Saturday, January 12, 2013

Seinfeld Was Wrong; I Was Interested

Despite his prediction at the beginning, I was interested in this interview Jerry Seinfeld gave to The New York Times. I've always found his bits funny, but confession time: I've never watched a single episode of the Seinfeld sitcom.

Despite his prediction at the beginning, I was interested in this interview Jerry Seinfeld gave to The New York Times. I've always found his bits funny, but confession time: I've never watched a single episode of the Seinfeld sitcom.

He's right about how intimidating a computer cursor is. The cursor taunts any writer: "Whaddya gonna say now, Big Shot?" "Hey. Mr. or Ms. Communicator, there's a deadline approaching!"

That's a feeling I get every week when, after studying and praying desperately, I start to write a sermon.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if the term "cursor" isn't a non-sexual double entendre invented by the IT department to taunt right brain creative types. The cursor says, "Curse you, Mr. Smarty Pants!"

But writers felt the fear of emptiness where words should be long before computers or cursors. Ernest Hemingway, a writer known for his physically adventurous life style, was once asked the most frightening thing he'd ever come up against. He said, "A blank piece of paper."

Exactly how I felt back when I wrote my sermons out long hand. Cursors!

[Kudos to Michael Hyatt for linking to this video!]

Friday, January 11, 2013

"Can You Limit Your Sitting and Sleeping to Just 23-1/2 Hours a Day?"

That's the question Dr. Mike Evans asks at the end of this 9-1/2 minute video which, in a compelling, fun, and content-rich format, gives us all plenty of "food" for thought. And it may incite us to get off our duffs to walk for a half-hour a day.

Watching the video is required for members of the insurance plan to which clergy who wish to get some health discounts. (Good idea, huh?)

But I'd have watched the video anyway.

Watch it yourself: It really could change your life!

Why People Get Angry with God...and What We Should Do About It

People who believe in God sometimes get angry with God.

Exhibit A for this truth is a man whose story is told in the Old Testament portion of the Bible, Job. Job was a man whose faith even God bragged about. But when God allows a series of tragedies to happen to Job, Job gets mad at God.

Even in his anger with God though (and despite the stupid words of condemnation of Job gets from "friends," who think they're defending God), Job never stops believing in God.

If you believe in God or want to believe in God and you feel anger toward God, it's silly to not express that emotion to God.

That's because God knows what you're feeling and thinking already. Psalm 139:2-4 says: "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways." God knows about your anger.

But why do we get mad at God?

Recently, my wife and I read How to Get Along with Almost Anyone by counseling therapist and college professor H. Norman Wright. He showed that one of the biggest reasons we human beings get angry at other human beings can be summed up in two words: Disappointed expectations.

It's true.

An employee expects a Christmas bonus never promised and it doesn't materialize.

A wife expects her husband's enthusiasm for her newest promotion at work even though they had never decided together that this would be a great move for their family.

Charlie Brown expects candy when he goes begging on Halloween night...and all he gets is a rock.

Sometimes our anger with others is warranted. But not if the person with whom we're angry doesn't share our expectations. When the other person hasn't promised what we expect of them, we've got no right to be mad at them!

So, what does this have to do with anger with God?

Just this: Sometimes our anger with God is based on the wrong expectations of a relationship with God. We misunderstand what benefits accrue to those who believe in God. That's why Job said accusingly to God, " destroy the hope of mortals. You prevail forever against them, and they pass away; you change their countenance, and send them away..." (Job 14:19-20).

Job seems to think that life is a kind meritocracy, that if a person worships and is faithful to God, works hard and plays by the rules, he or she will merit a smooth life.

But God never promises smooth lives to those who trust in Him.

When God came to the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, He said, "[God] makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).

Faith in God doesn't give the faithful exemptions from the bad things that happen in this imperfect world.

The person who trusts in the God revealed to the whole world in Jesus Christ can expect that God will give them the forgiveness of their sins, the power of the Holy Spirit in making decisions in their lives, the certainty of a life untouched by tragedy after we, like Jesus, experience death and resurrection, and the unshakeable presence of God with us until this world no longer exists.

But faith in God isn't a rabbit's foot that makes the hard and inexplicable stuff of life go away.

Jesus warned His followers that they would even be persecuted for believing in Him. "In the world you will face persecution," He says, "But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (John 16:33).

We can expect an eternity of blessings from God. Those blessings begin in this world.

But sometimes we get angry with God because we have unfair expectations; we expect God to fulfill promises God has never made.

I hope that the reasons I have written this piece are obvious.

But, let's be clear: There are two reasons I have not had in writing this post.

1. I haven't written this post to impose guilt on people who may be feeling angry with God or to tell them to, "Snap out of it!" That's definitely not my goal.

I do ask you to take some time looking at the sources of your anger with God.

Then, spend some time getting to know God better.

The normative word from God and about God is the Bible. That's a great place to go to understand a bit better what the Creator of the universe and you can expect of one another when you follow Him. (For five tips on reading the Bible, go here.)

2. I haven't written this post for readers to send this link to friends whose griefs and anger with God are fresh as if to tell them, "Get over it!"

If you have a friend who's angry with God right now, the best thing for you to do is the opposite of what Job's friends did:
  • Listen to them. 
  • Let them articulate their feelings. 
  • Don't try to explain things you can't explain. 
  • Pray for your friend and pray for the moment when the freshness of their anger will have subsided enough that they'll be ready to talk things out with a friend--maybe you.

Remember, no one gets angry with a God in Whom they don't at least want to believe. God isn't afraid of believers' anger toward Him. You shouldn't be either.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Review: 'Night Flight' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Just finished reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1942 novel, Night Flight, a gnarled paperback copy of which I picked up for a buck at Half Price Books some months ago.

The author, of course, is best known for writing The Little Prince, a book I've never read.

For someone as prosaic as I am, Saint-Exupéry's style can at times be infuriating. It isn't that his style is florid. Nor is he wordy; Night Flight only runs to 128 pages. It's that he uses lots of metaphors. Sentence after sentence they come marching at you until, after about two pages, you almost feel you're drowning in them.

Truth is, I became so fed up with Saint-Exupéry's style in the early going that I nearly threw Night Flight into the Half Price sell pile.

But after a while, I got used to his writing and even came to enjoy the word pictures Saint-Exupéry painted.

The plot is taut and engaging.

Night Flight, set probably in the 1930s, is the story of French aviation pioneers who introduce airmail service in South America, circulating not only there, but also carrying mail to and from Europe.

It's less a novel than it is a short story, tightly focused on a few characters, particularly the psychological drama playing out, on a night of dangerous storms, in the mind and will of the man in charge of the mail service.

Saint-Exupéry, himself an aviation pioneer, portrays the dangers and challenges--physical and psychological--the pioneers in any field are likely to face.

The book's vivid portrayal of these dangers is its greatest attribute. Its greatest deficiency, to me, is its inherent nihilism and anthropocentric narcissism. Saint-Exupéry seems to have believed in a life without God or much purpose apart from whatever purpose human beings choose to impose on it.

As I read Night Flight, I was struck constantly by the fact that Saint-Exupéry himself, died on a reconnaissance mission for the Free French during World War II.

If you can find this book in the library or at Half Price for a buck, it could be worth the time you spend on reading it. Some of the metaphors are stunning.

5 Thoughts on Prayer for the New Year

The beginning of a new year is often a time when people resolve to have a more active prayer life. But through the years, I've seen people who make this resolution with sincerity find it tough to pursue. So, here are a few thoughts on prayer to help you have a fulfilling prayer life.

1. Remember that prayer is a lot simpler than you may think. "What should I say?" people have asked me.

Jesus says that He calls those who follow Him and obey Him by trusting in Him for their salvation are His friends (John 15:5; John 6:29).

So, ask yourself, "How do I talk with my friends?" Before you get together with your friends, do you sit down and put together an agenda?

Formal, public prayer may sometimes require more forethought and planning. But if the God made known to all the world in Jesus Christ is your friend, just talk with Him.

2. Remember that prayer is a lot more complicated than you may think.

I love something C.S. Lewis writes in his classic, Mere Christianity:
An ordinary Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get in touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him [God the Holy Spirit, Who comes to us in Holy Baptism]. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God--that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying--the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on--the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being [the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. 
Every prayer we offer is an instance of God empowering us to militate against our inborn impulse to self-sufficiency and self-will. And that is a complicated miracle of grace. Never lose your wonder at that!

3. Remember that it's likely your most genuine, authentic praying will happen when you are so overwhelmed by your circumstances that you don't know what to pray

The Bible teaches that God's power is brought to bear perfectly in our lives when we are strong enough to admit our vulnerability and weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This is why Ole Hallesby, a great Lutheran pastor and teacher of the last century, said that there are two elements that must be present in order for prayer to actually be prayer:
  • faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ and 
  • helplessness, the realization that only God and not we ourselves can make happen the things for which we pray.
Don't put off praying if life has you so overwhelmed that you don't know what to say to God! Romans 8:26 in the New Testament says:
...we do not know how to pray as we ought, but...[the Holy] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words...
Go to God. God will take care of the rest.

4. Nothing you pray about, no request you make, is stupid.

As you continue to submit to God, He may show you through His Word, the Bible, and through counsel consistent with the Bible that you hear or learn in other ways, that some of your requests as ill-advised or even contrary to the will of God.

But never be afraid to speak your mind and heart to God!

Someone, Bill Hybels among others, has said that, as Jesus promises, God always answers prayer offered in Jesus' Name. But God may answer our prayers in four different ways:
  • God may say, "No"
  • God may say, "Maybe"
  • God may say, "Wait"
  • God may say, "Yes"
Maturity as a Christian is, in some ways, measured by the grace with which we accept God's answers to our prayers. Our spiritual maturity is maybe most challenged when God says, "Yes" to our prayers. (More on that some other time.)

5. It's good to keep God's priorities for prayer in mind. When God in the flesh, Jesus, was asked by His disciples how to pray, He gave as a model what we call, "the Lord's Prayer" or the "Our Father."

The prayer is divisible into sections and prayer petitions, as Martin Luther does in The Small Catechism:
  • The introduction: Our Father, Who art in heaven
  • The first petition: Hallowed be Thy Name
  • The second petition: Thy kingdom come
  • The third petition: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
  • The fourth petition: Give us this day our daily bread
  • The fifth petition: And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
  • The sixth petition: And lead us not into temptation
  • The seventh petition: But deliver us from evil
  • The conclusion (added by the Church, based on Scripture): For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen
Among the sins from which Jesus came to free those who believe in Him is the tyranny of self. He wants to free us from our penchant for allowing our own sin-tinged desires and inherent selfishness to dictate what we ask from God.

The Lord's Prayer represents a way we can ask God to move us away from selfishness to holiness in our praying.

The introduction and the first three petitions are all about God's Name and will being honored by the world and us. It isn't until the fourth petition that Jesus teaches us to pray for something for ourselves and even then, He doesn't tell us to pray for a iPad or a Mercedes-Benz, but what we need this day to live.

Seeking to have our prayer lives reflect the kind of concern for God and for others that Jesus models in the Lord's Prayer is a good goal.

I'm still working on that myself and, because I'm a sinner saved only by the grace God grants to those who surrender to Jesus, I no doubt will have to continue working on it until the moment I draw my last breath on earth.But some goals are worth pursuing no matter how outrageous the odds!

"Fully Equipped"


Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Three-in-One God (Augsburg Confession, Part 1)

To begin this morning, a personal word. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would have no joy in this life and no hope for eternity were it not for the witness of Lutheran Christianity.

Baptized in an evangelical Friends church, confirmed in a United Methodist congregation, I know that I had many times heard the good news--the gospel--of Jesus Christ, that God so loved the world that He sent Jesus to die and rise so that all who turn from sin and believe in Him will have life with God for eternity. But the message never took with me and following a decade of youthful atheism, it was only after I’d heard and experienced the Lutheran understanding of the Gospel that I could say with firm and informed conviction, “I believe in God the Father...I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord...I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

So, the Lutheran witness for Christ is more precious to me than I can ever explain.

But what is a Lutheran?

It has never been more important for Lutherans to know the answer to that question than it is today.

There’s a rising tide of ignorance about God in today’s world. Ignorance about God comes in two forms. People can be ignorant because they choose to ignore God’s revealed truth or people can be ignorant because they simply don’t know.

This latter form of ignorance is the sadder because it means that no informed, loving person with faith in Christ has ever shared the message of Christ with them. Christians must be prepared always, in the words of 1 Peter 3:15, “to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”

Jesus says, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” If we have a scintilla of compassion for other human beings, we must know what we believe and why and be prepared to lovingly and respectfully share our belief.

But what does this have to do with being a specifically Lutheran Christian? Aren’t there other Christian churches?

Yes, there are other Christian churches and Lutherans have never been so arrogant as to say that we’re the only ones who have Biblical Christianity right.

But as we will see during the Sundays to come, Lutheran Christians have a particular understanding of Biblical Christian faith. Historically we have said, paraphrasing Martin Luther, “This is what we believe. But if you can show us by Scripture and plain reason based on Scripture that we are wrong, we will lay down our Lutheran confessions of faith and admit that we were wrong.” Otherwise our stance is, “Here we stand.”

We take our stand because the movement that began when that young monk Luther posted 95 theses on a church door on October 31, 1517, isn’t about petty, unimportant issues. It’s about life and death and eternity issues.

Get these issues wrong and there will be many people living without the joy that comes from having Christ in your life every day. Get these issues wrong and millions of people who might otherwise be reconciled to God through Christ will be separated from God for eternity. And these things will happen not because other Christian denominations and traditions aren't sharing the Gospel, but because there are lots of people like me in whom the Gospel never would have made a connection apart from the unique Lutheran witness for Christ.

That’s why what we’re about in the Church--trusting in, following, and sharing Jesus Christ--should be the most important thing in your life, whatever your job, whatever your station!

It’s especially important for us to know what it means to be Lutheran Christians today because, sadly, many in our own denomination seem intent on turning their backs on confessional Lutheran Christianity and taking us with them. We can’t let that happen!

The structure around which these sermons will be built is The Augsburg Confession. Christians, especially Lutheran Christians, have always been in the explaining business. We try to explain God to the outside world. We try to explain God to ourselves. We do that not because we think the Bible is deficient. The Bible is the inspired Word of God. And it conveys all the truth about God that a person needs to believe and live out faith in Jesus Christ.

But what do we believe about the Bible?

How do we understand what God is telling us in the histories, hymns, wisdom sayings, prophecies, apocalyptic visions, and teachings that make up the Bible?

And how do we then explain what we have come to understand of these things?

That’s where the Augsburg Confession comes in. You can, if you want, read the background of the confession that you’ll find in the front section of the tan and brown editions that are in all the pew racks this morning. The Augsburg Confession was written by Philipp Melanchthon in 1530 to explain what members of the evangelical movement (the good news movement), later called Lutherans, believed.

Lutherans have always included the Augsburg Confession in its Book of Concord, a set of statements of Christian faith that summarize what we Lutherans believe about the God of the Bible. In the constitutions of the ELCA, the Southern Ohio Synod, and Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, we say the same. There’s no better place to find the answer to the question, “What is a Lutheran Christian?” than to look to the Augsburg Confession.

Now, I had a road map all laid out for this series. I was going to cram all twenty-eight articles of the Augsburg Confession into ten weeks of preaching. But as I banged my head against the wall on this sermon the other day, I told Ann, “If I introduce the Confession and talk about two of its articles, I’ll end up with a fifty-page sermon.” “Then, slow it down,” she said. “Nobody cares if you take ten sermons or fifty, just as long as each one of them helps us in our faith.” I hate it when the Holy Spirit tells Ann what I should do! So, we’re going to slow things down. Understanding what it means to be a Lutheran Christian warrants taking things slow.

Please turn to page 11 in The Augsburg Confession and look at Article 1, God. It starts our: “Our churches [that is, our Lutheran churches] teach with common consent that the decree of the council of Nicaea [the council held in the 4th century in the Turkish city of Nicaea that produced the Nicene Creed] the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true. It is to be believed without any doubt. God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness. He is the maker and preserver of all things, visible and invisible...Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...These three persons are of the same essence and power...” 

So, like other Christians, we Lutherans believe that there is one God in three Persons Who is Lord of all creation. The word Trinity, which describes this truth about God, never appears in the Bible. But the word trinity is a bag in which Biblical truth is carried. It’s just a shorthand way of describing what the Bible reveals to us about God. But where does the Bible tell us that God is one God in three persons?

Let’s start at the beginning. Turn to Genesis 1:26. God, the sole creator of the universe, says: “‘Let Us make man in our image, according to Our likeness...” Question: Who is God talking to? There is only one Creator of the universe and He’s talking to at least one other person about creating. This is our first indication that the one God Who creates is more than one person.

Flash forward to Genesis 18:1. Abraham and Sarah have been waiting many years for God to fulfill His promise of giving them a son through whom God would make them the parents of nations. “Then the Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.” The Lord--a translation of God’s Name, Yahweh, which means I AM--appeared to Abraham. “So [Abraham] lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him...” It would appear that when God showed up to meet Abraham face to face, Abraham saw God as three persons.

Now flash forward again, some 2100 years after the death of Abraham, to Jesus to learn more about this mystery. Look at John 8:58. Jesus tells a group questioning His authority: “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus is staking His claim that He is Yahweh, God. Yet this same Jesus also prays to God the Father, a hint that God can be three and yet also one.

Take a look at another passage, Matthew 28:19. Jesus knew and believed the words of Moses from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God [Yahweh your God], the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). He knew too that worship given to anyone other than God is idolatry, a violation of the first commandment. Yet, Jesus allowed people to worship Him. And, after rising from the dead, just before ascending to heaven, Jesus gives this commission to His Church: “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...”

Jesus puts both Himself and the Holy Spirit on the same level as God the Father. Anyone who would do this could rightly be regarded either as a horrible liar or a madman. Yet we know that Jesus was neither madman nor liar. The Bible teaches and Lutheran believe that there is one God in three persons.

So, we come to this familiar question: What does this mean?

Maybe the most important thing about the Trinity for us is that God, within the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, had all the fulfillment, love, and relationship any living being could want. God didn’t need to make the world. God didn’t need to make us. And God didn’t need all the grief and heartache we have caused Him by our rejection of Him and the hurt we cause to other people who, just like us, are made in the image of God. God doesn’t need to do any of these things. He doesn’t really need anybody else.

But God chose to give us life. God chose to become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, to bear our sins on a cross, to die taking the execution for sin we deserve, then rose from the dead to tear open eternity to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

God chooses to this day to give new life to all who trust in Christ.

God is filled with love!

His willingness to step outside of the sure comforts of perfect relationship He enjoys within the Trinity to reach out to us shows us just how loving this God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--truly is.

And that’s more than enough of God’s Word for us to know and soak up today...or any day, for that matter. Amen

[This was prepared to be shared during both worship services with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]