Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you"

A great story from John H. Armstrong's Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church:
Some years ago, a friend shared a story about harsh attacks on Dr. Billy Graham in his early days of ministry. Many of these attacks came from former friends. His goal was to bless those Christians who attacked him. On one significant occasion, a major leader violated the work of Dr. Graham in a way that was particularly egregious. Dr. Graham hastily called a board meeting. He made it clear that there would be no counterattack. The board then prayed for the other minister and the issue was dropped.
May I learn the lesson of this story showing a faithful Christian applying Jesus' words in Luke 6:28:
"Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you."
The Armstrong book is an important one, the truths of which I have been soaking up for several months now.

Another Great Observation

This one from John H. Armstrong himself:
"I have...come to see that the primary mission of the church is not just to bring people into the visible church but to bring into the knowledge of Christ and his kingdom."

Great Quote

John H. Armstrong shares this from Abraham Kuyper:
"No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'"

Christians and Immigration Reform

Recently, I've been critical of the presiding bishop of the denomination to which I belong, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), for his rather specific lobbying of President Obama on the subject of immigration reform. (You can see the substance of my criticism here and here.)

None of this is to say that Christians shouldn't think--and think hard--about issues like immigration reform from the perspective of their faith.

Four years ago, I did a series of blog posts on How Christians Might Think About Immigration Reform. In it, I didn't present a point of view or an opinion, but a series of windows through which Christians might want to think and pray about this big issue. Since it has come back to the fore as an issue, here are the links to all four installments:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
I hope that you find these helpful.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Preacher, the Church, and Justice

The Christian preacher has a responsibility to speak for justice.

Pastor John Ortberg underscores this in a challenging article in the latest issue of Leadership Journal, Preaching Like the Prophets. There, he looks to the prophets of Old Testament times to show how important the quest for justice is for followers of the God Who revealed Himself to Israel and ultimately, in Jesus of Nazareth.

Writes Ortberg:
Events that horrified the prophets go on every day in our world, but we just get used to it--like you get used to wearing your watch. After awhile--we don't notice any more.

The prophets noticed. The prophets never got desensitized to sin. Injustice is sin. Justice is central to shalom.* We omit justice from our preaching at peril of our calling, and of our congregation's health and ability to see the reality around them.
Ortberg goes on to say that there are certain perils associated with preaching about justice, particularly in these times. "Our society has become so politicized," he points out, "that people often hear words like justice or life or the poor or compassion as code words for a partisan political allegiance in one direction or another." Also, he notes that preaching about justice can devolve into "self-righteous moralism" on the part of the preacher. But for all the perils it may entail, the preacher is still called to talk about justice as an outgrowth of Christian discipleship.

Most importantly maybe, Ortberg in this very good article, says that in preaching about justice, church leaders "will have to explain that the values embedded in the Bible do not necessarily have a straight-line translation into legislation." He writes:
For instance, all followers of Jesus are obligated to be concerned for the poor. But that does not mean that they should all be committed to passing a higher minimum wage law. Very bright economists disagree about whether such legislation actually results in helping the poor. As preachers, we do not further the cause of the authority of Scripture when we pretend to be experts over fields we have not mastered.

Justice is an important element of the Christian's relationship with Jesus Christ. This is something we acknowledge in our Lutheran tradition, among other times, on the occasion of Confirmation, or Affirmation of Baptism, when adolescents or adult converts who have been baptized and trained in the faith publicly affirm their intention of living as faithful followers of Jesus Christ in their daily lives. Toward the end of the rite for Affirmation of Baptism, each individual is addressed and challenged to do just that:
You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism: to live among God's faithful people, to hear His Word and share in His supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
The confirmand is then asked to respond with the words, "I do, and I ask God to help and guide me."

The message of the prophets was, in a nutshell, "Turn from sin, including injustice, and turn to God." None of them laid out specific political programs, recommended particular outlays of money to address specific issues, or commended particular laws. They trusted that if they shared God's Word, including the call and the command to seek justice, God would help the people see what they needed to do.

Today, preachers (and denominational groups) are called to preach justice and trust God to do the rest.

*Shalom is a Hebrew term. It means more than peace. It has the idea of our enjoyment of peace with God and all the good things--including justice and love--that flow from it in our relationships with others. Such peace begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ in which Jesus is our Lord, God, and Savior. As Paul writes in Romans 5:1, "...since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ..."

[UPDATE: Just today, Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA, released the text of a letter in which he got deep into the weeds of immigration reform, not my idea of what the bishop is best at or called to do.]

May We Learn to Blush Again

I like this devotional article for today from Our Daily Bread, based on Jeremiah 6:14-20. But, as may be inevitable for a piece so short, it really only scratches the surface of Jeremiah's message for ancient Judah, the southern portion of the by-then long-splintered Israel (chapters 1 to 45) and for the nations (chapters 46 to 52).

It isn't just the priests and religious leaders of Judah who are about to incur God's wrath as Jeremiah writes. It's all people who should know better. Of course, God presented these prophecies through Jeremiah in the hope that they would turn to "the ancient path," the path revealed explicitly in the Ten Commandments, which Jesus summarized in the Great Commandment: to love God completely and to love others as we love ourselves. Those commands convey God's will for all of our relationships, priorities, our speech, our view of others' property, and how we use the gift of sexuality, among other things.

In the people of ancient Judah, God saw a people who didn't know how to blush any more. They were a people who should have known better. They should have known what ways of life were "blush-worthy." But this remnant of God's people overlooked the ancient path--the pathway of love for God and neighbor--and decided that, instead, they knew better than God or God's revealed will.

The Church of today, in many ways, resembles ancient Judah. God has been revealed to us in grace and mercy through Jesus Christ and yet, we too, have decided, whether by practice or by overt statements of policy, that we know better than God. And, at the risk of the immortal souls of those who listen to us for a Word from God, we in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have recently arrogantly arrogated to ourselves the power to tell some that it's OK to do what their sinful orientation tells them to do. (See here and here.)

For many, these actions were just the "straws that broke the camel's back," the first official statements of what has appeared to be long march away from God's Word and will in the ELCA.

God help us! May we learn to blush again! May we turn to the ancient path and begin to live repentant lives.

We are all sinners. We all fall short of God's glory. And we all have orientations to different sins. I personally have sins for which I repent each and every day. But may we never feel comfortable with our sins. May we never so worship ourselves that we dare to call God wrong or out of touch.

We in the ELCA need to repent and return to the ancient path!

I'm just sayin'.
Here's Jeremiah 6:14-20, by the way:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” Also I raised up sentinels for you: “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” But they said, “We will not give heed.”
Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it. Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

'New Day'

That's the title of this original composition performed by my blogging friend, Alex Jordan. It's nice! I hope that he keeps performing his songs on Youtube.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"This world is not reserved for the perfect, the wealthy, or the athletic."

"Each person, no matter their physical, mental, or emotional condition, is created in the image of God...and is of equal value and significance." Read the whole thing!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Staying Rooted in the Basics

[This was prepared for worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Colossians 2:6-15
One of the best hitters in the history of Major League Baseball was Tony Gwynn, Sr. of the San Diego Padres. In a twenty year career, he got 3141 hits and compiled a .338 batting average, meaning that he got hits almost 34% of the time he was at bat. (The average major leaguer hits the ball just 25% of the time.) As the baseball people would say, “Tony Gwynn could flat-out hit.”

Of course, every major league batter tries to hit the ball and all would like to be able to do it as often as Tony Gwynn did during his career. So, why don’t they? Well, not everybody may be as talented as Tony Gwynn was, of course. But I think I learned the real reason for Gwynn’s success as a hitter during a game I watched in his last season. A commentator said that every single day, on top of team batting practice, Tony Gwynn watched video of his at bats from the days before. With bat in hand, he analyzed his swings, correcting what he had done wrong, and reminding himself of the right way to swing a baseball bat. In short, Tony Gwynn’s success as a major league hitter came down to this: He always went back to the basics. He realized that if he didn’t get the basics right and build on them, his whole game would go nowhere. So, before every one of his 2440 games, Tony Gwynn schooled himself on the basics of hitting. That’s how he became one of the greatest players of all time.

In a way, the New Testament letter to the first century Christian church in the Asia Minor town of Colossae was a call to get back to the basics of Christian faith. That’s because the apostle Paul and his assistant Timothy had gotten disturbing reports that the Christians there were starting to hear from people selling a fake Christianity. We don’t know exactly what it was these people were selling. But it seems that they were telling the Colossian church that Jesus and His cross were OK, but that to be truly acceptable to God, they also needed to keep the right diet, be circumcised if they were male, observe certain festivals, and maybe, worship angels, have visions, and, as Paul and Timothy put it, get “puffed up by a human way of thinking.”

These enemies of the Gospel were commending what Martin Luther once condemned as “Christ and” theology. Salvation, they claimed, came from “Christ and abiding by certain rules, by worshiping angels, or keeping special feast days.” In Jesus Christ, God has revealed that there is but one way to reconciliation with God, one way to freedom from sin and death, and one way to personal wholeness. That one way is through Jesus Christ and our faith in Christ alone. In the New Testament book of Acts, Peter and John said of Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” And Jesus Himself, after affirming that God had sent Him into the world so that all who believe (or trust) in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life, referred to Himself in the third person and said, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The most basic fact of Christian faith and of life itself is that life, true life, abundant life, life with God, comes from Jesus Christ alone. If we fail to root and build our lives on that reality, our lesson from Colossians tells us today, we risk veering away from God and from eternity with Christ as surely as a major leaguer risks veering off into mediocrity by failing to attend to the basics. “As you…have received Christ Jesus the Lord,” it says, “continue to live your lives in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Already, earlier in their letter, Paul and Timothy had taken great pains to remind the Colossian Christians of Who Jesus is and how all their hope for life, purpose, hope, and eternity reside in Him. In today’s lessons, those ideas are carried forward. Paul and Timothy say that, “in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” They say that Jesus “is the head of every ruler and authority.” And then they make a basic statement of Christian belief that, even though basic, is, at the same time, amazing. Please be patient here, close your eyes, and try to hear what they write with fresh ears. Listen:
In [Jesus] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.
Circumcision, of course, was the Jewish rite of initiation for male babies. At eight days old, they were circumcised, a piece of skin lopped from their bodies. Christians undergo a circumcision; at baptism, the old self is drowned so that the new self can live forever with Jesus Christ. Paul talks about that in the New Testament book of Romans when he says, “we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Luther talks about this same subject when, in The Small Catechism, he tells what Baptism means for daily life: “It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.”

So, as Paul and Timothy push the Colossian Christians to go back to the basics, they remind them of two important things. First, they focus on the amazing fact that in Baptism, Christ shares His cross and resurrection with us. In Baptism, our old selves die and our new selves rise to live with Jesus forever. That fact ought to have an impact on us! We ought to be in awe of it!

At the McConnell Center in Riverside Hospital a few weeks ago, I lay on the table where my cardiologist had just finished implanting a stent in my heart. “I hope that none of you ever lose the sense of awe at what you’re allowed to do in this procedure,” I told the doctor and the five assistants then in the room with us. “It’s incredible!”

What I was urging them to do relative to heart catheterization was to always remember the basic fact that, in this procedure, they were giving people new leases on their lives. I would probably be dead without it. That’s awesome!

But how much more awesome is it that the King of the universe, the Maker of all creation, has come into our world to be one of us, has died to erase sin’s power over us and risen to give new life to fallen humanity? Not just the cross and the empty tomb, but the baptismal font where we actually share in Christ’s victory over sin and death, ought to cause us in the words of the old spiritual, “tremble, tremble, tremble.” That’s the first thing that Paul and Timothy wanted the Colossian Christians to remember.

Here’s the second thing they wanted the Colossians to remember: The gift of life with God through Christ is free. But we keep it only by, as our lesson puts it, “holding fast to the head [that is, to Jesus, the King of the universe], from whom the whole body [that’s we in Christ’s Church].”

Holding fast to Christ means consciously, each day, lopping off any trust we might put in the world and its supposed wisdom, even if that alleged wisdom comes from pastors, bishops, and theologians with miles of letters after their names, and instead trusting in Christ alone.

I thank God that my parents had me baptized as an infant; there at the font, God made His commitment to me. But I can tell you that had I died when I was nineteen years old, a time when I denied God’s existence and turned my back on Christ, I would have gone to hell. Christ never tires of extending His hand to us, offering forgiveness and life to the repentant. But we, in turn, in the strength of the Holy Spirit must grasp that hand, trust in Him to the extent we’re able, and hold fast to the One Who shares His resurrection victory with us.

Tryg Skarsten was one of my professors at seminary. He once told about taking an extended flight, on which he was seated next to a friendly couple. They asked Tryg about his work and Tryg told them that he was a Lutheran pastor who taught at a seminary. “How about that?” the man said. “I was baptized in the Lutheran Church.” Tryg and the couple talked for a long time. As they did, it became evident to Tryg that this couple had no connection with Christ or the Church. He felt compelled to make them an offer, “You seem like wonderful people. I wonder if you would like to pray with me to invite Jesus Christ to be your Lord and Savior?” The man became incensed. “I told you I was baptized Lutheran, didn’t I?” What the Holy Spirit led Tryg to see though, was that while the man and his wife were baptized, they weren’t following Christ. God had done all through cross, tomb, and font, but they weren’t holding fast to Christ. That, say Paul and Timothy in today’s second lesson, is what we all need to do.

Mark’s Gospel quotes the risen Jesus as saying, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” In Baptism, the amazing love and grace of God in Christ comes to us. But the question each day puts before us—at work, at home, in our daily decisions—is whether we’re holding onto Christ. Are we believing in Him? Are we trusting in Him? All eternity hangs on our answer to that question and if we want to say, “Yes,” the God Who understands our weakness, will help us hold on tight to Jesus today and eternally. Amen!