Monday, January 31, 2011

An Unmerited Gift

Saturday evening, we attended a fundraiser for my daughter's (and next year, son's) pre-school.  They throw a big party with a meal, silent auction, dessert auction, and a live auction.  The director has basically said the same thing two years in a row.  "The money we raise now helps us with the costs of our school throughout the year."

I told her point blank, "Nancy, the only thing I heard you say was, 'Pay now or pay later.'"

She laughed.

This is the second year we have attended this event, and each year a couple in Bellville has donated a number of cedar type chests to the live auction.  They might not draw too much in the bidding, but there is an emotional tug they use for all the parents in attendance.  Every kid in the class puts his/her hand print on the box and writes his/her name on the hand.  It's pretty cute.  Kaylee's hand was in red, and you could tell she signed her name, backwards Y and all.

My wife and I agreed these boxes were really cool.

We knew, however, that bidding on the box would probably be out of our reach.

Indeed, last year, Kiera's box went for well over $400.

This year, we attended this event with several congregation members.  We sat together and enjoyed a Cajun Feast complete with dirty rice, gumbo, and all the works.

The live auction kicked off, and before we knew it, Kaylee's class box was up.

A bidding war ensued, and the price was finally settled at $450. 

It was only after the thing was sold that we found out who won the box. 

One of the congregation members purchased the box, and she did so so that we could have it.

My wife and I were dumbfounded. 

It was one of the last things we expected.

We were honored.

We were thrilled.

As good Lutherans, we were humbled.

I know brought my congregation member and her husband great joy to present this box to us, and somehow even saying, "Thank you," didn't seem adequate. 

I know this couple, and I know if my wife and I tried to do something for them in return, they wouldn't be happy.  They wanted us to have this as a gift, and they are happy with our thanks.  It is enough.

But I think there is something within us that wants to do more.  We want to do some sort of action to express our gratitude.  If we receive a gift, we want to give something back in return.

But what if "Thank You" is enough?  And, what if, instead, of giving something back to this couple, we became inspired to do something for others?  What if receiving a gift led us to give to others without expectation of return so that they could give to someone else?

What if this was the way God intended us to receive the gift of His grace He gives to us? 

After all, God's grace is an unmerited gift as well.

Rejoice and Be Glad?

This week, I stood at the grave side with a tiny casket. A young couple and close family gathered to bury a baby boy who died seven months into a pregnancy. The couple sat there to bury their hopes and dreams for this child along with that casket. Hopes of a little boy to cuddle, and feed, and raise. Hopes of a little boy to run with and play with and hunt with and fish with. Dreams of watching him graduate from high school and college and then get married and have children of his own. All these hopes and dreams now shattered by the reality of a broken world. A world where children die before they are even born. What does one say to parents who find themselves surrounded by such pain and grief.

Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the Kingdom of God."

Really, Jesus. Is that the best you can do?

Yesterday, I spoke with a member who had a lobe of her lung removed. She had a tube in the remaining lung which made her uncomfortable to say the least. She was forced to have the surgery because of a spot of cancer they found there. This is not this member’s first go round with cancer. She’s already had to take chemo for a different form of cancer. She endured. That cancer is gone only to be replaced by another. The doctors were confident they removed all the cancer with the removal of that lobe, but now comes the waiting to see if indeed they are correct. Will there be further treatment? Will her body have to endure even more pain and suffering battling this invasive disease? What does one say to a child of God who finds herself in such a situation?

Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the Kingdom of God."

Really, Jesus. Is that the best you can do?

Friday, I presided at the funeral of a member of this community who did not attend church here. He had been in failing health for a while, but now he leaves behind a widow who also has numerous health problems. She is now left to wrestle with what life will be like without her husband. Will she be able to maintain their home? Will she be able to take care of herself and face her health issues? Will she have to contemplate moving? Will she have the strength to face her grief and her illness at the same time? What does one say to a person facing such a difficult situation?

Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the Kingdom of God."

Really, Jesus. Is that the best you can do? I mean, are you saying to each and every one of these people they should suck it up and endure their sufferings? Are you saying they should bide their time as they go through such things because one day they will somehow come across this wonderful Kingdom of God and everything will be hunky dory? Are you saying somehow that because they suffer today, they will get a chance at a better life after they die? Is that what you are saying Jesus? Is that what you were telling all those who were and are hungering, thirsting, suffering and grieving? Is that your answer to all the terrible things that happen to us in this lifetime?

"Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the Kingdom of God."

In some manner, these words seem so out of touch with the reality of most people who suffer. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am not questioning Jesus and what he is saying. He more than anyone knows what we need to hear and how we need to act in this world, but is Jesus offering us words of comfort telling us to focus on a reality that we will only experience in the life to come? What about what people go through right here and right now? What about their pain? What about their grief? What about their hunger and thirst? Is it all about what happens in the future, or is there something else at play when Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad, for yours is the Kingdom of God?"

What if, just what if, Jesus is not telling all who weep, all who mourn, all who hunger, all who thirst, all who suffer to superficially rejoice and be patient for a reality that is to come. What if, just what if Jesus is telling all of these folks that they are a part of the Kingdom of God right then and right now. I mean, if you look at what Jesus says, he does not say for yours will be the Kingdom of God–the word "is" is a present tense verb. It declares the reality right here and right now. It does not indicate something far down the road. It is immediate. It is immanent. There is no waiting. Yours IS the Kingdom of God.

What if Jesus is telling that young couple, rejoice, I am with you now. I understand your grief. I understand your suffering. I understand what it means to feel like something is unfairly taken from you. I can’t take away your grief and pain and suffering, but I am with you and I will give you strength to endure. I offer you hope. My Kingdom is not far away, it is with you. Rejoice.

What if Jesus is similarly in that hospital room with our church member. What if He is saying to her, "Rejoice. I am with you in the midst of your illness. I am the great healer, and I will work with your mind, body and spirit. I will bring you the healing that you need. It might not be the one that you desire, but I know what is needed, and I will give it to you. I am not far away from you, but I am near. Present. With you even in the midst of all you are having to endure right now. Again, I say, rejoice."

What if Jesus is with that elderly woman who has just lost her husband? What if He is with her right now offering words like, "Rejoice. I am with you in the midst of your loss and grief. I am with you in the midst of your health issues. I am with you as you seek to make tough decisions about your future. I am not far off. You do not have to wait until you cross the threshold of eternity to experience life with me. I am giving you strength. I am giving you wisdom. I am opening doors for you that you never expected. The life ahead of you looks confusing and scary, but rest assured, I will never forsake you. I am with you always. Rejoice."

So often when things happen to us that we consider tragic, meaningless, hopeless, unfair, awful, or whatever adjective you would like to use, we tend to wonder what in the world God is up to. We wonder if He has turned His back on us. We wonder if we have been forsaken. Like Jesus from the cross we cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

But what if, just what if in our moments of pain, in our moments of suffering, in our moments of grief and tragedy, God is most present with us? What if it just so happened that when we thought God was most absent, He was actually most present? What if when we believed we had no cause but to weep, mourn, become frustrated, become angry, and shake our fist or cry our tears, it was actually a time to celebrate because God was wonderfully and radically with us surrounding us with a love and a presence beyond comprehension. What if that was actually happening?

Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad. For yours IS the Kingdom of God." Right here. Right now. Amen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Sermon I Would Have Preferred not to Deliver

Wish there were never a need to bury a child before he/she had the chance to breathe a first breath.

Romans 5: 1-5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Charlotte and Aaron, after presiding at the funeral for Cash, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would once again stand before you under similar circumstances. I never thought I would have to once again walk with you through a parent’s worst nightmare. The odds of lightening striking twice in the same place are astronomical; yet it seems that the two of you have had the worst of luck.

Today, we gather to bury Cade, who, like his brother, never had the opportunity of tasting life; never had the opportunity of experiencing all the things people experience in this world that are both wonderful and tragic. Once again, the hopes and dreams you had for this child are shattered, gone in the blink of an eye. And once again, I have few, if any words that can offer comfort in the midst of your grief.

Yes, what I said at Cash’s funeral still holds today. I still believe more than ever that one day you will get to see Cade in the way God meant him to be. I still believe God didn’t need another angel. I still believe God didn’t intend for Cade’s heart to stop beating while he was still in the womb. And I still believe God is seeking you out in the midst of your grief and despair to offer the comfort only He can give. As I said before, so I say again, God knows what it is like to lose a child all too soon. He knows the grief and the anguish. He knows the questions you have, and He wants you to ask them. God understands and does not begrudge you your grief, your anger, and your despair. But there is something God offers you as well, and it is my hope today as you wrestle with all the darkness this death brings, you will grasp and hold onto this one thread.

I have with me this morning a flashlight. You will notice that it is a very small flashlight. Some would say that it is too small for much good. You certainly can’t see very far by its light; however, if you have ever been in a situation where there is total darkness and you can see absolutely nothing, I can assure you, this little bitty ray of light is comforting, reassuring, and it helps you see just enough to move ahead inch by precious inch.

In the lesson I just read from St. Paul’s book of Romans, Paul tries to offer those who suffer just such a ray of light. He calls upon us to rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Suffering leads to hope. This is God’s message to you and to me and to all who wrestle with tragedy. We don’t always know the answers. We oftentimes find ourselves surrounded by doubt. Our vision becomes cloudy, and darkness surrounds. But hope pierces that darkness, and many times it starts small. It gives us strength to put one foot in front of the other. It shines a light so that we can see just a little bit ahead of us, and it gives us comfort that there is a bigger picture that we cannot see in this time and place. We may not know what that bigger picture entails, but we can trust that it is there. We can trust that somehow God knows and understands what we do not know.

Please, take this flashlight. It’s not much, but may its light, although small, remind you of hope. And may that hope give you strength in the days ahead as you work through this difficult time. Amen.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who Do You Follow?

It actually was a pretty innocuous comment.

There was no maliciousness to it at all.

Two pastors were talking at the check out line at the hotel this morning.  They were wondering where their particular synod's pastors would be gathering.  Both were unsure.

One finally commented, "Just follow the crowd.  That's what I always do."

I had to grin to myself after hearing those words spoken.  "Just follow the crowd."

In all actuality, it's usually the safest thing to do, unless you are a Lemming or by chance you were actually trying to get to a place the crowd is not going.  Usually, there is safety in numbers, both physically and emotionally.

When we were a hunting/gathering bunch in our past, it was much safer to be in a group.  You were less likely to be attacked by predators or by roving bands of hunters like your own.  People generally live in towns and cities because they tend to be more comfortable with others around to keep an eye out on things.

But we haven't even gotten to the emotional aspect of it.  It's difficult to be a loner.  Sure, you can make your own decisions and dictate your own direction, but in the face of difficult decisions, it's always nice to have someone to talk to about it.  It's always nice to be affirmed in your decisions.  It's nice to have someone who shares your thoughts and feelings and direction.  It's easy to get caught up with a group of folks who are similar to you and simply go along with the flow.  Swimming against that stream tends to be very difficult.  Just follow the crowd.  It's easy enough.

But what if the crowd is heading in the wrong direction?  What if there are several crowds heading along and you mistakenly join the wrong one?  Do you want to leave every single decision you make to the crowd?

At this point, you might think I am going to go into one of those rugged individualist diatribes.  You'd only be half right.

There is something to be said for making decisions on your own.  There is something to be said for taking time to discern things apart from the crowd.  There is something to be said for finding out the directions to where you are supposed to be and not simply following the group.  In the example of this morning, the pastor would know his group and ask the hotel management where this particular group was meeting.  No need to follow the herd to find it.  And by taking the initiative on one's own, one can be sure about where one is headed.  Furthermore, if you are not relying upon anyone else to guide you, you must become stronger and more self assured.  You grow in such awareness and confidence until you feel you can accomplish many, many things.

However, there is a danger with rugged individualism.  When one becomes totally self assured, one can become very self centered.  Because I know what I am doing, I am right.  I don't need anyone else.  I have learned all I need to know.  My way is the right way.  (Why?  Well, because it worked for me.)  Pretty soon, an individual can begin acting without regard for others, even crushing others physically, mentally, or spiritually because of their own myopic view.

It seems to me, Christianity is neither about following the crowd nor relying upon one's self.  It seems to me, it is slightly different. 

From this past Sunday's Gospel lesson in Matthew chapter 4:

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."

Jesus says, "Follow me."

Not rugged individualism.

Not the crowd.

But Him.

Crowds can be wrong.

I can be wrong.

Jesus isn't.

Who do you follow?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Value of Heresy?

Sometimes I have to wonder about the necessity of having my mind stretched by scholars who espouse views on Christianity which in a not so kinder time would have been considered heresy.

I also have to wonder about attending conferences where said individuals are asked to keynote.

I am very aware that today's heretic is tomorrow's champion of the faith--see Martin Luther.

Yet, did Martin Luther ever deny anything written in the Apostles', Nicene, or Athanasian Creed?

Did Luther's scholarship allow him to embrace ideas which were counter to the expressions of the earliest, orthodox beliefs?

Not hardly.

I have little room to talk about such matters because at this juncture of my life, I am not courageous enough to confront such things while they are taking place.  I avoided the question and answers sessions at both of today's presentations.  I avoided the presentations altogether actually to write sermons and do a little self-care.

I was told in no uncertain terms it was a good thing that I did so because my attendance would have done nothing for my blood pressure. :-)

In a vastly pluralistic society, more and more are becoming convinced that Christianity isn't unique.  More and more are becoming convinced Christianity is simply one more path to the mountain-top many in humankind are striving to climb.  More and more within churches are convinced denominations are passe and only offer some kind of smorgasbord to suit various tastes.

But is this the truth as we espouse it?

Shall we as Lutherans forsake our confessions and our doctrine so that we can all just get along?

Note to those who would suggest yes: remember this quote I had from Timothy Keller a while back:

Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling.  The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed to it enough.

Think of people you consider fanatical.  They're overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh.  Why?  It's not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough.  They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding--as Christ was.  Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement program, they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7).  What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.
Knowing the radicalness of God's grace does not lead to arrogance or hatred of others.  Instead, it leads to a fanaticism of humility, sensitivity, love, empathy, forgiveness and understanding.  We as Lutherans should heed such words--even though there is no "requirement" to espouse them.

There is no need for heresy to remind us of our calling as Christians.  Such a thing should come from with our own churches and denominations.  It's built into our DNA from the get go.  Do we need to be shocked to listen?  To act?  To anger us just enough to motivate us? 


I'm leaving the door open for that possibility.

But chalk another year up to a Theological Conference seeped in non-Lutheran, anti-orthodox squalor.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Theological Conference in Galveston

An interesting first day of the Tri-Synodical Theological Conference in Galveston.

The site is Moody Gardens--a magnificent hotel and conference center.  As per my usual routine at such events, today, I made it a practice of involving myself at the conference activities, tomorrow, I will rest and write sermons for Sunday worship and two funerals, and Wednesday I will be back at scheduled activities.

Today was intriguing to say the least.  Our first worship service was an immersion into the worship of "The Emerging Church."  That's a flashy title concerning "cutting edge worship and preaching."  Honestly, as I sat through the experience, I found it to be absolutely nothing new.  I'd experienced such things 12 years ago as I went through seminary.  Even wrote a short poetical reflection at the end of the experience:

Emergent Worship
Church lite
One giant group hug
Without the actual
Feel it
Experience it
Tug the heart chains
Reminds me
Of camp
For grown ups
Nothing new here
Move along.

As you can see, I wasn't too impressed.  I know such worship fills a need for some, and I applaud it.  I am glad that some truly get connected to God and to the church through it, but it was not worship that fed me.  And that's O.K. in my book.  Each must worship in a place where God touches them. 

The second part of today's conference was the keynote speaker: Marcus Borg.  I'd read several of his books before, and hearing him speak was O.K.  I personally consider him an intellectual light weight.  I'd love to see him and Timothy Keller get into a true debate.  Keller is my hero when it comes to Christian apologetics.  He's good.  Real good.  But that is another topic of another conversation.

For now, I'll reflect on what Borg said, file it away for usage if necessary, and enjoy my free evening having a good dinner, a cold beer, and a friendly game of dominoes with my friends.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Going Fishing: Sermon Delivered 1/26/2011

The small town of Mountainberg, Arkansas never had much excitement. Aside from being in the picturesque Ozark Mountains and being near to a beautiful mountain lake, not much else drew folks to this out of the way, one stoplight town. There were no great shopping malls or touristy attractions. No chain hotels had built, and only a few bed and breakfasts serviced the tourist community. Days came and days went without much fuss.

In such communities, you almost had to manufacture excitement. Therefore, the powers that be came up with the idea to hold a fishing contest in the nearby lake. Most folks scoffed when they heard the news because they knew the two best fishermen in the area. Jeb and Zeke were as alike as they were different. Both had grown up in the hills. Both of their families had a storied past involving moonshine. Both were long and tall, and as time had taken its toll, both were short in the tooth. Growing up around the lake, both developed into fantastic fishermen. It didn’t matter the weather–rain or shine, hot or cold, if either of these two men went out on the lake, they would come back with a passel of fish. But that’s where the similarities ended.

Jeb and Zeke didn’t care much for each other. Jeb had never forsaken his hillbilly past. He wore overalls, boots, and flannel shirts. He wore his beard long and had a beat up old hat. He went fishing in an old row boat and used the first fishing pole he ever bought. For bait, he dug in the ground for worms, caught crickets, and kept a tank with small fish to use for live bait. Zeke was the polar opposite. Zeke tried to get as far away from his hillbilly past as possible. He wore store bought, designer fishing attire. He had the newest rods and reels. He had a beautiful fishing boat with the latest sonar equipment to help him find fish. He bought his bait in the shop and fancied himself with all the artificial lures. He prided himself in being up to date in the newest fishing technology and know how.

Folks around town placed bets on which of the two would come out ahead in the contest. Some argued Jeb would win because of his old fashioned know how. Others argued Zeke had the edge due to technology. These two men’s names appeared immediately on the sign up list for the contest, and after their signatures, no one else dared sign up. Most folks knew they were simply no match for these two expert fishermen. Of course, someone forgot to tell that to the Miller’s son. The day before the contest, the youngster ambled up to the sign up sheet and carefully wrote in his name as well. No one gave him a chance.

The next day, Jeb and Zeke showed up for the contest along with the Miller’s boy. The judge went over the rules. The fishermen would fish all morning long, and the one with the most fish at the end of that time period would win.

As folks looked over the contestants, the contrast was amazing. Jeb and his old fashioned get up looked quite the old fashioned fisherman. Dignified and full of experience and know how. Zeke looked refined and polished–like the fishermen in those outdoor shows who make money taking folks from place to place to fish. The Miller’s boy was the only oddball in the group. He was dressed in cutoff jeans and bare feet. He had a simple, stick pole and a bucket of earthworms. The judge said, "Go," and the Miller’s boy just went down to the end of the dock, sat down, stuck an earthworm on the end of his line, and stuck it in the water.
Zeke looked at the spectacle and chuckled. "Well, we won’t get no competition from him," Zeke said. "I look forward to winning the prize over your hillbilly ways, Jeb."

Now, Jeb took quite a bit of offense at that comment of Zeke’s, and Jeb responded, "Do you think your technology is going to give you the advantage over me you glorified peacock? I know every hole in this here lake, and I’m going to show you whose the better fisherman. Why if they took all that fancy stuff away from you, you couldn’t catch a cold!"

And that’s when the argument escalated. The two gentlemen stood there trading barbs back and forth, back and forth. They argued about Zeke’s equipment. They argued about Jeb’s backward approach. They argued about bait. They argued about how one should properly dress while fishing. They argued about boats. They argued about the weather. There was no let up in either of these two guys. Their contempt for each other overflowed that morning, and the crowds stood by and watched the spectacle with amazement and disbelief.
The argument became so heated, that all track of time was lost. Before they knew it, Jeb and Zeke realized they had spent the better part of that morning arguing instead of fishing. Why, if they didn’t break it off, they wouldn’t catch anything, and no one would win the contest. Hurriedly, they headed for their boats to try and salvage the rest of the contest time.

Jeb headed out to his favorite hole in the lake. He hoped the fish were biting there. He had planned to hit the three best spots on the lake, but now he only had time for one. If they weren’t biting there... He began to row his boat faster.

Zeke worked feverishly to fire up the motor on his boat. Of all the times to have engine trouble. He had to trawl around to allow his sonar to pick up the fish. If he couldn’t do that, why he wouldn’t know where to cast his lure. He might not catch a single thing all morning. That would be completely unacceptable. What would folks think? Trying every trick in the book, Zeke worked over the motor.

Noon rolled around before everyone knew it. The city park was full of townsfolk who came out to witness the results of the fishing contest. They wondered how the morning’s argument would affect the outcome of the contest. They wondered if Jeb’s know how would lead him to victory despite the time given to arguing with Zeke. They wondered if Zeke’s technology would have helped him overcome his stubbornness with arguing with Jeb. No one even gave a thought to the Miller kid.

When the moment came to tally the number of fish, the Miller kid came up first. He held up a string of five fish all caught from the dock. A few folks applauded the kid’s effort. They thought it was a nice gesture that he was willing to stick his neck out in a contest between the town’s two great fishermen. Then they turned their attention to Jeb and Zeke. If this kid caught five fish, they were sure these two had at least doubled the catch respectively.

But Jeb and Zeke kind of stood there. Those standing near the front saw redness creep up their necks and into their faces. Jeb and Zeke each held up their catches. A gasp went up from the crowd. Each had caught just one fish.

The Miller’s boy was handed the grand prize for catching the most fish, and no one had to ask the reason why he won. While the two experts sat and argued half the morning away, the Miller’s boy spent his time fishing.

I’m not sure I need to go much further in explaining how this little story ties in to our second lesson and our Gospel lesson this morning. I personally think the link is pretty obvious. For how often do our churches get caught up in arguments and conflicts about who is right and who is wrong? How often do our churches get caught up in arguing who should be allowed to do what and when? How often do our churches get caught up in arguing about how much money should be allocated to what part of the church budget? How often do our churches get caught up in arguing about which theological doctrine is more important than another? How often do our churches get caught up in arguing about the things their pastor does or doesn’t do? And how often do such arguments get in the way of our primary purpose? How often do these arguments prevent us from focusing on the most important part of our life on earth? How often do these arguments prevent us from fishing for people?

It seems to me that as a church, we will never be fully united in our beliefs about God–our beliefs about Christ–or our beliefs about proper doctrine. But I do believe we can be united and of one mind when it comes to doing what Jesus called the disciples to do in the Gospel today. "Come with me," Christ said, "and I will make you fish for people." Amen.

Friday, January 21, 2011

When Lightening Strikes Twice

I received one of those phone calls earlier this week.  One of those calls that lead down dark pathways--or as the psalmist writes, "through the valley of the shadow of death."

About two years ago, I endured one of the hardest days of ordained ministry--officiating at the funeral of a still born child.  As I led the service, I simply could not look at the grieving parents.

My worst nightmare during our son's miracle pregnancy was that something would go wrong, but I was fortunate.  It didn't.  I have a happy, healthy son.

Those parents at the funeral weren't that lucky.  Their son had died in-utero.  Seven months in.  That tiny casket at the front of the funeral home was a stark reminder that when lightening strikes, it can have devastating effects.

Therefore, I cannot begin to fathom what this same couple is going through right now.  Lightening has indeed struck twice.  Another death in-utero.  Another baby boy.  Another round of grief, anguish, and despair.

I may be called upon to preside at this funeral.  How does one bring good news into the midst of such a nightmare?  I am glad it will not be solely up to me to bring God's Word.  There is something to be said for the Holy Spirit's work.  I only hope He can use me to, if I am asked, to bring some small measure of comfort into lives which are burned tremendously once again.

Lightening strikes suck.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Back to Law and Gospel

This Sunday, I will be presenting the following to my Bible Study Class.

As I reflected on my wrestling with the Law/Gospel dynamic, I remembered a scene from the movie "Luther."

The night before Luther was to present himself before the Diet of Worms, he spent the night in his room cursing the devil.  At one point, he settles himself down, lies prostrate on the floor and begins repeating over and over the words his spiritual mentor taught him to say.  Referencing Jesus, Luther says, "I am Yours.  Save me."

It is in that spirit which I wrote the following:

Addendum: God’s Will is Equal to Christ’s Will

St. Paul writes these words is 1 Corinthians chapter 10 and 11:

23"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up. 24Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. 25Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, 26for "the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s." 27If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—29I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? 30If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? 31So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 32Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. 11Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

And again, Paul writes in Philippians chapter 2:

3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
In both of these instances in Scripture, St. Paul brings to the awareness of those hearing his letters the calling a Christian has to follow and imitate Jesus Christ.

Some years ago, a popular fad took hold as teenagers wore bracelets with the letters "WWJD?" The letters stood for "What would Jesus do?" Some mocked the wearing of these bracelets as superficial and trivial.
What would Jesus do, indeed? Those mocking this fad deemed Jesus would come into the world and die for it, so to ask such a question somehow demeaned His sacrifice and his actions on behalf of the world.

Yet, what if those who were wearing those bracelets had it right? What if a Christian’s continual task in life is to ask the question, "What would Jesus do in such a situation?" and then try one’s best to act accordingly?
Scripture leaves little doubt a Christian is called to imitate Christ and have the same mind as He did.
And how did Christ handle the Law?

We can unequivocally say at times He made it more strict, and at other times He made it more flexible.
For instance, in Mark 2, we have an instance of Jesus "loosening" the law:

23 One sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ 25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
On another occasion, Jesus made the law more strict (Matthew 5):

27 ‘You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
On yet another occasion, Jesus changes the consequences of the law (John 8):

3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
There is no clear cut measure by which we can say Jesus handled every single law which He came into contact with. Yet, he did give us insight into the two most important laws (Mark 12:28):

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" 29Jesus answered, "The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these."
St. Paul echoes these words, but he adds one caveat (Galatians 5:14):

14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
It seems to us, a true test of which laws must be followed and which laws can be loosed is how they relate to loving God and loving one’s neighbor. As followers of Jesus, it is paramount that we seek to do the same. This does not necessarily make things easier for it requires us to embody the mind of Christ–something sinful beings have a hard time doing.

Therefore, when seeking to loosen laws, we must do so with an abundance of humility and an overall concern for how our actions will affect those around who we are trying to reach with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Generating a Controversy

Enough of the Law/Gospel wrestling for at least a day.

This morning, as I brought up my internet browser the following story glared back at me:

Governor Robert Bently is apparently not politically correct enough when he, while speaking at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church after the official inaugural ceremony said, "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

Now, I do not share the same outlook on who is my brother and sister.  Jesus had a slightly different take on who was His brother and sister in Matthew chapter 12 (as well as in other places):

46While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

For Jesus, anyone who did the will of God the Father in heaven was His brother and sister and mother.  Does this mean that an atheist who does justice, loves kindness, and offers mercy is Jesus' brother or sister or mother?  Take a look at what Jesus says, and you tell me.

I'd have to answer in the affirmative because Jesus isn't talking about what one believes.  Instead, He is talking about what one does, and there are numerous instances where those who do not believe in Christ act more Christian than Christians.

This actually is not a problem for Christians because 1. We realize we are sinners and fall far short of what God expects of us.  Healthy people don't need a doctor. And 2. As the book of James tells us, every good deed and gift comes from God. 

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  James 1: 17

But there are those within the Christian tradition who are more limiting.  They reserve brotherhood and sisterhood for those who they consider the family of God--those who not only act according to the will of God but for those who also believe in Jesus Christ. 

I never gave much thought to such a thing until I attended numerous worship services with a girlfriend while I attended High School.  She was Baptist, and when we got to church, she went around introducing me to Brother such and such and Sister so and so.  They really believed all Christians, when they set foot inside a church became a family.  In addition to this, they believe very strongly that God wants all folks to be a part of that family as well. 

(Incidentally, I agree as this is part of Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28.  The big difference, I think, between their understanding of the faith and the Lutheran tradition is they believe they are personally responsible to make such a thing happen.  We, however, believe we are called to bear witness to Jesus in word and in deed, and the Holy Spirit takes it from there.) 

If you are not a believer in Christ and are not baptized, you are not considered a part of the family of God.  It is their theology.  It is their belief.  It is their strongly held conviction.  And there's not a darn thing wrong with it!  Governor Bently is living out his personal theology as he says what he believes at a church gathering, and he is taking flack for it--just because someone disagrees with him.

It's a manufactured controversy.  Plain and simple.

Folks are wondering, "Will he treat all folks equally?"  "Will he try to use his governorship to convert everyone?" 

Um.  Hello.  Stop speculating and let the guy do his job.  You will see soon enough.  You can gather evidence if you see interference between Church and State.

Honestly, such a story is as bad as those who were convinced if JFK was elected President of the U.S., the Pope would somehow be in control of the United States.  Again, a manufactured controversy.

You would think with all the issues our country is facing, folks in the news business would be more interested in helping find solutions to problems instead of manufacturing new ones.

Unfortunately, we can't control such things.  But we can make sure we don't get worked up about them ourselves.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Tangled Web

On May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder walked into a Lutheran church in Wichita, Kansas and killed Dr. George Tiller.  Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in the United States who performed late term abortions.  Roeder confessed to the killing, and he gave his reasons, "...preborn children's lives were in imminent danger."

There are those within the Christian faith who would condone such an act of violence.  They would argue, vehemently that such an act protects innocent children from being murdered.  Eerily echoing the words of Caiphas in John chapter 11, they would say, "You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”   Although they would not consider an abortion doctor dying for the people. 

In my previous post, I spoke of how the Lutheran reformers gave an avenue to "loosen" Biblical laws so that something prohibited in Scripture could now be allowed within a church.  Now, we travel down the slippery slope.

What if...a community of Christians gathered and decreed the shooting of doctors who perform abortions is allowable?  What if...a community of Christians gathered and decreed such acts were justifiable because they prevented greater harm?  What if...a community of Christians gathered and decreed that such acts were not sinful and a Christian was free to act in such a manner?  Would that community be right in its declaration?  After all..."all things are lawful", and if no one objected or was offended...

Oh, what a tangled web is weaved.

I have no doubt that even St. Paul--the primary author of salvation by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ--would argue some laws are not to be messed with.  In fact, I can prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.  While penning his great treatise on the primacy of grace, Paul slips in this sentence in Romans 3:31, "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law."

Even Paul knows we can't just do whatever we want.  Even Paul knows we can't just throw the law out the window.  Are there things we can ignore?  Sure.  But are there some things which are non-negotiable?  I think so.

But how does one know the difference?

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.  --Genesis 32:22-29

To me, this is a fascinating text found in the book of Genesis.  Jacob, who by all rights was a scoundrel, has an encounter with God.  He wrestles with God throughout the night.  And when all is said and done, God blesses Jacob.  But, it is not without cost.  Jacob is fundamentally changed by the encounter.  His name is changed, and he bears a physical scar after all is said and done.  Is there a metaphor for us when we wrestle with loosening the Biblical law?

If, in the course of our lives, we come across a law which doesn't seem to address our situation any longer, should we not wrestle greatly with God?  Should we not work and wonder and worry?  Should we not enter into such a discussion without fear and trembling? 

And, if in our striving to loosen a law, should we not expect to come out unscathed?  Should we believe everything will be "hunky-dory" because we figured everything out?

It seems to me that if a community of faith decides to loosen a Biblical law, it can expect pain and consequences.  It can expect to be fundamentally changed--hopefully, in the long run, for the better.  But I cannot see how one can flippantly loosen a Biblical law without consequences.

It seems we should try and uphold the law.  For the law gives us the boundaries of right relationships with God, with creation, and with one another.  Are there exceptions?  Sure.  There always are.  But it doesn't change the law.

My head hurts.  Time to stop for a while.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Wisdom of the Past

I think it's folly that we sometimes believe we are more intelligent than those who have gone before us.  Sure, folks in the past didn't have to deal with the technology we have today; yet, they did have to deal with human nature.  They had to deal with relationships.  They had to deal with many of the same questions we continue to struggle with today.  And some of them found answers that worked--at least for them.

When a group found answers that worked for them, they became a part of that group's practice.  Over the years, such things became tradition, and many such traditions are still alive and well.

The Christian faith has undergone much scrutiny over the 2000 years it has been around.  There are various and many traditions which are alive and well.  Too bad we generally neglect them.

In my last post, I dealt with the elaboration of an article of a document I produced called the "Cat Spring Confession."  The overall document is a wrestling of sorts that I have undertaken to help me define what I believe Lutheranism in this century is all about, and as I worked with the document last week, I was astounded at something I came across in one of the important documents of Lutheranism: The Augsburg Confession.

One of the Lutheran Church's greatest struggles in this time and place is grappling with how we interpret Scripture--specifically how do we deal with the Law.  Many Christians and non-Christians are familiar with the Law of Christianity.  It's all the dos and don'ts.  Many a debate has taken place on what should be done and not done according to the Bible.  Many a time someone rises and begins an argument in the church with the words, "The Bible says..."

And they are usually correct.  The Bible does say a whole lot.  It gives a whole lot of guidance and instruction.  It tells us what God expects and doesn't expect.  I don't know of a single Christian who doesn't take at least part of the Bible to heart in such a manner.

However, I also know of no Christian who practices every single command in the Bible.  I know of no Christian who practices every law or considers the breaking of some laws to be sinful.

What do I mean by such a comment?

In my Bible study this Sunday, I asked the question of the group, "If a Christian soldier has an enemy in his sights and pulls the trigger, does that soldier commit a sin?"

The resounding response from the group was, "NO!!"

"O.K." I replied.  "Now put that example up to what the Bible tells us.  Put that example up to what Jesus tells us."

"Turn the other cheek," one lady proclaimed.

"Deeper," I said.  "Jesus said, 'Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.'  He also said, 'If you have anger against your brother you commit murder."

In no uncertain terms, if we follow the letter of the law, a Christian soldier who pulls the trigger with an enemy in his/her sights commits a sin.  Yet, most Christians do not believe this is such.  Why?

There are several options.  One is that we are hypocritical.  We pick and choose what we want to think is a sin.  We build our churches and gather people who are like-minded in our understanding.  We proclaim which sins are acceptable and which are not, and we drive off anyone who doesn't think like us. 

The other option is similar, but with a subtle difference.  It was the path the reformers chose in writing the Augsburg Confession.  They recognized the church did not adhere to all of the laws given in the Bible.  They used the example of women wearing head coverings and the example of eating the blood of an animal or an animal which has been strangled.  In both of these instances, the reformers noted that following or not following such commands does not affect the chief article of the Christian faith.  In addition to this claim, the reformers said no one is offended that such commands are not followed.  Therefore, these laws, included in the Bible and mandated by the inspiration of God--are now loosed.

Think about that for a moment.  If a Law which is contained in the Bible does not diminish the chief article of the Christian faith and if no one is offended that folks do not follow it, it is therefore rendered unimportant.

Uncomfortable with this?

I was.  And still am to a certain extent.  Yet, as I told my Sunday School class--this is the price of living by Grace.  For the chief article of the Christian faith according to the Lutheran Church is we are saved only by God's grace through faith in Christ Jesus--not by any work or following of the law on our part.  Only by God's grace.

I think the reformers had a terrific understanding of St. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians when Paul said, "All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial."  Because of God's grace, there is only one unforgivable sin--the sin against the Holy Spirit (which, according to Lutherans is a rejection of Christ).  All things are lawful.  But not all things are beneficial.  We can do all things--if we so choose.  As long as it does not cause offense.

I personally understand that part about not causing offense in the same manner that Paul talks about eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8-10).  If eating meat caused brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble--if it caused dissension--if it caused division and a lack of Christian love, don't eat the meat, Paul says. 

"All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial."

Such a stance by St. Paul, by the reformers and by others leaves us in a constant state of "greyness."  There is no black and white, cut and dried, understanding of what is right and what is wrong.  We are left to struggle with ourselves, with a community of faith, and with God as we seek to do the right thing.  If you thought Christianity was easy...think again.

It seems to me, in the battles which are fought in many churches between people wielding the sword of the Scriptures versus those who want to loosen certain laws, they are both right, and they are both wrong.  On the one hand, the Law contained within Scripture is to be taken seriously, but we can loosen it.  It's not automatically set in stone for forever.  And yet, when loosening such laws, we must discern when the church is ready for such a thing and not when we want it to be ready.  We must seek paths which do not seek division, dissension, and offense of our brothers and sisters to the point they wish to leave the church.  Again, if you thought it was easy to be a Christian...think again.

More thoughts continue to ramble around in that lump of tissue situated between my ears, but perhaps this is enough for now.

What I Thought Would Get Me in Trouble

My commentary on what happened will follow on another post:

Article 7: God’s Will
We believe God’s will for humanity can best be found in the pages of Scripture as we read the law, prophets, teachings of Jesus and the epistles. We recognize that some laws have been made null and void, and we recognize that some laws are more important than others–Jesus makes this clear in His teachings. When conflicting laws and teachings come before us, we judge which is greater by our canon within the canon.

Since we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, we are no longer subject to the disciplinary aspects of the law. (Galatians 3:26). This means, God no longer punishes us when we break His commandments. Rather, He allows us to face the consequences of our actions in due time. This is why sometimes evildoers get away scott-free. Technically, a Christian can do the same since he or she no longer will get zapped by God for committing evil. Grace overcomes all sin. As such, a Christian is completely and totally free.

However, a Christian does not take this freedom to indulge himself or herself selfishly (1 Corinthians 6:12). A Christian who has been saved by God’s grace, is motivated to follow the will of God and produce fruit. Jesus makes this clear on numerous occasions: Matthew 3:8; Matthew 7:16; Mark 4:20; Luke 6:43; John 15:5. Yet, we must ask ourselves, what is the good fruit we are intended to bear? How does one know which actions bear fruit and which actions do not?

Thus, we return to God’s law. Through His teaching to us, we learn what it means to live in a right relationship with Him, with creation, and with one another. Such teaching is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Any time there is an instruction of how a person should or should not act, it can be considered part of the law. When a person carries out the law, a person is producing fruit.

Yet, we know the question is now begged: does a Christian have to follow all the law? Are there some laws which have been nullified by grace? Can a person pick and choose which laws to follow and which laws to ignore?

First, we must recognize all of scripture is not equal. A simple test, used earlier in this apology, proves this quite easily. In the book of Leviticus, a good deal many foods are considered unclean. God clearly states these foods should not be eaten by His people (Leviticus 11). Yet, in the book of Mark, Jesus has the following teaching:

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." 17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, "Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
Clearly, one teaching is more important for the Christian than the other in this circumstance, and clearly the Christian places more emphasis on Jesus’ words than the words written in the dietary laws of the Old Testament. Therefore, one says at this point, no, a Christian does not follow every law which is contained in the Bible. One must discern which laws are more important than others.

For the Christian, the laws and commands Jesus gives are paramount. Jesus reveals to us the true nature of God and what God expects from us as we live with Him, with creation, and with one another. Jesus’ teachings and actions give us the foundation of understanding when it comes to which fruit we are most called to produce. In the above instance, Jesus’ teachings have rendered dietary laws null and void. Therefore, a Christian does not follow such laws.

However, we encounter further challenges when it comes to discerning which commands we are called to follow and which are null and void. As pointed out earlier in this apology, there are commands concerning stoning a child if he is stubborn and rebellious. Again, the Christian points to Christ and asks, "Does this law parallel what Christ taught and His actions?" Of course, the answer is, "No."

Yet, more challenges remain. There are teachings within the New Testament which cause a Christian pause. St. Paul prohibits women from worshiping if they do not have their heads covered. Is this a law which Christian women must adhere to in order that they may produce fruit?

The reformers considered such things as they wrote these words in the Augsburg Confession:

It is proper for the Christian assembly to keep such ordinances for the sake of love and peace, to be obedient to the bishops and parish ministers in such matters, and to observe the regulations in such a way that one does not give offense to another and so that there may be no disorder or unbecoming conduct in the church. However, consciences should not be burdened by contending that such things are necessary for salvation or that it is a sin to omit them, even when no offense is given to others, just as no one would say that a woman commits a sin if without offense to others she goes out with uncovered head.

A further read of the confession elaborates more fully a decree the Apostles’ gave to the Gentiles to abstain from blood:

The apostles directed that one should abstain from blood and from what is strangled. Who observes such prohibition now? Those who do not observe it commit no sin, for the apostles did not wish to burden consciences with such bondage but forbade such eating for a time to avoid offense. One must pay attention to the chief article of Christian doctrine, and this is not abrogated by the decree.
The Lutheran tradition gives us insight into how to handle laws which do not affect salvation but they do affect the hearts and minds of fellow believers. In the 21st century, hardly any one would argue worshiping God with or without a head covering is sinful. Likewise with the eating of blood. But at the time such things were written, these would have been incredible offenses to those who gathered for worship. For the sake of good order and to keep the church united in mission, Paul and the Apostles put these laws in place. As time passed, and such practices became less offensive, the practices were abandoned.

Some might call such a practice "picking and choosing" which laws to follow. There is truth to such a statement for one could easily say, "Perhaps adultery no longer becomes offensive to a group of people. Would that then mean the law could be abandoned?"

To this we must reply as did St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, "All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything. " (1 Corinthians 6:12) Living by the chief article of Christian doctrine (that we are saved only by grace through faith in Christ Jesus) means that we leave the door open for people to choose how they act. If they choose to act against certain commands found in Scripture which are clear and have no opposing stance–either by Christ’s words or in any other part of the Bible–we believe they will be answerable to God.

We believe that before a law be ignored or considered abandoned, careful and prayerful study must be held. Will the action lead to offense? Will the action cause division? Will the action be consistent with the way God has acted as revealed in the pages of Scripture and in the person of Christ? Is the law being challenged on a solid, theological basis or on the basis of importance to a person or a certain group of people? All such questions must be answered with satisfaction before such a decision should be made.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sermon on Sharing the Gospel

There is an old joke that goes around Lutheran circles from time to time. "What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Jehovah’s Witness?" Anyone know what the answer is? "Someone who goes around knocking on doors and doesn’t know what to say."

It’s one of those kind of sad but true jokes about those of us who carry on the Christian tradition of Lutheranism. As many of our congregations and churches decline in numbers and giving and attendance, we scratch our heads in bewilderment. Why are we having such difficulties? Don’t we strive to do a good job of living out our Christian callings?

I mean, honestly, if we were to take stock of the things we do as a church, we would see that we really do a lot to promote the kingdom of God. And when I say church, I am not talking just locally, I am also talking about globally. As a congregation, we support the Sealy Christian Pantry which feeds the hungry. Out of our Community Care Fund, we help pay medical bills, electric bills, and get food to those who need it on the spur of a moment. We have done numerous fund raisers for community members and for people around the world. We work with operation Christmas Child and with Austin County Outreach during Christmas time to ensure kids who would not get Christmas gifts will get one. Our quilters gather on a monthly basis to provide quilts for Lutheran World Relief and for the Krause Home in Katy. And this is just the tip of the ice berg. Yes, there is a lot of good things our church does here locally.

But take that to a greater extreme as we look at what the ELCA does throughout the world. The ministries of the ELCA extend into Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Lutherans from the United States help raise money and provide manpower to build medical clinics, provide fresh drinking water, build and equip schools, and teach folks how to farm and produce food. Those affected by tragedy, by earthquake and famine are reached through Lutheran World Relief. The ELCA combats global hunger by sending millions of dollars every year to World Hunger. And again, this is just the tip of the ice berg. The ELCA does an awful, awful lot of good things.

And, yet, why doesn’t this cause the church to grow? In spite of such action, the church continues to decline. It’s a bit of a mystery, don’t you think?

One could argue that the cause of the decline in the ELCA is due to a lack of following the Bible’s teachings and allowing our doctrine to become wishy-washy. There are more than a few critics of the ELCA who go on and on about the church losing its way and becoming too friendly with the surrounding culture to the point where it tries to make everyone feel good and allows folks to do whatever they want to do instead of what the Bible tells us we should do.

Point taken. I’ve been critical of such things myself; however, if this is the cause of the decline in the church, perhaps we can take a moment to look at our sister church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I don’t think anyone would argue that they don’t know what they believe and adhere to it vehemently. Our brothers and sisters in that denomination have toed the line when it comes to traditional interpretation of scripture and doctrine. And, how are they doing when it comes to growing and thriving? You don’t have to take my word for it, but the trend is down, and it’s been going down for a while. Just like the ELCA.

So, if just doing good doesn’t make the church grow...

And, if holding down traditional, orthodox belief doesn’t make the church grow...

What is it? If we know what we believe and if we do good things, isn’t that enough?

Well, honestly, any organization can do those things. Austin County Outreach knows what it believes and they do a lot of good. The Sealy Christian Pantry knows what it believes and they do a lot of good. The Salvation Army knows what it believes and they do a lot of good. Star of Hope mission knows what it believes and they do a lot of good. They are charitable organizations, just like us, but is there anything that sets us apart from such organizations? What makes us special in a long laundry list of places that do good deeds for one’s neighbor?

To answer, let me ask you a question: why do you go to church?

Think long and hard about that question before you answer it.

Why do you go to church?

Now, if you all were honest with me, you would all probably give me answers from across the spectrum. You’d all have your reasons and they would be good ones. You would probably feel very comfortable sharing those reasons with me, but let me now ask you this question: how would you feel answering that question to a complete stranger? How would you feel answering that question to someone who was critical of the church? Would you be able to articulate your faith without apology to someone who was asking you about it? And would you be excited about sharing your faith with another person in such a manner? Could you endure their questions? If there was something you didn’t know, could you honestly tell them you didn’t know the answer but you were striving to learn more? Could you tell them, with honesty, that attending church has changed your life?

For you see, my brothers and sisters in Christ, there is one thing which separates the church from any other type of organization that has core beliefs and attempts to do good for those around them. There is one thing that separates the church from any other place which has a 501c3. And that one thing is when people come to church, they come in contact with Jesus Christ. That’s the key. When people come to church, they should walk away knowing they have been in the presence of God. When you leave here this morning, it is my hope and prayer that you will leave knowing that God has reached down here this morning and touched your heart in some way, shape or form. It is my hope that you will hear or see something which helps you understand Him and make your heart leap with joy.

Oh, I know the jokes. I know how we Lutherans are supposedly the frozen chosen. Even in the hottest of Texas summers, it’s difficult to get Lutherans to react to anything. It’s hard to get us to sometimes crack a smile in worship. It’s hard for us to clap when a song touches our hearts. It’s hard for us to get excited about anything. Part of it is our culture. Part of it is our heritage. Part of it is what we have been taught about what is and what is not appropriate. But the question does stick with us: how do we convey to others the faith which has supposedly touched our hearts and made a difference in our lives? If good deeds is not enough, and believing the right things is not enough, then we might just have to think about what passes for evangelism these days?

In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist looked at the evidence. He came in contact with Jesus, and John turned to those who trusted him and knew him and said, "I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." Can you say those words yourself? Can you point to Christ and say, "I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."? Can you? Or will you be the type who stands at the door and has nothing to say? Amen.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Trouble Coming?


My Bible study this Sunday should be very, very interesting.

I'm going to get extremely Lutheran with my group of folks.

We'll be reading a portion of the Augsburg Confession which is sure to spark some controversy.

But it will be a necessary conversation.

It will entail the foundational principle of the Lutheran tradtion, "We are saved ONLY by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ--and NOT by ANY work of the law."

We will deal with portions of the Bible which are not followed even by most of the folks who claim to follow the Bible "literally."  (Haven't been to many self described churches where I have seen women wearing head coverings.  1 Corinthians 11)

The Augsburg confession deals with such matters blatantly, and the logical conclusions to their understandings of how we follow the law with the understanding of the Gospel are mind-blowing.  In all actuality, I'm still coming to grips with them a little myself.

I'll post more later. 

After Sunday, there might be a few who might be rather upset.

I hope not.

It's Lutheran doctrine.

Not my own.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Out of Alignment

Yesterday, I took our GMC Yukon XL to the shop to get a front end alignment and a new tire.

I know it's not necessarily politically correct to own a gas guzzling SUV, but I don't believe that global warming is the boogyman some folks make it out to be and when you can actually get three kids in their lawfully required car seats and groceries into a Prius, I'll buy one.  (Side note ended.)

About a month ago, I was inspecting the tires on the Yukon when I noticed the very worn tread on the front, driver's side tire.  The very inside tread was almost worn completely off!!!  Now, I don't drive the Yukon as much as my wife, and I hadn't noticed the wear until then.  In the next day or so, I purposely drove the vehicle, and I could tell something wasn't quite right with the steering.  The alignment was off.

I knew I had to get it fixed, but being the procrastinator I am, it took a while.  I don't like forking out money for car repairs, but I knew I had to handle this one.

When your alignment is off on a vehicle, there are consequences.  The car doesn't quite hold the road as well as it should.  The tires begin to wear out faster than normal.  If something isn't done, the tread on the inside or outside of the tire will completely wear down reducing traction.  Not good for wet weather.  And if you don't get it fixed, the tire will wear to the point where it will blow out or begin leaking.  Your tire will be trash, and if you happen to be driving when this occurs, the experience will not be pleasant.

$265 bucks later, the car was back in alignment with a new tire.  Not too terribly expensive, and a small price to pay to prevent bigger problems down the road.

Of course, such a thing got me reflecting on the Christian life of faith.  How often are we ourselves "out of alignment"?  How often do we know we are doing something that is just a little out of kilter?  Sure, at the time, it seems harmless enough.  We're still moving and grooving and doing the things we are supposed to be doing.  But, what about the consequences?

The alignment on my front wheel was just slightly off--mind you, when I say slightly, I mean only a few tenths of an inch.  Yet, if corrections weren't made, something devastating could have happened.

How about in our lives?  Are we aligned with Christ?  Are we aligned with His teachings and purpose?  Are we seeking God's will in our lives, or are we content to be drifting, albeit ever so slightly away from Him?  Do we allow ourselves to slip believing we can get back on course at any time without consequence?  Are we content to get back on track a little later even though it might cost more?

I've got three kids, and at about 16 months, I did something that some would consider cruel and unusual.  We'd take a shopping trip to Wal-Mart, and, of course, we'd head to the toys section.  All of the kids loved looking at the toys.  I'd stop at a toy which particularly grabbed the kid's attention.  I'd take it off the shelf and let the kid hold it.  After a few moments, I'd say, "O.K. put it back.  You don't need it."

Each kid sniffled a little, but I quickly said, "No.  Stop it.  You don't need to cry because you don't need that toy."

Each time, the kid stopped.

We continued shopping.

To this day, I have not had a temper tantrum because my kids know they don't need to buy a toy in Wal-Mart or any place for that matter.

As a parent, I tried to make sure the alignment was right.

It's an important thing to do, not only in our kids' lives but in our own as well.

It's still close to new years.  Many have made resolutions to get healthier.  Most will not follow through.  It's too costly in terms of time and energy and pain.  But, pay now or pay later.  Do you want painful knees and joints due to being overweight?  Do you want to increase the chance of heart attack and stroke?  Making those choices now to get aligned in the right direction are important--physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Read the Bible.  Pray.  Go to church.  Make the time to do such things so that the alignment is pointed in the right direction.  Does it cost?  Yep, but in the long run, it's worth it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Senseless Shootings and the Blame Game

Tragedy is a part of life.

I don't care if you believe the opposite.

I don't believe you can avoid it.  It's going to happen.  It's part of the price we pay to have freedom. 

Natural disasters have a human component.  A hurricane strikes a city causing massive flooding, billions of dollars in damages, and hundreds of lives lost.  There is still freedom involved.

People chose to live on the coast.

People chose to stay in the city.

People chose to redirect funds from strengthening levees and used them for other purposes.

But, they had the freedom of choice to live where they wished.

Terrorist attacks have the choice component added as well, except to a whole other degree.

Folks choose to commit the attacks.  They choose to strike terror by harming innocent people.

Then, we choose how we wish to respond to said attacks. 

Usually, there are crowds which scream, "Safety at all cost!"

And others who wonder what freedoms will be taken away to ensure said safety.

There are always those who try to make sense out of such senseless acts.  There is a need within us to rationalize, to find reason, to find blame for events taking place.  Blame Obama!  Blame Bush!  Blame liberals!  Blame conservatives! 

Geez.  Give me a break.

Stop trying to politicize each and every tragedy which occurs.  They are bad enough as they are.

As I type, there is still a spin war over the tragic shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several others in the state of Arizona.  Tragically, six lost their lives including a 9 year old little girl.  Not content to label the shooter as a mentally disturbed individual, those from both the far left and far right are blaming each side for warping the mind of the shooter and leading up to this tragedy. 

Within hours, the sheriff of Tuscon blamed talk radio and heated political rhetoric.  As his feet were held to the fire, he admitted he had no evidence what-so-ever that this was the case with the shooter, but it was his opinion.  "Period."

Well, I'm sorry.  Everyone knows what opinions are like.

They are not facts.

They are based in perception and perspective and not necessarily verifiable. 

Mr. Sheriff, please do your job, and leave your personal feelings out of it.  I know that is very hard since your good friend was shot and another was killed.  Not trying to lessen your loss, but please do not let your feelings take over and ruin an investigation and cast blame where it should not be cast.  Those comments you made only serve to divide a nation as it seeks to come to grip with this event.

I know folks want to blame something, anything. 

I know folks want to find someone or something to point their fingers at for the cause of all their anxiety, grief, sadness, anger, and other negative feelings.

It's easy to demonize those who do not share our perspective, our principles, our values, our points of view.

Yet, is this healthy?

I'm a parent.  I have three great kids.  I used to wonder how a parent could lose it and strike his or her child.

I don't wonder anymore.

My middle child had a touch of colic.  When it attacked, there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to make her stop crying.  In the middle of the night, when you are worn out from a hard day's work, and you really need your sleep, and the kid wakes up screaming bloody murder, and you have a long day ahead of you, and she won't quiet down, you feel the anger rising up.  You get frustrated.  Your thoughts turn to rage.

But, if you have an ounce of self control, you stop right there.  You go no further.  You realize you are the adult, and adults do not strike helpless infants.  Even through the fog of sleeplessness, anger, and frustration, you know the difference between right and wrong.  Sometimes, it's hard to have that realization, and I have come to understand it is easy enough to cross that line even though I never did.

I believe that each and every one of us is just a step or two removed from committing an act like the shooter in Arizona (I refuse to name him and give him publicity).  Darkness can cloud our paths.  Anger can rise up.  Frustration can mess up our judgement.

Do you want blame?  Blame who we are as people.  We are not totally good.  There is darkness in all of us.

As a Lutheran Christian, one of my strongly held beliefs is that at the same time an person is both saint and sinner.  At the same time, any person is capable of doing great good but also great evil.  At the same time a person is capable of committing sin and committing charity.  No one has the moral high road.  It is a condition we live in each and every day.

This is why, I believe, Jesus made that comment regarding worrying less about the speck in your neighbor's eye and instead focusing on the log in your own eye. 

When the garbage of life happens, it's awful tempting to blame, but perhaps blaming is not the answer.  Perhaps it's more of a matter of recognizing who we are as people and what type of world we live in.  It's not perfect.  It never will be.  We will never be able to stop senseless shootings or disasters natural or man made.  We perhaps could protect ourselves completely from such events, but that would require us moving into a concrete, padded bunker to somehow shut out the world around us.

Would you want to live like that?

I wouldn't.

And I won't.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Sermon Entitled: It's Hard to be the Church

On a couple of occasions, I have shared the following story about little Ben Hooper. It’s original title is, " "Do You Know Who His Daddy Is?"

Ben Hooper was born many years ago in the foothills of Tennessee, and at that time, children who were born like Ben-to an unwed mother were treated terribly. By the time he was three years old, the other children would scarcely play with him. He would overhear adults saying things like, "What’s a boy like that doing playing with our children?" And, "Did you ever figure out who his daddy is?"

There was no kindergarten in those days, so when Ben turned six, he went to first grade. At recess, he stayed at his desk studying while all the other kids went outside to play. No one would play with him. At noon, little Ben could be found eating his sack lunch all alone.

It was a big event when anything changed in the foothills of East Tennessee, and when little Ben was 12 years old, a new pastor came to shepherd the little church in Ben’s town.

Almost immediately, little Ben started hearing exciting things about him–about how loving and non-judgmental he was. How he accepted people just as they were, and when he was with them, he made them feel like the most important people in the world.

One Sunday, though he had never been to a church a day in his life, little Ben Hooper decided he was going to hear the preacher. He got there late and he left early because he did not want to attract any attention, but he liked what he heard. For the first time in that young boy’s life, he caught just a glimmer of hope.

Ben was back in church the next Sunday and the next and the next. He always got there late and always left early, but his hope kept building.

On about the sixth or seventh Sunday, the message was so moving and exciting that Ben became absolutely enthralled with it. It was almost as if there were a sign behind the preacher’s head that read, "For you, little Ben Hooper of unknown parentage, there is hope!" Ben got so wrapped up in the message, he forgot about the time and didn’t notice that a number of people had come in after he had taken his seat.

Suddenly the services were over. Ben very quickly stood up to leave as he had in all the Sunday’s past, but the aisles were clogged with people, and he couldn’t run out. As he was working his way through the crowd, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and looked up, right into the eyes of the young preacher who asked him a question that had been on the mind of every person there for the past 12 years, "Whose boy are you?"

Instantly, the church grew deathly quiet. Slowly, a smile started to spread across the face of the young preacher until it broke into a huge grin, and he exclaimed, "Oh! I know whose boy you are! Why, the family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a child of God!"

And with that, the young preacher swatted him across the rear and said, "That’s quite a heritage you’ve got there, boy! Now, go and see to it that you live up to it!"

Now, I’ve told this story in regards to baptism and how God’s love extends even to this young boy, and I think we all sympathize with little Ben Hooper. I think we all appreciate the preacher who ministered to little Ben. But as I thought long and hard about the nature of baptism and the reality of the church, I decided the story was incomplete. So I took a little bit of time to add the next chapter to the Ben Hooper saga, and it’s entitled, "The Fallout."

The young preacher walked into his office on Monday morning with a grin on his face. He had been reflecting on Sunday’s worship service and his meeting with little Ben Hooper. He had seen Ben on numerous occasions, knew the story of his birth and his subsequent trouble fitting in. The preacher also had seen Ben in church several weeks in a row, and he noticed how Ben slipped in late and left early. The preacher had prayed for an opportunity to speak to Ben, and the Holy Spirit had orchestrated an almost perfect meeting. The preacher was certain Ben would be back and one of these days would commit his life to Christ. Thinking over this made the preacher grin even larger.

But then, the preacher saw the envelope on his desk. It was addressed to him, but it was done with a type writer. "Why didn’t they just write my name on this?" the preacher thought to himself. But as he began to read, he understood. The letter was typewritten as well, and the preacher’s hands began to shake as he read it.

"Dear preacher," the letter started. "A group of us got together yesterday afternoon for a social, and Sunday morning’s church service became the topic of conversation. Now, don’t get us wrong when we say this. You’ve done marvelous things for the congregation. Folks are coming much more regular than they used to. But, we’ve got a few concerns.

We admire what you said to little Ben Hooper. We believe he needs to know God’s love just like the rest of us. But we are wondering just what the fallout will be. I mean, did you consider the fact he might go home to his mother and tell her what happened? Did you consider he might ask her to come to church with him one Sunday morning? What would folks think about us if a woman like that came waltzing in on a Sunday morning? Do you think that would be good for our congregation?

Why, before you know it, we’d have a room full of loose women, of folks who tip the bottle too much, of folks who swear and cuss, of people who have been divorced and who have catted around on their families. Do we really want a church made up of such people? Not that we are telling you what to do preacher, but think about what you are doing and what you say to such folks."

The letter of course wasn’t signed, and the preacher sat down heavily in his chair. He picked up the phone and called all the elders and asked them to come to a meeting that night.

At the meeting, the preacher presented the letter to the elders. They each read it, and in the next two hours, each had plenty to say. Some sided with what the preacher had done and talked of how Jesus came to the sinners. Some sided with what the folks said in the letter commenting how the church should stand against sin and keep such folks at arms length until they showed true transformation in their lives. Heated arguments broke out all around the room, but little was done to resolve the issue.

When things seemed to settle for just a moment, the preacher chimed in. All eyes were riveted on him. "Folks," he said. "It’s hard to be the church. What I mean to say is, if we were a club, it would be easy. We could let in those who we wanted. We could keep out others. We could make sure that anybody who joined was exactly like us and shared the same principles and values we shared. That would be pretty easy, but instead, we call ourselves a church.

As I thought and prayed all day, I came across a passage from the book of Galatians. St. Paul writes, "For as many of you have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

It seems to me this passage means the challenge of the church is to be able to sit down and worship with someone who is not like you. Jews and Greeks were totally opposite folks. The same with slaves and free. And you all know there’s big differences between male and female. But in the church, there isn’t. When we’re baptized, we are clothed with Christ. That doesn’t mean we give up all of who we are, but He covers us up. Sure, we need to change our ways and repent, but don’t folks need to be here in order to hear His Word, be forgiven, and experience His love so that they can change? Seems to me, we have a decision before us. Do we want to be a club? Or do we want to be a church? Just to let you know, it’s hard to be the church."

With that, the preacher closed his Bible and sat looking at the elders with expectation.

The elders sat in silence. Amen.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Led By the Star

Happy Epiphany everyone!

Today marks the first day after the Christmas season.

Today, my family will finally begin the process of taking down all the Christmas decorations.

And we will remember the wise men who were led by the star to seek the King of kings.

There is a lesson (probably more than one) to be learned by the wise men as told in the book of Matthew.

They saw God's hand revealed in the events of everyday life.

Yes, we put a little spin on the story as told in the Gospel.  We like to think of a star which shone brighter than any other star.  Larger and more extravagant, it led the way for those wise men.  Perhaps we get such images from the hymns which are sung around Christmas: "The First Noel"; "We Three Kings"; "Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning".

But that's not exactly what Scripture says.  It does say the wise men saw the star at its rising.  It does say that star guided them to Bethlehem.  But it doesn't say anything about such a star being larger or more fantastic than any other star in the sky.  Common sense tells us that if such a star appeared, more than just these wise men would have been able to see it.  The star probably was no more significant than any other star in the sky, but there was something about it which caused these men to take notice.  There was something about it that made these men know it was a special star which sent a special message.  As students of the stars, they recognized something that others missed, and they became curious--curious enough to leave what they normally did and take a life-altering trip.

One of my concerns as a pastor and person of faith is whether or not folks continue to see God's hand in the events of life.  So often, I think we live in distraction.  So often, I think our minds and hearts are either on auto-pilot as we go through the daily routine or are distracted by phones, texts, emails, music, and (dare I say it) blogging.  We allow ourselves to be completely enthralled by these things, and we miss the little signs and wonders which call our attention to the holy in our midst.

Can you imagine what the Christmas story would be like if the wise men missed seeing the star because they were so focused on playing the latest Wii game or had their heads buried in their "smart" phones texting right and left?  Can you imagine the Christmas story without them leaving all behind to give gifts to the Christ-child?  I mean, somehow purchasing gold, frankincense and myrrh on Amazon and having it shipped to Bethlehem doesn't quite convey the importance and urgency of visiting the newborn King, does it? 

How often do we run across events in our lives which take us to another level?  The level of faith?  How often do we have little things--not grandiose, smack you between the eyes revelations--that call us toward a life of faithfulness; that change our direction for a while; that help us stay committed to our calling to serve God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves?

This morning, I was struck by my oldest daughter.  She's just turned six.  She's in that state where she can't decide whether or not she wants to be Miss Independent or have mommy and daddy do everything for her.  If my wife and I happen to guess wrongly, Katy, bar the door.  It isn't pretty. 

We were getting ready for school, moments away from leaving.  My wife was turning lights off in the house, and she turned the playroom light off.  My oldest just happened to be in that room searching for a book to "read" as she went to school.  When the lights went out, it scared my daughter for some reason.  She panicked.  Crying, she clamored for a hug.  Stopping the routine of trying to get all the kids loaded up, I wrapped my arms around her.  For that moment, she felt safe and secure.  She felt reassured.  Her fear subsided.  She paused a moment at the top step of the door to leap out and head for the car.

How easy it would have been to tell my daughter to get over it and go sit in her car seat.  How easy it would have been to stay with the routine.  But to take the time and stop.  To take the time to hug.  To take the time to realize this is an important part of life--a holy moment. 

Nothing earth shattering. 

Nothing to change the political winds. 

Nothing to eradicate hunger or poverty. 

But significant. 


To one little girl and her father. 

An Epiphany. 

A revelation. 

God is in our midst. 

Easing fear.

Wrapping His arms around us.

Sharing love.

Giving strength.


Break the routine.

Notice God.

In the little things.

Like a hug.

Like a child.

Like a star.

Happy Epiphany, everyone.