Angels, Angels Everywhere!

Of the five angel appearances in the Christmas story, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds is by far the most dramatic. This is the only angel visitation in which the glory of the Lord is reported to have illuminated the entire area. It had to be dazzling in the night darkness.

I can think of only one other occasion in Scripture in which an innumerable host of angels appeared to people. Yet the angelic army never uttered a word and remained unseen by at least one person. Perhaps they were unseen by many others. You can find the story in 2 Kings 6:17.

If you’ve ever wondered why other people didn’t see the angels which appeared to the shepherds, we actually can’t rule out that it might have happened. Just because something isn’t recorded in Scripture doesn’t mean it didn’t occur. Others might have seen those angels. Or they might have seen or heard something in the distance and just didn’t know what it was. It’s also possible that nobody else saw the angels because the shepherds were in a remote area. Or maybe God just closed everyone’s eyes and favored lowly shepherds with a royal message.

What a privilege it must have been for the shepherds to receive the angel’s message and hear the heavenly choir. Yet we don’t know the name of a single shepherd. One thing is sure: they had an incredible story to tell! After they had gone to see the baby, the shepherds became the first evangelistic witnesses for Jesus. People who heard their message were amazed. We should be amazed, too.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:13-14)


The Clevenger Chronicles: Year in Review

Our family had both an addition and a subtraction this year. Evangeline Karis Clevenger was born to our son Nathan and his wife Francine in early January. Carol’s father Harlon Jennings was called to heaven in August.

Evangeline was born with a severe case of laryngomalacia, a malformation of the larynx, which made it difficult for her to breathe and eat. She had barely regained her birth weight by the end of March. So the doctors did a tricky surgery called supraglottoplasty which made it easier for her to breathe and eat. Since the surgery, Evangeline has made a full recovery. She is small for her age (like her siblings), but now she can breathe and eat freely. She even started walking last month.

We lost Carol’s father Harlon Jennings in August. He died at the assisted living apartment he shared with Carol’s mother Lois. They were married 66 years. She still lives there and is doing well.

With the addition of Evangeline, Nathan and Francine now have four children—our only grandchildren. Francine recently noted that her kids don’t have any cousins. That hasn’t slowed them down. They can get into trouble even without cousins.

Jonathan is now a third grader at a Lutheran Christian school very near their home. He is artistic and has begun piano lessons. Justin is in first grade at a local public school, where he receives special assistance with the challenges of autism. He excels at math, even dabbling a little with square roots and very elementary algebra. I’m not sure he really understands it, but sometimes he gives the right answers. Francesca is a preschooler at the Lutheran school. She likes to play, but isn’t quite interested in learning letters and numbers.

Our middle son Joel and his wife Cara are very active at their church in Watertown, MN. Joel started a new job with United Bankers Bank in February. Cara works at another bank, so we know where to go for a loan.

Josh and his wife Dani are still stationed in Hawaii with the army. He says he could tell me where he trains, but then he’d have to kill me. Actually, he trains in hard places like alligator swamps and very hot deserts. I’m not sure what’s so attractive about the infantry. We won’t get to see them this holiday season.

Carol is the joy and love of my life. We’ve been married 38 years, but it seems like only 28. (Did I lose ten years somewhere?) She keeps me on schedule and continues to experiment with cooking. She makes her own cereal, salad dressing, and even almond milk. Her garden this year was very productive.

As for me, the church keeps me busy despite our small size. I also serve on the local charter school board and the Lions Club. I enjoy blogging. If you didn’t get here through the church website, here’s a link to it:

We wish each of you a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

The Clevenger Chronicles: A Bountiful Harvest

I participated in four funerals this summer within a two month span. The first was a relatively young man who died far too soon for the loved ones he left behind. The other three were all faithful patriarchs in their 90s, fathers of New Life Church members. One of them was Carol’s father Harlon Jennings, who passed away August 2, 2016, in Ashland, Ohio.

That’s a lot of deaths to process in a small church. We might call it a bountiful harvest by the Grim Reaper. It has changed the dynamics in our tiny congregation. All of us were helping elderly parents. Now all of us are going through the process of grief at the same time. We are finding hope and help in Christ. But it’s different.

This year saw an abundant harvest in our area. It was a second consecutive record yield for many farmers. Corn and beans are the lifeblood of our local economy. The yields in the fields were very high, but the farm prices at the elevators are very low. We might call it a bountiful harvest by the grip reapers. A few farmers can’t even sell their extra grain.

We’re used to experiencing ups and downs in rural Minnesota, but this year we saw them both at the same time. We’re hanging on tight as we trust God for the future. Come to think of it, for most farmers hanging on tight is just business as usual.

Another bountiful harvest we’re experiencing is the launch of a Good News Club in the local charter school last month. We’ve met only three times so far, but student attendance has jumped from five to 11 to 18. For a small congregation without any school-age children, that’s a bountiful harvest, or at least a good start. We are grateful to God for the opportunity to serve the community in this way.

The Clevenger Chronicles: Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow at the Grand Canyon

In late September, Carol and I toured three days at Grand Canyon National Park. We hiked down the beautiful Bright Angel Trail for a mile and a half into the canyon. Shortly after we turned around, a downpour soaked our path. It quickly moved out over the canyon and a bright sun emerged.

A brilliant rainbow formed beneath us in the canyon. It was breathtaking. We were over the rainbow! What Dorothy Gale only dreamed and sang about became a reality for us. It felt like a once in a lifetime experience. At first we were too stunned to think of taking our picture. Fortunately, another hiker offered to snap a photo. What a treat from our heavenly Father! Midday rainbows are impossible except in unique places like the Grand Canyon.

If you look at the picture above, you might miss that we’re actually over the rainbow because the camera is positioned above us and the vast expanse behind us looks like the sky. But it’s not the sky. It’s the canyon below. The rainbow stretches in front of the rocks in the picture—the canyon floor. Isn’t that an amazing sign of a divine covenant?

From the Grand Canyon we headed north to Yellowstone National Park. We drove through a hard downpour and arrived at Old Faithful just as the rain stopped. As we stood at the famous site, a rainbow hovered in the east over Old Faithful Lodge. What a beautiful sight! A few minutes later, the reliable geyser erupted right on schedule.

Two national parks. Two rainbows. One trip of a lifetime. One would almost think God is trying to tell us something. Actually, he is. Rainbows are the sign of a covenant God made with Noah. We are the beneficiaries of his unconditional promise never to destroy the earth again by water in judgment.

Rainbows are far more than a refraction of light caused by moisture in the atmosphere. They’re a reminder that God restrains judgment on us. The colors draw our attention back to a covenant relationship we enjoy with our loving, heavenly Father. Rainbows shout out a universal covenant. They illustrate God withholding his hand of judgment in mercy. We all need God’s mercy. Whenever we see a rainbow, we remember God’s mercy toward us.

But we need more than God’s mercy. We need his grace, too. Mercy only withholds the judgment we deserve. Grace bestows unmerited favor upon us. Grace is consummated in the incarnation, when Jesus came to earth. That leads us to Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah Jesus. The Savior brings us grace which extends far over the rainbow of mercy. He is full of grace and truth, fulfilling our deepest need. The rainbow is just the beginning. We also need the manger and the cross, all wrapped together in resurrection.

It’s a joy to hear from many of you during this time of year as we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus. May each of you have a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”  Genesis 9:12-16

I’m Dreaming of a…

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1:22-23

When Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas in 1942, he tapped into America’s dream for nostalgia in the early stages of a horrific world war. Bing Crosby’s sentimental rendition of that song is still the largest selling single record of all time.

Both major candidates in the recent presidential election portrayed a version of the American Dream. Dreams are not new territory for politicians. Herbert Hoover campaigned in 1928 for the dream of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Unfortunately, the Great Depression quickly derailed that dream when Hoover became president. As a lament in the Broadway musical Annie put it, “Not only don’t we have the chicken, we ain’t got the pot!”

Dreams often turn into nightmares. Two thousand years ago a man named Joseph dreamed of his future with a young woman named Mary. But his dream was derailed and became a nightmare. Mary had become pregnant. Joseph knew it wasn’t his child. Her account of how it had happened was beyond reason. She claimed she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit and was carrying the Son of God. That was too much. It was a nightmare. Joseph wanted to break off the engagement.

But God had a different plan for Joseph’s dream. And he revealed it to Joseph in a dream. (Go figure!) While Joseph was asleep, an angel came to him and confirmed Mary’s story. The baby’s name was to be Jesus and he would save his people from their sins. Even though it was only a dream, it was enough for Joseph. He went ahead and married his fiancee. That’s a pretty powerful dream! For Joseph it was a dream within a dream.

At Christmas children dream about toys. Adults dream about… whatever adults dream about. Probably bigger toys. But Christmas isn’t really about our dreams, even our best ones. Christmas isn’t even about Joseph’s dream, though his dream is part of the story.

In the end, Christmas is really about God’s dream. God has a dream? Yes, he does. The angel told Joseph that Mary’s baby Jesus would save his people from his sin. His title would be Immanuel (or Emmanuel), which means “God with us.” That’s a big dream! It’s been God’s dream since the beginning of human history and it will be his dream until the end of time.

God’s dream was to send Jesus to save his people from their sins so that he could be with us forever. God wants to be with you and me. Immanuel: God with us. That’s his dream. Is it your dream, too?

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)


Angel Encounters: Zechariah vs. Mary

The first two players in Luke’s gospel—Zechariah and Mary—are a study in contrasts. Let’s start with the obvious: Zechariah was an old man and Mary was a young woman. It’s hard to overstate the significance of gender roles in the ancient world. Men have had always many more privileges than women—political power, social standing, education, vocational opportunities, financial options, and security.

Zechariah was an established temple priest, a religious professional. Mary was a nobody. The only word in the story used to describe Mary is “virgin.” That rhymes with “inexperienced” and “naive.” Zechariah was grounded in the synagogue school and priestly training. He trafficked in religious activities every day. Mary likely had no formal education. She probably couldn’t read or write even her own name. Mary’s religious activities were different than Zechariah’s, but she had an active and vibrant faith.

Yet all that pales in significance to the most striking contrast between Mary and Zechariah. It stems from opposite responses to a shared experience. The angel Gabriel appeared to each of them and delivered similar messages—they each would produce their first-born son in implausible circumstances.

Zechariah was asked to believe he would have a son with his wife in their old age. That required a miracle. Gabriel’s message to Mary was even more impossible. Mary was asked to believe she would bear her son as a virgin. That required a super-miracle! Yet Mary believed God and humbled herself. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel’s word, at least not at first. What a contrast! Zechariah failed; Mary succeeded. Mary, not Zechariah, is the unlikely hero of faith in an angel encounter.

We may never experience an angel encounter. But we will encounter a faith test. We’ll be asked to believe God in difficult circumstances. We may be asked to believe God in harder ways than other people who seem better qualified. When we face a challenge like that, maybe we are highly favored, as Mary was. May our response be as strong as Mary’s reply to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

The Decision

This post provides the conclusion of a difficult decision I faced last week to accept or reject free health care from the state. The social worker said there was nothing they could do and there were no alternatives. I must accept free health care or reject it and buy private insurance on my own at an enormous cost.  If you haven’t read the story, you can find it here: 

After all the tension to this point, the conclusion to the drama is anticlimactic. The decision turned out to be no decision.

As I wrestled with what to do, something didn’t feel right. So I googled income limits for Medical Assistance. When the chart appeared on my screen, there was no doubt. I don’t qualify for free health care. It’s not even close. My taxable income is several thousand dollars too high. I should have never received the mysterious packet in the mail. It was a system failure.

I’ve been back to the county office twice trying to fix this. System errors can be hard to reverse. There will be some red tape. I think we’ll be able to get off Medical Assistance. But it’s not as easy as you might expect, even when we haven’t actually received any medical assistance.

This little unexpected episode touched me in a tender place. It hurt. Part of it came from a feeling of powerlessness. I’m not used to being on the other side of the desk. Part of it was trauma from the welfare trap. Dependency is destructive. And part of it was a determination not to abuse a system which has been favorable toward me for a long time.

Pastors have a wonderful tax advantage because our compensation can be divided into two portions, a taxable salary and a nontaxable housing allowance. Medical Assistance is determined only by the taxable portion of our income. The nontaxable housing allowance isn’t taken into account at all. That makes our income appear much smaller than it really is. I appreciate the tax break provided by the housing allowance, but I believe it would be unethical to use it to gain free medical care when we don’t need it. We clearly don’t qualify for Medical Assistance the way the program was intended–as help for those who really need it. To receive it would be abusing the system.

In the end, it was all about a system error and doing the right thing. Kind of boring, isn’t it? Funny, it wasn’t boring to me when I was in the middle of it.