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My Father Was A…

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Pastor Jim Melvin

How would you write the story of your origins in a few sentences? Mine would go something like this. “My father was a coal miner born in Southern Illinois who moved to Iowa as a young man to build a better life where he met my mother, the child of hardworking German immigrants who came to America also seeking a better life.” Variations of that story could be told by millions of Americans.

Near the end of their forty-year Exodus wandering in the wilderness, Moses reminded the children of Israel of their story of origins. They were to recite this story when they entered the land flowing with milk and honey and make it a part of their worship forever. These words were to be said in the temple on Shavuot each year as the harvest offering was presented,

“A wandering Aramean was my father,
he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,
he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon
they became a great nation, mighty and many.
The Egyptians abused and battered us,
in a cruel and savage slavery.
We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:
He listened to our voice, he saw
our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.
And God took us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,
with signs and miracle-wonders.
And he brought us to this place,
gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits
of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.”

That wandering Aramean was Abraham the ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. All of us who identify with these three “Abrahamic” faiths have in our past been called aliens, immigrants, foreigners and refugees. Whether we are Jewish or not, in our settled and secure lives we should regularly recite these words so that we remain appropriately thankful for our blessings.

We are not indigenous people. We are all, to use the language of ecology, invasive species. All of us sre immigrants to whom God has granted a resting place on our journey. We thank God for that. We show our thanks by acknowledging those who still wander in the wilderness waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise of a homeland. The children of Israel were required by their own religious law in their sacred scripture to not only welcome but to care for the dispossessed strangers whose wanderings brought them to their land. Here are some of those references,

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 10:19

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do this. Deuteronomy 24:17-22

And in Jesus’ description of the final judgement, God says to those whom he welcomes into his kingdom,
“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35

For a variety of reasons including war, political oppression, drug violence, and drought and famine caused by climate change, we are witnessing massive shifts of human populations on an unprecedented scale. Today more than 70 million people are displaced from their homes including 6.7 million in Syria, 2.7 million in Afghanistan, 2.3 million in South Sudan, 1.1 million in Myanmar, and .9 million in Somalia. There are about 5 million Palestinian refugees, of which 1.5 million live in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Closer to home, there are 4.5 million refugees from Venezuela and 650,000 asylum seekers from that country. The list goes on.

It is no wonder that we who live in America and people of other developed and prosperous nations feel a need for self-protection. The flood of humanity seeking a secure place to call home is overwhelming and seems to threaten our way of life. That does not, however, absolve us of our biblical call and the demands of our basic humanity to help our neighbors. The scale of the refugee crises should create a sense of urgency among us.

America has a long history of welcoming refugees to our shores. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants and refugees. But it has never been easy. Even after the horrors of the Nazi holocaust were exposed through graphic pictures to the American people as the concentration camps were liberated, few Americans were in favor of increasing the number of Jewish refugees allowed to our own shores. Still, we have found the courage and the will to help the dispossessed. For the past 40 years we have led the world in the number of refugees whom we have resettled in some years topping 100,000.

In the past few years, however, that number has been reduced to under 30,000 per year. In other words, the number of refugees and the number that we are accommodating are diverging. Once again, we find ourselves struggling to balance our self-protective instincts with our call to sacrificial love. It is time for us as people of God to seriously align our personal advocacy and our governmental policies with our religious and humanitarian obligations.

One of the greatest obstacles that we face in dealing with the immigrant and refugee crisis is our own fear. We fear that that immigrants will bring with them crime. We fear that terrorists will arrive in their midst. We fear that they will overwhelm are welfare, healthcare, and welfare systems. We fear that they will alter our culture and even our language. We fear that instead of us raising them up, that they will drag us down.

These are all legitimate concerns, but America has faced great challenges in her past and met them with integrity and moral courage. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged the American people in his first inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And Jesus reminded his followers, “Have no fear little flock. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32

We can only put aside our fears by first committing ourselves to work together. In the polarized environment in which we find ourselves, we cast the people with whom we should be working to solve problems as our enemies. We are wasting most of our time and energy attacking each other rather than attacking the problem. We don’t have the time and energy to spare.

Here is my simple proposal for a commitment that each of us can make as we seek to deal with the plight of immigrants and refugees in America:

1) I will listen to and acknowledge the fears of my fellow citizens and treat them with respect so that we make seek solutions together.
2) I will not use the language of hate nor be triggered by sarcastic attacks on immigrants, refugees or people who are labeled as other.
3) I will live out my biblical and moral mandate to care for the alien, the immigrant, the stranger, and the refugee in our midst.
4) I will seek to educate myself on the religious, social, political and moral issues to the best of my ability seeking out reliable and objective sources of information.
5) I will always remember my own humble origins and thank God for how I am blessed to live and prosper in this land.

My father was a wandering Aramean. So was yours.

What Worries You Most

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Pastor Jim Melvin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Jim

Don’t Drink the Poison

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Pastor Jim Melvin

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

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

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

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

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

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

But only if we DON’T DRINK THE POISON!

There’s No Law Against Being Nice

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By Pastor Jim Melvin

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.  Galatians 5:22-23

I used to think that this Bible verse, Galatians 5:22-23, was kind of silly.  It essentially says that there’s no law against being nice.  Shocking.  That’s technically true; but if you look around you, the way people behave often sends the message that being nice is for suckers.  Being nice is a sign of weakness and naivete.  If you are nice people are going to walk all over you.

            That is certainly the message we receive if we watch the news coverage of our political leaders – and that’s 90% of what the news covers.  Our representatives in Washington and in our state capital and the newscasters who interview them act as though they would be thrown in jail should a kind word pass their lips.  The business world is litigious; we’d rather sue someone than shake their hand.  Protestors would rather take to the streets to demand rather than to discuss.  Children learn that it is a cold, cruel, competitive world our there.  It doesn’t pay to be nice.

            Evidently the same thing was true 2,000 years ago when the Apostle Paul wrote these words to an early Christian church in Galatia, an area in modern day Turkey.  A lot of people in that congregation weren’t acting nice toward each other.  Simply put, we don’t play nice a lot of the time either.  Life can be difficult and competitive, so we must work hard at something as simple as being nice.

            My point is that we CAN be nice and in the long run we will be rewarded for being nice and the world will be a better place.  I would encourage us all to go over the list of qualities that Paul was talking about – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance – and think about how we can practice them in our families, at work, and in all of our relationships.  Maybe pick out one of these qualities per day to practice.  For example, today I’m going to be patient when people at work don’t live up to my expectations.  Or, today I’m going to focus on showing my kids I love them. 

            Just try being nice.  See how it feels.  There’s no law against it. 0

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.


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. 