Chapter 31–Lenten Sermon

In Spiritual Stories by Gary



This is a sermon about C.H.A.N.G.E. , an acronym for Christians Having A New Growth Experience.  I gave this sermon during Lent of 2007 when Pastor Diane had to be absent on a Sunday.

Lenten Sermon  

March 11, 2007 


At the beginning of Lent, Pastor Diane’s message in the newsletter encouraged us to consider adding something to our lives, rather than “giving up” something in our lives. Pastor Diane suggested adding something that would enrich us and our families.

Lent is a time for us to reflect and change and use that change to improve our service to others.  My cousin Glenda taught me that change is an acronym meaning “Christians’ Having A New Growth Experience”.  Lent is a good time for us to have a new growth experience.

We can have this new growth experience by reflecting on the past and looking at ways we can change our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with our fellow travelers on this journey of life.

In this fast paced world, Lent offers us the opportunity to take a couple of breaths and pause to reflect on the past.  Pause to think about someone in your past who has help you, or been a role model for you, in your spiritual journey.  That person may have helped you in a time of great need.  That person may have helped you by just living their life in a Christian way.  Their help may have been up close and personal.  The help may have come from your quiet and distant observation of their life.  Take time during this Lenten season to tell that person they have helped you on your journey.  A simple note to them will bring joy to both of you.

I had an uncle, Uncle Art, who was a role model for me, especially in my adult life. In my family and extended family, he was the only adult male that I knew that regularly went to church his whole life. Like my grandmother, Art’s faith was unwavering and we could all see that just by watching his life.  I was the first grand child in the family and Uncle Art spoiled his first nephew.  Through God’s grace, he returned from WWII during Christmas 1945 and we formed a bond that lasted a lifetime.  I was always impressed that Uncle Art always made time for people and helping people.  It didn’t make any difference how far behind the farm work was, what the weather forecast was, people came first.  When I was in high school and we would go to Wisconsin to visit my Uncle Art, I was in awe of him for getting everybody to church on Sunday and on time.  See, Uncle Art had a wife, 5 daughters, and one bathroom.

In the mid-90’s I was on a business trip and took a couple of extra days to stop by Uncle Art’s farm and visit with him.  He was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and I had this “intuition” that I should stop.  Some of you have heard me talk about the importance of recognizing these intuitions and acting on them.  We had a good visit.  We talked about farming and about religion.  He told me many stories about growing up in Story County Iowa.  He told me stories about my dad that I had never heard.  Always interesting. When I got home I had this intuition I should write a note and tell Uncle Art that he was a role model for me and how much his Christian life had helped me as an adult.  So I did that.  Little did any of us know how rapidly the Alzheimer’s would progress.  That was the last real conversation I was able to have with Uncle Art.  My cousin’s all told me how much Uncle Art enjoyed that short note. I was glad I had taken time to write it when he was still able to comprehend it.

Sharing is one of our jobs in being a servant.  So in this Lenten season, change from the busyness of this world and take a pause.  In that pause, take time to reflect on someone who has helped you in your journey of faith.  Be a servant and send them a short note of thanks.  That simple act will bring joy to both of you.

Being a servant takes many forms and each of us has been blessed with one or more means to be a servant.  This congregation is blessed with many people who are servants within the walls of this church.  Some of us are servants outside the walls of this church.  Each of us is a servant utilizing the gifts God gave us.

My coming to Bethlehem was a gift that you gave to me.  The simple act of asking someone to join this church is a gift.  Moving from St. Timothy in Hudson to Bethlehem was a huge emotional event for me.

Maxine and I moved to Hudson in 1974.  We knew a few people in Hudson and one couple asked us to join St. Timothy.  We had lived in three places in the previous 10 years and had not been regular church goers.  Maxine had the determination that I think only Norwegians have.  We became regular church goers.  We joined the adult Sunday school class.  We worked to strengthen our spiritual lives as individuals and as a couple.  Our two youngest children were baptized in St. Tim’s.  All four our children were confirmed in that church.  Our oldest son was married in St. Tim’s.  The funeral for our oldest daughter was in that church.  Maxine’s funeral was in St. Tim’s.  When Maxine passed away, we had been members at St. Tim’s for more than 30 years.  As I reflected back I was amazed at how a simple invitation to join St. Tim’s had sustained my family for more than 30 years, and through the best and worst times in our lives.  A simple invitation was a huge gift.

It became a struggle for me to enter St. Tim’s and sit in “our pew.”  I decided I needed a change of scenery.  I had heard good things about Bethlehem.  I checked your web site. I saw Jerry Mohling was a member.  We had a long friendship through our work.  I decided visit Bethlehem.  I was greeted warmly the first time I came here.  I visited the men’s bible study on Saturday.  I was received warmly and included. I came to Bethlehem and talked with Pastor Diane about the technicalities of changing membership.  The technical issues were easily handled but I was really struggling with the emotional issues.  I had pretty well made up my mind to transfer the Bethlehem.  The next Sunday, four different people asked me when I was going to join.

I decided to proceed.  The Sunday came for new members to join.  Deep down I was still wondering if it was the right thing to do.  Well I found out it was.  We were in the library getting flowers pinned on.  A lady next to me, that I did not recognize, came up to me and asked me, “Are you the Gary Stratton from Nevada.”  My mouth probably fell open. Her name tag said Gwen.  I said “yes.”  She said, “You married Maxine, Maxine, ……. I said Horness.”  She said, “Yes Maxine Horness.”  I play basketball with Maxine at Milford.  I asked her maiden name and it was Jacobson.  I new who she was.  She was a couple of years ahead of Maxine in school.  The farm where I was born was a mile from her farm but I moved away before I was a year old.  I knew I was in the right place.

Let me explain how special that moment was.  Milford High School was the last township high school in Story County to be consolidated into a larger school.  Milford was a small school.  A senior class might have 10-15 kids in it. I would be surprised if in the whole world there were 100 women still living who played basketball at Milford.  Milford was locally famous for playing basketball.  Legend has it that Gwen and Maxine, and all the kids were given a basketball the first day of first grade.  The girls played 6 on 6 basketball, real basketball, that game of grace, beauty, and poise.  Oh how I miss that game.  The Holy Spirit was at work in this church to look after me.  After more than 40 years, to walk into a new church and meet a girl that played basketball with my wife at Milford.  Yes, I was in the right place doing the right thing.

So, when was the last time you personally asked someone to join Bethlehem?  In this time of Lent, pause from the busy world, reflect on who you could invite, and invite them.  Be a Christian Having A New Growth Experience.  Don’t be shy, ask someone to join this church.  Extending the invitation is a gift from God.  That invitation may nurture another family for 30 years or more. Who knows, the next person who joins might find a connection with someone in this congregation like I found with Gwen.

As our lives go on and our lives change, we may be given different gifts.  My gift of being a volunteer firefighter is nearing its end and I plan to retire soon.  As that gift concludes, I have been given the gift to write stories and to share those stories.  When I came to Bethlehem, I planned to sit quietly in a pew.  I never imagined I would stand before you and share stories.  A few of you know I write stories about family history and about the spiritual experiences in my life.  It is a new gift I am learning how to use.  God works in mysterious ways and you never know when you will receive a new gift.

In this time of Lent, pause to reflect on the gifts you have been given.  Gifts that you have had all your life or gifts that you have recently been made aware of.  Also, be open to receiving new gifts.  God’s just doesn’t give us gifts when we are born, God provides gifts during our journey on this road of life.  Pause to reflect on these gifts, how you are using your gifts, and how you can use these gifts in the service to others.

As you pause, take time to reflect on how you perceive your gifts.  Do you perceive them in a worldly perspective or a Christian perspective?  I’ll share a viewpoint from my life.  I worked in the product engineering department for Deere.  Some of you that
know me from Deere also know that sometimes I hear a different drummer.  It was a gift from God for me to work in product engineering.  I didn’t feel that gift was for the purpose of “generating return on investment” although some people in Moline felt that was important.  I felt the purpose of my gift was to help the farmers of the world feed the people of the world.  Think about the gift God has given you, the gift that you use everyday, and think about it from a Christian perspective.  It can make all the difference between drudgery and joy.

As we think about change as Christians Having A New Growth Experience, I want to share something from the Lutheran Men in Ministry retreat last month at EWALU.  In one of the discussion groups I was in, we talked about that word that so many men have so much trouble with;  Emotions.

I was somewhat amazed at how many men had been raised in a similar environment to mine.  That environment was that you never, under any circumstances, show emotions.  Now, those of you who were here last summer when I shared a story about the loss of my daughter know that I have gotten past not showing emotions.  In my work on the critical incident stress debriefing team, I encourage people, especially macho firefighters, to learn how to cry and show emotions.  It is a healthy thing to do, and I am here to tell all of you guys, that it is ok to show your emotions.  No one in that discussion group at EWALU thought not showing emotions was a good thing.  We were raised that way and for some guys, they are still like that.  I am here to tell you, you can change.

Part of being a servant is to share with each other.  That was part of the men’s retreat. Being able to show emotions is a gift from God.  It is a gift that God has given each and everyone of us, men included.  For many of us men, it is a gift the world has tried to separate us from.

I like to remember Romans 8 38:39.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”

Those verses do not say, “Except when I show emotions.”  God loves us when we show emotions the same as he loves us at all other times.

As I teach macho firefighters, you don’t have to cry and show your emotions at 12 noon in the middle of main street.  You may have to start by showing your emotions to yourself in private.  I will tell you that once you have learned to show emotions, it will come easier the next time.  Showing your emotions is a healthy thing to do, and like the Paul Harvey commercials, “If you won’t do this for yourself, please do it for your loved ones.”  So in this Lenten season, especially for us men, we need to reflect on showing our emotions and think about having a huge change as a Christian Having A New Growth Experience.  From my perspective, showing and sharing our emotions with each other as we travel this journey of life is a true form of Christian servanthood.

In this time of Lent, all of us need to pause from the hectic pace of the world.  We need to use that pause to reflect on the gifts God has given us.  We need to acknowledge other people whose gifts have helped us grow in our Christian life.  We need to look at our gifts from a Christian perspective.  We need to use our gifts to extend an invitation to join Bethlehem and help in Sharing the Bread of Life with a Hungry World.  We need to look at reacquiring those gifts the world has tried to separate us from.  We need to examine how we can better utilize our gifts in service to others.

So let us go forth with CHANGE: Christians Having A New Growth Experience