Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Joy of Communion

Mandy and I attend a congregation that is diverse.  It is an older predominantly white congregation now located in a racially diverse neighborhood.  The congregation has made great strides in accepting its neighborhood in many ways.    Last Sunday we "overheard" the conversation of two neighborhood boys in worship.  The boys are about eight or nine years old.  As communion begins, the conversation begins...

"Are you going to get some bread?"
"The lady said that ALL are invited to get the bread?"
"She has some juice too!"
"She did say that everyone could come get some!"
"I am going to get some!" 

The first little boy does not wait for his row to go.  He finds his way in line.  The second little boy follows as well.  He can't wait to be served!

They return to their seat and the conversation continues...

"How big a piece of bread did you get?"
"I got a big piece.  Man it was good bread.  I got a piece with only bread."
"My piece had some crust on it.  It was good!"

Although we laughed at the conversation, it was so heartwarming.   Obviously there was great curiosity about this strange invitation.  And then it was followed by a continuing conversation about the elements of communion.  I must admit that as a pastor I noticed more people smiled when we used Hawaiian bread!  

We can learn alot from this conversation.  I hope I get to "overhear" more of them.    What joy there can be in communion with such innocence.  I felt as though the Spirit of God was truly present  in a way that I do not have to fully understand.

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In the Zone

As school starts, if you are driving you have to slow down.  You have to slow down when going through school zones.  You have to completely stop when the bus stops.  School buses frustrate most because of the frequent stops made.   Maybe there are some zones in our lives that we need to slow down as we go through them.

Slow down in the zone of criticism--words and thoughts.

We live in such a critical world.  Most have an opinion that they cannot wait to share.  It is easy to look from the outside and solve the problem.  Some believe it is their duty to share criticisms.  
What if we slowed down our critical thoughts and offered prayer instead?  Now I am fully aware that it takes some intentional effort to respond instead of react.  I find myself reacting more than I ever want to confess.

Slow down and be fully present.

I am amazed when I realize how many times I am not paying attention.  I am physically there but not fully present.  Sometimes it is because I am so easily distracted.  Sometimes I fail to stop thinking long enough to be fully present.  Other times I am just tired.
Being fully present means giving your entire attention to the precious now.  It is really what we have. Yesterday is behind us.  Tomorrow may never come.  NOW is what we have.  And it will pass so quickly.

Slow down and rest.

When I was chaplain at Centenary College the number one enemy of young adults was sleep deprivation.  Students just kept going and going until they crashed.  Today our calendars are for the most part too full.  Young families are trying to let their kids do everything.

The body and the Spirit need to rest.  Jesus when confronted with the crowds would withdraw to pray and rest.    He knew this was necessary for what was ahead.

Maybe we need to realize when we are in the zone in our life's travels.  Slowing down does not make you a weaker person.  It does not mean you are lazy. It means that you have begun to sort out what is important in life.  You have come to understand what gives life versus what takes away life.

You only get one life.  There are no replays.  Play the one well!

Pray for me as I pray for you.

In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Beat The Heat

It is hot outside.  Not warm--hot!  Next week it is supposed to be hotter, not warmer.   In Louisiana it is feast or famine.  You either have too much rain or not enough.  A month ago we were praying the Red River would stop rising.  The rain was almost everyday.  Everything was soggy and wet.  Today there is no rain in sight for quite a while.  It is so hot that you just dread going outside.

The heat wears you down.  Attitudes are affected by the heat.  You can become a little testy.  Some will become whiners.  The body, inside and out, responds to the weather.  

As Christians we face a similar battle of the spirit.  We are not insulated by the outside conditions.  We are confronted with the world's cynicism.   The cruelty of the world's actions and words wear on us.  Harry Emerson Fodsdick in his writings years ago reminded us that being a Christian in the world is a more difficult task. 

In Galatians 6:9, the apostle Paul reminds us to not become weary in doing good.  Paul knew the struggle to keep the faith was real.  Paul knew that there were times that Christians would be beaten down.  The outside conditions of life can conquer the inward spirit if we allow it.  So what is one to do?

1. Remember the good deeds of life are in response to Jesus not the world.

You do good to those around you because you love Jesus.  You do acts of mercy and kindness remembering the mercy and kindness Jesus has shown to you.  It is not a reciprocal relationship to the world.  It is a response relationship to the person of Jesus.  The failure of many in the faith is the expectation that the world is going to somehow reward them for acts of goodness and mercy.  The reward is know that we have been obedient to what Jesus said.

2.  Rest in the shade and drink some water!

Just as the body needs rest and sustenance, the Spirit does as well.   Spend some time refreshing yourself in the presence of Jesus.  Read and listen to Scripture, song, and creation.  Breath--deep breathe--in the presence of Jesus.  Imagine that you are the woman of Samaria at the well seeking water day after day.  Imagine that this man, Jesus, shows up from nowhere to give you living water!  You are given the water not because of how good you are but because you are present!  

3.  Focus.

Many of our life struggles are due to the wrong focus.  Change your focus by changing your thoughts.  Put a scripture in your head instead of critical thoughts of others and yourself.   Focus on the positive instead of  the negative.

When I was growing up, I played golf at the Minden Country Club.  On hole number two, about fifty yards out, there was a ditch.  As a young boy, I would stand on the ditch and look at the ditch.  I would worry about hitting the ball in the ditch.  One day I was playing with an older guy and he could see my focus.  He gave me a new perspective.  He told me to look way down the fairway at the tree almost to the green.  "Hit the ball at the tree!"  I stopped hitting my ball into the ditch!  Why?  Because I changed my thought and my focus.

If the world is weighing you down, look towards the kingdom!

We can beat the heat.  The conditions outside do not have to determine the condition of the outward and inward witness of the Spirit.   May it be well with your soul today!

Pray for me as I pray for you.
In the Master's Name,

Dr. M. Jack O'Dell

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!