Learning Together

dog_on_computerfeature“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is a saying that most of us have probably heard.  But, we are not dogs!  We are followers of Jesus.  We are people who continue to grow and learn until our lives are over.  The cartilage in our bodies continues to grow, including our noses and ears.  We also can continue to grow in wisdom and knowledge of God.

This spiritual discipline is an act of piety.  It allows us to reflect upon our lives and God.  These acts of reflection prepare us to receive God’s grace more fully.  Study allows our minds to grow.  When we study with a group of other people, we are able to grow even more because we have the benefit of their knowledge.  We can learn more when we study together.

We also have the chance to grow our relationships with others which is an added benefit growing-in-christ-300x200to becoming involved in a study or small group.  Church membership is not required to get involved.  Below are some of the types of classes and groups:

Bible Study:  God has given us the Bible so that we may learn about God.  There are many ways to study the Bible.  Some of these studies occur during a morning class such as Sunday school.  Some of these are long term studies.  Others focus on a specific biblical theme.

Virtual Classes: These on-line classes offer a digital class experience.  Some of the course are at a specific time and offer interaction with the group while others are done at your own pace and in your own time.  Many of these are offered through the United Methodist Church.

Workshops: These are usually one or two days and focus on a specific topic.  We often have workshops with outside trainers and teachers to gain new knowledge.

Book Study: The number of times these groups gather can vary.  Some will meet once to discuss a specific book while other groups will meet over a course of weeks to glean insight from a book.  These are great opportunities for those who like to have time to process information before sharing thoughts about the information presented.

Thematic Study: Sometimes we want to delve into a topic or theme.  These studies can vary in length, but they are usually focused around a specific topic.  Our church is focusing on spiritual disciplines, so we will have a study on prayer as well as Sabbath.

There are many types of classes and ways to get involved.  The important thing is that we never stop growing.  In order to grow, we must find time for growth, study, and fellowship.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

This week we will have a special service, held only once a year.  It is Ash Wednesday, and it marks the beginning of Lent.  Even if you have not been to this type of service, you may have seen folks with black smudged crosses on their foreheads.

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It is not like most of our worship experiences, and some of us may not even realize why there are black smudged crosses on people’s foreheads.  The ashes are placed on us, sometimes even on the head, to remind us that we are made from dust and to dust we shall return.  As human beings we have a finite life.  We will all die.  We remember that this is because of our sin, the sin we personally have committed as well as the sins of all of humanity.  From the beginning of creation we have disobeyed God’s law.

Yet, we know the rest of the story.  Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have life forever in the Kingdom of God. He paid for our sin with his own life.  He conquered death so that we can live in God’s kingdom forever.

During the season of Lent, we remember our sin and the sacrificial love of Jesus.  We seek to draw closer to the One who gave all for us.  As we reflect on our sin and God’s love for us, we are preparing for the Easter celebration. When Easter comes, we are then able to more fully participate in the gift of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

 

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What are You Giving Up for Lent?

2013-lent-controlWe hear this question during this time of year.  Some of us even give something up.  Why?  We know that at times there are assorted medical tests and procedures that require fasting, but those are for accurate results or avoiding potential problems.  These are about physical well-being, not about spiritual disciplines.  Some have fasted in protest of an unjust practice.  This is not a spiritual discipline, but it is a response to a human behavior.

Giving up something or fasting is a way for us to grow in our spiritual lives. As we deny ourselves, we are able to become more aware of God’s sacrificial gift for us.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, fasted weekly.  Fasting allows us to pay penitence for our overindulgences.  It also allows more time for prayer.  We fast from something we depend on so that we may more fully depend on God.  Many of us think of a traditional fast, such as giving up food or drink.  However, there are other types of fasts.  Some give-up social media for Lent.  Still others abstain from meat during Lent.

Consider this spiritual discipline for yourself and your family.  You may choose to give up alcohol, chocolate, food on Fridays, Face Book, going to the movies, potato chips, texting, or some other thing that is a part of your daily life.  In the giving up, you are making more room in your life for God.

Spiritual Disciplines

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During  the last few weeks, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church has been encouraged to respond to God’s grace by practicing a spiritual discipline. Do you wonder what that means? Sure, you may have heard all of those words before, but what exactly are we talking about? That is what we are here to find out.

First, we are United Methodists. There are plenty of other Christians that have their own ideas about spiritual disciplines. We take our ideas from the Bible and John Wesley. We believe that grace is a gift from God. God reaches out to us across the gulf of sin that we have created and draws us to God. This is not something we can earn. Even though we cannot earn grace, we are not to be idly waiting for it either. We are to do what we can to make ourselves ready to receive the gift.

We get ready to receive the gift of grace by practicing spiritual disciplines. They are preparations we make in our hearts and lives so that we have a place for grace to reside. It is like gardening. Sometimes wild plants and flowers spring up in unexpected places, but there is a greater chance of growth if we properly prepare. We till the soil, prune the bushes, and provide a hospitable environment for the process of going from a seed to a thriving plant. We are getting ourselves ready for grace to grow.

The first group of spiritual disciplines, which help us be prepared for grace, are known as works of piety. These actions of faith can be thought of as activities that allow us to focus on our inward life. They give us opportunities to ponder our lives and God’s call on our lives. Some of these spiritual disciplines are: prayer, scripture reading, regular worship attendance, and fasting.

The second group of spiritual disciplines, which help us be prepared for grace, are works of mercy. These all help us see that we are not alone. There are many in the world around us. These people with us in the world are all created in the image of God, and they need us. Some of these are: feeding the hungry, fighting oppression, and caring for others. In the coming weeks we will share more of the specific spiritual disciplines. Are you practicing spiritual disciplines, and do you want to do more?

Habit of Connecting

I recently read that a congregation should be following up with guest for six weeks.  That is a long time.  I have seen some churches that connect with guests for three weeks, but six weeks is the longest follow-up that I have seen.  It makes sense, though.

Imagine being a first-time guest at a church.  Perhaps you have been to church before, but maybe you have only gone to churches for weddings and funerals.  It could be that you have memories of being shushed by well meaning adults while wearing uncomfortable clothes.  Perhaps you remember the formality of weddings or the grief of death.  No matter what the memories, it takes courage to visit a church for the first time.
Before you even walk into the building, there are decisions to be made.  What will you wear?  You don’t want to be overdressed, but it would be worse to be under-dressed.  Maybe you are not someone who is comfortable in a suit or high heels.  Will it matter?  Finally you decide on the outfit.  You see that the service starts at a specific time.  You don’t want to walk in late, but you  have to decide what time to arrive.  Where should you park?
Finally, you make it into the building.  Hopefully someone welcomes you.  They have a program, so you can have a clue about what is going on in the service.  You find a seat.  Did you sit in someone else’s seat.  Maybe you have heard that some chuch folks always sit in the same seat, like in school.  You sit in an aisle seat because you want to be able to make a quick exit.  You never know if things are going to get weird.  (Maybe you have seen some documentaries on snake handling churches.  You don’t think this is like that, but you want to be able to leave if neccessary.)
The service starts.  There may be a pastor leading it.  There may be a worship leader.  There may be a kid who comes in to light candles.  There is music, and there is a good chance that you don’t know the music.  There is someone reading from the Bible.  It is starting to get interesting.  Hopefully the sermon or message from the pastor connects with your life, but there may be things you don’t understand.  Everyone else seems to know when to stand or sit.
Maybe the service is something that you enjoy, but you are not sure if it is for you.  You have plans the next week for brunch.  The church sends you a gift.  That is nice.  You decide to go the next week, but you over sleep.  The following weekend you go visit family for the weekend.  You  have to work the next weekend.  You wonder if they will notice how long you have been gone.  You don’t go because you cannot decide what to wear.
They are still inviting you.  They do care and want you there.  You make your second visit.
Six weeks is not that long when you are following up with guests, especially if their decision has eternal effects.

Bouncing Ideas

Len Wilson writes about a lot of things, including creativity.
Recently he posted an article about giving structure to our creativity. (http://lenwilson.us/find-structure/).  Some of us have lots of  wonderful creative ideas that are bouncing around in our minds.  The ideas are everywhere, but we struggle to capture these ideas into a practical thing such as an idea, a plan, or an event. Len suggests that we need a structure to channel these ideas from the room of bouncing balls to executable designs.

This is one reason churches have committees and teams.  These groups come together to sort through and think through all of the ideas.  The group then decides how to channel ideas to a plan and action.  For example, the finance committee has a meeting.  They determine that they need to increase cash flow.  They have identified an issue.  The next step is to enter the bouncing ball phase.  How can this church increase cash flow?  Monthly flea market?  Spaghetti Dinner?  Fundraising night at a local resturant?  Charge a fee for Vacation Bible School?  Host a bull riding competition? Have a lemonade stand?
Sometimes churches skip the idea phase.  They don’t let the ideas flow.  Instead they keep a tight hold on what is possible.  They limit theselves to the things they have already tried.  They look only to conventional activities.  Afterall, who has ever heard of a church hosting a bull riding event?  The put a ceiling on the bouncing ball room.  They make the room more of a box.  If an idea is to “out there” then it is discarded.  If the idea is too new, too untried, too unconventional, then it does not fit in our box.
We need to give those bouncing balls as much room as possible so that we can have an incredible amount of possibilities.  There will be time as a committee to decide how to funnel some ideas into possibilities, but let’s give the ideas a chance to bounce around.  At your next committee meeting, why don’t you spend time on brainstorming rather than just lamenting the current situation?  You may discover that God has some new ideas for you.
Once you have let the ideas bounce for a while, then start looking at a structure for the ideas.  Consider what ideas are good for now as well as ideas that need more time.  Consider what ideas are worth investigating.  The process for getting the ideas to reality comes after the ideas have been expressed.
Be brave – let the ideas bounce.  Be brave – give the ideas a structure to become reality.  Be brave!