And God Said… And It was So.

Photo by Jonatan Moerman

It’s actually much easier this way.

I don’t have to pass myself off as a pseudoscientist, regurgitating the arguments that others have made that are far beyond my comprehension (but consistently referencing them nonetheless, so that I sound like I know what I’m talking about).

I don’t have to lose any sleep over the possibility that what is “conclusive” or “undeniable” or “irrefutable” today may very well turn out to be none of those in another decade or so.

I can pause and simply marvel at the wonder of that which defies any logical or scientific explanation, rather than suppress the internal anguish over not having an answer.

I can actually love and appreciate the gifts of science and discovery more, not less, because they continually heighten my reverence for the One who gave them.

I can direct my thanks and gratitude for the wonder of this world to its Creator, rather than needing to anthropomorphize nature, science, or evolution to express my awe.

Read through Genesis 1 when you have a moment. It’s right there, repeatedly stated, so that you don’t somehow miss it.

And God said… and it was so.”

Honestly, if you are willing to entertain the possibility that the world doesn’t revolve around you, and that there might just be a higher authority, then it isn’t a stretch at all to take Him at his Word and believe that it really is his world.

It’s actually much easier this way.

Get Everything you Want

Photo by Jennifer Pallian

It’s easy for us to spend so much time focusing on everything we don’t like or don’t have, that we leave ourselves precious little time to focus on what we actually want.

So, what do you want?

To be happy? Fair enough, but that will require you to actually go a step further and 1) define what happiness means to you and 2) determine how you can achieve it.

More time? OK, but that desire presumes you also have in mind exactly how you would spend that extra time if you had it… and could then figure out how to get it.

More money? Join the club! Who wouldn’t mind a bit more money? Again, though, “more” is not a very helpful description – how much more do you want? And for what?

Funny how we can be so very specific in pinpointing everything in life that we dislike or don’t want, but we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to being specific about what we do want. Instead, we just speak in vague generalities – more of this or more of that… and we wonder why we never seem to get what we want. Why should we expect to get “it” when we haven’t even specified exactly what “it” is?

What if I told you there was a way to get anything you want? It’s true. There is a way. It’s laid out for us in Psalm 37:4:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart” (ESV).

Do you want to receive whatever your heart desires? Then simply align the desires of your heart with your delight in the Lord, and you’ll get whatever you want. So will the Lord.

Afterward

 

While I generally attempt to keep my posts short and sweet, this post is a little bit longer. It is the manuscript of the funeral sermon preached for my father-in-law, a very dear man, a man through whom the Lord blessed many, many people. A child of God first and foremost, he is now blessed to enjoy his eternal “afterward.”


THE CHRISTIAN MEMORIAL OF MARTIN LUTHER SCHWARTZ

St. John’s Ev. Lutheran Church – Hastings, MN (WELS)

Psalm 73
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

It happened again only yesterday, during the visitation, which saw a line of lives touched by Martin Luther Schwartz that extended out of the funeral home and spilled into the parking lot for the duration of the visitation hours. The question was asked or discussed by more than one close family member, “What’s going on afterward?” Was there a planned get together? Would people be meeting up somewhere to catch up more over a late meal? You may have been wondering the same thing already this morning – when that guy up front is done talking and everyone wakes up again, what’s happening afterward?

Really, we never stop asking the question in life, do we? As one stage of life comes to an end, we’re already thinking about what’s next. Graduation from high school – where you going to college? Graduation from college – where you going to get a job? Landed the first job – when are you getting married? Married – when will you start having kids? We’re always asking what’s next, what’s happening afterward?

Did you hear Marty’s “afterward” in the words from Psalm 73 this morning? The question “What’s happening afterward?” doesn’t need to be asked of him anymore, because he’s received the final answer. The psalmist Asaph put it this way: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory” (v.23,24). “Afterward you will take me into glory.” Marty knew glory on the football field. He now knows a glory that transcends touchdowns and supersedes sports. He now knows in glory the One who made him, redeemed, him, and set him apart as his own through the gift of faith. He now knows in full what he preached and taught so many of us only in part. He now knows from experience the peace of God that elusively transcended his mere human understanding of it. He now knows perfection. He now knows Jesus in a way that not even the finest Christmas carol or Easter hymn could never come close to capturing. All of this, and so much more, is Marty’s “afterward.”

Why do we give such precious little thought or preparation to that afterward? Why do we focus on one earthly, temporal afterward, and then another, and another, but put off the afterward that awaits us all, the one that comes when this short life is lived out to its close and the funeral is our own? Why do we not give more attention to the afterward that will last into eternity? Why is our afterward so often nothing more than an afterthought?

I can say this with certainty: if we could see so much as a sliver, a glimpse of the glory of heaven that Martin Schwartz is now experiencing, there would be a cataclysmic shift in our priorities. Every excuse under the sun that we can drum up for not taking our spiritual health more seriously would be shattered. We’d be scrambling to discover more of what the psalmist meant in verse 28, “But as for me, it is good to be near God” and we would crave feverishly to be near God.

So why don’t we? Well now, you didn’t think the devil was just going to up and call it quits because of an empty tomb, did you? Did you think because the Lord Jesus himself descended into hell on his victory parade that the Evil One would politely acknowledge it and throw in the towel? Hell no! Easter once again reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection means death has been defeated, that all who are in Christ will rise again and live eternally, just as Jesus rose and lives and rules eternally. The devil can’t undo that.

Easter once again reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection means death has been defeated, that all who are in Christ will rise again and live eternally, just as Jesus rose and lives and rules eternally. The devil can’t undo that.”

But he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is keep you too busy to be concerned about it. All he has to do is keep you so preoccupied with earthly afterwards, so focused on what’s next in this life, that you lose sight of your heavenly afterward. He seeks to do that by keeping you not near to God, but as far away from him as possible, so that you fit the description of those in verse 27, “Those who are far off from you will perish.” Find a good reason to not be in worship this Sunday, and the next, and the next after that. Ignore history and evidence and facts and instead believe the naïve lie the skeptic sows about the Bible being mere fable fabricated by men. Keep it closed. Forget your baptism. Leave your spot at the Lord’s table vacant when He offers you His body and blood to eat and to drink for forgiveness. Keep away from all of these gifts of grace that God gives you to stay close to him, and rest assured, you will drift away from God as far as you like. I guarantee it. And your afterward will remain an afterthought, and your eternity filled with utterly painful regret.

But there is another way. And it is a way that was modeled for us by Martin Luther Schwartz through the faith by which he both lived and died. I expect that down to just about the last person here, we would agree that Pastor, brother, dad, grandpa, uncle, Marty, was genuinely one of the finest people to have been a part of our lives. Now, we can let it remain at that and presume that the best way to honor him, to show how much respect we had for him, is to simply acknowledge what a great guy he was. Or, we can take it a step further and seek to discover if there was anything that could be attributed to his being considered such a good guy. What was it that made it feel like he was genuinely interested in you when you spoke with him? Why was he willing to drop virtually anything he was doing to lend you a hand or help you? How did he so rarely lose his cool? What accounted for his gentle kindness and overall peaceful demeanor? How was it that so many enviable qualities and characteristics could be embodied in one man?

Friends, I believe it is because these verses from Ps. 73 could have just as easily been written by Marty himself. Throughout his life, he knew what it meant to be able to say, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel… Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. As for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds” (v.23-26, 28). And only one change need be made. Instead of “and afterward you will take me into glory,” he can now say, “and afterward you have taken me into glory.”

What made Marty who he was is simple. He knew what it was to be near God. More specifically, he knew and trusted in Jesus. He knew his Savior. His life was about Jesus. Trace that back to his own father, who passed the Christian faith down to his children, Marty’s brothers and sisters, who all still today know what it means to be near Jesus. Follow the trail of faith from there to the next generation of Schwartzes, which know what it means to be near Jesus, a handful of whom, like Marty, as pastors, have determined to spend their whole lives helping others be near Jesus. Follow the trail further to the next generation, including grandchildren, who know what it means to be near Jesus. Do you see the common thread? And, no, it isn’t “be more like Marty so you can get to heaven, too,” but rather, “be more like Marty who knew how important it was to be near the only One – Jesus – who can open heaven for anyone.” Marty, good as he was, was a far cry from the perfection required for entrance into heaven. His sin disqualified him, too. But he knew his Savior, Jesus, took care of that. He knew the Jesus who paid for his sin in full through the perfect sacrifice of himself, and rose again to guarantee the glory that Marty now knows in his heavenly afterward.

Now I want to also acknowledge that there may be some who are thinking, “Pssshhhh… I know plenty of other good folks like Marty, and they aren’t Christians. You don’t need Jesus to be good.” Let me just say, you’re right, you’re absolutely right! I also know lots of genuinely good people who, sadly, won’t be in heaven if nothing changes. I’m sure we all do. But that doesn’t mean we make the exception the rule. Just because there are some good people in the world who don’t have faith in Jesus as Marty did, doesn’t in any way diminish the correlation between Marty’s character and his Christian faith. Nor does it change the reality that salvation still only comes through faith in Christ Jesus. No, we don’t let exceptions to the rule govern our life. There’s a chance you could zip through a stop sign or a red light on your way home and not get in an accident and die, sure. But just because that may happen, you’d be foolish to presume that would be the norm! You know you are better off and much safer by not living according to what may happen, or what you think could happen, or what you feel might happen.

Instead, like Marty and the psalmist, let God hold you by your right hand and guide you with his counsel. Let God be your strength and portion forever. Let the Sovereign Lord be your refuge. See that it truly is good to be near God, to remain always near Jesus. Then, dear friends, through Jesus Christ, you’ll enjoy the same afterward as Marty, you, too, will be taken into glory. May God in his grace – and only by his grace – grant it to you, as he has his servant, Martin Luther Schwartz. Amen.

May 10, 2017

Is that ALL you can do?

Photo by Patrick Fore

I’m quite sure I’ve said it myself, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Perhaps you’ve heard it in the wake of a tragedy or when things have taken an abrupt turn for the worse: “All we can do now is pray.”

Cringe.

I know what you mean. I even know what I’ve meant when I’ve used the phrase. But I still don’t like it, and I try to avoid using it. Here’s why.

1. It diminishes the power and privilege of prayer.

The Almighty Triune God has not gifted Christians with the powerful privilege of prayer as a mere afterthought, as if prayer is simply something to keep us busy and out of his way while he manages the cosmos. It isn’t like the meaningless task daddy assigns to his little helper during a project just so she can feel like she’s contributing, when in fact her effort has zero impact on the actual outcome. No, prayer changes things. It heals hurt. It diverts disaster. It alters eternities. And, to be clear, it accomplishes all this not because of some intrinsic power prayer would have on its own, but only when and because it is directed to the One true God who hears and answers accordingly.

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15 NIV).

2. It is NEVER “all we can do.”

It may only sound this way to me, but the statement “All we can do now is pray” seems to imply that every other course of action on our part has been exhausted. But is that ever actually the case? Can anyone say that in any given situation, we have really done everything we could possibly do? I’m not so sure. Could we create more awareness about a certain matter (resulting in exponentially more prayers being offered up)? Wrestle with specific Scripture? Educate ourselves more about a topic? Contribute a gift? The list goes on, and I don’t know that we can ever fully exhaust it when it comes to our actions accompanying our prayers.

Maybe instead of “All we can do now is pray,” we could tweak it a bit: What we can ALL do now is pray. That speaks positively of prayer, and leaves the door wide open for faith-born action to accompany our prayers.

 

 

Completed.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

I’m not always so good at finishing what I start. While I have gotten much better in this department simply by acknowledging and addressing my own deficiency, I still have a long way to go. There still exist a number of projects on my workbench that remain in various states of completion – projects that I started, but ran out of steam or in which I soon lost interest. I have a few piles in various places in my office of ideas or plans that remain in various states of completion. My Omnifocus, Evernote, Reminders, and various other task lists seem to be much better acquainted with “+” than they are with “✔️.” Maybe you can relate. Or, maybe people like me just drive achievers like you crazy.

The truth is, none of us will ever reach a point in life where we will be able to say that we’ve completed everything on a to-do list or reached every goal we set. In most areas of life, leaving something unfinished or incomplete will not be a matter of life or death. There is one area, however, where leaving matters unfinished or incomplete will make an eternal difference: our relationship with God. Most religions lay out a path to completion for you to follow, sort of like an academic counselor would lay out for a student to achieve a degree. The problem with most religions, however, is that they end up like many of the projects on my workbench: unfinished.

One religion is different: Christianity. Christianity is different because it proclaims that your salvation is a task that has already been completed by Jesus. For all people. Forever. Here is what the writer to the Hebrews stated about Jesus Christ:

Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Hebrews 7:25 NIV)”

You have enough unfinished projects, goals, tasks, and lists to keep you busy for this life. Let Jesus take care of the one task that needed completing to guarantee eternal life.

 

Who Are You Trying to Impress?

Photo by Gustavo Spindula

Whose favor do you crave? Who do you wish you could “wow”? Whose opinion of you matters desperately to you?

Do you wish your boss would take notice?

Do you wish other entrepreneurs would acknowledge your unparalleled hustle?

Would it rock your world if only (insert name here)                            would personally comment on one of your FB/Instagram posts?

Do you wish other moms would aspire to your level of mommy mojo?

Do you wish your husbanding skills would make you the envy of all of your wife’s girlfriends?

Do you wish your neighbors viewed you as the Joneses they yearn to keep up with?

Now stop for a moment. Pick any one of those mentioned above, or one that better suits you personally, and imagine that it isn’t just your wish or desire, but is in fact reality. You actually DO have the admiration of that person or group you so desperately desire. Now what?

Are you content? Are you satisfied? Has that admiration brought you all the happiness and joy and peace of mind you thought it would? Probably not, huh? Or at least, not for long.

My guess is that one of two things will happen right quickly: 1) you’ll immediately start to be concerned about losing that admiration or being one-upped by someone else, or 2) once the satisfaction subsides, you’ll soon look to some other area of your life for praise or affirmation from others. Sound about right?

What if the problem is that you’re looking to all the wrong things for your sense of worth? What if you realized there is already someone quite fond of you, someone who is thrilled with you, someone who feels so strongly about you that he would… give up his only Son for you? What if HE was your source of honor and the place you ran to for security and peace of mind? Might that bring into your heart and your life what you haven’t been able to find anywhere else?

My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge” (Psalm 62:7 NIV).

 

What Does God Want?

Photo by Alexandre Chambon

It’s a fair question.

Some may be more concerned about finding the right answer than others. Some may be searching for the answer without really knowing it, because their internal need to search for the answer is obfuscated by what they feel is merely an outward need to scratch an itch or satisfy a desire or longing. Some may not care at all.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, most responses to the question “What does God Want?” probably fall somewhere under two relatively common answers.

“Hard work.”

You may call it the Golden Rule. You may not have a name for it all. But it is the most common standard by which people live, and an assumption by which people figure God will be pleased – even those who don’t openly profess to believe in God. “If there’s some higher being,” the thought goes, “surely he will be satisfied with those trying their hardest to do the right thing and treat others the right way.” Since no one is perfect, God will certainly settle for those who at least make a concerted effort in that direction. That’s one line of thinking.

What does God want?

“Holy work.”

This is the response that typically comes from religious folks, those “in the know.” While the non-believing world doesn’t know any better than to serve self and look out for number one, believers “know” better. They “know” God is looking for obedience, service, loving others, faith in action, etc. They’re right… kind of. But they’re potentially worse off than the non-believer if they are content to put the cart before the proverbial horse, the way the Pharisees in Jesus’ day did. Let me explain. See there IS something that God wants.

It isn’t your hard work.

It isn’t your holy work.

It IS your heart.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

Sounds simple enough, right? Until we take a real, honest look at what our heart truly reveals.

“This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

Not a pretty picture.

“Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:23).

Tell me, when you consider what you can keep hidden from others – but not from Jesus – deep down inside your heart, do Jesus’ words fill you with peace, or… something else?

But here is the good news:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

All God wants is your heart. And, since yours is no good on its own, he offers you his as the perfect replacement through Jesus. Now then, will you, through faith in Jesus, give it back to him? That’s all he wants. Everything else will follow.

Inspiration Exasperation

I like a good inspirational post as much as the next guy. Sure, I’ve even posted a few myself.

The problem today is, the next guy also happens to be posting one, and so does the next guy, and the next guy… and… you get it already.

Facebook. Instagram. LinkedIn. If you have spent any amount of time on any social media platform, you have perhaps experienced what I like to call inspiration exasperation. One or two inspiring quotes may give you something beneficial to mull over and ponder during the day; 793 of them may leave you a little bit overwhelmed.

It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. When that happens, rather than find ourselves inspired, we can experience an overstimulation of inspiration. We become suffocated. Swamped. Burdened. Crushed. Inspiration exasperation invites me, no, hounds me, to improve. Do more. Be better. Try harder.

It leaves me wondering, can I ever do enough? Will I ever be enough?

Here’s the solution I would encourage: look somewhere else for inspiration for a change. There’s another kind of inspiration, a kind that isn’t asking more of you, but offers more to you, more for you, than you could ever achieve on your own. Be inspired by the One who achieved everything – all of it – for you already.

God made [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21 NIV)

Jesus was punished for you. Jesus was perfect for you. That’s enough. He is enough.

Be inspired.

“Jettison the Junk”

Photo by Austin Ban

What follows is a repost from a 1/20/17 devotion which you can find originally posted here, and to which you can also subscribe, should you desire. It fits so well with the “why” of this blog that it deserves to be shared here. 

January 20, 2017

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. – Hebrews 12:1

In 1874 Jules Verne published a novel called The Mysterious Island.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the book is sort of a cross between Robinson Crusoe and Gilligan’s Island. In the book, Verne tells of five Union soldiers who manage to escape a Civil War prison camp by using a hot-air balloon. According to the storyline, a great storm catches the balloon and carries it over the sea and across countless miles. Horror comes upon the men when they realize their torn balloon will be forced down in the midst of the ocean. If they are to survive, they must lighten the load. The first choices are easy: the bags of ballast are emptied.

That buys some time, but not much. Very soon the balloon finds itself in danger again. More choices: the men throw over all unnecessary provisions: guns, extra clothing, almost everything goes. It’s a losing battle. Each choice buys them time, but only for a while. Eventually, the men agree to jettison their food, then their gold and, finally, with the men clinging to the netting of the balloon, even the gondola in which they had been riding.

The men live. It would have been a very short novel if they hadn’t.

But what I want you to understand here is that these men figured out what was important and what was not. Things that once seemed to be indispensable necessities were reduced to being nothing more than excess baggage. Although he didn’t know it, Verne was putting into fiction the Scripture verse which says, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

In other words, let’s keep God first.

This is why this devotion asks, how are you doing in keeping God first?

By that I don’t mean almost first, or close to first, or most of the time first. I mean first — 100 percent of the time. Probably not too good, I’d guess. Not so long ago when a national magazine took a poll of the things we couldn’t live without, 63 percent of the people said they needed a car; 54 percent said light bulbs were important; 42 percent wanted to keep their telephone; 22 percent couldn’t give up their TV.

You will note that God isn’t in that list, and although He isn’t a thing, He should be at the top of every list put together by everybody.

But He’s not.

The world, the devil, our own sinful natures — do all they can to push God to the background and something else to the front. What something else? Goodness, I don’t know. I do know every time God says, “I want to be first,” you can be absolutely sure that something is going to pop up to move God — ever so gently, ever so slowly, ever so unnoticeably — to the side.

This is wrong, The Lord who gave His Son to be sacrificed in our stead is worthy of being held in the highest admiration, respect, reverence, honor and worship. In short, God deserves to be first — always and forever.

THE PRAYER: Dear Lord, forgive me for those times when I have demoted You. Grant that I may always see Your love and appreciate the Savior’s sacrifice as being more important than anything else. This I ask in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Hell? No!

Photo by Tim Gouw

You mean you don’t believe hell is real???

You’re not alone. And, to some extent, I hardly blame you. The way people describe it sounds deplorably despicable. Furthermore, the thought of hell seems quite incompatible in the minds of many who try to harmonize such a place with a loving God.

But my intent is not to convince you that hell is real. Only the Bible accomplishes such a profound feat. Rather, my intent is to provide a more charitable perspective I hope you’ll take with the friend/co-worker/family member who does believe in hell, and who perhaps has (bravely?) taken the time to talk to you about it.

For starters, don’t assume the worst about why others believe in it or try to warn you about it. It may just be that their motives aren’t what you suppose (and for those who meant well, but may have come off less than loving, my apologies!). What if they mention hell to you, not because they’re better than you or because they’re trying to frighten you to faith, or because they’re merely trying to get you to “shape up”? Maybe your friend has talked to you about it because your friend cares more deeply about you than you know.

You may still think the concept of hell is bologna (it’s not, by the way), but don’t take that out on the person who has spoken to you about it. Instead, just appreciate that in this me-centered, self-serving, egotistical world, someone else really, truly cares about you.

Instead, just appreciate that in this me-centered, self-serving, egotistical world, someone else really, truly cares about you.

You may disagree with them on the topic, but what if, instead of resenting them, you reciprocated that same kind of care and concern toward them by reading, studying, and researching what the Bible actually says about hell? At the very least, you’ll better know where that person is coming from and be better equipped to discuss the matter. And, having a better grasp on the topic will allow you to avoid simply passing along someone else’s “clever” response that doesn’t have the credibility of your own critical thinking to back it up.

Finally, if you don’t have a real great feeling about hell or resent the thought that it’s real, you’re actually probably more on the right track than you realize. I don’t know of anyone, Christian or otherwise, who has warm fuzzy feelings about hell. Our feelings, however, don’t determine what exists and what doesn’t. They never do. No, that job is the sole responsibility of a good and gracious God, the very Savior who went to the most extreme measures to see that no one would experience hell. That assumes, of course, that he wasn’t just wasting his time saving us from something that doesn’t exist.