Category Archives: Encouraging Words From Dick Koehneke

Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn

By Dick Koehneke

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for

human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  (James 1:19-20)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was the perfect listener.  Examine the four Gospels.  Look closely at his interactions with people.  People said many things to Jesus.  Sometimes they asked questions of information.  Sometimes they made requests for help.  On occasion they gave him thanks and praise.  Or they made statements, or tried to trick him, or even falsely accused him of wrongdoing.  In every case, Jesus responded with exactly what was needed by the other person – not always what they wanted, but always what they needed.  He was able to respond to people perfectly, because he really listened to the other person: not only to hear what was being said, but also for the deep meaning behind the words being spoken. 

Sometimes he responded with a direct answer, other times with teaching.  Often he would ask a question of the other person, or tell a story to make a point.  There were times when he spoke words of conviction and confrontation.  He always did or said exactly what the other person needed.  He was the perfect listener.

He still is!  You can go to Jesus with whatever is in your mind or on your heart, and you can be certain that he is listening.  You can be sure that he will respond in his perfect will for you, to give you what you really need – not always what you want, but what you really need – not only for right now, but for the future; not only for the future, but for eternity. 

As followers and friends of Jesus, powered by his Spirit, our heart’s desire is to be like him.  We want to follow his example, walking in his steps on the way to heaven.  Here is some wisdom from God’s Word: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  (James 1:19-20)

Have you ever noticed that God gave us two ears but only one mouth?  Did you ever wonder what it means that the resting position of the mouth is closed, but that your ears are naturally open?  Maybe God is trying to tell us to learn to listen.

Someone has said, “When you’re talking, you’re probably not learning.”  We need to listen to learn.  Many a pointless argument has begun over a simple misunderstanding of meaning.  When the other person says something you don’t like, ask, “What do you mean?”  Or you could say, “Why do you say that?”  Don’t just respond to what you think they said. 

If the other person’s comments are getting you upset, don’t respond out of anger.  You might say,  “I’m not very comfortable with this conversation.” Maybe you can explain why you’re feeling uncomfortable.  Maybe the two of you will agree to suspend that particular conversation until another time.  You might agree to switch subjects, and you may even agree to disagree!

I try to remember this little saying:  “If you say everything that’s on your mind in a moment of anger, you will probably make the very best speech you will ever live to regret!”  We need to get control of our words so that our words build up, not tear down; so that we speak words that create, not destroy; words that heal, not harm.  “O Lord, may my words today be sweet and tender, for tomorrow I may have to eat them!”

As we think about the people in our lives, let’s ask God to help us LEARN TO LISTEN and LISTEN TO LEARN, always with Christ-like LOVE in our hearts.   

Absent Members

By Dick Koehneke

Most (if not all) congregations struggle with the issue of absent members:  people whose names are on the membership roster but who rarely if ever participate in worship.  Here are a few thoughts on the subject. 

  1. What’s in a name?

Congregations use different terms to describe their absent members.  “Wayward” means straying or wandering.  “Delinquent” is a word with criminal overtones.  “Inactive” puts the focus on activity and performance.  We know they are not present in worship.  They are “absent.”  That’s what we know.  Usually we don’t know why, because we never see them.  Maybe they are hurting or struggling.  They may be absent due to illness, accident, shame, problems in school, relational strife, depression, disappointment with the pastor, or a sense of alienation from the congregation.  As the saying goes, “Some people don’t go to church because of those who do.”   

  1. In most congregations the Board of Elders is the group that carries out ministry to absent members. What is your motive in this ministry?
  • Do your duty as an elder?
  • Clean up the membership roster?
  • Improve the church’s financial condition?
  • Show the person that he or she has been negligent?
  • Understand the person and his/her situation and feelings? The person has a reason for being absent that probably makes sense to them. 
  1. What is your goal in this ministry?
  • Report that you have made contact with the person?
  • Get the person to decide if he/she is a member or not?
  • Care for the person and address his/her real needs?
  • Do we want to “seek the lost sheep” or “shake the dust off our feet”?
  • If you were an absent member, how would you hope to be treated?
  1. How would you define success in this ministry?

Success is doing what pleases  God.  What pleases God is Christ-like love:  doing what is best for the other person.  Do we view the person as a problem to be solved or a person to be loved?

  1. What about calling this a ministry of “special care” or “intensive care”?
  1. God creates and sustains faith through His Word and Sacraments. That’s a key theological reason for doing absent member ministry.  Absence from the Word and Sacraments threatens faith and could weaken or even destroy it. (That’s why we regularly bring Communion to shut-in members.)  In the physical realm, people who are dying of hunger are no longer hungry, because their bodies are shutting down.  The same is true when it comes to faith.  When faith is weakening, there is less of a felt need for the Word and Sacraments.  A second theological reason has to do with the relational nature of the Church.  We need each other.  As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” 
  1. It is critical to reach absent members in the early stages of absence, when they have been absent no more than four weekends in a row with no known reason.  Habits become harder and harder to break after four weeks, which is why most addiction inpatient rehabilitation periods are for 28 days.  It takes at least 28 days of treatment to establish a good habit of sobriety that can be maintained with regular support.  Start with the people who are most recently absent from worship.  There may be some exceptions to that approach, such as a long-time absent member who has gone through a crisis recently.  A life crisis can be a great opportunity for ministry to someone who has been absent.   
  1. Here’s an important question: What is the plan for supporting the absent member who returns to worship, so that he or she does not relapse?
  1. A ministry of intensive care calls for an accompanying ministry of intensive prayer by those who will be doing it: prayer for wisdom and discernment; prayer for God’s blessings upon the absent members; prayer for yourself as you make the contact, that you will be motivated by love and will be open to the needs of the other person; prayer for their minds and hearts to be open to receive your love and care.  If you are feeling angry or resentful or suspicious or condescending toward the other person, don’t make the contact.  Do whatever it takes to process those feelings and get rid of them.  You might pray, “Lord Jesus, love this person through me.  I want to be a clear channel for Your love.”  Then make the contact.    

Pray for one another that you do not become discouraged or perhaps even cynical as you do this important ministry.  Absent member ministry can be very challenging and potentially discouraging, especially if we are looking for quantifiable “results.”  Remember that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Each person is important to God, whether that person is a leader of the congregation or someone who has not been to worship for years.  Both you and that absent member are precious in God’s sight.    

  1. You are definitely doing what God is blessing as you seek the lost sheep, look for the lost coin, and long for the return of the child who left home – so that you can welcome that precious person back to the Father’s house. (Luke 15) Proceed with confidence and joy!

Aging Is the Solution

By Dick Koehneke

“Aging is the solution and not the problem.”  That’s a key sentence in a new book titled The End of Old AgeThe author is Dr. Marc Agronin.  He is a geriatric psychiatrist who has served since 1999 as the director of mental health services, clinical research, and the outpatient memory center at Miami Jewish Health in Miami, Florida. 

I think it’s so easy to become focused on (even obsessed with) the increasing physical limitations that come with age that we lose sight of the things that we gain as we age.  The physical body is the outer self that we can see, but what matters most is what’s on the inside.  For me it’s important to remember the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:16:  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”   

Aging has many advantages.  One of the main advantages of aging, Dr. Agronin writes, is the development of wisdom that comes as a result of learning, trial and error, failure, ambition, and the increasing nearness of death.  He defines five different forms or expressions of wisdom.

  • The savant possesses much knowledge and the ability to show it and share it.
  • The sage has good judgment and can guide others in their decision-making and problem-solving.
  • The curator (my word might be “caregiver”) possesses great empathy and connects emotionally with others.
  • The creator has rich imagination and actively works on creative endeavors.
  • The seer has deep spiritual insight and can offer guidance, support and inspiration.

Not all people demonstrate these qualities, he writes.  On the other hand, some people can show various qualities in different situations.  The point is that these expressions of wisdom develop only with age. 

To repeat a key thought:  “Aging is the solution and not the problem.”

A helpful concept for me is that of age points.  Dr. Agronin defines an age point as an event or situation that disrupts our initial ability to understand and cope with it.  It exposes a gap between the challenges of a life event and our existing strengths, values, skills, and connections.  We may feel stunned, uncertain, and paralyzed.  An age point exposes a weakness but is loaded with potential for tremendous growth.  He says that age points fall into four distinct stages:

  • Event: the circumstances strong enough to prompt an age point
  • Suspension: a period of profound uncertainty and perhaps paralysis
  • Reckoning: the process of confronting the gap between what we have and what we need
  • Resolution: a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling and doing that bridges the gap and allows us to regain our balance and move forward

Another rich insight is the concept of age culture.  Individually, your age culture is composed of all your abilities and experiences, Dr. Agronin says.  He says that to understand your own age culture, ask yourself these questions:

Who was I?  What have I learned, accomplished, and experienced in my past?  What are my essential

skills and expertise?  The answers represent your reserves of wisdom.

Who am I?  What do I spend most of my time doing, or with whom do I spend most of my time?  What are my current activities and passions?  The answers show you what your purpose in life is.

Who will I be?  What do I want to see, do, and experience in the future?  With whom do I want to spend my time?  What do I want to leave behind for others?  The answers tell you how you can renew or reinvent yourself.

The author devotes the final thirty pages to an action plan to help identify, develop, and optimize your age-given strengths and appreciate your own age culture.  The action plan consists of five basic steps:

  1. Define your reserve (defined and described earlier in the book).
  2. Examine your resilience (also presented previously).
  3. Consider pathways for renewal and reinvention.
  4. Consider your legacy.
  5. Plan a ritual or ceremony to celebrate your aging.

I’m not sure I have the inclination or the discipline to go through all the steps in the action plan.  The idea of a ritual or ceremony really doesn’t appeal to me.  If you decide to get the book, you may come to a different conclusion about the action plan.   

Dr. Agronin honestly and hopefully addresses the issue of dementia and/or physical impairment.  He shares a variety of positive possibilities for people in this “ninth stage” of life (a term drawn from the research of Erik Erikson).  He writes, “I have seen the stunning rejuvenation of individuals when newfound love or purpose comes along.  Even a tiny glimmer of hope combined with the recruitment of social supports can buffer and sometimes transform their profound loss and grief.  It is possible to thrive in the ninth stage with the help of others and a determination to work around barriers and identify the best approaches.”  Insights, observations, ideas and strategies about the “ninth stage” appear throughout the book.     

There is much more in Dr. Agronin’s book than I have written about here, including some very enlightening and encouraging case studies.  I appreciate his respect, appreciation and affection for people older than himself.  

This passage of Scripture comes to mind:  “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.  They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.’ ” (Psalm 92:12-15)   

Superficial or Supernatural

By Dick Koehneke

Superficial or Supernatural? (reflections on Ascension and Pentecost)

There were the apostles gathered with Jesus on the Mount of Olives.  They had just completed a 40-day intensive seminar on the kingdom of God, taught by the Son of God Himself.  But they still didn’t get the message.  They were expecting God’s kingdom to appear as a geopolitical entity with the Romans gone forever, Jesus on the throne, and the apostles as his cabinet, ruling over Israel as in the glory days of David and Solomon.  Listen to their question: “Lord, are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus’ response essentially was: “None of your business.  Wait for the Holy Spirit, and then you will be my witnesses throughout the world!”  With that, as Harry Wendt says, he gave them the greatest object lesson any teacher has ever given to a group of students.  He left them and ascended into heaven! 

Think about what Jesus said to those disciples – what he says to us as his disciples today:  “You shall be my witnesses!  You are going to tell the truth about me in the courtroom of the world.  In the face of all the lies that will be told about me, you will tell the world who I really am.  I’m counting on you to be witnesses on my behalf – credible, faithful witnesses; and by the way, you do not have the right to remain silent.  The life of the world depends on your testimony about me.”  Then he says:  “Wait for the Holy Spirit!”

What Jesus is saying is this:  Don’t try to do this yourself!  Don’t try to accomplish God’s work in mere human power.  It can’t be done!  You can’t do what God wants you do in the superficial power of self, but only by the supernatural power of the Spirit.  Unlike the apostles on the Mount of Olives, we have the Holy Spirit.  Thank God, the Spirit was given on Pentecost, ten days after the Ascension.  How do you know you have the Holy Spirit living in you?  If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you have the Holy Spirit.  You could not have that faith if the Holy Spirit had not created it in you.  Your faith in Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. 

So now we have a choice.  Which will it be?  The superficial power of self, or the supernatural power of the Spirit of God? 

There are three key reference points, key indicators that can tell you in which power you are operating.  The first key reference point is that of EVENTS.  If you are being guided and directed primarily by the events going on around you, if you are constantly reacting rather than initiating, if the news of the day and the actions of other people are pretty much dictating your decisions and actions, you are probably operating in the superficial power of self. 

The second key indicator or reference point is that of EMOTIONS.   If your internal feelings are your primary guide for decision-making, you are operating in the superficial power of self.  If you hear yourself thinking or saying words like these — “I just felt like” — “It just seemed to me that” —  “My feelings ran away with me, and I just couldn’t help myself” — look out!  That’s self-talk, not Spirit-talk.

The third key indicator is that of EXPRESSIONS:  sayings, proverbs, quotable quotes, words to live by.  We all have them:  words or phrases that guide us in decision-making.  It’s like there are recordings that start to play in our heads.  Here are some of those recordings, some expressions that come out of popular opinion, worldly wisdom, and the superficial power of self:  “Look out for good old number one!  Don’t get mad, get even!  Everybody else is doing it, why not me?”

We need to play some new recordings.  We need to get some new EXPRESSIONS from the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.   “Love one another as I have loved you.  I, the Lord, will never leave you or forsake you.  In everything God is at work for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  Those are the kinds of expressions we need to guide us in our decisions and actions — not popular opinion or worldly wisdom, but the powerful Word of the living God! 

We need to get some new EMOTIONS from the Holy Spirit.  The superficial power of self is all about anger, resentment, despair, envy, lust, greed, and all those other emotions and attitudes we know so well.  The supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is all about love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness and gentleness, self-control and hope.  Those are the kinds of emotions and attitudes we need to guide us in our decisions and actions.

There are some very important EVENTS that God wants to use to shape our thinking and decision-making:  the conception and birth of his beloved Son Jesus Christ — the pure and sinless life of Jesus, lived on our behalf — the words and works of Jesus Christ, demonstrating the true character of God and of sinless humanity — the God-forsaken, sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross, where the sin-debt of all humanity was paid, once and for all, including your debt and mine — the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his glorious ascension into heaven.

Because he ascended, Jesus Christ is no longer limited by time and space; he is with us always, in every circumstance, in every situation.  You don’t have to travel to Israel to speak with him.  He’s closer than your next heartbeat, nearer than your next breath.  Since he is one of us, he knows our deepest needs; since is almighty God, he is able to help us in all our trials and temptations.  He will come back in glory – perhaps today.  He says, “I came to earth to take your place.  I have gone to heaven to prepare your place.  I will come again to take you to that place, to be with me forever.” 

God’s Word says that the very same power of God that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavenly realms is at work in us to enable us to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives.  (Read Ephesians 1 and rejoice!)  We are no longer limited to the superficial power of self.  We have the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.  Why crawl when you can fly?  Which will it be:  superficial or supernatural?      

After the Crying

By Dick Koehneke

When I was a child, my parents had a German saying they said to us children when our playing started to get a little too rough.  The English translation is, “After the laughing comes the crying.”  The saying proved true all too often!

The message of Easter is just the opposite:  “After the crying comes the laughing.”  God’s Word says:  “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.  He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”  (Psalm 126:5-6)

Notice the words “tears” and “weeping” — not just frowning and scowling, but tears and weeping.  This is profound sorrow — deep sadness — the real thing.  Not just a rough patch or a bad day, but times of tragedy and catastrophe.  God’s Word does not avoid the subject of pain and sadness, because pain and sadness are unavoidable in life.

But notice also the words “songs of joy.”  Not just a smile or a happy face — not whispers of gladness, but songs of joy — real, exuberant, outrageous joy, pleasure and delight!  The psalm does not say, “He will return empty handed.”  It says he will return “carrying sheaves with him” — not just a stalk or two, but whole bundles of grain, as much as you can carry!  The harvest has come!  

When does the joyful harvest happen? It happens “after the crying.”  There is sadness in this fallen world.  Sorrow is a recurring and sometimes ongoing aspect of the sinful human condition.   Followers of Jesus are not insulated from suffering.  This is a sinful, wicked world, and we are smack dab in the middle of it.  When the whole picture is painted, when the whole story is told, when the clock of time ticks away its final second, the promise of Jesus in John 16:20 will come true finally and forever:  “Your sorrow will turn to joy!” 

Are you weeping because death has taken a loved one from you?  When my father died, my mother said she felt as though half of her body had been torn off.  The pain of grief can be excruciating. Sometimes it seems that the tears will never stop.  But here is the truth, straight from the Word of God: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:20)  Those who have died trusting in Christ are now with the Lord in heaven.  The Lord Jesus Christ is with you here on earth.  Jesus has your loved one by one hand and you with the other.  When the time comes, He will take you to be with Him, and the reunion with your loved one will be forever.  After the sorrow comes inexpressible joy.

Since we’re not in heaven yet, what do we do while we’re in this sorrowful, sorrow-filled world?  Keep planting good seed, even when you’re crying.  Psalm 126 says, “Those who sow in tears . . .” It says, “He who goes out weeping, carrying seed . . .”

Keep planting, even when you’re crying.  Scripture says, “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9)

Continue doing what is right, whether it is popular or not.  Keep honoring God, whether it is profitable or not.  Continue to obey God’s commands, whether it is convenient or not.  Keep trusting God’s promises, whether it is reasonable or not.  Be determined.  In fact, be stubborn about it!  Let’s see some sanctified stubbornness from the people of God.  Don’t give up because you don’t see results; we walk by faith, not by sight.  The wicked don’t get tired of doing evil!  Why should we get tired of doing good?  Keep planting good seed.

Perhaps there is sadness in your heart because you are trying to serve God, seeking to obey God’s commands, striving to do His will, and nothing seems to be working out.  The problem still exists; worse than that, people don’t seem to understand your actions.  They even attack your motives, accusing you of hypocrisy or weakness or self-righteousness.  God sees your heart.  God knows your motives.  God blesses faithfulness.  God honors obedience to His Word.  Keep planting, even when you’re crying.  

When will we see results?  When will the harvest come in?  It will come “at the proper time” — in God’s time, at the right time, in the fullness of time — not a moment before, not a moment after.  You don’t know when the harvest will come, but you know this:  You can’t harvest what you don’t plant.

Whatever God gives you to do, great or small, simple or complicated, public or private, do it with all your heart.  In your home, in your workplace, in school, in the community, wherever you are, however you feel, keep planting good seed to the glory of God.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ reminds us that our efforts are not pointless or wasted.  St. Paul was a man who knew something about trouble and suffering.  Here is what he has to say at the close of his majestic chapter on the resurrection:  “Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:57-58)  

“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.  He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”  “After the crying comes the laughing.”  That’s our heavenly Father’s promise to His dear children.  After Good Friday, Easter came.  Christ has ascended, and Christ will return.  We will see Him again, and our sorrow will turn to joy.  By faith in Christ, that joy is ours even now, today! 

Why?  Because THE LORD HAS RISEN!  HE IS RISEN INDEED!  HALLELUJAH!

Gain from Pain

By Dick Koehneke

In many congregations last weekend (the second Sunday in Lent), the Epistle was from Romans chapter 5.  In the first five verses the apostle Paul says that we are able to rejoice in our sufferings.  He goes on to say that suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope; and hope does not disappoint us, because we know that God loves us.  The cross of Christ proves that God loves us.  The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the source of our hope and our joy.

What is suffering?  Suffering is anything that hurts.  It includes physical pain and illness, but not only that.  Suffering can come because of rejection – grief – financial problems – disappointment – loneliness – and more.  Suffering is anything that hurts in any area of your life.

By God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in us, pain can lead to gain.  Suffering can produce some valuable results for our faith and life.  Here are some that occur to me on the basis of God’s Word.  When we experience pain and hardship of any kind:

  1. We learn to trust God’s grace and not our works. Our relationship with God can become performance-oriented and production-driven. When that happens, we start to labor under the pressure of earning God’s favor, an impossible task.  Suffering can reduce our capacity to perform.  God’s grace removes the pressure to produce.  We put our trust in God, not ourselves.   

“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

  1. We discover or re-discover the faithfulness of God. Suffering doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us. His character is changeless.  He is with us and for us all the time, not only in the good times.

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ ” (Lamentations 3:19-24)

  1. We become less attached to this passing world. When things are going well, it’s easy to think this world is our home. We can forget that we are pilgrims here.  Our home is in heaven with God.

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)

  1. We look forward to the glory that is to come. Romans 8:18 does not trivialize our pain but points us to the magnificence of our future glory in the presence of God. Heaven is not “a better place.”  The word “better” implies comparison.  There is no comparison.   

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  (Romans 8:18)

  1. We learn to appreciate the concern and care that we receive from others. We learn the skill of receiving care.  Our need for help gives the people around us an opportunity to exercise their love muscles, and that’s a good thing for them to do.

“I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.  Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.”  (Philippians 4:10, 14)

  1. We develop greater compassion for others who are hurting. When you have gone through something painful, you understand how it feels. God can use your pain to prepare you to be a messenger of compassion to someone else who is hurting.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

  1. We become more grateful to our suffering Savior.

“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”  (1 Peter 2:21-25)

God bless you in these days of Lent as we contemplate the suffering and death of Christ and prepare to rejoice in His glorious resurrection! 

 

“The Younger Generation”: iGen

By Dick Koehneke

Some people call today’s young people “the younger generation.”  A researcher, wife, mother of three daughters (ages 6, 9, and 12), professor and author named Jean Twenge (she holds a Ph.D. in psychology ) has another name for the younger generation:  iGen.  It stands for “Internet Generation” and it refers to people born beginning in 1995, the year the Internet was born.  Her special focus is on people currently in middle school and high school, as well as college age, so there’s some overlap with the youngest part of the Millennial generation.

Her new book, published in 2017 by Simon & Schuster, is titled iGen.  It’s important reading for anyone who wants to understand “the younger generation.”  Her findings are based on four major research studies that have been going on for decades.  All told, they have surveyed 11 million people.  She writes, “By comparing one generation to another at the same age, we can observe the views of young people about themselves, rather than relying on older people’s reflections of a time gone by.  We can see differences that are due to cultural changes and not to age.  These surveys show that young people now are quite different from young people in previous decades.”  The year 2011 is the year when “everything started to change in the survey data.”  She points out that 2011 was the year when smartphones began to come into widespread use. 

Her basic thesis is that this generation has grown up with the Internet, social media, and smartphones.  As Dr. Twenge puts it, “This generation is the ideal place to look for trends that will shape our culture in the years to come, as its members are very young but still old enough to express their views and report on their experiences.”  She writes, “They socialize in completely new ways, reject once sacred social taboos, and want different things from their lives and careers.  They are obsessed with safety and fearful of their economic futures.  They have no patience for inequality based on gender, race, or sexual orientation.  They are at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.”     

She says that this generation is “addicted to their phones, and they know it.  It’s clear that most teens (and adults) would be better off if they spent less time with their screens.”  She quotes one teenage girl speaking to the author of another book:  “Social media is destroying our lives, but [we don’t go off it] because then we would have no life.” 

If that’s not a working definition of addiction, I don’t know what is.

There are many valuable insights and excellent suggestions in her book.  Here’s one:  Put off giving your child a cell phone for as long as possible.  When you do get one for your child in middle school at the earliest, make it an old school flip phone, not a smartphone. 

One of her main points is that today’s young people are more connected than ever electronically, but they are isolated and lonely when it comes to meaningful face to face communication.  It strikes me that now, more than ever, there may be a need and an opportunity for Christians to teach, practice and live the Incarnation:  “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)  God wasn’t – and isn’t – content with communicating with disembodied words.  God uses flesh and blood people to reach people “in the flesh” with His truth and love.  “Long ago, in many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.”  (Hebrews 1:1-2)

How can we reach out to these precious young people, not only by using social media in creative and constructive ways, but also by going out of our way, moving out of our comfort zones, to see them and hear them and touch them?  That’s what God did for us in the person of His Son.  And that’s what God wants to do through us in the world today.  As Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  I can’t recall who said it, but it goes something like this:  “Jesus is God with skin on, and we are Jesus with skin on.”  

Dr. Twenge ends her book this way:  “If they [the iGen’ers] can shake themselves free of the constant clutch of their phones and shrug off the heavy cloak of their fear, they can still fly.  And the rest of us will be there, cheering them on.”

God loves the iGen’ers!  We can help them shake free of their phones and shrug off their fears as we share Jesus with them and show Jesus to them.  Doing so will make a Christ-like difference in their lives, in the world they will lead and shape, and in the world to come.      

 

 

 

   

 

 

Speaking Up About Mental Health

By Dick Koehneke

As the new year begins, I invite you to think purposefully and creatively about ways the local church can be a safe place for conversations about issues related to mental health.  At least one in five Americans (possibly as many as one in four) is experiencing some form of mental illness right now:  depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, phobias, OCD, bipolar disorders, PTSD and others – in addition to such behavioral health issues as substance abuse, addictions, and eating disorders.  Mental and behavioral health issues directly or indirectly affect many of us and the people we serve. 

Many people struggling with mental and behavioral illness turn to their pastor first for help.  Yet most pastors (62 % in a recent survey) do not feel equipped to identify such illnesses and make appropriate referrals.  In another recent survey, 45% of regular church attenders said they believed they would not be welcome in their congregations if they acknowledged that they are having a mental health issue.  Ponder that one for a moment.  You may want to read it again.   

We need to silence the stigma around mental illness and start (or continue and expand) the conversation about ways to help.     

On November 8 in Fort Wayne, Indiana some 550 people from 125 congregations attended an all-day conference titled “Speak Up:  A Conference on the Church and Mental Health.”  This was the first conference on this topic in this geographical area.  More would have attended, but the conference center’s capacity is 550.  The primary sponsor of the conference was The Lutheran Foundation of northeast Indiana, with support and participation by several other organizations and groups. 

The conference task force developed this purpose statement for the conference:  “In the Spirit of Christ, we encourage the Christian faith community to speak openly about mental health in ways that lead to practical expressions of care and companionship for all.”  There were four key words for the conference:  Awareness, Education, Resources, and Action.  The first three were strongly in evidence at the conference.  Now comes the “Action” part!  Here are some resources that were shared at the conference  to help us take action. 

http://mentalhealthgateway.org/ is a website with this purpose statement:  “This website is a resource for clergy designed to provide you with the information, tools and training needed to effectively assist individuals with mental health difficulties such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and depressive disorders who may seek your support.”  It’s a gold mine of information and resources for pastors and other people who want to be helpful to individuals dealing with mental health issues.  The website is supported by the Hope and Healing Center and Institute in Houston, TX.  Dr. Matthew Stanford is the Institute’s CEO.  He was one of the two excellent main speakers at the November 8 Conference, speaking about “A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness.” 

Speaking on “Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission” was Amy Simpson, the other main conference speaker.  She is an author, speaker, and leadership coach who lives in the Chicago area.  You may want to be in touch with her to discuss how she could be a resource for you.  Here’s her website:  http://amysimpson.com/

A new resource to support pastors was introduced at the conference.  It’s the Full Strength Network, a nondenominational Christian organization serving pastors and their families.  Here’s their website:  https://fullstrength.org/  If you’re a pastor or a member of a pastor’s family, or if you’re someone who cares about the wellbeing of pastors and their families, please pay it a visit.  I think you’ll want to come back often.  Their motto is:  “Healthy pastors lead healthy churches.  Healthy churches change the world.” 

In the new year of 2018 let’s silence the stigma surrounding mental illness.  Let’s speak openly about mental health in ways that lead to practical expressions of care and companionship for all.  God grant His abundant blessings to you and through you to the people whose lives you touch! 

Don’t Be Afraid

By Dick Koehneke

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ ” (Luke 2:8-11)

This is the fourth in a series of four articles on speakers at the August 10-11 Global Leadership Summit organized by the Willow Creek Association of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  This article is about the message of Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of International Justice Mission, a world-wide agency rescuing victims of violence, exploitation, slavery and oppression.  Gary’s work puts him and his staff in some threatening and dangerous situations.  Their website is http://www.ijm.org/

Gary’s message to leaders was “Do Not Be Afraid.”  As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, I think “Do Not Be Afraid” is a good theme to conclude this series of articles.  Think of the angel’s first words to the shepherds on the night that Christ was born.  Think of the many times that our Lord tells us, “Don’t be afraid” and how frequently that command is repeated in Scripture.  God knows how easily we can become fearful, so He repeats the instruction again and again and again:  “Do not be afraid.” 

Here are some of Gary Haugen’s main points.  [My comments are in brackets.]

  1. Fear is the silent destroyer of dreams. Fear prevents learning from turning into action. Fear destroys the love that inspires the dream and replaces love with a preoccupation with self.  Many dreams are destroyed simply by a leader’s everyday anxieties and insecuritites.  

 

[“What’s going to happen to me?  How will this affect me?  If I do this, what will people think of me?”  These are dream-destroying questions that often replace love with self-absorption.  Fear of taking action produces inaction, the safe way to go.  It’s the easy way that leads to mediocrity.  How much do we learn from not doing anything?  How many lives do we touch with Christ’s love and truth when our focus is on self?  How many dreams come true without some level of risk?]

  1. Relentlessly inventory your own fears. We must do this if we want the dream to survive and thrive. We may not be fully aware of what we’re really afraid of.  Set aside time for regular self-examination of your real fears.  Regularly, routinely ask yourself, “What am I really anxious about?”  At International Justice Mission, everyone sits silently for half an hour every morning at 8:30.  Gary says, “In silence, worries and insecurities will bubble to the surface.  But if you are practiced at it, God brings insight, self-awareness, and steadiness of soul.”   

[This is not a pleasant task.  It’s much more fun to “think positive” and “be upbeat.”  It takes self-discipline to assess our fears and anxieties so that we can deal with them honestly and give God space and time to give us hope and courage.  In the physical realm, we shouldn’t ignore the nagging cough, the sore that won’t heal, the pain that won’t go away.  Neither should we ignore the fears that affect us and afflict us emotionally and spiritually.  We acknowledge our fears and offer them to the Lord so that He can give us the peace that is beyond all understanding.  You’re not alone in your fears.  Why would God have taken so many opportunities in His Word to say “Don’t be afraid” if you were the only fearful person on earth?  We’re all afraid of something(s).] 

  1. Switch from playing defense to playing offense. No great dream has ever been built on fear of what might go wrong. Great dreams are built on the hope of what might go right.  Don’t be more impressed with what people are getting wrong in the world than you are with what God is getting right.  Leaders play defense when they keep repeating the narrative of fear and victimization.  We need to advance into what is broken and bring redemption. 

[Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage is taking action in the face of our fear.  Courage involves going toward the source of the problem, not running from it.  That’s what police officers and firefighters do, and that’s what leaders need to do as well.  There’s a saying in football, “The best defense is a good offense.”  When your team has the football, the other team can’t score.  We need to keep the devil on his heels.  Let’s be the kind of people who, when we get out of bed and put our feet on the floor, the devil says, “Oh no, not again!”]   

  1. Forge a community of courage around you. Lone rangers do not make great dreams come true, except in the movies. The strength of a loving community protects dreams from fear.  Jesus didn’t go it alone, although he could have; he forged a community of men and women around him, thus giving us an example to follow.  The bad news is that fear is contagious.  The good news is that courage is contagious too.  Shortly after he said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27) Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) 

[A loving community reduces our fear and enlarges our courage.  I can’t think of a better way to put it than this:  “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.  So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:13-19)  God loves you with a love that is perfect, unconditional, absolute, and eternal.  His love is stronger than our fears.  Don’t be afraid!]

God grant us all a courageous Christmas! 

Leading through the Uncomfortable

By Dick Koehneke

This is the third in a series of four articles on speakers at the August 10-11 Global Leadership Summit organized by the Willow Creek Association of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  This article is about the message of Bryan Stevenson, an activist and lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping poor people and people in prison through his leadership of the Equal Justice Initiative.  In his speech on effective leadership he made four key points.  As we celebrate the Reformation 500th, I’m reminded that Martin Luther did all four of these things to one degree or another.   

[My comments are in brackets.]

  1. Get close to the people you are serving. Proximity enhances leadership. When you get close to the people you are serving and the problems they are having, you begin to understand the nuances and subtleties of the situation.  But the problem is that most of us have been taught to stay away from “the bad parts of town.” 

[Martin Luther left the monastery and got close to all sorts of people.  Leading from a distance is much more comfortable than leading from up close.  As someone has said, “I’m a very Godly person until I encounter another person.”  The pulpit and the podium provide a safe distance from which to analyze problems and proclaim solutions.  Getting close to people is risky; it means I might have to change my thinking and maybe even realize that what I’ve been thinking has been wrong.  The people who have made the biggest positive difference in my life were (are) willing to take the risk of coming close to me.  Is that true for you?]

  1. Change the narratives that sustain the problems we are trying to address. When we as a nation declared war on drugs, we decided that drug-dependent people are not patients in need of care; they are criminals who need to be in jail. We use the criminal justice system to deal with the problem of drug abuse and addiction.  We need to change the narrative from incarceration to treatment.  

[Luther changed the narrative on a ton of things.  What are the narratives that sustain the problems we Christians are trying to address?  How do we view people who do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord?  Do we try to put ourselves in their shoes in order to understand them?  Or do we label them and stereotype them in the broad category of “unbelievers”?  When I feel that someone has labeled or stereotyped me in some way I am not as likely to be as receptive to their communication as I am if I feel they affirm me as an individual person with my own history, needs, wants, strengths and weaknesses.  How is it with you?]

  1. Stay hopeful. Hopelessness is the enemy of effective leadership. Hope gets you to stand up when others tell you to sit down, to speak when others say be quiet.  It takes courage to stay hopeful in the face of daunting circumstances, but it is our hope that will save us. 

[Christian hope and human optimism are two different things.  Optimism says, “Hang in there; things will get better.”  Christian hope says, “No matter what happens, I believe God is working out His purposes, and I will continue to trust and serve Him.”  That was the conviction that sustained Martin Luther. We need to make sure our hope is consistent with God’s Word and His will, not based on personal preferences or fantasies of some sort.  We need to stay in contact with trusted, mature Christian people who will let us know whether we are really working in hope or are laboring under delusions.  Someone wrote, “Overconfidence gives you the courage to act on your faulty convictions.”  Make sure you are hopeful, not overconfident.]

  1. Be willing to do uncomfortable things. The best leaders are willing to do things that are uncomfortable. As humans, we are biologically wired to do what is comfortable.  But positive changes occur only when people are willing to do uncomfortable things.  Leaders have to position themselves in uncomfortable places.  We need to connect with our own brokenness, which makes us very uncomfortable.  That’s how we identify with the brokenness of the people we are trying to serve.  Effective leadership is not measured by how we treat the rich and powerful, but by how we treat the poor and neglected. 

[I love my comfort zone, and I think you probably love yours too.  Here’s the problem, as I heard someone say:  “If you’re completely comfortable, you’re probably not growing” – and you’re probably not leading creatively either.  Problems, challenges and crises force us out of our comfort zone into our growth zone.  It would be wonderful if we could grow comfortably, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to happen very often.  As the saying goes, “That’s why they call it growing PAINS.”  Am I willing to force myself out of my comfort zone into my growth zone?  Am I willing to lead others out of their comfort zones into their growth zones?  What about you?]      

Martin Luther is a good example for us.  Here’s the ultimate, perfect example of someone getting out of the comfort zone to get close to people who need help:  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  (2 Corinthians 8:9)

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)