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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Decision

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 1, 2012.  The scripture is Matthew 2:1-12.

Those of you who were paying attention during the reading of the gospel lesson may have thought, “Hey, wait a minute.  We just heard a sermon on that passage two weeks ago.”  Well, you’re right.  This is the same passage I preached on when we talked about King Herod.  Even though we’re looking at the same scripture today, we’re going to look at it in a different way.  Instead of looking at this from the perspective of King Herod, we’re going to look at it from the perspective of the magi, the wise men.

What you call them depends on your tradition and what version of the Bible you use.  The King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version refer to them as “wise men.”  The New American Standard Version calls them “magi,” as do Today’s International Version and the Common English Version.  The Message version refers to them as “scholars.”  It all amounts to the same thing.  They were learned scholars, the scientists of their day.  As such, they were very well respected as wise people.

We don’t know how many wise men there actually were.  Tradition tells us there were three of them, but the Bible never actually says that.  They gave him three gifts, which is probably where the tradition of three wise men comes from, but we don’t really have any idea how many there were.  There could have been two or there could have been twenty-two.  We have no way to know.

These wise men, these scientists, studied the movement of the stars.  They had also studied the ancient prophecies of when the Messiah, the Savior of the Jews, was supposed to come.  They saw a star rise, and they concluded this was the sign that said the Messiah had been born.  So, they set out to find the king and worship him.

We often think of them as having gone to Herod to ask him where the king was, but the Bible does not actually say that.  What the Bible says is that the wise men came to Jerusalem and started asking around.  That makes more sense, when we think about it.  They knew the king would not be happy to hear that a new king had been born, so the last thing they’d have wanted to do is go up to King Herod and ask him about it.  Apparently, though, the wise men asked enough people that word got back to Herod somehow.  So, he sends for them, sends them to Bethlehem, and tells them to find the king and report back to him.

They go to Bethlehem and find Jesus with Mary.  Note that poor old Joseph gets left out again—the Bible does not say they found Jesus with Mary and Joseph, just that they found Jesus with Mary.  They bow down and worship, they give their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they go back to their own country by another road.

When you think about it, this is really kind of a strange episode.  We have no idea who these “wise men” actually were.  We don’t know where they came from, other than “the east.”  We never hear of them again.  The only role they seem to play, other than giving Jesus and Mary some gifts, is to tip off Herod that a new king has been born, which of course leads Herod to kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old or younger.

It’s also interesting, I think, to note that the wise men did not receive word of the birth of Jesus from an angel.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, they all heard about this from an angel.  The wise men did not.  They figured it out for themselves.  The only role any angel might play is when the wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and even the Bible does not say an angel was involved.  It just says the wise men were warned in a dream.  It does not say who warned them.

As we’ve looked at the characters of the Christmas story, one of the questions we’ve asked is why God would’ve chosen to have the Savior of the world come to earth in this way.  Each time we do that, I say that we can never really understand the mind of God.  That’s true, of course, but some of you may be wondering, “Well, then why are we talking about it?  If there’s no way to really understand it, then what’s the point of trying?”

Well, I think that at least part of the point is that we come to God in a lot of ways.  Some of us were born into the faith, and have always believed in God, and that’s wonderful.  Some of us had some sort of life-changing event that brought us to God, and that’s wonderful, too.  Some of us received our faith from family or friends, and that’s also wonderful.  Maybe some of us even heard from an angel, and that would be awesome.

No matter how we come to faith, though, there comes a point where we think, “Does this really make sense?  Do these things that I believe, these things that I’ve been taught, these things that I’ve read about or heard about, do they really make sense to me?  Is all this stuff about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and all that, does that really hold up when we think about it?  Or is this just a bunch of stories, a bunch of stuff we believe because it makes us feel good, or because we’re supposed to believe it, or because it’s just easier to go along with it than to get into an argument about it?”

It’s okay to ask those questions.  I think we all do ask them at some point in our lives.  Some of us may be asking them now.  That’s fine.  If we are truly made in the image of God, then there has to be some way in which God does make sense to us.  If there’s no way that God makes sense to us, then we’d have to conclude that God is totally arbitrary, and who’d want to follow a God like that?  How could we ever truly have faith in a God who made no sense to us, who acted in a completely arbitrary fashion?  How could we put our trust in a God like that?  How could we love a God like that?

This is where science comes into the picture.  Sometimes people talk about science and religion as if they were opposed to one another, but that’s not true and it should not be true.  A God who could not stand up to scientific scrutiny would be no God at all.  God does not fear a search for truth.  God is truth.

Here’s the thing, though.  We will never come up with conclusive, one hundred percent, undeniable proof that God exists, that Jesus is the Savior, that the Holy Spirit can act in our lives, or anything else.  No matter what evidence is uncovered, no matter what arguments are made, our minds can always come up with a way to doubt and to explain things away if that’s our goal.  After all, the Bible tells us that even after Jesus returned from the dead and appeared to the disciples, some of them still doubted.  God has chosen not to give us conclusive one hundred percent, undeniable proof.  Instead, God gives us the choice.  We can choose to believe, or we can choose not to believe.  God leaves it up to us.

That’s where the wise men, the scientists of their day, come into it.  No angel came to tell them about the birth of the Messiah.  They did not receive a divine message.  Instead, they studied.  They studied everything available to them.  They looked at all the evidence they had.  After they did that, they came to the conclusion that this star they had seen was a sign that the Messiah, the savior, the king, had been born.

Then, though, they came to a fork in the road.  They had to make a decision.  They had to make a choice.  They had evidence, they had reached a conclusion, but they did not have one hundred percent certainty.  So, they had to decide.  Were they going to act on this conclusion?  We’re they going to go out and search for the new king?  Were they going to take their treasures, go off on a long trip, and worship the king who had been born?  Or, were they going to look for more evidence, look for confirmation, wait until they knew for sure before they did anything?

You know, these wise men, these scientists, were probably not the only wise men that were around back then.  There’d have to have been others, don’t you think?  There have to have been other people who studied the stars, who studied the prophecies, who saw the same star these wise men saw.  We don’t hear anything about them.  We only hear about the wise men who acted.  Those other wise men saw the same things, but they did nothing about it.  They did not have enough faith to act on what they saw.  They wanted more.  They wanted certainty.  They either did not have faith, or they did not have the courage to act on their faith.  Either way, they missed out.

We all need to think about our beliefs.  We all need to examine what we believe and why we believe it.  While we’ll never understand everything about God, there needs to be an extent to which God makes sense to us.  God does not mind our questions.  God welcomes our questions.  Again, a God who could not stand up to our scrutiny would be no God at all.

Ultimately, though, we have to recognize that God did not create a world in which we get a hundred percent certainty.  That means we have to make a choice.  After we ask our questions, after we look at the evidence, we have to make a decision about what we believe.  Then, we have to have the courage and the faith to act on that decision.

God decided to give us that choice.  The wise men made their choice, and they’re still remembered two thousand years later.  Others made a different choice, and they’ve been forgotten.

As we start a new year, what will we choose?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Quotes From My Favorite Author

            Those of you who have “liked” the Wheatland Parish facebook page (and really, if you haven’t, you should) have seen a feature called, “Thought for the Day.”  This is a quote which may or may not have to do with faith, but that has to do with life itself.  One of the reasons we have this feature is simply that I like quotes.  I think there can be a lot of wisdom found in them. 

Sometimes, I think of something that I consider might be quote-worthy as well.  When I do, I put it on facebook, sometimes on the parish page, but more often just on my personal page.  I thought, since 2011 is coming to an end, that I would list some of my favorite quotes from myself over the last year.

--It is amazing how many people are certain they know what God’s political views are.  It is also amazing how those same people always seem to conclude that God’s political views are identical to their own.

--Sometimes, we just need to go in and stir the pot a little.

--Being in a really good mood for no particular reason that you’re aware of is an incredible gift from God.

--What most of us say we want is a leader who will lead us to take bold strides.  What most of us really want, however, is a leader who will lead us to believe we’re taking bold strides when we’re actually taking baby steps.

--One of the fascinating things about human beings is the many and varied things that get us fired up.

--Spending time with someone who is dying tends to help one gain perspective for a while.

--I refuse to re-post things, even things I agree with, just because someone on facebook tells me to.  Re-post this if you agree.

--Sometimes, for better or worse, you just have to make a decision, go with it, and move on.

--Unfortunately, things don’t happen just because we wish they would, even when we wish really, really hard.

--Problems often seem much easier to deal with when we can blame them on someone else.

--If you’re not getting some enjoyment and satisfaction out of life, you’re not doing it right.

--I wonder sometimes what compels us to look down on other people just because they disagree with us.

--The world can be a strange place.  Fortunately, it can also be a wonderful place.

--At some point, the question becomes not so much who caused the problem, but who can help find a solution.

--No matter how much we try to justify our stupid, it’s still stupid.

--Winds of around 20-30 miles per hour today.  This is what around here we call “a calm day”.

--Sometimes, we all want what’s best, but just honestly disagree about what that is or how to go about getting it.

--It is more important to love people than to win arguments with them.

--When do the Deer and the Antelope play, and what’s the point spread?

--If it seems like things aren't going the way they should be, and you can't get what you want no matter what you do, consider the possibility that God may be trying to keep you from making a big mistake.

--Sometimes you have to step right in the middle of it just to get everyone to admit that it’s there.

--If we could somehow get ourselves to stop fighting God and just get out of the way, we would truly be astonished at what would happen.

--One advantage cold has over snow is that you don’t have to shovel cold.

--Do we reason our way to a conclusion or conclude our way to a reason?

--Knowing when to make a decision can be as important as knowing what decision to make.

            I hope you’ve enjoyed these quotes.  Have a happy new year!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not Just Today

This is the text of the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, December 25.  The text is Luke 2:1-20.

            We’ve been talking about the various characters of the Christmas story.  We talked about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.  We talked about Mary and about Joseph.  We’ve been noting how often God seems to call ordinary people on ordinary days, and asks them to do extraordinary things.  Today, on the day we celebrate the birth of the Savior we take a look at the shepherds and their role in the Christmas story.
            If you want to get an idea of who the shepherds were, think of some of the cowboys who were in this country in the first part of the twentieth century.  I don’t mean the Hollywood version of cowboys, I mean the real thing.  I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a few people who, when they were young, were involved in some of that, and I’ve heard their stories.  They have quite the stories to tell.
            Contradicting what Hollywood says, it was not a glamorous life.  It was a very hard life.  You were out in the elements constantly, no matter what those elements were.  In the summer, it was high heat and humidity.  In the winter, it was bitter cold and snowstorms.  There was everything in-between as well.  You found shelter whenever and wherever you could.  You did not get paid very much.  You were kind of looked down on by the higher-ups in society.  It was not the kind of life very many people actually aspired to live.
            That’s pretty much who the shepherds were, back in Jesus’ time.  They were better than the beggars—at least they were working for a living—but they were pretty much on the bottom rung of that part of society that was employed.  Those are the people to whom God chose to send an angel.  Those are the people God chose to be the first ones to know about the birth of the Savior.
            I’m sure that, on that first Christmas night, the last thing these shepherds expected was that they’d see an angel.  I don’t doubt they believed in angels.  Angels show up quite a few times in the Old Testament, and they’d have heard all those stories.  The thing is, though, that these shepherds knew they were considered low-class people.  They might have believed that angels could appear to people, but if they ever thought about it, they probably thought they were the last people on earth God would send angel to.
            Then, as they’re doing their jobs one night, there’s an angel in their midst.  We don’t know if this was Gabriel again.  The Bible just says it was an angel.  Once again, just as every other time in the Christmas story, the shepherds are terrified.  The angel tells them not to be afraid.  Then the angel says those words that many of have heard so often, the words we hear every time we watch the Charlie Brown Christmas show.  “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
            “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”
            And that’s it.  That’s all the Bible says about the angels coming to the shepherds.  Do you think it really happened exactly that way?  I mean, I’m not saying the Bible is wrong or anything, but think about it.  If you read the words the angel said, it takes about thirty seconds.  If you allow some time for the appearance and disappearance of the angel and the heavenly host, it takes about a minute.
            Was that really it?  Did the angel say some more stuff that’s not recorded?  Did the heavenly host have more to say, too?  Or did this all really just take a minute or less?  Did the angel and the heavenly host just pop in, say their bits, and leave?
            If so, try to imagine how you’d feel if you were those shepherds.  You’d think you’d been seeing things.  You’d wonder if you’d fallen asleep and dreamed that.  You’d be hesitant to even say anything to the others.  You’d be afraid they might think you’d gone nuts if you even started talking about seeing an angel, much less a heavenly host.
            You look around at the others, and you notice everyone else kind of doing the same thing.  They all have strange looks on their faces.  Finally, someone says, “Hey, did you guys see something?”
            You go, “Well, uh, maybe.  What kind of something?”
            “Well, I don’t know, just sort of like, well, a person, kind of, but not exactly.  It was sort of like they had this light around them.”
            “You mean, like an angel?”
            “Well, now I didn’t say an angel, but now that you mention it, yeah, sort of.  I mean, I’m not saying it was an angel, you know.  I’m just saying that, now that you’ve put that idea in my head, it did kind of look like an angel, in a way.  You know?”
            You go on like that for a while, and eventually everyone admits that they saw the same thing.  They all heard the same thing, too.  So, you all decide you’re going to go down to Bethlehem and see what the angel was talking about.  When you get there, there it all is, just like the angel said.  There’s Mary, and there’s Joseph, and there’s the baby, this baby who’s going to be the Messiah, the Savior.  In fact, that’s not really accurate.  The angel did not say the child is going to be the Savior, the angel said the child already is the Savior, even though he’s still a baby.  The angel did not tell the shepherds about something that was going to happen someday.  The angel told them about something that was happening right now, in their presence.
            The shepherds told everyone there what had happened, about the angel and the heavenly host and all that.  Everyone was amazed, as of course you would be.  Then, we’re told, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
            We never hear about these shepherds again in the Bible.  We don’t know what happened to them.  We don’t know what they did.  Again, though, try to imagine yourself as one of them. You’ve seen the angel.  You’ve seen a great company of the heavenly host.  You’ve seen the baby who is the Savior.
            You think things would just go back to normal after that?  I don’t.  Now, they may have stayed shepherds.  The prospects for career advancement for a shepherd were not that great back then, and they still had to make a living.  I don’t think they just went about their business, though.  Listen again to what the scripture says.  It says “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
            I don’t think that’s something the shepherds just did that night.  I think it’s something the shepherds did the rest of their lives.  I think they told this story every chance they got.  I think they glorified and praised God every time they could.  Every time they saw someone, they talked about this.  When they were by themselves, they talked about it to each other.  I think they re-lived this night and glorified and praised God every day that they remained on this earth.  That might even be how Luke knew about the story and included it in his gospel.  If so, that would make these ordinary, low-class people among the most important people who ever lived.
            There’s a lesson there for all of us, I think.  What those shepherds did is what all of us are supposed to do.  No matter what we do for a living, no matter what our job is, even if we don’t have a job at all, this is what we’re supposed to do.  As we go about our lives, we’re supposed to glorify and praise God always.  We’re supposed to talk about the Savior every chance we get.  We’re supposed to spread the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ all our lives, for whatever time we have left on this earth.
            Do we do that?  For most of us, the answer is no.  It is for me.  I don’t do nearly as good a job of glorifying and praising God as I should.  I’ll do it in church.  I’ll do it at a gathering where a prayer is expected.  But just as I go about my everyday life?  Not very often.  That’s probably true of a lot of us.
            The point is not to make anyone to feel guilty.  The point is that we need to change.  That’s the point of the whole Christmas story, really.  We need to change.  That’s part of why Jesus came to earth.  We need to change.  Jesus brought a message that said we need to change, that we need to turn away from our sins, that we need to glorify and praise God always.  It’s a message that was true two thousand years ago, and it’s a message that’s still true today.
            Any time is a good time to make that change.  There could be no better day, though, than this day, Christmas Day.  On this day, we are doing what the shepherds did.  We’re celebrating the birth of the Savior.  Let’s not stop with today.  Let’s do what the shepherds did tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.  Let’s glorify and praise God every day of our lives.  Let’s spread the message of the Savior every chance we get, as long as we’re on this earth.

Today Is Your Birthday (Part 2)

            Last time, I wrote about my birthday.  Well, today is my dad’s birthday.  My father, Larry Adel, is eighty-nine years old.

            For an eighty-nine year old, he does quite well.  He and my mom still live in their own home.  Dad still helps mow the lawn and even helps shovel the snow if it’s not too deep.  He still grows tomatoes in the back yard.  We go see them when we can, and we help him when we can, and do their neighbors.  The truth is, though, that Dad only wants so much help.  He does things for himself as much as he can, and he intends to do that for as long as he can.

            Still, you don’t get to eighty-nine without having some physical problems.  Dad struggles to get out of his chair now, and he walks with a cane.  He can’t travel the way he used to; going to Mitchell (about forty-five miles away) is about as much as he can do.  He is fighting old age as hard as he can, but of course it’s not a fair fight.  For all of us, old age always wins in the end.

            I watch him do things with a mixture of admiration and concern.  The admiration is that, even though he knows he can’t beat old age, he is going to give in to it as slowly and as grudgingly as he can.  The concern, of course, is that he’s going to overdo things sometime, and that something serious is going to happen.

            I’m not going to try to make him stop, though.  I doubt if I could succeed even if I tried.  His mind is still sharp (as is my mom’s), and so far he’s been pretty good about knowing that he can only push so far and no farther.  He says, and there’s truth in it, that he’s seen too many people stop pushing, and within months they can no longer do anything.  He’s not about to let that happen to him. 

Besides, it’s true that something serious could happen, but something serious could also happen while he’s just sitting in his chair watching TV.  Also, we know that at some point, something serious is going to happen no matter what he does, just as it’s going to happen to all of us some day.  When it does, we’ll have to deal with it, just as everyone else has to do and has done for thousands of years.  Dad has earned the right to live his life the way he wants to live it, and I’m not going to try to interfere with that.

So, happy birthday, Dad.  Good luck to you in your fight against old age.  I hope you can keep fighting for a long time yet. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

More Than A Feeling

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Saturday, December 24, 2011.  The scripture is Luke 2:1-20.

            One of the popular Christmas songs is “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  That’s how a lot of people think of Christmas.  We have the beautiful decorations, we have the songs, we have the programs, we have the presents, we have the parties, we have the time spent with family and friends.  There are all kinds of things that happen at this time of year that really make us feel good.
            Now, this is not going to be a complaint about the commercialization of Christmas, because for a lot of us one of the things that makes Christmas special is this.  The Christmas Eve service.  A lot of us make a special point of coming to this service.  It’s part of what makes Christmas the most wonderful time of the year.
            It’s okay to enjoy the Christmas season and all the things that come with it.  Even the secular things are fine, as long as we keep them in their place.  The thing is, though, that in a couple of weeks, we’re going to move on from Christmas.  We’re going to “get back to normal.”
The reason we’re going to do that is not because we’re bad or evil or anything.  It’s because we’ve been looking at Christmas the wrong way.  We look at it as a season, the Christmas season.  We look at it as something that’s here for a little while, gives us a good feeling, and then goes away.  Christmas is not supposed to be just about a good feeling.  Christmas is not supposed to be a just season.  Christmas is not supposed to be just a time of year.
In our Sunday services, we’ve been talking about the various characters in the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph and all the rest.  The thing that all these people had in common is that for each of them, the birth of the Savior was a life-changing event.  For each of them, the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it were something that changed their lives forever. 
That’s what Christmas is supposed to be for each of us.  It’s okay to have good feelings, but Christmas is supposed to be more than a feeling.  Christmas is not supposed to be something we celebrate for a little while, and then move on from.  Our lives are not supposed to get back to normal.  Christmas is supposed to be a life-changing event.  Once we celebrate Christmas, our lives are never supposed to be the same again.  If Christmas does not change us in some way, we’ve missed out on what Christmas really is.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, “Well, that all sounds good, and it sounds like the sort of thing we expect a pastor to say, but how do we actually do that?  I mean, we do have to get on with our lives, don’t we?  I still have to make a living.  I still have bills to pay.  How can we avoid having our lives get back to normal?”
Well, let’s be clear what we’re talking about here.  I’m not saying everyone here should quit their jobs and go become foreign missionaries or something.  Not that it would be a bad thing to do that, but God does not ask or expect everyone to do that.  After all, even Mary and Joseph eventually went back home.  Joseph went back to his carpentry work.  Mary went back to taking care of the home and doing the things she did.  That’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about not getting back to normal, but having our lives changed.
When we talk about Christmas being a life-changing experience, what we’re talking about is an attitude.  It has to do with feelings, but it’s more than a feeling.  We’re talking about how we go about living our lives.  We’re talking about, no matter what we’re doing, living our lives with an awareness of the presence of God.  We’re talking about living our lives in the knowledge of our salvation through our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior.
What we’re talking about, really, is having our faith be a part of everything we do.  We’re talking about our belief in Jesus influencing our every thought, our every word, our every action.  We’re talking about our faith in Christ changing the way we drive a truck.  We’re talking about our faith in Christ changing the way we work in an office.  We’re talking about our faith in Christ changing the way we watch the high school basketball team.  We’re talking about our faith in Christ affecting every single thing we do.
At this point, some of you may think I’m exaggerating.  You may be thinking, “Now, how in the world can our faith in Christ change the way we do these mundane, everyday things?”  When we think about it, though, these mundane, everyday things are the first things our faith in Christ should change.  If our faith in Christ cannot even change the simple, everyday things we do, how is it ever going to change the big things in our lives?
Our faith in Christ needs to change the way we look at life.  It needs to change the way we interact with others.  It needs to make us treat people better.  It needs to make us kinder and more tolerant of people.  It needs to make us notice when people are hurting, and do things to help them.  Those are things we need to do every day, no matter what our job is or even if we don’t have a job.
When we look at Christmas as just a season, as something that gives us a good feeling for a while and then goes away, we’re missing out.  We’re cheating ourselves.  We’re settling for temporary happiness when we could be gaining eternal life.
            Tomorrow is Christmas Day.  I hope each of us has a very happy Christmas.  I hope, though, that for each of us, Christmas is more than just a happy feeling.  I hope this Christmas will lead to a new attitude of faith and hope for each one of us.  I hope that attitude and faith will last longer than just through December 25th.  I hope that this year, for each one of us, Christmas truly will be a life-changing experience.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Today Is Your Birthday

            Actually, today is my birthday.  I am now fifty-three years old.
            I’m not sure what a fifty-three-year-old is supposed to feel like, but I don’t feel like one.  My health remains good.  My energy level is still good.  I still have all my hair, and there’s still a good share of it that has not turned grey.  I need a little more rest than I used to, but not all that much more.  I have to say that, overall, things are pretty good.
            Sometimes, people are asked if they’d like to be young again.  Well, you can check with me again in a few years, but right now, the answer is no.  I’m actually quite a bit happier now than I was when I was young.  I’ve overcome my shyness to a large extent, and I’m much more at ease with people than I used to be.  I have an incredible wife now, one whom I cannot imagine living without.  There are all kinds of ways in which my life is much better than it was when I was young.
            That goes for my work as well.  I was not unhappy as a lawyer, but I am much happier as a pastor.  I feel now like I am doing the work I am supposed to do, the work God created me to do.  That’s not to say that I do it perfectly, of course.  I make plenty of mistakes.  Still, I feel that God wants me to be a pastor, and that as long as I keep praying and keep trying to get better, God will help me get better.
            I have no idea why God has blessed me this much.  I also don’t know what the future may hold.  I would like to remain a pastor the rest of my life.  I’d like to stay in the Wheatland Parish the rest of my life, too, although I know that in the United Methodist system, that’s pretty unlikely.  God, however, may have a different plan for me.  Six years ago, I had no idea I’d be where I am or that I’d be doing what I’m doing now.  Six years from now, who knows where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing?
            The answer to the above question, of course, is God.  God knows where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing.  My job is to stay open to going where God leads me and doing what God wants me to do.  That’s not always easy, especially when I think about how happy I am now.  Still, every time God has led me somewhere, it’s been to something better.
            Coming out of law school, I went to Pierre.  I made a lot of good friends, I made strides toward overcoming my shyness, and I met and married my wife.  I was very happy there and could see myself spending the rest of my life there.
            God, however, had a different plan, and led us to Wessington Springs.  I made a lot of good friends there and got involved in the community and in the church.  I was very happy there and could see myself spending the rest of my life there.
            God, however, had a different plan, and led me to the ministry.  We moved to The ARK in North Sioux City.  I made a lot of good friends there, and we did a lot of good things.  I was very happy there, too.  I knew I was unlikely to spend the rest of my life there, but I was hoping to spend many years there and could have been very happy doing so.
            God, however, had a different plan, and led us to the Wheatland Parish.  We’ve only been here six months, but we’ve already made a lot of good friends here.  We’ve got a lot of good things started in all three churches.  We’re very happy here.  As I said above, I could see myself spending the rest of my life here, although I know that’s very unlikely.
            The point is that, whatever the future holds, God is in it.  Every time I’ve thought I had a plan for my life, God has had a different plan, and a better plan.  I see no reason that should change.  So, on my birthday, my biggest birthday wish is that I continue to let God worry about the future, and that I remain open to following God’s plan.  God has never let me down yet, and I see no reason to think God will do so in the future.

Monday, December 19, 2011


The following appeared in the December issue of the Wheatland Parish newsletter:

            In some ways, December is the busiest month of the year.  There’s Christmas Day, of course, but in many ways Christmas is just a small part of it.  We have Advent, we have Christmas decorating, we have the start of high school basketball, we have wrestling, we have Christmas cards to write, we have Christmas concerts, we have Sunday School programs, we have Christmas parties, we have parades, we have Christmas shopping, we have travel, we have all sorts of things that we try to cram into the month of December.  If we’re in school, we have semester tests as well.  Then, just when we think it’s all over, here comes New Year’s Eve.

            It can be exhausting.  Have you ever heard someone say, “I’ll be so glad when Christmas is over”?  I have.  I hear it every year.  I’ll bet you do, too.  Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.

            When did it get that way?  I don’t remember it being that way when I was a kid.  It seemed like there was plenty of time to get everything done in December back then.  Were my parents feeling this harried and hurried, and I just didn’t notice?

            Why did it get that way?  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why don’t we stretch things out a little bit?  There’s nothing that says we have to wait until December to do all our shopping.  There’s nothing that says we couldn’t have a party in January.  There’s no reason we can’t have family gatherings at other times of the year.  Why do we drive ourselves nuts trying to do it all in December?

            Don’t get me wrong here.  This is not one of those “put Christ back into Christmas” essays.  Everyone reading this newsletter knows the true meaning of Christmas, and I’m not trying to give you a lecture about it.  It seems to me, though, that somewhere along the line the celebration of the birth of the Savior got out of hand.  It’s like a wedding that starts out as a simple affair and then just keeps growing and growing until it becomes such an extravaganza that no one’s happy and the couple just wants run away and elope.

            I think God probably appreciates that we want to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  I also think, though, that God does not want us to run ourselves so ragged that we all wind up cranky and irritable and just want all the frenzy to be over with.  It doesn’t help us, it doesn’t help the people we come in contact with, and when you think about it, it’s really not much of a way to honor Christ.

            So, when you’re planning your activities this December, remember to plan some time to relax and enjoy the season.  We don’t have to do it all in December.  There are eleven other months to do things in.   A lot of us don’t mind if we don’t get your Christmas card until January.  In fact, some of us even like it that way.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Warning of Herod

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish December 18, 2011.  The scripture is Matthew 2:1-23.

            As we approach Christmas, we’ve been talking about the various characters in the Christmas story.  We started with Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer.  Then we talked about Mary and Joseph.  The thing about a good story, though, is that it always has to have a villain, and that’s true of the Christmas story, too.  Today, we’re going to talk about the villain, King Herod.
            Herod is not someone we want to talk about in the Christmas story.  In the traditional Sunday school Christmas pageants, he’s often left out entirely.  He’s certainly not part of anybody’s nativity scene.  None of the advent or Christmas lectionary readings talk about Herod.  The only time he gets in at all is on Epiphany Sunday, and then the focus is usually on the wise men, not on Herod.  At Christmas, we want to talk about the good stuff, about angels and shepherds and the baby in the manger.  That’s understandable, but as we’ve said before, everything in the Bible is there for some reason.  So let’s look at Herod and think about why this is part of the Christmas story.
            Now, Herod was a king in some ways, and in other ways he was not.  This area, Judea, was still under the control of the Roman Empire, and so Herod could only be king as long as the emperor said so.  Still, as long as the empire could collect taxes from Judea and as long as Judea was not causing problems for the emperor, the emperor really did not care very much what Herod did.  So, in a lot of ways, Herod was pretty much in control there.  In that sense, he really was pretty much the king.
            At the time Jesus was born, Herod was about seventy years old.  Given how long people lived at that time, he was considered a pretty old man.  He’d been in power for over thirty years.  A lot of people in Judea could not remember a time when Herod had not been the king.  Herod himself probably had a hard time thinking of himself as anything but the king.  He was used to being king, he liked being king, and he was going to stay king any way he could.  Plus, Herod had three sons whom he hoped would take over after he died.
            Another fact we need to remember when we look at this story is that the political history of Judea was not all that stable at the time.  The Romans had only ruled Judea for about sixty years.  The people of Israel did not like the fact that they were ruled by Rome.  They wanted independence, and every once in a while there’d be a rebellion against the empire.  These were all things that Herod knew very well.
            Then, too, the position of king was not always the safest one to hold.  There were always people out to take over, and the way they’d usually try to do that was by killing the king.  When you were king, you always had to watch your back.  You had to be careful who you trusted, and you had to always be on the lookout for people plotting against you.
            When we think about all that, Herod’s actions in the Christmas story become more understandable.  Not okay, not excusable, but understandable.  You’ve got a king who cannot envision himself not being king.  You’ve got a king who knows there are very few people he can trust.  You’ve got a king who knows there are always people trying to get him out of the way and take away his throne and his power.
            So, imagine you’re King Herod.  You’re sitting there, minding your own business one day, and these “wise men”, these astrologers, come by.  They tell you there’s someone who’s been born to be king, and he’s some place nearby, and they want to come and worship him.  People back then tended to buy in to signs and stars and such, so this would not have seemed like a particularly strange story.  You’d tend to believe it.  So, how would you react?  What would you do?
            Our scripture says that Herod was frightened.  I’m thinking he was near panic.  Everything he’d worked for all his life was being threatened.  He does what to him seemed like the logical thing.  He calls together his advisers and finds out where, in prophecy, the king is to be born.  Then, he sends the wise men to that town, Bethlehem, tells them to go look for the new king there, and to let him know exactly where this king is when they find him.
            As you know, the wise men found Jesus, but did not report back to Herod.  Herod eventually found out about that and got even more panicky.  So he had all the children in Bethlehem two years old or under killed.
            With all this, we come back to the question:  why is this part of the Christmas story?  You know, Herod died not too long after the events described in the Bible took place.  If the wise men had not gone to see him when they did, he might never have known about Jesus at all.  The children in Bethlehem would not have been killed and Joseph would not have had to take Mary and Jesus and run to Egypt.  Things would have been a lot easier for everybody.
            The Bible tells us this was to fulfill Old Testament prophecies, but that’s really not an answer.  Could God not have fulfilled these prophecies some other way?  In fact, God could have not had these prophecies be made at all.  If these prophecies came from God, then all these things have to have been part of God’s plan from the beginning.  We assume that God never does things without a reason.  I said at the beginning that every good story needs a villain, and that’s true, but God surely had more of a reason than just giving us a good story.  What would the reason be for this?
            Well, any time we start to think about God’s reasons for doing things, we’re speculating.  None of us can every fully understand the mind of God.  As I thought about it, though, I think I may know at least part of the answer.
            All the other main characters in the Christmas story are examples of people with great faith.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, the shepherds, the wise men, all of them.  They all were told by God what to do, and they did it, even though they did not fully understand why.  They are wonderful examples for us.  They appeal to the good in all of us.  They give us role models.  We should all aspire to have as much faith as those people did.
            We aspire to that faith, but that does not mean we have it, or even that we can relate to it.  Herod, though, is something else.  Herod appeals to the dark side of our nature, and believe me, we all have that dark side.  We all want what we want and we all want to keep it once we get it.  We all want to keep control of our lives and control of the things around us.  When someone comes along and threatens all that, when someone comes along and upsets the apple cart, we usually don’t like that very much.  We tend to resist it.  Our response often is to do everything we can to keep things the way they are, to keep things the way we like them, and to fight against anyone or anything that changes that.
I think part of the reason Herod is in this story is to be a warning for each of us.  In recent sermons, I’ve asked you to think about how it would have felt to have been one of the characters in the Christmas story.  I’ve asked you to think about what it would have been like to have been someone like Mary, or Joseph.  That’s a good thing to do, but it’s not really possible.  None of us can really imagine what it would be like to be involved in the virgin birth of the Son of God.  That’s something that’s so beyond our experience that we really cannot understand it.
I think it’s a lot easier to imagine ourselves as Herod.  I think it’s a lot easier for us to imagine having a fairly comfortable way of life, and then having that way of life be threatened.  I think it’s a lot easier for us to imagine having worked all our lives for something, and then hearing about someone who was going to take it all away.  I think it’s a lot easier for us to imagine how we’d react if we were Herod than it is for us to imagine how we’d react if we were Mary or Joseph.
Herod is there as a warning for us.  Herod is there to remind us that what’s important in life is not to accumulate power for ourselves.  What’s important in life is not to accumulate wealth.  What’s important in life is not to get our way.  What’s important in life is not to have things go the way we want them to go.  When we get that wrong, we can find ourselves fighting against things that are good.  We can find ourselves fighting against what’s right.  We can even find ourselves fighting against God.
In one week, it will be Christmas.  We’ll celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We’ll talk about Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds, and the wise men.  That’s fine.  But we need to talk about Herod, too.  Herod may be the villain, but there’s a little bit of Herod in each one of us, including me.  Let’s pray that God forgive us for that, and help us overcome it.  Let’s pray for God to help each one of us be someone who worships the Savior, rather than someone who fights him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Defending Christmas

This blog post is a tradition, having appeared every year at about this time since all the way back in 2009 at my prior blog.

            We are just over a week away from Christmas Day.  Among other things, that means it’s the time of year for pastors to complain about the secularization of Christmas.

            There are secular aspects to Christmas, of course.  There always have been.  Some of them are fine.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with giving and receiving presents, as long as you don’t go overboard about it.  There’s nothing wrong with decorating trees and putting up Christmas lights.  In fact, I enjoy looking at them.   

The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is not because Jesus was actually born on that date—we don’t know the actual day on which Jesus was born, although there are various theories.  The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is that it was a time when there were already secular celebrations at that time, centering on the winter solstice.  It might be more accurate, then, to say that followers of Jesus have been trying to Christianize a secular holiday rather than the other way around.

            Therefore, I don’t think Christians need to feel like they’re trying to defend Jesus in some sort of war on Christmas.  In fact, the idea of Christians fighting a war over the birth of the Prince of Peace seems like a contradiction in terms.  All we need to do, as Christians, is make clear what it is that we are celebrating, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

            Let others wish us a “happy holiday”; we can still wish them a merry Christmas.  If some don’t want a nativity scene at the courthouse, we can still put one in our front yard.  More than three-fourths of Americans claim to be Christians.  If three-fourths of the houses in this country had nativity scenes in their yards, there’d be no need for one on public property.  In fact, we’d probably make more of an impact that way.

            We don’t need to get mad at people who want to secularize Christmas.  What we need to do is calmly, persistently, and lovingly make sure people know that, as Christians, we are celebrating the birth of Christ.  Then, in that same way, we need to make sure people know who Jesus is, why we worship him, and why others should worship him, too.  If we do that, our Lord and Savior will do the rest.

Monday, December 12, 2011

God and the Denver Broncos

            The Denver Broncos won their football game Sunday, defeating the Chicago Bears 13-10 in overtime.  The Broncos won only one of their first five games, but have now won seven of their last eight.

            This change in fortunes coincided with a change in starting quarterbacks, as Kyle Orton was benched in favor of Tim Tebow.  Tebow makes no secret of his Christian faith.  He states it clearly in every interview and public statement he makes.  He also assumes a posture of prayer after every touchdown, a posture which has become known as “Tebowing” and has been widely imitated, sometimes mockingly, sometimes sincerely.

            The Broncos’ sudden change in fortunes, combined with Tebow’s unapologetic faith and the fact that they have won many of these games either in the last seconds or in overtime, has prompted some to ask—sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously—whether God might be helping the Broncos win.  If we assume the existence of an all-powerful God, then by definition God could help the Broncos win if God so chose.  The question, then, is not whether God could do such a thing, but whether God would do it.  In other words, would such an action be consistent with God’s character?  I think it’s an interesting question, because the way we answer it reveals our view of who God is and how God acts.

            Some people believe in what’s been called the Divine Watchmaker theory of God.  According to this belief, God created the universe and set it in motion, the way a watchmaker would create and wind up an old-fashioned watch.  Then, God sits back and watches it tick away.  God may observe what’s going on, but God does so passively, not taking any action to affect anything.  This view would not preclude God’s final judgment, but until that time happens, God will not get involved in what we do.  In this view, of course God is not helping the Denver Broncos, because God never takes any action to affect our lives.

            At the other end of the spectrum, there are people who believe that God controls, or at least affects, everything we do.  This is the belief that “everything happens for a reason,” that God controls every choice we make, including what I had for breakfast this morning and my decision to address this topic today.  In this view, of course God is making the Denver Broncos win, because God controls every aspect of our lives.

            There are also people who believe in what could be called the God of the Big Picture.  In this view, God may take actions that affect the wide sweeps of history—world wars and so on—but does not get involved in the daily lives of ordinary people.  To suggest that God would do such a thing is considered an affront to the power and majesty of God.  In this view, God would never become involved in something as trivial as the outcome of a football game.  To even suggest that God would do such a thing would be an insult to God.

            Then there are people who believe that God does, in fact, get involved in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.  In this view, God does not dictate our every action, but God does sometimes influence us to do certain things or to go in certain directions.  The times when God does this are entirely times of God’s choosing, not ours.  We can pray and ask God to act in certain ways, but God will decide when and how God will act.  In this view, God may or may not be helping Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, but it would not be inconsistent with God’s character for God to do so.

            There are obviously other views one could take of God, and various shades and degrees of these views.  This is not intended to be a comprehensive list.  As for me, I tend toward the last of those views.

            I do so because I’ve seen times when God has worked in my life.  I’ve seen the vast number of “coincidences” that all happened for me to be able to meet and marry Wanda.  I’ve seen all the things that “just happened to fall into place” for me to be able to become a pastor.  I’m convinced that God was at work in my life at these and other times, and was influencing my life to go in the direction it has.

            Can I prove that?  No.  If you take a different view of God than I do, I cannot prove that you’re wrong, nor would I say that such a view makes you a bad Christian.  I don’t claim to fully understand God.  I don’t think it’s possible for a human to fully understand God.  The reason they call it faith is because it’s something we cannot prove.  All I can do is tell you my experiences, and tell you the conclusion to which those experiences have led me.

            Does that mean God is helping Tim Tebow and the Broncos win football games?  I don’t know.  I do believe, though, that God has acted in my life.  I believe God will act in your life, too, if you ask God to do so (and, sometimes, even if you don’t).  God’s actions may not be what we want, but they will be what we need.