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THANKSGIVING 2020: “FOLKS, IT DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS!”

Yes, that is my headline for Thanksgiving this year and I’m sticking to it! We have a whole lot more to be grateful for this year than we can even imagine! Sure, it  may look dark and dismal right now, and it has been a gut-wrenching, even tragic, year in  our land. You may be sick and tired of being confined and masked for a good portion of your  day. You are probably fed up with the lack of political civility. And you should be concerned  about the state of our democracy and the struggle to extend the promises of our Founders  to all people in our land.  

But then consider what the Apostle Paul was going through when he wrote these words:  “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thes. 5:16- 18)  

Paul wrote those words while he was sitting in a dark, dank prison, chained in place and not  knowing if there was any hope for him to survive. His life’s calling, to plant churches of Jesus  followers throughout the known world, may be coming to an end, falling miserably short!  But still, he urges those he loves to rejoice, to pray, and to give thanks. As my friend Bruce  Condill likes to translate these words of Paul: “Brothers and sisters, it doesn’t get any better  than this!”

You see, Paul knew the secret between being a person thankful for just the good things in  life, and being a person grateful for life itself – including everything that goes with it. You  don’t have to be a person of faith to be thankful for the good stuff in your life. But, as Paul  says, to be “thankful in ALL circumstances,” that’s quite a different thing. That takes a  person of great faith.  

It seems to me that “gratefulness” is the spiritual condition of a heart given over to the Lord.  Otherwise, we end up being thankful for only the things that help us and that we prefer …  and that’s not a spiritual trait at all. That’s just plain old self-centeredness, which Jesus  warns us about over and over in His gospels.  

So, this year for Thanksgiving, I propose that we become “Grateful Pilgrims”; People of faith  who are thankful in ALL circumstances — even the circumstances we’re in today.  Gratefulness is the gift that gets us through the tough times, and that leaves us being better  people for having gone through the hardships.  

People of faith understand that enduring tough times is not only part of living life on life’s  terms, but it actually strengthens our faith and instills in us the hope that we can get  through anything … with God. Indeed, when we look at it that way, the tough times are the  things we should be most grateful for. Not thankful for … but grateful for.  

As you look back on the journey you have walked in your life, can you see that the tough  times were really the defining moments in your faith life, and that you wouldn’t be the  person you are today, or even have the life that you have today, if you hadn’t endured  through the hardships? And can you also see how that perseverance has molded and  solidified your relationship with God over the years? That shouldn’t make you thankful for  the hardships, but it should make you grateful for having gone through them.  

So, as you gather around the table, or around the Zoom screen, on this Thanksgiving, and  you ponder what possibly you could be thankful for this year – think about these tough  times as opportunities to grow closer to God, to strengthen your faith and trust in Jesus, and  to move from being a person who is thankful for only the good things in life, to one who is  grateful for life itself, with everything included; Or, as Paul puts it, “to be thankful in all  circumstances.” 

Friends and neighbors, take a look around. Think of the people who have come and gone  that mean everything to you. Think of all the great memories, and the ones you’re making  today. Think of the blessings of food and shelter … and of good friends. Think of the freedom  we enjoy and the beauty of all creation. And then look into your heart, and see your Lord  and savior always there with you … in ALL circumstances. So yes, I do think it’s fair to say: It  doesn’t get any better than this … so let’s make the most of it!  

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Grateful to be Your Pastor,  

Pastor Bob


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A TRIBUTE TO OUR FARMERS

It’s that time of the year again when we take time to honor the farmers in our midst. How grateful we are to them for keeping the agri-CULTURE way of life alive and well in and around our community. 

Vine Street Christian Church is especially blessed to have so many “farm families” as part of our “faith family.” The lessons we learn every day throughout the year from our farmers are treasures that keep us rooted in the natural harmony of God’s time. 

Our farmers are there each day when the sun comes up … and long after the sun goes down. The rhythm of their lives is in sync with the seasons that God bestowed upon us. The day’s weather is a dominant presence in their lives, ever dependent on the will of God to provide the proper amount of sun and rain to get through another year. 

The culture of agriculture is one of the greatest gifts we have in our American culture today. It teaches us that all things work for good … and all things work best in God’s time. It slows us down to a human pace and shows us the miracles that can occur – like a seed into a soybean – when we put our trust in God and partner with God for our life’s work. 

Those of us who aren’t farmers can learn a lot from a farmer. Most important, we can learn a lot about how God works and the blessings that fill our lives the more we live in harmony with God’s will. 

God bless our farmers! YOU are the salt of the earth and the light of the world! 

Here is a poem dedicated to our farmers, recommended by Lois Silvanik. 

Soybeans

by Thomas Alan Orr

The October air was warm and musky, blowing

Over brown fields, heavy with the fragrance

Of freshly combined beans, the breath of harvest.

He was pulling a truckload onto the scales

At the elevator near the rail siding north of town.

When a big Cadillac drove up. A man stepped out,

Wearing a three-piece suit and a gold pinky ring.

The man said he had just invested a hundred grand

In soybeans and wanted to see what they looked like.

The farmer stared at the man and was quiet, reaching

For the tobacco in the rear pocket of his jeans,

Where he wore his only ring, a threadbare circle rubbed

By working cans of dip and long hours on the backside

Of a hundred acre run. He scooped up a handful

Of small white beans, the pearls of the prairie, saying:

Soybeans look like a foot of water on the field in April

When you’re ready to plant and can’t get in;

Like three kids at the kitchen table

Eating macaroni and cheese five nights in a row;

Or like a broken part on the combine when

Your credit with the implement dealer is nearly tapped.

Soybeans look like prayers bouncing off the ceiling

When prices on the Chicago grain market start to drop;

Or like your old man’s tears when you tell him

How much the land might bring for subdivisions.

Soybeans look like the first good night of sleep in weeks.

When you unload at the elevator and the kids get Christmas.

He spat a little juice on the tire of the Cadillac,

Laughing despite himself and saying to the man:

Now maybe you can tell me what a hundred grand looks like.

Peace on a tractor … 

Pastor Bob <><


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WHOLEHEARTED OR HALF-HEARTED? IT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE!

Do you ever stop to reflect on how much of your heart you’re putting into something, or giving to someone? Being “wholehearted” about something or with someone sure makes a big difference, but it can be very hard to measure or define what wholeheartedness is for any one person in any given situation. But you know it when you feel it! 

I’ve been doing a little journaling lately with a book called “the book of the soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters,” by Mark Nepo. Nepo is a prolific writer on matters of spirituality and the inner life, and is often on the New York Times bestsellers list. His true gift is his ability to “see” the power and the practical applications of the spiritual life across all cultures, religions, and traditions. His work is just as accessible and meaningful to a Hindu, Shinto, Muslim or Christian … or even a “none.”

In his sixth entry in the book, Nepo considers the challenge of living wholeheartedly, claiming that this is the only way “to be lifted by the mystical web of life.” It seems that that the old saying, “you will get out of it what you put into it” is also true in your faith life, in your relationship with God, or in your walk with Jesus. 

So, have you stopped lately to reflect upon how much of your heart you’re giving to God these days? How committed you are to your walk with Jesus? How invested you are in your faith life … and in your church? Nepo says that the “work of being human is to be all-embracing.” When we hold back from investing in the important things in our life, then, he claims, the more random life will appear to be. And “randomness” in our lives makes us very uneasy, as if we’re not in control of things. 

Consider the areas in your life right now that seem to more random (out of control) than you would prefer. One question you may want to ask is: How much of my heart am I investing here? Am I trying to get a bargain, by expecting more out of some area of my life that I am willing to invest? This “wholeheartedness test” can work in almost any part of your life, from your marriage to your work to your family to your church.

But, and this is very important for Nepo, it can also work on yourself!  For instance, think about how “all-embracing” you are with your very own person … you! When you come to yourself wholeheartedly you become able to accept yourself just as you are … everything included. And there is a great freedom from within that comes from honestly accepting all your gifts as well as all your failings. 

When you bring your whole heart to your relationship with yourself, then you no longer deny your stubborn or difficult parts. Your heart becomes spacious enough to hold your full humanity. When this happens, Nepo says, we are able to 1) experience the full miracle of life; and 2) experience the full miracle of love. 

The main reason this happens is because wholeheartedness overcomes what Carl Jung calls our “shadow,” which is where we hide all of our character traits that we would prefer to deny or avoid. As we make less room in our heart for these specific traits, then they become exaggerated within us, and we end up projecting these exaggerated shadow parts of who we are onto others. For instance, it is much more convenient for me to highlight and criticize your self-centeredness than it is for me to deal with mine. 

Think about the traits you have that you would rather deny or avoid. When there is no room in your heart to accept these parts of yourself, then you end up exaggerating them in other people. This means you are not only failing to love yourself, just as you are, but you also end up judging others based on your own shadows. Jung says, “the more we deny any one aspect of who we are, the more powerful and distorted its place in our life.” Eventually, we end up being controlled, even dominated, by the very things about us that we would originally prefer to hide from. 

Wholeheartedness, then, becomes a way to accept, even honor, all the traits about yourself that make you who you are, not just the ones you like. You can never love yourself fully until you love all of yourself! The integrity of wholeheartedness is that it’s completely inclusive.  Not being willing to accept your whole self means that you cannot truly love your whole self. Which, of course, leaves your love fragmented and selective … and that’s not really love at all. 

When we cannot come to accept our selves just as we are, then we cannot come to fully accept and love others just as they are. Nepo puts it this way: “For we can only see as far into the world as we can see into ourselves.” The broader goal of wholeheartedness is to; 1) admit our failings, limitations, and darker impulses, and 2) embrace them into our own efforts at restoring kindness and harmony in our lives. Sounds great! How do we do that? We can begin by accepting our own full humanity, and then help each other repair the torn seams in our lives and in the world, as we discover just how far our love can stretch. 

Searching for my shadows … loving with my whole heart …                                                                                                                                  Pastor Bob <><

 


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ELECTION SPECIAL! BREAKING NEWS! CONFIRMED & CERTIFIED RESULTS! YOU CAN TRUST THIS!!!

A clear-cut winner emerged from yesterday’s election! This was an underdog candidate  that spent virtually nothing for campaign ads and media buys. It is possible that this is the most  well-known candidate that nobody even knows about. And yet, when he wins, the winner is  actually us! And that’s not just another political cliché. 

As we woke on Wednesday morning, after a very uncertain Tuesday, the final results  were still there waiting for us … did you know that? … just as they are every single morning of  our lives. 

So many things in the world can shift and shimmy, causing great destruction and  suffering, especially for the people who are on, or near, the margins. Plus, in this time of a  global pandemic and movements for deep change erupting in our streets, we feel powerless and  our lives seem unmanageable. But the God waiting for us every morning, who can change all  this pressure and worry to peace and serenity, is the very same God we had waiting for us  yesterday, and that will be waiting for us tomorrow. The truth of these results is that they are  undeniable and unchangeable. Folks – this IS the final result! 

So, (drum roll, please!) here are the results: 

Today’s Election Results:  

1) Our God is still the Ruler of Heaven and Earth, and always will be.  2) Jesus Christ is still the King of the World, and always will be. 

Tomorrow’s Election Results:  

(see Today’s Election Results) 

Keep repeating … 

Trust me! I know these results to be true, because I walk by faith, not by sight! (2 Cor.  5:7) On the other hand, don’t trust me. I’m just a pastor; a pilgrim trying to follow Jesus to the  best of my ability every day; and a mangy old sheepdog helping to herd the flock for our Good  Shepherd.  

Perhaps you did what I did Election night: spent a lot of mindless hours looking at  statistics on TV that were as slippery as elm, used by the networks to always position their  preferred candidate in the most favorable light. Not time well spent! Anyway, the actual results  about who rules over my life and who has sole authority over me had already been confirmed  and certified. See “Today’s Election Results” above.  

Did you notice? Americans were unusually fired up for this presidential election. Even in  the time of Covid-19, the campaign’s found the money and the means to constantly be in the  face of the voters, on a daily basis – so it seemed. Our God doesn’t work that way. God isn’t  running a political campaign. The truth about God is that God never leaves you. God doesn’t  need to make campaign stops and personal appointments … because God never leaves! God is  always there! And that is very good news, because God is just the winner we need. What God  has to offer is not based on any promotional campaign, but rather on a compelling attraction  between God’s Son, Jesus, and you!  

I suppose we may know the winner of the presidential race sometime this week. Don’t  expect too much. American politics has a long history of disappointing us, and I don’t see  anything changing for those on or near the margins.  

But there is always that other option … you know, the eternal winner who can bring that  undefeated record straight into your life. Maybe this is just the time for an adjustment in whom and what we make priorities in our life; fallible, limited rulers of provinces and principalities  who can build all the roads and bridges they want, and never save the soul of even one person.  Really?  

Think about the rest of this week. You can obsess about the crowning of the next  American President and anxiously wait for a “winner,” or you can crown the winner in your life  today. There’s no waiting for this ruler. God is already there, just waiting on you! And, there’s  no proving yourself or changing who you are for this King. Jesus is the King of the World, but  most importantly for me … and for you … Jesus is our Lord & Savior!  

Post-Election Blessings! 

Pastor Bob <>< 


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FINDING THE WAY TO SAY “YES” TO GOD: CONTEXT, SCRIPTURE & PRAYER

Context

There comes a time in the life of a “Christian” when one experiences their first act of pure self-giving. From this moment on, there is no retreat. Aroused by a new kind of love from within, you find yourself anxious to surmount all obstacles to your relationship with God. But still, you tend to get swept back to the people and things whose demands appear more pressing. 

This is when God appears, no longer hidden behinds these pressing matters … but in full light. God speaks so that you can hear. God asks that you receive him and that God be given first place in your life and your activities. 

Many times, when this happens to a committed “Christian” like you, the response is to run away, because it is known that God will ask for your total and unconditional self-giving. Even still, God will pursue you relentlessly (perhaps God is doing that now to you) until God gets the consent from you that will make your own life divine. 

The prayer below is about this “wrestling match” we have with God, and only those who have experienced it or are in it now, can understand the title: “Help Me to Say ‘Yes’.”  But first, some scripture to help put this prayer in deeper context.

Scripture

Luke 1:28-32; 37-38

28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.

37 For no word from God will ever fail. 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Prayer:      

“Help Me to Say ‘Yes’”                                                                                                                                                        by Michael Quoist

I am afraid of saying “Yes,” Lord.                                                                                                                               Where will you take me?                                                                                                                                                         I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,                                                                                                                                      I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,                                                                                                           I am afraid of the “yes” that entails other “yeses.” 

And yet I am not at peace.                                                                                                                                                     You pursue me, Lord, you besiege me.                                                                                                                       I seek out the din for fear of hearing you, but in a moment of silence you slip through.                                   I turn from the road, for I have caught sight of you, but at the end of the path you are there awaiting me. Where shall I hide? I meet you everywhere.                                                                                                                          Is it then impossible to escape you?

But I am afraid to say “Yes,” Lord.                                                                                                                                   I am afraid of putting my hand in yours, for you to hold on to it.                                                                                      I am afraid of meeting your eyes, for you can win me.                                                                                                  I am afraid of your demands, for you are a jealous God.                                                                                                I am hemmed in, yet I hide.                                                                                                                                                      I am captured, yet I struggle, and I fight knowing that I am defeated.                                                                      For you are the stronger, Lord, you own the world and you take it from me.                                                     When I stretch out my hand to catch hold of people and things, they vanish before my eyes.                             It’s no fun, Lord, I can’t keep anything for myself.                                                                                                        The flower I pick fades in my hands.                                                                                                                               My laugh freezes on my lips.                                                                                                                                             The waltz I dance leaves me restless and uneasy.                                                                                                       Everything seems empty,                                                                                                                                         Everything seems hollow,                                                                                                                                                    You have made a desert around me.                                                                                                                                            I am hungry and thirsty,                                                                                                                                                       And the whole world cannot satisfy me.  

And yet, I loved you, Lord; what have I done to you?                                                                                                     I worked for you: I gave myself for you.                                                                                                                     O great and terrible God,                                                                                                                                                    What more do you want?

God replies:                                                                                                                                                                             “I want more for you and for the world.                                                                                                                         Until now, you have planned your actions, but I have no need of them.                                                        You have asked for my approval, you have asked for my support,                                                                                  You have wanted to interest me in your work.                                                                                                                 But, don’t you see … that you were reversing the roles?                                                                                                         I have watched you, I have seen your good will,                                                                                                                And I want more than you, now.                                                                                                                                             You will no longer do your own works, but the will of your Father in heaven.”

“Say ‘yes’ …                                                                                                                                                                                   I need your ‘yes’ as I needed Mary’s ‘yes’ to come to earth.                                                                                            For it is I who must do your work,                                                                                                                                                It is I who must live in your family,                                                                                                                                           It is I who must be in your neighborhood, and not you.                                                                                                     For it is my look that penetrates, and not yours,                                                                                                             My words that carry weight, and not yours.                                                                                                                       My life that transforms, and not yours.                                                                                                                        Give all to me, abandon all to me.                                                                                                                                                      I need your ‘yes’ to be united with you and to come down to earth,                                                                                          I need your ‘yes’ to continue saving the world!”

 

O Lord, I am afraid of your demands, but who can resist you?                                                                                     That your Kingdom may come and not mine,                                                                                                                  That your will may be done and not mine,                                                                                                                       Help me to say “Yes.”

(Credit & Inspiration to Michael Quoist, from his book “Prayers”) 

Just for today, I am saying “Yes!” What about you?                                                                                                                                 Pastor Bob <><

 

 

 


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INTO THE MYSTIC: SEEKING THE GREAT HARMONY OF LIFE

“We were borne before the wind

Also younger than the sun

Ere the bonnie boat was won

As we sailed into the mystic”

(Van Morrison)

Genesis 1 tells us how God created a world that was in perfect harmony. The story of creation is set in a 7-day time span over which God creates everything we have in the world today. God starts with light, and then adds all the features of nature – from the waters to the animals – and then God called it all “good.” When God says something is good, that means it is in perfect harmony with God’s will. 

When the 6th day came in God’s creation story, God created humans in the image of God – male and female God created them. (Gen. 1:27) God blessed the humans (Gen. 1:28), and then looked over all that God had created and saw that it was “excellent in every way.” (Gen. 1: 31) When God thinks something is “excellent in every way” that means it is in perfect harmony with God’s will. Even us!

Chapter 2 of Genesis takes God’s story of perfect harmony into the “Garden of Eden” where man and woman live together with all the other things of creation in a place where nothing is not in harmony with God. All things of existence have found their true nature and they live it out every day; from the clouds and the rain to the trees and the plants to the caterpillars and bullfrogs to the man and the woman. Nothing is dominated by their self-will. Everything is in perfect harmony with God. 

That’s the world that Van Morrison sings about in his song, “Into the Mystic.” (lyrics above) You see, before we got here, we were there … in the “Garden” that God had created. God gave man and woman one final gift that no other part of creation was given – self-will. God knew that without self-will, humans could not be the creatures that God created them to be. God wanted humans to love God by their own choice, because that’s the only way love actually means love. But that self-will also gave us the freedom to do our own thing and to make our own choices. 

Which brings us to today. Here we are, still seeking that perfect harmony with God that is right in front of us. The past few days, my son Jackson and I have been holed up in a cabin in the middle of the Shawnee Forest in southern Illinois seeking that perfect harmony of God in the realm of nature living on its own terms. Being deep in the woods of a national forest is about as close as we can get to that prefect harmony of the Garden of Eden in today’s society. 

For some it is found on a boat in the middle of the sea, and for others it is found climbing mountains that stretch to the sky. And, of course, there’s the beach. My wife, Amy, finds her solace and peace sitting on the beach facing the never ending span of the ocean which extends to the horizon, and beyond. All of these are good places to get close to that original harmony of the Garden. You probably have your own places that bring you closer to God’s presence. The trick, of course, is to bring this sense of original perfection back to our “real” lives. 

It’s wonderful to spend a few days in the woods, free to be yourself and free to be in nature as God created it to be. But the question for us is: How do we experience the mystic of God’s harmony in our everyday lives? The answer to that question brings us back to self-will. God has blessed us with a choice to make each and every day; should it be my will or yours, God? 

Only when we are willing to surrender our own will for God’s will, do we move our souls closer to the harmony of the Garden of Eden. It’s true! Eden is right in front of us. Just ask God. God created all this as a way to bring us closer to God … not farther away. 

The material realities of our lives are but distractions from the mystical reality of God’s presence that surrounds us … and calls to us. It’s as if God can give us new sight – a new way of seeing – so that we may, if we choose, look around us and see that Garden that we came from … that perfect harmony that God instilled in the world at the beginning. 

This week I was reminded of all that harmony and perfection that still remains in the world today. I found myself immersed in nature that was as close to pristine and perfect as God created it. The deep  woods can be stunning in its simplicity – each creature and each plant and each tree co-existing with each other just as God intended – all of them living and growing perfectly according to God’s will. 

And then humans come along. And, as it is every day of our lives, we have a choice to make. Do I co-exist with this patch of the Kingdom by surrendering my will and following God’s will to the best of my ability – or do I come to exert my will on this piece of perfect creation, marred only by the reckless decisions of other humans who cannot resist acting out of self-will. 

The truth of God’s creation is that we have that choice every single day of our lives — whether we are in the woods, on the sea, up on the mountaintop or at the beach. But we also have that same choice when we get back home. God created us to bring harmony with God’s way and God’s will to the place we are each and every day. Those other places we go are just reminders of what we can help God create right at home.

In the end, it’s not about where we are, but who we are. It’s about the choice we make every day. It’s about my will or God’s will. It’s about harmony with perfection that already exists or exerting my power over harmony and creating disharmony in my life and in the world. It’s about good enough for me or the best of what’s possible for all.

As for me, I choose to bring my will before God, and ask that it be molded into whatever God may desire. In that sense, I prefer to “sail into the mystic” with my sights set on Eden and my heart following Jesus. And though I often fall short of perfection, I know that God loves my desire to please God alone and God will always love me, just as I am, imperfections and all! 

Peace and harmony to all,

Pastor Bob

   


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