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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Father Time Remains Unbeaten

This will be a lengthy blog post.  I don’t know that there’s any point to it—I guess I’ll see if I make one or not.  But a lot has happened in the life of my family over the last week and a half, and I want to set it down on paper.

First, let me say a big thank you to the people of the Wheatland Parish for allowing us to be gone for a week and a half to take care of these matters.  Your prayers, love, and support is appreciated more than I can say.  I have always known that there are awesome people in this parish, and this simply confirmed it.  Thank you again.

Second, let me say that I know that what we’ve been through is no different from what lots and lots of families go through.  If your family has not gone through it yet, there’s a good chance that you will.  And of course, in some families, loved ones pass away before you have the chance to go through it, and that’s an entirely different issue.  I know there’s nothing special about us.  Still, it’s one thing to know it happens in the abstract, it’s another thing to go through it yourself.

So, a week ago Thursday, on June 16, Wanda and I left around 8:00 a.m. to go to Armour to visit my parents.  This was a planned visit.  We thought we’d go down there, give Dad his Father’s Day present and Mom her birthday present, spend the night, and leave the next day.  We’ve made trips like that many times, and this would be just one more.

When we got there, shortly after noon, we discovered that Dad had slid out of bed the night before.  Dad’s ninety-three and has had occasional falls in the past.  He could not get himself up (as he has not been able to for a while), but since it was around 10:00 p.m. he told Mom not to call for help, and she listened.  So he spent the night on the floor, with neither of them getting much sleep.  Finally, around 7:00 a.m., Mom called for help (over Dad’s protestations) and some friends came over, picked him up, and set him in his chair.  That’s where he was when we got there.

We probably should have called for the ambulance right then.  But neither Mom nor Dad wanted us to, so we decided, well, he’s really tired now.  Maybe if he rests today and gets a good night’s sleep tonight he’ll feel better in the morning.  And we let things stand that way for the day.

The next morning, we discovered Dad had barely moved from where he’d been placed for bed.  He could barely move.  So there was nothing for it but to call the ambulance, again over Dad’s protestations.  Dad went into the hospital Friday morning.  On Saturday, they told us we should start preparing for Dad to go into a nursing home, at least for a while.

They were not on any waiting lists anywhere, so this potentially posed a big problem.  I went to the nursing home in Armour and talked to them.  Dad did not want to be in a nursing home at all—he has an intense dislike for them—but if Dad had to be in one, we knew Armour would be where he wanted to be.  But, of course, it was Saturday, so the regular business people weren’t there.  I also sent an email to the nursing home people in Gettysburg, because I know them, to see what the possibility might be of getting Dad admitted there.  There was a substantial possibility, of course, that there would be no openings in either place, and Dad might simply have to go wherever there was a spot.

Meanwhile, Dad was getting worse, and by early afternoon on Sunday we were facing the possibility that he might not make it out of the hospital at all.  By evening, though, he had made a substantial recovery.  He was not well, by any means, but there was no longer danger of imminent death.  So things were looking up a little bit.

Monday, we received good news.  Either by luck or by God smiling on us (your mileage may vary, but I know which I believe), there was an opening in the Armour nursing home for Dad.  He was continuing to improve, at least to the point where he could be in the nursing home by Tuesday.

That left the question of what Mom would do.  She did not need to be in a nursing home—she’s ninety-one, and you don’t get to ninety-one without some sort of problems, but she is capable of taking care of herself.  On the other hand, she does not drive, so the only way she would have to see Dad is if friends and neighbors took her out there.  They have good friends and neighbors in Armour—the people there have treated them great—but asking them to take her out there and bring her back every day, the way they would both want, seemed a bit too much.  So, Mom made the decision to move out to the nursing home with Dad.  Again, there was the question of whether there would be a place there for her.  But again, either by luck or by God smiling on us (and again, I know which I believe), there not only would be a spot for Mom by the end of the week, but she would be able to share the same room with Dad.  That was incredibly good news.

But it also meant there was a lot to do in a short time.  We needed to get them both ready to go out there.  We had lots of paperwork to do and lots of details to take care of.  We also had to get their house ready to be vacant for a while, and if you know me you know I’m about the worst person in the world to be in charge of home maintenance.  But again, their friends and neighbors helped us, and we got everything done.

I should have mentioned this a long time ago, but I could neither have gotten everything done nor gotten through all this emotionally without the tremendous support, love, and encouragement of Wanda.  She not only provided emotional support, but she thought of all kinds of things I never would have thought of.  I cannot say enough for how wonderful she was through all the events of the last week and a half.  Thank you does not seem like enough, but it’s all I can think of, so thank you, Wanda.

So, Mom and Dad are in a nursing home, at least for now.  We hope that Dad will get strong enough that they can get back to their house.  Will that happen?  We’ll see.  Only God knows.

So, is there any point to this?  Did I learn anything from it?  Is there anything I can pass along that will help anyone else?

Well, one of the things I learned is that it’s better to make preparations for this time of life in advance.  Mom and Dad had signed Power of Attorney papers, and that made things easier, but that’s about all they’d done.  It would have been easier if they’d done more, but that simply wasn’t and isn’t in their nature.  They were determined to stay in their home as long as possible, and they did.  And again, I’m not saying they can’t get back there.  But if you’re an older person, it will be easier on your kids if you make these preparations ahead of time, rather than waiting for a crisis to come.

Another thing I learned is that we can all do things we didn’t know we could do.  There were many times Wanda and I felt like we didn’t know what we were doing.  But we jumped in and did it anyway, because someone had to.  We asked for help when we needed it, we did our best, and we got things done—not perfectly, but well enough, at least for now.

And the third thing I learned, not for the first time, is how good God is and how often God is there for us.  If Wanda and I hadn’t been going to Armour on June 16, Dad might not have made it—Mom would eventually have had to call for the ambulance herself at some point, but she wouldn’t have done it that morning, and Dad would’ve been even weaker when he went to the hospital.  The people at the Armour nursing home told us that it never happens that a spot opens up there just at the time someone needs one, and it happened for us twice.  And I also believe that, all the times when we didn’t know what to do but went ahead and did something anyway because we had to, God was with us and guided us through.

Again, I know there’s nothing special or unique about our family or this situation.  It’s a situation that will happen to all of us if we live long enough.  You can hold off Father Time for a while, but he always wins in the end.  Each day we get on earth, and each day we get with our loved ones, is a gift from God.  Take advantage of each of those gifts whenever you can.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On the Level

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 19, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Job 38:1-5, 12-13, 16-24; 40:1-2, 42:1-5.
            One of the reasons we’ve done a sermon series on the story of Job is that it’s a story that has bothered me over the years.  It just seems like Job is so poorly treated.  Here he is, living his live, doing his best to serve God, doing his best to be, as he’s described in the beginning of the book, blameless and upright, fearing God and shunning evil.  And then, through no fault of his own, all kinds of terrible things happen to him—losing his wealth, losing his family, losing his health, all of that stuff we’ve talked about during this series.
            Job, of course, does not understand why this has happened, and we would not expect him to.  Now, as we’ve said before, he did not lose his faith in God.  But he wants to know what’s going on here.  Job asks, at various times and in various ways, why?  Why, God, is all this happening to me?  If I’d done something wrong I’d understand it, but I have not done anything wrong.  And God, you know that.  You know I really am blameless and upright.  I know you’re not punishing me for sin.  So what are you doing?  What’s the deal here, God?  I don’t get it.
            And as we read the story of Job, and we see all the things that have happened to Job, we tend to think those are good questions.  They’re the kind of questions you and I might ask if we were in Job’s situation.  And some of us, to one degree or another, have been.  Not that we’ve had that many bad things happen all at once, the way Job did.  But a lot of us have had times where we’re going along, doing the best we can, and it seems like a bunch of stuff goes wrong, stuff that happened through no fault of our own. 
We struggle with that.  We struggle, and we ask God about it, because we want to know.  Why are you letting all this stuff happen to me, God?  I mean, I know I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.  I’m doing my best.  So what’s going on?  Why are all these bad things happening?  Why can I not seem to catch one lousy little break?
So we keep reading the story, and Job keeps asking all these questions, the same questions you or I might ask.  And if you’re like me, you start to get impatient, because it seems to go on and on and on.  And you think, how long will this story go on like this?  When is God going to come back into this and give some answers?
And at last we get to chapter thirty-eight.  And we see the words, “Then the Lord spoke to Job.”  And we think, “Finally!”  Finally Job’s going to get some answers to his questions.  And we’re going to get some answers to our questions, too.
Except—we don’t.  And neither does Job.  God comes along and basically says to Job, who are you to ask these questions?  Who are you to tell me how things should go?  I’m the holy, just, righteous, perfect God.  I created the world and everything in it.  Including, by the way, you!  And you come along and try to tell me I’m doing it wrong?  You come along and try to tell me what to do?  Just who do you think you are, anyway?
Well, that’s not very satisfying.  It’s not very satisfying to me, anyway.  But it was to Job.  Listen to what Job says in response.  Speaking to God, Job says, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted…Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
So what does that mean?  Well, for one thing, it shows that Job was a lot more blameless and upright than I am.  I’d still like to know the answers!  But I think there’s more to it than just that.
Remember last fall, when we did the sermon series on the minor prophets?  One of the recurring themes throughout all the books of the minor prophets is that the people have become arrogant.  The reason they have the problems they have is that, in their arrogance, the people have turned away from God.  And the prophet calls on them to turn back to God and turn away from their own arrogance.
When we go to God and demand answers, we’re showing arrogance.  Now there can be other reasons, too.  Sometimes we demand answers because we’re hurting.  Sometimes we demand answers because we’re confused and nothing seems to make sense.  Sometimes we demand answers because we’re doing the best we can and it seems like nothing is going right.  There are lots of reasons we demand answers from God.
But Job had all those things going on when he demanded answers, too.  Job was hurting—he’d lost everything.  Job was confused.  Nothing seemed to make sense to him.  Job had been doing the best he could—again, he was blameless and upright—and now nothing was going right for him.  Job had all those same things going on that you and I have going on when we demand answers from God.
But even though Job had all those things going on when he demanded answers from God, and even though you and I have all those things going on when we demand answers from God, it’s still arrogance.  It’s arrogance for all the reasons God gives.  It’s arrogance because God is God and you and I are not.  It’s arrogance because God is bigger and greater and more powerful and more righteous and more loving and is just flat-out perfect in a way that you and I could never even dream of being.
That’s something we probably don’t think about enough.  When we think about God, we tend to bring God down to our level.  Now, there’s some good in that.  It makes God seem more approachable.  It helps us feel that God is our friend.  It helps us feel that God loves us.  And all that’s true.  God is approachable.  God is our friend.  God does love us.  And it’s important that we know that.
But at the same time, we need to understand that God is not on our level.  God sometimes chooses to come down to our level.  God did that when Jesus came to earth.  God does it when God sends the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and into our lives.  And we should thank and praise God that God does that.
But we need to remember that God is only on our level when God chooses to be.  And even then, when God comes down to our level, we don’t experience all of what God is.  Not even close.  There’s no way we could.  Our minds cannot even comprehend all that God is.  Moses was told that he could not even see God’s face and live.  If just the sight of God’s face is too much for us to handle, how in the world do we think we could actually understand God?  And if God is so far beyond us that we cannot understand God, then how can we possibly think we have the right to demand answers from God?
That’s why I say it’s arrogance:  you and I have no right to demand answers from God.  We have no right to demand anything from God.  God does not owe us answers.  Would I like to have some, sometimes?  Of course.  But God does not owe me answers.  God does not owe anyone answers.  God does not owe anyone anything.  Everything we have, everything we are, everything that is, comes from God.  We would not even be if it was not for God.
God exists on a level that is way beyond anything we can ever imagine.  And yet God, this incredible, all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-wise, all-mighty God, chooses, sometimes, to come down to our level.  God chooses to allow us to come into God’s presence.  In fact, God wants us to come.  God is eager for us to come.  God wants nothing more than for us to come into God’s presence and feel God’s love.  God wants nothing more than for us to listen to God, to allow God to guide us. 
This God, who is so far beyond us that our minds cannot comprehend who He is, wants to be our friend.  God wants us to tell everything to God.  Our hopes.  Our fears.  Our problems.  Our joys.  Our doubts.  Our happiness.  Our sadness.  Our loves.  Our hates.  Our anger.  Our frustration.  And yes, even our questions.  God wants to hear it all, because God wants to be our friend.  God wants to be your friend, and God wants to be my friend.
That is the most incredible thing I can imagine.  When I think about it—when I stop taking it for granted and really think about it—I still am in awe and wonder that God would do that.  I mean, if I was God, I don’t think I’d want to bother with spending time with someone like me.  Why would I?  After all, what’s in it for God?  What does God get out of this deal?  How does it benefit God to come down to my level and hear all this stuff from me?
The only answer can be that God loves us.  God loves me.  And God loves you.  Because when you love someone, you don’t ask “What’s in it for me?”  When you love someone, you don’t ask, “What do I get out of this?”  When you love someone, none of that matters.  That’s what love is.  And that’s the love God has for all of us.  God has that kind of love for each one of you.  And God has that kind of love for me.
Job had no right to demand answers from God.  But God let him do it.  God let Job make that demand over and over and over again, for chapter after chapter in the book of Job.  God did finally let Job know why his attitude was wrong.  But God did not get mad at Job for doing it.  In fact, once Job realizes his attitude was wrong, God gave Job even more blessings than Job had received before.
In the end, Job gave up his arrogance.  Let’s give up our arrogance, too.  Let’s realize how far beyond our level God is.  Let’s praise God for choosing to come down to our level and have a relationship with us.  And let’s be grateful for the incredible love God has for each of us.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Goodness and Greatness

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, June 12, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Job 29:1-2, 7-11; 30:9-13, 16-23; 31:35-37.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series on the story of Job, so let’s review where we are at this point.  We talked about how God accepted a challenge from Satan.  Satan claimed that the only reason Job was so faithful to God was because God had blessed him so much.  Satan said that if all those blessings were taken away, Job would curse God.  So, God says, okay.  Do your worst.  You can do anything to Job except kill him.
            And Satan does.  All of Job’s wealth is taken away.  His servants are killed.  Even his children, ten of them, are all killed.  And Job gets painful sores all over his body.  Yet, Job does not curse God.  Job accepts everything that happened, realizing that he had done nothing to earn God’s blessings in the first place and understanding that God can do whatever God wants to do.
            Most of the book of Job, as we said a couple of weeks ago, is taken up by conversations between Job and his friends.  The friends keep telling Job that all this bad stuff has happened to him because he’s being punished for sin.  We know that’s not true, and Job knows that’s not true.  So how does Job respond to his friends?
            Well, we just pulled out a few verses to give you the flavor of it—as we said a couple of weeks ago, this conversation goes on for over thirty chapters of the book of Job.  But what you heard today is the gist of it.  Job mourns his condition.  He talks about how he once was such a respected man and now he’s mocked and made fun of constantly.  He says that he has done nothing to deserve what has happened to him—he says if he has, then “let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint.”  And then he says one more thing, which we’ll talk about in just a minute.
            But first, note that Satan does not win the challenge.  Despite all that’s happened to him, Job does not curse God.  Job does not even blame God for what has happened to him.  God’s faith in Job was justified.  Satan, despite doing everything he could think of to do to Job, could not get Job to turn away from God.
            That’s a pretty awesome faith.  Even though it looks like every bad thing that could possibly have happened to Job has happened, Job continues to believe in God.  He continues to believe that God is holy and that God is righteous.  In spite of everything, Job does not turn away from God.
            But here’s the one more thing Job does say.  Job says, “Oh, that I had someone to hear me…I would give him an account of my every step.  I would present it to him as to a ruler.”
            Job has not given up on God.  But Job seems to think that somehow, in some way, God is not aware of all these things that have happened to Job.  Or maybe, somehow, Job thinks that God has some bad information, that God thinks Job has done something that Job has not done.  And Job is convinced that, if he can just make his case to God, if he can just show God the true facts, God will do the right thing by him.
            How many of us have felt that way?  I suspect a lot of have.  I have.  We may not put it quite that way—I don’t put it quite that way either—but I think a lot us have had a situation where it just seemed like it was so obvious what God should do.  And don’t get me wrong—this is not something we necessarily do selfishly.  It can be, but I’m not necessarily talking about a situation where it seems obvious that God should help us get a job or win the lottery or something like that.  I’m talking about a situation where it seems to us that everyone would benefit from what we think God should do.  There does not seem to be a downside of it for anyone.  I can think of times when I’ve thought that.  I suspect you can, too.
And so we pray.  We pray for God to do that thing that seems so obvious to us, and we wait for God to do it, and—nothing happens.  Or maybe something happens, but it’s not the something we think should happen.  And we think, well, what’s going on here?  How could God have gotten this so wrong?
            And we look at things again, to see if we’ve overlooked something.  No.  It does not seem like it, anyway.  It seems like things are exactly as we thought they were.  So why did God not do what God obviously should have done?  Does God not understand the situation?  If only I could explain things to God.  If I could, God would see that what I want is clearly the right thing for God to do.
            Now, this is faith, in a way.  As we said, it’s faith that God exists.  It’s faith that God is holy and righteous.  It’s faith that God is good.  There’s a belief here that God wants to do the right thing.  It’s just that, sometimes, God needs you and me to tell Him what the right thing is.
            When it’s put in those terms, it’s clear how absurd that attitude is.  But it was Job’s attitude.  And too often, it’s our attitude, too.
            What’s going on is not that we doubt God’s goodness.  But what happens is that we don’t understand God’s greatness.  There is nothing that can happen on earth or in heaven that God is not aware of.  God knows about everything that has happened, everything that’s happening now, and everything that’s going to happen.  God knows all that far better than we know it or could ever possibly know it.  That’s part of what makes God, God.
            And we need to have faith in that, too.  We need to have faith in all aspects of God.  It’s fine to understand that God is love and that God is good and that God is holy.  But that’s not enough.  We also need to understand that God is all-knowing, that God is all-seeing, that God is all-wise.  We need to understand not just that God is good, but that God is great.
            And please understand, when I say we need to understand this, I’m not saying that if we don’t understand God’s greatness we’re going to hell or something.  That’s not the point.  The point is that we need to understand this because if we do, it will strengthen our over-all faith in God.  If we understand that God is all-knowing and all-seeing and all wise, we’ll have a lot more peace in our lives.  If we understand God’s greatness, we’ll be able to serve God better and love God better, because we’ll trust that God really is in control.  We’ll trust that, when we do what we’re supposed to do, God will do what God is supposed to do, and things will happen the way they’re supposed to happen.  And we’ll better able to do what we’re supposed to do, because instead of worrying about the results, we’ll trust God enough to leave those results in God’s hands.
            How many of us look at situations that are going on in the world right now and get scared?  How many of us look at situations that are going on in our country right now and get scared?  How many of us look at situations that are going on in our personal lives right now and get scared?
            We don’t need to be.  We should be concerned, sometimes.  We should see what, if anything, we can do about those situations.  We should pray about them.  We should, if possible, take precautions.  But we don’t need to be scared of them.  The all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise God already knows about these situations.  And God already knows how they’re going to turn out.  Not only that, God knows what God is going to do to make them turn out that way.  That’s how great God is.
            And remember one other thing.  Remember that we have the promises of the Bible.  And one of those promises is that, in the end, God is going to win.  And another of those promises is that, if we have faith in God and accept Jesus as our Savior, you and I are going to win, too.
            That’s true.  It has always been true.  It will always be true.  No matter how bad we may think things look, it’s still true.  No matter how many times we think things are going wrong, it’s still true.  No matter how much it may look like things are going the opposite of the way they should, it’s still true.  Even if it looks like everything is falling apart, it’s still true.  We have no reason to be scared.  God knows what’s going on.  God is in control.  God is going to win.  And if we have faith in God and accept Jesus as our Savior, you and I are going to win, too.
            Satan could not defeat Job.  Satan cannot defeat us.  And Satan certainly cannot defeat God.  So let’s have faith.  Let’s have faith in God’s goodness, but let’s also have faith in God’s greatness.  And let’s live without fear.  God is in control.  God is going to win.  And so are we.

Monday, June 6, 2016

On the Road Again

I was out of town on Sunday, so I was not able to preach in the Wheatland Parish. The reason I was gone is that I had to attend a friend’s wedding in Sioux Falls.  Well, I suppose technically I didn’t have to, but I wanted to, and so did Wanda, so we did.  I’m writing this before we leave, so I don’t know how things went.  I think we probably had a good time.  I hope so, anyway.  But you never know.

I have to be gone a few days this coming week, too, although I’ll be back for Sunday.  Next week is Annual Conference in Sioux Falls.  I’ll leave Wednesday morning and get back Saturday evening.  I’m writing this before I leave, so I don’t know how things are going.  I think they’ll probably go just fine.  I hope so, anyway.  But you never know.

The following week I plan to be gone a couple of days as well.  I am planning to go and visit my parents in Armour shortly before Father’s Day.  My mom’s birthday is at about that time, too, so we’ll also be there to celebrate that.  I hope that will go well, too.

That’s a lot of traveling.  It’s a lot more traveling than I like to do.  I really don’t like to travel very much.  I don’t mind driving within the parish—I actually like that.  And going to Pierre for a day isn’t bad.  Much farther than that, though, and I don’t like it much.  I’d rather just be home.

I think a lot of this is simply due to the fact that I love being where I am and I love doing what I do.  I don’t have any desire to “get away from it all”.  In fact, I’m usually anxious to come back to it all.  Going away is really more of a pain than anything—I usually have a lot of stuff I need to get done ahead of time, which makes the few days before I leave really hectic.  And then, when I get back, there’s stuff to catch up on.  It would be easier if I could just stay home.

I did not always feel that way.  I can think of times, before I became a pastor, when I did not love doing what I did.  I was eager to get away.  Sometimes I’d look for excuses to get away.  Then, I was running away from something I did not like.  Now, I’m eager to run back to something I love.  The difference in my attitude, and in my whole life, is tremendous.

So, I hope I’ll enjoy all the things I have to be gone for.  But I know that I’ll be looking forward to when it’s all over and I can just stay home for a while.  And as a bonus, when I can stay home more, I have more time to go and visit people like you.  And that’s one of the best things of all.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Memorial Day

The other day was Memorial Day.  Memorial Day was originally a day when we were supposed to remember all those who have died in service to their country and decorate their graves (thus the original name, Decoration Day).  Now, we tend to use it as a day to remember all of our loved ones who have passed away.

That’s all right.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with remembering loved ones who have passed away.  That’s something we should do.  Still, I think we need to put a special emphasis on members of the military who died while serving.  I think it’s especially important for someone like me, who did not serve in the military, to do that.  After all, these people did something that I was not willing to do.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Think, then, of how much love people in the military must have.  They are not just willing to lay down their lives for their friends.  They are willing to lay down their lives for every American, people they like, people they don’t like, and many, many people whom they have not met and never will meet.  That’s an incredible amount of love to have.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.”  Again, think of what people in the military do.  They are willing to die not just for the righteous but for the unrighteous as well.  They are willing to die not just for good people but also for bad people.  People in the military go above and beyond even anything contemplated in the Bible.  That’s pretty awesome.

It’s after Memorial Day when you’ll be reading this, of course.  But there’s no law that says we can only remember our military people on Memorial Day.  So, if you have not done so already, say a prayer of thanks for those who gave their lives in service to our country.  Say a prayer of thanks for those who are risking their lives in service to our country now.  And say a prayer for God’s protection on those people, that they may all return home safely.

Someday, the prophecies of the book of Revelation will be fulfilled and there will be no more war.  Until then, we need to be thankful for all those who have or have been willing to give their lives for the rest of us, as well as those who are doing so now.  May God bless them and protect them.