Grandma’s box

My grandmother left the little town of Aga, Norway in 1905. She was 20-years-old. The people of her village on the Hardanger fjord thought she and another young lady were sharp and full of potential. They believed the girls’ chances of realizing that potential would be better in the United States. So they raised the funds to send them to America.

My grandmother left behind a box with her name on it. It appears she kept school supplies and other things she valued in it. She never returned to Norway. Her brothers who stayed kept the box and passed it on to their children and grandchildren. My wife Cathe and I recently visited Norway and my cousins let me bring grandma’s box back to the U.S.

My grandmother died before I was born but still had a big influence on my life. She had a strong faith in Jesus that impacted her daughter, who became my mother, who passed on to me what she had received.

As I look at the box that once contained school supplies I think of what my grandmother learned. She learned intellectual truths at school. At home and church she learned spiritual truths. She learned that Jesus died for her sins and rose again from the dead. She learned she could have a personal relationship with the living God. She learned the Lord could be trusted to care for her as she ventured into a new land.

It couldn’t have been easy for her to leave her home and family and cross the ocean and begin life in a new country, speaking a new language. She had learned, though, that she could trust the promises of God. She believed the Bible was God’s Word. She knew she needed to hear God’s Word proclaimed. She knew, as she started out alone in a new land, that she couldn’t remain alone in following the Lord. She needed to be part of a congregation. So she became a charter member of a Lutheran Free Church congregation in Luverne, Minnesota.  

The box once contained things of value to my grandmother. It was empty when we got it, but the things of greatest value to my grandmother have already been passed on to me. She valued faith in Jesus. She valued the Bible. She valued her local congregation. She valued missions and sharing the good news of Jesus with the world. She valued her family. She valued loving God and loving people.

I’ve been blessed to have a grandmother who lived out what it says in Psalm 78:4-7: “… we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, His power, and the wonders He has done. … so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God.”

It is good to have grandma’s box. As I look at it, though, I am reminded of the more valuable things I received from my grandmother, even before I was born. A box that is over 100 years old is good to have, but a hope that is for all eternity is priceless.

God’s Spirit is still here

The game of peek-a-boo has a point.It helps babies learn that people are still present even if they can’t be seen. It’s called learning object permanence. Out of sight for a moment doesn’t mean gone forever. 

 People of all ages need to learn that truth when it comes to spiritual matters. The Spirit of God can’t be seen, but He is just as real and present as the dad who puts a book in front of his face. We rejoice in what we could call “Spirit permanence.”

Before Jesus went to the cross He told His disciples He would send His Holy Spirit – “the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). Even though the Spirit can’t be seen, He can be known. He doesn’t have to be visible to be present and active and doing great work in our lives.

What we do see far too often in this world is warfare and shootings, heartbreak and hurt. At times we might not feel like we see the Spirit’s work going on. We get tempted to wonder if the Spirit played a game of peek-a-boo but never came back. 

Jesus promised the Spirit He gives is “another Counselor to be with you forever” (John 14:16). Even when what we see with our physical eyes is evil and tragic, the Spirit is still here. His work might be hard to see at times but we trust God’s promises.

After His resurrection Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). We don’t see the wind, but we see evidence of its work. We don’t see God’s Spirit, but the Lord can give us eyes of faith that see evidence of the Spirit’s gracious work all around us. 

We get to enjoy a beautiful view of Mt. Baker from the deck of the parsonage in Ferndale, Washington – many days. Some days it is cloudy and the mountain can’t be seen. On those days we know the mountain is still there. On those days when the work of evil clouds our vision, we can trust the Creator of the mountain is still here. The Spirit of the living and loving God is still with us and still at work.

Rescue the needy

In the midst of the devastating war in Ukraine, some noble service has gone on.While millions have fled the war zone some have entered it to care for the hurting and rescue the needy. Mission workers have set up emergency field hospitals, even though bombs have been targeted at some other hospitals. Some have gone into Ukraine to bring to safety people who are unable to flee the war zone on their own. They are putting their lives on the line to rescue ones in danger and help ones in need.

Those serving in Ukraine are doing the type of work all followers of Jesus are called to do. Jesus said, “I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18). He did not pray that we would be taken out of the world. He asked the Father to protect us as we go into the world. We are sent into a world full of conflict and danger. Lost and hurting people are not so much enemies as they are ones who have been deceived by the enemy. They are in danger “behind enemy lines” and need to be rescued.

It is tempting to want to flee from the challenges of this evil world and attempt to hide in safety from the dangers that abound. But those who know Christ are called to hear the cries of the needy and join in the rescue mission, even though it may be costly. We have been given the privilege and the calling to “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4).

Jesus came to the war zone of this world to rescue us. “Jesus … gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:3-4). By His death on the cross He delivers us from enslavement by the enemy and brings us into His glorious kingdom. “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Colossians 1:13).

Because of what Christ has done for us, even in a world suffering from cruelty and war, we get to be people who declare good news. “Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel” (Psalm 71:3-4). The hope of refuge and deliverance found in the Lord still stands. We get to share that hope with the world.

A wonderful answer to a Bible camp prayer

It was the summer when I was 13 years old. I had a relationship with the Lord but I felt like I was drifting away rather than growing closer. One night at Bible camp I stayed after the evening service and talked with a pastor. We prayed that I would get along well with the new pastor that was coming to our church and that he would be a good influence on my life. I look back with much thanksgiving at how graciously God answered that prayer. That summer Pastor Alvin Grothe came to Astoria, Oregon to be my pastor.

Only my parents influenced my life more than Pastor did. He went home to be with the Lord recently, and it was a time to reflect on the many ways God used him in my life.

Pastor was a humble servant. He wasn’t at all impressed with himself. He didn’t make a big deal about things he had done or sacrifices he had made. He was willing to do whatever would best serve the Lord and people. Not long after retiring as pastor of the church, he became the church janitor. He joked that he was going to try to work his way back up to the top again. Really, though, he didn’t care if he was at what others might consider the top or the bottom. He was just glad to serve, in whatever way he could.

Pastor was probably the most sincere man I have ever known. I had the privilege of getting to be around him Monday to Saturday. He was the same man those days as he was on Sunday mornings. He meant and lived what he preached. He truly believed it.

One year they did a skit at Bible camp and they asked the district pastors to take part. Pastor wasn’t very comfortable doing it, but he was such a nice guy he didn’t want to say no to the other pastors. He wasn’t very good in the skit. In a way that seemed appropriate. He wasn’t an actor. When he was preaching from the pulpit or visiting with people, he wasn’t acting. He was real.

Pastor was a good Norwegian when it came to liking lutefisk and gjetost, but he was different from some old-time stoic Scandinavians when it came to showing his emotions. He said, “God gave us tear ducts for a reason.” He was willing to weep with those who wept. He wept with me when I went through times of mourning.

He wasn’t afraid to let his sorrow be seen, but most of the time what you saw on his face was a smile. He liked to laugh. He liked to tell jokes. The trouble was, he didn’t know a whole lot of them, so he told the same jokes over and over. He would still laugh each time he told them. I would usually laugh too, but not so much at the joke. What I enjoyed more was the joy he had. The laughter was contagious.

Not long after Pastor started serving our church he had us start each service by singing the chorus of the hymn, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” It was refreshing to start the service with the invitation to see the glory and grace of Jesus. The challenges and struggles of this earth do grow strangely dim in the light of His grace.

Hebrews 11 tells of different ones who have gone before us and lived by faith in the Lord. It is followed by Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Pastor Grothe is a big part of the cloud of witnesses for me. His witness has been one of the biggest encouragements for me to run the race with perseverance. For almost 50 years he faithfully encouraged me, built me up and supported me in prayer.

An old song by Dan Fogelberg says, “The leader of the band is tired, and his eyes are growing old, but his blood runs through my instrument, and his song is in my soul. My life has been a poor attempt, to imitate the man. I’m just a living legacy, to the leader of the band.”

After 96 years on this earth, the “leader of the band” got tired, and his eyes grew old. But his witness runs through my instrument. The Jesus he called us to turn our eyes upon is in my soul. I’ll continue to make a poor attempt to imitate the man, and I’ll continue to give thanks for how God answered my Bible camp prayer.

Never lose the awe

From our kitchen window in the parsonage in Ferndale, Washington, we have a beautiful view of Mt. Baker. On clear days the majestic, snow-capped mountain is right there, displaying God’s handiwork as I have my morning coffee. 

It doesn’t take long, however, before a beautiful view like I get to enjoy becomes a familiar sight that a person takes for granted.

Familiarity does not always breed contempt, but it can diminish awe. We get used to the beautiful view, or the well-cooked meal, or the comfortable bed in the warm house. We get so accustomed to the blessings we don’t appreciate them as we once did. Tragically that kind of thing can happen when it comes to the wonders of God and the good news of Jesus. 

We are surrounded by the wonders of God. Psalm 65:8 says, “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders.” A sunset full of color, a tree full of fruit, the vast array of fish in the sea and birds in the air are all wonders at which we should marvel. May we marvel as well at God’s love so great that He sent Jesus to the cross to die for our sins. His incredible grace and sacrificial love for us are wonders that should always fill us with awe and amazement.

When Jesus appeared on the scene He did wonders that were not at all familiar. He proclaimed forgiveness of sins and performed miraculous healings. “Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today’” (Luke 5:26). Jesus continues to do awe-inspiring wonders today. When we see a heart molded by God and willing to forgive, when we see a person holding on to faith and hope while going through a difficult trial, when we see a congregation serving and loving one another we see remarkable things. 

No matter what the view might be from your window, God wants to give you a view of His grace and love. With hopeful expectation we can pray like the writer of the psalm: “Show me the wonders of your great love” (Psalm 17:7).

Making a difference with gentleness

The Jewish Zealots of Jesus’ day attempted to fight against the rule of the Roman Empire with violence and terrorist tactics. Eventually the Romans brutally put down the rebellion with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. 

The early Christians were also a target of Roman violence. They responded, however, in a different way than the Zealots. Peter wrote to Christians who were suffering persecution and encouraged them to not fear but to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). 

We are to respond to persecution, answer questions and do missions and evangelism with gentleness and respect. The way of the Zealots, however, is more appealing to our old nature. When somebody insults us we want to insult them back. We want to “fight fire with fire.” We mistakenly think standing up for your rights, telling people off and letting people have what’s coming are signs of strength. 

We are to spread the good news of Jesus, not so much as warriors on attack but as gentle, humble servants. We do fight against sin and evil that holds people captive. But in our dealings with people, including those who may hold very different beliefs than we do, we are to treat each person with gentleness and respect.

Hudson Taylor was a missionary to China in the 19thcentury. Other missionaries in that day would often look down upon the way the Chinese dressed and ate. Taylor showed respect for the Chinese people by wearing the kind of clothes they wore, cutting his hair the way they did and eating the kind of food the common people ate. His respect and gentleness led to great opportunities to share the good news of Jesus.

Various plagues hit the Roman Empire during the days of the early Church. Fear led many Romans to drive the sick away rather than care for them. Even though it put them at risk of getting the plague themselves, the Christians would find the sick, including those who didn’t hold to their beliefs, and gently and lovingly care for them. The early church grew in numbers and strength as unbelievers took note of the loving service of the Christians.

We serve Jesus, who described Himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” With gentleness, we share the good news of Jesus and help people to find “rest for their souls” (Matthew 11:29).

A changing world and an unchanging Savior

We usually don’t like change much. We get comfortable with the way things are and nervous when change is proposed. I was with a group of youth once and suggested we get a new type of pizza. The response was: “But we always have pepperoni.”  

We may resist it and not like it, but change still comes. It is an inevitable part of life in this world. It has been said, “Change is the only constant in life.” Things don’t stay the same.

Change is coming in my life and in the life of the congregation I serve here in Astoria. I’m getting married to Cathe Erhardt on May 29. Going from single to married is probably one of the biggest changes that can happen in a person’s life. It is a change I am very much looking forward to.

Along with my marriage another change is coming. I’ll be ending my time as pastor at Bethany and moving from Astoria. In May I’ll begin serving as pastor of the AFLC congregation in Ferndale, Wash. My last Sunday in Astoria will be April 18.

Moving from this congregation and community that I dearly love is going to be hard. Part of what makes change hard is it involves a lot of unknowns and uncertainty. What will it be like in a new place with new people? What does the future hold?

As we deal with the fears and uncertainty of change, we find comfort in the unchanging nature of God. “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Malachi 3:6). God promises to forgive us, protect us and care for us. Those promises do not change. We have hope that we will not be destroyed. We will persevere, even though we’re not sure what awaits us in the future. Our hope in uncertain times is based on the certainty of God’s nature and Word.

In an ever-changing world we give thanks that we can look to God and find comforting stability. God is not in a constant state of flux like the world. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). Shadows appear for just a moment, until the light changes and they go away. The world’s gifts are like that. The happiness and peace the world gives lasts only for a moment.

God’s gifts are different. They are not like shifting shadows. They are light that never dims. The gifts of God’s grace are always useful, always relevant, always what we need, always the best.

God’s greatest unchanging gift is Jesus. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus never changes. The cross continues to pay for our sins. The resurrection remains true. Jesus remains on the throne forever and He never has to move. He keeps on loving us and saving us and holding us close. In the midst of the changes of life, we give thanks we can rest in the unchanging nature of Christ.

Jesus still shines on the dark days

January 6, 2021 was a pretty tough day. Early in the morning, Carol Wood, our former pianist at church and a beloved member of our congregation, passed away. She had battled various health problems for many years. Later in the morning I was told the sad news that Paul Flues had died. Paul was a member of our congregation for all of his 85 years. He was a kind and helpful trustee for many years, a faithful volunteer at our Kids’ Club for many years and a good friend.

Around noon I did a check of the news and saw pictures of the mob storming the U.S. Capitol. Watching this destructive horde going through the halls of the majestic and historic Capitol building didn’t seem real. But sadly it was all too real. 

A vicious and violent mob was assaulting and vandalizing this building that symbolizes our democracy and means so much in our nation’s history. The terrorizing thugs shattered windows, busted down doors and caused elected representatives and others to cower in fear, prevented from doing their jobs. Police officers were beaten and people were killed. And in the middle of all the violence and destruction people were flying flags with the name of Jesus on them.

All of this sadness happened on the day in the church year we call Epiphany. It is a day when the church commemorates God leading the Magi to come and find Jesus. Epiphany is a time to celebrate that God reveals Jesus to all people, even those far away like the Magi. As the Lord shined the light of the star for the Magi, so He causes His light to shine in this dark world today.

This year January 6 had a lot of darkness. I felt the darkness of sorrow with the passing of two friends. We watched the darkness of violence on full display in the U.S. Capitol. As I saw the name of Jesus on the flag being held by the mob beating the police officers, I felt it was the darkness of evil, trying to bring shame to the name of Jesus, discredit His church and turn people away from the Lord.

As the Gospel of John speaks of the revealing of Jesus to the world it says: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). The darkness that was on display on January 6 did not and will not overcome the light of Jesus. Not even death can stop the light of Jesus from shining.

God’s light was shining on January 6 in the actions of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman. He diverted the attention of the intimidating mob onto himself and away from members of Congress. He chose to risk his life to save others. It reminds us of what Jesus did for us. He stood between the judgment of the Law and us and took the punishment we deserve upon Himself, so we can be saved. “… he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5). “This is how we know what love is, Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (I John 3:16). Even in this world so full of darkness, the love of Christ keeps shining bright.

Seeing the glory of God

Johann Sebastian Bach was blessed with incredible musical talents and gifts. He also had the gift of knowing why he could do what he did. At the beginning of many of his compositions he would write the initials JJ, which stood for “Jesu Juva.” That is the Latin for “Jesus help.” At the end of his compositions Bach wrote SDG. That stood for the Latin “soli Deo Gloria,” which means “for God’s glory alone.” He started his work knowing he needed Jesus’ help, and he ended his work knowing all glory belonged to God alone.

“JJ” are good initials for us to write on the calendar as we begin a new year. We need the help of Jesus. The last year should have made that abundantly clear to us. 

Our old nature wants to think we can do life by ourselves. Often kids are not very old before they start asserting they can do things themselves, like feed themselves, dress themselves, and put their toys together. When the shoes are on the wrong feet and the toy doesn’t work it is clear, despite what they say, they do need help.  

Jesus said He is the vine and we are mere branches. As a branch can’t do anything unless it is connected to the vine, so we need to remain in Christ. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. … apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

We do not know what the new year will hold, but we do know whatever is going to come, we are going to need Jesus’ help. The challenges will be too great and our strength and wisdom will not be enough. “Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay” (Psalm 70:5). 

As we put away last year’s calendar we can mark SDG as Bach did to his music. The glory for any accomplishments or achievements goes to God alone. It was not our strength or skill or hard work that got us through the year. God alone deserves the praise. God alone saves us through Jesus and the cross. God alone preserves our soul and keeps us safe. 

Last year was a tough year. We may wonder what glory and praise there is to give for the year. Yet even in the midst of trials and difficulties God deserves glory. As we mark SDG on the past year let us think about ways God let us see His glory. We saw it in the way He brought us through trials, the way He cared for us, provided for us and protected us. We see His glory in Jesus and His love and salvation. 

Before Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, the people were standing there mourning and wondering why Jesus hadn’t healed Lazarus. “Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’” (John 11:40). In the midst of trials we still trust the promise that we will see the glory of God. 

By faith we look forward to seeing His glory in this new year. 

Thanksgiving will not be canceled

Martin Rinkart was called to pastor the Lutheran church in Eilenberg, Germany in 1618, just as the 30 Years War was beginning. It was one of the bloodiest wars in history, but Rinkart kept faithfully serving his congregation for 32 years. 

Eilenberg was a walled city, which resulted in it being an overcrowded refuge for people trying to escape the terror around them. Those who descended upon Eilenberg and the various armies that marched through it brought with them many diseases. The war also caused ruined crops and an extreme famine. At times 30 or 40 people fought in the streets over a dead cat or crow. A plague swept through Eilenberg in 1637 and claimed the lives of more than 8,000 people in the small town in that year alone.

The church superintendent left town for “a change of air” and never came back. The town’s other clergy all died. During the worst of the plague, Rinkart was the only pastor left in town. He did mass funerals for 40 to 50 persons a day. He buried 4,480 people in 1637, including his first wife.

Just as the plague was beginning to hit his town, Rinkart wrote a hymn. A person might expect the song would be one that would fit in the blues category, moaning “Woe is me.” But instead the hymn Rinkart wrote is in the Thanksgiving section of the hymnal. In the midst of all that was going on, God helped Rinkart to write the words, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices; who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

Rinkart knew that even though war and plague and death was all around him, God was still good. We have a virus to contend with, a world full of division and conflict and economic problems. But God is still good and we still have reason to give thanks.

A recent news article asked the question if Thanksgiving would be canceled. There might not be large gatherings like previous years, but more than ever we need to give thanks. We need to get our eyes off of a constant focus on the problems and concerns and pray for eyes to see how good God is and the good things He is doing. The Lord is still, as Rinkart wrote, “The one eternal God, Whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore!”

The prophet Habakkuk also lived in difficult times. His country had wandered from the Lord and was about to be overtaken by the wicked Babylonians. And yet God inspired him to write: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).

Because of God’s grace and goodness, thanksgiving is never canceled. No matter what is on the table or who is around the table, we rejoice and give thanks, because God is good, all the time.