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Episode 277 | FRESH START, part 1: Are You Sure You Are Up for This?

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-acwjb-13628d5

In this episode, Rev. Todd discusses that God can be found in even the least expected places.

January 15, 2023 – Newton UMC – Sunday Worship Livestream

JOY Fellowship Worship Service in Holland Hall: 9:00 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 9:00 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Worship Service in Main Sancutary: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our live-streamed Sunday Worship Services for January 15. Today we learn that Jesus is the way to life, and he calls us to make fresh starts in faith. A fresh start requires courage, focus, and practice.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

The Beginning and the End

Read Revelation 1

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:12-13 NLT).

As a pastor, I do a fair amount of funerals. Sometimes they are for people I know, perhaps a congregant or someone I am connected with otherwise. Other times, they are for people I don’t know at all. I will get a call from the funeral home requesting me to officiate for someone who does not have or know a pastor. Whether I know the deceased or not, I am always happy to serve in that capacity, helping families walk through the grieving process and find closure.

In every funeral I officiate, I utter these profoundly powerful words of grace, “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am [the] life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you shall live also.”[1]

What I love about those words, what I find to be so profoundly impactful about them is this: they provide the hope that ALL Christians have in Jesus Christ. One day, though our bodies may die, we will NEVER die because of the Salvific work of Christ on the cross. In those words of grace, are Scriptural quotes and promises made by God and by Jesus the Christ. All of the words are words that are uttered by God and Jesus in the Gospel of John and in the book of Revelation.

For instance, the phrase “I am the resurrection and [the] life” comes from John 11:25, when Jesus was pointing Martha to himself, letting her know that he is the RESURRECTION…and the LIFE…that he, in himself, has power over life and death. The proclamation that “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” comes from what God says in Revelation 1:8, and what Jesus says in Revelation 22:13. The proclamation, “I am the first and the last. I died and behold I am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death”, comes from Jesus in Revelation 1:17b-18. Jesus’ proclamation, “Because I live, you shall live also”, is found in John 14:19.

What amazes me about these words is the BOLDNESS and DEFIANCE of them. They stand in the face of everything we know to be true…death is inevitable and unavoidable…and defiantly proclaim that DEATH IS A LIAR! God and Jesus tell us that they BOTH are the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the last. That they hold the keys to hell and death and that death has LOST!

But how can this be? How can those words even make sense when death is such a reality in our world? Because Jesus, in his words, is reminding us of who he is. He is not just a cool guy. He’s not just a teacher. He’s not just a prophet. He’s the very CREATOR of everything that is. He’s Alpha (the first letter in the Greek Alphabet), and Omega (the last letter in the Alphabet)…describing himself through letters as the Word…the Word made flesh who lived among us (see John 1:1-5, 14) and was with God at the Beginning and who IS GOD.

Jesus proclaims that he is the Beginning and the End, not just of the Christian movement, but of all creation. “He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him” (John 1:2-3 NLT). So, yes, this Jesus, who is the Word of God and who IS GOD, can proclaim to us that DEATH IS A LIAR! Because he is the one who has conquered death. He is the ETERNAL AUTHOR OF LIFE and death has no sway on him.

Though we may perish physically, God will one day restore us to new and immortal bodies, as Paul boldly proclaims 1 Corinthians 15:53. Just as we have physical bodies now, we will one day have spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:46) and we will LIVE FOREVER with God on a newly recreated heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1-7). We have this GREAT HOPE that this current broken world may die, and our physical bodies might perish, but we who are in Christ will NEVER die. Now that, my friends is GOOD NEWS!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“[Jesus] has a right to interrupt your life. He is Lord. When you accepted Him as Lord, you gave Him the right to help Himself to your life anytime He wants.” – Henry Blackaby

PRAYER
Lord, I open my heart to you and your rule. Employ me in any way you see fit. Amen.


[1] The United Methodist Church, “A SERVICE OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION,” Discipleship Ministries, October 2, 2019, accessed December 28, 2022, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/book-of-worship/a-service-of-death-and-resurrection

The Lament Configuration

Read Psalm 102

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NLT).

It is not often we talk about Lament. Then again, it is not often we talk about pain, suffering, mourning or grief; however, it is an intregal part of the faithful believer’s life. There is no human being alive that does not experience loss, suffering, isolation, pain, grief and sorrow. That is a natural configugration in life, so-to-speak. Heck, there is a lot of material in the Bible dedicated to this configuration, including none other than Lamentation and certainly some of the Psalms.

That is why I was utterly shocked when The Lament Configuration was mentioned in the recent reboot of the 1987 supernatural horror film entitled, Hellraiser, which was originally written and directed by Clive Barker, a British author, based off of Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart.

In this 2022 reboot produced by Hulu, we are introduced to a man Roland Voight, who has lured a young adult male into his club in order to use him as a human sacrifice. No details are given of the arrangement, but one gets that Roland is a very wealthy man with ZERO moral compass. Thus, the young man is brought back into a secret chamber of the mansion to meet Roland.

Upon entering the chamber, he sees a weirdly shaped puzzle box that Roland says he needs him to figure out. Upon doing so, a blade comes out and punctures his hand and all hell breaks loose. These weird creatures from another dimension of reality, we’ll call it hell, come forth and claim the life of Roland’s victim and the screen goes blank.

I am, obviously not going to give much more of the story away, but it is important for you to understand the back story. Following that, a young adult female recovering addict named Riley is introduced, along with her boyfriend Trevor, her brother Matt and his boyfriend Colin. Somehow, again without giving anything away, Riley discovers this mysterious puzzle box that we saw in the beginning of the film. This time it is in the simple shape of a cube.

After accidently opening it and her brother accidentally got cut by it (again, I am not giving too much away), her brother is taken by the Cenobites (the weird hellish creatures). This thrusts Riley on a path to right the wrongs that her opening the box wrought on her family and friends. Her understanding of how to do this is to continuing playing the puzzle box until she can pick, from the Cenobites, the choice of bringing her brother back to life. To do this, she would have to choose the Resurrection configuration.

But after losing more people than I can mention in this film, she realizes that while the Cenobites offer pleasure…their understanding of pleasure is eternal pain. But there is one configuration that, as far as the Cenobites are concerned, is far worse than any other to deal with: The Lament Configuration. Why was this the worst, because instead of testing one’s limits of pleasure and pain, one is choosing to live life, remorseful for the harm they have caused. In other words, the person that chooses the life of lament, they live a tortured existence of guilt and shame until they die.

But here is the key: they die. One can assume, following death there is NO MORE pain; however, their entire life will be lived in the REAL world experiencing guilt, shame and the pain that life brings on. Without giving away anymore of the film away, I possibly flirted a little with giving too much away, the experience of Lament is dealt with in a real, human way. I have never seen it approached in such an apropos way before.

The reality is, like Roland Voight and Riley, we all seek to escape pain and suffering, yet that is such a part of our human experience that we simply cannot escape it. What’s more, God chose NOT to escape it too. That’s right, God chose the Lament Configuration through Jesus Christ, who came to earth as God in the flesh, and who chose to LIVE HIS LIFE, despite the fact that doing so would land him in a Roman court and crucified on the cross. He chose to live a life of suffering and pain for us, so that we might have ABUNDANT and ETERNAL life through him.

Like the characters in the film, we simply have to choose The Lament Configuration over the other things we tend to seek out, such as pleasure, greed, hate, power and other such sinful things. What does that mean? Simple, we choose Jesus Christ and HIS way over our own. Instead of avoiding lament, let us open our hearts to God and lament over our own sins and the evil we sough wrought in this world. Then, through humble repentance and allegiance to Christ, we will be able to move past our human condition and into the Kingdom of God.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts: When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it’s like they are holding the baby of you.” – Anne Lamott

PRAYER
Lord, help me to learn to hand my griefs over to you so that, with a pentitent heart, I may be freed from my sins and burdens to serve you and others for the glory of your Kingdom. Amen.

January 8, 2023 – Newton UMC – Sunday Worship Livestream

JOY Fellowship Worship Service in Holland Hall: 9:00 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 9:00 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Worship Service in Main Sanctuary: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our live-streamed Sunday Worship Services for January 8. Today we discuss the Baptism of the Lord and it’s significance as we move from after the Epiphany toward Lent.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

Broken Princess

Read Colossians 3:12-13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God” (1 John 3:18–19 NLT).

Again, I cannot even begin to put into words how amazing Season 11 of The Walking Dead was, not just in terms of entertainment value, but in terms of human and theological insight. The richness of the characters, the trials they have to endure, and the way faith guides them is just second to no other show I have seen. No, The Walking Dead is not a religious show. No, it is not a show centered on theology; however, it is a FAITH-BASED show in the sense that faith is one of the CENTRAL themes of the show.

Case in point, in Episode 19 of Season 11, at around 25 minutes give or take, we come across the character, Princess, talking with Ezekiel. Princess is a young woman who joined Alexandria, the community that the main characters of the show built up. She was found by herself, a sole-survivor, and was taken in by the Alexandrians. NOTE: Alexandria is called that because it is located in what used to be Alexandria, VA, outside of Washington, D.C., prior to the Zombie Apocalypse.

In this scene, Princess was trying to talk Ezekiel into leaving the Commonwealth, a community the Alexandrians left for thinking it would be a great place to live, as it was run much like the “old world” (aka the USA before the Zombie Apocalypse). The Commonwealth was well run, had a military force, and everyone within its walls seem happy, healthy, and oblivious to the world outside its walls. Yet, as Princess and the rest of the Alexandrians found out, there was more there than meets the eye.
Without spoiling anything, just like it was in the “old world”, the Commonwealth was nothing more than a ruse to keep the masses happy while those in power keep themselves wealthy and in control. There was corruption and there was a true lack of care for the lives of the common people. As is the case across the world, politics provide faux hope to the masses.

Princess, knowing this, was trying to talk Ezekiel into leaving; however, Ezekiel was a leader and an empath as well. He cared for the people he had come to know and he didn’t want to abandon them just because the world they lived in was corrupt. He felt they were worth fighting for and was willing to do what it took to make the Commonwealth better for all.

“How about Mercer, you think he’s a good man,” Ezekiel asked Princess, hoping that bringing her boyfriend up would make her reconsider leaving. “Yeah,” she responded while nodding hesitantly, “I think he is. But I’ve also known a lot of men I thought were good, and it doesn’t always turn out that way.”

“[Mercer] and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I will say this: Most folks are trying to make the best of what’s in front of them,” Ezekiel said. “It could be he’s trying to do the same.”

Princess looked up, broken and torn, tears in her eyes, “Yeah, well maybe this time I deserve more than the best of a bad situation.”

Ezekiel looked at her, “Yeah you do”, he said with empathy as he approached her and gently put his hand on her shoulder. “And whatever you decide, I’m here if you need me.” Ezekiel then walked away to leave her to have some alone time. In that situation, Ezekiel saw Princess through the eyes of God. He saw her pain, her suffering, her desire for more than “the best of a bad situation”, and he affirmed that, indeed, she was WORTH far more than that!

In that moment, the show taught us something that the Bible teaches us. It taught us that humans are broken and want to be UNBROKEN. We want an end to the suffering, the sadness, the pain, the turmoil, the politics, the greed, the bitterness, the hate. We want to live in a world where WE are included for who we are, as opposed to who someone else wants us to be. We want to live in a world where our pain is seen and CARED FOR, rather than ignored and invalidated.

The Bible, and this episode, show us the way to begin that kind of transformation in the world. In the show, it is shown through Ezekiel, who is the presence of God in that moment for broken Princess. And his message: people are worth fighting for…including you, Princess. And I am here if you need me! He heard her and LOVED her and opened his heart to her.

For us, as witnessed to in the Bible, that transformation happens when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is then that the Holy Spirit helps us to see people through Jesus Christ’s eyes, as well as guides us to follow his example in LOVING them through our presence and our ability to listen and hear where they are coming from. True healing can only come through humble listening and empathy. Jesus, of course, IS our perfect model for what being compassionate, humble, servants is all about. If we follow him, he will continually lead us to be more and more like him and we, too, can have the effect that Ezekiel has on people in the show.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It’s all through our own individual prisms.” – Sterling K. Brown

PRAYER
Lord, help me to grow in compassion, empathy, and in being present for those lost, the broken, and any who are in need. Amen.

Inevitable

Read 1 John 3:16-18

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NLT).

As a The Walking Dead I must say that I am extremely happy with the series finale. Season 11 has been the most engaging, enthralling, spiritual and brilliant season of the entire series in my humble opinion. Everything has, in some ways, come full circle and you really get a sense that the shows creators intended the show to come to this place all along, especially the show’s adept theological underpinnings.

Case in point, without any spoilers (as you know I run a tight no-spoiler ship), let’s look at episode 19, which is entitled, “Variant”. In that episode, Lydia (who’s only a teenager) is up on platform keeping watch for any threats, including the possible zombie herd which can really wreak havoc. One of the adult characters, Aaron sees her and joins her asking if she would like him to cover for her. She declines and he can tell that something is up between her and her friend Elijah.

So, being concerned for her, he asked her if something was up between them. She mentioned how there was a “moment” between her and Elijah, meaning that she was falling in love with him and him with her. The moment was that they almost kissed and that really freaked Lydia out. Why? Because it brought back too many memories of her boyfriend, Henry, who died an awful and horrific death.

“I…uh…I don’t think can again,” Lydia told Aaron, in a sad and depressed and wounded way.

Aaron, seeing her about to break down and at a loss of words, began to speak. “I…uh…used to be married once.” From there he proceded to tell her how he met his husband back in Washington D.C. His husband, Eric, would continually ask him out and he kept saying no. There was an instant connection between them, but for 6 months he kept saying no.

“Why?” Lydia asked him.

“I don’t know. I guess I thought I was too busy or that I    wasn’t ready. Maybe I was just afraid,” Aaron replied. “But eventually I said yes, and our time together, those years in Alexandria, it was the happiest moments of my life.”

Aaron, pausing with tears in his eyes, took a deep grief-filled sigh. “You know, after he died, I thought, you know, I’d give anything to take back just one of those nos so that we could have one more day together.”

Then, pausing, Aaron looked at her and said, “Lydia, loss is inevitable. It always has been. The only thing we can control is when we say yes.” Walking away, Aaron left Lydia there to keep watch and think about her relationship with Elijah.

Friends, this is an example of the deep kind of theological and spiritual content you find in this show. Here we have a teenaged woman, who is confessing to her friend…and a mentor to her…how she is no longer able to let herself have a relationship with someone she likes because of the loss she has faced.

This is a common side-effect, or consequence more appropriately, of grief. We’ve all been through it. We find ourselves bargaining with God, angry that we have experienced loss at all, perhaps guilty, and certainly in despair. Those things can lead us, if we succumb to it, to withdrawl and not allow anyone to come close to us again. This is exactly what Lydia was going through, and Aaron understood it because he had experienced it too.

While it may be, in context, be focused on her relationship with Elijah, Aaron’s words to Lydia are true for us too. Loss is inevitable. We live in a broken world of loss and pain and suffering. Loss has always been inevitable. And that pain can cause us to say NO to others as well as saying NO to Christ. The only thing we have control of, by the grace of God, is when we say yes. Christ, in fact, calls us to say yes to drawing close to him and to us drawing others to as well.

We can say no because of the loss, the hurts, the pain we’ve suffered, because we find it too risky or painful. We can allow our brokenness to shut us down, or we can SAY YES to Christ and yes to being in a godly relationship with others. Through Christ we can avoid shutting down and saying no, and we can live a fulfilled life of YES to being builders of Christ’s community, the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Lord Alfred Tennyson

PRAYER
Lord, help me to grow in my capacity for love, despite the hurts and hang ups I have. Heal me and use me in service of your kingdom. Amen

Episode 276 | (im)POSSIBLE, part 7: God Found In Impossible Places

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-9vn5d-134e844

In this episode, Rev. Todd discusses that God can be found in even the least expected places.

January 1, 2023 – Newton UMC – New Year’s Sunday Worship Livestream

Combined New Year’s Sunday Worship Service in Main Sanctuary: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our live-streamed Christmas Sunday Worship Service for January 1. Today we will learn that God can be found in even the least expected places.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

January 1, 2023 – Newton UMC – New Year’s Sunday Worship Livestream

Combined New Year’s Sunday Worship Service in Main Sanctuary: 10:30 a.m.

Worship service streams live at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)

Welcome to our live-streamed Christmas Sunday Worship Service for January 1. Today we will learn that God can be found in even the least expected places.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

A biweekly devotional