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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Not My Problem

            I went to a pastors’ retreat last weekend.  Part of what we did was construct a sort of timeline of the significant events in our lives.

            It can be interesting to do that.  There was nothing startling that came from it, but it was kind of neat to look back at a lot of the significant things that had happened to me.  A lot of them are things I was worried about at the time.  Now, though, looking back at it, I can see that not only did they work out for the best, but God was acting in those situations, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

            After we did that, though, we moved on to something else that left me a little perplexed.  The question basically was, “Now that you’ve seen how God worked in your life in the past, where do you think God will lead you in the future?”

            I had no idea what to do with that question.  See, I’ve had times in my life where I tried to figure out what God wanted me to do and where God wanted me to go.  When I  constructed that timeline, I realized, not for the first time, that every time I’ve tried to do that, not only did I get it wrong, I got it loud wrong.  Each time, God has taken me in a totally different direction from the one I thought I was going in. 

At one time, I had thought I might be a part of a big law firm in a larger city.  Instead, I went to work for the state in Pierre.  When I started thinking about moving on from there, I thought I would get a job that would enable us to continue living in Pierre.  Instead, moved to Wessington Springs.  Then, I thought I’d probably be a small-town lawyer in Wessington Springs the rest of my life.  Instead, I became a pastor and moved first to the ARK and now to the Wheatland Parish.  In each of those cases, God had something else in mind for me, and took me a direction I never would have guessed.  In each of those cases, though, the direction God took me was much better than the direction I had thought I’d go.

            I think what God has been trying to tell me through all this is that figuring out my future is not my problem.  It’s God’s problem, and I should let God handle it.  What God wants from me is for me to do the best I can in the situation in which God has placed me.  When it’s time for me to do something else or to go somewhere else, God will let me know about that, and God will show me the something else I’m supposed to do or the somewhere else I’m supposed to go.

            None of this is meant as a criticism of anyone else.  There are people who set a goal for the next five years, the next ten years, or the next twenty years, and aim their lives toward that goal.  If that works for you, fine.  I’m not criticizing you.  In fact, I kind of envy you.  All I’m telling you is that it doesn’t work for me.  When I try to do that, not only do I move toward the goals I’ve set, it feels like God deliberately moves me away from those goals. 

            I don’t know when or even if God will show me something else to do or somewhere else to go.  I’m in no hurry for God to do that.  I’m quite happy doing what I’m doing and doing it where I’m doing it.  I need to be aware, though, that God could show that to me at any time.  I need to be open to following God’s leading, no matter where that leading may take me. 

Until God does that, though, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, and I’m going to do it the best that I can.  That may not be much of an answer to the question I was asked, but it’s an answer I’m comfortable with.  It’s an answer I think God’s comfortable with, too.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hall of Famers

Below is the text of the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, February 26.  The scripture is Joshua 1:1-9.

            Every sport has a Hall of Fame.  This is where each sport recognizes the greatest players and coaches of all time.  To get into a Hall of Fame, you cannot just have been pretty good.  You have to have been great.  You cannot have been great for just a little while, either.  You have to have been great for a long time.  You have to be one of the all-time greats, what they sometimes call a legend in sports, to go into the Hall of Fame.
            The thing about those all-time greats is that there always comes a time when they are no longer there.  No matter how great someone is, no one lasts forever.  There comes a time when that great player, that great coach, that great legend has to be replaced.
            It’s not easy to be the person who replaces a legend.  In fact, in sports there’s a saying that you don’t want to be the guy who replaces a legend, you want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend.  See, once a person achieves that kind of greatness, that kind of legendary status, nothing the next person does can ever be good enough.  No matter how good you are, even if you are really good, you can never live up to what the person before you did.  It takes a lot of courage to replace a legend.
            Today we continue our sermon series “Selection Sundays”, looking at the stories of people in the Bible who were selected by God, with the story of Joshua.  Joshua knows exactly what it’s like to try to replace a legend, because that’s exactly what he had to do.  Joshua was the person who replaced Moses.
            We talked about Moses last week.  If there was a Bible Hall of Fame, Moses would be in it.  Moses is considered one of the all-time greats in the Bible, and rightly so.  After all, Moses stood up to the mighty Pharaoh.  Moses led the people of Israel across the Red Sea into freedom.  Moses led the people of Israel for forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  After Moses died, here’s how he’s described in the Bible: 
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.  For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
            That’s what the people thought of Moses.  So now, here comes Joshua.  He’s supposed to replace Moses.  He’s supposed to be the next leader of Israel.  Talk about having big sandals to fill.  These would be size twenty-five quadruple X’s.
            Now, Joshua was not unknown to the people of Israel.  He’d been Moses’ chief aide.  He’d fought for Israel and gone out on spying missions for Israel.  He’d served the people loyally for many years.
Still, there’s a big difference between being the number two guy and being number one.  There’s a big difference between executing someone else’s decisions and being the one who’s supposed to make the decisions.  Joshua had to be pretty nervous about this. 
He had to be nervous, really, on a couple of levels.  For one thing, he had to have some doubts about himself.  He had to wonder whether he could ever be as great, as wise, as strong as Moses had been.  Plus, he also had to wonder whether he could ever get out of Moses’ big shadow.  He had to wonder whether he could ever get the people to follow him the way Moses had.  After all, even as great as Moses was, there were plenty of times when the people had questioned him and threatened to rebel.  If there were times when the people had not even wanted to follow the great Moses, why would they ever want to follow Joshua?
That, to me, is one of the coolest things about the reading from Joshua that we heard today.  When we read the words God said to Joshua, it’s obvious that God understood exactly what Joshua was going through.  God knew all the doubts and fears that Joshua had.  God knew that Joshua was pretty unsure of himself, that Joshua did not know if he had what it took to lead the people of Israel.
The thing is, though, that God remembered how it was when Moses started out.  We talked about that last week.  Moses was nobody when he started out, but God saw that Moses had greatness in him.  God worked with Moses, God was there for Moses, and eventually God helped Moses develop greatness and let it out.
God knew that was true of Joshua, too.  God knew Joshua had greatness in him, too.  He might not be Moses, but God was not selecting him to be Moses.  Moses had done what Moses was supposed to do.  Now it was time for Joshua to do what Joshua was supposed to do.  God did not ask Joshua to be Moses.  God asked Joshua to be the best Joshua he could be.  In doing that, Joshua would achieve greatness on his own.
Just like with Moses, though, God knew Joshua would need some help to develop that greatness.  So, what God basically does is give Joshua a pep talk.  Listen again to what God says to Joshua:
…get ready to cross the Jordan River…I will give you every place where you set your foot…No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life.  As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you…Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land…Be strong and very courageous.  Be careful to obey all the law…Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips…Then you will be prosperous and successful…Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
Replacing Moses was not going to be easy.  God knew that.  So, God told Joshua that he did not have to do it by himself.  God promised Joshua that God would be with him, every bit as much as God had been with Moses.  Then comes the big part, the part you probably noticed, the part that God says to Joshua three times in these few verses:  Be strong and courageous.
We talked last week about how each one of us has been selected by God to do something.  We also talked about how, a lot of times, we really know, deep down, what we’re supposed to do, but we just don’t want to do it.  One of the main reasons we don’t want to, frankly, is because we’re scared to.
The things God selects us to do are sometimes not easy.  The things God selects us to do sometimes take us out of our comfort zones.  A lot of times, we’re happy with the life we already have, and even if we’re not, we’re at least used to it.  We don’t know what might happen to that life if we do what God has selected us to do.  We don’t know where the things God has selected us to do might lead.  Besides, we don’t know if we’re even actually capable of doing the things God has selected us to do.  Agreeing to be selected by God can be pretty scary.
If that’s where you are, God understands.  And God is saying the same thing to you that God said to Joshua.  Get ready.  I will be with you.  I will never leave you nor forsake you.  Be strong and courageous, because you will be able to do what I’ve selected you to do.  Be strong and very courageous.  Do what I’ve told you to do.  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
God knows why we hesitate.  God knows why we’re scared.  But God knows we have what it takes, and God will bring that out in each one of us.  When we’re weak, we can rely on God’s strength.  When we’re scared, we can rely on God’s courage.
Each one of us has greatness in us.  God may not select us to lead a nation, like God did with Moses and Joshua, but that’s not the qualification for greatness, at least not in God’s eyes.  Greatness, in God’s eyes, means agreeing to do whatever God has selected us to do, whether it’s something big or something small.  Remember, too, that something that seems to be small in human eyes can be something big and great in God’s eyes.  Those things might not put us in a human Hall of Fame, but they can make us hall-of-famers to God.
           You have greatness in you.  If we all trust God, and rely on God, we can say yes when God selects us.  We can be strong and courageous, just like Joshua was.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Frogs and Church Growth

            I want to write a little more about church growth.  First, though, I want to write about frogs.

            You’ve probably heard the old thing about how to boil a frog.  You don’t boil the water first and then throw the frog in; if you do, the frog will know that the water’s too hot and will jump out.  What you do is put the frog in cool water.  Then, very slowly, very gradually, you turn up the heat.  The temperature of the water goes up so slowly and gradually that the frog does not even notice it.

            So what does this have to do with church growth?  Well, last time, I wrote about how, for the churches of the Wheatland Parish, growth is not going to come in fifties or hundreds, or even in tens and twenties.  It’s more likely to come in ones and twos.

            The thing about growing by ones and twos is that, even on our scale, that kind of growth happens slowly and gradually.  It happens so slowly and so gradually that we don’t really notice it.  Averaging one or two more people in worship does not make the sanctuary feel any more full than it did before.  Then, when we start averaging one or two more again, it still doesn’t feel any more full.

            That’s another way growth by ones and twos can be discouraging.  After all, we live in a society of immediate gratification.  For breakfast, we have instant coffee, instant oatmeal, and microwave bacon.  We want instant church growth, too.  When we don’t see it, we can get depressed.  We can start to wonder what we’re doing wrong.

            If you’re starting to feel that way, do what I do.  Look around the sanctuary on Sunday morning.  Almost every week, in each of our churches, you’ll see someone who’s now attending regularly, or at least semi-regularly, who wasn’t doing so six or eight months ago.  Often, you’ll see several people like that.  That’s proof that our churches are growing.  It’s just that, because the numbers are changing slowly and gradually, we don’t notice them going up, any more than the frog notices the numbers on the thermometer going up.

            That’s where the analogy breaks down, of course.  When the numbers go up for the frog, he’s done for.  When the numbers go up in the church, we’re just getting started. 

            We have to keep working at it, of course.  Our churches can continue to grow, but it won’t happen by itself.  We need to continue to do all we can to spread God’s word to as many people as we can.  If we do our part, we know we can count on God to do God’s part.  When that happens, there’s no limit to how high the numbers can go.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ones and Twos

            One of the topics that gets talked about a lot in the church is the need of churches to grow.  We talk about it, we read books about it, we go to seminars about it.  In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, there was a seminar in Faulkton present by Debi Nixon, which several members of our parish attended.

            It’s important that we talk about ways to make our churches grow.  As I’ve said before, in life we are always moving forward or moving backward, but we never get to stand still.  If we believe in the mission of the church, we should always try to do things that will spread the gospel and help our churches grow.

            The thing is that, sometimes, studying about church growth can be discouraging.  The experts in this area, the people who write the books and put on the seminars, tend to be people whose churches grew by leaps and bounds, and did so very rapidly.  Their churches grew in groups of forty or fifty, if not groups of hundreds, and did so in a relatively short period of time.

            Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s a wonderful thing.  The reason I say it can get discouraging to read about or hear about is that many of us live in areas in which growth on that scale is simply not possible.  A church in Gettysburg or Onida or Agar is not going to grow by fifties or hundreds.  It’s not even likely to grow by tens and twenties. The most we can hope for is growth by ones and twos.  So, when we constantly hear about churches with phenomenal growth, we can get a little depressed.  We’re happy for those churches where it happened, but we know it’s not something we can duplicate.

            That’s okay.  Nowhere is it written that the church growth is only legitimate if it’s large and rapid.  Think of Jesus’ ministry.  He had times when he preached to and fed and healed large numbers of people, but he also had times when he talked to and fed and healed one or two people.  Jesus never makes a statement that one of those times was more important than the other. 

In fact, every indication is that Jesus considered the times when he ministered to one or two people to be at least as important as the times when he ministered to large crowds, if not more so.  Remember the story of the lost sheep?  The shepherd was willing to leave the ninety-nine who were already safe just for the sake of one that was lost.  The story of the lost coin is similar:  the woman in that story did everything possible to find the one that was lost.  In both cases, when that one was found, there was incredible rejoicing.  That was for a lost sheep or a lost coin.  Think how much more rejoicing there is in heaven when one lost soul is found.

Also think about this:  no one can be personally involved in the lives of hundreds of people.  It’s just not possible.  When we grow by one and twos, though, we can be personally involved with those people.  We can help them grow as Christians.  We can be there for them when they need us.  We can encourage them and help them through their lives.  They can do the same thing for us.  That’s an incredibly wonderful and rewarding ministry.

It’s an awesome thing when a church grows by leaps and bounds.  It’s an equally awesome thing, though, when we grow by ones and twos.  That’s not something to be discouraged about.  It’s something to celebrate!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Life is a Roller Coaster Ride

These are the lyrics to an original song I sang in the Wheatland Parish yesterday.  It is published here as the result of a request.

Life has its ups and downs
Its smiles and its frowns
It’s hard to hold on through it all
But still you have to try
And keep your head up high
And if you run into a wall
You can come back again
And make another plan
‘Cause anything can happen after all

Life is a roller coaster ride
It takes courage just to try
And we get excited as we rise
But pretty soon we realize
That we are headed for a fall
But after we drop we stand up tall
‘Cause with God’s help we’ll turn the tide
Life is a roller coaster ride

When things are going bad
Try not to be too sad
Things will get better by and by
And when things are going right
And you when every fight
Don’t let yourself get up to high
‘Cause life brings joy and pain
There’s sunshine and there’s rain
Sometimes you will laugh, sometimes you’ll cry

Life is a roller coaster ride
It takes courage just to try
And we get excited as we rise
But pretty soon we realize
That we are headed for a fall
But after we drop we stand up tall
‘Cause with God’s help we’ll turn the tide
Life is a roller coaster ride

So smile whatever comes
No sense in being glum
Nothing’s as bad as it may seem
Life is too short for tears
So put away your fears
Don’t let yourself run out of steam
Don’t worry ‘bout the past
Nothing can ever last
Just be sure to hold on to your dreams

Life is a roller coaster ride
It takes courage just to try
And we get excited as we rise
But pretty soon we realize
That we are headed for a fall
But after we drop we stand up tall
‘Cause with God’s help we’ll turn the tide
Life is a roller coaster ride

Sunday, February 19, 2012

An Offer We Can't Refuse

Below is the text of the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, February 19, 2012.  The scripture is Exodus 3:1-4:17.

            For people who follow college basketball, we’re heading into the best time of the year.  The conference seasons are nearly over.  Soon, we’ll have the conference tournaments, then the big “March Madness” tournament leading to the Final Four and the eventual crowning of a new college basketball champion.
            You cannot win the championship if you don’t get into the tournament, of course.  That means that, for many teams, the big day of the year is “Selection Sunday.”  This is the day when the NCAA decides which teams are good enough to make it into the tournament and get to compete for the championship.
            Every team wants to get selected for the tournament, of course.  Every team wants to be considered good enough to play for the championship.  By Selection Sunday, though, there are some teams who think they have no chance, that they just were not good enough that year.  There are other teams who think they’re spot is secure, that they were obviously good enough to get in.  There are others who are not sure, and so have to nervously wait for the committee to make its decisions.
            Over the course of human history, of course, God has sometimes made selections of people.  The people God selects do not get the chance to win a trophy.  Instead, they get the chance to be God’s messengers and to spread God’s word.  The thing about God’s selections, though, is that in making selections, God does not look at the things humans would look at.  God does not look at our won-lost record, our strength of schedule, or anything else that shows up on the outside.  God looks at what’s in our hearts.  That means God makes sometimes makes selections that seem strange or unusual to us, but that of course make perfect sense to God.
            So, our next sermon series is called “Selections Sundays”.  We’re going to look at some of the people whom God selected.  We’re going to think about who these people were, how God came to select them, and what they’re selection means for us.  As you probably guessed from our scripture reading, we’re going to start with God’s selection of Moses.
            Moses’ won-lost record would’ve been pretty mixed.  He had a few big wins, but he had some pretty big losses, too.  He was born into slavery and as a baby was placed in a basket and put in the river in an attempt by his mother to save him from being killed.  That sounds like a couple of big losses to me.  Then, though, Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses, rescued him, and raised him as her son.  That was a pretty big win.  After that, though, Moses killed an Egyptian man who was mistreating a Hebrew slave, and had to run for his life.  There’s another loss.  He went to Midian, went to work for a man who was fairly well off, and married one of his daughters.  There’s somewhat of a win.  And that’s where Moses’ record stood at the time of our reading from Exodus today.
            What really strikes me about the selection of Moses is how typically human Moses’ response to God is.  You know, Moses is probably the greatest hero of the Old Testament.  Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.  Moses talked directly with God.  Moses got the Ten Commandments from God.  When Jesus came and tried to change people’s ideas about how to follow God, the thing the Pharisees kept throwing at him was, “Well, but Moses said such and such.  How does what you square what you’re saying with what Moses said?”  Moses was the ultimate authority, second only to God.
            Yet, in our reading today, when God tells Moses all the things Moses is going to do, Moses basically responds, “Who, me?”  Being selected by God was the last thing in the world Moses wanted.  Moses was enjoying his quiet life taking care of animals for his father-in-law.  He was married and had a son.  The last thing he wanted to do was go off to Egypt and start a revolution against the great Pharaoh.
            Which is often what we do when we feel God telling us to do something.  We say, “Who, me?”  We like our quiet lives, too.  We have jobs.  We have families.  The last thing we want to do is have God come along and turn our lives upside down.
            So, we do what Moses did.  We start making excuses for why we cannot do what God wants us to do.  First, Moses says, look, I’m a nobody.  I cannot do this.  God responds, “Don’t worry about that.  I’ll be with you.
            Then, Moses says, “I don’t have the authority to do this.  If I start telling people I was sent to rescue them, they’re going to want to know who sent me.  What am I going to say to them?”  God responds, “Don’t worry about that, either.  Tell them I am the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.  That’ll be enough for them.”
            Moses keeps trying.  He says, “Come on.  They won’t believe that.  There’s no way people are going to believe you actually appeared to someone like me.”  God has an answer for that, too.  God says, “I’ll prove it to them.  I’ll give them some signs that show I talked to you.”
            By now, Moses is getting desperate.  He says, “But…but…the person who does this needs to be a really good talker.  He needs to be able to persuade people.  And, well, you know me, God.  I’ve never been able to talk very well.  I’m just not persuasive.  See, I just cannot do this.  I’d like to, really I would, but I’m sure you can see that I’m just not the right guy for the job.”  And God says, “Hey, look, I’m the one who gives people the ability to speak.  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll be with you, and I’ll tell you what to say.”
            So now, Moses is out of excuses.  Ever been there?  Maybe we know it’s God talking to us, maybe we don’t, maybe we think it’s just our conscience, but we’ve all had those times where we know we really should do something that we don’t want to do.  We make all kinds of excuses for why we should not have to do it, but eventually the excuses don’t work any more.  Finally, all we can do is make a decision about what we know we should do.  We either have to say yes or say no.
            Moses said no.  Think about that.  Moses, the great leader of the nation of Israel, the greatest hero of the Old Testament, said no.  Moses did not want to be selected by God.  He just wanted to live a quiet life.  He said to God, “please select someone else.”
            It’s interesting to me that it’s at this point that the Bible tells us God gets mad at Moses.  Through all the excuses, all the objections, all the attempts to get out of it, God does not get upset with Moses.  God just keeps patiently disposing of the excuses, answering the objections, responding calmly to everything Moses says.  It’s only when Moses just flat out refuses to do what God wants him to do that God gets mad.
            Even then, though, God does not give up on Moses.  Instead, God gives him help.  He allows Moses to take his brother Aaron with him and do the talking for him.
            That’s why I think this is such a neat selection story.  When Moses was selected by God, Moses reacted just like you and I do.  He made excuses, he raised objections, he came up with every reason in the world why he could not do what God wanted him to do.  Finally, when he ran out of excuses, he said a flat no.  Through it all, God never gave up on him.  God kept working with him, convincing Moses that he actually could do what God had selected him to do.
            God does that for us, too.  Each one of us has been selected by God to do something.  It’s not the same thing for everybody, and it’s not necessarily the same thing all our lives.  Still, each of us has been selected by God to do something.  No one has been put on this earth for no reason.  You have a purpose for being here.  God has a plan for your life.  God has something for you to do.  God has something for me to do, too.
            If you don’t know what it is, think about it.  Pray about it.  Talk to people about it.  Keep your eyes open.  If we’re looking for what God wants us to do, God will show it to us at the appropriate time.
            A lot of us, though, are like Moses.  We know what we’re supposed to do.  We just don’t want to do it.  If that’s you, think of how God treated Moses.  God never gave up on him.  God worked with him, encouraged him, got him help, and promised to be with him every step of the way.
            God will do that for us, too.  God won’t give up on us.  God will work with us, encourage us, get us help, and be with us every step of the way, so we can do what God wants us to do.
            The one thing God won’t do is take no for an answer.  That did not work for Moses, and it won’t work for us.  God has selected each of us.  It’s an offer we cannot refuse.  No matter what our won-lost record is, God has still selected us.  All we have to do is trust God and do what God wants us to do.  God has promised to be with us, and God always keeps God’s promises.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I Write

            I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I only posted a blog entry once last week, where I usually post twice a week.
            I’ve been trying to post twice a week ever since I started blogging.  This is a deliberate decision on my part.  I know myself well enough to know that I need to schedule something like this into my week, or I’ll put it off and eventually won’t do it at all.  I started out posting on Mondays and Thursdays.  Now, it tends to be more Tuesdays and Fridays, or Wednesdays and Fridays, or Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Still, I do try to post twice a week if possible.
            I consider my blogging, and all of my writing, to be a form of spiritual discipline.  I don’t mean that to sound pretentious.  While I try to make these posts as good as I can, I understand that all they’re only little essays on a blog.  I don’t think that I’m writing Deep Thoughts without which the world would be poorer or anything of that sort.
            What I mean by calling it a form of spiritual discipline is that writing these posts helps me clarify what I really think about things.  Trying to set down my thoughts on various topics, and trying to do so in a way that will make sense to the reader, helps me clarify not just what I think, but why I think what I think.  Knowing that some people who read my thoughts may disagree with them makes me set my thoughts down more carefully.  It makes me hesitant to make broad, sweeping generalizations, and instead helps me become more precise in what I say and think.  This, in turn, helps me become more precise in what I believe.
            Because this blog tends to be both about my life and about faith, I find writing it to be very helpful in my role as a pastor.  It helps me think about what I really believe and why I believe it.  It helps me think about the impact my faith has on my life, as well as the impact my life has on my faith.  It also helps me think about whether my life is really consistent with my faith and vice versa.  As a result, writing this blog helps me feel closer to God.
            If you’re reading this, I assume you find it helpful in some way, too.  I’m glad of that.  I know there aren’t hundreds of people reading my blog, but that’s okay.  We’re not always supposed to reach hundreds of people at a time.  Sometimes, we’re only supposed to reach one or two people at a time.  That’s okay.  In fact, sometimes the most valuable ministry we do only reaches one or two people at a time.
            So, I’m going to keep blogging twice a week when I can.  There will be the occasional week, like last week, when I can’t, but I’m going to give it my best shot.  It’s helpful to me.  It helps me clarify my thoughts, and it helps me feel closer to God.  I hope it helps you in some way, too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When Days Attack

            The great philosopher, Charlie Brown, once observed, “I try to take life one day at a time. It’s just that lately, several days have attacked me at once.”

            Well, I’ve been there.  I’ll bet you have, too.  Don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not complaining about my life.  I have a wonderful life.  I’ve written before about how much I love the things I do, and that’s still true.  I would not trade my life or my job for anything.

            It’s just that, no matter what we do, we all have times when our lives get really busy.  These are times when, no matter how hard we try, it seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things we want to do.  The thing that makes it even harder is when all the things we want to do are good things.  We’re not having to choose between doing a good thing and doing a bad thing, or even between doing a bad thing and doing a neutral thing.  We’re having to choose between doing one good thing or doing another good thing.

            So what do we do?  How do we decide what to do when we know we can’t do everything?

            Well, for one thing, we have to prioritize.  I know that’s not exactly a novel idea, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.  We have to figure out which of the good things we want to do are the most important.  We also have to figure out which of the good things we want to do have to be done right now, as opposed to the good things that can wait a while.  That’s a tricky thing, too, though.  As the old saying goes, the thing that can be done at any time is often the thing that never gets done at all.  The fact that something may not be urgent does not mean that it should be put off indefinitely.

            Another thing we need to do is not put too much pressure on ourselves.  No one expects us to do everything, and certainly no one expects us to do everything today.  It’s okay to leave some things to be done tomorrow.  After all, even God does not expect us to do everything.  God expects us to do everything we can, but God understands that we only have twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week, and God knows that we cannot work every one of those hours.  We should not demand more of ourselves than God does.

            Not only can we not do everything, but we should not try to do everything.  When we do, we sometimes don’t allow room for others to do things.  Sometimes, when we don’t get things done, others will pick up the slack.  If they don’t, then perhaps some things just won’t get done.  That can be okay sometimes, too.

            Finally, we need to remember that there is no such thing as an indispensible person.  If you or I passed away today, the world would continue.  It was here long before we came, and it will be here long after we’re gone.  That does not excuse us for doing what we can, but it should help us realize that it’s okay for us to stop and take a breath once in a while.  After all, Jesus occasionally went off by himself to rest, to pray, and to think.  If Jesus did it, it’s okay for us to do it, too.  Doing that helps us get centered and remember the joy we get from doing the things we do.

            It can feel, sometimes, like several days are attacking us at once.  If we just stay calm, trust God, do our best, and keep plugging away, though, things will be work out.  God will make the time for us to do the things we need to do, and God will take care of the things we don’t have time to get to.  All we need to do is relax and trust God to help us.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The More Excellent Way

This is the message given at the worship service at Oahe Manor Sunday, February 12, 2012.  The scripture is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

            This passage is one that pastors love to preach on.  It’s one that most people like to hear, too.  It has a message about love, and that’s a message that we always need to hear.  The message that God loves us, the message that God is love, the message that love is the most important thing of all, is one that never gets old for us.

            And that’s all fine.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But there’s more to this passage than we might realize.  It’s not just a nice, sweet message about the importance of love.  It’s okay to feel good when we hear this passage, but there’s more to this passage than just good feelings.  This passage is about a way of life.

            If you were here for the communion service Thursday, you may remember that we talked about how we are all part of the body of Christ, and how we each have a different part within that body.  Sometimes that part may seem like a really big part and sometimes it may seem like a smaller part, but all of the parts are important.  But at the end of the passage we read last week, after going through all the different types of gifts and telling us that we each have a part to play, Paul says this:  strive for the greatest gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way.

            What we read today is that greater gift.  What we read today is that more excellent way.  That greater gift, that more excellent way, is love.

            Listen again to how Paul describes love.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way.  Love is not irritable or resentful.  Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

            You know, when you think about it, that’s a pretty tough standard.  None of those things is easy.  Patience is not always easy to have.  It’s not always easy to show kindness.  It’s hard to not envy others sometimes.  Slipping into boastfulness or arrogance, or even rudeness, can be easy to do.  It’s hard for us not to want our own way, especially when we’re convinced that we’re right.  When things are not going well for us, it’s easy to start feeling irritable or resentful.  Paul’s description of love may sound really nice, but it’s a lot tougher when we actually try to put it into practice.

            And what makes this especially hard is that love is no good if we only show it on a part-time basis.  We are not called just to show love when it’s easy or convenient.  Love that just makes itself known once in a while is not really love.  For love to be effective, we have to show love all the time.  And there are times in our lives when we just don’t feel like doing that.  Love may be the more excellent way, but it’s not the way that always comes naturally to us.

            See, this passage was not written just to make us feel good.  It was written to challenge us.  Love is not something that we just sit around and have.  As Paul says, love is something we’re called to strive for.  Love is something we have to work at.  We need to consciously try to show love to others.  It’s not like we can get up one day and make a decision to love others and that’s the end of it.  We have to constantly renew that decision every day, sometimes every hour of the day.  We need to make love a way of life if we’re going to show the kind of love that God calls us to show.

            But even that’s not really enough.  Because no matter how hard we try to love, we’ll never be able to do it the way we’re supposed to as long as we try to do it by ourselves.  The only way to truly feel love and show love, the only way to make love a way of life, is to rely on God.

            The reason love is the more excellent way is that love is the more God-like way.  The reason love never ends is because God never ends, and God is love.  For God, love is a way of life—love is a natural part of God, as natural as breathing is to us.  The reason this standard is so hard is that when we’re called to love, we’re called to be like God, and who here can be like God?  Not me.  Not any of us.  It’s not possible for any of us to truly be like God, and it’s not possible for any of us to have love be a way of life for us the way it is for God.

            Even so, we need to do the most we can.  Because when we love others, we reflect God.  We don’t become God, we don’t even become like God, really, but we give people a glimpse of what God is like.  It may be a poor reflection, a dim mirror, as Paul says, but it’s still a reflection.  When we love others, we bring God to them.

            And you know what else?  We also bring God to ourselves.  Because we cannot show God’s love to others if we don’t feel it ourselves.  We cannot bring God to others if we don’t have God’s spirit within us.  And it’s only by having God’s spirit in us that we can, in any way, make love a way of life.

            So, while this passage was written to challenge us, it was also written as a gift to us.  It was not written just to call us to show love to others.  It was also written to help us make love a way of life, so that we can feel God’s love in our lives.

            Love is the more excellent way because God is love.  May we all feel God's love in our lives.  And may we go out and show God's love to others so that, through us, they may feel God's love in their lives.  As much as we can, let's make love a way of life for us, just as it is for God.

Playing Your Part

This is the message that was given for the communion service at Oahe Manor on February 9, 2012.  The scripture is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

            There’s an old story about how all the different parts of the body were arguing about which one of them should be the leader.  The brain started out and said, “Well, all the thoughts, all the ideas for what we do come from me, so clearly I should be the leader.”  The heart said, “Yeah, but I’m the one who gives us all our emotions, all our feelings.  All of our good motivations come from me, so I should be the leader.”  The eyes said, “Well, but I’m the one who provides the vision, who makes sure we know where we’re going, so I should be the leader.”  And one by one, all the various parts of the body made their arguments why they should be the leader.  Finally, the neck started to say why it should be the leader, but before it could even get started, all the other body parts started making fun of it.  They said, “You, the leader?  What good are you?  All you do is hold the head up.  Why in the world would we make you the leader?”

            Well, the neck got really mad at that, so it tightened all its muscles and constricted all its blood vessels, and pretty soon the brain began to feel a pounding, and the heart was having to work a lot harder to pump blood, and everything in the body was feeling really bad.  And so all the body parts said to the neck, “Okay, okay, you can be the leader.”

            The moral of this story is that being a leader doesn’t really require brains or heart or vision.  Sometimes all you have to do to be a leader is to be a pain in the neck.

            Both this story and our scripture today illustrate how we all have different parts to play in life.  The role we play differs at different times and in different situations, but no matter what the time or situation is, we always have some part to play.  Sometimes it may be a big part, and sometimes it may be a small part, but we always have a part.  And sometimes, what seems to us to be the smallest, least important part can turn out to be the most important part of all.

            There are some of you whom I’ve gotten to know fairly well, and others of you whom I’m just starting to get to know.  But I know that all of us have done a lot of things in our lives.  There have been times when we’ve done big, important things that have gotten us a lot of attention.  There are other times when we’ve done smaller things that have been a part of something much bigger.  And there are other times when we’ve just gone about the business of living our lives, not really even thinking about what we’re doing or how it might fit into the larger scheme of things.

            The longer I live, and the more I think about it, I think those are the times that matter the most:  the times when we just go about the business of living our lives.  You know, there’s an old saying that it’s much better to see a sermon than to hear one.  I think that’s true.  I think the times when we’re not trying to persuade anyone, not trying to influence anyone, but are simply living our lives, doing the best we can to be good people, doing the best we can to be God’s people, doing the best we can to show love to our neighbors—those are the times when we can have the most impact on other people. 

When we do something for someone with no thought of what we might get in return; when we treat people with respect and compassion; when we’re honest with people; when we treat people with kindness—those are the things that have the most impact.  Because those are the things that show people that we really mean what we say, that there really is something about following Jesus that’s making a difference in our lives.  And when people see that following Jesus makes a difference in our lives, they’re much more likely to want Jesus to make that same difference in their lives.

            We can have that kind of influence at any time of our lives.  And that includes when you come to live in a place like this.  I know this has to have been a hard transition for some of you.  The part you have to play has changed, sometimes against your will.  You might wish that you could have kept playing the part you were playing before, but that simply was not the way things worked out.

            Instead, you have a different part to play.  Maybe it seems like it’s a smaller part.  Maybe it seems like it’s a part that really is not very important.  Maybe it seems like it’s a part that really does not matter at all.

            But it does matter.  That’s what our scripture is telling us.  All the parts are important.  What seem like the smaller parts are just as important as what seem like the bigger parts.  It takes all of the parts for the body to function.  God arranged all the parts to work together.  Each one of those parts is necessary for God’s plan.

            Each one of you is far more important than you might imagine.  Whether you realize it or not, you are important.  You make an impact on people every day, just by the way you live your lives.  Each one of you is an important part of the body.  Each one of you is an important part of God’s plan.  And each one of you is very important to God.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Endings

Below is the messsage given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, February 12, 2012.  The scriptures are Genesis 37:2-28, Genesis 39:1-20, Genesis 41:14-40, Genesis 42:1-3, 6-8, and Genesis 45:1-15.

            This is the last in our sermon series on stories from Genesis.  We did not come close to talking about all the stories we could’ve talked about.  We did not talk about Adam and Eve, or about the tower of Babel.  We skipped right over Jacob.    We talked about one aspect of Abraham’s life last week, but there was enough there that we could’ve done a whole sermon series just on him.  The same thing applies to Joseph, who we’re going to talk about in a little bit.
            I hope you’ve gotten a lot of out of this sermon series.  I know I have.  I hope it’s gotten us to really think about some of these stories we’ve heard ever since we were kids.  I hope it’s gotten us to think about how God could do the things God does in Genesis and still be a loving, caring God.
            What we’ve found, I think, is that God, in Genesis, is a loving, caring God.  It’s just that God’s love and care does not always take the form we’d like it to take.  Sometimes God’s love consists of warnings.  Sometimes God’s love consists of tests.  Sometimes God’s love consists of having to let us sink, to make sure we don’t harm others.  In all of these things, though, God gives us second chances, if only we’ll turn to God to accept them.
            Another thing we’ve tried to do in this sermon series is to think about how the people involved felt when they were going through the events described.  Because these stories are familiar to some of us, we sometimes take for granted that there was a happy ending.  There was, but the people who actually lived these stories did not know there was going to be a happy ending.  They had to live these stories one day at a time, the way we all live our lives, and they did not know what the future held or what was going to happen next.
            It seems like that’s especially true in the story of Joseph, which we read today.  Joseph had a lot of things happen to him in his life.  Some were terrible, and some were wonderful.  He had times when he was on top of the world, when it looked like everything was going right and it always would.  He also had times when he hit rock bottom, when he had no idea how or even if he was going to survive until tomorrow.  Joseph had times when he was in control of everything around him, and times when he was in control of absolutely nothing.  He experienced highs that were as high and lows that were as low as any human can experience.
            In our first reading, Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph to be a slave in Egypt.  Think about that.  This was family, and family was a really big thing in ancient Israel.  That’s why all those long lists of genealogies appear in the Old Testament.  Joseph probably knew his brothers did not like him very much, but still, this kind of hatred had to have caught him completely by surprise.
            Joseph had to have wondered what he’d done to deserve this.  I certainly would.  In fact, I have, in certain situations.  You probably have, too.  We all have those situations where we’re sitting around, minding our own business, and all at once it feels like the roof has fallen in on us.  Maybe we can look back and see something we did that was not all that smart and contributed to it, but still, we don’t feel like we deserved all this.  We wonder what in the world is going on.
            Joseph did what most of us do in that situation, though.  He tried to make the best of it.  He was sold to a man named Potiphar, who was one of the officers of the Pharaoh, and so was a man of considerable wealth and influence.  Joseph worked hard for Potiphar.  He worked his way up the ranks of the slaves until he was put in charge of everything Potiphar had.  He was still a slave, of course, but things were looking pretty good for Joseph.  He must have thought his future looked pretty bright.
            And just at that point, Joseph gets knocked down again.  Not only was he not at fault in any way, he actually behaved better than many of us might have in the situation he was in.  Potiphar’s wife tried several times to seduce him, and when he refused, she claimed that Joseph had attacked her and had him thrown in prison.
            By this time, Joseph really had to wonder why all this was happening.  Think about it.  One of the worst things that could happen to someone had happened to him:  he’d been sold into slavery.  He’d stayed faithful to God, he’d made the best of it, and it looked like things were going to be all right after all.  Then, he had something even worse happen to him.  He was thrown into an Egyptian prison, and prison back then was nothing like what prison is now.  Not only had he done nothing to deserve to be in prison, he was in prison specifically because he’d been faithful to God and had done what God wanted him to do.  It probably seemed to Joseph like he’d have been better off if he’d ignored what God wanted and had gone ahead and slept with Potiphar’s wife like she’d wanted him to.
            Again, I’ll bet a lot of us have been there.  We get knocked down for no particular reason, we get back up, we start making progress, we think things are going to work out after all, and BOOM, we get knocked down even harder.  It’s a hard thing to deal with.  It’s even harder to deal with when we feel like we were doing everything we could do to follow God and do what God wanted us to do.  We feel like we should get rewarded for that, and instead, it feels like we’re getting punished.
            In the end, of course, it all works out for Joseph.  He is called out of prison, interprets Pharaoh’s dream, and gets put in charge of everything in Egypt.  He even reconciles with his brothers.  He tells his brothers that, no matter how things may have seemed, God was working in all of this, and that things happened the way God wanted them to happen, no matter what they or anyone else may have intended.
            Everyone likes a happy ending, of course.  The thing is that, in telling the story, the Bible leaves out an awful lot.  A lot of years passed during this story.  Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery.  He was thirty when he was made the second-in-command to the Pharaoh.  That means thirteen years went by.  For all of those thirteen years he was a slave.  Sometimes he was a respected slave with a lot of responsibility, but he was still a slave.  For some of those years, he was in prison.  We read this story and we see the happy ending, but Joseph did not know there was going to be a happy ending.  He had no idea what was going to happen to him in the future.  He had to live the story day by day, not knowing what was coming next.
            Which, again, is the way we all live our lives.  Each of our lives tells a story, in a sense.  We hope the story will have a happy ending, but we don’t know if it will.  Sometimes it seems like things are going well, but a lot of times it seems like they’re not.  A lot of those times when they’re not, we have no idea why or what to do to change it.  We have no idea what’s going to happen to us in the future.  We have to live the story day by day, not knowing what’s coming next.
            It can be really hard, sometimes, to stay faithful to God in the ups and downs of our lives.  It can be really hard, sometimes, to keep trusting God when we have to live our stories one day at a time, not knowing what the future may hold for us.  We want to believe in the happy ending, but we have no guarantee that it will come.  We also have no guarantee that staying faithful to God will cause it to come, at least not in this world.  Stephen stayed faithful to God and he was stoned to death.  Paul stayed faithful to God and he died in a Roman prison.  There are lots of other examples we could think of, too.
            I think the point of the story of Joseph is not that staying faithful to God guarantees us a happy ending in this world.  The point of the story of Joseph is that God asks us to be faithful in all circumstances, regardless of what’s happening now and regardless of what may happen in the future.  God asks us to be faithful when we’re on top and we think things are going to be wonderful.  God also asks us to be faithful when we’re on the bottom and we don’t see a way out no matter where we look.  God asks us to be faithful in all the times in between, too.
            We live our lives day by day, not knowing what’s coming next.  Through all the ups and downs, though, there are things we do know.  We know that God is there.  We know that God loves us.  We know that God has promised to be with us, and we know that God keeps God’s promises.  If we can hold onto that as we go through our daily lives, God will help us handle the ups and downs, just like God helped Joseph handle them.  We can do it.  When we stay faithful, God does promise us a happy ending, if not in this world, then in the next one.