Is It Impossible?

14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing,16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? (James 2:14-16 NLT)

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This is Sir. Nicholas Winton.  He was a successful stock broker and an excellent fencer in his day.  In fact, he at one time had hoped to represent Great Britain in the Olympics.  He was that good.

But if you’ve heard of him at all, and don’t be surprised if you haven’t, it’s not because of his success as a stock broker or his athletic prowess.  Nicholas Winton’s life took a dramatic turn in 1939, all because of one decision.  He was slated to go on a ski trip in Switzerland over a holiday, when he received an invitation to come to Czechoslovakia to help a friend who was working with Jewish refugees. Czechoslovakia was about to fall to Nazi Germany and many Jewish families were not only being displaced, but rounded up  and headed to camps. Soon they would realize they were headed for such camps as Auschwitz, never to be heard of again.

Winton was moved by what he saw and wanted to do all he could to help the Jewish people escape a horrible fate. But he knew that getting everyone out would be impossible. However Great Britain had instituted a policy that while the adults could not all come children would be received if they had the money to pay to register and if there were homes for them to go to.

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Winton stole some office paper from the British EMbassy, had Children’s Division printed on it and became an unofficial Official of the government. He printed papers for the children. He raised the money and he found families to care for them.  All on his own and all under the nose of both Nazi Germany and his own English government.

Before the country fell, Winton had rescued 667 Jewish children from a fate in the death camps. There would have been more, but one of the transport trains broke down and they couldn’t get to the children.

It’s a remarkable story. And for this reason, Winton has been called the British Oscar Schindler.  But what truly makes the story remarkable is that he never told anyone. Not even his wife. In 1988, as she was cleaning out an old trunk in the attic, she discovered the old records of the rescued children. Only then, when confronted, did Nicholas Winton tell the story.  “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”, his wife asked? “Well, I moved on to the next thing. I did that and then it was time when it was over to do something else.”

After the story got out Nicholas was reunited with the now middle-aged children he saved.  A little research revealed those 667 children now have over 5,000 chidlren and grandchildren. All who owe their very existence to Nicholas Winton.

Later he was interviewed and they asked him how he did it? His reply was simply this: “I’ve always operated  my life by this principle. If it’s not blatantly  impossible, it can be done.  And then I went and did it.”

If it’s not blatantly impossible, it can be done.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read the words in James at the top of the post without hearing that phrase. This is James reminder that faith ought to change our actions. What we believe about Jesus ought to directly translate out into how we love and serve others. In fact James will go so far as to say the litmus test of the depth of our relationship with Jesus lies in our actions.

And while I think most of us are in agreement with James, how often do those words translate out in our lives?  How often is the simple admonition to do good met with the excuse “It’s impossible”?  I’d love to help with this ministry, but I simply don’t have the time.  I’d love to help them, but I’m just not gifted in that area.   Yes, I know that the need is great, but I really can’t spare any time or certainly not any  finances to help.  What good can one person do anyway?

Time after time we come up with a reason why it’s simply impossible to do good. Or we are swamped by the futility of it all when there is so much need.  Please understand, I fully agree that we are to be good stewards of our time and talents. None of us can do everything.  And there are times we must legitimately say no.   But those times are probably pretty infrequent. Often the reason we don’t do good is we simply see it as impossible.

Sir. Nick embodied what James is talking about.  Allowing  one’s faith to flow through their actions always asserting that it’s almost never impossible to do good.  Are there some things in your life God has brought before you and you automatically wrote them off? Would you consider going back to them , praying and asking,  “Is it blatantly impossible? If not, God how will you use me?”

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And when you get caught up in the futility of it all, remember  Nicholas Winton. One man reaching out to help just a few children, changes over 5,000 lives. What could God do with us when we see doing good is never impossible and always life changing?

 

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

 

Toxic

“In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable.
9 Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9 GNT)
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    Conspiracy theories can be interesting and, I guess fun  if that’s your particular mindset.  But they almost always end up being just that. Theories. It would seem that a good rule of thumb would be if it sounds sensational and complicated then it’s probably not true. if it sounds pretty mundane, that’s probably what happened.
   Take for instance the “mysterious” death of Napoleon Bonaparte.  For years the rumor has been that he was poisoned.  Slowly poisoned over a period of years through the use of arsenic.  Napoleon fueled this himself by spreading rumors that should he die before his time, the English had done it through the use of poison.
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   When Napoleon died, it wasn’t long before the rumors began. Arsenic is an easy target as if it’s done slowly the person will not exhibit  many symptoms.  The theorists assumed, since Napoleon never appeared to have been poisoned he must, or course  have been poisoned by something that doesn’t leave a trail. You can see how quickly these theories become convoluted.  The theory gained some steam when a lock of Napoleon’s hair was tested, hundreds of years later, and it was discovered that he had a 100% higher level of arsenic in his system. Murder is afoot!
   But the reality is much more, as almost always, more pedestrian.  First a further examination of Napoleon’s family revealed they all had a 100% higher level of arsenic in their systems.   If one goes through the records of his last days it seems much more likely that Napoleon was sick (his family had a history of cancer) and his death actually had more to do with the poor medical practices of his day than a mysterious assassin. In short, he got sick, the care wasn’t good and he didn’t recover.
   So how do we explain the arsenic? Wallpaper. As hard as it is to believe today, The wallpaper in those times was laced with arsenic to be sued as a bit of decorative extermination of vermin. Rats and mice were a persistent issue back then. And someone came up with the idea of introducing arsenic into the wallpaper. As a mouse or a rat chewed through the wall to get into the house, it ate through the wallpaper and died.  Genius.  Creepy but genius.
   But the wallpaper also gave off a gas of arsenic. So if you lived in a home with this wallpaper, over time you ingested or at least were exposed to a toxic gas.  This would explain the high levels in his family.  It would also explain illness and perhaps, just perhaps one of the causes of  Napoleon’s inability to recover.
   I think most of us will agree, that even if it doesn’t kill us long-term exposure to toxins is bad for our systems. We have all read about places where chemicals were leaked into an environment with often tragic results.  Long term exposure to toxins can be deadly to us. And the danger is that it can happen so slowly we may not even be aware of it.
   Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Paul admonishes us to be careful what we use to fill our minds. Paul tells us to fill our minds with good things.  Why? Because if we fill our mind and souls with things that are toxic to us, it will eventually  cause great damage.
   I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. In part because Of all the toxic behavior we have been exposed to latety in the media and certainly in social media.  It doesn’t really matter where you stand on an issue, wait around and someone will say something pretty toxic.  Anger, hatred, demeaning langue. You simply can’t have your spirit constantly exposed to it and not be affected.  Most of  us, I hope, would allow our minds be filled with pornography because we can see it’s damaging. One wonders why we allow verbal pornography to enter our hearts.
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   I know I’ve felt too much exposure to toxic actions and reactions to much in social media. And I can see it’s effects on my spirit.  Of course, simply cutting oneself off from social media might help. Bu the toxins of anger and unchristian thought can still find a way to invade us. So I’m taking some steps to follow Paul and be more careful with what I fill my mind. These are just the things I’m doing. It’s not a mandate, but I hope at least some of it might be helpful to you
   1) Take more time to fill your heart and  life with more good than you do toxins.  Take stock. if your time on social media is greater than the time you spend in the scriptures, in prayer, spending time with real people, your probably in danger of being exposed to too much toxin.   More Jesus is always a good rule of thumb.
 2) Take the word “fill” seriously. It doesn’t mean we can’t read or react to things we disagree with, but we must be careful not to fill our minds with them. God doesn’t ask us to bury our heads in the sand. And seeing this from another’s perspective can be healthy.  But when they fill our mind or our time, or even our social media feeds” its dangerous.
3) Filter is better than filling. This may be different for all of us.  But I’ve started filtering out feeds and posts that tend to fill my mind with toxins. If I don’t see it, I’m not in danger of being filled with it. I’ve found there are things said I agree with and I can disagree and move on. But there are some written  in such a  way and so filled with negativity that it spills over into my life. So I filter them out.
3)Know that you don’t have to respond to everything you disagree with. Here’s the reality. None ever has their remind changed in social media. So the likelihood of your changing everyone’s thoughts is pretty slim. What usually happens is that we read something and respond, others get involved and before long its a toxic mess.
  What I’ve started doing is, if I think its got toxic potential, is I pray before I respond. Not  just “God, what should I say?”  But “God, should I even respond?” You’d be surprised how many times God tells me to let it go and move on.
4) Always ask if what you read and how you respond honors Jesus. That one seems fairly self-explanatory.
5) Never bash the Bride.  My own personal rule.  I never speak ill of the church or other Christians. I’ve no problem disagreeing or questioning theology. But I never intentionally bash or demean the church or other Christians. The church is the bride of Christ and should be protected.
5) Look before you leap. Before I hit send I look it over and ask this. What does this say about me and my relationship with Jesus. I’m reminded of Paul’s encouragement to the church in Corinth to be imitators of him. Would I want others to imitate what I have done or assume that’s how Jesus is?
  Please know I’m not advocating we all hold hands and watch cat videos.
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Discourse and disagreement is healthy. But toxicity is not. I’m simply working harder at what enters my mind and heart.  And I’m trying to hold on to verse 9 where Paul tells us to put into practice what we have learned.  Fill your minds. But be careful what you fill them with.
In Christ,
Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

Are You Prepare?

“3 Therefore, preparing your minds for action,[a] and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13)

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“Pastors, cut your preaching preparation by Half”.  This was the lead in to an ad that was on one of my social media pages the other day.  You know how advertising like this works. They scan what you like, your interests, occupation etc. In short,  most of your information is scanned so they can place, on your feed, ads they believe will interest you. Like a move and you’ll likely see ads for t-shirts, mugs etc. that pertain to that movie.  If you have a job, you’ll see ads that would be of interest to others in your profession.

So I get a lot of ads for seminaries, Christian books, clergy robes etc. Most of which I don’t pay any attention to. It’s what you deal with to get your social media for “free”.  But this one came across offering me a chance to cut my preaching preparation down and I thought, Boy you are barking up the wrong tree.”  But I clicked on it anyway.

It turns out it really wasn’t about the sermon preparation at all. It was all the stuff that goes with it in a modern worship service.  Ready made slides so you can list all of those pertinent bullet points the sermon will have. Slides that easily transfer the lyrics to the praise songs sung during worship.  How to quickly add video content so you can use a clip to drive the point home. And software to live stream or podcast the message. It actually looked like a pretty good program.

But it had nothing to do with the sermon preparation. One could argue it helps cut down the sermon presentation preparation  a lot. And that’s not  a bad thing at all. But it really doesn’t affect the time it takes to prepare the sermon. The real preparation is not in the slides or visuals or video. All of which, in full disclosure, I use.

The real preparation for a sermon being son one’s knees as a preacher prays for God to prepare them for the message and give that message to the pastor. After all, I never want to preach “my sermon” I want to preach what God wants to say, from His word, to this congregation.  The preparation comes from the study of the scripture for that Sunday the pouring over how the church has explained this passage of Scripture as well as bring one’s own thoughts and experiences to the table. Yes, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture being supported by tradition, reason and experience applies to the preparation of a sermon.  Even the pouring over stories and examples to help people grasps the message of the scripture is important.

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Sermon preparation is  important and shouldn’t be cut down for convenience sake. Not just because we want to give that great, eloquent sermon. Frankly, there are a lot of  resources out there that will give you everything you need to cut and paste a biblical, eloquent sermon. and you can do it in half the time. That’s not the point of preparation. Preparation of the sermon is only a small a part of the process. What’s just as crucial is the preparation of the preacher.  Wrestling over the word of God, study, prayer immerses our souls with the presence of God and changes us. We need that preparation time before we ever enter the pulpit. God wants us to be prepared, to struggle over his word because it is forming our spirits to become like His spirit.

That’s true for all of us though, isn’t it? Spiritual formation isn’t just for the”prfessional Christians”  Jesus constantly calls us into a deeper, life changing, person alerting relationship with Him.  Our preparation time is crucial to that process.

How is God preparing you to become more like Him? Certainly he calls you to worship, partake of the Means of Grace, participate in the sacraments.  He invites you to study His word and wrestle with it live in it.  I believe God wants to marinate our souls in the Word of God.  You know the more a piece of meat marinates the more tender it becomes and the more flavorful. We have a lot of tough, tasteless souls in the church today because we aren’t allowing God to prepare us.  But the more we allow God’s word to soften our hearts, give flavor to our souls, the better.

In some ways life itself is  a place of preparation. God may be preparing you through a tie of disappointment.  There may have been a hope or a dream in your life that isn’t going to come to pass.  God may be using that experience to prepare you for something more. It may be a time where you are struggling in a relationship, or struggling because of the lack of one.  It could be an illness. It could be a moment of great joy and success.

No, I don’t believe God causes everything to happen to us. Some happen simply because of life itself. Some are because of our own choices, or the choices of others.   While I don’t believe God causes all of it, I do believe that life happens.  It happens to all of us.  And I believe God asks us to use all of life as a time or preparation that we might become more like Him.  The challenge, of course, is not to cut the preparation time short. We all want results. We all want answers. But sometimes, the preparation is as important as the presentation. What is God preparing you for?

 

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In Christ,

 

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

 

 

 

Bucket List

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16  NIV)

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Do you have a bucket list?  You know that list of things you’ve always wanted to do before you, well, kick the bucket.  In short it’s the list of things you’ve always wanted to do  before you die. It could be visiting an exotic locale. Or starting a business, or bungee jumping, zip lining over Niagara Falls (it doesn’t have to be sane to get on your bucket list.).

I imagine almost everyone has a bucket list of some kind. we all have dreams and wishes. Things we’d like to do before we die. Or things we’d like to do if our finances or family situations change to the point where we can do them.  Oh, I think we know we won’t accomplish all of them. But most of us would be satisfied with at least knocking off a good portion of our list.

And to the end that a bucket list keeps you dreaming, they are good things. It’s nice to have aspirations.  It’s also healthy for us to have goals that we want to reach regardless of age, time or life limitations. And everyone’s list is different. Some of them are exotic. But to others might seem more mundane, such as dancing at a grandchild’s wedding. so almost every bucket list has good in it.

The operative word being almost.  I recently came across a different type of bucket list. A well known pastor and leader in the UMC has written a book on how to understand the Bible. Please understand I have respect for what this minister has done in serving the church in  many ways. At the same time I am greatly troubled by his  “bucket list”

He writes that there are three buckets into which Scripture fall

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for His people
  2. Scriptures that express God’s will in a particular time but no longer binding
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed God’s heart character or will.

Now that sounds good. Logical. We have Scriptures that we know from bucket 1 are binding. Bucket 2 isn’t as binding, but if we dig deep enough, we can find a principle behind it. Bucket 3 is for those scriptures we need not see as binding on our hearts. It sounds good, but these are some pretty troubling buckets.

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One of the problems we have, is that it leaves us asking what to do with the Scripture above. If it goes in bucket one, then we have to do away with the third bucket all together. If it goes into bucket two we might need to ask what then, with any legitimacy goes into the first bucket?  What it comes down to, in all honesty, is simply an attempt to legitimize beliefs that are not congruent with Scripture, which is a very dangerous position for any Christian to be in.

But less I sound too critical against the author, the truth is we all do this. His idea is nothing new.  We all have certain buckets we place Scripture in. We have that all important first bucket.  We place in it the Scriptures that make us feel good, the ones that warm our hearts like a cup of coffee on a cold winter morning.  And some of us have a second bucket. That’s for those scriptures that aren’t easy to understand and we’d really not have to dig too deep into them. After all, we are busy people and if God has something to say to us,he ought to spit it out in a plain, easy to understand manner.

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All of us, heaven help us, have that third bucket.  It’s the bucket we place Scriptures that make us uncomfortable. The ones that challenge us. The Scriptures that go against the flow of cultural acceptance. These are the Scriptures that, if we live them out, will cause us to stand out from everyone else and take on a completely different set of values.  They are the Scriptures that cause us to look into the dark recesses of our souls and drag our sins into the light.

Of course, if we take the Scripture at the top of the page seriously, we must admit the first bucket, with all its warm fuzzies, are still true and have value. But here is the rub. While those Scriptures help me, they rarely change me. The times of deepest spiritual growth in my life have come from being challenged by God.  They come when God’s word calls me to look at the world around me and live differently.  The Scriptures that cause me to wrestle with God are the ones that prove the most valuable.  That’s probably true for you as well.

So let me encourage you to kick the bucket. Embrace all of God’s word. It’s not easy. It won’t make you popular. It might change your life.  But it will be worth it.

 

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

 

A Little Water Goes a Long Way

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

 

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I ran across a post on social media the other day that asked for your greatest church fail.  Not in the vein of what have you done to close a church, or what did you do that turned out to  be a bad ministry. These were humorous posts. te times we did something in church we  wished we hadn’t. One of my favorites involved a young lady who high-fived a  man who had lifted his hand as she walked by.  Not realizing he was in a moment of praise lifting his  hands to the Lord.   Stories like that.

As you can imagine, a good many of the stories involved children. Things children did or said, such as the little boy screaming “pray for me!”  as his father removed him from the service for being disruptive.  And some of them involved the baptism of a baby.

Infant baptism, if you want everything to go perfectly can be a risky thing. So anything can go wrong. babies crying and squirming. older siblings misbehaving.  Spit up and well, other things, happening. And of course the fact the baby is completely oblivious to the theological ramifications of being wrapped in the mystery of the sacrament.

And yet all of these things are some of the exact reasons why we do Infant Baptism in the church. Before I go on, please know I am only speaking from my tradition as a United Methodist.  And as a United Methodist I want to stress there is nothing magical about infant baptism.  It’s perfectly fine to wait until one if of an age of accountability.  But that being said, let me share why I am a proponent for infant baptism.

It’s at infant baptism we find ourselves being terribly Wesleyan in our theology.  Wesley stressed Prevenient grace, the grace that “goes before”. Wesley asserted none of  us come to Christ on our own. God moves first, wooing us, drawing us near. Often we are oblivious to the entire thing,  much like the baby. At infant baptism we say in some way we can’t understand God loves you more than we ever will. Our love pales in comparison to the love God has for you.

Now lets’ think about that for a moment. The baby, other than being cute, as done nothing to earn God’s love. It doesn’t even know what’s going on. And yet even though the baby can give nothing back, God pours His love upon this child in a unmerited way.  That’s grace.

At infant baptism the church takes responsibility for the child, knowing they will be a conduit for God’s love and grace into the child’s life.  I’ll often remind  the congregation that this baby will become the toddler who kicks the back of your pew and the youth that messes up the church van.  And it’s OK. Our promise to share God’s love and grace still stands.

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Imperfect, oblivious self-centered caring only for their own comfort. Yet at the same time loved. grace filled. Gifted with a purpose in life.  That’s infant baptism. Yesterday we held a Baptismal remembrance service.  The congregation came up and ok a clear stone from a bowl of water and remembered they were baptized as they pressed the stone to their forehead.  I marveled at the people. Some not even in middle school. Some members of the church for 60 years.  All coming down to remember. To remember that when they were at their most unlovable moment. When they were weak and powerless God still loved them.  God had a plan for their lives. God knew them.   Not because of anything they had done. Simply because of who God is.

We all need that type of reminder don’t we? As we move through this New year, my prayer it’s that you will remember. Remember a God who knew you before you were born and had a plan for you. Remember that God’s love and grace can’t be earned, and don’t need to be.  Remember God’s grace that changes and shapes our lives.  Remember, and be thankful.

 

In CHrist,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

Christmas Gift

” She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:1 ESV)

 

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Sunday was Charles Wesley’s birthday. I’ve always liked Charles Wesley, for more than just his prolific hymn writing. And make no mistake he was prolific. what amazes me about Wesley is not just how many hymns he wrote, but how many  theologically rich, musically sound they are.  it’s one thing to write a lot of hymns. It’s quite another to write so many good ones.

While I admire, respect, and am indebted to Charles’ older brother John for so many things, I don’t know if he’d be the brother you’d want to spend time with. Oh, I’d want to hear him preach and ask him about his faith and how he organized his small groups.  But I never got the sense that John was a guy you’d want to hang out with.

Charles, on the other hand, seems like the Wesley most likely to be invited to the neighborhood Christmas party.  Charles seemed to take great pleasure in life  and enjoyed being with people.  His demeanor seems softer, gentler than John’s.  Surely Charles long marriage and happy children give testimony to the type of prison he was. As well as his decision to become more settled and spend time with his family rather than  do as much circuit riding as John did. While this caused a bit of a disagreement with John, I have to think Charles had his priorities straight.

Last year I toured Charles Wesley home in Bristol on a very rainy cold summer day. I thought about what it must have been like in that home. The children playing while Charles was either feverishly writing up stairs or playing a new hymn for the first time. Did people pause by the house as he played, only half listening to “And Can It Be” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”?

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It doesn’t mean that Charles was any less committed to the ministry or to holiness than John was.  After all, let’s not forget Charles has his heart warming experience happened three days before John’s did.  And he was willing to lay aside personal preferences to share the gospel.  Under John’s direction he came up with more singable tunes for the coal miners and the “unchurched” of the way so that they could worship. Wesley famously adapted popular tunes and rhythms, often hear in the pubs, in order to do this. One of those songs became that anthem of Methodism “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing”. Charles at first thought the tune too common and a bit vile to be sung in religious  circles. Yet he wrote it and used it to great effect.

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That’s not to say he was perfect by any means. His interference in the love life of his brother caused a tremendous rift between them for many years.  It seems that while he wasn’t willing to risk his personal happiness for the sake of the movement, h was wilignto risk John’s.  I don’t believe Charles was being hypocritical. I think he saw Joh as being more important, or at least a greater driving force behind Methodism, and he feared what might happen if John settled down.

So  although I think Charles might have been more fun to hang out with, it doesn’t mean he was better than John.  He was simply different than his brother.  The Wesleys embody the idea that God uses the entire Body of Christ without different gifts, and personalities to further the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps rather than spending so much time trying to make everyone the same, we  and the world would be better suited if we allowed

In this season of giving we celebrate the greatest gift of all, the birth of Jesus. The one who’s birth, Wesley reminds us, came to give us a “Second Birth” “Born than men no more may die”  New life now, and an eternal life as well.  It’s for this reason we give gifts at Christmas. Oh, I know our greed can put gift giving all out of proportion.  But isn’t giving a gift and receiving them still a wonderful way to celebrate the greatest gift of all?

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So what might happen if we began to see each other as a gift form God, just as we are? Different to be sure. Our lives put us in different places and give us different priorities. God gives us different gifts and passions, just as he did John and Charles Wesley. But what if we simply learned to be thankful for the various gifts and temperaments we find in the Body of Christ?

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We’d certainly be easier to get along with. What might a church look like that spent less time in making us fit a mold and more time helping us develop our passions and gifts? We’d certainly be more loving and more attractive  to the world.  But I think we’d be more effective as well. The early Methodist movement needed John Wesley. But it also needed Charles Wesley as well. When they saw each other as s gift they were incredibly effective.  Would it be any less today?

 

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

Not So Perfect

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6-7 NRSV)

 

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One of the true signs, at least in our home, that Christmas is just around the corner is that we get mail.  I mean actual mail. Not bills, not notices we are eligible for a “grand Prize” or a flier from local businesses. but actual, honest to goodness mail. Someone actually sits down writes something, puts it in in an envelope and mails it to us.

Yes, tis the season of the Christmas card.  With the advent of the internet and social media, we get less of them than we used to, but they still come. A trickle at first, then a slow increase as we get closer to Christmas. And we treasure them all. We , as I am sure you do, display them somewhere in our home. It’s nice to know someone thought of you and to be able to catch up on a more personal level.

Catching up. Because often in that Christmas card is a “year-end” letter catching you up on all that has happened to the family. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I have been blessed with being associated with some of the most perfect people on the face tf the earth.  Some times the card is a photograph of the family. And they are all perfect. Good looking. Perfect smiles. Perfect pets sitting and behaving. Often they are on a beach, all dressed alike  barefoot and smiling. Because nothing says Christmas than to say” Not only is my family perfect and good looking, but we take vacations you could never afford”.

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The letters themselves are a wonder. Everyone is promoted.  The two-year old was just invited to join Mensa, but is weighing her options. The junior is being scouted by several Ivy League schools and they don’t even play sports. They are just that wonderful. Oh there will be times of trial in those letters, but always with a happy ending showing strength in adversity and how they overcame problems in a perfect manner.

You never get a card of the family with mom’s hair a mess, the baby just spilled milk down Dad’s shirt as the five year old points to the cat that’s cleaning itself.  We never see a letter that says, Bob failed to meet his quota for the third time, because frankly, he mentally checked out of his job years ago.  The baby learned a new word when Mommy dropped a bowl on her foot, and now won’t stop singing it at the top of her lungs. Our teenager has decided to wear the same clothes to school every single day of the school year and no one know why.  We never get that letter, but if we do, I’m putting it up on the mantle first.

And please understand, I’m not pointing fingers. I’m guilty of the same thing. We all want to look our best. We all would rather look wonderful and talk about the small success instead of the daily imperfections.  We all want to note that one great day and ignore the really weird days most of us have. We do it in Christmas cards, we do it Sunday at church always wanting to look and act our best.

I understand it, and am even guilty of it.  But I wonder if it doesn’t also reflect an unhealthy obsession with perfection. We seem satisfied with a veneer of perfection, even if it’s not who we are deep down. We want to measure up. We want to keep up. We want to be as perfect, or maybe even a little more so, than everyone around us.  We fear not being accepted. We fear rejection. We fear everyone seeing themselves that our lives really are.  There not bad lives at all. Just imperfect and messy.

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To me this is what makes the birthplace of Jesus so important. The Son of God, the perfect lamb of God enters the world in the messiest way in the messiest place possible. Let’s face it, childbirth is a messy affair. And a stable full of animals jockeying for position is about as messy as it gets. Jesus, the God of all eternity, is put into an unsanitary manger to sleep. Messy. As are the lives and futures of Joseph and Mary. Earthly parents to the Son of God.  Bearers of a virgin birth that only led to gossip and whispers behind their back.  It’s hard to imagine Jesus coming into  a messier situation.

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But isn’t that the point? The Incarnation reminds us that Jesus didn’t come only for the perfect. He came for those of us who have incredibly messy lives.  Jesus doesn’t ask us to be perfect before we come to Him. He loves us not only in spite of the messes of our lives, but in the middle of them.  Jesus isn’t about being present in those small perfect moments of life. He is about being present when you burn the toast, double park and mess up that report at work.  He is there in the middle of the bad day, when your temper is shorter than it should be with your loved ones.  He is there, loving you  when you are in your old sweats as much as when you are dressed to the nines to go to church.

Look, life is messy. For everyone.  Christmas reminds us Jesus loves us in the middle of the messiness of life. Even when we make the mess, He loves us.  So relax a little this year. Instead of trying to show how perfect your life is, spend sometime looking for Jesus in the middle of the mess. For it is there, knowing and receiving His love that you find true perfection.

 

 

In Christ,

 

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

A Little Bit of Light

“he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6 NIV)

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When I was a child, one of my father’s favorite activities at this time of year was to have us get in the car and drive around to look at everyone’s Christmas lights. It was the advantage of living in a suburb until I was ten You could drive around for a long time, see a lot of homes with lights and not really go more than a mile or two from your house.

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And there were a lot of lights. Now it may be that I’m looking back with a child’s eyes and missing reality, but it seems that in those days everyone had Christmas lights up. Big multicolored lights around their homes.   More inflatables today, to be sure. But it doesn’t seem there are quite as many, but it’s still enjoyable.

It wasn’t until later that I realized one of the reasons my dad liked looking at all of the lights was because of his satisfaction how much better his looked. He loved putting up all of the lights he had.  The house, trees, nothing was spared.

 

But it wasn’t becauseImage result for griswolds christmas lights he was trying to draw attention to himself.  He hated any spotlight being put upon him.  No I think he did it because he truly enjoyed Christmas. And he wanted everyone else to enjoy it as well. Maybe some of that came from growing up during the Depression in a large family. Gifts and lights weren’t always plentiful.

But I have to think some of it came from his working nights for so many years. Most every day in the winter he would go to work when it was dark and come home while it was dark. He worked in a factory with few windows. He could go almost the entire week without seeing the sun. can you imagine the sun, light , being absent from Sunday until Friday?  I’ve wondered if his love for the lights came from his lack of light in the winter.

Light does make a difference doesn’t it? This past Sunday was the second Sunday of Advent and many churches lit the second candle of Advent. Many of us also lit the second candle in an advent wreath in our homes.  You know, to be honest two candles don’t throw out all that much light.  Even though we’ve doubled the light output from a week ago, it’s not very much. We can’t see all the details in the room and we are hard pressed to read by two little candles.

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I’ve noticed something about those candles, though. Even though they don’t give off much light, its enough to push back the darkness. The room can be enveloped in darkness. It can be heavy and oppressive. But there is a point where the darkness does not enter. Those two small candles say,  “You can only come this far, no further.”

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the one who is the light of the world. But maybe this year you are having a hard time celebrating the light because your life is so full of darkness.  It could be the darkness of not having much money. Family issues, your own inner demons. Maybe just the darkness of having  a lot of stress in life and not compounding it with the stress of the Holiday. And the darkness can be so overwhelming that it’s difficult to see anything else.

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But just because the darkness in your life is oppressive, it doesn’t mean the light isn’t there. If you look you will see it. Sometimes small, sometimes dim but the light of Christ  is there. Jesus has come to overcome the darkness in our lives and in the world. Oh, it doesn’t mean Jesus just automatically makes every problem go away. But he does limit just how far the darkness can come. It gives us hope. Can there be anything more hopeful than even a candle, or two suddenly lit in a dark world? It gives us joy. Has there ever been a heart captured by darkness that hasn’t found joy when light comes?

We all have a choice in life. We can look at the darkness in life and be overwhelmed. Or we can choose to look at the light of Jesus pushing the darkness away and bring us hope. May the light of Christ continue to bring you joy in this Advent season.

 

In Christ,

 

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

 

 

Peace?

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6 NIV)

 

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I was safely working in my office when I received a text from my wife that there had been a shooter at Ohio State  University. Thankfully she also let me know that our middle daughter, who lives only a few blocks from the shooting was safe at home, but on lock down. Over the last few hours I kept my phone on the live feed watching the events unfold. Thankfully, it was brought to a quick conclusion.

The reports were as they always are, full of conflicting information as people began to tell their stories. I’m not faulting anyone that’s just how we  deal with events like this. It’s difficult to be factual when one’s life is threatened or routine disturbed.  I watched tearful interviews with students and employees. I watched with some bemusement some of those who weren’t in the middle of the crises speak with bravado how they would have handled the assailants (Again, no judgment I was 19 myself long ago). I prayed and gave thanks each time someone I knew posted that they were safe.

But I also couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of the work I continued to do as I listened. I was working on our Christmas eve services (which actually begin on the 23rd) and our service for Christmas day.  I plugged in the Scripture above praising Jesus as the Prince of Peace.  I double checked and made sure we will sing familiar Christmas carols,  many built around, either lyrically or musically the concept of peace.  I envisioned our rising our candles as we sing of the Messiah sleeping in heavenly peace.  I even preached about the peace Jesus brings during this busy season yesterday.

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How is it we can even think of peace, let  alone speak it with any conviction, into a world so full of random and unexpected violence? Is it a pipe dream? Are we singing and reading about a fantasy of peace when the reality is our world is full of violence, hated intolerance and loss? Where is the peace in an unpeaceful world?

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One of the places where we struggle with this is we often confuse peace with peaceful situations. In other words, if Jesus is real and the Prince of peace, we should never have moments of evil or discord in our lives.  It’s a nice thought, but it’s an unbiblical one.  Scripture speaks plainly about a difficult and broken world that is in need of redemption.  The peace Jesus brings, the peace we long and hope for in this world isn’t about peaceful situations and circumstances, but something far greater.

First it’s the peace of His presence. In this Christmas season, as we celebrate the incarnation of God in man, we also celebrate the presence of God, His incarnation of His spirit within us.  We know that even when violence disrupts our world Jesus is with us.  We can reach out and hold onto HIm. HIs presence gives us peace, even when the world isn’t peaceful around us.

As the Prince of Peace we recognize Jesus as the ruler of all things. Eternally God. he is God and on the throne even when life doesn’t make sense. I derive much peace in life knowing that while things may seem in chaos, God has us in his hand. And He is working His plan of redemption  in the world. Knowing God is in control brings me peace.

In this time of year we look to the future of peace. No, we don’t ignore the violence around us. But we hold onto the truth that the world will not be as it is right now. God’s work of redemption, begun with the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus will work to it’s conclusion. War violence and hatred will one day need.  Days like this may cause me to long deeper for that great day, but I don’t doubt it’s reality.  Knowing that the world will not always be as it is, gives me peace.

His peace gives us compassion. When we  experience that peace, it manifests itself in compassion for others.  When we pray for a situation such as what happened on campus, we don’t simply pray for the victims, families and first responders. We find ourselves praying for the guilty. We pray for God to have compassion ad mercy on them.  we pray for the tragedy of their broken lives and hardened hearts.  We ray that somehow the love of God will break into the evil that has consumed them.  We pray for their families. Not because we are weak or ignore what they have done.  We pray because we have a peace they do not. And in that peace there is no room for bitterness or revenge.

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In days like this we should not quiet our song of peace and joy at the coming of Jesus. We should read the Scriptures louder, sing the songs at the top of our voice, and proclaim the greater truth that there is peace but it can only be found in Jesus.  I pray you will celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace and that His reign of peace will be in your hearts.

 

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><

Thanks

“Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.” (John 6:11 NIV)

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I just ran across an article entitled “How to Prepare Yourself to Eat as Much as Humanly Possible.”  My first thought was the author must be from Europe.  In America we’re born knowing how to eat as much as humanly possible.  We are the land of the free and the home of the Golden Corral.  We not only invented the airplane, but the buffalo chicken wing, the blooming onion (don’t believe and Australian who tells you differently) and the fried candy bar.

Why we even have the all you can eat salad bar.  Because being healthy doesn’t count if you can’t have as much of it as you want. I think I’ll go back for  my third salad. and add the meat more croutons, cheese and ranch dressing. But  Ok it’s a salad.

Please don’t worry, I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty on the eve of Thanksgiving and the cusp of the Advent season.  First I don’t want to appear hypocritical, and I honestly believe a celebration is biblical. We just need to remember so is moderation. So please enjoy all the good things you can and might eat from now through the New Year’s day.  I’m going to.

But isn’t it interesting that the way we celebrate Thanksgiving is by having a huge meal. Thanksgiving is that time of year when we stop and think about all the things we have to be thankful in our lives. We count our blessings.  You might even have the tradition where everyone at the table goes around and says what they are thankful for. And then we sit down at a table overflowing with blessings and largesse and have even more.

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Mind you, as I said I am all for celebrating. There is nothing particularly spiritual about wearing a long face all the time.  And good food.  I do wonder thought about the subliminal  messe that says we are only thankful when we have a lot of something.  We are thankful when we have a lot. When your table is overflowing. The more I have, the more thankful I am.

That might be one of the reasons I come back to this particular miracle of Jesus every year about this time.  Jesus is completely counterintuitive to how we often live.  Take out of you mind, just for a moment, how the story ends.  Put yourself in the shoes of the disciples and perhaps the people close to Jesus that day.

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There is a huge crowd of people, over five thousand.  And they are hungry. The disciples automatically  go into problem solving mode and ask Jesus to send them away to eat. But Jesus says to his friends, “No, you find them something to eat.”  All they can find is 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. Which means either the people were either ill prepared,  or perhaps they were very poor.

So here we are. 5 thousand people. 5 loaves of bread. 2 fish.  Math was never my strong suit, but even I know this one doesn’t match up. So what does Jesus do?Send the people away?  Send the disciples to find more food?  No. The scripture says Jesus looked up and gave thanks.

He gave thanks. At the moment when his resources were low, when he didn’t have anything extra, Jesu looked up to His heavenly father and gave thanks. It’s easy to give thanks when the table is full the family is healthy and the pumpkin pie runneth over.  But can you give thanks when the table is bare there are few resources and everyone is tired?  How can Jesus give thanks?

Jesus was able to give thanks because his thankful was not dependent on the reasons around Him, but on His relationship with the Heavenly father.  He gave thanks because of who God is.  Even when there doesn’t seem to be much on hand, He knew God was till  in control watching over His people.

How we give thanks comes down to this.  Do we focus more on the resources or on the relationship?  When we focus on the resources its not always easy to be thankful.  We can also find ourselves slipping into idol worship and becoming materialistic and self-centered.  When we focus on the relationship we find that we can be thankful no matter what our situations are, because God is still God. He is still good, He still loves us and He is still on the throne.  It’s not about burying  our head in the sand, so much as it I is being able to see beyond what we have to the reality of goodness that lies beyond and sometimes even in spite of our resources. This is why Paul says “in all things give thanks” (I Thessalonians 5:18) Not because of what you have, but because of whose you are.

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I hope for most of you this is a season when it’s easy to be thankful and bounty overflows on your tables. But I know its not like that for everyone. This could be a lean year. Maybe its been difficult. You might even wonder if you have anything to be thankful for this year. I pray that like Jesus, you take your eyes off of the table and left them toe the sky and see a God who watches over you in all circumstances  and be thankful.   If you do, you will find the blessings of God overflow in your life and find in the end God always blesses us with more than we can handle. Amen.

 

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Brian Jones <><