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Archive for December, 2011

Christ in the Neighbor

Another Artisits rendition of the Nativity

 

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.’ There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed His linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbors. You ought to serve them, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ Himself. Let us, then, meditate upon the nativity just as we see it happening in our own babies. I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather His flesh. Look upon the baby Jesus. Divinity may terrify man. Inexpressible majesty will crush him. That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that He should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor He should console and confirm. . . . Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this Baby and believe that He is come, not to judge you, but to save.”

From Martin Luther’s Postil Sermons

 You serve Christ by serving your neighbor in need.  We are having a good discussion as to how we can serve our neighbors in need in North Dakota oil fields.  Housing is short and they are sleeping under bridges.  But they are not needy in the terms that we think of.  They need a place to stay.  Like Mary and Joseph these are not homeless and destitute people.  They are people that have jobs and just can’t find a place to stay.  Our discussions are pointing to a need to witness to them and get them involved with a congregation.  Yet someone in the conversation made this observation – ” most of our Pastors do a great job with Lutheran theology, but do little outreach outside the church building itself”. 

It would fun to get some input from preachers over on the Minnesota North side.  How would you deal with a massive influx of strangers into your area, many of whom can’t find a place to stay, and your parishoners may lose their houses because the rent and property values are going through the roof?

 

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Come and See

One of the Mission workers in out partner church in Germany, the SELK, wrote and article about the work going on among the immigrants that are moving to that country.  He says that a lot of people come up to him and say, “I’m not a Christian but….” and then they want to help with something or give a donation.  Well, let him tell the story……

 Every time people came to me with this little introduction: “I am not Christian, but….” I have a feeling of warmth in my heart. This is because people who say this are on the road to Bethlehem! They have seen the star of Bethelehem and are somehow on their way to Jesus Christ! The wise men in the Christmas narratative were no different. In a very curious way, they heard about the star of Bethlehem by means of astrology. These wise men were complete outsiders. They were not even Jewish. Similarly the shepherds on the fields were outsiders and had little hope of climbing the social ladder. But then the heavens were opened above them and they too could see and understand what it means when God seeks his own. They were to become the first Christian witnesses! How wonderful to see God choosing his people from those who have no hope of belonging! In the Asylum home in Saxony we could once again see the miracle of Christmas. 6 different nations were seated on one table enjoying a meal prepared in the Persian, Vietnamese and Iraki tradtions. WE ate together, talked together and expressed our sadness and hopes together. Those that do not belong suddenly get the feeling that I am part of a family! Those who believed they would never belong anywhere can experience a feeling of home coming!
That too is Christmas. The eternal God actually does not belong to our sinful world. And we certainly do not belong to his eternal kingdom. But He has made the impossible possible! The eternal God came to fellowship with us! He came to be part of us! “Do you know what a miracle we are seeing here today?” said the caretaker of the home in Elbisbach. Of course she meant the very fact that so many people who do not belong together were fellowshipping in harmony and eating from one table. Yes, I said to her. This is how Christmas always was. I imagine the wise men coming to Bethlehem and saying something like: „ we are not from here. But we also saw the star. May we pray to this king who said that He would also be our King?”  Actually this miracle happens again and again when each one of us has the privilege of kneeling in the presence of this king. Actually you our Lord are from another world and do not belong to my world at all. Actually I have no right to be in your presence. But you have made the impossible possible! You came to one like me. You have fellowship with me. Thank you Lord Jesus. You came to us. You are still coming and you will come again!
Hugo Gevers, Missionary

The first Christmas was about coming and seeing.  Then angels said to the sheherds in effect “come and see” and they went.  The star in the East told the Wise men to “come and see”.  This people may not be Christians but if they come and see, the Holy Spirit can work.  Here’s a song I wrote about evangelism, called “Come and See”

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I Wanna Go To Bethlehem

Going to Bethlehem

We are in the “between times”. We celebrate the birth of Christ and continue that celebration for 12 days and then we celebrate the coming of the “wise men from the East”.  But it is in the between times that my imagination runs wild.  How long did they stay in the stable?  Did the innkeeper finally find a room?  How long did it take to “register”?  Was Roman efficency like our government so that Joseph had to fill out a WD40, or whatever they call that thing, five times because he got five different sets of instructions from 5 different bureacrats?  Was Jesus a tax deduction?  When did he finally get a house?  We know they were living in a house in Bethlehem because that is what Matthew says.  The star led them to a house where they found Mary and the baby.  How long from the time the wise men saw the star until they came to the house?  Herod seems to have thought it could have been almost two years which is why he murdered the boy babies under the age of two.

I would love to go to Bethlehem.  Not the tourist trap – buy a plastic manger scene – AK47 guarded place that it is today, but whatever it was back then.  The romance of our celebration and our Divine Worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day might take a beating but I would still have loved to have seen it.  The utter simplicity of the scene and the hidden panic of the parents; the adoration by outcasts; and that bright light in the heavens must have been a wondrous sight.  I tried to capture that in this song. 

 

 

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Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild

Home under a highway overpass 

 One of the things that I will ramble on about at this time of the year is that Christmas is not over.  We celebrate until the 6th of January when we begin the Epiphany season and the visit of the Wisemen.  Another thing that drives me crazy is the idea perpetrated by someone that Mary and Joseph were poor homeless people and it is not the truth.  They had a home, Joseph just forgot to get reservations.  If we want to identify them with some needy group how about political refugees?  That I believe is the Gospel lesson for this week.

That led me to this picture taken back in October of working folk who got jobs in Williston in the oil fields but have no place to live.   Note the rifle and the fishing pole in the “rafters”.   I think these folks are still in this spot and the word is that the housing shortage in the Western part of North Dakota is beyond comprehension.

Someone wrote to me and wondered what we can do as the church –How do we respond to the impact of our population increase in Western North Dakota in ways which are feasible and prudent? There are thousands of people moving to western ND. One of my coworkers said he heard the population could increase by 700,000 in northwest ND in the next several years. Possible? Maybe. The oil drilling is now shifting to southwest ND. People say Dickinson will become a hub. I heard that modest 3 bedroom apartments in Dickinson are going for $2,000 per month. I heard that in Williston the rent has went up so high that the elderly on fixed income cannot afford the rent anymore and are forced to move. I read about people coming to western ND with no housing or jobs lined up, only hope of a job. Think about the workers who come to ND and leave family behind for several weeks. Even in Bismarck I think we are starting to be affected by the oil development in western ND. I think we have many new opportunities ahead of us to share the Gospel in our District. I mentioned housing as a need to demonstrate an example. But there are many more needs, including the elderly. How can we demonstrate God’s love for them and share the Gospel?

Good questions – any answers?

Here is the song for the day. 

 

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Shepherds Song

Adoration of the Shepherds by Michelangelo

Christmas is the most “sensuous” of holidays.  The smell of a pine forest in the snow around Brainerd will bring back Christmas memories.  The taste of peppermint will take me back almost 50 years to a Christmas program practice and my teachers explanation of the theological significance of the Christmas Candy Cane.  The sight of a broken down cattle shed in the wilds of North Dakota will take me to a manger throne and a babe lying there that is the Savior of the World.  The feel of old tinsel that lies on the bottom of some of our decoration boxes flashes scenes of Christmas’ past through my head until I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge.  And of course, the sounds.  Bells, hymns, carols, all of these are rich in memory and context.

One memory that stands out that combines many of the senses happened a few years ago.  I was looking though a book that at one time was one of those “memories” itself.  There was a magazine that was published every year for Christmas that had beautiful pictures and poems and songs.  My memory is that it printed “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, with marvelous illustrations.  It may have been “Christmas Ideals” but I am not sure.  If anyone can help with this I would appreciate it.  Anyway I was listening to carols and drinking Christmas blend coffee and touching the pages of this book when I was captivated by a poem.  It was called “Shepherds Song” and was written by William R. Mitchell and it stunned me.  One phrase, it seemed to me, was everything a piece of poetry should be.  In one phrase he sums up everything that I have always imagined a shepherd would feel and think on a cold and lonely night in the field – “I was listening to the flocks like wilder children plead, in almost human voices their almost human need”. 

So in about ten minutes I had a melody of sorts and for whatever reason this has become one of my favorite Christmas songs.  It is redolent of all the sights and sounds and textures that summon the season and it conjures in my mind’s eye the “Adoration of the Shepherds”.  I like to think that Michelangelo had a song like this in his head when he painted it.

 

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What Did Mary Know and When Did She Know It?

The Anniciation is one of the favorite parts of the Christmas story.  Short and sweet Gabriel tells Mary about the upcoming birth.  FRom Luke 1 –

26And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God……… 38And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Pretty sparse stuff – good stuff but sparse.  Her faithful reply, let it be according to your word has always been a commendable and praiseworthy response that faithful Christians down through the ages have tried to emulate.  But there was a lot left out.  He would be a Savior, he would be great, and would reign over the house of David.  What about he would be despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief?  What about a cross and tomb?  Lots of stuff left out.

Mark Lowry picked up on some of that with his song “Mary Did You Know?”  According to Wikepdedia Mark Lowry wrote the words in 1984 when his pastor asked him to write the program for the living Christmas tree choir presentation. The music was written by Buddy Greene.   This is my cover of “Mary Did You Know?”.

 

 

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Mary’s Little Baby

We love the image of gentle Jesus meek and mild.  The nativity scenes are usually ethereal and cozy.  The reality of a barn in the “bleak midwinter” is something quite different as anyone that has ever spent the night in one with a sick animal can tell you.  The reality of gentle Jesus meek and mild is a comfort for poor lowly sinners “like you and like I” as the old spiritual awkwardly puts it.  But there are other realities as well.  This is the one that set the stars in their place and was there when the “morning stars sang together”.  Mary’s little baby grew up and became a broken bloody sacrifice hanging on a cross.  Mary’s little baby will someday come to judge the living and the dead. 

This is my attempt to balance the syrupy maudlin with a healthy dose of 2nd Article realities.

 

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“Angels Unawares”

This is the season when we think about Angels – messengers from God.  When Angels appear in the Bible it is always important.  Special messages of mercy and protection, “glad tiding of great joy”, the birth of the Prince of Peace, important stuff.  Angels though, are really anyone that brings a message of God’s mercy in Christ.  Pastors are angels.  We are angels when we witness.  Evangelization has the word angel right there in the middle.  There is a reason for that.  When we share, or help others to share the “good news” of the Savior of the world we are angels – messengers. 

We started this blog to help us see the ways that folks from Minnesota North and North Dakota work toward sharing God’s mercy in myriads of ways, often “crossing” paths without even being aware of it.  We may be angels “unaware” in our own Districts.  I have tried to document the number of folks that have traveled to Minot to help with the clean up.  It is not easy but we try.  I would still like to have a story about Pastor Breitbart and his group, but once he sent the pictures I haven’t heard back.  It is as if, like angels, these people don’t want to bring attention to themselves.  Folks from Minnesota and other places have gone and the folks in Minot are not even aware.

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”, says Hebrews 13:2.  That seems to be a two way street in the work that we do as Christians.  In helping a stranger the Hebrews passage intimates that sometimes angels were the object of our help and we didn’t know.  Sometimes the angels are our helpers and we don’t know. 

The folks at Cross Point Lutheran in Fargo and their Pastor Mike Giddings spent an evening of fellowship with the folks at the Perry Center, a residential center for pregnant women and their children.  As they say on their website they are a “God-centered home reaching out to strengthen and provide for young unwed mothers spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally”.  That is a good thing and what the folks at Cross Pointe did was a good thing too.  Both sides of that equation may have “entertained angels”.

I wrote a song about the angel messages on that first Christmas.  The angels gave a message and Mary listened, Joseph was stengthened and shepherds hastened.  All of these people in their own way  became angels too.  Mary went and shared the “good news” (that is what evangel means) with Elizabeth, Joseph, as far as we know strengthened and supported his new wife and unborn child, the shepherds went and told the story to anyone that would listen.  They all became angels.  The tag line for the song is “maybe its time I was an angel too”.  I tried to get the Christmas Program that went with it published but the editor asked, “doesn’t that reinforce the erroneous idea that we become angels in heaven when we die?”  Well no, that is exactly what the Christmas program was designed not  to  do.  I thought an editors job was to read stuff, but I digress.  Here is the song and if you have a chance, “be an angel” and do something like what the folks at Cross Point Lutheran did.  For Jesus sake.

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First Christmas All Alone –

 

 

A few years ago I was wondering around the backwoods of Minnesota North – I don’t remember what I was doing but I was on an old lumber road and there was a lot of snow on the ground.  I saw an old guy out with a chain saw obviously getting his own Christmas tree.  That image stuck in my mind.  I, of course wondered why he was all alone, and where he was taking the tree.  This time of the year I think of those that have lost loved ones and may be be having the first Christmas all alone.  All of the traditions and memories and things taken for granted suddenly loom into focus and a lot of “stuff” gets magnified.  Nursing home visits this time of the year can be particularly difficult when families have families and those that gathered in one place now scatter and go other places.  And of course, then I thought of those over seas that have had to celebrate alone and perhaps have new family members that they have never met.  So this song kept going around in my mind – “Always Loved You Always Will”.  This season of the year I believe holds promise for the lonely and the downcast and those separated from the ones they love for whatever reason.  Say a prayer for them.

 

 

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“From All That Dwell Below the Skies”

The

The Annuciation

Doxological praise and worship ought to be the reaction of humanity when God comes and “saves”.  God’s chosen revelation is usually through the spoken word – angels, messengers, preachers.  When the Angel Gabriel came and told Mary that she would be the “bearer of the Word”,  she became an angel, a messenger and went ot tell her cousin.  Her cousins reaction elicited praise – “my soul maginifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.  That was the message that most of us heard in worship Sunday  morning.  Our response ought to be worship and praise and thanksgiving too.

This hymn is in several versions in our hymnals.  For Easter it is “Now all the vault of heaven resounds”.  For All Saints it is “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”.  This is “From All That Dwell Below the Skies”.  The piano arrangement is by Dino Kartsonakis, I wrote the chorale arrangement and Peggy Bartunek of Grafton is the pianist.

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