Saturday, March 28, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 28 (for Saturday, March 28)

Believe me when I tell you that before going into the ministry, I wasn’t a very good servant.  Oh sure, I volunteered for some things – I sang in the choir, helped at the County Fair food booth every year, was head coach of the church softball team (won the championship and finished second three years in a row), and did some leading during the worship service by doing children’s messages.  I always enjoyed each of those things so it never seemed like it was hard – it was never tedious or difficult or boring.  I did some other things which were harder – I taught seventh grade Sunday School (now that was hard).  I helped out in Vacation Bible School (a challenge depending upon where and who I was supposed to lead).  One of the most challenging things I took part in was something called “100 Brave Christians”.

I saw the announcement for “100 Brave Christians” in the bulletin.  It said something like if you consider yourself a brave follower of Jesus, show up on this particular night at the church and you will have the chance to put that to the test.  It sounded very intriguing.  

So, I decided I was going to go.  I showed up and was paired with another fellow (Ed was his name).  Turns out it was an “every member visitation” program (which is always a challenge) with a twist.  We weren’t going to the members on our list to invite them to activity or a deeper level of financial commitment.  We were going there to get to know them better and to pray for them.  That’s it. 

Ed and I went to the people’s homes on our list and to this day, there is only one visit I remember.  It was a woman who lived on the edge of town.  Her husband was a trucker, so he was gone a lot of the time.  She told us that she didn’t come to church very often because she didn’t like to sit alone.  She also said that when her husband was home, he was tired and because they didn’t see much of one another, she felt obligated to stay at home with him on the weekends instead of attending church.

Honestly, I was never aware of her church attendance or any level of her church commitment – nor did I really care.  I mean, that wasn’t our focus.  We were not there to make people feel uncomfortable.  Ed and I talked with her for a while, offered a prayer and left.  I don’t recall seeing her or coming across her at church during the next few years while I was there.  I went into the ministry and she and her trucker husband were long forgotten.

When I think of servanthood, I think of those kinds of things that you do for the kingdom of God that make a difference, even if no one knows about it.  The author of the devotion comes down hard on humanity, I think.  It’s been my experience that there are many persons who serve selflessly, with no agenda.  They give so freely of their time – over and over and over again.  Sometimes they are the same people who wear different hats.  But they give without any thought to their own needs.  And there are others who would give more of themselves if they could, but a physical challenge or a time conflict or some other kind of obstacle is in their way.  But their desire is still to serve.  The church has many who are willing to serve.

Jesus responds to the mother of James and John by telling her and them that the greatest among them will be those who serve others.  One does need to empty themselves if she or he truly desires to serve – that point I will grant the author.  It’s true – empty yourself so you can fill others.

I had a chance to return to my home church and preach one Sunday about ten years after I had left.  After the service, I was shaking hands with the people of my home church congregation.  Many were wishing me well, telling me they were glad to see our family. I’m guessing some were still amazed that I had gone into the ministry (the ones who knew me when!).  

The line was getting close to the end when a woman came up to me and extended her hand in welcome.  She said she appreciated my message.  I thanked her.  She said “You don’t remember me, do you?”  I had to confess that she looked vaguely familiar but no, I could not remember her name.  

“You and another fellow had come to visit me a number of years ago.  I hadn’t returned to church until the last few years, but I always remember your visit.  It's one of the reasons why I am here today.”

You just never know how you are going to make an impact on someone.  

But if you are without any personal agenda and just want to greet someone, meet them on their own terms and embrace them on their own ground, it makes a difference.  Jesus is really saying if you want to make a difference, don’t be concerned with where you sit or if you are first.  Invite others to go before you.  Approach them with humility.  See what unselfish love can do.

Perhaps you can discover a way to be a brave Christian in service.

Friday, March 27, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 27 (for Friday, March 27)

I can resonate with today’s devotion of not getting picked first because of ability, looks, or popularity.  It didn’t always happen, but I can recall a few times when it did.  You’d stand there with all the other kids, waiting to get picked because you just wanted to play – just wanted to be a part and blend in with everyone else.  But sometimes, others make the decision on who is in and who is not.

This story that Jesus tells to the disciples is really all about that dynamic with a little twist – it’s not only about who gets in, but that everyone gets in with the same reward.  Just because the workers who started earlier in the day received a full day’s pay as did those who started on the late afternoon shift and only worked a few hours.  At the end of this lesson, Jesus says something that is etched into the heart of everyone who has ever been chosen last:
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
I don’t disagree with the devotion’s author that this story is about how “In God’s eyes, everyone is acceptable because everyone is accepted by God”.  I believe that with my whole heart.  So, you’re telling me there’s a chance… no matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you’ve been, God’s umbrella of grace is there.  All you need to do is step under it.  That sounds simple enough.

What we might miss in this is something that the devotion’s author doesn’t touch on and that is this: in order for God’s umbrella of grace to cover everyone who is included, no matter when they come, Jesus will need to undergo the ultimate sacrifice for everyone.  If you read on in the next verses from Matthew 20:17-19, the very next thing that Jesus speaks about is that the Son of Man is going to be killed in Jerusalem.  They are very near to the time when Jesus entered the gates of the city and walked the pathway of the passion, giving himself up for the sins of all.  His gift of grace is the ultimate umbrella for those who believe because all of our sins are washed away. 

We are two weeks away from Holy Week and now it seems as though things are getting real.  Jesus embraces our uncertainties in life by doing what he has said he was going to do all along.  He’s going to include the least, the last, the lost, the lonely, the left out and usher them to the front of the line.  And there is nothing the established religious authorities can do about it – except have him crucified.

God’s umbrella of grace – there for you and for me and for all people.  You no longer need to be last because you've been chosen to be first.

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 26 (for Thursday, March 26)

The devotion for Thursday, March 26th is about the rich man and what Jesus tells him to do with his money in order to live eternally.

Truthfully, there is no topic more difficult to write about or preach upon during times like this than our treasure stores and what we are called to do with our money.  I don’t have to tell anyone that we are in delicate financial times – the stock market looks like a jagged mountain range with its fluctuations dependent upon words and actions from the people in power who are making decisions to try and help us through these difficult times.  The massive economic stimulus package passed by Congress won’t be sent out for a while yet.  Stores and places of business are closing, scaling back or scrambling to find other ways to stay afloat.

On Friday night, the Governor of Minnesota called everyone to do their part by staying at home for two weeks – unless you have a job that is falls under providing essential needs and services.  I’m not sure how many of our church members or members of the community are going to be impacted by this because some can work from home and some can’t.  Finances are going to be a delicate issue, if they aren’t already.

I appreciate what the writer of the devotion shares about this topic – read this excerpt from Thursday, March 26’s installment:

“Jesus’ answer [to the rich man] packs a surprising punch: living the perfect life, whole and complete and free of need, has nothing to do with money.  In fact, Jesus tells the man, money may actually be standing in your way, and what you may have to do is free yourself from it.”

I was talking with someone about what the world would look like one year from now – will we be different?  When the chaos from this pandemic clears and the world returns to what it was before the coronavirus invaded our lives, will we have changed anything about what we hold precious?  I think it’s the same challenge that Jesus is posing to the rich man… can you give up what you have and yet be content?  Are you willing to part from those things which you are placing great value upon, but ultimately matter little to your eternal destiny? 

Those questions echo in my mind, not because my mind is empty either.  It’s because they are key questions that we need to pay attention to.  I’ve heard it so many times throughout my lifetime “The best things in life are free”.  I believe that is true.  C’mon, there is no doubt that we need money to survive – we need funds to purchase things that are important. 

I believe Jesus wants us to keep it in perspective.  If we are not willing to give it all away, then perhaps our money owns us and the best things in life are not free after all.

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 25 (for Wednesday, March 25)

This topic seems like a repeat of an earlier devotion (Day 5) where I talked about the importance of children and their role in the kingdom of God.  Certainly this is a continuation of that conversation – children have such an important place in the kingdom of God.  Young people can often see things that older adults cannot even envision.  We used to be able to use our imaginations (see Peter Pan) and our creativity in positively amazing ways.  But, as we age, we lose a bit of that imagination and creativity. 

What’s more, we sometimes (I say it gently because it’s true – we sometimes do this) we ignore the vision that the youth share with us.  We cannot see those same possibilities. 

I asked my grandson Wyatt a question the other day.  We were in FaceTime mode and I wanted to know how it was going – being home every day from school.  Wyatt didn’t miss a beat – “It’s like it’s the weekend – every day.”  Young people understand life and they get it.  Perhaps they don’t have all the wisdom or experience that older adults possess, but they give our world a fresh look at what life is like through another set of eyes.  I believe it’s important to listen for what we all might learn from our young people. 

I grew up during a time when young people were a little different than they are today.  We had distractions, yes, but today’s distractions seem more, how do I say it – distracting!  Computer apps, iPhones, iPads, virtual reality games, and other gadgets seem to interrupt the creative flow that young people have to share.  

This isn’t meant to be one of those “back in my day” comments, but I know we were challenged by our parents (okay, we were ordered) to use our creativity outside and we did.  We performed plays and skits.  We imagined we were sports heroes of the day.  We played outdoor games and made up our own rules as we go along.  When we couldn’t be outside, we had black and white television with three stations (on a good day) for our daily entertainment.  It was a treat to have the 64 count box of Crayola crayons to draw something from our imagination.

Young people today also have these moments, I’m certain.  Their creative energy and imagination are evident.  And even if we older folks aren’t able to see it, parents and teachers see it all the time.  It seems to me when these things are balanced, young people have a great deal of creative energy and imagination to share!

So, yes, as Jesus calls the young children forth – let the children share for they are the children of the Kingdom!   Let’s pay closer attention to what they have to say to us!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 24 (for Tuesday, March 24)

For a lot of years, my beloved Nancy has been trying to convince me of the merits of owning a pet.  She would bring up the subject “how about we get a cat?’ or “gee, that dog looks so cute – wouldn’t you like a dog around the house?”  Last year, in a moment I can only describe as dire weakness, she convinced me that we should get a rescue cat as a house pet.  Ever since we took on that pet, I’m the one whose been searching for rescue!

Two days ago, while she was taking a break at work, she texted me that we should get a dog.  Not just any dog, but a pet that would be able to play with the cat – so she said.  She sent me a picture of this dog – a Shih Tzu.  I admit – I was reluctant to hear it.  I was reluctant even after I saw the picture.  But my wife was persistent.  She was ever pressing forward that this dog would be a blessing to our family.  I wasn’t so sure.  I expressed as much with my initial response.

So, we are naming the dog “Maisy”.  Of course, I am a bit apprehensive about adding another animal to the house, but sometimes persistence pays off.  That’s where the story of the judge and the woman who was seeking justice comes in.  A woman who was on her own was prepared to do what it took to see that justice was done for her.  She was after the local judge to make sure she received that justice.  She was relentless.  She was persistent.  She never gave up and she never gave in.  Finally, the judge saw to it that she would receive her justice – not because it might have been the right thing to do, but because it would relieve the pressure the woman was putting on the judge.

The point of Jesus’ story about this persistent woman is that people should never give up when life gets hard.  Always persevere in prayer. 

This is timely for us today, isn’t it?  I cannot even estimate how many persons have taken a moment to pray, ever since this coronavirus has advanced across our nation.  The number has to be a large number.  I’m certain each prayer has lifted up the persons who have fallen ill because of this virus, prayed for those who are leading the efforts to find some sort of solution to contracting the virus, lifted up those who are in harm’s way as they continue providing the essential services we need day to day.  Persistent prayer – the primary focus of this modern day parable of pandemic proportions.

The verse that really captured my attention was at the end of that story:
“However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Now that is a really intriguing question at the end of a lesson in persistence!  Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?  Certainly, we can pray all we want, but do we have the faith required to know that God has heard our cry?  Do we have the faith needed to trust that God will answer our pleas and comfort our hearts and provide safety for our journey?  Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat this one.  It’s right there for us to see.

We can offer up as many prayers as we want and God will listen.  But will we have faith?

There are worse things than getting a cute dog for the home.  Not having faith in God during tough times could be one of them.

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 23 (for Monday, March 23)

If you’ve been following this blog for these past 22 days, you’ve been wondering what happened to me the past three days.  Honestly, I wish I could put my finger on it.  I think I hit a wall.  With everything that has been going on the past month, I just smacked into an emotional, intellectual, and mental wall.  Believe it or not, on Monday, I had read the devotion for this particular day – Day 23 – all about the coming of the kingdom of heaven on earth.  I looked at the computer screen and waited for inspiration.  But nothing came.  No clever little story from my past.  No apparent connection to today’s worldly issues.  Not even a commentary on that particular text. 

I had nothing.  Just a creative block in my head.  So, I did the only thing I could do. 

I didn’t do anything.  I took a brief hiatus.  

I stepped back for a couple of days to recharge my imagination, my intellect, my emotions, and even, yes, my spirit.  I would love to believe that had I been experiencing this in those New Testament times, Jesus would take me aside and tell me we need to go to the hills and rest a while.  I wouldn’t have argued. 

So here I am, three days later - back in the fold.  I was talking to someone whom I have tremendous respect for today who told me that perhaps one can only talk about the coronavirus for so long or highlight the pandemic situation we discover ourselves in today that can only be dissected so many times before it seems like you’re just repeating yourself.  It was a good point.  But I did wonder about the last paragraph posed in the devotional: 
“If you are going through a particularly tough time of uncertainty in your life at the moment, Jesus’ words are an invitation to embrace it, not hide from it.  As you enter and embrace the darkness, do you know what you will discover?  God is right there.  Closer than you think.”
The writer of the devotional book Embracing the Uncertain has been spot on nearly every single day.  Every day of devotions have spoken loudly to what we have been dealing with in this world today.  In retrospect, I wasn’t trying to hide from the struggle or the chaotic days we’ve been experiencing lately.  At least, I don’t think I was trying to run from it.  Up until this point, I was right in the mix, ready to take it all on knowing and trusting that the Lord has always been by our side. 

I was just having a moment – not unlike Elijah in the cave when he ran from his enemy.  He stood in that cave waiting for a directive from God to help him get through the chaos.  He didn’t find it in the earth, wind or fire.  He found it in the still small voice of God – “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asked.  From that moment, Elijah found his way and continued to be a blessing, leading the people.

I believe we all have to take a moment a time or two to simply be silent… to reflect… to consider how God is present in the moments we live.  As we embrace the uncertainty of these moments, don’t apologize if you need to check out for a time. 

I’m certainly not going to.  Because I trust that God is in control.  I hear His still small voice: "What are you doing here, Daren?"  When I hear that voice, it's time to get going again.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 22 (for Saturday, March 21)

I made friends with Bobby somewhere during my grade school years.  Bobby was a bright kid, but he had a pretty severe speech impediment.  I really got to know Bobby a little better when I was in the same special class with him, a class led by a guy whose name was Mr. Shock.  Several times a week we would meet in Mr. Shock’s classroom and work on our speech patterns.  

Mr. Shock was a speech therapist.  I had a little bit of a lisp.  Between Bobby’s obvious impairment and my own Winthrop issues, we got to know one another in Mr. Shock’s class.  We were the same age – sometimes we were in the same classes, especially in middle school then later high school.  Like I said, Bobby was a bright kid.  He just didn’t always sound that way.  Come to think of it, neither did I.

(My 5th grade school picture)
I can only speak for myself growing up during those awkward years.  I was a geeky kid.  No really – check out that 5th grade picture to the right and you’ll see that it’s true.  Yikes!  I had to wear glasses that were thick enough to protect my good right eye, because I was partially blind in my left eye.  I went through a lot of glasses!  I was always breaking them for some reason or other.  One of the neighborhood kids called me “google eyes” because my glass lenses were so thick.  From what I recall, those were tough days.  It’s not easy to get picked on like that – not at all.

Bobby began to go his own way, especially in high school.  Everybody loved Bobby – he was a cool kid.  He knew everyone and everyone knew him.  We’d talk now and again, but it wasn’t like it was in grade school.  It happens like that, doesn’t it?  People grow apart and go their own way.  That’s life.

(Bobby in high school)
When we graduated, Bobby and I received our high school diplomas just like everyone else.  I had somehow grown out of that geekiness and awkward phase enough to be elected class president for my junior and senior high school years – don’t ask how that happened.  I am still not certain to this day.  I was voted most likely to succeed – for years, I wondered exactly what that meant.  What was I supposed to succeed at?  

You know my story going forth from there.  Bobby stayed in the area.  Last I heard, he was retired from working for the city he grew up in.  I haven’t seen Bobby for a number of years – I’m looking forward to our 50 year class reunion coming up in two years.  I hope he is there.

I chose to write about Bobby and I because the story of the ten lepers has a special meaning for me.  I understand what it is like to be separated from the community because of how you sound or how you look.  Mind you, it wasn’t everyone who treated me that way, nor even Bobby for that matter.  But we were both different enough that some of the kids made it their mission in life to set us on the outside looking in.  I humbly apologize because I am not meaning to equate my condition with those who have leprosy.  I’m only talking about things that often separate us from those who have and those who do not.  It can be a very painful thing.

I hope that I would have been counted as one who was grateful to grow out of certain things when I was younger.  I am grateful to God for every little thing I’ve been blessed with over the years.  Lord, if I didn’t say it right away, forgive me.  Thank you for healing me – not my speech nor my appearance, but my heart.  It was broken a time or two by the names I was called and the actions that were taken against me.  I hold no ill will toward those persons – fact is I can barely remember their names let alone their faces.  But I remember them enough to know that whenever I come across someone who sounds different like Bobby and I sounded, or who looks different, who even acts different, I know that God loves them for who they are, not for who others might want them to be. 

That’s good enough for me.

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 21 (for Friday, March 20)

On Thursday in Worthington, we received about four inches of wet snow.  If there is anything that I grow tired of very quickly, it's shoveling snow in March.  Later this week, I heard that the temperature is supposed to be in the 50's - everything should be melted by then.  So, what was I thinking as I went outside this afternoon and shoveled all the snow on the sidewalks and the driveway by hand?

Actually, I need to have some physical exercise.  I took my time, not really pushing it.  The sun was shining and as I began to remove the snow you could tell that the pavement was going to dry off very quickly.  I was about halfway through when I heard geese honking somewhere in the afternoon sky.  I looked up and saw two of them flying right toward me.  As they honked at me on their flyby, I could hear their wings flapping in the wind.  I felt like I could almost reach up and touch them.  I wondered what they were thinking.  Can geese think?  I mean, I’m sure they have some kind of brain but do they think like humans?  Funny what shoveling humans think about when they are removing March snow.

I really wanted to clear the sidewalk before the mail came.  I didn’t do a very good job of clearing a snow path between our house and the next one.  It’s always a nice thing to do for the mail person delivering the mail – they don’t need to walk through the heavy snow.  I was glad I had the walkway cleared when the mailperson showed up - winter garb with heavy boots and all.  I was glad I could take a break for a moment as I leaned on the shovel and asked her “How are you doing?“ 

She replied “Not too bad - but I don't like the snow”.  I nodded in full agreement, still leaning on my shovel – I paused a mini-second and I remembered to thank her for all that she did.  She had kept on moving - no time for small talk with clueless guys who spend their afternoons shoveling their walk and wondering if geese can think like humans.

I’m not sure we ever get to do that enough - thank those persons who deliver mail and packages for us – to thank them for doing their jobs.  Some might think it is a small thing to thank someone for just doing what they are paid to do.  This situation we are in right now has challenged me to think otherwise.  Perhaps it is a small thing – but right now a lot of small things put together might be pretty important.

Small things like a mustard seed-sized faith.  Jesus answers the disciples’ insistence that he increase their faith.  He told them that if they had faith as small as a mustard seed, “you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” (Luke 17:6).  I have spoken to many persons who have what I would call great faith, but I wonder if any of them would say their faith is as small as a mustard seed (there I go, wondering again). 

This saying is one of the more challenging sayings from Jesus in all of Scripture.  What does it mean to have mustard seed-sized faith?  Let’s try a simple explanation: when we think about God and place our belief in Him, having a little is really having a lot when it comes from God.  The Almighty is so powerful.  Our faith in God doesn’t need to be so huge in order for God to do something for us.

I wish I could answer the next question on my heart: so, if I have mustard seed-sized faith, will God remove this coronavirus from the face of the earth?  I believe God has the power to do that, but I’m in no position to wonder if that is part of God’s plan to do that.  The best I can do (and that we can do) is continue to have faith – even a little faith – that God understands and walks with us in this pandemic time.

I wonder what the geese would think about that…

Friday, March 20, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 20 (for Thursday, March 19)

Historic moments in the past have usually been indelibly marked in our memories.  We can remember where we were and what we were doing when something really significant took place: September 11, 2001 – where were you when the attack on America took place?  November 22, 1963 – where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?  Going back further, some will recall December 7th, 1941 – “a date which will live in infamy”.  There are others that we might recall depending upon our age.  

I will always remember one week ago on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 – the date when the coronavirus changed the way we lived in America.  If you recall, that was the first time this pandemic became real for us as our state and nation’s leadership spoke to us about our need to take this seriously.  Our lives have changed dramatically since that day only nine days ago.  It’s stunning, really, how much life has been altered.

Perhaps you are weary of hearing about this pandemic situation we find ourselves in – I apologize.  I’m not trying to add to our angst regarding this historic moment in the history of the world.  Likely, there aren’t many things I could write about this that you are not already aware of.  But when I talk about important dates and historic moments in life, I can recall a few other important dates that changed my life in so many good ways – August 24, 1974: on this day I married the love of my life, one of the best decisions I ever made or ever will make.  October 7, 1979, June 26, 1981, and January 14, 1983: these were the days that my three children were born.  Certainly my life changed on those days.  I haven’t been the same person since – it’s been the thrill of my life to be a father. 

There is one date in my life that I sometimes overlook, maybe even ignore or neglect.  January 1, 1982.  It was a Friday.  Nancy and I had moved back to the Grand Rapids area after living in Duluth for one year.  We had two small children and were living in a mobile home at the time.  I was working for the wholesale company in the Rapids.  We were both glad to be back in our home town area.  My brother Cary and his wife Nancy had come over to visit on this New Year’s Day in 1982.  Cary is one year older than I was – among all of my six brothers, he and I had done the most things together… played in the high school band (Cary played trumpet, I played trombone), played high school and college basketball on the same team (Cary was a point guard, I was a small forward), and we played on the same high school golf team (going to the Minnesota State Tournament in 1971).  We had a shared history together.

At the time, Cary was (and still is) a Baptist minister.  I’m not sure of the exact reason why he and Nancy had come over, but we were glad to have them join us on this first day of the new year.  I cannot say I remember everything about the conversation we had, but one moment of our visit stood out and I remember his words to me.  We were talking about faith and God and the things that Jesus has done for us.  My brother looked at me and said “Can you think of one good reason why you haven’t given your life to Christ?”  At that time in my life, a question like that was one I was ready to consider.  I wasn’t quite 28 years old, was attending church every so often (sang in the choir because my mother was still the choir director), and was working hard at my job.  I believed I was a good husband, a good father, a good guy. 

But none of those things would matter if Jesus wasn’t the Lord of my life.  In that moment, I knew in my heart that He needed to be exactly that.  Nancy was with me all the way.  With my brother, we prayed the prayer of salvation and asked Jesus into our lives. 

My life has been so blessed since that day!  I couldn’t have known that five years later I would be preparing to enter into the ministry; that eight years after that moment I would be a new pastor to two churches in west central Minnesota; that thirty-eight years later I would have been serving as a pastor for thirty years in Minnesota.  Since then, I’ve been able to graduate from college with a degree in management, seminary with a master of divinity, and from university with a doctorate of ministry.  I’ve learned so much (and yet, still have so much to learn).  I’ve met many amazing people.  I’ve seen so many wonderful sights.  I’ve witnessed a host of miraculous moments.

All because I had a brother who cared enough about me to ask the question I need to hear.

Today’s devotional reminded me of that day.  The rich man who had five brothers wanted Lazarus to warn his five brothers to change their lives so that they would not end up where he ended up.  It didn’t happen.  No one would tell his brothers – they would have to discover the truth for themselves. 

We always have an opportunity to witness to others through our faith.  We witness through our example, through our actions, through our words, through our giving, through our praise.  While we have the opportunity, we can witness to someone who may need to hear the question asked of them – especially if they are family. 

Can you imagine being able to remember the day a life was changed when Jesus was at the center?  It might be a historic day - I know it would be memorable!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 19 (for Wednesday, March 18)

I am beginning to wonder if everything that our world is dealing with is starting to make an impact upon my thought processes.  I’m not going to pretend that this is impacting me only – obviously this impacts every one of our lives.  But it might be true that each one may be impacted differently.  Here’s what I mean.  I was driving home the other day when I looked at my information panel on our Ford Echo.  I had a hard time understanding what my eyes were seeing.  Under the current outside temperature, the reading said 68 degrees.  That can’t be right, I thought to myself.  It outside temp is more like mid-40’s.  I looked at it again and it read the same.  I stopped the car and restarted the engine, thinking that would clear the screen and start fresh. 

That didn’t work… the temperature still read 68 degrees.  I was so dumbfounded that I thought I’d better take a picture of it so I could show the automotive shop when I brought it in to have it looked at.  I figured the outside temperature sensor was faulty.  Here’s the thing I thought next: I wondered if my vehicle had caught some kind of computer virus that caused the outside temperature sensor to show a temp that was so obviously wrong.  Man, I thought, you have virus outbreak on the brain.  Get a grip.

He came to himself and realized he needed to get a grip.  I’m not talking about myself in the third person.  No, I’m talking about the story of the prodigal son told in Luke’s 15th chapter.  We’ve heard and read this parable countless numbers of times.  We are familiar with how the son demanded his inheritance, went off to a far away land and spent every dime he was given.  When he finally “came to his senses”, he decided he would be better off returning home, asking for forgiveness and seeing what his future might hold back home. 

His father’s grace was amazing and not only was he forgiven, but the father pulled out all the stops for his son, once lost, now found.  The older brother didn’t like it one bit – the father said “that’s too bad, I will do what I want and you can’t stop me from forgiving my son and loving him” – I’m paraphrasing, of course.

The author of this day’s devotional centers his thought on the actions of the father – forgiving, loving, unconditional actions of love and care toward his wayward son.  No doubt those are common themes.  I’d like to think there is another theme at stake here… who is in and who is out.  Checking back to the beginning of this chapter, Jesus is at odds with the scribes and the Pharisees over welcoming sinners and eating with them (an action that Jewish heritage would have strongly discouraged because it would make the person unclean).  Jesus immediately tells several stories about those who are lost and found – the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Then he tells the story of the lost son.

It’s easy to miss what I think is the primary point: I believe Jesus is telling the religious establishment that everyone is line to receive God’s grace and forgiveness – even those who are on the outside looking in.  And it’s God’s grace to give out.  There is nothing that the Pharisees can do about it.  Which is one more reason why the Pharisees want to do away with Jesus.  He is just getting too dangerous for their purposes.

This story (among others) would lead Jesus to the cross. 

I was sitting talking with Nancy later that night (when I stopped along the road) and was telling her about what I had seen, when suddenly a thought came to me that was crystal clear about what happened.  It really wasn’t the outside temperature I was looking at all along.  That was the inside temperature setting!  I lost my perspective for a moment, but then found it again.

I tie these two stories together by suggesting that it’s easy for us to lose our perspective in life, especially when it comes to understanding God’s grace and forgiveness and who is in and who is out.  My advice for these days?  Pause – take a deep breath – and get a grip.  God’s grace will carry us through – and then some!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 18 (for Tuesday, March 17)

I couldn’t get past a phrase that the author of “Embracing the Uncertain” devotional booklet wrote: “I think it is worth something that even Jesus and this Pharisee… found a way to sit down and break bread together.  That alone is a good example for us to follow.”  All things being equal, I would not disagree with the author.  It is a very good example for us to follow in Jesus’ footprints and sit down with others and commune with them.  The main point of the devotional goes on to talk about humility and following the example Jesus set.

But we are living in a time when all things are not equal.  Everything has been turned upside down.  We are being strongly encouraged to refrain from breaking bread together so that this coronavirus pandemic might “pass over” us without too many being infected.  Meeting together is being discouraged. 

I get that.  What made me stop and think was this: how much I am beginning to miss the connections we all share in common.  Sure it’s only been one week and I know we have a few more to deal with before this situation might change.  I look forward to the day when our three churches will be worshiping together in our hallowed sanctuaries, being able to greet one another and talk with one another to see how everyone is doing.

But I also know it’s a very positive thing for us to rally around our families and spend precious time with them as we sequester ourselves off from much of the world around us.  I have no issues with any of that (just don’t expect me to regale you with stories of cat bonding – that’s not going to happen).  I believe these are very precious days for us to stay safe and connected to those who are in our household. 

I heard something on the radio about these challenging days we are living in – something to do with the fact that we should never “wish our time away”.  The radio announcer was saying that many people he had spoken with are just hoping for this to end, wishing that this will all be over soon so that we can return to a normalcy of living.  I hear that.  But this life is almost too brief for us to wish away any time at all.  We must try to make the best of the only time that we have been given and that time is today.  Tomorrow is promised to no one.  Today is the day.

It is a given that we develop connections beyond the home and when we are not connected to those relationships, we can feel discouraged – even isolated from them.  This is not a forever thing.  Value each moment you have been given right now.  Keep yourself connected to those you love through your digital sources.  For those who do not have them, use the phone.  If you can't text, send a letter - even a card "Thinking of You" - especially to those who you know do not have social media at their fingertips.

I didn't really follow the devotional focus on humility.  I was more compelled to share that we cannot allow one precious moment to slip through our fingers while we have the chance to connect with family, with friends, with others.  We can be very creative in how we do that.

Because today is priceless.  We need to use it or lose it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 17 (for Monday, March 16)

Last Sunday during my live stream message, I mentioned a post that I had seen on Facebook that I thought was a bit humorous and yet carried some truth to it: “Day 3 without sports… Found a lady sitting on my couch yesterday.  Apparently she’s my wife.  She seems nice.”  Sure – that might be a little unrealistic, but it rings somewhat true for us when we think about how many distractions we have – sorry, had - in our lives.  We no longer have those same distractions in this pandemic world we are living in today.  Our lives are now focused on staying healthy and protected – we have little time to spend on the distractions that life used to offer, in part because those distractions are no longer there!  Truthfully, there are things that we may have neglected when those distractions were present and seemed more important to us.    

All over social media I am seeing post after post which point out the importance of being together, staying safe, cherishing the moments we have, and no longer taking the simple things of life for granted.  As we move further into these moments of having to keep life simple and we hunker down without moving around unnecessarily, we can see more clearly than ever before how there were those things which interrupted our lives. 

For example, I admit that sports could have been a huge distraction.  I would usually record a Minnesota Wild game or Golden Gophers basketball game and watch it later.  If there was a Minnesota game on or an “important” golf tournament, I would usually find a way to watch it.  I, like all of us, no longer have that option.  (And I’m not planning on watching previous games that the sports stations are rebroadcasting so that they can have something that their sponsors can run their commercials for products that no one is going to buy.  That’s ridiculous – I already know who won!)  Yes, sports can be a huge distraction. 

It can be especially disruptive if we have our priorities in the wrong place.  Here is what I believe we are faced with – examining our priorities in the face of a world that has stopped providing the many distractions that we bought into before all of this.  Tell me that I’m wrong.  Perhaps that is a little harsh because I’m sure that most of us have always made good decisions about our priorities.  Most times we’ve kept our families first.  Most times we’ve acted as though our faith expression was right up there.  I’m not saying those things in jest either – I truly believe that for the most part, we kept our priorities in check. 

For the most part. 

Today’s devotion from “Embracing the Uncertain” uses Luke 13:18-35 as the basis for our understanding of keeping our priorities straight when we face distractions.  The Pharisees came to tell Jesus he should abandon his plan and leave because Herod was planning to kill him.  Certainly the Pharisees could have cared less about Jesus’ well-being.  In fact, they’ve been trying to discredit him all along.  But Jesus stays true to his priority – heading toward Jerusalem and his destiny.  He does not allow this distraction to deter his priorities.

These are days that compel us to examine our priorities because life is so delicate and uncertain.  The key thing here is this: we are being reminded of what is really important in our lives.  I’ve been reminded of that this past week.  It’s an important question for each of us to work through – 1) because we have the time to work through it (what else are you going to do?) and 2) it’s the right moment to examine our priorities, because that is all we have going for us: family, faith, health, concern for others, prayer, spiritual growth.  

Now is a great opportunity to look inward, not because it’s Lent – because it is life!

Monday, March 16, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 16 (for Saturday, March 14)

On Sunday, we offered a live stream worship service that was intended to be done with no persons in attendance - other than ten members from the choir and one or two worship helpers (piano accompanist and sound person).  We had twelve in attendance, but we had another 74 watch the broadcast via the Boxcaster website, 20 on the First UMC YouTube channel and 305 views on our FaceBook page.  I received a number of texts from persons who really appreciated the live stream service - I was grateful that we have the ability to worship with others in their own home as an option during these days when we are being strongly encouraged to sequester ourselves off from the world in order to protect us from the spread of the coronavirus. 

We did have two persons who showed up – one was someone we just didn’t call to let them know they should stay home and be safe.  The other was someone that I did not know – a stranger, just showed up on this random Sunday.  She sat in the back through the entire service. 

One of our members talked with this person after worship.  She had decided that she needed to just go to church yesterday.  She needed to be in a place of worship.  She had a relative who had been a member of First Church, so she chose this church to come to.  With everything that is going on in the world, her decision to seek a word of comfort and hope means everything.  Her actions tell me this is what we are all searching for – a word of comfort and hope in these chaotic days – these moments when the future really seems clouded and the direction unclear.

I don’t think it would be much of a stretch for us to see ourselves in a similar position of not only this young woman, but of the crippled woman in the story from today’s devotion.  Unable to stand up straight, she cannot see what’s in front of her.  Unable to plan only one step at a time.  She cannot know what the future holds. 

Isn’t this our story – right now?  There are no accurate predictions or estimates or projections on how long this pandemic situation might last.  I sometimes feel a bit downcast with that awareness.  Not because I’m afraid or in fear for myself.  I’m much more concerned for others, for their well-being.  

Yet, knowing that Jesus will never be far from us, I know that we can look up.  Because Jesus will never overlook us, I believe that we need to look up.

Keep the faith.  Not sure when, but brighter days are ahead.  I just know it!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 15 (for Friday, March 13)

I recall a number of years ago, I discovered that I had a bad habit.  At the time I really didn't realize nor understand that it was a bad habit.  It took my wife's wisdom to point it out to me.  Some of you may have heard this story before... one day I was going about my regular routine getting ready for the day.  I was getting cleaned up, putting on my clothes, etc.  In the middle of that process, my wife asked me if I was going to wear the pair of socks again that I had worn the day before.  Up until that moment, that had been my normal method of operation.  I didn't really see anything wrong with it - it was my status quo.  I told her that I was and we talked it over, she pointing out good habits and cleanliness and sock odor and all things like that.  I told her that I hadn't really ever thought about it like that, but was fairly certain that my socks didn't have any odor.  She said to me "You have sock issues". 

I imagine she was right.  Actually, I was having issues with changing - not just my socks.  Issues with changing my routine.  Like most people, I admit that change is hard.  I don't really like changes.  And I'm a person who doesn't really like surprises.  I suppose that points toward wanting to retain some control over things in my life.  Perhaps that's true.  I imagine all of us would like to keep the status quo the same.

The theme from today's devotion from the booklet "Embracing the Uncertainchallenges us about our own status quo.  Specifically, the writer asks a question that was difficult to read: "What if we are reluctant to hear the challenging, compelling words of Jesus because of just how disruptive they might be to our own preferred ways of thinking and acting?"  I believe that is very true. 

But I am not going to impose that question upon you.  I will own my own feelings on this.  I believe there are certain things that Jesus has said that I would rather step around than face them fully.  For example, "love your enemies".  I hear those words and agree with them.  It's much harder to put them into practice for the simple reason that I will go out of my way to avoid those who are my enemies.  I step around Jesus' words thinking that if I avoid those who go against me or have targeted me (for some reason) then everything will be fine. 

As long as I am being transparent here, I do have to search my memory banks to determine who I perceive my enemies to be.  It is a very short list.  In fact, I'm not sure that there is anyone on that list right now... but in the past, certainly there have been a few persons whom I haven't seen eye to eye with and I would classify them as my enemy.  My point here is this: over the years, I've tried to follow Jesus' teachings and for the most part I feel like I've done an admirable job.  But like all imperfect humans, I've had my moments.

In fact, in truth, I know I still have my moments now and again.  I believe my resistance to change is definitely related to maintaining some kind of control in my life.  I admit that some of the decisions I have made were done to keep things in my life the same.  When that happens, I usually gum up the works.

During those "I'm only human" instances, I'm ever grateful that Jesus does envision this world as one that is filled with the possibilities of grace and forgiveness.  I need that grace and forgiveness during those self-defining moments when I go at it alone - all by myself.   

I just need to place the words of Jesus ahead of my own self-sustaining issues.  Yes, I have issues.  But I've learned throughout the years.  Change sometimes takes a while.  But I did change my socks this morning. 

I'm getting there.