In the heart of Missoula...


Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors
Celebrating God's love since 1871

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" is not just an advertising slogan, but a statement of how First United Methodist Church of Missoula wants to be seen in our community. First Church is a community of open hearts seeking to be a force for God's grace in the "heart" of Missoula's downtown. We are an open minded congregation, respectful of each other yet unafraid of the issues of our time. And we are a church of open doors, welcoming a wide diversity of people to be a part of our congregation. For those who can't manage our stairs you will find the elevator just inside the street level entrance to the right of the stairs. You will always find a place at First United Methodist Church!
Please visit us at 300 E. Main Street.


Check out our new Facebook page. We hope you enjoy it.

Reconcilling logo
We welcome all people into the full life and membership of this congregation.



star Church will start at 10:30 during the school year.
Children 3-12 will leave the sanctuary following the Children's Sermon for Sunday School, except for the last Sunday of the month.

Communion is held each Sunday and all attending are invited to God's Table to share in the meal.
Nursery care will be available to those 5 and under during the service.
There is always a coffee/fellowship time in the Narthex following the service.

You are invited to join us!

On Sunday Choir practice is in the chapel next to the sanctuary at 9:00 and the Faith and Justice Class will meet downstairs at 9:15.
Additional Adult Classes are offered during the week.  adult ed
You are invited to join us!

sermonby our minister Rev. John Daniels.

time and talent
As church starts up this fall we could use your help in many different areas.
Please fill out the Time and Talent Survey and turn it in to the office or put it in the basket in the Narthex.
Your time and talents are appreciated!

Our church is handicap accessible through the street level door on the southeast corner of the building. There is an elevator there that will bring you up to the sanctuary or down to fellowship hall. We have large-print bulletins with hymns, large print hymnals, and hearing assistance devices for those that are hard of hearing.
We also have video screens for hymns and scripture.
Office phone and E-mail contact information on the CONTACT US PAGE.

John Daniels Pastor John Daniels

    As we wish Pastor Barry a happy retirement, with open hands and heart we welcome Pastor John Daniels. This spring the congregation of FUMC joyfully responded to the announcement that Bishop Elaine Stanovsky had appointed the Rev. John Daniels as the incoming minister. At the June meeting of the Yellowstone Annual Conference, the Rev. Daniels’ appointment was finalized, and he officially became pastor of FUMC on July 1.
On July 6, at 9:30 a.m., we welcomed John Daniels as FUMC’s new pastor. Many will recognize Pastor John as the former Western Mountains District Superintendent for the Yellowstone Conference. His July 6th sermon served as an introduction of the new pastor from the DS. You may also recognize his wife Terri, who sings in our choir, and his children Emily, Molly and Ethan. Emily has one year left at the University of Montana, where she is studying music education. Molly is pursuing degrees in journalism and theatre at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Ethan is a student at Sentinel High School. He would like to attend UM and get a degree in a technical field associated with computer graphics.
   To give Pastor John time to shift from District Superintendent to pastor of FUMC, and because many from the congregation are gone during the summer, the Staff Parish Relations Committee has planned informal get-acquainted activities starting in late summer. These will be announced in the August Tower Tidings and worship bulletins.
   SPRC asks you to keep Pastor John and his family, Pastor Barry and his family, and the congregation in your prayers during this time of change.

You Tube video
Retired ministers Hugh Herbert and Barry Padget lead the congregation in singing
Brother Van's Harvest Time. Click on the arrow above to start the video.

newsletterfor complete details of all that is happening this month in our church.

Current EVENTS
October 1 FUMY 7-8:30 p.m.
October 2 UMW meeting in Clara Smith Room 1 p.m.
October 7 Serious Answers to Hard Questions class begins at 10:00 a.m.
October 7 Women Speak to God class begins at 7:00 p.m.
October 9 Ruth Fellowship in the Parlor at 10:00 a.m.
October 10 Friday Night Out at Mahoney's new cottage
October 14 Tower Tidings Deadline
October 15 Vespers Fellowship at 1:00 p.m.
October 18 Healing Waters class begins at 7:00 p.m.
October 23 Young Familes Corn Maze, 6-8 p.m.
October 26 Eagle Watch Service at 1 p.m.
October 27 Church Council Meeting, 7 p.m.
October 28 Book Club, noon
November 6 UMW Lunch out at Perkins, 11:30 a.m.

The life of our church includes:
(Click on colored words to find out more information.)
Adult Spiritual Growth - fall classes, online class information,
links to The Book of Discipline
Children's Ministries - You Tube Christmas program video
Youth Ministries - FUMY
U of M Wesley Foundation - Facebook link
Amazing Grays - Trips for seniors
Choirs - Chancel Choir, JuBELLation Handbell Choir, Children's Joyful Noise Choir
Foundation - donations and scholarships
Membership - joining the church
Stephen Ministers - caring for one another and training information.
UMW - United Methodist Women schedule and fellowship group information UMW
UMM - United Methodist Men
Social Action - Family Promise, Poverello, Habitat for Humanity, Intermountain, UMCOR
Walk to Emmaus - Link to their website

Reaching out with love to our community and the world hearts
Tzedakah Pocket
Poverello noon meal 5th Saturdays
Family Promise Host
January MIC Food Bank Drive
Wesley House
Host for Homeless Connect
East Angola Pastor Support
SERRV & Fair Trade Products
Intermountain Home
Flathead UMC Camp
Blackfeet United Methodist Parish
United Methodist Women’s mission projects
YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter
❤ Cub Scouts
Habitat for Humanity

Pastor: John Daniels - Click here to see a current sermon.
Administrative Assistants: Sharon Jackson and Rhanda Johnson
Treasurer: Leslie Lindley
Financial Secretary: Kay Duffield

Custodian: John Schaff
Nursery Attendants: Faye Gibson, Audra Clark & Juliette Viera
Junior Nursery Attendants: Sophia Clark, Kade Hedahl, Kayla Leavell, Madison Lightfield and Austin Means

Music Team:
Greg Boris, Music Director and Chancel Choir Director
Peter Edwards, Pianist/Organist
Joann Wallenburn, Handbell Choir Director
Rhanda Johnson, Joyful Noise Director

hospital **Please let the office know if you or someone in our church family needs a visit in the hospital or at home.
(406) 549-6118
or Pastor John's cell phone (406) 396-8966.

Office Hours (subject to change - call 549-6118 before coming in or to make an appointment with the pastor)
Monday - Thursday: 9 a.m. - noon. Friday: Closed

First Church loves music and hopes you will come not only to listen but to participate in it! We sing hymns as well as praise songs, often have special music and enjoy all three of our choirs. Choirs practice from September till May.
We love those who volunteer to provide special music during the summer. Call the office if you would like to bless us with your music.

Chancel Choir
FUMC Chancel Choir will begin the fall season on Sunday Sept. 8th.  Enthusiasm and love of music a must.  Previous experience is not required.  Choir meets Sundays only at 9:00 a.m. before service.  All are welcome.  Please join us!  For more information talk to choir director Greg Boris 239-1828.

JuBELLation Handbell Choir

Interested in learning/playing a new musical instrument? JuBELLation Handbell Choir, based at The First United Methodist Church, is looking for individuals interested in learning or experienced at playing handbells this season!  There are several ways to get involved and be part of this fun group!  Openings include: Full Time, Part Time, and On-call positions. During the school year practice is each Wednesday from 6-8. For more information call Joann Wallenburn at 677-4424.

bunnyJoyful Noise Children's Choir

All children from the 1st through the 8th grade are welcome to participate in making a Joyful Noise. During the school year they participate in worship once a month and rehearse on Mondays from 6:00 - 6:45 p.m. Contact Rhanda Johnson in the office (549-6118) for more information.

Adult Spiritual Growth Groups
Do you feel like you are on a spiritual journey? We hope you will allow us to walk with you on this journey and together we will find the answers to our questions. Fall classes will meet on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning, Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening. Click on the blue button below for details.
 adult ed

Interested in online adult classes? Click on UMC classes for more information.
The Book of Discipline is available online for your study and review: The Book of Discipline Index, The Book of Discipline Part 1,The Book of Discipline Part 2 and The Book of Resolutions 2012 Part III.

Children's Ministries
Sunday School meets during the worship service, right after Children's Time and is for  Preschool - 6th grade. Our Rock Solid program is a
Bible study that enables children to experience God through Jesus Christ.  Activities will include stories, crafts, music and scripture. 

Call the church office (549-6118) for more information. Nursery care is available for those not ready for preschool. kids christmas 2013

You Tube You can watch a You Tube video of the Twelve Days of Christmas given by the children during church December 8, 2013.
 Click on the You Tube logo.

First United Methodist Youth Fellowship (FUMY)
7th through 12th grade students meet most Wednesday evenings from 7:00 - 8:30 p.m. from September until May.
They do service projects, make discoveries about themselves and others, and have fun!

Wesley Foundation - University of Montana Campus Ministry
New to Campus? Connect with us! Campus Connection
The University of Montana Wesley House is located across the street from the campus and Miller Hall at 1327 Arthur Avenue.
College students and visitors are welcomed to stop by for a vis
it. Sunday evenings are family style dinners and Thursday evenings are a Bible Study.
For more information E-mail the Wesley House or Phone: (406) 274-3346.
Join us on facebook
Local Churches: Please send the names of U of M students from your local church to the Wesley Foundation
so they can be invited to join the
Wesley House activities.
Students are welcomed at either First or Grace UMC in Missoula.

UMW logoUnited Methodist Women
Our UMW is part of the Yellowstone Conference and you can find information
on Conference and District UMW activities on the conference UMW web page.
The Conference covers Montana, 1/2 Wyoming and a slice of Idaho.
The National United Methodist Women also have a website full of information, news, and resources

. UMWUMW is open to any woman who would enjoy the companionship of other women and is someone who is dedicated to supporting missions near and far. UMW raises money for mission projects locally, in Montana, nationally and globally. UMW meets the first Thursday Oct-Dec and Feb-May. All meetings are at 1:00 for dessert, program and business meeting, unless otherwise announced in the church newsletter.
Other activities include: Ash Wednesday Souper Supper, spring Flea Market, July picnic for families who will attend a community band concert at Bonner Park afterward, September Pizza Party at the Carousel, October Apple Pie sales, and December Candy Sale.
Contact President Ellie Barnes 549-1384 for more information.

** UMW Fellowship Circles meet once a month. Nothing compares to a small supportive group of women!
All women of the church are invted to visit groups that interest them.
GEMS Fellowship meets the third Thursday at 7 p.m. in the church library Sept-May
This group of working women is particularly interested in the UMW Reading program and are supportive of one another.
Chair: Laela Shimer 721-1960

L.A.N.S. Fellowship meets the second Monday at 11:30 a.m. for lunch at a restaurant from Sept-Dec and Feb-May.
They are women Living Actively in the New Society. They are interested in social action in the community as well as fellowship.
contact: Ellie Barnes 549-1384 or Peg Plimpton 542-1543
Ruth Fellowship meets the second Thursday at 10:00 a.m. in the church parlor Oct-May.
They invite you to come and share their fellowship, coffee, a monthly program, and outreach to church members who need a little TLC and support of missions like the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter.

Chairman: Ellen Stubblefield 728-2115
Vespers Fellowship meets the third Wednesday at 1:00 in homes Sept-May
They have been meeting together for a long time which has led to many long friendships. They invite you to their program and meeting.
Chair: Dorothy Avery 549-7117

**Special Interest Groups:
Book Group meets the fourth Thursday at noon in the church library
year round.
Co-Chair: Laurie Ball 926-1252 & Jackie Krahn 543-3979
Knitting Group meets on Saturdays at 10:00 in homes year round.
Chair: Carole Addis 721-1817

Quilting and Crafts Group meets as the need arises for mission projects.
Chair: Kay Norum 721-5750.

UMMen logoMen's Fellowship Group
The Mighty Methodist Men meet 1st & 3rd Saturdays, at 8 a.m. in the Church Library.

Stephen Ministry ChurchSM logo
We participate in Stephen Ministries, where trained Stephen Ministers walk with those whose lives are in turmoil for one reason or another.
Stephen Ministers also help with prayer requests each Sunday and serve communion. Anyone in our church family can request a Stephen Minister for themselves. We hope to offer a new class to train Stephen Ministers. Members of the congregation are encouraged to consider doing the 50-hours of training and helping others in this way. As a Stephen Minister you often find satisfaction in your own life as you nurture your care receiver.
What is a Stephen Minister?
Call Kay at 543-6722 or Peg at 542-1543 for more information.

Amazing Grays
The Amazing Grays are a group of church members who have been blessed with some gray hairs. They get together once a month for companionship and an enjoyable time. They go out to dinner, have a pot-luck and game night at the church, a holiday party or sometimes make a day trip by bus to some place in Montana. Friends are always welcome. Rides will be provided for those who no longer drive. Participants may sign up following church for the current activities.

New Members are received throughout the year. To learn more, please contact Pastor John Daniels by stopping by or calling the church office at 549-6118.

Missoula First United Methodist Church Foundation:
Donations and bequests to the Foundation are used for charitable giving, scholarships and fulfilling the church's mission. Brochure with more information on charitable giving and bequests to the Foundation is available by clicking on Foundation Brochure.
Foundation Scholarships: The Foundation offers two scholarships each Spring. The Foundation Scholarship is for an active member of our church and The Katie Payne Scholarship is for a woman pursuing a nursing or medical arts career or a career in law, government or public service. Click on the blue scholarship name above for the application.
The packet containing your application, transcript, and two letters of recommendation must be postmarked April 15th or earlier.

Walk to Emmaus Fourth Day groups for men and women also meet at the church. Walk to Emmaus weekends for men and women are held each spring. Please check out the Walk website at: www.WesternMTWalk.com
Members from other Walk communities are welcome and encouraged to help with the Walks, come to Gatherings and join 4h Day groups.
More Emmaus Community Information from Upper Room.

Social Action - Love in Motion

We give of our time, talent and gifts to local agencies such as Poverello and Family Promise, to state agencies such as the Blackfeet Parish and the Intermountain Home in Helena, to national missions through mission shares, and globally we are supporting a pastor in Angola with a monthly check. We are also a Jubilee Church to help poor countries with their debt.

Family promise logoFirst United Methodist Church of Missoula is part of 19+ churches who are working to house 3-4 homeless families with children. For more information or to volunteer please contact Barbara Blanchard Mahoney at 493-6713 or go to their website: http://familypromisemissoula.net/

I was hungry and you fed me...
Come feed God's people lunch 4 or 5 times a year at the Poverello Center.
We work at the Pov whenever there is a 5th Saturday.
Call the church office to sign up (549-6118).

We are a church partner with Missoula's Habitat for Humanity We invite you to join us for a work day! Contact the office at 549-6118 for more information.

Intermountain is a nationally accredited non-profit organization. They provide mental health and
educational services to effectively meet the diverse needs of children and families facing emotional challenges. Their primary services include: residential treatment, community-based services, and community trainings. Operating for more than 100 years, Intermountain is one of Montana’s oldest child welfare agencies.

We care about others. We participate in giving relief to victims of natural disasters through UMCOR. Our church gives generously to those affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis and will continue to support UMCOR when it heads to new disasters.

Special Days. Special Ways. We reach out to the world with Special Offerings

Human Relations Day -February
One Great Hour of Sharing - March
Native American Ministries - April
Peace With Justice - May
World Communion - October
United Methodist Student Day - November
For more information go to: www.umcgiving.org



Sermons by Pastor John Daniels

10-12-14  Checking Our Spiritual Attire
Scripture:  Matthew 22:1-14
Theme:  What does it mean to respond to the invitation of God?  Many have thought of it in terms of profession of faith; but I believe today’s scripture lesson speaks more about profession of life – “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  Come to the wedding feast, but come appropriately, dressed in the adornments of faith.

Recently I learned that there’s a new program going around in many main-line, side-line, and off-line Protestant churches.  It’s a program I think we may try  to implement in our church, contingent upon Administrative Board approval (we have our meeting in a couple weeks), but I thought I’d bounce it off of you this morning first, to see what you think.  The program is called the No-excuse Sunday, and it would involve the following.

Now let me ask you, COULD ANYONE PASS UP AN INVITATION TO CHURCH IF WE DID THIS?  Of course they could!  There would always be some excuse not to come to church, always some reason that might keep people from coming – some more acceptable than others, I suppose. 
Much like the church is always inviting others to attend -- and there are a multitude of excuses not to come -- the same holds true regarding faith as outlined in our scripture passage today.  The king invites, and everyone has an excuse.  Something’s going on, the calendar is full, time-clock’s need to be punched, routines must be followed, and the messengers from the king are nothing more than an annoyance to be rid of.
         Well, it is quite apparent that the king represents God, God who gives the invitation to his banquet, his heavenly domain, his eternal glory, to his children.  Some refuse to respond, and even demonstrate their hostility towards God; in so doing, they seal their fate.  A second round of invitations goes out; this time, everyone is included.  Everyone includes us.
         Thank goodness you and I have responded!  We may breathe a sigh of relief.  We are here because we have said “yes” to God, yes to obeying his will, searching for his truth, learning of his love, sharing his compassion.  We have accepted the invitation, and all is well with our souls.
         Such a nice thought.  And it could be true, if we could do just one thing right now.  Would you mind doing this with me?  Take out your Bibles, even the ones in the hymnal racks.  Open up to Matthew 22:1-14, our passage for today.  Do you have it?  Good; now, to retain this nice thought of our having accepted the invitation of God to his heavenly banquet, CROSS OUT VERSES 11-14.  Got it?  Ah, now that feels much better.  We don’t have to worry about the rest of that lesson.
         A part of us each one of us would like to do this, but of course we cannot.  We’d like to cross out verses 11-14 because it states clearly that responding to the invitation in our presence alone is not enough.  FOR WHEN WE RESPOND, WE MUST ALSO BE PROPERLY DRESSED.   And of course we are not talking about tuxedoes and flowing gowns, formal wear with lace and ribbon; we are speaking about being properly dressed in our living out of that faith, wearing that faith in life so that it becomes no token effort simply to gain access to that banquet, to that salvation promised to the faithful.  Responding to the invitation is no one time affair, but a daily affair that must embrace every corner of our being.  It must show in the daily lives that we lead.
What I’m doing here is what is called “moving from preaching to meddling.”  And I’m meddling as much if not more in my own affairs.  Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, says the following:  “Ask the average person which is more important to him, making money or being devoted to his family, and virtually everyone will answer family without hesitation.  But watch how the average person actually lives out his life.  See where he really invests his time and energy, and he will give away the fact that he does not really live by what he says he believes.  He has let himself be persuaded that if he leaves for work earlier in the morning and comes home more tired at night, he is proving how devoted he is to his family by expending himself to provide them all the things they have seen advertised.”
We can take these words and apply them to our lesson today, and reach the central point:  Ask the average Christian which is more important to them, success in the world or devotion to God, and virtually everyone will answer devotion to God without hesitation.  BUT WATCH HOW THE AVERAGE CHRISTIAN ACTUALLY LIVES OUT HIS OR HER LIFE.  As Rabbi Kushner says, “See where they really invest their time and energy, and they may give away the fact that they do not really live by what they say they believe.”  OUCH!  I know this applies to me, in my personal journey of faith – sometimes, when I take inventory of my actions, I discover that they just might not be purely faith-inspired, but inspired by emotion, or selfishness, or fear, or anger, or convenience, or any number of things less than what I profess to believe – how about you?
         It is not enough to say the words.  It is not enough to profess the faith.  It is not enough to simply show up at the invitation to the Christian life.  WE MUST LIVE IT.  Day and night, good times and bad, through comfort and discomfort, safety and danger, risk and security.  St. Francis’ is attributed with saying it this way – “Everywhere you go, preach the gospel of Christ.  And only if absolutely necessary, use words.”
Our spiritual attire is the demonstration of our faith in life – to put it in terms of our scripture lesson today, our spiritual attire is that which God sees when God looks at a person, seeing whether or not they are living the life they profess.  We have been invited to that banquet outlined in the gospel, and we have in our possession the adornments that will have us dressed appropriately – honesty, truth, confession, repentance, humility, integrity, conviction, sacrifice, worship, service, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, patience, initiative, hope, and above all Christian love. 

I’d like to close with a prayer given by Dag Hammarskjold, one of my spiritual mentors who tried to live out the premise of daily focus on God. 

Let us pray:
“Have mercy upon us. 
Have mercy upon our efforts,
That we before Thee,
in love and in faith,
righteousness and humility,
may follow Thee, with self-denial, steadfastness, and courage,
and meet Thee in the silence.
Give us a pure heart that we may see Thee,
A humble heart that we may hear Thee,
A heart of love that we may serve Thee,
A heart of faith that we may live Thee,
Thou whom I do not know But Whose I am.
Thou Whom I do not comprehend
But Who hast dedicated me to my fate. 
Thou be my guide.”  Amen.

10- 5-2014 "Faith’s Stock Market Devaluation Principle”

Scriptures:  Philippians 3:4b-14

Theme:  Backwards fiscal maneuvering usually ends in loss.  But backwards spiritual maneuvering carries with it a wisdom that is profound.  Or something like that.  The economics of heaven make sense only to the heart tuned to the frequency of faith.

            Today, I’m going to do something different with you.  I’m going to read you a story.  The story is the sermon.  So I want you to relax, take a couple of deep breaths in and out, and try to immerse yourself in the imagery, focus, and color of this story, and see if and how it may parallel some challenges we all face as Christians.  The story title is “The Richest Family in Church”.

The Richest Family In Church
By Eddie Ogan

          I’ll never forget Easter of 1946.  I was 14, my little sister Ocy was 12, and my older sister Darlene was 16.  We lived at home with our mother, and the four of us knew what it was to do without many things.  My dad had died five years before, leaving Mom with seven school kids to raise and no money.
          By 1946 my older sisters were married and my brothers had left home.  A month before Easter the pastor of our church announced that a special Easter offering would be taken to help a poor family.  He asked everyone to save and give sacrificially.

          When we got home, we talked about what we could do.  We decided to buy 50 pounds of potatoes and live on them for a month.  This would allow us to save $20 of our grocery money for the offering.  Then we thought that if we kept our electric lights turned out as much as possible and didn’t listen to the radio, we’d save money on that month’s electric bill.  Darlene got as many house and yard cleaning jobs as possible, and both of us babysat for everyone we could.  For 15 cents we could buy enough cotton loops to make three potholders to sell for $1.  We made $20 on potholders.  That month was the best of our lives.

          Every day we counted the money to see how much we had saved.  At night we’d sit in the dark and talk about how the poor family was going to enjoy having the money the church would give them.  We had about 80 people in church, so we figured that whatever amount of money we had to give, the offering would surely be about 20 times that much.  After all, every Sunday the pastor had reminded everyone to save for the sacrificial offering.
          The day before Easter, Ocy and I walked to the grocery store and got the manager to give us three crisp $20 bills and one $10 bill for all our change.  We ran all the way home to show mom and Darlene.  We had never had so much money before.
          That night we were so excited we could hardly sleep.   We didn’t care that we wouldn’t have new clothes for Easter; we had $70 for the sacrificial offering.

          We could hardly wait to get to church!  On Sunday morning, rain was pouring.  We didn’t own an umbrella, and the church was over a mile from our home, but it didn’t seem to matter how wet we got.  Darlene had cardboard in her shoes to fill the holes.  The cardboard came apart, and her feet got wet.  But we sat in church proudly.  I heard some teenagers talking about the Smith girls having on their old dresses.  I looked at them in their new clothes and felt rich. 
When the sacrificial offering was taken, we were sitting on the second row from the front.  Mom put in the $10 bill, and each of us kids put in a $20.

          As we walked home after church, we sang all the way.  At lunch Mom had a surprise for us.  She had bought a dozen eggs, and we had boiled Easter eggs with our fried potatoes! 

Late that afternoon the minister drove up in his car.  Mom went to the door, talked with him for a moment, and then came back with an envelope in her hand.  We asked what it was, but she didn’t say a word.  She opened the envelope and out fell a bunch of money.  There were three crisp $20 bills, one $10 bill and seventeen $1 bills.

          Mom put the money back in the envelope.  We didn’t talk, just sat and stared at the floor.  We had gone from feeling like millionaires to feeling like poor white trash.  We kids had such a happy life that we felt sorry for anyone who didn’t have our mom and dad for parents and a house full of brothers and sisters and other kids visiting constantly.  We thought it was fun to share silverware and see whether we got the spoon or the fork that night.  We had two knives that we passed around to whomever needed them.  I knew we didn’t have a lot of things that other people had but I’d never thought we were poor.
          That Easter day I found out that we were.

          The minister had brought us the money for the poor family, so we must be poor.  I didn’t like being poor.  I looked at my dress and worn-out shoes and felt so ashamed.  I didn’t even want to go back to church.   Everyone there probably already knew we were poor!  I thought about school.  I was in the ninth grade and at the top of my class of over 100 students.  I wondered if the kids at school knew that we were poor.  I decided that I could quit school since I had finished the eighth grade.  That was all the law required at that time.
          We sat in silence for a long time.  Then it got dark, and we went to bed.  All that week, we girls went to school and came home, and no one talked much.  Finally on Saturday, Mom asked us what we wanted to do with the money.  What did poor people do with money?  We didn’t know.  We’d never known we were poor.  We didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, but Mom said we had to.   Although it was a sunny day, we didn’t talk on the way.  Mom started to sing, but no one joined in and she only sang one verse.
          At church we h ad a missionary speaker.  He talked about how churches in Africa made buildings out of sun-dried bricks, but they needed money to buy roofs.  He said $100 would put a roof on a church.  The minister said, “Can’t we all sacrifice to help these poor people?”
          We looked at each other and smiled for the first time in a week.  Mom reached into her purse and pulled out the envelope.  She passed it to Darlene.  Darlene gave it to me, and I handed it to Ocy.  Ocy put it in the offering.
          When the offering was counted, the minister announced that it was a little over $100.  The missionary was excited.  He hadn’t expected such a large offering from our small church.  He said, “You must have some rich people in this church.”
          Suddenly it struck us!  We had given $87 of that “little over $100.”  We were the rich family in the church!  Hadn’t the missionary just said so?  From that day on I’ve never been poor again.  I’ve always remembered how rich I am because I have Jesus!

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ.”  

May we each be rich in Christ.

9-28-14  Trading Minds

Scriptures:  Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Theme:  We are asked to do something quite unnatural if we are to be followers of Christ – empty ourselves for the sake of another.  This does not mean martyrdom, but the exercise of the uncommon, yet essential kind of love that brings God’s impact down to earth through us.  This is God’s desire – to become something for someone else.  After all, that’s the exact model of Jesus – becoming flesh for our sake.

          Not long ago, there was a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who pulled into a service station to get gas.  He went inside to pay, and when he came out he noticed his wife engaged in a deep discussion with the service station attendant.  It turned out that she knew him.  In fact back in high school before she met her eventual husband, she used to date this man. 
          The CEO got into the car, and the two drove in silence.  He was feeling pretty good about himself when he finally spoke:  “I bet I know what you were thinking.,  I bet you were thinking you’re glad you married me, a Fortune 500 CEO, and not him,  a service station attendant.”
          “No,” his wife replied, “I was thinking if I’d married him, he’d be a Fortune 500 CEO and you’d be a service station attendant.”

OUCH!  That must have hurt!  It always hurts when we are brought to our senses in such a way, a way that reminds us that we are often very preoccupied with who we are – or, more correctly, WHO WE THINK WE ARE.
          Take this gentleman, for instance (slide).  His name is Kevin Baugh.  From his picture, can you tell who he is?  Let me read this article about him:
“Kevin Baugh has his own country—The Republic of Molossia—and if you don't mind, he'd prefer you call him "His Excellency Kevin Baugh." After all, he has an impressive khaki uniform with six big medals, a gold braid, epaulets at the shoulders, and a blue, white, and green sash. Oh—and a general's cap with a gold starburst over the bill.
Never heard of The Republic of Molossia? That's understandable, because it consists of Baugh's three-bedroom house and 1.3 acre yard outside of Dayton, Nevada. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, "He has a space program (a model rocket), a currency (pegged to the value of chocolate-chip cookie dough), a railroad (model size), a national sport (broomball), and—in his landlocked desert region—a navy (an inflatable boat)."
The newspaper goes on to say: "Baugh, a 45-year-old father of two, is a micronationalist, one of a wacky band of do-it-yourself nation builders who raise flags over their front yards and declare their property to be, as Baugh puts it 'the kingdom of me.'"
          THE KINGDOM OF ME.  How interesting.  How funny.  How disturbing!  Yet, how human!  For he has done what most humans want to do and try to do – build a “kingdom of me.”  None of us is entirely immune from this tendency, to build a kingdom around ourselves – our land, our property, our relationships, our wealth, our rules, our opinions, our ways of thinking, feeling, and even believingl.  We’d much rather live by our own laws instead of anyone else’s, of regarding ourselves in our quiet ways as “His Excellency” or “Her Majesty.”
          Now, most of us wouldn’t dream of following the example of Kenneth Baugh ourselves – to actually raise a flag over our front lawn and declare our sovereignty over our kingdom.  But we do perhaps raise a flag over ourselves in other ways that are being challenged by our scripture lessons today.  They both have something to do with the way we choose to think.  Paul says “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”  In our passage from the gospel, we hear Jesus describing two different approaches to life – one that says the right thing but in the end does not act, and one that doesn’t say the right thing but in the end changes his mind and does the right thing.
          Both of these passages are talking about the God-given ability we each have to orient our minds.  We can choose how we think about things.  We have great power over how we perceive reality.  We can change our minds, align our thinking, and shape our attitudes to a high degree.  And perhaps most significantly --  we have great autonomy in how, or if, we translate that thinking into action.
          Now, here is the $64 question (it’s more like the $64 million question…..) – HOW DO WE CHOOSE TO THINK?  We are given very clear guidance on this matter as followers of Christ, if scripture be our guide –WE ARE TO REGARD OTHERS AS BETTER THAN OURSELVES.  It’s not a matter of counting their achievements, them saying the right words, or their being the right kind of people – it is the laying aside of all such considerations, all such judgments, for the sake of Christ’s love, a love which never measured worthiness of being loved by worldly standards.
          We say this, we believe this, we think we do this, but do we really?  And here’s where we have the second $64 question, just as important as the first – DO WE MOVE OUR THINKING INTO ACTIVE LIVING?  Do we really love others as if they were better than ourselves?  I hate to admit this, but sometimes – oftentimes? – I find myself with tainted love – love tainted by judgment or irritation or impatience or avoidance or inattention.  And such taintedness diminishes love.
          I think, “They don’t really mean what they say,” – and my love for them drops a notch.
          I think, “They’re wrong, wrong, wrong!” – and my love for them drops a notch.
          I think, “What an arrogant, unpleasant person!” – and my love for them drops a notch.
          I think, “I hate the kind of music they like,” – and my love for them drops a notch.
          I think, “That person smells really bad,” – and my love for them drops a notch.
          I think, “Aren’t they ever going to listen to me?” – and my love for them drops a notch.
          I think, “What have they got against motorcycles?” – and my love for them drops a notch.
          I think, “Don’t they understand what’s really important?” – and my love for them drops a notch.

Now, let me ask everyone here, if you perhaps share some of my experience in life -- Do you ever “drop a notch” in your love for others?


Let me tell you about another man who raised a flag of sovereignty over a kingdom – but it was not his own flag nor his own kingdom.  His name is Terry Lane; he lives in Jacksonville, Florida.   Mr. Lane was a successful cabinetmaker, so successful that he and his partner needed more space to expand their business.  They found what they thought was an ideal location in northwest Jacksonville and built a 25,000 square foot state of the art building for their 40-employees.  Business was good for awhile, but soon problems erupted.   Broken windows, shots fired, bullet holes in the walls, stolen equipment, vandalism – even incinerated cars in the parking lot.  That’s when Terry discovered that his choice for his new building was next door to a 200-unit apartment complex even the police avoided due to the intensity of drug dealing, prostitution, and violent crime.  The complex was called “The Rock” because of the tremendous amount of crack cocaine sold and used within its premises.
Terry thought about moving his business again.
He thought about tripling security, high fences and surveillance cameras.
He thought about the possibility of suing the city to close down those apartments.
None of those thoughts went very far.  Here’s what Terry says happened to him in the midst of wondering what to do.
“As I sat mulling over the situation, from out of nowhere came a thought so clear it was almost audible:  If you’ll love those who despitefully use you, I’ll take care of things.  Stunned and shaken by God’s admonition, I wondered how I’d obey this gentle command.  Then I sensed God say, “Forget about all the shooting and all the garbage…..look at the children…..”
He changed his mind.  He focused on and prayed for the children of those apartments.  And he took action.
He bought basketballs , wrote “Jesus loves you” and “Mr. Lane loves you” on them, and threw them over the fence into the complex.
He went outside more, catching children as they were beginning to get into mischief on his property – and offered them a cold can of soda.
He invited them into his business during working hours, where his employees had to work around children coloring in coloring books or working on craft projects.
These children, who had nothing to go home to, decided to adopt Terry; a regular 35 children would come to his office every day after school.
To make a long story short, within 10 years, Terry had sold his share in the cabinet business; he established a community center in one of the apartment complexes called Metro Kids Konnection; he developed the program until it fed 145 children each day; and he watched his efforts measurably improve the lives of those toss-away children.

          Terry says, “There is so much to do, but I’m excited and grateful for the direction God chose for me.  My wife and I have gone from enjoying a six-figure annual income to subsisting on $12,000 a year, but God faithfully meets every need.  And the rewards are incomparable….nothing can replace the joy of having a little child crawl into my lap with a hug for “pastor Terry,” or for a young man who has been rescued from a potential life of dealing drugs to look me in the eye, shake my hand with a firm grip, and say, “Thanks, P.T.” (taken from Today’s Christian, cr 2007, Christianity Today International.)

          What does God give us for life?  A real world in which to live.  This real world is no Hollywood construction of a Mayberry or a Walnut Grove or a Lake Woebeggon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."  (Andy Griffith, Little House on the Prairie, and Prairie Home Companion).  No, God gives us a real world in which we and others are broken, confused, irritated, sorrowful, and all too often less than appealing.  Yet, it is a world in which we and others are able to work renewal, healing, and possibility with any life that crosses our path – if we but choose to love any life that crosses our path.  It’s a very simple thing to do, to love anyone – just consider them better than yourself.  Simple – but certainly not easy!  Yet, completely possible through God – and required of all who follow Jesus.

Real love – active love, intentional love, even sacrificial love – is what is needed for a real world. 

Do all the good you can,

by all the means you can,

in all the ways you can,

in all the places you can,

at all the times you can,

to all the people you can,

as long as you ever can.

—John Wesley.



9-21-14 - The Unbalanced Scales of Righteousness

Scriptures:  Matthew 20:1-16

Theme:  According to the world, we are an unbalanced lot, we Christians; but we lean toward the weight of Christian love and righteousness, which is concerned with how God sees things through Christ.  That perspective will not always make sense to the world, but will always be shaped and accompanied by grace – grace to endure, persist, and thrive spiritually.

A man came across a lamp one day while walking along a beach.  He picked it up and began to wipe off the sand, when a genie suddenly popped out.  “Who are you?” asked the man, astonished.  “I am the genie of the lamp,” said the figure, “and I will grant you one wish.”  “Wow,” said the man, “you mean, I can wish for anything?”  “Yes,” said the genie, “but there is a condition.  With the wish I give you, your worst enemy will get double what you get.”   Now, it just happened that this man had someone he despised greatly, and as the genie mentioned this condition of the wish, this enemy’s face appeared in this man’s mind.  Oh, how he hated him!  “You mean,” asked the man, “if  I wish for a million dollars, my enemy would get two million dollars ?”   “He would get two million.” Said the genie.  “If I wish for a mansion?”  “He would get two mansions,” concluded the genie.  This really didn’t sit well with the man; he couldn’t bear the thought of this horrible enemy of his getting more than he got.  The man thought for a moment, and then made up his mind.  “I’m ready to make my wish,” said the man.  “What do you wish for, O master?” asked the genie.  “I want you to scare me half to death.”

Today’s gospel lesson hits us where it hurts – right in the center of our human nature.  For in the center of our human nature, we have a concept, an idea, a standard rule for living that says the ultimate goal of life has something to do with balance, harmony, or some kind of foundational justice.   To put it briefly, we believe in FAIRNESS.  Things ought to be fair.  Things ought to be measured out equally for all.  About the same amount of goodness, blessing, hardship, burden, or what have you should be given to all.  Otherwise, life seems to be out of balance.
And so it is that the unfairness of this Gospel parable stuns us.  Workers who give different effort receive the same pay – and the master, God, proclaims this just.  It’s outrageous!  It’s backward!  In any event, it’s un-American!  It stuns us even in the face of our full awareness that life simply isn’t fair.  It is sometimes terribly unequal, and can be seriously out of balance  Those who do all the right things can still fall prey to suffering; those who deserve blessing receive its opposite.  And the issue of fairness goes far beyond proper working wages.
I can think of many times when I was, as a pastor and a Christian, personally struck by the lack of fairness in God’s creation:

These instances, and many others, have me scream in my head and my heart, “It just isn’t fair.”
All of us can think of such examples – death, injustice, loopholes, mistakes, calamities or so-called acts of God.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason for these things, perhaps especially as they occur to God’s people, faithful people who seem to have done absolutely nothing to deserve their suffering.  Doesn’t it seem logical, practical, sensible that more should be given to the righteous than to the unrighteous, that those who follow the dictates of God, who study the Bible, who pray and worship and tithe and help others and are humble in stature, never tell a lie, etc. etc., etc. – shouldn’t these type of people have a greater portion of God’s spirit available to them?  Shouldn’t life work out better for them?  Isn’t that fair? 
There was a famous book written many years ago entitled “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner.  I believe that there is a sequel out there which will hit a topic that might even perplex us more – the title of that book will be “Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People.”  Be honest with me, now – wouldn’t you be interested in a book of such a title?  Haven’t we wondered, silently or out loud, why so-and-so gets all the breaks?  Haven’t we scowled at someone who accomplished something we failed at, secretly wishing them future failure?  Haven’t we watched the game shows or reality shows on TV, like “Jeopardy” or “Survivor,”  and compared ourselves to those contestants– Haven’t we all thought, perhaps deep in our hearts and minds – “how much more qualified I truly am?”  Personally, I hope that they someday invent a two-way television.  I’d be one of the first to buy one, because when I shout out my answers to Jeopardy way before the other contestants, I’m sure I’d be the new world champion.
WE EXPECT GRACE TO BE FAIR, more given to we who believe and follow Christ, than
to those who don’t, or at least don’t do it as well as we do.
But here is our God, who makes grace wondrously, amazingly, and even disconcertingly unfair, accessible and possible to all, even the worst wretches of the world; maybe even especially to the worst wretches of the world.  This parable is talking about the nature of God’s grace, God’s willingness to give unreasonably towards his people, to give not based upon our merit, but upon God’s character.

What are we to make of this?  What is it about this fairness issue that can serve us in our faith?  How is it that we might make enough sense of this imbalance expressed in the Gospel?  

One way that I see it is as follows:  The world tries to balance its scales on the fulcrum of social expediency, economic vitality, and power manipulation – all things that we can control to some degree.  God balances his scale on the fulcrum of grace, over which we have no control at all.   This means that grace cannot be judged.  Grace cannot be measured.  It cannot be controlled.  It cannot be manipulated, twisted, improved upon, increased or diminished by anything we can do ourselves.  It is God’s domain, alone.  As such,  Grace can only be received or denied by us.  And we automatically deny grace when we assume it is under our control or judgment.
I’ve lost the name of the author who wrote a favorite quote about grace.  He or she said, “Grace that can be calculated and “expected” is no longer grace.  Grace that depends upon our success in the world or our accomplishments in this life is not grace.  Grace that is the sole possession of those who have made the grade, wear the right clothes, speak the right words, drive the right cars, choose the right stocks, or live in the right places is not grace.  Grace is amazing because it does not obey our rules – it obeys God’s rules, God’s challenging, mysterious, yet indispensable rules.  Even the lowest of the low can receive God’s spirit.  Even the worst of the worst has access to the bounty of our Lord.  It is not an issue of our sense of fairness, but of God’s sense of love.”
I came across something yesterday which I hadn’t really thought about – less about God’s sense of justice, and more about the different senses of justice in different people, in different contexts.  In his book Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes ( [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996] 62-63), Justo Gonzales notes that this parable elicits surprisingly different reactions when read to typical, middle-class audiences in America compared to Hispanic audiences.
 “Most people are perplexed that someone who had worked for only an hour should be paid the same as someone who has worked for eight hours. It seems patently unfair. Moreover, most people don't understand the fuss. The logic is so clear, typical Americans cannot understand on what grounds one could argue the fairness of Jesus' approach.
 “When the story is read or studied by a Hispanic audience, however, the reaction is quite different. These are people,” Gonzales says, “who identify with the problems of the field workers. They understand the laborer who travels in his pickup truck trying to find work with little success, or, even if he finds work, he is standing around waiting until the job materializes.
“At the end of the parable when the landowner pays the wages, the Hispanic congregation applauds when the laborers who worked for only one hour get paid a full day's pay. They are not confused by this, but understand that the people looking for work and who have been waiting for work need a day's pay to survive. They rejoice, then, at the grace that is not contrary to justice, but that flows with justice. They are paid what they need and deserve rather than the wages they might have been paid had society's concept of justice prevailed.”
You and I, as Christians, make a trade.  We trade the good sense of the common world for the ridiculous sense of God’s love.  We trade the good sense of society’s justice for the radical sense of God’s justice.  It forgives where the world does not.  It shares where the world does not.  It cares where the world does not.  It has compassion where the world does not.  It does not prevent hurricanes, earthquakes, and ebola outbreaks, but it motivates us to respond without counting the cost ourselves, to love beyond the norms of safety and convention.  It lays a greater claim on future hope than on present reality.  It has these qualities beyond common sense.  It stretches out the boundaries of life in ways that seem extreme to the world because it looks beyond this world, and into the reality of a hope that does not depend upon this world, but upon God alone.  It cannot be shaken.  It cannot be manipulated or controlled by us.  And it therefore cannot be measured by our standards.  It can only be received by a truly grateful heart. 
Bob Benson, in his book See You At the House, has this to say about the fairness of God:  “Sometimes I talk to people who seem to think that God is playing musical chairs and that every so often, he just stops the music. There isn't any rhyme or reason or fairness to it, it's just whether you were around the corner when it stopped. And whether or not you can now beat some big guy to the last chair, and every time the music stops, somebody has to drop out. No wonder they don't like God. I wouldn't like him either if I thought he was playing musical chairs with us.
 But God has a chair for everybody. If you end up on the floor, it won't be because God didn't have a chair for you. It will be because you won't sit in it. And God plays the music on and on to give you every opportunity to find your place.”  (--Bob Benson, as told in See You At the House: The Very Best of the Stories He Used to Tell (Nashville: Generoux, 1986), 58.)

God’s plays a strange melody called grace – and he plays it on and on.  He plays that melody in his own way, using his own timing, his own meter, his own emphases – and sometimes it does not resonate in our understanding.  God’s Grace cannot be fully understood; it can only be received or denied.  Much of the world denies God because God cannot be fully understood.  But those who have been touched by grace know that God doesn’t have to be fully understood to receive fully what God offers.  Indeed, faith is the practice of living by what cannot be fully understood, but what can be fully received from God.


Wesley’s covenant prayer:
Loving God,
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.


9-14-14 - The Art of Forgiveness

Scriptures:  Matthew 18:21-35

Theme:  On the thirteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, what does this message from scripture have to say for us?  Forgive, not forget.  Indeed, true forgiveness never forgets (for that is impossible), but reconciles the past into the present, and translates the past into the future.  These things are not possible until we have let go of the past’s strong inclination to control us – and that is what forgiveness really is.  Getting to the point where the past does not control us, but where we control the past, and put it to use in life, in ways that are constructive, productive, deepening, nurturing, and reflective.  In other words, putting the past to use in ways that are pleasing to God.

          Every now and then, a person comes to this church seeking help.  They are seeking food from the food pantry or a restaurant meal; they hope to have us cover a tankful of gas; they are looking for resources to help cover rent, or utilities, or bills of various natures.  I’m very proud of the fact that our church has ways in which we can assist these individuals – the Tzedakah pocket ministry, the connection with the Poverello center and the John 3:16 center; Homeless Connect; as well as the Missoula Interfaith Colaborative which is working with us to better coordinate our efforts.  We have these intentional outreaches in place to help people in need.
          Awhile ago, we had a kind of interesting situation; a gentleman had come to our church in search of help.  He told me that he needed gas.  Well, I sat down with him and began a conversation about his situation.  Now, when a person has a request for help, I usually ask a lot of questions – my purpose is not to be nosy or judgmental; my purpose is to initiate a relationship where the possibilities of hope can be explored together.   I ask questions like:

But all of these questions have their root in one question which is the heart of the matter:

With this one gentleman who needed gas, Our conversation went as follows:
          “Hello,” I said, “so what’s going on?”
          “My tank’s empty,” he said to me.
          “So, I see that you need gas,” I said.
          “Yeah, my tank is right on empty,” he said.
          “OK, “ I said, “well, we may have funds in place to help; tomorrow I can have my secretary look and see if we can do that.” 
          “Tomorrow?  Man, is there anyway that you could check tonight?  My tank is right on empty.”
          “Oh, do you need to get somewhere tonight?”
          “Well, my tank is just right on empty.”
          “Is there some place you need to get to right away?”
          “All I know is that my tank is right on empty.”
          “OK, well, we may not be able to get you any gas tonight, but I think if you can check with us tomorrow morning early, we may be able to help you, or connect you with someone who can.”
          “Could you call other churches to see about gas tonight?  My tank’s on empty.”
          “It sounds like you need to get somewhere right away.  Do you need to be someplace tonight ?”
          “No, but my tanks on empty.”
          “Could you wait until tomorrow?”
          “I suppose.  But my tank is just about completely empty.”
          We went over things like this for some time.
I kept asking him the same questions over and over, and couldn’t get a firm answer from him.  I really was asking only one question, and I never really got a solid answer:

He couldn’t get past the fact that his tank was empty, even though he didn’t need to get to anywhere immediately.
I couldn’t help thinking that this gentleman was like most people when things are not the way they ought to be – in that we tend to fester in a kind of nebulous anxiety, without any real need to be in that anxiety.  This is like what happens for many of us when we face the wrongs in our lives.  We have a hard time letting them go.  We have a hard time forgiving.  We hold onto our grudges, resentments, anger, and desire for revenge or payback. 

Refusing to forgive wastes tremendous spiritual, physical, and emotional resources.  Choosing to forgive frees us from our bondage to the past.  But let us be careful here – being free from our bondage to the past does not mean being free of our past or losing sight of what has been.
Jesus has a message for us today about forgiveness.  It is a rather strange, thought provoking message that has Peter asking how many times we ought to forgive someone who wronged us, suggesting that seven times might be sufficient – the engineer in me delights that Jesus seems to give a formulaic answer.  Seventy-seven times, or in other versions of the scriptures, seven-times-seventy, or 490 times.  Of course, he is really not talking about a certain number of times to forgive, but blowing that concept itself out of the water, essentially implying that forgiveness is unending, a process that might have us daily for the rest of our lives perhaps revisiting in some form the wrongs that have been done unto us, and letting them go.  But then, Jesus shares another thought, one which is levied against the servant in today’s passage – the thought that the only ones who will not be forgiven by God are the ones who do not forgive others themselves.

These are hard teachings; just what is Jesus talking about, in this most difficult of practices called forgiveness?  When I struggle with forgiveness, of others or of myself, I find it very helpful to consider what forgiveness is not. I came across some thoughts along these lines recently, which helps me clarify the confusion which easily enters when we face the past and even the present wrongs in our lives.  What forgiveness is not:

Forgiveness is not forgetting, reconciling, condoning, dismissing, or pardoning what was done.  But what, then, is forgiveness?  I have found that forgiveness is a personal transaction – a personal choice -- that releases us from the offense’s ability to rob us of the future.  I believe this is what Jesus is getting at in our scripture passage for today, where he makes it clear that it is the choice of the servant to not forgive that is the problem, especially after he had been forgiven by his master.  Rather than dwell upon revenge or hatred, we can choose to learn and grow out of the experience a stronger desire and effort for peace and justice, on God’s terms and not our own.
Lewis B. Smedes said, “Love lets the past die.  It moves people to a new beginning without settling the past.  Love prefers to tuck the loose ends of past rights and wrongs in the bosom of forgiveness – and pushes us into a new start.” To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
          Forgiveness is often more a blessing for the victim than the perpetrator.  It is a releasing of the bondage to the past, a refusal to allow what has been control what could be.  It returns the power of hope to its rightful owner – God – and allows us a part in its construction, through the living out of our lives by faith.  Forgiveness opens a doorway to hope.

          It can also be very helpful to know what the process of forgiveness is like.  I’ve heard it very often from people – “Pastor John,  I have tried to forgive this wrong done to me, but I still have a hard time letting it go.  It doesn’t feel very good to me.  I still get angry, frustrated, think bad thoughts, and can’t find peace very easily or very often.”  And here we have what I think is a very central teaching of the gospel lesson for today.  Peter asks Jesus how many times to forgive someone; seven times?  And Jesus says, no, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  Other passages say seventy times seven, or 490 times.  The message is clear – FORGIVENESS TAKES PRACTICE!  FORGIVENESS TAKES TIME!  Forgiveness is a repeated function of faith; it must be returned to time and again, to become a habit of the heart.
Corrie ten Boom told of not being able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the person, but she kept rehashing the incident and so couldn't sleep. Finally Corrie cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest. "His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor," Corrie wrote, "to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks." "Up in the church tower," he said, nodding out the window, "is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there's a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we've been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn't be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They're just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down." "And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force -- which was my willingness in the matter -- had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether: we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts."
Corrie ten Boom.
          Forgiveness may take many dings and dongs to finally settle in.  It takes practice to get to the point where the sound no longer rings in our ears, where the pain no longer causes our hearts to wince.  Forgiveness is a life-process that continues for awhile, based upon how long we have had resentment in our hearts, how deep that resentment went, and how willing we are to work towards its release.  When Christ was on the cross and said those eternal words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” God  made it clear that we are capable of forgiving any offense in this life; choosing to do so is probably our greatest challenge.  But it is a challenge we are made equal to in Christ.
          Forgiveness is not forgetting, reconciling, condoning, dismissing, or pardoning the past.  Forgiveness is choosing not to let the past control the present or future; influence, yes, but control, no.  And forgiveness is no momentary event, but a practiced habit, a pattern that must be worked into the fabric of life intentionally.  Forgiveness is God’s practice towards us, and as such, is the foundation for all grace.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  In Christ’s Holy name we pray; amen.


9-7-14 - Sermon by guest preacher Don McCammon

8-30-14 - The Pilgrim’s Regress

Scriptures:            Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

Theme:  Sometimes our progress is regress – what appears to be forward thinking moves us backward.  This is what God dealt with in Moses and his disclaimer about his abilities to be God’s representative.  This is what God dealt with in Peter when he spoke of his desire to go against God’s plan.  What God wants may not fit neatly into life.  But what God wants is the only thing that makes life work.
As many of you know, I am a very fortunate new pastor, for I have the great advantage of having in my congregation a professional consultant – namely, the previous pastor of this church, Rev. Barry Padgett.  Barry and I get together every now and then, and I’ve found his counsel extremely helpful in these beginning days of working with this church.  One day, recently, I asked Barry if he could tell me what were the keys to his successful ministry here.  He said, “Two words -- Good decisions." I asked Barry how he came to know which are the good decisions?" He said, "One word -- Experience." "That's all well and good," I said, "but how does one get experience?" "Two words," said Barry. "Bad decisions."
          Today’s scripture lessons engage us in the dilemmas facing individuals caught up in the struggle between faithfulness to God and allegiance to the world around us.  Moses is being asked by God to lead his people into freedom.  Peter is being told of God’s plan for God’s son.  Both men recoil at what God has revealed.  Both men stand on the brink of deciding in favor of life as they would have it rather than what God would desire.  Both men stand on the brink of a bad decision – to go against the will of God.  And God stops them in their tracks.
          God gets angry at Moses.  Christ gets angry at Peter.  Some would say that God gets uncharacteristically mad at his representatives in these moments.  I believe it’s for a good reason, for sometimes those who stand in God’s best favor are in the greatest danger for missing the point of faithIt is to draw us closer to God, and not the other way around.  And the closer we become to God, the more we may feel the temptation to have God obey our desire, due to our “faithfulness.”
Call it self-righteousness.  Call it confidence of faith.  Call it strength of conviction.
But whatever we call it, we are all susceptible to what Peter and Moses faced.  We are susceptible to a sense of worldly progress and comfort that works against God.  What may seem like progress to us may actually be a regression, if we fail to look for the will of God before anything else.  It can be mighty tempting not to look too hard for that will, because we know that somewhere in there, there is a cross.  And deep down, it is natural that none of us likes that very much.
Daniel Defoe wrote:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there;
And 'twill be found upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
Christ’s anger at Peter is telling us something.  God’s impatience with Moses is telling us something.  With those who are faithful, like Peter, like Moses, with those who are called disciples, with those who are Christ’s body – THERE IS A GREAT DANGER HERE!  There is great danger surrounding this body of Christ, every body of Christ. 
It is not that we will exceed our budget. 
It is not that we will never be able to keep worship under an hour on a Sunday morning (hint, hint, pastor John!). 
It is not that we will make some big mistakes. 
These things do and will happen.  But they are not our greatest danger.  Our greatest danger IS THE DANGER OF LOST FOCUS. It is the danger of losing sight of our faithfulness to God above anything else.  Indeed, everything else depends on this faithfulness, especially when such faithfulness requires struggle.
          When I was in engineering, I remember hearing about two companies that served as examples of this kind of thing.  These two companies made drills, for boring holes in different materials.  Both companies were very strong around the turn of the century, highly competitive with each other.  But as the years went by, one company grew by leaps and bounds, while the other one gradually decreased in vitality and strength, until about 40 years ago, it closed its business for good.  What was the difference?  One company’s mission was to make the best steel drill bits possible.  The other company’s mission was to make the best holes possible.  The first company was limited to one material, steel.  The second company found itself branching out into new territory, using high-pressure water, steam, lasers, specialized metals, pinpoint electrical impulses, welding strategies, and a whole host of other techniques to make holes with greater precision, greater speed, in a greater variety of mediums, than could ever be done before.  It was this second company that understood its ultimate mission which had the greatest success.  This second company gained a truer focus on why it existed as a company – not to make drill bits, but to make holes.  It was that focus that made all the difference.
We catch Moses and Peter at a time when God invites them to regain their focus.  God invites them to regain their focus at a crucial time.  Much is at stake.  The world is about to change.  God’s plan is about to unfold.  And God uses his people to unfold that plan.  Faithfulness to God is required; faithfulness to the world is the obstacle.  Like Moses, we must face the fact that when God calls us, we’re probably going to feel uncomfortable.  Like Peter, we must face the fact that when God expresses his intention for this world, we may not personally like it.  But this is God.  This is God’s will.  This is God’s way.  And it is to become our own, regardless of its convenience, comprehensibility, or common sense.
This congregation has weathered many changes over the years – some went very well, some did not go well at all, as attested to in my DS files as well as in my conversations with several persons with long memories.  This is how it is in every congregation, I believe – our past is a kaleidoscope of simple and complex changes, easy and hard transitions, helpful and harmful occurrences.  I really hate to announce this, but here goes – MORE CHANGE IS COMING!  Not only in the adjustment to new leadership styles and priorities, not only in the new groups and people becoming active in our congregation, but also right here, in worship – some changes are coming to this weekly moment in time when we gather to praise and listen for God.  These particular changes will begin next week – we will be shifting to speaking in tongues, snake handling, and mandatory personal testimony.  JUST KIDDING! 
We have two new worship teams which have been taking a look at our worship format, and a few of their ideas will be put into motion next Sunday.  Again, no snake handling, but it will be a little different.  May I share them with you?
For September, we are looking at these changes:

  1. Hymn of the Month
  2. Different order at start of service
  3. Offering Doxology changing monthly

The Worship Teams and others have also been looking at other possibilities for worship in the future, including:

  1. Having Sunday School children share in communion in worship once per month
  2. Exploring liturgy for communion
  3. Exploring different forms of congregational prayer
  4. Laity Sunday
  5. Children’s Sabbath
  6. Stewardship Sunday
  7. Conversation Sunday
  8. Youth-led worship
  9. Second worship service

Let me stop for a moment and check – how’s your heart rate?  Mine has increased.  It has increased because change is difficult, especially when what you are used to is precious and important and comforting.  And when you change things, you risk what is precious and important and comforting to yourself.  But without exploring changes, we might be missing what could be precious and important to ourselves and others in a new and different way – a God-inspired way.  As the Lord expressed to Moses, as Jesus expressed to Peter, as God says time and time again in Holy Scripture, “Behold, I am about a new thing,” our God does not sit still when there is hunger to be satisfied, thirst to quench, comfort to give, truth to illumine, justice to measure, or love to share.  And God invites those who believe in Christ to follow wherever he may lead.
The guiding question of the worship teams is not which hymns are most popular, nor what liturgy flows smoothly; it is not what decorations to place upon the altar, nor what type of bread to use for communion.  The guiding question of the worship team is not “what do we want here?”, but “what does God want here?”  I don’t know about you, but I like the first question much better – “what do we want here?”  Take a survey, ask about preferences and likes and dislikes, poll for the top fifty hymns, ask about pew seat comfort, inquire about proper length of time for the sermon (wouldn’t you agree that about an hour?) – there are very tangible ways of finding out what we would like here, for we know ourselves very well, we know what we like and don’t like, what we would feel like investing ourselves in.
But what about what God likes and doesn’t like?  What about God’s take on what happens in this space?  If worship is to be about God, shouldn’t God’s desire, God’s reality, God’s purposes, God’s essence guide all that we do?  Please hear me – THIS DOES NOT MEAN OUR PREFERENCES ARE UNIMPORTANT, but that they must be oriented to the will of God, even servant to the will of God.  For faith is about wanting what God wants, doing what God does, and loving as God loves, to the best of our ability.  If we aren’t prioritized this way, our focus upon Jesus is suspect.
I would like to leave you this morning with a thought along these lines from retired Bishop William Willimon about faith’s insistence that God’s will come before our own.  He says “The great mistake of modern, American-style Christianity is the assumption that we can use our faith in Christ to get the world we want.  It’s a mistake because it fails to appreciate that Christ is God’s means of getting the world that God wants.  We’re not here in the Body of Christ to get a new technique whereby we can use Jesus.  We are here to risk the possibility that hereby Jesus might use us!”
What do you want, Lord?  In worship, in life, in thought, in deed?  What is it that pleases you, that causes you to smile, that lets your light shine?  Help us to be about these things, dear God, in all that we are, in all that we do.  Amen.

8-24-14 Just Who Am I?
Scripture:  Matthew 16:13-20
Matthew 16:13-20
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Theme:  Who do we say Jesus is?  Many terms and labels are used by many, many people who claim to be Jesus followers.  But if we stop with the label, we really don’t know who Jesus is – unless we fold our own faith experience into the mix.  For Jesus asks not only his disciples, but everyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ – “who do you say that I am?”

          There once was a final exam being given on a college campus.  There were five hundred students in the classroom, working hard on this test, which happened to be worth 70% of their grade.  The tension was great as the hours ticked away – nearing the end of the test period, the professor gave a ten minute warning, then a five minute warning, and finally a two minute warning, stating that absolutely no exams will be accepted once the time was up.  Finally, the professor said “time’s up—stop working on your papers and hand them in now”, whereupon the remaining twenty or thirty students came brought up their papers to hand in.  All, that is,  except one student, who continued writing furiously.  The professor said nothing, but just waited.
          After about ten minutes of this, that last student brought up his paper to hand in.  “Time has been called; no more papers will be accepted” said the professor sternly.  The young man had a look of wildness in his eye, but stopped for a second, and looked the professor in the eye.  “Do you know who I am, professor?”  The professor said he did not.  He asked again, “Don’t you have any idea just who I am?”  The professor, a little worried now, said again that he did not know who the student was.  Whereupon the student said, “good” and stuffed his paper into the middle of the pile of tests, and ran out the door.

          “Do you know who I am?”  Sometimes, anonymity is a blessing!  But not when the person in question is Jesus. 
          This is the question Jesus places before us today.  He does so by asking his disciples about his reputation in society – “Who do people say I am?” – whereupon his disciples say that there is much talk about him going on, that he is John the Baptist returned from the grave, or Elijah come back from antiquity, or even Jeremiah or a prophet of old come to continue on the business of God……
          It sounds a lot like the kind of thing that’s going on in today’s world, regarding how people think about Jesus.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is a lot of thinking about Jesus out there, in the world – and quite a lot of it is, shall we say, interesting.  This came to light awhile back when I was teaching a course for the School of Christian Mission, which is now called Mission U.  I was leading a class on a segment dealing with the identity of Jesus, discussing the variety of ways Christ was expressed by both the faithful and those who discarded Jesus as a figment of historical imagination.  I came across quite a few images of Jesus that gave a sense of the wide spectrum of understandings that are out there.  Here are a few (may I draw your attention to the screens…..)

Jesus jesusjesus jesus
          There are a lot of ways people visualize Jesus, aren’t there?  There are many ways that people think about Jesus.  There are many ways to answer the question, “Who do people say Jesus is?” 
          But in today’s scripture lesson, Jesus presses the issue.  He asks his disciples a more pointed, even personal question – “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s response is one shaped by his own personal experience of connecting with God – Peter might have responded “you’re the one who fed the five thousand people with five loaves and a few fish; you’re the one who almost let me drown when I saw you walking on water; you’re the one who cast out demons, healed the sick, and calmed the storms.”  But he didn’t call to mind the experiences he had with Jesus – he shared instead his affirmation that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God, the divine made flesh.  Somehow, someway, in his experience with Jesus, God became real to Peter.
          I believe that’s what Jesus is getting at in our passage today – what matters is not so much what others say about Jesus, but how God becomes personally real to us through Jesus.
          I’m going to try something with you today – it’s called a guided meditation, a guided prayer, regarding this question Jesus poses before us today.  This is the kind of thing where you get out of it what you put into it.  I’d like to ask you to close your eyes, try to remove distractions, thoughts – and just be centered upon the presence of God right now.  .  Let us pray:

  1. Think of a time when God was most real to you, as a child…….in your youth……..as an adult………years ago, or yesterday……..
  2. Think of what you were going through at that time, in your life, in your faith; how did you feel --  Towards others?  Towards yourself?  Towards the world?  Towards God?
  3. How did you experience that God was real?  Did God speak to you?  What did God say?  Did you sense a presence?  Did God come to you in other ways? 
  4. How did you change from that experience of God’s reality?  Did your faith grow, or weaken?  Did things become clearer or more cloudy?  Did you feel closer to Jesus, or farther away?
  5. From this time you are recalling, hear the question of Jesus once more – “who do you say that I am?”  Who was Jesus to you in that time of the past?  Has your experience of Jesus changed from then?

          I invite you to come back from the meditation – and just pause for a moment.  What you have recalled, what you have concentrated on inside of yourself, was an answer to the question Jesus posed to Peter long ago.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus asks this of every one of us; the answers that matter are the ones we have received from our own personal experiences of the Living God, whatever they may be, as we live according to the light given to us by Christ. 
          I leave you today with the words of Albert Schweitzer, who had this to say about Jesus:  “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (― Albert SchweitzerThe Quest of the Historical Jesus)

The world is a kind of spiritual kindergarten where bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.
E.A. Robinson.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ― C.S. LewisMere Christianity


8-17-14 - The Value of a Crumb
Scripture:  Matthew 15:10-28
Theme:  Protocol.  Propriety.  Appropriateness.  Politeness.  Manners.  Priority.  There are many ways that we measure and judge things, situations, circumstances, experiences, and yes, even people.  All of these are to be put aside, however, for the sake of the measurement of faith.  As our faith goes, so goes our lives, so goes our hopes, so goes our miracles, so goes our possibilities.  This is what the Canaanite woman taught us through the demonstration of her faith – all things are possible through faith.

Today, I would like to play a type of word association game that has to do with the “greats” of our experiences:  essentially, I want you to fill in the blank.
          If I say “Michael Jordan,” what do you think? – great basketball player.
          Albert Einstein – great thinker
Aretha Franklin – great singer
          William Shakespeare – great writer
Emily Dickinson – great poet
          Abraham Lincoln – great president
Mother Theresa – great humanitarian

          We can play this game a little closer to home, and bring it right into our church and community.  If I say

          Jane Kisselbach – great Tzedakah Pocket outreach coordinator
Tu Reed– great pie baker (she gave me a pie last year)
Bob and Dorothy Avery – great groundskeepers
Jason Cox/Frank Kisselbach/Steve Carlson -- great media technician
Greg Boris – great music director
Peter Edwards– great pianist and organist

Missoula – great place to live
Rock Creek – a great river to fish
Honda CX500 motorcycle – a great motorcycle (because that’s what I drive!)
Big Dipper – great ice cream
University of Montana Grizzlies – great football team
First United Methodist Church of Missoula – great church!
          There are different kinds of greatness that define us in life, aren’t there?  Different things that we are good at, that we have a disposition for, that find us truly capable, adept, functional, and skilled; different characteristics and styles and types of experiences and realities that speak of grandness and significance.
          And the woman in today’s scripture lesson is defined by Christ himself as possessing a truly remarkable identity – she is a woman of great faith.
          Now we may think that this is a common label in the Bible, one that Christ laid on several persons.  Actually, he used this description towards only two people, a roman guard at Capernaum, and this woman whom we have before us today.  Only she and this roman soldier were ever praised for their great faith.  Not the disciples.  Not the leaders of that day.  Not the crowds of people that followed Christ….Only this outcast, this woman of the wrong side of the tracks, wrong gender, wrong people, wrong economic status, and wrong whatever else….she was proclaimed by Christ himself to have great faith.
          So, the question is:  WHAT MAKES HER FAITH GREAT?
          One thing seems quite apparent – that a person of great faith knows that God has deemed them worth his attention, regardless of what anyone else may say or think; they know that, through Christ, they own the privilege of an audience with God.
I recently read about an American tourist in Paris, who purchased an inexpensive amber necklace in a trinket ship, was shocked when he had to pay quite a high duty on it to clear customs in New York. This aroused his curiosity, so he had it appraised. After looking at the object under a magnifying glass, the jeweler said, "I'll give you $25,000 for it." Greatly surprised, the man decided to have another expert examine it. When he did, he was offered $10,000 more. "What do you see that's so valuable about this old necklace?" asked the astonished man. "Look through this glass," replied the jeweler. There before his eyes was an inscription: "From Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine." The value of the necklace came from its identification with a famous person. 
Likewise, you and I have been identified with Christ.  We have been identified with and by God, as God’s beloved children.  All of us.  Everyone.  Bar none.  Whether we acknowledge God or not.  Whether we proclaim faith or not.  All of us are precious in God’s sight.  And the person of great faith recognizes this reality for themselves and everyone else.  I really like how Malcom Forbes put it in one of his famous quotes – he said “People who matter are most aware that everyone else matters, too.”  (Malcolm S. Forbes, The sayings of Chairman Malcolm.).  Great faith knows that we all have the right to address God.
Great faith also seeks worthy goals.  Let me rephrase that – great faith seeks God-worthy goals.  We see this in the woman addressing Christ, who is there on behalf of her daughter, possessed by a demon.  She seeks the welfare of another, motivated by love.  Is this not consistent with the goals of God, in seeking the welfare of God’s beloved—us?
A college professor prepared a test for his soon-to-be-graduating seniors.  The test questions were divided into three categories and the students were instructed to choose questions from only one of the categories.  The first category of questions was the hardest and worth fifty points.  The second, which was easier, was worth forty points.  The third, the simplest, was worth thirty points.
          Upon completion of the test, students who had chosen the hardest fifty-point questions were given A’s.  The students who had chosen the forty-point questions received B’s.  Those who settled for the easiest thirty-pointers were given C’s.
          The students were frustrated with the grading of their papers and asked the professor what he was looking for.  The professor leaned over the podium, smiled, and explained, “I wasn’t testing your book knowledge.  I was testing your aim.”
          The Canaanite woman had good aim.   She was not aiming at socially acceptable behavior.  She was not worried about her standing as an unacceptable person in the eyes of this Jewish man.  She was not confused about the extent of God’s care towards even the least of the people of the earth.  She wanted God’s attention.  Her aim was to address God on behalf of her daughter.
Great faith seeks worthy goals—goals worthy of God, goals worthy of the life God intends for us to have.
Finally, great faith trusts that God will respond.  Even in the darkest, most challenging experiences, great faith trusts that God will respond.  Even against logic, likelihood, and probability, great faith trusts that God will respond.
Tony Campolo is a minister who is a well-known motivational speaker; he was here in Missoula this past year, I believe.  He tells about an experience he had when he visited a church in Oregon, where he was asked to pray for a man who had cancer.  Tony prayed for the man’s healing.  That next week he received a telephone call from the man’s wife. She said, “You prayed for my husband; he had cancer.”  Tony thought when he heard her use the past tense verb that his cancer had been eradicated, but before he could think too much about it, she said, “He died.”
Tony felt terrible.  But she continued, “Don’t feel bad.  When he came into that church that Sunday he was filled with anger.  He knew he was going to be dead in a short period of time, and he hated God.  He was 58 years old, and he wanted to see his children and grandchildren grow up.  He was angry that this all-powerful God didn’t take away his sickness and heal him.  He would lie in bed and curse God.  The more his anger grew towards God, the more miserable he was to everybody around him.  It was an awful thing to be in his presence.”
But she continued:  “After you prayed for him, a peace had come over him and a joy had come into him.  Tony,” she said, “the last three days have been the best days of our lives.  We’ve sung; we’ve laughed; we’ve read scripture; we prayed.  They’ve been wonderful days.  And I called to thank you for laying your hands on him and praying for healing.”  And then she said something incredibly profound.  She said, “he wasn’t cured, but he was healed.”
Great faith trusts that God will respond.  But please, please note what is being said here.  Great faith trusts that God will respond.  With God’s response.  With God’s redress to our situation.  With God’s provision for our needs.  THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT GOD WILL NECESSARILY ANSWER OUR PRAYERS IN THE WAY WE THINK THEY OUGHT TO BE ANSWERED!    It may be so; but often, the response of God will not follow the line of our reasoning or our understanding.  Great faith knows that our trust in God needs to be unconditional if it is to be authentic – and this is no small thing for those of us with typical human nature.  Great faith trusts in God unconditionally – and trusts that, whatever the response given to prayer, God is in the response, somewhere, someway.

Often, I believe we Christians are guilty of misunderstanding the nature of great faith; this is why it is so important to be challenged by the example of the Canaanite woman, whom Christ himself identifies as a person of great faith.  For the greatness of our faith is not to be measured in the amount of biblical knowledge we can gain, nor in our eloquent exposition of our beliefs; great faith is not necessarily tied to how often we attend worship, how much we give in the offering plate, or how often we pray.  Great faith does not necessarily mean grand acts of philanthropy or tremendous self-sacrifice. 
Christ is saying something different here I believe, in his interaction with the woman – that true greatness of faith resides in the determination of the individual to connect with God, to seek God’s will in all things, and to know that God will respond to our search for grace.  Great faith is to be found in the day-to-day reliance upon God’s presence and guidance for our lives – even in the mundane, tedious, regular, unspectacular moments of life, even if we are quick to discount our qualifications to receive God’s favor, even if others make us feel like we are less worthy of grace.  God will have none of this; and neither should we.  Great faith realizes that God is not only with us all, but for us all.  And this is a greatness of faith available to us all.


8-3-14 - Wrestling with God

Scripture:  Genesis 32:22-32

Theme:  There are times when we wrestle with God, much like Jacob.  The most we can hope for is a stalemate made possible by grace, not our strength.  It is in this sense that we can see how willing God is to join in our struggle – allowing us the full expression of our own efforts, while limiting his wrath and power due to his liberal use of mercy and understanding.  Very necessary items, as we struggle in the moment between ceasing to run from the past, and starting to move forward toward the hopeful future.

Over the past few weeks, my wife and I have been working on many home projects, especially in our yard.  We’ve been working on installing 140 feet of deer-proof fence, six feet high and made out of cedar.  We’ve been working on leveling out a section of our side yard that has been causing rainwater to run into our bedroom.  We’ve been working on removing a patch of gravel from underneath our porch in order to level the area off and make it more usable.  We’ve been digging up the antiquated sprinkler system and repairing broken lines and sprinkler heads.  In the process of all this digging and lifting and moving and building, I have made a very interesting, if not painful, discovery – I AM NOT THE SAME STRAPPING YOUNG MAN AS I USED TO BE.  My physicality has declined; I ache in places where I’ve never ached before; it used to be I’d work for three hours and take a ten minute break – now those timeframes are reversed. 
You see, my past had misinformed my present.  I was different now; my world had changed, especially my physical ability to handle such things.  I had thought things were basically the same as they had been in the past; boy, was I wrong! 

How often do we let our past misinform our future?  Our scripture lesson points this tendency out.  We find ourselves in the middle of a scene regarding Jacob, just one episode in the midst of a saga.  Jacob has been rather a kind of scoundrel – he is on the run, for the reason of first bribing his brother Esau out of his birthright, and second cheating Esau out of the blessing of his father Isaac.  Jacob was a kind of  traitor to his own family.  Esau made no bones about it – he wanted revenge.  He wanted to kill Jacob just as soon as Isaac was out of the picture.
          And so we see Jacob on the run, running from his past, running from his poor decisions, running from death, running from those he had crossed.  In today’s scripture, we find him in a very strange moment.  He has just been told that Esau is looking for him; and Esau has four hundred men with him.  Jacob is sure Esau is bent on revenge, and makes plans to save what he can of his family and possessions.  He splits all that he has in two, so that if one group is destroyed, the other might survive.  He plans another bribe to be made to Esau, but this time a bribe for forgiveness – a gift of 220 goats and 220 sheep, 30 camels, forty cows, ten bulls, thirty donkeys.  He hopes that his bribe will cause Esau to stop seeking revenge, and allow him to live.  In today’s value system (and, yes, I did calculate out today’s value for goats, sheep, camels, cows, bulls, and donkeys), this amounts to a bribe of $340,000.  Jacob was willing to pay Esau, his brother, $340,000 to spare his life.  I believe we might call this an act of desperation.
          Jacob has been running from his past, and today we hear him begin to consider stopping the race.  He has come to the moment of truth, where he faces his past in order to embrace the future, whatever that future might be.
I believe that here, in this lesson we are presented with an essential truth of life, and it is this:  there is a big difference between running from your past and running toward your future.  I believe that we catch Jacob in this moment, where he is deciding to forsake the former and embrace the latter.  He is, in this sense, choosing to stop running from his past by repentance, and choosing to start running toward his future established by his trust in God.  And it is in the moment of this transition that we find a most interesting event – God is in the midst of it.  Not only present, but actively engaged in the tribulation of Jacob.  We see Jacob wrestling with God.  Not just a mental, prayerful struggle with the divine, but an actual, physical wrestling match between flesh and blood which leaves Jacob physically injured, limping the next day.
          God engages Jacob in this particular moment; the scripture does not say exactly why.  Yet it doesn’t take much of a leap of insight to see the strong possibility that God was engaging Jacob in his struggle between dealing with his past and discerning his future.  Jacob knows which one leads to death, and which one leads to life, and Jacob makes it clear, he wants BLESSING, to be blessed by God, to have his life, his family, his legacy, preserved.  Could it be that Jacob was wrestling with who God wanted him to be different from his past, yet connected to it in a different way – a way of confession and reconciliation, a way of humbling oneself by what has been, in order to let it go?  Life  diminishes when we mortgage the future to pay off the past.
          One of my favorite stories is about a family with parents and two children, a boy and a girl, who all live on a farm with all the usual farm animals.  One day, the boy, being bored, pulled out his slingshot, which he had recently received for his birthday.  He was aiming at and missing fenceposts and trees, when he wondered if he might be able to hit one of the ducks sitting in the yard.  He aimed, let go – and to his great astonishment, hit the duck!  Who then died immediately.  This was bad, really bad – but what was worse, he heard a noise behind him, and realized his sister had witnessed the homicide.  In a panic, he pleaded with her not to tell the parents, and she agreed – as long as he did what she said.  So, life took on a different flow – when it was time for chores, and the sister was supposed to do the dishes, she’d say “Oh, my brother wants to do the dishes.”  When he began to protest, she would whisper to him, “REMEMBER THE DUCK?”  And he’d comply.  He wound up cleaning her room, taking care of her pets, doing pretty much anything she was supposed to do, after his protests were met with her whispering to him, “REMEMBER THE DUCK?”  This went on for some time, until the boy had had enough; it was time for confession.  So he went up to his mother, contrite, humbled, and confessed.  He was astonished to hear her say that she knew all about it, that she had witnessed the duck homicide on that day.  When he asked her why she didn’t tell him that she knew what had happened, she said, “I was curious how long you’d let your sister control you – and knew that was better than any punishment I could come up with!”
          Letting the past control us – don’t we get into this all the time?  Don’t we let the past have sway over our self-esteem, our initiative, our sense of worth and ability and potential?  Don’t we hear “REMEMBER THE DUCK?” echoing in our minds and hearts? 
          But whose voice is it that we hear?  For those of us in the faith who have been forgiven by God, it is certainly not God saying “REMEMBER THE DUCK?”   Most often, I believe, it is our own voice that we are hearing, a voice acknowledging the power of the past to haunt us and control us – but it is so often a power we ourselves have given to the past to remain as a diminishing force within our lives.

          How much would change in our lives, I wonder, if we intentionally defined ourselves more by our future than by our past?  I believe presently that most people, myself included, define themselves by their past – when asked the question “who are you?” we most naturally state such things as where we lived most of our lives, our accomplishments, our failures, our vocations, our possessions…..all things we did or acquired in the past.  Rarely do we point primarily to the things that lay in our future. 
People have been asking me about who I am.  I normally answer with things like – I was the pastor of this and so church during thus and so years; I have been to Africa and Mexico on mission trips; I have been a DS, went to this seminary, that college, had 12 motorcycles, married my wife in 1991, raised three children, and on and on – with things in my past.  What I answered in a different way?  What if, when asked “who am I?” my answers were more along the lines of hopeful possibility?  What if, when asked “who am I?” I said, “I’m the person who will finally finish our yard work, level off the ground, and complete the fence.    I’m the person who will be working in this church to see to the development of a new worship team, a new adult class, and a different process for exploring our future possibilities for ministry in Missoula and beyond.  I’m the person who will be as involved as possible in the developing lives of his spouse and children, letting them know I am there for them unconditionally.  I’m the person who God loves in an eternal sense, and counts me worth his attention and presence.  I’m a person who God will not give up on, come what may.”

The story of Jacob is our story, in that it says that we, as people of God, are designed not to run from our past but instead to run toward our future – that is, the future to which God has invited each one of us.  It is not a future without struggles, challenges, or tensions; it is a future, however, where those struggles, challenges, and tensions are leading somewhere hopeful.  New life.  New life in the immediate future; new life in the eternal sense.  New life in the presence of God.
This is what was given to Jacob, in his struggle to turn from the past to the future.  This is what is given to each of us, as we struggle to turn from what was, to what could be – to what shall be – with Christ.  God wrestles with us, not to diminish us, nor to cause us to suffer, but to join with us in our own struggles, eventually leading us to his desired alignment of our lives.  It is our place to remain in the struggle, confident that God’s will help us become ever more what he desires us to be – loved and loving children of God. 

7-6-14 - A Final Word from the District Superintendent

Scripture:  Colossians 1:1-14
Theme:  The DS has some insights on the new pastor appointed under his watch – and there are concerns!  But not if we remember what God has said to us consistently, constantly, as reflected in today’s scripture – we share in the inheritance of the saints in the light; we are given the opportunities to grow in the knowledge of God; and God is with us every step of the way.

johnRecently, I made a request of our Bishop Elaine Stanovsky – that she would grant an extension to the position of Western Mountains District Superintendent until 10:30am, July 6th, 2014.  She graciously extended that privilege, and so I stand here before you as the Western Mountains District Superintendent for the next 25 minutes.  I felt this was an important request to make, for as District Superintendent overseeing the new appointment to this church, the First United Methodist Church of Missoula, Montana, I needed to raise up to your awareness some things about your newly appointed pastor.  I am uniquely qualified to make commentary, I believe, for I know this new pastor fairly well – we talk on a regular basis, and have done so for over 40 years.  Let me put it to you directly – there are some things you really ought to know about him.
https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcThvz3F5bt9IDP_J5KiqIDQ-Td3mejihCGxeQ6w-10q4tnfH26g2QFirst and foremost, let’s start with the most worrisome – for one, he is………….a motorcyclist. (picture)  He’d like to think is a Harley-Davidson type, leather chaps and bandana sort of biker, but, in reality, he rides because of the gas mileage and low cost of the machines, which are held together by duct tape and bailing wire.  But still, this is something you ought to know.


johnSecond, you ought to know he is prone to somewhat irrational acts.  Some cases in point – at last year’s Annual Conference, he was asked to be the dunk-tank victim for the cause of eradicating Malaria; this may be thought of as admirable, were it not for the fact that he sat in the dunk tank fully clothed in suit and tie.  And yes, he did get dunked, nine times. 


johnSeveral years ago, he spent ive years building a nineteen-foot boat out of reclaimed materials; when asked why he did such a thing, his best response was “because it was a twenty foot garage.” 

johnA final example involves an outdoor wedding he performed with a couple obsessed with football – and he mistakenly dressed as a clergy basketball player.   These are the kinds of things you ought to know about him.

http://benwilder.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/wrong-shoes.jpgThird, you need to know that this pastor is prone to mistakes – more than once, he got the date wrong for a meeting.  More than once, he mispronounced the word “Melchizidek.”  More than once he called a person by the wrong name (isn’t that right, Kay or Barb?).  But more egregious examples abound.  There was the time when he went to worship one morning, and sensed that something was wrong.  Throughout the service, there were murmurs and whisperings and tension.  At the end of the service, as people left the church shaking this pastor’s hands, he could still tell something was wrong; it was not until the last person came up to him that all was revealed.  This parishioner said “Pastor John, I can’t let you go from here without knowing something – look down.”  Whereupon this pastor discovered he was wearing different shoes on his feet.  These are the kinds of mistakes you ought to know about.

john johnFourth, you ought to know that this pastor tries things outside of the norm, which are, shall we say, sometimes controversial – he has been known to play a hard rock song in worship; he has been known to recite his own poetry; his own poetry has been known to make people ill; he has initiated such things the yuckfest,  where the youth group gathers for an annual event involving shaving cream, alphabet soup, and worm pies; he has helped to start a tissue paper airplane contest, which he won five years ago in a contest that was surely rigged.  You ought to know that he tries things outside of the norm.

struggleWhat you really ought to know about this pastor, however, is the fact that he has confessed to me that he continues to need to grow towards God.  He has told me that sometimes he struggles with his faith – when he faces suffering, injustice, violence, hatred, deception, or animosity, in his own life or in the lives of those in his congregations; he struggles to make sense of why such things exist, and what can be done about them.  And he needs others involved in his life and faith in order to make progress in his journey towards God. 
I lift up these concerns so that you may be more aware of what you are getting into with this pastor; but I share with Paul in our scripture reading today why this pastor was appointed to this congregation.  It is not because he is perfect.  It is not because he is eloquent.  It is not because he is charismatic.  He is really none of those things.  But what he is is committed to Christ even in his johnlimitations; he is devoted to God even while he struggles to understand God; he has found the greatest fulfillment in life to be centered in the authentic relationship of love between human beings based on the principles demonstrated and taught by Jesus, meant for every human being.  And he is determined to do his best to serve God as he serves you, as pastor of this church. 




This pastor did share something with me that I think may give you a sense of his priorities.  These are what he calls his personal faith priorities:

  1. Agree to disagree for the sake of the greater love
  2. Prioritize the vulnerable
  3. Check your ego at the doorways leading to other’s lives
  4. Ask the questions no one else is asking
  5. Pray before and after all things; seek to make prayer as regular as breath
  6. Work to make forgiveness assumed and automatic, never optional
  7. Embrace doubts as pathways to deeper truth
  8. Aim for the right question rather than a convenient answer
  9. Treat self-righteousness the same as lethal radiation
  10. Replace correct doctrine with faithful, loving action
  11. Seek profound substance rather than personal satisfaction
  12. Always seek to add value to the lives of others
  13. Never settle for happiness before meaning or truth
  14. Always do the right and good thing, especially when no one will find out
  15. Remember, in all things, it’s between you and God

johnAs Paul states in our scripture for today, “do not cease praying for him, and pray that he may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may all lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.  And may you and your new pastor grow together as you grow towards God.  Amen


First United Methodist Church of Missoula / Kay Duffield, Webmaster (hart2u2@yahoo.com)