Jul 31, 2015

Don’t be Stingy with the Good News

George Sweeting, in his book, The No-Guilt Guide for Witnessing, tells of a man by the name of John Currier who in 1949 was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Later he was transferred and paroled to work on a farm near Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1968, the state of Tennessee commuted Currier’s sentence, and sent a letter bearing the good news to him. But John never saw the letter, nor did anyone tell him anything about it. Life on that farm was hard and without promise for the future. Yet John kept doing what he was told even after the farmer for whom he worked had died.

Ten years went by. Then a state parole officer learned about Currier’s plight, found him, and told him that his sentence had been terminated. He was a free man.

Sweeting concluded that story by asking, “Would it matter to you if someone sent you an important message—the most important in your life—and year after year the urgent message was never delivered?” We who have heard the good news and experienced freedom through Christ are responsible to proclaim it to others still enslaved by sin. Are we doing all we can to make sure that people get the message?

I am glad that I belong to the church I do. I pray you feel the same. To this end, as thankful people, make a list of names of persons who do not have a church home and then invite them to join us. You might even sit with them during worship and even invite them to your Sunday school class! Every church and its members do this on a daily basis and I would ask that all of us try this for a month. Who knows whether or not we might even save someone’s life?

Come, Worship
Stay, Learn
Go, Serve

Jul 24, 2015

Saints: In July???

One of the fine confirmand’s questions asked last May at our retreat was: “What is the method by which people become saints?" It is not by our method, but rather it is by God’s method that we become saints. We call it grace. Perhaps All Saint’s Sunday—a favorite memory for me—is not until the beginning of November, but saints or believers or disciples should always occupy our minds.

We recently sang the hymn, Grace Greater that our Sin (# 365, verse 4) which sings this way:

“Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace, freely bestowed on all who believe! You that are longing to see his face, will you this moment his grace receive?”

This is the grace of God which reigns in our lives like it did for Abraham, Moses, David, and St. John the Divine. It reigned in the lives of Sarah, Naomi, Hannah, Rahab, and Mary. As women and men of the gospel, we rely on God’s steady hand in our lives and we are not left to our all too human devices and methods to make sense out of this life we have been given as a gift. Above all, we, like the names of the saints before us, today rely on God and God’s grace to redeem our earthly time and our earthly lives.

Karl Stegall tells a story about two brothers who entered the first grade in 1991. One said he was born on January 1, 1984. The other brother said he was born on April 4, 1984. “That is impossible,” said the teacher. 

“No,” replied the first brother, “one of us is adopted.”

“Which one?” asked the teacher.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “One day I asked my mother and she kissed us both and said, ‘I forgot.’”

This is the method by which people become saints. God kisses us and forgets which ones of us are adopted and which ones of us are naturals.

Come, Worship
Stay, Learn
Go, Serve

Jul 17, 2015

Just Passing Through—Guest Blogger: Tom Butts

In a letter dated July 15, 1813 John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson: “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.” As I read that interesting and profound challenge, it occurred to me that it would not be possible to explain ourselves to someone else until we come to a basic understanding of ourselves. How would you explain yourself to a friend or a stranger without lying? Life is so brief, and yet so complicated. We came from a place we do not remember, and we are moving toward a destiny we cannot see. It is difficult to honestly explain our place in the scheme of things.

The Venerable Bede, English historian, scholar and monk (CE 673-735) described the nature of our existence on earth as being like a single sparrow on a dark night flying swiftly in at one end of a great hall and immediately flying out the other. Somewhat like this, says the Venerable Bede is the life of man, “but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.” Thomas Carlyle, Scottish historian and philosopher, characterized the nature of our existence as: “One life, a little gleam of time between two eternities.” We are just passing through.

If you were given a minute at the end of your life to explain yourself, what would you like to be able to say?  What would you write in a single sentence epitaph that would honestly sum up your life?

When Loren Eiseley, noted anthropologist, naturalist, and writer died in the summer of 1977, he had already chosen an epitaph for his wife and himself. Like so much of his writing, this simple sentence spoke volumes to those who have ears to hear. It reads: “We loved the earth, but could not stay.” It reminded me of something Arlo Guthrie once said: “The world has shown me what it has to offer. It is a nice place to visit, but I would not want to stay.”

While most of us live as if we will be here forever and most of us are hard put to imagine how the world could possibly get on without us, in our more reflective moments we know that we are not here to stay. For the most part our pilgrimage in this world is beautiful and full of meaning, and we should stop and smell the flowers along the way. Life is a marvelous adventure, which many feel is but a prelude to something even greater. Whatever the meaning and purpose of our pilgrimage in this dimension, it is clear that it was never intended that we stay here.

Since we cannot stay, and since we will not pass this way again, whatever good and lovely thing we can do, we must do it now. There will be no replay of the opportunities of today. As the sun sets on this day, it is gone forever, and our deeds are indelibly done or left undone.

We all have impulses to reach out to people we encounter, but impulse does not always progress into action. In our sophisticated culture we are trained to restrain certain impulses. We have a variety of impulses, some of which are at least inappropriate if not destructive. The process of becoming mature human beings involves learning to filter impulses. When you have an impulse to do some good and loving act, do it. Prayerful and intentional effort can in time trump timidity. The wounded and needy persons who brush elbows with you today will not likely be there tomorrow. If you do not reach out to them today, you may not have another opportunity.

One sure way to improve our spiritual lives is to do one good thing each day for someone who cannot repay the deed. It is even better if the deed is anonymously done. You need not go looking for some good deed to do, it will find you. It will likely come unexpectedly. Be ready.

Etienne De Grellet penned a classic and noble thought we would do well to remember as we make our rapid, one-way passage through life. “I shall pass through this world but once. If, therefore, there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Come, Worship
Stay, Learn
Go, Serve

Jul 10, 2015

Let’s Talk about Change

People occasionally ask me “how has being a minister changed over the last three decades?” It is a question that might be asked of any calling or profession, but from the vantage point of ministry the question offers an engrossing perspective on modern life.

A perceptive mentor remarked that pastors probably have more experience with life-change than any other profession. The work compels ministers to be specialists in transitions. As I recently edited a book called Transitions (John Knox Press, 2011) I must admit this mentor clearly recognized a virtually certain truth. As those who work with individuals and congregations, pastors eat and breathe change within the world parishioners face in life’s nickels and dimes.

For an example of change, typical North Americans have witnessed massive changes in the function of our public institutions leaders. When I began as a pastor and leader of a congregation I was twenty-five years old and straight from seminary. “I knew nothing,” as Sergeant Schultz used to say on “Hogan’s Heroes.” Yet my small congregation said, “You are our pastor and we will do what you say—so lead us.” As uncomfortable as I was with directing folks fifty years my senior, I soon realized that by virtue of position those I led granted me authority.

Today, after thirty-six years of experience and oodles of education, novice church members hardly hesitate to tell me how to “do it” better. A doctor tells me that she spends scores of office visits notifying patients that the internet cannot diagnose as well as she can with an in-person exam. Many simply do not believe her. If you have walked through a public school building, are you obligated to suggest policy to the Superintendent of schools or school board? Here is a core issue for leading in the 21st Century—how to guide without the built-in authority assumed in previous generations.

What access to “the information highway” which is not a term used much anymore reminds us is that everyone has access to information—data, statistics, and facts. Yet it seems although we know “stuff” maybe we don’t understand what it means. Wisdom differs from information and facts. Smart phones can do many things, but wise use of a phone is when it is appropriate.

A great change emerged during the recent economic downsizing. It was the readiness of scrambling businesses to swap people who comprised the institution’s memory and wisdom for reduced (with younger employees) salaries as an economic strategy. Not necessarily bad or good—depends where a person occupies the food-chain. Yet this phenomenon goes with the idea that knowledge of facts often trumps the wisdom of experience. A piece of biblical heritage is recognizing we covet wise persons among us. A Judeo-Christian heritage still speaks to wisdom’s place in human relations. It is good to be smart—better to be wise. Have we as a postmodern culture substituted knowing facts for using them wisely?

Transitions is a book in which thirty-two well-respected thinkers take readers on a tour of their peculiar disciplines and address issues of change. Two insights are particularly helpful for our day.

First while there are many people who advocate “change for change sake,” change does have its dangers. Substantive change always raises an authentic possibility of failure. As I pointed out in the book’s introduction: “In Francis Bacon’s The New Organon (Novum Organum), Bacon writes in 1620 about the reality that change is dangerous . . . [he uses the] illustration of an earlier time of risk taking that centers on a method farmers use to grow crops. We could without difficulty imagine a scenario in which 15th century farmers in a particular region each used a new method of agriculture in hopes of producing better crops. Yet, if the farmer’s enterprise fails, then the price could be starvation. Thus this kind of change is more than an inconvenience—the change itself has the potential to put survival in peril.

Second is the fact that, as Bishop Robert Schnase writes with insight, “Change asks people to suffer loss, experience uncertainty, and to redefine aspects of their identity.” Thus not only is consequential change dangerous, it also triggers a type of grief process for those involved. Change always means embracing something else while letting go of what may be familiar. This change is a human emotional transaction that often calls on clergy. Clergy persons are summoned to assist people with both fear of the new and loss of the old.

The biggest transition for me in ministry over the last three decades is helping more people who stumble through change and addressing this change with less built-in pastoral authority than previous generations.

As a pastor, I try to help people. Many people I try to help are disillusioned because they want something they do not have or they have something they do not want. Folks such as these visit doctors, lawyers, fortunetellers, psychologists, and other experts hoping that someone will tell them how to cope. My job to shine a little light of faith on their circumstance and remind them that nothing happens at once. It is the journey that gives us the desires of our hearts. There is no guru, magician, or wizard that can give you what you want. Only you can do that and not all at once. You will find it on the journey of life, usually when you least expected to find it.

Come, Worship
Stay, Learn
Go, Serve

PS. We hold our Testament Choir trip folks—both participants and fellow adult leaders in our prayers this next week as they venture to Albuquerque, New Mexico!

Jul 3, 2015

The Fourth

The Fourth of July marks a transition between being part of another nation’s colonial holdings and becoming an autonomous nation. We celebrate this next week the freedom afforded by the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in secret to approve Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and thus a new nation was born.

We often celebrate transitions—between being a student and being a graduate; between being single and being married; between having a work status and being retired; between living and dying and this list is as long as we are alive. Truly, change never really slows down, but we must meet it head on all the days of our life. My guess is that the better we handle and understand changes and transitions, then the better we thrive as God’s people.

What people in the original American Colonies had to decide about was whether they could trust the promise inherent in a new vision of the New World, or whether they could simply continue to abide business as usual from the British crown. Of course, we know the rest of the story and how it turned out.

For believers today, the transition that is of vital importance is the transition from being an autonomous person to becoming a faithful believer who relies exclusively on God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Those who are genuinely mature understand Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The more mature we are then the more we recognize that we are dependent on God as children of God. We worship a God who offers us, not only at the Lord’s Table which we celebrate on 5 July 2015, but in many ways and places the absolute love by which all children thrive.

May we eat together this week as the household of faith?

Come, Worship
Stay, Learn
Go, Serve

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