Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Never Alone"

That's the title of a sermon based on tomorrow's Gospel lesson, John 14:15-21, which I wrote three years ago, here. I hope you find it helpful.

Tomorrow, I'll be preaching on Acts 17:22-31, a favorite passage of mine.

"You've Got Mail"


Friday, May 27, 2011

May 28: Ninth Anniversary of This Blog

Tomorrow marks the ninth anniversary of this blog.

Frankly, I had no idea what a blog was when I started this one. I was just looking for a place to "park" my Sunday sermons and the columns I then wrote for a weekly Community Press newspaper in the Cincinnati area.

As you can see from perusing the archives on the right, it took some time for me to build up steam as a blogger. After a time though, it became a daily exercise and remained so for a few years. I believe that it sharpened my skills as a communicator, as the newspaper column had previously, and so I enjoyed the discipline of daily blogging.

What with changes that have come to my life in recent years, the blogging has become less frequent. But I still enjoy it a lot.

The blog has brought interesting people into my life, most of whom I've only "met" online. I have been able to actually meet several of my blogging colleagues though, back when I attended the first GodBlogCon at Biola University in California. That was a real treat!

But I truly have enjoyed corresponding with people from all over the world and count it a pleasure to have made your acquaintance in this way.

Though I have rarely advocated political positions here, I have, because of my interest in history and my past involvement with politics, sometimes written about politics and history. I seem to be doing a lot less of that these days. My focus is tighter as I take my cue from the apostle Paul, striving not to be distracted by the noisy and unimportant, and knowing nothing but the crucified Christ.

Besides, time and experience have shown me that I know a lot less about "everything" than I once thought I did. Preachers aren't pundits and that includes me. But of the God made known in Jesus Christ I am certain and I learn more about Him all the time; that's why I talk so much about Him here.

A few tidbits:
  • The blog was originally called, Better Living, which was the Norman Vincent Peale-sounding name I had chosen some years before for the newspaper column I wrote beginning in 1998.
  • The first post was a column I had written in September, 2011 regarding what to tell children about the terrorist attacks of that month.
  • There have been a total of 5112 posts, many of them short "pointers," directing people to other places on the Internet. But there's been a lot of original writing here, some in embarrassingly great need of editing, ranging from grammatical correction through dramatic paring down, all the way to merciful deletion of entire posts. Despite the flaws, I've decided to leave it all here: the good, the bad, and the really ugly.
  • I don't know for certain when I added SiteMeter to track visits to the blog, although I believe it was sometime in 2005. Since its installation, there have been a total of 724,443 visits to the blog, with 1,187,139 page views.
  • Along the way, I've written a number of serials, most written especially for the blog and some being sermon series and sets of devotions used in the congregations I've served during these past nine years, Friendship Lutheran Church near Amelia, Ohio (I was there from 1990 to 2007) and Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio (where I've served since November 2007). My favorite sets of blog posts include the Happiness Project, 40 Days to Servanthood, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, the Promise and the Perils of Democracy, Opening Your Spiritual Gifts, and two sets of posts I did, one on how Christians might think about immigration reform and another on how they might think about the 2008 presidential elections. (In neither of these last two sets of posts did I advocate specific positions. I simply sought to give people Biblical prisms through which they might consider the issues at hand.) (By the way, you can use the search function at the top of this blog page to look for anything mentioned above that might interest you. You can also do separate Google or Yahoo searches.)
  • There are several posts that seem to attract traffic every day. One was written six years ago, just before my wife and I celebrated our thirty-first wedding anniversary, about the lessons I'd learned regarding marriage. Another dealt with the phenomenon of tiny houses. And another is one which I think simply attracts the traffic of those looking for photographs relative to the Holocaust and Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I hope that you've enjoyed your visits here. 

I also pray that God uses this blog not just to present Christ to readers, but also, I hope, to demonstrate that if God can love and redeem and use an imperfect, sinful person like me, God can love and redeem and use anyone!

Recent Pic/Videos from Days Off and Vacation (Part 1)

Earlier this week, we took two-and-a-half days to vacation, visiting my wife's brother and his wife in Virginia. We saw some sights in both Virginia and West Virginia together. Below is a little travelogue of that adventure, along with videos and photographs from some recent days off.

Here I am rhapsodizing about a beautiful morning we spent in northwestern Ohio at the home of friends near Napoleon. That section of the state is reclaimed swampland and is great farm country. It was May 11 and it was only later that day, with all the rain we've had in the Midwest, that farmers were able to get into their fields to plant crops. We were there for a sad occasion: the funeral of a dear friend who was a member of our first parish, Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Okolona.

This boring video was taken on the banks of the Kanawha River in West Virginia. The Kanawha is a tributary of the Ohio River and, as you can see, on May 22, was quite swollen. It was a gorgeous, sun-drenched day for travel. I sat in the backseat, reading most of the time, while my wife drove and my mother-in-law rode shotgun...just the way I like it.

While I gassed up the car, Ann cleaned the windshield. I also shot this video, taken at a filling station as we closing in on Roanoke. The "hills" to which I refer are, of course, actually mountains. Duh!

As I dorkily announce at the beginning of this video, here we were traveling along the New River in Virginia. Catch the mountains. Gorgeous territory! (As in people, so in geography: God doesn't make junk!)

It sounded like an aviary in the Virginia neighborhood where we stayed on Sunday and Monday nights. On Monday morning, I took a stroll and listened to the birds. This one, up on a utility wire, particularly caught my attention.

What follows are some images from our trip to Floyd, Virginia, the seat of Floyd County. If you're looking for the 60s, Floyd is one place where you might find them. Aging hippies live there, leavening the place with galleries, organic food shops, and liberal politics. It's a really neat little town.

Marking the difference in Floyd is an emporium called The Republic of Floyd. That caught Ann's attention because here in Hocking County, the town of Athens, home of Ohio University, in nearby Athens County, is often referred to as "the Republic of Athens" for characteristics like those of Floyd.

The Floyd County Court House, a small building staffed by hospitable people, has, like many southern court houses, a monument to Confederate veterans of the Civil War, in addition to one honoring US veterans.

Floyd has a big blue grass music festival every year, apparently a major draw. It's happening this coming weekend.

There's also a big classical music festival in the works for Floyd.

We had an early Monday lunch at a neat Irish pub called Annie Moore's in Roanoke.

In Franklin County, Virginia, we got to meet several German Baptist families who are involved with organic farming. We visited the produce stand of one such family and later the store of a family who own an organic dairy. (The ice cream was incredibly rich there, and a huge but delicious violation of my heart-healthy diet!)

More to come later.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Don't Be Troubled; Follow Jesus!

[This was prepared to be shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

John 14:1-14
This morning, as we continue to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the first Easter Sunday, our Gospel lesson from John takes us to a time when Jesus was teaching His disciples just before His arrest and crucifixion. Please pull out your Celebrate inserts and read what Jesus has to tell us in John 14:1-14.

Verse 1 says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus speaks these words in the Upper Room just before His betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The disciples sense that Jesus will refuse to wage a war to chase the Romans who occupy their country from Jerusalem. He won’t make Himself king by force. The pall of death hangs over them, a sense that their Master was going to be killed.

Whether they realized it or not, the disciples knew that the people of their world—Jews and Gentiles—like Adam and Eve, the first sinners, and like all of us who descend from them, wanted to “be like God.” And what better way to clear the way to being God-like than to kill off Jesus, the Word made flesh, God incarnate?

But Jesus tells the disciples not to be troubled. That may seem like an impossible command. But it’s not.

The fact is that troubles come to us, each and every day. But we need not be troubled by our troubles. Yesterday, Becky handed me a little sack containing three crosses. She told me, “Give these to anyone who needs a little reminder.” You see, during Danny’s recent hospitalization and heart bypass surgery, she had found a similar cross in the gift shop at Mount Carmel Hospital in Columbus. When things got scary, Becky touched that cross just to remind herself that Jesus was with her. When troubles come, we can place them and ourselves in the hands of Jesus. Troubles that overwhelm others will not trouble the follower of Jesus Christ!

Verse 2 tells us why we can go through life untroubled. Look at what Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Man, I love this passage! Everyone who repents for their sin and entrusts themselves to Jesus—which what Jesus means when He speaks of believing in Him—can spend each waking moment of this life knowing that the risen Jesus, Who has conquered death through His death and resurrection, is readying a place for us with Him in eternity! That puts the troubles we face in this life in perspective. Wherever followers of Christ arrive in this life, it isn’t our final destination.

But we dare not be flippant about that. Eternity with God is a free gift. But claiming it doesn’t come cheap.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says that we can have none of Him or His gifts unless He takes precedence over everything—our fathers, mothers, wives, children, even our lives.

Look now at verses 4. Jesus says: “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Whether they realized it or not, the disciples knew the way Jesus was going. They understood that the only way Jesus could claim the kingdom He had come into the world to establish was through a cross. And the only way we can claim the life that Jesus wants to give to us is for us to submit the crucifixion of our old selves, with all its self-driven sinfulness.

That’s not something we like. A man told me about an affair he’d been having for several years. He said: “I hate myself for doing this. I love my wife. I tell myself that I’m breaking things off. But, then I set up a time to meet the other woman.  I want her.”

I think that this man wanted me to tell him, “There, there. God understands how hard it is for you. You just can’t help yourself. Keep on doing what you’re doing.”

But the fact is that while Jesus loves sinners just as we are, He also calls us away from our sin. He calls us to enlist the help of the Holy Spirit to resist temptation. He calls us to follow Him, even when it isn’t easy. He calls us—He commands us—to yield ourselves to Him, even when doing so will lead us away from the sins we enjoy. We can't hold onto Jesus and our sins at the same time. We must let go of one and hold on to the other.

Elsewhere, Jesus says, “…the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction [that is, to hell], and there are many who take it…the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it…

Anyone who would follow Jesus and take up the resurrection He offers to those who do, must also submit to the crucifixion of our old sinful selves. We must die to ourselves so that Jesus can raise us from the dead and take us into eternity with Him. And we must do this day in and day out as long as we're breathing and tempted by sin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it memorably: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Death to self is painful; but it’s the only way to God and the wholeness He wants for us.

In the next few verses, let's be honest, Thomas and Philip play dumb. Look at verses 5 and 6 of our lesson: “Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' The way that Jesus is going to eternity, to resurrection from the dead, also leads through a cross and death. And the only way you and I will reach eternity with God is through faith in Jesus Christ.

Faith in Jesus is more than intellectual assent. Faith in Jesus is betting everything you have—your whole life—on Him alone.

It’s submission to that crucifixion of self I mentioned.

It’s trusting that beyond all that troubles us, Jesus is there.

It’s trusting that as we let go of our sins—all our idolatries, materialistic cravings, gossip-mongering, hatred, thievery, sexual intimacies outside of the marriage between a man and a woman, and dishonoring of parents, whether lived, thought, or fantasized—beyond all that—Christ will give us a life filled with real living.

Faith is trusting that Christ will fill us with all the joy, peace, and excitement we try to steal when we sin, but that Christ gives freely when we surrender to Him.

Faith is trusting that Christ will catch us when we fall into His arms!

Psalm 139 is a prayer to the same God we meet in Jesus: “If I climb to the sky, you're there!  If I go underground, you're there! If I flew on morning's wings to the far western horizon, You'd find me in a minute— you're already there waiting.”

Christ waits for you and me today. He’s already prepared places for us. But only the repentant who follow Him through the cross will live in those places with Him.

In verses 8 through 11, Jesus deals with a request made by Philip. Philip tells Jesus, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.”

This is interesting coming from the apostle Philip. Philip was one of the very first to spread the news that Jesus was the long-sought Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed King. Early in John’s Gospel, we’re told that Philip went to Nathanael and said, “We’ve found the one that Moses and the prophets said was coming. He’s Jesus of Nazareth.” When Nathanael skeptically asked if anything good could come from a blighted little town like Nazareth, Philip had said, “Come and see.”

Philip was a visual person. He had once seen Jesus and believed that Jesus was the Messiah.

But now, facing the troubling proposition that Jesus would be killed and no longer with him and his fellow disciples, Philip wanted to see God the Father.

Jesus tells Philip, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father.”

Some people, sometimes because of their troubles and fears, sometimes because of their boredom and lack of faith, want to see God.

Others, maybe to make themselves seem important or pious, will even claim to have special knowledge of God, including when Jesus is returning to the earth.

But the fact is that God can already be seen clearly by those who dare.

He can be seen in Jesus, on the pages of Scripture, in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the bread and the wine of Holy Communion, and in this fellowship of recovering hypocrites and sinners that the Bible calls “the body of Christ,” the Church.

The Bible introduces us to Jesus and when we see Him, we have seen the Father.

Our Gospel lesson ends with Jesus making a big promise. In verses 12 to 14, Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

While on earth, Jesus performed miracles, signs pointing to His identity as Lord of the universe. But He also voluntarily limited Himself in that time to living one human life.

Today, the risen Jesus can be everywhere simultaneously. He's here right now as we gather in His Name. He's in heaven at the same time. He can be with billions of others who call to God in His Name all at the same time.

The risen Jesus carries our prayers and our lives before the Father. And while we know that life on this earth isn’t and never will be perfect, I’m confident in saying that everyone here, either in their own lives or in the lives of family members, has been touched by all that Jesus does through His people.

Whether it’s to bring healing, hope, or simple direction for our lives, Christ uses His Church to do greater things than He accomplished while on earth.

The Church is the conduit by which Christ’s grace and power is brought into the world each day. A woman approached me after worship. I had never met her before, but our church—one of my previous congregations—had prayed for her. Her cancer was in remission. “I don’t know what my future holds,” she told me. “But I knew when the people of the Church were praying for me. God became very present to me. And that has changed me forever.”

I later  presided over that woman’s funeral. A life had been changed for eternity because Jesus is still empowering His people to pray, repent, believe, proclaim, love, and serve their way to doing greater things than He accomplished during his three decades of life on earth.

Whatever troubles we face, we know where we are going and we know that Christ will do great (and unexpected) things through those who follow Him. We need not be troubled. That's because Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” the one and only way to God for the whole human race. Keep following Jesus and keep sharing Him, confident of the place He's preparing for you. Amen!