Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"A history of American [economic] growth"

From The Economist. A fun, painless graphic presentation that puts things in perspective. Thanks, Phil.

Also, see here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Help for Tough Economic Times

The weekly online edition of The Lutheran magazine has just published a distilled version of a series of blog posts on coping with the current economic down times, here. I hope that people find it helpful and that God is glorified through it.

Here you'll find links to all five installments of the original series.

A Simple Prayer Request

I just received this message from my colleague and friend, Pastor Glen VanderKloot:
A small request. Pray this short prayer and pass it on to everyone you know.

Dear God, I pray for the cure of cancer. In Jesus name. Amen
You could pray that simple prayer today and everyday, couldn't you?

A wonderful bit of writing

I'm working my way, slowly, through Dickens' David Copperfield. I read this paragraph on Monday and had to read it several times. It's so descriptive of the self-satisfied, judgmental, and successful, some of which may describe all of us at times, I guess:
I was much impressed by the extremely comfortable and satisfied manner in which Mr. Warerbrook delivered himself of this little word "Yes" every now and then. There was wonderful expression in it. It completely conveyed the idea of a man who had been born, not to say with a silver spoon, but with a scaling ladder, and had gone on mounting all the heights of life one after another, until now he looked, from the top of the fortifications, with the eye of a philosopher and a patron, on the people down in the trenches.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Real Good Thing

"When we don't get what we deserve, that's a real good thing..." Classic lyrics written by Steve Taylor for the band with which he long collaborated, Newsboys. It came up on my iTunes shuffle while I was working on some stuff at my computer today. Here's the song...

Here are the lyrics with appropriate disclaimers, I hope.

when we don´t get what
we deserve that´s a real
good thing
when we get what we don't deserve
that's a real good thing

born to sin
and then get caught
all our good deeds
don´t mean squat

sell the Volvo
shred the Visa
send the cash to Ma Theresa
great idea
the only catch is
you don´t get saved
on merit badges

- Chorus -

doctor's coming
looking grim
"Do you have a favorite hymn?"

check your balance through the years
all accounts are in arrears
guilt is bitter
grace is sweet
park it here
on the mercy seat

- Chorus -

Lyrics: Steve Taylor &
Peter Furler / Music: Jody
Davis & Peter Furler
© 1994 Ariose Music (a
divison of Star Song
Communications, admin.
by Gaither Copyright
Management), Warner
Alliance Music, Soylent
Tunes & Helmet

THANK GOD THAT HE ISN'T FAIR! If I got what I deserve, I'd be separated from God, from life, from forgiveness forever.

Chinese Government Upset

Wah! Maybe if the Beijing regime didn't oppress people, they could, as they put it in their warning to Japan, focus "on important issues," like freedom for their people, an end to religious and other forms of persecution, and bullying others economically.

August Newsletter Article

This is the latest installment of my monthly newsletter article for Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor.
Service to others in Jesus’ Name is a trademark of the Christian life. Christians, confident of their place in God’s kingdom, granted to all with faith in Jesus Christ, look for ways to pass the love of Jesus onto others.

That’s why I’m so excited about this month’s Drive-Through Community Baby Shower at Saint Matthew. It happens on Saturday, August 22, from 10am to 2pm.

We’re asking Saint Matthew members to work at the church building on that day to receive contributions of baby formula and diapers to be distributed by our local health department and the county Board of Mental Retardation and Developmentally Disabled.

We hope to receive contributions of these items not only from members of Saint Matthew, but from people everywhere in Logan and Hocking County.

And that’s where your help is needed.

In May, you’ll remember we collected food for distribution by our county Job and Family Services agency. Getting the word out to people and so, ensuring the success of the project, was a bit easier than it will be with our baby shower. That’s because then, we left sacks with detailed instructions on people’s doorsteps. They couldn’t avoid knowing about that food drive.

This time, we can only ensure that the word will get out indirectly. We’ve sent out a press release and we’re buying several advertisements. Of course, some may hear about the project through our radio broadcast.

Those are helpful ways to let people know how they can provide baby formula and diapers to area needy families. But they’re indirect.

So, in the coming weeks, I hope that you will take every single opportunity you have to tell neighbors, friends, and family members about the Drive-Through Community Baby Shower on August 22.

Tell them we won’t preach at them.

Tell them that they won’t even have to get out of their cars.

They can just pull up to the back entrance to Saint Matthew between 10am and 2pm on that day and Saint Matthew folks will take their donations from them.

Those donations will immediately be shipped onto the agencies that can help our neighbors in need.

Don’t be afraid to ask others to help us help others share the love of Christ in a very practical way. People, even those not connected to Christ or the Church, love being able to do that.

And for us at Saint Matthew, it’s one more way that we can serve others in Jesus’ Name. It’s exciting!

Your Friend in Christ,

Pastor Mark

Incongruity? (More Thoughts on Yesterday's Gospel Lesson)

Did you notice something that may have seemed incongruous or inconsistent in yesterday's Gospel lesson, something in the last few verses that may not have seemed to fit in with the rest of the passage?

Yesterday, the folks at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm the pastor, along with most Christians in North America, had John 6:1-21 as their Gospel lesson. The first fifteen verses of the passage deal with Jesus feeding a group of 5000, using just five loaves of barley and two fish to pull it off. In fact, there was a lot of untouched food left over!

The last six verses, with which I didn't deal in my sermon yesterday, recount a stormy ride on the Sea of Galilee taken by Jesus' disciples. They'd been waiting for Jesus, but He was off on the mountain praying. So, leaving Jesus behind, they launch onto these waters most of them know well. Then the storm hits. They row strenuously, the passage tells us, for three or four miles. They're frightened. Then Jesus shows up, walking on the water. They soon make it to shore. But do you see what doesn't happen in John's account of these events? Jesus doesn't calm the storm.

Jesus miraculously and plentifully feeds 5000 one moment.

The next moment, the disciples' lives hang violently in the balance and Jesus doesn't do anything about it.

One moment Jesus seems capable of making our lives easy and unburdened. The next moment He seems either incapable or unwilling to keep His closest followers safe.

Doesn't that seem incongruous?

On the surface, it may appear so. But I don't think that it is.

One reason for rejecting the notion of inconsistency here is to look at the word used to describe Jesus' miracles: signs. Jesus didn't come into the world in order to heal every invalid or fill every hungry belly in the world. Even after several years of His ministry, there were still many invalids and hungry people in Judea where Jesus lived. And while I believe that we Christians are called by Jesus to bring comfort, healing, companionship, and food to those in need, all of these actions, just like Jesus' miraculous activity, are nothing more than signs.

Signs don't point to themselves. Signs aren't ends in themselves. An "Exit" sign in a building, for example, isn't designed to make us stop and look at it; it's meant to point the way out for us. Other signs have other meanings, but they always point beyond themselves. Jesus' "signs" were meant to point to a deeper truth about Him. They pointed to the fact that the power of God over life and death was at work in Him.

The real crisis of consistency, of seeming incongruity, would come for Jesus' first followers on Good Friday, when they watched their beloved Lord, doer of so many signs, die the death of a lowlife crook on the cross. Was Jesus' power limited?

Of course, all questions about Jesus being limited in His power were blown away by the events of the first Easter. Jesus rose from the dead, a reality witnessed by over 500 once-skeptical and mournful followers. Jesus' death and resurrection assure us that has the power to give new, everlasting life to those who turn from sin and dare to follow Him.

So, why would Jesus feed 5000 one moment and allow terrors and near-death for His closest followers the next? Is Jesus like one of those deities of ancient Greek and Roman myth who viewed tormenting human beings as a kind of sport?

While the God we know in Jesus does occasionally intervene in and upend the laws of nature that normally operate in this world, He does it to point to His power to do far more for us than fill our bellies, heal our diseases, provide us with jobs, or save our marriages. This world, long ago fallen into sin, is ticketed for destruction. Jesus wants to give us citizenship in a new creation.

That's why when, in our Gospel lesson from yesterday, the people whose bellies Jesus filled "threaten" to make Jesus a king, He runs away from them. A king (or a president or a prime minister) in this world might well do good things. They might fill bellies, protect us from terrorists, provide people with health, or give us jobs. Those are all worthy and good things.

But none of them will help us deal with the ultimate issues that daunt us: alienation from God, alienation from others, alienation from ourselves, and death.* Jesus died and rose to deal with those issues for us. He conquers them for all who trust in Him.

But we still have storms in this life. People die young, lose their jobs, know the heartache of divorce, go bankrupt, die of starvation, and so on.

But do you notice two other things in our lesson?

First: The disciples, afraid that they'll die in the storm on the lake look in terror on Jesus. It's while they look at Jesus, after their frenzied rowing, that they anticlimactically land on the shore. Storms happen. But when we look to Jesus, He will get us home...the home that He has prepared for all who believe in Him.

Second: There's a special note of comfort to be found in verse 20. Our NRSV translation here is terrible. It says that Jesus tells the terrified disciples, "It is I; do not be afraid." That rendering utterly misses the point.

In the Greek in which the entire New Testament, including John, was first written, Jesus says, "Ego eimi," meaning literally, "I am."

It's a strange thing to say--"I am; do not be afraid." Strange, until you remember the name that God gave Moses to refer to Himself when Moses encountered Him in the burning bush thousands of years before the birth of Jesus.

Then, Moses, being told by God to go back to Egypt to confront the Pharaoh and gain the freedom of God's people, the Hebrews, wondered how people would react. What would the Pharaoh say? What would the Hebrews say? Who shall I say sent me? "Tell them I AM--Yahweh in the Hebrew of the Old Testament--sent you. Tell them that the One Who is, was, and always will be, the foundational Being of the universe, sent you, Moses."

When storms hit us in life, those who follow Jesus Christ can remember that we belong not just to the One Who calms storms, but the One Who can give us life beyond the storm--the great I AM.

We need never be afraid.

*The condition of alienation is what the Bible calls sin. The term is used in two different ways in the Bible really: (1) First as the condition of separation from God and others; (2) The actions we do that result from that condition.

What is the Christian Life?

What does Christian living look like in the everyday world? Mark Roberts is offering his perspective on the answer to that question in a series of blog posts presently at seven installments. Mark is a good writer, a clear thinker, and a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. I hope that you'll check out what he has to say.

A great quote from the third installment of Mark's series:
Christianity is based upon God’s revelation in history. Though God often whispers in our hearts when we are quiet enough to listen or moves our hearts when we make them available to him, our faith does not rest upon our subjective perceptions. It stands upon the rock of God’s self-revelation throughout the ages, a revelation that is recorded in Scripture.
Did you catch that? Christian faith is about the Word of God.

But don't be confused about what that means. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus of Nazareth, the ultimate self-disclosure of God is the Word of God. The Bible is the Word of God--and normative for Christian faith--because it faithfully, trustingly records God's self-disclosure, first to ancient Israel and ultimately to the world through Jesus Christ.

Everything recorded in the Old Testament led to Jesus.

Everything in the New Testament either tells us about what happened when Jesus, God in human flesh, came to the world, then died, rose, ascended, and sent God the Holy Spirit to help us lead the Christian life in this world and in the world to come.

The Bible is the Word of God because it comes for those us who live the 21st.-century world as the cradle, the tomb, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the place where we get the clearest view of God and God's intentions for us. The Bible shows us Jesus, the Word of God. He, in turn, is "the way, the truth, and the life" as Jesus Himself says. In the Bible we get a view of Jesus and it is connection with Jesus that makes the Christian life possible.

This is why Mark Roberts is absolutely right: Anyone, Christians already or non-Christians examining Christian faith as a possibility for their lives, is well advised to explore the Bible's witness about Jesus, the Word of God, to see what the content and contours of that faith might be.

Read Mark's series. I think that you'll enjoy it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Extravagant God

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

John 6:1-21
True story. A rural congregation was dying. Its membership was dwindling and growing older. They asked a church consultant from their denomination to spend some time with them and help them to figure out what to do. Some of the members thought it might be time to close up shop and almost nobody believed that they could afford a pastor. The consultant worshiped with the people there on a Sunday morning and then, through the week, interviewed them and also spent time in their community. Then, he met with the church members one night at a potluck, to give them his recommendations.

“You have a decision to make,” the consultant told the people. “You must decide whether or not you trust that God still has a mission for you.” Blank faces abounded. “Sometimes,” the consultant persisted, “it boils down to finding the one thing you have that God can use. What’s the one thing you have here right now that might help you share God’s love and so, grow spiritually or numerically as a church?”

There was silence for a while. Then, one man spoke up. “Well, we’re really good at potlucks.” Everybody laughed. They laughed, in part, because they recognized the man’s comment to be true. They were good at potlucks. But there was another reason: It seemed like such a small thing, so inconsequential. They were facing a mountain of red ink, the expenses associated with keeping their building facilities going, weariness and discouragement, and maybe even closing down altogether. What good were potlucks?

“Wait a minute!” the consultant said. “Do you all agree that your church is good at potlucks?” People nodded in affirmation all around. “Folks,” he said, “God can use the one thing He’s given to you. You have the spiritual gift of potlucks. Why don’t you become known as the potluck church?”

The congregation decided to have potlucks once a month. They determined a good time of the week when others in the community could join them for these events. The members were intentional about inviting their friends and neighbors. They geared each potluck to some occasion—Saint Patrick’s Day, the start of baseball season, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, and so on. Within a few months, whenever these potlucks happened, their fellowship hall was filled with people, some of whom had never before darkened the door of a church building. There were no altar calls or hymns, no Creeds, or tracts, or Bible studies during the potlucks, just a Christian congregation welcoming people for a time of fellowship with its neighbors.

A year after his first meetings with them, the consultant returned to the little rural church. A couple of new families had joined and there had been several baptisms, all from households that, out of curiosity, had come to one of the potlucks and had stuck around because they found in the church that was good at potlucks a new faith in Christ and a new congregational family.

When I first heard that church consultant tell the story of the congregation at a conference I attended, I thought of another true story, that of Jesus feeding the 5000. All four of the gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell about this incident. The account we’re looking at today is from John.

According to John, Jesus is just sitting down with His disciples when He looks up and sees this throng of people, attracted to Him by His miracles of healing, which they’d seen or heard about.

In first century Judea, where Jesus lived, teachers sat down whenever they were ready to teach. That’s what Jesus was about to do when He noticed the crowd. Whatever Jesus might have otherwise told the disciples in words, He now teaches them in action.

With the crowd coming toward them, Jesus turns to Philip. This, by the way, isn’t the Philip we met in one of our lessons from the New Testament book of Acts a few months ago; you know, the lay person who helped the Ethiopian eunuch to understand what the prophet Isaiah had written about Jesus hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.

Instead, this is Philip the Apostle. He was one of the first people to follow Jesus. He was the guy who ran to his friend Nathanael and said of Jesus, “We’ve found the one that Moses and the prophets said would come, the Messiah: Jesus of Nazareth.” He was the one of whom Nathanael asked his question, “Can anything good come out of teeny, tiny, insignificant Nazareth?” And Philip had been so convinced that Jesus was the Savior of the world, he had told Nathanael simply, “Come and see.”

But now, sitting on a mountain that many Bible scholars believe was close to Philip’s hometown of Bethsaida on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, seeing 5000 people surging toward him, Philip’s faith isn’t quite so sure. To test that faith, Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we going to get the bread we need to feed this brood?” Philip says, “You couldn’t buy enough for all of them with half a year’s worth of laborer’s wages!” Philip can’t imagine how the Lord he’s already seen do so much could possibly feed all these people.

And he’s not the only disciple whose faith comes up short in our lesson. Andrew, another of Jesus’ first followers, evidently makes a quick survey and tells Jesus, “There’s a little kid here with five small loaves of barley and two fish. Can’t do much with that!”

Philip and Andrew were like the members of that rural church. They couldn’t imagine what God might be able to do if they simply yielded themselves to the God they already knew in Jesus. “All we’re really good at is potlucks,” the people of the rural church had said. “All we’ve got is a few scraps of bread and some fish,” Andrew said.

Maybe part of what prevented Andrew and Philip from believing that Jesus could or would do anything about feeding the 5000, apart from the sheer numbers, is that feeding them was so unnecessary. They were just a few miles from a sea teeming with fish, not far from towns where they could buy bread and fish for themselves. John, our Gospel writer, gives no indication that the people were hungry or were even asking for food.

But the Lord Who teaches us to acknowledge that God is the giver, in the words of Jesus’ brother, James, “of every good and perfect gift,” the Lord Who teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” as a way of confessing that God provides for the daily needs of every person on the planet, daily needs that would be fulfilled if it weren’t for the sin and selfishness of the human race, this Lord wants to teach us something else.

Jesus has the 5000 people sit down and, you know what happens next. He manages to feed all of the people with twelve baskets left over.

Jesus wants to do more than just provide us with our daily bread. He wants to bless us extravagantly, overabundantly. In our second lesson, taken from the New Testament book of Ephesians, we read a doxology, a word of glory to God, that includes these words: “Now to Him Who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations…”

A little boy gives Jesus what He has and Jesus not only blesses Him with an extravagant sign of His grace and love, Jesus uses the offering to bless 5000 people.

A struggling rural church offers Jesus the one thing they feel that they can do and Jesus uses it to spread the good news that all who will turn from sin and believe in Him will have life with Him and His Church for eternity.

Someone gives $1.30 to the work of Gideons International, covering the cost of a New Testament that changes the life of some child in Africa or Asia by introducing them to Christ.*

What offerings to God might we make to act as conduits of God’s extravagant love and grace?

A good friend of mine took a trip by plane recently. He was struggling with the question of how God could possibly use him in his life. What good could he do that others might not do better? He found himself seated next to a young woman with whom he struck up a conversation. There were a lot of bad things going on in this earnest young woman’s life and my friend spent most of their flight just listening. While she spoke, he asked God how he might help this young woman. As their flight neared its end, frustrated that there had seemed to be no answer to his prayer, my friend asked the young woman if she would like to pray. Clearly touched, she said, “Yes, I would.” They prayed. Then came the hubbub of announcements before the plane made its final descent and then the crush of people, all anxious to get off the plane. My friend didn’t see the young woman or have any more opportunity to speak with her…until she found him in the terminal. She walked up to him and held out her hand to shake his. “Thank you so much. I feel better now,” she told him. “You were my angel.” My friend knew that God has blessed him as well as that young woman.

God wants to bless you. God wants to use you to be a blessing to others, extravagantly, more than we can think to pray for or imagine. Each day, before your feet hit the floor, give your life to the God you know through the risen Jesus. You may be surprised by the big things God can do with what may seem little insignificant to you. Amen

*We welcomed Mr. Homer Baxley, who made a presentation on the Gideons during our worship today.