Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blow, Wind, Blow

I can tolerate the cold.  It’s the winter wind that wears me out. In fact, I think some of the most beautiful winter days are when the sky is crystal clear and the temperature is so cold that the snow crunches under your feet and moisture freezes on your eyelids.

But when the wind blows, it seems to blow right through you.  Rational, thinking human beings are reduced to operating by their survival instincts.  All we can think about is to get out of the wind.

As preachers are prone to do, I was thinking of sermon illustrations related to wind.  I thought of the account from Acts 2 of the first Pentecost when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles and promised to all who believed in Jesus Christ.  On that first Pentecost, the Spirit’s arrival was punctuated with the sound of a rushing, violent wind. 

Several years ago, when I was a seminary intern in Michigan, there was a violent thunderstorm that passed through the area in the early morning hours of Pentecost Sunday.  As we drove to church for worship, we noticed several trees had fallen and the news broadcasted that many people were without electricity.  When we arrived at church, we greeted a woman whom we knew who dedicated a lot of her time to prayer.  She was able to joke, “I prayed for the Holy Spirit wind to blow on this Pentecost.  I wonder if I prayed too hard!”

We can joke, but we should also realize that the Holy Spirit does blow in the hearts of all who believe in Jesus Christ.  We’re slow to admit that the Spirit has to wear us out like a relentless wind before we can be shaped by God.  The Holy Spirit blows through us, not to chill us to the bone, but to warm us to living a devoted, grateful life for Jesus Christ. 

From the Canons of Dort, a confessional document used by churches from the Reformed tradition, we read that through the Holy Spirit, “God activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds. God also penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant. God activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.” (Canons of Dort, 3rd & 4th Main Point, Art. 11)

This week, as we feel the wind blow, may it remind us to pray for our hearts’ defenses to be worn down by the Holy Spirit.  Instead of being chilled to our core, we pray that the Holy Spirit will blow like a wind, to open what is closed and take what is dead and bring it to new life.  We pray that the Holy Spirit will show us Jesus.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Apple Pie Day

So.  Members of our church made over 1500 pies in about 9 hours yesterday.  This is the 8th time I've done this.  I'm glad to say that every year something improves and some part of the process moves more smoothly that the previous year.  This year's innovation?  In the over-the-road trucking lingo, a "reefer" trailer.  A refrigerator trailer, to be precise and no, not the "reefer" your mind first pictured... Come on now.  We're a church.... in Iowa, not Colorado.  What a benefit to be able to cart the freshly assembled pies into a trailer where the temperature hovered between -8 to -12 F.  We could transport or deliver pies already frozen, which means we could stack them.  O, so much easier to move around.

Glad the pies are made, the project completed, and all seems to be a success.  The money raised will help cover some of our church's Fair Share responsibilities for Christian Education.  I don't think I'm alone in wondering sometimes if the significant commitment is worth the money, but I can say that we had a good time working hard together.

One conversation I had while working yesterday made the whole project worth it for me.  Later in the afternoon, after school had dismissed, a number of our school age kids arrived at the location where we were making the pies.  They bounced in, all smiles, eager and asking, "What can I do?"  They helped me with weighing the balls of pie dough--a precise 7.25 oz, by the way.

"This is one of my favorite days of the year!" One of the girls said.

"Why is that?"

"Because we make pies! And it's my church!"

That was enough for me.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Oh, hello.

Well, it's been close to two years since I have posted anything on this blog.  The grind of ministry keeps me from writing for  "fun."  However, if you have made your way here recently by random chance (as a Calvinist, maybe I should say "pre-ordained" or something like that), or if you came here through another link, well, welcome.  You can say hi, and I'll try to stop by a little more often.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9-1-2011 Reflection

Here is a copy of the sermon I gave this past Sunday, remembering the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

It has been ten years ago.  Almost every one of you high school/college age or older know what I am talking about.  Everyone during their lifetime has significant events that change their course of life or how they think about things—each one of us have different events and different times.  Very rarely, there is something that happens that affects or changes us all at the same time.  One of those occasions began at 8:46 Eastern Time, September 11, 2001. 

I thought I would finish a series on the seven deadly sins today, but like 10 years ago, I felt led to interrupt my plans and address an item that’s been on many of our minds this week—at least my mind. 

In twelve years of ministry, I have written over 700 sermons.  The following is a message I gave for the first time on September 16, 2001, the first Sunday after the planes hit the World Trade Center:

I can’t say that all of you felt like me this past week, but I am guessing that many of you went through some of the same emotions that I experienced.  When I heard the news of the attack I was meeting with another pastor and we were discussing upcoming sermon topics.  Carol, our secretary, came down and mentioned that an airplane had crashed into the Trade Center.  It was kind of shocking, but we continued on.  A few minutes later, Carol updated me that not one, but both Trade Center towers had been struck and one had fallen--the cause being quickly attributed to terrorists.

My colleague and I left our books sit and we went over to my home where we watched the terrible drama unfold on the screens in front of us.  Two massive skyscrapers each filled with thousands of people and thousands gathered below had collapsed into a pile of burning dust and rubble.  The Pentagon, the symbol of the American military was in flames and smoking heavily from one of its five sides.  Hundreds lay dead or wounded inside.  The remnants of one more plane were smoldering in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

As I saw replays over and over again on the television screen, I wondered, How?  Why?  Usually polished and professional, reporters and politicians were talking with quivering lips and shaky voices.  Video clip after video clip of people running and staggering through the dust and debris revealed the chaos of the day.  Every so often video clips from the Middle East would be shown of people dancing in the streets and cheering the fact that the country they view as being the source of much of their trouble had been wounded and hurt.

You have probably asked and are still asking some of the same questions that I asked this past week.  My questions reflected shock.  How could this happen here?  How and why could someone be so cold and heartless to do this to innocent people?  Why did God allow this to happen?  Why?  My questions reflected fear.  Am I safe now?  Will I be safe in the future?  Then my mind turned to anger and revenge.  When are we going to get even?

Expert after expert has been brought on the air to talk about what has happened and how America should respond:  terrorism, defense, rescue, etc.  Even now, plans are being made for finding the terrorists and sending out military strikes.  Then, a question came to me that I didn’t want to ask myself.  As a Christian, how am I to respond?  People look to pastors, too; we’re also supposed be experts, attempting to provide answers for a event so horrific that simple words can’t explain it. 

We can wrestle with the details—the motivation of the terrorists, what goes on in the mind of someone who is willing to take his own life as well as the lives of thousands of others.  While nothing can justify the actions of the people who did this, Christians should have a broader perspective on why such evil has happened this past week and we should respond to it. 

The main, principal reason that this event happened is sin—plain and simple—and sin affects us all—no matter where we live.  Because of sin, we have lost shalom.  Shalom is a Hebrew word that means something along the lines of perfect peace, flourishing, wholeness, and delight.  Shalom is what existed in the world before sin, and shalom is what we look for today as we strive to grow closer to God.  Cornelius Plantinga calls shalom, “the way things ought to be.”  Sin that exists in the world is a parasite, a vandal, and a spoiler of the perfection that God placed in all of Creation. 

The hardest part for us to acknowledge is that we, even we Christians, are participants in sin.  The scalding realization is that even though we didn’t fly the planes, even though we are sickened, horrified, and angered by the loss of life, as sinners, we indirectly share in the responsibility of the pain that has occurred this past week.  We also play a part in sabotaging what God first created as perfect and good.

We’re quick to point fingers at Muslims or the Islamic religion.  We see only sterotypes, beards and burqhas, violent and driven.  We think that they are people who envy what we have in the West and would like to take from us.  As Christians, and particularly as American Christians, we must be honest with ourselves and the shortcomings of our country.  I heard a quote on Tuesday night where a man observed the Trade Center Towers, “Look at what the hands of men can make.  Now I see what the hands of men can take away.”  Even as we have been blessed with so much wealth and freedom, how have we used that wealth and freedom?  How have we and how has our country looked out only for its own interests and not to the needs of others? 

Americans value freedom, yet that value often gets twisted into a notion that freedom means that we can do whatever we please—either to our neighbors across the yard or pew, or across the ocean.  It is that abuse of freedom allows us to be easily bound and even enslaved by sin—we become bound to our material goods.  We become enslaved to greed, pleasure, or power.  True freedom occurs only with our submission God.  With God, we are given the freedom to seek shalom—peace, a perfect relationship with God and our neighbor.  True freedom.

I am privileged to live in this country.  I am honored to be American, but as Christians, citizens of God’s Kingdom, we cannot blindly follow all of the policies that our culture and or political party of our choosing supports.  Once again, first and foremost, we are Christians, citizens of God’s Kingdom.  We belong to God, before we say that we belong to one country or another. 

Why didn’t God stop the planes from crashing?  Why did over 5,000 (3,000) people have to die?  Historians look at causes, but ultimately we know that sin and evil are active in the world.  If allowed to run its full course, sin and evil would have entirely taken over.  Yet God, with his grace, His restraining, stubborn grace, prevents the world from spinning into complete chaos.  Without God working actively in the world, we wouldn’t be here worshipping today.  I believe we wouldn’t be here at all.  Satan and sin would have taken everything that God had created and would have destroyed it. 

It is a blessing that as stubborn as sin is, it isn’t a fraction of the amount of the stubbornness of God’s grace.  God, in his stubborn grace, refused and refuses to let sin win.  God could have let the world end with a big bang or whimper, but instead He sent His Son.  Through Jesus, whatever end life has on earth, we have the promise of eternal life through the power of God—a power that is strong enough to defeat death forever. Even though Satan and evil are still active in the world and can cause tremendous pain, remember the grace of God which gives us the hope that one day, all pain, all suffering will end.  Death itself will die.

The president called for a National Day of Prayer this past Friday.  Prayer is a visible sign of our dependence on God.  We must depend on God to deliver us.  We must learn to depend on God, daily, hourly, and not only in times of crisis.  We walk around with this illusion that we are on our own until something happens that shakes us into remembering that whatever control we claim to have in our lives is fragile and easily lost.   Don’t let a disaster of a national scale or a personal scale be the only thing that reminds us that God alone—not you or me, not the president, not the military—is in control.

When will God make things right?  I haven’t referenced the text yet, but I think if you read along, you can sense that the Psalmist is asking the same question. Vs. 1 says, Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?  The text goes on to describe the wicked and how they ignore God and yet seem to prosper.

In words that remind me of what happened this past week, we read in vs. 10-11 that the wicked’s “victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. 11 He says to himself, “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.”

Remember what God has done already.  God created the world perfect and holy—in perfect peace, and He is not going to surrender to Satan and give this Creation up.  To say that God would abandon all that he made would be saying, “Satan, you ruined creation so much even I can’t do anything about it.”  That is not the God we serve.  God will give no ground to Satan. 

We have the testimony of Scripture that has shown us that God has claimed us from Satan.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,”  (Rom. 5:8)  Believers in Jesus Christ can testify to the work of the Holy Spirit has claimed us, changed us, and brought us out of sin and into relationship with God.  God does not lose what he claims.  “Nothing is able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)

Will there be justice?  Absolutely.  But we must remember that justice is ultimately God’s, and God’s alone.

Vv. 16-17 say this, “The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land. 17 You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, 18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.

In the next few weeks we will be certain to hear of bombs and cruise missiles striking throughout the Middle East.  They will come from a military force supported by Americans who have thirst for vengeance.  A leading politician in our country said, “May God have mercy on them, because we won’t.” (McCain) I am convinced that thousands more are yet to die, even more Americans as they become involved in the fighting.  Perhaps there will even be more terrorist strikes in the U.S.  It is easier to believe that this is possible after this week. 

As humans touched by sin, our own attempts at justice are hollow.  We strive for it, but in the end, no matter how many people are imprisoned or even killed, sin still will continue.  Ultimate justice will occur when God banishes and destroys sin and evil and the Devil who has spread it. 

As an American, I support searching and striving for justice as far as we can uphold it.  I understand the need for our country to seek and out and punish those who did this.  When we sin there are earthly as well as eternal consequences—the same holds for these people. 

However, as a Christian, we need to consider justice, but also grace.  As the Psalmist writes, “If you, O Lord kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.” (Psalm 103:3-5)  We should pursue reconciliation as well as justice.  What is my role to encourage as the prophet Micah says, “Beat our swords into plowshares?” (Micah 4:3) America hears the voices of the victims in their minds, and wants the blood of her enemies on her hands.  Will America feel better after that blood has been spilled?  Vengeance gives temporary pleasure, but not lasting joy.  The dead will still be dead.  Families will still mourn their loved ones.  The future battles will only create more death and debt. We will never get even, even if we repay death with death a thousand times over.  Peace will only come in its fullness when we stand before the throne of God and sing, “Holy, holy, holy!  Lord God almighty!”

Today we celebrated a baptism—our Sunday school season begins as well.  Part of our covenant promises are that we will teach our children about our Lord and how he wants us to live.  Will we remember to teach that God is King and that His justice alone is satisfying?  Young and old together must look ahead to the time when Jesus himself will bring perfect justice and sin will be destroyed. 

Jesus is coming again.  God will make things new.  God will bring perfect shalom to the world again.  Planes won’t crash into skyscrapers killing thousands.  Millions won’t die around the world because disease or famine.  There will be no more terrorism.  No more rape, murder, or theft.  No more bullies, no more victims.  No more. 

Be ready, not afraid of the future.  Be prepared, and prepare others.  God is King forever and ever.  The King has not only won the battle, but has won the war.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What to Write About?

I read some blogs pretty faithfully, and I have to admit I don't know how they do it. Day after day, sometimes several posts a day. And these aren't 140 character tweets either.

Some of these bloggers give detailed narratives on Caring Bridge sites, detailing everything from the emotional trauma of a debilitating injury or disease, or recording the minutiae of every procedure.

One blog I read resembles a systematic theology primer slash apologetic--each point of doctrine argued with a determined certainty. You are either explicitly or implicitly made to feel that if you don't agree with what is written, one's salvation is to be questioned. It makes me think that I might enter heaven patting down the flames on the seat of my pants. (I Corinthians 3:15)

Religion. Politics. The Human Condition. Page after page. Day after day. I am in awe of where they get their material. My life is not that interesting, I guess.

I would love to be that writer, and in some ways I am, pushing out two 1400 word sermon manuscripts a week.

I think what it comes down to is that I have plenty to say, but I shouldn't say it. Much of what I'd write about would be about the people I come across in my work.

I could write about the homeless guy who came into church this past Sunday at 8:30 AM wanting to talk about why he lost his job and why tsunamis happen in Japan. I could write about that.

I can't write about people in my church, family, or colleagues. Even without names, people connect the dots and confidentiality is breached and trust is lost.

I think that it should be in a pastor's contract that each member of the church needs to sign a waiver, releasing the pastor from all responsibility if he uses them as a sermon illustration, or maybe worse, fodder for a blog post. If you don't want me to write about you, stay out of trouble.

That said, it's a weird job. Either people tell me a lot, but expect that I repeat none of it, or they don't tell me anything and expect me to know every detail of an event that has occurred in their life.

It's been a day. I didn't think I had anything to write about, and maybe, at this point, you agree with me.

Another day.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Poem to Ponder

As a former kid and current parent with kids--this poem struck a nerve. Culled this from the Writer's Almanac.

Sins of the Father

by W.D. Ehrhart

Today my child came home from school in tears.
A classmate taunted her about her clothes,
and the other kids joined in, enough of them
to make her feel as if the fault was hers,
as if she can't fit in no matter what.
A decent child, lovely, bright, considerate.
It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone
to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes
me think of things I haven't thought about
in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman
"Barn," walked behind her through the halls and mooed
like cows. We kept this up for years, and not
for any reason I could tell you now
or even then except that it was fun.
Or seemed like fun. The nights that Barbara
must have cried herself to sleep, the days
she must have dreaded getting up for school.
Or Suzanne Heider. We called her "Spider."
And we were certain Gareth Schultz was queer
and let him know it. Now there's nothing I
can do but stand outside my daughter's door
listening to her cry herself to sleep.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


James Bryan Smith says in his book, The Good and the Beautiful Life, that the definition of worry is a “disproportionate level of concern based on an inappropriate measure of fear.”

I am preparing to write a sermon on Matthew 6:25-34, I read Jesus words in the concluding verse.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

“Do not worry...” I admit, I worry sometimes about how much I have in me to continue the work I do. My deficiencies are glaring to me, and I assume, to others. To name those weaknesses, well, none of us likes to do that. It is not my intent to write a confessional. I am simply being honest in saying that I feel a little empty right now. Out of gas. Tapped out. Malaise is the word of the day.

Perhaps you can help me think about the worries you experience in your life. I am not asking you to write a personal confessional, either. Instead, think about what keeps you from worry, or at least, from worrying more than you do.

How do you understand Jesus when he says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” ?

I promise not to worry about tomorrow if you won’t.