Archive for category: President’s E-news

A Laborer is Worthy of His Hire

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

greg blog 2Dear Friends,

How do we treat a gift? Depending on the giver, we may treat it with delicacy or delight.

God has gifted His church with workers, yet often this gift is ignored or abused. We fail to recognize and acknowledge the gift that God has given us in these professional church workers, whether it be a pastor, a DCE, a principal or teacher. Ephesians 4:11-16 tells us that God gave the gift of these workers to equip the saints for works of ministry. Paul writes, “And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph 4:16). He gave! That’s a grace word! We received from God, as we always do, what is good for us. He gives us what we need, and maybe not always what we want, but when He gives, and what He gives, is always good! God doesn’t make mistakes, and He always has a plan!

God has sent these workers to specific places, where He alone knew the full need, and has a plan for them. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17). When the relationship between workers and members is a partnership, God’s work is accomplished in marvelous ways. When it is more of a tug rope of who is in charge or who has the last word, it hardly ever works. By the way, God is always in charge, and He always gets the last word! In fact He is the living Word, Jesus! And as we keep our eyes fixed on Him, God blesses our ministry relationships!

So, why all the focus on the relationship between workers and congregations? Simply this, in the days and weeks ahead many ministries will be considering budget. Worker compensation is often seen as an “if there’s anything left over” kind of item. There is an inherent danger in this kind of reasoning. It might be seen as not valuing the very gift that God has placed among you. The Apostle Paul writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (1 Tim 5:17–18).

Now, I realize that there were times on a Sunday morning when the members of my congregation wanted to muzzle me, especially after 15 minutes of sermon time…okay, 20 minutes, but I hope you get Paul’s point here. Paul was so concerned about this that he wrote in several Epistles, expressing concern. In 1 Corinthians 3:8 he wrote, “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.” It is God who gives us purpose in life, and whether it is to serve as a garbage man or a physicist or a parish pastor, we each are to be rewarded according to the manner in which we fulfill our task. This, of course, has nothing to do with earning salvation, which is another free gift.

Would you be surprised to know that many church work professionals struggle to make ends meet? The average debt for a pastor completing a seminary education can range anywhere from $60-90,000. The District publishes a guideline for salaries on our website that lists a minimum for consideration. In many cases, this document isn’t even consulted. Keep in mind it is only a guideline, but it certainly can help determine a reasonable range. There is a huge discrepancy among our ministries, often based on membership size, debt load and the like, but rarely considering the concerns of the worker. There is a huge salary discrepancy for Lutheran School Teachers, which can range anywhere from $8-15,000 less than their public school counterparts, who, by the way, aren’t paid all that great either.

James writes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” James 2:15-16. This happens in the world all the time, but in some places it happens in the church when we fail to take care of our workers. Here’s the real point: if our professional church workers are living paycheck to paycheck, and so concerned about survival, always looking over their shoulder for an oncoming bill collector, or gaining a reputation as someone who reneges on their bills, what does that do to the overall ministry? If workers are having to deal with the stress and fear of the unforeseen medical expense or the unexpected car expense, or sometimes even putting food on the table, how can they focus on God’s call in ministry?

In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 Paul writes, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.” How these servants are treated is indeed a reflection on your ministry, whether in the church or in a school. God has placed them among us as His gifts, and we should care for them.

Many years ago we went through some struggles while on vicarage. It was a new program at the church and because of some circumstances, the early half of the year was tight. At one point we had $.63 in our checking account! We felt demoralized, like failures, and embarrassed to even ask the church for help. We prayed fervently, and thought God had answered our prayers through a family member who promised to send a check (one that was constantly in the mail but never came). That gave us hope, especially as we would go to the mail box looking for our solution. Day after day for almost two weeks we waited, eating lots of cereal and just trying to survive. What made it worse was it was Christmas time and we couldn’t even afford to fly home to see family. It created tension in our home, and sadness, like God had abandoned us. It was humiliating. But God intervened in several miraculous ways. First, we got a visit from a family where the member had been to the doctor and was diagnosed with heart-problems. His issues were manageable, but the grace in this was that they had only weeks before purchased half a cow, and he now could eat no red meat. The end result was they filled our freezer with all kinds of things that his doctor removed from his new diet. It was an incredible gift, and God supplied our need in abundance. The second part is that within the next two months the seminary intervened and straightened out the salary issues. We learned a lot that year about trusting in the Lord. Reflecting on that time, I think of how much more productive my ministry may have been if we didn’t have to endure that. I’ve learned, the hard way, that it’s not very reassuring to someone struggling through it at the time to remind them how someday God will use those circumstances. More importantly, I’ve seen God do amazing things, even in those times of struggle. However, how can we bless our workers and not stress them?

We need to support our workers and treat them as the gifts God has made them to be. None of our workers arrived at their position without some sacrifice and struggle. Many gave up far more lucrative careers to heed God’s call. We need to make sure that they are adequately compensated and cared for. It’s been suggested that if you want to find a fair way to calculate compensation for workers that you find out the median income in your community for police personnel, for hospital personnel, for lawyers, and public school teachers and see where your church worker stacks up. I’m confident that we can find better ways to support these folks and honor the gift of God that they are.

Now, I’m certain there are some saying, “They’re in no different circumstances than me. I struggle too. I live paycheck to paycheck.” God has also placed you where He desires as we’ve listened for His voice. Sometimes we’ve missed His cues and we feel frustrated. God never promised us that He would give us everything we desire, but He promises to give us all we need. If you have been in that kind of stressful financial situation or even if you are there right now, then you understand what it feels like. I guess the real question is, is that something that we want others to have to experience? God blesses us to be a blessing! We can change lives if we’re willing to make the necessary adjustments and, again, honor these folks as the gifts they are that God has given to your ministry. Our God still does the miraculous. Just give Him the chance to act and you just may be amazed at what you see.

This doesn’t mean we should be reckless or unconcerned about financial realities within the parish community. We don’t raise funds for the budget to meet needs. That’s the wrong approach. We raise funds for the budget so that we can do more ministry and connect people to Jesus, so we can glorify God. As brothers and sisters in Christ our goal should always be to leave things better than we found them. Imagine what that might do in your ministry, in your community, in your school or church, if our workers could be financially more confident and well cared for in their ministry without overwhelming stress or worry? We can do this! To that end, we have planned the Stewardship Summit, August 14-15 in Orlando, a free conference, to help congregations learn about being stewards of God’s gifts. For more information contact Kathy in my office for details. There will be all kinds of resources available and best practice ideas shared! God owns it all, and He owns that cattle on a thousand hills! He makes it all available to us. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 37, “He is ever lending generously, and His children become a blessing” (Ps 37:26). He gives it to us so we can bless others!

God has promised to supply our need, and already has in the worker He sent you. God blesses our service for His Kingdom. In fact, Jesus said, “If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.” You and I are part of that blessing, and through it, we are also blessed.

Take care of your workers and be confident that God will honor that! Make sure these laborers, who are worthy of their hire, are adequately compensated. These workers are your ministry partners, who are there in the good times and the difficult times to proclaim the love and grace of Jesus, transforming lives. I pray that we can consider how we might support them in this tremendously challenging, and often very fulfilling work! May God give us wisdom to honor them as we honor Him in all we do.

Your partner in ministry,

Greg

Sabbath Rest

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

Fourth of July—our nation’s birthday—a day that we celebrate, and look forward to having time off. Imagine this situation. A husband comes home after a long day at work, eats dinner, and with a great sigh, says, “I don’t know about you, but I’m beat, I need a break” as he sits in front of the television and falls asleep. Rest is essential for our physical and mental renewal. Yet, so many of us find ourselves feeling fatigued, always tired and worn out. Fatigue is extreme tiredness brought about by not enough rest over a period of time whether from mental or physical exertion or illness. Can you relate to that? Even God understood that we needed a break. In fact, God, Himself, took a break after creating the world. We read in Genesis 2, “And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” (Ge 2:2–3).

Are you making time for a time of rest? Businessman John Battelle writes, “As you grow older, you learn a few things. One of them is to actually take the time you’ve allotted for vacation.” What I’ve learned over time is that people often don’t beg you to take time off, you have to seek it out. Sometimes just a day or even an afternoon of diversion can make a difference in how refreshed we feel.
Here are some fascinating facts about vacations in America:

  • 75% of employees with paid time off didn’t take all of their accrued vacation days.
  • 59 % of working Americans plan to do something job-related while on vacation this summer.
  • 90% of people say the happiest vacations are planned more than a month in advance.
  • 1 in 10 travelers claim they can’t relax while on vacation.
  • Only 45% of Americans take a summer vacation.

Even when we take a vacation we often fail to take time to rest. We don’t seem to know how to rest. The closest we get to rest is restlessness… Often we come back from a vacation more tired than when we left. However, vacations provide an opportunity to reconnect—maybe with your spouse, your children or grandchildren, maybe with siblings or parents or friends. These times of sabbath provide the chance to change things up and break with the routine. Maybe sleep is the real need, or exercise, maybe it’s a time to pursue other hobbies or interests. The staycation has become popular, especially on a tight budget, and it can be a great way to catch up with all the chores you just haven’t had time to do. Many will travel a long way, others not too far. Some will stay in fancy hotels with great service; others will pop up a tent or a trailer and rough it.

Vacations, no matter where we take them, are a great time to reflect on life and all the blessings that God has given us. When God rested on the Seventh day, I suspect it was a day of rejoicing in all He had created. God doesn’t need physical rest, like we do, but He knew we would, so He gave us an example to follow. By the way, I find that I am healthiest when I follow God’s advice! For many rest doesn’t come easily. So many of us were raised with a work ethic that tells us we need to achieve more, build more, do more. Yet, we need time to rest. Maybe your iPhone or computer can illustrate. My iPhone can last only a day, sometimes less than that especially if I am constantly using it. If I fail to recharge it a red, drained battery flashes at me, and eventually shuts off the phone. Then it is useless. It’s not good to me or anyone else. When I am needing to use my phone a lot, I carry an extra power cord to recharge it, sometimes several times, during the day. Our bodies really aren’t much different. There are experts who would tie what we eat to this fatigue, as well as lack of exercise. All of this advice is well meaning, and is meant to strengthen and sustain us with a healthier life. I know when I am well rested I am better equipped to do the things God has called me to do—and so are you!

As important as physical rest is, we also need that spiritual rest. Now, I don’t mean by that a break from the church! In fact, it’s just the opposite. We need to be fully engaged in God’s Word and Sacrament. Isn’t it interesting that Luther writes, in the Small Catechism, speaking of the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” What does this mean? Answer: We should fear and love God, and so we should not despise His Word and the preaching of the same, but deem it holy and gladly hear and learn it.” That’s why we take time weekly (in some cases weakly) to worship our Living Savior, Jesus Christ! It’s an opportunity to be refreshed. I once heard someone say that we are holy people, but like balloons, the toils of life prick little holes in us, and we leak. That’s why we need to be refilled with the Holy Spirit, so we can live as witnesses for Jesus in the world.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His.” When we gather for worship, we enter God’s rest. We call the place of worship a sanctuary, because it is a place of refuge from the struggles of our day to day life. We are privileged to come to the Altar with all our cares and sorrows, and Jesus gives us His own body and blood to assure us of His forgiveness and love, as He sends us out, refreshed and renewed by Him, into the world. This is why, even during vacation time, it’s important for us to make time for worship.

Jesus says to every one of us, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” (Mt 11:28–30). Jesus desires us to be refreshed, and we can rest in Him. He’s always waiting and longing for us to turn to Him, and He welcomes each of us, despite our burdens, our hurts, our fears, and our issues, and wants to renew us and make us stronger.

Let me suggest a few strategies for a Sabbath rest, or a spiritual vacation. First, make time daily to be in God’s Word. I’m not suggesting that you read 10 chapters a day. Just allow God’s Word to impact your heart and life. Let the Word of God dwell in you richly! Secondly, make time for prayer, and not just a wish-list kind of praying, but one that includes meditation, and actually listening for God’s direction. Thirdly, find a time for some quiet, apart from others, apart from the noise of the television or radio, disconnected from a phone, and just practice silence. Start with five minutes, and move to ten, then 15. Clearing your mind of the world’s troubles, really opening your mind for God’s Spirit to speak to, can actually be very restful.

Personally, I would also suggest planning regular times to do something other than what you normally do. For some that may be volunteering at your parish. For others, who work in the parish, it may be volunteering elsewhere, like a food bank or school or someplace where you can have an impact beyond what is normal. Maybe it would be joining a gym or a book club. Do something that gets you out into your community so that you can be a witness for Jesus in a new place. You may be amazed at how rejuvenating it can be, and it may even help you appreciate the place God has called you to serve.

A Sabbath rest is a gift from God. Just as the physical body needs a break, so spiritually, we need to enter into that place where God can renew us by His Word and Sacrament and strengthen us for all He has for us still to do. I hope you get some vacation time this summer, and that you come back to your “normal” life well rested and energized for engaging in the Master’s business, whatever that happens to be for you. Rest well, my friends! There’s still work to be done for Jesus!

Resting in Him,
Greg

Anxious? No need to Worry!

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

The excitement is building around the District Office. In eleven more days people will begin arriving for the 32nd Regular Convention of the Florida-Georgia District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. For me, personally, this is like a family reunion of sorts. People who are connected by Jesus to connect people to Jesus will all come together in Orlando for a few days of celebration and work. There is certainly work that will be done, but we also hope to maintain an atmosphere of celebration throughout our time as we together engage in the Master’s business.

I can tell you from my experience that Conventions can build a little anxiety. There are so many details that need to be attended to. However, I find comfort in reminding myself that it’s all about seeking first the Kingdom of God. If your life is at all like mine, it can often be filled with a bit of anxiety. There are so many things to worry about in life. Whether its family issues, financial stability, home repairs, car repairs, work struggles, faith struggles, just to name a few. Many of us struggle with anxiety.

In Matthew 6 Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” Mt 6:25–34.

How are we to understand these words in a practical way? I believe that they remind us that God has made promises to us, beginning in the waters of Baptism. He chose us, and cleansed us, and claims us as His very own by grace. This means that by His unmerited grace the whole Kingdom of heaven belongs to us. We are His precious children and we can place our trust in Him, not just when things are going our way, but especially when they aren’t. The testimony of Scripture gives us great encouragement. Even when it seems as if God is absent, He is not. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, God was with them every step along the way, every battle, every success, upholding them, offering them hope. Even in King David’s darkest days he knew that he could praise God for His blessings. Following the Resurrection, after the disciples received the Spirit on Pentecost, we find they no longer cowered in fear. In fact, look at how Peter and John react after being imprisoned for healing the lame man at the temple. When they are released they don’t hide, or protest or create a scene for being thrown in prison unfairly. Instead, they go back among the rest of the Apostles and they all pray for boldness to continue to proclaim Jesus (Acts 4:23-31). Certainly the Apostle Paul could understand anxiety and worry. Yet, as he was imprisoned for his faith in Jesus, he didn’t waste time worrying about tomorrow. He began to witness to the guards, and actually converted some.

Life is filled with challenges. God has promised to care for our needs. He says that He won’t leave us, will never forsake us, will walk along side of each believer to strengthen us in our faith. He says, in Jeremiah 29:11, “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.” He has great purpose for each of us, and He will provide the way for us to carry it out as we remain in Him.

In John 15:4-5, Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” As we abide in Jesus, even during the difficult times, He promises to abide in us. His purpose is so that we can bear much fruit! We can’t do that effectively apart from Jesus. When I lived in North Georgia we had four peach trees on our property and two apple trees. What I learned is the joy I received in growing and nurturing fruit isn’t simply to benefit me or the fruit itself. In other words, the fruit gains no benefit by simply hanging on the tree. The real joy of the fruit was seen as I was able to give it away to others. I saw how it fed critters at times, as well as bees who helped to pollinate other plants, not to mention the many people who received peaches and apples. Here’s the point—fruit is meant to benefit others. Jesus wants us to bear much fruit, not for our own benefit, but to bless others because He knows that as others are blessed we receive blessing as well, and Jesus is glorified in it all. This is what happens when we get our focus right, seeking first the Kingdom and His righteousness. He’ll take care of all the rest!

So face those fears and anxieties with confidence. If God is for us, who can be against us? We have a Savior who went all the way to the cross to show us the depth of His commitment to each of us. We can be certain that the One who called us also sends us to engage in the Master’s business—to bear much fruit for the sake of others. We do this as we fix our eyes on Jesus, looking to Him daily, despite our failings and frailties, realizing that only in Him and by abiding in Him can we bear fruit! In Him we have the assurance of forgiveness and new life, and trusting in Him we don’t need to allow anxiety and worry to get the upper hand in our lives. As they say, “Don’t worry, be happy,” and we can be filled with joy and boldness for today as we abide in Jesus and seek His Kingdom. Let tomorrow be anxious about itself!

With you in the Master’s business,

Greg

Call to Serve

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

I just returned from Placement Services for Vicars and Candidates in Ft. Wayne and St. Louis. It’s an exhausting trip, but one that leaves you filled with joy, and hope for the future. We saw 111 eager vicars receive their assignments to congregations across the United States. We received five of six requested vicars. These men, and their wives, will participate in a year of practical, hands-on learning experiences in a congregational ministry, benefitting from a mentoring relationship from a seasoned pastor. These congregations are carefully chosen to provide the best overall ministry experience for these men, assisting in their preparation for pastoral formation.

We also placed 97 men into the Holy ministry for their first call. They heard the same words I heard when I was first called, from 1 Peter 5, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” They joined a band of humble servants—shepherds of the Good Shepherd, caring for God’s sheep!

Many of these congregations have been eagerly awaiting the Call service for many months, and in some cases several years. I can only imagine the joy these congregations experienced as they learned the news. Unfortunately not everyone who applied for a candidate received one. There were more calls than candidates! It just points to the fact that we are not preparing as many men as we once did for holy ministry. Couple that with the fact that we are seeing a wave of pastors beginning to retire, and the number of pastors that experience burnout on a regular basis, it signals our need to creatively address the issues that face us as congregations dwindle and fewer pastors are available to serve them.

For far too long the church has become inwardly focused. As I learn the history of many of our congregations the vast majority of them were founded with a desire to reach more people with the good news of Jesus and how He died for our sins to bring us into relationship with Himself.   Many began with service to the community.  We, in the LCMS, were once known as an evangelistic church, reaching out to the helpless and hurting with the love and grace of Jesus. In fact, there are over 300 Lutheran social service agencies that were organized to respond to the needs of all kinds of people with the love of Jesus. As these pastors were called, the preachers charged them with loving not only their congregation, but also their community. They were charged to see the hurts and needs of people all around them, and to serve their community. It was really a call to be incarnational—the very presence of Jesus in a hurting world.

I suspect that most of the pastors reading this can recall call night. It’s an unforgettable life event for most of us. While I couldn’t tell you who preached or what was said, I can tell you about how Edith and I anticipated with great joy the opportunity to serve Jesus full time and tell people about His love and forgiveness. Of course, there was that, and then also the knowledge of what would set the course of our post-graduate life, when we all learned where we would be living. It’s an anxious time, contemplating where God would be sending us, and then asking why! I can still remember thinking we were going “home,” back to New York, in fact being convinced in our minds that as this was pleasing to us, it had to be pleasing to God too. Someone has said that if you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans…

What I didn’t fully grasp then, and still struggle to comprehend at times, is that you can always trust Gods plan. Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us, “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.” While this is true for pastors receiving their first call, it’s really true for every one of us. God has created each of us with purpose and He has unique plans for each of us. Concordia Seminary in St. Louis uses, as its motto, “to equip the saints for works of service,” from Ephesians 4.

The role of the Pastor isn’t to DO ministry, but rather to equip God’s people to do ministry. By the way, that also doesn’t exclude the pastor from living as an example of a life of service. It’s a partnership, pastor and people together, proclaiming the forgiveness and grace of Jesus. That’s why our focus for at least the next three years is to engage in the Master’s business. One of the most important things we can do is to serve the community in which God has placed us. This, again, isn’t only for the pastor, but for all of God’s baptized children. Each of us has been chosen, in grace, to represent Jesus in the world. Certainly that includes the church, but it is also pointed at the world beyond the church to those who have not yet heard. The opportunities around us are staggering. The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few; pray the Lord of the harvest to embolden you to be a proclaimer of Jesus. As we share the grace and love of Jesus with a sin-filled world, many will be eternally grateful for their new life. Then you will have some idea of the excitement and eagerness of these new pastors and vicars who are preparing to serve Jesus.

Call day is a highlight on the seminary campus. It’s a special call, set aside for those who will serve in pastoral ministry. However, each of us also has a call. Our call, in partnership with your pastor, is to reach the world for Jesus, starting in the communities in which God has placed us. May the Lord prepare us as we work together, engaged in the Master’s Business, equipping, empowering and engaging to connect people to Jesus!

Serving Jesus with you,

Greg

April Fools for Jesus

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

April Fools for Jesus!

 

Dear Friends,

April Fools’ Day! It’s a day to pull pranks, to tell stories, and hopefully to laugh. Laughter is a great gift from God. Some date the origin of this “holiday” back to 1392 and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Certainly a harmless prank evokes hilarity. I had a member of one of my congregations who routinely sent out an April Fools’ newsletter or a letter from some board or committee. Usually only to a select group. Undoubtedly I would get “the” call. Someone would have received it, believed the nonsense, and called me for an explanation. One year it was talk of a “geezer room” for our elderly to nap in during service, next to the cry room… Another time he had people believing we were going to move our church to a new location. In fact, my secretary called me while I was on vacation to inquire why I hadn’t told her. I had no idea what she was talking about until it dawned on me and I said to her, “What is today?” And she groaned as she knew she had been fooled.

The Psalmist wrote, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Some have said that this is a holiday for people who choose to not believe in the promises of Jesus. I’m not sure I would go that far. However, I do know that the foolishness of our weak humanity is no match for the strength and majesty of our God. With the Apostle Paul, I would gladly become a fool for Jesus. That’s because I know that as we put our trust in Him, even though we may get “pranked,” we are no fools! This year the proximity of this day to Good Friday reminds us of when God played the biggest and best April Fools’ joke. The devil thought he had won, that he had somehow defeated Jesus. However, Jesus broke through those chains and rose to new life.

I love this old B.C. comic.  Years ago there was one that showed two women sitting on a small hill. One is reading the Bible and says, “Oh, my goodness. . . Says here. . . Jesus descended into hell!” The other is shocked and says, “You’re kidding!” Then the woman with the Bible says, “Oh, no. . . Not to stay! He just dropped in to cancel our reservations!” You and I, who deserved only death and hell because of our life and actions, have new reservations in eternity because of our Savior, Jesus. He now has power over death and the devil, and because of His grace, we can live without fear. This is the true joy of Easter.

What joy to gather on Easter Sunday to rejoice in the life of Jesus and our new life in Him. I remember the joyful anticipation of this celebration each year, sometimes needing to wear gloves at the sunrise service as it was so cold in North Georgia. Easter was a day when it seemed like everyone loved Jesus and was so excited to worship Him. As a pastor, this was a time of blessed exhaustion, reveling in the events of a very busy day, and then rehearsing it over and over. Easter, in most of our churches, is a glorious celebration and testimony of our faith in Jesus. It is often a time for fellowship and partnership. Sanctuaries are filled with beautiful lilies, and there is often special music and even food! People seemed overjoyed to be present in worship and there is a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air.

I am often mystified at how the disciples were cowering in fear after the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. They had seen the Risen Lord, but shortly after this we find them once again fishing and pretty much back to life before Jesus. Of course, Jesus didn’t leave it there!
I wonder if we stand in danger of the same thing. We get so excited in our preparations leading up to Easter and then our celebrations on Easter Sunday, but it seems by the following Sunday that people allow the joyous exuberance of our excitement turn into a “ho hum,” routine kind of faith. In fact, some traditions call the Sunday after Easter “Low Sunday.” So often the weeks following Easter see a huge dip in attendance, like the air slowly leaking out of a beach ball. The good news of Easter is a living joy that we are privileged to celebrate every Sunday. In fact, we worship on a Sunday because of the Resurrection, and every Sunday should be a celebration of Easter. Jesus is alive!

The early Church didn’t just celebrate the Resurrection on one day, but they celebrated it every time they gathered. So for us the Resurrection of Jesus is something that deserves to be celebrated again and again. It should gather us and build us up as we anticipate gathering with fellow believers each week. The resurrection is the foundation of our faith in Jesus. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” In other words, if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave then this is a terrible April fool’s joke. Thank God, this is no joke. Jesus is alive. So Paul goes on in this chapter and says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

We are made alive in Jesus. That’s no joke! It’s great news that we get to share with the world all around us. This is the Master’s business. Who doesn’t need to know that this life is not all there is for us? God has provided for our eternity in Jesus. And while we celebrate this especially at Easter, it is something we get to celebrate every day. Is it any wonder that on the night of His Resurrection as Jesus met with His disciples, the first thing He did, after calming them down, was to commission them? “As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you!” This is what engaging in the Master’s business is all about.

On Easter Sunday there will be many churches filled with people who desire to celebrate the Resurrection. However, how many people will wake up, nibble on some chocolate rabbit’s ears, down a few jelly beans, maybe even eat some ham or lamb or such, but never once recognize or proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus? It’s staggering to see how many still need to hear that Jesus has risen and is alive. Going to church on Easter is a great thing—even better if it inspires you to go week after week to grow and learn, to be equipped to go and engage with the world. All around us people need to know the joy we celebrate. Wouldn’t it be foolish not to tell them? Apart from Jesus, people will die and spend eternity in hell—that’s no April Fools’ joke.

May our celebrations include telling others of our Savior’s Resurrection and the new life He offers to all who believe in Him. So have a little fun today as you celebrate April Fools. But then let’s allow our Easter joy to overflow to those who still haven’t heard!

A blessed rest of Holy Week and a joyous Easter in our Resurrected Jesus!

In His peace,

Greg

 

Life’s Journey

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

Last summer when Edith and I were in Maui we took a day trip on the road to Hana. It is a beautiful fifty three mile trip that takes a full day. The road is narrow and windy. It’s a daunting trip with hairpin turns, single-lane bridges, and hills. There were stops all along the way with gorgeous scenery. Each time we thought it couldn’t be more beautiful, around the corner we saw another spectacular site. One of my favorite stops was a botanical garden called the Garden of Eden. It was a beautiful park with all sorts of tropical plants. We saw mango trees, bananas trees, and avocados, we saw tall bamboo and all kinds of glorious flowers in bloom. Many of these were things we had never seen before, and we joyfully took it all in. We saw all kinds of exotic birds, magnificent waterfalls and we had a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Later we came to a black sand beach, and then a beach with pink sand. We saw craggy rock formations with the waves buffeting and shaping the stones. We saw crazy surfers out near those rocks which scared the life out of us! We saw road side stands with fruit and vegetables, not to mention the bluest sky imaginable.

For me, part of the trip was the journey, and seeing a new place I had never seen before. As we rode along the highway, taking in all the sights around us, paying careful attention to the road when necessary, we came behind a truck on its way to the little town of Hana, where the road essentially ends. It occurred to me that while this was an extravagant trip for us, for others, this was simply a routine route between point A and point B. I wondered if they daily took time to recognize the beauty all around them, or was it simply the route they had to take. In trying to reach their destination did they miss out on the journey?

Lent is a journey, and yet, so often we go through it in such a way that we miss the journey as we focus only on the destination. There is much to be learned along our Lenten journey, and what you see and find may be very different from what I see and find. If we really make the time to explore these forty days of Lent, imagine what Jesus could do in our lives. Even more importantly, maybe we need to see the season of Lent as a miniature of our life of faith. It’s a new beginning.

Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us” (2 Co 5:17–20). The goal of Lent is that we become new creations in Jesus, not just for forty days, but forever.

I started thinking about this from a conversation I had with a Christian friend who was giving up beer for Lent. I suggested that rather than give something up, why not take something up, like feeding homeless people or volunteering in the local school, something that would be incarnational as we live out the love of Jesus. It’s relatively easy to give up stuff that really, in the end, benefits us anyway. How often have we heard people say they are giving up chocolate for Lent because, after all, I need to lose some weight anyways. And tell me again, how does that serve Jesus? She understood what I was implying and suggested that maybe in future years that would be a consideration. This year it was all about the beer!

My friend then asked me where in the Bible we find Lent. I was a little stumped at first and had to think. It’s really not in the Bible per se. We can certainly find the whole forty days theme in there, and Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, but technically, Lent is not really Scriptural. It is a man-made penitential season to prepare us to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s an opportunity for us to live with discipline and perhaps self-sacrifice, and spend time in the Word and in worship. It occurred to me, as the conversation went on, wait a minute, as Christians aren’t we called to daily discipleship? Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus, whose life was one of self-sacrifice? Are we to reserve our reading of God’s Word until Lent? Are we more blessed if we worship extra in this season? Now, please don’t misconstrue my thought here. I love the season of Lent. It’s really one of my favorite seasons in the Church. However, why set aside forty days for something that Jesus calls us to everyday?

We go through this journey of Lent, focused on the destination of Easter, and we feel great if we make four out of six midweek worship services and Maundy Thursday, and maybe even Good Friday. The truth is, I don’t believe God is keeping score. Lent is a microcosm of our journey of faith. We should be living out these values every day. We should live with penitential hearts every day. I don’t know about you, but I need God’s full and free forgiveness every day, not only during Lent. I encourage you to take advantage of all the worship opportunities that your congregation affords during Lent, but I also encourage you to actively worship beyond Lent. In fact, I encourage you to spend time in devotions during Lent, but I also encourage you to spend time in devotions the other three hundred plus days in the year. Lent surely is a time for prayer, but really, when isn’t it a time for prayer?

It didn’t take us long in the parenting process to teach our children the value of a clean room. I didn’t only tell my children to clean their rooms in the weeks preceding Christmas. It was an expectation we placed on them from the time they were able to keep their bedroom clean. It didn’t always happen that way, and there were “seasons” along the way when they had to be reminded. Here’s my point: often what we promote at Lent is how we should be living anyway as the redeemed people of Jesus. Sure, it’s a wonderful time for us to cultivate the spiritual disciplines and holy habits. However, it shouldn’t end once the season is over. Don’t let the journey end at Easter. Let Easter be a celebration along the way as we continue to discover the twists and turns, the beauty and majesty of our faith journey with Jesus.

With you on the journey,

Greg

What about Love?

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

February seems to be designated as the month of love by our popular culture. Valentine’s Day has become big business, and what used to be about candy, flowers and cards has now become about far more expensive gifts to show the depth of our love. What is love really all about? The world seems to define it by the visible actions that demonstrate that love. Ironically, so did Jesus! In fact, in John 13 Jesus said, “By this will all men know you are my disciples if you love one another.” In other words, it was to be a visible testimony of the truth of our faith.

Last month I was driving back to Orlando from Atlanta listening to satellite radio. I had listened on my drive up to a station that was playing holiday favorites from Bing Crosby to Paul McCartney singing about Christmas joy. Now that the holidays have passed the station has returned to playing only love songs. It was interesting listening to favorites from the 1970’s through the current fare, many of the songs I knew, and there were some I had never heard before. What captured my attention was the many ways we try to express this thing called love.

We live in a world that is desperate for love, even if they don’t truly understand what it is. Many seek love in all the wrong places, just trying to fill the hole they feel inside. One of the songs that I heard played by a band called Heart, entitled, “What About Love,” seems to express that well. This is what the chorus of the song says: “What about love? Don’t you want someone to care about you? And what about love? Don’t let it slip away; What about love? I only want to share it with you; You might need it someday.” There are literally thousands of songs expressing similar sentiments. People all around us are looking for real love, unconditional love. In December I became a grandpa for the first time and learned again the true joy and beauty of unconditional love. My little granddaughter doesn’t have to do anything for me to love her and every time I see her I can’t help but smile and rejoice. This is truly a gift from God, and it motivates my love for her. John would later write, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:10–11). This is not only our privilege, but also our responsibility!

Sometimes the Church fails to capitalize on things that God places right in front of our faith. The world celebrates a distorted picture of love, but we, as believers in Jesus, have the real thing in Him that we get to share with a hurting world in such great need of His love. You are probably aware that the Christmas we celebrate really started as a pagan holiday to worship the sun god, and the Christians sanctified it and turned it into a celebration of the Son of God. How might the Church today redeem the popular misconception of love to show the world what real love is?

Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” John 13:34-35. I believe one place the church can begin is by genuinely expressing that love with each other. We often take such great pride in our denominational distinctives, and truly there are things that we just can’t and won’t compromise on, especially as we follow God’s Word. However, collectively, we as the Church on earth seem to give our faith in Jesus quite a black eye as we constantly bicker and battle each other over issues and ideas that don’t really matter to the unbelieving world and often simply confirm what they already believe about the church.

What might happen in our neighborhoods, in our workplace, in our marketplace, even in our congregations if the guiding principle was love? In John 21 as Jesus is feeding the disciples breakfast on the shore of Galilee, Jesus confronts Peter, but notice that He does it in a loving and positive way. Truly Jesus could have belittled Peter, chastised him, ostracized him and talked behind his back, or simply refused to have anything to do with him. Often isn’t that what we have a tendency to do?

I was watching the popular TV show “Shark Tank” and Kevin O’Leary offered a deal that was ultimately refused by the person pitching their product, and as they walked out O’Leary jokingly (I think) said, “You’re already dead to me…” I laughed when he said it, but then it occurred to me, often this is the way we treat brothers and sisters in Christ. We don’t even have to spend a lot of time working on how we relate to other Christians outside the church. Often we have plenty of opportunities to show forgiveness and operate in the love of Jesus within our own congregation or circuit or district or synod.

Coincidentally, Valentine’s Day is on a Saturday in 2015, but more importantly it comes only days before we turn our attention once again to the Cross of Jesus beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015. It was at the Cross that we saw true love come to life, as Jesus took our sins upon Himself, and then died and rose again. Over the centuries the church has encouraged believers to sacrificially “give something up” for Lent. It’s a great practice when we take it seriously and don’t use it as a simple excuse to serve our own purposes. The goal is always about getting more focused on Jesus. If giving something up assists you in doing that, by all means, this is a wonderful spiritual discipline. Let me suggest, at the same time, that you “take something up.” In fact, let me suggest that you take up the practice of not only living in Christ’s forgiveness, but actively seeking to share that forgiveness in the relationships in your own life. Let me suggest that you take up practicing living in the love of Jesus, and reaching out to others to share that love. Maybe it will be an encouraging word or a smile. Maybe it will be an opportunity to share the deep truths of our faith with someone whose life will be transformed through the power of the gospel. How might God use you as a conduit of His love?

Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for a pre-Lenten celebration of God’s great love. Redeem the day, and let the love of Jesus flow through you to the people all around you. What about love? It’s one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given by Jesus, but it increases as we give it away. You won’t have to look far for opportunities to share His love, and it won’t require candy or a card. But it does take an investment of your time and energy. May the love of Jesus fill your heart to overflowing, not only for Valentine’s Day, but for this season of Lent.  Let the world see that you are a disciple of Jesus because of His love shining through you. Then the world will know we are Christians by our love, flowing from His love for you!

Living in that love,

Greg

Looking to Jesus in 2015

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

Dear Friends,

What lies ahead in the New Year? What does God have in store for you, for your family, for your ministry life? As I reflect on the past year I never could have imagined some of the experiences, good and bad. Last Christmas, while we certainly hinted enough, we had no idea that our son and daughter-in-law would give us such a beautiful granddaughter (I’m pretty convinced they did this for us…). I couldn’t imagine life without some of the people who are now home with Jesus. I couldn’t imagine some of the transitions that have occurred in 2014. I suspect that it’s probably similar for you. The truth is, we can’t know what the future holds, but we can be confident of the One who holds our future. Someone said, “If you want to see God laugh, tell Him your plans!”

As I look to 2015, I have no idea what to expect. Sure I have dreams and desires, but I also know that God is in control, and the best thing I can do is submit myself to Him. In fact, for me, 2015 will be a year to refocus on Hebrews 12:2. There we read, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” In 2015 I want to lean on Jesus, and learn to trust Him more and more in the surprises of life and ministry. I want to sharpen my focus on what I do, how I serve, and why I’m doing it, to better honor and glorify Jesus.

The writer to the Hebrews makes it sound so easy. Simply fix your eyes on Jesus. As you well know, this isn’t easy at all. It takes some effort. Oh, not in the sense of somehow earning our salvation, but it takes some determination and commitment if we truly desire to fix our eyes and our hearts on Jesus. Sometimes it must seem to God like we all have a bit of attention deficit disorder. Our minds are so easily distracted from the One who loved us and saved us from our sin. We too easily buy into the values of the world around us, caring for our own needs and forgetting to pay attention to God’s Word.

The Barna Group did a survey back in 2013 regarding how many people read the Bible. The survey showed the Bible is still firmly rooted in American soil: 88 percent of respondents said they own a Bible, 80 percent think the Bible is sacred, 61 percent wish they read the Bible more, and the average household has 4.4 Bibles. Yet only 26% surveyed said they read the Bible on a weekly basis. In the past 20-30 years we have experienced the ongoing decline of the mainline churches. Statisticians tell us that less than half of the people that worship regularly are involved in any formal or regular Bible Study. There are a multitude of resources available to help you study God’s Word, as well as personal devotions, but very few “regular pew sitters” take advantage or make use of them. Then when issues arise in the church, the temptation is to solve them in the same way that corporations might solve them using our own wisdom and strength rather than turning to God’s Word.

2015 is a year for our churches to refocus on Hebrews 12:2 also. Who of us doesn’t need to fix their eyes on Jesus? To do so means that we prioritize a bit differently, that we earnestly pray for God’s wisdom and guidance in all life decisions. Fixing our eyes on Jesus means we seek to do things the way Jesus might do them, following His commands and seeking to honor Him in whatever we do. Paul reminds us in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Imagine the renewal that could happen in your own life, in your home, at your business place, in your neighborhood, in your church if we each would fix our eyes on Jesus? It would revolutionize our world. At a minimum it would change your perspective and outlook of God’s call to servanthood. Outreach wouldn’t simply be a word passed like a hot potato until it lands in the pastor’s lap. Stewardship wouldn’t seem like an outstretched hand looking for more money. Worship would become more about being in God’s presence than about my personal preferences or likes and dislikes. Rick Warren, in his acclaimed book, The Purpose Driven Life, began with the simple words, “It’s NOT about you.” While I may not agree with everything he wrote, this one statement I do agree with.

There was a time when the Church had such a passionate desire to enter into a community and share the love of Jesus in engaging ways. Somewhere along the line we’ve misunderstood Luther’s beloved hymn, and we’ve erected a “Mighty Fortress” to keep the world out, or at the least, from “tainting” our churches. Yet, it was for this very reason that Jesus died on a Cross to reach a lost and dying world. Certainly the outside world may look different and not understand our “Lutheran” culture (or series of initials… LHM, LLL, LWML, LCMS…), but aren’t these the very ones for whom Jesus died and called us to serve? In fact, we’ve just celebrated His Incarnation, Jesus entering into the world to become like us so that He might save us from our sin. Now He calls us to be His incarnate presence in the world, sharing His love and forgiveness with those who don’t understand. We need to break down the dividing walls to connect people to Jesus. I believe that we do this best when our eyes are fixed on Jesus!  What a joyful privilege.

To fix our eyes is not an easy decision, but it is a decision we each make. In fact, by failing to make a decision to fix our eyes on Jesus, we’ve made a decision not to! By the way, this isn’t decision theology, as if our decision somehow impacts our salvation. Rather this is about discipleship, challenging those who have already been saved by grace but now desire to walk in the good deeds that God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). This is all about our life of sanctification, living in the blessings of His free redemption.

Years ago I had a friend in high school whose parent’s gave him a car for Christmas. It wasn’t brand new, but it sure seemed like it since up until then we were riding bikes. He had a decision to make. He couldn’t earn or deserve that car—it had been given to him as a gift, so that wasn’t the decision. Instead, the decision was how he would care for this car. Would he attend to the maintenance, changing the oil and keeping it clean, or would he just drive it until it no longer drove? Sadly, he didn’t take care of it, and it ended up in a wreck because of a minor missed maintenance issue. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Here’s the point, each of us can choose how we will live out our discipleship in the free gift of new life we’ve received by faith in Jesus. I choose to fix my eyes on Him. What will you choose? I invite you to join me and fix your eyes on Jesus!

Isaac Watts wrote a beautiful hymn that many will sing at the beginning of the New Year. “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” reminds us that our God, who has promised to never leave nor forsake us, is with us always. Let me leave you with these two verses, the first and last:

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Still be our guard while troubles last
And our eternal home!

Go read this hymn and let God speak to you once again. As you fix your eyes on Jesus in 2015, may He guide our paths, protect and grow us, and give us confidence that He is Lord of 2015, even as He is Lord of eternity.

Happy New Year!

With eyes fixed on Jesus,

Greg

Incarnational Advent

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

walton3Dear Friends,

It’s hard to believe that once again the season of Christmas is upon us. Of course, in many places it began as soon as the Halloween pumpkins and candy had been set aside. We have a special time in the Church that leads us to the manger. We call it the season of Advent, a season that prepares us for His coming again into the world, and into our hearts.

Observations of Advent seem to be less and less important in the life of the Church. I’m always a bit sad when I learn that congregations have determined not to hold Advent services because not enough people are interested or able to attend. Apart from the fellowship that often takes place at the dinner hour before worship or the coffee hour following worship, or in some cases both, there is the whole issue of setting aside some quiet time to reflect and to make our hearts ready for the celebration.

Advent is an anglicized version of the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming”, which originally comes from the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Jesus. In the Church it is the beginning of the liturgical Church Year. The first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle which is on November 30th. The liturgical color for this season is deep purple, reminding us of the penitential nature of this time, although many have moved to using the color blue, representing hope as we look to the future and to distinguish the season from Lent. Some trace the establishment of the observance of this season as far back as the 6th Century AD, under the auspices of Pope Gregory the Great—one of my favorite popes… He directed the attention on anticipation of the “coming” of Jesus. The focus was on the return of Jesus, something we should continue to strive for today.

How do you prepare? There are numerous ways that Advent is observed beyond the church so that homes can also be prepared to receive the Christ-child. Advent Calendars and Advent Wreaths are common in Christian homes and help count down to the celebration of Christmas. My wife used to make an Advent Chain with our children and each day a link would be removed during family devotions. Special daily Advent devotions can build anticipation for a truer and more joyous celebration of Christmas. Regardless of how you celebrate or prepare, it’s all about Jesus.

Isaiah reminds us, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). What Advent prepares us for is the Incarnate God, who came in the form of a vulnerable baby, who would save all humanity from the power of sin. That’s why Jesus is the greatest of all gifts who gives us new life forever. He humbled Himself, became like us to save us from our sin. He saved us so that we might be His presence in the world. As God became like us, now the call is for us to become more like Him. Paul writes, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:11). Paul was living an “incarnational” life, showing the love and grace of Jesus in his very being.

What does it mean to be incarnational? It means that we take the teaching of Jesus and follow His example. It means we actually find ways to live out our faith in concrete ways. It means that we don’t simply observe the season of Advent as some obligation or ritual, but we look for opportunities to truly prepare ourselves and the world for the return of Jesus. It means we do more than light candles on an Advent Wreath, but we actually become the light of Jesus in the world. It means that we take this wonderful, beautiful message of Christmas, of the Incarnation of Jesus, and share it with a world that is often moving at such a hectic pace that they miss the true joy of this season.

I believe this is the opportunity Advent offers each of us. We can spend our time of preparation by decorating and even worshipping. But at the end of the day, what really can make a difference for the sake of Jesus is living an incarnational life—being the presence of Jesus in the world around us. No, I’m not suggesting that we can become Jesus. However, how often I think I could be more Christ-like in how I treat others. How often I miss opportunities to share why the season of Advent is special or why I love to celebrate Christmas.  I believe that as we approach this season God’s call to us is to be incarnational people, reflecting the beauty, the love, the joy and peace of Jesus in a world that often finds its hope in tinsel and wrapping paper.

God calls us to be prepared, but not just in what we know, but also in what we do. Peter writes, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13). We are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world to proclaim that this season can be so much more than parties and colorful trees; shopping and family gatherings. This season we can make a huge difference in the lives of others as they see Jesus living in us. It’s not the spirit of the season that matters as much as the Spirit who lives within us. And as we gather around the Word and Sacraments this Advent season, look not only for those opportunities to worship, but also to serve in the name and stead of Jesus.

Advent is a time to prepare and remember that Jesus is coming back. His call to each of us is to represent Him until He returns as we connect others to Him. He invites us to become incarnational people, showing His love this season and all seasons as we work together to equip, empower and engage to connect people to Jesus.

May the joy of this Adventide prepare your heart and your home for a joyous celebration of Christmas as we eagerly await the return of Jesus.

In His Advent peace,

Greg

Rev. Gregory S. Walton, President
FLGA District, LCMS


If you’re looking for some good Advent devotional ideas, check out:
LHM.org/Advent (Spanish version available too)
LCMS.org/Christmas-Advent

 

The Heart of the Matter

Categories: News & Announcements, President's E-news

thanks heartI was reading a devotional the other day and this phrase jumped out at me—“with thanksgiving in his heart.” I began to ask myself if this could be said of me. I guess there are times when my heart is filled with anything but thanksgiving. I’ve determined that being ungrateful, living without being thankful, being cynical is really easy. In fact, it’s pretty prevalent in the world all around us. Think about the many circumstances in life that steal our joy and make us feel unthankful. We want more, better, newer, faster, cheaper, and we want it now! We have officially entered into what some have termed “the season of want.” Stores all around us are telling us the kinds of things we should want, and when we don’t get what we want we tend to grumble and blame. We may blame it on circumstances or we may blame it on others, but often what we don’t do is live with thanksgiving in our hearts.

James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (Jas 4:1–3).  How can we conquer our inner desires that feed on the need to have what we want? How do we find thankfulness in the midst of the chaotic world in which we live? The answer is simple. In fact, it’s the Sunday school answer. You always find thankfulness in Jesus. That’s why we need to keep our hearts and minds on Him.

We have a choice in the matter, and as we keep our focus on Jesus, we can’t help but give thanks, even in those difficult times. It isn’t necessarily something we feel, but rather what we do. Too often we allow feelings to stop us from giving thanks. I know I can give thanks in all circumstances, but sometimes I really just don’t feel thankful. Then it hits me again… “with thanksgiving in his heart.” Giving thanks is, in part, an action and a habit that can eventually intersect with feelings, but doesn’t need to depend on how I feel. For instance, if I gave my wife a rake and gloves for her birthday because she loves gardening rather than giving her some jewelry, she may be disappointed, but she would still be thankful that I didn’t forget her birthday…unfortunately, a true story! How often God has placed me in a circumstance where I have felt less than thankful, only to realize later what a blessing God had given me. It teaches me to be thankful even when I don’t fully understand His plan. God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good.

Like many of  you, as a child I was taught to say please and thank you. It was drilled into my head. Even if it was some food I detested, I still was taught to be thankful for it. As a teenager, I was taught that my giving thanks is not dependent on what someone else has done, but rather on my willingness to recognize the need to be thankful. As I grew in my faith I learned that my ability to be thankful had everything to do with the cross of Jesus, and what He endured there on my behalf. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” God wills that you and I are thankful! What is your will?

Thankfulness is about an attitude of gratitude. John Maxwell has said, in his book, Developing the Leader Within You, “Our attitudes determine what we see and how we handle our feelings…Our attitudes cannot stop feelings, but they can keep our feelings from stopping us.”

I think that thanksgiving, like gift giving, is something we each control. As the season of giving approaches, many of us will purchase gifts and give them to our friends and loved ones. We aren’t obligated to give gifts. We choose to give gifts.  Being forced to give a gift takes away the joy. It makes us resent having to give a gift. We don’t give a gift to manipulate or to build ourselves up, at least not ideally. We give them because we love another. Gifts are not given necessarily because they’ve been earned or deserved. They are given because we desire to bless another.

The same is true with thanksgiving. To be thankful is like giving a gift. We give thanks not because we have to, not to manipulate circumstances, not to build ourselves up, but simply to bless another, or better yet, to bless God. So in this season when our world focuses on Turkey and cornucopias and colorful autumn leaves; as we think about sitting around the table and stating what we’re thankful for; as we watch football and maybe even get a break to spend time with family; as we gather for special worship opportunities, remember that each of us has so much for which to give thanks. We have Jesus, and He’s the One who enables us to live “with thanksgiving in our hearts.”

I have thanksgiving in my heart as I think of each of you, and how God is using you to connect people to Jesus. I am thankful for the partnership we share and the mission that draws us together as a District. I am thankful for our common desire to proclaim Jesus and grow in Him. I am thankful to serve in a mission-minded District that cares about people, knowing that people matter to Jesus, and so they matter to us. With a heart of thanksgiving I rejoice in God’s grace, in His mercy and love for me, for you, and for the whole world. May you be filled with an attitude of gratitude. May your eyes be fixed on Jesus as He fills our hearts with thanksgiving.

With thanksgiving in my heart,

Greg

Rev. Greg S. Walton, President
FLGA District, LCMS