Monday, October 5, 2020

Behind the COVID numbers - fear and hopelessness

I’m going to go ahead and tread on some shaky ground.

 

Death

 

  • Yes, 2020 will probably result in a record number of deaths in America, most likely as a result of this pandemic.
  • Yes, people that are physically vulnerable, especially the elderly and those with respiratory issues, must be protected and ministered to in a variety of ways.
  • Also, their are many people that are NOT at risk of dying, yet must be ministered to in unique ways as well, for each and every one of us has been affected by this pandemic.

So, without casting blame, but with the intent of helping us minister to more people through the gospel of Jesus Christ, I want to point out some numbers that we must not ignore.

 

This year, as of September 30, 1% of all Covid-related deaths have been people under 35, that’s 1,942 people. In 2018, the last year we have stats for suicide, there were 14,827 people in the same age group (under 35) that died from suicide.  All indications show that this number will go up this year because of the added stresses that 2020 has brought. 

 

So, by the end of 2020, it’s not a stretch to say that deaths by suicide in America for those under 35 will outnumber Covid-related deaths in the same age category 6:1!

 

According to rollcall.com . . .

The nation’s suicide rate reached historic highs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with rates at the highest levels since World War II. Economic and social pressures this year have heightened the risks, worrying experts, health officials and lawmakers.

Suicide mortality rates that were rising over the past two decades combined with the current pandemic are a “perfect storm,” found a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April. Factors include economic stress, social isolation, reduced access to religious services, overall national anxiety, increased firearm sales and increases in health care provider suicides.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine has seen a 65 percent increase in calls and emails since March, according to the organization, though it is not a crisis hotline.

 

By the way, an additional 10,000 in that same age group in 2018 were by homicide, another result of people desperate and angry and hopeless.  For the first half of 2020, the most conservative estimate is that homicides have increased 15% in the U.S. from 2019.

 

We cannot, as followers of Jesus Christ, determine our focus by what everybody else sees as important.  Yes, we need to be respectful of those around us by doing something as easy as putting on a mask.  Yet, we cannot allow the news of our culture or the different ideology of our neighbor shut us down from addressing a bigger need in our culture – fear and hopelessness.  Maybe Jesus will or won’t keep COVID from your house, maybe Jesus will or won’t provide for all of the material things and money issues you have.  Yet, He will, beyond any shadow of doubt, provide for your most important need – getting into a right relationship with Him so that your life will be lived to the full.  This means a life (including an eternal, heaven-bound life) that is full of His joy, His peace, His strength.  Couldn't we all agree at this point that we'll take those things even if it isn’t full of perfect health, all the money we want, or relationships that always work out perfectly.

 

If you are in a right relationship with your Creator, you ought to have a perspective of death that does NOT elicit fear and hopelessness, but a perspective of respect and a hopeful anticipation of eternity with Jesus forever.

 

If you are not in a right relationship with your Creator, get it right.  Just like we are told to “get your affairs in order” when we’re nearing the end of their life, it is appropriate, when we are thinking more about death, to get our affairs in order regarding our eternity.  Did you know that Jesus, the Son of God, died on the cross in your place so that you can know, for certain, that you have eternal life.  You can know, not because you’ve done the right things, but because you’ve trusted the right person and followed the right God.  Give your life to Jesus today and he will not only give you eternal life, but He will give you joy and peace right now, in the midst of whatever this world may become.

 

May our mission NOT be about mask policies, but about how 2020 has unmasked people's need for a Savior, for hope, for something (someone) solid.  

 

10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.                                                                                    First John, Chapter 4


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Confession: I'm a straight white evangelical middle class male.

 I definitely need to get this off of my chest.  

It's been bothering me for quite awhile now; you see, I've been trying to ignore the weight of all of these descriptive words.  Actually, come to think of it, after reading that last sentence, I realize that many may question how being white, for instance, is "weighty."

Allow me to briefly explain.  Much of the words which describe me have been linked to some pretty serious allegations:

I know that there has been and continues to be an uneasiness and awkwardness when a gay person is in the midst of a Christian family or community.

I know that there are numerous ways that America has favored and continues to favor white people.

I know that, in the name of Jesus, churches have judged or labeled people unfairly based on skin color, demeanor, age, or social standing.

I know that there has been a patriarchal bias in our country that has carried over from England and still has plenty of remnants today, even in the Christian world.

I know that, having never experienced empty cupboards, homelessness,  or even a lack of transportation, I don't have a clue what hopelessness feels like.

Finally, I know how many hundreds of thousands of people have suffered mistreatment, bias, or abuse at the hands of church leaders that they trusted.

Oh yea, I'm a pastor as well . . . what does that do for your labeling of me?

How much am I trying to distance myself from the history of "my kind"?  Well, all of the things just mentioned, actually.

How much do I need to outright apologize for?  If it does any lasting good, I would love to be a part of apologizing to the many people who have suffered as a result of the actions of those that have common histories as myself.

How much of my heritage am I proud of?  Actually, a great majority of it.  You see, I have very little knowledge of people in my personal history that are guilty of anything above (outside of a former pastor of mine that was, unbeknownst to me, taking advantage of teenage girls while I knew him).  My parents have accepted people into their home for pizza night without taking into consideration their background or beliefs.  God has chosen to, for some reason, surround me with people who have done nothing but encourage me, equip me, and prepare me for making good life choices.  I am currently part of a movement of churches that are passionate about getting things right, whether it be teaching from the Bible, ministry done in a safe way, or helping people recover from all sorts of troubles this world brings on.  Do we always get it right?  No.  Do we prayerfully seek God in making decisions?  Yes.

Each of us has stuff from our personal, ethnic, or general history that we aren't proud of.  

Each of us,also, has things outside of our control or input that has shaped who we are and where we're currently standing.

I am most certainly not a racist, for I do not determine value based on color of skin or on ethnic background.  I am most certainly not a homophobe, for I know that each person is created in God's image and that each person has the same need for a Savior.  I am most certainly aware of my privilege, for how I treat and think about other people is mainly the result of the beautiful people who raised me and the additional people that have shaped me the first 52 years of my life.

I have lots of growing to do.  As I talk with friends who have opposite views as I about __________ (fill in the blank), I realize how much I don't understand and how much God continues to heap His mercy and grace on me and us.


 


Friday, September 4, 2020

When challenged to speak only truth

The following is a transcript from my Ordination Service on October 23, 2020, during which I was affirmed as someone who was committed to and able to teach the Bible accurately.  I was also challenged to do it more and more, with a growing love for the Lord and for people.  Here was my response during the service:

Thank you so much for coming.  I had no idea who was back there. I’ve been sitting up here this whole time.

I am thrilled to share this challenge with Birch Hills Community Church, those that are Covenant Members, those that call us their church home, and those who will.  Thank you, Dan and Jeff for your support of me and your faithfulness to the Lord. 

Thank you to all who have been and continue to be a part of my life, the life of my family, the life of this church.  I’ve said often that I’m so thankful that our church does not see our children as children that need to act differently than other children because their pastor’s kid.  Thank you to people in this community and for people in our neighborhood that have accepted my invitation this morning.  I will single out one person, though.  I don’t do it very often (pause as I start choking up, proving why I don't do this often :-)) because she wouldn’t want me to.  Becky, your love for God and support of me is truly a God send in more ways than you know.  I love you. 

I am willing to accept this challenge, personally, in as much as I know that you know something:

Everything that happens, good, bad, and indifferent, happens because of God’s perfect ability to manage life and it happens out of his perfect love for each and every one of us.  If you know me, you know of my foibles, my weaknesses, and the mistakes I’ve made and the mistakes I’m prone to make.  The more you know me, the more of these things you know about me. 

Standing before you is a man that is an exhibit of God’s grace.

  • My sins have been forgiven and God will never hold them against me.
  • God continues to graciously forgiving me as I come to Him day-by-day.
  • I know that I am forever His.

But this isn’t just for the ordained or the ones who have straightened out their lives or the ones that are “churchgoers”.  This is for every single person.  This call of the Lord that Dan alluded to.  This is why we’re here, this is why I do what I do – for those that don’t know yet how full and final and forever God’s love for you. 

Until the day the Lord calls me home, I will plant my convictions in the fertile soil of God’s Word.  Let's take Psalm 23 as an example.   As some of you know, our call to worship is many times the Psalm number based on the day of the month.  Today is August 23:

1    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name's sake.

Don’t you want your life grounded in a God like that?  In words of life like that?

Through this, and only through the Word of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can mankind make any sense out of a pandemic, out of ongoing systemic and individual hatred or racism.  It’s only through the Word of God that we can wade through the waters of disagreement and confusion in this world.  I am here . . . and we are here . . . to display to people that “turning to Jesus” is not just a nicey-nice pie in the sky statement that cannot speak into the “real issues” of the world.  “Sure, you can have your Jesus, but how is He going to take care of me?”  Oh, He does!  Rather, He is the only person, the only truth, that tells the truth into any circumstance, that tells us that repentance comes before any lasting personal change, that tells us that taking care of your own stuff comes before being able help or being able to fill other people’s needs, that He brings lasting peace to you, NO MATTER WHAT!

Finally, I want you do know that no one can speak against God’s activity in our world and that nobody can accuse God of anything until they’ve given their life to Him, until you’ve given Him a chance in their life.  Go ahead, give your life to Him.  

10 years ago, I wrote down all the things in my life that I hold dear on a rock – the names of each person in my family, my reputation, my most valuable possessions, my future.  I threw that rock off of the 3rd Ave. foot bridge over there, into the Sauk River.  I prayed a prayer of surrender and I threw it in.  I said, “God, this is Yours, all these things that I hold dear.”  We’re going to close after the prayer with a song that has spoken to me ever since high school.  Fortunately Daniel likes it to, and Kimi, who will sing with him. Enjoy it, the words are in front of you (written below).  It has those words that need to be said often because, I don’t know about you, but do you ever want to take your life back and say, “Well, I’m not sure I want you to have this part, God.”  So try Him, trust Him, dive in with us.

Amen.

 

Surrender

by Marc James

Verse 1

I'm giving You my heart
And all that is within
I lay it all down
For the sake of You my King
I'm giving You my dreams
I'm laying down my rights
I'm giving up my pride
For the promise of new life

Chorus

And I surrender,

All to You all to You
And I surrender,

All to You all to You

Verse 2

I'm singing You this song
I'm waiting at the cross
And all the world holds dear
I count it all as loss
For the sake of knowing You
The glory of Your name
To know the lasting joy
Even sharing in Your pain

CCLI Song # 3033179

CCLI License # 11006188

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The THEY mentality that kills (or silences) love.

"They always act that way."
"Look what they've done to our country."
"They think they're better than us."
"They don't know what it's like."

Benjamin Watson wrote a wonderful book (Under Our Skin) based on his viral Facebook post following the deeply unfortunate Ferguson, Missouri death and riots.  In chapter 7, talking about the offensive language and symbols that intensify the racial divide in our country, he refers to something called "The Danger of a Single Story."  This is the same title of a TED talk from 2009 by Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Without getting into her creatively written and communicated talk, she summarizes the essence of bigotry, racism, and prejudice: we use single or similar accounts to make conclusions about a certain group of people.  It may or may not be on purpose and it may or may not be based on the right information, but it still happens.

Generalizing a "they" from single stories and accounts creates a danger that keeps us from truly loving, understanding, and relating to people.  It also creates a chasm between different age groups that live life differently from each other.  For example, our young people that are currently entering college-age have never not known life without internet, smart phones, social media.  Ever since our teenagers were infants their parents have had access to information and entertainment rather quickly. Now, people my age (50ish) observe what these "Millenials" are doing and we make all kinds of assumptions regarding what our current societal struggles are.

"Well, if they'd put down their phone more often . . ."
"They just need more actual human interaction."
"How will they lead in the future, from their phone?"

How much of our information comes from the media, or our neighbor's perspective, or our own prejudice's growing up?  God gives us the best perspective on people in Isaiah 53:6 - All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

The TED talk was 11 years ago, the Ferguson riots were 6 years ago.  Over the past 6 years, and especially over the last 6 months, there have been many other people who have creatively and eloquently tried to communicate what is happening and what we need to do.  Yet, no matter how many games are boycotted, how many statements are written, how many peaceful protests there are, it almost seems like we'll be returning to these same concepts (or worse) in 6 and 11 years.  

Let's, together, run to Jesus, on whom the iniquity of us all has been laid, for He died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).  Did you see that . . . THE WHOLE WORLD.  None of us have this figured out and none of us can say that we have all the answers.  The best advice that I've heard is ONE WORD.  IT's a word that's only truly possible to do AFTER running to Jesus.  It's a word that, if we all practice it consistently and compassionately, will revive this love that's been lost - the word is . . . listen.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Cheating is wrong . . . unless it doesn't help you win.

Nobody likes double standards.

Very few people are open to the thought that they may be living according to a double standard.

Double standards bore a hole in our character in such a way that we lose trust and credibility.

Yet, not one single person alive can claim to be without some sort of double standard.


As Major League Baseball finally got started last month, Covid helped overshadow the darkness that surrounded it - the cheating scandal of the Houston Astros.  Ever since MLB began before 1900, people have been cheating to some degree in order to get a little advantage.  Even today, sign-stealing is normal.  You put down signs as a catcher and I will try to read them as I'm a baserunner on second base and somehow relay them to the batter.  This is why they switch up signs when runners are on base.  It is a part of the game.

Houston Astros players took it too far.  But, does it deserve the death threats and former players  guaranteeing that Astros batters will be getting hit all year?  This quote from a current pitcher seems to sum up the mood of the hundreds of players who have spoken out: “I’m not going to let them forget the fact that they are hypocrites, they are cheaters, they’ve stolen from a lot of other people and the game itself."  For a system that identifies winning World Series with success, is it any wonder that people do (and always will) see what they can get away with in order to win one?

With this in mind, let me ask you one question:  Would there be this outrage (or even the investigation at all) if Houston did not win the 2017 World Series?  I think it's safe to say that it would not be the shadow that it is on the 2020 season nearly like it has.  You can do whatever you want in your sport, in your profession, in your large university, but if you end up succeeding AND you get caught, you'll hear it from the rest of us.  We really don't care about right and wrong, when it comes down to it, because, guess what, we've all done wrong, we've all either sought to get ahead or looked the other way when we knew that someone else did.

Psalm 73 addresses this concept of human behavior.  The writer didn't like the fact that people were doing evil and getting away with it.  Who would like that, right?  He returned to his senses when he declares near the end, "Nevertheless, I am continually with you."  When our standards seem to be double-standards, admit it and return to the God of focused standards.  When life seems unfair, to any degree, run to the Rock that is higher than us.  Ultimately, humility is the best answer:  "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Psalm 73:26. 

God's standards, thankfully, are always the same and they are never contradictory to each other.  Yes, we get confused on what He's doing and what He's up to, but that's on us, not Him.  Run to the Rock, God Himself.



Thursday, May 28, 2020

Covid-19 and the Lies that Abound

llustration #7 of how our current Covid-19 pandemic speaks to our even more real spiritual need:

Who can you trust with all of this information floating around? I mean, how many Covid-19 cases are there really? Is Covid-19 really a brand new virus or do we already have some protections for it? How much is the government keeping from us? Who really has our best interest in mind?
The ultimate question is, "Who is lying to us and why?"

If there truly is something going on that most of us are being duped on, there are two truths that will remain - they will be found out eventually and we still have control over our own outlook and attitude.

There are lies, though, that have been told for, well, forever.  We know that these are lies, that they are still being believed by the masses, and that we have a way to combat them. These lies are communicated through our adversary, the devil, who wants nothing else than our destruction. Just three simple examples and the truths that combat them:

1. Lie: You have no hope of forgiveness, you've messed up too much. Truth: In Jesus, there is offered to every human being the forgiveness of all your sins and the salvation of your souls.

2. Lie: God is not in control and/or is uninterested. Truth: God is sovereignly and perfectly knowledgeable about all that is going on, having a history of making good out of bad and drawing people to himself through patience and compassion.

3. Lie: What's best for you is to "be true to yourself." Truth: What's best for you is being true to who God has created you to be. It has been proven over time that the many forms of this falsity does not provide hope or satisfaction, whether it's in the form of sexual freedom, financial pursuits, or any kind of "look out for myself" focus.

For more information on the TRUTH in this post, see the extensive writings of the Apostle Paul and others in the Bible.  More specifically, Romans, chapter 3, Hebrews chapter 9, and 1 Thessalonians chapter 4.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Covid-19 and Returning to Normal?

Illustration #5 of how our current Covid-19 Pandemic speaks to our even more real spiritual need:

What will you return to?

Written now a month later than the last illustration, this illustration centers around the anticipation of lifting restrictions that have been in place for over a month. What are we most looking forward to? What are we anticipating in order to feel like things are “normal” again? Similar to someone returning from a foreign land and craving some sort of “taste of home”, we realize what we truly missed . . . and didn’t miss. 

With God, though, we’re never put in that position of being without what we truly need, for He never leaves us or forsakes us. When we know He's always there, though, we risk taking the Creator of the universe and the Lover of our souls for granted. Maybe you'd say, "He’s always with us in quarantine or in large gatherings, so why do I need to attend a worship service or even be a part of a church?"

Back to the illustration: How many of these “creature comforts” would you say we need? Anything that truly is necessary, including a relationship with God, will not be the things we naturally crave, so we need to figure out a way to keep them before us. Keep God’s Word before you, keep God’s people within reach, keep God Himself as your peace and comfort and refuge. #Psalm50

No matter how long you've been away you can always return to God


Illustration #6 - At what point is it "safe" to return to "life"?

The huge debate around MN is that we need to open things back up, at least to some degree.  I just saw a picture of friends that were celebrating Mother's Day IN a restaurant!!  What!? How dare they do that during this time!  At the same time, how envious I was of them doing this.😁  Now, it was in North Dakota, who has different restrictions than we do here in MN, so I shouldn't be too surprised.  Yet, what will MN do this coming week as the latest stay-at-home directive expires on Monday, May 18?  How will its citizen's respond?  Now, even Congress is considering legislation that would protect businesses from liability if they return to business and Covid-19 spreads through their actions.

This fact remains: life itself is a risk.  Every time we enter on on-ramp to a freeway or put money into an investment or even shake someone's hand, we are trusting that the other people on the freeway, handling our money, and touching our hand will do their part to, well, not harm us.  Whether it was before Covid-19 or now, none of us knew what each day would bring.  When we return to some sort of normalcy or a new normal, who can you trust?  Who will you trust?  God has given us two things that can bring us peace and joy in the midst of any kind of turbulence:  First, the ability to choose - nobody else can choose for you, though you can choose to allow others to influence you.  Second, to help with our tendency to allow others to choose for us, God has given us Himself.  Through his Word (#Psalm73, #wordsoflife) and through His Son Jesus Christ (see John 3:31-36), we have all we need for this life.  By receiving His witness, we receive His Spirit and, as a result, His peace, grace, joy, and life that is truly life.

It is never safe to return to life, but there's always safety in the arms of God.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Covid-19 and Getting the Right Information


Observation #3:  A seemingly inordinate amount of attention is given to something that causes way less deaths than Influenza A or even old age.  Why?
NOTE: This one comes with credit to Joe Williquette, a pastor friend of mine.
 
First, experts who know about viruses and microscopic organisms are telling us how serious this has been and could be. 
Second, the numbers don't lie - as of this morning there's been over 60,000 deaths and over one million cases in the U.S. alone (1 per 17 cases is ending in death) and the numbers are still growing.

Similarly, there is a movement and phenomenon called, "Biblical Christianity." Though it is based on a person, Jesus Christ, that hasn't walked on earth for 2000 years and though it is empowered by God and His Spirit, who cannot be seen, the numbers don't lie. Voice of the Martyrs just published a stat that the amount of Biblical Christians in China outnumber the amount of Communist Party members 100 million to 90 million. Not only that, but just do a quick search of the origins of the many humanitarian efforts that have started and continue over the centuries. Christians love others, serve others, and trust God through all sorts of life situations. The numbers don't lie

Trust Jesus today for your salvation, for it is BECAUSE we're saved that we do these things, not IN ORDER TO get saved. See Ephesians 2:1-10, John 14, or Romans 3:21-26 for more good stuff! #bygracethroughfaithyouaresaved



Observation #4I have found it refreshing to know where I can get good, reliable, information during this time of COVID-19. 

Though there are many reasons why a person may not be able to ALWAYS trust information coming from the "authorities," I would say it's irresponsible not to listen to CDC at a time when we so are so NEEDY of the right information. 

Similarly, if there is good, right, and life-saving information available regarding spiritual things and your eternity, wouldn't you do your best to do two things?
1. Make sure it's right information.
2. Listen to it.

This is what the God of creation has offered to us. Starting with Genesis 1:1 and "In the beginning God . . . ", continuing with Psalm 51 and what His forgiveness does and finishing with John 3:16 and the need to believe in Jesus for your salvation. We need RIGHT information. 

Make sure you're getting it and listening to it. Be safe. Stay at home. Be kind. Do no harm. Seek God first.

Covid-19 Hygienic Practices and Germiphobes - What We Can Learn



Observation #1: Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, have taken our “hygienic practices” to a new level recently. 

We’ve always known how germs spread but take more action now because of the threat to ourselves or even to the more vulnerable around us. 

Similarly, many do not address their spiritual need until it’s either too late or until they’ve spent most of their life ignoring it. I'm sure you've felt something like this: that inner sense that there’s got to be more to this life or that feeling like there’s something else that you need. Well, my friends, that inner emptiness is something you were born with and it can only be cured, or filled, or remedied, with Jesus. 

Let me ask you, is it sillier to quarantine yourself for two weeks or even two months in order to keep yourself a much less risk to get or spread a virus that has a 3-5% chance of killing you OR is it sillier to ignore God, your creator, at this moment and risk losing your very soul? Read John 3:31-36 and Romans 5:6-11. 

Believe today.


Observation #2: I have a friend who is a self-professed germophobe. I asked him about how our current COVID-19 situation is effecting him and his answer surprised me. 

He said that he's actually more calm than normal because, now, many other people understand him and are on his same "level." His desire for cleanliness and his fear of what germs can do have been justified, at least to some degree. 

Similarly, those who live out, day-to-day, the truth about who Jesus is, what He did for us, and what He offers each human being, will someday be seen as RIGHT. One day "every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10). 

Be that self-professing Jesus follower, maybe you will be instrumental in saving others from their spiritual uncleanliness, once they realize their need.


Tuesday, February 4, 2020

We in America clearly don't get it.

Until hashtags and articles and award speeches turn into action and personal change, our culture will continue to lean towards moral failure.

About two years ago, I posted a four-part series on the disconnect our culture has between being OK with making sex a part of almost everything and the continued issues of sexual harassment, body-shaming, human trafficking, and the like.

This past weekend, the Super Bowl Halftime Show clearly made a statement that says, "A woman's body is her main feature."  No, I did not watch it.  Yes, I realize the incredible amount of talent that was represented and displayed on that stage.  All I needed to know is that, in my circles where the TV was left on at halftime, men were embarrassed to watch it with their wives, parents were embarrassed to watch it with their children, and church groups who kept it on were filled with awkwardness. 

It is February, 2020.  What I wrote in December, 2017 still applies and still calls out our world system for pandering to the basic lusts of people rather than being willing to see people for who they really are.  I'm certainly not bragging about what I wrote, but I am pointing a spotlight on the Creator of truth that brought about those observations over 2 years ago.

If we don't start listening to truth and doing the things that Part 4 of my blog series (based on God's truth) suggest, we will find ourselves in a crisis much worse than what brought on the #MeToo Movement.