From the Pulpit – “Be Kind to One Another”

Scripture: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)When you were growing up, did you learn to ride a bicycle? Most kids do, but some, like me, don’t. A big, tall kid on a bike can look a lot like a gorilla on a tricycle! But, I am told, that there is a freedom that you feel riding on a bike that is unlike any other. When the wind starts blowing through your hair and you are clipping along on two wheels, all feels right with the world.

Maybe, that’s one big reason why bikes have sold so well during the pandemic. Many people are wanting that feeling of freedom and simple joy that a bike can bring. Perhaps one of the real learning opportunities for all of us as we go through these strange and uncertain times is how much a few simple things can mean to us. Riding a bike can make your day. So too can taking a walk and paying attention to nature around you. Add to that list a good conversation with an old friend. Or something as basic as being kind to one another.

It is, in fact, no small thing to be kind toward other people. I heard a speaker this week talking about how the world of “convergence” has given way to the world of “divergence.” In a world of “convergence,” there is general agreement about what is right and most people try to live that way. By contrast, in a world of “divergence,” there are many competing versions of what is right and people are divided against one another. In such a world, kindnesses and forgiveness, such as Paul emphasizes, are cast aside in favor of ‘winning at all costs’ or a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude.

Sure, it is easy to be nostalgic about the way we used to know our neighbors in a good way and how communities pulled together to get through a crisis. But, isn’t there some truth to the idea that those basic human characteristics we call ‘kindness’ and ‘forgiveness’ were more generally practiced in the past than today? If that statement is even partially true, what would it take to bring back those simple but important practices into these times? Perhaps, it is as simple as riding a bike – once you learn how, you never forget.

At least, that’s what those who know how tell me.

Prayer: Most gracious God, help us to be kind and forgiving to one another;  not because we are told to, but because we know it is the right way to live.

In Jesus’ strong name we pray. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Gary S. Eller
President, Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation
Omaha, Nebraska

From the Pulpit – “Serenity Now?”

Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous American theologian from Missouri, is given credit for writing the “Serenity Prayer” in the 1940s. The generation that lived through World War Two certainly knew that the times were far from peaceful and that tomorrow was often unpredictable. Many people of great faith and less have turned to Niebuhr’s prayer to steady their nerves ever since.

There are two versions of the prayer, a shorter and longer version. The better-known short form is, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If you are familiar with the Serenity Prayer, that is probably the one you recognize. And, as it is, that prayer is both comforting and reassuring during uncertain times.

However, that’s not all that Niebuhr wrote. The longer, less recognized version, adds:

“Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time.
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as he did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would like it.
Trusting that he will make all things right,
If I surrender to his will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this world,
And supremely happy in the next.”

Maybe the next time you feel shaken to your soul by events in our world, you will draw on the Serenity Prayer for support and hope. And, perhaps, you will find the longer version meets your needs better than the briefer prayer. In either case, who would not want an authentic moment of peace and reassurance now?

Rev. Dr. Gary S. Eller
President, Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation
Omaha, Nebraska

From the Pulpit – “Is There a Plan?”

A truism that you often hear is “working without a plan is planning to fail.” Most start-up businesses put together at least a basic “business plan” and lenders require them. They can be simple or complex; but, you have to have one.

Who would want to board an airplane if they knew that there was no flight plan? Who would start a construction project without an architectural plan? What kind of coach would send a team into the next Big Game without a game plan? You get the idea. Planning matters.

So, is there a Master Plan for all of us? Some grand design that includes everyone and everything? A plan done not by human hands or massive computers, but a Creator’s Plan? Not necessarily an every step, every move kind of plan; but, a purposive direction that gives shape and form and meaning to life?

Many people think so. They will tell you, “God has a plan for my life.” And they believe it. The same folks might add, “God has a plan for everyone and all creation.” They base their beliefs on what they find in the Bible and what they have heard in church and from important people in their lives. Theologians might say that they have a sense of the providence of God – that there is a design, pattern, direction to things established by a Higher Power than any of us.

We discuss just this sort of theological issue in our Bible class Mondays and Thursdays at Gethsemane. We ask things like, Do you have to believe in a Divine Plan to be a Christian?

In these uncertain times with a pandemic and economic distress, many people say it is impossible to plan beyond three months. That may indeed be true of our plans, but that does not at all rule out that our Creator has a Plan beyond our imagining.

What do you think about that one? If we believe that there is a Creator’s Plan, then how would that affect the plans and decisions that we make, big and small? How would it change the plans you are making today? Perhaps it is true, “We plan, God laughs.”

Rev. Dr. Gary S. Eller
President, Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation
Omaha, Nebraska

From the Pulpit – “Healing”

Prayer: Gracious God, You are our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. You give us the gift of life. We pray not only for strength of body, but also for hopeful spirits. These things we ask in the name of the One who is the Divine Healer, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Over the centuries, healing as part of the mission of God has been readily accepted. From blind Bartimaeus standing outside the city gate to Legion, the demoniac-wrecked soul living in the tombs, healing has been frontpage news. “I was sick,” said Jesus, “and you took me in.” (Matthew 25)

In the New Testament, one-third of those healed are women. Another one-third are social outcasts including several Samaritans. One out of every five verses in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are about healing. You could say that healing represents the long embrace of God’s love.

There is more of the same in the letters of Paul. A constant theme in Paul’s correspondence is that the church has a special mission to those who are hurt, despairing, and ill. Moreover, he includes the gift of healing as one of the spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12:9, 28). From the beginning of Christianity, healing stood out as a difference-maker in the church’s mission.

The church of the first three centuries after Jesus’ earthly ministry did what the Roman Empire did not do. Christians risked their lives to care for babies and children abandoned in the streets to die. The church ministered to the sick and dying during plagues. The Romans only cared for Roman citizens. Everybody else was on their own.

Romans thought that compassion and caring for others were senseless notions. But Christians valued loving-kindness and mercy as logical extensions of faith. Why, Christians buried their dead. Romans did not. They thought of Christians as some kind of oddball “burial society.”

We take it for granted that the church places its name on hospitals and other places of healing. Whether the name is CHI (Catholic Health Initiatives) or Methodist or Presbyterian or Baptist, there is a clear connection between healing and one’s religious tradition.

As a patient the past ten days, I have been quite aware that the places where I have gone for healing are connected with our Christian faith tradition. The hospitals have chapels. People say prayers. There are crosses on the wall in the hospital rooms. There are chaplains from various faith traditions. And each of these hospitals has a Mission Statement that is very clear about the connection between what they do as skillful healers and the One who is the Healer of All.

So far, I haven’t found a Gideon Bible in my nightstand! That surprised me a little. Then I realized that in these days of COVID-19 and pandemic, that all such materials have been taken out of the rooms. No Bibles. No “Upper Room” or “These Days.” Such are the times in which we are living.

Even so, the ministry of care that these hospitals offer addresses the whole person: mind, body, and spirit. And in so doing, the relationship between God’s mission and the very human experience of brokenness, sickness and disability is firmly grounded in Scripture. Compassionate caring is the Gospel in action.

The Romans never understood that one. The question is, Do we?

Grace and peace,

Rev. Dr. Gary S. Eller
President, Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation
Omaha, Nebraska

 

From the Pulpit – “What About Heaven?”

You hear all kinds of things these days about heaven. One poor soul, thoroughly tired of the pandemic and related issues, exclaimed to no one in particular, “Heaven would be going back to the way things were before all of this started!”

Perhaps, you have had similar thoughts and feelings. But whether you have or not, what do you say when somebody asks you, “What do you believe about heaven?”

Few of us think of heaven as a place in the sky. Many believe that heaven is being in the presence and care of the love of God, family, and friends forever. Even more do not know what to say; but they figure that if there is a heaven, that’s where they want to wind up.

The Christian claim is that we are forever held in the arms of God. This is true before we are born, throughout this lifetime, and after we have died. God knew us and kept us before we were born, so the same will be true beyond this life. The image that is most helpful to me and may be comforting to you is the picture of Hebrews 12: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” These are the witnesses of which we sing in the powerful hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation:” “Yet she on earth hath union with God the three in one; and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”

Heaven means that the future itself is held secure, which is why Christian hope is conviction not wishful thinking. I do not believe that we are misled by the gospel and the church’s experience. Christian hope is not desperate. It is both trusting and reliable. It is also real and means we can take what comes in the world – including pandemics – knowing that the God who is with us now will keep us forever and make our lives full.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Gary S. Eller

Gethsemane Presbyterian Church

Council Bluffs, Iowa

From the Pulpit – “What Is Peace?”

We live in an age of slogans and buzzwords. The same word can mean very different things depending upon who is using the word and when it is used. A word that is intended to be uplifting and hopeful can sound oddly out of place or even inflammatory at other times.

Consider the word “peace.” Ordinarily, it is a very common word, used casually enough to be a greeting or a socially acceptable expression when two friends are parting after lunch.

But if that same word is linked with other words then it takes on an entirely different character. Pair “peace” with “justice,” for example, and what do you have? Match up “peace” with “righteousness,” and what does it mean? Couple “peace” with “love,” and what does that look like?

We have all heard it said that there can be no peace without justice. Equally, there can be no peace without community – a genuine desire for the well-being of everyone. But exactly how do peace, justice, and community fit together?

In the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” So, who are the peacemakers in your life? And what are they – or any of us – doing that contributes to peace in our world? Surely that day has not yet come, for there is much unrest and even violence today.

Do we, in fact, long for peace? And do we know what that day of peace would look like? If we have some vision in mind of that day, how do we get from where we are to there? May there indeed be peace on earth – and may it begin with each of us.

Dr. Gary S. Eller

Gethsemane Presbyterian Church

Council Bluffs, Iowa

From the Pulpit – “Digital Easter”

Easter is not cancelled. But it will be different. Early Easter morning there will not be folding chairs set up on church lawns for a wake-up message, prayer, and hymn or two. Congregations will not gather in sanctuaries decked with lilies and sing the majestic “Hallelujah Chorus.” Extended family reunions will not be celebrated around tables filled with seasonal treats. And children will almost certainly not be rounding up plastic Easter eggs from wherever they are hidden.

No doubt some people will truly miss all of these traditional Easter activities. The twice a year church attenders now will have only one service to make in 2020 – Christmas Eve. And the sun will very likely rise again on the Monday after Easter as it has for nearly 2,000 years. As novelist Kurt Vonnegut loved to say, “So it goes.”

So, will there be an Easter in 2020? The simple, honest answer is, Yes. It will not be Easter as usual, if we mean by that an Easter with all of our traditions being celebrated. In this time of pandemic, that would not be wise. But, if we mean the celebration of what actually matters about Easter, then “Yes” is the right and faithful affirmation.

Christians around the world will worship – some in their homes, others online, a few on a walk through their neighborhood. And as they do, they will repeat the one core statement of Easter faith that most matters, “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.” And, in that moment, Easter 2020 – this first digital Easter – will happen all over again.

Grace and peace,

Gary

Rev. Dr. Gary S. Eller
President, Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation
Omaha, Nebraska

 

“A Word of Encouragement”

A fellow pastor and I were sharing stories over coffee when I asked him, do you believe in the ministry of encouragement? He responded right away, “Sure I do. Haven’t you been listening?” That answer got me thinking even more about the importance of sharing a word of encouragement with people who are going through all kinds of circumstances.

Consider the friends, family, and acquaintances you know who could use a simple word of encouragement. They may be dealing with health issues, problems at work, or family hardships. You might wonder if some encouragement would make any difference to them. And yet, that may be exactly what they need most. And you might be the best person to offer that word.

Perhaps you recall a time in your own life when someone encouraged you. There was a decision you had to make. Or you had a task to do. And you were very unsure what to choose or how to act. And at that moment, you were reassured by the support of another person who cared enough to reach out to you with encouraging words. Their affirmation was just the nudge you needed.

In the New Testament, you will find Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement.” He was a great help to Paul and Mark in their missionary work. Though he was not one of the original twelve apostles, he is remembered as an influential member of the early church and declared a saint. Barnabas, a humble and dedicated soul, practiced the ministry of encouragement.

Who would benefit from your words of hope, support, and encouragement? You know their names. All you have to do now is tell them.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Gary S. Eller
Gethsemane Presbyterian Church
Council Bluffs, Iowa

“A Little Faith”

Some people come to faith when they are very young. That may have happened with you. So, their first faith is a “childlike” version of Christianity – “Jesus loves me.” And it doesn’t grow much after that. They become adults and have busy lives and children themselves; but their faith remains the “childlike” version that they got back at church camp or Vacation Bible School as a 10-year old.

When their adult lives get really complicated, they find that their growth in faith has not kept up with their development in other areas of life. They may still want to do the right thing, but they have no way to decide what that is.

You may have had that very experience. Well, if it sounds familiar, then remember the story from Luke 17. The disciples have been following Jesus for a while. They have seen him do and say many things. He has taught them about forgiveness, and love of others, and the way of the cross, and much more – and, maybe, their early faith is getting wobbly. They know that they don’t measure up.

Perhaps, that sense of “not measuring up” caused them to ask Jesus to, “Increase our faith.” They realized their faith was a quart or two low! And what does Jesus do? He tells them the story (a parable) about the mustard seed – that tiny seed that can do spectacular things. Surely, the disciples took heart. They had hope because just a tiny bit of faith goes a long, long way.

The key is this: it’s not a matter of how much faith you have. Having faith, some faith, in a very everyday manner, is enough. You don’t have to be a saint. If your faith is as large as a tiny mustard seed, that is enough.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Dr. Gary S. Eller
President, Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation
Omaha, Nebraska

 

“Tornado”

Tornado. That single word brings to heart and mind devastation, lives turned upside down. It all happens so quickly. A rush of wind and the damage is done. Homes are lost. All of the keepsakes of a lifetime are gone. Communities are devastated. Crops and livestock take a heavy hit. Some lose their lives.

You probably know someone who has suffered from the recent floods in Nebraska, Iowa, and surrounding areas. You may be a victim of the waters as well. If so, you have seen losses up close, perhaps the most severe of your lifetime. And now the tornados have come.

In the face of such destruction, what can be done? There are no easy words that will make everything alright. It would be the essence of cheap grace to say that “God will take care of us.” While that might be the case in the most profound sense of things, it isn’t likely to provide much comfort to the stricken.

There are many ways to provide support, encouragement, material assistance, and simple kindnesses to all who are in need. Stories abound of neighbors reaching out to neighbors to help one another. That includes strangers putting themselves at risk for someone whom they do not know. Such selfless actions are needed now and will be for quite a while. Flood damage compounds wind damage and vice versa.

And what else might be done? Perhaps a prayer on behalf of strangers, those without a home, those who have uncountable losses. Suffering is not new to persons of faith. By it we have learned not to rely on ourselves alone, but on Another.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Dr. Gary S. Eller
President, Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation
Omaha, Nebraska