You Have a Story to Tell

Do you shrink back in fear when someone asks you to share your faith with other people? I remember the days when I was afraid to pray before church dinners. Many people think about Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on their doors and giving copies of the Watchtower to people in their neighborhood when they think about sharing their faith. Many Christian parents never pray or read the Bible in front of their children. Some of us are afraid to pray in front of our spouses. I’ve noticed that some people even get quiet during Bible studies because they think that their journey of faith isn’t as inspiring as the journey that others have shared. But let me stop you right there….

Trust me. You have a story to tell about how you have experienced God in your daily life. You can probably remember a time when you felt close to God, and you can probably remember a few times when you wondered why God wasn’t answering your prayers. Your life has probably been filled with blessings from God that you can celebrate, and life has probably taught you that there are times when you need to just let things go and let God handle them. Have you ever experienced God’s forgiveness and amazing grace? Have you ever struggled with an addiction, or asked God to give you wisdom as a parent or spouse or caregiver? Have you ever believed that God was guiding you when you needed to make some sort of change in your daily life? You have a story to tell that is uniquely yours and people need to hear it; and the fact that your story of faith contains some ups and downs just means that you’re a human being, just like me.

So, what stops you from sharing your story?

I read part of the story of Moses (Exodus 4:1-17) during my time of daily devotion today. Many picture Moses as the mighty leader who turned water into blood, who unleashed plagues, and who ultimately led the people of Israel out of Egypt. But we never remember Moses as a man who once said to God, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent…. I am slow of speech and tongue.” Moses didn’t think that he had the right words. Moses didn’t think that what he had to say could sway or influence other people. But what if I told you that the words, themselves, are not what’s most important? God is at work in your life and the story of your journey with God can create faith and hope in the lives of others. You do not need to be eloquent and have the right words. You just need to be honest, authentic, and true. The story that you have to share is one that can be used in a mighty way by the Holy Spirit and may even be exactly what someone else needs to hear today!

I was reminded, yesterday, that Moses also had a sketchy past (Exodus 2:11-12) and people were not afraid to remind Moses that he had made some mistakes (Exodus 2:14). Is that what’s keeping you from telling your story? Maybe you’ve made some mistakes. Maybe you’re afraid that if you try to speak to other people about God someone is going to bring up something embarrassing that you’ve done in the past and try to silence you. Do you know that people did that to Moses? Do you know that they did it to Saint Paul? I’m sure that a whole lot of people remembered that Saint Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus at the critical hour! I’ve made mistakes. You’ve made mistakes. We have all made mistakes and we all have things in our past that we would do differently if we were given another chance. But don’t let that keep you from telling other people about how God is at work in your life today. Mistakes can be forgiven. God’s love in Christ erases blunders and mistakes of all sizes! Think about how far you’ve come in life if your past is something that was less than perfect. Doesn’t the Bible tell us that if we say that we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves? Don’t let something that you’ve done in the past take away your chance to talk about how much God’s at work in your life today. And don’t let other people silence you because they’re not willing to forget what God has already forgiven.

Please remember that you have a story to tell, and that God is going to send people into your life who need to hear what you have to say. You may not always think that you have the right words to speak when the moment comes. You may not always think that you are somehow good or important enough to do God’s work because of some haunting memory that you (or others) can’t release. But you ARE both good and important enough! You have a story to share, and I know that it’s a story that other people need to hear. And so, keep your eyes open this week, and look for opportunities to talk about what God’s doing in your life. Somebody needs to hear exactly what you have to say!

Discipleship

Do you like to know how much things cost? Maybe you look for the sign at a gas station because you want to know how much the gasoline’s going to cost and if you can get it two cents per gallon cheaper across the road? Have you ever ordered from the right side of the menu in a restaurant? Do you like to know how much a mechanic is going to charge before he/she works on your car, or how much a hotel charges before you make a reservation? If you are like me, you like to know how much things cost before you commit.

But how can you ever begin to calculate the cost of being a parent? How can you know how much it’s going to cost you to be a son or a daughter when you need to take care of an aging parent? If you are married, what was going through your head when you said “until death do us part” on your wedding day? I didn’t have any idea what it would cost both me and my family on the day when I was ordained and became a pastor.

When Jesus calls you to follow Him on an adventure of faith, it’s hard to know where that journey will lead. Maybe Jesus will call you to do something simple like spend more time reading your Bible and praying, or maybe Jesus will call you to volunteer at a homeless shelter or food pantry. Maybe Jesus will call you to be financially generous, or maybe Jesus will call you to parent a disabled or handicapped child. Following Jesus always costs you something. When you follow Jesus, you will find yourself laughing and crying and seeing life from the top of a mountain and continuing to push yourself during times when you are dog-weary to the bone.

But a life of discipleship is also filled with unexpected blessings.

I remember a day when a young man, that I met on a mission trip, called me from 1,000 miles away to ask me if I would talk with him about what he believes about God. I remember a father thanking me, on the day of his daughter’s baptism, for visiting him in jail and for telling him that he better straighten himself out before he does something that ruins the rest of his life. I remember sitting beside both of my parents’ beds while they were dying, so that I knew that the last words they heard were, “We love you.” Have you ever thought that something you did made the world a better place? What kind of unexpected blessings have you received because you felt called to step up to the plate and do something important? How have you answered Jesus’ call to come and to follow Him on your own journey of faith?

The call of Jesus is very special. It’s something that changes lives and moves people toward their God-created destiny. And this week, I’d encourage you to think about that as you live your life in a world that needs people just like you. When Jesus calls you, Jesus will always invite you on a life-changing journey of faith. And, when you come to the end of that journey, you will be able to look back and see that your life is one that has been well lived.

Let’s Eat!

We live in a competitive world, don’t we?

We find ourselves competing with other people when we apply for a job. We live in a world where people push others off the corporate ladder to get a rung higher. We can, sometimes, feel the need to put other people down in order to feel better about ourselves. We often find ourselves in places where life is defined by prejudices that separate us into groups of us and them, insiders and outsiders, people who are like me and people who are not like me; and, of course, us, insiders, and people who are just like me are always somehow better, right?

Jesus once hosted a Meal that we continue to share in the Church.

Jesus provides a Table where company presidents kneel beside people who work for them; and where different skin colors, nationalities, and spoken languages can be celebrated as something good. Jesus tears down the barriers that we work so hard to build and to maintain when He calls us to share one Bread and on Cup. People who are homeless and people who live in mansions are called by Jesus to share a meal where everyone is offered the exact same meal in the exact same portion during Holy Communion. People don’t need to put other people down in order to feel better about themselves at the Lord’s Table because, at Meal that Jesus hosts, we are all are precious, valuable and embraced.

We do something very radical every time we share Holy Communion. You might even say that the Eucharistic Feast is a Meal of protest. And right after Jesus calls us to share a meal with each other, He sends us out into the world to live what we have just experienced. What happens at the Lord’s Table doesn’t always make sense in a divided and competitive world. We are not used to living in a world where everyone has value and worth. We are not used to living in a world where people see the face of God when they look into other people’s eyes. We are not used to giving up places of honor that we think we earned. We can draw people toward us when we live what I call a “Kingdom Life,” but we can also drive others away from us. And that’s OK. The stakes are sometimes high!

Living a Kingdom Life that reflects what happens at the Lord’s Table isn’t easy, and that’s why God calls us to come to the Table many times. You might say that, as Christians, we live our lives of faith from Meal to Meal to Meal. We are forgiven, renewed, strengthened and fed; and then, we’re sent out into the world to make it a better place. And, after we try our best to do that and when we begin to grow weary and need to be sustained, Jesus calls us back to simple gifts of Bread and Wine where He continues to be found and to the place where we are forgiven, renewed, strengthened and fed once again. And that’s how we grow and how our lives of faith are built by the Holy Spirit. We eat and we are sent. And after we go into the world and try our best to live faithfully in a place that does not always understand God’s plan, Jesus calls us to come back together again and He says to us, “Let’s eat!”

My hope and prayer for you is that you will continue to find times in life when Jesus forgives you, renews you, strengthens you and feeds you. And my hope and prayer is also that, after you’ve been sent out into the world by the Holy Spirit and have tried your best to make it a better place, you will hear Jesus say to you again, “Let’s eat!” We live our lives of faith from Meal to Meal to Meal. God bless you!

Grapevines

“I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I am passionate about grapevines.

I enjoyed swinging from grapevines, like Tarzan, when I was a little boy. My friends and I would cut grapevines off about three feet above the ground; and then, we would jump into the air, grab the severed vines and swing through the trees.

But then, I watched something happen.

The grapevines spread through the woods and engulfed an entire valley. The grapevines climbed their way to the tops of the trees where they could be strengthened by sunlight, and they even killed the trees that were supporting them. I have watched that happen many times as an adult; and I even walk through the woods, once each summer, and cut any grapevines that I find off at the ground to protect the trees behind my home.

I did that, several days ago, and the picture at the top of this post shows the results of my latest efforts. The branches began to wither within hours of being severed from the vine. The grapes shriveled and the leaves turned brown. There won’t be grapes. The branches will be barren and dead in no time. Jesus once said: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” Life ends when branches are severed from the vine.

The Church is going through a tough time, right now. Church attendance is shrinking, and many leaders are both weary and discouraged. Ministries are being scaled back because of financial shortfalls, and rising deficits are eating away at assets that could be invested in new and life-giving ministries. People are both worried and scared. Leaders throughout the Church are brainstorming and are trying to make plans for the future using the best information that they can find and the most up-to-date statistics. But it isn’t working. You can never cut, hack, and saw your church’s way into a new and brighter future.

I believe that, as Christians, we need to trust Jesus.

Jesus is the Vine. We are the branches. Ministry is the fruit. Strong and vibrant ministries hang from the branches of Christian lives that are connected to the Vine. Christians and their churches are sustained and strengthened as people read Scripture, pray together, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and build ministries that are borne in the heart of God. Christians remain strong and ministries remain vibrant when people cling to the Vine which is the Giver of all life and drink from the Well that never runs dry.

Jesus has promised us that the Church, as a whole, will never fail; but Jesus never gave that same promise to individual congregations. Individual congregations are closing their doors for the last time all across America. Christians who are trying to operate their church like nothing more than a business are discovering that the pulse of a thriving Church isn’t going to be found in prayerless business meetings, carefully-engineered strategic plans, and good ideas – as well-intentioned as they might be. The beating heart of our resurrected Lord provides the life-giving cadence. The presence of the Living Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit are the lifelines that God has provided to ensure the Church’s success in ministry. “As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me.” (John 15:4b)

The shriveled grapevines behind my home reminded me again today that, apart from the Vine, we can to nothing. Churches will thrive again when Christians wake up each day with a burning desire to spend time in the presence of the Lord. New and life-giving types of ministry will be discovered as Christians learn again to listen to the cries of those who need to hear the life-giving message of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Pastors need to live their lives with their source of news in one hand and their Bible in the other. Christians need to be surrounding their pastors and church leaders in prayer every day, and need to prayerfully consider what Isaiah wrote: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’” (Isaiah 6:8)

Amazed and Perplexed

The Bible is filled with stories about people who were amazed and perplexed. Think about Moses standing before a bush that was burning, but that was never reduced to ash. Think about the Israelites standing on the shores of the Red Sea when it opened to provide a path of escape from the Egyptians and that, then, sealed off the way back to everything that they had known. Think about the people that Jesus healed and how people who were watching it happen responded by saying, “Who is this man?” Think about the people who witnessed the day of Pentecost – a day when tongues of fire fell from the sky, a day when the followers of Jesus spoke in languages that they had never learned, and a day when people thought that the only way to explain what was happening was to conclude that the disciples were drunk.

We live in swiftly-changing times. Once healthy and thriving churches are facing uncertainty and financial difficulties. Attendance is shrinking, and many churches have lost touch with the communities that they serve. New faces are seldom seen in worship. Many people in the Church are scrambling to find a way to save what’s left after two years of struggling through the pandemic. And when people see their churches growing smaller and struggling, the first thing that they are tempted to do is draw inward and protect what they know and love. But, sadly, drawing inward only makes the problems and the challenges worse.

Understanding mission and having a clear vision of ministry is vital in times like these. Churches that are focusing upon what they believe Jesus wants them to be doing right now are doing better than churches that are not doing that. Churches that are asking, “Who are we?” and “What is Jesus calling us to do?” are finding new and exciting doors to the future while other churches are continuing to shrink. I believe that every church needs to be asking itself: “What parts of our ministry are leaving people amazed and perplexed, and wanting to learn more about Jesus?” That’s what ministry is about. People get excited when they believe that they’re doing God’s work with their own hands. People want to financially support and be a part of what’s happening when they believe that their time and financial resources are being used in life-giving and life-changing ways. People want to learn more about Jesus when they are invited to “come and see” what Jesus is doing with their own two eyes. Mission and having a clear vision of ministry create focus, energy, excitement, and passion.

If your congregation is struggling, right now, you are not alone. Many congregations are facing significant challenges. But years of struggle and decline do not have to write the last chapters of your church’s history. If you are looking to turn the tide, here are some ideas:

First: Gather the leaders of your congregation and spend an evening in prayer. Ask God to send the Holy Spirit to close doors that need to be closed (think about the Red Sea being closed to prevent the Israelites from returning to Egypt) and to open new doors to the future. The Church of 2019 is not coming back. We need to open our hands and to let go of some things that are no longer working, so that God can give us something new.

Second: Study the community and the people that you serve. Can you clearly describe the people who live within 10 miles of your church? How old are they? How old are their kids? What challenges and concerns do they face? The average age of an adult in the community that surrounds the church I serve is 49 and the average age of their first child is between 20 and 25. How can that information shape ministry? What percentage of the people in the community that surrounds your church are divorced? Are you building your ministry as one that primarily ministers to married adults with children? Do unmarried and divorced people feel welcomed? Are people in your community at an age where the care of their parents is as important as the care of their children? People in their late 40’s and early 50’s reexamine their priorities, fear that they are becoming irrelevant, are facing an “empty nest” for the first time in their lives. How does this shape the ministry of a congregation? What kind of “Good News” do people who live within 10 miles of your church building need to hear?

Third: Pray about your ministry and about how you are engaging your community. What message of “Good News” are you proclaiming? If children are going to school hungry (nearly 50% of the children in a community that surrounds the church that I serve are going to school without breakfast) could you provide food for them to eat on weekends and over the summer (when schools are closed)? If people struggle with addictions are you providing a place where groups like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous can meet? How are you showing children and young people in your community that they are important to God? How are you showing people who are lonely that they are not forgotten? What is Jesus telling you to do, right now? Pray about it. I realize that there’s no congregation that can solve every problem and challenge, but every church can pick one or two challenges to focus upon. Stay focused. How is/can the ministry of your congregation bring a word of “Good News” to those who live within 10 miles of your church building before you reach beyond that radius? Think of that 10-mile radius as your church’s “parish.” How can prayer lead to action?

Fourth: Make a plan, establish clear and measurable goals, tell people what you are doing, and tell the story of how God is at work in the world and in your church. We live in a society where “the best story wins” and we, as people in the church, can never forget that. People are drawn to stories that are engaging and that help them to feel that they can be a part of something both exciting and good. Don’t forget to use the power of electronics! Update your church’s website. Realize that people are spending more and more time on electronic devices and figure out a way to use those devices to tell the story of what Jesus is doing with you and your congregation, right now. Create an exciting story by engaging in life-giving and life-changing ministries, and don’t forget to share what you are doing. Never forget that “the best story wins.” People want to be a part of something exciting; and, when they feel that they are a part of something that is important and that is changing lives, they are more likely to volunteer their time and support what’s happening financially.

The Bible is filled with stories where the people were left amazed and perplexed. And the challenge that’s being set before the Church is to live into that amazed perplexity today. God is doing wonderful things in the world. God is enabling people to do exciting things that they never imagined they could do.

Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people amazed and perplexed? Which parts of your congregation’s story are leaving people at a point in life where they want to learn more about Jesus, be a part of what’s happening, and know that what they’re doing is making our world a better place for us all?

What Can I Do?

There are times in life when words can’t fix things.

We were all stunned, last week, when a young man walked into an elementary school, and shot 19 little children and 2 of their teachers. Almost at once, people were inclined to say things like “You are in my thoughts and prayers” to people whose lives had been shattered and whose lives will never be the same. Politicians quickly aligned themselves in the Capitol Building and we heard the same rhetoric that we’ve been listening to for decades. We are divided. We can’t seem to agree about a path forward. Many of us probably feel powerless and unable to do anything in the face of continuing tragedy. We might even be asking each other, “What can we do?” or, more personally, be asking ourselves, “What can I do?”

Jesus once prayed for His followers in words that are now called the “High Priestly Prayer” which is found in the seventeen chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus is praying for the Church. Jesus is praying that God will make us one with each other. Jesus realized that those who follow Him have an opportunity to change the world and make it into a better place.

And, with that in mind, if you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” here are some ideas that spring from the “High Priestly Prayer” and that can help us to be “one”:

America is the way that it is right now because of the way that we act. We honk the horn on our automobiles or scream at other drivers who don’t burn rubber through intersections and get out of our way when stoplights turn green. We are tired and stressed, right now, partly because of the pandemic, and that is clearly visible in the ways that we act. We are all on edge. We drive and act aggressively. We argue about things on social media that just don’t matter. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps it’s time to slow down; to think more intentionally about the ways you are interacting with others; and, in times of conflict, to ask yourself, “Is what I am doing helping the situation, or is what I am doing ratcheting the conflict up to a higher level?”

America is the way that it is right now because of the ways that we talk to each other. We type words on social media platforms that we would never say to people face-to-face. We label people with words that pigeonhole all of us into enemy camps that are filled with people who cannot have a reasonable discussion. We, sometimes, even say things that we know are going to cut other people like a knife. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps it’s time to stop for a moment and think about the words that you use. And, it’s not just about the words. Think about the context. Think about how you think others are going to hear what you say. Think about the setting. Are you trying to address a difficult issue when you are in a public setting where the person you are speaking with will be embarrassed? Studies have shown that discussing difficult issues while eating a meal can be absolutely disastrous. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” watch the way that you are talking to other people.

America is, also, the way that it is right now because of the specific words that we use. We have, sadly, become more accepting of name-calling and abusive language. St. James once said that our words have the power to start a raging and consuming fire. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps it’s time to think more about the words you use. Do your words build other people up, or do they tear others down? Do your words uplift, or belittle? How often do you swear? If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps you could select your words more carefully and stop setting fires?

American is, lastly, the way that it is right now because people have forgotten about the 8th Commandment. Martin Luther once said that the 8th Commandment is one that calls us to interpret the actions of other people in the best possible way. Most people are trying to do the best that they can. Most people do not live their lives intentionally trying to hurt people and do things that are wrong. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps you could embrace a more charitable attitude toward other people. It’s easy to misinterpret the actions of other people – particularly when you are stressed and impatient. It’s easy to find yourself bearing false witness in times of conflict and disagreement. If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?” perhaps you could look for the best in other people and interpret their actions in a more charitable way?

There are times when words can’t fix things; however, there ARE things that you can be doing during these unusual times to make our world a better place. We may not be able to control the behavior of other people, but we can control the ways that we act and interact with others. And, even though you may not be able to fix everything that’s happening in America, right now, we can all ask ourselves, “If it’s not going to be me, who is it going to be?”

Soul Business

I will be celebrating the 34th anniversary of my ordination on June 11th. I was a Chemical Engineer before I went to seminary, and I served as a church organist for sixteen years. I worked in the rather cut-and-dry world of industry where bottom lines and annual reports dramatically shaped decisions and where mistakes were sometimes unforgiveable. But, in the course of my years, I’ve also met people, both living and dead, who shaped the ways that I think about life and especially the ways that I think about ministry.

My Bishop once warned me that I need to be careful to avoid allowing holy things to become ordinary, and I remember that every time I preside at a worship service. Martin Luther used to tremble when he held the chalice during Holy Communion because he remembered that the chalice is a Cup that contains the very blood of Christ that brings us the forgiveness of sins. Father Joel Nafuma, an Episcopal priest, taught me that strong and healthy ministries are built upon the effective sharing and utilization of spiritual gifts, not just upon finding people to do things that need to be done around the church. Jesus has taught me that life is filled with an abundance of holy moments when God connects with ordinary people, and that the life-bringing mission of the Church will always spring from the command of Jesus to “get out there and make disciples” in new and relevant ways.

Those of us who remain connected to the Church need to remember that we are in the Soul Business. I never really know how God will use the words that I preach, but I trust that God is at work every time I step into the pulpit. Sunday School teachers and those who work together to make Vacation Bible School possible don’t always know how God is going to use the seeds that they plant when little children gather to hear that they are loved by a God they might not even know. Have you ever considered the fact that there are people standing beside you in worship who need you to be there because they’re not able to sing the word “Alleluia” because of something that’s happening in their lives that you don’t understand? We are in the Soul Business when we welcome people and embrace them during these challenging times. We are in the Soul Business when we listen to each other and when we do something as simple as prepare a meal for someone who is homebound. We’re in the Soul Business when we worship and gather around the Table of the Lord where the Risen Jesus comes to us in a Holy Meal. And, yes. We are in the Soul Business every time we help people discover and celebrate their spiritual gifts, and enable them to find ways to use their gifts and talents in life-giving and personally-fulfilling ways to glorify God.

We sometimes forget that we are in the Soul Business. It’s easy to hurry up and “get down to business” without taking some time to pray before a meeting. It’s sometimes easy for the people, who volunteer to welcome folks when they come to worship with a smile, to forget that they may be offering the only smile that a person has seen in a week. It’s sometimes easy to forget that doing something as simple as lighting the candles on an altar, turning the lights on, or preparing an altar for a worship service allows other people to pause for a time of prayer before the service begins. It’s easy for the people who assist in worship to forget that every time a lesson is read during a worship service the Word of God is being spoken to God’s people. It’s easy to forget that every time wine is poured during Holy Communion the forgiveness of God is extended and received by those who have gathered.

I, sometimes, get tired. You, sometimes, get tired. We all have times when we don’t want to commit to doing one more thing because we are busy. It’s easy to reduce church budgets to a set of line items that can be trimmed and reduced with little thought about the effects that less funding will have upon life-giving ministries. And yet, Jesus’ call to each and every one of us is still one that is being extended today. We are called by our Lord to offer that friendly smile and welcome people who come to worship. We are called to take time out of our busy lives to visit the sick, to prepare meals for the homebound and to extend our compassion by doing things as simple as offering our care and support during a visit to a funeral home. We are called by the Holy Spirit to be a Church that keeps its eyes focused upon mission, upon new ways to share the message of God’s love, upon the fact that young people still need to hear the story of Jesus from the lips of Sunday School teachers and still need to hear about the love of Jesus at Vacation Bible School, and upon the fact that we have been called into the life-changing business of touching souls by Jesus Christ. Holy moments occur when we pray and study the Bible together. God stirs our hearts when we envision ministry as being about far more than bottom lines and quarterly reports. The Holy Spirit propels the Church toward an exciting future, even in these quickly changing times, as we keep our eyes upon God’s plan for our lives, for our communities, for our nation, and even for our world.

We must never forget that we are in the Soul Business. The ministry that we do together can touch and shape the lives of people in ways that nothing else can. And when we gather in prayer, in worship, in times of learning, and in times that we devote to caring for others, we must continue to remember that we are doing God’s work with our own hands because the things that we are doing bear testimony to our faith and bring God’s love into the world.

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?