St Johns Lutheran Church Willow Creek

Connecting People to Jesus in Rural Minnesota

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War

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Pastor John Bennett
If you’ve paid much attention to the news in the past few years, perhaps you’ve noticed that the 1st Amendment right guarantying the free exercise of religion isn’t as free as it used to be. In fact, there seems to be an all-out war that is being waged against the Christian faith by liberal activist organizations and even federal judges. Most notable have been two separate issues involving religious freedom. The first involves several recent court decisions have made it unlawful for business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples on the basis of their religious convictions by labeling such refusals of service as discrimination. The other involves issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obama-care, requiring employers to provide health coverage that includes contraceptives.

To date multiple suits have been filed in federal court challenging this requirement. The most notable is the case regarding Hobby Lobby. On the basis of religious convictions the owners of Hobby Lobby have refused to offer contraceptives, and as a result have been heavily penalized by the Obama administration. But the issue isn’t just about contraceptives. The law requires a broad range of coverage including devices and drugs that don’t prevent conception, but rather cause the miscarriage of an embryo, such as the “Morning After Pill,” and are in essence a category of medicine referred to as abortifacients. For those with firm pro-life convictions on the basis of faith, such as the owners of Hobby Lobby, this is a problem.

But the attacks against people of faith doesn’t stop there. Whether it’s court rulings from activist judges, bills on Capitol Hill that attack Christian liberty, or the blatant mockery from the entertainment industry, there’s a war being waged against the Christian faith. Even the passing of the new “anti bullying” bill in Minnesota is an attack on the Christian faith, for it requires children to be taught that same-sex unions are acceptable, which plainly defies the teachings of the Christian faith.

But in the midst of all this, I did come across a ray of hope. Last week, while going in to browse at Scheel’s, I came across the sign below. It’s refreshing to find that a local business is bold in proclaiming the Resurrection of our Lord!

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Habits

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Pastor John Bennett
Ok, so it’s been a while since I last posted anything besides an occasional weather-related cancellation. I’ve gone the first 35 years of my life without being a blogger, so it’s something that I just need to intentionally develop into a habit. But that’s the thing about habits, they can be good or bad. Right now I’m working on developing the habit of being a blogger, and that’s a good thing. Not to say not being a blogger is a bad habit, far from it. But setting out to establish something that’s good and make it habitual is a good thing.

This brings me to an important subject for followers of Jesus Christ—prayer. Prayer habits, like any other habits in life, can be good or bad. As an example, if a person only prays in times of need, that’s a bad prayer habit. Even though it’s good to pray and our gracious God deeply desires that we come before Him in prayer, if a person only comes before God in prayer when they need something, that would be tantamount to a child only talking to their parents when they need something.

When it comes to prayer habits I’m of the opinion that there are very few of God’s people that actually pray as they should. After all, Paul does say “pray without ceasing.” I’ve heard of a few who have humbly admitted when asked that they pray for hours at a time, several times a day. I must confess I’m not one of those people, and I’m not sure if I could pray for hours at a time. But imperfect people that we are, it is possible to develop decent habits in our prayer life. To put it into a single sentence, good prayer habits include daily prayer that not only speak of our needs and wants, but of sincerest praise and thanksgiving and intercessions on behalf of those in need, Christ’s Church on earth, our nation, and our world.

If you’re looking to learn more about prayer, join us starting this Sunday for a sermon series titled “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.” This series will feature the Lord’s Prayer and will focus not only on how this beautiful prayer is a dear treasure given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, but how the Lord’s Prayer provides us a model for all our prayers. May the joy of salvation encourage you towards a stronger prayer life!

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Spam

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Pastor John Bennett

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Spam”? Last year I had the opportunity to drive a bus load of students from Austin High School up to the Target center to watch their boys basketball team play in the state championships. While waiting for passengers to load, I stepped outside the bus and was almost immediately overwhelmed by a rather putrid smell. Out of curiosity I asked someone what the smell was, to which they replied, “Oh, that’s the Hormel factory, you know, where they make Spam.” I thought, “If that’s how bad the factory smells, imagine what it tastes like!” Then I remembered my first taste of Spam. For everyone there’s typically only one of two responses: either, “I’ve died and gone to heaven,” or the more likely, “I think I’m going to die.” I fit into the latter category.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know there’s some people who enjoy Spam, perhaps some of you reading this post. Whatever your opinion of it, Spam will always have the following reputation: you aren’t quite sure of what’s in it, and you’d rather not know, even though by the list of ingredients it seems harmless. It’s exactly this reputation that’s led to the use of the word “Spam” in reference to another part of our life: email.

Those messages that we’re not quite sure of, and would rather not know of their   contents have commonly been labeled “Spam.” They clog up our Inbox, consuming our time as we have to filter through them and perhaps becoming an unhealthy distraction if we bother to read them, since sometimes the contents of “Spam” messages contain material that’s immoral or inappropriate.

But there’s another kind of “Spam” that can have a negative impact on our lives, what I would call, for lack of a better term, “Spiritual Spam.” Spiritual Spam includes all those things in our lives that distract us from having a healthy focus on our spiritual life. If you get to the end of the day and you haven’t taken the time to reflect on the Word or to come before our God in prayer, chances are, you’re spending too much time being bogged down by “Spiritual Spam.”

Just like your inbox needs a good spam filter, so also your faith life needs some filtering once in a while. Though it’s good for us to have healthy distractions to life’s often overwhelming circumstanced, the best way to filter out those things that prevent us from having a healthy focus on our spiritual life is to make our prayer and devotional life a priority. When our faith life has as its primary importance and is focused on our Savior and on Scripture, not only are those normally healthy distractions considered as of secondary importance in our lives, but we are also strengthened through the Holy Spirit, working through the Word, to filter out the “Spiritual Spam” that is unhealthy, inappropriate, and perhaps even immoral.

There will still be times in our lives where “Spiritual Spam,” including even those distractions that are sinful, will distract us from a proper prayer and devotional life. However, we are also comforted knowing that we are forgiven by the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary’s cross and strengthened by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, given by our resurrected Lord for the nurturing of our faith and the daily guidance that we need to navigate through this life. Ultimately, a little “Spam” in our life isn’t going to hurt anything, at least that “Spam” which doesn’t consist of sinful behavior. But first let yourself be filled with the spiritual meat of God’s Word, and once you have been satisfied, then stuff yourself with all the healthy spam you can stomach.

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Worn

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Pastor John Bennett
Worn. Not only is it a great song by the group “Tenth Avenue North,” but it’s a simple 1-word description of how we feel after we’ve pushed ourselves too hard for too long. If I look back on my life over the last ten days, it’s not much more than an exhausting blur. Last Tuesday Mary Alice stayed home sick from school, so I took care of her during the day and worked late at night. Wednesday was spent finishing what I had planned for Tuesday, as well as Wednesday. Thursday was normal, Friday the stomach flu, Saturday still recovering while writing the sermon that I had intended to write on Friday. Thank the Lord that He saw fit to send bad weather on Sunday and provide a day of literal rest for me, school cancelled on Monday and Kerrie woke up with the stomach flu, thus my day was spent taking care of the children so Kerrie could rest, thus no time to work. Tuesday Ben was home sick with a fever, Tuesday night was a trip to the emergency room because the fever wasn’t coming down, he was lethargic, and his lips were looking a little blue; Wednesday involved a run to Belle Plaine to visit a dying child of God, plus getting all the work done I had initially planned for Tuesday and Wednesday. Today’s Thursday, Ben is still home with a fever that looks to have just about run it’s course, and chances are the bulk of any work I’ll do today will be reserved for his nap time and later tonight. Needless to say, I’m worn. Now don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not complaining, I’m learning through prayer and devotion to see such situations not as burdens but as blessings, and I thank God and rejoice in the strength He’s so generously and graciously provided to carry me through it all.

What I am doing here is illustrating a point: the human body is much like a machine, push it too hard without providing any maintenance and something is bound to give out. Ask any of the athletes competing in the Winter Olympics and they will assure you that the necessity of bodily rest to insure adequate performance is absolute, and our bodies will often tell us when we’re pushing them too hard. If we ignore the warning signs, whether those signs are fatigue, pain, cardiovascular irregularities, or any number of symptoms, the consequences can be significant. The body needs its rest, and it is absolutely necessary for physical health.

But how do you know when your soul is worn, when your spiritual health has become stretched dangerously thin? There aren’t any physical symptoms to warn us when we’re depriving our souls adequate rest and in danger of real, spiritual illness. St. Paul tells us that we’re daily surrounded by an atmosphere that can make a soul worn: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) Our souls need rest if we’re to make it through the battle that rages all around us, which is why Paul concludes, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day.” (Eph. 6:13)

Ironically, the “whole armor of God” is also a means of rest for our souls. To summarize what Paul says of this armor, it is the truth and righteousness of God; it is the Gospel of peace; it is faith and salvation; it is the Holy Spirit, working in and with God’s Word. Those very things that prepare us for battle and defend us against the evil one are the same things through which our soul finds rest. There is also a specific place where we can, in one place, receive all these blessings: in our worship. When we gather together as children of God in His holy house, there is a very special rest that our souls receive. It is in worship that we are able to unload the baggage of our souls, the sins that weigh us down, and in exchange receive forgiveness. It is in worship where we are fed with God’s Word, with the Sacrament of the Altar, and our spirits are lifted as we sing our praises to our Savior and lay our burdens at the foot of His cross. Sure, I understand that there are often circumstances in people’s lives that make it difficult or impossible to be in worship on Sunday mornings, but when the opportunity is available to you, take it! There is no substitute that can compare to the quality of rest that you receive in your soul than that which is to be found in the House of the Lord!

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:28-39)

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God’s Mercy and His Promises are Eternal

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Pastor John Bennett

I have to admit I don’t always feel like writing. In fact, I often go for extended periods where I would be perfectly content writing nothing at all, hence the reason it’s been more than a week since my previous post. Though I don’t advertise it, I suffer from clinical depression, and as luck would have it, your typical anti-depressants have side-effects that I find absolutely intolerable. But I know I’m not alone in my plight. Not too long ago I participated in a facebook conversation with some fellow pastors I knew from my seminary days, many who also suffered from depression. Of course this isn’t something that affects just pastors, but according to recent studies approximately 1 in 10 Americans suffer from depression. Why is that?

Of course there’s the psychological or genetic explanations, but the simple, biblical explanation boils down to one little word: sin. Yes, depression, emotional suffering, anxiety, all mental disorders, not to mention all human suffering, are all caused by sin. Thank you Adam & Eve! And now this is about the point when you’re thinking, “Ok Pastor, no big deal, we’ve all heard that before. Tell me something else!”

Well, the truth is, everyone at some point has a bad day. All statistics aside, it’s part of the reality of being alive. Call it depression, call it getting the blues, call it whatever you like, everyone, at some point, whether occasionally or frequently, gets depressed. But God, in His mercy, reminds us that He is still with us and that His promises are eternal. As an example, Friday started out as a not-so-spectacular day for me. I can’t fully explain it, it just sucked. But on my way home after dropping my son off at grandma’s house, something unusual happened. Without a cloud in the sky, with the sun shining brightly, there it was, plain as day, a rainbow. Though it happens from time to time, it’s not often that a rainbow is seen on a clear and sunny day. Spare me the scientific explanation, even though it was a bit faint, it was easy to see. Seeing that rainbow actually helped. I felt as if God had placed it there to remind me that He is the one who is in control, to remind me that no matter how bad a day I might have, how difficult at times things might be, or how bad I just want to crawl back into bed and not deal with life, that He still loves me, that He has sent His Son Jesus to show me just how much He does love me, and that this life, though filled with it’s challenges, is a gift from Him. Jesus has dealt with my sin once and for all upon the cross, and this promise is forever.

From Genesis 9: “I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

God promised that He would never deal with sin again in such a way. Rather than visiting destruction upon all humanity, He visited destruction upon His Son, that those who trust in Him should never experience eternal destruction, but rather share in the eternal glory of heaven. For that, I can keep putting up with bad days. The eternal day of glory will come soon enough, and it will be worth the wait.

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What Does it Mean to Live the Christian Life?

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Pastor John Bennett

This question is one that we don’t hear too often in Lutheran circles, but if you tune in to your local Christian radio station, you’ll find that much of the message focuses on how Christians should live there lives. Hopefully you’ll also hear the Gospel that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and your Savior, crucified and risen for your salvation, but that isn’t always the central focus. But hearing a message about how we as Christians are to live isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Jesus does say “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” So what does this mean for you?

The criticism is sometimes made of Lutherans that there is little or no emphasis on sanctification, or in layman’s terms, Christian living. I find this criticism to be inaccurate. It’s not that Lutherans don’t talk about Christian living, but that Lutherans have a different understanding of how Christian living is defined than do many other main-stream Christian churches. The Lutheran understanding is that Christian living and good works are a response to the love of Jesus Christ, prompted by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, enriched through the study of God’s Word, and done for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God.

As we begin the year, how can we have a richer understanding of what it means to live the Christian life? A perfect starting place is God’s Word. I challenge everyone to spend more time this year in God’s Word. An excellent resource is YouVersion, which provides reading plans and audio Bibles in several versions, and even a mobile app which will allow you to listen to your daily readings while you’re on the go. I do a lot of driving, so the mobile app is great for me and gives me the opportunity to listen to the Word on a regular basis.

May the Lord Jesus and the Word of God enrich your daily lives!