Not Normal (Yet)

Not Normal (Yet)

Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”  And that kind of sums up where we are in our struggle to return to normal from this global pandemic.  Some things are returning to normal but, as it has been for the last fifteen months, “normal” remains a moving target.  Even so, things are getting better and as they do, our church is returning to more familiar routines.  But even as we move toward the familiar, our routines will be different than they used to be. 

What does that mean?

Well, let’s talk about a few of our routines and how they might be different.

  1. We’re moving back to indoor church.  Hooray!  But being indoors isn’t going to be exactly like it used to be (yet).  We are returning indoors, but we’re still concerned about the spread of COVID, so some things will remain different for a while.  Sunday school classes and church committees are returning to in-person meetings, but not all of them.  Not everyone feels comfortable meeting in groups and some committee meetings are sometimes more convenient online, so some of those groups will remain online.

We are going to worship indoors, but worship still isn’t going to be the same as it used to be.  We are going to take the offering differently, we will be space ourselves out more than we used to, we plan to wear masks when we sing, and some people will likely choose to wear masks all the time. 

  • The building isn’t how I remember it.  We’ve made some changes.  Some of them are pandemic related, and some aren’t.  Our trustees have not been hibernating for the last year.  I’ve mentioned before that there were new lights installed above the stairs by the handicap entrance and in the lounge, but most of you will soon be seeing those changes for the first time so it will look a little different.  The trustees have other projects in progress that haven’t happened yet, so you can expect more changes.  In part because of COVID and in-part because of security concerns, we just aren’t going to unlock as many doors as we used to.  Many of you won’t even notice, but we will put up signs and let you know what’s going on so that we can all get used to entering through the doors that are open.
  • Money.  Honestly, this one is entirely up to you.  To everyone’s credit, last year, our giving remained steady even though we stayed home and made the transition to online worship.  But 2021 has not been kind to us.  I’m not sure that there is any single reason that can explain it.  We got out of the habit of coming to church.  We got out of the habit of putting our offering in the plate.  We got worried about our personal finances and cut back.  It could be any of those, or all of those, or a hundred other things.  But our offerings changed.  Dramatically.  I won’t belabor the point here, because our members will soon be receiving a letter that will go into more details.  For now, let’s just say that our budget, our staff, and all sorts of things will be facing substantial changes if 2021 doesn’t start to look more like 2019.
  • Dress. I don’t really know.  But I suspect that over the last year, many of you have grown accustomed to attending church in your bunny slippers.  I’m sure you don’t want to show up half-dressed, but if a year of worshiping online makes you feel like you want to dress more comfortably, I’m pretty sure no one will mind.  I’m sure I’ll go back to wearing a suit at some point, but I admit that I rather liked being able to preach wearing denim pants and hiking boots.  The important thing is that we all get back in the habit of going to church and being together.
  • People.  While we were online, we’ve had a few new people begin to worship with us.  Even though they have been “in church” with us for months, they will be unfamiliar to most of you.  I hope that you will make them feel welcome.  If you are one of those folks that joined us online, I hope that will join us in-person even though almost all of us will be unfamiliar to you.  At the same time, I’m sure that there are a few folks who just got out of the habit of coming to church and won’t be returning.  I hope it isn’t many.  And I hope it isn’t you.  We are the church.  We are the body of Christ.  All of us.  Together.

I’m sure that’s not all.  I’m sure that there are changes I forgot to mention, and others that I haven’t learned about, or that haven’t happened yet.  But life is all about change.  As we return to in-person, indoor worship, things are going to seem more like normal.  But, at the same time, not… quite… normal.  Whenever you feel comfortable, I hope that you will return to worship in-person.  And, until you do, we are working hard to continue some sort of online worship.  Although that may face some changes too.

Whatever happens…

“It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” 


Blessings,

Pastor John


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Real Freedom (and Pandemic Paul)

We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.” 

But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s become a cliché to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?”  But this week, I’ve been thinking church should be asking itself what Paul would do.  Of course, anyone who has spent any time in church or Vacation Bible School has heard about Paul the Apostle.  Paul was born in Tarsus which was a part of what is now the nation of Turkey.  But despite being born far from Rome, Paul was born to parents who were both Jews and Roman citizens. 

There were privileges that came with being a Roman citizen.  It was as if the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights only applied to citizens, and you carried those rights wherever you went, anywhere in the Roman world.  Non-citizens didn’t have the same rights and slaves certainly did not have them.  Romans could not be beaten or treated harshly, and while they could be arrested, they couldn’t be tried in any court outside of Rome but had to be returned to Rome, or to a Roman court, for trial.  In modern language, citizens were privileged.

But Paul didn’t always use that privilege.  Paul found that sometimes his privilege, his rights, his citizenship, and even his freedom, was a disadvantage when sharing the message of Jesus with the people around him.  In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul said:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Even though Paul was not a slave, he sometimes gave up the rights that he had so that he could be heard by the slaves and share the message of Jesus with them.  Even though Paul knew that following Jesus released him from some of the dietary restrictions and rules of the Jewish faith, he would follow those customs when he was with the Jews so that they would be able to hear his words when he shared the gospel.  But when Paul was living among the Greeks and other people who were not Jewish, he would follow their customs for the same reason. 

Wherever Paul went, he did whatever he could to allow people to hear his message.  And that often meant giving up something important.  Paul found that his rights, his privileges, and even his freedom, got in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  Slaves wouldn’t hear a message that was preached by someone who used their citizenship and their freedom to act better than them.  Jews wouldn’t listen to someone who was an outsider and violated their religious laws.  And people everywhere feel more comfortable around a person who respects their customs.

But what does that mean to us?  What would Paul do if he lived among us today?

As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic crisis in the United States, we are hearing a lot about rights and privileges.  We have a right to move about freely.  We are free to choose whether we will wear a mask.  And those persons who are vaccinated are being granted special rights and additional freedoms. 

But is exercising those freedoms the right thing to do?

I’ve seen churches advertising that they are “Open and Mask-less.”  Vendors are selling signs saying that vaccinated persons are welcome in their church.  And I’ve seen churches that say things like, “All are welcome.  Unvaccinated persons must wear masks.”  I understand that these are the rights that are given to us under the United States Constitution, and the privileges of having access to the Covid-19 vaccine.  But will exercising these rights prevent us from sharing the message of the gospel?

It was once common for churches to ask visitors to stand up and introduce themselves.  That custom made me so uncomfortable that I vowed never to return to any church that made me do it.  And so, I worry that requiring unvaccinated persons to wear masks will make them feel unwelcome.  We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.”  But that’s exactly what these signs are saying.  Anything that draws a line between “us” and “them” is exactly what Paul spent his life trying to avoid.

If Paul were writing today, I wonder if his words wouldn’t be, “Though I am vaccinated, and am free to do as I wish, I have made myself to be unvaccinated, to win as many as possible.  To the unvaccinated, I have become unvaccinated to win the unvaccinated.  With the mask wearers, I have worn masks, to win those that wear masks.”  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

We have rights.  But what if using them turns people away?  In the twenty-first century, like Paul, we must be careful that our rights, privileges, and freedoms do not get in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Blessings,

Pastor John


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Vaccines, Bananas, and Christianity

Vaccines, Bananas, and Christianity

Our current environment of pandemic has returned the word “Vaccine” as a regular term of discussion in ways that it hasn’t since the national fight against Polio in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Everyone is talking about the safety of the various vaccines available, when and where a person might be able to get one, whether they have started, or finished, the vaccination process yet, and how soon vaccination rates might it possible for our lives, and our churches, to return to something resembling the “normal” that we had a year and a half ago.  Vaccines are something that are designed to protect us and keep us safe.  If we are vaccinated, we hope that they will either keep us from contracting the disease or, if we do contract it, will prevent us from becoming as sick as we otherwise might have.

But as we think about immunizations, it might also be useful to remember that Christianity is not a vaccine.  Our Christian faith is not something that we take once, or occasionally, to protect us from evil, from misadventures, or even to protect us from God’s condemnation.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Christians are afflicted by the forces of evil.  And Christian faith means more than periodically showing up to church, or putting money in the offering plate, or memorizing Bible verses.  Instead, Christianity, and Christian faith, is a lifestyle to which Jesus calls us and, having accepted that call, it becomes a way in which we choose to pattern our entire lives.  Christian faith shapes how we make friends, how we go on vacation, the clothes that we choose to wear, the places that we choose to spend our money, the occupations, and careers that we consider for our life’s work and influences nearly every aspect of our lives.  Christianity is less about what we do, and more about who we are as human beings.  When we choose to follow Jesus, we announce our intention to pattern our entire lives upon the life that Jesus modeled and taught.

But while Christianity is not a vaccine, our churches, and their members, can, sometimes, act a vaccine against it.  While we are good about bringing our children, grandchildren, to church, and even occasionally inviting friends and neighbors, we often fail to “make the sale” and ask them to follow Jesus and become his disciples.  The result is that having come to Sunday school a few times, memorized the occasional Bible story, and otherwise had a “little bit of Jesus,” rather than becoming committed followers and disciples of Jesus, they become vaccinated against Christianity instead.  Rather than discovering a Jesus that is worth following, they spend their lives thinking that, like a flavor of ice cream, they tried it, but didn’t find it to their liking.

In my mind, it’s a bit like our daughter Lina’s adventure with bananas.  When we first met her in China, we tried feeding her bananas, she smiled, she liked them, and wanted more.  But one day, as we attempted to give her some bitter tasting medicine, we tried to hide it in a spoonful of bananas.  She could taste what we were doing and rejected both the medicine and the banana.  And after that single experience as a ten-month-old infant, she wouldn’t eat bananas again for almost two decades.

Too many of our churches, or their members, do this same thing to the children, grandchildren, and visitors that come through our doors.  They come to church, or meet church members in secular places, and come away with an experience that leaves a “bad taste” in their mouth.  And those bad experiences, whether they happened in church, at work, at school, or anywhere else, can prevent them from returning to church, or to faith, for decades, and sometimes forever.

As we celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, let us recommit ourselves to being true disciples who look and act like Jesus seven days a week, everywhere we go, and in everything that we do.  Let us live so that others will want what we have, and not be vaccinated against it, or are left with a “bad taste” that might keep them away.  After all, it was Jesus who commanded his followers this way:“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

I pray that we may be known for our love.

Blessings,

Pastor John


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Life is Not a Show

Life is Not a Show

February 17, 2021*

(Ash Wednesday)

By Pastor John Partridge

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17                    Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21                        2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

In William Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It,” the character, Jacques, declares that all the world is a stage.   The first few lines of this soliloquy begin like this:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts…

But despite Shakespeare’s insistence that the world is just a stage, our life is not a show that is lived for the benefit of other people.  In Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Jesus cautions us this way:

6:1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus is clear that although we might, as Shakespeare suggested, live our lives on a stage viewed by others, the only spectator that matters is God.  As we live our lives, we do not donate food to impress the people at the food pantry, or put money in the offering plate to impress people, or pray out loud so that people will think that we are religious, or holy, or somehow better than anyone else.  This isn’t an act.  Our lives are real, and our actions have eternal consequences.  Our goal should never be to look good, or to impress people, or to inflate our own ego, but always, and only to do the will of God.  Our goal is to be obedient and faithful and that’s all.

In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he amplifies this message of faithful living by saying this in 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10:

5:20 We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6:1 As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.For he says,

“In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.”

I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Paul says that no matter what happens, our one, singular goal, is to get our hearts right with God, and to return to a right relationship with God.  That, my friends, is the entire reason that we set aside this season of Lent.  It is a time for us to reflect upon our lives and our actions.  It is a time for us to consider how we have been doing and consider the health of our relationship with God. 

Have we been as obedient as we could have been?

Are we as faithful as we could be?

Are there ways in which we can do better?

Are we doing things that make it harder for others to believe that we are following Jesus?

Or that make it harder for them to believe in Jesus?

Let us consider where we have fallen short and where we can do better.

And let us commit ourselves to using this season of Lent, to draw closer to God, to live in such a way that we look more like Jesus, to be more obedient, and to be more faithful.  Not so that we will look better to the people around us, but so that the people around us will see Jesus more clearly and be drawn closer to him because of the change that they see in us.

 All the world may be a stage…

            …but our lives are not an act.

Let us live lives that carry us into an eternity with God, and which draw as many others as possible along with us

_______

Old Testament Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill.

Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is close at hand—
    a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come.

12 “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

13 Rend your heart and not your garments.  Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.
14 Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.
16 Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children,
    those nursing at the breast.  Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber.
17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar.
Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
    a byword among the nations.  Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/ULPY2qwgoek

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.