July 4, 2017
One of my most vivid memories of the Fourth of July was when my family lived temporarily in Kansas, probably around 1966. It is a dry and dusty state but there is a lot of open space and deserted roads. My father drove us out into the country, pulled over to the side of the road and took out a huge package of firecrackers. It was thinly covered in red paper and about three feet long and contained about a thousand ladyfingers. One by one he would light them and throw them into the ditch where they would explode. Then he built small mounds of dust and buried a firecracker in it so that the explosion send a mushroom cloud into the sky. We loved it. He even let us set off a few ourselves but only a few - he was too selfish to give up too many of them, though he covered it by saying they were too dangerous for us. Mom reinforced this by pacing back and forth waiting for the police to arrive. At the conclusion dad took the remaining section of them, a long string of several hundred, and lit the whole thing causing a crescendo of mini explosions. I have never forgotten it.
You can’t do that in New Jersey. We are one of only three states that ban all fireworks, no exceptions. You can’t even have sparklers, though I can see the wisdom of that because on many a Fourth of July night my young bare feet stepped on those glowing strips of red-hot metal. New Jerseyans are safe from that, according to the law. From personal experience, however, I know that evening here in Ledgewood will sound just like Kansas, especially due to some neighbors across the street who have a personal agenda in celebrating our freedom with pyrotechnics.
God is like my neighbors. When he presents himself he does it dramatically. The book of Exodus says that when God appeared to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai there was thunder and lightning and smoke and flame (Exod. 1916-18). The ground shook and everybody trembled in their sandals. The book of Revelation at the end of the Bible says this is what it is like whenever you are in the presence of God (4:5, 11:9, 16:18). My mom was afraid of the police; we should all have that awareness of God. He is not to be trifled with and he is not safe. He wants to shake you up and make you into something new. Appreciate the power of his glory and bow before him.
January 1, 2017
How many New Years do you celebrate? There were four New Years in ancient Israel. Rosh Hashanah marks the civil new year and occurs in September. Local Baptist kids like it because it is a school holiday. The significance to Jews is that this was the starting point of God’s creation. Jews used Rosh Hashanah to determine the seventh year rest for the land and also the year of Jubilee. There is only one vague reference to this holiday in the Old Testament but later rabbis expanded it.
Rosh Hashanah is a fearful day because people we know will die between one Rosh Hashanah and the next. Maybe it will be us. On Rosh Hashanah they come before God and acknowledge how powerless they are and to ask God to give them another year.
Rabbi Daniel Judson was once asked to lead a Rosh Hashanah service in Laramie, Wyoming. He was stunned to see that the Torah - the handwritten scroll of the first fives books of the Bible and the holiest object in Jewish religion - was being housed in a gun rack, which happens to be just the right size and shape to hold a Torah. He had never hunted in his life or even shot a gun, so a gun rack seemed to him to contradict what the Torah stood for, God’s peace.
When he mentioned it to one of the synagogue members, the man said quite calmly, “Rabbi, on Rosh Hashanah we are meant to feel the power of life and death - a gun rack will get us in that mind-set a heck of a lot quicker than any ordinary Torah ark.” Rabbi Dan had to agree with that. 
Their second new year date focused on trees. The Bible says you cannot eat the fruit from a tree for the first three years so they wanted to know how to calculate this. It has become a minor holiday among Jews today and in Europe Jews celebrate it by eating 15 different kinds of fruit. They must be very regular on that day.
The fourth new year was used to determine the tithing of cattle. Few Jews are cattle ranchers today so it has kind of faded away.
The third new year is the one the Bible puts the most emphasis on, 1 Nisan. Exodus 12:2 says, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” It was inaugurated by the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and therefore comes just 10 days before Passover. 1 Nisan is the religious new year. The reigns of Jewish kings were calculated from this day. It is a day that began not to mark a seasonal change, but a great deliverance by God.
The New Testament does not mention New Year. I think the early Christians would have applied the concept of the third Jewish example and started their new year at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This was the New Exodus of God’s people from bondage and death. You can actually celebrate this new year on any day you want, because “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Your personal New Year can be any time you commit yourself to God in a fresh way. I hope that happens to all of you in the coming year!
1. Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Rabbi Daniel Judson, “Jewish Holidays: A Brief Introduction for Christians” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007).
December 1, 2016
Christmas started early for me this year. A week before Halloween the early service worship team asked me to play a part in a musical program at Hopatcong High School. The program has various groups, mostly young people, perform holiday music before an audience to raise money for the needy in Hopatcong. Joe and Joy Gorgolione have participated for years as they do with other events in their community.
I am not at all musical, as all of you should know, but my role did not require me to open my mouth for a single word, so I agreed to do it. As Glenn Meyer’s deep voice intoned the words for “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” I pranced out in my full Grinch get-up: green shoes with upturned toes, red foo-foo top, long furry green hands, and a green rubber mask. I couldn’t wear my glasses under the mask and the stage was rather dark so I stumbled around a bit but Joe whispered pointers to me so I could steal all the gifts and even the Christmas tree. Of course, at the end I dragged them all back and held up a Merry Christmas sign. My unbiased opinion is that I generated just as much excitement as Santa Claus.
It is appropriate for me to play Grinch. I have the requisite temperament and grumpy attitude. I also think he is a more realistic character than Santa Claus. Santa is always happy and good and making people smile. The Grinch is mixed, just like us. We all have our positive traits and our ugly ones. What really makes the Grinch appropriate is that he comes to a new understanding of himself and changes, going from bad to kinda-good.
Christmas is more than a big party with presents and rich food and great joy. It is about God visiting this earth to save us. Only nasty wasty skunks with hearts full of unwashed socks and souls full of gunk (and best described as Stink, Stank, Stunk!) need a Savior. I am such a person. I suspect many of you are too. Jesus came “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). He loves all you Grinches out there and wants to transform you. Will you let him?
Have a blessed Christmas!
November is Election Month. Even our church holds its annual election in November, not because we are copying the government but because we want to be sure we have all our officers in place by the beginning of the new year. Presidential elections and Baptist elections are very different. Presidential elections are hotly contested, cost hundreds of millions of dollars for staff and advertising, involve many debates and tens of millions of voters. Candidates have to meet some criteria: they have to be a citizen, lived in the country at least 14 years, and be 35 years old. That’s it. No moral qualifications, mental ability, attractiveness or income requirements. Of course, only upstanding well-off beautiful geniuses ever run for the office so we don’t have to be worried.
For our Baptist election we present a single candidate for each position (just like the Communists), a candidate who we have usually drafted out of the blue. Two people did volunteer themselves for positions this year, which is wonderful. We spend limited time on the election process and no money. One candidate for the Pastoral Relations Committee asked if it paid the same as being a Trustee. It does! Zero. Maybe thirty people come out to vote. We throw in a vote for the Budget to make it more enticing.
The early church chose leaders differently. When Judas committed suicide, the disciples laid out the criteria for a replacement (he had to have been involved in Jesus’ ministry from his baptism to his resurrection) and then cast lots to determine which one God wanted. They themselves did not vote. Later, when the church expanded across the Roman Empire, Paul gave advice about establishing leaders in new congregations (1 Timothy 1:5). Once again, criteria were laid out, such as even-tempered, not an alcoholic, not violent, not a crook - and no election took place. Timothy was to appoint them. Pastor David’s phone call to you may sound like the same thing, but I am only putting you on the ballot - the church determines the outcome.
There is a form of election in the Bible. It is what God does to us. To be “elect” is to be chosen by God. It is a way of emphasizing that our salvation is his decision and not ours. Those who are truly elect cannot be swayed from their faith (Matthew 24:24) and will be gathered together when Jesus comes back to the earth (Matthew 24:31). It is a group you want to be a part of. Peter adds an interesting twist: “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:10-11). God may do the electing, but you are responsible for confirming it. What are the things you have to do to keep from losing? Peter tells us in verses 5 to 8 - add to your faith goodness; knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. And you need to keep on increasing the amount of each. The Presidency is a snap compared to this.
September is a hinge month, marking the transition from the leisure activities of summer to the full schedule of autumn. It is ironic that its first vacation is Labor Day because the one thing you don’t do on it is labor. The work will come soon enough because September seems to be one of the busiest months of the year. Schools start and businesses kick into high gear. Churches, too.
I enjoy work when I feel I am being productive and creating things that have value. When I was in college one of my summer jobs was doing menial work in an Army Reserve building. They had a bookcase filled with loose regulation and safety forms and my job was to put them in order and throw out the duplicates. I persevered and got them all into binders. One of the officers then asked me to make a copy of each binder which took me another week. In the back of my mind I wondered if anyone would ever open one of those binders and gain some knowledge. Probably not. I think they just wanted to keep me busy and out of their hair.
Productive work has a good purpose and is done well. You have a positive attitude, take care of details, and have pride in what you produce. Hopefully it will have an impact on others. The Apostle Paul encourages us to have an eternal perspective on our labor: “”Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Ephesians 6:7). Keep in mind that he is giving this advice to slaves who didn’t have a lot of input into the jobs they had to do.
When you work, you reveal the image of God in you. He is a Creator and he enables each of us to create. Make something that will reflect well on who you are and Whom you serve.
I have had a communication problem this week. We have wanted to extend the internet into the church for some time now and someone came up with a solution. Lou brought in a new router, set it up, and it didn’t work. He talked to some technical expert in India for an hour and they determined the problem was the church modem, which now did not work at all. They said they would send a new one. I have spent most of this week without the internet. Twenty years ago that would not have been a big deal but now it is. I can type on my computer but I can’t send it to anyone, like Pat Jacke the Church Chimes editor. I felt like I was on a desert island. Then the new modem came and Lou was able to get it to work - partly. I could get on the internet, but I couldn’t communicate with the church printer. So I would type something on my computer, put it on a flash drive, and walk the flash drive over to the printer so I could print that page. One bulletin insert took seven trips back and forth. I’ll bet the Apostle Paul never had these problems. How is your communication going? The early Christians valued the ability to connect with each other. They wrote letters and sent messengers back and forth, but nothing was as good as talking to each other. As the Apostle John wrote to some friends in his second letter, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). Good communication does that with people - it makes you happy. I think communication breaks down more frequently with people than it does with computers. We feel things inside but we don’t share them with our loved ones, either because we are angry with them or because we are afraid of how they will take it. In my own extended family there was a communication breakdown that lasted a lifetime. It is much better to share openly with each other, both your joys and concerns. Young lovers know the importance of reaching out to each other when they are separated. As the Song of Solomon says, “O daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you -- if you find my lover, what will you tell him? Tell him I am faint with love” (5:8). Talking with God can break down, too. We get busy, we get angry, and we stop praying like we should. Maybe we get frustrated that it seems so one-sided. Talk to him anyway and remember what Peter wrote: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). He can do much more for you than a modem can. In Jesus, Pastor David