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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

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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.

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.

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.