Saturday, September 24, 2016


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Last Monday morning I woke up, got dressed and sat down in my home office with my Bible and the prayer list from Sunday morning worship.  On days when everything goes "according to plan" this is my usual practice.  I begin by reading a chapter of the Bible and then spend time in prayer.  In addition to the list from worship I have the private prayer requests that people give me (which are things I usually hold in prayer for months), a list of the people asking for prayer for healing, a list related to my family and some other things that seem right to be keeping in prayer.  On this particular Monday I read Psalm 71, which begins,

" In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
    let me never be put to shame!
 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
    incline your ear to me, and save me!"

That first phrase virtually stopped me in my tracks.  In you, O Lord, do I take refuge.  The second verse gives emphasis to the psalmist's need for a safe and protected place.  I thought about the concerns that were lifted up on Sunday morning, written down and in my hands.  I thought about some of the other needs within our congregation and our community.  We are a people who very much need the same things the psalmist is crying out to God for.  In our daily lives, which so often seem like a swirling, howling wind, we desperately need refuge. 

We may have a conflict within our family or at work that never seems to end.  We may be struggling with illness that doesn't seem to have a cure.  We may be feeling stretched to a point where we are beginning to lose hope in things ever becoming better.

We need refuge, and so like the psalmist we cry out to God to be our safe place.

Deliver me.  Rescue me.  Save me.

We cry out to God, who hears our prayers and who never fails to protect His children.  He never fails as our place of refuge.  His refuge, His deliverance, His rescue, His salvation…they may not look or feel quite like we desire at the moment we cry out, but He never fails to provide the things His children need.  Never.

In the last section of psalm 71 the psalmist praises God, in part by remembering the many things God has already done, and in part by simply adoring who God is.  This same God who the psalmist cries out to and praises, is the same God who loves and holds you.  This same God who is the only refuge for the psalmist, is also the only refuge for me, for you, and for all who call on Him in faith. In the swirling and howling winds of life may you always find refuge in Him. 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Cleansing, both the Temple and Me

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This morning I preached from Mark 11:12-21, a challenging passage, to say the least.  In the midst of this section of Mark's gospel is his version of Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem.  The temple is the heart-and-soul of the Hebrew people, the place built as the dwelling place for God and the only location for their most important religious practices. 

Well, that is the idea, but as Mark tells the story the temple is a long ways from being a model of holiness and honor towards God.  It has become the place for buying and selling of animals for sacrifice, with a currency exchange so that observant Jews could pay the temple tax, and also having convenient routes to be used as a shortcut for foot traffic, rather than walking around it.

Into this scene of chaos walks Jesus, creating a bit of havoc of his own as he casts out the people, things and practices that defile the temple.  He casts these things out and does…what?  He replaces them with his teaching.  Verse 17 begins, "And he was teaching them…" and verse 18 ends, "…all the crowd was astonished at his teaching."

Reading this in our day and looking back at Jesus we can see that he was entirely justified in the cleansing of the temple and to then quickly move on to whatever is the next significant event during this final week of his life.  But Mark brings to the fore that the very next thing was of great importance.  Jesus threw the bad out of the temple and replaced it with something very good, his teaching, which was teaching that amazed the crowd.

What did he teach?  We don’t know.  Mark doesn't share that with us.  He merely shares that the teaching itself was profound and done with great power.  The people who heard it were astonished.

But what does this have to do with us?  Jesus has zeal for the holiness of God.  The temple, the dwelling place of God with His people has been defiled and Jesus acts to restore its holiness.  On the one hand he throws out what defiles it and with the other hand he restores what belongs there.  As he teaches the people in the temple he in effect restores what should be going on there.  People are coming to worship God.  To draw near to God.  And as he teaches Jesus is directing them to that purpose.

All well and good.  But what about us?  What does this mean for us today?  In Mark 1:15 Jesus calls on people to "repent and believe in the gospel."  When we do this essential step of repentance-and-belief, repenting of our sin and believing in the Good News of Jesus as our Savior and Lord, then this very thing that happens in the temple is something that he begins to do in us. 

The same zeal that Mark shows Jesus having for the temple he also has for every person who has faith in him.  And he acts accordingly.  He begins that process of removing from us those things that are offensive to God and replacing them with things that are pleasing in God's sight.  While those things, for evil and for good, may vary widely for each person a place where you can get a good general idea is Galatians 5:19-23

This business of personal cleansing is not always easy, particularly when it comes to those things that seem or feel so good.  The things that we want to make excuses for.  Things we want to take a pass on.  Jesus loves us too much to allow us to play in the mud as long as we please. 

So look at that story of the cleansing of the temple as more than something that happened one day many years ago.  See it as a reminder of what Jesus has done, in you, and a marker of what he is doing, in you, right now.  Amen.  

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

My attempt to answer a friend's question…

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"Hey Friend... suggestions for a sermon for pulpit supply in a Presbyterian church... this may be one week or a few..... they have an interim pastor coming the end of October..."

Sermon suggestions?  Do you mean such as what text, or what topic?  I'm assuming that is what you are after, so here goes.

For the most part I believe that the text preached drives the sermon, so for me the big question is deciding the text.  As I study it, and pray, (and it's always best to proceed in the opposite order, i.e. prayer first!) then I take the sermon in the direction I believe God is leading it to lead through the text.  I did a "series" (I have a bit of a distaste for  the 'series' concept) last year where I had a topic first, or rather a question, and then found and explained pieces of scripture that answered the question.

So you are preaching once, and possibly a bit more, for the same congregation, but what to preach?  Using the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is one option.  If the Presbyterians you are preaching to are of the PCUSA persuasion this may be where their sermons frequently come from.  When I began I used the RCL for nearly a year as the primary place to select my texts from. 

Each week the RCL has readings from the OT, Psalms, Gospel and somewhere else in the NT.  Prayerfully consider the readings and see if one of them seems to be the thing to bring to the particular congregation.  Sometimes two readings can fit well together.  I have some issues with the RCL, but since you are preaching just once, or maybe a few Sunday's for one group, that is a conversation for another day. 

It may be that you are personally using a devotional book or following a Bible reading plan.  In that case there may be a text in your reading that strikes you as something to explore and develop more fully as a sermon.

If you are preaching someplace that is glued to the liturgical calendar then it may be that your sermon is developed in conjunction with an event on the calendar.  In that case the RCL should be the source of your text.  On the other hand today I preached from Mark 1:1-11, where Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  Traditionally it is a Palm Sunday text but I am preaching my way through the Gospel of Mark, leaving Mark for only rare occasions, such as Advent, Christmas, Palm Sunday and Easter.  I rarely get feedback on my preaching but on the way out today one man told me that the message was just what he needed to hear, so I was glad to have stayed with that text today, despite its traditional placement. 

If you are preaching one week, and maybe a few more, you could also do a "series"  around a character of the Bible, such as Moses or Peter, taking snapshots of a few periods of the person's life.  If you did that I would take a NT character, rather than preaching several times in a row from the OT to a congregation that isn’t your own flock. 

Whatever you do you have to, in some way, get the Good News of Jesus in front of the congregation.  In every sermon, whatever your text, without exception, in some way, Christ has to be lifted up and shown to make a difference.  This is much easier said than done. 

Another way of looking at this is that the Christian church is not some kind of social club.  It is not one of many different but equally valuable organizations.  Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  Or as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth:

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

People who already embrace the Good News have to be comforted, encouraged, reminded and strengthened as they hear it again. 

And those who are presently on the outside need to see that everyone, without exception, is a sinner in the presence of God.  They need to see that there is no other hope for sinners  outside of Jesus.  And lastly, that there is no one who is too far gone to be beyond the saving touch of Jesus.

Some people may say that people who have an evangelical approach to the Gospel place too great of an emphasis on the cross.  I say that if you are going to stand in the pulpit and not bring the core of the Gospel then you might as well be talking to a Rotary club, or the Jaycees, or what have you. 

Hope this is helpful.  Any more questions? Ask away!  And in your preparation and preaching may all the glory be to God!

Addendum: The picture is Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers.  Spurgeon felt that perhaps the hardest part of preaching was choosing a text, something he worked on throughout the week.  He began his actual sermon preparation at 6 PM on Saturday evening, staying at the task until he felt he had sufficiently prepared for Sunday morning.  This method should only be used by the most gifted of preachers!

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

From Healthcare to Here

"Brad - I'm curious how you ended up in New Mexico - and as a minister! A far cry from occupational therapist at Mayo in Rochester. Did your kids move with you? You had sent me a couple photos at one time of your granddaughter - how old is she now? Do you have more grandchildren? Take care and have a good day."

I received the message above from a friend whom I reconnected with on Facebook earlier this week.  Her basic question is one I have heard a number of times over the past three years that we’ve been in New Mexico.  

Minnesota to New Mexico?  Mayo Clinic to ministry?  Instead of writing her a personal answer I thought I would write about it here and share with whomever reads my blog. 

The short answer: One thing led to another.  The long answer is more detailed.  I don’t recall quite when I got to know the person who asked the question, or when the last time was that we had regular contact with each other, so I'll go back to the year 2000 and try to bring out the key parts of the story.

In 2000 I was working at the Mayo Clinic as an occupational therapist.  I had been there 14 years.  My wife and I had two children at home and for several years we had been attending a Methodist church.  I had grown up and been confirmed in a Lutheran church but had spent nearly my entire adult life outside of a church.  I'm not quite sure when our family began attending church, perhaps 1996.  Our son's Boy Scout troop met there and our daughter had been participating in some youth activities at the invitation of one our neighbors.  Once we started going it became a habit.  Looking back on those days I would say that I was a Christian in name only.  If someone had asked I would have said I was a Christian but I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to say to further explain that identity.

In the fall of 2000 our church offered an Alpha course, a 10-week class which intended to outline basic Christian beliefs.  I thought this would be good for my wife and I to attend, and we did.  Towards the end of the Alpha course I had an experience that is hard to describe.  Not a vision, or voices, nor a powerful personal conviction about sin and salvation but an experience where one moment things were as they always were, and next moment where everything was changed.  In that change I knew very clearly that God was real, and that if God was real then everything in my life was different.  How that change would work itself out was a process that would take years, and in fact it is still happening today.

Two things that happened as a result of my conversion experience were that I began to have an active prayer life, meaning I began to spend time in prayer each day, and that Sunday morning worship began to mean something.  I just didn’t go to church for 45 minutes but the hymns, the prayers, the preaching, all began to have meaning that lasted beyond the end of the worship service.

I came to understand I needed to be in a Bible study and in the fall of 2001 I joined the local Community Bible Study (CBS) group.[1]  I had two acquaintances in the study and thought it would be a good place for me to be.  It turned out to be awesome.  I spent 3 years in CBS as a regular student.  In those years we studied Revelation, Acts and Deuteronomy and Psalms.  I was in different small groups each year and really benefited from the work of our small group leaders and the different people in the groups each year.  I would add that the year we did Deuteronomy/Psalms was the year I learned to love God's word.  I had decided to read both books over the course of the summer as preparation for the study.  An overly ambitious project, as it took more than the summer to do.  But in the course of reading the Psalms I began to love the word that God had given to His people. 

In 2004 I was invited to be a small group leader within CBS.  I was paired with an experienced small group leader and we worked together for 4-5 years.  Facilitating a small group was a rich opportunity to grow in my faith but the real benefit of being a small group leader was that the leaders got together each week for their own time of prayer and study.  Each Saturday we spent 45 minutes in prayer and 45 minutes going over the next week's lesson.  I don’t have the words to describe how precious that weekly prayer group was. 

Without overloading this blog post in minutiae I'll leave out some of the other ways in which I was growing through my involvement with CBS, and also the things I was becoming involved in within my local church.

In early 2005, I think, I had casual conversations with  three different people, conversations that had in common the idea of going to seminary.  Thinking that perhaps God was calling me to get some education, and not having any idea of where that education would lead, I began to explore attending a seminary.  I talked it over with my pastor, who for a number of reasons didn’t think I should.  So I set the idea aside.  If it was of God then God would bring it back up.  In late 2005 He did.  I talked with my pastor, a different person, as our pastor had changed in the summer of that year, and he was encouraging of the idea.

In my work at Mayo a number of my colleagues were pursuing advanced degrees through distance learning programs.  I did not feel as if God was calling me to leave my job at the moment for the sake of going to school for what was at that time a vague purpose and so I began to explore seminary distance learning programs.  In the fall of 2006 I began the distance learning program at Western Theological Seminary (WTS) in Holland, MI. I did lots of coursework on line, attended classes on campus twice a year for two weeks, and also had assignemnts through my local church.  If I stayed on schedule I would complete a Master's in Divinity in 5 years of  "part-time" study, compared to 3 years for a full-time student.

Of the 17 students who started my cohort together, 6 of us graduated on-time in June, 2011.  Taking 18 graduate credits a year, while working full-time, makes for a very busy five years!  As many of you may know, there were a number of major life changes in that period as well.  In early 2007 my wife and I divorced.  We had two children together, both of whom left home in 2005.  In the late summer of 2007 Robin and I met, marrying that fall.  Robin also had two adult children, virtually the same ages as mine, and also living on their own.  In February 2009 we were asked to adopt one of our grandchildren.  Kat, who was 2 at the time, moved in with us a month later and her adoption was finalized later in the year. 

I began at WTS in 2006 and sometime in my second year I began to sense a calling towards pastoral ministry.  In early 2011, shortly before graduation and according to the guidelines of our denomination for seminary students, I began to seek a church to serve.[2]  It was a process that turned out to be much different from what we had expected.  We began looking at vacancies in MN, IA and WI, because that we there the majority of our families were.  Perhaps 125 or so churches in those states.  Pastors move.  They retire.  An opportunity is sure to arise.  So we thought  as we began. 

I sent my information to churches, without much in the way of positive response.  We gradually expanded our search to other states in the Midwest, and then as far as New York.  Over the course of the 2 years I was looking for a church to serve I would average a phone interview about once every three months.  Once I had a second interview.  I came to figure out that as someone in their mid-50's and without a background in ministry, say as a youth pastor, I wasn't a highly desirable pastoral prospect.  Good thing I went to school part-time and still had a full-time job! 

In November 2012 I had a phone call from a friend of mine from seminary.  He had graduated before me and a church where he had almost gone to in late 2011 was still looking for a pastor.  It was on a Native American reservation in New Mexico.  He had received updated information about the church and their search and if I was interested he would send it to me.  Throughout the search process Robin and I were praying that we would be able to discern God's leading and then faithfully follow that lead.  And so we asked my friend to forward the information.  He did so.  We looked it over and responded by sending the search committee the denomination's standard information on pastoral candidates. 

In February 2013, while on vacation in North Carolina, I had a phone interview with the search committee of the Jicarilla Apache Reformed Church in Dulce, NM.  Then in April Robin, Kat and I went to Dulce for a long weekend.  We toured the community, met with the search committee and I led worship on Sunday morning.  In June they called me to serve as their pastor.  But there was a hiccup in the process and in early July I had to make a trip to Denver to meet with some people for the denomination who had final approval of the call. 

On a Monday I met with the group in Denver for several hours and while I was waiting in the security line at the airport they informed me that they were approving the call to Dulce. I had had two days off from work at Mayo and when I went back on Wednesday I gave my supervisor a letter informing her of my intent to retire at the end of the month.  So I left Mayo Clinic after 27 years as an occupational therapist on July 31st, was ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament on August 6th, we left Rochester for Dulce on August 22nd, arriving on the 26th, and my first Sunday in the pulpit was September 1st.  Tomorrow, Sunday Septembers 4th, will be the first Sunday of our fourth year.  How time flies! 

And that, more or less, is how I and my family got from healthcare to here.

My friend had a few other questions about our family, and so here goes.  Hope it makes sense!  Robin and I have four adult children, two each from our previous marriages, M, J, N and B.[3]  Together we have Kat, who began as a granddaughter and is adopted as our daughter.    Through our adult children we have these grandchildren: J, I, A, S, R, M, Ta and De.  R died last year in an accident at home.  Many of our grandchildren have half-siblings.  These children are Ka, L, C, I, Dc, Tr, Te, Ja, H, M, Ar, Al, Je, Ko, N and there is one more on the way.  They range from ages 10 ½ to 6 months.  We pray for all of them in the same manner, no matter what their  biological and/or relational connection happens to be.  All credit goes to Robin for keeping us connected with these other children.       

[1] CBS is non-denominational and it is an awesome program for Bible study.  I highly commend it.

[2] In 2007, after we married, Robin and I joined a church that was part of the Reformed Church in America.  This was also the affiliation of WTS, although I was in the United Methodist Church when I began my studies. 

[3] For the sake of privacy for our adult children and the grandchildren I'm just going to identify them all by letter.