Tag Archives: Methodist

Advent Reflection – Pastor Andy Bartel – St. John UMC

Today is the 4th and final Sunday of Advent, Pastor Andy Bartel has generously offered his Advent Reflection for the season. Thank you to all the pastors who have contributed to this year’s Advent Reflections!

Advent Reflection – Waiting – Pastor Andy Bartel

I don’t like waiting. When purchasing my groceries, I try to spot the fastest checkstand clerk at Costco or Fred Meyer or Carrs (failing more often than not) and mumbling when I’ve made the wrong choice. I don’t speed in my vehicle, but I also don’t like following behind cars driving slower than the posted speed limit on dry clear pavement, giving instructions out loud to a driver who cannot hear me. When streaming a favorite TV show or holiday movie and I get the dreaded “buffering” lag, I am reminded: I. Don’t. Like. Waiting.

And yet, the season of Advent is all about waiting. This is the time of year when we are reminded that the world waited for millenia for the arrival of the Savior, the Christ Child, and we too are now awaiting his Promised return. A very significant aspect of discipleship is engaging in and claiming the spiritual discipline of waiting.

But what if saw waiting in a different light? Rather than striving for the efficiency of time well spent, what if I embraced the time of waiting? Rather than worrying about getting out of this infernal line to get to my next appointment, I took a moment to breathe, thank God for the ability to buy this food, and look around me and notice who God has placed in my presence at that moment? What if I stopped cursing the driver in front of me, and instead used the opportunity of a slower pace to take in the incredible artwork of God all around us in Alaska’s mountainous beauty? What if instead of waiting on a finicky internet connection, I shut off the screen altogether and engaged with family or friends over a puzzle, or board game, or (gasp) conversation…

In a society that values efficiency over most all else, Advent is a reminder that God probably doesn’t care at all about efficiency. But God cares deeply for every living soul in this world and is just waiting for us to spend some time with God. Maybe in our waiting, we can remember that our souls are longing for the same thing.

This Advent season, may we wait upon the Lord as the Lord has so faithfully waited upon us.

Pastor Andy Bartel – St John UMC

If you don’t already observe Lent, consider giving traditions a try

Two and a half weeks ago, Lent began for a large portion of Christianity with Ash Wednesday (Orthodox churches begin observing Lent on March 13). Some local Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal clergy brought “ashes to the people” in downtown Anchorage that day. I applaud this approach because it brings clergy to the people, instead of people expecting to have to go to clergy. This may be Christianity at its best.

“Sharing ashes on the street is an opportunity for Christians to practice very public theology, said participant Nico Romeijn-Stout, pastor of discipleship and social justice at St. John United Methodist Church and one of those clergy. “Our practice was to take a moment with each person asking their name and how we can be in prayer with and for them. Even in a short moment a relationship was formed. What was striking for me was that the only people who received ashes from me were a couple of homeless men. One said that he hadn’t been ‘blessed’ in years. When we take the risk to do ministry with people where they are, we meet Christ in profound ways.”

Taking “ashes to the street” did not substitute for the Ash Wednesday services those clergy later held in their own churches.

Many Catholic clergy feel ashes should be applied in the church as a rite.

“We take ashes to the homebound, but the distribution of ashes is best done in the sacred assembly at Mass,” said St. Benedict’s Rev. Leo Walsh. “Catholics understand Lent, and all the associated rites, as a communal act of penance by the whole believing community. “It’s possible those attitudes may change over time, as I’m noticing an increasing numbers of news stories of Catholic and Episcopal clergy taking ashes to the street.

Regardless of how one receives their ashes, on the street, in bed, or at church, this rite is an awe-inspiring moment in which one can take stock and recognize we’re mortal and will return to dust.

During my personal preparation for Lent I came across an excellent guide prepared by the Society of St. Andrew, which sponsors a gleaning ministry for food rescue and feeding the hungry. The society’s 44-page downloadable PDF guide offers a wealth of Scripture, reflections, and prayers for Lent.

During Lent many churches host extra evening services or other activities.

First Congregational Church is conducting Tuesday evening Taizé-style services at 5:30 p.m. through March 22. The services will include music, chants, times of silence and readings from the Bible and other sources, but no sermons or discussion.

Many more churches’ Lent activities are offered on Wednesday evenings. Central Lutheran Church has soup suppers, study, and a service through March 16. All Saints Episcopal Church offers a soup supper at 6 p.m. followed by a lesson on spiritual gifts. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is having Lenten soup suppers at 6 p.m. followed by a discussion on the intersection of Lenten themes and immigration. First United Methodist Church is serving Lenten suppers through March 30 at 6 p.m. with a Lenten study following. Anchorage Lutheran Church offers Lenten worship at 7 p.m. with supper at 6 p.m. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church provides a soup supper and fellowship at 5:45 p.m. followed by Holden Evening Prayer worship at 6:30 p.m. Joy Lutheran in Eagle River serves a soup supper at 6:15 p.m. followed by Lenten worship at 7 p.m. Much can be learned from partaking of these simple suppers, and the brief services connected with them. It’s a time for personal growth.

Instead of Lenten suppers and services, local Catholics, focus on the exercising what the Rev. Tom Lily calls the three Ts: “Time, talent, and treasure are common terms we use when talking about being good stewards of all God has entrusted to us. How do we generously give a proportionate amount of our time, talent and material resources back to glorify God through serving our neighbor?”

For example, Lent projects in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Lily is the pastor, address all three T’s by supporting Catholic Social Services’ St. Francis Food Pantry. Each member is encouraged to participate in the Knights of Columbus’ “40 Cans 4 Lent” campaign, where 40 cans of food, one for each day of Lent, are donated. Members also donate funds for perishable dairy, fruits and vegetables. parish members also provide hands-on assistance at St. Francis house, as well as actively advocate support for the federal SNAP program through after-church letter-writing efforts.

Local pastor, the Rev. Rick Benjamin, raised in a Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition that didn’t observe Lent calls himself a non-Lenter but connects with the custom of fasting and prayer as performed as Lenten tradition.

“Many important decisions in our church’s history, and in my own life, came out of times of dedicated prayer and fasting,” he said. Rick’s local relationships made him aware of the liturgical calendar and Lent. He became intrigued, saying, “Lent was similar to fasting, sort of an extended semifast, and a time of self-denial and preparation for Resurrection Sunday.” His experience with Lent has been positive. He points out, “I have benefited from Lent, even though my understanding and observance are admittedly incomplete. And to all the other ‘non-Lenters’ like me out there, I suggest you give Lent a try.”

My tradition was also a non-Lent observing one. Over the years, as I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve been exposed to this meaningful time of the church year dedicated to self-examination and rethinking one’s relationship with God. The music I hear in Lent-observing churches during this time becomes more thoughtful and intense. Like Benjamin, I encourage you to explore Lent, by attending any of the church activities I’ve noted above. I think you’ll be glad you went.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Ash Wednesday and Lent open the door to sustaining spiritual practices

My first Ash Wednesday service was in Chicago, some 45 years ago. In a new career position, I’d just been trained by someone who’d formerly followed my beliefs, but had discovered the joys of being Episcopalian. Jack, who enjoyed shocking me with belief practices foreign to my way of thinking, encouraged me to join him for Ash Wednesday services at a large Episcopal church. I was invited to receive the imposition of ashes, but, overwhelmed by the music, liturgy and unfamiliar practice, declined, unable to grasp it all.

Since then, I’ve received the ashes and over time, this spiritual practice became very important to me. The service marks the beginning of Lent, and focuses worshippers on Lent’s meaning and relationship to  Easter. Ash Wednesday falls 40 days, plus six Sundays (nonfast days) before Easter, a period based in part on Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Services draw on Genesis 3:19, God’s statement to Adam and Eve about the consequences of their sin.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, based on that Scripture verse and traditionally spoken by clergy, as ashes are traced in the form of a cross on one’s forehead. Traditionally ashes were made from the previous year’s Palm Sunday fronds  (now they’re often purchased from religious supply stores). Lent is a time for prayer, meditation, reflection, repentance, redirection and sometimes fasting, which culminates in Easter. It can be a solemn time for refocusing one’s life.

Some churches offer Lenten services during the week; Sunday sermons focus on Lenten topics. If you don’t have a regular church home, a quick Internet search will turn up many local services. Churches offering Ash Wednesday and Lenten services mainly include Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran. Some Baptist churches are adopting Lenten practices. A North Carolina Baptist Convention article, “Why the Baptist Church Should Celebrate Lent,” is useful, offering ideas for making Lent meaningful. Author Kenny Lamm writes, “In my opinion, unless we truly experience Lent, Easter is not nearly as great a celebration, but for many who have never been exposed to the ‘real’ church calendar, the idea may seem somewhat foreign.”

The Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church offers a similar perspective on Lent. “There are many ways of looking at Lent. One is to view it as a spiritual journey into the wilderness,” he said. “The image works well here in Alaska; we are very familiar with going into the actual wilderness. We also know the importance of getting prepared. Few people would head into the Alaskan wilderness without a tent or a sleeping bag or bug dope or food, etc. How you prepare will be determined by the terrain where you are going and the length of the trip. It’s the same with Lent. The time to start preparing is now, not on the morning of Ash Wednesday. The two themes or goals of Lent are repentance/conversion and preparation for the celebration of baptism. We prepare to pursue these goals by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I usually ask folks to plan to do something significant in each of these three areas. It’s also important to remember the essential connection between fasting and almsgiving. Whatever you are abstaining from, you are supposed to take the money you would have spent on that and give it to the poor. Fasting without almsgiving is called a ‘diet’ and is of limited spiritual or practical benefit.”

Consider adopting a practice during Lent to grow as a Christian. Lax in Scripture study? Consider renewing this life-giving habit. Never fed the hungry or visited prisoners? Many church-led opportunities here can help. Need a break from the constancy of your electronic life? One day per week respite, shutting everything down, might be perfect for you. Sound a bit like Sabbath? Maybe it is, i.e. a cessation of all work for an entire 24-hour day. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Lent could establish some significant change in your life.

As in years past, a group of local Lutheran pastors will be in Town Square Park on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, to impose ashes upon request. One of those pastors, the Rev. Martin Eldred, says, “It gets us out of our comfort zones. Ash Wednesday in church is easier to set up; you wait for people to come. But taking ashes to the people is very visible; it’s good to shake up complacency and bring the Gospel to the people.”

“Taking ashes into Town Square Park and the downtown area reminds everyone we meet that we’re in the same human boat together,” says another Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour. “We are of the same dust and we are destined for the same end. Church buildings (and, sometimes, church leaders) can be barriers. Out in the open, we are there for conversation, for prayers, and for the reminder that we are all dust-made by God, loved by God, returning to God one way or another.”

These pastors aren’t proselytizing, but serving God’s children, reminiscent of the work of Sara Miles, director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. In her book “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” Sara tells of taking ashes to the people on Ash Wednesday.

“God meets God’s people all over the place: by the side of a lake, in a city square, an upstairs room, a manger, a burning bush, a human body,” she told National Catholic Reporter. “The idea that liturgy should only happen inside church buildings is fairly recent: in fact, faith is practiced everywhere, in homes and public places as well as in temples. Taking ashes outdoors is just one example of contemporary worship beyond the building: you could also look at street churches, unhoused congregations, outdoor processions and vigils.”

I encourage you to explore Lent and its many meanings.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Memories of Christmas past highlight reason for season – 12/20/14

As the Christmas holiday season is ending, I’m sharing several impressions of Christmases past.

Childhood recollections

My childhood memories go back to when I was 3 or 4. I was not educated in the Santa Claus myth and only knew that Christmas was a time for celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas was a special time of song and gifts from close family members, including grandparents. The gifts were of a useful nature and helped me understand, from an early age, that Christmas was a time of caring and sharing. My father was the son of deeply religious Christian parents and my mother was the daughter of a divided home. Her mother was very religious but her father was not. My mom and her mother celebrated Christmas mostly with focus on the birth of Christ, not much on gift giving.

As I grew up, I came to realize the season celebrated the birth of Jesus, not lavish gift giving to individuals tangential to my life. Christmas was marked by religious events including church musical presentations and sermons highlighting the significance of the date being marked. It was also a time when family came together to find a Christmas tree under which those few presents were stowed until Christmas Eve. Often my brothers and I would go into the surrounding forests to find a suitable tree. We decorated the tree with items we made, like paper chains, handmade ornaments and strung popcorn.

Christmas Eve was usually tough as we had to wait until Dad arrived — often late, as he was an important medical professional in our town. I’d sit glued to my second-floor bedroom window wondering if the headlights coming down the road were his and Christmas could start. It was like Advent with its attendant hopeful watching and waiting. After Dad’s arrival, we would have a time when the Bible was read, especially the Luke passages, and a few carols were sung. Presents would be opened, many of which we made for each other prior to Christmas. Truly, it was a warm spiritual time of family coming together to recognize this special time of year. My mother, an artist, created a large stained glass window reproduction insert for our huge front window. Displayed there during the Christmas season, it left little doubt in our neighbors’ minds that Christmas was a special time for the Thompsons.

Just before Christmas my mother would have one or two get-togethers for many friends, weighted heavily toward those people whom time seemed to have forgotten, or who were no longer cared for. She’d inject good food, holiday cheer and reflections about the wonderful time of year we were commemorating. These gatherings continued until shortly before her death at age 92. An incredibly musically talented woman, Mom directed choirs in two different churches and presented wonderful musical programs during the Christmas season to direct hearts closer to God, the reason for the birth of Jesus.

Christmas caroling was another huge part of my younger life; friends and family would go caroling in groups, singing in harmony to bring cheer to neighborhoods in my northern Idaho town. It was always a joy to go caroling.

Bright Anchorage memories

During 15 years in Anchorage, I’ve collected many wonderful Christmas memories. Some Advents have been especially wonderful times of connecting with God. A particularly bright spot was the presentation of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at St. John United Methodist Church, with Karen Horton leading the choir and chamber orchestra. It brought me so close to God, I was amazed. Last Christmas, I had the opportunity to sing with the Anchorage Concert Chorus at Our Lady of Guadalupe’s celebration of midnight Mass. That wonderful service was most fulfilling. Many churches offer candlelight services on Christmas Eve. They are wonderful events and worthy of attending, no matter the religion. Christmas at church tends to bring out the best in music, liturgy, children’s understanding and the poignancy of scriptural affirmation. If you have children, I urge you to let them enjoy this special time.

A sad Mexican Christmas memory

About 20 years ago, I celebrated Christmas in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I was thrilled to participate in a Las Posadas procession, in which villagers ritually go from house to house asking for room for the Joseph and Mary figures in the front. Las Posadas processions are accompanied by ritual singing, prayers and readings. As I joined the procession, I discovered a number of American tourists had also joined and were attempting to inject a jovial air to it by spinning around, dancing, loud talking, laughing and other absurd attempts to make it very festive. I was saddened by this “ugly American” behavior and left the procession.

Martin Luther and Christmas

Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther redirected the practice of giving children gifts on St. Nicholas’ Day (Dec. 6) in favor of celebrating Christ’s birth on Dec. 25. In so doing he directed people to the true meaning of Christ’s birth. Luther also preached excellent Christmas sermons. One of these wonderful sermons is available on Beliefnet.

Purpose of Christmas

Scriptural interpretation is unclear when Jesus was born but many scholars lean toward 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. Times of year vary, but I lean toward early November. Christmas is a wonderful time of year to reflect on the plan of salvation and God’s love for man to provide a way of escape (a gift) for the price of sin. It’s a time we can emulate that gift by giving to the unloved, just as God did. The various ways of doing so have been shared in this column all through December. Let’s stay focused on God’s gift to us, and pay it forward to those who need our love. Remember, it’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus’.

My wish list for 2015

Over the years, my list of items for churches to address in the coming year has been one of my most read and shared pieces of writing. If you have thoughts about this, I urge you share them with me by email at churchvisits@gmail.com.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.

UMC Chugiak – A Worthwhile Drive

Sunday, October 6 saw me wending my way north on the Old Glenn Highway in Chugiak. It was a beautiful day for a drive from my Turnagain neighborhood to the north. The object of my visit was The United Methodist Church of Chugiak . Unassuming from the highway, this church offers an attractive sanctuary with outstanding views of Mt. McKinley (weather permitting). The church is built on multiple levels with the sanctuary being on the top level. The lower levels offer a gym and multipurpose rooms.

I was cheerfully greeted by a middle-aged man as I walked in from the parking lot, something out of the ordinary on my church visits. There was no one greeting on the lower entry level as I entered, but I was given a smile and a bulletin as I entered the sanctuary on the upper level. Other than that, no one greeted me in this church prior to the “Passing of the Peace” at the end of the service.

The service was a bit late getting started but was finally kicked off by a cheerful woman who artfully gave 10 minutes of announcements. One item of interest was the announcement that the church was moving toward allowing the neighborhood children, in the adjoining trailer park, to use the church gym for afterschool recreational activities.

The service, like most UMC churches, follows a set liturgical pattern. For newcomers the service was easy to follow. The various components of the liturgy were interspersed by a variety of hymns. The choir appeared out of the audience and beautifully rendered an anthem called “One at the Feast”.

A children’s story was given by Pastor Carlos Rapanut. The children seemed to enjoy it and participated throughout. This church offers a table in the back of the sanctuary for young ones to work on quiet activities during the sermon, shepherded by several church women. A first for me, it seemed like a good solution for restless children during the service.

Pastor Carlos is an excellent speaker, and gave an excellent sermon this morning, “Eat”, the 4th in a series he titles “Rhythms”. You can listen to this sermon by clicking here. Less than half of Anchorage area churches make their sermons available by audio recordings of them. What a wonderful practice this is!

When Pastor Carlos transitioned into the communion portion of the service, he explained we would be following the communion readings in the hymnal. He noted he would be reciting the pastoral portion of the reading in a Philippine dialect, while the congregation would be reciting their portion in English. I found this to be very interesting as we did have the English reading in front of us. The communion service proceeded as normal but it seemed infused with something extra. Maybe it was the fact that it was World Communion Sunday, but it was there.

At the end of the service they have a Passing of the Peace when folks greet each other. Although I was not deluged by greetings, several people did more than just greet me, wondering where I was from, how long I’d been in Alaska, etc. It was a warm time. A kind woman sought me out and recognized my visit with a small cake in a cloth sack. This cake turned out to be a tasty gift, and cemented a pleasant memory of my visit to Chugiak UMC. In all my Anchorage area church visits, I believe I’ve only received 3 or 4 food treats, and a couple of books. To be effective, a church must use members who can identify and approach guests. It’s a wonderful practice.

Pastor Carlos was greeting people after the service on the lower level. Initially he did not recognize me from a chance meeting several years ago but soon did. I’ve asked him to contribute Advent and Lenten reflections previously on this blog, and they have been wonderful.

This congregation is fortunate in having a congenial and articulate pastor. Overall I was left with a strong feeling of community in this church, something many larger churches have a difficult time in achieving. If you are looking for a church, I highly recommend you give Chugiak UMC a visit.

Alaska Lay School of Theology Seminars Announced

An annual treat for religious scholars, laity, and others to study a religious topic of significance is coming! Sponsored by the Alaska United Methodist Conference, professors from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology come to Alaska to teach several 11-hour classes. This year promises exciting study choices.

The Most Important Christian Since Paul is the study seminar to be taught by W.J. Bryan III, SMU’s Director of the Intern Program. This class will focus on the story of Constantine, emperor converted to Christianity in the 4th Century. It invites us to examine the Church and power today.

The Character of Abraham and the Question of What is Most Important in Religion will be taught by Roy L. Heller, SMU’s Associate Professor of Old Testament, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor. He’ll lead his seminar group to look at the stories about Abraham and ask the question: What quality is most important for those who practice religion?

Classes will be held at St. John UMC on O’Malley on September 20 and 21. Don’t miss this opportunity to study with acknowledged scholars and gain from their experience. The cost is a fraction of what you might pay by attending these classes in Dallas. I’ve attended several of these seminars and can attest to their quality and worth.

Homer United Methodist Church – Pleasant Visit

Solstice Surprise Visit
In late June, I visited Homer United Methodist Church  at the conclusion of a pleasant solstice weekend celebration with friends.  There was a decided lack of parking, and I ended up parking on the grass.  The visitor parking was full, having only a couple of parking spaces.  I was a bit confused about where to enter as there was no Main Entrance sign.  There were three entry points on the front of the church.

It was a beautiful June day but no one was greeting at the main outside door which remained closed.  I waited for a preoccupied greeter inside who cheerfully greeted me with “Are you a first time visitor?” These words cause first time guests to cringe as it’s a phrase that singles out and separates.  All a greeter needs to say is “Welcome! We’re glad you’re here.”  I was asked to sign the guest book but I declined.

Long Time, One Person
Inside the church the seating was very tight.  Seats were located in the small balcony but the seating made it hard to see.  A member led out a very long period of announcements culminating with the introduction of a North Carolina mission’s team.  Unfortunately, no other welcome was extended to any other guests, of which there were many. After the announcements, the service followed the traditional form of Methodist liturgy.  The church was beautiful inside, but a bit crowded for the 100 or so worshipers.  This was a special Sunday for this church as it was Reverend Lisa Marie Talbott’s first Sunday with them as their new pastor. She was officially greeted by the church and a prayer was offered for her.

Music Most Pleasing
From the initial Introit music from their bell choir, to the four congregational hymns, to the choral special choral anthem, “Love Lifted Me” by Maynard and friends, I could tell this church is blessed with great musical talent and love for music.

Good Sermon
Pastor Lisa’s sermon was titled “That Small, Still Voice”, based on a poignant reminiscence of the emerging illness and ultimately death of a step-daughter.  She’s a good speaker and it appears her sermons will be enjoyed by this congregation.

Unusual Serving of Communion
When it came time for the communion, Pastor Lisa and her husband Joe were the sole servers.  It was a nice gesture, very personalizing, but significantly slowed the delivery of the communion to the congregation.  Although I was only spoken to by one other person, I could tell this was a warm and collegial congregation.  Almost to a person, everyone went downstairs to the fellowship hall for refreshments and fellowship after the service.  As I had a long drive ahead of me, I did not stay to partake.

A couple of men in safety vests could have done much to ease the parking congestion outside, and some minimal training on greeting guests might work some wonders.  Most importantly, I would revisit this church on subsequent visits to Homer.

Lenten Reflections: Another Methodist Perspective

Lent is almost over, with March 30 marking the last day of Lent. The pastors who shared their thoughts about Lent were most generous with their time*. This Lenten Reflections post is from Pastor Carlos Rapanut of Chugiak United Methodist Church.

More than Just Chocolate

A common question that we hear a lot this time of the year is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” This, of course, pertains to the spiritual discipline of fasting that’s usually associated with, but not exclusive to, Lent. So for 40 days, we give things up sacrificially, things we love like chocolate, coffee or soda. And after Easter, we call it good, and get on with life as usual.

But Lent is more than just giving up chocolate.

A reading of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness usually opens the season of Lent, inviting us to go on our own spiritual wilderness journeys. It’s what Lent is all about- dealing with our inner demons so that we may come out of it as better people. Before Jesus began his ministry, he had to go through a time of purging. He had to give things up – the focus on personal needs and comforts; the attraction to worldly wealth and authority; and the temptation to show off his divine power. Jesus struggled with these temptations and learned how to give up the things that were hindrances to his life’s mission.

So Lent is a yearly wilderness journey where we confront our greatest temptations head-on and try to identify things in our own lives that we need to give up because they hinder us from fully following Jesus. These are issues like anger, bitterness, judgment, apathy and inaction, pride and control. Lent is serious soul work. It’s not a mere sentimental revisiting of Jesus’ suffering and death. It’s a season of preparing our selves to truly live.

Early in the history of Christianity, converts went through Lent as a season of purging and learning. During this time, they learned the teachings and ways of Christ and unlearned their old beliefs and lifestyles. It was a period of dying to their old selves and taking on new life in Christ. Then on Easter morning, they were baptized and welcomed into the fold. Baptism, the act of being plunged into the water and pulled back up, symbolized their dying to their old lives and rising again with Christ. They also discarded their old robes and were given new ones signifying their new life in Christ.

In order for Easter to happen, in order for new life to happen, something has to die. During the season of Lent, we are to die more and more to ourselves so that Christ may live in us. We are to give things up so that we may learn how to truly live. So really, it’s more than just giving up chocolate.

P.S. I just concluded a Lenten sermon series entitled “More than Just Chocolate” where I used Jesus’ Seven Last Words on the cross to talk about the things God may be calling us to give up, not just for Lent, but forever. When you have time, I invite you to listen to them by clicking HERE .

*But unbelievably a number of other pastors who were asked to share their thoughts about Lent, declined, promised but did not submit, or were non-responsive because they were too busy. Sadly, I hear the “pastor’s too busy” words too often, even in emails and comments from the readers of this blog. It plays a role in the perplexing drop in church attendance/membership in the 18-29 year-old group. The Internet is full of amazing references to “too busy” pastors not meeting expressed needs and requests of parishioners, or simply just ignoring them. Alaska is one of the lowest church membership and attendance, and religiously interested areas in the U.S. Church Consultant Tom Rainer has discovered through surveys and interviews that the #1 thing people are looking for when they consider churches and pastors is ‘what they believe’. The pages of this blog are an ideal place to draw potential seekers to what various churches believe and have to offer. If pastors are too busy to share their thoughts with the church seekers, it’s an opportunity lost forever. ct

Lenten Reflections: A Methodist Perspective

During Advent, I asked a number of Anchorage pastors to share an Advent reflection on “Advent as an Antidote to Consumerism”.

As we are now in the Season of Lent, I felt it appropriate to again ask a cross-section of local pastors to share some thoughts and reflections on Lent. Our next contributor is Pastor Peter Perry of St John UMC.

A Conversation With God in the Middle of Lent

A geography teacher gave an assignment near the end of the semester. The students were asked to list what they considered the seven wonders of the world. The top picks as we might guess, included Egypt’s Great Pyramid, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and China’s Great Wall.

While tallying the votes, the teacher noticed that one girl had not turned in a paper. She approached the student and asked if she was having a problem with her list. The girl responded, “Yes, a little. I couldn’t make up my mind because there were so many.” The teacher replied, “Well, tell us what you have, and maybe we can help.” Reluctantly, the girl stood up and began to read her paper. “I think the seven wonders of the world are to touch and to taste, to see and to hear, and then to run and to laugh and to love.” (from the book Sermon in Stone by Mel Ellis.)

When I came across that story in my file the other day, I realized that God was speaking to me through it. You see, I’ve been struggling with Lent this year. Lent caught me by surprise, beginning far too soon, with too much haste, amidst too much chaos. In the midst of the craziness of my life, God wants me to prepare my spirit by observing the holy days of Lent? Yeah, right.

I’m one of those people who finds it easy to be busy and hard to be quiet. Lent beckons, and I find myself needing a quiet place, a prayerful place, a place of retreat, a place of contemplation. So I pause and I try to listen… I end up having a conversation with God that goes something like this:

“Shhh…”, says God. “Rest. Be quiet. Be still. I’m here. And yes, Peter, the wonders of my world really are to touch and to taste, to see and to hear, and then to run and to laugh and to love.”

“God, thanks for including the running part.”

“You’re welcome, Peter. But please, don’t run too fast. I might not be able to keep up…”

“Thanks, God. Will I see you in church this week?”

“I haven’t missed a Sunday yet, have I?”

“I guess not, but I’ve got to admit that sometimes I get so busy I don’t notice you there.”

“So you are beginning to see the problem, eh? You don’t notice me a lot, Peter. I’m here. Always. Everywhere. During the commute. By the hospital bed. When you are walking the dog, playing the piano, writing the sermon, running the meeting, watching TV, making the bed, shoveling the snow, and answering email. I’m there.”

“Sorry, God, but the phone is ringing. I need to answer it.”

“I know…I’ll still be here when you get back…”

“Thanks, God. Good to talk to you. We should do it more often.”

“Yes, we should.”

Thank you for your thoughts Pastor Peter.

There’s a Winning Method at this Methodist Church

While not a stranger to Methodist churches, I’m not particularly drawn to them. It’s possible I’ve reacted to their seeming preoccupation with social gospel agendas, over the good news of Jesus Christ. These thoughts were perceptibly changed during my April 20 visit to St. John United Methodist – 1801 O’Malley Road – Anchorage.

Warmly welcomed multiple times
As you may already know, I’m put off by churches that do not warmly welcome visitors into their midst. For the first time in a long time, I’m pleased to note the quality of the welcome I received at St. John. I was greeted and welcomed three times before I reached my seat. An older parishioner and his wife sat down next to me. They introduced themselves after which, he asked if he could introduce me at the appropriate time. St. John’s time of sharing and introductions is not unlike the “happy bucks” time at my local Rotary club. This resulted in giving me a beautiful and natural feeling of community.

Pleasing sanctuary
This congregation has created a beautiful sanctuary and meaningful church interior. Unlike some churches, they’ve invested on the inside rather than the outside. I found the sanctuary spacious and comfortable, accented by a beautiful 17 foot story-totem carved by a former pastor Davis Fison.

Touching scene
The senior pastor, David Beckett, was preparing to leave for their General Conference session in Texas. During the children’s story, he was asked to come forward and sit. And was then presented with a prayer shawl for the trip. The other ministers, and the children, were invited forward to pray for him and put their hands on him, during the prayer. I found this to be a profound display of love for their pastor.

This is a musical church that loves to sing recognizable hymns, old and new. Their musicians play the piano and organ well, plus there is a choir most weekends. However, the choir did not sing this day.

Relevant message
The pastor’s message was the second part of a two part series, “Why I Am a United Methodist.” A captivating speaker, Pastor Beckett is adept at speaking from the heart and connecting with the heart of the listener. Citing author Billy Coburn, who in a recent article noted Starbucks philosophy of addressing boredom, loneliness, and alienation by creating areas to recapture a sense of community for our lost informal public lives. Beckett noted we experience community in two places: home and work. Further quoting Coburn he added “Wouldn’t it be awesome if our churches were automatic “third space” places of community?” Beckett noted they are United Methodists “..because religion is of the heart, because the Bible is our Book, because religion is practical, because Christians are here to worship, witness, and grow. And because religion is not a private affair.” I found Beckett’s illustrations meaningful and to the point.

Positive impression
From a casual contact with this church at a Sunday morning service, I left with a compelling picture of their community, a church that will open its arms to all who come. Recently a Church Visit blog comment by gays looking for a church was noted. I am confident St. John would accept these individuals as children of God, even though this is not the official position of United Methodists. Pastor Beckett closed with the words of John Wesley, the key founder of Methodism, “Above all things, let your love abound. Let it extend to every child of man: Let it overflow to every child of God. By this let all know whose disciples you are because you love one another.”
[img_assist|nid=123519|title=Story Totem – St. John’s|desc=Created by Pastor David Fison, this story totem depicts the Easter story in red cedar using the Tsimshian Indian-style, and gracefully accents the sanctuary at St. John’s United Methodist Church.|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=467][img_assist|nid=123520|title=St. John United Methodist Church|desc=Located at 1801 O’Malley Road, Anchorage, AK 99507 907-344-3025. Pastor is David Beckett. 222.stjohneagle.org|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]