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Travel Plans (March 24, 2021)

two men holding luggage on airport

Photo on Unsplash by Calle Macarone

Dear Friends and Family,

When we travel, we might think we’re in charge. But are we? We can’t make reservations without computers and phones. Pilots fly the planes. Handlers make sure our bags arrive with us. Or – the GPS better guide us on the correct route. We need to trust many others to have a good vacation.

Our Christian journey to the Kingdom of Heaven is another kind of trip. But, unlike a vacation, where we might control some parts of the journey, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to get ourselves to this destination.  We only get there by trusting God and His promises.

John 3:16, “The Gospel in a Nutshell,” says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Who loved?  God.  Whom did He love?  The World. How did He love?  Through His only Son.  Who did all the work?  God. All we do is trust and believe in Him who did this work and we’ll be saved from death and receive eternal life.

Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Grace – a gift from God. We can’t buy it or exchange for it.  He does all the work to save us.  All we do is accept His gift in faith. 

Once saved by God’s grace, we’re free to live as He created us to live. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) God has done all the work to save us so we can be His hands and feet as He continues to save others through us.  As we journey together toward eternity, let us love others as God has already loved us by bringing His gospel to all in need through our words and deeds.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

String of Pearls (March 17, 2021)

Black Pearls | This is a genuine black pearl necklace, it wa… | Flickr

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

My wife likes black pearls. Good ones are expensive. A while back I found a great deal on a string of high-quality black pearls. So, I bought them and had a necklace and earrings made. What struck me about this string was how beautiful the pearls were when strung together. This was especially apparent when the jeweler cut the string and I saw the pearls roll in separate directions. Fortunately, he restrung them on a solid string with a strong clasp to keep them together.

A string of pearls like the one I gave my wife reminds me of God’s Ten Commandments. I don’t recall where, but I read that these individual pearls are all strung, one next to the other, on the infinitely strong string of God’s 1st commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) They are, when you ponder them deeply, a beautiful gift from God. He strung them together to show us how HE DESIGNED US to live in His creation. However, if you separate the commandments from this string, allow them to roll around, they lose their beauty. 

But God has kept them together. The 1st commandment strings the others TOGETHER as a beautiful gift. Think about it, many – even atheists – think murder is immoral, stealing is bad, and lying is wrong. And they’re correct. But, without being tied together on the infinite strength of God’s word and love found in the 1st commandment, their thoughts are nothing more than good words to live by. 

However, once they’re tied together in God’s word and love we see how we are to live, not only with God, but with all His other creatures. We “fear, love, and trust in God above all things” – Martin Luther’s explanation of the 1st commandment – by responding to His love for us in keeping all the other commandments. And when we fall short, we again respond to His love by returning to Him alone to receive His forgiveness on account of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

                                                                                         In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Testing and Tempting (March 11, 2021)

Photo by Quentin Lagache on Unsplash 

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Last Fall, my wife and I went to Maine – one of our favorite places in the world. One of our favorite activities is walking on the rocky beaches, soaking in the sea air, hearing the crashing waves as they crash down on the rocks. The tumult those waves create is a sight to hear and see. It also has a profound effect on the rocks. Every rock has been tossed and turned by the ocean. And over time, the many rough edges get worn down by the intense testing revealing smooth, polished, beautiful stones.

This tossing and turning of the sharp, jagged rocks … forming them into smooth, polished, beautiful stones reminds me of God’s word, “Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial, for when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life, which God has promised those who love Him.” (James 1:12) These trials, or tests, don’t happen because God delights in seeing us tossing and turning in the world. They happen because of sin, which we have brought upon ourselves. However, in these times of trial, our faith is tested. Where do we turn? Do we turn to God – trusting Him above all else; or do we trust another whom Satan is using to try to tear us away from God? When we trust God, He provides the way through (not necessarily out of) the trial we’re facing. In these times, our faith is strengthened a little bit more … the hard, jagged edges of our sin-filled hearts are smoothed a touch. 

During our Lenten journey, we remember that whenever we’re tested – or tempted – God our Father is with us. Just as He was with Jesus when He endured betrayal, suffering, and death on the cross. Because Jesus made it through that trial, we’re strengthened to face the difficulties we face. And, when we succumb to Satan’s temptation, falling into sin – God picks us up, wipes us clean, forgives our sin, and sets us back on course to His eternal kingdom.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Failing Successfully (March 2, 2021)

Yankee Stadium: Monument Park - Retired Numbers - Mickey M… | Flickr

Dear Family and Friends of First,

You may have heard, “Failure’s not an option.” That’s true is some instances. But generally, failure is part of life. Did you know one of the greatest baseball players ever spent the equivalent of 7 seasons trying to hit a baseball into fair territory? Mickey Mantle struck out and walked over 3400 times, the equivalent of about 7 seasons. His perseverance led to over 2400 hits, including 536 home runs. Thomas Edison, one of America’s great inventors, failed thousands of times before he finally got it right – creating a technique to make cost effective light bulbs. Perhaps “failure” is too strong of a word considering the successes borne of failure.

Christians are called to be the “Light of Christ” in the world by “joyfully proclaiming God’s word and enthusiastically sharing Christ’s love” (Matthew 28:19-20 and 22:37-40). However, as we live out these words, we experience repeated failure. Loved ones and friends continually ignore us (or worse), leading us to give up hope. But St. Paul urges us to look beyond the failures and keep pushing forward. He writes, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1) What’s more, Paul reminds to stick to the truth found only in God’s word. To gain some success, we might be tempted to sugarcoat His word, trick people into accepting it, or otherwise try to take shortcuts to bring people to faith. Don’t! (2 Corinthians 4:2

If people don’t listen to us as we live, speak, and act in the world in accord with the truth found in God’s word, that’s not our failure. It’s others who allow themselves to fall victim to “the god of this world … (who works) to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:4) So let us persevere in our witness to the world, shining the true light of Christ into the darkness of the world. Through us, the Holy Spirit WILL bring others into the Kingdom of God.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Knowledge is Power (February 17, 2021)

turned on clear glass light bulb

Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

Dear Children of God,

“Knowledge is power.” It can build up or cause harm. Let’s say I know something about how electricity works. Using it to help build a house with safe electricity – that’s powerful. But, using it to create dangerous circuits intentionally – the knowledge is still powerful – but it’s also harmful.

God has given us powerful knowledge in His word. Through our “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35), He gives us knowledge of our freedom in the gospel – a powerful gift! However, this knowledge can be dangerous if we use it knowingly (or unknowingly) to lead our weaker Christian brothers and sisters to abandon their saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Many in the Corinthian church were new converts – “baby Christians” – still learning to walk in newness of life. Many pagan worship practices were still in force in Corinth. New Christians were still exposed to danger from those still worshipping the idols they had recently renounced. Experienced Christians knew eating “idol meat” was okay since idols were simply man-made gods with no power at all.  However, Paul’s concern was for new converts lacking knowledge in the deeper truths of their new Christian faith. Many new coverts still believed one must avoid “idol meat” to keep from being swayed. Paul counsels experienced believers to be a good example to their weaker brothers and sisters by lovingly abandoning eating “idol meat” to keep them from stumbling and falling falling back into idol worship.

“Idol meat” isn’t an issue today. We know the gospel frees us to enjoy food or drink in moderation. We can participate in activities like dancing, music, and art. But what we decide to do with our knowledge of God’s Word and our freedom should be done in love that builds up Christ’s church.  If something we appreciate knowingly causes our brethren to stumble, even if not prohibited by God’s word, He asks us to renounce, willingly and lovingly, some of our habits so we help build up Christ’s church. Then, our knowledge powerfully responds to God’s love by loving others.

                                                                                        Your Brother in Christ,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Called to Serve (February 10, 2020)

Photo by Doug Keeling on Unsplash

Dear Servants of Christ,

In the military, I served under a lot of leaders. The most enjoyable to serve under were the ones who regularly called me and the other troops with clear direction – not necessarily micro-managers, but leaders who understood they needed others to get the work done. They set clear expectations that enabled me to serve them well – with some course corrections along the way as needed. I appreciated being called into service so I could better focus the use of my gifts in my work.

I’m sure most of us feel the same way because that’s how God created us – with special gifts to be used in the world, not hidden. God calls us to do His work in the world. For example, God needed some work done in a place called Nineveh. He called a man named Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) It took some doing, but eventually Jonah agreed to be the means God used to bring Nineveh to repentance (Jonah 1-2). And whatever God told him to say worked because God’s word says everyone and everything from the king to the beasts fasted and cried out to God (Jonah 3:5-10). Through Jonah, God’s work was done.

Centuries later, Jesus called to some fisherman to help Him with His mission. He told Simon and Andrew, James and John to drop their nets and “Follow me.” (Mark 1:17) And immediately, they became means God used to proclaim His message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

Their faithful obedience enables us to hear God’s call to us. Through them, God calls us to serve Him. Telling us how to use the gifts He’s given us to bring His grace and mercy to the world today. Let us all listen closely to God’s word and response to our prayers. He’s telling us how to go into the world to draw others to Himself.

                                                                                        Your Fellow Servant,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Just Because You Can ... (February 3, 2021)

white bad habits LED signage

Photo by Manan Chhabra on Unsplash

Dear Members of Christ,

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. God has laid before us a smorgasbord of gifts. But some of these things can move from being “good gifts” to “enslaving substances” if we’re not careful. Dr. Joseph Gerstein, a specialist in addiction recovery says, “When people cling to activities despite negative effects, it indicates addictive behavior.” It doesn’t matter if it’s food, drinks, or activities – most anything can become an unhealthy addiction which adversely affects relationships and our ability to carry out the life God has called us into.

The Corinthians were diverse people who became believers in Jesus and God’s promise of forgiveness. Unfortunately, they lived in a decadent society committed to idol worship, rampant sexual promiscuity, temple prostitution, and gluttonous eating and drinking festivals. While food, drink and, within the bonds of marriage, sexual activity are gifts from God, they became abused addictions. Paul warns, “All things are lawful … but not all things are helpful … I will not be enslaved by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) Paul then reminds the Corinthians that food and drink isn’t for sacrificing to idols or abusing in raucous debauchery. And sex is limited to husbands and wives who are married to each other.

These reminders are also for us. Too often, just because we can eat or drink whatever we want, watch shows with explicit language and sexual activity, or live with members of the opposite sex outside marriage without social stigma – that doesn’t necessarily make these things right in God’s eyes. Joined to Christ, the Holy Spirit dwells within us (1 Corinthians 6:15-19). So, when we abuse God’s gifts, causing negative effects in our relationships with others and God, we’re guilty of falling into sin. Let’s remember, “(We) are not (our) own, for (we) were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) And when we do abuse God’s gifts, let’s also remember God’s promise to forgive us as we turn away from them, confess our sins, and ask Him to help us use them properly.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim