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.

Being Religious vs. Being a Disciple

Gold

Jesus once said, “The Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and, in joy over it, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.”

Being “religious” is like carrying gold bullion in a cardboard box.

Being a “disciple” is knowing the true value of what you’ve discovered and wanting to share what you’ve found with other people.

Why the Church needs Lutherans

 

Luther Rose Picture (1)

The last year has taken me in many interesting directions. I’ve spoken with bishops and pastors from many denominations. I’ve talked with Raymond Bonwell, an economist and Presbyterian pastor, who’s lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, about time management, the challenges of ministry, and the laser-type of focus that pastors and church leaders must maintain in order to help congregations fulfill their mission. I’ve spent time with Eric Law, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, learning about six “Holy Currencies” that congregations need to consistently exchange in order to remain both missional and sustainable. I’ve talked with many people, who belong to the congregation that I serve, about our ministry in the 21st Century in Conversation Circles; and I’ve had the chance to talk with Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA pastor who has discovered refreshing ways to reach people, who weren’t being touched by traditional ministries of the Church, through radical authenticity and embrace. And in the midst of all that activity, I’ve learned many lessons about life and faith.

But there’s something else….

The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary recently sponsored a “Being Church” conference that attracted Church leaders from across the nation and invited them to join in lively conversations about ministry. Nadia Bolz-Weber shared the story of her life; and then, she talked with us about why she’s a Christian. She spoke about God’s embrace and love for people that we often don’t understand. She talked with us about finding God’s presence in the midst of ordinary people and about watching the Spirit move in people’s lives. She spoke about the radical implications of “justification by grace through faith”—something quite familiar to me as a Lutheran. And then, Nadia Bolz-Weber invited us to gather in small groups to simply listen to each and to share ideas.

The small group that I attended was very diverse. We crossed our denominational lines, moved past racial barriers, embraced people of all ages, and intentionally tried to be as inclusive as possible. We talked about many of the things Nadia Bolz-Weber had lifted before us during her presentation. And then, a woman in our group surprised me when she said, “I found the ways that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way.” I smiled….

We live in an age where churches are trying all sorts of things to make themselves more attractive to new members. The pastor of a church in my community recently removed all of the crosses from the walls in the building—because “The cross is offensive to people in modern times.” I’ve seen many churches strip denominational affiliations from the name of their congregation and become a “Bible” church. I’ve seen other churches transform worship into a weekly self-help seminar designed to help ordinary people become both happy and successful in life. We want to find an easy fix. We want to believe that if we just change the style of our music—or the name on the front of our building—or, perhaps, get rid of our denominational affiliation altogether—people are going to flood through our opened doors and we’ll be happy again. We’ll even have to start setting-up chairs in the aisles, so that people have a place to sit.

But it doesn’t work that way.

I was reminded, once again, that the Lutheran congregation that I serve has a precious gift to share with the Church, and with the world, as I listened to the words of a woman in our small group at the “Being Church” conference. “I found the way that Nadia spoke about ‘grace’ to be both insightful and refreshing. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘grace’ that way,” she said. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s radical love and embrace is a gift to the Church. The continuing Lutheran witness to God’s power to forgive and to embrace people that we find hard to accept and understand is a precious “gift” that Lutherans have to share in a time when that message is not always clear. I don’t need to challenge the congregation that I serve to give-up its rich Lutheran heritage in order to help the Church to move into the future. I don’t need to listen to the voices of those who think that the Church needs to become “more generic” in order to appeal to the next generation. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t change. We may need to find new ways to talk with people about God’s message of radical love and embrace, and we may need to embrace new ways of doing ministry in a changing world, but we don’t need to abandon “who we are” and become “what we are not” in order to become more appealing to the next generation.

I’ve been encouraged as I’ve spoken with other people about the future of the Church. We’re moving through quickly changing times—and that can be scary. But the Spirit’s alive and moving in our midst. It’s exciting to watch people, who don’t even know each other, talk about the evolving ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ in similar ways. This is a time when prayer is absolutely crucial. This is a time when we need to listen to each other, when we need to build each other up, and when we need to speak with each other in helpful and respectful ways. But this is also a time when I need to remember, and when I must continue to remind the people that I serve, that the Church of Jesus Christ needs the precious “gift” that faithful Lutherans bring to the table when we bear witness to God’s continuing love, forgiveness and embrace in our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

Our Demons, Christ and Healing

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This week, we explore one of the most unusual stories in the Bible. We meet a naked man who lives in a cemetery. We hear a story about demon possession. We see thousands of demons coming out of a man and invading a herd of pigs. We can almost see the shock on a swineherd’s face as all of his pigs run over the edge of a cliff and drown.

What do you think about demon possession? Have you ever pictured yourself as a person who’s living in a spiritual war zone? Do unspeakable, but all-too-common, tragedies like the senseless killing of 49 innocent people in an Orlando, Florida nightclub have a some sort of spiritual dimension?

In this week’s message – “Our Demons, Christ and Healing” we explore some of these topics as people of faith, and are invited to bring the struggles and challenged in our own lives to the Christ who can both heal us and restore a sense of wholeness in our lives.

Blessings!

 

Honest to God!

Tan Line Pic

Summer is a simply wonderful time to enjoy life and to relax.

My wife and I just spent Memorial Day weekend on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We enjoyed long bicycle rides on the Beach Road, and we had a great chance to simply stop and build sandcastles with our granddaughter. The sound of crashing waves calms my heart and soothes my soul. I even leaned down and picked-up a few shells as I was walking along the shore—shells that I’m planning to use during baptisms.

And, of course, I wore my Fitbit, so that I could record every step.

I wore my Fitbit while I was riding my bicycle and I wore my Fitbit while I was reading a book entitled, “Happy,” to my granddaughter. I wore my Fitbit while I was playing in the sand, and I wore my Fitbit while I was relaxing in my folding chair on the beach. And, as I enjoyed my relaxing days in North Carolina, I didn’t even notice that I was changing. My skin began to adjust to the sunlight and I started to tan. Little by little—day by day—my skin began to change even though I didn’t realize what was happening. And then, one day, when I removed by Fitbit to take a shower, I noticed something. I had a tan line. The skin on my arms had begun to tan, but a small band of untanned skin marked the place where my Fitbit had rested. And I learned about God and about faith.

In Psalm 139:23-24, we read: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts. And see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.”

We change when we spend time in the presence of the Lord. God touches our hearts when we read the Bible and spend time in daily prayer. God changes our hearts when we confess the ways that we’ve hurt other people; when we honestly think about the unfair ways that we sometimes treat people; when we openly face doubts and fears that plague our daily lives; and when we intentionally remove the masks that we wear to make other people believe that we’re something that we’re really not. God changes us when we’re open and authentic. God acts most powerfully in our lives when we allow Him to work in the parts of our lives where we’re most broken and afraid.

But when we try to hide our vulnerabilities, and when we try to live our lives in ways that lack honesty and authenticity, we can become “closed” to what God’s trying to do.

And, that’s the tan line. God can work in my life most powerfully when I’m both authentic and open to how God wants to change me. God can do wonderful things in my life and God can even help me to become a different person. But, when I try to hide and conceal the unappealing parts of my life, and when I intentionally put up walls that are meant to protect parts of my life that I don’t want to change, even the life-giving work of God can be thwarted. A tan line is a visible reminder of the fact that when we cover parts of “who we are”—either physically or spiritually—we can stop growing and even seal ourselves off from the life-transforming presence of the Holy Spirit.

And so, enjoy your summer. Do the things that you love with the people you cherish. And, the next time you look down and see a tan line, think about the ways that God’s changing you, and think about the parts of your life that you’re intentionally trying to hide from other people and even from the eyes of God.

Authenticity opens the doors to spiritual growth. God often works most powerfully in our lives when we come into God’s presence both honestly and authentically—allowing God to see not only the wonderful fruits of His blessings in our lives; but also the anxious thoughts, the secret desires, the hidden truths, and the face we sometimes want to keep hidden behind a mask.

The Testimony of a Changed Man

DSC_0021

The Bible is filled with stories about ordinary people who are changed by their encounter with God. In this week’s message, “My Story”, we meet a man who lived his life with a long list of rules and expectations that greatly shaped his relationships with other people.

How do our “rules” shape our interactions with other people? How can our experience of Christ’s love and embrace help us to become more welcoming toward people who don’t always live their lives in the way we think they “should”?

In this narrative sermon, we hear the testimony of Simon (a Pharisee), a man who went away from his encounter with Christ changed and transformed by love.

Blessings!

God’s Always With You

Zarephath

The story of a widow’s encounter with Elijah in Zarephath has a lot to teach us about God’s continuing presence and faithfulness in every circumstance that we face in life. God’s with us when life’s good, but God’s just as present when we’re experiencing the hardships and difficulties that challenge our faith.  “God’s Always With You” is a message that invites you to see God’s faithful presence in every circumstance in life, and that invites you to pray and to continue to look for God’s blessings when life is hard.

Blessings!

 

Smartphone Smarts

Smartphone Pic

How often do you check your Smartphone?

We seldom find ourselves in places that don’t offer Internet access or phone signals these days. We carry Smartphones to work and to school. We glance at our Smartphones while we’re shopping and send text messages while driving. We have many small interactions with our Smartphones each day; but, some people spend hours checking e-mail messages and spend even more hours deeply engrossed in social media. If you’ve wondered if your Smartphone is taking over your life, here are some things you can try:

  1. Talk now. You can always text later, or tweet later, or email later. God wants us to put healthy boundaries around our times of leisure, our times with friends and family members, times when we’re sharing meals with other people, and times when we’re taking our “Sabbath-rest.” We often fail to fully “enjoy the moment” when we’re living with our Smartphone in our hand. And, here’s a thought: “Why do we always assume that Smartphone-interruptions are more important than what we’re doing at the moment?”

 

  1. Take a phone-free day. Part of learning to master the use of our Smartphones is learning the art of self-control. Every Smartphone has an “off” button; and yet, we are often unwilling to use it. How in the world can we escape the fear of “missing something important”? How in the world can we fight the dopamine surge that hits us when someone “likes” something we post or when someone re-tweets one of our thoughts? We’re driven to make snap decisions when we’re carrying Smartphones. Have you ever found it difficult to refrain from instantly responding to your Smartphone’s last beep or vibration? Perhaps, it’s time for you to break that routine. Use the power button on your Smartphone more often. Or, if that seems to be totally impossible, perhaps you could switch your Smartphone into “airplane mode” and relax for a few hours? Who’s actually in control—you or your Smartphone?

 

  1. Avoid searching for answers to every question. Embrace serendipity. Just think about how many interesting conversations you might have if you stopped trying to answer every question you have by searching for the answer on your Smartphone. People are fascinating and we can learn many things by simply interacting with other people. When was the last time that you asked someone for a set of directions? When was the last time that you asked someone to help you, or to explain something that you didn’t understand? Person-to-person interaction can be far more exciting than staring into your Smartphone’s flat screen. Why not give it a try?

 

  1. Keep your Smartphone off the table. God created us to share our lives with other people. And yet, we’re often tempted to snub other people by paying attention to our Smartphone when we’re sitting in the presence of others. Having dinner with a friend or family member is about far more than ingesting the calories. Dining with a friend or family member is an “occasion.” Have you ever been offended by a person who left their Smartphone on the table while you were sharing a meal? What are we saying to our friends and family members about the priorities in our lives when we leave our Smartphone on the dinner table while we are spending time with them, so that we can instantly respond to an unexpected call or text message? Maybe it’s best to keep your Smartphone out of sight (and out of mind) when you’re sharing precious moments with your friends and family?

 

  1. Look before you snap. I love to take pictures of my granddaughter; but, I’ve also learned that “living life” through the lens of my Smartphone steals the very moments in life that I’m trying to capture. I want to experience important times and moments, but I’ve learned that I don’t need to document everything. Living memories are even more precious. When important things are happening, why not simply live the moment intensely and entirely—and enjoy the memory?

 

  1. Don’t be afraid to kiss your Smartphone goodnight. It’s always going to be tempting to pick-up your Smartphone one last time. But, did you know that your Smartphone emits blue light, which your brain associates with daylight? This type of exposure can wreak havoc on your body’s clock. The last link that you visited, or the last tweet, or the last email, or the last text message can affect your sleep pattern for hours. Is your last game of “Candy Crush Saga”—your end-of-the-day series of text messages—or that last group of e-mail exchanges really necessary?

 

Adopting a special “Code of Conduct” can’t solve every problem. But being mindful and more attentive to the patterns in our lives can help us to break out of half-acknowledged habits. Smartphones are habit-forming, and we need to think about the habits we want to form. There are things in life that are worse than missing a telephone call. There are things in life that are worse than discovering that there’s a list of e-mails waiting for you after your vacation, or after a long weekend with someone you love.

Our “micro-interactions” with Smartphones can steal precious moments that can never be recaptured. And that’s why we need to be “smart” enough to put our Smartphones down for a while, and learn to enjoy the precious gift of life in a different way.

Not sure what’s best?

I’m really excited to tell you about a new link on the Home Page of the ExploraStory Cafe called: “Tackling Tough Stuff.”

We all face challenges and difficult situations in life, don’t we? We all have those moments in life when we’re not sure what’s best. That’s what “Tackling Tough Stuff” is all about! In fact, if you click the “Tackling Tough Stuff” link, you’re going to find the following:

Bullying: What Teens Taught Me After an Incident of School Violence

How to Respond When Someone Tells You About Childhood Sexual Abuse

How Can I Support a Grieving Friend During and After a Funeral?

I hope that the audio files I’ve created can provide guidance and insight into some of the challenges and difficult situations that we encounter in life. And, as always, if you have a topic that you would like us to take-up in the ExploraStory Cafe, please let me know!

Blessings!