Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Happy Birthday, Mr. Zimmerman

Bobby Zimmerman (aka, Bob Dylan), one of my all time favorites, is celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday today.

No, not the greatest voice in the world.

But yes, one of the greatest songwriters ever, in a pantheon that includes the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Carole King, Lennon and McCartney, Marvin Gaye, Bono and U2, Stevie Wonder, Steve Taylor, Bruce Cockburn, Holland, Dozier, and Holland, and Paul Simon, to name a few great popular music composers.

But there is only one Dylan. No one speaks to my heart or challenges my mind like Dylan. And no one so often speaks my heart or mind like Dylan.

The song immediately below originally appeared on Planet Waves, a constantly underestimated Dylan collection put out on David Geffen's label when Dylan was in a contract dispute with his label, Columbia. Love the song--Forever Young--posted earlier today by Howard Wilkinson over on Facebook. (But then I can say that about a lot of Dylan's music.)

I also love--and sing over and over to myself--this Dylan tune from Blood on the Tracks, If You See Her, Say Hello. I prefer the album version, but this one is better than the one Dylan's people let Youtube post as "official." I also prefer the words "If you get close to her..." to Dylan's replacement here of, "If you make love to her..."

But these varied versions just demonstrate how pliantly Dylan views his songs, as he constantly changes lyrics, tunes, tempos, and arrangements. To me, the willingness to change, even to the point of what would some call desecrating one's own work, is a hallmark of a great artist. I tell people all the time, "You're either growing or you're dying." That's why at age 75, Dylan is still younger than contemporary artists who churn out formulaic sounds. Because of this element of his artistry, Dylan can rightly say as he puts it elsewhere, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Today's Word of the Day: Ethology

A form of this word came up while re-reading Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in preparation for two-plus days of upcoming meetings.

When I think about it, the word makes sense. The prefix, as I'm familiar with it, comes from the koine (common) Greek New Testament word ethos, which means customs and usage, in addition to, sometimes, morals or character. Ethos is about how people do things.

The suffix-logy, from the Greek logos, literally means word. As it's been transliterated into English, the word means, literally the word about or, less literally, the study of the subject of the word's prefix. So psychology is the study of the psyche (life) of a person; geology is the study of earth (ge in the Greek); anthropology is the study of human beings; sociology is the study of people in society, and so on.

But I hadn't remembered ethology from my first time through Gladwell. Apparently, there are people who are ethologists. Wonder if that's printed on their business cards? ("Joe Smith, Professional Ethologist.")

And once people realize what an ethologist does, do they become self-conscious about everything they do and why they do it when they're with an ethologist?

When they're on airplanes, do ethologists try to keep their profession secret from seatmates until after they've established a rapport, the way we pastors do?

Back to my reading.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, May 22, 2016

God: Three in One and One in Three

John 8:48-59
Two-thousand years before the birth of Jesus, three mysterious strangers appeared beneath the oak trees at a place called Mamre, where a husband and wife and their party were staying. They had come from a spot in what we know today as Iraq, Ur.

Practicing the hospitality that was part of their faith in the God they had come to know and worship, the couple--Abraham and Sarah--welcomed the threesome to their dwelling and fed them a feast. Over the course of their visit, the three made a promise that in one year, Sarah, an old woman, would give birth to the son promised to them by God. They come to realize that they are in the presence of God.

Later, the three strangers engage in a private conversation. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? [they ask] Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” [Genesis 18:17-19]

Was God talking to Himself?

Yes, said Saint Augustine, a 4th century Christian scholar and founder of the Augustinian order of monks of which Martin Luther would be a member four millennia after Abraham and Sarah welcomed the Lord--Yahweh, I AM. In that conversation among the three leaving Abraham, God was talking to Himself, Augustine believed.

If so, it’s not the first time the Bible records God doing that.

In Genesis 1:26, we’re told that God spoke to Himself: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness...”

These Bible passages give us early hints at what Jesus later made explicit in the Great Commission, that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s part of the mystery of God’s identity and being, but the Trinity--a term never used in the Bible, but which we use to describe what God has revealed about Himself--is more than just an odd theological concept. God’s triune nature is essential to Who He is and appreciating it, whether we’re ever able to fully understand it, can deepen our relationship with God.

From the oaks at Mamre, fast forward two thousand years to our Gospel lesson. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. He’s teaching. He’s met a lot of opposition. Among those opposing Him, we’re told, are those who had believed in Him, but are now getting turned off by the implications of what it means to be His disciples. They’re so upset with Jesus that they ask Him if they aren’t right in saying that Jesus has a demon [John 8:48].

Jesus then ushers them (and us) into the mysterious realm of the Holy Trinity. “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”

Jesus is pointing to the Father Who judges sin, as He judged the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah shortly after the incident at Mamre. Jesus seeks to bring the Father glory, not Himself, just as the Father seeks glory for Jesus, not Himself.

This is the nature of the love that exists within the Trinity, self-giving love that doesn’t seek for itself, the self-sufficient love that didn’t need to create the universe or the human race in God’s image, but chose to do so out of pure, giving love.

It was this same love, Jesus said, that brought Him to the world. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son..."

If you really honored God, Jesus is telling His fellow Jews, you would see the love of God embodied in Me and you would honor Me too.

But the crowd is scandalized. “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

You can almost picture the pious crowd paralyzed with anger at Jesus. Who did He think that He was?

But if the crowd had known their Father God as well as they claimed to know Him, had they known His Word, they would have known exactly Who Jesus was (and is).

And they would have remembered what the three strangers--identified in our English translations of our Bibles as L-O-R-D, all four letters capitalized, translating Yahweh--I AM, the name God would reveal to be His own to Moses--had said that day by the oaks of Mamre.

Yahweh had said: “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” [Genesis 18:18]

It was through Jesus that God’s promise to Abraham that Abraham and all people who trust in Yahweh would be made righteous and would become a great eternal nation, the kingdom of God.

Through God the Son made flesh, all who turn from sin and believe, are members of God’s new creation.

Abraham, Jesus says, had heard this promise and if Abraham had been standing in the temple that day, he would have been filled with joy. Abraham would have said exactly the same thing of Jesus that another old man of faith, Simeon, said of Jesus on the day the infant Jesus was brought to be circumcised in this same temple: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” [Luke 2:29-32] Abraham, Jesus says, would rejoice in seeing Him!

But the crowd of skeptics in John 8 aren't thinking as Jesus says Abraham would think at all. Verse 57: “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!

Jesus’ response isn’t grammatical. But it is definitive.

Yes, Jesus is saying, I know exactly what Abraham thought. Not only am I older than Abraham, I made Abraham. I gave life to everything that breathes and moves. “Before Abraham was born, Yahweh, I AM!

Now, this is such a stunning claim that if it isn’t true--if Jesus isn’t, as we sing at Christmas, God in flesh appearing, if He isn’t the second person of the triune God--then He is, in C.S. Lewis’ famous formulation either a liar, guilty of one of the most horrible hoaxes in history; a madman--on the order, Lewis says, of a man who claims to be a poached egg; or precisely who He claims to be.

As Lewis writes: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Jesus didn’t intend for the crowd in the temple to see Him as a great teacher or a magnetic leader who might give them what they wanted. (The kind of patronizing nonsense non-Christians and people who claim to be Christians say about Jesus a lot.) All Jesus wanted them (and us) to see is the love of God poured out through Him.

It’s to help them see that He provokes a confrontation with them. It’s why He provokes a confrontation with us in every burning word of Scripture.

Is Jesus God in the flesh? Is He the incarnation of the God that Abraham saw back at the oaks of Mamre?

If He is, then why would any of us mess around with living lives that are displeasing to Him, that break faith with our Creator and our Redeemer, that dehumanize us, that fail to love God or neighbor? Why would we take His name in vain? Why would we commit adultery? Why would we murder, physically or through the poison of gossip? Why would we take ourselves and our own thinking so seriously and fail to honor God as God or fail to honor the thinking of the One Who made us and redeemed us? Why do we worry instead of trusting in Him? (I'm learning to ask myself questions like these every time I sin or contemplate sinning more.)

On hearing Jesus’ claim to be God, verse 59 says: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”

As I reflect on this passage, I wonder, did the crowd want to stone Jesus because they thought He was dishonoring-- blaspheming-- God? Or did they want to stone Him because, in light of His credibility, they knew that He was God enfleshed and saw their chance to take advantage of His weakness, His voluntary acceptance of the limits of humanity?

“This is the heir,” the tenants in Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s gospel say of the son who stands for Jesus in the story. “Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.”

Going all the way back to the garden, humanity has been looking for a way to declare our independence of our Maker, to “be like God.

It was for this reason that the world would later crucify Jesus. Get rid of God and the lunatics can run the asylum!

“But,” as Peter says in the Pentecost sermon, a part of which makes up our second lesson today, “God raised [Jesus] from the dead.” And it’s here that we see the practical implications of this strange doctrine of the Trinity.

It was out of love that God the Father sent God the Son.

It was this same love that caused the Father to bring Jesus back to life. Not love for Himself, but from love for the Son and love for all who believe in Him--you and me--that the Father raised the Son to new life and through Him, raises us to new life.

Without God’s triune nature, we could not be saved.

Nor could we know or believe in this God, because it’s God the Holy Spirit, the comforter sent to call us to faith, who makes it possible for us to believe and to have life in Jesus’ name.

If you remember nothing else about the Trinity, remember this:
It’s from the love that God has known within Himself for all eternity that He loves you and makes you His own.

The Trinity is how God loves. It's also how He loves us. Three times over, He loves us, and we are eternally the richer for it!

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Sunday, May 22, 2016.]

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Set free to be who God makes us to be

John 11:21-27
A few years back, a large group of us from Living Water went out to eat together, then went to Poelking Lanes to bowl. Paul and I were on the same team. Although I used to bowl regularly in a league, it had been a few years and I was rusty. During the second game nonetheless, I thought that I was doing pretty well. One frame though, I failed to pick up a spare. I turned around to see Paul grinning. He asked me: “Do you try to bowl badly?”

That little incident, which I’ve shared with others many times, seems to crystalize much of what I came to know about Paul for myself and from the witness of family, friends, and fellow church members. Paul, who had several really good games that night, loved to be with people. Loved to bowl (and golf). Loved to have fun with others. And, even in a casual evening of bowling, he loved to do his best.

Lynn, Paul, David, David, and Lauren, all of us who knew Paul have some sense of the magnitude of your loss. Yours too, Mary Lou. Paul was a special man, in many ways.

Anyone who spent any time with him knew how bright he was. And his was an applied brilliance. He was an engineer for thirty years with Cincinnati Milacron, holding a Masters in electrical engineering and a Masters in business administration. He later worked for AMF, leading a team that improved that company’s products. After that, he taught engineering at Sinclair College.

But Paul was also a dedicated husband and family man. Lynn has reported on what a good listener Paul was, mentioning specifically the help he provided to her as she considered what her major would be by what, in my field, we call active listening: Hearing her out, asking evocative questions, helping her to reach her own choice. When his family was younger, there was croquet on the lawn and camping trips for getaways. The Ackermann house was filled with laughter, parties, and music: Paul was a tenor who was part of a barbershop quartet and could also play the ukulele and the piano. It should also be mentioned that Paul was a wonderful grandfather to David and Lauren.

And Paul had friends. It isn’t often true that men make and retain friends, you know. But Paul was the kind of man for whom friendships were always important.

Paul also was a follower of Jesus Christ. His faith showed in his decisionmaking and in his priorities.

In the two-and-a-half years since I began serving at Living Water, Paul was always among the first to arrive for worship each Sunday.

And Paul wasn’t just a Sunday morning guy. I once went to see him as he was recuperating from surgery. During the course of our conversation, he told me that there was some input he wanted to give. It was early in my time at Living Water; so, I braced myself for some hidebound advice from an unhappy traditionalist. Instead, Paul said, “One thing I hope is that as we grow as a church, we’ll be sure not to give up on serving the poor in places like Chevy Chase.” Paul gave living expression to that sentiment by being part of a crew of Living Water folks who go to that government subsidized housing community to tutor young people with their studies.

Paul's outward focus was a byproduct of his faith in Christ. When you belong to the King and Creator of the universe Who laid aside His glory in order to die and to rise and to set you free from sin and death, you’re also set free from worrying about yourself or what will happen to you.

You can focus instead on the family that you love, the friends you care about, the work for which you were made, and the poor who need the kinds of love and opportunities you want everyone to have.

That was the freedom--what another Paul, the saint and evangelist of the New Testament called our “freedom in Christ”--in which Paul lived.

I think that knowing about Paul’s faith goes a long way in explaining how he lived, how he cared, how he laughed, and how he enriched the lives of those he came to know. The freedom Jesus Christ gives to those who dare to turn from their sins and follow Him was the freedom in which Paul daily moved.

I hope that knowing the freedom in which Paul lived each day will lighten the burden of grief you feel today and will feel in the days ahead. Jesus’ words to Martha, the sister of his friend, Lazarus, are meant to comfort you as much as they were meant to comfort Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die.”

Those, of course, would only be pretty words were it not for the fact that, a few moments later, Jesus called Lazarus back to life from the tomb.

Even then, they would be little more than words if it weren’t for Jesus Himself rising from death a short time after that.

Jesus has authority over life and death.

And He gives new and everlasting life to all who dare to follow Him.

He gives His followers the power to face life, death, adversity, success, failure, joy, and challenge with equal faith and power.

Today those who knew and loved Paul grieve. And it’s right that you should. He was a wonderful man who loved you and was a powerful presence in your lives.

But you can take comfort from a truth that other Paul talks about in Romans 8: Nothing can separate followers of Jesus from His love. Not even death.

Today, Paul is in the nail-scarred hands of the Savior Who died and rose to set him and all who believe in him free to be the loving, caring people we were made to be.

And all who turn to Christ for life know that one day, we will be united in eternity with Christ and all his saints, including the saint we remember and to whom we say goodbye today, a sinner made saint by the grace of God given in Christ, Paul. Amen

[This was shared on Saturday during a memorial service for a member of Living Water Lutheran Church.]

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]