Search This Blog

Friday, November 30, 2012

Not Feeling It Yet

            I’m not ready for Christmas.

            I don’t mean that the way you may think.  I don’t mean that I don’t have all the gifts bought or the cards sent or the decorations up.  I don’t, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

            What I mean is that I’m just not quite in the Christmas mood.  I’m not upset or angry about anything.  It just doesn’t quite feel like the Christmas season yet.

            I’m not sure why.  It’s not a lack of snow—we didn’t have snow last year, and I had no trouble being ready for Christmas.  It’s not that I have a lot to do—there’s always a lot to do in the church before Christmas, and it doesn’t bother me.  I don’t know what it is.  It just doesn’t feel like Christmas yet to me.

            And you know what?  That’s okay.  I’ve written before about the futility of trying to make yourself feel something you don’t feel.  Besides, Christmas is still more than three weeks away.  I’ve got time.

            You know what always strikes me as odd, though?  We have all this big build-up to Christmas every year, and then as soon as it’s December 26, we drop the subject.  We may still take a few days off or travel somewhere, but we rarely say anything about Christmas after December 25.  We’re on to making plans for New Year’s and New Year’s Eve.  It’s like on December 23 or 24 we can’t talk about anything other than Christmas, but then we completely forget about it the second it’s over.

            So here’s what I’m going to do.  Maybe it’ll work for you, too.  I’m going to take my time getting into Christmas.  I’ll get there when I get there.  If it takes until December 5, or December 10, or December 20, that’s okay.  But then, I’m going to try to stay into Christmas on December 26, and January 8, and February 19.  I probably won’t keep wishing people a Merry Christmas or singing Christmas songs (although I might).  But I will try to keep that feeling of Christmas, that feeling of love and peace and happiness, that feeling of joy at the coming of the Savior, long after December 25 is over.

            After all, if Christmas is over on December 25, it never really made a difference.  And if there’s one thing I know about Christmas, it’s that it’s supposed to make a difference.  The birth of Jesus Christ is not something we’re supposed to build up to and then forget.  It’s something that we’re supposed to keep with us every day of our lives.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What's the Difference?

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, November 25, 2012.  The scripture used is Luke 17:11-19.

            I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I hope you were able to relax.  I hope you were able to spend some time with family and friends.  I hope, too, that you took a little time, among the food, the fun, the football, the hunting, and whatever else you did, to give thanks to God.
We’re wrapping up our sermon series on thankfulness today.  We’ve talked about why we should be thankful to God, and we’ve talked about how to be thankful to God in all circumstances.  Here’s the question for today:  What difference does it make?
It’s an important question.  I mean, we’ve said that being thankful can help us feel peace in our lives, and that’s good.  Even so, it seems like we still have the same problems, whether we’re thankful or not.  If that’s true, will we be able to keep feeling peace in our lives by being thankful?  Or are we more likely to think, well, I tried being thankful, and nothing happened.  If nothing actually changes as a result of us being thankful, then what good does being thankful do me?
In our reading from Luke, we heard a story that involved thankfulness.  Jesus was walking down the road and was about to go into a village.  At the edge of the village he meets ten men who have leprosy.
Now, leprosy was kind of a catch-all term for a variety of skin diseases, so we don’t know exactly what was wrong with these people.  It was something that people considered pretty serious, though.  It was considered pretty contagious, too.  That’s why these guys were all gathered at the edge of town.  They’d been kicked out of town by people who were scared that if they came in contact with these men, these lepers, they’d get the same disease.  These guys see Jesus coming, and they say, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” 

Now, that’s probably not the exact words they said.  It’s not like they were saying these words in unison, like a chorus.  They were begging, pleading with Jesus.  They’d heard about Jesus.  They may not have known exactly who Jesus was, but they’d heard the stories about Jesus healing people.  They were desperately hoping those stories were true, and that Jesus would heal them, too, just like he’d healed those other people they’d heard about.

Jesus tells them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  That’s all we’re told Jesus said.  He did not say what was going to happen when they showed themselves to the priests.  In fact, he did not say anything was going to happen.  He just told them to do it.  And they did.  Maybe they did it because they had faith, maybe they did it because they figured it could not hurt anything, maybe they did it because they had nothing better to do.  Whatever the reason was, they did it.  And on the way to go see the priests, they were healed.

Ten men were healed, and one of them came back.  One of them, the one Luke goes out of his way to specify was a Samaritan, someone who was of a different and disliked race from the Jews, came back, praised God in a loud voice, threw himself at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him.

We wonder, what happened to the other nine?  Why did they not come back to thank Jesus?  Jesus wondered the same thing.  He said, “Were there not ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

“Your faith has made you well.”  What does that mean?  Does that mean the leprosy returned to the other nine, because they did not have as much faith?  Well, maybe, but I don’t think so, though.  I think Jesus meant something else by that phrase.

Notice the different words used in this story.  First, we’re told that as they went to the priests, the ten were “cleansed”.  When the one comes back, Jesus says, too, that ten were “cleansed.”  At the end, though, Jesus uses a different word.  Jesus does not say, “Your faith has made you cleansed.”  He says, “Your faith has made you well.”

I think that’s important.  I think Jesus was making a purposeful and important distinction.  I think there’s a difference between having your body cleansed, being cured of a physical disease, and being made well.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Physical health is very important.  Those of you who are struggling with physical problems right now, or have loves ones who are, know exactly how important it is.  I’m not trying to minimize anything here. 

The thing is, though, that we’ve all known people who are physically healthy, but still are not really well.  What I mean is that we can be physically healthy but still be unhappy with our lives.  We can be physically healthy but still feel that our lives lack meaning and lack purpose.  We can be physically healthy but still know that something is missing in our lives, even if we don’t know what it is.  I’d guess some of us have experienced that at some point in our lives.  Maybe some of us are experiencing it now.

I wonder sometimes what happened to the other nine people who were cleansed.  Did they go on to live happy lives?  I don’t know.  I mean, I’m sure they were happy to not have leprosy any more.  They’d probably dreamed of being cleansed for years.  But then what?  Did they go get jobs?  Did they even have any marketable skills they could use to get a job?

And were they accepted back into society?  Remember, lepers were outcasts.  Again, these guys were out on the edge of town because the people in town had kicked them out.  Did people welcome them back?  Or were they kind of leery of them?  Did the people of the town still give them a wide berth, thinking that they still might be contagious, that their disease might come back some day? 

How did they explain their cleansing to people?  How did they even explain it to themselves?  What did they think happened?  Did they think they’d been cured by the power of God?  Or did they just think they’d gotten lucky?  And if they did think they’d been cured by the power of God, why did they not come back and thank Jesus?  Did they think they deserved to be cured, and so no thanks were necessary?

We don’t know the answers to any of those questions.  What I suspect, though, is that being cleansed did not solve all their problems the way they thought it would.  I suspect that, after a while, they found out that they still had plenty of problems.  In fact, I suspect that they may have even wound up back on the edge of town, leading the same life they’d led before, because that was the only way of life they knew.  See, they’d been cleansed on the outside, but on the inside they were still the same.  They may have been outwardly different, but inside they were still the same people they’d been before.

We don’t know what happened to the one who came back, either, of course.  What we do know, though, is that he was not simply cleansed of his disease.  He was made well.  He was not only different on the outside, he was also different on the inside.  He knew that he had been cured by the power of God, and he knew that that power of God had come to him through Jesus.  That knowledge gave him faith:  faith in God, and faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior

He still had problems too, of course.  He may not have been welcomed back into society, either.  He may have had trouble adjusting, too.  Just as with the nine, he may have had no marketable job skills.  Objectively, he may have seemed to be in the same boat as they were. 

But he was not.  Because he was not only cleansed, he was made well.  As important as the change on the outside was, the change on the inside was even more important.  That inner change meant that he was no longer who he had been.  He knew that now he was a saved child of God.  He knew that he was important, that he was valuable.  He knew God would help him find meaning and purpose to his life, no matter what the rest of his life might hold.

That’s why being thankful to God is important.  That’s the difference it makes.  Being thankful does not guarantee that we won’t have any more problems.  On the outside, it may seem like being thankful changes nothing.  On the inside, though, it changes everything.  When we give thanks to God, we are reminded that we saved children of God.  We are reminded that we are important, that we are valuable.  We are reminded that our lives have meaning and purpose.  We are reminded that God will help us find that meaning and that purpose, no matter what the rest of our lives might hold.

There is no person on earth who is here without a reason.  Each person on earth has some purpose for being here.  That means that you have a purpose for being here.  When we give thanks to God, we open our hearts to God’s leading and to God’s guidance in finding that purpose.

So, if you did not give thanks to God this past week, please do so now.  On the outside, nothing may change, but on the inside, everything will.  We may or may not be cleansed.  But we will be made well.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Don't Worry, Be Thankful

For the fourth consecutive year, I present this blog post on Thanksgiving Day.

            Today is Thanksgiving Day.  It’s the one day we set aside to think about and be thankful for all we have in our lives.

            Giving thanks is certainly a Biblical concept.  We’re told many times that we should give praise and thanks to God, and there are lots of examples in the bible of people doing just that.  But did you ever wonder why?  Why is it that the Bible tells us we should be thankful to God?

            Well, it’s certainly not for God’s benefit.  God is not so vain as to need to hear our thanks and praise all the time.  God is also not so insecure as to need to know we appreciate all the things God has done for us.  We’re not told to give thanks for God’s benefit.  We’re told to give thanks for our benefit.  We need to be truly thankful to God for all that God has given us.

            There are a lot of reasons why it’s good for us to be thankful, but I think one of the main ones is that it helps us with what Jesus told us in Matthew, Chapter 6:  do not worry about tomorrow.  An attitude of worry is the opposite of an attitude of thankfulness.  Thankfulness looks at what is, and is grateful for it.  Worry looks at what is not, and is fearful of it.

            Worry robs us of any appreciation of the present.  Even if things are going well—in fact, even if things are going better than we could have imagined—we still cannot really enjoy them if we worry.  Rather than being grateful for how things are, we’re constantly thinking about all the things that could happen that would change everything and take everything away from us.  We cannot truly be happy when we worry.

            Thankfulness, the way the Bible intends us to feel it, takes away our worries. Remember, the Bible does not tell us to just be thankful when we get what we want. The Bible tells us to be thankful in all circumstances, the good and the bad.  I recognize that it’s not always easy to do that.  But when we can, we can get rid of our worries, because being thankful in all circumstances helps us recognize that God is present no matter what is happening in our lives.  It also helps us recognize that God will be present in the future, regardless of what that future may be.  In fact, God is already present in that future.

            None of us knows what the future may hold.  No matter what it holds, though, we can know that God has already provided for it and taken care of it.  For that, we can be truly thankful.

            Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.

Thankful for "Them"?

This is the message given at the Onida Community Thanksgiving service Wednesday, November 21.  The Scripture used is 1 Timothy 2:1-7.

            At the beginning of our reading from Paul’s first letter to Timothy, here’s what Paul said to Timothy, “I urge that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone.”
Let’s think about that.  We get why we should pray for everyone.  We kind of get why we should ask for the Lord to intercede on behalf of everyone.  What about that last one, though?  Are we really supposed to give thanks for everyone?
That’s a tough one.  It is for me anyway.  I mean, if I’m honest, I can think of several people right off the top of my head that I’m not particularly thankful for.  I’ll bet if you’re honest you can, too.
I mean, there are the obvious ones.  There are terrorists, there are dictators, there are murderers, there are all kinds of people like that.  But the chances are we probably won’t come into contact with a lot of people like that on an everyday basis. 

The thing is, though, that we don’t have to think of people like that to think of folks we’re not very thankful for.  There are people who are actively in our lives, people who we see or talk to or hear from fairly frequently, whom we’re not very thankful for.
These people are not necessarily bad or evil people.  They may very well be sincere Christians, people who love the Lord and have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.  Still, there’s something about them that just rubs us the wrong way.  We hear their voice, and it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.  We don’t necessarily hate them.  We don’t even necessarily dislike them.  We just don’t want to have to deal with them.  We don’t want anything bad to happen to them, really, but if, somehow, they were to move away somewhere and never contact us again, it would frankly be all right with us.
Most of us have a few people like that in our lives.  I’ll bet each of here can think of at least one, probably more.  And yet, here’s Paul telling Timothy we have to be thankful for everyone, and everyone obviously includes those people.
That means we’re supposed to be thankful for those people, but how do we do it?  How can we be thankful for those people who are in our lives, but who we’d just as soon not have in our lives? 

It’s not easy.  We know we’re supposed to do it, but it’s not easy.  The thing is that, while there’s an extent to which thankfulness is a conscious choice, there’s also an extent to which thankfulness is a feeling, an emotion.  And it’s hard to make ourselves feel something we don’t feel.
So what do we do?  How do cultivate a feeling of thankfulness for everyone?  Well, a little later, Paul says this:  “For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”
If we remember that, maybe that’ll make it easier for us to be thankful for everyone, even people we’d just as soon were not in our lives.  No matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter what we do, we still have only one God.  There still is only one Savior, Jesus Christ.
That means that we’re all equal in God’s eyes.  We are all the children of God.  If we can remember that, it may help us be thankful for everyone in our lives.  After all, if we’re honest with ourselves, one of the reasons we’re not thankful for some people, one of the reasons we’d rather not deal with some folks, is because we think we’re better than they are in some way.
Now, we’d never put it like that.  At least I’d never put it like that.  I’d say, “well, we’re just different,” or “well, that person just rubs me the wrong way,” or “the two of us just don’t mesh together very well.”  I would never admit, even to myself, that I thought I was better than this person I don’t want to deal with.  If I was really honest, though, I’d have to admit that’s part of what’s behind it.
And that’s wrong.  See, if we’re all God’s children, that means more than just that we’re equals.  It also means that we’re family.  We’re brothers and sisters.
Now, I don’t have sisters, but I have two brothers.  And, to be honest, there have been times when I’d rather not deal with them, too.  If you have brothers or sisters, I’ll bet it’s the same with you.  There’ve been times when we’ve argued.  There’ve been times when we simply could not see eye to eye on things.  If you have brothers or sisters, or both, I’ll bet there’ve been times when it was like that for you, too.
The older I get, though, the more I realize the importance of family.  God put us into families, and God did that for a reason.

Remember in Genesis, where God says of Adam “It is not good for the man to be alone”?  God knows that life can be hard sometimes.  That’s why God does not want us to go through life alone.  That’s why God put us into families, so that we would not have to go through life alone.  We need to be there for our families, and we need our families to be there for us.

See, the thing is that, no matter how long I live, no matter what else happens to me, I’ll only have two brothers.  Greg and Mark are the only two people in the world who will ever be my brothers.  I’ll only have one mom and one dad.  The people I call Mom and Dad now are the only people in the world who will ever be my mom and my dad.  Once they’re gone, I won’t have any other mom or dad or brother.  That’s it.
That means that we need to find a way to love and be thankful for those people who are in our family.  No matter how much our family may drive us crazy, no matter how much we may disagree, we still need to find a way to love and be thankful for those people, because they’re our family.  We don’t get to just trade our brother or sister for someone else who we’d like better.  The people who are our family will always be our family.  And when they’re gone, we don’t get to just go out and get another one.
The thing is, it’s the same way with God’s family.  Because we’re all God’s children, those people we have trouble dealing with are our brothers and sisters.  We don’t get to trade them for people we might like better.  God put those people into our lives for a reason.  God does not want us to go through our lives alone.  God does not want them to go through their lives alone, either.  We need to be there for those people, and we need them to be there for us.  We need to find ways to love those people and be thankful for them, because they’re family.
Now, having said all this, I know there are some of us who have a lot of problems within our family.  Some of us have been betrayed by our families.  Some of us have been cut off by our families.  Some of us have people in our families that we hope we never see again.  That’s sad, but I know it happens.
Even so, we still need to find ways to love those people and be thankful for them.  Remember, Paul wrote that thanksgiving needs to be made for everyone.  Paul did not write, “everyone except the people who treated us badly.”  He did not say “everyone except the people who’ve betrayed us.”  Paul said we need to be thankful for everyone.  No exceptions.
That’s not easy.  No one ever said it would be easy.  If it was easy, Paul would not have had to write about it.  There’ll be times when we don’t want to do it.  There’ll be times when we think we cannot do it.  There’ll be times when we don’t even want to try.
God understands that.  Even so, though, the message is the same.  We’re supposed to be thankful for everyone, with no exceptions.  Because we’re all equal in God’s eyes.  We’re all brothers and sisters of each other and children of God.
So, when it comes to those people we have trouble being thankful for, let’s remember that.  Let’s try to see them through God’s eyes, rather than our own eyes.  Let’s try to see that person the way God sees them.  Let’s remember that person is every bit as important to God as we are.  Let’s remember that God loves that person just as much as God loves us.  Let’s remember that Jesus Christ died for that person, just as much as Jesus Christ died for us.
It still probably won’t be easy, but we can do it.  God never asks us to do the impossible.  If we pray for God’s help and pray for God’s Spirit to come into our hearts, we can see that person the way God sees them.  And then we can be thankful for that person.  We can be thankful that God has put them into our lives.  We can truly be thankful for everyone, just as Paul said we should be.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

No Thanks

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, September 18, 2012.  The Scriptures used are 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24, Romans 8:25-28, John 6:61-69, and Psalm 23.

            This Thursday, it will be Thanksgiving.  I hope all of us will be able to have a wonderful time with family and friends.  I hope all of us will be able to take some time to watch some football, to eat, to watch some more football, to take a nap, to eat some more, to watch some more football, to catch up with loved ones, and to watch some more football.  And to eat some more, too.
I also hope, in the midst of all that, that all of us are able to take some time to truly give thanks to God.  I know, though, that some of us are going through some pretty serious things in our lives.  And so, I know that some of us are going to have a hard time feeling thankful this Thursday, or any other time for that matter.
Last week, we talked about how being thankful in all circumstances can give us the peace of God in our hearts and in our lives.  That’s something I think we all probably want.  Here’s the thing, though.  How, in real life, can we actually do that?
I mean, we know that’s what we’re supposed to do.  And in fact, I suspect most of us would like to be able to do it.  But it’s hard, you know?  There are a lot of circumstances that we’re not very thankful for.  You know the obvious ones:  when we’ve lost a loved one, when we’ve got serious health problems, when we lose a job.  But there are a lot of other circumstances we’re not very thankful for, too.  When we plant a crop and it does not rain, when we have a hundred things to do and the machinery breaks down or the computer goes on the fritz, when we’re feeling exhausted and the kids start crying in the middle of the night.  These and a hundred other things happen in our lives, and when they do, we don’t feel very thankful. 

Maybe we wish we could—after all, it’s at these times we need to feel the peace of God more than ever.  But we don’t.  We don’t feel thankful, and we don’t know how to make ourselves feel thankful.  In fact, in those moments, the whole idea of feeling thankful sounds ridiculous.

It’s not an easy thing.  You’ve heard some of the things people will say.  They’ll tell us to be thankful because after all, things could be worse.  That’s a reason to be thankful?  Things could be worse?  Whoopee.  “You lost your job?  Well, at least your house didn’t burn down.  Hooray!”  That’s like telling a football coach who just lost by four touchdowns to be thankful he didn’t lose by five.  It may be true that things could be worse, but it’s not much help in feeling thankful.

We’ll be told, well, think of all the people who are worse off than you.  Again, it may be true, but what good is it?  “I just realized that life stinks even worse for you than it does for me.  Boy, does that make me feel good!”  What sense does that make?

The fact is that while being thankful in all circumstances may be good advice, and it’s certainly a good goal to strive for, it’s not possible.  It’s not possible for the same reason living a sinless life is not possible:  because we’re human.  We’re human, and there are going to be times when everything goes wrong, and we simply are not capable of making ourselves feel thankful, even if we try.

That’s okay.  God understands that.  There are circumstances in which we simply cannot feel thankful until we’re ready, and we cannot force ourselves to be ready.  Trying to force ourselves to be thankful before we’re ready only leads to guilt and frustration.  We talked about that last week.  This stuff about being thankful is not in the Bible to make us feel guilty when we don’t.

So, if you’re in a situation right now where you don’t feel very thankful, it’s all right.  God is not upset with you for that.  God understands it.  But God wants to help you through it.  That’s what our reading from First Thessalonians today is about.

Paul writes that we should “give thanks in all circumstances”, and we hear that quoted all the time, but too often we skip what Paul said before that and what Paul said after that.  We’ll deal with what Paul said before it first.  It’s two words, but they’re two incredibly important words.  Here they are:  pray continually.

“Pray continually.”  That’s really the key to getting through these tough times.  Prayer keeps us close to God, and the closer we are to God, the more God can help us through circumstances that are not good.

A lot of times, when things are bad, we don’t feel like praying.  Maybe we feel like God’s not going to do anything.  Maybe we feel like we’ve been praying already, and nothing has happened.  Maybe we feel like God has abandoned us.  There are lots of reasons, when things are bad, why we don’t feel like praying. 

That’s understandable, but we need to pray anyway.  Even if we don’t feel like God hears us, even if we feel like God has abandoned us, we need to pray.  We need to pray even if we don’t really expect anything to happen.  We need to pray for the same reason Peter said the disciples would not leave Jesus.  We need to pray because there’s no one else we can turn to.

What should we pray?  Well, there are all kinds of people who’ll tell you what to pray in these situations, but here’s the thing:  it really doesn’t matter.  It does not matter what we pray or how we pray.  We can be upset with God, we can be angry with God, we can be frustrated with God.  We can yell and scream at God, we can beg and plead with God, we can cry to God.  God already knows how we feel anyway.  It really does not matter what we say to God, as long as we just say something.

This is where those words that come after “give thanks in all circumstances” come into it.  It’s seven words this time, and they’re very important, too.  Here they are:  “do not put out the Spirit’s fire.”

When we don’t pray, when we move away from God, we put out the Spirit’s fire.  God is still willing to help us, but as we’ve said before, God gives us free will.  That means God gives us the right to make choices, and God respects that right.  God’s help is not forced on us when we choose to reject it.  God allows us to choose to “put out the Spirit’s fire” if that’s what we choose to do. 

That’s why it’s so important for us to pray, and to keep praying, no matter what.  That’s true even if we don’t know what to say.  That’s where the verses from Romans come in.  If we just open our hearts to God, we don’t even need to consciously say anything.  As Paul says, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.  The Holy Spirit prays for us through our wordless groans.

In those times when we feel so bad, or so sad, or so hopeless, that we don’t know what to say, when we cannot even say anything, when all we can do is let out a wordless groan, God still understands.  God understands how we feel.  God understands what we’re going through.  And God will make sense of it all, and will help us.  All we need to do is just sincerely open our hearts to God.

We need to do that, and we need to keep doing it.  That’s why Paul said to pray continually.  This is not something where we can say a quick, one-time prayer and think that’s going to do the job.  We need to pray continually.  Over and over again.  Keep working with God.  Let God keep working with us.  Keep opening our hearts to God.  Keep letting God know exactly how we feel.

And then, eventually, after we’ve emptied our hearts to God, after we’ve screamed or begged or cried or groaned or done whatever it is we needed to do, we’ll be able to listen.  We’ll be able to listen, and we’ll be able to hear.  And God will be there, and God will respond, and God will help us through.

It’s not easy.  I’m not trying to say it is.  It’s hard to feel thankful in all circumstances.  Sometimes, life takes us down into some pretty deep, dark valleys, so deep and dark that we cannot see the way out.  But, as psalm twenty-three tells us, God is with us even in the darkest valleys.  God is with us, and God leads us through those valleys and out into the light.

So if, in this Thanksgiving week, you’re not feeling very thankful, it’s okay.  Don’t beat yourself up for that.  Feel what you feel.  Don’t give yourself guilt on top of everything else.

But know that you are not alone.  You have a church that loves you.  You have a pastor you can call any hour of the day or night.  You have a pastor’s wife who’ll be there for you, too.  Most importantly, you have God.  God will be there for you at all times.

If we turn to God, God will help us through whatever we’re going through right now.  With God’s help, we will be able to feel thankful again.  Then, we will be able to feel the peace of God in our hearts and in our lives.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

No Ordinary People

            This week I conducted my eighteenth funeral of the year.  If you do the math, that means I have, on average, conducted a funeral every two and a half weeks this year.  Thirteen of those funerals have come since June 22.  If you do the math, that means that since June 22 I have, on average, conducted a funeral every week and a half.

            I hope that doesn’t sound like a complaint.  After all, it’s not like that’s going to get me into the Guinness Book of World Records or anything.  Besides, conducting funerals is part of the job of a pastor, especially when you live in a place with a substantial percentage of older people.  Not only that, it’s a very important part of the job and a very satisfying part of the job.  It’s a good feeling to be able to be there for people at a time of loss and to help them through that time.

            The thing is, when you do something frequently, no matter what it is, there’s a tendency for it to become routine.  That’s true for all of us, no matter what our job is.  If you raise cattle, if you work in a store, if you teach, if you work in an office or in a factory, no matter what you do, that tendency is there.  Anything we do repeatedly can lose its special-ness after a while.  It become routine.  it becomes ordinary.  It becomes just something we do.

            That’s not a good thing when it comes to pastors and funerals.  I never want anyone’s funeral to be routine.  I never want anyone’s funeral to be ordinary.  No one deserves a routine, ordinary funeral.  Each person’s life is unique and special.  That means each person deserves a unique and special funeral.  Giving someone a routine, ordinary funeral is an insult to that person.

            It’s also an insult to God.  After all, God is the one who made that unique and special person.  To treat a life God created as ordinary is to say that God created something ordinary, and that’s not something God ever does.

            It’s easy for me to say that.  The challenge is to actually follow through on it.  The challenge is to find a way to make each person’s funeral unique and special when you do them that frequently.

            I don’t claim to have the complete answer for that.  I know some of my clergy friends sometimes read this blog.  If anyone has suggestions, you are welcome to make them.  I’ll tell you a few things I try to keep in mind, though.

            One is to remember that each person who’s funeral I do has people who love them.  Each person is someone’s mother or father, sister or brother, aunt or uncle, son or daughter, grandmother or grandfather.  Those people are hurting over the loss.  They need and deserve the best I can give them, not just at the funeral, but all through the grieving process.  I will not be able to give them my best if I treat this as something that’s routine.

            Another is to remember that each person’s life is made up of a lot of things, many of which I probably don’t know.  This is especially true for an itinerant United Methodist pastor who is seldom in one place for more than a handful of years.  Each person has done a lot of things in their life I don’t know about.  In preparing the funeral, I need to find out those things.  By doing that, I always find out again that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” person.

            Which brings me to the next thing I try to do, which is to have people tell me stories.  Facts and figures are important, but those can be found in the obituary.  I want to hear stories.  I want to hear about the time someone went on a trip they never forgot.  I want to hear about the thing that happened at the family reunion years ago that everyone still talks about.  I want to hear about that hobby someone had that nobody really understood but that everyone knows was part of that person.  Stories are memorable.  Stories paint pictures.  Stories keep people alive long after they’ve gone.  I want to know those stories.

            I also try to remember what I said earlier in this post.  It’s an insult to God to say that someone is just an “ordinary person.”  God created each of us, and God made each of us unique and special.  To treat a life God created as ordinary is to say that God created something ordinary, and that’s not something God ever does.

            I hope I do not have to do any more funerals for a while, but I know the odds are I will have one before too many weeks go by.  If I do, I pray that God will not let me treat that funeral as something ordinary.  Each human life is unique and special.  Each funeral should be unique and special, too.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Y B Thankful?

The message in the Wheatland Parish on November 11, 2012.  The scripture used is Philippians 4:4-13.

            Wanda likes to watch the Hallmark Channel.  She had it on last weekend, and they were having a marathon of Christmas movies.
I had to check the calendar.  Yup, it’s still November.  We seem to have moved right from Halloween into the Christmas season.  I was thinking that there used to be some sort of holiday in between there.  It had to do with giving thanks or something.  What was it called again?  Oh, yeah, Thanksgiving.  That’s it.
We seem to have kind of forgotten about Thanksgiving any more.  I mean, we’re still aware that it exists.  Most of us still want the days off from work.  Many of us will be traveling somewhere, or else having people travel to see us.  But we don’t really talk about it much.  Anymore, the big holiday over that weekend is not Thanksgiving, it’s Black Friday, with all the doorbuster specials.
Maybe that’s why we don’t talk about Thanksgiving much.  Nobody can make money on it.  With Halloween, we sell all kinds of costumes and decorations and tons of candy.  For Christmas, we have even more decorations, plus gifts of every shape, color, and size.  What can we do for Thanksgiving, sell turkeys?  Market Pilgrim costumes?  It just doesn’t work.  There’s no real money to be made in being thankful.  So, Thanksgiving tends to be ignored and forgotten.
This year, we’re going to take the small step we can to remedy that.  For the next three weeks, we’re going to have a sermon series on Thanksgiving.  For this first message in the series, we’re going to ask the question, “Why should we be thankful?”
We know we’re supposed to be.  The Bible talks about thankfulness all the time.  In the Old Testament, one of the required offerings for the Hebrews was the Thank Offering.  One of the purposes of the tithe, giving the first ten percent of our income to God, is to thank God for everything we have.  In our communion liturgy, which we read last week, we say, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  It is right to give our thanks and praise.”  Even Jesus, when he was giving the first communion to the disciples, gave thanks to God.
So we know we’re supposed to be thankful, but why?  Why do we need to tell God “thank you” all the time?  Are we just trying to make God feel good?  Are we just trying to please God so God will give us more?  Or is God so vain that God needs to hear us express thanks all the time?
Well, that’s obviously not why we give thanks.  I mean, I suspect God is pleased when we take the time to give thanks, but it’s not like we can fool God or butter God up so God will do more things for us.  God knows perfectly well how good God is.  God does not need us to say it.  So why should we be thankful?
And especially, why should we be thankful when it does not seem like things are going all that well for us?  I mean, it’s not that hard to see why we should give thanks when we have everything we want.  We can get why Bill Gates should be thankful—if he spent a million dollars a day he’d still never run out of money.  We can get why LeBron James should be thankful—he’s one of the most talented athletes who ever lived.  But why should you and I be thankful?  We’re just ordinary people.  We’re not the richest, we’re not the most talented, we’re not the best at anything.  Yeah, there are people who are worse off, and we recognize that, but there are plenty of people who are better off, too.  What reason do you and I have to be thankful?
Then, too, there are people sitting right here in this sanctuary today who have some really serious stuff they’re dealing with in their lives.  There are people here who have serious health problems, or who have close relatives or friends who do.  There are people here who are having serious financial problems, and who don’t know if they’re going to have the money to pay their bills.  There are people here who’ve lost loved ones recently.  There are people here who have other serious problems, too.  In fact, as I’ve said before, just about everyone here is going through something pretty serious.  I may not know about it, you may not know about it, but the problem is still there.  When we’re going through that kind of stuff, it’s pretty hard to think of reasons to be thankful.
God understands that.  When the Bible tells us to be thankful, it’s not telling us to pretend our problems don’t exist or that they’re not serious.  We’re not supposed to just ignore our problems and paint a big smile on our faces.  It’s not telling us to feel guilty when we have trouble feeling thankful, either.  When things are going badly for us, and we’re not feeling particularly thankful, God does not want to give us guilt on top of everything else. 

Here’s the thing.  It’s like we’ve said before in different contexts:  the Bible tells us to be thankful because God knows we’ll feel better and we’ll be better off if we can find reasons to be thankful, despite our problems.  It’s not a matter of pretending things are different from how they are, and it’s not a matter of feeling guilty when we’re worried about our problems.  It’s a matter of trying to find a way to trust God and be thankful despite our problems.

Why will being thankful make us feel better?  Why will being thankful make us better off?  Paul nails it in our reading from Philippians for today.  Listen to it again:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The peace of God.  That’s what we get when we’re thankful.  Paul does not tell us to ignore our problems.  Paul does not tell us to pretend our problems don’t exist or that they’re not serious.  What Paul tells us to do is to take them to God.  Paul says that in every situation, no matter how bad it looks, we should present our requests to God.
Now, notice one thing.  Paul does not say God will do whatever we request.  Paul does not say God will solve our problems or take them away.  What Paul says is that God will give us the strength to deal with our problems.  Listen to this part of our reading from Philippians:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Again, Paul does not say God will magically make our problems go away.  What Paul says is that, when we pray to God, we can let go of our problems.  We can turn things over to God, knowing that the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God is working on the situation.  We can trust that, if God is working on the situation, then the situation will go the way it’s supposed to go.  That may or may not be the way we want it to go, but it will be the way that’s best.

Knowing that, we can be content in every situation.  We don’t have to worry.  We don’t have to live our lives in anxiety and fear.  Instead, we can do our best and turn things over to God.  We can trust that if we do what we’re supposed to do, God will do what God is supposed to do.  Then, we may not get what we want, but we’ll get what we need:  the peace of God, a peace that really does go beyond all of our understanding, in our hearts.
We’ll have problems all our lives.  Sometimes, those problems will be serious.  Sometimes, they may even seem overwhelming.  But even then, there are still things we can be thankful for.  We can be thankful that God is there.  We can be thankful that God cares about us.  We can be thankful for the chance to pray to God.  And we can be thankful that we can have salvation by God’s wonderful love and mercy, through our faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ.  If we can remember to be thankful for those things, and turn things over to God, we can have the peace of God in our hearts and in our lives.  And that’s something we can always be thankful for, because there is no greater feeling in the world.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Elections and Happiness

            There was an election earlier this week.  You may have heard something about it.

            Some reading this are happy with the election results, because their candidates won.  Others reading this are unhappy, because their candidates lost.  That’s natural.  We all have opinions and beliefs, and we support candidates who we think most closely match our opinions and beliefs.  We naturally want those candidates to win.  We’re happy when they do, and we’re unhappy when they don’t.

            That’s fine, in the short term.  In the long term, though, it’s a mistake to allow our happiness to be determined by who wins elections.  This is true for at least three reasons.

            The most obvious one is that we’re setting ourselves up for unhappiness.  No one has their candidates win all the time.  If our happiness is determined by who wins elections, we’re going to be unhappy a significant portion of the time.  That’s not good.

            Another reason is that, if we allow our happiness to be determined by who wins elections, we’re giving control of our happiness to other people.  Very few of us have the ability to have much impact on who wins an election, especially a national election.  Thus, we’re ceding control of our happiness to others, rather than being responsible for it ourselves.  That’s not good, either.

            Maybe the most important reason, though, is that no election, and no winner of an election, is going to solve all of our problems.  That’s true no matter who wins.  It’s been said that the only problems that can be solved by money are money problems.  In a similar vein, the only problems that can be solved by politicians are political problems.  If we put our faith in a politician to make us happy, we’re ultimately going to be disappointed, no matter who that politician is and no matter what that politician does or does not do.
Political problems are important, and I’m not trying to minimize them.  But most of us have problems that go far beyond the political realm.  We have health problems. We have relationship problems.  We have spiritual problems.  Sometimes we feel lonely or depressed or scared.  These are not problems that can be solved by politics and politicians.  These are problems that can only be solved by reaching out to others and by reaching out to God.
When Jesus was on earth, he was often invited to comment on the political situation of his day.  He always refused.  I think he did that not because he thought political issues were unimportant, but because these issues were not the focus of his ministry.  Jesus told us the two most important commandments are to love God and love each other.  We don’t need politicians or governments to do those things.  Those are things we can do ourselves.
It’s fine to be pleased or displeased with the outcome of the election.  Remember, though, that our salvation is not to be found in Washington, nor is it to be found in a state capitol or any seat of government.  Salvation can only come by God’s grace through our faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

So Do Something!

Below is the text of the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 4, 2012.  The Scripture used is John 9:1-7.

Today is the last entry in our current sermon series “Does God?”

Think of what we’ve talked about in this sermon series.  We’ve said God loves us and cares about us, God answers our prayers, God has a plan for our lives, and that God wants us to enjoy life and be happy.  So here’s the question:  If all that’s true, why do so many bad things happen?

There’s no question that they do.  Just this week we saw the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.  We’ve had plenty of examples of bad things happening right here in our community recently, too.

When these things happen, it’s pretty natural to start asking, “Where’s God? Where’s God in all this stuff?  Does God cause it?  Even if God does not cause it, could God not stop it?  If so, why does God not stop it?  And if not, is God really an almighty, all-powerful God?”

These are not new questions, of course.  They go back thousands of years.  The early Hebrews asked that question, and they thought they had an answer for it.  They said, look, God is just and fair, so we get what we deserve.  If good things happen to you, it means you must be a righteous person, and you did something to deserve having them happen.  If you bad things happen to you, it means you must have sinned; you did something to deserve having bad things happen.  Simple.
The trouble was that people looked around and saw that did not seem to be true. There were too many times when it seemed like people who were not good people, people who lied and cheated and stole, had wealth and happiness on earth, even though they did not deserve it.  There were also too many times when it seemed like people who were really good people, who loved the Lord and who did their best to serve God and follow all the rules, still had all kinds of bad things happen to them, even though they did not deserve it, either.
This is what the whole book of Job is about.  If you remember, Job was considered to be the most righteous man on the face of the earth.  He seemed to have been rewarded for that, because he had great wealth, a large family, and all kinds of happiness.  Then, all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, it was all taken away from him. He lost his possessions, all his children died, and he completely lost his health.  And he had no idea why, because he did nothing to deserve having this happen.

Then Job’s friends came, and they refused to believe him.  They keep telling him, look, you must have done something wrong.  This has to be a punishment from God.  You need to confess your sin and repent.  But Job kept saying, “I’ve not done anything to deserve this.  This has happened to me for no reason, and I don’t understand it.”

This idea that bad things happen because God is punishing us persists.  You can see it in our reading from John today.  Jesus and the disciples are walking along, and they see a blind man.  The first thing the disciples ask Jesus is “Who sinned to make this man blind?”  They just assumed that this man’s blindness must have been a punishment.  And even though Jesus said that’s not the way it works, there are plenty of people who still believe that, even today.

There are, of course, times when God makes us live with the consequences of our actions.  That’s where another explanation for bad things happening on earth comes in.  It says that God gave us free will, and that has to include the freedom to do wrong, or our will would not truly be free.  Whatever we do, good or bad, affects more than just ourselves.  Our actions affect other people, too, sometimes in ways that we don’t think about or even know about.  The things I do affect you, and the things you do affect me. So when you and I do wrong, bad things are going to happen.  They may happen to us, or they may happen to others, but bad things are going to happen.  That means sometimes bad things are going to happen to us, not because we did anything to deserve them, but because someone else did something that made them happen.

One of the things I always think about, when I think about this topic, is my nephew, Wade.  Wade was killed in a car accident several years ago, just a week short of his fourteenth birthday.  Wade was riding to school with his mom and another driver ran a stop sign and smashed into the car, killing him instantly.

Wade’s death was, of course, the result of the actions of the other driver.  That’s not to say the other driver was evil or anything, but he made a mistake, and that mistake had consequences.  It took Wade’s life, and it permanently changed the lives of everyone else in both of the families involved.

Now, I don’t think for a minute that this accident was a punishment from God, nor do I think that God in any way caused it.  Still, I wonder, even if God did not cause it, could God not have prevented it?  And if so, why did God not prevent it?  After all, it would not have taken much.  If either driver had left home a few seconds sooner, or a few seconds later, the cars would not have collided.  If either driver had driven even one mile per hour slower, or one mile per hour faster, the cars would not have collided.  Surely God, the almighty, all-powerful God, could have intervened and changed things so that the accident would not happen.  But God did not do that.  The accident did happen, and Wade did die.  And I really don’t understand why.

Then, too, there are all the natural disasters that happen all around the world, like the one we just saw this week.  Nobody does anything to cause those things.  Those things have been going on for thousands of years, and there’s nothing any humans have done to cause them.  They just happen.  They happen, and some people lose everything, and some of them die.  And we don’t understand why.

I referenced the book of Job earlier.  Job constantly asks that question of why.  He asks it of his friends, and they say it’s Job’s fault, but that’s not true.  So, Job asks the question of God.  He asks it several times, and finally, near the end of the book, God responds.  God’s response, though, does not answer Job’s question.  God does not tell Job why.  Instead, God says, essentially, that we’re not supposed to understand why.  We’re supposed to have faith.  We’re supposed to believe.  We’re supposed to trust that God is in control, and that things will ultimately go the way they’re supposed to, even if we don’t understand all the things that happen along the way.

We’re not really very satisfied with that answer.  I certainly am not.  I have a hard time accepting it, and I’m not sure how to respond to it.  If we’re not going to be told why things happen, it seems like we should at least be told why we’re not going to be told why.  But God does not tell us that, either.

In thinking about this, let’s look at today’s scripture reading from the book of John again.  I think one of the reasons this story is in the Bible is to show us how we’re supposed to respond to this whole question of bad things happening.  There’s a man who was born blind.  Now, I’m sure blindness is a tough thing now and I’m not trying to minimize it causes at all, but two thousand years ago it was a lot worse.  Back then, there was basically nothing a blind person could do but sit by the side of the road and beg, hoping someone would come by and give them something.  Hope to get enough to survive today so that you can get up and try to survive tomorrow.

So, Jesus and the disciples are walking by, and they see this man.  And what do the disciples do?  They immediately ask “Why?  Why was this man born blind?  We know somebody must have sinned, but who was it?  Was it the man himself, or was it his parents?”

Does Jesus tell them why the man was born blind?  Not really.  He says, instead, that this man’s blindness is going to be used to reveal the greatness of God.  Then, Jesus heals the man.

By asking why, the disciples did what it comes natural to us to do.  The thing is, though, that while it may be natural for us to ask why, it’s a question we’re never going to be able to answer, at least not in this life.  God did not answer it for Job.  Jesus did not answer it for the disciples.  And nobody’s likely to answer it for us, either.

What Jesus did, though, shows us how we should respond to the bad things that we see in the world.  Jesus did not stop to discuss the why.  Instead, Jesus did something about it.  Jesus healed the man.  Jesus did not get into a theological discussion about why such a bad thing should have happened to someone who, for all we know, may have been as faithful and upright as it’s possible for a person to be.  Instead of discussing why this bad thing should have happened to this man, Jesus took the bad thing away.  He healed him.  Through that healing, God’s greatness was revealed.

I think Jesus was telling us through this that when we ask why, we’re asking the wrong question.  The question is not, why do bad things happen?  The question is, how are we going to respond when they do?  Instead of sitting there looking at a situation and asking “Why did this happen?”, what we’re supposed to ask is “What can I do about it?”

You and I, of course, are not Jesus.  We don’t have the power to heal someone by rubbing mud on their eyes and having them wash it off.  Our job, though, is the same.  John Wesley has a famous quote about what that job is.  He said that we are supposed to do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as ever we can.

I don’t know why the world is the way it is.  I’ll probably never know.  I know, though, that when bad things happen, it’s not because God is punishing us.  I also know that, when bad things happen, God does not want us to waste a lot of time wondering why.  Instead, God wants us to get off our rear ends and do something about it.  We may not be able to solve everything, but that’s okay.  God does not expect us to solve everything.  All God asks, as Wesley said, is that we do whatever we can.  

Even if there’s very little that we can do, it’s still important that we do the little that we can, and trust God to do the rest.  And sometimes, with God’s help, what seems like a little to us may make more difference than we ever imagine.  When we do our best to follow God’s will, God’s greatness can be revealed through us, just as Jesus said.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The State of the Parish

            As we prepare for Charge Conference on November 4, I have been thinking about what an exciting year this has been in the Wheatland Parish.  We have a lot of good things going on here.  Some of them are things we’ve been doing for some time.  Others are things we just started this year.  All of them are things we’ve done to share the love of God both within and outside our churches.

            Many of the things we are doing are included in the Charge Conference Report.  If you’d like a copy of that, we’ll have them at Charge Conference.  If you can’t make it to Charge Conference, please contact the church office and we’ll get one to you.  I do wish to highlight a couple of things that may be missed in other reports, though.

            Our parish facebook page is up over ninety likes as I write this.  Some of these are people from our church, but many are not.  Some are from within our communities, but many are not.  We have likes from people of all ages.  We have likes from people all over the country.  We even have a like from a man in New Delhi, India.  We live in an age in which the things we do in Gettysburg, or in Onida, or in Agar, can strengthen people’s faith all over the world.  That’s an awesome thing.

            We had a Wednesday night worship service in Gettysburg this past summer.  It did not have a large attendance; the average was about eighteen.  Still, many of these eighteen people were people who are not regularly attending church anywhere.  We were able to bring God’s word to those people.  We hope to do this again next summer, and we hope to spread God’s word further when we do.

            We have nine kids in our confirmation class this year, and they are wonderful kids.  It’s easy to get down on young people, but if you spent time with these young people every week like I do, you’d have an entirely different perspective on things.  These are kids who want to know more about God and who want to do things to strengthen their faith.  This says good things about their parents and about our churches, but it also says good things about the kids themselves.  I look forward to being with them every Wednesday evening.

            As you look through the committee reports, you’ll see a lot more things that our churches are doing.  The churches of our parish are very active churches.  This is wonderful.  As I wrote in the October newsletter, an active church is a church that will be attractive to people.  Very few people would want to join a group that never did anything.  What would be the point?  Active churches like ours are churches that will grow.

            We’re starting to see that in our attendance.  Since Labor Day, both the Gettysburg and Onida church have seen significant growth in their attendance.  I’m not just talking about growth since the summer.  I’m talking about growth over the same period last year.  Last year’s average attendance in Gettysburg was 62.  We averaged that much during the summer; since then, we’ve been over 80.  Last year’s average attendance in Onida was 40.  We slumped during the summer, but since then our average has been about 45-50.  Agar had no summer slump at all, and continues to consistently average 15-20 people every Sunday despite the number of illnesses in that congregation recently.

            In my Charge Conference report last year, I wrote that the temptation in towns like these can be to assume that our churches will inevitably get smaller, and that there’s nothing we can do about it.  You have resisted that temptation.  You’ve shown there is something we can do about it, and you’re doing it.  That’s awesome.  We have wonderful people in all the churches of this parish, and I am incredibly blessed to be your pastor.

            Now, though, there’s another temptation.  The temptation is to be satisfied with the growth we’ve achieved and to settle for that.  The temptation is to think that we don’t need to do more, that we’re doing okay just the way we are.

            Let’s not give in to that temptation.  As many of you have heard me say, in life we are either moving forward or we’re moving backward, but we’re never standing still.  If we think we’re standing still, we’re actually moving backward and just don’t know it.

            There are still plenty of people in this area who are not going to church anywhere.  They may or may not nominally be Christians, and they may or may not nominally belong to a church, but they are not attending services, and they are not feeling the love of God in their hearts.  They need to feel that love, whether they know it or not.  We need to continue to find ways to reach out to those people.

            This church has had a good year, and we can and should be proud of that.  However, let’s look at this year as merely the first step.  I remain confident that we can continue to work together to find ways to reach the people of this area with God’s word and God’s love.  The reason I’m so confident of that is because of you, the incredible people of the Wheatland Parish.  Let’s continue working together to bring glory to God in this part of God’s world.