Category Archives: Articles

Article: From Bishop Holmerud

If you are not signed up for the Sierra Pacific Synod e-newsletter, here is what Bishop Mark Holmerud wrote about “hate” and the events of this past week. I hope you find it helpful as we discern who we are and what our response should be to those who hate.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

“Could it be, could it be, that we are called — for such a time as this?” a song by Jonathan Rundman

Hate. Hate speech. Hate rhetoric. Hate crimes. Hate groups.  Hate is the common thread and the impetus behind the 917 Hate Groups that have been identified as operating in the United States. The “Hate Map” of the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that there are 79 such groups in California and 4 in Nevada. These groups advocate hate in all forms — racism, neo-Nazism, white nationalism, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments, xenophobia and anti-immigrant beliefs, misogyny, and violence towards the GLBTQ community.

I’m sure the list of those whom these groups identify as objects of hate is more extensive than we want to believe, and more present in this part of our country than we may be aware. At least that’s been true for me. I had no idea there are over 83 hate groups operating in our backyard – in the territory of our Sierra Pacific Synod. I imagined the “stronghold” of these groups was in the southern part of our country, in places where violence has been erupting for years, where the lynching of black people was once common, and where people needed to press for their right to ride on public transportation and sit at lunch counters. Not true. It’s here. It’s now. I have recently been made aware that there are planned demonstrations in the coming months by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups here in northern California. Perhaps there are planned demonstrations in northern Nevada as well.

The events in Charlottesville a few days ago and many other recent acts of hatred and violence are a clarion call for us to pray, to be aware, to be vigilant, and to speak out where such hate emerges from the shadowy depths where its adherents are emboldened to act out of fear and hate. Could it be that we are called for such a time as this to be voices of the light and peace of the Gospel to be proclaimed with even more ardor and purpose? To make clear, as Presiding Bishop Eaton has called us to do, that “White supremacy has no place in the kingdom of God, only the love and healing of the reign of the Prince of Peace.”

If you are feeling called to speak out, The Southern Poverty Law Center has provided a helpful guide called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate” to move us from the uncertainty of knowing how to respond to hate and violence to taking small steps toward speaking out, organizing, standing with those who also wish to decry hate speech and hate groups in our communities.  I invite you to contact your local ecumenical and interfaith groups, civic and governmental leaders and community organizers who are seeking to address the presence of these 83 groups in our area, and the 917 that exist in this country. I am and will be committed to providing support and resources in as many ways as possible to speak of Christ’s love in the face of this monstrous evil. I encourage you to follow the links below to learn how you can be involved in this Gospel call to action.  I believe this is a time in which we have been called to speak and act.  May God be with us as we step forward in faith.

Ten Ways To Fight Hate – From the Southern Poverty Law Center website

  1. Act
  2. Join Forces
  3. Support the Victims
  4. Speak Up
  5. Educate Yourself
  6. Create An Alternative
  7. Pressure Leaders
  8. Stay Engaged
  9. Teach Acceptance
  10. Dig Deeper

Bp. Mark

Article: Book Recommendation

I read quite a few books over the course of a year. Most of them, I listen to. I try to be productive in the car. On average, I go through (read/listen) about 84 books a year or 7 books a month. I don’t actually count or keep a list but this is fairly accurate statistic based on my monthly consumption of books. Some of it is pleasurable reading, some of it is church related.

If you have noticed (maybe you haven’t), I don’t recommend many books. I do give recommendations on a one on one basis (I did last week) but I don’t often give blanket endorsements. As I think about it, the last time I publicly said, “everyone should read this book” was The Shack by William P. Young released in 2007. I didn’t read and recommend it until 2008. That was 9 years ago.

I understand you haven’t been holding your breath for this but I just read a book that fellow Bethel member, Randy Shattuck recommended to me. The book is titled, The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma. The subtitle is, “Uncovering the roots of Injustice and Privilege.”

Who is Ken Wytsma? This is what is said about him on his website: Ken Wytsma is the founder of The Justice Conference, the global pastor of Antioch Church, and the president of Kilns College in Bend, Oregon. He is the author of Pursuing Justice, The Grand Paradox, and recently released, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege.

Ken is a white “evangelical” pastor and author.  Yet he writes with  an unbiased clarity and precision. He looks at inequality and injustice through both the lens of American history and from a Biblical perspective. He concludes the book by discussing practical ways Christians can address the issues raised in the book.

I highly commend this book to you. Read it with an open mind and resist being defensive (if you are white).

If enough people read it at Bethel, I would love to have a discussion about it.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

You can order this book here (hardcover, Kindle or audiobook):



Article: I Don’t Want to be a Pharisee

I don’t want to be a Pharisee. You know, the religious authorities and teachers of the Law of Moses that Jesus tangled with during his earthly ministry. I know that may sound like a silly thing to say but the day I entered the seminary to become a pastor, I began my training as a religious authority… also known as a Pharisee. Of course, I am not Jewish, but I don’t want to be a Christian Pharisee either.

When we think about Jesus’ earthly ministry, it seems like the only people he had problems with were those who were in charge. Back then the Pharisees and the Chief Priests pretty much ruled the roost in Israel. They called the shots. You might be asking yourself, “What about the Romans who were occupying the land? Weren’t they in charge?” They were, but the day-to-day activities of the average person living in Israel were governed by the Pharisees. People tried to avoid the Roman soldiers at all costs.

If we are to believe the gospels, which I do, most of the religious leaders of that day cared more about themselves than they did about the people under their charge. They were supposedly the most learned and the most religious, yet Jesus pointed out time and time again that their actions were contrary to the will of God. In other words, they were hypocrites.

In one poignant moment, Jesus said this, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Matthew 23:23

Jesus called them out for doing things for appearances only and missing the things that God cared about most: justice, mercy and faithfulness. Wow. I don’t want to be the one who does things for appearances or just to be liked. I don’t want to appear religious (I’ve already blown that) and neglect the things that really matter to God.

I have said this hundreds of times, but it is still true in regard to mercy, “I would rather have Jesus tell me on judgment day that I was too easy on people than have him say- why were you so hard on people and kept them from truly knowing me.” Jesus showed mercy to all who were not sure that God cared about them because of their decisions or status in life.

I still want to grow in my faith. I do not believe I will ever arrive at the destination of “enough faith.” I want to surround myself with people who also want to grow in their faith and I continue to be open to God’s guiding hand in my life.

Jesus uses the word “justice” too. There is more than one word in the original Greek that translates as “justice” in English. This word (krisis) actually means the ability to discern right from wrong so as to judge a case or a matter. Jesus is saying the religious authorities (Pharisees) lack the discernment between right and wrong.

For example, in Mark 7:10-13 Jesus says, “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ n and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’  But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother.  Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” 

That is fairly direct. Don’t miss the last line. This isn’t only about caring for parents; this is one example among many. In this case, money took precedent over people. They didn’t have the ability to see what God values most: people. Not money, not prestige or respect, not even power.

Our God cares about people. God sent Himself in the person of Jesus to draw people close to Him. Jesus took time to correct the misperceptions about the nature of God because the people representing Him (the Pharisees and the Chief Priests) cared more about themselves than they did about the people under their charge. But it wasn’t just a few people. It was the entire nation of Israel.

Jesus called them out for being unjust, unmerciful and unfaithful. Jesus showed us who matters in the Kingdom of God: tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Jesus reminded us that neglecting others who struggle (including parents) isn’t God’s way of doing things.

Like I said, I don’t want to be a Pharisee. I want to follow Jesus and His teachings until I can sit at his feet and see him face to face.

Yes, I know. The things Jesus said eventually got him killed… and most of his disciples too. I guess that is a risk I am willing to take.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Where is Pr. Ben?

Most of you know where I am this week. I am at a summer camp called “Leadership Lab.” I am one of the directors of this 55-year-old camp. For the past 32 summers, I have returned to this place to serve. But it isn’t a place. Yes, we do rent Augustana College in Rock Island, IL for a week, but the location isn’t the important part. It is the people.

Leadership Lab could be held pretty much anywhere and over the years it has been at Illinois State University in Bloomington, IL and Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. The location is but a minor detail.

Leadership Lab as in “laboratory” is a place for Lutheran youth to learn about Christian leadership, their faith and themselves in a week long experiential camp. But it is way more than that. It is a clear expression of the Church of Jesus Christ. For one week, this group of people, who gather from as far away as Cupertino, California (me), become a congregation of people who love, support, learn, laugh and even cry together. It is safe place to “let down” and be yourself. It is truly a judgment free zone. I have formed life-long friendships with people who have attended Leadership Lab. It is more than a friendship. We are brothers and sisters in Christ.

I can’t help but think of the phrase, “blood is thicker than water” which means your family will be there for you when no one else will. That may not always be true of all families, but it is always true for the family of God. The head of our household went to great lengths to protect and watch over us. Jesus gave his life so that we might be protected from losing our lives one day.

I am privileged to be a part of something that is literally life-changing. I get to see young people grow in their faith and not only learn about God, but to experience His gentle touch in their lives (in front of my very eyes). It is humbling to know that I help facilitate that experience.

This year, one our worship leaders went through Leadership Lab as a student. He is a young guy and he remembered coming to Leadership Lab his first year and saying to himself, “One day, I want to lead worship here.” And he now does. Wow. I have seen youth volunteer to sing, share poems, care for one another and experience the freedom of being in a safe place away from all the worries of life.

Since this is a program that progresses through 7 levels, youth can come back every year and experience something new throughout their high school and early college years. Many of our staff went to Leadership Lab as students, including myself. I wouldn’t be a pastor today without this program.

If you would like to watch our worship on Saturday morning (which is contemporary and geared to the youth) we stream our worship on Facebook. It will be online at 8:45am Saturday morning on this  Facebook page:

You first have to “like” the page and then you can watch us live. Be forewarned, I will preaching on Saturday at Leadership Lab so you will have to see my face also.

Bethel, thank you for supporting me in this ministry. I appreciate it more than you can imagine. I also thank my beautiful and supportive wife Rachel (aka Mrs. Pr. Ben) for putting up with my week-long absence too. She understands that this is an important part of my life.

Yet, when it is over on Saturday afternoon, I can’t wait to get home to see Rachel and be with my church family at the beginning of the week.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben


I ran across another great article this week that I wanted to share with you. I found it both helpful and enlightening! Enjoy!

Even when you’re not on vacation!
By Pastor Kathy Hawks of Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington

Summer — such a delicious time of year!  Even if the pace doesn’t slow as much as we’d like, the focus shifts and the weather (usually) is glorious!

In keeping with our Spiritual Life Hack explorations and focus on how faith practices can transform our spirits and our lives, here are some ways to relax and deepen your enjoyment of the season — whether you’re traveling or at home, on vacay or cleaning out the garage.  I’ve put them in order of least to most challenging (at least for me!):

  1. Music.

What music relaxes you in a way that connects you to your deeper self and God? Gospel? Hymns? Classical? U2? Folk? Whatever it is, keep it on hand. In fact, why not make yourself a playlist you can play on your phone, in the car, or while you’re walking?

  1. Breathe.

Notice your breath, filling and leaving your body.  Draw it in for 5 counts, hold for 3, and release it for 5 counts.  Repeat 5 times.  Do it upon waking, before sleeping, when you realize you’re stressed, when your brain is racing and you want to be more present.

  1. Practice feeling gratitude.

We can all make lists of why we SHOULD be grateful. But taking 60 seconds to actually experience the goodness of all God has given — that’s a different and very anxiety-reducing practice.  Try it upon waking, upon going to bed, when you sit down to eat, when you exercise, when you do something you love to do or are with people who make you smile or listen deeply.  Gratitude opens us to God. What if this became your default attitude?

  1. Be still.

Notice your breathing, in and out, in and out. Use your senses: what are 5 things you see?  4 things you hear?  3 things you touch?  2 things you smell? 1 thing you taste? Close your eyes, allow silence to fill you. Savor it. You may sense God’s presence.

  1. Choose a summer Bible verse mantra.

Is there a Bible verse that puts things in perspective for you and helps you let go?  “The Lord is my shepherd…who leadeth me beside still waters…”. “Be still and know that I am God.”  “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.”  “Peace I give to you…not as the world gives.”   And there are MANY, MANY more! Pastor Gretchen and I would be delighted to help you find one to put on your screensaver, or dashboard, or bathroom mirror, or wherever.  Or make it a habit to internally say it whenever you do certain daily things, so it becomes a habit.

  1. Pray throughout the day.

John Somm just shared a great three-word all-purpose prayer with me:  “God, guide me.” It can be that simple. Or you may find power and clarity in praying about something specific in the moment.

  1. Be present in the moment.

Notice God In the moment.  So many ways God shows up: little children (for “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”), in nature, in kind and loving interactions- however small, in “the least of these”, in conflicts resolved and relationships reconciled, and on and on.

  1. Give in to a generous impulse.

Bring some luscious strawberries to the neighbor you don’t really know.  Write that check to aid famine victims. Do the thing at church or another volunteer organization you keep meaning to do. Doing any such things even just once is golden.

  1. Unplug and unscreen.

Yes, you can! Start small, like an hour before bed. Many of us remember when we actually lived our whole lives this way!!  You might feel lonely and at loose ends, or you might find yourself better able to do # 10-3.  Either way, your spirit will be nourished, and the likelihood of connecting with God and others goes up exponentially.

  1. Observe Sabbath.

Not every Sunday, but you owe it to yourself to do it at least once.  I have done it a few times and it is AWESOME! Make meals ahead. Do only things that nurture your spirit. (You know what they are; other things just get in the way. But God commands this!   Nap.   Stare at the night sky.  Take a walk.  Write a letter or call a friend, just ‘cause.  Leave those screens alone!  It’s amazing what power there is in knowing that sabbath is a “thing” people have done for millennia, and it has rejuvenated and blessed them.

Article: 50 Things You May Not Know About The Reformation

I ran across this article in our ELCA publication “Living Lutheran” written by Rod Boriack.
Boriack is a writer and editor living in Des Plaines, Ill.

I learned a little bit, maybe you will too!

The word “Protestant” was first used formally around 1529. “Protestant” originates from the Latin word protestari, meaning “declare publicly, testify, protest.”

The name “Lutheran” originated as a derogatory term used against Martin Luther by German scholastic theologian Johann Maier von Eck during the Leipzig Debate in 1519.

While reformers rejected marriage as a sacrament of the church, they expanded the role of the church in marriage. Couples took an oath before God and the ceremony was moved from outside the church on the doorstep—a medieval practice—to inside the sanctuary in front of the altar.

The Reformation created a demand for all kinds of religious writings. Readership was so great that the number of books printed in Germany increased from about 150 in 1518 to nearly 1,000 six years later.

By the time Luther died, 30 editions of the Small Catechism had been published. By the end of the 16th century, there were an additional 125 editions in circulation and approximately 100,000 copies in print.

An estimated 6,001,500,000 Bibles have been printed since the first one came off the press in the Middle Ages. The first Bible published in North America was printed in 1663.

The Luther rose (or Luther seal) was created at the request of printers to have a personal symbol representing the reformer’s faith that could serve as a mark indicating something was an authorized publication of Luther’s. It became widely recognized as the symbol for Lutheranism, and still is today.

With the invention of the printing press and the introduction of pamphlets and booklets to the public, women in the 16th century found increasing access to information they had been previously restricted from reading, studying, discussing or even listening to in public settings.

The Reformation paved the way for what we still   refer to as a “Protestant work ethic.” Luther’s teachings about the “priesthood of all believers” helped dissolve the wall between “temporal” and “spiritual” realms. In doing so, everyday work and labor was affirmed and seen as pleasing to God; it was no longer considered an inferior life to that of a monastic life or the priesthood.

Education was set on a far-reaching course of reforming thanks in part to Luther’s advocacy and ideas that a proper, well-organized and broad education for all children—not just those of the wealthy elite—would benefit the state as well as the church.

The legacy of Luther’s ideas about education can be seen today in the Lutheran church’s concern for Christian education, early childhood education and schools, colleges and universities, lay schools for ministry and seminaries.

An emphasis on the involvement of laypeople during worship revolutionized the way space inside the parish church was used during the Reformation. Many of the physical barriers between priest and congregation were removed. Consequently, the interiors of local churches took on the appearance that many still have today.

Whether or not to use pipe organs and other musical instruments during worship became a hotly debated issue for many churches involved in the Reformation movement. Some went as far as banning the use of organs and instruments.

Prior to the Reformation, congregational singing—and even talking—during church services wasn’t standard practice in Germany.

Luther composed more than 40 hymns in his lifetime, and in 1529 wrote and composed the tune for what became known as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation”—today called “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Luther desired hymns to be modest and text-driven—derived from Scripture, expressing Christian values, illuminating faith and the gospel message and lending themselves to congregational singing.

The area of Germany where Luther’s story unfolded is now referred to as “LutherCountry.” This region of Reformation sites and history was part of East Germany for 40 years until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

The Peace of Augsburg was signed in 1555, despite its dissenters and many loopholes. This settlement represented a victory for state princes and granted recognition to both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism in Germany, allowing each ruler to decide the religion to be practiced within his state, and permitting residents to migrate to a territory where their denomination was recognized.

The first European colonists who came to North America were attempting to escape post-Reformation conflicts and persecution. They were 98 percent Protestant and a diverse mix of denominations, but their newfound freedom wasn’t without intense conflict and intolerance between denominations and religions.

In the late 1800s, some North American religious leaders voiced concern over what they feared was hero-worship of Reformation leaders. They encouraged refocusing on theological issues and teachings, the accomplishments and failings of reformers like Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, and contributions of reformers prior to the 16th century.

While the Reformation gave birth to Protestantism, today only two of the 10 countries with the largest Protestant populations are European.

Today the United States has more Protestants than any other country, about 160 million. Nigeria is second, with nearly 60 million Protestants. China has the third-largest Protestant population, approximately 58 million.

About half of all Christians worldwide today are Catholic (50 percent), while more than one-third are Protestant (37 percent).

Recent research and surveys reveal that about one-third of mainstream Protestants believe eternal life depends on our actions and living a good life, despite the biblical understanding and teachings of the reformers that salvation is a gift from God received through faith in Christ, through no effort of our own.

Reformation Day is a national holiday in Chile, and is officially called Día Nacional de las Iglesias Evangélicas y Protestantes—National Day of the Evangelical and Protestant Churches.

If Luther could have had his way, he would have probably deleted the books of Esther, Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the Bible. They were among his least favorite books of the Bible.

There were reformers well before Luther and what became known as the Reformation, but Luther and other reformers of his time became the first to skillfully use the power of the printing press to give their ideas a wide audience.

During the religious wars that followed the Reformation, even family members were often pitted against one another. Both Catholics and Protestants were often convinced that the other was doing “the devil’s work.”

The Counter-Reformation—or Catholic Reformation—initiated vigorous efforts to condemn the teachings and influence of Protestant reformers, restore obedience and loyalty, reconvert the converted and establish new missions and influence globally in regions including Africa, Asia and South America.

The Catholic Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits, was founded in 1534 and participated in the Counter-Reformation to stop Protestantism from spreading. Today they represent the largest single religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church.

The Council of Trent (1562) decreed that all bishops must “banish from churches all those kinds of music in which, whether by organ or in the singing, there is mixed up anything lascivious or impure, as also all secular actions; vain and therefore profane conversations, all walking about, noise, and clamor, that so the House of God may be seen to be, and may be called, truly, a house of prayer.”

On April 18, 1994, the Church Council of the ELCA officially repudiated and apologized for Luther’s words and teachings that have been appropriated by anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred and violence toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people. The ELCA also pledged to oppose such bigotry within the church and in society and to pray for the increasing cooperation and understanding between Lutheran Christians and the Jewish community.

The idea put forth during the Reformation that God sees all believers as spiritually equal had profound repercussions in the church—especially when the idea was applied to women.

Luther’s exhortation to read and interpret the Bible on one’s own and the impact of the printing press opened new doors for lay people that changed the church’s approach to faith formation and Christian education forever.

One of the far-reaching impacts of the Reformation was the promotion of applying the word of God to every area and endeavor of life, in the church and in society.

The early movement of Lutheranism quickly gained followers in the German states, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Scotland and portions of France.

While we associate the Reformation with Germany, broader reformation movements spread across Northern and Western Europe, including also England and Switzerland.

England went through its own religious and political reformation in the late 1500s through early 1600s. It was influenced by Luther and other reformers, but it was more deeply intertwined with the power, personal beliefs and political motives of England’s kings, queens and political leaders of the time.

In the 17th century, Lutherans from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark began to migrate to the United States, bringing their language, culture and Lutheran faith with them.

The first Lutheran worship service in North America is believed to have taken place in what is now Manitoba, Canada, on Jan. 23, 1620.

Ceremony in Chile’s Palace of the Moneda for the National Day of the Evangelical and Protestant Churches in 2014.

Today, more than 200 denominations and churches in North America have histories connected to the Reformation.

Worldwide, the number of Christians has more than tripled in the last 100 years. But the world’s overall population also has risen rapidly, so Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32 percent) as they did a century ago (35 percent).

An abundance of festivals, exhibits, concerts and tours are taking place across Germany throughout 2017 in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Christian education was a passion of Luther’s. He encouraged a partnership between the home and the church in which parents would take the lead and the church would assist.

The reformers taught God’s dominion over the world, creation and all things and helped revive an interest in the world that was increasingly receptive to an encouraging of exploration, study and rediscovery of nature and the universe—without losing sight of faith and spirituality.

Stirring changes and new thinking about the church, religion, politics, law, economics, education and society, the Reformation influenced the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period and Age of Discovery.

Luther didn’t lay personal, unique claim to his beliefs and teachings. He declared in a sermon, “It is not my doctrine, not my creation, but God’s gift … . Dear Lord God, it was not spun out of my head, nor grown in my garden. Nor did it flow out of my spring, nor was it born of me. It is God’s gift, not a human discovery.”

Researchers and archaeologists have recently corroborated the assertion that Luther was a well-educated thinker and prolific writer, producing an average of 1,800 pages a year.

Recently discovered archive documents have revealed that an arranged marriage of Luther by his father may have been imminent for the young man and most likely played a major role in his leaving his study of law and joining the order of the Augustinian Hermits at the monastery in Erfurt.

During and after the Reformation, there was a sharp decline in the commissioning of large-scale works of biblical art by Protestant churches.

Article: Sabbath Rest

Today (Thursday) is the last “kind of” day of vacation before flying home Friday. I say “kind of” because I am working on a number of things today including a sermon for Sunday. “Winging it” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Sunday morning although it may seem like it at times!

Yet, as I sit here in front of my computer these words come to mind, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Exodus 20:8 Sabbath rest is more difficult for me than others… as you know I work weekends. I have to find other ways to find rest. One of those ways is to go to Northern Wisconsin specifically the Northern Highland State Forest in Vilas County. My family started vacationing (fishing) there in the 1920’s. I have a postcard from 1927 from a family member who was talking about the fishing while on vacation.

In the movie “Field of Dreams”, Terrence Mann says this to Ray Kinsella the farmer who built a baseball field in the middle of his corn field, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball…”  I feel that way about being among the trees and lakes of Northern Wisconsin, it has been my one constant in a life of change. Whether living in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada or California, returning to the timeless woods and lakes of my youth is Sabbath rest for me.

I totally understand that this is a privilege and a gift. Many people around the world never travel much beyond where they were born because of economic circumstances.

Many of you have a special place that you have visited many times or you treasure the memory of a beautifully unique location that you traveled to in the past. If you have a place like that, it evokes strong memories. It does for me. I reflected on the 4 generations of family members that have traveled to the north woods of Wisconsin with me over the years, some are still alive, some are not. Being in the woods also brings great peace and serenity as well. There is an audible exhale of breath when I arrive.  And yes, there is (at times) a happiness that brings a tear to my eye.

I thank God for Sabbath rest. I thank God for a place to find peace and rest. I thank God that Rachel likes nature too!

Every time, I walk into our cabin I take off my shoes. I can’t help but think of God’s words to Moses as approached the burning bush, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3:5  Although it may not be special to everyone, it is holy ground for me.

With all of that said, my mind has stopped looking north and is now looking west back to California. I am ready to come home and see my Bethel family on Sunday. Vacation Bible School begins on Monday and I can’t wait! There is joy to be found at church and at home! (Our dogs miss us too.)  A joy that I can’t find anywhere else in the world.

Verse three of our state song speaks to how I feel about coming home tomorrow with one addition…

I love your old gray Missions – love your vineyards stretching far.
I love you, California, with your Golden Gate ajar.
I love your purple sun- sets, love your skies of azure blue.
I love you, California; I just can’t help loving you.

And I would I add, I especially love the people of California (at Bethel).

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: The Compassion of Jesus

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:35-36

This is a typical Bible passage about Jesus, right? He is preaching and healing. Jesus is so nice, the end. Hold on, not so fast. There is more to these verses than that. After Jesus called his disciples, he started traveling. He went from town to town and probably asked the local rabbi of every town he visited if he could preach in the synagogue. For the record, I tend to turn down people who asked to preach at Bethel to “give me a Sunday off.” Usually these people are trying to drum up support for a ministry cause they think is important.

Yet, Jesus is successful and preaches about the good news of God’s love. He tells anyone who will listen that God is not far off, but really close (like in the room close). Not only that but that God loves sinners, misfits, outcasts, doubters and so on. This is not a typical sermon in first century Israel. Jesus doesn’t leave the people as they are, instead he calls them to “repent for the Kingdom of God is near.” Repent is a fancy Bible word for change. Change the way you think about God, because God truly loves you. Changing the way you think about God will change how you treat others in the world. Especially when you realize that God loves everyone you lock eyes with.

But these aren’t empty words or just a clever new message to attract followers. Jesus backs up his words with definitive action. He heals every disease and sickness. Imagine Jesus and the disciples entering a town where they literally do not know anyone and they not only tell them that they are loved by God but there is a demonstration of that love through the healing of loved ones. My guess is that word traveled fast that Jesus was not just another teacher.

We see in these two verses that God cares and that illness and disease are not welcome in God’s Kingdom. It seems to me we could use Jesus more than ever when I pray over our prayer list and watch the news regarding the pending healthcare legislation. Clearly Jesus addressed the needs of others in a very specific way and he did it with great mercy.

It actually says Jesus had compassion on the people. He felt bad for them. He pitied their condition. He loved them. Its say the people were “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” In other words, the people were lost, afraid and had no one to look to for help. These weren’t friends or acquaintances of Jesus, they were complete strangers. Yet Jesus was moved with compassion for these nameless crowds that gathered.

It makes me wonder, what would it take for us to have compassion for the nameless crowds of people in our neighborhood, city or country? I am sure if we all had the power to heal like Jesus, we wouldn’t be so concerned about what was happening in Washington D.C. this past week. But we don’t have that power and many in this country do not have Jesus sized compassion for others. That honestly saddens me.

Yet, when Jesus saw all the people who had no idea that God loved them because they struggle in life, he said this, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:37-38

 We may not be able to heal people but we certainly can advocate for the needs of others. Rather than asking, “What’s in it for me?” we should be asking, “Lord what can I give up so that others may benefit?” Jesus gave his life so that the world could be reconciled and brought close to God. What should we doing in this harvest season? Gathering for our own benefit or giving to further God’s agenda in our nation and world?

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Let’s Talk About Sin

21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! 

 So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.  Romans 7:21-25

Sin. It is the reality of our existence. Selfishness, envy, anger, control, neglect, denial, hate, injustice, judgment and the list goes on. Our life is a struggle between what we want and what God calls us to be. St. Paul who wrote a letter to the church of Rome (quoted above) writes a lot about sin. When an author of Bible devotes a lot time to one topic, I tend to pay attention.

Even Paul admits to the struggle in his life. Think about that… someone we refer to as a “saint” struggles with sin like we do. It’s as if he is saying, “my heart tells me to do one thing and mind another.” Paul is expressing the human condition as a Christian. We are both “saint and sinner.”  That is it in a nutshell for all of us. This is who we are.

Sin is not a side item in God’s agenda, is it? When the Son of God came to earth, what was his primary mission? To die so that we may be forgiven. Essentially God decided long ago that blood was the currency of forgiveness to show humanity the cost of sin and rebellion. It costs lives. In the Old Testament, many innocent animals were sacrificed to provide forgiveness. In the New Testament, God sacrificed himself so that His blood would cover our sin.

Sin matters to God because it causes a break in our relationship with the people around us and a break with God. We are created for community and sin gets in the way of God’s purpose for humanity.

Earlier in Paul’s letter to the Roman church he talks about being a slave to sin and a slave to righteousness. He wasn’t talking about individual sins or good deeds but patterns of behavior. Paul understands that we will always struggle with sin in this life. Instead he wants us to look at the bigger picture. Are we on a journey toward righteousness (life with God) or on a path to greater darkness and selfishness (sin and separation)?

If humanity was good at following directions, we wouldn’t need Jesus… just the 10 Commandments. We discovered that we couldn’t help ourselves. We just can’t. God already knew that and sent his Son Jesus to do what we couldn’t do ourselves. He would bring: forgiveness, love and a new path to follow.

St. Paul reminds us of this when he wrote…

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. Romans 8:1&3

 Forgiveness is ours because of Christ. Paths of righteousness have been opened to us if we choose to walk with Jesus.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Are We Very Religious?

The craziness of my life caught up with me this week. I have the flu. It is June and I have the flu. The sound we make at home when something doesn’t go right is, “Mlahhh.” (Think of Snoopy from Peanuts when Lucy is mean to him.) Needless to say, this has been a “mlahhh” week. Rachel and I often text that phrase to each other instead of words like, “Ugh.”

I am not going to describe the symptoms of the flu, I am pretty sure you already know what having the flu feels like. It is yucky. I am hopeful that I will feel normal by Sunday, but if I do not, I will still be at church! After all, I have a sermon to preach, sacraments to administer, eat doughnuts (donuts?) with dads and go to the homecoming concert of Common Ground. You should go too, it is a wonderful production! It is at 7:30pm Sunday night in the sanctuary.

Yet, even though I am sick, I keep moving forward and continue to think about God. For example, on Tuesday I asked Rachel (Mrs. Pr. Ben) if she would consider us “very religious?” I don’t even know why that question popped into my head, but it did. Her response was interesting. Rachel said, “Yes, people would view us as very religious.”

I suppose she is right. People would see us as being very religious. Please don’t roll your eyes at me, I’m sick. Cut me some slack. Hear me out…

Most people would say, “I hope they are a very religious family because Ben is a pastor. He is supposed to be religious and Rachel too for that matter.” Yet, I don’t see myself or my family as “very religious.” Please keep reading—I don’t want you to jump to conclusions. There is plenty of time for that after you finish reading the article.

The reason I don’t see myself as “very religious” is this: I live my life in faith. I don’t think about being religious or acting in a way that people will perceive as being religious. I am, for the lack of a better word, just being me. I live within the context of God’s grace and I respond in faith by the things I say and do. I do not expect others to live like me nor do I judge non-Christians by the same measure I judge myself.

I am free and not bound by specific religious behaviors. However, I am free to pray, think about God, worship and engage with fellow Christians. I do these things because I want to not because I have to. If that makes me religious, then so be it.

Sometimes, I think the Pharisees (religious authorities of Jesus’ day) saw themselves as very religious and looked down upon those who were not. They took pride in how much they knew and they also took great delight in shaming others who were not as religious as they were.

I’ll pick following Jesus and being free over being a Christian Pharisee any day of the week.

God bless,
Pr. Ben