Sunday, May 31, 2009

Outside In

I thought I should get a start thinking about next Sunday already. I'm hoping to take it a bit easier in the next couple of days, at least as far as church work goes, but it's always good for me to take a look at the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday early on.

I am so thankful for the scriptures. I'm also thankful for the community of people whose lives are influenced by them. Some are liberal. Some are conservative. Every one of these people is imperfect, sinful, broken and fallible. When we use the scriptures rightly, they correct us and transform us as they work on us from the outside in. (The scriptures are inspired by God and are just as God wants them to be.)

Each of the scriptures assigned for next Sunday (you can find them at this link) highlight the need to receive something from God in a supernatural way.
  • Isaiah is terrified because somehow he has seen God--but what terrifies him more than anything is that, in seeing God, he recognizes he himself is lost and without hope because of his sin. But then one of God's servants comes to him and symbolically touches his mouth with a live coal, explaining that "your guilt has gone and your sin is erased." Having received the gift of righteousness, he then responds to God's call, going out to proclaim God's Word to his people. (See Isaiah 6:1-8.)

  • In the Romans reading (8:12-17) and in John (3:1-17) our Lord makes it clear that we can't get what we need only from our natural birth into our own human families. Instead, God needs to go to work in our lives after we are born physically, giving us new birth and adopting us as his own sons (see On Being a "Son" of God for how this applies to both female and male) and gives us a glorious inheritance.
The main way God goes to work on our lives is through his Word as we live in relationship with others who are being confronted by that same Word. This summer, don't think you can go it alone, or with your own personal family. Stay connected with the "church" wherever you are, so that you can be strengthened and corrected, from the outside in.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Learning Together

Fortunately it doesn't happen very often anymore, but I was awakened at 3:50 a.m. by a phone call from Wright-Hennepin Security with a message that a motion detector at church had set off an alarm. Every time that's happened since we arrived almost four years ago the problem has been invisible. We assume a bat or something. We are very thankful for those who made this happen less often by installing screens in the bell tower!

Anyway, it's a beautiful morning, I'm awake anyway, so I thought I'd begin, now at 5:30 a.m., to jot down a few thoughts coming out of Thursday evening's YDT* Focus Group meeting. Several of us who care about kids, Christian education and discipleship are getting together to discuss possible changes in our YDT* program. We'll meet once more soon, but it looks like changes will be limited to (1) a possible move of our high school youth meetings to Sunday evening, (2) a possible "request for confirmation" that youth wishing to be confirmed would sign prior to preparing for Affirmation of Baptism (don't worry, this won't be hard to do!), (3) and a possible curriculum revision including a return to "memory work" as a part of YDT.

Some who have grown up in the Lutheran church would be surprised to learn of a possible "return" to memory work. After all, isn't "memory work" or "learning by heart" an important part of the youth educational program here at every Lutheran church? If the pastor isn't doing that, what's he doing with our kids?

Some of those present at Thursday evening's meeting talked about how important memory work has been in the lives of people they know. They spoke about how a Bible isn't always at hand and that knowing Bible verses and sections of the catechism are helpful in every day life. One individual mentioned Herbert Loddigs, a missionary pastor I remember from my childhood. Pastor Loddigs talked about a time when his Bible was taken away and he needed to rely on what he had learned by heart. Another group member talked about still singing songs she had learned in childhood that actually quoted Bible verses.

I want to thank those members of the group who spoke for reminding me of how precious it is to have God's Word "hidden in our hearts." The question is the when, who, where and how of this learning. Because the middle school and high school years are times of growing independence, the only helpful way I can think of to move back to doing "memory work" at those ages is to have significant positive incentives for their work. That's how our Sunday school and 5th-6th grade programs (and Christian children's programs such as Awana) get kids to learn!

If a group of church members would be interested in building an attractive program of incentives, that would be wonderful! "Enforcement" by the pastor--such as "you can't be confirmed unless..." generally just drives kids away.

For better or for worse, my philosophy is to help the kids want to be in church, to help them want to learn. So I put the emphasis on what I hope is an engaging, conversational, relational style of teaching with help from adult guides who love God and like kids.

For better or worse, I tend to be more interested in their "hearts" than in their "heads." I do want them to learn, especially to use the Bible and the Catechism as textbooks. I do want them to think and talk together and with their parents and guides. I keep track of their "Home Bible Studies" and "Worship Note" participation. I let their parents know regularly how they are doing and invite them to set the standards for their own kids.

For better or for worse, I have a really hard time being the "enforcer" in kids lives (other than my own kids!). I believe I should be their pastor first and their teacher second. First and foremost, I think I need to be someone they want to learn from if they are going to want to learn.

I'm still learning, and I appreciate the work the YDT focus group is doing. A couple of pieces that would be helpful to look at if you're interested are "Our Calling in Education" from the ELCA and the article "The Catechism in Christian Education" (pdf) from Luther Seminary's "Word and World" periodical. (Click the colored words for the links). Please take some time to learn from these documents and your own experiences, and then share your comments or come to the next meeting--time and day still to be determined--let Nate or me know you're interested and we'll let you know when it will be.

Please let me know what you think. I know I'm far, far from an expert, and some weeks I just don't do a good job, even though I give it my all.

Time for men's Bible study... I may as well go... I'm already awake and here at church.

*YDT means "Youth Discipleship Training" - please use the link near the top right of this blog page to learn more--click on "Youth YDT."

Friday, May 29, 2009

New Beginnings

Last Friday, in Help for What God Intended, I wrote about weddings. Since we have weddings again this weekend, it's good to say a bit more on this subject.

At most wedding rehearsals I do a brief devotion based on something I learned back in seminary from Bill Smith, professor of pastoral care. He suggested that we use a Bible text to talk with the families about how important it is for couples to "leave" their parents in order to "join" with their new spouse.

Of course, they leave physically. Most young people moved out from their family homes quite awhile before they get married. But, in an emotional sense, many families are overly connected with each other. But scripture makes it clear that marriage is a time for LEAVING! Part of my role is to help couples do that.

In pre-wedding preparation we use a resource called "Prepare-Enrich." One part of that resource helps couples look at their "family of origin" (the family they grew up in) and think about what about their families they want to carry forward and what they want to leave behind.

Professor (and pastor) Bill Smith talked to us at seminary about how important that "leaving" is. Individuals, he said, who do not clearly separate from their families of origin cannot successfully make a new family with their spouse. If they don't make a clear break, they will try to make their two individual families happy. This inevitably pulls the couple in at least two different directions.

A married couple will need to make their own decisions. The most important thing is for the couple to agree with each other, not to make peace with the families they are "leaving." Certainly a couple should continue to honor and respect their parents, but the number one priority, other than a person's relationship with the Lord, is their relationship with their new spouse. At least at marriage, if not before, independent young people are no longer bound to obey those who gave them birth.

The fact is, when children grow and go off on their own, their parents, friends and other family members will at times be disappointed. To pick a simple example, holidays will not be the "same" any more. Choices of who to spend the holidays with and how that time will be divvied up need to be made by the couple, and the couple will need to support one another in those decisions.

So, it's my goal to help couples be their own people in preparation for their weddings. It is they, the new husband and wife, who need to be the most agreeable with the plans. At the wedding rehearsal, because it's a chance to do it with everyone present, I share a devotion based on Matthew 19:5 where Jesus quotes Genesis:
"...a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh..."
I use the rehearsal devotion to talk with the parents and other relatives, and the gathered friends. I urge them to support, as the number one priority, the couple in their life together. I urge them, when there are challenges, to encourage their son or daughter to talk with his or her wife, instead of "taking sides." I encourage them to accept a new kind of relationship with the child they have raised.

This growing and changing happens in the life of every young person, and marriage is not the only time when leaving happens. But it is a time when special attention can be given to accepting, and blessing, the new reality and the new beginning in their grown, independent children's lives.

*At the rehearsal, I also mention the issue of abuse between husband and wife (or later, with children), and how the family and friends need to help their loved ones get help if this happens. I know it's not pleasant to think about, but it's such a prevalent problem in our world that it needs to be mentioned. I'll write more about this in the future.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Newsletter on Line?

Would anyone want to have a chance to read our church June-July newsletter online? The "Parish Pulse" assembly crew is putting it together at this moment. It will probably be mailed out tomorrow, meaning some will get it Saturday, others early next week. I can easily provide it in "pdf" which all computers can open. Please comment below, email me or contact me if you're interested.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


When people are done working for the day, they usually want to loosen up. A friend of mine told me recently that he used to loosen up by drinking. He said,
"I've always been a pretty serious person. It was fun to lose inhibitions and do and say certain things that I wouldn't do while sober. Unfortunately, the things I did and said while drunk were almost always the source of later shame and regret. Eventually, the pain associated with drinking overtook the fun -- but it took 20 years to realize it."
You may or may not agree with me, but I like to have a beer every now and then. But I don't need a drink to loosen up. Hopefully I can be loose and fun and full of God's Spirit at the same time.

God's Spirit can do some of the same things as alcohol! When the Holy Spirit first came down some of the people thought they were drunk. Besides getting happy, the Holy Spirit gives you a great group of people in your life, and, instead of forgetting about what bothers, the Holy Spirit brings healing and real joy.

"Do not get drunk with wine," we read in Ephesians 5:18, but "be filled with the Spirit." Jesus was made wine (from water!), partied and drank--i'm sure in moderation--so we can't say we must stay away entirely from alcohol (unless, that is, it's illegal or a problem for you).

But, because of what our Lord Jesus has done for us, giving us forgiveness and a forever family of friends, the Holy Spirit fills us with joy that is not false, that does not cost money, that children and youth and elders and AA members can participate in. No one needs to be left out.

Besides that, it connects us with the Truth. Unlike alcohol and drugs that can make us feel more fun than we are, more handsome or beautiful than we are, the spirit of God can make us ACTUALLY more beautiful, smarter, funnier... Ask the folks who participate in Alpha or the Prayer School to give you examples!

I think, as a church, we should do what we can to loosen up, to be more fun and less judgmental. And, when people think we're crazy or too much fun to be Christians, don't take offense... just say, like Peter did in Acts 2:14 and following...
“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’
To "prophesy" means to speak the truth from God. The joy that the Lord gives is REAL, authentic. It demands honesty. But, when we know how much we're truly loved by God, we can be honest and JOYFUL, even at work!

Hope to see you in church--let's see if a smile won't come to your face and a bounce in your step... and maybe someone will think you're just a bit tipsy in the Lord.

Adventures with God

Publisher William Feather was quoted recently on my son Dan's Facebook* page:
One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.
Life certainly has been an adventure for us in the Dassel-Cokato area. Last night at the Morris Excavating garage men's Bible study the guys were talking about the riches God has given us (Ephesians 1:19) and what keeps us from spending those riches in loving outreach & service. I broke into the conversation saying that, as an outsider, it seems to me that these guys are spending that inheritance wisely and energetically already. Not only are they strengthened in caring for each other and in learning God's Word, but that Word has borne fruit in so many ways, the new food shelf, the victory garden, the annual February men's retreat up at Camp Shamineau (Motley, MN), and, of course, MN Disaster Relief.

Also last evening the "social ministry" team met here at church under the capable leadership of Carol Semke. Because of their work I've signed up as a volunteer with Faith in Action of Wright County, an organization serving "the elderly and those living with disabilities in Wright County" and "dedicated to helping people maintain their independence by providing assistance with their everyday activities." I hope they accept my application - I can only help for a half-hour at a time, such as to run an errand... or perhaps for an hour if it's set up well in advance... If you think you might like to help, you can call or email me, get a volunteer application (pdf) by clicking here or learn more at A lot more is going on with social ministry because of our church's social ministry team.

Other adventures include what's been going on among youth under the "DC United" banner and beyond (for example, at "The Underground" music venue). Then, as of April, a group of women have been meeting to pray together about reaching out and meeting people wherever they are. If you wonder how "adventurous" these groups can be, talk with my son Jon, our youth director Nate Bendorf or our prayer ministry leader Becky Sorenson.

Now, you may not think of these as adventurous, but if Jesus' love burns in your heart, you will yearn to see God's will being done as the poor are lifted up, the lost found and the suffering multitudes given hope. Being a pastor in the Dassel-Cokato area, I see miracles every day, and I am so thankful for these adventures with God.

As our high school seniors graduate soon it's a good time for all of us to consider how each one of us is being called, in this season of our lives, to adventures with God! (Baccalaureate tonight at the DC high school Performing Arts Center, 7:30 p.m.--OPEN TO THE PUBLIC - please come and pray for our seniors!)

*Some are already aware that this blog is also on my Facebook page. If you use Facebook feel free to friend me and you can read these posts there. If you are reading this on Facebook, you can go to this blog directly at

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Increase Decrease

Romans 8:28 promises us that God can work for good with all who love him in all circumstances. I depend on that promise every day.

This morning, when I was feeling quite self-critical (I skipped men's Bible study and missed that chance to be nurtured in fellowship by God's Word) I stopped into the drug store to order some prescription refills. I was wearing a t-shirt with the design pictured here on the back. Another customer looked at the verse, John 3:30, saying it is so true. Originally, those are the words of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus Christ: "He must increase, I must decrease."

When I am obviously not everything God calls me to be, I am thankful that God is bigger and wiser than I am. I only pray that my life will point to Jesus, and not to me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Help For What God Intended

Ah, yes, the month of May! Such beautiful weather! Love is in the air! A line from an old poem declares:
In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
So we've got weddings coming up. We've also got, in our church's denomination, a major discussion underway that is intimately connected with marriage and family. Yesterday I found out about a Saturday, June 6 event at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Redwood Falls that will give us a chance to hear and talk with some Lutheran professors, teachers and students about the proposed statement on sexuality and possible changes in ELCA ministry policies. A pdf notice about the June 6 event is available by clicking here.

(Those who have been around awhile or who have talked with me about sexuality know where I stand on these things. If you're curious, you can read my February 2009 blog post on the proposal and the links you will find there. The colored words in this blog are links.)

The first of this year's weddings is coming up this weekend. The couple has chosen scripture readings (First John 4:9-12 and Colossians 3:12-17) but, usually, in one way or another, I end up going back to Matthew 19. In that passage, Jesus, responding to Jewish religious leader's question about divorce, said:
“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
This is such a change from the normal Jewish practice that the disciples respond: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” I love the disciples honesty! (Maybe things weren't going so well in their marriages!)

Jesus pushes them and us to more faithfulness than is normal or natural in our fallen, broken, sinful world. If you want to be challenged, see this controversial article by David Barash -- he says monogamy is the exception rather than the rule in all of our broken world! If you don't want to go that far, look around! Unhappy marriages and divorces are (sadly) so "ordinary." But Jesus is always pushing toward what God intended in the beginning, before sin entered the world! In the case of marriage and family, that IDEAL is this: one man and one woman faithful and together for life.

But how in heaven's name do we attain that? Only with the help of God. Only by knowing the love of Jesus. (This is where I go to the other scriptures chosen by this weekend's wedding couple.)
First John 4 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God... 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Colossians 3 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion... 13 ...Forgive as the Lord forgave you... 17 it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Jesus, and his sacrificial love for us, is where we go for help and hope, even in our marriages and families. That's where we find the forgiveness, the patience, the generosity, the kindness and the "self-giving" love we need to stay together for life. God knows Toni and I need that every day!

That's why we pray at weddings:
Faithful Lord, source of love, pour down your grace upon name and name, that they may fulfill the vows they have made and reflect your steadfast love in their lifelong faithfulness to each other.
Christian men and women are called to pledge lifelong faithfulness to each other because of their Christian faith, because of their relationship with our loving God. It's really not fair to demand such sacrifice of those who do not know the Lord! But, when we do come to know the love of God, and know that He forgives sinners no matter what, the love of God is poured into our hearts (Romans 5:4). And that love can even extend toward those we are with the most, our husbands, our wives, our families. Jesus can give us what we need.

Faithfulness in marriage is so good, so necessary, so precious. So, every day, we go to the cross of Jesus, to know God's faithfulness. Every time we come to Jesus, God will work among us to give us everything we need for our good, and especially for the good of our children and the world God loves so much.

I'm looking forward to the weddings we're celebrating. Please be in prayer and for Lora and Jeremy! Since I'll be up north for this Sunday afternoon wedding, Paul Gustafson will be preaching. Please be in prayer for him too.

*Yes, I do believe in forgiveness. Those who have experienced broken vows can be completely forgiven, though scars usually remain. And, yes, I do support many Christian people as begin again with a new marriage after a previous marriage has died. But divorce should never be simple. We are to do everything within our power, with lots of prayer and counseling help, to keep the family together. Come and chat with me if you need some help! But when it's clear that there is nothing more that can be done, we can go to the Lord, prayerfully, with help and lots of tears, and begin again.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Only Jesus

Yesterday was full. Prayer first thing in the morning, some time at church, lunch with my sister Lisa's for her birthday, hospital visits, time at the Luther Seminary Library. In the evening with my daughter Naomi, I attended a live interview with the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships... the WHOFBNP--what a terrible acronymn!

The interview was hosted by National Public Radio's Krista Tippett. The daughter of a southern baptist minister, she interviews people of a variety of religious backgrounds for her radio show Speaking of Faith. Also on stage was someone I hadn't seen since 1981--David Stenshoel, a member of the "world music" group Boiled in Lead.

I enjoy variety, so it was a personally good day, even though some parts of it were troubling. Those I visited in the hospitals are long-term sufferers,* longing for a at least a bit of relief. (Lynda Peterson referred to this on Monday as "the new normal..." she and her husband John are dealing with that--an acceptance of discomfort and limitations while being able to keep moving on with some energy from day to day.)

Then, as I did research at the seminary and as I listened to WHOFBNP director Joshua DuBois I was reminded of how many questions come up around our faith. There are lots of "faiths" in this world. Christian denominations and other religions abound even in Minnesota! So is our faith simply something we "use" because it "works" for us (and another one might work for someone else)--or does it actually connect us with the truth? How confident can we be that God does actually love us, specifically through Jesus Christ, and will actually save us, body and soul, for heaven?

What is there about Christianity that stands above everything else? How can we confidently teach the Bible to our children, believing it is true? It's one thing to teach it in a community where everyone shares the same beliefs, but as we are now living, more and more, in a pluralistic culture--when youth come to me with questions about their Muslim cousins and church members ask more and more questions about other religions--how is it that can keep believing in one set of truths and one true God? Or do we need to admit that one thing is as good as another?

(I heard a preacher recently say that unless we do "signs and wonders" people won't believe. Well, yesterday, we did pray during our hospital visits, and there were reasons to be thankful, but any "signs and wonders" were hidden from my view. What's to say that prayer or anything else connected with Christianity is just effective because we "think" it is?)

I believe there is only one thing that sets Christianity apart. It's not any special effectiveness to our prayers that you can see from the outside. It's not any wealth or power that God gives to believers. It's not even love or kindness or justice or wisdom. You will find these all over the world in many a religious and philosophical guise. Goodness, mercy, and even the gifts of God are found the world over. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:45 and Luke 6:35, God is good to all people everywhere.

The one thing that sets us apart is the cross of Christ--that is, what God has done in Jesus Christ--in his incarnation, sacrificial death and resurrection--all for the good of undeserving sinners like me. Whenever we stray far from that center, and stand up for any one particular Christian tradition, when we drift from the ONCE IN A WORLD blessing given by Jesus, we really don't have much to say. Other than that, we do have an awful lot in common with many, many people around the world. Other than that, we don't have a tremendous amount to add.

Through his "only begotten son" Jesus Christ, our creator God did what was necessary to save sinful sufferers like me and those I visited and heard yesterday. Knowing his love and forgiveness does bring healing, many times--and the only way we can have assurance of being saved is to cling in faith to the cross of Christ--but the work is done by God himself. The work isn't done in what we do for God. It's not even done not even in in having faith--which is always broken and imperfect. We are always weak, always in need, always fleeing to the one who died and rose again.

So, when we pray for those who are ill, we remind them of what Jesus did for them. And when we talk with people whose faith differs, we simply restate the truth that has been passed down to us. As Paul writes in First Corinthians 15...
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Only there do we find solid ground. That is the beginning and the end. And the wonderful thing is Jesus did that for the world! Let's let everyone know about the center of the faith... the rest we can chat about and have our opinions about... but we dare not put to much stock anywhere except in the cross and resurrection of our Lord.

*see my Oct. 2008 post A Community of Sufferers.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Center of God's Will

Big things are happening in many lives. For example, in the next two weeks we're celebrating weddings, our intern Paul Gustafson has graduated and is seeking his next call, and others are wondering how to move through the next phase of life. The church denomination we belong to will be making some big decisions this summer too.

If we are wise, we will always seek to know God's will. Back in February I reported what Nicky Gumbel says about this in the Alpha program. What follows here is something I also found helpful. It's from Richard Jensen's commentary on next Sunday's reading from Acts.

I've appreciated this particular teacher's work ever since I read his book Touched By the Spirit many years ago. Our paths crossed twice after that: as he taught in the first semester when I was a student at Wartburg Seminary. A couple of years later I was privileged to attend scripture studies he led at an annual a gathering of American Lutheran missionaries in Campinas, Brazil in 1984. You can read more about him here.

Anyway, this is what Dick writes about knowing God's will:
"About twenty years ago, a denominational church paper produced a series of articles based on the questions most commonly asked by people in the pews. The most commonly asked question was: "How do I figure out God's will for my life?"

People want to know the true purpose of their lives. Let me suggest three things that can be said in answer to this question.

First, we know the framework of God's will for our lives in this world: we are called to love God and to love our neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:36-40 and 1 John 4:20-21).

All the decisions we make about our lives ought to be framed within these two great commandments. Our lives are not our own to do with as we please. We are called to love God by loving our neighbor. This is the framework in which our lives ought to be lived.

Second, we know we live our lives under the canopy of God's forgiving love.

This is a very important reality. I do not believe that God's specific will for our life is revealed to many of us for "we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We can pray and pray for God's specific will to be revealed to us, but few of us will have our prayers answered. So, as Martin Luther advised, we will have to choose boldly our path. We don't often know for certain which is the right path. We choose, knowing that God's forgiving love will sustain us in the midst of lives' many decisions.

And third, we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

In Romans 8:28 we read, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God..." God is at work in the midst of our decisions.

In a sense, this passage from Romans tells us that God is always working to make the best out of our decisions. Our bad decisions do not separate us from God. As people claimed by Jesus Christ and committed to Jesus Christ, we choose, we decide, and we act.

We act in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Not all that satisfying, is it? Nicky Gumbel's How God Leads is a more hopeful on the specifics. I'm not sure I agree that "few" of us will have God's specific will revealed... sometimes we don't have those prayers answered because we only pray alone, or because we aren't willing to listen to advice and common sense along with specific guidance from God. I'm also a bit puzzled about why he says little about the role of specific Bible teachings such as the commandments (of course, as interpreted by Jesus himself). But, on the other hand, I appreciate Pastor Jensen's humble emphasis on the center of God's will, which is always LOVE... God's LOVE for us and his love reflected in our lives dedicated for the good of others.

No matter how we might perceive God speaking to us, His Love always needs to be in the center of all our pursuit of God's will and our listening for God's voice.

Friday, May 15, 2009

God's Love Never Fails

Yesterday we had the privilege of sharing God's love with the family and loved ones of Shari Paul. At funerals we always hope to do three things: (1) to give thanks to God for the one who has died, thanking the Lord by remembering the blessings we received from God through their life, (2) to love one another through this encounter with death, known as "the last enemy," and (3) to go to Jesus with our tears and brokenness, asking that he would reassure us with his promises.

I'd like to share the audio from that third part of what we did at Shari Paul's funeral yesterday. It begins with the last verse of "Jesus Loves Me" as sung by the congregation, then two scripture readings from First Corinthians, and then, about 5 minutes into this recording, a brief pastoral message. (Click the words "this recording" in the previous sentence... the colored words in this blog are links.)

I share this because sometimes, when it comes to religion and church, we mistakenly put "faith" ahead of God's love. But God's love is, and always should be, greater than faith, whether it's in our own hearts or in our sharing with others. As I said at the beginning of my message:
Faith and hope may grow weak and fail like our bodies do when they are under attack. But love, love that comes from God, it never fails. It does not end. It, not faith, is what defeats and conquers death.

Faith and hope, as wonderful as they are, are simply ways of depending on the powerful love of God. That's all they are: ways that we hang on to that love. It's God's love that wins the battle with death, raising Jesus from the dead and finally, in the end, God's love will raise you from the dead when you trust in him.
Just as we must depend on God to raise us from the dead on the last day, so faith and hope will not come to life in us by themselves. If our faith and hope are weak or dead, perhaps it's because it's been awhile since we have experienced, or shared, the love of God in a way that can warm us, like the sun warming newly planted seeds in the garden.

When I speak about the Lord, it's His love I want to be clear about. God's love should always be the main thing. I hope you'll find that is true if you listen to the message. We had the chance to share memories also--let me know if you want to hear that part of the service and we'll lend you a cassette tape.

After the message, we heard the song "I Will Rise" performed by Jonathan, Daniel and Toni. You can listen to it here. They did a great job ;-) . The tone of the music, I believe, matches the love God wants to shower on us, especially when we are weak in spirit, in body, in hope, or in faith.

The scriptures promise that God does not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed. It's on the arrogant and proud that God pours out his wrath--not on the weak. When someone is hurting--and when we are honest, we will find it's true of ourselves--when someone is hurting, what they and we need, more than anything else, is the never-failing love of God, poured out from the cross on us, so we can pour it out on others. If you come to church this Sunday, I hope that's what you will experience. Please pray that would be true, and invite all in need.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Track Record Be Gone!

I went out to the DC high school at about 8:00 tonight to see the annual academic awards program. Department awards (math, social studies, etc.) were followed by "academic letter recipients" from each grade. Finally as a culmination, the "four year letter winners." I think that means four years of a 3.5 or better g.p.a. Wow--quite a track record.

Such consistency! Such accomplishment! During my school years, I never managed that. I wasn't a bad student. I did well sometimes. I squeaked out an average that gave me an orange tassel in high school and an honor cord in college. But certain bad habits dogged me. I didn't do really well until my last year of college, when, fresh from a deep prodigal son experience, filled with energy and joy, renewed in my relationship with God, I plunged in and aced everything. Even so, I could never come close to a four year honor.

That's one reason I'm glad we don't have many awards or recognitions in the church. We operate on the principle of grace, not law. I know what it's like to fall behind. I know what it's like to think I failed. There was a certain point in my life where I couldn't imagine things getting better. I thought I had really screwed things up and made a irrecoverable mess of my life. I didn't go to church or hardly ever see those who loved me best for a couple of years straight. I remember my dad shedding tears of joy when I finally came back to life in my relationship with God. But I'll never be in line for a "lifetime" church award.

There's a lot more to my story that I tell when I know people well. But just let it be said for now that my track record during my high school and college years left a lot to be desired.

So why is this so interesting? As I've been studying to preach on May 17th, I've been reading Pastor Richard Jensen's commentary on something he says we "ought to be amazed" at--the "Spirit-infused breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles" found in Acts 10:1--11:18. The modern day example he uses as a parallel is what happened in Chicago's Grant Park on the night of the election of the country's first African-American president.
The crowds were overflowing. The excitement was palpable. There before our eyes, we watched [them] with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.

What were the crowds so overjoyed about? Among other things, they were celebrating the fact that a malignant barrier in our culture had been broken down. The barrier between black and white in this country had experienced a major ripping apart.
Then Pastor Jensen says that Acts 10-11 "should produce no less joy!"

Many people, however, can't relate to that. Many have never been part of a racial minority. Many don't know what it's like, as my daughter learned on her Sankofa trip, to have to keep your hands visible in stores all the time so you won't be suspected of shoplifting. Many of us have pretty good track records in many ways and, if we're honest, are pretty proud of it too.

Though my high school and college years were spotty, now things are different. As a "getting gray" pastor, a father, and a man married to the same woman for going on 25 years, some folks give me the kind of respect I couldn't have even dreamed of back then. If I walk off without paying my bill at Daniel's* the waitress won't call the cops. She'll assume I'm just forgetful--which is absolutely true--and that I'll come back and pay later--which I will do. In my home area, I'm not a hated "Gentile." In terms of the scripture Pastor Jensen refers to in his commentary, today I'm much more like a respected Jew.

In order to feel the joy of the tens of thousands who celebrated in Grant Park or the overflowing spirits of the Gentiles in Acts 10, we need to somehow put ourselves in the place of those who are commonly considered to be lost causes or "hopeless cases." If we're not part of a racial minority, if we're not familiar with how it feels to be left out because of how we look, then consider those times when you or those you love have flunked out or made poor decisions. Think about those "dark nights of the soul" when you or someone you love feels totally alone or utterly abandoned. Even God, we think, has forgotten.

And it's even worse when we're convinced, by our own analysis or some accusation, that we're in that dark night because of our own fault.

If we can understand a bit of that darkness, then we can understand a bit of the total joy that comes when the doors to being accepted and loved by God are opened in Acts 10-11.

For hundreds of years the Jewish people had the assurance of being God's own special, chosen ones. Yes, there were times of darkness and loss, but they always had God's promises to hang onto. Non-jews were sometimes attracted to them, but to become a Jew one had to renounce associations and friendships with everyone that they had known up to that time. There was a complete "cut off" that of relationship between Jews and Gentiles. You were one or the other. If you weren't a chosen Jew, you were a Gentile dog, and no chosen Jew would enter your home or be your friend.

But then a new message came. It was the fulfillment of what was hinted at in the Old Testament prophets, hints about a time when people from all nations would stream into God's Kingdom. That fulfillment came with Jesus Christ, who died for all who were cut off from God, not just for the Jews (who might have suspected it), but also for the Gentiles, who could not have been more surprised. It was as if all of a sudden you discovered that your bad track record was erased and a totally shining new one was put in its place. You could be totally accepted now by God, and join the ranks of the redeemed without any hint of prejudice being held against you anymore.

It's getting late now and I'm very tired, but in telling a bit of this story I'm sensing a bit of that joy. It's a joy that we proclaim as a matter of course when we welcome everyone to the Lord's Table and to the Baptismal promises. It's a joy that still, today, will erase all your failures and frustrations. It's a joy that every Christian should extend freely to everyone else.

No matter what your track record has been until now, you can begin fresh today, or tomorrow, until that day when we meet our gracious Lord Jesus, face to face.

Time for bed!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Our Mother the Church

How was your mother's day? As I've said many time, I'm so thankful for my parents. We were able to see mom for a bit last evening, and that was good.

For many, however, mothers' day is bittersweet. Some families can't get together. Many people have lost their mothers. And unless I die first, or the Lord returns beforehand, Mothers' Day will bring sorrow for me too.

But, because of God's wonderful grace, we have a forever "mother"! Our natural mothers are very important to us, as they should be, but the church (meaning the big "family" of those who are spiritually connected to Christ) is our mother too. The church is the "bride of Christ" and through this spiritual family we have the opportunity to be born again.

I hope each of us recognizes how much our Lord cares about the relationships we have with one another in the church. God is in the relationship business. So, just as it's good to honor moms and pray for moms, it's good to honor and pray for our various churches, and to do what we can for their good, even when the relationships are complicated.

This was one of the themes of my sermon from yesterday, entitled "Better Together." You can listen to it by clicking here. You can read the scriptures by clicking here if you like.

Now that summer is almost here, and the temptation to scatter and go it alone is even stronger, I hope we will all recognize how important it is to continue to be here, with the church family, as often as we can. When we are together, joy and love will grow when we forgive and care like Jesus. Let us know how we can help by calling the church office or my cell phone anytime.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Shari Paul

We've had a very sad and untimely death in our church family. Shari Paul, who had been ill with cancer, suddenly took a turn for the worse and passed away yesterday. Please help extend God's love to Randy, Staci, and many other family members and friends with your prayers and your presence. Visitation for Shari Paul will be here at church next Wednesday, May 13, 4:00 - 8:00. Shari's funeral will be Thursday, May 14, 11:00 a.m. The funeral lunch will immediately follow the funeral, after which the burial will be in Silver Lake. For more information you may email me or call.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fruitful Together

About 5 years ago my family and I traveled to the small village of Rio Pardinho in southern Brazil. We stayed with a family that I had lived with back in the 1980s when I was on my internship prior to becoming a pastor.

In the backyard of their home was a trellis enveloped with an amazingly fruitful grapevine. I have a wonderfully vivid memory of picking and eating grapes in the shade of that vine. The shade was good because it was January--a very hot time of year.

"I am the vine," says Jesus, "you are the branches." "...Apart from me," he continues, "you can do nothing." "Those who abide in me...", that is, those who stay connected to the vine, "bear much fruit."

That's true even though, from our personal point of view, there seems to be no rhyme or reason or orderliness to the vine at all. It grows this way and that way, and even when provided with a trellis, it's very hard sometimes to figure out which branch connects to what.

And that's okay. After all, as it says in John 15, the "Father" (that is, God) is the gardener. As I read the scriptures, God the Father is the one who takes care of pruning. It may seem disorganized to us, but I really believe it's God's job to bring everything to fruition--not ours.

Here in the Dassel-Cokato area there are a multiplicity of people and groups are working for good causes. Even the cemetery is coming to life -- see Victory Garden. But, this causes some uneasiness and disagreements as a whole variety of people get involved, each with their gifts and personalities. Two times yesterday there were a few raised voices among adults dedicated to the Christian development of DC youth. But that is to be expected. Grapevines and Christian relationships are often a seemingly uncoordinated jumble of people who seem to be at cross-purposes with one another. But, like a grapevine, they are growing into something that will produce abundant fruit.

This morning the pastors got together again for prayer. On my way back from the North Crow Lutheran Church--it was a beautiful morning!--I heard an MPR radio program on the topic What Are Economists Good For? I was thinking about the Christian community as I heard University of Minnesota professor Varadarajan V. Chari talk about the way the free market works. It also seems to be chaotic. But, as I think is true in the church, if it's all controlled too much from the top, it doesn't function very well. There needs to be freedom, and in that freedom, fruitfulness can occur.

The key, in terms of God's work in the world, is making sure we're all connected to the "true vine," that is, to Jesus Christ. When we gather regularly to hear God's Word and share in the Lord's Supper, we find ourselves being reminded of God's costly forgiving love and the tremendous price God paid for us on the cross. When we are continually connected to that vine--to that source, to the cross of Christ, we will recognize each other as brother and sister sinners, saved by grace, and we'll never be surprised if there are challenges in our relationships along the way.

Unlike branches of a grapevine, we have free will and we can choose to cut ourselves off from one another when those challenges come. But when we are continually reminded of God's grace, we will be more patient, more loving, and the fruit, which would otherwise be lost, will multiply over and over again.

Hope to see you in church!

Monday, May 4, 2009

IMPORTANT! Please Comment!

THE FOLLOWING PROPOSAL has been significantly changed since it was posted May 4th. Please see the non-italicized portions at the bottom of this for our current thinking.

This part written and posted May 4th:

Tonight I sat for a couple of hours with some adults who are involved with our YDT Youth programs... we talked about making the following changes.
  • This year's 9th graders will begin a new tradition of asking to be confirmed. (I will give them a simple way of doing this.) This fall's confirmation will proceed, more or less, as it has traditionally.
  • This year's 8th graders would be promoted a year early to the high school youth program but would serve at least one year "apprenticeship" in that program (with Old Testament teachings) before being eligible to ask to be confirmed.
  • I would continue to teach this year's 6th & 7th graders in pretty much the same way as this year, except that I'll be sharing some of the teaching duties with our youth director.
  • This year's 5th graders would start participating in our Wednesday evening youth program this fall (at the beginning of their 6th grade year), meaning that they 6th, 7th and 8th graders would be together in much the same way as the Grades 7, 8 & 9 are now.
This proposal would mean that, beginning in the fall:
  • Grades 4-5 would be involved in what is now our "56thers" program (obviously would need to be renamed!)
  • Grades 6-8 would be in the three year sequence of teaching that our 7th-9th graders do now... Year 1: Old Testament & Ten Commandments, Year 2: New Testament & Lord's Prayer, Year 3: "Faith Basics" on God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Apostles' Creed) -- Nate and I will be looking at possible curriculum revisions in the next couple of weeks.
  • Grade 9 would be an apprenticeship year in the high school youth program, during that year they would have the option to request confirmation. Upon making that request they would work, coached by their mentor, on their personal statement of faith, service projects and other faith-nurturing opportunities, leading up to "confirmation" in the fall of their 10th grade year IF they are ready.
  • Youth in grades 10 - 12 would participate as they do now--those who have not yet been confirmed could request confirmation and work with a mentor as the 9th graders will.
It's important that we hear from a wide variety of people to see what you think of this proposal. Please click comment below, send me an email, or give me a phone call so we can chat or set up a time to meet.
Added May 28, 10:18 p.m. Thanks to the comments, emails and participation of a few wonderful adults meeting this evening we are in the process of revising our ideas. The general revision is to not move the ages. This would mean that 5th-6th continue as "65thers" and Gr 789 will stay in the teaching part of the program. We are considering moving the high school YDT group to Sunday evenings and inviting--not requiring--9th graders to participate along with the 10th-12th on Sunday evenings while the 10th-12th will be encouraged to participate on Wednesdays as co-leaders. We also discussed whether how to add "memory work" to the program and how youth can "request to be confirmed" in a simple, way... We'll be posting more on this in the future.

Humility and Truth

Several years ago I learned, from one of my favorite teachers (Marva Dawn) that, though there IS absolute truth (from God), no person or pastor or Christian teacher can ever know that truth perfectly or absolutely themselves. Therefore, everything that a Christian leader says needs to be said with a bit of humility, realizing that other Christ-followers might see things a bit differently.

Here are two examples I've run into recently where humility was either absent or present:
  1. On Saturday evening I spent some time at the Cokato Elementary school hearing a preacher that spoke to about 100 people who weren't at "DC's Got Talent" (a.k.a. "Faculty Follies"). The preacher (Joel Crumpton) said quite forcefully that whereas other pastors give their "opinions" that he was going to give us truth direct from God. I think that is presumptuous. Everyone who proclaims God's Word gives interpretations, and every preacher is fallible and will mix in their opinions with God's absolute truth. It's the believer's job to do some discerning work, separating the wheat from the chaff.

  2. Tonight our "Crown Financial Bible Study" meets. I was behind on my homework and was getting caught up when I ran into a section where the study refers to "wives working outside the home." I am very glad that the authors add the words "in our opinion" before saying they think it's wise for women "during their children's early formative years" to "be home while the children are home." Though I absolutely agree that having a parent available to the children is really good and helpful, I don't think its important which parent that is. They base this teaching Titus 2:4-5 which really doesn't have to do with raising children at all but instead is based on a culture where women outside the home didn't have a place.
Humility is needed as we teach and preach. We do have truth, but it's God's and it doesn't belong to us. We will always need to be humble in our teaching--while, at the same time, boldly proclaiming the center of the faith, the amazing grace of God given through Jesus Christ. Otherwise, teaching and preaching can be a blunt weapon that is more harmful than helpful.

For a bit more on this topic, read "Fill in the ___."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Helping Children Hear

Our church here in Cokato has the tradition of inviting children forward during worship to hear a message especially for them. These "children's sermons" help young people feel like they are wanted and needed at church. At least, that's our hope. Sometimes I wonder if they are more aimed at letting the adults know we care for their kids. After all, how much can we teach in 2-3 minutes while being watched by all those adults?

The most important way we help children know the Lord is the love and forgiveness they experience in every day life when that love comes from Christian parents and other adults who are not shy about their faith. We can say all we want to about the love of God through Jesus Christ, but if our kids don't experience it in our homes, they won't believe it's really true. And it won't work to share tender loving care without speaking about the Lord. Teaching Jesus' love takes both actions and words.

In John 10:27, Jesus says those who belong to him "know his voice." We get to know Jesus' voice as it comes to us through loving, forgiving people who patiently walk along side us through the ups and downs of life. We can help that at church, but the larger responsibility belongs to parents, grandparents and other Christian adults who walk with the young and vulnerable among us, caring, protecting and speaking with them about the Lord. When that happens, children, and all of us, can rest and work and play and laugh--secure in the knowledge of God's great love.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Men's Breakfast and More

This morning I was invited to Howard Lake for a men's breakfast at St. John's Lutheran Church. I sat down next to Tom Kunz, a man from Waverly who has done a lot of work promoting men's ministry and good, healthy marriages and family life. Then I came back to our church because I thought we were having a church yard clean up day here... but it's been postponed.

I went over to St. John's this morning because a friend invited me. That got me thinking about how we get people involved in the ministries of our church, ministries that can really make a huge difference in people's lives. Personal invitation is the key, whether it's to a men's ministry event or a church clean up day. Nothing can replace the power of personal relationships and invitations.

Tom Kunz talked about how men oftentimes lack good friendships where men can talk about anything with each other. He said, and I agree, that for married men, our wives should be our best friends. But there are things that guys can talk with each other about that won't be understood as easily by the opposite sex. Besides that, there are many men who just don't have good solid relationships with their wives. Many are hurting deeply.

So, guys needed to be invited to do things with other guys. Think about the men who you know. Pray for those guys and then invite them. I've heard that the church cleanup day will be next Saturday morning. Maybe you can come and invite a friend. If you want, you can come for men's Bible study at 7:00 a.m. before the workday. No obligation, however... I often find it hard to get up that early on Saturdays!

Hope to see you tomorrow in church. At 11:00 the youth ministry group "Carpenter's Tools" will be leading worship. Youth director and seminarian Nate Bendorf is preaching at both hours.