Friday, May 15, 2020


Sermon Summary (5/10/20) “The Problem of Discerning and Walking in God’s Will (Gen 12:1-3; John 1:35-39)

I attended South Dakota School of Mines, a Land Grant College, so ROTC was mandatory the first two years.  To take Advanced ROTC  leading to a commission, you had to sign up in the spring of your sophomore year.  When I returned home, I told my Dad that I was skipping ROTC.  Just before I returned in August, Dad invited a few friends over to the house to talk to me.  It was a set up. They were all of the greatest generation who served, who were all patriots and all felt it was my duty to serve and that ROTC was the best way of doing that.  I signed up.

Was it God’s will that I be a soldier?

My Mom told me when I got orders to Vietnam that she had raised me to be a doctor.  My grandma would have said she raised me to be a preacher.  Was it God’s will that I take 55 years to get there?  Probably, God had lot’s of work to do.

My life has had lot’s of forks in the road.  Every one of them changed my life completely.  The first being that talk with my Dad’s friends.

What is God’s will for your lives? How long did it take for you to find out? Was God responsible for all the turns in your lives?  This week on Facebook, a woman said that her grandfather had died.  One good intentioned person told her that God was completely in control.  Was God responsible for her Grandfather’s death?  Does he take us all according to a predetermined plan?  Was he responsible for Jeff’s accident and Rosemary’s cancer?  Is God responsible for all the evil in the world as well as the good? 

That doesn’t make sense to me.  But if God is not in complete control, then what?  Another option is that God has a perfect plan for me, but he’s not telling.  I have to figure it out.  Maybe my path is a squiggly line that crosses back and forth over God’s perfect plan.  That my squiggly path is God’s permissible plan.  That God is willing to revise the plan each time I make a permissible decision.  But it seems to me that God would have to revise all the world’s plans with each of my permissible decisions.  If I meet and marry the person you were supposed to meet and marry, everyone’s plan changes.

So what then?  The Bible’s stories give us an idea.  Abraham listened to God’s perfect plan and went from his country to the land that God had shown him (Gen 12), but when I got there, he went off track.  He ended up in Egypt and told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister.  Not cool.  Not even permissible.  Jacob’s sons decided to kill Joseph (Gen 37). Not permissible.  Nor were the situations that Joseph found himself in Egypt.  Yet because Joseph listened to God, he turned the non-permissible actions of the Egyptians into God’s perfect plan. 

How is it we discern the will of God?  I reject the notion that the book has all been written and that we only play the part.  And the notion that God revises our books with every line we walk doesn’t make sense either.  I lean heavily on Adam Hamilton for this.  I believe that God is the co-author of our stories.

We begin with God the co-author with a blank page.  And if we are going to write together, we need to pay attention.  We need to listen.  Unfortunately, when I look at my book, I realize that I wrote many chapters alone.  They’re not the chapters I like to recite in family company or any company.  The good news is that God let’s us start again and change our future chapters.

I’ve been told a good writer can write eight pages a day.  And if you read a good book, you know how much life a good author can put into eight pages.  How much life do we put into our days? Why would we want our lives to be anything but a good story?  Of course, as we write our stories, we will have old characters that disappoint us.  New characters that appear.  Breakdowns.  Here’s the deal: with God as our co-author, our stories can lead us where we want to go.  We just need to pay attention, listen.

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that you may be able to include in your stories: First, life is better when you worship.  Rosemary and I learned that and the last 30 years of our lives were the best.  Worship changes us.

Two, I’ve come to believe in the “Platinum Rule,” “Be kind to others as you want them to be kind to you.”  Kindness is circular, the kinder we are the more kindness we receive, the more we come to like the people in our stories.  CS Lewis says that affection is nine-tenths of happiness.  You want a little happiness in your stories, try a little kindness, add a little affection.

Three, it’s people that count.  We fill our stories with things: cars, boats, planes, dogs, cats, horses.  I mean who doesn’t like a good dog story?  But it’s people who count. 

Lastly, the story is always better when you listen, when you read your bible asking what does this tell me about God?  What does this tell me about me? What does this tell me about the story we are going to write today?  Good authors read other’s stories, “Upper Room,” “Guideposts,” classic writings that can be incorporated into our stories.  We listen, the Holy Spirit is always present to help us put pen to paper; and we use our brain, the creative gift that God has given to make our stories better.

It’s Mother’s Day.  The mothers in my life have all made my stories better.  My Grandmother, Emma, put faith in my story. My Mother, Gertie, gave me love.  She and Dad had a great love story, chapters too short.  But it goes on now with every chapter being better that the last.  And Rosemary, the mother of my Children, my partner for 60 years, who taught me the wisdom of humility and put chapters of kindness and affection and happiness into our story. 

Now, go write your stories.  That’s how you discern and live within the will of God.

Saturday, May 9, 2020


Sermon Summary (5/03/20) “The Problem of Unanswered Prayer” (Mt 6:9-13; Mk 14:36)

The first time I gave a sermon on prayer was 15 years ago in July.  I was shopping for this fountain pen in a stationery store downtown.  On the way, I  worried about a parking spot.  “I’m giving a sermon on prayer, should I pray for a parking spot?”  What the heck.  And there right in front of the store, it couldn’t have been closer, was as parking spot.  I ordered the pen.  Next week, returning to pick it up, the same.  I prayed for a parking spot and there it was.  It couldn’t have been closer.  I haven’t prayed for a parking spot since.

Does God answer prayers for parking spots?  How much can I manipulate God?  Should we be able to pray that bad things never happen to good people or that bad things always happen to bad people?  Or that my test scores will always be right?  Or that Johnny or Jamie’s knee will never be scrapped or they will never experience a broken heart?

What do you think prayer is for? Jesus said if we pray with faith that you can say to this mountain “move and be cast into the sea” that it will be so.  What?  Jesus spoke in hyperbole, exaggeration to the point of impossibility to make a point.  Faith and prayer are important.  Vital.

So what about miracles? Adam Hamilton has told the story more than once of broadsiding a car going at 40 mph when he was 16 and with no seatbelt.  Everything stuffed under that dash yet he felt the arms of God around him pressings him back into the seat.  God must have something left for him to do.  He wears his seatbelt today because what God intended may be behind him.

Does God suspend the natural laws or the free will of others?  What if God created the world so that some things required our prayer?  God wants cooperation with us his creatures.  He depends on us.  Miracles of the heart happen too.  When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we provide footing for the Holy Spirit to make others more loving, more generous, more gentle, to exercise self-control and miracles happen.

Yet some of our most fervent prayers are not answered.  Jesus in the Garden: “Abba, Father, let this cup pass from me.  Yet not my will but thine be done.” (Mk 14:36)  Paul asked that a debilitating thorn be removed from his side (some think approaching blindness), and God told him, “my grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Cor 12:7-8) And Mary.  Can you imagine the prayers of Mary?  Do you think the cross was a satisfactory answer?

I would suggest if we want to understand prayer that we go directly to the prayer that Jesus taught us, the one we so often pray in rote without thought or meaning.  Our understanding is there:

“Our Father.” While the OT God of the disciples was one of fear and judgment, at the most trying time of Jesus’ life, he addressed God as “Abba,” a term of endearment like Daddy, Poppa.  Like crawling into the lap of your Daddy to tell him your most intimate troubles and to listen to what he is to tell us.

“Who Art in Heaven.”  To the ends of the universe or as close as the air we breathe.  Where God is and where he embraces those we love the most and the place where he will take us to himself.

“Hallowed by thy name.” A God worthy of adoration, “Worship the Lord with gladness, come into his presence with singing.” We need a phrase or verse of the Psalms on our lips.

“Thy Kingdom Come.” The heart of the prayer.  God wants Eden restored.  He wants our prayerful participation and our hands, heart, and feet in making it happen. 

“Thy will be done.” The subject of next week’s sermon except to say that if we are to know God’s will, we need to listen.  Part of our prayers, our devotions, are daily walk requires that we listen to God and soak in his guidance for us.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Our personal petition.  One person said God gives us our needs not our wants.  Our needs today so that we don’t get wrapped up is the greed and grasping, the inordinate desire of tomorrow.

“Forgive us our trespasses.” Essential to our relationship with one another and with God.

“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”  Let nothing attack our faith.

Here’s what I notice about the prayer that Jesus taught us.  Nowhere does it ask for miracles.  Nowhere does it ask for the suspension of the natural laws.  Nowhere does it ask to violate the free will of others.  Nowhere does it ask for God to align his will to ours.  But it seems to me that it does ask us to align our will with God’s.

Ten years ago in his book Why?, Adam Hamilton closed the chapter on unanswered prayer with this quote from Admiral Chester Nimitz: “I asked God for strength that I might achieve. I was made weak that I might learn to obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things. I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy. I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men. I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life. I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am, among all men, most richly blessed.”

Prayer changes us.  It does not ask God to align his will to ours, but asks instead that we align our will to his.  May it be so with us.


Sermon Summary (4/26/20) “The Problem of Evil” (Ge 2:15-16; 3:6-7; 4:2b-7; Ro 12:9-21)

I love the stories of WWII and the people who sacrificed to save the world. Through them we see the very best in people, but of course through the war, we also see the worst.  Evil exists from the Rape of Nanking to the Holocaust, 75 million people lost their lives.  Evil was at the heart of the slaughter.  Today, evil still exists, with St. Louis murders at an equivalent rate to Venezuela, 60 murders per 100k population.  Life is cheap, even in America where we have so much to live for.  We take lives with guns and destroy souls with drugs.  We diminish others with hate and retribution. 

The dictionary defines evil as “behavior profoundly immoral or wicked.” We are talking about behavior, the actions of people.  Sure, we can think of cancer or viruses, but it’s the behavior of people that is evil.  It is part of the human species.  Alexandr Solzhenitsyn made it plain: “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Evil, that “behavior of human beings that is profoundly immoral or wicked.”

John Steinbeck says we only have one story and it is a net the net of good and evil.  And all of our stories from Cain and Abel to Sleeping Beauty bear that out.  We have all been impacted either in person or heritage by it.  Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled and The People of the Lie) describes evil as not just the murder of the body but also the murder of the spirit, “that which deprives us of life or livelihood.”  Evil kills not only life, but the vitality of life.  And Scott Peck says we cannot talk about evil without talking about good, the opposite of evil.  Jesus came that our lives have vitality, “that you may have life and it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

I therefore commend to your study Romans 12, Paul’s chapter on overcoming evil with good: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.

Not only that, be passionate about doing good: 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

(You need to read and embrace it all.) But he caps it off with: 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In our relationships with one another we have a choice.  We can embrace life, we can lift the spirit of others. We can let love be genuine. We can cling to good.  We can hate what is evil.  Or, or we can be overcome by evil.  Paul is telling us to embrace life, lift the spirit of others; and that the only way to overcome evil in this world is to lift the spirit, give life to others and be passionate about it.

As United Methodists, our baptismal vows call us  “will you resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”  And the answer is “I do.”  We are called to be proactive, intentional in confronting evil.  Martin Luther King Jr said, “For evil to succeed., all is required is for good men to do nothing. 

Maybe the greatest story of story of good and evil in our time is The Lord of the Rings in which an ordinary hobbit, Frodo, and his fellowship of travelers passionately take on evil.  The author, JRR Tolkien tells us in “Return of the King, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.  What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

We can’t do it all (master the tides), but we can clean the fields where we are in the time we have so that those who come after will have clean soil to till.  I believe we do that when we “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.  Do not be overcome by evil. But overcome evil with good.”

We are called to clean the soil where we are—with good.  That’s how we address the problem of evil.  Amen.