Saturday, November 05, 2011

A Confession

I have no religion; I'm a follower of Christ. (And I fail many times along the way.)

It's Harder to Believe Than Not To (Reflections of a Former Atheist)

I've been an atheist. Since 1976, I've been a Christian.

I can tell you that living a life of faith in a God of total love and absolute power while continuing to live in a fallen world in which bad, senseless things happen to faithful people is far more difficult than going through this life as an atheist.

As an atheist, I had no expectations of God’s deliverance, ascribed no meaning to existence, and was not offended, except insofar as they created nuisances for me, when bad things came my way. In an uncreated world in which there is no good Creator or need for redemption, there is no reason to get riled up over what seems unfair or wrong. There are fewer things to explain and fewer unanswered questions when you're an atheist. It's a far simpler, even simplistic, way of life.

As musician, filmmaker, and satirist Steve Taylor once observed, "It's harder to believe than not to."

But whatever difficulties belief in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ may present, I would rather live and die with Christ than live or die without Him.

Like the apostle Peter, after Jesus had asked him and his fellow disciples if, like others, they would like to abandon him, I have to say, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68).

My life has been interesting lately.

I had a heart attack that destroyed 40% of my heart in June, 2010. A stent was implanted shortly thereafter.

Just before I received a pacemaker and defibrillator on October 13, less than a month ago, a small mole was removed from my leg which turned out to contain melanoma cancer cells. The dermatologist is confident that he removed all of the cancer, but I'll undergo an outpatient procedure to remove tissue from the surrounding area in December.

These experiences are mere bumps in the road compared to what many people experience in life. I have no complaints.

But I can tell you that I have been sustained by Jesus Christ and by the prayers of other believers in the past year or so.

I have become even more convinced of the love and power--and the ultimate lordship over all things in heaven and on earth--of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Christ is with me and I am promised that when I die, as a repentant believer in Jesus, I will be with Christ for all eternity.

How could I be anything but hopeful when I know those things to be true, even when life gets tough?

I pray that every day, God will help me to make the prayer of Saint Paul, who suffered so much not in spite of, but precisely because, he followed Jesus, my very own:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)
It is harder to believe than not to.

But those who believe in Jesus are blessed with a certainty about their futures that gives us the freedom to love our neighbors, to choose the path of joyful service, to shake off unkindness from others, to work for justice, and to walk humbly with our God. You really can't deter or bring ultimate discouragement to people who know they're going to live forever.

I have found that, in spite of everything, while it may be better, it's still better to believe than not to.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Parents: Let Your Kids See Your Dependence on Jesus

"Christianity is mentored, not learned." (John Schroeder)

The simple truth John points to here is why the charge we Lutherans give to parents of children being baptized is more than just a collection of words:
In Christian love, you have presented this child for Holy Baptism. You should, therefore, faithfully bring her to the services of God’s house, and teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. As she grows in years, you should place in her hands the Holy Scriptures and provide for her instruction in the Christian faith, that, living in the covenant of her Baptism and in communion with the Church, she may lead a godly life until the day of Jesus Christ.
Later in the same service, we pray for the parents of newly baptized children:
O God, the giver of all life, look with kindness upon the father and mother of this child. Let them ever rejoice in the gift You have given them. Make them teachers and examples of righteousness for their children. Strengthen them in their own Baptism so they may share eternally with their children the salvation you have given them, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Parents have two jobs:
  • To prepare their children for adulthood.
  • To prepare their children for eternity by letting them know the One Who opens eternity to all who believe in Him, Jesus the Christ.
Providing for their children's instruction in the faith is only part of what's involved in that second job. The most important part is in living your own faith in Christ--humbly, without pretending to be perfect, letting your kids see that you face life and eternity not in your own strength, but in the strength God provides to believers in Jesus.

Another way to say what my friend John Schroeder says about Christian faith is mentored, not learned, is that Christianity is more caught than taught.

Parents: Let your kids catch your authentic dependence on Jesus. That authenticity will make all the difference for them both in their adult years and in eternity.

"When Is It Time to Fight?"

Thoughts from my friend, Steve Sjogren.

The One People of God

Christians who are called supersessionists believe that the Gentile believers of Jesus in the Church have superseded the Jews as the people of God.

But that's not what the New Testament teaches.

It says that all--Jew and Gentile--are called to repent and believe in God's ultimate self-disclosure, the Messiah, Jesus and all be part of God's one people. Joseph L. Mangina gets at this in his very fine commentary on Revelation 7:
It is the unanimous witness of the New Testament that the church is Israel (e.g., Galatians 6:16; 1 Corinthians 10; Ephesians 2:12, 19; 3:6; 1 Peter 2:9-10), the same elected and beloved people of God who were delivered from Egypt, though now under the conditions of the messianic age and with the addition of the Gentiles to Abraham's children after the flesh.
Read all the linked passages above to see the basis of Mangina's argument.

As Paul, a Jew who believed in Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God's plans for the humanity, as the Messiah, and as God-enfleshed writes, that beginning with Israel's patriarch-founder Abraham, righteousness--that is, a right relationship with God--has always been a matter of faith and not of ethnicity, lineage, or the performance of religious duties:
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise void...For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who the faith of the presence of the God in Whom he believed, Who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist... (Romans 4:13-17)
Revelation 7:9-17 is one of the Biblical texts for All Saints' Sunday, coming up this weekend.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

God Ain't Too Proud to Beg

I know you wanna leave me,
But I refuse to let you go
If I have to beg and plead for your sympathy,
I don't mind coz' you mean that much to me

Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darlin
Please don't leave me girl, don't you go
Ain't to proud to plead, baby, baby
Please don't leave me, girl, don't you go

Those words from the Temptations song, Ain't Too Proud to Beg, crossed my mind while reading Jeremiah 44:4, this past week.

Jeremiah was an Old Testament prophet who lived in the early seventh- and late-sixth centuries BC. God gave him a series of prophetic messages not only to God's people in Judah (the southern portion of what had once been a larger Israel) and to neighboring nations. Through Jeremiah, God called all to repent. But nobody listened.

In Jeremiah 44, God uses Jeremiah to recount His people's sorry history of trying to find life in dead things like false deities, foreign alliances, economic power, injustice toward foreigners and the powerless, and child sacrifice. God says, "...I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, 'I beg you not to do this abominable thing that I hate!'"

God begged!

Is that unseemly behavior for the God of the universe?

To beg people to whom He had given everything--life, blessings, a land--as free gifts to beg the people to trust in Him alone, not for His ego, but for their good to turn from their persistent sin and to know life, whole and pure, again?

Eventually, of course, time ran out on Judah, and God let the Babylonians overtake the promised land, turning God's people into refugees or slaves. (But even after that, He promised restoration to all who will turn from sin and believe in Him.)

But God, it would seem, still does this begging thing. In Luke 15, in the New Testament, God in the flesh, Jesus, tells the story of the prodigal son. Throughout the whole story, the father, Jesus' parabolic representation of God the Father, does all sorts of unseemly (some would say unmanly, unfatherly) things.

First, the father violates cultural norms by giving inheritances to both his oldest and his youngest sons. Neither boy earns their estates, mind you, but in those days, a younger son could have expected nothing. The old man is a softie though and, on demand, gives the young boy his inheritance.

Second, after the younger son wastes every gift he's given and fallen into poverty and dishonor (feeding pigs and envying their menu), he heads back home to ask his dad for a job alongside the servants. Instead, showing what would have been seen as unseemly compassion, the father runs to the boy when he sees him approaching the estate, and wraps his arms around him in forgiveness and acceptance before the boy can utter a word of repentance.

With the younger son returned, the father throws a party, Jesus' parabolic representation of the kingdom of God to which all people are invited through Him. The older boy, offended by the charity and forgiveness that the father was showing the younger son, refuses to join the party. (He apparently was too good for the kingdom of God.) Jesus says the father came out of the house to plead with the older son to come and join the party.

Sin, which is separation from God, can take many forms.

It can be seen in the kind of idolatry and injustice exhibited by God's people in Jeremiah's time.

It can look like the hedonism seen in the younger son of Jesus' parable.

It can look like the stuck-up, holier-than-thou priggishness of the older son.

But whatever the form of our sin, God ain't too proud to beg us to return to Him.

There will come times--in this world, maybe, and in the age to come, for certain--when God will allow those who refuse His begging love and forgiveness, to live with the consequences of their decisions to go it alone without God.

Like a jilted lover, God told the people of Israel through Jeremiah that they had broken the covenant He had with them, "though I was their husband" (Jeremiah 31:32). But He spent years begging His people to return and remains faithful to them and to the whole human race to this day.

God is begging us now to return to Him. Through Jesus Christ, God has made Himself known to us all and wants us to be part of His eternal party.

He's begging because, paraphrasing the message of the Bible in the words the Temptations could have sung, "you mean that much to Him."

[The prophet Jeremiah by Marc Chagall. Click to enlarge.]

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Martin Luther and the Need for Reformation Today!

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning. We celebrated Reformation Sunday.]

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

He was born in November 1483, in the German principality of Saxony. His name was Martin Luther. From an early age, he exhibited intelligence and many talents. As time passed, he would become a great preacher, a theologian, and a musician.

These pursuits were far from his father’s intentions for young Martin. Hans Luther wanted the boy to become a lawyer.

That was the trajectory on which Martin’s life was moving until a shattering experience intervened. He was going back to the university he attended when a thunderstorm arose. A lightning bolt knocked Luther to the ground. Understandably terrified, Martin cried out to the patron saint of miners. “Saint Ann,” he said, “save me; I will become a monk.”

Luther was mistaken, of course, to trust in a saint instead of God. As one of our Read the Bible in a Year passages from last week, Jeremiah 17:7 puts it, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”

But who knows? If Luther hadn’t gone to a monastery, you and I, the beneficiaries of his rediscovery of Biblical truths that had been buried beneath traditions and power plays, might not be here this morning.

Nonetheless the new monk Luther was a disturbed young man. He saw himself as completely guilty and hopelessly condemned to an eternity in hell. He couldn’t imagine that God would ever forgive him. He was a mess!

Believing that a fully occupied life would crowd out Luther’s worries though, his superiors decided that Luther should study to become a doctor of theology. He would then teach at a new university being started in the Saxon town of Wittenberg.

At first, the new regimen of work, which included administering fourteen monasteries, pastoring a local church, and teaching at the new university, did nothing to change Luther’s loathing of God and  himself.

But then, something happened to change Luther’s life--and history itself.

Like most seminarians and priests of his day, Luther had never studied Scripture. He did so now, as he prepared for the classes he was teaching. In the Bible, Luther found a God quite different from the one often preached in the Church of his day. He saw a God of grace and love...
  • Who reaches out to His children, 
  • Who charitably understands their fallen humanity, 
  • Who forgives and empowers right living, and promises eternity to all with faith in Him. 
Luther saw a God:
  • Who hates sin while loving sinners,
  • Who lovingly calls all to repent for their sin and believe in His Son, Jesus.

Luther’s new understanding of God crystallized as he studied two verses in the New Testament book of Romans. Please pull out the pew Bibles and turn to page 648 to read them, Romans 1:16-17. They say:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel [that means, the Good News about how God sent His Son Jesus to die and rise so that all who believe in Him will not be eternally separated from God in hell, but live with God eternally], for it [the Gospel] is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it [that is, in the Gospel’s message about Jesus] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written [and this comes from the Old Testament book of Habakkuk]: "The just shall live by faith."
Luther saw that righteousness is not some goodness owned by super-saints. Righteousness is having a right relationship with God.

Through Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, Christ gives righteousness to all who turn from sin and believe in Him. Christ does all this as a free gift.

The Bible calls this gift, along with all of God’s other undeserved blessings, grace.

Ephesians sums up the truth that changes the lives of followers in Jesus for eternity when it says, “by grace you have been saved through faith…”

As Luther grew in the confidence he had in the new life given to him by Christ, he grew bolder in sharing what he had learned from the Bible. On October 31, 1517, he posted 95 theses--or propositions for debate—on the church door in Wittenberg.

Luther’s theses challenged a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The Church then taught that there was a place called “purgatory,” a sort of holding room that the dead supposedly went to between death and eternity. Purgatory was supposed to be a place where people were purified for entry into heaven. Purgatory was purely a human invention. To raise money, the Church often authorized the mass sale of pieces of paper called indulgences. Indulgences allowed people to buy hundreds or thousands of years out of purgatory for loved ones or even themselves. (Depending on how much a person wanted to or could spend.) Luther was offended by this practice. It turned God's gift of grace for all who trust in Christ into a commodity to be bought and sold by human beings.

When Luther’s preaching and teaching against indulgences impacted the bottom line on their sale, the Church went after him. At a gathering in the German city of Wurms, before the emperor, Luther was ordered to recant, or repudiate, all of his writings. He refused. Ultimately, he came under what was known as an “imperial ban,” meaning that anyone who saw Luther was authorized to kill him on sight.  Luther was labeled a heretic, a perverter of the Christian faith.

But Luther and those who came to agree with him remained steadfast in proclaiming the God we see in Jesus Christ, the God of grace and God of glory. Among Luther’s last words were, “We are all beggars,” an acknowledgement that none of us is better or more important than others in God's eyes and that all with faith in Christ are the recipients of God’s charitable gifts: forgiveness and new life. We cannot earn them, but thank God, He loves to give them to those humble enough to surrender to Christ! These are the central truths of God’s Word, the Bible.

Luther died in 1546.

We celebrate October 31 each year as Reformation Day because on All Saints Eve, Hallowed Evening or, as we call it, Hallowe'en, in 1517, Luther’s 95 Theses began a major reformation of the Church.

That reform movement goes on to this day.

We celebrate the Sunday closest to October 31 each year as Reformation Sunday.

I’m convinced that if Martin Luther were a pastor of our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) today, there would be some things he would celebrate. But I'm equally sure that he would also be agitating for reform within the ELCA and would be unpopular among many.

On one hand, Luther, who believed that the Bible contains God’s authoritative Word and was willing always to be shown what the truth is by Scripture and plain reason, would be delighted that, in accordance with the Scriptures, we ELCA Lutherans see women and men as equals and that women called by God are ordained as pastors among us.

But I’m sure that Luther would also look at Called to Common Mission, the agreement struck between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church-USA in 1999, and be appalled that people who call themselves Lutherans have accepted the belief that the words and actions of bishops—mere human beings—have as much authority as the Word of God.

He would look at the legalistic system we have in selecting voting members to our synod and churchwide assemblies and ask why we have replaced attentiveness to God’s Word with a Pharisee-like insistence on quotas.

I’m also certain that Luther would look at the many ELCA bishops, pastors, and seminary professors who reject the Bible’s teachings on things like Jesus’ virgin birth, on Jesus’ miracles, on Jesus being truly God and truly human, and on Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead and ask, “Why do people of the Reformation tradition no longer accept the faith of the Bible and of the Lutheran Confessions?”

Clearly, the need for the movement to reform Christ’s Church that began when Martin Luther posted those 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, has not ended.

As long as there are people within and outside the Church who believe that they can construct lives from fortresses of their own designs and efforts, in which they make people and things other than Jesus Christ the foundations on which they build their lives and hope for eternity, the Reformation must continue.

We must keep singing and continue to strive to live for the truth Luther summarized in his greatest hymn, “A mighty fortress is our God!”

Martin Luther learned and then taught from God’s Word that our relationship with God and our freedom from sin and death come only from the God of the Bible, the God ultimately revealed to all the world in Jesus Christ.

These gifts—relationship with God, freedom from sin and death—come to us freely from a God Who is not subject to our human authority or our puny religiosity.

They come to us from Christ alone, Who shows us that God isn’t our enemy, but our very best friend, and worthy of all our glory, honor, praise, living, trust, hope, obedience, and surrender.

Keep the Reformation Luther began going!

Keep turning to God’s Word alone, to God’s Son Jesus alone, to salvation by grace through our faith in Christ alone! 

Then, pass the truth of grace alone, faith alone in Christ alone, and God’s Word alone as our guide in life, onto everyone you know. Amen!