Thursday, June 6, 2013

I am Your Pastor

I am your pastor.
“…the pastors and teacher[s] responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church.” (Ephesians 4:12)
I can teach you the truths of God from His Word and show you his love by example. I am redeemed by the same blood of Jesus and live in the same undeserved love and grace as you. I am not an expert on marriage, relationships, sex, raising children, politics, or the economy. Some may expect their pastor to fill these roles but the apostle Paul warns against pastors and teachers getting in over their head in areas they don’t belong: “Don’t let them waste their time in endless discussion of myths and spiritual pedigrees. These things only lead to meaningless speculations, which don’t help people live a life of faith in God.” (1 Timothy 1:4)
I tell dear people all the time, “I will meet with you once to determine what it is you want to work on and how to best approach it.” You see, I will listen to you. I will pray with you for healing, grace, strength, and courage, both spiritually and physically. I will connect you with the appropriate experts with the experience and gifts to help you deal with life’s issues. My role isn’t to do your thinking or living for you by giving you some religious expectation, a cliché, or scripted biblical answers or explanations – it’s to teach YOU how to think, to pray, to listen, and to act. In this way, your faith is in Jesus Christ by listening to the Holy Spirit and not in me or what I think. Your faith has to be your own. Jesus said, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 15:4-5)

I - am just your pastor.

Friday, May 17, 2013

God-Given Rights?

Echoing around the hot buttons of the headlines today on gun control, freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, national security, etc.; I’ve been hearing this statement a lot, “God-given rights.”

The American Bill of Rights was actually written AFTER the Constitution was ratified by the original thirteen states. Although they liked what it said and the balance it represented they figured the people needed a reason to obey and follow it. Basically, what’s in it for them that can be applied to the life of the everyday citizen? Then, it will go over better as we declare this Constitution. 

What we have come to know in our world today as our “God-given rights” began as an attempt to make good citizens – not good Christians.

So, I figure, if we are measuring our Christian maturity and righteousness by what we believe are our “God-given Rights” because God will be pleased that we have been given those freedoms by a well-meaning and benevolent government, then we should go back and re-read Matthew 5, 6, and 7. The Bill of Rights is only man’s attempt at doing some things on God’s heart better than others. They never point anyone to Christ. Go figure.

People can tell if you are a follower of Christ or not by the fruit your life reveals in living the teachings of Christ. Jesus said that he left us with a gift – peace of heart and mind. And it was a gift that the world cannot manufacture (John 14:27). I believe him.

My conclusion: The Bill of Rights enables us to be good citizens – not good followers of Christ. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Out of Context

Have you ever overheard a conversation and only got a part of it? You heard the words but they just didn’t make any sense. The meaning of the words you heard, the way they were put together, and what you may or may not know about the people who are speaking all combine to take the words you heard and put them out of context. You’re not really sure what they are saying even though you recognize the words.

N. Ripperger, a father and artist, has created posters you can buy on-line with comments he has found himself saying to his kids. Looking at the posters with the sayings on them leaves the rest of us in the dark as to the context, but that’s what makes them so funny. For example: “Stop riding that penguin. We’re leaving.” Or “I am not talking to you…until you are wearing underwear.” Or “Get that toilet seat off your head. Now.”

Not being there or hearing the rest of the story of where the toilet seat came from, or what that penguin actually was leaves us to figure it out for ourselves – most often with images in our mind that are funny because it just doesn’t make any sense without the context.

I believe it is the same way with religious words and explanations. We’ve heard and maybe even used words and conversations like, Jesus saves; God so loved the world; The Bible says…; and one of my favorites, Christian values. And the out of context response comes back like this, Saves who from what or what from whom?  Really, with all this crime, war, disease, and global catastrophes? Who gave the last word to the Bible? What, only Christians can take care of the poor or fight injustice or do good things?

I believe this is what the apostle Peter was getting at in his letters to the church. He said that we have been called out of the darkness into his wonderful light so that we could show the goodness of God to the unbelieving people we live among (1 Peter 2). This is how to put it into context – your personal story, your testimony of the events of God working in your life. This requires relationship. This requires time. This is what he means by “show” others the goodness of God. That’s the difference between “show” and “tell.” Just telling allows the context to be foggy. Showing, on the other hand, allows context to be seen.

So the next time you share your faith or testimony with someone, be sure you are using your relationship and conversation in context so they can see the goodness of God in your story, or it may just turn out like Mr. Ripperger said: “Stop riding that penguin. We’re leaving.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Can You See It?

John 3:3 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Born from above, or from God, is the meaning of John’s words. To experience this spiritual rebirth, a person must be completely renewed through God’s power. It’s not a belief or an understanding; it’s an experience of becoming right with God by faith in the work and person of Christ.

Sort of blows the idea of doing religion out the window doesn’t it.

Born from above, of God, a spiritual rebirth tells me that the life I now have must change – even dare I say my will, my rights, my privileges, and my priorities? My life. My self.

Apostle Paul put it this way: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20 NLT)

Paul is telling us how his rebirth looks in everyday life. My old self. Me, myself, and I. Numero Uno. This person that wants to do what he wants, when he wants, with whom he wants, for any reason he wants, because after all it’s my life and I can do what I want, is as if it has been crucified with Christ on that cross. But, it has risen again in newness of life just like Christ did after that cross. So the life I now live in this earthly body that is me, is actually Christ in me living out what He wants. Oh, this earthly body gives me a run for my money now and again wanting to do what it wants, but I live day to day trusting in the Son of God who is now my new life.

He also framed it this way: “For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3 NLT)

You were supposed to have died to wanting your own way, you were supposed to have died to your earthly rights, you were supposed to have died to yourself when you were crucified with Christ; it’s not you that is supposed to be living this life, but Christ in you that is supposed to be living it! He is your real life!

Christianity has become a religion of crisis. We come to God when in trouble or afraid or in pain or heartbreak and want him to fix our life. But Jesus and the apostles taught us that we were supposed to give up our life. Yet many of us come to Him wanting Him to verify our convictions, our politics, our values, and our priorities thinking they are in line with His wanting Him to put His stamp of approval on them thereby fixing all our woes (or at least justifying our condition and circumstances). We need to be reminded that the prophet Isaiah wrote: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT)

I bring nothing to God but my old life, my self. And as much as I think I may be doing some things right, even well, it’s that old life of my rights and privileges, convictions and values I bring to Him to create new. And for all our attempts at being good enough…the writer of Hebrews quoting Psalm 46 writes: “When Christ came into the world, he said to God, ‘You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer. You were not pleased with burnt offerings or other offerings for sin. Then I said, Look, I have come to do your will. O God.” (Hebrews 10:5-7 NLT)

Jesus came into this earthly life to do God’s will. He laid aside His divine privileges and doing what He wanted to do in this world (self) and offered Himself, innocent of sin, to the Father for us all.

Peter said this is how we do this: “[Christ] is our example, and you must follow in his steps. He never sinned, nor deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. (1 Peter 2:21-24 NLT)

To follow in His steps of laying aside our own life we start with:

He never sinned. We give up our life to Him and experience a rebirth into the Kingdom of God – not our will or life anymore but Christ’s will and life in us and lived out through us.

Nor deceived anyone. He didn’t look to stack the deck for Himself or sway the favor of anyone with false information or accusations.

He did not retaliate when he was insulted. It’s impossible not to offend someone along the way – we’re human. But when people got up in arms over what Jesus was showing them He didn’t retaliate to justify His position.

Nor threaten revenge when he suffered. Jesus knew He would be honored by the Father and He knew what trouble the whole world was in. Yet, He saw no need to threaten anyone with who would get the last word. He was not afraid of anyone’s sinfulness, hatred, or acts of disobedience and irreverence shown to God.

He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. In our earthly life we may not understand the timing, but in the course of history our life-span and what is going on in the world around us is only a vapor. And as Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The world is not any worse today than it has been throughout history. We are just closer to our redemption and God will eventually wrap it up. We may feel that urgency, but God is always just and His patience, kindness, and tolerance lead people to repentance.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. This is what we are talking about. Our old life went to the cross with Christ. He paid for all its sins and disobedience there, once for all time. We can be dead to it’s wanting its own way all the time so that we can be free to live for what is right. If we want to be free to live for what is right and see the Kingdom of God come; we won’t see it by demanding laws or behaviors, theology alignment or what some call revival. We see it by submitting to truth: Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Can you see it?

Monday, February 11, 2013


I really don’t like labels.

Not the kind that identify the ingredients in a product, which I should read more carefully, but the kind that attempt to polarize who is “right” and who is “wrong” measured by an agenda. It reminds me of what President Abraham Lincoln said when asked if he thought God was on the side of the North, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” And everybody wants to be right, so we label, if not to identify who’s right, at least so we can point out who’s wrong. Not good.

“As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God.” – Galatians 6:14-16 New Living Translation

You gotta love Paul and his way of bringing everything back down to earth.

What he’s writing to them about is labels. These are groups who want you to identify with them: Join us because it’s us against them, you know.

In particular, the people of Galatia were being forced to be circumcised under the Jewish tradition as a condition of their salvation in Christ. Paul warns them that this was nothing but an attempt by religious teachers who wanted to look good in front of the Jewish leaders, and not be persecuted for teaching that the cross of Christ alone can save. He also warned of those who wanted them to join with them just so they could boast about gaining more followers than the other groups (6:12-13). Labels.

We see it today, too. We’re calling them: Conservative, Moderate, Liberal, Atheist, Agnostic, Fundamentalist, Anti-This, Pro-That, Right-Wing, Left Wing. Polarizing-- makes my skin crawl.

Paul takes us to our own heart condition and motivations, “May I never boast about anything except the cross…” In the King James Version the word glory is used instead of boast, “May I never glory…”  Both use the same Greek root: kauchaomai, meaning to vaunt or a vain display of self-worth, to brag based on a wish.

If he were writing to us in our churches today I imagine he would probably use the same root. He would probably approach the subject with the same look into our heart and motivations. If we’re going to boast, glory, make a vain display of anything, let’s keep it limited to the cross of Christ that has done all the work of our salvation. Let us not bring in our own religious efforts by attempting to label who’s more right, and who’s more wrong. It’s wishful thinking, and it’s vain.

He’s saying that boasting in this kind of manner leads to these labels and the measurements and standards of man. Looking for and trying to identify with a label creates division, factions, isolation, pride, anger, envy, malice, and all sorts of evil things that can come up from inside our heart and dictate our actions. But Paul says that all who live by the principle of not following a label for a label’s sake should be at peace, having recognized their experience of the mercy of God.

He’s saying that because of his experience with God’s mercy at the cross of Christ his interest in being labeled has been crucified with Christ on that cross. Instead of joining up with a group that leans this way or that way on religious topics, he says that draw or that pull should have died to us. He says having a label doesn’t matter, what matters is that we have been transformed from what we were by the sinful world’s standard to a new creation by Christ’s standard.

These are the new people of God. God was doing a new thing in the hearts of men and women through the cross of Christ!

When I read what Paul is trying to teach us I read it like this:
“As for me, may I never brag in a vain attempt to justify or prove my faith, righteousness, or self worth about anything I have done or value except having gone to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of the work accomplished in me from that cross, my interest in being labeled as a ____________ has been crucified. Their interest in me has also died because I no longer measure my righteousness or worth by their standards, so I will be no good to their agenda. It doesn’t matter what our personal perspective is or where it comes from. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation and no longer have those agendas. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God.” – Galatians 6:14-16 (through Mike’s eyes).

Monday, February 4, 2013

Love Spread Around

I’m so excited for the Sock Hop at Branches Church this Saturday! Sometimes you just have to pull out the stops and have some fun and this is one of those times. It’s Valentine’s Day Week – turn up the music and let’s dance!

Growing up in the Midwest, Valentine’s Day at school was a big deal. We decorated the classroom with hearts and streamers and brought shoe boxes to decorate with slits cut in the top for everyone to put their valentine card in. We would put them on the top of our desks and make a parade out of it. Everyone brought cards for everyone – nobody was to be left out. It was a good life lesson. Oh, and candy…don’t forget the candy!

Of course, there were kids that you picked very carefully what was said on that card; you didn’t want to give the wrong impression! Then there were the cards that you would scrutinize for the girl you wanted to get a particular message to. It was all in good fun. It was affirming to get a card that had a particular sporting skill or talent that was yours written on it and was recognized by your classmates. Looking back I’m amazed at how the teachers combined art, social studies, current events, and twenty-some elementary students into an organized event that created so much excitement that lasted for days. Good memories for me.

In February at Branches we are asking ourselves, “What does love require of me?”

Much of those early life lessons around Valentine’s Day in school are applicable to this question for sure; respect, inclusion, affirmation, participation, thinking of others, etc. but these are actually out of a social or moral obligation, they do not necessarily have to come from a love that is within me; just follow the rules and everyone gets along.

When Jesus said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35) he was talking about more than getting along. He wasn’t adding an eleventh commandment to God’s top ten. He wasn’t being redundant by repeating what he had already taught them about loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind and their neighbor as themselves. He was taking them to a new level of definition and understanding that love comes from God – like he did – and it goes beyond (or should I say comes from beyond) our moral fiber and our social convictions and our intrinsic ability to be nice and follow the rules.

Jesus gave us this much: that we were able to obey loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. This is good, he said, being obedient, to get along, to acknowledge God, to take care of your neighbor, it’s what you are capable of so it is good that you do it. But this new commandment to love each other is commanding a love that is not obligatory, nor is it obedience alone, nor is it for anything that I may get out of it because of my moral or social obligations toward justice and fairness. In the Greek, it is Agape, or abundant love that comes from God for the benefit of others.

For the benefit of others; Hmmm. Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you” meaning, I gave up my rights to come love on you. I left what was mine and came to include you. I don’t have to pay for your sin but I am willing to. So, love each other just as I have loved you. THEN, you will be known as my disciples.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a church or someone in the church say, “What do we get out of it?” to excuse not doing something, I could buy a lot of gas with said dollars. Agape love, love that is for the benefit of others, love that will identify the disciples of Jesus doesn’t ask that question! We have a long way to go just to lay aside our own rights and convictions and personal agendas in order to love like Jesus loved. 

Where can we start?

If I could go back and redo my childhood years I would change this: I would not bring a Valentine for everyone because I was told to. I would change my heart. I would choose one and bring it to the awkward girl with the dirty clothes who had no friends just because it would make her feel so special. I would choose to not worry about what people thought of me or if they accused me of liking her like kids do. I would do it for her – not because I was told to.

Now, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re going to get together this Saturday and open up the gym, turn up the 50’s music, put out the cookies and punch, pass out prizes, and dance the night away just to be able to love on the community of Menomonie. No obligation, no law forcing us, no agenda to justify it, just to let people know we are glad for what God has done for us and we are glad to be a part of this community!

Come join us at the hop Saturday, February 9th, 6-8:30pm at the Wakanda School gym for some good old fashioned fun and games. You might even leave a little nostalgic remembering that love is supposed to be spread around!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Behind the Scenes

“Love the snow, hate the cold” has been a common phrase at our house.

Having lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin all our lives we know it will be cold for a little while this same time each year but we still have to say it. Maybe you have a similar line you’ve used or a ritual you go through on the coldest of days – like starting the car to let it warm up before you take it anywhere, or being the first one on your block with the snow blower out in the storm. Maybe you just look forward to the beauty of a fresh snowfall that cleans up everything with a fresh look, so you wait inside with a hot chocolate or coffee and sit by the fire.

We bought snowmobiles a few years back so we could get out and do something in the cold. Maybe, like us, you’ve been involved in a hockey program with a commitment to many games and tournaments to attend regardless of the weather.  We have pro football games, ice fishing, sledding, ice skating, slippery roads, four wheel drive vehicles, and ATV’s. It seems we are a hardy bunch up here in the frozen north who have found some pretty fun and productive things to do during the cold and snow!

One thing I don’t think that was invented in the frozen north, though, was doing a portable church.

At Branches, we rent our meeting space. We store everything we need for our group gathering during the week, set it up for three hours, then take it down and pack it away again until next week. Everything from sound equipment to communion trays, chairs for kids to coffee makers goes back in the trailer. Every week everything has to be set up, plugged in, cleaned, fixed, adjusted, arranged, filled, replaced, warmed up, and then taken back down and packed away for next Sunday.

Most things, that is. In the cold, you can’t forget the baby wipes and put them in the trailer or next week you’ll be trying to wipe a child’s nose (or other parts) with the equivalent of a popsicle. Someone has to take the cleaners and disinfectants with them to keep them inside all week or they will freeze. The sound board does not do well in the cold all week then brought back to room temperature for a sound check within thirty minutes – diodes and circuits just don’t respond to condensation well!

But behind the scenes, making all this happen week in and week out, are the unsung heroes that deal with setting up and taking down all we need to do portable church. Yes, it’s nice to come to a church where the coffee is on and the snacks are out and the sound is rockin’ and the kids room is set up and the video is working properly and the chairs are laid out in theater fashion, and with trustees who monitor and count and deposit what has been given in the offering boxes. But, it takes people who are willing to get up earlier than most on a Sunday morning – even in the frozen winter of Wisconsin – and start the truck to get the trailer,  unload the drums, warm up the sound system, fill the coffee pots and communion cups, and run wires under the seats, so that the space that begins as a lunch room can be transformed into a church for three hours each week.

These folks are my heroes! These folks are among the greatest in the kingdom of God according to Jesus’ teaching. They are willing to serve others, get down to the basics of it all and get up on a cold and snowy day, get the portable stuff to the school, and start building the place we call church. They do it for you, they do it for the kingdom, they do it because they believe in what we are doing in building a place where people can come as they are and find a place to grow in their faith.

But it is a LOT of work and I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who is involved in this part of our worship at Branches!

And I would ask that if you aren’t involved in the set up and taking down of Branches Church each week that you look into it. This is a great time with a small group of people who create a lot of energy in the room before church and have a great time working together.

If you are loving this portable church thing in these frozen days of winter in Wisconsin, I encourage you to jump in and put your hand to the task of what it takes to do this for real!