God is Near!

Elijah

1 Kings 17:6-24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hatred will not Win!

Pitts Pic

John 11:32-44

I was as stunned and as saddened by last weekend’s senseless massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as you were.

I don’t understand the hatred that led to the tragedy; and I don’t understand the racism, bigotry and narrow-minded thinking that led to the senseless killing of eleven innocent people. I spent some time with Jews and Muslims and Hindus and other Christians at Temple David in Monroeville, Pennsylvania last weekend because I needed to witness people coming together as a “community,” and because I wanted to be a part of a small gathering of people who are committed to the fact that hatred will not win.

Hatred descends upon us like a thick and suffocating blanket. Hatred isolates us from other people. Hatred turns off the lights and leaves us in darkness. Hatred makes our hearts cold and angry and bitter toward people that we don’t even know.

We celebrate the Festival of All Saints as a “holy time” in our journey of faith. We take time to remember people that we’ve loved and lost, and we tell stories about their lives (sometimes with a sense of heaviness in our hearts). We remember those whom we have loved and lost through the years and we stand beside people who have experienced the same kinds of loss that we have. And, just like in the short story of Lazarus’ death and raising, Jesus draws near to weep and to comfort us. Jesus brings the “living presence of God” near to us as He dries the tears in our eyes and bears testimony to the fact that even in times of sorrow and loss, God is at work to do something new. John of Patmos bears testimony to the God who is active and re-creating everything in our lives and in the entire Creation (Revelation 21:1-6a). John talks about God dwelling with us and wiping the tears from our eyes. John speaks of a day when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. John of Patmos echoes the great promise of the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed, “God will destroy on this mountain the suffocating shroud that’s spread over all people, and God will swallow-up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:7-8)

“Hatred will not Win!” Christians proclaim that God’s at work to re-create the world all around us; and God’s at work to bring an end to the types of racism, bigotry and narrow-minded thinking that can end the lives of innocent people. Christians stand together in the shadow of a Cross where God binds people together and welcomes everybody with a warm embrace. Christians understand that, when God’s at work, the world that we share can begin to change and people really can stop killing other people simply because they see them as people who are “different” in some way. Christians are called to stand beside our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community and to cry with them as they mourn – always carrying in our hearts the promise of the great peace that we crave in solidarity, and clinging to the fact that the great peace that we desire for ourselves and for those who come after us will come – and, as Julian of Norwich once said, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

I don’t understand the hatred that led to last weekend’s tragedy. I don’t understand the kinds of racism, bigotry and narrow-minded thinking that led to the deaths of Bernice, Sylvan, Melvin, Daniel, Irving, Rose, Jerry, Joyce, Richard, Cecil and David. But I do know that the powers of good will prevail as long as Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus continue to come together and promise each other that hatred will not be allowed to win. The powers of good and of God will prevail as long as we allow God to draw us together into a “community” where what binds us together is stronger than what tears us apart.

But, now is a time to stop – to weep with those who are weeping – and to offer our love and full support to those whose lives have been changed in an unspeakable way.

May God’s peace be with you!

Always remember that, even in the face of tragedy, God is at work to re-create what we see all around us as we stand beside each other and share each other’s pain, and as we open our lives to God’s healing power that continues to work in our lives and in the world.

Tree of Life: Where Healing Begins

Tree of Life Pic

“We pray for healing of the body.

We pray for healing of the soul.

For strength of flesh and mind and spirit.

We pray to once again be whole.”

These are words that resonate deeply with my soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLICK HERE

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

“We pray for healing of our people.

We pray for healing of the land.

And peace for ev’ry race and nation,

Ev’ry child, ev’ry woman, ev’ry man.”

 

Your Life and Your Money

Money Pic

Mark 10:35-45

Many people cringe when their pastor begins to talk about money.

The story of our faith tells us that, in the Beginning, God created everything that we see and that God created it all to be “good.” In his explanation of the 4th Petition in the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther reminds us that, when we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread,” God responds to our prayer by providing food, drink, shelter, shoes, clothing, our homes, faithful rulers, good weather, peace, good health, good neighbors, and even the gift of money. Signs of God’s faithfulness are all around us; in fact, God’s continuing love and faithfulness is what keeps us alive.
And so, a natural question emerges: “How do we respond to God’s faithfulness?”

In today’s reading (Mark 10:35-45), James and John ask an interesting question. They have been following Jesus for some time. They have seen Jesus perform miracles and heal the sick. They’ve heard Jesus talk about Heaven and they decide that they want special seats in Heaven; and so, they ask Jesus to give them those coveted places.
But Jesus surprises them.

Jesus describes being a Christ-ian as being a person who serves. Following Jesus is not about honor and prestige, and being great and visible. Following Jesus is not about power and authority and getting your own way. Christ-ians follow Jesus by living lives that are dedicated to loosing bonds and setting people free. Christ-ians untie bonds and help people move toward “wellness.” But, in a busy world, we don’t have enough hours in the day to support every good cause, do we? In a busy world filled is many obligations, we can’t set everyone free, untie all of the bonds that we want to untie, and help all of the people that we want to help move toward “wellness.” But, what we do have is a “vehicle” that we can use to do just that.
What would happen if you began to look at money as something that someone else gives to you in exchange for a part of your life that you can never get back?

That’s the truth that this week’s message, “Your Life and Your Money”, lifts-up. Our lives and our money are intimately connected. And our money is a “vehicle” that we can use to do things that we, otherwise, wouldn’t have the time or the physical ability to do.

We may not have time or the physical ability to visit the ill and the home-bound people in our community – but, through the “vehicle” of money, we can offer a part of our lives to restore people who are suffering and lonely to wellness by supporting the ministry of a person who makes those life-changing visits. We may not have the time or the physical ability to feed hungry people in our community – but, through the “vehicle” of money, we can give-up a part of our lives as Christ-ians to untie the bonds of hunger and place food on people’s tables by supporting the work of a local food bank. We may not have time or the physical ability to fight the raging battle against addictions in our communities – but, through the “vehicle” of money, we can give-up a part of our lives as Christ-ians, so that people who are battling addictions have a safe place where they can gather in supportive communities to fight their battle with the help of other people. We may not have time or the physical ability to rebuild homes after a hurricane has destroyed them – but through the “vehicle” of money we can restore hope and rebuild homes, and we can provide help to those who are traveling through one of the most difficult times in their lives.
When we give money to the Church, we offer a gift-of-life that will be used as a “vehicle” to restore people, to untie bonds, and to bring God’s people to a better place in life that’s marked with both health and wellness.

Money that’s given to the Church isn’t just used to support an institution or social club. Money that’s given to the Church isn’t just used to pay ongoing expenses, so that the doors of an aging building can remain open for another week.

The money that you give is a “vehicle” that we use to share our lives with others. Money that we give to the Church in thanksgiving is a “vehicle” we use to share time and energy and life with folks who need to be restored and who need to be brought to a better place in life in the name of Jesus.

Confronting Worry and Anxiety

hibiscus pic

Matthew 6:25-34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Partners in Mission

Partners Pic

Mark 9:38-40

Have you noticed that the world’s changing?

We live in a world of instant access where people can watch hurricanes move across the Atlantic, and where we’re invited to sit in the courtroom while people like Bill Cosby are being sentenced to time in prison. We can watch President Trump address the General Assembly of the United Nations, and listen to people question Brett Kavanaugh after his nomination to serve on the Supreme Court. Every “pop” and “ding” and “vibration” on our cellphones means something. And, as the world’s quickly changing all around us, the Church is changing, too.

Most Americans continue to believe in God, but fewer and fewer people are sitting in church pews on an average weekend. Churches that were once filled to capacity with bustling crowds are facing tough times as once-filled pools of volunteers have emptied and as rising costs fuel growing deficits. But people are still doing “good things,” aren’t they? Organizations all across America were mobilizing volunteers and were asking for financial support long before Hurricane Florence made its landfall. People can send money to feed hungry children – support their local women’s shelter – provide medical care for children with cancer – or even save an abandoned puppy or kitten with a touch on their cellphone’s screen. And many people in the Church are feeling threatened by that – because it’s almost as if we’re competing with other groups that are always pulling people and resources that we need to do ministry out of our hands.

The apostle John once said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38)

“Our Partners in Mission” is a message that’s been created to encourage you to think about building mission-partnerships between the church that you attend and groups that are also serving God’s people in your local community. Jesus once said, “Those who are not against us are for us.” (Mark 9:40) When we move past the idea that life-altering ministry is a “possession” of the Church, we can begin to see that God uses all sorts of people to do things that God wants to do in the world. And that can be life-changing to a congregation that’s struggling to figure-out what ministry even looks like in the 21st Century.
Let’s look more carefully at the idea of mission-partnerships where I live.

The Plum Food Pantry is serving people who are food-insecure in the community where the congregation I serve is located and we can feed hungry families, too – not by creating our own wheel and by feeding people in our own way – but, rather, by joining hands with other people who also want to do God’s work in our community. The Blackburn Center is standing beside women who are being battered in their homes, and is standing beside women and men who have been sexually abused or assaulted and we can do that, too – not by going out and creating our own wheel and by trying to do it all by ourselves – but, rather, by joining hands with other people who want to do God’s work, too. We can help seniors remain in their homes and remain independent by “joining the cause” and being a mission-partner with those who are trying to expand Open Your Heart to a Senior in our local area. We can battle the opioid addiction that’s claiming so many young lives in our community and we don’t need to create our own wheel and try to do it by ourselves! We can, instead, join hands in a mission-partnership with Narcotics Anonymous and do God’s work by supporting the ministry of folks who are already on the front-lines of the battle against addictions!
When the Church begins to look at ministry as its own possession, it loses sight of the fact that God can use all sorts of people to do the things that God wants to do.

The Church enjoyed being the center of the community for a long, long time. The Church created activities and programs that gave people something to do, and the fellowship of the Church was blessed by cover-dish dinners – church picnics – women’s circle meetings – and all sorts of youth group activities. And, as a “new day” dawns, those who continue to participate in the ministry of the Church carry that with them. As a “new day” dawns in America and all around the world, those who continue to regularly participate in the ministry of the Church carry all of those important things with them as things that can be remembered and cherished and honored and celebrated!

But, as Jesus continues to challenge us to explore new ways to “be the Church” and to think about ways that we can join hands in ministry in new and creative ways, it’s time for us to realize that “Those who are not against us are for us!” (Mark 9:40) – because, when we move past the idea that ministry is the Church’s possession, we become more open to working with many different people who are as serious about doing God’s work as we are.

Looking at Life Through Clean Windows

dirty window

James 3:13-4:3

Clara was a woman who was never afraid to speak her mind.

She would rock back-and-forth in her rickety, old chair carefully observing things that were happening all around her. Clara’s grandchildren sometimes arrived at her home with spots of ketchup and mustard on their shirts. Clara always noticed when her grand-kids’ shoes weren’t tied, when Johnny had a hole in the knee of his pants, when the mug of hot coffee that her daughter brought to her didn’t have enough cream in it, and when there was dust on the piano. And that’s why Johnny wasn’t surprised when she got going.

“Hey, Johnny,” Clara said, “look at those sheets hanging on Esther’s clothes line! Aren’t those the dirtiest sheets you’ve ever seen?” “Just look at those filthy things! They just look like a bunch of dirty rags!”
And Johnny sat there as his grandma went on and on and on and on….

There wasn’t anything wrong with the sheets. And, after a few minutes of listening to his grandma’s newest complaint, Johnny got a little, quirky smile on his face and said, “Hey, Grandma, when was the last time you cleaned your windows?” “You’re seeing all of those dirty spots because you’re looking at Esther’s sheets through your own dirty windows.”
We’ve probably all had times when we looked at the world and at other people through our own set of dirty windows.

We’ve all been told to stay away from certain “kinds” of people and we do it. We’ve all had time when we’ve heard rumors about other people; and, suddenly, we discovered that we could never look at them in the same way. We’ve all been hurt or disappointed by others; and, when that happens, we decide that other people are “bad” and that they will never change. We usually believe that when people do things that are wrong they will always be people who do things that are wrong. And, that’s it. Period.

In this week’s message, “Looking at Life Through Clean Windows”, we take some time to explore the ways that we look at each other. St. James leaves us dangling between a “fractured” world filled with conflicts, disputes, greed and anger – and a world that is filled with Godly gentleness that’s born of wisdom. St. James tells us to “be doers of the word and not just hearers” (James 1:22) and to live lives that point others toward the Christ that we love and serve. But, sometimes, the ways that we “see” other people can stop us from doing that. Sometimes, the spots on our own dirty windows keeps us from seeing the goodness in others and causes us to interpret things in unhelpful ways.

Martin Luther, the 16th-century Church reformer once explained the 8th Commandment using these words: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything that they do in the best possible way.
How would our lives and our relationships change if we started to do that?

This week, try to find the good in other people. Try your hardest to interpret the things that other people do in the best possible way. Ask God to help you to clean your windows, so that you’re more able to see others in the ways that God does – knowing that when you are “Looking at Life Through Clean Windows”, you’re going to be happier – you’re going to have more friends and deeper relationships. You may even find that when you live your life seeing the goodness in others and accepting other people just as they are, other people will begin to see you and to treat you in the very same way.

When Passion and Commitment Connect

cross pic

Mark 8:27-38

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is one of my favorite places in the world.

I spent three years of my life living right in the middle of the battlefield and bicycling across the top of Seminary Ridge. I spent many evenings watching beautiful sunsets from the peak of Little Round Top. But Gettysburg is, also, a place that invites people to think about life and about what God is calling us to do with the time that we’ve been given.

What would drive a person to leave everything behind and go to war? What would drive 262 Union soldiers from Minnesota to race forward to meet the advancing forces of 1,500 confederates from Alabama? What would stir-up the hearts of soldiers and cause them to stand in a straight line in an open field and charge into the firing cannons of the enemy? Why would 20,000 men fight over a 19-acre piece of ground just outside of Gettysburg in one of the bloodiest battles in human history?
Big things happen when passion and commitment connect.

People grab the bull by the tail and wrestle with demons. People commit themselves to things that are more important to them than life itself. People need to decide between what’s really important in life and what simply isn’t. People invest the very best that they have to offer in things that they believe can change the world.

In this week’s message, “When Passion and Commitment Connect”, we listen to some of the most challenging words that Jesus ever spoke: “If any of you would come after Me, you must deny yourselves and take-up your Cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34) Jesus continues by saying: “Those of you who want to save your own life are going to lose it, and those of you who are willing to lose your life for My sake are going to find it.” (Mark 8:35)

“True life” is found when we discover something that ignites us, and drives us and causes us to invest ourselves in something important – and “true life” is lost when we live our lives searching for least common denominators and the easiest path. “True life” is found when the Holy Spirit ignites our hearts and drives us into the world to discover why God made us – and “true life” is lost when we allow the precious time that we have been given to slip between our fingers.

When we begin to see what God wants us to do, we begin to hear the voice of Jesus. The Holy Spirit lives and moves and breathes inside of us. The Holy Spirit opens and closes doors in front of us, sends rains to quench our thirst in the desert, and gives us energy and stamina that we never knew we had. The Holy Spirit challenges us to look past the many obstacles and problems that stand in our way and helps us to embrace God-given possibilities and opportunities that are set before us. The Holy Spirit calls-forth the very best that we have to offer, and God’s work is done with our very own hands.
So, let me ask you: “Where do passion and commitment connect in YOUR life?
What is big enough and challenging enough to call-forth the very best that you have to give and to pull you into the middle of something that you can do to change the world?

The burdens and problems and troubles that we face in our lives are NOT the Cross that Jesus speaks to us about when He calls us to “take-up our Cross and follow Him” (Mark 8:34) Our “Cross” is the place where passion and commitment connect, and it’s the place where we discover our deepest calling and purpose in life.

You (and I mean YOU) Are Welcome!

pointing at you

Mark 7:24-37

What does it mean to be a “community of Jesus” that welcomes everyone?

In this week’s message, “You (and I mean YOU) Are Welcome!”, we explore one of the most unusual conversations in the Bible. It’s the story of a Syro-Phoenician woman – an outcast – a woman that we’re supposed to avoid. It’s the story of a unclean woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon and who came to Jesus asking for help. And, right after the woman asks Jesus to heal her little girl, Jesus responds: “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!” (Mark 7:27)

Many people travel through times in life when they don’t think that they’re worthy to receive the crumbs that drop from God’s table. We make mistakes and sometimes choose to do the wrong thing. We confess our sins to God; and, then, return to the world to just sin again. And, no matter how many times we promise God that we’re going to change our lives and live in a different way, we get off track – don’t we? And that can leave us with a lingering sense of guilt and make us think that we don’t deserve God’s blessings at all. I once talked with a man who told me that he knows that he’s nothing more than a worm in the eyes of God. And worms don’t deserve to eat the children’s food – do they?

But then, the woman responds to what Jesus has said saying: “But even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table.” (Mark 7:28) And Jesus responds to her words by giving her the blessing that she sought. Perhaps, even people who believe that they’re nothing more than worms can receive God’s blessings, too? Perhaps, even people that we consider to be outcasts and unclean can be embraced and welcomed by the same God who embraces and welcomes us? What a radical idea!

When we pray and come to worship, we sense that the stories of our lives are connected to what Jesus is doing in the world. When we pray and worship, we’re invited to share in a “sacred moment” when God stretches-out arms of welcome and embrace. And, when that happens, it’s a “holy moment” because it’s the moment of God’s presence. It’s a “holy moment” when we’re reminded that all of us are important to God – even in dark times when we make mistakes and bad choices – even in times when we believe in our hearts that we’re not worthy to receive God’s blessings.

“You (and I mean YOU) Are Welcome!”
In Christ, we become a community where everybody is welcome. There is nobody who’s unworthy to eat the crumbs that are left on the floor. There is nobody who needs to sit – or to stand – at a distance because of a mistake or bad choice that’s been made at some point in the past. Jesus calls us to eat the children’s food – no matter where we’ve been – no matter what we’ve done – and no matter what kind of “story” we’ve written. And, as we respond to the invitation of Jesus, God’s story of continuing forgiveness and embrace becomes a part of our story even in times when we don’t believe we deserve to eat the crumbs that are left on the floor.

Christ’s Church for ALL People has been created to be a “community of Jesus” that welcomes and embraces everyone – and that clearly proclaims to ALL people: “You (and I mean YOU) Are Welcome!”

Hurricane Florence – You Can Help!

Hurricane Florence

Many people want to offer their help and support when disasters strike.

Hurricane Florence is bearing-down on the east coast of the United States. Millions of people have left everything that they own behind in an attempt to escape devastating winds and rain. Others have decided to hunker-down because they either can’t run away or because they’ve decided that they can somehow face the unknown and prevail. The Weather Channel  is predicting that some areas of North Carolina will receive as much as forty inches of rain in the next few days, and elected leaders have promised us that they are prepared to respond to a disaster. But, the help of many other people will be needed, too.

How do you decide which charity or organization will use money that you contribute most wisely?

One of the first things that I suggest is that people visit CharityWatch before they send any money to an organization that’s asking for support during emergencies (and at other times, too). CharityWatch is America’s most independent and assertive charity watchdog and was founded 25 years ago as the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP). CharityWatch does not just give you what charities report to their donors using simplistic or automated formulas. CharityWatch dives deeply into an organization’s structures and expenses to let you know how efficiently that charity will use your donation to fund the cause you want to support. CharityWatch exposes nonprofit abuses and advocates for your interests as a donor. Before you donate your hard-earned money to any organization or charity, please take a few minutes to visit CharityWatch. That simple, first step will protect you, as a donor, and the people that you want to help and support with your generous gift.

Another thing that you need to remember is that almost every organization or charity has some sort of overhead costs and expenses that need to be paid by somebody. Will that be you?

Most organizations and charities skim a certain percentage of every contribution that’s made to pay these costs and expenses. Some organizations pay their CEO hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Others use a percentage of the money that they receive to advertise, so that they can collect even more money from donors. It’s important to remember that organizations and charities that are most visible are, often, the ones that devote the largest amount of money to advertising. If they didn’t do that, you would probably never hear about what they are doing. Remember that.

But, some organizations and charities underwrite their expenses in other ways – and are, thus, able to send a larger percentage of your donation – or even 100% of it – to people that you want to help.

One example of a fine organization that does just that is Lutheran Disaster Response. Lutheran Disaster Response works as a catalyst, convener and bridge builder when disasters strike. Lutheran Disaster Response works with other organizations in the United States and all around the world. This approach enables Lutheran Disaster Response to use every dollar that it receives to help people who are affected by disasters and to maximize the impact of every dollar that’s received. Overhead costs and expenses are paid by faithful members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), so that every penny that is contributed to special appeals can be used to help people who need support and care. If you would like to read about Lutheran Disaster Response’s work in 2017 – click here.

Lutheran Disaster Response  recognizes that every disaster is local. Because of this, every response is rooted in the local community Your generous contribution provides everything that’s needed from immediate relief to the long-term recovery needs of affected people and communities. Your generous gift changes lives!

Your generous gift provides:

  • Emotional and spiritual support for both the people who have been affected by the disaster and for the leaders in the community who are responding to it;
  • Coordination of the efforts of thousands of volunteers;
  • Immediate support for those who need food, water, baby formula and diapers, mattresses, and other emergency supplies that are needed for rebuilding lives;
  • Long-term support that continues to meet the long-term needs of people who are affected by disasters – months – and even years after disasters strike and other organizations have left the area.

If you would like to help people whose lives are affected by Hurricane Florence

 CLICK HERE!

Hurricanes and other natural disasters strike people’s lives with devastating consequences, and we are both called and challenged by God to offer our support and care. But, we also need to ensure that the hard-earned money that we contribute to organizations and charities will be used wisely and efficiently to extend the care that we want to offer.

Thank you for your interest in extending your love and support to those whose lives will, undoubtedly, be devastated by Hurricane Florence. And thank you for thinking about using Lutheran Disaster Response as a vehicle that will deliver the financial support you want to offer to those who are facing the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.