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Finding Purpose in Your Life

Purpose

Finding Purpose in Your Life

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. (Ezekiel 37:1)

One of the great questions of life is, “Why am I here?” Young people ask it as they try to decide what to do with their lives. Middle-aged people ask it – often in a midlife crisis. Older people ask it – often looking back at the legacy they are leaving behind.

The Bible gives us great insights about the answer(s) to this question. In the story that you can read in Ezekiel 37:1-14 a man named Ezekiel is given a vision of a valley filled with dry bones and God asks him, “Can these bones live?” Wisely, Ezekiel answers, “God, you know.” What unfolds answers God’s question but also shows us something important about how God works and why we are here.

Each step of the way, God makes it clear what is to happen next. If Ezekiel will let God guide him, the bones will indeed live. God shares a direction. Ezekiel carries it out. God shares another direction. Ezekiel helps do that as well. Step by step the thing unfolds. Life begins to happen!

There is great insight in this text. Perhaps God COULD make the bones live alone. But God prefers not to work alone. God invites and instructs us so we can participate in what God is doing and be part of making it happen. Humanity exists in order to join with God and become part of what is unfolding.

Why are you here? You are here to join in with God to bring life. Where you do that varies because we all live and work in different settings. But the key is to find ways to listen to God. Here are a few questions to ask and reflect on that may help you listen more closely for God’s guidance where you live and work:

  • What does God want to see happen in this situation?
  • What steps would God like to see happen along the way?
  • What is God calling me to do so that I can help that happen?

Finding our purpose in life starts with listening and reflecting. Our spiritual life matters. The more lost we feel on the outside, the more time we may need to spend on the inside. As we listen to God, we may find that like Ezekiel, God wants to use us to do important work and having a willing spirit can allow us to find meaning and a sense of accomplishment in our lives.

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Christ in the Old Testament

Daniels Firey Furnace

Christ in the Old Testament

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, ‘Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?’ They answered the king, ‘True, O king.’ He replied, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a son of the gods.(Daniel 3:24-25)

The above passage is from Daniel’s book written while the Israelites were exiled in Babylon. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had refused to worship the Babylonian gods and had said they would rather die faithful than deny the trust that had in the God of Israel. The king had ordered them thrown into a furnace and burned alive.

This is one of my favorite Bible stories from the Old Testament. I like it, not only because it emphasizes the importance of discipleship when things are tough. I also find it intriguing because three people are thrown in the furnace but four people are in there! The fourth is unlike the others – he looks like a “son of the gods.”

One of the things we often forget is that the Son of God is eternal. We see signs of Christ’s presence and work long before the birth of Jesus! John’s gospel says that he was present when the world was made. Colossians reminds us that through him all things were made. And in our story today we see and hear of a son of the gods appearing and coming to the aid of the faithful in the midst of the firey furnace. For Martin Luther, who was a professor of the Old Testament, there were images of Christ all through the Hebrew scriptures. He saw Christ in the pages there as fully as in the New Testament!

As we turn toward Advent and the start of a new church year, we prepare for the birth of Christ. But it is important that we remember that while we meet God’s son in Jesus, he was at work long before Mary gave birth to him and he continues to work long after the cross and resurrection.

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The Common Good

Common Good

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

The “common good” – a nice idea but not always easy to pursue. Finding the kinds of commitments to the well-being of everyone that actually translate into actions can be hard. What is best for one person may not be best for someone else. So weighing the costs and benefits and finding something that elevates the good of the whole society or group can be hard. We only need to look at Congress right now to see that finding people willing to pursue what seem like obvious solutions that could make things better simply not happen for what look like selfish reasons.

In contrast to what happens when we don’t pursue the common good, God’s words to Jeremiah in the verse above urge people to not take personal biases into account when we work on things. When the people around us flourish and do well, things are better for us too. We may not all reap the same rewards of a decision but when things go better – we all benefit. The old saying, “A rising tide raises all boats,” is something that isn’t a biblical quote but it certainly resonates with God’s advice in this passage.

This advice from God comes in a surprising place. The people of Israel are in exile and living in a foreign land – kept there by their enemies. It would be easy to want to sabotage things and get even with their oppressors. But God, the same God who went to the cross in Jesus, advises not to get even but to work for the good of the place where they are held captive. The reason: God, who calls us to love our enemies in Christ, knows that when we resort to retaliation everything degenerates. Life gets worse and everyone loses. But if we work for the welfare of the city where they are in exile, life will be better and the Jewish people will benefit as well. Everyone wins.

One of the reasons that Zion has such a strong commitment to working in the community is the reality that the God we meet in Jesus is committed to everyone’s well being. This wasn’t new in Christ. We see it way back in the Old Testament and it is core to who God is and always has been. Our hosting of the Southwest Area Neighbors (SWAN), AA Groups, and community events demonstrates this. Our support of PADS homeless shelter, Food for Greater Elgin, Fair Trade and many other things pushes us out into the world to be proactive about improving the quality of life for others.

“Seek the welfare of the city…” It is God’s desire that we do so. It is also one of the marks of our congregation’s ministry and an important part of what we do to join God at work in the world.

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A Light Shines in the Darkness

Light Shines

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lives in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

Darkness is part of life – and as the fall moves toward winter we are reminded of this by shortened days and longer nights. We are in a time of shadows and the evening comes early and the dawn rises late each morning.

We often think that the dark things in life should be avoided. “Cheer up,” we say to ourselves or to our friends when we are down. “Get over it,” is the message from the world. It is as if we are in control of our situation and if we would simply do the right thing then we should be able to return to normal. But if we are sick, if a loved one is dying or has recently died, if our job is rough or if we have been “downsized” then the reality of being down is something we should not rush through too quickly. It is OK to spend time in the darkness. In fact, sometimes our efforts to get ourselves out of the darkness on our own terms can be self-destructive

At the same time, this week’s lesson from Isaiah reminds us that when we wait for God in the darkness of our lives, the promise is that God’s coming to us brings light to us that we can’t always simply bring to ourselves. The people of Israel had been through decades of struggle but the prophet Isaiah reminds them – God is still at work and light is coming. Be open to God’s gracious and saving actions! The roughest things in life are way too much for you – but not too much for God! This is not about saving ourselves – it is about having faith and hope in a God who loves us.

This week, take a few moments to reflect on the shadows and darkness in your life. Spend time there and simply be open to God’s healing and gracious touch. Allow God to shine in the midst of whatever burdens you have.

At the same time, we celebrate the privilege we have of being people of faith. As a community of faith, our knowing that light comes to people who are in darkness allows us to also be people who bring light in the ministries we do. Our efforts to share God’s love bring light and life in places that are often dark and difficult for people. It is why we give our energy and resources to do this work. It is life-changing and a blessing we share with the world around us.




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Let Justice Roll…

Justice

“Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24)

This week’s lesson from Amos reminds us that being religious isn’t always a virtue. It is possible to be religious but to not be committed to the things that matter most to God. In such cases, our religion has lost the spirituality needed in order to pay attention to what God wants. It has become self serving – perhaps just going through the motions or a desire to be seen as a respectable person

I remember once in my first church discussing reaching out to the neighborhood around us. The church was mostly older white people and had been shrinking rapidly. The neighborhood was mostly people of color and people in poverty. There was a cultural divide that kept us from reaching out effectively. The conversations about how to do this meant the people in the church would have to change – not something all of them wanted to do. Finally, one woman snapped, “I don’t know why we are so worried about reaching these people. If they were respectable they would already be here!” I am sure that God was not happy with our religious activities that day!

God is less impressed by good singing in the sanctuary than by lives that are transformed and working for justice in the world. It is not that worship is a bad thing – quite the contrary. Worship helps us identify who we are and how we are connected to the story of God coming to the world in Jesus Christ. But good worship is something that lasts all week. We come and encounter God in worship in ways that help us to see God outside the sanctuary as well. And we come to listen to God in worship in ways that help us to listen for God in our daily lives as well

God’s biggest dreams are not just full sanctuaries but a just world – transformed by God’s people into the dream that God promises will one day come. Take a few moments this week and reflect: How is your daily life making God’s world a better place and how does participating in the life of the church help you do this?

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All Saints – A chance to give thanks

Candles F

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest…”

All of us are indebted to those who have gone before us. We know much of what we know because they passed it down to us. We are able to do what we do because someone showed us skills and abilities that they had and took the time to cultivate them in us

In our lives, these people become precious to us. In some symbolic ways, we carry a piece of them with us even long after they are gone. Their fingerprints are all over us. This is how God uses people to mold and shape us into who we are and what are to be.

As we continue our preaching journey through the Old Testament, this week’s lesson comes from 1 Kings 19:1-18. The prophet Elijah is afraid. He has taken on the powers and principalities of his time and there are a lot more of them than there is of him! While Elijah is hiding, God comes to him and speaks to him. God brings words of challenge and encouragement to stay true to who he is and what his purpose is.

But inside of those words also come another word. Elijah is told that he will soon choose Elisha to be his successor. Elijah’s work, as important as it is, will not be finished with Elijah. He must pass the mantle on to another and raise up a new generation of leaders to follow him. Even when things are hard, God is calling to him to plan ahead and pay attention to others so they can find their meaning and purpose as well.

This week, take a few minutes to reflect on the people who have shaped you. Give thanks for their fingerprints – even the rough ones have contributed to your current self. Then think about your life. Who have you influenced and who are you shaping. Take a moment, offer up a prayer for them and drop them a quick note to let them know you are thinking and praying for them. What we have received in Christ we pass on. It is what makes us saints.

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When God Comes Down

The old spiritual sings, “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder…” but is that really how God works and calls us to respond?

We meet or hear about people all the time trying to “find God.” In the church language there is a term for such people as they are referred to as “seekers.” These are people who sense or believe that there must be something to this God stuff but haven’t quite got a handle on what it is. If we are honest, any one of us might find ourselves there sometimes. Our faith ebbs and flows – some days it may be rock solid and on another day we wonder if God is even there.

Lutheran theology actually helps us think about how we should approach such moments. Unlike the Jacob’s Ladder song that urges us to “climb,” Luther’s great insight was that God comes “down.” In other words, we don’t get our act together and work really hard so we can ascend and get closer to God. God loves us and descends to come closer to us. Lutheran spirituality is about God’s coming down and not about our trying to rise up.

This is very freeing. There is no way to get to God – God already knows that. But the freedom of this is that we then are allowed to simply give up trying. No wasted energy doing what we can’t do. Lutheran spirituality is grounded in believing that the God who comes to us is faithful – God is showing up! The key is, “Am I paying attention?”

Take time to simply watch for God. Read scripture to get clues about what God is up to and what God looks like. Perhaps read Galatians 5:22-23 (the fruits of the Spirit) and then reflect on where you have seen these fruits in the last few days. You will discover that God is near and working all the time – we sometimes struggle to notice. In the process, it may open you up to be more hopeful and receptive in ways that lift your Spirits. Because we don’t go up to God, but sometimes connecting with God can lift us up!

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Centering Time

“For if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Romans 14:8

We belong to a small group that meets by phone for what we call “centering time” on Tuesday mornings from 9:00 to 10:00 AM. We’ve been discussing a book about how people encounter God in their suffering called My Bright Abyss. It is written by Christian Wiman who is living with cancer – death is always just around the corner for him.

This week’s chapter was about his experiences of being with other people as they died. Something made some seem different from others – some were what he experienced as good deaths where people seemed to somehow die with a sense that they were part of something or their life had contributed to something in some way. Other deaths seemed  not so good, filled with regret or other things that made the death less fulfilling. Wiman’s experiences did not always line up with people’s religions. Some religious people still died not so good deaths and other people who weren’t religious might still have a good death.

While in Ireland we spent a lot of time in places where death was the focus. Many of the monasteries and abbeys have closed and lie in some state of ruin. But the cemetery there is still a cemetery and in some cases, people continue to be buried there. Celtic crosses and other gravestones mark the graves of people whose lives span centuries of history among them.

In one particularly unique moment while on the Aran Islands I (Dave) had a somewhat holy experience. There was a sense that I was somehow thinking beyond my own span of years – however many more I may or may not have. But the sense that we are part of something bigger and the connection between the life we live and the elements of the earth from which we have come made me think. “I think I am looking forward to being reunited with the earth,” I felt my inner voice say. It almost caught me by surprise – this sense that my life will end but that will be its own holy part of my journey as a person. Death was the most friendly to me personally as I have ever experienced it to be.

In the text at the top of this message, Paul reminds us that in some ways life and death aren’t as different as we make them. We live to the Lord – always hoping to be connected to Christ and useful to his purposes here. But we die to the Lord – always trusting that even in death we belong to God. In all things – life and death – we belong to God.

I am in no hurry to rush death. There is much I want to do and I sense a calling from God to keep doing them. But it is good to know that as the day draws nearer, my sense that I can trust God with my death is somehow life giving. It makes Paul’s words come to life for me: “Whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord’s.” May it be true for you, too.