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The self-centeredness of the church should not be a surprise to those of us who have grown up in the church.  But it seems, no matter how hard we try, we still want the focus on ourselves and our wants, not the needs of those outside the church.  This is particularly evident when we talk about money in the church.

If a program benefits those outside the church, more than in the church, there is a sense we are cheating our people.  When we give time, talent and treasure to those missions that can change the lives of folks outside our congregation in a powerful way, we question why do we do this mission?

Then there is the issue of it is easier to send money and aid to places far away, than to our neighbors across town.  This one baffles me at times, we complain that we are not taking care of our own and then get upset that help goes to our neighbors who are in the same town, but not right next door.

Maybe it is that we are afraid of those who live on the other side of the tracks.  Every city and town has those areas, North St. Paul, South Chicago, East L.A., North or South Omaha.  These folks are our neighbors, but they frighten us more than those who live in African, Asia or the Middle East.  Sometimes it is about color or economics, culture or history.  Whatever the rationale for these fears, it keeps us from doing the mission we have been called to do by God’s Word as well as the example of Jesus Christ.

When churches are concerned about their budget and giving, they often times tend to go into siege mentality.  They pull into themselves and turn inward in their vision. Mission beyond the doors of a congregation is seen as a waste of money.

Martin Luther describes sin as turning in upon ourselves, looking at only our wants and needs and not those of our neighbors. We feel we must defend what we have, restrict how we use our resources and sometimes this even extends into who gets to use the church building.

Everything we have comes from God.  The church is God’s House, not our house, we get to call it home, but so does anyone else who wants to be there as a follower of Jesus. We gather in the church building so that we can leave the church building and proclaim the love of Christ in word and deed.  

We don’t have to go far to do this, but we do have to go far enough.  Jesus says; “What good does it benefit a person that we take care of only those we know or who we related to us, even non-Christians do that.”   We are called to serve God by going to the stranger who is our neighbor.  Whether they live in North or South Omaha, in a Native American Reservation or on the street, we cannot let fear impede us from doing the mission.   Even if that mission doesn’t seem to benefit us at all. But God knows, that is enough.  

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There are so many superhero movies out there, a person can get sick of them.  I am not one of those people.  The other day one of my grandkids asked; “Do Christians have a super-power?  She wanted to know now, not “I will get back to you!” You know pastors are suppose too have all the answers.  I was quiet for a bit thinking and then she asked. “Don’t you know Papa?”

“Why yes I do.”   I said, reaching back to what a friend of mine once told me.  “Forgiveness!   That is our super-power and we all have it!” My grandchild looked at me with disappointment in her eyes; “I thought it was going to be something powerful. Forgiveness is easy!”  She said.

Now the pastor mode kicked in and I had a big response.   No, I thought, she wants an answer she can relate too, not a theological illustration.  “Have you ever done something wrong, I mean really something that made your mom and dad mad at you?”  She thought for a moment; “Well yes, I hit my brother with a toy one time and he really cried and mom was really mad.” “Did she forgive you?” I asked.  “Yes.”  She admitted.  “How did that make you feel when she wasn’t mad at you anymore?”  “Better.”  She said in a bit of a whisper.  

I knew she had gotten the point, but I pushed a little. “Did your brother forgive you? “Yes, but it took a while.  It helped when the bump on his head got smaller!” She replied.  “If forgiveness makes you feel better doesn’t that mean it has power?”

“I guess so.”   She said.  “It must have been hard for your brother to forgive you after you knocked him on the head.” I said.  “So forgiveness makes you feel better and when something really hurts you, it is harder to forgive.”  In the great insight of a nine year old, she answered; “This is going to be in a sermon isn’t it, Papa?”  “Maybe.  Does it make sense?  “Yes, but I would rather be able to fly or be super strong.”

Yes, there are days when I would like those super-powers as well.In truth though, we might just possess the greatest super-power of all and we don’t even realize it.Maybe we should use it more and find out how really powerful it can be!

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On Thursday, July the 4th, we will celebrate our nation’s birthday.  There will be fireworks and food, beverages of all kinds, friends and family, a national party as it were.  But like any good party, it takes lots of work to make it happen.  I am not talking about the 4th of July festivities, I am talking about what it took to make our nation.

I believe we sometimes let it slide that there are still men and women who are not here having a beer and burger.   Because they are deployed someplace other than the United States.  I don’t mean to rain on a parade, but the people who are not here; those serving and those who died serving should be included on the national party guest list.

I am very glad that we can celebrate our freedom, but how we use it and remember how we got here needs to be addressed.  Here are some suggestions to make the party celebrations that much more special:

1.   You should know what happened on July 4th 1776.

2.   If you are illegible to vote, you should have done so.

3.   If you know someone who served in the armed forces or are doing so currently, you should thank them for their service.

4.   At least once in your adult life you should go to a graveside service with full military honors. (Trust me you will be moved!)

5.  If you have avoided American history classes because they don’t seem worthwhile, maybe you should think again.

6.   If you were born here and have no fears about being deported, you should thank God and your parents.

7.   If you wear the American flag as clothing, you might be forgetting what it stands for.

8.   If you think the national anthem just gets in the way of the start of a game, maybe you should remember that this is how the party got started. 

9.    If you have never done anything to make your community a better place, maybe you should take the time to do so, before you attend the next 4th of July celebration.

Finally if you think that the 4th of July is only about a day off from work, a time for drinking, eating, fireworks and sunburns, well you are still invited to the party.  The reason why all of us are, is because of the work and sacrifice that made this national day of celebration possible.

There is nothing better than a good party and it is particularly special when you know what it takes to build a nation that we can celebrate.  Have a Blessed and safe 4th of July!

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Saint Paul's Lutheran Church by Paul Coen - 1M ago

Being a Dad is both a gift and a challenge.  I have learned over the years that you do not try and compare mom vs. dad, only in that you both are parents.  However, you are very important to the raising of a child, let alone more than one.

The first and most important task of being a dad is that you love mom!  Yes, that’s right, you love mom with all you got, first because she is your partner, and second because, well, she is the mother to the children you share.

The second most important task of being a dad is that you don’t try and be like mom.  Your children probably already have a mom, you do not need to be her.  That does not mean that you don’t do the same things mom does, in fact you better get right in there big and little messes and all!

The third most important task, and this sometimes gets moved up, by way of need, is you are the dad, the father, the man who is husband, parent, guardian, shepherd, role model, teacher, co-conspirator with mom, griller of meats (optional) chauffer of children (non-optional) and of course, co-worker in the development of home and family.  By the way, this is not an all-inclusive list, but you get the point.

Here is the kicker, you will be needed at times you least expect. You will not have a clue if you can handled it, but you will take it on. You might even fail, but you will try to do the best you can. You will do so with love, even if you don’t feel all that lovingly about it.  Why, because you are the dad.

When Jesus was in the greatest of pain and agony, he calls out to his papa, his father, his dad.  Sometimes that is absolutely the hardest thing about fatherhood you see. To watch a child hurting, sick, or maybe even dying and you can’t do a thing.   All you can do is hold the hand of your child.  You try to hold back the tears until you leave the room or they fall asleep.  Then you pray to God that you would take their place.  You are that guy, you are the dad, the father who loves his children with his whole heart.  Blessed Father’s Day and Thank you to all dads!!!!   

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I am half way through my sabbatical and the time is moving along way too fast.  I have traveled, written, read, and relaxed.  One of the things that has started to set up in my mind these days is “paying attention”.  Yes, I pay attention when I drive, talk with folks, or am working with power tools.  I am not talking about that kind of attention, but more about how God is speaking to us and showing us things all the time about his love and plan for this world and our lives.

Just taking in the beauty of God’s creation, whether on the North Shore of Lake Superior, the beauty of the Mississippi River Valley when it is not flooded, the uniqueness of the Wisconsin Dells, or the rolling hills of Iowa or Nebraska along the Platte River (also when it is not flooding).  These are just one aspect of God showing us God’s plan for his creation.  But beside the geography, there are the people.  God is speaking in quite remarkable ways through people, both in their words and their deeds.

Hearing people’s stories, seeing how they treat one another, even the stranger.  God shows his love through all of us, if we pay attention.  This is people watching and being a tourist, seeing God’s creation, the land, the creatures, and the people in ways that maybe we have not thought of before.

I know human beings can be just as contrary as the geography we live in.  Seeing firsthand how the floods of this Spring continue to run down from the northern plains to the Mississippi delta.  Anger, frustration, loss, and grief make us not very pleasant to be with. But then I see the neighbors, who in truth are not the folks next door or even in the same town, coming to help those who have been so damaged by unforgiving weather.  

I hear the stories of hopelessness and hopefulness, I see the folks at picnic tables sharing with strangers a meal between working on cleaning out a house totaled by water.  I watch as children play together and their parents glad that they can, despite a world where violence comes to schools, malls and places of worship for no reason other than hate.  Despite the struggle, there is still joy, because God’s love is still pouring into people’s hearts through the actions of simple clay vessels of God’s people.

Sabbaticals are supposed to be a time of rest, relaxation and renewal.  The first two are about down time, the third piece is about learning, learning to pay attention to what God is doing.  I am only half way through, but so many stories do I have to share.

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Americans are not very good at remembering their history. Sorry to say this, but it is true. How quickly they forget really does apply to us as a country and a society.  For someone who really does love history, this makes me very sad.  So should we just accept this reality or try and change it?  A little of both!

Memorial Day was originally created to remember those who were killed in the Civil War.  Today it includes all who have died in service to our country since then.  However, now we basically include all who we love who have passed away.  Not only those who served, but parents, siblings, and those we hold near and dear who are no longer with us.  This is good!

But we should not forget all those who have given the great sacrifice of life for us, so that we may be free to celebrate this holiday.   Maybe after we have remembered those we know and love who have passed away that we take some time to remember history.  Our history, the history that our parents and grandparents lived through.  

Last year we remembered the 100thanniversary of the end of World War I, This June we will remember the 75thanniversary of D-Day during World War II. We might even remember some of the battles that took place 155 years ago here in the United States during the Civil War. But what of those other wars and places that took the lives of men and women way too young to have them end?

Here is just some of the wars, conflicts, and places that have happened that citizens of our country made the ultimate sacrifice: Spanish American War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Panama, Grenada, Beirut, Iraq 1 & 2, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, China Boxer Rebellion, Somalia, Bosnia, Sudan, (Wars against Native American Tribes and nations 20 plus of these).  Well you get the picture.

Its seems our history is filled with wars and violence. Some of these wars were necessary, and others not so much.  No matter the reason for the wars, young men and women died on our behalf.  We should not forget them or the terrible price of war. 

On this Memorial Day, we should remember those we love who have gone before us.  We should also remember those who have served and died on our behalf, not only with flags at graves or in front of houses of worship, but by remembering the history of the time they lived and died.  Hold dear the memory of loved ones and those loved ones throughout our history who gave so much. 

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Getting ready for a trip is both exciting and a bit nerve wracking.  What should I bring to wear?  What is the weather going to be like?  Did I pack enough for what I am going to do?  Who brought the phone charger?  Well you get the point.

The issue for the trip is that we have destination. We basically know where we are going. In our lives, in the nation, in the world, the journey of living is not a given destination.  In fact, the path we seem to be on is either confusing or a pathway to destruction.

When it comes to this world, I take heart that wherever we go, God is there!  When it comes to what happens at the end of time, or the end of my time, God made a promise that God will keep.  Salvation is not my question, but how I live in the knowledge of where God has promise to take me.  How do I live out this journey, this trip of life?

Honestly, I really am not sure if I have all the things I need, but God tells me not to worry. God will provide.  God says don’t worry about the destination, I will lead you. Don’t worry about who you are going with, you will have plenty of company.  Maybe not the fellow travelers that you would pick says God, but the ones who you will need and who will need you!

I guess the destination is the goal, but how we get there, what we experience along the way and who we go with is also part of God’s plan for this life, this world, this nation.  Hold on, it is going to be quite the ride. 

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Moses and God’s Chosen people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  Jesus was in the wilderness of 40 days.  I am wondering how long the Church will have to be in the wilderness before it becomes what God is ultimately calling us to be.

The reason I wonder about this is how we the institutional church is perceived by society.  Right now, we are seen by many as a political group or social group, or a political group with a social agenda.  Whatever way this comes out, we are seen by a large number of Americans as the followers of Christ.  And in these tribal times we play into one of the two models and Jesus is not in either of them.

Jesus calls us: “To love one another as he has loved us.” Jesus shows us how to serve in the world, and teaches us how to forgive, how to share, and how to be light bearers in a darkened world.  Right now, we are seen as loving only those like us, serving others when it is convenient, judging rather than forgiving, and blowing out the candles of those trying to be light bearers.

I do not believe this is who we are as the church, but I do believe there is a fair amount of evidence in our past, and currently, that would lead people to believe us to be so seen.  Because the political atmosphere in this nation is getting more and more toxic, I am afraid that some churches will choose sides.  I am concerned that we will not be seen as followers of Christ, but followers of an ideology or political movement.  

I know I am not alone in this observation and I know that some will be angry that I have even addressed this issue.  But if we are going to be what Christ wants us to be; (His mission in the world), we will have to make some major changes in how we behave as the church.  By the way, this is not only a church leadership issue, but a whole congregation and denomination issue.

I believe we will be wandering in the wilderness a long time as institutions of faith, if we do not change our goal of measuring success and membership. Faith is not about metrics (bucks and people), it is about a life lived in Christ. I am not calling for perfection here, but rather authenticity. If we screw up as an institution or individual, fess-up, don’t cover-up. If we are a faith community of exclusion, we will need to open the doors of inclusion.   

Honestly I believe we as a church are going to be in the wilderness for some time.  Not hiding, but learning and gaining strength as we struggle to persevere in this wilderness world. We are no longer a dominant social or political institution in this country.  Sure we have a voice, not so sure people want to hear it.  We will need to change, we will need to see ourselves in a new way and love our neighbor as Jesus has loved us!

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I use to be very opposed to any kind of security that involves guns in church.  Honestly I still am not really in favor of having armed security in the church building. Unfortunately, the world is changing and violence against people of faith, whether they are Jews, Muslims, or Christians has been on the rise in some very scary ways.  

As the pastor of this congregation it is my responsibility to make sure being in church is a safe place to be and not just from those who carry guns.  So I am really torn and yet I believe I know what I will encourage our congregational leaders to do.

This all being said what has caused the increase in hate crimes?  Why are groups or individuals attacking people of faith in their places of worship? Are we just easy targets?  Is it our theology, the color of our skin, how we understand the Bible or is there something more?  

When people are afraid, and by the way change in folk’s lives is one of the great fears, they react sometimes in very inhuman ways. In fact, it is the reptilian part of our brain that gives us the flight or fight reaction to threats, or at least perceived threats.  People do some very strange things when they are afraid.  Examples of this are that a drowning person will sometimes try to drown their rescuer, a person who feels so threaten will turn on those close to them, lashing out at the nearest target of opportunity.

Fear and how we react to fear seems to me to be the one common dominator in all this violence toward people of faith.  The people who encourage this fear are usually the extremist in religion, culture, or politics.  Also, it seems human nature to blame somebody for things they personally have no control over.  We search for a scapegoat, somebody to blame, the other that we can lay responsibility at the feet of for our troubles.

Those who would play on these fears, the people and groups who encourage hatred of others, have contributed greatly to the violence against communities of faith throughout the world.  This does not take away the responsibility and guilt from those who do horrible violence to Christians, Muslims, Jews Hindus, Sikhs, and other faith traditions.  And yes, we are easy targets as we gather to worship God.

I believe we cannot turn houses of worship into fortresses, this is not who we are.  I would do anything humanly possible to protect my children and my grandchildren from violence.  I am not alone in this feeling, but what we do to protect those we love and are loved by God, now there-in lies the challenge. 

One of my grandchildren told me; “I don’t know how I would feel if I walked into church and saw a person with a gun guarding the church.  But I know it wouldn’t feel right!”   I agreed with her, but I still want those I love safe and I believe God does too!

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This is the question asked by many following Holy Week and Easter services.  Like the disciples, many pastors and staff in a variety of denominations and congregations go and hide for a couple of days just to recover.  But the question is a valid one; “Where do we go from here?” How can we compare to the great celebration of Easter Sunday?  It would seem that all the Sundays that following that greatest of Holy Days would pale in comparison.  You would be right.

However we do need to think about what it is that we do next.  Actually, the season of Easter on the church calendar lasts for seven weeks.  This year we go right into post Memorial Day summer. That means school is out, sports kick in, vacation and summer jobs are the themes for the next three months. How do we plan, how do we compete, and what do we do next?

It reminds me when we took our first child home from the hospital.  After all the excitement and joy, we are now responsible for this little human being. Kind of scary and a bit uncertain. But the needs of the child take over and our lives become patterned after the needs of this child, at least for the next 18 years or so.  Although you never stop worrying about the well-being of your children, no matter how old they are.

So what does this have do with the post Easter Sunday plan for life?  Absolutely everything!  To know that our lives are now secure in God’s promises of commitment, compassion, and grace.  No longer need we worry about the ultimate outcome of our lives, God has a plan and it was outlined for us in Jesus’ Life, Death, and Resurrection.  Easter morning is not the turning point, but the guiding point out into the world. We can live in confidence with a God who does not condemn us, but cherishes us.  We can be bold in our loving of others, extravagant in our caring, and not shamed in our forgiving of others and ourselves.

This is the plan for our lives and for the life of the church.  This time post Easter is not a let down, but a powering up.  Instead of looking back at what was, we can look forward to what is and what will be!   Where do we go from here?  In the words of Buzz Lightyear - “To infinity and beyond!”  Let the adventure begin!

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