Discipleship 101

Once upon a time, there was a fire in a small town. The fire brigade rushed to the scene, but the firemen were unable to get through to the burning building. The problem was the crowd of people who had gathered to help put out the fire. They all knew and liked the fire chief. So, when a fire broke out, the people rushed out to help their beloved fire chief. Unfortunately, the townsfolk were seeking to extinguish this raging inferno with water pistols! They’d all stand there, from time to time squirting their pistol into the fire while making casual conversation. The fire chief couldn’t contain himself. He started screaming at the townsfolk. “What do you think you’re doing? What on earth do you think you’re going to achieve with those water pistols?!” The people realized the urgency of the situation. How they wanted to help the fire chief! So, they started squirting more. “Come on”, they encouraged each other, “We can all do better, can’t we?” They squirted a few more drops. Exasperated, the fire chief yells again. “Get out of here. You’re achieving nothing except hindering us from doing what needs to be done. We need fire fighters who are ready to give everything they’ve got to put out this fire, people willing even to lay their lives on the line. This is not the place for token contributions!”

That story was originally told by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). He told that story for one reason. Discipleship is more than token contributions to the church and a few good deeds. Discipleship requires wholehearted and total life commitment. In other words, it is time to put your water pistol down and get serious about Jesus.

When we last left Saul, his conversion was complete. He was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. Those must have been curious days in his life. This should have been a happy time, but the joy was stunted by loneliness. Just think about it for a moment. He walked away from his old life and his old relationships. His former colleagues must have viewed him as a traitor. His parents now considered him a disappointment. Former friends tried to figure out what went wrong. What really happened to Saul? There must have been rumors of mental illness and emotional breakdown. There would be no going back but going forward was equally difficult. To say the least, Saul came with some baggage. He was not welcomed by everyone in the church because he wasn’t trusted by everyone. Yet, the scriptures do not say a single word about his loneliness. Instead, the scriptures tell us of his commitment. Verse 20 says, “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the son of God.” I find that fact to be truly amazing. Instantly, his entire world changed, but the only thing that mattered to him was Jesus. Being passionate about Jesus is the most important thing in discipleship. It is Discipleship 101. The only thing that really matters is Jesus. I think that will preach!

Every time I preach, I say the same prayer.

Father, we have three great confessions. We confess we have all made mistakes and need forgiveness. We confess that negative news and people have worn us down and we need hope. We confess that our own mortality bothers us because we want to live forever. When we have Jesus, we have the answer to these three problems…

It is true. When we have Jesus, we have forgiveness. When we have Jesus, we have hope for a better world. When we have Jesus, we have eternal life. In other words, Jesus is affecting the way we remember the past, experience the present and anticipate the future. I do not know how people can’t live without Jesus. I need Jesus more every day.

Discipleship 101 tells us it is all about Jesus. The Master must be number one. However, one of the great challenges in your life is keeping Jesus number one. It is so easy to let Jesus become a secondary priority. I am not talking about intentionally substituting Jesus with something sinister, drugs or crime. I am talking about substituting Jesus, the best, with something that is only good. How many times have we substituted Jesus, the best, with something that is only good? Our lives are filled with so many good things. It would be easy to make any of them our top priority. Let me give you just a few examples.

In the fifteenth century, Ivan the Great (1530-1584) did something no one was able to do in the past, defeat the Tartars and unite Russia. He had a brilliant military career, but his personal life was lacking. He was so consumed with military conquests that he never had time to marry and produce a single heir to the throne. Recognizing his deficiency, he told his adviser to find him a suitable wife. After a careful search, it was announced that Ivan would marry the daughter of the King of Greece. There was only one thing Ivan had to do, become Greek Orthodox. Ivan consented. He was instructed in Greek Orthodox doctrine and traveled to Athens, along with his 500-member palace guard. As a sign of loyalty, the guard requested to be baptized at the same time as Ivan. To make a long story short, they were baptized together in the Mediterranean. It must have been quite the scene. In front of a huge crowd, Ivan, his 500 guards and the 500 Orthodox priests entered the water. Soldiers wearing full military uniforms and priests wearing black robes. All the Russians were baptized in a single moment. However, the guards got the last laugh. When they were baptized, they held their swords out of the water as a sign of loyalty to Ivan.

That story reminds us that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. Either you are completely baptized, or you are not baptized at all. One of things I struggle with is civil religion. That is when we mix our religious beliefs with our patriotism. That drives me crazy because it is so dangerous. The news is filled with religious zealots who are fighting for both God and country. It is so easy to wave religion as a flag during a military conflict. The problem is real religion, any religion, doesn’t condone such behavior. World history has seen the rise and fall of many nations. We live in the most wonderful country in the history of the world but it has some limitations. America can still offer hope to future generations, but America can’t forgive your sins. America can’t promise you eternal life. Jesus can do all three. That is why Jesus must be the top priority in your life. It is Discipleship 101.

I served the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield, Ohio for twenty-eight years. I am proud of that fact. Over that period, we have seen so many changes. They have been good years for that congregation. They have not been as good for many of our United Methodist congregations in the area. The church that may have been hit the hardest was the Mahoning UMC. At one point, they sold their building for $305,000. (That would be good news if we were in the real estate business, but we are not.) The few members which remained faced a questionable future. My heart goes out to anyone who has ties back to Mahoning. Churches should never close. I know it is not just a building but so many things have happened with that structure. That building was such a large part of so many lives. How many people have been married there? How many babies have been baptized there? How many saints have been buried from there? How many souls were saved there? How many memories have been made there? Walking away from a church building is like walking away from an old friend. How can you do it? There is so much there? However, this is the truth.

The church is not Jesus. The church, itself, can’t forgive you. The church, itself, can’t offer you hope. The church, itself, can’t make eternity possible. The church is just a vehicle used by Christ to offer those things to their community. The church is nothing more than another organization. Like people, churches have a lifeline. At some point every church was born and at some point, every church will close. That is why you can’t make your church your top priority. That is why the top priority in your life must be Jesus. It is Discipleship 101. Saul knew from the very beginning what we must never forget. It is all about Jesus! Everything else, no matter how good, is secondary.

Years ago, I was on a volunteer in mission trip in Russia. We were in the orphanage playing with the children. We were working on crafts and giving them candy. The children couldn’t have been any more excited. A young couple on our team decided to give the children something they had brought. It wasn’t more candy. It was something called “Jesus Blocks.” It contained six blocks, each one a section of a picture of Jesus. If you laid the blocks just right a single image of Jesus came up. If you turned it one way, it was a picture of Jesus’ birth. If you turned it another way, it was a picture of Jesus on the cross. If you turned it another way, it was a picture of the resurrection. I will never forget the effect those blocks had on the children. I didn’t think they would be interested, but those blocks grabbed their attention. One young man grabbed his blocks and studied the details of every picture. He took his fingertips and felt the smooth surface. At one point, he kissed his “Jesus Blocks” and held them up to his cheek. After doing so, he looked up at me and said in perfect English, “It is Jesus!” He was right! It is Discipleship 101!

You have to be passionate about Jesus! If we don’t have Jesus, then we have nothing at all. Without Jesus, we don’t have forgiveness. Without Jesus, we don’t have hope for a better tomorrow. Without Jesus, we have no hope of eternity. With Jesus, we can have it all! Jesus must be the top priority in your life. It is Discipleship 101! Mother Teresa (1910-1997) once said, “Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.”

Pray for Jon Steingard

Pray for Jon Steingard. I will be the first one to admit it. I never heard of him until recently. He is not a close friend. I would not recognize him, if he walked into the room. However, I have found myself praying for him because he has made the greatest mistake in his life. He has announced to the world he is an atheist. He should have known better. He was raised in a Christian home in Canada. To make matters worse, he was a pastor’s kid. Until recently, he was the lead vocalist and guitarist for the Christian pop-punk band Hawk Nelson. I do not know why he walked away. Perhaps, he was near sighted or angry at God. He saw all the ugliness of this world and decided God could not exist. He would not be the first one. Perhaps, he walked away because he only heard about Jesus and never experienced Jesus firsthand. There is a world of difference. Regardless, I feel sorry for him. So, let me ask you again. Pray for Jon Steingard. He will regret his decision to leave the faith. How do you walk away from the greatest life that ever lived? That takes us to our scripture reading for today, Micah 5:1-4.

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “He who is like God,” but we just call him Micah. Truly little is known about him outside of this book. However, we do know he lived in southern Judah approximately 700 years before the birth of Christ. At that time, Judah was struggling. Both their present and their future seemed bleak. We can relate to them because the negativity at this time in history is suffocating. However, for the people of God there is always hope. It is still true today.

The scripture reading may so familiar because it is read every Christmas Eve. The great prophesy is read surrounded by decorated trees and poinsettias on that sacred night to big crowds. The key verse in the reading is verse two, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Ephrathah was the region in which Bethlehem was located, like Youngstown is in Ohio. Bethlehem is approximately eleven miles south of Jerusalem. The people of that small community must have been proud, but the promised ruler would not come in their lifetime. You know the truth. God transcends time. In other words, God does not grow old, so God takes his time. It took 700 years for God to act.

The long-awaited ruler was born to a common couple. They named him Jesus. His name means Savior. His biological mother was Mary. His biological father was God, Himself. That means Joseph had the awful job of being the stepfather to the son of God. How do you discipline the son of God? Seven-hundred years is a long time to wait, but it was worth every second. Let me state it clearly. Jesus was the greatest life that ever lived. Jesus would change the world and our lives. You would not recognize our world if Jesus had never been born. H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was an English writer. He said it best, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I confess as an historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of human history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.” That is a great quote. If you can agree Jesus had a positive influence on our world say, “Amen!”

Allendale Baptist Church is in Allendale, Michigan. It is a community of approximately 18,000 people and is less than 400 miles from here. The associate pastor at that church is a man named Tim Arndt. He claims to be the world’s tallest Filipino. However, he did not give his height. I read one of his blogs recently. He says Jesus changed our world for the better in five profound ways. I cannot disagree with one. They are listed in no particular order.

Jesus influenced education! Matthew 22:37 quotes Jesus, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus was interested in the mind. Jesus is saying we are to love God with our whole being. History tells us the Bible was the first textbook for many young children. In 1860, there were 108 colleges and universities in America. 106 of the 108 was started by Christians. That list includes Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Brown. It is ironic the world has tried to portray the faith as ignorant when the faith has done more than any other group to educate the masses. Have you ever stopped to consider how the Christian faith has influenced your education? Do you know anyone who cannot read? Jesus influenced education! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced women’s rights! It is impossible to read the gospels and not notice the major role woman played in Jesus’s ministry. That was unique and shocking in his time. Prior to Jesus, the world did not care less about women. In the Roman world, women were property. Jesus saw woman differently. He saw woman for what they were, made in the very image of God. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect. It happened during his earthly ministry. Jesus’ friends and ministry partners were women. It happened during his after his resurrection. It was woman who made the great discovery, Jesus had been raised from the dead! It was women who were untrusted with the message which would change the world. The early church was so saturated with women that it was often criticized as “a woman’s religion.” This church and many other churches would be crippled without the work of women. Jesus values all people. That means Jesus values you. How large of a part have women played in your spiritual development? Jesus influenced education and women’s rights! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced human rights! Matthew 5:44 says, “But I say to you, love your enemy, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Matthew 22:39 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving and caring for others is at the very heart of Jesus’s teachings. That is why the church has always been involved in human rights. The church was a major forced in the ending of slavery in the 1860’s and the church was a major force during the civil rights of the 1960’s. The church will be a major force of the human rights issues we are facing today. If we ignore or belittle the human rights issues of today, then we are ignoring the words of Jesus, himself, love your enemy as yourself. Today, in America basic human rights are common sense. But that was not always the case. Prior to Christianity, basic human rights were rare. How are you advancing human rights? Our society is far from perfect. Jesus influenced education, women’s rights, and human rights! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced humanitarian aid! In Matthew 25, we find the parable of the sheep and goats. It is a judgement parable. According to the parable, on judgement day we will be separated by God like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be permitted to enter heaven because they responded to human needs. They fed the hungry. The gave drink to the thirty. They welcomed strangers. They gave clothes to the naked. They cared for the sick and the incarcerated. The goats did none of the above and were sent to hell. The parable ends with a zinger. Jesus said, when you cared for the down and out you were really caring for him. This is the point. We are responsible for the world’s basic needs. Did you know every seven seconds someone dies of starvation? What are you doing to help them? Have you ever needed some help? Jesus influenced education, women’s rights, human rights, and humanitarian aid! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born? How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Jesus influenced medicine! The miracles of Jesushave fascinated the generations. It is true in Jesus’s generation and it is still true today. Jesus got the lame to walk. Jesus got the blind to see. Jesus made the demonic whole and resurrected the dead. Those miracles are important because they proved he was the long-awaited Messiah. However, they were also important because Jesus did not want to see people suffer. He wanted them to live full lives. For this reason, many hospitals were started in the name of Jesus. The government has been involved in the medical system for the past 80 years. (How do you think they are doing?) Prior to the government, churches were involved in starting and funding hospitals. Still today, there are 726 faith-based hospitals. When was the last time you required some medical care? Jesus influenced education, women’s rights, human rights, humanitarian rights, and medicine! How would our world look today if Jesus had never been born?

Micah may have lived 700 years before the birth of Jesus, but he was right! The most influential life that would ever live was Jesus. Two-thousand years after his birth we see the influence he has had. Jesus offered us hope. Without Jesus our world is a dark hopeless place. Perhaps, H. G. Wells said it best. He once said, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I confess as an historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of human history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”

Family Feud

Many years ago, before man walked on the moon, before a civil war threatened to divide America, or before Columbus discovered a New World, there was a man who spoke for God. His name meant “servant of the Lord,” but we just call him Obadiah. He lived about 600 before the birth of Christ. His audience were the people of Judah, who were being attacked by the Babylonians. Even Jerusalem, The Golden City, was being attacked. However, the residents of Judah were not the only one receiving this judgement. The people of Edom were receiving the judgement too. God could not tolerate their arrogance and pride. The Edomites, living high in the mountains, did not just feel secure, but they felt superior. They did not just ignore the needs of Judah, they ransacked some of their cities too. The key to understanding this dark passage lays in answering this question.

Who are the Edomites? They are more than the citizens of the country on the southern border of Judah. It is more than politics. It is ancestry. Both the people of Judah and the people of Edom could trace their ancestry back to Abraham. Do you remember the story? God makes a great promise to Abram, later Abraham, that he will the father of a great nation. That promised lived on the day Abraham and Sarah, his wife, welcomed their first born into the world, Isaac. In time, Isaac and his wife, Rebecca, had two sons Jacob and Esau. To say the least, those two brothers had a tense relationship. Esau traded his valuable birthright for a bowl of stew. In more time, Jacob and Esau have their names changed to Israel and Edom. Their families take their names, the Israelites and the Edomites. That means, the Israelites and the Edomites are family. That means the story of Obadiah is a family feud. The Book of Obadiah resonates with us because our society is filled with family feuds. How many can you count?

America is experiencing a family feud politically. There has always been a tension between the two political parties. That was a good thing because the right thing to do was discovered in the compromise. Today, there is little compromise, so nothing is happening. Could it be America could save a great amount of money by holding the presidential election today? I am convinced most Americans know today who they will vote for in November. Are you going to vote for Donald Trump? Are you going to vote for Joe Biden? I am equally convinced the losing party will spend the next four years trying to get the winning candidate out of office. We have seen it with Donald Trump. We saw it with Barrack Obama. In the end nothing positive happens for the country because we are in the middle of a family feud politically. Sometimes, I forget we are all Americans.

America is experiencing a family feud racially. The death of George Floyd on May 26 has sent many in our country into a rage. The Black Lives Matter campaign is alive and well. It is the hot button topic across the country. The goal is to protect the African American community against police brutality. They are designed to be peaceful protests, but violence has been seen. Our country is divided over the issue across every demographic. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone thinks they are right. Could it be everyone is guilty? I do not want to make light of the situation, but we are in the middle of a great family feud racially. Sometimes, I forget we are all Americans. Closely related is the next issue.

America is experiencing a family feud historically. On June 19, protestors in San Francisco tore down the statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States who led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War. It was all part of the Black Lives Matter campaign. The schools in California must not be particularly good. I was taught Grant help end slavery as general and did his best to help rebuild the south as president. Grant’s statue illustrates the point there are many who are trying to rewrite history. I understand we should not glorify our past sins or misdeeds. I also believe we should learn from the past, not worship the past. How do you feel about rewriting history? I am going to Mount Rushmore in September. I hope I get there before they sandblast it. Two of the four men on that statue owned slaves. We are in the middle of a great family feud historically. Sometimes, I forget we are all Americans.

America is experiencing a family feud over co-vid 19. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and everything is hard. Everyone who has ever driven by a hospital has an opinion. Some believe we are rushing back into the world too fast. This will cause another outbreak of the Coronavirus and more will suffer and die. This group is terrified. Others believe the whole Coronavirus issue is an election year stunt. It will be forgotten as soon as the election is over. This group is cynical. If you want to upset everyone bring up the topic of masks. Some believe they should be mandatory. Some believe they should be optional. Social distancing is enough. It is a family feud that is going to come to our church. Someday, we are going to return to our building. Do you want to let the terrified group set the rules? Do you want the cynical group to set the rules? I believe we let the governor and the Ohio Department of Health set the rules. We are in the middle of a great family feud over co-vid 19. Sometimes, I forget we are all Americans. Let me just give you one more.

The United Methodist Church is experiencing a family feud over sexually. It is the issue that just will not go away. One camp believes our denomination should swing the doors open wide to the LGBTQ community, including officiating at LGBTQ weddings and ordaining LGBTQ individuals. The other camp believes we should slam the door of the LGBTQ community, we will not officiate at their weddings nor ordain a LGBTQ individual. Both sides claim to be Biblical and both sides claim to be right. The whole thing is exhausting. I had a hard-enough time just liking girls. The United Methodist Church is in the middle of a great family feud sexually. Sometimes, I forget we are all Christians. I could go on, but I will not. Could it be 24/7 news is dividing America with their bias reporting? Many have stopped watching the news because they are tired of the family feuds. This is the point.

Somethings do not change. We are living in the middle of a family feud. Obadiah who lived 600 before the birth of Christ and was in the middle of a family feud. The Edomites became so preoccupied with the events of their day, Judah’s devastation at the hands of a foreign power, they forgot what was important to God. What was important to God was their shared common ancestry with the Israelites. Could it be we have become so preoccupied with the events of our day, politics, racism, history, co-vid 19, and sexuality, we have forgotten what is important to God? It is not that those issues are not important. It is that those things are not the most important thing to God. What is the most important thing to God in our time? Jesus!

Last Sunday morning, I was walking through the building on my way to the parking lot for worship. I thought the building was empty, so I was surprised to find a shadowy figure down one of the hallway ways. Since the person was walking into the District Office, I guessed it was our District Superintendent Abby Auman. I was right. It was the first time I had seen her in the building since the pandemic began in March. I called out, “How are you?” She responded, “I am good. I on my way to the Black Lives Matter rally in Canfield. We are going to stand in front of the Methodist Church, then we are going to welcome their new pastor, Ivy Smith.” She is the first black woman pastor in the history of that congregation.” I said, “I will pray for her.” I hope I did not sound cynical. I did not mean it that way. I have prayed for every pastor at Canfield since I have been here. On my way home, I drove by the rally. The local media reported sixty people attended. Someone told me everyone was white. It was peaceful. They were just holding signs and yelling at passing cars. It did not make much of an impression on me.

The next morning, I received a text. This is what the text read: YESTERDAY, ABBY AUMAN, DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENT OF THE MAHONING VALLEY DISTRICT OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, WAS SPOKESPERSON FOR CANFIELD’S UMW JOINING  IN WITH CANFIELD’S BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTEST, IN LIGHT OF WELCOMING THEIR FIRST BLACK, FEMALE REVEREND, DR. IVY SMITH. I THOUGHT CHURCHES WERE NOT SUPPOSED TO GET INVOLVED IN POLITICS. I responded: I’M NOT SURE HOW TO RESPOND. ABBY IS MY BOSS AND I HAVE NO CONTROL OVER HER. SHE WOULD CALL HER PROTEST SOCIAL JUSTICE, NOT POLITICAL. OBVIOUSLY, MANY PEOPLE IN OUR COUNTRY WANT CHANGE. That opened the door to some wonderful conversation. I ended the dialogue with this text: I LOOK FORWARD TO THE DAY JESUS IS OUR ONLY ISSUE. The response was: ME TOO. Are you looking forward to the day Jesus is our only issue? Can I ask you a question?

Why do you read this blog? It is a fair question. Did you read this blog to hear my political views? Did you read this blob to hear my opinions about racism? Did you read this blog to hear my opinions on historical statues? Did you read this blog to get my medical advice the Coronavirus? (I hope not because I have no medical training.) Did you read this blog to hear my opinion about LGBTQ? None of those important complex important issues are why you read this blog. Read read this blog because you want to hear about Jesus. That is a good thing because Jesus is the most important thing to God. Jesus said it best of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6)