Saturday, December 09, 2006

My Ten Favorite Christmas Books

I first presented this list two years ago. Christmas is a favorite time of year for me and these books add to the beauty and wonder of the season.

One More from Epcot

My son had never shot a video with his camera before he did this, which accounts for the picture showing up sideways.

I didn't know he was shooting a video at first, thinking he was taking still pic of me in the gift shop in the American Pavillion at Epcot in Walt Disney World this past week. That accounts for the stupider-than-usual expression on my face at the beginning of the video.

You'll have to tilt your head to the left to see the video right-side-up and you'll have to listen closely to hear the lame jokes. On the other hand, you could just skip it and do something more worthwhile with your life.

The lame-o crack that gets cut off at the end: "Never live by Franklin."

Okay, if you choose to look at this piece of cinematic art, don't say you weren't warned against doing so in advance!

(And no, I don't really think that was Franklin's voice. I was pretending to be Jessica Simpson.)


Will Troy Smith Win the Heisman?

I hope so. Whatever happens, Smith is an extraordinary young man whose capacity for learning and growth will serve him well wherever his life may lead him.

Pearl Harbor Anniversary Leads Meckler to Discuss Combatants' Uses of Classical Antiquity

Michael Meckler, a scholar of Classical Antiquity, has a fascinating piece on how several of the combatant nations, including our own, drew on Classical history and traditions to explain, inform, and in some instances, justify, their actions. He presented it on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the attack by the Japanese Imperial Air Force on US territory.

I found this fascinating:
Fascism drew much of its inspiration from classical antiquity. The name itself deliberately recalled the fasces, the bundle of rods carried by the lictors attending a Roman consul. Both German and Italian fascists saw the military successes of the ancient Greeks and Romans as models for their own modes of governance.
Meckler goes on to explain:
...the Allies also saw the ancients as models, both for good and for ill. The New Zealand-born Oxford scholar Ronald Syme wrote The Roman Revolution -- his famous study about the collapse of the Roman republic and the establishment of the empire under Augustus -- in 1939, with an eye to parallels with the rise of fascism in Europe. Americans frequently drew their own connections between Athenian democracy and the society and government of the United States.
Read the whole thing.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 7)

The first thing you need to do to determine your spiritual gifts is to ask.

Paul writes in the New Testament: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).

When assessing what God wants us to do for the mission of the Church, we’re to take an inventory of our strengths, weaknesses, skills, and passions. That means asking questions and not being afraid of the answers. But who should we ask?

First: Ask God. Ted thought that he had the gift of administration and asked God to confirm it. With this gift he was sure that he could lead a ministry of his congregation. Over the next week, Ted understood that he’d been involved in wishful thinking. He’d thought that the administrators of his church’s ministries were important and that he’d wanted to be a big shot. But he saw that administration wasn’t one of his gifts. He looked for other ways to serve.

Second: Ask Christian friends. These must be people who will speak the truth to us in love. (Ephesians 4:15) Mary felt that she had the gift of teaching. She was leading a class of thirty-something parents and felt that it was going well. But she wanted to know that what she was doing pleased God. So, she asked a trusted Christian friend to sit in on her class. The friend’s enthusiastic affirmation told Mary that she was in sync with God’s plans for her.

Tomorrow, who else to ask in finding one’s gifts.

The first thing you need to do to determine your spiritual gifts is to ask.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).

Friday, December 08, 2006

Guess Who

I got it right. Now you guess.

Your Contributions Would Be Appreciated

I've never made a pitch for contributions to a ministry of our church on the blog before. But, here goes...

In June of next year, the young people of our congregation are planning on participating in Group Work Camp Foundation's 'Week of Hope' at Canandaigua, New York. (For information on what's involved with these camps, see here. I particularly urge you to check out the video here.)

The cost for registration, materials, activities, and all but one of our meals while at the work camp is $239 per person. We'll also have expenses relative to transportation to and from the event. (We're going to van pool our way to the event.)

Our young people are already hard at work on raising the money. We've recently done a cookout at Sam's Club (on a cold Saturday in November) and served dinner, receiving the tips, one evening at a local TGIFriday's.

I'm trying to do everything I can to decrease the costs to these dedicated youth and their families.

That's where this blog post comes in.

As we near the end of 2006 and approach the start of a new year, I'm hoping that I can appeal to my readers' altruism as well as their search for tax benefits. Would you prayerfully consider making a tax-deductible contribution toward helping our young people participate in this fantastic project? Your contribution of ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred dollars would be hugely helpful.

If you have any questions, feel free to send them my way via the "comments" section of this post.

If you'd like to make a contribution, they can be sent to:
Friendship Lutheran Church
1300 White Oak Road
Amelia, Ohio 45102
On your check, simply write 'Youth Mission Trip' on the Memo line.

Just so you know, one of the early decisions I made as a pastor is to not have anything to do with the banking or accounting. I don't even know what the people of our church give. Every penny you send will be used for our youth mission trip. Thanks very much!

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 3:1-6

[Most weeks, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

Luke 3:1-6:
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

General Comments:
1. This is the second week of the new Church Year, a year in which the Gospel lessons are largely drawn from the Gospel of Luke.

2. Luke's is the third of the four gospels appearing in the New Testament. Each of the gospels has their own particular way of telling the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Luke, also the author of the New Testament book of Acts, tries to show readers the historical context in which the story of Jesus unfolds. We see that effort in this weekend's lesson.

3. Another Lucan emphasis is what I would call the "now-ness" of the Kingdom of God. This is somewhat similar to the emphasis created by Mark with his frequent use of the word, immediately. But Luke wants us to understand that the Kingdom of God comes to us not just in the sweet by-and-by, but today in the Person of Jesus Christ and, as he conveys in Acts, in those with faith in Christ.

4. Luke and Matthew are the two gospel writers who include narratives of Jesus' birth in their gospels. They're usually harmonized in most popular tellings of the Christmas story, as is apparently true in the new movie, The Nativity. There's nothing inherently bad about this. But the two writers' particular emphases can be lost in such harmonizations.

Luke is often referred to as "the women's gospel." One reason for saying so is that the Jesus birth narrative is basically told through the eyes of Mary, Jesus' mother. In Luke, we also read the story of how Mary's relative, Elizabeth, post-menopausal and barren, gave birth to John the Baptizer. (In Luke, Mary and Elizbeth readily believe what God tells them will happen in their lives and with their sons.)

Frequently in Luke's gospel, immediately after we're told of conversations that Jesus has with men, we read of conversations with women, or vice versa. Women are thus are seen to have had an early and prominent role in Jesus' story.

Luke tells us more about the female disciples of Jesus, both in the gospel and in Acts.

5. According to the New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), the narrative John the Baptizer's call as a prophet, found in our lesson, follows a formula seen in the Old Testament narratives of prophets' calls:
  • the call comes at a specific time, reckoned by the year of a ruler's reign (Luke throws in many rulers)
  • the call is described ("the word of the Lord" comes to the prophet)
  • the site and thrust of the ministry is described
Luke, like the other New Testament writers, also demonstrates how John the Baptizer's ministry fulfilled Old Testament Scripture.

To see the formula for the call of Old Testament prophets exemplified, check out Jeremiah 1:1-5; Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:1-3; and Hosea 1:1.

6. Our passage uses the language of highway construction to describe John the Baptizer's ministry. He's filling valleys and bringing down the high places, among other things, in order to give Jesus a clearer pathway to the people and so that all may see Him.

But instead of using bulldozers and piledrivers for his work, John's "tools" are the Word of God, the call to repentance, and a baptism that symbolizes cleansing from sin and commitment to God. To repent is to turn away from sin and toward God.

7. John's baptism is not to be confused with the sacrament of Baptism later instituted by Jesus. John himself acknowledges the difference between the two rites, as well as the inferiority of the baptism to which he calls people when he says, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire..." (Luke 3:16)

The Baptism initiated by Jesus is a sacrament, a sacrament being a mysterious conveyor of God's grace and forgiveness. The characteristics of a sacrament are:
  • They're instituted by Christ.
  • They involve a common physical element, such as the water of Holy Baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
  • They bring forgiveness of sin.
None of these traits apply to John's baptism, which, though significant, was merely a symbol.

8. The egalitarian nature of Jesus' coming Kingdom is underscored in our lesson, as it is in other places in Luke's gospel. All people need to repent and turn back to God. All who do have a clear picture of Jesus, the indispensable Savior which all humanity is called to follow as God, King, and Savior. All may be beneficiaries of God's grace in Christ as all--no matter what their station in this life--humble themselves before Christ.

This echoes the themes sounded by Mary in her song, known as the Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55:
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
(Notice that the theme is first sounded by a woman and later by a man, part of the Lucan pattern of male/female or female/male doublets throughout the book, each underscoring something about Jesus' Kingdom, as well as the universal accessibility of His Lordship.)

That will have to do for this week's passes at the Bible lesson. I hope you find it helpful.

Putting Your Christmas Card List to Good Use...

all through the year.

The Marine Wore Red

See here.

"Some national estimates show that illegal work accounts for as much as 17 percent of the national GDP."

The country? Germany.

According to Hermann the German, the reason for this large, illegal economy is the taxes and large social services contributions those legitimately employed by the government--what's known as abglaben--companies must pay. Companies prefer paying illegals under the table and not paying these costs.

Writes Hermann:
Somebody has to do something about this, right? Right, it’s only been a problem for a few years...- like sixteen or seventeen, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall at least. No government ever really lowers taxes or Abgaben once they’ve been introduced, however, so the city of Berlin is taking a big plunge and is going to ├╝berwinde (overcome) its fear of technology and introduce chip cards next year.
Every worker will be required to have a chip which contains tax and social security information. In addition, employers in the construction sector will have to account for all the cash they pay individuals who work for them.

The idea is great in theory. But, according to Hermann, this technological solution probably won't work:
...I’m sure that the counter-scams have already been worked out in detail by those who plan to keep dodging the law. Maybe the real solution is in lowering taxes and Abgaben after all? Nah.
Read the whole thing and follow Hermann's links.

"Were You Ever in Devo?"

I turned the tables on my son, interviewing him as we looked in one of the gift shops near the English section at Epcot in Disney World.

By the way, I once heard a fan ask Devo during an album signing, "Is it true you were once potato farmers in Ohio?" One of the band members replied, "No, we were potato observers."

"Goosebumpy"

Evidence for why I will never write reviews for the New York Times. My son elicits these comments from me after our viewing of The American Adventure at Walt Disney World.

Before Seeing 'The American Adventure'

My son took this video a few days ago as we awaited entry into the theater at Walt Disney World's Epcot for a showing of the impressive multimedia presentation, The American Adventure.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 6)

Asking, trial, and experiencing both failure and success are all necessary steps in finding your spiritual gifts.

While following Jesus Christ always means being part of Christ’s community of faith, the Church, God never intended for any two Christians to be exactly alike. Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God Who activates all of them in everyone” (First Corinthians 12:4-6).

As we’ve said, Christ has given the Church of which believers in Jesus are a part a big mission (Matthew 28:19-20). For it to happen requires the meshing of the many varied talents, passions, and spiritual gifts that exist within us as a community of faith (First Corinthians 12:12-26).

I admire the ministry of Habitat for Humanity. About a decade ago, I thought it would be a good idea for our congregation to become involved in its work of building homes for those who can’t afford getting housing by conventional means. I talked it up and one Saturday, a group of us met at a building site in a nearby community. For about a month, I accompanied some of the folks from our church as we joined others in constructing a house. My participation ended one Saturday though, when a considerate church member pulled me aside and said, “Mark, we all have our gifts. This doesn’t involve any of yours. I’m afraid that if you keep coming back here, you’re going to get yourself killed.” I had tried and it would have been an error for me to keep attempting to be a Habitat contractor. I had to keep trying until I found success in my own God-designed area of service.

Asking, trial, and experiencing both failure and success are all necessary steps in finding your spiritual gifts.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God Who activates all of them in everyone” (First Corinthians 12:4-6).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alex Jordan wrestling...

with what constitutes a fulfilled life. Good stuff!

Speaking for myself, I fear that I have often examined my life too closely. The question isn't, "Am I fulfilled?," but "Have I done the next thing that needed doing?" I'll be addressing some of these issues as I continue my series on the spiritual gifts.

I still...

miss Richard's blogging.

A First, Transitional Distance

Amba writes movingly of a quiet first loss.

Who is Tolerant?

John Brown cites something called The Evangelical Newsletter for this:
Tolerance can be exercised only by those who have well-grounded convictions... Those who have no such convictions, but who espouse polite doubt, agnosticism, skepticism, or downright nihilism, can only be indifferent, not tolerant. The two are by no means the same, and history has demonstrated the intolerance of those who claim that truth either does not exist or is humanly unattainable.
Amen!

I still believe Jesus when He says:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
I follow a Lord Whose love for humanity is universal and Whose claim of Lordship is particular and non-negotiable. He is the way.

But that's neither a license or justification for intolerance. It is in fact, a call to tolerance of the highest order. That's why one of Jesus' first followers, Peter, writes:
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. (First Peter 3:15-16)

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 5)

A second major understanding of spiritual gifts insists that:
“The difference between spiritual gifts and human talents may be stated in a single word: conversion.” (Lloyd Edwards, Discerning Your Spiritual Gifts, p. 12)
In this view, our spiritual gifts are nothing more--and nothing less--than the natural talents and the acquired skills we have before giving Jesus Christ the central place in our lives.

But is that true? Imagine someone who, from an early age, showed real acumen for making money. Whatever moneymaking scheme he tried as a child--delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, he was more successful than most kids because he worked harder and smarter. He set goals and achieved them. This pattern continued into his adult years and along the way, he went to college, getting degrees in Accounting and Business Administration, buttressing his passions and his experiences with education. Then our imaginary business leader came to faith in Christ and got involved in a local church. Now he could use all those talents to the glory of God. When that sort of thing happens, Lloyd Edwards and others argue, a talent becomes a spiritual gift.

That may be. But this ignores those instances when the Holy Spirit supernaturally grants people gifts they never exhibited before. Consider Jesus’ disciple, Peter. Throughout much of his life, Peter usually opened his mouth only to stick his foot into it. But on the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell on Peter. Now when he opened his mouth, the Gospel came out in an intelligible and sensitive way. Peter had the gift of evangelism and with his first sermon, 3000 people came to faith in Christ. (Acts 2:1-42)

Some of your gifts may be skills you’ve always had, but that you now devote to God’s glory. Others may come to you as supernatural gifts after coming to faith. Either way, your spiritual gifts aren’t just for you. God gives them to you to build up the Church and to help with its mission.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (First Peter 2:9)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Has Jimmy Carter Written Too Many Books?

Historian Kenneth Stein has resigned from the Carter Center, asserting that former President Jimmy Carter's new book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is both inflammatory and historically inaccurate.

But blogger Ann Althouse seems as interested in the number of books written by the ex-President since he left office on January 20, 1981, calling it bizarre, as she is in Stein's allegations. (She also says, rightly I think, that Carter should respond to Stein's letter of resignation.)

But as to the number of Carter books, I don't consider twenty books in twenty-five years to be bizarre.

The former President's productivity as a post-presidential author is roughly equivalent, in its pace, to that of Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote a total of 37 books. (John Quincy Adams wrote 24. Grover Cleveland's literary output represents the median number for American presidents; he wrote ten books.)

Carter, like TR, has always been a workaholic capable of mastering diverse subject material. This capacity for multiple mastery in fact, was probably the cause of his failed presidency. Carter stuck his nose into too many crannies of the Executive Branch and didn't sufficiently focus, a mark of a great administrator, but not a great leader. (See here.)

By way of comparison, too, consider the voluminous correspondence of Thomas Jefferson after his presidency ended in 1809 until his death in 1826. Unwilling to issue boiler plate correspondence in response to the more than 1000 letters he received annually in that seventeen-year period, his correspondence would fill a lot more than twenty average-sized books. (For more information on Jefferson's post-presidential writing, see Joseph Ellis' book, American Sphinx.)

[UPDATE: I appreciate the link from Smart Christian. But I really express no opinion on the accuracy of President Carter's book here. I am reading it, but presently I'm only about 100-pages into it. My interest here is in Ann Althouse's belief that Carter's literary output is "bizarre" because it's so prolific. I think that's silly.]

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 4)

One definition of spiritual gifts says:
“A spiritual gift is a special attribute given by the Holy Spirit to every member of the Body of Christ, according to God’s grace, for use within the context of the Body.” (C. Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow: How to Find Your Gifts & Use Them to Bless Others, p. 34).
Wagner’s perspective represents one of two major definitions of spiritual gifts. Let’s focus on the key phrases in this definition of spiritual gifts.

a special attribute: It’s Wagner’s belief that our spiritual gifts are new abilities that God gives to us after we come to faith in Christ. I used to believe that was always the case. I still believe that God, Who “makes all things new,” often bestow new skills on people for His purposes.

But we need to be careful not to fool ourselves about this. When I was a seminarian, I worked with a newly forming church. A member who had recently come to faith approached me with an offer to play the piano for worship. “I never knew how to play until I became a Christian. The Lord taught me.” I was wary, but desperate for a fill-in the next Sunday, I took her up on her offer. She played horribly and all I could think was, “If the Lord taught her, He sure did a lousy job.”

according to God’s grace: God grants us spiritual gifts as He chooses. It’s God Who “activates all [the gifts] in everyone” (First Corinthians 12:6). In this, as in other aspects of the Christian life, our prayer should simply be, “Your will be done.”

for use within the context of the Body: The New Testament says, “To each [believer] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (First Corinthians 12:7). There are no solo Christians. In the movie, Rocky, the film’s hero described his relationship with Adrian to Pauly: “I’ve got gaps. She’s got gaps. Together we fill gaps.” That’s what our gifts allow believers to do for one another as we pursue our common mission from Christ.

Tomorrow, another definition of spiritual gifts.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (First Corinthians 12:7)

[THANKS TO both Jan of The View from Her and to John of Blogotional for linking to this series.]

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Back from WDW and Tons o' Fun!

I've just returned from a short jaunt to Florida, where my daughter and son-in-law live. While there, we went to one of my favorite places on the planet, Walt Disney World. My son hopes to upload some of the video we took there in the next several days and if it all works, I'll be posting it here.

We took in a few perennial favorites at the MGM and Epcot sections of WDW. But we also enjoyed several newer attractions or ones that were new to us, anyway. Our daughter did a great job as our advance scout, picking out new experiences she thought we'd enjoy.

In this latter category was the Candlelight Processional and Massed Choir Program, consisting of Christmas music and narration of the Jesus' birth story. It was fantastic and definitely worth savoring. Mario Lopez filled in as the narrator for the performance we enjoyed and did a terrific job as a last-minute replacement. We purchased a CD of an earlier performance, this one featuring Phylicia Rashad narrating.

Soarin', a fun ride which creates the sensation of soaring over the diverse beauties of California, was another attraction we'd never been to before. In the same pavilion at Epcot, the updated version of The Land, which looks at agriculture's past and future, was surprisingly interesting.

Old favorites also proved enjoyable, especially The American Adventure, which tells the story of America through animatronic figures, most notably Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, remains inspiring. And the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was especially fantastic this time. The ride, which routinely drops riders many stories, is run by a computer-created randomizer and is never the same any two times. This was my fifth venture on the ride through the years and without doubt, this was the most enjoyably terrifying!

More blogging tomorrow, Lord willing and the creek don't rise!

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 3)

Our spiritual gifts are the tools God gives to each of us to play our part in the Church’s mission.

Recently, my brother-in-law offered to mount a medicine cabinet in our bathroom. I handed him my battery-powered screw driver and he went to work. The screws on one side of the cabinet drove in easily. But the driver could barely turn the two on the other side. To do that was going to take a more powerful driver, one recharged through a wall outlet.

Unlike the wrong tool I gave to my brother-in-law, the spiritual gifts God grants to believers in Jesus are just right to do what He calls us to do.

So far, we’ve seen that the Bible teaches that every believer has at least one spiritual gift and that God calls us to use our particular gifts in concert with those given to other believers so that together, the Church can fulfill our mission.

But a good question to ask is, “What exactly is a spiritual gift?” I mean, apart from tools for our mission, how can they be defined?

Surprisingly, though it discusses spiritual gifts at length in several places, the Bible provides no succinct definition of what they are. Maybe that’s because God is more interested in the Church functioning as the body of Christ than in our having classroom definitions of the Christian way of life.

Nonetheless, a working understanding might be helpful. Over the next two days, we’ll consider the two major ways that Christians have defined what spiritual gifts are. Though they’re very different, they’re probably both true and both will help lay a foundation for us as we prepare to open our spiritual gifts.

Our spiritual gifts are the tools God gives to each of us to play our part in the Church’s mission.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12:4-5)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 2)

Spiritual gifts are the means by which we in the Church pursue Jesus’ mission for us.

Just before ascending to heaven, Jesus gave His followers--including you and me--the Great Commission. As Matthew tells it, Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

That’s a huge mission, something that no single person and no collection of leaders could accomplish without help. And God gives it. First and foremost, the mission has the help of God Himself. That’s why Jesus’ promise to always be with the mission-bearers is essential.

In addition God’s help, God also gives us the help of one another. The Bible describes the Church as “the body of Christ.”

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.” (First Corinthians 12:12-30)

Through our spiritual gifts, God empowers the whole Church--every believer in Jesus Christ--to play their part in the mission of the Church. Spiritual gifts are the means by which we in the Church pursue Jesus’ mission for us.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (First Corinthians 12:27)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Who is the UK's 'Living Icon'?

That's the question they're posing on the BBC web site. You'd expect it to be the Queen, wouldn't you? But three finalists are David Attenborough, a producer of nature films; Morrisey; and Paul McCartney. Check out the list of runners-up.

Living in the Kingdom of Hope

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on December 2 and 3, 2006.]

Jeremiah 33:14-16
It had become a Christmas tradition for John William Smith and his niece, Priscilla, and once again during the Christmas season in 1992, as he and his wife headed for his sister’s home, he was looking forward to reenacting the tradition. Priscilla was a particular favorite of Smith’s, a young woman who had already suffered from a neuromuscular disease for thirteen of her then-twenty five year old life. She was confined to a wheelchair and spoke with a slur that made her words difficult to understand. She lived with great pain.

But Smith says, there are two things one must understand about Priscilla. “First,” he writes, “I have never known her to use her condition as a tool to manipulate people and get what she wants. Second, with all of her physical problems, it would be expected that Priscilla would be totally self-centered.” But that couldn’t be said of her. Instead, Priscilla was, he says, “thoughtful, patient, sensitive toward others, and full of hope--her relationship with Jesus [Christ]...made her this way.”

The Christmas tradition of Priscilla and her Uncle John was a simple one. On Christmas Day, they took a walk, just the two of them. John would push Priscilla’s wheelchair and he, with his failing hearing, she with her slurred speech, would talk. Sometimes, Smith says, he had to ask Priscilla to repeat herself several times. But she never seemed to mind and often when her uncle didn’t quite get what she was saying, Priscilla would laugh, the way only hopeful people can, even in the face of difficulty.

When the two took their walk this year, it was clear to John that his niece’s condition had worsened considerably. He notes: “As we strolled through the neighborhood, we were greeted often by friendly people. Priscilla said, ‘Uncle John, do you think people are more friendly to me because [of my condition]?” “Yes,” he replied. “...and it makes me glad to think so. Most people have more of God in them than they suspect. If you remember...Jesus always showed special attention to those who had special needs.”

As they walked on, Priscilla asked her uncle if he remembered the place in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Bob Cratchit told his wife what Tiny Tim had said to him on their way home from church on Christmas Day. “He told me...that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was crippled, and it might be pleasant to them to remember, upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” Priscilla told her uncle that she hoped people would have the same reaction to her and so, be reminded of how much God loved them and wanted the best for them.

That was to be their last Christmas walk. The following February, Priscilla died. As for any family that loses loved ones, Priscilla’s family missed her at Christmastime. “We are made sad by her death,” notes Smith, “but we are also made glad--because we know that now she walks and talks freely and without pain and because, while she was with us, she filled our hearts with hope and reminded us on Christmas Day [of the One] who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Several decades ago, psychologist Erich Fromm noted that hope was a disappearing feature of life in the western nations of Europe, the United States, and Canada. He said that if we continued moving in a state of “unconscious hopelessness,” we would bring about out own destruction. It can’t be a coincidence that we supposedly sophisticated countries are foundering in hopelessness at about the same time many stopped hoping in the God we know in Jesus Christ. We’ve forgotten the One “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Our Bible lesson was written at a time when it was difficult for God’s people, the Jews, to have hope. Written sometime in the sixth century BC by a prophet who sat in prison, these words came when their nation and their temple was no more, their country, the land by then known as Judah and the place God had promised to them, overrun by conquering armies. As the writer of our lesson from Jeremiah, chapter 33, prayerfully considers these events, he understands why things have gone so horribly wrong. The kings, the priests, and the people of Judah themselves had long ago put their hopes in things other than God. They built their lives on faith in money, power, military might, and in the thousands of little deities and good luck charms that beguile people even today. They’d forgotten God. God is for people and God wants to be in relationship with us forever. But God will never force His way into any of our lives. Without God at the center of its life, Judah stood powerless before its enemies. Now what?

In his prison cell, the prophet sensed that even now, God was sending a message of hope to His rebellious people. There was no getting around the consequences of their sin. But they could be forgiven. They could let God back into their lives and God would restore them as a people who loved others as God loved them, a people who treated their neighbors with justice. Read the words of our lesson out loud with me now:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
God wanted Judah to know what I think God wants us to know today: People who turn from sin and follow the one true God of the universe always have hope!

Shortly after Jesus died, rose from death, and returned to heaven, the Church came to understand something about Jeremiah’s words of hope. This was more than an oracle about Judah in sixth century BC. It was also about Jesus. Jesus is the righteous branch of David, the great God and King born into this world into the family of ancient King David. And one day, when the life of this planet comes to an end, Jesus the King will execute justice and righteousness. All with faith in Him will live in His Kingdom forever. And even before that end comes, everyone who trusts in Christ have a promise to be with us always.

The promise and the hope of the God we know in Jesus Christ is something that you and I have experienced repeatedly within the fellowship of Friendship Church. Because we follow an eternal God, we have infinite hope!

As I look back on 2006, I realize what a great year this has been for our congregation. In spite of challenges and some setbacks, we have learned that God is still in control and God still has our backs. We’ve learned the truth of Jesus’ promise about the Church when He said of our faith in Him: “the gates of [hell]...will not prevail against it.” This year, as never before, our members embraced the joy of service in Jesus’ Name. But we can’t stop there.

Over these weeks of Advent, the Servanthood Team joins me in urging you to open up some special gifts from God to you. They’re your spiritual gifts, the special custom-made skills God has given to all believers in Jesus so that we can play our God-given roles in the mission of Christ’s Church. People who find and use their spiritual gifts are dialed into God’s will for their lives. They find fulfillment. And because they walk so closely with God, they never lose their hope.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts, the daily devotions I’ve prepared for you to use from now through December 24, will help you understand and find your gifts, meaning that in 2007, you and I will be more fully prepared to pursue the vision I outlined last weekend.

That vision includes:
  • exalting the Lord
  • each one reaching one to bring new members into our congregation
  • embracing servanthood as a way of life and
  • expanding our vision of what God can do among us
Just this past week, two different Friendship folks approached me with new visions for ministries in which our congregation can be involved. I was able to enthusiastically affirm both of those people as they expanded their vision for our church. Each is preparing to put their ideas into action. That’s exciting to me, proof that the God Who made His incredible promise to a prophet sitting in a prison twenty-seven centuries ago, is still in the business of dispensing hope to His people!

We follow a God Who, on the first Christmas, became one of us;
a God Who makes “lame beggars walk and blind men see”;
a God Who forgives the sin of the repentant and gives them life beyond the grave;
a God Who gives us all a part to play in His Kingdom;
a God Who lives within His people and lives right here, in the people of Friendship Church.

No matter what the world around us may think, when we follow a God like that, we followers of Jesus always live in hope!

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 1)

[This is the first in a series of twenty-two posts dealing with spiritual gifts. The members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church, in the Cincinnati suburbs, are reading these as daily devotions for the Advent season.]

Every believer in Jesus Christ has at least one spiritual gift.

I read somewhere about a man who never opened his Christmas presents. Instead, each year, he placed his newest gifts under the tree with past years’ packages, all unopened.

It’s a stupid story. But it’s the story of most Christians. The Bible affirms that God gives all believers in Christ at least one spiritual gift. The apostle Paul puts it this way in First Corinthians:
“God's various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful...” (First Corinthians 12:4-7, The Message)
Like the man in that story though, most Christians never make the effort to open their spiritual gifts, often because they’re ignorant of them.

Advent is the season of the Church Year that begins this year on December 3. The word advent, from which we get the word adventure, means coming. In this season just before Christmas, we remember the coming of God into our world through Jesus Christ. We remember too, that one day, Christ will come again.

In the meantime, God invites Christians to live an adventure. He calls us to open the spiritual gifts He’s given to us, maximizing our God-given potential and pointing others to the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

Every believer in Jesus Christ has at least one spiritual gift.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit...” (First Corinthians 12:7, New Revised Standard Version)