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Friday, June 28, 2013

Beyond the Comfort Zone

If you like country music, you've probably heard the song by Brad Paisley, “Southern Comfort Zone.”  In it, he talks about the first time he left his home in the South and visited other parts of the country and the world.  He talks about being surprised to learn that not everyone drives a truck or watches NASCAR.  Not everybody goes to church or drinks sweet tea or does a lot of other things that he assumed everybody did because, after all, everybody he'd grown up with and lived around did those things.

It's a trap we all fall into.  It's a natural human tendency for us to want to be around people who are like us.  We want to be around people who are interested in the same things we're interested in.  We want to be around people who like the same things we like.  We want to be around people who live the same way we live.

That's not necessarily a bad thing.  Where it gets us into trouble, though, is when we start to assume that everybody should be like we are.  Where it gets us into trouble is when we start thinking that everybody should be interested in the things we're interested in, that everybody should like the same things we like, that everybody should live the way we live.

The reason that gets us into trouble is that if we think that way, then when we run into somebody who's interested in different things, who likes different things, who lives differently from the way we do, we automatically assume there's something wrong with them.  They must be strange.  They must be odd.  Our ways, after all, are the right ways.  Therefore, anyone who's different is doing it wrong.  They have to be weird at best, if not just plain bad.

When we say it like this, it becomes obvious that this is flawed thinking.  The fact that someone likes different things than we do or lives their life differently from the way we would does not make someone bad or even strange.  It just makes them different from us.  The problem is that we often make these assumptions unconsciously.  We don't realize we've done it, so we don't see the flaw in our thinking.  Instead, we come up with reasons to justify our assumptions.

Now, I want to point out two things here.  One is that this is a trap I need to remind myself of, because I fall into it as easily as anyone.  In fact, that's part of why I'm writing about it:  to remind myself not to fall into this trap.  There are lots of interests that people have, and lots of ways people live their lives, that are just as valid as the interests I have and the way I live.  I need a reminder, just as much as anyone else does, that that's okay.

However, that leads me to the second thing, which is that I am not trying to say here that there are no moral absolutes.  There are.  There are things that are wrong at all times, and in all situations.  There are things that are wrong when I do them, and wrong when you do them, and wrong when anybody else does them.  I am not arguing for an “anything goes” philosophy here.

The thing is, though, that we need to be able to distinguish moral absolutes from personal preferences and choices.  And that's why we need to get out of our comfort zones.  That's why we need to make sure we spend some time having some meaningful interaction with people who are different from us.  We need to get to know people who look at life differently from the way we do.  And we need to treat them with respect.

We don't have to agree with them, but we do need to try to understand why they look at things the way they do.  Doing that will help us realize that other people's beliefs, opinions, attitudes and choices are not necessarily strange or wrong just because their different.  It'll help us distinguish between things that are right or wrong in all circumstances and things that are legitimate choices for people to make, even if we would not make them ourselves.

So let's try to get beyond our comfort zones.  Let's try to get to know some people who look at life differently from the way we do.  We'll understand them better, and they'll understand us better.  And we'll all benefit from that.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Every Storm Runs Out of Rain

This is the message given at the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg on June 26, 2013.  The Bible verses are Genesis 6:9-22; 7:17-8:4; 8:14-22; 9:11-17.

Most of us have heard the story of Noah and the flood since we were little.  Even if you were not raised in the church, even if you never went to Sunday school or anything, the chances are you know the basic facts of this story.  God gets mad at humanity and decides to wipe it out and start over.  God decides not to start completely over, though.  Instead, God saves Noah and his family, and tells Noah to save two of every living thing so that after the flood, life can start over again.

Now, just as with the creation story, I don’t want to get into whether this story is literally true.  Think what you want about that.  To me, the more interesting question is:  why is this story in the Bible?  What are we supposed to learn from it?  What does it tell us about God or about ourselves? What can we get from this story that will draw us closer to God or help us in our daily lives?

When we look at the story that way, it seems like we have a lot of questions.  Look at what the story says.  It tells us God was sorry he had created humans.  It tells us God willingly and intentionally killed every human being other than Noah and his family, no matter who they were or how they lived.  It tells us God willingly and intentionally killed all sorts of animals, too.  It tells us God willingly and intentionally killed the birds, the lizards, everything, other than the two of each that were lucky enough to get on the ark.

How do we square that with our vision of God?  After all, the one thing we probably all agree on about God, the one thing we talk about in church we all the time, is that God is love.  We talk about God’s willingness to forgive us.  We talk about God’s grace and mercy.  Yet, in this story, God does not seem very loving or forgiving at all.  God does not show much grace or mercy here.  Sure, he showed it to Noah and his family, and we’re told that the reason is that Noah was a righteous man, but was Noah really the only righteous person on the face of the earth?  Was there no one else on the entire earth who was doing his or her best to follow God and serve God?  Were Noah and his family really the only ones worth saving?  Did no one else even deserve a warning and a second chance?

If we take these Old Testament stories seriously, they raise a lot of questions for us.  They make us take another look at things about our faith that we tend to take for granted.  What we decide to do with stories like this has a big impact on how we see God.  It especially impacts how we see God interacting with us.

You know, when we look at this story, we tend to look at it either from the point of view of either God or Noah.  It seems to me, though, that you and I can probably identify a lot more with the other people on earth, the people who were killed, than we can with God or Noah.  God, after all, is God:  more perfect and more holy than any of us can ever imagine being.  As for Noah, well, we may like to think that we’re somewhat righteous, to varying degrees, but none of us would probably claim to be the most righteous person on earth, the way Noah appears to have been.

When it comes to the others, though, that’s a different story.  I can identify with them.  I’ll bet you can, too.  After all, when it comes to the way we live our lives, how many of us really stand out from the crowd all that much?  I’m not saying no one here does, but if you do, you’re the exception, not the rule.  Statistics show that Christians in America do not stand out from the general population in terms of how we live or what we do in any significant way.  In other words, according to the numbers, if someone took ten average people and told you to figure out which ones were Christians by watching their behavior, the chances are you would not be able to do it.  As Christians we tend to blend in with the crowd, not stand out from it.

So, let’s think of ourselves as the ordinary people in this story.  From what the Bible says, we’d have had no clue what was going on.  God told Noah what was going on, but there’s no indication that God told anyone else.  There’s no indication that Noah told anyone else, either.  Even if he did, how many people could Noah have talked to, compared to all the people in the world?  Hardly any.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You and I are never abandoned by God.  It may feel that way sometimes, but it’s not true.  No matter how hard it seems to be raining in our lives, and no matter how much we may feel like we’re drowning in our troubles, God is still there.  As the country song says, every storm runs out of rain.  And at the end of the rain, there will always be a rainbow.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Two-Way Street

Below is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, June 23, 2013.  The Bible verses used are John 14:15-31.

Today we're starting our Hymn Hysteria sermon series. We're going to look at the top eight hymns in our bracket contest and think about why we like them and what they have to say to us.

The one for today is the one we just sang: “Oh, How I Love Jesus”. It got to the Elite Eight of our contest. Along the way it defeated “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, “Precious Name”, and “I Surrender All.”

“Oh, How I Love Jesus” was written by Frederick Whitfield in 1855. Frederick Whitfield was born in 1829 in England. He was a clergyman in the Church of England. His biography says that the most famous hymn he wrote is called “I Need Thee Precious Jesus”, which is sometimes sung to the tune we know as “The Church's One Foundation”. That one's not in our hymnal, though. In fact, “Oh, How I Love Jesus” is the only hymn Whitfield wrote that is in our hymnal.

We don't know what the original tune was. It's probably not the tune we sing it to now. That's a nineteenth century American tune. The chorus was not part of the original poem Whitfield wrote. It was common in the nineteenth century to add a chorus to revival songs, and they think that's probably what happened here.

The song has been popular for some time. It's been recorded by a lot of people, including Elvis Presley and Randy Travis. It originally had eight verses. Now, of course, we only sing three. This three-verse version, with the chorus we're familiar with and sung to the tune we sang it to today, is the one we're all familiar with, and it's the one that you voted for when you put it into the top eight.

But why? What is it about this hymn that makes it one of our favorites?

One reason might be that it's a very simple song. The chorus is especially simple. “Oh, how I love Jesus, Oh, how I love Jesus, Oh, how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.” Don't take that the wrong way. Calling it simple is not a criticism. Simplicity in a song can be a virtue, especially a song you want people to remember and sing along to. It takes very little time to memorize that chorus, and that's a good thing for a hymn.

And it does tell us some things about Jesus. Why do we love Jesus? Because he first loved us. And that's true. Jesus' love for us comes before our love for him. In fact, we would not know Jesus at all if he did not love us. The Son of God only came to earth out of love. Jesus' love for us started at the beginning of creation and will be there until the end of time. Jesus' love for us is far deeper and stronger and more powerful than our love for him could ever be.

How do we know Jesus loves us? The verses tell us. Jesus died to set us free. Jesus feels our deepest woe. He shares our sorrows, and helps us bear them, because we would not be able to handle them by ourselves.

That's all true. It's good for us to know all that. Jesus does love us. Jesus did die to set us free. Jesus does help us through all the sadness and the pain and the problems that can come from life. It's important for us to know that. Those are all things we need to know about Jesus.

But if you think about it—and quite frankly, I never did before I started writing this message—if you think about it, when we sing this song, what are we saying? We're saying that the only reason we love Jesus is because of the things Jesus did for us. Maybe that's why we like the song so much. The only thing it talks about is what Jesus does for us. The song does not require anything from us. It does not ask us to do anything for Jesus. The song portrays our love for Jesus as a completely one-sided deal.

But of course, real love cannot be one-sided, can it? Think of the people you love—your spouse, your kids, your parents, your siblings, your friends, whoever. Do you just love them for the things they do for you? No. At least, I sure hope not. I mean, that's part of it. It's hard to love someone who never does anything for us. But we don't just love people because of what they do for us. If we do, that's not really love. Real love makes demands on us. Real love requires things of us. Real love cannot be a one-way street. Real love has to go two ways.

The bottom line is that real love is never free. It comes with a cost. It requires us to give up some things. It requires us, sometimes, to do things we'd rather not do. It makes us, sometimes, go places we'd rather not go. Real love means putting the wants and needs of others ahead of our own.

The thing about that, though, is that if we really love someone, we don't really look at those things as demands. We don't look at it as a cost. When we really love someone, we want to do things for them. Not always, maybe. After all, we're still human. We still get selfish sometimes, and we still get lazy sometimes. When we do, we may need to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Still, though, there are a lot of times when we're happy to do things for the people we love. We do those things because we love them and we want them to be happy, and for no other reason. And we feel joy when we do it. That's what love does.

And that's how it is in our relationship with Jesus. In our reading for today, Jesus said that if we love him, we need to do certain things. He says it three times in our verses for today. “If you love me, keep my commands.” “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” Jesus seems to be pretty clear on this point. If we love Jesus, we're supposed to do the things Jesus told us to do. That means we're supposed to love God and love other people. That means we're supposed to go and make disciples of all nations. That means we're supposed to baptize them and teach them to do follow Jesus, too. Those are the things Jesus told us to do, so if we love Jesus, we need to do them.

Now, I want to make clear that we are not getting into works-based salvation here. We don't earn our way into heaven. We don't get to heaven because we're so good. We get there by God's love and mercy and through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.

The thing is that if we really do have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, then we will love him, right? That gets back to our song. If we truly believe Jesus did those things for us, how could we not love him? We'd have to be the most ungrateful creatures imaginable to believe that Jesus did those things for us and not love him for it. And again, that love needs to go two ways.

The thing is, though, that if we do love Jesus, we won't look at the things Jesus tells us to do as demands. We won't look at them as legalistic requirements. We won't look at them as things we have to do so we can go to heaven. We'll want to do those things for Jesus, just because we love him. Not always, maybe. Again, we're still human. We'll still get selfish sometimes, and we'll still get lazy sometimes. When we do, we need to apologize and ask for God's forgiveness. Still, though, if we love Jesus, there are times when we'll be happy to do the things he told us to do. We'll do those things just because we love him and because we want to make him happy, and for no other reason. And we'll feel joy when we do it. That's what love does.

Real love always comes at a cost. Jesus' love for us came at a cost. It meant that Jesus put us ahead of himself. It cost Jesus pain, suffering, humiliation, and ultimately death on the earth. Jesus willingly paid that cost, because Jesus loves us that much. The reason we love to hear the name of Jesus, the reason it sounds like music in our ears, is because of what Jesus did for us. It's because Jesus first loved us.

Our love for Jesus comes at a cost, too. It's easy to say, “Oh, How I Love Jesus.” But it's not enough just to say the words. Jesus said that if we love him, we'll keep his commands and obey his teaching. So, the next time we say we love Jesus, let's remember that. Let's make our love for Jesus real love. And let's feel joy when we do.

Friday, June 21, 2013


I wanted to write a blog post today. The thing is, I couldn't think of anything to write about. I know that, at various times over the last week or so, I've had things flash through my mind and thought “that would make a good blog post”. But now, as I sit down to actually write something, I can't think of any of them.

So, I did what people do in these situations today. I went to the internet. I searched for “Awesome Blog Post Titles”, thinking I might find something that would spur some sort of thought. I found a list, and the title I have above was the second one listed.

I assume the precise number, $860,538.38, is supposed to make us believe this is real. I mean, if someone said, “How I Made Almost a Million Dollars In Less Than Half a Year”, people might think, “Oh, sure.” But if they say they made $860,538.38 in four months, well, that has to be accurate. They must counted every penny to get a precise number like that, right?

Of course, the other reason we think a number like that is accurate is because we want to. Most people would like to believe they can have a lot of money, and most people would like to believe they can have it quickly and without having to do much of anything. We'd like to believe that was possible, even though we know better. And because we'd like to believe that, sometimes we do. Sometimes we fall for these things, even though our common sense tells us it cannot be true.

We'd like to believe our Christian faith works that way, too. We'd like to believe we can have salvation, and we'd like to believe we can have it quickly and without having to do much of anything. We'd like to believe that was possible, even though we know better. And because we'd like to believe that, sometimes we do. We fall for it, even though our common sense tells us it cannot be true.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing for a works-based faith here. There's a sense in which we can have salvation quickly and without having to do much of anything. As soon as we believe in God and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we have salvation. There's nothing else we have to do. That's it.

We don't have to do anything, and yet we do. Because if we truly believe in God and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we change. We leave behind some of the selfish things we used to do. We put God and others first in our lives. We won't do those things perfectly, of course. No one ever does. But we will do them. That's what accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior means.

That's hard. It'd be a lot easier of we could have salvation without having to change. But that's not how it works. Jesus did not come to earth with a message of “Hey, guys, you're doing great! Don't change a thing!” Jesus' message is one of love, but it's also one of repentance and forgiveness. And we cannot be sincere about asking for forgiveness if we don't intend to change anything.

No matter how many changes we make in our lives, of course, very few of us are likely to get rich. Acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, however, can lead us to make the changes that lead to forgiveness. Then, we will have the ultimate in riches. We will have eternity with God.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Best Annual Conference Evah!

Well, okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.  I haven't been to that many annual conferences, so I can't actually say it was the best one ever.  I can say, though, that it was the best annual conference I've ever attended.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is that there was such a positive attitude.  It started with Bishop Ough, it carried on through the speakers and presenters, and it came down to the people in attendance.  Yes, there are still problems and challenges—there always will be.  But, more than I've ever seen before, there was an attitude that we can solve the problems and meet the challenges.  There was also an attitude, more than I've seen before, that God will help us solve the problems and meet the challenges, if we ask God humbly and rely on God's help.

There are lots of things I could tell you about this year's annual conference, but there are three that I want to point out to you now.  The first is that Wanda and I have officially been appointed to serve the Wheatland Parish for another year.  We had assumed this for some time, but now it's official, and we couldn't be happier.  We feel incredibly blessed to serve in this wonderful place with its awesome people.  While we have no control over this, we hope to be allowed to serve here for several years to come.

Second, we completely changed the formula by which apportionments are calculated.  Apportionments, of course, are the amounts each United Methodist church is required to send to the Annual Conference.  They used to be determined by a rather complicated formula that involved membership, expenditures, and budgets, all added together, multiplied by the square root of pi, figured on a four-year rolling average, and placed in a refrigerator capable of surviving a nuclear blast.  The new formula is much simpler.  You take a specific percentage of the income of your church which goes toward the operating budget and send it in every month.  That's it.

The best part of this, to me, is that apportionments are no longer a barrier to membership.  It used to be that churches were hesitant to add new members because they were afraid it would make their apportionments too high.  Now, that's not an issue, because membership is not a factor in figuring apportionments.  So, if this issue has been preventing you from becoming a member, please let me know!

Third, Bishop Ough had set a goal of raising $100,000 from the churches of this conference to fund a new ministry in the Bakken Oil Reserve in Western North Dakota.  Well, we did not raise $100,000.  We raised over $262,000!  That's an awesome thing, and it shows how passionate the churches of this conference are about reaching out to people who need us.

We will be hearing much more about this ministry in the future.  It is still being developed and taking shape.  One thing that will happen, though, is that the United Methodist pastors of our local ministry team, the Prairie Harvesters, are planning to make a trip to that area in late summer/early fall.  Exactly what we will do is still being worked out, but part of what we will do is simply talk to people, find out more about their needs, and let them know that there is a church that cares for them and wants to help them.

You will have the chance to be part of this.  We want to take you with us, not physically, but through something you've made, such as cookies.  No, the problems of that area cannot be solved with cookies.  What those cookies will do, though, is be a tangible sign that the United Methodist church cares and wants to help.  Now, don't make the cookies yet—as I said, we don't know just what we're going to do yet, nor do we know just when we're going to do it.  But we will have some way you can help with the ministry in that region.

These are exciting times, both for our parish and for the Dakotas Annual Conference.  Wanda and I are thrilled to be back serving God with you for another year.  We can't wait to see what God has in store for us, both as a parish and as a conference.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's About God

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, June 16, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Genesis 22:1-19.

On this Father's Day, we're going to close out our sermon series on “Mothers and Fathers”. And there's not much better story we could choose on this day than the story of Abraham and Isaac.

If you remember the story, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had been married for a long time, but had no children. They were now getting up there in years, past the age of having children. Yet, God promised them that they would, in fact, have children. And they did. Against all odds, except for the odds of God, they had a son, Isaac.

Imagine as either a mother or a father, how you would feel about that. You've been wanting a child all your life. You've never had one. It looks like you never will. Then, unbelievably, you do have a child. You'd be overjoyed, right? That child would become the most important thing in your life. I mean, children are often the most important things in our lives, but it would be even more so in this situation. And to know that child was a direct result of God fulfilling a promise to you, well, you'd be incredibly thankful to God. You'd do anything in your power to protect that child and love that child that God have given you.

Then, at some point, along comes God again. God tells Abraham to take his son, Isaac, the only son he has, the only son he thinks he's likely to ever have, and go out and kill him. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to God.

Now, a few weeks ago, when we talked about Hannah, the mother of Samuel, we talked about wanting something so much that when God gives it to us, we give it back to God. But this takes it to a whole different level. God did not just tell Abraham to dedicate Isaac's life to God. God told Abraham to kill Isaac, and dedicate his death to God.

What strikes me, every time I read this story, is the incredibly matter-of-fact way the author of Genesis tells it. No emotions are told to us. We are not told Abraham's reaction when God told him to sacrifice his son. We're not told what he said, how he felt, any of it.

It does not take too much imagination to figure it out, though. How would you feel? We'd probably go through all five stages of grief. We'd be in denial: did God really say that? I must've heard wrong. God does not really want me to kill my son. Then there'd be anger. What's the matter with you, God? Why would you tell me to do this? What's wrong with you? Then there'd be bargaining: God, I'll do anything you want if you'll just let my son live. Then would come depression, when reality set it and we realized that this really was what God wanted us to do and we were going to have to do it.

The Bible does not give us any of that, though. It goes right to acceptance. As soon as God stops talking, it tells us about Abraham's preparations for the trip.

We don't know if he told Sarah. He clearly did not tell his servants. He tells them to stay put while he and Isaac go off to worship and then they'll come back. He did not even tell Isaac what was going on. In fact, when Isaac asks about it, he evades the question.

Abraham's heart had to be breaking. But he was willing to go through with it. He built an altar. He arranged the wood for the fire. He tied up Isaac and put him on the altar. Again, this is all told to us very matter-of-factly. We don't know if Abraham ever told Isaac why he was doing this. We don't know if Isaac fought, if he thought his dad had gone nuts, or what. Abraham pulls out his knife and raises it. He's just about to kill Isaac when an angel of the Lord stops him. The angel tells him that it was all just a test, and that Abraham passed, because he did not withhold even his son from God.

That's one heck of a test. I guess that's why the Bible tells us to pray that we not be led to a time of testing. That's about the hardest test anyone could ever have.

Do you think you could pass it? For most of us, it's probably pretty hard to say. It's hard to imagine being in a situation where God told us to kill anyone, really. Maybe in a war, but even there, I'm not sure. But could we do this?

If you don't have children, imagine being told by God to kill your spouse, or your parents, or someone else who's really important in your life. And leave aside the fact that we'd probably say someone who said they were told by God to kill someone was mentally ill. Imagine having no doubt about it actually being God who wanted you to do this. Could you?

See, we talk all the time in church about how God should be the number one thing in our lives. But this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where stuff gets real. Because if we say no, then we're saying that God is not, in fact, the number one thing in our lives. God may still be important, but other things are more important.

I'm not saying that in a judgmental way. I'm also not saying that I could do it. I don't even like to hit a bird on the highway. It's just a fact that, if we say we could not do what Abraham did, if we could not do this even if we were completely and totally convinced it was what God had told us to do, then we're saying that there are things in our lives more important than God and obeying God's will.

I doubt that any of us will ever be tested the way Abraham was. But we get other tests. We get them all the time. We get them every day. Every day, in a hundred different ways, we make choices between doing what we know God wants us to do and doing what we want to do. And every day, in a hundred different ways, we have to decide whether God is the number one thing in our lives or not.

And every day, in a hundred different ways, we fail. At least I do. I know I do. Every time I put my own desires ahead of doing something for someone else, I fail. Every time I see a chance to do something for someone, and I don't do it, I fail. Every time I close my eyes to the needs of someone else, I fail. Because those are things God is telling me to do. When I don't do them, I'm saying that God is not the number one thing in my life. God may still be important, but other things are more important.

I could go on about other ways I fail these tests. What about you? What are the ways you get tested? What are the ways you fail? What are the things you do, or don't do, that show that God is not the number one thing in your life?

Don't misunderstand me here. I'm not saying you're all terrible, horrible people. I'm not saying I'm a terrible, horrible person, either. We're people, that's all. We don't always fail the tests. There are times when we do exactly what God wants us to do. There are times when we do make God the number one thing in our lives. But there are a lot of times we don't. And we need to do something about that.

But what? What do we do? How do we get ourselves to where we pass those tests? How do we get to where we really do make God the number one thing in our lives.

You know, I wonder if maybe that's why Genesis tells us this story so matter-of-factly. Maybe that's why we're not told how Abraham felt about any of this. It's not that Abraham did not have any feelings about this. Of course he had feelings. It's because Abraham's feelings did not matter, and Abraham knew his feelings did not matter. Abraham knew it was irrelevant whether he wanted to do this or not. This was not about Abraham. It was not about Isaac, either. It was about God.

That's what we need to remember. When we get these tests, when we make these choices, that's what we need to keep in mind. Our lives are not about ourselves. They're really not even about others, although others are obviously involved. Our lives are about God. If we want to make God the number one thing in our lives, we need to remember that our lives are about God, and not about ourselves.

Abraham was able to remember that. He knew this whole thing was not about him, and it was not about Isaac. It was about God. Because Abraham remembered it was about God, he was able to pass the test. And he got his reward from God.

If we remember that it's about God, we'll pass our tests, too. And we'll get our reward. We may or may not get a reward in this world, but we will definitely get a reward in the next one.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Greatest Gift

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor communion service Thursday, June 13, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Galatians 2:15-21.

What would you say is the greatest gift God gives us?

I suppose it depends on how you look at it. I mean, we would not have life in the first place if not for God, so we could say that’s the greatest gift. When we’re feeling lonely or sad, we might say that love is the greatest gift. If we’re having health problems, we may say that health is the greatest gift God gives us.

None of those is a bad answer, and there are a lot of other good answers, too. But as I think about it, I think the greatest gifts of God are grace and forgiveness. Jesus said that if we believe in God and believe in Jesus as our Savior, and if we ask God to forgive our sins, our sins will be forgiven and we will go to heaven. It does not matter what we’ve done in our lives, if we just do that, we’re in. No questions asked. It would be hard for God to give us a much greater gift than that.

The thing is, a lot of times it seems like it’s one of the hardest gifts for us to accept. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we don’t believe in God or believe in Jesus as our Savior. What I’m saying is, we seem to have a hard time really believing that’s enough.

We say it, but it’s like we have a hard time getting it to sink in. We say all we need to do is have faith, but then we start slipping back into law and legalism. We start looking at our lives, and we think of all the things we’ve done wrong and all the times we’ve fallen short. We think about all the things we’ve done that we should not have done, and we think of all the things we should’ve done that we’ve did not do. And we think, with all the things I’ve done wrong, can I really be good enough to get into heaven?

And of course, the answer is no. You’re not good enough to go to heaven. Neither am I. No one is. No one could ever be. Remember, Jesus once said that no one is good except God. Neither you nor I nor anyone else is ever good enough to go to heaven. If we had to be good enough to go to heaven, heaven would be an incredibly lonely place.

What Paul is trying to tell us in our reading from Galatians today is to stop looking at it that way. Stop thinking we have to be good enough to go to heaven. That’s not how we get there. We get to heaven by our faith in God and in his Son Jesus Christ as our Savior. There are no other requirements. There are no other questions asked.

In fact, Paul says, in a way, that thinking we have to be good enough to get to heaven is a denial of Jesus Christ. Think about it. Jesus died for us. He died so that our sins would be forgiven. If, despite that, we still think we have to be good enough to go to heaven, then what we’re really saying is that Jesus Christ did not die for us. In fact, what Paul says is that if we say we have to be good enough to go to heaven, then we’re saying Jesus Christ died for nothing.

Again, this is not meant as a criticism of anyone here. I don’t think anyone here would say we think Jesus died for nothing. Most of us, maybe all of us, would say we think Jesus died for us, so our sins would be forgiven. We’d say that, and we’d mean it, at least with our heads. In our hearts, though, we still, a lot of times, have that element of doubt.

I think the thing is that it’s just such an incredible gift, you know? You know what it’s kind of like, in a way? It’s like if someone was to walk into this room right now, hand you a check for a million dollars, and then walk out again. Someone you’d never seen before, someone who had no reason to do something for you, just walks up and gives you all this money.

You’d be thinking, wait a minute. What’s going on here? What’s the catch? Nobody just hands you a million dollars for no reason. There has to be more to it. This guy must want me to do something. There’s no way somebody would just give me this for no reason.

That’s why it’s so hard for us to accept the gift of salvation God has given us. It’s just so hard to believe it. Why think about what Jesus did for us, dying on a cross to save us from our sins, and we think, wait a minute. What’s going on here? What’s the catch? Nobody would die to save us for no reason. There has to be more to it. I must be supposed to do something. There’s no way Jesus would just do that for me for no reason.

But he did. There’s no reason, other than that Jesus loves us. There’s no reason, other than that God wants us to be with him in heaven. We don’t have to do anything. It’s just a gift, an incredible gift from God.

So let’s accept that gift. Let’s stop thinking we have to do something. Let’s stop looking for the catch. Instead, let’s simply accept the incredible grace and forgiveness that God has given to each one of us.

God's Creation

This is the message given in the WOW (Worship on Wednesday) service in Gettysburg June 12, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Genesis 1:1-2:4.

Last summer, for these Wednesday services, we did a series on some of the parables of Jesus. This year, I thought what we'd do is talk about some Old Testament stories. And we're going to start in the very beginning of the Old Testament, which of course is the beginning of the Bible, with the story of creation.

Now, a lot of times one of the first things that happens when we talk about the story of creation is that people want to know if we're supposed to take that story literally. Do we have to believe, as Christians, that God created the world in exactly six days, no more and no less? Or can we believe what current scientific theories tell us? In other words, can we be Christians and still believe in things like evolution and the big bang theory?

When we look at that, I think the first thing we need to do is recognize that faith and science do not need to be in conflict. They're sometimes portrayed that way in the media, but they really should not be. After all, both true faith and good science are really engaged in the same thing: a search for the truth. They may search for truth in different ways, but that should be the goal of both. And God certainly has nothing to fear from a search for the truth, because God is truth.

What true faith and good science also recognize is that nothing can ever be proven with one hundred percent certainty. Christians can never conclusively prove that God exists, that Jesus is the Savior, that the Holy Spirit acts in our lives or anything else. We can provide evidence, but we can never give one hundred percent certainty because God does not do that. God asks for faith, and if we had certainty there would be no need for faith.

The same could be said of science. Science can never prove things with one hundred percent certainty, either. It can provide evidence, sometimes a lot of evidence. There are things that science has proven with enough certainty that we rely on them every day of our lives, whether we realize it or not. Still, good scientists know that nothing is ever one hundred percent certain. Everything we learn raises more questions. Sometimes we think we know the truth only to find out that we don't. That why, in both science and faith, we refer to a search for the truth. Searching for the truth is a never-ending job.

I think, though, that when we in the church get bogged down in questions about creationism and evolution and intelligent design and all that, we miss the point of why the story of creation is in the Bible. The Bible was not written to be a science textbook. The book of Genesis was written thousands of years ago. It was originally written for people who had no concept of planets of galaxies or universes or anything else.

Could God have created the world in six days? Of course. God is God. God can do anything God chooses to do. God could've created the world in six seconds if that what God chose to do.

But the thing is that whether God created the world in six seconds or six days or six million years is not the point. The creation story is not in the Bible to specifically tell us that God created the world in six days. The creation story is in the Bible to tell us that God created the world.

From a faith standpoint, that's really all we need to know. After all, just that is pretty awesome, right? Creating the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets and everything else out of nothing? Creating plants and animals and fish and insects and humans out of nothing? That's a pretty big deal. That's pretty cool. How God did that or how long it took or anything else is not the point. The point is that God did it. The point is that nothing would exist without God.

If God created the world and everything in it exactly as it exists now in six days, that'd be pretty awesome. If God created the world and everything in it over thousands or millions of years using a big bang and evolution and stuff, well, that'd be pretty awesome too, right? In fact, in some ways that'd be even more awesome. Think of all the things God would've had to work out in advance to create the world that way. Just creating it as it is would be easier, really. To work out a system where everything happened at just the right time and in just the right place and things evolved and changed and grew over millions of years and eventually developed intelligence, well, that's beyond comprehension. That's so incredible that we cannot even really grasp it.

Think of how long scientists have been trying to create intelligent life, and we're not even close yet. Here's the other thing, if humans ever do create intelligent life, it still won't be anywhere near as awesome as what God did. If we ever do it, we'll be starting with the materials God gave us. God started from scratch. God started with nothing.

It's like the old joke. A scientist is talking to God and bets God he can create life without God's help. God says, “Okay, how are you going to do it?” The scientist says, well, “I just start with this dirt here...” And God says, “Hey, wait a minute, that's cheating. Go create your own dirt.”

God created the dirt. God created the chemicals. God created the intelligence that we have that allows us to even try to comprehend the world. God created it all. It all comes from God.

There's one more thing the creation story teaches us. And it's another reason why getting bogged down in debates about evolution and a big bang and stuff misses the point of the story. When we look at the creation story that way, we forget about one of the most important verses. It says, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

We forget about that verse sometimes. Sometimes we look at the world and it does not seem very good to us. We see wars, we see hunger, we see abuse, we see immorality, we see all sorts of things that don't seem to us to be very good at all.

God sees all that too, of course. God sees everything. Yet, God still says the world is very good.

I think the reason God says that is that God sees the potential for good in everyone and everything. God knows that each one of us sins. God sees all the times each of us falls short of what God created us to be. But God also sees all the times we get it right. God sees all the times we actually do show love to each other. God sees all the times we actually put others ahead of ourselves. God sees all the times we do something for someone with no thought whatsoever for what we'll get out of it. God sees what we are, but God also sees what we can be.

God sees something else, too. God sees how it's all going to end. We don't. Sometimes someone comes along who thinks they do, but Jesus told us that only God knows when the end will come. It could come a million years from now. Or, it could come tomorrow. We just don't know.

When we think of the end of the world, we tend to think of it as a really sad, tragic thing. And there are some ways in which it probably will be. If you've ever read the book of Revelation, you there's a lot of stuff that's supposed to happen before the world ends, and some of it's stuff that does not seem very pleasant.

Here's the thing, though. When the end of the world comes, God will create it. The same God who created the beginning of the world will create the end of the world. And just as God's creation was very good in the beginning, God's creation will be very good at the end. Whenever God is involved in something, it has to be very good.

No matter how much we humans might get in the way, no matter how much we mess up, we cannot take away from God's goodness. God's creation was very good in the beginning. God's creation is very good now. God's creation will be very good at the end. God's creation is very good because God is very good. Anything created by the very good God has to be very good. That includes each one of you. That includes me, too.

People have been arguing about when and how the world was created since I was a little boy. They'll probably still be arguing about it long after I'm gone. As Christians, though, what we need to know about creation is that whenever and however it happened, God did it. Because God did it, it's good. No matter what you and I may do, it will always be good. And whenever and however it ends, that will be good, too. Everything God does is good.

There's nothing wrong with trying to find out more, but those are the things we really need to know. If we know those things, our faith can handle anything that science may reveal to us.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Who's Your Daddy?

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 2, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Exodus 18:1-27.

 We've been doing a sermon series on mothers and fathers. As we do that, though, I think it's important that we recognize that sometimes, the people who are our mother or father are not necessarily our birth mother or birth father. Sometimes, we have a stepmother or a stepfather, a father-in-law or a mother-in-law, or even just a very good family friend who plays the role of a mother or a father in our lives.

We talked a couple of weeks ago about Moses' mother and father. Their faith was important in Moses being alive at all, but through no fault of their own, they were not allowed to play much of a role in Moses' life as he grew up. Moses was raised in Pharaoh's household, but by the time he was a young adult, circumstances made it so that he had to leave that household, too.

The thing is that, even after we become adults, we still need the influence of a mother and a father in our lives. Again, that person may not be our birth mother or birth father, but we need someone to play that role. We need someone to go to for advice, for help, for unconditional love. We need someone we know we can count on to be there for us when we're in a tough spot. And we need someone to help us even when we're in a situation where we don't realize we need help.

In our scripture for today, we read about Moses' father-in-law, Jethro. Moses was married to Jethro's daughter, Zipporah, and they had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. We're not told anything about Zipporah's mother, but it looks like Moses and Jethro had a good relationship. The two of them worked together for ten years. Remember when Moses was out herding sheep and saw the burning bush and spoke to God? It was Jethro's sheep he was herding. It looks like, in many ways, Jethro became the father Moses never had.

In the reading we heard today, the people of Israel were in the wilderness. They had crossed the Red Sea, but they had not been out of Egypt too terribly long. Moses had sent Zipporah and his sons to live with Jethro at some point during this time, probably because he had not wanted to subject them to the hardships of being in the wilderness. Now, though, Jethro, Zipporah, and the kids are coming to see Moses.

We can see, again, the close relationship Moses and Jethro had because the first thing Moses does, after greeting Jethro, is take Jethro into his tent and tell him all about everything that's happened, all the events with Pharaoh in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea and how God has taken care of them and saved them and all that. Interestingly, we're not told anything about the reunion of Moses and his wife and how that went. Clearly, though, Jethro was an extremely important person in Moses' life, important enough that he wanted to tell Jethro all about what had been happening to him since they last met.

Jethro is happy for Moses, of course. Then, though, the next scene is of Moses sitting as judge for the people, hearing cases all day long, from morning until evening. Jethro's sees that and tells Moses, this is not good. This is not going to work. I know you mean well, but you're going to wear yourself out this way. You'll never be able to do it. Instead, Jethro tells Moses, find some good people, some people of faith whom you can trust, and let them hear the smaller cases. You just hear the big ones. That way, you won't wear yourself out and justice will still be done.

Listen to the sentence that comes next. “Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said.”

Think about that. This is Moses we're talking about. Moses, the leader of the entire nation of Israel. Moses, who with God's help had defeated the great and mighty Pharaoh, who had been the most powerful man around. Moses, who spoke directly to God. And yet, this same Moses still needed the influence of a father figure in his life. When Jethro gave him some advice, Moses listened, and Moses followed that advice.

What that says to me is that no matter how old we get, no matter how much we achieve, no matter how how great or powerful we become, we never reach a point where we don't need a mother and a father in our lives. If that's our birth mother and our birth father, that's great. But if it's not, we still need to have those people in our lives. We still need those people we can go to for advice, for help, and for unconditional love. We need those people who we know have our best interests at heart, even if they tell us things we don't want to hear.

Look at how the situation was described here. Moses did not ask Jethro for advice. Moses did not go to Jethro and say, “You know, I'm just wearing myself out here. I don't know what I'm going to do. Do you have any ideas?” Moses thought things were going well. He thought things we going the way they were supposed to go and that he was doing what he was supposed to do.

But Jethro could see that he was not. And Jethro loved Moses enough to tell him so. And Moses trusted Jethro enough to listen.

Do you have people like that in your life? I'm lucky enough to have both my parents and Wanda's parents in my life. And I'm lucky enough to have a good relationship with all of them. I'm lucky enough to know that I could go to all of them for advice, for help, and for unconditional love. That's not because of anything I've done to deserve it. That's just simply a gift from God that I've been blessed enough to receive.

Everyone is not as lucky as I am. But we all need those people in our lives. If you don't have them, start thinking about who they could be. Start thinking about how you could cultivate a relationship with someone who can fill that role of a mother or a father for you. And again, this is not just something I'm saying to the young people here. I'm fifty-four, and I still need those people in my life. Moses was the leader of all Israel and spoke directly with God, and he still needed Jethro in his life. No matter how old we get, we need those people in our lives.

But we also need to be those people for someone else. So look around you. Look for people you know who don't have someone who can fill that role of a mother or a father in their lives. Think about someone who might need some advice, or some help, or some unconditional love. Then, pray about those people. Ask God to help you find ways you might be able to fill that role for them. Ask God to help you find ways to cultivate a relationship with someone who needs you, even if they may not realize it.

Now, this is probably not something that's going to be quick and easy. Relationships can never be formed overnight, no matter what kind of relationship we're talking about. It takes time. It takes effort. Again, Moses had worked for Jethro for ten years. They knew each other well. They knew they could trust each other. Jethro knew Moses was honorable and had faith in God. Moses knew Jethro loved him and had his best interests at heart.

It takes time for a relationship of trust to form. We have to work at it. We have to go through some things together. That's why I said to include prayer as part of this. If this is going to happen, it's going to be the result of a commitment we make. And any time we make an important commitment, we need to ask God to help us keep that commitment.

That's especially true about committing to a relationship. Relationships are hard, no matter what kind of relationship it is. At some point, no matter how strong a relationship is, there are going to be problems. We're not told about it, but I'm sure there must have been times, in those ten years that Moses and Jethro worked together, that there were disagreements. How could there not be? When you work closely with someone for ten years, there are going to be times when you don't agree on everything. But they found a way to work through those disagreements, and with God's help, their relationship stayed strong.

We are never too old to need a mother and a father in our lives. We are never too powerful to need a mother and a father in our lives. We are never so close to God that we don't need a mother and a father in our lives. If you don't have one, think about who it could be, ask God to give you a strong relationship with that person, and then do what you can to make that happen. If you see someone who needs mother or a father in their life, ask God to give you a strong relationship with that person, and then do what you can to make it happen.

God wants us to have those relationships. If we do our part to form them, God will do God's part. Because, after all, we're all a part of the family of God.