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It’s Five O’clock Somewhere

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Pastor Jim Melvin

Are you wasting away in Margaritaville?  Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffet, known for his colorful Hawaian shirts, catchy lyrics and laid-back islands attitude could be nominated as the pandemic spokesperson.  Many of his song titles like “Wasting Away in Margarittaville,”  “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere,” “And Why don’t we get Drunk,” extol the use and abuse of alcohol.

Judging from celebrity posts on Facebook, and the posts of my friends, family, and coworkers, the covid-19 pandemic has us awash in alcohol as much as in virus particles.  People working from home report happy hour starting earlier and lasting longer.  I have a friend who runs a liquor store that offers drive-through pickup and he says that since March his sales have made every day seem like New Year’s Eve. Statistics show that alcohol sales have risen as much as 55% since the covid related lockdowns began.

As lighthearted as the attitudes toward pandemic drinking habits appear, there are some serious consequences to our changes in consumption lurking in the background.  The following are some of the negative consequences that can logically be expected to result from the current uptick in drinking:

 

  • A rise in general health problems including a suppressed immune response which increases the susceptibility to disease including covid 19.
  • Weight gain which also negatively impacts overall health.
  • An in increase in the incidence and severity of depression.
  • Relationship problems, child neglect and spousal abuse are more common.
  • Lowered inhibition and lack of judgement in social situations increase the likelihood of exposure to covid 19 infections.

Lest I be accused of being a party pooper or a wet blanket, let it be known that I generally counsel moderation in all things.  Even the Bible says in 1 Timothy 5:23, “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” In balance, however, Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not be a drunkard, for that is debauchery.”  Medical science seems to support the biblical advice.  It has been shown that one drink per day may have some health benefits including reducing heart disease.  More conclusively, anything more than moderate consumption leads to all kinds of serious afflictions including cancer, multiple organ failure and heart disease.

Alcohol usage goes up during times of stress.  An increase of alcohol abuse was observed after the 9/11 terror attacks.  The isolation caused by the pandemic and the resulting lack of positive social connections makes us extremely vulnerable.  Working at home increases the temptation to drink during the workday.  So here are some practical suggestions of steps that you can take to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle in “Coronaville.”

  • Honestly evaluate your drinking habits. Widely accepted health guidelines recommend no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.  A drink is defined as 1 twelve oz. regular beer, 1 five oz. glass of wine, or 1.5 oz. 80 proof distilled spirits. These amounts are to be consumed over the course of the week and not saved for a weekend binge. Overall, 0 drinks per day is best.
  • Strictly limit the duration of your cocktail hour if you have one. One hour seems to be an appropriate length of time for most people.
  • Be extra aware of your drinking on weekends, holidays, and vacations.
  • Do not drink during the workday.
  • Substitute non-alcoholic drinks or drinks with lower alcohol content for cocktail hour or engage in some other kind of activity or social interaction. It may work for you to serve alcohol only at dinner time.
  • Couples and family members should positively and respectfully support one another in limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Talk openly with social acquaintances about your decision to responsibly consume alcohol.
  • Seek professional help if you or a loved one is being negatively impacted by their drinking.
  • Avoid bars and parties where alcohol will be consumed in excess. These situations are the main source of covid spread at this time.  It is your right to politely decline invitations to social events that you feel would put you at risk.
  • Pray for strength and serenity.

It’s five o’clock somewhere right now.  If I wanted to, I could find a good reason to pop a beer or pour myself a drink.  I choose not to.  I know that, like you, I am operating under a higher than normal level of stress.  As much as this pandemic time stinks and tries to drive us to drink, we can create our own silver linings by committing to staying healthy in body, mind and spirit. Today, for me, five o’clock sounds like a good time to go for a walk.  What are you going to do?  Let’s just not waste away in Margaritaville.

We Have a Monumental Problem

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Pastor Jim Melvin

 

Ozymandias

 by Percy Bysshe Shelly

 

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off peaceful protests and violent riots across America.  These events have now called into question the display of monuments that honor historical figures who are associated with slavery and white supremacy in America’s past.  Statues of confederate generals and heroes across the south have been defaced, torn down by angry crowds, and in some cases dismantled by local governments.  The movement has spread nationwide and statues of Christopher Columbus and even Abraham Lincoln have come under scrutiny.

The destruction or moving to less prominent locations these sometimes centuries old monuments is criticized by some as rewriting history and disrespecting local heritage.  For the descendants of slaves and native Americans, these monuments are reminders of a painful past and a current affirmation of racist and supremacist attitudes.  The collision of these perspectives demands attention; otherwise we will perpetuate yet another source of conflict.

Historical monuments are important but not essential.  They are important in that they keep us in touch with our past and serve as reminders of the price that our forebears paid for our freedom and way of life. They are symbols of what they fought and died for.  These works of stone and bronze stand for some “thing” but they are not the “thing” itself.  As symbols, therefore, they are not essential.  Destroying or removing the symbol, does not destroy what the symbol stands for whether it is good or bad.  There is a word for gracing a physical object with undue or ultimate value.  That word is idolatry.

I would argue that these symbols serve as a safe way to process the difficult and painful acts of the past.  As the ruins of the statue of Ozymandias in Shelly’s poem shows, the physical monuments of any civilization, no matter how great, will always be reduced to rubble.  In the case of the egomaniacal Ozymandias, we are led to believe that the great ruler and his empire passed away with his statue.

If we are wise enough, we can turn our monumental problem into a monumental opportunity.  We can gather at the base of these depictions of our past to discuss or even vehemently argue for what purpose they were erected in the first place, how we see them in the present, and the future toward which they point.  Those which point to freedom and justice for all, should be allowed to stand.  Others would be best displayed in a museum as reminders of our troubled past.  The most offensive deserve the sledgehammers of angry citizens.

We will make some mistakes along the way.  We may give in to the excesses of the moment and go too far.  Anger and rage may turn destructive and destroy that which deserves to remain.  That will be unfortunate but not tragic.  Statues can be chiseled and cast anew.  But if in the process we can reunite in a spirit of love, forgiveness,  and reconciliation,  then the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will stand as the true monument to America.

 

Look Up

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A Message for Good Friday 2020
Pastor Jim Melvin

Psalm 88: 1-2
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.

For me it’s worst at night, the fear, the anxiety, and feelings of near panic. My mind races ahead to all of the horrible things that could result from the pandemic–sickness, death, economic ruin, and a world not fit to live in. Darkness brings on despair; I’m lowered into the pit. It is then that I am driven to pray to God, like the Psalmist, to listen to my cries and come to help.

People suffering from dementia often suffer from what is called sundowning. As night comes on, the become more confused and agitated. In my experience, it is a universal phenomenon. The darkness creeps into the corners of our souls as the sun goes down. In our current state of siege, we are all a little bit demented; we’re all a little bit out of our minds.

The Psalmist continues to vividly describe what has driven him to cry out in anguish.

Psalm 88:3-7
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

This Psalm is often read to remember Jesus’ imprisonment at the house of Caiaphas the night before he was tried and executed. He was lowered into a dark stone pit to spend an agonizing night. You can imagine him reciting this psalm waiting for God to rescue him. This pit is the dark night of the human soul that all of us experience at one time or another.

On Good Friday, Christians knowingly descend into that Pit with Jesus. We wait with him in our anxiety and fear. We cry out with him to God in desperation.

When we are at the bottom of the pit, we can only look up. There is nothing to see in the darkness around us, not even the proverbial hand in front of our face. When we look up, however, a glimmer of light begins to filter down to us. Our eyes see the growing light of Easter dawn, of life and hope above. Relief. God has heard our cries. God is coming to save us.

I can’t avoid noticing that the timing of Good Friday this year is serendipitous and full of meaning. It is likely that we are near the bottom of the pit of global pandemic. A glimmer, just a glimmer of light begins to shine. Today, then, in the dark night of our souls, it is time for us to look up. There’s nothing to see down here in the pit . Easter is approaching. New life is coming. God is listening.

I suspect that you and I will experience more sundowning in the days and weeks ahead. Our time of trial is not over. We will cry out in the night in fear and anxiety. So, if you see me or anybody else dwelling in darkness, tell us to look up. The same light is shining up there for all of us.

May you be blessed by peace and hope this Holy Weekend.

(Go to www.jmfaithatwork.com to listen to a my podcast from earlier this year titled “Life in the Pit.)

If Wishes Were Fishes

By | Blog

Pastor Jim Melvin

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

My mother-in-law Aggie Wilson was a master of folksy sayings. One of her favorites that she repeated at every opportunity was, “If wishes were fishes, we’d all have a bite.” If that makes you scratch your head in wonder, let me give you a few examples. Me: I sure wish I could afford one of those new mid-engine Corvettes. Aggie: If wishes were fishes, we’d all have a bite. Me: I wish winter was over. Aggie: If wishes were fishes, we’d all have a bite. Me: I sure wish you would make one of your seven-layer German chocolate cakes for dessert tonight. Aggie: If wishes were fishes, we’d all have a bite. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself right now, “I wish he’d get to the point.” Me: “If wishes were fishes, we’d all have a bite.”

Aggie meant that we wish for a lot of things that just aren’t going to happen. The majority of wishes that we make don’t come true. Many or most of our wishes turn out to be idle wishes. Think of all the jokes you’ve heard about someone being granted three wishes by a genie. They never seem to work out well. We all know that wishing for something doesn’t make it come true. I’ve wasted my fair share of coins throwing them into fountains, wished upon a galaxy of stars, and made wishes while I blew out the candles on more birthday cakes than I care to remember; and I have to report that my success rate is poor. I think that Jiminy Cricket’s “When You Wish upon a Star” song from Pinocchio was a scam perpetrated on generations of America’s kids. If wishes were fishes, we’d all have a bite; and, well, the fish don’t seem to be hungry.

But HOPE, that’s a different matter. Although the words hope and wish are often used interchangeably, our hopes are more significant and reliable than wishes. Our hopes are backed by something that gives us a reasonable expectation that the object of our desire is achievable. For example, I hope that I have the strength to make a difficult decision that lies ahead of me today. That hope is backed up by self-confidence that I have because I have made difficult decisions before. I hope that my friends will stick up for me when I am unfairly criticized. That hope is based on my friends’ prior loyalty. Hope is way more powerful and comforting than making wishes. Not to beat the image to death, but if hopes were fishes, we’d all be fed.
Our hopes can be supported by a variety of things. As in my previous examples, our hopes can be based on our past experiences. Our hopes can be based on our trust in people with certain skills or knowledge. We hope that the medical community will come up with protection against covid-19 and the cures for many other diseases, eventually even cancer. We also base our hopes on the reputation and integrity of people with authority. We hope that our laws are administered and enforced justly. We hope that America will continue to be a beacon of freedom in the world. These aren’t idle wishes. These are valid hopes.

There is a special kind of hope that is more powerful than any other. That is the hope which is backed up by faith. In Hebrews 11:1 we read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Christian hope is based upon faith. It is not based on science or upon physical evidence or even human reason. Things that we hope for are by nature unseen or they aren’t even in existence yet. So, we need something powerful to support our hopes. That power is faith.

Faith and hope are inextricably linked together. To understand hope, we also have to understand faith. There’s no better place to look at the nature of Christian faith than through the story of Jesus’ disciple Thomas, the one affectionately known as doubting Thomas. Old doubting Thomas when he was told by the other disciples that they had witnessed Jesus after he was resurrected famously said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” For Thomas, seeing, and in this case touching, are believing.

Thomas is one of my favorite biblical characters. He seems real to me. I can see myself having the same reaction to being told that someone I know was killed and is now up and walking around again. I admit it. I’m filled with doubts. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Despair or hopelessness is the opposite of faith. Doubt is a necessary precondition of faith. Without doubt or uncertainty, we have no need for faith. When Jesus finally does show up to Thomas, the former doubter doesn’t even take Jesus up on the offer to touch him. He is overcome and simply shouts out, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus mildly rebukes him saying it would have been better if he had believed without seeing.

Here’s the power of faith. We don’t have to see, or touch, or feel or smell. Faith is a matter of the heart and not of the mind. Martin Luther says that we don’t come to faith on our own. In part of his explanation of the Apostles Creed Luther says, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith is a gift from God to us who are by nature unbelievers.

You see, faith is another word for trust. When I say I have faith in God, I’m not saying that I believe that God exists. Whether or not God exists is a question for skeptics and philosophers and theologians. Whether or not Jesus Christ was just a brilliant teacher who lived two thousand years ago or the Son of God incarnate is a question for biblical scholars who make their money writing books. I trust God and live my life knowing that God loves me and will care for me. I trust Jesus and follow him because he will lead me to live a life worthy of the coming Kingdom of God. I didn’t figure out my faith. I’ve learned it and lived into it.

Where did my faith come from? It’s too much a part of me to tell you. It’s like the air that I breath. I imagine that my parents had a lot to do with it, but maybe not in the way you would think. It’s not because they made me go to church and Sunday school, but because they taught me how to trust. I never questioned that they loved me or that they would take care of me. They gave me everything I needed growing up, especially love. They taught me how to trust. Using the words of faith, it is the Holy Spirit dwelling within me that let me learn that lesson.

That God inspired ability to trust grew and was transferred to my Christian faith. I found that the gospel message that Jesus taught in the Bible was reliable. I saw how powerful faith could be as I witnessed it in the people in my Christian community. And yes, my faith was inspired by the Christlike love of people all around me, many of whom did not even know that they were Christlike. In my life faith works and it works in the people I see around me. It will work for the world.

Do you want that faith? Do you want to trust God loves us and that Jesus Christ has the power to save us in this desperate hour? I can’t convince you of that with carefully crafted sentences and well-reasoned arguments. But I can share my faith with you. I can witness my faith to you. There are a lot of other people of faith that can do the same. Look for them in your life. Through them and through scripture you can learn to trust Jesus Christ. Even if you haven’t had a lot of reasons to trust other people as you grew up, you can still come to trust God. Look for that seed of trust, the seed of faith in your heart, nurture it and watch it grow. It’s never too late. There is no better time than now.
We need faith now. We need it to nurture our hopes. Our hearts crave good news. We need to know in our hearts that our hopes are not wishes—or fishes.

I can recommend another tool for you to live into your own faith. Start praying. You may assume that faith needs to come before prayer. Why would I pray if I don’t have faith to start with? Not so. Start a conversation with God and let God take it from there. If you need some help, do what Jesus told his disciples to do. Pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. They kingdom come. They will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” That’s a good conversation starter. That conversation may give you that burst of faith you need.

I’m personally putting my trust, my faith, in a lot of things right now. I trust the scientists who are working to get the current pandemic under control and to protect us from future such disasters. I trust the doctors and nurses that are selflessly caring for the afflicted. I trust our government, economists, business leaders, and workers to help us put our lives back together again when the medical threat passes. And I trust in the lovingkindness of all the people around me who share my hopes and fears and who are doing their own part to care for those around them.

But most of all I have faith in the God and the saving power of Jesus Christ. We’re coming up on Easter. I can say without reservation that for Christians this is the most hopeful time of the year. It is through our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to new life that our hope comes. Jesus, who suffered death and the grave, was raised to new and eternal life. Truly, if you can believe that, you can believe anything And through the power of the Holy Spirit, you can believe it. . So really, you just have to come to trust that one thing, what we call the Good News. You just have to let yourself trust. God will do the rest.

Resurrection means the possibility of new life. It is our hope for the future. Instead of worrying about all of the bad things that might happen, spend your time hoping for the resurrection of our lives and our worlds. Hope for a world where people are more conscious of the blessings that they receive from God every day. Hope for a world where all are united by a sense of cooperation and compassion. Hope for a world where poverty, disease and hunger become our true enemies. And you can hope for a world where you and your family will live in health and happiness. Wish upon a star if you like. But put your faith in God.

Let me give my favorite poet Emily Dickinson the final word on hope. She writes,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

May God bless you and keep you. May God make his face shine upon you. May God look upon you with grace and mercy and give you peace. Amen.

May Jesus Calm this Storm

By | Blog

Pastor Jim Melvin

And when Jesus got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Matthew 8:23-27

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Recently I have felt moments of panic when I wanted to cry out, “Jesus, wake up! We’re dying here.” In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic it feels like I’m living a dream–more like a nightmare, and Jesus or my faith in him is nowhere to be found. My heart starts pounding. I guess that’s how Jesus must have felt when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We can be forgiven those moments of panic and lapses in faith. It’s allowed. These are scary times in so many ways. God seems silent and distant. Sometimes we need to cry out. Those of us who rely on physical church for comfort are literally cut off from our community of faith and sharing Christ’s presence in the bread and wine of communion. And many are cut off from the physical presence of those they love. Many are cut off from jobs and a source of income. God understands our panic attacks.

Jesus’ disciples suffered just such a panic attack in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. They were in a life-threatening situation on an unpredictable body of water known for producing waves that would easily swamp the type of small fishing boat in which they were sailing. I can picture Jesus waking up to their cries, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and saying, “What’s the deal? What are you afraid of?” and then adding accusingly in the words of the King James Version of the Bible, “O ye of little faith!”

Over the years I’ve heard and preached many sermons on this passage. Usually the “O ye of little faith!” is described as Jesus giving the disciples a good scolding. Maybe he was scolding them. Maybe not. Maybe he was just crabby because they woke him from a good nap. Whether he was scolding them or not, one thing is certain; he calmed the storm and saved them. Like I said, even Jesus would later experience a crisis of faith on the cross; and God saved him.

One of the first things that I take away from this story is the message that we are not alone in our moment of panic. Panic is a normal and necessary human reaction. When we perceive a threat to our lives or our welfare, our bodies’ endocrine systems give us a healthy shot of hormones that give us extra strength and spur us to action. And when we don’t know how to act to save ourselves, we cry for help. At least I haven’t woken up screaming yet.

When I cry out in a panic, it doesn’t take me long to come to my senses and settle down. The thing that can settle me down the quickest is the knowledge that I am not alone. None of us is truly alone. Most of us have family and friends to rely on. Those of us who are of working age have our work families. In a less intimate sense, we have the company of people who come into our homes through television and media. In America we have a citizenry bound together in a society where we look out for each other. We’re beginning to see that more and more. From what I have seen, we are being united by crisis, not divided. And we have the company of people around the world who are sharing our hardships and our hopes. We are not alone. We have billions of people with us in the boat.

A word of caution here. Those of us who do have a sense of community and companionship need to be on the lookout for those who are truly isolated and lonely. I think first of all of the residents of nursing homes and the mentally ill living on the streets. I think of older people sitting home alone and scared. It is our responsibility to find ways to be with them. With all the social media platforms, we can and are getting creative. We have the resources to keep everybody connected if we have the will. It’s a win/win. When we are there for them, they are there for us.

For people of faith, we have another constant companion. You may know him as Jesus. In the Bible he is named Immanuel which means “God with us.” He never leaves us by ourselves. The risen Christ never leaves our side. Through faith and the Holy Spirit, you can always experience his presence. If you haven’t experienced Christ in your life, think of it this way. The Apostle Paul, speaking to a community of faith that he had just formed, looked out at them and said, “YOU are the body of Christ.” I take the you to mean the church, but I also take it to mean all of the caring communities of which we are apart. Christ is in the midst of all loving communities.

Also, Christ is in you. Martin Luther said that each of us are to be “little Christ’s” for each other. When someone looks at you and sees God’s love embodied in you, YOU are a little Christ. And a little Christ goes a long way. People are craving that presence. Yesterday I called a young woman just to check in with her and chat. She said, “I’ve been having a rough day. I feel a little better just to have somebody to talk to.” Sometimes that’s all it takes.

The next thing that I take away from this story is that the disciples’ cries for help are heard. Jesus wakes up. Now, this kind of contradicts Psalm 121 where it says, “Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Jesus, who is Immanuel, God on earth for us, was asleep on the job or asleep at the tiller to use nautical language.

Don’t let this throw you. Throughout the Bible, Jesus often surprises us with his humanity. Although he was the most compassionate person to ever walk this earth, he had his moments. He can be impatient and harsh like the time the Canaanite woman suffering with a demon takes a shot at him for denying her healing because she was not a Jew. She says, “Even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Jesus essentially says, “You got me.” And he heals her.

I appreciate the humanity of Jesus. Because he was a human being, I can relate to him. He truly suffered. He experienced the full range of emotions that you and I do, including fear and panic. I need somebody on my level to struggle right alongside me. When we’re scared and hurting, it doesn’t help to be with someone who seems to have it all figured out and assumes that you should too. When Jesus says “ye of little faith” he is speaking the truth. Our faith is weak. That’s why we need him. In part of his explanation of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther says, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” We can’t even have faith in Christ on our own. We need Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to come to him.
So, go ahead, cry out from your own place of suffering, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” You will discover that he hasn’t.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far from the story of Jesus calming the storm. First, it’s natural and ok to call out in our time of need. Second, we are not alone in this perilous time. Third, God hears our cries. But now comes the most important part. In the story, Jesus calms the storm and rescues them from danger.

Do you see where I’m going here? Through the assurance that we are not alone, and the promise that God listens, the storm is calmed. We are still in a small boat in a vast and changeable sea, but now we have our wits about us. Storms happen. And storms pass. And we sail on until the next one hits. Then we do it all over again. Each time we repeat this pattern, our faith is reinforced. God has been present for us in the past. God will be here for us in the future.

I think this image can help us deal with the uncertainty in our lives right now. It’s a time for us to turn to our faith and to one another for comfort and support. Then we will be calm enough to do our part to get this leaky boat to shore. Your part may be carrying on with your work to provide essential services and to keep our economy afloat. Your part may be home schooling your kids. Your part may be getting groceries for your elderly neighbor. Your part may simply be staying put at home so that you not only protect yourself, but so you don’t put a burden on the healthcare system to care for you.

In the long days ahead, we will all have time to turn to scripture. I’ll be sharing more with you in future devotions and sermons. For now, hear the storm calming words of Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

Personally, I’m going to keep reading those words over and over until they are etched on my heart. You can too. “He who keeps Israel, will neither slumber nor sleep.” We are Israel. God has been awakened by our cries. Speaking of Israel, I received a call yesterday from my friend Johnny in Jerusalem. Johnny has been our guide on many tours to the Holy Land. He reported that his family is fine, quarantined at home like many of us. Johnny says that he prays for us. Let us pray for him and for the holiest city in the world from where our help first came.

Have faith. You are not alone. God’s blessings and peace to you. Amen.

You Have a Right to Your Disappointment

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Pastor Jim Melvin

All around me I hear people voicing their disappointments and sense of loss due to the sacrifices we are being required to make because of the coronavirus outbreak. The disappointments are large and small. People are disappointed because they won’t be able to watch March Madness or the Masters Golf Tournament this year. Millions of high school and college seniors will miss the experience of walking across a stage to receive their diplomas. On a more personal level, the thirty eager people who I intended to lead on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land will be deprived of the trip of a lifetime.

My daughter recently had a research trip to Mexico canceled, her master’s degree presentation held virtually, and will likely have her graduation canceled. Of course, she is disappointed. Some have attempted to minimize her disappointment because, after all, she’s traveled widely and has enjoyed graduation ceremonies from high school, college and law school. That kind of thinking misses the point. We each have a right to our own disappointments. Your disappointment, no matter how large or small, does not compete with my disappointment or anybody else’s.

I think it would be healthy for us each to get in touch with our own disappointments. Name them. Own them. Then we can mourn them and move on. Also, getting in touch with our own disappointments can make us more sensitive to those of other people. Just as we name our own disappointments, we can encourage others to name theirs. Then we can mourn, encourage one another, and move forward together.

We may be able to find some more modest ways that we can partially compensate for our losses. We can hold smaller more intimate celebrations of our graduate’s accomplishments. We can start to dream of a new trip next year. But it’s not the same.

There will be time for expressing gratitude for our many blessings and hope for the future later. But for right now, I officially give you permission to be sad. I give you permission to bawl your eyes out and bury your head in the pillow. Your grieving is real; and nobody has the right to take it from you.

Plucking Up the Seedlings of Regret

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I recently received an invitation to a friend’s 50th anniversay party and in inscribed in swirly script at the bottom of the card were the words Regrets Only Please. I’ve been invited to a party or two before so I know that those words are like a presumptuous form of RSVP. If I don’t respond I guess they assume that I’m coming. Do they also assume that I’m going to bring a gift? The imp of the perverse in my wanted to respond to the invitation with a numbered list. 1) I regret that I didn’t go to medical school. 2) I regret that I didn’t start putting money away for retirment 50 years ago. 3) I regret having not exercised regularly. 4) I regret not spending more time with my kids when they were growing up. 5) And more recently, I regret eating that double hot fudge sundae last night. I have a lot of regrets I could share.

Just so you know, I didn’t respond and I went to the party and I don’t regret it. The point is, we all have our regrets. Frank Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few; but then again, too few to mention.” Most of us have plenty of regrets to mention; and I bet Sinatra did too. But that wouldn’t have fit well with the song those words came from, “I did it my way.” In real life, most of our regrets result from us doing it our way. Then later we realize that our way wasn’t necessarily the best way. Hence regret.

Regret is one of many negative emotions that plague us. Regrets are things that we did and wish we didn’t or failed to do and wish we did. Then they keep popping up uninvited in our minds to torture us. They happened in the past but they manifest themselves in the present. They keep playing over and over in our minds like a bad pop sone keeping us awake at night or distracting us during the day. Regrets can result from stupid little slipups that we’ve made or serious injuries that we’ve done to someone.

A lot of regrets that we have deal with missed opportunities in the past. I have a friend, in California who owned a chain of successful luggage stores. In 1971 he was on a trip to Seattle on a buying trip. He struck up a conversation with his seatmate who was beginning a new business. The guy was impressed with my friend’s business savvy and asked him if he’d like to invest in his new enterprise. David was too busy expanding his luggage business at the time, so he respectfully declined. Wait for it. His seatmate that day was Jerry Baldwin, the founder of Starbucks. For decades David has been doing the math on how much he would be worth if he hadn’t thrown away Baldwin’s business card and lamenting to his friends over who stupid he was. Talk about regrets.

Regrets, sure, I’ve gotta few too.

David’s is a “lost opportunity” kind of regret. We can also regret things that we did that shouldn’t have. In my years as a pastor I’ve had many people share their regrets with me about choices in life, many times involving their choice in a spouse. “I never should have married him. He was always too friendly with other women. Now he’s run off and I’ve got two kids to take care of. If only I would have listened to my friends.” Would’a, should’a, could’a, the refrain of regret.

You get the point. We all have regrets. The question is, how do we deal with them? How can we shut off the voices jabbering in our heads that torture us?

Buddhist monk and prolific author the late Thich Naht Hahn uses the image of a garden to describe how our emotions work, both positive and negative. He says that our emotions are like seeds buried in the garden. The seeds that we water and cultivate will manifest themselves in our lives. When we water the seeds of positive emotions like love, compassion, and joy, they will benefit our lives. Nuturing negative emotions like greed, fear, and regret hurt us. Sounds simple enough.

We have an almost endless store of regret seeds ready to sprout in our spiritual gardens (or our hearts or our psyches if you want to think of it that way). We fail to act on countless opporunities every day. While we have to make decisions on which opportunities to follow up on and which not to, it’s easy to second guess ourselves. Similarly, we are constantly doing things that would have been better off left undone. I shouldn’t have snapped at my wife when she criticized me for not doing the dishes. I wish I could unsend that angry email I sent my boss.

Fortunately the majority of the seeds of regret will never germinate. But there are some that we will water, they will sprout, we will cultivate the soil around them, and we will fertilize them until they are full grown. When they mature our regrets will flourish and cause us to suffer. They will cause us many sleepless nights and keep us from being happy.

Regrets are very unpredictable. It’s hard to tell why some of them pop up when they do. Maybe I’m suddenly obsessing over not going to graduate school because my daughter is about to get the degree I didn’t. Maybe you regret not starting your own business because your best friend just retired on a golf course in Florida after selling his real screw manufacturing company. Why is it that you feel that you’re the one that got screwed?

Anyway, let’s assume that you become aware of a regret that seems to really be grinding your gears. How do you get rid of it? An obvious solutions would be to just ignore it. Unfortunately, regrets are persistent little weeds. They don’t like to go away on their own. When they start causing enough suffering for a long enough period of time, you may try to blot them out. You fall into a deep depression and beat yourself up over your failure. But that just makes it worse. Ultimately you start drinking or taking sleeping pills or opioids to numb the pain. We all know where that can lead. There must be a positive way to heal from suffering born of regret.

Let’s go back to the garden analogy. When you notice a seedling of regret starting to grow, gently pluck it up out of the soil. Don’t throw it away. Hold it in your fingers caked with dirt from gardening and look at it. Look at its’ leaves. Examine the root system that was beginning to develop. In carefully inspecting your regret, you will learn from it. That way you are less likely to repeat the behavior that caused the regret in the first place.

Now, once you’re on intimate terms with your regret, do not throw it away. Instead, lovingly place it on the compost heap with the other negative emotions that you have weeded from your garden in the past. Let them fertilize and nourish your spiritual growth in the future. Let it help you grow a healthy crop of emotions like love, forgiveness and happiness. Gardening is a lot of work. You’ll have to keep at it. Soon, like a real gardener, you will learn to discern the desirable plants from the weeds before they get very big.

In more practical terms, when you are plagued by regret, take the time to stop and identify it. Take some time to sit quietly and ask some questions of yourself. Why is this really bothering me? What happened in the past that I regret? What is happening now that is causing this regret to bother me so much? Then you can act.

You may discover that you have some unfinished business in the past. There may be a person to whom you owe an apology. If possible, sit down with them and try to resolve the issue. If you can’t do that, write them a letter asking for forgiveness even if they’re no longer in your life or dead. Then you can let it go. Say to yourself, “My regret is a thing of the past.” I will live in the future.

If you determine that you are dealing with a “lost opportunity” regret, it may be possible for you to still take advantage of that opportnity. I could enroll in some graduate classes if I really regret not getting the Ph.D. Maybe you want to try your hand at starting your own business. Most likely we can just be grateful for what we have in the present instead of ruing the past. We do not need to suffer for the past when we have many blessings in the present.

So, in review, pluck up your regrets. Examine them and learn from them. Use them to nurture your soul in this moment. Then maybe your regrets will be too few to mention.
Now might be a good time to sit down with a pencil and piece of paper and take inventory of what’s growing in your garden. Pluck out the seedlings of hatred, regret, revenge, and all the other things that cause you to suffer. Then cultivate your garden so that love, compassion, and happiness may flourish. Sing to yourself the words of a popular Christian song, “Lord, let my heart be good soil.” You won’t regret it.

Who Are You

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Who Are You?

Well, who are you?
(Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
I really wanna know
(Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
Tell me, who are you?
(Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
‘Cause I really wanna know
(Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

“Who Are You?” a song written in 1979 by none other than The Who, is one of the most repetitive songs of all times. The word who is repeated 150 times to my count. Well – who are you? Do you really wanna know?

Emily Dickinson answered the question in a poem and then turned it around with her own question,

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?

I might think that’s an easy question to answer. But what if you ask me, “Who are you?” I might say, “Well, I’m Jim Melvin, of course.” That doesn’t satisfy you. “Those are just words on a page,” you say. “Who are you really?” I answer, “I’m a seventy-one-year-old man?” Unsatisfied you press on. “You were seventy last year. Are you a different person now and will you be a different person again next year when you turn seventy-two?” I decide to turn to my profession. “I’m a Lutheran pastor.” You’re ready for that one. “Were you someone else before you were ordained? Does that mean you’ll be somebody else when you retire?” I’m getting frustrated. It’s around election time so I guess maybe you want to know my political affiliation. “I’m a Democrat,” I say definitively. Of course, that won’t satisfy you, so you press further. “What if you don’t like the person your party nominates for president this year and you vote republican? Will you be a different person then? Who ARE you?”

At this point I’m going to call time out to take a little break and think about this question more deeply. It wasn’t so easy after all. As I go deeper and deeper it occurs to me that there is a part of me that has never changed. I can remember looking out at the world as a little child and I recognize that the same me is looking at the computer screen as I write this. The same four-year-old me that looked up at my mother’s face as I sat on her lap is the same me that looked down at her lying on a bed the day she died. There is continuity in my me-ness.

Who am I? I am the subject of my own life. I look out at the never-ending river of experiences that flow by me. I am the one who from the inside watched this body around me age for seventy-one years. I am the one who my parents named James Edmund Melvin and others called pastor. I am the one who assigned labels to myself like Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, depending upon my time in life and the current situation in our country and world. Who am I? I am consciousness. I am my soul or what the Buddhists call Atta. I am the stable part of being. I am eternal. I am the one who looks out at the world in wonder through the portals of my eyes. I am the one who is relationship with God, with the divine.

This may seem like a frivolous exercise, the epitome of naval gazing. If we stumble through life without this realization, however, we live as prisoners of our own illusions. Our illusions become delusions when we believe that they are real. There is great freedom in this knowledge. Now we are free to redefine the artificial identities that we have constructed and make ourselves new. The only thing that cannot change is me. With greater insight we can redefine our outer identity to match the inner. When we do, we experience greater happiness, freedom and authenticity than we have ever known before.

I invite you too look in a mirror. Look past the worry lines that have developed over the years. See if you can envision the child that looked in a mirror many years ago and saw him or herself for the first time. Say hi to you. Sit quietly when you have a moment to be alone. Listen to the thoughts swirling in your head. Who is doing the listening? That’s you. That’s who you are watching and listening to your life. Enjoy the show. Enjoy life. You have been liberated.

To turn the question of Emily Dickinson’s poem around again –

I’m Somebody! Who are you?
Are you – Somebody – Too?

Let There Be Light

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Pastor Jim Melvin

I have good news for you, my Vitamin D deprived friends; the days are getting longer. We’ve already gained over half an hour of daylight since the sun started coming home to the northern hemisphere on December 21st. The bad news is that it’s still almost two months until spring. We have the darkest time of the year, both physically and emotionally and perhaps spiritually to endure.

It’s no accident that the first thing God created was light. Light is associated with good and life. That’s why Jesus was called “the Light of the World”. It’s no coincidence that we celebrate Jesus’ birth during the darkest time of the year. At a time when we feel at our lowest, it gives us hope to hear that light will be returning to our lives.

There are some things that we can do to help us through this remaining period of light deprivation. One of the most important things is to realize that we are not alone if we feel down or lack energy during this period. Our bodies are chemically reacting to decreased light exposure including the production of Vitamin D which takes place in our skin with exposure to light. So have hope. This too shall pass. Your feelings are normal. The days are getting longer.

In the meantime, there are some simple steps that we can take to feel happier and more energetic right now. Here are a few:

1. Get as much light as you can, natural and artificial. You can buy special high intensity full spectrum lights at the pharmacy.
2. Get outside and breath in the fresh air even if it is cold.
3. Exercise frequently.
4. Take time to enjoy the sunrise even if you have to adjust the time you get up in the morning.
5. Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
6. See your doctor if you feel unusually depressed or your sleep patterns are seriously disrupted. Your doctor may prescribe anti-depressants on a temporary basis to help elevate your mood.
7. Get social. Find plenty opportunities to socialize with family and friends. Isolation worsens depression.

Those are a few physical things that may help you survive until spring, but don’t forget your spiritual life. Take time each day to pray and reflect on the light of God which dwells within your heart. Close you eyes and visualize a warm glow emanating from your heart. Remember that the promise of new life through Jesus Christ is yours.  And let there be light.

Working Man Blues

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Pastor Jim Melvin

Wish I was down on some blue bayou,
With a bamboo cane stuck in the sand.
But the road I’m on, don’t seem to go there
So I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am.

Wish I enjoyed what makes my living,
Did what I do with a willin’ hand.
Some would run, ah, but that ain’t like me.
So I just dream and keep on bein’ the way I am.

“The Way I Am” by Merle Haggard

Who of us can’t relate to the feelings that Merle Haggard touches on in “The Way I Am”? Did you ever find yourself daydreaming on the job wishing that you were sitting on a beach drinking a Corona or up north making tracks in fresh snow on your Skidoo? Did you ever feel like the path that you’re taking through life will never get you to either of those places? So, you just dream and keep on bein’ the way you are.

I’ve always loved Merle Haggard’s songs and how he can put his finger on the struggles of everyday people. It probably comes from the fact that he grew up poor in the depression and spent some time in prison, including the infamous San Quentin, when he was young. He probably never did much manual labor himself because he made his living as a country singer after he turned his life around, not that being a musician isn’t hard work. But he could see how difficult life was for the hard-working men and women of America.

Many of Haggard’s songs express a sense of helplessness and a woeful acceptance of the way things are. None does this better than his song “Working Man Blues.” He sings, “I drink my beer in a tavern, sing a little bit of these working man blues. In this song, the working man is saddled by his responsibility to support nine kids and a wife. Despite his blues he vows to “keep his nose to the grindstone” and work as long as his “two hands are fit to use.”

It’s kind of tempting to put his songs on the jukebox in the tavern and wallow in our own working man (or woman) blues. Although a little self-pity feels good once in a while, it profits us more to stop crying in our beer and head down the path of our choosing.

Dreams can be put into two categories, passive or active. When Haggard dreams of sitting on a blue bayou with a cane fishing pole stuck in the sand, he is describing a passive dream. We call that a daydream. He has no intention of acting on this dream. He seems to imply that there is no way to get from where he is to that idyllic destination. He is resigned to the fact that his dream will remain just a figment of his imagination. He settles for the small pleasure that he gets from the act of dreaming. He’ll just drink his beer after work and sing the working man blues. Passive dreams are pessimistic. They feed on self-doubt.

Active dreams lead to action. Active dreams bring a vision of a better future toward which we want to move and toward which we can envision a path. Instead of resignation, these dreams lead to action. Instead of heading to the bar every night, when we commit to realizing our dreams, we spend at least some of our spare time drawing a roadmap for the future. That doesn’t mean there’ll be no time for enjoying life with our friends along the way. Active dreams are optimistic. They require and inspire confidence.

The good thing is, we get to choose the type of dreams we dream. We all are confronted with challenges and obstacle in life, some of us more than others. But we are all fortunate enough to live at a time and in a country that presents us with opportunities if we are willing to take the time to figure out where we can realistically go in life and are willing to put in the hard work to get there. Even if we have to support nine kids and a wife or husband, we don’t need to sing the blues.

Which type of dream will you invest your time and energy in? I would encourage the latter. Here’s how you can get started. The company for which serve as chaplain employs two professional “dream coaches” to help our associates identify and realize their dreams. If you don’t have someone to guide, try working through the following steps on your own.

1)Make yourself a Dream Planner Book. This can be a fancy journal you buy in a bookstore, a spiral bound notebook, or even a yellow legal pad.

2)In your planner, start brainstorming with yourself or with your spouse and/or other members of your family your dreams for the future. Be bold. You don’t have to worry about being realistic at this point. It may help you by thinking about different aspects of your life to focus on such as professional, educational, spiritual, emotional, recreational, material, health/fitness. You may think of others. Try to write down one or two dreams in each area. See if you can come up with twenty dreams. Some examples might be to own your own home, get a specific promotion at work, spend time each day doing something fun with your family, eating a more healthy diet, etc. Your dreams can be as big or as small as you want them.

3) Circle five of the twenty which energize you the most. What is most important for you to achieve? Then narrow your list down to two. These are the dreams that you are going to work on.

4) After you have identified your most important dreams, write out the steps that you will need to take to get you from where you are to where you want to be. Pretend that you are using Google Maps to find the route to your own “blue bayou.”

5) Write out a realistic timeline on when you are going to accomplish each step. Keep returning to your Dream Planner Book and check off the steps as you take them. Make yourself accountable to a trusted person whose job it is to encourage you to keep on schedule.

6) Celebrate your victories along the way and really celebrate when you reach your final goal. Then keep on dreaming. This is a lifelong process.

I encourage you to find someone to accompany you on your journey. You may be able to find a professional dream manager. If not seek out a life coach, counselor, or trusted pastor who is willing to work with you.
So, what’s your dream? At this point in my life, I’m setting sights on that blue bayou; you might have something grander in mind. Either way, let’s leave the blues singing to musicians.

Peace,
Pastor Jim