Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Cat of the House

I entered the house the other day and sat down in the living room, which began a chain of events that continues to amaze me.  I am really at a loss to understand it or even rationalize it.  Here's what happens: I walk in the house.  Nancy comes up from downstairs, followed by the cat of the house.  We move to the living room, where I sit on the couch opposite of Nancy so I can visit with her and we both talk about our day.  Meanwhile, the cat of the house saunters over to my right and sits, waiting for the right moment when it can dive under the couch, and begin to sharpen her claws on the underside of the couch.  The only time this cat does this is when I come home and sit on that couch.  It never does it at any other time.  It annoys me to no end.  

And what's more, this cat knows it.  

There's a few things in life that I will never understand.  For example, I don't understand why no one holds politicians accountable to just answering the question in a simple manner.  Usually, answers are vague or redirected.  Why can't they just answer the question?  I will never understand what happened to Preparation A through G.  I wonder how will we ever know when we run out of invisible ink?  Why do we park on driveways and drive on parkways?  And I may never understand why this cat of the house has decided to torture me with her selectively annoying behavior.

I suppose (to be fair to the cat) it's because I haven't "embraced" this cat from day one.  That's probably why the cat has chosen me as the object of her cat hijinks.  I think this cat is being really unfair.  I am the one who does a lot of things for her.  Clean litter box?  Me.  Put fresh water in her dispenser?  Me again.  Make sure food is plenty?  Me, me, me.  This cat does not know how much I help her existence.  And this is how the cat responds to my actions toward her?  As I said - it's so unfair.

Maybe I should just show the cat some affection.  Maybe then the cat would stop annoying me.  

I don't understand why I don't do that. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Exercising Our Right to Vote

I was talking with someone the other day about the upcoming election and he reminded me that I needed to apply for an absentee ballot.  My first thought was "No, I don't think I need to do that - election day is always the second Tuesday in November, isn't it?"  This fellow wouldn't be distracted for me - "No." he said, "it's the first Tuesday in November and remember, you are having your knee replacement on the first Monday, so you will need to get an absentee ballot in order to vote."

He was right.  Thus, for the first time in my life, I voted with an absentee ballot.  My vote has been cast!  My candidate choices are in the book of life.  I believe that this system of selecting our nation's leaders is such an important one for all Americans to participate in.  Designed as a Constitutional Right for all people to select their choices to best lead the nation and local government, some voices were silenced in our national history (women, people of color, etc.).  Today, all people are able to vote and should take that precious moment to exercise their right to be heard.

But how does the Christian select the right candidate?  That's a great question.  Next Monday, October 22 from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m., a program presented by the Minnesota Family Council will try to provide some answers to that question.  It isn't a forum to select any specific candidate, but more of an opportunity for the Christian to shape their choices more easily with their beliefs.  The program is called "Citizenship Worthy of the Gospel" and will be held at Solid Rock church in Worthington, MN.  If you are interested in attending, you can go to this site and register (at no cost).   

I readily support programs like this (when they do not espouse a particular candidate) because they can help to clarify issues that aren't so easily clarified.  Just a reminder: I am not recommending any candidate, party or affiliation - this is only an invitation to hear someone talk about how you might shape your own selection process, without going into any specific details on the values or platforms of any one candidate or party.  

Voting carries that responsibility - to know who we are voting for and why.  

Don't be absent from the process - plan to exercise your right to vote on November 6th.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Walking without Pain

It's hard to imagine my last post was April 30th.  Five and a half months ago - what have I been up to?  Well, where do I begin?  I took on an interim pastor position to assist Adrian United Methodist Church with a change in their pastoral leadership.  I've been working with three congregations (First, Emmanuel, and Adrian UMC) to examine the possibility of forming one church with three sites - that's been busy.  I had my hip replaced in August (and in three weeks, the plan is to have my knee replaced on the same side).  

So, yeah, it's been a little busy.  I had a few moments this morning and decided it was a good time to rekindle the blogging effort again.  

After my hip replacement, I had five weeks of physical therapy.  At the start, the exercises weren't the easiest.  The therapist was really aware of my pain levels and made sure I didn't overextend myself.  I was really glad to have finally addressed the pain that was in my hip, due to "primary osteoarthritis of the left hip" - the medical diagnosis that just means my left hip was always in pain.  I couldn't even swing the golf club properly because I wasn't able to turn my left side.  I haven't played golf since the surgery and probably won't until next spring.  I wonder what that will feel like.

I thought about the therapy and realized that the primary purpose was not only to help me gain strength back in my hip area, but also to relearn how to walk without the gimping motion I had grown so accustomed to.  It was so pronounced that one of my grandsons was copying my gait.  I asked him what he was doing and he said he was walking like me - without the pain, of course.  I swear he said it with a twinkle in his eye.

I call tell you - it isn't the easiest thing to relearn how to do something that seemed so natural.  We learn to walk as infants - the moment we take that first step, we graduate to toddler status.  Over the years our walk is determined by many things... injuries, the aging process, pulled muscles, gravity, weight gain - those sorts of things.  I know my stride has changed over the years.  Now I have to learn how to walk again.  This time, I walk without the pain.

I can only imagine those who walk with a different kind of pain - the pain of broken relationships... the pain of lost faith... the pain of grief and loss... the pain of dashed hopes and dreams.  Is it a given that no matter what precautions we may take or how hard we work to remain healthy, something may come along to challenge us?  Maybe.  We live in a broken world, after all.  But learning how to walk in faith again is just as hard spiritually as it is physically - maybe even harder.  

But there is something about the journey that helps us to grow stronger.  Somehow, at some point, in some way, we relearn how to trust, we rekindle the depths of our faith, we renew our resolve to follow Christ.  True, we need to be in some kind of "therapy" for this to happen - whether it's community, worship, bible study, etc.  

We can learn how to walk upright in faith again.



Monday, April 30, 2018

Before You Speak...

I have to admit that I am a bit naive when it comes to things like news correspondents gathering for purposes like unity and solidarity, which is supposedly what happened last weekend at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in our nation's capitol.  I just don't know that much about this particular event.  From the news reports on this gathering, it sounded pretty divisive.  After reading some of it, it sounded just mean-spirited.  I get the freedom of speech thing.  I do understand that people need to speak out against topics that are wrong and need correcting.  And, further, I wouldn't pretend to stand against anyone who is doing this in an atmosphere of unity and solidarity.

But one listen to the news bite and one look at an article tells me that something else is happening here.  I can appreciate humor and even light sarcasm.  From my understanding about Michelle Wolf's routine at that dinner was that her attempts at humor went beyond those things.  Humor is designed to be amusing - provoking laughter in those who are there to hear it.  I think that humor is supposed to help make others feel joy and be able to laugh at the things that life throws at us.  I'm not convinced that Wolf's humor accomplished that - I listened to some of her monologue.  I never once thought any of it was humorous.  At all.  

Just to be fair, I think this incident is more symptomatic of the culture we are now living in.  We live in a society that allows for free speech - no problem with that.  But our nation's leadership (including the president) have taken that right and expanded upon it to say anything they want to say without any repercussions.  It's not just one person, it's become the cultural norm.  We have the means to communicate instantly with anyone in the world through our cell phones, our Facebook and Twitter accounts.  We can and do have the right to say whatever we desire.

But just because we have that right, doesn't mean we have to exercise it.  We have to realize that we have a responsibility to one another when we do decide to exercise it.  Personally, I don't need to know what our leaders are thinking every single moment of every single day.  I much rather prefer to see the results of what our leaders are thinking by their actions.  Let your actions speak louder than your words.  If the reverse is the norm, then it's my belief that there is a lot of noise that is out there that muddies up the waters and feeds into the discontent in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  

Here's how Paul puts it: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29)  If we think that this cultural speech thing is a recent occurrence, we are not paying attention.  It is part of the human condition.  Our humanity has always had this as a dynamic.  What is different in this day and age is that these comments come to us much more quickly in a much more raw and uncut state.  There is no filter, nor any moral compass that guides a tongue that is not building others up but tries to accomplish the opposite.

My hope is that all persons will remember to think before they speak.  Words are powerful.  Let's use them in a manner that raises the bar instead of lowering it.  Before you speak... think.

Friday, April 27, 2018

A Changing World...

I was thinking about how much our lives have changed in the past 25-30 years (maybe even shorter).  When I was in Italy, I was watching the Minnesota Wild playing against the Colorado Avalanche - live.  No kidding!  Through the miracle of Internet and fast connections and Dish Network, I was watching the game on my smartphone.  I know I would not have imagined that I could have been doing that back when I graduated in the early 70's. 

I think it is remarkable that I can FaceTime with my daughter who lives on the other side of the planet and it's like she is right there.  There isn't any delay in the signal.  It's really amazing and remarkable - there is no other way to put it.  

So keeping that in mind, yesterday Amazon delivered our automatic quarterly shipment of PetSafe ScoopFree self-cleaning cat litter box tray refills with non-clumping crystal litter, the 3-Pack size.  I know a while ago I wrote about the cat in our house.  Well, I know a cat has needs.  A litter box is one of them.  I have to tell you, this invention has saved this cat's existence in this house.

I'm sorry, that's extreme.  The cat would be here if we didn't have this remarkable invention.  

Let me tell you what it does (according to the product description):  It absorbs urine and dries solid waste for 5x better odor control than clumping clay litters; it is low-tracking and 99% dust-free; it has a texture your cats will love with smaller granular litter that is softer on your cat's paws (that must be worth it right there); it has a disposable, leak-proof tray with lid for a quick, hygienic cleanup (I can attest to that); it uses 5-10x less litter than clay or clumping litter; and finally, one litter tray can last up to 30 days in a single cat household.  I'm just glad our cat doesn't invite any of her kitty friends over for a sleepover... wait, our cat doesn't have any kitty friends.

We've had cats in the past.  We had one cat named Whiskers.  We had her for about 15 years.  Whiskers and I understood each other.  She ruled the house and I understood that.  We didn't have this new-fangled technology litter box back then.  I still changed her litter box and it was never fun.  Never.  But I did it because Whiskers respected the fact that I understood her rule and reign.

I'm not saying that changing this litter box is loads of fun, but it is easier.  It's relatively clean.  There isn't any smell.  I simply put the cover on the used tray and toss it in the trash bin.  Simple.  

I guess this cat and I have an understanding as well.  She knows she rules the house, and I have a hard time understanding why.  But, I still change the cat's litter box.  I'm waiting for the respect to kick in.

It is a "changing" world, that's for certain.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Best Picture... Ever!

There are a lot of crazy things out on the Internet these days, some of which are designed to make us laugh and simply have fun communicating with one another.  There are the goofy math puzzles where you are supposed to add two monkeys with one bicycle times three pitchers to see what answer you get.  I can't even count how many posts are sent that you are supposed to like and send on otherwise your identity as a Christian is suspect.  And then, we have the inevitable "do you remember..." sites that show a gadget from years past that if you know it, dates you from the younger crowd who is using Facebook as a connective tissue between them and the world as they know it.

All designed for fun and enjoyment.  But there is one thing I've seen on Facebook which is dangerous and that is the site where you can link to and take one of your pictures and with one click, the site will make your picture look like a movie star.  If you don't believe it, then check out the images to the right.  I went to this site only to prove my point (which I really don't know what that point is yet).  I downloaded the top picture and within a few moments the bottom picture was shown.  I was supposed to then share it with all of my Facebook friends as a way of saying "Look at me - with some kind of extreme makeover, this is what I could look like!"

Really?  That was not going to happen.

Here's why this is dangerous to me: the picture that was created for me is so unrealistic it's not even funny!  It takes a normal picture (which isn't too terribly bad in its own right) and with a few brush strokes and concealers and highlighters creates a different person.  I don't even know that guy in the bottom frame.  It's dangerous because it paints an unrealistic look that does not value my existing appearance - does that make sense?

I wonder if somewhere, out there, someone wants to know - "Do you want to look like that?  You can, you know, if you just do the right things and have enough money to get it done."  What does that say for my normal, everyday appearance?  It certainly doesn't value it.

The normal picture of me is just fine, thank you very much, with all of my wrinkles and my flaws.  My eyes are not that blue.  My teeth are not that white.  I'm not perfect, like the bottom picture seems to present.  I wouldn't disagree that it might be a nice look, but it isn't me!  The created picture even makes my receding hairline look terrific!  Good grief!

I'm pretty comfortable with who I am and how I look.  Maybe I should be grateful for a site like this because I can look at a created mug shot and still appreciate who I am and how God has put me together.  I am okay with my appearance because it's who I am... with all of my flaws and imperfections.

That's really the best picture ever - how God has made us into the image of the Divine!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Snow Removal

A few days ago, I wrote a lament about spring not really being spring so far this year (or something like that).  The last four weekends we have had some kind of winter disturbance - Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, last Sunday and now this Sunday.  

I don't have to tell you that this is getting old.


I like to keep my driveway nice and clear - and it helps when we have warmer weather that keeps it that way.  However, it doesn't really help your positive outlook when the normal weather pattern that is supposed to be rain with much warmer temperatures has been consistently colder with snow all over the place.  We cancelled church worship this morning because parking was an issue, the streets were not cleaned, visibility was problematic in the country, and people just need time to clear their driveways.  A lot of churches cancelled worship today.  I wonder if they are as tired of the weather as we are.

I had some time to think today while clearing the driveway.  I'm always in the market for a terrific sermon illustration and the recent weather has provided the perfect one.  

What if we looked at removing snow as the ideal comparison to making the pathway of life smooth and clear?  There will always be obstacles - barriers that need to be removed or, at the very least, navigated in order to maneuver through those challenges.  Sometimes faith is the snow shovel that does it.  It isn't always the easiest thing to rely on your faith when the challenges seem so heavy.  It's hard when the challenges are like the wet, heavy snow.  I will always believe that faith will make the way clear, but there are times when it taxes our faith.  And if life in faith is anything like today's weather - relentless and seemingly never-ending - it requires a faith that can stand up to it.  

So, as I see it, we need to continue to find ways to strengthen our faith.  Worship.  Prayer.  Study.  Fellowship.  Just some of the keys to keep your pathway in life clear of all the cold and frozen stuff that gets in the way.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Playing with Cats

My wife thinks that I really like our latest cat.  She points as evidence that I play with the cat and the cat loves to play with me.  I have this laser pointed that keeps the cat going for a long time.  For some reason, the cat never is able to snag the red laser light (it never gets old).  The cat will even jump up on the wall in order to try and capture the light.  Then there are a few moments when I will try to spin the cat (I don't think the cat likes it).  Sometimes the cat will get the better of me and catch me with a well placed claw or two.  Because of these two things, my wife really believes that I like having the cat around. 

She couldn't be more wrong.  

Actually, I'm just really trying to bug the cat so it will leave me alone.  But I'm not sure that my strategy is working.  Cats are annoying.  When I come home, I don't need (I don't want) a cat purring like a motorboat and wrapping its tail around my ankles.  It's unnerving.  I just want to sit quietly in my chair and not have to be concerned that a certain feline is going to take a swipe at my feet because they've been bored all day. 

Perhaps I should go back to the day when the official contract was made to allow this cat to co-exist with me in my dwelling.  Here's what I heard: you won't need to do anything.  You won't even know the cat is around.  You won't need to take care of it.

I knew at the time that this was not going to happen.  I've been around.  I know the score.  Even though we got one of those fancy self-cleaning litter trays, someone stills needs to change it and empty it.  Yup, that's right - I do that.  

Look, I'm willing to say that this cat is a good companion for my wife.  The cat loves her.  When my wife comes home, the cat cannot get enough of her.  That's the kind of cat I don't mind having around!  And I don't want you to misunderstand me - I'm not an animal hater.  I just want to view them from a distance.  Let them be another person's pet - I'm good with that.

I read once that cats have never been mentioned in the Bible and they've never forgotten that.  Maybe that's true.  By the way, my wife's cat does have a name - it's Ruby.  She calls her Ruby Tuesday after our favorite restaurant.  I just call her "the cat" - no need to get too attached.

It's bad enough I have to be reminded we have a cat whenever we go out to eat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Walking the Walk

I have really resisted the temptation to write about anything political.  There's a good reason for that - I just don't believe I am qualified to make any statements or judgments about what may be happening in our nation's capitol or our political system.  There are always two sides of any story and usually, the truth lies somewhere in between the two.  That is just one reason why I have elected to remain silent regarding what happens in Washington D.C. - there may be other reasons, but that is the main one.

In writing that, I don't mean to suggest that I don't have an opinion on what I've heard and seen on anything that has happened on the political landscape.  I do have a strong opinion on what I feel is happening.  The tricky part is this: I can hold to my beliefs and my opinions and let everyone think that I am a pretty wise fellow, or I can write about them and remove all doubt with respect to me being wise.

I am a person who wants to pay attention to the process, not necessarily the content.  In other words, I'm always watching and listening to see how things are done, not necessarily why or even what.  When it comes to those who lead our country, I pay attention to how they lead - how they phrase things, how they carry themselves, how they project their image of who they aspire to be.  What is being said is important, but how it is being said is equally significant.  Let me give you an example of what I mean by this...

...yesterday, a number of concerned clergy met at the local Pizza Ranch to discuss the very sensitive topic of illegal immigrants and the possibility of deportation if certain documentation has not been met.  We had a handful of Hispanic persons from the community included in the conversation.

The primary concern seemed to be what can we (the faith community) do to prepare for the day when families lose the main breadwinner of their home to deportation, which is a very real fear and valid concern.  We didn't discuss whether or not this was the right thing to do (according to our nation's laws and policies, this action seems logical and yes, the right thing to do).  No one was speaking against that.  Our conversation ebbed and flowed along the lines of support for families - for spouses and children who may be left behind because of the illegality of the situation.  How would they survive in the aftermath of losing their main income and source of strength of their parent(s)?

As we spoke, we were briefly interrupted by a distinguished looking, well-dressed man who came into our room.  He introduced himself as Rep. Tim Walz, who represents the citizens of Minnesota's 1st District.  He was meeting with the public in one of the other rooms when he learned that area pastors and concerned persons were meeting and discussing this hotbed issue.  He politely asked if he could say a few words and when granted the floor, began to speak on how this is a huge matter that he (and Congress) has yet to be able to solve.  He said some things that made sense and like any good politician, he didn't make any promises that he wasn't ready to keep.

I was watching his body language.  He appeared genuine in what he was saying.  At times, when he was listening, his hands were folded in front of him as in a humble manner - almost a prayerful manner.  His voice was firm, clear, and resolute.  When Rep. Walz left the room, I was left with the clear impression that he had heard what was offered in the room by concerned Hispanics and pastors alike.  It wasn't necessarily his words that impressed me, it was how he carried himself.  It was how he presented his ideas and what he supported.  I paid attention to his process.

As a quick addendum, our group has elected to meet again with the primary objective to explore how we can be prepared to help children (many of whom are citizens of the United States by their birth in America) whose parent(s) lives may be impacted by any deportation measures.  We want to pay attention to what our process is by how we act toward them.  In part, this is an important issue for me because of my Christian identity.  I want to ask the question "what process would Jesus use?  How would he walk in this situation?"  Not only do I want to ask the question, I want to show the answer by how I do things.  I can't just talk about these important issues - I must walk the walk.

I wonder if these children are paying attention to our process of how we choose to walk that walk.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Five Things...

I see them all over the place.  

5 things your church can do to increase attendance.  
5 ways to increase church membership.  
5 things your church should do.  
5 things your church should not do.  
5 things that won't make your church grow.  
5 things church should be about.  
5 things your church should not be about.  
5 things that young people are looking for in your church.  (Funny, I never see the one that says 5 things that old people are looking for in your church.)

Seriously, in any one of these are there really only five things?  I see these articles all over.

I don't read them.  Maybe I should, but I just have a hard time thinking that there are five easy answers that will make our churches or our lives the best that they can be.  Maybe I'm just old school.  I was taught that there are a few things you can do (as a pastor) that will help you be effective - really, there was only three things.

Those three things are the key to effective ministry no matter who is or who isn't in your congregation on a Sunday morning.  They aren't rocket science.  They don't include any fancy technological know-how.  They are a just simple set of keys that, if followed, pastoral leaders, business tycoons, teachers, administrators, labor leaders, directors, and anyone who aspires to inspire people stand a great chance at being effective in their leadership if they focus on these three simple things.

Write these down - three things that if you do them will help make your ministry and your life shine: 1) love the people; 2) love the people; 3) love the people.  Do these things in that order. 

That's it.  

Now, I realize you will need some basic items in your repertoire - things like love the Lord, follow God's Word, be a servant and some other things like that.  But those three things are biblical truth and again, if followed, they can help you be as successful as any five things these leadership pundits can come up with.

Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything negative about looking at lists of five things to make your church, your business, or your life better.  I'm just sayin' that you'll be ahead of the game if you do the three things first.  If they aren't there, no five things are going to be effective anyway.

Just sayin'...

Friday, April 6, 2018

Where Is Spring?

I've seen so many Facebook posts on the recent weather situation we've been experiencing here in the great Northland and none of them are complementary toward winter.  As a lifelong northerner, I think I can speak with authority for those who actually love winter.  We enjoy the snowfall.  We deal with the wind chills.  We don't even mind blowing snow... for the most part.  Our traditions like Christmas and New Year's don't feel right if Old Man Winter isn't involved somehow.  Truth is, when you live in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin - the Upper Midwest - you learn to love the winter.  Maybe coexist with winter is a better phrase.  

But, really.  Enough is enough.  Palm Sunday brought five inches of wet snow.  It's been brutally cold this entire week.  This morning's temperature is 14 above - with the windchill, it's 7 below.  And it doesn't appear to be letting up just yet.  One more go around on Sunday and Monday with a snow storm zipping through our area - another 1 to 4 inches.  I know spring is somewhere out there... beneath the pale moonlight.  So, c'mon, man!  What's the deal?

Every so often, someone will ask me if there is any pull that I have with the powers that be to change the weather.  I know they are joking - kind of.  No one's asked me that question recently, but it does make me wonder.  How interested is God in our weather patterns and ability or non-ability to deal with them?  

As I did a bit of looking at this, there are some interesting discoveries.  Such as the connection between bad weather and God's judgment on humankind.  Or the times when prayers seem to go unanswered in the midst of climate calamity and distress.
I believe these are valid questions for us to ask.  I have always held to the belief that it is perfectly acceptable and right to ask the tough questions that life sometimes presents to us as long as we are prepared for not receiving an answer we might be preconditioned to expect.  We can make lighthearted conversation about the weather, but we realize that there are other personal storms of life that people are experiencing - illness, relationship issues, financial crisis, loss of hope - you name it.  When it comes to trying to figure out why bad things happen to us, we are sometimes at a loss.  I've never had someone come up to me and ask "why are good things happening to me?" - it's always the reverse.

A prolonged winter is annoying and makes for good conversation about our rugged nature.  I would hope the same could be said for how we deal with the challenges of life when it comes to putting our faith on the line.  For a prolonged illness... an unanswered prayer... a crisis of confidence... a loss of hope... failure to thrive... financial worries... raising children in today's uncertain world... losing faith.  Any one of these and more can force us to ask the tough questions, looking for positive answers.  

I trust that God is ever present, ever mindful, ever gracious, and ever knowing our needs.  I trust that God understands our situation more than we could ever know.  And this trust propels me forward to be able to live with peace and joy, no matter what the climate is doing.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Back Home Again

Now that I've been back in the United States for almost one week, I am just now adjusting back to the time zone and the jet lag is not a factor.  The past week has been a tough one, though, having to prepare for Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and dealing with the drastic weather change (85 plus in Israel to 13 above yesterday).  Like all good Midwesterners, I've adjusted and adapted.  I'm good - even the mini-cold that I came down with on Tuesday hasn't lingered.  

I wonder if that's because my wife has been making sure I'm taking the proper medications.  The other night I was a bit cold and shaky and I asked her if she would bring me a couple of Mucinex tablets to help curb the stuffiness.  She wondered why I didn't take them sooner as she brought the meds to me.  In truth, I was completely spent.  I took the tablets hoping that they would work.

I'm not certain they did anything.  In fact, my wife told me the next day that she had given me some of her menopausal vitamins by mistake.  Great.  At least, I'm not having any hot flashes, so I got that going for me, which is nice.

I've been thinking about the entire trip and how special it was.  I learned a lot about Italy and Israel.  If I were to point out to one thing that I learned above all others, it would be the physicality of Jesus and the disciples.  The hills they scaled were huge.  The distances they traveled between towns was noteworthy.  Scripture doesn't really tell us about how they were tired or how they made it from one place to another.  I would love to know how that went for them.  

Maybe my own physical condition impacted what I discovered.  My left hip and both of my knees have a mild arthritic condition - more than likely will need to be replaced in the near future.  The extensive walking I did during the trip had to impact how I saw the disciples dealing with their travel.  

Related to that, I'm ever more aware of the physical stamina Jesus needed to have just to get to Jerusalem.  If you read the text, Jesus was with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, which is about 105 miles from Jerusalem.  After speaking with them about his identity, he set his sights on traveling to Jerusalem.  We could drive from there to Jerusalem easily in under two hours.  Walking the terrain that they had to walk would have taken them some time - perhaps five days or a week depending upon the stops along the way.  

I guess what it means for me is this - heading into the most difficult challenge Jesus would face, he had to be physical taxed already.  For me, the fact that he still did this when he could very well have been tired is important.  He didn't allow anything to stand in his way.  

Just knowing that is possible means even more because he never gave up on us.  He could have taken a different path at any step along the way, but he didn't.  I am so grateful for that and it makes me even more determined to not allow my own situation or condition get in the way of serving others.  

We may have to take a few painkillers along the way (or some vitamins), but knowing that the Lord is with us every step of the way matters.  It matters a lot.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Taking Just a Moment

We just got back today from our epic journey to Italy and the Holy Land and I'm back in the office, getting ready for tonight's service.  I thought I would take just a moment to reflect on today.  As far as important days go in the life of the church, today is one of the most important.  

It's Good Friday, the day when Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world (read here to find out one explanation of why it's called Good Friday).  It is a day to remember with reverence what took place just outside of Jerusalem on that difficult day nearly two thousand years ago.

Here's the thing that I'm wondering about: if we celebrate the excitement of Palm Sunday and don't take any opportunity to reflect on what took place on either Holy Thursday or Good Friday, we're missing a major part of the celebration story of resurrection.  I'm not posting this as a rant against persons who haven't done that reflection - sometimes life just get busy and it is a hard thing to be able to set aside time to reflect on the importance of this day.  Certainly I understand how life goes... this isn't about that.

What it is about is being able to realize that if there is no Good Friday, then there is no Easter Sunday.  

Just take a moment to ponder what that means.  We cannot have Easter Sunday if there is no Good Friday.  If (and this is a big if for all of us) - if we have taken a moment, just a moment, to pause and be reverent for what that means, then the true significance of the price Jesus paid more than likely makes it a tougher day.  After all, he paid the price for our sins - even if we think we've never done anything wrong.  Jesus paid it all.

I hope you'll just take this moment to pause - just a moment - to reflect on what that means.  Good Friday is here - yes - and Sunday is comin'...

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

When in Rome...

After traveling from Tel Aviv to Rome on Monday, Nancy and I made the trip with Erin back to Rome on Tuesday.  We arrived here in the early evening with our only agenda item being a five hour tour of the Vatican on Wednesday.  I was really looking forward to finding out more about the central location for all things Catholic.  In the afterglow of discovering more about all things Jewish and the beginnings of Christianity, I've been trying to process all of the things that I've learned and seen.  This might take a bit more than a few days.

We scheduled a cab to pick us up and drive us to the USO in Rome, the organization that supports our military women and men by providing many sponsored events that help Americans stay connected while they are stationed in foreign lands.  The tour we were about to embark upon was sponsored and set up by the USO.  The cab arrived on time and we were on our way.  

One thing I had rarely (if ever) experienced in the U.S. was a cab ride or a Uber ride.  When we arrived in Tel Aviv, we were picked up by the nicest driver - David was his name.  He was talkative and made us feel welcome and safe in our journey to the Middle East.  The ride back to the airport wasn't the same - no warm, fuzzy experience here.  The driver did not say one word on the 40 mile trip from the Garden Tomb to Ben Gurion Airport.  It wasn't a very comfortable ride.

With that background, we were headed to the Vatican with an Italian speaking cab driver.  No words were offered.  I began to wonder if the language barrier was the primary issue.  That makes sense when you think about it.  As I sat in the front seat, I just wanted to get there safe and sound.  Then something happened that broke the barriers.  The driver reached down and offered me and everyone else a small wrapped candy.  I expected it to be candy or some exotic Italian chocolate.  How nice of this non-English speaking cab driver to break the ice by offering the worlds most universal and perfect food.  I was impressed.  It literally took my breath away.

It did take my breath away because I wasn't an exotic candy or chocolate - turns out, it was a menthol cough drop.

I didn't dare spit it out because I didn't want to offend the driver.  All the way to the USO office, I sat in the front seat with a cough drop in my mouth.  This world is such a strange world sometimes.

The Vatican holds many pieces of religious art and sculptures that tell the story or God's love for all people.  That really surprised me.  We walked through room after room looking at paintings that were over a thousand years old from famous artists like da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo - to name a few.  The pinnacle of our visit was being able to walk into the Sistine Chapel.  When I walked through the sanctuary door, it was the second time today that I had my breath taken away.

The story of how Michelangelo painted the ceiling was told to us before we went in.  I just had no idea how impressive his work would be.  The one particular panel that caught my eye was the center one, the creation of Adam panel where God is reaching to touch man's finger.  I instantly recognized the panel because I saw it in one of the most moving praise songs that I have sung, The Majesty and the Glory.  I've mentioned this before and I'm not afraid to say it again - that song always touches my heart, reminding me of my own humility at the same time how much God loves me for who I am.  Even in my weakest moments.  Even in my darkest nights.  Even in my failed attempts to demonstrate faith.  

In all of these things, I know that I am loved.

Knowing that really takes my breath away.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked: Palm Sunday

Morning broke over the Holy Land and blue skies were everywhere.  How could it be otherwise?  It was Palm Sunday and our tour group was ready to go to the Mount of Olives for the event of a lifetime: taking part in the Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem.  The weather did not disappoint and neither did the procession.  Palm Sunday in Jerusalem was everything that we thought it could be and more!


We needed to get there early because of the sheer number of people taking part.  There was no possible way to tell how big that number was, but it was a lot!  We weren't the first ones getting ready - others had already shown up.  For us, the route began at the Church at Bethpage on the Mount of Olives.  It would mirror the route that Jesus had taken nearly 2000 years ago.  That would be impossible today because of the many houses and streets that have been built up since then.  The route would take the procession down the Mount of Olives past the Garden of Gethsemane and up into the Old City of Jerusalem, stopping finally at St. Anne's Church.  Our tour guide told us we would be bowing out after half of that journey.  Turns out, that was great news!  


As the 2:30 p.m. start time grew closer, more and more people began to show up.  There were people from so many nations - Germany, Africa, Asia, America, Israel - just to name a few.  Many came dressed with the same colors to identify themselves (we wore our lime green baggage straps with pride - they also helped to keep us together!)  Many brought musical instruments - guitars, drums, singers.  Many had palm branches and if they didn't have one, the local Israeli boys were only to happy to sell them one - never mind that it was a torn off branch from an olive tree.

Many of us had never seen anything like this.  Once the procession began, we waited for the first few "official groups" to pass by - boy scouts, girls scouts and other local groups.  Then we joined the procession.  We held tightly to each other, weaving our way through the procession like a religious conga line.  In front of us a delegation from Germany was singing "10,000 Reasons" in German - we sang it in English.  Halfway up the first hill, a group from Africa had moved in behind us and provided some very cool music for us to sing along with and dance to (if we felt like dancing).  You can hear them in this video we posted on our church YouTube site.  Palm branches were waving everywhere.  Every so often we would see an Israeli police officer or an Army soldier or two - we felt very safe in that wonderful, chaotic moment.

People were so nice all along the way - it was as though any differences that might exist between countries or nations or religions just fell away.  Everyone was there for one reason: to celebrate the King of kings!

I'm not certain that the full impact of what we experienced has set in yet.  We were all exhausted, but in a good way.  Still weary from the procession, we sat in restful silence in our bus ride back to the hotel.  Through the help of our tour guide, Moshe, we were able to upload a couple of videos for the First UMC worship service - I heard that everything went well.

We leave Israel tomorrow - one final stop at the Garden Tomb and then Erin and I travel to Tel Aviv ahead of the rest of the group as we return to Rome.  It's been an amazing trip - one that I would recommend to anyone in the future (Vicki is planning another tour in 2020 - put it on your prayer calendar as you consider what it might be like to be transformed!)  One comment shared by one of our group was especially meaningful - I'm paraphrasing "All the things that all the ministers have tried to teach me all make sense now.  It's been better than any Bible study I could have taken."

More to come as I put my weary feet up and get some rest.  I appreciate your willingness to travel with me these past few days and your prayerful support as we walked in the places where Jesus walked.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Six

Today's travel schedule was really a prelude to the big event we've been moving toward all week: the Palm Sunday procession.  We met this morning on the top of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane and opposite of the famous picture of the city of Jerusalem.  After enjoying 80 to 90 degree weather all week, we were brutally introduced to the high winds and sudden shifts of temperature and climate that Jerusalem can offer.  It was terrifically windy and of course, cold.  We were huddled masses, I'll tell you (I'm remembering a quote from my daughter when I complained about the cold wind near the Syrian/Israeli border - "Suck it up, buttercup - you're from Minnesota".  Yeah, she set me straight - I was okay after that.)

When I say we got a prelude to tomorrow's procession, I mean a prelude - it was a bit like it's going to be but nothing like it's going to be.  There were a lot of groups there this morning, rehearsing and preparing for the main event tomorrow.  Many nations.  Many denominations.  Many difference expressions and levels of faith.  All there to celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  The pathway was steep and the high winds, cold and misting rain didn't help at all.  But it hasn't dampened our spirits as we prepare for the highlight of our trip.  

I'm planning on sending a video to First United Methodist Church's YouTube channel, so tune in there to view it (sometime after 10:30 a.m. tomorrow morning).  We are trying to coordinate sending our video feed to this site and we hope it will work before worship at 10:30 a.m.  You can go that site anytime and subscribe to the channel - no cost, just the time it takes to connect.  Hopefully it will send a notice that says the video has been uploaded.

We visited some other important sights and locations, but the one that was most meaningful to me was St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem - right by the Pools of Bethesda.  I stood outside of the church, wondering about the story of the man that Jesus healed by telling him to take up his mat and walk (which he did and he was healed).  I couldn't help but selfishly think about my own physical situation.  We've been walking an awful lot here in the Holy Land.  I've been diagnosed with a mild form of arthritis in both knees and now my left hip.  Some days it's been painful.  Sometimes it's okay.  I really wondered what it would be like to be completely healthy again - I know, it was selfish on my part.  But don't you think it's natural to wonder about such things when you are standing on such a meaningful location, wondering what it must have been like?  

Later that evening, I heard one of our group talking about the challenges of walking.  Her husband struggles with chronic pain, similar to mine.  But his comment to her was "I need to suck it up..." [what is it with Minnesota people and sucking it up?] "...because it's just a little bit of pain compared to what Jesus did for me."  

He was so right.  What a jerk I am for thinking about my own needs when Jesus sacrificed his very life for what should really be mine.  And yet, that's why Jesus came - yes, for people who wonder about being healed and one day will be.  I can be more than okay with that knowledge.

We were inside the church (St. Anne's) when Erin [my daughter] sang one verse which really speaks to the above.  I was glad to hear her sing again.  It did a great deal to help me work through my own pain - lame as it may be.  Listen to her here and I wonder if you won't agree.

I can deal with my physical pain because it is well with my soul.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Five

I'm conflicted about how to share where we visited today and what it all means.  Let me explain: we started off the morning being the first group at Vad Yashem - the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.  We walked through the center and heard stories from the survivors of the World War II event that shook the Jewish people and the world.  It was a deeply moving experience, especially since most of these stories were told by older adults who were just children at the time. 

The most poignant moment of the tour was walking through the Children's Memorial, an underground cavern that takes only five lit candles and through positioning of mirrors transforms them into a starlit sky of 1.5 million lights, each representing each child who was a holocaust victim.  As I walked through the memorial, a calm voice chanted the names of each child.  It will take the voice over seven months to say all of the names of the children who were killed during that horrific time.  So many children.  So many innocents.  So senseless.  So tragic.

That is how we started our day.  Every one of our group was silenced by what we heard - what we saw - what we felt.  While many of us had parents who understood the impact the holocaust made, we could only respond from a distance in years.  It made me feel helpless.  Powerless.  I wanted to help those children, but knew that I wasn't able to.  Vicki Tiede, our tour leader, challenged us to consider speaking out whenever we see injustice in our communities and the world.  Seems like such as small thing to ask when you consider the magnitude of what happened during that terrible era.  Yet such a small thing is sometimes the hardest thing we might ever do. 

After leaving that location, we visited the Israel Museum where a model scale replica of the Old City of Jerusalem was built.  It was an amazing look at what the city possibly looked like right around Jesus' time.  The detail was amazing.  After the short ride from the Holocaust experience to this one, we were forced to move on from the emotional heartbreak to a more neutral position of learning.  We saw the Dead Sea Scrolls and learned how they were preserved, giving authority to God's Holy Word as those documents provide authentication.

Then the focus of the day changed.  We went to a Jerusalem marketplace.  Wow!  What a location.  It was literally bedlam!  There were foods of every kind.  Shops with bakery goods.  Clothing stores and places that sold every kind of nut imaginable.  The people were just as varied.  All shapes - all sizes - all colors - all ages.  Every one (except me) seemed to know exactly where they were going.  The memories of tragedies of long ago began to fade.  Erin and I stopped in a candy store and purchased 12 ($4) shekels worth of various kinds.  Then it was on to Bethlehem and the West Bank, Palestinian occupied territory. 

In some ways, we were reminded of the strife that gripped our imaginations earlier in the day.  We heard that most Palestinians just want to care for their families.  Just like the Israelis who just want to be safe and make sure no one group will ever persecute them again.  We were riding along a narrow road (what am I talking about, all the roads are narrow!) when a car was trying to pass our bus on the left while coming down a hill.  The car didn't see the car ahead and we heard brakes screeching and the sound of metal, plastic and glass in a collision that took place right at the back of our bus.  We looked back and saw the two drivers, getting out so they must have been okay.  I can't believe they were very happy though.

Our last two stops for today were the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd's Fields.  There were hundreds of people waiting to make the trip down the stairs to see the grotto where Jesus was held by his mother Mary as she placed him in the manger.  This was a very cool place, even though we were there in March.  After about an hour long wait, we were each able to reach down and touch the place where the baby Jesus was laid in the manger. 

A little later we listened to our tour leader share a devotion while we were at Shepherd's Fields - a location believed to be the place where the shepherds were frightened by the angels but left to make the four mile trip to the manger, to see the child who would save the world.  We sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem" on that hillside so far away from our homes, our traditions, our families.

I realize many of the children who perished in the Holocaust were Jews, but I have a hope that Jesus was right there with them when their lives were tragically ended at such a young age.  I have this hope because of the covenant the Jews still have through Abraham - "I will be your God and you will be my people" says the Lord. 

The child of Bethlehem has come to give every one hope - children who may have lost hope, marketplace participants who wander about looking for something in life, people who lives collide in momentary crashes, people who are just tending to their own business on the hillsides of their lives.

The Child of Bethlehem gives each one of them (and you and me) a reason to hope.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Four

We entered into the busy streets of Jerusalem, riding our bus and listening to the music of "The Holy City" (a traditional song that is usually offered when pilgrims enter Jerusalem).  After days of scaling steps of unearthed settlements and cities, walking along pathways where Jesus and his disciples walked nearly two thousand years ago, and traveling from the northern most part of Israel to the southern part of the parameters of old Israel, we had arrived.  We are now in Jerusalem.

Our tour will take us to some key places in the next few days: Bethlehem, several locations in Jerusalem that tell its history, and of course, the entrance into the Holy City on Palm Sunday.  We being told that experience is going to be fantastic, with thousands of followers from all over the world joining the procession.  Each nationality and religion will have its own identity, their own songs of "Hosanna!" and they will bring large numbers to the joyful throng.  

"Hosanna!"  It is a joyful sounding word and it is meant to be exactly that.  The people were so excited and thrilled that Jesus was finally in Jerusalem and now, really great things were bound to happen.  So many stories of power, wisdom, and teaching that this could finally be that Messiah to come and save the people, which is really what the word "Hosanna!" means.  "Save us, please!  Save us!"  The key point in this Palm Sunday story about Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem is focused on salvation, but salvation from what?  

We all know the people expected Jesus to save them from the oppression of the Romans.  They wanted their freedom back.  They didn't want the Romans in their faces any longer.  It was time for them to head back to Rome and if anyone had the power to do that, it had to be Jesus.  

But of course, we also know that isn't why he came.  It wasn't to save the people from Roman oppression, but to save them from the oppression that sin creates in us.  He came to overcome something to be sure, but that something was related to each and every soul in that procession on that day and for every single person since then including today.  

He came to overcome death.  You see, the penalty for sins is death.  Jesus is the only one who had the power to overcome that penalty.  So it isn't salvation from Roman oppression.  It isn't reclaiming a sense of power or freedom from an outside country.  It is all about restoring a relationship that had been broken at the dawn of creation - restoring a right relationship with God - and it affects every one.  No one is exempt.

Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.  No doubt our tour group will be shouting our "Hosannas" to the King, waving our branches in the air.  For me (and perhaps for you) my shouts will be to save me from the oppression of my sins, because only God knows how much salvation I need - we all need - in that area.  Even as I write these words, I hear the sirens of emergency vehicles twice within the past hour, racing to help others in the holiest city in the world.  Everybody needs saving.

"Hosanna - save us, Lord, please save us!"

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Three

Today our group made a trek from the Sea of Galilee to the northern most reaches of Israel.  We ended up about two miles from the Syrian border at an Israeli memorial site for soldiers who lost their lives in a 1973 battle to protect Israel from Syrian invasion.  Our tour guide engaged us in a fascinating conversation regarding the history of the region and why Israel is such a source of interest with respect to rival nations.  

So there we were - two miles from a country that is currently involved in a civil war - a country that despises Israel - a country that doesn't care for any allies that Israel has, like the United States.  Even though that might have been a little disconcerting to think about, add to that the presence of an Israeli troop of soldiers who were preparing the site for a commemoration of the event and a memorial to the soldiers.  The Israeli soldiers gave us a little breathing space when they sent a drone camera right over our heads, looking down at us.  When we waved at it, they burst out in laughter.  It helped to defray an otherwise tense moment.  If these soldiers who were in harms way were not concerned about being two miles from the Syrian border, then why should we?

The thing that impressed me about today's theme was the number of wars and skirmishes and disputes Israel has had to deal with over thousands of years.  We can believe that Israel's geographically strategic position is key for some of its unruly neighbors who don't have access to water.  It's a valid point.  But I wonder if the battle hasn't been one of a spiritual nature - and continues to be.  Let me say a bit more...

We were at Caesarea Philippi just before traveling to the border.  This location is mentioned in scripture as a place that Jesus and his disciples came to just before heading toward Jerusalem.  This location was a place where the residents were not God followers.  They worshipped the god Pan.  The city, which sits at the foot of Mount Hermon, butts up against a large cliff, referred to as the ‘Rock of the Gods’, in reference to the many shrines built against it.  Shrines to Caesar, Pan and another god (possibly the fertility goddess Nemesis) were all built up against this cliff. 

In the center of the Rock of the Gods is a huge cave, from which a stream flowed (after 19th century earthquakes, the stream began flowing out from the rock beneath the mouth of the cave).  This cave was called the “Gates of Hades”, because it was believed that Baal would enter and leave the underworld through places where water came out of it.

Jesus asked the disciples to tell him who do people say that he was.  After their response, Jesus asked them who they say he was.  Peter said he was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  The verse following that one is telling... here is what Jesus said to Peter: 
"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." - Matthew 16:18.  
We can take that to mean that in that location, Jesus is defying the gods of the world and saying they will never win.  Can you see the spiritual battle?  No matter what "god" we serve, it will not be enough.  We can only prevail in life when we place the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob first in our lives.

What is our spiritual dilemma or the gods of today that we serve?  We have to know - they will never prevail.  Only the Lord God.  Only through Jesus Christ.  None other.  At no time.  In no place.

It's your decision.