Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This week we are re-introduced to perhaps the most important person of the Hebrew (Old Testament) Bible:  Moses.  For the last many weeks the Hebrew readings have been in Genesis.  The readings have taken us through the stories of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Through the Joseph part of the Jacob/Israel narrative we now have Israel in Egypt and, as we leave Genesis, the Family Israel are doing well in Egypt anticipating a return to the promised land sometime way down the proverbial road.
Now we come to Exodus, the spiritual center of the Hebrew Bible.  In the first seven verses of Chapter 1 of Exodus, the Family Israel are seen living out God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.”  All is well… until verse 8 when we learn “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”  As I read the words they have an ominous feel to them.  In the very next verse we, indeed, find out that trouble is on the horizon for Family Israel.
Things change—always have, always will.  Only change is constant “they” say.  So, a new king who knows not Joseph arises and a new administration comes to the land and has different ideas.  The new king looks out on his world and is threatened by what he sees.  He sees Hebrews and within that mix is the Family Israel.  He immediately instigates slavery of the Hebrews and genocide.  In a faith perspective the king takes on God.  How?  God says be fruitful and multiply and be part of My (God’s) good creation and Pharaoh is making creation bad, oppressive, and barren.  To say that Pharaoh’s plan is rather counter-productive is obvious.  But Pharaoh thinks he is God and, without consciousness, takes on the One God and is starting to look like he’s prevailing.
But Exodus is the story of rescue and liberation because these are two of the characteristics of God.  So, into this story of slavery and oppression comes the human agent of the rescuing and liberating God of the Family Israel and his name is Moses.  This week’s story ends with a tiny baby being placed by the reeds in the River Nile and saved by God through Pharaoh’s daughter.  The same Pharaoh who thinks he is God and the same Pharaoh who starts the battle with God.  God’s power is unseen but present—a powerful, holy, spiritual presence.
There is so much more in this reading but suffice it to be only hinted at for the moment.  God is there working out life and goodness, just like even now.
                                                         Pastor Jeff Blackman

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

The blue bead on the prayer strand signifies praying for the world. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said, “The world is my parish.” The blue bead symbolizes this fragile, blue planet that is our home.

I have found in the past that praying for the world is difficult. The problems are of such magnitude and my prayers feel so puny. Sometimes I get compassion fatigue: so much suffering, where do you begin? I also think that it is easy to shift into a subconscious mode that thinks that God likes who we like, God doesn’t like who we dislike; that all we have we deserve and those others? Well, they’ve got what they deserve. Probably the biggest obstacle to praying for the world for me is that I’m pretty focused on my own struggles and problems.

The religious leaders in Matthew 15:10-20 were caught up in their own world as well. They were worried about what they could eat without defiling or hurting themselves. It was understandable. The religious laws, teaching and tradition had taught them to be concerned about this issue.

Jesus tells them: It isn’t what you put in your mouth that is the problem; it is what comes out of your mouth. Don’t worry about defiling and hurting your own body; worry about how you can use your body – your words and actions – to defile and hurt others. Jesus is inviting them to take a broader perspective; to move beyond themselves.

Then, in a surprising twist, Jesus, in effect, becomes his own sermon illustration (Matt. 15:21-28). A Canaanite woman, a Gentile, an outsider, cries out desperately for her daughter to be healed. Jesus ignores her cry. When pressed, he makes clear that his mission is to the people of Israel. The woman, however, responds in a way that breaks open his heart, empties him of his narrow perspective, and fills his heart with God’s compassion. Jesus speaks words of affirmation and heals her child. His perspective is broadened to include the world. In Matthew 28:19, we are told that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all the nations. It is for the world.

Our United Methodist mission statement is to make disciples for the transformation of the world. But we can only transform the world if we are first being transformed. That is what prayer does. Prayer, according to Julian of Norwich, fastens our hearts to God. Over time (rather than immediately, like Jesus), prayer empties us of our self-focused ways. By the grace of God, we are filled with God’s compassion in order that we might offer compassion to the world. We move beyond ourselves. Our perspectives are indeed broadened.

When we pray for the world, we are the priesthood of all believers, lifting the pain and suffering of the world into the heart of God. As we are transformed, God uses us to transform the world as we share Christ’s love with the world.

Because if we don’t, who will?

On the journey with you,


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

Intercessory prayer is prayer for other people. If you are exploring using the prayer beads, the three purple beads are symbolic of praying for people who are in the midst of a stormy time of life.

The story in Matthew 14:22-33 teaches us about intercessory prayer in the storms of life. Jesus has gone away to pray – an act of obedience and necessity. How else could he fearlessly heal, feed and, in this story, walk on water? If you want to know the importance of the spiritual discipline of prayer, look at Jesus.

He sends the disciples on a mission in uncharted waters. A perfect storm comes up. (This is sounding a whole lot like the church!) Jesus comes to them, a reminder that God is present in the midst of the crises of our lives. The disciples, however, do not recognize him. They scream in terror. Principle #1 of intercessory prayer: Keep your eyeballs peeled. God is with you in surprising, unexpected ways. The question is: Will you recognize God?

The disciples, in their fear, are glued to the boat. Everybody knows that you don’t get out of the boat in a storm. Batten down the hatches. Keep your head low. We tend to stay put – and complain a lot. Unfortunately in the church, complaining is worse than Ebola. Everyone who hears gets sick. That’s bad news. The really bad news is that in rural Iowa, we don’t have the luxury of a lot of new, uninfected people showing up to take the place of those who have gotten sick and are now staying home.

Jesus says to us fearful disciples, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Peter responds, “If it is really you, tell me to come to you.” Jesus replies, “Come.” Peter does.

Why get out of the boat? It is the only way you are going to get closer to Jesus.

This is how you get out of the boat: You get out of your comfort zone. You take action. You take responsibility. Principle #2 of intercessory prayer: Whatever you pray for, you work for.

Which leads to Principle #3: Test God’s promises by trusting God’s promises. Peter tested Jesus and as he got out of the boat, he moved closer to Jesus. He moved closer when he kept his eyes on Jesus and he moved closer when his fear got the best of him. When your fear causes us to lose focus, Jesus reaches down, pulls you up and embraces you. Jesus doesn’t say, “O you of little faith, what made you think you could walk on water?” Jesus smiles and with a twinkle in his eye says to you, “O you of little faith, what made you doubt you could walk on water?”

What happens when you risk, when you move beyond safety and security? You not only move closer to Jesus, you impact the entire church. You inspire the entire church. Which is exactly what Peter did as the disciples worshipped right there in the middle of the storm. Later Jesus would say that his church would be built on people who were willing to get out of the boat, just like Peter.

Please keep your church in your prayers. When you pray for others, watch for God’s surprising ways. What you pray for, work for: take action; take responsibility; get out of your comfort zone. Test God’s promises by trusting God’s promises.

Get out of the boat.

On the journey with you,


A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus goes on the offensive in this week’s gospel reading from St. Matthew.  It seems to me that Jesus doesn’t want to do away with the Law of the Hebrew Bible so much as he wants it to be understood as requiring more than shallow fulfillment.  So, Jesus tackles the food requirement for those Jews observing the dietary requirements.  Jesus doesn’t say “Don’t follow those laws,” he does say that it is our words and behavior toward others that really matters.  If you follow the letter of the law, it is pretty easy to get around it in order to do just what you want to do.  Jesus is trying to close that semantic loophole by pushing people to the spirit of the law rather than to just the words of the law.
This sort of behavior is as old as humanity itself.  There are lots of folks who want to know exactly what the law/statute/fulfillment of something might be so that the loopholes materialize almost miraculously.  Many people believe this is why we have so many secular laws:  law after law is created in order to fill an unintended loophole.  In the living out of religion, it can get even worse.
Jesus calls this kind of thinking and behaving “hypocrisy.  I often think this is why many people are so angry and dismissive of the Church.  For example—Jesus says “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).  So what do we do as the Church?  We exclude people who are not enough like us.  We condemn people who are different from us.  We denigrate other Christians whose doctrine and way of doing Church is different from our own.  Jesus says “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Yet many of us think that war and violence can automatically be compatible with Jesus’ teachings.  These are not simple issues that Christians must face.  Yet, if we make great proclamations about love, peace, and reconciliation, all the while acting like there is not contradiction between Jesus’ preaching and much of our behavior, then we are indeed the hypocrites Jesus calls us and that Isaiah before him calls us.

 The last part of this weekend’s reading illustrates how hard it is to be congruent with what we say and do.  The rest of the story is that an enemy (a Canaanite) approaches an enemy (an Israelite, i.e. Jesus and his disciples).  She shouted out her need for help.  Jesus and the disciples tried to ignore her.  Then the disciples tried to shoo her away—but to no avail.  Finally, Jesus says “I’m not going to help you” but she persists even in the face of insult and resistance.  Suddenly Jesus realizes his own human limitedness, puts the brakes on his own prejudice against Canaanites, remembers who he is, and heals his enemy’s child. Wow!  If Jesus the man can struggle with aligning his values and his words and behaviors, it has got to be a huge struggle for all of us who seek to follow the way to the Kingdom of God.  Yet, even in this, Jesus shows us the way, truth, and life that he is and moves toward is Abba who makes no distinctions.  Jesus shows us the way to life, and it abundantly, even in his deepest humanity.  What a savior!!
                                                                                           Pastor Jeff Blackman

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Mid-Week update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

So how is your experimentation with prayer beads coming? If you are courageous and have braved trying something new, drop me an email or text or Facebook message and tell me your experience. If you are really brave, post your experience on our church Facebook site! And if you have been praying, with or without prayer beads, and have a prayer story to share, please post that on our church Facebook website as well! How has prayer made a difference in your life?

Two weeks ago, we talked about the symbolism of the green bead: bringing your concerns to God. You may be beginning to see a pattern here. We bring our worries (rough bead), our struggles (silver and black bead) and our concerns to God. The Psalmists and Job and Jeremiah (among others) show us that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that we cannot bring to God. Jesus did that on the cross when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We don’t have to clean up our acts or pretend or be Polly-annish when we pray. We bring who we are and all that we are, including our deepest fears and anxieties. And, truth be told, our very deepest fears and anxieties have to do with death, with no longer existing, of being annihilated. Even our conflicts with others, according to Eckhart Tolle, have to do with that fear because of our egos. The ego is that part of each of us that has to do with our beliefs and our world views and how we see ourselves. Our egos are convinced that if someone insists that we aren’t right in the ways that we think, that we might cease to exist. It is our fear of death that causes us to feel separate from God and separate from others. Paul Tillich says that our sin always stems from that fear of death and that sense of separation because we think that if anyone is going to save us from death, it’s gonna be ourselves. In our fear, we stop trusting God.

I think that is way Paul’s words in Romans 8 are some of my favorite: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we pray and when we bring our deepest concerns to God, we are claiming that promise. We learn to trust God.

The next bead is the red one, symbolizing praying for those we love. In my book, that part is easy. But because we are followers of Christ, we also heed his words to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Ouch. Pretty much impossible. That idea fills me with resistance and reluctance. My resources seem meager for what I am commanded to do.
This is the response of the disciples when Jesus looked out across a crowd of 5000+ and said to the them, “You give them something to eat” (Matt. 14:16). The disciples responded with resistance and reluctance. It looked pretty much impossible. Their resources seemed meager for what they were commanded to do.

But in a miracle bigger than 5000+ being fed, the disciples overcome their negativity and scarcity mentality and bring what they’ve got to Jesus. Jesus takes their meager efforts, blesses them, breaks them open and gives them back to the disciples so THEY can do as they’ve been asked to do: feed the crowd. They follow his command. And they each get a bushel basket of left-overs to show for their efforts.

As you hold the red bead, pray for those you love. Then pray for those people you hate, or at least dislike. Pray for those who have hurt you. Pray for those groups of people you condemn and criticize and blame. Don’t worry about having enough love or forgiveness or willingness or whatever you think you are lacking. Just bring what you have to God. See what God does with your meager offering.

Then share what God gives back to you. Share the love. Share the compassion. Share the grace. Share the forgiveness. Share it extravagantly, wildly, trusting that God takes our feeble efforts and creates a feast.

You might be surprised. You also might discover you have received a bushel of love in return.

On the journey with you,


A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the ongoing saga of Jacob/Israel, the story now moves to the Joseph segment of this long narrative in Genesis.  This weekend’s Hebrew Testament reading is Genesis 37:1-28 (although the lectionary leaves out verses 5-11).  From a literary perspective, the purpose of this part of the Jacob/Israel saga is to explain how Jacob/Israel got to Egypt.  That story is in preparation for, perhaps, the most important story of Hebrew spirituality:  the exodus.  The Joseph story is the vehicle to get Jacob/Israel to Egypt so that the “Exodus” can happen.
This week’s reading introduces us to an old age Jacob/Israel, his adult sons and his favorite son, Joseph.  As soon as we learn that Joseph is the favored one, we sense trouble brewing.  In our sense of the world today, we have wisdom about parent/child relationships that says, “treat everyone the same,” as much as that is possible.  That wisdom was not used in Jacob/Israel’s family—not for Jacob and Esau, not now for Joseph and his brothers.
Joseph’s favored status was well known to his brothers and they were jealous of him.  That jealousy turned to hate (v. 4).  Jacob/Israel did nothing to temper his preference.  He gave to Joseph “a long robe with sleeves: and nothing like that to the others.  I suppose we could make analogies today with our values an consumption of goods but, essentially, it meant that one child go so much more than the others and jealousy was born and from that came hatred.  The rest of this weekend’s reading from Genesis is how the brothers carried out their plan to get rid of Joseph, the “favored” but hated brother.

The main lesson about this reading, from the perspective of theology, is that God will ensure that the Divine Will would survive.  Personally, I don’t think that this was God’s plan event by event.  Rather, God made a promise to Abraham and that promise was transferred to Jacob.  All through the Genesis story God is revealed to be faithful.  On the other hand, the human beings in the stories are revealed to be, well…human beings—a mess!  The mess is a mess of relationships, family struggles, jealousy, hatred, foolishness, misplaced loyalties, greed, deceit, and almost every human failing and brokenness.
As each human in the story fails in some way, God moves to counter the selfish move of the human.  God works within the mess we humans often create to fulfill God’s desire.  In the Genesis saga God sometimes acts indirectly through a human being such as Reuben.  Sometimes God acts personally as in the dreams of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then, later, Joseph.  The point is that God is faithful to the promise even if it takes generations and generations.
As we read the stories of Genesis through 21st Century eyes and wisdom, there is value in reflecting on the messes that humans make of things.  An honest reflection would be that we are still creating huge messes because of our brokenness, woundedness, and pain.  As we mess it up, God is at work to keep the promise of “life and it abundant” on track.  It was to that end that we had and have Jesus, whom we call Christ.  It is to that end we worship and learn, working to be faithful to God’s desire for us all.  The God news is that humans still mess it up.  The Good News?  God is still faithful and on the job of salvation.
                                                                                                         Pastor Jeff Blackman

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A MId-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the Bible readings for this weekend’s worship services is the continuing story of the patriarch, Jacob.  The story this weekend really starts in the middle of a longer story about Jacob being married (twice in a week) and the start of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The longer story about this aspect of the saga starts about chapter 29 and continues through chapter 31.  These chapters chronicle a series of deceitful acts within the extended family of Rebekah (Jacob’s mother), Laban being the tribal patriarch, i.e. Rebekah’s father.
These chapters read like a scandalous recollection of the worst of family members.  Jacob comes to his mother’s kin and, at first, he is well received but, as the story progresses, scandalous behaviors get more and more numerous until after a 20-year period, there is again the threat of murder in Jacob’s family.  The reading for this weekend is at the point of the first obvious deception within this family unit.
This story encourages one to reflect on families and the dynamics within them.  Whereas the Scriptures present a culture significantly different than our 21st Century American culture, the problems of the Jacobean family seem as relevant and as familiar as a made-for-TV movie.  Or possibly the back story of a newspaper or news magazine story of a famous family with troubles.  Suffice it to say, a very messy picture is presented.
Which brings me to contemporary families.  All families have difficulties.  The difficulties exist because each family member is unique and individual, thus, unique and individual needs that may or may not blend together.  Many families find themselves working to navigate these differences to varying degrees of success.  Some families come out well “on the other side” of struggles.  Some don’t.  Most get help and encouragement from friends, church, other family members, or professionals because family conflict can cut deeply and even sever.  These conflicts happen in every family to lesser or greater degrees because we are not all the same even in the family.The scripture for this weekend can offer every family a sense of encouragement regardless the degree of struggle.  For in the scripture story God was with them all, even the ones causing the difficulties.  In the midst of deceitfulness and jealousy and hot anger, the word of God still is heard.  This is just as possible today if we are willing to hear.  But what the aggrieved persons in this story had to do was to listen and receive God’s word of transformation.  By that the transformation reconciliation was possible, and God’s promises continued on.
The same can be true for all of us.  If we allow the words of God notably spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, to transform us especially in times of anger and anguish, reconciliation is possible and the promise of abundant life can continue.  However, just as in the story of Jacob in Genesis, we’ve hot to allow ourselves and our families to be formed by God’s words of compassion and hope.  May our families, individually and as the greater family of human beings, hear the transforming Word of God, who loves us all.
 Pastor Jeff Blackman