Poems for Christmas

I read one of Ben Witherington's poems Christmas Eve and another earlier in Advent. Here's a link to a post on his blog where you will find both poems plus a couple more. You may want to use them at your family gathering on Christmas Day.

Blessings to all. -st


Flash Forward: free will vs. determinism

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten into a TV show, but Flash Forward is getting me hooked, though I’ve watched more episodes online than on Thursday nights.

If you haven’t watched it or didn’t catch the hype leading up to the September premier, on one day everybody in the world simultaneously blacks out for two minutes and 17 seconds. During that time, nearly everyone has a vision of his or her life six months into the future, their flash forward.

That raises an interesting question: Is the future as seen in the flash forward inevitable or changeable? Are the flash forwards a clue to what could happen or a certainty of what will happen? Sounds like the question Scrooge asked the ghost of Christmas future, doesn’t it? It’s a question of free will. Are we genuinely free to choose, or is choice an illusion? (That question was answered to some degree in episode seven, “The Gift.”)

Sometimes the question gets asked about Judas Iscariot. If his betrayal of Jesus was a fulfillment of scripture, then was he truly exercising free choice? Or was he unknowingly following a script written for him that he could not escape? Personally I believe that Judas was free to choose to betray Jesus or not, even though his free choice was foreseen and foretold.

Left to ourselves, all we would choose is evil. But God graciously chooses to make freewill possible for us. And God gives us this free choice, because he “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Living the Dash

Sunday we started the series "One Month to Live" and the first lesson our groups are doing this week is "Living the Dash."

On Sunday Scott Samuelson told me about a poem he read at his uncle's funeral called "How do you live your dash?" You can search for it and find it on several sites, but here's a video presentation of it authorized by the author.


It might be a little schmaltzy, but since it fit the occasion, I thought you might like to see it.



I’m praying for health care reform

I’m not particularly partisan about this debate. For those of you who are, please indulge me a moment. I’m okay with Newt Gingrich’s plan, and I’m okay with President Obama’s plan. The way I look at it, it doesn’t matter which one we start with, because the will of the American people will force it to be revised.

Do I trust the federal government to determine the health care I can receive? Of course not! Do I trust a large insurance corporation to act in my best interest? The answer is the same: Of course not!

Last month I talked to a doctor of internal medicine who has her own solo practice. She has to hire a fulltime staff person just to haggle with insurance companies to get them to pay what they are legally obligated to pay on behalf of her patients. They try one sneaky tactic after another. She is so sick of it, she said she’d rather have a government-run, single-payer system.

This surprised me, so I asked her if she really thought a government-run system would be better. Her reply was something like, “It couldn’t be worse.”

I’m not advocating a single-payer system, and it seems that even Obama’s public option is currently in doubt. But here’s what I am advocating: affordable healthcare available for all.

I don’t want a system that sends the uninsured to the ER when what they really need is a visit to the clinic. I don’t want a system where people die undiagnosed because they couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit. That’s why I’m praying for health care reform.

Like many of you, I’m fortunate. I have good health insurance. But we the insured are more vulnerable than we like to think. I don’t want a system where between jobs we lose our coverage, or we can’t afford to keep it. I don’t want a system where, if one of my young adult kids suffers from a major illness or injury, we find out too late that he or she was between coverage or terribly underinsured. That’s why I’m praying for health care reform.

I don’t want a system where some are denied the benefits of group health coverage, because they’re self-employed or work for a small business. I don’t want a system that balloons the national debt, leaving it to our grandchildren to pick up the tab. That’s why I’m praying for health care reform.

Generally speaking, I believe that the free market system has served the American people well. Competition has spurred innovation while keeping costs down. My preference is to harness it rather than abandon it. But the free market isn’t designed to work for everybody. And I don’t want a health care system that has no conscience. That’s why I’m praying for health care reform.


A VBS moment to remember

It’s Thursday, and we’re heading into our last night at Vacation Bible School. I’m a crew leader this year with seven 5th and 6th graders, and I’m loving it.

Tuesday night I invited some friends to come and experience VBS at Horizons. Jeff and Linda Thurman moved here about a month ago to begin planting a new church in northeast Lincoln. They came to our VBS for the first hour, and what they saw and heard just blew them away. Before they left, Jeff told me that there may be some bigger VBS programs out there, but none are better than Horizons!

Last night at our closing in the worship center, each crew was given a strip of black plastic about 6” x 30”. Each person in the crew was to grab on to the plastic and think of one thing we’ve done that we’re sorry for. Then the crew leaders took the plastic strips up to the front and hung them on a wooden cross. While we sang, an older youth volunteer came forward wearing burlap, representing Jesus.

As we watched and sang a slow song, all those strips of plastic, representing our sins, were draped on to his shoulders and open arms. Then we saw him walk through the worship center and carry them away. The girl next to me was so moved, that she spontaneously began clapping. It seemed to be her way of thanking Jesus for carrying her sins. I felt the same way, so I started clapping with her. Soon others were joining in. That was when I felt my eyes getting full with tears.

It was a moment I won’t soon forget.


Standing up to Hitler

Last week Tricia and I rented and watched the movie "Valkyrie," based on the true story of a plot by German army officers to assassinate Hitler and gain control of the country. Personally, I had no idea this kind of dissension existed in the ranks of the Third Reich. While Valkyrie is not a great movie, it kept me engaged and wanting to know more. I recommend it.

And then I was pleased to read a Local View column, "In Germany, the rest of the story", in today's Journal Star by Pastor Walter Rowoldt, contradicting the much held view that Christians in Germany were either silent and weak in the face of Hitler's anti-Jewish propoganda, or they bought into it easily. I hope you'll read it.

May those of us who have been rescued by Jesus the Christ remain true to him, and may the Holy Spirit give us the clarity and courage to stand firm when we are tested.


I'm down with UP

Tricia and I saw Pixar's UP in 3-D Friday night, and I agree with just about every movie reviewer, that this is a great show. I won't give away any of the story, but there's adventure, humor, love, loss, loyalty, and good vs. evil all spun together in a tale that keeps moving. And like every good story, elements introduced early are woven back in later.

I was so fascinated by the artistry of the animation that sometimes I found myself giving it as much attention as the story. The main character, Carl the curmudgeon balloon vendor, has a square, over-sized head (patterned after Spencer Tracy, I've heard); even his fingers have square edges.

Their journey's destination is a place called Paradise Falls, which, when I thought about it later, carries some significant symbolism. See what you think.

If you're looking for a great show you can take the kids to (if they're of the age where they can handle cartoon ferocious dogs) I give this one all thumbs UP. And if you see it in 3-D, which I recommend, that stands for the extra three dollars you'll need per person for the goofy glasses.


Prayer for an astronaut

Saturday night I was given the privilege of giving the opening prayer at an event put on by Nebraska Educational Television: the Governor's Premier of the documentary about Nebraska born and bred astronaut Clay Anderson. I remember Clay from high school, mostly from band, as he was a three grades younger than I. His sister Lorie and I were friends.

After sharing a bit about Clay's parents, Jack and Alice, who have passed away, I offered a few introductory words and the prayer, which are printed below.

"As a call to prayer, I thought it might be fitting to remember Yuri Gagarin, the first human to see earth from the vantage of space. He's been credited with saying, 'I have been to the heavens, and there is no God.' But apparently those words are not on the verbatim of his space flight, and they are more likely to have originated with Nikita Khrushchev. What Yuri Gagarin did say to ground control is this. 'The earth is blue. ...How wonderful. It is amazing.'

"To me, that might be the most important reason for us to explore space. It's so we can hear the wonder in their voices, see their pictures, and vicariously live that experience through them. It's so we can be filled with awe at the little blue marble we live on. And whenever we're filled with awe, it awakens a sense of reverence and humility.

"So, filled with awe, reverence, and humility, as residents of the amazing blue marble, let's pray.

"Dear God, thank you that we get to explore the universe you have created. It takes our breath away to behold the wonder of the atom, the grandeur of a galaxy, the multitude of species, and the beauty of each and every person. Give us eyes to see ourselves as your children, sharing your gift of planet earth.

"We don't want to be like those in centuries past who shunned scientific knowledge, because it didn't fit what they'd been previously taught. Give us the grace and courage to study both scripture and creation, to know that all truth is your truth. May we cry out as David did 3000 years ago, 'The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands' (Psalm 19:1).

"Thank you for being with us tonight. Thank you for being with Clay during his trip to space and back. Thank you for showing us the way, the truth, and the life.

"We share this meal and this moment with grateful hearts, and we give thanks to you. We have been blessed so far beyond what we deserve.

"We may have a number of faiths represented here tonight, but as for me, I pray in the name of the one who said he came to seek and save the lost--and that includes me. I pray in the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen."


Simon Peter restored

Read John 21:15-25. 

Observation: Compare vs. 15-19 with 18:15-18, 25-27.  What is the connection between them? 

Application: If Jesus calls you to "Feed my lambs," "Tend my sheep," and "Feed by sheep," what might that calling look like for you in the coming week?


Appearance to seven

Read John 21:1-14.

Observation: List the times the writer gives very specific details.  What does the abundance of fish (vs. 6, 8 and 11) tell us about Jesus? 

Application: Do you assume the Lord is usually stingy or generous with you?  How does your assumption affect the way you approach life? 


Appearance to disciples

Read John 20:19-31. 

Observation: In this passage, what leads to belief?  What does belief lead to?  What kind of belief is most blessed? 

Application:  What difference will it make whether you have received the Holy Spirit as one who is sent by Jesus to continue his work? 


Appearance to Mary

Read John 20:1-18.

Observation: Based on what the passage says, what are the assumptions of Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and the other disciple?  What were their expectations that morning? 

Application: Twice in this passage Mary gives testimony to what she has witnessed.  What have you witnessed?  Who will you tell?


"It is finished"

Read John 19:25-40.

Observation: What has Jesus finished (vs. 28 and 30)? Compare this to 4:34; 5:36; and 17:4. How is Jesus’ death a fulfillment of 12:23-24? How does he bear fruit?

Application: Pick one person in this passage and try to imagine the details of what he or she might have seen, heard, smelled or felt. What is your reaction?


Sentenced and crucified

Read John 19:1-25a.

Observation:  Underline or list all references to power, authority, office and title.  How do these illustrate the irony of Jesus' sentence and crucifixion? 

Application: If you were cast as an actor in a passion play as one of the characters in yesterday's or today's reading, which would be the most fitting for you?  Why? 


Denied and tried

Read John 18:15-40.

Observation: After reading this passage, go back and read aloud or write down all the questions.  What motivates each of these questions? 

Application: Read these questions aloud meditatively and let yourself be addressed by them.  Which question speaks to you most?  How do you respond? 


Jesus betrayed and arrested

Read John 18:1-14. 

Now we're leaving the extended meal time conversation and returning to "plot."

Observation: How does this passage relate to what Jesus said in 10:18?  What is Jesus referring to in his question in v. 11? 

Application: Read vs. 10-11 again and imagine yourself as Simon Peter.  When have you done something that seemed right at the time, but later you learned that it was not best?  How does Jesus' response to Peter help you?


That they may be one

Read John 17:20-26. 

This will be the shortest of the daily readings through John's gospel. 

Observation: Who is Jesus praying for now?  What does he pray for three times?  Why is it repeated? 

Application: What will help the world believe (vs. 21 and 23)?  What does that have to do with you?


Jesus prays for his disciples

Read John 17:1-19. 

V. 3 had a profound impact on me when I was a teenager to help me discover that a Christian is one who has a relationship with God and with Jesus. 

Observation: Based on this passage, what does Jesus want for his disciples?  What is the relationship between word/truth and his disciples? 

Application: What one piece of Jesus' prayer would you want him to pray over you right now?


Joy that cannot be taken

Read John 16:16-33. 

This is a continuation of the meal time conversation that began in chapter 13 and continues through the end of chapter 17.  I believe John leaves out the institution of the Lord's Supper because he knows the other gospel writers have already covered it. 

Observation: Search this passage for examples of contrast (for example "weep" and "rejoice").  How do they help you understand Jesus' message? 

Application: What is one situation in your life where you need to rely on Jesus' words in v. 27? 


When the Spirit of truth comes

Read John 16:1-15. 

Observation: What does Jesus promise will happen when the Advocate / Spirit of truth comes?  What happens to the ruler/prince of this world? 

Application: In what ways has the promise of v. 13 been true in your life?  How is scripture tied to this promise?  


The world hates you

Read John 15:18-27.

Observation: What clues does Jesus give us in the passage about who "the world" is? 

Application: How will you be persecuted if "you do not belong to the world" (v. 19) but belong to Jesus instead? When has fear of persecution kept you from talking about him (v. 27)? 

To learn more about the persecution of Christians in the world today, go to http://www.persecution.com/


The vine and the branches

Read John 15:1-17. 

I consider v. 16 a theme verse for my calling as a pastor. 

Observation: Search this passage for examples of cause-and-effect relationships ("this results in that" or "if this, then that").  How many can you find? 

Application: In v. 4 Jesus gives a command and his reasons for it.  What are four ways you can obey his command in the next 24 hours?  What pruning will be required? 


Another Advocate: the Spirit

Read John 14:15-31.

Today you are two-thirds of the way through John's gospel. 

Observation: In v. 27 Jesus promises peace to his troubled disciples.  What has Jesus already said in this passage that will help them experience that peace? 

Application: When have you experienced the Holy Spirit as described in v. 26 (reminding you of what Jesus said)? 


The way, the truth, and the life

Read John 14:1-14.

This is more conversation the night before Jesus is to be crucified. 

Observation: What reassurances does Jesus give his troubled disciples, who have just learned that he will soon leave?

Application: Vs. 8-11 tells us that we know the Father through the words and works of Jesus.  What do you know of God through what Jesus said and did? 


A new commandment

Read John 13:21-38. 

Observation: What do you find that makes this passage a turning point in the narrative? 

Application: If in this passage to "glorify" means to "reveal the essence of," then how can we glorify God and Jesus? 


He washed their feet

Read John 13:1-20.

This gospel gives us events and conversation that took place the night of the Last Supper not found in the other three gospels.  One of them is when Jesus washed his disciples' feet.

Observation: What reasons do you find for why Jesus washed his disciples' feet?

Application: In v. 15 Jesus tells his disciples to follow his example.  What would be some equivalents of footwashing today? 


They loved human glory

Read John 12:27-50.

Whether you're keeping up or catching up with the reading and the questions, way to go! 

Observation: What do you find that seems to say believing or not believing is a personal choice?  What do you find that seems to say it's not a personal choice?  How do you resolve this paradox? 

Application: Considering vs. 42-43, when have you succumbed to the same thing?  When have you risen above it? 



Read John 12:1-26. 

We'll look at this passage in worship at Horizons on Palm Sunday, April 5. 

Observation: What evidence do you see of the intensity building in this passage? 

Application: Imagine joining the shouting crowd with their palm branches.  What is the nearest personal experience you've had that reminds you of this?


Lazarus, come out!

Read John 11:28-57.

Sorry I didn't get this one posted earlier today. 

Today you're starting the second half of John's gospel. 

Observation: Underline all words that relate to death, die or kill.  What paradox do you find, especially contrasting vs. 28-44 with vs. 45-57? 

Application: After Martha's initial reluctance, in v. 41 they follow Jesus' instruction.  When have you been initially reluctant to follow Jesus' instruction?  What happened when you took that step of faith? 


The resurrection and the life

Read John 11:1-27.

Peek ahead and look at 12:3.  It is referred to in 11:2. 

Observation: What points of tension do you notice in this passage?  Where are they coming from? 

Application: Listen to Martha's disappointment in vs. 21, though it is combined with faith in vs. 22, 24 and 27.  Is there a disappointment you need to bring to Jesus over a miracle you didn't get? 


One with the Father

Read John 10:22-42.

The Festival of Dedication (v. 22) that brings Jesus to Jerusalem is the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. 

Observation: In this passage, who does Jesus claim to be, and what does he claim to be able to do? 

Application: How do you hear the voice of your shepherd?  What have you done to follow him?


The Good Shepherd

Read John 10:1-21.

You might want to read Psalm 23 today as well.  Try reading it in a translation that you're not familiar with. 

Observation: What contrasts does Jesus create in this passage, and why do you think he uses them? 

Application: Based on this passage, what does Jesus want for you as one of his sheep?


Was blind, but now I see

Read John 9:24-41. 

It was verse 25 that inspired the line in John Newton's hymn, "Amazing Grace." 

Observation: Underline everything said by the formerly blind man in this passage.  What do you learn about him? 

Application: How could this man's words be a model for you in sharing your faith experience with others?


Blind man sees

Read John 9:1-23.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! 

Observation: On a deeper level, who is blind and who really sees in this passage?  What assumption prevents the "blind" from seeing? 

Application: Jesus uses dirt and spit to make mud in this miracle.  What unlikely things has he used in your life? 


The truth will make you free

Read John 8:31-59.

Congratulations, happy reader.  You are now starting the third week of our six-week Lenten reading through John's gospel. 

Observation: Underline or list all the references to Abraham in this passage.  Why is he important in this discussion between Jesus and the Jewish leaders? 

Application:  What do you want to be free from by continuing in Jesus' word and knowing the truth (vs. 31-32)?  What would that process look like for you?   


The light of the world

Read John 8:1-30. 

Again, if you wish to read online, there's a wonderful service at BibleGateway.com

My thanks to those who commented on last week's posts.  Keep 'em comin'! 

Observation: John 7:53 and 8:1-11 are not in the oldest manuscripts, but they may have been added by the original author.  How is Jesus the light of the world in vs. 1-11?

Application: Based on v. 12 in what areas of your life does it seem you are walking in the light?  Is there an area still shadowed by darkness? 


A divided crowd

Read John 7:32-52. 

Observation: As mentioned in v. 2, this happens during the Festival of Tabernacles (or Booths) in which a priest pours out water on the altar as a gift to God.  How does knowing this affect your reading of vs. 37-39? 

Application: Why is Jesus such a divisive figure in this passage?  How is he still devisive today? 


Is this the Messiah?

Read John 7:1-31.

Check previous posts to see if comments have been left that you haven't read. 

Observation: What do you find throughout this passage concerning hour/time and death/kill?  What questions does it raise for you?

Application: In vs. 19-23 Jesus explains why it is appropriate for him to heal on the Sabbath.  How can you apply his admonition in v. 24 to a situation in your life? 


Bread is my flesh

Read John 6:41-71. 

Vs. 66-68 is one of my favorite passages in John's gospel. 

Observation: What are the various reactions to Jesus' words?  What is your reaction? 

Application: How does this passage deepen your understanding and apprecation of Holy Communion? 


The bread of life

Read John 6:1-40. 

This is one of the longer chapters in John's gospel, and the theme of bread occurs throughout. 

Observation: What do you observe in this passage about slowness to comprehend?  What examples do you recall from previous chapters? 

Application: "I am" in v. 35 compares to Yahweh, the Hebrew names for Israel's God.  What is one way you can come to the "bread of life"?  What difference will it make?


Testimony about Jesus

Read John 5:25-47.

If you would like to try reading from a different translation, there are many to choose from at BibleGateway.com

Observation: Note to whom Jesus is still speaking (see vs. 18-19).  Who and what give testimony about Jesus? 

Application: How do people's reasons for not believing in Jesus today compare to what he says in this passage about the resistance of the Jews (i.e., Jewish leaders)?


Sabbath healing

Read John 5:1-24. 

Most Bibles divide this chapter into three sections.  Today's reading covers the first section and half of the second. 

Observation: Put yourself in the place of the invalid man.  What do you feel and experience throughout this passage? 

Application: Note the repeated theme of doing and working.  What do you notice God doing today that you want to do with him? 


Fields ready for harvest

Read John 4:27-54.

This passage continues yesterday's story in Samaria. 

Observation: How does Jesus' teaching to his disciples in v. 34-38 tie in with what precedes it and what follows it?

Application: In v. 35 Jesus tells his disciples to look and see. What might Jesus be inviting you to see around you? 


Living Water

Read John 4:1-26.

To read online, go to BibleGateway.com

My message on March 15 will be based on this passage.

Observation: Throughout the conversation, how does Jesus surprise the woman by what he says? 

Application: What could you do so that your spiritual life resembles Jesus' offer in v. 13-14?  What will be your first step? 


Jesus and John the Baptist

Read John 3:22-36.

To read online, go to BibleGateway.com

Look at previous posts for comments from others.  One was left on Tuesday.  Check it out. 

Observation: How does John handle what could be seen as an opportunity for competition between him and Jesus? 

Application: What is one practical way v. 30 could be lived out in your life? 


Born of the Spirit

Read John 3:1-21

To read online, check out BibleGateway.com.  Rather than give you several chapters to read each day, I'm suggesting just half a chapter.   But I encourage you to read it more than once, because that's when we start seeing things we didn't see before. 

Here are a couple of questions to guide you on your way.  If you want to record your responses, please hit the "comments" link below.  Thanks. 

Observation: What contrasts and opposites do you find in this passage?

Application: Based on your experience, how has believing in Jesus and putting your faith in him been like being born into a new life? 


Cleansing the Temple

Read John 2:13-25

These daily readings will take us through John's gospel during Lent.  To read online, go to BibleGateway.com.

Here are a couple of questions for reflection.  To share your thoughts with others, hit the "comments" link.

Observation: What do you observe in this passage that points to why Jesus did what he did? 

Application: If you allowed Jesus to do some radical cleaning in your life, where would he start? 


Wine at a wedding

Read John 2:1-12

(To read online, go to BibleGateway.com.)

Remember that if you share comments, it can be done anonymously! 

Observation: Who benefits from this sign?  ("Sign" is this gospel's word for miracle.)

Application: If someone spoke the words of v. 5 to you, what would it be about? How would you respond?


The Lamb of God

Monday, March 2, 2009
Read John 1:29-51

(To read online, go to BibleGateway.com. Select your translation and type in the reference.)

Here are today's questions. To share your thoughts with everyone else, hit the "comments" link below and follow the directions.

Observation: What does it say each person in this passage believes about Jesus and why do they come to believe it?
Application: What could you do to point someone toward Jesus? Or what could you do to express appreciation to someone who has pointed you toward Jesus?


The Word became human

Sunday, March 1, 2009
Read John 1:1-28.

(To read online, go to BibleGateway.com. Select your translation and type in the reference.)

I invite you to take a little time to consider these questions. To share your thoughts, hit the "comments" link below and follow the directions.

Observation: What does the writer tell you he believes about Jesus?

Application: What is one thing you will do to be more like John the Baptist (vs. 6-8, 15, 19-28)?

Reading & reflecting on John's gospel

Starting Sunday I'll be posting a daily reading guide to lead you through John’s gospel during Lent. Each day you'll get a reading assignment (half a chapter) and a couple of questions for reflection. I invite you to hit the comment button and share your reflections with others, which can be done by name or anonymously.

Your comment will go to my inbox first. Once I approve (I'll check a few times a day), it goes up. And of course, the huge advantage of the blog is that we all benefit by reading the reflections of others.

See you Sunday. -st


Watch a movie for Martin

I'd like to suggest an idea to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on his Day, or maybe later this month. Rent the 2007 movie "The Great Debaters," staring Denzel Washington as the coach of the 1935 debate team for Wiley College, a Methodist black college in Marshall, Texas. It's based on the true story of a few students and their phenomenal success, while also demonstrating the racial bigotry, violence and fear of the times. Still, the story is inspiring and leaves you feeling hopeful. Tricia and I watched it earlier this month and recommend it highly.

Please comment if you've seen it. -Steve