Deep Change – Covenant Sunday

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Positive change can happen when we are intentional, but it is still not easy. Many people have followed the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions for the year to come. But the problem we have with resolutions is that they last only a week or two — a month or two at the longest — because they depend upon our willpower alone.

Human willpower is all we have, unless we look beyond ourselves to God to pull us through, especially when we desire long-term, deep change.

Thankfully, John Wesley shaped a tradition that empowers us for real behavior change by emphasizing God’s will, not our actions. In Wesley’s day, Methodists in London practiced his Covenant Service (United Methodist Book of Worship, page 291) on every New Year’s Day, and many current United Methodist congregations in the United States use a version of this as their first worship service of the New Year. Wesley’s Covenant Prayer (United Methodist Hymnal, 607) is dear to my heart. I have carried it with me for decades. As a pastor, I shared it annually with the congregations I served, as does the pastor who serves the church I now attend.

Thankfully, deep change depends upon acceptance of God’s will and grace, not the strength of our finite willpower. Wesley’s Covenant Prayer focuses on God’s purpose and ability, not our own. Whether we are ranked high or low, employed or laid aside, satisfied or suffering, the prayer calls us to place ourselves entirely in God’s hands. So if you plan to make a New Year’s resolution this week, come to it from within the Covenant Prayer. It can actually get you into the deep, positive change that God has planned for you all along.
Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub
Written 12/29/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

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Grace

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Redwood new growth needle tipsSunlight peeks through smoky pearl skies. Raindrops shimmer, suspended from fine, fragile pine tips. Creation awaits fulfillment in the One who is to come, God incarnate.
We are “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries,” called to be found trustworthy and faithful (1 Corinthians 4:1). How can we possibly be worthy of trust in stewarding this core Mystery of God’s love come to earth in human life? For God to know personally our boundaries, our Lilliputian dreams, even our sin, and still affirm our adoption, made more and more into God’s very image?

It is grace, all grace. The sunlight knows. The trees are attuned.

Your partner in ministry,
Betsy Schwarzentraub

Written 12/21/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

Body and Soul Program: Epworth UMC, Berkeley, CA

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“We all have challenges to body and soul. While we cannot control every factor in our lives, we can make choices that support health and move us closer to the abundant life God intends for us . . . .”

With these words, the Rev. Odette Lockwood-Stewart, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley, California, preached about stewarding the gift of life, including our bodies and souls. She envisioned a three-month Pentecost adventure to pursue:
1. Physical health awareness with positive support for healthy habits and choices;
2. Spiritual renewal by encouraging prayer, meditation, study and service;
3. Nurture of mental health through reading and conversations; and
4. Community growth by gathering, knowing, and praying for one another.
Eighty church members participated in small groups of six to eight people. Everyone tracked daily points for activities in each of the goal areas: water, prayer/meditation, exercise, Bible reading, wellness, fruits and vegetables, community, Body of Christ, and a personal health goal. Then group leaders turned in their combined group points every week. In each small group, members created their own group covenants and shared in confidentiality for support and accountability. There was a mid-program Check-In event, a Saturday retreat, and a celebration at the end.

“We had amazing pastoral counseling and small-group work,” says Pastor Odette. “Every person who had a personal goal found a spiritual purpose underneath that. . . . There were a lot of wonderful surprises.”

Questions for Discussion
* How does your congregation encourage good stewardship of members’ bodies and health?
* What one idea from this program could you adopt or adapt for your church?
Written 12/7/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

The Power of Enough by Lynn Miller

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As we enter Thanksgiving and the gift-buying days leading up to Christmas, now is a great time to talk about what is enough. According to the consumer version of this season (in the U.S., at least), excess becomes our expectation, even our norm: excess food, excess buying, excess entertainment and activity.

“Enough” is a word not only of sanity and balance, but also of spiritual grounding. In 2 Corinthians 9:8, Paul says that God gives us every blessing in abundance so that, by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work. So our purpose is not to have everything in abundance, but rather to share abundantly. Having enough of what we need (in contrast to everything we desire) encourages us to share abundantly. With the “enough” that God promises, as we know from the Macedonians in Paul’s day (2 Corinthians 8:1-6), those who are centered in Jesus Christ can share abundantly, despite material poverty, because of the “wealth of generosity” in their hearts and lives and the sufficiency of God’s grace.

One good resource for exploring this idea is Lynn Miller’s book The Power of Enough: Finding Contentment by Putting Stuff In Its Place. This book makes an excellent piece for personal or group study. Miller explores Paul’s understanding of contentment (see Philippians 4:11-12) and key concepts such as the difference between need and desire, how a surplus economy works, and buying based upon “inherent usefulness.” (For example, if the purpose of a car is reliable transportation, then it does not have to be sexy, classy or any of the other intangibles that car dealers try to attach to their products.)

The Power of Enough is very practical. In each chapter, Miller offers personal reflection questions and exercises based upon our daily-living decisions. For example, in his “What Stuff Means” exercises, he invites you to write down what a house, food, clothes, and so on mean to you, where you formed those opinions, and whether those beliefs work for or against you. He then asks readers to discern what is “enough” in relation to their “stuff.” Miller’s basic principles apply equally well whether you are putting together your first-ever budget, planning for retirement, or deciding whether to invest in stocks or real estate.

In the Bible, “enough” is not just the bare minimum, Miller says, but rather sufficiency in everything. When we recognize that we have enough to be able to share abundantly, no matter what our external circumstances, we know that the things we own have nothing to do with who we are. We are set free, not just to have gifts or even to give gifts, but to be the gifts of God that God designed us to be for the rest of God’s world. The sufficiency of God’s grace: now that’s enough for this season and far beyond!

Written 12/7/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

Body and Soul Program, Epworth UMC, Berkeley, CA

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“We all have challenges to body and soul. While we cannot control every factor in our lives, we can make choices that support health and move us closer to the abundant life God intends for us . . . .” With these words, the Rev. Odette Lockwood-Stewart, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley, California, preached about stewarding the gift of life, including our bodies and souls.

She envisioned a three-month Pentecost adventure to pursue:
1. Physical health awareness with positive support for healthy habits and choices;
2. Spiritual renewal by encouraging prayer, meditation, study and service;
3. Nurture of mental health through reading and conversations; and
4. Community growth by gathering, knowing, and praying for one another.

Eighty church members participated in small groups of six to eight people. Everyone tracked daily points for activities in each of the goal areas: water, prayer/meditation, exercise, Bible reading, wellness, fruits and vegetables, community, Body of Christ, and a personal health goal. Then group leaders turned in their combined group points every week. In each small group, members created their own group covenants and shared in confidentiality for support and accountability. There was a mid-program Check-In event, a Saturday retreat, and a celebration at the end.

“We had amazing pastoral counseling and small-group work,” says Pastor Odette. “Every person who had a personal goal found a spiritual purpose underneath that. . . . There were a lot of wonderful surprises.”
Questions for Discussion
* How does your congregation encourage good stewardship of members’ bodies and health?
* What one idea from this program could you adopt or adapt for your church?

Written 12/7/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

Faithful Steward Award: Western North Carolina UM Foundation

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What does it look like to be a faithful steward congregation, and how can we encourage and measure growth in our stewardship as a community of faith?

The United Methodist Foundation of Western North Carolina has come up with a way to assess and recognize great stewarding behaviors. This year, they launched the Faithful Steward Award to recognize outstanding local churches that demonstrate excellence in their ministry of faithful stewardship and to inspire all churches to participate in stewardship growth.
The award application lists specific congregational behaviors in five categories: connectional stewardship and personal stewardship, church finances and budgeting, church stewardship support, awareness and education. It includes options such as an event or initiative to advocate for the poor; a youth or children’s stewardship event or study; two environmental initiatives annually; ongoing stewardship emphases throughout the year; and a small-group stewardship study.

For those whose heart quickens when there’s a bit of competition, the award gives a total of 260 achievable points. Those with the highest number of points in their district will be recognized in the districts, and churches with 175 points or more will receive a certificate at annual conference session.

To see the award application, contact Lauralee Bailey, Senior VP of Communications, at 1-888-450-1956, extension 1503.
Questions for Discussion
* How would a Faithful Steward Award encourage your congregation’s stewardship ministry?
* How can you help shape and share faithful steward behaviors among the churches in your area?

Written 12/6/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church

Green Teams: Nashville, TN

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On October 9-10, 2010, church members and others in Nashville, Tennessee, held a conference on green jobs and a 10/10/10 Global Work Party to highlight making our world more sustainable and protecting the climate and environment. But some members of Belmont and Edgehill United Methodist churches in Nashville continue to care for the earth through the ongoing work of their “Green Teams.”

The fifteen members of Belmont UMC’s Green Team set up a website to encourage their families, congregation, and community to reduce their carbon footprint. The site offers ways to discover and measure our effect upon the earth, shares encouraging stories, and connects environmental issues to Christian stewardship.

“We are called to see that all life has a sufficient share of the resources of nature,” they say. “With new hope rooted in Christ and with more obedient living as stewards of the earth, we can participate in God’s healing of creation.”

Inspired by Belmont, nearby Edgehill UMC formed its own Green Team, which invites participants to follow “The Ten Commitments.” These include doing ten hours of volunteer work in the community, planting ten trees in a reforestation project, eating ten dinners a month without meat, and reducing our carbon footprint by ten percent over the next year.

To learn more, go to http://www.belmontgreenteam.org or http://www.edgehill.org.
Some Questions for Discussion
* What could you do as stewards of the earth in your community?
* How might you start a Green Team in your congregation?

Written 12/6/2010 for the General Board of Discipleship
of the United Methodist Church