Monday, October 17, 2016

A MId-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

I want to thank those of you who were part of our Charge Conference on Sunday afternoon. A special thanks goes to Duane Kruckenberg, who was not only present but made cookies! (Just ask him!) Our church provided radical hospitality to the many people, representing many churches, who gathered in our sanctuary on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Jane Schultz and Francis Fritz were an essential part of that hospitality as they ran sound, lights and power point in our beautiful sanctuary. Jane was also our secretary par excellence! Thank you!

Our district superintendent Harlan Gillespie and our field outreach minister Katharine Yarnell shared reflections on Discipleship: Life in Christ, Life in Community. The focus of Charge Conference these last three years has been on discipleship. A disciple of Jesus Christ is about so much more than church membership or lip-service. It is about loving, learning and leading. We come together in community to discover the depth of God’s love for us. We learn ways of responding to God’s love in our daily lives in imitation of Christ. We lead as we share our gifts and as we encourage and support others as they share theirs. Loving, learning and leading is a continual spiraling of taking action, reflection and evaluation, making adjustments and continuing in faith. If we are taking the necessary risks as we live our faith in the church, there will be times when our ministry efforts do not succeed. That is okay. “There is no such thing as failure,” Harlan said. “We must be willing to try new approaches and learn from our efforts” as we love, learn and lead together.

The celebration of Holy Communion is an outward and visible sign of those inward and spiritual truths. Loving, learning and leading is reflected in our communion liturgy. We taste and see that we are connected with God and one another. We are part of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community”. We who are transformed become God’s agents of transformation in the world.

The conference room was filled with faithful folks from our church. Cephas, an elder who is the associate pastor at First UMC in Ames, lead us through the business of the day. In his native Africa, it is said that without music, the Holy Spirit does not show up. “Amazing Grace” invited the Spirit into our midst! In many and various ways, we celebrated the ministry and mission of our church. We recommended Tim and Stephanie Cramer as candidates for ordained ministry. We affirmed the call of Regina Harrison and Kendall Clarke to School for Lay Ministry. We said “amen” to Duane Kruckenberg, Mike Nissly and Dave Elerding as certified lay servants/speakers.

I am so grateful for the people of our church, who love, learn and lead in ways that make me proud and humbled to be your pastor.

Thank you.

On the journey with you,

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

There are many ways to give to God through the church; many ways to share what God has given us in order that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done – in our homes, church, community and world.

One of the ways that we share what we have been given is to share our time. An investment of our time can look like giving God one hour per week to give thanks in worship. It can look like helping with the Wednesday meals. It can look like participating in a small group. Our time is precious, and one way to give is to make time for God.

We can give of our talents. 1 Cor. 12 reminds us that we all, by the power of the Holy Spirit, have spiritual gifts. Some people receive a gift of teaching, others of administration, and others of compassion or service. The list could go on and on. Our spiritual gifts, sometimes called our talents, are as individual as our fingerprints. We are given those gifts, Paul tells us, to strengthen and build up the church. The way you use your spiritual gifts is a gift to God.

The leadership of our church has worked to make giving your time and talent easy. We are a permission-giving church. If you see a need or have an inspiration for ministry, we want you to find some like-minded people and take that ball and run with it. In addition, there are many ministries in and through our church that are just waiting for you to say “yes” wherever God is nudging you to get involved!

We can also share the financial resources that God has given us. Jesus makes it very clear that how we use our money is an important aspect of discipleship. If we have much, we are to share much. If we have little, we are to share a little of what we have. Sharing our financial resources is God’s prescription for our temptation to focus on ourselves and our own needs and wants. By sharing, we are freed from our selfishness.

At First UMC, the philosophy of our finance team has been to make giving easy. And now giving is getting even easier! You can now give to God through the church through the First UMC app. Yes, there is an app for that!

The First UMC app is about giving but it is about so much more. With the app, you can see the church calendar of events, listen to sermon podcasts, access the website and receive pertinent notifications. You will be hearing much more about the app during worship on Cell Phone Saturdays and Sundays: Oct. 29 and 30, Nov. 5 and 6, and Nov. 12 and 13. If you have a smart phone, bring it to church and we’ll have some cell phone fun together!

And if you’d like a sneak peek at all the fun, come to Charge Conference this Sunday, October 16, at 3:00 p.m. Bring your phone!

If you prefer to write a check or put cash in an envelope, great! If you like automatic withdrawals, great! And if you want to give via your smart phone, great! Giving is easy at First UMC!

On the journey with you,

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

The gospel reading for this upcoming Sunday is from Luke 17:11-19: the story of the ten healed lepers, one of whom returned to thank Jesus. Jesus’ response to the one man who returned, a Samaritan, was, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

This story is often heard at Thanksgiving worship services, and rightly so. We are all in favor of giving thanks at Thanksgiving. This business of giving thanks is a little more challenging the other 364 days a year, I have found. That may be particularly true in this anxiety-producing election cycle. Words of doom and gloom, insults and insinuations are the norm. A recent poll said that 17% of people have experienced the loss of a relationship that is important to them over political disagreement. It is hard to feel gratitude when we are stressed and afraid and our very souls are sickened.

Practicing gratitude, however, is a spiritual discipline. That means that as we practice an attitude of gratitude, our ability to give thanks is strengthened. Like anything worth practicing, whether music or sports or reading, the decision to practice gratitude, in time and by the grace of God, yields results. We are changed. Our souls are healed.

Last week, in Luke 17:5-10, Jesus says to his disciples (in the Carol Myers paraphrase), “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed – and you do – use it. Just do it.” To practice gratitude is to practice faith, to stir up our faith, to strengthen our faith, to rekindle the gift of faith we have been given, no matter what the circumstances of our lives and no matter what the current political crisis.

So what are you thankful for today? I was pondering all this in the middle of the night last night when a strange gratitude rose within me. I’m thankful for the gift of Jesus. That seems so obvious. We have prayers in our liturgies of weddings and funerals that give thanks for Jesus. The entire communion service is a thanksgiving for Jesus. I’ve given thanks to Jesus many times. Yet I don’t think I had ever before felt such a surge of gratitude for the incredible gift of the One who shows us the Way to live: the Way of peace, of compassion, of forgiveness, of justice, of healing, of generosity, of hospitality, of inclusiveness, of good news to the poor, of unity; the One who guides us through this election cycle and beyond.

Thank God.

On the journey with you,

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The apostles said to Jesus “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).  This plea seems to be in reference to the previous verses (3-4) about forgiveness.  In effect, in those verses Jesus essentially says that we must forgive endlessly.  The good news is that this statement may well reflect our own need for forgiveness from God—endless times of stumbling, endless need for forgiveness.  The not-so-good news for us is that we must forgive endlessly.  Recall the prayer that Jesus taught us:  ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  So, this characteristic quality of Christian living, forgiveness, is the thing that made the disciples plead for Jesus to increase their faith—the apostles clearly knew how hard it is to forgive.
The impression that I get from the apostles is that they think that Jesus needs to increase their faith somehow.  How good it would feel to think that we need only find the right words, ask Jesus, and Shazam! we’ve got more faith!
Indeed, many of us would like to feel that our faith grows and deepens as we mature.  There is a way for that to happen and it doesn’t involve the “right words.”  It’s called effort and discipline.  Another word might be practice.  When I played football in school, every week day we had to go to practice if we wanted to play the game.  We had to!  The coach thought that none of us were good enough players naturally so he wanted us to practice blocking, tackling, catching, and sitting on the bench.  So we did.  The same was true in the high school band I played trumpet in:  we had to practice and be tested.  For everything I wanted to get better at (the apostles said ‘increase’) I had to practice because the skill did not come naturally enough.  I had no magic words to help.  I had a coach and a band instructor.
So, when we, like the apostles say to Coach Jesus, “Increase my faith skills,”  the coach says things like do your duty, forgive, worship God, pray, serve the needy, be grateful, or practice, practice, practice—because we are already in the Big Event.

                                                                                    Pastor Jeff Blackman

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Intentionality By Stephanie Cramer


This week’s UMC lectionary readings include Luke 16:19-31. It’s a well-referenced parable, especially when one’s intention is to speak ill about those who are greedy. But, that’s not exactly how I see this passage. The selfishness of the extremely wealthy is not what I think is the true focus of this teaching. I could be way off in my interpretation (and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time), but I want to make sure you understand that I do not think this passage is teaching us that being poor is somehow better or godlier than being rich. I believe this passage is speaking of our intentionality, where we put our focus - our thoughts and our efforts.

What do we know for certain about the two people in this story? The Rich Man was…well…rich, wealthy, dressed in purple – a sign of royalty, one who didn’t just eat every day, he feasted every day. (In ancient times that usually meant an hours-long or days-long drawn-out affair with more food than could actually be consumed by all the people in attendance.) We know the Rich Man was a Jew from the references to Moses and the Prophets. We know he died and went to a very uncomfortable place (some translations call it Hades, others do not name the place) and we know he was tormented, maybe physically, but certainly emotionally.

Lazarus? We know that he was not rich, in fact he was more than poor- he was destitute, wishing for even just the scraps from the Rich Man’s table. He too was most likely a Jew, living in the same place as the Rich Man, though he could have been an alien; alien refers to anyone from another nation, not originally an Israelite who moves into the area and agrees to adapt to the Jewish way of life. Contrast alien with a foreigner. A foreigner was from another area too, not an Israelite, but who was only temporarily there and did not adapt to the Jewish way of life.  Remember the laws of Moses specifically instruct the Israelites to take care of the children, the widows, and the aliens. Sometimes the terms alien and foreigner are used interchangeably, but the laws of Moses are specifically much more accommodating to aliens than visiting foreigners. Back to Lazarus, we know he was covered in sores – which in ancient times some thought to mean that God had cursed that person. And we know that when Lazarus died he went to be with Abraham, carried by angels. Though again be careful. Going to be with Abraham in ancient times was not the same as our post-Jesus view of heaven. It could be the same, but the text is not that specific.

Now, what can we infer about the two? Well, we can assume that the Rich Man enjoyed life, probably to the fullest as the passage says, “you received good things during your life”. We can infer that the Rich Man didn’t share much, if anything, with Lazarus from the scraps of food reference. And we can assume that the Rich Man was somehow intentionally acting against God’s will…after all richness alone does not put one in eternal suffering. Let’s be very careful not to lump every rich person into the same category as this particular person, for God doesn’t will us to be poor or any specific socio-economic status. But God does will us to share what we are blessed with and provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. So you come to your own inferences as to what the Rich Man could have done, or not done, in order to deserve his placement in torment, but do not assume that he is there only because he was rich. That would be a misinterpretation of Scripture and disrespectful to those who work hard to earn what they can.

What can we infer about Lazarus? Not much as there really isn’t much written about his actions. Should we assume he was cursed by God considering the sores? Probably not since he ends up neighbors with Abraham. Can we assume that he was destitute because of some unfortunate event? Maybe. But maybe he was destitute because of his own accord. We just don’t know. He could have been poor from his own actions. Should we assume that Lazarus was a nice guy? We have no way of really knowing. So what can we say?  All we can really infer about Lazarus is that he made God happy. He followed God’s will in some way whenever it was possible. And the opposite can be inferred about the Rich Man. He did not respect God’s will. So Lazarus is pulled closely to Abraham (and God) upon his death and the Rich Man is cast further away.

How do we apply this to our lives today? This text is not saying that it is a sin to be rich or that it is a blessing to be poor. And we know from Scripture that we cannot judge others, rich or poor. So we can’t judge and we can’t know for certain. Ouch! Perhaps the only thing we can pull from this passage is: that which pulls our attention away from God does permanent damage. And I would not go so far as to judge and say which specific actions will land you where after death, because again we don’t know for certain what each person did that placed one with Abraham and the other far away. What we can take learn from this is intentionality. Meaning: we all know deep inside our hearts what God wants from us – to love and respect each other, always, fully. To take care of each other and all of creation. To give our attention and devotion to our Father. How we do that is uniquely specific to each person. Unique to our lives and our abilities. In fact, humans seem to be born with the Golden Rule already written on their hearts. Experts and studies have concluded that people around the globe all agree on the Golden Rule, regardless of culture, age or religion. It’s when we ignore these divine nudges of love and respect that we slowly drift further and further away from God. Actually, we don’t ever drift away from God, for as we read in Acts 17:28, “God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist”. If this is an accurate description of our existence as humans, then perhaps the Rich Man was distracted from God while Lazarus was focused on God. Could it be that simple?

Intentionality. It’s that simple. And it’s that complex. We need to be intentional in our everyday actions and interactions with others. We need to be intentional about what we teach and pass on to our younger generations.  We need to be intentional about how we use the resources God has given us. We need to be intentional about our spiritual growth. We need to be intentional about our fellowship at church and even more so in our fellowship outside of church. And we need to be intentional with our relationship with our heavenly Father. The more we do intentionally the closer we grow toward becoming Christ-like. The more Christ-like we are the more focused we are on God. And the more focused we are on God the easier life becomes, all of life. Rich or poor.  

With love and respect for all who suffer,

Stephanie Cramer

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Blog Post from Stephanie Cramer


          Have you ever pondered on all the parables in Scripture at once? Not an easy task, but if you can manage it you’ll notice a very clear pattern begin to emerge. Among the many parables some of my favorites include: The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Great Dinner, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and my all-time favorite: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. The word parable can be defined as a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual teaching. The moral teachings are simple enough to detect in many of these parables. Yet, the literary form of parable is actually much deeper than just a teaching, that’s only the surface understanding of its function. When you look deeper into the actual focus that Jesus illustrates throughout the parables and the audience of the time, you begin to understand that Jesus is doing much more than just realigning their moral compasses. In many cases he is turning their worldview completely upside down and inside out. Through the use of parables, Jesus was enacting a drastic change in perspective, in understanding of God’s will. In the parables, what we expect to be the outcome never is and the most difficult impression usually turns out to be the correct one. Change in worldview (or why we believe what we believe) is at the heart of the parables. I’ll try to demonstrate with two popular examples.

          The Parable of the Good Samaritan is the rock star of parables among Christians and non-Christians alike. Why? Isn’t it funny that we name hospitals after this parable? Isn’t it curious that we have a legal precedent named after this parable? There’s even campgrounds named Good Sam Campgrounds throughout Iowa in honor of this parable.  Have you ever stopped to ponder on just how significant this parable really is? Upon hearing this story, a 1st Century Jew would have been horrifically offended at its conclusion. Why? Because the Samaritans were from Samaria. Enough said? Well, to put it mildly the Jews believed the Samaritans were corrupted half-breed former Jews who were offensive to God. So when Jesus depicted a Samaritan as the hero of this parable the audience’s worldview was the real target for change. The priest and the Levite in the parable walked past the half dead man because of the laws of Moses which forbid one to touch a dead body, this would render the person unclean and unfit to approach the tabernacle of God, unfit to perform their priestly duties. They continued on the road so as to uphold the laws of God, in order to respect God. The Samaritan broke the same laws in order to uphold a better law – the law of love. The Samaritan actually turns out to be the better God-respecting person than the Jewish leaders. Jesus’ worldview lesson here: Do not count yourself as better than others simply because you follow laws. The heart is greater than any law Moses ever wrote or ever could write. Truly blasphemous words at the time!

          The Parable of the Great Dinner is another powerful worldview change agent. In this parable God is represented by the master of the house and the banquet represents the Kingdom of Heaven. The Master has thrown a welcoming party for all of his honored guests - the Jews. The 1st Century Jews believed that only Jews would or even could enter the Kingdom of Heaven; after all they, the Jews, were God’s chosen people. In the Jewish worldview there was no reason for God to care about anyone outside the Jewish flock. But when Jesus tells of the lowest of society, the unclean, being invited to the amazing welcome banquet and holding the honor that was thought to be reserved for the Jews only, now Jesus was going even further than the Good Samaritan. Jesus was inviting all the non-Jews into the Kingdom of Heaven, the place specifically promised to the decedents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus’ worldview alteration here: Don’t trust you know God’s idea of who is deserving and who is not, that is God’s alone to decide. God’s heart and His will are greater than any perceived justification no matter what the books of Moses say about the chosen people. Truly blasphemous words, no wonder they wanted to kill Jesus!

The phrase I often hear in almost every location I’ve lived is, “We’ve always done it this way and it works just fine”. And while that is fine, sometimes you need to make room for progress, for a change in practice, for an appreciation of diversity, for a completely different worldview. This isn’t promoting change for the sake of change, rather this is along the same lines as the parables: sometimes you can’t see a better way if no one comes along and challenges your worldview. Sometimes we can learn great things from unexpected places; I’ve learned this over and over in the many diverse places that I’ve lived. Each new place taught me another way to look at the same challenging issues and I am stronger because of my ability to embrace change when needed rather than continuing the same ways just for the sake of habit. Change can certainly be difficult to embrace. Imagine how bold the disciples of Jesus (many more than just 12 and all of them Jews) really were to follow his change. Jesus challenged almost every worldview the Jews had and although it is easy for us, 20 centuries removed, to see the truth in what Jesus said and did, the reality is that the early disciples allowed their worldviews to be changed without this precious 20/20 hindsight. They were simply open to change, open to grow, and open to be bold. Jesus shows us that change isn’t something to be afraid of, change can be inspiring, life-changing, and even divine.

With this in mind I invite you to come to the 11am contemporary service this Sunday and see what change can look like in the United Methodist Church. Contemporary doesn’t mean less holy. Contemporary doesn’t mean less theologically sound. Contemporary means relevant to today and is most evident in the choices of songs and worship style. Contemporary worship embraces joy and praise of God as it touches and holds on to the heart of the congregation.  A good contemporary worship service should grab your heart (where God is most found) and not let go even after you’ve left the church. Contemporary worship just gives us, as the one Body of Christ, another way to celebrate and praise our relationship with the Holy Trinity and with each other. I hope to see you there, but I understand completely if contemporary is not your style.

With full love and respect for all who struggle,
Stephanie Cramer

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This weekend’s Gospel reading has a certain oddness as it seems to suggest a certain kind of dishonest behavior.  The reading in its entirety is Luke 16:1-13.  The odd part begins at verse 8 and continues into verse 9.  Much has been written in an attempt to interpret this passage to make it line up with Jesus’ other teachings.  It tends to defy such a lining up.
The last part of the passage, verses 10-13, seem to be disconnected to the story of the “dishonest manager” because it seems to suggest the exact opposite idea—one is to be faithful with worldly wealth, not dishonest.  These verses, taken apart from the previous nine verses, are familiar to us and, indeed, make sense.  These verses say, in effect, faithfulness to God, loyalty to God means that all other loyalties must be subservient to God.  The last part of verse 13 says “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  The key idea here is that “serving” or “slavery” requires one master; more than that and we get conflicted.  Most of us experience this as true.  If all of our attention, devotion, and/or energy is directed one way, we feel that we can focus easily and accomplish what is needed.  The more foci, the greater the conflict.  A simple example might help.  If we have one boss, we listen only to him/her, we do what they say in the way he/she directs us.  Assuming our boss is internally consistent to some extent, it is relatively easy to do as directed.  Now, say that you have seven bosses and they all have different needs, goals, and methods.  Yet, you are to serve each of them equally and effectively.  If you have ever been in such a circumstance of working to lease more than one person at a time, you can get a sense of what Jesus is saying.
Jesus is teaching us that the needs of God and, by extension, the values of God’s kingdom, can accept no rivals.  So we are taught to serve God (make God’s wishes first and foremost in our lives) and to use what we have to accomplish that service.  The intimation from Jesus is that if you get your priorities right (i.e. God first), you will love God and be loyal to God’s call in a way that will be conflict free.  In that way we are freed to be who God intended us to be.  Clearly this is easier said than done.  So we practice faith in God in all things.  We pray for such strength regularly and frequently.  We remember from earlier in St. Luke (chapter 12) to strive first for the Kingdom of God and the things that we need will be there for us as well (Luke  12:31).  Happy striving!

                                                                                            Pastor Jeff Blackman