Saturday, February 28, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 4

Servanthood is the clearest sign of greatness.

We underestimate the power of servanthood. But imagine the impact on the disciples gathered with Jesus during that fateful Passover meal when He washed their feet. All eyes would have been on Him as He put His robe back on and returned to His place. Hanging on His every word, they heard Him say:

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17).

One of the most interesting characters in history is George Washington. Twice, first at the end of the American Revolution and then at the end of his second term as our first President, Washington walked away from the implicit offer of lifelong executive power. People wanted him to become the king of America. But he refused, setting a precedent for the peaceful transition of political power that has become the tradition of the United States and the model after which every country desiring to establish democracy has patterned itself since. Washington showed restraint and thereby established his greatness as a political leader. He saw that anyone who would achieve great things must be, first and foremost, a servant.

This is especially true for the follower of Jesus Christ. No Christian can ever delude herself into thinking that she’s bigger than the Savior Who died on a cross and rose from the dead to give us new and everlasting life with God. The servant of Christ follows Him into acts of humble service, whether obscure or celebrated. Christians know that servanthood is the clearest sign of greatness.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14, New Revised Standard Version).

Friday, February 27, 2009

"Jesus calls us to feed the poor...

...and that's what we're here to do." Those words are from my colleague, Pastor David Ritchie, during an outing of the new mobile food bank of Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio. Watch a local news report here.

Also seen in the clip: colleague Pastor Janice Winters and Lutheran Social Services staffer Leslie Poole.

Why Lent is Like Spring

"It is a season of painful changes and eternal promises that eventually leads to the long-ago promise of life once again. It is a time when God will make all things new and when we finally realize that winter will not last forever."

The words from one of my favorite bloggers and one of my favorite people, my son Philip. Read the whole thing.

The Difference Lent Can Make in Your Relationship with God

Mark D. Roberts begins a series by that name here. Mark is one of the best and most thoughtful of bloggers.

Giving Up the Illusion of Being Perfect for Lent

Here

Please keep praying for Pastor David Wayne

Here is the latest update from him on his health.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 3

Servanthood is an active way of living.

Pastor John Maxwell tells the story of a man moved by the preaching he heard during worship one Sunday. He stood up and called out to God, “Oh, Lord, use me! Use me!” And then, thinking of the implications of his offer, he added: “In an advisory capacity.”

We’ve said that God’s prime goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus and that what this means above all, is that you become a servant. That may seem fine, even commendable, on paper. But, we need to ask the same question that five-centuries of Lutheran Catechism students have been taught to ask when confronting the basics of our faith in Christ: “What does this mean?” The answer may determine whether we really want to be used by God or not.

On the night He was to be arrested, Jesus gathered with His twelve closest followers to celebrate the Jewish Passover. But before they prayed or ate, Jesus did a strange thing.

In those days, whenever guests came for dinner, the head of the household saw to it that their feet were washed. There were no paved roads in those days. Most traveling was by foot. Everybody wore sandals. Foot washing was a soothing and practical act of hospitality. But it was also work delegated to the lowest of slaves. (John 13:1-11)

Yet, Jesus grabbed a pitcher of water, poured it into a basin, and grabbing a towel, set out to wash the twenty-four dusty feet of the apostles. At first, Peter tried to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. Writer Richard Foster says that Peter wasn’t being humble. Instead, his demurral “was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed Jesus’ feet!” Jesus though, dared to put servanthood into action.

Servanthood is more than an attitude. Servanthood is an active way of living.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet...” (John 13:5)

"Our goal of the misson that day was the Ruhr, a land of mines and furnaces, with a cataract of thick black smoke..."

My favorite lines in this poem, for reasons that will become obvious, I think, as you read it. (Hint: There's a wonderful double use of the word, cataract.)

My second favorite? These:
we turned on a wing
and wheeled west toward home
with the late sun lighting up the heavenly landscape of clouds,
brighter than I had ever seen it before.
A single lifetime can bring many varied dangers. Yet each is similar. The feelings and responses they evoke are alike. Each may lead to greater sight and insight. But we must be present to them, engaged in them, not mere observers. When this happens, dangers can also yield blessings.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 2

Above all, God means for you to be a servant.

Yesterday, we established that God’s goal for you is that you become like Jesus. But when God came to the world in Jesus Christ, what was He like?

Paul tackled this question in a letter that appears in our New Testament. There, the apostle urges the members of the first-century church in the city of Philippi to think and act like Jesus in their life together:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11, New Revised Standard Version).
You see, Jesus had nothing to prove. He was God. So, when a crowd, impressed that He had filled their bellies with food, chased after Him to force Him into becoming the sort of King they wanted, He refused (John 6:22-40). When the crowds who welcomed Him on the first Palm Sunday pressed Him to throw the Roman Conquerors out of Jerusalem, Jesus again refused. He would be a King on His own terms, a Servant King. Jesus served in small ways--turning water into wine at a Judean wedding (John 2:1-12)--and in the very biggest way of all, giving His life on a cross. But, confident of Who He was, Jesus had no need to “throw His weight around,” coercing people into following Him. He lovingly served others and as a result, many wanted to follow Him.

Because of your confidence in the risen Jesus, you can dare to live like Him. Above all, God means for you to be a servant.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself...he took on the status of a slave...” (Philippians 2:5-11, The Message)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Just arrived in the mail...

A review of a book I enjoyed reading last year. The review appeared here in June.

But I actually wrote it for the Trinity Seminary Review. (Hopefully, the links on the Review site will be fully operational soon.) The Winter/Spring, 2009 issue landed in the church mailbox today.

The Review is a journal by and for the seminary, alumni, and friends of Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

So, tell me, what books haven't you written?

My son sent this link to an August 2, 2004, article on the BBC web site. It's about two librarians, inspired by a novel by Richard Brautigan, who went around England asking people if they'd ever thought of writing a book and if so, what would the book be. Their research resulted in the Library of Unwritten Books.

No, really, they wrote these book ideas out and published at least some of them as booklets "distributed to libraries, pubs, community centres and doctor's waiting rooms."

You can read some of the unwritten books--in this case, that's not an oxymoron--here.

I have mixed reactions to this.

On the one hand, lots of people have one book in them, I suppose. On the other, most people should keep their book ideas in them. You know, save a tree. And even if a book is published in electronic form, an unwritten and unpublished book that someone decided not to present in condensed form may save other things, like our brain cells. There are books I've read during my lifetime that, I'm sure, actually depleted my brain power and, in the case of some assigned college reading, temporarily decreased my will to live.

Oddly enough, I woke up yesterday with an idea for a book, a novel. In that place between sleep and wakefulness, I worked the whole thing out in my mind: cast of characters, pacing, dialogue, denouement, and who I'd want to star in the movie adaptation. But then I woke up. I realized that here was a book that not only would remain unwritten, but deserved that fate.

Of course, five years from now, when I get wind of a bestseller about to be turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt (not my choice for the star, by the way), I'll have a sensation mixing vindication and regret. I'll tell my wife, kids, and friends, "I had an idea for a book just like that back in 2009." And my wife, kids, and friends will say patronizingly, "I'm sure you did."

Sigh.

What books haven't you written?

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 1

God’s goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus.

God has set apart every person called to follow Jesus Christ “to become like his Son, so that the Son [will] be the first among many brothers” (Romans 8:29, Good News Bible).

Does that seem impossible? It probably does.

After all, Jesus was (and is) not just a human being, but God. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible...all things have been created through him and for him...in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell...” (Colossians 1:15-19, New Revised Standard Version).

But I’m not making this up. God means for you to become like Jesus.

Jesus is the prototype of a new human race. This is what the apostle Paul was talking about in First Corinthians 15 when he effectively designated Jesus the new “Adam.” “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (First Corinthians 15:22, New Revised Standard Version). Sin infected the human family when Adam rebelled against God. Because human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation, the only one of God’s creatures to bear “the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-28), all of creation bears the burden and the signs of our rebellion against God.

But God means to give fresh starts to all who turn from sin and surrender to Jesus Christ (Second Corinthians 5:17). Jesus is the new Adam, the resurrected first example and the pioneer of the new human race of which God invites all people to be a part.

In Christ, we are born anew (John 3:3). But just as our physical births are only the beginnings of our lives, so our spiritual births only begin our lives in Christ.

God’s goal for your life is for you to be like Jesus.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.” (Romans 8:29, The Message)

[This is the first installment of a forty-day series of extremely short devotional pieces which I wrote back in 2006. (Some have been slightly revised.) The pieces are being used at the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, as part of our Lenten walk toward Easter. I hope that you find them helpful.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What is Ash Wednesday?

Tomorrow, Christians all over the world will be celebrating Ash Wednesday. It begins a forty-day season of spiritual renewal and preparation that precedes Easter Sunday. The season is called Lent.

Actually, there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. But the Sundays that fall during Lent are never counted as part of that somber season. For Christians, Sundays are always "little Easters," days when the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is celebrated.

Lent emphasizes other aspects of Christian belief, which is why many churches, including the church I serve as pastor, hold special Lenten services on Wednesday nights during this period.

The word Lent is from Middle English and means spring, the season of the year with which Lent somewhat corresponds.

According to Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, writing in a book called Manual on the Liturgy, "Lent [as a season of the Church Year] derives from the [period of] preparation of [adult] candidates for Baptism [in the Church's early history]. By the middle of the fourth century at Jerusalem, candidates for Baptism fasted for 40 days, and during this period...[instructional] lectures...were delivered to them."

Of course, forty is an important number in the Bible. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The Old Testament book of Exodus says that God's people wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The rains that produced the great flood recorded in the book of Genesis lasted forty days and forty nights. So, it was natural that Lent would become a forty-day period.

Pfatteicher and Messerli say that after Christian faith was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., "the period of preparation for Baptism became a general period of preparation of all Christians for Easter." That continues to this day.

Ash Wednesday itself, say Pfatteicher and Messerli, features a mood of "penitence and reflection on the quality of our faith and life." The goal is to call believers to remember their mortality, dependence on God, and need to seek God's help in disciplining themselves to surrender every part of their lives to Jesus Christ.

At our congregation tomorrow evening, we'll begin our time of worship together with the singing of Just As I am, Without One Plea, followed by corporate confession, the reading of a Bible lesson, and then, the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the repentant. Each person will receive this sign with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Ashes, in a Jewish and Christian context, suggest three things:
  • judgment and God’s condemnation of sin;
  • our total dependence upon God for life; and
  • repentance, joyful turning back to God.
As the cross of Christ is marked on our foreheads with ashes, we’re reminded of the words of the burial service: “Earth to earth and dust to dust.” (These are based on God's words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19.) Ashes remind us of our mortality and of our need for God.

Ashes are also a symbol of cleansing and renewal. This makes sense when you think about it. When I was a boy and would lodge splinters into my hands, I'd go to my dad. Dad inspected things and soon, got a needle from my mom's sewing kit, and pulled out his lighter. He turned the tip of the needle over and over again in the flame of the lighter for maybe thirty seconds and after that, wave the needle through the air to cool it off. Then, he used it to pick the splinter out of my hand. Of course, the reason that Dad ran the needle through the flame was to kill off any bacteria that might cause infection.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for fire is pur, from which we get such English words as purge, pure, and purify, among others. When we open ourselves to letting Jesus Christ be in charge of our lives, He begins to purge us of all the old, destructive habits that previously blocked God's presence from our lives and He creates a place of purity where He can live with us and transform our lives. The old life is burnt and a new life begins.

Just as baptismal water suggests death and brand new life with God...so do the ashes of Ash Wednesday.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Seeing Jesus Without a Vision

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Mark 9:2-9
During an episode of the old Murphy Brown sitcom, Murphy asks her coworkers for their thoughts about God. Jim, the anchorman, says that he’s a lifelong churchgoer and that while he has never personally experienced God, he knows that there are people in the church he attends who have. He keeps going, he says, because he wants to be around people like that and because of a belief that if it happened for them, it could happen for him too.

Truth is, few of us ever have the kind of experience of God in all His power and glory that Peter, James, and John had on the mountaintop with Jesus. Jesus’ transfiguration--the transformation of His appearance so that His clothing became whiter than even Clorox could get it—was a dazzling, overwhelming heavenly affirmation of His authority. It fulfilled what Jesus had promised His disciples just six days earlier—and just one verse before the start of today’s Gospel lesson from Mark. Jesus had said, “I can assure you that some of the people standing here will not die before they see God’s kingdom come with power.” [CEV]

Peter, James, and John saw what Jim the anchorman hoped to see: the power and the presence of God. They saw a vision and heard words from heaven that confirmed the rightness of following Jesus, that He is the One Who brings God’s kingdom to our world, He is the One to Whom we should listen day in and day out.

I don’t know about you: But sometimes I think that following Jesus would be a lot easier for me if God would be that direct with me. In fact, if I let myself, I could even resent Peter, James, and John a little.

But, if you are inclined to feel ripped off because the three of them got to see a vision that would sustain their faith and you may not have been given such a gift to sustain your faith, keep in mind that even then only three of Jesus’ disciples saw the Transfiguration. The other nine were down in the lowlands below. Thomas, the disbeliever, wasn’t there. Nor was Andrew, the one who had introduced Peter to Jesus in the first place. And neither was Judas, who would later betray Jesus.

Maybe if Thomas and Judas had seen Jesus up on that mountain, things would have turned out differently. Maybe Thomas wouldn’t have doubted. Maybe Judas wouldn’t have betrayed Jesus. But they weren’t there.

And Andrew, who followed Jesus before the rest of them, would seem to have had more right to a faith-encouraging vision than Peter, James, or John had. But he wasn’t there either.

It seems that God gives visions to the people to whom God chooses to give visions. We have no control over that.

Erling Wold was a Lutheran pastor who, along with his wife Margaret, wrote many inspiring articles and books. One day, Wold was surfing in the Pacific Ocean near his southern California house. A wave knocked him down and smashed him into the sand. His neck was broken. In a book he called, What Do I Have to Do--Break My Neck?, Wold writes (along with his co-author, Margaret) of the moment after impact, when he knew that he was seriously hurt: “Then and there, something very important happened to me. It was not a hallucination. My senses were totally alive. In that moment, there was an inrush of light and [it] filled me as I floated. The light was on my right side, and the light took shape, pulsating with an invitation to come into the light, into the center of the light.” Wold knew that the light was the Light of the world, the risen Jesus. He writes, “I was swept up into an unspeakable exhilaration of glory and I had an intense longing to let go of everything. I welcomed anything. Death. Paralysis. As long as I could be part of that light. I was filled with a light born ecstasy, and my exhilaration continued for what seemed like an eternity.”

Obviously, much pain, healing, and rehabilitation were ahead of Erling Wold at that moment. But from that time on, the risen Jesus Who he had always trusted and believed in became more real and present for him than at any time in his life. I believe that God gave Wold a vision of the risen Jesus so that Wold could have a ministry that sustained and encouraged many people in their faith in the decades that followed. [see here]

Sometimes, I think, visions of God’s kingdom—visions of the glory of Jesus--like that experienced by Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration may be as much burden as reassurance, comfort, or inspiration. After Jesus had died and risen and sent the Holy Spirit, what choice did Peter, James, and John have but to spread the Good News about Jesus Christ? Proclaiming the vision they had seen of God’s kingdom would eventually bring suffering and martyrdom to each one of them. The vision sustained them, assuring them that Jesus is more than an Easter God, He's also the God Who comes down into our worlds. But the Transfiguration vision didn’t turn the three disciples' lives into primrose paths. In fact, being true to what the Transfiguration told them about Jesus cost them their earthly lives.

Many of you remember the speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis just before he went to the hotel where he was killed. Reverend King, whose work for civil rights flowed from his commitment as a follower of Jesus Christ, seemed to have a premonition of his impending death, conveyed in that speech through words that spoke of a vision. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he said, “…and I’ve seen the promised land…. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” For King, the vision of the risen Jesus’ kingdom he seemed to experience not only affirmed his faith, but burdened him.

And yet, each of us as we move through our days and face the challenges of daily living—doing our work, paying our taxes, stewing about our kids, facing economic uncertainties—each of us would like to know that God has our back, that the risen Jesus is here for us and with us.

Last year, I shared with you five ways I have learned to see Jesus. On the theory that, even though you may have been fascinated when I shared these five ways of seeing Jesus with you back in January of 2008, you may have forgotten one or two of them, I’m going to quickly share the list with you again now.

This list of five ways to see Jesus isn’t new with me. They come from a wonderful book called Why I Am a Christian, written by the late Lutheran theologian and pastor Ole Hallesby. He wrote this list for people who want to believe, but like Peter, James, and John, and maybe sometimes you or me, find it hard to believe.

If you want to believe, Hallesby says, do these things. First: Read the New Testament. The New Testament is the cradle in which the baby Jesus can be found, the place of His cross can be experienced, and His empty tomb can be seen.

Second: Pray. I was going through a discouraging day recently. Nothing seemed to be going right and every time I turned around, I got bad news of one sort or another. It wasn’t a terrible day, just a down day. In desperation, I stopped what I was doing and prayed. The bad news didn’t disappear. But as I prayed in Jesus’ Name, the God we know in Jesus, assured me of His presence and His love. Too often we try to face life with our own brains or brawn. But if we ask for Him to help us, though we can’t see Him, Jesus will show up.

Third: We ask God to show us the ways we’ve displeased Him. We submit to a spiritual examination by God and we confess the sins God makes known to us. Our sins, the things we do that hurt God or hurt others, can become walls between God and us. When we ask God to show us the walls we’ve erected against His grace, they can be dismantled and we get a clear internal view of Jesus.

Fourth: Receive Holy Communion every time it’s offered. “This is my body; this is my blood,” Jesus says of the bread and the wine. In Communion, Jesus comes to us and enters us. He is as present to us then as He was to Peter, James, and John.

Finally: Spend time in fellowship with God’s people. Of course, this means being in worship with God’s people when we’re able to do so. But we can fellowship with other believers at other times and, in fact, we really need to fellowship with them at other times. In the past week or so, I was visiting one of our shut-ins who I told, “I’m inspired every time I visit you.” She was taken aback by that comment. “Really?” she asked. “Absolutely!” The fellowship of believers assures us that God’s kingdom isn’t some far-off thing, but that it comes right down to us the way it came to the Mount of Transfiguration. In the movie, The Color Purple, one character battered by life, tells another, “When you walked into the room, I knew there was a God.” The fellowship of believers can give us that same assurance.

You and I may never be blessed or burdened by the kind of vision of God’s Kingdom and of Jesus’ glory that three of Jesus’ disciples saw on the mount of Transfiguration. But when we read the New Testament, pray in Jesus’ Name, submit to spiritual examination and correction by God, receive Jesus’ body and blood, and spend time in fellowship with other believers, we too can see Jesus. We can know that Jesus is with us now. We can experience His strength in the midst of our weakness. We can be assured that there is a Lord that gives eternity to all who follow Him. And when we experience Jesus in these ways, we can face anything in life or death and beyond. Amen

Leithart on China: He Probably Speaks for Many...including me

Peter J. Leithart is a Biblical scholar widely respected and read by people from all camps of the Church, conservative, liberal, and moderate. Few of his blog posts deal with political issues, like this one, where he shows no restraint.

There's an argument to be made that his negative reaction Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statements in China isn't really a political pronouncement either. Instead, I see him playing the role played by prophets in ancient Israel: speaking truth to power, demanding that those in power consider what is just. Clinton's statements ignore the call of justice altogether.

In expressing disappointment that the US Secretary of State doesn't want little things like the Chinese government's massive human rights abuses, repression, or persecution of people for their religious views, to get in the way of Chinese investment in the US, Leithart is not just expressing a view held by millions of Americans who don't like the regime in Beijing. He's also speaking of for millions for whom the Biblical call to justice, whether in ensuring equality here at home or abroad, is deeply important, be they liberal, conservative, or moderate.

I hope that someone points out to our Secretary of State that it was primarily to keep business flowing--the apparent touchstone of her policy toward China--that a guy by the name of Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia away to Hitler. That didn't turn out very well.

Every US administration since that of Richard Nixon has, more or less, sucked up to the tyrants in Beijing. The Chinese, as a result, may have a bit more money in their pockets, but they're no more free and we in the US have lost two things: the moral high ground and an economy unencumbered by a malevolent, amoral regime that cares nothing for human life.

Clearly, the US government cannot and should not go out of its way to pick fights with Beijing. We must cultivate as positive a relationship as possible without earning the enmity of future generations of Chinese who will, inevitably, throw off the shackles of the current regime. (We must also work to contain the Chinese government and its political, economic, and military aspirations to dominate Asia, the Pacific, and the US by working mightily on our relationships with Japan and India.) But statements like those made by Clinton in China would seem to make the US a co-conspirator with the Beijing thugs. That's not change anyone can believe in!

Let's hope that the new President will hear the voices of people like Leithart and change his Secretary of State's mind on China.