From the pulpit: “God’s Grace”

Theologian Robert McAfee Brown often spoke of the struggle we have with affirming grace in the face of the seeming rule of violence and power in our world. He was very fond of the music of J. S. Bach and naturally drew on the great composer’s work to speak eloquently about God’s grace.

Brown noted that Bach’s Fugue in C Minor includes several variations on a short theme. When you first hear the piece, the theme is very clear and unmistakable. Then variations begin and things become much more complicated. The theme is harder and harder to hear. Before long, it seems that the theme is entirely gone and that all is chaos. But, if you listen carefully, the theme can still be heard, sounding in the background, holding everything together and giving it direction.

So it is with God’s grace. A divine grace so abounding, so abundant and manifest in the birth of Jesus Christ, that the rocks themselves break out in joyous praise. As the last book of the Bible announces, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever,” (Revelation 11:15).

This Advent 2020 as we struggle with a pandemic and economic uncertainty, perhaps our prayers might be so attuned to God’s grace that they still resound: 

Gracious God, open our hearts and minds to the abundance of your grace and mercy.  Enable us, we pray, to lift our voices with praise as the whole creation glorifies you. Amen. 

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

From the Pulpit: “Is it Over Yet”

Rising in what is now the dark of early morning, I wondered almost outloud, “Is it over yet?”  No doubt, you know exactly what I mean.   Are we done with the daily dreadful count of how many of us have died during the pandemic?  Can we put away the masks – both the physical masks and the ones we use to pretend everything is all right. Can we safely resume our normal patterns of life, refresh our friendships, visit our loved ones, and go into public places without fear or worry or guilt? In a phrase, “Is it over yet?”

Of course, it is not over.  The disruption of our lives continues. And, while we trust that at some future point all of this will end, we have no real idea when that will be.  As one friend said, the worst investment he made this year was buying a 2020 planning calendar.

If you are a religious person, then you may well believe that God has all of this mess accounted for somehow.  That there is a reason and purpose beyond our understanding that we must trust is in God’s hands.  There are innumerable biblical passages that would support your views.

But, should you not be very religious or religious at all, then you may see the pandemic as yet one more example that demonstrates there is no such thing as the providence of God. That is, there is nobody watching over us and no one who will somehow make all of this right.

So, when you rise early tomorrow and it is still dark outside, which will it be for you? No, this is not all over yet, this pandemic.  Can you live into it in faith or do you choose despair?

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



From the Pulpit – “The Church Is Not Closed”

It would be hard to find anyone who is not tired of the pandemic. We all miss so many people, places, and routines that are usually part of our lives. We know that the pandemic is not over and that there is a real health danger out there. If we are also part of a faith community, then we miss worship, our friends, annual activities, and all the rest.

No one knows how long this disruption to our lives will last. I heard another pastor today describe these times as “murky waters to navigate.” But, as Christians, we do know that whatever happens with the pandemic, the Church of Jesus Christ is not closed.

How often have you heard an adult tell a child that the building is not the church? We share a building – on which repairs are beginning – but the building is not the church. We are. To paraphrase the Scriptures, ‘in good times and bad’ the Church is always there.

So, what exactly is the Church? A wise theologian once said that the Church is “the community of faith in Jesus Christ living in the power of the Holy Spirit.” We are part of that faith community that began with the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to follow him. Remember that they did not have a building. The first Christians did not have bulletins, hymnals, officers, a budget – you name it – but they were the Church.

The Church is not closed. The followers of Jesus are still praying, still singing, still serving, still caring, still witnessing to our Lord.

It may be a while before we can gather in the church buildings as we want to do. But, my friends in Christ, don’t let anybody tell you that the Church is closed.

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

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,


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