Reflections on Holy Week

Hallelujah! He is risen!

Yesterday we celebrated Easter Sunday and concluded an eventful Holy Week. It all started with Palm Sunday. That joyous celebration was short-lived as the mood of the week changed already by Maundy Thursday. Then, we journeyed with the cross on Good Friday. Whew, it was an eventful week!

I often wonder just how many emotions must have been going through Jesus’ mind during that original holy week. Joy, celebration, disappointment, discouragement, anxiety, worry, betrayal, denial, and many more feelings and emotions must have been part of Jesus’ experience that week.

Now that Holy Week for 2016 is over, I think it is good for us to reflect on the week. How are we changed by these events? Have we moved closer to our risen Lord? Do we better understand the full meaning of his resurrection and life-giving promise?

As we reflect on holy week, let us be a reflection of our risen Savior in all that we say and all that we do this Easter Season!

 

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Is Worship Out of Vogue?

Yesterday, I was on vacation to take James and Lydia to the Newsboys concert in Baltimore. It was a Sunday morning as I was driving through southern Pennsylvania and we passed a lot of churches with their parking lots half full at best. It got me to thinking about the popularity, or lack thereof, of worship these days.

Most of us know that mainline denominations are seeing a serious lack of attendance in worship, and yesterday I got to see this firsthand. Of all the churches I passed on my journey, only two had parking lots that were anywhere near being filled.

This was sad to me. Maybe it is a sign of the times. Maybe people are just too busy with other things to do on Sunday mornings. Maybe worship is out of vogue.

Then, we attended the Newsboys concert and literally thousands were standing on their feet and singing “I Believe!” So, I thought to myself: no, worship is not of vogue. People still enjoy worshiping God and singing praises up to heaven! It was refreshing to see so many women and men, children and teenagers, and even entire families worshiping God in so many numbers in a public setting in the city of Baltimore!

So, this left me wondering: if worship is not out of vogue, are our churches missing the mark in some ways? I think there might be something to this thought. For example, we all know the seven deadly words of a dying church: “We never did it that way before!” Some churches get stuck in a rut sometimes. Maybe denominations do, too.

One of my recent concerns in this area is the “quick fix” or “cookie cutter” attempts being offered now for churches to move in a more positive direction. I have seen this firsthand and it is definitely not the best approach. Churches are different and unique. We are not all called to be mega churches!

That being said, I am concerned about worship attendance in our country and here in Stroudsburg. Numbers are not the most important thing, but remember, every number represents a child of God. Each person is important and I still believe there is an important place for worship in our culture today.

SUMC is attempting to reach people in a variety of ways. One example of this is incorporating a praise song into the middle hymn slot in our order of worship. The music in a our church is also eclectic and provides for a variety of different interests.

In what other ways could worship reach more people and be relevant to them? I believe that tradition holds an important place even in today’s modern world. I am open to new ideas, however. What are the most important elements of worship in our Sunday morning worship to you? What do you prefer not doing? How can we present worship in a way that is inviting to new people? If you have any thoughts on how we can make worship more meaningful I would love to hear from you!

 

Are You Practicing the Presence of God this week?

Last Sunday I preached about Brother Lawrence. His thoughts, conversations, and letters were put into print after he died. However, his impact in the development of spiritual life is incredibly huge. Many people find great value in his thoughts and try to emulate practicing the presence of God in their lives.

So, are you practicing the presence of God in your life this week?

My son and I were taught in baseball clinics that “perfect practice makes perfect.” We are mostly creatures of habit. We tend to do many of the same things over and over again. When practice is less than perfect, it probably is not helpful as much as it could be for us.

So how do we practice the presence of God?

Well, to begin with, it is more a lifestyle rather than a technique. Yes, we can do specific things to invoke God’s presence into our life (i.e. prayer, etc.) but we need to think more along the lines of having an ongoing conversation with God throughout the day. Instead of just starting your day off with prayer or praying at the end of the day, start talking with God all through the day. Have you ever asked these questions of God in the midst of your daily routine: God, what do you think of this job or task I am working on now? Am I doing it correctly? How can I do better? Do you care about this or have an opinion on what I am trying to accomplish?

God is with us more than we realize day by day and even moment by moment. Invite God into your daily routine. You probably will not see a drastic difference right away but keep at it. As you practice the presence of God in your life I am sure you will begin to eventually see some differences, and perhaps even major differences!

Spiritual Mentors – Henri Nouwen

The second sermon in our series of Spiritual Mentors, featured one of my all-time favorites: Henri Nouwen. I read many of his books over the years, but I was seventeen when I first read one of his books: The Genesee Diary.

Nouwen had a unique way of talking about and relating the spiritual life in easy to understand ways. I always appreciated reading his take on the spiritual disciplines, such as silence. He just had a way of teaching the basic principles of the spiritual disciplines in ways I could understand. He also was profound, yet in a simple and real way.

Sunday morning, as worship began, I took my place in front of the sanctuary and sat down. I checked to be sure my Bible was bookmarked to the appropriate scripture passage of the day and I was surprised to find that someone had placed a new bookmark in my Bible at this proper location. The bookmark was inscribed with two of the verses for Sunday’s reading. What a joyous and unexpected surprise! Thank you, whoever did this!

Some people bookmark their favorite biblical passages. Others even highlight verses or add written notes in the margins of their Bibles. You can always tell a well-used Bible against one whose spine is rarely if ever cracked. Are you reading your Bible? Each month in our church newsletter, we list suggested Bible readings and I am always amazed at how many people use this simple tool in their own devotional life. Others use The Upper Room or Our Daily Bread for their Bible reading habits. What are you doing?

Here are the quotes from Henri Nouwen that I used in my sermon this past Sunday. Look over them and mediate on them. Think deeply about them and be challenged by them. What are these quotes saying to you?

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Spiritual Mentors – Thomas Merton

This week we started a new sermons: Spiritual Mentors. The first spiritual mentor we introduced in the sermon yesterday was Thomas Merton. I was introduced to Thomas Merton’s writings when I was back in high school by my mentor, Tim Nickel.

Here is a list of the books by Merton I found useful over the years:
Bread in the Wilderness
Life and Holiness
Praying the Psalms
The Secular Journal
No Man is an Island
The Seven Story Mountain

And here is the official Thomas Merton website:
http://www.merton.org/

Are you doing anything different in your spiritual journey for the Lenten Season? Some people traditionally give something up for Lent but I encourage you to take something on this year. For example, read one of Merton’s books, just a few paragraphs or pages a day would be a great start. Don’t just read the pages and move on to the next thing. No, read the words and let them sink into your life. Ruminate over the words and go back to them later in the day. How do the words speak to you right now? Do they prompt any action from you?

Here are the quotes from yesterday’s sermon so if you cannot get hold of one of his books you can start with these quotes.

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Save the Bells!

Stroudsburg UMC has a serious problem with our bell tower. It is 65 feet in height, made of beautiful stone, but is falling apart. In fact, some of the large stones fell onto the roof of our sanctuary and punctured holes right through the roof as they bounced down safely against the wall of the tower. The stones need to be put back into place and re-mortared. This is going to be a huge job even just to get to the problem area!

Last night we met with a contractor and all I could think about where the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. The good news is we have a solid plan to address the situation and are hiring an expert in the field who has lots of experience with many other buildings, even some in very large cities like Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

During the meeting we heard about the continuing problem of vibration that can still cause additional damage, so we decided to turn off the bells in our tower to prevent those sound waves from adding to all the other vibrations. Our community is used to hearing the bell tower chimes at every quarter hour and we have heard many people who like to hear them. Now they are silent and need to remain silent until we get this problem fixed.

The other problem is the price tag of this project. Just to erect the scaffolding will be about half of the total price, which is approximately $145,000, and this is just to address the dangerous part, not a full overhaul and not even addressing the second, lower east tower.

So we are reaching out to our church members and the community at large seeking financial help to save the bells that ring in our community in which we serve. Just this morning, I was interviewed by Channel 16 and both the reporter and cameraman bravely climbed up to the very top of the tower to do the interview. I was amazed at their willingness to do such a thing! And believe me, those rickety old wooden ladders are scary!

Here’s the thing I was reminded about today: people are willing to do even risky things to do their job well and get the story so it can be presented. Getting the story is vitally important, but sometimes getting to the place to get the story is dangerous!

But God is always good and provides us with strength and courage. This is a huge project that can easily be accomplished with God’s help and the help of our church members and our surrounding community.

What are you willing to risk in supporting this project?

Online Sermons

As many of you know, we post the weekly sermons online on the church website. Over the years I’ve received some feedback on this, but I would really like to know what you think about this. Do you ever listen to the sermons online? Do you tell your friends about this feature on our website? Would you prefer to see a video of the sermon instead?

Our culture today is media driven. In fact, it’s all around us. The church has to keep up with the culture or we will become irrelevant. These advancements have affected how we view billboards, how we listen to music, and even how we watch movies. I am still amazed that I can listen to a colleague’s sermon on my ipod where the file is right alongside my entire music collection!

Do you think the church is keeping up our media-driven culture? Do you believe we can present the Gospel in a way that can be understood and received by the modern culture?

-Bob