"Five Hundred Fifty Words-Or Less" Pastor's Blog

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Spring Training (February 12, 2020)

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Dear Saints,

Spring is near! It seems like almost forever ago when the Washington Nationals won their first World Series … but this past week was one my wife’s favorite days … “Truck Day.” The day her favorite team loads up a semi-truck with thousands of bats, balls, and other equipment – and heads south for Spring Training. That time of year where coaches and players get ready for the new season. Players will be knocking the rust off bodies that maybe haven’t swung many bats or thrown many balls in months. They’ll get ready by watching and listening to coaches intently and then going out and doing what they’re told. This doing is key. One can talk all day about the steps needed to play baseball, but doing it is completely different. And doing it is the only way to get ready.

Tony Graffanino went through at least 13 spring trainings with 8 different major league teams. He is also a Christian missionary who used his skill in baseball to spread the Good News. He spent his life as a Christian, but found that even as he was knowledgeable about the gospel in his own life, he was still learning. And one of the things he learned was from St. Paul, “I was with you in weakness … my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and … the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5) For years, though he had taught 100s of kids the game of baseball while proclaiming God’s Word, only three became believers in Christ. Then, Tony realized his methods were wrong. He’d been trying to reason with kids to convince them Christ existed through facts about God. Using “plausible words of wisdom” he tried building rational, winning arguments nobody could logically dismiss. 

Then, inspired by the Holy Spirit, living inside him and leading him in faith, Tony decided to try a different approach. He and his team changed direction from facts and arguments to simply telling of the things Jesus did and still does to people. They allowed God’s Word to show unbelieving people who Jesus was and what He did. In essence, they simply showed them the love of Jesus Christ and Him crucified to save them from the effects of sin … eternal death … so they too could have the gift of eternal life (1 Corinthians 2:2). Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the wisdom of man, more children came to hear, listen, and then believe in Jesus. 

Dave Branon, who told this story through a devotion he wrote, says, “We should be knowledgeable about the Bible and about the reasons for our belief (and sometimes explain them) … But the most compelling and effective story we can tell puts Christ in the center.” As we faithfully serve God and His kingdom, Jesus urges us to respond to His Father’s love for us by loving Him back … and showing His love to our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). As we show Jesus’ love in our faith-filled works of mercy – which He has already equipped us for (Ephesians 2:8-10) – rather than just talking about them, the Holy Spirit will move people to believe in Him also.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

I Know How You Feel (February 5, 2020)

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

When someone we know is struggling in life, we might say something like, “I know how you feel.” The intent, even if we don’t really know how they feel, is to let them know they aren’t alone in their trouble. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to try to know how people with struggles feel. I read about a man who wanted to be able to empathize with minorities, so he darkened his skin to live life like they did. A school teacher had her class tie an arm to their side to experience the struggles people without limbs have doing routine tasks. It might help to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” … but at the end of the day, the “minority” became the “majority” again … the students regained their limbs again. It’s hard to really know how anyone feels as they struggle in life.

There is one person though who does know how we feel. He knows what it’s like to be us. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “For because (Jesus) Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18) Jesus is true God … fully God in all things. But, being born of a woman, by the power of the Holy Spirit, He is also true man … fully man in all things, except sin. In Matthew’s detailed account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, He was tempted like us - tempted to satisfy His hunger as He fasted for forty days and nights, tempted to test His Father’s willingness to protect Him by throwing Himself off the temple’s highest point, and tempted with limitless earthly power and glory in return for worshiping Satan. Yet Jesus never succumbed to Satan in the way we often do when we’re tempted.

Because He was fully human, just as we are – and He dwells within us in baptism – He knows how we feel. He experienced hunger, sadness at the death of friends, and times of distress over the way things were going. But Jesus never wavered as He trusted His Father’s will in all things. He trusted Him because, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) But, He was also one with all mankind, “He Himself likewise partook of the same things (as we do) …” (Hebrews 2:14) so He could, in fact, “know exactly how we feel” … so He could, in fact, be the perfect sacrifice on the Cross to defeat forever the devil’s best weapon … death. 

Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23a) The punishment we all deserve is death. But our Creator loves and cares for us so much that He allowed His Son to become flesh and blood. Then He bound Him to us. Jesus knows how we feel. But He also remained fully God so that “through (His) death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” (Hebrews 2:14b) He has paid the sacrificial price for us, so we may be forgiven, made holy, and gain eternal life with Him in His heavenly kingdom. Because of Jesus’ work on the Cross and His resurrection, all these promises belong to us now and forever.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

A Light in the Darkness (January 29, 2020)

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Dear Fellow Followers of Christ,

Darkness … pretty much, universally, darkness is a feared condition. The setting for scary movies … darkness. Are children “reassured by the dark?” … not usually. I don’t have to tell you how painful darkness can be … hitting my big toe on something in the middle of the night while trying to quietly navigate a dark room without waking up the whole house. In July 1977, a heat wave caused a massive blackout in New York City … darkness led to looting and vandalism resulting in $150 million in damage. Little wonder the saying, “Not much good happens in the dark of night.”

Isaiah 9 begins with images of darkness. I feel sorry for those in Zebulun and Naphtali … “The people who walked in darkness … who dwelt in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). These people weren’t necessarily living in pitch black night, like they were on the dark side of the moon. They lived in another kind of darkness … the darkness of disobedience toward God and His Word … the darkness of sin. Sin leads to darkness because, when unchecked, it leads to ultimate darkness – eternal separation from God … death (Romans 6:23a). And that’s scary, painful, and chaotic.

But, in the midst of the gloom found early in Isaiah 9, there’s a flicker of hope. On these same people, “a great light … (has) shone” (Isaiah 9:2). This great pierced the darkness of a Bethlehem night, when the Son of God … the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6b) was born. But Jesus’ birth was only the start. Ultimately, Jesus was born to die on the Cross as the price to redeem all mankind from the eternal darkness of sin and death. 

To many in the world the thought of God suffering and dying makes no sense. They think, “If God is almighty and all powerful, He should be able to just snap His fingers and take sin away. Why the suffering?” And, I suppose He could’ve done that. But that’s not what He chose to do. Our loving creator chose to send His Son Jesus into the world as a man, yet fully God, to pay the price for mankind’s sin by dying on the Cross … and rising to new life three days later. It may sound crazy … but that’s what God did.

It sounds crazy to a world focused on their own needs and comfort. Paul writes, “The word of the cross is folly” (1 Corinthians 1:18a) to those who just can’t believe God would do such a thing to save them. But, to those who have faith in God’s Word, who trust His promises found there, it isn’t crazy … the cross is a place of power. It shows, without a doubt, the extent of the power of God’s love for His creation – His love is so great that He would sacrifice His own Son to save each one of us. From the Cross of Christ emanates the “great light” which brings God’s people joy and gladness, release of burden, and an end to fear caused by the darkness of sin and death for all of us who follow Him in faith.

                                                                                        Following Him in Faith,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Keep the Ball Rolling (January 23, 2020)

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

When I start a project, I’ve got to do something to get the ball rolling. Once the ball is rolling, it needs to keep rolling. But sometimes I need help from others. For example, when I was in the Air Force, I had the opportunity to start a project to automate the translation of foreign language documents. I got the ball rolling by writing some proposals which convinced others to fund the project. However, to keep the ball rolling, I needed engineers to do design and software coding. I needed linguists to verify results. And I needed people to train others how to use the software. Fortunately, everyone did their part – kept the ball rolling – and the project succeeded.

God doesn’t need help getting, or keeping, the ball rolling for His plan for the redemption of His creation. However, He’s eager to have His children involved. In the first chapter of John we see how eager He is as His Son’ ministry gets rolling. John the Apostle tells how his namesake, John the Baptist, recounts how the ball got rolling as Jesus came toward him one day. John the Baptist says, “I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:33) God the Father starts the ball rolling by letting John the Baptist know which guy would be “the One.” Without God revealing this to John, it’s possible nothing would’ve happened … Jesus might’ve just kept on walking. But God made it clear to John who the Messiah would be … and that’s what happened … the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and remained on Him. (Matthew 3:16-17)

And John kept the ball rolling as he pointed Jesus out to a couple of his disciples saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” And these guys went and followed Jesus (John 1:35-39). John did his part to keep the ball rolling, just as God had called him to do. Then God called on Andrew, one of the two disciples who followed Jesus, to do his part too. Andrew told His brother Simon about Jesus, “We’ve found the Messiah!” (John 1:41) Simon went with Andrew to see Jesus. There Jesus renamed Simon “Cephas” or “Peter” in English. Peter became a crucial part of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples; and a major part of God’s means to keep His ball rolling … proclaiming the Word of God in letters contained in the Bible today.

God got the ball rolling, but He uses His people to keep it rolling. Hearing from others, by the power of the Holy Spirit they become part of His family. They tell the story. They keep the ball rolling down through the generations. You and I have been made part of God’s family too. In our baptism He has called us to be the means to keep the ball rolling today. It’s become our privilege to serve God by telling His story in our lives so that one day God’s Word will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The ball is rolling … and through us, God keeps it rolling.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Alive in Christ! (January 13, 2020)

person under water holding brown wooden cross above water at daytime

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Dear Children of God,

If you’re like me, certain things just don’t move, motivate, or energize you. Others appreciate them, but for whatever reason, they do nothing for me. In a word, “I’m dead” to certain things. For example, a good friend says he appreciates the talent and endurance displayed in soccer … but he acknowledges, “I’m dead to soccer.” The “Beautiful Game” doesn’t move him. Conversely, baseball moves me. In a manner, I live for it. However, many don’t share my joy … “They’re dead to baseball.” Some things move, motivate, and energize us – making us alive. And some things don’t – we’re dead to them.

This analogy, given to me by old friend and mentor Pastor Monte Frohm, helps me understand what Paul is trying to say to us who are part of the Body of Christ. Paul writes, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11) While sin still surrounds us, we’re fallen creatures, still prone to committing sin. However, sin shouldn’t be something we find ourselves purposely engaged in and hoping to be moved, motivated, or energized by it – even if we know God forgives us. How is that possible?

Paul reminds us of the gift of our baptisms in which God our Father, through His Word, joins us to His Son, Jesus Christ … and joins Him to us. Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4) Joined to Christ, sin no longer moves, motivates, or energizes us … we’re dead to it. Instead, we’re now alive to Christ.

In baptism, God adopts us as His children. He joins us with His Son in a new family. Jesus lived a perfect life, perfectly obedient to His Father’s will. Then He took upon Himself every sin ever committed by every man, woman, and child who ever lived and ever will live. Sinless Himself, He took all these sins to the cross with Him. Weighed down with these sins, He died … sacrificing Himself as the penalty for mankind’s entire body of sin. In giving His own life for our sins, Jesus sets all who believe in Him, joined to Him in baptism, free from the effects of sin (Romans 6:7) … which is death (Romans 6:23). But we’re not only joined to Jesus in His death … we’re also joined to Him in His resurrection to new life (Romans 6:5). Therefore, just as Christ will never die again, so too will we, who believe in Him, live forever in His new creation.

Freed from sin and assured of eternal life, we can confidently live our lives as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world He’s placed us in. Let us rejoice in our new lives in Christ … moved, motivated, and energized by Him … so that others, living in sin’s darkness, might also be joined to Christ and to each of us … dead to sin and alive in Christ.

                                                                                        Your brother in Christ,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Happy New Year! (January 8, 2020)

Happy New Year text

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Dear Saints of First Lutheran,

At this time of year, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, many reflect on the old year while awaiting the new. Each day signifies the passage of time, but New Year’s Eve and Day are special because of the passing of years … and this year, the decades. To me it’s helpful, every now and then, to take a look back on the past because it helps me see how far I’ve come. Looking back far enough gives me a perspective I often fail to have when I’m so caught up in the “day-to-day.” After all, where was I 10 years ago? I was still on active duty … contemplating a second career in ministry … with no idea where First Lutheran Church and Huntingtown MD even were. My … how things have changed! The journey wasn’t always smooth, but, as I look back, I remember Psalm 111 which opens with “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart …” (Psalm 111:1)

The psalmist doesn’t say “Praise the Lord when things are going well …” He simply says “Praise the Lord!”  … no matter what!  He’s with us, even when it seems He might be far away.  He is actually very close to us, waiting patiently for us to call on Him in all things … good and bad, beneficial and difficult.  No matter what, God our Father remembers His promises to us, His people, to be with us at all times.

In the prophet Isaiah’s day, God’s people were going through a bad stretch … by their own choosing … as they had turned away from God and turned to their own ways. Isaiah tells them, “They rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63:10) by their unrepentant actions. However, in the same breath, Isaiah calls on God’s people to look back in time … to “Recount the steadfast love of the LORD …” and all He has done for them to include calling them “His people … His children” and bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, leading them safely to the Promised Land (Isaiah 63:7-8, 11-14). Looking back in remembrance of all God has done for them, seeing how far they’ve come by His power, they can see how faithful He is to His promises to be with them, to forgive them, and to remain with them.

God never promises us, that this side of heaven, everything will be easy and trouble-free. After all, until Christ returns, the devil and his co-workers continue to be active … trying to lead people away from God any way they can. However, God does promise us that He will always be by our side (Matthew 28:20). He promises to forgive us when we return to Him after straying from Him (1 John 1:9). He promises to give us the Holy Spirit who will guide us, keep us in faith, and help us to remember His promises to us (John 14:16,26). 

I look forward to a new year and a new decade, 2020, filled with God’s grace and mercy given to us through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  May the true peace of God fill your hearts and lives now and always.

                                                                                        Happy New Year!

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Merry Christmas! (December 26, 2019)

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Merry CHRISTmas to you.  This time of year is often characterized as a time of love.  We see the ads on television showing the exchange of diamonds and jewelry … traditional signs of love.  We also see relatives and friends piling through front doors for parties … bringing their love with them. But the kind of love these things show is not necessarily the love this Fourth Sunday in Advent is all about. This week, the week before Christmas, is the week we light the “love” candle. However, this kind of “love” is not the kind of love satisfied by gifts … or good friends … or a flirtatious relationship. The “love” we celebrate today is the selfless, sacrificial love God has for His creation. The kind of love that led Him to send His only son into the world, giving Him up to death so that “whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16) In just a few days, we’ll once again celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, through whom all who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, have faith, receive the Father’s gifts … forgiveness and eternal life.

Today we worship and praise God, thanking Him for His gracious gifts to us a little differently than usual.  We worship and praise Him through the words of one of the most endearing Christmas hymns ever, “O Come, O Come Immanuel”, and the special music of the Everlasting Light Cantata.  We hear God’s Word proclaimed for all through song.  Therefore, we won’t hear the scripture texts appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent.  Nevertheless, I urge you to read through these words sometime this week; Isaiah 7:10-17, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.  In these words, God provides hope to all who believe in Him in these joyous images of His promise to show His love to His creation.  We see a glimpse of the God’s love in the promises He made through Isaiah that He would send His Son into the world to save it (Isaiah 7:10-17). We see His humble, faithful servant Joseph, filled with the Holy Spirit, willingly allowing his wife Mary to bear God’s own son (Matthew 1:18-25). Then we read Paul’s summary account of Jesus’ life and work to show His Father’s love by saving His creation (Romans 1:1-7).  

As you worship today, or hear God’s promises sung through the many great hymns of the season, listen carefully to these joyous promises God speaks to us, in song, through His messengers … His prophets, His apostles and His faithful people. Give thanks to God for His gracious presence in our lives through His Son, given to us 2000 years ago, who will return again to bring us into His kingdom.

Remember, not just this week, but throughout the year, the love God has for you … given through His Son, “Immanuel … God with Us.” Jesus Christ – fully God and fully man – foretold by the prophets of old … born to a woman named Mary … raised by a man named Joseph … given “to save His people (you and me included) from their sins (Matthew 1:21).” The greatest gift of love ever given.

                                                                                        In the Love of God,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim