October 2013 Healthy Gratitude
Would you say that you are healthy? Do you have problems but are able to function? Work? Live life? Have you said lately, “Thanks God that I’m as healthy as I am?” Have you thought about how fortunate you are to have a job, income, home, family, friends? Have you breathed deeply of the blessings of God, and said, thank you? Many of us are fortunate to be healthy but forget to realize where our health, our strength comes from. (Psalm 28:7) Before we get into the holiday season, I hope that we can say we are thankful for all things; that we don’t have to be told to be thankful at a certain time of year. Life is so short, kids grow up, jobs change, people pass on but God is eternal. Are we grateful to a merciful and benevolent God, who desires our friendship, and wants to live alongside of us by the power of His Holy Spirit?
I read recently, that a Christian should be “drenched with joy.” Whatever happens in this life, God is faithful and because of His faithfulness we can say, “In God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56) If we are unafraid of life, unafraid of illness, unafraid of financial problems, unafraid of relationship problems, we are free to trust God in those areas where we are prone to try and solve the problems ourselves. My hope for all of us is that we trust God more and more each day, and fear less and less. Trust God that if you give in the offering He will provide for you still. Don’t give in to the thoughts that God doesn’t know, God doesn’t understand. The righteous shall live by faith. Faith in a loving God, faith in His mercy, faith in the life to come. We are not made to fear life, we are made to enjoy life, to be grateful for the gifts of life--to realize it could be vastly different, and yet we are still here, still able to live well. Let us not be slow to say, “Thanks God.” Rather let us be quick to recognize the blessings of God every day, and to be grateful.
What do you think of when you see the evening news? What crosses your mind when you see tragedies of immense proportions? The recent bombing in Pakistan at a Protestant church reminded me that Christianity is under attack. It reminded me that in many parts of the world gratitude to God might be difficult. How can you say, “thanks God” after 80+ people including kids in Sunday School were killed by a suicide bomber. And yet that is what we are called to do. Not to condone or sanitize the evil, but to realize that God redeems evil through the cross of Christ, that definitively declares, even death is no longer a barrier to joy. Death is definitely our enemy, but it is a defeated enemy. We can declare like Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
My hope for us as a community of Christ followers is that we are grateful for everyday, grateful for health, for peace, for life. If we are grateful for life, joy follows close behind. Then if we are joyful we don’t get upset as easily, we forgive more readily, we are more patient, and are more gracious with others. Make it your goal to live a more grateful life. If that guy cuts you off, be grateful he didn’t hit you. If you get a cold, be grateful it wasn’t more serious. If you get a raise be grateful and respond by being generous. If you have health, be grateful and offer your service to others. If we live a life of gratitude, we honor God from whom all blessings flow.
Blessings, Pastor Bunyan
September 2013 A Place for Children
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old
he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
It’s been a long time since I got excited for the first day of school. I have never experienced the first day of school as a parent, it’s a bit stressful. We took James to his first day of kindergarten at St. Anne’s and drove by Washington School. Both schools were overcrowded with kids, parents, and teachers. McKenny Street was reduced to one lane of traffic because some cars were double parked. I thought the experience was a bit excessive, but it spoke to me as a parent. We parents want the best for our kids, don’t we? Every parent has hopes for their kids, to grow and learn, and be productive members of society. But are we just as hopeful for their spiritual life? Do we get ready for church with the same excitement and preparation?
Some stories in the Bible are repeated to signify their importance. The story of kids coming to Jesus is in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It reads… “People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The importance of this story is that kids are highly valued in God’s eyes. We are told that we need to learn from them. So what do we learn? To trust God like kids trust their parents. To have faith that God is who He says He is. To go to Jesus with joy and excitement. To receive forgiveness. To appreciate the gift of eternal life. There are many things we can learn from children. But there is also this text, “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:2-6) It tells us that we not only learn from kids, but we are responsible to teach them not to sin.
Kids learn by watching and doing. Are we happy with the example we are setting for our kids? Do we skip school? Do we skip church? Do we skip homework? Do we pray? Do we pay for supplies and fees? Do we tithe? Like it or not we are teaching our kids something every day, and it’s a challenging thought that we need to be the positive example in their lives. If we don’t show them the way, how will they learn? Are you willing that the school system teach your child all they need to know? I’m not.
I know we have something to learn from kids, their innocence, their purity, their faith. But we also have a responsibility to them as well, to teach them how to live the Christian life. My heart’s desire for our church is to be a safe, welcoming place for kids of all ages to come and hear the love of Jesus Christ. Won’t you join us as we make our church a place for children?
A few weeks ago there was an article in the paper about a new coach at Dixon High School. In the article I was introduced as the new head volleyball coach. As the article mentioned, I have played volleyball since I was 13, and have coached once before at Amboy High School. It’s an honor to be the head coach of a sports program, especially in the city where I live, a city that I love. The curious thing is that I have never sought out a coaching job, they seem to come to me. While I was contemplating whether or not to apply for the position, I kept thinking about my role and our role, as a church, in this community.
Community involvement has always been on my mind as a pastor, and we have had a presence in the community. However, lately I sense that we need an even bigger presence. I want the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ to be apparent to everyone. We cannot and must not be a church that has no voice or face in the community. The church is the moral compass for civil government, it helps guide the decisions of community leaders. We have to be involved in the community. And so I decided to apply for and subsequently accept the position of the head volleyball coach at Dixon High School. I certainly did not do it for the salary, and I didn’t even do it because I needed more volleyball in my life, I did it for God.
I never knew what role volleyball might play in my life as I was growing up. I never thought I would be a coach, a professional player, maybe, but never a coach. I also never thought I’d be a pastor. God’s plans are much better than our own. Now I am both a pastor and a coach, and I couldn’t be happier. I am realizing that God wants me to use the talents he has given me, to influence the community. He has given me an opportunity to be an example of what a Christian ought to look like. Maybe a student has never been to church, but they have questions and they know that Coach Cocar is a pastor. Maybe they hear that I’m approachable and they come to talk. These are the reasons I took this job, because I feel That God wants godly people as community leaders. We obviously can’t and shouldn’t proselytize, but we can be an example of Christ to those who meet us.
My goal for myself and our church is to be a positive influence in the community. I want to be part of planning events that promote children and families. I want to promote God’s good earth and give thanks for it. I want to support athletics and taking care of our bodies. I want to reach out to those in need as we support PADS and the food pantry. There is so much to do in the name of Christ. We should strive to be known as the church that does, the church that helps, the church that supports, the church that cares, the church that loves. But I can’t do this alone, I invite you to get more involved in the church and the community, together we can change lives, one at a time.
I look forward to seeing many of you at some Dixon Volleyball games this fall.
Time was running out in the final period of game six for our Chicago Blackhawks. They were down 2-1, and it was looking like final game 7 would be necessary. That’s when their captain Jonathan Towes found an opening and passed the puck to an open forward Bryan Bickell who tied the game at 2. Seventeen seconds later the puck was bouncing around the front of Boston’s net and was tapped in by Dave Bolland. Thus, the Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four years. I am not a big hockey fan like some, but I’m a Chicago sports fan and so I was rooting for the Blackhawks. Watching the games is a challenge for me since I can’t see the puck, only the players’ reaction to where it is. I also don’t understand all the rules, like what is icing? Anyway, I got to thinking that the way the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup has something to teach us a Christians.
Luke 18 says, “Jesus told his disciples a parable (the persistent widow) to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” I like the story of the persistent widow because it speaks to the mindset of God. God doesn’t need for us to be heroic in changing the world, he needs us to be faithful and persistent. It would be great if we were like David Livingston, Dorothy Day, or William Booth who literally changed the world. But even if we are not, we need to realize that we can enact change through our persistent prayers, and persistent good works. Too often we get discouraged that what we are doing is ineffective or no one notices. I have fallen into that trap a few times, and my answer from God is, “I see you.” I am confident that God sees the work that is put in, the sacrifices made, and He honors our commitment in many different ways. Even if no else knows, God knows, God sees, God recognizes you. God understands.
2 Thes. 3:11 “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.” That is my hope for us and for the many concerns that we are praying for. Don’t stop praying, don’t give up on the cause that God has laid on your heart. Persistence has paid off for so many people whose loved one accepted the forgiveness of God near the end of their life. If physical healing doesn’t happen perhaps a spiritual healing might. So pray for healing, pray for salvation, pray for careers, pray for families, pray for marriages, pray for reconciliation, pray for finances, pray for wisdom, pray for encouragement, pray for peace, pray for society, never ever stop praying. Who knows what will happen in the 11th hour. The thief on the cross was welcomed into paradise because he believed, just minutes before he died. If two goals can be scored in 17 seconds to give the Chicago Blackhawks the Stanley Cup, what other miraculous things are in store for those who persist in doing what is right, and never giving up on prayer.
"With the Faith of a Dandelion"
Chances are if you drive by our house on a sunny afternoon you'll see me out in my yard looking for weeds. I've never been much of a gardener but this year something has gotten into me. A while back Bunyan bought this great tool that gets right to the heart of the weed and helps it pop out easily. I went to work on all the dandelions one afternoon and have not stopped since! As I've been out in the yard I've started pondering dandelions and have started to realize that there are some things we could learn from them.
I think like many of us I grew up believing weeds were bad, that they were to be despised and uprooted. Even in Scripture we're told that weeds are what chokes out the good seed and prevents it from taking root. And so as I weeded my yard I was looking at these dandelions as pests that must be removed. But as I got to working I started to notice some of the traits of dandelions. They are hardy. If left alone some dandelions can get over a foot tall and grow incredibly thick stalks and stems. They are resilient. Some dandelions took multiple efforts to remove them and even then some were still intact. Their roots go deep. Some of the smaller dandelions gave way entirely so that I could see the long root that followed. (There were only a few that came out root and all, but I tell you it felt good to see the entire thing come out of the dirt!) They are persistent. At the end of an afternoon I would look at my lawn and feel a small sense of pride that I had conquered every last one only to have a deflated sense of joy as I would awaken the next morning to see more dandelions had flowered over night! And just when you think they are all gone one or two inevitably turn from bright yellow butterballs to round puffy orbs that will explode and disperse with the slightest breath. As they die, they spread their seeds everywhere!
The more time I spent out in my yard, the more I started to see parallels to our own lives and began to see that there are actually a few things we can learn from these pesky weeds. So often we doubt ourselves because we are not beautiful, perfect, more like the better appreciated flowers of the garden. We feel like weeds in all the wrong ways...pesky, unwanted, ugly, easily discard, etc. But what if we saw ourselves with these attributes seen in the dandelions? What if we saw ourselves as hardy, resilient, and persistent? Doesn't God want us to be those kind of Christians? Consider these words from Paul, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength." (Phil. 4: 12-13) The next time you pull a weed ask yourself, do I display these same characteristics?
May It Be So
I am always humbled when people say to me, “Thanks” after I pray for them. I recently was in someone’s home who was ill and of course I prayed at the end of our visit, and the person was extremely grateful. I didn’t do anything extraordinary, and I doubt they had an instantaneous healing (although I hope so). They thanked me just the same. Probably just as much for the visit as the prayer. [I am amazed at how many people have never been visited by a pastor, by the way, if you would like a visit, please call]. I sometimes feel like Peter when Cornelius fell as his feet in reverence and his response was, “Stand up, I am only a man myself.” I echo that sentiment; I am only doing what we are all called to do.
Jesus told us to pray, and too often we don’t. So when someone actually does, I think it’s a bit novel in some ways. Even Christians often times fail to pray. Do you pray when you are out with friends at a restaurant? Are you embarrassed that the waitress might think you’re “religious?” I want to re-imagine prayer. The way I was taught to pray was to fold your hands and close your eyes. As a kid I asked my mom why we do this, she said, so that we are not distracted and can focus on God. Good enough for me. But it’s not the posture of praying that I’m concerned with, it’s the frequency.
Paul writes, in 1 Thess. 5: 16-19, “ Rejoice at all times, pray without ceasing, give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit.” I want to know how Paul prayed without ceasing. Was he constantly on his knees? Was he always reciting prayers? Or is it somehow possible to be in constant communion with God through prayer, that your life is an ongoing conversation with God?
Most people don’t get past the “Help” prayers, and that’s ok. We need to pray those prayers, for our needs and our loved ones, God wants us to. If we can look big picture we might graduate to a “Thank you” prayer. If we can think of God and allow ourselves to focus on Him, on His attributes, His love, His compassion, forgiveness, grace, peace, joy; then we might cross over into the realm of “Adoration” or a “Wow” prayer. God cannot and will not do much in your life if you are not praying. Prayer is humility, it is seeking God’s will above your own. When we pray we don’t ask God to change. We ask God to change us, and to change the circumstances of our lives.
If at some point in your life you find yourself being prayer for, you are free to respond with “thank you” better still, “Thank God.” Might I encourage you however to join the person praying and simply say, “Amen” which means “May it be so” or “Yes that’s right.” Let’s pray together, pray as we live our lives, without ceasing, without pretense, without it being a burden, but with willingness and joy and peace. There is so much need for prayer in our world today, I don’t want to take up any more of your time reading. So whatever time you might have devoted to reading the rest of this article had I kept writing, I want you (right now) to devote to prayer. Go…. Amen.
"Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame." Romans 10:11
Today I drove home from church listening to sports talk radio as usual. I never liked it when my dad had it on as a kid, but I have found that talk radio is better than music for staying awake during long drives. I have grown accustomed to listening to the latest sporting news, or news in general. My commute from church to home lasts 5 minutes depending on a few lights. So in a matter of minutes my mood soured. I listened as the hosts encouraged the public to accept homosexuals in sports and that it's no big deal. He pontificated that people who disapprove of that lifestyle are akin to those who disapproved of Jackie Robinson playing baseball. I was upset that no counter argument was made in defense of those athletes who would be uncomfortable in a locker room with an openly gay teammate. I was upset that something that is this controversial was regarded with such ease and no depth of thought. So I exercised my constitutional freedom and changed the dial.
I turned to the news program and they were discussing the Jewish holiday of Passover, and since I had just been to the community Seder meal I was interested. However, they talked more about how to spell these Jewish words than anything else. Finally, the host admitted he didn't know anything about Passover and said, "All I know is that on Sunday I'm gonna eat my chocolate bunnies and chocolate eggs, and some ham, and that's about it for Easter." I turned the radio off. In a matter of five minutes I was mad at the state of the world, and especially talk radio hosts.
The scales in this country have tipped, and not in a favorable direction. They have tipped in favor of secularism. We are not a Christian nation any more. That's hard for me to say, but I fear it's true. I wish that weren't the case, but the tide in this country is increasingly anti-Christ. We used to be a Christian nation, but we are no longer. America was and is based on beautiful ideals of freedom from oppression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and so on. The idea was to have people living in peace with their neighbors, working for the common good, striving for a better life judgment guided this nation. Recently it has started to fail -- the social unrest, the economic downturn due to fiscal irresponsibility, the unresolved war on terror all point to tears in the fabric of society. People no longer acknowledge God and then wonder why the country is suffering. Secularization says we prospered on our own, we can do it without Providence, whatever we think is right becomes so.
It is a slippery slope we are headed down. Society cannot handle the responsibility to guide itself without a moral compass. Everyone will eventually determine what they deem is right without any regard for anyone else, without any regard for what is right, only what is legal. So borrowing all the money we can and then declaring bankruptcy is perfectly legal, but horribly immoral. Shooting up a school because you were mad at a teacher or another student has become common place. I'm afraid of the state of this world, not because I'm afraid of any real consequences, (what can man do to me/us) but because people are being driven away from God. Society has become hostile to the gospel, and is preventing others from coming to Christ. These are eternal consequences.
Whatever happens, I'm not afraid. I will certainly not buy into the hoarding mentality that the end of the world is coming so we have to store up food. If the end comes, so be it. Praise the Lord, our suffering will be over. Maranatha -- "Come Lord Jesus." But until then we have a responsibility to stand up for what is right, for what is moral, for what is true, even if we are counted among the few. We must call sin a sin, we must declare that Christ is the only way to heaven, and that He died to save sinners. All the while we must love and respect the people who disagree with us. I don't have all the answers, but I serve a God who does. The Word that was passed down to us tells us that those who trust in God will not be put to shame. I believe that, I trust in that promise. The only good that might come of this is that true Christians will have to stand up and be counted, or fall away with the masses. The road to eternal life is not terribly wide, it does not follow the popular sentiment, and few find it. Have you?
“The people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village.” Luke 9:53-55
If you watched the Oscars this past weekend there was one notable omission (aside from Les Mis. Not winning Best Picture). The omission was that there was not one mention of God, or even a higher power. Apparently ‘the academy’ is the only higher power that is worthy of any honor or acknowledgment. I personally don’t care if anyone in Hollywood acknowledges God but it does speak to the times in which we live. Our culture is becoming more secular, but we should expect this according to 2 Timothy 3:1-5. The question is how we respond to the changing culture. Do we fight the culture around us that is becoming more and more secular?
In our scripture from Luke 9 Jesus’ message was met with unbelief. It is not clear whether Jesus himself preached or his disciples, I would suspect it was not Jesus. In any case people didn’t welcome him because he was going to Jerusalem and didn’t worship in Samaria on Mt. Gerizim. When the “Sons of Thunder” heard there were some who didn’t believe they wanted to destroy them with fire from heaven. Jesus, however, was not persuaded to destroy the people, even those who opposed him. I suspect he was demonstrating his teaching on loving our enemies. So we see that Jesus didn’t convert everyone, he just went on to the next town.
What does this tell us about how we should act in the world around us? We should care about evangelism, about the Great Commission, but we should not allow our desire for evangelism make us defensive or compromise our Christian character. When we try to convert someone it should be in a loving respectful way. The message that God is love, yet He hates XYZ does not compute. Hatboro “Baptist” Church is the group from Kansas that holds up awful signs that start with “God hates…”. They are the prime example among others of “Christians” who want to evangelize the world, but they lose any sense of what being a Christian is all about.
We will not win the culture war by fighting, we will advance the cause of Christ by acting like Christ. It is impossible or at least difficult to win someone over by winning an argument. The love of Christ is not on display when we yell at our opponents. If evangelism causes you to argue and yell and get upset, you are going about it the wrong way. God loves the people in our town, He loves your family members who don’t yet believe, and your neighbors who are not yet Christians, we should too; we should love them enough to show them what a difference Christ has made in our lives.
Evangelism is a priority, but I suspect it might take care of itself if those of us who profess faith in Christ begin to act more like Him. One of the biggest deterrents to evangelism are so called “Christians” who act nothing like Jesus. Christianity is not just something you say you believe, but it’s a relationship with Christ that transforms you into His likeness. You cannot simply say you are a Christian, you have to demonstrate that you are a Christian. “I will show you my faith by what I do.” James 2:18.
The other day I read a story about golfer Phil Mickelson. He was complaining publicly about the tax rates going up in California and that he might leave his home state because the taxes were to high. Mr. Mickelson earned $43 MILLON dollars last year and yes, he is in the highest tax bracket, so he does pay several million in taxes, I assume (I haven't seen his tax returns). When the average income in the US is around $50,000 his remarks sound insensitive and greed. So the question in my mind is how would you behave if you made $43 million a year? What would you do? How would you treat this money? Would you complain that you had to pay a lot of taxes on it? Would you give some away? How much would you live on? Save? Would you become a philanthropist? How much money is “enough?”
Tony Campolo is an American Baptist professor and retired pastor. I remember seeing Campolo at a conference, and he was asked if it was ok for Christians to be rich. His answer was twofold. He said, “Christians should make all the money they can, so that they can give away all the money they can.” It's not a sin to be rich, but it's a sin to want to be rich. Obviously money is necessary, in Luke 8 we read that Jesus was supported in His ministry by some women that He healed. Money is necessary for ministry, but it is also the cause of many of our problems.
Are we good stewards of the money that we earn? Do we realize that it is God who has blessed us with the job we have, the pension that we receive? Do we tithe on whatever income we have? Would we be willing to have our finances scrutinized in the light of the Gospel? Can we give up some luxuries so that we can give more? Generosity should be one of the hallmarks of the Christian faith, yet we have made it optional for those who can “afford it” or who feel “called” to give.
I realize there are many who can barely make ends meet in today's economy, and in that situation I think we need to be gracious and caring, not expecting them to support the church, but to be supported by the church. However, as we mature in our faith and finances, we realize a basic principle in God's economy; we give because we have been given. We don't give to receive; we give because we have been given the gift of life, of peace and salvation.
I heard a saying recently that with every dollar we spend we are sending a message. If we buy something made in the USA we are saying that we care more about good quality and local jobs than saving a few dollars. I agree with that sentiment. So what does our spending say about us? Do we share our wealth? Are we generous? Do we waste money? Do we care enough about the Gospel to make a change?
As we are in tax season, I want to challenge all of us to look at our finances in light of the Gospel. Do we complain that we don't have enough, when others in our own towns have no home, or food? Are we generous even with the little that we have? Do we acknowledge that everything we have is from God? Jesus never had any money yet he spoke about money more than he did about prayer. He wants us to use the money we have wisely. I pray that you consider how to be a good steward of the resources God has entrusted to your care. It is an ongoing struggle to be faithful with our finances, but it's a struggle that God will reward. (Malachi 3:8-12) Look it up.