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Thursday, September 29, 2011

These Dreams

            The other night, I had a bad dream.  Not a nightmare, exactly, but a bad dream.  I don’t have these very often—no more than anyone else, I’m sure—but they kind of shake me up when I do.
            It seems like my bad dreams are all somewhat the same.  They involve me being back in the law office, having an important case of some sort, and messing it up, usually because I wasn’t properly prepared.  They end with the judge being mad at me, my client being mad at me, my partner being mad at me, and me feeling bad and being totally embarrassed by my incompetence.
            The odd thing is that I don’t remember having any dreams of this sort when I actually was a lawyer.  You’d think that’s when I would have had them, when messing up a case was an actual possibility.  I never did.  It’s only now, when law is a remnant of my past rather than a present reality, that I’ve been bothered occasionally by this sort of bad dream.
            I don’t know why that would be.  I do know, though, that when I was a lawyer, I sometimes had feelings of self-doubt.  I sometimes felt like I wasn’t smart enough, or wasn’t good enough, or didn’t know how to prepare well enough, to do a good job.  I don’t know whether that was true or not, but that’s how I sometimes felt.
            I rarely feel that way as a pastor.  That’s not to say I think I’m the greatest pastor in the world or that I think I know it all or anything of the sort.  I know I have a lot to learn, and I try to learn a little of it every day.  I don’t often have those same feelings of self-doubt, though, because I now firmly believe I am where God wants me to be and am doing, however imperfectly, what God wants me to do.  Knowing that gives me the confidence that God is in control and that, as long as I remain focused on serving God, God will bless my efforts, no matter how many mistakes I make.
            I did not dislike my years as a lawyer.  I was mostly happy during that time, and I see it as a necessary step in getting me where I am now.  It’s just that there’s nothing like the feeling of knowing that you are where God wants you to be and are doing what God wants you to do.  It’s a feeling I can’t explain, but one that is incredible to experience.
            I hope all of you reading this have that feeling.  If you don’t, though, I’d encourage you to think about why you don’t.  Think about whether God might want you to be doing something else with your life.  Pray about it, asking God to show you whether God has something else in mind for you.
            The feeling that I am where God wants me to be and am doing what God wants me to do is the best feeling I’ve ever had.  Compared to that, everything else seems like a bad dream.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Operators Are Standing By

            A few weeks ago, I ordered something from a well-known online company.  I waited a couple of weeks, but did not get it.  I waited another week, and still did not get it.  I did some investigating, and discovered that the company had sent it to my old address in North Sioux City, rather than my current address in Gettysburg.  The reason I had not discovered this earlier is that the notification of shipment had been sent to my old email address, which I can still access but rarely check, rather than my current, active email address.
            I sent the company an email, telling them that the product had been sent to my old address rather than my current one.  They responded, saying that they couldn’t help me because they couldn’t find my order number under my email address.  I wrote back, saying that of course they couldn’t because they’d sent the notification email to the wrong email address.  They responded again, saying that they still couldn’t help me because I hadn’t responded using the email address to which they’d sent the notification.
            Finally, I called the company.  After going through the now-standard computerized list of options and pressing some buttons on my phone, I finally got to talk to a live human being.  To his credit, the person I talked to was very helpful, and we finally go things straightened out.
            As I was going through all this, though, it occurred to me again how amazing it is that we’re allowed to talk to God directly.  All we need to do is pray.  We don’t have to go through a lot of rigamarole.  No computers are involved.  There are no middlemen whatsoever.  We can go directly to God with whatever we need to go to God about; praises, complaints, requests, thanks, whatever.  We also don’t need to worry about God responding to the wrong address.
            It is true, of course, that God does not always give us exactly what we’ve ordered.  We can be sure, though, that God has not made a mistake.  We may think our order has not been processed correctly, but that’s not true.  Something else is involved.  Maybe what we ordered was not the best thing for us.  Maybe the time is not yet right for us to get what we ordered.  There are a lot of times when we don’t understand why our order was not filled immediately, but there’s always a good reason.  When we don’t understand it, we just need to trust that God knows better than we do.
            The best thing, of course, is that when we go directly to God, we don’t have to worry about the charges showing up later on our credit card statement.  Jesus, with his death and resurrection, has paid it all for us already.
            God is always available to us.  That’s pretty awesome.  If you haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity lately, why not talk to God now?  No matter how many calls God gets, the line is always open for each of us.

Let's Get Fired Up!

This is the message in the Wheatland Parish given on Sunday, September 25, 2011.  The Scriptures for the day were Isaiah 42:5-13 and 2 Corinthians 8:16-24.

            When I was in seminary, there was a guy I knew named Allan. Allan was a little younger than I am, but he’d also come to the ministry later in life; he’d been a chiropractor before going to seminary.  The fact that we were both going to be second-career pastors gave us something in common, so we became friends.
            There was one thing, though, that Allan and I did not have in common at all.  Allan loved to work on cars.  In his spare time, Allan would restore classic cars and sell them.  He always had at least one car that he was working on, sometimes two.  He could literally talk for hours about the car he was working on at the moment and what part of it he was working on and what he’d to do to find the exact right parts for it and so forth.  He’d take pictures of the cars as he was restoring them and show them to me in their various stages of restoration.
            Now, if you know me, you know that I know nothing about cars.  I know how to drive one, and how to put gas in it, but that’s about it.  I have no real idea what happens when I turn the key that actually causes the car to run.  I just have no aptitude whatsoever for anything mechanical.
            Now, given that, you might think that when Allan started going on about his cars, I’d be bored to death.  The truth is, though, that I was not bored at all.  I loved hearing Allan talk about his cars, simply because he was so fired up about them.  His love for what he was doing, his enthusiasm for it, made it interesting to me, even though a lot of the time I did not really understand what he was talking about.  I’d get caught up in his enthusiasm, asking him how his car was going and asking to see the latest picture.  I was not just being polite; I really wanted to know.  His passion about cars was contagious, even to someone like me who normally had no particular interest in the subject.
            We talked last week about what it means to be the church.  One of the things the church needs to be is enthusiastic.  We need to be passionate about our faith.  We need to be enthusiastic about our church.  We need to be eager to tell people about it.  We need to be as fired up about our faith and our church as Allan was about those cars, because that kind of fire is contagious.  As the founder of the United Methodist church, John Wesley, once said, when you’re on fire about something, people will come a long way just to watch you burn.
            The thing is that a lot of us don’t necessarily think of ourselves as enthusiastic people.  After all, we’re from the upper Midwest.  We’re the kind of people that Garrison Keillor makes fun of.  We’re the kind of people who get a little afraid about getting too fired up about something, because it might make us stand out from the crowd.  Here’s what I mean:  remember Neal Wanless, the guy from Winner who won the Powerball jackpot a couple of years ago?  He was asked how he felt about getting all that money.  His response was, basically, “Well, that’ll be nice, I guess.”
            At the same time, though, we all have something that gets us enthusiastic.  We talked about that a few weeks ago.  We all have something we just love to do and love to talk about, whether it’s cars or gardening or music or sports or animals or crafts or whatever.  We may not jump up and down and shout about it, but we do have it within us to be enthusiastic and passionate people when we let ourselves be.
            The thing is that most of us don’t think about our faith in that way.  We don’t think about church as something to get all fired up and enthusiastic about.  After all, in our society, enthusiasm about religion tends to get caricatured as something that’s not really a good thing.  We think of some televangelist getting all wound up, or some street preacher yelling about how we need to repent because the world is about to end.  People who are fired up about their religion tend to be thought of as either phony or crazy, and who wants to be thought of that way?  So, we pull back and keep our faith to ourselves.
            That’s wrong.  We’re not supposed to keep our faith to ourselves.  Listen again to our reading from Isaiah today:  “Sing to the Lord a new song…Let the sea roar… Let the desert and the towns lift up their voice…Let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the tops of the mountains.”
            That’s enthusiasm. That’s what how we’re supposed to feel about our faith.  Passion and enthusiasm are not things that are somehow foreign to our Christian faith.  They’re essential to our Christian faith.  We’re not supposed to keep the good news of Jesus Christ to ourselves.  We’re supposed to shout it from the mountaintops.
            Listen to what Paul wrote in our lesson from Second Corinthians.  He writes about how eager he is to spread the word about Jesus.  He’s excited about the fact that God gave his friend, Titus, that same eagerness.  Paul says he’s sending someone else to the people of Corinth, too, someone who’s shown lots of times how eager he is to share the gospel and now is even more fired up about it.  Paul knew that if we’re going to be the people of God and bring people to Christ, we need to be passionate about it.  We need to feel that enthusiasm, that fire that attracts people, as John Wesley said.
            So, how do we get it?  How do we get that enthusiasm, that fire, that eagerness to tell people about our faith and our church and our Savior? 
Well, first of all, we need to recognize that enthusiasm and passion are not the caricature.  They’re not someone jumping up and down and shouting and screaming.  We can speak quietly and still be enthusiastic.
Think about those things we’re enthusiastic about:  cars, gardening, music, farming, whatever.  We don’t go up to people and start shouting about those things, do we?  Here’s what we do.  Maybe we don’t even realize it, but here’s what we do.  We look for ways to turn the conversation toward those things.  When there’s a lull in the conversation, those are the things we bring up.  We look for openings to talk about the things that interest us.  We don’t do that because we’re self-centered or anything; we do it because those are the things we’re fired up about, and we want to share our enthusiasm with the people we know.  These are the things that give us a lot of joy, and we want to spread that joy to others.
See where enthusiasm starts?  It’s not something that’s phony or fake.  It’s a real feeling that comes from deep inside each one of us.  You know how we talk about the Holy Spirit coming into each one of us?  In Acts, when the Holy Spirit came into the apostles, what did people see?  They saw fire.  The Holy Spirit gets us fired up.  That fire comes from the joy we feel about our faith in Christ.  It comes from the joy we feel about our church.  It comes from the joy we feel when we come together to worship every Sunday.
This is not something that’s foreign to us as United Methodists.  It’s who we are.  When John Wesley started the Methodist movement in England in the 1700s, the early Methodists were criticized by the established church.  You know what the main criticism of them was?  “Those people are too enthusiastic.  They’re just a bunch of enthusiasts.”  Being enthusiastic is not something that should be strange to us as United Methodists.  Being enthusiastic is part of our heritage.  It’s part of our DNA.
So here’s what I’d like you to do.  Think about what it is that gets you here on Sunday.  It’s different things for different people, but it’s something for each of us.  It’s more than just the fact that we’re Christians; lots of people claim to be Christian and don’t go to church.  It’d be easy for you to sleep in, or to read the Sunday paper, or to go to the river, or to watch the football pre-game, or do whatever it is you like to do.  There is something about this church, something about worshipping here, with these people, that gets each one of us here on Sunday morning.  There is something that makes coming here, to this church, important to each one of us.
Each of us needs to think about why this church is important to us, why we make the effort to come here, why we get that feeling of joy from coming here, why it helps us each week to come here, to this church, on Sunday.  When we do, we’ll realize that it’s not just us who need this church.  Other people need it, too.
They need it for the same reasons we need it.  There are lots of people right outside these doors who are hurting.  They don’t advertise it, but they feel it.  There are lots of people right outside these doors who need some joy in their lives, who need to feel what we feel when we come here.  There are lots of people right outside these doors who need our help and our support, the kind of help and support that only the people of God can give.  That’s why I said last week that I can see a time when we regularly have a hundred, a hundred twenty-five, a hundred fifty people meeting in this church:  because there are a lot of people in this community who need this church.
When we think about it that way, it’s not being self-centered to tell people about this church; it’s the exact opposite.  The unselfish thing, the loving thing to do is to share this church with others.  The unselfish thing, the loving thing to do is to reach out to people, so we can be there for them.  Jesus did not tell us to go out and make disciples for his benefit of for our benefit; he told us to do that for the benefit of others, because everyone needs Jesus in their lives.
We have this kind of enthusiasm inside of us, or we would not be here.  All we need to do is let it out, the way we do for our sports teams, or our garden, or whatever else we get fired up about.  Look for chances to tell people what’s going on in this church.  Look for chances to tell people why you like to come here on Sunday, and why they’d like it, too.  If we’re enthusiastic about this church, people will not get tired of hearing about it.  Our enthusiasm will get them fired up, just like Allan’s talk about cars got me fired up.
This church has a lot to offer people.  It offers them love, a love that comes from God.  It’s the greatest thing any of us can ever have.  That’s something to get fired up about!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Why" Matters

            You may have already seen this.  A study shows that people who volunteer tend to live longer than those who don’t.  You can find the study here.
            Volunteering is generally a good thing, of course.  Interestingly, however, the reasons we volunteer matter.  Those who volunteered for selfless and altruistic reasons, such as “I want to help others”, had substantial lower mortality rates.  They increased their odds of living longer.  On the other hand, those who volunteered for more selfish reasons, Such as “It’s an escape from my own troubles” or “It makes me feel better about myself” had almost the same mortality rate as those who did not volunteer at all.  They increased their odds of living longer a little bit, but not much.
            This does not mean, of course, that it’s wrong to feel good about volunteering.  Almost every time we volunteer for anything, there’s a part of us that feels good.  Most of us have a desire to feel that we’re making a contribution to something.  Most of us want to feel that we’re making the world, or at least the part of it in which we live, a better place in some small way.  As one of the researchers said, “It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self.  However, our research implies that, ironically, should those benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits.”
What it means is that it’s not just what we do that matters; it’s why we do it.  This is why our salvation is based on our faith, rather than our works.  It’s one thing to do good things for entirely selfish reasons, but another to do good things because we’re living out our faith in God.
I used to not understand that.  Then, I started noticing Wanda’s reaction when I would do things for her.  If I did something for Wanda, but made clear that I was doing it because I thought I had to or because I wanted something from her in return, Wanda did not feel very loved as a result.  If, on the other hand, I did something for Wanda gladly and willingly, without her having to ask and with no other desire than just to make her happy, Wanda felt very loved.  Of course, my reaction to Wanda doing things for me is the same.
I suspect God feels the same way about the things we do.  If we do good things just out of obligation, because we feel like we have to, but our hearts are not in them, that does not particularly honor God.  That does not show the love for God that we are supposed to show.  If, on the other hand, we do good things with no expectation of anything in return, but just because we want to show God’s love to people, that does honor God.  That does show the love for God we are supposed to show.
We owe God more than we could ever repay.  All God asks in return is love.  Let’s live our lives in a way that shows that love, both to God and to those around us.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Hit the Accelerator and Go

            I’ve written before about how much I love the fact that, on the drive from Gettysburg to Onida, you can see so far.  The ground is flat, the road is straight, there are few trees, and you can see for ten miles or more in some places.
            Yesterday morning, though, as I made that drive, you could not see very far at all.  It was foggy.  I had to slow down and keep a careful lookout, because I kept imagining a deer standing right on the road in front of me.  I thought to myself, “This drive isn’t nearly as much fun in the fog.”
            I think sometimes our lives get like that.  We feel like we’re moving in a fog.  We can’t see the way ahead.  When we can’t see the way ahead, we get scared.  We start imagining all sorts of dangers ahead of us.  We move at a slower pace, or maybe even stop entirely.  We get afraid to take risks, because we don’t know what might be coming up next.
            Churches can be like that, too.  We can be afraid to change, afraid to take risks, because we don’t know what might be on the road ahead of us.  We start imagining all sorts of things that could happen if we take chances.  We don’t want to move too fast, because something bad might be waiting for us.
            It’s understandable.  Those dangers we imagine are not completely farfetched.  There could have been a deer on the road ahead of me—people do run into deer around here sometimes.  The dangers we imagine in our lives and in our churches are not completely farfetched, either—sometimes, when we take chances, we may fail, may lose money or time, may upset people, or may embarrass ourselves.
            Here’s the thing, though.  When we go down the road, there’s always a chance something could happen.  Even on a clear day, a deer could suddenly dart onto the road, a tire could blow, a car could suddenly swerve into us.  All kinds of things can happen.  The only way to be perfectly safe is to not go in the first place.  The trouble is that, if we do that, we never get anywhere.  If we do that, we’ll miss out on a lot of good things.
            It’s the same with our lives, as well as the life of the church.  We can never see exactly what’s coming next.  There are always bad things that could happen.  The only way to be perfectly safe is to not try anything.  The trouble is that, if we never try anything, we’ll never get anywhere, and we’ll miss out on a lot of good things.
            We should always take reasonable precautions when we go somewhere—check the tires, wear our seatbelts, etc.  At some point, though, if we want to get anyplace, we have to put the thing in drive, hit the accelerator, and go.
            We can do that in our churches because we know we have God with us.  When we trust God, and do our best to follow God’s will, we know that God will help clear the road ahead.  We should still take reasonable precautions—trusting in God does not mean being foolish—but let’s not miss out on all the good things ahead just because we’re scared.  Let’s have faith, put the thing in drive, hit the accelerator, and go.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It Starts With A Decision

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 18, 2011.  The scripture for today is Matthew 18:15-17.

            One of the things I’ve learned in my few months here is that, years ago, there were a lot more people coming to this church on Sunday morning than there are now.
            Now, that’s hardly something that’s unique to this church.  It’s not even unique to small towns.  The United Methodist church is in decline nationwide, as are a lot of other Protestant churches.  Almost everywhere in America, there are fewer people going to church on a Sunday morning than there used to be.
            Those are facts.  Facts are just facts; we cannot choose our facts.  What we can choose, though, is how we’re going to respond to those facts.
            One way we can respond is to just accept this decline as inevitable.  You’ve known churches that have done that; so have I.  Those churches say, “Well, of course we’re going down.  The town is smaller.  There just are not the people here there used to be.  There’s nothing we can do about it.”  They accept the fact that they’re a dying church.  So, they just continue to do the things they’ve been doing until they cannot do them any more.  At that point, the church becomes no more than a place to go on Sunday morning.  Eventually, as the church gets smaller and smaller, it’s not even a place to go on Sunday morning, because there’s not enough money to keep the doors open any more.  So, the church closes, an event that saddens some people but surprises no one, because everyone accepted that as the inevitable outcome a long time ago.
            That’s one response, and it’s one we can choose if we want to.  However, it’s not the only response.  We can also choose to refuse to just accept that we’re in decline.  We can decide that we’re not a dying church, we’re a living church.  We can decide that we’re a church with a mission.  We can decide that God put this church here for a reason, to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  We can decide that this church is needed here, and that we’re going to do everything we can, not just to keep it going, but to make it the church God wants it to be and to make it a church that does what God wants it to do.
            That’s the choice I think God wants us to make.  It’s true that there are not as many people living in this town as there used to be, but it’s also true that there are plenty of people in this town who are not going to church anywhere.  Look at it this way:  there are officially 1,162 people living in Gettysburg.  You think there are 1,162 people in Gettysburg who go to church on an average Sunday?  Half that would be 581 people.  Are there 581 people in Gettysburg who go to church on an average Sunday?  A quarter of it is 290.  Are there 290 people in Gettysburg who go to church on an average Sunday?
            *Note—the population of Onida is 658.  The population of Agar is 76.  This makes the other numbers above and below change, obviously, but the point being made here applies to both of those towns as well.
            I frankly don’t know how many people in Gettysburg go to church on an average Sunday, but I know it’s a lot less than half.  The point is that, whether the population of this town is declining or not, there’s still plenty of room for this church and all the churches in town to grow.  There’s no reason that decline has to be inevitable.  There’s no reason we cannot have a hundred, a hundred twenty-five, a hundred fifty people worshipping here on a Sunday morning.  I’m not saying it’s going to happen next week, but there’s no reason it cannot happen.
            The thing is that it’s not going to happen by itself.  We cannot just open the doors on Sunday morning and expect people to walk through them.  It’s not a case of “if you build it, they will come.”  Those of you who are here today will come, but for the most part, additional people will not.  We need to do things to get them here, because they’re not going to come by themselves.
            That’s what we’re going to talk about over the next several weeks.  In thinking about how to approach this, I remembered a story about the legendary football coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi.  The Packers were a great team under Lombardi, but they went through a stretch once where they lost a few games, barely won a few others, and just generally seemed to be in decline.  Lombardi decided that the way to approach this was to go back to the basics.  So, he stood in front of the team, held up a brown object, and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
            I think the way to talk about church growth is to start with the basics, too.  So, what we’re going to talk about is “What is the church?”  When we say we want people to be part of the church, what is it that we want them to be part of?
            That may seem obvious, but it’s really not.  We use the word “church” to mean a lot of things.  One way we use the word “church” is to refer to this:  the building.  The structure.  This place we come to on Sunday morning, and sometimes for meetings during the week.  When people ask “where’s the church?” that’s usually what they want to know:  where is the building?
            Another way we use the word “church” is to refer to our worship service.  When people ask “what time is church”, that’s what they mean:  what time does your service start.  When we say, “I want to be on time for church”, we mean that we want to be there when the service starts.  That’s another way of referring to “church”.
            Another way to refer to church is to the denomination or the congregation we’re part of.  When people ask “what church do you go to”, that’s usually what they mean.  We say, “I’m a United Methodist,” or “I’m a Lutheran,” or I’m a Catholic,” or whatever.  We’re saying that’s our church, that’s the denomination or the congregation we belong to.
            Those are all things that the word “church” has come to mean.  When Jesus used the word “church”, though it meant something different.  To Jesus, “church” did not refer to a building; the early Christian church did not have buildings.  To Jesus, “church” did not mean a worship service; Jesus worshipped God every day, wherever he happened to be.  To Jesus, “church” did not mean a denomination; there were no denominations in the early church.
            To understand what Jesus meant when he used the word “church”, let’s look at our reading from Matthew.  Jesus said that if someone from the church sins against you, you go to that person directly and confront them.  If that does not work, you go to that person again, taking one or two other people as witnesses.  If that does not work, you and the other person are to bring your problem to the church.
            Have you ever known anyone to do that?  I never have.  In five years as a pastor, and in all my years as a member of a congregation, I’ve never experienced a time where someone brings their problem with someone else to the church.  They might consult the pastor, they might consult one or two people they respect, but I’ve never known anyone to bring a problem like that to the whole church.  I doubt if anyone else here has, either.  It’s something beyond our experience.
            The reason it’s beyond our experience, the reason it seems so strange to us, is because of the way we think of the church.  If we think of the church as the building, or as the worship service, or as the denomination, we’d never think of someone bringing a problem with someone else to the church.  When Jesus used the word “church”, though, he meant something else.  To Jesus, the “church” was the people of God.
            When we think of the church as being the people of God, our whole perspective on what it means to be “the church” changes.  All of a sudden it does not seem strange to bring a problem with someone else to “the church”, because the people of God don’t stand by when a relationship is falling apart; the people of God try to help.  The people of God don’t just stand and watch when they see someone going down the wrong path; the people of God try to do something about it. 
That’s true of other things, too.  The people of God don’t wait for someone else to do something when they see a person in trouble; the people of God step in and take action.  The people of God don’t wait for the government to do something about the homeless or the hungry or the sick; the people of God do something themselves. The people of God don’t wait for people to come in to the church to hear the word of God and be saved; the people of God take the word of God out of the church to others, and the people of God take the love of God out of the church and show it to others.
We hear those things, though, and we think, well, that sounds good, but we’re just this little church in this little town.  We cannot do anything about this stuff.  We’d like to, really we would, and we’d do it if we could, but there’s just no way.  The problems are too big, and we’re just too small.
Well, we cannot do everything, but guess what?  God does not expect us to do everything.  God knows our limitations; God knows them better than we know them ourselves.  Here’s the thing, though:  God does not expect us to do everything, but God does expect us to do everything that we can.
Exactly what that looks like is something we’re going to explore over the next several weeks, as we talk about more about what the church is and what it does.  The thing is that it all starts with a decision, the decision I talked about at the beginning of this message.  We can decide that we’re a dying church, a church that’s in an inevitable decline and there’s no way to do anything about it.  Or, we can decide that we’re a church with a mission.  We can decide that God put this church here for a reason, to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  We can decide that this church is needed here, and that we’re going to do everything we can, not just to keep it going, but to make it the church God wants it to be and to make it a church that does what God wants it to do.  We can decide that we’re going to be the people of God for the town of Gettysburg and the surrounding area.
            The decision is ours.  What’s it going to be?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sunflower Fields Forever

            One of the great things about driving in this area at this time of year is the fields of sunflowers.  I grew up on a farm, but it was in southeastern South Dakota.  People don’t grow sunflowers much there, and nobody grew them there back when I was growing up.  Here, though, you see them all over.

            There are not a lot of things in nature as beautiful as a field of sunflowers in full bloom.  The greens and golds are so brilliant that I forget for a moment that those are the colors of the Green Bay Packers.  The plants all have their heads facing the same and are all of a uniform height, making it look like a fantastic sea of green and gold.

            Except.  Except that there are always few sunflowers that are different.  I’ve noticed that, in every sunflower field, there are a few sunflowers that stick their heads up above the rest.  I don’t know why that is, but it is.  Every sunflower field has just a few plants that stand out, breaking the uniformity of the field.  Somehow, those few that stand out make the field even more beautiful.

            It strikes me that people are kind of like that.  We’re beautiful as a group, but most of us don’t break outside the group.  There are always a few, though, who do.  There are always a few who poke their heads above the rest, wanting to look above the crowd, wanting to see what else might be out there.

            I don’t know why sunflowers grow that way, but I think I know part of the reason people do.  Both kinds of people, those who stay in the group and those who stick their heads above it, are necessary.  If everyone followed the group, if no one ever dared to stick their head above the crowd, things would get boring.  It would not be beautiful because no one and nothing would stand out; it would just be a stale sea of sameness.  On the other hand, if everyone went off on their own, if everyone just did their own thing, the beauty would also be destroyed.  No one would stand out then, either, because there’d be nothing to stand out from.  There’d be no organization, no structure, just chaos.

            God made each of us to be beautiful.  Some of us find our beauty be standing out from the crowd.  Others of us find our beauty be being part of a larger group.  Each is important, and each makes the world beautiful.  How are you contributing to that beauty today?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Moving Forward

This is an article I wrote for the September, 2011 Wheatland Parish newsletter.

            We think of spring as the time when everything is made new.  In an agricultural sense, of course, that’s true. 

When it comes to church business, though, the fall is really the time when everything is made new.   We have new Sunday school classes and new youth groups.  The U. M. W. starts up again after taking a summer hiatus.  So does the choir in Gettysburg.  In the church, a lot of new things start up in the fall.

There’s a tendency, in an established church, to be satisfied with keeping the things we’ve done in the past going.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  it’s important to keep the things we’ve done in the past going.  They’re good things.  They help people.  They bring people to the church.  I’m not saying we should stop doing the things we’ve been doing.

What I am saying, though, is let’s not be satisfied with that.  None of the churches of the Wheatland Parish have reached the limit of what they can do.  There are all sorts of new things we can do.  All they take is for a few people to see a need and have a desire to fill that need.

If you’d like to do something, but don’t know what to do, spend some time in prayer.  Pray that God helps you see a need in your community.  Then, keep your eyes open.  My experience has been that when we pray for God to give us ways to serve, God will answer that prayer every time.  Sometimes the answer may be a little more than we bargained for, but we’ll still get the answer.  If we can trust God to help us, and if we can take a leap of faith, we’ll be able to do the thing that God has put in front of us.

The best ideas for serving God rarely come from the pastor.  They come from you.  As we move into a new church year, think of some new ways the church can serve God by serving the people God created.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How Do We Respond?

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 11, 2011.  The scriptures are Exodus 14:19-31 and Matthew 18:21-35.

            Today, September 11, 2011, is obviously an incredibly significant day in our country.  Of course, we all know why.  It’s because today is the first Sunday of the new NFL season.
            No, obviously, today is the tenth anniversary of the attacks that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York, and it’s clearly not something to joke about.  About three thousand people died on that day, and it still amazes me that the number was not higher.  What happened on this day ten years ago is among the most significant events that have happened in my lifetime.  If it’s not the most significant event, it’s certainly on the short list.  After all, this was not just an attack on New York City.  This was an attack on all of America.
            In the aftermath of those attacks, a lot of Christians struggled with what the proper Christian response should be.  I mean, we all knew that we should do whatever we could to help the victims of the attack, but beyond that, what should we do?  Some Christians believed we should immediately launch a counter-attack against the people who did this to us.  Other Christians said we should pray for our attackers and offer them forgiveness.  There were lots of other Christian opinions as well, from viewpoints all along the spectrum.  The proper Christian response to those attacks was the source of a lot of conversation and debate at the time.
            Ten years later, it still is.  A lot of Christians still struggle with the proper Christian response to those attacks.  A lot of things have happened in those ten years, of course, but the threat of terrorism remains.  Most experts say that not only is another terrorist attack in the United States possible, it’s almost inevitable.  If something does happen, we’ll have those same debates and conversations again.  Inevitably, those debates and conversations get bound up in politics, which makes it even harder for us to find answers.
            Our scriptures for today give a couple of different responses for us to choose from.  The first one is our reading from Exodus, the story of the people of Israel crossing the Red Sea.  If you remember the story, Israel had been oppressed by the Egyptians for some time, and Moses was chosen to go to Pharaoh and get him to let them go so they could go to the land God had promised them.  Pharaoh refused until he was convinced by a series of plagues.  Then, after agreeing to let Israel go, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent the army to bring them back again.  The people of Israel get to the Red Sea, have no way to cross it, and the Egyptian army is hot on their trail.
            You heard the rest of the story.  God acts through Moses, parts the Red Sea, and allows the people of Israel to cross.  God gives the Egyptian army problems, they decide to run away, and God acts through Moses to wipe them out.
            There’s not a lot of forgiveness for the Egyptians in that story, is there?  Not much tolerance, not much understanding other viewpoints.  The goal is not to try to make peace with Egypt, the goal is to destroy the Egyptian army.  In fact, even after the army has decided to retreat and run away, God does not let up on them.  God does not say, “Okay, you’ve learned your lesson, so I’ll let you go and give you another chance.”  God completely obliterates them.  We’re told “not one of them remained.”
            On the other hand, we have the story from the gospel of Matthew.  Peter asks Jesus how many times he needs to forgive someone who’s wronged him, suggesting what to him was a high number of seven times.  Jesus responds with a much higher, almost limitless number.  He then tells a story about someone who asked for forgiveness and received it, only to refuse to give forgiveness to someone else.  His refusal meant that he was no longer forgiven, either.  This is a pretty common theme in the gospels:  that the forgiveness we receive from God is directly tied to the forgiveness we give to other people.  Jesus does not tell us that when someone attacks us, we should fight back with everything we’ve got.  Jesus tells us to forgive.
            So, where does that leave us?  Are we supposed to try to wipe out our enemies, the way God, acting through Moses, did to the Egyptians?  Or are we supposed to forgive our enemies, the way Jesus told us to?
            It’s interesting that both of these stories give us a way to avoid applying them, if that’s what we’re looking for.  In the story of the parting of the Red Sea, one could make the argument that it was not the people of Israel who attacked the Egyptians, it was God.  All the people of Israel did was run away; God did the fighting, not Israel.  So, one could argue, when we’re attacked, we should let God fight our battles for us, not fight them ourselves.
            On the other hand, in the story of forgiveness from Matthew, the question Peter asked Jesus was “if another member of the church sins against me, how many time should I forgive?”  One could make the argument, then, that in the case of the World Trade Center attacks, we were not sinned against by members of the church.  So, one could argue, what Jesus said about forgiveness does not apply.
            I also don’t think we can just solve the dilemma by saying, “Well, the story of the Red Sea is the Old Testament, and the story of forgiveness is the New Testament, so we have to follow the New Testament and forget the Old.  It’s not that simple.  As Christians, and as United Methodist Christians, we say that we believe in both testaments, the new and the old.  We say that both of them are the inspired word of God.  It’s not a good answer to say that we’re going to ignore certain parts of God’s word just because we don’t happen to like them or because they complicate things for us.
            Another thing that complicates this is that we can find sincere, committed Christians on all sides of this.  There are sincere, committed Christians who believe in a strong military, so strong that we are not just able to prevent attacks but so strong that no one would dare attack us.  There are sincere, committed Christians who believe that war is never justified, and that we need to make deep cuts in our military.  There are also, of course, sincere, committed Christians at many other points along the line.
            Because of that, I’m not going to stand here and tell you what I think the Christian position is.  I don’t think I have the authority to do that.  If I say, “here’s the Christian position”, I’m implying that anyone who disagrees, is not really a Christian, or at least not a very good one.  Not only don’t I believe that, I don’t think I have the right to decide who’s a Christian and who’s not.  God decides that, not me.
            What I will do is tell you some things we all need to consider as we think about this and similar issues.  This is not a full list, but I think doing these things will help us as we try to sort it all out.
            For one thing, we should not assume that we already know it all.  In the ten years since the World Trade Center attacks, most of us have pretty well decided what we believe.  That’s okay, but we should also not be afraid to re-examine what we believe.  We’re all allowed to change our minds.
            Also, we should never believe something just because someone else believes it.  That’s the case even if that someone else is someone we really respect. We need to make our own decisions, not just trust the opinions of others.
            One thing we should definitely do is pray.  You probably knew that one was coming, but it’s necessary.  We should pray in all circumstances, of course, but we should especially pray when we need guidance, and this is an area in which we need guidance.  God will probably not just pop an answer into our heads, but the more time we spend in prayer, the closer we will be to God, and the closer we are to God, the more likely we are to live our lives the way God wants us to live them
            We should also read and study the Bible.  After all, the Bible is God’s message to us.  There are lots more scriptures that talk about these issues than the ones we looked at this morning.  We need to read them and study them.
            We need to be willing to struggle with these issues.  It’s okay for us to not have an answer right away.  Sometimes, things take time to work through.  We need to think about this to the point that we know not just what we believe, but why we believe it.  We need to be able to have solid reasoning and scripture behind what we believe, not just a vague feeling that we’re right.
            Finally, we need to be tolerant of those who disagree with us.  That’s not to say we need to agree with them, but we need to realize that some of those who disagree with us have struggled with the issues just as much as we have.  They’ve prayed, and they’ve studied, and they’ve come up with different answers.  They may not be right, but they are still sincere Christians who love the Lord just as much as we do.  The fact that we may disagree with someone, even if we have a pretty strong disagreement, does not change that.
            Jesus never promised that being a Christian would be easy.  When Jesus was on the earth, his disciples struggled with a lot of issues.  Today, two thousand years later, we continue to struggle.  That’s okay.  It’s not our job to have all the answers.  It’s our job to be faithful, to love others, and to leave the answers to God.
            The one thing we know is that, no matter what happens, God is always in control, and God will win in the end.  If we trust that and do our best, God will take care of the rest.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The People of God

This is my message at the Oahe Manor Communion Service Thursday, September 8, 2011.  The scripture is Matthew 18:15-17.

            I always enjoy coming out here to be with you.  From what I’ve been able to tell, in the times that I’ve been out here, everybody seems to get along pretty well, and that’s great.  We should all try to get along with each other.  It’s pretty hard to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors if we’re not able to at least tolerate each other’s company.
            Still, you would not be human if there were not times when you had disagreements.  No matter how much we might like each other—even if we love each other—we still have times we disagree.  It’s part of human nature, and sometimes those disagreements can become pretty emotional.  Sometimes our feelings get away from us, and we say things we should not say and do things we should not do.
            Now, some of you may have noticed that my wife, Wanda, is not here today.  That’s not because we had a disagreement; she’d like to have come out here with me, but she had a meeting to go to.  On the other hand, there are times when we have our disagreements.  Everyone does.  What’s important is to not let those disagreements get out of hand, so that they become major rifts that can destroy relationships.
            As most of you know, this is not a new problem.  It existed back in Jesus’ time, too.  There were disagreements between people within the church.  Jesus knew it was important not to let those disagreements get out of hand, and he told people what to do to make sure that did not happen.
            He says, first of all, that if you feel someone has wronged you, go directly to that person.  Don’t talk behind their back, don’t tell everyone else about the problem, go to them directly.  Not only are we supposed to go to them directly, we’re supposed to go to them when the two of us can be alone.  After all, the problem is just between the two of us, so if possible, we should settle it just between the two of us.
            If that does not work, though, we’re not supposed to just give up on the relationship.  We’re supposed to go to the person again, this time taking one or two other people with us.  Note, though, that these one or two others are not supposed to be there to take our side.  Jesus says these one or two others are to act as witnesses.  They’re not supposed to take an active part in the conversation at all; they’re just supposed to be able to confirm to others what happened when we went to this person. 
If that does not work, we’re still not supposed to give up on the relationship.  Instead, Jesus says we’re supposed to go to the church and ask for help.
You know, in my five years as a pastor, I’ve ever had anyone do that.  In fact, I’ve been going to church my whole life and I’ve never known of anyone doing that.  There are a couple of times I’ve had people ask me for advice in relationships, but I’ve never known anyone to bring their problem with someone else to the whole church.  I’m not sure what I’d do if they did.  It’s totally beyond my experience, and I suspect it’s beyond the experience of most of you, too.
What this shows, I think, is that Jesus had a different idea of what it means to be “the church” than we do.  We sometimes think of “the church” as a building.  Other times, we might think of “the church” as a congregation.  We may even think of “the church” as a specific denomination.  Jesus, though, did not think of “the church” in any of those ways.  To Jesus, “the church” is the people of God.
If we think of the church as the people of God, then it’s entirely natural that we would bring our problems with someone else to the church.  The people of God are supposed to care about each other.  The people of God are supposed to be there for each other.  The people of God are supposed to help each other.  The people of God are supposed to be reconciled to each other.  The people of God are supposed to love each other.
What would it mean in your life if, instead of thinking of the church as a building or a congregation or a denomination, you started thinking of the church as the people of God?  What would it mean in my life?  How would it change what we think of as the role of the church?  What things would the church do that it does not do now, if we thought of the church as the people of God?
I don’t know for sure, but there’d be a lot of them.  The people of God would not stand by when they saw a relationship splintered; they’d step in to help.  The people of God would not wait for someone else to help when they saw people in trouble; they’d take action themselves.  The people of God would not wait for the government to help people who are hungry or homeless; they’d help them themselves.  The people of God would not wait for people to come in to the church to hear the word of God and be saved; they’d take the word of God to those people.
It may seem to you, in your current situation, that there’s not much you can do about any of those things.  Maybe not, but there is something that each of us can do.  It may be a small thing, but that’s okay.  God does not ask us to do everything; God asks that we do all we can.  If each of us does all we can, the church will be doing what God wants it to do.  Then, the church will truly be the people of God.