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Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Deafening Silence

silent snowI’ve been going through a season where it has seemed to me that God has been silent in response to my prayers. I’ve been praying for very specific things and I’ve been praying for more general things. But it seems that God has been silent.

I’ve been banging on heaven’s door, pounding long and hard till my hands bleed. But no one seems to be home. No one answers. I know I have the right house – I double- and triple-checked the address. I bang and pound some more.

I cry out to heaven. I understand the Psalmist who wrote

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
   and by night, but I find no rest. -
Psalm 22:2

As I cry out day and night, there is a deafening silence from heaven.

Or so I thought.

In reality, this isn’t the way God is responding to me. He’s not been silent at all. I have been a little like Elijah in 1 Kings 19.

Elijah was expecting God to show up in a dramatic and loud way – as He had in the past. But God was not in the “great and strong wind” like He was at the shores of the Red Sea or in the Upper Room at Pentecost. God was not in the “earthquake” like He was on the day that Christ died and again the day Christ rose from the dead, and again when He released Paul and Silas from jail in Philippi. God was not in the “fire” like He was at Sodom and Gomorrah or during the night of the wilderness wanderings of Israel at the Exodus.

God sometimes shows up in answer to prayer in huge and loud ways.

But sometimes –and this has been my experience lately – He shows up in the gentle whisper of a prayer, a song that plays on the radio, a Bible verse in a daily devotion, in a line from a sermon, in an envelope in the mail, in a phone call from a friend.

The deafening silence from heaven has had the effect of making me listen all the more intently. Like when you can’t hear what a person has said and you stop what you are doing, turn to them so you can see their face, and listen all the harder.

In Lamentations 3:25-33 it says this about the good of a deafening silence

25The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
   to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
   for the salvation of the LORD.
27 It is good for a man that he bear
   the yoke in his youth.

28 Let him sit alone in silence
   when it is laid on him;
29 let him put his mouth in the dust—
   there may yet be hope;
30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
   and let him be filled with insults.

31 For the Lord will not
   cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not willingly afflict
   or grieve the children of men.

God has not been silent in the way I thought He was – not answering my prayers. He’s been silent so I change or stop what I’m doing so I can hear him.

As I turn back to Him, as I face Him once again, He has been in the process of answering my prayers.

And this gives me courage and hope to carry on.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What the Church Can Learn from Target

Those who work at Target, Inc. are part of a team. There’s the Guest Services Team, Sales Team, Flow Team, among others – all working together to fulfill the corporate mission of Target.

There are four aspects of this team concept at Target that the Christian Church and Christian ministries can learn from.

The Huddle

One of the special aspects of the Target team mentality is the “huddle.” Every work shift includes a “huddle” of the team members. They get together at certain parts of the store and talk. There is opportunity for “recognition” – more on that below. The huddle also is the opportunity for the executive team leaders to share some of the “business” aspects of the store such as how much in sales they did the previous day, how large the daily truck delivery was,  and new promotions that are coming up. The huddle also gives all team members an opportunity to ask questions and make comments about the current work shift and what is coming up in the work day.

Recognition

At Target there are opportunities to give recognition to fellow workers. For example, there could be recognition by one team member for another team member, during a huddle, who specially helped them complete a project. But it could also be a recognition of something as simple as being friendly and outgoing. There are also recognition cards posted in the team members’ area.

Thankfulness

Whenever a team member arrives for work, leaves for home, or is asked to complete a certain job or project, the team leader always is polite and appreciative to that team member, thanking them for doing the work or being there to work.

Fast-Fun-Friendly

The motto for team members is to be “fast-fun-friendly.” That means that you do your work fast (but always safe – safety is a huge priority at Target), in a fun (but efficient) way, and always, always, always being friendly. Target is a “guest service” store and team members are there to always help guests find what they are looking for (next time you are in Target, when a red-shirted team member comes up to you, notice that they will begin by saying “Can I help you find something?”). A major part of this friendliness is that team members are friendly to each other. Guests in the store witness, as well as experience, the friendliness of team members.

What the Church Can Learn

The Christian Church should be a place where these types of things come naturally. Does your church or ministry team have a daily “huddle”? It could be part of a daily devotion or prayer time. It is so important to keep the lines of communication open among ministry team members and a daily huddle would be an excellent opportunity for that.

Church team members need to both be recognized and give recognition regularly. If a team member doesn’t receive regular affirmation they may give in to a somewhat natural tendency of questioning whether they are doing good work or not. People do better work – and tend to enjoy their work – when they know they are appreciated.

Church or ministry team members should be fast (but always safe and efficient) and what they do should be enjoyable. But the most important aspect is the friendliness. I heard a church member once describe the other members of her church as the “frozen chosen.” A church or ministry team member is on the front lines of telling others  the wonderful Good News of the salvation won by Jesus Christ. They also need to experience that salvation for themselves (which probably goes without saying). And if they have experienced that salvation for themselves, how can they NOT have joy in what they are doing?

The Church can learn a lot from these aspects of working at Target. I know I am!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Life with Purpose

We are looking at the 10 Commandments. You’ve probably noticed that we are not taking them in the order they are given in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5 or in Luther’s Small Catechism. That’s because we are looking at each of the 10 Commandments in the context of the 2011 Epiphany Season and its readings.

The Old Testament Reading for the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany is Isaiah 49:1-7.

Look at verse 1, where it says, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.

What does this tell us? That God knows who you are, not from the time you are baptized, not from the time you were born, but from the time you were in your mother’s tummy. Our God is omniscient – all-knowing – and He knows who you are from the time you were conceived … even before that, really.

He’s known you from before all time began, but that’s a different part of the Bible (Ephesians 1:4 “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him”).

Yes, God knows who you are before you were you!

Now look at Isaiah 49, verses 5-6, “And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength—he says:"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Not only does God know you, God has a purpose for your life. That’s why the 5th Commandment is so important. It isn’t just about keeping peace in a society by forbidding murder; it is also about God’s gift of life!

When Martin Luther wrote his small catechism, he put it in a question-and-answer format. He also presented the explanation of the 10 Commandments in a two-fold way – what we should not do and what we should do.

The 5th Commandment, in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, is to-the-point. Both passages read “You shall not murder.” Dictionary.com defines murder as “the killing of another human being under conditions specifically covered in law.” Basically, it means the illegal killing of a human being.

In a civilized society, it practically goes without saying that people cannot and should not kill other people. There are exceptions to this, I’m sure, and I’ve been in debates whether even governments should have the right to kill anyone – a debate the State of Illinois is having right now.

When God set up the Laws for His people, He simply stated “You shall not murder” because the people knew what He meant.

Martin Luther picked up on the fact that even though it is stated simply, there was something “behind” this text and this commandment. 1400 years after Moses, Jesus brought what was behind to the forefront.

21 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

Thus, Luther would explain the 5th Commandment as meaning “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

Not only are we not to kill our neighbor, we are not to even hate our neighbor. And not only are we not to hate our neighbor, we are actually to help and support our neighbor!

Yikes! There goes Jesus again! Setting the bar impossibly high for us! I could handle not killing my neighbor. I think most of us can. But not hating him? Ok, I can pretty much handle that as well. I mean, I don’t really hate my neighbor. Oh, there are times when I’ve been annoyed at my neighbor – when I’m trying to sleep at midnight and he’s got a raucous party going on right outside my bedroom window. But hate? Nah.

But that isn’t what Jesus says, is it? We are actually to help and support our neighbor! In fact, we are to love our neighbor!

Jesus said “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), quoting Leviticus 19:18.

Wow. There’s more to the 5th Commandment than it at first seems. Such a simple, little statement, “You shall not murder” isn’t really about death. It’s really about love. It’s really about life.

That makes sense to me because God is really about love and life as well. From the very beginning of His Word, we read about life and love. He creates life. He loves His creation. He loves His people. He provides for those whom He loves. Sin introduces death to this life. There are consequences to sin. But God overcomes sin. God overcomes death. He overcomes with life.

And even a commandment which – at first glance – forbids the illegal taking of life is really about the life that God gives.

God is the author of life (Acts 3:15). He created life. He sustains life. He wants us to live – abundantly and forever (John 10:10).

See? Life has purpose! That’s why abortion is so bad. It snuffs out a life that God has given, a life that certainly has purpose. Think about it. What might have been for all the millions of people who were not born because their mothers terminated their pregnancies?

What if Maria Keverich had chosen to terminate her 2nd pregnancy? After all, she had suffered the death of her first born child already. While her husband had a job, things were not that secure in their lives. Change was in the air and the economy was uncertain. But if she had terminated her 2nd pregnancy, Ludwig van Beethoven would not have been born.

What if Pauline Koch had chosen to terminate her pregnancy? She was from an upper-class family but had married a commoner who was poor and had trouble in business. A child would certainly have put a strain on their lives. What if she had terminated her 1st pregnancy? Albert Einstein would not have been born.

What in Nancy Hanks had chosen to terminate her pregnancy? She and her husband already had one child, they were very poor with little prospect for a better life and she was not a healthy woman. What if she had terminated her pregnancy? Abraham Lincoln would not have been born.

I tell you this to emphasize that all life has purpose. Each of us has a purpose for living. God has a plan for us. God said to a young man named Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). I believe that this is no less true for you and me.

You may not write magnificent symphonies; work out complex scientific theories; or save a nation from the devastation of a civil war. But God does have a plan and purpose for your life.

I know that sometimes it isn’t clear at all what that plan is. But that doesn’t make it any less true! On this truth you must have faith!

I have a friend back in California who is a drummer. I told him this joke once and he laughed and laughed: “A boy says to his mother, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a drummer!’ To which his mom said, ‘Oh honey. You can’t do both.’”

What did you want to be when you were a young boy or girl? At various times I wanted to be: an airplane pilot; a baseball player; a robotic engineer. When I was a senior at Grant High School, my guidance counselor gave me an aptitude test. You know what it said I had an aptitude for? Social work! Not that far removed from the pastoral ministry!

And so for 20 years now, I’ve been a pastor. I’ve been a teacher. I’ve been a men’s ministry leader. I’ve been a husband. I’ve been a father.

I think most importantly, though, is that my life-purpose has been to be a man after God’s own heart. Your life purpose is the same thing – to be a man or a woman after God’s own heart. What will that actually look like in your life? Pretty much what it looks like right now for most of you – being a doctor, lawyer, teacher, pastor, legal secretary, PR person, mother, father, husband, wife, student.

Whatever you do or will do in life, you do have a purpose – a God-given purpose – because all life has purpose.

Some of you may be skeptical. How can I know this about your life? I don’t’ know what you are going through in life, right? You may lose – or have already lost – your job. Your spouse has just been diagnosed with cancer. Your son is dropping out of school. Your daughter just found out she’s pregnant. Your mom suddenly died. How can I possible say that your life has purpose?

Because I know who lives in you. Galatians 2:20 says,

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

And Jesus Christ’s life has purpose!

I will say this as simply as I can – the purpose of Jesus’ life is to give you life.

But to say it simply is not to imply that it is simple. I think you could unpack meaning out of that simple statement for the rest of your life. The purpose of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is so that you can have life.

Nearly 200 times the New Testament talks about “life” – but my very favorite verse is John 10:10

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

The “they” Jesus is talking about is you and me and all believers in Him. When you are feeling robbed of life and that your life is being destroyed, remember this verse. Memorize it; keep it in the forefront of our life. Write it on a post-it note and tack it to your bathroom mirror or the rear-view mirror of your car (although be careful there, in the cold air post-it notes don’t stay tacked on rear-view mirrors very long).

When Jesus Christ gives us life through his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension that means he removes all that steals, kills, and destroys – namely our sin.

Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden for a moment. While it doesn’t specifically say why God created Adam and Eve, we do know that it was for a “good” purpose. It was for a “good” relationship – both with each other and with God. They walked and talked with God. They had perfect fellowship with God.

I like how the Westminster Catechism puts it: “Man’s chief end [purpose] is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” I might add, “Starting right now.”

I say that because Jesus’ life is given to you when you were made a child of God – that is, when you were baptized. Again, I know there are times when it doesn’t feel like your life has any purpose.

But it really does. God says it does. And I believe with all my heart that God cannot lie. If you are going through a time in your life where it doesn’t seem like there’s any purpose to it, I pray you will not choose to go through this time alone. Talk to someone. Talk to your wife or husband; a trusted friend; your pastor. Someone that will talk with you and also, this is so vitally important, will pray with you. Even Jesus – going through the toughest part of His life – chose three of his closest friends to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Your life has purpose because Jesus’ life has purpose. Your life has purpose because God has given you life.

All life has purpose and is precious. Life is a gift from God. The next time you come across the 5th Commandment – “You shall not murder” – remember what’s behind it: life with purpose and meaning from God.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Follow Me

He survived the trip down to the ground. That, in and of itself, was something to marvel at – but there was no time. He was separated from the rest of Easy Company. He had no weapon except his jump knife. He was certain he was surrounded by enemy troops. And he had a mission to accomplish.

He came across other paratroopers – sometimes one by one, sometimes in groups of three or more. He quickly assembled a reasonable fighting force.

As he took a moment to consult his silken map of the Cherbourg Peninsula, he worked out where they were and which direction to go.

Putting his map away, he looked at the men looking expectantly at him – with not a little fear in their eyes – and said, “Follow me.”

Richard D. Winters – at the time a Lieutenant in the United States Army – was a man of character and integrity who did his best to get done what he was called upon to do.

And like so many of the other 2.6 million men who answered their country’s call to defend liberty and freedom, Richard Winters did it to the best of ability and training.

But there was something else. Something more. He was a leader of men sent to a foreign land to do a very difficult job. And when those men looked into his eyes and heard him say, “Follow me” they did. Without question, without doubt.

But Dick Winters exhibited this leadership quality best in Holland in September of 1944. He and the rest of Easy Company were crouched low on the edge of a field. A dike was on the other side. Lots of open space – or more accurately killing field – for any enemy soldier that happened to climb on top of the dike and look their way. Winters told his men to wait for the signal – which would be red smoke - and then charge across the field, climb the dike, and engage the enemy.

Winters did not order his men to do this while he stayed behind. He didn’t gather his senior NCO’s, tell them the plan, and then wait in the rear for the results. He was crouched alongside of them. He held the canister that would – when activated – give the signal. He then pulled the pin, tossed the canister, rose up and started running across the field. It took a few seconds for the smoke to appear. His men – good soldiers – did as they were told. They waited for the red smoke. By the time they got the signal and started sprinting across the field, Winters was dozens of yards ahead of them.

Dick Winters led from the front. He told his men, “Follow me” and then took off, leading the way.

That’s the kind of leader men and women will follow. A leader who leads from the front.

On January 2, 2011, Richard Winters died at his home in Pennsylvania at the age of 92. He was a quiet leader of men, never looking for glory or chasing fame and fortune. Few would ever have even heard of Richard Winters had it not been for Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book Band of Brothers, for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks who produced the mini-series based on the book, and actor Damian Lewis who portrayed him in the mini-series.

In the HBO series, he recalled a question that a fellow veteran was asked by his grandson - which also sums up the character of Richard Winters: " 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said, 'No, but I served in a company of heroes.' "

Richard Winters also said, upon completion of his own memoirs: " 'Wars don't make men and women great. But it sometimes takes wars to bring out the greatness in men and women.' "

During a quiet moment on the evening of June 6, 1944, Richard Winters said that he prayed to God. "If somehow I manage to get home again, I promised God and myself that I would find a quiet piece of land someplace and spend the rest of my life in peace."

This is exactly what this leader of men did. After the war he married and bought a farm outside Hershey, Pa., where he spent the rest of his life.Maj. Richard "Dick" Winters, shown in this Sept. 22, 2002, photo, died Jan. 2 in central Pennsylvania, a family friend confirmed Monday. Winters' quiet leadership was chronicled in the book and television miniseries 'Band of Brothers.' He was 92.

Richard Winters no longer walks among us. But he still can inspire us to say, “Follow me” and then lead from the front.

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