Advent 1: Counting on Hope

So our new year begins in the midst of a global pandemic. This year’s theme is “Counted.” It’s been a year for counts: the census, a contested election, the numbers of positive cases of Covid-19 and the deaths.

In the United Methodist Church we are all about numbers. Each year we fill out statistical reports: how many have worshipped each Sunday, how many mission trips, how many children, youth and adults, how classes, how many baptisms, how many members and on and on. This pandemic throws a wrench into how we “count” and what counts.

Numbers only have meaning if they are connected to real people. Any one can fudge worship attendance numbers or membership or anything that makes ones congregation look bigger or smaller. The purpose behind counting in my opinion is how lives are touched or who is missing, or what is or is not happening.

In the biblical stories around Advent and Christmas there is alot counting. With Zechariahs “number” being drawn to serve as a priest in the temple and the counting of days and weeks and months he is without speech and waiting for Elizabeth to give birth, Mary counting her blessings, Joseph counting the ways he can try to be faithful either by divorcing or denouncing or in end bringing Mary home and the journey to Bethlehem to be numbered for taxes, the count goes on and on.

So, we begin the Advent season counting on hope. Every year is a good time to be reminded we hope in God and in God’s love and grace. This year more so than ever being reminded of God’s comfort and tenderness is a gift of grace. Sunday’s worship service can be found here. Also as Advent continues, weekly Advent devotionals will be posted on the same page on our website.

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Still: Witness in Word and Deed

Yesterday we finished our sermon series, “Still.” This series has been good for me soul. In the midst of social distancing and mask wearing the world is still loud and divisive and angry. Each week as I prepared to preach or participate in worship, a daily reminder to be still, was a moment of grace.

On Saturday, we had another drive by donation event and people brougth food for Open Door, picked up an EmberHope Christmas Connection wish list, dropped off gifts for EmberHope’s Christmas Connection, picked up packets for church conference and dropped off pledged cards! Wow! That was a couple of hours of mission and ministry.

On Friday I was interveiwed by an AP reporter on our return to online worship only. The truth is, I have had several opportunities over the last few months to be interviewed and declined. I am never certain how the articles will come out. I decided to go ahead this time and I was happy that the article was careful and fair in reporting what churches are doing. On Sunday morning before worship, KAKE TV came to interview me as well. I am grateful to be able to articulate what it means to be a person of faith who supports mask wearing, social distancing and doing our best to care for our neighbors.

In worship we celebrated the end of our sermon series with an invitation to filled out an estimate of giving card as we begin planning for 2021. More importantly the service focused on how what we do and say witnesses to what we really believe. I am deeply grateful each week to share worship through the airwaves in terms of old fashioned television, a live stream and Facebook Live! What a great opportunity to connect through the gift of the Spirit in these ways. A pandemic can not stop the Spirit, God is STILL God and we are STILL God’s beloved children. You can find Sunday morning, Sunday evening (The Gathering) or the sermon only here.

Yesterday I found this interesting music video. I am sure it will not be remembered decades from now, but I am grateful to have found and experienced the grace in the middle of it. If you need some encoruagement, you might take a listen.

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Still: Generous and Gifted

We continued our sermon series, “Still.” It’s been an interesting in week in the United States and personally. Last Sunday, I fell before worship and found out on Monday that I had a fracture. No surgery, but am to be off my feet for two weeks and in a walking cast for six weeks.

So to be “still” in the middle of contentious election and personally to be still for healing purposes is a challenge. I am not by nature a still person, I like to walk and cook and be very active. This broken foot is requiring me to slow down. I am sure it is good for my soul even if I don’t like it!

Sunday morning during the sermon I addressed the election up front. This was the week for the “money” sermon in a stewardship campaign, but I felt like I needed to say something about the difficulties around elections. I literally spoke words I spoke four years ago because they are still true: there are winners and losers in elections. We need to be tender and kind to one another.

Charles and Christina Swedberg sang “Simple Thanksgiving” and it was beautiful as well as the Bell choir playing.

If you are interested in seeing the service or just the sermon you can find links here.

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Still: For All the Saints

Sunday we celebrated All Saints. This is a beautiful Sunday when candles are lit and names are read and we remember. We remember not just those who have died in this last year, but in our hearts and spirits we remember all those who have died and have meant so much to so many.

This was tender in many ways, we have had in person worship for the last three weeks and are moving back to remote/online worship only. The numbers have spiked dramatically and now in Sedgwick County there are no ICU beds left. We had set the metrics before we opened, but I had not expected the numbers to change so quickly and dramatically.

The link to all our updates is here. Scrolling down you can find our protocols for re-opening and for moving back to remote worship. It is disappointing, but I continue to believe that somehow this will all work for good. I don’t know how exactly, but I trust in God and in God’s leading through both good and bad times, highs and lows.

I try to be creative in worship and sometimes it works better than others. I love, LOVE the hymn For All the Saints. For me, it isn’t All Saints Sunday without it. However, since having people in the sanctuary has meant that we are only singing one hymn and that at the end of the service, I tried to figure out a way to have this hymn open worship.

With our “still” theme our openings have been quiet and reflective. I did the same thing Sunday including using three verses of For All The Saints, interspersed with the psalm and call to worship. NOT popular with many. I had asked it be sung quietly and reverently and reflectively. Of course it is best sung with loud voices and brass, but that would not have fit the opening. In the words from the Indiana Jones movie, “I chose poorly.”

Nonetheless, I share that because worship is one experiment after another, particularly in the age of Covid. Trying to create worship that speaks to our hearts and spirits works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. I think God uses what we offer anyway!

If you would like to watch Sunday’s service or just the sermon, or catch on the Gathering our Sunday evening service, you can find those services here.

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Still: Present & Accounted for

We are in week two of our sermon series, “Still.” Each week we are sharing “prayer” challenges, which actually are invitations to deepen our prayer life. I suspect most of us need more “still” time even though many of us are staying, being careful about crowds and maintaining social distancing.

Still is a relative term. Some people have lots of noise at home, music or television, the radio or youtube going. Others fill the space around them with non stop conversations or phone calls. “Be still,” the psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”

The focus of today’s service was on “presence” our presence with God and God’s presence with us. The prayer challenge last week was to pray Psalm 23 each day. This week’s looks a bit different:

It can be as simple as saying a grace for one meal each day, or to say the Lord’s prayer when you wake up, or some other short scripture or prayer around something you do. Being present when praying opens us to God’s Spirit at work in us and around us each day.

Pastor Rebecca had a wonderful sermon and Cindy Dantic Watson on violin was beautiful. It was our second Sunday for in person worship and it was great to have people in the sanctuary. Today’s Downtown Alive worship service, or the Gathering service can be found on our website.

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Be STILL and Know God

Today we began a new sermon series called “Still.” This five week series is part of the annual stewardship campaign and a way to find new faith and hope in the midst of times that are unsettled and uncertain. God is STILL God in the midst of a pandemic, through a divisive election cycle and in time that the church is finding new ways to be in ministry both virtually and in person.

As a church, we held our first Sunday morning in-person worship service during our 11:00 a.m. Downtown Alive service. We plan to add other servcies as the weeks progress, assuming that the positivity rate for COVID 19 doesn’t go too hight. After 7 months it was wonderful to see people. Masks were required and we limited the singing following the CDC and United Methodist Conference guidelines.

“Still” we were together and we worshipped and prayed and experienced the presence of God. This evening at 5:00 p.m. the Gathering worship service was live through Facebook and for the first time through our online streaming service. I was delighted to be part of the conversation around prayer.

Our prayer challenge for the week is to prayer Psalm 23 every day as a way of connection to God who leads us beside still waters and restores our souls.

You can find the morning service, the evening service and our re-opening protocol video here.

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Good News You Can Use: Sent to Heal

This is the last week of our sermon series “Good News You Can Use.” Using the drawings from James Chuong’s Book True Story, we have walked through the Christian faith using pictures with the phrases: created for good, damaged by evil, restored for better and finally sent to heal. God is not content to leave the damaged and broken, in Christ, we are restored and sent to be part of building God’s reignon earth. The Gathering Band sang and we heard a recording of the bell choir. You can find the service video and/or the sermon here.

In the evening the Gathering Worship Service met outside again and while it was windy, it was good to worship, to listen to how we can be good neighbors and help our brother and sisters at Open Door and Ember Hope.

Today we announced we are going to begin to re-open to in person worship, beginning with Downtown Alive. We had originally thought to open all the worship services back to in person worship, but wiser people said, maybe we open one service at a time so we can see what works, what doesn’t and make sure we have all the people and protocols in place. We shared this video to help with expectations.

It is both exciting and scary to come together in person. Worship will be different as we wear masks and stay socially distanced. We will have less congregational singing, but we will be together and that will be meaningful.

Finding new ways to be flexible and worship and fellowship together is both interesting and exhausting. God is with us. I absolutely believe that God is walking with us every step during this most difficult year. We are not alone. With God’s grace and love, we will continue to find new ways to celebrate our community.

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Designed for Good

We began a new sermon series called “Good News You Can Use.” It is loosely based on James Choung’s book True Story, A Christianity Worth Believing In. His stick figure diagrams are helpful and enlightening as a new way of embacing the gospel or the good news.

While we are still not worshipping in person, we did have the baptism of Amelia Josephine, the daughter of our associate pastor Rebecca and her husband Joe. They had immediate family present and the godparents. The District Superintendent of the Wichita District of the United Methodist Church assisted. Such a joyeous celebration in the midst of a time of uncertainty and also grief surrounding the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Bad news abounds, but the promise of Christ is that good news is stronger and can offer hope and faith and grace and love into our broken and hurting world. You can find the whole service or just the sermon here.

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The B.I.B.L.E

Yesterday was “Bible”Sunday in church. Now we use the Bible every week in worship, we read from the sacred scripture, we preach and ponder the Word, and each week I write a study guide for further reflection. Once year, however, I want to spend at least one Sunday on my understanding and the United Methodist Church’s theology about scripture.

I am not and the UMC is not “literalists” when it comes to reading the Holy Bible. I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God amazing and deep. I do not believe that every word is literally true or meant to be taken as literally true. There are many things in this day and age which we do not follow, but that does not take away from the great proclamation of a God of grace and love and mercy and justice. I am grateful each year to share how important this book is, how deep and holy it is even if I do not take every word as absolute truth.

We gave our third grade Bibles and had filmed the litany with our children and then shared that in worship as well as invited those watching through KAKE -TV (our ABC affliate), facebook live and our live stream to participate and to have their Bibles blessed for a year of study and discipleship. You can find the whole service or just the sermon here.

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Family Dynamics: Reconciliation

I am not sure why I haven’t blogged in the last few weeks, but I have not. I did take a few days off, but still! Who knows.

Sunday’s service was the last in this sermon series, Family Dynamics: The Saga of Jacob. Jacob’s story continues on in Genesis, but the next big “saga” revolves around Jacob’s son Joseph, who we recognize mostly from his “technocolor coat.”

We began the sermons series with the birth of twins; Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the second born, came out of his mother’s womb grasping his brother’s heel. That story and the meaning of the name Jacob, “grasper, usurper” defined Jacob’s life and his relationships.

Each week we have looked at Jacob, mostly through the lens of his relationships. This week, Jacob and Esau met again for the first time in twenty years. Having left under the death threats of Esau, Jacob returns anxious and afraid. God has promised Jacob to be with him and the moment the two meet again is beautiful.

We also blessed backpacks and all those returning to school including students, teachers, parents and paras and everyone else! You can find the entire worship service (plus all the earlier services) or the sermon only here.

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