Saturday, July 30, 2011

Another Practice to Re-evaluate

I had to run into Sealy this morning to pick up another gallon of paint for the girls' room.  I ran by AL&M and purchased what I needed.  Since it was nearing noon, and I'm batching it right now, I decided to grab a bite to eat.

I hadn't eaten at the local Chinese/Thai restaurant in ages, so decided I'd dine there.  I ordered and pulled out my phone to play a little game before my food was ready.  In a few moments, my Hot and Sour Soup arrived.

As is my usual custom, I started to bow my head.  Then, I stopped.

The Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven...5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."  --Matthew 6: 1, 5-6

Hastily, I picked up my spoon, said a silent blessing in my head as I was dipping the spoon in the soup, and I began to eat.

Praying before a meal is something natural and instilled in me from the time I was little.  On more than one occasion, my mom and dad stopped us when we were in public to pray before eating.  I've done so with my family.  But, here is Jesus saying, "Don't do that.  All you really are doing is saying, 'Look at me.'  Pray in secret."

O.K., Lord.  I'm working on it.  Be patient with me.  I'm having to unlearn much of what I have learned.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Are You a Christian or a Disciple?

Another book which kicked me in the teeth this past vacation was Dallas Willard's book: The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship.

The excerpt which hurt exceptionally follows:

...If we do seek him, he will certainly find us, and then we, ever more deeply find him.  That is the blessed existence of the disciple of Jesus who continuously "grows in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).

But just there is the problem.  Who, among Christians today, is a disciple of Jesus, in any substantive sense of the word "disciple"?  A disciple is a learner, a student, an apprentice--a practitioner, even if only a beginner.  The New Testament literature, which must be allowed to define our terms if we are ever to get our bearings in the Way with Christ, makes this clear.  In that context, disciples of Jesus are people who do not just profess certain views as their own but apply their growing understanding of life in the Kingdom of the Heavens to every aspect of their life on earth.

In contrast, the governing assumption today, among professing Christians, is that we can be "Christians" forever and never become disciples.  Not even in heaven, it seems, for who would need it there?  That is the accepted teaching now.  Check it out wherever you are.  And this (with its various consequences) is the Great Omission from the "Great Commission" in which the Great Disparity is firmly rooted...

Jesus told us explicitly what to do.  We have a manual, just like the car owner.  He told us, as disciples, to make disciples.  Not converts to Christianity, nor to some particular "faith and practice."  He did not tell us to arrange for people to "get in" or "make the cut" after they die, nor to eliminate the various brutal forms of injustice, nor to produce and maintain "successful" churches.  These are all good things, and he had something to say about all of them.  They will certainly happen if--but only if--we are (his constant apprentices) and do (make constant apprentices) what he told us to be and do.  If we just do this, it will little matter what else we do or do not do.
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission Introduction pp. xi-xii

I hope my readers will chew on those words as I did, because I found a huge nugget of truth in them.  I realized many of my own shortcomings as a pastor and would be disciple of Jesus.  I realized my own need for spiritual growth and formation--an area I had been sorely neglecting.  And I realized the disservice I had been doing in my congregation--being content to have a lot of Christians, but not willing to lead them toward discipleship.

I also know leadership begins with my own work and attitude.  I cannot force anyone to become a disciple, but I will offer opportunities.  Whether anyone will take those opportunities, I do not know.  But Willard's words helped show me the path I was missing for a time, and even though I'm sure I'll stumble off it from time to time, I hope I can head in that general direction.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kicked in the Teeth

It is not a good thing to be kicked in the teeth by something you read.

My most recent moment came while reading Timothy Keller's book Counterfeit Gods.

Things started out innocuous enough.  Keller talks about how to recognize your counterfeit gods by stating:

A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living...An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, "If I have that, then I'll feel my life has meaning, then I'll know I have value, then I'll feel significant and secure." pg. xvii
After these words in his introduction, Keller begins addressing some of the main gods our society reveres.  I had no disagreement with Keller's lists, and I recognized the times when I have slipped dealing with the gods of money and sexuality.  But according to Keller's definition, I have only slipped.  Neither of these were things I dream about incessantly in my heart of hearts.

That was before Keller's foot met my face.  Keller penned an entire chapter just for me when he spoke of the counterfeit god: success.

As I read this chapter, I knew I was meeting the proverbial hammer of the law.  I realized how much I crave success.  I knew this because in a conversation with a friend over lunch, I was asked about what my next dream would be.

I had recently accomplished the dream of owning a Ford Mustang GT, and I have relished driving it.  My friend wondered what would be next.  That's when I revealed my craving for success and what I would do with it.

I responded with something like this:

This dream is not according to God's will or His plan.  It is strictly what I would like to see happen if I had my way.  I'd love to see my congregation grow to over a thousand members with a worship attendance of over 500 per Sunday.  I'd love to have programs and stuff galore happening all over the place, and then look at all those who told me that such things could only be done a certain way and thumb my nose at them.

(At least I had the thought to say this wasn't according to God's will to preface my "dream.")

Now, think about what I said and this quote from Keller:

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance.  To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you.  You are supreme.  pg. 75

When I read that statement, it brought me to my knees.  I came face to face with my counterfeit god.  I want...I crave being a "successful" pastor.  And now, I see the trap the Evil One has laid out for me.

A congregation which truly reaches out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ will find itself growing.  It will find itself thriving as it seeks God's Kingdom and its implementation in this world.  As a church follows the Great Commission and teaches others about Jesus Christ, mission and ministry will multiply.  In our society, such a church is defined as successful.  And it is a very easy thing for a pastor to cross that line and think the growth is because of him or her--especially when there are so many voices telling clergy that we must lead and offer leadership. 

One can easily stop and say, "Look what my leadership did!"  And Satan's trap slams shut and is complete.

I know a church does not grow because of the pastor.  I know it grows because of God's Spirit working in and through it.  I know without the power of God in word and deed, a church will flounder.  Yet, there is part of me which wants to take credit for what is done--even if it makes success a counterfeit God.

But after getting kicked in the teeth, I'm rethinking my dream.  I'm asking, "God, what is your dream for this congregation that I serve?  What are we meant to do?  What are we meant to be?  Are we meant to continue growing?  Are we meant to become a huge congregation with multiple ministries, multiple staff, and multitudes of activities?  And if we do grow and burst at the seams, is there really a need to "rub noses in it"? 

No, not if we are doing things to the glory of God. 

Somewhere, I lost that little snippet.  Somewhere in my own anger and sinfulness, I became more concerned about how others say church should be done.  Somewhere in my own desire to prove myself better than the rest of those folks out there, I began worshiping a counterfeit god.

Not good.  Not good at all.

So, on vacation, I began working to purge such thoughts from my mind.  I began intentionally engaging in study and worship and silence and solitude.  I started to focus on my relationship with God so that these desires are forced to flee.

I don't need to rub anyone's nose in anything.  I need to be pointing to Jesus. 

Thank you, Lord, that through Timothy Keller, you kicked me in the teeth.  I needed it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Last night at our council meeting, I spoke at length to the congregation council about some places where I was falling short in my job as pastor.  I particularly spoke about how I had been very comfortable in getting folks to become a part of the church, but I had not done a good job of offering opportunities for people to grow in faith.  I had not done a very good job of urging people to grow in their walk with Jesus and become better disciples.  A book that I had read during vacation was instrumental in my thoughts: The Great Omission by Dallas Willard.  I will be doing some blogging about this in the future as to why.

After the meeting, my congregation president took me aside and thanked me for what I had said, and he offered a story about a friend of his who reads his Bible for 30 minutes every day at lunch.  That little tidbit hit home with me because even though I spend time in sermon preparation and Bible study preparation every week, I do not spend enough time just reading the Bible.  I decided right then and there the 30 minutes at lunch idea was a good one. 

Today, I drove into Houston to visit a church member who is in the hospital recovering from a massive stroke.  On the way back, I stopped at Taco Bell to grab a bite to eat.  (Yes, I can afford better food than Taco Bell, but I like the stuff as it reminds me of the rare times my folks took my sister and I out to eat as kids.)  I took my Bible with me.

Willard urges clergy to spend time reading over and over and over again the Gospels, so I began with the book of Matthew and read as I ate my Enchirito cut the onions and my bean burrito.  The chapters seemed to pass by quickly, and before I knew it, I was breezing through Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  Got me thinking about what in the world a church looked like that actually followed this teaching.  Got me thinking about what in the world a person looked like who actually followed Jesus' teaching here.  I also recognized just how short I fall in living up to this ethic of living.

I read Jesus' words in chapter five verse 42, "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."

I kid you not, less than two minutes later, I notice someone place something on my table.

Two pens.

With little signs that read, "I am deaf.  Please give $2 or $3 to help me care for my family."

(From here on out, italics are the thoughts that ran through my brain.)

I looked at the pens.  Scam!  Don't do it.

Jesus: Give to everyone who begs from you...

Noticing several within the restaurant pulling out cash.  Give me a break, this guy probably pulls in more money than me in an year...TAX FREE too!

Jesus: Give to everyone who begs from you...

Remembering my training by those who work for charitable organizations who work with the poor, hungry, and homeless.  He knows where he can get assistance.  He's just preying on everyone's sympathy.

Jesus: Give to everyone who begs from you...

It's foolish.

Jesus: Give to everyone who begs from you...

and Paul: 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. --1 Corinthians 1:22-25

I reached into my wallet and pulled out a five dollar bill.  I placed it under the pens and stood to leave.  The man held up the pens for me to take, but I refused them. 

Jesus says, "Give to everyone who begs from you..."

Why would Jesus command such a thing?  Why would he knowingly tell His followers to give to EVERYONE who begs even if He knew they would be played? 

I'm sure there are lots of theories.  The best one I could come up with is to show just how different we Christians are called to be in the world.  When we are told to be protective of what is ours--to make sure it is used wisely--to prevent ourselves from being scammed, Jesus tells us to be overly generous.  Perhaps He does so to help us realize just where our cash comes from.  It's not ours after all, we are simply stewards of what He gives to us.

I still feel like a sucker for giving the guy five bucks.  Guess I still have a long way to go before my heart is in the right place.  But, I think I made a start.

Worship from a Different Point of View

The past two weeks, I had the privilege of worshiping from a different point of view--from the view of a parishoner/visitor instead of a pastor.  There were some enlightening moments, to say the least.  For this blog, I will focus on the second week of worship as my family and I were in San Antonio, TX visiting my in-laws.

After eating breakfast with my in-laws, my wife, kids and I jumped into our vehicle to find a place to worship.  Yeah, I know, what about looking up stuff on the internet?  What about planning where you are going to go?  Well, we were being a bit spontaneous, and we wanted to see where we would land.

First of all, my first bit of advice to any church leader or pastor reading: I don't give a flying flip about cutesy sayings or what the topic of the sermon is or what upcoming neat ministry you may be doing.  On Sunday morning, when I am looking for a place to worship, I want to know one thing, and one thing alone: WHAT TIME DOES EVERYTHING START?  Oh, and make it easy to read.  Don't put your worship times in small font at the bottom of your church sign.  It needs to be big and bold so that folks can read it easily as they are driving in their cars.  And as for the electronic, led stuff: give your worship time more than 10 seconds to display.  I'd like to actually have a chance to see it amidst all the other distractions while driving.  And while I'm on this rant: if you have other things you would like to highlight, do so, but then immediately come back to your worship/Sunday School time.  That's the most important stuff on Sunday morning for drive bys.

We actually drove around for about 30 minutes trying to find a church.  Several of them had worship times that started later than we wanted.  Several churches didn't post worship times.  Others we drove away from because we weren't interested in the worship style.  I'm not opposed to holiness churches, I'm just not particularly fond of worshiping at them.  We finally drove past St. Matthew Episcopal Church in Universal City.  After squinting as hard as we could, we saw the worship time was 10:30 a.m.  Perfect!

We parked and headed into the church.  We were greeted warmly and handed bulletins.  Needing the facilities, we were directed toward the restrooms.  As we headed that direction, a woman introduced herself to us and in a very kind way offered the services of their nursery to all of our children even to the point of telling us her child was there at that very moment.  There was no hint of, "if your kids are noisy, use the nursery" in her telling which was a welcomed thing for my wife and I.

After taking care of business, we headed into the sanctuary.  Before walking through the door, another lady said, "Excuse me, do you need prepared children's bags?"  We graciously accepted them.  Crayons, books, coloring books.  Neat stuff all in a cloth bag package.  Great entertainment for the kids to keep them quiet during the "boring" parts of the worship.

We sat in the last pew and began looking over the bulletin.  Within moments, another woman approached us and informed us they had Children's Church during the sermon.  Our kids were more than welcome to join the rest of the kids.  My middle child was ready to go instantly.  We had to reel her in a little and inform her it would be a little later.

The service itself was traditional in scope.  No fancy bands or instruments.  Organ music well done.  One hymn which was unfamiliar to the congregation.  All the liturgy parts unfamilar to me.  Inclusive bulletin however which made following along very easy.

The kids left at the appropriat time for Children's Church, so my wife and I actually got to listen to a sermon uninterrupted.  The sermon wasn't fantastic, but it was well delivered.  Nothing overly heady, and not much theological jargon. 

The kids came back during the sharing of the peace, and I did have one quibble--this took entirely too long.  If you were a member of the church, it was no big deal because everyone had to hug and greet everyone else.  If you were a visitor, after shaking the hands of those immediately around you, you ended up standing there watching everyone else greet and hug and exchange short stories.  This was the only part of the service where I felt left out.

No problems receiving communion or otherwise, and we were warmly thanked for attending at the end of the service.  Several folks invited us to come back.  The lady who conducted Children's Church remembered all the names of our children perfectly.  That was very nice and personal.  We felt very comfortable there and would return in a heart beat--especially in how they welcomed and treated our children.

But here is the part that troubled me.  This congregation had all the techniques down: welcoming atmosphere, genuinely hospitable folks, concern for guests and helping them learn the ropes of worship and the goings on during the service, a decent, understandable sermon even though I wouldn't call it spectacular, quality music, and some really nice singing by the congregation (particularly during the descant of Seek Ye First).  Yet, despite all these techniques bascially being mastered by this congregation, it was nowhere close to being full.  It was nowhere close to being packed with people gathering to worship.  It was almost enough to make me scratch my head in bewilderment.

I've been doing some major thinking as to why this is so.  I know the Episocopal church is a declining, mainline denomination.  I know they suffer from some of the same symptoms that ail my denomination, the ELCA.  But for all practical purposes, this place should have been hopping left and right with folks. 

I've only worshiped there one time, and it's obvious that techniques aren't enough to produce a church packed with people.  I wonder how well the church members invite others to attend worship?  I wonder how deep the congregation's spiritual roots run?  I wonder how often they engage the community surrounding them and are willing to lift up the needs of the surrounding community?

So many questions.

So few answers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Debt Ceiling Debate

If you are looking for me to jump in with my "solution" to the current debt ceiling debate, you will be highly disappointed.  There are enough pundits to go around on that one.  Depending upon one's particular political persuasion or deeply held assumptions, one is either blaming Democrats, Republicans, or both parties for the impasse.

I have personally found it intriguing the tenor of negotiations at this point.  Words like "heated", "walked away", "angry", "uncompromising" and "blame" are thrown around more and more as the deadline approaches.

I guess it's not too surprising considering the rhetoric each side has used in the past several years.  Over time, as such rhetoric is used over and over and over, anger and resentment builds up inside.  I don't care who you are, such words take their toll, until one snaps.

Perhaps one see such snapping in this debate over the debt ceiling.  Neither side is really willing to budge.  Neither side wants to give the other the benefit of the doubt.  Each side is looking to win--in the legislation and in the public spin job.  Their actions and rhetoric indicates a win at all cost attitude.

One need only to look at the actions of our elected officials to see just how far away we are from truly being a Christian nation.  I challenge anyone to read the following words of Jesus, apply them to our elected officals and then call the U.S. a Christian nation:

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. --Matthew 5:22

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” --Mark 10:35-45

And from St. Paul:

25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. --Ephesians 4:25-29

Do you think if we were truly a Christian nation we would have such issues among our elected leaders?  And I say truly in the sense that our leaders truly acted in a Christ-like fashion.

Unfortunately, a "win at all costs" mentality along with seeing one's neighbor as an opponent and "enemy" does not allow one to seek the greater good.  Self-centeredness reigns, and it is a detriment not only in the church but in society as well.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Using Fish to Catch Fish

I'm not much of a fisherman.  I don't quite have enough patience, especially when three little kids have even less patience than I do and are running around screaming for attention while I'm trying to concentrate on being lazy with my line in the river...

But I digress.

While fishing on the Medina River I think I got a little insight into evangelism.

Numerous perch swam in the shallows as we fished for our main desire: catfish.  We were using stink bait to attract the cats, but with no luck what-so-ever.  That's when my father-in-law began talking about how nice it would be to use some of those perch as bait.  Apparently, using fish to catch fish is a better strategy.

I undertook the task and within a few minutes had caught a couple of perch.  Baiting our hooks with our new bait, we waited once again.  Unfortunately, luck wasn't quite with us this go round.  I think the noisiness of my children had something to do with it.

But it did get me thinking about fish catching fish. 

Especially in light of Jesus' admonition to His followers to be "fishers of men."

For even as we fish for men, aren't we those who have been "caught" already?

Are we not fish who have been caught by the Great Fisherman?

And are our lives "bait" as we wade in the water of the world?

Do our lives attract other fish?  Do our lives scare them away?

If we are fish catching fish, how does it behoove us to live and move and have our being?

(I realize the weakness of this analogy is trapping another person/fish unwillingly and luring them into a place they might not want to go.  As Christians, I do not believe we are called to twist arms and catch folks coercively.  Yet, I still think the analogy does bear some thought.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why Build Sand Castles?

Last week while visiting my parents, we headed out to the beach--to the Padre Island National Seashore to be exact.  Of course, my eldest daughter asks, "Dad, will you help me build a sand castle?"

She's only six, so I knew who would actually be doing most of the building, but I didn't mind that.  "Of course, I will," I replied.

Shovel and buckets in hand, I began with my daughter joining in when she felt like it.

As I dug and sculpted and shaped, I began to think.  "Why?  Why do we build sand castles?"

Those of us who have jumped into this process know that in a matter of mere hours, our creations will be reduced to nothing by wind and wave and tide.  There will be absolutely nothing to show for the toils of labor we put into them.

In fact, if we are totally and completely rational about building sand castles, we would realize they are almost a complete waste of time and energy.  All that toil comes to nothing in the long run.

Kind of like life in some ways.  Toil, work, and slave.  Build bank account.  Accumulate possessions.  Work to garner status and position.  And what becomes of it in the long run?  What happens after years of toil and sweat and tears and blood?  What becomes of us? 

We die.  Our possessions become the possessions of someone else.  We turn to dust.  Our work in a few decades is forgotten by most. 

If we are completely rational about our lives, we see they are almost worthless.  Kind of like building a sand castle.

But, I still kept building.  I still kept "wasting" my time to put together a masterpiece of sand and water.  I piled the sand, filled buckets and dumped them to make turrets, and sculpted walls and gates.  Something within me drove me to create, to build, to leave a mark no matter how short lived.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.  My daughter asked me to help her build a sand castle.  I love her.  I'd do almost anything to see her smile. 

It is so worth it.

And I have come to understand the toil and labor I do in my own life isn't for my benefit.  I have come to see that I toil and labor for my Heavenly Father. 

I have come to understand these words written in the book of Colossians:

24I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

And in my toil, I hope I make my Heavenly Father smile.  Even in my weakness, in my frailties and failings, in my inability to live up to the life He truly calls me, I know He loves me.  And I work for Him.  Though everything I do may one day end up forgotten or washed or blown away, I still press on.

It's worth it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tackling Some Evangelism Issues (Part 3)

I may get in trouble for this one, but I think I'm right.  I hope I'm dead wrong.  I hope I'm as far away from the truth as possible. 

But I think, at least in the ELCA, we have set up a system of professional clergy/Bible interpreters/scholars who become the biblical/theological experts while our folks in the pews flounder.  I also believe this has an awfully detrimental effect on our efforts to evangelize.

Let me begin by saying I appreciate biblical scholarship.  I appreciate those who delve into Hebrew and Greek word studies.  I appreciate those who dig into the historical situations in which these texts were read, heard, and created.  I appreciate those who offer perspectives grounded and rooted in life experiences and communal life experiences.  I appreciate those who jump into literary criticism, reader response criticism, etc., etc.  Expanding the mind is a good thing for the most part.  Even in the Church, heresy must exist so that orthodoxy can be defined.

(O.K., that last comment probably was a little over the top. :-)   )

But, and it's an awfully big but...

90% of the people in the pews of churches do not engage these types of studies.  90% of the people in the pews could care less about exegeting the Greek word charis.  In the U.S. nearly all the folks read the Bible in whatever English form it is presented to them, and they interpret these words plainly with (hopefully) the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  They garner insights and understandings based upon their reading.  We pastors encourage our folks to read the Bible to come to understand who God is, who Jesus is, who the Holy Spirit is and how They engaged the world and taught us how to live.  Yes, this is what we tell them.

And when they come to us with insights or to share something they read, what do we do then?

If for instance, a congregation member comes up to us and says excitedly, "I read that Jesus said He was the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.  Is that true?"

What is our response (aside from the initial panic wondering if this person is upset by Jesus' statement or excited about it)? 

"Hmm.  Well, first, we have to understand the nuances of the orignial Greek in which the Bible was written.  Then, we must try to hear this text as those in the first century heard it.  Then, we must understand that these scholars say this and those scholars say that."

Before you know it, we've taken a simple question and turned it topsy-turvy with all our references to scholars, the Koine Greek, and the orignial context of the message!  And, instead of truly dealing with the plain reading, we have left our poor congregation member wondering exactly what in the world this text really means.  Furthermore, they begin wondering if this text doesn't really mean what it seems to mean, how many other texts don't really mean what they mean.  And if there are a whole bunch more that don't really mean what they seem to mean, what do I really know about the Bible anyway, and why do I want to spend more time trying to figure it all out if it really doesn't say what it seems to say.

Well, this is one possible reaction.  The other possible reaction is, "Pastor, I can't believe you just said that.  Don't you even know what's in the Bible you claim to preach?" 

Most folks are too respectful to say such a least to your face.  They will, however tell others.

But, that is another topic.  What is pertinent to evangelism is that by setting ourselves up as the resident theological expert who knows the true meaning of the Bible and the true meaning of the teachings of Jesus, we disempower our folks from discovering it on their own.  Their faith no longer rests in the words as those words come out of the text and into their minds and hearts; instead their faith begins to rest upon our interpretation of those words or some scholar's interpretation of those words. 

And it's awfully hard to convey a message that isn't yours.  It's awfully hard to convey a faith that rests upon someone else's interpretations and understandings.  It's awfully hard to convey a faith that isn't internallized and wrestled with and chewed on and nailed into place by the Holy Spirit who gives it in the first place.

At one time in my life, I was convinced that all the church needed to do was have plenty of clergy who would go out into congregations and proclaim the "real" meaning of the texts.  If we could only show how these teachings were originally heard and how radical they were, it would change the world. 

I've sense changed my mind.  I no longer believe such an approach is desirable or helpful.  Instead, I believe it is my job to get out of the way and let folks experience the Jesus of the Gospels in the manner He chooses to come to them.  Some get hit by the plain reading and fall head over heels in love with Christ.  Some want to go deeper.  I try to give them the tools to do so.  It is not my job to give them the perfect, original, only meaning of these sacred texts.  My sinfulness prevents me from doing so anyway.  Instead, it is my job to help them grow in their relationship with the Living God.

For instance, in the example above, if someone came to me and said, "Pastor, I read Jesus said He was the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Him.  Is that true?"

My response would be, "What do you think He means?"

I hope this person would engage me at that level.  Because I know the next question, "Pastor, what do you think it means." 

And at that point, I'm not going to refer to any scholarship.  I'm not going to refer to the Greek or Hebrew. I'm going to tell him or her what I believe--what my faith has led me to.

And that's what is at the heart of evangelism--the willingness to share one's faith story with another.  It's not about sharing what scholars say.  It's not about sharing what the Greek or Hebrews say.  It's not about sharing what liberation theologians, or black theologians, or feminist theologians say.  Evangelism is about sharing what the Holy Spirit has put into your heart about faith in Jesus Christ.

As such, there is no true theological expert.  As clergy, we are called to equip the saints, share our faith, share church doctrine, throw in something from time to time to stretch folks' brains, make them think and reflect so that as they grow in faith, they are not afraid or ashamed or feel inadequate to share that faith with others.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tackling Some Issues of Evangelism (Part 2)

8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. --Ephesians 2:8-9

Such commentary is also found in the book of Romans.

It is the foundational lens of the Lutheran tradition.  Our salvation does not hinge upon the works that we do.  Our salvation does not hinge upon living a holy and moral life.  If it did, none of us would accomplish it.  We'd fail for God demands perfection.  We Lutherans know this deep down, and we rejoice in it. 

But I think it also makes us complacent.

I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith...

Martin Luther penned those words in his Small Catechism under the explanation of the third article of the Apostles' Creed.  It is only the Holy Spirit's action which can bring me or anyone else to faith.  As Lutherans, we know this deep down.

And I think it makes us complacent.

Let the Holy Spirit do the work of evangelism.  I'll be content to sit in my pew on Sunday, put in my donation, sing a few hymns, endure a sermon or two, and leave my faith sitting there in the pew until next Sunday.  The Spirit can blow where it may.  It can bring people to faith without me.

No.  It.  Can't.

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  --Romans 10:14

But isn't that the pastor's job?  (We'll get into that one in much more depth in another post.)

Short answer: no.

Jesus told his followers, not just Peter who He had designated as leader to make disciples.  Jesus told his followers, not just the leaders to be His witnesses.  The Holy Spirit uses us on a daily basis to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit uses our words, our deeds, our facial expressions, our entire being to help others come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

But can't I be content to know I am saved by grace?

Are you really content?  Are you really satisfied in simply knowing that you yourself are saved by this grace?  Are you really satisfied, sitting content in your knowledge and understanding while there is a world outside your door hungering and thirsting for a better worldview?  Are you content to sit in your knowledge that you are saved by grace through faith while others are wondering if there is a God, wondering if that God loves them, wondering if all there is in this life is suffering and heart ache, wondering if anyone anywhere care enough about them?  Are you content to hear that you are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, but deaf to the remainder of what Paul says in Ephesians in the very next verse:

10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. --Ephesians 2:10

We are made for good works, including the spread of the gospel.  Some of our best witnessing is done without the use of words.  But we must also be ready to use them when the time is ripe. 

If anything, knowing we are saved by grace should not make us content; it should not make us satisfied; it should instill within us a hunger that the rest of the world may know the life changing power of God's love.  It should instill within us a desire to share that peace that passes all understanding with a world that yearns to know it.

Grace leads to evangelism.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tackling Some Evangelism Issues (Part 1)

There is still a part of me which is reeling from reading the latest Lutheran magazine and seeing the lack of attention given to evangelism at the ELCA synod assemblies. 

(see article:

I know we Lutherans haven't exactly been at the forefront of the evangelism issue.  We're not exactly the best at sharing our faith stories.  Neither do we generally have a sense of urgency when it comes to "saving the lost".  Part of this is our cultural heritage.  Part of it is our tenacious articulation of being saved by grace and God's action alone--God saves, so we don't need to worry about it.  Part of it is our hesitancy of engaging others who may have difficult questions.  I'd personally also argue we have set up a system dependent upon "experts" (a.k.a. clergy) who know the ins and outs of the faith better and are better able to convince others to become Christian.

Some of these issues are easily addressed.  Others, not so much.  But I'd like to give some thought and attention to some things which I see underlying my denomination's reluctance to truly engage evangelism in this day and age.

For the focus of this post, I'd like to turn to the difficult questions portion of our reasons for failing to engage in evangelism.  In our "post modern" context, many folks are very reluctant to make definitive statements about truth.  It seems truth can become very exclusivistic, and if you exclude anyone now a days, well, you've just set yourself up as the bad guy.

For instance, when proclaiming the Christian faith, it is not unheard of for someone to ask, "How can you say Jesus is the only way to God?  Isn't that exclusive?  Isn't that arrogant?"

Indeed, I know all too well the nature of such questions and thought.  It was very much alive as I attended college.  Professors and students alike challenged the statement of Jesus that He was "the way, the truth, and the life."  Surely the truth was bigger than Jesus.  Surely He wasn't that exclusivisic.  (Hey, after all, that was just John's point of view in his gospel account.  John may have been wrong.)

For quite some time, I struggled with Jesus' exclusivistic claims.  I too wondered the wisdom of claiming Him as the only way to the Father in the midst of a very relativistic culture which celebrated diversity now matter how much on the fringes that diversity was.

But I am troubled by it no longer.

As I read through the book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller, my discomfort with Jesus' truth claims disappeared.  Keller's wisdom and arguments settled deep within me and gave me, I believe, firm footing to refute those who have a problem with Christianity's exclusive claims.

What are Keller's thoughts?  I will do my best to summarize:

1. All religions are not equal.  That should be self evident, but to many it is not.  The religions of the world each have different beliefs and understandings about God.  Some don't even believe in God (Buddhism,  Furthermore, not only are their beliefs different, so are the actions they proclaim.  Some argue the deity must be appeased by works committed by humans, others argue no amount of works on our part will appease the deity but it is through grace we are saved.  Some religious sects believe the taking of life for the cause of faith is justified, others practice pacifism.  Is each "pathway" valid?  Is each "pathway" equal?   Not a chance.  Mutually exclusive truth claims must be evaluated and dealt with.  Actions must be judged.  All faiths are not equal, and we cannot logically or rationally state such a thing with certainty.

2. Truth does exist.  Many would like to think it doesn't.  Many would like to think that even if it does, we cannot see it.  Oftentimes the old analogy of the blind men feeling around on the elephant comes into play.  One believes it's like a brick wall, another like a water hose, another like a broom, etc, etc.  Folks use the analogy to indicate we are all blind looking around at the same thing.  However, the analogy falls flat because it assumes at least someone knows the big picture.  Someone knows there is an elephant in the room.  Someone has the capability of seeing the truth.  Who has that vision?  That's where we must engage in argument and dialogue.  A further corollary to this argument are those who argue, "All truth is relative."  This statement is one of the more oxymoronic statements ever made.  It is a statement of truth, presented as fact.  But the statement itself says truth doesn't exist, facts don't exist.  Relativity relativizes itself.  Somewhere the truth exists.

3. Christianity offers some beliefs which set it above and beyond other faith traditions.  While we may "see in a mirror dimly," Christianity offers some insights into God which set it apart from other religions.  #1. It is the only faith where God creates the universe out of a desire of love for creation.  #2. At its heart, it centers on the God who came down to earth to reconcile humankind unto Himself.  #3. It centers on a fully human, fully divine man who proclaimed and practiced love for His enemies, praying for them and asking for their forgiveness while He died for them.  A faith which practices such principles can, while holding onto exclusivity, change the world through humility.  The true Christian faith, therefore, does not lead to arrogance, or violence, or forceful conversion, but following in the footsteps of its founder, leads to humble service, care of creation, and working for justice and peace. 

Now, this doesn't mean there haven't been and aren't those who practice a Christianity which demonizes the other.  One only need look at the Spanish Inquisition, the 30 Year's War, the Crusades, and some of the militant "Christian" groups around today to show that there are those within Christianity who haven't  lived up to the expectations of it's founder.  We should duly note such abominations, repent of them, and then seek to live up to the example of Christ Himself.  Yet, even these bastardizations of the faith should not prevent us from digging down to the truth which Christ espoused, lived, and then sent His followers out to practice and preach.

Somewhere, I believe some Christians in the U.S. have lost sight of either 1) the Truth Christ gave us in their desire to fit in with culture, or 2) the humility Christ called for and practiced in His life.  These two must go together, hand in glove.  They are crucial for our ability to carry out our mission to make disciples of the nations.  We must not forsake either one for if we do not believe we have the Truth, what do we have?  Just one more methodology among many that may or may not work for a given particular person.  That's not our claim.  That's not Christ's claim.  And because we believe we know the Truth, we are called to spread it.  Period.

But we cannot do so without humility.  For if we come across as arrogant S.O.B.'s who think we've got it all figured out and that we are better than others, then pack it in as well.  Humble service to others without compromising the Truth.  Such is the basis for evangelism.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What the Hell Happened to Country Music?

I don't listen to the radio much these days.  When I'm in the car with the kids, the DVD player is running, so I know a lot about kids movies.  When I'm driving in my Mustang visiting members, I'm playing contemporary Christian music at rather high decibels along with 80's Rock (can't beat that while driving a sports car).  So...I don't listen to the music I grew up with much: Country and Western.

Today, when I went to pick up our dogs from the kennel, I got a chance to listen to KILT out of Houston for an extended period of time, and after my foray into listening, I have only one question:

What the hell happened to country music?

A few things jumped out at me as I reflected about CW music when I was growing up:

1. There was no such thing as rapping, even with a southern accent.  (Got a great Doug Stone story about that one below.)
2. No one ever asked a country girl to shake it.
3. Getting drunk was especially reserved for when your girl left you or picking your momma up from prison. 
4. Life wasn't about partying but love, getting burned by love, hard work, rodeo, and farm life.
5. You had to have a fiddle in the band.
6. A fiddle with a big band sound didn't count.
7. Electric guitars????  Try acoustic and steel.


When did I get old?

And the sad part is realizing my parents said the exact same thing about CW when I was growing up.

Doug Stone Story

Back in the 90's, George Strait held gigantic music festivals in San Antonio at the Alamodome.  He would bring in all sorts of acts including Wynonna, Brooks and Dunn, Lee Roy Parnell, McBride and the Ride, Doug Stone, and a whole lot of others.  It was well worth the money to go to these things.

I remember vividly Doug Stone's performance.  I think he had one or two too many before hitting the stage, especially when he started preaching to everyone in attendance.  But now, I understand, he was a prophet.

His hit single at the time was "Why Didn't I Think of That", and he was bemoaning the fact that everyone considered him strictly a ballad singer.  Therefore, he introduced us to a new form of music.  He was going to combine country music and rap.  He blended the two titles to name the music "crap."  Then, he gave us a sample of the music by singing "Why Didn't I Think of That" as a rap, and he was right: it was crap.

Now, fast forward to today and listen to Jason Aldean's song "Dirt Road Anthem."  Country and rap.  Crap.  And what's even more crap: it's a huge hit.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Challenging the Prevailing Wisdom: Teamwork

I wrote a couple weeks ago about challenging basic assumptions and the need to take some time to do so from time to time.  For some reason, I was led to challenge one of those basic assumptions that is generally regarded as the prevailing wisdom of today.

Since I have been studying for and practicing in the ordained ministry, I have heard a recurring mantra and theme: we can do more together than we can alone.  There's even been a rather cute anagram made to fit this theme: Together Everyone Achieves More.  You got it: TEAM. 

Now, don't misunderstand where I am headed.  There is no doubt that together we can indeed raise more money to fight hunger and poverty when we join together.  There is no doubt we need teamwork when running organizations.  When they become large enough, teamwork is essential to their success.  The larger the "problem" to be addressed, the more we need a team.

But, I wonder if "together everyone achieves more" really and truly works for all things?

If that were so, what results have that brought the church (particularly the ELCA) in the past couple of decades?

Let's narrow down the question a little more: has an emphais on the TEAM concept led to more congregations reaching folks with the Gospel?  Has an emphasis on the TEAM concept led our congregations to grow and thrive?  Has an emphasis on the TEAM concept empowered our congregations to be mission outposts which are centers of generosity within their communities where "budgets" are met consistently and survival mode is a bad memory?

I'm going to take a momentary break to start fortifying a room so that I won't get hit by the stuff being thrown at me.

Is there a direct correllation between the focus on TEAM and the decline of our churches?  Perhaps not, but I cannot help but realize that in the 18 years of engaging this concept, I haven't seen a difference being made in the larger scope of evangelism in the ELCA.

I'd like to stop right here and just leave the criticism, but that offers little in the way of solutions to help reverse a dispicable trend.  And if one is not willing to offer solutions, then forget it.

I personally believe individuals must be equipped to do evangelism.  Individuals carry the brunt of responsibility when it comes to being witnesses in the world around us.  If they are not equipped to share faith stories, invite others to church, live with a marked difference in their lives, see God in action outside the church, and notice those kairotic moments when others want to engage them in "faith talk," then our congregations will continue to flounder.

If our congregations are not engaged in preaching the Gospel and making it relevant to peoples' daily lives--not in a partisan political way as many of our churches seem to do; if they are not welcoming and hospitable; if they do not seek to make a difference in the local and global community; then our congregations will continue to flounder. 

In what ways is church leadership trying to equip our people and congregations to engage in such things? 

I personally strive to do a couple of things: 1. I regularly announce 95% of a congregation's ministry is done outside the four walls of the church.  2. I try to make sure every sermon has some nugget folks can take home with them to discuss that is applicable to their daily lives.  3. I try to equip folks to watch for those moments with family and friends that beg for an invitation to be extended to come to church.  4. I intentionally invited folks to extend a welcome to each person in worship on a given Sunday.  5.  I strive to model such behavior myself in hopes that someone is actually watching what I do.  6. I refrain from announcing my political views and intentionally allow others to come to their own conclusions based upon the faith they experience.  7.  I engage people in the community in the context of their daily lives to see their struggles and joys.  When I get the chance, I am always open to discuss any topic that folks want to engage in.  8. I regularly admit that I have clay feet and am not the resident theological expert.  I admit that others have theological/philosophical insights and invite them to share them with me without my condeming their insights or saying, "Well, this is what scholars think..."

Those are a few of the things that I do.  It involves a modicum of teamwork, but it puts responsiblity on individuals.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More Listening?

I received an email the other day from our Synod Offices.  It read:

Dear Leaders of the Gulf Coast Synod,

You heard it at the 2011 Synod Assembly: We are entering into a long-range strategic planning process for our synod.  To lead this process we have engaged Keith Magnuson, Principle Owner of Kairos Consulting:

We are going to begin with the largest listening process this Synod has ever attempted. We would like to hear from as many congregational staff and council as possible.  

Kairos will use Russell Crabtree, owner of Holy Cow Consulting ( Russ is the author of The Elephant in Boardroom and The Fly in the Ointment, and a leader in innovative survey processes. We're going to engage a broad spectrum of the leadership in congregations across this synod, including every rostered leader and every council member.  We've intentionally engaged with Kairos and Holy Cow to insure outside objectivity.  

This is an opportunity for you and the leaders in your community to help shape the future of our work together. 

Much of this work will be done online.  To accomplish this we must broaden our email base.  We are asking you as leaders in this synod, to forward us the list of your congregation's council members and contact information so that their voices can be heard, and so that they can view a summary of the results.  The participation of your council members is vital for us to get an honest picture of the synod landscape. 

Please forward your Congregation Council contact list (names, emails, phone numbers) to by July 15thThe survey will open online in late July, closing in mid-August.

All Survey participants will have the opportunity to receive a summary report of the findings.

We are dreaming about the future of the Lutheran presence in our neck of the woods. We hope you will open your doors to this dreaming together, and encourage your local leadership to participate fully, as we shape our way together!

God's Blessings,

Bishop Mike Rinehart and Synod Vice-President Evan Moilan

First, let me say that I have no issue what-so-ever in long range planning and visioning.  "Without a vision, the people perish." is an often quoted translation of Proverbs 29:18, and to some extent, it is true.  Congregations, institutions, businesses, etc. which have a clear vision of what they would like to accomplish tend to thrive--particularly if folks buy into the vision.  Oh, there will be some who try to subvert the process of striving toward the vision, but you can't make everyone happy.  That's an impossibility.  Yet, if there is a goal in mind, folks are more apt to strive toward it.  I am encouraged that my synod is looking to formulate a long range vision to work toward.

However, I'm not necessarily thrilled by the process.  Listening.

Oh, I know it's one of those assumptions that tends to govern the way the church does business.  "Listen to everyone so that everyone gets a chance to have their input.  If they feel like they've been listened to, then they will not get upset when we make changes."

I call bull-cr@p!

First of all, seeing what everyone says and then formulating a vision based upon what everyone says is not leadership.  It's liking your finger, finding out which direction the wind is blowing, and walking in that same direction.  It's figuring out which way the crowd is moving and running to the front.  Real leadership, at least in the church doesn't rely upon listening to the crowds--it relies upon listening to God.  Real leadership relies upon discernment.

Now, this doesn't mean one doesn't listen to others.  Several times in my career, I have been called upon to take various stances on one issue or another.  Many times, I have wished I could simply sit tight and do nothing and let things play out.  However, every time, I wished for this to happen, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt bad things would happen.  So, I led.  I spent time in deep reflection and prayer.  Based upon that time of discernment, I defined the situation.  I defined my stance.  I articulated my beliefs and understandings and thoughts and then painted a vision of what I believed God was calling us toward.  Upon doing so, I went to trusted leaders within my congregation: current council members, the current congregation president, former congregation presidents, leaders within the women's organization, etc.  I had them read over my stuff.  I asked for their input to see if I was off base.  Usually they took a couple of days to read, pray, and respond.  Then, I "went public" so-to-speak.

Each time, I knew there would be those who would be unhappy with what I had suggested.  I knew there would be those who thought I had gone too far or not far enough.  But I also opened myself up to critique.  Generally, upon thoughts and reflections, folks agreed with where I was trying to lead us in principle.  They might not have agreed with all the details, but they understood where we were trying to get in the end.  They understood God has a purpose for our congregation, and that purpose is very important.  Oftentimes, they are willing to strive toward that purpose with those who believe very different things than they do--if the vision is clear.

Second, I don't believe listening to everyone eases anxiety and helps a church function better.  One only need look at the happenings surrounding the ELCA's decision to ordain non-celebate homosexuals.  The ELCA "listened" to folks for nearly 20 years regarding the subject.  From Barbara Lundblad's purposeful release of sexuality drafts before congregation pastor's had the opportunity to look them over to vote after vote after vote at synod assemblies and national assemblies, no one really wanted to listen over the course of this matter.  Those pushing the church toward the resolution never listened to the church telling them "no" time and again.  They kept pushing until it passed this last year.  And, when folks caused an uproar, the same folks wondered why everyone was angry because they had plenty of time to make their voices known.  Hello!  They did.

Similarly, I don't believe the "other side" really and truly listened to the pain and frustration experienced by those who loved God and loved Christ and wanted to serve others.  

And these are just the emotional issues.  Neither side wanted to wrestle with the main issue of "how do we interpret this book we call the Bible?  Do we have a method of reading which we consider more authoritative?"

No.  Instead, it was the proverbial Abbot and Costello "Who's On First?" routine.  Plain language interpreters went up against historical/critical interpreters, and each side thought and claimed the other was idiotic, unlearned, etc., etc.

And what happened: division, anger, frustration, brokenness, churches splitting, funds draining.

Because we wanted to listen to all the voices instead of lead and discern.  There was no vision being cast for the larger church, just a bunch of listening; and fighting; and name calling.

Seems like we're trying to head down that road once more.  I earnestly hope not.  But, I truthfully believe the Synod is entering into an exercise of a waste of time and money.  


and Listen...

to God. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wisdom from the A-Team?

Took some time on July 4th to catch up on some movies I've wanted to watch.  Finally sat down and watched the new A-Team movie.  As a youngster, I loved, I mean loved, the t.v. show.  I was hoping they'd be true to the show in how they handled things.  I am happy to report: they were.

But there was one fascinating aspect of the show which caught my attention.

One of the members: B.A. Barakus has a change of heart while he is in prison.  He reads a book on non-violence.  When the team is finally reunited, B.A. talks to Hannibal Smith about his desire to become a man of peace instead of violence.

B.A. quotes Gandhi, "I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary."

B.A. asks Hannibal about the quotation.

Hannibal replies, "Gandhi.  'It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.'  Do you know who said that?"

B.A. shakes his head.

Hannibal answers, "Gandhi."

I had to look it up after I heard it.  You know how Hollywood takes artistic license with things.

Sure enough.  It's a solid quote.

Never heard it before.  None of my professors in college or seminary who raved about Gandhi ever brought this one to attention.

Call it selective quoting if you choose.

Just like many of us do with Scripture.  We'll selectively quote those items we think bolster our form of Christianity.  Never mind those pesky ones that seemingly contradict what we want to put forth.

God isn't wrathful.  God is a God of love.

Tell that to Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5).

You have to repent in order to be forgiven.

Tell that to the Prodigal Son's Father who runs to him before he even gets a chance to apologize.

God wants us to be wealthy.

Tell that to Jesus when He tells His followers to give up their possessions.

God wants everyone to share equally in what they have.

Tell that to Jesus when He tells the parable of the talents.

We like being selective.  How easy it is to put our own vision upon Jesus, upon Christianity, upon Gandhi.

How hard it is to allow them to instruct us in total.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Gospel in Action

As told by Ronald J. Sider in his lecture "The Whole Gospel for the Whole Person" at The Vertias Forum at Harvard University, 1995.

Reprinted in A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life's Hardest Questions, edited by Dallas Willard copyright 2010, IVP Books.

James Dennis is a very dear friend of mine.  For eleven years my wife and I attended an inner-city church in an all-black section of Philadelphia.  James Dennis and I were elders together in that church.  Many years ago, Brother James was a very angry black militant.  He told me a little while ago that if he had met me years ago, he might have killed me.  (I'm glad he met Jesus first.)  But before that happened, his marriage was in trouble, he was abusing alcohol, and he finally went to prison for a major crime.  In prison, thank God, he came to know Jesus Christ, and he came out, struggled a bit, got involved in our church discipleship, and God put his life back together.

His family's back together, he's got a decent job, he owns his own home.  He wants to be a prison chaplain someday.  Fantastic transformation.  Anybody who thinks that all he needed was the best government programs of whatever sort, Democratic, Republican, or Green, simply doesn't understand.  He needed more than that.  He needed a living relationship with Jesus Christ that would transform his whole character from the inside out.

At the same time, anybody who thinks that all he needed was to be born again, when the school system wouldn't work and he couldn't get any job or housing, doesn't understand.  Surely he needed a decent societal order, and he needed a living relationship with Jesus Christ.  How on earth anybody who claims to follow Jesus Christ, the eternal Word become flesh, the perfect combination of word and deed, and then proceeds to separate them in life really puzzles me.

Two words: I agree.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Leaving the Group

After holding out for longer than I thought, I removed my name from the ELCA Clergy Facebook page.

There was part of me that wanted to continue to stay connected in this virtual community to see what my fellow brothers and sisters were up to and the thoughts which ran through their heads.

For a time, my curiosity was satisfied.

But then several topics started coming up which began to sway my opinion.  Actually, the topics (in my opinion) were downright depressing.

Here's a sample:

When you wear a chausible, do you wear your stole over the top of it or underneath it?

When you wear a cincture (a rope around your waist), do you tie your stole down with it or let it freely hang?

What do you wear to an outdoor wedding?

Even had a few arguments regarding whether or not one needed to have a Bible reading from one of the four Gospels at every worship service.  Some argued it was a necessity.  Others argued having a reading from any part of the Bible was sufficient.


Yours truly is not inspired by such conversation.

Neither was I inspired by the commentary suggesting we pastors ought to be responsible for every single aspect of church life.

I personally believe somewhere in this whole process of doing church, the power of the people in the pews must be unleashed.  To have an effective church, one must certainly have a good pastor; however, just as important is a group of unabashed people who are willing to put their faith into action in whatever manner the Spirit calls them.

When people are inspired to do ministry and come up with programs and ideas on their own, congregations are more effective than when the pastor has to drag them toward programs and ideas.  It's a simple fact of reality.

But instead of conversations about how such things need to take place within our congregations, we tend to be more interested in how we should arrange our liturgical garb. 

I'll pass on that conversation.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


For my blog readers: I will not be posting my blogs to Facebook for the next week or so.  I will be taking some time off.  If the autopublishing stuff works correctly, there will still be a post almost daily at 10 a.m while I am spending some time with my family and friends.

Keep checking in if you choose.


Sermon Delivered July 10, 2011: Satisfaction

How many of you recognize this candy bar? (Hold up a Snickers bar.) Just about everyone. I remember being introduced to Snickers when I was very young. It was and probably still is my dad’s favorite candy bar. I remember very clearly going to church and Sunday School when my home congregation had two services. Sometimes, my mom was asked to play organ for both services. We’d usually attend the first service, go to Sunday school, and then while mom was playing the second service, dad would take us to the local Maverick Market–how many of you remember that chain store? Anyway, we’d go down to the local Maverick Market and pick up a snack and go to a playground for half an hour or so before heading back to pick up my mom.

I remember dad gave us each a dollar to purchase a drink and a candy bar. It seemed like dad always got a Snickers. Eventually, I’d get one too and enjoy the chocolate, caramel, and peanuts. It was a snack which, in the words of the Snicker’s ad campaign today, truly satisfied.

Perhaps you have seen some of the commercials Snickers has put out recently. Beginning with the Betty White Super Bowl commercial, Snickers has gone on a marvelous campaign to convince all of us who get hunger pangs from time to time that their candy bar will truly satisfy our hunger. It will calm our cravings. And according to the Snicker’s folks, this is a good thing because when we get hungry, we are not ourselves. We transform into weak, irritable, cranky, angry people. We must be satisfied in order to be happy.

Snickers is actually picking up on a train of thought which psychologists have articulated for quite some time. Anyone here remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? I remember being taught this pyramid pretty early on in my education. You begin with physical needs. Once those are met, then you can advance a level into safety needs. Once those are met, you move into the need for love and belonging. Once that is met, you can advance to the level of esteem. Finally, once esteem needs are met, you can reach the peak which Maslow called Self Actualization. Each of these levels is predicated upon being satisfied–physically, emotionally, and psychologically. If needs aren’t met, a person can never be fully who he or she can be.

I’ve got a bone to pick with Maslow because I personally wonder if such needs can ever be satisfied. I mean bear with me for just a little bit. Take for instance, this Snickers bar. It’s not very big as far as things are concerned. The ads say it will satisfy my hunger. Well, I’m feeling a little bit hungry right now, so I’m going to munch down on this little piece of candy. Mmm. It is good. But I wouldn’t say that it’s actually satisfied my hunger. I’ve still got that taste of chocolate in my mouth. That’s a really pleasant taste for me by the way. I love chocolate. In fact, that little bit of chocolate has only managed to whet my appetite. I want more. Before I ate that candy bar, I wasn’t craving chocolate. Now, I want more. So instead of satisfying my hunger, it actually made it worse.

There are some reasons for that, I think. One of them being, for most people who are not allergic to chocolate, the body releases endorphins when you eat it. Now, endorphins are chemicals in your body that make you feel good. When you eat chocolate, you get a "fix". Your body enjoys that "fix" and it wants to feel more of it. The more chocolate you eat, the more endorphins get released, and the better you feel, at least for a short time. But the body is never, really satisfied. It wants more. And more and more.

Interestingly enough, I have read a few things which suggest the body does something similar when we go shopping. Yes, some have suggested there are endorphins which are triggered when we go buy things. Ever wonder why some people tend to be shopaholics? Ever wonder why some people have an insatiable appetite when it comes to spending money and appropriating goods? Perhaps it is because it makes them feel good to get something for themselves. But, that fix is short lived. Because there is always more to be bought.

On the flip side of that, did you know that helping someone else feels good as well? Did you know that helping others releases the same endorphins as buying something for yourself? Of course, the studies that I have seen suggest that the endorphins that are produced by helping someone last longer than the ones that happen when you shop which may be a goose for some of us to think outside of ourselves once in a while. And there are many people who keep wanting to help others, even to the point they neglect themselves or neglect their families. Why? Well, they are never satisfied with helping. There’s always one more person to help. One more life to save. And some folks never get enough of it.

Oh, I think I could keep adding to this list. Hunger, shopping, helping others, drinking, sex, buying a sports car, moving into a bigger house, desiring what my neighbor has, playing video games, surfing the internet, chatting in chat rooms, meeting other people, receiving pats on the back for something we have done, all of these things can make us feel good. They can cause reactions within us as we think we are finding satisfaction while we are doing them. But...but do they really and truly satisfy? Do they take away our physical, emotional, and psychological hungers? They certainly may alleviate them for a time, but they will not take them away. Let me repeat that, they will not take them away. If we ever think we will be completely satisfied by simply eating, drinking, having sex, shopping, helping others or what have you, we are sorely mistaken. These things will never, ever satisfy. Sorry, Snickers. You are wrong.

So what can satisfy? What can give us fulfillment?

St. Paul writes in our second lesson this morning, "5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him."

When we believe all of the things I talked about earlier will lead to our satisfaction, we are setting our minds on the things of the flesh. We are seeking to satisfy our own desires. We are seeking to satisfy our own hungers, and they will never dissipate. When we set our minds on the desires of our flesh, we will be so overcome with them that we will willingly break God’s law to have them satisfied. And what is the cure?

"Set your mind on the things of the Spirit." Set your mind on the things of God. Look to Him as the one who satisfies. Make Him the ultimate concern in your life, and you will not hunger. You will find life and peace. Amen.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Letter to Sherry

For the past seven years, the congregation I serve has sought to help individuals through our Community Care Fund.  We unabashedly help people with rent, light bills, health care costs, food, etc.  It is one of the ways we minister to our surrounding community.

The other day, a young woman drove around and around Cat Spring centering on the church.  It was Friday, and our offices are closed.  I was out washing my car, and after seeing her drive around three times, I flagged her down and asked if I could help her.

She said she was trying to get to the church to ask for assistance, but the church was closed.  I informed her I was the pastor and offered to help her.  She told me her need, and I talked her through the steps to apply for funds.  She went on her way, and I awaited her request.

In the next few days as I waited, a thought entered into my head.  In all the time we have been helping others, it occurred to me that I had never witnessed to a single person we have helped.  Honestly and sadly.  I mean, I've handed out rent checks on behalf of the church.  I've handed out checks to light companies on behalf of the church, but in so doing, I had never looked those whom we were helping right in the eye and asked, "Do you know why we are doing what we are doing?"  Never did I even think to tell them this money was not just money--it was a gift through us from God.  It was God's way of reaching out to that person at that particular time and saying, "I will take care of you.  I will use my church to do so.  Know my love through these people."

I have sense resolved to do a better job of this.  Folks need to know why we do what we do.  A handout is just a handout.  It may or may not make a difference in someone's life.  Many will need again.  But, if we tie such things to God's love...if we tie such things to helping them know God cares...that can truly make a difference.

I hope to share with Sherry these thoughts in person.  But I will be going on vacation shortly.  I hope to see her today, but I am preparing this letter to include with her check as well.

Dear Sherry,

I hope I am not being too forward in writing this letter to you.  I have only met you briefly and spoken to you on the phone a couple of times.  I barely know your situation in life much less what you believe and what you do. 

But I feel compelled to write these words because I don't want our assistance to you to come across as a "Here's your check.  Good luck." sort of thing.  Far from it.

As a church, we believe it is our calling to reach out with the good news of Jesus Christ.  We know this takes place in many and various ways.  Sometimes it is through the words of a sermon.  Sometimes it's through the kind words of a friend or stranger.  Sometimes it's through a gift of money or helping someone in need.  It is our desire to use whatever means we can to convey to others how much God loves them and cares for them.

It is in this Spirit that we are helping you with your rent.  We do not want this to be seen as a handout.  We want this to be seen as God's way of coming to you during this difficult time and saying, "I care about you.  I care about your family.  I love you, and I am using my people at this church to provide for you during this time.  Never lose hope that I am always watching over you.  I will be with you always."

I hope that you can see this gift in this light.  We ask for nothing in return, and I mean that, nothing.  We don't require you to worship with us.  We don't ask for repayment.  We will not twist your arm and make you believe in Christ if you don't.  We simply want you to know Christ's care, compassion, and love.  May this check represent that to you.

God's peace be with you.


Rev. Kevin Haug
St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring, TX

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Are You Really Free?

Coming off this July 4th weekend and reading several Christian blogs on freedom, I decided to jump into the fray.

And I'm not going to be nice.

You and I are not free.

There, I said it.  I suppose I must defend it.  Not too difficult.

If you think you are totally free, tell the folks at the airport you refuse to go through airport security.

If you think you have absolute freedom, tell the car dealership you are going to take a desired car off the lot without paying for it.

If you think you have freedom, drive that sports car through a school zone with a sheriff's deputy clocking your speed.

Need I go on?

The truth of our lives, at least in civilization, is we are bound by certain laws and boundaries.  Cross them, and you get in trouble.  Stay within them, and you are basically left alone.  But, a boundary means a reduction in freedom, plain and simple.

Some might argue this is a bad thing.  We should strive to be completely free so that we achieve self-fulfillment.

Really?  Is this how we are truly supposed to operate?

Should I drop my rule about letting my kids run in the street so that they can be self fulfilled and be completely free?  Should I allow my kids to hit and hurt each other as they try to "share" their toys?

No.  In order to have some sort of safety, we must have rules.  We must have boundaries.  Within those boundaries, we have freedom to grow and thrive and experience joy.  Without those boundaries, we must be constantly looking over our shoulder to see who or what is going to get us next.

As a Lutheran Christian, we hold the dynamic of freedom and boundary in dynamic tension.  We know and understand there is nothing we can do to earn God's favor or love.  We know and understand there is nothing we can do to earn salvation.  These things come freely as a gift from God through Jesus Christ.  There is something tremendously liberating in knowing this.  I no longer have to worry about following every jot and tittle in the rules.  I no longer have to worry about being good enough.  I don't have to burden myself with guilt or anxiety wondering if God's going to strike me down at any particular moment because I have erred--the good German, Lutheran word for that is angst, btw. 

St. Paul writes about it this way in the book of Galatians chapter 3 verses 24-26: 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

If you read that as I do, you see that the law no longer condemns us or threatens us or will cause us any harm.  God no longer will zap you if you stray outside the boundaries.  Therefore, we are free!  Completely and utterly free!  We no longer have to follow the law or adhere to the boundaries!

But is doing so such a good idea?  Just because we can, does that mean we should?

Some argue that because we have this freedom, we no longer worry about the law (God's boundaries) what-so-ever.  But that is not the case.  In the history of Christianity, this is called anti-nomianism--against the law.  It is a heresy of monumental proportions.  For the law still has a place.  The law still helps to govern and lead us in the right pathways.  And we follow it, not out of fear but out of obedience.

That's a word which strikes fear into some: obedience.  Giving up one's own self-determination.  Giving up one's own destiny.  Subjecting one's self to another.

But isn't this what we do when we bind ourselves to Jesus Christ?  Isn't this what we do when we call ourselves Christian?  Don't we give up the freedom we know we have to serve, to follow, to proclaim the one who freed us from condemnation? 

This is at the heart of Luther's comment when he said, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all."
So, are you really free?


And no.

At least if we are truthful with ourselves.