God, Me, You and Them

Martin Luther

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood to be received by faith.” ~ (Romans 3:22-25)

We commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation this week.

A monk named Martin Luther had been struggling with a question that many of us have asked ourselves at some point: “How can I know that things are right between God and me; so that I can know that, when I die, I’m going to Heaven?”

Luther tried his best to make sense of how God responds to the sin. Luther struggled to understand how we can live with hope and peace in our lives knowing that, even when we’re trying to do our best to please God, we still fall short. And Luther also struggled to make sense of how Jesus fits into the picture. If Heaven is something that I earn by being a good, kind and loving person, why do I need Jesus? And on the other hand, if Heaven’s something that I earn by being a good person, how can I know that I’ve been good, kind and loving enough?

But something else was happening….

Faith was intensely personal. People were obsessed with Heaven and Hell, and their fate in the afterlife. And the Church was willing to help. In fact, the Church was telling people that they could take a big step in the right direction by purchasing indulgences – pieces of paper that indicated that a withdrawal had been made from the “Treasury of Merits” (an overflowing bank account that contained all the good deeds that had been done by the Saints in every Age). And that was the solution! But, Luther didn’t buy it (literally).

“God, Me, You and Them” is a message to encourage you to think about God’s relationship with you and with everyone else in the world. The Bible tells us that God sent Jesus into the world because sin is incredibly destructive. The Bible tells us that God sent Jesus into the world because He wants us to know that He loves us, and that His love is a love that’s always ready to welcome and embrace us. And that’s true for other people, too.

The Lutheran Reformation was about more than indulgences. And the Reformation of the Church is still about more than indulgences. It’s about the fundamental relationship between God and the world. Jesus came into the world because God loves you, and Jesus came into the world because God loves me, too. Jesus came into the world because God cares about people that you love and cherish, but He also came because God loves people that you find hard to love. Luther reminded us that God’s love is all about “God, Me, You and Them”. Luther reminded us that God’s love in Christ is extended to everyone. God’s come into the world through the life, death and resurrection of Christ because He has a better plan for us than what we’re seeing right now. God’s come into the world, in Jesus, because God loves us even when we’ve fallen short; and He’s willing to lift us up and dust us off and send us in a new direction with another chance.

“God, Me, You and Them” is about recapturing the heart of God’s message to the world in Jesus Christ. It’s about moving beyond the “God and Me” type of thinking that causes me to focus all of my attention upon my own personal salvation – while forgetting about the fact that Christ came into the world because God loves everyone.

 

 

Read Through the Bible – Weeks 34 and 35

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Welcome back to “Read Through the Bible.”

We’ve been traveling through the Gospel of John in the last few weeks. John is the last of the Gospels in the Bible and was, chronologically, the last of the gospels, too. The Gospel of John contains stories that we don’t find in the other gospels. This is where we’ll find the story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee, the Samaritan woman by the well, and a lot of stories filled with theological statements. John’s famous for the “I AM” statements that we find throughout his gospel, and we’re going to encounter two of those statements as we read from John’s Gospel this week: “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7) and “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14). But, carefully tucked between these two statements, we find one of my favorite verses in the Bible.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

What kinds of things are stealing energy and enthusiasm from your life right now? What parts of your life do you find most difficult? None of us can live our lives without facing some challenges and obstacles, but there are other things in life that drain us (almost on a daily basis) and that leave us with weighted-down spirits and heavy hearts. Do you find yourself praying about those things? What’s God been saying to you? Jesus tells us that the “thief” comes into our lives to steal and kill and destroy – but God is mightier than the “thief” that Jesus describes, isn’t He? What do you need from God right now? How might God be working in your life to take away the power of the “thief” that’s stealing energy and enthusiasm from your daily life?

Jesus also tells us that He has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. What kinds of things make you feel close to God right now? What kinds of things send you into the world filled with energy and excitement? St. Ignatius of Loyola tells us that God is a God who spurs us on in life, and who creates deep passions and excitement. What are you most excited about right now, and how can that excitement be a clear sign that God’s doing something big in your life? Perhaps, that’s something that you can lift-up to God in times of prayer this week, too? How can the excitement and passions that you feel about certain things help you to understand God’s plan for your life and your future?

I know that I’ve asked a lot of questions. But, as we travel through the Gospel of John, we’re brought face-to-face with a God who’s come into the world to bring life, to restore hope, to give peace in difficult times, and to give us strength to face the challenges in life that we’ll all face at some point. Where are you finding God in your life right now, and what do you need the most from God at this point in your journey? Why not take some time to talk with God about that today?

Week 34

Sunday: 1 Timothy 4-6 – Monday: Numbers 5-8 – Tuesday: 1 Chronicles 10-14 – Wednesday: Psalms 99-101 – Thursday: Proverbs 19 – Friday: Hosea 1-7 – Saturday: John 7-9

Week 35

Sunday: 2 Timothy 1-2 – Monday: Numbers 9-12 – Tuesday: 1 Chronicles 15-19 – Wednesday: Psalms 102-104 – Thursday: Proverbs 20-21 – Friday: Hosea 8-14 – Saturday: John 10-12

 

Faith and Wellness

WholenessWheel

Life’s pretty complicated, isn’t it?

We live in an Age of soaring blood pressure, out-of-control cholesterol levels, expanding waist bands, and anti-anxiety medications. We have commitments to our families and to our employers. We have things that we need to do right now and things that we need to do tomorrow. We have commitments to our nation and commitments to our God.

Have you ever felt like a juggler who’s spinning plates at a circus?

Have you ever wondered if there’s enough of you to go around?

If so, you really need to listen to this week’s message: “Faith and Wellness”.

“Faith and Wellness” are intimately connected because God created us to be people who live lives that are healthy and whole. God wants us to work and earn a living – but God doesn’t want us to focus so much energy upon earning money that we neglect the people that we love. God wants us to grow intellectually and to have time to relax – but God also wants us to eat healthy foods and exercise. God wants us to do the things that are most important to us and that we enjoy – but God also calls us to offer some of our time and energy and wealth to the building-up of His Reign on the earth. It’s challenging. Finding new ways to integrate the basic pieces of our lives and blend them together into a strong and healthy whole isn’t easy. But, if we want to be healthy and whole, we need to realize that “Faith and Wellness” are intimately connected.

We can begin to consider ways to more effectively balance our lives as we reflect upon the “Wholeness Wheel” that’s provided above – and we can all improve the quality of our lives as we continue to remember that God calls us to give adequate attention to all of the different parts of our lives without allowing anything – but God – to gain control of the whole thing.

 

Why is Stewardship a Dirty Word?

stewardship pic

Many pastors and church leaders approach the Fall with fear and trepidation because we find ourselves, once again, struggling to find a way to talk about stewardship.

These are tough days in the life of many congregations throughout the Church. We don’t always have enough people to row the boat and major shifts in patterns of giving have left many churches with shrinking financial resources. The bills keep arriving in the mail and many church treasurers face the weekly challenge of deciding which bills need to be paid this week and which bills can wait until next week. And so, many churches gather a few brave souls each Fall and try to find new ways to ask faithful people for their money and their time. Unfortunately, the issue of stewardship is often approached through the lens of the church’s needs and with a poverty mentality, and pastors and church leaders can feel like they’re being asked, once again, to crawl down the center aisle of the church on their knees and beg for the money and help that’s needed. Someone once told me that the church is the only institution in the world that asks for money by telling people that it doesn’t have enough money.

There has to be a better way!

What would happen if pastors and church leaders built stewardship campaigns around storytelling and helping people to understand how a congregation is doing God’s work in the world? What would happen if pastors and church leaders would built a stewardship campaign with a spirit of thanksgiving in their hearts, and use the stewardship campaign to lift-up hopes and dreams for the future? What would happen if pastors and church leaders challenged people to look at themselves as “Mission Partners” instead of seeing themselves as “Members with Benefits”? What would happen if pastors and other church leaders built the stewardship campaign around the idea that people who attend worship are precious in God’s sight – they’re God’s kids – and stopped looking at people who attend worship as a pool of potential volunteers and financial supporters who are going to be asked to help in yet another way?

This year, we built our stewardship campaign upon those principles. I’m not suggesting that we’ve discovered a “magic pill” or that we’ve created something new. Maybe you’ve been doing what I’m suggesting for many years and have been wondering when people like me were going to catch-up. I’d just like to share a few things that we tried and hope that you’ll feel free to share what’s been working for you, too.

We decided to call our worship service “A Celebration of our Ministry and Life Together” and to build our service around four themes that stand at the heart of our congregation’s ministry: We Welcome and Embrace, We Listen and Care, We Worship and Pray, and We Equip and Empower. I’m glad to report that the service was very well received by those who attended and that the responses that we received were very positive. I’ve included this link if you’d like to see what we did.

And then, as we worshiped together, we took some time to tell the story of what we’ve been doing and to ask people for their help in some very specific ways. We shared four story-based messages that told the story of what God’s been doing with us. We named the groups of messages “Christ’s Church for All People” because that’s our vision for the future. We want to grow and to be even more transformed into “Christ’s Church for All People.” You can find an outline of the message that was shared with the congregation here and learn more about our ministry at the same time. We helped the congregation to move around our mission graphic which can be found on the front of the bulletin.

Many pastors and church leaders approach the Fall with fear and trepidation because we find ourselves, once again, struggling to find a way to talk about stewardship. But, with a little bit of storytelling, a strong recognition of the goodness of God’s people, and with a short list of a few specific ways that people can help, pastors and church leaders can find new and exciting ways to address stewardship in changing times.

 

 

Read Through the Bible – Weeks 32 and 33

prayer-page

Life’s been a bit crazy in the last few weeks….

I guess that a man doesn’t realize how much his wife does to support and to care for him until she decides to go away for ten days. I spent time at a coaching conference while my wife was away, and came home with a 3-hour homework assignment and a small pile of books to read. And, of course, ministry continues.  First Communion classes have started and our Catechism program is underway. We’re getting ready to celebrate Harvest Home this weekend with an Oktoberfest – and with a special Sunday that’s devoted to focusing our attention upon how God’s using us and the ministry of our congregation to do His work in a quickly-changing world. And, quite honestly, it’s all pretty overwhelming….

You could probably be writing something very similar, right? There are times when we find ourselves burning the candle at both ends and trying to light it in the middle. We all have times when we realize that there’s just not enough of us to around. And it’s hard for us – because we don’t always like to admit it. I often joke about the fact that I once asked God for an extra day each week – and He responded, in great mercy, by saying, “No!”

And yet, as we travel through the book of Proverbs, we find encouragement.

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

The heart of man plans his ways, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

How is God helping to establish your plans? How is God leading you and guiding you in your life right now? Are you trying to do it all by yourself? Are you struggling because you can’t figure-out how to find the time to do all of the things that you think God wants you to do? Perhaps, it’s time to step back and commit your work to the Lord? Maybe, it’s time to step back and admit that you don’t really know the exact path forward, and ask God to guide you and strengthen you?

We all face overwhelming times when we’re not sure about the future and when we are even less sure about how to get there. Why not take some time to pray about that today – knowing that God has a wonderful plan for your life and that God will open doors that will lead you in the direction that He wants you to move?

Here are two weeks of readings:

Week 31

Sunday – 2 Thessalonians, Monday – Leviticus 25-27, Tuesday – 1 Chronicles 1-4, Wednesday – Psalms 93-95, Thursday – Proverbs 16, Friday – Daniel 1-6, Saturday – John 3-4

Week 32

Sunday – 1 Timothy 1-3, Monday – Numbers 1-4, Tuesday – 1 Chronicles 5-9, Wednesday – Psalms 96-98, Thursday – Proverbs 17-18, Friday – Daniel 7-12, Saturday – John 5-6

 

Where’s God in Tough Times?

question mark

I’ll always remember April 9, 2014.

Early that morning, a young man walked into our local high school and stabbed twenty of his classmates before the day even began. I’ve always struggled with things like that because they just don’t make sense. But even more than that, I struggle with those kinds of things as a “man of faith” because I can’t figure-out why God doesn’t just step onto the scene and stop senseless tragedies. Where is God when crazy and unexpected things are happening in the world? Where is God when hurricanes destroy the lives of innocent people and when a gunman shoots hundreds of people from a hotel window? That’s the question that we consider in this week’s message: “Where’s God in Tough Times?”.

It’s easy to imagine God as a great comforter in the midst of tragedy, but it’s harder to see God in people who say, “What’s going on right now isn’t right, and this is what we need to do to set things straight.” It’s easy to see God in all of the helpers who extend themselves to those who have been injured, but it’s harder to see the Christ in the faces of the people who are suffering. And yet, God’s found in all of those places.

“Where’s God in Tough Times?” is a message that’s been written to help you to see God’s presence in places where people don’t usually look during difficult times. It’s a message that calls us to look for God’s presence in places where we usually miss God when things in our lives and in the world get crazy. “Where’s God in Tough Times?” is a message that will help you to start seeing God in four different places during difficult and challenging times, and it’s a message that might even help you to see how God can use you to help our world become a better place.

 

New Study Resource!

Bread and Wine

Welcome to the Table of the Lord

God calls parents to help their children to grow into men and women of faith.

Some parents make a special commitment to have their children in some sort of program where Christian perspectives and teachings will be shared. Many parents make a special effort to enroll their children in catechism. But, due to changing family dynamics, many parents are taking-on more of the responsibility for teaching their kids about God and about their relationship with Christ. But, in order to do that effectively, parents need tools. And that’s what “Welcome to the Table of the Lord” is all about.

“Welcome to the Table of the Lord” is a three-session study that can help parents to teach their children about Holy Communion. This study guide is not meant to replace the First Communion instruction that’s offered by your church! This resource is, instead, designed to help you to explore some of the basic concepts that your child needs to know.

In the three sessions you will share with your child, you will talk about the Last Supper, the story of Joseph, and the story of the Passover. You’ll talk about the different ways that churches celebrate Holy Communion, and the important promises that God offers to us when we receive the Sacrament. Perhaps, most importantly, you’ll be helping your child to understand that Holy Communion is for you and that you are welcome at the Table of the Lord because God loves you and wants to be a part of your life in a special way.

I’m hoping that this new tool for parents will be an important part of the “equipping and empowering” ministry of the ExploraStory Cafe and that parents will use it to help young people to understand and more deeply participate in an important part of the life of the Church.