“God excels in new beginnings.” This is more than a slogan or an advertising ditty. It is reality! Easter is a prime example. When Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, the disciples thought that day was anything but good. Their Lord and Master, their rabbi, the Son of God, was brutally killed. Their dreams were dashed, their hopes were crushed. They were bewildered, numb, and afraid. What were they to do now? Who would lead them—Peter (who had just denied even knowing Christ)? Were they next in line to be executed? They huddled together behind locked doors shivering with fear.
Then came Easter morning! Jesus wasn’t dead; He was alive! The resurrection didn’t only bring new physical life to Jesus’ body. It would infuse new life into the disciples too. This truly was a new beginning. Jesus brought forgiveness, new life, new hope to all who put their trust in Him. Sin tears down everything with which it comes in contact, but in Jesus a new beginning is possible. He defeated sin and death, enabling His followers to have a fresh start. (No wonder accepting His love and forgiveness and committing oneself to live for Him is called being “born again.”)
“New beginnings” are also experienced when we confess our sins to God and sense His love and gracious forgiveness cascading over us. We also sense it when we step out of our comfort zone to attempt some gracious act we’re not sure we can do… and He gives us the power to truly make a difference. We see Him at work in creation as He brings new life to flowers, trees, grass, and wildlife.
Community Reformed Church will experience a “new beginning” too as I retire. For the past 11 ½ years I’ve had the privilege of being your pastor. Ending that relationship brings a bunch of different emotions. We are excited about having our own home closer to our kids, but we will definitely miss our friends here in Iowa. Change (even good change) brings some anxiety. Will things be different for us and for Community Reformed Church? For sure. I hope that you and we can look at this transition as more of a new beginning than as an ending. God is up to good things in this, I’m sure! Do we know what the future holds, what joys and what struggles await us all? No, we don’t, but we do know with rock solid confidence that God is the one who holds our future. That gives us assurance, peace, and power. It will be exciting to see where He leads. What new adventures does He have in mind for our church? How will He provide what is needed? How can each of us be used to help carry out His “new beginning”? May God be glorified as each of us gives ourselves to Him.
As I do some self-reflection I find it somewhat disconcerting how much I value comfort. In the bitterly cold weather we’ve had this winter I put on extra layers of clothes, pull the quilt up a bit tighter in bed or turn the thermostat up a degree or two. Duh…that’s understandable and good! If I get the least bit hungry there are plenty of things available to satisfy that hunger (some nutritious and others…well…), and the extra pounds I’ve put on show that that craving for comfort is well satisfied. This results in choosing not to wear certain shirts because they have “shrunk” and I don’t want people to think I’m fat. That would make me uncomfortable! Some difficult conversations that need to be made are all too easily postponed. I need to push myself to make them. Sally and I have recently gone on Medicare. There were so many options and decisions to be made. To me it’s confusing and overwhelming, and I feel inadequate. It’s all too easy for me to avoid dealing with this by conveniently letting Sally take care of it and do the research. After all, I’m working full time and I’m busy! That may seem logical, but it is also a way for me to avoid the discomfort this paperwork brings.
It may simply be natural to gravitate towards comfort, but I also know it can be a sign of sin. It boils down to the fact that it’s all about me, my needs, my desires, my comfort. I am created to live for God, not myself. He is Number One. Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of comfort. In fact, He said that we can expect opposition and oppression. There is a cost to being disciples and followers of Jesus. Are there times that I “step out of my comfort zone” where I make sacrifices for the betterment of others? Yes, thank the Lord. This isn’t always my “default setting” however! It’s more natural for me to gravitate towards comfort.
I encourage you this year during the season of Lent to take an in-depth look at your life, especially how you also might value comfort a bit too highly. Where does this desire limit you from being all that God designed you to be? Where does it keep you from fully being His instrument for sharing His love and truth? How does it cause you to be inwardly focused instead of focusing on God and on serving others?
Many of us at church are going to be using 40 Acts this year during Lent to help us hold our cravings for comfort in check and to focus more on God and others. One of the key ingredients of 40 Acts is the daily challenges for service and witness that are offered. I urge you to join us and to sign up on their website, 40acts.org.uk. Each day a short devotional is emailed along with options for living out our faith that day. Some are very simple and others, if we choose to do them, require more time and effort. The cumulative effect of this for the 40 days of Lent is hopefully that we’ll look more like Jesus and will be more apt to serve than to be served. This leads not necessarily to our comfort (as we normally think of it), but it will bring fullness of life and joy in the Lord.
When you think of February, which holiday comes to mind? Groundhog Day? Presidents Day? I doubt it. Most likely it is Valentine’s Day. U.S. Consumers are expected to spend about $20 billion on gifts for Valentine’s Day this year. Why? To express their love. We all know this love is more than a box of chocolates or a peck on the cheek or a carefully chosen card. Giving an expensive necklace can be an attempt to buy love or try to atone for failure to express love regularly. These attempts usually don’t cut it. They may be nice gestures, but what we all look for is love expressed continually, from the heart and with integrity.
We have all heard many definitions of love, and by no means do I claim to have the correct rendition of it. However, I think there are two elements that are found in the love we seek. These are commitment and sacrifice. Are emotions involved in loving someone? Absolutely! However, a love that lasts and is truly satisfying needs to be more than the excitement we feel when we kiss someone we love. Jesus said “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Love is seen in action. In fact, the question could be asked, “Is love unexpressed really love?” Mere beautiful thoughts and words aren’t sufficient. What really counts is a pledge to support and stick with a person through thick and thin, good and bad, to love them forever in all circumstances. Knowing that someone will be there for you, no matter what, is a tremendous, priceless gift.
An inevitable requirement for living out that kind of high intensity love is sacrifice. If we’re fully committed to God or to another person, there will be times we choose to give up our comfort and rights to honor them and build up them. We give up to build up. This is easily observed in parents as they sacrifice their time, money and desires for their children. Nights spent caring for a sick child, evenings spent helping with homework, and an untold number of Saturdays spent at soccer games, basketball games, dance recitals and other events are given. Why? Because they love their kids! Might they like to do other things at times? Yes, but they willingly sacrifice because of their love.
How can your love be deepened? What actions can you take to express you commitment more fully? Where are you feeling called to sacrifice? Are you willing to do so? This growth process in experiencing and expressing love is similar to peeling an onion. There are always deeper levels to which we can go. This side of Heaven, we won’t fully grasp the true depth of love. If we peel back layer after layer, what is at the core? That is God Himself. In 1 John 4, John writes about love we are to express to each other, and then in 1 John 4:8, he states that God is love. Love describes the very essence of his being.
Be sure to express your love to those you care for. Let them know how special they are to you. “Oh, I don’t need to say it. They already know that.” Say it! Show it! Take your spouse out on a date, hug your kids, spend time with them. Go out of your way to do an act of love for someone you don’t know. Family and friends can expect it. Do an act of love for someone that doesn’t expect it—love with no strings attached, no payback expected, not done out of duty but out of your own free choice. Note their reaction, and thank God for the opportunity to share his love.
Starting a new year intrigues me. I look at it kind of like coming up to bat in a softball game. Maybe my last at bat didn’t go very well, but this is a brand new opportunity! Great possibilities are ahead. I might not get a home run, but I surely am going to do my best.
What possibilities does 2019 bring? For me personally it definitely will be an adventure, for I plan on retiring. That is months away, however, so there may be numerous other adventures before that. What is God going to show me about who He is? What new insights will he enable me to see about myself and how I function? I want continually to be in a learning mode. Learning more about myself will help me to become all that God designed me to be. For example, I know that one of my life vows is doing whatever it takes not to look bad. I can counter my tendency to hold back from trying new things (and possibly failing miserably) by consciously stepping out and doing it. Ah yes, I can get into a rut. I have a breakfast meeting every two weeks. The waitress doesn’t even bring a menu anymore—she knows I’ll order two blueberry pancakes, no whipped cream and de-caf coffee. Do you think there may be other areas in my life where I tend to “play it safe”? For sure…and they have much greater consequences. I need over and over to remind myself that I am loved by God through Christ. My self-worth isn’t dependent on what others think of me. I can fail at my attempts at trying new things and even be laughed at by others, but He still loves me just as much. That is powerful and life-giving!
How will God want to use me in 2019? How might He use me to bring comfort to those who are in grief or facing major surgery? How can I better convey His truth through sermons in worship? How might He use me beyond the bounds of Community Reformed Church? How can I best witness to His love and power? The possibilities abound!
How is God wanting to use you in the new year? I am continually growing in my awareness of and appreciation for the scope of the Body of Christ, the Church. Each part of our physical body is needed; so it is in the church. Each person in the church is vital. God has people in your sphere of influence that you are specially positioned to reach with His love and truth. If I would approach them (a person they don’t know, and a pastor at that!), they might not listen. You, however, have a relationship established already. Keep an open mind to where God might lead and how He might use you. It might not be a “home run,” but it may be a “single” or “double”!
May you have a beautiful and adventuresome new year.
The first major snowstorm of the year dumped over a foot of snow overnight. Many cancellations limited the number of people who came out the next day…but not everyone! Numerous people ventured out thinking “I can handle this”, but they didn’t fare so well. Cars became stuck in the deep snow, many cars slid off the road into the ditch, and many accidents occurred as drivers couldn’t stop in time at intersections. A lot of people simply weren’t prepared. Their cars weren’t equipped with necessary items like a snow brush/ice scraper and shovel. The drivers’ footwear was no match for the deep snow, and the drivers themselves hadn’t mentally adjusted to driving on snow covered, icy roads.
Christmas is fast approaching, and it is important that we prepare for it as well. That will make it much more meaningful for us. Scurrying around at the last minute trying to take care of details that could have been done earlier wears us out. The joy of Christmas can be drained and replaced by a resentful sense of duty and obligation. None of us wants to get to Christmas exhausted, frustrated and simply wishing that it was over. We can become so wrapped up in wrapping presents, planning parties, decorating the house and yard and a myriad of other activities that we barely have time to reflect on the birth of Jesus.
The season of Advent is a month of prep time before Christmas. It will be good for all of us to make full use of it. Spend special time alone with God each day to help you stay focused on the true meaning of Christmas. How has the birth of Jesus impacted your life? How would you be different if He hadn’t come? How can you make Him more of a central part of your life? Use an Advent devotional to help guide your thoughts and prayers. Make a list of what tasks need to be done and spread them out over the coming weeks. Take time to do fun, simple things like riding around and observe Christmas displays in yards, make snow angels with your children or grandchildren and simply be still and listen to Christmas carols. Plan now to attend a Christmas Eve worship service and other special services and activities that focus on Jesus’ birth.
A deeply meaningful Christmas experience doesn’t “just happen.” With proper preparation and an openness to how God might speak to you in maybe some unusual circumstances this might be your best Christmas yet!
Thanksgiving is a holiday that draws on all our senses. As you reflect on Thanksgivings past you probably can still hear the din of laughter as family members enjoy simply being together. You see the younger grandchildren running around, having a lot of fun with each other. You feel the flushing of your face from the overheated kitchen, resulting from a stove that has the oven and all burners going full blast. The delectable smells of turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie are recalled in your memory just as if they were setting before you now. You can easily still feel the warm hugs given by extended family that you simply don’t see often enough. Thanksgiving is beautiful season that hopefully is filled with joy, love, warmth and gratitude.
It is important that we do more than simply enjoy the food and family get-togethers. Thanksgiving is a time for “thanks-giving.” God has blessed us with so much. It doesn’t take a lot of observation of others to realize that. Are any of us without food (not just without our first choices in types of food)? Have we had our houses swept away in a torrential flood? Have our homes been leveled by a devastating, fast-moving wild fire? Have we had a child abducted? Do we need to flee our home and homeland because of terrorism? Do we have to use water purification tablets every time we take a drink? Are we living under the tyrannical rule of a ruthless dictator? My hunch is that we would answer “no” to all of these. And these are just events and situations from which God has spared us. Then think about all the positive gifts we receive from Him. Do we thank God each day for the air we breathe and the lungs to inhale it, for the gift of life in newborn babies, for growth and maturity we see in our children and grandchildren and for family that we can love and be loved by? It’s easy to complain about our governmental leaders, but do we thank God that we can vote them in and out of office? Do we thank our Creator for the beauty of each season of the year and for His masterful hand over it all? Do we thank God for His rule in everything—that even our very trying circumstances aren’t outside His control? Have we thanked Him for things we can so easily take for granted: His love and forgiveness, His empowering and comforting presence through His Holy Spirit living in us, His love-letter to us (the Bible) and for solidly securing our future in Heaven with Him?
Having a day set aside specifically for thanksgiving is good, for it’s important to remember how good God is to us. It’s all too easy to slip into the “gimme, gimme” mode and to forget how much we already have. Of course, giving thanks is something to be practiced every day. I encourage you to make it a vital part of your prayers each day.
For Thanksgiving this year build giving thanks into your time together as a family. Do more than simply saying “thanks” in a prayer before the meal. How about having each person around the table mention something for which he or she is thankful? Perhaps the kids could draw pictures of things for which they thank God. Have a contest to see who can form the most words of things for which they thank God from the letters in the words “THANKSGIVING DAY.”
My hope and prayer are that you have a beautiful, joy-filled Thanksgiving.
Give thanks to Him and praise His name,
For the Lord is good, and His love endures forever. Psalm 100:4-5
“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I wonder what Christopher Columbus was thinking as he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, not knowing what he would find…if anything. He definitely displayed a flair for adventure. Was there a new world out there? If so, what would it be like? He was searching for a sea passage to the East Indies (Southern Asia), hoping to profit from the lucrative spice trade. He never found the passage. His original expectations weren’t met, but nevertheless he had a significant impact on our world.
Many of us are not as adventurous. We prefer a more ordered and predictable life with its regular routines and known outcomes. It’s not that we can’t handle anything new; it’s that we would tone it down a lot compared to Columbus! For many people the “unknown” creates anxiety. There is a price attached to be an explorer. You might fail. You might get into situations where you don’t know what to do. You might get hurt.
There is also a price attached to “playing it safe” and for not stepping out and being adventurous. That can lead to stagnation, failure to learn new things, and overall missing out on a lot. A child isn’t sure if he/she wants to be in a dance class that is being offered. What will it be like? Will they have to do things that they don’t know how to do and will make them uncomfortable? Will they look stupid? With a lot of encouragement and coaxing the child consents to try it and comes home all excited about the experience.
This is very much true in our relationship with God too. God has many rich and rewarding experiences for us, but it will mean that we need to step out into the unknown at least a little. The great thing is that He promises to be with us each step of the way. We aren’t tackling this alone. We can gain new awareness of His presence and power. We can be used to make a significant (possibly eternal) difference in people’s lives. We will grow as a person as well.
Is there an area where God is calling you to “leave the harbor and set out into the deep”? Try something new. Volunteer to help at school or in a community ministry. Offer to help in the nursery at church. Give a hand with Operation Christmas Child. Get to know your neighbors better. Pray for God’s guidance and give a new adventure a try! Ask your neighbor if he or she would like help raking their leaves this fall. Who knows what you may discover and how He might use you.
Today, as I write this, I’m celebrating my one-year anniversary. It was a year ago that the board I was standing on broke and I fell to a concrete floor. This resulted in about sixteen broken bones, ten days in the University of Iowa Hospital and another month or so in skilled care here in Clinton followed by more weeks in a hospital bed at home. It has been a tremendous experience for me. I’m not recommending anyone to follow my example! However, I know we all would benefit from observing more closely where we see God working in our lives.
Did I have pain? YES, I did, but thank God for pain meds. My pain could have been much worse. I’ve heard people say that broken ribs can be extremely painful. My seven broken ribs may have been broken in a “better” place that others, for I didn’t experience intense pain from them. Miraculously I didn’t hit my head, so there was no concussion. I was awake and alert all the time. Paramedics arrived quickly, and the doctors and nurses here in Clinton and in Iowa City performed wonderfully and most were very pleasant. I remember when I was finally cleared in therapy to begin trying to walk. Simply standing again felt weird, but then I started walking (with the therapist at my side and another behind me) and was able to walk around the room. What a long way my healing has come since then! The bones have all healed. I continue to have some residual effects from my fall and probably will have for the rest of my life (or is that arthritis setting in?), but these are so minor in comparison.
I praise God that throughout the whole experience I knew that He had me in the palm of His hand. I didn’t have to fear. Whatever the outcome would be (full healing or severe limitations) He would be with me and would give me whatever I needed. He also gave me a deeper appreciation for family and friends and for others I never knew who were praying for me. Sally, my wife, was at my side, other family members and friends visited often, and people across the United States were praying for me. That is humbling and gratifying.
I like to be in control, but God showed me clearly that I wasn’t! Ultimately, He is, and that is good. Lying in the hospital unable even to roll over without help, it was evident that I was dependent on others as well. Another powerful life lesson. Healing would come, but I had to be patient. Psalm 42:14 became very real: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”
Where do you see God at work in your life or in the lives of others? Take some time to reflect on it. It will be time well spent.