Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Judgmental to a Fault

Recently, we asked unchurched people about the greatest barrier to going to church. Their most popular response was, "Christians are too judgmental."

Hearing that made me stop and take a good, hard look at myself. What do I think when I see someone living a different lifestyle than mine? What's my reaction to a person covered in tattoos or piercings? It might be my age, but I have to fight my gut reaction when I see someone who stands out from the conventional. I'm forced to remind myself that jewelry, tattoos, clothing, hairstyles, etc. are all a matter of personal taste -- and not everyone needs to dress the way I do.

I wonder if I took a moment to sit down with that person, to look past all the surface stuff, to look him or her deep in the eye, what kind of person would I see? Isn't that what Jesus did? When other Jews saw a leper moving even vaguely in their direction, they hurled stones to drive them away; Jesus, on the other hand, walked up to them and touched them. The Judeans couldn't pass a tax collector sitting in his booth without spitting in disgust; Jesus talked and ate with them. He saw them for what they were, children of men who mattered to God.

Even when Jesus saw people who were clearly disobeying God's will like prostitutes, He acted differently. He didn't come at them in smug superiority. Instead, He came with dignity, with meekness, with kindness. After engaging them as people beloved of the Lord, He demonstrated His love and concern, forgave their sins, and sent them away with the words, "Go in peace, and sin no more."

Surely, Jesus didn't come to make people feel good about themselves and about their sinful, rebellious lifestyles. If that was the case, why did He go to the cross? Why did He give His life as a ransom for sin? Why does the Bible call Him our "Savior," if there was nothing to save us from?

But that is precisely how Jesus wants to be known -- as our merciful Savior, rather than our stern Judge. When a woman was caught in the act of adultery, Jesus said, "'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.' When they all turned and left, He asked, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She replied, 'No one, Lord.' Then Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more'"(John 8:7b-11).

My question is how can I more closely model Jesus Christ in my life? Is it first by recognizing the sinner in me? Is it seeing how incredibly patient, gracious and merciful my God has been to me? Is it recognizing who I am, before I start considering who others are? Or maybe it's recognizing that on the Last Day Jesus will transform every believer to His own perfect image -- forever banishing the sinful nature from us so that we can be the perfect, delightful children God created us to be -- before Adam and Eve's first act of disobedience.

How can we show God's unbound, unlimited grace to others while not neglecting the fact that Jesus came to save us from something, for something?

Please click here and share your suggestions.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Man's Life

In his youth there wasn't much room for God. He was far too busy thinking about this life -- his goals, dreams and aspirations. He was preoccupied with getting ahead. That didn't leave much room for sympathy either. It's pretty hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes if all you can think of is yourself. He brashly did whatever came to mind, without giving any thought to the fallout that would result.

I could be talking about many young men -- myself included. But I'm thinking of Jacob from the Bible. When his older brother Esau was famished from his work in the fields, Jacob saw his chance to steal the birthright: i.e. all the rights and privileges that belonged to the firstborn. For a bowl of stew he tricked Esau out of that precious birthright. (Of course, that shows Esau didn't give much thought to the future, thoughtlessly trading away the honor of carrying on the line that would lead to the promised Savior, Jesus Christ.)

Some time passed, and Jacob and Esau's dad Isaac thought he was going to die. So he sent Esau, his favorite, to hunt and prepare a special meal. Afterwards, he would pass on his blessing to his son. The problem was he didn't realize his wife Rebekah was listening in. She knew God had chosen Jacob, so she told Jacob to dress as Esau and trick his nearly blind father to get the blessing instead. Jacob was a natural-born deceiver, but he was also shrewd too. Sure, he had a lot to gain if he could secure that blessing, but if Isaac saw through the deception he'd earn a curse, instead of a blessing. Mom insisted, however, and Jacob went along.

The problem was neither of them was thinking things through. The trickery might work in that moment, but eventually Esau was going to come in with the meal. Soon enough Isaac would learn he had been duped by Jacob. But mom Rebekah insists, and Jacob gets his father's blessing, with the reward of having to flee for his life when Esau is furious enough to kill him. This ends with Jacob spending 20 years away from his family as a result, during which time his mother dies.

How often do we shipwreck our lives with foolish decisions, rash words, or perverse actions when we're young? God dedicated the majority of the book of Proverbs in the Bible to young men, warning us of the many booby traps, snares, and pitfalls our youthful desires can lead us into. Wise is the young man who trusts God's Word and resists those lusts and passions with God's help.

But the story of Jacob (Genesis 25-49) is the story of God's renewal, even when we have shipwrecked our lives. Jacob was in the middle of his flight from Esau when God appeared to him in a dream. Suddenly, the God he had never given much thought to was important to him. As Jacob became the victim of dishonesty and selfish deception from his Uncle Laban, with whom he spent those 20 years, he learned God was the only One he could rely on. He was Jacob's only help and rescue when 20 years later he returned to his brother Esau.

God created us to love and serve Him as we care for one another. Our sin makes us selfish, faithless and reckless, but God faithfully, persistently, seeks us out, offering forgiveness and complete restoration. Through the perfect obedience of Jesus, our Lord, which included suffering the punishment for all our sins on the cross, we have a new life waiting for us.

What is the story of your life? How did God make His presence real in your life, and how can we learn the joy of God's way of life, without first having to shipwreck our own? Please click here and share your suggestions.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

WORK DAY Number Three Is on the Horizon

Saturday, April 25, is a day that will go down in history; at least it should. For the third time in as many years, Men's NetWork groups across the country will pull out their work gloves, hammers, saws, rakes, paint brushes, and ladders to help make a difference in their neighborhoods and communities. We realize calling it the Men's NetWork WORK DAY is probably not the most original name we could have come up with, but it's short and to the point. Last year 794 men from 47 different Men's NetWork groups in 18 states participated.

WORK DAY has slowly morphed over the last two years -- in a good way. In year one most of groups pretty much reserved their work for their churches and schools. They painted classrooms, cleared gutters, and spruced up flowerbeds. That being said, there were a few adventurous groups that went beyond church property to help shut-in members or single mothers.

In both years quite a few groups in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Georgia traveled to Lutheran and other summer camps in their area to help with maintenance, spring cleaning, and getting the camps ready for the upcoming season.

But last year something else happened: several groups reached out to their communities, beyond church property. A Nebraska group spent the day building houses with Habitat for Humanity. One Illinois group cleaned the tree line along a community bike path. Another Illinois group volunteered at the Special Olympics spring games. A Washington group cleaned up litter in the Adopt-A-Road program. A California grouped supported foster children. One Colorado group did spring cleaning for six Bethesda Lutheran Communities homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Another Colorado group helped a neighbor fill and level out his yard, after an irrigation pipe broke.

If you live far enough north, April 25 may not be a suitable date. That's okay. One of our Canadian groups was forced to wait until summer, but when it finally warmed up they offered to do odd jobs too small for local contractors such as trimming a tree, fixing a doorstep, or replacing a light bulb in a high place difficult to reach. They publicized their availability locally and did the work for free. Many of their neighbors insisted on donating, so they were able to use those donations to sponsor two youth to go to the National Youth Gathering.

Guys in the Men's NetWork enjoy getting together for breakfast, a cookout, or an evening Bible study. But there's nothing quite as satisfying as getting out, working side by side, and doing something great for the community, or for those who can't help themselves. If your group would like to participate this year, click here to see the details.

If you don't belong to a group but would like to see if there is one nearby, click here.

Do you have ideas for projects you'd like to pass along? If so, we'd like to hear from you. Please click here to share your suggestions.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Wise Guys"

Well, it's the New Year, and already we're putting some distance between ourselves and Christmas. We've gone through the 12 days of Christmas, and now we wrap it all up with the arrival of the magi, the wise men who packed up their gold, frankincense and myrrh, and followed the star to Jerusalem.

These somewhat mysterious men provide an amazing contrast to the others who learned of Jesus' birth. While the shepherds were insignificant, disrespected Jews, the magi were prominent, well-respected Gentiles. While it didn't take much knowledge or experience to watch flocks of sheep, it took great education and learning to be the shrewd advisors to kings.

Even the way they learned of the Savior's birth was astonishing. An angel messenger announced the good news to the shepherds, but the magi were informed of Jesus' birth by an astral phenomenon, which is unknown to us. They called it a "star," but back then all sorts of heavenly lights were considered stars. It could have been a comet, some sort of planetary alignment, or a special, supernatural light God placed in the heavens for that particular event. Whatever it was, it announced the birth of the King of the Jews, and led the way for them.

As a child I always loved the song "We Three Kings," but the first line contains two, possibly three, errors. First, they weren't kings, they were advisors to kings. Second, they did not come from the Far East, the Orient. They came from somewhere in the Middle East, probably Persia or Turkey. Third, the Bible doesn't tell us specifically how many there were. We know there was more than one, but there could have been two or 22. The number three is assumed, most likely because of the three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But these men had a remarkable faith. They travelled a significant distance to bring their valuable gifts to honor the special Child. When they arrived in the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, they made their way to visit King Herod. There they learned that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We read, "After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was" (Matthew 2:9). The next verse is my favorite: "When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" (Matthew 2:10).

Matthew chose three Greek words for joy, and combined them together to give us a glimpse into their minds and hearts. For them, the long, difficult trek had been more than worthwhile; they were soon to be in His presence.

I often wonder if they were disappointed by the sight that unfolded before their eyes. The house they entered wasn't the opulent royal palace their monarchs called home. Mary and the young Child weren't dressed in the royal robes they were accustomed to seeing. But they were wise men, after all. Through faith they could see beyond the poor, earthly surroundings and recognize the mighty Son of God.

It reminds me of stepping into church after Christmas when all the decorations are taken down. Everything that looked so festive and ornate now looks common and ordinary. But to the eyes of a wise man, there is reason to rejoice exceedingly with great joy. In the weeks ahead as we prepare for Easter, we will watch Jesus set out on His heroic journey to the cross and the empty tomb.

In the meantime, we are mindful that one day our lives too will end, and like the wise men before us, we will enter that royal palace in heaven, and bow in wonder, praise and adoration before the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Now that Christmas has come and gone, how do you deal with the afterglow of the holidays? You can click here to share your thoughts.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Before You Turn the Calendar

It's just about time to turn the calendar from the old year to the new. But in this moment -- standing on the threshold between 2014 and 2015 -- are you looking backwards or forwards?

In the year now past, the world saw some amazing and horrific moments. And each of our lives had its ups and downs. As we look at the New Year on the immediate horizon, many hopes, goals and dreams await, as do many uncertainties -- not to mention the old familiar problems we're dragging with us into the new.

How many times have you turned the page from December to January? How many calendars have you set aside? I can't get to New Year's Eve without thinking about how many times I've stood at this brink before. I think about the New Years Day celebrations I've seen come and go and, more to the point, how many or few are left? Personally, I find it hard to believe we're already 15 years into the "new" millennium.

Really? Is that possible?

One of the oldest psalms in the Bible was written by Moses. He was talking about just this topic, "The years of our life are 70, or even by reason of strength 80; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10).

Also, note how the fleeting nature of our life is brought out so clearly in the fifth stanza of the hymn, "O God, our Help in Ages Past":

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day."

As we age, New Year's Eve can be a depressing thing, and for some it's unsettling. But Moses points us to God's immortality. "Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting You are God" (Psalm 90:1-2).

Each new year is a reminder how temporary this earthly life is, but God reminds us He has always been here, is here now, and will be here forever. Jesus says just that in Revelation 1:8, "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.'"

Because of Jesus' perfect life, innocent suffering and death, and glorious resurrection, we can have peace and joy as we stand at the beginning of another New Year. Though the coming year is -- to be sure -- filled with all kinds of unknowns, one thing is perfectly certain. Our God will be right here with us, bigger than any of our problems. No matter what we face, He offers His forgiveness, restoration, protection and rest. And after our last day, through Jesus Christ He promises us everlasting life. So let us remember as the New Year rings in, it's not a time to be gripped by fear, but a time to embrace God's eternal, unchanging promise in Jesus Christ our Savior.

Happy New Year to each and every one of you!

May the year ahead be a time of excellence and joy as you remember and honor the Father of all time, the Son He sent to save us, and the Holy Spirit who establishes and keeps us in that faith.

How do you plan on going boldly through the coming year? Do you have any pointers for those who get hung up on the changing of the calendar or who want to make a fresh start in 2015?

If so, you can click here and let us know.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Warrior Babe

What do you see when you look at the Christ Child in Bethlehem's manger: a tiny, vulnerable, helpless baby? Last weekend the children's choir at my church sang, "This Little Babe" by Benjamin Britten. It gave me an entirely different perspective on that Baby in a manger.

1. This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this week unarmed wise
the gates of hell He will surprise.

2. With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior's steed.

3. His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib His trench, haystalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His muster makes.
And thus as sure His foe to wound,
The angels' trumps alarum(1) sound.

4. My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that He hath pight(2).
Within His crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will by thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

1. "alarum" - Old English for "alarm"
2. "pight" - Old English for "pitched"

Britten set the music to the last four stanzas of Robert Southwell's poem "New Heaven, New War." The "New Heaven" part calls on the angels to come to earth to celebrate the new dwelling place of their God and King. Britten's "This Little Babe" is the "New War" half of the poem. (Most guys probably don't read too much poetry, but this one is worthy of consideration.) You can check it out by clicking here!

That's one of the most intriguing things about Christmas. Who would ever expect God to become a vulnerable, helpless human baby, so He can take the battle to Satan? We'd more likely picture an epic Hollywood production with the glorious Son of God leading His angel armies in battle, blasting the evil vermin to smithereens, as their withered forms come crashing to the ground. But God's ways are not our ways. All our human eyes see is a tiny human baby. But through the eyes of faith we can see Southwell's Warrior Babe.

But the same thing applies to Jesus' crucifixion struggle with Satan. Who would expect it to occur at a place of execution? On Good Friday Jesus carries a great beam of wood to that decisive battle, but who would expect Him to permit Himself to be nailed to it? But it is precisely through that humility that He crushes the serpent's head. In His suffering and death He pays the price for human sin, setting us forever free from sin, death and hell.

That's the true wonder of Christmas: God's Son became one of us, arriving as He did, a small, vulnerable human to win salvation for each and every one.

Merry Christmas!

As we celebrate and revere God's Son of salvation this Christmas, we are renewed as we press on in faith in a tumultuous and uncertain world.

What does His appearance mean to you?

We'd be interested in hearing your views. You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Man's Man

Many people have a bucket list of things they want to do before they die. I have a list for after I die. Mainly, it involves the people I want to see when the Lord takes me home.

For one, I'm looking forward to catching up with my loved ones whom Jesus has brought home. It will be amazing to see Mom and Dad in glory, especially when my last memory of each is marred by the ravages of their cancers.

Next, I'd like to spend some time gazing at the angels in heaven. Apart from the Baby of Bethlehem Himself, nothing fascinates me more about Christmas than the angel hosts proclaiming His birth to shepherds and glorifying God in chorus.

Third, I have a list of people from the Bible I'm eager to meet: Mary and Joseph, to be sure, along with the shepherds and wise men. But one man who has always intrigued me is John the Baptist. I'm eager to look him in the eye and thank him for the impact he's made on me.

To me, John was a man's man. First, he lived out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. Then he took on the tough job of preparing stubborn, self-righteous people for a Savior they saw no need for. This included challenging proud Jewish religious leaders like King Herod, whom he called out for taking his brother's wife as his own, even though he risked imprisonment and execution to do so.

It was probably inevitable that such a strong man of God would be a magnet for young men moved by the Spirit to faith. A group of disciples attached themselves to John, and were so jealous for his sake that they got upset when Jesus began drawing the crowds away from their teacher.

It's John's humble reaction then that I admired most. He likened Jesus to a groom and himself to that groom's best man. "The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease" (see John 3:29-30). John knew Jesus was his God and Savior, and He deserved all the attention. That's what truly great men of God always do, lead people to the only One who can save them: Jesus Christ, God's Son, our Savior.

But this wasn't the first time John rejoiced greatly in the presence of his Lord and Savior. Mary had just been visited by the angel Gabriel, and Jesus had recently been miraculously conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was beginning to grow in her womb. She rushed off to visit John's mother Elizabeth and his father Zechariah. John was still unborn at the time, six months along in his mother's womb. But the moment Mary greeted Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit filled him, and he leaped with great joy in the presence of the Son of God, his Lord.

We can all know that same thrill and great rejoicing this Christmas as the Holy Spirit of God brings us again to gaze upon the Christ Child in Bethlehem's manger.

Actually, that makes me want to redo my bucket list for heaven. Before I talk to John the Baptist, admire the beauty of the angels, or see my parents, I want to feel that wondrous awe of gazing upon the beauty, glory and majesty of our Holy God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What's on your bucket list? You can tell us by clicking here!