Saturday, April 05, 2003

Yesterday, our son, a college junior, forwarded a copy of a paper he'd written for a History class. His topic was, "Germany as a Pawn in the Cold War." It was a good paper, if I can be parental.

One thing that especially moved me was his description of the Church's role in the collapse of Soviet tyranny in Germany. He'd interviewed a German emigre to this country who had described some of the long-standing weekly prayer gatherings that took place in East Germany during the repressive post-World War Two era. Those prayer gatherings gave hope to people, connecting them to God and acting as conduits by which God's forgiveness, healing, and hope came to a nation which in preceding decades had been the epicenter of so much evil.

My son said that as he contemplated these silent prayer gatherings and the ensuing events--the disappearance of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the joyful end of Soviet-led communism--he thought of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph's brothers had caused him untold pain. Joseph, sold into slavery, later endured imprisonment for a crime he never committed before miraculously, being elevated to the position of prime minister in Egypt. There was a family reunion and Joseph treated his father, brothers, and family with acceptance and love. But after Jacob, the father of Joseph and his brothers, died, the brothers became concerned that the moment had come when Joseph would feel free to exact vengeance on them. They seem to have concocted a story about how their old man had told them that if he died before Joseph, they should let Joseph know it was his will that he not be vengeful toward them. When Joseph heard his brothers, he wept and told them, in the Daniels paraphrase of this passage, "Don't you guys get it, what you meant as an evil, God has turned into a good thing. Through my work in Egypt, I've been able to save all sorts of lives, including the lives of the family God has designated to be the breeding ground for the Savior of the world. You tried to do something rotten. But God turned rottenness into blessings. I'm not God. So, relax. I love you. All is forgiven and all is forgotten."

God wasn't interested in exacting vengeance on Germany, my son concluded. And a small band of praying people unleashed blessings on Germany and the entire former "Eastern bloc."

Prayer in Jesus' Name is a powerful thing! For more on the role of prayer in the break-up of the former Soviet Union, you might want to check out the following web sites: or

I'll share a more personal experience in this regard in a later post.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Pastor Heather and I have exchanged additional e-mailed thoughts on my column of March 25, Preachers Aren't Politicians, which was posted here along with our earlier e-mailed dialog.

This is the first opportunity I've had to respond to your last e-mail.

The Martin Niemoller quote is one of my favorites. I have cited it myself when dealing with issues of injustice and prejudice. I deem it entirely irrelevant to discussions about the war, though.

Buy the argument or not, the Bush Administration says that its reasons for pressing the war are twofold: (1) To rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein committed to destroying at the end of the Gulf War; (2) To rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein's regime. France, Germany, Susan Sarandon, everybody seem to agree that these two goals are appropriate. The disagreement comes as to what is the best way to pursue them.

This raises primarily political and not moral questions, as far as I can see. The progression of events Niemoller cites from his experiences in Nazi Germany has nothing to do with the military action being undertaken in Iraq right now. Each side in the argument over the war can and does advance compelling moral arguments for their positions. But ultimately, whether this war is right or not is a political judgment that we must make in a morally ambiguous situation. We each must look at the facts, pray about them, and then, "sin boldly." [The term "sin boldly" was coined by church reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Luther observed that sometimes when confronted with decisions, our search of Scripture, consultation with trusted counselors, and prayer may still not yield a clear understanding of God's will. It's then, Luther said, that we "sin boldly," trying our best to do what we think is right and trusting God to be forgiving if with right motives, we prove to do the wrong thing.]

As I say, I have opinions about the war and I have expressed them to public officials. Of course, I hope that my political opinions are informed by my Christian moral convictions.

But I believe that it would be totally wrong for me to say that I have the word from on high that this particular war is contrary to God's will or that it's in line with God's will.

It would make it easy for everyone if we could simply say that all war is contrary to God's will. In an ultimate sense, that's true. All war reflects the inability of peoples to share this planet in peace. But we also know, as Luther highlights in his essay on the two kingdoms, that God institutes civil authority as an emergency measure in a fallen world for the purpose of coercing peaceful, civilized behavior from those who don't voluntarily live that way. Luther said that if there weren't governments to enforce civilized behavior on the disorderly, followers of Christ would live as lambs among ravenous wolves. I don't like it that we need armies, navies, and police forces in this world. But I believe that at present, it is God's will that they exist and as citizens, we are then left with the awful freedom to decide if and when they are to be used.

Publicly, I feel that my call as a Pastor is to speak only that Word that God has given me to speak. There are times when it may compel me to speak against the policies of a government, something I have done repeatedly throughout eighteen years as a pastor. But above all, speaking only the Word that God gives me to speak means lifting up Christ so that the Holy Spirit can work in the hearts of believing and unbelieving people and as a result, a reluctant world can voluntarily live under the Lordship of the Prince of Peace.

I hope that this clarifies what I was trying to say, Heather, even if you find it unconvincing.

God bless you, Heather.

Sincerely in Jesus,

Hello Mark,

If I have learned anything in my first three years as a pastor, it is how little I know. I never intended to imply that I have the answer from "from on high" or to misuse the Niemoller quote.

My point in using the Niemoller quote was in response to the larger idea/struggle of when the church and it's pastors, bishops, and other leaders enter the public discourse on a given issue. I was not using the quote to defend Saddam Hussein's regime. (Which, I realize you know but I make that point for the sake of those who may read this on your blog.)

When I speak on this issue, my one point is to call for peace. In the article I wrote, I called for Christians to always speak a word of peace to each other and the world. It is interesting to see how people interpret this message for themselves. I chaired a small planning committee, for the local ministerial assiocation, that put together an Interfaith Candlelight Vigil for Peace on Sunday night, March 23. We shared readings, prayers, and songs all calling for peace. We were careful to create a space were all people of faith, regardless of how they felt about the military action that began days before, would feel comfortable. It was quite a mix of people and view points. But it was an amazing site to see people with pictures of loved ones in the armed forces and serving in Iraq standing next to ardent anti-war protesters. Both with candles in their hands and both praying for peace. The "mixed message" of this peace vigil is highlighted in an article the local newspaper did on the event. I do think it is the right message and best of what religious leaders can do to bridge the gap between those on boths sides of the issue.

It's not that I find your position unconvincing. (I am not convincied of much these days except that "nothing... can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus".) The issue for me is, is this a time and a place for the church (and it's pastors, bishop, leaders) to speak? For you the answer is no but there has been and might again be a time and a place that will compel you (and the church) to speak. For me this is the time and the place for the church to speak as it has in the past and will in the future.

Thank you for your words and willingness to dialogue on this issue. I am listening (and learning) to you and all the other voices in the church. And I know that we are all praying for peace.


Monday, March 31, 2003

In the spirit of my Sunday message (and blog posting) of March 30, 2003, I have a confession to make. I learned late last night that the "news" story regarding Andrew Carlssin with which I begin was actually a hoax. I hope that fact doesn't detract from the overall effect of the message. Everything else is true. I needed to come to the light on this one!

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Disciplines That Free: Confessing Our Wrongs
John 3:14-21

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, Amelia, Ohio, March 30, 2003]

This past week, authorities from the Securities and Exchange Commission arrested a forty-four year old man named Andrew Carlssin for insider stock trading. While much of the stock market was in the tank, Carlssin managed to turn an $800.00 initial investment into a portfolio worth more than $350-million. And he did it in two weeks’ time in a series of 126 high risk trades, every one of which turned out to be a winner. “The only way he could [have pulled] it off is with illegal inside information,” one SEC investigator said.

Carlssin refuses to confess to illegally tapping into inside information. But in a four-hour confession he did own up to being a time traveler from the year 2256. In an attempt to gain leniency, he’s offered to share such “historical facts” as where Osama bin Laden is hiding and the cure for AIDS.

Confession is a difficult thing for any of us. It’s so difficult for Andrew Carlssin that he’s apparently more willing to look silly than to come clean. For the follower of Jesus Christ, confession is no less difficult than it is for anyone else. It can be embarrassing and humiliating to confess our wrongs, whether we confess them to God, to others, or to ourselves. But followers of Jesus also know that confession is an essential component for healthy living. In confession—owning up to our faults and sins, coming clean—we clear away anything and everything that obstructs our relationship with God or keeps us from living life fully.

In our Bible lesson for this morning, a man named Nicodemus visits Jesus. Nicodemus was a respected religious authority. But in Jesus, Nicodemus was beginning to understand that all his religious training, all the authority he enjoyed in the society of his time was meaningless. Still, Nicodemus was too concerned for his “place” in society, too worried about what the neighbors might think, and so, instead of owning up to the suspicion he had that Jesus was the Savior of the world, he sneaked to a meeting with Jesus under cover of darkness. He wanted to warn Jesus that powerful men—Jewish religious figures and Roman government functionaries—saw Jesus as an enemy to be killed. But in our Bible lesson, which picks things up in the middle of their conversation, we find Jesus deflecting Nicodemus’ concern; Jesus tells Nicodemus that He has come into the world for the express purpose of dying. It’s by His death on a cross, Jesus says, that He will absorb all the horrors of human sin into His body, killing off its power over us forever. Jesus then turns the focus back on Nicodemus and his spineless nighttime visit when He says:

"..those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

When we are truthful with God, we can come into His blazingly true light, see our faults up close, seek God’s forgiveness, and know that God will light our way to better living.

Martin Luther was fond of saying that the follower of Jesus Christ is called to live “in daily repentance and renewal.” We need to constantly re-focus our lives on Jesus, never being afraid to “come clean” about our faults and our need of God’s forgiveness and help. Confession needs to be a daily discipline for Jesus-followers. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about confession?

There are three elements that go into genuine confession. First: There is a genuine examination of one’s conscience. In shorthand, that means honesty. Richard Foster is a Quaker theologian and writer whose most famous work is a book called Celebration of Discipline. There, he tells a story from early in his ministry as a young pastor. His work was going well. But he felt the need for more of God’s power in his life in order to meet the almost crushing demand of human need that he confronted each day in his work. He prayed to God, “Lord, is there more You want to bring into my life? I want to be conquered and ruled by You. If there is anything blocking the flow of Your power, reveal it to me.” Over a period of several days during his prayer time, Foster sat in silence, asking God to reveal things to him. At the end of three days’ time, he had filled three sheets of paper with sins and unresolved conflicts from three different phases of his life. He took those with him one day as he met with a trusted Christian friend. He went through each one and was putting the stack into a briefcase when his friend reached across the table, took the sheets in hand, and tore them into hundreds of little pieces. Echoing words that appear in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, Foster says that he knew then that his sins “were as far away as the east is from the west.” It was shortly after engaging in that exercise in confession that Foster began to develop a closer relationship with God.

Psalm 139 in the Old Testament says:
"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

Confession begins with honesty, asking God to help us fearlessly face His inventory of our sin. It’s only when we’re honest with God about our sin that He can purge it from our systems.

The second element in genuine confession is sorrow. Sorrow, as it relates to confession, isn’t necessarily an emotion. I was talking with someone about his teenage years once. He told me, “As much as it may make me sound like a goody-two-shoes, I have to tell you that back then, I never did anything my parents didn’t want me to do. If they wanted me to be home by midnight, I was usually home by ten till. If they told me not to hang out with particular people, I didn’t do it.” I asked him, “Were you that afraid of your parents?” “I was never afraid of my parents,” he told me. “I just knew how much they loved me and I never wanted to hurt their feelings.” Sorrow over sin is animated by the same impulse that guy expressed about his parents. The cross of Jesus shows us how deeply and desperately God loves us. Sorrow over sin is a sense of deep regret and revulsion at the whole notion of having done anything to offend the heart of our Father God.

The third element in genuine confession is a determination to avoid sin. When we confess our sin to God, we ask Him to change our hearts so that we want to avoid future sin. We ask God to change our wills and make us recoil and turn away from the very idea of violating any of God’s ten commandments, the thrust of which Jesus once summed up as being two-fold: to love God completely and to love others as we love ourselves.

Writer John Ortberg tells about a mauve sofa that he and his wife bought. It was the first new piece of furniture they had ever owned. After the sofa was delivered, a new rule was instituted in their household, which included several small children. “Don’t sit on the mauve sofa. Don’t touch it, don’t play around it, don’t eat on it, don’t breathe on it, don’t even look at that mauve sofa.” But one day, a terrible thing happened. A red jelly stain appeared on the mauve sofa. Ortberg’s wife loved the sofa and was devastated. She lined up the three kids and told them the stain would stay in the sofa “forever” and asked the kids if they knew how long “forever” was. She then told the kids that they would remain standing forever until one of them came clean, owning up to eating and spilling jelly on the mauve sofa. But the kids didn’t say a thing.

Ortberg knew the kids wouldn’t say anything for three reasons. First, because they’d never seen their mom that mad. Second, because they didn’t want to spend forever in the time-out chair. And finally, because John Ortberg knew that it was he, not his kids, who had caused the red jelly stain on the mauve sofa. He knew that he had to come clean. He might not be able to remove the jelly stain from the sofa, but he could get his kids off the hook and try to start fresh with his wife.

When we confess our sins, exposing our faults in God’s bright light, we remove the walls between God and us, between other people and us, between us and our best selves. The discipline of confession is hard. But it’s the way to experiencing all that God intends for us as His children.

[I was first alerted to the news item about Andrew Carlssin from the web site, cre8d-journal,, an excellent blog. The news account of the story can be found at

[The three elements of confession identified here come from Saint Alphonsus Liguori and are mentioned in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline: A Path to Spiritual Growth.

[Obviously, the story of Richard Foster's experience with confession comes from Celebration of Discipline: A Path to Spiritual Growth.

[The message itself was inspired greatly by a sermon by Pastor Dan Anderson, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Burnsville, Minnesota. He also told the story of John Ortberg and the mauve sofa in that sermon.]