Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Word Invades

I'm writing this in preparation for tomorrow's sermon. Please pray that the Lord would speak, through his Word, to set many free.

Back in time, long, long ago, God gave us human beings an awesome responsibility. God put us in charge of the earth. God gave us human beings rādâ (Hebrew רְדּוּ), translated "rule" or "dominion."

Trouble is that we human beings turned our dominion over to the devil. It's like when parents give their children responsibility for the house when they're away. Or, it's as if, in the movie Home Alone we welcomed the burglars instead of fighting them off. It's as if we, as Marshal Pétain did on June 22, 1940... it's as if we surrendered to the enemy and started working for them.

Back at the beginning God was incredibly generous and indulgent with us. "You can do anything and everything," the Lord said to us, "just don't eat the fruit from that one tree." But we chose to listen to another voice. We, those responsible for this earth, chose another master for the world. We said "yes" to the devil. And ever since then we, and the world, God's precious world, has been suffering -- suffering under the occupying power of evil.

This world rightfully belongs to the Lord. First Corinthians 4:4-6 makes this plain. . But we suffer in this world, because it is under the control of the devil (see 2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 8:5, 2 Thess 2:4, Col 1:13, Eph 2:2, John 12:31).

We can see that in how people suffer. The sufferings of the world are picked up in the readings from Mark's Gospel for the next three Sundays. Tomorrow we hear about a man who is literally dominated by the devil... next week we'll encounter a dear woman, burning with fever; and on Feb. 15 a leprous reject, someone no one wants at all.

Whatever form it takes, suffering is a sign that things are not as they should be. Whether we bring the suffering on ourselves or if it's inflicted upon us by others, suffering is not God's plan. God wants us all to be strong and healthy with good, joyful relationships... John 10:10 says it well--Jesus comes to give life in all it's fullness. And that's what he comes to this world to do.

When you are under attack in your life--when you are in pain or are hungry or alone or in danger--when you or anyone is in such trouble that they don't know where to turn--it's not God who is against you. Suffering and pain and despair are signs of the devil--the thief as he is described in that same verse, John 10:10... The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy.

That's the devil... he's the one who steals us away from God's good love. He takes us away from what is good and leads us to serve him until we, just like the collaborators in WWII, are just as much to blame as the devil himself. Like Marshal Pétain in Vichy France, we are to blame. We are traitors turn their backs on the rightful ruler of the world and work for the devil. We let the devil in, and now, in our natural life, we are in his employ.

Our traitorous and sinful disloyalty has given the devil dominion in this world. As a human race, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

And that's why it's so amazing that God bothers with us at all. Our Lord God never forgot us, trapped by our own sinfulness behind enemy lines. Back in Mark 1:15 Jesus comes ashore, announcing that the new kingdom has come. Like the allies on D-Day, Jesus announces a new beginning. But, amazingly, he comes, not to destroy us, but to destroy the powers of evil that enslave us. He comes to do what only God can do, to separate the person God created us to be from the occupying force.

We see this clearly in tomorrow's gospel. The enemy speaks through one of the people who hear him speak (Mark 1:24)... "I know who you are" says the demon... "You're the Holy One of God! Have you come to destroy us?" And by just speaking, with his authoritative word, Jesus separates the sinful dominating spirit from the man: "Be Silent And Come Out Of Him." And the no good spirit, the evil spirit, the traitorous destroying spirit, convulsed him him and, crying out, the spirit left the man. And that man, the first of many, was now FREE.

Such is the power of God's Word. When it comes, in power and love, even the devil must obey. The power of God's Word is living and active, able to separate the evil that dominates us from the one we are created to be.

Neither God nor we ourselves go out to fight against evil with guns or violence. Because Jesus chose to take sin's penalty on himself, the only offensive weapon we have is the Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, able to pierce to the heart, to kill the evil in us and to make us new and fresh and clean again. No wonder the spirits that dominate so many do not want anything to do with Jesus or his word.

Sometimes, in today's modern world, with psychology and medical science that understand everything in a non-moral sense, we might wonder if evil or evil spirits even exist. Actually, I think they're probably a lot more common than we imagine. Anything within us that resists God's grace, God's law, God's power - it's evil and it very well might be called an evil unclean spirit. But whatever words we use to describe evil "spirits," we all have times when we are dominated by them. Urges and addictions and evil tendencies we can't seem to control take us over, driving a wedge between ourselves and what is good.

However we understand evil and spirits in today's world, the main thing is this: Even when we are dominated by evil and in its grip, God's attitude toward us is not hatred. God's attitude towards us is love, and he longs to have us hear his word of love, so the evil can be cast out and we can be saved.

God doesn't come to judge or destroy you. The evil spirits, those things that dominate you and others, yes, he has no mercy on the devil or his demons. But, you He comes to rescue. He comes to save. And when we have, by some miracle, when we have heard the Word, and when Joy and Freedom have come to us, God calls us to bring the good news to others too, to let all people suffering in bondage know that they can be free.

On August 15, 1945, Marshal Philippe Pétain was tried for treason, convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. Charles de Gaulle, who was President of the Provisional Government of the French Republic at the end of the war, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Sent to a prison on an island in the Atlantic, he became weak and forgetful. Senile and alone, driven to despair, he died in prison in 1951, at the age of 95.

Our Lord does far more for us than Charles de Gaulle did for Marshal Pétain. He took our death sentence on himself, set us free, and gives us his Word, so we can go and bring freedom to those who are still under evil's dominion.

So we do all we can to bring our friends and neighbors and our resistant relatives to the Lord. We invite the troubled and the tormented to a place like this. Hopefully we will not stare at them as if they are odd or bizarre, but, accept them with love as bound brothers and sisters who need to hear the Word of God's love.

God does invade this world. He comes with his powerful Word. But he does not come to destroy you. God only comes to destroy the evil that binds you and makes you its slave.

Through the power of his loving and living Word, God comes, in Christ, to set you free.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Life cont.

This morning I met with a Christian entrepreneur who has been in sales for many years. He is one of the publishers of "Life cont.", a Christian outreach tool printed to look like a pull out section of another newspaper. It has no masthead. It's edition name is always "Todays Edition." If people want information, they are directed to the website, where they find, among other things, a list of churches in the areas where Life cont. is distributed.

The entrepreneur, Rick Olson, told me that the goal of the paper is to reach hurting people who don't usually come to church. Life cont. is made available in bulk for free, through churches and sympathetic businesses. It's like a tract because it's meant to be left out in public places for people to find. Because it looks like a newspaper section, many people pick it up.

Jesus said we are to be "as wise as serpents" and "as innocent as doves" Mt 10:16. I think the purpose of Life cont. is great, but I do think people should know where it comes from. Rick left a stack of Life cont. in our church office. If you want one or more to hand out or leave in places where you think they might do some good, feel free to pick one up.

I encourage you, however, before you give it to anyone else, to read it through. A couple of things in the current issue* are written in ways that I have problems with. Still, in certain settings, it might be helpful. God's word is so powerful that it uses imperfect means to get into the world all the time. It's amazing. God even uses me.

Pray that the Lord would use Life cont. to bring many to Jesus for forgiveness, healing and salvation. And let me know what you think!

* The top headline of the issue of Life cont. I have on my desk, for example, says Is Your Family Normal? and has a picture of a young family with four kids, all smiles. I understand that the publishers are trying to get people to remember God's plan for the family instead of assuming that "normal" is how things are at home, no matter how unloving or unfaithful that may be. As I wrote to Rick yesterday: "Your front page is excellent for people who are already on the way with an 'okay' marriage and who are just looking for guidance. On the other hand, people who have already fallen short of that design from the Lord would feel the heavy hand of God’s LAW instead of Gospel..."
Secondly, on the last page, there is a piece on Heaven and Hell that describes heaven as, for example, having "walls" and "gates" in literal terms. I understand Revelation 21:10-24 as figurative rather than literal language.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Word from the Elephant

After yesterday's annual meeting I said that I hoped people would continue to share any concerns, questions and comments. Generally speaking, at church meetings, I'm surprised at how quiet it is. I'm wondering how many sit thinking they should ask a question or make a comment, but don't want to stand out from the crowd.

If you are aware of an elephant in the room, an issue that should be obvious but that no one is addressing directly, the best thing is to talk with someone in leadership. The most helpful way to do that is by following the pattern laid out in Matthew 18:15-16, to find a time when you can talk with someone in person - if the issue is at all serious, it's best to set a time for the conversation when you won't be interrupted.

If you're shy, you can always speak with a friend and ask that person to bring your concern to someone in leadership on your behalf. Your friend can then bring a response to you. Please be patient. It's sometimes takes awhile to find the right person to talk with and to get a good answer for your concern.

I always hope that people will feel free to speak on any subject. In the operation of the church there is no sacred cow. When you speak with me, I will try to listen carefully. I try to remember that people have important things to say. Usually, when one person speaks, I assume there are other people who feel the same way--and others who feel differently.

I hope those who come with concerns or questions will be open to learning and discussion. Often issues are quite complicated. There are always more than one or two sides to any issue, but this
does not diminish the concern that any one person has. See Luke 15:4.

If you want more information about our church's process and procedures, call or email me, the church office, or contact a member of our church council. You can also look at our church constitution (pdf document available for download here - 25 pages).

Thank you so much to those who serve our church as elected leaders - especially to our new president and vice-president.

Thanks you who are reading this. Thank you for your prayers, your patience, your support, and your feedback! You can always make a comment on this blog by clicking the word "comments" below.

Not All Alone

One of the reasons I enjoy writing a blog is that I don't feel alone as I write. I know I'm not just preparing a message to be read by someone someday. There is a good chance that someone will read it before they get the church newsletter or hear a Sunday sermon. Though I may be physically alone as I write at home or in my office, it doesn't feel lonely. It seems that there is a community quite nearby. And sometimes, I get comments!

I wrote almost of of this as I was getting ready to preach yesterday. Yesterday's scriptures featured an Old Testament loner by the name of Jonah and a more friendly character, Jesus.

Fortunately we aren't called to follow Jonah. We're called to follow and emulate Jesus, whose relationships were at the center of his life. Christians are not called to a lonely life. Relationships are a really big deal to the Lord.

Jonah, called by God as a solo prophet, became afraid of what God was telling him. He got on a ship and headed in the opposite direction. When the Lord finally saved him, he went to do his job and succeeded! Everyone he preached to repented of their sin. After achieving God's objective, however, he did not rejoice with those who had been saved. Instead, he sat out in the wilderness, alone, depressed and angry.

(This reminds me of another lonely Old Testament prophet, Elijah, who, in First Kings 19, also after completing his mission successfully, went into hiding, saying "only I am left." Responding to his solitary self-pity, the Lord decided that his time as a prophet was through.)

Prophets in the Old Testament are usually depicted as singular figures. Even so, I don't think their alone-ness was a good thing. They were left to do their work and bring their message alone because others were unfaithful.

The goal was not alone-ness.
The goal was renewal of good relationships between God and the people, and among the people themselves. After all, the first and second times the words "not good" are found in the Bible are when Adam and Moses are alone with God as their only friend. The Lord and Moses' father-in-law both say it is "לֹא־טֹ֛וב" "not good."

Not only does loneliness make us sad, recent research has confirmed that being alone too much can cause or aggravate physical and mental illness. Children, youth, adults and elders who are too alone can become more anti-social and self-destructive. Loneliness damages our ability to learn and impedes our memory. People who are alone too much have a hard time sleeping. John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, has learned that "social isolation can be as harmful to your health as smoking..." But this is nothing new. Enforced loneliness in the form of solitary confinement has been a punishment method throughout history.

The good news is that Jesus Christ calls us together! Yesterday's gospel lesson (Mark 1:14-20) shows how Jesus, who should have been able to handle life alone, moves quickly to recruit ministry partners. Those followers cause him lots of trouble, but it seems that Jesus' purpose on earth was intimately connected with gathering a community of believers, not solitary followers.

There are moments when he is alone. Immediately after baptism he is tested and tempted alone, but that time ends and he begins to build a group around himself. Jesus was known to take alone time (with God his Father) during the rest of his ministry, but those times didn't last more than a few hours. Jesus personal one-on-one relationship with God the Father was not private. It was something he wanted to share--with us (John17:20-23).

Amazing, I think, that Jesus wanted to share even the most personal relationship in his life with us.

Yes, there are times when we or someone we love are all alone for awhile. Sometimes, however, we're tempted to say "God is my only true friend." Most of the time I believe that is a temptation, not reality. God calls us together. From scripture, especially from the center of scripture, the life of Jesus Christ, there's no question about that.

We're not meant to be all alone. "Fishing for people" means bringing people out of their loneliness, bringing them to places where they can share the love of God. I hope all of us will resolve during this new year that we will be inviting and sharing God's love with many, as often as we can. When you see or hear of people suffering alone, let us know, or reach out to them yourself.

See you in church.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sharing Your Faith

Sharing your faith means communicating the message of what Jesus means to you.

Can you do it in a few words?

Having a "testimony" or "faith story" ready can help you know what to say when you have the opportunity. First Peter 3:15-16 says: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with reverence and respect.

Click here for some examples of brief "popcorn" testimonies.

Click here for some hints about writing.

A brochure on witnessing we distributed today in church can be accessed here.

If you feel you don't have a "before and after" story, if you are thankful for the Lord has kept you safe and whole and healthy your whole life long, tell (1) about how thankful you are for your parents or whoever brought you to the Lord in the first place, (2) how it is that they helped you know Jesus or about a time your faith first came alive for you and (3) give an example of how the Lord has brought you through a challenging time.

Each one of us can reach out to someone, inviting them to a closer walk with the Lord.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Looking Ahead

Our youth ministry director Nate Bendorf and I talked last night after council meeting and again this morning. I enjoy his partnership. As we move toward this weekend's annual meeting, we're thinking more about what the Lord has in store for us in the rest of 2009. Two things we talked about were the need to get groups together to discuss (1) re-fomulating the process that leads to confirmation and (2) church staffing needs as our intern Paul Gustafson graduates from The Master's Institute in May.

Nate became a student at Luther Seminary in September 2008, but thanks to the Distributed Learning program he continues to serve here full time. Give him a call or email him if you would like more info on what he is learning or about the program in general.

Though there's enough to do, day to day, it's important to look ahead, doing what we can to plan and praying that the Lord would direct us into the future He has promised and prepared. We'll be doing more of that on Sunday at our church annual meeting, scheduled for 9:30. If you are a member or friend of our congregation here in Cokato, please plan to attend!

You can download a copy of the "Annual Report" -- without the color cover 214 kb. Printed copies are available at church.

Healing Love

A dear friend once gave a personal testimony about the power of praying specifically, that is, of asking the Lord to attend to particular needs. It was her experience that knowing enough about a situation to ask the Lord very clearly for a particular need seemed to help her prayers be more "effective" in some way.

There is no way we can "bribe" or "control" God. We always pray "thy will be done." However, because God is love, it seems (subjectively speaking) that the following is true: The self-giving love we have for someone can reflect God's love and God's grace in prayer more effectively than, for instance, when we pray merely dutifully "for the sick" (or for a particular person with whom there is only a superficial relationship).

I think prayer is closely connected with relationships. God is the master of relationships. In fact, God's own being includes relationship. When, therefore, we allow ourselves to be affected by the needs or trials of others, and when we are doing our best to meet those needs, and when we're not keeping those needs all to ourselves, healing seems to flow more freely.

If someone reading this could check or challenge this in biblical terms, I'd appreciate it. I see this principle in the life of Christ, as he responded to needs that were brought to him or that he saw. I know of no time when Christ somehow spiritually discerned that a person was in need and went to seek them out alone when they were in hiding. Even the woman at the well was out in the open when Jesus came to her. The desperate need for caring and love was met when it wasn't hidden away.

So, I'd like to encourage you to bring your burdens to others, to allow others to care for you, and then to go together to the Lord in prayer. If you know someone in need, go to them and let them know you care. That caring is, I think, a vital step in praying for the Lord's intervention. Don't keep it too quiet, too private. No need to broadcast all over, but at least bring in those you know who care.

For a bit more on this, see Pray Y'all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pregnancy Resource Center

Last year I had the privilege of getting to know the fine people at the Pregnancy Resource Center in St. Cloud. Centers such as these help women and men who are dealing with unplanned pregnancies. They are very helpful and compassionate. It's good to know that no matter what issue we face, people are there to stand with us, so we never need to deal with life alone.

Click this link to learn more about the center (pdf brochure, one page) or go to the center's website.

Monday, January 19, 2009

History Lesson

I wrote a brief piece in this blog the day after the historic election of the first African-American president. Tomorrow is inauguration day. This is truly history in the making.

Today's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, combined with tomorrow's inauguration, begs for some commemoration on this blog.

This morning I remembered a sermon that my father-in-law, Dick Dahlin, had shown me a while ago. I found my copy and I'm posting it here tonight. Dick preached this sermon while serving as pastor near Milwaukee in 1968 on Palm Sunday--three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

African-American anger had erupted in many cities. How would Pastor Dahlin's suburban (and white) congregation and community respond? "Now with the black community beginning to erupt in violence, we are called on to be Christian," he preached, "to suffer innocently, to turn the other cheek."

I think we have come a long way in the last 41 years. I think there is more racial harmony. Though racism is alive and well in many ways, I think we are less racist as a society. In 1968, Dick preached that we were "part of a society which breeds men like [MLK's} assassin." There is less tolerance these days, I think, for racial intolerance, and that is a good thing. No longer are we "on the brink of another Civil War."

I'm sure we have a long way to go, but I can't help believing that the election of Barak Obama as president, though far from perfect, is a sign of something good.

A sermon from Pastor Richard Dahlin
based on Matthew 21: 1-9
Palm Sunday
April 7, 1968

I usually approach Palm Sunday with a degree of exhilaration, with a sense of triumph. Not like Easter to be sure, for the cross yet looms before us. Black Friday casts its shadow on this day. But yet we normally kind of celebrate this day in commemoration of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

But today we are filled with a sense of apprehension. We are now questioning our own destiny. We find ourselves torn within as we are called on to make great decisions.

When I began to study the Palm Sunday text earlier this week I had the feeling that I was reading something that was taking place right here and now. And reading the newspapers these last two days has been just like reading the Bible. Never in my life have I seen contemporary events so closely parallel a portion of Scripture. Let me show you what I mean.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was a non-violent demonstration. By this time the religious authorities were filled with hatred toward Jesus. His teaching, His revelation of God was a threat to their establishment. If He was allowed to continue, their whole religious system, their jobs, their social standing, their whole way of life was in grave danger of crumbling. They had decided that Jesus must be done away with.

This was also the time of the feast of the Passover. Thousands of pilgrims, devout Jews from allover the Mediterranean world were in Jerusalem for the celebration of this great feast. National feelings always ran high at this time of year. The Jews longed for independence from Rome and were always looking for the opportune time and the opportune leader to lead them in revolt.

It was into this kind of an excitable, tension-filled situation that Jesus came when He entered Jerusalem that day. He didn't just sneak into the city. He entered like a king. He came on a mount. A crowd went before Him and a crowd followed after Him. They spread their garments before Him and hailed Him as a King.

But his mount was not a horse, the mount of war, but rather an ass, the mount of peace. He wore no sword. He called for no army. He did not call for the people to revolt against Rome. But He went to the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers and chased them out. He demonstrated against the ungodly practices that where being carried out in the name of God.

Four nights later as He was with His disciples in the Garden praying, He was arrested by men dressed in armor and carrying clubs and swords. And the next day after an unjust trial in a kangaroo court, He was killed on a cross.

Ten days ago a man who throughout his life was dedicated to peace, love and brotherhood, who during the past twelve years had led hundreds of non-violent demonstrations in protest of racial injustices in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Illinois and Washington, D.C., this man led a protest in Memphis, Tennessee.

Thursday night as he was leaving his motel room to go get a bite to eat, he was killed by an assassin's bullet. A man who preached and taught and lived nonviolence was violently killed.

He now has joined that long list of those who have died violently at the hands of white racists - Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Mrs. Louzzio and the four Sunday School pupils in that Birmingham church, plus many, many others.

The comedian Dick Gregory has said: "It's amazing how we come to church every Sunday and cry over the crucifixion of Christ, and we don't cry over these things that are going on around and among us. It Jesus were here now and saw these things, He would cry. And He would take those nails again, for us, for this problem. It just so happened that in His day and time, religion was the big problem. Today it is color."

You and I helped kill Martin Luther King. We are a part of our society which breeds men like his assassin. Our society is riddled through with hatred, prejudice and violence. For the first time since Abraham Lincoln, our President has spoken publicly about divisiveness which is tearing our nation apart. We are divided and torn apart over the war in Viet Nam and over race.

One hundred years ago our forefathers fought a war to end that inhuman and un-American institution - slavery. Now we are on the brink of another Civil War to decide whether or not we are going to give the Negro the freedom we promised him a hundred years ago. They have been an exceedingly patient people. They have endured more indignities, injustices and persecution than any other people on the face of the earth. And this in a supposedly free and Christian nation. We are now facing an hour of great peril.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led non-violent protests in the face of violence from the white establishment - in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Chicago and other places. In these cases it was the Negro community that acted like Christ. No bricks, stones, clubs or guns were in their hands. They were spit upon, kicked, clubbed by the police, flattened by powerful fire hoses, and locked up in cold, dirty jails. Thousands were threatened, many killed.

Now the apostle of non-violence is dead and there are many in the Negro community who are advocating and striking out in violence. Now we, the white community, are being called on by God to react in a non-violent, Christian way.

The question is, Do we have the moral courage to take the hatred and rage of the black community upon us without striking back? Do we have enough Christian love to suffer innocently at the hands of their hatred, even as they in the past took it when we were handing it out?

This time we are now facing is far more difficult for us, the white community, than it was before Dr. King died. He led his people in the way of Christ. All that was asked of us was that we give them justice.

But now with the black community beginning to erupt in violence we are called on to be Christian, to suffer innocently, to turn the other cheek. If we will not return evil with good, then I am afraid that we shall have civil war, blood for blood, gun for gun, black against white, brother against brother.

We are a sick nation. Racism must be exterminated from our hearts or we shall perish in bloodshed. For the last twenty years we have been hung up on fighting the Communists around the world, and especially in the last four years in Vietnam, while all along we have been rotting within. Nineteen of the twenty-one world's civilizations died, not from an outside enemy, but from internal decay. Are we going to be the twentieth?

Isn't it ironic and tragic that Barabbas, a murderer, a violent man, an insurrectionist, was released due to the demands of the crowd, while the nonviolent, innocent Christ was crucified at their insistence? Today Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael are free spreading hatred and violence while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of peace and justice, is dead.

The truth is that our sinful world accept, tolerate and even encourage a Barabbas or a Carmichael, but cannot endure a Christ or a King Because a Christ or a King prick our consciences and show us that evil dwells within us. They call for us to repent and change... Our sick world cannot tolerate a Christ or a Dr. King for they show US what we are. For such men we build crosses.

It took a crucifixion to begin a new creation. Dr. King need not have died in vain if his death now spurs us as a nation to repent of our sins and to begin again. If we do nothing our country will be destroyed before our eyes. We can no longer afford to sit on the side lines and watch. To do so is to be like Nero who fiddled while Rome burned. We must act, and act now!

First, become informed. Go home and read your newspapers. James Reston has a tremendous column in today's paper. Find out about the causes of our racial problems. Find out what it is like to be a Negro in America. I purchased 30 some dollars worth of books on Friday to make them available to you following the service. I challenge you to do your passion reading this week not by reading the Bible, but by reading about the suffering of our Lord in the black people of our nation. I have ten copies of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders which gives a factual account of the racial situation in our country today. Ten copies of' "Nigger" by Dick Gregory, which gives a graphic picture of his life, of the struggles of a Negro in America. I also have a few copies of Dr. Martin Luther King's books.

I also challenge you to write a letter to our congressman, William Steiger, urging immediate passage of the Civil rights bill which the House has been sitting on for the last month, but is due for a vote in committee on Tuesday. A sample letter will be handed out to you as you leave church today.

Let's quit building crosses! Let's burn all of the hatred and violence out of our nation with love. We have had enough crucifixions! Let's not nail Christ to any more Crosses. He died to free us from hatred. He died to put an end to prejudice. He died to make all men free, black and white, red and yellow, American and Vietnamese, capitalist and communist. Sing your Hosannas, your praises to this humble, non-violent, demonstrating King, Jesus Christ. But if you do, then be ready to give up all bigotry, your prejudice, your claim to your rights. Be willing to die that men might live!!

If you aren't ready to go the second mile, to give the Negro his rights, then be sure that you are a part of a new Good Friday crowd, crying out for Christ's blood. Palm Sunday celebrations are grand and glorious it you know what you are doing, if you mean what you say, and if you go with Christ all the way, even unto the Holy Hill.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Stain Glass Masquerade

After church this morning someone said the song "Stained Glass Masquerade" by Casting Crowns would fit very well with my sermon.

Is there anyone that fails
Is there anyone that falls
Am I the only one in church today feelin' so small

Cause when I take a look around
Everybody seems so strong
I know they'll soon discover
That I don't belong

So I tuck it all away, like everything's okay
If I make them all believe it, maybe I'll believe it too
So with a painted grin, I play the part again
So everyone will see me the way that I see them

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation's open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade

Is there anyone who's been there
Are there any hands to raise
Am I the only one who's traded
In the altar for a stage

The performance is convincing
And we know every line by heart
Only when no one is watching
Can we really fall apart

But would it set me free
If I dared to let you see
The truth behind the person
That you imagine me to be

Would your arms be open
Or would you walk away
Would the love of Jesus
Be enough to make you stay

MULTIMEDIA: Click here to watch a video based on the song.0

AUDIO: Click here to listen to this morning's 11:00 sermon. Lasts about 18 minutes. There is an error in this sermon - Samuel was sent to live by his mother, not to Shechem as I say in the sermon, but, instead to Shiloh - such is the danger of preching with out notes.

SCRIPTURES PLUS: Look at what was written last Monday at Come and Be Seen.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Church at its Best

I'm sitting down in the church library with eleven others who are getting ready to be the leaders for Alpha. The group prayed for me because I have a pulled muscle, and I've been diagnosed with the beginning of glaucoma. Being prayed for is a humbling and powerful experience that I hope all of us have often! We all "stand in the need of prayer."

I'm not the leader of Alpha. The model for Alpha isn't teacher-student, but, instead, it's intended to let people honestly share together. Having a pastor present tends to be quite intimidating for some. So, instead of being in on the small group discussions, I stay more in the background until the Alpha retreat. There I take on a teaching role. During the rest of the time I make myself available, especially to the leaders, as a helper.

I love Alpha partly because I get to do what I believe I am called to do, that is, to equip and help others to lead. It's a great model of the church at its best.

Fortunately we have lots of things at our church that have that work that way: Quilting, for example, which was canceled this morning because of the cold; Faithfully Fit Forever, which was going on until an hour ago out in the sheep shack; the small groups in our Youth Discipleship Training; the Men's and Women's Bible study groups. I want to always be available for questions, and I love to share what I know, but if I'm always there for every group, how will people get a chance to practice their own Christian leadership? It's often better for me to be in the background.

I hope everyone in our church will get involved beyond Sunday morning worship. Large group gatherings require leadership from someone who is specifically trained, so that will never be "the church at its best." The church at its best is always people who know each other, talk together, pray together, and share their lives. I get a little picture of that at Alpha.

You can still come to Alpha Sunday evening this week. It's not too late. Bring a friend and come at 5:00 for supper. If you want, call the church office and let us know you're coming, but you can just come on the spur of the moment if you want.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Today I met with a member of our church who has been called to support our church's prayer ministry. My main prayer request, I said, is in regard to our soon-to-be-here Lenten series. I am praying that several people would hear God's call to speak on Wednesday evenings in Lent. You can learn more at Witnesses Wanted.

It's remarkable that Jesus chose not to do all the ministry himself. One of Jesus' first public acts* was the calling of disciples, men and women who would be "fishers of men." In scripture we hear only about a few by name. We know there were at least 120 close disciples by the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and many thousand shortly after. Public witness by many was key to the early church's success.

Our church is blessed with many pray-ers and many witnesses. We have a long history of faithfulness here at our church in Cokato. If anything is standing in our way it's the willingness to stand out from the crowd. God calls us to not hide our light but to let others see it. When we do this, we won't glorify ourselves. Instead, the glory will go to our Father in heaven. That is a promise from God!
*One version of this call (from Mark 1:14-20) will be read in worship on Sunday, Jan. 25.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Come and Be Seen

This afternoon we had our usual second-Monday-of-the-Month "large staff meeting." A police officer was here to talk with us about safety issues. We want people to feel welcome at our church--we also have a responsibility to keep things safe. One of the best things we can do is to meet and greet people! Generally speaking, someone with "nefarious intent" will leave if people are too friendly! (Wal-mart has discovered the same thing. Their greeters have turned out to be great security!)

Will you let yourself be seen for who you really are? Or will you hide your real self? Really, there's no point in that. All the scriptures for this coming Sunday make this clear.
  • In First Samuel 3, the Lord speaks to a priest's young apprentice, Samuel, about the punishment that will fall on Eli's family because of how they have taken advantage of their religious position. Instead of "closing his eyes" and stopping his ears to the truth, Eli wisely says "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me." Eli wants to know the truth. He knows he is seen by God.
  • Psalm 139 is a great song about how God sees and knows everything. "O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away."
  • Nothing can be hidden from God, and it's good when we know that. The section of First Corinthians 6 we'll be reading Sunday speaks against sexual relations outside of marriage. We may want to hide those things, but nothing we do in obedience or disobedience to the commandments is unknown to God.
  • In our gospel (John 1:43-51), Jesus *sees* an honest man named Nathaniel and commends him even though his opinions are quite negative. God knows all of our thoughts, feelings, opinions, doubts and questions and still loves us. It's best, then, to bring them out in an honest way. Otherwise, like in any human relationship, hidden issues begin to poison our side of a healthy relationship with the Lord.
It's good to come to church so we can see and be seen for who we really are. Because of what Jesus has done for sinners on the cross, we know God is full of love and forgiveness. Like Eli, and Nathaniel, we can dare to be honest too.
Added Tuesday afternoon: See Tim Robbins comment on another post by clicking here -- it fits with this "being seen" stuff
Added Sunday: You can hear the 18 minute sermon preached on Jan. 18 (in mp3 format) by clicking this link: "Come and Be Seen" Sermon

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What God Says

It's been a long day. Worship this morning, a funeral this afternoon, and Alpha tonight. Fortunately we have a great team here and I'm not in charge of much. Preaching is my main gig.

I'd like to invite you to hear today's sermon from our church. You can read the scriptures first by clicking here. You might want to have a Bible available - in addition to the scriptures assigned for the day, I refer to Ephesians 1:3-8; Romans 5:6-8; Second Corinthians 5:21--the links are to the Revised Standard Version, which we have multiple copies of. (During worship these scriptures were put up on the screen... if you use those links you'll need to scroll down.)

The audio of this morning's sermon in mp3 format is available by clicking here. It's just over 18 minutes long. Many thanks to Jeff Ertl for his technical expertise in getting the sermon recorded digitally at the 11:00 hour.

God says two things to us: Repent and Believe. Turn away from your sin and believe the one who give amazing grace, who calls us to trust him, and who makes us God's beloved children.

Share your thoughts by making a comment, or call or email me. If you're in the area, feel free to stop by sometime so we can meet and talk! God loves you forever. I hope we, at our church, can be a reflection of that love, however imperfect that reflection may be.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sharing Distress

Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi:
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. Philippians 4:10-14
I admire Paul's honesty. On the one hand, he wants to let the people he's writing to know things are "okay" with him. In the verses above he let's them know that he has faith, that he's not afraid. On the other hand, however, he admits to the fact that he is in deep trouble. These "troubles" are many. He's under house arrest, has been ill, and will eventually be executed. He's also unemployed. Paul's thanksgivings involve finances. We know that because the occasion for writing this letter to thank them for the gift they had given. In Philippians 4:18 Paul writes:
I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent...
He sent the letter back to the people who had helped him in Philippi with Epaphroditis, who had delivered the gift.

Paul was distressed. He had faith, but was also in need of help from his brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are in distress of any kind, we can learn from Paul that it's okay to let others know we are in need, to help others, and to give thanks.

Yesterday Wayne and I went to Litchfield for a meeting of pastors and laypeople from ELCA churches. One thing we talked about was impending layoffs. We're hearing about them these days. When you learn about someone in any kind of distress, please don't stay silent. Let us know, help as you can, and pray! When I hear of a situation, I try to contact the person directly to check out the information and ask permission before passing it on for prayer. If you hear a rumor that concerns you, call or email me and share what you've heard. I won't just pass it on without checking.

When we share together, with care and prayer, many will be thankful. Many will be thankful like Paul, in that an opportunity can then arise to show that concern. Prayer, specifically for those affected by layoffs and foreclosures and the like, will be at the center of our strategy for dealing with challenging economic times. And so will practical caring and sharing of resources. But we can't join together in prayer or care unless you share about those in need (or when you yourself are in need or are fearful)! The danger comes when people turn inward. As long as we love one another and trust our Lord TOGETHER we can get through.
Added 6:30 p.m. - an event related to this in St. Cloud is coming up very soon... Please click here to download information and a brochure - 3 pages pdf, or call me.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Witnesses Wanted

This morning I talked with Jerry Seehusen. He writes a blog called Beef on the Grill. In the past he was a member of our church. I asked him if he would be one of our speakers during the Lenten season who will share their perspectives on the question "What Does the Cross Mean to You?" He readily agreed.

Who else would you like to hear from on Wednesdays during Lent? I'll be contacting our missionaries, Joyce Graue and Eloise Ponsford, to see if they would be willing to submit something in writing or by audio or video. Are there members of our church or others that you think would be good to hear from? Who do you think it would be good for our youth to hear speak about the Lord and what he did on the cross? Please pray and ask the Lord "who would it be good to have as a speaker?"

Don't be shy yourself either! Most of us could share a brief but meaningful 5 minute reading or talk. Some could share a more in depth testimony. The theme "Perspectives on the Passion" and the question "What does the cross mean to you?" is intended to focus our attention on the main work of our Lord Jesus Christ and share that with others.

I'd appreciate your input today if possible. Tonight I meet with our worship and music committee and we'll begin talking about Lent. I'll ask them the same question. For more info, see yesterday afternoon's post.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fuzzy on Baptism, Focused on the Word

I love these words of Paul -- I think they speak in the spirit of Christ:
"I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power" First Corinthians 1:14-17
As a Lutheran pastor, I do baptize. I baptize according to what I understand and believe about baptism. (See a summary in the baptism section of Luther's Small Catechism.) I baptize people of all ages, including children whose parents bring them for baptism. I don't argue with people about this. When parents bring their children for baptism, or when someone older inquires about it, I teach what I believe is closest to God's Word, and let them make up their own minds about what to do.

One thing I try to make sure to say every time, which might get me in trouble, because it's not standard Lutheran doctrine, is that I don't see anywhere in scripture where baptism is "required" for salvation. I believe it is one way that God's grace comes to us, but that's only because it is a way God's Word is proclaimed. But this has never been a main emphasis in my personal or pastoral work. Some of my colleagues would probably consider this a significant failing in my work. For me, however, it's a matter of principle.

I believe an over-emphasis on baptism--and any emphasis at all on the emcees who "perform" it--does what First Corinthians 11:17 warns against, "empty the cross of its power." I'm aware that the phrase "empty the cross of its power" applies more directly to "eloquent" preaching--but anything at all that puts the emphasis on the performance of a pastor or church organization can indeed spoil the gospel. We do need preachers and baptizers, but every preacher and every baptizer needs to get out of the way and let Christ do his work.

God does his most important work through his Word. This coming Sunday (known as the Baptism of Our Lord) begins with a reading from Genesis 1 with the phrase And God Said.... When God "spoke" the universe was created. The Psalm for the day, Psalm 29, celebrating the surpassing power of God's Word that "sustains all things" (Hebrews 1:3). The reading from the book of Acts includes 19:5, where, upon hearing the Word of God, "about 12" disciples were "baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." And in the Gospel reading (Mark 1:4-11), "John the baptizer" preaches and God speaks from heaven.

Even on this festival dedicated to "baptism," the strongest emphasis is on the action of God through his Word. That's how it should be. The emphasis is on God's action, not ours. If baptism is understood as something God does, then we can celebrate it. But if there is any sense that it's something we do to gain God's favor, or to tell others about something a human being has done, then the focus falls away from the Word, and the power, is diluted and confused. It can still do it's work--God does not need perfect messengers--but it can lead to strife and dissension.

So, every time, whether it's in preaching or teaching, baptizing or presiding at the Lord's Supper, the focus needs to be on the Word of God, even if we're fuzzy on everything else.

What Does the Cross Mean to You?

Beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 25, we will be sharing a meal and worship together every Wednesday evening through April 1. This is known as the season of Lent, a special time of spiritual growth. My plan is that, every other year, we would focus on the Passion of our Lord, that is, what our Lord did for us in his sufferings and death -- and his victorious rising from the grave and what it means to us -- how it makes us love God and how it has changed our outlook on life.

This year, in preparation for Lent, I am asking you to share with me your own personal “Perspectives on the Passion.” What have you read or seen that has personal significance to you in connection with our Lord's sufferings and death? What about Jesus' dying for you is especially precious or meaningful? What story can you tell about what the cross means to you or a loved one?

Here are some Bible verse that might help you start to think:

Romans 3:23-25
…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith…

Galatians 3:13
…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”...

Romans 6:6
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

Galatians 6:14
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Galatians 2:19-21
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Philippians 2:5-8
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

If you would be willing to send me an email or talk with me about What the Cross Means to You personally, I'd really appreciate it! It will help us have a rich Lenten experience!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On Being a "Son" of God

One of the things I love about preaching is the way I keep learning as I prepare. Something new this week has to do with the idea of being a "son" of God. The word in the New Testament is υἱός and, according to God's promise, it applies to both men and women who hear and believe God's Word. When the barriers come down and God welcomes us into a good relationship with himself, we are not only forgiven and saved, we become "sons" of God.

What follows here may not be clear... shoot me a note or add a comment if it's hard to follow and I'll try to clear it up...

Because my parents did a great job of teaching and leading me to God's love, and thanks to the many other adults who came alongside to help me trust God, there has never been a time in my life when I did not understand that I was loved as a child of God. As time went on that understanding was deepened. I learned I was more than just a "child" in the sense of a helpless or needy person. I learned that God had given me, my his grace, the title or position "son," that is "son" as in a authoritative position in God's household. In the ancient world, the "son" would inherit the father's authority. As "sons of God" both men and women are given this honor. It's a truly amazing thing.

That much I knew. In preparation for this week's sermon, and as I was actually preaching this morning, it occurred to me that I had missed something. As a suburban-bred baby boomer, I didn't grow up with the same sense of family that people do who have a family business or a family farm. I love my dad and mom very much, but growing up on a 60 by 80 foot lot in Crystal, I didn't particularly get the sense of how great an honor it was to be the son of my parents. Yes, my dad was a professional engineer who had worked with complex production systems for years, especially for Honeywell. And my mom, along with doing such a great job of giving my sisters and brother and I a secure, loving home, she was a leader in my home church, serving there as the first woman president. But, for those who grow up on the land, or for those who inherit a business, the sense of being a "son" or "daughter" is much more.

In the ancient world, family was almost everything. That was my new learning this week. The family was the center of economic and political life. Who you were related to, or not, meant everything about your status and your future. Being a "son" of someone who was successful would mean that you would someday take over that business too. Being a son meant you had a chance to "make it" in the world. In those days, it was almost only males who could be "sons" in the sense of following in the family business or the family farm... that's just how it was. But we're talking here about "son" as a title, not as a "child" of a particular man or woman. Now, this title could apply to either.

If you can follow that, you can perhaps understand the amazing thing that being a "son of God" would be for someone in the ancient world. Being a "son of God" would mean that you would gain the authority and riches of God himself! Of course, in God's case, he never dies, so we don't ever bump God on the throne. But, we do rule with him, as his "sons" (whether men or women). And there is no other way to gain that same position. You can't buy it, you can't trade for it, it needs to be given, as a father would give a child (natural or adopted!) the title "son" as a free gift. Wow. To me, that truly broadens and deepens what I understand about the glory of belonging to the Lord. To be his son or daughter... to be his "steward," there is nothing better than that.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Peek at a Glorious Future

Happy New Year! At this time every year people make guesses about what will happen in the next 12 months. On the radio I heard, for example, that someone will come out with a video game that is played by simply thinking - a thought controlled game. Others speculate about the economy, politics, or whether we will have peace or war.

Much of the future, however, is truly beyond our knowledge. When we make plans for the future, we are taking risks, aren't we? We have retirement savings in the stock market. Our youth prepare for future employment (that may or may not be there for them) or wonder if they will find a marriage partner for life. And, unless it's available through our employers, we decide whether or not to spend thousands of dollars on health insurance.

We don't know what's coming, so we make our best guess. Or we stay with the status quo, whatever it is, because we just can't decide.

Because God loves us, and because he knows we need a certain amount of security in our lives, he chooses to reveal the final outcome. God doesn't tell us what is going to happen tomorrow or next week, but we do know what will happen in the end. In the end, things will be good! We will read promises about this on Sunday in Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Ephesians 1:3-14. In the end, for example, we will be in God's presence, "holy and blameless" in his love.

Knowing that things will turn out well in the end gives me courage to move on through the murky darkness of this life, loving others as I have first been loved, and not worrying to much about the next day. It's like how I sometimes peek at the end of a book as I'm reading. For some people, that would spoil the book. But, for me personally, it lets me enjoy the story more. There's enough stress in day-to-day life without adding more in my relaxation time!

Knowing God's love will greet me at the end, I can launch into the new year with confidence, energetically preparing to share Good News with the world.