Pastor's Blog

Pastor's Blog

Monday, December 24, 2012

My Second Favorite Christmas Thought...

My second favorite Christmas thought...
this from Howard Thurman.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Merry Christmas

Saturday, December 22, 2012

One of Two Favorite Christmas Thoughts...

One of two favorite Christmas thoughts... 
from Ann Weems, What do I want for Christmas?  (Kneeling in Bethlehem 1980 Westminster Press)

What do I want for Christmas?
I want to kneel in Bethlehem,
the air thick with alleluias,
the angels singing
that God is born among us.
In the light of the Star,
I want to see them come,
the wise ones and the humble.
I want to see them come
bearing whatever they treasure
to lay at the feet
of him who gives his life.
What do I want for Christmas?
To see in that stable
the whole world kneeling in thanks
for a promise kept:
new life. 
For in his nativity
we find ours.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Fame to Shy Away from is the Notoriety that Elevates Self

Here is the poem I used today in the sermon, plus a few thoughts/after-thoughts regarding it.  

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to the silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing the streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.
--“Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
(Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995) by Naomi Shihab Nye..

          "Famous" is not a word used very often to describe Christian service.  In fact, I would never use it, except in the sense the poem suggests.  The author is not writing about the Christian life, but it instructs my thoughts about humility and what is important about serving others. 
          The fame to shy away from is a notoriety that elevates self.  The emphasis is self-serving and the giver is elevated instead of the author of all good gifts.  What is described in the poem is the value of doing what one can, as one can, for another.  In Christian service we do what we can, as we can, on behalf of others, for the Glory of God.

Still in one peace, Stephen

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Five Solas

The Five Solas

Sola Scriptura ("by scripture alone")

Sola Fide ("by faith alone")

Sola Gratia ("by grace alone")

Solus Christus ("through Christ alone")

Soli Deo Gloria ("glory to God alone")

     This Sunday in worship we begin a sermon series that will use the Five Solas as the topic outline.  The Five Solas listed above are five Latin phrases that emerged during the Protestant Reformation and summarize the Reformers' basic theological beliefs.  "Sola" is Latin meaning "alone" or "only."  Although these individual phrases have been used for centuries, it is not clear when they were first put together.  They may be found individually expressed in the various writings of the 16th century Reformers, either explicitly or implicitly, but they are not found presented as a list, per se
     Historically these doctrines were developed in response to the then dominant beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church.  This is important to know but is not the basis for our discussion.  Note also that though theses doctrines generally describe fundamental Protestant doctrines, there is much discussion and even disagreement about what they mean amongst Protestants.  Nevertheless, they are useful for our study and discussion. 
 Our first tenet will be Soli Deo Gloria (7/15/12).  As the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, "What is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."
Still in one peace, Stephen

We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone,
for the glory of God alone, standing on Scripture alone.

Monday, May 28, 2012

How to be Thankful

How To Be Thankful:  Colossians 3:12-17

            My first job was at ‘Dog and Suds.’  This hot dog and Root Beer joint was a ‘greasy spoon’ that I had never seen until that day that I went looking for my first job.  I was 16 and must have filled out job  20 job applications that day.  As soon as I went in I knew I didn’t want to spend my whole summer there so I started to walk out.  Before I could get out the door, however, they asked if I wanted something... "A job application, please."  The owner called the next night and didn't really ask me to come work, he told me to be there the next day at 11:00 to see if I would work out OK.  I never had much say in the hiring process, he just kept telling me when to come next.
            The owner was a Greek immigrant and called me 'Jimmy' the entire  summer.  Their specialty was the Olive Burger.  Don't ask for the secret sauce recipe - I can't describe it - let alone divulge it.  I was the only boy working for him (not a bad situation for a 16 year old) but didn't do much cooking because that was ‘women's work.’  Instead, I worked in the yard, painted the parking lot, received deliveries, scrubbed the basement after the inspector came, and was even loaned out to work at his son's restaurant, the ‘Olympic Broil.’  He even took me to his house to weed his garden before family arrived from the Old Country.
            My employer was as straight and honest as the day is long.  I paid only four-something-dollars an hour but he fed us for free.  It was part of his mission to put meat on my bones.  He got his money's worth while adhering to a strong work ethic.  His wife once shared with me that he hadn't taken a week’s vacation in 16 years... I believed her.
            My employment ended when school started that fall.  To this day I still have not been told if I worked out OK.  A few years later, though, my younger brother applied for a job there and was turned down.  He said he didn't hire boys.  My brother protested, he had hired me.  He said, "Yeah, but Jimmy would do anything."
            I actually think about Dog and Suds often though the thought of Olive Burgers prevents me from ever returning.  I owe that man a debt of gratitude.  I'm sure I was polite and told him thank you... but I don't feel I ever THANKED HIM.  He took a chance on me - must have been kind of risky because no one else from all those applications called me back.  I appreciated his honesty and forthright nature.  He was always fair and square with me.  He filled me with confidence and trusted me to work hard... and I did.  Many times I have wished I could have found better words in which to thank him for the job, his confidence, and his character (excluding any  chauvinism).
            The truth be known, I have a problem with thanking people.  It's not that I'm ungrateful, only that I'm afraid it doesn't come across as sincere as I mean.  The harder I try to say as I feel and mean, the more I fumble for words.  I get a little embarrassed during pastor appreciation month and wish it would go by unnoticed.  Oh I need affirmation like everyone else, but I don't know what to do with a compliment.  How do you say thank you and be sure they know you mean it... It makes it hard to receive a gift and not try to reciprocate.  What my problem boils down to is trying to make the thank you equal to the gift - somehow making things 'even Stephen.'
            Another facet to this problem is that all true gifts are not meant to be reciprocated in like fashion.  It would be offensive to the giver to give them equal return - implying an unspoken obligation; ‘She gave me this gift, now I have to get her one.’  How awful to accuse someone of 'giving to get'.
            I can remember one Christmas as a boy talking with my younger brother about what great gifts we were getting for each other.  This was a typical Christmas conversation for us at that age.  I had bought him a red Ferrarri remote control car.  By today’s standards it is not much but back then it was a really cool gift from a brother who would just as soon have it for himself.  Almost always these conversations ended with the admonishment, "I got you something really great, you better get me something really great too!"
            ‘Even Stephen’ goes against the nature of a true gift, but still... I know a lot of folks from over the years that I feel I have not thanked enough: A lady who gave me countless trombone lessons, my seventh grade basketball coach who taught me the fundamentals, a new friend I met at camp when I didn't know another soul, the man who changed a flat tire for my wife when I was not around.  I’ve said thank you to every one of them, but have I THANKED THEM?  Somehow I am never sure that they know just how sincerely thankful I really am.
            What about thanking God?  Certainly we have a lot, A LOT to thank God for.  How do you thank God for grace, God’s unmerited favor.  It is given to us even though we don’t deserve it.  How do you adequately thank God for that?  Or how about the abundance of God’s love?  My love seems so puny and insignificant compared to God’s love.  You remember the verse (Romans 8:38-39), “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not death nor life, nor angels nor demons, nor height nor depth...” yet I let let all kinds of petty things obstruct my love.  Eternal life, Christ dying for you, how are you going to repay that debt of gratitude?  “Hey thanks dude, catch you on the flip side...!?” - somehow that doesn’t seem to cut it.
            In the Gospel of John a woman receives such a gift from Jesus, an incredible gift.  She is caught in the act of adultery for which the penalty is to be stoned to death.  The Pharisees, rocks in hand, bring her to Jesus so as to trap him as well before killing the woman.  Jesus does this funny thing where he writes some things on the ground.  The Pharisees evidently understood what he meant by this action but they keep asking him questions anyway.  He stands up and says, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.”  Then he writes some more in the sand as the rocks begin to fall and the Pharisees begin to leave.  They brought her, the condemned, for the purpose of judging Jesus.  Instead he gave them the basis for judging the adulteress and themselves.  He does not dispute that her actions were sinful (and where is her male counterpart in all this?) but chooses instead to give her life, new life.
            “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you...  neither do I condemn you.”  She lives, she gets a second chance.  Remember as a kid when things in the game didn’t go right, you got what we used to call a “do-over.”  She gets a do-over, a second chance. 
            How do you reciprocate a gift like that?  Maybe there is nothing you can do.  I am not comfortable with that idea, though, I don’t want to be a mooch or free-loader, some ungrateful slob.  I want to be sincerely thankful.
            There is an old fable that tells of a man walking through the forest and came upon saw a fox that had lost his legs.  He wondered how it lived.  Then he saw a tiger come in with game in its mouth.  The tiger had its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox. 
            The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger.  The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all I need.”
            He did this for many days but nothing happened.  When he was almost at death’s door he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth!  Follow the example of the tiger and stop imitating the disabled fox.” 

            God has blessed us and I think there is an appropriate response.  In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae he begins by writing of the supremacy of Christ.  Through Jesus all things were created, he is the head of the Church and the firstborn from the dead.  Paul goes on to draw out the implications of this for us.  Through Christ we can have new life, forgiveness of sins - we are made alive through Christ.  The passage we read is one of the turning points late in the letter.  Paul says, “THEREFORE,” or SINCE all this is true.  He makes a transition from recognizing the supremacy of Christ and what has been bought for us with a price, he gives our response.  “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience....Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  Paul is telling us how to say thank you.  He is telling us what the appropriate response is to all that God has done for us. 
            “Thanksgiving is not meant to be merely words, but the very mainspring of Christian living, the right motive of all service.” [1]  Our expression of thanks is to present ourselves as living sacrifices unto God.  Christian living and obedience is not a method of earning our salvation, but our means of showing gratitude to God.  Our obedience will never equal nor repay our indebtedness to God, but recognizing God’s generosity is the purest motive to live the Christian life.
            Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “Go now,” you are forgiven and your life has been spared, only “leave your life of sin” behind.  The appropriate and only way to thank God is to live and use the gift(s).  How exciting, how freeing, how appropriate, how creative! 
            The Heidelberg Catechism, one of our confessions, says it this way: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross allows us to put to death the old/evil passions  so “that we may offer ourselves to him as a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (4.043).  We cannot reciprocate God’s gifts “even Stephen,” it is not possible.  There is, however, an appropriate response.
            A woman was a home economist with an 800 number.  Just before Thanksgiving one year, she got a call from someone who wanted to know if a turkey was safe to eat.  “It’s been in our freezer for 23 years, and we wondered if it was still OK?”
            “No,” said the home economist.  “I don’t think you should eat that turkey.  It could make you very ill.”
            “That’s what I thought,” said the caller.  “I guess I’ll give it to the church food bank.” [2]
            How sincere was that sacrifice of thanksgiving?  Or consider this: Can you receive a gift and honestly tell a person “Thank you” and then throw the gift in the trash as soon as they leave?  Such actions question your sincerity and the nature of your thanksgiving.  God does not call us to extravagant sorts of reciprocating acts of thanksgiving, but simply that we take advantage of our “do-overs,” be good stewards of the talents placed in our charge while the master is gone.  Elsewhere Paul talks about  the appropriate use of the gifts that God has given us.  He says:
      “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:6-8).
            If you have the gift - use it!  What else could please the giver more?  When in college I was struggling with my call to ministry  while completing a PreMed degree, I went to talk with my adviser.  He knew little of the possibility of me going into the ministry, but I had been his student several times in Biology classes.  He said, simply, that our calling lies in the use of the gifts that God has given us.  In his mind he reckoned that meant I would continue of the road to becoming a doctor.  God, however had been working in/on me and showing me different things (gifts) about myself I hadn’t seen before.  It ended up being confirmation of my call into ministry.  The only way to really thank God is in living out the Christian life, using the gifts, offering ourselves as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. 
            Still in one peace, Stephen

[1] See Richardson, Alan. “A Theological Word Book of the Bible.” New York: MacMillan Publishing Co. 1950, pg 254.
[2] From the November 26, 1998, issue of AHA!!! magazine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Memorial Day

            Memorial Day is just around the corner.  In Hagerman we will meet at 10:00 a.m. at the cemetery for a service - the Rev. Jim Bignell bringing the message.  Don't forget: those who are willing and able can come the night before on Sunday at 6:00 p.m. to help put flags out.  What follows is one of my favorite Memorial Day reflections, attributed to the Rev. John Caughron, Center Point, Iowa.  Enjoy. 
                                                                        Still in one peace, Stephen

Here, amid the glory of flags and flowers,
Here, in the somber embrace of memories more precious than any gold,
We have come to be renewed.
Here, upon this gentle hilltop, caressed by spring breezes, and peopled by stones of remembrance,

Here, under tall trees old before our birth and yet still young after we shall have gone home,
Here, in keen awareness of the mysteries of life and death,
We have come to remember.
Here, in the company of our friends and families,
Here, with the children entrusted to our raising,
Here, in the sight of our Creator,
We have come to give thanks.

Here, where rest the fallen heroes of the generations past,
We tread with reverent step and slow,
Pondering the dedication of those who gave their lives,
and wondering how we may measure up in our time...

Whether we hold those values so precious, so dear,
that they are worth the risk of everything else in life in order to preserve and protect them.
It is beyond our knowing now whether these honored dead thought such deep thoughts then.
It is enough to believe that in spite of hesitation, fear, or impossible odds,

When Freedom was at stake and Liberty on the line, they were there with
pounding heart and quaking chest, willing nevertheless
to take the risk and give up all they cherished for the sake of something more.

And we, the heirs of their valor and the beneficiaries of their sacrifice,
            Can do no less this day than to honor their memory with a solemn pledge:
            To work for peace in a violent world,
            To stand for justice in an unjust world,
            To foster freedom in a power-mad world,

So that today's children do not have to become tomorrow's fallen heroes,
So that there need be no more broken boys, broken hearts, broken family circles,
So that we and people everywhere may sustain the patterns of peace, and
that the blessings of genuine liberty may abundantly bless the children of a wholesome and peaceful world.

It is well that we are here to remind ourselves again of the true and painful costs of war.

Not only does that disorder exact the lives of warriors and innocents,
and crush the hopes and dreams of loved ones, but as President
Eisenhower forced us to admit:
            "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired
            signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not
            fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat
of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children.
That is not a way of life at all in any true sense--
it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

Here, upon this living, green grass,
Here, amid the glory of flags and flowers,
Here, in the somber embrace of memories more precious than any gold,
We have come to remember, to be renewed, and to give thanks.

In this silent moment, so let us do.