Monday, May 31, 2010

Why the United States Is A Great Nation - Memorial Day Thoughts

It's Memorial Day, and it's a day to give thanks for those who sacrificed their lives for this great nation. And we are a great nation, in spite of what so many other nations around the world say about us, or think of us. In many cases, I suspect they're simply envious of our accomplishments, and rightly so.

In an interview in 2002 called MTV Global Discussion, there was an exchange between General Colin Powell and a woman from Norway, in which Colin Powell (then President George W. Bush's Secretary of State) gave an eloquent response to her accusation that the United States is "Satan".

Here is part of their exchange, and Colin Powell's powerful response:

QUESTION: Hi. Hello, Mr. Secretary.


QUESTION: I’m wondering, when I talk to my friends about the U.S., we think about how do you feel about representing a country commonly perceived as the Satan of contemporary politics


QUESTION: As the Satan of contemporary politics.

SECRETARY POWELL: Satan? Oh. Well, I reject the characterization. Quite the contrary. I think the American people, the United States of America, presents a value system to the rest of the world that is based on democracy, based on economic freedom, based on the individual rights of men and women. That is what has fueled this country of ours for the last 225 years.

I think that’s what makes us such as draw for nations around the world. People come to the United States. They come to be educated. They come to become Americans. We are a country of countries, and we touch every country, and every country in the world touches us.

So, far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people.

And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say “Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us”? No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.

So, far from being the Satan, I think we are the protector of a universal value system that more and more people are recognizing as the correct value system: democracy, economic freedom, the individual rights of men and women to pursue their own destiny. That’s what we stand for, and that’s what we try to help other countries achieve as well.

Thank you, General Powell. That is why we can honor our military dead, AND be proud of what the United States had accomplished and stood for since our founding. No, we're not perfect, individually, or as a nation. But we have, as General Powell said, given the world the gift of democracy as a vision and a reality that sets men and women free like no other nation and no other political system as ever done.

Makes me want to sing with Lee Greenwood,

...and I'm proud to be an American
Where at least I know I'm free
And I won't forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I gladly stand up...
next to you and defend her still today
Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land
God bless the U.S.A.!

Stay Connected,

Pastor Mike

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day - Thanks, Dad!

(The following is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 30th. May 30th used to be the official day we celebrated Memorial Day until it was changed to be the last Monday in May each year.)

Last Sunday afternoon there was a meeting at Bellevue St. James United Methodist Church to help pastors and lay members prepare for the meeting of the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church coming up in a couple weeks in June.

The St. James Church is near old downtown Bellevue, and also only a few blocks from Bellevue Cemetery, where my dad, Harvey Davis "Mac" McInnis, was laid to rest almost 20 years ago now.

After the meeting, I had some time before I needed to be back at our church for our last men's "Uncommon" study, so I went over to the cemetery to stop at my dad’s grave for a few minutes. When I got there, his military grave marker was dirty, from dust, grass, and inconsiderate birds. So I went to a grocery store a couple miles away and got some water, paper towels, and found a flag that I could take back and put in the ground next to his marker.

While I was cleaning it off, I was reminded of how simply my dad had lived, and yet how much he had accomplished in his short life – he died when he was 49 from cancer, possibly related to his service in Vietnam. My dad was an enlisted man; he joined the military right out of high school to escape the poverty that comes from having an alcoholic step-father and no real options in the deep south town of Bastrop, LA, other than working at a local paper mill where lots of guys went after high school.

My dad was big enough in high school that he could have played football – and probably could have gotten a scholarship to play in college. But his mother wouldn’t let him play – she was afraid he would get hurt! So the military became his ticket out of town. He used to joke that he squeezed four years of college into 17 years…that’s how long it took him to get his bachelor’s degree.

And I remember when he graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with that degree – it was during the time I was in college. And he wasn’t done yet…he continued on and in a few more years earned his masters as well, all while serving in the Air Force. When he retired after 23 years, he had also achieved the highest rank that could be achieved by a non-commissioned officer at that time, the rank of Chief Master Sergeant.

But mostly what I was thinking about last Sunday afternoon, while I was cleaning off his marker, was how much that simple military marker symbolized his whole life. He lived simply because he had a wife and four kids; he sacrificed a great deal to be faithful to his family, and also to go to school all those years.

I remember right after he and my mom got married (I was nine, my brothers were six); we moved to Duluth, MN, and he always worked a second job to makes ends meet, while my mom stayed home and took care of us kids (including my little sister who came along later). He worked at a Burger Chef and a Target store when he wasn’t doing his job for the Air Force as a meteorologist.

He didn’t have expensive hobbies or toys. He would occasionally go bowling, and he did find time to play in a league at Offutt A.F.B. once or twice, and time to play on his church softball team.

His education paid off, and after he finally retired from the military, he started working for Harris Corporation in Bellevue, going back to work at Offutt doing computer programming. He and my mom were able to build a comfortable home, and he was finally making a real salary.

He only lived in that house for around five years when cancer took his life. And for a long time after that, whenever I would see a retired couple traveling together – in an RV or somewhere together on vacation - I would think about how he never got to do those things with my mom. Sometimes it just didn’t seem fair.

But he left a legacy of serving his country, his family and his church. He left a legacy of faith. He would usher at church almost every Sunday, and also served on various committees. I know he and my mom were strong financial supporters of their church. When he wasn’t ushering, if I was standing next to him in church during a hymn, I’d hear his monotone voice; my dad would sing even though he only hit the right note occasionally – and once in awhile it even sounded like he found a harmony note there for a measure or so!

But he would sing; he would worship God with the voice he was given…I’m sure God was pleased.

(This used to amaze me, because he could whistle a tune - any tune, like crazy - and whistled a lot around the house! But he couldn’t sing a note!)

I tell you all this because, as I was cleaning off his grave marker, I was thinking how faithfully he lived, and how he left me an example to follow—and how often I fall so short of being the man he was. I know he wasn’t perfect, but he lived one of the most honorable lives I’ve ever seen…quietly, without fanfare, but it spoke, and still speaks, loudly to me. And his faith helped him do that.

And I resolved as I drove out of that cemetery to do my best to follow in his footsteps, to stay the course, to keep running the race honorably, even though the world tempts me so often to take an easier, more selfish road, and so often I give in to that.

My dad is a member of that great cloud of witnesses that we read about in Hebrews 12:1-2, which says:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

When the author writes, "so great a cloud of witnesses," he is referring back to all of Hebrews 11, in which he gives us example after example of those who lived by faith: Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, Moses’ parents (who hid him from Pharoah), and then Moses, the people of Israel crossing the Red Sea on dry land, Rahab the prostitute who repented and helped the men of Israel, also Gideon, David, Samuel, the prophets, who spoke faithfully for God over and over to an unfaithful society.

Like the men and women we honor this Memorial Day for their sacrifices for the liberty of their fellow Americans, these men and women in Hebrews 11 often proved their faith by sacrificing their lives to be faithful to God’s truth.

They are that great cloud of witnesses—not because they’re watching us—no, because we have their lives as a witness of how to live by faith in the face of persecution…we’re watching them; we’re looking at them, to see how to live by faith.

They encourage us to have courage when we want to shrink back and do what’s easy, when we’re tempted to just “go with the flow,” even though the flow of our culture is often destroying lives and breaking apart families and leading to financial ruin.

The writer encourages us not to lose heart; he encourages us to remember that Christ suffered for us—the just for the unjust—the same way that many of our military have given their lives for those who don’t appreciate it, or honor them.

But there IS a difference! Jesus suffering and death gives us a freedom that goes beyond all the freedoms we have as Americans - as wonderful and as precious as those freedoms are.

Jesus sets us free from all our past mistakes, all our selfishness that has hurt others, and all the offenses others have committed against us—those hurts and memories no longer have power to oppress and victimize us.

Jesus sets us free to live lives that are honorable and worthwhile. And yes, we may suffer in the process, like these folks listed in Hebrews 11…all of them suffered in some way because they chose to live by faith. But it was their faith that helped them stay true to God’s call, it was their faith that helped them leave a legacy for others to see and follow.

Jesus gave us all a gift of freedom that surpasses all human freedoms: the freedom to become the men and women God created us to be. The freedom from the curse of death, so that, though we suffer, and even die for our faith or for our nation, we know that we will live with Christ in the world to come, knowing glories and blessings that we cannot imagine today.

So thank you to all these who have gone on before us. Thanks to my dad, who embraced what Jesus did for him, and who then set a powerful, consistent example for me to follow—an example that raises the bar for me and encourages me to stay faithful.

As I remember him today, with this great cloud of witnesses, I’m struck again by the fact that he was, along with my grandfather, the greatest man in my life. For that, I thank him...I thank both of them.

There’s something else I forgot to tell you. Because I was nine when he and my mom got married, my brothers and I got used to calling him “Mac,” which was his nickname. Even after he adopted all three of us, we called him Mac - it’s just what we all were used to.

But as I tell you about him and honor him today, along with all our veterans, I want to say with respect, humility, and love,

“Thanks, Dad.”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Are We Stealing From Our Children?

No, I'm not referring to the federal deficit, although that's certainly a topic worthy of much more discussion (and a solution!).

So...what are we
- and by "we" I mean we Christians -
stealing from our children?

We are stealing from them the personal experience and blessing of God's gift of Sabbath rest.

The past few weeks I've talked to a number of other pastors, and we're all experiencing the same Sunday morning phenomenon: anemic worship attendance. These pastors, like me, serve congregations that are growing and seeing a regular influx of new people; a healthy percentage of our worship attendance every Sunday is first time guests or people who have started attending church with us in the past 3-6 months.

But many of our members aren't there (and neither are their children).

What each of these pastors know is that if many of our folks just added one more Sunday each month in worship attendance, we would see a 50% increase in worship attendance overall!

But I'm much more concerned about something else. I'm concerned about the heritage we're leaving to our children - or, more accurately, failing to leave to our children. Our children are not experiencing God's gift of Sabbath rest each week, one day out of seven - the way God designed it in the beginning of creation.

Not only are our adult lives driven and overscheduled and without balance or margin at the beginning of the 21st century...our kids lives are just as hectic. They are learning to live (or would that just be learning to survive?) at a pace that is unhealthy and against their nature.

God created us as creatures who require rest and renewal - physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, spiritually - in every dimension of our being. We have to sleep every night in order to function the next day - we will eventually collapse from exhaustion without sleep.

God also created us with a built in rhythm for rest - weekly; one day out of seven. And God said, "Do as I have done." God set the example by creating for six days (however you choose to measure those days), then resting the seventh day, and consecrated it, making it holy (set apart for other purposes).

Yes, God created work - please understand: work is good! God's work in creation is good; our work in creating and using our gifts and talents and skills is good! Our lives are significant in part because of our work - given to us by our Creator BEFORE the was always part of God's design for us, even in Eden. 

But God says work isn't everything; it doesn't completely define you or me. God gave us "Sabbath" - this day of rest - as a gift. He commands us...but also gives us permission, to stop our daily work, our daily activity, our regular schedule, whatever that looks like.


Cease and desist! Put down your tools, set aside your pen, close your laptop, shelve your books. 

The purpose of this stopping is so that we can fulfill an important purpose for which we were created, "to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Here's the problem:

Our children are being robbed of this blessing - to fulfill their most important purpose, and to enjoy their most important relationship.

Instead of being taught this rhythm of Sabbath rest and receiving the renewal and blessings that come with it, we - we Christian parents - are letting the kids sleep in if they don't feel like going to church or Sunday school. Or we're letting sports interfere with Sunday morning worship. Or we're choosing to "worship God" on the lake, or at the amusement park, or at the relatives (who aren't taking us to church with them on Sunday, either).

It gives me no pleasure to write this, but understand this: God will judge us - Christian parents! - in this area. Have we been faithful in modeling for our kids and giving them the gift of Sabbath rest and worship?

But just as sobering as God's judgment is the loss our kids are experiencing right now as they rush from one activity/one commitment/one responsibility to another...without knowing that they have permission to rest.

How sad. And how wrong of us to take this from them.

Isn't it amazing? If we rob God (of his glory and worship on Sundays), we also rob our children (of rest, renewal and a deeper relationship with God). And if we bless God (in worship on Sundays) we also bless our children with these gifts for which they were created. Either way, when we do the one, we also do the other!

I'll be addressing this topic again for the next two Sundays (May 16 and 23) as we continue to consider The Rest of Your Life: Creating Balance, Margin and Peace.

I invite you to be there to learn more about the blessings of God's gift of rest for you and your children, and also learn ways to unplug in the midst of our hectic, exhausting culture. 

Stay connected,

Pastor Mike