When you look in the dictionary for a definition of conventional wisdom, you will find this: the generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter. A standard example of this is, “Conventional wisdom in Hollywood says that a movie can’t succeed unless it stars a famous actor or actress.” While we may question if there is truly any wisdom in Hollywood, conventional or otherwise, I want to use the term in a very different context. As we approach our District Convention next month, June 16-18, we are seeking God’s wisdom for the decisions which will be made for the future of the Florida-Georgia District.
The Florida-Georgia District Convention theme is “A Future Fixed on Jesus!” It’s based on the familiar words in Hebrews 12:2, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author, and Perfecter of our faith…” As we gather in St. Augustine, we will have many important decisions to deal with, including the election of a new District President, a new District Secretary, several new Regional Vice Presidents, and some new Board of Director members too. It’s really an exciting time to look to the future. In fact, next year, in 2023, the Florida-Georgia District will celebrate her 75th Anniversary as a District—a Diamond Jubilee! What a wonderful opportunity to again celebrate how our gracious God gave diamond in the rough people like us, Jesus as our Savior, to make us His jubilee people.
We are currently celebrating a jubilee year, a year focused on putting aside everything which would distract us from God’s Word. Lutherans believe, teach and confess God’s Word is powerful and effective. It is His Word that guides us into the future, even when conventional wisdom tells us the church, as we know it, is struggling. Perhaps the local church is struggling in some places, but we trust the powerful Word of God where Jesus promises, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My Word will never pass away!” We have this promise that even the gates of Hades will not prevail against God’s Church. We know this to be true, especially as we understand the Church to be the people of God, gathered around His Word and Sacraments. What the Church is not is some institution or building which will somehow lead us to transformation. God’s Word alone transforms us! This is why we are encouraging congregations to prepare for the Convention by focusing on God’s powerful Word.
Each day of the Convention will have a focus. On Thursday, June 16, we will remember the past. We have been served by faithful servants over the years. We want to honor our past as we begin to look to the future. On Friday, we will focus on the present as we deal with resolutions and more of the business parts of the Convention. On Saturday, we will celebrate the future with the installation of officers and a new beginning. God would remind us in those wonderful words of Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans with hope and a future.”
A termed-out President has a unique perspective approaching the final convention. There is a part of me which reflects on the good things God has accomplished among us during these years. We have seen some great things, including solid staffing, removing debt, and the regionalization of our district. We have offered some great opportunities in the areas of leadership and outreach and moved the district office to a place which makes us accessible and convenient for visitors. There are a multitude of things I wish I could have accomplished and was not able, for one reason or another, to get to. My joy has come from working with the staff, the Board, the Circuit Visitors, and the workers and ministries across the district. We are truly in a mission territory, and while we have not seen the kind of radical growth I had dreamed of, we are truly blessed.
So, I offer here some Convention-al wisdom as we prepare for our Convention and the future of the Florida-Georgia District. First, pray! Pray for the convention, pray for the delegates, pray for the proposed resolutions, pray for those who have been nominated for leadership. Pray for the staff at the hotel and all who will serve us. Pray for the District Staff as they prepare for transition. As you pray, remember with boldness and confidence our God is in control, and we can place our trust in Him. As I have often said, while we may not know what the future holds, we know who holds our future! It is Jesus, and His grace and love are unending. Pray as we prepare that in all things, Jesus might be glorified.
Second, be in God’s Word, seeking His will—for your life, for your ministry, for your District, and for the future. God’s Word speaks to our contemporary life. Search His Word for direction and answers. Know that time invested in His Word will pay off with long-term dividends.
Third, come in anticipation of what God desires to do among us. He does have great plans for us, and we should be excited about what He is about to do among us. It certainly will be different from my perspective, but it will be great because God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good!
Finally, come to celebrate. A Convention certainly requires us to do the business of the Church, which we will do. It also affords us the opportunity to be together. I have always seen the conventions more like family reunions, where we can all get together and celebrate our love for Jesus and our love for each other, motivated by Jesus. A few weeks ago, we walked the Holy Week path to the Cross, and we remembered the words Jesus spoke to His disciples. “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.” As I have traveled in these last few months, what I have observed, and maybe you have too, is that people have missed being together. Now even small events seem major because we can be together. Let’s take time at the convention to be together as God’s family in the Florida-Georgia District.
Here is a little conventional wisdom for the church. Let’s let the love of Jesus flow among us. We don’t need to agree on every jot and title. Whether you are for vaccines or not, masks or no masks, traditional worship or contemporary, or any number of other things which often cause divisions in the Church and send a message to the community, let’s walk together in love, celebrating our faith in the Risen Jesus. The future looks bright because we have a future fixed on Jesus! May He be honored as we gather to convene in His wisdom!
Your fellow servant,
Even as we observe the season of Lent, we do so with great hope. Our joy comes in knowing the end of the story, the Resurrection of Jesus! This is why we can continue to celebrate a year of Jubilee throughout the District, even during Lent. In this year of Jubilee, we are encouraging our congregations and members to take a break from the routines of life and ministry and to immerse themselves in God’s Word. Will Sohns writes, “The Great Sending of God immersion is ground-breaking. It asks that pastors and congregation members take a long and significant break from the normal activities and routines of congregational life. It urges participants to put the brakes on business as usual and re-examine their understanding of God, how God works and what He asks of us.” (The Great Sending, p. 36). This is actually a great Lenten practice, and it can serve us well whenever we carve out time to spend in God’s Word.
As the mission of God and His sending form the lens through which we read the Bible, we begin to see how from the very start God’s desire has always been to send His people into the world to proclaim good news. All of Scripture points us to THE great sending of God, when, out of love, He sent His only Son Jesus into the world to redeem us from our sin. In just a few weeks we will again have the privilege to rehear the old, old story of Jesus and His love in Holy Week. This used to be a more universal time to slow things down and focus on the sacrificial love of Jesus.
Don’t miss out on the opportunities to spend time in worship and contemplation, remembering all Jesus has done for us.
Most often we celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday. The term actually comes from the Latin, “mandatum” meaning command. You no doubt remember Jesus washing the feet of His disciples prior to the Passover Celebration the night before He was betrayed. When He finished He said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” It was shortly after this when Jesus gave them His command. He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” This was the mandate or command that directs our celebration of Maundy Thursday. It is all about sharing His love as He commanded us to do. To gather and celebrate the Sacrament apart from remembering His command to love leaves us with a shallow faith. It is this love which motivates us to reach the world as His sent ones.
Good Friday exemplifies the love of God in Jesus. That He would willingly sacrifice Himself in our place is still beyond our total comprehension. It was motivated by the very same love He commanded the night before. It is this love that strengthened Him through the scourging. It’s the very same love He showers on us daily. It is a love worth more than we can even imagine.
In our day the value of things often seems subjective. Take, for instance, the lowly penny. As a child I would never miss an opportunity to pick up a stray penny on the ground. You may remember the rhyme: “Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck.” Historically, pennies used to be made of pure copper and were larger than the pennies we have today. Now pennies have not only shrunk in value, but they are also made with a combination of copper and zinc. And I would have to admit that I’m not as quick to bend down and pick up a penny as I once was—for many reasons.
The thing which hasn’t changed from the days when my parents were picking up pennies, is a penny is still one cent. What can you buy for one cent? In the past you may have had purchasing power with a penny. These days it is difficult to find anything costing only a penny.
Often we feel underappreciated by the world, like the lowly penny. However, like that penny, you are One SENT (notice the spelling). God has sent you into the world to share the love of Jesus. I encourage you to do two things. First, carry a penny in your pocket as a reminder you are one sent—chosen and sent by Jesus into the world. Anytime you reach into your pocket, or open your purse look at the penny and remember your real value comes from our God who loved you so much He sent His Son into the world. Jesus chose us in His redeeming love, with purpose—so you could also share His love with others.
On the night of the Resurrection Jesus didn’t abandon His fearful disciples. Like finding a worthless penny, Jesus sought them out, finding them hiding in the Upper Room, and offered them peace. The Bible says, “When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” And 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 withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
On Maundy Thursday Jesus commanded them to love. On Good Friday He exemplified the Fathers love through His sacrifice. On the night of the Resurrection, He commissioned them and sent them into the world in the power of His Spirit to forgive sins. The very men who had earlier abandoned Jesus, who may have seemed as worthless as a penny, were given great value by Jesus, and a great responsibility too. The very same is true of each of us. Though we sometimes feel we have let our Savior down by our words and deeds, He comes to us, picks us up like an abandoned penny, and renews our value as He sends us into the world. Orison Marden once wrote, “One penny may seem to you a very insignificant thing, but it is the small seed from which fortunes spring.” God does amazing things with the insignificant things of life.
By the way, a penny may not hold much value in and of itself, but when you put a bunch of pennies together the value increases. As we work together for God’s Kingdom, connecting people to Jesus, sharing His love with the world, there is no end to what God can and will do!
May your Holy Week point you back to Jesus and help you to always remember, you are one sent—sent in the authority and power of the risen Jesus!
Your fellow sent saint,
The New Year is moving forward rather quickly! The Steve Miller Band sang, “Time keeps on slipping into the future.” It is so true. Christmas is already 65 days past! Easter is only just around the corner. The Rolling Stones have a song, “Time Waits for No One.” Music is literally filled with references to time. In fact, the Rolling Stones also sang, “Time is On our Side.” Understanding the precious nature of time has become all the more clear to me as the anniversary of my father’s passing approaches later this month. It is a potent reminder that we dare not take time for granted.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” Our world talks a lot about time. We have clocks and watches to remind us of the time. Some employers have time clocks to manage the time employee’s work. I remember when preaching as parish pastor it always seemed people were checking their watches. I’m certain it was to make sure I was giving them enough to think about. We are often obsessed with time, and the signs of time are all around us.
Music seems to find time to be a popular topic. Here is a sampling of other popular songs about time—some I know, some I’ve never heard!
“Time Stand Still” by Rush
“Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce
“As Time Goes By” by Jimmy Durante
“Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” by Carly Simon
“Slow Down Time” by Us The Duo
“Wasting my Time” by Insomnia & Resident
“Praying for Time” by George Michael
“The Longest Time” by Billy Joel
“If I could Turn Back Time” Diane Warren (made famous by Cher)
“Give Me Just a Little More Time” The Chairmen of the Board
“Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is?” by Chicago
“The Times They are a Changin’” by Bob Dylan
Let me say a word about the last two songs listed. While written many years ago, they seem to reflect attitudes prevalent in our day. Robert Lamm, from the Band Chicago, wrote in 1969, a turbulent time in our Nation, “Does anybody know what time it is? Does anybody care?” Our world has only become more driven and busy in our day. All the modern conveniences invented to save time now seem to occupy our time. If we don’t master our time, it will master us! How we use our time is important, not only to us, but to the people around us. Years ago, I heard John Maxwell say, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s very true. To show we care takes a great deal of time.
Years ago I heard a story of a pastor who worked long hours and felt under-appreciated at his job. He was struggling and probably on the verge of burnout. He would leave the house early and come home late, exhausted. He would faithfully call on his flock, and people were always requesting his time. One evening he arrived home in time for dinner, and then went to the living room to read his paper. His oldest son was seven years old, and he went into the room and tried to get his father’s attention.
After a few minutes of bothering his father, the man lost his temper and said, “What do YOU want?” The boy asked his father if he could have ten dollars. The father reacted poorly. He angrily said, “I provide for all your needs. You have three meals a day, clothes to wear, and everything you need. I’m not giving you ten dollars!” Tears began to flow down the boy’s cheeks, and the father’s heart soften, and he said, “Well, what do you want ten dollars for?” The boy said, “I know how hard you work, and it doesn’t leave much time to spend with me. I wanted the ten dollars so I could buy some of your time.” It crushed the father’s heart, who in that moment recognized he had lost control of his time. The sad thing is this story of focusing on career above family is played out in thousands of homes every day. Does anybody care about time? You bet!
The other song I want to point to is the Bob Dylan classic, “The Times They are a Changin.” It was true when Dylan wrote it, and it’s still true today. In fact, the times seem to be changing more rapidly more than ever! Things are not what they once were. In fact, in the “Church World” we are told things will not likely return to pre-pandemic conditions, especially in terms of attendance and volunteering. I suppose the good Lutheran question is, “What does this mean?”
For too long the Church has rested on time-tested approaches to ministry. The problem is, many of these no longer seem to be effective. This doesn’t mean we should proverbially throw the baby out with the bath water. Much of what has been part of the life of the Church is beneficial and good. Perhaps the question to ask is what might we adapt to make our ministries stronger? Focusing our ministry on Jesus above all else is transformational. One thing we have learned, especially in the past two years, is ministry for Jesus is all around us. While we have seen many obstacles to what most of us have known as “normal” parish ministry, what we are slowly beginning to realize about the new normal is there is no normal.
As my time in the office of District President quickly passes by, I am convinced more than ever the chief privilege of the Church is connecting people to Jesus! Now is the time for the followers of Jesus to go into the world! God is sending each of us as His ambassadors and representatives to the world. Building on God’s Word, He is equipping, empowering, and engaging us as He sends us to reach people wherever we are. Jesus said, “God so loved the world that He gave His One and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Despite the darkness of sin which continues to pervade our culture, Jesus was directing His people to see beyond the sin and offer His grace and love to those most in need of it, recognizing that at one time we were most in need of it!
If the pandemic taught us anything it was to stop going to church and start being the Church! To clarify what I mean, church was never meant to be an institution where people go and sit for an hour or two and then sit empty for the rest of the week. The Church is the people of God called together to serve Jesus. It is certainly about community and gathering, but it is always with purpose—to connect others to Jesus! This is why the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Colossae in Colossians 4:2-6, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” There is certainly a place for this inside the church, but Paul is directing the church to be in the world for Jesus. Now is the opportune time! Like the old hourglass, God is turning us over so the time can be redeemed and we can be filled, refilled and used for His glory. Jesus desires to send you in His power and with His promise to never leave nor forsake us. He has told us He will be with us to the very end! So, with the Apostle Paul I say to you “Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.” 2 Thessalonians 3:16.
In His Peace,
Have you ever wondered how Valentine’s Day began? Most people have heard the mythological story of the priest who performed weddings at a time when it was not permitted. The actual story of St. Valentine has a more solemn history. Valentine was indeed a priest who proclaimed the love of Jesus. It was, in fact, his proclamation of Jesus which led to his beheading. He served in the days when Christians were still considered outlaws. A Roman priest named Valentinus was arrested during the reign of Emperor Gothicus and put into the custody of an aristocrat named Asterius.
As the story goes, Asterius made the mistake of letting the preacher talk. Father Valentinus went on and on about Jesus leading pagans out of the shadow of darkness and into the light of truth and salvation. Asterius made a bargain with Valentinus: If the Christian could cure Asterius’s foster-daughter of blindness, he would convert. Valentinus put his hands over the girl’s eyes and prayed and she was healed. Asterius made good on his promise and converted. When Gothicus learned what had happened he had them all killed, and had Valentinus beheaded. He was buried by a pious widow at the site of his martyrdom on the Via Flaminia, the ancient highway stretching from Rome to present day Rimini, where a chapel was later built over his remains.
It is likely Valentinus was not a romantic, at least not in the sense celebrated around us today with cards, candy, flowers and trinkets. Perhaps in a truer sense Valentine, as we know him, was indeed a romantic in the sense he loved people enough to tell them about Jesus. Love was indeed his motivation. This love was not some temporal, fleeting love. It had an eternal quality which desired to see people come into a relationship with Jesus, even at the risk of death. It is likely Valentine had been warned to no longer preach, but He could not help himself.
The New Testament is filled with accounts of those whose lives were transformed by Jesus who couldn’t help but share the good news. Think about the shepherds who visited Jesus in the manger. Think about the woman at the Samaritan well in John 4, who ran all the way into town to have people “come and see.” In Luke 19:39-30 the disciples are with Jesus as he is preparing to enter Jerusalem. The Bible says, “And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” When we have experienced the transformative power of Jesus it is hard to contain it.
Do you remember the first Bible passage you learned? For me it was John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.” I memorized it in Sunday School—maybe even got a pin for doing so. This verse has often been called the Gospel in a nutshell. Because God loved the world He SENT Jesus into it so we might have everlasting life. His love for us was so immense, despite our propensity to sin, He willingly sacrificed His own Son so we might live with Him forever. This is just a glimpse of the heart of God for the world.
While God’s Word hasn’t changed, often we have failed to grasp it or apply it to our lives. Jesus didn’t say God’s love for the Church motivated Him to send Jesus. It was His love for this dark and sinful world. Jesus said in John 17, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” God desired to redeem all humankind in His love. His desire is for none to be lost, but all to come to a knowledge of salvation in Jesus.
We know the love of Jesus. We have seen it in His Word, we have heard it, and perhaps we have even spoken about it with our fellow believers. It is most impactful when we put it into action and actually exercise His love by loving others. On the night before His crucifixion Jesus said to His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you. So you must love one another for by this all people will know that you are My disciples.” Later Jesus would send them into the world, even as the Father had sent Him. Now, in His love, He sends us. We are sent in His love to a world needing Jesus!
One of my favorite Scripture verses comes from John 15:16. There Jesus says, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last…” What a powerful reminder of His grace. Each of us were chosen. We didn’t earn our place with Jesus, and we certainly don’t deserve a place with Jesus. Yet, He gives us a place because He loves us. In that love He also sends us to bear fruit. How amazing! We have been appointed by Jesus in love to share His love with the world. This is the very same world God loved enough to send Jesus! Now He reaches the world through His chosen ones, namely you and me!
Happy New Year! What an exciting year we have ahead of us. As with the past few years, the year ahead will be filled with lots of changes—some which we will control, and many beyond our ability to control. We won’t be able to control ever increasing prices or interest rates. We can’t control the weather or, as we’ve learned, how disease will spread. What we can control is how we respond to the changes all around us.
In this year of Jubilee, the focus for the Florida-Georgia District is three-fold, which has a Trinitarian feel. First, we will emphasize a renewal of being in God’s Word, making a commitment to read, mark, and inwardly digest it daily. You may have made a resolution to exercise more in the New Year, or to eat more fruits and vegetables, or to spend more time with the family—all good things. I would challenge you to spend more time in reading God’s Word and in prayer
We read in Hebrews 12:12-13, “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Like the steadfast love of the Lord, His Word is new every morning. His Word speaks directly to our faith and life. The Word strengthens our relationship with Jesus and with other believers. It shapes us as it permeates our entire being and allows the Holy Spirit to do amazing things in our lives. We begin to see the world differently and recognize that we are sent to connect people to Jesus
In John 1 we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men…He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:1-4, 12-13. When we spend time in God’s Word we come to find He is a sending God who has sent men and women into the world with the hope and promise of redemption and new life. He makes all things new. In fact, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Jesus will make all things new in 2022 as we spend time in the Word and respond to the calling of God’s Spirit remembering we are sent.
This is really the second focus for the District, to recognize we are sent by God to a world lost in the darkness of sin and fear. In just a few days we will celebrate Epiphany, which reminds us how the Light that shone in the darkness goes into the whole world. We now bear light for Jesus as His sent ones, empowered and renewed by His Spirit through His Word to proclaim the love and grace of Jesus! We are part of the great sending of God. It’s how He shows His heart to the world around us. It now beats through you and me. We have been chosen, redeemed and now sent, even as Jesus was sent and sent His disciples on Resurrection night to reach the world God so dearly loves.
The last emphasis I want to point to in the New Year is a motto which will continue to be a guide for me personally, and for our District as we head toward the Convention in June. It’s simply this, in Jesus “All things will be renewed in 2022!” This is a reference to the changes all around us and up ahead in the future. In June we will celebrate the 34th Triennial District Convention, albeit a year late due to COVID. At this convention, in addition to electing new leadership to guide the Florida-Georgia District into the future, delegates will have an opportunity to chart the course for how together we will carry out the mission of God as His sent ones through resolutions, reports and jubilee celebrations. How is God going to shape our congregations and ministries as people delve into the Word of God and allow His Spirit to “mess” with our lives? All things will be renewed as we boldly move into God’s future for the Florida-Georgia District. For me, personally, it will be a year filled with renewing as I look to the future Jesus has carved out for Edith and me. It’s the proverbial step of faith as we put our trust in Jesus to guide us into the future, as a district, as ministries, and even as individuals. He will do great things as we confidently follow His lead and see our future fixed on Jesus!
So join me in this year of Jubilee, as God works in each of us through His Word, to send us to the world to connect people to Jesus as we are renewed day by day! Again, Happy New Year! It’s going to be great as we walk in the light of Jesus and all things are renewed in 2022!
In His joyous peace,
You have no doubt heard all the warnings about potential shortages in all kinds of products which some analysts predict will impact Christmas shopping. Retailers are encouraging shoppers to act quickly and shop early if they want to insure making Christmas happy this year. At the same time, prices seem to be rising on everything from gasoline to groceries. (Is it just me or have package sizes gotten smaller while costs have increased?) After the past two years many are anxiously anticipating what the New Year will bring. How easy it is for us to get caught up all the trappings of the holiday season, and is why we should set aside time to celebrate Advent.
The Oxford Dictionary defines advent as “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” In the Church, Advent calls us to anticipate something better. Advent bids us to set aside time daily to prepare our hearts and homes for the One thing needful. The season of Advent is the beginning of the new Church year and begins a four week period of preparation in anticipation of the nativity of Jesus at Christmas. Rather than focusing on all the distractions created around this season, Advent offers us the opportunity to once again fix our eyes on Jesus as we look forward to the joyous celebration of His birth. Jesus is the reason for the season!
When I was a student at Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, I remember having a conversation with one of my professors, who broadened my understanding of Advent. He shared with me there are really three Advents we celebrate. He had my curiosity peaked. Naturally, since I was a student eager to learn, I asked him to explain.
The first Advent, he said, was God’s promise in Scripture throughout the Old Testament, through the Prophets promising the coming of a Savior. As early as Genesis 3:15, God promised to send a Savior. After Adam and Eve fell for the ploy of the devil God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” God’s promise was delivered in a most spectacular way. We are familiar with Incarnation. Paul tells us at just the right time God sent Jesus. In Galatians 4 he writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons .” This message came through a variety of people over centuries. In fact, I encourage you to sign up for the District Advent Devotions and see how our gracious God continually sent men and women into the world to prepare the way for Jesus.
The second Advent we celebrate is the one with which we are most familiar. The Church, since the 4th Century, has set aside time. Originally, it was a time when converts to Christianity readied themselves for baptism. In early days Advent lasted from November 11, the feast of St. Martin, until Christmas Day. Advent was considered a pre-Christmas season of Lent and Christians were encouraged to devote themselves to prayer and fasting. Later the start of the Advent season became tied to the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew on November 30. This is the tradition we observe still today.
In the Middle Ages, Advent was most often associated with preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus. This is the third Advent, the ultimate Advent, when Jesus returns to take His redeemed to our heavenly home. Many Christians still view Advent as a season to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus. In the last fifty years, however, it has become more popularly thought of as a time anticipating the Nativity, on Christmas Day.
My youngest son and his wife were married the week after Christmas in 2012. My wife and now daughter-in-law spent months preparing for the wedding event. The ceremony and reception probably lasted about seven hours, but the marriage has lasted much longer. In a similar way, Advent seems to last a few short weeks and then leads us to a celebration that goes on year round, and has for centuries. We are privileged to celebrate the birth of Christ as one of the foundations of our faith. Often people will listen to Christmas music year round because it brings such great joy and peace. Edith and I walk most mornings and already in the first few days of November we saw houses adorned with beautiful Christmas lights. It seemed early, but as I talked with other people we all came to a similar conclusion. Christmas decorations, lights, trees, ornaments, wreaths all bring joy to so many people, and who doesn’t need joy in these days?
As Christian believers, we look forward to the Advent of Jesus and even sing about it in our liturgy throughout the year. His return is not just a Christmas season thing. While our preparation in the season of Advent is a focused time in the life of the Church, our witness for Jesus should be clear and we should always be prepared to share our faith as we await our Savior’s return. The season of Advent offers us a very special time to set aside to think about God’s promises to us. It’s a season reminding us to prepare our hearts and homes to celebrate the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us. It’s also a wonderful time to pray come quickly Lord Jesus as we await His final Advent. In the late 1700’s Charles Coffin wrote a beautiful hymn, and Aaron Williams added the tune. It was a reminder to be watchful for the return of Jesus. “The advent of our King Our prayers must now employ, And we must hymns of welcome sing In strains of holy joy.” May our hearts be filled with holy joy, not only in these weeks leading up to Christmas, but all year long!
Advent blessings in Jesus, the Prince of Peace,
Earlier last month I had the opportunity to visit my widowed mother in Upstate New York. While the leaves were not as colorful as in times past, we were just a bit early; we did see some beauty as we walked in the crisp fall air. We also had an opportunity to be in NYC, and walk the famed route of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade right past Macy’s on 34th Street on our way to the train station. It felt magical…almost miraculous (movie fans understand that one…). With all the fall decorations adorning the windows of the businesses lining the streets of New York, it was a wonderful introduction to fall.
This is a season when my mind is often drawn to reflect on all for which I have to give thanks. It is very easy to lament. Even in the midst of a pandemic time, being grateful for blessings has proven to be a source of joy and a way to dispel fears. Paul writes, in the familiar words of Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” The Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 22, God “is enthroned on the praises of Israel.” As a child I learned this in the KJV, where it says, “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” I’ve always like this image—that God inhabits our praises. In other words, when we offer Him praise He is present there. When we offer Him our thanks, God is praised and He is present there! We certainly see this in Jesus, God Incarnate, who walked among us, suffered, was crucified, died and was resurrected. He is present with us always as He promised by sending His Spirit. The Holy Spirit reminds us constantly, if we will listen, all for which we have to give thanks!
My family, like many, has a tradition at Thanksgiving to go around the table and encourage everyone to share something for which they are thankful. It is always interesting to hear the remarks from participants, ranging from the mundane (thanks for good weather) to the profound (thanks for healing from cancer). What is especially interesting are the comments from the children, and how those comments mature over the years. My children would often be thankful for mom and dad, especially as Christmas was approaching…if you catch my drift. Now, they are thankful for things like the health of their children, for a good job, and a strong faith and family. Even in our own lives, much of the focus has changed from being thankful for things to being mostly thankful for relationships. In this year, as Edith and I have mourned the death of both of our fathers, we are thankful for their lives, their influence, their love, and their witness to Jesus. We have been blessed indeed! We are thankful!
Thanksgiving is not only a great and deserving holiday, but it is also a great blessing to feel thankful. The question really is, how do we make our thankfulness concrete? How can we show thanksgiving? Some have said it is as simply as thanks-living—living a life of thankfulness in what we say and do. For most of us, this does not come to us naturally. Human nature can be pretty self-centered as we learn from original sin. I am always humbled, maybe even a bit jealous, when I come across people who are joyfully thankful, recognizing how deficient I often am in displaying this attitude. For some of us, this is a constant work in progress. But I have learned there are actions I can take, and there are actions we can take to help us learn to be thankful.
One does not have to look too far to see needs all around us. The TV news shows us pictures of people and places all across our nation and the world, often in such desperate need. One such group has been brought to my attention by one of our retired pastors and I felt compelled to share it. It concerns the refugees coming into our country. While I realize this is a political hotbed, the issue isn’t about who comes in or who does not.
The issue is about how we care for those already in our country. Refugees by definition are people who have fled for their lives because of political or religious persecution. Jesus, Himself a refugee whose family fled from the holy land because of King Herod, said, “What you do for the least of these, you do also for Me.” Most refugees have little or no possessions and are thrilled to begin a life again living in freedom and in a democracy, eager to be in a place of refuge. While I have limited experience with resettled refugees, I have learned these men and women become part of their local community’s workforce, support our social security program and studies have shown refugees more than give back what they initially receive. Counted among those who were the benefit of kindness as refugees are people like Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, Sigmund Freud, and all kinds of people in the arts, sports and education, many who have contributed and helped shape America.
In 1939 concerned Lutherans, many who had fled to the United States or came from immigrant families, formed Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services in response to World War II. In fact, Lutherans have been known as leaders in resettling refugees. Both Lutheran Services of Georgia, now known as Inspiritus, and Lutheran Services Florida, Recognized Service Organizations within the LCMS, have done tremendous work with helping refugees get a new start. In fact, there are many stories of families who have come to faith in Jesus because a congregation took the time to care. These ministries report the refugee family demonstrated hard work, love of family and an eager thirst for knowledge and education. Congregations who have experienced showing the love of Jesus concretely by caring for a displaced family new to this country have also experienced a level of thankfulness many have missed. Many have partnered with these social ministry agencies to provide a brighter future for someone and to show them the love of Jesus in action. Historically the Church has always been known for sharing Christian hospitality, even as Jesus welcomed each of us into His family.
I have learned refugees go through extensive vetting and multiple background checks by various government entities, including health exams, English classes, introduction to American culture, traditions and history. These families long for a stable and peaceful life, but refugees cannot be resettled without a sponsor. This is how a congregation can concretely show thankfulness for all our blessings. A congregation can sponsor a refugee family and begin a relationship that will likely last a lifetime.
Congregations make a promise, after negotiating with LSF or Inspiritus (formerly LSG) regarding family size and makeup. It involves meeting the refugee family at the airport, taking them to proper housing, providing transportation initially until the family has a car and license, and helping to provide enough financial support for food, rent, and utilities. This is not a task for one or two in the church. It involves a community who will walk beside the family in what is called “the long welcome”: helping get children enrolled in school, securing social security numbers for all, opening bank accounts, taking them shopping, teaching them money systems, doctors and dentists for check-ups, ESOL classes, and slowly introducing them to the new area in which they live by showing them the local attractions. Most current refugees are Muslims so there are specific cultural sensitivities to observe. The congregation’s goal, and the refugee’s desire, is always to help them gain full independence as soon as possible, find a job, and begin returning the blessings to others who are experiencing what they have lived. Imagine the stories passed down by refugee families, sharing how a congregation cared for them.
The current focus is on Afghan refugees who are coming here under a Special Immigrant Visa designation for working alongside US troops as drivers, interpreters and helpers. These families were promised resettlement by the US government. Others coming are coming under a special Humanitarian VISA as extended family, neighbors or special circumstances connected to the military’s presence in Afghanistan. The vast majority of US citizens support this resettlement just like they did with the Vietnamese situation in the 1970’s. It can be a revitalizing and exciting adventure to meet new cultures and people, to practice hospitality and welcome the stranger in the name of Jesus. Were it not for His grace and love, we also would still be “outsiders”. Thankfully, He has claimed us as His own. In His grace He drew us into His family and daily shows us love and welcomes us as our sinful, selfish self is drowned and our new identity in Jesus rises daily with newness of life. May our thankfulness to Jesus be actively translated into something more concrete!
In September our Pastor’s Conference include Dr. Ed Stetzer, who serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, and as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He made a statement, which has stuck with me. He said, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” If we truly desire to be intentional about connecting people to Jesus, an open door is set before us. I want to challenge our congregations to look beyond themselves to see the stranger in our midst, the very ones for whom Jesus came, died and rose again. Below you will find contact information for these agencies who are working to resettle those who are displaced. Through your ministry, their future might be fixed on Jesus! As you live out your thankfulness for all of God’s blessings, may He show you how you might bless those He may be compelling you to serve. Why not consider the refugees?
In His Peace,
When I remember October’s from the past I can still smell apples we freshly picked, pumpkins being selected and the beauty of colorful leaves in hues of red, yellow and orange. The world seemed to slow down as the seasons shifted from summer to fall and the darkness of the night sky got earlier and earlier. It was one of my favorite times of the year. John Sinor was a columnist for the San Diego Tribune who wrote newspaper essays for what he called “the common man.” He passed in 1996, but he once wrote, “October is crisp days and cool nights, a time to curl up around the dancing flames and sink into a good book.” I’m not certain about the crisp days and cool nights, although this was certainly true in my childhood in New York. I suspect it is also probably more true in North Georgia than in Florida. The last part of this quote paints a vivid picture. The image of sitting in front of a crackling fire, feeling it’s warmth, without having a multitude of other commitments or responsibilities, is very inviting. Beyond this, it points me to another fire and another book worthy for each of us to make time to read.
October offers us a variety of opportunities. First, it offers us the opportunity to recognize and celebrate our pastors. Sunday, October 10 is set nationally as Clergy Appreciation Day. The LCMS provides resources on their website to help congregations recognize and celebrate these men. What a great joy to celebrate how God is at work through these Shepherd-servants. While most are far from perfect, present company included, we have responded to God’s call. And while we have been prepared to serve a congregation, nothing could prepare us for all the complexities of ministry today, especially in the past year with the pandemic. Ministry is often complicated, and a challenge to meet the multitude of needs in a given parish, not to mention the larger community in which the parish resides. Let me encourage you to offer thanks, first to God, and then to your pastor, for his service among you. The gift of encouragement can go a long way in renewing the fire of enthusiasm and joy for ministry in a pastor. And maybe that encouragement could include giving them some time to curl up with a good book!
October is also when many churches will celebrate the ministry of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League or LWML. These are ladies dedicated to missions both domestically and internationally. Through their mite box offerings they fund many mission endeavors. In fact, the LWML funded a partnership between Mission Nation Publishing and the FloridaGeorgia District which is a pilot project to produce resources that will help churches reach new ethnic groups. Mission Nation will publish books, manuals, PowerPoint presentations, design conferences and create other resources to help churches in the FLGA District seeking to reach ethnic populations in their community. Recently, at their Fall Retreat the ladies raised close to $2000 from offerings and mite boxes for the Florida-Georgia District Disaster Relief fund. These ladies have fire in their hearts and definitely spending time in the Word. You can find ample resources on the LWML website!
Another opportunity October offers is to celebrate our heritage as Lutheran Christians, remembering the Reformation and its focus on Jesus. The Reformation calls us to look to our past as we look to a future fixed on Jesus. Some Lutheran congregations celebrate Reformation as a “second” Pentecost, when the dancing flames of the Holy Spirit once again spread in the Church as God’s Word, The Good Book, was restored to a place of prominence. The history of the Reformation is a fascinating reminder of how easy it can be for the Church to stray from its foundation.
In Luther’s day the traditions of the Church became so entrenched it clouded the truth of God’s Word. Luther sensed something was wrong, and as he studied God’s Word his eyes were opened. Luther was convicted and convinced by the words of St. Paul in Romans 3, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins.” It became so clear to him. We are saved by grace, not by our works. It is not about what we do, but about what Jesus did for us at the Cross. This is our great heritage, and while we are not alone in this understanding of grace, and Luther was not the only Reformer, he led the way and God used him to open the door to needed reform.
The rally cry of the Reformation was put into a simple vision: Faith alone, Grace alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone. This is at the heart of what made the Reformation so effective. Many are familiar with Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Having been saved by grace alone through faith does not mean Jesus has no expectations of us as if we have to do nothing for Jesus. You don’t have to do anything for Jesus, but you get to do everything for Him! In fact, we were created in Jesus to do good works. In fact, Jesus told us we were chosen to bear fruit for Him in John 15. Paul says this fruit or good works were prepared beforehand, that “we should walk in them.” I love this idea of walking to do good works because it reminds me my faith is to be active and moving. In other words, when I walk in His grace it will naturally produce fruit for Jesus.
October opportunities aren’t limited to worship services, nor should they be. Many congregations will reach into their community with an Oktoberfest, which could be a wonderful way to show the love of Jesus to people outside the church. Building these bridges to the community are becoming increasingly important in our day as we see fewer and fewer who identify with a church or understand the truth of the Gospel, which, Luther said, is the true treasure of the Church. In the midst of a tumultuous time in the history of our world, when it seems like darkness is all around, we have hope to offer the world in the person of Jesus. The goal, of course, should be nothing more than to become a living display of the love of Jesus without any expectation. These community opportunities ought not be seen as “recruitment” drives, but rather as a training ground to exercise our faith and life in Jesus.
Regardless of how you might personally feel about Halloween, it will be celebrated in most of our communities. Don’t shy away, but invest a little time. What opportunities might it present for your congregation, or even for you in ministry to your neighborhood. I always found it to be a good night to visit with neighbors. In fact, in years past we would gather with several other neighbors outside on driveways and simply show kindness to our neighborhood as we welcomed their children.
Sometimes the Gospel is best proclaimed by being the people God calls us to be and not “preaching” at people. I never imagined it having much of an impact until we were under an imminent hurricane threat several years ago. As I stood with several neighbors sharing hurricane advice on the street, one remarked that he had a winch if someone needed a tree removed, another offered his truck, another had extra plywood if necessary, and then one of the neighbors looked at me and said, “And you can pray!” I never “witnessed” to my neighbors, but I did show them who I was when we came together. God used these brief interactions to let them know I was a man of prayer. You just never know how God might light a fire of recognition in someone’s heart and use it for His glory. Living out the Word of God is part of Sola Scriptura!
Honestly, the opportunities are all around us, not just in October, but all year round. Each season offers us new opportunities to serve Jesus if we will open our eyes and hearts to see them. Yet October offers us some special celebrations as we gather around the Word of God. The power of God’s Word changes things. Paul reminds us, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The Living Word calls us to live His Word in the world He came to save!
So, as the nights grow darker, the air a bit crisper ( hopefully) why not light a fire and let the dancing flames remind you of God’s Spirit at work in you, then take some time to curl up with His Word and see what God has in store for you. It will make it a month to remember the beauty of our God at work!
This September in particular brings to remembrance the 20th Anniversary of the attacks on this nation known as 9-11, when the United States was left in a state of unbelief, many lives were lost, and for weeks people were instilled with a sense of fear. Out of the midst of this tragedy we saw a more united United States. For weeks after the event many churches saw a rise in attendance. Unfortunately, this particular aspect didn’t seem to last too long. However, regardless of the politics, regardless of “race, creed or color,” despite religious preferences and so many things which are divisive, there was a collective sense of unity in our identity as American citizens. As our motto states, we were many but we become one; we became Americans. This is our unity.
Following 9-11 there was a reported uptick in sales of American flags. Walmart reportedly sold over 250,000 flags the day following the attack. Many who had immigrated to the United States proudly stood as American citizens, and there was a sense of hopefulness in the midst of our fears because we stood together. Twenty years later we have been lulled into taking our citizenship for granted. With the challenges all around us, whether it’s fires in California, flooding in central Tennessee, hurricanes buffeting our coastal states, racial and social divides, soldiers being ambushed and killed protecting our citizens and way of life, we seemed to have forgotten our identity and unity as citizens of this great nation. When this happens it endangers us all. American unity is not a luxury; it is a necessity. This lack of unity has even infiltrated the Church in our day.
We live in a post-Christendom world, where the Church and Christianity are often considered irrelevant and are no longer held in esteem as they once were. Today many have never been in a church or associated with a religious institution and Jesus is known by fewer and fewer. It is reminiscent of Exodus 1:8, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” We have allowed the distractions of the world, our new king, to keep our focus on the “busy work” of the Church while often ignoring the mission heart of God. Understanding our identity is essential to how we live our faith. We are the baptized people of God!
In a few days I have the privilege of baptizing my sweet granddaughter, Elsie Lea. My son, a bit of an outdoorsman, desires we baptize her in a river. It’s actually a stream, but it is flowing water. The whole family is gathering in the beautiful mountains of North Georgia for this festive occasion. It is more than a simple celebration. According to God’s command, In the waters of baptism, Elsie will receive a promise from God. It is a promise that neither her parents nor grandparents could make, but God alone. It’s better than any human gift we could give her on this day or any day, as it is eternal life. She is already “our” child, and very precious to us, especially her mom and dad, which is why we are bringing her to the waters of baptism. Yet, as much as we love her, we know and are convinced God loves her even more. The same is true for each one of us. We are the baptized children of God. We dare not confuse it by placing it in the past tense, as if we were baptized. We are baptized! It is a state of being. It is who we are, and more importantly, a statement of Whose we are!
In the Small Catechism of Martin Luther he reminds us of the benefits of baptism: “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” In Mark 16 it says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” We cling to this promise. As little Elsie grows in her faith, guided by her parents, her family and the whole Christian community, the blessings of God’s promise will continually increase. It’s not simple water, but it’s the water connected to God’s Word which accomplishes such miraculous things. It is capable of transforming lives.
Convincing most readers of this article about the power of baptism is likely unnecessary. However, here is where our unity truly lies. When we understand our identity is now found in Jesus, as we gather at His Cross, we find, despite the things that divide us, we have a deeper unity than even a nation gathered after tragedy. Yet, so often, I have witnessed the Church simply turn away from unity, using God’s Word alone (Sola Scriptura) to win an argument or make a point without applying His grace (Sola Gratia). The early Christian community was not perfect, but historians tell us the outside world was astounded by their unity and love. It was all about Jesus, and the Church clearly understood their role as those sent into the world to connect people to Jesus.
The world around us is constantly, maybe even just casually, observing the Church to see if what we say and what we do match. Often it has not. We have failed to live out our unity as baptized children of God. May God help us recall the joy of our baptism, even as I prepare to baptize Elsie Lea, and may that joy remind us of the power of God’s promise.
Jesus prayed in His High Priestly prayer asking the Father to make us one in Jesus. This prayer is alive today as Jesus intercedes for us and reminds us of our identity in Him! As His Spirit works through Word and Sacrament to strengthen our faith, as we see the attacks of the evil one upon the Church all around us, may we stand together as brothers and sisters. Jesus said to His disciple, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” We are built on the Rock of Jesus as His baptized! Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace as we reach the world with good news to connect the world to Jesus, living in our baptismal promises!
Remember the marketing tagline from the movie JAWS? “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” Many are beginning to feel that way about the COVID pandemic. We thought we were making progress and then came the “variant” which seems to have caused a regression. We were told there would be another surge, but as the virus calmed down and things began to open up again, just when it felt like life was returning to some normalcy; just when we we’re breathing a sigh of relief; just when we thought it was safe to go back in the public square, we learned we still need to be ever so cautious. We have been lulled into a false sense of security and we are learning we will need to be vigilant.
There are probably good lessons to be learned from this, despite the frustrations of mask wearing and using gallons of hand sanitizer each day. In fact, I believe this could be a teachable moment for the redeemed. We know we have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus. There is absolutely nothing we bring to this arrangement. Jesus did it all for us through His death and resurrection. As Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
One thing we might take away from COVID is we must always take care to guard our faith. It is a precious gift, and yet many are lulled into a false sense of security thinking once we are saved it matters not how we live. When we do we become like the proverbial frog in the kettle. We become so immune to our surroundings that before we know it we are dead to our faith.
Recently I was installing a pastor and the lesson chosen was from John 21 where Jesus restores Peter. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. Three times Peter, with what I imagine increasing frustration, replies with, “You know I do…” Yet, each time, Jesus gives a particular instruction. First, “Feed My lambs.” Then He says, “Tend My sheep.” The third time Jesus says, “Feed My sheep.” Perhaps the point here is our actions speak louder than our words. Each time Peter tells Jesus of his love, Jesus challenges Peter to show Him by how he responds to His people. In a similar way, everyone seems to have a verbal opinion on how to defeat the pandemic, but not everyone is willing to take action to prevent it. If I tell my wife I love her but my actions seem to show otherwise, what message could I expect her to get?
This is such an important message for the Church, especially in a post-Christendom, pandemic fueled culture. Often the Church is publicly defamed because our words and actions don’t always line up. Yes, we are sinners, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, but how will we respond to His forgiveness? How will we respond to His love? To quote Jesus, “Freely you have received, freely give!” God’s Church must take care to remember our calling. We are to reach out to the world with His love, beginning with each other.
I’ve learned over the past twelve years there are no such things as “church” fights. There are certainly fights in the church, but they are public, and they always have a way of reaching beyond the borders of the local ministry and into the larger community. Satan is hard at work to destroy God’s Church on earth, and in some ways, it seems like he is winning. But Jesus promises the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. The question which puzzles me when such controversies arise is “Does this glorify Jesus in any way?” It leads me to ask more questions, like what is behind the motivation, who are the people involved, and what do we accomplish if we “win” the battle but destroy the reputation of God’s Church?
Peter, writing to the Churches, said, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” Did you know that we have the authority to resist the devil? Jesus Himself gave us His authority before the Ascension, sending us into the world equipped to do His work. We have an often untapped power at our disposal. God’s Holy Spirit, working through Word and Sacrament, empowers our witness in the world, and gives us strength to resist the evil one. This is why time in God’s Word and worship is so essential to our spiritual vitality.
Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” There are certainly times we need to stand up for what we believe, teach and confess. There are also times when we have to trust in the promises of God, standing strong in His promises, remembering He will never leave us nor forsake us; He will be with us to the end of the ages; in Him we need not fear; He loves us with an everlasting love; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins from us; though our sins be as scarlet, in Jesus they are made white as snow. You could add additional promises which come to your mind for His promises to us are abundant.
What we do for Jesus matters—not in any way to earn His favor or our salvation, but as a response to what He has done for us. Responsibility is nothing more than the ability to respond. What do you do for the One who did not spare His own life for us? The devil certainly wants to make us feel confident in our own efforts, but our motivation is not to somehow impress God or our neighbor. It is a motivation of love for God and for our neighbor. Any actions I take to prevent further spread of COVID are not done to protect me, but rather to show love to my neighbor and protect them.
There is no doubt COVID has changed our world, some for good, some not so much. What we take away from it, what we learn is in the midst of it all we can stand strong in Jesus, looking to Him, the author and perfecter of our faith. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the world, it is, as we stand on the promises of God and not only trust Him, but let His love be our motivation for life.
In His peace,
In just a few weeks the 2020 Summer Olympics are set to begin in Tokyo, Japan. You read it right. The games were delayed a year due to COVID-19. In fact, as I write the Olympic games are still going forward as scheduled despite warnings in our own country not to travel there, amid protests by a major Japanese newspaper. Like so many things in the past couple of years, planned events are often required to be changed in an instant.
At the end of May the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, had already come out against holding the Summer Olympics, which are to open in Tokyo on July 23, 2021. They were the first national paper in Japan to call for the games’ cancellation, following growing calls from Japanese business leaders to scrap the already-delayed Olympics given the country’s recent COVID surge and poor vaccination drive. A couple of months back public polls also showed a vast majority of people in Japan oppose holding the events, but the IOC has been determined the games will go on.
In the summer of 1996 the Olympics came to Atlanta as I served in Northeast Georgia. My family and I were a part of this history, both the good and the bad. It’s still a thrill. Edith and I, along with our kids and her parents, had been given tickets to watch the Dream Team play basketball against a team who had been practicing at Toccoa Falls College prior to the games. In fact, it was the very same night the bomb exploded in Centennial Park. Fortunately for us because we had young kids, we had left the park less than an hour before and didn’t hear about it until we arrived home later that night. Those were the days before we had cell phones and instant news.
One of my favorite memories is when the Olympic torch came through our little town of Toccoa. My wife worked for the city and was part of the team who scheduled the route. Her role allowed both my kids to meet Izzy, the Olympic Mascot and to hold the torch which Muhammad Ali, a gold medalist at the 1960 Rome Olympics, would use to light the flame in the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta.
Imagine how the light of the flame, which began in Olympia, Greece, made the journey to Atlanta, Georgia. Here is a little history on its journey. Well over 800 people carried the torch a distance of 1,330 miles across Greece, before it even left for the United States–the most extensive in the history of the Games. Transported by air, the flame landed at Los Angeles International Airport on April 27, 1996, and was met with a welcome ceremony. The torch went through 42 states and 29 state capitols along a journey of 16,699 miles and was carried by 12,467 bearers including 2,000 former Olympians or other people somehow linked to the Olympic movement; 5,500 people who had been nominated locally as “community heroes”, and another 2,500 people picked out in a draw, not to mention those like my sons, who got to hold it. The celebration when it came through our town was a huge community event with throngs of people coming out to see the light of the torch.
People seem to be drawn to light, at least in some circumstances. It is easy to understand when we often feel like we are living in dark times. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So many things in the world try to “blow out” the light of Jesus in the world, whether it be our personal struggles, congregational struggles or even national ones. Have you ever stopped to notice how quickly dusk turns to darkness at night? It happens so quickly at times it is almost without notice, when we aren’t consciously thinking about it. In the same way, sin invades our lives so quickly, often unintentionally and without notice. At those times we need to be connected to Jesus, who said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”
The same Apostle who heard Jesus talk about this would later write, “If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Jesus calls us to carry His light into the world, to actually walk in the light. He reminds us, “You (as in each of you) are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We are torch-bearers for Jesus, every single one of us. The question that challenges us is, “Are we walking in light or darkness, or maybe just lingering in the dusk?” We each have a choice.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Through discipline we become disciples! Disciples are those who have disciplined themselves and exercised their faith through Word and Sacraments. These things strengthen us to guard hearts and minds to keep them in the light rather than allowing the darkness to overcome them.
On my phone I have an amazing golf game I play from time to time when I’m waiting in a line or waiting to get off an airplane. I have gotten really good at the game and can usually score well below par. However, it does not make me a golfer—and anyone who has golfed with me can attest to this fact. The only way I will get to be a better golfer is by going out and playing more often (at least that’s what I keep telling my wife…). Relating it to our faith, going to church, even regularly or reading a devotion is kind of like electronic golf. It’s good, it’s fun, but it won’t necessarily transform your life. You have to actually exercise your faith if you want it to grow. Think of it like a muscle that needs to be flexed in order to be stronger. If all we do is receive words about Jesus and fail to “walk in the light” by sharing our faith and connecting people to Jesus, we will be less able to endure the race of faith. Paul writes in Philippians 2:14–18, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” Jesus chooses us as disciples to bear fruit for Him in the world as we carry His torch, bear His light, and run the race He has set before us.
God has gifted each of us uniquely but fully. Not one disciple of Jesus lacks gifts if the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us. Often those gifts go undiscovered in our lives. We have recently been going through a move to a new house. I have discovered all kinds of things that I had forgotten I even had. It’s amazing, when you have so much, how easy it is to take it all for granted. The Apostle Paul, speaking to his young protégé Timothy, wrote, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Most of us are gifted by God in ways beyond our comprehension, with abilities to do more than we could imagine. Seek those gifts out and fan them into flames as you connect people to Jesus!
You may never be an Olympian, but you can be one who carries the torch for Jesus in a dark world. Shine His light for all to see so that people walking in darkness will become enlightened by the grace of Jesus!
Your fellow torch-bearer,
Early in my role as District President I was pushed by my staff, who were still getting to know me, to clarify my vision for the District. The Bible reminds us, “Where there is no vision the people will perish” (Proverbs 28:19). Jonathan Swift said, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” We all need a vision to help us understand where God is leading us. God had already made His vision clear for my ministry, but He was calling me to see beyond myself. Someone once told me, if you want to see God laugh, tell Him your plans.
So many transitions were already occurring in my life, and feeling grossly unprepared, it was a bit overwhelming to consider coming up with a vision and direction for the FloridaGeorgia District. I really struggled to come up with a vision statement broad enough to cover a large geographical district which I was really just beginning to fully understand. I came up with all kinds of comprehensive and complicated thoughts to express my desire to serve the people and ministries of the Florida-Georgia District. I wasn’t happy with the result of my struggles and I couldn’t figure out why. One of the most important lessons I learned early on in my ministry, which I still try to employ, is to listen to the voices God places around me. Someone suggested to me the reason I was struggling was because I was seeking a vision for my ministry rather than a vision for the Florida-Georgia District. I began to pray differently.
I read a quote somewhere which said, “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t need to be pushed. The vision pulls you!” It truly helped guide my thoughts. As a parish pastor my hope and desire was to connect people to Jesus. Whether in the worship, at our school or in the community. I attribute this to a number of mentors in my life, including the pastor I grew up under, my own father, my father-in-law, and mentors who had guided me along the path of my spiritual growth. Hebrews 12:1 calls these folks part of the great cloud of witnesses, and I have been blessed with a wonderful group of people who have surrounded my life in my life. These folks have always pointed me to Hebrews 12:2, which is kind of a life verse for me. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of the faith who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning it’s shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
This guided my thoughts as I looked at the Florida-Georgia District which I have loved and served my whole professional career. I began thinking about what brought passion to my life and how God made me aware of His call on my life. It was always about Jesus. As a teenager I loved being at church. It was where my closest friends were. I still remember how joyously proud I was when I picked out and purchased my own Bible. It wasn’t my first Bible (I already had a KJV, TEV and Living Bible). It was the first one I chose for myself. It was the NASB, not because it was necessarily the easiest version to read, but because it was the same one my father used, and he probably chose it because it was the version our pastor used. As I read God’s Word I grew in my faith, and I fell deeper in love with Jesus. I was in awe of His grace and love for me. Through high school my faith continued to mature and grow, and in my first year of college I struggled with career choice. I thought I wanted to be an actor, and quickly learned God had not quite designed me for this. Someone I respected, whom I met with for weekly Bible Study, suggested I consider pastoral ministry, and challenged me to talk to my pastor. When I did he confirmed this, and it started me on a path which has led me to this point. From as far back as I can remember it was all about Jesus. God has brought me back to this foundation time and again.
How easy it is to get side-tracked on things that appear to be important, until you discover how fleeting these issues really are. I once heard a story about a couple so focused on the baptismal party for their infant daughter they didn’t realize until they got home they had left her sleeping in the church nursery. It is easy to get distracted by things that seem so critical until you discover what is truly vital. When a loved one is ill, many things seem less significant. Then the immediate vision is to tend to the loved one, pray for him or her, wait on them, care for them, and do whatever is necessary. When my wife had surgery I wanted to do everything I could for her wellbeing. That’s what love does.
In Revelation 2 as Jesus speak to the Church of Ephesus He calls them to return to their first love. He says, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Do you remember when you first met Jesus? Maybe it was in Sunday School or in Vacation Bible School, or maybe it was during some crisis when a friend offered to pray for you and told you about the love of Jesus. Bill Hybels once said, “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.” Faith in Jesus should produce a passion in us. Faith life seems so simple when our eyes are fixed on Jesus. Like Peter, the moment we get distracted and take our eyes off Jesus we begin to sink. When faith is all about Jesus, His call becomes clear. He reminds each of us, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you to bear fruit—fruit that will last.” Throughout God’s Word the call for disciples is to proclaim the name of Jesus to those who haven’t heard or even more importantly to those who have strayed from their faith in Him for any number of reasons, which seems to be a growing number. This is why the vision for the Florida-Georgia District is to equip, empower and engage to connect people to Jesus.
“EQUIP, EMPOWER, & ENGAGE TO CONNECT PEOPLE TO JESUS!”
This vision seems simple on the surface, but with a little reflection perhaps you can find new depth. To equip reminds us that we are called to be life-long learners. It means we devote ourselves to reading and employing God’s Word in our lives. It means we invest in and understand the culture all around us so we are prepared to give the reason for the hope within us. God brings us into relationships to help equip us, all with a purpose—to connect people to Jesus.
We are empowered through the Word and Sacrament, which is why worship is so important in our faith life. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost the people were filled with power from on high, again, with purpose. It wasn’t so they could put themselves on a pedestal and look down on non-believers. It was so they would more effectively reach people with the good news. If we’ve learned anything from COVID, we have learned that we are empowered as we gather in fellowship with one another. We are empowered through prayer and through practicing our faith on a daily basis. God empowers us to connect people to Jesus.
Engage is an action term. Joel A. Baker wrote, “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without a vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” A vision can be made into a great statement, and it is good to know it and recite it, but the fun begins when we put it into action. As we engage the world with the love and grace of Jesus we find the world transformed, one soul at a time. To engage means we need to be where God is at work beyond the campus of the local church. Certainly we hope and pray God is at work in His churches, but the needs are greatest in the surrounding community. This engagement is essential to sharing the life-giving gift of Jesus with a broken world. And there are many opportunities, from volunteering and serving in ministry organizations to taking roles in civic responsibilities, all in the name of and to connect people to Jesus.
So, the vision for the Florida-Georgia District is simply to equip, empower and engage to connect people to Jesus. It is my marching orders each day as Jesus continues to equip, empower and engage me to connect people to Jesus. It’s not just something for “the district.” My prayer is you will find opportunities for Him to enlarge your vision as His servant to connect people to Jesus too!
In His peace,