Pastor Mark’s Blog
 
 

Pastor’s Devotion #112

“EW”

“In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –

This is your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1

 

So, the new year, 2021, is upon us. Where have you found your thoughts drifting? This might sound kind of strange, but have you found your “Word” yet? Yes, a “Word” for the year. I had a conversation with my daughter, Jeriah, yesterday. She reminded me of our family conversations during Christmas breaks over the past few years about discerning a “Word” for the upcoming year that would bring greater focus, meaning and intentionality. Recent research and studies have shown that a guiding word can provide empowering thoughts and focus as we move forward. So, Jeriah asked if I had a word yet. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind. I was driving in my truck as we talked and my mind was suddenly racing down a path, seeing if a word might pop up. At first, my mind was a blank canvas. Then suddenly, surprisingly, I realized that yes, I did have a word to guide me into this new year. I actually talked about it in a sermon a few weeks back. So, I thought for this first devotion of the year, I might recast my word, and perhaps it might be a word to be adopted by our church. Whether you personally adopt this word, or not – perhaps there is another word that God might use to Call you out and Call you into a growing, deepening relationship with Him.

My word for the year is “Worship”. Not only worship but using the anacronym “EW” – “EVERYTHING WORSHIP”. When we hear the term, worship, I think most of us think of a Sunday morning gathering at church. Other thoughts might include personal worship early in the morning, or in our car singing to the radio. Usually, worship revolves around some kind of music and singing. Many non-denominational churches use language such as this; “You should attend our services – we have great worship and teaching.” In language, worship has been relegated to 30 minutes of singing with a praise band, followed by 30 minutes of teaching by a pastor. In our Lutheran tradition, we are pointed to consider worship as a bit more complex experience, (yet some might argue more pedantic) to include a confession of sins, confession of our faith through the historic creeds, scripture readings, a sermon, Holy Communion, prayers, and much more – you get the picture. Yet, that picture of worship is still vulnerable to narrowly centering itself at a church, on Sunday, and participated in, typically once a week.

I have come to the conclusion that I/we need to continue to expand this picture of worship. What if we viewed worship as something we celebrated every day? How about every hour? What about every moment? As I drove further down this path of pondering, I came to the conclusion that “Everything” ought to be an act of worship. Everything we do, everything we say, everything we are, ought to be an act of worship unto God. “Everything Worship” is not to be confused with “Worship Everything”. That’s our problem. We worship and give our hearts away to a lot of troubling things and in areas that cause great sorrow. The greatest commandment we have been give is to “Love” (Worship) the Lord our God, with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. Our hearts are not to be surrendered nor attached or controlled by anything “in this world”, but we know the truth all too well. As Christians, we are to hold lightly the things of this world, in order that we might lift everything in enduring worship to God.

So also, we are not to confuse EW with EIW – “Everything Is Worship”. Not everything is worship. We can even sit in the third row of the sanctuary, let alone in a cold car in December and not worship. Worship involves the condition of the heart. Worship engages the focus and intent of the mind. These qualities of worship are highlighted in Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. In his dialog with the outcast woman, he acknowledges that a time is coming when all true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth. (John 4:23) Jesus shifts the focus from arguing about the true place of worship being a particular physical location at the Temple in Jerusalem, or as the Samaritans believed at their temple on Mount Gerizim. Rather, he points to a spiritual location, in the heart of every  individual who surrenders and acknowledges God, with heart and mind, in Spirit and Truth, as true worshippers.

If someone asked you the question, “Why did God create you?”, what would you say? Most of us would panic in the moment, as I did when Jeriah asked me her question. Our minds would search or shut down, and we would probably be left muttering, “Um, Um, Um, I’m not exactly sure.” Our human natural instincts would probably drive us to focus upon ourself. We might stumble into words and phrases such as: “To reach my full potential”; “To serve others”, “To be Kind and loving”.

But the truth is, God has created us to be “worshippers”. Our primary task is to worship the God who created the heavens and the earth. We have been physically born on this earth, to be spiritually born by the Holy Spirit, and then to be born anew eternally in God’s Heavenly Kingdom – in order that we might WORSHIP HIM!!

Paul states in Ephesians 1:12, “We, who were first to hope in Christ might ‘BE’ to the praise of his glory.” Paul says that our very “being”, our very existence and essence is to live to bring God praise. That folks, means worship. And it points to the truth that “everything” in our being – is to be directed toward bringing God praise – our act of worship.

Listen to how Paul describes worship in his letter to the Romans. I have discerned that Romans 12:1, is my Bible verse for the year. This is the way I’m thinking about it: there are 12 months in the year. 1 is the first place to begin the new year: first day, first month: Romans 12:1.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.”  

Let’s parse this Bible verse. Our spiritual act of worship begins “in view of God’s mercy”. We will never desire to worship Him until wisdom and revelation both move us to recognize and receive God’s mercy through Jesus Christ. When we truly come to realize that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” – that means you and me – God’s gift of mercy will change us.  We worship God because of His amazing, astounding, undeserved grace expressed to us through the life, death and resurrection of his dear Son, Jesus Christ. If not for the understanding of this Truth – the best we can offer is to turn to him in “duty” – something that we have been told is a good idea or trained and told to do so- but duty is a far cry, and light years away from desire – where true worship resides.

Paul tells us that true spiritual worship involves living bodies and living sacrifices. The Jewish nation had focused its worship upon dead carcasses laid upon an altar of stone. Jewish worship involved priests sacrificing animals and the shedding of their blood for the sins of the nation, among other material sacrifices. The people of Israel would bring their unblemished animals to the professionals and watch them “worship” God. Even with Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, there was too much watching. Spiritual worship focuses upon living bodies of believers lifting up sacrifices of praise to Him who have been forgiven by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews states, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us “continually” offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name.” (Hebrew 13:15). Take note of the word, “continually”, it is a kissing cousin to the word, “everything”.

Then Paul directs our attention to the words, “Holy” and “Pleasing”. Spiritual worship is to be holy and pleasing to God. The term, holy means to be “set apart”. Our lives are to be “set apart” from the world. There is to be a stark and recognizable difference between how a believer in Christ carries him/herself in relation to the rest of the world. The church is to be set upon a hill, giving forth light, not for light sake, but to shine light upon the Truth of Jesus Christ. The Christian is called forth and challenged to be “in the world” while not being “of the world”. We are to continually keep our eyes upon Jesus Christ, the author and perfector and model of our faith. The mercy of God, that initiates our spiritual worship, in Jesus, is to be seen, heard and expressed through the life of a believer to those held captive in a world caught up in judgment and condemnation. Paul continues to describe this “holiness” in Romans 12:2. Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This spiritual worship is to take us beyond the natural, self-focused attitudes, actions and perspectives constantly revolving around us in the world. Currently, we can clearly see these worldly attitudes and actions in play in the politics in our Congress. Christians are to transcend the judgments, moods and perspectives that promote control, division, greed and egotism.

Finally, can our worship be “pleasing” to God? Hebrews 11:6 succinctly states, “And without faith, it is impossible to please God.” Therefore, trust in God is the posture of spiritual worship which pleases God. Once again, we are vulnerable to our natural instincts and human responses. We quickly look to rely upon our own strength, intellect and insight – yet Proverbs 3:5-6 drives home a different response; “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and he will make straight your paths.” 

For the past 12 years, our church has held up E3, as words to drive the direction of our ministry: Encounter God, Encourage Believers, and Extend God’s Kingdom. For the next 12 months, I’m going to add “EW” to my list. “Everything Worship!” You are welcome to join me if you feel led. Jeriah told me today that she has climbed on the worship train with me. She said that this word helps to elevate and point her to God, rather than herself. Whether the word strikes a chord with you or not, may God guide us to a deeper, broader, higher, longer and richer understanding of worship. May every day, in every way, washing the dishes, walking the dog, pulling the weeds, talking to the neighbor, paying the bills, driving the car, buying groceries and yes, talking to God – let it be “Everything Worship” and praise to God our Father, Jesus Christ, His Son, and Holy Spirit, our comforter.

Looking forward to worshipping with you throughout this whole Happy New Year!

God Bless You All!

Pastor Mark

 



Pastor Mark’s Devotions #111

“Rhythms and Routines”

“You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.”

Matthew 24:44

I could not have planned for this–I just had to be ready. 

  • A question about death and heaven, that led to writing a devotion.
  • A plea about a lost loved one, missing from a mountain mudslide that led to prayer.
  • A call about a car emergency that led to a financial crunch.
  • A notification about cancelled reservations and travel plans that led to a disappointing conversation.
  • A report about a medical concern that led to a follow up. (everything is fine.)

I could not have planned for any of these–I just had to be ready.

Jesus directs us to be ready at all times. He tells us this because we do not know when He will return, nor does He. His words can also give us direction on a day to day basis, because, truly, we have no idea what tomorrow will bring. So how do we stay ready? How are you staying ready? We are all suffering from Covid fatigue and just want all of this to be over. But even with a number of vaccines ready to be mass distributed, we are still in this for the long haul. Do you still have some fuel in the tank or are you running on fumes? Countless people are just done with this whole ordeal – and to Dr. Fauci, Governor Inslee, or any other person in position of power, the answer is – “To hell with it, I’m going to see my family on Christmas!” This is truly what we all want to say and do – but yet we also want this all to be over – truly over and problem solved. So, most of us take a step back and take another look at our options.

Whatever your decisions, Christmas is going to be different this year. We will be more vulnerable than ever to the variety of emotions and feelings that can swing us in one direction or another. That being said, how do we prepare ourselves and get ready – and also be ready for the post-holiday blues and aftermath of an unrelenting pandemic?

I would like to suggest a few things to consider as we are in the midst of Advent and trying to get ready for Christmas.

If I asked you about your routines and rhythms, what would you say? Are you aware of any routines and rhythms in your daily life that help to bring a stable course or renewal for your heart? Perhaps, your routine, first thing in the morning, is to go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, wash your face, take your vitamins and look for that first cup of coffee. Does the day just happen, or can you recognize or put yourself in a place to feel a certain rhythm to your day? Many people make a check list – a “to do” list and their routine is to check off as many items on the list as possible. That can be helpful. I have become more of a list maker myself – but when you have 20 items on your list and you only accomplish 2, that can be rather disappointing.

Some people target one simple objective to focus on in the morning – to kind of jump start their day. This can be a helpful step in putting your heart in a good place, and energizing yourself for more. Choosing one doable task can protect your heart from getting overwhelmed with a long list of chores and discourage you from even beginning. This one small step can begin a move from routine to rhythm.

 Another small step in finding a helpful rhythm to your day is to consider starting something new. Some couples have discovered a new joy in being together as they have ventured out in a new way – by walking together, hiking together, cooking together – and being involved in an activity that allows for deeper conversation. As couples have stepped beyond their normal routines, they have found greater peace, energy and ebb and flow as they walk, talk and cook. Time has a chance to breathe and loved ones or friends can feel a new found freedom with each other.  

Also, consider your devotion time with the Lord. Does your relationship with God tend to be structured and formal and routed out? Routine can be a good thing. If you are going to read through the Bible in one year – it will require a commitment to a regular routine of daily Bible reading. But in the end, your reading scripture could possibly become another check mark on your “to do” list. In the routine you might have missed the deeper opportunity to spend time in rhythm with God, allowing Jesus to lead and the Holy Spirit to speak.

My regular routine, upon waking up, includes feeding Tigger, brushing my teeth, drinking a glass of water along with my glucosamine pills, reheat my day-old coffee, start a fresh pot, start a fire in the fireplace, turn on Pandora Christian worship music, settle down on the couch and then allow the next hour or more to free-flow with the Lord. Each day is different, but it all centers around drawing near to God – giving time and space to breathe, listen, hear, speak, sing, pray, write and worship him. This rhythm is what has helped my heart stay full to preach, write, respond to unexpected circumstances and not run dry. Rhythms are different for each person. But the more time becomes a crunch – rhythms are crushed in the process. You will know when you have found some helpful rhythms when your heart remains full and your response to the unexpected surprises you.  

If you want to fight off the fatigue from this pandemic – ask the Lord to help you find a helpful rhythm. It might include watching “The Nativity” Christmas film and then go on a walk – or zoom with your friends to talk about it. So too, the series, “The Chosen”. The second season is being completed this week. This series treats Jesus and his disciples as real human beings, while maintaining a faithfulness to Scripture. This could be a new rhythm that allows the Holy Spirit to breathe over you. What about reading a book out loud together with your partner, child or grandchild? Perhaps painting, planting or woodworking if it has been something you have thought of pursuing sometime down the road. You are down the road far enough – it’s time to give it a try.

Perhaps taking your old photos and putting together a picture book of family history or adventure – that gives you a chance to re-live and re-connect with people who are important to you – and make multiple copies for everyone to have one.

Consider this picture of rhythm.

Our music director, Erik Ronning, loves to surfboard. I’m sure he has routines getting his gear, loading up his vehicle, driving down to his favorite beach, finding his spot, putting on his wet suit. Then he splashes in the surf, paddles with his board over the oncoming waves. He finally reaches his spot. He sits on his board and waits. He watches. He’s prepared to catch a wave. Water laps over the board. He feels the cold water on his toes. The swells lift him up and settle him down. He is in his element. The wind blows, the sun shines, the seagulls squawk – Rhythm. He’s not in control of what wave comes next – but he’s ready – he’s waiting – his heart is full and he’s excited to be in the moment. When the moment finally arrives, he catches the wave, twists and turns and feels the energy and rides the wave until it exhausts itself. As the wave wears out, in the blink of an eye, Erik makes the turn, feels the rush, and is ready to paddle out and wait for another wave.

Can you feel it? Have you felt it? Rhythm, it is a wonderful thing. It allows us to breathe again. It allows us to begin again. It allows us to look at the long journey of a pandemic again and be ready for whatever comes again – and live again.

Go, grab your surfboard, go to the water, wait, ride and feel the wave – whatever it is, whatever it takes – you will breathe again – and you will find the rhythm of your soul again.

God Bless You All.

Pastor Mark



Pastor’s Devotion #110

“Do You Go to Heaven Immediately Upon Death”

 

We all wonder what happens when we die. Eternity is shrouded in mystery. The Apostles’ John and Paul were both given an actual glimpse of God’s eternal Kingdom, but most of us are left wrestling with many questions.  I received a great question, in an email this morning. It originated this week in a small group discussion. The question was raised, “Do you go to heaven immediately upon death?” Eventually, this question crosses the mind of every believer. The non-believer might get stuck with the simple question of whether there is the existence of an after-life at all. But for the Christian, heaven is our ultimate, eternal home. We are only sojourners on this earth. Our time on earth is temporary and passes away as quickly as the blink of an eye. King David records his awareness of this truth, in Psalm 39. He writes, “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreath; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” (Psalm 39:4-5)

King David points to the brevity of life on earth. But David’s son, Solomon, known as the wisest of all Israel’s kings, points to life beyond the grave. Solomon wrestles within himself regarding the meaninglessness of life on earth yet he still declares in the book of Ecclesiastes that God has made everything beautiful in its time. He also states, “God has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

The book of Job, believed, by many, to be the first book written in the Bible, quickly acknowledges a life existence beyond the grave. In the midst of his suffering and turmoil, Job states, “I know my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh, I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart years within me.”  (Job 19:25-27) Job mentions both “skin” and “flesh” as he declares this eternal reality. The “skin”, he refers to, represents that element of the body which is temporary, fragile, and will die. The “flesh” seems to point to that which will continue to live and is the first expression in scripture of bodily (spiritual?) resurrection.  

So, indeed, what happens when we die? Do we go into a sleep state and await the Second Coming? Or do we immediately enter the Kingdom that has been prepared for us?

Let us first look at the words of Jesus. When Jesus returned to Bethany and discovered that Lazarus, his dear friend, had already been dead for 4 days, he has a conversation with Lazarus’ sister, Martha. In that conversation, Jesus states, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me WILL NEVER DIE.” (John 11: 25-26) Jesus makes a radical, audacious claim that anyone who lives and believes in him, they will not die. Jesus brings comfort, security, and assurance that as believers, there is no death. As believers, life here, shifts to life there with God.

This reality is confirmed in a conversation Jesus has with a criminal as he suffers on the cross. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus, turns to him and pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth, TODAY you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) There is no hesitation in Jesus’ reaction to the criminal. To this dying man, who is clearly suffering the consequences of his actions, Jesus extends the gift of grace and brings assurance that all will be well. Demonstrating heart-felt humility, Jesus declares the immediacy of being home with God.

The Bible also gives examples of Old Testament characters that are either immediately taken up to heaven, or come back to earth from heaven. Early in the book of Genesis, we are told that Enoch “walked with God”. Then the Bible states, “Then he (Enoch) was no more, because God took him away.” (Genesis 5:24)

Elijah is another Old Testament character that God “took away”. Elijah was a prophet, who confronted King Ahab and Jezebel with the Word of God. When his ministry was over and the baton was being passed to his apprentice, Elisha, the Bible reports that Elijah was taken up into heaven. 2 Kings 2:11 states, “As they (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

So also, as Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die, he took his three close friends with him up a high mountain. There he was transfigured and his Father spoke encouraging words to his Son. In addition, God the Father sent, Moses and Elijah to speak to Jesus. These two pillars of the faith, descend from heaven to support, encourage and strength Jesus for the mission ahead. The Bible states, “As Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:29-31)

The Apostle Paul also speaks about the resurrection and eternity. Paul and the early believers understood that Jesus’ return, His Second Coming, was imminent. They believed that Jesus would return at any moment. Because of this, many early believers shed their normal daily activities and work. They believed that work was no longer necessary. But as time went on, and Jesus did not return, Paul had to address the Christian community and exhort them to continue their daily responsibilities while waiting. He finally addressed certain churches and members of the community saying that if anyone would not work, they also would not eat.  So also, during this waiting time, believers began to die. The question was raised, “What will happened to those believers who have already passed away (the Bible also uses the term – “fell asleep”).

1 Thessalonians is believed to be the first book written in the New Testament. Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica and addressing many issues among the believers. One of those issues involves Jesus’ return and believers who have “fallen asleep”. Paul states, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men; who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own words, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The people were discouraged that Jesus had not yet returned and that believers were dying. Paul expressed a pattern for what would take place when Jesus came back. The dead would rise first and then those who are still alive.

You also might be familiar with the phrase, “Away from the body. At home with the Lord.” This statement also comes from the Apostle Paul as he addresses the Corinthian church. He states, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6) Many Christians and denominations have used this scripture to support the belief that if one is “away from the body” then they are “with the Lord”. The key is the sense of immediacy, and that there is no delay in going to heaven once a person dies.

Coupled with that are all the countless examples of people experiencing Near Death Experiences (NDE). It is estimated that there are millions of people who have experienced an NDE during their lifetime. Dr. Mary Neal, is one example, describing herself as a “casual Christian”, drowned during a kayak trip in Chile. She has written two books about her experience, being taken to heaven, and then being sent back to earth. She confesses to having met Jesus and seeing some of the incredible glories of heaven. Countless confessions from recovering patients echo the same themes having experienced in heaven: Jesus, angels, family members, music, lights, love, peace and a clear, true sense of being home – and the removal of fear – are all consistent messages given from messengers returning from God’s glory. 

So, what do we make of all of this? Jesus has still not returned and billions of people have died since his resurrection. One of the challenges we are faced with is living in a chronological time continuum. God operates outside of time and space. He entered our world in the person of Jesus for 33 years, but he operates simultaneously, eternally in the past, present and future realities of our world. Therefore, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. (Isaiah 55:8) When we attempt to press our limited knowledge and understanding upon the plan and function of God’s omniscience – our conclusions will always be insufficient.

So then, let us return to where we began. Let us return to the words of Jesus himself. In the midst of death and mourning, Jesus brings words of comfort, hope, and love to his dear friends. More than that he makes a declarative statement of truth upon which we all, as believers, can stand and remain. Jesus declares, “WHOEVER LIVES AND BELIEVES IN ME – WILL NEVER DIE.”

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After saying this, Jesus then turns to Martha and asks the penetrating question, “Do you believe this?”

May we respond with the same child-like triumphant faith as Martha! She responded, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

So, to answer your question: “Do you go to heaven immediately upon death?” Yes, indeed, you will never die. You go directly home to eternal glory and into the arms of your loving Savior! Safe and Secure! No more fears, no more doubts, no more need for questions – only Truth – that Jesus has certainly prepared the way for each of us to go home – whenever our TODAY comes.

God Bless You All, Pastor Mark  



Pastor’s Devotion #109

“Three Simple Words”

“Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Be not afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.” Luke 2:30

Recently, Google has encouraged the use of three simple words to help employees avoid burnout. What might those words be? “No Meetings Week”. With those working from home, suffering through endless zoom and virtual meetings, the message, “No Meetings Week” is a welcomed moment to celebrate.

With the news of a pandemic’s third wave, a pulling back from any forward steps toward normalcy, and a preparation for what could seem like a hollow holiday season, perhaps we are need of three other simple words from Scripture.

I stumbled upon these words, once again, as I pulled papers out of my Bible, trying to preserve them from Sunday morning’s sprinkle. A weathered piece of paper fell out, waiting to be re-discovered. The three words were the title of a devotion that I wrote exactly 23 years ago, for the December newsletter. It was a devotion that I wrote after my daughter’s birth. This year, 2020, my daughter celebrated her “Golden” birthday. I didn’t know what a golden birthday was until Jeriah explained it. It’s the birthday  when your age crosses with your birth date. Jeriah was born on October 23rd, and this year she turned 23 – a la – a Golden Birthday! (My golden birthday occurred when I was six, the year I got shingles, not a year worth remembering in my opinion.)

23 years have passed since I penned the following perspective. Since then, there have been highs and lows, tears and laughter, adventures and sorrows. These three words still stand, ready to lift up, re-assure, and restore our focus. Messengers were sent by God, with the intent to restore and reorient thoughts to God with these words. We are to know that He is present through thick and thin, challenge and defeat, surprise and triumph. You’ve heard the words before. Perhaps working to survive endless adjustments and uncertainties, you need to be reminded again: “Be Not Afraid!” Pause here – Take a moment and reflect upon the places where fear has crept into your heart and mind. It is critical that we recognize those things that create fear within us – so that we can direct them to the Lord. God is greater than all that we fear. More than that – God is with us! GOD IS WITH YOU! He will always be with you! One word, “Emmanuel”, which we speak often at Christmas, holds the meaning in, with and under the word: “God With Us” – Yes, in these trying times – God is with us. Three words in One, like the Trinity – eternally true. No matter your experience this holiday season. No matter your experience next year and beyond, Almighty God wants us reassured, “Be Not Afraid”.

Written November, 1997

 “Be Not Afraid”

I felt a wave of fear wash over me as I watched the fetal monitor do a dance hour after hour. The contractions wouldn’t stop. Our tiny baby seemed determined to rush into the world eight weeks early. We were told survival was fairly certain, but then again, who really knows. What about complications and unforeseen circumstances? Fear hovered close by.

A few days later, with contractions under control, we made our way home. Now, new worries surfaced. When labor begins, would we have time enough to get to the hospital? Would the delivery be as sudden and as painful as Isaiah’s birth? October 22nd arrived. I received a page at 9:35 p.m. “Honey”, my wife said, “You better get home.” I raced home. We arrived at the hospital safely at 11:00 p.m. Yet again, more anxiety. Was the baby transverse? Dawn’s water broke at 1:30 a.m. The midwife declared the good news, “The head is down!”. The epidural was administered. The rest is history. A perfect delivery. A perfect baby girl. Jeriah Aryn Bankson was brought into this world on October 23rd at 9:36 a.m.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder, “What was I so worried about?” Then again, it’s interesting what happens as I look forward. Not that I am consumed with fear but what does the future hold? Could it be SIDS, sexual abuse, learning disabilities? Who will she date? When should she date? Will she be safe away at college? Who will she marry? Will her kids be born healthy? Does it ever end? If one is not careful, the answer is, no, it never stops. There will ALWAYS potentially be seemingly something worthy of worry.

But during this Christmas Season, there is a simple statement we need to hear and hold on to. This saying is not just for December but for each of our undetermined days. It is the message of angels! “Be Not Afraid!” This familiar phrase forever connects us to shepherds and angels on Christmas night. Shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly they are enthroned by a heavenly host declaring the glorious news that a Savior is born. We hear the message but we need to tune our ear to the preface. Three words which are easily overlooked but set the stage for the celebration. How can the celebration commence if fear fills the air? It is impossible. Fear has no place in God’s plan of action. As one scours the Scriptures, it is interesting to note that these three little words are littered throughout the herald’s message. The first words spoken to Zachariah and Mary by a holy messenger brings the assuring word, “Be Not Afraid.” In fact, from Genesis to Revelation, these three words are used with regularity. God speaks directly to Abraham, Isaac, Moses and others using the same words. And men of faith also speak these words of encouragement; Joseph to his brothers, Joshua to the people of Israel, Elijah to a widow, David to his son, Solomon, and many more. Finally, in Revelation, when John comes face to face with Almighty God, the first words spoken to him are, “Be Not Afraid – I am the First and the Last.”

What does this all mean? The message is clear! God’s desire is to remove ALL fear (anxiety) from every aspect of our life. God wants us to be filled with the gifts of his Spirit – joy, peace, patience, love, self- control. Fear has NO existence in the presence of God (except the “fear” which calls us to revere him and stand in awe)   

As Christmas approaches and we await the coming of the Messiah, let us take hold of and claim these three little words spoken by the Holy Ones. Regardless of our circumstances, past, present, and future,   we need not fear, God has made a way for us – we will overcome!

Let us celebrate the joy that is for all people – In the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord!

Love in Christ, Pastor Mark

 

 



Pastor Mark’s Devotions #108

“Faith of a Soldier”

Jesus said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, even in Israel” Luke 7:9

Tomorrow, November 11th, we celebrate, Veteran’s Day. It is a day to honor and recognize those men and women who have put on a uniform and have been willing to fight for the freedom of our country and even be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. It has been stated many times, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Faith is found and surfaces in many and various conditions and circumstances.

This devotion begins with a simple history of the origins of Veterans Day. Then I’d like to point to the Scriptures, to faith found in a solider, that surfaced in a surprising way, even to Jesus himself, from a Roman Centurion no less, that left our Savior virtually speechless.

THE ORIGINS OF VETERANS DAY

In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. This site, on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River and the city of Washington, became the focal point of reverence for America’s veterans.

Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation’s highest place of honor… These memorial gestures all took place on November 11, giving universal recognition to the celebrated ending of World War I fighting at 11 a.m., November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). The day became known as “Armistice Day”….

Realizing that peace was equally preserved by veterans of WW II and Korea, Congress was requested to make this day an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars. In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day….

A law passed in 1968 changed the national commemoration of Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October. It soon became apparent, however, that November 11 was a date of historic significance to many Americans. Therefore, in 1978 Congress returned the observance to its traditional date….

So, let it be at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, that we take time to give God thanks and pray for our veterans and our present military soldiers who are being put in harm’s way – that we might live in safety and enjoy the freedoms we all share.

I would also like to highlight one specific soldier. He is found in Luke chapter 7. Here, Luke describes Jesus having a surprise encounter with a Roman soldier. He is a Centurion, which means he is one who holds great responsibility and authority. Jesus arrives in the town of Capernaum, to be confronted by some Jewish elders. They approach him regarding a highly valued slave. He is the slave of the Centurion, and he is deathly ill. The elders plead for Jesus to come with them because this Roman soldier has a deep love for the Jewish nation – surprise, surprise. He even built their synagogue. An even greater surprise. So, Jesus goes with them. When Jesus is nearing the house, the centurion sends some friends to tell him not to trouble himself any further. They tell Jesus that he does not need to come to his house. He even told his friends to say, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. And that is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.” His friends continued with these stunning words from the soldier, “I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come’, and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this, and he does it. Say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

Jesus was shocked! The Scripture says that when Jesus heard this, he was amazed! Then he turned to the crowd following him and said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, even in Israel.”

His friends return home and find the servant completely healed.

Jesus was “amazed” at the centurion’s faith and understanding of God’s authority. Other ways to describe Jesus’ response is – he was astonished, marveled, surprised, in wonderment. It was such a surprise to experience this man with such humility, faith and understanding because not only was he a trained killing machine for the Roman emperor; this man was also in charge of one hundred killing machine soldiers. Yet, here we have the model of a man, while wielding great authority, humbling himself before a back-woods, itinerate unrecognized teacher with a motley crew of disciples. And he even goes so far as to declare himself unworthy to be in his presence.

Compare this to the amazement Jesus expresses in Mark chapter six in his own hometown. In Nazareth, on the Sabbath, Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to teach. Many were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. Yet others questioned his wisdom and his family heritage. They say, “Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us also? And they took offense at him.” The Scriptures state that Jesus could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. Mark 6:6 states, “And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” Here again, we find Jesus “amazed”. He is astonished, marveled, surprised and in wonderment but not at amazing faith – but rather amazed at his friends and relatives lack of faith. Therefore, Jesus states, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”

It is ironic, that while Jesus is traveling throughout Israel – while he is among his disciples, friends, relatives, hometown, religious and ill-religious and various nondescript crowds – that it would be a Roman warrior who would display the depth of spiritual acumen and understanding of Kingdom authority.

Tomorrow, may we also honor this ancient war veteran, who models being a warrior after God’s own heart! What a wonderful, amazing surprise and gift of faith!

May God bless ALL our Veterans!

God Bless You All!                                             Pastor Mark



Pastor’s Devotion #107

“Election”

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

 

Finally, Tuesday, November 3rd, Election Day has arrived. When the election results are finally tallied and announced, half of our country will be elated, while the other half will be throttled with concern.  What to do? Some people will be worried that our country will go backward, others will believe we will go sideways, still others will be concerned that we will be snapping at our tail, as we run in circles.

Even before the election reports begin to roll in, I want to challenge you to lay down your worry and concern. Rather than despair and/or disappointment, I want you to dream. No matter who becomes our elected President or our elected state officials or which petitions are passed.  We have a good work to do! The Apostle Paul, declares in Ephesians 2:8-9, with trumpet blast, that we are saved by God’s grace through simple, child-like abandoned faith in Jesus Christ. We are safe and secure for eternity through the sacrificial death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Additionally, Paul continues on, in verse 10, to declare that through of this gift of grace, we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do. Tonight, I want you to focus upon your Savior, Jesus Christ. I want you to focus upon your church and the community in which we live. God has placed us in this place, at this time, to do a good work for His glory. God’s Spirit has been moving in, with, and through the hearts and lives of our people. It is the same kind of energy and life I experienced when God resurrected our tiny, fledging mission church in the foothills of the Sierra mountains. No one gave us a chance to survive. We had little to offer except for a faith in a mighty God. God turned that tiny church on fire and flames of His glory were felt throughout the community.

Have you felt the spiritual flames burning in your heart and have you recognized them smoldering under your nose? It is happening in your church, right now, in spite of a global pandemic and divisive presidential election. The question is; what good works has God been preparing for us, in such a time as this. And more personally, what part does God want you to play? Where will you participate? Who can you join and encourage? Your presence and participation are crucial in the spreading of God’s Spirit.

What is interesting about mission church dynamics is that – everyone is keenly aware that EVERYONE is invaluable to the effort at the beginning. EVERYONE is needed for the church to grow – spiritually, physically, numerically, emotionally and into the community. But once the church experiences a certain level of growth – people begin to back off and act as if their presence isn’t really that necessary. Which cannot be further from the truth. You are irreplaceable in the work of God!

The Sprit of God moves in, with and through His people. St. Paul declares that our very bodies are the very temple of God. God’s presence explodes when God’s people gather together – there is an exponential component to his movement.

Rather than worry about where our nation is going – dream about where God is going. Where is He moving our congregation? More personally, where, how, and when is God moving YOU. Each one of us is indispensable to the good work that God wants to do among us. I know that many people are worried about our conducting worship inside our new fellowship hall. If the governor tells us to back down, we will follow orders. We are committed to safety and not taking undue risks. We are taking it one week at a time and ready to make adjustments as needed. On the other hand, to feel the energy in the room, and also in the parking lot with cars honking for Matthew Mendez confirming his faith in Jesus Christ. It was a special moment – experienced by all who were engaged. Where you there? If not, you missed out on a Spirit filled day. Don’t worry – THERE IS MORE TO COME! Maybe you do not feel safe coming to church – I completely respect and understand that. But if it’s simply the inconvenience that you do not like sitting in your car – you are missing out and we are missing out on the spirit of God that you bring. Consider the difference between having 5 cars in the parking lot verses 15 cars, 50 cars, 100 cars, or 200 for that matter. The presence of God’s people coming together against the odds (not to mention rain or snow) and the excitement it brings becomes palpable. Consider the difference between 5 people inside for church verses 15, 50, 100 or 200. I guarantee you, your presence matters! The joy of the Lord was present as we held our first worship service in our newly remodeled fellowship hall last Sunday. It was a mission church mindset in a 145-year old church. Only God does work like that!

If we want to do a good work which God has prepared in advance for us to do – and if we want to bring God’s power to a divided community and nation – we must be together, united and understanding how vital each individual role is. If you are unable to participate in any church activities – that’s ok – but can God lead you to reach out with phone calls, letters, email or texts to family, friends, neighbors, or church members to demonstrate Christian love in such difficult times as these? Perhaps a meal or a listening ear, or offering a prayer? We might not be clear on the particulars, but without a doubt, God wants to take our church and faith more personal and more public!

This Sunday, for those who come, you are going to hear a very personal faith testimony – that will  bless your public ears and continue fanning the flame of the Spirit among us.

Can you hear and feel my rallying cry in this devotion? I hope so. I am pumped up and fired up because I can feel and see a missional spirit in our congregation being lit and becoming more fully alive in Him. This is the fun stuff. The excitement, commitment, enthusiasm, energy, and generosity are popping up in many and various ways. This is what makes faith compelling to those who do not know Him yet. Yes, we have challenges ahead of us – and we MUST be concerned with exposures and undue risks. But let us cradle and protect and thrive and release the Holy Spirit to move among us with greater freedom, power and transformation. The reality is that God’s Spirit seems to spring forward most often in desperate, trying times – and we all know we are living in trying times. But when God’s people are crying out for more of his saving grace, historically, the church of Jesus Christ has done its greatest work during society’s most difficult days.

Know this, the most important election has already taken place! God has elected you into his family! St. Paul states, “Therefore, I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” 2 Timothy 2:10

God Bless You All!  We have a wonderful, Spirit led, work ahead of us!

Pastor Mark

  



Pastor Mark’s Devotion #106

 

“Oh, The Wonder of it All!”

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Psalm 139:13

 

I don’t know about you but sometimes, I find myself needing to step back and gain some perspective. It doesn’t necessarily solve all my problems, but many times it broadens my horizons. I found that happening last Saturday morning. Earlier in the week, I had read an article declaring that scientists have determined the size of our universe. Students of the cosmos have determined our universe to be 93 billion light years in diameter. So, that Saturday morning, I decided to sit and ponder and try to comprehend that number. The number, 93, can perhaps be easily remembered because the distance from the sun to earth is roughly 93 million miles. But 93 billion light years is a completely different animal. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Therefore, light travels from the sun to earth in 500 seconds, or 8.33 minutes. Pluto rotates around the sun at roughly 3.7 trillion miles.. Researchers say that light from the sun takes about 4-6 hours to reach Pluto. One light year is calculated to be approximately 6 trillion miles. If my calculations are correct, light traveling the equivalent of one light year would equal light traveling from the sun to earth over 65,000 times. Our mind has trouble comprehending the enormity of 1 light year. Now consider that our universe is over 93 BILLION LIGHT YEARS across. 93 billion multiplied by 6 trillion will get you close to the measurement in miles. Trust me, your calculator does not have enough digits. And our minds do not have enough cognitive ability to comprehend such a number. And yet here we are. And the universe is still expanding! What do these incomprehensible numbers even mean? It means that we are even smaller than one pale blue dot caught in a ribbon of light thinner than the thickness of a piece of hair.

And yet Scripture says that God knows every hair on our head. Consider the wonder of this – Almighty God who fills every space in the universe – He knows every hair on your head.

Let’s look another direction. Do you know how many cells make up a human body? Google gave me the number – 37.2 TRILLION. Yes, we have five fingers and five toes. We have two ears, two eyes, and two feet. Oh, and, by the way, our body just happens to be made up of over 37 trillion cells. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!! Don’t try to count them, you’ll never get there. Some have used the example of stacking dollar bills to grasp the enormity of such numbers. The height of 1 million stacked $1 dollar bills measures about 358 feet. The height of 1 billion stacked $1 dollar bills measures roughly 68 miles. The height of 1 TRILLION stacked $1 dollar bills measures roughly 68,000 miles. That’s over a quarter of the way to the moon in dollar bills. As a side note, our national debt is over $27 TRILLION dollars, growing by $1 million dollars every 20 seconds (over 7.5 trips to the moon in dollar bills) and none of our politicians seem to be too worried about it. 27 trillion is a really, really big number – really, it’s too big for us to imagine. And now imagine that you have 37 trillion cells interconnected making up your one single human body. Let’s go one step further. The DNA with each of your cells, if uncoiled would measure approximately 5 feet. Therefore, if all your DNA was uncoiled and placed end to end, the resulting strand would measure roughly 67 BILLION MILES long. That’s about 150,000 round trips to the moon and back. How can it be that there is so much unseen, under our dual nostrils and singular noses?

And yet David declares, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.” Psalm 139:15

Most of the time, I get caught up and worried about the things I see right under my nose. But sometimes we need to consider that which we cannot see, imagine, nor wrap our heads around – that it is so incredible, amazing and incomprehensible – the only answer to all the numbers is God. And there is only One!

He is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. He is present in the 93 billion light years of the cosmos, and He is present in the 37 trillion cells that make up our human bodies, and He is present with you right here, right now, with whatever is right under your nose. Oh, the wonder of it all!

God Bless You All!

Pastor Mark



Order of Worship October 18



OSLC Comprehensive



Pastor Mark’s Devotion #105

“Jesus – A Window and A Mirror”

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” I Corinthians 13:12

For the past several weeks, I have been working on replacing the windows at my home. Ed Snowden has been guiding me through the replacement procedure. It was time for the 46-year old glass with their broken seals and oxidized aluminum frames to go. With the new glass in place, as I got ready for bed, my eyes did a double take. I could not believe how clean, crisp and clear everything looked outside. It was almost startling! It reminded me of the moment when I first tried on my new pair of glasses. I had no idea how much my vision had deteriorated. The world and its colors had turned so dull, and it was so subtle that I hadn’t even noticed it – until I looked through those new lenses.

My bathroom also received a new window. But this window was with frosted glass. Now, no one can peek in as I brush my teeth but it also means that my vision is impaired. Inside the bathroom is a medicine cabinet faced with a mirror. One day, after a shower, I dropped my towel on the floor. As I lifted my head, the door of the cabinet was open and the corner of the mirror gouged a deep gash in the top of my head. It bled like crazy.

Windows and mirrors. Recently, I read a short pastoral piece encouraging me to consider looking at Jesus as a window and a mirror. As I had just been working on my windows, I was “drawn” in. The Scripture writers “frame” Jesus in many different ways. He is the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, and the Prince of Peace. Jesus, himself, wants us to “picture” him as The Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, and the Bread of Life. He calls himself the Vine, the Gate, the Way, the Truth and the Resurrection.

When we look “through” Jesus as a window, we are empowered to see the outside world with greater clarity, crispness and precision. When we look “into” Jesus as a mirror, we are capable of seeing ourselves with greater honesty, openness and truth.

The Apostle Paul stated, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” Whenever I read this passage, I think of the rest stop areas along I-5. Due to vandalism, the state puts up a piece of galvanized sheet metal as a substitute for a mirror above each of the sinks. Needless to say, it’s a pretty poor reflection. Paul says that what we have right now is a pretty dim and dull view of reality. But there will come a time when all things will become clear – it will be startling! We shall see our Savior face to face – and at that time, life will never have looked so clean, crisp nor clear. With Christ as our window, we will see the Kingdom of God and the joy of the Lord, as clear as crystal. With Christ as our mirror, we will see ourselves clothed in Him. Our identity will be covered in Christ. Shame, guilt, and sin will be no more. Holiness, godliness, and Christlikeness will be our reflection.

The Apostle, John, was given an open window to see into The Kingdom – and he was startled! This is what he saw; “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…The wall (of the city) was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass.” (Rev. 21:1-2,18)

When you look outside, does the view look dim and dull?  Look to Jesus, he is your window of hope and your mirror to healing.                                             God Bless You All!                               Pastor Mark