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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Report from the Bakken

As many of you know, I went with a few other pastors to the oil patch area of western North Dakota a couple of weeks ago.  I want to give you a report on the trip.  If you were in church on Oct. 20, you already heard some of this, so my apologies to you.

We were in the area for a total of three days.  We stayed in the United Methodist Church in Dickinson, North Dakota, thanks to the graciousness of that church and its pastor, Dan Freed.  We also went to Watford City, North Dakota as well as a couple of other small towns in the area.

Watford City is at the center of the activity there.  Before all this happened, just a couple of years ago, Watford City was a town of roughly 1,200 people, basically the size of Gettysburg, where I live.  Now, it's a town of maybe 15,000 people, and still growing.  No one really knows the size for sure, because people are constantly moving in and out.

The way I've been explaining it to people around here is, suppose we all woke up one morning and discovered that 10-15,000 people were moving to town.  We'd say, “But we don't have any place for all those people to stay.  We don't have roads or a power grid or sewer and water for all those people.  We don't have a school system or a fire department or a police department that can handle all those people.  We don't have medical services or grocery stores or restaurants or even gas stations that can handle all of those people.”  But none of that would matter, because they'd still be coming.

They came to Watford City, and the result is what you'd expect:  confusion, turmoil, and chaos.  Everywhere there was an open spot of ground, there is now a trailer court, or an RV park, or a campground, or something similar.  They are everywhere.  A trailer, even a good one (which some of them are and some of them aren't), is not designed to be lived in through a North Dakota winter, but these will be, because many people have no other place to live.

People are overwhelmed.  That was the word we heard more than any other:  overwhelmed.  The entire situation is overwhelming.

In time, of course, some of these problems will be taken care of.  They are building apartment buildings and stores and so forth as fast as they can.  They are improving the roads as fast as they can.  Eventually, the economic situation will stabilize.  Don't misunderstand—I'm not trying to minimize the situation by saying that.  There will be a great deal of hardship before we get to “eventually”.  But eventually, that will happen.

Unfortunately, the economic problems are not the only problems, or necessarily the most important ones.  There are also emotional and spiritual problems, which will be much harder to solve.

Think about what it would be like to work in the oil patch right now.  You might work for ten or twelve or fourteen hours a day.  You might work for seven or ten or fourteen days at a stretch.  You didn't know anyone when you came, and you really don't have a chance to get to know anyone, other than the people on your work crew.  And those are people who came from all over the country, or maybe from another country.  They may come from a completely different background, they may have a completely different family life, they may have completely different values, they many have completely different interests.  That doesn't make them bad people or anything, but it may make it very hard for you to become friends, because you may have absolutely nothing in common.

And even if you do become friends, you have no idea how long your new friend will be there.  We met any number of people who had been there for one week, or two weeks, or a month. Part of that is because the companies are still adding people, but part of it is because there is constant turnover.  People come and work for a while, and then decide they don't like the work, or don't like the lifestyle, or don't want to be away from their family that much, or simply are not prepared for the reality of winter in North Dakota.  So they leave again, and other people come.  The people in your work crew today may be completely different from the people who were in your work crew last month or from the people who will be in your work crew next month.

And think of what it's like for the people who've lived in Watford City for years.  Most people who live in small towns are there because they like living in small towns.  They like the fact that they don't have to fight traffic, and they don't have to lock their doors, and they know their neighbors.  Well, for the people in Watford City, that small town they loved is gone, and it's never coming back.  No matter what happens with the oil boom, things are never going to be the way they used to be again.

What did we do?  Well, we handed out health kits to people, giving them things like toothpaste, Band-aids, and homemade cookies.  Those were provided by the people of our churches, and I am very grateful to the people of the Wheatland Parish for their work in providing those kits.

Also, we talked to people.  We prayed with people.  We let them know that somebody cared about them.  We also prayed with Rev. Dan Freed and with the United Methodist missionaries in Watford City, Jim and Cathy Konsor.  We let them know that somebody cared about them, too.

Did we accomplish anything?  I think we did.  I just don't know what yet.  Obviously, handing out a few Band-aids and cookies is not going to magically solve all the problems of the oil patch.  But I think we did a little something.  And it's my hope and my prayer that God will take that little something that we did, put it together with the somethings other people are doing, and make it into something big.

What can you do?  Well, I'm sure the Dakotas Conference will have some things for us to do as time goes on.  This is not a short-term situation by any means, and we should not look at it that way.  There are people estimating that the oil boom could last thirty years, fifty years, or even longer.  No one knows.  I'll let you know as opportunities for ministry in that area come up.

For right now, I ask that you pray for the Bakken area, for the pastors and missionaries in that area, for the workers, for the citizens, for everyone and everything involved in the situation.  Too often, we say, “all we can do is pray” as if that was not really doing anything.  In fact, it is usually the most important thing we can do.  We've been talking about the power of prayer in our recent sermon series.  Now is the time we find out if we believe what we've been saying.

Let's use the power of prayer for the Bakken.  I don't know what the answer is there.  I don't think anyone knows.  But God knows.  Let's ask for God's help and God's guidance.  Let's be open to how God is leading us, not just in regard to ministry in the Bakken, but for all of our lives.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

What Do You Expect?

This is today's message in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Mark 2:1-12; Mark 5:25-34, and Matthew 8:5-13.

There's an old story, and you've probably heard some variation of it.  It's about this town that's going through a terrible drought.  It has not rained for months.  So, the pastors in the town get together and rent the biggest hall in town, and they call a prayer meeting.  Everyone in town is supposed to come together and pray for God to give them rain.

The night comes, and sure enough, everyone shows up to pray for rain.  The hall is packed.  One of the pastors takes the stage to start the meeting.  He looks over the crowd and says, “So, how come nobody brought an umbrella?”

The point, of course, is that, if no one brought an umbrella, then no one really expected God to answer their prayers.  They thought praying was a good thing to do, and they may have had hopes, but they also had doubts.  No one really believed, no one really trusted, no one really expected that God would, in fact, do what they were asking God to do.

We've been talking for almost two months now about the power of prayer.  We've talked about all sorts of things.  We've talked about what the Bible says about the power of prayer.  We've talked about how prayer creates a relationship with God and opens us up to God's guidance.  We've talked about how prayer unlocks God's power.  We've talked about how prayer gives us strength.  We've talked about how prayer clarifies our faith.  We've talked about all these ways—and we could've talked about many other ways—that prayer has power.

So now comes the big question:  do we believe it?  Do we really believe that prayer has power?  Because if we do, then our prayers should create an expectation inside of us.  We should expect that God will answer our prayers.

Now, as we've talked before, that does not mean God gives us everything we ever want.  I doubt that God would answer my prayer to win the lottery, although God certainly has the power to do that if God chose to.  But at the same time, we've talked about how Jesus said God knows how to give good gifts to God's children.  So, if our prayers are humble and sincere and if we're truly doing our best to follow God's will when we pray, we should expect that God will answer our prayers and give us those good gifts.  We should trust in God's power and in God's goodness.  If we don't, then all this stuff we've been talking about in regard to the power of prayer is just that:  talk.  We really don't believe it.

We read three short little stories from the Bible today.  Each one of those stories is a story of someone who absolutely believed that Jesus would answer their prayer.

The first one tells about four guys who have a friend who's paralyzed.  They want to get their friend to Jesus, because they know Jesus can heal him.  And when they cannot get to Jesus because of the crowd, the cut a hole in the roof of the room where Jesus is and lower the guy down.  They had no doubt about Jesus' power, and no doubt about Jesus' goodness.  They knew, they absolutely knew, that Jesus could heal their friend and would heal their friend if they could just get their friend to Jesus.

The second one tells about a woman.  She's been sick and suffering for twelve years.  Jesus is walking by where she lived, and there was a big crowd around him, as there sometimes was.  And this woman fights through the crowd, struggling desperately, reaching out, just wanting to touch Jesus' cloak, because she believes doing that will cure her.  She has no doubt about Jesus' power, and she has no doubt about Jesus' goodness.  She knows, she absolutely knows, that Jesus can heal her and will heal her.  She does not even think he has to do anything.  If she can just touch his clothes, she knows she will be healed.

And our last story is the story of the centurion, a Roman solider who was in command of a hundred men.  He has a servant who is paralyzed and suffering.  He does not even think Jesus has to come and touch his servant to heal him.  He says all Jesus has to do is say the word, and his servant will be healed.  He has no doubt about Jesus' power, and he has no doubt about Jesus' goodness.  He knows, he absolutely knows, that Jesus can heal his servant and will heal his servant.  All he has to do is say the word, and it will happen.

So how about you?  How about me?  Do we have that kind of faith?  When we pray, do we have any doubts about God's power or about God's goodness?  Do we believe—in fact, more than do we believe, do we know—do we absolutely know that God can do the things we ask?  Do we expect that God will, in fact, give good gifts to us, God's children?

I don't know about you.  I have to confess that I don't.  I'd probably be one of the people who did not bring an umbrella.  I mean, I believe that God is good.  I believe that God has power.  And I pray for God to do certain things.  And sometimes I don't necessarily pray for specific things, but I just pray for God's help or God's guidance.

I pray, and I try to believe, and I try to trust, and yet, somehow, I'm always kind of surprised when God actually comes through.  Sometimes I'm more than just kind of surprised, I'm really surprised.  I can look back at my life, and see where God has come through for me time after time after time, and yet, I'm still surprised when it happens again.  And I'll bet I'm not the only one here who's like that.

I think God understands why we're like that.  I don't think God gets mad at us for it.  I think God must be kind of disappointed, though.  God's also probably kind of sad.  Because when we do that—when I do that—we make our lives a lot harder than they need to be.  We give ourselves a lot more worries than we need to have.  I think there are a lot of times God wants to say to us—and does say to us, in lots of different ways--”You know, your life would be so much easier, and so much better, and so much happier, if you'd only trust Me.”

The thing is, when we talk about the power of prayer, what we're really talking about is the power of God.  God has more power than we can ever imagine.  We know that, we believe it, and yet, when it comes right down to it, it can be really hard for us to trust that power.

Why?  Because of sin.  We are proud, independent, stubborn, sinful people.  We think we need to do things ourselves.  We think we should do things ourselves.  We want to do things ourselves.  And so, we do.  Instead of surrendering ourselves to God's will, instead of trusting God's power and God's goodness, we think about our own will, and we trust in our own power.  And it's not necessarily that the things we do are bad things.  It's just that, again, we make things harder on ourselves by doing things our way rather than by doing them God's way.

Did you notice what Jesus said to each of the three people in our stories?  In the case of the man with the four friends, we're told that Jesus healed him “when Jesus saw their faith”.  In the case of the woman who touched Jesus' clothes, he said to her “your faith has healed you”.  He said to the centurion, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

Faith.  That's what it all boils down to.  Faith.  If we have faith, we can trust God.  If we have faith, we can trust in God's goodness and in God's power.  If we have faith, we will expect—in fact, we'll do more than expect, we'll absolutely know—that God will give us good gifts, just like Jesus said God would do.

So there's the challenge to us.  How much faith do we have?  Do we have enough faith to expect that if we pray humbly and sincerely, that if we truly do our best to follow God's will when we pray, that God will answer our prayers and give us those good gifts?  Do we have enough faith to not just believe in the abstract, but to absolutely expect it?  Do we have enough faith to believe that, if we pray for rain, we'd better carry an umbrella?

God wants us to trust.  God wants us to believe.  God wants us to expect.  Our lives are so much easier, and so much better, and so much happier, when we do.  And when we do, that's when we fully feel the power of prayer.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Do You Want?

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, October 20, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Mark 10:35-52.

When we talk about the power of prayer, one of the things people will ask sometimes is, “Well, why do I really need to pray, anyway?  After all, the Bible says that God knows our every thought.  The Bible says God knows what we need before we ask.  So, if God already knows how I feel, and if God already knows what I need, why should I bother to pray?”

It's a legitimate question, but I think there's an answer to it.  Actually, there's probably more than one answer, but there's one I want to give you today.  Even though God already knows what how we feel and what we need, we still need to pray because the act of praying clarifies our own faith.  It reveals to us what we really think about God.

I think our Bible reading for today shows that.  We heard two little stories.  Those stories are often dealt with separately, and there's value from doing that, but I also think they come back-to-back in the gospel of Mark for a reason.  There are things the two stories have in common, and so I think there's also value to be gained by looking at them together.

In both of them, we have people asking Jesus for something.  James and John come up to Jesus and ask for something, and Bartimaeus comes up to Jesus and asks for something.

Now, the way they ask is completely different.  James and John come up to Jesus and almost demand that he do something for them.  They say to Jesus, “we want you to do whatever we ask.”  Bartimaeus, on the other hand, goes to Jesus and says, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.”

Now, that's two totally different ways of approaching Jesus, right?  James and John seem to feel entitled to Jesus' help.  They call him “Teacher”, but at the same time, they talk to him more like he's their servant.  That's sometimes called the vending machine approach to prayer.  We make our requests, we push the button, and boom, God is supposed to give us what we asked for.

Bartimaeus, on the other hand, does not seem to feel entitled to anything.  He's begging.  He's pleading.  He's hoping desperately that Jesus will hear him and will do what he asks.  He does not act like Jesus owes it to him to help.  But he knows that the only chance he has is if Jesus somehow, for some reason, decides to have mercy on him and help him.

Two completely different ways of asking.  And yet, Jesus' response to them is exactly the same.  In both cases, he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Does that seem like kind of an odd question to you?  It does to me.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus surely knew what they wanted, right?  Jesus is God, the divine Son.  It seems like he'd have known what they were going to say before they said it.

And yet, Jesus asked the question.  Even though he already knew what they wanted, he wanted to hear it from their own lips.  Why?

I don't know the whole answer.  But here's something for us to think about.

Have you ever had a thought or an idea or something like that in your head, and it made sense to you while it was in your head, but then you went to tell somebody else about it, and when you did it sounded totally different when you said it out loud than it did when it was still in your head?  I've done that.  I've gone to say something, and all of a sudden this thought or this idea, that seemed like it was totally reasonable and sensible when it was in my head, sounded really stupid or arrogant or hurtful when I put it into words and said it to somebody else.  It happens because I really have not thought through all the meanings and implications of what I'm thinking.  And when I have to explain it to someone else, all of a sudden those meanings and implications become clear.  And it's not always a very pleasant experience.

I think that's one of the reasons Jesus asked “What do you want me to do for you?”  It's one of the reasons we need to pray, too.  We need to put our feelings into words.  We need to put our requests of God into words.  We need to do that so we can fully understand them.  We need to do that so we can really understand the meanings and implications of what we're asking of God.

I wonder, when James and John actually said to Jesus, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory,” how did they feel?  When they actually said that out loud, and they heard what it sounded like, were they proud of it?  Or were they a little ashamed of it, suddenly hearing  what it sounded like when they said it?  Did they realize that this demand, which sounded so good and reasonable in their heads, sounded really arrogant and almost condescending to Jesus when they said it out loud?  I mean, here they were, telling Jesus they wanted him to put them above all the other disciples and to put them into positions of power and glory.  Did they realize how that was going to sound to Jesus and to the others?  The act of having to put their request into words revealed what they really thought about Jesus, and it did not sound particularly good.

Now, Bartimaeus did not have that same problem.  What he asked for did not sound stupid or arrogant or hurtful.  Still, it revealed what he really thought about Jesus, too.

Bartimaeus does not say to Jesus, “I want you to do whatever I ask.”  He just says, “Have mercy on me.”  Bartimaeus does not think Jesus owes him anything.  He has no real reason to think Jesus will do anything for him.  He does not even know whether Jesus will pay any attention to him.  After all, he'd never met Jesus.  As far as Jesus was concerned, he'd just be some guy on the side of the road, trying desperately to get Jesus to notice him.

When Jesus stopped and said he'd talk to Bartimaeus, how do you think Bartimaeus felt?  Was he excited?  Was he scared?  Probably both, and some other things, too.  He had no idea what Jesus was going to say.  For all he knew, Jesus might be going to chew him out.  He might be going to say, “Who do you think you are, yelling at me like this?  Get out of here.”

But Bartimaeus came up to Jesus.  And Jesus asked him the same question.  “What do you want me to do for you?”

That must have seemed to Bartimaeus like a really odd thing for Jesus to say.  I wonder if anybody'd ever asked him that question before.  You know, blind people were not treated very well in that society.  They were pretty much shunned by everyone.  They were considered to have been cursed by God in some way.  Once in a while someone might've take pity on Bartimaeus and given him something, but no one, at least no one respectable, would become his friend.  No one would've cared about Bartimaeus to ask him what he wanted.

But Jesus did.  He must have been stunned.  It probably took him a second or two to react at all.  He'd been so desperate just to get Jesus' attention that he probably had not really thought about what he'd actually say to Jesus if he got the chance.  He probably had an idea, but he'd never put it into words before, even in his head.  What did he really want Jesus to do for him?

Finally, he stammered it out.  He said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

Again, the act of having to put his request into words revealed what he really thought about Jesus.  He believed that Jesus had power that came from God.  He may not have known exactly what that meant, he may not have known that Jesus was the divine Son and all that, but he knew that Jesus was a man of God in some way.  He truly believed that Jesus could make him see.  And he knew that the only reason Jesus would do that is if Jesus had mercy on him.

So, what do you want Jesus to do for you?  And what do I want Jesus to do for me?  Our answer to that question reveals what you and I really think about Jesus.

Do we come to Jesus arrogantly?  Do we come to him demanding that Jesus give us whatever we ask, acting as if Jesus somehow owes that to us?  Or do we come to Jesus desperately, knowing that Jesus owes us nothing, and that the only reason Jesus would pay any attention to us at all, much less do what we ask, is because of the great love and mercy that Jesus has for us?

How we pray reveals what we think about Jesus.  It clarifies what we actually believe.  It shows us what kind of faith we really have.  And that, too, is a part of the power of prayer.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Little Faith, Big God

This is the message in the Wheatland Parish from Sunday, October 13, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 8:23-27 and Isaiah 40:25-31.

This parish has been through a lot over the last several weeks.  Over the last six weeks, we've had six funerals in this parish, and that does not count two funerals that are coming up but have not taken place yet.  We've also had numerous hospitalizations, some of them quite serious.  We have two people with ties to this parish who have the West Nile virus.  We've had people with all sorts of other serious health problems.

That's an awful lot.  And of course, that's just the people with ties to the United Methodist church.  If we include the others in our communities, people who may not be part of our church but are still our friends and neighbors, we've had more of all those things:  more funerals, more hospitalizations, and more other serious health problems.

And of course, there's more.  There are people with continuing health concerns.  There are people who don't live here, but who are important to us, who have serious health concerns, too.

And that's not all.  Health is only one of the things that can affect our lives.  There have been natural disasters.  Our neighbors not far to the west went through a blizzard that killed a lot of livestock.  The economy is still poor.  We have job concerns.  We have stresses and strains in our relationships.  There's an old saying that God does not give us more than we can handle, but it sure seems like that theory gets put to the test sometimes.  Some people in our church and in our community have had to go through more than any human being should have to try to handle.

So what do we do?  How do we handle it all?  What do we do when we feel like we're trying to handle more than we can handle already, and then something else happens on top of it all?

Well, you know what I'm going to say.  As we continue our sermon series on the power of prayer, I'm going to suggest that what we should do in that situation is pray.  One of the ways prayer has power is that it gives us strength to handle more than we could handle otherwise.

Now, as I say that, many of you probably are nodding your heads in agreement.  Because that's one of the stock beliefs of Christians, that God gives us strength, and that the strength God gives us helps us handle the hard things of life.

But it's one thing to agree with that, and another thing to really believe it.  It's one thing to say the words, but it's another thing to really feel them in our hearts and in our souls.  Because many of us have had times when we don't think our prayers are doing much good at all.  We've had times where we've prayed and it seemed like nothing happened.  And we've had times where we've thought, well, what's the point of praying anyway?  If God is who God's supposed to be, then God already knows what's going on.  What good is praying going to do?

I understand that.  When we've never tried prayer, it can be hard to believe that it will really do any good to pray.  We say a few words to God and we expect—well, what?  God to magically cure us or our friends?  God to bring our loves ones back from the dead?  God to just give us a new job or fix our relationships?  God to wave a magic wand and suddenly all our problems are over?  It's pretty hard to believe that.  I understand why you might be reluctant to try prayer.

And if you've tried praying and feel like to did not do any good, well, I can understand that, too.  I've been there.  I've had times when it felt like my prayers went nowhere, like they just bounced off the ceiling and came back to me.  Like God either did not care or else God was just not there at all.  That's hard.  When we feel that way, it's pretty hard to believe that prayer has any power at all.

It seems like the times when we're at our weakest can be the times when it's the hardest to rely on God.  We feel like, well, God has to know how I feel.  In fact, I've told God how I feel.  And God has not done anything about it.  So why should I rely on God now?

That's how the people of Israel felt in our reading from Isaiah.  Israel had been overthrown.  It lost its independence.  It was controlled by Assyria.  The people had prayed for God to save them, to rescue them, to take care of them, but it had not happened.  And so, as our verses say, the people are now saying, “My way is hidden from the Lord.  My cause is disregarded by my God.”

And Isaiah says, what are you saying that for?  Don't you know who God is?  “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary...He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.”  He says, humans may get tired and may stumble, but not God.  And then he says, “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

We're not told how the people of Israel responded to Isaiah's message.  And maybe there's a reason for that.  Maybe the point is not how the people of Israel responded.  Maybe the point is how you and I respond.

So, what do you think?  What do you think of Isaiah's answer?  Is it enough for you?  When you have trouble relying on prayer, or you think it won't do any good, does that answer satisfy you?  Is it enough to realize who God is, and to think about God's strength?  Is that enough to make you and I trust that God will hear our prayers, and that God will answer them in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time?

These are legitimate questions.  And it's not enough to just respond the way we know we “should” respond.  It's something we've got to actually mean.  Because when we're down, when we're weak, when we feel beaten up by life, platitudes won't cut the mustard.  We need real help:  help for our minds, help for our hearts, and help for our souls.

If it's not enough, I understand.  I assume God understands, too.  But as I thought about this, there was a phrase from the Bible that kept coming to my mind.  It's a phrase Jesus used sometimes to describe his disciples.  You heard it in our reading from Matthew this morning.  It's a phrase I think we misunderstand sometimes.  Jesus would sometimes refer to his disciples, usually after they'd been scared about something, as “you of little faith.”

We think of that phrase as Jesus being critical of the disciples, and maybe he was, but I don't think that's it.  I think, at least sometimes, Jesus just used it to describe the condition we're in as human beings.  No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we think we believe, no matter how much we try to trust God, when we get scared, when things go wrong, when we really get up against it, we're like the disciples.  We are people of little faith.

Jesus never got mad at his disciples for being people of little faith.  He may have been a little disappointed sometimes, he may have been a little sad sometimes, but he never got angry with them.  He never chewed them out for being people of little faith.  And you know what else?  He never gave up on them, either.  He kept working with them.  He kept trying to teach them, trying to encourage them, trying to strengthen their faith.

And Jesus never gives up on us, either.  Jesus keeps working with us.  He keeps trying to teach us, trying to encourage us, trying to strengthen our faith, just like he did with the disciples.

So, when we have trouble dealing with something, and we feel like that makes us someone of little faith, you know what it really makes us?  It makes us normal.  Because when we're struggling, when we get scared, when we feel like we have more than we can handle, we all turn into people of little faith.  It's okay.

But here's what I'd like to suggest.  When you feel like a person of little faith, and you think prayer won't do any good, pray anyway.  If you feel like you've already prayed and nothing happened, pray anyway.  And keep praying.  Grab hold of the “little faith” that you have.  And don't let it go.  Trust God with that “little faith”.  See what God can do with that “little faith” if you'll just trust God with it.

God has not given up on you.  God has not abandoned you.  God is still there.  Your way is not hidden from the Lord, and your cause is not disregarded by God.  God can take even our little faith and give it great power.  And God will do that when we ask God to do it.  And that is a big part of the power of prayer.

What Are You Looking For?

This is the message from the Oahe Manor Communion service on Thursday, October 10, 2013.  The Bible verses used are Psalm 66:1-12.

  You know, there's something I've noticed about life.  Maybe you've noticed it, too.  A lot of the time, we see what we're looking for and hear what we're listening for.

It happens all the time.  As you know, I'm the pastor both here in Gettysburg and also in Onida and Agar.  And of course, the sports teams of those towns, Potter County and Sully Buttes, play each other sometimes.  So, I'll sit with fans of both teams at different times, and here's what I've noticed.  When I'm with the Potter County fans, I'll hear people say that the refs are out to get Potter County and are favoring Sully Buttes.  And when I'm with the Sully Buttes fans, I'll hear people say that the refs are out to get Sully Buttes and are favoring Potter County.  And it's the same game and the same refs.  But the people watching the game are seeing what they're looking for.

You see it happening in politics right now.  I have friends who are strong Republicans and friends who are strong Democrats.  My friends who are Republicans look at what's going on now and blame it all on the Democrats.  My friends who are Democrats look at what's going on now and blame it all on the Republicans.  They're seeing what they're looking for and they're hearing what they're listening for.

Now, I am going to tie this into the psalm I just read.  The psalm tells us we should shout for joy to God.  It says we should sing the glory of God's name.  It talks about the awesomeness of God's deeds and the greatness of God's power.  It says God has done awesome deeds for humankind.

And I believe all that.  I think it's true.  But sometimes, it can be hard to see it.  Sometimes, we get wrapped up in our own lives and our own problems.  I'm not saying that critically.  Our problems are real, and sometimes they're serious.  I'm not saying we should pretend they don't exist.

What I am saying though, is that sometimes, our problems seem so big to us that we cannot see past them.  All we see are problems, because problems are all we're looking for.  And so we miss the joy that exists in the world.  We miss the awesomeness of God's deeds.  We don't see the greatness of God's power, because we're not looking for it.

I'll give you an example.  Tuesday morning, for about a half hour, we had one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen.  And I just got lucky that I saw it.  I was working at my computer and I just happened to glance out the window.  And I saw some of the most beautiful colors I've ever seen in my life.  I stopped what I was doing and walked outside and just looked at it.  And then I called Wanda, so she could see it, too.  It was one of the most beautiful things I've seen in my life.

But the thing is, as beautiful as that sunrise was, I'll bet a lot of people missed it.  They missed it for a lot of reasons.  They were busy, they were still asleep, they were in a room without windows, there could be lots of reasons why they missed it.  As I said, I almost missed it myself.  But one of the reasons a lot of people missed that beautiful sunrise is that they were not looking for it.  They did not think about the possibility of a beautiful sunrise.  And so they missed out on one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.

It happens so many times in our lives.  There's so much beauty all around us.  But if we don't look for it, we won't see it.

That's true of people, too, you know.  There's beauty in each one of us.  But if we don't look for the beauty in other people, we'll miss it.  And if we don't look for the beauty in ourselves, we'll miss that, too.

The fifth verse of our psalm said, “Come and see what God has done.”  That's what I'd invite each of you to do today.  Come and see what God has done.  Come and see what God has done in the world.  Come and see what God has done in Gettysburg.  Come and see what God has done in the people around you.  And come and see what God has done in you, too.

Look for it, and you will see it.  And when you do, do the other thing the psalm says to do.  Praise God for it.  The psalm says it over and over again.  Shout about it.  Sing about it.  Glorify God for it.  Let the sound of praise to God be heard.

God deserves our praise.  We know that.  So let's keep our eyes open.  Let's look for reasons to praise God.  Let's keep our ears open.  Let's listen for reasons to praise God.  And when we see and hear those reasons, let's shout and sing and raise a ruckus about how great God is.  Let's make so much noise about it that people wonder what all the noise is about.  Let's praise God so much that people say what we say to the kids about their music, “Would you turn that noise down?”

But when it comes to praising God, let's never turn the noise down.  Let's shout and sing praises to God whenever we can.  Let's look for reasons to praise God and listen for reasons to praise God.

And when we do, I'll bet those problems that seemed so big to us, those problems we could not see past, won't seem so big after all.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Faith and Understanding

We got a lot of rain last week, and a lot of wind.  We did not, however, get a blizzard like they did in the western part of the state, nor did we get tornadoes like they did in the southeast corner of the state.  We just got rain, which is something we very much needed.  We were very fortunate.  We can and should be very grateful to God for that.

At the same time, we know that this did not happen because of anything we've done.  We know we're not somehow better than the people in other parts of the state.  We did not get better weather than they did because we somehow deserve better.  It's just the way it was.  We and they both have to accept that, whether we like it or not, because none of us has a choice.

There are a lot of things in life that work that way, it seems.  Good things seem to happen to some people and bad things seem to happen to some people.  One person gets cancer and another does not.  One person is born in freedom and another is born in tyranny.  It's not because the one is better than the other.  It's not because the one deserved good things and the other did not.  It's just the way it is.  And we all have to accept it, whether we like it or not, because none of us has a choice.

There is so much about the world we don't understand.  There is so much about God that we don't understand, too.  We don't understand why God has arranged things the way God has.  We don't understand why God allows some things to happen.  We don't understand why some people seem to get all the luck and others don't.  There are so many things about the way life works that just don't make sense to us.  And saying “that's just the way it is” is not a very satisfying response.

We wish we could understand.  We wish God would explain it to us.  We wish everything about the world made sense to us.  But that's not the way it is.  God, in God's wisdom, chooses not to explain everything to us.

We assume there's a reason for that.  Maybe, if we understood it all, it would somehow be bad for us.  Maybe we wouldn't understand the explanation if we got one.  Maybe God's logic operates on a different level.  The analogy I've used is if we tried to explain advanced calculus to a three-year old.  Advanced calculus makes sense—but only if our brains are far enough advanced to understand it.  Maybe God's logic works the same way:  it makes sense, but our brains are simply not far enough advanced to understand it.  I don't know.  All we can do is trust that somehow, in a way we cannot understand, it does make sense, and that someday, when we go to heaven, we'll understand it all.

For the time being, though, all we can do is take it on faith.  And that's okay.  Because you know, nowhere in the Bible does God tell us we need to understand everything. Instead, God asks us to trust.  God asks us to have faith.  And God promises to be with us always:  when good things happen, when bad things happen, when life happens.  God will always be there, and God will always help us through whatever we need to get through.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Boldly Go to God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 6, 2013.  The Bible verses used are 1 Samuel 1:1-20 and Luke 11:5-13.

We've been talking about the power of prayer.  We've talked about how prayer can create a close relationship between us and God.  We've talked about how, by creating that relationship, prayer opens us up to God's guidance and helps create chances to serve God.  This week, we go a little farther.  This week, we're going to talk about how prayer gives God chances to use God's power.

Because when we talk about the power of prayer, that's really what we're talking about, right?  God's power.  Prayers are not powerful because of us.  Prayers are powerful because of God.  The only thing our prayers do is give God chances to use God's power.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute.  How can you say prayer gives God chances to use God's power?  God can use God's power whether we do anything or not.  God can use God's power any time God wants to.  God is all-powerful.  There's nothing we can do that affects God's ability to use God's power.”

Well, that's true, of course.  God is all-powerful.  God can use God's power any time God wants to.  But what the Bible seems to tell us is that sometimes, God waits to be invited to use God's power.  God sometimes does not use the power God has until we ask God to do that.  And the way we ask is through prayer.

To me, that fits in with the idea that God gives us free will.  God allows us to make choices with our lives, and so God is not going to use the power God has, even for our own good, until we ask God to do that.  If we don't, God will allow us to go our own way and will allow us to deal with the consequences of going our own way.

But we're encouraged to ask.  Jesus himself encourages us to ask in the passage we read from Luke.  In fact, Jesus tells us we should ask with “shameless audacity.”

That word “audacity” is not one we use a lot in normal conversation.  It means boldness or daring.  It means to act confidently, without regard to any restrictions.  So what Jesus is telling us is not just to ask God to use God's power, but to be bold in ask God to do that and to be confident that God will do it.  Jesus is saying we should not be afraid to come to God with big requests.  We should not feel like we're imposing on God to ask for things.  We should be bold and confident in asking.

That's what the person is Jesus' story did.  He goes to his friend in the middle of the night, after everyone's gone to bed, and says, “Hey, company just came and I don't have anything to feed 'em.  I need you to give me some food right now.”

I mean, can you imagine that?  You're at home asleep, in the middle of the night, and somebody starts banging on your door and demanding food?  Seriously, think about it.  It'd be really tempting to just ignore them and hope they go away, right?  I'd be thinking, “You idiot.  How can you not have any food?  Who in the world runs completely out of food?  What were you planning to do for breakfast?”

But that's the audacity, the boldness, the confidence, with which Jesus says we're supposed to ask God for things.  We're not supposed to worry about whether we should've done more to be prepared.  We're not supposed to worry about whether God will be inconvenienced when we ask.  We're not supposed to worry that this might be too much for us to ask God.  We're just supposed to ask.  And God, out of love, will give us what we ask.

Now, I think we need to notice something about Jesus' story.  The thing that was asked for was not something frivolous.  It was not “give me something extravagant so I can go have fun”.  The request was for food.  Specifically, for bread.  Bread is something people need.

I think that tells us something.  Jesus tells us to ask God with boldness, but not to ask for a bunch of stuff we don't need.  Jesus says “ask and it will be given to you” but that may not work if we ask God for a Mercedes.  Jesus is telling us to ask God for things we truly need.

Jesus goes on to compare God to a good father, and says “Look, if your son asks for a fish or an egg, you'll give it to him, right?  You won't give him a snake or a scorpion.  You give you kids things that are good for them, not things that are bad for them.  And God will do the same for you.”

Now, again, I think that means we get what we need, not necessarily what we want.  Again, Jesus is comparing God to a good father.  A good father, or a good mother, does not give their children everything they want.  Sometimes the things we want are not good for us.  If a child asks a parent for a snake or scorpion, you won't give it to them, will you?  A good parent gives their children what they need, not necessarily what they want.

But again, we can still make bold requests.  We should make bold requests.  And if they meet with God's approval, God will answer those requests.  Our prayer will have created the chance for God to use God's power for our good.

That's what Hannah did in our reading from First Samuel.  Hannah desperately wanted a child.  It looked like she would never have one.  She was begging, pleading, even bargaining with God, asking God to please, please, give her a child.  She was praying so hard the priest Eli thought she was drunk.

Now, that's a pretty bold request, right?  To ask God to give you a child?  That's no small thing, especially when you've been trying to have children for years and have never been able to have one.  That's audacity.  I mean, there's nothing in the Bible that says Hannah was anyone special.  There's nothing that says Hannah had any reason to think God would do anything special for her.  But she trusted God.  She trusted God enough to make a big, bold, audacious request.  And her prayer had power:  God's power.  God used God's power to do what Hannah wanted.

I think that's really what it comes down to—trust.  Trusting in God's love.  Trusting in God's power.  Going to God confidently, not because we believe in our own goodness, but because we trust God's goodness and God's greatness.  Trusting that, if what we're praying for meets with God's approval, our prayer will have power.  God will answer our prayer, no matter how big or bold it is.

Now, of course, we need to understand that we cannot order God around.  Hannah did not go to God and demand that God do what she wanted.  She did not say, “God here's what I want, so get going.”  She called herself God's servant.  She was humble.  She was respectful.  She did not demand anything.  She simply asked.  And she said that, if God granted her request, she would do everything she could to make sure her child served God and honored God.

I think that tells us the attitude with which we should make these bold, audacious requests to God.  We should go to God humbly.  We should go to God respectfully.  We should recognize that we're God's servants.  And then, we should simply ask, and resolve that if God does give us what we ask for, then we'll do everything we can to use whatever God has given us to serve God and honor God.

So, what's on your mind today?  What's on your heart?  Is there something you need?  I mean, not something you want, not something you'd like to have, but something you really need?  Pray for it.  It does not matter how big it is.  Pray for it.  It does not matter whether you deserve it, because of course you don't deserve it and neither do I.  Pray for it.

  And when you do, pray boldly.  Pray confidently.  Trust God's love.  Trust God's power.  Trust that, if what you pray for meets God's approval, God will give it to you.  And resolve that if God does what you ask for, you'll do everything you can to use whatever God has given you to honor God and serve God.

We know God has power.  We know God has unlimited power.  Jesus told us God will use God's power to give good gifts to us, God's children, because God loves us.  There is nothing too big for God to do.

God wants us to ask.  Jesus told us to ask.  So, let's ask.  And let's be bold in asking.  Let's give God chances to use God's power.  Then, we'll really see the power of prayer.

Friday, October 4, 2013

On the Agenda

As I write this, the big thing in the news seems to be the government shutdown.  I suspect you've heard about it, and you probably have an opinion on it.

That's fine.  We're all entitled to our opinions.  Yours is just as valid as mine, so I'm not going to give you mine here.  However, there's one aspect of the matter that I do want to comment on.

I have seen people, on both the left and the right, try to tell us what God's opinion about the government shutdown is.  Coincidentally, all of these people have come to the conclusion that God agrees with them.  And they will tell you so, in no uncertain terms.

It's one of the things we all have to guard against.  It is really easy for us to impose our own personal agendas on God.  Sometimes we do it with the best of intentions.  We're absolutely convinced that our beliefs are good and that they are right.  We cannot conceive how any logical, reasonable, intelligent person could possibly disagree with us.  And so, we assume that God must agree with us, too.  Sometimes we even look through the Bible, searching for verses we can quote that show how God agrees with us.

The trouble is that God rarely fits our agendas.  God tells us to do things that are illogical, unreasonable, and not intelligent at all, at least from a human perspective.  Jesus told us that we should love our enemies, rather than hate them.  Jesus told us that if someone slaps us on one cheek, we should turn the other one to them and let them slap that one, too.  Jesus told us that asks us for our coat, we should give them our shirt, too.  Jesus not only said we should love our enemies, he said we should lend to them without expecting to ever get anything back.

Does any of that sound logical to you?  Does it sound reasonable?  Does it even sound intelligent?

Of course, we're not the first people who've tried to use God as a prop to support our agendas, whether political or personal.  People tried to do that to Jesus all the time.  “Hey, Jesus, should we pay taxes or not?”  “Hey, Jesus, what are the circumstances where it's okay for us to get a divorce?”  “Hey, Jesus, who's my 'neighbor'?”  Yes, sometimes people asked questions because they genuinely wanted to know the answer, but a lot of the time, they were hoping he'd say something they could use to buttress their own beliefs, no matter what the subject was.

If you notice, when Jesus got asked these “agenda” questions, he never gave a direct answer to them.  He'd never take one side or the other.  Instead, he'd say “Here's how you, as a follower of God, should live.”  And the answer was never something that fit anyone's agenda.  Instead, the answer always had to do with love:  love of God and love of others.  And people would almost always go away ashamed, because they knew how far short they came from feeling the love God wants us to feel.

I suspect, if we could ask Jesus about the government shutdown or about any other hot-button issue, that's still what Jesus would do.  He wouldn't take one side or the other.  He'd say, “Here's how you, as a Christian, should live.”  And the answer would not fit anyone's agenda.  Instead, the answer would have to do with love:  love of God and love of others.  And we'd feel ashamed, because we'd know how far short we come from feeling the love God wants us to feel.

God is a lot bigger than our agenda.  God won't fit into the boxes we try to put God in, whether those are political boxes or other types of boxes.  So let's stop trying to use God to serve our agenda.  Instead, let's strive to serve God in everything we do.