After Thanksgiving, my daughter Katie was spending a few days with us, and we decided to make a quick run to the Dollar General to pick up a couple of things she needed.  While she shopped, I wandered and found these cans of “Prairie Belt Smoked Sausages”.  I don’t go to Dollar General often, but I remember that I used to buy these, mainly because of the label.  It has a picture of a “Leave It to Beaver” looking kid along with a “serving suggestion” … a picture of the sausages scattered on a plate.  As I remember, the sausages weren’t bad … sort of a spicier version of Vienna sausages.  In any case, I picked up a can and bought it, planning on having them for an after work snack.  We returned home and as we sat around talking, Katie picked up the can and all of a sudden she got this stricken look on her face and said “Dad, have you ever read the ingredients?”  I didn’t recall ever having done that so I took the can from her … and you’ll notice that the can is still unopened.  The ingredients include such things as “chicken skin, pork skin, pork spleens and  pork stomachs”.  It’s sad when “mechanically separated img_3146chicken” is the most appetizing ingredient. So, what does this have to do with anything?  My daughter taught me that I needed to exercise some discernment in my snacking choices.  I bought the can assuming that it actually contained edible food.  I was swayed by the outward appearance … the humorous label … without giving serious consideration to what I was eating.  There is the old saying we have all heard … “don’t judge a book by its cover.”  All too often, we are swayed by the external appearance of things, activities and even people.  We need to take the time and make the effort to find out what’s inside in order to really know if these things are truly in our best interests or not. 

            In our spiritual lives, we need to also practice the same discernment skills.  As in other parts of our lives, we need to evaluate if things we encounter are helpful or harmful to us, spiritually.  Matthew 7 tells us, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”  We can’t be fooled by a label.  We need to make the effort to find out what’s inside.  And discernment is a skill that requires practice and effort.  It takes time before we develop the ability to successfully differentiate between the good and the bad.. 

          Speaking of our spiritual lives, it is also important that we live in such a way as to be authentic in our faith.  We need to be more than just an attractive label.  I’ve heard it said that “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a Cadillac”.  Actually being a disciple of Christ is more than just what we project in our outward appearance.  What’s inside needs to match up.  Jesus addressed this issue with the religious people of his day. He said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”  People may see us in or around our church.  They may know that we attend worship here on Sunday. They may have heard Christian music coming from our car radio, or maybe they have seen us with a Bible in our hand.  The label says “Christian”, but what’s inside?  If someone really wants to know, they will look at the fruit we produce.  The scripture from Matthew also tells us, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?   Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.”  If we are truly Christian, we will produce good fruit.  In Galatians 5:22-23, the Apostle Paul lists the fruit of the spirit as, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.  If you are a true disciple of Christ, people will be able to see all of these things in you.  How can you make sure that your life is exhibiting all these things?  Jesus made it very simple.  He gave us two commands, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And  “love your neighbor as yourself.”  If we consistently love God and love others, we can be assured that we will be producing good fruit.  When people examine us, they will see that we are exactly as advertised.  What we claim to be will be validated by our character, our integrity, our love. 

          In this new year, I pray that you will each exercise discernment – fill your lives with positive things, uplifting influences, things that nourish your body and mind, and mostly, things that encourage you to be a disciple of Christ.  If you want to produce good fruit, heed the words from Psalms 1.  “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.  They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.  In all that they do, they prosper.”  Read your Bible, pray often (and listen), come to church to worship together, serve together and learn together as a family. 

          Here’s to 2017.  May it be a year of health, happiness and growth.  May your life be filled with blessings.  And I pray that you will each shine with the light of Christ, illuminating the dark corners of all the people you encounter. 

Jelly of the Month Club

Posted: December 20, 2016 in Uncategorized

     Most of you have seen the movie “Christmas Vacation” and remember the pivotal scene when Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) opens the much anticipated Christmas gift from his employer.  Instead of a large cash bonus (which he has already spent as a down payment on a swimming pool), he receives a subscription to the Jelly of the Month Club.  The rant that follows is a classic.  I was reminded of this (to a point) yesterday when we reclarkceived our corporate Christmas envelopes at work.  I had been told of the gift given to the hourly employees, a $100 gift card, and was hoping that we (the salaried employees) would get the same, as is the norm.  I opened my envelope and was somewhat disappointed to see a certificate for a free fleece, emblazoned with the company logo.  “A chance to provide free advertising … you shouldn’t have.” I honestly do appreciate the fact that I got a gift at all, and fortunately unlike Clark Griswold, it was not something I was counting on to make a difference in my life.

     You see, as humans we are flawed.  Our gift giving is not always perfect.  They say it’s the thought that counts, but often the thought is “I need to get something, anything  … quick.”  We even fail as gift recipients.  We compare, keep score and sometimes don’t appreciate something that was given with a lot of thought and effort. 

     The good news is that God has a gift for each of us this Christmas.  It’s perfect for you, just what you needed.  It was given with a lot of thought and the price was steep.  But you are worth it.  Humanity was broken and separated from God.  So he sent his Son to pay for our mistakes and failures.  Jesus is the gift, the bridge between us and God, our peace and our hope.  All you need to do is accept the gift.

     This Christmas, give gifts to your friends and family with the best intentions and as much thought and care as you can.  Receive your gifts with grace even if they’re ugly ties or, heaven forbid, a jelly club subscription.   And remember to save a place in your heart for the true gift of Christmas.

… And Let It Begin With Me

Posted: November 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

I am not a political person, but I know that the latest election experience has caused a great deal of concern, stress and worry. Half the country is elated; the other half discouraged. In this building, some may be pleased with the outcome, upset by the result or ambivalent about the whole thing. It really doesn’t matter here in church. What matters is that we are citizens of another country, with a different agenda and different mission. We are ambassadors for God, and this transcends whatever is happening politically in the United States of America. Our duty now is the same as it has been during the Obama Administration and all administrations before that; it is the vision articulated by the prophet Micah: To do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). In that sense, this election changes nothing.

My biggest worry is not about the candidates or the outcome but about the process. I am concerned about the divisiveness that has been brought out in our country. It seems to be more than just a preference of one ideology over another. There seems to be an increasing “us vs. them” mentality and I see much anger and hatred. The divide between American citizens is deepening and I am afraid for the future of our country. However we voted — we must remember and put into practice our theology which transcends human and artificial labels. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; [there is no longer Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative] for all of you are one in Christ Jesus ” (Galatians 3:27-28)

Our country is in need of healing and we need to somehow get on a path of compromise and cooperation. John Wesley gave this advice about elections in 1774, and it rings true especially today. “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

We, as Christians, can be a force for good. What our country needs is reconciliation, because we are hurting from division — as individuals, as a church, as a nation and as a world. Reconciliation happens when we show each other love, mercy and a selfless grace. This work can be done in our personal relationships, in our congregations, in our communities, and in the world around us. With the apostle Paul, I likewise beg “you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

reconciliation-sculpture

Recharging Your Batteries

Posted: July 30, 2016 in Uncategorized

batteries

Portable electronic devices such as tablets and cell phones are becoming indispensable parts of our lives.  We use them to stay in contact with our friends and family, to find our way when driving, to stay on top of news and weather, and to Google the answers to any questions we may be presented with in the course of the day.  They are also becoming a primary source of entertainment, providing our movies, movies, TV shows and games.  The more we rely on our phones and other electronic devices and the more they are ingrained in our lives, the more susceptible we are to the unspeakable tragedy of a dead battery.  In order to prevent this from happening, heavy phone users are very meticulous, always keeping their batteries charged.  At Kinney’s it can be hard to find a free electrical outlet because all of the receptacles have a phone charger belonging to one employee or another plugged in and ready to charge whenever the need arises.  Just in case you are away from an electrical outlet, they have invented this neat device called a power bank.  You charge it up and take it with you wherever you go.  If your phone needs a charge, you just plug it into the power bank and voila … you can charge your phone.  I bought one, and then I bought a cord, which is even cooler … it has multiple plugs – one for my phone, one for my iPad and one for my iPod.  I’m set!

The important point to remember is that the batteries in our devices get depleted.  It’s unavoidable.  To keep them running, we need to periodically charge them.  We need to plug in to a power source. 

The same is true with our lives.  Life is difficult.  Life is demanding.  We wear down and we get tired.  Often we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t eat well and we don’t take care of our bodies.  We are at risk for stress, exhaustion and burnout.  We also experience this in our spiritual lives.  Even as Christians, we are not exempted from the stress, the pressure and the weariness.  In  Mark 6 we read that Jesus had sent his disciples out in pairs on a mission trip.  They were empowered to do what they had seen Jesus do – they preached, they drove out demons and they healed the sick.  When they eventually returned, they gathered around Jesus and gave a full report of all the things they had done and what they had taught.  There was so much going on around them with the large crowd of followers that they couldn’t even make the time to eat, so Jesus said to the twelve disciples, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”  Jesus recognized that they were tired and spent, and that their spiritual batteries were in need of charging. 

Have you ever been there?  I know I have.  The problem is that being a disciple of Christ is a 24/7 thing, and it is not really possible to pace yourself.  I’ve told this story before – a few years ago, the youth group in Odessa had seen a speaker that they really liked.  He lived in Sarasota, FL and was the drummer of a Christian rock band in addition to speaking to groups.  He gave me a business card and a few months later we started communicating and Betsy and I arranged for him to come to Odessa to do a youth rally and to preach at the Sunday worship service.  His plane came in Saturday night and Betsy and I met him at the airport, took him out to eat and got him settled into his hotel.  The next day we spent most of the day driving him to and from the church and to meals, and getting the church set for the rally.  The rally went well and we spent some time afterward talking and getting the church cleaned up.  We took him back to his hotel, Betsy and I returned home and finally dropped into bed at about 11 PM.  I told Betsy, “If we aren’t broke and exhausted, we aren’t doing it right.”  Serving God is difficult, and like the disciples, there are times when we need to be recharged.  We need to go to a quiet place, alone with Jesus, and get some rest.

The past 16 years, my place of rest and recharging has been the Kingdom Bound Christian music festival, held each summer at Darien Lake Theme Park.  It is a road trip that we take with the Odessa youth group and it recharges me in so many ways.  Spending 3 or 4 days 24/7 with anywhere from 15 to 25 teenagers is a family bonding experience.  I also get some time with Betsy and look forward to iced coffee from the General Store, sitting and catching our breath in one of the shady, breezy spots, and an evening coffee from Tim Horton’s.  I love going through the merchandise tent, riding the Motocoaster and the Pirate Ship and the group gathering to do the bumper cars (usually they are all chasing Betsy and/or me).  I love my sleeping bag and cot after a long day at  the park, and a shower and hot breakfast in the morning.  Most of all, I love the Kingdom Bound programming – the speakers and music.  There are some concerts and speakers during the day, but the main event begins at about 5:30 in the evening at the performing arts center.  If you have never been there, it is a huge open tent with a stage at the front and a big lawn extending back from the last seats.  The tent and lawn will accommodate about 30,000 people and it is filled by the time the evening speaker and headlining musical acts take the stage.  It is an awe-inspiring experience to be surrounded by a crowd of fellow believers of this size.  There are people from all denominations and backgrounds, youth groups and church groups, people who came with their families, young, old, black, white, Asian, people very mature in their faith and those who are just taking the first steps of their faith journey.  But we are all there for the same purpose, we all worship the same God and the differences fall away.  For 3 days, we were one big church family singing together, praying together and just soaking it all in together.  You can feel God’s presence. 

Before we left, I had been thinking about how much this trip recharges me, and the general idea for this message was beginning to take shape.  And as happens almost every year, the artists and speakers seemed to be speaking directly to the issues on my mind.  Over and over again in songs, in teaching and in the speakers’ messages I heard them talk about “refreshing”, “renewing” and “restarting”.  It made me think about the scene in Acts when the Holy Spirit descended and all of the people heard the conversations in their own native languages.  Maybe as the Holy Spirit descended on Darien Lake everyone’s heart and mind were opened so that we could hear the words we needed to hear. 

We arrived at the park on Thursday morning and many of us decided to see a talk by Luke and Joel Smallbone from the band For King and Country who would be the night’s headlining concert.  They are dedicated to the idea that women are priceless and they emphasize that women and girls should treat themselves as being valuable … they should not settle for dressing, acting or being treated like they’re worthless.  They also speak to the boys and men and encourage us to treat women like a princess, because each one is a daughter of the King.  This idea turned into a song, entitled “Priceless” and is now being made into a film, also entitled “Priceless” which will be in theaters in October.  We got to see clips from the movie and had a question and answer session with Luke and Joel.  It was a very powerful time.  We went to the Performing Arts Center and settled in in time to see a new band called Stars Go Dim.  They did a version of the Doxology that includes additional verses.  It was very cool, and I’ll share it with you sometime down the road.  The song that really captured my attention was one called “Walking Like Giants” which talked about not giving up when we face difficulties or when struggles come.  We can face whatever comes because we have God inside, and with every step of life we can be walking like giants.  The speaker for the evening was one we have seen several times.  His name is Reggie Dabbs and he is a big, jovial, energetic black man.  His story is that he was born of a prostitute.  She sold herself for $20 for money to buy food for her children.  She became pregnant and Reggie was the result.  She gave him up for adoption and kept her other 3 kids.  He was taken in as a foster child by Mr. and Mrs. Dabbs, who had 4 adult children, and when he was in the 4th grade they adopted him.  He was in a loving home, but could not escape the fact that he was an accident and unwanted by his birth mother.  Eventually he became a Christian and came to the realization that you can never change your past but you can change your future.  That was his message for the audience at Kingdom Bound and he reminded us that we tend to carry our failures and bad circumstances around with us like baggage and he frequently told us to “drop that bag!”  For King and Country were as good as expected.  Through their songs they urged us to love without fear, to give, to support those who are weak and to fix our eyes on Jesus.  These lyrics from the song “Shoulders” spoke to me –

“My help comes from You
You’re right here, pulling me through
You carry my weakness, my sickness, my brokenness all on Your shoulders
My help comes from You
You are my rest, my rescue
I don’t have to see to believe that You’re lifting me up on Your shoulders.”

            The highlights from Friday included Rend Collective, a band from Northern Ireland whose energy and enthusiasm reminded me that being a Christian should be joyful and that worship is a celebration.  Matthew West was the evening’s headliner and all of his songs, are based on letters sent in from real people.  They are stories of hopelessness, fear, tragedy and the power of Jesus to turn it around.  Saturday was the last day and we saw the latest incarnation of the band Audio Adrenaline who did the song “Hands and Feet” which has been the Odessa Youth Group anthem and call to service since 1999.  We then saw the best speaker I have ever seen, Nick Vujicic, who was born without limbs.  He struggled with depression and loneliness as he questioned why he was different from all the other kids. He couldn’t get past the haunting question of ‘Why was I the one born without arms and legs?”  Eventually, with the encouragement of his parents he accepted that God had a plan for him in spite of his disability (although he still keeps a pair of shoes in his closet in case God answers his prayer for legs).  Today he is an evangelist who has shared his message of hope to over 6 million people in 57 countries. He shares how his faith, which is rooted in Jesus Christ, changed his life forever.  The night ended with the hard rock band Skillet, who are one of our very favorites.  They play very loud music, and have had a lot of mainstream success, but their songs carry spiritual messages.  One of their hit songs is entitled “Hero” “and whenever the song is introduced in concert (in both Christian and secular settings), lead singer Jon Cooper says that many people attach their own meaning to the song – it’s about a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone else who can be counted on, but he says, “This is why I wrote the song – I wrote it for the number one hero in my life, who has never let me down and his name is Jesus Christ.”  We came home the next morning.  As Betsy and I put things away we talked about the trip … we had spent 3 days with a bunch of teenagers, we walked for miles every day in 90 degree heat, we ate junk, slept on cots – we should be exhausted, but we were energized.  It has to be a God thing.

            I’ve been letting it all sink in since we got back.  I’ve listened to a lot of music by Kingdom Bound artists, I’ve thought about the scriptures that were shared, the things I heard the speakers say and the lessons I learned.  I’ve reflected on the time spent with thousands of fellow believers, the time spent with the youth group and the time I spent with Betsy.  I have thought, how can these three days make me a better father and husband?  How can I be a better, more effective pastor?  Two days after we got back I  had a meeting with Nancy Adams, our District Superintendent and my boss.  It was my annual evaluation.  She had sent a list of questions which I had to answer and return to her before our meeting.  One of the questions was to tell her a scripture that held special meaning for me.  I gave her Matthew 10:27 – “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, shout from the rooftops.”  To me, that is a challenge as a pastor.  It challenges me to read and study and pray.  It challenges me to seize the opportunities to recharge myself through immersion in inspiration, prayer, music and worship.  It challenges me to listen to your stories, your concerns and your pain.  Once I have done these things I can stand here with confidence and give you those things which have been poured into me. 

            Remember that your mistakes do not define you.  You are forgiven through God’s grace and He no longer sees your past … only your potential.  Whatever burdens you carry, whatever problems you face, God is bigger than all of them.  God’s peace and comfort are bigger than worry and fear; His healing touch is stronger than illness and injury; forgiveness is bigger than bitterness; love trumps evil; and because of His life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ defeated the grave and assured us of a place in heaven.  God created the church and it is no accident that you and I are here today.  We, together, have been a part of God’s plan since the beginning of time.  Let us use our Sunday morning time together as a time of learning, of inspiration, of commitment, and also as a time of rest, refreshment and recharging.  There may not be 30,000 of us here, but Jesus assures us that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in His name, He will be among them.  Soak in His presence.  Let the worries and care of life slip away.  Drink deep of the Holy Spirit.  And as you go through those doors, go with boldness, carrying the love of Christ to all you meet.  Amen.

 

 

Jesus Weeps …

Posted: June 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

I wanted to take this opportunity to take a few minutes to reflect on the recent tragedy that took place in Orlando.  I am reminded of this story from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, knowing that he would be killed there. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.’”  Jesus wept because he knew the evil and brutality that was about to happen there.  He wept for those who would witness this as well as those who would be affected by it.  He even wept for those who participated in it.

God’s plan had been perfect … we would have all lived in peace and harmony, but sin entered the world and it is now a broken place.  We have been given freedom of choice, and because we are broken, humans are capable of horrific acts of evil.  This breweepsaks God’s heart.  I guarantee that as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, last weekend He wept over Orlando.

It is human nature to grasp at reasons, to place blame on someone or something, to pick sides and go on the attack.  The issue is not gun control or lack thereof.  The issue is not whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.  The issue is not one of faith or ideology or sexuality.  The issue is the lack of respect for the preciousness of human life.  As Christians, we need to heed the words in our own Bible – “Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another.”  We need to be the voice quietly speaking out for respect for life, for love of neighbors and for peace on earth.  Where do we begin?  It begins here, in your heart, and will spread one heart at a time.  I read this at church this morning, followed immediately by the hymn, “Let There Be Peace on Earth”.  Amen!

 

God’s Refrigerator

Posted: June 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

Jesus frequently taught in parables.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus began with the phrase “the Kingdom of God is like …” then went on to relate simple stories that featured activities and objects that people were familiar with.  Jesus used parables to communicate to both the common people and the religious leaders. Rather than using the words of the learned scholars, Jesus spoke in everyday language that connected with His audience.  Though the religious leaders regularly resorted to quoting one another or used academic language, Jesus spoke in the storytelling format already familiar to His culture. In doing so, He connected with His audience in a way the religious leaders did not, both touching personal needs and communicating spiritual truth.  By using parables, Jesus encouraged people to spend time pondering the story He told.   

With my background in youth ministry, I have long been a big fan of the object lesson.  And Adam Hamilton, our speaker at Annual Conference, said in one of his teaching sessions that effective preaching will relate spiritual truths to real everyday life.  This past Tuesday at Bible study, we were discussing the Gospel of John, chapter 14 and I don’t remember exactly how the conversation took this particular turn, but in my notebook I wrote the words “God’s refrigerator” and thought that this would be a good topic for a parable.  So here goes …

We can learn a lot about God and a life of faith by looking at God’s refrigerator.  As you approach it, you will notice that it is adorned with drawings and other works of art done by His children.  Isn’t that the way with your refrigerator?  Drawings, coloring sheets, school quizzes always seem to have a prominent place on the refrigerators of most parents.  The important thing to note is that these are often imperfect, sometimes messy and rarely art museum quality.  The drawing may be crude and the coloring is frequently outside of the lines, but they have earned a right to be displayed.  They merit a spot on the fridge not because of their quality, but simply because they were done by our child.  It was the best they had to offer and that’s good enough to be put on display for all to see. My daughter Katie has been artistic all her life and has done some beautiful work, but one of my favorites was this drawing of unicorna unicorn she did when she was about 3 years old.  I love it not because it was perfect, but because it was her work.  It is the same with God.  God doesn’t demand perfection.  Throughout scripture we see God using imperfect people for the sake of his mission. Look at the people Jesus called to be His 12 closest followers.  He didn’t call the popular, rich or successful to further his ministry, but rather, the poor, broken and faithful.  This continues today.  Jesus calls imperfect people, just like us, to be His followers.  And He calls imperfect people, just like us, to love our neighbors and to care for the least of these … the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the abused.  You may feel that you will never do big things for God, but we were reminded at Bible study of a quote by Mother Teresa – “We can do no great things, just small things with great love.”   If you do what you can for those who cross your path in life, God will applaud your effort and reward you by placing your effort on the door of his fridge.  “Look what my child did for me!”

In the words of Max Lucado,

“If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.

If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it.

He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning.

Whenever you want to talk, He’ll listen.

He can live anywhere in the universe, and He chose your heart.

What about the Christmas gift He sent you in Bethlehem; not to mention that Friday at Calvary.

Face it, friend. He’s crazy about you.”

 

 

Is There Hope?

Posted: March 29, 2016 in Uncategorized

hopeOne of my favorite Tom Hanks movies is “Cast Away”.  If you have not seen this movie, it is sort of a modern Robinson Crusoe story.  Tom Hanks plays a FedEx employee named Chuck Noland.  Early in the film, Chuck and several other employees are in a company plane when it crashes into the ocean, killing everyone except Noland.  The next day his life raft washes ashore on a deserted island, along with many FedEx packages from the plane.  Noland opens the packages, hoping to find useful items that will help him survive on the island.  One box contains a pair of ice skates.  You wouldn’t think that ice skates would be much help on a deserted tropical island, but Noland manages to use the laces for rope, he fashions one skate into a hatchet, and the other ends up being used later on as a dental tool (NOT my favorite scene in the movie).  He also finds a box of video tapes, which he braids into ropes, and another box contains a volleyball which he names “Wilson”.  Wilson becomes his only friend and companion on the island.  One of the boxes he finds has angel wings stamped on the outside next to the address, and he never opens that box.  He keeps it intact the entire four years he lives on the island.  When he finally builds a raft and escapes the island, he lashes this unopened package onto his raft and takes it with him.  In the final scene of the movie, Noland, now safely back in the United States, drives down a remote Texas highway with the unopened angel wings FedEx package in the passenger seat of his car.  He is returning the package to its original sender in rural Texas.  He finally arrives at the house and knocks on the door, but no one is home.  Noland places the box at the front door along with a note that says “This package saved my life”.  A few minutes later, the movie ends.  So what did Chuck Noland mean when he wrote “This package saved my life”?  He never opened it.  He never used its contents.  Yet he claims that it saved his life.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what he meant.  That package symbolized hope for Chuck Noland.  It represented his hope that someday he would leave the island, go home to family and friends and return that package.  It was quite literally a package of hope.  And that hope kept him going for four hard years on a deserted island.  At one point the endless drudgery and overwhelming loneliness of the island almost drove him to suicide.  But hope of returning home stopped him from going through with it.  “This package saved my life” said Noland.  But what he really meant was “hope saved my life.”

Hope was riding high on Palm Sunday when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem to adoring crowds lining the road with palm branches and shouting “Hosanna (save us)!”  His followers must have thought “this is it!”  They were expecting Jesus to take his rightful place as King, but now, just a few days later he was dead.  Little hope remained for the followers of Christ on Good Friday and on Saturday.  They saw their leader and friend betrayed, abandoned, placed on trial, mocked, beaten and crucified.  They watched as his bloodied, lifeless body was placed in a tomb.  The disciples of Jesus were utterly defeated.  They were devastated.  All hope had vanished.

Our reading from the Gospel of Mark tells us what happened next.  Early Sunday morning when the Sabbath was over, “Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ body”.  Can you imagine?  After 2 days of despair and grieving, they had to go to the tomb and face the reality of what had happened, the reality of failure and the reality of hopes dashed.  As they walked to the tomb, they wondered among themselves how they would move the stone from the entrance of the tomb.  As they drew closer, they saw that the stone had already been rolled away.  They went inside and rather than finding the body of their friend, they saw a man dressed in white, sitting on the right side, and they were afraid.  “Don’t be alarmed.” he said.  “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified.  He has risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid him.”  He continued, “Go tell the disciples and Peter ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him just as he told you.’  Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.”

The women had gone to the tomb expecting death, but instead, they received words of hope.  They fled from the tomb bewildered because they were so sure of what they would find.  They were 100% convinced that they were going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body … they did not even consider any other possibility.  They did not expect to find any light that would pierce their shadows … no comfort for their pain … no escape from the sad truth that lay in that tomb.  They did not expect that hope would miraculously shatter the darkness.

When Jesus arose, He proved once and for all who he is.  His resurrection demonstrates without a doubt that He is the Christ, the Messiah … truly He is the son of God.  And because of who He is, He can bring you hope no matter what you are going through.  If you have doubted the existence of God or turned your back on him, Jesus showed His wounds to Thomas and gave Peter the chance to overcome his denial.  He’ll do the same for you.  If you are in need of healing, the Bible is filled with stories of people who were healed and made whole by the touch of Jesus.  If you are going through storms in your life, you have the hope that Jesus can calm your storm or ride it out with you.  Sometimes Jesus calms the storm.  Sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child.

There is reassurance in the life of Jesus.  He came to live a human life because he loves us.  He loved us enough to go to the cross, saving us by dying in our place.  He took on our sins and all of our mistakes, and when he rose from the grave He gave us hope.  He gave us hope in life.  He also gave us the ultimate hope.  1 Corinthians tells us that “the last enemy to be defeated is death”.  Take to heart the words of John 3:16 – “ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

When the women went to the tomb that Sunday morning, they found that the stone blocking the entrance had been rolled away.  We need to understand what this means.  The stone was not rolled away so that Jesus could get out.  The stone was rolled away so that we could get in.  The women needed to see that the body was not there … they needed to experience that hope firsthand.  The stone is still rolled away … the tomb is still open.  Are you ready to look inside?  What hope do you desperately need?  You will find the hope that you need when you look into the tomb.  “He has risen.  He is not here.”  Happy Easter.  It is a glorious day!  Amen.

 

 

 

 

New Beginnings

Posted: January 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

janus

As we go through life, we will pass from one season to another. The beginning of January is a difficult time of the year for change. Transitions abound. Christmas is over and that entails major changes. For the last couple of months, we have been preoccupied with shopping for Christmas gifts, planning and preparing for Christmas dinner and for getting together with relatives and friends.

Before Christmas, the television on any given night has a variety of Christmas movies to choose from and many radio stations play Christmas carols nonstop. Village streets are dressed up for Christmas and houses and yards are decorated with lights, displays and giant inflatable figures. I am sure each of us can name someone in our neighborhood whose December electric bill we would not want to pay. Then, as soon as December 26th rolls around, it is all over. Step into your local WalMart or other retailer and the Christmas leftovers are on clearance and the Valentine’s Day merchandise will probably already be out. There will be no more Christmas shows on TV or songs on the radio. We will eventually have to take down our Christmas tree and pack away all of the decorations. Once the dust settles, our lives go back to normal.

The end of one year and the dawn of a new one also marks a time of change and transition. One of the traditions of the New Year is the practice of making New Year’s resolutions. Do you ever make them? I usually make a few.  It seems that there is quite a long history of making New Year’s resolutions. In ancient times, Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. In the Medieval era, the knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry. At watchnight services, many Christians prepare for the year ahead by praying and making these resolutions. This is still a popular practice.  Why make these goals on New Year’s Day? It makes sense that this would be an appropriate time to do such a thing, and there is actually a scientific basis for it. It turns out that timing is important in determining whether or not we succeed. The beginning of a week, a month, or a year forms what the psychologist Richard Thaler calls a “notational boundary.” So when New Year’s Day comes around, we see it as a new beginning. If there is a time to make changes in our lives, this is it. New Year’s Day offers us a clean slate, and we resolve to make changes in our lives, our behaviors, our activities.

The month of January is named for the Roman god, Janus. Janus was depicted as having two faces. One face looked to the past for wisdom and the other looked ahead to the future. Janus was thought to influence beginnings and endings and was often found at doorways and entrances. January is the time of year when many of us take inventory of the past and make corrective resolutions for the future. There are two essential steps to a successful new beginning: remembering and forgetting. January is an appropriate time for us to look back and be advised and strengthened by the past so that we may be prepared for what the future holds.

The very fabric of our faith calls us to look back and remember. Some of the most tragic stories in the Bible have to do with the lives of people and nations who forgot. When the great prophets of Israel spoke, they nearly always began by looking back. Our Jewish forebears in the faith were constantly reminded by Old Testament scriptures to remember the past. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you . . .” (Deuteronomy 15:15a). The Jewish Celebration of Passover is an annual reminder and reenactment of how God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Passover is a reminder of the past as well as an acknowledgment of the power of God.

In this post-Christmas time, I urge you to remember. Yes, there are no longer the constant reminders of Christmas … the ads on TV, the litany of Christmas movies, the carols played in the stores and on the radio … but you have your memories. There are memorable gifts, there are special moments shared with family and friends, unexpected cards or phone calls. There are moments of peace, of contentment, times when God made Himself known through the hustle and bustle. I know I will never forget the impromptu singing of “O Holy Night” at the end of our Christmas Eve service. It still gives me goose bumps just to think about it. You have, or soon will, take the Christmas tree to the curb and pack away your ornaments and decorations, but don’t pack away Christmas. The hope, peace, joy and love of the Christmas season are alive and well in each of us. Jesus came to us, not so that we can have a nice celebration on December 25th, but so that we can have life to the full – 365 days of the year.

In 2016, use the idea of a new year, a clean slate if that is helpful to you. Use this time of transition as an opportunity to reflect and evaluate. Use the positive experiences and achievements as things to build on. Learn from your mistakes and negative experiences. We need to do this as individuals and we need to do this as a church. How can we better achieve our goal of reaching others with the Good News of Christ? What things are working well?  What do we need to change? What can we do better?

We are at a transition point. We look back at the Christmas season and at the year 2015, and we look forward to the future.   As we move into 2016, remember these words from Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  Amen.

Exhale

Posted: October 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

In John chapter 3, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, and trying to explain to him the workings of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” In this scripture, it is interesting that Jesus likens the Holy Spirit to the wind. The Greek word for “Holy Spirit” is pneuma, which can also be translated as “breath” or “wind”. The same is true for the Hebrew word used for “Holy Spirit” – ruach. The Greek root word “pneuma” is used about 385 times in the New Testament. You will find that scriptures about the Holy Spirit, as in today’s example, frequently the mention of breath or wind is woven into the scripture. Our scripture talked about being “borexhalen again” … about being born in the spirit. What does this mean?

When we acknowledge our faith in Christ and accept the offer of grace from God, this is when we are born again in the Spirit. When we are re-born, it is from the breath of God. In the Gospel of John, where He is giving to His disciples the Holy Spirit, just as God breathed on Adam and gave him the breath of life, Jesus breathed on His disciples in John chapter 20: “‘Peace to you! As the Father sent me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'”.

Max Lucado likens the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives to a guy who wants to learn to dance. This fellow is a rational, intelligent sort, so he goes to the bookstore and buys a how-to book. He takes it home and starts reading. He carefully does everything it says. When the instructions say sway, he sways. When the instructions say lean, he leans. When the instructions say spin, he spins. He even cuts out paper footprints and arranges them on the family room floor so he will know exactly where to step.

At last, he thinks he’s got it down pat. He calls his wife in and says, “Honey, watch!” With book in hand and reading aloud so she’ll know he’s done his homework, he follows the instructions step by step. It says, “Take one step with your right foot.” So he takes one step with his right foot. Then it says, “Turn slowly to the left.” He turns slowly to the left.” He keeps it up, reading and then dancing, reading and dancing, through the whole thing. Then he collapses exhausted on the sofa and says to his wife, “What do you think? I executed it perfectly!” To which she replies, “You executed it all right. You killed it!”

The befuddled husband says, “But I followed the rules, I laid out the pattern, I did everything the book said…” “But,” she sighs, “you forgot the most important part–the music!” She pops a tape into the stereo. “Try it again. Quit worrying about the steps and just follow the music.” She holds out her hand, and he gets up and takes it. The music starts, and the next thing the guy knows he’s dancing–without the book! Lucado observes: “We Christians are prone to follow the book while ignoring the music. We master the doctrine, outline the chapters, memorize the dispensations, debate the rules, and stiffly step down the dance floor of life with no music in our hearts. Dancing with no music is tough stuff. Jesus knew that. For that reason, on the night before His death He introduced the disciples to the song maker of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is moving and active today, intimately involved in each of our lives. Before His crucifixion, Jesus is comforting His disciples and He makes this promise: “If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” The Holy Spirit is present in our worship, He helps us to understand and apply scripture, He helps to build up our faith. He inspires us to bigger and better spiritual things. Interestingly, the medical definition of “inspire” is to inhale. The Holy Spirit helps us to breathe in the things of God … to hold them in our hearts.

These are not gifts that we are intended to keep to ourselves. We do not exist for us, but to share what we have been given with others. As these have been breathed into us, we need to exhale these gifts into the world.

We do not exist for us…we exist to share the grace and love so freely given to us all…we breathe it in, it changes us, it makes us new and then we share it – we exhale. Amen.

Questions For God

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

Questions concept

Several years ago, Christian author Lee Strobel commissioned a national survey asking people what question they’d ask God if they could only ask one thing. The Number One response was: “Why is there suffering in the world?” We see mass shootings, natural disasters and other tragedies every day on the news. Countless innocent people suffer because of these events. We see the pain and anguish that people go through and ask the question, “Why would God allow this to happen?”   These tragic events are on top of the everyday pain and suffering being experienced in individual lives – including mine and yours. We experience abuse, broken relationships, betrayal, sorrow, injuries, disappointment, heartache, illness and death. And perhaps you’ve been asking the questions, “Why? Why me? Why now?” These questions are nothing new. They have been asked by people for thousands of years. One of the most famous explorations of suffering can be found in the Book of Job.

To summarize, Job, although he was a good man, lost it all. He refused to blame God, maintained his innocence, lamented the fact that there was no venue for him to question God about the undeserved suffering, was scolded by God for presuming to understand God’s workings, and eventually was restored by God. Still, the story of Job leaves us with some unanswered questions.  If we read the whole book of Job, of course, we find that, while God does eventually respond to Job, God never answers Job’s questions.  Isn’t that how it is for us with many of the questions we have for God? God’s simply not going to answer them. That leaves us with two possible conclusions: Either there are no answers or Someone higher than us knows the answers. If the latter is the case, then we must proceed through life on basis of faith in that Someone.
In the end, perhaps that’s what we should expect from our questions for God — not answers, but a dialogue with life and the experience of God’s presence in our daily lives.  Job had a question for God and got no answer. Yet, he remained convinced that God was real, and, eventually, his questions put him in a position to be confronted — and helped — by God. Our questions can do as much for us.

When Job went through his trials, he questioned, he felt victimized. One thing he never did is reject God. Job kept his focus on the one thing that can never be taken away – his relationship with God. We must do the same. Remember these words from Romans, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we go through times of suffering, our question should not be Job’s question “God, why are You doing this to me?” but rather “God, see what is happening to me. Can You help me?” We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted. Amen.