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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Mary Did you Know?

Mark Lowry, known for his singing and as a comedian, spent many years with the Gaither Vocal band. What you may not know is that he wrote, "Mary, Did You Know?", a song that came from his meditation written for a Christmas program at his church.  In 1984, he was asked to write a song for Advent. He came up with questions he might ask Mary about her son, Jesus.  Using that story and the words of Luke 1:26-38, Dr. Daniel offered a challenging sermon today.  Another question:  could Mary know?  The angel, Gabriel, brought a message to her that was beyond comprehension -- that she is highly favored by God, and will give birth to a son who will be great and holy, and called the Son of God.  How?  The Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her.  Despite all that Gabriel promised and prophesied, Mary could not understand.  One more question:  what does it mean to be highly favored of God?  It does not mean the life ahead will be a bed of roses.  Being favored does not protect from the hurts, bumps and bruises, or struggles of life.  It does not insulate from disappointments.  Favor is God's choice to accomplish God's purpose.  For Jesus' birth, Mary was God's choice.  Think about who we tend to call, or assume to be, favored by God.  It's not as it appears through human eyes or using the world's standard.  God favored Mary, and gave her the promise that nothing is impossible with God!  Then note Mary's response:  "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  Let us be thankful that she said, "yes."  Obedience is not a popular term in today's "do your own thing" world.  But those who do great things for God are people who obeyed God -- Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mary.  And obedience is still important today in working with God.  As we continue our preparation this Advent season, consider who we call blessed/favored and what we call impossible!

Gene Kelsey, Director of Christian Education

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Where is God?


This post is a reflection on Dr. Daniel's post on the recent events in Newtown, Ct. You can read Dr. Daniel's post here. As we struggle to make sense of tragedy we believe that it's best done through prayer, conversation, reflection and love. Your comments, reflections and questions are always welcome. 

~Jen Hibben, Associate Pastor

Where is God?

by Don R. Elly

As we cope with the murder, mayhem and death of school children, teachers and the staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School of Newtown, Connecticut, I want to share a few immediate reflections to guide us as people of faith in responding to this tragic event. These random thoughts began to bubble up for me as I sat in prayer at worship on this past Sunday morning, December 16. Some of my reflection will not be new.

My first thought was that this is not the first time this has happened to loved ones, children, teachers, and families in our lives. It happened in the past and continues to happen all over the world today. A text for us to reflect on in light of this tragedy for this Advent season is Matthew 2:13-23. It is called “the killing of innocents” by King Herod and follows the visit of the Wise Men at the birth of Jesus. King Herod takes his rage out on innocent children Jesus’ age. Joseph and Mary in a dream are warned to flee from Bethlehem to save Jesus. I imagine if the parents and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary could have been warned in a dream by angels not to send their children to school that day the tragedy might have been averted. 

The writer tells us this act was “to fulfill scripture.” I have problems with this interpretation. I am thankful for God, angels, Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ story that calls us to see God’s greater purpose. We do have a part in avoiding tragedies like those perpetrated by King Herod and all other who do evil in order to hold on to power, or seek to discover a sense of purpose in life by inflicting pain on others. We are, I believe, by this story and contemporary events, called to do whatever we can to prevent violence and contribute to healing and wholeness in the world. We are all, like Mary and Joseph, meant to be God’s partners in caring for and nurturing good in this world. That God entrusted God’s self to Mary and Joseph who despite their low estate did all they could to assist Jesus to grow up as God’s Good News is a challenge we all need to internalize in this Advent season. God, you see, is present and alive in each of us when we are appalled by such tragedy and continue to work on protecting, nurturing God’s dream of a Kingdom of harmony so that all may know God is real, and that love and good are alive and stronger than sin, evil and darkness. For the full and beautiful description of this Kingdom you might want to read Isaiah 11:1-10 or Matthew 5, 6 and 7.

“Where is God when events like this happen?” implied whenever this question is raised the expectation is that “God is absent since this event happened!” My answer is that God is present in the person of every parent, teacher, and member of society who continues to exhibit the love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness of God and works toward the “Kingdom of God” revealed in Jesus’ birth. This Kingdom is meant to be a society of peace, justice, love, hope, and harmonious cooperation among all people in all universes. God is present in every person in the world who works toward the world envisioned in the Bible and the world’s great religious teachings about love of God, neighbor. This Kingdom is present when all are treated with equality so that what God intends can happen. For me, God was not absent at Sandy Hook Elementary School–but present in those who gave their lives that as many children as possible were saved.

“God called them all home!” Mr. President, thank you for standing up as a symbol of comfort, compassion and sympathy for the parents and families who lost loved ones and mapping out the challenges that face us in the future if these kind of events are to stop. I respectfully disagree with you theologically as to God’s action here. I understand the comfort you are attempting to communicate but I do not believe that “God called these children home.” It is and always is God’s intent that every child, since we are all God’s children, be supported, protected and nurtured to become fully functioning, healthy adults. In light of that I fully support any action taken to prohibit guns and violence from being glorified in our society as the way to solve problems of human relationships, be that internationally, nationally or locally. If I were in your shoes I would start by making clear in your State of the Union message for 2013 that assault weapons will be banned and destroyed, and that as a nation we will no longer sell arms to other countries as a means of economic profit without thinking about the long range consequences of such action. I would support you, the Congress and local legislature in enacting legislation to prohibit the sale of violent video games to children as entertainment which might mean prosecuting adults who make money selling and distributing this product and making it available to children. I believe that we live in a society that exalts the “profit motive” above the best interests of a safe, peaceful, just and compassionate society.

Where is God? Right here in the middle of the mess we make of God’s world grieving, loving and challenging us to become a “light to the nations” and an “ensign of peace”, a people who live up to all God would give us through creation.

A Prayer: God, May I never forget when tragedy, sin, evil, darkness and despair set in and afflict us, you do not disappear. Though we in our pain may not feel your presence, may we trust beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are weeping, working and hold us together so your larger vision of love will never die. Amen.

You can follow Don Elly at: donrelly.wordpress.com

Monday, December 17, 2012

Moments for Pause

As we all know, on December 14, 2012 (approximately 9.30AM,  EST), this country was  struck by the tragic news of a senseless gunman killing and slaughtering the lives of twenty innocent children and six adult females at the Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut.  Like many of you, perhaps, I’ve been glued to the television and painfully watching the heart wrenching images and stories from Newtown, CT.  I continue to be awestruck by loss of innocent lives and defenseless children, the unspeakable tragedy, the toll of human casualties, and the physical and emotional suffering of families and loved ones who are now left to endure and cope with the speechless tragedy in their lives…

Over the last few days, I’ve had many moments and I’ve experienced many emotions.  There have been times when I’ve had to simply remain quiet and be still in the presence of my Maker.  I’ve had many moments when I needed to pause, stop, reflect, and simply be in times of prayer…often emotions of restlessness engulfing me from deep within my soul, deep sighs and breaths, and barely even able to even utter words… Yes, like you, I’ve had my own talks and questions to God: WHY, WHY, WHY the loss of brutal killings, loss of innocent children, the senselessness of it all.  I don’t think any of us will ever know for certain why…and I don’t think any of will ever comprehend and make sense of it all.

I was reminded over and over again the words of Psalm 46. If you are able, please listen to these words in light of the recent and unspeakable tragedy.  “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob in our fortress.  Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations he has brought on the earth.  He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the speak, he burns the shields with fire.  Be still, and know that I am God; and I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Frankly, although I understand the intentions of what the Psalmist was attempting to communicate, they were not necessarily all that comforting to me.  But, I must admit, it did give me quiet moments of pause!  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  What the Psalmist was saying is that, even in the midst of the unspeakable tragedies, chaos, brutal suffering, madness and evils of this earthly life, to know, God is still God! God is still our hope; our refuge. In times like these, God IS indeed our only refuge and strength, an ever present help in times of utter despair, tears, pain and when cannot and will never understand why things happen the way they do…

Over the past few days, you and I’ve also witnessed how God’s people in Newtown and all around this country have responded to this crisis.  People have offered their outpouring love, genuine care, prayers of various faith communities, and monetary and other contributions to help families of victims.  The coming together of all people and standing with each other has been equally speechless to me.  I’ve asked, “Where is God?”  This is where I’ve seen God and the power of love in the midst of wickedness and horrific evil.” This too gives me moments of pause!

The Psalmist, in essence utters, no matter what, yes, no matter what we go through in this earthly life, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  What the Psalmist was really saying was that, in times and season of pain, heartache and distress, we can never, never be separated from God’s love!  Wow! This certainly renews my soul, dries my misty eyes and genuinely gives me moments pause but also moments of wonder and hope!

Please don’t misunderstand me I still have my many unanswered and troubling questions.  Someday, I’ll have my Q&A session with God face-to-face.  But, in the meantime, I am going to do all I can (with every ounce of my being) to cling, grip and hold-on tightly to my unmovable and solid Rock – Jesus! 

Ruth Caye Jones wrote these power-packed words to this hymn:
In times like these, we need a Savior
In times like these we need an anchor
Be very sure, be very sure
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock
In times like these, we have a Savior
In times like these, we have an anchor
I'm very sure, I'm very sure
My anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock
This Rock is Jesus, Yes, He's the one
This Rock is Jesus, The only One
I'm very sure, I'm very sure
My anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock
May the peace that passes all human understanding, God’s abiding comfort and the strength of this Rock be yours, especially in times and seasons like this!

I’d love hearing your thoughts and reflections…

Dr. Wesley SK Daniel, Lead Minister
West Des Moines United Methodist Church  

Preparing the Way

Does this remind you of John the Baptist?

Listen to the sermon here: 

In the Gospel  of Luke, the stated purpose of its writing seems to be that of clarifying the stories and events so as to give us the facts.  Chapter 3 gives us several facts as a basis for introducing John the Baptist and his message "preparing the way" for the One who would be following him.  Today Dr. Daniel picked up that message of John the Baptist, who declared, "I have a message from the Lord" -- a message of repentance.  John the Baptist was an interesting character.  His appearance and dress was unique and his diet strange.  But his message was clear and was from God!  During Advent many of us are busy putting up our Christmas trees and lights, and wrapping presents in preparation of the Christmas Day celebration.  There are three things John the Baptist declares that we also consider in our preparation:  1.  "Repent!"  As in that day, so is it today, an important message, but one which some find offensive.  It means, "turn around" -- we're walking one way, and the call is to do a 180 and turn around and walk the other way -- God's way.  It calls on us to have a "different kind of Christmas."  2.  Repentance leads to, and becomes a commitment to, righteous living.  It's a complete turnaround.  We align with God.  3.  We open ourselves to receive God's grace, mercy, and love in our lives.  It's hard for us to fully comprehend the depth of God's love for us.  In his book, A Different Kind of Christmas, Mike Slaughter calls it a scandalous love -- a shocking love.  A holy and righteous God is attracted to sinners!  What we want to do and must do is throw ourselves at the mercy and love of this kind of God.  Jesus basically says, "Give me your sins!"  So as we prepare for our celebration, let's be sure to include the act of repentance and leaning on this great love God offers us in His Son, Jesus!

Gene Kelsey, Director of Christian Education

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Expect a miracle

Listen to the sermon here:

MP3 File

Expect a miracle!  When you hear that, what do you think of?  Jesus feeding the 5,000? or turning water into wine? or how about bringing the dead back to life, such as Lazarus?  Webster's dictionary defines a miracle as being an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.  One miracle event you may not think of is found in Luke 4 where Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, which says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me...to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed..."  Then He says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it."  The people had been waiting for a long time for the Messiah, looking for the good news and deliverance Isaiah prophesied.   Jesus says it's Him.  The divine intervention in human affairs.  The Miracle One.  This year our church is focusing on a different kind of Christmas, with an emphasis that now as Christians, we are co-workers -- co-miracle workers, with Jesus.   This task and responsibility is at the top of our "to do" list, looking for ways to partner with God, and to share God's love and care.  One way of doing that is to partner with Children & Family Urban Ministries (CFUM) here in central Iowa.  Carmen Lampe Zeitler, Executive Director, shared what this ministry is doing, and needs they have.  She referred to Luke 7 when John the Baptist was imprisoned, and sent two disciples to Jesus, to ask Jesus if He was the one.  Jesus responded, "Report to John what you've seen and heard -- the blind can now see, the crippled can now walk, the diseased skin is now cleansed, the deaf can now hear, the dead are now raised up, and the good news is preached to the poor!"  Miracles by the Miracle Worker!  Now it's our turn -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things with the help of the Holy Spirit!   A leader once said, "Christianity is not about how we feel on Sunday morning, it's about what kind of world children wake up to on Monday morning."

Gene Kelsey, Director of Christian Education

Monday, December 3, 2012

Giving up on Perfect

Listen to the sermon here: 

"Giving Up on Perfect."  The Gospel of Luke does such a great job giving us a "behind the scenes" look at some of the circumstances leading up to Jesus' birth.  So often when we think of the Christmas story, we think of the sanitized version, and often overlook the messy part.  Not only did an angel, Gabriel, appear -- it was an appearance to a very young virgin.  Despite the angel's message of "good news", Mary was confused -- perplexed.  Her mind must have been racing, trying to figure out what was happening.  She didn't understand.  Pregnant out of wedlock?  This was shaping up to be a mess -- a hot mess!  Not what she would have expected to be part of hers and Joseph's developing relationship!  The really good news was that this emerging story had an "X" factor -- God!!  This year we want to have a different kind of Christmas!  We want to make sure we shift our focus to Jesus, reflecting God's love into our plans, expectations, and relationships!  In Mary's case, the presence of God was key!  And the same is true for us!  Let's make space for God, and be aware of God's presence in all that we plan and do, especially this Christmas!  Thanks again, Pastor Jen, for bringing this important reminder and challenge last Sunday!

Gene Kelsey, Director of Christian Education