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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.

Working Hard for the Money

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Working Hard for the Money

Pastor Jim Melvin

It’s a sacrifice working day to day
For little money, just tips for pay
But it’s worth it all
Just to hear them say that they care
.

Song by Donna Summer

            You work hard for your money, really hard.  But no matter how hard you work, even if you have a good job, it’s difficult if not impossible to get ahead in today’s economy.  It was disheartening to learn recently that 80% of Americans, many of them reliable employees with good jobs, live from paycheck to paycheck.  Workers in this whopping majority say that they would not be able to cover a $400 emergency car repair without borrowing.

            I was fortunate to begin my working years in an environment where young people, whether they went to college or not, could get a job, and if they worked hard and planned for the future could lead a secure life and put something away for retirement.  That is not the case today. 

            Money shouldn’t be the most important thing in our lives. I was taught as much as a kid in Sunday school.  Jesus advises a rich young man, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  By that he meant that our spiritual assets are more important than financial ones.  I still believe that.  I also believe that living a faithful life can also be a happy and secure life.  We can store up treasures in heaven and put a little something aside for retirement.  Here are some biblical principles that may help you put your financial life in order.

Build Spiritual Wealth First

Let’s start with Jesus’ advice to the rich young man.  Whether we are rich or not, if we want true happiness and fulfillment, our ultimate purpose in life cannot be the accumulation of wealth and material stuff.  Making money is not job one.  The highly successful people that I have known are not motivated in their jobs or businesses by the attainment of wealth.  Their wealth came as a result of their passion and sense of purpose in life.  Although wealth comes with its benefits and pleasures, the fulfilling things in life come as the result of our faith, our relationships and sense of purpose and self-worth.   

Give Generously

            It may seem to go against common sense, but building financial security begins with giving your money and your time away.  It is one of the ways that we build up the spiritual wealth I just mentioned.  By putting others first by giving money or our time to help others, we learn that we are not alone in our struggles.  I’m not quite sure how it works, but I know that giving is its own reward and the source of true riches.  There is so much need around us, that it is easy to find ways to give no matter how much or how little you have.

Work Hard/Work Proud

            America, like all great societies, was built with hard work.  The American Work Ethic values reliability, initiative and the sweat of your brow.  Those qualities are as important as ever, although they might not seem be as universally valued.  Hard work is not for suckers as you might be led to believe.  Whether you pound nails, sweep floors, teach kids, drive a truck, or manage people, financial security begins with work.  If you are proud of your work, persist in it, and believe that you will succeed, you will.

Live Within Your Means

The world is like a giant candy store with all kinds of luscious chocolates, colored jelly beans and M&M’s in glass jars lined up in front of us.  All around us people are feasting on these sweet treats.  And we want some.  The Ten Commandments tell us “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house…or anything that is thy neighbor’s.”  Our cravings only lead to suffering and frustration.  Budgeting, buying and doing the things we can afford, can help change our appetite in the present into motivation for the future.

Have a Dream

What’s your dream?  Or more importantly, what are your dreams?  The answer to that question is different for each and every one of us.  You create our own future, but you can only reach that future by stopping to dream it.  Our dreams may change, and the path may not be straight, but they are the stuff that the fulfilling and happy life is made of.  Your dream may be big.  Your dream may be humble and small.  But you have to have a dream. 

            So, keep on working hard for the money.  And be proud.  And great will be your reward, both in heaven and on earth.

Tearing Down Walls

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Pastor Jim Melvin

I don’t know about you, but I’m suffering from “Wall Fatigue.”  I’m frustrated and angry about our nation’s leaders being unable to engage in a civil discussion about whether or not we should build a border wall between us and Mexico.  I’m certainly tired of hearing about their antics every time I turn on the news.   But that’s not the kind of wall I want to talk about. 

I want to talk about the personal walls that many of us erect to separate ourselves from the people in our lives to whom we should feel closest – our friends, our families, our coworkers and our neighbors.  For many of us, these walls are evidence of our inability to talk openly, honestly, and civilly with one another about our fears and anxiety in these uncertain times.  When tough issues or potential conflicts arise, it’s easier and safer to erect a barrier.

Those of us in the construction industry make our living putting up walls.  That’s pretty much what construction is about.  We put up walls to protect ourselves against the Wisconsin winter.  We put up walls to protect our property and our stuff from thieves.  And I find it reasonable that we build walls to provide ourselves some degree of privacy, even interior walls to carve out our own private space in our homes. But, in the words Robert Frost in his poem “The Mending Wall,” “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall – that wants it down.”

People are made to be in relationships.  I would go as far as to say that we are less than fully human when we totally set ourselves apart from other people.  In the creation story in Genesis God says, “It’s not good that the man should be alone.”  Some of us are extroverts who never tire of talking up every stranger we meet at a party.  Some of us are introverts who would much rather sit home and watch TV or read a book.  Some of us come from big noisy families.  Some of us don’t.  But we all need other people in our lives.  Hermits aren’t natural. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall – that wants it down.

I challenge all of us to take stock of the walls we have built around us.  Some of them are necessary and protective.  But in other places we need to do some remodeling.  Look for the non-loadbearing walls in your life to which you should apply a well-aimed sledgehammer or wrecking bar.  In your family you may find you are separated from parents or brothers and sisters over issues or wrongs you don’t even remember anymore.  Maybe a misunderstanding or argument needs to be addressed between you and a friend or coworker.  Wherever you find a wall, ask why and if it needs to be there.  If it doesn’t – tear it down.

Let me suggest a few tools for you to use in your remodel, the sledgehammers and wrecking bars or personal walls.  The first one is compassion. Try to relate to the pain and suffering of the person on the other side of the wall.  Use your imagination to walk a mile in their shoes.  It is easy to assume that other people’s lives are hunky dory.  There’s that sister and brother-in-law that you resent because they’re always jetting off on a fancy vacation while you and your family struggle to pull off a long weekend at Noah’s Ark.  So, you rarely see each other.  You avoid unnecessary contact or conversation.  You only get together at weddings and funerals, and even the grudgingly.   Practicing a little compassion may show that they travel mainly to escape the lonely existence in sterile house they found themselves living in because they were too busy building their careers to start a family.  True, it was their choice, but a little compassion reveals that they have pain in their lives.

Another tool in your remodeling work chest is forgiveness.  We have all been wronged at one time or another, sometimes badly.  But holding on to grievances guarantees that they will be the gifts that keep on giving, pain.  I’ve heard hanging on to anger described as taking poison and expecting it to kill the other person.  To forgive means choosing to let go of the offense and giving up your right to justice.  Reestablishing a relationship is worth far more than winning an argument or getting your due.  Let forgiveness flow from you as though like a never-ending stream.  When Jesus asked was asked by Peter if he should forgive seven times, Jesus answers, “Not seven times; but seven times seventy.”  Some people require a lot of forgiving.

To compassion and forgiveness, add the most powerful tool of all, love.  You want to be in the same room with the people you love.  And love is an act that is always there for you to choose.  Love, which involves compassion and forgiveness, puts another person’s welfare ahead of our own.  Put that way it might seem like love is for suckers.  It isn’t.  St. Francis stated it best, “It is in giving that we receive; it is pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  Loving is its own reward because it takes walls down like a wrecking ball.

The great symbolic act of the end of the Cold War occurred when Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and shouted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.”  The Soviet leader listened.  With the wall torn down, Berlin came back to life after 27 years of painful division.  Tear down your walls; you don’ know what new life and new joy is waiting on the other side.

Let me circle back to that border wall.  For some reason which I cannot fully explain, the political conflicts in America are affecting our personal relationships.  Toxic politics are causing a building boom in personal walls.  I know of many instances where people have become alienated from friends and families over party affiliations and political agendas.  Our personal walls are going up in response to a seemingly insurmountable national and international issue.  Is it naïve to consider that tearing down our personal walls may be a first and necessary step in finding a political solution to this and other issues?  It’s worth considering.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall – that wants it torn down.”

Amen to that.

fffffffffff

Dump Your Guilt and Your Grudges

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I have a friend who trained to hike the Grand Canyon by wearing a backpack filled with 40 pounds of bricks for almost a month.  Yes, he looked like he was nuts schlepping that thing around while he was mowing the lawn. He survived the backpacking trip, so I guess it worked.  Well, to each his own.

All of us lug burdens around with us even when we aren’t training for anything.  Two of our most common burdens are Guilt and Grudges.  We carry guilt for bad things we have done to other or for ways that we have let others down.  We carry grudges for bad things others have done to us or for ways that they have let us down.  Unlike my friend who was strengthened by his backpack full of bricks, guilt and grudges just slow us down and eventually wear us down.

The thing is, we carry these burdens unnecessarily and often unknowingly.  But we can choose to dump them.  We rid ourselves of both through forgiveness.  As far as guilt goes, there is nothing that you have done that cannot be forgiven.  As for grudges, there is nothing that has been done to us that we cannot forgive.  Forgiveness is not easy; but it is always possible.

We can be forgiven.

We can dump the guilt.  There is nothing that we have done that cannot be forgiven.  There may be times when we have wronged someone who is unwilling to forgive us.  Once we have sincerely asked for forgiveness and in some cases performed healing act, the choice to forgive lies with the person we have harmed.  In that case, at least in the short term, we need to turn to God for the forgiveness that will relieve our guilt.  There are many, many references to God’s infinite desire to forgive in the Bible, but my go to verse is 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Getting rid of guilt is just a prayer away.

We can forgive.

We can dump our grudges.  There is nothing that has been done to us that we cannot forgive.  Let’s be honest, sometimes if feels good to wallow in self-righteousness, holding on to the sense of being wrong.  Grudges give us a sense of power over the person who hurt us.  But they don’t.  Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill someone else.  When we hold on to a grudge, the person who hurt us still holds power over us.  Once we have granted forgiveness, we can choose whether or not we want to continue in that relationship.  Turning to the Bible once again, Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Are you feeling weighed down?  Just remember, you are forgiven, and you can forgive.  Lighten your load.  Dump the guilt AND the grudges.  You’ll feel better.

A Simple Christian Rejection of Anti-Semitism

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A Simple Christian Rejection of Anti-Semitism
Pastor Jim Melvin

And God said moreover unto Moses, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.” (Exo. 3:15).

Growing up in a small Iowa town, anti-Semitism was not even on my radar. There was no local Synagogue. The few Jewish families in town drew no particular attention to themselves. Judaism for me was an abstract concept that I learned from our storybook approach to the Bible in Sunday school. In our Lutheran upbringing, Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic attitudes and writings were never mentioned. Only when we began studying WWII in high school did we learn about the horrors of the holocaust. Even then the roots of these hateful attitudes were not explained and did not make sense to me.

Christian Anti-Semitism still does not make sense to me. It does not make sense because Christians and Jews (and Muslims) all worship the God of Abraham. That’s why we are all called Abrahamic religions. The God we share and to whom we look for guidance, is the God of mercy and love. For Christians, Jesus Christ, in whom we find our identity, was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew. To paraphrase the Rabbi Hillel from another context, “The rest is commentary.”

I do not wish to be presumptuous or offend my Jewish brothers and sisters, but I consider the Christianity of which I am a part as a sect of Judaism. I’m sure that many Christians and Jews may object to this characterization; but let’s at least be united in the love we share and save the theological debates for later. Whatever form our prayer takes, let us remember the eleven members of The Tree of Life Synagogue and commend them to the God we share.

Shalom. 

How Should I Pray?

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From Matthew 6

Jesus said: Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread.
 
    And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 
    And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

I don’t know a lot of things for certain, but this I do know, there is nothing more important to our spiritual health than praying regularly.  Jesus doesn’t say “if” you pray; he says “when” you pray.  I have learned from experience that when I don’t pray regularly, and there have been many times, that it is a sign that something isn’t right in my life.  I’m either neglecting something or more likely avoiding something.  When we don’t pray our life isn’t hitting on all cylinders.

Prayer takes a lot of different forms, but we are blessed with an instruction manual.  Jesus taught his disciples how to pray.  It’s interesting that his closest followers needed to ask how to pray.  I guess we shouldn’t feel bad if we need to ask too. This is only one type of prayer; but it’s a good place for all of us to start.  It’s kind of Prayer 101. Here are some of the bullet points.

1) Take time for private prayer.  It’s good to pray in public.  We pray with people who are hurting.  We pray before meals or even at the beginning of important meetings. We pray in church.  And it’s good to pray informally like a prayer you say under your breath when you’re facing something difficult during the day at work.  But the center of prayer life that Jesus modeled is private prayer.  Often in the Bible he goes off by himself to pray.  Here he specifically says, “Go in your room and shut the door.”

This tells us something important about prayer – it is a one on one conversation with God.  That’s why it is best done shut away from all of distractions of life.  If we listen closely, during this internal and deeply personal conversation God speaks to us in sometimes subtle and sometimes very dramatic ways. As Paul put it so beautifully, God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit “with sighs too deep for words.”  Don’t expect God to give you earthshaking advice for the day every time you pray – but he might.

2) Glorify God in your prayer.  Hallowed be your name.  Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done.  These are powerful words that acknowledge our dependence upon God in everything.  We are saying that we’re not going to fight God’s will.  We want God to fully come into the world and establish his will.  If God’s will truly ruled the world, we wouldn’t witness the horrors of war.  If God’s will truly ruled in our personal lives, a lot of our self-imposed problems wouldn’t exist.

3) Don’t be afraid to ask.  Give us this day our daily bread. God intends for our needs to be fulfilled and not just the material ones.  I’ve heard people say, “God won’t provide for my family.  I do.”  Point well taken.  We work hard for our daily bread.  But when we ask God to provide for us we are admitting that it is God who gives us the strength and the skills to do our work.  In prayer God can provide guidance and strength to continue.

Certainly, don’t be afraid to ask God for help or healing.  I personally have a lot of people in my life struggling with cancer right now.  I know that those who pray find strength in their private conversations with God.  Even when healing doesn’t come the way they want it to, that personal conversation helps get them through, once again, with sighs to deep for words.

4) Confess.  We all fall short.  We all mess up.  We all feel guilty about somethings.  In ways big and small we aren’t what God would have us be.  Remember, you’re alone with God in your room.  Now’s your chance to talk about it with the One who wants to forgive you.  Confess to God and God will show you the way to change your ways.  While God is forgiving you, he will also open your heart to forgive others who have hurt you.

5) Protect me. Jesus ends his prayer instruction with an important request.  Life is hard.    God, protect me from the evil one.  God protect me from all of the things that are out to get me.  Some of those things are in me.  Protect me from my addictions.  Protect me not only from those who would hurt me, but protect me from myself.  Make my heart pure.  Make me be holy as you are holy. Protect me.

As you can see, this is a big agenda for prayer. And these are only the bullet points. You and God have a lot to talk about.  Take some time today.  Go in your room.  Close the door.  And pray. Pray. Pray.

Amen.

Pastor Jim Melvin