Tuesday, December 17, 2013

These are a few of my favorite things....

Last week a live version of "The Sound of Music" was aired on NBC. It was fun and entertaining, though some singers are not gifted as actresses and should stick to singing songs about vandalizing old boyfriends cars out side of country bars. A very memorable song from this musical, now and when Julie Andrews stared in it, is the song "My favorite things." It's a list of things that make the character happy when she's sad. I was wondering, do we all have a list of favorite things? Are there things that when we are down, these things pick us back up and how much do we rely on these "favorite things"?

Here is my list of favorite things (and people), not in any particular order, so please do not read to much into the list:

My sons
My wife
My bulldog meatball
My pipe
My job as a pastor
My church
My conference
My District
My DS...yes he is one of my favorite people :)
My colleges (Eric, Jeff, Jack, Trevor, Pat, Mike, Lisa, Larry, Josh, Kameron and many, many more)
My co-workers (Linda, Kaye, Norma and Marry)
Pumpkin pie
Cherry Pie
French toast

I've got a pretty long list of favs :). In times of frustration I think, do, visit, and eat many of these things. During the Holiday season I think we are more aware of these things and people than we are any other time of the year. During Thanksgiving we reflect on being thankful for them, during Xmas we reflect on the gift that these people and things are in our busy, chaotic and often overwhelming lives. When the New Year starts we reflect on how we are going to be better people and more appreciative towards the people and things that God has so graciously placed in our lives. But the rest of the year we kinda over look these things and take them for granted. I hope I learn to not take these people and things for granted and communicate to them how much I love and appreciate them and to communicate to God how thankful I am to have so much in my life, more than during one 2month period a year.

This is my last post for the 2013 year. I wont be posting anymore thought until we are on the other side of December. I hope all of you take the opportunity to tell those you love, those you honor, those you care for that you love them. I hope you tell God how grateful you are for all the stuff and people in your lives. I hope you have a blessed rest of Advent and I hope you have a magical, mysterious and miraculous Christmas.

In Christ,
Josh Blanchard

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A thank-FULL people

This week marks the US celebration of the Thanksgiving Holiday. Its a day about family, friends, and giving thanks, but do we really practice these values that are suppose to be so important on this day? I don't think we really know how to as a nation of mostly over feed, under paid and hardly grateful people. Sounds harsh I know, but it's the truth. America's not a bad place, in fact it's the greatest nation on earth, other than the Scandinavia, Canada, Australia...well you get the point. Really though, there a lot of positive idea's and values that stem from American minds, it's just that so many of them go un practiced in America.

There really is a lot to be thankful for in our nation. Our dysfunctional, broken and often useless government is not one of them. Our sub standard minimum wage, over priced healthcare system and  failing education system are also all hard to be thankful for. Especially when the stock market is soaring, corporate profits are at an all time high and conservative tea party politicians complain about the $36 per person, per year that welfare cost Americans verses the $6000 per person per year that big business subsides cost Americans. Those things are all difficult places to find thanks in. But really when you look at the big picture things are good. Unless you're gay, black, hispanic, female, or a non-citzen, then things are still pretty tough. Given the continued resistance to comprehensive immigration reforms by Tea Party Republicans, the continued targeting of Black and Hispanic Americans by conservative state governments, the assault on voter rights for these populations and places like Oklahoma being willing to simply cut out benefits all together rather than provide them for gay couples, there might not be a whole lot to be thankful for.

Perhaps I'm being to hard, perhaps I'm being unpatriotic and un American, after all what's more American than gluttony and over indulgence, of which both we engage in at their finest over the thanksgiving holiday, i.e stuffing ourselves full of turkey, potatoes and pie on thursday and rushing to the store (now on thursday evening) the next guy to buy, buy, buy!!! This Holiday was never about family, friends and thanks. It's about them in theory, but in 1941 when the government made it a national day of thanks, it was about setting up the Xmas holiday season and the economic push that comes from it. Really if we wanted to celebrate the harvest we'd do it when the Canadians do it in October, when stuffs actually being harvested. By the end of November much of the nation is blanked with snow, ice and cold weather and the harvest has been over for about two months.

So does this mean this is all for not, all at a lose, just big and fabricated attemped to trick us into the holiday spirit so that we can buy, buy, buy? Is it only a contrived sense of being thankFUL so that we can have an excuse for being so FULL on food and stuff while 2/3 of the world lives on less than $1.25 a week? I suppose we could continue being that critical about it and get nothing out of it at all, but what good would that do? I propose that we take the GIVING part seriously and reflect on our God given opportunities to Give to those in need this year, and be full of giving and not just full.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians in 2nd Corinthians 9 that giving and generosity, charitably and graciousness are all gifts from God and that they should be thankful that they have the chance to give. It is a blessing to be able to give, both of resource and of hearts. As we enter into the holiday season lets consider how we can be thankful about our opportunity to give (those of use who have been blessed with more than we need.) This thanksgiving please be considerate of the other and try being full of thanks giving and not just simply FULL.

Happy Holidays,
Pastor Josh

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Right or wrong...you agreed: Issues of convent within United Methodist clergy vows

I'm a pretty moderate guy. I think myAssemblies of God, LCMS Lutheran, and evangelical friends would say I'm a bit left leaning, while my Main line buddies, i.e ELCA, DOC, UCC, PCUSA, etc would say I'm a little more conservative than they're comfortable with. So I think with them both being uncomfortable with many of my positions it makes me a good candidate for being a moderately progressive evangelical :) lol. Truth is I like to play both sides of the fence. Not to be controversial or "wishy washy", but because I think the heart of a truly reflective reformer wrestles with societies major issues and treads lightly within them.

The big issue trending within UMC Facebook groups and the religious media world is the trial of the Pennsylvania UMC pastor who, several years ago, married a gay couple. This is against the rule and Discipline of the United Methodist Church. It is a crime, a chargeable offense, which ought to result in the defrocking of any clergy who willing violates this rule. As is the case with most political, social and religious issues, I have an opinion...and so does everyone else. :)

As a UMC pastor, a role which I love and cherish, I am bound by covenant to up hold the doctrines and standards of the United Methodist Church. Let me preface any further statments with this: I love the UMC. If it were not for the UMC I would not have any faith to speak of. They came into my life when I was fed up with an empty, theologically bankrupt and socially irrelevant church. With that being said, all this fighting and arguing and the very real possibility of schism saddens me greatly as it should all peoples called Methodist. As sad as I am about the fighting and stuff, I'm even more saddened by other UMC clergy and their willingness to openly violate and disobey the rules and covenant they vowed to up hold. Thats what its all about...the total disregard for order and covenant.

I have always been a supporter of Gay rights, gay marriage and LGBTQI inclusion into the the life of the church...FULL INCLUSION, but I refuse, and so should all clergy, to willingly violate our covenant with the the church to further our own ideals. Do we not believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our times of Holy Conferencing? General Conference has ruled since the late 70's to not allow Gay marriage and openly gay clergy. This is the body that speaks for the church, the world wide collection of United Methodists being led by the Holy Spirit...right? If we do not believe this than whats the point? Either we believe the Holy Spirit is active and working in Holy Conferencing or She's not, but which is it?

I whole heartedly believe that there will come a day where the church will have to move forward and fully accept LGBTQI persons, both into the ordained ministry and into the Sacramental act of marriage, but that day is obviously not today. Not only will we have to, but it's the right thing, but not like this. The Holy Spirit will speak through Holy Conferencing when the time is right. He has in the past, She will in the future. Until that day we need to hold the lines, remain faithful, and up hold the doctrine and Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Death and Resurrection

I have, unfortunately, been around a lot of death over the past 6 weeks. Two funerals with church members, the untimely death of a young girl who is the cousin to one of my parishioners, the death of an 18 month old, and an uncle from each side of my family. It's been hard and emotional. I have had some form of connection to each one of these people who have died, if not directly then indirectly through friendship and such. It doesn't really matter how well you know a person when they die, I mean it does, but what's really difficult is watching the survivors try to sort it all out, that makes it painful, that makes it tough for everybody.

The Onaway Church two of it's greatest, most supportive and patriotic saints in Clarence and Tom. Both these men were life long Methodist who worked hard to see that the work of the church continued. Their deaths we unfortunate, but not untimely and not sudden or out of place. I was fortunate to celebrate the lives with their families. One of my favorite waitresses from the local restaurant lost her Grandpa this week and one of my parishioners, a young mom, lost her 17 year old cousin to a tragic car accident over the weekend.

My Uncle Keith died in October. He overdosed on Oxy. He had no children that we know of, he was a life long addict and never could hold a job. But he was my uncle, my mothers baby brother and it's hard. He died for no real reason, he died young (54) and he died without having accomplished much in life. Despite all that he will be missed and there is loss associated with his passing, if only it's experience by my mother, its loss and it's significant.

My other uncle, from my fathers side, died after a very brief (3 months) battle with lung cancer. We was my dads baby brother. I never have seen my father cry, not even at grandpa's funeral, but when Rick died...he sobbed. I was not close to Rick, but I am close to his sons, my cousins, who are like brothers to me and whom were estranged to their father for the past two years. I'm sad, because they (cousins and dad) are so impacted by this sudden passing. He also was and most likely will be the last owner of my families business in Northville, MI, the Asher Citgo/76/UniCal/Pure Oil gas and service station, circa 1948. All those memories, my grandfathers legacy, a life time for multiple generations died with Rick that day.

As sad and tragic as all those things are they are hard pressed to compare to the loss that my colleagues Mike and Bri have expereinced. Their 18 month old son Carl recently passed away after a long battle with lukemia. He died last week at his home in his mother arms. TRAGIC. I only know Mike and Bri through various district and conference events, but of all the deaths I've been around the past 6 weeks, even the ones in my own family, none have touched my heart, made me cry and just simply stopped me in my tracks like the death of baby Carl. I hope and pray they find peace and hope in their faith that sustains them through this thing which no parent should ever have to experience, the death of their baby.

With all that sadness and death and stuff it's had to look up, it's hard to see straight and to keep moving forward. The one thing that provides peace and hope is the promise of resurrection. St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians puts it this way, "We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’- I Corinthians 15:51-54

Because of Jesus we win. Death is not an end as it aspires to be, but a beginning, an eternity of peace and rest. God rest the souls of all who have died over these past weeks and may the peace of God which transcends all understanding grant those who are left behind hope.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Monsters, Van Helsing and Jesus: A popculture understanding of All Saints

I have spent the last three weeks preaching a sermon series inspired by Halloween and ultimately All Saints day. We focused on the monsters that live amongst us in Christ's Church. Like something out of the darkest corners of our imagination these church monsters arise and threaten our safety, our effectiveness and our futre. They threaten to devoir the body of Christ from the inside out, like a stage four cancer ravaging the body of our loved ones...they are very real and they are in every church across America. Vampires, Zombies and Werewolves roam the halls, sanctuaries and pews of our local churches and often we just tolerate it, but we need to over come them.

Over the past weeks we have talked about the life sucking church vampier, the contagious and devouring church zombie, and the ravenous church werewolf. There are ways to remove and stop their reign of terror, but most importantly there are ways to cure, to heal the monster among us. Ultimately its a combination of love, patience, hope and courage that leads to the healing of these church monsters and even more at the core of the source of healing is Jesus and the Saints.

There's a list of "monster hunters" out there, none more popular than Van Helsing. Van Helsing is a German/Dutch Doctor who suffered the loss of his true love at the hands of the famous Dracula and has devoted his life to ending dracula's reign of terror. Van Helsing was nearly killed by Dracula early in his hunting life and was saved by a man who became a father figure and taught him all he needed to know about hunting Dracula. There's Blade, another vampier hunter, but he's half vamp and half human. Blades mother was devoured by Vampier Deacon Frost, who ate her during Blades birth. Blade was then taken in by Afari, who was a jazz musician and vampier hunter. Afari helped Blade hewn his skills and learn to use the special vampier enzyme that was transferred to him from Deacon Frost at his birth.  There's Red, an adaptation of the Little Red Ridding Hood story. Red is the great, great, great grand daughter of Little Red Ridding Hood. Red is now the most recent of a line of Werewolf hunters, who devote themselves to ridding the world of werewolfs. She was trained by her mother, who was trained by her mother, who was of course trained by her mother and so on. There's Rick Grimes, the Georgia Sherifs deputy who is the leader of the remnant group of survivors in the Walking Dead's post zombie apocalypse world. Rick was left to die in a hosptial. He was unconscious when the outbreak happened and woke up 6weeks later. He was wondering in the post apocalyptic chaos when Morgan Jones and his son Duane recused him. They taught him about surviving in the new zombie world, they told him about all that had happened and they provided him with food and shelter.

What all theses monster hunters have in common is they all owe their survival and success to others. If it were not for those who came before them, they would have never survived. Because of their survival and success the world is a better place. It's safer, there are less monsters and all the oppression and injustice that societies monster often cause is righted. Much like these monster hunters the world is a better place because of the Saints and we owe all our life and success to Jesus. Jesus saved us. He taught us how to live, how to make it in this wilderness, how to stop the injustice and the monster who plagues or world and even or churches. And much like the monster hunters we saints not only owe our survival to Jesus, but to the Saints who come before us, on whose shoulders we stand. This all Saints the Gospel invites us to celebrate the lives of those who come before us and to remember that with out them, and most importantly, without Jesus we would be lost.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"All the Fat is the Lords"- Leviticus 3:16

On May 21st of this year, on the 18th anniversary of my Baptism and new life under God's covenant of grace, I decided to make a life change. At 32 I was seriously obese. At 254lbs I was diabetic, had hypertension and seriously high cholesterol. I made a choice to allow holiness to extended into the way I eat and treat my body. I choice to eat right and exercise everyday. Since then I have lost 55lbs. I no longer suffer from any of the medical problems that plagued me when I was fat. In 6months my life has been extended another 30 years. I encourage all my clergy friends and peers who struggle with their weight to seriously as God for the strength and the courage to make these changes in their lives as well. Our obesity as clergy does affect the way our members see us, it does affect the way we minister and even preach and it does affect our witness. I pray that all clergy will consider the truth that Christ's salvation holistic, which means spirt, mind....and BODY. May God grant us the courage to live holy lives.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hospitality culture

I'm so interested in church growth and reaching young unchurched people. I've read books, taken classes and attended seminars, but I'm unable to translate their success into my own ministry, at lest on a large scale. While in Oklahoma one of the two little churches I served grew and had significant changes, but since being at my current appointment we've not. Which causes me to wonder...is it the pastor or the people that make a church grow. Now before any of you have the chance to say "neither, its the Holy Spirit." let me say you are absolutely correct, but in all practicality there is some kind of incarnational thing happening in the church that allows the Spirit to work. Does that come from the pastor, or the congregation?

I suppose it's a bit of both, but I'm leaning towards the later. I think a lot of it comes down to the people in the congregation. Are they warm? What kind of reputation does the church have in the community? What do they value and do they really value what thy say they value, i.e "we value children, but we have no children's ministry." Pastors come and go. We set the tone, we vision cast, we delegate and lead by example, but if a church is to grow all those things must be second to the hospitality of a church. If I were to plant a church the thing I would focus most on would be hospitality. You can get by with average music, average preaching, average programing, but not with average or worse, poor hospitality. Hospitality is the key tenant to a growing faith community. God hates inhospitality. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their inhospitable ways and it seems like so many of our churches are experiencing this same kind of judgement for their inhospitality. I hope to change the culture of inhospitality in my own churches so that we can grow.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Healthcare, Shutdown and Other crap from the News: A Gospel Approach

The talk of the town, or of the nation, is the government shutdown over funding of the Affordable Healthcare Act, popularly known as "Obamacare".  Jimmy Kimmel proved how little we know about this law, or at least how much demonization has occurred by opponents of the law. He went to the streets and asked people which law they favored, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare (keep in mind they are the same thing). Everyone that appeared on the skit said "the affordable care act" over "Obamacare" because they thought Obamacare was a waste of taxpayers money. I suppose it's funny, especially knowing that they are the same thing, but it's also sad that a very small radical faction of one political party has been able to, not only poison peoples public opinion and even understanding of a law that will perhaps grant them and nearly 50 million other Americans access to healthcare, but also cripple our government so much that it stopped operating. These 30 white privileged men have managed to take hostage the US federal government in their  terroristic ideological crusade to prevent Americans from having affordable healthcare!

As a Christian I am charged by my Rabbi and Lord Jesus, to "love my neighbor as myself." I have wonderful health insurance, which my 2-point charge so graciously provides (mostly because they are required to by mandate of the Annual Conference). As someone who loves their neighbor as themselves, or who at least gives it a very good attempt daily, I want my neighbor to have healthcare because I have healthcare. I want whats best for my neighbor just like I want whats best for myself. It's amazing to me that these 30 white privileged men, who all claim to be devote Christians have made it the utmost ideological point to prevent their neighbor from having what they have, which is quality, affordable healthcare, which you and I pay for through our taxes. This is the utmost of all evils. To lie, cheat, and bare false witness to the extent that peoples lives are at stake. These 30 men have worked tirelessly to keep the afflicted afflicted and to comfort the comfortable when the Gospel calls us to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

Now their godless crusade has extended into affecting not just the 50 million uninsured Americans, but also around 800,000 federal workers plus another 250,000-300,000 contract workers. All to ensure that not everybody is insured. It is during moments like this that I like to direct these 30 white males of privilege to the biblical prophets, including Jesus and John the Baptist. These men stood up for the oppressed and the under privileged and lost their lives for it. Now this isn't that serious. Honestly of the 4.1million federal workers most of them (some estimate nearly 80%) will keep working. The parks are closed, the Army/Navy game will be canceled and discretionary spending and non-essntial employees wont get paid, but the military, the Department of Homeland Security, the FAA and VA hospitals and clinics will remain open.

The worst of this is the people who won't be paid. Many people still have to report, but won't be paid because their jobs are essential, but their pay is tied to congressional appropriations. Also people who rely on Social Security to survive will not be paid. Their payments are mandatory spending and are not affected by a shutdown caused by a failure to pass appropriations, but the people who process and mail the checks their salaries are...so those social security dependent people will not get their checks either. Also the people who process VA benefits are deemed non-essenatital so the already back logged VA will become even more so the longer this drags on. Finally the cost is a real problem. These 30 white male privileged rich, who are always complaining about government spending will spend close to one hundred million dollars per day! (this number is based on the cost and number of days the government shutdown caused in '95).

I gospel response to anything always starts with, "What would Jesus say/think/do?" What would Jesus' response be to these white, wealthy, privileged male 30? Would Jesus advocate for the "fiscal responsibility" (as they call it, I call it congressional terroism) of these 30 men? Would he want the vulnerable who live on very little through the SSI system to not have anything? Would he want the men and women who fought and served this nation to be further bogged down by administrative back log? And would he want some kind of ideological war waged on the premise of not providing healthcare for the most vulnerable of societies population at the expense of one hundred million dollars per day? I don't think so. I want to end with this passage from Amos. This passage perfectly describes the will of these 30 men and their wealthy co-conspieres.

"I will not revoke their punishment;
because they sell the righteous for money,
   and the needy for a pair of shoes— 
7 they who trample the head of the poor into the ground,
   and push the afflicted out of the way;"-
Amos 2:6-7

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Josh

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The future of worship in United Methodism

I recently spent a Saturday morning presenting at a workshop geared towards helping congregations provide more meaningful worship expereinces. I lead a session on using Media with and for aged and aging congregations, which is about 80% of UM congregations btw :). The gist of my presentation was that if you are wishing to use media in your old congregation, be wise and be aware of context. The committee that provided the event and also provides these resources, is well meaning and even gifted, but only gifted in reaching the current constituency (50+). The committee, or team, to sound Post-Modern, designs sets that can be transported to churches to provide visual aids in worship, i.e Women at the well set, Renewing you Baptism Set, The burning Bush Set, etc. The sets are beautiful, but they're also old, stuffy and dull....at least if you're under 50. I don't mean to be rude or discouraging, but critical...in a positive way.

The sets offer more of the same things, lace, wreathes, fountains, pics of white Jesus and more. These things are great when you're trying to attract old people, but young folks, which I myself would be considered at least in my denomination (I'm under 35), don't like lace, wreathes, fountains, and pics of white Jesus. Our denomination needs to work with churches to exposes them to worship sets that attract and inspire young people. So whats that look like?  Well it does not include lace, wreathes, fountains, and pics of white Jesus.

There's various schools of though of course. Some believe that an "ancient-futre" form of worship is more appealing to young people. Nadia Boltz-Weber at the House for All Sinners and Saints, in Denver, CO uses this model and she does very well with it. The more ancient the better in her case. She attracts and reaches a very specific group of people that the church has allowed to slip though the cracks for years. Her church is not "big" so to speak, only about 75-100 a week, so it's the size of most Main-line Protestant churches in America. Size, in this case, really doesn't matter. What we are looking for in a worship experience is vitality and her church is just that....it's vital. She also manages to pack about 10,000 words worth of info into a 15 minute sermon. She is gifted beyond most clergy and the form of worship she uses and she is successful at, is very skill oriented. Most churches that are thriving, that are reaching the un-churced and young families are using media, lights, video, even social media, i.e twitter and Facebook in worship services. They provide music that young people can identify with and that they like. In the UMC most of our churches provide a very poor quality of music. Old, nearly deaf and blind ladies playing the organ with hymns at a meter that can only be described as "funeral drudge", pastor who speak at length in a monotone voice,  about topics that have no relevance in anyones practical life, and worship structures that provide very little sustained "worship: just simply are not making the cut with young people. So what's a church to do?

As United Methodist a good place to start is to engage denominations and professionals who do worship well and who engage young people and families on a weekly basis. We ought to be asking worship ministry professionals and pastors from denominations who regularly reach young people, "how do you do it?" I recently came across a worship professional named Kurt Johnson who is on staff at First Assembly of God Kalamazoo, a.k.a "Kfirst." He does worship and worship set design at a very high level of professionalism. I hope to engage him in my own ministry and in the ministry of the district and even our conference. We can learn a lot from people like him and we can grow as a denomination in worship effectiveness if you listen to them. I know having trendy and multi-media focused worship will not automatically fix all our UM woes, but it's a good start and since it's hard to find people within our own denomination who create worship environments that are geared towards young people at a high level of professionalism we need to be willing to partner with those who can.

Below is a link to Kurt' blog entitled "stage design". It's a step-by-step  process as he prepares to design worship within his ministry setting.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Do we really need church?: A response to Tara Woodard-Lehman

Recently The Rev'd Tara Woodard-Lehman wrote a post for the Huffington blog site entitled, "Do we really need Church?" She, like myself and others employed by the church, said yes we do. The question was posed by a young college student who pointed out all the social and communal stuff that the church use to be so good at providing, i.e mens groups, women's groups, youth groups, concerts, plays, dinners and so on, are now offered by and even done much better by other organization and agencies outside the church. Why do we need the church for fellowship? I have my friends and our dinner parties and back yard grill-outs. Why do I need the church for meditation? I have yoga, which is part meditation, part exercise. Why do I need the church to make business contacts? I have Facebook, linkendin and other forms of social media. Why do I need to go to church to hear music or be entertained? There are small community theaters, neighborhood coffee shops and local bars who have great performers and bands!! WOW...when you put it that way...we really don't need the church!

Woodard-Lehman's response to all this was her bad memory. She stated that she and other Christians, need the church because it's easy to forget God's epic story of redmption. Essentially we go to church to tell the story and to be renewed and re-focused on what matters in our lives, but does that help with un-churced, "spiritually-minded" young adults who don't necessarily care about the Christian story of Gods redeeming acts?

I think Woodard-Lehman's response is a stereotypical main-line protestant response to a very serious question and problem that plagues all of God's main-line protestant churches. Just because we, "Love to tell the story for those who know it best." doesn't mean those who don't know it want to listen. Perhaps our inability to remember the great exploits of God is the very reason why young adults could care less.

I was pleased to read Woodard-Lehman's excitement and energy when it came to the work of Jesus Christ. She said several time that Jesus was the savior for our world...I like that!! There are a lot of PCUSA ministers who would argue with that, but that's not enough, and neither is getting together on Sunday just to hear "The Old, Old Story".... told again!

Church is important, not as a place to socialize, or to meet girls, or to hangout with friends. These are important things, but it's not what's gonna keep people coming, especially young adults...college kids. The college aged kid she spoke to in her article called himself "spiritual", but non-religious. Jesus was kind of a spiritual but non-religious guy too. Most church people are the opposite, i.e religious but non-spiritual. Jesus said that "God is Spirit and is to be worshiped in Spirit". Also he said "The Spirit moves like the wind, where ever it pleases." Jesus had some issues with the religious non spiritual people of his day, so the young adults who have issues with the church are in good company. The only reason people are going to come to church is because they believe there is something at church that cannot be obtained anywhere else, but in order to make that "thing" which is relationship with God, obvious we must heed the words of John the Baptist, "I must decrease so that he might increase." The "I" in this equation is the religious, self-righteous and institutional church...(it always seems to get in the way!!) We must optimize our spirituality and decrease our religiosity, than young people will be interested

What can the church do to optimize it's spirituality and decrease it's religious institutionalism? If you know the answer to that, then you will know the answer to the question, "Do we really need church?"This has nothing to do with worship styles, polity, or doctrine. What it really has to do with is authenticity, honestly and holiness. If a "church" experience is going to be meaningful and worth while, a church must posses all three.

I'm glad hearing the story helps Tara Woodard-Lehman and I'm glad it helps many others, but it's not the reason we need church. We need church because we need a relationship with God and this the risen body of christ is the only place we can find one.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Fundamentalism swings both ways: An Open critique of fundamental liberalism.

I have been critical of conservative fundamentalist over the past decade or so. Growing up one I have reason to be. There is a lot of negative and destructive God talk that come out of the "Fundie Right" and not much of it really has anything to do with Jesus or his teachings.

I am a self professed post-modern Evangelical and Neo-Orthodox Wesleyan guy. Some might not think so, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who believes more in the saving power of Jesus Christ than I. JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY TO THE FATHER. There...I said it. Now I ought to qualify it, but that's not what this article is about, so maybe next week:)

I recently went to visit my cousin Chris, who means the world to me. I love him and his family dearly and we have a great time when we are together. On Sunday we went to the Faith Community Church of Greenville, WI. It's a United Methodist Church with Evangelical/Brethren Heritage. We went to the contemporary service. It was nice, it was small due to the Labor Day weekend, but nice. After the service I spoke to the man who preached and he was not the pastor of the church. He was an older gentle man, maybe in late his 50's. I asked is if he were a Retired Elder filling in for the pastor, or maybe a Local licensed pastor or lay preacher. He was neither. He proceeded to tell me about how he was taking courses at Asbury Theological Seminary, probably the most evangelical and Wesleyan Seminary in the nation, so that he could become and Ordained Elder. He then told me that he was no longer taking those classes because his District Committee on Ministry (DCoM) had told him "no, not ever" on ministry. He was given the kiss of death, the black ball of ministry in the UMC, he was given a flat out no! Many times DCoM's will give a potential candidate a "not yet". Which means, "You're not ready. Think about it and come back next year." But this guy got and absolute NO!

I immediately thought maybe he failed his background check or maybe he was a pastor in another denomination and was dishonorably removed from ministry, but neither of those were right. As it turns out he was told know because he was "to conservative." As I spoke more with him I found out that his beliefs about God and Holy Scripture were the same beliefs that I shared and that Mr. Wesley shared and that, through the Book of Discipline (BOD), the United Methodist Church shared. When did we stop affirming the supremacy of scripture? When did we stop believing and teaching that Jesus is the only way to the Father and that the faith is the "most excellent way"? When did all that stop? I'm not sure that it has, in fact since the last General Conference was so impotent, I know they didn't make any land mark changes like this!

This fellow was the victim of a fundamentally liberal DCoM in a fundamentally liberal Conference. When did we start saying no to people who disagreed with us? What happened to Open minds, Open hearts and Open doors? The hallmark of Fundamentalist, liberal and conservative, is closed minds, closed hearts, closed doors. We are a non-confessional movement for a reason, and that non-confessional door ought to swing both ways. Liberals and conservatives alike should be welcomed in our church and in the ministry. It's amazing that the Wisconsin Annual Conference and it's various DCoM's and most likely it's Board of Ordained Ministry (BoOM) is willing to violate the Discipline and encourage the breach of sacred covenant by allowing openly gay men and women in the ministry as well as allowing the solemnization of same sex marriages with in it's boundaries, but because some one believes in the supremacy of scripture and the exclusive claims of christ they are to conservative and unfit for ministry!!

I support the full inclusion of LGBTQI persons in the church, I supported the legalization of Gay marriage. I'm not sure how one can whole heartedly believe that Jesus is who he says he is and affirm the teachings of Jesus and not! But  liberal fundamentalism is wrong, just as wrong as conservative fundamentalism. Jesus was not a fundamentalist, an exclusionist, and he was far from Orthodox, at least the traditional orthodoxy of his day. Neither conservative nor liberal fundamentalist embody the heart of Jesus. I hope new leadership arises in the Wisconsin Annual Conference and other Annual Conferences were liberal fundamentalism is rampant and that this new leadership brings these beloved back to the center, which is Christ Jesus.

Grace and peace,
Josh Blanchard

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Three Re's; Renew, Refuel, Reconnect. Our Week at Clergy Family Camp.

This past week my family and I spent time at the Lake Louise Christian Community Clergy Family Camp. It was a much needed time of Renewal, Refueling and Reconnecting. As pastors we often over extend ourselves and we are often isolated from real meaningful relationships in or appointments (other than our families). Often even worse off are our families, who have so many expectations placed on them that they did not ask for nor did they agree to, but have them thrust upon them by default because they are preachers wives and pastors kids. It was wonderful being with other families who understand the dilemma and the dynamics of being a clergy family. This week was so essential to the health and well being of my family and to the families we engaged with during our time there.

We were renewed through the various worship services and the times of small group discussion. We were refueled by having moments of just simply doing nothing, watching our children play and be care free and seeing our spouses with other spouses who know exactly what it's like. We reconnected by being with our co-laborers in Christ who understand the unique demands of professional ministry. All- in-all in was a great week and will stay in or hearts until we meet again.

Below are some pics from our week together.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gnosticism is alive and well! Hating humanity since 100AD

Where is Gnosticism in the 21st century? Where it's been for the past 1900 years, in the hearts and minds of radical fundamentalist who hate humanity. Fundies, like Gnostics, hate the "flesh". They believe the flesh of humanity to be the enemy of God and to be everything wrong humanity. Just as the Gnostics of old imparted "secret knowledge" to those willing to listen, knowledge that taught them how to escape the material world and be freedom from the flesh, fundamentalist do the same today. They teach doctrines the denies the humanity of Christ and speaks of Jesus as if he's some Spirit trapped in a dirt bag. I admit there is much talk in the letters of St. Paul admonishing us to refuse the flesh and calling us "clay jars", but St. Paul is expounding on the mortal nature of our existence. St. Paul is also the one who whole heartedly believes in the bodily resurrection of the dead and without a body there can be no resurrection.

The Jewish tradition that Jesus and then St. Paul came from values humanity and saw humanity as an extension of who God is. They valued the body and saw salvation as holistic, not just spiritual. God is redeeming our bodies for eternity, not just our spirits. The truth is, if what we believe and profess about Jesus is true, than God is human, or at lest humans are like God. God has a human body, human emotions and so on. Or perhaps what Jesus did for us was to point out that God can dwell in us all and with God his reign of justice and peace. Either way, our bodies are not bad, our humanity is not bad, our nature is corrupted and Christ came to show us that it can all work together for the glory of God. Jesus said he was the way the truth and the light, and he alone is the way to God, or at lest his way of living is.

Jesus demonstrated that humans can be perfect, that we can exercise what John Wesley referred to as, "Christian perfection". In order to obtain this status of perfection one must first be a Christian, profess faith in the way of Jesus, and second love others and themselves. Fundamentalist don't love others and I'm not sure that they even love themsleves. All their self loathing and self hatred, all their denial of the flesh, instructing youth and especially young girls, that their bodies are somehow evil, that the natural feelings and experiences they are having are evil and that the only thing good is reading the bible and praying...this is so anti-Christ. Jesus taught us away to live that embodies everything godly about ourselves (about our original state), and he showed us that not just our spirits, but our bodies will be redeemed through the resurrection. It's regeneration, the new creation all possible through faith in the way of Jesus. Our bodies are not bad, our flesh does not need to be destroyed and salvation is not release from our bodies, but instead wholeness with it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Series, "Critical Questions All American Christians Should be Asking.", Sermon, "Can the Rich be Saved?", Mark 10:17-27

A few years ago day time network TV was changed forever. We saw the cancelation of the soap opera, at lest all but one, and that one is slated to conclude next summer. One of TV's most enduring programing, one that comes and goes and seems to have a place in every generation is the Game Show. Game shows have been around almost as long as TV. They use to be found airing during prime time, but that distinction has gone to sitcoms, drama's and reality TV. Probably the last great game show to be aired successfully during prime time TV was, "Who wants to be a millionaire?" We still have cultural references to this show. There's a whole generation of people who know exactly what, "Can a phone a friend?" means and what  a "life line." is. Most game shows revolve around the opportunity to become and instant prize winner. Who want's to be a millionaire was so great because you didn't just win a few thousand dollars or a trip to the Grand Cayman's, but you instantly became rich, you became a millionaire in seconds!

The thought of striking it rich intrigues and motivates us all. Thats why we play the lottery and that why we loved, "Who wants to be a millionaire?" Because it fulfills are dream of rags to riches over night. I mean who hasn't had the day dream at work of what you'd say to your boss if you one the lottery? In a 2012 Times article this instant wealth having was referred to as "Affluenza". I know it sounds like a virus or disease, but that is exactly what they intended it to sound like. People who instantly become wealthy, who win some game show prize or some jackpot somewhere or amazingly enough win the lottery, lose all their prize money in an average of 10 years, no matter how much they win. They spend money on all kinds of things and people, blowing through cash like it's a pile of leaves on an autumn afternoon. 

Truth is we are a greedy bunch of people. Given the chance most of us will take all we can, spend all we can and waste all we can (John Wesley encourage Methodist to earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can). You say, "I'm not greedy!", but yes you are. How many of you have nicer things than your neighbor? How many of you worked hard and saved for those things? And there is nothing wrong with that, but how many of you have ever given that much money, the value of that nice thing, ie. car, boat, house, cabin on the lake, etc, to a charity, to a food bank, to a church, to a homeless shelter? You haven't. Why? Because you are greedy and you want what you have worked for and earned yourself. How many of you complain about welfare, the affordable care act, food stamps and public housing. You say things like, "I'm tired of working so other people can get a free ride!" Or "If they can't work they can't eat, I'm tired of helping those lazy people!" Eric Fromm says that "Greed is a bottomless pit that exhausts us in an endless effort to satisfy or desires." How many of you are actually happy with what you have and would be willing to help other people have the same thing? I'm not saying I'm any better. I try to be generous and give as much as I can, but I still try to get what I want. I don't live a lavish life, but I more than I need.

Money is to the majority of the world an end, while people become the means to that end. Look at all the people in the 3rd world who work for meager wages in deplorable conditions. Some of them are as young as 5 years old, working 12-15 hour days for less than 1.25 a week. Americans would never stand for that, right? Though we buy those products left and right and our government makes policies to stimulate economic growth for the rich by giving tax breaks to companies that outsource jobs to other countries were they can pay a 5 year old 10 cents a day to make an iPhone. The rich get richer and all at the expense of the poor. 

In 2008 the worst global financial collapse the world has even seen happened because of greed. Rich people playing with the life savings of hard working families lost the bet and they didn't suffer, they got bailed out to the tune of 75billion dollars by our government while hard working men and women lost everything from life savings, to homes and even jobs. Given all the sins and evil perpetuated by the rich and that has only been the last decade or so, it's fair to ask, "Can the Rich be saved?" Sometimes I wonder and when I wonder I thank God I'm not rich.

Lets put this all into perspective. Imagine the world being shrunk down to a village of 100 people. 57 would be from Asia, 21 from Latin America, 14 from the West, i.e U.S, European nations and Canada and 8 would be from Africa. 51% would be female and 49% would be male. 70% would be non white while only 30% would be white. About 51% would be Christian and 47% would be Muslim and the rest would be all the other various world religions represented in our global village. Only 6 would be citizens of the U.S. 99% of the worlds wealth would be in the hands of those 6 people! 80 people would live in substandard housing, 70 would be unable to read or write, 75 would be malnourished and only 4 would have a college education. So 6 out of those 100 would control over half the wealth in our village and would be un willing to help the other 80% who are uneducated, malnourished and living in squalor, oh yeah and about 50% of the total population would be children under the age of 12. So yeah, the question, "can the rich be saved?" is an important one and at first glance I'd say no!

So who are the rich? Are we rich? (middle class, white Americans?) Yes, by comparison we are richer than 2/3 of the world. But we are not rich by comparison to let say...the various CEO's and company owners that seem to operate with impunity. But actually us middle class folks are well taken care of, yet money and greed still has a profound hold on us all. We go into debt to buy homes we don't need, boats we don't need, car's, clothing, vacation homes and even food we don't need. But are we the rich? No, not really. Despite the fact that we have more than 2/3 of the world we are not the rich. Most of us give when we can, we help people who are in need and we try to spend and save wisely. And though debt makes us slaves to the lender, it's a necessary evil for most of us (not to many middle class folks can write a check for 100,000+ for a house or 10,000+ for a reliable car.). Methodist Holiness leader Phoebe Palmer said "the rich are a gift from God.", but she meant only when the rich use the resource that God has given them to bless others, else wise they are a scourge on the earth.

Fortunately for us the bible is not silent on the issue of wealth. There are over 635 verses in the bible that deal directly with economic justice. Jesus was also outspoken about wealth and economic justice. One of my favorite passages from Mark has to do with economic justice in a global economy. The woman that Jesus calls a dog, but still goes ahead and heals her daughter, she was part of a wealthy gentile community form Tyre. This community was just on the other side of the sea of Galilee. While the jews in Galilee starved the gentiles in Tyre ate well, even though 80% of the food they ate came from Galilee. Jesus was angered that the food that was grown by and meant for the people and children of Galilee was sold to and consumed by the people of Tyre because the growers could make more many selling it to Tyre. This is what is meant by, "The children's bread being feed to the dogs" (dog being a common slur for gentiles in Jesus day). Jesus saw this gentile women from Tyre as part of the cycle of injustice and was unwilling to help her until she admitted who she was and that she was responsible for this injustice. Our main passage this week deals with a rich young man who did everything he was suppose to do, He read his bible, obeyed the 10 commandments, tithed to the church and went to church every week, yet still none of that was enough. Jesus told him he was still laking in something.  When the rich man asked him what, he got an answer he wished he'd never gotten. Jesus told him that in order to be saved he had to give all his wealth away to help the poor and needy. The rich man, like most rich men, was not willing to part with his hard earned money, especially giving it to people who did not deserve it and so he left disappointed, but not disappointed enough to change.

This lesson confused the disciples because in Jesus day, kind of like in our day, they believed the rich to be blessed and favored by God. So if this person who is favored by God can't get to heaven who can? Jesus told them that it's hard to be rich and get into heaven, that it's easier to thread a camel through a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus went on to say that the only way a rich person can be saved is to become poor. Does that mean literally poor? Or does it mean being a person who realizes they have nothing, that everything they have belongs to God and that they are merely stewards of God's stuff? So can the rich be saved? Yes, but only of they allow God to change their selfish heart. This means that they are simply saved the same way you and I are, by grace through faith, but it's a whole lot harder for someone rich and powerful, who as it all to realize they have nothing.

Theres a story about a man who died and went to heaven. At the gates of heaven he met St.Peter. St. Peter told him that he needed 100 points to get in. So the man said well I went to church every sunday. St. Peter said I'll give you 2 points for that. The man then said I helped some old ladies cross the street. St. Peter said I'll give you another 1 point for that. Then the man said well I use to help at this soup kitchen and one year I even helped on Thanksgiving day. St. Peter said alright I'll give you 2 points for that. By then the man was so discouraged he shouted out, "Lord Help ME!! I'll never get in this way!" St. Peter then said to him, "thats worth 95 points, welcome to heaven!!!" Truth is none of us can earn, buy, spend, even give our way to salvation. It only comes as a pure act of God's grace.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Series, "Questions All American Christians should be Asking.", Sermon, "What is the Future of Marriage in America?", Mark 12:18-27

I'm not a political person, I mean I enjoy listening to the pundits and reporters and so on, but I have no desire to actually be in politics. I'm not even a good church politician and I hate church politics, it seems to always get in the way of what maters like the mission of the gospel. The truth is politics is often and unavoidable topic and it's often and unavoidable topic in our churches. Sometimes we just have to deal with the politics even when we don't want to. Politics is one of those things that drives a wedge between friends, family and the people of God. For whatever reason so many of us are more passionate about or political opinions than we are the gospel. Whatever your politics are, I love you despite them and I respect them, I may not agree with them and you  may not agree with mine, but I hope you love me despite them and that you'll love me when I'm done with this sermon ;)

Our nation has become a politically polarized nation. We define ourselves by what political party we belong to and in turn we judge others based on their political allegiance. There are people from both sides of the isle who claim that you can't be a Christian if you're part of that other party. I find this rediculus. I don't think Jesus cares to much about our political membership, though I do believe Jesus' message had a political side to it, after all "Jesus is Lord" is one of the most politically subversive statements of all time, but he did once say, "give to Cesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God's". One of the most politically charged issue in our nation today is the issue of marriage and marriage equality, in fact it's not just an American thing. Parliaments a Congress's from all over the world are dealing with this issue. What it comes down to is definition. What is the definition of marriage? And who can be married? How we answer this question will determine what the future of marriage in America looks like.

Before we even attempt to answer this seemingly loaded question, we must better understand the nature of marriage. Marriage is a two part issue. Marriage is both spiritual and civil. Marriage encompasses the spiritual and mystical union between a man and a women. Two persons, two lives, to sets of goals...two hearts, all becoming one through the sacramental act of marriage. Marriage is also a legally binding contract, authorized and enforced by both the state and the federal government. Two separate legal entities agree in principal and in part to join together all of their assests. For this reason divorce is a legal preceding and can become very, very nasty and be very difficult for all who are involved.

Lets first look at the spiritual and religious part of the marriage covenant. Though not officially sanctioned by the UMC as such, marriage is sacramental. It's another one of those things, like baptism, that God does in us to make us more like him. Ephesians 5 tells us that marriage is a reflection of the love that Jesus has for the church. Husbands are to love their wives like Jesus loves the church, and wives are to submit to the leadership of their husbands like the church submits to Christ's leadership. Now before you hubby's get to excited and big headed over being the leader and having your "women" submit to you, just take a moment to reflect on all the suffering that Jesus endured on behalf of the church. Just think about how much he loved and loves the church, so much that he gave of himself so fully that it cost him his life. And wives don't think that this gets you off the hook either. Submission isn't some passive/aggressive way of getting what you want or just doing what you are told. It's a partnership. It's important that you help guide the heart of your husband and help him find God's heart for the both of you and your children. It's so beautiful and so sacred because it's the one earthly thing we have that really exemplifies the kind of perfect mutual love and submission that exists between Christ and his bride. It is truly a mystical union.

Hebrews 13 says marriage should be honored by all, but how have we as a nation honored marriage? In 2012 7.2 million Americans were "co-habitating". That's 11 times more than in the 70's. 70% of that increase came during the decade of the 90's. 4 out 10 first marriages end in divorce. America has the highest rate of divorce in the Western World. The good news is that rate has declined 1% since the year 2000. Also good news, 3/4 of men divorced from their 1st wives remarry and 2/3  of all women divorced from their first husbands remarry. Plus the rate of divorce drops significantly for 2nd marriages to about 2 out of every 10 divorcing. Due to the increase of life expectancy more marriages last 50+ years than ever before. I remarked to a couple at one of my churches in OK, who were celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary, that 75 years was a long time. The husband in turn remarked, "it would have been even longer with out her."

If we want marriage to survive in America we need strong biblical marriages, honored by both partners and blessed by God. Strong marriages make strong families and strong families instill good morals in the children they raise. The foundation of any healthy society is a strong emphasis on families. whatever those famiies may look like or be made of it needs to be strong and it starts with honoring the marriage covenant.

Part two of marriage is the legal and contractual part. Prior to 1563 at the Council of Trent, which by the way was also the church council that gave us "canonized scripture", marriage was purely a legal and contractual thing. At the council of Trent the Catholic Church decided that marriage was a spiritual act as well as a legal act, but until then It was a financial transaction. One equal man was exchanging goods with another equal man. You see men's wealth and status was determined by land, livestock and children, especially male children. The more of each that you had, the better off you were, but in order to have children you needed a women to bare those children. Girls were commodities that were traded for other commodities. A young man might trade a portion of his father inheritance for a girl so that he would have sons to pass all his things down to. Marriage to our ancestors had more to do with property and progeny than love and spirit. In 1753 the English Parliament made part of English common law marriage as an issue of the state. Marriage was no longer a transaction between two men or two families, but because of the property being exchanged in marriage it became monitored by the state. In 1948 the US Congress enacted a law that  allowed married people to file their taxes jointly. This was done to encourage marriage by giving married couples a tax break. This act of congress is what lead to the baby boom following WWII. In 1996 a Republican Congress voted and was signed into law by a Democratic President the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This act made only heterosexual marriages legal and binding at the federal level. This past June The Supreme Court Of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that the defense of marriage act that prohibited same-sex marriages sanctioned by the states from being recognized federally was unconstitutional. There you have it, a brief history of marriage in the West!

Strangely, but maybe not so strange, of all the things that Jesus and the gospels are silent on, marriage is not one of them. Jesus says in Matthew 6 that God hates divorce and that the only reason we ought to divorce is for marital unfaithfulness. He also says in that same passage that divorce is a result of humankind's hard and selfish hearts. Jesus points to the spiritual nature of marriage when he quotes from Genesis saying that for this reason a man shall leave his fathers house and join himself with another and the two shall become one flesh. Again, theres that mystical union. In our passage this week Jesus is again approached by another sect of Jewish leaders, this time it's the Saducees. The Saducees were the ruling class of Jew's. From this sect came the High Priest who was elected from three different families every year. They did not believe in demons, angels, divine healing, heaven, hell or the resurrection of the dead. Basically they were Episcopalians ;) J/K. For real though, they did not believe in anything spiritual or supernatural. There was only now. You live and you die...that was it. Jesus on the other hand was a very spiritual person. He was more or less a part of the school of pharisees. They believed in the resurrection of the dead, in angels, demons, divine healing, miracles, heaven and hell (most people were going to hell) and the supernatural. Basically they were Pentecostals ;) j/K...again. One of the ways these Saducees tried to discredit Jesus was asking him some outlandish question with and even more ridiculous scenario. Torah law required a brother to marry his own brothers widowed wife if they did not have children (a law to protect family property, including women). The saducees proposed that there was a women who out lived 7 brothers and had no sons with any of them! And then they asked, "whose wife will she be at the resurrection." Jesus said, "You have no idea what you are talking about! The relationships in heaven are beyond your earthly understanding."

Jesus, as usual has a great point. We think we know what marriage is about and how God wants relationship to be handled, but then we say and do things that only reveal that we have no idea what we are talking about.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline says in paragraph 161c that, "Marriage is a mutual covenant that is expressed in love,  mutual support and personal commitment and is between one man and one women." Despite church doctrine and teaching 50% of married men are having affairs, while 30% of married women are having affairs. It seems like to me we have lost the true meaning of marriage in America. We in America are at a cross roads for marriage. What will the future hold for marriage in America? Will marriage sink into irrelevance as so many institution have, or will it emerge as a vital part of the moral fabric of our nation?

For marriage to rise from a failed institution we need to recognize it's two parts. We need to see that it's not just spiritual and we need to see that it's far more than contractual. Most of all we need to realize it's about far more than sex. Sex is only one aspect of a marriage and as a couple grows together it becomes less and less a priority. Our nations obsession with who's having sex with who is ruining marriage in our country. Marriage is about love and commitment and paitence. That's the truth we have lost as a nation and thats the truth we are ignoring as a church. The UMC continues to up hold it's traditional and biblical position on marriage, a position I support as a soon to be Ordained Provisional Elder, but or nation is not the church. Our nation is founded on mutual civil rights and on the premiss that the state will not enact laws that favors religion over liberty. It is unjust and a violation of the constitution to enact laws that discriminate or favor any one group over another and laws that ban homosexuals from engaging in a legally binding contract are such. My religious views are mine, and yours are yours, and never should we force others to agree with them.

So what does this mean? Is there a future for marriage in America? Yes, but only if we began to honor marriage and honor other peoples rights, then an only then will marriage have the same life giving value it once did in our society.

I'll finish with this... A few years ago Kim Kardashian married a little known basketball player name Chris Humphries. Their marriage lasted 7 days. At the end of the first week Kardashian filled for divorce. 7days...something that is a sacrament, a deeply rooted value in our country, so we say, was worth 7days. I have a gay friend in Indiana. He's a man my fathers age. I went to seminary with him at United. He and his life partner, who are not allowed to "marry" just celebrated 40 years together.

Which love sounds more like God's love?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Series, "Questions all American Christians should be Asking", Sermon 2, "Is There a Future for the United Methodist Church?", John 2:12-22 "

Almost a year ago the various Jurisdictional Conferences from around the United Methodist Church gathered together to elect several new Bishops, to review the performance of current Bishops and to assign or reassign Bishops to serve as Episcopal leaders in the Churches Annual Conferences. Many Annual Conferences, such as my own Detroit Annual Conference, received the assignment of a new Bishop. September 1st of 2012 Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey officially began her ministry as Bishop of the Michigan Area, which includes both the Detroit Annual Conference and the West Michigan Annual Conference. Bishop Deb (as she likes to be called) is a breath of fresh air for many of us who serve the Michigan Area and we are very thankful to have her as our Bishop. I for one look forward to many years of serving the people of the Detroit Annual Conference with her.

I do not envy her or any of our Bishops. I have no desire to be a Bishop, the level of responsibility and pressure they face is enormous and I pray for our Bishops, especially Bishop Deb every single day and three times on Sunday ;). Personally I believe that I have the best job in the world as a local church pastor. I get to serve the people of God by baptizing, marrying, communing and even burying them and their familes. I wouldn't trade my job for any and I am thankful for God's call in my life to serve the people called Methodist. I didn't grow up in the UMC. I grew up pentecostal and while I am forever thankful for the solid biblical foundation I received from people like Otis Buchan and Mike Byrum (both A/G pastors from my childhood), I'm happier as a United Methodist than I have ever been in church.

As a United Methodist I've grown in my faith and understanding of the things of God. I've also become aware of just how political church can be. Our denomination is riddle with various action groups such as the Confessing movement (creating a Methodist confession), the Reconciling movement (Homosexual full inclusion), the Aldersgate Movement (charismatic renewal) and the Good News movement (a more evangelically minded church), and though I value all the theological principals of reconciliation, confession, charismatic renewal, and the furthering the the good news through evangelical means, I've never officially aligned myself with any of these groups. I'm a middle of the road kinda guy. A friend of mine from seminary once said that "the only thing in the middle of the road is yellow lines and dead skunks." Despite the practical truth of this statement, I'm still in the middle and United Methodism with all it's factions, fractions, and fractures has also come to a place in the middle...right in the intersection of two roads, one that leads to the future and a road that leads to death. Despite all the chaos and confusion we ask the question, is there a future for the United Methodist Church? I hope so and I believe so, but only if we confront or denial, reclaim our mission and reconnect our connection. Then and only then will there be a United Methodist Church for our children and our children's children.

United Methodist reacher Lyle Schaller reports that the UMC has declined 30% in the last 40 years. In 1965 1 in every 10 Americans were United Methodist, in 2012 only one in every 32 were. In 1956 the then "Methodist Church" received 850,000 new members. In 2012 we received only 289,000 new members. 43% of the denominations 35,000 congregations did not receive even one new member in 2012. The median age of the UMC is 62 and for those of you who think thats middle age, how many 124 year olds do you know still attending church? It's predicted that in the next 20years 48% of our congregations will close because all of the current membership will be dead. This is the reality we so often deny and recovering and growing again will require us to stop the denial!

Despite the sobering statistics our denominational leaders have faith and believe that we will be ok. As long as we go into survival mode, protect our apportionment paying congregations, our clergy pensions and our beloved general agencies...we will be fine! If this were a business we'd be in crisis mode right now trying to sell off all the assets we can to obtain as much cash on hand as possible. We'd be closing factories, regional headquarters and laying off everyone from line workers to middle managers, but never the CEO's...never the real people responsible! Some people believe that if we just batten down the hatches and protect and insulate the institution we can weather the storm. Some people write books like, "Rekindling the Mainline" which tells us how to fix ourselves or " Are we yet still alive?" A book that attempts to take the pulse of our Denominational Hospice situation. Still none of it seems to be able to stem the tide that is rolling over our movement.

One of the more productive things we've done is create the Path One agency. Which is the church planting wing of our church. General Conference has required that each conference form a New Church Development team that works in conjunction with the Bishop and cabinet to strategically plant new churches through out the conference. Church planting has help and it's worked to get us growing again. For example the General Conference set the goal of planting 650 new churches between 2008-2012. We planted 684 during that time. The average age of members at new church starts is 36. The average attendance at new church starts is 200 and the average membership is less than 100. New Church starts grow at an average of 8.6% annual while the rest of the church declines at about 12-15%. New Church starts have been a fresh and dynamic way for growing our movement again, but it's expensive and time consuming as well, and not as lucrative as existing congregations are.

I believe there is a future for our movement, but it begins by getting past the denial that we'll be ok and that the old system is working. We need fresh expressions of faith and new ways of living out our faith.

There is a future also, if we reclaim our mission. In our passage this week Jesus cleanses the temple. Jesus was never very fond of the temple system and found it to be anti-God, coercive and oppressive instead of liberating and redeeming. We never see Jesus do anything in the temple but trash it and get angry. In fact in this passage he says he's going to destroy it, tearing it down stone by stone. The people of his day did not understand this, especially since it took almost 50 years to build and Jesus says he'll rebuild it in three days. Jesus meant that the Spirit of God was not in a building, but in a community of Faith, a community that he was establishing. Of course the leaders were threatened by all this, but most leaders are threatened by such prophetic visions. John was beheaded, the prophets of old were imprisoned and executed and Jesus himself was murdered. So be carful when you say, "I want to be like Jesus." Our leadership in the UMC is also threatened be the truths of prophetic living and hopes to simply maintain the status quo and survive. The truth is the church will survive, maybe the UMC won't, but the church will. The church has endured the rise and fall of nations, kings, dictators, presidents and era's. For 2000 years it has made it's way through all that history can throw at it and it will be here for the next 2000 years, but the question is, will there be a UMC witness in the church?

Again I say yes, but only with a truly missional vision. John Wesley had a clear vision for the people called Methodist; it was to spread scriptural holiness across the land. Our mission today ought to be the same. The official mission statement of the church is, "To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." If we reclaim these two idea's, scriptural holiness and disciple making we will survive, but if we revert to our goal of institutional survival there will be no UMC 30 years from now.

Finally there will be a future for the UMC if we reconnect our connection. We are connexional church. John Wesley and the founders of American Methodism both agreed that the best way to operate a church was to be connexional. Meaning not independent congregations scattered with little or no collected vision, but a group of congregations committed to the overall vision of the church. Many mainline churches intentionally leave off their denominational name and logo so as to be seen as independent. It's become fairly vogue to be an independent church. Americans are becoming more and more independent and less communal and so our churches are becoming reflections of that change. The independent church pastor is seen as charming and entrepreneurial and appeals to that nature in all Americans. Most of those independent churches close within 10 years of there opening. Truth is there are only a handful of these independent churches that can pull it off like Willow Creek in Chicago and Gateway in South Lake, TX...the rest just fizzle away. Theres a town outside Pittsburg, PA like many other sub-urban towns. In this town there is a street that is like church row, it's called Grace St. On Grace St. there is a PCUSA church, and ELCA church, an Assemblies of God Church, a Baptist Church and of course a UMC church. All the churches have changed their name to include the word "community" in it. There is Life Community Church, Hope Community Church, Abiding Life Community Church, Friendship Community Church and Family Community Church. A resident of this town, seeing all the community churches remarked, "I wish they would say what community they belong to."

Theres nothing wrong with belonging to a denomination. There's nothing wrong with being connexional. The connexional system has worked well for us. There are many churches in rural parts of our nation that would not have a pastor if it weren't for our system of appointing pastors. It's time to re-think the connection though. We need to be finding ways that we can use the connection to help facilitate ministry at the local church level. The connexion needs to be missional, not institutional. The connexion is focused on apportionments and pension payments, on minimum comp and insurance benifits. Apportionment dollars go mostly to the institution instead of to the mission field. We need to use the connexion to reinvest in our local churches so they can help the poor, feed the hungry and evangelize the lost. Then we will see a bright and vibrant future for United Methodism.

John Wesley's great fear was the Methodism would become a lifeless sect. This is unfortunately turning into a self fulfilling prophesy that only we have the power to change. There is a future for United Methodism, but it looks very different from it's past. United Methodism must over come it's divisions, it's entitlements and it's institutionalism in order to reach the future, and we can...with God's help.

Pastor Josh

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Series: "Questions all american Christians should be Asking." Sermon One: "Is there a future without institution?", Mark 12:14-17

We’re just now wrapping up the all-American month of July! More vacations take place in July than any other month of the year.  Of course July is the month we celebrate our independence and the rights and privileges we have as a result of independence. We celebrate America and the countless Americans who, through sweat, blood and tears, made it possible for us to enjoy these rights. Over the next several weeks we will be exploring some very important questions as it relates to our nation and our faith. As Christians who enjoy certain “inalienable rights” we need to be asking certain question about our faith and our nation and where the both are headed. This week we began by asking “what about separation of church and state?” This is a foundational value of our American democracy, but the word’s “separation of church and state” never actually appear in our constitution or bill of rights, though it is obviously implied in the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  There you have it, Congress cannot impede our right to worship, however or whomever we choose. What an amazing idea, people being free to worship whatever god, wherever they want and the government cannot stop them.

What’s kind of ironic about this statement is the amazing amount of religion that exists in our nations politics.  No matter how much we try to remove God from our culture, society and political scene, we just can’t. So there’s no prayer in school, well Congress begins ever session with prayer, a prayer said by a Christian Chaplin who is paid for by taxpayer dollars. Several years ago Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, Ray Moore, was removed from the bench because he refused to remove a one-ton statue of the Ten Commandments that sate in the hall of the justice building in Birmingham. And yet a 12ft statue of Moses holding those very same Ten Commandments is positioned right outside the US Supreme court building in Washington D.C and the Court! When President George Washington took the oath of President he said as an after thought, “So help me God.” And now every president since him as ended his oath with, “So help me God.”. The president is sworn in by placing his hand on a bible, there are prayers and prayer services at the presidential inauguration, there are scriptures inscribed everywhere in D.C and even our money refers to our “trust” in God. Whether we like it our not, we are a religious people in a religious nation. 90% of Americans believe in God, 85% are Christians, 65% say religion matters everyday, and 40% go to church every Sunday. Yet despite this “religiosity” we still fail to be a people with a dynamic and authentic faith that transforms the society and culture we live in. Instead we allow ourselves to be molded by the culture we live in. Unfortunately the majority of Christians in America practice a civil religion, one of formal state prayers, statues in public places, and the occasional reference to God when bad things happen to our nation. We practice a nominal religion of baptisms, weddings and funerals. All this while the world needs us to be a dynamic and prevailing force for righteousness and holiness in our quickly decaying society! It’s time for the church to move from the institutional to the prophetic!

25 years ago Marlene Wilson wrote a book called, “The Sleeping Giant.” In this book she referred to the church as a slumbering giant that if aroused could change life as we know it, the church has all this untapped potential that if engaged would do what Jesus did, change everything. In 1996 President Bill Clinton signed into law the Welfare Reform Act. Among other things this law made it possible for certain faith organization to receive Federal dollars to deliver social services in under served area’s, like our own Presque Isle County. In 2004 President George W. Bush signed into Law the Faith Based Initiative Act, which furthered the partnership between the Church and the state and perhaps helped blur the lines between separation of church in state even further. Of this act President Bush said that, “It’s time to help unleash the armies of compassion into Americans most needy areas.” Perhaps the partnership between the church and state isn’t so bad. Here are some ways that United Methodist ministries have benefited from both Acts. Networking, Organizing, Advocating for the Health of the Homeless (N.O.A.H.H) is a ministry in Metro Detroit funded in part by the Conference, the United Methodist Union and the Federal Government. This ministry exists to help provide health resources for Detroit’s most vulnerable adult population, the homeless. Cass Community Social Services is another partnership, which provides jobs, food, healthcare and transportation to one of the cities most impoverished populations in one of the cities most dangerous neighborhoods. On a more local level, the Onaway Food Pantry receives federal dollars to help provide food for over 1000 Presque Isle County Residents a month.  All this might sound like the responsibility of the state or a political issue, but it’s not, it’s a prophetic issue. It’s the responsibility of the church to help the most vulnerable in our society and it’s a shame that the church is more interested in spending it’s money on carpet, paint, playground equipment and interactive kiosks than the gospel, so much that we need to take money from the government. It’s time to stop with all the politics, church and else wise, and start praying!

It’s time to move from the political to the prayer. Every General Conference of our Church is packed full of political stuff. We argue about same sex marriages, gay clergy, and immigration and welfare policies.  Forgive me if I’m wrong, but is that really the work of the church? I mean shouldn’t we just follow scripture on these points and make General Conference more about celebrating ministry and facilitating ministry than protesting and politicking?  I want to take a small detour here and share my position on the homosexual issue, since within my denomination and the local church I serve it is a point of serious contention. I support what our Discipline teaches and what the Holy Scriptures teach, “That homosexuality is incompatible with Christian life and ministry.” I however do not accept the party line of either side. I am not willing to affirm all life styles, nor am I willing to exclude any styles. We are called to an uneasy discipleship. Christ included all peoples in the Kingdom of God, whatever life style they embraced, but this does not mean that he affirmed their life styles. If their life style was contrary to the will of God, than he told them to stop and expected them to do so if they were to continue existing in the Kingdom of God. Whatever their situation, their was a place of discipleship for them, and this is ought to be our response as the church and I believe as a denomination this path of uneasy discipleship is our official position.  Now, getting back to the issue at hand. I’ve often wondered what would happen if, as a denomination, we protested less and prayed more. Would we reach more lost people, would we be able to impact more young families with the gospel, would we actually fulfill the mission of the church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”? There’s a story about a nightclub that sat right next to a United Methodist Church in Flint, MI. The pastor and the church were all very concerned about the nightclub and it’s cliental. So they decided to get together and have a prayer meeting as to what they ought to do about it. The night of the prayer meeting, long after the parishioners had all gone home, the nightclub caught fire and burned to the ground.  The owner of the nightclub decided to suit the church for damages. During the hearing the judge had to decide whether or not to suit would stand and in his decision he noted that, “even though the church did not believe in answered prayer the nightclub owner obviously did.” The suit was thrown out and the nightclub never rebuilt. I have nothing against dancing and having a good time and I certainly don’t believe God burned that nightclub down, but I do believe in answered prayers. If we prayer more, worked more and gave more in faith our nation would be a better place. God is calling the church to a vibrant, dynamic and authentic faith, not one of civility and nominalism. The question we need to answer is, are we going to be a living faith in America, or a civil faith?

In our passage this morning Jesus new the answer to this question when he said, "give to Caesar what is Cesar's and to God what is God's. This kind of statement implies the need to focus on what matters. Jesus lived in a time when the government controlled much of societies life. Jews were closely watched because they were a difficult group to control because of their religious devotion. The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus into saying something that could get him arrested. They asked him about something very political, about the role of institution and civil obedience and his response surprised everyone. Jesus said to pay Rome taxes because the money was there's. Why? Because it had their name on it ;). American Christians often put more clout in being American, than being Christian. Remember we are not of this world, we are resident aliens, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, not the United States of America. Yes we are Americans and yes we are Christians, but first and foremost we are Christians. It's time we put our faith first. 

So if the money belongs to Caesar, than what belongs to God? Everything, We need to respond this morning by giving everything to God.