Saturday, December 10, 2005

Welcome Casey Back with Open Arms, Pittsburgh!

Sean Casey has become so associated with the Reds and the Cincinnati community, that his nickname around here is The Mayor.

This week, Casey was traded by the Reds to the Pittsburgh Pirates. A native of Pittsburgh, the first baseman's trade represents a homecoming of sorts, although Cincinnati has clearly come to be home for Casey, his wife, and his children, who were born in the area.

From a baseball perspective and from that of a Reds fan like me, the trade makes sense. The Reds need pitching. Casey's contract is worth about $8.5-million next year and the pitcher for whom he was traded will earn a fraction of that, freeing up money for more moves. On top of that, Casey, though always a great contact hitter, doesn't hit for power. Adam Dunn, a terrific young slugger, can be moved from the outfield to first, making room in the outfield for Willy Mo Pena, who has earned the right to be an everyday player. Trading Casey makes sense from the standpoint of turning the Reds into a winning franchise again.

I understand all that. But a story like this one shows why Casey will be missed on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the community. Treat him well, Pittsburgh; he's a great one!

Third Pass at This Week's Bible Lesson: First Thessalonians 5:16-24

To help the people of Friendhsip Lutheran Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, and others who may be part of congregations that use the lectionary (explained here), every week, I try to present a few notes on the Bible texts on which our weekend worship will be based. I've already presented two posts that give a general overview of what First Thessalonians is about. You can find those here and here.

A note about context: Any time that a preacher prepares a message, there are at least three contextual issues that must be addressed.

First, there's the context of the Biblical passage on which the message is to be based. This itself is multifaceted. There's the more global context of when and where the Biblical book was written and to whom. There's the personal context of the person or persons who wrote the book, if authorship can be identified. There's the context of the general themes of the particular book. And finally, there's the matter of how the specific passage being addressed fits in with the overall themes.

Besides, the context of the Biblical passage, the preacher must also strive to understand the context of the world. What's going on in the world right now? What are some of the common ways of looking at life prevalent today?

And finally, closely related to this second broad contextual area is the specific context of the congregation being addressed. Has there been a notably wonderful event within the church or community? Has there been much illness within the congregation or among members' extended family? What seems to be the state of most members' lives right now? What are their favorite restaurants? How are the local professional and college sports teams doing? What's going on with the local schools? You get the picture.

This is why preachers must necessarily, I think, regard their messages (or sermons or homilies) as necessarily disposable. The preacher's job is to show people the relevance of God's Word to a specific time and place. Few of us will produce sermons that will stand the test of time or perhaps even, be appreciated beyond our congregational families. (This is one reason why, not long ago, I threw out all of the sermons I preached during the first six years of my pastoral ministry.) This doesn't mean that they're bad sermons; it only means that they're not relevant in other times and places.

I bring up this business of context because right now, we're in the Season of Advent. We are, in fact, in the third weekend of that season, the first of the Church Year. Advent is about waiting. Not just for Christmas, but also for the return of Jesus, what's called the Second Coming or the Parousia. For some, the prospect of Jesus' return is a horrible thing. For those who follow Him however, it brings excited anticipation!

But as we wait, there are challenges, sometimes painful ones. That is precisely the context in which First Thessalonians was being written. The evil of the world and the evil of persecution were ongoing realities in the life of the Thessalonian church.

How does one live faithfully in the face of evil? That's the question specifically answered in this letter from Paul to the first-century church at Thessalonica.

Here's the passage for the week:

16 Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

And now, a paltry verse-by-verse consideration:

v.16: How does a person rejoice in the midst of so much evil? That word, rejoice, is related to joy , not happiness. Those are two different states of being. Happiness is related to the word happen. Happiness is that fleeting state that comes to us when we have a pleasurable experience. It depends on emotions.

Joy is something altogether different. It's not hostage to our feelings. It's that sense that, because we belong to an eternal God, we have strength for our journeys and hope for tomorrow.

We're not always happy. But we always have reason to rejoice.

v. 17: The idea here is to be in constant communication with God. Ephesians 6:18 makes a similar bit of encouragement: Keep praying! The God Who came into our world as a flesh-and-blood Savior in Jesus wants to be part of our real, everyday lives.

v. 18: The call here is to be thankful in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. There is a critical difference. Only a masochist would be thankful for suffering, evil, or death. But we can be thankful in all circumstances because we know that, as surrender to Christ, God will transform our mourning into dancing.

v. 19: I love this! Don't block out the Spirit's messages to you. These come most definitively from the Bible. But when measured appropriately against what God has clearly revealed to us in the Bible, they may come from people, worship, preaching, prayer time, and so on.

v. 20: Don't block out the messages of those who claim to have some revealed truth from God. But...

v. 21: ...check everything against what you know about God from the Bible. Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev during their negotiations over nuclear arms that he needed to "trust, but verify." That's what we Christians must do whenever somebody tells us that they have some message from God. Does it match what God has revealed about His will and character in the Bible? If not, bag it!

v. 22: This is particularly important advice to hear for those who are subjected to evil treatment. Because we human beings are sinners, our natural impulse after we've been subjected to evil is to look for opportunities to return the evil. But if we engage in the same evil behaviors that we associate with monstrous people, we become monsters ourselves.

This admonition has little to do with the justice which governments may have to mete out in order to insure both justice and order, although governments should discipline for the sake of society, not to lash out in anger.

Nor does it relate directly to the question of governments making war. Governments are called by God to protect their peoples. While one may question whether governments should engage in specific wars, it is legitimate in this imperfect world in which not all voluntarily submit to God as the ultimate authority over their lives, for governments to have war-making powers. It was perfectly legitimate, for example, for the US to declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The object was not revenge, but protection and justice.

It does however, say something to how we Christians respond to persecution, in whatever form. A simple rule of thumb I use is this: Be angry in the face of injustices done to others; be charitable in the face of injustices we perceive having been done to ourselves.

We Christians, both as individual and as the Church, place ourselves in the hands of an eternal God, Who will make all things right in the end. That includes setting us straight when we self-righteously think that we ourselves are being mistreated or put-upon or when we actually are being made to suffer for our faith in Christ. Jesus became angry. But He never sought revenge. The best way to resist evil is, to the extent that we can with God's help, to not engage in it ourselves.

v. 23: To be holy means to be set apart for God's purposes.

v. 24: This underscores that holiness is not our achievement. It comes to those who, day by day, surrender their lives and wills to Christ and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Martin Luther said that every believer is "the Holy Spirit's workshop." We allow the Holy Spirit access to our wills, minds, and lives so that He can do the sometimes painful work of making us over into the image of Jesus Christ.

I will see you in worship either today or tomorrow, I hope.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Should Churches Close on Christmas? (Part 2)

On Wednesday night, I wrote about the decision some churches, particularly megachurches, have taken to not hold worship celebrations on Christmas, even though it falls on a Sunday this year.

My quarrel with this decision has nothing to do with the churches choosing not to worship on Christmas Day. Neither the home congregation in which I came to faith nearly thirty years ago or the congregation I serve as pastor have been in the habit of worshiping on December 25. Our congregational celebration of Christmas has always been on Christmas Eve.

The fault I find in not worshiping on Christmas Day is that it just happens to fall on a Sunday this year. And while there is nothing that says churches must worship on Sunday, it is an appropriate habit for Christians and those interested in the faith to gather for a weekly celebration of Jesus' resurrection.

I love words in the New Testament book of Hebrews:
...let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ's return] approaching.
Representatives of the megachurches have argued that through a series of scheduled Christmas Eve worship celebrations, they aren't neglecting to meet together at Christmas. And, I suppose, that's true. But, as I said yesterday, the weekly little Easter is far more important to remember than even the birth of Jesus.

The megachurches also are saying that the only people likely to be interested in worshiping with others are those who are Christian by background, as though that audience ought to be totally ignored in their worship schedule.

Yet another argument they make is that Christmas is a time for family. One of the commenters on Wednesday's post pointed out that this may reflect the "evangelical idolatry of the family." (That commenter, Pastor Jeff, has a fantastic blog, which I recommend reading.) I think there's a lot of idolatry of the family among we Christians these days. But Jesus said that if our families keep us from worshiping Him, we must ditch our families and follow Him.

Through the years, I've known young couples who have decided to build their marriages on Christ, who were and are given hard times by their families. Their relatives can't seem to tolerate it that the young couples choose to be in worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or because they opt to be involved in Christian acts of service rather than participating in extravagant and self-aggrandizing family gift exchanges at Christmastime.

The pressure on all of us to conform to the culture's perversion of Christmas is immense. We in the Church should hardly conspire with the culture on this point, but be resolutely countercultural!

Having said all this though, I was shocked to read the take of Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar for whom I have boundless admiration, on this issue. Witherington has written on his blog, "Shame on you mega-churches--- repent and believe the Gospel, starting with the birth stories of Jesus."

Frankly, I don't think that the megachurches or other congregations that have decided to close shop on Christmas Day have done anything for which they need to repent. The decision to shut down on Christmas this year is not a sin. I disagree with their decision and I do so intensely. But the point is, this is a difference of opinion among people who are seeking to be faithful, not a matter of some churches being faithful and others not.

Here are some other blog posts on this subject:

David Wayne
Charlie Lehardy
Louie Marsh
Tod Bolsinger
Michael Meckler
Andy Jackson
Rick Moore

(Are only male bloggers writing about this? Or is my radar screen limited?)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Anniversary of John Lennon's Death: The Dream is Over

Like most people my age, I suppose, I remember precisely what I was doing on December 8, 1980, when I received word that John Lennon had been killed.

Just eleven months before, I had started seminary, after graduating from Ohio State five years earlier.

That evening, a classmate spent part of the afternoon and the early evening with my wife and me. We lived off campus and I think that he enjoyed escaping to the "real world" that we inhabited for a while. I had taken him back to his apartment, returned to our house, and mindlessly turned on the Monday Night Football game when I heard Howard Cosell say that John Lennon was dead.

At first, I was sure that there must be some mistake and flipped through the channels on our Warner Qube cable box to learn more. But nothing I did could change the fact that Lennon really was gone.

Throughout my teens and into my twenties, there were really only two musical choices to be made. One either listened to the Beatles or other people. The Beatles were in a category all their own. Their sound and their words got to me in ways nobody else ever had. Almost everybody else sounded like Muzak.

This feeling continued even as I listened to their sometimes unexceptional solo work. The imprints of their personhood, or at least hints of their personhood--or perhaps, their adopted public personas--were in their music. Unlike the dehumanized warbling of homogenized pop (or of compromised rock), you had the sense that there were real human beings on the other sides of those Abbey Road microphones.

That sense went way beyond the eerie countdown and cough at the beginning of George Harrison's Taxman or Ringo Starr's weary protest of "I've got blisters on my fingers!" at the end of McCartney's Helter Skelter. In spite of the screaming girls who made them almost inaudible, when I saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show on that February Sunday in 1964, they looked and sounded like real people. Real people with extraordinary talent.

It was no doubt in part to recover his personhood that Lennon grew tired of the Beatles and at first, didn't lament the band's passing. "The dream is over," he sang in a song called God on his first post-Beatles LP. (By the way, U2 later produced a composition called God, Part 3, in response to Lennon's song.)

When I listen to God today, its litany of things in which Lennon claimed not to believe--a list that included Jesus, Buddha, Zimmerman, Elvis, and Beatles--sounds like the defiant confession of a man being deprogrammed after time spent in the clutches of a cult. Talk to anyone who has been held hostage by some legalistic religion, even legalistic Christian belief--though in any genuine expression of Christianity, that's an oxymoron--and you hear an unwillingness to believe or trust in almost anything. Recovering cultsters don't want to get burned again and so they tend, initially at least, to dismiss all belief, all faith, all trust. In the song, Lennon moves from nihilism to narcissism. "I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that's reality," he says.

Lennon had been doused in the flames of Beatlemania, something which he himself had rightly seen as being akin to religion back when he had proclaimed in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. He probably was right at that singular moment in time. But more to the point, the adulation the band received then was very much like religious worship. In God, Lennon was saying that he was having none of it. (Although he was now worshiping himself and Yoko, surely as tenuous as objects of worship as the Beatles had been. That's another story.)

But once you willingly take on the mantle of deity and once you seem to show your true self to the world, it isn't easy to run away. People keep insisting on putting you back on their altars and placing you in tabernacles of their choosing.

Even after five years as a househusband, an ordinary guy who took his baby on stroller rides through Central Park, Lennon couldn't escape others' expectations of him. There's a scene in Imagine, in which an obviously disturbed young man shows up on Lennon's doorstep, convinced that on an old Beatles cut, Lennon had sent a personal message to him. "How could I?" Lennon asks him, seeming to attempt to both kindly and firmly give the kid a bracing slap of reality, "I don't even know you."

We probably all thought we did, though. Mark David Chapman, Lennon's killer, apparently thought he knew Lennon. Psychologists have said that Chapman had come to so identify with Lennon that he thought he was Lennon. The real Lennon's existence therefore, became an unacceptable reality, which he eliminated on that December night a quarter of a century ago. (I've always thought that the chilling link song on McCartney's first LP after Lennon's death was about Chapman: "The one you wanted to be, is now the one you see.")

Even in people unlike Chapman, people who aren't mentally or emotionally disturbed, there is a subtle and disrespectful objectification that happens to those we choose to worship. When they don't act or say the things we want from them, we can become angry or disillusioned.

Several years before Lennon died, I had transferred out of the First Church of Beatlemania and surrendered to a different deity. The God revealed in Jesus Christ turns out for me to be the only God worthy of worship or able to bear the weight of glory. Today, I can enjoy the extraordinary body of work of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starkey as great human achievements, no matter who they may have been as people.

Since his death, Lennon has been eulogized and beatified with rock and roll sainthood. Though he would have loved the attention, he would have ultimately felt imprisoned by the worship, especially that offered by the rock and roll intelligentsia.

The dream is over, folks. Lennon would like us all to know that. But if you're looking for a different deity, I know One Who, even after he was murdered, wouldn't stay dead...and He promises to be with us always.

WWJS: Who Would Jesus Sue?

Jan, the excellent blogger at The View from Her, has an interesting post addressing the question not just of American litigiousness, but that of Christian Americans' penchant for suing others, including other Christians. She wonders what would happen if we refused to play that game. (Also look here and here.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Should Churches Close on Christmas?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that over the course of twenty-one years as the pastor of two different congregations, I have had a hand in cancelling Sunday worship celebrations.

In that period, the two churches, taken together, have perhaps scrubbed ten Sunday services because of blizzards.

Once, we had to cancel on a winter Sunday when we didn't have heat.

As I recall, once, the school in which we worshiped at the time was so insufferably hot on a Sunday morning that we canceled worship. (Although I did briefly consider forging ahead that day, considering the conditions prime for a sermon on hell!)

And I won't say that when I looked at the December calendar earlier this year, I didn't consider cancelling Sunday services on Christmas Day. It would have been easy for me to build a case for cancellation. For one thing, a large percentage of our congregation's members are not originally from around here and many go "back home" for Christmas with extended families. We're also a young church with lots of little ones, who would likely prefer not being dragged away from Santa's gifts on Christmas morning.

But for me, that logic ran into an incontrovertible counterargument: Sunday is the day we Christians set aside to remember an event even more important than the birth of Jesus. Every Sunday, we Christians say, is to be a "little Easter," a weekly opportunity to thank and honor God for the new life that can be ours when we surrender our lives, our pasts, our futures, and our sins to that same Jesus. On every Sunday, we remember what Jesus did on an Easter some two-thousand years ago. After voluntarily accepting our death sentence for sin on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead.

Of course, we don't have to hold weekly worship on Sundays. That's why our congregation recently began offering a second worship service on Saturdays at 5:30. But I would be loathe to give up worshiping on Sunday, no matter how few people may be likely to show up.

I mention all this because several megachurches across the country have decided that they'll not be worshiping on Christmas Day this year. The folks at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago say, for example, that they probably would only get about 1500 for worship that day, a paltry crowd not worth the effort of staff or the expenditure of money they'd have to pay them to open their doors.

I have immense respect for Willow Creek and its founding pastor, Bill Hybels. The congregation, under his leadership, does a fantastic job of inviting spiritually-disconnected people into a relationship with God.

But it doesn't seem to have dawned on them to do what we'll be doing at our infinitely smaller church on Sunday, December 25. We'll follow the advice of Paul to the first-century Colossian church. Paul wrote, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Colossians 3:16-17).

Maybe on one Sunday in the year, the megachurches could do without their meticulously-crafted worship celebrations, effective though I'm sure they are in reaching people for Christ. That way, they wouldn't have to spend a lot of money. Such a stripped-down approach seems especially appropriate on the day we'll also remember the birth of the Savior not in a high-tech maternity ward, but in a smelly barn, Whose earthly parents were from peasant stock. God likes simple.

Worship requires no pyrotechnics. No glitzy production. No elaborate AV stuff. Not even gold crosses, expensive vestments, or choirs. All it takes is a group of people who are, in Martin Luther's words, "called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified" by God's Holy Spirit, who receive the Good News of Jesus with gratitude, and who gather to praise God for all His grace and His glory.

Second Pass at This Week's Bible Lesson: First Thessalonians 5:16-24

Biblical scholars like to produce outlines of the books of the Bible. Doing so can help identify overarching themes and the ways in which they're presented.

Particularly in the case of the New Testament letters, such outlines can help us understand the flow of the arguments made by their writers.

The outline of First Thessalonians presented by some scholars seems far too detailed to me. I like the one in The Jerome Bible Commentary (I have an older edition than the one hyperlinked here), produced by Roman Catholic scholars:

(I) Paul's Personal Relations with the Thessalonians (1:1-3:13)
(A) When the Church Was Being Founded (1:2-2:16)
(B) Since the Foundation of the Church (2:17-3:13)
(II) Instructions and Exhortations (4:1-5:24)
(A) Holiness and Chastity (4:1-8)
(B) Charity and Order (4:9-12)
(C) The Fate of Departed Christians (4:13-18)
(D) The Date of the Parousia [Christ's return, the Day of the Lord] (5:1-11)
(E) Exhortations for Community Living (5:12-24)
(III) Conclusion (5:25-28)

The Jerome Commentary notes this about the founding of the church at Thessalonica:
"As usual, Paul's success with [his fellow] Jews was minimal. After three Sabbaths in the synagogue, he apparently centered his activity in the house of a certain Jason. A large number of the 'God-fearing' Greeks, along with many pagans...and important women, were converted. The Jews, however, jealous of Paul's success, stirred up a mob against the missionaries and forced their expulsion from the city (Acts 17:1-9)..."
Pauls' stay in Thessalonica is thought to have lasted only two or three months.

By the way, God-fearers is a formal term that was used of Gentiles, non-Jews, who believed in the God of the Jewish people--Who is also the God of Christianity--and worshiped regularly with the Jews in the synagogues.

Greeks was a term used not necessarily of people who were ethnically Greek, but who were non-Jews who were culturally Greek. That is, they bore Greek names; they used the Greek language, the Mediterranean basin's second language, the tongue of commerce and scholarship; and they basically thought from the vantage point of the Greek philosophical mindset. Rome had conquered Greece and then Greek culture largely conquered Rome.

I do hope to post a verse-by-verse exploration of First Thessalonians later. But a little more background seemed warranted.

[For the first installment, look here.]

SCOTUS Audio Recordings of Oral Arguments Might Be a Good Thing

I think it would be a mistake to bring television cameras into the Supreme Court's chambers during oral arguments.

In fact, I wish that we could have cameras removed from the US House and Senate. They were installed, I know, to promote democratic and open government. But the real upshot is that members of both houses enjoy playing to the TV audience, often accompanying their presentations with little dog and pony shows that range from the amateurish to the embarrassing.

The real decision-making process can't be shown in legislative floor sessions or even in committee hearings, in any case. So, watching the House or Senate on CSpan 1 and 2, respectively, is a waste of time.

I'd be concerned about a similar playing to the crowd in the Supreme Court should TV cameras be brought in for oral arguments. While the justices are appointed for life, giving them no need to engage in show biz antics like those of the legislators across the street at the Capitol, and all seem to go about their work with seriousness, the temptation to go Hollywood could prove powerful once the cameras were in place.

But I have been interested in the audio recordings of oral arguments over the past several weeks. Yesterday's session on the Solomon Amendment was particularly interesting. There appeared to be near-unanimity on the part of the Court that the free speech of law schools is not impinged upon when the Department of Defense refuses to remit monies to them after they refuse to allow military recruiters onto their campuses over the department's policies regarding gays.

The Court has become such a favorite object of scorn in our society. The scorn comes from both the Left and the Right. But it's possible that the slight lifting of the veil represented by the release of audio recordings of the oral arguments will make the Court's ultimate rulings more understandable to the public, humanize the institution, and maybe, reduce some of the nastiness that often fills people's condemnations of SCOTUS and the judiciary generally. Any time we can generate more light than heat in our public discussions, that's a good thing.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Leadership Lesson #6: The Indispensable Habit of Every Great Leader

Abraham Lincoln is an intriguing figure. One of his best friends said that ambition was the little engine inside Lincoln that never stopped. More than anything in the world, Lincoln wanted to leave behind some grand legacy by which future generations might remember him.

If that's true--and there's every reason to believe it is, then the man who became our sixteenth president must have spent the greater part of his life in frustration. That's because the deck in Lincoln's play for greatness was substantially stacked against him.

I'm not talking about his backwoods upbringing or his lack of a formal education when I say that, although both were enormous hurdles for him. I refer instead, to the daunting odds Lincoln faced when it came to seeking greatness in his chosen profession of politics. For most of his adult life, Lincoln was a Whig in a predominantly Democratic state, Illinois. When he ran for the US Senate against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 and engaged in a series of debates throughout the state, Lincoln knew that he could win the popular vote and would probably still lose the office in an era when elections were advisory and the Illinois state legislature, where the real election happened, was controlled by the Democrats.

Yet in 1860, with no administrative experience at all and his country facing the most perilous crisis since its birthing, Lincoln's "little engine" propelled him into the White House.

It seems that shortly after taking the office, Lincoln began expressing the wish that he was doing something besides leading the country in the bloodiest war of its history. His frankly gruesome features seemed to soften into saintliness and he seemed to grow more beautiful with the gashing hammer blows of bitter experience and frustration.

How did Lincoln cope, overcoming himself and overwhelming circumstances to lead with both humility and shrewdness? One of the answers, I see after a lifetime of studying him, is that Lincoln, always a religious skeptic whose faith was nearly robbed from him by the legalistic spell under which his father Thomas seems to have fallen, turned to God in prayer.

Most leaders are ambitious. But every leader, sooner or later, learns the limits of what ambition can accomplish. Eventually, they come to the end of their resources. They even come to an end to the helpfulness of advice that trusted counselors provide to them. That's when wise leaders turn to the God we know in Jesus Christ and they pray.

Jimmy Carter, a man whose unwillingness to delegate responsibility or authority to others hampered his effectiveness, nonetheless had several important accomplishments during his time in office. Like Dwight Eisenhower, for example, Carter managed to prevent the country from being engaged in a single clash of arms with a foreign country during his tenure, he established full diplomatic relations with China, and he oversaw the promulgation of the Camp David Accords, for example. In his newest book, Carter reveals that he, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and a guy of intelligence and experience as a naval commander, businessperson, and governor, never prayed so much as he did during his four years as president.

The indispensable habit of every effective leader is prayer.

Skeptical? Consider what Archbishop William Temple said to those who dismissed as coincidence his claims of answered prayers: "When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't."

In one of my favorite books, Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby says that true prayer happens only when two elements are in place:

  • Faith, trust in God
  • Desperation, the realization that we can accomplish no good thing without utter submission to God
Want to accomplish worthwhile things as a leader? Learn to pray.

[In the next installment: The First Thing a Leader Must Do to Get People to Follow]

[Here are links to the previous installments:
The First Thing Every True Leader Must Be
The Most Overrated Attribute of Leaders
The First Thing Every Leader Must Do
The Inefficiency Every Leader Must Embrace to Be Successful
The Hardest Thing for Me to Do as a Leader]

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: First Thessalonians 5:16-24

Okay, here's the drill, folks. To help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor to prepare for the weekend worship celebrations and to crystalize some of my own thinking, I've been posting looks at the Biblical passages around which worship will be built over the course of the week. I do it about two or three times a week.

If others who read this blog find these posts helpful, that's great!

This weekend, we'll be using two Biblical passages to develop our theme. One of them is a passage we also used last week, Matthew 1:18-25. You can read the notes from last week and other things about or relating to the passage here, here, here, here and here in order to delve into its background. This week, we're also looking at First Thessalonians 5:16-24.

Some Background (based on information in The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB):

1. Both First and Second Thessalonians are addressed to Christians city of Macedonia. It was founded in 316 B.C. by Cassander, one of Alexander the Great's generals, and was named for Alexander's half-sister, Thessaloniki. (My observation is that this tends to confirm the belief of some that how an organization, community, or country starts says a lot about how it turns out. The naming of Thessalonica seems to have been a notable act of sucking up and sycophancy later was an ingrained habit of its inhabitants, as we'll see.)

2. Thessalonica became part of the Roman Empire, really to the apparent relief of its residents, in 167 BC. After Alexander's death, his successors' quarreling rendered them incapable of keeping the town as part of the empire he bequeathed to them.

3. Thessalonica was a commercial and cultic center, although not as important as Rome. In about 130 BC, the Via Egnatia, a major road designed to connect Rome with its eastern territories, was put through Thessalonica. The effect on the city was probably akin to what happened when Interstate highways were cut through sleepy rural areas in this country. Thessalonica became a major center for trade.

4. The city played up to Rome a lot, particularly the emperor Augustus. Because of this, Augustus gave Thessalonica the status of "free city," meaning that it had its own government.

5. The apostle Paul, who founded the church in Thessalonica, first arrived there at some point during the reign of Claudius. (Robert Graves fictionalized this emperor in his famous book-turned-into-PBS-miniseries, I, Claudius.) Claudius ruled from 41 to 54 AD. "Thessalonians had already erected a statue of Augustus as one of several honors to the Romans" by the time of Paul's arrival, the NIB commentary says.

6. A key issue in the Thessalonian letters, the NIB commentary also says, is "the conflict between those in the church and other Thessalonians." In other words, the Thessalonian community felt threatened when Christians confessed that Jesus Christ was their king, the source of their peace and security, and the One to Whom they owed their ultimate loyalty. All of these assertions were similar to what they said about the emperor. The loyalty of the Christians to Christ there would have been seen as an insult to Rome.

"In the eyes of the Thessalonians, support for Jesus weakened support for the Romans, who had brought tangible benefits to the city."

7. Why did Paul establish a church in Thessalonica? The NIB commentary says: "...Paul seems to have planted house churches in strategic locations and to have sent them letters and emissaries in his absence in order to strengthen the solidarity of the assemblies and to correct any problems occurring in the wake of his departure." We'll see this big-time in our passage for this weekend.

I hope to bring more to you, including a specific verse-by-verse explanation of the passage, to you tomorrow.

A Book Still Worthy of a Place in Your Personal Library

[I'm re-running this post for reasons that will become obvious as you read it.]

My mentor, friend, colleague, and one-time parishioner, Ron Claussen, has written and published a book of devotions called What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

Back when I was a new pastor, called to serve a church in northwestern Ohio twenty-one years ago, God blessed me big time: Ron was serving a neighboring parish composed of two congregations, each about three miles from me. The day after I arrived on the scene, he visted me and gave me the best advice on being a pastor I've ever heard. "Love the people," he told me.

Whenever I was disappointed that I wasn't proving to be the Lutheran version of Billy Graham, packing them in Sunday after Sunday, or when the grey winter skies, so prominent on the flat farmland that surrounded us, brought me down, my wife co-conspired with Ron. She called him and said, "Ron, it's time" and unaware of their conspiracy and amazed by his providential timing, I received a call from Ron, who asked, "Want to go out to lunch today?" Because of his listening ear and his solid Biblical counsel, I always felt better after those lunches!

The area where we served in northwestern Ohio included the most-heavily Lutheran county in the United States, Henry County. (The building facilities of the church where I served as pastor, Bethlehem Lutheran Church of Okolona, Ohio, set on the line between Henry and Defiance Counties.) We used to joke that you couldn't spit without hitting a Lutheran there and Lutheran church buildings dotted every hamlet and just about every other country road. Each of them was close to being packed to the rafters on Sunday mornings. Because there were such strong ties among those churches and because unlike the rest of us, Ron had taken the time to figure out how everybody in a four-county area were related to one another, he was known and beloved by every member of every one of those churches. We pastors thought of Ron as our "bishop" and of ourselves as his assistants.

But it wasn't just the Lutherans who sensed the powerful presence of Christ and His love in Ron. Congregations of several different denominations facing pastoral vacancies harbored the hope that maybe they could cajole Ron into becoming their pastor. He also had an easy way of relating to non-believing people, an authentically friendly manner that earned their confidence and their trust.

When he became development director for the Filling Memorial Home of Mercy in Napoleon, Ohio, a Lutheran facility for severely and profoundly mentally retarded children and adults, churches and individuals from throughout our area became more deeply involved in volunteering and financially supporting the institution. On a bigger stage, Ron shared Christ's love and "loved the people." They, in turn, saw the Filling Home as a great way to share the love of Christ with those in need and, at the same time, support the ministry of a pastor they had come to revere. (One of the auxiliary blessings that flowed from Ron going to the Filling Home is that he and his wife and family joined the congregation I served as pastor!)

Ron has retired and now confined to a wheelchair as the result of being victimized by polio back in 1952, he still is loving the people. He has an active email ministry and has, as I've mentioned, written and published What? God...You Want Me To Do Something?

I heartily recommend it for you to help you grow in your life of faith. It's composed of 52 weekly devotional pieces that each conclude with a challenge to the reader to compose their plans for living the devotion over that seven day period. The devotions, in other words, are a lot like Ron: A terrific communicator of the Good News of Jesus Christ, his life has always nonetheless been his greatest witness.

Getting your own copy of Ron's book will be a bit of a challenge. You can't, unfortunately, order it from Amazon. But the effort you take will be worth it. Here's how to get it:

(1) If you live outside of Ohio, send a check for $13.75 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling.)

(2) If you live in Ohio, send a check for $14.50 to Ramblings from Ron Ministries. (That's $12.00 plus shipping and handling, plus sales tax.) For accurate record-keeping, please note your county of residence on the Memo line of your check.

(3) Be sure to note your return address on accompanying piece of paper.

(4) For every additional book, add 50-cents to cover shipping and handling.

(5) Mail your orders to: Ramblings from Ron Ministries, 24544 Kammeyer Road, Defiance, Ohio 43512.

There is nobody I respect more in pastoral ministry than Ron Claussen. He is the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned. Do yourself a favor and buy this inspiring book.

More on Germany's Mood

The New York Times has a piece on Germany's mood and the Du bist Deutschland advertising campaign. I wrote about this in a post called 'Du Bist Deutschland' and the Tragedy of German History on November 24.

While I believe that the causes of German melancholy aren't just economic, as some quoted in the Times article assert, there is no doubt that political leaders are likelier to offer psychological explanations for a society gone melancholy than to accept blame for failing to take tough economic and financial decisions.

Back in the first days of the Great Depression, then-President Herbert Hoover's friends ran ads on billboards that said, "Wasn't the Depression Awful?," as though massive unemployment was the result of negative thinking which, if simply changed, would turn the economy around.

In fact, the very term depression was apparently coined by Hoover himself, an attempt to portray the huge economic and financial problems America faced at that moment as being primarily a psychological malady. It was much more than that!

It appears that Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, is having nothing to do with the conventions of the financial, economic, and social attitudes which have prevailed in Germany for decades and is ready to administer the tough medicine necessary to help the country out of its economic doldrums.

That's all to the good. But even with that, Germany's spirits won't be healed. All of the other factors feeding German melancholy that I wrote about in my November 24 piece, will still be present and neither jobs, new houses, or faster cars will mask, sublimate, or eliminate that.

Nor can an ad campaign. No society that has ventured far from God or His call to love God and love neighbor can expect to feel good about itself. No society fails to be repentant for its wrongs, repentance being different from feeling shame, can be happy. When life is nothing more than a selfish pursuit of pleasures that end at the grave, whether that life is lived by a person or a nation, we can never stockpile sufficient pleasures to fill the void inside. When shame leads to self-flagellation rather than a sense of God's forgiveness and power for better living in the future, life is a treadmill. Living, under these circumstances, becomes a kind of nihilistic and unbearable crucible. That's how many Germans seem to experience life these days.

Germany is home to the spiritual revival called The Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther. Luther and his cohort called Germany and the world to a simple trust in Jesus Christ that transforms us from enemies of God to God's friends, that gives us a sense of confidence and security because we know that while we've done nothing to earn it, God approves of our existence and gives us the freedom to become our best selves. Through Christ's death on a cross and His resurrection from the dead, God has signed an Emancipation Proclamation or a Magna Carta setting all who follow Christ at liberty to be the people God made us to be! That gives us hope for the future and confidence for living today.

Germany has ventured far from God--as has our own country in spite of all the legalistc rhetoric and coercion masquerading as a Christian approach to politics these days.

I'm not advocating "Christian" policies on the part of the German government--or on the part of the US government, for that matter. (One reason being that it's unlikely you could get any three randomly-selected Christians to agree on what constitutes a "Christian" political policy anyway.) But I am saying that when the people of a society are voluntarily and personally surrendered to Jesus Christ, His love, charity, toughness, resilience, commitment to mutual service, and joy begin to enter their individual and collective life and things change for the better.

I'm praying for Germany...and for America...and myself, in hopes that we all will figure out how to depend on God and not the stuff of a dying world.

A Tourist Trap in the Making?

Apparently, the demolition expert charged with bringing down a tower in Sioux Falls ran into some problems. The result is that there's a leaning tower in South Dakota. (For more, see here.)

But before the building's owners bring it down completely, maybe they should consider whether they'd like to turn Sioux Falls into the American Pisa.

My wife visited that other Leaning Tower last year and reports that it's nothing but an undeservedly hyped tourist trap. "It's just like the World's Largest Prarie Dog," she said when she called me from Pisa on a cell phone.

She was referring to a much-hyped attraction that we saw astride I-70 in Kansas two years ago. For miles of our trip to Durango, Colorado, billboards announced the location of the Prarie Dog. Several hours after seeing the first sign publicizing this wonder, we passed the object of all the hype. Partly concealed by a wooden wall like one of those screens behind which performers changed their costumes in the old show-biz musicals was a six-foot tall Prarie Dog...made of concrete.

It looked like there were actually people who had paid to see it. The way I see it, if people are willing to part with their cash to look at a concrete Prarie Dog, they might buy a tumbler, pennant, or paper fan as a souvenir of their visit to the Leaning Tower of Sioux Falls.

Ohio State-Notre Dame Bowl Matchup

I'm told that the Buckeyes are four-and-a-half point favorites over the Irish. I expected that it would be more like a touchdown. I would love to go to the game!

Go Buckeyes!

Monday, December 05, 2005

What is the Church Year? A Bit of an Explanation

Every Sunday morning, I sit down with anyone who might be interested in discussing the Biblical texts around which our worship for that day has been built. It's a way of exploring the themes of the Bible lesson I use for my weekend messages more fully.

A week ago, on November 27, we celebrated the First Sunday in Advent, the first day of a new Church Year. So, in order to set the table, so to speak, during my weekly group. I talked a little bit about the Church Year. It was suggested that I might write down some of what I shared then. So, here goes.

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anybody else. Nor does keeping it "save" a person from sin and death.

But the Church Year is one of those customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also help them to grow in their faith.

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after the risen Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven that the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holy day that Christians began to celebrate. This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the earliest practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jesus' fellow Jews from Judea, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week.)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. Its theme is waiting. This season remembers more than the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. It also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in our own lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. The color usually associated with Advent is blue, like the sky, reminding us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing, The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. The date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day historically used to commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus to a house in Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph apparently decided to live for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave one another presents.) There are between four and nine Sundays after the Epiphany. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, that always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration, the occasion when on top of a mountain, three of His disciples saw His image transfigured in the luminescence of heaven while He spoke with two figures of Old Testament faith, Moses and Elijah. On those two Sundays, the associated color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal which precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days. The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday is a time when all are especially reminded of it.

Near the end of the season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is really misused today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate, related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was to be executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another. Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is the most somber and one of the most moving worship services of the year. At our congregation, as is true of many churches, we have a service called Tenebrae. This word comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, usually on the last or next-to-last Sunday in November with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lesson during its year is often taken from John.

At Friendship Church, where I serve as pastor, we've decided to use one or, at most, two Bible lessons on most Sundays. This allows our worship to be more thematically tight. About 80% of the time, those lessons come from the lectionary.

But I also feel free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world.

UPDATE: Mark Roberts, one of my favorite bloggers, is doing a series on that part of the Church Year we're currently celebrating, Advent. Check it out here.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Seven Sevens (Almost)

Both Charlie Lehardy, whose blog is called Another Think, and John Schroeder of Blogotional, have hit me with a meme.

For the uninitated, this is sort of like a chain letter in which bloggers are asked to respond to a series of questions.

The meme they sent my way is the by-now-famous, Seven Meme, to which Jan of The View from Her has also responded.

Seven Things I'd Like To Do Before I Die:
  • Write a book of practical inspiration
  • Write a book of history or biography
  • Record a collection of original songs
  • Write and host a Cosmos-like presentation of the Gospel
  • Travel (especially return to England and Germany and go to France, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and Japan, as well as to those US states I've not yet visited)
  • Orbit the earth in space
  • Sleep in the White House
Seven Things I Cannot Do:
  • Play an instrument (even though I do compose songs)
  • Change oil in a car
  • Paint a wall without dripping paint everywhere
  • Watch the ultimate scenes in It's a Wonderful Life, Field of Dreams, or Mr. Holland's Opus without crying
  • Find my way anywhere using a map (I need written directions)
  • Leave the label visible when I hang up a bath towel
  • Understand the appeal of the movie, Titanic
Seven Things That Attract Me to My Wife:
  • Her honesty
  • Her common sense
  • Her disinterest in receiving gifts
  • Our shared philosophies of life
  • Her integrity
  • Her commitment to Christ
  • Her impatience with phoniness
Seven Things I Say Most Often:
  • "Am I calling at a bad time?"
  • "I love you" (to my wife and kids and some of my friends)
  • "Let's just give it a rip and see what happens"
  • "I may have to blog about that"
  • "Does that make sense?" (said to make sure I'm not just jawing incomprehensibly)
  • "I've got a lot I want to get done today"
  • "How are you doing today?"
Seven Books I Love:
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Prayer by Ole Hallesby
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (especially volume 7, The Last Battle)
  • Patriarch by Richard Norton Smith
  • Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
  • Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham

Nine Movies I Watch Over and Over Again:
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • Field of Dreams
  • Bishop's Wife
  • The Sword in the Stone
  • Casablanca
  • Citizen Kane
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Spanglish
  • Napoleon Dynamite
Seven People I Want to Invite to Join This Meme:
I won't list anybody here. But if any of the regular readers of this blog who are bloggers themselves want to participate, I would be interested in how you respond to these seven questions.

When Confusion Comes

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on both December 3 and 4, 2005.]

Second Peter 3:8-15a [through the word salvation]
Matthew 1:18-25

An economist read our first Bible lesson for today and was struck by the words with which it begins: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

So, the economist asked God, “Lord, is it true that a thousand years for us is like one minute to you?” God said yes. The economist said, “Then a million dollars must be like one penny to You.” God said yes to that, too. The economist then asked, “Will you give me one of those pennies?” And God told him, “All right, I will... Wait here a minute.”

Sometimes life can be confusing. Even God can be confusing. God promises to be with us always and to hear our prayers. Yet there are times and seasons in our lives when we may feel that God is far away from us and terribly slow to respond to our cries for help.

When we find ourselves in such circumstances, we want answers. Instead, an eternal God seems to tell us to be patient. He tells us to live for a while with confusion, loose ends, and unknown destinations. Do you ever wonder why God does that?

If we do wonder, we’re not alone. Our first Bible lesson was addressed to people in precisely that sort of confusion. Most scholars think that the book of Second Peter was written sometime after the year 70 AD. That would have been about forty years after Jesus died and rose. Most of the early Christians were sure that the risen Jesus would return to the earth within their short earthly lifetimes. After all, they reasoned, all the signs that Jesus said pointed to His second coming had already happened: wars, famines, earthquakes, disasters manmade and natural. They looked forward to Jesus coming back, closing the book on this sinful old world, and creating new heavens and a new earth. They looked forward too, to Jesus bringing an end to their being persecuted for their faith, to having their tears dried, and their deepest pain converted into eternal comfort and joy. But Jesus hadn’t come back. And so they were confused.

Our second lesson recounts a similar state of confusion in the life of an obedient follower of God named Joseph. The Gospel of Matthew from which our lesson comes, tells us that Joseph was “righteous,” meaning that here was a man who was right with God. He lived in a relationship of daily repentance and renewal with God. He strove each day to love God and to love his neighbor. Joseph is the kind of person most of us, in our heart of hearts, would like to be. And he’s the sort of guy about whom we might say, “If anyone deserved to have life go his way, it would be Joseph.”

And yet, as we all know, one day Joseph’s world was turned upside down. His betrothed, a young girl named Mary, told him that she was pregnant. Joseph knew that he wasn’t the father and he understandably couldn’t believe Mary’s fantastic tale that it was by God’s Holy Spirit that she had conceived and that the child in her womb was the Savior of the world, God in the flesh.

And so, we’re told, Joseph resolved to divorce Mary quietly. To understand this, you need a little explanation. In those days, there were two parts to the marriage covenant. First, came the betrothal. Although our translation calls it an engagement, a betrothal was more than that. Once betrothal had happened, couples were considered to already be married. They just weren’t living together and had not yet consummated their relationships. Second, came the actual ceremony and the move of the bride into her new husband’s home. If a betrothed person was found to have had sex with another person, the punishment was death for both offenders.

Joseph had no desire to see Mary killed. He decided to give her a quiet release from their covenant. Maybe then she could go off somewhere else to deliver her child and her guilt being undetected, be allowed to live.

Then came Joseph’s dream in which a messenger from God, an angel, told him, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. Mary’s story is true. You must be the earthly father to Jesus, the Savior of the whole human race.”

I don’t imagine that ended Joseph’s confusion. But he obeyed. He took Mary as his wife and he raised Jesus as though he were his own son.

With the passage of time, Jesus proved to be the very Savior the messenger had told Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb was. Jesus did defeat the enemies of sin and death for the whole human race. But Joseph was long dead before Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. Nonetheless, in the midst of the confusing loose ends of life, He trusted and He obeyed God without knowing for sure how things would turn out. He only saw with the eyes of faith!

That’s the way it can be when we set out on journeys, whatever kind they may be. When I was seven years old, my folks decided to take our family on a vacation to Central Lake in Michigan. They also decided that we would set out in our 1954 blue two-tone Plymouth at midnight. Dad set newspapers down on the floor in the back in order to fill in the wells that surrounded the hump that ran down the middle of the car. Then he put a sleeping bag over top of them to form my bed. For my sister who is three years younger than me, he made a bed of the back seat. And the sister who is six years younger than I am was placed in one of those little car beds that hooked to the front seat and rested on the back seat.

Why did my folks decide to leave at midnight? Because when you’re as young and inexperienced at traveling as we three were, it’s hard to be patient. My folks hoped we would fall asleep and not pepper them with such inevitable questions as: Are we there yet? How much longer? Why is it taking so long? Can we stop at HoJo’s for ice cream?

When you’re a kid you want instant gratification. You want everything to go your (I don't think that things change much when you get older!) But that isn’t always the way life goes. Any time we take a trip, the destination is out of our view for at least 99% of the way. You simply have to trust that it’s there. That isn’t easy. Like that great theologian, Tom Petty. once sang, “You take it on faith, you take it to heart. The waiting is the hardest part.”

The amazing thing about Joseph is that he knew and accepted that good things from God usually take time. They require a journey, not of ease, but of patience and diligence and trust in God. So, when confusion comes to us, when the uncertainties of life dog us and God seems far away, how are we to live?

Peter addresses this question in the second part of our first lesson. He says: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

We can use the times of confusion, even times of pain and difficulty, in positive ways, trusting that God hasn't forgotten us.

Many of you have heard me speak of my mentor and seminary professor, Bruce Schein. Pastor Schein died when he was only forty-two. Few of us realized how much he suffered or for how long. The last year was particularly hard for him. He had always been a slight man. But the last time I saw him, he looked almost emaciated. Yet, he soldiered on. I used to get notes from him, encouraging me in my ministry and revealing that even as he suffered, he was praying for people all over the world. He strove to be found by God at peace with God, with neighbor, and with himself. I think that he may have especially understood that last bit of today’s lesson from Second Peter.

We’re to regard the seeming tardiness of God to act in our lives not as some rejection by God, but as a sign of God’s patience with us. When we let Him, God uses our seasons of confusion to shape us into the people He wants us to be.

Back in my twenties, I worked at the United Way in Columbus. I hated that job, not so much because of the job, but because of the nastiness of my bosses. At about the same time, I came to faith in Christ and I begged God to get me out of that place. It took a long time for God to answer my prayers and I wondered why God waited so.

I got the answer just a few months ago: I was asked to work on a big new fund-raising campaign for the Boys and Girls Club here in Clermont County. Why? Because all the things that I learned on a job I hated helps me to understand the approach of a new program that the national Boys and Girls program has developed and wants us to do. God waited to answer my prayer to help me be of use to others. He used a lousy experience to shape me for a task he was to give me twenty-seven years later! Wow!

Does life confuse you? Does God seem far away? Hold onto Christ. Strive, like Joseph, to trust and obey. Lay every moment of your life before God in prayer. Trust the God we know in Jesus to give you calm in the chaos and the sure and certain hope of endless tomorrows with Him. The God Who came to us at Christmas promises these things and you can believe Him.

[The joke about the economist comes from Perfect Illustrations.]