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Archive for the ‘Choosing/Choices’ Category

I have double confession to make: 1. I am not good at giving gifts. I love to help, be generous, but gift-giving is not my spiritual gift. 2. I am not very good at receiving gifts either, a weakness for sure. I am way too German/Schwaebisch, which means I am terrible with “Kitsch,” useless, knick-knack, cheap stuff. When it comes to gifts the running joke and question in my family is whether I am going to take things back and exchange them. I am slowly improving, thanks to intensive tutoring by Susie (my wife, who is super good at the gift and receiving of gifts thing), but progress has been very slow.

Christmas is about giving and receiving, specifically God giving and us receiving. Above anything else, this Christmas would you think about, contemplate God giving us the ultimate gift (2 Corinthians 9:15) and your response to this gift of Jesus Christ.

However, before reflecting on God’s “indescribable gift,” Jesus Christ, think about everything else you have received from God. Let’s start from the very beginning. Your life, your first heartbeat, your first breath, all the way to this present moment is a gift from God. Your ability to laugh, cry, feel, do good, think, and chose, are all things God gave to you and me. The characteristics that make you you and me me, whether it is our tenacity, courage, boldness, tenderness, kindness, intelligence, handiness, …, are from God as well. The “lucky breaks,” the opportunities, the things you survived, can also be traced back to the giving heart of God. The fact is you and I have received from God all our lives, from the very beginning until now. It makes no difference whether you acknowledge this fact or sneer at it, it still stands as the truth; the only difference is that acknowledging it will make you grateful and not doing so will render you ungrateful, acknowledging it will cause you to have an increasing sense of responsibility towards God, disavowing it will cause you to be blind in your responsibility towards God. It is not a matter of whether you have received from God all your life but whether your life expresses your gratitude towards God.

Esau (Genesis 25-27, 25:34, 27:38) was born before his twin brother Jacob, which, in his ancient culture, meant he also got the significant firstborn rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately, he could have cared less about these gifts from God (admittedly, it is often hard to think of responsibilities as gifts), so in a careless moment he literally sold his birthright for a pot of stew, for mere pocket change. And he regretted it bitterly when it was too late. How grateful and careful are you for and with all God has given you up to this point in your life?

Esau is not in lonely company when it comes to being ungrateful for what God gave him, being careless with what God entrusted to him, shirking the responsibilities God handed to him. He is not the only sinner, the only one who has blown it, the only one who exchanged God’s gifts for something far less. No, you and are sitting right next to him in this historical boat (Romans 3:23). Which brings us back to Jesus, back to Christmas, back to God’s greatest gift, the gift that can save sinners, the gift that can help ungrateful screwups like you and me find forgiveness, restoration, and salvation. But like all gifts, it won’t benefit you unless you receive it, in this case him, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, God the Son, the Savior of the world.  “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of Go” John 1:12 (NIV).

To God be all glory. Let’s get ready for Christmas, Pastor Hans

 

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It looked terrible, totally unappetizing, no way I was going to eat those two large Mason jars filled with canned steelhead. “That’s an awesome gift,” my friend, who knew the giver, “He doesn’t give these to just anybody, and two jars at that.”

“Well, it might be a real special gift, but there is no way I am going to eat that. It looks sick. You can have ‘em.”

“I’m not going to take them unless you taste some,” he said while opening one of the jars. He got two forks and scooped out a big bite with his, “Mmmh, mmmh! that’s good,” he grunted.

So, I reluctantly followed his lead and stabbed myself a little piece, closed my eyes and stuffed it into my mouth, “Wow! That is incredible. You’re not getting this, you can get your own jars,” I informed him, while he just grinned from ear to ear.

I almost gave away a special gift and missed out one of the most delicious things I‘ve ever tasted, simply because I didn’t like the way it looked and because I was I was unwilling to open the jar and give it a try. I can’t tell you how often I have seen the above play out spiritually.

We are meant to grow “in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) after we made commitment to follow him, after we put our faith and trust in Christ to save from our sins, from the power of death, and from the eternal judgment of God. For that growth to take place we must open the food pantry of God’s written word (the Bible), take the lids off the jars we find there, and start eating what is in them.

The good news is that not everything in God’s word looks as unappetizing as those jars of canned steelhead. Peace and joy look pretty good me, as does living without debt, having a clear conscience, being hopeful, good habits, getting a handle on anger, … On the flipside our old self, our old habits, our sinful nature have little appetite for whatever God gives us, delicacy or not. Our old self is perfectly content with both spiritual fast food and junk food, with living according to our old ways, according to our own opinions and preferences, and settling for little or no spiritual growth. James indicts the readers of his letter (including us) for looking at God’s cupboard stocked with stuff to help us grow, only to walk away to eat what we have always eaten, to do what we have always done, “… ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.  But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror.  For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.  But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does” James 1:21-25 (HCSB).

In the immediate context James pulls four jars out of God’s spiritual growth pantry and opens them up while handing you and me a fork. The first jar addresses how we need to deal with anger (1:19-20), the second is about our need for staying spiritually and morally clean (1:21, 27b), the third is about having a godly mouth with Christlike responses (1:26), the fourth jar is meant to help us grow in our responses to people with needs, to people who often forgotten and oppressed (1:27a), and the (1:21&27b).

You can show up Sunday after Sunday and have the preacher tell you about how delicious the stuff in these jars is, you can read your Bible every day and become an expert in reading the labels on the jars, in your small group Bible study you can discuss in great detail the nutrition information on the back of each jar, you can become good at identifying people who are obviously not eating what is in those jars, and yet never put the fork in your mouth yourself.

The way spiritual growth works is that we have to apply what is in the jars at the very moments their content directly applies, when I am angry, when I am confronted with moral filth within or without, when my mouth spouts ugly, when I am confronted with needs and am called upon to help. If I don’t use my fork there and eat I will not grow.

Spiritual growth does not take place by neatly organizing the cupboard, by having all the labels pointing into the same direction, by memorizing the inventory. It takes place when we take out the right jar and eating it all right when and where it applies. If, after deciding to follow Christ, the way I handle my anger has not changed, if my mouth is as negative, vile, judgmental, and unkind as ever, if my response to the needy, forgotten, and oppressed remains apathetic and uninvolved, then I have simply been looking at the jars without eating what is in them.

Get out your fork, eat what God in his word is currently setting before you. You will be amazed at how good it is, and your growth will become evident to all.

To God be all glory. Love you, Pastor Hans.

 

 

 

 

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Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
1 Corinthians 5:6-8 (ESV)

If you were in the direct path of a category 5 hurricane and someone told of a way to keep you, your family, and your neighbors completely save, would you pay attention? If that person told you that you not to board up the house but instead have a barbeque with some very specific ingredients and instructions, would you take her serious, or would you politely smile and get the plywood, hammer, and nails?

A spiritual storm was brewing in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians had turned on people they once had invited, the Hebrews. Their solution was to oppress this growing minority who was threating to dilute all things Egyptian, so they reduced them to the status of slaves. What the Egyptians didn’t know was that God, for reasons only known to himself, has a special place in his heart for the Hebrews and for all who are oppressed. When the Hebrews demanded liberty, the right to leave, Pharaoh and the Egyptian leadership balked and cracked down harder. Even repeated calamities (known as the 10 plagues) that were unquestionably by the hand of God did not soften their hearts and change their minds and policies. (I wonder what kind of spiritual and political stubbornness, directly opposed to God’s will, besets you and me?) The last of the 10 judgments was that God would strike every male firstborn in Egypt dead. I wonder if the Egyptian leaders laughed in disbelief when Moses announced it to them. After all, how could that possibly happen? I wonder what the Hebrews thought when Moses told them of both the judgment and the only way to escape it. Which brings us back to the barbeque, better known as the Passover (Exodus 12).

Passover is so called because those who observed the first Passover where kept save from the judgment of the death of the firstborn, the angels dispatched to carry out this particular judgment “passed over” every home with the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorjamb and lintel. Besides slaughtering, grilling, and eating sheep or goat yearling, they were also supposed to bake only unleavened bread, and supposed to be ready and dressed to leave Egypt for good. Every Passover since recalls and remembers this event, and that in the wake of it the Egyptians finally relented and let Hebrews leave.

So, what did this have to do with Corinthians Christians (Greeks) 1500 years later, and how is this relevant to you and me 3500 years later? The greatest storm, the final calamity, the full judgment of God regarding all mankind, including you and me, is still to come, and we only have this life to prepare for it. There is no second chance after the night of death, “the day of the Lord?” We like the ancient Hebrews need both liberation and protection from God’s judgment, we need to leave the land of slavery and journey into God’s promises. Sin will not release its slaves voluntarily and God’s judgment will not just arbitrarily pass us by, we need salvation. Without the blood of Jesus Christ, the unblemished sinless lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, without his blood applied to the doorposts of our lives, we will not survive when God will summon the living and the dead before his throne of judgment. The ancient Passover points to the ultimate Passover, Jesus Christ.

So, in the ancient Passover the lamb is Jesus, the blood is his, the bread without leaven, Christ the sinless one. We are the ones dressed to journey, ready to live by faith, willing to trust the word and promises of God, leaving sin (leaven) and its slavery behind, ready to build a different kind of world, one that reflects the rulership, the holiness, and the heart of God.

You would think that all of this is a no brainer, but it wasn’t for the ancient Egyptians, nor was it for the Hebrews, or us today. The Egyptians hung on to their gods, even when they were exposed as impotent and dead idols, just like we hang on to our own beliefs and opinions. The Hebrews constantly wanted to go back, they wanted something less challenging than a life of faith, even if it meant slavery. The Corinthians divorced religious ritual from affecting real life, they hung the traveling clothes in the closet and sang to Jesus while being morally corrupt gorging on leavened bread. And then of course there is us, you and me. What is, and what will be your Passover reality?

T God be all glory. Love you, Pastor Hans.

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How much can one story change things?

What comes to your mind when you hear or read the word, “Samaritan?” Chances are high that you associate “Samaritan” with someone who cares, someone who helps people in need, in fact very often you will find the adjective “good” added to Samaritan. This wasn’t always so. Most of the people who listened to Jesus the day he told the story of what we now call the parable of the Good Samaritan thought of the Samaritans in entirely unfavorable terms. Being called a “Samaritan” was a racial slur, a putdown, a declaration of being part of a people who were no good, were untrustworthy, and who had a long history of religious impurity and compromise. Worthless people, people you avoid, people you wished lived far away or not at all. When Jesus took his disciples through Samaria (a route serious Jews avoided) his disciples couldn’t wait to get out of there, so much so they were going to miss the kingdom opportunities staring them in the face (John 4:4-43).

Who are the people you don’t care for? You want to get away from as fast possible? Who represent to you all that wrong with the world? Who couldn’t possibly do much good if any at all? Who have this really lousy reputation? Who are discardable, dispensable, and reprehensible in your social, cultural, political, and religious context? Who couldn’t possible become an example of anything good?

Jesus told just one story (Luke 10:25-37), in the context of being asked about how to inherit eternal life and a subsequent question about whom we should love and whom we are free not to love and care for. Just one story of a right, caring, courageous, and generous act by a Samaritan, of all people, changed the way an untold multitude has thought of Samaritans across centuries all the way till now.

Beyond the larger context Jesus clearly reminded the questioner and all those listening in, including us, that we are constantly living in a story, and how we act our story makes a big difference, identifies who we really are, and what we want our world to be like.

Over the years I have officiated at hundreds of funerals, listened to thousands of stories being told, many, if not most recounting episodes of lives lived in selfish pursuits, of good times, funny incidents, personal successes, and too often of even the questionable dressed up to sound good. On the other hand, rare are the stories that tell of watershed moments, of when God-ordained detours where embraced, when self was denied in favor of doing what is right, and good, and godly. Stories of when new reputations were forged, when evil was defeated, when someone put him or herself in the hand of God and said, “Write away O God! Write what makes a difference, what counts, what epitomizes what caring, loving, and eternal values are all about.”

It is our great struggle, isn’t it, which stories to write and which to bypass, what to engage with and what to ignore, what to open our heart to and what to close it to, how comfortable and safe to be and when where to risk it, how much of God’s most fundamental commands to fully embrace or to justify settling for less. Jesus was unambiguous in his parting words to the one who prompted the story in first place, “Go and do likewise.”

 

To God be all glory. Love you, Pastor Hans

 

 

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Of Wind, Fear, Ignorance, and Hard-hearted Christians

And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.  And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them,  but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out,  for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”  And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. Mark 6:47-52 (ESV)

Jesus’ followers, his disciples, Christians are supposed to have growing, tender, compassionate, merciful, and visionary hearts and minds, but the disciples’ hearts “were hardened,” their understanding was lacking. Why?

  1. The winds were contrary – Giving in

It is frustrating when you are rowing for hours and aren’t getting anywhere, when you get blown backwards the second you relax. We live in times of   contrary winds, in constant gusts of fear, terror, senselessness, corruption, and violence. It is easy to have your heart grow hard there, to simply give   yourself over to the direction of the winds of our times, to be swept up by nationalism, racism, extremism, or escapism and apathy.

  1. They saw a “ghost” – Returning to old scripts and ways

They went right back to thinking and reacting like they would have before they met Jesus, to who they were and believed before they responded to   Jesus’ call to follow him. They returned to their version of syncretism, their preferred spiritual drink made up of the religion they were raised in, their       cultural superstitions, and their personal fears. Just like us, they chucked all they knew about Jesus, all he had taught them, all the experiences they had with him, the moment something looked and felt frightening. I am amazed at how many of my brothers and sisters and Christ are falling headlong to         the frightening things of our day, to the rhetoric of fear, to the thinking we have to old onto all that is dear to us before we lose it all and in the process have no vision and hunger for Christ’s kingdom, which is marked by love, justice, life, and all things of eternal value. Jesus first words to his tired,             frustrated, and frightened disciples was, “It’s me! Don’t be afraid.”

  1. They did not understand – they had not learned from the past

They failed to connect what Jesus had just demonstrated to them earlier in the day to their present situation, to their fears, and to override their old    ways of seeing and responding to things. They really did not understand, but Jesus thought they should have. Christians should know by now that    the results are disastrous, bloody, cruel, and outright evil when nationalism, racism, atheism, and extremism is let out of the box, even, or especially, if it is mixed with a little Bible. They should have known that     Jesus could and would take care of them that they had nothing to fear, that he who sent them to go across the lake would also get them there regardless of the winds, regardless of their fears, and regardless of how difficult things were.

So how are the winds of our time affecting you my brothers and sisters in Christ? How filled with fear, trepidation, and negativity are you? Which voices are you listening to, who has your ear? Are you applying the lessons Jesus has taught you in both life and the scriptures to the present, to your fears, to the current issues, to your politics, to your engagement with our world as a servant of Jesus? Or are you adjusting scripture to accommodate your easier sailing, to give your fears free reign, to excuse your negativity, to settle for something less than Christ’s kingdom, to justify the unjust, to mix the drink you like and have always liked? Is your understanding of Christ and his kingdom (rule) growing, is your heart growing softer?

Regardless of the frightening winds of our time Jesus still says to us, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

To God be all glory. Love you, Pastor Hans

 

 

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Our entire lives we are always going “though it.” You are going “through it” right now, just like you were going “through it” yesterday, and as sure as you will go “through it” tomorrow, whatever your “through it” might be. It is impossible to escape “going through it.”

Before one “through it” ends one or more “through its” have already started, like just when childhood ends puberty is already beginning. Many, many “though its” come our way without ever asking for permission to enter our lives, others are the results of our own choices, both wise and foolish.

Some “through its” we don’t mind, the comfortable ones, those without worries, where you laugh lot, feel good, and things are going great. We would like for those “through its” to last, to be the normal. We do so because we all too familiar with the other kind of “through its”, the kind we loathe, dread, hate, that keep us from what we really would love to go “through.” Those “through its” bend life with pain, grief, fear, suffering, burdens, worry, sins and evils of all kinds. Those “through its” love to show up far more often and stick around much longer than we want them to. In fact, they are good in making us wonder if are ever going to make it “through them,” and at times whether or not we are going to make it “through them” at all, like the Apostle Paul, We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it” 2 Corinthians 1:8 (NLT).

Since we can’t avoid “going through it,” it makes a big difference how we go through the highs and the lows, the joys and sorrows, the good and the bad, the mundane and the thrilling, the unbearable and the delights life has us “go through.” It makes a big difference if faith in the one true and living God marks our life or not. It makes a big difference whether or not we take our cues from Jesus whatever we “go through.” It makes a big difference we see no purpose behind that which we’d rather not “go through.”

Followers of Christ, Christians, are not exempt from the “go-throughs” of life. In fact being committed to Jesus will have you go through things you would not naturally chose to go through and top of the regular “go-throughs.” In all of that “going through,” the goal of the believer is never just to get “through it,” but live out the will of God to the glory of God and to the exaltation of Christ in all that God allows us, prompts, and calls us to “go through.” The Christian is never devoid of purpose in the “going through” of life, nor are God’s children ever alone in whatever we are going “through.”

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.  For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Romans 8:28-31 (NLT)

Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:23-26 (ESV)

There’s no getting away from “going through it,” but we do get to chose how and with whom we go through it.

 

To God be all glory. Love you, fellow “goer-througher, Pastor Hans

 

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Want to do something that is really good for you? Practice kindness, “A man (person) who is kind benefits himself but a cruel man hurts himself” Proverbs 11:17 (ESV, parenthesis mine.)

Anything make you grumpy? Susie’s dog continually chewing up irrigation lines instantly wakens my inner grump. Somebody treating me like I don’t have a brain has their finger on my grumpy switch. Whining, constant negativity, laziness, stupidity, action-less complaining creates this fast spinning, downward sucking whirl, at the bottom of which my inner grump dwells. Just thinking about what makes me grumpy makes me grumpy. I wish my list was shorter.

The absence of kindness, grumpiness unchecked and excused, is the dance floor of cruelty. Cruel words, cruel intentions, cruel actions, and cruel laws execute fancy choreography dressed in self-righteous clothes, hollow justifications, damning humor, cutting sarcasm, intellectual hubris, and stubborn ignorance. It is a short and crowded walk from grumpiness to cruelty.

Kindness contains mercy and mercy is never without kindness, they benefit both the giver and the recipient, in other words they are always a win win proposition. On the other hand no one really benefits from grumpiness and cruelty, they always injure everybody. This is why Jesus and the scriptures unequivocally and uncompromisingly tell us, encourage us, and command us to unilaterally practice kindness and mercy (Galatians 5:22; 2 Peter 1:7; Matthew 5:&; 2 Timothy 2:24; Proverbs 3:3, 19:22). We are to practice kindness not merely in response to kindness coming our way, no, we are to be kind and merciful (Ephesians 4:32) and have kindness and mercy mark all of our actions, be our normal response. It is the only way to disarm grumpiness and cruelty whenever and wherever they invite us to dance with them.

A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself” Proverbs 11:17 (ESV). I read it this morning, right before I walked outside to feed the dogs, and yep, he did it again, not only did he do a number on the irrigation, he also tore up the obviously inadequate protective fencing I installed just two days ago. My inner GRUMP was awake in a flash. Good thing for Walter, aka “Butt-Head,” “Nerd of the Nation,” that God had me read that particular scripture before opening the front door, otherwise he might have gone to “doggy hell” instead of just the “dog house.” I wish all of my grumpy episodes were this benign, that all of my temptations to be cruel had pinned back ears and a saggy butt with a wagging tail and a pitiful look. But they don’t, and neither do yours. It is when we feel unkind, when we feel justified to be cruel, merciless, and harsh that we need to choose what is best over what seems to feel good at the moment.

Have you had to live with grump, or work next to grump day after day? Man, that’s taxing. There is nothing pleasant about the stench and constant ooze of the puss of unkindness continually threatening to become a full-blown infection. How do we maintain kindness there?

  • By continually reminding ourselves of how beneficial and right kindness is and feels.
  • Seeing the self-inflicted wounds of those who are unkind and cruel, and refusing to wound ourselves.
  • Remembering the principle that we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7), kindness grows kindness.
  • Always looking to Jesus and the way he responded to unkindness and cruelty, For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly” 1 Peter 2:21-23 (NLT). Jesus conquered the very power sin and hell with kindness and mercy.

So today, tomorrow, and every day, do something super beneficial for you, be kind! “Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. Then you will find favor with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation” Proverbs 3:3-4 (NLT).

To God be all glory. Love you, Pastor Hans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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