Christmas Conversations

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Thanksgiving is past, so it is now permissible to play Christmas music at my house. My better half, MaryAnn, believes that Christmas prep cannot legitimately begin until after Thanksgiving has been appropriately celebrated.

While thinking and planning for Christmas, I stumbled across some stats that surprised me. For instance, 92% of all Americans celebrate Christmas, including 81% of non-Christians. Even more surprisingly, 87% of people with no religious beliefs whatsoever celebrate Christmas, as do 76% of Buddhists and 73% of Hindus.

As if all this isn’t interesting enough, 51% of all Americans say that they celebrate Christmas as a religious celebration; 32% celebrate it as a cultural holiday. Ah, but 73% of Americans believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary; 81% believe he was laid in a manager; 74% believe that an angel announced Jesus’ arrival; and 75% believe that wise men, led by a star, brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Only 14% of the American population believe that none of the above actually happened.

So, as you listen to Christmas songs, make lists, and hang decorations, what do all the stats mean to you?

To me, it means there is fertile ground for great conversation with people you know who do not know God’s love in their lives!

You can start the conversation by just asking what their Christmas tradition is, or if they do anything special to celebrate Christmas. If that goes well, ask what they think it all means. The stats above may be great grist for the conversation. Who knows? You may be asked what you think of Christmas, what you believe it all means. And what an opportunity that is, not just to reminisce about past Christmases, but to talk about the God you know loves you so much He sent His Son to be born a babe in Bethlehem. This Christmas may afford you the first chance to share true Christmas love and joy with someone who has yet to experience it.

Be ready for the moment!

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Thanksgiving Wishes

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In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln invited the nation to focus their hearts on Thanksgiving, he offered one of the most eloquent presidential proclamations of gratitude to God, specifically for the blessings showered upon this great nation. What was distinctive about his Thanksgiving message of 1863 was the call for national unity. His words still echo through the ages:

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies…”

This opening statement stunned the nation, given that the country was in the depths of the Civil War. In that particular year, the Battle of Gettysburg had cost the lives of 27% of the Union forces, 37% of the Confederacy’s soldiers.

And yet, in spite of the deep divide in the nation, Abraham Lincoln spoke of “the whole American people,” inviting the nation to observe Thanksgiving “with one heart and one voice.” He made no specific reference to the North or to the South, but instead spoke of the one nation under God.

For the past year we have witnessed, and participated in, one of the most divisive presidential campaigns of my lifetime. The fault lines in our nation are more evident today than at any time in my recollection. Anger and frustration seem to echo in the strident voices raised across the political spectrum. Exacerbating the divide, politics has become deeply personal, in attack and rebuttal. Such a political environment has caused some to even despair of the future. I do not.

I believe that God is a significant player in all of history, working for the good in all circumstances. It is dangerous demagoguery to point to any politician and to identify him or her with God’s will, or for that matter, with the devil’s. Instead, I think we should take a broad view of history and see how God has engaged the hearts of good-willed women and men and then used them for hope, not hate; blessings, not curses. That is the healing touch our nation needs at this moment of brokenness.

Evidence of God’s involvement in the past gives me hope for the future, and cause for Thanksgiving. On Thursday, as I help at church to prepare meals for delivery to those in need in our community, I will be thinking of and praying for our nation, and for the people like you who make it great. And I will thank God for you, and for the joy of being part of a community of faith committed to a future of blessing!

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People are Fascinating

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The market for athleisure clothing has exploded over the past 7 years. The trend includes athletic footwear, apparel and accessories. Names like Lululemon, Lucy, Lorna Jane, Gap Body, Athleta and Nike have become hot, with rapidly growing demand and matching profits. But there is a fascinating aspect to the explosion of athleisure attire. It seems that although the clothing is designed and sold to accommodate an active, fit lifestyle, most people just wear the clothing, shoes and accessories, without actually ever working out in it.

For example, sales of yoga pants are 10 times greater than the actual number of folks who ever actually do yoga, which suggest that we love the look without necessarily embracing the lifestyle.

Much has been made of the exploding number of people who respond “none” when asked about their faith or religious beliefs and practices. Some are shocked and terrified by the stats; frankly, I’m not. For most of the 20th century there was a strong stigma attached to being agnostic or atheistic, prompting some to wear the trappings of faith without ever embracing the lifestyle. Coupled with the stigma was a strong incentive to be affiliated with a church, as a recommendation from a pastor was often required for a new job or a mortgage loan.  A significant shift in our culture is the dropping of any expectation of faith and practice. People really don’t care what others believe or how they live, so long as it doesn’t intrude on them.

In reality, people no longer pretend about church.

So, what does that mean for the 21st century church?

First, it shatters the illusion (delusion?) that everyone is already a Christian. I came of age when everyone assumed everyone was a Christian, so there was no need to even talk about faith. As is now clear, that is gross misperception.

Second, it makes clear that there is an incredible opportunity to impact the world, and the greatest mission field is right here where we live!

And finally, it finally reveals who is with you on the journey and who could care less. It is the label versus lifestyle distinction.

You see, when it comes to matters of faith, it is not so much about what you say or insinuate (label), but it is all about what you choose to do (lifestyle). As has been true in every generation for the last 2 millennia, those who are committed to following Christ will do so, and in the process change the world. For those who do more than merely wear the labels, this is going to be an exciting, exhilarating adventure! I’m thrilled to share the journey with you!

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Prayers for our Nation

pexels-photo-28637-largeListening to Christians describe their choices for President I detect a note of panic. The sentiments expressed, especially the frustration and apprehension, is completely understandable, but I must challenge the panicked conclusions.

Sometime tonight, or very early tomorrow, the announcement will be made declaring a winner in the presidential campaign. Despite the dire predictions, the sun will come up and God will still be God, and in the morning I will be praying for whoever our next president will be, as I have prayed for our present and previous presidents.

The reason I’m at peace about the outcome is not because of my faith in either of the candidates; quite the contrary, actually. The reason I will find hope and confidence is because of God.

If you study the scriptures you realize that God used a drunkard (Noah), a prostitute (Rahab), and an adulterous murderer (King David) for His divine purposes. Just reading the names of the Kings of Israel triggers in most instances a sense of deep revulsion. If God was able to work in and through them, there is no doubt in my mind that God can and will work in and through Hillary or Donald. That, my friends, is the nature of faith.

Ah, but such faith in God does not absolve me, or you, from the responsibility of making the world a far different place. John Lovell, in his LinkedIn blog post, written in response to worship last weekend, said this:

“Leading starts with serving–serving your community, your organization, your teammates, your business, your family. To serve, is to lead.

Adopting the servant leader mindset will create wholesale changes in our communities, businesses and families. A new set of leaders will rise up and begin to represent our country as we know it should.

Mahatma Gandi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

That change starts with serving.” 

I couldn’t agree more.

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Surviving When You Fear it Will be a Blue Christmas

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After my father died, I recall my mother saying that the “firsts” were the worst: the first birthday without him, the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first anniversary of his death.

I think that she was partially right. The “firsts” are heartbreaking and painful, but that doesn’t mean the “seconds” or “thirds” will be significantly better, unless you do something to change the patterns of pain.

If this is your first holiday season of Thanksgiving and Christmas without someone you love, or if it is the 2nd, 5th or 10th and you are still struggling, I want to offer heartfelt help in coping with the pain, while preserving the precious memories. Here is a process that will move you closer to the comfort and strength of the heart of God:

First step: Make a list of the blessings and joys you shared over the years with the person you love. Rather than making you feel worse, such a list shifts your focus from the loss you have endured to the joy you have experienced. This is a key step in the grieving process, as it moves your heart from the ache of grief to the comfort of gratitude. Thank God for every blessing and joy listed, and list even more. Dare to share elements of your list with people who love and support you. Refusing to talk about the one you have lost only isolates you in your grief.

Second: Step out of your isolation and make plans now to attend the Surviving the Holidays event at church on November 5th from 3-5pm. This time with members of our Pastoral Care team will help equip you for the difficult days when the grief may seem overwhelming. Such moments may cause you to feel all alone; being a part of the church reminds you that you are never alone. Christ is always with you, and He sends people to be His love in your life. Make plans to attend, and make a commitment to someone else to be present. Such a commitment is difficult to break if you waver at the last minute. Reach out to Staci Allen, our Director of Pastoral Care, and let her know that you will be coming so we can expect you or register here.

Third: Offer your help to someone else. Nothing opens your eyes to the love of God like sharing that love with another. There is no doubt that there is someone you know who is struggling this season with grief or pain. Even though you may feel ill-equipped, reach out to them and offer your support. It may be a phone call, a letter, or even something made with love delivered  by you . . . In whatever love language you are comfortable, reach out to someone hurting this holiday season.

Final step: Start something new: a new tradition, a new endeavor, a new Thanksgiving observance or Christmas practice. Whatever appeals to you, start something new, as it stirs the heart and comforts the soul!

And if you take all the steps, will you cease to grieve? No. You may always grieve, but with each step you take that draws you closer to the heart of God, your grief will change from heartbreaking pain to heartfelt gratitude for the love and life shared with the one you are missing.

Blessings this Thanksgiving and Christmas season,

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We Don’t Need Any Extras…

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It’s a pleasure for me to be a guest writer on The Summit blog! I’m not Yale educated like Pastor Jim, but I hope to be able to spark some thoughts for us. I’d like start with a question, share some scripture, and then make you an invitation. First, let’s start with the question. It’s one that, as a worship leader, I’ve had to wrestle with. Do you want to know what it is? Can you feel the anticipation building? Do you wish I’d just shut up already and ask the question? Okay, okay, here goes: why do we sing at church?

Hmm. Have you thought about that lately? Have you ever thought about it? If so, what have you come up with? Maybe it’s answers like, it’s traditionally something you do at church. Or the Bible tells us to. Or that singing is a form of prayer. Or because the worship leader tells me to! All of these are true, but I’d like to suggest something that you may not have thought about. Ephesians 5:18-19 says, “Do not get drunk with wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord…”

You may think that the first part of verse 18 kind of sticks out. Here’s the context: in certain pagan religious rituals in the first century, alcohol would be used to “enhance the experience,” as it were. People believed that by using alcohol they could reach a higher level of consciousness during their religious ceremonies. What the Apostle Paul is saying here is that we don’t need any of those extras to meet with God and ‘be filled with the Spirit.’

What’s that have to do with your question, you may be asking. Why do we sing at church? Paul tells us: to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Singing together with the body of Christ empowers us and turns our hearts back to God. When we sing and make music to God, our souls are reminded of the gospel and what’s been done for us. Gratitude grows, and we’re filled with the Holy Spirit.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably safe to say you’re following Jesus and want to continually be filled with His Spirit. Here’s how: sing. I’d love to have you join us in our Worship Center on Sunday night November 6th at 6pm for a special night solely focused on worship. We’ll sing, we’ll remember what Jesus has done for us, and be filled once again with the power of His Holy Spirit. I hope you’ll join me.

 

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Jesse Land
Contemporary Worship Director at The Summit

Desperately Seeking… What?

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Alison Stewart, investigative reporter and former news anchor, has penned a book about our obsession with stuff. The book, Junk: Digging through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, takes a critical look at the lives of those caught in the unhealthy addiction to stuff, and the businesses created to accommodate the compulsion to acquire.

In one section Steward describes the self-storage business that has arisen to make space for all of our stuff. This is what she wrote:

“Self-storage has its own association and lobbying group because it is big business, generating more than $24 billion in revenues in 2014. The United States is home to reportedly 48,500 to 52,000 self-storage units. That’s about 2.3 billion square feet of storage. It is a business that has been called recession resistant by the Wall Street Journal.”

$24 billion! Just to help us deal with all the stuff we have already spent a lifetime and a fortune collecting.

Stewart goes on to list the new genre of reality tv that has arisen around the cult of stuff. The partial list of shows includes American Pickers, Auction Hunters, Auction Kings, Buried Treasure, Flea Market Flip, Hoarders, Junk Gypsies, Junkyard Wars, Pawn Stars, Picker Sisters, Storage Wars and the spinoff – Storage Wars Texas.

Just skimming the book leads to the irrefutable conclusion that Americans are desperately seeking something. Since we don’t know what it is, we feed the hunger by literally acquiring tons of stuff. And why? Because there is a sense that what is most treasured and precious is missing from our lives.

Jesus said that coming to know Him is like finding a buried treasure; once discovered you just have to have it if you are to ever find true peace and joy.

Here’s the real irony: the true treasure can only be held in your heart, not your storage unit. That treasure is His love for you.

And by the way, it’s a gift and completely free.

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An Unusual Anniversary

 

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It was a gorgeous day on Friday, October 17th, 1997. Our son was in school, but Anneli was off from kindergarten that day so I asked if she would like to fly to Lake Lawn Lodge for a father/daughter date. She was so excited!

We made the hour-long flight in a little two-seater Cessna, which cruised at all of 70 knots. After an uneventful flight and landing at the resort, we enjoyed a great lunch and then a picturesque stroll along Lake Geneva in southern Wisconsin.

Needing to be back home before Stephen’s school let out, we took off a little after 1 PM, climbed to altitude, and set a course for the Monroe Airport. Ten or twelve miles east of Janesville, our little plane went from purring to banging and clanking like a rock crusher. I had no idea what had happened, but the power was dropping, the temperature rising, and what had been an amazing day with my daughter became something potentially terrifying.

I prayed briefly, cut back the power, set up the glide speed, started looking for landing spots, and keyed the radio to Janesville control tower to declare an emergency. Though this response had been practiced and rehearsed countless times before in training, this time it was way too real. I thought we had enough altitude to make the airport, so the tower cleared us for a straight-in approach to land on the long east/west runway. We came in high and fast, since there would be no go around if we missed, crabbing into the wind to bleed off speed and altitude once we made the long runway. As we landed, my daughter glanced behind us and saw the HUGE crash vehicle following as we rolled to a stop. She grabbed my arm and exclaimed, “Look, Daddy! This is so cool!” She actually never knew that anything was wrong until they came and towed us to the hangars.

In flying, you pray for the best, prepare and plan for the worst. The engine failure 19 years ago this week proved to be a non-event because instructors had hammered into me the drills for a mid-flight emergency and engine failure. It is something most every profession insists on, especially first responders and medical personnel.

Churches need to do the same. Unlike flying, where you may never experience a real in-flight emergency, life always entails emergencies and disaster of varying degrees. Are you equipped to cope?

Who will you call and reach out to when disaster strikes? What plan is in place to care for those you love? Have you spent enough time in prayer to find confidence and comfort with God?

Although I disagree with Nietzsche about so many things, he was right about this: what does not kill you has the potential to make you stronger. Think back on your life and the tough lessons you have learned from the difficult experiences encountered and endured. Rethink those experiences and remember the steps taken as well as the results. What would you do differently? What would you do the same? And perhaps most relevant to those you know and love, how can you share that knowledge so as to benefit others before they experience a similar disaster?

Nineteen years after the engine failure, all that remains are the memories and an acrylic paperweight on my desk that holds a few broken parts from that Cessna 150 engine. Someday the paperweight will belong to my daughter, to help her remember a daddy who loved her enough to plan ahead to protect her. Who knows? It might just lend a measure of calm and confidence when her world feels like it may be spinning out of control.

Thinking back those 19 years, it occurs to me that the worst moment was after we were safely on the ground. It was then that I had to call my wife and tell her I couldn’t pick Stephen up after school because the plane had had an engine failure and I was stranded 45 minutes from home. Not a fun call. It was some time after that before she let me take either one of the kids flying.

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Rethinking How We Do Methodism

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Max DePree, of Fuller Seminary’s Center for Leadership, once suggested that the first responsibility of a leader is to define current reality for people. Our Missouri United Methodist Conference now has a new Bishop, Bob Farr, who is traveling around the state to listen to people as he articulates current reality for our United Methodist Church. The picture he needs to draw is shocking.

The number of UM churches in Missouri has now slipped to 775. Of those, only 175 average more than 100 people in worship; 300 churches now average 29 or fewer. Those who study the stats suggest that if past trends hold true, the Conference will see more than 200 churches close in the next 8 years, which isn’t surprising, given that we have so many churches with fewer than 30 people present in worship.

And yet we continue to do church as we always have, ignoring the specter of denominational demise.

So what needs to be done?

We must start by asking the hard question: Do you want the denomination you have loved to outlive you, or do you expect it to expire in the not too distant future? If we are committed to seeing the denomination survive, what are we, as United Methodists, willing to do to position our denomination for the future, rather than the past?

I believe our polity needs to change. The system was designed for a former reality that no longer exists. It is way past the expiration date; now is the time to rethink and redesign our denominational polity.

Allow me to explain . . .

I believe that we must shift our focus from small, dying churches, toward larger, healthy, growing congregations that are innovative and creative in reaching the next generations. We are expending way too many resources to “hospice” churches that deny they are dying and refuse to change.

I believe that we need to expand and enhance the launching of new churches, as new church starts have proven to be the most effective at reaching those who have never heard the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We may not like it, but people love to join a new enterprise. The two largest churches in our conference were started less than 25 years ago. Our church is the 3rd largest, and we are an anomaly, having been founded 149 years ago.

Speaking of our larger churches, I believe that we need to ask large, healthy churches to shepherd and tend small churches, turning them away from ineffective ministry toward best practices.

And finally, I believe we must reclaim and renew our Wesleyan heritage of making disciples to make disciples who will make disciples.

It seems simple, but such change never comes easily and always entails significant costs. The question that remains: Do we love our church enough today to make changes now that will make survival possible later?

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Inspiration

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I’m not really clear on how inspiration works, as in the Bible it seems subtly different for everyone. Burning bushes, blinding light, being struck mute in the presence of God’s messenger – all of that sounds really cool, though none of it has ever happened to me. What I have definitely experienced is hearing the still, small voice that is almost lost in the raging wind.

Listening to poets, song writers, dreamers, and visionaries leads me to suspect that God often plants the seeds of ideas deep in our hearts or minds so that they spring to life in His good time. In my experience, His time is often at the oddest moments . . . In the shower, on a bike ride, driving, or even when I’m not able to sleep, an idea suddenly comes to my mind that is too good, too true, too insightful to have come from me. Those moments are so easy to ignore, and I am ashamed to admit that I have.

The other day I was driving when a friend came to mind. A week or so prior he had alluded to challenges in his life via a brief text message. Having prayed for him, I found myself thinking about him. I felt a palpable impulse to call him. Thank God for Siri, because I was able to blurt out my wishes and Apple’s virtual assistant made it happen with no help from me. After 5 minutes of him saying that everything was fine, he let down the facade and shared what was really happening and how it was breaking his heart.

We chatted in a way we never have; we chatted in a way we never would have if not for the inspiration, the prompting to call him.

He texted me today to say that my call came at the lowest point in his life, when he was feeling “defeated and deflated.” He went on to say that our chat put the fight back in his heart and soul.

Rereading his text, it occurred to me how fleeting inspiration can be. It is heard, or felt, and then it is gone. The quicker you act on the inspiration the more inspiration you seem to get; the more often you ignore or postpone it, the less it happens.

Next time you are driving, or mowing the lawn, or making dinner, or showering and an idea hits you out of nowhere, do something! The results may astound you, and reveal God to you, as well as to someone else.

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