Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Just Be Nice

I am enjoying my time as a marshal at a local golf course.  A half a day twice each week, I ride around the golf course.  The task is to make sure that folks stay on the cart paths around the greens and tee boxes.  I am also there to assist folks in any other way that I can.    As golfers come to the first tee, I take their receipt and give them any information about how the course is playing that day.

As I was greeting a foursome the other day, one of the guys said, "Thank you for your friendliness.  It is a great way to start the round!"  

It made me think about folks meeting us every day and especially in church on Sunday.

Can you just be nice?

At the grocery store or in traffic, can you just be nice?  While you are about your work, can you take time to be nice?  When you get home from work, with your family, can you be nice?

I must admit that I am not as busy nor in as big a hurry now.   I have things to do but not nearly as many things to do as I once did.  I am sure that in my busyness of life I have missed much along the trails of life.  Isn't it interesting that the word, "business" is so close the word, "busyness"?    You see that the difference in the word is the middle letter.  One of them is about "I" or "me" while the other uses the first letter of the word, "YOU!".  

Maybe it is a sign to us that the business of life is really not about ourselves.  Maybe it is a time that warns us that the sin of busyness is when the "YOU" of life is smashed between everything else. It can get lost.

Martha and Mary are welcoming Jesus.  It is something they have probably done many times.  Martha is about the business of life and is very busy.  Mary drops what she is doing and sits at the feet of Jesus.  Martha becomes irate because SHE is doing!  Should not everyone else be doing as well?!?  (There is that temptation of "shoulding" all over others!)  Martha actually points out the sin of Mary.  "Jesus, tell her...."

Jesus in a way says to Martha, "Just be nice."  Martha is seeking her gold stars of achievement--recognition for her hard work.   Mary has chosen to stop and be nice even to Jesus.  Mary is focusing on BEING with Jesus.    I think that Mary probably did this often to many folks, not just Jesus.

So what about us church folks--can we be nice as well?  

In visiting different churches each  Sunday morning, Mandy and I have been greeted well by some churches.  Others it seems just tolerated our presence.  They were too busy and it showed.

Today as you walk through life, let others notice that you are not too busy to just be nice.

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. Jack O'Dell

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Do You Know This Number?

In the life of every church, there are numbers.  Some numbers are more significant than others.   Some numbers are known by everyone.  Other numbers are known by only a few.  Some numbers seem to be a secret.   Some people are threatened by numbers--usually those who are not about the kingdom.  

The institutional church is interested in certain numbers.  Sometimes it seems there is more interest in the numbers than in the people behind the numbers.  You know the numbers the institution pushes--Profession of Faith, Apportionments Paid, and attendance.  It is normal and good for the institution to keep the local congregations accountable.

Jesus was a number person.  Did you know that?  His parables are filled with numbers.  The shepherd leaves the ninety nine to find the one.   Ten are healed and then what happens?  There are five loaves and how many fish?  How many are fed?  Numbers in Jesus' teachings help us focus on what God is doing.  Take the numbers out of the gospel and see how much sense is made!

So what number do you need to know?    Next time you are in an Evangelism meeting or Church Council meeting, ask for this number.  Or better yet, YOU provide this number for others to see.  FIRST TIME GUESTS IN WORSHIP.

I think this is the THE most important number in the life of a vital congregation.  Very few people ever ask for or know this number.    It is in my humble opinion the number that every preacher and every congregation should use as a focus on evaluating vital ministry.  Why?

This number shows the church if you are even on the radar of the community.   A church that experiences a low number of first time guest in worship is a church that has disappeared and become irrelevant.   The church's leadership is obviously not about teaching or reaching the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.  The church is throwing a party and no one is coming!  

What can a church do to increase this number?

1.  Create and practice a culture of intercessory prayer for the unchurched or dechurched in your midst. 
One leader in a church said, "I really do not know anyone who is not active in a church."  This statement shows how irrelevant  one can become in the world.  It demonstrates a spiritual blindness.  It reminds me of the church that was closing after years of ministry.  The leader of the church said, "We just have no young children or young adults in our midst."  As we were leaving the building, I looked across the street and saw over 100 children playing in the school across the street.  The church was blind to that which was obvious. 

Create a card that members carry with them everyday.  The title on the card should read, "My Top Five...."  Have members pray each day a prayer that invites them to see who in their world--work, family, or play--has never connected or disconnected from the body of Christ.  Write that name on the card and teach them to pray naming that person.  Pray that God will open the window of opportunity to share, invite, and nurture these persons in the body of Christ.  You and your church will be amazed what will happen when the culture of praying for the lost permeates your worship, meetings, and daily life.

2.  Throw a party and see how many you can get to come!  

Now I can hear the naysayers already.  The church is not about a party.  Read the gospels and see how many times Jesus is about partying!  Jesus emphasizes celebrations.  In fact, it seems sometimes he is the life of the party.  A party will show the community the character of celebration in the life of your congregation.  A person not active in the life of a church should come away from your party saying, "Man, those folks are fun to be around!  I think I would like to spend more time with them.  I wonder what Sunday mornings are like?"   

Somehow the church in some places has become a place where there is no joy.   It is not a place to have good friends and good fellowship.  It shows in how we do Sunday morning worship.  People are not smiling.  Children are not laughing.  Grumpy old (yes mostly old) people have taken the controls.  First time guests, if they come, can't wait to leave so they can never come back!  The outside sign should read, "Grumpy UMC!" 

Contrast this with the little boy's remark as he was leaving a  church filled with joy.    It was his first Sunday at this particular church.  He turned to his mom and dad as they were leaving and said, "Let's do this again!!!"  

Good worship is like a party.  First time guests can't wait to get back or come again!!!

3.  Teach leadership how to tell the story of Jesus in their life.

In our world, we will tell each other where the best sales are.  We will tell each other the best places to eat.  We share secular information in a heartbeat.  However, the art of telling what God is doing in our life today has been lost!   Laity need a place to rehearse or prepare their talk about God's blessings in life.  Laity need help identifying where God continues to work in their world. 

I call this an elevator speech.  It is a three to four minute (no longer!) talk about what God is doing in his/her life.  It is a prepared speech that has been rehearsed.  You can rehearse it to the mirror, the cows, the dogs, but it is rehearsed.  We practice things that are important!

The speech always ends with an invitation to worship.  For a year or so, begin EVERY meeting at the church with this question:  How is God at work in your life?    It is an interesting experiment.  

The result of these conversations is two fold.  First, leadership is practicing for the moment when God will open the windows of opportunity to share and invite.   It creates a readiness that does not come naturally for many.  The second result is that laity are sharing with others what God is doing in their life.  At one meeting where this happened a mom shared her joy about a lost son beginning to make his way back.  She turned to the person next to her to find tears rolling down his cheeks.  The man who had shared many meeting with her said, "I so needed to hear your words as my daughter has lost her way.  I was wondering if all hope was gone!"  

 How many Christian meetings have you been to in which no one shared what God is doing in the world?  The opening prayer was rudimentary.  The business probably was crisis oriented or problem centered.  Jesus never even got a foot in the door! 

Many of you know that I retired July 1st after 40 years.   The saddest part of my retirement is the realization that my generation of pastors in the United Methodist Church led a church in decline.  Worship, Membership, and  Sunday School attendance declined in those years.  When our first time guests numbers dwindled to all but nothing.  We did nothing.  The church did not change.  "If they don't like what we are doing they can leave!"  And they did.    The church became irrelevant.    

Maybe this would be a different story if we had watched the number of first time guests.  Maybe we can take note of this now.  

Do you know the number in your church?

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,
Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Appreciate the Easy Life

She lived a hard life as an outcast.  Life was difficult anyway.  It is more difficult when one is alone.  I do not mean lonely--I mean alone.  She would come to the well at a time when no one else was there.  She had enough of all the trash talk.  Yes she was a loser--five different men had taken all they could from her.  She was now in the hands of the sixth.  She was a traded commodity, not a person. 

Then this Jewish man appeared at the well.  He was alone.  Instead of avoiding her like all others, he approached her and asked her for water.  Such a strange request.   Such a tender voice.  His voice and demeanor seemed to foreign to the harsh words and world she was used to hearing.  She could not resist conversation with him.

He offered her water!  But it was talk about a different kind of water.  Of course her first thought was to make life easier.  YES, MAKE LIFE EASIER.  But then he told her things that she knew about herself but he was not supposed to know.  There was a part of her that believed this man was what he said he was--the Messiah.  Without thinking about her water jar, she went back to her city and spread the news about what happened. For the first time in a long way, she felt as though she was loved and appreciated.   This man had given her this gift!

For some strange reason which she could not understand--life WAS easier.   

I live an easy life.    But even my life is easier when I have Jesus speaking words of life to me.

Today in Cambodia a child under the age of five will spend all day searching through trash in the dump site.  If the child is lucky, the child will find enough recycling materials that will be worth fifty cents.  Also on a lucky day the child will find a piece of clothing or broken toy they will hold on to with great pride.

There will be a group of children, brothers and sisters, who will make their way with their family across the Syrian border out of the war zone.   The only possessions they have is in their arms or a bag that they have been carrying for days.  Food is minimal.  When they cross the border into safety, there is little or no assurance of safety--food, lodging, etc.  Yet there is little or no choice about whether to make the journey or not.  To stay would mean death. 

Today there will a some who will live another day in the house with snow--more snow that they ever wanted.  Some will spend hours shoveling snow to get out to be able to get provisions or get to a job.  There will be a parent who has spent too much time cooped up with children who have been cooped up too long.  

Today there is an elderly person who is not longer able to be in their home.  No one will come to visit them.  The care they will receive in the hospital or nursing home will be substandard because no one checks on them.  The caretakers are in it for the minimum work one must do to earn minimum wage.  

Now I know that this is not true everywhere.  There are good people living good lives.  But do you realize how "easy" life really is when you compare it to the world?  Jesus as he traveled look for people whose life was difficult and sought to give them words of hope--to give them water.  Jesus offered the basics of life that all needed.

Today I encourage you to consider three things.  First realize and appreciate the easy life you are probably living. Give thanks to God for your blessings.  Your anxious moments are minimal when compared to most of the world's population.  Second, as you go through today, look for people who are in need of water.  Share the living water.  Encourage others.  Third, and not at all least in importance, pray for those who life is difficult.  Pray.  Pray.  Pray!

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Monday, February 23, 2015

Honor Your Father and Mother

When I was a small child, I am sure that I was a handful.  I KNOW I was a handful.  Creative children are always a challenge.  It must have taken great patience.  When I was four, PC Edwards and I went to kindergarten for one day.   One day.   For some reason which I have never been told neither one of us went back the second day.  How does one get kicked out of kindergarten the first day?

I am writing this sitting next to Dad’s hospital bed.   The sentences and thought patterns are interrupted by the gargling snore that my dad has when he sleeps.  About every ten minutes I stop and cover him with the hospital sheet he has kicked off.  He is at peace for a while.  Then he becomes restless.  I am not sure how long this will go on.  But it doesn’t matter.

Earlier this evening, I watched my mom, his wife for over 65 years, feed him what little supper he would eat.    After each bite he would say that was enough.  Then she would load up another bite and coax him to eat a little bit more.   She is recuperating from the flu and is weak.  But it doesn’t matter for her either. 

For all of us who are caring for our parents in their last years, it is difficult.  But while being difficult it also can be a blessing!  What does one do?  What does one not do?

Do the best you can based on the current information you have.

Assessing the situation can be the most difficult thing.  This a reason why you need to have a very good communication relationship with your parent’s physicians and primary caregivers.   You need to be given and understand the best information available to make the next step.    All of the family members who are involved in the decision need to have the best information. 

When my sister Karen was ill, we soon learned that getting information second hand was not very reliable.  Karen would be frustrated with the interpretation that Mom and Dad had given to her doctor visits as well.  Finally she began taking a small tape recorder with her to her doctor’s visit.  She would then play the tape for us when we would ask.  We heard the doctor’s words.  This is made easier in today’s world with the phone technology.  You can record easily what is said.  Most doctor’s welcome this.

Then you make the call and go forward based on what you know.

Stay in your head and your heart.

It is heartbreaking and a helpless feeling.  There are times when you can do nothing but be present. In those moments, BE PRESENT! There are times when you are angry with something or someone in the situation.  There are times when you will shake your fist at God and scream.  It is okay.   A broken heart has much grief to bear and share. It is so helpful to make some important decisions BEFORE you find yourself dealing with this.

But also stay in your head.  Remind yourself that people say things they do not mean.  Remind yourself that your parents are frustrated and helpless too!  Remind yourself that life is difficult for all.  Remind yourself that God IS present even when it does not seem like it.  Make rational decisions that you know in your head are right even when your heart aches.

One of the experiences of life that helps me in this exercise is flying.  The airplane takes off in the wind and rain.  Then it begins to climb into the clouds.  In the clouds you can see nothing!  There is a part of you that fears the blindness.  But the pilot is not blind.  The pilot is flying with certainty.  Finally the airplane makes its way above the clouds.  Above the clouds the sun IS shining.  The skies ARE blue. 

So it is with these difficult moments of caring for aging parents.  God IS present and there WILL BE an unclouded day. 

Do not go it alone.

I do not know how people without a church family do it.  This is the time when you let the church BE the church.  This is the time when the church steps up.  If the church fails during this time of life, it sucks.

Harsh words, I know.  But if the church cannot be present during this time, it sucks.

Now having said this, you have to allow the church to be present.  This means you have to call when you need help.  The pastor and church members do not receive a message from the heavens every morning.   You need to be willing to ask for help.  You need to let them know how you can be helped.

Help may be food.  Help may be in the form of sitting.  Help may be in the form of transportation.  Help comes in many ways. Surely help is prayers!    I had a church member once who was willing to sit with the dying and read scripture.   It was her gift.  She would read scripture for a while and then just sit.  Seldom did she enter into any other conversation.  Her presence was the greatest conversation anyone could have. 

If you go it alone when death does indeed come, you will be alone.   Once one begins to incubate or isolate one’s self, it is habit forming.  It is hard to get out again.

Do not make promises you cannot keep.

“Promise me….”  It is hard to not make promises when life seems so fragile.  Making promises you will not be able to keep is the cornerstone for a huge building of regret and guilt.  You are struggling for words to say and deeds to do.  What is the best response?

“We will have to see what happens.  I promise I will make the best decision when the time comes!” 

This response is what I believe to be the most truthful and authentic response.  While honoring your parents, it also gives you the freedom to make good decisions in the days ahead.

Spend time wisely.

The river of regrets flows through our lives more than we realize.  Your most valuable asset is your time.  Spend it wisely.  Spend time remembering.  Spend time listening to those stories being told.  Ask questions you never dreamed of asking.  Laugh. Cry.  Laugh again.  Cry again. Remember more!  Concentrate more on being than doing.  

The river of regrets can become a small tributary into the sea of blessings.  The sea of blessings never runs dry if you spend your time wisely.  

Honor your father and mother.   It is more than a commandment.  It is a blessing you receive and give!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday.

It is the day that follows Mardi Gras (the crash course in sin and consumption).  It is the day that humanity realizes all will die.  You cannot take it with you.  The things of the world will not fill you.    You need a Savior.  From dust you came and to dust you will return.

"Can't you say some more uplifting words?"  The question was asked by a person just entering ministry.  She found the words, "From dust you came, to dust you will return" downright depressing.  It seemed like Jesus would want us to proclaim good news.

The day we (and I emphasize "WE"--not just Catholics) wear ashes is a the beginning of a season of repentance and sacrifice.  It stands opposite of what our culture tells us.  To prepare ourselves for Easter we give up things.  Some give up Facebook.  Others will give up chocolate.  Still others will not participate in a meaningful activity for the season of Lent. (Forty days not counting Sundays).  The sacrifice is made to focus upon the Spiritual side of life.  Without this focus, the sacrifice is meaningless.  I gave something up--so what?  

Lent is also the time when you are invited to look within your walk with Christ and others.  Are you involved in an intimate walk with Jesus?  Does the love and mercy of Jesus show itself in your relationship with others?  Or do you continue to just be you?  Where do you need to invite Jesus to remake your character?  Where do you need to practice forgiveness?

Some people during the season of Lent will "take on" holy habits.  It is a time when a time of prayer or study is added to your already busy schedule.  Lent can be a time when you can write letters of encouragement or gratitude to others in your life.  Acts of mercy towards the poor such as serving in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter is another expression of Lent.  Visiting a nursing home to console the sick and lonely.  

I hope you will take note of the presence of Ashes today.  It is one way in which we all admit that we need a Savior.  This world cannot save us.  This world leaves us empty.  It is a forward anticipation of the power of the resurrection which we will celebrate Easter morning.

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Be Kind

How much effort does it take to be kind?

It had been a rough day at work and at home for her.  And her work was still not over.  As she was driving to pick up the kids and make one more stop at the grocery store before she went home to do the house work, it happened.   A car pulled out in front of her and she knew that she was going to not only hit the car but probably would be hit by the car behind her.  Her initial reaction was not good.  There was not a good or virtuous thought anywhere in her mind.  Fortunately the accident was averted.  With a sigh of relief she proceeded and eventually the car that has pulled out in front of her ended up at the same place she was going.   A part of her wanted to really give this person a piece of her mind when the elderly lady approached her.

"I am so sorry for pulling out in front of you.  It has been a rough go today and I am not at my best.  My daughter in law just called to tell me that my son and grandson were in an auto accident and died.  My husband of fifty years died last week.  I just do not know what to do.  I had to get out today.  I am at a loss.  I am so sorry.  Please forgive me."  And she walked away.

She admitted that she now felt about two inches tall.  She was speechless.  Frozen.   Before she could gather herself and respond, the lady disappeared.  She searched the store looking for her.  Finally she went out to the parking lot and the car was gone.  How could a frail little woman disappear so quickly?  Had she been frozen or paralyzed longer than she realized?  

Finally she gave up and went on her way.  But the words and picture of the frail little woman would not leave her mind.  It replayed over and over.   While the replay was going on in one side of her brain, she was more than aware of her harshness in reacting to the woman pulling out in front of her.  That played over and over again as well.

What was God teaching her in this moment?  


How much effort does it take to train the mind to think kind thoughts instead of reacting harshly?  The truth of the matter is that it takes more effort than we can imagine.   It takes the presence of the Holy Spirit in our everyday life.  It means wondering about the other person before reacting.  It means getting out of our own stuff long enough to see others in a different light.

I think that Jesus was Nazareth was a kind man.  He had a gentleness about him that drew people towards him.  I think he had a warm smile.   I think he laughed more than we can imagine.  Jesus was not so much worried about his own burdens.  He saw the weight of the world on others.  

My challenge to you today is to practice kindness.  Give others the benefit of doubt.  Smile at strangers.   Offer encouraging words.  

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Are You a Risk Taker?

Risk is defined  the potential of losing something of value.   I like to think of myself of being a risk taker, but in reality I live a pretty safe life.  What about you?

One of the questions that came into focus for me when starting a new congregation was how many non church people I really came into contact with.    I came to the conclusion that as a preacher I could pretty much spend all of my time with church folks.  The truth is that most church members WANT the preacher to spend most of his/her time with church folks.  After all,  they ARE members.    For a week I charted the conversations I had with strangers, non church folks, and members.  Yup,  you guessed it.  Church folks won out big time.  
As a result of that I began to think of ways to have contact with the outside world.  I found out that my risk factor was lower than I thought.    I was not sure of what I was losing, but I knew that I was not winning.  

Then I dared to ask the question of risking with church folk.  How could I engage church folk in a way that stepped into the "unsafe" world? It is the world where you challenge prejudice and oppression.  You stop laughing at jokes that are oppressive.  It is the world where you engage people in serious conversations of faith.  I soon became aware of the possibility of great loss.   

The other day I went to my financial adviser for my annual review.  His question---how much risk are you willing to take?  The greater rewards also involve greater risks.  No risk brings little rewards.  I certainly did not want to be foolish!

Harry Denman was a Methodist preacher in the early part of the 20th century.  He challenged people to live a simple life   He brought the message of Christ to all people.  Denman's evangelistic zeal defined evangelism and still impacts our church today.  The story is told that at one of his gatherings he was preaching a rather vigorous message that called for great risk for the sake of the Gospel  At the end of his sermon, he was handed a piece of paper with one word on it--"FOOL!"  Denman was known for his great wit.  He responded by saying, "It is a miracle.  I have had many many letters written to me where people have forgotten to sign their name.  But tonight, I received a note where someone has signed their name and forgot to write the message!"

Paul in the letter to the new Christians in Corinth proclaims that he will be a fool for Christ!   Men and women of great faith seem foolish to many.    The greater loss is seen in not presenting the Gospel! 

I think Jesus modeled for us risky behavior.  He was on the "edge" of society.  He hung out with the wrong crowd.  He said the right things regardless of popular religion.  Jesus did not live a safe life.  Now I can hear some of you saying, "...but he was Jesus!"  Yes he was!    
So all of this is to ask you where is God calling you to greater risk?

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell