Saturday, October 23, 2004

Presidential Prayer

Gracious God:
Although we have our own opinions and views, we know that You know far better than we what is best for our country and for our world.

So, as November 2 draws near and we Americans decide who will be our President for the next four years, we ask that You will show us Your wisdom and that above all, Your will be done.

We ask for these things, trusting that You give wisdom to those who ask for it and that those who delight in You will be given the desires of their hearts.

In Jesus' Name we pray.


Friday, October 22, 2004

The Tale of an Anonymous Newsletter

In the left-hand, top corner of the trifold mailing, The Bulletin Board was printed in bold letters. The return address was a post office box in Columbus. Although it was clearly a newsletter, it had been sent first class. I figured that it was some sort of advertisement and lazily tore the seal to glance at the contents before throwing it away.

On opening it, I learned that I was looking at the second issue of a four-page document that billed itself, “An Occasional Publication For the Congregations of the Southern Ohio Synod.” I’m a pastor in that synod (a synod is like a district or diocese), a regional grouping of congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In my fourteen years of service as a pastor here, I’d never heard of The Bulletin Board and wondered what this was about.

It turns out that someone or some group of someones has a burr in their saddles and so, has decided to publish The Bulletin Board both independently (I have no problem with that) and anonymously. I’m not exactly sure what the motivating burr is, but I can tell that whoever is behind The Bulletin Board is ticked off...really ticked off.

As I say, this was the second edition of the newsletter and it featured a number of letters from readers of the first epistle. Some, in the spirit of The Bulletin Board, I suppose, wrote anonymously. Others wanted their names printed. Most of the anonymous folks complained about various grievances they have with the synod and, by extension, with the ELCA. Most of those who gave their names were upset by the anonymity of The Bulletin Board and challenged its editor(s) to come out into the open.

Frankly, our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one big dysfunctional family. (Although, when one compares our size to that of other Christian bodies in America like the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, or the United Methodist Church, we’re a small dysfunctional family.) The Bulletin Board is no doubt one more indication of how dysfunctional we are.

Of course, dysfunctionality doesn’t mean we should necessarily be written off as unholy or unchristian. After all, the family from which God built His people Israel, the spiritual ancestors of all Christians, included a wife-swapper (Abraham), a thief (Jacob stole the inheritance from his brother), a drunken incestuous father (Noah), a murderer (Moses), a guy who was both adulterer and murderer and is described as a man after God’s heart (David), and so on. The Bible shows that the only sorts of people God loves are dysfunctional ones...which comes as a huge relief to me. But the ELCA does seem to be in the middle of a major meltdown of mass dysfunctionality.

Our denominational grouping is the result of a January 1, 1989 marriage of three Lutheran bodies (the late Lutheran Church in America, Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the American Lutheran Church). I certainly thought that things were going to work out well when we all moved in together. But a clash of different pieties has been more recently followed by a series of disputes revolving around the authority of the Bible in the Church and just exactly what the nature of that authority is.

An early flashpoint of this dispute came over an ecumenical accord with the Episcopal Church-USA which seemed to many Lutherans to subordinate the Bible to the offices of bishops.

Since then, an enormous dispute and great uneasiness has resulted from sexuality studies scheduled to come before the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2005. Many fear that the Church will vote to ordain practicing homosexuals, grant church legitimization to homosexual unions, or give individual churches the option to take these steps. Many, including me, would regard any of these steps as clear departures from Scripture. My desire is that as a Church we will welcome all people and invite all to turn from what God calls sin to embrace the life-renewing forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. But I do not favor labeling what God calls sin as "acceptable."

In our denomination, it has become increasingly uncomfortable for people who adhere to my views on this subject to speak up. We tend to be dismissed as conservatives, a real epithet in our circles. At the very least, we get looks like those made by Cary Grant toward his looney aunts and uncle in Arsenic and Old Lace. (In other circles, on other issues, I get the same looks from people who regard me as a liberal, by the way.) When encountering such reactions, the first impulse of anyone with a half an ounce of brains is to shut up and be pleasant. I do have just a bit more than a half an ounce of brains and so, most of the time, in spite of my big mouth, I shut up and stay pleasant.

So, I can understand the impulse to present one’s views anonymously. There have been times when I’ve been tempted to do just that myself. If it didn’t feel so cowardly, I would do that myself. But even I occasionally ask God to help me ignore my fears and with trepidation, toss in my two cents.

What’s interesting to me though, is that the editors of The Bulletin Board aren’t apparently exercised over the sexuality debate or the deeper underlying issue of the authority of Scripture over the life, faith, and practice of the Church and of Christians.

As far as I can tell, their big beef is with our synodical bishop, Cal Holloway. They don't like him. In our body, the synodical bishop serves a six-year term. Two synod assemblies ago, Bishop Holloway was up for re-election and faced a stiff challenge mounted on behalf of a pastor in Columbus. The opponent’s backers apparently felt that the bishop has been a power-monger and wasteful of synodical monies. The evidence that has been presented publicly though, seems to vindicate him.

Be that as it may, I recoil at anonymous publications, except in the most extreme circumstances. You know, circumstances like those confronting the American colonists in the face of British tyranny in the 1770s. Or those dealt with by underground movements in Nazi-occupied territory during World War Two. While a person may get those Cary Grant-looks during church debates in the ELCA, no agent of the Gestapo is going to make an arrest if we slip into political incorrectness. Anonymity is unnecessary.

But I can't help suspecting another motive for The Bulletin Board's decision to be anonymous. I want to believe that they have positive motives and have simply gone awry. But because they never seem to make a cause or a reason d'etre plain, it appears to me that a person or group of persons only desire to be verbal terrorists. They seem to want to fire volleys of sarcasm and unkindness from the dark and slink away, tearing at others' reputations without being accountable for their actions.

None of us is perfect, of course, least of all a sinner like me. But The Bulletin Board seems a clear and unrepentant violation of the Eighth Commandment, where God says, "You shall not bear false witness." Martin Luther, in The Small Catechism, of course, shows the "positive spin" of this directive, saying that it entails putting the most charitable construction on the actions of others.

Anonymity and a smart alecky attitude appear to be the trademarks of this little publication. Neither are the postures of people who genuinely want to create dialog, as The Bulletin Board insists it does. Nor are they the trademarks of Christians who want to resolve an apparent dispute. (Matthew 18:15-20)

You can't dialog with a cipher in the dark. If the editors of The Bulletin Board really want to discuss the issues facing our Church, they should come out into the light and take full responsibility for every word.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Wow, What a Series!

The Cincinnati Reds are my team, but in the American League, I have always been partial to the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals.

I was probably in the minority when I looked on a Red Sox-Yankees American League championship series with something less than enthusiasm. I'm not into thuggery on the baseball field and I felt for certain that fights would break out between these two bitter rivals. Fights may momentarily create interest, but not for long. (Just look at hockey. The NHL struggles to gain an audience in the US. But the Olympic version of the sport gets big ratings. One reason: In the Olympics, they play hockey; in the NHL, they fight and sometimes play hockey.)

But except for a bush-league plunking of Yankee Alex Rodriguez by pitcher Pedro Martinez, a perennial villain, this has been an exciting, history-shattering series with no brawling. (Many will no doubt agree with ESPN radio sports center host Dan Davis, a lifelong Red Sox fan, that no franchise should offer Martinez a contract at the end of this season, when he becomes a free agent.)

Boston has done what no major league team has ever done in post-season play: forced a game seven after having fallen behind three games to none!

The scrappiness and skill of the Red Sox couldn't have been better exemplified than it was Tuesday night by Boston hurler Curt Schilling. The blood from an ankle injury clearly visible on his sock, in obvious pain, the future Hall of Famer pitched seven incredible innings, giving up just one run, a solo homer by Yankee Bernie Williams.

Of course, should the Red Sox win, the so-called "curse" will not be lifted. To exorcise that alleged demonic thwarting of Boston's baseball dreams will require that the Sox not only vanquish the Yankees, but win the World Series. The Red Sox haven't won the championship of baseball since 1918, when they did so largely on the arm of a young pitcher named Babe Ruth. After that season, with Boston's owner in need of cash to finance a Broadway production, the Bambino's contract was sold to the Yankees. They turned him into an outfielder who became the "Sultan of Swat" and an integral part of making the Yankees the storied franchise that it is. The Red Sox, by contrast, have been consigned to a sort of baseball purgatory, always a bridesmaid but never a bride. That reversal of fortunes is thought to be the Curse of the Bambino against his former franchise.

I'm hoping that the Red Sox will get their chance to win the World Series this year.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Q-and-A: What Do You Think of the 42-Foot Faux-Marble Jesus?

A friend recently asked me what I thought of the 42-foot fiberglass Jesus statue that sits near a church building on I-75 in Monroe, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati. The statue, which was shipped in thirteen foot chunks from an artist's studio in Florida, is something you can't miss if you're driving along the Interstate.

I had to be honest with my friend: I don't like it.

But I have to admit with equal honesty that my reasons for disliking the statue may be completely wrong-headed. I might be a snob. I’ll let you be the judge.

The first reason I dislike it is, frankly, a matter of personal taste. To me, the thing is kitsch, a land-of-the-giants equivalent of a velvet Elvis painting. This enormous statue, painted to look like marble (covering up what one reporter described as its actual "buttery" exterior), seems to trivialize Jesus more than it glorifies Him.

I glean from news articles that the church’s intention for erecting the statue is to evoke awe. In a way, it does. But to me it’s the kind of awe one feels while driving down the Las Vegas strip. It’s the awe that says, “I can’t believe anyone would actually build that!”

A second reason for my distaste is related to the first. It’s that such excess, whether it’s fine art or junk, can put people off.

As a Christian, my greatest desire is for everybody to enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I know what a difference he makes in my own life and that He loves all people and wants to spend eternity with them. I am a “John 3:16-Christian.” By that, I mean that down to the tips of my toes, I’m committed to letting others know what Jesus says in that famous passage of the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But if church buildings are seen as places of expensive and outsized displays of wealth (and seeming wastefulness), will those who need to experience Jesus in their life ever pay attention to us when we share the good news that’s in John 3:16?

This past Summer, my mother-in-law was able to take my wife on a European tour. It was a great trip and my wife loved it. At one point, she visited the Vatican, seat of the Roman Catholic Church where so much wonderful art is displayed. My wife was an Art major at Ohio State and is herself a talented artist. So, I was certain that the Vatican tour had been a highlight of her trip.

“How was that?” I asked her. “To tell you the truth,” she told me, “it turned me off. It was beautiful. But I kept wondering how many people could have been reached with the story of Jesus or, how many hungry people could have been fed with the money spent to buy and maintain this place?”

If a committed Christian asks these questions while touring the Vatican, with its undeniable artistic treasures that have inspired awe in God for centuries, what do you suppose agnostics, atheists, and skeptics think when they speed along I-75 and see an enormous plastic Jesus?

But, not everybody is like me. (And that’s a good thing.) There may be people for whom the Jesus statue is just the nudge they need to turn their lives over to Christ, receive forgiveness of sin, and know that they have a relationship with God that lasts forever. If it does that, terrific!

But I also wonder if lots more folks aren’t turned away from the life-giving message of Jesus because of the statue? Or, do they view it as proof that the message of Jesus is irrelevant? I hope not.

Monday, October 18, 2004

A Prayer for the Presidential Candidates

Pressure can bring out the best in us. It can also bring out the worst in us. But almost always, pressure squeezes out whatever is already in us.

As we come to the close of this brutal, nasty presidential campaign, the candidates---particularly the frontrunners, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry---will feel themselves under intense pressure. Open the hearts, souls, minds, and wills of each to You. Help them to think about things that are noble and from You.

Help them to avoid being self-serving.

Help them to take the pressure and respond not with personal attacks, but with magnanimity, equamimity, wisdom, and self-control.

Send to each sensitive, caring but firm followers of Jesus Christ who will remind them that even kings stand naked before Your throne, that no political principal is of utmost importance, and that Your presence can make even the humblest of people in the meanest of circumstances more powerful than any army. Grant that these same emissaries from You will share the comforting, energizing Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection that has a power outlasting every nation, every leader, every idea.

Finally, God, grant to each of these leaders the wisdom to open their mouths when they should and to shut them when they should.

We pray these things in Jesus' awesome Name!


Sunday, October 17, 2004

Friends of God: How Peace Comes

First Peter 3:8-11
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, October 17, 2004)

Peace can mean many things.

To a mother or father, it’s the look on their children’s faces as they sleep at night.

To a diplomat or soldier, it may mean combatants laying down their arms.

To a busy manager, it can mean an interlude of listening to music or sports talk radio in the car after leaving the hectic world of business.

All of those things can bring us some measure of peace, spaces within which we can appreciate our blessings, love our families, nurture our creativity, care about our neighbors, catch our breath, and grow as people.

But it’s been my experience that when we try to create peace on our own, those efforts don't result in lasting peace. Their effects are fleeting.

For real peace...lasting, down-to-the-bone peace, we need God. The Bible says of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh: HE IS OUR PEACE. The New Testament book of Romans says that because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross and from the empty tomb, “we have peace with God.

Later in that book, Paul reveals the reason a relationship with Jesus Christ brings us peace (and this is critically important): “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus...” We have peace when we know that God has set us free from the debt we once owed for our sins!

Gerald Mann tells about the first congregation he served as a pastor. Mann had been there a few months when one man proved to be a thorn in his flesh. Mann finally asked the guy what was it that had happened in his life that caused him to always be so negative and so critical. At first, this guy resisted Mann’s questions. But Mann said, “I’m not leaving this room until you tell me.” Eventually, it came out that the fellow had a super-demanding father. He had never measured up to his dad’s expectations and so now, every preacher who passed through the church (and every other person in his life) paid the price.

That guy had gotten cuffed around by life. There was no peace in his soul, just static. In all his growing up years, he felt constantly condemned. As a result, He didn’t see God as a joyous, forgiving, loving Father, but as a demanding, grim-faced legalist.

Folks, if you peel away the layers of most conflict situations, you’ll usually find that at their root are one or two people who are reacting to voices of condemnation, whether from others or from inside themselves. They fight back at the condemnation.

But usually, the people against whom conflicted people fight have nothing to do with what makes them feel conflicted. They may actually be engaging in war against their past, their shame, their guilt, their fears, their disappointments, their parents, or someone or something else. As a former conflict manager for our Lutheran denomination, I've learned that this is true of virtually every conflict in life: People feel condemned and because of that, they condemn others.

The church is meant to be an oasis of peace in a world in constant conflict, a place where we share and live the freedom from condemnation that Jesus gives. An old song says, “If you’re happy and you know it...clap your hands, say "Amen," stamp your feet...” and so on. The idea is that when the peace of Jesus Christ lives in us, it should be observable by others.

That’s why Peter says what he does in our Bible lesson for this morning at the conclusion of a section of a letter in which he gives codes of conduct for Jesus-Followers in first-century Asia Minor. He begins it this way:

“8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.”
The very first way people know that Jesus has risen from the dead and living in the lives of those who call Him Lord is in the peace they observe among church members.

Back in early 1991, as we were preparing for Friendship’s first worship celebration, a fellow by the name of Roger Holmgren served as our first president. (Roger and his family later moved to another town.) Roger said, “One thing I think, Mark, is that we should have the sharing of the peace every single Sunday.” At first, I resisted this idea. I was afraid it might take too much time.

By that time, I may have heard a true story that should have convinced me that Roger was right and I was wrong. It involves what happened when a young pastor named Walt Kallestad went to serve at Community Church of Joy, a Lutheran congregation in the Phoenix area. His first Sunday, a man walked up to him and asked, “Whose side are you on?” Kallestad didn’t know there were sides! But as he watched his dreams of a loving church being killed by people who wanted to wage World War Three, he became more and more discouraged.

Then came the night when he received a telephone call from the local fire department. Someone had been so angry that they set fire to the church building. As Kallestad sat in the front seat of his car, watching firefighters, he began to weep and he prayed. “Lord,” he asked, “what shall I do?” As he wept and cried, a plan crystalized in his mind.

It was simple. He would love these people. He wouldn’t condemn. When he was criticized, he wouldn’t criticize back. He would live with the crucified and risen Jesus at the center of his life and he would hug every person who worshiped there.

At first, people reacted awkwardly to his hugs. But soon even the most hard-bitten old saints looked forward to their hugs. Today Community Church of Joy (CCOJ) is one of the largest Lutheran congregations in North America.

Without the trauma of a fire, we made a decision to unabashedly love people here at Friendship as well. Except for three Sundays, I think, we’ve been sharing Jesus’ peace during every worship for thirteen-plus years! On one of the Sundays I neglected to include it, one woman approached me and said, "Don't ever let that happen. The sharing of the peace is the most important part of the entire worship celebration for me!"

Of course, the peace of Jesus is more than a ritual. It’s a way of life created by Jesus in the hearts and lives of those who know that God forgives their sins and frees them to live forever with Him!

And Jesus’ peace has made Friendship a compelling, attractive fellowship of which people want to be a part. In my hotel room in Chicago the other day, I jotted down the names of those individuals who have become members or regular participants in Friendship just since we moved into this building twenty months ago. The list runs to seventeen households.

The peace of Jesus is causing our congregation to grow (slower than I might like, but growing nonetheless) and as you and I become more intentional about sharing Christ with others, even more people will experience the blessings of following Him.

How can we make certain that the peace of Christ is always central at Friendship and in our lives?

First: We need to want it and we need to ask God for it. At the end of today’s Bible lesson, Peter says, “...the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer.” Someone once asked a pastor, “Who’s going to hell?” The pastor said, “I can’t tell you who will go to hell. But I can tell you that only those who want to go to hell will be there.”

Similarly, I can tell you that people and churches who aren’t at peace with God or others are in that condition because they haven’t wanted peace. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us peace of mind, heart, and conscience. If we’re not living in that peace, it means we’re not praying for it, don’t really want it, or can’t imagine that God is big enough to give it to us!

Second: We need to let God change the ways we think. Paul says, “Let the same mind be you that was in Christ Jesus...” In other words, we need to surrender each day to God and let Him reconstruct our whole way of thinking about life so that we begin to see things as Jesus does.

In his fantastic book, Living Faith, former president Jimmy Carter says that one morning while trying to complete an earlier book, he saw the date pop up on his computer screen and realized that he hadn’t bought his wife Rosalynn a gift for her birthday, that very day! He briefly considered purchasing an antique item at his cousin’s nearby shop. But then, he thought of something else.

All their married life, Carter, a former Navy man, had been impatient with Rosalynn because she wasn’t as prompt as he thought she should be. He realized that for four decades he had been unreasonable and unfair toward his wife, triggering many arguments on this subject of promptness. And so, for his birthday gift that year, he typed out a note to Rosalynn. It read:

“Rosalynn, I promise you that for the rest of our marriage, I will never make an unfavorable remark about tardiness.”
For the most part, Carter concludes, he’s kept that promise and his wife considers it the best present he ever gave her. You see, with a conscience quickened by Jesus Christ, Carter made peace with his wife and really, with himself. That’s what happens when we want and pray for the peace of Christ and when we invite God to help us think like Jesus.

When the peace of Christ lives in a church or a family or a marriage, it doesn’t mean that we will always agree on everything. The Bible advises for example, “Be angry; but do not sin.” And Jesus gives procedures for resolving conflicts, procedures we’ve built right into our congregation’s constitution.

But our call is clear: Confident that God has taken away our condemnation and that He loves us, we can be at peace with God, ourselves, and others. We’ll experience that peace and others will see that peace in us when we want it and pray for it and we let God help us think more like Jesus.

As we approach Friend Day on October 31, I hope that you will join me and invite your non-churchgoing friends to worship with us on that special day so that just like us, they can experience the awesome peace that only comes from Jesus. Amen!