Clearing the Clutter

I have a confession to make: I can be a bit of a slob. I still remember, in 2nd or 3rd grade, receiving a dreaded U (for Unsatisfactory) on my report card for “work area.” My desk, all through grade school, was a jumble of books and papers. For the most part, I could find what I needed, but anyone else who dared look through the desk might never be seen again.

Now, nearly thirty years later, not much has changed. I’ve written in the past about how messy my work desk can get, and I admit it’s still a problem. Usually, it goes in streaks: stuff slowly builds up until it gets so messy I finally have to take action. Following a period of relative cleanliness, the stuff begins to accumulate again.

Here’s a shot of my office just this morning.

Now, this isn’t horrible, and it’s been way worse before, but… well, it’s not good enough. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe that, for me, a cluttered desk does equal a cluttered mind. When there’s stuff everywhere I find myself having to spend a lot of mental energy to see past all the unnecessary things to get a good look at what I’m actually working on.

Why do I do this? I think it’s based on a lie I tell myself. I’ll come to my office from a meeting or from teaching a class, I’ll be carrying a pile of books and papers, and I’ll think, I don’t have time to put these away right now. Or I think I need to immediately start working on the next thing or immediately set all that stuff down to leave the building. But that’s a lie. I do usually have a few minutes when I could put things away and make sure things are clean. But the lazy lie I’ve been telling myself stops me from doing that.

So, after I took the above picture, I did get my workspace tidied a bit (though there’s still work to do.) But more importantly, I’ve made the decision to make the effort, going forward, to “clear the clutter” every day. Hopefully seeing some of the office clutter disappear will help with the “mind clutter” that tends to grow also. 

I think it will.

Your Light Has Come!

feast-of-the-epiphany

We easily take light for granted1. Light does not seem extraordinary. We’re not amazed at the fact that we can simply flip a switch and flood a room with light. We expect every morning that the sun will rise, that we can put on some sunglasses if it’s too bright or turn on a lamp if it’s too dim. We have computers and e-readers and smartphones that have their own lights built right in; their screens light up whatever we need to see at the time.

But friends, whether we realize it or not, light is precious. Light is a miracle. Light is a gift from God.

A good example of this is a form of light that is fading with new technologies, but is still quite famous around here: the lighthouse. Lighthouses remind us of times when lights aren’t just modern conviences; they can save your life. Whether they’re marking the entrance to a port or warning against dangerous reefs or rocks, lighthouses shine a clear signal to boats and ships on the dark water.

It’s easy to forget, but this huge lake just a few feet from us here can actually be quite dangerous. Dozens of ships have sunk in Lake Michigan, mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some famously even sunk very near to us in Two Rivers. It makes you see how important lighthouses were. In a dangerous, dark place, like on the water at night, you need a clear signal, you need something shining out to show you where you need to go.

And it’s not surprising that a lighthouse could be a symbol for what God does for us. It’s right there in our school building up on 45th Street. On a high wall in the commons there, carved on a relief is a picture of a lighthouse with the words, The LORD is my light and my salvation. (Ps. 27:1)

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Why do we need God to give us light? Because we live in a dark world. There is all around us, sin inside of us, and it all wants to pull us under. As Christmas and its celebrations fade away, most of us will be going back “to the real world” soon. School will be starting again. Jobs will be back in full swing if they weren’t already. And maybe it’s the cold temperatures or the early darkness that still comes every day, but it’s easy to feel down. It’s easy to feel depressed this time of year. It’s easy to start to think that God doesn’t feel so great. It doesn’t seem like he’s really there for me. It’s easy to sink into despair.

But your light has come! Jesus’ birth guarantees that God has not abandoned his creation; he has not left us alone, sinking in the dark. His death guarantees us that w will live. He has rescued us, pulled us out from drowning in our own sins, and it is he who will bring us home.

So as this Christmas season ends, remember that we have light. Not necessarily a light outside or a light in a lighthouse. We have light from God. We have the light of his presence, his forgiveness, and his salvation forever. Your light has come! Continue reading

Why I Write

Why am I writing this? That’s a thought that pops into my mind occasionally. It’s not because I have all this extra time I don’t know what to do with; I don’t wake up from my afternoon nap and meander to the keyboard for fun. As a pastor, my to-do list outstretches any hope of completion every day. So why add something else to it — something else I don’t have to do?

I answered this question, in part, on my very first post on this blog over four years ago. In a lot of ways, the answer hasn’t changed.

First of all, I enjoy writing. I like putting words together. Fortunately, my job as a pastor gives me lots of opportunities to do this, as I’m often writing sermons, devotions, newsletter articles, and whatever else shows up. My job requires a lot in the area of communication. Writing is a simple act of communicating. So I want to get better at it. I want to practice it in a setting that isn’t dictated by the situation, by what I have to do to complete the task at hand. I enjoy the opportunity to write and let the words flow.

Side note: I have a memory of the time when writing came the easiest it ever has for me. It was in college. I was taking a lot of Spanish classes, including one in Spanish composition. It wasn’t easy to be assigned writing tasks in a language I was learning. Every sentence, every paragraph, was effort. It never came easy. 

But then, that same semester, I occasionally had to write a paper in English. It was so simple! The words just poured out of my fingers. I filled pages effortlessly; all I had to do was think it and it was there. 

I guess what I’m saying is that I keep writing now to recapture some of that feeling. I keep writing so that all my writing and communication will be better and more fluid.

So I’m not trying to write on hot topics, or something I think will get me shares on Facebook. I’m writing for myself. I’m stretching and working the writing-muscle, eager to watch my strength increase as I go. I hope it’s working!

Oh, and by the way, if your question is Why am I reading this? Sorry. I can’t help you there.

A Year of Dog

I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions. It’s not that I think they’re bad, or that some people can’t make good use of them. I do think, though, that they can be a source of discouragement. Well, I guess I’ve failed again this year by not keeping my resolution. Who needs that guilt? In a similar way, these resolutions can actually serve as an excuse to not continue doing something. If I’d made a resolution to work out every day in the new year, I’m actually less likely to keep working out after I miss a week than I would’ve been if I hadn’t made the resolution. I already failed in my resolution, and since starting over would remind me of my failure, I’ll just stop working out altogether. No.

Despite this, the new year is still a great time for starting something new or reminding yourself about a goal you’ve set. For me, this usually involves my own personal devotions and Bible reading. I’ve written about this before (here and here and here), but I like to have a slightly different way each year of reading through the Bible and studying it.

This year, I’m following a Bible reading plan that I’ve mentioned before (in one of the links above), but I’ve also decided to add a new element to my study: reading through the Dogmatics notes from my time at Seminary

Dogmatics — or “Dog” as we called it in school — is the study of Christian doctrine or teaching. It’s basically an orderly presentation of the all the teachings of the Bible, laid out with passages and other supporting writings about each topic. I had electronic notes from my time at seminary (I graduated 8 years ago), but looking through an old Word document was kind of cumbersome, and tough to keep track of where I had left off.

That’s why I was excited to discover that I could read the notes using the Logos Bible Software that I already own. (If you know Logos, check this out!) My seminary’s website, I noticed a couple of weeks ago, offers files that can be used to add my dog notes to my Logos library. You can check it out here.

So now, I can read through my notes right in the same program I use for other Bible work. Here’s a screenshot of it, with the notes being on the left side of the screen.

Once I did this, I easily set up a reading plan in Logos that gives me a schedule to read through these notes through the course of one year. Nice!

It’s all working great so far, now I just need to keep it up for another 360 days or so!

The Gift Is Yours!

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We are on the doorstep of Christmas1. The day is almost here. Out of all the Christmas gifts in your life this year, are you more likely to be the giver of the gift, or the recipient of the gift?

You really need both parts to have a gift. In the next few days there will be a lot of gifts given and a lot of gifts received. There are classroom parties in school, work parties with gift exchanges, in addition to all the family get-togethers and dinners and opportunities to open presents and enjoy giving and receiving gifts with ones we love.

But which one is better? Giving a gift or receiving a gift? Jesus himself, you might remember, gave us an answer to that question. It’s recorded for us in the book of Acts: The Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35) So, there you have it, if Jesus himself has weighed in on the question, it’s been answered.

But wait a minute. I’m not trying to disagree with Jesus in any way, but that quote where Jesus said it’s more blessed to give than to receive is in the context of helping the needy. It’s the Apostle Paul talking about how we need to help and give to people less fortunate than us.

The gifts I really want to talk to you about today are a bit different. We’re not focusing today on gifts between people, but gifts between human beings and God himself. And for those gifts, I would argue that it’s better to be the one receiving the gifts. Sure, we give gifts to God. We use time, talents, and offerings to serve him. But God doesn’t really need our gifts. He’s not up in heaven upset that he missed out on an extra ten bucks in offerings that someone decided not to give. No, the gifts we give to God are really only a small response to his gifts to us.

And especially as we look at Christmas, and the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we don’t focus on what we’re doing for God; we focus on what he has done for us in his Son. This Christmas — really for all time — the most important gift is the gift that God gives. And all of us get to celebrate that. Because the gift it yours. Continue reading

Press On

I wish I could remember where I heard the following quote. I heard it a week or two ago and it returned like a boomerang to my mind today.

Being an adult means being tired but continuing to do what you need to do anyway.

I might have some of the wording wrong there — but you get the idea. I know sometimes I just feel *tired* all the time, and I frankly don’t *feel* much like doing what I know I need to do. But, because I’m an adult, I do it anyway.

This thought occurred to me so forcefully today because I actually worked out this morning. Now, that’s not so impressive; lots of people work out, all the time. But me? Not so much. It’s never been my favorite thing. Actually, that’s a towering understatement: I hate working out. Ok, maybe not *hate*, but I do not like it. 

But there I was this morning. Right when I got up, I did my excercise. Not because I *felt* like it, but because it was the right thing for me to do.

This reminds me of the way authors in the Bible refer to living out our faith. Paul says it well in Philippians:

**I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.** Philippians 3:14 

We press on in our faith, living out that faith in our thoughts, words, and actions, not because we always feel like it. As a sinner we often won’t. We don’t live out our faith in order to save ourselves: our works could never do that. In fact, even trying to save ourselves with our own works goes against the very heart of the gospel itself. No, we press on because Christ Jesus has called us heavenward. He has already taken care of it all. Now, out of thanks, out of love for him, with his power worked by the Holy Spirit, we press on.

I pray that I can continue my adulthood — both physically and spiritually. I pray you can, too.

Water Droplet

It’s almost December, and we live in Wisconsin1. I think everyone here knows what that means: it’s cold outside. It’s either snowing or it will be snowing soon. It’s the time of year when we get used to warming up the car for a few minutes before actually riding in it. We’re so used to this cold at this time of year that yesterday’s 40 degrees felt like a heat wave. There was actually that split second of time outside where I had the thought: Do I even need a coat?

As warm as it was yesterday, though, there’s something I definitely would not have done: go swimming in an outdoor pool. It was too cold. But just a little over a week ago, I did get to swim in an outdoor pool. I was thankful then to be able to spend a few days in Florida with my family, so it was warm enough for the pool to be an option.

But even though it was warmer in Florida, even though I got to swim in a pool there, there were still times even there when I felt cold. Walking outside to the swimming pool? No problem. Getting into the water of a heated pool? Felt great. But when I would come out of the water, even just a little bit, suddenly it was freezing. I had to go back into the water for that coldness to go away. It was just cold enough outside, with just enough of a breeze, to make wet skin feel freezing.

So as I spent time at the pool with my family, I went back and forth between two extremes. Every inch of me shuddered when I had to be out of the water, but I got a warm comforting blanket of water when I went back in. So when I was out of that water and cold, one thought kept going off like an alarm in my head: Get back in the water! And when I did, all was well.

When you think about it, the water was really responsible for both extremes. It was the water on my skin that made me feel cold in the breeze, but it was the water all around me that warmed me up afterward.

Today in our text from 1 Peter, we also see water doing double duty. In fact, we see the connection of water and the coming of Jesus in Advent. Water reminds us how Jesus is coming to do two opposite things. He’s coming to save, and he’s coming to destroy. Which one do we want to be a part of? To save us, right? We eagerly wait for Jesus to come and save us at the end of the world. But actually, for right now, we need a little of both. In this sinful world, we need Jesus every day to both save and destroy us. For that to happen, we need to get back in the water. That might sound confusing now, but let me explain. Continue reading

Get Back in the Water!

Crushed

I wish it weren’t so easy to be crushed. Bugs, they should be easy to crush. But we’re supposed to be stronger than that. We’re tough. We’re like steel. We should be able to brush things off and keep going. If someone you love dies, fine. Be crushed then. If your house burns down you’ve earned the right to be crushed. Otherwise, it just means you’re weak. It just means you can’t cut it.

Then I guess you can call me weak. Maybe I can’t cut it. Because it seems like it doesn’t take a heck of a lot to crush me. Oh, I probably wouldn’t have used that word, crushed. Other words came to my mind today: frustrated, anxious, angry. And it didn’t even take much.

My watch broke. Well, the clasp that holds my watch onto my wrist broke. Shouldn’t have been a big deal. It can be fixed. But it’s frustrating. It’s angering. Then when the kids forget to bring what they need to school and my schedule gets tighter and tighter and it seems like everything is happening outside my control no matter what I do… Then the word fits nicely. Crushed

But then, funny enough, God spoke to me. He did. He didn’t whisper his voice into my ear or thunder a shout from the clouds. He spoke to me in words that were written long ago and printed in a Bible. He spoke to me with an ordinary psalm. But he spoke what I needed.

**The Lord is near the brokenhearted; He saves those crushed in spirit.**

Psalm 34:18

God reminded me: “I am near you. I have saved you.” It doesn’t matter if it was something big or something ridiculously puny that crushed me. God is still there. He’s already saved me. Jesus lived, died, and rose for me. He’s made me his own. He’s washed my sins away and booked my eternal home forever.

So as I start this day, I realize: I’m not really crushed. I’m not brokenhearted. I live in a sinful world and the sins I deal with most are my own. But God has already taken care of them. He’s with me, and he’s not going anywhere.

May he be with you today, too.

The Verdict Is In

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When the judge came back into the room, the whole crowd got quiet1. Not just quiet, they became silent. Everyone could hear their own breathing and their own beating heart, which was beating faster now. The accusations had been shocking, the trial had brought out all the evidence, and now, finally, the verdict was in.

There were only two ways it could go. Either the defendant would be found guilty and would face punishment, or he’d be found not guilty and be free to go. The first verdict meant the end; it meant death. The second verdict would mean life, hope, and possibility.

So the crowd listened in the courtroom. An even bigger crowd listened outside, with people stretching to try to see into the court or straining their ears to hear what would be said. Reporters were waiting to tell the story; dozens of news vans with tall satellite-dish towers were parked outside.

But now the waiting would end. No more wondering or speculating. Now we would know for sure. And the judge opened his mouth to speak.

We tend to be fascinated by courtroom trials. The sheer amount of movies, television shows, and plays that are about trials or that at least contain a trial are staggering. They’re everywhere! Most of us know courtrooms from these shows more than we know about real courtrooms.

There’s something so dramatic about a trial. There’s right and wrong on display. There is evidence brought forward. There’s a decision. There’s a verdict. Sure, we know real life has things like appeals and mistrials and hung juries. But most of the time, when that verdict comes in, it’s going to be interesting.

It was over 19 years ago that the verdict came in for the murder trial of former NFL football player OJ Simpson. The reading of that verdict was broadcast live on television, and at the time, it was the most-watched event in television history, with more than 150 million viewers. So, yeah, people are interested in verdicts.

But what verdict would we be most interested in? I think that’s pretty obvious: it’d be your verdict. If you were on trial, well, I can’t even imagine what that verdict announcement would feel like. Especially if the case was life or death.

But that’s really what we’re getting at today. That’s what our text from the book of Daniel is about, that’s what this whole service is about today. Judgment Day, the end of the world, it’s all about a verdict. A decision is going to come down about your life — your very soul. The consequences couldn’t be higher; the two options are life forever in heaven, or death forever in hell. There’s no in-between.

But here’s the thing: we don’t have to wait. We don’t have to gather around a tv or wait outside a courthouse. We get to find out right now. The Judge is God, the defendant is you, and the verdict is in. Continue reading

Last Judgment

Since I moved to Wisconsin from New York 3 years ago, I have served at a church as one of two pastors. This means I don’t preach every week. Because of this, every once in a while I have to preach on a topic that hasn’t come up on “my week” in quite a while. This weekend is one of those.

This coming Sunday we’ll be focusing on Judgment Day. I haven’t had to preach directly on this topic since 2010, which feels like a long time ago at this point.

It strikes me how harsh these appointed readings for this day are. They’re the kind of Bible readings that make you squirm a bit. There’s no wiggle room; no politically correct, everything’s-ok-for-everyone vibe here. <!–more–> 
 
Take the first reading, Daniel 7:9-10. It’s short, but it packs a punch. 

9 “As I looked,   

“thrones were set in place,  

and the Ancient of Days took his seat.  

His clothing was as white as snow;  

the hair of his head was white like wool.  

His throne was flaming with fire,   

and its wheels were all ablaze.   

10 A river of fire was flowing,   

coming out from before him.  

Thousands upon thousands attended him;   

ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.   

The court was seated,   

and the books were opened.  

Nothing cuddly or warm-and-fuzzy to grab on to here. The end is coming. There will be flames and fire. There will be a judge, *the* Judge, in fact. The books will be opened and the judgment will be made. This is the text I’ll be preaching on.

The second lesson, 1 Thessalonians:5:1-11, has a different emphasis, but it also paints our lives now into a bit of a corner. 

4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.

 

1 Thessalonians 5:4-6

It’s easy to think of ways that we haven’t lived like a “son of the light,” but instead like someone who “belongs to the night.” Definitely gives us pause when we realize that the end will come “like a thief.”

Thankfully, though, this lesson also brings the fantastic *gospel* application of Judgment Day in full force. 

9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10

The end of the world is scary, but Jesus has already won! This is a reminder I need every day.

Finally, the Gospel for this Sunday is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats. In some ways, this reading can be the harshest of all. It *could* lead someone to the conclusion that it is our *good works* that get us into heaven. But the reaction of those who did good works shows otherwise:

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 

40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:37-40

Believers don’t do works to save themselves. They do good works because God has given them faith in Christ. This faith leads us to want to do good works, to produce those works whether we realize we’re doing it or not. We do works because we’re saved, not in order to get saved.

All in all, I look forward to preaching this Sunday. I’m praying I can put Jesus and the comfort of what he’s accomplished for us front and center for this service.

Now back to my sermon work!