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Arm Wrestling with Evil 

Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16 share the same advice about the Kingdom of God. They say, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of God has been forcefully advancing and forceful people take ahold of it.” This means that, as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, we can’t just sit on our laurels and wait for it to happen upon us. We must go out and grab it. The advancement of the Kingdom of God is the responsibility of all those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. 

What does advancing the Kingdom of God actually mean? It means that the Kingdom of God is taking over new territory. The problem with taking over new territory is that the entity that already occupies that space isn’t likely to go willingly. When the people of God begin to advance God’s Kingdom we can expect that the enemy will come at us even stronger than before. 

If before your advance you were getting a few minor temptations, as soon as you become a threat to the evil powers that be, you will receive a full on frontal attack from the evil that is in this world. Things that normally would be easy will probably be a little more difficult. Things you thought that already were taken care of are going to come undone. Relationship issues that you had experienced and dealt with will be brought up and thrown in your face. 

The difference you will experience when you begin to do something great for the Kingdom of God is the difference between being scratched by a kitten and being scratched by a lion. Satan is going to bring the fight to you! You can expect it as you expect to file your taxes by April 15th! Many people automatically assume that if they meet resistance it means they are doing something wrong. The reality is that when you are forcefully advancing and occupying the ground of the enemy, the enemy is going to fight back. 

Many people give up! Many people throw in the towel. Many people succumb to the temptations! Many people allow the advancement of the enemy to overthrow their willingness to accomplish what God has asked them to do. DON’T GIVE UP!!! In these adversarial moments with enemy, we must pray and ask God for strength. We must depend on God’s strength to carry us through, and we must lean on the Holy Spirit for guidance. 

In Philippians 3:12-14 it says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” 

Paul is straining to advance God’s Kingdom in the world. The Apostle Paul has laid everything that is good in his life on the altar. He has given God permission to use him in whatever ways God sees fit. But Apostle hasn’t just laid those things that are good down on the altar before God; he has also made a conscious choice not to go backwards when he says, “forgetting what is behind.” Paul has laid down his shortcomings, his failures, and hurts. How many people have failed to become all of what God is calling them to become because they have become fixated on something from the past? They have allowed the past to become an obstacle in their future. How many future opportunities are we going to allow our past to take from us? 

I don’t doubt that there have been circumstances that you have faced that have overwhelmed you. Some of you have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused. Others have been in toxic relationships with people whose only motivation was to use you for their own gain. No doubt, some of us have made poor financial decisions that have plagued us into the present. Many of us can pinpoint a specific moment in time where we made a decision or a series of decisions that have led us to where we are today. Even when these circumstances are not our current circumstances, they still envelop our minds. 

Satan uses what has happened in our past to keep us from fully experiencing God’s Will for us in our future. Satan knows that if he can keep your mind enveloped in situations from your past, he can continue to steal energy and God’s strength from your future. Part of giving God your everything is also giving God all of your hurts, all of your pain, and all of your sorrow!  When our minds do not “forget what is behind”, we use energy that is meant to be poured out in the transformation of others for ourselves (and our self-loathing). 

There also seems to be a petrifying fear that God cannot use us in our brokenness. Our minds begin to say “because I have done this or that, or because I have not lived this way or that way, I am unworthy to be used by God.” You see, being used by God is a mindset. As long as we allow our mind to be plagued by negative self-talk we will not present ourselves to God as a vessel He can use. We’ve got to stop basing our usability by God on our emotions. Our emotions are up and down. Sometimes we are going to be confident in our ability to do what God asks, but most of the time we are not going to feel like God can accomplish a monumental task through us. We must center our thoughts around this statement: “Because God said it is so, therefore it is so! Because God said it is, it is! We must take God at His word.” 

Many of us feel that our struggle is just against ourselves but Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” 

Our battleground against sin exists within our minds. You see, it is not a sin to be tempted. We all are tempted every day to do things that we know we ought not do. The problem with temptation is beginning to dwell on the thought. We begin to think that the thought sounds enticing, and we begin to replace God’s will and God’s plan for our lives with the action the temptation desires to bring about. 

We find in John 8:44b, “He (Satan) was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The only power that Satan has is the power of his lies. His sole purpose of existence is to get us to believe in a lie for so long that it becomes the framework for our reality. He desires to get us to believe a lie for so long that it begins to govern how we feel.  Now feelings are powerful things; and when Satan has us basing our feelings on his lies, he defeats us every time. I am sure your feelings sometimes overwhelm you; but unless your feelings are based in the truth, you will slip up every time.  

II Corinthians 10:5 says, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” How do we take captive every thought? We can only take captive every thought by verifying its truthfulness.  The surefire way to overcome Satan is with the truth. We can overcome Satan with THE truth. I’m not speaking of our human truth, but of God’s truth. Depending on God’s Word and praying for God’s strength will enable us to win the battle against the enemy. My prayer is that you will take the fight to the enemy rather than allowing the enemy to take the fight to you!

Even Jesus Gave Himself Permission to Rest 

We live in an internet-driven world, where people expect to have instant access to us whenever they deem it appropriate. We are raising a generation of children whose minds cannot rest for interruption by the thought of “who might have just DM’d them, and might be awaiting their immediate response.” We have families that sit around dinner tables and restaurant booths staring at the bright light emanating from their phones, instead of at the beloved faces of those they should engage in communication. 

Fairly recently, I had a conversation with one of my daughters about a friend who was nagging her and arguing with her over the fact that she left her one “read.” What this means is that she opened an Instagram message and read it but never responded to it. The problem was that the girl had messaged my daughter at such a late hour that she fell asleep and didn’t respond until the morning. You see, we even give people permission to know when we have looked at their messages! All this instant gratification is driving us further and further apart. 

We are becoming locked in, signed in, tuned in, connected, interlinked, and on the grid twenty-four hours per day. We may fool ourselves into thinking that we set limits on our use of these technologies, but we often inadvertently challenge ourselves to circumvent the very limits that we impose. In addition, technology is so efficient that it will continue to maintain our connections while we work, sleep, or eat; leaving us little reason to actively think about its effects. 

I am convinced that each person in our world is seeking community. Each person is seeking a feeling of being interconnected with others. We all have a God-given need to be heart-connected to other people. However, impersonal modes of communication cannot make up for real community. Real community is getting to know someone as more than just the persona they choose to display to you on social media. 

We need to give ourselves permission to unplug social media to let our minds rest. Let us remember that when Jesus felt in constant demand, he gave himself and his disciples permission to rest. In Mark 6:31-32 it says, “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.” If we don’t fill our emotional tanks through quiet, rest, prayer, and positive self-care, we will have nothing left to give to those around us. 

We should commit to embracing the idea that no person deserves instant access to our time outside of our immediate families. One of the ways that I do this is to avoid installing the Messenger app on my phone. This simple decision keeps people from thinking that I should be immediately at their fingertips the instant they reach out to me. I don’t “do” Messenger. If people need me (and unfortunately they sometimes do) they can call the church, email me, or they can call my cell phone number. A second way that I guard my heart and my attention is to not allow notifications from any social media to alert me on my cell phone. This ensures I’m not constantly being interrupted by alerts every time someone “likes” a post or every time someone posts on my wall. Finally, create space for cell-free zones. The dinner table is one example of a cell-free zone. When you are on a family outing you may want to consider leaving the phones at home, or putting them under the seats of your car. Don’t even carry the silly pieces of technology into that venue or that event. 

Limit social media use to the occasion “when you get to it.” This means social media should be the least of your priorities, and personal interaction with live human beings should rise to the top of your agenda. Make a commitment not to check your phone when you are in the company of another person. Spend time engaging with that person rather than engaging with the way people display themselves on social media. Be present in the moment, and don’t allow your need to post your experience to social media to prevent you from enjoying the experience in the present! 

Let’s seek real places to connect with real people, rather than what I call social media “fake life.” People really post on social media only that which they want you to see about them. Even when people say #nofilters, they have already filtered the content to their liking, even if they haven’t doctored their photo. This is easily discovered by noticing the number of pictures in someone’s gallery they scroll past in order to select exactly the right one, which gives them that “perfect” glow. 

I believe there are ways that social media can be utilized for good, but there are dangers even in attempting to do so. Don’t lose yourself in an attempt to entertain others. Seek out real relationships with a group of people who will care about you for who you are, even when that includes your downside. Always post content that is God-honoring and uplifting. Don’t get into quarrels that can never be resolved in impersonal ways. Guard your heart and your mind, and remember that God is God even of our media use!

Ministry For and With the Poor 

Our society is backwards. We like to drink our $4.25 latte’s that were made by an employee making $9.00 per hour. We like to grab a quick McDonald’s hamburger for $3.99 that was made by an employee making $8.75 per hour. But we don’t want to house the people that serve our needs in our community. We don’t want “those” poor people living next to us. Our lives benefit from the poor and the services they provide, but we don’t want to build affordable housing that meets their needs; because it will “drive down our property values.” 

One of my biggest takeaways from the last few months in my work with finding homes for former residents of America’s Best motel is that a large percentage of vulnerable people work. These people are the working poor and we have left them to be devoured by sharks. Hotel/motels, buy-here pay-here car lots, and check cashing businesses gobble up every hard earned dollar that they can find. 

We, as a society, carry with us a general disdain for the poor. We believe that they are dragging humanity down and that we would be better off without them. We look at them with judgment and condemnation for the perceived choices they have made. We believe that they haven’t applied themselves fully toward earning an income that will sustain them. We believe that they have not given their full attention to their education, which would have helped them “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We believe that they should have taken more precautions and not ended up with children out of wedlock. We believe that they should take control of their mental health and not allow it to keep them from finding suitable employment. We believe that they should have spent their money more wisely and not wasted it on alcohol or drugs. We believe that they should work toward their own betterment and that their plight is not our responsibility. 

I can understand that a secular person might come to these conclusions.  What I cannot accept is the idea that a Christian man or woman who takes seriously the words of scripture can maintain such a viewpoint. I cannot and will not accept the views of a Christian man or woman who maintains this perspective in light of the ministry and care that Jesus offered the poor while He was present upon the earth. The Messiah’s ministry is characterized in Isaiah 61:1-3 where it says, 

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” 

The Jews believed, based upon the prophecy of Isaiah and others, that when the Messiah came He would bring with Him “good news for the poor.” This good news would contain a healing for people’s broken hearts, a release of prisoners, and the ushering in of a hope and a joy that would overcome despair. Let us remember that Jesus walked into the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-21), unrolled the Isaiah scroll containing this very passage of scripture and read it out loud. After reading it, He rolled the scroll back up, gave it to the attendant, and said; “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Jesus was declaring to the religious powers that be that the Messiah was present. Wherever Jesus went from that point on His teachings and example uplifted the plight of those without power, influence, or financial stability. Upon Jesus’ ascension, His followers carried on a ministry to people who were poor and marginalized. In fact, in Matthew 25, Jesus says the way He will be able to determine His followers from the rest of the secular world is by the way in which they treat the “least of these.” The “least of these” are those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who are homeless, those who are sick, those who need clothing, and those who are in prison. Our mission field is clearly defined by the parameters set forth by Jesus. Jesus never wastes His time to try to get the religious establishment to recognize their error in interpreting correctly how God meant us to take scripture. Instead, Jesus goes about the work of communicating God’s care to those who feel far from God.   

So, if the Gospel you’ve accepted does not compel you to walk beside the poor, then you might want to reevaluate the example of Jesus. Jesus could have easily spent his time teaching in the synagogue and Temple courts, but He chose to situate Himself next to the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. If we, as the church, are not the good news to the poor, then there is no good news! We must advocate for a conversation with the poor, and not about the poor. 

The other night Tawnya and I went to dinner a Cast Iron Steakhouse, because Emma was working there. As we entered the door I saw a disheveled man exiting the bathroom. This man’s clothes were in tatters. There were several gaping holes in his shirt and the rear-end of his pants were ripped. I asked Emma if he had been eating at a table and she said, “No, he just walked in.” I told her that I’d speak with him. I asked if he was there to meet anyone and he said, “No, just here to use the bathroom, but, I am hungry.” I said, “Great, I’ll buy you dinner.” We walked out on the back patio of the restaurant and had an eye-opening conversation. The morning before we met at Cast Iron, this man had left the Western State Mental Hospital in Kentucky, 179 miles away. He had walked toward Clarksville, IN because he remembered that this was where he was born. He was still wearing his hospital bracelet, had his hospital picture ID, and was wearing his hospital issued “no skid” socks and slide sandals. 

On his journey he had cut across fields. His arms and shirt were scratched and ripped due to walking through briar patches. His pants were ripped, because he was crawling over a barbed-wire fence and had gotten them caught. He had slept the night before in an open field and even had the cockleburs in his hair to prove it. I found out the man’s name and that he had bipolar disorder. I bought him food and got him another set of clothing. I had to question the probability of him leaving the Western State Mental Hospital the morning before and making it 179 miles to the exact location I would be eating at that night. What is the probability of him running into me, the pastor of the church who just made a leap of faith to buy the Haven House? The easy answer is that God put him there that night, to remind me of what our mission is together. Our role is to minister to the “least of these” in whatever way we can.  Sometimes our efforts can only be small, but other times our efforts with the people God places in front of us can change their lives forever. My prayer for us is that we would be open to the ministry to the poor that God has for us, and that we will believe that it is our responsibility as “the” church to meet their needs.

Fatherhood 

On March 17, 2004 I became a father for the first time. I had been around babies, but I really hadn’t needed to take care of them. The day after Phoebe was born, her mom had to have emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder. I was left with the 24-hour, round the clock care of a tiny little infant about which I knew very little. I am thankful for the nurses who helped me learn how to properly hold a baby and how to bottle feed one. 

I would describe my first interactions with Phoebe as a bit odd. It felt like meeting someone for the first time and not knowing how to act or what to say. Of course, Phoebe couldn’t say much either. Over the course of a few days I realized which cries were for food, which cries were for needing changed, and which cries were for needing to be rocked. 

After the anxiety dwindled over the care and maintenance of this new little creature, the idea finally sank in, “I’m a dad.” Honestly, it was a little bit scary to ponder what being a dad meant. As I thought about it I realized that having a baby doesn’t make you a dad (it makes you a donor of genetic material). Being a dad is a lifelong commitment to walk beside another human being and be there for them no matter what. Any long-term commitment like this should make you a bit nervous, and hopefully you ponder the responsibilities before donating the genetic material. 

On February 16, 2006, I became a father for the second time. Shortly after Zeke’s birth I decided that I had the best of both worlds (a boy and a girl), and that I should have a vasectomy. The craziest thing for me was that I always thought I’d have more children even though I could no longer contribute the genetic material to create them. I felt this way because I knew that my heart had more love to give. Then on February 22, 2014, I became a dad again to three more children. They are triplets of different ages, who had been raised by a single mother with whom I fell desperately in love. I have accepted the wonderful opportunity and responsibility of making Brandon, Nathan, and Emma children of my own. 

When Zeke was born, I thought, “How could I love another child as much as I love Phoebe?” That’s when I realized that parental love is multiplication, not division. When I got remarried to Tawnya, I realized that the parental love I feel for each of my five children is different, and yet the same. The love I have for every one of them is as unique as they are themselves. I love them differently, because each child offers something different that I admire. My love is the same; in that, I would gladly give my life for them, and I have a “whatever it takes” mentality guiding me. 

So in my early years of being a dad, and even now, I have had to struggle with the question of, “How will I become the father that I want to be?” Most people start with the example of the father that they have had in their lives. I don’t want to down-talk my own father because he’s one of the hardest working men I have ever met. In the years since I’ve been on my own, our relationship has blossomed and I would say we are good friends now. My grandpa was not a good father to my dad. My dad learned from his father’s mistakes but it was difficult for him to overcome all of the cycles of thinking and behavior he learned from watching his dad. It is my belief that he was a better father to me than his father had been to him. Obviously, there is no definitive book on fatherhood. So I would explain that I am thankful for the father I had, but that I resolved to do some things a bit differently than he did. 

I took a deep look at the sacrificial love of Jesus. I realized that I must be an example of this kind of love to my children. As you can imagine, this was a monumental task. So I started looking around at Christian father’s, that I admired, and I tried to figure out the principles they were basing their parental relationships around. One of the first things I realized is that I would need to be emotionally available to my children. This means that they would need to feel comfortable talking to me and sharing their feelings without a thought of retribution. 

I think being emotionally available to children is a hard thing for a man to do. We have been taught to act like we are emotionless blobs of flesh and that it is not manly to “get into our feelings.” There’s been a longstanding tradition of men working and providing the financial backing for their family with little else required. This leaves a huge void in the lives of our children and leaves a huge burden to be carried by our spouses. I often think men who buy into this line of thinking are just copping out of what they know they should be doing.  It is only when we are emotionally available to our kids that any real teaching can be done. Teaching can be accomplished through careful correction, but it’s better done in conversation. 

Another thing that I saw in the lives of men I looked up to was the principle: I should never ask my child to do something that I myself am not willing to also do. Or as Jesus puts it, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). You can tell a child to not use profanity (and even wash their mouths out with soap), but when you are sitting around using profanity, your words spoken to them are in vain. You can tell children to clean their rooms but if your room is the dirtiest room in the house, your instruction will fall on deaf ears. You can tell your child to treat others kindly, and not to talk negatively about other people; but when you are passing along gossip, you should not be surprised when they do as well. The example we set for our children should be one of integrity and honesty. 

The more I thought about fatherhood, the more I realized that the point is to launch human beings capable of loving and serving others in the same way Jesus loved and served. Since they have to do this in the “real world” it means I have to set up rewards and consequences that make sense in the “real world.” A common parental mistake in 2019 is to say something like, “Let her/him stomp off up the stairs and slam the bedroom door. Children should be able to express their emotions.” So are you telling me that I can stomp off from my boss and slam my office door? Or are you telling me that I can stomp off in an angry huff when my teacher (or a police officer) tells me something I do not like? If it doesn’t work that way in the “real world” then it shouldn’t be allowed in the home. Thinking about child-rearing this way makes it easy to explain the rules. 

There is more to say about fatherhood than all the books in the world could contain. I’ve realized that I’m not perfect as a dad, and I never will be. But I can honestly say I’m willing to go the extra mile and to put in the work to be the best dad I can be. At the end of the day, I recognize that I’m only here to point my kids to Jesus, and to pray that they somehow see His love in me.   One of the ways I’ve chosen to do this is to bring my children to the places I serve. They have been to nursing homes, homeless shelters, and to visit shut-ins. They haven’t just witnessed me being a servant of Christ but they have served right beside me! Fatherhood is one of the greatest blessings, and for this blessing I give God all of the glory!

"Amazing Grace....That Saved a Wretch Like Me!" 

A long time ago I came to terms with the fact that people aren’t always going to agree with everything I say. For that matter, people aren’t always going to agree with everything I do either (but that’s a different subject). There are things that break my heart and I believe, even if you disagree with what I’m going to say, if you intentionally think about the situation it will break your heart too. 

Tennessee Department of Correction inmate Don Johnson has been on death row for 35 years and was executed on May 16, 2019. Don was convicted of suffocating his wife at a Memphis camping center he managed in 1984. Don did not allow his guilt to be a question. He readily admitted to the murder. 

Psychological evaluations of Don discovered that he had one of the most horrific childhoods the psychiatrists had come across. He was abused, bullied, abandoned, and institutionalized. The abuse he endured, he transmitted, culminated in the death of his wife. 

My heart breaks for the family of Don’s wife and for their daughter Cynthia! This story did not end with this heart break, in fact, in 35 years God so transformed Don’s life by His grace that it was no longer the same. In the 35 years since his crime Don’s life became a Jesus story and a testimony of the grace of God. 

While Don was in Shelby County Jail (Tenn.) he heard another inmate testifying about the healing power of Jesus. As Don was convicted and taken to death row, he heard more stories about how God had changed people’s lives. Shortly thereafter Don dedicated his life to Jesus and was baptized on death row. 

Years later he was ordained an elder in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. He was the only elder on death row. Riverbend Unit 2 was his parish, and many on the inside and outside of the prison can testify of how his faith has shaped them as people, this includes correctional officers and staff. But the most incredible witness of how God can transform any situation by His grace is the witness of his daughter, Cynthia Vaughn. 

Cynthia lost her mom at the age of 7 and became a champion for the death penalty, especially when it came to pertain to her father. Cynthia wanted him dead, she hated him, and to her the death penalty seemed like justice. Like many victims of horrible atrocities, Cynthia eventually found that her hatred was not hurting him, but it was killing her. She was in a prison of her own anger, resentment, and in her words “in my own internal house of hell.” So after 30 years of not speaking to her father Cynthia broke the silence and reached out to her father. Throughout the five years they had together they were working hard to heal the wounds of their shared past. Cynthia forgave her father, not so he could sleep at night but so that she could have peace. 

The more Cynthia got to know her father, as the new man he had become, the more she desired to fight to save his life. Cynthia is not only fighting for alternatives to the death penalty for her father, but for everyone else too. She sees the power of restorative justice and how it has transformed her dad. 

As Christians we must consider, “What would Jesus do?” And then we must do it! Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). In the Gospels, Jesus interrupted an execution of a woman guilty of a capital crime by saying, “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). The Bible is filled with murderers who are given a second chance (Moses, David, and Saul of Tarsus). The United Methodist Church puts it this way, “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.” 

Activist, speaker, and author of the book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, Shane Claiborne says, “When we kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong, we legitimize the very evil we hope to rid the world of, the evil that sent Jesus to the cross.” No one is beyond redemption!! 

Don Johnson asked that his special last meal before his execution (May 16th) be donated to the homeless. His public defender said, “Mr. Johnson realizes that his $20 allotment will not feed many homeless people. But his request is that those who have supported him to provide a meal to a homeless person as well.”   

My heart is broken that a man that God had so changed by His grace was executed on May 16th. Even as the tragedy of death was upon him Don’s faith in Jesus shined brightly for all to see. 

Among his final words were: "I commend my life into your hands. Thy will be done. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen." As he was being executed he prayed for forgiveness for those who were executing him saying, "forgive them for they know not what they do." And he asked for forgiveness from all who he has hurt. 

Then he sang hymns for two minutes. Don praised God until there was no breath left in him. 

As he breathed his last breaths, he sang these words: 

“No more crying there, we are going to see the king. 

No more dying there, we are going to see the king." 

And he died. 

Resources: 

https://religionnews.com/2019/05/09/will-grace-prevail-as-tennessee-execution-looms/?fbclid=IwAR2MWziK-icXMNzFhY4lEjopkazTxRSs8vtNOgOWZC21fG8XL6Ssx4AEZpI 

https://www.foxnews.com/us/death-row-inmate-forgoes-last-meal-asks-for-meals-to-be-given-to-homeless-instead?fbclid=IwAR24mfAaeenoPBvQtmbXyxFAZlAHSaLwpvLgqISYdKCtznbmd6eU6kj0eCY 

https://www.tennessean.com/media/cinematic/video/3645920002/death-row-inmate-don-johnson-is-an-elder-at-riverside-chapel-because-of-the-churchs-prison-ministry/ 

  

Who You Are When No One Is Looking 

Unpacking is the worst part of vacation. No matter whether you’ve had a great time or you’ve really been able to relax, there’s still dirty laundry in your suitcase! Does anyone really like dirty laundry? The smelly socks, the sweaty shirts, and the dank damp towels can be disgusting. 

Introspection is like unpacking your heart. Taking a look into our hearts is something we avoid even more than dirty laundry. Because when we look into our hearts we are forced to confront the reality that we aren’t always who we portray ourselves to be. Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When we unpack our hearts we must contemplate questions like: Why do I react this way in these situations? Why does my brain shift to those thoughts? Why am I making these judgments about people around me? How can any person live in this world and not, even in the least bit, become tainted by it? 

How do we close the gap between who we say we are, who we portray ourselves to be, and who we really are? How do we align our values with our inner thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors? You see, each of us has distinctive mental and moral characteristics that make up who we are. These characteristics can only be challenged and changed through discipline and personal commitment. 

In the Church we call this discipline and personal commitment discipleship. Jesus teaches that, “A good person brings good things out of the good stored in their heart, and an evil person brings forth the evil that is stored up in their heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). We make a mistake when we think that Christ-likeness begins with our lips and moves its way inward to the inner recesses of our hearts. Christ-likeness grows from the filling of our hearts with heavenly things! 

Our hearts should be moving closer and closer to the likeness of Christ as we scoop out the muck and mire that used to reside there. I’ve become increasingly concerned about the ways we leave the door open for impure things to make their way into our lives. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart for everything you do flows from it.” 

The door to our hearts is through our eyes, our ears, and through our skin. What we see, what we hear, and what we touch does matter! What am I listening to that is leaving the door open for evil to creep back into my life? What am I seeing with my eyes that paints the picture of immorality on my heart? What am I touching with my hands that is hindering my progress in Christ? Each person reading this has in some way been enculturated by the world. The philosophies, agendas, attitudes, and behavior that the world welcomes runs counter to the agenda of God’s Kingdom which is set forth in the Gospels. 

We are in a continual battle against the desires of our flesh. Galatians 5:17 says, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” We can’t just “do” whatever we want. We must, then, be concerned about building Christ-like character. John Wooden was known to have said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” 

We are in a battle. There is a conflict. One side will win and the other side will lose. This conflict is a day-to-day struggle with the person we do not want to be. This battle is a day-to-day embrace of the person we would like to become. One of the passages of scripture that seems to help me in this struggle is II Corinthians 10:5 says, “We demolish every argument and pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every though and make it obedient unto Christ.” Destroying every argument and pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and taking captive every thought and making it become obedient to Christ is the only way for us to be who we say we are!!! 

Bill Hybels is the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. At one time they boasted 24,000 in attendance across several campuses. I’ve been to Willow Creek several times for Church Leadership Conferences and have personally met Bill. From my perspective, Bill seems about as genuine as they come. I looked up to Bill. He is both a great orator and a role-model. One of my favorite books that Bill has written is Who You Are When No One Is Looking, which was first published in 1987 and then expanded and republished in 2010. In the book Bill says, “Character is what we do when no one is looking. It is not the same as reputation—what other people think of us. It is not the same as success or achievement. Character is not what we have done, but rather who we are.” 

In 2018, Bill was accused of making unwanted sexual comments and advances toward women he worked around or associated with. On February 28, 2019, an independent advisory group concluded that the “collective testimony” of “allegations of sexually inappropriate words and actions” by the now retired megachurch pastor proved reliable and would have been sufficient reason for the church to discipline Hybels if he had not retired. 

I still look up to Bill and respect him for the time during which he committed his heart and life to the things of God. I do not like the behavior he has displayed toward the women he worked with and those in his congregation, but I know that this could be me or that this could be you. We may not be struggling with lust, but there’s always one of its ugly friends lurking at our door (greed, pride, envy, gluttony, wrath, or sloth). We are all one decision away from being a different person than we claim to be. We are all one choice away from letting evil triumph over us. My prayer is that we will cling to the cross of Jesus Christ and our love for Him; for when we do, Satan can’t get a word in edgewise!!

Who Said Family History Is Boring? 

Cyrus Byington (picture attached to this blog) was a scholar and a missionary to the American Indian Tribe known as the Choctaw Nation. He was born at Stockbridge, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts; on March 11, 1793. He was one of nine children and was born into humble circumstances. His father was a well-respected and industrious tanner and small time farmer. Therefore, Cyrus’ early education was limited. Cyrus’ early education was limited by the necessity of him working and a lack of funds. 

Cyrus was finally taken into the family of Mr. Joseph Woodbridge of Stockbridge from whom he received some instruction in Latin and Greek, and with whom he afterward studied law. In 1814, he passed the bar exam and practiced a few years with success in Stockbridge and Sheffield, Mass (at 21). 

Cyrus’ father was a moral man but was not a religious one. At some point in his adulthood Mr. Byington became, as he expressed it, “a subject of divine grace.” At that moment he decided to give up the practice of law and devote himself to becoming a missionary. With this goal in mind he entered theological school at Andover, Massachusetts, where he studied Hebrew and theology, and was licensed to preach, in September of 1819 (he was then 26 years old).  His hope was to go to the Armenians in Turkey. But Providence had prepared for him another and an even more labor intensive field. 

As he waited on an assignment, he preached in various churches in Massachusetts, awaiting some missionary opportunity. Toward the close of the summer of 1819, a company of approximately twenty-five people left Hampshire County, Massachusetts, under the direction of the American Board of Missions, to go by land to the Choctaw nation of Mississippi. They passed through Stockbridge in September, and were provided with a letter from the Board, asking Mr. Byington to take charge of them, and pilot them to their destination. He was ready at a few hours’ notice. 

They journeyed by land to Pittsburgh, where they procured flatboats, and floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to a point near the mouth of the Yalobusha River, where a land journey of 200 miles brought them to their destination. 

Cyrus Byington spent 50 years in missionary service. At the age of 41 he published his first draft of The Choctaw Grammar book. The Choctaw language was previously only a spoken language. It was an arduous and laborious task, for the language has an extremely difficult construction. The sole purpose of his work with the Choctaw language was to make it possible to translate the Bible into Choctaw. When he died in 1868; he was working on the 7th revision of his Choctaw Grammar book, and he had translated the first five books of the Old Testament (called the Pentateuch) and large portions of the New Testament.  

What do you think caused Cyrus to accept Jesus Christ into his heart, to leave the practice of law, to give up his income, and then to go to a remote Native American nation? What prompted Cyrus to learn a language that previously had never been in written form, then come up with a grammar scheme that fit the language, and then to begin to write it down? Cyrus Byington was motivated by a love for the Word of God and he was convinced that when someone read the Bible their lives had the potential to be changed! 

Cyrus Byington didn’t just sit in a room and translate the Choctaw language. He started a school for Native American children. He started a church that would reach the people with the Gospel message. In one of his classes he had a little boy named Alfred. He taught Alfred how to read and write in both Choctaw and in English. Eventually, Alfred gave his heart over to Jesus Christ. The Choctaws were eventually forced along the Trail of Tears with members of the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole tribes. Alfred was 21 when he traveled the Trail of Tears with his dad Jon. It was on the Trail of Tears that he would meet A-Ho-Yo-Te-Ma (her name means “to give forth.”) and they would be married shortly after they settled in the Indian territory. Cyrus Byington moved his family to the Indian territory shortly after the Native people arrived. 

How do I know this? Because Alfred Wade is my grandfather. Alfred became the first Governor or Chief of the Choctaw Nation in the Indian Territory. He was known for his love of children, his zeal for the Lord, and his desire to build schools and churches. This was all possible because one person cared enough about the calling God had for them to throw off everything that hindered and venture into the unknown. Learning and dictating the grammar of the Choctaw language did not bring Cyrus any worldwide renown or make him a millionaire. One person writes that it involved a tremendous amount of unprofitable labor. What people cannot say is that the work wasn’t valuable, because it changed the world for one man who was able to change the world for so many others. Cyrus Byington had such a tremendous impact on Alfred’s life that he named his first son, Cyrus Byington Wade. All of this came about because Cyrus decided that devoting himself completely to the Bible was worth it.

Don't Blink by Pastor Jim Moon III 

Our eyes take in information at a speed that our brains cannot adequately process. This often leads to snap judgments about people and situations that leave a lot of room for error. In my view, the scariest part of this situation is that, without us being overtly aware of the information our eyes take in, we evaluate it based on factors including our family of origin, education level, social status, race, economic privilege, and spiritual values. 

Let me break this idea down for you. A homeless person is lying on a piece of cardboard that they have placed on an outdoor heat vent. What is it that you see? Some simple responses might be: “They must be drunk.” “Probably a drug addict.” “Let’s get out of here, they might rob us.” “Our city needs to clean up these streets.” “Dirty people.” Before we can blink an eye we’ve already decided so much about a person we’re encountering for the first time. 

The human tendency to “judge a book by its cover” has significantly colored our biases, characterized our discrimination, and swelled our stereotyping.  Our snap judgments overpower our decision making and it is only when we can become aware of the information, process it more slowly, and critically analyze the situation that we can treat people as fellow humans that occupy the same space. This past summer I had a life transforming experience. I led a team of teenagers on a mission trip to Atlanta, Georgia. We spent our time there learning about the rich history of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Sweet Auburn is the neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up. The Sweet Auburn neighborhood is also home to Ebenezer Baptist Church. This is the church where both Dr. King and his father were pastors. 

A picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hangs in my office. He is a person I revere for his passion, his all-encompassing boldness, and his deep conviction that love always prevails. Even though I learned a lot about him while in Atlanta, that learning is not what changed my life. Part of our days were spent reaching out to the nearly 3,000 homeless men, women, and children that live in Atlanta. What changed my life was an awareness that rushed over me that every person has a story to tell. We all possess the ability to offer disenfranchised people a gift. The gift we have to offer is an ear to listen. Most of the homeless people I’ve met would rather have a conversation than a handout. 

Human beings are more vicious than lions, bears, or tigers. When we see other people’s poor choices, the result seems to be like blood in the ocean. The sharks start circling. We may find ourselves making snap judgments about other people’s decisions. “Well, why don’t they just….” “It’s time for them to grow up.” “Why does she keep going back?” “Can’t they keep a job for more than a week?” 

This may be earth shattering news, but people do not all process things the same way. One person’s attempt at “doing the best with what they’ve been given” may look different than another person’s method of “doing their best with what they’ve been given.” You may see options that another person has that they don’t even know exist. 

I do not want to over simplify my point, because there are many factors that create and form a human mind. An object lesson that has helped me is that of thinking about human minds as if they are similar to computers. Computer technology has taken a quantum leap in the 37 years since I was in Kindergarten. I remember going into my first grade class and seeing my first computer (Home computers were made available to the public on January 1, 1982). The computer looked like a small robot from a sci-fi thriller. It had a green screen and small green print that would go across the screen. The computer read floppy disks in order to determine what function was needed. 

A few months ago I purchased a new Samsung laptop with a CORE i7 8th Generation processor. There is a huge difference between my first computer and the one I currently use. In between the two there have been literally thousands of different computers that all process information differently.  To my way of thinking, human minds are also very different from one another. Some process like the green screen computer of my elementary years and others process like the CORE i7 8th Generation. All human minds have value but there is a full gamit of ways they process information. IQ, learning disabilities, autism, physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse, and many other factors contribute to the way individuals process information and make choices. 

Whether you are a Christian or not, I believe that Jesus provides us with a simple way to view the differences in human minds and choices. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving our neighbor as ourselves means showing them grace. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means giving them the benefit of the doubt. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means acting with compassion towards them. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means looking out for their wellbeing. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means offering them a servant’s heart. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means speaking kindly and listening empathetically. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means forgiving when forgiveness is needed. In order to love this way, our minds- especially the judgments we make about people and their decisions, are going to have to be altered. In order to make this change, we must continually ask the question, “How would I want to be treated if I were in their circumstances?” Then we must treat the “other” in this manner. When we accomplish this, we will find that we live differently and love others more completely.

Building the Wall, Government Shutdown, and Messy Grace 

“When I stand before God at the end of my life and He says, ‘you’ve offered too much love and given too much grace,’ I will turn to Him and say, ‘I’m guilty as charged.’” Pastor Bill Bellmore 

My first mentor in ministry offered me this sage advice. Grace upon grace. I realize how great this advice actually is when I come to fully understand the depth of my own need for grace upon grace. I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong even when I had the right intentions. My motives have been pure, my logic was sound, and yet I still somehow missed the boat. The one thing I absolutely refuse to mess up is this grace thing!!! A fundamental aspect of being a follower of Jesus is to love people the way God loves them. 

Presently, grace presents a challenge for us because it seems we are moving farther and farther away from grace as a society. We are becoming more territorial and intolerant of people and ideas that are different than the ones we assume to be true. Marriages are failing at a rate that is at an all-time high. We prioritize “being right” over “being in a relationship.” Psychology Today journalist Mark D. White Ph.D. says, “Your relationships should serve you, not the other way around.” Herein lies the problem. This way of thinking is what is guiding our nation and the way we relate to other people on a daily basis. 

A microcosm of this thinking can be found in our current debate over our southern border. Most of us could agree that America needs a secure border. We do not want people coming into our country that might have ill intentions. The idea people disagree about is whether a wall is going to accomplish this task. The same logic may be applied here that is often times used in gun control conversations. Criminals don’t obey the law. They will always find a way around, up, and over any barrier we decide to put in their path. 

The only real people who will be kept out of America by a wall are those who, out of desperation, are seeking a better future for their family. Many of these people have been victims of corrupt governments, forced labor, and a sheer lack of opportunities to meet their daily needs. Many fit our own government’s requirements for asylum-seekers. 

From the information I was able to gather, there are only three official points of entry where immigrants can apply for asylum in America. These points of entry process 100 applications per day. After the application is submitted, it will take 45 days to get a face to face interview. After the face to face interview, it can take up to 180 days for the application to be decided upon. So the process to can take seven and a half months.  People line up 1500 deep attempting to be one of the 100 processed applications. After the migrant caravan arrived, it flooded an already overcrowded situation; and at this point it has caused a true humanitarian crisis. 

So my idea for a compromise is this: build the wall, but in doing so add six more legal points of entry for asylum seekers. Doing this would triple our capacity to process applications and streamline the process, so people are not languishing away as they wait to apply. If people don’t meet our standards for asylum seekers, they should be sent back to their countries of origin. 

About 700 employees of the US Census Bureau in Jeffersonville, IN have been placed on furloughed status. On Monday, January 21, I joined a group of care providers in an outreach to them. Our role was to help people affected by the government shut-down connect with resources in the community that may be able to offer them assistance. The problem is that for a variety of reasons there are not many resources available to them. I met one lady who has received her husband’s COBRA bill for insurance that was about $1200. I met another lady who was going to have to decide between her rent and her insulin for the month of February. I met many who have utility bills that they are unable to pay, and no entity exists that will pay them. Many don’t yet qualify for assistance because they are not at least three months behind or because they own property. I could see the desperation on their faces as I spoke with them. 

In those moments, I thought how ironic it was that America is trying to solve the desperate plight of immigrants by causing a desperate situation among our own people. As Americans, we can do better than this. As Christians, we can definitely do better to reflect Jesus Christ to the world! Offering grace to others may be messy but it is always the right course of action!

Binding Up The Brokenhearted 

Isaiah 61:1 says, “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for prisoners.” 

The Book of Isaiah is sometimes called the “fifth Gospel.” It is described this way because in the Book of Isaiah, we find prophecies that announce the mission and ministry of the Messiah who is to come. We are to recognize who the Messiah is by the way he conducts his ministry. The true Messiah will preach good news to the poor, will bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for captives, and release prisoners from darkness. 

This Sunday kicks off the Advent season where we begin to anticipate the coming (again) of our Savior Jesus Christ. Matthew 1:23 says, ““The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). In Jesus Christ we see the face of God. I have no doubt that Jesus will return again. This is an expectation fueled by what the Bible tells me to be true. But as much as my expectations grow for the future arrival of Jesus Christ I also realize that I have an expectation of God’s church. My expectation is that God’s church will be the way the world experiences “God with us” in the meantime, while we wait and anticipate Christ’s return. 

For us, as the church, to be the incarnation of Jesus Christ to the world, we must participate in the ministry of our Messiah. This means people should be able to see tangible ways we are proclaiming good news to the poor. This means people should be able to see tangible ways we are binding up the brokenhearted. This means people should be able to see tangible ways we are proclaiming freedom for people that are captive. This means people should be able to see tangible ways we are releasing prisoners from darkness. 

In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25) we are given several examples of the acts of service God desires to recognize in His people. I believe it is no accident how much these actions parallel the ministry of the Messiah in Isaiah 61. When the King comes, He will say to those He recognizes as His sheep, “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:34b-36). 

The tie that draws it all together is the way the righteous sheep respond to this inheritance invoking invitation. They say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?” The King answers His righteous sheep saying, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” 

The King doesn’t say that His sheep should provide this service to only those who say “please” and “thank you.” The King doesn’t say that His sheep should serve only those who are grateful. The King doesn’t say that His sheep should serve people who can give them back what they give. The King says, “My sheep should serve the least of these,” irrespective of any other conditions. 

It’s really very simple. The Bible is truly all somewhat interconnected. God cannot deviate from His divine nature. When Jesus says one of the greatest commandments is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” He again demonstrates the core nature being a Christ follower. When we separate the teachings of Christ from a tangible love that touches people’s lives in practical ways, what we have left is a hollow religion that is empty at its core.  I personally don’t want to be a part of a hollow religion that consists of a bunch of filler and lacks any substance.  

As a Christian I’ve realized that God brings brokenhearted people to surround me. I only learn of their brokenness when I choose to listen. During the recent Thanksgiving meal we served to our guests from the Haven House; I heard Jessie’s story, Telesa’s story, and Denise’s story. Each one of their stories is different, but there is a single common denominator, and that is a broken heart.  Somewhere along the way, the world has tripped them up. Satan has beat them up and told them lies, and they are left trying to put the pieces back together. Psalm 147:3 says, “He (the Lord) heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Isaiah 61:1 says the Messiah “will bind up the brokenhearted.” 

If you are coming from a broken place right now, Jesus Christ declares, “I am here to hold together your heart!” This is amazing news: If we turn to Jesus in the midst of our brokenness He will put us back together. 

To “bind up” something means to wrap it up in such a way that it is held together. When I see the words “wrap up” I automatically think of the beautifully wrapped Christmas presents that you will place under your Christmas trees. I say, “you” because I’m not a gifted wrapper of presents, I can only do it well enough to get the job done. You see, if we are followers of Jesus Christ, our ministry, until we see Him again, is to hold together people’s hearts. Maybe, like my Christmas wrapping skills, we are scared we aren’t good enough to help others put their hearts back together. The beauty of “binding up the brokenhearted” is in the “try.” The “try” is the effort expended out of love that someone can recognize as the love and grace of Jesus being offered to them. 

I shouldn’t need to explain that holding together people’s hearts is messy. To do so we need to immerse ourselves in their story.  We have to truly love them as much as we love ourselves. We have to hold all of their needs at the same level that we hold our own. We have to be the church we say we are. 

One year ago, on December 10th, I lost someone very dear to me. My brother Nick passed away from an accidental overdose of his prescribed medications. You never really think that someone so young, that you genuinely care about, is going to be gone so quickly. Remembering this experience, I realize that I’m one of the brokenhearted ones. What I need, though, is not anyone’s pity. What I need is for each and every one who proclaims to be a follower of Christ to step up to “bind up the brokenhearted” and hold together their hearts. This world is littered with broken hearts waiting for someone to genuinely care enough to hold them together. Who knows? Someday, that broken heart may be your own.

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Mission Statement: Park Memorial UMC exists to SERVE others by WITNESSING to our faith through ministries of CARE that enable people to realize what Christ has done for them. We endeavor to DEVELOP personal relationships with Christ so that we may GLORIFY God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.