Monthly News from Pastor Jon
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1
Philip Yancey wrote a book called Rumors of Another World, which I have been reading. He describes God’s kingdom by pointing out the places in our earthly realm where we see hints of God’s invisible world. It is that heavenly world which the writer to the Hebrews was talking about when this first verse of chapter eleven was penned. Toward the end of Yancey’s book, I was moved by stories of people who were harmed by others, but forgave because they had faith in Jesus and in a future they could not see. One of those stories was about an elderly South African woman whose husband and son were brutally murdered. She even had to witness the death of her husband. After the end of Apartheid, a police officer, named van de Broek, was tried and found guilty of these atrocities. The woman was asked to respond:
“The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. ‘What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?’ the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded in agreement.
Then she added a further request. ‘Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.’”
I have to admit that I was amazed by the grace and forgiveness of this woman in her statement to the man who killed her family. However, I was also pretty dismayed by the fact that I could not imagine being as gracious and forgiving as this woman. Every week there are many times when I am hurt by the actions of other people. Some of those hurts would be considered “real” by most people. Other hurts would be called “my perception” and perhaps not be considered hurtful by other people. However, none of my hurts even begin to compare to the hurts of this elderly lady. I am not as quick to forgive as I would like. More importantly, I have a hard time even thinking about the idea of embracing those who hurt me so that I can know them better or help them.
At first I considered challenging myself and all of you to embark on a journey of grace and forgiveness where I would forgive and embrace someone this summer. Then I realized that the process is already moving forward for all of us. Lifetree Café is an opportunity to speak with people in the congregation and others who come to each one hour conversation. There will be people, both from the congregation and not from the congregation, who will come with thoughts, beliefs, and ideals which are different from mine. Accepting them in the midst of all they bring to the conversation is not easy for me and may not be easy for you. However, seeing with the eyes of faith allows me and you to understand that God wants all people to be saved and works through us to bring that message of salvation. We can accept people even when we disagree with their understanding of God. This acceptance allows us the opportunity to love them and speak with them about God’s story of grace.
This summer I am dedicating numerous days and hours of my life to help share the concept of Lifetree Café and I invite others to participate in this journey. Pastor John and I would really love to have all of you participate in one of the cottage meetings. These meetings will only take 60-90 minutes, including a meal. Do you have a couple of hours to hear about this exciting opportunity? Do you have a few moments to consider how we can share God’s love in a new and innovative way? I pray that you will join me and take some time to learn about Lifetree Café.
Reflections on Concordia College Alabama
As many of you know, for the past three years, three college students from Bethany have been attending two of the ten universities in the Concordia University system. Additionally, a number of our church members have served in leadership positions and have contributed to Concordia in Irvine and Portland where these three students have been studying. We also have members of Bethany who have studied at many of our other Concordia campuses, including River Forest, St. Paul, and the now closed Concordia Oakland. By the way, if I missed someone who attended a Concordia I have not listed, I am sorry for the oversight.
In the summer of 2010, Ross Edwards was invited to Concordia in Selma, Alabama to consult on a proposed land purchase and renovation of the campus in Selma. Over the past couple of years, I have heard some of his stories as he has been travelling frequently to the campus. Concordia College Alabama was able to purchase about 30 acres from another school, which was now closed, but had been functioning across the street. This new part of the campus had once been a military academy and has served in other capacities over the years. The buildings are in desperate need of restoration. However, there are many, old, beautiful, historic buildings which combined with the acreage can help this university expand and serve in new and vibrant ways.
A couple of months ago I was invited with a number of other pastors and church leaders to spend a day at this campus and consider how best to raise funds and awareness for this incredible college.
A campus representative will be at Bethany in a few weeks, but I wanted to share my personal reflections while they are still fresh.
· Southern Hospitality – Airports can be pretty inhospitable, but landing in Birmingham, I knew the pace of life had slowed and the hospitality grown. Once on campus, I met students and staff who presented a different lifestyle. They are exceedingly polite, warm people who made all of us feel at home in a new place.
· Rebuilding…like everything – The master plan calls for raising $50 million between now and 2025. Concordia has already received a $5 million gift from a Lutheran foundation and the work is taking shape. What better place could there be for Ross to serve the Lord with the talents he has?
· History – I had met the Rev. Ulmer Marshall by phone, but I had not met him in person. It was a rare privilege to talk with a man who was at Concordia when it was a junior high and high school. It was even more of a privilege to hear him talk about meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and share his story about being on the Pettus Bridge the day the Civil Rights Movement would change the course of history.
· Compassion – We met a lady who had spent over 30 years of her life working with the least privileged of the students who need help with basics like reading, writing and math. She is on the front lines of helping students through all of the struggles of college and makes a difference in the lives of our youth through her love for these students. Her tutoring center is next to the chapel so that she can also pray with the students in times of need.
· Understanding – The person who oversees the campus also heads up security and is the volunteer assistant chief of police. Wow, that is a lot to do. However, he also is working for some of the best ideas to create community on the campus, like building a small theater at the college because there is NO movie theater in town.
· Diversity – Concordia Alabama has been known as a black college for a long time, but it is now the most diverse Concordia in the system with students from many countries and language groups.
· Character – The most important thing I witnessed at Concordia Alabama was character. It takes character to work hard against adversity. It takes character to stay the course when others question why you would bother. It takes character to fight poverty, racism, and lack of educational opportunities with a commitment to Christian values as the answer.
I hope some of you are at least a little more interested in Concordia Alabama after reading this article. We hope to have a school representative here in late May or early June of this year. Additionally, we are planning to participate in a work project next Memorial Day weekend at the campus. Please pray for this fine institution, the work of those who support it, and the students who are learning much more than just what is taught in the classroom.
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)
These words share the results from the words of St. Peter to a crowd of people not long after the resurrection of Jesus. On the one hand, it is exciting to read that so many people came to faith in Jesus in such a short period of time. On the other hand, it is disappointing to think that we do not have crowds like these in our church. There have been times when I have wondered if, as the Pastor, it was or is my responsibility to make sure more people were at Bethany. Other times, I wonder if we, as God’s people, are responsible for bringing lots of people to faith in Jesus and bring them to Bethany. The answer may seem confusing at first because it is BOTH, Yes and No.
As Lutherans, we believe that all people have God’s gift of free will and therefore can reject God. However, we also believe that faith in Jesus is a gift that comes from God’s Grace, rather than our work or even our intellectual pursuit of God. Based on these truths, we understand that only God can bring people to faith and fill our church with a large number of people. However, at the same time, we know that on numerous occasions Jesus sent his disciples to share the message of faith because through their work, people would hear God’s Word which would bring faith. In other words we cannot force people to believe in Jesus and God can work without us. However, God chooses to work through our efforts and even empowers us to share the story of Jesus.
Most of us want to share the message of faith, but wonder about the best way. Alternately, some worry that they will not have the right words to share the faith, or worry that a mistake might keep a person from heaven. Some of us are naturally shy and have a hard time beginning a conversation with other people. Even some people who seem outgoing, really have to work in order to maintain that perspective. If only it were as easy as what we read in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter is speaking and it seems like everyone comes to faith.
Enter Lifetree Café. Pastor John Glover is in charge of ramping up this new program. We would like all people at Bethany to join us at a “cottage meeting” to hear about this intriguing idea which creates an opportunity to share conversation, and at times faith, with other people. The setting allows for casual conversation without the stress of feeling you have to convince someone about Jesus. The hour is structured so that you are not forced to create your own conversation. You have the chance to share your responses to questions that are important and which also reflect your faith.
In order to have the “cottage meetings” we have to have hosts. Would you be willing to host a small gathering of 15-20 people in your home? If you do not have the space, would you be willing to host at church for a similar number of people? Be creative…it does not have to be a dinner, but could be a gathering for dessert. Or you could even plan for a brief gathering during the afternoon for coffee and tea at the church. During the next few weeks, we will be offering the opportunity to host a “cottage meeting”. At these meetings those who attend will have the opportunity to hear more about Lifetree Café. They will have the chance to ask questions, share ideas, and hear about details of how this program works.
We probably will not see 3,000 people come to Lifetree Café at any one time, but it would be wonderful to spend time with even more people over the life of this exciting program. It is interesting to notice how Jesus was always talking with people and how he used normal, common events of life to help people understand God. Lifetree Café uses the same principle and empowers you to share from your life about common ideas, problems, questions and concerns that impact all people.
If you are willing to be a host, please send me an email at email@example.com or call the church office. I want to have enough “cottage meetings” to give every person at Bethany the opportunity to hear about Lifetree Café in a small group setting. The entire Board of Directors has heard about Lifetree Café and so has most of the staff. Please consider joining the excitement.
“The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Matthew 21:9)
Seven people at the kitchen table definitely creates some tension and conflict. My family members were very excited on the day our new table arrived with a round turntable that was supposed to make things so much better. No longer would we have to pass the food and drink. No longer would the salt and pepper always be across the table when you needed it the most. We would have a round table with a round turntable. We would all be able to move the food, drinks and other items and no one would be inconvenienced. My parents were happy. My brothers were happy. My sisters were happy. Even my grandparents were impressed. How often does that happen?
Well, the table had a few issues. My parents never considered that the children would do things like spin the turntable as fast as possible to see how long a salt shaker stays on it. As children we never considered that our parents would have rules for the new table. No one thought about the conflict of seven hands all trying to move the turntable in two different directions and far different distances! The new table was not nearly the success we all expected. There are times in our lives when we can taste a victory, but it is really a problem.
Can you imagine how the disciples felt as they remembered the triumphant parade that Jesus led into Jerusalem? They thought Jesus would be crowned a new king. They thought he would bring back the glorious days when Israel was winning battles, expanding the empire, and enjoying peace and freedom that lasted.
However, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem quickly turned into a series of events that seemed to be defeats. Jesus is taken captive on the evening of the Passover. He is charged and convicted of things he has not been doing. Finally, he is killed in a humiliating and horrible manner.
It is not so hard to understand why the disciples were huddled together in a home. They were stunned by the recent turn of events. The disciples were heart-broken by the death of Jesus. They were betrayed by the decision of Judas. They were scared that soon they would face a similar death. The disciples were unable to think that somehow this would all be for the best.
Similarly in our lives when things are not going well, we have a hard time believing that God will use all things for a good we cannot see or even imagine. How often have you found yourself wondering how your plans, dreams and goals have all changed into a mess? The good news of Easter is God brings life from death. God brings forgiveness and joy from sin and sadness. God takes the worst events of our lives and promises us eternal life. God brings us to an empty tomb and shows us that life breaks forth and makes all things new again.
By the way, after we stopped spinning the turntable so fast, compromised on the rules, and figured out how to keep the food in the right order, we found the true value of the new table. It allowed us to talk with each other more and focus on the food passing less. God is good . . . even at the kitchen table.
January & February 2013
A Note from Pastor Jon: This article was written for the January newsletter, but in the hustle and bustle of Christmas and fighting off my own illness, I forgot to send it to K.C. before leaving for a week. I have edited it and wanted to share it this month.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
These words of Jesus were spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath Day. He stood up to read and was presented the scroll of the Old Testament and read this short passage from the prophet Isaiah. In the days of Christ, the reader would then have the opportunity to speak about these words and share a message from these words. However, Jesus sits down, which actually draws more attention to him. Finally, he speaks what could be called the shortest sermon of all time, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet’s words. Jesus IS the Word who became flesh. Jesus is the one who will do these things.
As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity and calling to follow Jesus in the ministry of helping the poor, caring for the physical and emotional needs of others, and even releasing people from the bonds of sin through God’s Grace. However in the hustle and bustle of our modern lives, it is easy to simply run out of time for the things we know will make a difference in the lives of others. Over the past years, I have heard more and more frequently that we need to provide opportunities for our people and our friends to help the poor and needy.
These opportunities need to be of limited duration, meet the desires of the people who will serve, and also meet the needs of the community.
For a long time, I have wrestled with ways to meet that tall order! Linda Bradley, in her capacity as Director of Lay Ministries, and I have spent a number of meetings working on ways to get the information needed to provide these opportunities and also invite all of the people who would want to be part of such service. Finally the idea, which I shared in the last newsletter, came to us as part of the desire to open a new worship service. We are putting the service back in worship service! A large percentage of the gifts received will go back to the community, specifically for projects the new worship service designates through the participants.
I do have one small fear I have to share that was also expressed by the Board of Directors. If we tried this with our current 9:30 a.m. worship service on Sunday mornings, we would cause great problems for our budget. So, I have to ask all of our current participants to continue giving as usual . . . but at the same time if you want to attend the new service and make an additional gift, you can also be part of this new opportunity to serve our community. No, we will not be checking, but I told the Board members I would make this clear to everyone.
In comparison to one small fear, I have many GIGANTIC hopes that spring from this new idea and new worship service. Rather than share all of these hopes, I prefer to simply state that God has more planned than all of us can ever imagine. Like Mary, we can all say, “I am a servant of the Lord,” waiting for the incredible surprised God has planned for all of us at Bethany.
So we enter a new year with new hopes, new dreams, and new ideas. May God bless you, your family, and all of your friends with a new year in Christ, following the One who loved all of us enough to be our Savior.
God’s Peace,Pastor Jon
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
Yes, I know that Christmas has passed and we are well on our way toward the season of Lent. Yet, God had a belated Christmas present for me and for all of us at Bethany! A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a brother pastor who told me about a new program from Group. The new program is a way to meet new people and share conversations with friends who need to hear the message of Jesus. After looking through the first parts of this program, I am convinced that this is a wonderful tool to share what we have seen and heard with other people . . . but I am getting ahead of myself.
I shared the information with Pastor John Glover, who is working on the new service I wrote about in the January newsletter, which you are just reading now. He has been conducting research ever since and is reviewing a large box of materials called the launch kit. So far, what he has seen and shared with me is an incredible opportunity for Bethany. For the past few years, I have heard your desire to share the message of Jesus in new and innovative ways. Life Tree Café is a new and innovative way to share our faith in a non-threatening manner.
As I was reviewing the first parts of the launch kit, I thought about the shepherds who must have shared the story of Christmas, angels, and a baby for the rest of their lives. I also thought about the struggles we have to share the same story and how we need an opportunity to meet people and begin conversation with them, first covering topics of mutual interest, building relationship, and finally gaining the opportunity to share our faith. Life Tree Café provides the place, the topics, and the people for an ongoing discussion of life and faith.
Tomorrow, I will be meeting with the leaders of the Board of Directors to discuss this new project and to propose 40 days of preparation in Lent for Life Tree Café. We will consider whether we should embark on this program of sharing Jesus with our friends and neighbors. I will be proposing a series of cottage meetings to explain the program to all interested people in the Bethany family. We will also talk about the commitment we will need to carry out God’s plan to share the message of Jesus through this program.
I pray it will not be long before all of us will be hearing about this opportunity. We will all evaluate what we can do to help, whether we like the premise, and how best to carry out God’s call to be like the shepherds. As I write this, Pastor John and Pastor Tom have already begun to consider ways we can implement Life Tree Café. In the next couple for weeks, I hope to have many more leaders and cottage meeting hosts prepared to help us spread the news.
Please pray for the development of this plan and for the will of God to prevail at Bethany. A couple months ago, I asked for prayer partners and two people responded. I am still hoping to hear from 10 more volunteers. We will not meet and your names will not be shared with one another. However, I will send out encouragement and I will be grateful to have partners who are willing to pray for Bethany, our staff, and the direction God has for our efforts at Bethany. Please consider helping in this way, especially if you may not be able to help with Life Tree Café, because perhaps you can pray at home and help in that way God has called you to help.
Note: I was really upset with myself a few days ago. I was frustrated that because of my respiratory illness, which was pretty severe, I had forgotten one step and missed out on sending the newsletter article I had prepared. Reading through the two articles, I know God used my mistake to allow for the time and opportunity to share both parts of a story I did not even know existed. God continues to deliver . . . presents all year long!
Christmas Eve: A Pastor’s Perspective
I can remember the first Christmas I served as a pastor in Mt. Shasta. We were seeing 45 to 60 people in church on Sunday mornings in our nearly new sanctuary out in the country. We had planned for a traditional Christmas program with the children from the church. That night, the church was full, much fuller than at any service in the prior year. All of the children with parts in the Christmas program arrived, but a number of children arrived who did not have parts in the Christmas program. The night was wonderful and I learned two important things which would shape my ministry forever:
1) Lots of people come to church on Christmas Eve.
2) Children who do not have a part in the Christmas Program should have an opportunity to participate.
I want to expand on these two realities for just a moment. Often I have heard pastors and churches lament the fact that “so many people only come for Christmas,” rather than rejoicing in the fact that so many more people attend church on Christmas Eve. This is a subtle, but important difference. Too often in our lives, we complain about things because we want them to be different or better. Ironically, we do this the most during times when we should be rejoicing over all that is going well. We want people to hear the message of Jesus, but then make people who do come feel as if they have not done enough. Do you return to places when you are made to feel like you have not done enough? Do you return to places when you are not made to feel welcome? Of course not!
Jesus came to the world as a baby in Bethlehem. God had promised a Savior for thousands of years through the people of Israel. When the time came, the angels were sent to announce the birth of Jesus and they announced this to whom? Shepherds.
The angels did not arrive at the royal palace of King Herod. They did not sing for the Chief Priest or for the Pharisees in the temple. The angels came to shepherds, common workers, who were not particularly known for their power or position in the world or in the church. It seems that God wanted all of us to know that we are all invited to the birth of Jesus. At Bethany, we welcome all people to hear the story of Jesus because it does not matter how often you go to church or who you are in society. God wants all people to be saved through faith in Jesus whose story we hear and whose birth we praise on Christmas Eve.
Consider, then, the second thing I learned in that first Christmas service. Children came to the service who had not been able to practice and who did not have a part in the Christmas program. I am sure that some of those children were perfectly happy they did NOT have to perform in the Christmas program. However, I am also certain that some of them really WANTED to have a part and were sad that they could not participate. I was certain of this, knowing that I like to participate and, as a child, I loved to be in programs and perform. So on that fateful first Christmas Eve as a newly minted pastor, I realized that something needed to change. I wanted children to have a great memory of participating in Christmas at church.
These twin realities have been the impetus for almost everything we do at Bethany on Christmas Eve. For those of you who do not have the joy of attending and participating in all three services, here is a brief view from my eyes.
Christmas Eve begins long before the first people arrive for the 5:00 p.m. service. However, as the families begin to arrive, the excitement grows from the energy of children. Children will be sheep, shepherds, or angels for the first time. Children will tell the story of Christmas. Children will help us see the beauty of Christmas in the amazing gift of God’s own Son, Jesus. Equally compelling are the smiles of joy found on the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all adults who love to see the children participating in church. Christmas is a very special night indeed.
A few years ago, we decided to have a meal between the first service at 5:00 p.m. and the second service at 7:00 p.m. For me, this really did not change much because I spend most of my time scrambling to get all of the costumes, props, and other items used for the 5:00 p.m. service put away. We then quickly set up for the 7:00 p.m. service, which for the past few years has focused on music and the Word. Recently I read about a church in New York, which had a very similar service during the 1800s. For Christmas Eve, they brought in professional musicians and singers, like we do. They also brought in a Shakespearean actor to read the Christmas story from the Bible. There was no sermon, just Word and Song to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This year we will follow that tradition, although I do not have a Shakespearean actor! Still, it will be a wonderfully contemplative service when the beauty of Christmas shines through.
After the 7:00 p.m. service, my family has always celebrated with gifts. Scandinavian tradition has Santa coming much earlier and so we open gifts on Christmas Eve. I used to wonder if this short family Christmas time impacted my children. I am happy to say that even as young adults, they happily put on warmer clothes for the late night, light the luminaries, and still participate in the candle light service at 10:00 p.m. The people who come to worship at 10:00 p.m. are few in number, but are all very special to me. Most of them are the same people year after year and we share a sacred time when the world has slowed. We sing, light the glowing candles, and quietly give thanks for the light of the world, Jesus.
Each service is special in its own way . . . another thing I learned about Christmas. It is big enough for various types of worship settings, big enough for multiple times and places, big enough for varying traditions of meals, and gifts, and celebrations. Most of all, it is big enough that a lot of people come to worship Jesus and, at Bethany, I am grateful we are big enough to invite them all and small enough to have relationships with those who attend as well. I love seeing folks who are only here once a year. I love the children who tell the story. Most of all, I love the special night when Christ was born because together we come and worship again in Bethlehem.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has born of God and know God…God is love”
1 John 4:7, 16
Over twenty years ago, this was the text for my first sermon as a pastor on the second Sunday of January in the small town of Mt. Shasta, California. I chose this text because I felt it was the basis for both our faith as Christians and our work as a congregation of Christian people. While my position on this has not changed, I see HUGE challenges to congregations as we strive to communicate the truth of God’s love. Over the past few weeks, I have heard some startling and disturbing statistics which highlight these challenges.
At the District Pastors’ Conference and again at a seminar in San Rafael, the District President and other presenters shared information about people in the 20-35 year old age group. Two statistics stood out in these presentations. First, 72% of these people consider themselves “Spiritual but Not Religious” rather than of any other faith group. Second, 70% of the people in this age group see the institutional church as unloving and therefore do not want to be part of congregations.
The first question in my mind was how could the Christian church, which is based on the love of God and represents God who is love, be viewed as unloving. In many ways, this is the only important question, as all other questions seem to flow from this one. The answer seems to be multi-faceted, but I will share two parts I have witnessed.
First, the church has shifted from being a place for people who are seeking the love and acceptance of Jesus, knowing they are broken by sin, into a place where people feel pressure to conform to standards of behavior. When people cannot see the love of Jesus, they will definitely see the law and the condemnation of the law. This is how Satan works against the love of Christ. The Bible tells us that the law always condemns and Satan wants us to feel the impact of the law in our lives. Jesus came from God’s love for us and wants us to know the love that led Christ to be the sacrifice for our sins against the law.
Second, we are witnessing to a large number of people in this age group who did not grow up in the church. They did not grow up learning the Bible stories which are such a precious part of my youth and a foundation for my faith. They did not grow up praying, singing hymns, or serving one another within a church. Additionally, they are not sure they will be accepted because they do not understand the culture of the church and feel it is too much effort to learn about that culture.
This is where the two parts merge because it will be worth learning the culture of the church if the culture of the church reflects the love of Jesus Christ. The question that comes out of this understanding is how will we show the love of Christ to people who think it does not come from church and who have no foundation in the faith? I have some ideas, but for now I would prefer to hear from you. How would you share with young people that Jesus loves us no matter what and that the church is here to proclaim that love to each other and to the world?
Lest you think this article is completely negative, I would like to close by noting that God’s Word is true and is powerful. God who is love will always find the way to conquer Satan. God who is love will always find the way to share that love with all people for God’s love is the power of salvation. The victory is ours in Christ, Jesus. The question is how we will proclaim the victory to all people . . . even those who think the church is not loving.
These questions will not be going away anytime soon. They are questions that the Christian church has wrestled with in many different times and places. However, this is our time and place, which means we will need answers that meet the specific needs of this time and place. We continue to have the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We know God has a path to communicate this message. I pray that we will all be open to the ways in which God is calling us to be vessels for this communication.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
This is my favorite verse in the Bible. This may seem strange for a few reasons. First, it does not proclaim the Gospel unless you already know that Jesus is the ultimate one who makes all things good for those he called to faith. Second, this is not my confirmation verse, because my confirmation verse was chosen by my pastor when he gave me his verse, letting me know that he wanted me to be a pastor also. Finally, this verse takes a lot of work and a lot of mental energy, only to return back to faith, which is a gift. I would like to take a few moments of your time to explain that last point.
Stating that God works for our good in all things certainly seems counter-intuitive. What about the things in life that seem to be hurtful or harmful to our lives? What about the things that make us angry? How about the things that seem to be hindering the spread of the Gospel? It is often hard to see how God can or will make all things work for our good, even though we know we have been called to faith and we know we love God. However, when we actively work within our faith life, we begin to see the hand of God and have the ability to share his message of peace and salvation. Here are a few ways I would like to challenge you to wrestle with this verse.
In a few short weeks our nation will once again elect a President, Vice-President and countless other leaders of states, counties and cities. Very few elections will galvanize more than 65% of the people who vote behind a single candidate. When I was younger, it certainly seemed like political parties were more civil and willing to work together for the good of the country.
Now, it seems that the winning group will claim the right to do anything they want and those who did not win will claim that those in power are harming the country. It really does not matter which political party wins in relationship to these harmful and debilitating behaviors. Additionally, close to half of the populace will be angry about the results. More and more we seem incapable of finding common ground to work with each other. So how are we to see good in all of this as God has promised?
Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look at the disciples during the time of Jesus. They hoped and prayed that the Messiah would bring a change in government and a restoration to the glory of Israel. Instead, they learned about the glory of heaven and they watched Jesus ascend. These same disciples would continue to live in an occupied land, under Roman rule, and most would die violent deaths because of their faith. Yet, in retrospect we can see that the twelve disciples, along with Paul, Barnabas and others, would effectively bring the message of Jesus to every tongue and nation as the Scriptures and Jesus told us they would.
We are promised that God’s will in our lives is being worked for our good. We are not promised honest, truthful, kind, intelligent, or even well-liked leaders. We are promised that God is working for our good. Luther was clear about our responsibility to pray for and support our leaders, even when we disagree with them. As Christians, it seems to me, we have a calling to honor our authorities, just as Luther wrote about in the explanation of the fourth commandment. Perhaps Christians can model to others this behavior of building up those with whom we disagree, rather than tearing down.
I am blessed with lots of people who ask me about my health and really care about the answer. I have to be honest and state that I am also blessed when I consider that my cancer is not life threatening at this time and is never expected to be life threatening. However, I also have to admit that when I see the red spots, when I put on the medicine, and when I stand in the light box, I am forced to remember that I am not well. I am forced to remember that I have a disease I do not want. It is at those moments I question, as you might in your life, how I can see God working to make this good in my life of faith.
Honestly, there are moments when I really wrestle with this question. There are moments when my sinful nature wants to deny the truth of my favorite verse. Hearing the words of the Gospel, that Jesus has paid the price for my sins and have written my name in the book of everlasting life, changes everything. He reverses the moments of doubt. He restores my faith and grants me the ability to focus on all I have, eternal life, rather than all I worry about, which is my time in this life.
Time and again, God tells us in the Scriptures that everything we have is a gift from God and calls us to share with other people. Perhaps these past few years have not been kind to you financially. Countless churches have experienced serious financial crises and it is easy to worry about our own congregation. Questions arise about the size of the staff, the health of our offerings, and the unexpected expenses of the future. Clearly, having watched a church the size of the Crystal Cathedral fall into financial turmoil, we all realize that nothing is certain forever. How then, is God making good from the financial struggles of churches?
A few years back I can remember hearing people decry the supposed fact that Lutheran churches in Germany were dead because people no longer attend and the church is supported by the state. The common view was that nothing could be done to change all of this. Recently, I was given an amazing news article about Muslims who are being visited in a dream.
They have been instructed in the dream to see a specific pastor at a specific Lutheran church in Germany where the pastor is not very open to the idea that God appears to people in dreams. However, in these exact places, God is converting Muslim people – in these supposedly dead churches with pastors who did not think this possible!
If we really and truly believe and live our lives with faith that God is working for our good at all times, we would live without anxiety and fear. We would then be able to avoid anger and frustration when we feel that people are causing harm in our lives, or when we feel God is not doing enough for us. I pray that you will consider this fact from my favorite verse – God is constantly working for your good, and calls you to live your life with the joyful and confident expectation that “in ALL things God works for good…”
“When you reap a harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of the field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10
I received a message today. The message was similar to so many I have received in the past. The message simply stated the name of a lady and her phone number along with the brief message that a family member had died and she needed to speak with a pastor. The first lady who had called me passed the phone to her sister because she was over wrought with emotion. Her sister then explained that their brother had died unexpectedly in another state. They were attempting to pay for their mom to fly out of state and bring back her son for burial. The problem was they did not have the money to pay for the flight.
Requests like this are not that common, but each one comes with a challenging symphony of questions that run through my brain . . . all at the same time: “We just had a budget meeting and people are worried about finances, is this proper use of funds?” “How many people have I helped in the past month, six months, year, and do I have money left in the budget to help?” “In the past there have been times when I have really wondered about whether or not a story was true, how do I know?” “Even if the story is true, is there something they could have done differently?” “Will this really help or be enough?” WAIT A MINUTE! Why am I asking all of these questions when a woman is near tears as she explains that the death of her brother has rocked the family and $120 will make the difference and help her mom travel?
Clearly I cannot send $120 to everyone who calls the church, but I have also been tasked with helping the poor, needy, and in this case, people with special emergency needs.
I was also pondering an article I received from Ross Edwards about German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and whose view on helping the poor has been shaped by her Lutheran heritage. Martin Luther was a complicated man who often spoke about the tensions of our lives. Writing about Christian freedom, Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none, and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all.” Similarly, Luther found that the ancient practice of alms giving was not working in the church. In this practice the wealthy gave to the churches and monasteries and the priests gave to the poor and needy. On top of this Luther added a box in every town church. The box was for donations which were used to fund loans to people in need, with the expectation that when the person in need was better, they would repay the loan and help others.
Five hundred years later, financial realities have shifted, but not completely changed. Most of us are not growing our own food, and the church does not have the system of alms giving. However, all of us have felt the economic downturn. All of us have known moments of anxiety and despair over our finances. All of us have had times when there is plenty and we can see the blessings of our work. It is part of a cycle of life, some of which we can control and some of which we cannot. So I began to think about the lesson quoted above. In the time of the Old Testament, God’s people were told to give 10% of their harvest as first fruits giving to the church. Additionally, they were told to leave part of the harvest for the poor as is stated in the text above. In practice, I give first fruits to the church – my salary is lowered by my contribution to the congregation and given before I even receive my paycheck. But am I leaving any gleanings for the poor? Am I helping in ways that allow the church to care for this lady who just lost her son?
“And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” Ruth 2:2
Ruth is NOT an Israelite, but she does become the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestress of Jesus Christ. Again, I wondered…am I leaving any gleanings for those in need? Would I look at the needy and the poor differently if I truly understood God’s plan and the fact that one of them could be as important as Ruth? It makes me pause and realize that there are people who are struggling and are a big part of God’s plan of salvation. Some of these people look different than I do. Some of them act differently than I do. Some of them struggle more against financial difficulties. However, while I may be perfectly free in Christ, I am also a servant of all.
Challenge: This year the Board of Directors spent a disproportionate amount of time on one line of the budget. The original plan was to budget last year’s offering for this year since offerings have declined significantly over the past 5 years. After a lengthy discussion, the Board decided to challenge ourselves to give the extra $10,000, which amounts to $2.50 per person in church each Sunday. To this challenge I would like to offer two additional thoughts:
Farmers have good crop years and bad ones. Their gift to the church (first fruits) and their gleanings (for the poor) are impacted by the harvest. Similarly, we have been through some very good economic years and some very bad ones. This has impacted church offerings (first fruits) and our gleanings (gifts to the poor). As we begin to have jobs, contracts, and generally more income, will you join me in making a conscious effort to choose the gift you want to provide for God and then work toward making that gift as God provides?
The budget is balanced and the Board has set a number for our offerings which is lower than in many previous years, but the same as last year. What happens if we exceed the offering budget? If we exceed the offering budget, I will challenge the Board to release the extra funds for the poor and needy people we serve. I cannot speak for the Board, but I suspect they will be open to this idea.
P.S. Lucille issued the check for $120 with my approval and prayers for the family. We continue to serve all people at Bethany, especially the poor, needy, and those with emergencies.
Summer Pictures of God’s Grace
I have some wonderful pictures from our Bethany family and I have a couple of picture I took on our recent trip back from Las Vegas. However, if you are like me, you are one of the people who took a picture or two, but never found the time to send it to Bethany. There is still time to send your favorite picture of God’s work in your life this summer. We would love to have your contribution.
What I Learned From Wally and Pastor Orv
I remember my birthday in 1973 when I proudly declared to my family just after blowing out the candles on my cake, “I am a decade old!” My family laughed at the time and looking back, it was a pretty strange statement, but typical for me. During this year, as I approach the day when, God willing, I will proudly declare, “I am half a century old!” I have found myself considering some of the most important lessons in my life and how they relate to the work we share of bringing Jesus’ message to all people.
For those who have been at Bethany a long time some of this will be review, but I suspect there will still be new information for everyone. Pastor Orv Oswald was the founding pastor at Bethany in 1950. Most of you probably do not know that my relationship with Pastor Orv goes back to 1977 when he approved my appointment as the youth delegate to the Synod Convention held that year in St. Louis, MO. Wally Hartkopf was the district executive for youth and education, which included all schools. He was a member at Bethany and would serve in many ways at Bethany and later at West Portal when he was retired (for the 3rd or 4th time) with Shirley Merrill. Wally was the person who noticed me at a youth meeting and set me up with Pastor Oswald to be appointed.
For many years Wally and I would drive to meetings, usually in Tracy, CA and we had lots of time for me to absorb the wisdom that came from hearing about the work of the church in the district office. Those of us who knew and loved Wally gave him the moniker, “the district’s oldest youth” for a number of reasons: First, I can remember that Wally “retired” at least three times and always seemed to reappear in new jobs. Once he even reappeared in half of his old job! Second, Wally always had ideas that seemed to come from the lips of a teenager. Finally, Wally was “one of us” and we knew it.
I learned from Wally that programs do not matter as much as people. I learned that doing things for young people was not as valuable as being with and empowering young people. I learned that age does not make a person old. Most of all I learned from Wally that as a young person I could do things that are important and I have worked to promote the same for our young people (of all ages!).
Pastor Orv was much more of an administrator than Wally, and he needed to be that in his role as District President. However, he also did some things that were unheard of at the time and still are not very common. Pastor Orv hired people of various ages to make sure his staff stayed relevant to all age groups. Joel Koerschen was in his early 30’s and working at Bethany when Pastor Orv hired him as the new district executive for education when Wally retired the first time. Few understood the genius of his decisions, but it was not lost on me that hiring people of all ages based upon skills, not age, was the key. Of course, Wally unretired and came back to cover youth ministry for a while longer. When Wally retired the second time, he was busy telling me that since the baby boomers were now much older, we needed a district executive for seniors and he would be able to do the job! Passion for the ministry of Jesus at any age was the message.
Three people with roots at Bethany have worked in the district office and each of them taught me about passion for ministry and empowerment of people of all age groups. However, the latest person to join their ranks may bring the greatest opportunity to empower all age groups and share the Gospel. Pastor Tom is now the communications director (a new job) at the C-N-H district. He is building a foundation of electronic communication which is critical for the next generation of Christians in the Lutheran Church. I know he would be too humble to accept his place in the ranks of those I have just mentioned, but time will tell and if I am right…well George Leong taught me to crow when I am right! Pastor Tom will admit that he is now the youngest staff member at the district office!
By now you should be asking yourself how all of this relates to our work at Bethany. I would like to share a couple of connecting thoughts:
- We have an internet radio station and we are working to put Christian content on it. If you are interested in helping, regardless of age, Pastor Tom and I would like to speak with you.
We have a way to hold Bible studies online with people from across the nation and even into other countries. If you are interested in hosting a study, regardless of age, Pastor Tom and I would like to speak with you.
We are actively looking for ways to use Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to connect. If you have ideas or want to help, regardless of your age, let me know.
Finally, we have a dynamic website and are open to receiving content ideas. If you would like to contribute, K.C. and I would be happy to talk.
In other words, it is never too early or too late for you to participate in our mission to share the story of Jesus with all nations. Pastor Orv and Wally would join in…will you?
Images of God’s Creation
Please remember we are soliciting images of God as you see God in nature, or in any other way you see the handiwork of God. You can send pictures to the office, or directly to my e-mail address. So far, we have some beautiful pictures and I cannot wait to share with the congregation in September. Please help us have your images.
Youth to San Antonio
July 1-5, 2013 are the dates for the National Youth Gathering in San Antonio, Texas. We have already held one preliminary meeting and hope to meet with all of our young people over the next couple of months. We are beginning to feel the excitement which means our youth breakfasts, slave auctions and other youth fundraisers cannot be far behind. Look for events coming soon.
Image Really IS Everything
“Consider the lilies of the field…” Jesus
Over the years I have written and spoken on numerous occasions about our image-conscious society. I have clearly and consistently stated that our image is not as important as our relationship to Christ and our relationships with each other in Christ. Why would I write that image really is everything?
You may recall an oft shared quotation, “Tell someone about Jesus everyday…use words if you have to.” Being the literal and logical person that I am (I have to work much harder on the creative and imaginative side of my brain) this passage always meant that my action could show Jesus and should show Jesus more than my words. This is still a valid and important message, especially in our image-conscious society. Recently, I read a book presenting the idea of image as the actual picture we have in our mind when we hear a story or when we see a piece of art or a scene in nature. His perspective on this quote was that we need to use images in order to share the message of Jesus. His point is that some words are factual and others create images in our mind that help us understand a message. This inspired my thinking.
My favorite image in the Bible, and this was hard to choose, is probably the image that Abram sees when God tells him to look at the sky because his descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Growing up in San Francisco, where the night lights are plentiful, I saw more stars at the planetarium than I could usually see in the night sky. I never really saw the awe provoking vision of more stars than you can count until we moved to Mt. Shasta.
There are very few night lights for miles in any direction, plus, at that altitude, the lights from nearby places are also missing. Looking into the deep black sky, I was amazed by the vast number of lights that now seemed to occupy every little space while still allowing for the vast darkness to exist. There was balance in this night sky. There was light and darkness in harmony and there was a clear image of God’s promise to Abram. This inspired my thinking.
What are the images you see that tell the story of Jesus? What are the moments when you look at God’s creation and you see the old, old story of Jesus and his love? Would you be willing to share your images with others?
Here is the opportunity I am putting out to all of us for the summer months:
· Find the image(s) that help you see God.
· Take a picture, paint a picture, or in some way capture the image.
· Send us an e-mail with the file or bring in your picture.
In September we will display the images of God. We will put some on the website and others in the church for a special Sunday when we celebrate these images. So go wild! Give us your best shot and share with the world how God brings His image into your life.
Project Burning Bush
We have now launched three websites for the following ministries: Redeemer, Fresno; Christ For All Nations, San Francisco; and the C-N-H District Office (launch ready, but delayed until end of May). The first congregations have been very excited about their new websites and we are now working with a number of additional congregations to help them with this process. We still have both the online radio station and the platform for online Bible studies. If you are interested in any of this work, please speak with Pastor Tom. He will be happy to share more information. K.C. Aarons has created the first three sites and continues to maintain the Bethany website. We are also beginning to train Pilar to work on these sites.
Earth Day Additions
If you have not noticed, take a look at the new landscaping as you enter the parking lot from Avy Avenue. All of the trees, shrubs and ground cover were planted by the children of Littlest Angels Preschool as part of an Earth Day curriculum. The children also had the opportunity to explore an electric car. It was fun to watch the children as they enjoyed digging in the dirt and planting all of these beautiful plants which will enhance the earth and our parking area for a long time.
“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth…For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” Psalm 100:1, 5
Easter is one of, if not the most, celebratory moment in the church year and in the life of the Christian congregation. Over the years, there are many traditions and customs which have become part of Easter celebrations. I would like to share a couple of these with you and highlight one that is not unique to Bethany, but is fairly uncommon, while also very celebratory.
Easter Eggs are a symbol of the empty tomb. The egg has the rounded shape of a tomb and is enclosed. An egg does not give any evidence of the life inside until the young chicken hatches. Similarly, when the stone was rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus, people held no hope and had no evidence of the life that was still inside. Christ had overcome the power of death and in more dramatic fashion than the slow breaking of an egg, the tomb would break open and Jesus would appear to many people.
On Easter morning, the colored eggs are a celebration of this gift of new life. Gone are the black and white images of death and life. Dancing in front of us are the colorful and color filled images of new life, symbolized in those eggs and realized in Jesus Christ.
Lamb is a traditional meal at Easter, which traces its origin not only to Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, but also to the Passover and even back to Abraham and Isaac. When God spared the life of Isaac, he provided a ram in the thicket which became the sacrifice.
In Israel, the Passover lamb provided more than just a meal, but the blood marked the door and saved the first born males or Israel. Finally at Calvary, Jesus, God’s lamb, was the ultimate and final sacrifice for sin when his blood marked all of us as saved.
Finally, a word about a Bethany tradition which is fairly new and is not prominent in most churches: Every year, we have a dedicated group of people who make sure we have helium balloons for Easter morning. These balloons are beautiful and fun to have in church, but they do provide an image which is very important. As people, even as sinful people, we have a relationship with each other. We call this our “horizontal relationships”. In our sin we were separated from the relationship we once had with God. Jesus restores that relationship which we call our “vertical relationship” with God. When I look at the balloons, I cannot help but think about the fact that our worship is not just with each other, but is connected to a God who loves us and sent his son to die for us.
This Easter, enjoy the symbols and images. Celebrate with your heart, soul, emotions, and imagination. Most of all notice God and the plan of God’s love to save all people which was made flesh in Jesus.
“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31
Jesus was very clear with the disciples when he told them to share the message of salvation with all people. Up until the time of Jesus’ ascension, this work was completed by speaking with people who lived in Israel. The disciples knew that there were many people who lived in other countries and they wanted to share their first-hand accounts about Jesus and the message of salvation. John is one of four gospels and twenty-seven total books of the New Testament which were all meant to share the story of Jesus and the message of the Gospel with people who were not eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life. They wrote books and letters even though there were no printing presses, or photocopiers. The writers knew that important works, like these books which were inspired by God, would be copied and shared with others, but there was no mass production of the word.
When Luther translated the Bible into German, he used the printing press to put God’s Word into the hand of common people. This was novel and forever changed the world as all people now had access to the Bible. Similarly, the electronic age has moved us from print copies of the Bible to electronic versions. One of the more functional Bibles I have now resides on my cell phone! Always available in my pocket, this Bible is much easier to carry than any other I have. By the way, it is a very easy program and a free download!
In an interesting way all of this technology relates to the subject of sharing the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the motion picture, Rocky, the unprofessional and urban fighter is living in a shabby apartment. His girlfriend, Adrian, has come over to his apartment and notices that he does not have a telephone. She asks him how they can call her brother, Paulie.
Rocky, who is very practical says, “That’s easy. I just open the window and yell down the street, “Hey Paulie!” The audience gets the full impression that Rocky is not wise in the ways of the world and he does not have a great system for communication.
Communication has changed again only this time, those of us who have home phones and even those of us who are just starting to understand the importance of the cell phone, are the people who are falling behind and who lack a great way to communicate. Now, I can hear some of you saying how you will never have Facebook, or a Twitter account and how you barely accept e-mail. In contrast, young adults and students the age of my children made it very clear that you NEVER call a friend on a home line because that is considered to be socially incorrect. Kinda like Rocky yelling down the street.
All of this brings me to my main point. I was at Phoenix for a conference on best church practices and heard a session about reaching Millennials (these are the young people who are born between 1982 and 2000). The session showed a picture of four guys in college who liked to spend time with each other and who are great friends. The picture showed each of them with a laptop and earphones sitting in four chairs together. Now, from my point of view this did not look like friends. However, from their perspective this is how they communicate and how they spend quality time together. (Even though it may seem they are a part!)
To quote an old statement, “What would Jesus do?” I think the answer is easier than it usually is. Jesus would want us to understand that the message of the Gospel is the same, whether written on papyrus by a disciple or written electronically on my cell phone. Similarly, whatever form we use to communicate and have friendships, the call to share the message of Jesus is the same, even though the medium has changed. I learned more about Millennials, discovering that they are highly relational, which should make it easier for us to share the message of Jesus…except they communicate electronically in ways we never have before. I suppose the more things change the more they stay the same. At Bethany, we are working on ways to communicate electronically and to be relational with the next generation.
The Gospel of St. Matthew ends with the words of The Great Commission, where Jesus sends his disciples to baptize and teach people from all nations. As individuals, as a congregation, and as church denominations, our focus at the end of this book is most often on this important gift of Jesus to entrust the message of salvation to all of us. We have a sense of awe and responsibility that God would entrust the story of salvation to frail, sinful human beings. Yet, at the same time, we recognize that God is empowering us with the Holy Spirit and with the power of the message which has brought us to faith ourselves. Often the importance of this moment keeps us from noticing the story right before it.
Matthew shares the Easter story in his unique way. Each gospel account is different in the details provided about Easter, presumably because each writer is attempting to share a different and important perspective on the event. Matthew shares the story of the men who stood guard at the tomb that morning. He writes that these men reported the truth of Easter to the chief priests. The chief priests then paid the guards to tell other people that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus.
It seems to me that these two stories provide for us a foundation for the life we lead having witnessed, through faith, the reality of Easter. There will be people, institutions, governments, and yes, even churches, who are deceived by Satan and will offer a payment if you will share stories that divert the eyes of other people from the truth of Easter.
The guards were frightened by something they could not completely understand. The offer of money – this made it much easier – particularly when we understand that the penalty for a guard who lost a prisoner was…death. The guards lost a dead body! They were frightened, but they were offered money. Easy choice. Likewise, when we focus on our sins, we are frightened. Satan offers payment for our silence and it is easy to give in to this temptation.
In contrast, Jesus offers forgiveness. We are granted freedom from our sins, anxieties and shame. He has taken away the penalty of death, which unfortunately the guards did not understand. Satan will do anything to keep us from remembering this as well. We are free from sin, death and the power of the devil. In that place of promise, Jesus gives his final gift during his time on earth. He gives us the gift of telling the truth. He helps the disciples (and us) see that we really have been made, “children of God and inheritors of eternal life.” The story is ours to share and has the power of God’s Son, who is, was and always will be “the word made flesh.”
I am sure we all fall victim to eh temptations of the devil. We become afraid in our sins, seek to hide our story of redemption, and make the mistake of telling the wrong story. However, thanks be to God, we have forgiveness each and every moment of each and every day. Jesus liberates us and calls us to tell “the old, old story”. How will you tell the story?
Happy New Year!
I am very late getting this newsletter article finished. Normally this would bother me, but for some reason, the newsletter did not seem as critical as usual during the days leading up to Christmas. So I waited. Now, in the days just before New Year’s, I understand that God has a few ideas planned for me that would not have been in my mind prior to this week.
This week we had a the opportunity to visit family and planned for a two day adventure in Disneyland, which is a challenging adventure during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day! After a very long first day, jostling with tens of thousands of our newest friends, we decided on a more leisurely second day before leaving for home. Katie wanted to see a new musical production of Aladdin and Karen found that we had coupons for priority seating, so we could miss some of the crowd. Not much of the crowd - Andrew still had to get in line almost an hour before the show! I expected a short 15-20 minute version of the story and a brief respite from walking. I could not have been more surprised and entertained by the show.
The show was nearly an hour, with most of the feature songs and dialogue. The actors and actresses were phenomenal, but still I held out little hope that the genie could be even close to the work of Robin Williams. Much to my surprise, he was fantastic, delivering a variety of lines both from the older show and new lines for this new show. Afterward, I wondered how people would respond to the changes. I overheard a few people longing for the exact same show they have seen so often from the movie, but most people were enchanted by the new lines in the old format of the show. As the genie himself opined, “Hey, this is ending just like the DVD!” Truly they had told the old story with some new, modern elements, and kept the importance of the message.
I began to think about Bethany and our decisions to refresh the sanctuary. A lot of people have worried that some part or another will not look good or that they will feel uncomfortable. What I realized at Aladdin is that the sanctuary will be the same as always. The differences will be noticeable and for most people should enhance their feelings of warmth and sacred space. Some will still long for the older vision, but all of us will be comforted by the fact that the sanctuary will still be part of sharing the oldest of stories, the message of Jesus Christ.
Later in the week, I saw the movie “We Bought a Zoo”, a touching and family-friendly movie that has a great plot and fine performers. Without spoiling the movie for you, I will just say that the messages of life as an adventure and the value of working together in that adventure were very powerful. Again thinking about my impending ride home and the week that will follow as we remove pews and prepare for the workers, it was easy to see a connection. There will be bumps along the road of this project. There will be joys and struggles. I am still thinking through all of the logistics just for worshipping in the Family Center! However, when we are finished the adventure will NOT be over… it will be just beginning. The real adventure has been and always will be, telling “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
Finally, as the last hours of 2011 began to creep away, I realized that this year, with all of its struggles, trials, economic and political volatility, and changes really was an adventure. As we enter 2012 the adventure is not over, but begins on the foundation of what Christ did for us on the cross and the same thing God promised to Adam and Eve. We have salvation and the promise of heaven. It is our adventure to share the story with others, knowing that in Christ we have already received the amazing story of salvation, but we are also liberated to share in our terms, with our words, and know that the story will remain the same because, “The Word of the Lord endures forever.”
Happy New Year,
“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:12
Christmas is one of those times for nostalgia. In the midst of rushing around to find presents, put up lights, and make sure that this really is the year that I will finally get out Christmas cards, I found myself thinking about a very special Christmas present I received when I was 9 years old.
December 7, 1972 is a day I will never forget because, on that morning, I learned that my grandfather had been called into the glories of heaven. Except when you are 9, none of those flowery words mean much. It is all black and white in the 9 year old mind. For me, death felt like I would never see him again, even though I knew that was not the case. You see at 9, the thought of joining my grandfather in heaven some day, really did not compute.
Fast forward 17 days and the family had gathered for Christmas Eve, which was my grandfather’s favorite day of the year. He would regale us with stories about how he and my grandmother were married on a boat on Christmas Day. The two of them would sing in Danish a Christmas song they once sang on their wedding night. To be sure, this would be a Christmas with many tears and lots of effort to help my mom and my grandmother get through a very difficult moment in life.
That year the anticipation of presents was not nearly as strong. It just did not seem that presents would come close to taking the place of that special person who was no longer in the room when we gathered to celebrate. Then something peculiar and incredibly moving happened.
I was handed a gift with a tag signed in a familiar writing style of my grandparents. The tag was made out to me and was from my grandfather. I opened the package and found a small set of tools which my parents told me he had picked out especially for me. Since my grandfather had been a carpenter, trained in the old style of Scandinavia, I knew that these were cherished tools, indeed. For just a moment, he was with me again, and I knew that all was well in his world and in mine.
Years later, I was told “the rest of the story”. My parents knew that I was unhappy and wanted to help. They picked out the tools with my grandmother to help her feel better and to help me. My older siblings were told about the gift so that they would be able to keep up the story. My grandmother signed the tag as her writing was very similar to that of my grandfather. I guess I could have been angry that they fooled me, but I knew they were only giving me the best present possible and it meant more because it was wrapped and tagged from a man who loved me more than I could know.
Thinking about that first Christmas, we see the gift of God, the Savior, Jesus. However, he came wrapped in the form of a baby and covered in the cloths that would keep him warm after birth. He came in a humble place, where shepherds would hear the announcement of the angels. He did not come as an adult, or in glorious splendor, or to the temple where priests could welcome him. No, God fooled the world by sending Jesus as the best gift ever, but in a form we did not expect. I guess we could be angry and some people were angry. Those were the people who did not believe, and who ultimately sent Jesus to his death. However, for those of us who have received the gift, we can see that Jesus, as a baby in Bethlehem was the special gift of God, who loves us more than we will ever know.
It is amazing to me how God sends us messages in the form of our relatives, friends, gifts, stories, music and so much more. The message is always meant to focus our attention on the gift, not the wrapping, or the announcements or the writing on the tag. When you hear the Christmas story this year…whether from children, or songs, in church or at your homes…hear the voice of the Father telling us we have received the greatest gift in Jesus, the baby at Bethlehem.
“Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Exodus 40:34
In January we anticipate the beginning of a project to refresh the interior of our sanctuary. It would be reasonable to expect that I would include a number of articles about worship space in relation to our upcoming project. However, I think it is important for us to consider the many and various ways God has gathered people for worship, in relation to the new Project Burning Bush and our work to gather people through the internet.
From the beginning of time until the work of Moses in the wilderness, the Bible refers to people worshipping in family units. Cain and Abel each offer their sacrifices to the Lord from the crops and animals God has provided. Abraham worships with his family and meets Melchizedek, a king who is also worshipping in a different area as Abraham travels from one place to another. While there may not have been a central place of worship, God’s people still met in groups, and glorified God.
As Moses leads the people of Israel in the wilderness, God commands Moses to build a tabernacle, which according to the description in Exodus, must have been one of the most elaborate and complicated tents ever created. God would descend upon the tent and dwell there when the Israelites were to stay camped in one location and God would leave the tent and lead His people when it was time to move. Once in the Promised Land, Solomon built the temple for God and a non-moving house for God was created. From that time forward, God’s people longed to be near the temple, even when they were in exile and could not live in Jerusalem.
Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple and coupled with the work of St. Paul we witness the rebirth of people who will be worshipping in small groups and family groups. Larger churches will not begin to spring up until the conversion of Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. From that time forward, we see an interesting combination of large cathedrals, smaller chapels, house churches and numerous other places for worship.
Why this description of worship places and gathering sizes? Often the changes in worship size and place were precipitated by changes that would impact the world in many other ways. Changes of governments, communication innovations, industrialization, and other changes have been able to impact both the church and most other aspects of life. In each of these developments, God proves to have a plan allowing for mission and ministry to grow and flourish as God’s Word continues to bring people to faith in Jesus. The communication change to electronic media is no different.
The impact of electronic media is one of the largest changes we will experience in our life time. For many of us, using computers to gather with each other is uncomfortable, unusual and often frustrating. However, for those people who have grown up with the change, it is normal and natural. Project Burning Bush is our effort to combine the work of congregations, pastors, teachers, worshippers, and families to gather in a new way and glorify God as we have throughout history. Just as God’s people once gathered in a tent that could be moved from place to place. We will gather people amidst the electrons that communicate within our computers to bring God’s love to all people.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28
“It’s not fair!” “Why do I have to put up with this!” “I should have more freedom!” “How long do we have to endure this!”
I suspect that most of us remember a time and place from our youth when we made some statements very similar to the ones above. As children we are often caught in a tense battle between our insecurities and our need to declare our own independence. This battle often erupts in the kind of self-serving and immature statements listed above. Yet, it seems I am hearing these statements more frequently from the lips of adults who do not seem to realize God has given us an amazing opportunity to serve as Christ once served us.
Have you heard these sentiments from others? I have heard these statements from students and teachers, from parents and children, from politicians and those who elect them to public office. I am sure that I have even heard these sentiments from my own sinful lips. For a moment let us consider how the world would be different if we would follow the opportunity and lead of Jesus:
Imagine schools where the students are not focused on the tensions created by a competitive environment, instead choosing to serve one another and focusing on learning.
Imagine schools where teachers are not pressured to decide which children were doing best, but have the opportunity to instruct and encourage children to find their gifts and explore life choices that would allow them to best use their gifts and enjoy their work. Schools would not be looking for the students who achieved the most, but the ones who best would be served by the expertise of that specific school.
Imagine parents who understand that being a parent means God has blessed you with an amazing gift in the form of a child. However, it also means that your life should be a life of service and sacrifice to your child. Moaning and groaning is not sacrifice, it is simply whining! Sacrifice is done the way Jesus did, without moaning and groaning, but with a joyful willingness to do what is necessary for others. Imagine then children who love their parents, knowing that they are always loved even when they made mistakes. Children would then grow up prepared to make the sacrifices that were once made for them.
Finally imagine a new political arena where elected politicians understood the importance of serving the electorate. Special interests would be over. Campaign contributions would not be necessary. We would elect politicians on their willingness to serve and their proven abilities, rather than their ability to speak persuasively and the amount of money they had for advertisements. Once served well, the people would no longer need to challenge politicians. There would be no need for groups to form for protest, or to seek influence. We would know that our elected officials were attempting to serve us well and that we should likewise serve one another.
Oh, how silly pastor seems when he writes things like this… I supposed the disciples felt the same way when they first heard the words of Jesus. How could they possibly be great through service? How could they be first by acting as a slave to others? Somehow after watching the Master, who served best on the cross, they came to understand. Twelve disciples changed the world with the message of Jesus. What can we do if we serve the Lord (and each other) with gladness?
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Recently I was having lunch with Pastor Jim Presnell, who has become a good friend over the years since the 2007 National Youth Gathering. Jim works at Concordia in Portland and has been at Bethany twice with the choirs that tour.
Whenever I head up to Portland, I look forward to our conversations, and this time was very fulfilling. As we walked to lunch, Jim was effusive about the fact that he would be teaching a New Testament course. He was sharing with me one of the perspectives he wanted to bring to this class. While it is something I had heard before, for some reason it made so much more sense this time. I decided to share the concept with you.
The concept of remembrance in the Bible is different than the rest of our life. When we hear the word remembrance, we probably think about remembering something in the past. This seems reasonable since Jesus lived, died and was raised over 2,000 years in the past. However, remembrance in the Bible is a much different concept. In order to understand, let’s look at the Last Supper.
Jesus is sharing the Passover meal with his disciples. This meal of remembrance was always viewed as a time to remember the past when Moses led God’s people from slavery, into the Promised Land. In this historic meal, Jesus creates the sacrament of Holy Communion when he tells the disciples that the bread and wine are his body and blood which will be given and shed for the forgiveness of all people. As he does this, and says “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Jesus also is pointing the disciples to the future. The feast in heaven is the goal of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The sacrament of his body and blood is a remembrance that it meant to make us remember what he does in the future at the cross and remember our future in heaven where we will be eternally part of the body of Christ.
What made all of this become clearer for me was that Jim had just been talking about his New Testament class where he would be challenging students to read the Bible and think about themselves in the time and culture it was written. So, past and future are both important when we think of that word remembrance.
While I am not saying the present is not important, I am saying that our faith is based upon God’s work in the past, which points us toward a future which is already planned and waiting for us. As a driven, goal-oriented person, like many of you, I found that this remembrance toward the future, firmly rooted in the past, allowed me to be more at peace with my present. This peace comes from Jesus when we remember what he did for us in the past and when we hold in remembrance the future Jesus has created for us and gives us by his Grace.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
Ecclesiastes 3: 11
This year we spent our vacation in a lakeside house at Bass Lake. This is a small community south of Yosemite and north of Fresno, up in the foothills. I have to admit to the fact that I am not the most “outdoorsy” kind of person. I appreciate the architecture and charm of a great city and often neglect to notice the beauty of God’s creation. However, there is something very special for me about lakes. Perhaps it is the way they reflect the sun, from morning until evening, the sun seems to be playing light onto and into the water. Or maybe it is the fact that under the surface are lots of living creatures who can only survive in the fresh water. Other times I really like to see the rushing rivers and streams that fill a lake and replenish the water from the winter rains and snows.
The interesting thing is that in Ecclesiastes, the author is NOT talking about the beauty that God creates in our world. The author is talking about the fact that there are different moments in our lives when different things happen. The author wants us to understand that each time of our life is beautiful in a different, but marvelous way that God has designed. So whether we are weeping or rejoicing, mourning or dancing, being born or dying, God will make our life beautiful.
I guess if there is one thing I spend less time admiring than nature, it would probably be my life. Yeah, I have a few moments of which I have particular pride.
I am blessed with lots of moments when friends and especially family have brought me joy. However, I rarely step back and notice that God has been the one making each of these times beautiful.
This summer I hope you get to spend a few moments enjoying the beauty of God’s creation, but I also hope you stop to look at yourself and your life as part of that creation. Take a moment to see how God has brought joy into each of the seasons in your life. Whether there have been many seasons, or just a few, I think you will be able to see that even in the most difficult of times in human terms, God is able to make your life beautiful in ways you never imagined.
“For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:6-7
This is an incredibly empowering passage that explains how we are to share the message of Jesus with other people. There are many facts in this passage worthy of exploration, but I would like to focus on just two items: God has put His light of knowledge, glory, and Jesus into each of us through faith, for us to share. God understands that we are still frail, sinful people, who have been blessed to hold this light of God’s glory, so we can share with others our struggles also.
Jesus tells us that he is the light of the world. We know that this is the light of God which no sinful human being can view and still survive. Moses is allowed to see the trailing edge of God’s light and his face shone for days and he hid it from the Israelites. This is the light of the glory of God, which is pure and holy, which permeates all visions of God, and which creates faith in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Later in the text, we are told that this light is an all-surpassing power of God, which amazingly is found in all of us. Perhaps you are wondering where this power is and how you can use it. The power is the faith you were given in baptism, the faith you have through God’s Word, and the faith that is strengthened in Holy Communion. In short, all of your life is now infused with God’s light and power! When you tell people about your life of faith, in your words, God works.
Sometimes we think that we have to have the correct words, or be a pastor, or say things just so in order to tell people about Jesus. Sometimes we worry that people will not believe our words or will find them to be silly.
Other times we just never take the chance that our words, our life, and our stories will be valuable to others in their time of need. To these concerns, God tells us that this incredible treasure has been put into us, “jars of clay”, mortal bodies, for a reason. People will see the light and know that it is not from us, but must be from God.
What this implies is that we have to be transparent about our frailty. Lately, there have been lots and lots of people “exposed” for bad behavior in the news. Somehow we have begun to believe that sports stars, politicians, religious leaders and others are to be “better than others” and “without those kinds of sins” because of their position in life. When we do this we fail to realize that all people are tempted and many fall to those temptations. St. Augustine, one of the great church fathers, openly wrote about the temptations he faced and the battles he had trying to avoid sin. God’s word is clear when it uses the term “jars of clay” to point out that we are still sinful, frail, mortal people. However, into these sinful, frail, mortal bodies, God gives His treasure, the light of the world, which is Jesus. So, we can be open about our struggles with other people, and share with them the marvelous peace we have that God forgives our sins because of Jesus.
This summer when you are soaking up the sun, stop for a moment to think about the brightest light in your life. Jesus is that light and dwells within you. However, in addition to that amazing fact, the light is there to shine into the lives of others with all the power of God to change lives and bring others to salvation in Jesus Christ.
“The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Proverbs 15:4
I chose this passage on a day when I was particularly tired of the deceitful and harmful words of people. Now before you start trying to figure out what those things were, allow me to share what they were not. I was NOT thinking about Bethany families or Littlest Angels families. I was NOT thinking about specific situations that were harming my own life. So, please understand that there is absolutely no way to guess who or what prompted my search for this passage. It just made sense on the day it was chosen.
However, as the days passed and I put off the writing of this article…time and again… I realized that the problem with the passage is found in the sequence. We are left with the ending of the passage, which is pure Law. It describes what happens when we fail. It describes what happens when we use our words to deceive, harm, tear down, or influence in a negative way. I would suggest that in those moments we are not only crushing the spirit of the person who hears the words, but we are setting ourselves up to be crushed in our spirit. The very act of using harmful words and convincing ourselves of inaccurate truths that we will speak, is that act that crushes us with the weight of our own words.
For some reason this passage begins with the Gospel side of the picture. The Gospel is our tongue which brings healing. This is called a “tree of life”. The original tree of life was found in the Garden of Eden, so this example of a “tree of life” must be similar. We know that Jesus was the one who restored the Garden and gave to us the benefit of the tree of life, which is salvation and eternal life. So, our tongue brings healing exactly when we share the message of Jesus Christ. Oh that it were just that simple, but there is more to the passage.
If the opposite of Jesus is deceitful behavior…remember that Satan is called the deceiver, then the healing we bring in Jesus is not just when we tell people about Jesus, but when we emulate the words Jesus would have used. When we forgive those who do not deserve forgiveness, when we love those who feel loveless, when we care for people who cannot care for themselves, we use the words of Jesus to bring love. When we make sure that our words are true, when we make sure our words build up others, when we stop ourselves from saying things that are hurtful, we bring the healing of Jesus.
This summer you will interact with hundreds of people in a myriad of social situations. The Deceiver will be present, attempting to convince you that your words are good enough and that you have a right to say things that are not always kind or beneficial to others. I pray that during this time you will take a few moments to consider what Jesus wants you to say that will bring healing and be a tree of life to others. Likewise, I pray that my words will serve to remind you of Jesus, the one who died for our deceitful moments, and gives to us an eternity in His healing, restoring us to the tree of life.
Refreshing the Sanctuary
When I arrived in Mt. Shasta, they had just finished building our one and only structure – a combined sanctuary, fellowship hall, classrooms and offices all in one big (kinda big, but smaller than either of the main buildings at Bethany) box of a building. The stories were still swirling about the arguments and disagreements that had surrounded the building of this structure. In many ways it was a hodge-podge of old and new, contemporary and traditional, bland in most colors, but striking in the colors of stained glass. None of that really mattered too much to me because it was my first call, a new home, and most of all our place of worship in that community of believers.
Fast forward a few years and I land in Menlo Park where you had just finished renovating the sanctuary a year or two before I arrived. The stories are still swirling about the arguments and disagreements that had surrounded this act of refreshing the sanctuary. I even run into a few people who left the congregation because of discussions that went wrong and disagreements. In many ways this new sanctuary is similar to the other one. Sure, it is 40 years older and there are lots of minor details and major ones that are different. However, the main things that really matter are still the same – it is home to the Christians who call Bethany their community and it is a place of worship for the people who gather here.
I did learn one thing from both experiences – try not to be part of building or decorating or refreshing a sanctuary! Seriously, carpets wear out, paint has to be renewed and all kinds of other things make this an important process. However, I really would prefer to avoid the kind of arguing and disagreement that seemed to be part of every process I had ever witnessed.
Other buildings never seem to create as much controversy as the worship space. So when this whole idea of refreshing the sanctuary began, I decided that it was best to say as little as possible and hope for the best.
I have changed my mind after hearing from many of you and I felt it was now time to speak about what is really important. I would encourage you to consider the following thoughts:
I have never been in a perfect sanctuary. I have never met a perfect pastor. I have never even been part of a perfect congregation. What is perfect? Something that pleases me in all ways! The problem is that what pleases me will not please others. God has created variety and we all have different views about what is best and what pleases us. If it is perfect for me, it is probably horrible for someone else, which means that compromise is a big part of the process. Before I go much further let me also say that God gave us freedom. God could have provided a set of plans and pictures for how we should build each church. However, God gave us the ability to create beauty and reverence that would bring glory to God through our worship space in many and varied ways.
Allow me to share one area of dispute and compromise in our current process. Wood. Some people seem to love wood. I knew who you were before we began the process because you live in homes that have lots of wood. Wood floors. Wood walls. Wood cabinets. Wood ceilings. Before Mt. Shasta had a church, the Lutheran church was in Dunsmuir and was called “The Old Rustic Church” because it was built with logs like a rustic old cabin. Some of you might have loved it, but I heard it was very difficult to maintain over the years.
There are other people who seem to not be so enamored with wood. I knew who you were also. You have homes with carpets, drywall, granite and tile. In other words, both groups of people find comfort from different materials and they tend to surround themselves with those views. I remember that in Mt. Shasta we did not have much wood in the new building other than accent pieces. Some of you would have loved the simplicity, but it was a little small.
I have been in churches that look like cathedrals and have no wood and others that have lots. I have been in run down churches with no wood and others that have lots. I have seen everything in between and all churches seem to make this decision: lots of wood or not so much wood. It is just one of many choices that tend to split people because of varied views and tastes for what we see and feel. The committee worked hard to balance the equation and I think their hard work shows in the plans we reviewed. Many of you have contributed your thoughts in honest and kind feedback. For that, I am very grateful. Your words and your thoughts will help the committee understand in words and in numbers of voices how we feel as a congregation. Again thanks for your contributions.
However some people seem to think that the church will be ruined if we do one thing or another, with regard to a number of decisions. Please consider this: The church is not about the building products, the land, the design, or any other human element. The church was, is and always will be about Jesus Christ; who dwells not in buildings made of our hands, but in our hearts through faith, which is a free gift from God. There will be compromises to be sure and I am certain no one will think they got everything the way they would have wanted. However, I am convinced that in Christ we can maintain a loving attitude to one another and to the process that will allow us to refresh our sanctuary and continue glorifying God in this place.
“So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first…Finally the other disciple who reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.” John 20: 3-4, 8
Who is the “other disciple”? The writer of the Gospel and the youngest disciple was John. He does not refer to himself by name in his Gospel, rather referring to himself as “the other disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.
What did John see that caused him to believe? Nothing. Absolutely nothing, other than some folded linens that once held the dead body of Jesus. His faith was made real in the midst of that “nothing” moment to which he had raced.
Why did they run to the tomb?
Perhaps in good Jewish tradition, I should answer that question with another question…Why do you run after things in your life? In 2009, a movie was released with the title, The Race to Nowhere. It chronicles the feelings of children and parents who are caught in the race to create the perfect resume for children to attend the best schools and presumably have the best life. One quote in the film sums up a problem we have seen for children and adults alike.
"You have to be smart, but also you have to be pretty, and also you have to do sports and you have to be involved in the arts, and you have to find something unique about yourself," Kelly says in the film. "And you have to know yourself, because if you don't know yourself before you do all that, you're going to lose yourself."
Do you find yourself running after achievements, grades, money, power, or fame? Do you feel that your status is tied to the things you can achieve and the importance of being the first, or the best, or the greatest in the race? If you do, then you may find yourself like Kelly, trying to “find something unique about yourself” while at the same time “you have to know yourself”. This is impossible, but it does sum up our races to nowhere.
In contrast, Peter and John raced to a tomb that once held the body of Jesus. They raced to see if the words of the women were correct. The women had proclaimed that the tomb was empty, but those were crazy words. How could it be empty? Who emptied it? They raced to an empty tomb…truly a nowhere place in their life if it was empty, but a very sad place if it held the body of their dear departed friend and mentor.
John was first to get there, but last to go inside. He could see that the tomb was open and fully expected that there was nothing inside. The race was over and he had arrived…NOWHERE. Like many of our races, he must have felt cheated, disappointed, or just confused. Yet, he entered the tomb and God’s grace miraculously poured out of the nothing and into John’s soul. He states in the plainest of words about himself, “He saw and believed.” In that moment the race that led to nowhere shifted into the gift of God that led to everywhere.
Getting back to the beginning of this article, I skipped a logical question after the first one:
Why does John not name himself in his Gospel? Why does he refer to himself as “the other disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved”?
If we follow the reasoning of the jealous disciples who were trying to be first in the Kingdom, we would have to conclude that John was setting himself apart from the others as special. He had tried this before when Jesus was alive. This would work well in our culture of running the race and attempting to get the prize that makes us best. However, it is not consistent with the text of the Gospel, or the life of a believer. Perhaps John is simply trying to avoid confusion, since John the Baptist is prominent in his Gospel. However, in the tradition of that time, John is clearly identified as “the Baptizer”.
This leads us to my proposed reason for John’s self identification. At the time of Jesus people were seen by first name and profession rather than first name and last name. Evidence of this can be seen in the question asked about Jesus, “is he not the carpenter’s son?” Notice how Joseph is the carpenter, not a given last name. John is using this form of self identification. He is identifying himself by his role in life. John’s belief in Jesus helps him to understand that being a disciple is important and God’s love is important. His name is no longer as important as God’s Grace.
In the midst of a race nowhere, God forms the faith of John, gives him purpose for his life and the gift of salvation which is worth more than anything John can obtain on this earth. Similarly in our baptism, God leads us to that empty tomb, and tells us to stop racing, because Jesus has already won the race and given us the prize. We are heirs of the kingdom and inheritors of eternal life. There are many things in this life worth striving to achieve, but God is calling us to remove ourselves from the races that truly lead nowhere. Happy Easter, indeed!
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16
These words are some of the best known and most recited words of the Bible. Called “The Gospel in a nutshell”, these words sum up the incredible gift of God for this world in the form of the Savior, Jesus Christ. As people who have fallen from the perfection of creation, we tend to look at the last part of the verse and ponder the meaning and awesome wonder of eternal life which is ours as a free and perfect gift from God. Today, I would like you to take a moment to consider the first part of the verse and a word that does NOT show up in the text…SACRIFICE.
When you hear the word sacrifice, perhaps you think of the fact that when a living creature is sacrificed, it means that the creature is killed. This would be correct for the death and resurrection of Jesus and for so many animals sacrificed in the temple during the Old Testament times. For most of us, this is difficult to understand or even think about because we think about the messy, bloody death that is part of the sacrifice. But there is another aspect that can get lost in our understanding. Sacrifice is about giving something up.
In the Old Testament, beginning with Cain and Abel, God called on his people to give up the first fruits of their creation. They used God’s creation to grow produce and animals. God then required that some of this, which was really all God’s, be given back. In order to do this, the people gave a “sacrifice” which meant that they lost something. They literally lost some wealth that was given back to God. All of the sacrifice was burned on an altar to God and seemingly lost.
In Jesus we witness a sacrifice that is not only a loss for God, but is a win for God as well. It is a change from the old sacrificial system and a model for the new system that Jesus puts in place. Jesus dies for our sins. Jesus gives up, or loses his life. However, he does so knowing that his loss will become a win for God and for all people, when, in that death and resurrection, Jesus pays for the sins of the world and changes death into life. He also sets forth a model for all of us….here it is.
We still do NOT like the word sacrifice, but God calls us to make sacrifices. God calls us to sacrifice our time, our desires, and our needs for our families, our friends, other church members and even for strangers. Our natural inclination as people of a fallen creation is to take care of ourselves and avoid sacrifice. However, Jesus has made us a new creation. Jesus has given us a new model that includes not only his sacrifice and death, but also his resurrection. What this means is that our sacrifice as God’s people comes not only with loss, but with a gain as well.
I probably learned this best a few years ago when Beverly Koch passed away. For ten years I was Beverly’s medical power of attorney and took care of her medical and personal needs. There were numerous times when I was frustrated and even angry that I was in this situation. Why? Because it required sacrifice of my time, my energy, and my emotions. When Beverly died, I saw much more clearly how my “sacrifice” had not only been a huge win for her, but for me as well. In caring for her, I had gained things I never could have expected and she gained as well.
Have you sacrificed lately? Are you willing to sacrifice with joy, for the people you love, the people you know, or just for people in general? Are you willing to sacrifice time? Money? Emotions? I pray that you will take a moment and ponder what God has done for us through the sacrificial gift of Jesus, and likewise ponder what you can do to “pick up your cross and follow” the One who made the first and greatest sacrifice where loss would change to gain.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7
Perhaps the first thing we think about during the month of February, when I bring up the topic of love, is that particular kind of love we call romantic love. However, St. Paul is writing about the love between Christians and more importantly he is describing the perfect love that God has for us as our Creator. John states in 1 John 4 – “God is love.” This is one of the more amazing, yet simple and short statements in the Bible. God is not just a symbol of love, like a piece of jewelry. God is not a substitute for love, like that box of chocolates. God really is love!
The Bible also states that Christians will be known by their love for others. This should stand to reason since in Christ we are “a new creation” and in Christ we have been reconciled to God, the Father. In other words, we have become part of God’s all encompassing love through our baptism. This brings me to the question that is often difficult to answer, “Have we been showing the love of God to others?” How are you treating other people in your words and in your deeds?
Lately I have noticed that our culture is spiraling into a loveless society where we are more willing to demonize one another than encourage one another. No where is this more evident than in politics, where it seems the only way to win is to disparage your opponent. Yet I also see this in our business ethics, our schools, and on our streets. The need to create winners and losers is far more important than the desire to encourage one another in our pursuit of healthy business, politics and games.
Therefore, as Christians we really should stand out as people who are willing to love when others are not. Unfortunately, we seem to have missed one vital point of the message from St. Paul about God’s love. God loves us the way we are, filled with sin, deceit, anger, malice, and rage. God does not love the sins, but loves us and sent Jesus to die for our sins. God loves us enough to wash away our sins and make us like Him…not just loveable, but loving as well.
Getting back to the questions above, one thing we need to consider about our love toward others requires an understanding of our position in life. We are loved. We are loved in such an incredible way, we can never pay it back. However, we can pay it forward. I am encouraging you to reflect on love this month. Then move from reflection to action. Attempt to love a person who seems to need your love regardless of whether or not you like that person. Trust me, it will be an eye opening experience.
One final note: I remember being told at seminary that it was important to love the people in your congregation when you become a pastor. I cannot honestly say that I like everything that every person has ever done or said to me. I can say that God led me to understand that because of His love, I could love everyone. It is not something I do, it is something God does in me. I wonder…could we do that for one another? Is God all powerful enough that as members of Bethany we could make a conscious effort to put one another first and love one another as God has loved us? I pray you will give this a try, but first reread the Bible passage above and think about the ways in which God has loved you and promises to love your forever.
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
I can remember singing The 12 Days of Christmas for my family on Christmas Eve. I will date myself for a moment and share that the words came from a comic book (Dennis the Menace, I think) and I kept it from year to year in my nightstand by my bed. Many people wonder why there are 12 days and when those days begin and end. Most people think these days are the 12 days before Christmas when merchants are ringing up all the sales. The truth is that the 12 days of Christmas are the 12 days from Christmas Day (December 25) until Epiphany (January 6). Online you can find interesting arguments about whether the 12 days begin on the 25th or end on the 6th, because if you count all of the days there seem to be 13! Again, the counting would have begun with sundown on the 25th and therefore went easily through the 6th as 12 days.
As we being 2011, I thought it might be fun to consider 10 things you can do in 11 minutes or less to nurture and share your faith. As you look at this list, please consider doing one at a time. Consider doing one for a week or more and then shifting to another. Have fun with the list and enjoy the fact that God can and will bless us even when we are using small, concentrated moments in life to praise and honor God.
- 11 Minutes of Prayer – Perhaps you feel that 11 minutes is too long to pray. The Bethany prayer is list a great place to start. Or begin with your own family and friends. You will find that 11 minutes or prayer may not be enough time before long.
- 11 Minutes of Bible reading – Portals of Prayer is a great resource for a brief devotion and a Bible passage. Read the parts that surround the Bible passage. Or do the same with the passages on the back of the bulletin.
- 11 Minutes of Singing – It is hard to be sad when you are singing, especially if you pick Christmas Carols. Singing the songs you know and love will make this easy, although hymnals and bulletins work well too.
- 11 Minutes of Service to others – During you day look for one person who could use your help. Dedicate yourself to making the life of one person a little bit easier in just 11 minutes a day.
- 11 Minutes of Love for Family and Friends – Too often the days pass without much time to share love with those closest to us. Pick out a person to whom you will share your love and do something nice for them.
- 11 Minutes of Silence and Contemplation – Amidst all of our electronic communications and speed of life, we rarely take time to contemplate our lives and be silent. Turn off everything and give yourself 11 minutes to rest and review your life and faith.
- 11 Minutes of Thanksgiving – Every day there are things that we receive from God. Every day there are reasons to give thanks. When we take time to remember these things, the day seems brighter and the trials less burdensome.
- 11 Minutes of Serving God – Is there something you can do that is different from anything else on this list to give service to God? Perhaps you could visit an elderly neighbor. Maybe you could read a book to a child. Find something that gives you joy and serves God.
- 11 Minutes of Unexpected Kindness – Ever notice how much better the day is when someone extends and unexpected kindness to you. It can be something as simple as complementing a coworker or calling an old friend.
- Finally, 11 Minutes of Rejoicing – We seem to have different and wonderful ways of celebrating joy in our lives. Focus on something God has done in your life and rejoice – celebrate in your own unique way.
I pray that you will try some of these and that when 2011 comes to a close you will be able to see that 11 minutes a day made a difference in your life and the lives of others.
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2: 6-7
I am late preparing an article for the December edition of Heart Matters, which means that I am writing this after Thanksgiving. The extra days since the deadline have provided interesting perspective. The headlines for Black Friday were filled with images of consumers fighting for sale products, arming themselves to fight for a place in line, and trampling one another for the products they believe will make Christmas special. The images of the first Christmas stand in stark contrast to the images of Black Friday. Here are a few things to consider:
How Much Do We Need?
When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, they had whatever they could carry. They were not wealthy, which means unless someone had mercy on Mary because of her pregnancy, they were walking, without the benefit of a donkey. Once in Bethlehem, they are fortunate to find some cover from the elements in a small cave or building for animals. No running water, no heat, little light, and no doctors or nurses for Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. However, the Savior of the world was here and angels declared his birth.
In contrast, we began the biggest shopping season of the year with people hurting each other for items that are often nothing more than plastic and metal shaped into forms of entertainment. Yes, I love my entertainment as much as anyone. But, I am clear about the fact that a new Xbox, computer, or television is nothing compared to the lives of the people God created who seem willing to harm each other for these items. With all that we have, are we missing the importance of the baby who was born with so little?
Does It Need To Be New?
I think once of the reasons that we shop so much for Christmas is that we all remember how nice it is to have something that is new. Unfortunately we have reached a point in our society where we only like things that are new. We have so many goods at such low prices, we can afford to recycle or just get rid of things when they are older.
Because of this, we seem to struggle with the idea that older stories, ideas, or items have much value. The result is that in our quest for new things, we fail to notice the value of old stories, old items and old values.
In contrast, the story of Christmas is a story most have heard over and over again. In fact, we hear the story so often, it is easy to “listen, but not really hear” the message that is found in the words. However, the story comes to life in ways we do not expect as God works through His living word in our lives. In contrast to the things of this world, the story of Christmas does not grow old. It is reborn in us each and every year as we share the joy the angels first proclaimed. Is it possible that in our search for new things, we might miss out on the value of the old things?
Where is the Gift?
It is clear that the magi from the east valued the child we know as Jesus. They came with gifts to show their respect. They journey a great distance to show the importance of Jesus in their lives. However, in bringing these gifts, they did not yet understand that Jesus was the gift of God who would take away the sins of the world. The shepherds may have come closer to understanding, thanks to the appearance of angels who first frightened them and later calmed and excited them with the proclamation of the Messiah. However, only Mary speaks in terms of receiving a gift as she notes that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
What is your message of Christmas? Is it peace on earth, or is it get what you can when you can get it? What are you modeling to others through your Christmas behavior? Are you showing people the prince of peace, or are you going to pieces trying to please everyone on your shopping list? It is easy for us to miss the fact that Jesus is the gift that brings us life and immortality. He is the gift that should always make us content. Share with others the gifts of Christmas, but understand that the greatest gift of all is already ours through baptism.
And it came to pass…
The joy of Black Friday passes quickly, but the joy of Christmas lasts for eternity. I wonder if anyone was singing out of sheer joy after shopping on Black Friday. I know the angels continue to sing out of sheer joy, “Glory to the newborn king.”
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us.” Ephesians 2:8-9
These words from St. Paul are most often the words credited by Luther for his understanding of God’s Word which led to the Reformation of the Christian church. Over the next few weeks, we will consider a number of messages on Sunday mornings that will highlight the Reformation that God brings to our lives through faith. For just a moment, I would like to look at the last part of these two verses.
Consider the fact that God is almighty, created the universe and all that we know. Consider the fact that God knows all and continuously restores our broken and sin-filled world, making good things flow from evil. Consider that God can control the wind and the rain, the heavens and all that is in them. Then consider the fact that God has prepared good works, in advance of our lives for us to do. God has done this knowing that we will come to faith and knowing that we will want to serve others.
For me this is some pretty heady stuff. I wonder at times how God has the time to consider my puny, little life. I certainly wonder how God can prepare good works for me, especially when I am not always kind enough, smart enough, or compassionate enough to complete them. When I do “get it right” and I make someone happy, I am quick to take the credit and rarely remember that God “set it up” so that I could feel the joy of doing good in a world filled with struggles.
Have you ever considered that God has prepared good works for you knowing that you will enjoy and be uplifted by those good works? Have you ever noticed that when you actively plan for your own enjoyment, you often are disappointed? Have you equally noticed than when you serve others, particularly in ways you did NOT plan, God lifts your spirit and you have joy that does not compare to your plans?
Finally, I am really amazed that God calls me his workmanship. God is actively transforming my life. Removing the sin and wretched behavior, God makes my life holy over and over again. Building up the parts of me that serve, God is constantly helping me see that I find my greatest joy serving the needs of others. Suddenly those words of Jesus about carrying my cross take on new meaning as I realize that in the midst of struggles, there will also be great joy. For God has created good works, moments of joy for me and for you in the midst of this life.
May God bless you with eyes to see and ears to hear the opportunities to do good for others, to serve your neighbor, to love without condition. May you experience the joy of fulfilling the good works God has prepared for your life and give thanks for those good works.
A Note about Special Events
The holidays provide many special events at Bethany. I know for a fact that there are more events than anyone can or should try to attend. Yes, I have finally given up trying to be at everything! Please take time to read the newsletter, the bulletins and/or the website for lots of updates and lots of neat activities from now until the end of the year.
Please go to www.bethany-mp.org/calendar to view the calendar on-line!
What’s Your Net Worth?
I remember the first time I was confronted with the concept of personal net worth. I was getting my insurance license because the real estate company where I was working was opening up a new line of homeowner’s insurance. At the training event we had to do some worksheets about personal net worth. At age 20, my personal net worth was rather small. Perhaps that is why I felt that the whole concept was a rather crass and unhelpful view of a person’s value. However, in retrospect I think that my original concerns were well founded. How can we be so short sighted as to think that the net worth of a person has anything to do with their financial assets? Let’s take a moment to see what Jesus saw as net worth.
If ever there was a person with a low net worth, you could find that person next to Jesus on the cross. The man identified as “the thief of the cross” was really convicted of insurrection, a crime punishable by death, and a cruel death at that. Insurrection was a general term for plotting or carrying out a plan to overthrow the government. It is easy to figure out that through the course of history this law and penalty have been used to get rid of many people who were harmful to the government, but equally to get rid of many people who found themselves on the wrong side of powerful government officials. We will never know which was true for this man next to Jesus, but one thing we can know is that his net worth was zero. Guilty of this crime, the government was taking all he had, even down to his clothing and his life.
Jesus hears this man’s plea and promises, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In these few words, Jesus changes the man’s net worth from nothing to everything. He is promised the riches of heaven, the glories prepared from eternity by the Father, and life everlasting. Pretty amazing when we notice that God’s Son came to bring all people, and especially those people considered to be worthless, the blessings of Almighty God.
If the story ended there, it would be enough for all of us to rejoice and worship God. However, there is more to the story.
When you read the title of this article, I will bet that like me you thought it was asking about your financial asset. What I want you to consider is much different. Jesus promised the disciples and all of us that he would make us “fishers of other people”. In other words, the disciples would still be fishermen, but they would see their primary goal of life was no longer fishing for a profit, but fishing with the Gospel of Jesus so that other people would be saved. God still gives to us the amazing “net” of the Gospel – our story of God’s amazing work of love in our lives. So when I ask the question, “How much is your net worth?” there is another way to read the question… What is the value of your “net” God has given you to share the message of salvation? What is the value of one soul? Well, for God the answer is everything, because Jesus came to “seek and save the lost”, even those who seem to have “no net worth” are left with a “net” worth more than they can imagine.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door is opened.” - Matthew 7: 7-8
When I read these verses my first sinful, personal, self-serving thoughts go toward ideas of the “things” I would like to get from God. It is so easy to think about and wish for things like more money, better health, easier work, etc. To be fair, not all of my thoughts about this passage are sinful. There are lots of times when I pray for the needs of other people, asking God for healing, new jobs, and help in all kinds of difficult situations that other people are facing. However, there is one area of my thoughts and my prayer life that usually is about as dusty as the corner behind a couch…praying that God would provide people who need me to share with them about Jesus and about church.
As we embark on a new program, called Back to Church Sunday, I want to share with you that we have lots of ways Bethany is working to share the Gospel with our neighbors. While the new website continues to expand, we are also using a direct mail service to introduce ourselves to people who move into the surrounding neighborhoods. Greeters and welcoming gifts await those who attend a Sunday service. New programs were begun last year with the intent of bringing our church and preschool into greater contact with our community. All of this is wonderful, but one part is still missing.
Each of us has the opportunity to do exactly what is stated in Matthew 7. We can ask God to bring into our lives a person, family, or group of people who need to know that Jesus loves them and that Bethany is a place where they can worship, nurture one another, grow in faith, and be nurtured with the love of Jesus through God’s people. My question for you this month is a simple one…Will you join me? Will you join me in a personal and private prayer to God where each of us asks for this opportunity? Will you knock on that door of evangelism (literally sharing the Good News) and seek someone who needs to hear from you? God tells us that our prayers will be answered, if only we will ask for this opportunity.
What kind of a church would Bethany become if each person committed to praying for the next year that God would bring them an opportunity to bring just one person to church? What kind of a congregation would Bethany become when God answered those prayers and we were blessed by the abundance of God, bringing the opportunities to reality?
My friends, the truth is that we can have the best worship, booklets, websites, mailings, signs, and so much more, but without your personal prayer and work to bring other people to the saving knowledge of Jesus, we will struggle. God has given this amazing work to us. To us as frail, sinful people, God has given the message of salvation to share. God wants us to ask for the opportunity to share our message, our words and our invitation with other people.
So, will you join me? If so, let’s pray…and not just today. Let’s keep this simple prayer going, knowing this verse also, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts.” Matthew 7:11
Dear Jesus, Send to me one person who needs to know of your love and the community of faith we have at Bethany. Empower me to share my feelings. Help me to honestly tell my story. Give me the ability to point to you and show others the love I know from you. Lord, I want to help someone know the faith and joy that I have in you.
Oh death where is thy victory? Where is thy sting?
These words from the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians took on new meaning for me late last night and into this morning. After 15 days away from the office at the LCMS Convention and then at the National Youth Gathering, I was exhausted and excited to be coming home. Just days before leaving New Orleans, I learned that Mike Buerger had run out of medical options and would soon be in the arms of his Heavenly Father. Moments of death are always bittersweet, but with Mike there was the added burden of his age. We just do not expect 25 year olds to die of cancer. So, after arriving home I left again to see Mike, his family and his friends in the last hours of his life. I have to admit that as I left to see him, death felt like it was victorious and I was wondering how much this would sting.
Entering the ICU room, I found Mike listening to Christian Rap and singing along to the music, “I’m here, send me.” I knew that these words, taken from a familiar hymn had special meaning for a man who could not move from “here” and who would soon be sent to heaven. When I arrive at moments like this, especially after travelling, I have found that I never really know how much time is left, so it is best to move quickly into a service of communion. I shared with Mike words hope about his forgiveness from the Psalms and words of comfort from the Gospel of John. We then had a peaceful and wonderful service of communion. After the service, Mike looked up at me and said, “Now what?” These were not words of a skeptic, but words of God’s child who now anticipated what would come next in more ways than one.
What did happen next was something I have never experienced and may never experience again. Mike asked all of us to join hands around the bedside with him. He then proceeded to use all of his strength and lung capacity to meet the eyes of each person and share with them his feelings of joy and gratitude for what they specifically meant in his life. There was not a dry eye in the room as he shared openly his mistakes and his struggles, always bringing us back to the ways in which each person had helped him find his way back to Jesus and to this place where he could express these deep and intimate feelings.
Now, I would be lying if I tried to say that Mike led an exemplary life. The truth is that Mike lived a life filled with struggles, mistakes and regrets. At the end of life, Mike could have continued on his path, but he changed. Watching Mike in the hospital, I saw a man who was mature in the faith as he thanked and praised doctors and nurses who could not save his life. I saw a man of courage in the faith as he opened his heart and his life to the people around him. Finally, in those last hours of life and the last moments when he could speak in clear sentences, Mike shared with us what it meant to have peace in Jesus Christ.
Leaving at midnight and feeling the affect of too many short nights and some jet lag, I was weary beyond words, but still had thoughts about the message we had just heard in New Orleans. The story of our lives is different for each of us, but the story is not about us . . . it is about Jesus. I was no longer mourning inside about the fact that Mike would soon be the first youth group member of mine to be called to heaven. I was no longer crying inside over the loss of Mike’s earthly body as he passed from this world to eternal life. Mike brought all of us the message of peace, in his story, in his words. We came to bring him peace and hope and he returned the message with greater impact and poignancy.
How will you share the story of your life? How will you show others that your life is not about you, but about Jesus who loves you? Will you share the story and allow the Holy Spirit to bring an impact beyond what you can imagine?
Tonight, as I write these words, I am thankful for the message of Michael Everett Buerger – a man I loved for the sake of Jesus, I am thankful for all of your stories, and most of all, I give thanks for Jesus – the author of our faith – who grants us the greatest story of all.
“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
- 2 Corinthians 9:6-7
Usually Pastor Tom provides the stewardship message in this newsletter and he does a very fine job of presenting the ideas of stewardship. However, this month I have a special story to share.
A couple weeks ago, Pastor Bruce Rudolf was here sharing information about “Food for the Poor”. Perhaps you have wondered why I invite certain guests to share about their ministries. We are blessed to live in this time and in this place with more resources than any other time and place. God calls us to see that everything we have is a gift from God and to share those resources with others. However, the burden of deciding how to share and how to do the most for God’s Kingdom can be difficult. By allowing guests to come and present information, some people will be touched by a presentation and feel compelled to give. Other people may not be so moved, but find that there are other moments and other needs that touch their hearts.
After church that Sunday, I received a call from Aletha Coleman. Aletha has allowed me to share this story, but does not want it to be about her. Rather, this story is about how one person was touched at one moment and made a decision. It is a story of how each of us will have moments when we are moved to act and the idea that we should encourage one another in those moments. Aletha called to tell me that she and Denis would be celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary next month. She had asked him for a diamond bracelet as a gift. After hearing the message, Aletha was moved with the thoughts that we truly are blessed and chose that she and Denis would give a house to people in Haiti instead, giving up the diamond bracelet. We can rejoice not so much in the fact that Aletha and Denis did this, but in the fact that God did this at Bethany and we are uplifted as God’s people.
There are similar stories for each natural disaster we have witnessed and each time we have helped a family, church, or other group. When the tsunami hit in Tonga, we immediately received a large check with encouragement to share with people who we could help in that community. When the earthquake hit in Haiti, we received another large check from a different person, with more encouragement to share how we could help there. Time and again, I have witnessed cheerful giving and encouragement for all of us at Bethany, as we are stewards of all God has given to us.
I would like to also give thanks for one important group of people who are rarely noticed, but who also are fulfilling God’s call to be cheerful givers. There are many people in our congregation who give their offerings weekly, monthly and quarterly – not to special events or moments, but to the ongoing work of Bethany Lutheran Church. Many of you have continued or increased your giving during difficult economic times. For this, we should all give thanks and be encouraged by these faithful and cheerful stewards.
May God bless you richly as you give from the riches that God has provided you. I pray that all of us will be cheerful givers in whatever ways God leads and that we will encourage one another for all of the ministries of God’s Kingdom at Bethany.
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
The new LWML quarterly came out with an article about my dear friend Ruth Koch. A few years ago Pastor David and Ruth came out to visit during a time when Pastor David was struggling with cancer. About two years ago, David was taken to heaven, leaving behind many people who were touched by his compassionate ministry. He article interweaves Ruth’s life with her transition after the loss of David. One part of the article was very interesting to me. Ruth gets a lot of things done and she is one person whom I would say is at least as busy as I am. I was interested to see that she works to keep a Sabbath day of rest when she does not work. She goes on to say that for pastors and for many others, it cannot be on Sunday, because naturally they work on that date.
We tend to think of the Sabbath in terms of going to church. Ruth points out that for her the Sabbath is not just about going to church, but also about rest, prayer, listening to God and realizing that God really did give us 6 days for work and one for rest. We then must order our lives to complete what is needed in those 6 days and take our time of rest. God modeled this in the creation of the world.
This also prompted me to think about a problem we have here in the over-worked and over-achieving area we call Silicon Valley. Many of you work 6 days a week at your jobs, with little time to take care of the business at home. I have heard from so many of you who tell me that Sunday is your only day to take care of things at home. While I wrestle with this reality, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot change the basic structure of the jobs in this area. There are huge expectations on workers and simply so many hours in a week. What to do?
A new couple shared with me last week that in their old church they had an evening service that was tailored to our hurried up life style. The service was very informal, focused on the message from the prior Sunday, and allowed people to ask questions, listen to some music, relax with a cup of coffee, and unwind from the pressures of the week. I was very interested to hear that for this couple, an evening service during the week was much easier to attend than Sunday morning. Pastor Tom and I will be discussing this and I would love to hear from you if you are interested. My biggest need would be to have a couple of musicians who could help. In other words, a guitarist or two or three would be wonderful, because they could play, lead some singing and not have to perform every week.
I am actively looking for ways to nurture the faith of people who know Jesus and witness to others who do not yet believe. Pastor Tom is busy on this as well. I pray that you will life up these concerns and needs in prayer that we might be guided to find real solutions to the needs and opportunities for Sabbath rest.
A First for Bethany
On March 31, Ed Stinson retired, becoming the first called worker to ever retire at Bethany. We give thanks for the nearly 10 years Ed was able to serve prior to retiring. There are a number of things to share with you about this event.
A Great Situation for all: Concordia Retirement Plan is a very good plan and provides well for workers. Because of Ed’s many years of service, he was able to take an early retirement and still receive all of the benefits he would have received if he had retired later in life. Additionally, Concordia allows the worker to be re-employed for a lower number of hours and continue their ministry. This results in a happier employee, a cost savings to the church, and continued blessings through the worker who is active in ministry. In Ed’s case, this means he will continue all of his most important ministry activities and still have more time for other pursuits outside of Bethany.
A Celebration: On Sunday, May 16, we will have a special lunch honoring Ed for his years of service to the Lord through the Lutheran Church. The lunch will be held immediately following worship, so please mark you calendar and plan to join us. The lunch is free and, considering that it has taken 60 years for there to be a retirement of a called worker at Bethany, you will want to enjoy this event.
Join us at Ed's Retirement Lunch! Click here to RSVP today!
Big Thanks: As I explained to Pastor Tom, most of Ed’s work cannot be seen by the average member of the congregation. However, I receive calls and notes almost weekly from people who are grateful that Ed is making calls on the elderly and sick in our congregation. His compassion and care have been exceptional and I am grateful for his service to Jesus and to this community. I am thankful that Ed will continue this ministry and has not “fully” retired.
Retirement is a funny word. Do we ever really retire from our Kingdom work for Jesus? Called church workers are people who have dedicated their professional AND the rest of their life to serving Jesus in the church. Yet, like everyone else, they know that all of us have a life calling to serve Jesus in all that we do. So, Ed is retiring in his professional life and with regard to his compensation, but he continues to serve with us in the body of Christ. That is why I have to place the word “fully” in quotes when it stands next to the word retired. None of us are ever retired when it comes to serving Jesus.
Ed and I saw this first hand when Elmer Blank was called to heaven. With every breath Elmer took, he gave thanks to God and witnessed to his faith. He witnessed to Ed and me, even as we served him and his family. So, let’s celebrate this retirement for Ed, with a clear and joy-filled understanding that all of us serve the Lord until the end, or as Paul says in Acts 20:24 “however, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”
Congratulations, Ed! May the rest of the race be as fulfilling as the years that have already been run!
Join us at Ed's Retirement Lunch! Click here to RSVP today!
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plan in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7: 3-5
This seemingly simple passage from the Bible has been confusing to me for some time. It seems so simple to understand that when we have our own issues or sins that are large, we should resolve them prior to helping others with smaller issues. This always seemed like a logical, but not particularly insightful view of the words from Jesus. The confusion was found in the fact that Jesus usually has something deeper to say and I could not see much deeper into this passage.
Recently in some personal study time I noticed one thing and thought of a new idea that seems to make more sense. This passage is preceded by these words in verse 1 and 2: “Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” For some reason, it finally occurred to me that the plank and the speck are really the exact same sin or problem.
From a psychological point of view, this is explained as a concept called projection. When I am dealing with a problem, anxiety or fear in my life, it is easy to project my feelings onto other people. Likewise, most of us project onto others our behavior patterns, ideals, and cultural norms, without ever thinking about it. So, Jesus is noting that when we see this “speck” in the eye of another person, and we try to point out and solve the “flaw or error” in their life, we might just want to look at our own life and consider what is prompting our need to fix someone else. We may find that the plank in our life is helping us see a similar speck in the life of someone else.
Have you ever stopped to notice or consider your motivation when you are really upset with someone? Have you ever considered how your own background, family of origin, or set of expectations could be coloring your needs in the relationship? Is it possible that an error or problem in your life seems evident in the life of someone else, because you are stuck looking at your own problem? Often our judgment of others is more about our own view of life than about a real problem in the life of the other person.
As followers of Jesus, we have many quotes for Jesus indicating that we should “love our neighbor”, put the needs of others first, and even sacrifice for others. I find that when I am doing these things, it is much harder to notice “specks” in the eyes of others. It is much harder to see their flaws as things that I must fix, but I see them as people to be loved. When I am not seeing the flaws, when I am loving without condition, I have the opportunity to share the love of Jesus who died for us when we were yet sinners.
I suppose we could say that Jesus, who never had a plank in his eye, took that plank and died on it so that all of the specks of the world would be gone. So, we can fix our eyes on the ONE plank that allows us to see a dying Savior, who is raised again for our sins. Following him, we can share the love and mercy that God provides for all people who are struggling with all kinds of life difficulties.
The following Bible passage comes from a book called The Message by Eugene Peterson. The Message is a modern rendering of the Bible. This passage comes from the first Chapter of John:
“He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves…The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
I have been reading a book called The Jesus I Never Knew by Phillip Yancey. Yancey describes the incarnation of Jesus in a way that is very helpful for me because of a similar experience I had in my youth. When I was young, we had a number of fish tanks and three aquariums, filled mostly with guppies and other small freshwater fish. I can remember spending many hours taking care of the fish tanks and bowls. I had to keep the chemistry in the tank just right. I had to feed the fish enough to live, but not so much that the food would be floating around, fouling the water. Most of all, I had to change the water every couple of weeks, which required siphoning out most of the water, without catching a fish in the suction!
As much as I loved my fish and wanted them to be able to understand that I meant them no harm, whenever I opened the lid of the aquarium, they would scurry away and hide as best they could. Behind rocks, in the seaweed, behind the filter - they would swim away and feel hidden from whatever was opening the lid. Even when I fed them, it took a while for the fish to come near the surface and then only for a moment. It was clear to me that the fish did not understand me or my intentions. If I ever wanted to be able to communicate to the fish my nature and how much I cared, I would have to become a fish, which was impossible.
However, if it was possible, would I want to be in that aquarium? Would I want to eat fish food, and swim in the water that was constantly getting dirtier? Would I be able to stay away from that interesting tube, which oops, sucked another fish into a bucket and had to be moved back to the tank in a net? Of course not! I had no desire to be a fish.
For Jesus to have become a human baby took much more sacrifice than it would for me to be a fish. Jesus gave up the perfect love, peace, and joy of heaven to be in our sin-filled world. Jesus became vulnerable to physical and emotional harm as a human being. Jesus put up with all of the foul and nasty effects of a world that was becoming more and more dirty in many ways. And he came for one purpose . . . to save all of us from this world and give back to us the perfect creation.
On Good Friday, we witness the ultimate sacrifice and purpose of Jesus’ incarnation. He not only becomes one of us, but he dies for us. We did not understand his behaviors or statements. Some of us did not even want him as a person. Yet, he endured all of this so that we could have what he was willing to leave for a period of time. On Easter morning, we witness the miracle of the resurrection, see the One who came into our neighborhood, breaking the finality of death, and granting to us the promise of everlasting life in the presence of God.
Looking forward . . .
Usually at the end of a decade or some other time period, I take a moment to look back and talk about all of the things that happened during that time. However, for this issue, I will take just a moment and look forward at some of the wonderful opportunities God is presenting to Bethany as we move forward into the second decade of the 21st century.
The second webinar Bible study is up and running, which may not seem like much at first glance. However, Pastor Tom and I are developing plans with K.C. (and soon with the Board of Directors) to expand this program. Our current plan is very ambitious, bringing this Bible study format to many people across the nation and perhaps around the world. Please pray for our efforts as we work on this platform for study, outreach, and proclamation of God’s Word.
A number of ideas and plans are about to come to fruition from our work last year on the EPIC Church series. A new sermon series is just one of the more visible events you will see this year. Likewise, there are numerous ideas that came from the dinners we held in the Fall. I am grateful for those ideas we have already put into action and I am excited by the plans which are still being formed. Please encourage one another in these ideas and in these ways to share God’s love with our community.
The website is growing and we have heard many complements on how nice it looks. The new system for delivering this newsletter by e-mail is now in place and we are finding wonderful ways to communicate better with all of you. However, there are still some neat ideas that will begin to take shape this year. We are working on ideas to invite new people to worship, to Bethany, and to participate in the many activities of the church.
Sixty years ago, a group of innovative people began Bethany Lutheran Church. What will the next decade bring for our congregation? It is impossible to know the details, but one thing will not change - we will, passionately and in innovative ways, share the love of Jesus . . . one person at a time.