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Monday, December 31, 2012

Is Christmas Over?

Manger and CrossChristmas Day in 1999 was on a Saturday. I preached at the three Christmas Services on Christmas Eve, then at the two Christmas morning services. Then I preached at the two Sunday morning services on December 26. I was pretty tired by Sunday afternoon – and a little glad that at least that part of Christmas was over.

That Sunday morning was the first time I noticed something. As I was driving into town to get to the church, I went past about a half dozen houses that had their Christmas trees lying at the curb of the streets.

It struck me as more than a little sad that people were throwing out their Christmas trees so soon after the presents were opened and the dinner was digested.

As the years have gone by, however, I feel a little more empathy to this idea. There is a sense of “being done” with Christmas – especially after such an early Thanksgiving. Our tree had to come down this weekend. Not because we wanted to be over and done with Christmas, but out of necessity. We cut down our tree at Richardson’s tree farm in Spring Grove the day after Thanksgiving. That was back on November 23! This past week –even though we’ve been diligent in watering the tree – it was dropping needles like crazy.

After the gifts have been unwrapped, after the visits are over with, after the leftovers are slim pickings, there is a sense of completion with Christmas by this weekend.

But even though we are mostly done with Christmas, something feels left undone.

This is the First Sunday of Christmas. Yes, Christmas is more than a day. It is a season. It is a short season – only 12 Days (hence the song) – that comes to a close with the Celebration of Epiphany on January 6.

In reality, we are only half-way through Christmas. Yet, the trees are coming down. Extended family is going home. All the movies have been watched – It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Most of the radio stations that have been playing Christmas music have gone back to regular programming.

I was sitting up last night reading in the glow of the Christmas tree lights and I felt that even though – for all intents and purposes –Christmas was over, I felt something has been left undone.

The Christmas story is glorious while at the same time familiar. Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Angels, Shepherds, and Gloria in Excelsis!

But that isn’t all there is to Jesus’ story. If all we do is listen to the Christmas story, by the time we get to the Shepherds returning to their fields and making plans to tell others about what they have seen, we really have only the beginning of the story.

It isn’t over, people. Christmas is just the beginning. If all we hear is the Christmas story, then we are left with a sense of “is that all there is?”

The answer is, “no, there is more!”

After Christmas comes Epiphany – the time we remember the presentations of Jesus. A better, more liturgical word would be “manifestations.” These manifestations are how Jesus was revealed as the Messiah, as the true Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world.

This short season of Christmas quickly turns to Epiphany.

And this year, Epiphany quickly turns to Lent.

Epiphany will begin with the Wise Men seeking Jesus, then quickly move to the Baptism of the adult Jesus and then, just as quickly, finish with the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Yes, there is more, much more, to this story of Jesus than just His birth that we celebrate at Christmas. After the Christmas story, about a month and a half after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought Him to the Temple and there met an old man named Simeon.

He was an old man by the time Jesus was born. He had been waiting for Christmas His whole life. That’s something to think about when we get impatient with the coming of Christmas in early December – as I remember being when I was a little boy! I couldn’t wait for Christmas to get here when I was young, feeling that the last two or three weeks were an eternity.

But Simeon had been waiting for possibly 70 years for Christmas to come.

He knew that it must be soon as he was getting up in years. He had the Lord’s promise that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).

After waiting so long, his story was nearing its end.

Finally, finally! It comes to completion for Simeon. The Spirit moved Simeon to be in the Temple the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in 40 days after His birth – to fulfill Mosaic Law.

Simeon’s response is glorious! It is a song the Church has been singing for centuries – usually after receiving the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. The song is titled “The Nunc Dimittus” – and we will sing it as most of us remember it being sung at the end of this worship service.

But let’s take a look at what Simeon says to Mary after this glorious song.

Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Simeon celebrates his first Christmas! But already he understands that there is more to the story!

Simeon is talking about the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Simeon is fulfilling his role as a prophet – foretelling that this child will grow up in order to fulfill God’s plan.

The wording is interesting. I think that the usual way of saying this phrase would be “rising and falling” – because you can’t fall until you rise. But Simeon – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – reverses this. He starts with falling and concludes with rising.

This tells us that Jesus will “make all things new.” He will tear down the established religions of men – all the false religions and traditions of people that only lead away from God. He will cause these to fall. He will bring it all down to the foundation and build anew.

As Jesus rises from the dead, He will raise us up as well. Yes, on the last day all will be raised – some to everlasting life and some to everlasting condemnation. But even now, Jesus is raising up a new people for Himself.

This is the Church, built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles – which is to say on God’s Word.

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection – His own “falling and rising” – we, too, will be made anew.

We make a lot of new things out of old. We call it recycling. This Christmas that quickly turns into Epiphany which will quickly turn into Lent, let’s recycle the wood we have used.

The manger that Mary used as a first crib for Jesus is no longer needed. Just like our Christmas trees that held the promise and hope of gifts and light and a glorious season are no longer need.

Let us recycle them, using the wood that once held the Promise into something – also wooden – that will hold the Promise again.

The manger – and our trees – can be recycled into a cross. For this Baby, whose birth we have celebrated, was born to be our substitute under the Law – fulfilling what was demanded of us but what we couldn’t do. He grew up to live the perfect life demanded. Then Jesus suffered and died on a cross – again, fulfilling the promise made “in the beginning” to Adam and Eve.

The cross – like the manger before it – held the Promised Messiah.

But the wood of the cross is also no longer needed. Jesus died “once, for all.”

So let’s recycle that wood yet again. We can use it build a vessel. An ark, if you will.

The Church is now being built – in each generation – on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. The manger once held the Promise. Then, too, the cross. Now the Church holds the promise of Jesus. But we also share the promise of Jesus with others.

Parts of Christmas may be over – the gift-giving, the trees, the leftovers, the visits. But the story is not yet complete.

And we still have a part to play in this story of Jesus – we are called to share the Good News of Jesus through our lives. Let’s do just that, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Get Back to Christmas

ChristmasMerry Christmas! It is my prayer that as we celebrate today, God would shower His blessings on us in such measure that we will flood our world with His love and peace as we anticipate the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ!

I’ve heard quite a bit lately the sentiment to “get back” to a more real Christmas. By “real” I think many people are thinking “simple” and “less commercial.”

This is a noble pursuit, but I wonder if we really understand just what that might entail. I suspect that it will also lead us to focus on the wrong things about Christmas and its season.

Today, we have gathered together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ! We have gathered together in Jesus’ name to worship our God who loves us! That’s about a “real” as Christmas could ever get!

Speaking of getting back” let’s look at the first verse of the Christmas Day Gospel – John 1:1.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. – John 1:1

With John’s Gospel we get all the way back to the Creation! John’s Gospel begins with the same words as the Book of Genesis, “in the beginning.

And look what is there! The first thing God says, according to Genesis 1, is “Let there be light!” There was darkness, and then there was light! Then there was darkness again – the darkness of sin.

But the creative light of God is not so easily dimmed!

On a dark night, over the fields of the little town of Bethlehem many thousands of years after creative light was spoken into existence, the skies exploded again with light!

A joyous light, and a message of song from the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

We sing the same song – as the Gloria in Excelsis – in many of our worship services to remind us that Jesus – the Light of the World – was born to be our substitute. In that sense, every Sunday is a little celebration of Christmas!

A lot of momentous things happen in the dark where, when light shines, it shines very bright.

In the Old Testament:

· The Creation of the World

· The First Passover

· The Victory of Gideon over the Midianites & Amelekites

But even more momentous, in the New Testament:

· The Birth of Jesus Christ

· The Death of Jesus Christ

· The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

The reason, I think, that all these momentous things happened “in the dark” – especially the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus – is because darkness is sometimes defined as the absence of light. For a Christian, then, there is no darkness because Christ forever shines in our hearts; we are reminded of this at every baptism and the giving of a candle.

And in the dark, light shines the brightest! This is especially so with the Light of the Word – Jesus Christ!

I’ve got even better news than the light shines on this Christmas morning! The Light comes to each one of you!

Now, you have two choices when it comes to what do to with the Light you receive. 1) Accept Jesus as He comes to you; or 2) reject Him because he doesn’t fit your idea of what the Messiah should be.

There is only one Jesus. And He’s not some good person. He’s not some moral teacher. He’s not some figment of a church’s imagination. He is – and always has been and always will be – the True Son of God! He was before the foundation of the world – which is exactly what John’s Gospel tells us in verse one. He was born of a Virgin Mary, in the family tree of King David and a descendent of Abraham. He lived a perfect life. Yes, tempted to sin as we are, but was, in fact, without sin. Still, He died a sinners death on the cross – also bearing the punishment of God for sin – for us! Three days after His death Jesus rose from the dead. Again, this took place before dawn on the first day of the week (therefore, in the dark!). And He ascended into Heaven with the promise that He would be with us always and would return to take us and all believers to heaven.

That’s who Jesus is. We either accept Him as He is or we reject Him as He is.

We can reject Him by trying to make Jesus into something He isn’t. Just some moral teacher or good person who had the unfortunate luck to get Himself killed. This shouldn’t surprise us, that people reject Jesus because He doesn’t fit their idea of a savior or messiah.

9The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11

It is being done today, isn’t it? It is being done by removing prayer and Bibles from schools. It is being done by making pronouncements that terror happens because God is angry with us. It is done today by dismissing the importance of worship and the fellowship of Bible study.

We have these two choices: accept Jesus as He comes to us (and, in so doing, do what He tells us to do as His followers) or reject Him because He doesn’t fit our idea of a savior or doesn’t fit into our lifestyle.

I give thanks to God that He is forgiving and merciful, and gives us these times of celebration to remember the glory of His Light.

The glory of Jesus as the Light of the Word born on Christmas is that He is full of grace. He was born, lived, died, rose and ascended to give us full, abundant and everlasting life!

And the truth is that He continues to be with us as the Son of God, as our savior from sin, and as our true and dearest friend.

No matter what we do, that grace and that truth remains – because He didn’t come because of anything we did and He doesn’t stay because of anything we do!

I know, we still try to convince ourselves that God loves us because of something we do – whether it is a certain style of worship, or whether is it based on what we give in the offering, or it is because of where we go to church or are a member.

But the truth is that God’s loves you and me in spite of us!

This is the Truth of Christmas. It is, I think, what people mean when they wish we could “get back” to the real meaning of Christmas. For many, the true Light of Christmas is dimmed by all the commercialism we see nowadays.

But this is nothing new.

Centuries ago the Puritans we hear so much about at Thanksgiving thought that they were ruining Christmas with all their pagan rituals. They especially objected to the fact that the holiday usually came on a week day, therefore distracting people, they thought, from the Lord's Day of Sunday. But they did more than annually complain about it as we do. They took action and got rid of Christmas altogether! In Puritan settlements across 17th century America a law was passed outlawing the celebration of Christmas. The market place was ordered to stay open for business as though it was no special occasion and all violators were prosecuted. It was against the law to even make plum pudding on December 25th. The celebration was not referred to as Yuletide but as fooltide.

So we want to reform Christmas and clean it up, do we? Well, is this how far we want to go? Do we really want to be rid of it altogether? Then will Christmas, as the Puritans thought, be saved from us and our sinful ways. So what if we spend $40 billion annually on presents. Can you think of a better way of spending all that money than on gifts of love? And most of them are just that. And so what if all the lights and tinsel do is create a fairy tale setting that soon disappears as does the so-called Christmas spirit. At least it lets us know, if only for a brief time, what life can be like if we only try.

So let the message ring out this day, not that we are destroying this holy day, but rather, that we can never destroy this day – and instead will receive the Person Who’s birth we celebrate as He comes to us!. Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas


Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

Christmas time is here
We'll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year...
-          Vince Guaraldi – Lee Mendelson

This song has been a part of my Christmas my whole life – literally. I was born in 1965 and that was the same year that A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered on CBS-TV. It is hard to imagine a Christmas in the United States without watching this beloved special. 50 million people are estimated to have watched it in 1965 and it has retained such ratings through the 47 years since.

At the heart of A Charlie Brown Christmas is, ironically enough, depression. Young Charlie Brown finds himself in a deep funk at Christmas time. Even though it is a white Christmas, even though there are presents, decorations, and all that we’re taught goes into making Christmas Christmas, Charlie Brown is not happy. He feels he should be, but can’t quite figure out why he is not.

Even though Charlie Brown is 7 or 8 years old, he’s an “every man.” He embodies the feelings of so many at this time of year. It is sad that so many people are depressed at what is supposed to be a joyous time of year. It isn’t hard to imagine why, though, is it? The stress and anxiety caused by difficult economic times, or the sadness of facing a Christmas for the first time without a loved one, certainly make Christmas a less-than-joyful time of year.

If you turn on the TV, you will be bombarded with the messages that all it takes to make Christmas Christmas will be “stuff.” A new car, new clothes, a bigger and better TV, cologne, perfume, a computer tablet, or simply money, money, money will put you in the proper Christmas mood.

This commercialism is bemoaned of in A Charlie Brown Christmas and, before that, Miracle on 34th Street, and even A Christmas Carol.

Charlie Brown’s beagle, Snoopy, is getting into the commercial mood of Christmas. Then there is Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally. Even his five- or six-year-old sister has been indoctrinated into the commercialism of Christmas. Even though she can’t write to Santa Claus herself, she does dictate the letter to her older brother and closes with a plan to make things easy on Santa, suggesting to him that he simply bring “$10’s and $20’s” as her Christmas presents!

I don’t have a problem with commerce. Bartering, buying and selling have been around for nearly as long as there have been people. And the topic of money is an important topic in the Bible, as it is mentioned over 2000 times (according to the website http://www.biblemoneymatters.com/bible-verses-about-money-what-does-the-bible-have-to-say-about-our-financial-lives/ accessed December, 2012).

Like most things, the problem lies in the mire of over-indulging in commercialism. Sally has made Christmas all about “getting all you can get while the getting is good” (actually a quote from the sequel to A Charlie Brown Christmas called It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown). Snoopy feels Christmas is another opportunity to win big prizes (by decorating).

Ironically enough, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was originally aired with several product placements by its original sponsor – Coca Cola – which made it difficult to edit for future airings (resulting in several scenes cut out entirely).

Charlie Brown seeks answers from Lucy – the neighborhood psychologist. Interestingly enough, Lucy diagnoses Charlie Brown’s problem as having to do with fear. She tries to find out what Charlie Brown is afraid of.

It seems to me that some people have trouble with Christmas because they are afraid – afraid of being alone, afraid of unrequited love, afraid of missing out of the joy they feel should be a part of the season. These are all understandable fears, to me at least. I feel that way because they are very real fears.

Lucy’s prescription for Charlie Brown is “involvement” – by which she means he should direct the Christmas Play. With this suggestion, Charlie Brown’s heart begins to melt and a genuine smile appears on his face for the first time.

Still, Charlie Brown hasn’t quite figured out what is missing. Even though it is clear that the Christmas play is the story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (there are shepherds, animals, an innkeeper and his wife, who has naturally curly hair), something is missing. The kids seem to know their parts and the parts that go with the story, but all they are interested in is dancing (having a good time).

Charlie Brown tries to capture the proper mood to get the play going – by providing a Christmas tree. But upon presenting a real Christmas tree, his fear comes crashing in on him when all the kids ridicule him and even his own dog rejects his contribution to the play.

In a final, desperate, act of supplication Charlie Brown cries out “Isn’t there anyone that can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

Linus chimes in with the true meaning of Christmas. He recites – from memory – the immortal words of the Gospel:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.”

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Yes, Christmas includes parties, presents, and poems set to music. It includes family and friends getting together, special movies and TV shows, lights and decorations.

But at its heart, Christmas is about alleviating fear. The fear of being alone, the fear of being rejected, the fear of being forever in despair.

Because those fears where exactly where the human race was, and was forever heading, unless God did something about it. And so God promised He would. And so God did as He promised.

Jesus Christ was born in the little town of Bethlehem. He grew up to live a perfect life. Then He took all the sins of the world on Himself and died on the cross. Three days later Jesus rose victorious from the dead – thus assuring all those who believe in Him would also rise from the dead one day. And then Jesus ascended into heaven but not before promising that He would return to take all those who have faith in Him to heaven with Him.

That’s what Christmas – that’s what Christ – is all about.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Anticipating Christmas


In A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving – which premiered on CBS-TV in 1972 – Sally bemoans the fact that she couldn’t go down to the store and by a “Turkey” tree because all the store had were things for Christmas. Her older brother, Charlie Brown, exclaims, “Christmas? Already?”

It seems that every year since then, stores have been rolling out their Christmas items and sales as early as late September.

Then there are the radio stations that devote their entire music programming to Christmas music – you know the ones I mean. They start the week or two before Thanksgiving and run through Christmas day or a few days after.

When I was an announcer / DJ at KFUO in St. Louis in the late 1980’s, I was given strict orders on the playing of Christmas music. None before December 1. Then, the first week of December I could play one Christmas song per shift, the second week I could play one Christmas song per hour, the third week, two Christmas songs per hour and the week before Christmas I could play three Christmas songs per hour. Christmas Eve we could finally play ALL Christmas songs.

Things have changed these days, that’s for sure.

Of course, you know that I absolutely LOVE the Advent and Christmas seasons. Our home is decorated with Blonski traditional decorations and I have my office decorated as well. I have Christmas music on in my office and at home. I look forward to producing my Classical Christmas radio program each year – and that airs from the day after Thanksgiving through to December 26 or so.

For me, the anticipation of Christmas is an integral part of the joy of this season. Shopping for the perfect gift, preparing the Advent and Christmas messages that I’ll preach or post on my blog, decorating, hosting get-togethers and attending others – all of this is part of my anticipation of Christmas.

Anticipation and expectation often are fused into one in many people. And when an expectation isn’t met, disappointment can quickly foul a mood.

I used to anticipate/expect a white Christmas each year and when it didn’t happen – as has been the case these past couple of years, especially – I would be in a funk.

But living in Southern California for four Christmases pretty much cured me of that, because you should not expect a white Christmas in the San Gabriel valley, where we lived. The mountains, yes, but not down at 1600 feet above sea level where our house was.

You need to be careful with anticipation and expectations – they should be reasonable and realistic. The older I get – and hopefully more mature – I tend to alter my expectations. I don’t necessarily lower my expectations so much as I “shift” them.

Today, a week before Christmas, let’s look at how we anticipate Jesus Christ.

As you read the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus did NOT meet the expectations of many, many people. He certainly DID meet the expectations of the Old Testament, but there was a disconnect with the people of 1st Century Israel.

His cousin John the Baptist even succumbed to the temptation to expect something “else” from Jesus. He was languishing in Herod’s prison, knowing that he’d probably die there very soon. He sends some of his disciples to Jesus to get some reassurance.

John’s fear was that he might have been mistaken in who he was looking for in the Messiah he was sent to prepare the way for.

I don’t know what John expected Jesus to tell him, but we do know what Jesus said, “tell John what you have seen and heard...” Jesus sends word back to John and says, basically, “Why look for another? I’m the one you expected and anticipated!”

What do we expect Jesus to be? The temptation at this time of year is to focus so much on the infant in a manger that we forget or even miss that the baby grew up, taught and preached and healed and loved for three years and then died a horrible death on a Roman cross.

The infant in a manger is, perhaps, easier for us to expect. It’s safe. In that manger, Jesus doesn’t talk, and so He can’t make demands of us and our time and things. He just sits there looking all cute and cuddly.

In other words, we are tempted to believe we can control or manage the infant Jesus. The music is beautiful, the decorations are warm and inviting, but what is expected of us is, at best, manageable and reasonable.

But with this kind of expectation we are sorely let-down, because this expectation doesn’t solve the stress, depression, anxiety or any of the other negative effects of the Christmas Holiday season.

This kind of expectation can lead to regarding worship and the fellowship of Bible study as a “take-it-or-leave-it” kind of proposition – with most opting for the “leave-it” part. This is not what God intended when the 3rd Commandment was laid down as law, nor what His inspired writers would say about gathering together for the breaking of bread, prayer and fellowship.

Thanks be to God that the infant Jesus was not all we got. We got the “whole package” of salvation – Jesus was born, He lived, died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

We live this salvation each time we worship – all the elements of it are in our worship services along with the Word of God and – every other week – the Sacrament of Holy Communion (where we digest the Word of God for the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation).

The music, the sights, the sounds, and the warmth of this holiday season can be a wonderful part of the expectation – Godly expectation – of our salvation. We need to keep the package together, though.

That’s what we get with Jesus – a complete package that needs to be received and used.

Here’s what I’d like you to do. Make plans now to participate in worship. Not just attend, but be an active participant in worship. And then make plans to participate in a Bible study – we have several here at the church but you can also do one at home with your family. Finally, make plans to have a personal or family devotion time – use the Portals of Prayer or the Lutheran Hour devotions we have here on the church office counter, or use one of your own.

Now, I can’t make any promises or guarantees about what will happen if you do all this – but God can and does: For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

And God’s Word also promises, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

Hold God to these promises as we anticipate Christmas and consider our expectations of this time of year. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving

In October of 1863, a group of Lutherans in what was then Russel's Grove, Illinois, banded together and formed St. Matthew Lutheran Church.

That same year, President Abraham Lincoln gave the following proclamation - Happy Thanksgiving!


The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to invite and provoke the aggressions of foreign States, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

The needful diversions of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship. The axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people; I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him that, for such singular deliverances and blessings; they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Abraham Lincoln.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What They Gave


Image courtesy of http://billcainonline.com/
On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave a short speech in a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We know it today as The Gettysburg Address. One of the phrases that jump out at me as especially meaningful is this one:

…from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion….

From the War of Independence to the current War on Terror – American men and women have given their last full measure of devotion for the cause of liberty and freedom.

They gave their all. They gave everything.

I'm asking my self today, what will I give?

When I dance, I don't dance with one finger. I put my whole body into it. I don't sing by simply moving my lips. The sound has to begin from deep within. I don't worship by reciting or hearing a few words. I open up my whole self to the Spirit of God. I give to this moment in God's presence - everything I  am. I am not talking about what amount of money I give to the church. I am talking about how much of myself I am called to give in living relationship with God and all creation. I am called to give - everything. And who is it who calls us to give everything?

I have to consider what my financial responsibilities are to the various communities in which I participate. But financial considerations and all considerations need to come from a total commitment to living with faith in God's creation. In the parable of the Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:41-44), the widow's two coins are not just money. They symbolize something. What do they symbolize? Everything. She gives her everything, her all. Parents sometimes ask me what the fee is for baptizing their children. There is no fee. The cost, however, is everything. The one who paid the cost calls us to follow him, to live and love with abandon, to give to life and all that participates in life, not a part of ourselves, but all of ourselves, everything.

The men and women who gave the last full measure of their devotion defending our liberties and freedoms – and those who survived their deaths – know this full well.

There is the story of George Adkins who fought in World War I. George joined up in 1915 at the age of 26. His brother, Marty, was killed in June 1916, and his brother, Bill, shortly after that. George alone, survived. After the war George married and resumed farming until his death in 1950.

A letter was written to George by a comrade a decade after the war.

The letter dated August 27th, 1928 was written by an I. W. Anderson. The most powerful part concerns the death of George's elder brother, Marty, or Mart, for short.

"You will remember after the June 3rd scrap, I was corralled for the Orderly room because of Sergeant Sharpe (the Orderly Room Sergeant) having been wounded. Well, if I remember rightly, Mart was killed the next trip into that hell-hole, which would be about the 18th of June, 1916, at a point, judging from where his body was found some 500 feet east of Maple Copse. I remember when his personal effects were taken from his body, we found a note - a note which left so deep an impression on me that I have never forgotten it and never will, for I consider it one of the sublimest (sic) acts of heroism of which I have ever heard, of which one seldom hears except in the pages of romantic fiction. The words were written after he was wounded and in the brief period before he died:

                         On the Battlefields of Flanders, Good bye Mother, good bye all.
                                                                                 Mart."

What do you make of a young man who with his last bit of strength writes a goodbye note to his mom, and then says good bye to all and signs his name. He sounds to me like someone who loved life and loved people.

The battles of the First World War were indeed hell, but here a man gives this overpowering expression of his humanity. Mart Adkins gave everything, not just his breath and his blood, but his soul. His brief words point to the absurdity of war. On the battlefields of Flanders, goodbye. Why should a young man from the other side of the world be mortally wounded on the battlefields of Flanders? He should be plowing and seeding and harvesting those fertile fields around his home. But a crisis much larger than himself called Mart Adkins, and he gave everything he had to its resolution. What blows me away is that he tries to communicate something before he dies. In saying goodbye to the living, he gives everything to life. In a dehumanized situation Mart Adkins says in this brief note, "I am a human being, born of a mother, and related to many others by blood and friendship. While I have this breath of life, my last thought is for my loved ones."

George, Marty and Bill Adkins gave everything. Marty and Bill gave everything and died in Europe. Bill gave everything and had to bear the burden of living with those memories and that grief. And yet living is a beautiful as well as a terrifying burden: missing loved ones, remembering their sacrifice, encouraging ourselves and others to be hopeful, and trying in our own lives to justify the many gifts to us and the many sacrifices made for us. It is wonderful that a decade after the war Mr. Anderson could write George Adkins and talk about both sides of their experience, the genuine bonds of friendship, and the terrible losses. 

Some might think that Mr. Anderson should have left it alone, and that the best thing for George Adkins would be to put the horror in a box and forget it ever happened.

But when we do that, when we deny what we have experienced, then we are only partly living. When we forget the special days set aside to remember and give thanks by making them just a day we get off work and school, by making them just  days to eat and have fun with family and friends, we ignore our collective historical experience, and is so doing we are only partly living.

But we are called to much more. These three brothers and all who served in our nation’s conflicts and who kept their humanity in an inhumane situation, they call us to live fully. By the example of their lives, they call you and I - to give everything.

I am struck by Jesus' words concerning the poor widow who put her two copper coins into the temple treasury. "She out of her poverty has put in everything she has." If we were thinking about giving a part of ourselves, wouldn't we look to our riches and our strengths? If I win the lottery, then of course I will have a few bucks to spare for some good causes. If I had a lot of teaching ability then I could give some of that teaching to others. If I had many lives to live, like one of the immortals on the Highlander movie and TV series, then I could be a soldier and risk one of those lives on the field of battle. But all I have is me, with all my limitations.

When I give from my riches, I am not risking too much. I still have plenty for my own security. Indeed I expect something in return for my giving so that I can add to my security. This is the transaction against which Martin Luther spoke with such passion - the notion that our good works secure us some measure of grace from God. But that isn’t true! God gives everything freely of His grace. That’s the message of the cross! And will we give a measured amount from our riches and expect a profit in return for our investment? George, Mart and Bill Adkins gave the life, the courage and the commitment they had. Their cause was something much greater than self-preservation.

When we have much and give little, then there is little meaning in our giving. The message of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that many gave so much – they gave everything! It wasn't a photo opportunity. Horrific circumstances forced them to put their lives on the line. Thanks to their sacrifice we now live. The men and women he remembered this day in 1863 call us to do more, to live a passionately in our time as they lived in theirs, to give as they gave, which means giving everything.

The most powerful thing we can give is when we give from our weakness, when a person who is nervous comes to the microphone to share her prayer, when a person who is not out-going opens up and smiles, when a rigid person connects with teenagers, when a person who never hugs opens his arms to someone in need. Mart Adkins was a soldier with a rifle, trained to kill, but he showed us that he was a human being connected with family and friends. The poor widow had two copper coins which together made one penny. She gave them both, because what she was really giving was herself. Take this to heart. For this is exactly what Jesus did – He gave His all: His very life on the cross for you. Where do you see people giving their all? I am glad that men like Stephen and Hugh Ambrose (Band of Brothers, The Pacific) gather the stories of the soldiers who fought in the wars. We need to hear their stories.

But I think we can also look at the persons around us in the pews. They have powerful stories. Perhaps they don't see them as powerful. Perhaps the power is something that God wants us to see, as we open our hearts, as we listen to each other, as we find the courage to live more fully. God help us all to share our strengths and weaknesses, to live with intelligence but not limited by fear, to live with passion, but the kind that builds rather than tears down. May the Spirit empower us to give to the Giver of life, not a pittance, nor a portion nor a part, but everything.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving


Charlie Brown is as traditional to Thanksgiving as turkey, pumpkin pie and football.

Speaking of football, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving begins with Lucy convincing Charlie Brown that place-kicking a football on Thanksgiving is a great honor. It usually is a great honor to be part of anything that is steeped in tradition.

But of course Charlie Brown will never kick that football; at least not as long as Lucy is the holder!

This scene serves to remind us that traditions sometimes do fade away. One of the most long-standing traditions in the world is that of Passover. It has been a part of the Jewish faith for nearly 3500 years. But it was not something that was traditionally celebrated at first – not like it is now. In fact, the Bible makes a big deal about the first couple of times that the Children of Israel actually celebrated Passover (or the Feast of Unleavened Bread) because they did NOT traditionally celebrate every year.

Traditions are important. Every family has its own traditions.

Holidays – for adults at least – can be very stressful times. Not so much for kids, although Charlie Brown is an exception. He even says clearly that Thanksgiving is “another holiday to worry about.” Charlie Brown’s worries about this particular Thanksgiving are that he has three, somewhat uninvited, guests coming for the holiday dinner. While his sister Sally offers an explanation for why this has happened – because Charlie Brown is so “wishy-washy” – there is probably a better reason. The worry that accompanies many holiday traditions comes from a need to please.

Charlie Brown has a need to please other people. This is something that is, to a certain degree, in every person. We want people to like us. We want to make other people happy. And when people have company coming over, people usually have a desire to feed them well. Charlie Brown’s dilemma is that not only does he have three guests coming for Thanksgiving dinner, his culinary prowess is limited to “cold cereal and maybe toast.”

But for all of Charlie Brown’s wishy-washiness, he is not without friends who will help him in his desperate hour. Linus, Snoopy and Woodstock will all help

Snoopy learns the lesson that with every traditional holiday there are sometimes battles to be fought. Deadlines to meet, menus to fill, gifts to be bought, cleaning, setting the table, etc. Snoopy’s battles happen to be with ping-pong tables and chaise lounges.

But soon, Snoopy orchestrates a new traditional meal.

Charlie Brown’s New Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner is:

Two slices of buttered toast,
Some pretzel sticks,
A handful of popcorn, and
A few jelly beans.
  
Of course, Peppermint Patty is not happy with this new tradition. Oh, and by the way, Peppermint Patty is a girl. There seems to be some confusion as to that recently. She’s what used to be called a “tom-boy,” a girl who tends to do things that are more traditional for boys to do: play baseball, wear comfortable clothes, stuff like that.

Patty takes out her anger on her host, breaking his heart. Patty then is reminded what Thanksgiving is really all about. It isn’t about a meal – it is about being thankful for what you have.

You and I have plenty to be thankful for – Jesus Christ being at the top of the list. His salvation given to us as a free gift is the reason we should be thankful, especially at this time of year. Because our sins are forgiven, we can get together and get along with our family and friends. Even at what can be a stressful time of year!

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving closes with a reminder that while the real Thanksgiving is more than a meal, we should not forget the meal!

It doesn’t have to be turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. It can be salmon steaks with oyster sauce. It can be PP&J’s with cold milk.

But each meal is important, so much so that the Bible refers to heaven as a banquet, a feast to come.

So this Thanksgiving, as you gather around a meal with your family and friends, remember to give God thanks for all His gifts to you, number one of which is Jesus Christ! Don’t let the holiday stress you out, enjoy it and help others to enjoy it and give thanks.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Thank You, Veterans


Stephen Ambrose, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have done a great service to my generation and those younger in that they remind us why we are free to blog, make movies, vote, travel, and live as we do.

Their books, movies, and TV series bring to life the men and women who fought, bled, and some who died, to keep us free. Band of Brothers, the Pacific, Citizen Soldiers, etc. all tell a story - a true story - that needs to be told to us and our children.

But I also thank another author by the name of Marcus Brotherton. He has brought to the forefront some of the men that didn't make it to the forefront of those other men's stories. Brotherton tells the stories of Shifty PowersEd Pepping, Earl "One Lung" McLung, Forest Guth and others. They were just as much heroes as Richard WintersBill Guarnere, and Buck Compton - and Winters, Guarnere and Compton would be the first to tell you that.

Recently I met another hero of World War II - my word, not his. In fact, he seems to think his service to be no big deal. I'm sure no one would ever write a book or make a movie about his war exploits. But what he did was no less important than anyone else's contribution to the war effort.

His name is Daniel Brown. As far as I know he never fired a rifle in combat, never even saw a battle. Brown served in the Army Air Force as a mechanic - specifically responsible for B-29's. When not serving in the States, he was stationed in Panama. No battles were fought there. 
But of course, the Panama Canal was of vital strategic importance.

Dan Brown left his wife Betty and all his family to serve in the Army Air Force. He knew that going into battle was a distinct possibility. But go he did because our country needed defending. He put aside his own comforts and dreams - for a time - to do the job that needed doing. That is what a leader does. Dan Brown continues to lead today and is teaching me what it means to be a leader and a true man.

"Doc" Brown and all those who served -whether in battle, in support, or in the states - deserve our recognition and thanks. I love spending an hour or two with him and his wife, Betty, as they tell stories of the war years and after. "Doc" Brown came home to his wife, started a family, lived his life in the freedom that he served to protect.  He went on to become a cop and later a chiropractor. Betty was a dancer and musician. Both were - and are, today - active in their church and share the love of Jesus Christ with everyone they meet.

Just two of the wonderful people we should all thank on this Veterans Day.

So stop a vet today, tell him or her thanks. After all, you owe them a lot!

Happy Birthday, U.S. Marines


Image courtesy of Pam King.
Edward Schiffmann Wear joined the United States Marines during World War II and was sent to the Pacific Theater. He was the brother of Irene Wear – my grandmother. He died during the Battle of Iwo Jima. The story is told in my family that as he died, he was praying the Lord’s Prayer with a chaplain.

Achieving the rank of Corporal in the 9th Marines Regiment, my great uncle answered the call of his country to defend her freedom against an aggressor nation.
He was one of the 6,812 Americans killed or missing on Iwo Jima.

A man I never met who died long ago and far away continues to have a tremendous impact on my life. My mother still talks about him to this day. She has been sharing stories of her memories of him with me the last couple of days. Yet, I still hardly know anything about him. I don’t know what his favorite food was. I don’t know what he thought of being the youngest to three sisters. I don’t know how he felt about living in the city of Chicago but spending his summers on Long Lake.

In spite of this I still feel tremendously proud, and humbled at the same time, that I am part of his family.

The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the most important battles of the Pacific side
Image courtesy of iwojima.com
of World War II. It has become iconic of the sacrifice, determination and leadership that United States Marines personify in today’s world.

Called by some the “Greatest Generation,” most of the men and women who answered their country’s call to fight in World War II did so not for glory or fame, but to do a job that needed to be done. They came from all walks of life. Some, like my great uncle, from humble beginnings. Many, again like my great uncle, went to war never to return to the United States alive.

But as far as I am concerned, they did not die in vain. They died, in part, for me. They died for you and for all Americans as well as for all peace- and freedom-loving people around the world. They made the ultimate sacrifice so that I could be free to worship, work, play, and live as I choose.

In this way, they are a lot like Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ laid down His life so that others – the world, in fact – could be free from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus Christ personifies the United States Marines motto – Semper Fidelis – “Always Faithful.”

United States Marines have been protecting these freedoms longer than there has been a United States. Formed on November 10, 1775 in Philadelphia, men and women who served as U.S. Marines have been making sure that the United States is protected from those who would take our freedom away.

Happy Birthday, United States Marines. May God always bless and protect you as you are always faithful to corps and country.

Monday, October 29, 2012

I Appreciate You, Pastor


A repost from last October. Still relevant!

I've been a pastor for a little over 16 years. I've told people in the past that I'm a pastor because, 1) I feel I've been called by God to be a pastor and 2) I don't know what else I could do (or would want to do) with my life.

I first served as a pastor in a rather small parish in rural Michigan. A lovely church called Christ Lutheran Church. The people there were very welcoming and the call came with a nice home for my wife and I and our dog Seamus - and a year after we arrived, our first son, Eddie.

After two years there, I received a call to serve as Associate Pastor at a larger church -with a school - in Mayville, Wisconsin. I served under a very experienced Senior Pastor who was soon to retire. It was made clear to me that I would succeed him as Senior Pastor when he retired, and that is what happened two years after I arrived. While there, my wife and I welcomed Kurt and Mark to our family.

After 8 years in Wisconsin, I was called to Southern California and served a similar parish for exactly four years. I was a sole pastor for two years, and a Senior Pastor for two years while in California -with an Associate Pastor of Indonesian Ministry.

A little over a year ago my family and I left California to return to Illinois where I grew up. I was helping out in a local church and within a year was called to be the Assistant Pastor.

I mean no disrespect to the pastors I was privileged to serve with in previous parishes, but for the first time I am serving in a church where I feel that I have a pastor of my own. I was the pastor or on a staff of pastors in previous parishes. But I never really felt that I had a pastor who I could talk with, pray with, and be counseled by, before.

I do now.

Pastor Tim is someone I've known for about 10 years. But now that I am serving in a church with him, I have gotten to know him pretty well.

And I am very glad to call him my pastor.

Pastor Tim prays with me. That's huge. I never realized before just how powerful it is to have a pastor pray with me. I've prayed with people, as their pastor, but I've never prayed with someone who was my pastor (again, no disrespect meant to the pastors I had when I was a young boy and young man).

Pastor Tim also gives me advice. He tells me when I've messed up - in a loving, gentle, but instructive way.

Pastor Tim also teaches me how to be a better man, a better husband, a better father, and a better pastor. He shares with me his own experiences in each of those areas. He gives me "back-up" from God's Word. He administers the Sacrament of Holy Communion and pronounces Holy Absolution when I confess my sins to him.

So, during this month of October - Pastor Appreciation Month - I want my pastor (and you) to know that I appreciate him!

Heavenly Father, we thank you today for your work in creation and the abundant blessings that we have as Your children.

We thank you for the glorious gospel; the gift of your Son Jesus Christ as the one mediator between God and man.

Thank you for the church, the company of the redeemed, and for the local church where believers gather to express their faith and obedience such as we do here at St. Matthew.

Thank you for the gift of pastor, which your Word says you gave to your church "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12, 13).

Thank you for Pastor Tim and his faithfulness to your cause, for the Bible says, "it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful" (1 Corinthians 4:2).

Thank you for his personal commitment to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savoir and to the Word of God.
Thank you for the love he has for his wife and family demonstrating a stable and healthy family.  For the Scripture says of church leadership, "he must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect" (1 Timothy 3:4).

Thank you for his thoughtful exposition of your Word, as he heeds your call to "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2).

Thank you for his leadership in our church services and the orderly manner in which he leads us, seeking to fulfill the Biblical call that "all things be done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:40).

Thank you for his interest in the flock under his care and the burden that he carries for your people.
Thank you for his wife Deb and her compliment to his leadership and her service and thoughtfulness as well.

May you continue to bestow your richest blessing upon this ministry couple as they seek to fulfill their call amongst the people of St. Matthew and thus bring You glory.

In the powerful name of Jesus Christ I pray, AMEN.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Making Treasure from Junk

Image10082012101242Don is an older gentleman who I recently visited at his home. He’s the dad of one of my very best friends. Don and his wife Jane still live in the same house that I used to visit when hanging out with their son when we were in high school.

Don is in his 80’s now. He suffered a stroke a couple of years ago but has recovered pretty well. When I visited him, he and his lovely wife and I caught up on what was happening in our lives. I could tell, however, that Don was waiting to tell or show me something that meant a lot to him.

All through the first part of our visit he had a twinkle in his eyes and he could barely sit still because he was excited. I finally asked, “So, what are you doing these days?”

Don jumped up and said, “Let me show you!”

He led me down to the basement, to his workshop. In his workshop were table saws, lathes, power grinders, and tools. Hanging from the beams were old, big keys – like the kind that open dungeons. Old spoons, knives, and hand tools were displayed on boards, stored in open boxes and scattered on the work bench.

Don and Jane visit antique shops and events through the Midwest and collect rusted tools, knives, utensil and the like. Don then takes them back to his workshop, cleans them up, and re-sells them at antique shows. As Don was showing me his workshop, I could tell that he had a passion for this. As I thought about it later, I came to the realization that I wanted to have that kind of passion about something – and I do.

Cleaning up bits of junk and old tools isn’t something the world would find worthy of time or passion, and maybe in and of itself it isn’t. But for Don it is something that he can do with his time, his hands, and his mind. He can give himself to this activity. His reward is to see something beautiful come from something that had been rusted, dirty, and discarded. He makes treasure out of junk.

And, of course, this is exactly what God does with me. He took a broken, sinful man, and made me a husband and father and pastor. Not that I think I’m some kind of treasure, but I do treasure the calling God has given me in all three of those areas. I’m able to love – and be loved – by a beautiful woman. I’m able to love and share and cultivate three young men into men of God. I’m able to teach and preach about the love of Jesus Christ with people at my church and in my community.

When Don is able to grind and buff off the rust of a 100 year old hand tool, he makes it new and usable again. I’m thankful that God continues to do that to me, too!

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