Why not set aside about 20 minutes this evening to simply stop, get more centered, reflect and pray? Today, we are inviting you to remember that God is near to you during these strange and challenging times. Here’s the third video in our Lenten Series entitled: “Streams in the Desert.”
Why not set aside about 20 minutes this evening to simply stop, get more centered, reflect and pray? Today, we are inviting you to remember that God listens to you during these strange and challenging times. Here’s the second video in our Lenten Series entitled: “Streams in the Desert.”
Why not set aside about 20 minutes this evening to simply stop, get more centered, reflect and pray? Today, we are inviting you to remember that God sustains you during these strange and challenging times. Here’s a link to the first video in our Lenten Series entitled: “Streams in the Desert.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
If you would like to begin using FaithBuilders as a tool to strengthen your faith, or to help your children or grandchildren learn more about God and the Bible, please click this link: https://lifeandfaith.online/faithbuilders/ and be sure to come back each week.
You can begin almost anywhere in the set of readings and questions that I have provided, and you may even want to invite someone to visit FaithBuilders and to discuss the stories and questions that you will find there with you.
“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.“
Several months ago, I began a new ministry called FaithBuilders.
I have noticed (in my 32 years as a pastor) that many Christians either don’t know much about the Bible or that they feel overwhelmed when they try to apply what the Bible says to daily living. Sunday School teachers are doing their best to help children learn stories in the Bible; but, sometimes, the Sunday School curriculum that they use is built around so many unfamiliar stories that children remember only a few of them. We live in a time when more and more parents depend upon the Church to teach their children about God (while they, perhaps, go out for Sunday brunch?), and when other parents do not teach their children much about God or the Bible at all. And even some churches have shifted away from teaching basic stories from the Bible and have started teaching little children about compassion, kindness, gentleness and love – wonderful values and principles that are, sometimes, much too nebulous for little children to embrace and understand.
And I’ve asked myself, many times: “What is something that I could do to change that?”
I began to wonder if adults would find it far less intimidating to talk with their children about God if they were better equipped? What would happen, for example, if I created a list of 52 stories from the life of Jesus and asked people to focus on one story each week? Would adults take a few minutes at the end of each day to teach children a story from the Bible if I provided some easy-to-use tools? Would adults be willing to take a few minutes at the end of the day to read a story from the Bible and to talk with their children about it if I provided a few questions to get the conversation going? What about adults? Could an adult be encouraged to read stories from the Bible a few moments each day and to reflect upon questions that can help them to build a bridge between the stories in the Bible and daily living? What would it look like if I created a list of 52 stories from the life of Jesus to read during one year; and then, created a list of 52 well-known stories from the Bible to read throughout the course of another year? It seemed to be a win-win for everybody! Adults would be equipped. Adults could be encouraged to read the Bible and pray with their children. And the children, of course, would benefit from spending some time each day with their parent(s) or another adult(s) learning about God and building life-giving faith-links to the Bible that they could carry with them for the rest of their lives.
FaithBuilders is a ministry that’s been created to help you to build a bridge between where you are right now and where God wants to take you tomorrow. And, the best part about is that it’s easy, convenient, and life-changing! And, guess what? FaithBuilders can all be found right here on this blog! Just click the menu option above.
Why not visit FaithBuilders today? There is no better moment than right now to begin to explore the Bible in a new way, and there’s no better moment than right now to begin to introduce children to stories from the Bible that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Many Christians wonder why it’s important to read the Old Testament.
The Old Testament has stories about God sending a man to the top of a mountain to sacrifice his own son, and about God opening up the earth and swallowing people. The Old Testament contains stories about God sending the “Angel of Death” to kill the first-born male in every home in Egypt that didn’t have blood smeared over the top of the doorway, and about God telling people to destroy their enemies without mercy. And for many of us, stories like these aren’t very appealing because we want to think about God as a God who loves people and forgives them. We want to believe that no matter what we do wrong, God is always willing to give us another chance.
But the Old Testament contains many stories and images that can help us to understand the New Testament better.
We’ve all heard the words: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) right? But what about the verses that come right before that one? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)?
These verses refer to a story in the Old Testament book of Numbers (Numbers 21).
Moses has gone down into Egypt and has stood toe-to-toe with the Pharaoh. Moses has told the Pharaoh to release his slaves. By the time we get to Numbers 21, the Israelites are well on their way and have even been led through the Red Sea. But then, they began to whine and complain. The Israelites became impatient with both God and Moses. And, in response to the whining and complaining, God sent fiery serpents (the seraphim) to bite the Israelites and cause them to die. People were dropping dead all over the place! But, when the Israelites repented, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to lift it high into the air with a pole, so that those who looked at the bronze serpent would live even after having been bitten by the fiery serpents.
God has a long history of finding creative ways to work with people who have failed.
We all have times in our lives when it would be nice to be able to re-wind the hands of time and do things differently. Many churches begin worship services with a time when people are encouraged to confess their sins. We don’t always love God with our whole heart, and we don’t always love our neighbors as ourselves. We all have times when our pride gets in the way. We all have times in our lives when we’re apathetic and indifferent to injustices that surround us. And, of course, we all have times when we think of others in uncharitable ways, and when our biases and prejudices cause us to treat people that we don’t even know very unfairly.
So, why doesn’t God just send more fiery serpents?
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness, Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – has been lifted high upon the Cross. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on the end of a long pole, Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – has been hoisted high in the air for us to see. And, in that mighty act of God, a new path forward in life has been provided for us. God has, once again, chosen to do a wonderful thing when there was every reason in the world to just flatten us like a pancake or send more fiery serpents to bite us!
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did NOT send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” – (John 3:16-17)
And that’s the Gospel – The Good News of Jesus Christ – in a nutshell…!
No matter what you’ve been told, God is NOT looking for a reason to pound you as flat as a pancake because you’ve wandered off and made mistakes. No matter what you’ve been told, God is NOT looking for a reason to throw you into the raging fires of an endless and eternal Hell. Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – came into the world because God continues to love us and care about us. Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – came into the world because God wants us to know that, no matter how far astray we’ve gone, health and wholeness and healing are still available because of God’s unending love.
And that’s a word of Good News!
People say many different things about Jesus.
We know that Jesus was crucified and was raised from the dead between 26 and 36 CE because that’s when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. St. Paul wrote his letters about 20 years later and the Gospel of Mark was written about 10 years after that. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke appeared about 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Gospel of John first appeared in about 95 CE (almost 70 years after Jesus lived). The New Testament bears witness to Jesus and has transmitted stories about Jesus and letters written by early Christians for nearly 2,000 years. In the next few weeks, we are going to be exploring some of the things that the New Testament tells us about Jesus and about what all of that means for us today.
We begin this 5-week series of messages in the Wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the devil. Jesus has already been washed in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer. We have already been told that Jesus is God’s Son. And now, we see Jesus being led into the wilderness (the land of demons and unclean spirits) by the Holy Spirit and we even see the devil tempt Jesus three different times.
But, before we get to that, let’s back up a little bit….
Did you know that Jesus believed that our world is a place where evil is running amok? Jesus, like John the Baptizer before him, called people to radically change their lives – knowing that the Kingdom of God is near. Jesus believed that he was living in the End Times and that a mighty warrior, called the Son of Man, was going to come into the world to set things straight (maybe even tomorrow!). And, because of that, the ethical teachings of Jesus were both extreme and confrontational (think about plucking-out the eye that causes you to sin) (Matthew 5:29). Jesus believed that the “Son of Man” was coming into the world to judge both the living and the dead.
It is in this context that Jesus came to be seen by his followers as The Cosmic Warrior.
Jesus came into a world where the forces of good and evil are fighting with each other and to defeat the forces of evil (and even the devil). Jesus came into the world to drive-back the enemies of God and to defeat the powers of sin, the devil and death. We’re told in the letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but did not fall victim to those temptations (Hebrews 4:15). St. Paul tells us that, because of the death and the resurrection of Jesus, we can know that we’re already “far more that conquerors through him who loves us (Romans 8:37).
And it’s in that trust and faith that we find courage and strength to live our daily lives.
We are still being tempted to put ourselves first and to push other people aside because we’re afraid that they’ll somehow take what belongs to us – just like Jesus was. We’re still being tempted to test the extent of God’s love and mercy every time we do things that we know aren’t right trusting that God will always forgive us. We still live in a world where people crave power for themselves and where people want to have a sense of power and control over other people. Think about Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – who was offered total and absolute power, and who was offered the chance to control the entire world if he would just sell his soul to the devil – one time!
Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – journeys with us, in that same battle, today.
Please don’t forget that when you’re being tempted to do what you know isn’t right, Jesus is with you. Please don’t forget that when you’re searching for a sense of peace and hope in your life, Jesus is with you to give you strength. Please don’t forget that Jesus continues to point you in the right direction when you read your Bible, and pray, and join others in worship and prayer. And please don’t forget that the same Jesus will sometimes poke you and challenge you to change course when you’re drifting away – just like Jesus did during his life and ministry on the earth.
You are already far more than a conqueror!
And my challenge to you, this week, is to live in that faith and to trust that Jesus is with you. This week’s lesson (Matthew 4:1-11) reminds us that Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – has already faced the devil and has triumphed. Jesus is able to help you to overcome any temptation that you face and will journey with you no matter where life takes you. Trust that Jesus is taking care of you. Trust that Jesus is providing what you need. And, above all, know that ALL of the battles you will face this week are nothing more than the last few skirmishes of a great cosmic war between good and evil that has already been won for us by Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior.