Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lent can dance

 Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?...”                                -- Matthew 16:24-26a

      So everybody loves Christmas and Easter, right?  And why not?  After all, they are festivals of the church -- times when we celebrate the high points in the story of Jesus, and who doesn’t love a festival?  But between those peak experiences of our church calendar comes this time of Lent… not a festival, but a time of quiet and reflective prayer and penitence…not a feast, but a fast.  I understand: Lent is not the popular season.  It’s the one left sitting alone in the corner, not the one everyone picks to take to the dance.  But don’t let that fool you -- Lent can dance.  It won’t do the Charleston, but it will, with slow deliberate steps, take you somewhere you need to go. 

      The dance of Lent begins with the two-step of Ash Wednesday, recognizing that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  We remember our human limitations, and that this life which began in our mother’s womb shall end one day in the womb of the earth.            
      It picks up with the waltz of repentance.  Instead of the regular 4/4 drumbeat of the other seasons, Lent is whole 40-day season that moves to its own rhythm.  The ¾ waltz-time movement of Lent is a reminder that we are skipping something, giving up a piece of our regular routine.  In Lent we try to drop that regular self-centered beat that keeps turning our attention back to our own desires.  Try not to scratch that itch.  Try not to eat that candybar.  Bet you didn’t even know you were hungry till you just started thinking about it.  Whether or not you “give something up” for Lent, hopefully you at least try harder to resist those mental messages.

      In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this October, the “tune” we will be playing for your dance of Lent this year comes from Luther’s Small Catechism.  The Small Catechism was designed as a teaching tool of the faith, not just within the church but in the home. Martin Luther intended for the home to be the place where faith was first shared and taught. To that end he created the Small Catechism—a simple explanation of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments. He included basic prayers for morning and evening, and suggested ways to worship, praise, and revere God during each part of our day.

      In addition to weekly Wednesday services at 4pm and 7pm which will focus on the parts of the Catechism, we are offering copies of the excellent Lenten devotional Free Indeed, which invites us to consider each day how the Small Catechism helps us keep in step with God in our lives. 

      An old folk-hymn tells the story of the what happens to Jesus in between Lent and Easter.   The song calls Jesus the “Lord of the Dance” because He shows us how to move through life with grace and love.  He showed it most vividly when everyone thought the dance was over, when his life ended on a still and bloody cross.  But the dance, as we know and as the final verse tells us, went on. 

      Our lives of faith include the daily rhythm of prayer, the weekly rhythm of worship, and the yearly rhythm of celebrating the seasons of fasts and festivals.  Within that spectrum of spirituality, Lent serves as the slow-dance number that leads into and prepares us for the all-out swing dance jumping and jiving of Easter.  But on the way to that all-out energy and exuberant joy, we slow-dance with Jesus through Lent, and hopefully by the end of it, we’ve learned how to let Him take the lead.

Pastor Scott

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Neighbors by the numbers

“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”   He said to him, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”
            But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?
              -- Luke 10:25-29

             The lawyer speaking to Jesus must have gotten straight A’s in Sunday school.  He knew his Bible verses, pulling the best ones out at the moment they were needed.  From Deuteronomy 6:5, he quotes the famous “Shema” verse about the duty of God’s children to love their heavenly Father, and from Leviticus 19:18, God’s command to not seek revenge but instead love the neighbor.  “But who,” he asks Jesus, “IS my neighbor?”
            We ask the same question in a different spirit.  Where the lawyer was trying to get Jesus to define the term so he could look for loopholes, we seek to find out more about the neighbors who surround us.  We know Jesus wants us to love all the people in our community, and that there is no boundary separating those who are neighbors and those who are not.  When we ask “Who is my neighbor?” as a church, we are asking as servants.  We want to know the makeup and the breakdown of our community so we can continue doing a better job reaching out with our mission: “Sharing the love of Jesus, glorifying God, and extending His kingdom.”
            If you were looking for the right place to plant a garden, you would look for the land with the richest soil.  There are many ways to reach out to our community, many services we could provide, many ways we could advertise, many neighborhoods in our area where we could establish a presence.  But where to begin?  Where is the richest soil to grow new ministries to reach new people, to share God’s love in the best way possible right here in the Wesley Chapel area? Here is where it helps to know what is happening in our community.  Who ARE our neighbors?  Where do our strengths and the things we have to offer coincide with the needs and longings of those around us?  What aspects of our ministry do we need to strengthen in order to better serve those most likely to come through our doors?

            Just like a business wants an accurate picture of the community where they do business, we can also benefit greatly by looking at our neighborhoods by the numbers.  Demographics will show us the socio-economic trends, as well as behavioral, life-style, psychological and spiritual tendencies we are likely to find.  The Wesley Chapel area has been growing for some time now – what new opportunities does that give us?  Where is it growing the most and what are these people like who are coming into our area? 

            This month, we’ve invited Pastor Jefferson Cox to join us for an evening of discovery.  He brings with him knowledge and expertise in the powerful demographics engine called Mission Insite.  Our Florida-Bahamas Synod makes Mission Insite available to us through special mission funding.  I have used it often to create basic reports on areas around our church.  Pastor Cox has much deeper knowledge of how this program works, and can show us with great detail what has been happening and can illuminate the future trends which will impact our ministry.

            We realized that we needed more in-depth information as we began strategizing for our Hispanic ministry.  School statistics showed us that 20% of our community has a Hispanic background.  But what does that mean?  Are they of Mexican, Caribbean, or South American descent?  There are cultural differences in the prayer and faith traditions of these groups.  The makeup of the community will make a difference in the way we celebrate holidays or the kinds of spiritual practices we would establish in our Hispanic outreach.   That’s when we knew we needed Pastor Cox’s help to see what we are dealing with.

            The detailed look at our growing area which Pastor Cox will bring to us this month can benefit all of our ministries.  From deciding where to advertise to looking at choices of music, events to offer, or ways to enhance our childrens’ ministry, the information available through Mission Insite can apply to just about anything we do.  One especially interesting feature of Mission Insite is their set of “Mosaic Groups.”  They have applied sociological and generational research to identify key aspects of 19 different categories of Americans, from “Golden Year Guardians” to “Middle Class Melting Pot.”  Segments of the population can represent “Flourishing Families,” or “Blue Sky Boomers,”  “Suburban Style” or “Singles and Starters.”  Think of how important recognizing certain segments of the population was in the recent presidential election.  It is also important for us in knowing “Who is our neighhor,” and how to reach out to them.
            So I’d like to invite you to join us on Friday, February 17 for our Mission Insite worshop with Pastor Jefferson Cox.  Come for the Hispanic focused segment from 4-6pm or the General community workshop from 7-9pm, or both.  Either way, you are welcome to join us for dinner in between.  I’m sure it will be fascinating for anyone who has seen the amazing growth and change we have been through in the last few years.  Bring your thoughts and questions, ideas and insights. There will be opportunity to learn and share as we discover our community in depth and think about ways to apply that knowledge to better love God and to better serve our neighbors. 

Pastor Scott