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What Worries You Most

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Pastor Jim Melvin

The list is long of things that we can choose to worry about. Just turn on the TV news and that’s really most of what we hear about. It doesn’t matter if we listen to Fox, CNN, MSNBC, or our local evening news. They all barrage us with things to worry about. For your convenience I’ve compiled a list of worrisome things to keep you awake at night.

1–Death
2–Climate Change
3–Environmental Disaster
4–Gun violence
5–Immigration
6–Racism
7–Economic Recession
8–Drug Resistant Disease
9–Terrorism, Global or Domestic
10–Sexual abuse
11–Gender Inequality
12–Famine
13–War, Nuclear or Conventional
14–Cancer, Heart Disease, Alzheimer’s & Other Diseases
15–Drug Addiction
16–Gangs
17–Loss of Religion (or for some, too much religion)
18–Lack of Clean Water
19–Species extinction
20–Invading Aliens from Outer Space

These are all legitimate concerns. (Well, maybe not the last one.) Not only is the list long, many of the threats have multiple dimensions. Take gun violence, for example. You may fear the number of guns in circulation and that you may full victim to a mass shooting; or, you may fear that someone is going to restrict your right to have a gun because of the fear of others. In the case of immigration, you may be concerned about the onslaught of poor people coming to America. Or, you may be concerned that America is turning it’s back on our historic openness to people seeking freedom and opportunity here. Or, if you’re an immigrant, you may fear that ICE will come for you one day.

If any or all these fears are hounding you, I have something that may help. I’m not going to string you along like some of those internet or TV infomercials that bait you to keep watching for twenty minutes only get you to send them $19.99 for a piece of obvious junk (And get an extra one free if you order now!). My suggestion for overcoming every one of these fears is FAITH.
Yada, yada, yada. Don’t tune me out just yet. Jesus had faith that God would save him, you say, and look what it got him, a painful death on a cross. Exactly! Jesus faced the most terrible struggle and abuse imaginable including crucifixion, but in the end experienced victory and eternal life. Knowing throughout his life that his path eventually led to that hill upon which he was crucified, his faith allowed him to live life courageously and meaningfully. His example inspired those who followed him in his own day and inspires millions today who put their faith in him.

The book of Hebrews we read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…(Hebrews 11:1; 12:1)

Life isn’t easy. Everybody struggles, some of us a lot more than others. Every item on my list above is a real concern (once again, maybe not the aliens). Go back and read through the list again. Now cross off number one. That’s what faith does. Through faith we’ve already won the final victory. We have the assurance that the thing we most hope for yet haven’t seen, eternal life, is a reality. Now we are freed to work on all those other problems.

If only it was as easy as I’m making it out. I know that it isn’t. Faith is hard. Faith is the work of a lifetime. And faith takes a lot of different shapes in different people. I’m a child of the ‘60’s and can still hear groups of people singing, “All that we’re saying—is give peace a chance.” All that I’m saying, is give FAITH a chance.

Pastor Jim

How to Lead

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Pastor Jim Melvin

I’ve heard it said that leaders are born not made. I’ve also heard it said that leaders are made not born. Well, which is it? Let me give you what may seem like an unsatisfying answer—it’s a little bit of both.

Leaders like Queen Victoria and George Washington were born with gifts that inspired entire nations to follow them and who, in turn, led their nations to accomplish great things. Their names live in history.

On the other hand, some unlikely people have had leadership thrust upon them against their will and rose to the occasion. Prince Albert, the future King George of England, was an awkward, stuttering, insecure man forced to lead Great Britain through WW2, which he did ably alongside Winston Churchill. King George learned to overcome his deficiencies as a leader. Another self-doubting stutterer, Moses, answered a divine call to become arguably the most important leader in the Old Testament.

Most of us will neither be born to or called to lead an entire nation through a time of war. Few of us will achieve what the world considers greatness. All of us, however, will be presented with opportunities to lead. Some of these opportunities we will recognize and seize for career or personal advancement. On other occasions we may accept a leadership role reluctantly out of a sense of duty or personal responsibility. Whether inborn or learned, the skills required for leadership are the same.

You can find list after list of leadership qualities with a simple Google search. I conducted a search and found lists of 7, 8, 10, 23, and 101 leadership qualities on the first page. My list contains only one. It’s a counterintuitive quality that Jesus used to prepare his disciples for leadership, servanthood.

Jesus was clear and consistent in this regard. He had a price on his head and knew that his days were numbered. His followers would soon be called upon to lead. He seized on a teachable moment one day walking down the road when he heard them discussing who was the greatest among them. He sat the twelve of them down and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”

On another occasion he employed a visual aid in his teaching. His disciples were gathered to share what would be his last meal with them. From the honored place at the table, he stood up, and to the protest of Peter, picked up a towel and began washing his followers’ feet. He said, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Nothing says leadership more than be willing to do yourself anything that you ask your followers to do. My proudest and most spontaneous leadership moment came early on in my career as Senior Pastor in a large church. One day the men’s toilet overflowed, flooded the bathroom and flowed under the door into the hallway. Let me put it discretely, it wasn’t just clean water involved. Despite the protest of the custodian who was called to the scene by the office staff, and trying not to gag, I continued wielding the mop until the cleanup was finished. Believe me, I would much rather have been washing feet.

My actions that day were unplanned and fell far short of heroic. I know for a fact, however, that a simple willingness to do a dirty job that fell outside of my job description earned me the loyalty and service of other members of my staff for years to come.

I am not a born leader. I know that I lack many leadership skills written in the Google lists, some that can’t be learned. But putting servanthood first made up for a lot of deficits. I’ve worked a long list of what people consider dirty, menial jobs in my life. They were my best leadership training.

You can be a leader whether or not you carry the title of foreman, manager, superintendent, president, or CEO. You can be a leader if you are called laborer, maid, butler custodian, hired hand or just “hey you.” Whenever you act as and have the mind of a servant, you will always be a leader and you will bear the respect of a leader. And when you lead, others will follow.

How to Celebrate a Life

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Pastor Jim Melvin

“Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!”
Psalm 98:4

I was recently asked to lead a “Celebration of Life” service for my wife’s aunt, something that I always feel privileged to do. This was the type of service that her aunt specifically requested. As I was speaking with the family, we started asking exactly what a “Celebration of Life” entails. After a few days of reflection, here is what I have come up with on how to celebrate a life.

GATHER

The first thing we must do is get together. You can’t really celebrate by email, text, or telephone. Family and friends have to get together in the same place, preferably a place that holds some significance to the person being honored. Sometimes it has to be a place of convenience accessible to the most people – and that’s ok too.

I learned the power of family gatherings through my wife’s family. Coming from a small family, we didn’t get together as a group much. But my wife had 15 aunts and uncles and a bazillion cousins, so family reunions were major events. As the aunts and uncles have passed away over the years (there is only one left in my wife’s family) the reunions mostly occur when someone dies. The first thing we say when we guiltily greet each other is “We only see each other at weddings and funerals.” That statement reinforces the importance of gathering.

REMEMBER

It says in the Book of Proverbs, “The memory of the righteous is a blessing.” You can substitute “the ones we love” for “the righteous” if you like. Remembering allows the person we have lost to be present with us. I’ve heard of people who have their celebration of life ceremonies before they die so that they can attend. Not necessary. When we remember, we summon their presence.

One thing that I have found about remembering is that it needs to be honest. It is important to remember the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. Sugarcoating a person’s life or character in a way dishonor’s them. To truly celebrate a life, we should remember them as they were, not as we wish they were. When we remember somebody in the full context, warts and all, it opens the possibility for healing where it is necessary, and a true appreciation of what has been lost. By the way, when you remember me, don’t be TOO honest.

PARTY

This is a celebration, right? So, party on. The Bible, the Psalms in particular, are full of partying. Psalm 98:4 sings, “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” When the prodigal son returned the father said, “ʽBring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate.” And when Jesus attended the wedding at Cana in Galilee, they ran out of wine and so they asked Jesus to come up with180 gallons more. Tell me that wasn’t a real party.

Seriously, the party, the eating and drinking together (it doesn’t have to be alcohol) are an essential part of healing. The beginning of the banquet signals that it is time for life to move on and for happiness to enter into life again. In my midwestern Lutheran experience nothing says healing more than a hot dish and bars.

LIVE

My final step for celebrating the life of someone we love is to throw ourselves back into life again. We honor their life by going out and leading the kind of life that they would be proud of. We are the ones who now have the opportunity to create a living legacy for the one who has gone before us. That applies not only to our parents and older relatives, but also to our friends for whom the opportunity to make a direct difference in the world has been closed.

GATHER. REMEMBER. PARTY. LIVE. THAT’S THE WAY TO CELEBRATE A LIFE.

Don’t Worry — Be Happy

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Pastor Jim Melvin

Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Matthew 6:25-27

I had a hard time falling asleep the other night. My Fitbit, which tracks my sleep, confirmed that the quality and duration of my sleep was far less than it should have been. I drug my butt around the whole next day and didn’t accomplish much.

What was keeping me awake? My truck’s brakes had been feeling squishy and so I took it in to the dealer before I rear-ended somebody. I didn’t get much comfort from the slogan of the brake technician in the second-rate garage in a recent AT&T commercial, “If the brakes don’t stop it, something will.” I was expecting a call from the mechanic in the morning. In the meantime, I tossed and turned worrying about how much the repair would cost me.

As it turned out, it was pretty much a worst-case scenario. I needed a new master cylinder. Ouch! $688.53 later I’m confident that my brakes will stop me before I hit the driver in front of me. (Please don’t tell me if you think I got ripped off.) Here’s my point. That master cylinder replacement would have cost me $688.53 whether or not I tossed and turned all night. As Bobby McFerrin sang, “In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry. Be happy.” $688.53 is a lot of money to have to shell out; but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Bobby McFerrin got a lot of grief for his song. It’s naïve and simplistic some people said. And in some ways, it is. There are times in life when worry is inevitable and warranted. Some really bad things happen. Much of the time, however, our worry is unnecessary. We are always better off if we can at least manage our worry, because unrestrained worry robs us of the ability to deal fully with the problems we face.

I take the words of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” seriously because Jesus said the same thing. Jesus fortified this teaching with the promise that God will care for us and provides for us no matter how bad things get. Even when we face death, he offers us eternal life. Faith provided him with that assurance, an assurance that he shared with us. Faith is a great cure for fretful insomnia in the face of the greatest challenges of life.

When our faith is shaky, there is one little technique for short-circuiting worry that helps sometimes (even though I failed to use it during my recent brake incident). In my experience, worry, particularly in the middle of the night, takes the form of a recording playing over and over in my head. When you hear that recording start to repeat, press your mental PAUSE button. If it starts up again, hit the PAUSE again. You can choose to shut it down. The more you practice; the more effective you will get. The more effect you get, the less sleep you will lose.

That’s the first step; choose not to worry. Then, be happy. How do you do that? You may find your own path to happy, but the next time I can’t sleep for worry, I think I’ll hum Bobby McFerrin’s song. “Doo doo doo doo doo doo. Don’t worry. Be happy.” With that little ditty in my head I will either go to sleep or go nuts. Don’t worry. Be happy. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I pray that your worries are little ones and that God sees you through the big ones.

Remember Me

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Pastor Jim Melvin

“Remember me…” Willie Nelson pleads in his sad Texas brogue.

“Remember me when the candle lights are gleamin’.
Remember me at the close of a long, long day.
An’ it would be so sweet when all alone, I’m dreamin’,
Just to know you still remember me.”

“Remember me…” Jesus urged his disciples as he shared his last meal with them.

“Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks,
he broke it and gave it to them, saying,
‘This is my body, which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.’” Luke 22:17-19

Something within both Willie and Jesus yearns to be remembered. Something within all of us cries out to not be forgotten after we are gone. During this time when our nation stops to remember through our Memorial Day celebrations, it is a good time to reflect on the need to remember and to be remembered.

In his memorial address at the battlefield of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said ironically, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” I say ironically because in his humility Abe underestimated the staying power of his brief address; the world has noted and long remembered what he said that day. But his intention was right; we can never forget what those Americans who died in that horrific battle died for – the soul of America. We have something worth remembering.

The act of remembering on Memorial Day is to honor those who died not only at Gettysburg but in all the tragic conflicts in which the price of freedom was poured out in the currency of blood. We consecrate their memories as though the words of our prayers could travel back through time to express our gratitude to each in the moment of their death.

We also remember their sacrifice so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past – although it seems we tend to do just that. We “Remember the Maine!” We “Remember the Alamo!” We will “Never Forget 911!” And we dare “Never Forget” the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. As Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal said,

“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

In remembering, the lives of the living and the dead are comingled. There is no past and future in eternity, just a Holy present moment in which we share our humanity and repent of our inhumanity.

In all our historical remembrances, our motivation to remember may initially be out of a sense of holding a grudge. As time passes, however, it is to be hoped that the need for vengeance is surpassed by a longing for understanding and healing. For as dead pile up like cordwood on the battlefields of time, we learn the futility of war and the tragedy of senseless death.

In remembering, we are not only empowered to reject the evil of the past; we are blessed with the ability to keep the good alive. The Book of Proverbs says, “The memory of the righteous is a blessing.” And so Memorial Day is also an appropriate time for us to remember all our lost saints, those whom we have loved and gone before us. Laying flowers on grave or taking a moment to share a favorite story of one who has died holds surprising power in keeping them alive to us.

Which brings me back to my initial statement that something in all of us cries out to be remembered. For most of us, the world will little note nor long remember what we say OR do. Few of us will leave behind a legacy to impress the ages. But we can and will be remembered. Maybe this is a good time to hum Willie’s tune, a little wistfully, in the form of a prayer to the world and to those we love –

“Remember me when the candle lights are gleamin’.
Remember me at the close of a long, long day.
An’ it would be so sweet when all alone, I’m dreamin’,
Just to know you still remember me.”

Don’t Drink the Poison

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Pastor Jim Melvin

I read today that the terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were carried out by an Islamist group in revenge for the lethal attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand which occurred just over a month ago. The Christchurch attack took 50 lives; the Sri Lanka attack claimed over 300. The perpetrators of the Sri Lanka attack are the numerical winners by an over six to one margin. Of course, there were no winners in this violent exchange, only losers. Among the losers are all civilized people.

You can google a lot of pithy quotes about revenge. “While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself” and “Seeking revenge is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill your enemies” are two of my favorites. But turn to Jesus is you want true words of wisdom on the subject. Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Since both terrorist events took place half a world away, it gives us as Americans a chance to see with greater clarity the poisonous effects of revenge. The New Zealand attacker justified his attack based on a psychopathic desire to seek vengeance against Muslims for violence against Christians dating as far back as the 14th Century. Now the Sri Lankan Islamists have extracted their eye for an eye. Everybody loses.

Jesus’ words about hatred, revenge and love of our enemies are the most challenging of all his teachings. The twisted wires of our DNA program us to hurt back when somebody hurts us or someone we love. As children of God, however, we are not slaves to our evolutionary programming. The Gospel of love that Jesus lived and died for allows us to short-circuit the cycle of violence. And the merciful God known to the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world empowers them to do likewise.

But only if we DON’T DRINK THE POISON!

My Lent Just Stalled

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Pastor Jim Melvin

We all hope and pray that the twin tragedies of the Boeing Max 8 crashes which occurred recently in Indonesia and Ethiopia will not be repeated. It appears that the crashes were ironically caused by the malfunction of a system specifically designed to avoid crashes. When sensors detect that the airplane is climbing at too steep an angle and is about to stall, the pilot’s control console begins to shake, and an audible alarm is sounded. If the warning is not heeded, the plane will lose lift and fall out of the sky. Unfortunately, in the case of these two recent flights, the sensors and computer systems malfunctioned and sent the planes into fatal dives.

My Lenten flight this year seemed to be experiencing an unremarkable take-off. I got ashes smeared on my forehead on Ash Wednesday and felt appropriately, I thought, repentant. I enrolled in a mid-week Lenten Bible study at my church and diligently read the assigned scriptures, studied my lessons, and then engaged with my assigned group in meaningful discussion. I even attended Wednesday night suppers and worship in addition to Sunday morning services. I felt the promise of new life rising in me even as the sap started rising beneath the bark of the trees in my yard.

Then it happened. My stall warning system went off. My flight controls began to shake, and a computer-generated voice shouted in my ear, “Warning! Stall! Warning! Stall!” Well, not really; but my lack of enthusiasm and my sudden depressed attitude toward everything told me that something was going wrong. It didn’t help that I got the flu and the weather stayed dark and grey. Every day I checked the buds on the maple tree in my back yard only to notice that the slight swelling and pinkness that I had noticed several weeks ago had failed to advance. Even the buds had stalled. Alas! (I’ve included a picture as evidence.)

At the point of panic, I determined to regain control. My take-off angle had been too steep. My enthusiasm for the promise of new life which builds during Lent (and spring) had created in me a set of unrealistic expectations. Lent is a process. Lent is a journey. It mirrors Jesus’ journey to the cross; and that was no easy path to follow. It was slow and grueling. He stumbled and fell along the way. He experienced frustration, betrayal, and fear. I guess I can expect the same in my modest journey.

For me, correcting the stall means going back to basics. I resolve to continue my Lenten study including worship, Bible study and sharing soup suppers with my Lenten companions. I’ll go outside and take a walk even though the few robins in town appear surly and shivering under the bushes. Most of all I’ll try not to lose hope. I’ll keep this plane aloft, set a heading to the east and soar into the Easter sunrise.

But darn it; I wish the buds on my maple tree would pop!

My First Breath

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I took my first breath yesterday – of spring that is. As it happens almost every year, it took me by surprise. I was taking a walk on the Ice Age trail beside the still flooded Rock River and Wham! Not only did I experience the first breath of spring, it felt like the first breath of my life. That’s what spring is all about, the breathing of new life into creation. And after this hard winter, boy did I need it.

There is something subtle and wonderful in the air at this time of year that gives it that spring quality. It’s a combination of temperature, humidity, pollen content, and smells of damp earth that combine to provide that first-breath experience. Once that first spring breath enters our lungs, however, all of our senses are re-activated after winter slumber. Alongside the trail I noticed that the tips of the branches of the trees and bushes are swollen and pink. The wind felt strangely gentle on my cheek and the soil, rock hard a week ago, yields soft under my foot. The cardinal sings unnaturally loud and clear – Spring is here! Spring is here!

It comes as no surprise that ancient religions celebrated renewal and rebirth in the springtime. It is also no surprise that Christians chose this time of year to celebrate Easter with its message of resurrection to new life. The date of Easter is tied to spring, being celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox. That first breath of spring reminds us of the first breath of eternal life.

That first breath of spring presents each of us with opportunity. It opens us up to experience life anew. Our “spring housecleaning” can mean more than just going through the closet, cleaning out the basement, and putting the garage back in order. It can be a time to straighten out damaged or broken relationships. It can be a time to look at our work in a new way and commit ourselves to new goals and improvement. And not to be overlooked, being freed from winter confinement provides opportunity for exercise and the healthy renewal of our bodies and minds.

Whether or not you have inhaled spring and new life yet, it’s not too late to take advantage of the new life it brings. It’s not just that first breath that counts, there are many more to follow. To butcher an old saying, “This is the first breath of the rest of your life.” Breath deep. Enjoy it. Be made new.

Hate – An Equal Opportunity Killer

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Pastor Jim Melvin

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
From the Prayer of St. Francis

It’s 3:00 AM in Wisconsin as I write this.  I cannot sleep because of the violence which unfolded a few hours ago half way around the world in New Zealand, a country known as a peaceful haven of tolerance in a world gone crazy with hatred.  There is no escape from the evil acts of hate-filled people.

In my thirty years as a pastor, I have struggled time and time again to explain or make some sense of violent crimes against innocent people.  We have seen Amish children executed in a school house in Pennsylvania.  We have watched peace loving Sikhs gunned down in Wisconsin.  We witnessed the World Trade Center crumble before our eyes in New York City.  Gays partiers were slaughtered in a night club in Florida, concert goers machine gunned in Las Vegas, and a synagogue turned into a killing field in Pittsburg. And that’s the short list.  And now this.

Hatred is an equal opportunity killer.  None of us is safe from its icy finger on the trigger of an assault rifle or handgun.  It is an appropriate time during this dark night of the soul to repeat the words of Psalm 22 which Jesus cried out from the cross: 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

In the morning, however, as the sunrise washes away some of the terrors of the night, let us literally get down on our knees and pray those first lines of St. Francis’ prayer as deeply as our hearts are capable: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me bring love.”  Amen.