Friday, October 26, 2007

Closing in on Halloween, Buckeyes Face Scary Challenge

Last week, I talked about how their last five regular season game would give my beloved Buckeyes the challenges that their detractors around the country are claiming they haven't yet had. Ohio State's number one-rated defense did a fantastic job against Michigan State's number one-rated offense last Saturday, allowing the Spartans' offensive squad to score only three points.

But the offense gave Buckeyes fans a fright, turning the ball over twice in fifty seconds to allow the Spartan defense to score two touchdowns, making the final score much closer than it should have been.

Nonetheless, the Buckeyes passed the first of the final five regular season tests last week, allowing them to stay atop the major polls and the BCS standings.

So far, this has been a miracle season for the Buckeyes. As I've said repeatedly, I expected this to be a rebuilding season, a share of the Big Ten championship an outside hope. The team has outperformed all my pre-season expectations, giving thrills I never anticipated.

Tomorrow night will bring the biggest challenge Ohio State has had this season. The team goes into Happy Valley to face Joe Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions. It was a night game at Penn State two years ago that dashed Buckeye hopes of a dream season. You can be sure that Joe Pa's team will be trying to spin another nightmare scenario again this year.

If the Buckeyes do win, it should turn a lot of detractors into believers, although it might not make them people happy.

Like the kid in my neighborhood I saw after Ohio State's win last Saturday. I decided to take a walk. The air was crisp and inviting, the leaves turning colors. The kid was catching football passes from his dad. He saw that I was wearing one of my Buckeyes shirts. This kid has never spoken to me before. But for him, the shirt must have been like a red cloth flung before a bull. "Michigan State should have won that game," he declared. I laughed; I thought a friendly laugh. But my response did nothing to soften his hostility. "I hate Ohio State." Now, he did say this with a smile. But he clearly meant what he said!

And we live in Ohio! But I suppose his reaction is symbolic to the visceral enmity that many people around the country have toward Ohio State. It's not unlike the hatred that some people have for the Yankees. Although the Buckeyes don't enjoy the kind of unfair advantage that the Yankees have in Major League baseball, Ohio State is clearly among the "haves" in college football, even in this era of increasing parity and resultant Appalachian State-style upsets.

The teams that play against Ohio State aren't immune to these feelings. The number one ranking the Buckeyes now enjoy effectively paints a target on the team's backs every time it hits the field. Each of the Buckeyes' four (or five, counting a bowl game) remaining opponents would love to make my neighbor kid's day by upsetting them. To them, the Buckeyes are a juggernaut who need to be knocked down a peg or two.

I get that. But to me, the Buckeyes represent my hometown, my state, and the only college to which I ever applied, the only college I ever wanted to attend.

My sentiments in favor of the Buckeyes are, I suppose, as irrational as those who hate them.

To all of which, I have a simple response...

Go, Buckeyes!

To read more, go here.
And here.
Also here.
Check here too.

Fourth Pass at Bible Lessons for November 4

[To see the first three passes at the lesson for November 4, All Saints Sunday, go here, here, and here. The first of those links explains what these "passes" are all about.]

The Gospel Lesson: Luke 6:20-31
(Verse-by-Verse Comments)
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
(1) Contrary to our usual thinking, Jesus says that the poor are the blessed ones. Conventional Jewish thought held that the wealthy were especially blessed by God and that poverty was a sign of God's displeasure. (We tend to think the same things today.) Jesus turns that thinking on its head.

(2) The "poor" to which Jesus refers here are the absolute poorest of the world.

(3) Jesus uses the present tense here to say that the poor are now in the kingdom of God. In the beatitudes which follow, Jesus uses the future tense. Jesus seems to be making several points:
  • a. God's kingdom has already invaded our world. The term, kingdom of God (basileia tou theou, in the original Greek), can more accurately be called, "the reign of God." Irrespective of outward circumstances, despite intense poverty, people may live under the reign of God. There is an "already/not yet" quality to God's Kingdom. Through Jesus, God has already established His Kingdom in the hearts and lives of those who follow Christ. But we await its completion with Jesus' return at the end of history.
  • b. Will the Kingdom of God be composed only of the poor? If that were the case, Abraham, the patriarch of Old Testament faith, wouldn't be in the Kingdom. Nor would Joseph of Arimethaea, who donated his tomb for Jesus' burial. Jesus is engaging here in what I would call "accurate hyperbole." As I mentioned in yesterday's pass, wealth is an impediment to faith in Christ because it can delude the wealthy person into believing themselves to be self-sufficient, in no need of God. The poor find it easier to believe that there's Someone bigger than them, Someone they need to follow.
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
(1) The filled here in the original Greek is related to the term chortazo. That's the same word used of the prodigal son looking longingly at the pods being eaten by the pigs after he'd left his father. The same word is used of the fictional Lazarus in Jesus' parable about a poor man who would have gladly eaten the scraps from the rich man's table. Chortazo is usually used of an animal eating its feed. So, the idea here, is of a poor person, perhaps dehumanized and ignored by the world, who is desperately hungry.

Mary uses the same term in the Magnificat, the words she speaks after being told that she will give birth to the Messiah:
...he [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. [Luke 1:53]
(2) The word Jesus uses here for weep describes a deep, mournful, agonized wailing. The person who weeps in this way is suffering from a deep, inconsolable grief.

(3) Notice that Jesus uses the future tense to describe the blessedness here. As long as we live in this world, the possibility of suffering is with us. We aren't guaranteed that in this life we will go without hunger or intense sadness. But we are promised that if we will follow Christ, we will be part of the Kingdom of God forever. The apostle Peter writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials...[1 Peter 1:3-6]
(Peter goes on to suggest that some trials may be allowed to come our way by God as a way of increasing the strength of our faith. This is a tough idea for us to accept. Tough for me to accept.)

22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
(1) This may be topsy-turviest of the beatitudes Jesus presents here. Don't we associate popularity with being blessed? But Jesus is saying here that if people turn on us because we follow Him we are blessed. Present tense again.

23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
(1) An extension of the previous verse, Jesus moves here to describe future blessedness because we steadfastly follow Christ in spite of those who hate and revile us for our faithfulness to Christ.

24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
(1) These woes basically reverse the blessings of the previous verses.

(2) Dictionary.com defines woe as "grievous distress, affliction, or trouble."

(3) "False prophets" are those who claim to speak in the Name of God, but overlook sins that God doesn't overlook. A prophet, whether entrusted with words of encouragement or condemnation from God, is always to deliver God's counsel to God's people. The prophet is to remind people of the consequences to their relationship with God when they are faithful and when they are unfaithful. The false prophets mentioned in the Old Testament were popular because, like pandering politicians, they always told people what they wanted to hear. The true prophets got into trouble because sometimes God tells us what we don't want to hear, such as our need to repent for our sins.

27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
(1) Here, Jesus outlines the radical ethic that flows from a dependence on the grace of God granted through Him. These words may be even more stunning than the beatitudes that precede them.

(2) I like what Brian Stoffregen says about these verses:
I think that the theme...is that we are not to let others determine our actions. As Jesus' disciples we are to love, do good, speak well of, and pray--regardless of how others treat us. [When I let bullies speak ill of me or act unkindly toward me] I am not letting them control my life...
This, of course, is precisely what Jesus did when He went to the cross.

This is harder than we can imagine...and I pray that under the most adverse and dire of circumstances I would heed Jesus' words and be faithful to Him!

31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
(1) Jesus' Golden Rule. It describes how I want everybody else to treat me, but I always seem to have excuses for why I can't or shouldn't always behave this way. I can only pray for forgiveness for my failure to obey Jesus' command to love God and love neighbor unstintingly.

Two Different Takes on Baseball...That Reach the Same Conclusion

First, I read this article by long-suffering Cubs fan, John Buchanan.

My son then shared this routine of George Carlin's.

Though very different pieces, they end up at the same place...just like baseball.

By the way, before he went to Chicago and became editor of Christian Century, Buchanan was pastor of Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus. I once interviewed him in preparation for an article I wrote for Columbus Monthly magazine. Buchanan is a terrific communicator.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What is That Noise?

At first, I thought it was a sign of old age. I heard it during the Fenway Park games of Boston's ALCS series with the Cleveland Indians.

Then, during last night's World Series opener pitting the Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies, my son turned to me and asked, "What's that sound?"

I'm watching the game tonight and the noise is there again.

What is it? It sounds like chimes, a low-volume, background of incessant ringing.

Joe Buck and the ever-quick-to-educate-us Tim McCarver haven't mentioned it. I've Googled everything from "Fenway, Boston, ringing" to "Fenway, Boston, chimes" and "Fenway, Boston, noise." Nothing.

Does anybody know what that is?

[UPDATE: For the record, I love the percussing relief pitchers in the Boston bullpen!]

Megachurches and Their Effect on Discipleship and Smaller Churches

You simply must read this incredible and insightful post by Pastor Jeff at Conblogeration.

Third Pass at the November 4 Bible Lessons

[To learn what these "passes" are about and to read the first one, go here. To see the second pass, look here.]

The Gospel Lesson: Luke 6:20-31
General Comments:
1. Of all the Gospels, Luke is the one that most underscores the topsy-turvy, countercultural realities of the Kingdom of God. We see this early on, for example, in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, spoken after the angel tells her that she will give birth to the long-awaited King and Savior. In the Gospel lesson for November 4, Jesus tells us that the "blessed" include the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and those hated and rejected "because of the Son of Man." (Jesus characteristically refers to Himself as "the Son of Man.") Only those living under the reign of God would dare to see these conditions as signs of God's favor or blessing.

2. As Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen points out, Jesus uses the word makarios, blessed, in a completely different--and subversive--way than it had been used previously. Stoffregen traces the history of the term in the Greek language:
The Greek word for "blessed" used in our text is _makarios_. In
ancient Greek times, that word referred to the gods. They had achieved
a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all
cares, labors, and even death. To be blessed, you had to be a god,
living in some other world.

That word took on a second meaning. It referred to the "dead". The
blessed ones were humans, who, through death, had reached the other
world of the gods. They were now beyond the cares of earthly life. To
be blessed, you had to be dead.

Finally, in Greek usage, the word came to refer to the elite, the
upper crust of society, the wealthy people. It referred to people
whose riches and power put them above the normal cares and worries of
the lesser folk -- the peons, who constantly struggle and worry and
labor in life. To be blessed, you had to be very rich and powerful.

When this word was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament,
it took on another meaning: It referred to the results of right living
or righteousness. If you lived right, you were blessed. Being blessed
meant you received earthly, material things: a good wife, many
children, abundant crops, riches, honor, wisdom, beauty, good health,
etc. A blessed person had more things and better things than an
ordinary person. To be blessed, you had to have big and beautiful
things.

In all of these meanings, the "blessed" ones existed on a higher plane
than the rest of the people. They were gods. They were humans who had
gone to that other world of the gods. They were the wealthy, upper
crust. They were those with many possessions.

Jesus uses this word in a totally different way. It is not the elite
who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It
is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people
living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed.
Rather, Jesus pronounces God's blessings on the lowly: the poor, the
hungry, the crying, and the hated. Throughout the history of this
word, it had always been the other people who were considered blessed:
the rich, the filled up, the laughing. Jesus turns it all upside-down.
The elite in God's kingdom, the blessed ones in God's kingdom, are
those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity.
3. As I often point out in these passes, context effects content. Within the context of Luke's Gospel, this lesson comes immediately after Jesus calls the Twelve--the apostles, for their special function in His fledgling Church. It's important to realize that, as Luke tells it, "apostles" (the word means "sent ones") are disciples are with a particular function. They're called to lead the Church and to direct its efforts at fulfilling Christ's mission for the Church.

4. In this lesson, Jesus seems to be addressing three audiences: the apostles, the disciples, and the "multitudes," the crowd. The crowd is composed of people who haven't yet begun to follow Jesus. While followers of Jesus are committed to growing up in their faith, the message of the Gospel is the same for everyone.

5. This passage has a lot in common with the Sermon on the Mount. Some insist that this is an entirely different "sermon." (Luke never uses that term to describe it, by the way.) Others that this is essentially the same bit of teaching from Jesus, only seen through the prism of Luke.

Who knows? But the Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, sees the Word of God in both sermons from Matthew and Luke. I think that as we read both passages, we too experience them as the world-changing, subversive Word of God.

Comparing the two of them:
  • The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, occurs, obviously, on an elevated place. The audience is made up of the Twelve, the group Matthew means when he speaks of "the disciples." In Matthew, Jesus and the Twelve retire from the crowds.
  • Guess where the Sermon on the Plain, of which our lesson in Luke is a part, happens? As Eliza Doolittle would say, "On the plain." The audience, as noted above, is composed not just of the Twelve (the apostles), but also other disciples and an interested multitude.
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, the "poor" who are called blessed are those who are "poor in spirit." In our lesson from Luke, the desperately poor are described as blessed. Why? Probably because they're empty enough of the pretense of self-sufficiency to know that they need God. The rich and that includes most, if not all, who may have the access to technology to read this blog, have just enough of the stuff of this world to think that they don't need God. (See here.)
6. Methodist scholar Fred Craddock writes:
[The Luke passage] is clearly addressing the poor and the despised of the earth in the literal sense of those words, not the "poor in spirit" or "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," as in Matthew (Matt. 5:3, 6)...
7. The beatitudes of this lesson are followed by what I would call an explanation or expansion of what Jesus shares in 6:20-26. I like what Stoffregen writes:
With the blessings and woes [in vv.20-26], Jesus announces the reversal of fortunes that God is going to bring about. With these verses [vv.27-31], Jesus announces a reversal that is to be part of the lives of those who are listening to him.
If I get the chance, tomorrow or soon, I'll present verse-by-verse reflections on this lesson, the text on which I'll be basing my sermon at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan on November 1.

Hello, Goodbye: Links to the Entire Series

I've decided that the Hello, Goodbye series, inspired by our impending move from the Cincinnati area to Logan, Ohio and from my work as founding pastor of Friendship Lutheran Church to serving as pastor of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, is now complete. Here are links to all the installments:
The Sofa Moves
What I'll Miss
Whatever Will I Wear?
Why I Didn't Wear 'Clergy Attire' at Friendship
Why I Will Wear 'Clergy Attire' at Saint Matthew
How Do You Know?
How Do You Know? Part 2
What If I'm Wrong?

[By the way, this series elicited one of the strangest links in the history of this blog. Keying in on the word "attire," a corporate blog promoting Maidenform bras, mentioned posts not once, but twice.]

Hello, Goodbye: What If I'm Wrong?

In the previous two posts in this series, I talked about the indications we had that our impending move from Friendship Lutheran Church in Amelia, Ohio to Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, was God's will for our lives.

But what if I'm wrong?

I'm reminded of a story I've told many times. It seems that a farmer excitedly ran into the office of his pastor one day. "Pastor! Pastor!" he said, "I know what God wants me to do with my life!" He explained that he'd been out in his field when he noticed a strange cloud formation. The clouds seemed to form the letters, "GPC." The farmer said he'd wondered about the meaning of this sign, when it dawned on him. "It can only mean one thing, Pastor: GO PREACH CHRIST!" The pastor knew this farmer. He was a great guy committed to Christ. But none of his gifts seemed appropriate to pastoring. "Are you sure," the pastor asked, "the letters don't stand for, GO PLANT CORN?"

Christians undoubtedly misinterpret God's specific intentions for their lives all the time. But that doesn't mean that they have to retrace their steps or rue their choices.

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my favorite books of recent years is The Will of God as a Way of Life by pastor, historian, and author Gerald L. Sittser. As a young man in college, Sittser was certain that God had called him to be a doctor. He was sure this was God’s plan for his life. But while in college, he got turned on by theology and ministry. A new certainty supplanted the old one. Now, he was sure God was calling him to be a pastor.

This is what Sittser did and to the extent that such things can be measured, he was a successful pastor.

After several years though, he felt that God was calling him to yet another profession. He was sure that he needed to go to graduate school, earning advanced degrees in History so that he could teach at the college level. This he did. Again, he was successful.

As he looked back over his life at that juncture, Sittser was sure that God had called him to everything he had done, including his marriage to Linda and having their beautiful children. Friends told them they had the perfect life. They were convinced that in it all, they could see the sovereign hand of God.

But then, tragedy struck. One day when his mother was visiting Gerald and his family, a drunk driver struck the vehicle in which they all were riding. His wife, his mother, and one of his children were killed. Was this the will of a sovereign God for a family that had always sought to do God’s will?

Some Christians, particularly those whose lives have never been touched by tragedy or those who have never helped a friend through a tragedy, might answer with a breezy facility, “Of course.”

But such thoughtless responses hardly do credit to God, to those whose lives have been snuffed out, or to the ones left behind.

After these multiple tragedies, Sittser still believed in the goodness of God. The willingness of God to share in our sufferings on a cross and the tears cried by Jesus over His dead friend Lazarus are two clear exhibits of evidence of that.

Sittser still believed in the power of God. Jesus’ resurrection and His continuing ability to change people’s lives for the better are evidence of that.

But he also believed that he needed to look exactly at what the will of God means.

All of his life, Sittser had assumed that the will of God was about the future. If things he thought were God’s will turned out okay, he assumed this to be God’s affirmation of his having made the right guess about God’s will for his life. I suspect that most Christians adhere to a similar view. It’s certainly the view I held until a few years ago.

But as Sittser looked at the Bible’s understanding of the will of God, particularly as evidenced in the writings of Paul in the New Testament, he made a startling discovery. The phrase was never used of the future, only of the present.

In other words, the will of God is not some mystery shrouding our futures which we must, through agonizing prayer and discernment, seek out.

Instead, the will of God is about how we live in the present moment. And how we are to live in the present moment is crystal clear. As Sittser writes:
...the New Testament offers no hint that Paul agonized about the will of God as it pertained to the future. He gave himself to the present because he was eager to use what little time he had to do what he already knew God wanted him to do.

If we sense any agony in the heroes of Scripture, it is not in discovering the will of God but in doing it....
The only time we have to know and do God’s will is the present moment.

So, what exactly is the will of God for our lives in the present moments in which each of us live our lives? Even a perfunctory reading of the Bible will give us the answer or answers to that question. It would include these imperatives from Jesus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die...” [John 11:25-26]

...”’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’...’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:37-40]

“This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you...” [John 15:12]

“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]

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” [Mark 16:15]

“...strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness...” [Matthew 6:33]
All these passages make clear what God’s will is and for any given moment of our lives. We're to love God and love our neighbor. We're to make God's Kingdom our highest priority. We're to serve our neighbor is Christs Name. Most importantly, we're to turn from sin and trust that even when we fail to do all those other things, Christ has died and risen for sinners so that we need never be afraid of today or tomorrow. God will be with us and we will be with God forever.

If we haven't dialed into God's specific will for our lives, that's okay. The Bible says that God remembers that we are dust, that is, mortal and imperfect. Paraphrasing it, we could say that God remembers that we can be hard of hearing when it comes to discerning what God wants for us.

It's under these circumstances that Martin Luther said believers should "sin boldly." That means that after we've read God's Word, prayed, and talked it over with respected Christian friends, we may still not be clear on what God's will may be. But if our intent is to love God and love neighbor, we can't go wrong.

Even when we go where God sends us, it's no guarantee that we'll be "successful." God, as he saying attributed to Mother Teresa puts it, doens't call us to be successful, just faithful. But wherever we go, if we constantly submit to God, we can do the will of God, loving God, loving neighbor.

I may not know what I'm doing in going to Saint Matthew. But if I'll surrender each moment to Him, God will know exactly what to do with my time at this wonderful congregation.

[Note: My blogging friend, Mark D. Roberts, has been writing a series of blog articles about his departure from a church after serving as pastor for sixteen years. Mark, I notice, has been addressing the question of the will of God in recent posts. I deliberately avoided reading these pieces by Mark so that I can see how his reflections compare to my own. I suggest that you do what I'm going to do now, read Mark's posts on this topic.]

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Joe Gandelman Writes from Southern California

Here

Important Reminder from the Edge of 'The Flames of Hell'

Another of my favorite southern California blogging pastors, Craig Williams, writes of the flames pictured in three photographs taken from his neighbor's backyard:
We are pretty safe, though the flames are only a few miles away. We pray for those who are in greater need and suffer greater loss. We remember to be careful not to attribute our safety with being blessed by God, because it means that those who lose everything are not. This I don't believe. And if we believe we have good fortune, it is intended to be used for the good of others not simply to be self satisfied.
Read and view the whole post.

Responding to a Tragic Need

Tod Bolsinger, a southern California pastor I really respect, writes:
Early, early this morning 21 people showed up in our church parking lot after fleeing their homes in Fallbrook. When we were able to get them into some comfortable rooms in our church, they told us that they were members of Fallbrook Presbyterian Church. They didn't know where to go, so they headed to a Presbyterian church that is outside of the burning area, knowing they would be safe to stay there. We are so glad they did.
Read the whole thing.

God bless Tod's church and other churches in southern California helping the one-million people now burned out of their homes there. Stay safe as you do God's work there!

Nepotism is Alive and Well in America

Here

Hello, Goodbye: How Do You Know?, Part 2

In yesterday's installment of this series, I began to deal with the question of how I knew it was God's will for me to move from the congregation I've pastored for the past seventeen years onto Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. I made the point that at one level, I don't know if it agrees with the will of God. That's where faith, trust in God, comes in.

I went on to say that one important indicator that this move may be God's will for our household right now is that, as is often true of God's calls on our lives, it takes me from a place where I've been comfortable.

But I think that there have been plenty of other indicators that this is what God wants.
  • There's the belief that began forming in my wife and me several years ago, after we'd prayed, discussed, and reflected, that it might be best for Friendship to have a new leader to take the congregation to the next level.
  • There's the way in which the green lights for going to Logan flashed after Friendship's financial condition improved, I would say miraculously, this summer. That meant that I could leave Friendship without a sense of guilt or regret.
  • There's the sense of both comfort and challenge that Ann and I had when we met with the people from the Call Committee at Saint Matthew. Comfort with their faith, sincerity, and good humor. Challenge in that we would be going to a congregational setting that we hadn't had the primary hand in constructing. That appealed to us.
  • There's also the sense that I had grown in ways that might be useful at Saint Matthew.
More convincing to me than the impressions, thoughts, reflections, and feelings that Ann and I experienced as we contemplated saying, "Goodbye" to Friendship and saying, "Hello" to Saint Matthew, though, was the reaction of Saint Matthew's Call Committee.

Among the many solid teachings of the Lutheran movement, I think, is their insistence on the dual nature of any call. It's not enough for a man or a woman to declare that they've received a call to ministry. Jimmy Ray Bob may believe that he has a call to start a congregation. But unless others in the Church universal, led by the Holy Spirit, have reached the same conclusion, Jimmy Ray has no business becoming a pastor. And that's true whether Jimmy Ray has a doctorate in Theology or sells cumquats at the local produce stand.

The church, be it an individual congregation, a church-related organization, a synod, or a seminary, must sense that the candidate for call is the right person for it. Jesus Christ has made us part of a Body called the Church, each of us having our part to play and each accountable to one another.

The early church recognized this from the beginning. The New Testament book of Acts recounts the early history of the Church. In chapter 6, there's an account of the first church fight. The apostles, the rulers of the Church appointed by Jesus, could, I guess, have simply appointed people to make sure the distributions among the church's widows were done equitably. Instead, they got the rest of the Church involved in the process, an indication of the importance Christians have always attached to mutual accountability and the belief that the call has a dual nature. (Read Acts 6 here.)

From the moment I interviewed at Saint Matthew, honestly to my surprise, the Call Committee and eventually, the overwhelming majority of the congregation, clearly wanted me to be there. I don't believe that had anything to do with my virtues or qualifications. Instead, I believe that the Holy Spirit was sending the same signals to the congregation that He was sending to Ann and me. It comforts and encourages me to consider that this impression about God's will wasn't just Ann's and my impression.

But you know what? We could be wrong. And that's okay. I'll have more to say about that in the next installment.

Second Pass at Bible Lessons for November 4, 2007

The first pass, which also explains what these "passes" are all about, can be found here.

Ephesians 1:11-23
1. Authorship of Ephesians is disputed. Traditionally, it has been attributed to Paul. However, the vocabulary and theological categories used in Ephesians are sufficiently different from those used in the acknowledged writings of Paul (what's called the Pauline corpus) that many scholars dispute this. Furthermore, in the ancient world it was deemed legitimate for the followers of teachers or those schooled in their ways of thinking to write as though they were that teacher.

On the other hand, many argue that distinctions in style, vocabulary, terminology, and theology between this letter and other writings of Paul can simply be attributed to his growth and maturation as a Christian.

2. A major theme of Ephesians is spiritual warfare. Christians are in the midst of it, as contestants (but only with God's help) and as objects.

3. These past messages from Ephesians help flesh out some of its themes:
Changing Your World: Through Amazing Grace
Changing Your World: By Being a Disciple
Changing Your World: Through Prayer

4. Chris Haslam, an Anglican preacher from Canada, has a good summary of our lesson from Ephesians:
Paul has written of the Father’s wisdom and insight in making known to us his will, his plan for completion of the restoration of the faithful to oneness with him, as told by Jesus (vv. 8, 9). God’s plan embraces both Jews and Gentiles, bringing them together in one Christian community. That this is happening he sees as evidence of God’s ability to break down diverse barriers, and to bring the world to unity in Christ.

And so, in vv. 15-16, he is delighted to hear of the successful missionary activity by people he does not know at first hand. Their “faith” (commitment to Christ) and fraternal love (love of “all the saints”, Christians both Jewish and Gentile) go hand in hand: faith involves appreciating God’s great love for humanity demonstrated in the Father’s giving of the Son. That “your” (v. 15) refers to new Christians is indicated by “as you come to know him” in v. 17: Paul prays that these (relatively) new converts may receive “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” as each progressively come to understand God more and more. It is not just digested knowledge (“wisdom”) that they will receive, but also “revelation”, what God will show of himself and his ways, his manifest character, his greatness, “glory”, and the fruit of interaction of knowledge with experience. The objective (v. 18) is that, illuminated by innermost conviction (“with the eyes of your heart”), they may attain a maturer knowledge of God in three ways:
  • in spiritual growth (“hope”) being those whom God has called;
  • the “glorious inheritance” Gentile Christians now share with their Jewish brethren; and
  • experience of the tremendous power of God as he works in their lives.
Paul’s experience speaks here: God showed him mercy when he was a persecutor of Christians. Then v. 20: this power that they now experience is what the Father used in raising Christ and having him share in the divine glory. Christ has also conquered all alien spiritual powers (“far above all rule ...”, v. 21) and pagan gods (“every name that is named”). God has made “all things” (v. 22) subject to humanity; the Father has given Christ to the church as ruler over all things spiritual. The church is one in Christ and thus is able to share in Christ’s exaltation, Christ being the complete embodiment of God, who is in the process of filling (making good) all things. It is through the church that God pervades the world with his goodness.
Tomorrow, I hope to post the third pass at the All Saints Sunday lessons, looking at the Gospel lesson,

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hello, Goodbye: How Do You Know?

Friends wonder as they consider the end of our happy seventeen tenure at Friendship Church how I know that our move to Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio is the right thing. How, in other words, can we be sure that this move agrees with the will of God?

Short answer: At one level, I don't know if it agrees with the will of God. That's where faith, trust in God, comes in.

One strong sign that God's hand is in a thing is when it entails leaving the comfortable to enter the unknown. God often wants us to leave comfortable pursuits and surroundings so that we learn to depend on Him. When we stay in our comfortable places, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we actually know what we're doing. Moving into the unknown is one way we can follow the wisdom found in Proverbs 3:5, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight." (I love that!)

Of course, Saint Matthew is a solid congregation that's been around since 1852. The people of the parish are friendly, warm, and committed to Jesus. Logan is a beautiful town set in the gorgeous Hocking Hills section of Ohio, surely among the most attractive places in the world. So, it's not as though God is telling us to go into the wilderness to a land He will show us.

But I could have stayed at Friendship for another seventeen years, retiring at age 66, when my pension will be fully vested. I could have continued to live with comfort and ease which I might have deluded myself into believing was of my making. I could be like the rich fool in Jesus' parable who told himself, "Relax, eat, drink, be merry." (Of course, like that rich fool, I would have been further deluding myself into thinking that I was guaranteed tomorrow. There's nothing to say that I'll even make it to age 66. Or age 54, for that matter.)

Christ does comfort us with the knowledge that through faith in Him, our sins are forgiven and we belong to God eternally. But Christ hasn't called us to lives of comfort and ease. Our job is to follow Christ, wherever He leads: "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus told His first disciples (Matthew 4:19). He tells us the same thing. He also says things like:
  • "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:37-39).
  • “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25)
None of this is to say that life in Logan is a grim prospect to us. NOT AT ALL. If things go as they usually do, we expect to make great friends there. We expect to love and enjoy Saint Matthew. We anticipate finding great restaurants, good hiking trails, and favorite places to shop.

But we are also being taken out of what has become a comfort zone these past seventeen years, the very sort of thing you'd expect God to do in the lives of His people.

When God takes me out of my comfort zones, my first response is almost always the same: I draw closer to God. Christians, even pastors, do that with the assurance that James gives in the New Testament. "Draw near to God," we're told, "and he will draw near to you" (James 4:8).

It's funny, as I've prepared for going to Saint Mattthew, though filled with excitement and anticipation, I'm also filled with a sense of how little I really know, not just about tomorrow, but even about today. I've been drawn nearer to God and have been reading His Word and praying more and with greater dependence than I would have had we decided to stay here in our comfort zone.

So, at one level, I don't really know that God wants us to go to Saint Matthew. But at another, I'm sure that our move to Saint Matthew in Logan agrees with the will of God. More on that tomorrow.

Please Pray for...

...the people of Southern California, where the worst wildfires since 2003 are blazing. I'm praying for
the safety of the firefighters
the safety of the residents
an end to the fires
wisdom for leaders as they decide on the direction of resources

...the people of New Orleans, being hit with huge rainfall. I'm praying that
the levees hold
all will be spared more tragedy

...the people of Darfur, the victims of daily genocide directed and abetted by a maniacal Sudanese government in Khartoum

...peace in Iraq

...peace in Afghanistan

...wisdom for world leaders and our national leaders

I'm also personally praying for wisdom for myself to know what to pray for, work for, and do as a human being, a citizen, and, through Christ, a child of God. For that, I hold onto this Biblical promise:
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. (James 1:5)
But even when I'm not wise, I know Who is and that I can't go wrong when I tell God, "YOUR WILL BE DONE!"

Monday, October 22, 2007

What Do 'Football' and 'Futbol' Say About Their Politics?

Charlie Lehardy has some interesting ideas on that subject.

Hello, Goodbye: Why I Will Wear 'Clergy Attire' at Saint Matthew

Here's the bottom line from yesterday's post in this series: It doesn't matter what pastors and priests wear. Except when it does.

Hang in there with me on this. Every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ, charged with making disciples. Like the apostle Paul, told by King Agrippa, before whom he stood imprisoned, in chains, that he was mad to think that he could call the king to faith in Christ in a short time, the attitude of Christians should be that, in Christian love, we want all people to know the joy and liberation of life with Jesus Christ!

Christians are people with a message that can change people's lives forever. We must never confuse our message with the packages in which they're contained.

Whether the package in which the Gospel is presented is a cathedral with an enormous pipe organ and vested choirs, a storefront church in the inner city, or a suburban congregation housed in a plain building where worship is led by a praise band and a preacher in "casual Friday" attire doesn't matter so long as the message conveys the life-changing Good News of Jesus.

Christians devoted to Christ and His mission should, like Paul, be willing to become "all things to all people":
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
What the pastor or priest wears when she or he leads worship should be dictated not by what he or she likes, but by what best facilitates the spread of the Gospel in the church and community in which they serve.

That's why as I become pastor of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, I'll be wearing an alb, cincture, stole, cross, and clerical collar to lead worship.

One reason for this is that for me to appear in anything else would be disrespectful to the customs of the church community there. This is their way of doing things. It's a way with which I'm personally comfortable as well. It's also likely the best way for me to reach most of the people who are apt to worship with us at Saint Matthew. If I were to appear to lead worship or preach in tennis shoes and jeans would put up unnecessary walls between the Gospel of Jesus and the people to whom I want to give its hope and sustenance. Such incongruity would be as jarring to people in that community as incense and a thurifer would be for worship at Friendship, the congregation I've served for the past seventeen years.

Now, during the interview process, the Saint Matthew Call Committee and I discussed building off of an alternative service my predecessor initiated there. It was established with the hope of attracting the spiritually-disconnected to Christ and to Saint Matthew. We talked about how that service might look a little different and how I might even look different for this service. I was impressed that these committed Lutheran Christians were willing to discuss with such passion and concern what it may take to reach out to others in this way.

They understand that it doesn't matter what pastors and priests wear. Except when it does. When it does is when it helps facilitate the mission of Jesus' church. At Saint Matthew, that means I'll be wearing traditional clergy attire again. I'm happy to do it and will do so with the prayer of a good Lutheran in my heart, "to God alone be the glory."

First Pass at Bible Lessons for November 4, 2007

[November 4 will be my first Sunday as pastor of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. Over the past several years, it's been my habit to share some of my studying and reflecting on the Bible passages on which I'm going to preach the following Sunday here on my blog.

[Unlike my previous congregation, where we usually focused on just one of the appointed lessons for the week, Saint Matthew reads all three lessons, as well as the appointed Psalm, each week. To read more about the Church Year, from which the three year cycle of lesson plans, known as the lectionary, come, see here.

[So, I intend to present a bit of information/reflection on each of the upcoming lessons and go a little more deeply in exploring the passage on which I'll base my sermon that week. (The first, usually Old Testament, lesson is generally thematically linked to the Gospel lesson each week.)

[The whole purpose of these "passes" at the Bible lessons is to help worshipers more fully prepare for taking in the message of the lessons.]

General Comments:
1. We'll be using the Bible lessons usually appointed for All Saints Day. That's November 1. In recent years, the day has come to actually be celebrated on the Sunday after November 1. The reason for this is that it's an important day on the church calendar, often used by congregations to remember those of their members who passed away in the preceding year, but few folks are available to show up to celebrate and remember the "faithful departed" when All Saints Day falls in the middle of the week. So, moving the commemoration of the day to the following Sunday makes sense.

2. From the standpoint of the New Testament, a saint is any sinner who has repented for sin and believed in Jesus Christ.

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
1. The first lesson for All Saints Sunday comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel.

2. Daniel is often referred to as a book of prophecy. That categorization is okay as far as it goes. But it's more accurate to describe it as an apocalyptic book. The Greek word from apocalyptic comes means revelation. Daniel in the Old Testament and, logically enough, Revelation in the New Testament, are the Bible's only examples of apocalyptic literature. (You can read a little bit more about apocalyptic literature and the ambiguous attitude Lutherans, starting with Luther, have had about it in this piece about a passage of Revelation.)

3. Broadly, Daniel can be divided into two main sections. Chapters 1-7 are a narrative account of Daniel and of others during the deportation of many Israelites to function as slaves, sometimes, as in Daniel's case, in very important positions, in Babylon. The deportation happened in about 605BC after Babylon had conquered Israel. (Our lesson, drawn from chapter 7 does present a vision of Daniel's)

Chapter 8-12 presents a series of apocalyptic visions from Daniel.

4. Daniels' strange visions should be read primarily as a critique of the nations in his world. They should also be seen as an affirmation that God will vindicate those, who in spite of persecution and hardships, remain faithful in following Him. In that sense, Daniel's visions have broader implications for all who believe in Jesus Christ. As Jesus says in our Gospel lesson for this week, His followers, those who live under the reign of God, are members of a "topsy turvy" kingdom.

I'll present thoughts on Ephesians 1:11-23 and on Luke 6:20-31 tomorrow, hopefully.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hello, Goodbye: Why I Didn't Wear 'Clergy Attire' at Friendship

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, a member of Friendship Church asked when I stopped wearing clerical collars, albs, and such here and whether I would resume wearing them when I begin my work as pastor at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.

The move away from traditional attire at Friendship was a gradual process, some of it deliberate and some of it purely accidental.

It had its roots in the door-to-door visits I conducted from October, 1990 to May, 1991. door-to-door visitation was a successful mode of starting new churches back in the post-World War Two-era. The former bishop of our Southern Ohio Synod, Ken Sauer, started a congregation in Akron.1 The late Jerry Fallwell, some will know, also used this method in the 1950s to start and develop his famous fundamentalist congregation, Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. This was still the proscribed approach in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), of which I'm a part, in 1990, even by that time, there was ample evidence that this was a relatively ineffective method for church planting in US suburbs. But being a good soldier in those days, I began knocking at doors and ringing doorbells.

What happened surprised me. I knew that the data showed that, counting all households on which I called, including those whose residents were away at the time I stopped by, I could expect about one of every twenty to express some interest in this newly forming congregation. But as I met with people, only one in sixty were telling me to send them more information about Friendship.

This troubling trend had gone on for about a month when I went to Cleveland for a presentation on how to develop worship services that are compelling to the spiritually disconnected. The mission director for our synod, the supervisor of my work as pastor-developer, was also there. During a break in the daylong session, I told Bob about my experience and sought some explanation.

Bob, it should be said, was a lifelong Lutheran, then in his sixties, precisely the sort of fellow you might expect to be a guardian of the usual ways of doing things. "What are you wearing when you go to door-to-door?" he asked me. I was wearing the same thing I'd worn every day of my work life as a pastor. "My clerical collar," I told him. Bob said, without missing a beat, "Lose it."

Bob understood the demographics of our area. He also had a firm grasp on the aim of any new mission church, which is to attract what are called "the unchurched," people who had either never been involved with Christ and the Church or who hadn't been active in a congregation for at least five years.

Metropolitan Cincinnati has a strong Roman Catholic presence. Most Catholics in the area are happily engaged in the life of their church and we had no designs on stealing Christians from our churches. But, in an area that is as strongly Roman Catholic as this Tristate area, there were and are also high numbers of "lapsed Catholics," some of whom are disgruntled with the Catholic Church.

Another large portion of the unchurched population of Clermont County, where I planted Friendship, was and is made up of people with conservative evangelical backgrounds.

To the first group, a guy in a clerical collar would seem to be "more of the same" they weren't interested in seeing. For the second, a clerical collar would represent a mysterious, impenetrable religion.

Either way, my clerical collar was getting in the way of doing what I was trying to do: Invite people who had no connection to a church to consider my invitation to consider being part of Friendship.

Armed with Bob's blunt advice to "lose" my clerical collar, I hit the streets of this community once more. Suddenly, one out of every nineteen households was expressing interest in this new church.

Still, when we began worshiping at Friendship on May 19, 1991, there I was in traditional Lutheran clergy attire. Then, on the second Sunday we worshiped in the stuffy gymnasium of the Withamsville-Tobasco Elementary School, I prepared to put on my robe. One of the founding members of the church, Roger, a lifelong Lutheran, said, "Mark, it's too hot for that."

I tended to wear traditional attire on only special occasions after that. It was a case of practicality meeting good Lutheran theology and a commitment to both hospitality and loving outreach.

Since 1517, part of the Lutheran "project" has been to tear down the impediments to knowing and enjoying God erected by the institutionalized church. Built on the essential proclamation of the Christian faith that God declares sinners acceptable for eternity by virtue of their belief in Jesus Christ, the founder of the evangelical movement, Martin Luther, reformed the Mass (translating worship into the language of the people from the Latin); offering both elements of the Sacrament of Holy Communion; translated the Bible into German; composed hymns in the musical styles and language of the people; and wrote The Small Catechism to familarize families with the basics of Christian faith, among other things. In the centuries since, though it has often been overlooked by Lutherans, there has been an amazing and rich diversity of worship styles, musical expressions, and "proscribed attire" for clergy. That diversity still exists in the worldwide Lutheran movement.

That makes sense. Luther himself often railed against the Church's tendency to get hung up on what he called "adiaphora," basically meaning things that aren't essential to faith, salvation, worship, or church practice. The theologians who joined and followed Luther's lead in the Reformation agreed with him. The Augsburg Confession, a basic confessional document of the Lutheran movement written by other evangelical theologians during Luther's lifetime, describes the Church:
The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4, 5. 6.
The point: Outward attire is just that, outward attire. Those in the Church should never confuse sociology for theology, the unimportant for the essential.

I personally was comfortable with clerical collars, albs, stoles, and such. But I had to ask myself some important questions:
  • In trying to develop a new congregation built on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the spiritually disconnected, was I willing to leave my personal comfort zone?
  • Was I Lutheran enough to major in the majors and leave the adiaphora behind?
  • Was I Christian enough to tear down the impediments that might keep the unchurched from seeing Jesus?
When it came to my attire, I also had to ask myself another question: What would Jesus do? How would He appear to these people on a Sunday morning?

In first-century Judea, Jesus wore the common robe worn by others. His attire hadn't stood out from the crowd any more than had the first priests to don clerical collars back in the days of the Roman Empire. I adopted a kind of "casual Friday" look that helped many people to connect with me and with the Lord I tried to faithfully present.

Making Christ known must remain the preeminent goal of the Christian Church and of Lutherans. (Please read here.) God knows that not every one of my choices as pastor of Friendship Lutheran Church these past seventeen years has been right. But at least for the period 1991-2007, my choice in attire, irrespective of how unimportant that issue is in the grand scheme of things, was the right one and I feel, it helped Friendship make Christ known.

As I head for a new congregation though, I'll be going back to traditional Lutheran attire. In the next installment of this series, I'll try to explain why I think that is the right choice.

1And, in that period when people were hungry for church involvement, Sauer once told me, a pastor developing a new congregation might not have even needed the door-to-door visitation to get things going. "I had it a lot easier than you do now," he said. "In those days, it seemed all you had to do was put up a sign announcing that a new church was coming and you had a crowd."

Worryblockers! (Overcoming Worry, Part 4)

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship this morning. Today was my last Sunday at Friendship. But if you live in or ever visit the Cincinnati area, this is a truly great church, filled with the love of Jesus Christ, with warm welcomes for all people, and a tremendous commitment to service in Jesus' Name!]

Matthew 6:25-34
Many of you know that I love Walt Disney World. I loved it long before anybody from my family started working there.

Like others, I enjoy Disney World in part, because it’s entertaining, clean, and sometimes even educational. But the biggest reason for my love of Disney World is that, to me, it’s an inspiring place!

We may never, like Walt Disney, build amusement parks or a media empire--how many of those does the world need anyway? But Disney World inspires me to consider what all of us could do with the gift of imagination that God has granted to us.

Human beings have the awesome capacity to imagine or envision the future. It’s one of the main things distinguishing us from all the other creatures God made. That ability has not only brought us Disney World, but also little things like democracy, the space program, and every technological innovation in history. I hope that this morning, you’re envisioning a bright and faithful future for Friendship, for example.

Sadly, we human beings are likelier to use the gift of imagination in negative ways, though. Sin soils our souls and with it, our imaginings grow dark. We’re accomplished at imagining how everything that can go wrong eventually will, often creating the very bad things we dread!

A young man was deeply in love with his new wife and she with him. But the young man was insecure. Because he couldn’t believe that anyone could be so stupid as to actually love him, he worried that his wife planned to leave him or that she was seeing someone else. He checked on her all the time and was in need of constant reassurance from her. Finally, she couldn’t take it any more. Although she’d never had any intention of leaving her husband or taking up with someone else, she did those very things. Afterward, oblivious to how his worried imaginings had contributed to this trainwreck, the young man felt a perverse sense of vindication. “I knew this would happen,” he said. Worry is negative imagining and it’s a killer.

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus talks about worry. He notes that we tend to stew over our material well being. To that, Jesus says that life is more than food, clothing, or possessions. The things of this world fade away, rust out, or die. But God lasts forever. That’s why Jesus says we’re to seek God and the ways of God first and above all else. As we do, He says, we can trust that God will take care of our material needs.

Earlier this year, Friendship was faced with some daunting financial and spiritual realities. But the leadership of this congregation refused to yield to worry. Instead, they challenged us all to pray for Friendship, seeking God’s guidance; to maintain strong participation in the life of Friendship; to maintain strong giving, even to consider tithing, giving the first 10% of our income to the life and work of the church; and to invite others to worship.

Because you let God help you dare to imagine a different outcome and because thousands of other people joined us in prayer, Friendship is stronger than it’s ever been!

(And by the way, don’t stop now. Your commitment to those four priorities is more important today than it’s ever been. The salvation and well-being of thousands of your neighbors depends on your continuing to faithfully imagine a constantly strengthening and growing Friendship Church!)

As long as God allows this sin-drenched world to continue, providing His Church with time and opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus with others, bad things will happen to people, even to faithful people. But if we let Him, God will block worry from the lives of those who surrender to Jesus Christ and empower them to keep seeking His Kingdom.

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus gives us some God-ordained worryblockers. These strategies will free us to imagine, work, and pray for God’s best, rather than worrying about the worst.

First: We need to live in what’s called “day-tight compartments.” At the end of today’s lesson, Jesus tells us, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It’s great for us to use our imaginations to dream, pray, and work toward good goals for ourselves, our church, and others. But Jesus knows that tomorrow morning, when you go to work or are hustling the kids off to school, you’ll have more than enough challenges on your plates; you don’t need to waste time stewing about everything that could go wrong the day after tomorrow, next week, or next year. We only can really deal with one day’s challenges--or more accurately, one moment's challenges--at a time.

Besides, when you borrow difficulties from tomorrow, which is what we do when we worry, you overlook the good things of today. Psalm 118:24 says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” We need to make a commitment to live in, savor, and enjoy this day that God has given to us!

I even encourage people to laugh more each day. It’s been shown that laughter is good for our bodies, opening up our blood vessels, making the jobs of our physical hearts easier.

Maybe that fact is behind the words from the Old Testament book of Proverbs, “A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken...”

I love what C.S, Lewis said: “It is a Christian duty...for everyone to be as happy as they can.” No people have more reason to be happy than followers of Jesus Christ. Christ has killed off the power of sin and death over our lives and freed us to live boldly and happily with Him by our sides. We can live in day-tight compartments with assurance and confidence.

Second worry blocker: Seek out God’s will for your life! And for the lives of others. Jesus says that worrying about tomorrow won’t add a second to this life. (Nor, I would add, will it add any life to our living!) But when we seek God’s will, we gain access to what’s best in life. I believe that God strews markers along our ways through life in order to show us the way we should go.

Often, God does that through other people who, without our even knowing it, are acting as God’s cheerleaders for us. Years ago, for example, I read about a man who, as a boy, lived in poverty in a rough neighborhood. He was befriended by an elderly man who ran a drycleaning business. He often told this boy, whose life seemed to hold little promise, that he was a smart boy who would grow up to run a business of his own some day. In spite of his poverty and the fact that he came from a family of abusive alcoholics, that boy went to college and later became the chief financial officer of a multi-million-dollar organization.

You have the opportunity to be a part of such stories when you give to and volunteer for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clermont County. Through Friendship's involvement in this organization, you have already given young people right here in our community the hope for a better future. I hope that you'll continue to work and pray for this important and worthy organization!

God envisions better lives for us than even we do. (That’s why I called my column here and named my blog site, Better Living.) So, we need to go to God for help in our daily living and decision making.

Third: We need to keep seeking God! Jesus says, “Strive [or, as we’ve traditionally heard it, Seek ye] first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

You’ve heard of heat-seeking missiles. Simply put, the guidance systems of these missiles seek out targets that emit infrared radiation. Focused on a specific target, thesy hit what they seek.

The God we meet in Jesus Christ knows the design of the human being better than anybody. He knows that you and I are desire-seeking missiles. We aim our souls at our obsessions. When, as Jesus speaks about in our lesson, we worry about things like money, food, and clothing, we may get them in overabundance. But in seeking out those targets, we crowd God from our lives. Seek to follow Christ and to live in His Kingdom above all else. God will take care our daily needs and empower us to help the poor and the hungry denied access to God's provision for them by the selfishness of the human race. But more than providing us with our daily bread, when we seek God, we’ll remain connected to God!

Seeking God first means not just regular prayer, Bible reading, weekly worship, and participation in service in Jesus’ Name, all of which are essential elements to being a Christian. I want to tell you today that it also means receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion every time it’s offered.

The word Sacrament means mystery. In, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion, Jesus’ body and blood mysteriosuly come to us. In ways none of us fully understand, Jesus Himself enters us. We gain a physical connection with God.

In Communion, we also enjoy a connection with every believer of every time and every place, including those already in eternity. When Jesus said that we’re to take the bread and the win in remembrance of Him, He didn’t mean that we’re to look back nostalgically to when He walked on the earth.

Anyone with even the faintest knowledge of Christian faith knows that following the God we know in Jesus Christ isn’t about looking backward. Religion looks backward, Biblical faith looks forward!
  • The people of Israel got themselves in trouble and forgot God when, in the wilderness, they looked back nostalgically to their enslavement in Egypt.
  • The wife of Abraham’s nephew Lot was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back to the city from which God was leading her.
  • And when the angels appeared to the women at the empty tomb on the first Easter to announce that Jesus had risen from the dead, they said, “Tell Peter and the others to meet Jesus in Galilee, where He’s already gone ahead of them!”
No, that word remembrance that Jesus used at the first sharing of the Lord’s Supper was, in the original Greek, anamnesis, in my Caveman Greek, unamnesia, if you will. In Holy Communion, the walls between us and eternal timelessness with God and other believers are torn down. We are membered again, re-membered, re-connected to God and to all who have ever believed in the God we know in Jesus Christ.

In the fellowship of Holy Communion, we’re enfolded once again into the family of which we become a part when we believe and are baptized. Sins are forgiven. God’s love is seen and touched and tasted.

And something else happens. I once visited a shut-in who was dying. I gave Holy Communion to her. When we finished, I saw this woman beaming. She knew she would die soon. But in Holy Communion, God had given her a foretaste of the new and everlasting future that awaited her. God had given her a new vision. She could live or die today knowing that she was in God’s hands. She knew, as Jesus reminds us in today’s lesson, that she was of more value than all the birds and flowers of the fields. Christ had died and risen for her. (And for you!) By seeking God, worry was banished from her life.

God wants to block worry from our lives. Let that happen...
  • by asking God to help you live in daytight compartments;
  • by seeking God’s will for your life, including how you can help others overcome worry and see the possibilities in their own lives; and
  • by continuing to seek God through prayer, Bible study, service in Jesus’ Name, weekly worship, and by receiving the body and blood of Jesus every time Holy Communion is offered.
Don’t worry about your life; let God give you his peace...always.

'Forever Together Again'

[Today was my last Sunday as pastor of Friendship Lutheran Church in Amelia, Ohio, a congregation I was privileged to have started seventeen years ago. I excitedly anticipate beginning my work as pastor Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on November 1.

[This is a song which I presented a cappella at the end of today's worship celebration. The congregation then sang it with me. The melody I composed is so simple, that folks were able to sing along readily.

[Briefly, the story behind the song is that many years ago, when I was a young pastor, one of my mentors was Pastor Richard Jensen, a systematic theologian, former missionary, and one-time preacher on the ELCA's weekly radio show, then called Lutheran Vespers, now called Grace Matters. In his work, Dick did a lot of traveling and found himself always having to say, "Goodbye." This bothered him, he told me, but he took great comfort from the fact that as a believer in Jesus Christ, he knew that one day, there would no need to say, "Goodbye." Believers in Christ live in the assurance that in eternity, we'll only say, "Hello!"

[As I contemplated my leaving Friendship and this community, I thought of Dick's words and composed this song. If I think of it later, I may record it for the blog.]


Forever Together Again
Some day, I’m going to see you again
I’m not the one to say when
But I know I’m going to see you again

One day, when we no longer grow old
The streets we walk made of gold
Yes, I’m sure, I’m going to see you again

The hardest part of living today is learning to say, “Goodbye”
Each sad farewell reminds us that we aren’t in control of this life

Some day, the hope we hold will prove true
You will see me, I’ll see you
And it’s then, we’ll be together again

The hardest part of living today is learning to say, “Goodbye”
Each sad farewell reminds us that we aren’t in control of this life

Some day, the One we trust with our lives
The One Who promised we’d rise
Will bring us together again
Will bring us together again
Forever together again.
Copyright 2007, Words and Music by Mark Daniels