29 November 2011

Merry Christmas!

Welcome to the Oak Lawn Church! We are very proud to be a diverse congregation, where everyone is affirmed as a child of God. If you are looking for a church home where everyone is welcomed, we'd love for you to join us this Christmas season.

We are very excited about Christmas worship at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church this year. We will offer three Christmas Eve worship experiences. The first, at 3:00 p.m., will be a family service led by our Associate Pastor Kerry Smith. The others, 5:00 and 11:00 p.m., will be traditional services led by Senior Pastor Frank Drenner. The celebration continues Christmas morning. Following a brunch at 9:30 a.m., as our Associate Pastor Gregg Alan Smith leads our worship at 11:00. Please join us this year for a wonderful Oak Lawn Christmas!

Christmas Eve Worship, Saturday December 24
3:00 p.m. Family Service
5:00 and 11:00 p.m. Traditional Services

Christmas Morning, Sunday December 25
9:30 a.m. Brunch
11:00 a.m. Christmas Day Worship

The Peace and Joy of the Season be with you!
- Pastor Frank

16 November 2011

Partners for Sacred Places

A couple of weeks ago I received a call from Mr Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Places, an organization dedicated to helping established churches further their mission. He asked if I had received a letter from him—that I would be very pleased with the news. I had not, so he faxed it to me. Oak Lawn UMC has received a $100,000 grant! It will be used for renovations/improvements to our facility (our Trustees will decide exactly where the money will be spent—but it will not be for the operations budget). What a surprise! Joy! Glory! Halleluiah! I immediately notified David Shuford, Chair of Trustees.  Upon collecting himself from the floor he was as overjoyed as I.

Partners for Sacred Places (sacredplaces.org) began its work in 1989. Here’s a summary of its work:
Partners for Sacred Places brings together a national network of expert professionals who understand the value of a congregation's architectural assets, its worth as a faith community, and the significance of its service to the community at large.
Through our training programs, information clearinghouse, and professional network, we have helped congregations in all 50 states. Stories of success unfolding in cities, towns, and rural areas inform Partners' knowledge bank. Each story fuels our capacity to help congregations, and we are expanding our national reach by strategically growing our training projects and regional offices.
Partners is the only national advocate for the sound stewardship and active community use of America's older religious properties. Informed by its research, Partners is building a shared sense of responsibility for the future of sacred places.
Partners was founded in 1989 by a national task force of religious, historic preservation and philanthropic leaders. Since then, Partners has served several thousand congregations and other local organizations and represents the needs and concerns of over 100,000 older, community-serving sacred places in every town and city across America.

This week I participated in a conference call with Mr Jaeger, as well as Dr Bill Bryan of Perkins School of Theology, Mr Sam Hodges from the United Methodist Reporter, and the Rev Judith Reedy of Grace UMC, near Baylor Hospital (Grace will receive a $25,000 grant).  Our hope is to get the word out about the work of Oak Lawn, Grace, and Partners for Sacred Places. Bob Jaeger mentioned a new project Sacred Places is researching: the “Halo Effect.”  It’s the annual economic impact churches that are invested in their neighborhoods have. It’s estimated to be $3-5 million per church. What impact has Oak Lawn UMC had on Oak Lawn over the years?

We know there are “circles of philanthropy” out there with interest in supporting congregations making a real difference in the lives of their community. In fact, Pastor Judith said she just had lunch with a donor recently who is a member of another United Methodist congregation doing no mission work. So this person is actively supporting Grace Church and its work. I learned that it is often the case that 2/3 of funds raised for the church come from those outside its walls. Do you know any organizations or individuals who would support our mission and empower us to do even more?

I spoke proudly on the call about the hands on work Oak Lawn does for its community and the changes I have seen since I last served here eight years ago. Dr Bryan, who served as my Intern Supervisor years ago, said, “I am proud of you, Frank.” I replied, “Thanks, but I had nothing to do with it!” I am grateful for visionary pastors and layfolk who decided to step out in faith, embrace the community around us, and see what good things God will do. I believe our faithfulness to this mission is being rewarded, not just financially but with more and more people who seek a diverse congregation with a heart for its community.

I am thankful for organizations such as Partners for Sacred Places who see the value of congregations such as Grace and Oak Lawn, and choose to generously join us in fulfilling God’s vision in our community. The other day Joan Wu reminded me of a story I shared in a sermon when I served here previously ( I had long forgotten it—how did she remember?). It was about a church in a changing neighborhood. They needed a new roof, but could not afford to do that and support programs for the community. Or the church could just close its doors. After much prayer and discernment, the church decided to repair the roof. They were afraid of how the community would respond. Would they be perceived as being selfish or turning their backs on the needs of their parish? What they heard back was: “Thank you for fixing the roof! That means you’re staying here!” Oak Lawn made the decision decades ago, when many urban churches closed or moved to the suburbs, to stay right here. Every day when I drive here, when I meet a new face, when I see entire communities embraced who were once underserved, I am grateful for that decision to stay. Many of our members and friends who worship with us are here because of that decision. That decision is producing real fruit in the form of changed lives.

I say it often, and proudly so: thank you for the privilege of serving such a place as Oak Lawn.

13 November 2011

Flawed Assumptions- delivered at OLUMC Nov 13, 2011

The other day I was in Sam's and the Christmas music was blaring! Every HDTV had a red ribbon on it, there were aisles of gift wrap, even the familiar bell ringing of the Salvation Army guy. As I left a guy in front of me said to the woman at the door, "Christmas is going to go and y'all will be so tired of all this music!" Holiday cheer for everyone! Yes, nothing rings in the holidays like people being upset about celebrating them too early. One home in our neighborhood had lights up the morning after Halloween. Last night as we came home we saw more lights going up. Through the miracle of Facebook I know of some folk who already have their Christmas tree up-but for their safety I will keep them anonymous.  We're going to wait a few more weeks before we decorate the church for Xmas- Saturday December 3 to be exact. The way the Christian calendar works is different from commercial observances. Christmas is a season, but it's only 12 days, and it begins- not ends- December 25. Before that is the Season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday of Advent is November 27, but many churches are observing Advent earlier to give it its full consideration. It was only a thousand years ago that Pope Gregory changed Advent from a six week season- like Lent before Easter- to four (no one seems to know why). But the gospel lessons for the Sundays in November remained the same, dealing with traditional Advent themes like preparation for a new reality ushered in by God. Take the parables of Matthew 25.  A few weeks ago we read the first parable, the one about the bridesmaids waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for the wedding. The parable at the end of Matthew 25 is a vision of ultimate justice. Stuck in the middle of those is today's text, where a landowner gives three slaves a tremendous opportunity. They are each given talents- a unit of money that represents years of work. This is a ton of money to share. The first slave is given five talents. Enough for a lifetime of work. The second receives two. And the third one. The slaves are given no instructions whatsoever- no strings or expectations attached. Then the master goes on holiday.  The first two slaves see this as a great opportunity to make some cash. They sit down with their investment planners and go to work. The third slave's investment strategy involves a shovel, a box, and a metal detector. Now, recently I did something I had successfully convinced myself to not do for the past several years: in a moment of weakness, I opened my pension statement. That was a mistake. If this was a parable about investment strategies for the 21st century, slave #3 is your guy, right? Stuff those mattresses! But this parable is not about market fluctuations. The last thing Jesus would be interested in is Greece's debt crisis. No, the first two slaves are the stars here. Without any instruction from the owner, upon his return these two share great news: they have doubled the money. The owner is so pleased- they are both promoted for their actions. The third slave? Not so much.  Dusting off his unearthed box, he returns the talent to his master with these words, paraphrased: "Master, I know you cheat and steal, and you're kinda mean, so I was afraid to do anything with this dough. Take it back." Now the owner is not pleased, but I wonder how surprised he was- this guy was only given one talent after all, not multiples like the others. The master turns his words back on him, "I'm the jerk, huh? Well, at least you could have opened a checking account and earned .25% or something, but instead you give back exactly what you were given. Fine. We'll give it to the first guy and see what he can do with it. As for you, go away where you can't mess up any more  great opportunities." Now you're thinking, "The third slave was right. The owner is a lousy guy- look at how he treats this guy. I mean most of us would take a 0% return after these last 3 years! But here's the thing: this is not a parable about money.  It's about using what we've been given. It's about risking everything for Jesus. It's about sharing our blessings and watched the Kingdom of God grow around us. If we have a negative view of the landowner, it's only because the 3rd guy said so- and why would we trust his judgment? HE's clearly motivated only by fear- why should that influence us?  The other slaves are not afraid of their master. We should they be? We know him to be exceedingly generous with his money. He gave those talents- again, it's a huge amount of money- and he didn't ask them to do anything with it. It's their money! These are the verbs Matthew uses to describe the owner's actions: he gave it to the slaves, and they received it. These are not wages earned for labor- these are gifts freely given.  The first two recognize this and use their blessing to create more opportunities for blessing. The third one creates this whole new reality. Returning the talent, he says, "Here you have what is yours." But the talent does not belong to the landowner! The first two slaves make no effort to return the original money or the proceeds: "Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more." This is not a shareholder's meeting, but a celebration. To the third slave, who has called him lazy and a thief, he plays along, using his assumptions against him: "...You ought to have invested my money... I would have received what was my own with interest." He repeated the slave's mistaken assumptions about his character, "You knew, did you...?" Then turns the tables again: "Take the dusty talent, wipe it off, and you guessed it- give it to the first guy. To those who have received much, more will be- given- so they my have an abundance. To those who have little, it was will be taken."  The landowner is God. The talent is the grace of God. It is offered to us without pomp and circumstance, and without strings attached. And this is not a little helping of grace- this is seconds and thirds. Not an investment. An opportunity. A challenge. Multiply it. Not because God demands it. But because you know a relationship with Jesus is the most precious and valuable thing you have- given to you through no work on your part. That s not the kind of thing to be buried in the sand. Don't waste it. You've been given a great gift because God loves you that much- and sees such greatness in you. Turns out the third slave did not know the master at all- and his ignorance was all he was left with.  "It's the most wonderful time of the year..." is a popular tune in the stores.  I'm not sure if it was going at Sam's the other day or not. It is the most wonderful time of the year- but not because of Thanksgiving or even Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of the year because during Advent it's time for us to really ask ourselves: who is God? Do you even know- or are your assumptions as flawed as the third slave? Why is what we believe important? How can what we have experienced help others who are searching? God has given us a message. A brilliant, life-giving message of hope, love, and peace. Don't bury it in the ground. Multiply it. Share what you know. Even if it's before Thanksgiving or Christmas. There's no grace in waiting! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Comments shared at a remembrance service for the Cancer Support Community of Dallas

 1 There is a time for everything,     and a season for every activity under the heavens:  2 a time to be born and a time to die,     a time to plant and a time to uproot,   3 a time to kill and a time to heal,     a time to tear down and a time to build,   4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,     a time to mourn and a time to dance,   5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,     a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,   6 a time to search and a time to give up,     a time to keep and a time to throw away,   7 a time to tear and a time to mend,     a time to be silent and a time to speak,   8 a time to love and a time to hate,     a time for war and a time for peace. Those are the familiar words from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Even if you have not read them in the Bible you've probably heard them on the radio- the classic song TURN,TURN,TURN by The Byrds was a smash hit in 1965, and, apart from the last line, is based entirely on this text. According to Wikipedia, it easily holds the record for the #1 song with the oldest lyrics!  Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the classic WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, called Ecclesiastes "the most dangerous book of the Bible." If you read the book, you'll quickly see why. It's written by a philosopher/teacher who has reached middle age. Or maybe even on the other side of the middle. He looks upon his own life, as well as those around him in his community and world, and seeks to find meaning there. It's very difficult. Most of the book is filled with negative thoughts of folly, waste, and bitterness. It is a brutally honest book- no rose colored glasses on this guy- which is why Kushner affectionately called it "dangerous." I agree. It's one of my favorites.  It's a real honor to be amongst you today. Hearing these stories of grief and love has been a real privilege. I am thankful for the work of this organization and will continue to pray for each family as I have since Daniel Blackburn first invited me to speak some time ago. I am especially mindful of two families in our church I prayed with just yesterday who are facing the same days of grief as many of you have endured. Death is a reality of life we all must confront. There are many ways to do that, some  are positive, and some are not.  I recently read a book by Rev John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California. It's called WHEN THE GAME IS OVER IT ALL GOES BACK IN THE BOX. It's about playing the game of life with grace, forgiveness, and joy. And knowing for certain that death is a reality we all must face. Thinking of an uncle who recovered from a serious illness, Ortberg says this:  "One thing is certain to everyone: that life is a gift, that every day is an unpurchased miracle, every second is overtime. I do not know why life works the way it does. I do not know why some people recover and others die. I do not know why some prayers are answered and others (seem to) go unheeded. But I do know life is a gift. I know this is not something we earn, create, control, or sustain. I know that one truth about us we forget is that we are going to die. The other truth is that we are alive." Ecclesiastes never loses his "dangerous" outlook on life, but he did realize one truth: loneliness is the last thing any of us needs. In times of grief and despair, joy and hope, life is always best lived with others: "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to the one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold chord is not quickly broken."  It's interesting that the metaphor Ecclesiastes uses for our life together is a three-fold chord, rather than two-fold, when all the examples he gave involved two persons. The third chord must be God. So may we cling to our loved ones- and each other- in our time of grief, as well as embracing the future with hope. And may we find God in whatever season we face: birth and death; planting and plucking up; killing and healing; breaking down and building up; weeping and laughing; mourning and dancing; throwing away and gathering; embracing or not; seeking and losing; keeping and throwing away; tearing and sewing; keeping silence or speaking; loving or hating; making war or peace.  Wherever you are today, however you are confronting your grief and the reality of life and death, may you find joy and companionship there, and the strength faith provides. In our remaining days, however many there are, may we live with hope, expecting to find God in every season. 

09 November 2011

feedback from a guest to oak lawn umc

I am always interested in how guests, particularly first timers, experience the church. So when I learned that a dear friend from a former congregation I served joined us for worship last month, I was eager to hear her reflections (we were out of town that Sunday). Here are some of her thoughts:

I was warmly greeted by ushers as I arrived in the rain exactly at 11AM.  I heard the bells or chimes.  I did not know how to enter the building.  I followed a couple up the steps to the front entrance.  I gladly took a seat in the rear center.  Took me a few minutes to get my bearings in a new place.  I understood the order of worship from the guide.  It was Children's Sunday though they had (in my opinion) limited participation in the service.  I believe they paraded off to children's church.  They blessed us with a song near the end. People around me were friendly and introduced themselves.  There was some trouble finding my way out.  Since it was still raining, I wanted to go out near the rear.  Someone showed me the way but discovered that the elevator was not working.  So we walked back up near the front to exit on the side.  One gentleman so proudly showed me the recently completed renovations of the parlor/reception area with the flat screen monitor.
I read worship guides cover to cover looking for education and mission ministries.  There is vibrant activity in both of these areas.  I was curious about adult SS classes but guide did give me a clue.  I loved the study offerings for Disciple and Jesus in the Gospels.  There was not contact info for the [book club] so I plan to call the church to see if there will be another time for discussing this book.  Maybe it is on the website. I would have appreciated email contacts in worship guide for all activities. Thanks for asking me to comment on experience.  I look forward to visiting again.

We recently heard feedback from Oak Lawners that hospitality was one of our strengths—I agree! But there are always areas to improve. How could we have improved her experience? Better signage on exterior of the building? Greeters outside near the elevator? More information in the bulletin? Share your thoughts with others in the church. Form a team and seek solutions. We know the holidays are a popular time for guests to check out the church. Help us to improve and offer the best welcome possible. Hearing feedback from those new to OLUMC helps us to remember our mission—to reach more persons for Jesus Christ—and reminds us that each of us once felt that confusion and excitement as we entered the building the first time. May we have open hearts, minds, eyes, and hands to our neighbors in the pews today and every Sunday!

05 November 2011

check your cliches at the door

ok, so it's november, meaning two things: the weather is officially amazing (we woke up to a 60 degree house this morning!), and it's time to roll out the thanksgiving cliches. someone discovered this poster published by nordstrom in 2007 and it began to pop up all over facebook:

(i imagine more people downloading and reposting.)

someone even said on a friend's wall: "if that's true i am definitely shopping there for Christmas!" and the cynic in me said, "kudos to nordstrom's marketing team!"

now, don't get me wrong: i love thanksgiving. it is my favorite holiday. if you have attended any church i have served you've heard me speak of the "three f's" of thanksgiving: food, family, and football. it's simple, little stress, and great fun. but here's the deal: why does it bug us so much for Christmas stuff to go on display in late october or early november? this and its cliche cousin about the commercialization of Christmas go hand and hand this time of year. but hold on for a second.

Christmas has feelings associated with it-- even for non-church folk-- of joy. yes, retailers anticipate the season all year, but i don't hear anyone boycotting the wall street journal when it begins to publish stories about that fact (yes, that article was dated october 10-- shocking!). 

is it such a bad thing if Christmas stuff brings a little joy in october and november? these are both great holidays-- let's celebrate both of them, but do they have to be confined to their respective months? what are we defending again? does Christmas really need the cliche police to protect it? the "naughty list" sermon series, the "war on Christmas" stuff... that can be stored away with the halloween decorations. if our excitement makes either holiday come faster, is that such a bad thing? just please do not start getting excited about the coming of summer. i may have to start a campaign against the commercialization of the sun.

so: happy holidays, everyone! oh wait, the Christmas cliche police banned that blessing years ago.