Moon and Fish

When’s the last time you stared up at the night sky, gazing at the clouds, the stars, the moon and pondered the wonder of Creation? With the snow we’ve had of late perhaps it hasn’t been too long, watching those big flakes fall, blanketing our land is really something. But beyond a big weather event like that do you ever look up and ponder the what or the why or the how it is that we’re here?

As adults we get busy with all the things that make us busy, stuff like fixing the leaky faucet, grocery shopping, zipping off to work, getting kids and grandkids from one activity to another. But before all that we had a little more of something: we had time.

Earlier in life it’s easier to stop and just gaze at the moon, to notice the stars. Both my children have done this, religiously, to my delight since they were infants. When Graham was just a year old this became an evening ritual, something the two of us would do together most every night.

Graham wasn’t walking at the time, and only spoke a few words, so I held him in my arms as we’d stare into the night sky. It was a monolog for a while, daddy would point, daddy would voice the words trees, stars, moon. Graham didn’t do any of that, but his eyes followed my finger, searching for each object, looking to the heavens every time. He was definitely paying attention.

Then, one night, after a couple months of this, Graham decided to take the lead.
He looked up, high in the night sky, pointing in the direction of a large off-white object and blissfully proclaimed moon!!!! My heart melted just a little. I was in awe at his sense of awe.

Even now, with both kids older, and running all over the place, with vocabularies exploding exponentially, on occasion, they’ll still play this simple game. “Hey Dad!” Hannah announced recently, “I found the moon. It’s huge!”

It can be easier to stop and gaze at creation when we’re older as well. In my role as a hospice chaplain during seminary I visited people struggling with a variety of health challenges. One of the toughest challenges I encountered was Alzheimer’s, a disease that slowly eats away at a person’s memory, eventually eroding their ability to even speak. Around the same time Graham first pointed up and exclaimed moon!!! I visited a new patient with Alzheimer’s. Notes left by a previous chaplain described her as a 95-year-old Lutheran, a peaceful, pleasantly confused person, someone that talks and smiles a lot.

Our time together started like visits with many other hospice patients, trying to build relationship by making connections. I tried asking about her childhood, family, meaningful friendships and the role of church in her life. Unfortunately it became quickly clear her short and long-term memory were pretty far gone. I asked her if she liked music, she said “no”. We prayed, and that didn’t seem to draw her out either. So after 45 minutes, and feeling somewhat defeated, I began to guide the wheelchair she sat in back to her room. I’d tried all the tools we’re given as chaplains. Nothing seemed to work.

Then a funny thing happened. We passed an aquarium and I noticed her head turn toward the fish tank. On a whim I moved her wheelchair right up to the aquarium glass, pulled up a chair and the two of us sat there, gazing at fish. For a while neither of us spoke. We just enjoyed the movement of the fish, the swaying of the plants, the bubbles floating to the surface. Then we started to talk. I would point to a red fish, she’d smile, nod, and point to a blue fish. We talked about big fish and little fish. Fish swimming alone and fish swimming in schools. It almost felt like we were living in a Dr. Seuss book.

We noticed the one flower in the tank. And watched the Plecostomus fish – that’s the one with the big sucker mouth – open and close his mouth again and again and again. We did this for an hour, the time just melting away. Despite having lost so much memory, so much vocabulary, this hospice patient found joy, found life, staring in awe at a microcosm of Creation in a tank of fish. I was in awe with her sense of awe.

In between these extremes – of a 1-year-old infant and a 95-year-old hospice patient – it can be more difficult to just gaze at the moon or the fish.

Mark 9:2-9 tells a similar story, of how difficult this gazing can be.

Voice of God
Walking up the mountain with Jesus, Peter understands suddenly, amazingly, that he is walking alongside the divine. How does he respond? He exclaims to Jesus, “Rabbi! Let us make shelters as memorials.“

Instead of experiencing the moment for what it is, as celestially magical, Peter, always the active disciple in scripture – he’s the talker, he’s the doer, not surprisingly he has trouble calming his urge to go and do something.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for building memorials that celebrate our faith – these days we call them churches – and a time for worship, boy I sure hope you value the importance of worship. But in this moment God calls Peter to something else. Scripture tells us that a cloud overshadowed the disciples along with Jesus, who now appears in dazzling white clothes. Even more, there Jesus is, standing beside the long since dead prophets Elijah and Moses. That must have been a fairly epic scene for a mere mortal like Peter to take in. Then, in the middle of that grandiose scene, a voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen.”

Notice the voice from the cloud – that’s the voice of God – it doesn’t tell Peter to get going on building that memorial. It also doesn’t tell him to fall down and worship, as fitting as that may seem. It doesn’t even tell him to set the alarm, to make sure he’s on time to work the next day, as helpful as that would have been. Instead the voice of God does two things. First, it confirms identity for the disciples gathered there: Jesus is the son of God. With this identity now established the voice offers just one more word, an imperative: listen.

Think of all the other action verbs God could have used here, words like believe, confess, follow, forgive, pray, heck, even build. But the first step, according to God the Father, right after recognizing Jesus as the son of God, involves none of those action verbs. Instead Peter, and the other disciples gathered there, and as Christ-followers by extension us, we are first called to listen. Simply listen, as difficult as that can be.

As the season of Lent draws near – Ash Wednesday is right around the corner – I ask you to consider adding something to your 40 days: the spiritual practice of listening.

We can listen to God through the study of scripture. We can listen by sitting in silent meditation. We can listen in worship, absorbing the music, being attuned to the message. We can listen by lending an ear to people of all ages, from 1 to 95 and beyond, and everything in between. We can listen for their joys, listen for their sorrows, listen for the brokenness, be it of body, mind or soul. And we can listen when we stare, in awesome wonder, at a creation filled with stars, moons and fish.

For it is when we listen that, just like the disciples gathered there that day, we too are open to hearing the voice of God. And it is when we listen we can hear all sorts of other valuable verbs that call us to lives of purpose, lives of meaning. For it is when we listen we gain clarity in why it is we’re here, and can embrace fully, the active role we are to play, in the healing of a broken world.  Amen.

Wanna Get Away?

Stories of awkward moments, desired escapes, and connecting with the divine.  

Are you familiar with the Southwest Airlines Wanna Get Away tv commercials? The ads debuted in 1998 and ran about a decade. They were popular enough that Southwest relaunched the series a couple of years ago, new ones are still coming out. The plot is the same for each 30-second spot, a person finds themselves in the middle of a situation they’d rather not be in.  Ads end with that lone question, Wanna Get Away? The idea is that, to solve your problems we can look to the heavens, or at least look to the airlines. And those airplanes helps us get away, taking us to some distant land far from our problems.

I’ll confess I love these commercials, they show bizarre circumstances, and many are really kinda funny. Here are a few personal favorites:

A businessman walks to the curb and opens what he thinks is a cab door, getting in as he casually talks on his cell phone. The driver, who looks kind of scruffy, turns around and glares at him. A second later two more men wearing ski masks also get in the back seat, surrounding him. As the car speeds off the businessman finds himself, completely by accident, in the middle of a bank robbery getaway. Oh the danger! Wanna Get Away? I would.

Here’s another. Two guys, sitting on the couch are playing a baseball video game. One shows the other how the controller will mimic your exact motion, swinging the controller like a bat. The friend then accidentally throws his controller, just like a baseball, at the tv screen. The screen breaks, and then falls right off the wall, destroying it. Dude, what were you thinking, I can almost hear one guy asking the other. Who’s gonna pay for this? Wanna Get Away?

Then there’s the girl, who is a guest at someone else’s house, and in the bathroom, standing looking in the mirror. On a whim she decides to open the medicine cabinet to snoop around. As she pulls out some ointment to look at it more closely all the glass shelves loudly crash to the ground. She looks around sheepishly, someone must have heard all that noise. How embarrassing! Wanna Get Away?

Finally, and this is my absolute favorite, a man in a formal suit, wearing a brilliant medallion and bowtie around his neck walks into a high-society event; everyone turns their heads in his direction. Several women, also dressed to impress, see him and smile, hoping to make a connection. But he ignores them. Instead he sees what appears to be a blond-haired woman sitting across the room with her back turned to him. The man then takes two glasses of champagne and walks over to say hello, all while multiple women look on. But it turns out this blonde-haired woman he’s approaching isn’t a woman at all, it’s a golden retriever dog. The women looking on, still trying to be polite, attempt to hide their laughter. The orchestra players in the room try not to snicker and begin to fumble their music. What a scene! There goes this dashing man’s chance at love. Wanna Get Away? He sure did.

Here and Now
This notion, that to escape our problems that sometimes we need to run from them, to a better, distant place, often it pops up in our religious culture too.

When a loved one dies, and we hear words of comfort that they’re in a better place, that says something. It’s a statement not just about heaven but about earth. Of course our divine destination is a better place, we look forward to it. But perhaps, as we gaze to the heavens for the divine, we also lose sight of the divine right in front of us.

And when you hear talk of the end-times, that things are worse than they have ever been before, and people prognosticate about when Christ will return, that too assumes something. It assumes we wanna get away from the problems in the here and now, so much so that some would prefer this world to simply vanish. And it assumes, perhaps, when we long for Christ’s return that his presence isn’t already among us. But we know better.

Christian writer and speaker Shane Claiborne puts this wanna get away heavenly perspective like this, saying:

“We can tell the world there is life after death, but the world really seems to be wondering if there is life before death.”

Bread of Life
Tonite our confirmation youth talk about communion, what it means to take and eat. And our text from John 6 reflects on just that. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, “come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will life forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Notice where Jesus is in the text. He’s here, come down from heaven. Meeting us, right where we’re at. We don’t have to get away to encounter Christ. The divine presence is already among us.

Notice what Jesus is in the text. He’s the bread of life, the living bread. Physically present, through communion, in the bread and the wine. He is something we can become one with, in the flesh. Taste and see, our communion liturgy says, that the Lord is good.

Notice who Jesus is for in the text. “The bread I will give, for the world, is my flesh” he says. It’s hard not to be reminded of that famous scripture verse a few chapters before this text, John 3:16, that begins for God so loved the world

So often when life gets tough it’s natural for us to wanna get away, to put some distance between us and our problems. As Americans we pride ourselves in our rugged individualism. If we’ve got problems – and that assumes we’re brave enough to admit we do – we’re the ones to fix them. We’re the ones that take action. We’re the ones that take flight to the heavens that we wanna get away to, either on earth or beyond.

But scripture suggests otherwise. Jesus is here, come down from heaven already. Jesus is the one that’s taken the action. He’s already taken flight, destination us. And our problems? They’ve been fixed through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

And, lest we forget that, Jesus reminds us of his presence, in the bread and in the cup of communion. With us no matter how great or awful life may be. And even better Christ surrounds us with fellow faith travelers, just like the people you see here today. People ready and willing to support you on your journey.

So the next time you wanna get away I ask you to remember. Remember Christ is here, already. Remember Christ is for you. Remember Christ is for everyone. And remember, that, with fellow Christ-followers at your side, in the best of times, and in the worst of times, you are never, never alone. Amen.



A message based on Mark 1:21-28.

In 2012 the alt-rock band Imagine Dragons released their debut album, Night Visions. It was an instant success, becoming the fourth most purchased album nationally within a year. Imagine Dragons is also the only group with two of the top ten songs downloaded in rock history. One of these top downloaded songs, Demons, has been purchased online over 5 million times in the US to date.

So what makes this song, Demons, so successful? I’ll give you my take on that – the lyrics describe a certain darkness to the human condition, in language people can understand, in ways they can relate. In Lutheran terms, where we are both saint and sinner, at all times, it’s not the saint piece we’re talking about.

Lyrics to Demons describe the dark side of the human condition poetically:

When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold

When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale

Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide

Sometimes where the demons hide is crystal clear.

When former Michigan State and Olympic gymnast doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison early this week, for inappropriate contact, with 150 teen and pre-teen girls, over the course of two decades, we can only shake our heads. Dear God, cast out this vicious demon. Dear God, bring your justice for this wrong. Bring your healing for all those impacted. Lord, hear our prayers.

Other times the nature of the demon is less than obvious, as is the case with today’s scripture text. Modern translations of the text use the phrase unclean spirit to describe what this man was possessed with, so let’s use that phrase for a bit. In biblical language impure means unclean, which means, simply, contrary to the sacred. Contrary to the sacred. Aka not according to God’s plan.

Unclean Spirits
Today’s text finds Jesus, very early in his ministry, teaching in the temple on the Sabbath. Teaching in a holy space on a holy day. And then, in the middle of his sermon, something unexpected happens. A man shows up, speaking directly to the preacher, saying, “What have you to do with us? I know who you are, Jesus!”

We don’t know the nature of this unclean spirit, so it would be unfair to speculate. We do know it recognized Jesus, and Jesus recognized the spirit as something not according to God’s plan. And with Christ, sent to earth to live out God’s plan, with a showdown like this lined up, something had to give.

Jesus, in this moment didn’t launch into a parable, as wonderful as those parables are. He didn’t draw signs in the dirt, as meaningful as those signs can be. And he didn’t shuffle off to the next town, opting to preach elsewhere, as important as his preaching across the countryside came to be.

Instead he acted, commanding the unclean spirit to leave the man, casting out this unclean spirit right then and there. And the people gathered that day were amazed, realizing this Man doesn’t just teach, but acts. And even the unclean spirits, those spirits that aren’t according to God’s plan, they obey him, the people realized. At once the fame of Jesus began to spread. The words, and deeds, of this new preacher also began to spread.

Imagine if something like that happened here, during a normal church service. Imagine if Pastor Bryan and I were on vacation, and this other preacher, from Nazareth, were here in our place, speaking to you. And imagine if, right in the middle of the sermon, someone challenged this other pastor, and then had their unclean spirit plucked out of them, fully healed, in mind and body, right before your eyes. My guess is you’d be amazed too. And would have plenty to talk about after church as well 😊

Yet other times noticing unclean spirits, what they are, and how they are contrary to the sacred, and what we are called to do in those moments we encounter them, well, at times it can be a little more difficult to see all that clearly.

It was a gorgeous South Florida Sunday, about ten years ago, I remember it well. Kathi and I did then what we do now, we got up, showered, put clean clothes on and went to church. After service the congregation was invited to head outside for a pancake brunch, complete with eggs, sausage patties, hot coffee and fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice, mmmmmm, so tasty. The meal was spread out across a few long rectangular tables. People began to form a line to fill their plates, fill their stomachs.

Kathi and I got our food, and then went to find a place to sit. Now this is South Florida, so a lot of the gathering spots to be had exist outdoors. We found a couple of open seats on a picnic bench underneath a large covered patio that protected us from the sun. We settled in to enjoy a good meal alongside good conversation with people we knew, people we liked.

And what of the temperatures, my winter Iowan friends? They were in the mid-70s; a light ocean breeze blew through the large covered patio cooling everyone.

This is one of those moments I love most about participating in the life of the church. Music, prayer, message and communion, followed by the community gathering together for relationship, for conversation, for a shared meal.

If this were a beer commercial it could be summed up with a tagline akin to guys, it doesn’t get any better than this.

It was then, in the middle of a personal churchy utopia, that a member of the congregation came up and whispered something in my ear.

Casting Out
“A homeless man is here, and in line for food. Should we do something about that” the person wondered? I looked over at the serving line and easily spotted the man. Sporting a disheveled beard, and filthy clothes that I’d guessed he slept in for days, or weeks, standing amongst the people of our church, all in their version of a Sunday best, he was impossible to miss.

Now this was pre-seminary for me, pre-pastor gig, years before I’d first approach a pulpit to deliver a message. Yet I was on church council, and was being asked to take action, to address this perceived issue one way or another.

“Thanks for the heads up,” I replied, and headed back to pancakes and orange juice, back to fun conversation. I remember thinking, in that moment, what’s the big deal? Let the guy sit down. Let the guy eat. While I thought this I did nothing, settling for inaction instead.

A few minutes later, another church leader approached me with a different narrative than I’d silently spoken internally. “There was a homeless person here that made a few people uncomfortable. So I went over, spoke with him, gave him some food, and escorted him off the property. I thought you should know.”

This unclean homeless man, physically unclean at least, had literally just been cast out from our church gathering.

My personal churchy utopia, a South Floridian garden of Eden of sorts, suddenly felt a little unclean too.

Taken in the context of today’s scripture, who had the unclean spirit?

Was it the homeless man, unclean physically, he who had been cast out?

Or was it me, he who had taken no action, settling for personal comfort instead?

Or was the unclean spirit not dwelling in one person, but instead a symptom of a larger issue?

I’m not going to answer that question, but I do ask you to think on it some, look at it from various vantages and see where you arrive. I’ve held on to this story for a decade now and continue to grapple with the challenges it contains.

Sometimes demons in our world are really easy to spot, especially in an era of modern tech where news is disseminated so quickly. Finding and labeling unclean spirits, in conversation with friends or on your Facebook feeds, well, that can be downright fun. And, to be honest, it almost feels kind of good to do, thank goodness we’re not like this person or that group! We preach our sermons in one form or another, expecting others to come-to-Jesus, so-to-speak, desiring the world to be formed in our image, in our own version of utopia. Or perhaps we just turn a blind eye, like I did that sunny Florida morning, desiring change, yet unwilling to do anything about it.

Theologian Mike Graves, reflecting on today’s scripture, where Jesus stands in contrast to the scribes of the temple, says that:

”Like it or not, (preachers) are the scribes who profit from the scholarly work of others, and bring forth teachings in an assembly we call church. And like it or not, we are just as likely to miss the marginalized before us.”

Ouch. That kinda hurts.

But Jesus breaks into our world and sees us for who we are, as spiritually clean or spiritually unclean as that may be. Christ lived a life of transformation, of action, and stands ready to remove the unclean spirits, those spirits that are not according to God’s plan, and pluck them right from us.

The Imagine Dragons song Demons closes with these fitting lyrics, that point us right back to our savior:

Your eyes, they shine so bright
I want to save their light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

Dear Lord, show us the unclean spirits within ourselves, those spirits that act contrary to your plan, whatever they may be. Cast out those unclean spirits, leaving us only Your heart for Your people. Guide us to model you and then act, moved by the Holy Spirit, being part of the transformation of the world around us.

And then empower us to make room at the grand banquet of your kingdom, a kingdom where none are sent away, and ALL are welcome to sit down, together, and share in the heavenly feast.   Amen.

Honoring the Past, Empowering the Future

A devotion based on 2 Timothy 1:2-7.  

Whenever I get to the pearly gates the apostle Paul is the first person I’ll reach out to for chatter over a cup of coffee.  Educated, well-traveled, a small business owner and a man of languages, and egad what a writer!  He knew how to encourage, challenge and mediate, all in the right dose, and always with the person, congregation or town he wrote to in mind.

This text, which opens his second letter to Timothy, is more of the encouraging kind, and it reminds me of so many of our Christian communities.

I love that Paul looks back, honoring the past, specifically naming Timothy’s mother and grandmother, exhorting the value of a faith passed on from one generation to the next. Congregations with multiple generations of families can look back, to parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and consider all they’ve done to encourage our faith, from baptism, first communion, confirmation and on into adulthood.  The faith of our ancestors now lives in you, lives in us, and lives in our children, our children’s children and will for generations to come.

I love how Paul recalls Timothy’s tears, and wants to rejoin his friend to be filled with joy.  It conjures up language from another Pauline text, Romans 12:15, that we are to Rejoice with those who rejoice, Weep with those who weep.  It’s a gentle reminder that emotions are often best shared within a community of people that care for each other. Perhaps a community not too unlike your own.

I love how Paul reminds Timothy to rekindle the gift of God within him.  Look back and celebrate, what was, yes, of course, but make sure to also fuel the fire of faith that burns within you.  Fuel that fire so that it may glow brightly.  Brightly enough so the light of Christ can be seen in you by others.

And I love how Paul describes exactly what God has gifted his friend, and has gifted us.  No, God did not give us a spirit of fear, ours is not a life to be lived cowering in dark corners hiding from our Creator and each other.  Instead God gifted us a spirit of power, and love, and a sound mind.  These are gifts to be used, tools to be put to work, a palette of paints to mix together and apply, bringing our world life, light and brilliant color as originally designed.

As we begin 2018 may we mimic the wisdom these few brief verses contain.  May we pray for one another, constantly, by day and by night.  May we honor the past, celebrating generations of faithful Christ-followers that brought us to where we are.  May we hold each other close enough to remember tears; close enough to desire reunions that bring joy.  May we rekindle the fire of our faith anew, a faith that glows brightly wherever we go.  May we remember the gifts we’ve been bestowed, for they are many.  And may we use those gifts, to share this kingdom of God within our spheres of influence, both locally and beyond.  Amen.

Small Towns

A message about Seymour Indiana and Nazareth, a musician and a savior, and the good that can come from literally anywhere on our planet.  

He was born in a small town, six decades ago, population just under 10,000, in the rural area of Seymour Indiana. Referred to as the “Crossroads of America” due to the north/south and east/west railroads that intersect downtown, Seymour is more of a spot to head through than to head to.

And this particular small-town man, at face value seemed, well, nothing special. Born with spina bifida you may not have expected much from this infant later in life. At age 18 he eloped with his pregnant girlfriend, mere months after graduating high school, becoming a young father soon after. While attending a two-year college in another small Indiana town he got knee-deep in drug culture, at times being so high on pot he wouldn’t get off the couch for days at a time. With just this limited information about a town and a person, you may ask yourself, can anything good come out of Seymour?

If this were your friend, or child, or relative it’d be difficult not to judge.

Two millennia ago another man also grew up in a small town, population of just a few hundred, in a rural area of Galilee known as Nazareth. Born of an unwed mother, who gave birth far away from home, in a barn of all places, knowing just this you may not expect too much from him later in life either.

Like other small towns in the area, Nazareth was an agricultural village, and economically dependent on the capital of Galilee. Hebrew scripture never mentions the town, much less connects it with anything special. To the locals it may have seemed rather ho-hum, another small town away from the action of the big city.

In today’s scripture passage, John 1:43-51, where the twelve disciples begin to get gathered, begin to follow, you can hear the assumptions, hear the prejudice clearly about where this man from Nazareth grew up. When the apostle Philip approached Nathaniel and described he who Moses and the prophets wrote of, the promised savior, Nathaniel was less than impressed. Nathaniel replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel felt so ho-hum about this town he was willing to write off all its inhabitants completely.

Heck, in my own life I must confess to being guilty of this kind of mindset. When the Southeastern Iowa Synod phoned last Spring about a possible call to a church, in a town called Ames, population about 66,000, initially I didn’t know what to think. When Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Eric Carlson asked me what I knew of Iowa I responded coyly, “beyond the corn? Not much.” I found myself pondering, in those early moments of discernment, some version of the same scriptural question, “can any good pastor gig, for a suburban South Florida guy, come out of Iowa?” At the time I wasn’t so sure.

A Rock Star
So what about that guy from Seymour Indiana? Well, it turns out he was musically gifted, and went on to became a highly successful rock star, singing songs about America’s heartland. His life’s work spans across 23 albums, with 28 million in albums sold. Some of his biggest hits include Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Pink Town, and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. This musical icon was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, that’s a pretty big deal. He’s gone by several names over the years, and for the past couple of decades is known simply as John Mellencamp.

But Mellencamp isn’t just a talented musician beloved by millions. He is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 to raise funds that keep farm families on their land. Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 33 years, and, with his help have raised over $50 million dollars.  He came from a small town, and people may have wondered, can anything good come out of Seymour? We know the answer, it’s unequivocal: yes.

A Savior
Turning back to our scripture text, after Nathaniel wondered aloud if anything good could come from Nazareth, the Apostle Phillip responded simply, “Come and see.” And Nathaniel went and saw. There he saw Christ, who found no deceit in Nathaniel. This surprised him, who felt deeply known by someone Nathaniel had only just met. Now seeing Christ in the flesh Nathaniel exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Jesus, who at this point in scripture had performed no miracle, shown no sign, and engaged in no teaching responded you, Nathaniel, “will see greater things than these.”

Come and see, Christ beckons. Come and see.

Speaking personally, after my own “can anything good come out of” moment, I got down to the business of getting educated about all things Ames, all things Bethesda. I spoke with people, ran internet searches, prayed, and imagined with wife Kathi what could be. After getting educated some my initial bias toward going to a town this size began to melt away; I began to see the possibilities more clearly. The call committee said, in their own way, “come and see” inviting the two of us to do just that. So this past June we went, soaking up as much as we could over the course of three days learning about this town, this church.

While visiting we found much to love in what, to us, is a small town, tho admitted you may not agree on that particular label – I suppose that depends on where you’re from 😊

So we packed our stuff, kids and pooch and moved to this small town, and these several last months have been wonderful.

So often we find ourselves making snap judgments about people, and places, based on our own bias, our own stereotypes, our own limited information. You’ve heard my confession, please forgive me, people of Ames, I love ya. We each have our own challenges in this department.

Heck, in the past two days our national dialogue has pivoted to this exact topic. It’s caused us to pause, reflect, and dialogue on something akin to these three questions:

Can anything good come out of Haiti?
Can anything good come out of El Salvador?
Can anything good come out of Africa?

As followers of a God that created each of us in God’s likeness, the answer is obvious. As followers of a Savior raised in a small town, a Savior that taught us to care for those society treats as less than, over and above all else, we know the answers to these questions.
It is unequivocal: YES.

But to arrive at that kind of conclusion requires something of you.

To experience the brilliance of John Mellencamp, you can’t just look up his birthplace and call it a day. You have to come and see, and listen to the music. You’ll be glad you did.

To experience what’s so great about Ames, and about Bethesda Lutheran, you can’t rely on a joke about corn. Kathi and I had to come and see, to talk and to tour, to learn and to dream. And we are so glad we did.

To experience the transformational beauty that Christianity offers, you can’t rely on cultural assumptions of what our faith is, or isn’t, and simply tag it onto a political or social platform. The beauty of our faith requires we come and see, read, learn, worship, break bread together and participate in the life of the church. It asks us to go and do, here and throughout the world, as Christ has modeled so well. It asks us to then to share, to converse, to invite others, asking them to also come and see, to experience this transformational beauty for themselves.

Before we close I’d like you to take a listen to a favorite Mellencamp song of mine, Small Town. As you listen, consider the small town Jesus came from, and the stereotypes and challenges he encountered throughout his ministry. Then consider the town you come from, either big or small, and the challenges and bias from others you may have had to endure as you grew up. And then consider, in your town, how you can ask others to come and see Jesus, right alongside you, and how you can encourage them to experience this transformational beauty for themselves.

Click on the YouTube link for the full video and then read select lyrics below.

Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities

Educated in a small town
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that’s me

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I’m meant to be

God is perfectly capable of honoring ordinary people from apparently insignificant places. And God is perfectly capable of doing amazing things with those people. And that, when you are open to it, certainly includes you.  Amen.