Jesus is Searching for You

Searching

Stories are an important part of our lives.

I suspect that many of us can remember the day when terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers, and that many of us can remember what we were doing on that day. My father used to tell me a story about the day when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I’ve been told many stories in my years as a pastor, and I truly believe that many of those stories capture the very essence of life.

Jesus told many stories, called parables, during His ministry.

And one day, Jesus told a story about a shepherd who left 99 sheep in the middle of the Wilderness in order to search for one of the sheep that had wandered off. He searched behind rocks and boulders. He shouted until the back of his throat was raw. He searched and searched and searched and searched. And he rejoiced when he found the lost sheep and was able to return it to the flock.

We all have times when we wander off and get lost in the Wilderness.

Some people get lost when they sink into the bottomless pit of addiction. Some of us struggle to forgive people who have hurt or disappointed us. Some of us get lost as we face the temptation to withdraw and isolate ourselves as we grieve. Teenagers who are being bullied can feel lost. People who struggle with homeless can feel lost. People who are trying to escape from the grip of Internet pornography (which is a plague that affects and ruins many people’s lives – even in the Church) can feel lost. And, when we’re lost, we can’t always find our own way back from the lonely Wilderness, can we?

Jesus is searching for you.

The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who have life all figured-out, come together to be entertained for an hour each week. The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who don’t want to admit that we’re all lost in some way, come together to have their ego stroked by an inspiring speaker. We’ve all had times when we’ve needed to be found by the Shepherd of our Souls. We’ve all had times when we’ve been lost and when we’ve needed to be brought back to the safety of the flock whether it be to the safety of our family, or to the safety of  the Church, or to the safety of a support group that can help and encourage us as we struggle with the uncertainties of life.

Jesus is searching for you.

No matter where you find yourself in life, right now, the arms of God are opened wide and God’s embrace is big. Take heart! The Shepherd of our Souls continues to search for you even when you feel lost and alone. Jesus is searching for you in whatever Wilderness surrounds you today. And that’s truly a message of Good News, isn’t it? It’s a message that can comfort and sustain us when we’re feeling cut-off from other people and when we’re feeling that even God is standing at a distance as we struggle to find our way through a Wilderness that can leave us feeling very lost and alone.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

 

God is Near!

Elijah

1 Kings 17:6-24

Life is filled with ups and downs, isn’t it?

We save money for a rainy day, and we invest our time and energy in relationships with other people. We plan for our future (often expecting the best) and we even go to church and pray – believing that God stands beside us.
But, life throws us curves, doesn’t it?

Children sometimes go astray when they grow up, and close relationships can end when people move to a different city – or even die. Today’s bad choices often shape tomorrow’s reality. Marriages crumble. Jobs can be lost. Sudden illnesses can bring us a mountain of unpaid bills. And, when any of those things happen, our faith can be shaken and we can even begin to ask hard questions.

In this week’s message, “God is Near”, we explore a brief moment of time in the life of a widow who experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. She watched the ground dry, crops wilt, and animals die after Elijah told King Ahab that God was going to withhold the rain because of Israel’s wickedness. The widow had seen her small barrel of meal and flask of oil provide more meal and oil that she could have ever imaged after she (in faith) baked Elijah a small loaf of bread and gave him a drink of water. She watched her only son die, and cursed the day she had met Elijah – because she blamed him for what had happened to her son. And then, Elijah wept and prayed and held the dead corpse of the widow’s only son; and, suddenly, he came back to life!
We experience a wide range of emotions as we travel through life as people of faith.

When everything’s going well and when we’re happy and prosperous, we feel like God is blessing us and we praise God from the mountaintop! But, when the pendulum swings in the other direction, we ask tough questions, don’t we? “Where was God when I needed God to be present?” “Why do bad things always seem to happen to good people?” “Why do little children face starvation and horrible diseases?” “Where is God when violence explodes at a local synagogue?” “Where is God when little children are being abused by priests?” Where is God when overdoses claim the lives of people that we love?” “Where was God when the widow of Zarephath’s only son got sick and suddenly died?”

We are reminded, in this week’s message (“God is Near”), that God is near to us in both good times and bad times. God was present as the widow of Zarephath wept for her son. God is present when people gather together to lift each other up and to stand beside each other in difficult times. Jesus promised us that He will always be found when we come together as God’s people to share gifts of Bread and Wine in Holy Communion. God will always be found in the love we receive from people who encourage us and hug us and whisper tender words into our ears, and God will be present every time we offer our love and support to other people – comforting others with the same kind words and actions that others extend to us during difficult times (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Our journey of faith teaches us to know that God is near in every circumstance.

It’s easy to see God’s presence when we experience times of blessing. But Jesus promises to be close to us even when the pendulum swings in the other direction – and when our lives become difficult.

Trust the Lord and know that God is near to you. Look for Jesus in every circumstance of life – whether it’s good or bad. And know that our God promises to draw near to us and to sustain us and to renew us in every situation that we face.

Tree of Life: Where Healing Begins

Tree of Life Pic

“We pray for healing of the body.

We pray for healing of the soul.

For strength of flesh and mind and spirit.

We pray to once again be whole.”

These are words that resonate deeply with my soul.

I’m sure that we were all both shocked and horrified when we learned that a lone gunman had walked into the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh, PA on Saturday morning and had opened fire on innocent worshipers who had gathered there on the Sabbath. The story of what happened quickly moved to the center of the daily news. Eleven of the worshipers, ranging in age from 54 to 97, were killed almost instantly as the police, emergency teams, SWAT teams and the FBI mobilized and quickly traveled to the scene. The gunman, who was later wounded in a shoot-out with the police, surrendered and was quickly removed from the scene. And our journey into the “unspeakable” began.

I learned, many years ago, that there are times when our words can’t fix things.

What do you say to a mother who has just watched her child die? What do you say to the loved ones of someone who decides that life cannot be endured for another day and who then ends it? What do you say to the families of eleven innocent people who were killed while worshiping in a synagogue by a man who ran into the building with guns in his hands and screaming, “All Jews must die!”? What do you say to a community filled with people who trusted in the fact that senseless slaughters always happen somewhere else?

I learned, many years ago, that God didn’t give me any magic fairy dust.

The events that unfolded at the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh dragged me back in time to a very different – yet hauntingly similar – event that I faced several years ago. I was preparing to begin another busy Wednesday in Lent when my cellphone beeped and alerted me to the fact that a young man had walked into the Franklin Regional High School (about five miles from my home) with two knives in his hands and had stabbed twenty people (click here to learn more) before being tackled. I was speechless. I felt both paralyzed and numbed as I stared at the screen of my television; and yet, I wanted to do something helpful. I suspect that many folks felt that same paralysis on Saturday. When senseless tragedies unfold, we stare blankly at our television sets and watch first responders rise to the occasion. We want to shut the news off and return to our more normal routines, but we can’t. Senseless violence changes us. We sense a solidarity with all of humanity when the lives of innocent people are ended by violent outbursts of anger. We, perhaps, sense our need for human community when violence drives us into isolation. But what then? What do we do in the days and weeks that follow senseless tragedies? How can we begin to take the first steps forward after we’ve been paralyzed by senseless violence?

Here are some things that I learned as I moved through the difficult days and weeks and months that followed the violent outburst at the Franklin Regional High School. And I offer these ideas hoping that they’ll be helpful to you:

  1. I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to take care of ourselves. In the Beginning, God said that it’s “not good” for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18) and that’s especially true when we’re struggling. We need each other, and we need to gather in community with other people as we try to make sense of violent acts that change our lives. I remember gathering with people at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Murrysville, PA on the evening of the incident at Franklin Regional High School. We sang hymns together and prayed. We listened to the words of Scripture, and we spent time together. My wife and I did the same thing yesterday. We attended a gathering of several hundred people at Temple David in Monroeville; and we mourned with Jews and Muslims and Christians alike. We were reminded that we must not allow hatred and bigotry to win. We were reminded that we are people who can make a lasting difference in our world by committing ourselves to the path of love and deeper understanding.
  2. I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to watch the helpers. I find it quite ironic that the violent outburst at the Tree of Life synagogue unfolded in the same neighborhood that once provided a home for Fred Rogers. I grew-up in the Pittsburgh area and Mr. Rogers was a part of my childhood. I still remember his friendly smile. I still remember him changing his shoes and putting his sweater on at the beginning of each show. But, perhaps even more than that, I remember Mr. Rogers’ kindness and embrace of others. Fred Rogers once said (or at least we are told that he said) that, when bad things happen, we need to watch and to focus upon what the helpers are doing. The world is full of good people. The world is full of people who care about each other and who want to help each other. Think about the first responders and the police officers who were wounded when they rushed into the synagogue. Think about all of the doctors and nurses who rushed to the hospital, so that they would be ready to treat the wounded. Think of the people who will walk beside the families of those who were killed in the weeks and months ahead – often unseen and unnoticed. We can all learn a lesson from Mr. Rogers; because, even in times of unspeakable tragedy, good people gather and help.
  3. I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we need to be willing to listen to what people are saying – even when we hear things that make us feel uncomfortable. I listened to stories from the lips of many young people who were being bullied at school in the weeks and months that followed the incident at the Franklin Regional High School – and it all began when I sat down with a small group of teenagers and said, “When I was your age, bullies flicked your ears and shot spit balls at you. I don’t know what bullying looks like today. Will you help me to understand?” When we listen, we learn. I’ve believed that those who are suffering are my teachers for a long, long time. I’ve been given a small glimpse of what it’s like to lose a child, to face a terminal illness, and to say goodbye to your spouse. I’ve learned a bit about bullying by listening to teenagers tell me about their lives. Perhaps, this is a time when we need to listen to people share stories about Anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry and hatred? Perhaps, this is a time when we need to allow people who are usually silent to speak? I was once told that God gave me two ears and one mouth for a very good reason. We need to remember that in times like these.
  4. And lastly, I learned that, in times of shock and horror, we can begin to turn the corner and step away from feelings of powerlessness by helping. In the weeks and months after the violent incident at Franklin Regional High School, the good and always-faithful people at Christ’s Lutheran Church collected money that was used to pay medical bills, to financially support parents who needed to quit their jobs to care for their teenagers, and to provide resiliency training for local teachers. We were told, yesterday, that the Muslim community is collecting money to help pay medical bills and funeral expenses and to bring financial relief to those who have already faced so much. I found that becoming a helper was even more empowering than watching helpers. If you’d like to help the families of those who have already faced so much because of the horrific attack at the Tree of Life synagogue

CLICK HERE

My wife and I joined hundreds of others singing powerful words of prayer during the gathering at Temple David in Monroeville yesterday; and, as I close, I’d like to lift those words before you:

“We pray for healing of our people.

We pray for healing of the land.

And peace for ev’ry race and nation,

Ev’ry child, ev’ry woman, ev’ry man.”

 

Confronting Worry and Anxiety

hibiscus pic

Matthew 6:25-34

Worry and anxiety are big words these days, aren’t they?

Many of us were glued to our televisions last week as we watched Hurricane Michael hit the panhandle the Florida and slowly move through the Southeastern United States with unstoppable fury. We’ve been watching people that we’ve trusted all of our lives fall from pedestals as stories about scandals in the Church, and even in our schools, have filled the news with unimaginable truths. Studies tell us that more people take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications than ever before, and the suicide rate in the United States continues to rise. Worry and anxiety take a big toll.

In this week’s message, “Confronting Worry and Anxiety”, we explore what Jesus had to say about worry and anxiety (Matthew 6:25-34). Jesus and His disciples were always surrounded by people who were pushing-in on every side and their days were both long and tiring. Jesus was often rejected when His message became “too political” or when His words stirred people’s nests. One day, while Jesus was teaching, nearly everyone in the crowd stood-up and walked away – never to return. Jesus was a man who was “tested as we are” in every sense of the word (Hebrews 4:15) – and so, Jesus can teach us all how to rise above the fray and move forward when our lives become difficult, too.

This week, Jesus reminded me that, when I become overwhelmed, I need to learn to stop and look at the birds in my backyard. And then, I need to ask myself, “If God’s taking care of them, why don’t I believe that God is taking care of me?” A few days ago, my wife and I saw a beautiful hibiscus flower (pictured above) that looked prettier than what either of us were wearing as we walking down the street of a small town. What can that beautiful flower teach us about how God works in our lives and in the world? What can we learn about God (and about what it means to live as God’s people of faith) as we celebrate the Harvest this year and remember that it’s God who provides the sunshine and rain and warmth and good soil that all work together to create the miracle of food?
We worry and become anxious because, deep inside, we want to be in control.

We gather and tuck things away (like squirrels gathering nuts) because we’re afraid that if we don’t collect enough – we’ll “run out.” We hold onto things that we could share with other people because we believe that we need to “save” for days that may not even be on our calendars. We want to remain in control because we’re afraid that if we lose control, something’s going to happen to us that we’re not going to like. And, in the midst of all of that, Jesus calls us to stop and to come back to our faith and to our trust in God.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow.” Jesus says, “Let tomorrow worry about itself.”

What would our lives look like if we went back to the old proverb that teaches us that we can only eat an elephant one bite at a time? What would happen if we learned to live our lives in a way that’s more “centered” upon what’s happening right now, and focused our attention upon today and upon what we can do right now? What would life look like if we lived with a deeper awareness of the fact that Jesus walks right beside us moment by moment by moment? What would our lives look like if we learned, again, to trust in the fact that God’s grace is sufficient for today – and it will be sufficient for tomorrow – and it will be sufficient for the day after that?
Have faith!

Remember that Jesus is walking beside you. Remember that God will provide whatever you need to face today – tomorrow – and the day after that. And when you’re worried and filled with anxiety, take a moment to watch the birds – and ask yourself, “If God is taking such good care of them, why don’t I think God’s going to take good care of me?”