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Blessing the Children

Let the children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs . . .  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”  Mark 10:13, 15 (NRSV)

This Sunday is Children’s Day in both of the church I serve.  As a former teacher and as a pastor, I have always felt that children needed to have opportunities to learn and grow.  In the church, we offer them Sunday school, music, leadership in worship, and recognition for accomplishments.

So many people say that they are our future, but even though that is true, they are also a vital part of the present.  Children bring a richness to our church communities that invites us to see Jesus through their eyes.  They trust us to lead them, and they trust God far more than we adults do.

Whenever I offer a children’s message, it involves asking questions that invite them to think and respond.  Sometimes the answers are far deeper than expected.  There is innocence in their faith.  Verse 14 of the above passage says:  “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Children teach us about how to receive the kingdom of God, and it is our job to learn from them, even as we teach them about God.  I have watched our children grow up over the past ten years I have been serving these churches.  Some of them have never known another pastor, so my retirement brings concerns that they might feel abandoned or confused when I’m gone.

Hopefully, the teachers and parents have talked with them about the changes.  In one church, where the age of the Sunday school is much younger, I went to the classroom after finishing the sermon.  The lay leader took over so I could spend some time with the kids in case they had questions.  This Sunday school has a pattern of focusing on a theme for a whole month and doing activities around it, so the month of May was not only review of what they had learned, but also about how to say “good-bye.”

I think the children “got it,” but I have encouraged the parents to be aware that Fall may bring more questions about why there is a new pastor there.  We have compared it to having a new teacher in the fall, and that seems to help many of them understand it.

The children have been important to me because I believe they were important to Jesus, and I believe they are important to the life of the church.  They bring balance, learning opportunities, creativity, insights, and a richness that could be missing without them.  What a gift we have been given!  Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them.  Let us do likewise.

How are the children received in your church?

What have you learned from them?

Growing up with Tornadoes

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  (Acts 2:2 NRSV)

Whenever I read this verse, I’m reminded that it doesn’t say “gentle wind” but “violent wind.”  That makes me think about growing up in Northwest Iowa where we were always vigilant about watching the sky on a hot and humid day (which was many of those summer days).  Tornadoes were always a threat, and they could come up unexpectedly without much warning.

Everyone knew where their cellar was or where the safety plan was if they heard tornado sirens.  The interesting thing about tornadoes is that they whip up violent winds to the point of mass destruction.  A tornado can touch down and destroy one house, jump over the next house and hit the following one.  No one can predict the path, but everyone knows to get to safety (except maybe the storm chasers).

I would guess that the “rush of a violent wind” would have surprised the disciples who were assembled together waiting to hear from God.  Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit, and they were praying, praising, and waiting as he instructed them.  They probably didn’t have a clue about how this would be accomplished, and it’s doubtful that they expected a violent wind and tongue of fire along with all the other things that happened on that Pentecost day.

But maybe that’s how God gets our attention some times:  doing the unexpected in BIG ways.  Usually, I focus on how touches our lives in small ways through others and through events that help us to grow in faith gradually.  However, Pentecost is a different story.

Not only did the violent wind get the disciples’ attention; they were emboldened, given a courage they previously had been lacking.  Suddenly, they were no longer afraid but excited, empowered, and able to share the message of God’s love in Christ regardless of criticism, threat of arrest, or whatever the case may be.

In one of the church’s I served, there was a couple who saw all the cars in our parking lot and lining the streets on Sundays, so they were intrigued.  One morning they stopped to see me, and their comment was, “Something big must be happening here.  We always see so many cars!”  The witness of the cars made a statement that something BIG was happening!

However, a truer witness would be when people want to become part of the church because they see the church at work in the world.  The people come to church to be renewed, remember the story, and then to be sent into the world to BE the church in the world.

They witness through words and actions whether it’s at home, work, with friends, at an organization to which they belong, in the market place, or wherever they encounter someone else.  People CAN tell when someone follows the ways of Christ, even though they may not be able to name it.

Tornadoes are rather unpredictable, but the wind of the Spirit is steady and sure.  The idea of the violent wind is more about living in the power of the Spirit and allowing the Spirit to work through us as the Church.

How do you see the Spirit at work through your church?

In what ways have you all made a statement that something BIG has happened?

How will you open even more to the Spirit’s work in you?

Being Witnesses

You are witnesses of these things.  And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  Luke 24:48-49 (NRSV)

The ascension of Jesus is a rather strange image to our 21st century minds.  Maybe if we were great Star Trek watchers, we might remember “Beam me up, Scotty!”  I was always pretty fascinated with the whole molecular transference in that series.

However, the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is quite amazing, not because he was lifted into the heavens as much as the commission he gave his disciples.  Whether or not Jesus was actually taken into heaven and disappeared into clouds is what we tend to see and focus on for this particular Sunday, but the lasting effect of his returning to be with God did at least two things.

First, he returned from the earthly confines to his place in the heavenly realm after having brought the presence of God-in-the-flesh to earth.  And secondly, he left behind people whom he had trained for three years to carry on his work of sharing God’s love and spreading the Good News that God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy is for all people.

After the ascension, the disciples didn’t just stand there looking (as Acts 1 reports.  In Luke’s gospel (interesting that the writer of Luke was probably the writer of Acts, also!), the disciples returned to the temple to praise and worship and bless God.  They were actively involved in worship.

As the disciples grew in experience and knowledge, as well as being inspired by the Holy Spirit, they were sent out into the world.  They didn’t stay put; rather, they dispersed to other parts of the world as they knew it to proselytize and invite others to hear the message of God’s redemption and love in Jesus, the Christ.

Ascension Sunday is a reminder that we are counted among the disciples, as well.  The original commission may have been for the first century followers of Jesus, but even in the 21st century, we are called to be witnesses to our faith in our words and actions.  We become the invitation to know Christ because of the wonderful works God has done in our lives.

Ascension Sunday reminds us that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are also called and sent forth.  We are also asked and expected to carry on the work of Christ by bringing compassion, kindness, hope, healing, and love to the world.  And we are called to worship our God together as the Body of Christ.

How does that look in your life?

In what ways do you share your faith?

How do you share it every day?

The Greatest is Love

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  1 Corinthians 13:13 (NRSV)

Inevitably, when I meet with couples to officiate at their wedding, they choose 1 Corinthians 13 as the scripture passage.  It’s a great choice.  It’s also not about marriage – at least not only marriage.  Ultimately, it’s about relationships beginning with God’s love for us and how we are called to live that love out in our own relationships.

We can even go one step further.  The description of love here in 1 Corinthians 13 comes in the middle of Paul’s teachings to the Corinthian church about how they are called to be the Body of Christ and to use their gifts to further the work of Christ in the world.  Having this teaching smack in the middle of a church that is divided over who is better than someone else or whose gifts are more important is a brilliant way to teach about what the love of Jesus really is and how we are to model it in the church and in the world.

Of course, this is not an easy prescription to follow!  Think about it:  “Love is patient (first major challenge!); love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

Oops – how many of us can say that we have followed these teachings?  Well, Jesus did, and that is the goal for us.  Maybe if more marriages, friendships, families, churches, countries, governments, or whomever we might name incorporated the love of God as described in this passage, we would have a much better world.

The Church of Jesus Christ can be an example for promoting harmony, good will, conflict management, and bringing the Light of Christ into the world wherever they are.  “Love never ends” happens because God’s love is eternal and the source of all love, kindness, compassion, and caring.

Maybe we should read this passage every day and keep a diary about how we are doing.  Or maybe it would be good to have a yearly bible study on this chapter in 1 Corinthians as a reminder to the church folks that we carry the responsibility to bring Christ to the world through our own choices and the way we share God’s love with others.

In what ways have you shared God’s love?

Where can you be more consistent?

How will you keep working at it?

“M” is for “Mom”

As we approach Mother’s day, I am reminded that this has developed into a commercialized event, just as so many other holidays have.  My blog this week is a reflection on what is underneath the gifts, flowers, going out to dinner, and so forth.

I love Mother’s Day, and even though my own mother is no longer living here on earth, I miss her.  As I was growing up, I never saw her a my role model, but there is something that happens when we age and begin to see our mother’s in a different light.

When Alzheimer’s Disease began to slowly make her disappear in personality and functionality, I began to write to her on my computer.  In that writing, I was able to work through a lot of my issues that surrounded my feelings about her, and I began to see the marvelous and beautiful person she was.

My mother was also beautiful outside.  We have pictures of her from high school and early adult years that make her look like a movie star.  She was always beautiful outwardly, and my dad always said that he married the prettiest girl in the school.  Even when she could no longer comprehend things, he would tell her that he loved her and how beautiful she was.

So, the struggle I had was more about not wanting to take on some of her issues, such as lack of self-esteem, avoidance of conflict in unhealthy ways, and readily taking the blame for things that weren’t her fault.  I have spent years of my adulthood working through NOT doing those things, do I think my issues focused more on the adverse ways I perceived my mother.

As I wrote to her (even though I knew she would never read the letters), I began to recognize the positive influence she had on me.  Her gift of music was imbedded in my life, and she had a beautiful singing voice which I was fortunate to inherit that ability from her.  Her faith was such an inspiration, and her dedication, commitment and love for her husband and children was powerful.

I was very blessed to have the mother God gave me, and I know that there are many people who would long to have had that relationship with their mothers.  Hopefully, there were and are people who have been like a mother to them.  For some children, their father is both mother and father, and vice versa.

This Mother’s Day, I celebrate the gifts of mothers and mother-figures who enrich our lives and bless us beyond understanding.  My hope is that those who have had issues with their mothers can forgive them and find the positives they can take away from the relationship.

Happy Mother’s Day!

The Breath of Life

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  John 20:21-23 (NRSV)

The Sunday following Easter is traditionally “Doubting Thomas” day.  It’s when the majority of churches talk about Thomas the disciples who demanded to see the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hand and touch the wound in his side.  Thomas wanted “proof” in order to really believe that Jesus was resurrected.  Well, who can blame him!

But the passage hold so much more than the relationship between doubt and faith.  It also talks about the Holy Spirit, and it is the writer of this gospel’s type of Pentecost when Jesus “breathes on the disciples” and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.  If we want to see it as a metaphor, we can say that it was Jesus commissioning them to carry on his work in the world.  He breathed into them the breath of life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Look at the last sentence above:  Jesus reminds them that they have the power to forgive sins.  That is part of what the resurrection brings to all humanity.  God forgives us; therefore, we are to forgive others.  So, what does it mean when he talks about retaining them?

When we lack forgiveness toward others, we hold onto unhealthy feelings, stuffing them inside and creating a negative environment in our spiritual, mental, and emotional lives.  It doesn’t mean that we have the power to retain them; rather, Jesus is reminding the disciples (and that includes us) that forgiveness is the way of following Christ.  We have life because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and forgiveness, grace, mercy, compassion, kindness, and love are all part of how we treat others.

Having new life in Christ means that we are transformed and then have the opportunity to find ways to offer hope and transformation to others.  We rise above the unforgiving world and offer life in the midst of chaos, fear, uncertainty, and worry.  The breath of life that Jesus gives even us is the imparting of the Holy Spirit who helps us to live in Jesus’ ways and to forgive others (and even ourselves).

This is hard work!  Yet, we aren’t alone in the journey Jesus has also breathed into us the breath of life, provided the companion for the journey, and given us partners in ministry to do the work we are called to do.

How will you share the breath of life with others?

In what ways has Jesus empowered us to BE the church?

Who do you need to forgive?

Ta Da!

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”!  John 20:18a

On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.”  I’m pretty much assuming that means the work of redemption was finished, but in many ways “it” had only just begun.  The resurrection changed everything – it changed the world!  It changes us!

One of my favorite pictures of the resurrection is of Jesus standing just inside the tomb door and looking out.  I half expect him to jump out the door and holler, “Ta da!”  We don’t know what he did, but we do know that his resurrection turned the world upside down and change millions of lives.

Easter is the primary focus of Christianity.  Christmas is a wonderful celebration, but without Easter, we might as well not celebrate it.  They go together.  Even in the birth narratives there are images and links to what is to come in the life of the infant Jesus.  The gifts of the wise men – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are certainly indicative of his death and burial, as well as holiness and his title as King of the Jews.

Every year we hear the “old, old story” as one hymn tells us, and every year, I challenge myself to preach on the current lectionary story of the resurrection.  Mark is especially challenging because the original ending tells us that the women ran off and said nothing to anyone!

This year is my retirement year, so I decided to choose the John 20 passage for the sermon focus.  It’s is my favorite maybe because Mary Magdalene represents all of us at the graveside of loved ones:  puzzled, in pain and grieving.  To top it all off, she arrived at the tomb to find the stone rolled away and jumped to the conclusion that Jesus’ body had been stolen.

Don’t we jump to conclusions, too?  We make assumptions about so many things, especially when it comes to reading the Bible or hearing stories from the Bible that we hear over and over again.  So often we don’t stop to really find something new and interesting that we may have missed before.

What’s new and interesting in the John 20:1-18 passage?  For me, I think it might be the contrast between Mary’s overwhelming grief and her own type of resurrection when she realized that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Where once she was weeping and accusing the gardener (she thought Jesus was the gardener) of taking away Jesus’ body, she realized when she heard him speak her name that, indeed, this was Jesus!

As much as she wanted to hang onto him, he had a task for her to do – be the messenger!  She was the first witness to the resurrection!  It was her job to spread the word.  Her life changed when she met Jesus but it was transformed when she became the first evangelist.  She was raised to a new purpose in life, in spite of the attitudes toward women during her day.

Where are our resurrection moments in life?

How do they change and transform us so we are witnesses for Christ?

What are our “ta da!” moments?

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