January 15 Devotion

Many of us have sat and waited in hospital settings while a family member undergoes medical procedures.  Those procedures can range from hours of surgery in the middle of the night to sliding a tiny tube through the circulation system until it reaches the heart to take a peek inside.  The procedures can go on for weeks and months such as chemo or radiation.  Or, they may be relatively quick like MRIs.  What we discover is that waiting drains more energy than a regular day at work.  Not knowing, uncertainty, change of routine, not having control of outcomes, and the possibility of things going wrong can take their toll on us emotionally and physically.  
 
     While I type these words, many of us know people who are in the midst of going through such uncertainty in medical settings.  And, all of us are going through not knowing, uncertainty, change of routine, not having control of the outcomes and the possibility of things going very wrong on a national level.  For most of us, that wears on us.  It drains our emotional reserves.  It numbs us to the beauty that is also part of each day.  It leaves us with a feeling of being helpless as the world is in chaos.  
 
      The picture above of Thomas Merton and his words is a reminder that there are still critically important choices we can make each day–for the sake of our souls and the benefit of those nearest to us.  “Speak words of hope.  Be human in this most inhuman of ages.  Guard the image of (the best in humanity) for it is the image of God.”  This Sunday we will glimpse a moment in time when Jesus meets Nathanael.  “Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said, ‘here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’  Nathanael asks, ‘How do you know me?”  Jesus says, ‘I saw you under the fig tree.'”  (John 1:47) Only Jesus and Nathanael know the particulars of what Jesus saw.  What we know from reading it, however, is that Jesus notices integrity–and it matters greatly to him.  These days, these tiring, chaotic, unsettling days, integrity still matters to Jesus.
     Being our best selves still matters.  Speaking hope, sharing kindness, living honestly, blessing others, still matters.  In fact, it matters more than ever now.  We can choose those things.  We can choose to be about the basics–loving God and loving neighbor.  The living Christ will notice and be grateful–because it keeps his mission alive in this world–especially in fractured times.  Take comfort in the fact your faithful actions matter and God is still at work through every loving act.
Be Well and Be Blessing,
Pastor Roger

December 9 Devotion

This past week I clicked on a Facebook post by a member of Grace. It was a comical post but it also brought tears to my eyes. It’s a Christmas Pageant where a sheep pulls the doll-baby Jesus out of the manger during a song and starts dancing with him. Simply adorable. The link to the original story and video is below.
 
You and I don’t know the children, yet we know the children. We know they are learning. We know they are participating in a tradition we’ve come to know as sacred. We know the unexpected things the children do are often the most memorable of all. So, watching the video was bitter-sweet for me. The in-person kids Christmas program is one of the most precious events in a church’s life–tears over what will not be this year. Simultaneously, my heart was warmed by the spirit of the sheep character dancing with the doll-baby Jesus.
 
On the 20th of December, if all goes according to plan, we will have a Grace Kids’ virtual Christmas program. Some things about it will be different–including how we participate from our own homes. The story, however, will not change. It’s a story meant to lead us to the manger to embrace Jesus. It’s a story meant to start our spirits dancing. It’s a story meant to whisper God is with us at all times, through all things. Hold that hope. Hold hope through memories. Hold hope through imagining the promises fulfilled.
 
This Sunday, the 13th of December, we will glimpse a messiah who knows his mission. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “he will proclaim, The Lord God’s Spirit is upon me because he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for the captives and liberation for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn.” (Isaiah 61:1-4) This coming Sunday worship will remind us that this baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, becomes the love of God who swaddles us in comfort and healing
Where do you need comfort or healing today? Who is a person you care about who needs comfort and healing? As a prayer today, take a moment to imagine an adult Jesus drawing near. Quietly he drapes a blanket of warmth, light and healing over your shoulders. He says, “I understand;” “I am with you and all will be well.” Rest in the moment. Then watch the video, and remember again the joy we are meant to have dancing through this journey called life with the saving grace named Jesus.

Blessings,

Pastor Roger

December 1 Devotion

Joanna Sisk reflects on the loss of her parents to Covid-19.  Married 47 years, Dad a truck driver and Mom a nurse, they died one minute apart in Jackson, Michigan after battling the virus.  Yes, knowing they are together does make it easier to cope with the loss of both at once.  Even so, Joanna shares what makes the loss much, much harder.  “Like so many who have lost loved ones to the virus, Sisk says it is agonizing to hear others brush off the risk.”  (Keep in mind Joanna is sharing from the fierce battleground state of Michigan—though all states have become political battlegrounds over the virus).

Specifically, Joanna said, “People were talking about it and not knowing that my parents were in the hospital, both fighting for their lives with it,” Sisk said. “I just had tears streaming down my cheeks, listening to them. Our entire family is completely devastated.”

The prophet Isaiah heard God’s word to a hurting people long ago.  “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. (Isaiah 40:1) The gospel of Mark does not say anything about how Jesus was born.  It jumps right into Jesus’ adult ministry, pausing just long enough to mention one thing before Jesus’ ministry began.  There was a man calling out in the wilderness, “prepare the way for the Lord, and make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3) That man, John the Baptizer, “Called for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” (Mark 1:4)

Reading Joanna Sisk’s words about her tears, as her family heard people with no first-hand experience with Covid-19 deny its reality, reminds me we are called to comfort one another.  Whenever we choose conflict over comfort in the face of pain, we desperately need to hear John the Baptist’s call to change and ask forgiveness from the God who made us.

I have no doubt Covid-19 is real and sometimes devastating.  That does not mean I am exempt from needing to hear John the Baptist’s message.  There have been many times in my life when I have chosen to engage in conflict instead of seeking to comfort.  Making room for Jesus in our lives always means making room for Jesus to change how we live our lives.  Every day we have room to grow into more compassionate, understanding, comforting people.  In fact, now more than ever, the world needs Jesus’ followers to be signs of compassion, understanding and comfort.

A prayer for today: “Loving God, I seek to prepare the way for you to enter my heart.  Show me where I need to change, so that I may be a sign of your compassion, understanding and comfort.”

In these trying times may you feel God’s comfort today.

Be Well and Be Blessing,

Pastor Roger

November 17 Devotion

Greetings,

Friday afternoon I went out to get a furnace air-filter.  Ace Hardware’s Moorhead lot was empty.  A door-sign said, “Out of an abundance of caution we are closed…”; Ace was dealing with a positive Covid-19 case, testing all their employees, and taking appropriate precautions.  Later, I noticed Altony’s restaurant was empty and its name removed.  Monday the Tires Plus lot was empty and re-opening in 14 days.  Perhaps effects of the pandemic.  Friday morning I was aware of 13 active cases (people I know or relatives of people I know).  By Saturday eve that number increased to 19 cases, plus one awaiting test results.  Cases, deaths, and hospitalizations have rapidly risen.  Health-care workers worldwide are distressed as health-systems overload.  When I read Minnesota’s daily death toll exceeded 50, one day, I felt sick to my stomach for a bit.  Most are feeling the stress in one way or another.  Even those who are not convinced Covid-19’s real feel the stress of its effects on the world.  It is a lot to take in.

History and legend remind us “the first Thanksgiving,” came on the heels of a stressful, loss-filled year.  Still, they sought to tend a spirit of gratefulness.  Psalm 100 invites us to practice gratitude: “Know that the Lord is God—the Lord made us; we belong to God.  Enter the Lord’s gates with thanks.”  Practicing gratitude is especially vital in stress-filled times.

Rory Swenson (friend and pastor at Grace UMC – Burnsville) recently shared words from author Diana Gibbons. Her writing overflows with gratitude.

I can say nothing of God, except I saw the red flames of a cardinal against the snow this morning as I drank tea.

     I can say nothing of God, except the warm smell of potato soup and the sharp tang of cheddar cheese shimmied up my nose when a friend made lunch for me.

     I can say nothing of God, except two nights ago a cricket sang a funny song in my closet amidst the socks and silence.

     I can say nothing of God, except stones can speak, deer can fly in my dreams; a strange child smiled at me in the supermarket, that each blade of green grass wears a locket with God’s face inside, and that on every hair of my cat’s face is written, “alleluia.”

     I can say nothing of God except the rough texture of grainy bread on my tongue and the sweet liquid acid of grape in my throat are a bittersweet memory of compassion and a taste of heaven.

Every day between now and Thanksgiving, find a reason to be grateful—however small it may seem.  (If you are inclined, take a moment to write down whatever brings gratitude. Perhaps start your sentence with “I can say nothing of God, except…”; Read your list on Thanksgiving).  One way or another, before closing your eyes for the night, take a moment to be in God’s presence with a word of thanks.  Every moment of Thanksgiving becomes strength for the journey and blessing for the soul.

“The Lord made us.  We are God’s.  … Enter the Lord’s gates with thanks.” (Psalm 100:3b & 4a)

May You be Well, Blessed and Grateful, 

Pastor Roger

October 29 Devotion

The etched-glass image above is from a roadside chapel in Nebraska that my wife and I paused at a few years ago.  I find myself drawn to the stillness.  Sun, rain, snow, wild prairie winds, still their faces remain peaceful.  The lines of every part of the etching remain softly rounded.  It reminds me of the wise words one of Grace’s members posted on Facebook this past week.  “There are two types of tired!  One that requires rest.  One that requires peace.”  Nearing election with virtually every form of media replete with argumentative statements, watching Covid-19 numbers surge, praying for essential-worker friends and family, noticing daylight grows shorter and nights grow colder, many may be experiencing both types of tired.  Many may long for both rest and peace.  However, as you may have discovered, it is possible to have a good night’s sleep or a quiet day and still feel tired.  That is the tired that aches for peace.

 

Look at the child-Jesus in the etched glass above.  Although the artist missed the first century, middle-eastern facial features, the artist captured a peaceful awareness in the expression of the child-Jesus.  This Sunday during Livestream worship we’ll pause to hear Jesus’ speaking to the crowd on a day when he seemed keenly aware of the “tired that needs peace.”

 

Blessed are those who are weary, because the kingdom of God is theirs.

Blessed are those who grieve, because they will be gladdened.

Blessed are the humble, because they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

(See Matthew 5:1-12 for the entirety of the blessings).

 

What I am hearing in Jesus’ words today is “blessed, happy, rested are those who face difficulties now, because God’s last word will bring them peace.”  What I am hearing today is an invitation from an understanding Christ to lean into peace and the things that bring us a sense of peace.  For me it might be a cup of hot coffee, two creamers, one sweet and low, and a Johnny Cash version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” from his last album.  What would whisper a few moments of peace into your life today.  Make time for it–even if it’s just five minutes.  Take another couple of minutes to read Matthew 5:1-12.  What blessing speaks to you most today?  What blessing do you dearly wish for a friend who is struggling?  Wrap up your time with a prayer–something like, “Loving Jesus, grant me the peaceful blessing of remembering God will have the last word, and the last word will bless those who hurt.  Amen.”

Be Blessed and Be Blessing,

Pastor Roger

October 22 Devotion

  “Come to me, all you who are weary of struggling and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Put on my yoke; Learn from me (I am gentle and humble); and you will find rest for yourselves.  My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

     What’s tough for you right now? Tuesday started out tough for me:  waiting for word from my Dad about the results of his mid-morning CT scan specifically searching for masses in the chest or lung area.  Along with everything Covid, everything political, the everyday empty church parking lot (a symbol missed conversations, connections and care), along with all those tough things, I was waiting to hear from my parents.  The Doctor promised to call Dad with results by 2 PM Tuesday.  Dad said, “When the doctor called at 2:05 PM, I could tell by the sound of his voice it was good news before he said a word about the scan.”

     When I heard the news, I was amazed how much lighter I felt.  It was still snowing.  Covid-19 was still spreading.  The church parking lot was still empty. The politics of the day were still uber-mean and often ridiculous. Still, I felt lighter. A load had been lifted for my parents.

     Today, 10/22/2020, I listened to a CBS interview with a nurse in one of five Covid-19 units in a Milwaukee hospital, in a city where they’ve set up tent hospitals to face the rising winter tide of Covid-19.  Nurse Ashley Bonus is young–but has type I diabetes and is 17 weeks pregnant.  Ashley works in the critical care unit with the most critical patients.  She said it was a hard choice to decide if she wished to continue in the Covid-19 ICU. She spoke in terms of war and battle—with a smile of all things. “You have to figure out what you are fighting for and keep it at the forefront.  This community, these patients, their families are who I am fighting for.”  “The emotional support and camaraderie in this unit is my strength.”  Like most nurses Ashley has a deep calling.

     None of us knows how this Covid-19 pandemic will unfold or when it will end.  I felt much lighter, however, after listening to Nurse Ashley.  She reminded of something critical, “figure out what you’re fighting for and keep it at the forefront.”

     At the end of the day Ashley is not ranting on Facebook.  She’s not encouraging distrust of other Americans.  She’s not chasing conspiracy theories.  She’s not finding ways to skew numbers or skewer those who disagree with her.  She is fighting the good fight for the sake of “community, patients and their families.”  She is fighting to bring healing, blessing, and caring to the world.

     What brings us down?  It is usually the things that lead us to neglect community, to dismiss people or belittle human needs.  Rants, mistrust, arguments, focusing on ourselves—those things burden us.  They are like spiritual cancers.

     Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary of struggling and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.  Put on my yoke; Learn from me (I am gentle and humble); and you will find rest for yourselves.  My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

     Ashley says, “Figure out what is worth (it)…and keep it at the forefront.” (Then she lists community, the needs of others and building camaraderie.) 

     Today, I invite us to name what is tough…remembering Jesus wants to lighten our burdens and offer a lighter way to live life.  There are a lot of tough things right now.  Jesus knows that, and cares deeply about the heavy loads you and I are carrying.  Accept that gracious care and be patient with yourself.

Today, I invite us to remember the most delightful feelings in the world are:   1) helping another along the way;   2) celebrating others’ good news;  3) caring for a person when they most need someone at their side.   In the end, those are things we will never regret.  We will “rest easy” for being like Jesus, “gentle and humble.”     

Blessings, Pastor Roger