Thursday, January 01, 2009

"Don't just read it. Live it!"

Help me, Lord Jesus, to read and live Your Word.

Ezekiel 33:30-33:
As for you, mortal, your people who talk together about you by the walls, and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to a neighbor, “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.” They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but they will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain. To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it. When this comes—and come it will! —then they shall know that a prophet has been among them.


for a ceasefire and peace in Gaza and southern Israel.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My New Year's Resolutions

In younger years, my new year's resolutions were, I have to admit, marked by pomposity. There's nothing like butting up against life to make a person rethink setting grandiose goals.

It isn't that I don't believe in having dreams. I still believe in them. But I also think that resolutions ought to be marked by a realistic assessment of one's self and, speaking for myself anyway, the right motives.

I recently linked to a post by happiness-seeker Gretchen Rubin on guidelines for sticking to new year's resolutions. I liked what she wrote. As I indicated in my post, the only thing I would add is the need to undergird our resolutions with prayer.

There are several reasons for that, two most notably. First, when we pray about something, we invite God in. God can give us the power, motivation, and insight needed to keep our resolutions or to change them, if necessary. Second, when we pray about something, we're reminded of it. Praying underscores our resolutions as priorities for us.

While my resolutions for 2009, have a bit more detail to them than presented here, I list them in hopes that they might motivate you to make your own simple new year's resolutions...and to make more accountable for keeping mine:
  • Pray more.
  • Study more.
  • Work out the same amount of time I've been dedicating to it in the past month or so.
  • Blog less.
That's it.

Do you have any new year's resolutions?

Whatever your answer may be to that question, thanks for being a reader of Better Living and God bless you with a goo 2009.

She is not dead but sleeping

[This was shared during a funeral for Joanne, a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, this past week.]

Luke 8:41-42, 51-55
They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” (Luke 8:52)

Roy asked that these words be among those shared this morning. And for good reason.

Joanne, who has suffered long, with both Alzheimer’s and cancer, has left this life, along with those she loved and those who loved her best. There is a sadness that she suffered, as well as a sadness over loss. But there is also a sense of relief and release that Joanne is no longer suffering and more than that, there's joy that she is with the Lord to Whom she belonged.

Joanne is not dead, not separated from the God we meet in Jesus Christ, the God of life and joy and consolation. She’s alive and in God’s presence, restored and whole, healthier, stronger, and more whole than she was even at her healthiest in this life.

I’ve been at Saint Matthew for little more than a year. So, I didn’t know Joanne before Alzheimer’s afflicted her. But I believe that I got to know her a little bit, first of all, through those who loved and were devoted to her. I understood a bit of Joanne in the way Roy spoke to her and interacted with her, in the love I watched her family give to her, and in the reactions of family and Saint Matthew church members to her passing. Joanne is a woman who evoked love from others.

But I also sensed that I came to know her in another way. I’m of the belief that no matter how totally Alzheimer’s upends someone’s personality—often causing the most loving and placid of people to act cantankerously, for example—the essential personality of the person can still be seen. The last two times I visited with Joanne, at the nursing home one day with Roy and at the hospital in Lancaster hours before she was transferred back to Logan—I felt as though I once more got a glimpse of the real Joanne. Both times, she smiled and she closed her eyes when we prayed. She closed her eyes. Trust in the Lord was deeply written into her personality, no matter how ravaged of mind and body she may have been.

And so this morning, I ask those of you who loved Joanne to trust in the same God in Whom she placed her hope:
The God Who came to us at Christmas to share our humanity with us, the God Who can understand how we feel whether we laugh or cry;

the God Who went to a cross to take the punishment for sin we deserve so that we can share in the resurrection He gained and that we don’t deserve;

the God of amazing grace Who sustains us through sadness we can’t understand and Who will give us an eternity of joy we can’t comprehend.
When Jesus said that Jairus’ daughter was only sleeping, those who crowded around the Jewish leader’s home laughed. Theirs was the laughter of cynicism, derision, and resignation to the worst of this world.

But there’s another laughter, the laughter of joy that belongs to those who know and follow Jesus Christ. It’s the laughter that belongs to those who follow Jesus today and walk with Him in eternity. Even in the midst of your tears, may this be your laughter. And may you take comfort from the fact that one day, all who believe in Jesus, will share the joy that Joanne is enjoying this very moment in eternity. Amen

One Year in Forty Seconds

From photographer Eirik Solheim...

An Update from David Wayne

See it here. Please continue to pray for David, asking God to bring him healing and seeking encouragement for David and his family.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (January 4, 2009)

Each week, I try to present a few thoughts on the Bible lessons appointed for the following Sunday's worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm the pastor. Since we follow a lectionary associated with the Church Year, these comments might help others get ready for worship, too.

Second Sunday of Christmas
January 4, 2009

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:10-18

Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, You have filled all the earth with the light of Your incarnate Word. By Your grace empower us to reflect Your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

General Comments:
1. The Christmas Season continues on the Church calendar. The season ends January 6, Epiphany Day. Epiphany, falling the day after "the twelfth day of Christmas," commemorates the arrival of the magicians (magi, astrologers) bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Christ.

2. The Bible lessons during the short Christmas Season emphasize God's past promises of reconciliation to ancient Israel, the fulfillment of those promises in the Messiah Jesus, the implications of God becoming human, and the promises of the complete realization of God's kingdom in Christ.

Jeremiah 31:7-14
1. Our lesson from Jeremiah comes from chapter 31, of this Old Testament book, a chapter important for Lutherans because Jeremiah 31:31-34, is always the Old Testament lesson for Reformation Sunday celebrations in October. It's a chapter in which Jeremiah spoke of the restoration of Israel following a sad cycle of treachery to God and consequent imprisonment by foreign conquerors.

2. Jeremiah descended from a prophet who had incurred the wrath of King Solomon long years before. Abiathar was banished to his ancestral home of Anothoth, a few miles from Jerusalem, but far from palace life.

Jeremiah began his ministry in 627BC and continued for more than forty years.

As explained by the editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version):
Jeremiah is much concerned with rewards and punishments, the recompense for good and evil, faithfulness and obedience [to God]...He criticized Judah [the Southern Kingdom, composed of a portion of the former Israel, which broke up shortly following the reign of Solomon] for its worship of gods other than the LORD, with all the attendant evils in cult and daily life. God's covenant people must return to him. The judgment must come, but the ominous future (later, the unhappy present) would be replaced by a new and more enduring relationship with God.
3. In the lesson for this Sunday, Jeremiah says that following his people's exile to conqueror Babylon, there would be a restoration. The exiled slaves will return to their promised land. Unlike the first exodus, there will be ready supplies of water along the way. Also unlike that first exodus, which saw God's people following a circuitous route, the returning exiles will come by "a straight path."

God's reason for providing an easy way home may be that, unlike the whiny group God led from Egypt, the descendants He will lead from exile understand their need of God and the futility and stupidity of relying on anyone or anything but God. God had lots of lessons to teach the ancient Hebrews; by the time God led the exiles back to Israel, they presumably, had learned the lessons of mature faith.

4. Jeremiah prophesies a time of restoration when the harvests will be plentiful. In v.14, he speaks of even the priests having plenty. Old Testament law said that the people were to give a portion of their produce to the priests, who, in turn, would be freed to focus full time on their priestly duties.

Psalm 147:12-20
1. Last Sunday's psalm, Psalm 148, was the middle of the five final songs of the Old Testament's worship book. Each begins and ends with, "Hallelujah!," a Hebrew word meaning, "Praise the Lord!"

This Sunday's psalm is another from that grouping. Like Jeremiah, it praises the God of all creation for His regard for His chosen people. Israel was unique among the nations, the people to Whom God revealed His gracious nature, preparing it to become, through His Son, a light to all the nations.

Ephesians 1:3-14
1. Those who claim, as many modern scholars do, that Ephesians wasn't written by the apostle Paul, have a major problem to resolve when it comes to these verses. The entire passage is one sentence, consistent with the undisputed writings of Paul.

2. The lesson from Jeremiah talked about the restoration of God's Old Testament people. This lesson assures us that in Christ, Jews and Gentiles who hope in Christ are heirs of God's pledge to set Christ's followers free of sin and death.

John 1:10-18
This is the latter part of the prologue to John's Gospel. John employs modes of thought and allusions to both Greek philosophy and the Old Testament. It affirms that the foundational, energizing Word of the universe--God Himself--entered the world.

He came, in fact, to His chosen people and most of them, along with the Romans, supposedly representing the most sophisticated of the Gentiles, didn't recognize Jesus for Who He was.

But, John says, some could see in Jesus the overabundant amplitude of God's grace and receive it through Him.

I love verse 17. Here's my Daniels caveman paraphrase:
Sure, Moses was the lawgiver. That's no small thing. The law God gives through Moses teaches us what human beings do if they want to be human. But grace and truth, the things that turn us from enemies to friends and children of God, the things that pour life into our otherwise dead and dormant frames, those truly big deals, come only from Jesus the Messiah.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Robert Graham, FDR Memorializer, is Dead

Robert Graham, whose unique design for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., manages, in turn, to be moving, evocative, informative, and fun, has died. I didn't know what to expect when my family and I first went to the FDR Memorial a few years back, but was pleasantly surprised. It's the sort of place to which a civic-minded parent could take a civics-resistant kid (something my kids never were) and know that, in spite of the child's willful resolves, she or he would actually learn something, enjoying it at the same time. The evocation of Roosevelt and his presidency throughout also gives moving tribute to one of our greatest presidents.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

You Can't Hurry Love

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Luke 2:22-40
We spent part of Christmas day with my extended family. A highlight of our time together came when our niece, Katelyn, and our son, Philip, pulled out their laptops and played music for us. You might not have wanted to have seen us jamming to Phil Collins’ cover of the old Supremes song, You Can’t Hurry Love!

You remember it. I love the part that says:
You can’t hurry love
No, you just have to wait
You got to trust, give it time
No matter how long it takes
I don’t know about you, but those words ring true. Not only when it comes to love, but with so many other things in life, waiting is something we do a lot.

We wait at the grocery store, in the doctor’s office, and at restaurants. Kids are tortured with waiting for Christmas. Engaged couples wait for their wedding days. Expectant parents are forced to wait for the arrival of their little ones. We wait to hear whether we’ve been hired, laid off, promoted, demoted, or ignored in our work lives. We wait for colleges to tell us whether we’ve been accepted. We wait for test results from doctors. We do a lot of waiting.

And if waiting causes us to be impatient, well, the song reminds us that there are some things, like love, that can’t be hurried. Sometimes, you just have to wait.

Simeon and Anna, two elderly people who appear in today’s Gospel lesson, knew all about waiting. Simeon, we’re told, had been “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” for years.

In his times of prayer, God had promised Simeon that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah.

Anna, a woman widowed after seven years of marriage, was, by the time we read about her in Luke’s Gospel, eighty-four years old. In Jewish thinking, she’d lived through twelve Sabbath years, looking for the consolation of Jerusalem, the holy city.

During the course of their long lives, Anna and Simeon had seen others give up on God and God’s promises of a Messiah, an Anointed King who would reconcile God and sinners and rule with justice. Some had defected from the faith, worshiping other gods or philosophies or ways of life. Others decided they needed to force God’s hand; they thought that armed rebellion against their Roman conquerors was the way of achieving God’s promises. But not Simeon and Anna. They waited for God.

What are you waiting for today? A clean bill of health? Buying or selling a house? A job? Whatever you and I may be waiting for, we can learn how to wait from the examples of Anna and Simeon.

First, we can learn from Simeon. Simeon waited by relying on God’s Holy Spirit.

There are some Christians today who trivialize the Spirit, turning Him into a cosmic rabbit’s foot. I attended a Sunday School class years ago. A woman there said that because God knew what a hassle it would have been for her to call a repairperson, she’d prayed in the Spirit and God had healed her refrigerator. That struck another class member, a particularly faithful woman who had endured one tragedy after another, yet held on tightly to Christ, as silly. God is interested in every aspect of our lives, of course. But we trivialize the Spirit when we turn Him into a good luck charm who, we think, insulates us from the common trifles of everyday life.

There are other Christians who make an even bigger mistake than trivializing the Holy Spirit, though. They believe that God the Holy Spirit has gone out of business. Such folks have never met Bob. Bob, not his real name, was a member of one of the congregations I served as pastor before coming to Saint Matthew. Long story short, Bob had shown up at our church one day, not knowing exactly why. His attendance was erratic at first, then became more regular. People sensed that there was something wrong in Bob's life, though they couldn’t put their finger on what. We found out later that many of us, for reasons we couldn’t explain, felt compelled to pray for Bob. I got a desperate call from a relative of Bob’s one night. He was holed up in his house with a gun, threatening to kill himself. I called the local law enforcement folks and arranged to meet them at Bob’s house. I was terrified about going to see Bob. But when I arrived, all those prayers—no doubt prompted by the Holy Spirit—had clearly invited the Holy Spirit into the situation. Bob readily agreed to go to a local hospital. Layers of issues were uncovered in his life. We kept praying. It took months of intense work on Bob’s part. But he experienced healing.

Whatever you’re waiting for, you can rely on God. Each day, I ask God to fill me anew with His Holy Spirit, allowing me to see what I need to see, do what I need to do, and say what I need to say. All of my mess-ups and sins in this life have resulted from my not praying that prayer or some version of it, from relying more on myself than on God.

The things that you and I are called to do each day--as friends, parents, grandparents, workers, students, classmates—those things are too important for us to depend only on ourselves. One of my favorite passages from Proverbs in the Old Testament says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” Simeon lived this and in the course of a lifetime dependence on God learned to await and see the fulfillment of a promise that he would see the Messiah. We wait by relying on the Holy Spirit.

We also wait by doing the things that believers in God have done for centuries, the things that Anna did. She worshiped, prayed, and fasted. In other words, she kept her eyes on God by engaging in the commonplace Christian disciplines. Because she did this, she was ready to see what others couldn’t see in the small baby brought to the temple by an impoverished couple from the insignificant village of Nazareth. In the baby Jesus, she saw the consolation of Jerusalem. Her disciplined waiting was rewarded!

Like Anna and Simeon, you and I wait for the blessings of God through lives spent in active reliance on God’s Spirit and in an attentive, daily relationship with God exemplified by regular worship, Bible reading, prayer, and service and giving in Christ’s Name.

By the time Jesus was born, many of His fellow Jews had decided that the promise of a Messiah was so much religious hot air, dismissing belief in God or the Messiah in much the same way many people do today. But in our second lesson, Paul says, those folks were misinformed. They didn’t appreciate that we need to wait for God’s decisions about the right time. “In the fullness of time,” Paul says, “Jesus was born.” You can’t hurry love, especially God’s love. God acts. But God acts only when the time is right.

This is key: When we wait on God and wait with God, we learn what it means to totally depend on God and we see God do good things, sometimes even in the midst of bad things.

Shortly before his death, Father Henri Nouwen, the one-time scholar who spent most of his last years serving the severely mentally and physically handicapped and later, persons dying from AIDs, wrote a book called Sabbatical Journeys. There, he tells about some friends of his who were trapeze artists. They were called The Flying Roudellas. They told Nouwen that there’s a special relationship between the flyer and the catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the one who lets go and the catcher is the one who catches.

When the flyer swings above the crowd, the moment comes when he or she must let go. The flyer arcs into the air. The flyer’s job at this point is to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to grab hold. One of the flying Roudellas told Nouwen, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The flyer must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but he must wait.*

No one would say that while the trapeze flyers wait, they’re doing nothing. Waiting can be hard, excruciating work, in life as well as on the trapeze. But whatever blessings or good things you await in this life or the next, learn the lesson of Anna and Simeon: Keep your life focused on God and rely on God’s Spirit. Learn to depend on God completely. God won’t disappoint you.

*Thanks to this source.