Category Archive: Uncategorized

  1. 36 Minutes Now, 365 Blessings in the New Year

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    As we look ahead to the new year, give yourself the gift of planning.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day elements of our busy lives.  The discipline of looking ahead-with purpose-pays off.

    Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own.  Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.
    Proverbs 3:5-6

    It starts with honest reflection on the year past.  Take a few moments and consider 6 areas:

    • Relationships
    • Finances
    • Work/business
    • Physical health
    • Emotional wellness
    • Spirituality

    Ask yourself key questions…

    • Was it a good year?  Did you achieve your goals?
    • What did you do that helped you towards your goals?
    • What more could you have done?
    • What did you do that got in your way?
    • Did you invest in people or were you mostly concerned about yourself?
    • Did you experience emotional stability even in tough times?
    • How is your relationship with God?

    If you have a partner or close friend, invite them to help.  You may be surprised at how helpful their input can be.  Do you have a mentor?  A mentor is a friend who accepts you where you are but is not comfortable leaving you there.  Life is like walking through a series of minefields.  We all have minefields to cross.  Wouldn’t you like to follow someone who has already made it through?

    Refuse good advice and watch your plans fail; take good counsel and watch them succeed.
    Proverbs 15: 22

    Then, look ahead to the next 12 months.  Take notes on what you want to see happen, any changes you need to make, any areas you need to rebalance.  Review your plans with a partner, trusted friend, or mentor.  Keep in mind:  our minds are like bad neighborhoods; we should never go in them alone.

    I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for, says the Lord.
    Jeremiah 29:11

    Lastly, let’s consider our spiritual growth.  Two things happen if we ignore God.  First, we leave the greatest resource sitting on the table.  Secondly, we fail to account for our greatest enemy and how the devil is trying to destroy us.

    Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up.
    1 Peter 5:8

    If you don’t already, plan to read the Bible every day.  It may be a chapter each day or even just a verse.  Read scripture in the morning.  Before you get caught up in your day, get caught up in Christ and how much God loves you and wants to help you.  It’s a game-changer!

    Purposeful planning now leads to daily blessings in the year to come.  Happy New Year!

  2. Advent – Week 4 Message

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    Hello. I am Rick Merfeld. Welcome to the final message in our special Advent series of spiritual first aid for believers and seekers. And Merry Christmas! We arrived at the fourth week of Advent, had a cup of coffee, and jumped right into the celebration of Christmas. What will you remember most about Christmas 2023?

    It’s only Christmas Day plus three but the festivities, music, and Christmas feelings are already fading away.  And the new year is just around the corner. Let’s be clear. If the good news of Christmas has left its mark, it won’t be the feelings that carry us through the new year; it will be the impact of Christmas on our mindset, worldview, and daily habits.  In short, it won’t be our emotions, but our reason that will help us navigate 2024.

    The first goal of our series was to help listeners be more confident in the story of God. Are you more confident today than you were at Thanksgiving time?

    Our second goal was to help everyone better understand where each of us fits into the story of God and how Satan is trying to trip us up. 1 Peter 5:8 encourages us to “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

    Emotions make life delicious, but reason makes life safe.
           ~Greg Koukl

    My first professional call was to the world of mental health care. This time of the year, I become especially aware that we are moving into the season of depression and increased suicides. Sadly, people will put away their Christmas lights at the very time when they need the light of Christ to fight off the approaching darkness.

    Are you more aware of your struggles than you were at Thanksgiving time? Are you more aware of how Satan is trying to trip up your family members and friends?

    The third goal was to equip people to share the Good News of Christmas more compassionately and effectively. I hope you added a few tools to your spiritual first aid kit.

    Here’s the post-Christmas quiz:  did the Advent season and the celebration of Christmas impact you in a special way this year? Do you believe that the gift of Christ can make a difference for your loved one’s next year?

    Let’s keep this real, friends.  If we answered “no”, we’d be better off just having fun and sharing our favorite Christmas stories.  I would share the story of our boys building a model drone. They flew it around the house, as everyone ducked for cover. Then they took it outside where the wind carried it up over the neighbor’s house and across the street. It was a hoot! Well, all of it besides the part when our 3-year-old biffed on the driveway trying to keep up. He cried until “Granna” got him all bandaged up and back on his feet.

    If we don’t think the peace of Christ and the power of the Gospel can help anyone, it would be easier and probably more fun to talk with our family and friends about their work, hobbies, or what series they are binging on right now. But will any of that help them climb their mountains and face their giants? Will this help them restore harmony with God and secure their eternal life in a good neighborhood?

    But if you answered yes, and if you have a growing confidence in the truth of God’s story and the power of Christ then let’s keep going and wrap up the series with our Week 4 message.

    From our growing awareness of our own spiritual conditions and those of our loved ones, we made out our spiritual gift lists in Week Three. It’s time to wrap up those gifts for delivery.  This involves going a little deeper to discover how we can compassionately and effectively share the Good News. This is about each of us finding our spiritual V-O-I-C-E.

    This is an acronym where…

    The V stands for validating the message of Christ in our own life

    The O stands for opportunities to share the good news

    The I stands for individual traits and people skills

    The C stands for communion with the full council of the Bible

    And the E stands for experiences

    Finding our VOICE starts with validating the message of Christ in our own life.  On a scale of 1-10, to what degree are you caught up in Christ? Is this statement true or false: Only in the name of Jesus can our sins be forgiven, our harmony restored with God, and our eternal life secured. These are not hostile questions. This is about personal spiritual triage.

    I love the story in Mark 9: 14-24. A man brought his ill child to Jesus after the disciples were unable to heal the child. Jesus asked the man, “’If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes’. Immediately, the man cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’”  The more we understand our situation, the more focused we can be moving forward.

    The V in V-O-I-C-E is for validating the message of Christ in our life. The “O” stands for opportunities.

    Do you have regular contact with the people on your spiritual gift list? Or are you cut off? If we are cutoff, then our sole source of spiritual first-aid is prayer. Pray that God will put a reunion on your calendar. And never, ever, give up on Jesus. I’ve seen too many situations and heard too many stories to give up.

    If you have regular contact with the people on your list, work on being comfortable remaining in conversations. Develop your confidence to ask good questions and give good answers. Don’t step away from the table and extinguish the light of Christ.  My friend Char began implementing these simple strategies.  Within three weeks, she was reporting positive changes with two of her three adult sons. And she was feeling a new sense of confidence and hope for her entire family.

    Look for opportunities to help people, especially your children and grandchildren, to understand their values and learn how to share them with their friends. Help them write out responses to the questions they will be asked and then practice. Help them be ready to stand up for their faith.

    V is for validation; O is for opportunities. The I in V-O-I-C-E stands for individual traits and people skills.

    Christian author Marita Littauer, in her book Wired that Way, points out that God wired us with different personality strengths and characteristics. But she also reminds us that each of us have weaknesses, too. Our goal is to maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.

    If you were to ask a family member or friend what it’s like to interact with you, what would they say?  What do you do well? What do you do that makes things uncomfortable? This is about vulnerability. This is about checking in with people to find out what kind of magnetic force you produce. For years I repelled people when I wanted to attract people.

    Ask God to help you sand off any rough edges so you can be more compassionate and more effective in sharing your faith with others.

    V is for validation; O is for opportunities; I is for individual traits and people skills. The C in V-O-I-C-E stands for communion with the full council of the Bible. There are decision points as we read God’s Word. The first one is this:  are we reading the Bible to find out what it says? Or are we reading the bible to find out where it says what we want it to say?

    In a world hell-bent on living according to earth-bound wisdom; in a world where moral relativism encourages people to define their own truth; and in a world where some organized church leaders put themselves at odds with biblical truth, we can turn to God’s Word which is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

    In Week Two of our series, we were invited to take the 7-day Christmas Gospel challenge. As we move into the new year, I encourage you to continue your studies. If you are not sure where to start, I suggest you begin with the Gospel of John. Reading the Bible is like getting on a merry-go-round. There is no right place to start. The important thing is to get on and get going.

    Finally, the E in V-O-I-C-E is for experiences. The best story we can share with people is our own. In his book, How to Share Your Faith with Anyone, Terry Barber shares a good list of dos and don’ts. Do share your personal walk with the Lord, and the reasons you love connecting with your church; share your story of conversion, and about God’s call and your vocation; know your audience and look them in the eye. Barber also warns us not to be a know-it-all, be longwinded, speak poorly of others, or glamourize sin.

    By finding and fine-tuning our V-O-I-C-E, we can wrap up our spiritual gifts and give them to ourselves and others this Christmas season. We can also draw nearer to God and ask Christ Jesus to help us more compassionately and effectively share the good news of Christ with your family members, friends, and maybe even a stranger or two.

    I hope our time together has been part support group and part battlefield briefing. These can be challenging times.  There will be celebrations and morning. Take a deep breath.  From time to time, rest. God does some of His best work in challenging times!  And be encouraged by the words of Billy Graham. “The same fire that hardens clay, melts butter.”

    Thanks for joining us as we build an army of spiritual first responders.

  3. Advent – Week 3 Message

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    Hello.  I am Rick Merfeld, president of Caught Up in Christ Ministries.  Welcome to Week Three of our special Advent series of spiritual first aid for believers and seekers.

    We have three goals for this Advent series.  We want to

    1. help everyone be more confident in the story of God
    2. be more aware of where each of us fits into the story and how Satan is trying to trip us up
    3. and be better equipped to compassionately and effectively share the Good News of Jesus this Christmas.

    Week one, we looked at the roots of our Christmas trees to fully understand the beautiful meaning of Christmas.  Last week we investigated areas of darkness in our life and in the lives of our family members, and friends, and even the strangers among us.  We studied how sin separates us from God.  And we outlined six practical ways to restore this harmony and leverage the light of Christmas to help people and to alleviate darkness.

    I think it bears repeating what we learned about darkness.  Darkness is not an affirmative force.  It simply occupies spaces vacated by the light.  The good news is that we don’t have to fight darkness.  We just need to turn the light on because in the presence of light, darkness knows where to go.

    This helps us understand why Jesus describes believers as the light of the world.  And as people of the light, believers are called to help other people walk in the light, not the dark.  One of the ways to do this is by sharing spiritual gifts.

    This work is part of a process I call spiritual triage.  Just like medical responders assess situations before acting, we look for signs and listen for clues to assess a spiritual situation before acting.   This Advent season, are you assessing your own spiritual condition?  Are you concerned about a family member, friend, or even a stranger among you?

    As we better understand a situation, we can seek out remedies that will help.  In providing spiritual remedies, we become spiritual first-responders.  This week, we’re going to identify remedies or gifts that will help us on our own spiritual journey.  We’ll also look at gifts that we can give to our family members, friends, and maybe even a stranger or two this Christmas.

    When I was a boy, I would go through the Sears catalog and circle all the toys I wanted for Christmas.  When it comes to looking for spiritual gifts, our best resource is the Bible.  Speaking of the Bible, how are you coming with your 7-day Gospel challenge?   If you haven’t taken the challenge yet, it’s never too late to start.

    Let’s turn to God’s Word and ask St. Paul to tell us about the spiritual gifts.   It helps me to remember that Paul, whose name was Saul before his encounter with Christ, was a chief enemy of Christ before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus.  You can read that amazing story in Acts 9: 1-30.  The change in Paul’s life was tremendous.  It must have been because we’re still talking about him and reading his words 2000 years later!

    In chapter 5 of his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit.  They are “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)

    Note that the “S” in “Spirit” is capitalized.  Paul recognizes that these gifts come directly from the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I want to make sure we catch the significance here.

    If you’re a parent or grandparent, you know that we don’t have to teach our children to be mean, we must teach them to be kind.  We don’t have to teach our grandchildren to be impatient, we must teach them to be patient.  People don’t need help learning how to hate.  People need help learning how to love.

    This is more evidence of the impact of sin and how separation from God makes a measurable impact on our life and our community.  This also points to why we need Jesus, acting through the Holy Spirit to set things straight.

    Is there anyone on your list who could use a little joy and peace this Christmas?  Can you think of anyone who could benefit from more patience, gentleness, and self-control?

    If so, put them down on your spiritual gift list.

    This may seem like a simple list, but the magnitude of these gifts becomes clear when we contrast these gifts with the list of passions and desires listed earlier starting in verse 19. Take a deep breath, this may be hard to hear.

    “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: sexual immorality, impurity, indecent behavior, idolatry, witchcraft, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (Galatians 5: 19-21)

    Was it hard to hear or did it sound like a preview of tonight’s prime time TV shows?

    Spiritual first aid is done in the field.  Our field is pretty messy these days, isn’t it?

    Can you think of anyone you know who is struggling with any of these passions and desires?  Can you think of anyone who is struggling to break free of a pattern of unhealthy behavior?  If so, put them down on your spiritual gift list.

    As we nurture healthy relationships, and listen carefully to the people around us, we get a better picture of their spiritual condition and ours, too.  Utilizing spiritual triage, we can better identify the spiritual gifts that will help them and help us.

    We share best the gifts we possess.  There’s a funny story about Mahatma Ghandi.  A woman brought her child to him one day.  The woman wanted the child to eat less candy every day.  Ghandi asked her to come back in three weeks.

    Three weeks later, the woman returned with the child.  Ghandi spoke up to the boy. “You need to eat less candy every day.”  The woman was shocked.  “Why couldn’t you tell me that three weeks ago?” “Because,” Ghandi said. “I needed to do it first.”

    In a similar way, Paul urges Christians to live out the spiritual gifts.

    “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. We should not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be envious of one another.” (Galatians 5: 24-26).

    And Paul finishes up this message by encouraging believers to restore those who’ve failed, guard against your own sin, help bear other’s burdens, and stay humble. (Galatians 6: 1-3, paraphrased)

    This is where prayer comes in.  As believers draw closer to God, we ask for the grace and mercy of Christ.  As we seek to provide gifts to those around us, we ask that God soften hearts and open minds.  Only heaven will reveal how someone comes to faith in Christ, but it is always in response to the Holy Spirit. If we get to play a small part, praise God.  As the old saying goes-pray as if everything relies on God; work as if everything relies on me.

    I know, none of us get it right all the time.  We are all works in progress.  If you don’t have a firm grip on the gift you want to share, then simply tell people about the Provider!  And how they can draw closer to Jesus, asking the Holy Spirit for the gifts they need.

    One final note before we finish.  St. Peter, in his first letter, urges his readers to, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, but with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3: 15)

    As we live out the spiritual life, people will notice that we are different and ask us for an explanation.  This is our opening to tell them about Jesus and how he makes a difference in our life.

    Next week, the week of Christmas, we’re going to wrap up these spiritual gifts for delivery.  We’ll take a closer look at how we can compassionately and effectively share the Good News of Christmas with our family members, friends, and maybe even a stranger or two.

  4. Advent – Week 2 Message

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    Hello.  I am Rick Merfeld, president of Caught Up in Christ Ministries.  Welcome to Week Two of our special Advent series of spiritual first aid for believers and seekers.

    We have three goals for this Advent series.  We want to

    1. help everyone be more confident in the story of God
    2. be more aware of where each of us fits into the story and how Satan is trying to trip us up
    3. and be better equipped to compassionately and effectively share the Good News of Jesus this Christmas.

    Last week, we examined the roots of our Christmas tree.  We identified the eight degrees of “Why Christmas” capturing the deep and beautiful meaning of Christmas.  This week we’re going to shine our Christmas lights into areas of darkness in our life.

    Holiday lights are a wonderful element of the Christmas season.  Lights in our homes, lights in our neighborhood, lights around Christmas trees, and the light of advent wreaths brighten our world and warm our hearts.

    The beauty of Christmas lights is most fully revealed in darkness.  In a similar way, the deep impact of Christmas is often experienced in our times of darkness.  We don’t have to look very far to see evidence of darkness in our world today.  We’re only a click away from learning about the latest mass shooting, political corruption, and the latest developments in the wars raging around the globe.

    How are you doing?  How are your family members and friends?  What areas of darkness are you aware of today?

    Is your heart troubled?   Are you worried about someone who is fighting persistent feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of giving up and giving in?  Is there a medical crisis or addiction in your family?  Is a loved one struggling with their identity?  Are you struggling to stay connected with them and to love them?

    Are you simply fatigued by all the little stuff that keeps popping up?  Just the other day, my son questioned why everything seems to be a struggle.

    The first lesson of Christmas is to understand that God doesn’t want darkness to dominate our life.  We must fight the temptation to normalize struggle, pain, and confusion.  From the time of creation, God wanted us to live in perfect harmony with him.  But sin and separation entered the world.  With it came darkness in many forms.  Knowing this would happen, God revealed his plan to restore the harmony.  The Christmas story is all about the further revelation of this plan.

    The messages of the prophet Isaiah play a prominent role during the Advent season.  The Old Testament book of Isaiah is sometimes called the fifth gospel because it contains so many prophetic stories that would be revealed in the life of Christ.  And it was written about 700 Years before the birth of Jesus.

    One of the most famous passages is found in Isaiah chapter 9, verse 1.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

    We see the phenomenon of light defeating darkness in the Nativity story, too.  Imagine you are lowly shepherds watching over your flocks in the darkness of night.  And then you see it; a great light fills the night sky.

    “In the nearby countryside there were shepherds living in the fields and keeping watch over their flock throughout the night. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terror-stricken, but the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. For this day in the city of David there has been born to you a Savior who is Christ, the Lord.’” (Luke 2: 8-11)

    After Light took his first breath, Jesus grew up and started his public ministry.  Jesus would proclaim that He was, indeed, the light Isaiah wrote about. “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness. Rather, he will have the light of life.” (John 8: 12)

    The birth of Jesus gives more evidence that God does not want our life to be dominated by darkness.  When we grasp on to this first lesson of Christmas, we can hold on to hope and risk the thought that somehow, someway, we can, with God’s help, overcome any darkness in our life.

    But how?  It’s darkness!  I know.  There are times I can still feel darkness like I did as a child.  But here is good news.  Sometimes it feels like darkness takes on a life of its own, but Abraham Hamilton III reminds us that darkness is not an affirmative force, it simply occupies spaces vacated by the light.

    Darkness is not an affirmative force.
    It simply occupies spaces vacated by the light.
    ~ Abraham Hamilton III

    We don’t have to fight darkness!  My spiritual guide, Keith Carroll, tells me often, “Just turn on the light, Rick.  Darkness knows where to go.”

    Here are three ways to shine the light of Christmas into areas of darkness this year. First, team up with a spiritual partner.  It’s easier for Satan to pick us off when we are trying to fight battles on our own.  If you don’t currently have a partner, ask God to reveal one for you.  And stay connected with our ministry.

    If you are connected to a church, continue to worship with your family of believers.  Partake in the sacraments when you can.  If you are not connected with a church, ask God to connect you with one or perhaps a domestic church.

    With all the challenges in organized church, I find myself intrigued by 1st century Christians and Catholics.  They shared their faith in families and in small groups-domestic churches.  They fed on the Old Testament writings and the testimonies of the apostles who walked with Christ and shared His words.  And the church grew.

    And thirdly, when you wake up in the morning, turn on the light of Christ.  When you turn on your coffee pot, turn on the light of Jesus by reading the Bible, God’s love letter.  I heard Bishop Barron call for a Bible revival in the Church.  My story is a testimony to the power of God’s Word and how Jesus longs to illuminate our darkness through our study of scripture.

    If you are not yet reading the Bible on a regular basis, I encourage you to take the 7 Day Christmas Bible Challenge.  Choose either the Gospel of Luke or Matthew; both include accounts of the birth of Christ.  Read a chapter each day.  Before you start, ask God to reveal Himself to you and shed His light on a specific area of darkness in your life.

    On the 8th day, take an inventory.  Is the area of darkness in your life diminishing in size and strength?  And then Let me know if you continue reading on day 9 and why.  I encourage you to read the bible with an expectation that it will have a measurable impact in your life.

    My story as a bible reader started with simple daily devotions. Today, I am on my fifth trip through the bible, Genesis to Revelation in four different editions.  Yep, I’ve become a bible nerd.  Praise God!  If you’re just getting started, don’t worry about it.  Reading the bible is like jumping on a merry-go-round.  There is no right place to start.  The important thing is that you jump on and get going.

    Yes, Jesus is the light of the world.  But, before he ascended to heaven, he passed that title onto someone else.  Who could that be?  We find the answer in Matthew 5: 14- 16.

    “You are the light of the world. A city built upon a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor would someone light a lamp and then put it under a basket; rather, it is placed upon a lampstand so that it may afford light to all in the house. In the same way, your light must shine so that it can be seen by others.”

    It scares me to think that God would use me to impact a family member, friend, or a stranger or two.  But I’ve learned that we are persuaded to become persuasive.  And think about it.  If people, ourselves included, try to live life without God, accounting for sin and Satan, it’s like playing 3 on 5 basketball.

    This Christmas let’s help shine the light of Christ into the lives of those around us by following three simple steps.  First, stay engaged in conversations.  I remember many family meals where I would back away from the table when tough conversations started or concerning statements were made.

    Instead of leaning away, lean into conversations.  Listening is an amazing way to express concern for another person, to show them they matter.  It also gives us the opportunity to make a compassionate and effective impact.

    As you increase your comfort staying in conversations, let’s grow our confidence to ask good questions and give good answers.  We can learn how to shed light on a conversation without being abrasive or judgmental.  For example, if we find ourselves in a conversation and someone makes a statement that concerns you, try extending the conversation by saying, “I think I understand what you are saying.  Have you considered…?”

    Or when you are listening to someone who is struggling with a situation and faith hasn’t been mentioned, try this: “May I ask you a spiritual question?  (Most of the time, people say “yes”) How is your relationship with God today?”

    Thirdly, ask God to increase your courage to share your faith naturally.  How I share my faith may be different than how you share your faith.  Let’s work on finding ways to share our story-compassionately and effectively- in ways that fit our situation, our personality, and the connection we have with the other person(s).

    When Christ was born at Bethlehem, he was thinking about you and me.  This Christmas, as we draw nearer to God and leverage the light of Christ to diminish our own areas of darkness, let’s also look for opportunities to shine the light of Christmas into the lives of our family members, friends, and maybe even a stranger or two.

    I’ll be back soon with our Week three message when we’ll make out our spiritual gift list.

  5. Advent – Week 1 Message

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    Hello and welcome to Week 1 of our special Advent series of spiritual first aid for believers and seekers. We have three goals for this series. We want to:

    1. help everyone be more confident in the story of God
    2. be more aware of where each of us fits into the story and how Satan is trying to trip us up
    3. be better equipped to compassionately and effectively share the Good News of Jesus this Christmas

    This week we’re going to examine the roots of our Christmas tree.

    There’s something special about celebrating Christmas with children. This year, I’ll be blessed to share the season with Dee Dee, our three sons, two daughters in law and five grandchildren between the ages of 3 months and 13 years.

    And I fully anticipate that our toddler will have lots of questions and bring with him his “But why” approach to life. You know how toddlers can be. Why? Why? Why? But this year, I think this approach will help all of us. Let’s use this “But why” approach to better understand the roots of our Christmas tree.

    Imagine the following scene. You hear a door opening to my office and two of our grandchildren enter.

    “Hello Papa!” cry out our 13 and 7 year old grandchildren.

    “Hello kids!” I respond. “I was just doing a little work.”

    “We know,” they say, “But we have a question.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Why do we have a green tree in the house?”

    “It’s Christmas time,” I said.

    “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

    “Because Jesus was born at Bethlehem,” I said.

    The children sat down and continued their questions. “Why was Jesus born?”

    I replied, “So He could die on the cross and then rise from the dead three days later.”

    “What?” they cried out in unison. “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?”

    Christmas was no longer about presents and goodies. Our children were beginning to see the deeper meaning of Christmas.
    “To forgive our sins and restore our harmony with God,” I said.

    Our 13-year-old granddaughter then asked, “Why can’t we do that ourselves?”

    I slowed down as we were getting into the details of Christmas. “Well, sweetheart, because we all sin and make mistakes and we all fall short of the glory of God. St. Paul tells us this in the Bible in his letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 23: we all fall short of the glory of God. And you and I both know that we are not perfect. But God is perfect. How could we make ourselves right before a perfect God?”

    “Is that where Jesus comes in?” she asked.

    “It sure is. When Jesus allowed himself to be crucified, he was carrying our sins. And when he died on the cross, he paid the price for our sins. He did something for us we could never do for ourselves.”

    “Wow, Papa,” our grandson exclaimed. “That’s a lot for Jesus to do. Why do we sin anyway?”

    I continued. “Because God gave us freewill to make our own decisions. God created the world and He created all of us to know him and love him, but He wanted us to choose to love him. True love is always freely given. God could have made us love him but that wouldn’t be love, would it?”

    “Your right, Papa. Why does God want us to love him so much? Is it really that important?

    “Yes, it is. As you get older,” I said, “You will better understand that there is evil in this world and there are bad things in the next life, too. God wants to save us from the evil now and the bad things in the next life. He wants to help us every day and He wants us to live with Him in peace and harmony for all of eternity.”

    “It sounds like God really loves us,” the children said.

    “He sure does. That’s why we celebrate Christmas.”

    These are the roots of our Christmas tree. In toddler terms, these are the 8 degrees of “Why Christmas.”
    How often do you hear people focusing on just the first two degrees? “It’s Christmas time so let’s deck the halls with boughs of holly.” This is happening more and more as many elements of our culture lose the Judeo-Christian worldview.

    But if we only focus on the first two degrees, our understanding is superficial, and any Christmas joy will be heavily influenced by the stress of the season and likely short-lived. And if this is our only experience with Christmas year after year, it won’t be long, and we’ll totally lose sight of the deep and beautiful meaning of Christmas. We can even see why many people identify with Scrooge. “Christmas. Bah, humbug!”

    You may have also encountered people who focus on just the 8th degree of Christmas. “Merry Christmas. God loves you.” These words can easily come off as trivial and meaningless if they are disconnected from a full understanding of the 8 degrees of Christmas.

    The degree to which we celebrate God’s love is related to how fully we understand who God is, who we are, who are biggest enemy is, and why we need a savior. A big part of this dynamic involves getting our heads and hearts around the impact of sin in our life. In short, if we don’t acknowledge our sin, we have no need for a savior.

    A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer recently. She had no interest in fully exploring treatment options until she fully accepted the fact that she had cancer cells multiplying in her body. Once she accepted this, she eagerly considered the options and started treatment.

    What did the angel of the Lord proclaim to Joseph at the beginning of the Christmas story?

    “The birth of Jesus Christ occurred in this way. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came to live together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph was a just man and did not wish to expose her to the ordeal of public disgrace; therefore, he resolved to divorce her quietly.

    After he had decided to follow this course of action, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to receive Mary into your home as your wife. For this child has been conceived in her womb through the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1: 18-21)

    I once heard an author say, “I think the biggest problem in most people’s life is unconfessed sin.”

    Do you have any unconfessed sins in your life? During this first week of Advent, consider asking God to reveal any to you. And then ask God for His forgiveness. If you can, seek out a loving priest or minister and ask them to hear your confession.

    If not, call on Jesus from your heart. Keep in mind the words of St. John from 1 John 1: 8-10.

    “If we claim that we are sinless, we are only deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
    However, if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all wrongdoing. If we say that we have never sinned, we make him out to be a liar,
    and his word is not in us.”

    My story is a Catholic story. My moment of understanding and surrender came while I sat in my car on Grace St. A song came on the radio, and I cried. It all finally made sense. I asked God to forgive me and help me live a better life. He’s never let me down.

    This is the gospel, the good news of Christmas that is summed in John 3:16:
    G God so loved the world that He gave is
    O only
    S son so that anyone who believed in him would not
    P perish but have
    E eternal
    L life

    The 8 degrees of Christmas provide us with the elements of spiritual first-aid that we can share with family and friends this Advent season. What do I mean by spiritual first aid? When medical first responders respond to an accident, illness, or injury, what do they do first? They immediately begin to check critical life support systems. Are they breathing? Is their heart beating? Medical first responders understand that if the person’s heart stops beating, it won’t matter if they have a broken arm.

    Spiritual first responders take a similar approach. There are many different elements of faith that we might like to share with people. But we understand that if a person’s heart stops beating for Christ, it won’t matter if they don’t understand church dogma, doctrine, and tradition.

    We’ll hope that we have a chance, at some point, to discuss these important issues, these issues of advanced care, but we need to meet people where they are at and make sure their hearts beat for Christ. Eventually, I hope everyone can find a loving church family to connect with but that might take some time.

    Let’s keep in mind that a good number of our family members and friends, and likely the strangers we’ll meet, are unchurched. We don’t want them to be un-Bibled and un-Christed, too.

    This Advent season let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us and then help us help our family members and friends, and maybe a stranger or two, to examine the roots of their Christmas tree.

    I’ll be back soon with our week 2 message where we’ll aim our Christmas lights into areas of darkness in our life.

  6. Advent Series

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    It’s Christmas time. Are you making out your gift list and decorating your house? Are you looking forward to holiday shopping and your favorite Christmas cookie or candy? Perhaps you’ve started dreaming about your favorite things like rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens….That is a favorite Christmas memory of mine. My sisters, Mom and Dad watched the classic movie, “The Sound of Music”, every year.

    But is that what Christmas is all about? Is that what all the fuss is about? Is that all there is to Christmas? Maybe Christmas joy seems out of reach for you this year. Maybe your sense of peace has been interrupted by concern for a family member or friend. Do you remember Charlie Brown calling out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

    With everything going on in the world today we can all use a little spiritual first aid this Christmas.

    For the season of Advent leading up to the Christmas celebration, we’re going to offer a 4-part series, with a special message each week.

    Week one, we’ll examine the roots of our Christmas tree.
    Week two, we’ll aim our Christmas lights into areas of darkness in our life
    Week three, we’ll make out our spiritual gift list
    And the week of Christmas, we’ll wrap up our spiritual gifts for our friends and family, and maybe even a stranger or two.

    Our goal for the series is to help everyone be more confident in the story of God, more aware of where each of us fits into the story and how Satan is trying to trip us up and be better equipped to share the Good News of Jesus Christ this Christmas.

    Most of us know, to some degree, about the challenges inside our churches. Participation is down and confusion is up. And, if you’re like me, you know many people, children, and grandchildren, who won’t go to church this year.

    All of us at Caught Up in Christ Ministries believe all of this puts a new focus on us, you and me, to be church to our family, friends, and maybe even a stranger or two. It’s my goal to equip lay people, you and me, to understand the story, live out God’s love, and share the message of Christ this Christmas.

    After His resurrection, and right before Jesus was taken up into heaven, Jesus told his disciples that He would come again, and that the Holy Spirit would continue God’s work in the world until He did. Jesus also told us about the role that we would play in the unfolding drama. In Acts 1:8, Jesus said, “When the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

    Have you ever considered that Jesus might come again during your lifetime? Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus might come again in our lifetime. And what if Jesus really meant that…that you and I would be His witness in our homes, neighborhoods and even to the ends of the world?

    The simple thought that Jesus may come again in my lifetime amazes me. And the thought that God wants to use me to save another soul scares me. But after I take a deep breath and ask the Holy Spirit to give me a double portion of help, I feel ready to try and do my part this Christmas.

    As I start this series, I am full of thoughts for my own family and friends. I thank God for my wife, sons, daughters in law, and grandchildren. I also think about our extended family and friends.

    I have also been blessed to connect with a growing number of people through our Caught Up in Christ events. I think about the mom who hasn’t spoken with her daughter in over a year. I think about the family whose son continues to battle drug addiction. I think of the grandmother whose grandchild attempted suicide this past year-twice. And I think about the wife whose husband will spend Christmas in prison after a pornography conviction.

    And do you know any members of the older generations who fear all they’ll find in their Christmas stocking this year will be more loneliness? They’re all wondering if there is anything they can do, if there’s anything anyone can do, and if there are any miracles left in Christmas.

    How are you doing this Christmas? How is your family doing? Do you need the light of Christ this year? Do you know people who need the peace of Christ this Christmas?

    I hope you’ll join me over the next four weeks. The series will be part support group and part battle briefing to discuss strategies for how we can compassionately and effectively share our faith with those around us.

    I hope the series will be a blessing to you.

  7. Our Relationship with Christ

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    Our relationship with Christ determines “…how we experience the world, and how the world experiences us…” (page 8). What could be more important than that? Every “seeker” needs to explore the answer to two pivotal questions: “Who is Jesus?” and “What difference does Jesus make in our lives?” (page 89). In his book Caught Up in Christ, Rick Merfeld simplifies and clarifies issues of faith that may have been clouded by society’s changing climates, life’s disappointments, and strict dogma. He also gives the reader prompts for application and reflection. Rick’s broad but biblically accountable brush strokes appeal to any denomination. It is a guidebook to take on one’s life-journey.

  8. Beware the Pandora Effect

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    Three word catch phrases and 5-minute videos, skewed news accounts, and social media traffic inundate us with perspectives from differing worldviews.

    Some of the views are easy to assess and we quickly discard or add to our mental toolbox.  Others can be more challenging to evaluate.  Three-word phrases and 5-minute videos stir up our emotions, tug on our thoughts, challenge preconceived notions, and can even spawn doubts in long-held beliefs.  In our fast-paced, data-driven world, these short bursts can be helpful as we merge from one thought to another.  But, there are dangers in merging traffic where people don’t stop to think things through.

    I love music. I remember learning about the Pandora music service with great excitement. There are other similar music services available in the market now, but I understand they all work about the same. You enter a song, musician, or type of music that you want to listen to, and you are immediately served up a selection. You sit back and enjoy your favorite tunes as Pandora becomes your own personal jukebox! (Younger readers may need to Google that!)

    Over the first few months, I created “stations” dedicated to 80’s rock and roll, show tunes, John Denver, Christian music, and instrumental movie themes. I thought I had my love of music by the tail! But then I learned a disturbing feature of the service. I would start off listening to powerful movie themes by John Williams and before I knew it, I was listening to country music! I found out the hard way that I had to use the buttons on the screen to like or dislike a certain song. If I didn’t stay in charge of what I was listening to, I would be carried off on a musical train that was going in a totally different direction than I had intended.

    We need to guard against this Pandora effect as we encounter different perspectives on critical issues.  It might be a timeless issue like creation, purpose, morality, or destiny; or an emergent issue such as critical race theory, identity, or human sexuality. If we are not careful, we’ll start off with sincere open mindedness only to find out later that we are tied into beliefs, views, and even behaviors that conflict with truth and lie outside our value net.

    Diligent discernment is key.  The graphic shows us the four dimensions of discernment.

    • Length Is the idea good for just today or will it be good tomorrow?  How far into the future will the idea be relevant, true, and have positive outcomes?
    • Depth What are the roots of the idea?  Where does it come from? What are the foundational beliefs and values that hold up the idea?
    • Height Does the idea rely on the wisdom of man or does it extend higher and include the wisdom of God?
    • Circumference Is the idea good for only me or a small group of people?  To what extent is the idea also good for your neighborhood and larger community?

    I think St. Paul understood that discernment takes time and effort, but he still encouraged us to “Not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12: 2)

    Let’s be diligent about discernment as we continue to care for ourselves, families, and neighbors, both near and far.

  9. Is there a place where things still make sense?

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    At work the other day, I was setting a project plan with an employee.  I asked if the plan made sense.  The employee said, “Yep, that makes sense.”  A nearby customer, reacting to the exchange, raised up his arms in celebration and proclaimed, “Thank God, there is a place where things still make sense!”

    The three of us had a good laugh. The gentleman may not have intended any deeper meaning, but his remark made an impact only because we had found common ground.  Like all good comedy, things are funny when they, on some level, correspond to reality.  With so much having been turned around, flipped over, or simply cancelled out, many are feeling our world no longer makes sense.  Can you identify with that feeling?

    If things don’t make sense right now in our country, there must have been something, at other times, that did make sense. What are the conditions, characteristics, and attributes that make a situation or an entire culture-make sense?

    To answer the question, let’s breakdown a football game.  A football game makes sense because both teams share the same identity as football players, and they have the same purpose-score more points than the other team to win the game.  The game also makes sense because both teams get the same opportunities, and everyone agrees to play by the same rules established by the league office.  The integrity of the game is protected by officials who apply the rules equally to both teams and assess penalties justly. There is even a system in place to resolve issues that arise, and it works for both teams.  We may not always agree with the officiating, and our team may not win, but the game, at a basic level, makes sense.

    Our culture works the same way. At a basic level, things make sense when there is a shared sense of identity and purpose, everyone plays by the rules, there are just penalties for wrong-doing, and the system to address issues works fairly for everyone.  The basics of our culture are important.  They provide the foundation on which everything else is built.

    Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi knew this great truth.  He started every season with the same basic lesson.  “Gentleman, this is a football.”  You can’t get much more basic than that!

    One of the reasons we are in the cultural situation we are today is that we’ve forgotten our basics, our foundation.  There is a reason why the United States, over time, developed into the most productive, revered, and giving nation in the history of the world.  I understand there are people who will take issue with me for simply making this statement.  Stay with me, please.  Your future depends on it.

    Our country is hurting. Between the civil and racial unrest, the pandemic, all that surrounded the federal elections, and all the personal and family situations and events in our lives, we’ve experienced 25 years of pain in the last 12 months.

    In any situation where a person-or a country-is hurting, the healing process starts with essential first-aid.  In medical situations, first-responders provide first-aid to maintain healthy essential functions before moving on to advanced care.  If the heart stops, it won’t matter if the left arm is broken. Remember, “Gentleman, this is a football.”

    For over 200 years, there was a widely accepted and celebrated foundation on which our country stood.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    (Declaration of Independence)

    The Pledge of Allegiance was recited in schools and everyone stood for the National Anthem. I know, I hear all the media stories, too.  Some things have changed and there are those who are working to cancel elements of our history.  (I’ll help you understand how even these efforts make sense in a forthcoming blog.) Yes, it is critical that we recognize and work to heal the terrible parts of our history, but life-giving first-aid does not include ripping out the heart of our unique national body.  A short story will help.

    In 2001, my family had the honor of meeting Lt. Robert Martin, and three other Tuskeegee airmen.  Lt. Martin agreed to partner with me.  We published an article about his life as a young black man growing up in predominantly white Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Against the odds, Lt. Martin graduated from high school, earned his Bachelor’s degree in Engineering from Iowa State University, and joined the Army.  He became a member of the first African American fighter squadron that trained at Tuskeegee, Alabama. The Black Birdmen, as they were called by German pilots in World War II, trained on separate airfields, ate in separate dining halls, and slept in separate quarters.

    We enjoyed a number of wonderful phone conversations as we developed the article.  I’ll never forget the day I finally braved enough courage to ask Lt. Martin a question that had been on my heart from the beginning. I was becoming aware of my white privilege and I wasn’t sure I had the right to even ask the question. Yes, white privilege is a thing, but it’s not everything you hear about in the media. Lt. Martin was gracious and moved quickly to the answer that testified to a heart-felt and deeply held conviction.

    “Bob,” I asked.  He had invited me to address him so.  “With all the bad things happening to African Americans, why were you willing to die for our country?”

    “Rick,” he replied. “We knew what was happening in Germany.” Lt. Martin was referring to the holocaust of the Jewish people and other identity groups at the hands of Hitler’s army. “We knew things could get worse, but we all believed the United States had the right foundation and things were getting better.” Lt. Martin passed away in 2018 at the age of 99.  His story testifies to the unifying power of a shared ideal that helps things make sense, even in times of war.

    Providing effective medical first-aid requires an understanding of essential organs and systems of the human body.  Providing effective first-aid for a hurting nation requires an understanding of the essential foundation and the basic elements of our nation. There is so much included in the words and ideas of the Declaration.  Today, we’ll focus on only four words: truth, equality, creator, and liberty.

    We hold these truths not only points to the specific truths that follow in the Declaration, but even more important today, truths points to the foundational belief in the existence of truths-those things that are essentially accurate, correspond to natural reality and are not open to debate; they transcend movements in time, and are not relative to individual situations or opinions. We are becoming a relativistic society where people feel they can have their own truth depending on how they feel about something or what they think is true about a situation at a given moment in time.

    St. Augustine said, “We love the truth when it enlightens us, but we hate it when it convicts us.” Our foundation calls us to be diligent about discernment, to put in the time to pursue and hold fast to what is true about our nation, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    We could start at the word and idea of equality and go a million different directions. But remember, “Gentleman, this is a football.”  Our foundation includes a basic belief in the equality and value of every person. And it’s not coincidental that the Declaration includes a recognition of and reverence for our Creator.  God, the God of the Bible, and the ideas, laws, and processes taken directly from the Bible were the nutrients in the soil of our foundation that nurtured the roots of liberty.  Freedoms are granted by human institutions and can be revoked by the same; but liberty, those inalienable rights, come from God and cannot be revoked by human institutions.  They can be stifled, but not revoked.

    These ideals and attributes help our nation make sense. If not God’s law, then whose? History records the stories of nations who adopt God’s law and those who follow after man-made laws.  The Bible tells the story of the nation of Israel and the blessings and curses that befell God’s chosen people as they worshipped God, and when they worshipped other gods.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian philosopher once said, “Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”

    There is a great lesson here about our nation’s woes.  We, too, have forgotten God.  This makes our most essential wound, a spiritual wound.  In the great lesson is also a prescription for spiritual first-aid.  We need to remember God and return to Him for His guidance and blessings.  Our nation’s history includes our great hero’s calling on the providential care of the Almighty in times of trouble.  Will we do so, in our current times of trouble?

    Things make sense when we recognize who God is and remember we are on stage but for a single scene in the great epic drama of time.  The prescription for spiritual first-aid also includes getting caught up in the main character in the great drama-Jesus, the Christ of the one true and Living God.  You may need to step back from your wall to see this great truth. Each of has a wall and when we stand too close to it, we lose sight of what is around us. The answers we seek are often behind us, above us, or beside us, just out of our field of view.

    We wake each day to a world that is more and more anti-God and anti-Christ.  If you are like me, you have questions, and doubts.  It can be hard to hold on to faith in Christ, much less start a new relationship with Him. When providing spiritual first-aid, it’s important to recognize that doubts lead to questions, and questions, if left unanswered, can plummet into total disbelief.

    Christ heard some of our very same questions and doubts from his very own disciples.  Believe me, He hears ours, too. In my next blog, we’ll look at how Jesus answered his disciples.  His response is just as comforting and validating for us today! We’ll also apply the same lessons of spiritual first-aid to our individual lives.  Things makes sense personally when we understand our situation, space, identity, and purpose.  We’ll also look at who our enemy is and learn how to be engaged against his attacks.

    Prescription for spiritual first-aid

    Reading the Word of God is essential spiritual first-aid.  If you are not currently reading the bible, I encourage you to start with the Gospel of John, a chapter a day.  Join us as we get caught up in Christ!

  10. Why Bother with the Bible?

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    In today’s world, it is no surprise that many people doubt that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. But if it is anything less than this, could there be any accuracy in its details or power in its content? You may have other questions or perhaps you’ve heard doubts expressed by those around you. Does God really exist? Is there any way to know if Jesus really died on a cross at Calvary and rose from the dead? We wake each morning to a world that is increasingly hostile to God and the Christian worldview. Unanswered questions lead to doubts; doubts, if unchecked, can mature into total disbelief.

    Today, seekers and believers as well, hunger for evidence that makes it easier to hold fast to the truth about Christ as revealed in the natural world and in the Holy Bible. The world may mock those who are caught up in Christ. Yet, evidence answers questions, dissolves doubt, and empowers faith.

    But let’s get real. Even when convinced of biblical authority, why bother with it? What practical value could it serve? Caught Up in Christ illuminates five outcomes you can expect from getting caught up in Christ and the Holy Word of God. We’re not talking about superficial tips and tricks but measurable results that you can see and touch, quantifiable outcomes that will change the way you experience the world and how the world experiences you.

    The five outcomes are an enhanced sense of peace, a powerful partnership, a godly perspective, pure thoughts, and lastly, the life-changing impact of being persuaded by the truth about God and becoming persuasive for His kingdom.

    Do you long for peace of mind? Are there fears that you want to overcome and problems that you would like to solve? Are you searching for a way to make sense of the world and to find your place in it? Can you imagine how your life might be better if you could change the way you impact those around you? Do you long for a way to help those around you to achieve peace and the changes they desire? Can you imagine a deeper, more meaningful worship experience?

    If you are like me, you answered yes to one or more of these questions. Look around. People everywhere are searching for answers, and many are finding out the world has overpromised and under-delivered. It’s important to start our search by imagining the difference Christ would make in our life and in the lives of our family and friends.

    I invite you to read the book and join in our conversation about the Bible as we get caught up in Christ.