Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Thanksgiving for Everyone!

As the 2015-16 church year ends, we enter Thanksgiving. This really becomes the first thing we do in the new church year. I heard an awesome story last Sunday. One of the kids from our congregation thought I said that it was the last Sunday of church, rather than the last Sunday of the church year.  (How ironic since we were just talking about missing words and how they can impact how we view things. Remember in last week’s blog when we talked about missing the word “love” in our Bible text and just seeing money as the root of evil, when the Bible really says it’s the love of money being the root of evil.) Anyway, this little kid was sad that we weren’t going to have church anymore, since it was the last Sunday. He was happy to hear the correct explanation of what I meant. (I remember as a kid asking if church was off for the summer just like school. I am glad this little guy has a better view of church.) I love that this kid was rejoicing that we were going to keep having church.

Our church year is full of ways to prepare us for the upcoming weeks and days. Wednesday night’s Thanksgiving service is just the beginning. We’ll spend time thanking God for this year. We thank God for the wonderful ways He provided, and as our little member reminded me, we thank God for another year of church. We thank God we can worship together. We thank God for a church that has people to reach. We thank God for servants ready to serve. Our little friend reminded us to be thankful for the little blessings in life. We thank Jesus for rescuing us, we thank Him for His great love, and we thank Him for coming in this season of Advent.

Advent is a season of preparation and waiting.  Kids count down the days until Christmas. Those   But really, Advent preparation began way back in Genesis after the fall. God’s people now had to wait and prepare for God to restore them. They had to wait many, many years, way longer than our kids, or grandkids, have to wait for their presents. Yet, everyday they prepared themselves for Jesus’ coming. Finally He came, but oddly enough, most weren’t prepared. They didn’t expect Jesus to show up like He did. They had let their human eyes guide their expectations.
30 or so days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, seem like forever to them.

What I love about the little kid from our congregation is that he celebrates every time Jesus shows up! He celebrates Jesus showing up each Sunday.  This season, I don’t want to be so busy preparing that I miss Jesus showing up. I don’t want to be so busy thinking about the next things on my list that I miss the chance to thank Him for the little blessings. I pray that, as believers, we are thankful and celebrate the way Jesus continually comes and blesses us. He shows up every time we hear His Word, and He shows up in our fellow believers with whom we gather. In the season of Advent, we take more time to come to services – Wednesdays and Sundays. We want to put ourselves in places where Jesus shows up, especially as we prepare for the Second Advent, the final day Jesus will come and take all believers in Him to heaven.

Starting with Thanksgiving Eve service, we will meet during the week and on Sunday. It is a time to prepare for Jesus to show up! He always does, just not how we always expect. Thanking God every day can put us in a mindset of preparation for a Savior that knows the needs we have even when we don’t know them. Advent is a wonderful season! The world will try and throw us off track, and get us to miss out on the gifts of God. I pray that we return to our Lord every morning, thanking Him for a new day, and praying that we can truly celebrate this wonderful season when He came to redeem us. May we be like little children just waiting for Sunday, and in this season, Wednesday also!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

You want me to manage what? My Money

Not only is it tough to talk about money in the church, but really in any situation. There is just something touchy about the subject in general. We all have guilt about some places where we spend money that others don’t. We all have places where we make cuts that others don’t. No one else truly knows our money situation. We make decisions regarding money everyday, but yet we know our financial position can change at any moment. Remember back to week one when we talked about the body? A sudden crazy disease could change our financial situation overnight, and every financial principal we have would be sacrificed to save our loved one. Just like with the body, there are ways the world has influenced us to think about money. This week we ask, “How does God want me to think about money?”

My parents set a good foundation for me about giving to God. I knew giving was important. Once I set it as a practice in my life, it became natural. I remember being excited after confirmation to get offering envelopes. I felt like I was truly an adult. Once the money went in the plate, it quickly moved out of my mind. I don’t even remember filling out most of the checks. Sure, I had questions about giving when it came to birthday money or graduation gifts. That was probably the biggest challenge for me to figure out. But then a new challenge came that I never anticipated. I knew growing up that the giving I was doing was helping to pay the pastor.  Well, now I was a pastor.

Somewhere along the way, giving had gotten more complex than it was when I was young. Everybody has bills, and everybody’s mind is getting slammed with excuses not to give. We all have stories, pastor or not, why someone else should give. You may think it is a no brainer that pastors give to their church, but as graduation and ordination day comes closer for Seminary guys, many are asking where should they give. This is a big question even for our fieldworkers (when they are brave enough to ask). In Seminary it is easy to claim to be a poor student, or that you have too much debt to pay down. But some guys raise the question, should I give to my fieldwork congregation or send it to my home congregation? On vicarage, students really don’t make that much, so then they ask if they should be giving it back to the same church that is paying them? As I entered my first couple churches as a youth pastor, where youth budgets are tight, it seemed to make sense to pay for youth expenses out of my own money, consider it offering, and just say I’ll figure it out at the end of the month. Yet, I always felt uneasy about this. During a conversation with some of my co-workers, they said something powerful, “I think you just pray about it, set your giving, and trust God.”

There are all kinds of fears in this world about running out of money. There are fears of how to prepare for retirement. There are fears about how to pay for weddings and college. There are pressures by commercials to live up to some American dream. This week our text is one of the most misquoted passages in all of Scripture. Yet Scripture is clear, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” It isn’t money that is all kinds of evil, it is the love of money. This is an important distinction because it affects our mindset. If money is the root of all kinds of evil, but we still have to use money, we don’t know what to do or how to handle it. We can easily write it off saying, “I guess Scripture didn’t know we were going to need to use money.” But that’s not true, so having a clear distinction between money and the love of money is important.  Do you have a love of money? Can you part with it, or is it a passionate focus for you? This week we take time to ask what roadblocks are in our way when we talk about money and giving. We pray that God would lead us to be givers who trust Jesus will provide, and see the joy in giving.

You want me to manage what? My Family

“For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” 1 Timothy 3:5

Jacob had a buddy spend the night last Friday. We let them have some freedoms we wouldn’t normally give our children. Those two got to stay up and watch TV longer than the others. Then they were up at 2:30am talking, and again a few hours later playing video games. I was exhausted Saturday morning from dealing with the mayhem during the night. We had said that we would take the friend home at noon, but that still meant providing breakfast, so I drug my body to the kitchen to make waffles. Being a parent is never easy. There is always something else to handle, and a constant conviction on how to be a parent.

When we took the friend home, we could tell how tired Jacob was. We told him he was going to have to take a nap. He fought with us about it, but as lunch finished, he asked to head upstairs to lie down.  When I came upstairs and looked for him, he wasn’t in his bed. Instead I found him fast asleep in my bed. When Jacob woke up, we talked about what happened and why he was so tired. I said, “What lesson did you learn?” He said, “Don’t have friends spend the night!” I said, “That’s not it. What else?” He said, “Staying up is not good.” I said, “That’s not it, but you are getting closer.” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Sleep is important!”

I told Jacob the story of the first time I spent the night at a friend’s house and stayed up all night. I was probably in the fifth grade, and we had a skating party the next day. I didn’t get home until 4pm the next afternoon. When I got home I found the first room available at the top of the steps (which was my sister’s) and I fell sleep. I slept from 4pm to 7am the next day! Those lessons I learned as a kid help me be a father, but the important part is imparting the lessons to my kids.

Life is busy. With so many distractions, leading our households can be tough. That is why this passage is so powerful. Paul was not just talking to Timothy, or to the elders, but to so many of us as well. Our selfish side wants to check out after work. We feel the busyness of life and just want our homes to be a place to chill. But the truth is, so much is needed to lead a household.

A buddy of mine told me a story about a guy I think is a really great gift to ministry. He is a grandpa now. One day his son and grandchild were over, and the grandpa was on his iPad. The son finally looked at his dad and told him to get off his iPad while his grandson was there.  He had to remind his dad to take advantage of the opportunity to play with grandson and to build that relationship with him. Now, that may not be how your household works, but the point is simple—it can happen it anyone. Even a guy I respect in ministry is getting called out for being disengaged as a grandpa.

It is hard to lead our households. It is hard to be engaged as a parent, grandparent, or uncle/aunt. It shows us just how great our Father in heaven is, since He is willing to listen and engage with us at any minute. Jesus is very in tune with every need we have.

I love that Jacob fell asleep in my bed. It gives me a great picture of how we can be. Jacob got tired of managing in his own life. He didn’t even go to his bed, he went straight to my bed. It was his sweet surrender, like he was saying, “Dad, I am tired of managing my own life. Can I just lay in your bed for awhile.” Oh the number of times I have felt this as a human. I just need to lay in my Heavenly Father’s bed for awhile. I just need the weight of everything I thought I could manage to be taken away.

We hit close to home when we talk about managing family and being good stewards of it. It is something we do every day of our life, no matter the size or stage of our family. When we come home to God’s house, we see how God manages His family. It is a beautiful picture – the way He welcomes, loves and forgives. Today we reflect on the challenges in managing family, but also rejoice how God can rejuvenate and renovate us so that we are prepared to lead the family He has blessed us with.

You want me to manage what? My Body

I was with someone this weekend that was complaining about his health insurance. Shocking, right? This person was complaining that he is 26 years old and has to go off of his parents’ insurance plan. He talked about how he was healthy, but now he was personally paying for others who are sick. Let me just stop the story right there and say a few things. First, how do we know we are healthy? Second, how do we keep our bodies healthy so we don’t turn into sick people cranking up the insurance rates? And finally, what do we do when something new is on our plate to manage?

Now, before you think I am judging this person, let me just be clear. I find that all too often we think we know how to handle some of the most important aspects of life. I have mentioned before how almost every wedding couple that comes to me to get married thinks they know how to create a good marriage. And there are many people who think they know how to raise kids. We think we know how to manage our health. We think we know how to manage our finances.  How many of us study any of this in school or college? (All the finance managers out there – before you think that you’ve got the finances down, remember we are talking about personal finances.) Our churches have started putting out materials and giving classes on finances because we realize that if our members aren’t healthy financially, they won’t be giving to the church. But isn’t that true about the rest of the areas as well? If our members don’t have healthy marriages, families, and bodies, how can they be ready to serve when needed? If they are hurting, how can they serve their community, and help others see why they need Jesus?

We quickly get nervous when the church starts talking about stewardship, because we know they are eventually going to talk about money. And make no mistake, the church is going to talk about money when they talk about stewardship. But, isn’t if better if the church talks about all areas we manage in our lives? If so, why don’t they?

For me, preaching on money is not fun. Hopefully, this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but most pastors are in their profession because they love people. Yet talking about money has the potential to make the people they love mad. So to me the answer is simple – rip it off like a Band-aid; just do it and get it over with. As a youth pastor, I was so glad when someone else talked about money, but I also had to live with his decision. If he thought my youth program could raise $60,000, then I had to do it. This is the good and bad of someone else managing this area. Generally speaking, pastors don’t like dealing with this.

All throughout Scripture we see that God is constantly trying to lead His people into a deep understanding of the blessings they have, and to see them as blessings rather than burdens. The truth is, my friend who was complaining about managing his health insurance has a great point. Who really wants to do this? Sometimes I look into the life of my 7-month old and think, “Wow, she has got it good.” She is surrounded by people who love her. She cries and someone picks her up. She doesn’t have to worry about clothes, food, or bills. She has a charming life.  I realize not every baby has a charming life. If that baby’s parents are mismanaging their lives, the baby’s life could be pretty rough, simply because the parents don’t see the blessing God has given them.

This series is called, “You want me to manage what???” All of us can have that reaction when we think about the many things in life God has called us to manage. We will talk about how God has gifted us with blessings, yet those blessings still require responsibility and oversight. Our texts will come from the book of Timothy, a book where Paul was trying to help Timothy with instructions for the blessings he got to manage. We take those instructions and ask ourselves, “What is God telling me?” We begin today with health and ask how our bodies can be a blessing and not a burden.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What if Reformation Day never happened?

Waking up is one of the oddest feelings in the world. Our mind is still working while we are sleeping, but our state of consciousness is gone, so waking up is a re-acclimation with our current state of reality. This can be positive if the night and days leading up to that moment were positive, or negative if your days and hours have been full of challenging moments. I hardly pondered this when I was younger, but as an adult who has responsibilities to handle every day, it is a common thought. I wake up and first take inventory of my behaviors, problems, and most demanding jobs. Yet no matter my current state of affairs, I am relieved of all my burdens because of the Reformation and All Saints Day. I know, you’re probably thinking I’m a crazy pastor because I think of the church year with such importance, but hear me out.

As a church body, we have let the church year and its importance fall off the map because we quit explaining its relevance. In nine and a half years of being a pastor in a conservative denomination, I have come to this conclusion: I want to explain it more. I want to practically proclaim how the traditions of the church are relevant still today.

Let me take us back to the time of the Reformation, and let’s snatch Luther out of the picture to see how 2016 might look if the Reformation didn’t happen, and how that would affect All Saints Day. – Zap. Luther & the reformation never happened. — Now jump ahead to 2016 – I’m in my bed, waking up after a night of sleep. Getting my consciousness about me again, I take inventory of my behaviors, problems, and most demanding jobs, and I’m miserably disappointed. I have always been hard on myself, but now I have little or no relief. I begin my morning routine anxiously awaiting confession. I head to Mt. Calvary Catholic Church and I confess my sins and failures to another priest. I leave, paying my indulgences and praying that my family will make it out of purgatory and into heaven. I’m still unsettled, but I have to carry on.  Occasionally my thoughts drift, and I realize I’m trying to convince myself that I am a faithful man of God. But it’s easy to see that I’m just lying to myself, so I fall back into my prison of sin, saving every penny to buy indulgences and waiting for the opportunity to confess my sins again so I can feel a brief moment of release.

Now comes my “Back to the Future” moment, where Marty enters the reality of Biff taking the almanac and changing his entire world.  If you are not a “Back to the Future” person, it is like the United States without Independence Day. It is the United States without the freedoms we enjoy.  As you look back at the 2016 morning described above, you might think that it is far fetched. Surely the Reformation didn’t really change all of that? Yes it did!

The church had once stolen the freedom that Christ came to give. It had put people back in the bondage of sin, and the plague of never feeling forgiven. It changed how people see the saints; the faithfully departed were still in their sins even after death. If left that way, All Saints Day would not be a celebration, but another burden. We would be trying to free our ancestors from the consequences of what they had done. But, in our current reality, Reformation and All Saints Day speak of the freedom Christ came to give, and the promise of true freedom in heaven!

Now, because of the Reformation, I can wake up, inventory the previous days events and hear the Holy Spirit speak, “You are forgiven and you are mine!” With that assurance, I am able to quickly move to the vocations God would have me do with the gifts He has given. I quietly celebrate with those who have died, that they no longer take inventory of anything, and I wait upon the day when my consciousness will have no sin, pain, or sorrow.

So why don’t we talk about the Reformation and All Saints Day? Honestly, I think we have just assumed that our current generation could care less about church history, rather than speaking to its relevance in our current culture. In my personal mission statement, I debated long and hard about referring to Scripture as ancient words. My coach even challenged me on it. I think too often we think of celebrations like this weekend as ancient, and at times, we even think of Scripture that way too. But if we adopt that point of view, we miss the hope, promise and freedom they give to our current reality.

Reformation and All Saints Day are pinnacle celebrations in the church year. They speak of the freedom we have in Christ. They speak what Jesus has done for us, and they proclaim to our sin burdened lives that we are free because of the work of Jesus. They remind our burdened conscience that one day we will no longer wake up taking inventory of our sins, but rejoicing with all the Saints.

Discipleship Go: Pray 1

Friday night was lasagna night at my house. I am not a huge fan of making lasagna just because of the time it takes. I know some of you might be thinking, “But you like cooking?” Yes I do, but to me lasagna is basically spaghetti with cottage cheese. (Sorry ricotta lovers. I’m still old school, the way my mom made it.) You have the sauce, meat, and noodles, and then you bake it. It lengthens the process of a basic meal. It is not that I am opposed to lasagna, but rather the work involved to make something that I could do in less time. I make a baked spaghetti dish to use spaghetti leftovers, and it is basically the same thing. My kids have recently been watching Garfield, so they have been curious about lasagna. (Lasagna is Garfield’s favorite food.) They’ve had it before, but they just don’t remember. My mother-in-law usually makes it for us in the winter. One day Gavin said, “Dad, can we make lasagna?” to which I responded begrudgingly, “Yes.” Then came the plaguing question of when.  “Dad, are we going to do it today?” he would ask. I tried to explain the work involved, but it was still hard for him to understand.

Finally, this past Friday, we had lasagna night. I made my sauce as I usually do, giving it the two hours it needs to cook. I got the meat ready and added it to the sauce. I did cheat a little, though, by getting the ready-to-bake noodles. Since the kids were all interested in making it with me, I set up stations so that everyone could help. Abby and Gavin made little lasagnas, and Jacob and I worked on the big one. Gavin was so excited, but yet critical because his lasagna didn’t look exactly the same as the one in the show. I told him that it was partially because he made a little one. That just meant he wanted a piece of the big lasagna so that it looked the same.  

Gavin knows he can ask me for something, within reason, and I will try and fulfill it. I may even fulfill it in a better way than what he asked for, like by being able to make his own personal lasagna. If I were in the pattern of not fulfilling requests, there would be no need to ask, or annoy me about when it will happen. Gavin was confident I would fulfill his request, even if his pouty face or repetitious words weren’t displaying that message leading up to lasagna day. On lasagna day, my words were confirmed, and so was what he has come to know about his dad.

Jesus is even better than that. He fulfills exactly what He says and always takes care of His children. When Jesus opened the door up for prayer and constant communication with God, we got the chance to talk to Him at any moment. The more we learn about Jesus the more we know and see how He fulfills His promise in our lives. We pray with expectation and anticipation that God will provide. As God refines us through His Word, our expectations and anticipation are rarely disappointed. And if we are disappointed, perhaps we should take an honest look into our hearts, where we might find selfish and sinful desires.

Every day we wake up, we can start our day in dialogue with God. This is an awesome blessing! The world can be such a bleak place, but our dialogue with God reminds us of how Jesus fulfilled exactly what He said, and He will continue to do that in our lives. When we talk about Pray 1, we talk about not forgetting to talk to Jesus during our day. Communication with Jesus is a very important blessing that can easily fall to the wayside in the busyness of life. When we incorporate Pray 1 in our lives, we are able to refocus, and be reminded of Jesus’ deep love for us.

Discipleship Go: Read 1

I make sure I never read something twice. I am just kidding of course, but generally speaking, once I read a book I put it aside. There are always new books to read. There have been books that I didn’t want to end, but yet I hurried though them because of the excitement I felt when reading each page. I have my favorite authors and anxiously wait for their new books to come out. Yet, despite these exceptions, reading is a chore for me and not something I usually look forward to doing. So, in this series when we say Discipleship GO: Read 1, I know for me it means I have to set reading plans, find Christians books, and find a system to keep me on my Read 1 path.

This whole series has been about finding the passion and excitement of being a disciple. Yet, I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that some of these are challenging to get passionate about. Sometimes Discipleship GO just means putting systems in place and taking steps to grow in these areas. One important step in Read 1 is setting a standard from an early age. My family is by no means perfect, but we try to read the Bible with the kids before we say bedtime prayers. We read from an age-appropriate Bible. We started with a simple, short one, and now have progressed to a newer Bible that has questions for the kids. Yes, there are days when I am tired and we skip the Bible and just do prayers, but we try and keep this in our routine.

This year Jacob is in second grade and has to read for 15 minutes every day. At first this was annoying. He would sit next to me and ask about every other word. Honestly, I was struggling with how to do this with him when I felt like there was always something else I could be taking care of in my house. Those 15 minutes seemed like a long time. But since the beginning of the year, Jacob has come into his own. He sits down and reads by himself now, keeping track of what he reads on his reading log. At least 3 times a week he seems to read the Bible. I bet his teacher is thinking to herself, “Of course, the pastor’s kid is reading the Bible for his reading log.” The truth is, he chooses to do it – on his own. He just quickly grabs the Bible and starts reading, no prompting from me. I’m thrilled he chooses to do this on his own. This is where & why the steps of Read 1 are important to me. Taking time to intentionally think about how to incorporate this into our daily lives means it is now something our kids, or those who are close to us, find as normal and perhaps they’ll start doing on their own too.

This weekend we continue our discipleship series talking about taking steps to put God’s Word in our life every day.  That is what Read 1 is all about. We want to regain the passion in our discipleship walk, so how can this be done when we read and reflect on God’s Word? Also, what is unique about God’s Word as compared to other books?  For starters, it is powerful, unlike any other, and one we’ll want to read again and again.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Discipleship Go: Love 1

Last Saturday was a very full of day for me. I had many people on my agenda to Love 1. To be honest, it started the night before when Mindy and I hung out together after the kids went to bed. It’s our normal Friday routine. Sometimes we reflect upon the week, sometimes we watch a show, and sometimes the week has just been too long and we head to bed early. Our date nights are cheap, but important. As I write this blog, I can’t forget the person I have been blessed with and called to love first. Ministry is busy, and at times I can forget to love my spouse as the first part of Love 1. My wife is busy serving others also, and at times, the day is so full of loving kids and families that it is overwhelming. Friday nights can be a haven for both of us.

Saturday morning I woke up early and headed to a cross-country meet with the boys. It was in St. Charles (blah)!  My mid-county arrogance and annoyance was kicking in with having to drive to the other side of the universe (well, at least to the other side of St. Louis). Thankfully, the boys’ race was first, which meant they would be done in plenty of time for the next thing on my agenda. Jacob and Gavin raced together this time. Jacob was in first place most of the race. As he started to loose his lead in the final part of the race, I could feel my adrenaline kicking in wanting to help him. He still finished second. It is so incredible to see how fast he is, especially since none of this skill came from me. After he finished and my heart calmed down, I knew I needed to cheer on Gavin as well. Gavin was near the end of the pack. To be fair, he is a Kindergartener who snuck into a first and second grade race. It was certainly a different feeling watching him than watching Jacob. When I got home Mindy pulled me to aside and asked if I cheered for Gavin too. I answered yes, but then had to ask myself if I had cheered for him enough?  Was I Loving 1 to both of my sons?

I then turned my attention to the funeral, which was now only a little over an hour away. I transitioned from Word of Life clothes into a collar, and began rehearsing all the stories in my head and processing how all of the readings went together. I began thinking about the husband and his two sons and the other people who would be there, and preparing my heart to lead people in worship and help them see Jesus. I was asking Jesus how to Love 1 with everyone I came in contact with at the funeral.

After the funeral, I headed home to try and rest. As my eyes closed, my head began preparing for the wedding I would officiate that evening. I began thinking through the story of this couple and how their relationship developed. I was also thinking through the history of Jeremiah (from the Old Testament), and picking out elements to explain in the message that would help make the connection between God and His relationship with the church, and how that is similar to a couple who is getting married. At the wedding, I was sitting on a bench deep in thought when the groom came up to me. He almost had to shake me to wake me from my thoughts and preparation; I was so entrenched in making sure I was (& would be) Loving 1 with the bride and groom and everyone I came in contact with.

Thankfully, not every Saturday is like this one. But on those busy days, I am deep in thought about each relationship even more than a normal day. My deep thought is actually an informal regular dialogue with God. Recently, some people have asked me to define intentional relationships. That got me thinking about one of the greatest issues in the church—that often times once we learn something, or sanctification (which means to be made holy) has done its work, we move on. We unconsciously assume that others can grasp the ideas in our head, or pick them up just because they see glimpses of us modeling them. The stories I share aren’t just pastoral duties; they are stories about what God has taught me about being a disciple of Christ. If you are a businessman or woman, you could have similar thoughts on how to do your job and yet care for people. As a parent, it is undeniable that our thoughts are on our kids’ care, guidance, and discipline.

In week 2 of our Discipleship GO series we focus on Love 1. How is this different from intentional relationships, which is a part of our values at Mt. Calvary? It isn’t any different! Values help describe characteristics we hold up as body of believers, but Discipleship GO is all about acting on them. Love 1 is asking, “What does it look like when we act on the faith and values built in us?” In Romans we hear Paul share with us how to care for those who are weaker. We are all weaker in different moments, and we all need love. Jesus and His work exemplifies Love 1. We now share Love 1 by loving those people in our lives. It can look different in any and every situation, but as we open ourselves to dialogue with God (who created all mankind) and listen to Him, He will guide us to how we can love His people.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Discipleship Go: Worship 1

  I just don’t think that a shirt like that was doing anything to get across the concept of loving our neighbor, but rather separating us further. And by separating ourselves, we might never get a shot at witnessing to certain people. I get that people were expressing their faith by wearing these t-shirts, but I wonder if it really had the desired effect.
I have never been a fan of cheezy Christian T-shirts that are a spin off of some current trend. One from the past I most despised was, “A bread crumb and fish,” which was ripping off “Abercrombie and Fitch.” Yes, I worked there and had some of their clothes, but that wasn’t the reason I disliked it.

I say all this because I am cautious about ripping off current cultural ideas for a sermon series. If I do barrow the trend, I want to make sure we are not making fun of the idea, but seeing the positive in it. If we can connect what is positive and see how it fits with our desire to share the faith, it can be a great idea.

So, this month’s theme is Discipleship GO taken from the Pokémon GO trend right now. Forgive my explanation if you are familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, Pokémon GO is an app for your phone or tablet that has you going all around the city looking for different Pokémon characters. It has led many Pokémon GO players to church parking lots because they are open spaces, which are good for finding characters and holding virtual battles. The main thing this app did was reignite the passion of the Pokémon community. Pokémon came back on the radar after many years of silence. This type of product revival is not a new concept. I learned about it in marketing class, and it happens all the time. Sometimes products have a good season, but then you have to dream up a new concept or way to use the product to help them come back on the radar.

We know the church and the Word of God will always be alive and relevant. At the same time, we know culture will continue to go in a direction that may take it off peoples’ radar. As we fight to make sure people are aware of God and know who Jesus is, we really want them to see their need for Jesus. This is very fitting with the concept of the Pokémon GO trend. We want people to be passionate about seeking out Jesus! We want them to come alive again and reignite their desire for a closer relationship with their Savior! This is why this series is called Discipleship GO!

Personally, what are the areas you continue to work on everyday to grow as a disciple of Christ? As a church, we have been talking about four specific areas to grow in for several years now: Worship 1, Love 1, Read 1, and Pray 1. We begin with Worship 1 and ask ourselves, “In this current world, how do we make Worship 1 a priority again & reignite that passion?” This week our Romans passage emphasizes that it is a blessing to worship Jesus. It is easy to lose the importance of worship in our crazy world, but worship provides a place to receive forgiveness, grow with others as the body of Christ, and to receive rest as we hear the Word and receive His sacraments. This week we take time to see how worship begins our Discipleship GO journey.

Electing Values Elected: Service

In all of my time in ministry, my absolute favorite place to serve Jesus has been in Belize. There are many aspects I loved about my trip to Belize. First, I was able to experience it with my friends during my final year of seminary. We fell in love with the country together as we shared many special moments. Secondly, it was a place where people were excited to hear about Jesus. And finally, it seemed like a dream to be in this beautiful place in the world serving Jesus. I had a college seminary professor who once said we should all move to the beach, read Greek, and serve Jesus.

The first time I was in Belize I met a man and his wife who left their lives in America to move to Belize for retirement. It sounded like the perfect plan—after you have lived your life, go someplace beautiful to spend the rest of your days. Not to mention all the people you could share Jesus with in that new place.  It sounded like a plan I wanted to live out as well.

Now years later, I haven’t given up on that dream, but I’m more realistic. God has allowed me to be a city kid, one who has grown up in the suburbs of the cities in America. Along the way, He has shown me how small to medium-sized churches work. While I may have my own ideas of where I want to serve, in the quiet moments of life I take time to ask Jesus to lead me to my next place to serve according to His plan. Maybe one day He will fulfill my dream of serving in Belize, but if not, I know He knows best.  I have lived enough to know that sometimes my dreams are not the best for me, and end up in disaster.

My whole ministry, I have tried to help people develop a desire to serve, while looking for the opportunities to serve within the context of the situation. Blending these two focuses together can be quite challenging. Yet, in our current culture, service is one of the key ways people connect with the church. People have a passion for service, perhaps more than in years past. This will only continue to get stronger with our younger generations. So, how do we find areas to serve that fulfill us and yet serves our community? How do we invite new people into our acts of service so they can hear the words of Jesus too?

In our final week of this series, we lift up the value of service. We say it every week—Ordinary People…Extraordinary Servants…Now Go B1. The B1 model was built to help discipleship happen in our lives. (Next month we will talk about those elements again.) One area of discipleship that pairs up with our values is service—Love 1. Yet we wrestle with what kind of service to do, what our community needs, and connecting our passion with that service. This week in our reading, John talks about encouraging the people who are walking in truth, and then encouraging them to love one another. He wants them (and us) to serve and love others in real ways, ways they can see the love of Jesus. By fitting the service with our passions, we can speak love in our context and to our community.

Psalm 37:4 has always been a favorite verse for me on this topic.  It says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” God will give me the desires of my heart, but I have learned that sometimes He changes my heart to match His desires. Which one is it for you today?  

Electing Values Elected: Intentional Relationships

College taught me a lot about intentional relationships. It was the first time I was truly able to have control in my relationships. Sure, kindergarten through high school I had friends and was not forced to be friends with certain people, but I certainly had a limited number of places I could pull from. I had friends I went camping with, and ones I would hang out with on Friday night, and yet we don’t talk anymore. Our only contact is that we can see each other’s updates on Facebook. Sad, right? Well, I never really chose those friends; they were just there.

Starting off in college I was put into a dorm, therefore those guys became my “friends.” Most of them had different interests than me, but that was where I was placed. As a freshman, I was also learning to navigate through this odd experience of being in control of my choices. I decided what to do on a Friday night and who to hang out with. As time passed I was drawn to other people with whom I shared more in common. By my sophomore year I was more settled, confidant in who I was, and establishing friendships that would stick with me for life.

As I was writing this blog, my best friend from college called. We met sophomore year and had common interests in music, faith, and sports. Music still bonds us as we talk about new albums coming out. It was once easy for us to be friends. We could just walk across campus and hang out.  In our final year of school we even lived together. Our friendship has lasted a long time, but it hasn’t been easy.  We had our seasons we had to work at, like when I was in Seminary and he was in the Marines, or when I was married and he was still single. During those times we had to talk about how our friendship would survive. For a long time we called each other at least weekly. On vicarage, he came to see me. As life got busy, we intentionally had to focus on the relationship to stay friends. We had to be intentional about how to connect.

In college this wasn’t hard for me.  I didn’t consider it work. I connected with people that had similar interests and we hung out. If the relationship didn’t fit common criteria I had chosen, then it just naturally drifted away. But as an adult, I’m not surrounded by hundreds of people going through a similar experience, so I must make intentional decisions. What was once easy now became hard.  And to make matters worse, I got married. (Oh come on. I bragged on her last week; a quick shot is ok.) The only reason it is worse is because my wife brought her way of making friendships into our relationship, and we are much different in this aspect. This brought me to a shocking conclusion – I cannot have intentional relationships with everyone I want to. Maybe I should have realized this was the natural progression of things, since I’ve been through enough broken hearts in my life. I juggled my friends like spinning plates. I wanted to evenly keep up with all of them. As marriage and ministry came, I realized this was just not feasible. Then I threw kids into the mix.

One of the most powerful moments of realization came at the end of my vicarage. There was a husband/wife couple I became good friends with. We hung out every single week. This is very typical of my extroverted nature, to find friends and grow close fast. When I left, the husband asked me what our friendship would look like now, and I said, “When we see each other it will be like I never left, but in the meantime, it may feel distant.” His wife and I had a much different conversation. I was sharing with them how I was going to play basketball for the Seminary team, and she was almost arguing with me that I would not have enough time to do that. What she was implying is how I was not going to have time for them now. This may seem odd at first, but it has everything to do with intentional relationships. I was the one who left, and their world changed. She was hurting, and wondered if it would ever be the same.

John knew he had groups of people God had allowed him to connect with. He had groups of people he could build intentional relationships with. Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew, and have so many relationships that it is too much to handle. Sometimes it is the reverse, and we lack patience in seeing if a relationship will develop. Either way, it is absolutely for certain that God knows relationships are important in our lives. He built us to seek them out. The word “intentional” can even mean praying for friendships and relationships. I know that may sound like something only someone who is “weak” would do. The truth is, Jesus is in my relationships, and as we walk through life with other people, we see Jesus work in them and us. John was also intentional about asking God about the details of those relationships. We take time to ask ourselves questions about who God is putting in our lives to build an intentional relationship with. It may not be the people we think, and therefore at times it can be scary. But just like anything in this life, when we see Jesus guide and direct an area, we see Him show up, and it is much better than we could have humanly ever imagined.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Electing Values Elected: Caring

I often tell people that there are two jobs in life we all think we know how to do: marriage and parenting. This leads to funny conversations with friends because most of the time we try and figure out how the other person handles their marriage and how they raise their kids. If we see really good kids, we ask them what they do. This happened to me a few weeks ago when a friend of mine told me his wife still wants more kids but he doesn’t know how to live life and parent more kids. He said to me, “Will, how do you do it?” (We are going to meet later this month to discuss things I have learned.)

I must give credit where credit is due. Mindy is fabulous at helping my kids behave in church, respect others, and be considerate. One of her specialties is helping the kids say thank you, especially to me. You heard me right.  If we take the kids to the park, or out for ice cream or some other activity, they are taught to thank even me. Now, why in the world would they thank me? The answer is simple: it is a gift that they receive out of care and love.  They are being taught not to assume that I should do this for them. We rarely think about it, but the attitude of assuming things will be done for us is where entitlement begins. It starts simply by thinking that parents should do things for their kids, i.e. you are supposed to get me new clothes because you are my parent. If we are honest with ourselves, we see that sin leads parents to want to be selfish. Just look at the examples you have seen in the news of parents who have abandoned their families or have fallen into an addiction that makes them absent. Sin leads us down the path of pulling away from the gifts God has given parents (their children) and the responsibilities that come with those gifts. But as parents grow in Jesus, they can see how parenthood is really a gift.

Sometimes we forget to remind our kids that it is also a gift that our most basic needs are provided for us. Martin Luther reminds us of this in the explanation to the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism as he tells us to be thankful for our “daily bread,” which includes “food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money goods, a devout husband/wife, devout children, etc.” This is a lesson even the children of Israel had to relearn, as they complained to God about so many things in the desert, even going so far as to say they wished they were back in slavery. Mindy’s practice to help my kids be thankful for every tiny thing in life is brilliant. It is teaching that all good gifts come from God, and that if you have a parent thinking of you, that is a blessing. My kids’ eyes are open to the tiniest gifts in life, and I get to watch that translate into their dialogue with others.

Does this same problem of entitlement permeate other areas of life? I believe so.  I believe caregivers are a highly abused group of people. Want proof?  Think about how churches are abused by social ministry. A church, a group of people who love Jesus and want to help, can be abused by a needy person taking advantage of the system. How do we know which story is true and which is false? There is an assumption, just like with children and parents, that this is what churches are supposed to do. I’ve even had people say that to me, that we are supposed to help them because we are a church. Sin has caused us to feel entitled and selfish, and therefore we abuse those who care for us.

This week we talk about caring. Unlike the other weeks, I start this with more of a cautionary word as opposed to a push to think how we could care more. That cautionary word brings us to care in very powerful ways. This is one area that, if we had the eyes of Jesus, it would be much easier to know who needs care and who doesn’t. Yet, we have to be careful not to fall on the other side and get so disenchanted we don’t want to care about anyone. This week the little Johns (2 John) talk about care, but also acknowledges the deceivers. This helps as we use the gifts God has given us to care for others, but also to take time to learn who needs that care and where our gifts can be best served.

Electing Values Elected: Welcoming

A few days ago I went to a pastors event at Concordia Seminary. Those can be interesting, especially the initial entrance and greeting. I know enough people from the area that it can be difficult to decide who I greet first? Other times I wonder who will greet me & just how will all this play out? At this particular event, a pastor that I knew from my time at the Seminary came up and started talking to me. We were not overly close back then, but we talked a lot that day about our churches. It was a nice conversation. I had heard about a Call he received recently so I was able to ask him about that too. It was nice to be greeted so kindly by someone, especially since I was feeling a little out of my skin that day for some reason.

Did you know that on our website you can send us a prayer request or note? Just recently, Janis Wendt Risch sent us a note talking about her family and her memories here at Mt. Calvary where she grew up. She even mentioned that her mother helped make some of the church’s vestments. It was such a kind note. It was like the culture of this church had impacted her, and the welcoming community was something she wanted to reconnect with and just send us a note to touch base.

This week we begin a new series called Electing Values Elected. I know all these tenses seem mixed up. In this case, I felt it was important to acknowledge both the past tense (elected) and the present participle (electing). We already elected the values we will discuss this month (past), but we also actively elect to display these values every day (present). As a church, we have said these values are important, but if we don’t keep acting on them, we lose the focus and benefit of them. In our Scripture readings this month, we will spend time in the little books of John (1, 2 & 3 John). Our verse today from 3rd John acknowledges both the special way being welcomed can impact others, but also the impact that not being welcoming can have on a community. We’ll take time to unpack all of this.

In a culture so connected by technology, a human welcome is a pleasant & necessary part of interacting. People notice how a human welcome can touch their lives in so many ways. At Mt. Calvary, acknowledging it and making it a priority it is something God has gifted us with. Now we seek His direction and ask how we can continue to nurture it.

Lutheran Love: Music

I have to admit that I hated pop Christian music. (Notice how I avoided the word “contemporary” because I’m not talking about the music used for worship.) Yes, I said I hated it. I felt like there was a Christian minor league in music that had made it to the majors without someone checking and working out the basics. It was like someone felt bad for these musicians so they were not critiqued with the same expectations of the world. Christian music felt like the kid my parents forced me to play with. Everyone was on a mission to end my enjoyment of a wide variety of music. My confirmation teachers, youth directors, and my dad spent so much time worrying about the CDs in my disc man (a small portable CD player - sorry to the young people that “skipped” this stage). ;) Did they really think that a song or two was going to destroy my thoughts, and therefore make me switch over to the dark side? Maybe if they spent more time teaching techniques to read God’s Word on a daily basis it would have counteracted the evils music was doing to my brain. I was so afraid to become like my mom and uncles who had succumb to the mediocrity of music, and only kept pop Christian music in their cars (sorry mom). I wondered when I would become old, boring, and uncultured like them, and replace all my CD’s with Christian CDs (sorry again mom). My dad got his way though, and broke all my CDs he deemed damaging for my faith life. Trust me, that legalism did nothing to increase my faith.

They did get through to me though. I was convinced that rock and roll was from the devil. I refused to listen to bands with a lot of guitars, and decided that R&B was a safe alternative so I didn’t have to listen only to Christian music. I know, great choice.  It was oh so much better listening to music full of sexual content versus a wider life perspective that was probably sung about in rock and roll.

Before you think I have gone off the deep end, that I’m not choosing my words carefully, or that I need counseling (ok, I do need counseling, and maybe my counselor and I should spend more time on music now that I think about it), let me just say that I am passionate about music. Did you guess that? Music has shaped me into who I am today.  There is a place in life I go to in music unlike any other. In fact, I am listening to music as I write this…and even a few Christian songs came on. ;)

I want to assure you, whether you are reading this and attend Mt. Calvary or another church, your pastor and leadership teams have wrestled with this. No matter their age, and whether the Beatles were from the devil, or Marilyn Manson, or Katy Perry (whose dad is a preacher, I believe, so imagine her personal struggle), they have had to process music. They have had to ask tough questions like what is good for me to listen to, and then an even harder question, what music is best for my congregation? Trust me, it is hard enough to figure out what we want music to look like in our own life without trying to figure out what would be best for a group of people. If you are thinking that the answer is to just use hymns, it is not that simple. I bet I can give you a service full of hymns that would be painful to sing because people don’t know them. Wait, I’ve done that before, just ask the people of Mt. Calvary what happened when I had to pick hymns by myself.

Music is all over scripture, but undefined. It’s funny how God does that. There isn’t a Greek or Hebrew translation of the Bible that gives us a perfect vision of what music we need to be listening to or playing in our churches. I can’t leave a series where we have lifted up the great things about the LCMS without talking about our careful attention to law and gospel to help shape the words in the music we want our people to hear. I remember one song we used to sing during a worship time in college where we consciously changed the words from, “what you have required,” to “what you have desired.” A simple change, but exactly what we are talking about with language. There is danger in a song that includes legalistic action being required for heaven. We don’t want our people to hear and learn that. Music is an important part of our worship service, and it’s beneficial that we wrestle with it and ask what is best for our congregation and the culture surrounding us, alongside of what historically has been the benefit of the music we have used.

A few weeks ago on my drive home from the lake, I set my Apple music station on my iPhone to an old R&B song I used to listen to. This caused me to dive into some of my old favorites, even some I used to listen to on repeat. As an adult, I can admit that maybe some of that music shaped me to have an unhealthy focus on getting married. After years of listening to the sexual content, knowing that it was not right to act on it outside of marriage, my focus became hurry up and get married. This is why teaching and discussion can help us see the pros and the cons of the activities we chose in life, and how it can help or hurt our discipleship walk.

In 2016, pop Christian music has changed dramatically. It has gotten a lot better. There are bands I love. Some of my favorite music is from singer/song writers who are Christian but don’t sign with a Christian label, and therefore they sing about many of life’s topics. My passion for music is something I know God built in me to help our Lutheran and Christian culture wrestle with this topic. I have no clue what music will be in heaven, but I know one thing, it will be there and it is going to rock!