Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Are You Current?

When I go out to eat with friends, the blessing is open eyed and simple.  I look around the table at the ones that God has put in my life that day and say, "For the blessings of food and fellowship, we are thankful!"  It is a simple prayer that can be shared in public.  It is an act of gratitude and affirmation of fellowship. Some folks who are not accustomed to my practice will actually miss the prayer!  I have even had some who felt that it was not enough and needed to really pray.

My dad is a very simple man when it comes to religion.   If you arrived at his house and it was time to pray, he would ask you, "Are you current on your prayer life?"  What he was asking was, "if I ask you to pray are you gonna pray all day long and be catching up on my time!"    Sometimes after hearing some rather long winded prayers, he would murmur under his breath, "That person was obviously not current on his prayer life and felt the need to catch up on my time!"    After a long sermon, Dad would make the observation that the preacher had missed several good endings to that sermon.

So what about you?  Are you current?

We would never think of being behind in certain areas of our live.  For example, how many of us are behind on our consumption of food?  We make sure we eat pretty regularly.  If you are behind on a note, you pay the penalties or can even lose your possessions.  If you are behind in your relationships, they suffer.   But what about your prayer life?  Do you stay current?

May I offer some helpful words for those who might be lagging behind?

Set a definite time to pray--several times during the day.  The "on the move" prayers should be the lagniappe of your prayer life.  Recently our bishop has invited us to pray at one p.m. for the children of the world who are refugees.  Set your alarm at one and join us!  I start my day with a more intensive time of prayer.  Then through the day, I have a couple of other times that are more intensive.   Then there are some minutes (like one p.m.) joined with "on the move" prayers (like when I see an ambulance or a person who is in distress or homeless.)

Have a place to pray.   There should be some holy places in your life.  That when you go there, you seek to be in the presence of God.  It may be a rocking chair on the porch.  It may be under a tree at work.  The place will beckon you after a while.  Jesus obviously had some places in his life that he would go to in solitude away from the crowds.

Have some resources.  There are so many great prayers that are recorded in the life of the faith.  Harry Emerson Fosdick has a wonderful book, The Meaning of Prayer, which contains so many prayers.  A Diary of Private Prayer has been a part of my life since seminary.  I say a word of "thanks" for David Switzer sharing it with me as a seminary student.   

Keep a list or journal.  I consider it a holy privilege when people ask me to pray for them.  Once people know that you take prayer seriously, you will receive more requests than you can remember.  You will also be amazed at how a name will "jump" out to you at particular times.  The Holy Spirit does more work than we imagine if we do our part!  

When I was starting out in ministry, I was youth director for a youth group that was nicknamed, "The Wild Bunch!"  They were appropriately named!  Life was an adventure with them.  We went to a basketball tournament at the Ruston Children's home.  One of the wild guys volunteered to say the prayer before the game.  I knew this prayer was going to be special.  With his bandanna on his head dressed as a Redneck as you can imagine, he offered these words:  "Lord let us not play this basketball game like a bunch of heathens!  Amen!"   

In his own way, he was current!  What about you?

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A More Excellent Way!

The young pastor was reared in the New Orleans metropolitan area.  He knew that neighbors had to watch out for one another.  He arrived in his new appointment after graduating from seminary.  It was a small town.  One morning in the early hours, he noticed this car going through the neighborhood.  The car would pull into every driveway and the driver would get out.   Then returning to the car, speed out of the driveway and down to the next house.  The young preacher followed from a distance.   Finally he called 911 to report the suspicious behavior.  It wasn't long until the local police pulled up to his driveway where he was still watching out!  The policeman pulled down his window and said, "Yup preacher, you have to watch out for those guys reading the water meter.  They are terrorists in disguise!"

One of my first jobs was a paperboy for the Minden Press Herald. Actually it was my second job.  My first job was being a shoe shine boy at the barber shop on Saturday mornings.  As a newspaper boy,  I would show up at the local newspaper office after school and roll my papers.  Then I would get on my bike and ride my route.   The total time invested was about two hours a day.  The only thing I would watch during the ride was to make sure the "throw" of the newspaper landed in an accessible place.  If it hit the porch, it was just a good throw.  If it missed, close enough.  The only time I stopped was when the throw landed in a place where the paper would not be found.  On rainy days, my mom would take me in the car sometimes.  If there was no lightning, I still rode my bike.  I threw papers for about a year.  It was a good learning experience for me.

This morning I am doing my walking (UGH!) in the neighborhood and I noticed a car stopping every once in a while.  The car would pull into the driveway, stop, and then pull out.  It would go down the road only a few houses then do the same thing.  Finally I figured it out.  It was the morning paper delivery person.  Instead of simply driving down the road and throwing the paper in the driveway, this  morning paper delivery person pulls into every driveway and throws it.  I have to admit that I always thought my paper ended up closer to my door because a morning walker would place it there.  (I had a neighbor in Shreveport that placed every morning paper in the neighborhood on the doorstep!)  I have to admit that the last person that I expected to impress me was my paper delivery person!  But  I was impressed by the more excellent way this person has found to deliver the morning paper.

Paul in his letter to Corinth urges the young Christians to seek a "more excellent way" with regards to gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:31).  Churches who practice radical hospitality practice a more excellent way of ministry.  Just getting the job done is not acceptable.  There is an attitude of excellence that is sought.  And it does make an impression! "Those folks take this Christian hospitality serious!"  

Contrast this attitude with a sign that someone gave me years ago that is in my office:  "How much sin can I get away with and still go to heaven?"  Minimal Christians get minimal results.  Their witness is about ankle deep in the waters of life.

Do all things with excellence!  Do all things as if you are doing them for Jesus!  You are!  Seek a more excellent way!

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Older I Get

Mandy and I just celebrated our 27th year in matrimony.  It just doesn’t seem like it has been that long.  Now don’t get me wrong!  We have had our ups and downs.  Marriage at its best is that way.  It just doesn’t seem like we are old enough to have been married 27 years.  It is time that is passing—maybe too quickly.
This week I will celebrate my 58th year on this planet earth.  It has made me think about how time has passed.  My high school class of 1974 will celebrate its 40th reunion year this fall.   The first Sunday August I will have been preaching for 39 years.  I was 19 when I showed up at White Hall and Colquitt UMC as their new preacher.  I had braces on my teeth.  I even looked young!
Does it seem that time passes too quickly?   There are some things I would do differently if I had some mulligans in life.  For non-golfers, a mulligan is a “do over” in golf.  It is a second chance.  Professional golfers do not get mulligans.  Duffers buy as many mulligans as they can!    Maybe you can identify with some of these mulligans.
I would count more and very slowly.
You have heard the wisdom of counting to ten before you say or do something in response to others.  I would count to about a hundred and do it slowly.  So many times, I reacted instead of responded.  As I have grown older, I have come to understand my friend’s advice, “Wait three days”.   Waiting gives us a different perspective.  In most cases, an immediate response is not as necessary as we think it is.  Silence and waiting to respond can be your friend.
I would plan more and work less.
Do not think that I am suggesting a lesser work ethic.  But what I have found is that when I plan my work, I work less.  When I prepare myself, it doesn’t take as much time or energy.  There are times in my life that I have confused longevity of work with effectiveness of work.  I thought if I just worked longer, the job would be done.  If I worked longer, people would like me and approve of me.  I was wrong.  People who are going to like and approve of me do not require me to be a martyr.  In fact the last thing they want is this.
I would bless more!
A few years back, I am not sure when it happened, I began to say to as many people as I could—“Have a Blessed Day!”  It is interesting to hear and see the responses to this statement.  People in this world need to receive a blessing.  We all seek a blessing at one level or another.
Imagine that you were to receive $86,400 a day.  Now the problem in receiving this daily is that you have to spend it all!  Some of you are saying, “I could do it, no problem!”  But then imagine that you have to spend all of this every day for every day in your life!    Just think of all the good you could do!  Think of all the problems you could solve!    The truth is that you get this every day of your life.  The value is not in money though.  It is an even greater value---seconds.  It is your time on this earth.
I do not know how long I will live.  But my prayer is that I live every second to its fullest.
Pray for me as I pray for you.
In the Master’s Name,

Dr. M. Jack O’Dell

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Searching for Answers and Meaning

Communication can be a funny thing.  The use of words changes over time.

Take for example the word, INFLATABLES.  When I was growing up, no one spoke of inflatables.  The word was associated with a dark world of adult sexual behavior.  Some of you cannot believe that a preacher would speak of such things!  But over time the word was transformed.    Inflatables became what you put on your children to allow them to play in the pool.  Now it has an even broader use for the huge blowup toys that your children (and adults) play in at celebrations.  I confess to chuckling when I hear the word and think about its change in use and meaning.

So the other day our garage door broke.  Mandy called the repair place to see about it getting fixed.  The lady at the store asked Mandy, "What is the name of the operator?"  Mandy answered her question, "Well, my husband and I both operated it."  "No," the lady said, "I mean the name!"  And again Mandy answered, "His name is Jack and I am Mandy".   The lady on the phone chuckled again and said, "The name on the garage unit?!".   It was then that Mandy understood the answer that the woman was seeking.

It was perfectly clear to both what the conversation was--or was it?  

The study of the Bible requires us to have such conversations.  What does the Word mean in our day and time?  How is the Word understood in our world?  What is God saying to us?  It is a difficult task sometimes to discern the underlying truth principles of God.  

There are some who would argue that the Bible requires no such study.  It is to be taken at face value.   To those who would raise this argument, I remind them of how our understanding of the world has progressed over time.  God has enabled us to discover new gems in our human existence.  When the Bible was written, people believed that the world was flat!  When the Bible was written, most illnesses were seen as a result of disobedience or punishment by God.    Now there are still some who belong to the Flat Earth Society.  (If you do not believe me, google "Flat Earth"!)  And some still refuse to understand and accept modern medical knowledge.    I simply do not understand nor accept either of these as faithfulness to God and God's world.

We converse with the truth principles that the Word of God gives to us.  In the Methodist tradition, we believe that Scripture is primary and the starting place for talk about and with God.  However, Wesley also believed that the meaning of Scripture is informed by tradition, experience, and reason.  One uses these "lens" to gain faithful perspective to appropriate Scripture into a holy life and holy living.  

God does not change.  However, our ability to understand God and God's world changes as we learn and discover God's  world.  I think sometimes God gathers the celestial bodies and exclaims, "Look!  They finally found it!!!  They finally got it!  It took them a while but they found it!!!"

Such a relationship with God and Scripture is vibrant and alive.  It invites us into more conversations with each other and with God.  And yes, sometimes, it is just funny how we struggle to communicate with each other and with God.  

The answers to the questions and meaning seem to change over time.  Let us not be afraid of the change.  And there are times when you just have to chuckle.

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

An Answer to the World's Violence

I am appealing to everyone that I know to do something that is outside of us.    I know it is more comfortable inside.   The seat is well worn--formed to our shape.  The AC is running and the temperature is comfortable.  The frig is full of more than we can eat.  The cupboard has all of our comfort foods.

Tex Sample has said that the invention that has had most influence upon our sense of connectedness and community is the air-conditioner.  Before the AC was a part of our lives, everyone sat out on their front porch to cool off.  As people would walk/drive past, we would speak.  We would visit.  But then the AC came and we had to shut our doors and windows.  How many times did your mama say, "Close the door!  The AC is on!"  It is even true in our cars.  We would drive with the windows down.  But not today, we close ourselves up to stay comfortable.

So what is my appeal?  Build churches, send people, establish relationships across the oceans!  We cannot isolate ourselves within the 48 states.  The world IS our parish.  So before you react, hear me out.

We are either going to send people, churches, and the Word of God across the world or we are going to send soldiers and weapons.  We will receive either good friends in faith or body bags of our sons and daughters.  I know that is harsh, but it is true!   I believe that the answer to all the extreme groups of violence in the world is the body of Jesus Christ--the Prince of Peace.  The presence of the church and the relationships Christians can forge can change the world.  

Building churches and establishing vital relationships in Africa, South America, and Asia gives the world another alternative to violence.  We can offer the weapon of prayer rather than armor and artillery.    Our unity can be in good works of faith for all rather than extremist selfishness.
I can hear some of you saying, "Jack you are dreaming!  You are being naive!"  My answer:  the cross.   Jesus faced the same violence, the same extremism on all sides.   His answer was the presence of redeeming love and mercy.   

Without the presence of the church and Christians, others will believe that there is only one alternative--fight or be killed.  I think God is inviting us, begging us to be show another response.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, gave words to this vision when he said, "I look upon the world as my parish."  

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hear God's YES!

"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.  Isaiah 1:18

Paul Tillich has an interesting understanding of faith.  Faith is when you accept God's acceptance of you.  It is knowing that God has already said "yes" to your reconciliation or to your new possibilities.  You are loved.  You are forgiven.

It can't be true.  If God knew me like I know me, God would see all the stains in my life . God would know all the failures that I am and that I have.  If God knew the "real" me.   There are so much damaged goods.  And yet---God does know.  God knows the whole story--inside and out.  And God loves us right where we are.

Think with me what that does for us.  It frees us to become.  It gives us license to change.  God becomes the one that urges us on to better and deeper living.  It is not about who we are supposed to become.  It is about where we are right now. 

All of us are somewhat afraid of being fully known.  Our culture teaches us to protect ourselves from being known.  When people know you fully they will abuse you.  They will use it against you.  They will ridicule you.  They certainly will not love you.

God will love you. God does love you.  Right now.  Now matter how screwed up your life is or how well it is put together you are loved.   God has said "Yes" to you!

A young man dated a girl a really long time. She waited for him to propose.  She waited and waited.  He was so insecure.  He was so afraid. He could only see all the problems marriage could have. Finally one day she asked him, "Why don't you ask me to marry you?  You know I love you!  You know we belong together. "  Finally the boy confessed, "I was afraid that if I asked you to marry me, it would be the only "no" I would ever hear you say to me."   

God uses love and forgiveness to  motivate us to become who God would have us be.  The change in our life and in our living is in response to God's everlasting unconditional love.  

Hear God's "yes" and let your life be transformed with God's mercy. 

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Rev. Dr. Jack O'Dell

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Slow Down You're Moving Too Fast!

My friend and colleague, Jerry Hilbun, told a story in his sermon to the Clergy session of Annual Conference that has stayed with me.  I do not think he would mind me sharing it.

It seems that there was a man who had done really well in life.  Well enough that he was able to buy a new black Jaguar car.  (It is amazing how much we invest in our cars these days.  As a preacher I wish that some of my parishioners giving to the church matched their car payment--but that is another story!)  The man was really proud of his new car as he should be.

He was breezing down the main road of town one day when all of a sudden out of nowhere a brick came flying.  The brick hit the side of his car making a terrible dent in it.  The man could not believe it!  As you might expect, he stopped and backed up to see who do such a think to his new toy.  There he found a young boy. 

Before the young boy could say anything, the man began to speak harshly to the little boy. "Why would you do such a thing!  What kind of a hoodlum are you!"  In very quick time, he made it known to the young boy that he would face severe punishment for his deed.

In tears, the young boy finally was allowed to speak.  "I am so sorry Mister.  But I did not know how to get help!" And at that he pointed in another direction.  "I was taking my brother for a walk and his wheelchair turned over.  I can't get him up!  So I threw the brick hoping that you would stop to help me!"

The man looked to where the young man was pointing.  A large lump in his throat and gut began to form as he saw a boy sprawled in the bushes and a wheelchair wheel spinning in the air.  He rushed over to pick the boy up and returned him to his chair.  

As he was helping the little boy continued to apologize and said he would do whatever was needed to fix the car.  The boy had no idea how much it would cost to do such a repair.

The man assured the little boy that everything was okay.  He apologized for his harsh words and even offered to take them both home.  The boys refused and started down the sidewalk again.

The man admitted that he slithered back into his new Jag.  He had never felt so small in all of his life.  The dent in the Jag seemed insignificant.  As he drove away, he realized his life was changed.  From that day on he made a promise to God that he would never be too busy to stop and help others.  He also made a promise to God that he would reserve judgment of others.  A new kind of gentleness came into his life.

And the dent in his Jag?  It was never fixed.  It served as a reminder of how imperfect life is.  

Thanks for the story Jerry.  It meets me more than I like to admit!

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell