Pastor's Thoughts - November 2023
As a High School science teacher, I have observed something about my students and how they respond to my teaching. There are those days when we are focused on the content. I lecture and they dutifully take notes on what I put on the board.
But then there are other days when I do a demonstration or we perform an experiment. On those days the kids are engaged and excited about what we are doing. They especially love the hands-on experiences that come with actually doing science. Sometimes I wonder if there is an effective way to accomplish all the learning goals just through hands-on projects and experiments.
It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that what I am seeing in my science classes is also a picture of how many people experience church. People arrive on Sunday and maybe participate in a Sunday School class. They then attend a worship service which is devoted in large part to the sermon (lecture) delivered by a pastor. Then they go home and repeat the process the following week.
Many peoples’ experience of church is like my students on those lecture days. Lots of content, lots of engagement with the head, but little involvement in hands-on service in the name of the Lord. If that is all there is to church, it is no wonder that people sometimes drift away.
Back in the 90’s, my wife and I participated in a church that was heavily involved in what they called servant evangelism. Essentially it involved doing all kinds of service projects in the name of Jesus. We did free car washes, handed out free water and sodas at local events, and so on; all in the name of Jesus.
The people in the congregation loved it. Much like my science students, the members of the congregation loved being actually involved in ministry.
I think that this is an antidote to our faith becoming stale. Our focus in living out our lives as followers of Jesus should involve our head AND our hands. Learning without serving is one-dimensional and will soon become boring and stale. Serving people in the name of Jesus is where we get to apply that knowledge to meeting the needs of those around us. That is exciting; that is fun; and that will bring life to our church experience.
Pastor's Thoughts - August 2023
A lady at the school where I teach came to my room the other day with what she called a “strange request.” She had been driving with her 83-year-old mother and asked her if there was anything still on her bucket list that she wanted to do. Her mom responded that she wanted to ride a Harley one more time. Apparently, she and her husband had been avid motorcycle riders and she wanted to experience that once more. The lady asked me if I would be willing to give her mom a ride on my motorcycle. Of course, I said yes.
All of this got me thinking about the idea of bucket lists – those things we want to accomplish while we still can. The question arose, are there examples of that in Scripture? Are there people in the Bible who had a bucket list.
The person who comes to mind who might fit that description is Paul. He wrote in Romans 15 “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain. (Romans 15:18–24)
There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether he actually made it to Spain. But the point I want to make is that after all that Paul had done in planting churches throughout the Roman empire, he still had more that he wanted to do. He had a bucket list.
If he did, in fact, travel to Spain, he would have been in his early 60’s. Travel conditions were much harsher during that time than they are today so that would not have been an easy trip for an older gent. Yet he was determined to go, because advancing the Gospel was important to him.
That brings me back to our own bucket lists. Probably most of us have things we still want to accomplish, for example, ride a Harley, climb a mountain (a small one at least), do a parachute jump, see Alaska, whatever. But as we think about the time we have left, Paul gives us a good example of including things on our list that benefit the Kingdom.There are all kinds of things that we might do, including participate in a mission trip, volunteer at a local Christian mission, help staff the food pantry, or even just visit people at the nursing home. There may be many things that we can still accomplish for the Kingdom, even if we are getting along in the years. As long as we are on this earth, God wants to use us to touch peoples’ lives. Let’s be sure to include those things on our bucket list.
Pastor's Thoughts - July 2023
Unity in Diversity
Over the years that my wife and I served as missionaries, we were blessed by opportunities to worship with communities of believers around the world. One of these communities was comprised of ex-headhunters gathered in a thatch roofed church where it was not unusual for chickens to wander through the service while dogs curled up asleep on the cool dirt floor. Another was a group of ex-Hindu tribal people gathered in a small concrete block church building that they had proudly built themselves. A third community included former Buddhist adherents gathered in a large urban church. That is only a few of the various groups of believers with whom we have worshipped.
As I think about these groups and their expressions of worship, it seems like they could not have been more different. Their language, dress, religious backgrounds, lifestyles, music, cultures, and worldviews were incredibly diverse. And yet as we sat and worshipped with them, we felt right at home. We might not have understood their language, but it was easy to understand that their songs and prayers were an expression of a common, shared commitment to Christ.
It reminds me of the picture of heaven that John records in Revelation 7:9-10. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
What a wonderful picture of unity in diversity. All those people, from every tribe, tongue, and nation, united in their adoration and worship of Jesus.
The strength of the church lies in its ability to bring together unity in diversity. We all bring to the church our own unique abilities, gifts, perspectives, cultures, and experiences. That diversity allows the church, working together, to minister effectively in ways that none of us by ourselves could accomplish.
However, when we have unity – a shared purpose and direction. In the church, the basis of unity is Jesus. As Paul says in Galatians 3:27-28, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is not that those differences cease to exist; ethnic and gender differences remain. It is in our shared love of Jesus those differences are no longer divisive forces. In Christ, we can achieve the challenging goal of experiencing unity amid our diversity. And in that unity we have the ability to bring the gospel to the world.
Pastor's Thoughts - June 2023
You have probably heard the term, “good enough for government work” meaning that what we have done isn’t fantastic, but it will do. Last year when we were building a shed at our RV camp, we learned a new phrase with a similar meaning. One of our fellow campers came by to “supervise.” When I mentioned that the shed wasn’t as good as it could be, he said that it was “camp good.” The idea was that even though it wasn’t perfect, it was good enough for the context, good enough for a camp.
It reminded me of our time in Papua New Guinea. There was a phrase in Melanesian Pidgin, “em inap” that meant the same thing. Maybe not as good as it could be but good enough for our purposes. In Indonesia we often heard people say “cukup baik” roughly translated as good enough. My guess is that all languages have some way to express this concept.
Part of the text for this Sunday’s message is from Luke 9:23 where Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” As I was thinking about His words, it occurred to me that the standard Jesus sets for his followers is the opposite of “em inap” or “camp-good.”
The standard that Jesus sets is all-encompassing. It involves all we are, what we live for, how we serve, and how we relate to others. Looking at this standard, there is never going to be a time when we can rest on our laurels. There will never be a time when we can look at our lives and say, “good enough.” There is no such thing as “good enough” Christianity.
Instead Jesus sets a. higher standard, saying in Matthew 5:48 that “You shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Paul writes something similar in Colossians 3:17 “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Following Jesus is not a lifestyle, it is a life. Of course, we will never achieve His standard of perfection in this world, but that is the direction Jesus wants us to set in our lives – getting closer to him, serving him more completely, and being increasingly willing to commit the entirety of our lives to Him and his purposes, becoming more like Him.
I think this is an exciting feature of following Jesus. We are on a journey that will never end this side of eternity. There is always more to learn, more depth to achieve in our relationships, and more ways to serve. Jesus wants our all, from now until we step through the vail into his presence. This side of that vail, there is no “camp-good.”
Pastor's Thoughts - March 2023
It is a common occurrence in our house. As Kathy and I get ready to go out, Smidge the dog senses we are leaving. He starts following us around as closely as possible and as we get our coats he goes into gyrations, barking furiously as we go out the door and leave him behind.
It is a classic case of separation anxiety, fairly common in dogs from what I hear. He loves to be with his people and passionately dislikes being by himself, even for a few minutes.
I have to think that the people of Israel were also experiencing separation anxiety when they were defeated and carried into exile in Babylon. They were God’s people, living in the land that God had promised to them through their ancestor Abraham. The promised land defined who they were; it was an important part of their identity. And now it was gone, or rather, they were gone. Defeat and exile – what a blow that had to be to them.
And then God spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah who wrote the following to the people in exile:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
With those words, the people were encouraged not to give up hope. Even though things looked bleak, God had not abandoned them. He was still present; he was still working out the plans he had for them.
In the same way, this can be an encouragement to us. There are times when we are going through tough times and begin to wonder where God is in all of this. How can a loving God allow these things to happen?
God’s reply is the same that he gave the Israelites – “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
We have a part to play in this, however. The same part that the Israelites had in their time of trial. “You will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
When we are suffering from separation anxiety; when it feels like God has abandoned us, that is the time to press in, to call on him, to pray, and to seek him with all our heart. As we do that, as we seek him, we will find him, and he will work out the plans he has for our lives.
Pastor's Thoughts - Christmas 2022
Like everyone else, we have been preparing for Christmas. Kathy has been out buying and wrapping presents for the grandkids and decorating the house. I have been counting the days until Christmas break, which finally arrived on Wednesday. One nice thing about the teacher gig is the lengthy holidays. We enjoyed the Ballet Quad Cities presentation of the Nutcracker last weekend. Even the ubiquitous holiday music has been enjoyable.
Many times, I have heard Christians express the wish that Christmas here would be a little less commercial in nature. I have expressed the same sentiments myself. Sometimes it seems that the trappings of Christmas overwhelm and push out of focus the underlying message and meaning of the event.
Having ministered in places where Christmas is not celebrated in the ways that it is here, I know what it is like to celebrate the day without our cultural trappings. We can focus almost exclusively on the meaning of the event, enjoying a quiet day and a nice meal with family and friends. That has been nice, but it hasn’t seemed like Christmas. It always felt a bit anti-climactic. We found ourselves missing the trappings.
Like it or not, those trappings of Christmas that we grew up with tend to define the day for us. Without those trappings, we lose some of the wonder of the day.
I propose that the answer is to embrace the cultural trappings that define our celebration of the day, but also find creative ways to bring the focus back on Jesus and the meaning and significance of this day that we celebrate. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the trees, presents, elves on shelves, kids going crazy, parties, and so on. Those only become a problem if that is all there is.
So this weekend, celebrate Christmas! And in the midst of it all, take some time to thank God for the amazing gift of his Son.
Pastor's Thoughts - November 2022
I find 7 times in the Gospels where Jesus gave thanks to the Father in prayer. (I am using the KJV Bible.)
The Neglected Aspect of Thanksgiving.
As we come to the Thanksgiving holiday, those of us who are followers of Jesus normally turn our attention to the blessings that God has bestowed on us. We think of our health, family, friends, church, and the material blessing that God has given us. As we consider these things, we quite naturally are moved to express our gratitude to the Father.
In preparation for Thanksgiving, I began to wonder how and in what circumstances Jesus expressed thanks to the Father. I had never really looked at that before and quite honestly expected to find dozens of examples of Jesus expressing thanks. I found five. Just five.
Before feeding the 5000 and later before feeding the 4000, Jesus thanked God. He thanked God before raising Lazarus from the dead. And again before breaking the bread and sharing the wine at the last supper he gave thanks. The one other time was in Matthew 11:25 and the parallel passage in Luke 10:21 where he thanks God that the mysteries of the kingdom are hidden from the learned and are revealed instead to his disciples.
As I read through these passages, what struck me was that, with the exception of the Matthey 11 passage, Jesus thanked the father not for what the He had done but instead in anticipation of what He was going to do. Jesus was very much forward thinking in his thanks to the father.
That is very different from what I would have done. I think in Jesus’ place I would have waited to see what God would do, if, for example, he would actually multiply the loaves and fishes, and then thanked him. But Jesus, by faith trusting that God would work, thanked him before the events.
Perhaps there is something here for us. This Thanksgiving as we consider the blessings that God has given us, perhaps we should also thank God in faith for the things he will do in us and through us in the future. God has already done wonderful things in our lives. But I expect that as we faithfully follow Jesus the best might be yet to come.
Pastor's Thoughts - October 2022
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
I heard a message this past week in which the speaker made a startling statement that in their reaction to current events and trends Christians often betray their unbelief. My first reaction was to wonder what he was talking about but when he continued to explain his statement, I began to see his point.
How do we react to the sociological and religious trends that we see in our culture today? Are we fearful, angry, incensed, or fretful? Do we feel an urgent need to take immediate action, somehow, to change the trajectory of our society? Do we look to the next election as a watershed event that will determine our future well-being?
The point that the speaker made was that regardless of what we see happening in the world, God is still God. He is still on the throne of the universe. He is still working out his plans for us, for this country, and for the world. He is still in charge.
And if we believe that he is still on his throne and directing the trajectory of the world, then it should affect how we react to the things we see happening in our society. Yes, he does want us to continue to strive to be a light, to change our little corners of the world for the better, and to do what we can to affect our society for the better.
But the attitude with which we approach that is vitally important. We shouldn’t work and live from a posture of fear and anxiety about the way things are. Rather we should maintain an attitude of confidence, peace, and assurance, because regardless of what is happening or will happen our God is on the throne, and he is in control.
And if our God is in control, then we can have the assurance that Paul exhibits in Romans 8 when he says that “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Pastor's Thoughts - August 2022
Living with Eyes of Faith.
The other day I was coming off I-74 on my way home. Up ahead I could see that the light was green but thought to myself there is no way it is still going to be green by the time I get there. But it was; it turned yellow just as I entered the intersection. As I made my turn I said a little “Thank-you, Jesus!’ prayer. And then I stopped. That was silly, the idea that Jesus is concerned about whether I made a light, and that he delayed the light until I got there.
As I thought about it, though, maybe it wasn’t all that silly. Maybe that expression of thanks was merely one way of acknowledging the reality, presence, and activity of God in my life, whether he held the light or not.
Paul, in Romans 1:19-20 claimed that “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” This indicates that God is revealing himself in creation, so that even those without access to the gospel should be able to come to an understanding of who he is. Yet despite that revelation, many remain blinded to the presence and power of God in the world.
The difference between those who see God active in creation and in their daily lives comes down to faith. By faith, I am not talking about beliefs. Faith is much more than simple belief; it is a way of seeing and experiencing the world.
By faith, we know that God is the omnipotent, omnipresent creator who made and sustains the universe. And by faith, we know that he loves those he created in his image and that he is actively involved in their lives. Approaching life from that vantagepoint, we are primed to see the fingerprints of God on the events of our life. We see and experience life through eyes of faith.
It is no wonder that some miss all of that; without faith they are blind to the presence and activity of God. But what a glory it is for those who can see through eyes of faith. They experience life as an ongoing interaction with the creator God as we respond to his blessings and activities in our lives.
I would encourage you in the craziness of day-to-day living to step back occasionally. Look at life through eyes of faith, and discover the fingerprints of God all around you.
Pastor's Thoughts - June 2022
Kathy and I enjoy watching the reality TV series Alone. Each season, 10 people are dropped off by themselves in various places with only a few tools and no food. They must build a shelter, find food, make fire, and basically figure out how to survive in an inhospitable location. The one who survives the longest without giving up or being taken out for medical reasons wins $500,000.
In the season we just finished watching, our early favorite was a young man who served as an Air Force survival expert, training soldiers to survive in exactly the kind of environment in which he now found himself as a participant of the show. He seemed to have all the skills, experience, and attitude needed to do well.
About half-way through the series, after just over a month alone, he suddenly stopped talking about winning and what that money would do for him and his family and he began talking about how much he missed his wife and kids and wondering if this was all worth it. Kathy and I looked at each other and said, “That’s it; he is gone.” And shortly thereafter he was. He got on the radio and called in to say that he was dropping out.
We have seen that happen several times with other competitors on the show. They are fine when they are focused on the prize but if they begin focusing on their hardships or how much they miss their family they quickly talk themselves out of continuing.
The Apostle Paul expressed the attitude of a winner in his letter to the Philippian church. In Chapter 3:13-14 he wrote, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Being a follower of Jesus can be difficult. Typically the difficulties we encounter are less about active opposition then they are about losing focus. Jesus, in the parable of the sower, talks about those who start well but who are distracted by the “worries of this world.” Because they lose focus, they fail to finish.
One key to completing our journey is to maintain our focus on Jesus and our focus on the reward that he promises us. Keeping that focus gives us the strength required to persevere and to finish well.
Pastor's Thoughts - May 2022
Watching the news this morning, there were accounts of three different shootings. The first was the mass shooting in Buffalo, NY. Then there was a description of several people injured and one killed at a church in California. Finally, closer to home, was the account of a man shot and killed while standing peacefully in downtown Chicago.
In 2015, when politicians responded to a mass-shooting in San Bernadino with “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families, they were criticized for not doing more to end gun violence. Chris Murphy, a senator from Connecticut, for example, tweeted, “Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again.” This kind of response became known as “Prayer Shaming.”
It occurred as I was listening to these accounts this morning, that these three events occurred in States with some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation. If by “doing something” we mean more legislation and stricter gun-control, the evidence is in - that isn’t working.
The rapid increase in violence and mass shootings that we have seen over the past few years is actually a symptom of a much deeper cultural and societal problem. People are turning from God and the result is that our society has lost its connection to God and his teachings. When as a society we lose our moral compass or foundation, is there any wonder that increasing numbers of people behave immorally and violently?
Which takes me back to “thoughts and prayers.” What we are facing in this country is a deeply spiritual problem. It will not be solved with stricter legislation. The solution to our violence problem will begin to occur as people become followers of the Prince of Peace. The battle for the soul of our nation will not be won in the courts or legislative assemblies; it will be won through the prayers and hard work of God’s people. It will be won (or lost) in the heavenlies.
“Thoughts and Prayers?” I am not sure about “thoughts” but prayers for our nation and for the victims of the senseless violence is assuredly the most effective thing that we as followers of Jesus can be doing.
Pastor's Thoughts - April 2022
Yesterday I participated in the funeral for a friend who had passed away far too young. The memories of the day stay with me – the casket, the line of friends, the tears, the remembrances. Most of the time we can avoid thinking about our own mortality but at a funeral we come face to face with the fact that, unless Jesus returns first, we will all share that fate. Maybe that is why the memories persist.
Along with our mortality, funerals also bring to mind questions about meaning and purpose. Our lives on this earth are so short, and little that we do during our time here remains after our passing – except for one thing.
In the gospel of John 10:10-11 Jesus teaches about His role as the good shepherd in overseeing His flock, His people. In the middle of that teaching, He states, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” An abundant life – that sounds like a pretty good thing; that sounds like something that all of us would want to aspire to. Yet, what is it exactly?
I am sure abundance is not the bling that people spend so much time seeking – the wealth, achievement, cars, boats, power and prestige, etc. It is hard to believe that Jesus, who lived without those, would promise them to those people who are committed to living for Him.
Instead, I think that abundance is defined in terms of relationships. The people in whom we invest are our real riches, they are our abundance. Those relationships are meaningful for two reasons. First, our family and friends are a powerful resource to help us through the difficult times. I saw this yesterday as people ministered to and supported the surviving each other in their grief.
The other reason those relationships are meaningful is because those investments we make in others are perhaps the only real fruit of our lives that remain beyond the grave. Those people whom we influence are changed, and those changes impact others in turn, like ripples in a pond.
When Jesus talks about abundance, therefore, this is what He is referring to. It is the people in our lives, and the abundance that they bring, that is our real treasure. Those relationships are what give our brief lives meaning and purpose. When Jesus promises us that if we follow Him, we will have a life of abundance; that is really what He is saying. His followers, people in whom His Spirit lives, will see that same character, His character, being created in them. They will become like Him. And the farther that they progress in that journey, and the more like Him they become, the more impact that they will have among their family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
That is what it means to have the abundant life that Jesus promises. Follow Him, allow His Spirit to transform us, and we will have an abundant life - a life with real impact, meaning, and purpose.
Pastor's Thoughts - March 2022
I am probably the least artistic person on earth. So Kathy was very surprised when I signed us both up for a “Happy Little Trees” Bob Ross style painting class at the Figge art museum. I surprised us both by thoroughly enjoying the class – to the extent that we have done two more since that first one.
Sitting outside and enjoying the warm afternoon yesterday, it occurred to me that because of that class I am seeing differently. Before, our back yard had grass and trees and various objects. Now when I look at the back yard, it is from the perspective of “How would I paint this?” Now instead of merely seeing objects I find myself seeing shades of color, light and shadow, textures and shading. It has been an interesting transformation.
That got me thinking about other transforming events that we experience in life – those events that change the way we look at ourselves, the meaning of our lives, our purpose, and our direction. I think that most of the events that we would call life-changing in this way are grounded in relationships. We fall in love and get married, and everything changes. Or we bring our first child home from the hospital, and again everything changes. Most of us know guys, for example, who were irresponsible goofballs right up to the moment they held their first born in their arms. Then suddenly, their life took on new meaning and purpose.
It is really the same with our encounter with Jesus. A couple of Sundays ago I talked about Paul who was confidently serving God by persecuting followers of Jesus, right up until the moment he actually met Jesus on the road to Damascus. At that moment Paul was changed, forever. And it wasn’t just substituting one set of beliefs for another. Paul became a new person, his life took on new meaning and purpose, his self-confidence was shattered and replaced by faith in the work of Christ.
He talks about this transformation in Philippians 3, where he writes of his old life “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a]Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
Whenever I read this passage, I am struck by the thought that this should be my mindset as well, and it should be the mindset of everyone who follows Christ. The old way of looking at life, the old perspective is no more. Now we are transformed, we are changed, now we live for Jesus, confident in his righteousness, and trusting in him to bring us through to eternity.
Lord, give us the ability to see things anew. Give us the ability to see life as it truly is, in you.
Pastor's Thoughts - February 2022
Before we began our mission work in Papua New Guinea, we took some courses in anthropology in which we learned how to observe behavior and draw conclusions about the underlying belief system and worldview of the people. The idea was that how people understood their world is reflected in how they lived their lives.
I was reminded of that training this this week as I was reading Jordon Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (I recommend it, BTW). I came across a paragraph that stopped me in my tracks. Peterson says that “It is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs – those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulatable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act (p. 103).
When I read this, I was struck by two things. First, Peterson’s statement echoes what James wrote in his letter. We read in James 2:14-18, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” James is saying that if we have real faith, real belief, it will be revealed by our actions.
The second thing that struck me, and this is really what stopped me in my tracks, was the statement that “You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act.” The question that came to my mind was, If an anthropologist was watching how I live my life, what would he or she conclude about my beliefs and worldview? What would my actions reveal about my deepest beliefs?
I can easily give the textbook answer about my beliefs concerning God, Jesus, the church, the Holy Spirit, eternity, salvation, the lost, and so on. But do these beliefs dwell at the deepest level of being where they affect and drive my actions? I think that this is a good question for all of us to ponder periodically. If an anthropologist was observing us today, what conclusions would he or she draw about our beliefs and worldview?
Pastor's Thoughts - January 2022
I have been reading through the Old Testament accounts of the kings of Judah and early on in the history of those kings we encounter two who started well but finished rather poorly. Solomon is the first one who meets that description. He was definitely a godly ruler, blessed by God with wisdom, wealth, and possessions. God gave him the task of building the temple in Jerusalem, after which Solomon continued by building his own lavish temple. This was a time of prosperity for the nation. Yet because he had married an abundance of foreign women and allowed for the worship of their foreign deities, God decreed that the kingdom would be torn in two under the reign of Solomon’s son.
Asa was another king who started well but finished poorly. He began his reign by removing all the idols from the land, including from the towns he had captured, and by repairing the altar of the Lord. He then led the people in a national recommitment to God. It was a tremendous beginning to his reign. In his later years, however, his trust in God waned and he began working under his own strength and resources rather than relying on God.
These stories caution us that finishing well is important and it is not guaranteed by a good start. The apostle Paul is a great example of someone who finished well. He wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:6-8 that “the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.” I think that all of us want to be able to say the same as we near the end of our race.
The Navigators web site has an article with suggestions for how to finish well. I want to share some of their insights. To finish well, we:
· Maintain our intimacy with Christ.
· Be faithful in our spiritual disciplines.
· Keep a Biblical perspective on the circumstances of life.
· Have a teachable, responsive, humble, and obedient spirit.
· Invest in quality relationships, especially with people who are help us on the journey.
· Continue to invest in the lives of others.
Even though these were listed as steps for finishing well, they are good suggestions for every follower of Jesus, regardless of where one is in the journey. Finishing well isn’t a distinct phase in our journey. It is an extension of a life well lived.
Pastor's Thoughts - Christmas and New Years
A couple years ago I went to the YMCA on January 2nd for my daily workout and discovered that the place was packed. The parking lot was full, the machines were occupied, and the running track was so full that it had become a walking track. As I was leaving, I commented to one of the staff about how full the facilities were. She replied that this time of year is always like that. I asked her how long it was before things were back to normal. I had to laugh when she replied, “About a week.”
There is something about the start of the New Year that nudges people to try to change the trajectory of their lives. January first, a new year, a clean slate, what better time to start that diet or exercise plan. What better time to start a read-the-bible-through-in-a-year program. And so on. It is like on January 1 we have a chance to hit reset in our lives and get things straightened out a bit.
This week I was working on my Christmas message and thinking about that first Christmas and our celebration of the coming of Jesus. It occurred to me that in that event, and in Jesus’ subsequent life, death, and resurrection, God was hitting reset. From Adam until Jesus, sin reigned. In God’s story in the Old Testament we see a few shining examples of righteousness, but much of the narrative is a description of people who were far from God and content to remain there. Throughout the Old Testament, there were glimpses and promises of a coming time when that would no longer be true, when God would do something amazing to bring humanity back into relationship with him.
And then, when the time was right, God fulfilled those promises by sending his Son. God hit reset and everything became new. In Jesus we have new life, we live under a new covenant, and we have a new relationship with God, His Holy Spirit living in us. We enjoy a new community of fellow believers and we experience through the transforming work of the Spirit a new power over sin.
At the start of a new year, we have a figurative new beginning and a clean slate. But in Christmas we celebrate the reality of a new beginning and a clean slate. In Jesus we become new creatures, true children of God, and are truly empowered to live transformed lives.
Have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year.
Pastor's Thoughts - November 2021
I was reading James’ letter and came to his statement in chapter 1 that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” To be honest, this is one of those verses that never seemed to apply much to our day and age. First, I don’t know any afflicted orphans or widows. And second, with our wonderful government programs and safety nets, are there widows and orphans in our community who are truly in need?After lunch yesterday, I got a phone call from our next-door neighbor. She is a sweet lady who lost her husband about a year ago. The vent fan in her bathroom had started to make squeaky noises and could I come and take a look at it. I went over and sprayed WD-40 into every nook and cranny of the fan where things were rotating and presto, the squeaking stopped. Then she mentioned a light in her basement had stopped working and could I take a look at that? I went down, checked the fixture and discovered that somehow one of the wires had come loose. It took a couple minutes to reconnect the wire and the light was working again.
After I returned home, it occurred to me that our neighbor is a widow. And even though I wouldn’t have considered her to be “afflicted,” to use James’ terminology, she definitely needed some help with a few things – things that back in the day her husband would have taken care of.
I am sure that at the time James wrote his letter there were widows and orphans in the various communities who were utterly dependent on the church for their well-being and maybe even their survival. But in our context today, things are different. Those big needs are covered. But there are still needs. A loose wire, a squeaky fan, leaves to be raked, gutters to be cleaned, and so on – maybe even just taking the time to provide some companionship.
Living our lives as followers of Jesus doesn’t have to be difficult and it doesn’t always require a lot of effort to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Keeping our eyes and ears open and responding to the needs of those around us with acts of kindness is an excellent way to demonstrate the presence of Christ in our lives. Exhibiting a “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father” sounds grandiose; but maybe in reality it just requires a little WD-40.
Pastor's Thoughts - September 2021
A few years ago, my wife and I sailed across the Pacific on a small boat. Getting from point A to point be in the vastness of the Pacific required careful attention to navigation. Fortunately, these days there are a lot of wonderful electronic navigation resources available that take all the work out of the process. You have your mapping program and your autopilot. Set the course and relax. A problem can occur, however, when you encounter drift. With drift, your autopilot may keep you pointed at the correct heading but your actual course may be something entirely different. The result is that any number of people have driven their boats onto reefs because they had not factored drift into their navigation.
In Hebrews 2:1, the author of this letter warns against drift, writing “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” The Greek term translated “drift away” is a nautical term meaning exactly what it sounds like – not reaching the intended destination because of forces pushing us off course.
This is a good reminder for those of us living in today’s crazy world. Christians typically don’t intentionally reject Jesus outright. What happens is usually much subtler and more incremental. People lose focus and become less intentional about their faith. They become less regular in their worship, prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. Over time, baby step by baby step, Jesus occupies less and less of their attention until they eventually without ever intending it they have just drifted away.
No one starts out that way. Remember the excitement we felt as new Christians? When Kathy and I first committed our lives to the Lord, first thing we did was go out and buy a leather bound New American Standard Bible. And we devoured that thing. Never missed church; we led the senior high youth group. We took kids to camp in the summer. Our experience wasn’t unusual, that is actually the norm when people are new in the faith. Over time, however, some maintain their passion but for others the fervor slowly dies out; life returns to “normal.” If you ask them they would say “Yes, I am still a Christian,” but their lives are not showing the fruit of God’s presence. They show up at church for Christmas and Easter but not much beyond that. You wonder, what happened. Actually, in many cases nothing big happened. It was just drift.
How do we avoid drift ? First, we need to be intentional about our study of God’s word. This is where he lays out the course our lives should take and details the navigational resources available to us –like the Holy Spirit, prayer, and the counsel of fellow Christians. Second, we need to be attentive to what is happening in our lives, minds, and hearts. As I say, most people who fall away from Christ do so without ever making a conscious decision – they just drift away. And finally, we need to remain in fellowship with a community of believers. In fellowship we can help one another in what Eugene Peterson calls a long obedience in the same direction. This long obedience is most effectively undertaken in the company of fellow travelers.
Pastor's Thoughts - August 2021
Kathy and I worked among an unreached people group in Papua New Guinea for several years. Traditionally this people group was cannibalistic; they had only given that up a few decades before we arrived on the scene. Cannibalism was almost never about food. In most cases the practice was about power. The people among whom we worked believed that by consuming their enemies, they received their spiritual power. Not only would that make them more powerful here on earth, but it would also affect their status in the afterlife.
Concern with the afterlife, and how to achieve it, seems to be an almost universal human trait. Everyone, at least those who accept the existence of a spiritual realm, want to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure a positive experience of the afterlife. Most religions are concerned with what steps a person needs to follow and what kind of person one needs to be in order to accomplish that.
This month I am starting a new series on the Book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews was writing to a group of Christians who were facing increasing opposition from the authorities. The purpose of the book was to encourage those Christian to persevere in the face of that opposition.
Much of Hebrews discusses the supremacy and superiority of Jesus. He is greater than the angels, greater than Melchizedek, greater than the priests and the offering he made on the cross is greater and more effective than the sacrifices offered in the temple. Jesus is the image of God and the goal and purpose of God’s progressive revelation.
The point is that there is one, and only one, way to achieve that universal desire for a blissful eternity. That way runs through the cross to Jesus. The author of Hebrews encourages the early Christians to persevere because there is no alternative path. To depart from the path of faith is to fail.
A family member once told me that there are many paths to God and it didn’t really make a difference which one you followed as long as you were sincere. That is a nice thought, but it is a thought completely ungrounded in reality. The reality is that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him.
Pastor's Thoughts - July 2021
The past couple of weeks, I have mentioned in my messages the important role that our internal stories play in shaping the way we view and respond to events in our lives. The context was a series of sermons looking at the ways the Israelites tested God in the wilderness. The Israelites created narratives through which they interpreted the journey towards the promised land. In the first narrative, they repeatedly expressed the belief that Moses and God had brought them into the wilderness to kill them (Exodus 14:10-12, 16:2-3, 17:1-3). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, this internal narrative created in them a distrust of God and his purposes and resulted in their turning away from God to worship a golden calf.
The second narrative centered on how good their lives had been in Egypt, specifically in regard to the food that they were provided (Exodus 16:3, Numbers 11:4-6). Compared to the imaginary banquet of wonderful food they had enjoyed in Egypt; the manna God was providing each day was dull and boring. They grew to loathe the manna and grumbled against God and his provision with the result that God struck them with a plague which killed many people.
The lesson to be drawn from these events is our stories have a powerful effect on how we define and respond to the events of our lives. False narratives, that is, narratives that don’t align with reality are dangerous. The sin of the Israelites in those two events was the direct result of the stories they were telling themselves. Because their stories were not grounded in the reality of God’s purposes and provisions and his demonstrated care for them, the people behaved in ways that brought them into conflict with God.
Our stories, those things we tell ourselves about God, Jesus, the church, and ourselves, have powerful effects on our lives. This is why it is so important for us as followers of Jesus to study and understand the Scriptures. In his word, God defines Reality. To the extent that our stories align with God’s Reality, we are equipped to glorify him in our lives. We all need to evaluate the stories we tell ourselves in the light of God’s word. Then, in collaboration with his Holy Spirit, we will be equipped to rewrite those narratives to align with the truth of God’s word.