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#AllAboutYou?

Well, I have gone and done it! I said I never would. And here it is. I have finally caved in. I opened my Twitter account!!!!
I can barely keep up with my text messages, e-mail, and Facebook. Now I’ve added twitter to the list. Apparently, this will keep me even more in touch, or more likely, make me feel more out-of-touch.
Twitter advertises that it “helps you create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” What happened to sharing the latest news at the Beauty/Barber Shop, over the phone(you know actually talking to someone) or around the table at the diner? Today, many use twitter to let people know what they are doing, almost every moment of the day. It can be the most “All about you” social media tool. Apparently, you can follow your favorite personality throughout the day as they post every detail of their life. (You probably won’t find out too much about me, because I doubt I will post that much. Or should I say “tweet”?)
Now, as I understand it, if you use a hashtag (I always thought it was the pound sign) followed by something, you can begin a trend. People will comment on the Hashtag you created. So… for Holy Week we have created #AllAboutYou? to begin a conversation about the meaning of Jesus’ last week. We will journey from Palm Sunday, to Holy (Maundy) Thursday, to the cross on Friday and ultimately to resurrection Sunday/Easter.
We also have hashtags for you to let others know what activities you are participating in here at Sylvania First. If you are part of Run for God use #sfrunforgod.   If you are part of The Daniel Plan use #sfdanielplan. The Easter Egg hunt will be #sfegghunt and our newest bible study #sftheway. Keep up with us on Twitter as we will keep you informed of what is happening here at the church.
Hopefully, we will come to understand that we do not find the kind of life that Jesus promised by being self-centered so it is not all about you or me. On the other hand what Jesus did, offering himself, was all about you and me.
So, if you want, you can join me on twitter @larryclark1555. I am in need of followers.

I did not know there were six types of social media! Heck, I just got comfortable talking on the phone! I am not opposed to new things, it’s just that there are so many and they keep coming faster than I can keep up. I am still trying to get a handle on Facebook. I am on LinkedIn, but I am not sure why. The church has a twitter account (that I have not yet learned to use) but I am told it is something I need to do if I want to communicate with younger people. Of course that notion bothers me, that there might be more people younger than me than older. Most of the time I think of myself as young, and then my daughter reminds how out of touch I am with so many things. She badgered me for months that I just had to get an iPhone. I think she wanted me to get it so I would be dependent on her to know how to use it!

Actually, I love technology, when I know how to use it. It is just that I don’t want to have to learn how to use it. I hate spending the time it takes. There are probably a hundred other things I would rather do than learn how to do another social media. Heck, I can’t keep up with Facebook as it is. E-mail can sometimes take up hours a day. Isn’t all this new stuff supposed to save time?

OK, I do love to see pictures of my family in San Diego on Facebook (even though they kind of rub it in with all the nice weather they have.) And I keep up with friends that I haven’t seen in years when they post “Status Updates.”

For the Lenten season this year (you know that time after we put ash on our foreheads and when the Easter bunny comes) our worship theme is “Status Update.” The millions of users of Facebook let people know what they are thinking about, doing or simply where they are. I am told that this is a “Status Update.” Traditionally, for Lent, people have “given up” something (Meat, Candy or something they shouldn’t be doing anyway) as their Lenten devotional exercise, a sort of fasting. I have found it more helpful to take on something during Lent, either in the way of helping a cause or spending extra time in prayer, etc.

At its core, the idea of Lent is to take stock of who we are in relation to God. Lent is an intentional time to build our relationship with God as we prepare to remember Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrate resurrection. As each of us takes on a special devotional practice this Lent, we are encouraged to share our status. For those who have Facebook we hope you will post how you are growing in your faith. For those who don’t have Facebook, you are still encouraged to find others with whom to share your status.

So………, this Lenten season I have decided to take on leadership of the “Run for God” program. This is a spirit filled twelve week program to prepare the participant to run a 5K race (3.1 miles for those who can’t convert :-). I will be posting how the group is doing. It is designed for even the person who has never run before. I hope you will consider joining me. Just e-mail me at lclark@sylvaniafirst.org

Church Closing?!?

I was born in North Dakota, so you would think I would, if not love winter, at least tolerate it. When I was a youth, I was always outside, either sledding or playing hockey. My guess is that I just got my quota of winter. Now my toes always seem cold, even when I put on two pairs of gloves my fingertips freeze; so now I will do just about anything to avoid venturing out into the cold. However, even I have been amazed at the number of closings we have experienced this month.
My dad tells me that while growing up in Minnesota, they never cancelled school. If the school bus got stuck in the snow, one of the farmers would come with a tractor and pull the bus out. While the subzero temperatures are unusual for here, in Minnesota and North Dakota they are pretty common. However, I do understand that we don’t want children to get stuck walking to school in these temperatures, especially since many do not have the appropriate clothing.
In the last couple of weeks we have seen many church closings. While we have been open at Sylvania First, many people have called to see if we were having worship. My rule of thumb is this. If I have my sermon done, I am going to have worship.  Why would I waste that effort and inspiration from the Holy Spirit? However, I think I would take it as a sign from God, if I didn’t have my sermon done and there was a heavy snow, that maybe the Holy Spirit hadn’t given me anything to say, so church should be cancelled.
Anyway, I want everyone to pray for an early spring. I don’t know if I can keep my positive attitude much longer. 
Peace, Larry

I rode my bike to my office at church today.  This is the third time this year.  It is about ten miles by the route I take.  I am what you would call a recreational rider.  I have the luxury of not being dependent upon my bike for transportation, as would be the case for many in this world, if they even had one.  My Lutheran pastor friend, Howard Abts, has chosen the bicycle as his sole means of transportation.  For Howard, it is a matter of social responsibility.  Howard lives his life in such a way that he seeks to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible.  However, he has been doing it so long that I actually think he really likes it.  He even claims that snow doesn’t bother him!

I am a fair weather rider.  I don’t ride in the cold.  And I avoid rain if at all possible.  So that means I have only ridden to work three times.  (The first time I got a flat on the way home!)  Now I would like to leave a smaller carbon footprint.  I also would like to get in better shape.  However, I guess I tend to sell out to comfort and expedience far more often than I should.

I was having a great ride today.  The weather was perfect.  I took my usual route through Wildwood Metropark and picked up the bike trail for a short distance.  Then I turned on to Holland-Sylvania Road.  There is about a two mile stretch I have to take.  It is a four lane road with a posted speed limit of 45 mph.  I am not crazy about riding on Holland-Sylvania.  I look in my mirror often to see what is coming up behind me.  On a morning like this, it isn’t too bad since the traffic is light.  I ride in the right lane.  Cars can easily pass in the left lane.  Today, however, an SUV came speeding up behind me, began honking and then swerved around me a lot closer than I would have liked.  I suppose one day I might get used to this and be able to let it go.  However, not today.  I screamed back at him—while gesturing (no I didn’t give him the middle finger J)—“What’s the matter with you?  I have a right to the road, too!”

Now, I think when we get behind the wheel of a car, we forget our manners.  All that steel (and plastic) surrounding us makes us change into people we would be embarrassed to be if we were walking on the sidewalk.  Drivers seem to think that they are the only ones on the road.  Many also apparently don’t think bicycles should be on the road, never mind that traffic law says that is where bicycles are supposed to be, certainly not on sidewalks.[i]  Some drivers expect you to ride on the edge of the road.  Have you ever seen the edge of the road?  There are grates, cracked payment, debris, parked cars, yard waste and branches.  It is far more dangerous to ride there.  If you fall because of one of these hazards you could end up in the street in front of a car.

Now, I don’t know what the SUV driver was thinking.  Perhaps he was in a hurry, but there was a red light up ahead and I ended up stopped right behind him.  I do know what I was thinking, and I had to mentally stop.  I entered into a conversation with God about forgiveness.  And it occurred to me that I could share my thoughts with you, so  perhaps the next time you see bicyclists on the road you will give them space and perhaps even give a friendly wave.

Larry Clark, Pastor – Sylvania First UMC


[i] Bicycles on sidewalks are dangerous to pedestrians and to cyclists.  Cars backing out of driveways do not look for them.  In some places it is even illegal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk.

“For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Any one unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” (2 Thess. 3:10-11, NRSV)

While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, there was in our group one particularly opinionated clergyperson.  He not only held strong beliefs, but was quite willing to share them.  Often he would do so loudly enough that I could not block them out, however hard I might try.  He was especially fond of making his thoughts known on the second coming of Christ.  What really caught my attention, however, was when he got onto the subject of welfare.  He spouted out, in an apparent attempt to quote from 2 Thessalonians, “if they won’t work, don’t let them eat.”

I have entered into many conversations about poverty over the years.  As someone who has worked and served in ministry in the inner city, I have seen poverty up close on a daily basis.  The stories, the experiences and the reality never seem to match the one that is popularly given by the indignant taxpayer or the politician seeking votes.  I must confess to some difficulty in remaining patient with those who fail to take time to see the reality before making judgment.  The minister’s comment on the bus, however, angered me to a point that surprised even me.

The source of my anger was not so much the insensitivity shown, but the fact that it was coming from a clergyperson.  He had taken a scripture out of its context to justify an uninformed and callous attitude—one that, to me, seems to stand in opposition to the preponderance of scripture on the subject of the poor.

While I may never meet the pastor in question again, I suspect that there are many more Christians, clergy and lay, who have not struggled with the message of the Gospel in relation to the poor.  The subject of economics in general has received very little attention by the church or American pastors.  For most Christians, the extent of dealing with the question of poverty has been to provide Christmas and Easter baskets.  Some congregations, of course, have gone much further, actually serving meals or even providing shelter to the homeless.  Yet most of the effort, while certainly worthy, is of the Band-Aid nature.  That is, they are taking care of the wound after it has occurred, rather than engaging in prevention.  Little thought or effort has gone into examining the economic system that leads to economic disparity.

On the denominational level, most mainline churches have official statements that make reference to the need to change societal structures and systems that cause poverty.  However, these statements carry little power or force, because the average person in the pew doesn’t understand them—or downright disagrees with them. 

“The vast majority of regular churchgoers (88%) say they hear about the issue of hunger and poverty from their clergy, but just 10% cite religion as the top influence on their opinions about government’s role in providing assistance to the poor.”[i]  A survey of regular church attenders by the Barna Research Group found that just “Slightly more than half of all adults listed serving the needs of the poor as very important (54%).”[ii] 

Each year a new study comes out, once again showing a declining “middle class.”  Even more significant is that the percentage living in poverty continues to increase, while those at the very top get wealthier.

The figures appear bleakest when we look at the children.  The Children’s Defense Fund reports that in 2009 “A total of 15.5 million children, or one in every five children in America, lived in poverty in 2009, an increase of nearly four million children since 2000.”[iii] Children are the most vulnerable in any society.  They cannot speak for themselves.  There is little that they can do for themselves to make any change in their situation.

A member of a previous congregation I served, an elementary teacher in a central city school, stated that she could not reasonably expect that her students could do homework.  They often had no place to work in the home.  Many persons often share the same small space.  One child’s apartment she visited had no electricity, so there was no light by which to read.  They often don’t have pencil or paper, let alone computer access.  Further, many parents lack the skills necessary to help their children. 

People of faith need to ask themselves some tough questions.  Do we have a responsibility to the poor?  Should we care that, in the United States, the top 20% of the population makes as much in income as the bottom 80%?[iv] The question can even be raised to the global level.  Should we care that one nation, the United States, with 6% of the world’s population, consumes more than 40% of the world’s resources?  Or should we care that “It only takes $34,000 a year, after taxes, to be among the richest 1% in the world.  That’s for each person living under the same roof, including children.  (So a family of four, for example, needs to make $136,000.)  As of 2005 – the most recent data available – about half of [the world’s richest 1%], or 29 million, lived in the United States.  In fact, people at the world’s true middle – as defined by median income – live on just $1,225 a year.”?[v]

For those of us who are solidly middle class or higher, I suspect we get somewhat uncomfortable when confronted with this kind of information.  It is nice not to have to admit that we are the materially blessed, or to realize that we benefit at the expense of most of the world’s poor, especially in light of what Jesus says about our responsibility to those who are less well off.

As we approach Election Day, it is disappointing that once again there is almost no talk about concern for the poor.  We hear a lot about the middle class, but it is almost as if the poor do not exist—except, of course, as a stereotype.  They are lumped into that group that doesn’t want to work, that think they deserve a handout and are lazy.  While admittedly there are some people like that, I would point out that they are not limited to only one social class!

I encourage people of faith to reexamine their Holy Scriptures to see what they truly teach about our collective responsibility to one another.  It is easy to take one verse out of context to justify our own prejudices.  However, the preponderance of scripture calls for a just society in which all share in the blessings of God.  As we head to the election booth this November, how about not voting for the candidates and issues that best serve our own personal interest, but voting for the candidates and issues that we believe have most at heart the needs of the poor and marginalized?

Larry Clark, Pastor – Sylvania First UMC


Out on a Limb?

Should a pastor deal with controversial subjects in worship? Or should such subjects be left to small group study? Or should they be avoided altogether? I think many of us pastors walk up to the edge of such issues, but don’t quite name them and hope that the congregation gets the idea, without our having to say it.  So when the Sylvania First Worship Team decided to go forward with the series Out on a Limb, it was a bit of a risk, with plenty of unknowns.

We first polled the congregation, giving them a list of ten potential subjects to be addressed. The top six topics were then to be the subjects of my messages. The six chosen were: Biblical Contradictions, Evolution, Homosexuality, Unforgivable Sin, Abortion and Mormons. Each of these subjects has been hotly debated by Christians, and one in particular has been front and center in the presidential race – Abortion. There was a fear on the part of some that I would offend people, or that people would turn on me—or on the church—because of what I might say. Some members, upon learning of the series, expressed to me that they were concerned about what might happen.

After five weeks of tackling tough issues, with only “Mormons” left, I am able to make some initial evaluation. First, I have to commend the Sylvania First Congregation for its openness. No one has suggested that we should not have done this series. In fact, I have received more positive comments and feedback about it than any sermons/messages I have ever done! Now, I know that I am often the last person to get the negative feedback, but I have checked with others to find out what they have heard, and so far it is all positive. Several have commented that they did not want to miss a week. The recorded sermons on the church’s webpage have been listened to at a higher rate than previous messages. (Click here to listen to the messages.)

Each week, I have attempted to approach the subject using John Wesley’s prescription for discernment: using Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. Where appropriate, I have outlined what each brings to bear on the subject at hand. I have also attempted to fairly represent opposing positions (where they exist) on each topic. However, I have not attempted to be “neutral.” I have stated my position.  However, I hope I have done so allowing room for those who may disagree.

From the start, my stated hope has been that through these messages I would be modeling a way to look at controversial issues. I also hoped to open up honest dialogue. I facilitated two listening/conversation sessions, both of which led to some of the most open and honest discussion I have ever heard in any church.

The context for the Out on a Limb series, and I hope for the church as a whole, is love. We have to learn to discuss—and even disagree—in love.  I hope that we have created that kind of environment. 

I have been greatly encouraged by the response to the series and am looking forward to next June when we will tackle another set of controversial issues. Stay tuned.

Larry Clark, Pastor – Sylvania First UMC

I have often said that I like doing funerals more than weddings. This often gets surprised looks. However, many pastors have nodded agreement with me. At weddings, many times it seems that I am a sort of “hired hand” who is there just to perform a job. Even though I try to get to know the couples, meeting with them for four sessions prior to the wedding, often it seems like they are humoring me, more than valuing the time we share together. And most weddings I perform are for persons who have little or no connection to the church—nor are they really that interested in being part of a church. And while I talk with them about their faith and connection to a church, I don’t always get to see the fruits of it.

Funerals, on the other hand, offer me the opportunity to enter into people’s lives at a time of real spiritual and emotional need. I have the opportunity to hear the stories of the deceased person’s life. Even when I have known the person well, I gain so much more insight into their life. I find that it is helpful to the family to share with me the stories of how their loved one impacted their lives. At the funeral (or memorial service) I have the opportunity to tell the story of Easter—the resurrection story. We proclaim our faith in God through Jesus Christ, knowing that death is not the end, but a transition from earthly life to another phase of life with God. Through the service, I attempt to help the family say good-bye by celebrating the life of their loved one. For me it is a blessed opportunity to be truly a pastor.

On February 29, 2012 my mother, Elizabeth Meidt Clark, passed away after succumbing to her Alzheimer’s disease. For roughly ten years we watched this amazingly strong-willed woman, who raised seven children, slowly slip away from us. I also saw my dad become an amazing caregiver and advocate for her over those years. It may seem strange to those on the outside, but I found these last years to be some of the best that I had with my mother. While Alzheimer’s can lead to dramatic personality changes in some people, for my mother it seemed to me to be a way of slowing down. She was always pleasant and never complained. She was content most of the time. She enjoyed her family.

Being the eldest son and a pastor, I had the opportunity to organize the funeral service. I have planned so many funerals over the years that it didn’t require much thought. However, while I was used to comforting others at the time of a loved one’s death, I now had to think of my own emotions—while at the same time trying to think of those of my dad and siblings. The process of organizing the service was healing for me.

We were blessed that, several years earlier, each of the children had written down stories about mom. They were on the one hand humorous, but at the same time descriptive of her character. It was clear that we would share some of the stories at the service. My sister Laura is also a pastor, so it seemed natural that she and I would share in the liturgy. By unanimous acclamation, the family asked my wife, Margaret (also a pastor), to preach the sermon. While Margaret came to the family just as mom was developing her disease, mom took to her right away. She looked forward to Margaret’s hugs.
 
At the service my sisters Linda and Laura joined me in sharing stories about mom, but it was Margaret who brought forth the words of the resurrection story. We were reminded that death is not the end, but a movement from life to life.

On March 3, 2012 we celebrated the life of Elizabeth Meidt Clark with joy and thanksgiving. We laughed, and we cried just a little. Her life had been her husband, children and music. It was fitting that her brothers, Joe and Gary, sang for us in her honor and shared their stories of their older sister. We said good-bye to mom in a way I would hope for all who lose a loved one.  She touched the lives of so many others—particularly young people—through music. I thank God for her influence on my life, the life of my family and those many that we will never know. As I have said to so many others at the time of a loved one’s passing, she lives on in the lives of each of us. And she lives on in the presence of God.

Larry Clark, Pastor – Sylvania First UMC

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