Monday, December 28, 2015

Happy New Year, you amazing, wretched, infinitely loved child of God

January makes me think of beginnings. Beginnings make me think of Genesis 1. Genesis 1 makes me think of the phrase, “God saw that it was good.” It’s repeated over and over until at the very end, after the creation of mankind, God saw that it was “very good.” This is an important point.

Every week in worship we remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. We confess our sins and remind ourselves of the powerful mercy of God shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is as it should be.

But do you remember the reason behind the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? The driving force is God’s love for human beings, after whose creation he kicked his rhetoric up a notch, calling the whole thing, “very good," rather than simply calling it, "good," as he did during all the earlier cycles of creation.  You are amazing. Of course we must agree with Isaiah, that all our works are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), but our whole identity is not “filthy rag.” Genesis does not teach us that on the sixth day God created filthy rags.

You, my friend, are the pinnacle of God’s creation and the apple of his eye. You are the object of God’s profound love. The nearest feeling we can probably experience on Earth is the love that adults feel when they hold a baby or as they play with a young child who is delighted because she took her first step. Do you realize that God gushes over you? Most parents, aunts, uncles, etc. have snuck in to watch youngsters sleeping. Do you, old though you may be, realize that God feels that way about you? Can you imagine God sneaking in while you are sleeping just to look at you and smile warmly?

It is the very depth of that love that also grieves God’s heart when we turn away from the good, like a parent’s heart breaks when her son turns away to follow a path the parent knows will end in pain and hardship.

This is how God’s redemptive love comes to its profound and disturbing zenith on the cross. We are his amazing and beloved creation. We have turned away from him. But his heart goes out to us so forcefully that death is not too much to undergo to draw us back to himself. This is how God, in his love, brings down the proud and lifts up the lowly. All are created beautiful. None live worthily. All are offered grace.

So each of us can say, “Wow, look at me!” in wonder, “Wow, look at me, I’m not what I could be,” in grief and, “Wow, look how much God loves me!”

So, you amazing, wretched, infinitely loved child of God, a blessed 2016 to you.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Gamechangers: Tesla, Jobs, King, Jesus

(This blog post is a condensed transcript of the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve, 2015. If you prefer to listen to or download an audio recording the whole message, you can find it here.)

We hear the word "game-changer" thrown around with some regularity. If a sports team drafts a talented player, that might be a game-changer. If someone enters or exits a political race, that might be a game-changer. While those circumstances might be media selling consumption with hyperbole, some people really can be historically identified as game-changers. Not only has their work altered the course of civilization, they could see where their work could lead.

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant scientist/engineer. In 1926 he said, "When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket." Does that sound familiar?

Steve Jobs could see a whole different future for computers. He not only changed the way we use computers but he also changed the way we listen to music. When recruiting John Sculley, then CEO of Pepsi, to come and work at Apple, Jobs told him, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

All I have to do is mention Martin Luther King, Jr., and everyone will know exactly what I am about to quote: "I have a dream..."

Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate every Christmas, is the ultimate game-changer. He changed the course of history and the course of eternity.

Nobody, however, changes the world on their own — not even Jesus. Nobody can convince you to be a follower of Jesus. The Holy Spirit must convince you. The only thing followers of Jesus can do is talk about Jesus, perhaps share evidence for the reliability of the Bible, love others in Jesus name, and involve prayer.

There is a funny video going around the internet. There is a dog that won't come through a glass door even though there is actually no glass in the frame of the door. The dog has been trained over the years to think that there must be something in that door that will stop him. The people even step through the door without the glass in it but the dog won't follow them. Finally, they open the door and the dog happily walks through.

Life does that to us humans. Because we are trained by authorities and experience, we know "how things are." But, like the dog with the glass door with no glass in the frame, we run the risk of assuming things are different than they really are.

Let me give you some evidence for the fact that God, through the Holy Spirit, is still at work in the world, still changing the game.

In Europe and North America, it is pretty easy to feel like the Christian church is dying. But that is only our limited perspective. In 1945 there were 950,000 Christians in China. Today there are 77 million. 250 churches per week are started in Latin America (with an average of 150 people per church). 50,000 people per week are being baptized in Africa.

And it's not just the faith that is growing in waves around the world, it is the love for others that is the natural outgrowth of faith in Jesus Christ. 25 years ago, 45,000 children per day died of starvation or malnutrition. Today that number is 17,000. Still too many, but a lot less. 25 years ago 80% of the world was illiterate. Today that number is 20%. 25 years ago 1/6 of the world did not have access to clean drinking water. Today that number has been cut in half to 1/12. Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976, just finished its one millionth home.

There are kind people from all over doing this good work, but statistics will tell you that the vast majority of this work is done by followers of Jesus of Nazareth, that baby whose birthday we celebrate every Christmas.

Jesus is a game-changer. He is the ultimate game-changer because of who he is. The Apostle Paul asserted that the fullness of God is seen in Jesus (Colossians 2:9). The Apostle John asserted that Jesus was the very essence of God come in human flesh (John 1:14). Jesus himself told his disciple, Philip, that looking at Jesus was, in fact, looking at God (John 14:9).

God was enfleshed in Jesus Christ. God continues to live in those who believe in him. Jesus changes how you see yourself, others and the entire world.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows the profound, crazy, tender love that God has for us. In Jesus, God sees us as his precious children. God thinks of us like a parent who quietly walks into a child's room to watch them sleeping just for the sheer joy of it. That's how God thinks of you! Can you believe it?

When you believe that God loves you with that kind of love, it changes the way you see other people. It changes the way you see the entire world. Everything becomes driven by love.

Christmas is an invitation to you to be born again into God's love, to let Jesus change the game of your life.

Christians use the word "repent." This word does not mean just feel bad about something you've done wrong. It means "turn your mind around," "think differently."

We celebrate Jesus not because we have no problems after trusting in him. We celebrate Jesus' birth (along with his life, death and resurrection) because he changes the presupposition of our lives from "Who knows what life is all about?" to "There is a God who loves me and even though I don't understand everything that happens to me, I can always trust God."

Trust Jesus. He will come to you. You will grow to see yourself as God's beloved child.

Trust Jesus. Seriously. It's a game-changer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

You're Not Listening! No, I REALLY CANNOT Hear You!

I was scanning through old blog posts recently and ran across this post from March, 2013. As I read through it, little bells began to go off in my head. I thought about how good it was for me to read this post again.

It's about how stressful situations physiologically reduce your ability to think and listen. The upshot is that if things get heated (say in a "discussion" between a husband and wife), a break might very well be needed because our body's stress response reduces our ability to listen and process. It's just a physiological fact. Further, it needs to be longer than a 5 minute break. Research suggests you need at least 20 minutes of doing something totally unrelated in order for your body's stress response to really relax to a point where you can re-engage appropriately.

I'm not going to rewrite the whole post here. But I suggest you go read it. It was good for me and perhaps it will be good for you, too.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Recommendation: "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast" by Laura Vanderkam

This is not a long book (192 pages in print) and it is an easy read... or listen. I listen to audio books while I walk 2-4 miles every morning. Some people like the solitude of an early morning walk. Unless I'm in a particular mood, the quietness drives me crazy. So audio books work for me.

(As an aside, I get most of my audio books from my local public library. They are electronically downloadable and automatically delete from my smart phone when they are due so I never have late fees. Our library also has electronic books for checkout and download (Kindle, etc.) You should check to see if your library has electronic loans.)

Through anecdotal and scientific evidence, Laura Vanderkam shows us what habits seem to be common among successful people. She is not just talking about career or financial success. She presents the first-in-the-morning habits that help people take control of their lives and realize their goals/dreams... success on their terms.

The answer in a nutshell is "self care." The most successful people pretty much all make exercise an nearly inviolable part of their day. Then they feed their mind/spirit through prayer, reading, journaling, meditation, whatever. Some also include relationship maintenance, like having breakfast with the family.

I recommend you read the book. I am not one of  "the most successful people," but I aspire to be and I found this book practical and motivational. I credit this book and "The Power of Habit" with helping me develop a sustainable exercise routine.

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Mornings--and Life (A Penguin Special from Portfolio) by Laura Vanderkam

[The link above is to the Amazon Smile page for the book in this recommendation. If you shop at Amazon Smile, a small portion of the proceeds from your purchase will can support the nonprofit organization of your choice. I suggest you choose Journey of Life Lutheran Church. :) ]

For another great book,
CLICK HERE to see my recommendation for "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Forget the New Year's Resolutions

Imagine this situation: The doorknob on your front door is dirty. Someone with grimy, greasy hands used the doorknob on Thanksgiving weekend after working in the yard and now every time you walk in your front door you have to wash your hands. So you think to yourself, in the new year, I really will clean this doorknob.

Far fetched?

I may be the New Year's version of Scrooge, but that's what I think we do with New Year's resolutions. We have some bad habit that we admit we need to change — whether it's something we need to start or something we need to stop — and we decide to change it in a few weeks or a few months. We'll change that next year.

Does this make sense?

Let's make up an example that I'm sure applies to almost no one (cough, cough). Let's say I recognize that the way I eat is really not good for me. I eat too much of something or too little of something else. So I decide I need a New Year's resolution.

It strikes me that this might mean you aren't really convinced that your eating needs to change. If you acknowledge that the way you are eating is bad for you in November, then by setting a New Year's resolution you are intentionally saying, "I'm going to eat in ways that will damage my body for two more months and then stop." Those are not the words of someone taking responsibility for their life. Those are the words of the half-convinced.

Seriously. If you think something needs to change, why wait? If it can wait until January 1, 2016, why change it at all?

I'm not diminishing how hard it is to change habits. It can be horribly hard. That might also be what's behind the New Year's resolution. We are looking for tricks to help us do something that we know we need to do but that we also know, if we are willing to admit it to ourselves, is going to be really difficult.

But waiting until January 1 isn't going to make it easier. Find the motivation you need now. Maybe it's pictures of nasty blood vessels and operations. Maybe it's pictures of loved ones. Maybe it's a goal you want to reach. Likely you will need ongoing support and motivation, which is available in abundance on the internet.

One very helpful book that I recommended in a recent blog post is called, "The Power of Habit." (read the blog post here) It can help you understand how habits form and how to change them.

One more thing: some studies have indicated that if you are trying to change a habit in a positive way (as in a New Year's resolution), you are more likely to succeed if you don't tell other people your intentions. The reason appears to be that if you tell people that you are going to, say, start exercising more frequently, you get their approving remarks without actually doing the exercise. So you are putting part of the reward before the behavior, which lowers the likelihood of actually making the change. The exception to this rule is if you are intentionally engaging supportive people for the sake of accountability, as happens in groups such as Weight Watchers. Accountability groups increase your chances of success.

Bah humbug with New Year's resolutions. Just work toward becoming the person you want to be without waiting for an arbitrary starting date. That's what I say. :)

(But I'm not here to judge you. If New Year's resolutions work for you, more power to ya!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Recommendation: "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

Our lives are made of our habits. The health of our bodies is largely driven by our habits, as is the health of our relationships and our own inner/spiritual life.

"The Power of Habit" isn't a Christian book. It's a book about the science of forming and changing habits. There are some surprising insights into how and why we form and maintain habits. For instance, people with no short term memory can form new habits.

This isn't a "book review." There are good reviews out there about this book. It's a recommendation. This book is an easy and informative read. Some of the ideas presented in "The Power of Habit" may really help you do whatever it is you wish you were doing but aren't.

I've found this book helpful to me personally (primarily) and also for my work as a pastor. I feel like I've developed some pretty good habits for exercising and eating based on this book (and one other, which I will post about soon). BTW - This book doesn't talk about exercising and eating. I've found the principles and actionable suggestions helpful for these two habits I wanted to develop. If your life is largely your habits, what habits do you want to develop?

It's worth checking out. You might find it helpful like I did.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business  (ISBN-10: 081298160X)

[The link above is to the Amazon Smile page for the book in this recommendation. If you shop at Amazon Smile, a small portion of the proceeds from your purchase will can support the nonprofit organization of your choice. I suggest you choose Journey of Life Lutheran Church. :) ]

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bible Study and Commentary on Zechariah 9:9-10

1. What do you think of when you hear the word, “king”?

2. There are 28 men named Zechariah (or variants) in the Bible. But who is this Zechariah? To start with, he is called the, “son of Iddo” (see Ezra 6:14). Iddo was properly his grandfather in our way of geneologizing, but in the Hebrew style, “son of” can refer to any ancestor in the blood line. He prophesied in Judah after the Babylonian exile, probably beginning around 520BC. He is one of the last prophets before the silent period of several centuries between Malachi and the New Testament. The book of Zechariah appears to be divided into two parts with the latter half, beginning at chapter 9, being written late in Zechariah’s time, possibly even at the same time as Malachi. So this is some of the very last writing in the Old Testament. As you think about this passage, bear in mind that Judah has not had a time of significant peace since 930BC when the kingdom split in two (northern kingdom = Israel, southern kingdom = Judah) after Solomon’s reign.

3. Read Zechariah 9:9-10

4. The terms “daughter of Zion” and “daughter of Jerusalem” all refer to the “children of Israel,” or “children of Abraham.” Who does Paul equate with the children of Abraham in Galatians 3:7?

5. Jeremiah (not the bullfrog) prophesied in Judah during the time leading up to the Babylonian captivity and so was a generation or two before Zechariah. Look up Jeremiah 23:5-6 and compare the “king” described there with the king in Zechariah

6. Ephraim is the second son of Joseph (Manasseh is the first). Near the end of his life, Jacob (Joseph’s father) recognized Joseph’s two sons with a blessing, even though Joseph’s wife, Asenath, was Egyptian. Manasseh was the older, but Jacob blessed Ephraim with his right hand, indicating that Ephraim would be greater. “Ephraim” also became, in later times (like the time of this writing) another name referring to the northern kingdom, Israel. Likely in this passage, “Ephraim” does refer to the northern tribes who had been decimated by the Assyrians in the 700’s BC. (cf. Hosea 4:17) Jerusalem refers to the southern kingdom of Judah.

7. Chariots, war horses and bows are powerful implements of war. These will be cut off either as in “the enemies will be cut off with their weapons” or “my people will no longer need their weapons” or both. “Riding on a donkey” also symbolizes times of peace. Nobody fights a war on a donkey!

8. How far and wide does the peace this king brings spread?

9. Matthew, seeing Jewish people as his primary audience, takes care to point out prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life. Look up Matthew 21:4-5 to see an example of this emphasis that relates specifically to this passage.

10. How does this king’s reign sound to you? Would you like to be ruled by a king if it was this kind of king?

11. In what ways did Jesus act like a king? In what ways didn’t he act like a king? Where did Jesus tell Pilate his kingdom was?

12. How does it impact your life to look at the life of Jesus and know that he will one day show himself king over all?

13. What else struck you?

14. Close with prayer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Criticism, a Golden Opportunity

Somebody recently told me that one of my sermons was long winded that day. What do you think I did? I thanked them.

Why? Because I want to be a better and better preacher and a better and better pastor. The only way I'm going to do that is to get feedback from people. The only way I'm going to get feedback from it's if I welcome it when they give it.

This person took a chance on telling me something that no pastor really wants to hear. Not directly anyways. I would rather hear, "Pastor, your sermon touched my soul."! But, a person who wants to grow will want to know where they fell short.

And so this person told me I was a little long winded that day. So this is what I texted that person the next day:

Thanks for telling me I was a little long winded yesterday! No, seriously. I was a little long winded and it's nice to have people around me who offer honest and loving and good-natured feedback. Don't stop.

Then my philosophy of thanking people for constructive criticism was really tested, because the person offered me additional feedback! But this, too, is good because it indicates that my thanks was received as genuine and so the trust in our relationship grew.

So criticism, accepted well, provides a double opportunity. Personal growth and relationship growth.

This isn't always the case, of course. Some people may hit you with criticism out of fear or anger or something else. But even in that case you have a chance to respond with kindness and build the relationship. Often a person's angry criticism comes out of pain they are dealing with them their own life.

Also, this attitude doesn't develop overnight. In the beginning, you may have to be very contemplative and intentional about cultivating your positive responses to criticism. But in the long run, it is very worth the effort.

So next time someone offers you criticism, be thankful! It's your chance to learn, your chance to grow, and your chance you build the relationship. What an opportunity!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor Day - a Day of Memory and a Day of Hope

December 7 is a day that will live in infamy... but it is also, for me, a hopeful day. As I remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, I am reminded that Japan and the USA are no longer enemies. Horrible violence and ethnic prejudice can be overcome. This is a hopeful observance during a time in which many are looking for hope.

We are in the midst of difficult times with outbreaks of horrifying violence... violence that some celebrate. But we can overcome the violence and move beyond the hatred and prejudice. It will not be without cost and it will not be on a path of certainty. But we must never lose hope for peace. We can never give up.

I don't know how terrorism will be defeated because the violence is idea-based and seems to simply infect certain people like a disease. Probably it can only be minimized and suppressed because the human condition seems to include a certain proclivity for violence.

But today, on Pearl Harbor Day, I look at former and current relationship between Japan and the USA, between Americans and Japanese, between Christians, Shintos and Buddhists, and I choose to live in hope.