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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It's Our Responsibility

            There’s a bill moving through the South Dakota legislature which would encourage public schools to teach students about the Bible.  Supporters of the bill say that doing so would make students more aware of the cultural significance of the Bible, as well as its influence on law and literature.  The law would not require schools to teach such a course, nor would it require any students to take such a course.  You can read more about the bill here.

            It seems undeniable that the Bible does have significance on our culture, laws, and literature.  That significance would certainly be a good thing for people to know.  On the other hand, there are legal restrictions against the state having too much influence over religion, and those restrictions exist for very good reasons.

            If a school chooses to teach a course on the Bible’s significance to culture, law, and literature, and if students choose to take that course, I don’t have a problem with it.  What troubles me, though, is that some Christians seem to believe it is necessary for the public schools to have the primary responsibility for teaching these things.  Christians who believe this have good motives, and I’m not questioning their intentions.  Still, it seems sad to me that some Christians want to turn this responsibility over to public schools.  It seems to me that teaching people about the Bible, including its significance in culture, law, and literature, should first and foremost be the responsibility of the church.

            There seem to be too many times when those of us who are Christians want to give someone else the responsibilities that God has placed on us.  The Bible does not say that we should get someone else to teach our children about the word of God.  That responsibility falls on us as Christians.  It especially falls on Christian parents, but it falls on all Christians.  No Christian is exempt from the responsibility to teach children about the Bible.

            Part of the desire to see the Bible taught in schools may be a result of the fact that many churches struggle to get children to come to Sunday school and to church.  That is a serious problem, and I don’t know what the solution is.  I do know, however, what the solution is not.  The solution is not to take the responsibilities of the church and push them onto public institutions.  If children are not coming to Sunday school and to church, that’s not the public schools’ problem.  That’s the church’s problem, and it’s up to the church to solve it.

            It is up to each school to decide whether it wants to teach a course on the cultural, legal, and literary significance of the Bible, and it is up to each individual student  to decide whether to take that course.  However, God does not allow us to avoid our responsibilities as Christians by pushing them onto someone else.  Teaching about the Bible is, and always will be, the responsibility of the church.  That will be true no matter what the legislature does and no matter what the schools do.  If children are not learning about the Bible, that’s the church’s problem.  It’s up to the church to solve it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tough Love

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 29.  The scripture is Genesis 18:17-19:25.

            One of the questions we sometimes have about God is whether the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament.  What I mean by that is that a lot of times we think of the God of the New Testament as a God of love and forgiveness, but they think of the God of the Old Testament as a God of judgment and punishment.  Naturally, we like that God we think of in the New Testament a lot better than the God we think of in the Old Testament.
            Because of that, we tend to read the New Testament a lot more than we do the Old Testament.  That’s one of the reasons we’re doing this sermon series focusing on stories from Genesis.  The Old Testament is just as much a part of the Bible as the New Testament, and it’s just as much a part of our faith as the New Testament.  It may be harder for us to understand, and it may not be as warm and fuzzy in places, but it still is a part of the Bible.  Come to think of it, there are parts of the New Testament that are not particularly warm and fuzzy, either, but that’s a different sermon series.
            As we’ve looked at these stories, I think we’ve found that the God of the Old Testament really is the same as the God of the New Testament.  The God of the Old Testament was a God of love and forgiveness, too.  We talked about how God gave Cain second chances, and how God promised Noah that no matter what humans did, they would never be wiped from the face of the earth.
            We also talked about something else, though.  We talked about how, some day, our second chances come to an end.  That’s why it’s important that we take advantage of the chance God has given us now, today.  After all, no matter how old we are, and no matter how healthy we are, God does not promise a tomorrow on this earth to anyone.
            Which brings us to our story for today, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  If you’ve heard this story before, or even if you were just listening to the scripture reading this morning, you know what happened.  The people of Sodom and Gomorrah had completely forgotten about God.  Everyone did whatever they wanted.  Not only had they forgotten about God, they’d forgotten the basic principles of right and wrong.  Those towns were in a state of complete lawlessness, chaos, and sin.  So, God sent down fire from heaven and wiped them out.  Both cities were completely destroyed and all the people in them except Lot and his family were killed.
            I’ve heard this story many times, of course.  Many of you probably have, too.  As I thought about it this week, though, it occurred to me that a lot the discussions I’ve heard about it missed something.  Too often, this story is interpreted as the story of a vengeful God eagerly executing a death penalty on people who got too far out of line.  I don’t think that’s what was going on here at all.  As I look at this story, I see God doing everything possible to avoid destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.  God only went ahead with it when there was no other way.
            How else do we explain the discussion between God and Abraham?  God could have just gone ahead and taken out Sodom and Gomorrah without saying anything to Abraham at all.  In fact, the way the story reads, God considered doing exactly that.  Instead, though, God not only told Abraham what he was about to do, God allowed Abraham to bargain with him to provide the two cities a way out.
            We don’t know how big the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were.  They’re mentioned a few other times in the Bible before this, so they were big enough that people knew about them and knew where they were.  Cities were not as big back then, so say they had a couple thousand people or so.  Abraham got God to agree that if there were even ten good and righteous people out of those couple of thousand, God would not destroy those towns.
            To me, that does not sound like a God who’s eager to bring about destruction.  That sounds like a God who wants to give these people another chance.  Think of it:  if less than one percent of the people in these towns were found to be good and righteous people, God would save all of both towns just for them.  That sounds to me like God is trying very hard to avoid destroying these towns, not looking for an excuse to do it.
            As we know, though, not even ten good and righteous people could be found in those towns.  The only ones found were Lot and his family.  So, God went ahead and destroyed the towns, only allowing Lot and his family to escape. 
It must have made God very sad to do that.  Still, though, we hear that and we think, if God was so sad about it, could God not have let them off the hook anyway?  Could God not have bailed them out, protected them, given them another chance?
            Well, yes, I suppose God could have.  As I was thinking about that, though, here’s what occurred to me.  Wanda and I don’t have children, but we’ve known a lot of parents, including some of you.  Sometimes, when we raise kids, those kids go off and live a lifestyle that’s totally opposite what we’d hoped when they were growing up.  Sometimes kids get into drugs.  Sometimes they have numerous sexual affairs.  Sometimes they get into a life of crime.  Sometimes they refuse to work, and live off handouts.  There are lots of other things that can happen, too.
            As parents, you want to bail out our children.  You want to protect them.  You always want to give them another chance.  It’s a natural, loving instinct.  There are times when you do that, though, that you do them more harm than good.  When I worked as a deputy state’s attorney, I saw that all the time.  Either we or the judge would try to give a kid a break, give him or her another chance, and instead of being grateful and straightening out, they would inevitably think, “Gee, I did that, and nothing much happened.  I wonder what else I could do.”  Inevitably, they’d do something even worse, and a lot of times they’d start bringing other people down with them.  We thought we were helping those kids, but in reality we were hurting them and others.
            I would think that one of the hardest things parents ever have to do is to see their children in trouble and know that this time, the loving thing to do is to not bail them out.  Instead the loving thing to do this time is to let their kids sink or swim on their own.  When you let someone sink or swim on their own, of course, you take the chance that they’ll sink.  That has to be so hard, to watch your child sinking and know that you cannot bail them out.  It’s called “tough love” not because parents want to be hard on their children, but because the toughest thing a parent can do is see their child in trouble and know that they cannot do anything to rescue them.
            I suspect that’s how God felt when God saw that there were not even ten good and righteous people in the entire population of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Every loving instinct of God must have wanted to bail them out, to give them another chance.  It had to be incredibly hard for God not to do that.  Yet, God knew that if God bailed them out, things would not improve.  They would keep getting worse.  What was happening in Sodom and Gomorrah would spread to other towns. 
God must have wanted so badly to avoid destroying those towns.  God knew, though, that doing so would not help the people there.  They would continue what they were doing, and they would drag others down with them.  It must be one of the hardest things God ever has to do.  It has to be so hard for God to see God’s children in trouble and to know that this time, the loving thing for God to do is not to bail them out, but to allow them to sink.  It’s hard for me to even imagine what God must go through when God has to do that.
            I think the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah is not that God is a judgmental, punishing God.  The lesson is that, at some point, our second chances come to an end.  The lesson is that, if we refuse to turn back to God, at some point God has to let us sink.  It’s hard for God to do that, but God has to, so we don’t take others down with us.
            When we turn to God, though, God promises to always be there for us.  That does not mean God will always take away our problems, but God will always help us through our problems.  The help may not come the way we wish it would, but the help will be there.  Every time we turn to God, God will be there for us.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Time Passes By

            Here it is, almost the end of January.  It seems like the new year just started, and yet the first month of it is almost over already.

            I guess maybe this is a sign that, much as I don’t like to recognize it, I am getting older.  All my life I’ve heard people say that the older you get, the faster time seems to pass.  I guess it’s true.  The good part of that is that winter goes by more quickly, and this winter seems to be going particularly fast because we’ve had so little bad weather.

            Still, that time goes by so quickly is a reminder to each of us that we only have so many days to live on this earth, and none of us knows when those days will come to an end.  It’s also a reminder that we should not put off too many things for too long.  We cannot do everything at once, of course, and it’s okay to have plans for the future.  On the other hand, we do not have an unlimited time to do all the things we want to do.  At some point, we need to recognize that there are some things we need to do now, or we’ll never do them at all.

            That can apply to our faith, too.  How many of us know that we should get closer to God, but decide to do it “later”?  How many of us know we should spend more time reading the Bible and praying, but decide that we just don’t have time for that right now?  How many of us would like to get more involved in something the church is doing, but decide that “it’ll just have to wait”?  How many of us have an idea for something we’d like to see the church do, but decide that “the time just isn’t right” for us to do it now?

            Again, I recognize that people have busy lives and cannot do everything at once.  We also need to recognize, though, that “later” is not promised to any one of us.  We also need to recognize that God is not served, nor are we or anyone else helped, by things that we intend to do someday.  God is only served, and we and others are only helped, by things that we actually do now.

            This may be one of things meant by the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Maybe one of the ways Satan acts to harm is, not by getting us to change our minds about what we’d like to do, but by getting us to delay those things we “intend” to do until it’s too late.

            Let’s not put our Christian faith off until “someday”.  Let’s decide that we’re going to get closer to God and find ways to serve God now, today.  That way, we won’t have to worry about whether we’ll be able to do it tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How Badly Do We Want It?

            What do you think the most important thing is in achieving a goal?

            It may not be the first thing you think of.  I don’t think the most important thing in achieving a goal is ability or talent or money or time or resources or anything like that.  Those are all important, but I think the most important thing in achieving a goal is passion.

            The reason I think that is that if we have passion, if we really want to achieve something badly enough, we will almost always find a way to do it.  We can increase our ability and improve our talent.  We can raise money.  We can find more time.  We can acquire more resources.  We can get everything we need to achieve a goal if we want to badly enough. 

On the other hand, if we don’t have that passion, all the ability, talent, money, time, and resources in the world will not be enough to achieve the goal.  We may get something done, but we won’t do it well.  We won’t really accomplish what we set out to do if we don’t have the passion to accomplish it.

That brings me to the subject of church growth.  Everyone I’ve ever talked to, at every church I’ve ever been part of, has said they wanted their church to grow.  The reasons varied from a desire to spread the word of God to simple survival of the local church and everything in-between, but the goal has always been the same:  we want our church to grow.

When we say that, though, what do we really mean?  After all, there are lots of things I want and would like to see happen.  For example, I’d like to see the Minnesota Twins win the World Series this year.  Am I going to do anything to make that happen?  No.  I’m going to sit in front of my television set and watch.  Sometimes, I’ll turn on the radio and listen.  Either way, my involvement in the process will be completely passive.  I may want the Twins to win, I may be rooting for them to win, but I’m not going to do anything to help them win.  I’ll simply be a spectator in the process.

Is that how we view church growth?  Is it something we want and would like to see happen, but don’t actually do anything to make happen.  Is it something we’re rooting for, but for which we remain spectators?

God does not need spectators.  God needs people who want to get in the game.  It’s entirely possible for each of the three churches of our parish to grow, but it’s not going to happen by itself.  It’s going to take people who are passionate about making each of those three churches grow.  It’s going to take people who want to see it happen so badly that we’ll do what we can to increase our abilities, improve our talents, raise more money, find more time, acquire more resources, and do whatever else we need to do to make it happen.

I’m confident that the people of the Wheatland Parish are those people.  I’ve seen some good things start to happen here.  I’ve seen the beginnings of some of that passion.  We need to not just keep that passion going, but to make it grow.  We need to make it grow within ourselves and we need to spread it to others.

Growing a church is not easy.  God never promised that it would be easy.  It was not easy for the disciples.  It was not easy for the early church.  It was not easy during the Reformation.  It was not easy for John Wesley when the Methodist movement started.  And it’s not easy now.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.  There’s no reason to think that the each of the churches of this parish cannot grow, and there’s every reason to think that they can.  If you want to see one of those reasons, go look in the mirror.  Each of you is the reason your church can grow.

It won’t happen by itself, but it can happen.  And it will, if each of us is passionate about making it happen.  Let’s move forward together, passionately devoted to making each of the churches of this parish grow.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Rainbow

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, January 22.  The scriptures are all from Genesis:  6:9-22; 7:17 through 8:4; 8:14-22; 9:11-17.

            Most of us have heard the story of Noah and the flood since we were little.  Even if you were not raised in the church, even if you never went to Sunday school or anything, the chances are you know the basic facts of this story.  God gets mad at humanity and decides to wipe it out and start over.  God decides not to start completely over, though.  Instead, God saves Noah and his family, and tells Noah to save two of every living thing so that after the flood, life can start over again.
Now, just as with the creation story, I don’t want to get into whether this story is literally true.  Think what you want about that.  To me, the more interesting question is, why is this story in the Bible?  What are we supposed to learn from it?  What does it tell us about God or about ourselves?  What can we get from this story that will draw us closer to God or help us in our daily lives?
When we look at the story that way, it seems like we have a lot of questions.  Look at what the story says.  It tells us God was sorry he had created humans.  It tells us that God willingly and intentionally killed every human being other than Noah and his family, no matter who they were or how they lived.  It tells us God willingly and intentionally killed all sorts of animals, too.  It tells us God willingly and intentionally killed the birds, the lizards, everything, other than the two that were lucky enough to get on the ark.
How do we square that with our vision of God?  After all, in church we talk all the time about how God is love.  We talk all the time about God’s willingness to forgive us.  We talk all the time about God’s grace and mercy.  Yet, in this story, God does not seem very loving or forgiving at all.  God does not show much grace or mercy here.  Sure, he showed it to Noah and his family, and we’re told that the reason is that Noah was a righteous man, but was Noah really the only righteous person on the face of the earth?  Was there no one else on the entire earth who was doing his or her best to follow God and serve God?  Were Noah and his family really the only ones worth saving?  Did no one else even deserve a warning and a second chance?
This is why we’re looking at these Genesis stories.  If we take them seriously, they raise a lot of questions for us.  They make us take another look at things about our faith that we tend to take for granted.  It’s not just an academic exercise in theology.  What we decide to do with this story has a big impact on how we see God.  It especially impacts how we see God interacting with us.
You know, when we look at this story, we tend to look at it either from the point of view of either God or Noah.  It seems to me, though, that you and I can probably identify a lot more with the other people on earth, the people who were killed, than we can with God or Noah.  God, after all, is God:  more perfect and more holy than any of us can ever imagine being.  As for Noah, well, we may like to think that we’re somewhat righteous, to varying degrees, but none of us would probably claim to be the most righteous person on earth, the way Noah appears to have been.
When it comes to the others, though, that’s a different story.  I can identify with them.  I’ll bet you can, too.  After all, when it comes to the way we live our lives, how many of us really stand out from the crowd all that much?  I’m not saying no one here does, but if you do, you’re the exception, not the rule.  Statistics show that Christians in America do not stand out from the general population in terms of how we live or what we do in any significant way.  In other words, according to the numbers, if someone took ten average people and told you to figure out which ones were Christians by watching their behavior, the chances are you would not be able to do it.  As Christians we tend to blend in with the crowd, not stand out from it.
So, let’s think of ourselves as the ordinary people in this story.  From what the Bible says, we’d have had no clue what was going on.  God told Noah what was going on, but there’s no indication that God told anyone else.  There’s no indication that Noah told anyone else, either.  Even if he did, how many people could Noah have talked to, compared to all the people in the world?  Hardly any.

If we’re the ordinary people in this story, we have no idea what’s happening.  All we know is that it’s raining.  And it keeps raining.  And it keeps raining.  The water starts rising.  It looks like it’s never going to stop. 

Maybe, at some point, we decide that God is causing this.  Maybe, at some point, we ask God to save us.  If we do, though, it does not work.  The water keeps rising.  We try to go to higher ground, but eventually there’s no higher ground to go to.  The water keeps rising until we have nowhere else to go.  And we die.

Do you ever feel like that’s the way life’s going for you?  I mean, not literally, although last year’s flooding in the Pierre area may have reminded a few people of that.  What I mean is, do you ever feel like bad things are happening to you, and you have no idea why?  You have no clear idea what’s going on or what’s causing it or anything.  All you know is that bad things are happening.  And they keep happening.  And they keep happening.  You think they’re never going to stop. 

Maybe, at some point, we decide that God is causing this.  We ask God to save us.  But God does not seem to respond.  We try to find higher ground, to go someplace where we can escape the bad stuff, but there’s nowhere to go.  We feel like we’re drowning, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  We feel like things are completely hopeless.

I’ll bet a lot of you have felt that way at some point in your lives.  I have.  Maybe you feel that way now.  It’s a pretty terrible feeling.  It’s one thing to feel like everything’s going wrong now.  It’s even worse, though, to feel like there’s no hope of things ever being different, to feel like there’s nowhere to go and no one to turn to, to feel like not even God can or will save us.  That’s got to be about as bad a feeling as we can have.

Here’s the thing, though.  Whether we think the story of the flood is literally true or not, here’s the important point about it:  God has promised that it will never happen again.  If God ever was this punishing, unforgiving God, that’s not who God is now.  We do not have to worry about that now or at any point in the future.  God promised Noah that never again would God abandon humans or leave us without hope.  God gave us the rainbow as an everlasting sign of that promise.

I think this is why this story is in the Bible:  to tell us that, no matter what’s going on in our lives, we are never in a situation that is without hope.  Even when we cannot see the hope, it’s still there.  Hope is still there because God is still there.  God will always be there for us.

That does not mean that God will instantly make all the bad things go away.  God never promises to make our lives easy or to take us out of bad situations.  What God does do is promise to be with us in the bad situations and help us through them.  God promises to be there every step of the way, no matter how bad it gets, and God promises to see us through to the other side of our trouble, no matter what that other side may be.

Is that always easy to believe?  No.  It can be hard sometimes.  Depending on the situation, it can be really hard.  Sometimes we think we cannot do it.  But we can.  We can trust it because we know who God is not the angry, punishing God described at the beginning of this story.  If God ever was that way, God has promised never to be that way again.  God has promised to be a God of hope, and a God of love.  God gave us rainbows to remind us of that.

We are never abandoned by God.  It may feel that way sometimes, but it’s not true.  No matter how hard it seems to be raining in our lives, and no matter how much we may feel like we’re drowning in our troubles, God is still there.  The will come a time when the rain will end.  At the end of the rain, there will always be a rainbow.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Whose Bright Idea Was This?

            So whose bright idea was this, anyway?
            A couple of weeks ago, we had temperatures in the 40s and 50s, even touching 60 a time or two.  I was good with that for January.  Now, as I write this, it’s two degrees—two measly little degrees—and there’s a strong wind blowing out of the north.  What’s up with that?  Who decided we needed weather like this in January?
            Well, we know the answers to those questions.  What’s up with that is that I’m in Gettysburg, South Dakota in January.  We know around here that, at some point, it’s going to get really cold.  Who decided we needed weather like this in January is, ultimately, God.  I’m not saying God specifically said it should be two degrees in Gettysburg today, but God set up the system by which we know that we always get cold weather here at this time of year.
            This is not the system I’d have set up, if I was doing it.  I’d have kept those 40-60 degree temperatures around all through January and into February, at which point I’d have had it warm up a little.  That seems to me like a much better system.  God, however, seems not to agree with me on this point.
            As I look at my life, I can find several times where this has happened.  I have one idea for how things should go.  God has a different idea.  Since God does not generally seek out my opinions before making decisions, things go the way God wants them to go, not the way I want them to go.
            I’ve noticed a pattern about these things.  Quite often, when God makes these decisions without consulting me, things turn out better than they would have if God had done them the way I wanted.  There are some things the jury is still out on—for example, I still don’t agree with the system that says peas are better for you than ice cream—but for those things on which the verdict is in, it seems like I always get it wrong and God always gets it right.
            Quite often, God has reasons for things that we can’t see or understand.  When I got out of law school, I could not understand why I didn’t get some of the jobs I applied for—until I was hired for the one I finally got.  I could not understand why a certain young woman did not want to marry me—until I met the woman who now is my wife.  I could not understand why I was not more successful as a lawyer—until I realized that God was leading me into the ministry.  I could not understand why God did not allow us to stay in North Sioux City—until I came to the Wheatland Parish.  These are just a few examples.  I could give a lot more.
            I still don’t understand the whole “cold and snow in January” thing.  In fact, I’m not sure I understand the purpose for January at all, other than as a time for football playoffs.  Still, I’m sure God has a reason for it and that God is probably right, even if I can’t see why or how.
            So, as in the other matters of our lives, big and small, I’ll try to trust God in this.  I’ll assume God has good reasons, even if I don’t understand them.  After all, God has a pretty good track record of being right.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Of Life, Death, and Cadbury Creme Eggs

            I saw an article the other day that had good news.  Cadbury crème egg season will be here soon!  Of course, this is a season that is also known as “Easter”.  I realize that, as a Christian pastor, I should value Easter for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and all that signifies, and I do, but I also value it for Cadbury crème eggs.  They are close to being nature’s perfect food, just above Double Stuf Oreos and just behind mom’s chocolate chip cookies (hi, mom!).

            I saw another article the other day, too.  This one was about health.  Here’s a question for you.  Do you know what the number one risk factor associated with cancer and heart disease is?

            Unless you saw the story, I’ll bet you got it wrong.  It’s not weight or diet or lack of exercise or stress or any of the things we normally think about.  It’s age.  That’s right, age.  The older we are, the more likely we are to get cancer or heart disease.  In other words, the number one risk factor associated with these diseases is one that we can do absolutely nothing about.

            Last time, I wrote about our need to take care of ourselves.  I still believe that, of course.  We should do all we can to stay healthy for as long as we can, so that we can better serve God.  Still, this article was a reminder that no matter what we do, none of us is going to live forever.  No matter how much we eat right and exercise and get our rest and do all the things we’re supposed to do, at some point we’re all going to get old, and at some point we’re all going to die.

            Which brings me back to Cadbury crème eggs.  Each one has six grams of fat and twenty-one grams of sugar.  Each has 24 grams of carbohydrate and 150 calories.  There’s a reason these things are not sold in the health food section of the store.  No one would reasonably make the argument that Cadbury crème eggs are good for you.

            But you know what?  We can deny ourselves all the pleasures of life, we can eat nothing but oats and nuts and berries, and we’re still going to die sometime.  I’m not suggesting that we make Cadbury crème eggs the chief staple of our diet.  On the other hand, eating one once in a while is not going to particularly hurt us, either.

            We should do all we reasonably can to stay healthy.  On the other hand, life is not meant to just be endured.  It’s also supposed to be enjoyed.  So use your head, get your rest, and keep yourself in shape.  But eat a Cadbury crème egg once in a while, too.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Our First and Our Best

The following message was given in the Wheatland Parish on January 15, 2012.  The scripture was Genesis 4:1-17.

               We are in the second week of our sermon series called “In the Beginning”, where we’re looking at some of the stories from the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis.  Today, we’re going to look at the story of Cain and Abel.
The reason I chose this story to preach on is that, even though I’ve heard this story ever since I was a little kid in Sunday school, I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it all that much.  I know the facts, and many of you probably do, too.  Cain and Abel are brothers, they both bring an offering to God, God likes Abel’s gift but not Cain’s, Cain gets mad and kills Abel, God finds out about it, and Cain is punished.  It seems like that last part is the part we always focus on, the murder and the punishment.
Is that really why that story’s in the Bible?  What are we supposed to learn from that?  I guess we learn that murder is wrong, but that seems kind of obvious.  Why else is the story there?  I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about it.  Maybe you’ve never thought about it, either.  So, today, we’re going to think about it and try to figure out what we’re supposed to learn from the story of Cain and Abel.
One of the things we need to look at is why God liked Abel’s gift and not Cain’s.  After all, they both gave to God from what they had.  Abel kept flocks, and gave God some of his herd.  Cain worked the soil, and gave God some of his crops.  Seems like they both gave God from what they had.
Listen, though, to how those gifts are described.  We’re told that Cain gave “some” of the fruits of the soil to God.  We’re not told whether those fruits were good, bad, or indifferent, nor are we told how much Cain gave.  We’re just told that he gave “some”.  When it comes to Abel, though, we’re told that he gave “the fat portions from the firstborn of his flock.”  In other words, Abel gave did not just choose something at random to give God.  Abel gave God the first and the best of what he had.  That’s why God liked Abel’s gift but not Cain’s.
That’s a lesson for us right there, before we even get to the rest of the story.  What do we give as an offering to God?  Do we give the first and the best of what we have?  Or do we just give “some”, just kind of whatever we feel like giving?  And when we do, what reaction do we expect God to have?  Do we expect God to like our gifts when we just give “some”, rather than giving our first and our best?  This story tells us that’s not how it works.  God deserves more than just whatever we feel like giving.  God deserves our first and our best, and God does not like it when we try to get by with less.

Now, notice that God does not say that Cain sinned by trying to get by with less than the first and the best.  God did not punish Cain for what he did, at this point.  On the other hand, God did not bless Cain for it, either.  What God did was give Cain a warning.  God said that what Cain did was not right, and warned him that he was headed in the wrong direction.  God said, “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” 

Think about that.  It’s not that every time we fail to do right we commit a sin for which God is going to punish us.  What happens, though, is that every time we fail to do right, we lose out on a chance for God’s blessings, and we give sin an opening.  We start heading in the wrong direction, and that give sin a chance to take us over.

That’s what God said Cain was doing when he tried to get by with giving God less than the first and the best.  That’s what God says we do, too, when we try to get by with giving God less than our first and our best.  It’s not that every time we do that, we commit a sin for which God will punish us.  It’s that every time we fail to give God our best, we lose a chance for God’s blessings, and instead we give sin a chance to take over.  In other words, if we don’t give God our first and our best, we’re hurting ourselves.

That does not just apply to material things, of course.  It applies to everything.  Every time we fail to give God our first and our best, whether it’s our money, our time, our talents, or anything else, we lose a chance to gain God’s blessings.  We give sin an opening to come into our lives.  We fail to please God, but that’s not really the point.  The point is that we hurt ourselves.

We never think about it that way, do we?  When we try to get by with giving God less than our best, we never think of it as hurting ourselves.  Usually when we do that, it’s because we want to keep our possession and our time and so forth to ourselves, or because we don’t trust God enough to give God our first and our best, or because we’re too lazy to do it, or something like that.  We think, on some level, that we’ll somehow be better off if we keep things to ourselves rather than giving them to God.

That’s probably what Cain thought, don’t you think?  Cain thought he’d be better off in some way if he just gave “some” of what he’d raised to God, rather than giving God the first and the best.  Instead, it turned out to be exactly the other way around.  Abel received God’s blessing for giving God the first and the best, while Cain gave sin a chance to take over his life.

We know, of course, that that’s exactly what happened.  Cain did not listen to God’s warning.  Cain did not resolve that, from now on, he was going to give God his first and his best, the way God wanted him to do.  Instead, Cain let sin take advantage of the opening he had given it.  He felt envy and resentment at his brother Abel, and so he killed him.

Notice how God reacts to that.  God does not instantly condemn Cain.  Instead, God asks him, “Where is your brother, Abel?”

Did you ever wonder why God asked Cain that?  It’s not because God did not know the answer, of course.  In fact, just two verses later, God tells Cain that he knows the answer.  I think what God was doing was giving Cain another chance.  God had already given him one chance, when God warned him about sin crouching at his door.  Now, God gives him another chance, a chance to confess what he’d done and ask for forgiveness for it.

It was only when Cain failed to take advantage of that chance that God sent Cain out of Eden.  Notice, though, that even then God does not condemn Cain.  God makes Cain accept the consequences of his actions, but that’s all. God does not kill Cain.  In fact, God gives Cain divine protection by putting a mark on him to make sure no one will kill him.

                Think of all the chances Cain had to ask God’s forgiveness, to get on the right path, and to receive God’s blessings.  After he fails to give God the first and the best, God gives him another chance, along with a warning.  Even after Cain kills Abel, God still gives him a chance to confess what he did and ask for forgiveness.  In fact, even after God sends Cain out of Eden, we’re not told that God condemned Cain to hell or anything.  In fact, God still gives him divine protection.  I have to think that, even at that point, Cain could have asked for forgiveness from God.

For all we know, maybe he did.  We don’t know what happened to Cain after that.  We know he went to the land of Nod, east of Eden, that he had a wife, and that they had at least one child.  We’re told that, at the time his child was born, Cain was building a city.  That’s it.  We don’t hear about Cain again.  It’s entirely possible that Cain eventually did ask for and receive forgiveness from God, that he got back on the right path, and that he started giving God his first and his best.  He still had to deal with consequences of his actions, but he may have received further blessings from God at some point in his life.  In fact, just the fact that he had a wife and son may be evidence that he received some of God’s blessings.

You see, the story of Cain and Abel is not a story of crime and punishment.  It’s a story of sin and forgiveness.  It’s a story of what God asks of us, what happens when we don’t give it to God, and how, no matter what we do, we can always receive another chance.

God asks for our first and our best, not just in material possessions, but in everything.  God asks us to dedicate our lives to God, regardless of what we may do for a living.  When we don’t do that, we only hurt ourselves, not because God will punish us but because we don’t get the blessings from God that we might otherwise get.

                God is always willing to give us another chance, though.  We get warnings, and we get chances to confess.  Sometimes, we have to accept the consequences of our actions.  Even when we fail to change, and even when we have to accept those consequences, God does not condemn us.  Instead, God still protects us and is willing to give us another chance.  When we take advantage of that chance, we can still receive God’s blessings.

Every day, we get another opportunity to take advantage of that chance.  At some point, though, our days will come to an end, and none of us knows when that will be.  That’s why we need to take advantage of that chance now, today.

Let’s not deprive ourselves of God’s blessings any more.  Let’s dedicate ourselves to God in everything we do.  Let’s give God our first and our best.

Wait For the Lord

The following message was given at the Oahe Manor communion service on January 12, 2012.  The scripture was Psalm 27.

             That is such a beautiful psalm.  All I want to do this afternoon is just talk a little bit about what these words mean.
The psalm starts with a wonderful statement of faith.  The psalmist says the Lord is his light and his salvation, the stronghold of his life.  Because of that, he does not have to be afraid of anyone.  Evildoers, adversaries, foes; even if an army camps around him and goes to war against him, he’s not going to be afraid.  In fact, he’s going to be confident.
That’s a pretty amazing faith, is it not?  Some of you have loved ones who’ve been to war or who are there now.  I’ll bet those words have extra meaning for you.  I’ve never known what it’s like to have an army actually camped around you and ready to go to war against you, and I hope I never do, but I’m sure it has to be a pretty scary feeling.  It takes a lot to be confident in that situation.
But you know, we have a lot of reasons to fear other than actually being at war.  We fear losing our health.  We fear our loved ones losing their health.  We fear not feeling needed.  We fear not being able to help the people who are closest to us.  Those and lots of other fears can prey on our minds.  When they do, it can feel like our adversaries and foes have surrounded us.  In fact, in some ways, it can feel worse, because there’s no tangible enemy we can fight.  There’s nobody we can hit and nobody we can get mad at.  It can be a really frustrating situation.
How do we get rid of that fear and frustration?  By putting our trust in God.  That’s what the psalmist did.  He said that the only thing he wants is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of his life.  All he wants is to see the beauty of the Lord and be able to find out more about God.
The psalmist knows what we need to know:  that God will take care of us.  When we have troubles, even serious troubles, God will not leave us to face those things by ourselves.  God will protect us. 

What makes that hard to do is that nothing God does ever comes on our time schedule.  When we’re in trouble, we want help now, not later.  When we’re afraid, we want God to come to our rescue today, not tomorrow or next week or next month.  When we ask for God’s protection, we want to see something happen right away.
The psalmist wants that, too.  He pleads with God to not hide God’s face from him.  He begs God not to cast him off or forsake him.  The psalmist understands our impatience, because he feels it, too.
Look, though, at what the psalmist ultimately says.  He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get God to help.  He’s going to “seek God’s face.”  In other words, he’s going to look for God.  He’s going to try to find God.  He’s going to do whatever he has to do, and go wherever he has to go, to find God so he can get God’s protection and help.
Then look at what the psalmist asks God for.  He asks God to “teach me your way, O Lord.”
Let’s talk about that, because it seems to me it’s another incredible statement of faith.  To be in a state of fear, to feel surrounded by enemies, and yet be able to go to God and simply say, “God, teach me your way.”
What that says is that when we’re in trouble, when we feel fear, we should not run away.  Instead, we should run to God.  Instead of asking God to bail us out, though, we should simply submit ourselves to God’s will.  “Teach me your way, O Lord.”  God, show me where you want me to go.  Show me what you want me to do.  Then, God, give me the ability to do it.
Then, God, please do something else.  Two things, actually.  One, give me the courage to do what you want me to do, and two, give me the patience and the trust to know that if I do what I’m supposed to do, you’ll do what you’re supposed to do.  “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.”
Life can be hard sometimes.  It can give us lots of reasons to be afraid.  That’s true when we’re eight, when we’re forty-eight, and when we’re eighty-eight.  The things we’re afraid of change, but we never run out of them.  We always have adversaries and foes of one kind or another.

God does not promise to keep us from trouble.  God does, however, promise to be with us through those troubles.  If we run to God, if we submit ourselves to God’s will, if we trust both in God’s power and in God’s timing, we can be confident, just like the psalmist was.  We can be strong.  We can take courage.  And we can wait for the Lord.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Taking Care of Ourselves

                As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m fifty-three years old.  That’s not old, exactly, but it’s certainly not young, either.  It’s an age at which a lot of people start to slow down a little bit. 

I’m find that’s not the case with me.  If anything, I seem to speeding up.  I find myself working harder, being more active, and doing more stuff now than I did ten or twenty years ago.

Part of that, of course, is that I started with a pretty low bar.  As my parents could tell you, when I was a kid I was not terribly active.  There were few things I loved more than having nothing to do and having all day to do it in.  Mom and Dad were constantly after me to go mow the yard, or chop musk thistles, or practice the piano, or just to get out and do something.  Playing Strat-O-Matic baseball for hours obviously did not qualify as “something”.

The main thing to which I attribute my current level of activity is that I have now found a vocation in which I enjoy almost everything I do (filling out conference reports excepted).  When you enjoy the things you do, they don’t seem like work.  They still involve effort, of course, and they take time.  That’s one of my biggest problems these days:  I never seem to have the time to do all the things I want to do, especially with three churches in three communities.

The temptation, then, is to constantly try to do more and more and more.  That’s good up to a point, but only up to a point.  One of the things I’m learning is that constant activity is really no better than constant inactivity.  While I’d love to be able to do more and more and more, I have to make sure I take care of myself, too.  If I’m not healthy in mind, body, and spirit, I’m not going to be able to help others.  That’s advice I’ve given to quite a few people over the years, but sometimes I forget to take it myself.

What that means is that, no matter how busy we get, we’ve got to take the time to do things that will keep us healthy.  We need to take time to get some exercise.  We need to take time to eat properly.  We need to take time to get enough rest.  If we don’t do those things, our bodies are going to rebel against us.  We don’t want that to happen.

                It also means that we need to take the time to let our minds wander a little bit.  I’m not saying we need to take two weeks to go meditate somewhere.  We do need to find a few minutes in our day to just let our minds go wherever they want to go, rather than just being focused on the here and now. 

When we’re constantly running here, running there, doing this, doing that, we don’t have the time to really think.  We don’t have the time to make plans that go beyond this week.  We don’t have time to think about anything but the things we have to do.  We start to get edgy and easily annoyed.  Also, we don’t have time to be creative.  We know that God is creative, and since we’re created in God’s image, that means God wants us to be creative, too.  We can’t do that if we’re engaged in constant activity with no time to think.

I hope you all enjoy what you do as much as I enjoy what I do.  No matter how much you enjoy it, though, make sure you take the time to take care of yourself.  When we do that, we are much better able to serve God and be the people God wants us to be.