The Men in White

It’s like ‘Come ‘on people, pay attention!

 Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”

Acts 1:1-11

Olivet

Angels

Obviously, the ascension of Jesus is the focus of this opening chapter of Acts, but let’s picture this scene for a moment. The Men of Galilee, as they are addressed here by the strangers in white, are standing there on the Mount of Olives slack jawed, staring up into heaven, probably somewhat in shock as they have just witnessed Jesus, who appears to still be as human as them, though they know better at this point, has just floated off of the face of the earth and disappeared into the clouds. Leaving them alone–so they thought.

They suddenly they hear a voice and turn to see two men in white apparel asking them, seemingly somewhat incredulously, ‘Why are you standing here gazing into nothingness?’  It’s kind of like the young man in white who earlier had asked Mary; “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” It’s like ‘Come ‘on people, pay attention!

In both these cases these angels, as we now know them to be, appear, or are at least described as simply menmen in white. To me that sounds like they could be mistaken for just another person—who happens to be in the right place and just happens to have the right answers, in the moment.

I have to wonder how many times these men in white have inconspicuously stood by us with an answer we needed at just the right time and we failed to realize who they were—until much later, if at all. Paul reminded us of this in one of his letters.

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels. Hebrews 13:12

There are many great stories of spectacular angelic rescues to be heard, but often, they are just bringing a word in time, to save a weary soul.

A few years ago I was a little discouraged—okay, a lot discouraged. I had been toiling away at the church here in Red Lodge Montana for years, still working full time —at that time actually working on a project in Miles City during the week—and the church seemed to have hit a wall, or at least I had.

So I was sitting on a park bench overlooking Red Lodge, up by the airport in a little park area and I was praying, or should I say whining, to the Lord. “Lord, what am I doing here. My vision of a thriving church that supports a ministry of healing and restoration, drawing people from all over to be refreshed and recommissioned for the callings and passions you had given them to make a difference in this world for you; it just doesn’t seem to be happening.”

Not to mention my vision of having a church big enough to allow me to quit my construction job and focus more on ministry—”Lord? What am I doing here? Did I miss something?”

Suddenly I noticed an older gentleman in a jogging suit and a pair of sneakers, walking down the trail that ran right past the bench I was on. He greeted me with a big smile and said; “Nice place for some R and R!”  “Yes it is.” I replied. And he just kept on walking. I sat there and thought; Yes, indeed it is, as his words seemed to reverberate in my soul.

I wish I could say the man was wearing white, I don’t remember— But he spoke the words of God to me just as surely as if the heavens had parted and Jesus had hollered down at me—’Hey! This is why you are here—remember?’

I am convinced that he was an angel.

That one sentence confirmed in me and reminded me exactly why God had sent me here, and reassured me that the vision and call to be here was still valid.

God sent me here with a very clear mission to build a church of refuge and rest, a place to recoup, rebuild and refit for wounded soldiers who are weary of the fight, who feel scorned and cast aside or who just need a little R and R. And what better place for a ministry like that then in Red Lodge MT at the foot of some of the grandest and most beautiful mountains in the world?

Red Lodge -Swaningson

The very nature of a ministry like that, by design, is that people might stay for a while and then move on into the plan God has for them. Healed, forgiven, forgiving, and empowered by his Spirit. And it has been happening.

God never told me how many it would be happening with at a time—he just asked me to come. And to claim and cling to my own healing along the way.

And if it takes an occasional visit from the men in white to remind me—than thank you Jesus, I’ll take it. Why are you standing here gazing into the heavens? —’Why are you sitting here on this bench whining?’ Okay Lord, I get it. I’ll go back and do what you asked me to do.

And you know what? Anything I have ever done with and for the Lord, no matter how difficult, is still better than my old life without Jesus.

Angel is a word that simply means messenger. Are you listening to the messages?

Stay on Task

now available as a podcast

This nasty cold subzero weather we have been enduring lately has me praying often for ranchers who are calving. I used to calve in February and remember well the struggles of keeping calves alive and well when these cold fronts hit. You just did what you had to do, no matter the cost in sleep, comfort or resources. The life of every calf is precious, not just for money but because you love your animals—the money could never be enough to motivate all that you endure for these critters.

If you visit or talk to any rancher who is calving in weather like this, if they had time to talk, you would find that they have or have had brand new wet calves in the cabs of their pickup trucks, in their kitchens, even in their bathtubs, sometimes all at once and at all hours of the night and day. While the ranchers themselves are emanating the pungent aroma of old and new afterbirth, manure and sour milk as they guzzle coffee and try to thaw out their feet in time to go catch the next calf.

I have an old black and white photo hanging in my church office, counting my years as a children’s pastor it has been in my office for almost 20 years now. I found in at the big museum in Cody WY years ago and instantly fell in love with it because it so captures that spirit of doing whatever it takes to care for your animals, staying on task no matter the cost.

Charles Belden circa 1920-1930

It’s a picture of a Cowboy taken in the 1920’s near Meeteetse Wyoming. The cowboy is on a horse in a blizzard, bundled up as best he can against the cold, and he has a new Herford calve draped across his lap as his horse struggles up a hill against the wind driven snow. It hangs in my office as a reminder to me that ministry is not always easy nor fun. That reaching the lost and caring for the flock is seldom convenient nor is it a part time, yeah, I think I’ll stay in tonight, everyone will be just fine without me kind of assignment.

What does that have to do with end times? Everything. But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. 

No matter what you hear, no matter the forecast, the rumors or the challenges—you need to keep trusting in me and the strength that I will give you to complete your task of reaching the lost.

If you read through all of this chapter 13 of Mark and catch the heart of what and why Jesus is telling the disciples of the storms to come, it is so that they are not caught off guard, that they know he expects them to keep seeking the lost, to stay on task and no give up no matter the struggles and difficulty of the times and places they find themselves. And that goes for all of us who follow Jesus and are called according to his purpose.

Every life, every soul, is precious and worth facing the storms for.

Are you ready to face the storms? How have you been holding up in the storms? These are important questions and are exactly why Jesus warns us of them, so that we do not get discouraged and thinks it’s all over, that this is our end. It is not, remember, there is no past tense for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Mark 13 is an entire chapter devoted to Jesus’ warnings of the tribulations to come.

The big scary end times, death and destruction, persecution and tribulation, desecration and desolation, Jesus is coming and the angels are going to gather the elect from the four corners of the world chapter.

“For in those days there will be tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the creation which God created until this time, nor ever shall be. 20 And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake, whom He chose, He shortened the days.Mark 13:19-20

It’s scary both to read and to try and teach on because Jesus gives us just enough detail to let us know scary big events are coming, but not enough detail to know exactly when and how they are going to happen. And Mark, as per his usual style, just records the facts and leaves the commentary and analysis to the many generations of preachers and scholars to come.

It’s not scary to me personally, I actually love that Jesus gives us these words of warning and encouragement, detail wrapped in mystery. An eternity altering mystery whose clues will not entirely be understood until they all fall into place as they happen and we who knew the clues say, “yes, yes, yes,—that’s it, that’s what it all meant, the prophecies were true and God is in control!”

But as a pastor it’s scary to teach on because so many have such strong opinions as to what it all means and will argue it as though their salvation depends on it.

That’s just wrong. Your salvation does not hinge on how you interpret end times prophecies—on when you think you will be whisked away, from bliss to bliss or from tribulation to bliss. Nor does it depend on where you think we are in the timeline of God’s plan for the last days. Your salvation depends on one thing, or one person rather, and that is Jesus Christ and whether you have accepted him as Lord and Savior—period.

Jesus is not concerned with how good we are at solving prophetic riddles, he is concerned with how seriously we take the need to stay on task no matter the chaos and challenges around us—Chaos and challenges we were promised and warned would come.

But he also promises to ride the storms with us, giving us the strength and the passion to complete our mission. Don’t give up cowboy, the big roundup is still to come.

Fanning the Flame

“It was not long before we heard sirens coming from what seemed every direction, . . . we were now the idiots who tried to blow up Billings. “

Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? 18 Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? Mark 8

Can you imagine standing toe to toe with Jesus and having him ask you this? The indignation of this question is quite obvious in the context. So this was no rhetorical or contrived discussion question.

Welcome to the Capernaum chapter of the Clueless Fishermen for Jesus support group. Let’s break the ice by going around the circle and explaining in two or three sentences why you are still confused about this carpenter/teacher/prophet from Nazareth. Who wants to go first?”

No, This is a question from Jesus that no doubt made his followers a little uncomfortable. It’s like—‘Do I need to call Captain Obvious to explain things to you? Can you not hear? Can you not see? Have you forgotten everything?’

Do we understand? Because it’s easy to miss the obvious truth that Jesus is the Christ and that in him we have nothing to fear and nothing to loose, if we are totally surrendered to and trusting of him.

We have to keep fanning the flames of truth and understanding to really bring the knowledge of who Christ is, and what that means for us, from the head into the heart, into our very spirits. We have to let the Holy Spirit move freely through us and in us and that is a huge challenge because the enemy will do everything he can to block that wind of the Spirit so that those flames will die out leaving us with nothing but head knowledge and a weakness that leaves us susceptible to the yeast of the Pharisees—a yeast of selfish ambition and religious attitudes of judgment and haughtiness.

Look at me. I’m somebody and you are nobody, and I am worthy of more.‘  That attitude, along with the weaknesses of the flesh that we may give in to, can block the Spirit and leave us smoldering.

Why do we not understand? Because we are not putting it all together. This is what the Lord told me, because I asked, and the Lord gives wisdom to those who ask:

“The understanding is in the heart, the wisdom is in the word, and the conjunction is in the Spirit.”

Worldly wisdom comes from the head and what we can put in it. Godly wisdom is seated in the heart, it is a wisdom that comes from God’s word and is brought to life by his Holy Spirit.  

The word is the fire that is in the heart and the wind that fans the flames is the Holy Spirit fanning it all to life for wisdom, power and understanding. All of that leads to the faith we need to get us through this life with and for Jesus, blessed, fruitful and advancing the Kingdom of our God.

Fire!

Back in the 80’s when I worked for an outfit that did pipeline and refinery work we got contracted to do the demolition of one of those big oil storage tanks at the Conoco refinery in Billings. The tank was located in a lot just behind the refinery actually, just off the Interstate in what they called the “tank farm.” If you are going through Billings you have surely seen those tanks right near the river just before you get to the Lockwood exit.

Our job was to go in there with cutting torches and cut this huge tank into sheets of metal small enough to fit on a flatbed truck to haul away for scrap metal.

So where do you start demoing a giant steel tank? On the roof of course. So, using a crane with a “man cage” swinging from it they hoisted me up to the top and deposited me with my cutting torch in hand. The Oxy/Acetylene bottles were still on the ground and I had many feet of hose run out to it. I started cutting away, the plan being to cut pie shaped pieces of the lid loose and let them fall down inside. That’s another story all in itself, it’s a wonder I survived my earlier construction years looking back at some of the things we used to do. But anyway, so far, so good.

Now, this tank had been sitting empty for many years and there was a large hole cut in the side big enough to drive a small skid steer through and to let things air out real well. But there was this weird thick black dry residue of something all over the floor. It looked to me like ground up tires, three inches thick or so. It was actually some kind of residue from the crude oil that had been stored in the tank at one time.

We soon discovered that it was somewhat flammable, no problem. As I was cutting on top, occasionally a small fire would flare up on the floor and someone would just go in and pat it out with a shovel.

Then the boss, the owner of the outfit, ol’ Wayne, at least he seemed old to me at the time, decided that it would be much more efficient to put the oxy/acetylene bottles up on the lid, and then we would have enough hose to get two guys cutting.

So they loaded up the bottles into the man cage and hoisted them up to the lid. Everyone’s attention was on the bottles and the people going up to the top—and no one was watching the inside of the tank where a little bit of smoldering residue had got enough wind to burst into flames.

We now had a big enough hole in the roof that the wind blowing through the opening in the side could really get to fanning the flames and soon there was quite a plume of smoke billowing out of the top. I shouted “Hey, there’s a fire down below!”

The flames were now way too big to pat out with a shovel. The boss quickly swung us and the bottles down off the top and soon everyone was running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I was standing there with Wayne waiting for him to tell me what to do and he looked at me and said; “I don’t know what to do!”

By this time there was a line of cars stopped on the highway watching this huge column of thick black smoke billowing out of the top of a tank; at the refinery!—this does not look good. We were a long ways from the nearest phone but the smoke signals we were sending up could be seen for miles. Just imagine a giant burn barrel full of tires; that’s what we had going there.

(A more recent fire) A STORAGE TANK at the ConocoPhillips refinery, above, lies crumpled Friday morning after a fire on Thursday in Billings.

I looked at Wayne and said “We have to stop that wind from blowing in that hole in the side—it’s just fanning the flames and making it look really bad.We grabbed a large tarp from one of our trucks and Wayne and I stood there and held it up against the hole as best we could to block the wind.

It helped but it did not stop the flames, the smoke was still horrendous. It was not long before we heard sirens coming from what seemed every direction. Soon a big yellow fire truck came rolling up and fireman all decked out in their coats and respirators came running at us shouting “What’s going on?”

We were standing the with our arms up over our heads holding the tarp against the tank, futilely trying to cut off the air, our faces black with soot—and Wayne didn’t say a word. I don’t know what he was thinking but he looked like a deer in the headlights. So I quickly explained the situation. About this time hoses were being strung out so we dropped our tarp and got out of the way as they ran headlong into the tank and started spraying foam everywhere.

Photo by Tobias Rehbein on Pexels.com
Here I am– to save the day!

Before it was over we had five different fire crews show up. The City of Billings, Lockwood, the refinery fire crews from Conoco and the nearby Exxon crew and a truck from the now defunct O’Donnell’s Fire service clear out in Shepherd.

I was just shaking my head. I kept thinking, “It’s just a little fire inside of a tank all by itself over here, it’s mostly just smoke!” But apparently everyone thought that the whole city was in danger. The fire was out long before all the trucks stopped rolling in.

Of course we made the evening news and we were now the idiots who tried to blow up Billings. But we went back to work the next day and made sure we kept someone on fire watch. Life goes on.

Thots

Do you understand?

Understanding is the small flicker of flame that starts as a little smolder in a rich and abundant bed of fuel planted in our hearts by God’s word, that has to have the wind of the Spirit to really get it roaring. The Devil will try everything he can to put out that fire. But all he has is a tarp made of lies to try and block the wind. Don’t let him do it.

To understand you have to put it all together, if you understand that Jesus is the Christ, that he is with you, that you have nothing to fear, that he can use what you have to do incredible things from a heart of compassion for people, and do not let the greed of the heart, the lies of the world and the pride that is always prodded by the enemy choke you off, then the Holy Spirit will fan the embers of faith in your heart into a roaring fire that God can use to overcome any obstacle to his purposes that he puts on your heart to achieve.

Not for greed, not for glory, not for fame or self-satisfaction, but for Jesus.

The understanding is in the heart, the wisdom is in the word, and the conjunction is in the Spirit.

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