Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
As Advent continues toward Christmas—the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—we continue to hear of John the Baptist as well as an important “new” character:  Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The readings for this weekend include the prophet Isaiah as well as John and Mary, so it contains a lot of important material to digest as we are in ‘Kingdom of God’ preparation mode.
The context for the Gospel reading, Matthew 11:2-11, is that John is now in prison and is asking if Jesus is the one who is to come.  Jesus answers that the gifts of God’s kingdom are being found in Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus then speaks of John significance and importance and then concludes cryptically, “Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
The next text we have for the worship service is a gospel text from St. Luke and it is a song, one called in the language of the Church “The Magnificat” and Mary the mother of Jesus is the singer.  So now in our Advent preparation, Mary comes to us again.  Mary is a young, pregnant, technically unmarried woman who is visiting her relative Elizabeth who is also pregnant but not at all young or unmarried.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy seems not only surprising, but also the result of God’s actions.
So, Mary comes visiting perhaps to encourage and support her relative Elizabeth.  It is in this coming together that Mary sings her song.  In this song, the focus of Jesus’ ministry is laid out, specifically the reversals of blessings that will come to the poor and uncaring rich in God’s realized reign.  Mary stays with Elizabeth seemingly until Elizabeth gives birth to John.
Finally, we have Isaiah’s ongoing description of the picture of God’s reign, also a picture of reversals of blessing.  The land itself that is barren will blossom.  The weak and fearful people who feel powerless will experience God’s salvation.  The blind will see, the deaf hear, the lame shall leap, the mute will speak.  Healing will come to people as well as the land and the redeemed shall travel to God on God’s highway.  They will travel safely, without getting lost and will experience everlasting joy in the presence of God.
So, this third weekend of Advent is a time of reversals—from despair to happiness and from grief to joy.  It is often called Rejoicing Sunday as we sing with St. Mary the mother of Jesus: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!
May it be so in this season of rejoicing.

                                                                                       Pastor Jeff Blackman

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

Rats. I always hate it when I get something wrong.

I sat down to read the December newsletter, the product of Linda’s hard work and artistic talent (as well as Karen Musson’s efforts of printing, folding and mailing). It was beautifully done – as always. Except for my part.

In my article, I invited you to go deeper for Advent; to enjoy the delights of shopping and gift wrapping and decorating and parties but to not stop there. During Advent, I encouraged you to be intentional about worship and growing spiritually and giving. And it was there that I messed up.

Here's the correction: Ginghamsburg UMC does not make a practice of members giving 10% of what they spend at Christmas to the mission of the church. I apologize for my mistake. I promise to do better.

Ginghamsburg UMC encourages its members to match what they spend at Christmas with a gift to the mission of the church. I heard Pastor Michael Slaughter say that one day in Advent, a member of the church showed up in his office. “Well, you got me now,” he said smiling. “We are taking our family on a cruise for Christmas.” Then he wrote out a check for $10,000 to the mission of the church.

Ginghamsburg UMC decided long ago that they were going to be in mission to the most desperate area of the world. They chose Darfur and have given millions to improve living conditions there. Darfur is no longer the most desperate area of the world, thanks in part to the mission of Ginghamsburg UMC.

So this Advent, take time to worship. Take time to grow spiritually. Give of yourself and your resources to others. Dream God-sized dreams. Don’t limit yourself – or God. 

On the journey with you,

Carol

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
If we are in the season of Advent, we must be hearing the voice of John the Baptist.  This weekend that is, indeed, who we hear in the gospel reading from St. Matthew.  John exhorts us to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven (God) has come near” (Matthew3:2).  The sign of that repentance was John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Reflecting on last weekend’s reading from Isaiah—to be taught the way of the Lord—we hear part of that way of the Lord is to look at our lives and see how we are doing at living in the kingdom of God.  Or to put it in a specifically Christian way, how well are we following Jesus?
This question could seem to be a set-up because we all know what a crazy time of year this is.  For many people—both Christian and non-Christian—this is a season of (hectic?) activity.  There are plenty of get-togethers to go to.  There are special Christmas events to attend.  There is the press and pull of Christmas shopping.  Our culture shifts from the usually calm autumn (but not this year!) to Thanksgiving Day to Crazy Shopping Day on Friday and then on to Christmas which, for our culture, ends on the 25th of December.

 I think this shift happens because we are a generally gregarious species.  There is a great joy and pleasure in the festivities.  Many people just love this time of year for its weather, its romance and nostalgia, and its basic delight.  So the culture says a great big ‘Yes!!’ to Christmas.  That’s OK, but that is not the heart of Christmas.  The heart of Christmas is God’s love for the world.  That’s the good news.  That’s the deeply profound message of Christmas Day.  So, when John the Baptist proclaims, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near,’ maybe for the followers of Jesus Christ it means to take a look at all our Advent/Christmas season practices and behaviors and realign ourselves back to our own baptisms and commitment to The Way.

I’m not suggesting a negative view of our culture’s behavior, although one could be very judgmental.  Rather, John the Baptist is calling professed and practicing Christians to keep the power of Christmas in the forefront of their activities and decision making.  It is not the job of American commerce or American culture to hang on to the ‘reason for the season.”  It is our task.  God’s power in the world is so great that many people are affected by it even if they don’t realize it.  It is our call to keep the season in due order—God first, faithfulness to Christ second, delighting in the secularity of the season lastly.  I believe all three aspects are important but only in that order.  That’s what I hear John the Baptist reminding us, not punishment or guilt, but realignment to living in God’s kingdom.  Hear John’s voice again this Advent and let us repent…again.
                                                                       Pastor Jeff Blackman

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

 Dear Friends,

I preached the sermon that I needed to hear last weekend.

I needed to hear Paul tell me (in the words from Philippians 4:4-9) that, no matter the circumstances of our lives, we are not victims. No matter the circumstances of our lives, Paul exhorts us, do what you have the power to do. Focus on God. Focus on all that is good. And keep doing the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus. No matter what.

The spiritual greats say that to focus on God and to focus on all that is good is a spiritual discipline that takes practice. Those moments when we are focused on God and the good in life are the moments when we experience gratitude and joy and peace. If you are like me, those moments can be short-lived. My brain likes to circle back to negativity and anxiety and blaming others. My brain is very uncooperative some days.

I also know that the spiritual greats say that the key is to notice when we are focusing on our worries or our negativity and, without beating ourselves up, bring ourselves back to focusing on God and that which is good. The reason that they call this a spiritual practice is that we may find ourselves having to refocus many times during a typical day. My experience is that refocusing and the resultant rejoicing take a lot of practice. Sometimes I get discouraged in my efforts.

Yesterday, in yoga class, I listened to Michele as she as she put us through our paces, instructing us to focus on different muscle groups as we went. I was aware of how quickly my mind wandered, and how Michele’s gentle, grace-full voice was a frequent reminder to refocus. I was aware that it was in the refocusing that strengthened my muscles. Even though I have much to learn, I am certainly better at focusing now than I was a year ago.

It is the voice of Jesus that gently and grace-fully reminds us to refocus in the midst of challenging circumstances. As we practice focusing on God and the good, our spiritual muscles are strengthened. It is the Way of Jesus that shows us how to do good to those who curse us, to forgive, to care for the vulnerable, to give of ourselves generously, to work for unity and the dignity of all.

May you practice refocusing on God and all that is good in life without giving up. May you know the gratitude, joy and peace of Christ this day and every day.

On the joyful journey with you,
Carol



Monday, November 21, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This weekend brings us to the beginning of a new Church year and so, here we are in (hard to believe!) Advent, moving post-haste toward Christmas.  Traditionally, the Church works to remind us of that for which we await:  the Day of the Lord.  I am sure than many people would say, “We await the birth of Jesus.”  That is true, of course, but not complete.  What we await is the arrival of what we pray continually: ‘thy kingdom come on earth!’
The birth of Jesus Christ is the sign of the kingdom of God, i.e. where Jesus is, there is the Kingdom.  So the birth of Christ is about God’s kingdom entering the world of human beings.  So, to some extent, our prayer request—thy Kingdom come on earth—is fulfilled with Jesus’ birth.  So, on Christmas day we celebrate and give thanks for God’s vision settling on the earth.
This is God’s vision for the earth?  This? that we see right now, right here? You ask incredulously.  The answer is “yes” and “no.”  First the “no.”  Clearly the wars and hate and poverty and hunger and enmity we see around us are not God’s vision.  Sadly, this is how humans manage the world.  It is so clear that when humans manage the world and the lion lays down with the lamb, you best hope you are not the lamb!  For the Lamb will be slain and we move on to the next one and the next one and on and on.
To this order of things God sent prophets to show us the way, like in the Hebrew reading for this weekend—Isaiah 2:1-5:  let God “teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths,” (verse 3b).  It is this vision of God’s kingdom, a vision of lasting peace, that we await.  Prophets preached, yet we war.  So, when the true Prince of Peace comes, when Jesus comes and we are saved and healed and follow the light of the Lord, as Isaiah says (v. 5) we have peace.  Except we don’t.  We don’t for the same reason that Jesus was crucified—those of power and might want no part of peace unless it is a peace held by them.  Jesus showed the way of God’s peace in which all are lifted up, all are fed, all are in God’s abundant bounty, all are welcomed into God’s grace.  And those who fear and whose fear turns to selfishness fuel the human power that refused the prophets’ preaching, Jesus’ salvation: and the hope of the world was crucified.

But God is not so easily defeated.  Jesus was raised as a sign that God does not give up on his vision or on us.  Where the Risen Christ is, there is the Kingdom of God.  When the Church loves and forgives and makes new, when we feed body and soul, there is Christ and there is the Kingdom.  Jesus struggled against the power and principalities.  He was killed yet is alive forever more.  This is our story and we’re sticking to it!  This is the Good News we preach and strive to live.  Christmas day is where we Christians enter the story of God’s desire.  When we imitate Christ, we can see God’s kingdom.  When we fear for ourselves and our futures, the Kingdom seems dark.  Christmas shows us the way by showing us God’s truth and God’s life.  Advent is the great time of preparation to see this light and overcome our spiritual darkness so that we may walk by the Lord’s light.  Such is the journey which starts again and none to soon.

                                                          Pastor Jeff Blackman

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Post-Election Word from Pastor Melissa Sternhagen

Dear Friends,

Like many of you, I am waking up bleary-eyed from a long night of watching election results come in, and finding myself feeling fully the physical and emotional effects of this long, tumultuous election cycle. Like many of you, I have scrolled through countless social media feeds and read a number of posts of both celebration and hope, and lament and fear in the wake of the election of our new president. And, like many of you, I have found myself wondering about how to move forward through this time as a person of faith. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

The results of our election were decisive. As a nation we decided on a new president. But the results were not definitive, as they did not explicitly define us as a nation or explicitly define which direction our country will be heading in. If anything, the election results magnified in new ways what most of us have known for a while:  Our country is deeply divided on several levels and we are pulling in a number of different directions.

But regardless of the various directions in which our country is pulling, and regardless of whether or not the candidate each of us voted for yesterday will be our next president, and regardless of the changes that may or may not come under our new president’s administration, our mission and our call as people of faith remains the same:  To love God and to love one another. Period.

Which means that as conversations develop in person or online about the outcome of the election, we would do well to remember that the person on the other side of the conversation or the computer screen matters a whole lot to God. And because they matter a whole lot to God, they and their well-being, their hopes, their fears, their celebrations, and their laments should matter a whole lot to us too. And before we say or type derogatory and/or blanket statements about this group of people or that candidate’s supporters, we might first consider our connection to them in God through Christ, and then see how we might come alongside them to work toward healing, wholeness, and life—in this life—together.

You see, time and again in scripture, Jesus spoke of such a vision—he called it the Kingdom of God. And as followers of Christ, our call was, is, and will be to live into that vision until it is a reality for everyone—especially for those that the kingdoms and rulers of this world have traditionally left out, ignored, or purposefully oppressed. Until that day comes, our work is not done, and our mission is unchanged. Regardless of how many times the president of our country changes.

So if you are fearful this morning, I want to encourage you to grab hold of one of the over 350 times in scripture where we are reminded in some way, shape, or form to not be afraid, and then find someone who is hopeful and see if you can’t find what is common between you and work from there. And if you are hopeful this morning, I want to encourage you to listen deeply to those who are fearful and to the reasons why they are fearful, and see if you can’t find what is common between you and work from there. For only when we can discover and affirm what is common between us will we be able to work through what is not.

Be gentle with yourselves and with one another today, beloved.

On the journey with you,

Pastor Melissa

           

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

As I write to you on this Election Day, the votes are uncounted. Our presidential candidates are in a statistical dead heat. By the time you read this, you and I will know who our next president will be. Emotions and passions have run high this election season. To a degree, this is understandable. Our emotions and passions are indicative of strongly held beliefs. In this great nation of ours, each of us has a responsibility to be informed on this issues and to vote. In our nation, as in the church, each voice is important. In our nation, as in the church, every voice holds a piece of the truth.

Emotions and passions have also run high because fear and anger have created more heat than light. Election Tuesday is important. But what happens on Wednesday? Clearly, in this divisive election, much healing needs to happen. What is our role as Christians?

Perhaps the answer boils down to where we choose to put our loyalty. Written between every line of the New Testament is this question: Where will you put your loyalty? To the current political leaders and to the political empire? Or to Jesus Christ and God’s Empire (usually translated the Kingdom of God)?

In Jesus’ day, the emperor was called Savior, Lord, Son of God, Prince of Peace. In that day, the empire was the Roman Empire. To give loyalty to the 21st century equivalents is to insist that our candidate, win or lose, is the only Savior of our nation. It is to continue the divisions, fueling them with our self-righteous anger and even hatred of those we deem different. To give loyalty to the current political leaders and political empire is to let our fear overwhelm us. It is to be more loyal to a political party than to the good of our nation.

To give our loyalty to Jesus Christ and the empire of God is to hear and to trust those words repeated over 350 times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

To give our loyalty to Christ and God’s empire is to practice the Way of Jesus: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Do not be angry with a brother or sister and do not insult a brother or sister (Matthew 5:22). Do not judge, so that you may not be judged (Matthew 7:1). Forgive as you hope to be forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15). Practice peace (Matthew 5:9). Practice mercy (Matthew 5:7). Be the light of Christ in the darkness (Matthew 5:14-16). It is to care for the least of these as if we are caring for Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).

We who follow Christ have our work cut out for us. No matter the outcome of the election, there is much work to be done to heal our nation. We are God’s salt and light in the world.

Won’t you join me in that endeavor?

On the journey with you,

Carol