Remodeling or Transformation?
I am at Our Saviour’s to see Jesus transform your life. I am not God’s remodeling guy. I am not here to earn a paycheck. I am not here to mark time. I am not here even to learn to speak or to bake in Danish.
Warning: Transformation begins with disruption. God has even better plans for your life than you do. I do not mean “transform” as a cliché, or as “supplement” or “accessorize.” God wonders why you cling to crusts when he offers fresh-baked, why you hold back when he calls you to follow, why you guard weeds when he wants to cultivate you with a fresh start.
I work, I prepare, I plan, I study, I pray. Many of you do, too. But our shared ministry is like farming. We can plant clean seed in rich soil at the ideal time, but we look to God for the sunshine and rain. Without God, there is no harvest. We are here for harvest!
The easiest moment for me to observe God’s work is usually Sunday morning worship. Often I can see that people are with me, or I sense that I need to shift gears to reconnect. When a message has touched people’s hearts, I usually know in the pulpit, and people affirm it verbally as they exit.
One sermon was really disappointing for me. I laid my heart bare as I shared a friend’s story of transformation. I pointed to Jesus who redeemed my friend from abuse and has richly blessed her life. I assured everyone that no matter what has happened, no matter what shadow or darkness they feel, Jesus can bring forth beautiful fruit. They seemed deaf.
The first worshipers to talk with me on their way out were polite. What had gone wrong? Then, Etty took my hand and squeezed with both of her almost 90-year-old hands. She said emphatically, “That was my sermon. That was my sermon.” Then a 50-year-old woman left the building…and came back in…and hugged me…and immediately left again. Then a teacher grabbed my hand very firmly and thanked me. I told her that I had been afraid I had failed because of the lack of response in the sanctuary. She said that the quiet was their response, that the message had hit home. Only God transforms. I pray for God to transform your life and our church.
Dear God, disrupt us. Break our grip on anything that blocks your blessing. Give us your vision. Transform us into your harvest field and then in to your harvesters. Amen.
Pastor Ben Unseth
Those who reach the highest are those who sit on another’s shoulders. “Self-made” men and women are unaware of the people who have carried them, or ignore those who have helped them.
When my dad died in January, I lost the teacher who let me ride on his shoulders to learn about Faith. My mom has carried me and taught me about Love. Others who have carried me into new insight include: Carol Tuntland and her team for Worship, Jim Johnson for Encouragement, Dave Housholder for Communication, Greg Seeba for Service, Lyla Prindle for Thankfulness, Tom Reimers for Leadership, and Bruce Prewer for Liturgy.
I grew up hating liturgy, so it is surprising to include it in this list. However, a couple years ago I discovered Bruce Prewer, a Tasmanian and Australian pastor, online. He died last September, and I have never met him, but he continually encourages and surprises me with his writing for worship services. If you like a Confession, Affirmation of Faith or Prayer that we use, there is a good chance that I have borrowed it from him—such as our Affirmation of Faith in April. As we walk through Lent and Holy Week, his Palm Sunday poem encourages me, and I offer it to you:
“Only One” by Bruce Prewer (www.bruceprewer.com)
Only one king comes to our town
not in a Rolls Royce or BMW
with police bikes all around,
but bareback on a runt of a donkey,
like a comedian, feet brushing the ground.
Only one high priest comes to our church
not led by bishops and cardinals
rich-robed with religious sentiment,
but led by a grubby gang of street kids
screaming their heads off with merriment.
Only one God comes down our street
not surrounded by holy angels
or shining like the sun at noon,
but with tears running down his cheeks
for those who play the devil’s tune.
Only one true-man comes along this way
never looking to be served
or honoured with public praise,
but to serve and give his life
as a ransom for rebels and strays.
When I read that Bruce Prewer had gone home to Jesus, I wrote to his family to say thank you. Whose shoulders have you ridden on? Who can you say “thank you” to during Lent?
Come ride the strongest shoulders in the universe with us as we worship on Sundays, Lenten Wednesdays, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday: “About Benjamin he said: ‘Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders’” (Deuteronomy 33:12). Even though the verse sounds like it is about me, there are room on God’s shoulders for you! One big question for you: Who are you bringing to Easter?
I’m somebody! I grew up on the Avenue on the Saints—US Highway 218 between Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Saint Louis, Missouri, running right through Saint Ansgar, Iowa!
No wonder I’m so saintly, even the mascot in Saint Ansgar is the Saints. But people told me wrong. The Avenue of the Saints follows US 218 but not through Saint Ansgar. I was lied to. I was cheated. Does that mean I am not a saint?
Every week I gathered with the saints in our beautiful old church building. I wanted to ring the bell, but they said that I was too small. I wore a robe and lit the candles as seriously as I could. I sang out loudly as most of these saints did. Almo boomed bass from the back. Verdie led with soprano from the front, and the rest of us filled in. I listened to long Scripture readings and tried to make sense of them. I attempted not to fidget through the sermon.
Listening carefully—when I wasn’t off daydreaming–I learned some pretty important truths. God made the whole world, and he loves me. Sin breaks God’s heart. God sent his Son, Jesus, to conquer sin and make me his child. God is with me everywhere I go, guiding, warning, providing and protecting me. God has put me here with all these other saints to be his hands and feet in my community. God has separated me for himself—made me a saint.
I also understood that I could cooperate with God or get in his way. I could submit my will to his or ignore him and do things my way instead. I heard from the Bible that going my way is difficult, but temptation lies to make it look easy and smooth. Sometimes I didn’t feel like a saint. Sometimes I didn’t talk or act like a saint.
Every spring Lent came. I was reminded that Jesus’ love for me knows absolutely no boundary. I cannot adopt myself into God’s family; that’s God’s work. I cannot wash away my wrong; that’s God’s work. I cannot starve or suffer my way into God’s favor; God already looks at me with boundless favor—we call it grace!
As we walk through Lent together, I encourage you to relish God’s overwhelming favor toward you. His boundless love and grace are ―new every morning‖ (Lamentations 3:23). How can you cultivate, deepen your awareness of this? From now till Easter, what could you alter in your schedule or habits to help you focus more on Jesus and his love for you and those around you?
Pastor Ben Unseth
The Power of Five Minutes
What is the difference between 5 percent and 70 percent? Only 5 minutes!
You can make huge changes in this little bit of time. Maybe not in 5 minutes just one time—but definitely in 5 minutes a day.
When I arrived at Our Saviour’s, I was delighted to see the gymnasium. I have always loved basketball…even when it didn’t love me back. Back in middle school and early high school, I warmed the bench during basketball games. The coach had us shoot free throws every day, and I did well with that. There was no defender trying to take the ball from me during free throws.
After a week or so at Our Saviour’s, I walked into the gym and decided I would shoot free throws until I made 10. Shot after shot bounced off the rim or the backboard, or missed both. Eventually I made a free throw. Argh, I thought, how rusty am I? Very rusty! Lots more shots ricocheted off the backboard, the rim and the wall.
After a while, a couple shots went in, and I thought, Great! Finally, I’m in the groove. Muscle memory is kicking in. But I was wrong. My free throws went everywhere but through the hoop. After several dozen more misses, I was up to 8 made free throws. Curious as to how badly I was shooting, I began to count my attempts. It took me about 40 shots to make the last 2 of my 10 free throws.
All told, it took me about 200 attempts to sink 10 shots. That calculates to 5 percent. I thought about walking out of the gym and never going in again. Instead, I go into the gym almost daily, and attempt 25 free throws. It takes 5 minutes. Making 4 of 25 shots meant forward progress. I was excited when I could make 6 of 25.
Five minutes a day makes big changes. After a month of shooting, at the end of September, I attempted 100 free throws one day, and I made 54 percent. In October, my best day was 64 percent. In November, I nudged up to 65 percent.
In August, I shot only 5 percent. One day in December, I shot 70 percent! The difference between 5 percent and 70 percent is only 5 minutes.
If you have relationships that are not working, invest a few minutes a day. If you wish for a higher level of fitness, invest a few minutes a day. Each of us wants to achieve something, and it can look different for each of us.
My common recommendation for everyone: Open your heart to God and his Word 5 minutes a day. You can set prayer pauses in your day like the psalm-writer who wrote, “Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164). Pause to thank God when you get up, at breakfast, coffee break, lunch, coffee break, supper, bedtime—there you have it, seven times. Jump in with us on reading a chapter a day… because 5 minutes will change your life! The Holy Spirit can even shift you from being self-conscious to God-conscious.
Pastor Ben Unseth
King David said that the Bible is “more precious than gold, than much pure gold…sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:9-10). God said that kings should keep a copy of God’s Word with them and read, and David took this seriously. He said that God’s Word is “more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold” (119:72). When life seemed dark, David declared, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (119:105).
In 2019, the very best gift that I could give to many of us is a successful trip through the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. But there’s a problem with that. Most people do not read books. Pastors do not like to admit this, but it is true.
Daily devotionals are the greatest tool ever for getting people to read Scripture on a daily basis, but devotionals do not get us through the whole Bible. Christians aspire to read the Bible, but it feels like a high hill to climb. If we start in Genesis, many give up in Exodus, or if we are strong, in Leviticus. We run in to parts that are awfully hard to understand. We have never read giant books like War and Peace or Moby Dick. Tackling the 1,189 chapters from Genesis to Revelation feels huge!
May I repeat? The very best gift that I could give to many of us is a successful trip through the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. My good news for you: We have a way to do this together this year!
We will read one chapter a day (not 3 or 4), and we will understand the whole Bible from beginning to end. We will read chapters that can be understood on their own. We will read chapters from the Old Testament that tell the story of God’s work among his people and chapters that point us to Jesus, the Messiah and Savior. As we read key chapters from the Old Testament, our Sunday readings will be weekly visits to the New Testament. As we walk through Lent toward Easter, we will find special Lenten readings, and we will read the Gospel of John in the month leading up to Easter. When we begin the New Testament, our Sunday readings will be weekly visits to the Old Testament, especially the Psalms. We will read the Gospel of Matthew and selected chapters from Acts and the Letters (Epistles).
Special readings will lead us up to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. At Thanksgiving, in a season of New Testament chapters, we will enjoy a full week of Psalms. At year’s end, we will have read chronologically from Genesis to Revelation, from every book in the Bible!
You will never be the same!
This is a no-guilt project. If you miss some days, jump back in on the current day. If you want to read those missed days, good, but do NOT worry about it.
There are booklets on a table in the entry if you want to see the whole year’s readings. Or, simply follow along in the newsletter calendar. You will see each day’s reading.
Pastor Ben Unseth
It was Christmas Eve, and I was not done with my Christmas shopping. So I got in the car and headed out. Driving to the mall was horrible. Driving through the mall parking lot was even worse. Once in the store, the aisles were crowded. I searched and searched, found what I wanted, and headed to the long cashier lines.
In front of me were a couple women much more frustrated than I. Exasperated, one of them huffed to the other, “I just can’t wait till blankety-blank Christmas is over!!” I think she was missing something about Christmas. She was belting out loud what a lot of people feel.
Christmas can become a burden or a drudgery, too many same-same parties, too many gift obligations. This might be you. It is definitely some people you work with, or friends you hang out with, family you love and pray for, or a lonely neighbor.
If I were Dr. December, I would offer a prescription to the worn-out woman in the shopping line; to your searching coworker, friend, family member and neighbor; and to your heart if it’s heavy. I would prescribe a Silent Night; some Joy to the World; a pilgrimage to far Away in a Manger, in O Little Town of Bethlehem, where Of the Father’s Love Begotten an Infant Holy, Infant Lowly was born for you and for me. I would prescribe a late night encounter with Angels We Have Heard on High announcing God Rest You, Merry! (pssst…This song is saying that God wants to make you merry, not that God wants to give rest to merry gentlemen.) God did not give us Christmas as a sentimental holiday In the Bleak Midwinter. The core of Christmas is Mary’s Boy Child.
These are the things that I Wonder As I Wander. And when I kneel on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I will whisper in wonder, “What Child Is This?”
I have two pleas for you this month: 1) O, Come All Ye Faithful. 2) Who can you invite and bring with you to hear some great Christmas music and to encounter Jesus as the meaning of Christmas?
God makes dreams come true…because God has already planted dreams in your heart.
As a kid, I longed to be a football player, an opera singer or a firefighter. Kind of a strange list but there you have it. I would walk around singing Handel’s Messiah at the top of my lungs. My brother would say, “Mom, make Ben be quiet.” No, I will never be an opera singer, and it is rather obvious that God did not create me to be a professional football player.
I had also given up on becoming a firefighter. But God had not. In October I was made an officer of the Audubon Fire Department—Chaplain. I have the privilege of serving alongside some of the bravest people you will ever meet. Every day they report for work to offices, farms, businesses and government facilities. At a moment’s notice, they abandon their paid duty stations to save someone’s life. They do not look to me to run into a burning building or drive an ambulance. But I have met them at the hospital, and I will follow them to a fire.
It was surprisingly emotional when I first tried on my vest that reads: CHAPLAIN. After so many years, the dream of serving with a fire department was dead, dead and gone. However, whatever God starts, he can finish. God knows how he wired you. He knows what gives you joy. He knows the calling he has on your life.
Step one was yielding my will to Jesus. Step two? That is up to Jesus. It may look different from someone else. He will guide you along straight, and sometimes winding paths, to bring you to a place you have dreamed about. Maybe given up on ever reaching.
God promised his exiled, hopeless, people, “Surely I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). How do we connect with these perfect plans? Two sentences later he offers us the secret, “Seek me with all your heart.”
What dream is God seeking to fulfill in your life?
Pastor Ben Unseth
Someone came by my office and said, “Your message on Sunday made me want to open up the Bible and read it!” That is exactly why I am at Our Saviour’s. I want you to fall in love with Jesus all over again…or for the first time. When God stirs up individuals, congregations or nations, it begins with God’s people opening our hearts through the Bible and prayer.
This summer a pastor told me, “God has made the Bible enjoyable for me again.” I do not know if that makes you want to laugh or cry—a pastor liking God’s Word “again.” I appreciate his honesty. He is a faithful servant, and God has blessed his ministry. However, on the inside he was functioning from duty and obedience. Then he put himself into a new fellowship and Bible study group, and God has renewed his joy.
I cannot imagine any parent at Our Saviour’s coming home after work and ordering, “No more smiling. There’s too much happiness around here. We need to look serious all the time.” God calls us his children, and the Father finds joy in your joy. Jesus said, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).
The best gift God can give us is a sense of his presence day by day, confidence of his love toward us. Ask God to show up in your life! Then, respond when he does.
What is the next best gift you can imagine from God? Ask God for that too—whatever is in your heart. He wants to bless you and make you a channel of blessing to the people in your circle of influence.
How will I know what to ask him for? On your own, read God’s Word and pray daily. Set aside a slot in your daily schedule—a dedicated time in a dedicated place. (In September, I pointed to Genesis; that book is still great. The book of Job is challenging, but if you read it in October with our Sunday messages to boost you along, you will see yourself and God in Job’s story.) Just like my bored pastor friend, join a group that meets to read God’s Word and pray. Women: you have several groups to choose from at Our Saviour’s. Men: join us at 7:00 a.m. Tuesdays, starting on October 2nd! Share your life with people who will encourage you in Jesus.
I want you to fall in love with Jesus all over again…or for the first time.
Blessed to be with you,
Pastor Ben Unseth
Iowa is where I am from, and finally, Iowa is where I am. Even our DMV officials are friendly and helpful!
Right where I belong. That is a great feeling. That describes my heart as I walk through Audubon City Park, enjoy a meal with new friends downtown, and especially as I gather with you to worship as Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church.
Right where I belong. That is how I want you to feel with Our Saviour’s. If we are honest, people come to church for very different reasons. Some of us simply find joy in coming together in the presence of Christ. I aim to keep that going for you. Some of us come to church because we feel like we have to–for social, business or family reasons. I hope to see that change; I want you to begin experiencing Sunday worship as the highlight of your week. Talk to me about it. Some of us come to church now and then, hoping God exists and church is not a fraud. I pray that God will blow on that ember of yearning so that you will experience life as you have only dreamed it could be. I long for you to tell me, “Finally, I am right where I belong.”
You may have asked yourself: What is an interim pastor? For the next 12-18 months I have the tremendous privilege of serving as the bridge to the next long-term pastor. As an intentional interim minister, I see my role as twofold—Conservationist and Catalyst. As Conservationist, I am here to encourage and preserve ministry. I did not come to Our Saviour’s to remake it in my mold. I am with you to strengthen what is good, to keep what is best.
As Catalyst, I open the door for a congregation to consider, plan and implement change. I invite you to tell me about our strengths and weaknesses, our achievements and our conflicts. Tell me about your dreams for the future of our church. I ask lots of questions, such as: When people visit for the first time, what are their challenges? Or, does this policy help us fulfill our mission?
I am here to affirm Our Saviour’s in cultivating and strengthening our best practices. I am here to empower you to discuss and reconsider whatever is not helping us fulfill our mission. I am here to prepare Our Saviour’s to welcome and to thrive with its new long-term pastor.
Blessed to be with you,
Dear friends in Christ,
It is a difficult task to say goodbye to the Our Saviour’s Lutheran faith family after serving with you in ministry and mission since August of 2010. Julie and I want to express our heartfelt appreciation for all you have done with us and for us. Your prayers, your presence, your friendship have all been truly amazing and a blessing beyond measure.
As our time together comes to a close there are numerous people to thank and a multitude of highlights that I believe give us reason for rejoicing. Throughout our time together God has provided me the privilege of being your servant-leader, to partner in ministry and mission with a talented and committed staff, a hard-working, faithful and delightful team of congregational leaders, and a wonderful family of believers I have come to love and appreciate.
Yes, throughout the years there have been challenges we have faced as a congregation, but let me say that, for me, the joys of our time together far outweigh the difficulties we have experienced. I want to encourage everyone not to lose sight of what God has in mind for each new day he blesses us with. Be diligent in discerning the Lord’s will for your life, for your family, and for your faith family. Live your life for the Lord, giving sacrificially in response to what our gracious God has first given you!
God bless all of you and the investment of your precious time, talents and treasures in your future ministry and mission together. In closing I leave you with these words from our Lord, the Apostle Paul writing to the Christian community in Colossae: “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Colossians 1:9-12
In His Service,
Pastor Doug Opp