Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Season and a Time

Ecclesiastes 3: 1 (NRSV) “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven …”
Ecclesiastes 3: 7b (NRSV) “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …”
Sometime during a misspent moment in my youth, I was humming and singing along with a vinyl version of the Byrds to their hit “Turn, Turn, Turn” when somebody disarmed me by noting “you know that is from the Bible.”  I was in that moment of life where the Bible held no truths.  I was convinced she didn’t know what she was talking about.  I was – of course - wrrrrrrong, utterly wrong. I might even have been mistaken! 
At times this has been a scripture with tremendous centering power for me.  At times this divine insight pierces my soul.  It is at one and the same time, brilliant and true. 
There is a season and a time for everything and even as we enter the season of Advent and Christmas, we are still in the season of stewardship and budget development. I confess when it comes to talking about money, I am inclined to follow the injunction to “keep silence” and forget that the counter weight to that silence is “to speak.”   Even though we are in the spiritual, soul-healing business, we cannot ignore and neglect the everyday “business” of the church. To support your spiritual journey and your witness to the power of creator God, we have to address the funding side of life.  Every time we turn from the challenging, we run head long into divine insight that invites us to turn and has an impact on our soul.  My soul is pierced, again. 
Over the last twelve months (November, 2015 to October, 2016) we have had the highest level of congregational giving in the last five years - $372,000.  Our previous high was a little over $368,000 in January, 2012.  I am going to use this time to speak the voice of gratitude for your trust in the leaders of your church.  Thank you.  Thank you very much. 
You have made much possible through the generous sharing of your treasure.  We are making a difference in Sandy, in Utah, and in the World. With humility, paraphrasing Luke 4: 18-19, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us because we are bringing good news to the poor and we are setting captives free, we are helping with the recovery of sight, and we are proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  I love the message of God’s unconditional Grace, slathered out on each of us.  To be a follower of this radical Jesus requires us to think and act radically. 
One of my goals for 2017 is to get your staff to a higher level of compensation, Jim Collins writes in Good to Great, “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” I pray you agree with me that we are blessed with exceptional staff. We want them to be fairly paid for their talents and contributions to the health and growth of Hilltop, but we still have much uncertainty over what our income will be for 2017.
Now is the time for those who fully intend to eventually turn in a pledge form to do so. Now is a time to speak with your trust and commitment 
For those of you who do not intend to turn in a pledge form, might I invite a conversation with your church leadership so we might understand why you cannot speak with your trust and commitment. 
For those who have turned in a pledge form, we are praying for a ten percent increase in congregational giving in 2017.  I am mindful that at a time when we are at our highest level in nearly five years, we are praying for a new highest level. Our goal is to support your staff.
Candidly, your church leadership assessment is now is the season, now is the time.
Know that I am spiritually, emotionally, and financially invested in Hilltop.
Many others are as well. 
Are you? 
If not you, who? 
If not now, when?
Now is the season.
Now is the time. 
As a community, let’s make 2017 a year when we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor to all who have ears. 
The year of the Lord’s favor starts now. 
The year of the Lord’s favor starts with you. 

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Friday, September 30, 2016

Dream On

Dreams are key contributors to the narrative of both important biblical Josephs.  Let’s focus on the Genesis 37 to 50 Joseph rather than the husband of Mary Joseph.  The Genesis Joseph has two dreams in Canaan and tells his family of them.  The telling of these dreams help get him sold into slavery and sent to Egypt.  In Egypt, he makes use of dream interpretations to change his life circumstances:  when he assists fellow prisoners and when he assists the Egyptian Pharaoh.  ‘What do these dreams mean’ is a key integrative tool used by the narrator.  The dreams in Canaan help get Joseph into trouble with his family.  The dream interpretations in Egypt help get Joseph to a place of redemption. 
Our theme for October is “Dream on.”  Often this phrase is used in a sarcastic or cynical way having a meaning similar that this will be true “when pigs fly.”  But we don’t mean this in a winged razorback kind of way, rather we mean for this phrase to be understood in terms of aspiration and vision.  Steven Tyler of the rock group Aerosmith writes in Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, that their defining song ‘Dream On’ is “about the hunger to be somebody: Dream until your dreams come true.”
‘Dream on’ then is about our communal hunger, and our migration of that hunger to be a community that is a collection of some bodies who care about those in various needy places.  Said another way, to dream on, is about us being having dreams that are consistent with God’s dreams and vision for us. Frederick Buechner describes what that looks like:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
How and towards where do you “dream on” for Hilltop? 
Do you perceive that telling others of your dreams will lead to a Joseph like banishment from the Promised Land?  
Or do you see the possibility that in hearing the dreams of others, you can help with interpretation that leads to a different future? 
I would hope and pray that our dreams as a community indeed take us to a ‘place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’  But at the end of the day – continue to dream on.  And should people resort to listening to you and replying to your visions in terms of winged razorbacks (i.e. flying pigs) you can continue, Joseph like, to be optimistic and hopeful for a Spirit Filled Future for the Children of God here at Hilltop. 
Selah, Pastor Dennis

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Global, United, Inclusive: Pick Two – An Update

For the June/July Hilltop Newsletter, I spoke to the idea of how the United Methodist Church sees itself in terms of three key words and values: global, unified, and inclusive. I lamented that we were approaching a time when we might need to pick two. Rethinking that a little, I wonder if we are not actually at a place where we must pick one.

I wrote in June that “The 1996 General Conference in Denver had the motto, often attributed to John Wesley:  ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’ … [and] If … we are not to be in unity, I pray we will be charitable.” The World of Wesley often said charity where we now use love. I pray that we show love if we are not unified. My lens on the Jesus message is one of love:  God, my fellow human creature, and, at some appropriate and healthy time, myself. All three in a healthy Trinitarian dance.
We are becoming disunited over the issue of human sexuality.
Several hundred spiritually centered United Methodists, laity and clergy, from across the West, gathered in Arizona in July and examined the credentials of candidates for Bishop. They elected the most qualified person. Everyone I have spoken to who was there said that Reverend Doctor Karen Oliveto of the California-Nevada Conference was in a category all her own. They spoke to her vision, her presence, her charisma, her spirituality, and her leadership.
There was a time when the most qualified leader in the church also had the additional responsibility to have been created by God male. That is no longer true.
There was a time when the most qualified leader in the church also had the additional responsibility to have been created by God white. That is no longer true.
There was a time when the most qualified leader in the church also had the additional responsibility to have been created by God heterosexual. At least for now, in the West, that is no longer true.
Bishop Karen Oliveto is married to another woman. Effective September 1, Bishop Karen is our Bishop.
I shared pastoral thoughts at both services on Sunday, July 17th.  My comments that morning were supportive. I deeply appreciate the reciprocal support shown back to me by many of you, and potentially, Bishop Karen. The comments have been overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, positive. I do not say that to guilt or shame those who are not positive on this. I note that those troubled by this action seem ready to stay at Hilltop, for which I am grateful and hopeful. This community called Hilltop, a place to belong, believe, and become, with its special unique gifts and graces is important to them.
Let me invite a dialogue here, not a monologue. Should any wish to speak to me on this, I am open to a conversation. I will respectfully listen and I will share your pain.
As I indicated on July 17th, I plan to support Bishop Karen fully to the best of my ability. This is how I supported Bishop Elaine.
I am faithful that those who gathered in Arizona in July were prayerful and Spirit-led people. It is my fervent hope that Hilltop will be prayerful and Spirit-led as well.
I pray that in order to be inclusive, we lose neither our unity nor our global nature, but if I have to pick one, I am faithful to the idea that picking inclusive is the most Jesus-like response.
Let’s be in healthy Christian conversation.
Selah, Pastor Dennis

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gifts of the Spirit

1st Corinthians 12: Verses 4–7: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Galatians 5:22-23: By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Galatians 5:19-21: Now the works of the flesh are obvious:…impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

 Scripture is NRSV

Paul is big on the idea of the Spirit. The Spirit is clearly an important theological idea for Paul. References to the Spirit fill Paul’s letters as he coaches his far flung flock. Three are quoted here. Paul was having trouble with both Corinth First UMC and Galatians Community UMC. Things had fallen apart after he had left.
Things are not falling apart at Hilltop UMC, let me assure you. We are doing well.  We can do better. 
I personally like to think of the two Galatians readings in terms of car dashboard lights. When we are in proper relationship with God, our fellow co-laborers in the church and ourselves, our dashboard lights are green. Love, joy, peace and other good things are displayed consistent with what Paul enumerates in Galatians 5: 22-23. The machine should work well when the lights are all green. However, we need to check our spiritual engines when the dashboard lights are red with strife, anger, factions, envy and the like. In the car dashboard world, green is normally good, red is normally a problem. Fruits of the Spirit are good; Works of the Flesh are not. Galatians 5 helps us understand and measure how we are doing with this relationship stuff. The passage is an indicator of relationship.
If Galatians 5 is about how we are doing, 1st Corinthians 12 helps us frame what it is we should be doing.
Paul’s specificity in Galatians is largely absent in the Corinthians. In Galatians Paul gives us the names of lights we can read as green or red. In Corinthians Paul resorts to an illustration of the church as a body and points to body parts as how the body should function. An ear listens but it does not see. His illustration is very good.  I augment the body illustration from Paul in terms of team, and as a baseball fan, I see it in terms of baseball. You need a variety of different skill types to play baseball, and a team made up of Yogi Berra’s, a Hall of Fame catcher and pontificator, might be a good one for providing pithy quotations, but it might have trouble pitching effectively. 

The church, like a team, like the human body, needs different skills, as given to us by the Spirit, to be put to labor on behalf of the Kingdom of God.
What are your God-given gifts? Sometimes we know what they are: I am good at numbers, and I am not particularly good at small engine repair. But I didn’t know I was good at numbers until I got dropped into a position in 1973 that called for me to be a numerical analyst. I struggled for a while but mentors and coaches helped me and turned that struggle into strength. What we now see as a gift was at one time not a gift. It was honed and developed by others, enhanced by my own willingness to be coached to success. I had to be a numbers disciple, a student, for a while. In reality, I am still a numbers disciple, constantly looking at web sites and articles about how to better display data so that it becomes information, but I digress.
I had to trust others to see that gift in me that I didn’t know that I possessed. 

In my learning and growing here, I didn’t become angry or exercise poor self-control. In fact, this endeavor became an object that lead to joy. When it comes to being a numerical analyst, my dashboard lights here were never red, always green.
Here are some thoughts:
  • Gift Assessment Axiom: When you don’t think something is a gift, you might be mistaken. 
  • The Converse to that Axiom: When you think something is a gift, you might be mistaken. 
  • The Corollary to that Axiom: Listen to others about your gifts. Another might see your gifts more clearly than you. 

Look to the dashboard lights and crosscheck them against Galatians 5.  Green is good.  Red is not good.  Listen to your heart.  Listen to others.  Listen for God.  Remember that God sometimes speaks in a small, still, voice, except when small, still isn’t working. 
Selah, Pastor Dennis

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Transforming VUCA to Building the Kingdom -- Pastor Musings -- April, 2016

I was in the Army for over twenty years.  Building acronyms was part of what the Army did. Instead of saying someone was “absent without leave” we said they were AWOL, most often pronounced “A-Wall.”  Old timers might spell it out “A-double u-oh-el.” 

VUCA is an acronym. On the negative side it means: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. On the positive side it can be transformed into vision, understanding, clarity, and agility (with adaptability understood and an excellent option or alternative). We live in a world framed by VUCA, but which one?
There is a strong biblical and theological reason for hope. Hope helps us to see the opportunities. Turning VUCA around from negative to positive meaning is accomplished through these principles:
  • Volatility yields to Vision
  • Uncertainty yields to Understanding
  • Complexity yields to Clarity
  • Ambiguity yields to Agility [& Adaptability]
The 2008-18 Map of Future Forces Affecting the Episcopal Church suggested that to bring about this VUCA turnaround, faith in the future would call for:
  • Vision that gives you meaning, with intent that articulates a meaningful future – beyond the polarities of the present.
  • Understanding the grace of all people, with a sense of empathy that grows with the differences all around us.
  • Clarity of discernment and communication, in the fog of disbelief and the conditions of the VUCA world, clarity of discernment leads to faith. For some, discernment means discovering God’s will for your life or discerning your own calling. Clarity of communication means stating clearly to others what you think is going on and what needs to be done. Clarity is required to create an effective strategy for change. Clarity is needed so that others can understand your strategic intent for the church.
  • Agility in the practice of faith, since predetermined action is brittle in a VUCA world riddled with surprises, an agent of change must be…practiced, agile [and adaptable.] You need to prototype your way to success and fail in constructive ways.
Between each of those words is space. I invite us to see that faith lives in that space. It is the same space as between judging too soon and deciding too late. Our task is to move outward into God’s world in ever increasing concentric circles.  Vision, understanding, clarity, and agility are all key elements of how we move out in those concentric circles from Hilltop as we build God’s Kingdom. But I know this: allowing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and [excessive] ambiguity to define us will lead us to getting stuck.
Following a period of testing and refinement in the wilderness Joshua (in verses 24: 15 of  the Hebrew Bible book bearing his name) would say:  “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

There is a whole lot of vision, understanding, clarity and agility in that.  And serving the Lord can be about building the Kingdom. I vote we see the future in terms of Joshua. 

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Are We Still Afraid? -- March, 2016 -- Pastor Musings

Mark 16:8 (NIV) Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

In the oldest versions the Gospel of Mark ends here. Think about it: The oldest gospel ended with the Greek word that points to our fears?
We are familiar with this Greek word—phobos. It is the root of the English word phobia. A phobia is more than simple fear; a phobia is an extreme or irrational fear.  Some fear is is in fact, quite healthy, and anything but extreme or irrational. I wonder if we, like the women at the empty tomb, are still afraid. If so, what are we afraid of? And are those fears healthy or perhaps extreme or irrational. 
Frank Herbert in his novel Dune addresses the idea of fear. He sees fear as the “mind-killer.” Fear brings “total obliteration,” and he says we must “face” our fears. Herbert is speaking as a keen observer of the human condition. His insight is valuable. Irrational fear does in fact kill our minds, numbing us to possibilities. It is also important to face our fears. 

What drove the fears of the women at the empty tomb? They had wondered who would roll away the stone, and instead, they are told to go and tell Jesus disciples “and Peter” that Jesus has gone on “ahead” just as “he had told you.”  Were they afraid because the stone had been rolled away? That doesn’t seem likely. I wonder if it was the imperative to go and tell others what Jesus had said, both to those who knew him, and Peter, the one who had denied him. But most important, tell them what? He was alive and risen. It was all true. Did they feel inadequate to the occasion? I wrestled with that for years. Who me? I am sure I thought:  “Surely you are kidding. I am not adequate to that task.” 

Marianne Williamson writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us...and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” What if she is right?  What if our fear is not one of inadequacy, but rather one of potential power just waiting to be unleashed? In all honesty, part of my love for Bonhoeffer is that he seemed, through his Christian walk, to find a way to give me permission to allow my own inner light to shine. I think the early church grew because they had seen this beautiful, wonderful light and wanted others, whether slave or free, man or woman, Greek or Gentile, to experience this light. 

Fear needs to be named, and in naming it we gain power over it and can marshal the resources to defeat it. Nelson Mandela writes: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

The recent survey done by Hilltop to examine our readiness to parent the birth of a new church suggested we were close to ready. But it also suggested that we still had some fears that needed to be named and conquered. Trust me: fear can be healthy. I think we should channel our fears on this new start in healthy ways, first by naming them, and then so ordering our spiritual lives so that we are strengthened by them.
Loss of friends and financial readiness appear to be two of the named fears.
I think our great-great-grandparents would sadly shake their heads over those fears. Many of our ancestors left St. Joseph, Missouri in Conestoga wagons. expecting to never again see the friends and relatives they left behind. Our friends  now will set out on an epic adventure, but they are not really going very far.  We can still bowl on Tuesday nights with them. 
More distant ancestors left Bristol, England in the 1700s who were “all in.” No McDonald’s. No Chipotles. No Starbucks.  No break down lane to fix the canvas rigging if something went horribly awry.  But they were “all in.” Financially we are actually only “in” for about 20 cents on each new church investment dollar. Others stand behind us. We are incurring risk, but others are confident we can do this. If others believe in us, why should we be afraid? 

I hope that when the good news story of Hilltop is told, the last words said about us are not those that point to our fears.  Sharing the good news of God’s Grace manifest through Jesus Christ is a story worth taking some risk to tell. Go. Tell

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Financial State of Hilltop -- Pastor Musings -- February, 2016

Annually, in January, various officials report to their constituents on “The State of” something. The President reports on “The State of the Union.” Governor Herbert reports on “The State of the State.” I imagine the various Mayors report on The State of Sandy or Draper or West Jordan or Lehi. I want to take some of your time to report on “The Financial State of Hilltop.” 

The Financial State of Hilltop is excellent. In fact, the overall state is probably the best it has been since I arrived in July, 2012.

The decision to move to one service, made in April, 2012 caused a few families to leave Hilltop. It took us time to ascertain the exact impact of those departures. This was due in part to the strict confidentiality over by-name giving which is a historical value of Hilltop. We are continuing to work on protecting givers confidentiality, while having a numerical feedback to inform your financial leaders of what is happening. This is better now, and we continue to work on it. It is by nature, imprecise without a dialogue element.

This is my fourth shot at budget development since I have been here, and we have done it a little differently every time. I think Tim Strickland and the Stewardship Committee laid out an excellent strategy for the church, and key leaders stepped up and carried the narrative of where we were trying to go quite well. The five brochures created around people, building, worship, programs and missions are in the fellowship hall and are strategically accurate about goals and vision.

Hope and reality led to modifications from our draft budget. We laid out a strategy for a $550,000 budget which would have been a $100,000 increase in spending over 2015. Our 2016 budget will be $505,000 in projected income and spending. We are going to split the difference:  this is a little over $50,000 increase in both income and spending.

A bold element of the budget is that the revenue from the cell towers is not going into annual spending but is being provided directly to the trustees for use with building sustainment. In short, that money will not be used to pay salaries, fund ministries, or pay for utilities. Rather, it will be used to replace and refurbish the building. This step is long overdue and necessary. We hope to withdraw most of the income from the Hilltop Christian School in 2017 for the same reason. We would maintain some cash flow from HCS in order to deal with utilities but, we hope that portion that is “rent” can be spent on capital items, i.e. heaters, air conditioners, carpeting, etc.

Our cash reserves and designated accounts are earmarked to assist the budget with nearly $20,000 of income support. In addition, the Rocky Mountain Conference has been sent a grant request for $30,000 for 2016 to pay a portion of the Minister of Evangelism’s salary. If the income does not materialize, then an expense that is directly related to that income will not be started.

Our forecast for congregational giving is up nearly $40,000. Most of that increase, $35,000, is due to increased pledges. It has been our experience that pledged numbers are generally met. We will keep a close eye on the totality of congregational giving and report to you regularly on how that totality of congregational giving is going.

We plan to spend $505,000 on the building, our people, our programs and activity beyond the local church.

We will meet about 75% of our obligation to the regional and national church. We aspire to increase our funding to RMC to 100% in the future as we have for many years in the past. Like the staff at the conference, your staff is very lean. Only three of us are currently even close to full-time. We will, if the conference grant is approved, go to four in July. I hope we can increase compensation and benefits for all of the staff in 2017. Replacing some of them at current compensation levels would be challenging if not impossible.

Again, the Financial State of Hilltop is excellent. As I indicated earlier, the overall state is arguably the best it has been since I arrived in July, 2012. There are many ministries and community events active in our building. These include our support for Family Promise, multiple levels of Scouting, Alcoholics Anonymous and community music groups. Further, we are engaged outside the building in many ways through the Salt Lake Rescue Mission and our Gospel Choir, just to name a few. Many of these are made possible by extra-mile stewardship, and others are made possible through the gift of time and talent. We have been very generous with time, talent, and treasure this past year. We look forward to another year of growth here.

Selah, Pastor Dennis

Living Like Christ -- Pastor Musings -- January, 2016

The standard for Living Like Christ is laid out in 1 John 2:6 (NRSV): “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” To be sure here, the “him” in that is Jesus. My first reaction to reading that is, impossible. I cannot walk just as Jesus walked, so why even try? 

The problem is looking at the issue of Living Like Christ from the wrong start point. I am leaving God out of the equation. Matthew 19:26 (NRSV) says, “But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’” Mathematically I wonder if it might be stated something like: If G (God) is greater than zero, P (Possibilities) are infinite. Stated as a mathematical equation it is:  If G>0, then P = ∞.

The key is keeping God and the infinite possibilities rendered by God present in the narrative of our lives.

Twelve step programs are grounded in the idea we cannot accomplish the hard work of self-awareness of where we need to improve without help from ‘a higher power.’ I find that concept of ‘a higher power’ resident in us from 1 John 4:4 (NRSV): “Little children, you are from God…the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” A piece of God is inside each of us, and it allows us to make impossible work, possible.

Let’s be clear, this walking like Jesus thing isn’t going to happen in a nanosecond, or an instant. It is a slow, deliberate, methodical, diligent, road to holiness. It is our growth as disciples. Even if it surpasses all human understanding, because God is with us on this walk, we can get there from here. 

Borrowing an idea from The Velveteen Rabbit, God’s love of us, if we really let it rub off on us, makes us real.

Following my January 3rd Sermon, Charlie Bonsall spoke to me about how the idea of gradual, steady movement towards God, a step at a time, a day at a time, helped him in his life. Yes. I spoke on Christmas Eve about how so often we, incorrectly, think God expects us to move from imperfection to perfection in an instant, a nanosecond. No, no, no. It is gradual and requires diligent, hard work. Charlie and I spoke after the Sunday service about how so many think they know what the church is all about from limited exposure or second hand reports. However, when those same souls get involved in a regular walk with Christ, they see they acquire a new and different interpretation of the church and the good it does in so many ways.

Paul in Philippians 4: 7 (NRSV) suggests: ‘God’s peace surpasses all human understanding.’ So we come full circle to “why try?” We try because the biblical invitation is to do the hard work of walking as Jesus walked. We try because we quest for our lives to be made complete, to be made whole. In Hebrew, God’s peace is about wholeness, completeness. There is in each of us a spiritual hunger that needs to be fed. Jesus is living water, living bread, that nourishes that hunger.
Selah, Pastor Dennis

Simple Gifts -- December, 2015 Pastor Musings

One of my favorite American composers is Aaron Copland. Several of Copland’s more famous pieces involve settings of Joseph Brackett’s dance tune Simple Gifts. Copland uses it without words in the ballet Appalachian Spring but also arranges it for voices.  Brackett’s poetry is elegant in its simplicity: 
Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

Because it is a dance tune we might think that “to turn” means dancing. Maybe. But is it possible that Brackett isn’t driving at the idea of delightfully turning our lives around so that everything comes out right. Brackett was highly religious, and his point could have been deeper, more complex, and spiritual beyond the simple message. To turn, in the Hebrew Bible, is to change the direction of our lives. Wouldn’t it be logical that if we “turn” we come around to what is “right?”  So, what is right? 

Red-letter words in Matthew 6: 33 (KJV) say for us to “…seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” There is simplicity to that. 
I write this article standing on the eve of Advent. By the time they are published, we will have celebrated our first Advent Service. It is so easy at this time of year with all the tugs and pulls of the world, of family, of church needs, of work demands, to forget the simple message of Advent: preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ in our world. This great displacement of God coming to walk among us in human form is so simple that we try to make complex. The simple is that God loves us, enough to take on human, vulnerable, form. Some may want to take that simple message and make it complex, but the simplicity is John 3:16 “for God so loved the world.” Luther suggested that was  “the gospel in a sentence.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." Most of the time Holmes is right, but on this maybe not. 

Advent is simple: Prepare ourselves for the coming of God into the world; and one way to prepare is by seeking first what it means to live in eager anticipation and readiness of that already-but-not-yet kingdom of God.  But in seeking first, we are required to turn from the world’s ways and thoughts and refocus ourselves on ‘bowing and bending’ our will to God’s. We want to make it complex. But at the end of the day, it is really a pretty simple question: are we ready to seek first God’s kingdom, rather than the world’s? 
Selah, Pastor Dennis

Happiness Doubled by Wonder -- November, 2015 Musings

Psalm 118:24:  (New Revised Standard Version) “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), English writer, journalist and Christian apologist.

When I step out before you on Sundays during worship, I offer Psalm 118, verse 24. I have been doing this since November, 2003 when I was first asked to lead worship every Sunday. My theology is that our worship of praise to God includes our gratitude for God’s loving kindness.

November is thus for me an anniversary of being in servant leadership in the church. I like that the anniversary comes in a month when we have so many occasions to show our gratitude. Let’s look at some of these.
  • All Saints Sunday is November 1 and is an opportunity for us to show gratitude and appreciation for those who have gone on before us. I see this as saying thank you to those who have served and shaped us by serving the church.
  • This year Dedication Sunday will be celebrated at Hilltop on November 8. We will be asked to make our personal dedication to ‘The Church’ in the form of pledges of time, talent, and treasure. I would hope that all of us can show our gratitude and appreciation for Hilltop by committing anew to support her in her ministry of Grace. This year we follow quite quickly with a chance on November 10 to celebrate our progress during our annual business meeting.
  • November 11th is a day of remembrance for those who have served our country. By serving the nation, they have served us.
  • Then we have Thanksgiving Day. This originally had religious origins but it has become more secularized. I routinely encourage all to rekindle the attitude of gratitude at Thanksgiving that started off as a thanksgiving to God. Marilyn and I will get to see children and grandchildren as well as my brother and a future new sister-in-law. It will be packed, intense, and grand.
The Chesterton quote above speaks to us. It is so easy for us to be self-absorbed and see the world only through our eyes. We are, after all, at the center of every experience we have, right?  How might we allow that doubling of happiness by our own wonder?  For me it centers in the Psalm 118, verse 24 to ‘rejoice and be glad in the day the Lord has given us.’ 

I am mindful that all of us struggle with dark forces, some more frequently and darker than others, but know this:  all of us struggle. But we have within us the capacity to turn darkness into light. That capacity is sparked by the piece of God that is in each of us that is in no one else, and the process of us learning how to allow that inner light to be turned on, or left dark is ours. I vote daily to ‘rejoice and be glad in the day the Lord has given us.’  I pray you do as well.

Selah, Pastor Dennis