Saturday, October 22, 2011

Let's Look Around the Garden

Today brought a perfect, crisp, clear fall day. So, I went out into the church garden to take this short video. Earlier, a group of kids had congregated there, laughing and talking, while one of their number tried perfecting jumps on her skateboard. Enjoy this slice of a sunny October Saturday!

Two Special Memorials

On November 6, All Saints' Sunday, we'll be dedicating two memorials in honor of two special Saint Matthew members.

One is an oak tree and butterfly bushes, all planted this past week, in honor of Sarah. Sarah was a twenty year old member of the congregation, who died in August after a valiant seven-and-a-half year battle with cancer. Sarah loved butterflies or more accurately, butterflies loved her. The oak tree, projected to live 200 years, is, along with the bushes, a fitting memorial to one who taught us so much about trustingly living for Jesus Christ. (For more about Sarah, see here.)

On the same day, we'll dedicate a brand new sound system at Saint Matthew in memory of Luke, a lifelong member of the congregation who died two years ago at age 87. Active until the end of his life, Luke operated the old sound system every Sunday and for every other service--when not, briefly, away on vacation--for many years. In fact, he commented shortly before he passed that he hadn't missed providing service for a funeral in the Saint Matthew sanctuary in 25 years! Operating the sound system is no small matter at Saint Matthew because it connects the congregation with a radio audience that listens to our Sunday worship every week. Saint Matthew has been on the radio continuously since 1962. Luke did a lot of other unheralded things for the congregation. He would love this new sound system, I think! (For more about Luke, see here.)

Below the new mixer board cabinet is pictured.

[Click on the images to enlarge.]


I like this post, today's installment from Our Daily Bread. Believers in Jesus Christ do have hope beyond the grave. So, we can take a different view of life and death.

But, not to be picky toward the grandfather mentioned in the Our Daily Bread piece, "Goodbye" is actually an old English contraction for the phrase, "God bless you [ye]."

I try always to make a point of always saying, "God bless" when I end a phone call or a visit. That isn't a final greeting, it's a prayer for continuing blessings.


By the way, here's a link to the great passage on which the Our Daily Bread post is based.

Read Maria Shriver's Interview with Billy Graham

On her web site, Maria Shriver has an interview with Billy Graham. Graham has written a new book, Nearing Home. He talks about aging with faith, significance, and dignity. I like the interview, especially his discussion of the riotously funny and wise inscription Graham's late wife Ruth wanted inscribed on her tombstone. Read the whole thing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It Took a Heart Attack

"I had a heart attack because I'm a control freak."

That's what I told some friends yesterday. My wife will tell you that I'm not your stereotype control freak. I don't rant or rave or try to get my way. My "freakiness" has expressed itself in having certain expectations about what I'll get accomplished in the course of a week or a day or my lifetime.

My heart attack, suffered a year and a half ago, has caused me to begin to learn to practice what I've always preached: It's OK to have an agenda, as long as you realize that it may need disrupting.

James writes in the New Testament portion of the Bible: "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.' Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring." (James 4:13-14). Money has never motivated me, but I have fooled myself with the idea that I could "plan the work and work the plan." Life, it turns out, is messier and less predictable than that.

Planning is fine. But we need to be flexible about our plans. Some of those things that interrupt your plans may actually be part of God's plan for your day.

Having my agenda interrupted caused me stress and stress, when sustained and unchecked, can lead to heart attacks and other negative physical reactions. Stress, of course, isn't what happens to you. It's what you do in response to what happens to you. Stress is inevitable; how we handle it is optional.

Not to be cute about it, but I'm now learning that when "interruptions" to my agenda come along, instead of being stressed, I can feel blessed. Many interruptions are more than annoying occurrences; They're opportunities God gives us to love Him, love others, and be useful to Him.

I'm learning that it's better for my health, my character, and my daily walk with God to be interruptible. I've preached it for years. It took a heart attack to get me to start living it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It Might Be a Good Addition to Your Library

Those who have been participating in our 'Read the Bible in a Year' discussion groups know how much I value the Eerdmans Handbook to the Bible, an informative reference book for anyone wanting to read and understand the Bible. You also know that the book is out of print.

But just yesterday, I learned about a new and similar reference book that's been put out by the same publishers. It's called The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible. I haven't read it. But I am familiar with the editors, New Testament scholars I admire. I also know that Eerdmans, the publishers, do a great job with reference works of this kind.

Amazon offers the book for just a little over half the publisher's list price. Through Amazon, it's $20.62, instead of $40.00. Just a thought.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Church That Doesn't Do Funerals?

I agree with Rick Warren, the pastor of a megachurch in Orange County, California, that "the church that doesn't want to grow is telling people to go to hell."

We have a commission from Christ to "make disciples," helping others to know and follow Jesus into eternity with us. Depending on what the Holy Spirit does in the hearts and wills of those with whom we share Jesus (and a lot of other factors we may never know about), obeying Jesus' commission may bring numerical growth to our individual congregations. And it would be foolish and faithless for congregations to turn away people just because they didn't want the hassle or the grief of growth.

That's why I've never been among those Christians who disdain  megachurches just for being big. That's silly! (As silly as those who attend big churches who disdain smaller churches.)

But, according to one blogger, Richard Hunter, at least one megachurch is more mega than it is church. He writes:
Last week my nephew was in a motorcycle accident that left him brain-dead. My brother and his family had been attending a mega-church known for large, inspiring worship services, great music and autonomy for attendees. The family contacted the church to ask a pastor to come and plan a funeral with them. The church office replied that they did not do weddings and funerals...
I was particularly shocked to learn of a church that refuses to do funerals!

Death is where the rubber hits the road for Christian faith. If our proclamation that Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death and offers resurrection victory to all who repent for sin and believe in Christ isn't true when believers die, then it isn't true.

The truth that Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead and the comfort it brings needs to be remembered and shared with family members and friends when death hits. The Church, in fact, is never more the Church than it is at funerals in which Christ is confidently and lovingly proclaimed!

Churches that pass on the chance to share the Gospel--the Good News--of Jesus Christ during a funeral are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to be Christ's open arms of love to people who need Christ.

Frankly, I wonder if a church that refuses to do weddings or funerals is really a church any longer. Isn't it just more of an arena where preaching and performances happen than it is a church body in which "if one member suffers, all suffer together...if one member is honored, all rejoice together..." (1 Corinthians 12:25)?

I hope that the no-weddings-or-funerals policy isn't widespread among megachurches.

As it turns out, the funeral for Hunter's nephew happened at the Methodist church of which his brother's family had been members for fifteen years. Two pastors from the Methodist congregation worked with the family in planning for the funeral and brought comfort to the grieving. Hunter writes:
Next time you are tempted to give up your local church and go get lost in one of the mega-churches, remember that one day you will need a personal touch...
Read the whole thing.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Book That Can Change Your Life

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

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Today’s sermon is a rerun and I think I would have preached it whether I’d spent Thursday and part of Friday at the hospital to get my defibrillator. That’s because the topic for today is something about which I am passionate. It’s about the object of an ongoing love affair in my life and it isn’t with Ann. (How’s that for grabbing your attention?)

To start, I'd like to show you a few books from my personal library.

This first one is a paperback version of the New Testament in the Good News translation. It was given to me by my parents’ church in Columbus when I graduated from Ohio State in 1975. This Bible is especially important to me because this was the very one I read when I first fell in love with Jesus Christ!

It was on these pages that I came to learn more about Who Jesus is and the depths of His passion for you and me and everybody in the world.

Acts was the first book of the New Testament I read in this edition. I remember being especially stirred when I read this verse, which comes after an account of how the apostles, the leaders of Jesus' post-resurrection Church had been beaten for their faith in Christ. It says: “The apostles left the Council [that had beaten them and told them to never speak in Jesus' Name again], full of joy that God had considered them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name of Jesus.”

To this day, I can hardly read that passage without choking up. Imagine it: These followers of Jesus derived joy from having the privilege of suffering for their allegiance to Jesus! By contrast, I sometimes complain about being inconvenienced by people for whom Jesus died and who Jesus has called me to love.

After I left atheism to become a follower of Jesus, my early mentor in the Christian faith, Martha Schneider, got a hardback version of the whole Bible in the Good News translation. As you can see, it's gotten some wear.

When I went to seminary four years after becoming a Christian, I was required, along with all of my classmates, to have a copy of the Oxford edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It’s no longer in print, but I used this Bible throughout my seminary career and into my early years as a pastor. After it got worn out and had nearly fallen apart, no matter how much Scotch, masking, or duct tape I put on the binding, I bought another one just like it to replace it. As you can see, after awhile, this second came to look like the first one, too.

It was from this edition of the Bible that I read on the night before my family and I headed to the first congregation I served as a pastor twenty-seven years ago. Just before I went to bed, I read Paul’s letter to a young pastor named Timothy. In the book called First Timothy, Paul gave Timothy advice that I felt that I needed as a then-young pastor myself: “Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you…Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Later, I bought this Study Bible, which I still use sometimes. And later still, I bought this Life Application Bible. Like the others, it’s now showing its age. I’ve had it for about thirteen years and still use it every day.

A few years ago, I added The Message translation to my arsenal of Bibles. And, within the past year, I’ve gotten two wonderful editions: The Orthodox Study Bible, with notes by Greek Orthodox scholars, and The Lutheran Study Bible, from the publishing house of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Though I have differences on many issues with both of those Christian traditions, these are wonderful study Bibles.

Now, I’m not showing you my Bibles to impress you. My point is this: Since 1976, reading the Bible has been an almost daily part of my life. And if you were to open most of my Bibles, you’d find underlines and notes all over them. You'd find questions in the margins, too, because there are still many things I don’t understand about God.

Some people might find all my markings on the pages of my Bibles offensive. But if the Bible is God’s Word, as I believe it is, then what you would see in those notes and underlines and questions is the record of my ongoing dialog with God, the conversation to which God invites all of us on the pages of the Bible.

This morning, I confess that I sin every day of my life. I do things that are wrong and say things I shouldn’t say. And I think things which, if any of you were mind-readers, would cause you to want to avoid me at all costs. The Bible hasn’t made me perfect. But it has introduced me to the God Who loves imperfect people like me and is committed to helping those who daily surrender to Him.

It's shown me the God Who's committed to changing us into all that God made us to be in the first place.

You see, unlike Lady Gaga, God doesn’t think that we should pursue sinful lifestyles just because we were “born that way.” In the Bible, God teaches us that we’re not to live as the slaves to sin, which is what we all are when we are born; instead, in Christ we are born again and set free to live God’s way!

When we spend time reading God’s Word, it brings changes to our lives, usually in ways we can’t readily articulate.

I love a story about an exchange of letters to the editor that once appeared in a newspaper in England. It started with a disgruntled church member who wrote something like this: “I’ve been in worship virtually every Sunday for the past thirty years and I have recently realized that I can’t remember a single sermon I’ve heard in all that time. Therefore, I’m going to quit going to worship. It’s obviously a waste of time.” Several days later, another letter to the editor appeared. It began: “My wife has always cooked the meals in our family these past thirty years. Recently, I have realized that in scanning my memory, I can’t really remember more than a handful of specific meals she has prepared. Therefore, I’m going to quit eating.”

Daily taking the time to read God’s Word, like weekly worship, is another way God feeds us and nourishes us. I certainly don’t remember every specific conversation I’ve had with God as I’ve read and written on the pages of my Bible these past thirty-five years. But I do know that when I take the time for this daily discipline, I remember that God is with me and that He is waiting to help me that day.

I receive God’s counsel.

I find what displeases God and the things for which I need to repent and receive the power of His Holy Spirit to change.

I see how God provides for me and how God wants to be with me forever.

I’m encouraged in my down times, guided through life’s mysteries, and brought down to earth when my ego is riding high.

I remember that Jesus died and rose for me.

But it takes time spent reading and paying attention to God's Word for all of these things to become apparent in our lives.

I'm a slow-learner when it comes to almost anything in life. That includes learning what it means to follow Jesus and trust in God. The moment God begins forming faith in Christ within us—something we Lutherans believe starts at Baptism—we are part of God’s kingdom.

But growing up in the faith, living in the confidence that God willingly gives His children, being able to face whatever life throws at us, and becoming the high-impact people of faith we’re made to be, that is a process.

It happens bit by bit as we surrender our lives to Christ. It happens through things like regular worship, regular prayer, regular service, regular giving, regularly encouraging others with the love of Christ, regularly inviting others to worship with us, and regularly reading God’s Word.

This is what Paul is talking about in our second lesson for this morning, composed of the opening passages of his first letter to a church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. He begins by saying how thankful he is that the Christians in this Aegean Sea-coastal city are so faithful to Jesus Christ.

He writes: “For the Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Acaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known... [And then Paul goes on to write:] For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, so that we have no need to speak about it.”

Do you see what happened? The Thessalonians had daily feasted on the Word of God. It had become integrated into the very marrow of their souls. The results were predictable. People who lived miles away heard about how Jesus Christ was at the center of their lives and how His Word made a huge positive difference in how they lived and faced each day.

When we daily take in God’s Word, each verse becomes like one of those time-released medicine capsules that, at just the right moments, work. God's Word works within us and then bring into being things like joy, compassion, hopefulness, a commitment to justice, and deep faith.

This, in turn, is seen by others and, as was true of the Thessalonians who influenced other people, we will bring God’s Word to those around us. God’s Word enters us and our lives become God’s Word for others, speaking God’s truth and God’s call to repentance and belief in Jesus.

I urge you to make reading the Bible a daily part of your life.

Wear out your Bibles!

Make notes in the margins!

Memorize verses that are meaningful to you!

Ask God to explain passages that you don’t understand.

Ask God to help you apply the things that you do understand.

Consider joining in with the remaining readings and weekly discussions as we read the Bible together in a year.

And ask God too, to set off the power for living with joy, peace, and hope that comes to all who let God’s Word act as their guide through life. Amen