doubt. He doubts that God is present with them in their current circumstances, and he doubts that God is calling the right person – so he is doubting God’s abilities. What do you think about doubt? Is it a sin? Is it a natural part of faith? I think doubt is evidence that we are exploring our faith deeply – I think doubt is the growing pain of sanctifying grace – in order to mature in our faith, we have to ask God and our faith questions. I think we can trust God enough to bring God our doubts. When have you experienced doubt? Do you doubt your ability to answer God’s call? Do you find doubt in your faith? Does Gideon’s doubt help you relate to him?  How does God respond to Gideon’s doubt? with patience or impatience? How will God respond to your own doubts? How should we respond to other people’s doubts?

Why?: One of the most difficult questions we struggle with is why bad things happen to people who we judge to be good people? What are some of the ways that people answer that question?  If God makes good things happen to people who are believers, then what does that say to a faithful disciple who experiences terrible tragedy?  I worry that we steal people’s faith from them when we say things like, “God needed another flower in his garden.” The logical step from that is that God made my child sick and let him die in order to have another flower – we throw terrible blame on God when people need God the most.

Call: What does verse 14 say to us? “you have strength, so go and rescue Israel from the power of Midian. Am I not personally sending you?”

  1. Do we hear in this verse an answer to part of our question about why bad things happen? Do we hear in this that we have a role to play in God’s plan?
  2. Think back to the feeding of the 5000. Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” And at the end of the story, the disciples see the baskets, still full. I think this is a lesson for them – the abundance that is in front of them, when they only saw scarcity. There is power in God that God uses to equip us for the work to be done.
  3. We are the answer to people’s prayers.  Is there a flood story that could be told here?

God with us:  One of the things I took with me when I completed my Emmaus walk is that God will be with me, all the time - whatever he calls me to go, I will not have to do alone.  Do you believe that God is always with us?  Have you had an experience that confirmed this for you?

Call to ministry:  Do you have a call to ministry? Important distinction – everyone is called to ministry – not just pastors.  Who does God call? The perfect? The wonderful and powerful? Does God choose who we would choose if it was our responsibility?  What is God calling you to do? What is standing in your way of doing it?


As we leave this place, keep in mind verse 16. The God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush is the same God who called Gideon, even though Gideon was full of doubts. This is the same God who fed 5000 people amid the doubts and scarcity mindset of the disiples. This is I AM. This is your God; this God is always with you, even when you don’t “feel” it.  And I AM is calling you.

How will you respond?

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Gideon, Part 3

As I mentioned on Monday, I was asked to lead a Sunday school class at Annual Conference. This is a series of posts from my notes. The lesson is based on Judges 6: 11-18. Today's post is about verses 14-18.

14 Then the Lord turned to him and said, “You have strength, so go and rescue Israel from the power of Midian. Am I not personally sending you?”
15 But again Gideon said to him, “With all due respect, my Lord, how can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I’m the youngest in my household.”
16 The Lord replied, “Because I’m with you, you’ll defeat the Midianites as if they were just one person.”
17 Then Gideon said to him, “If I’ve gained your approval, please show me a sign that it’s really you speaking with me. 18 Don’t leave here until I return, bring out my offering, and set it in front of you.”
The Lord replied, “I’ll stay until you return.”

Then looking at these verses:

  1. The text switches from the Lord’s messenger to the Lord – don’t get sidetracked by that. Obviously, if it is a messenger, it is a messenger who speaks with the Lord’s authority.
  2. Take a closer look at verse 16:  The Lord replied, “Because I’m with you, you’ll defeat the Midianites as if they were just one person.  Another way to translate that verse is to say, “Because I AM is with you...” Where have we heard that before? This is the God of the burning bush. This is I AM.
  3. We’ll talk more about this later, but it is a vignette of a person being called to follow God and do God’s work, but who is experiencing doubt in his own abilities. I think it is easy to identify with Gideon.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Gideon, Part 2

As I mentioned yesterday, I was asked to lead a Sunday school class at Annual Conference. This is a series of posts from my notes. The lesson is based on Judges 6: 11-13.

Today's post is our discussion on verses 11-13:

11 Then the Lord’s messenger came and sat under the oak at Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite. His son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him and said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior!”
13 But Gideon replied to him, “With all due respect, my Lord, if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his amazing works that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Didn’t the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and allowed Midian to overpower us.”

A few things to notice in these verses:

  1. One doesn’t normally thresh wheat in a winepress – you normally would do it outside, but you can imagine the dust that rises when you separate the wheat from the chaff. The cloud of dust would attract the Midianites, who would come and take the crop. So Gideon is hiding out of fear, and also because the wheat is going to provide food for his family – he’s protecting them. But there is no mention that this is an unusual thing for the day – it must have been standard operating procedure for this time of oppression. It gives us a glimpse at how the Israelites were living.
  2. So, imagine how Gideon feels when the messenger appears and calls him a mighty warrior. He probably feels like anything except a warrior, hiding out to thresh the grain.
  3. And then we get a glimpse into Gideon’s mindset – his doubts and frustrations. He has heard about God’s mighty works, and yet he doesn’t see them. Has God abandoned us?

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Gideon, Part 1

I was honored to be asked to lead a Sunday school class at Annual Conference this year. Our class was the one based on the International Adult Bible Studies series. For the next four posts, I'll share my notes the lesson from that morning.


The time of the judges is after the Israelites had settled into the promised land, but before the rise of kings over Israel. The historical time in which Judges is set was a time when major population shifts occurred in the world – probably related to large earthquakes that destroyed large cities during the bronze age. This led to economic issues  throughout southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. During this time period, the Minoan and Mycenean cultures came to an end. The Hittites were forced into Syria. Greece experienced a time of a “dark age.” Egypt began to decline. A power vacuum was created in the world. Smaller powers began vying for control. It was an opportunity for Israel to grow – think about David’s kingdom later – but they still had struggles, and we see those in the book of Judges.

You may be familiar with the “cycle” we see in Judges. The people would “do evil” by serving other dogs and disobeying Yahweh. God would punish them by allowing some other nation to subjugate them. After many years of oppression, the people would cry out to God. God would send them a deliverer – called a judge in some translations. The deliverer, who was most often a military commander, would lead the people to defeat the oppressor. As a result, the people would live in peace for a time, but then the cycle would start again.

The verses for study today are the call of Gideon, who was one of the judges. At the time of Gideon, the people were being oppressed by the Midians. Have you heard of the Midians before? Who were they?

  1. In Genesis 25, we learn that Abraham marries a woman named Keturah. They have six children. One of them was Midian. 
  2. In Exodus 2, Moses flees to an area called Midian, which some people think was located in northwestern Arabia. Others say that Midian was not a place, but was a confederation of tribes. Either way, Moses meets the priest of Midian – we would come to know him as Jethro – who had seven daughters. One of his daughters was Zipporah, who Moses married.
  3. Other than these references, the Midianites were often seen as Israel’s enemy – Numbers 25-31, Psalm 83:9, Isaiah 10:26
  4. They were probably nomadic or semi-nomadic people, and during the verses on which we will focus, they were oppressing the Israelites. 

Gideon was a member of the tribe of Manasseh, and he was a younger son of Joash.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Sacred vs. Secular

"Indeed, the word sacrament is derived from a Latin phrase which means 'to make holy.'"

"But our God is in the business of transforming ordinary things into holy things, scraps of food into feasts and empty purification vessels into fountains of fine wine."

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

I remember, years (and years and years) ago, when I was in youth group, the youth pastor taking us all in the Sanctuary. He played music over the sound system, and asked us to write down whether the music was sacred or secular. I had never heard any of it before (I don't know if I was the only one) so for me, I had to make a judgment on how it sounded (and maybe using the words). Once we finished, he told us that all of the music he played was considered sacred. I don't remember the music at all, but I remember the idea that sacred vs. secular is a difficult line.

There is a controversy in my church (not a battle, just a disagreement) that applause in worship is either bad or an expression of praise. One of the opponents of applause, who is a pastor (not our current pastor), defends his opinion by saying that applause is secular. That has always bothered me, especially in light of the lesson I learned as a youth. How is it possible for one person to judge the sacred vs secular nature of anything? Especially something as neutral as applause. How can one person say that the act of applause is not a sacred act?

If Welch's grape juice and Hawaiian bread can be made sacred by God, then why would we draw any lines concerning what God can make holy?

(By the way, this week has been brought to you by the Cardinal (grinning).  Prepare yourself for many more bird pictures - we stocked the feeders in the backyard.)

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

There is a God

An email service called Sound Bites sends me a quote each morning.  This was the one for today:
There is a God. It is not you.
This is the beginning of wisdom. At first, it looks like bad news because I would like to run the world. I would like to gratify my desires. I would like to have my own way. But once we think about it, this idea turns out to be very good news.
It means that someone far wiser and more competent is running the show. It is His job to be God; it is my job to learn to let Him be who He is. The Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) I suppose the even bigger fool, looking in the mirror, has said, “There is a god!” for the oldest temptation is that we “will be like God.” Real life, however, begins when I die to the false god that is me.
-- John Ortberg in “The Me I Want To Be”

It's an excellent reminder, don't you think? 

  • When we try to control the situation, we should remember that we are not God. This is a God, and it's not me, and it's not you.
  • When we are lost and alone, thinking no one cares. There is a God, and it's not me, and it's not you.
  • When we think we have done something wonderful, something that means we can control the next crisis that happens. There is a God, and it's not me, and it's not you.
  • When we feel helpless, and the situation is spiraling out of control. There is a God, and it's not me, and it's not you.
  • When worry threatens to crush us, when life feels ominous, when we feel small. There is a God, and it's not me, and it's not you.
  • When we look in the mirror and are tempted to act like God. There is a God, and it's not me, and it's not you.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Oh, God, my God.
You breathed,
and the world came into being.
You spoke your breath,
and life entered me.

I breathe.
In and out.
I don't notice it.
I pay no attention.
Until I can't breathe anymore.

Your spirit is wind,
breathing through my life,
around my life.
I don't notice it.
I pay no attention.
Until I can't breathe anymore.

Fill my life today.
Be in my breath.
Heal what is broken;
make me whole.
Empower me so that
I can do your work in the world.
Move as you do.
Help me to pay attention.

I pray that you will be the wind
in my life.
Moving through me,
with me,
in spite of me,
Inhabiting my words,
motivating my deeds,
clearing my thoughts.
Until I can't breathe anymore.

And beyond.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

The Release of Communion

I don't remember anyone ever telling me how to take communion. I just remember watching, and doing. I remember my understanding and need of communion being strengthened through my walk to Emmaus. I love the symbolism (this happens in my community - I don't know if it is universal) of walking forward with my hands on the shoulders of the person in front of me, and the hands of the person behind me on my shoulders. Connected.

When I watch people approach communion - especially some clergy - I see them offer their two open, cupped hands to receive. I don't do that. I think about it whenever I reach the elements, but something prevents me from doing it. I have made it to the point of lifting one empty, cupped hand to receive the bread, but there is something vulnerable in offering both hands - a line I haven't yet crossed.

Today I read this:
If we did nothing else," writes Nora Gallagher, "if nothing was placed in our hands, we would have done two-thirds of what needed to be done. Which is to admit that we simply do not have all the answers; we simply do not have all the power It is, as the saying goes, 'out of our hands.'" ...."Faith," she says, "is a catch-and-release sport. And standing at the altar receiving the read and wine is the release part." (Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans)
Have you ever considered the receiving of communion to be a "release?"  That statement took me by surprise. It seems counter-intuitive. 

I'll have to consider what it is I need to release.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Two Amendments

I just wrote this post. And then I deleted it, by mistake. Nothing is ever the same when you try to reproduce it. Sigh.

Five amendments to the United Methodist Church's constitution came to the floor of annual conference for approval. I want to focus on two of them today.

Amendment 1: As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl's equality and well-being.

Amendment 2:  
In the 2012 Book of Discipline, Division One, ¶4, Article IV, amend by deletion and addition as follows:
After “all persons” delete “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition”. After “because of race, color, national origin,” delete “status,” and add “ability”. At the end of the paragraph, add “nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic

I worry that in my annual conference, there were many people who voted against these two amendments. The first one is designed to help women and girls who are being oppressed - for the church to take an official stand against it. Those who voted against it will do so because of the language that God does not have a gender. The second on is to ensure that those who are differently abled or who are not men have equal access to the church. Judging from the comments made, those who vote against it will do so because some time in the future, gender might mean more than two - male and female, even though that is how it is defined in the Discipline.

I don't understand how we can let these concerns stand in the way of opening the church or protecting those who are oppressed. My heart hurts.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Transforming the World

I heard many people at annual conference talk about how the influence of culture is changing our faith. They cautioned us to not be influenced by the culture - even as it changes, we should not.

It occurred to me that we are awfully afraid of change. Why is that? Why do we look at the culture and assume that all of the change is wrong? That we should avoid it?

As I was sitting in the annual conference sessions I wondered if we could ever be open-minded enough to consider the idea that some of the changes in culture are the work of God as God transforms the world? Or are we so afraid of change that we would never consider that?

I think sometimes change is God at work. Consider the leaps that women's rights have made over the last century. Those who read the Bible  then (and some people even now) would read it and say that it was the will of God that women shouldn't preach, shouldn't speak in church or teach men, that they should submit their lives - their will, their property, their dreams and hopes to the men in their lives. There are those who would have told you then that that kind of attitude was biblical and the will of God. 

And yet, now, I hope, we know better. We know it isn't the will of God that women should be thought of as less than men. It isn't God's will that when God calls a woman to preach, those around her should stop her because she is a woman. It's a change that probably came to the culture before it came to the church, and we finally realized (most of us) that the oppression of women wasn't and isn't the will of God. God transformed the world - and then the church caught up.

Don't be afraid to examine culture and look for where God is at work, revealing himself.

(Note about image: This is me at the podium presenting during the business session).

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Is God calling you?

Is God calling you? Do you believe God has made a mistake? Do you make excuses to ignore the call? 

The work God calls us to and the answer to our call isn't about who we are - it's about what God can make us into. It isn't about what we can do - it's about what God can do through us. It's not about the gifts we have - it's about the gifts God will give others through us. It's not about our sins - it's about the grace we can offer to others.

Thought for the day: Your call may not be about you; it may be about those around you.

(Note about the image: This is a piece of stained glass crafted by our Conference Lay Leader to represent 2400 professions of faith in the conference.)

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Monday, June 12, 2017

A Fork in the Road

As I mentioned, I am going to do a few series during the summer months. This week, my posts will reflect my thoughts from the West Virginia Annual Conference, held the second week of June.

The guest preacher for annual conference was Bishop L. Johathon Holston, the resident bishop of South Carolina.  In one of his sermons, Bishop Holston quoted Yogi Berra (I think), who said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." You've probably heard that before; I had, and so had many in the congregation, but we stilled laughed. It seems like a nonsense phrase.

As I thought about it though, I considered what we do when faced with a decision. Sometimes we jump to a choice quickly, and move on. Other times we ponder for a while, and make deliberate, slow choice. The third option, though, is what I thought about. Sometimes we come to a fork in the road, and we do nothing. We don't take it - we don't go either way. Why is that?

Are we afraid of making a mistake? Do we stand frozen because we can't see around the bend? we don't know which way is the right choice, so we choose nothing? 

Do we know which way we should go, and yet don't want to go that way, so we don't go either way?

Are we so caught up in the details of everyday life, that we can't be bothered to make a decision?

Not taking the fork IS a decision. Those looking at us can draw conclusions from our lack of action. It might be the wrong conclusion, but they will draw them. They might think that our lack of a decision indicates our agreement with the status quo. They might think we just don't care where the road goes. They might use our inaction as an example, and then do nothing at their road forks, too.

When you come to a fork in the road, make a deliberate decision. Take it or not, but decide.

Note about the image: This is a card I made - you can read about it here.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Where I am

This is where I'll be for the rest of the week.

I was at West Virginia Wesleyan College on Sunday to pick up Steve and two other people from our church who road in the Bishop's Bike Ride to raise funds for flood releif in West Virginia. Most of the time, when I take a picutre on campus, I focus on the Chapel, which is a beautiful building. On Sunday, I sat under a tree, waiting for the riders to arrive, and I noticed how beautiful the trees are. It was a wonderful day.

So, today I'm back, and I'll be here through Sunday. I'll be back to the blog on Monday.


Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Offering the Grace of Forgiveness

Yesterday, I wrote about the grace of gifts. I started with the question of whether God's forgiveness is dependent upon how we act - our repentance, our sorrow at the sin we have committed. I believe it is not - forgiveness is offered, no matter what we do.

So why is it, then, that we make our forgiveness of other people dependent upon their repentance? We stubbornly wait for an apology before offering forgiveness. That's  not grace.

Sometimes, we preface our forgiveness with words like, "you couldn't help it - I forgive you." If the person couldn't help it, they don't need forgiveness, do they?

Sometimes, we say we forgive, and yet we do not - we keep coming back to the sin, holding it forth like it was a rare jewel that we can't let go of, lest we become powerless.

Sometimes, we never offer forgiveness for fear of being hurt again.

The grace of forgiveness is not dependent upon the sorrow the guilty party, or their innocence, or our fear. Forgiveness is grace. Thank God God will help us to offer it - even if the offering of it is very private, and not even shared with the oblivious person whom we are forgiving.

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Monday, June 05, 2017

Gifts and Grace

In Sunday school a few weeks back, the teacher asked the question, "Does the forgiveness we receive from God depend on our repentance? Does it depend on how sorry we are for what we did? Does it depend on how hard we ask for forgiveness?"  

You can read the Bible and see scriptures that would support the answer to that question being yes, but if the answer is yes, then the whole idea of grace is a farce.

Grace is a gift. Unearned. Unmerited. Undependent (I don't think that is a word) upon anything that you or I do. If there are requirements, then it is not a gift.

My in-laws had a tradition, call a happy. A happy is gift given for no reason. Not a birthday gift, not a Christmas gift. It's usually a surprise, and it demands nothing in return.   It is in no way an exchange. It is grace.

Rachel Held Evans, in Searching for Sunday, described a gift she received from a friend. Evans didn't want the grace of the gift (flowers). She received them, and then immediately considered how she could return the favor, so that she wasn't in debt to the friend - so that the grace of the gift could be negated. She writes, "I was in possession of my friends' gift long before I received it...."

The giving of the gift is dependent upon nothing. The receiving of the gift - that's the rub. And yet, God's grace can even help with that.

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Thursday, June 01, 2017

Perspectives: Draw the Circle Wide

 "Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.
No one stands alone,
we’ll stand side by side. 
Draw the circle, draw the circle wide."
Lyrics by Gordon Light.

A few times now, my church has sung this song. The last time we did, the choir walked down the aisles, and stood there as we sang. The congregation got up and joined them so that we encircled the church, singing together. It was wonderful.

As we sang, and later, as I thought about it, I realized something. I don't believe that for worship to be genuine, you always have to "feel" it. There is something beautiful about "knowing" your beliefs. In your mind.

Sometimes, though, it is good to feel your faith. To feel the unity of standing together as a church, and singing your mission - to draw the circle wide. Feeling it can increase your faith - can increase your confidence in the idea that we are a church - that together, we CAN draw the circle wide. That we can really change the world. 

Together, as the body of Christ.

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