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Advent Conspiracy

Conspiracy: “an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot.”(Dictionary.com)

Conspiracy carries a negative connotation.  When I think of what has happened to Christmas, it almost feels like there is a conspiracy to steal it from the faith.  Weeks ago, Christmas songs began playing on the radio.  However, to call them “Christmas” songs is stretching it, because almost none of them have to do with the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth.  There are songs about Santa, Cheer, Snow, Reindeer, family, romantic love, gifts…anything, but about a child born in Bethlehem.  Of course, the commercials for buying gifts began in October.  Interestingly, many appeal to you to buy something for yourself, because, after all, who deserves it more than you?  Over 600 Billion Dollars will be spent in holiday retail sales.

Christmas for most people, no longer has anything to do with Jesus’ birth.  It is now a secular holiday fueled by consumerism.  Anyone can celebrate Christmas and not think once about its religious meaning.

It is time for a counter conspiracy – an Advent Conspiracy! Advent, in the Christmas calendar starts with the fourth Sunday before Christmas.  It is a time of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth.  It is time to reclaim Advent!  We are conspiring to return Advent to its roots.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas we will focus on four themes: Worshipping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.

I pray that we will all take a step back from the cultural, commercial Christmas, and reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Let’s get involved in an Advent Conspiracy!

Wesley’s Way

We sometimes idolize a person, only to learn some not so nice things about them. I have been reluctant to put anyone too high on a pedestal for fear I might learn something negative about them. I have to remember to just acknowledge that we are all humans, having faults and short comings.
I did not always look up to John Wesley, not because of anything I knew, but more because of what I did not know. Sure, I am aware of some of his shortcomings. But the more I learn, the more I am amazed at this committed disciple of Jesus. While he grew up in poverty, he had an Oxford education and as an Anglican priest would have held a place of honor in British society. However, the course he took was anything but to pursue a life of privilege.
Wesley combined religious piety and social responsibility in a holistic way, which still seems often lacking in much of Christendom. And he was passionate. He did not sit back and wait for people to come to him; he went to where they were. (Something the U.S. Church needs to think about.)
As Sylvania First UMC celebrates its 180th anniversary, we will take a moment to reflect on the influence of John Wesley. Methodist Preachers were inspired to ride on horseback through the woods and swamps of northwest Ohio, surviving the elements to proclaim the good news of God’s love. They called hearers to repentance and then challenging them to live a life worthy of their salvation.
Wesley taught three simple rules:
Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love With God
Wesley’s life and teaching still can speak to us today.

Moving the Chains

In the Game of Football the intermediate goal is to Move the Chains. On the side line are two poles connected by 10 yards of chain. The first pole marks the place where you start. The second pole marks the spot you have to reach if you are to get a new “first down.” These poles and the connecting chain are referred to as “Chains.” Every time the team covers 10 yards the chains are reset and the team gets a new set of chances (downs) to move the ball down the field. If you are moving the chains you are getting closer to a score.
When we only focus on the end point or goal, it may seem unattainable. It may seem too far away. When you start as a new employee, it may not seem possible that you will ever work your way up to management. Starting out in that first semester of College, graduation seems so distant. When you are in 9th grade it seems like you will never be able to get out from under your parents soon enough! When we only look at the end, it may seem impossible.
In football the goal is to get a touchdown. This means getting the ball across a line that can be as far as 99 yards away. In the way, are eleven determined players committed to doing everything possible to keep you from reaching the goal. In life, we have many stumbling blocks and even people who want to keep us from succeeding. If we get sidetracked by them, we will never complete what we start. The focus has to be on what we can do to overcome that which gets in the way. This can best be accomplished by concentrating on what we do best.
In football, while the ultimate goal is to score a touchdown, seldom is a play designed to go the entire distance of the field. The focus is, rather, on an intermediate step – going ten yards, not ninety-nine. In most instances you have three tries (downs) to go ten yards and move the chains. Each time you move the chains you get closer to your ultimate goal. While we always want to keep the ultimate goal in mind, it is important to have those intermediate steps that are more immediately attainable.
In our Christian walk, we certainly don’t become Christ-like overnight. In fact, it is an ongoing, lifelong journey. We are not able to read the Bible in one sitting, but by breaking it down, we can read it in smaller sections. We can also be helped along the way by doing it with others. We might not see how we can tithe (contribute 10% of our income), but we can start out by making a percentage contribution and working our way yearly to that goal.
Our worship theme this fall is Moving the Chains. This is a metaphor for moving forward in our faith development. We will be challenged to get involved in Christian Education so that we will grow in our faith. There will be opportunities for study on Sunday morning and throughout the week. There is even an e-mail Bible Discussion!
Will you join with your congregation and accept the Challenge to go deeper to develop your faith? Will you move the chains?

God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah. God said that they would be the parents of a great nation. They are, at one moment people of great faith, and then in the next they falter, resorting to their own devises. When Sarah doesn’t get pregnant, they become impatient. Sarah tells Abraham to have relations with her slave, Hagar. Some might be inclined let Abraham off the hook here, since Sarah initiated the whole thing. However, he is certainly just as guilty of unfaithfulness by going along with Sarah’s plans. The one that has no say, and really the victim, is Hagar. In the end, Sarah, jealous of Hagar’s son , now that she has her own (Isaac), orders Abraham to put her out with her child Ishmael. In a most cruel act, Abraham sends Hagar and his son into the wilderness, presumably to die. But God is gracious. Hagar is cared for, and she too receives a promise – her decedents will be a great nation too!
While our story line as Christians comes through the decedents of Abraham and Sarah, God has another family that is being cared for as well. Muslims believe that they are decedents from the family of Abraham and Hagar. Could it be that they similarly are blessed by God?
This family story may be like yours. Often families have brokenness and infidelity. It is a story, of God’s faithfulness in the midst of a sometimes very unfaithful people. It is story that can offer us hope, even when we have failed to trust in God. It provides a lesson in what happens when we choose to go our own direction apart from God. Yet, God will bring us back if we are willing.
Story of Abraham and Sarah and their off spring is complex. If we read it with an open mind, we will find ourselves in it. Abraham and Sarah were given a promise, a covenant initiated by God.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Gen. 12:2
God has made a covenant with us as well. Will we be faithful? Will we became a blessing to others?

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” Philippians 4:4

Joy and happiness are listed a synonyms yet, I think there is a difference. I don’t stand alone in this opinion. Catcher in the Rye author, J. D. Salinger put it this way, “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” I understand him to be saying that happiness is fixed, rigid and non-flexible. Joy on the other hand can fit to the space. It won’t break and certainly is flexible to the conditions around it.
I think happiness is really dependent upon outward circumstances. We are happy when we get flowers from an admirer or friend. We are happy when our team wins. We are happy when we get to do what we want. When things don’t go our way we become sad.
Joy, on the other hand, comes from the inside. It is much more a state of being that is not dependent upon what is happening around us. There are certain people that no matter how much negativity surrounds them, just seem to be able to rise above it.
Paul was writing to the Christians in Philippi from a prison cell and yet his letter is upbeat and positive. He talks about his joy. How does one have joy while in prison?
The answer lies in not focusing on oneself. Paul writes to the Philippians, “I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy.” Instead of fixating on his jail cell, he is looking beyond himself. He remembers his friends in Philippi. When we center in on what we have or don’t have, we will happy or sad based upon how we compare to others. Paul clearly took to heart Jesus’ message that life was found not in getting things, but in giving, serving and sharing.
The Biblical writers certainly see a difference between joy and happiness. Joy is spiritually grounded. It is internal. It enables us, even in the midst of tragedy, loss, sickness and hardship to continue to experience peace and love. Joy is not transitory; it is lasting and can sustain us through the most difficult of times.
Jesus said that he came to serve and not be served. He also called his followers to do the same. I believe that he did so, not simply because it was the right moral thing to do, but because it is the secret to having joy. By moving beyond a selfish and self-centered focus, we will experience joy. For joy is found in giving and loving, as Jesus demonstrated through his life.
May your life be filled with Joy as you offer yourself in service to others.

Horses have great peripheral vision because their eyes are located on the side of their heads.  This allows them to see in virtually a 360 degree circle. This is important if a horse is going to protect itself from predators.  However, because they are literally looking all around themselves, they can easily be distracted.  So to help the horse concentrate on moving forward, it is given blinders that block the horse’s view of anything but that which lies ahead. While this is good if your purpose is to move in a straight line, blinders certainly present other problems.

 

Many of us operate as if we are wearing blinders.  It is not that we can’t see, but rather that we only see a very narrow range.  Because we are not aware of all that is around us, we are likely to make bad or wrong choices.  While it is good to sometimes focus on one thing, to do so continually will greatly impede our understanding of the larger world around us. If we want to understand fully we need to take off the blinders.

 

When we get all of our information from a single source, or only listen to those with whom we agree, we have blinders on.  When we fail to listen to the perspective of people who have different life experiences, we have blinders on.  When we refuse to move out of our comfort zone, we have blinders on.  When we choose not to read and learn about events outside our own community, we have blinders on.  When the last time we actually read the Bible was in Children’s Sunday School, we have blinders on. When we think we know the Biblical story and don’t allow it to challenge us again in a new way, we have blinders on.

 

John Wesley, the founder of Methodist movement, challenges us to take our blinders off.  He suggested that through the intersection of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience we can grow and develop as people.  Each one of these four pillars impacts the other three.  They, in a sense, interpret and expand one another.  Wesley believed strongly in an educated community of faith.  Biblical scholars are always discovering new information about the Bible.  By knowing the history of Christian development we can build upon and expand. Through science we continue to expand our understanding of how God’s creation works.  And through our shared experiences we learn from one another.

 

Do you have blinders on, that limit what you see?  Take a chance.  Take off the blinders and see what God is doing all around you.

Larry C. Clark Ph.D.

#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.

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