Saturday, February 29, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 5 (for Monday, March 2)

Someone once told me that if a pastor was going to have a children’s message or moment during worship, that pastor needed to be careful that it didn’t turn into “cutesy-time” – that’s what he called it.  He was one of my instructors for worship as I was obtaining my license to preach when I first entered into the ministry.  I believe his fear was that the children would somehow upset the “natural flow” of worship with their unscripted comments and wandering tendencies. 

That was oh, so long ago. 

So… after thirty years in the ministry, what have I learned about the children's moment during worship?  I believe children must be welcomed in wherever the flow of worship is happening – whatever the moment.  I understand the point of my esteemed worship instructor, but what this person missed was how important children are to the present church.  Welcoming them, treating them with respect, listening to their thoughts, and instead of teaching them, learning from their child-like faith are things to be valued and lifted up.  After all, wasn’t that Jesus’ point in the lesson from Matthew 18 – that “unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”?

I absolutely love the children’s moment.  I remember the example of a pastor from my own youth – Rev. Irving H. Palm.  Rev. Palm was a tall man – an imposing man who always wore a black robe on Sunday.  At least once during the service, Rev. Palm would pause and say something like “And now, I want all of you children to listen to the next words that I have to say…”  He would make eye contact with us and teach us something about the Bible in that moment.  I was captivated by his powerful voice and his easy manner.  I could tell that I was important to God because here was this man of God, talking to us children and us children alone.  I was important to God.  A child.  Greatest in the kingdom.

In thirty years of ministry, I’ve never forgotten that lesson.  So, yes, let the children come!  Let them make noise in the sanctuary!  Let them come forth and be a part of the family at the table of Holy Communion!  In so many ways, what happens during my sermon pales in comparison to what happens during the children’s moment!

Because the children are the greatest in the kingdom!

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 4 (for Saturday, February 29)

I'm a little perplexed (that happens every once in a while to all of us, right?)  In making the commitment to blog every day from now until Easter, today's devotion from "Embracing the Uncertain" has me stumped.  It comes from Matthew 17: 24-27.  It's a little story about temple taxes.  Back in that day, Jewish leaders would collect taxes to help pay for the upkeep of the temple and its services.  Jesus and his disciples made their way to Capernaum where the tax collectors came called to Peter, asking if Jesus pay his fair share of the temple tax.  Peter and Jesus have a conversation about kings and children and taxes and exemptions and fish with coins in their mouths.  Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Actually, it isn't a very well-known text, which is more than likely why I am stumped.  In this chapter, we've heard the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, read how he healed a demon possessed boy and he predicted his death and resurrection.  Those stories are much more widely read and discussed.  These four verses are talking about temple taxes and who should pay them and Jesus telling Peter to go fishing and from the mouth of the first fish, he will find the temple tax payment.  We are not told how that all turned out for Peter.

At first, I was a bit puzzled about why this story was placed here.  The story seems almost out of place, like it doesn't belong.  It comes on the heels of a miraculous healing and the statement of death and resurrection.  But closer examination would prove me wrong.  The transfiguration story has God telling the disciples that Jesus is His Son - and to listen to him.  He overcomes a demon and foretells the future.  When the collectors of the temple tax came to ask about Jesus' contributions, things suddenly make sense if you remember that this temple sacrifice was usually paid only once in a person's lifetime.  

Kings (and their children) are exempt from paying the temple tax sacrifice.  There would be no need for Jesus to pay the tax because he just spoke of the ultimate sacrifice that he was going to make.  His death would be the only sacrifice needed to pay for our sins once and for all.  So, he told Peter to "throw out your line" (usually the fishermen used nets) and extract the coin from the first fish he caught.  Jesus paid the temple tax anyway.  The next few chapters report Jesus talking about the kingdom parables.

The devotional makes the point that God's amazing grace is extended to all people.  That is one possible meaning for this short text - I wouldn't necessarily disagree.  One could look at it that way.  I guess my interpretation is too much on the surface.  Rather than get the temple authorities all riled up, Jesus dispatched Peter to get a coin (via a miraculous catch of a coin in a particular fish's mouth) and pay the tax - "so that we may not cause offense".  It was a grace-filled moment.  

This time of year, every person is scrambling to complete tax forms and get it done before April 15th.  This story helps us to see that while our true citizenship is in God’s kingdom and we devote our resources to God’s purposes, we still give to earthly powers what is due to help them complete the work they have been selected to do.  

What else can one say about taxes and sacrifice?

Friday, February 28, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 3 (for Friday, February 28)

Over the years, I've been blessed to have received some really good advice.  My junior high basketball coaches advised me to lift up my feet so I wouldn’t trip over the painted lines on the court (I tried, but I was always finding myself on the hard-court floor).  My high school golf coach told me more than once that if I hit a bad shot to forget about it and make the next one better (I have forgotten so many bad shots over the years and can't recall any of the good ones).  My dad advised me not to purchase a mobile home (I did anyway). 

My father-in-law always advised me on taking care of the finances in the home and don’t have a good time on borrowed money (I didn't really follow his advice to the letter).  A well respected person in my home church encouraged me to always make copies (I followed his advice and now I don't know what to do with all of the hard copies I have - he never told me about any statute of limitations on how long I should keep them).  When I was going into the ministry, my brother advised me to make sure I was in a Bible believing church (I have remembered that advice throughout the years and hopefully have followed it). 

Even my daughter gave me some advice when we were in Israel several years ago.  Generally we traveled to some very warm places (it was during March).  But, on this one day, we were up in the highlands of Israel, near the Syrian border.  The temperature had gone from near 80 to 55 degrees – I mentioned to her that I was cold.  Her advice?  “Suck it up, buttercup, you’re from Minnesota” she said, quite matter-of-factly.  Ego somewhat bruised, I pulled my light weight (there it is) jacket up over my neck and shrugged.  But she was right.  I was from Minnesota and was shaming my heritage.  Good call on her part.

When we think back on it, someone has always been giving us advice.  Some of it we follow – some of it we don’t.  Some of it is excellent advice.  Some of it we’d rather not hear.  Like the disciples in that moment when Jesus told them that the Son of Man would need to be killed and after three days would rise again.  The advice part of what Jesus was saying to them was that they would listen carefully to what he was saying – take it to heart – hear His words of wisdom.  In that moment, they didn’t really get it.  It wouldn’t be until later after the resurrection that the evening lantern would turn on over their heads and they would finally understand what Jesus was telling them.

The Bible has so many words of advice to offer us.  Will we choose to listen to them or allow them to pass over us, as we shrug our shoulders and move on?  My advice?  Listen to what the Bible has to say.  Listen to what Jesus is telling you.  Follow His advice.  

As far as how hard that advice might be to implement or even understand, I echo my daughter’s words – “Suck it up, buttercup – you’re one of God’s children… you’ll get it – just follow Him!”

Thursday, February 27, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 2 (for Thursday, February 27)

It occurred to me that I am being a little unfair to the family cat (who rules in our home – really, I’m not kidding).  Yes, the family cat does have a name.  In fairness, I should use that name when I speak of it.  Nancy gave the family cat the name Ruby Tuesday, named after one of our favorite restaurants.  We were just at the Ruby Tuesdays Restaurant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota last week and noticed that they had done a complete makeover.  The place had a more modern feel to it and seemed roomier.  We had a nice time at Ruby’s namesake restaurant.

I don’t want to make this Lenten journey all about the family cat – oh, sorry - Ruby.  The primary theme I’m working with is "Embracing the Uncertain", not embracing your cat when it bugs you.  The devotional for today focused on prayer – that prayer is essentially simple, but is not that easy.  The devotion relates a story of two football players who were in separate accidents.  One perished as a result of his injuries, the other survived.  But it’s what happened during the crash of the one who survived that makes this topic on prayer more difficult to understand.

The surviving football player was being interviewed after his recovery and he said that when the car was flipping over, he threw his hands off the wheel and called out Jesus’ name.  In essence, he was praying for Jesus to be with him in this most horrific moment.   The interviewer (from Sports Illustrated) wanted to know if God would have saved the other football player had he called on Jesus’ name.  Or would God have saved professional golfer Payne Stewart (whose plane crashed in South Dakota), or even with any one of the victims at Columbine High School had any one of them called out in prayer.  The football player didn’t really have a good answer for that question.

These are tough situations and there are no simple answers to these or any other tragic events that have taken place over the years.  I can’t even imagine.  On some levels, it doesn’t make sense that God would select one situation over another if persons have been praying for a quick response for safety and security from God.  Then again, we aren’t in on the wider plan that God has for us as humanity.  The best thing we can do is to remember that when life gets difficult, we need to call on God’s name in prayer and trust that we will be heard.  We do not have to go it alone.

I’m grateful that even though I might have an unwillingness to call out the family cat’s name, I am more than willing to call upon God’s name for grace in times of need.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 1 (for Wednesday, February 26)

Here's the usual mode of operation at our house when I come home after being at the office all day... the cat that occupies space will sit in the kitchen and watch me.  The cat will just sit there and stare.  I can make eye contact, but I don't really want to.  After a few moments, when I've settled in the kitchen stool to talk with Nancy about her and my day, the cat will always (and I mean always) get up and walk underneath my feet, swishing the tail across my lower legs.  I realize that the cat knows this annoys me to no end, but it matters little.  This cat loves to - lives to - bug me.  It's the cat's mission in life.

This routine happens every day without fail.  Every... single... day.   It must be a part of the cat's rhythm of life.  

As I begin this Lenten series and stating that I would blog each day for forty days during Lent, I am very aware that this hope of blogging every day and the success of it will depend upon my own ability to sustain a rhythm... to develop the routine of blogging every... single... day.  I've heard it said that if you want to change your behavior for any one thing you need to repeat it successfully for 21 days.  Makes sense.  I plan on doing this for 40 days.  

The resource I am using is the Lenten devotional booklet called "Embracing the Uncertain".  The first day of the devotional is focused on the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop, there with three of his disciples.  It was anything but a routine event.  The main point of the devotion is that we are invited to watch and wait upon God for direction and purpose and not be so bent on moving forward all the time.  Watch and wait for God to give the direction for movement and see what happens.  

It's solid advice.  It's also harder to follow than we might think.  Generally, I am a person of action.  I want to see results much quicker than they often come.  I can get impatient.  Sometimes, I will break the ranks and make mistakes when I rely only on my impulses to carry me through.  Does that resonate with you?  Jesus told the disciples that they were not to share the story of what happened on the mountaintop until after the Son of Man was raised from the dead.  In short, keep watching me - Jesus seems to be saying - keep following, keep learning and when the resurrection happened, then they could act and tell the world.

Maybe I can learn something from the cat and the rhythm of a cat's life.  Watch, wait, then act when ready.  This is going to require some discipline and a lot or prayer.

It might be the only thing I might ever learn from this cat.

Friday, February 21, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty

It's a lovely 36 degree day here in Worthington, Minnesota - we must be nearing the advent of spring because this is still February.  We do get warm spells sometimes here in the frozen tundra, but the cold weather usually finds a way to continue its icy grip upon our beloved Northland.    

I've decided that I would try to blog during the upcoming Lenten season.  I know - it's crazy, right?  But before I change my mind, let me share the reasoning behind my decision.  First of all, I have been very sporadic when it comes to posting something on my blog.  Yeah, it's been a busy portion of my life, but that really isn't a very good excuse.  All of us are busy, so I can't use that as any rational reason for not posting a thought or two during the week.

Secondly, I have a lot of thoughts running through my mind that need to be written down - I can't hold them in any longer.  I think it will be healthy for me to share them.  Think about everything that is going on that I've been concerned about that I have deliberately chosen not to say anything about - the United Methodist denominational crisis and the proposed split that is being talked about is just one issue that has been heavy on my heart.  Sticking with a religion focus, one of the churches I am serving has voted to close at the end of June - this has been a topic that has me up nights, my heart breaking for the long time members and the heritage of that beloved Emmanuel Church in Worthington.

Of course our national political arena has had news story after news story - most of them difficult to hear and divisive.  It's been difficult to ignore the stories coming out of Washington D.C..  Then there is the usual - the state of our world, family matters, the economy, nature's changing landscape, aging gracefully, planning for retirement (wait, how did those last two get in there?).  All of these things have been like layers of chocolate cake that I cannot partake of because I am trying to lose weight (oops, there's another one!).

So I'm going to begin in earnest starting on Ash Wednesday, February 26th.  I'm going to be using a devotional resource called "Embracing the Uncertain" - a 40 day devotional that walks us through some of the challenges that come across our lives that cause us to be uneasy because we didn't expect them to happen (click on the link above to order your copy through Amazon or Kindle - we also have some copies available at the church, if you are in the area).  My plan is to read the devotional and then respond to what I read.  That sounds simple enough.

I like the challenge.  Perhaps you might be persuaded to join with me.  After all, aren't there a number of things you might be dealing with right now that are troubling or even overwhelming?  Let's do this together - I'm certain we will learn something!