Our New Normal

I suspect that you already know that many things are changing.

Most of us, at least in America, have lived our entire lives believing that the right combination of science and good medical care can protect us from viral and bacterial infections. Many of us have not regularly washed or disinfected our hands, and many of us haven’t worn a mask that covers both our nose and mouth at any other point in our lives. We have greeted people by shaking hands and hugging them. We have gathered in tightly packed spaces with few concerns about safety. Those who attend worship have been encouraged to sing loudly and to praise the Lord with joyful hearts and then kneel beside each other to receive Bread and Wine during Holy Communion. We have been encouraged to believe that gun violence only affects other people. We have believed that racism was addressed during the Civil Rights protests in the past and that it is no longer a part of American culture. We have, also, trusted in the fact that our Democratic Republic, itself, will survive the test of time.

The Bible is filled with stories about a God who carries people through times like these.

God delivered people from slavery during the Exodus and provided manna (which means: What is this stuff?) in the Wilderness. God carried the remnant of Israel through the difficult years after the Assyrian invasion and carried the remnant of Judah through a time when the place where people worshiped God was destroyed and when faithful people were dragged into captivity in Babylon. The Bible speaks about God as a God who provides streams in the desert and it speaks about Jesus as the source of “Living Water” that never fails. The Bible bears witness to a God who remains stable, secure, rock-solid and true no matter what you face in life as an individual or even as an American citizen in 2021. Jesus even promises to raise you up strong, healthy and recreated after life and death have done their worst.

We are tempted to look backwards and to idealize a past that never really existed when we face times of change.

We want to relive the days before the pandemic and want our “new normal” to be the same as our “old normal.” We want to go out in public spaces without wearing masks. We want to shake hands and hug each other. We do not want to even think about protecting ourselves from something that we can’t see anymore. We want the Church to be what it was 50 years ago. We want people to stop talking about racism and poverty and violence in America. We want to know again that, even though America isn’t perfect, America will prevail as a nation. Change is inevitable. We don’t like it. We want the familiar.

What would you say if I told you that the “old normal” is never coming back and that you need to open your hands, release what’s familiar, and trust God to give you something new and exciting?

Perhaps, during these times when people are intensely focused upon personal freedom and rugged individuality, God is challenging you to think more deeply about community and what it means to care about others? Perhaps, God is challenging you to listen more carefully to the voices of those who are lifting up the issues of racism, poverty and violence in America, and to be a part of positive change? Perhaps, God is challenging you to think about the fact that, in the midst of a global pandemic, we can’t effectively address the challenge of variants and viral spread by focusing only upon what’s happening in the United States? Maybe God wants you to more readily embrace change at your church, so that your church can move into a stronger and healthier future during a time when the rest of the world is moving on? Maybe God is challenging America and Americans to think about what it truly means to be a nation that boldly proclaims that it is a place of liberty and justice for all?

Faith is the bridge between where I am and the place where God is taking me; and, trusting in that fact, I find the courage to live boldly and faithfully. God journeys with me in uncertain times and Jesus has promised to walk beside me. Faith reminds me that God is moving me toward something better than what I have right now – even as I face times of change and uncertainty that I would like to avoid at all costs. I hope you can say that, too.

May God bless you and those that you love in the coming week. May you have a renewed sense of God’s presence in these changing times. And may the Holy Spirit fill your heart with faith and embolden you as we continue to journey, together, from where we are right now to where God wants us to be.

Little Prayers in Big Times

Have you noticed that everything seems to be really big these days?

COVID-19 moved onto center stage 18 months ago, and it’s almost as if the pandemic has swallowed up everything else in our lives. We have witnessed the abrupt end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan that was destined to end badly from the very start. We are hearing about uncontrollable fires burning in the Western United States. We are hearing about Hurricane Ida leaving a trail of destruction behind it. We witnessed an angry mob taking over our Capitol building on January 6th; and now, we are hearing threats about even worse things to come.

There is an old saying (actually, an old curse) that reads: “May you live in interesting times.”

Think about people who lived through the Worlds Wars. Think about people who lived during the American Civil War when people in the United States became so deeply divided that they killed each other. Life was difficult in the time of Jesus. Roman soldiers (think “a foreign army”) had taken over the country. Words of insurrection and rebellion were being quietly whispered behind locked doors and in the streets. People were being told how to live their lives by religious authorities. People who broke Roman laws were crucified.

And yet, even during a time when things around Him were so big, Jesus continued to move around among the people and Jesus continued His ministry, didn’t He? In Mark 7:25, a woman came to Jesus because her daughter was possessed by a demon – even while words of insurrection and rebellion were being whispered all around her. In Mark 7:32, a group of people brought a man who could not hear to Jesus – during a foreign occupation.

Are you still praying for yourself and for people that you know and love in the midst of all of the big things that are happening around you, right now? Maybe you know someone who is fighting cancer or struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe you are trying to stay sober or keep away from addicting drugs. Maybe your boss has turned into a tyrant and you are thinking about quitting your job, but are afraid that you might not be able to find another one. Maybe you are struggling with loneliness. Maybe you are afraid to send your kid(s) back to school. Maybe you are a frontline healthcare worker who is weary, right now, and who is tired of watching so many people die. Maybe you are discovering that your “Golden Years” are not really as golden as you thought they would be.

I want to encourage you to pray this week and to remember that the prayers you offer are as important to Jesus as they are to you. I want to encourage you to lift your voice, to pour out your heart, and to speak what’s deep inside of you trusting that God hears you and wants to touch you and those that you love with healing power. Perhaps, in the midst of challenging times, it would be helpful to begin each new day by sitting quietly in a chair or by kneeling, by taking a deep breath and by saying, “How good, Lord, to be here.” (Mark 9:5) And, after you do that, simply stop and rest and know that Jesus is near. Feel the peace.

You see, it’s not about who you are or about whether you believe the right things about God. It’s not about whether you somehow deserve to be heard by God in a time when everything else around you seems to be so big. Jesus listened to a Gentile woman as she prayed for her daughter during challenging times, and Jesus listens to you when you pray for people that you know and love. Jesus listened to a group of people who prayed that He would heal their deaf friend during a time of big disruptions and chaotic change, and Jesus is listening to you as you bring what concerns you before Him in prayer.

Prayer works because Jesus loves you.

Prayer works because, even as you live your life in a world where everything seems to be so big, Jesus is listening to your voice and continues to invite you to lift whatever’s in your heart and on your mind before Him, right now.

Verbal Emission Standards

I began my career as a Chemical Engineer. I helped to design pilot plants – small versions of larger chemical plants that were going to be built in the future. I worked with computer programs that simulated what would happen as chemicals traveled through the plant, so that I would know what kind of products and emissions were going to be produced. And this was important to me because I was interested in protecting the environment.

I first became interested in protecting the environment as a child. I remember sitting at the McDonald’s in Baden, Pennsylvania and watching orange dust from the steel mill across the river settle onto our car as I ate my cheeseburger. The hillside behind the lead smelter where I worked was totally devoid of vegetation because of the poisonous emissions that had been released by the plant.

But now, being environmentally conscious is all the rage, isn’t it? We are concerned about what comes out of the tailpipes of our cars and burning coal has become taboo. We are supposed to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs and set blue cans filled with recyclables at the end of our driveways each week. Scientists have become increasingly concerned about greenhouse gases as rivers that supply drinkable water to tens of millions of people fall to record lows. We even send cleanup crews out to pick up trash along highways because some people just roll down their window and throw trash from the moving car.

Jesus was, also, concerned about emission standards. He once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside will defile. It’s the things that come out of you that can defile.” It’s not the types of food that you eat or the things that you decide to drink that can make you unclean in the eyes of God. What makes you unclean are the things that come out of your heart and that, eventually, come out of your mouth: Your verbal emissions.

We are living in strange times, aren’t we? People are on edge, and little things are suddenly becoming big things. A lot of people don’t care about how they are using their words, and social media has made it even worse because it’s easy to type words onto the screen of an electronic device that you would never speak to someone face-to-face. Political debates are destroying friendships, are dividing churches and are even tearing our families apart. The space between “being on my side” and “being on your side” has become, for many of us, a nearly impossible chasm to cross.

Today, as a pastor, I’m telling you that it needs to stop.

We need to work together, as God’s people, so that the way that people are using their words these days doesn’t become normalized and an acceptable part of our society. We need to stop defining ourselves only in terms of “us” and “them” and believing that verbally attacking “them” (whoever “them” may be) is OK. As Jesus people, we need to be drawn back to the base of the Cross where Jesus calls us to confess whatever part we have played in creating the divisions around us; and then, we need to repent and change course. As Jesus people, we need to hear God’s call to look for the good in each other, to encourage and build each other up, to search for what we still have in common when we disagree, and to do our best to speak words of truth to each other in loving ways.

I guess that there is still a Chemical Engineer inside of me. But now, my calling as a pastor is to speak as clearly about what comes out of our hearts and out of our mouths as I used to speak about what escapes from a chemical plant’s smokestacks.

Jesus once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside of you can defile.” St. James once wrote, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak. And remember: If you think that you are religious and do not bridle your tongue, you are just deceiving your heart and your religion is worthless.

Let’s think about those words as we move through the coming week; and let’s, also, allow those words to lead and guide us as we live and interact with each other in these strange and unusual times.

Our Stories and Our Faith

Our life together, as Jesus people, is built around stories. We gather on Christmas Eve to remember God as Immanuel – God with us in every situation and circumstance of life. We celebrate Easter by listening to a wonderful story about Jesus being raised from the dead; and, on that day, we remember that, even after life and death have done their worst, God is going to raise us up new and whole. Perhaps, you remember a well-known story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only five barley loaves and two little fish. Maybe you remember the story of Noah’s ark. Our life together is built around stories.

I have been drawn into the story of the Exodus many times during the pandemic that has so dramatically reshaped our lives. I came to appreciate Moses more deeply as I came to see him as a man who didn’t think that he had the ability to lead God’s people into the future. I came to understand the challenges that the Israelites faced as I listened to people calling me to move in many different directions during a time when I am not always sure what’s best. God has called me to come to Mount Sinai, where I have removed my shoes and spent time in the presence of the Lord in times of daily prayer and devotion. I have even come to understand what it was like when the Israelites looked back and saw the Red Sea closing behind them. There was a sense that God was closing a chapter in their lives and that the only option was to move into an unknown future.

The story of the Exodus bears witness to God’s ability to lead us into an unknown future that is good; and, this week, I would like to encourage you to reflect upon that story. The Church still has many unanswered questions, doesn’t it? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when some are worshiping inside our buildings and others are worshiping at home? How can we continue to share the message of Jesus with young people during a time when parents are not sure that it is safe to bring their children back to Sunday School? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when we are being called into deep and destructive divisions? How can we continue to move forward with faith during a time when many things we have trusted in the past are changing or fading away? Here are some things to think about:

  • The story of the Exodus reminds us that, in times when we are afraid and uncertain, one of the first things we want to do is go back to a time and place in the past when we felt safe. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic.” (Numbers 11:5) I remember days when we needed to put extra chairs in the aisles during worship, so that everyone could sit down. I remember days when my Dad told me, “If you are too sick to go to church, you are too sick to do anything else today” and he meant it. But times are changing. Today, only about 16% of Americans regularly attend in-person worship. What does that mean to us as a community of Jesus people? What can we learn about ourselves as we think about the Israelites creating an idealized picture of a past that they wanted to recapture even while God was leading them into the future?
  • The story of the Exodus also reminds us that God is a God who provides manna in the Wilderness (Exodus 16:13-14). The Hebrew word “manna” means: “What is this stuff?” We don’t always fully understand what God is providing as we journey into a new future. Some folks asked: “What is Zoom?” last year. I never imagined being able to create a Christmas and Easter service using DaVinci Resolve 17. We have been learning how to use YouTube Live. We have been learning how to get a copy of our weekly bulletin into people’s hands by creating a link on our church’s webpage. Sermons that have been preached at Christ’s Lutheran Church are now being heard in 36 countries. We have been using new camera equipment to enable people in California, Texas, New York, South Carolina and even Germany to join us in worship. 2021 is a year when we all need to be asking: “What is this stuff?” What tools and what opportunities is God providing, so that we can move from where we are right now to where God wants us to be? “What is this stuff?” that God is providing to help us to share the message of Jesus with others?
  • And lastly, the story of the Exodus reminds us that leading God’s people into their unknown future is not an easy task, and that those who are trying their best to lead the Church during these strange times need people to come alongside of them as they stand on the front line (Exodus 17:10-12). I often speak about leading the Church through these difficult days as drinking from a firehose. There are few decisions that are easy. People who serve us as bishops, as pastors, as Church Council members and as leaders of every sort have never done this before. Just picture Moses standing with his arms in the air knowing that God’s people win as long as he holds his hands high in the air and that they falter when his arms begin to drop. “How long can I keep doing this?” he surely asked himself. And we read that Moses did his best even when he was weary. But the story of the Exodus tells us that the battle was won after Aaron and Hur got a stone, so that Moses could sit down. And then, Aaron and Hur came alongside of Moses and physically held his weary arms in the air and the day was saved. What a story!

Our life together, as Jesus people, continues to be built around stories; and, this week, I want to encourage you to think about the story of the Exodus. How can we work together to live into the future that God is setting before us during a time when many of us want to return to our idealized picture of a past that no longer exists? How can we work together and move forward in our lives and ministry during a time when we are continuing to ask, “What is this stuff?” as we see what God is providing? And how can we continue to live well with each other and faithfully support those who are trying their best to lead us through a time that none of us could have ever imagined?

Vision and Mission

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission.

A food bank’s mission is to get groceries into the hands of hungry people. The mission of a women’s shelter is to provide a place of refuge for women who want to escape their abusive partners and to help those women get a fresh start. Some non-profits focus upon helping people who are homeless or upon preparing meals for people who are no longer able to cook. Jesus created the Church to be a community that spreads the good news of God’s love and to be a community that makes disciples.

A lot has happened in the last year.

We have not been able to gather in groups, and we have needed to stop doing things that we once considered routine. Churches locked their doors and worshiped online. We have all embraced technology in new ways. Zoom became more than what happens when you push your automobile’s gas pedal to the floor. Social media has become rather antisocial. We have become a bit harsh with each other as we’ve grown weary, and we have become people who are more bothered by little inconveniences. We are tired. We’re not sure that we want to make even small commitments. We are grieving because some of the things that we once considered important in our lives have changed, or even disappeared. And, of course, we are all asking, “What’s next?” Will things that we have enjoyed return? Will our churches, non-profits and other organizations survive? What can we do to move into a brighter future? Where do we need to focus our energy?

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

Think about a local food bank that stops distributing food. Think about a women’s shelter that stops providing a place of refuge for abused women. Think about a church that is so concerned about getting people to come back into a building (in a nation where only about 16% of adults regularly attend worship) that it loses sight of the fact that it can spread the good news of God’s love and make disciples using new and exciting technology. These are times when churches and non-profits of every kind need to be focused upon why they exist. These are times when churches and non-profits need to understand and articulate their mission clearly, and when churches and non-profits need to be focused upon what they have to offer and upon what they have been created by God to do.

The Bible says that people perish when there is a lack of vision (Proverbs 29:18). Vision gives birth to mission. Mission gives birth to passion. Passion gives birth to excitement and energy. Excitement and energy give birth to growth and vitality. Growth and vitality can create even more expansive understandings of an organization’s vision and mission, which can lead to even more excitement and energy and growth and vitality.

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

And, with that in your mind, I want to conclude by asking: “If you belong to a church or if you choose to participate in the life of any non-profit organization, how would you define your group’s mission?” “What is God calling you to do?” “What value are you bringing into the lives of those you serve?” These are critical questions we need to ask as we continue to emerge from these challenging times and as we prepare to move forward with hope, direction and focus in these quickly changing days.

Framing

My wife enjoys buying picture frames in antique stores.

She has a keen sense of observation and an even more deep awareness of how picture frames can enhance the things that we hang on the walls in our home. She, also, leaves many picture frames hanging on the walls in antique stores because she does not like the frame, or because she decides that a particular frame will not enhance our home décor.

Do you realize that you frame things every day?

You frame everything that happens in your life, and then you decide whether what has happened is good or bad, beneficial or harmful. We all think about life in certain ways because of our past experiences, because of our personality, because of the ways that we’ve learned to interact with others, and because we want to continue to be a part of groups that are important to us.

But the challenge is that how we frame things affects the ways we interpret almost everything that happens in our lives.

Think about a story from the life of Jesus. Jesus taught and healed people in the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus preached in Galilee, cleansed a leper, healed a person who was paralyzed, calmed a storm, and even raised a little girl from the dead. And Jesus tried to do the same thing in Nazareth – his own hometown. But then framing became a challenge. We read that people were astonished by Jesus’ teaching (Mark 6:2), and people were amazed by the incredible things that Jesus was doing. But all of a sudden, people began to put a different frame around what was happening. “Is not this the town carpenter?” (Mark 6:3) “Isn’t this the son of Mary, and a man whose own brothers and sisters are still living in town?” (Mark 6:3) And, suddenly, people who were astonished by what Jesus was doing became offended because of the way they framed things. In fact, Jesus even says to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4) And it is all because of framing. The ways that we interpret what happens in our lives are always shaped by our past experiences. And, when we put a nice frame around the things that are happening to us, all is well. But when put an ugly frame around things, we can be drawn into conflicts, disagreements, and broken relationships.

The way you frame what happens in your life is often far more important than what has actually happened.

You are far more likely to be drawn into conflict with people when you wrap things that happen in an ugly frame. You are far more likely to close your ears to the thoughts and opinions of people who disagree with you when you frame everything with an “us” versus “them” mentality. The frames that we put around the actions of other people can be shaped by our biases about the color of a person’s skin, the language that a person speaks, the religion that a person embraces, or even the place of a person’s birth. Ugly frames can be created by political differences, by different visions of the future, by a fear of the unknown, and even by the always-shifting sands of time that bring unwanted change.

But framing can also help us to live our lives in a better way.

We can try to remember that most people are trying to do their best in life even during times of conflict. We can try to unravel the “us” versus “them” type of thinking that is so prevalent these days and try to listen more carefully to the ideas and opinions of others. We can try to remember that people who have a different skin color, who speak another language, who embrace a different religion, or who were born in another county have experiences in life that we do not fully understand. We can try, as the 16th Century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, suggested, to put better-looking frames around the things people do by trying to interpret their actions in the best possible way.

And so, I would like to challenge you to think about framing this week.

What kind of frames are you putting around things that happen in your life? How are the frames you put around things affecting your relationships? How are the frames that you put around large groups of people interfering with your ability to see that we have been created by a God who tells us that we all have both dignity and worth? How can the frames that you put around the things that create conflict in your life be changed, so that times of conflict can lead to deeper levels of understanding and appreciation for people who do not always agree with you?

Independence Day

Americans will celebrate independence and freedom this weekend. America’s Founders dreamed of a nation where people would have a voice in their government, and they created a Democratic Republic where government officials are elected by the people and serve for a specific term. Many folks try to trace the roots of American freedom all the way back to the day when King John “Lackland” signed the Magna Charta in 1215 AD, but the comparison between the Magna Charta and the American Declaration of Independence is a bit of a stretch. America was founded upon representative government, and the earliest dreams for American life were build upon the idea that we all have the right to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness.

The Bible speaks about freedom, independence, and liberty in several places. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Jesus also says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36) reminding us that He came into the world to set us free from the power of sin and death that we cannot escape in any other way. And lastly, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about our personal freedom, as Christians, in a different way (I Corinthians 8:1-13) as he speaks about whether Christians can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Corinth was a very unusual place in the time of St. Paul. Corinth was a major city where people came from all around the known world to sell their products. Corinth was, also, a place that was religiously diverse. There were hundreds of temples in Corinth, so that people who wanted to worship their god could easily do so. St. Paul even talked about the fact that the Greeks had build an altar to an unknown God (Acts 17:23) because they wanted to make sure that all of the bases were covered. And this created a big problem. Christians who wanted to eat meat did not know if the meat had been carved from an animal that had been sacrificed to another god hours earlier. Early Christians struggled because they were trying to figure out what it means to be free in Christ while they also tried to be careful to avoid eating meat that had been offered to other gods.

St. Paul’s response to this dilemma was an interesting one. He reminded the Corinthians that he had been set free by Jesus, and that he could celebrate his independence by eating meat without worrying about where the meat originated. Imagine St. Paul simply eating a hamburger on July 4th without worrying about its source. Christians do that all the time even though people from other religious traditions would never do that, right?

Then St. Paul throws in a twist. He reminds the Corinthians that he is free in Christ to eat his July 4th hamburger; however, because he sees that doing that is causing other people around him to feel uncomfortable, he says, “I’m not going to do it.” In fact, St. Paul writes: “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block for the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” (I Corinthians 8:9-10) What St. Paul is saying is: “I have freedom and independence, but I need to be sensitive to others when I am exercising my personal rights and liberty.” St. Paul reminds us that personal freedom and liberty are wonderful things; however, as we live in community with other people, we need to live in ways that are considerate and respectful of others. This is, also, an important part of good citizenship.

And so, as we celebrate our independence, liberty, and freedom on July 4th, let’s also remember that we live in a diverse nation and that living well with each other is always built upon the foundation of respect and care for others. We have been set free from tyrannical government, but our nation is still built upon creating community with each other and caring for each other. We are free in Christ, and we live in a nation where we have many rights and personal freedoms to celebrate, but our Founders also realized that our nation can only be strong and healthy when we continue to respect and to care for each other.

Pandemic Ponderings

We have been journeying through a time in our lives that none of us could have predicted. The pandemic left us scrambling to find ways to remain connected to each other and made us find new ways to do almost everything. We stretched our wings, and we embraced new technologies. Many of us adjusted to the pandemic by wearing masks in public and by not eating in restaurants. The pandemic forced us to find new ways to do things like shopping for groceries and it even closed our churches. And now, at least in the United States, we are moving toward brighter days, even as people continue to struggle in other countries.

If you are at all like me, you are tired and overwhelmed. I am tired of adjusting my life to accommodate something that I cannot even see. I am tired of a wearing a mask in public and of remaining distant from people I love. The political atmosphere in America wearies me, and I have noticed that many people are both edgy and more critical. Conflicts fester when people are tired and overwhelmed. We find it more difficult to interpret the actions of others in kind and generous ways when we are stretched and exhausted. And when that happens, relationships in every part of our lives can become strained.

And so, what are some things that we can do to keep moving forward together?

  • We need to begin by realizing that we are all tired; and that, when people are tired, they sometimes do things they normally would not do. This is a time when grace and forgiveness are important in our relationships. I’ve often used the image of people being like porcupines. We can live and move about relatively painlessly, even in times of challenge and uncertainty, when we are alone. But, when we begin to draw close to one another – especially when we are tired and overwhelmed – it is easy for us to stick each other and to be stuck by the quills of other porcupines. People who are tired sometimes say things in less-than-helpful ways. People who are tired sometimes misinterpret the words and actions of other people. We are not always grace-filled when we are edgy; and, because of that, our relationships with other people can be dramatically changed. That is why grace and forgiveness are both necessary and important right now. Martin Luther, the 16th-Century Protestant reformer, taught that the 8th Commandment is all about learning to interpret the actions of other people in the best possible way. That is something that we can all try to do to keep moving forward together.
  • We need to remember that people who are tired need other people to come alongside of them and to help them to carry the load. Healthcare workers, teachers, pastors and other people who live their lives serving others are both exhausted and burned out. A teacher told me, just last week, that she feels like she has been drinking from a firehose for more than a year. Another teacher told me that he wishes that people could understand how much needs to happen behind the scenes to make an Internet link work. Healthcare workers, pastors and other people who have devoted their lives to serving others have decided to switch jobs or retire early. Many churches and other organizations have battled their way through the pandemic with a very short front line. This is a time when the frontline needs your help, your support and your encouragement. That is something else that we need to remember as we keep moving forward together.
  • Lastly, we need to realize that people who are tired and overwhelmed need other people to encourage them, not simply criticize what they are trying to do. We need to remember that we are all trying to do our best in these challenging times. A little note, a text message, an email or even a short telephone call can brighten someone’s day. The spirits of people on the front line are lifted when other people point out what is working and what is going well. I have, fortunately, been blessed by many encouraging messages throughout the pandemic. What can you do, right now, to expand the circle of appreciation? What could you do, today, to ensure that someone who is working hard to make good things happen knows that her/his time and efforts are appreciated? Part of moving forward together includes lifting up what is working well, encouraging people who are working hard, and spurring others on with kind thoughts and caring words, so that they know that they are appreciated – even when things that are happening are not quite perfect.

We are moving forward together and our journey will carry us toward better days.  And, if we can just keep these three simple things in mind, we will find new and exciting ways to come out of these challenging times stronger and more healthy than we were before the pandemic hit. Who can you lift up today? How could you stand beside someone who continues to pour out time and energy both freely and willingly in these challenging days? How is God is at work in your life, right now, to help you to be an encourager who blesses and stands beside people who are doing their best to make good things happen?

FaithBuilders

This year, I have been continuing to provide new FaithBuilders materials for those who want to learn more about God and to explore their faith in new and engaging ways. I, first, created FaithBuilders as a tool that parents can use to lift up important stories from the Bible and to share faith-building time with their children. I began FaithBuilders, last year, by lifting up 52 stories from the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ and by providing a few short questions each week to encourage some thinking and discussion. The idea is to focus upon only one short story from the Bible each week.

This year, I am lifting up key 52 stories from the entire Bible that can give you a bird’s-eye-view of the Bible and that can help you (and your family) to learn key stories from the Bible that can help you to understand the entire Bible better. Here is an example of this week’s FaithBuilders material:

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Week 11 – Genesis 29:14-30

Have you ever been tricked by another person? Talk a little bit about a time when you were tricked and about how being tricked made you feel.

Jacob served Laban for seven years before he asked Laban to allow him to marry his daughter, Rachel. Why do you think Laban tricked Jacob (See: Genesis 29:17-18 and Genesis 29:26)? How do you think Jacob felt when he discovered that he had married Leah? How do you think Leah felt about the whole thing?

People sometimes grow angry when they discover that they have been tricked by other people. Do you think that Jacob got angry? Why do you think that Jacob agreed to work for Laban for another seven years? Do you think Jacob forgave Laban, or did he just work for Laban for another seven years to get what he wanted?

We do not ask fathers to “give away” the bride during weddings at our church. Why do you think that we stopped doing that? What does being “given away” by her father during the wedding ceremony say about a woman and her relationship with her father and husband?

Jacob ended up married to both Leah and Rachel (which was allowed when the Book of Genesis was written); but we learn in this week’s story, that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah (See: Genesis 29:30). What do you think it was like to live in the house with Jacob, Leah and Rachel? What kind of problems do you think were created because Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah?

Laban tricked Jacob because he wanted Leah to be married and to have a nice life, too. Do you think that it’s ever OK to do something that you know is wrong because you want to see something good happen? (For example: Do you think that it’s ever OK to steal money from someone who is wealthy and give it to somebody who sends his/her kids to school hungry because he/she does not have enough money to buy food?) If you think that it’s OK to do something that you know is wrong because you think that something good will happen, where do you draw the line? How far is too far?

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Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge the Lord and God will make your path straight.

Winning – After the Election

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So, it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

The church in Corinth was traveling through a difficult time when Saint Paul wrote these words. Some people believed that their spiritual gifts were better than spiritual gifts that God had given to other people. Saint Paul was under personal attack because everyone remembered the things that he had done before he became a Christian. Deep divisions had crept into the Church. Christians were busy suing each other. Sexual immorality was common, and some people believed that they were free to do things that other Christians did not think they should be doing. It was a real mess!

I find myself writing this message to you about two weeks before we elect the President of the United States and many members of Congress. It has been a hard election cycle. People in our nation are deeply divided, and many relationships have been pushed to the breaking point. I, sometimes, feel very overwhelmed when I listen to the news and hear about our continued struggles with the coronavirus. I miss having the chance to see people in worship and the opportunity to visit with them in their homes. And many people in our nation are asking about what is going to happen next. Are there going to be protests and violent clashes, no matter who is elected? What is November 4th going to be like? What are we going to do to mend the fabric of our society? What role will the Church play?

A handful of my ancestors came to America with John Winthrop in 1630. A small fleet of wooden ships filled with Puritans sailed to America and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony about ten years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. I often think about what it must have been like to listen to John Winthrop remind people that they had come to America to establish a new society that would shine, like a “City on a Hill,” and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I often think about the fact that, just a little bit more than sixty years after the Winthrop Fleet arrived, Puritans were hanging people who had been accused of witchcraft in Salem.

America has never been a perfect place. What many people today call the “American Experiment” has been a journey filled with ups and downs. People in America fought two wars together (and sometimes against each other) to gain national independence. Family members fought against each other and even killed each other during a bloody Civil War. Americans stood beside each other and found their way through the Great Depression. Some of us remember violent clashes that erupted during the Vietnam War, the murder of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots that marked the early 1970’s, and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. And who can forget the horror of 9/11? The “American Experiment” is built upon the hopes and dream of many people, but the “American Experiment” has not always been easy.

We are people who live in a diverse nation that is filled with many ideas and beliefs. We do not always agree with each, but we have always worked together as a nation to find a path forward. We live in a society where many people have stopped trusting each other and where many people no longer trust the institutions that have made our nation great; and yet, surveys still indicate that nearly half of all Americans trust the Church and look to it for guidance and direction. This is a time when we need to stand together and to live into John Winthrop’s vision. This is a time when we need to shine as the “City on a Hill” that John Winthrop said would shine as a beacon of hope in the world. We are one. God has made us one. Jesus continues to work in our world to draw people together into one body called the Church. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we call ourselves a nation that is indivisible, and that is filled with liberty and justice for all people. These are fundamentals. Humanity has prospered and our nation has thrived in times when we have drawn close to each other and when we have worked together with hearts and minds that are committed to a common purpose and a common good.

I do not know what the next few weeks and months are going to bring. But I do know that we can move into a bright future, as individuals and as a nation, when we stand together and emphasize the things that unite us and make us one. Jesus once told us that a house that is divided against itself cannot stand, and those words are as true, today, as they have even been. The last 250 years have shown us that the great “American Experiment” can work when we are committed to working together and to finding the things in life that continue to bind us together in a world where other things are trying to tear us apart. And that is what I want you to think about no matter what happens on November 3rd, and in the days and months that follow this year’s Election.

We need to be looking for the threads that bind us together as Christians and as citizens. We need to remember that maintaining relationships with other people is, often, far more important than being right. We need to listen to each other. We need to care about each other. We need to remember, as Saint Paul once wrote, that we are one body – not only as Christ’s Church, but also as a nation.

May God bless you and may God bless our land in the coming weeks and months.