Focus


Before He ascended into heaven, the resurrected Jesus told us what the focus of every Christian church ought to be. It is not about what I want or what you want or what the person sitting next to you during worship wants. The focus of every church should be making disciples, that is, students, or apprentices, or followers, for Him. It is our sole reason for being.

Jesus also gave us a picture, in broad strokes, of how disciples are made: through baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything that Jesus has commanded us. But the details of how to do this in the context of each particular church are missing.

And here is where I think that we go off-track: We remember verse 19, but we forget verses 18 and 20, and then we assume that it is up to us to provide the details and resources for disciple-making. Because of those assumptions, we rely on our own wisdom, experience and knowledge, and the result is discord and disunity in the church. Each of us is doing what we think is right in our own eyes. But what makes the situation really tragic is the reality that some people are going to spend eternity apart from God (a.k.a. hell), because we are focused in on our ourselves and own ideas for making disciples instead of being focused on Jesus.

Jesus has not abandoned us. He has promised us that He will always be with us, therefore He is always available to provide us with direction about how we should make disciples at WGLC. Jesus has not left us to fend for ourselves. The whole disciple-making process happens under Jesus’ authority, so He is providing the resources and directing the circumstances that need to be in place for it to happen.

All Jesus calls us to do is listen, trust and die. First, as we listen to Him, He will guide us in the ways that we are to make disciples here in Walnut Grove Lutheran Church. Second, the trust that Jesus calls us into is not just trust in Him for the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. Jesus is also calling us to trust in Him to guide us as a church, to trust that His ideas are better than ours, and to trust that He will provide what is needed when it is needed. Third, making disciples requires that we die to ourselves. (This should not be something new to us, because being a disciple of Jesus requires the same thing.) This means letting go of what we want and what worked for us in the past (or what worked somewhere else) and leaning in toward what Jesus has for us here and now.

 

I am confident in Jesus and His love, grace and mercy for us. As I listen, trust and die, Jesus has been showing me things that I never thought were possible before. I have heard others speak of such things in their lives, but I had never experienced them for myself. Jesus is a good and a great God, and His future for us is always far, far better than anything that we could ever plan for ourselves.

I am asking you to partner with me in following Jesus into the future. I don’t know what the future will be, but I know that it will be good because Jesus will be leading us.

In Christ’s love,

Pastor James

This is Love


[Jesus said,] “…Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Mt. 17:27b)

This passage (verses 24-27) is very rich in several ways. First, by asking questions, Jesus teaches Peter and us that our Father is the Great High King of Heaven who owns the earth and all things. Because we are His children through His Son, Jesus Christ, our heavenly Father imposes no taxes on us. We are the completely free and infinitely loved children of the King.

The second thing that Jesus teaches us here is that there are times when it is important not to cause offense. In such cases, even though we are not compelled by God to comply, we willingly limit our own personal freedom in Christ for the sake of others. This is what Jesus did for us and for all humanity when He set aside the use of all of His divine powers to become fully human. Jesus severely limited His personal freedom because He loved us and He wanted to save us.

Because of Jesus’ great love for us, we respond by willingly limiting our personal freedom for the sake of others. We step out of our world and into the world of others, even though the sin in the other person’s life is obvious to us. We “move” into their “neighbourhood” and try to see things from their perspective. We don’t have to “do” anything except “be” with them where they are at, and through this ministry of being present, God does something amazing.

mother-and-child-by-jordan-whitt
Photo by Jordan Whitt

When I was serving as a student chaplain at a psychiatric hospital, my supervisor explained it this way: “When you visit someone, you are doing so as a representative of the Light, Jesus Christ. When you are able to be present with the other person in the midst of the dark pit that they are in, they begin to realize that they are not alone and that there is light in the darkness. Then they have hope, and they begin to come up out of the darkness on their own. You don’t need to rescue them.”

Finally, note that, in this case, the temple tax for two people is, in this case, paid with a single coin. While I could, in my Christian freedom, pay my temple tax on my own, my gift is not complete without yours.

This is love. This is what Jesus has done for us. This is what we can do for others.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, please help me to live in the freedom that you give to me. Fill me to overflowing with your love so that I am moved, because of love, to willingly limit my freedom for the sake of others. Help me to join my gifts with others to do your work. Amen.

 

Rootedness


September is the month when things get really busy for many people. Vacation time is over, children go back to school and their parents struggle to manage the over-crowded family calendar. University and college students head to class, some for the first time, while others settle back in at jobs with six weeks until the next long weekend. All this busy-ness can leave one worn-out, frazzled and aimless, and we often accomplish little of lasting value in the process. We are like plants that have been cut-off from their roots, and eventually our spirits will whither and die.

The tragedy of a life mired in busy-ness is that it is the exact opposite of the abundant life that Jesus came to give to us (see John 10:10b). The gift of life with Jesus is meant to be rich, full, fruitful, and life-giving. Life with Jesus is meant to fit in with the daily, weekly and seasonal rhythms of our life in this world. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are in sync with Jesus and what He calls and empowers us to do, so we have inner peace, regardless of the turmoil that may be going on around us. What a delight it would be if we could actually live like that!

We can! And the way that Jesus breaks our addiction to busy-ness and re-orientates our life so that we are rooted in Him is by inviting us into His Sabbath-rest.

When some of us hear the term “Sabbath-rest,” we are reminded of a legalistic understanding of not doing any work on Sunday. Others might think it refers to heavenly rest with Jesus when our life on this earth comes to an end. But I think that God meant something else when He inspired the writer of the book of Hebrews to pen these words: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.  Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:9-11)  

The writer is not talking about a future Sabbath-rest because earlier in the same chapter they wrote, “Now we who have believed enter that rest…” (v. 3a). So the Sabbath-rest that Jesus offers us is a present reality, and entering it is a matter of faith, not abstinence from work.

If we are truly honest with ourselves, and we take the time to think about it, we will see that there is something underneath all of our busy-ness that it is driving us to try to live at a frenetic pace. That driver will be different for different people. For some of us, it will be a desire for security, so we work hard to make more money so we can be secure. Others of us keep busy to give ourselves a sense of significance to cover over our feelings of inadequacy. And some of us are striving valiantly so that we can gain respect, admiration or love from others.

Jesus is asking us to invite Him into our deepest parts and let His love heal our hungry hearts. As we trust in Jesus’ love, He will help us to see that He is our security and through Him, in God’s eyes, we are beautiful, beloved, accepted and adored. Then, and only then, will we rest from our striving to try to make ourselves look good in the eyes of God or others. We don’t need to do that anymore because we are rooted in Jesus. Freed from the tyranny of saving ourselves, we rest in Jesus’ love, listening for His voice, following the direction He gives with the energy He provides through the spirit-to-Spirit connection that we have with Him.

In my cover article for the July-August edition of the newsletter, I said that I thought that WGLC needed a Sabbath-rest. I think that we are still in that time of resting and re-connecting with Jesus. It is a temporary season and, when the time is right, Jesus will guide us into a season of greater activity. But it will be activity that will be led and empowered by Him and He will bring forth Kingdom fruit as we remain rooted in Him.

[Jesus said,] “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Peace and joy in Jesus,

Pastor James

Sunday’s Coming


Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness… (Matthew 5:10a)

I have trouble figuring out the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-12). Jesus is telling us, through these famous words, that we are blessed when we are poor in spirit, when we grieve, when we are persecuted, etc. The problem is that I do not feel very blessed at all when I grieve, when my spirit feels vulnerable and fragile or when someone gives me the thumbs down because I have a fish symbol on the back of my car. I feel blessed when my belly is full of good food, when my family is all around me, when there is laughter in our home and when a good friend gives me a sincere compliment. But my definition of being blessed is totally different from Jesus’.

Family, friends and food are great blessings from God for which we can be truly thankful. Anyone, even someone who does not believe in God, would recognize the goodness of those things.

But Jesus is telling us that we are also blessed by God when things are not going so well, for example, in times when we are so hurried and harried that we have no time to be still and know God, when a phone call brings the horrific news that a loved one has died, or when you try to do the right thing and you end up getting punished or ostracized for it.

In all such moments, we do not feel blessed at all. Our feelings tell us quite the opposite: that we are abandoned and perhaps even condemned or cursed by God. We may think to ourselves, “What does God have against me that He lets these things happen to me?”

The truth is that we are especially blessed in our times of loneliness, grief and suffering. God is at work behind the scenes bringing things to the glorious conclusion that He has in mind for us. We are like Jesus’ first disciples living in the Saturday before Jesus’ resurrection. All we have to do is hang on to the One who is holding on to us. Sunday’s coming! And for that reason we are blessed!

Prayer: Dear Jesus, help me to know and trust that You are holding on to me through thick and thin. Amen.

He Calls Us by Name


Jesus said to her, “Mary.” (John 20:16a)

On the first Easter Sunday morning, Peter, John (the one that Jesus loved) and Mary Magdalene all knew that Jesus had said that He would rise from the dead, and that His tomb was empty, but they still did not understand that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Mary knew all of the relevant facts and yet she still assumed that grave robbers had taken the body of her Lord. Jesus, now resurrected and standing before her, had already spoken to Mary, but it was only when He called her by name that she realized that is was Him, and that He really was risen from the dead.

We can know all of the relevant facts of the Christian faith and yet it is all just dead religion until we, like Mary, hear the risen Lord call our name. Then, and only then, do we realize the personal significance of those relevant facts.

Jesus has broken down all the barriers between us and Him. All of our sin-guilt and shame has been paid for in full by Jesus. The dark clouds of our shameful past are vapourized by the warm light of Jesus’ unconditional acceptance and love for us.

Jesus comes to us and calls us by name through His Word. He says:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1)

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28).

Jesus calls us by name in the waters of Holy Baptism where He washes us clean of all our sin, gives us new life and adopts us into the family of God. Jesus calls us by name as He invites us to share in the sacred meal of Holy Communion where He nourishes our spirit with His Body and Blood which was given for the forgiveness of all our sins.

Sometimes we need to quiet ourselves and be still before we can hear Him. But Jesus is calling your name and mine. The salvation Jesus gives us is personal, and that makes all the difference.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, help me to be still and hear the sound of Your voice as You call my name. Amen.

Rest for Our Souls


In Matthew chapters 10 and 11 are two passages that are both important and, I think, connect to each other, even though we don’t usually think of them in that way.

The first of these two passages is part of a long address that Jesus gives to His disciples as He sends them out. As part of His words of instruction to the first Christian missionaries, Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 10:38-39)

The second passage from Jesus is given at a later date and, this time, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28-30)

The only burden Jesus places upon us is to believe in Him and trust that what He says is really true, because it really is.

A photo by Matthew Wiebe. unsplash.com/photos/kX9lb7LUDWc
Photo by Matthew Wiebe

However, human nature being what it is, we are much less likely to trust in Jesus on a moment-by-moment basis when we are full of ourselves. It is only when we have been brought to our knees by challenge or tragedy that we realize that we are totally helpless. And our awareness of our helplessness is what opens us up to trusting in Jesus fully in all things. Though we may trust Jesus in our helpless moments, the sad truth is that we usually revert to trusting in ourselves when the current crisis passes.

Losing our life for Jesus’ sake means dying to all those things that lead us back to self-trust (things like pride, the desire for personal autonomy, etc.), and deliberately choosing to live always with a moment-by-moment awareness of our own personal helplessness, and choosing to trust in Jesus on a moment-by-moment basis to care for us. Then we will find rest for our souls.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, please help me to always be aware of my helplessness and to always trust in Your loving care. Amen.

Note: These are Steps 1 to 3 of the Freedom Session 12 Steps. To read them, click here.

Jesus’ Loving Absence


Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more days. (John 11:5-6)

This is one of those verses in the Bible which make me wonder, “What in the world was Jesus thinking?” He loved Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and because He loved them He stayed where He was for two more days, after hearing that Lazarus was sick, even though doing so would make it more likely that Lazarus would die. That doesn’t make any sense. Jesus withheld His presence and His healing power for two days because He loved these people. How can Jesus’ absence be reconciled with His love?

There is only one answer.

Jesus knew the ending. And He knew that that ending was so good that the most loving thing that He could do for Lazarus, Mary and Martha was to stay where He was for two more days so that these three people that He loved could experience that glorious ending.

A photo by frank mckenna. unsplash.com/photos/EgB1uSU5tRA
Photo by Frank McKenna

And the glory of the ending was not in Lazarus being brought back from the dead. The glorious, loving, joyous event that Jesus, in His great love, wanted Mary, Martha and Lazarus to experience was God being glorified through what Jesus was doing in their lives.

This too seems odd to us. It is not how we are wired. But let us remember that, in everything that we do, something or someone gets glorified. And whatever is being glorified through our lives is what we worship.

So sometimes, even as we trust Him, Jesus withholds His presence and His power because what we view as the worse possible outcome is an opportunity for God to be glorified as Jesus works in our lives. The ending will be so good that the most loving thing that Jesus can do is let us fall into the pit so that we can experience His great and wonderful rescue.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, please help me to always trust in Your love and Your goodness. Amen.