Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie Banks Has Died

Ernie Banks, the great Chicago Cubs slugger, has died. It's impossible for baseball fans to talk about Banks without a smile: By all accounts, he was not just a Hall of Fame great, but a nice man.

So far as I know, Banks never gave out with any lamentations, but it's too bad that he played for the Cubs throughout his major league career and so, never got to the post-season.

Here are two interesting articles about Ernie Banks:

14 Remarkable Facts from Ernie Banks' Hall of Fame Career

Mr. Cub Ernie Banks dies at 83

A Mighty Fortress is Our God

This great hymn by Martin Luther (1483-1546), recounts the spiritual warfare to which every Christian who seeks to follow Christ faithfully is subjected, but also the confidence we can have in Jesus Christ. The Bible is a true and definitive witness to Christ's saving power. I love this hymn!

I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry by John Ylvisaker

This song has become a modern classic since it was composed and performed by John Ylvisaker for a project on Holy Baptism that John did with theologian Dick Jensen. John is a classically trained musician who spent time as a coffee house performer.

One of the most memorable days of my life was spent with John when he and I drove from Bowling Green, Ohio to the first parish I served as pastor, Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Okolona, Ohio. There, John led us musically through hymns and liturgies of his composition. People were so taken with them that, literally, they didn't want to leave the sanctuary, just stay and continue worshiping God.

I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry takes believers from the moment when God claims them in Holy Baptism to that moment after they've closed their eyes in death to be shown God's grand surprise, secured for all who believe in Christ, resurrection life eternal with God!

That surprise will include reunions with all believers of every time and every place.

The video is filled with pictures from John's and his family's life in Christ.

For Good (from 'Wicked')

You've Got a Friend by Carole King

Too Much Rain by Paul McCartney

Thursday, January 22, 2015

You Are My Only One by James Taylor

My son and I used to sing this song at the tops of our lungs when he was a boy. The harmonies are wonderful.

The song is so joyous. And plaintive. That makes sense. When you love and are loved, you feel joyous. And are anxious to always love and be loved.

The Causes of Addiction May Not Be What We Think

This article from The Huffington Post suggests that we may not know what causes addiction.

Three different colleagues posted links to it on Facebook today and when I read the piece this morning, for me it confirmed a basic truth of the Bible: We are made for relationship with God and with others, made for community. When community is distorted, we look for comfort where we can find it. That often leads to addiction.

One interesting section of the article:
If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right -- it's the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them -- then it's obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here's the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.
If the patient has been discharged into a loving family and to a life that gives options, it appears, she's less likely to be addicted to the drug than a person in whose life there are few close relationships or in which opportunities for happiness are few.

Difficult environments and relationships, not the allure of a drug's buzz, seem to be breeding grounds for addiction.

To me, the article suggests the importance of churches being strong communities in which faith in and relationship with Christ is both taught and lived.

It also suggests to me that some addictions, even those often seen as harmless, such as overeating, may be seen, and I think, should be seen, as symptomatic of a need for deeper relationships with God and others.

Addiction entails filling voids with stuff that can only be filled by community with God and with others. The call of the Church is to share Jesus so that the world can be free of its "stuff" forever!

Read the whole thing.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Stones Cry Out for linking to this post.]

The God Who Changes People

In Genesis 49, Jacob, one of the patriarchs of Biblical faith, is dying and pronounces blessings on each of his twelve sons. But his blessings on two of them, Joseph and Judah, are the most intriguing.

Joseph is one of the most interesting people in the Bible. Despite being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he, unlike any human being I can name from Genesis--except the mysterious Melchizedek--maintains his faith and his integrity throughout his life. Because of this, God uses Joseph, in the midst of adversity, to save His chosen people.

But then, there's Judah. Judah is the guy who, in Genesis 37, first suggested to the other brothers that they sell Joseph into slavery and be done with him. Joseph was his father's favorite and the siblings didn't like him at all.  Judah, then, could be seen as a bad guy. And he was sinner. Judah was Joseph's Judas, in a way.

On the other hand, it was Judah who, years later, offered to become a hostage in order to save the youngest brother, Benjamin. Judah seems to have submitted to the melting of his heart so that the one who once set in motion a scheme that would have, effectively, been a death sentence for one brother, offered to take a similar sentence for himself in order to save another brother. Judah was a sinner in whom something seems to have happened.

Judah had, by the grace of God, grown. He had changed.

The grace of God, God's undeserved forgiveness, help, and favor, which He today offers to all people through Jesus Christ, can do things like this to people. Second Corinthians 5:17, in the New Testament, says: "...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!"

So, did Judah "deserve" the blessing Jacob pronounced, which included that he would become the ancestor of Israel's kings, including the One conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Judah's line, Jesus, the King of kings? No. Judah didn't "deserve" that blessing, no matter how his life had been changed.

He deserved it no more than Joseph deserved greater blessings. Joseph hadn't deserved the pain in his life. He hadn't deserved its success either. Joseph had been "set apart" from his brothers by God, but could, at any time, have chosen to turn from God, making his life easier. But God graced him with the power to turn to God instead. That wasn't Joseph's doing any more than the blessings granted to Judah were his. It was all God.

We don't know what plans God has for our lives. And often--maybe usually--they are different from the ones we make for ourselves. Sometimes, the plans of God can be painful to us--just ask Joseph. Still, to follow God's plan, to turn to Him daily in repentance and belief in God the Son, Jesus, is the better path. Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we needn't fear. God will be with us.

A prayer: Change my heart, O God. Make it ever true. Change my heart, O God. May I be like you. In Jesus' Name. Amen [See here.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Prayer Begins with the Word, Includes Listening

"[In Martin] Luther's...treatise [on prayer] he tells us to build on our study of Scripture through meditation [of the Scripture], answering the Word of God in prayer to the Lord. As we do that, we should be aware that the Holy Spirit may begin 'preaching' to us. When that happens, we must drop our [prayer] routines and pay close attention." [Timothy Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.

Helping Others to See Jesus

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday, January 18.]

John 1:43-51
Let’s say that friends are visiting you at your house.  

You’ve just renovated your living room: new chairs, couch, end tables, lamps, entertainment center, furnishings. Sometime during their visit, your friends are going to ask you about your newly appointed living room. Where did you get the furniture, the paint, the carpeting? Did you have help? If so, who was the contractor? Did you have a decorator? 

And I’m sure that when you're asked these questions, you won’t say, “That’s personal. We don’t talk about our furnishings in public.” 

You’d be happy to answer their questions. When we have good things we want to share, we do it unstintingly.

We’re now in a season of the Church Year called Epiphany. The word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaino, meaning to show oneself, to appear. The Gospel lessons for the season of Epiphany are ones in which Jesus showed Himself to be God enfleshed, the Savior Who offers freedom from sin and death to all who will repent for sin and entrust their lives to Him alone.

Today, as in Biblical times, the true identity of Jesus can be shown to people sometimes in miraculous signs, sometimes in a lifetime of unquestioned belief, and sometimes in simple moments of quiet clarity when, as one person put it to me years ago, “You know what you know” about Jesus Christ. But however people come to believe in Jesus as their God and Savior, it always involves an epiphany or a series of epiphanies bringing a realization that Jesus is everything for which our restless souls have  longed

Today’s Gospel lesson recounts an epiphany in which Jesus revealed His identity to an honest skeptic named Nathanael. 

And it all happened when a friend of Nathanael’s talked about Jesus as freely and as easily as we might talk to friends about a newly renovated living room. 

You know the story well. But let’s look at it together this morning. Please go to our Gospel lesson, John 1:43-51 (page 740 in the sanctuary Bibles).

A little background: Three days before the incidents recounted in these verses, John the Baptist had told crowds thronging to him to repent for sin because the Messiah was coming. He said that he himself was such an imperfect sinner, he was unworthy to even do the slave’s work of untying the thongs of the Messiah's sandals. 

The next day, John saw Jesus and said, in John 1:29: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” 

The next day, John told two of his own followers, Andrew and John: “Look, the Lamb of God.” Here, John was, in effect, telling his two disciples, “I’m giving you to a new teacher, one infinitely greater than me. I must decrease and He must increase. He’s Savior you and I and all the world have been waiting for! Follow Him!"

We pick up what happens next in today’s lesson. Jesus has gone from the Jordan to His native region of Galilee. Philip is from Bethsaida, a fishing town on the lakeshore there. Jesus goes to Philip and says, “Follow Me.” Philip follows Jesus. 

We know from other places in Scripture that people who were open to Jesus saw that He was different. He taught, the crowds observed, like someone with authority, an underived power exuding from Him, and not like the religious leaders of those times. 

Philip sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of a King who would bring forgiveness and new life to His subjects that God had made through the law and the prophets in the preceding centuries. Philip sees that in Jesus, the lives of those who repent for sin and believe in Jesus as their God and King, are changed forever. 

Look, please, at verse 45. Philip hasn’t been to a Bible study class. He’s received no training as an evangelist. He hasn’t been to seminary. But he can’t contain himself! He clearly didn't see the coming of the Messiah as "a personal thing."  

So, Philip finds his friend, Nathanael and tells him: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 

Nathanael has an understandable question. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a pigsty of a village in the Galilean hills, composed of maybe 15 shacks where impoverished people eked out their livelihoods. 

Besides, Nathanael may have known what the law and the prophets had said of the Messiah as well as Philip: He was supposed to come from Bethlehem. Knowing nothing of the place where Jesus was born, Nathanael was skeptical.

We run into skepticism about Jesus all the time, especially in these days when most people know more about the stereotypes of Jesus palmed off by popular culture than they do about Jesus Himself, as seen in the witness of people who walked Judea with Jesus and recorded in the New Testament. 

This uninformed skepticism about Jesus is enough to make Christians want to run and hide when people ask what we believe about Jesus or why we bother with church. 

But Philip doesn’t run away from witnessing. He runs to it. 

He doesn’t become defensive. Neither should we. 

We should learn from Philip's response in verse 46: “Come and see.”

This is a great example for us as Christians who have been commissioned by Jesus Himself to “make disciples.” 

And this is no small matter! As I read the Bible, making disciples is the only job Christ has given to Christians and the Church. 

And the New Testament underscores this command to us repeatedly. 

In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus says: “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

In Mark 16:15-16, Jesus says: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” 

In Luke 24:46-48, the risen Jesus tells the dumbfounded disciples in Emmaus: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” 

In John 20:21-23, Jesus says: “‘...As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” 

And in Acts 1:8, Jesus says: “ will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 

Church: Sharing Jesus to make disciples is our only job.

This is a simple task. But often we Christians forget it or complicate it. 

John’s account of Philip’s three-word invitation to Nathanael should tell all who are part of the body of Christ to keep things simple! 

We in the Church are commissioned to simply speak and simply seek to lovingly live out God’s truth about human sin and about the forgiveness and hope offered to every single person on the planet through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Our only task is to let others, see Jesus for themselves so that they too can follow Jesus and have eternal life with God.
We see Philip going about this task in his approach of Nathanael as soon as he came to faith in Jesus. I saw it in an acquaintance of mine named Zack, when he went to his father. 

After Zack's mother died, his dad was inconsolable. Unlike Zack's mom, a faithful believer in Jesus, his dad had always been indifferent to God, almost scornful of the Church. 

Following his mother's death, Zack watched his father go into a tailspin of depression and, worse, self-destructive behavior. The man had no hope and he ricocheted between long periods of sleeping for hours on end and almost frenetic activity, anything to block out his pain and grief and utter hopelessness.

Zack finally approached his father. "Dad," he said, "do you remember how strong and joyful Mom was? It was because of her faith in Jesus, Dad. You need Jesus, too. If you'll trust in Him, you'll know that He's beside you, helping you get through these tough days. You'll also know that one day, not only will you see Jesus, but you'll see Mom again." 

Amazingly, Zack's Dad took his son's message to heart. He came to faith in Christ. 

When I met Zack's father some years later, he was a truly joyful follower of Jesus, deeply involved in his church. This once self-absorbed man spent many hours every week providing help to people without work, food, or shelter. He invited everyone he came to know to check out Jesus for themselves. 

It all happened because his son, like Philip in our Gospel lesson, proactively went to him and said, "Dad, come and see. Come and see Jesus."

Who could you issue the same invitation to this week? When Nathanael took Philip up on his invitation and Jesus told Nathanael things about himself that Jesus could only have known if Jesus were God in the flesh, Nathanael confessed his faith in Jesus: "Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 

Philip, the Gospel of John makes clear, was no perfect disciple. But he was what we are called to be: an honest witness for Jesus. He made himself available for Jesus’ great commission and available to his friend who needed the Savior. When he invited Nathanael to “come and see” the Messiah, Nathanael saw the God Who knows all about us and loves us anyway.

May we be more like Philip, so that the people we know will experience epiphanies about the forgiveness, the healing, and the wholeness God gives to all who turn from sin and trust in Christ. May we tell the story of Jesus and let others see Jesus for themselves. Amen

When to Draw Close to God

Getting close to God while we are strong and healthy prepares us to lean on Him for support and hope when those “difficult days” in life come.
Read the whole thing. Be sure to read Deuteronomy 8:11-18, too.

No doubt, the most dangerous times spiritually are those when everything is going well, when we feel in control and on top of the world.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Being at Home with God (A Few Morning Thoughts)

"Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, 'Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!'” (Genesis 28:16)
Jacob, the son of Isaac, was heading to Haran, the family home, to find a wife. In truth, Haran was just another place his family had lived and he himself had grown up as a wanderer. He was the son of "aliens and strangers."

One night at Bethel, as he headed for Haran, Jacob used a rock for a pillow. (The pillow would later become a pillar, we're told.) While sleeping, Jacob dreamed that on that spot, there was a ladder going to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. In the dream, God stood beside Jacob and reiterated His promise to make a great nation of Abraham's descendants. God also promised to be with Jacob wherever he went.*

Jacob wakes up surprised. "Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!'” (Genesis 28:16)

Jacob apparently had lived with blinders on his eyes. He hadn't seen the ways in which God had been present in all the places he had been with his family through the years.

I feel that I live much of my life in the same way. I remember and often quote Jesus' words for all His followers of all time in the Great Commission: "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:20)

But I have often been guilty of thinking as though God were absent from my life, other people's lives, or the lives of whole communities and nations.

Imagine though how faithless those thoughts were. They disbelieved Jesus' promise. They judged the believers in Christ who were in those places.

The God made plain Jesus Christ is present wherever someone knows Him and desires a remote places where the only pillow is a prison cells and refugee hospital rooms and funeral offices and bed environments where it seems you're the only person who trusts in the Lord. We can be sure that if we want the God around, He will be there.**

God, help me to remember that wherever I call on You through Jesus Christ, You are in that place. Forgive me for disdaining some places. Forgive me for doubting Your promises. Wherever we wander, as long as You are with us, we are "at home" in You. In Jesus' Name. Amen

*In John 1:51, Jesus alludes to this incident, portraying Himself as the ladder between heaven and earth. This affirms a truth Jesus declares in John 14:6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

**By the way, Bethel, the name meaning house of God, later became a center of idol worship. We can use the places and circumstances of our lives in ways that honor God or in ways that dishonor God. God will go everywhere that people call on Him. But it's up to us to decide whether we will invite God to be present with us in any given place.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Golden Rule of the Internet?

Look, you don't have to be credulous or fact, you don't have to believe pro football player Golden Tate's denials of some of the sordid reports about him that have appeared on the Internet.

But his words in this article are right on in an era when gossip has gone viral and when a favorite hobby of many is to drag others down on the Internet, celebrities and even ordinary people whose only "crime" is that someone, for some reason, finds them mockable. (Think of the young woman that dozens of web wags thought had been caught on national TV stepping out during Ohio State's recent Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. The video with scandalous inferences burned up the Internet. But very few people with whom I've spoken know that the inferences were wrong and the man whose head she had touched was not a side interest, but her boyfriend.)

Tate begins by writing of himself as pro player in the public eye:
You don’t know me.

Sure, by watching the NFL and playing fantasy football, you are aware of me as No. 15 on the Detroit Lions. You saw me win a Super Bowl last season with the Seattle Seahawks. You comment on my on-field celebrations and my perceived brashness. You frame what you think of me based on that, and how I perform, and what’s said and written about me by newspapers and magazines and blogs and talking heads. 

But you don’t know me, Golden Tate, the person. What I’m all about. You don’t know how much I care about my relationships with the fans and city in which I play.
Later, Tate suggests that people try to abide by the Golden Rule:
The false rumors about me served to open my eyes and sensitize me to what I read or hear in the media. Imagine, for a moment, walking in my shoes — having malicious and damaging accusations flying fast and furious, only you had no way of stemming the tide; no one person to call out and demand a retraction and an apology from. Now, imagine yourself squarely in the public eye, facing thousands of people lambasting you for something you didn’t say or do.

DeAngelo Williams was right
. In the Internet era, stories like these live on — in search engines, in archives, and in the minds of fans watching the game. They will never fully go away, regardless of how I address them and how others debunk them. I actually learned something through all of this, it’s my Golden Rule, so to speak: “Treat others as you would like to be treated — especially on social media.”

In Martin Luther's Small Catechism, the Reformer explains the meaning of the Eighth Commandment, first given by God to the human race through Moses at Mount Sinai:
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
In other words, we human beings are called to strive to find to think and say the best about others whenever possible. 

Knowing that this is God's will for us should stop everyone in our tracks to confess our sins to God and turn to Him for the forgiveness and renewal He offers to us through Jesus Christ.

For Christians to know that this is God's will for us should motivate us, out of simple gratitude for Christ's cross and empty tomb and the grace that saves from sin and death all who believe in Christ, to ask God to help us always strive to "put the best construction on everything" done by our neighbors, whether they live next door, serve in the White House or Congress, or play in the NFL.