Not Surprised . . . But Very Sad

A school shooting.

On Valentine’s Day.

Seventeen fatalities; 15 wounded.

Students walked past the bodies of classmates as they evacuated the building.

Scores of families devastated.

Hundreds of lives changed forever.

Evil is alive and well. Since Genesis 4 humans have killed humans in anger. As much as we would like to think we are advancing the human race not much has changed. Hatred and animus still produce unspeakable violence.

But we should not be surprised.

Satan’s job description is to “steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:10) Until hearts turn away from individualism and selfishness we will continue to witness terrible atrocities. People will die senseless deaths.

As Followers of Jesus we are once again presented with an opportunity to respond with grace and love. We are called to love one another. We are called to love like God loves.

Let’s avoid the “pat answers” and, instead, respond to the latest tragedy with thoughtful consideration. Let’s listen to the pain of others and be careful to empathize with their confusion. As Followers of Jesus, let’s avoid being judgmental and critical and focus on inviting people to join us on this journey of knowing God and being known by Him.

The “breaking news” is that the world is broken. But our hope is in God who is our fortress and protector in times of trouble. We take refuge in Him. (See Psalm 37)

Focus on God’s Plans

My expectations, my hopes, my choices seem so important to me. Even for the Christ-follower the temptation is to list objectives and set schedules that are all about the little trinity – me, myself, and I.

1. Looking back on the past year I recognize that many of my plans were blown away like sand but the ones that survived were formed through prayer, the Word of God, and trusted advisers. Psalm 33:11 says. “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

2. I am testing all goals, objectives and schedules based on Proverbs 16:9, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” I need to make sure God is in the center – not me.

3. When working on those items which are personal, I keep coming back to Galatians 5:22-26, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” It seems ridiculously obvious that if this fruit is evident in my character, the result will be humility, faithfulness, and obedience.

Let’s be purposeful in making Christ the center. Practically, this means we look for how to join what God is already doing; participate in His plans and resist the temptation to ask God to bless our plans.

The focus is God’s plans for me not my plans for God.

Difficult. Tough. Stressful. Complicated. Disappointing.

Was 2017 a hard year? I’ve seen a lot of social media posts where people have described the past year as stressful and painful and expressed great hope that 2018 will be better.

David, the great king of ancient Israel, experienced severe times in his life and in Psalm 69 he left us a record of his plea for help.  He writes (my paraphrase), “God help me! I’m about to go under; the tide is working against me and death by drowning in my own troubles is an almost certainty. My voice is hoarse and almost gone from calling for help and I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open. God, with you I can’t deny the fact that most of these troubles are the consequences of my foolishness, the result of selfishness, pride, lust, and anger. You know all about me. There’re no secrets with You.”

And then David shifts the narrative.

“God, may all the people around me – family, friends, neighbors – who are following You be protected from my foolishness. Don’t let them be discouraged or disgraced as they seek to live in Your presence.” (My paraphrase.)

That’s it. That’s what my focus needs to be for 2018.

Yes, there will be trouble and hardship, difficulties and pain; but there will also be hope and joy, fulfillment, goodness, abundance, and love!

I don’t want the people around me to be detoured in following Jesus because of me. Instead I pray they will be encouraged because I am following Jesus – no matter the circumstances, emotions, or frustrations. Let’s follow Jesus better.

December 31 – “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.”

Read: Luke 2:39-40

God’s great work is hidden within the normal routine of life. If this was true of Jesus it is certainly true of us. There are ancient fairy-tale-like stories of what Jesus was like as a boy. In make-believe fashion they describe a precocious character who resorted to magic whenever it struck his fancy. Those who wrote and believed such stories are like Christians today who fantasize, sensationalize and spiritualize every aspect of life. They live in a spiritual disney-land of their own making. God lives and works in the real world. We should not forget that Jesus grew up in Nazareth.

Christian service makes sense. Real faith in God does not need promotional gimmicks or publicity. Authentic Christianity understands humble service, inner strength, quiet resolve, disciplined growth and the sacrifice of praise. Joy characterizes the life of the Christian who does not live from hype to hype but from grace to grace. It is in the routine of life with all of its tensions and tedium that we witness to the glorious grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, give us patience and endurance to serve You faithfully in our Nazareth. Help us to grow and become strong in You and in Your love. We want to be filled with Your wisdom. May Your grace be upon us. Amen.

December 30 – “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Read: Matthew 2:13-18

The Bible reports an atrocity. The Bethlehem massacre of innocent children burdens the Christmas story with pain. The good news of great joy becomes a loud wail from young mothers in Bethlehem. Historians estimate the number of actual victims to be around twenty-five. Bethlehem was a small town of perhaps two thousand inhabitants. There may have been fifty children under two years old only half of whom were boys. But who can estimate the pain and sorrow of one mother whose son was ripped from her arms and murdered?

Joseph and Mary were forewarned. They fled for Egypt. Other families were unaware of the pending doom. Suddenly a pounding on the door in the predawn hours and screams in the village meant terror and horror. This Bible reading does not encourage a devotional feeling and does not answer all of our questions. If we are at all sensitive we are left in pain. We cry out “Why! Why did you have to let this happen God!” And the only answer we are given is Jesus. He is already heading toward the cross. Evil must be overcome.

Prayer: Save us, Lord, from thinking that the Christian faith is anything but a life and death struggle. The power of evil threatens to overwhelm us. We know that ultimate victory is secure. You have conquered sin and death through the sacrifice of the cross and the power of the resurrection. But we struggle amidst atrocities of all kinds waiting for Your redemption. Amen.


It was snowing when I got up at 5 this morning. There wasn’t much snow at my house but the roads got worse and the snow increased by the time I arrived at church in Ottumwa. My daughter, Joy and Lori Eldrenkamp did an awesome job decorating this year and took everything over-the-top with tables in the Commons stacked with sweet treats. Levi and the worship team and Chad in media were fantastic. It wasn’t a production or a performance; it was worship. Christmas Eve worship.

Serving the people of Northgate Church and our community is my priority; the focal point of my time and attention. I’m well into my fourth year and I don’t have any regrets; I am so grateful to God for this ministry. I still get up each morning with a heart full of anticipation for what God is about to do!

The highlight of the year was the wedding of Peter and Heather on April 9. What a great celebration! And they are expecting a baby boy April 23, 2018!

Kari Beth & Jeremy and their girls, Sarah & Natalie are doing well – I just don’t get to see them often enough. That’s a function of me being a pastor and Kari doing kids ministry at their church. Weekends are full.

Since I only live a few miles up the road, I do get to see Joy and Tony and their boys, Brady, Broc, Brandt, and Bo. Brady is a freshman and got a part in the High School play this Fall and I helped with the production – my 24th year. Some people go hunting; I help with High School Speech, Drama, and Theater.

The best event in 2017 is also the most difficult. TJ, the associate pastor I got to work with for the past three years, was offered a position at a church in the Denver suburb of Parker. I was/am so thrilled for him! As of the end of September, he is the Teaching Pastor at Crossroads Community Church; a great church and an awesome opportunity. I miss him. But I know this is also an opportunity for Northgate Church so we are trusting God as we pray daily for the right person to join our team.

This Advent season, I’ve been struck, once again, with the extraordinary courage of King Jesus who willingly left behind all the glory, power, majesty, and praise of Heaven to come to earth as a helpless baby born into utter poverty. That’s the kind of King I want to follow.

December 29 – “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Read: Matthew 2:1-12

Who would have thought that on the night that shepherds were startled by an angelic host, a group of sages, probably from Babylonia, were excitedly sighting a star. With their Ph.D’s in astrology and a keen sense of Jewish culture (Numbers 24:17) they examined the skies nightly in search of heaven and earth’s mysteries. Indeed, God’s grace connects with people in unusual ways.

This entourage of Eastern sages made their way to Jerusalem in the hope that they could link their astrological find with an historical person. They came prepared to pay homage to the new king of Israel. The masses of people in Jerusalem were apathetic, or as in the case of Herod, hostile to such a search for meaning.

From beginning to end the whole account of the magi and their homage to Jesus is extraordinary. Their insight and openness puts to shame those who should have known. They are a sign to us, as they were to Matthew, that Jesus is more than a Jewish King. He is the Savior of the world.

Prayer: O Father, You are sovereign over all the world. In You there is no East or West; no third world or first world; no closed country or open country. Your grace knows no limitations. We worship You, Lord of the Universe, Hope of the world. How Your creation cries out for release! Amen.

December 28 – “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Read: Luke 2:36-38

God’s timing through-out the biblical account of Christ’s birth is exceptional. From Zechariah to Anna the human drama is conducted by the Holy Spirit. Worship and wonder, understanding and assurance, comfort and confirmation pulsate through the human soul in rhythm with the will of God. Simeon’s downbeat is answered in Anna’s joyful note of praise and gratitude. It’s as if Annas whole life, her eighty-four years of life, has been waiting for this moment. The reward for years of spiritual discipline, worshiping night and day, fasting and praying, has been fulfilled.

Life cannot be measured primarily by getting things done. The value of Anna’s life is not calculated by totaling up the number of her grandchildren or the value of her estate. Efficiency was not a priority for Anna. She was not worn down by years of rushing here and there, putting in appearances, meeting everyone’s demands. At eighty-four she could still praise God and witness “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Prayer: Father, make us sensitive to the rhythm and pattern of holy living. Give us the discipline to center on Christ and the wisdom to measure our value by our devotion to You. Thank you for the example of Anna and the testimony of enduring praise. Amen.

December 27 – “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against…”

Read: Luke 2:21-35

The words of Simeon to Mary and Joseph reveal an important truth about the Christian life. Simeon suffers no illusion about the pain involved in following Christ. His words are far from polite or perfunctory. The silent night of peace and tranquility will be followed by the dark night of the soul. The path of this child leads to the cross. If you center your life in Jesus it will not be easy; “A sword will pierce your own soul.”

Simeon prepares us for the inevitable conflict between Christ and the world. Christ will be spoken against. Pharisees will curse him. Herod and Pilate will condemn him. People will turn away in mocking unbelief. Judas will betray him and a common criminal will scorn him. What was said to Mary and Joseph is true for us as well. Jesus continues to be a rock of offense even to those who call themselves Christians. There is no gospel of health and wealth in Jesus. Simeon would have no patience with the “take life easy, eat, drink and be merry” kind of Christian.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for Simeon’s up-front spiritual direction. Prepare us for the heartache involved in following You when those we love continue to reject You. May our devotion to You be honest and open enough that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Amen.

December 26 – “He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

Read: Luke 2:21-35

The worship and work of Christmas continues beyond a special day of gifts and food. The first Christmas was free of sentiment and nostalgia but filled with revelation and promise. There were no accumulated habits and traditions that distanced Mary and Joseph from the real world. They suffered no emotional hang-over after Christmas day. There were no huge credit card bills or overdrawn bank accounts. Christmas was the commencement of a life filled with challenge, heart-break and commitment.

Each day is now measured in reference to the reality of Christ. On the eighth day they fulfilled the angel’s command and named their newborn son, Jesus. Some forty days later they entered the temple with their sacrifice to consecrate Jesus. They followed the
rhythm and pattern laid down by the Law and God used their obedience as an occasion for revelation. Simeon was late for Christmas until he saw Jesus and took him up in his arms. He saw in him what only the Holy Spirit could have revealed. “Blessed are you, Simeon, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you.” In this little child Simeon saw by faith the fulfillment of God’s promise. “For my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Prayer: Father, teach us to number our days the way Simeon did that we may gain a heart of wisdom. May our plans and hopes revolve around You, O Lord. May we see Your light of revelation and behold Your glory. Help us not to fall back into an existence that lives without promise or hope. Amen.

Encouragement to follow Jesus better!