Thursday, December 31, 2009

Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl: I'm Apprehensive, Confident

I'd be fibbing if I claimed to not be apprehensive about my Ohio State Buckeyes' date with the Oregon Ducks in tomorrow's Rose Bowl. I am apprehensive. But I am also confident.

I've gotten to see the Ducks several times this year. They have a formidable offense and an excellent quarterback. If Ohio State's defense doesn't play as well as they are capable of playing--and they are capable of playing extremely well, there is no way I see OSU's offense can keep up with that of Oregon. But, I think that low-scoring game delivered by the Ohio Sate D-line, favors the Buckeyes.

The last time I saw Oregon play, against archrival Oregon State, I wasn't impressed with the Ducks. Raised on Big Ten football, which puts a premium on great, body-pounding defense, I can't say that I'm ever dazzled by games with results like 44-41 or 37-33, the scores of the Ducks' last two wins.

None of this is to say that I think the Pac 10 is soft; accusations of that sort are pure malarkey. I am saying that the Buckeyes definitely can win this game--and should win this game if the defense comes to play, as they have all season long.

Of course, the 8000-pound gorilla for the Buckeyes is the accusation that Ohio State doesn't win the big ones. That isn't true, of course. They've had to win some big ones to play in BCS games as routinely as they have under Coach Jim Tressel. But because of several nationally-televised losses against big-time opponents, including the two most recent of them by cat-whisker scores, the myth has developed.

That myth will, at the least, be in the backs of every OSU player's mind tomorrow, and the pressure to win will the be a second opponent against which the Buckeyes will line up.

That said, I think the Buckeyes will win tomorrow.

In any case, Jim Tressel is still the best college football coach in the country and...

Go, Buckeyes!

My Aim for 2010

This 1997 song from Delirious?, embodies my "new year's resolution." I intend to grow deeper in my relationship with Jesus Christ. I feel certain that I've posted this song before. No matter. It's a great song and speaks my heart on December 31, 2009.

Here are the lyrics:
I want to go deeper
But I don't know how to swim
I want to be meeker
But have you seen this old earth?
I want to fly higher
But these arms won't take me there
I want to be, I want to be

Maybe I could run
Maybe I could fly, to you
Do you feel the same
When all you see is
Blame in me?

And the wonder of it all is that I'm living just to fall
More in love with you [x2]

I want to go deeper
But is it just a stupid whim?
I want to be weaker
Be a help to the strong
I want to run faster
But this old leg won't carry me
I want to be, I want to be

Maybe I could run
Maybe I could fly, to you
Do you feel the same
When all you see is
Blame in me?

And the wonder of it all is that I'm living just to fall
More in love with you [x2]

Maybe I could run
Maybe I could follow
It's time to walk the path
Where many seem to fall
Hold me in your arms
Just like any father would
How long do we have to wait?
How long, we're going all the way

And the wonder of it all is that I'm living just to fall
More in love with you

Written by Martin Smith/Stuart Garrard �1997 Curious? Music UK
(Delirious? is no more, having finished their seventeen years together with a European farewell tour and a final concert in London last month. But what a body of work and what a witness for the God Who sets out to save the world through the crucified and risen Jesus!]

Faith Tidbit #4

We don't know the actual date of Jesus' birth. Centuries ago, Christians decided to hold the festival of Jesus' birth at roughly the same time as the Roman festival dedicated to Saturnalia, "the birthday of the unconquered sun." This is one of many examples of how Christians have, through the centuries, shrewdly adapted what already existed in order to point to and worship Jesus Christ, God-enfleshed. Jesus commends shrewdness to His followers.

The Quotable Daniels: Trusting Christ

I would rather be wrong in this life for trusting in Christ than to be right in the life to come for not trusting in Him.

Wholly Other AND Accessible

"The moment we think we've captured God in a human image, we should realize he is far greater than that. But the moment we think God is too great to relate to, we should realize he is far too good to leave it at that." (Roger E. Olson in Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption, pp.35-36)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Don't fall into the trap of self-reliance"

I read something from the book of Hebrews this morning during my morning devotions with the online version of Our Daily Bread. Talk about a wake-up call! The words from Hebrews were cleansing, icy water on a cold morning:
For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries...How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26, 29-31)
The New Testament book of Hebrews is one of the most interesting places in the Bible. It presents a sermon by an anonymous first-century Jewish Christian preacher, delivered to fellow Jewish Christians.

By the time the sermon was given, the Christian movement had grown to the point that it was eliciting official persecution from the Roman Empire in which Jesus was first proclaimed as Messiah and God-enfleshed.

The Roman authorities regarded all monotheists as "atheists" because of their refusal to acknowledge a multiplicity of gods, most especially the ruling emperor. That had lain behind Roman persecution of Jews.

But the fervor and the growth of Christianity were, by the time the preacher of Hebrews presents his sermon, of greater concern to Roman authorities than were the Jews.

Outright persecution and threats designed to make Christians renounce their confession of Christ as the only Lord--the word is kurios in the Greek of the New Tesament, meaning boss or king of everything--weren't working.

That's when the Empire came up with another strategy, this one aimed at dividing and conquering. Officials told Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was Messiah that if they renounced their confession and returned to Judaism without Christ, they would be left alone. But if they continued to confess Christ, they would face continued, perhaps intensified, persecution.

The aim of the preacher in Hebrews is to encourage his fellow Jewish Christians to remain steadfast, to not abandon Christ.

His argument for Christ is akin to that implicitly made by the author of Luke and Acts, that faithfulness to the God of the Old Testament meant confessing Jesus as Lord and God. Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament faith. The sacrificial system of the Jerusalem temple, he says, was a shadow and preview of Jesus Christ, the spotless lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world for those who believe in Him, once and for all. Going back to that system, knowing that it was now superceded and rendered irrelevant by Christ's death and resurrection, was not an option for a faithful Jew. It would be a rejection of God Himself and of their faith as Jews, the preacher argues, to now disavow faith Christ.

Hebrews, chapter 10, after discussing Christ not only as the perfect sacrificial lamb, but also as the sinless high priest, brings a ringing call to persevere in faith in Christ. Through Christ, he says, we have the confidence to enter the presence of God always, something that would not have been possible under the old sacrificial system. Then comes the words I quoted above, warning his fellow Jewish Christians not to shrink back from walking with Christ when they knew Who He was. That would imperil their eternal lives.

For me, these words are of more than historical interest. As a Gentile Christian who came to faith thirty-three years ago, the warning is clear. To knowingly defy the will of God--whether by spurning Christ or to deliberately sin when I know better--is to put my eternal salvation at risk.

As I reflected on the familiar words from Hebrews once again today, I had to confess that I have done just this. Though I've known the right path--I've known that keeping the God I know in Jesus as my only object of worship, that the will of God is to love God and love neighbor, and that the Ten Commandments haven't been revoked, there have been times when I have willfully done what I wanted to do rather than what God clearly wanted me to do.

Of course, on each occasion, I've had my rationalizations, reasons why under these circumstances or this set of conditions, it was OK for me to sin. Someone had annoyed me. The situation was different this time. Or my intellect or emotions told me that this time, what was usually wrong was not only acceptable, but right. I replaced God's judgment and authority with my own.

Whenever I did that, I immediately erected a wall between God and me. Hebrews says that I stood naked in my sin before God, there no longer remained a sacrifice for my sins. I declared my independence from God and in so doing, also declared my independence from grace. I was telling Christ on His cross, "No, thanks. I'll fend for myself."

That was not only stupid, it was dangerous.

Other than Jesus, Who was both God and human, we all sin, of course. We all sin each day, in thoughts and actions.

But Christians who have acknowledged their sin, trusted in Christ, and committed themselves to never knowingly sinning and to daily repent of sin so that it can gain no foothold in their lives or rise as a rival to Christ's Lordship, who then deliberately flout the will of God, play a game of Russian Roulette guaranteed to end in eternal separation from God.

Thank God that, after short seasons of egomania when I dared to be my own god and ignore the true God revealed to all in Christ, I finally came to my senses. God gave me the time and opportunity to authentically repent. I acknowledged my hubris. I owned the fact that I had ignored the counsel of God's Holy Spirit even though I knew better. In Christ, I knew that I was forgiven.

But the words from Hebrews 10:26-31, remind me to always be confident in the grace of God, but never allow confidence in forgiveness to turn forgetfulness about my need of grace or the justice and rectitude of God.

I still sin each day. I have plenty to confess during my times of prayer in the mornings and evenings. But I pray never again erect a wall between God and me by ignoring God's will. When tempted to do that, I pray that God will scream into my hearts, "Don't fall back into the trap of self-reliance. That's the road to hell. Keep walking with Me!"

The words of an old Randy Stonehill song, Angry Young Men, also are good, even as I become an older man, to remember in confronting my sinful penchant for trying to be my own god:
He wants some angry young men
Ones who can't be bought
Ones who will not run from a fight
Ones who speak the truth whether it's
popular or not
Ones who'd give up anything to walk
in His light

Rest assured when Jesus comes again
He'll be looking for some angry
young men

He wants some angry young men
With fire in their eyes
Ones who understand what Jesus gave
Ones who have grown weary
of the world and all its lies
Ones who won't forget they've been
delivered from the grave

(Repeat Chorus)

They say if you don't laugh you cry
I say if you don't live you die
Well, well, the road to hell is paved with
some impressive alibis
But unless you thirst for Jesus first
Man, heaven will pass you by
Heaven will pass you by

You'll be tempted, tried and tested
There'll be wars the devil wins
But God's love is not a license to lie
there in your sins
He understands the human heart
His mercy is complete
But His grace was not intended
As a place to wipe your feet

(Repeat Chorus)

He wants some angry young men
Who love the Lord they serve
Ones who'll do much more than make
a speech
Ones who'll act their faith out with a
passion it deserves
'Cause if we cannot live it
Tell me, who are we to preach?

(Repeat Chorus)

Written and composed by Randy Stonehill
© 1985 Word Music (a division of Word,
Inc.) and Stonehillian Music (ASCAP)

So you think being a Christian means you'll have a trouble-free life?

So you think being a Christian means you'll have a trouble-free life?

Not so much.

The Bible promises, "Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12).

And Jesus says, "In the world you face persecution." He goes on to say, "But take courage; I have conquered the world" (John 16:33).

Persecution isn't just exercised by oppressive governments slapping believers into jail cells.

Persecution also comes from people who mock faith or question the intelligence of those who trust in the risen Christ.

Persecution is exerted by the guardians of political correctness, by scoffing family members who tell you that you need to "loosen up," and by the whispers of Satan trying to convince you that you're a chump for following a God you can't see rather than things you can see.

Persecution comes in many forms and it is guaranteed to be part of the Christian life.

I have to ask myself: If I'm not catching flak for my faith in Christ, how faithful am I really being?

If I'm "following Christ" only because I think it will give me a trouble-free life, I've got another think coming!

But I also know that even in the midst of troubles, the risen Christ is with me, using the negative circumstances of my life to rebuild me and to gradually transform me into the person God can use for the best of purposes--God's purposes. God is fitting me not just for this life, but for eternal life.

The motivational speakers focus on being successful and happy today. God is interested in how we live--and that we live--over the long haul of eternity.

Jesus doesn't want to be a lucky charm who prevents us from experiencing unpleasantness. He wants to be our God and King and Savior.

When we Christians say in the Apostles' Creed that we "believe in Jesus Christ, [God's] only Son our Lord," we're espousing trust in the God of the long haul, Who gives something more valuable and enduring than an easy life this side of the grave.

I like Paul's words, which I almost always read at gravesite committals of the bodies of believers who have died: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19).

When I get bogged down in discouragement, frustration, or self-pity over those who scorn the Bible or my faith in Christ, I have to remind myself, "Don't look for an easy life, Mark. Look for Christ and His help in living a faithful life, no matter what."

It's a helpful reminder for me. I thought it might help you too.

More on This Sunday's Gospel Lesson (John 1:1-18)

Ginger Barfield, Dean and vice president for Academic Affairs at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, has good insights into this Sunday's Gospel lesson, here.

The painting to the left by Matthias Grünewald is historically inaccurate. Obviously, the execution of John the Baptist (by beheading) occurred before the execution of Jesus by crucifixion. But Grünewald's portrayal as one who pointed to or witnessed to the Lordship of Jesus is accurate. You can click on the illustration to see it enlarged.

By the way, don't confuse John the Baptist with John, the writer of the Gospel of John.

Be sure to read Barfield's short commentary. She does a good job.

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (January 3, 2010)

Here's a discussion of the lessons around which our worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, will revolve this coming Sunday. These comments are a re-run of a post I presented last year. Since we follow a lectionary associated with the Church Year, these comments might help others get ready for worship, too.

Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2010

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:10-18

Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, You have filled all the earth with the light of Your incarnate Word. By Your grace empower us to reflect Your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

General Comments:
1. The Christmas Season continues on the Church calendar. The season ends January 6, Epiphany Day. Epiphany, falling the day after "the twelfth day of Christmas," commemorates the arrival of the magicians (magi, astrologers) bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Christ.

2. The Bible lessons during the short Christmas Season emphasize God's past promises of reconciliation to ancient Israel, the fulfillment of those promises in the Messiah Jesus, the implications of God becoming human, and the promises of the complete realization of God's kingdom in Christ.

Jeremiah 31:7-14
1. Our lesson from Jeremiah comes from chapter 31, of this Old Testament book, a chapter important for Lutherans because Jeremiah 31:31-34, is always the Old Testament lesson for Reformation Sunday celebrations in October. It's a chapter in which Jeremiah spoke of the restoration of Israel following a sad cycle of treachery to God and consequent imprisonment by foreign conquerors.

2. Jeremiah descended from a prophet who had incurred the wrath of King Solomon long years before. Abiathar was banished to his ancestral home of Anothoth, a few miles from Jerusalem, but far from palace life.

Jeremiah began his ministry in 627BC and continued for more than forty years.

As explained by the editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version):
Jeremiah is much concerned with rewards and punishments, the recompense for good and evil, faithfulness and obedience [to God]...He criticized Judah [the Southern Kingdom, composed of a portion of the former Israel, which broke up shortly following the reign of Solomon] for its worship of gods other than the LORD, with all the attendant evils in cult and daily life. God's covenant people must return to him. The judgment must come, but the ominous future (later, the unhappy present) would be replaced by a new and more enduring relationship with God.
3. In the lesson for this Sunday, Jeremiah says that following his people's exile to conqueror Babylon, there would be a restoration. The exiled slaves will return to their promised land. Unlike the first exodus, there will be ready supplies of water along the way. Also unlike that first exodus, which saw God's people following a circuitous route, the returning exiles will come by "a straight path."

God's reason for providing an easy way home may be that, unlike the whiny group God led from Egypt, the descendants He will lead from exile understand their need of God and the futility and stupidity of relying on anyone or anything but God. God had lots of lessons to teach the ancient Hebrews; by the time God led the exiles back to Israel, they presumably, had learned the lessons of mature faith.

4. Jeremiah prophesies a time of restoration when the harvests will be plentiful. In v.14, he speaks of even the priests having plenty. Old Testament law said that the people were to give a portion of their produce to the priests, who, in turn, would be freed to focus full time on their priestly duties.

Psalm 147:12-20
1. Last Sunday's psalm, Psalm 148, was the middle of the five final songs of the Old Testament's worship book. Each begins and ends with, "Hallelujah!," a Hebrew word meaning, "Praise the Lord!"

This Sunday's psalm is another from that grouping. Like Jeremiah, it praises the God of all creation for His regard for His chosen people. Israel was unique among the nations, the people to Whom God revealed His gracious nature, preparing it to become, through His Son, a light to all the nations.

Ephesians 1:3-14
1. Those who claim, as many modern scholars do, that Ephesians wasn't written by the apostle Paul, have a major problem to resolve when it comes to these verses. The entire passage is one sentence, consistent with the undisputed writings of Paul.

2. The lesson from Jeremiah talked about the restoration of God's Old Testament people. This lesson assures us that in Christ, Jews and Gentiles who hope in Christ are heirs of God's pledge to set Christ's followers free of sin and death.

John 1:10-18
This is the latter part of the prologue to John's Gospel. John employs modes of thought and allusions to both Greek philosophy and the Old Testament. It affirms that the foundational, energizing Word of the universe--God Himself--entered the world.

He came, in fact, to His chosen people and most of them, along with the Romans, supposedly representing the most sophisticated of the Gentiles, didn't recognize Jesus for Who He was.

But, John says, some could see in Jesus the overabundant amplitude of God's grace and receive it through Him.

I love verse 17. Here's my Daniels caveman paraphrase:
Sure, Moses was the lawgiver. That's no small thing. The law God gives through Moses teaches us what human beings do if they want to be human. But grace and truth, the things that turn us from enemies to friends and children of God, the things that pour life into our otherwise dead and dormant frames, those truly big deals, come only from Jesus the Messiah.

Faith Tidbit #3

The Old Testament was almost entirely written in Hebrew. The New Testament was written entirely in Greek. By the first century AD, when the New Testament was written, Greek was the second language of much of the world, like English is today.

The Quotable Daniels: Freedom

License and freedom are two different things. God will let us take license, but, in Christ, wants to give us freedom.

(See here)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

God is Enough

Speaker Glenna Salsbury, of whom I first became aware when I read an article she authored for the very first Chicken Soup for the Soul collection, has been an inspiration to me for years now. We've also shared a long-time personal email correspondence in which she has been a real encouragement to me as a Christian and as a pastor.

Glenna sends an emailed inspirational newsletter to thousands of people. It's called Heavenly Treasures. The December 21 installment was great. I asked Glenna for permission to present it here.

Heavenly Treasures
December 21, 2009
“How shall this be…?”
Luke 1:34

How many of us have been puzzled, discouraged, paralyzed or even hopeless over seemingly impossible circumstances in our lives? And in the midst of it all we
want to believe the promises of God, but our faith is weak and waning.

Can you imagine how the Virgin Mary must have felt in the midst of her life experience as a very young Jewish girl? She was engaged to be married to Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth. To be engaged was an official commitment that required divorce if it was terminated. And any form of sexual immorality was subject to death by a public stoning based on Mosaic law.

Suddenly, Mary’s quiet, simple life is thrown into incredible, unforeseen turmoil. This young virgin experiences an angelic visitation. That event, in and of itself, created complete consternation in her. “And when she saw him, she was troubled… “(Luke 1:29) And even more troubling was the message the angel delivered. “… God has decided to bless you. You will become pregnant and have a son… “ (Luke 1:30, 31 NLT) Mary’s response: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” In the New Living Translation we read, “But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin.” (Luke 1:34 NLT)

Imagine the fear, the anxiety and the confusion that must have overtaken Mary. And how could this apparently strange event be a sign of God’s blessing on her life? The fear of rejection, embarrassment, ridicule, even death must have gripped her. The angel encouraged her not to be afraid. And then Gabriel, the angel, answered her question. He explained
how the seemingly impossible would become a reality. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you… For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:35, 37 NLT)

Gabriel’s answer to Mary’s question is the ultimate answer to every question, every dilemma, every fear that enters our own apparently impossible situations in life. The Holy Spirit, God living in us as believers, is our only source of comfort and our only source of power. And He is enough. He is God
in us.

As Christ was preparing to be crucified the disciples were confused and troubled because they could not understand what was happening. The Lord spoke to them, “Let not your heart be troubled… I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:1, 2) He promised them that what they perceived to be painful and agonizing and confusing was actually His sovereign plan for blessing them.

Now we know the end of the story in Mary’s experience: Christ was born! And we know of the Lord’s resurrection and pouring out of the Holy Spirit to comfort the disciples after His resurrection and ascension. The problem for us, humanly, is that we do not know the “rest of the story” in our own current circumstances. Yet the Lord is giving us the same promises right now.
All that is unfolding in our lives is a blessing straight from Him. He has designed “all things” for our highest good. (Romans 8:28) And He has filled us with Himself, the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is by His power that God will accomplish the seemingly impossible in our lives personally.

The peace of God that surpasses our understanding is ours as we, by His power, rest in the reality of His promises, His Word to us. (Philippians 4:7) That is the answer to our question, “How shall this be…?”

Oh, Holy Spirit, free us from worry and fear and concern. May we look to You for answers, and not be disturbed in our circumstances.
Glenna's new book HEAVENLY TREASURES is now available for $20 and Free Shipping. Just reply to this e-mail with a name and shipping address to receive your autographed copy. You can mail a check to Glenna Salsbury, 9228 N. 64th Place, Paradise Valley, AZ 85253 or provide Visa or MC information online or by phone, 480-483-7732. Also, Glenna's new 7 CD album, Digging Deeper...Discovering the Mystery That Sets You Free is available for $35.00 plus $4.95 for shipping. (The Study Guide can be downloaded from Glenna's website.)
Copyright 2009, Glenna Salsbury. To subscribe, send an email to
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About Truth

"Truth comes without an expiration date."*

*I think this is original with me. But to tell the truth, it seems too good to have not come from somewhere else and simply lodged in my brain.

An Encouraging Word

"If things go wrong, don't go with them." (Roger Babson, via my colleague, Glen VanderKloot)

Faith Tidbit #2

To be righteous, according to the Bible, is to be in a right relationship with God. A righteous person isn't morally perfect. On repenting for his sin, the adulterer and murderer King David (here and here) wasn't perfect, just forgiven. God's forgiveness made David right with God.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 Report of the Saint Matthew Parish Health Ministry

Here's a report I've written for submission to our congregation's annual meeting on January 31. It talks about the reason for even having a health ministry in a congregation and also the start we've made with one.
Parish Health Team Report for 2009
Pastor Mark Daniels

Why does a congregation need a health ministry, anyway?

Simply put, God cares about the health of people and calls the Church to care, too. Here are a few reasons for that:

First of all, the Bible says that the human body is God’s temple. When we care for our bodies and our health, we are, in another way, offering worship to our Maker and exercising good stewardship over God’s gift of life.

A parish health ministry may promote good stewardship of our bodies with things as basic as informational guidelines for preventing infectious diseases, holding blood pressure checks, and sponsoring talks by experts on topics such as weight management, hypertension, or diabetes.

A second reason for having a health ministry is that God cares about our bodies. When Jesus rose from the dead, He didn’t do so as some murky spirit; He arose bodily. He challenged the unbelieving Thomas to touch the wounds made by nails and thorns. In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess our belief that in Jesus Christ, we can look forward to “the resurrection of the body.”

A parish health ministry can underscore the unity of our bodies, minds, spirits, and emotions. Many studies demonstrate that when people’s faith is strong, they’re generally more physically healthy and psychologically happy and they have longer life expectancies. A parish health ministry can be a way of spreading the blessings of a relationship with Jesus Christ among the members of our congregation and the people of our community, making it a tool for spreading the good news of Jesus.

A third reason for a parish health ministry is that Jesus has told the Church to be involved in the same ministries He had while on the earth. Matthew 9:35 tells us about those ministries when it says that, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” Referring to the signs He performed pointing to His being God-in-the-flesh, Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “…the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father…” (John 14:12)

All people for whom we seek healing or healthy life styles will, of course, eventually die. We live in a fallen world. Like Jesus, our Lord, the most faithful people will also endure crosses. But even in people who don’t experience miracle cures, there is healing and strength provided when prayer is offered for them and when believers strive to live healthfully even in the midst of severe, sometimes fatal, ailments. Our word “salvation” in the English language is related to the word “salve,” a healing ointment. People who are healthy can better serve and love God and neighbor.

In a sense, Saint Matthew’s Parish Health Ministry began several years ago, when then-Vicar Janice Winters began to offer the healing service on the final Sunday of months with five Sundays in them. The response to that has been great, only increasing over time. I love it when we have the Service of Healing during our Sunday worship services.

In late 2008, I shared by belief that Saint Matthew would be a great candidate for a more deliberate parish health ministry, geared not just to healing from afflictions people were already experiencing, but to health practices as a priority of Christian faith.

The council encouraged me in this. I began reading books like The Parish Nurse: Providing a Minister of Health for Your Congregation by Pastor Granger Westberg (with Jill Westberg McNamara) and other resources. I also began talking with professionals who are part of Christian parish health ministry movement.

In early 2009, I met with Saint Matthew people who had expressed a willingness to at least consider being part of a parish health team at Saint Matthew. The materials that I had gathered were, frankly, overwhelming, and we weren’t certain about how to proceed.

That was when I was given the name of Rebecca Madine. She coordinates a support effort by Mount Carmel hospitals in Columbus geared specifically to help congregations with their parish health ministries. In April, Beth Morgan, Julie Mervis, and I met with her for the first time.

She was a huge help, encouraging us to start out simply. Among the first results of that good advice was the bulletin inserts dealing with a variety of health issues that so many have noticed and commented on in recent months.

Also resulting from our time with Rebecca are the posters and reminders regarding cleanliness and the importance of sneezing and coughing into our sleeves for curbing the spread of disease.

We also began offering hand sanitizer to those coming forward for Holy Communion during worship.

Next on the parish health team’s agenda, in 2010, is conducting a survey among members, asking you to let us know on what health-related issues we can most help you and the community.

Participants in the parish health team have been Beth Morgan, Julie Mervis, Angie McKee, and Laura Hopstetter.

If you would like to be involved, call the church office or simply turn up at our next announced meeting.
If you live in the Logan or Hocking County area and don't have a church home, feel free to check out Saint Matthew. You would be welcome.

2009 Report of Saint Matthew Servanthood Team

It's that time of year again, time for committees and groups within our congregation, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to provide annual reports on their activities. The chair of our new Servanthood Team, Becky Webb, asked me to write the report for that team. I did that today. I offer it here not only for our congregational members, but also as a way of letting people who may not be part of a church see how a mid-sized congregation approaches its call from Jesus to love its neighbors.
At a 2008 retreat for Church Council members led by Pastor John Tickner, former assistant to the bishop of the Southern Ohio Synod, Saint Matthew’s leadership began to think about what assets we have as a congregation to be used toward sharing the Gospel with others and toward serving others in Jesus’ Name.

From this sprang the idea of an emphasis on servanthood during Lent, 2009, as well as recruiting a Servanthood Team. The team would be charged with lifting up service in Jesus’ Name as a priority and plan servanthood events in which the whole congregation could be involved.

The team initiated two major events in 2009.

The first was the PSST Food Drive in May. There were two parts to the drive. On May 9, thirty-four members of Saint Matthew distributed empty sacks to about 800 Logan households. Attached to each sack was a flyer asking residents to donate peanut butter, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, and tuna, place them in the sack, and then set the filled sack on their porch the following Saturday.

On May 16, Saint Matthew members went out to collect the sacks. About 40% of all the households receiving the sacks filled them with food donations.

The sacks were then brought back to Saint Matthew’s fellowship hall where, joined by six employees of Jobs and Family Services giving of their time during “off-hours,” the food was sorted into the 218 bags for distribution among needy households in our county. Jobs and Family Services saw to it that families they serve received the food.

About 50 Saint Matthew members were involved in the pick up of sacks.

On Saturday, August 22, another event was held, a Drive-Through Community Baby Shower. Through advertising in local papers, community members were invited to bring their donations of baby formula and diapers for distribution by the Hocking County Health Department and the Hocking County Developmental Disabilities agency.

The agencies with which Saint Matthew teamed receive state support. But with the challenging economy, state funding was reduced at the very time when many of our neighbors’ needs have increased. The servanthood team thought it made sense to try to work with agencies that already had direct contact with people in need. We also felt that both projects would allow the whole community to get involved as well as demonstrating that taking care of the physical needs of our neighbors is one way we express our love for both God and others.

There are several projects that the team is looking to doing in 2010. The team will also play a central part in helping the youth with its Stay-at-Home-Mission-Trip this coming summer.

The team is chaired by Becky Webb. Among the participants: Dee McLain, Fran Funk, Cindi Garrelts, Glenn Karshner, Jim Kalklosch, Julie Elhard, Ann Daniels, Christa Myers, and Kellt Taulbee.

We thank everybody for all their help in 2009. It was incredible to see the participation of our Saint Matthew family in this outreach to others!

If you would like to be part of the team in 2010, contact either Becky Webb or Pastor Mark, or simply show up at the next meeting. Each of these events require some prayer, some planning, and commitment. But they’re well worth these investments.
If you live in the Logan or Hocking County area and don't have a church home, feel free to check out Saint Matthew. You would be welcome.

Desperate Enough to Pray?

This is the article that will appear in the January, 2010, newsletter of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. This is the congregation I serve as pastor.
Are you desperate enough to pray?

In his book on prayer, the late Norwegian Lutheran pastor Ole Hallesby says that for the things we often call prayer to truly be prayer, two things must be present:

First, faith must be present.

Here we’re not talking about mountain-moving faith. We’re talking about mustard seed faith. We’re talking about faith that isn’t necessarily a forest fire, but a tiny pilot light that may be fighting just to keep burning. Although we might all want giant faith, all we need to pray is tiny faith. Tiny faith in a big God is sufficient connection between God and us for real prayer to happen.

We also need helplessness.

When we’re helpless, we’re in a place of complete dependence on God. We don’t pray with the idea, “I know what to do or what should happen, but I’ll cover all my bases by telling God what to do.” We’re no longer the thrashing swimmer, who thrashes because he thinks he can get control of things and yet is in danger of drowning. We’re the drowning person who trusts only the rescuer to pull us and all for which we pray to life. If we’re not helpless, we’re not praying.

In Romans 8, the apostle Paul speaks to a group of Christians in the capital city of the greatest empire in world history. These Christians face difficulties precisely because they are Christians. They feel helpless.

Paul tells them not to worry if their helplessness and the consequent fear and confusion prevent them from forming words that make sense or that those thing keep them from even knowing what to pray for.

He assures them, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but…[the] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…the Spirit intercedes for the saints [that’s all believers in Jesus] according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)

During our midweek Lenten services, starting with Ash Wednesday on February 17, our focus will be on prayer. Don’t expect tips on prayer techniques. Or on “praying successfully,” whatever that means.

God hears and answers prayers in the Name of Jesus, no matter how inarticulate or confused we may feel when we pray. Prayer is no place for spiritual self-confidence. That will only drive us away from God.

All that matters is that we believe that God hears and cares and that as we pray, we understand, more than any of us care to admit most of the time, how helpless, how dependent on God we are.

When these two characteristics are present in our praying—faith in God and helplessness—God is able to do something in our lives and in the situations for which we pray.

To truly pray, we must have just a kernel of faith in the big God to Whom we pray and we must be helpless.

Are you desperate enough for God and the things of God to learn to pray in this way?

Let’s learn together to pray with faith and helplessness in the coming year.

Your Friend in Christ,
Pastor Mark

Faith Tidbit #1

[This begins a new series in which I'll present brief factoid about Biblical, Christian faith. I hope you enjoy it.]

The New Testament teaches that Jesus was (and is) both a man and God. See here.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Forming Habits That Form Us

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

Luke 2:41-52
Someone has said, “We form our habits. But over time, our habits form us.”

Most of our habits probably don’t mean much. I always put my credit cards in the same places in my wallet, for example. That way, I always know where they are.

I also am in the habit of putting my bath towels up to dry with the tags inside, where they can’t be seen. If I walk into the bathroom and see a towel with the tag turned out, I switch it around. (That's not too crazy, is it?)

But many of our habits are more consequential. A young child may learn to be a good student at a young age; that habit, long after she or he is even conscious of being conscientious and hard-working, will serve them well all through life.

Some habits have negative consequences, of course. A teen may get involved with drugs, alcohol, or sex outside of marriage until these habits gain such a foothold and control over them that they hardly consider the spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical destruction they may be inflicting on their lives.

We form our habits. over time, our habits form us.

So, it’s important that we choose our habits wisely.

I bring all of this up because of a word that appears in today’s Gospel lesson. You know the story it recounts well. It’s the only place in the entire Bible that tells about the childhood of Jesus. The incident recounted happens when he is twelve years old, one year before Jesus, as a Jewish boy, would have been bar mitzvahed. Then, He would have declared, “Today, I am a man.” But as is true of any twelve year old, in our lesson, Jesus can already be seen tilting toward his adulthood.

The word from the original Greek in the New Testament that, in our Gospel lesson, so interests me is ethos. Ethos gets taken over into the English language as ethic or ethics. In our language, it refers to ethical standards or morality. But in Greek, it simply means habit or custom, the way in which people ordinarily or habitually do something. An ethos could be bad or good, just as for us habits can be bad or good.

The word crops up early in our text when we’re told that on Passover, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover “as usual,” the word in Luke actually being, “as ethic,” as was their habit or custom. That word alone will tell you why God chose Mary and Joseph to be the earthly parents of Jesus. They were people of good, godly habits.

In those days, Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem each year for three different religious festivals centered around the temple. If they were poor, as we know Mary and Joseph were, they were only required to be in Jerusalem once a year, for the celebration of Passover. Traveling by foot from Nazareth to Jerusalem every year wouldn’t have been easy for the holy family. But it was their habit to do it. The faith of Joseph and Mary was strong and important to them, making them great candidates to raise Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.

We have no idea when Jesus was conscious of Who He was beyond being a Galilean child reared in the home of a poor handyman. We don’t know when Jesus gained what the scholars call “messianic consciousness.” Did He know it when He was in the manger at Bethlehem? I doubt that, but maybe. Or, did the awareness of His identity as true God and true human come over Him gradually?

Whatever the case may be, it must have been critical to God the Father that Jesus have the right parents, people who themselves practiced faith habits which their son could observe and, which, because of their example, He could adopt Himself. That would have included not just going to Jerusalem for the Passover each year, but also things like weekly worship with other believers, reading the Scriptures, service to others, and encouraging others to trust in God, too.

You and I know, of course, that none of these habits earn us life with God or heaven or spiritual points. We are saved by God's grace given to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

But faith habits are the means by which we cultivate closeness to God. And since God is the only source of life there is, growing closer to God fills us with the very life of God, no matter our age or the conditions of our bodies or minds.

The habits exemplified by Joseph and Mary obviously had their impact on Jesus. When, three days after first discovering that Jesus wasn’t in their party for the return trip to Nazareth following the Passover, they finally found Jesus in the temple. Mary was upset and perhaps, understandably, forgetting Who Jesus was for a moment, chastised Him for the trouble He had caused them. Jesus is mystified. He asks her, “Why were you looking everywhere? Didn’t you know that I would be in My Father’s house?” What other habit would a parent most want their twelve year old to cultivate than spending time in God’s house, growing closer to Him?

During His adult ministry, we’re told of Jesus that He always went to synagogue on the Sabbath. It was His ethic, His habit. And the Bible tells us that Jesus would often go off early in the morning for prayer. That too was His habit.

Joseph and Mary did a good job of cultivating godly habits in themselves and by example, in their child.

The faith of all of us can be strengthened by the adoption of holy habits. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells we Christians to, “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit—the ethos—of some, but encouraging one another…”

I know that, on the Sunday after Christmas, a traditionally low-attendance day at church, I’m sort of preaching to the choir when I say that cultivating the habit of regular worship attendance is a way to grow closer to God and to imbibe more deeply of the life that only comes to us through Jesus Christ. You know and likely believe that deeply.

But in case there are any here this morning or any who may be tuned in on the radio who need convincing, let me tell you the true story of a man I knew named Louis. (That’s not his real name. But I don’t want to violate his family’s privacy.)

Louis had a rough childhood, one in which he was largely left to raise himself, not always successfully. When he graduated from high school, he wasn’t clear about what he might do with his life.

Then he met Betty. Betty was in college at the time. She was studying to become a teacher. Her family had cultivated some of the same holy habits in which the young Jesus was nurtured. They were in worship each week. They had family devotions and prayers. They regularly helped with projects designed to serve and help their neighbors, particularly the poor. They supported missionaries to faraway places. When Betty was in college, though far from home, she maintained these same habits.

When Louis fell into her orbit and fell in love with Betty, he started attending worship and reading Scripture with her. He found himself coming to trust in the same God Betty knew through Jesus.

Louis’ life was changed. The factory where he worked saw how he worked with new dedication and with a freedom from anxiety that allowed him to keep looking for new, better ways to get things done. Though he had only a high school education, they hired him to work as an engineer; eventually, he headed the engineering department.

Louis became interested in a multitude of things and shared his talents lovingly at church and in his community. I could never keep up with Louis. He was an avid photographer, cook, church banner maker, seamstress of quilts, mechanical tinkerer, Sunday School teacher, and designer and builder of earth homes.

As you can imagine, with all his talents and his willingness to use them to help others, Louis became a popular figure. He would present his co-workers with handcrafted gifts or he would go to neighbor’s places in the evening to help them chop wood, fix their plumbing, or build a shed. In his seventies, he built, almost single-handedly, a home for one of his church’s former pastors. And Louis laughed a lot.

It was natural then, that the beneficiaries of all his loving service would wonder why. Why did he do the things he did?

Well, Louis would explain, it all had to do with his faith in Jesus. I remember him telling me that sometimes people who had grown jaded about God, Christ, or the Church would greet his faith with skepticism.

“You know what I say then, Mark?” he asked me. “I tell them the same thing my father-in-law told me fifty years ago. ‘I’m not going to preach to you,’ he said. ‘But do this: Make it a point of worshiping six Sundays in a row and see if you even want to miss it on the seventh Sunday.’”

Louis told me that since he had taken his father-in-law’s challenge, he hadn’t missed a single Sunday. That holy habit had cultivated closeness to Christ and Christ became the center of his life.

In 2009, we’ve placed a strong emphasis on the holy habit of servanthood in Christ’s Name at Saint Matthew. As God helps us, we hope to expand on that emphasis in 2010.

But I’m also praying and hoping that 2010 will be the year in which we all consciously cultivate two other holy habits: prayer and sharing our faith with the spiritually disconnected.

The one habit may seem boring and the other frightening, both of them a bit intimidating. But we will find that as we cultivate these habits, we will grow closer to Christ and so, like my friend Louis, grow more alive with the power and goodness of God.

At the end of our Gospel lesson today, we’re told, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor."

Jesus’ holy habits drew Him closer to the Father; our holy habits can do the same thing for us. “We form our habits. But over time, our habits form us.” In 2010, let’s form holy habits and through them, allow God to form us into being more like our Savior Jesus.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas: God Opens the Door Between Heaven and Earth

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on Christmas Eve.]

Luke 2:1-20
I want to talk with you tonight about the shepherds. As you no doubt know, the story of Jesus’ birth is only told in two of the four New Testament books called Gospels. Matthew and Luke are the ones that include birth narratives. Matthew doesn’t even mention the shepherds. But in Luke’s telling of the story of the first Christmas, the shepherds play an important part. Why? And what has that got to do with you and me on Christmas Eve, 2009?

The mystery of those questions increases when you learn more about shepherds.

In first-century Judea, where Jesus was born, shepherds didn’t have very positive reputations. In a society that viewed wealth as a sign of God's favor, the shepherds were poor, paid poorly by the owners of the sheep of which they took care.

They were loners accustomed to spending their lives in fields where they made their homes, unafraid of the terrors of the night that might be brought unannounced by bandits or wild animals. Shepherds were tough. And like Moses, who lived and died about 1500 years before Jesus was born, many who became shepherds likely were running from the law.

When I think of the shepherds Luke talks about in the Christmas story, I think of men like the cowboys of the American West. The shepherds might have been the kind of people you wanted at your back when you got into a scrape. But they were so independent and untethered that if you had to spend any time with them, you would want to sleep with one eye open and keep your hand close to a weapon.

It was to these kinds of people—tough, grizzled, impoverished, fearless loners—hated by society and often themselves contemptuous of society, that heaven chose to make the first announcement of the birth the Savior, Messiah, and Lord of the world.

Luke tells us about the shepherds’ role in the events of the first Christmas in just two scenes, both of which appear in our Gospel lesson.

I only want to talk about the first of those scenes. It starts out this way: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord—one single angel--stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

The shepherds were terrified? These guys accustomed to fending off thieves and killers and wild animals in the dead of night were terrified. For us, it would be like imagining John Wayne being terrified. Of what? Of one angel? Maybe.

But here’s where I think their terror came from: “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

To us, that phrase--"the glory of the Lord"--may not mean much. We have so domesticated God, turned God into such a buddy, that we seem to have lost any sense of how supreme, how infinite, how great, how perfect God is.

If the prospect of coming face-to-face with God doesn't terrify us a bit, our understanding of God is impoverished. It is incomplete.

Believe me, there couldn’t possibly enough Xanax, Zoloft, or Prozac in the universe to fend off the anxiety you and I should, if we're in our right minds, feel about coming into the presence of God’s glory!

Although I yearn for the day when I see my Lord face-to-face, I know that I will also blush and shudder and shake at the knees when I do:

God is sinless; I'm not.

God is supremely powerful; I’m weak and mortal.

God loves perfectly; I love imperfectly.

God forgives; more often than I want anybody to know, I keep score.

If it weren't for the Christ Child Who brings forgiveness to all who repent and believe in Him, the very thought of being in the presence of God's glory would leave me in a perpetual state of terror.

What right does a sinner like me, or like those shepherds, or maybe like you, have but to expect the rightful judgment and condemnation of God over our lives?

None. In truth, the Bible teaches that you and I have no rights and we certainly have no right to stand upright in the presence of God!

When those unsavory shepherds were surrounded by the glory of God, they were confronted vividly, powerfully, and unmistakably with the fundamental reality of human life: God is God and we are not.

And in the same moment, the shepherds, in the brilliant light of God’s glory would have also seen the truth about their own sin and their need to be saved.

I hope that on this Christmas Eve, as we light the candles, the glory of God will fill our hearts and minds and wills so we can see that we cannot John Wayne our way into eternity. We can’t be strong enough, good enough, smart enough, tough enough, or accomplished enough to gain peace with God or peace with ourselves. We need a Savior.

Our Gospel lesson tells us that while the shepherds were transfixed in terror, more happened. The “angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’”

Jesus had come, the angel told the shepherds. He was the Savior of the world, the Messiah, meaning God’s Anointed One or, as we say it based on the Greek of the New Testament, the Christ, and the Lord, meaning He is the King of everything.

Yet they would find Him, the angel said, barely clothed on a cold Judean night, lying in an animal’s feeding trough.

In Jesus, God laid aside the privileges of His deity. He left the pleasures of heaven. He submitted to the difficulties of this life. He absorbed within Himself the brutal reality of death and sorrow. And He let go of them all—privilege, pleasure, power, and comfort—in order to grab hold of, to restore, to make new, to enliven something infinitely more important to Him than any of those things. He came to do all of these things for you. He came to die on a cross and rise from a tomb in order to erase the power of sin, death, and futility over your life.

The angel called his message good news, euangelion in the original Greek in which the New Testament was written. Another word that translates euangelion, from the Old English, is Gospel. That night, the angel had good news for the shepherds:

They weren’t alone; God had come to them.

They didn’t need to be utterly ostracized; God was willing to forgive and befriend them.

They need not live in futility or die in despair; God had come to give abundant life to all who would surrender to the Lord in the manger.

They didn’t have to be afraid; the God of infinite perfection, power, and holiness didn’t want to condemn them to a life or an eternity without Him.

Is it any wonder that after the shepherds heard the angel’s message and then watched an army of heavenly beings sing God’s praises that they quickly sped to Bethlehem to find the baby?

And tonight, the angel’s good news is good news for you as well. You too can come to the Savior, Messiah, and Lord Who has come to grasp hold of you. And every time He reaches out to you, whether in His Word, in worship, in the Body and Blood in, with, and under the bread and the wine, in the fellowship of believers, in the physical needs of a neighbor, and in the need of our spiritually disconnected friends to know Jesus, you can once more let Jesus grab you and help you, and bring you into the very arms of God.

One of the enduring memories of my childhood happened on a cold winter night when I was about seven or eight.

My Dad and I watched Ohio State basketball together a lot when I was growing up. If the games were being played in the Central Time Zone on a school night, though, I couldn’t watch. I was supposed to go to bed at the same as my sisters, often before the away games even got started.

On this particular night, late in a Big Ten championship run by Buckeyes like Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Don DeVoe, Mel Nowell, and others, I was sent to bed at the usual time.

But about a half-hour later, I saw my Dad open the door of my room and ask quietly, “Mark, are you still awake?” “Yeah,” I said. “Well, come on to the living room. The game is about to start.”

When I got to the front room, I found that my Dad had popped some popcorn and laid out some Coca Cola that he had iced down in the snow on the banister of our front porch.

I sat down beside my father, his arm wrapped tightly around me as we watched the game and listened to Jimmy Crum, the sportscaster from Channel 4 in Columbus, do the play-by-play.

I’m sure that my Mom was in the room with us at the time, but I have no memory of her being there.

And I don’t remember who the Buckeyes were playing or how the game turned out.

But the thing I do remember vividly is sitting on the couch and looking down to notice my father’s hands holding me with strength and love. I lived in the purest pleasure from just being with my Dad, no expectations, no requirements, no worries, no fears. In that moment, I knew that I was loved and that the only way I could be separated from my father’s love was if I walked away from him.

Christmas presents us with the good news that our heavenly Father has opened the door between heaven and earth.

He asks us to be with Him.

And He promises that if we will let Him, He will be not just our God and King, but also our Savior and our Friend.

Let the God we know in Jesus be those things for you, not just at Christmas, but every day. If those things could be true for the shepherds, they can surely be true for you and me.

Merry Christmas, everybody. Amen

Monday, December 21, 2009

To Help You Prepare for Worship on Christmas Eve

Here is Pastor Ed Markquart's helpful discussion of the narrative of Jesus' birth from the Gospel of Luke. Reading it will help you prepare for Christmas Eve worship on Thursday.

Here are verse-by-verse comments I wrote last year.

The Gospel Lesson for Christmas Eve is Luke 2:1-20. Below is the entire text:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
If you are going to be in southeastern Ohio on Christmas Eve, you're invited to worship with us at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, for The Candlelight Service at 11:00PM. Here is a map showing the location.

[UPDATE: I like what Chris Haslam writes about Luke 2:1-20:
Luke is concerned to place Jesus in the time-line of history, as a real human being. We know of Augustus’ attempt to clean up the taxation system: as well as requiring more reasonable practices of tax collectors, he introduced a truly equitable tax: a poll-tax. Every 14 years, a census was held: people were required to present themselves in their ancestral towns, to register for the tax. Records are fragmentary but we do know that a census was held by “Quirinius” (v. 2) of Syria in 6-7 AD. Perhaps Judea was included in a census of 8-7 BC, “the first registration”. From Matthew 2:16, we know that Herod the Great sought to kill Jesus by slaughtering all children aged two or less. Because Herod died in 4 BC, Jesus was born no later than 6 BC. The dates agree. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, the city of David, to “to be registered” (v. 5). Jesus is born in Bethlehem in fulfilment of the prophecy of Micah 5:2-5: a shepherd-king is to be born there.

In v. 7, Jesus is treated like any other newborn of the time: he is wrapped in cloths, but there may be a message in his being born in “a manger”: animals normally fed from it; Jesus is sustenance for the world. In vv. 8-14, we learn the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Those who hear the pronouncement by the angel are “shepherds” (v. 8), lowly people. David too was a shepherd; in Luke, Jesus comes to the poor, the lowly. The message of Christ’s birth is indeed a joyful one – for all.

V. 11 mentions our great claims as to who Jesus is: “Saviour”, “Messiah” and “Lord”. As “Saviour”, he restores us to wholeness, rescues us from sin and alienation from God. In Jesus, God is present with sinners and saves us from destructive self-isolation to union with him, in a nurturing community. As “Messiah”, he inaugurates the era of heavenly peace: the end-time has begun. As “Lord”, he is God come in human form. The kingdom is for all those whom God has chosen (v. 14b). In vv. 15-20 the shepherds visit Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They tell them and many others the good news the angels have told them.]

Does Nathan Myrhvold Have a Workable Plan to Help with Global Warming?

Put aside any questions you may have as to whether global warming exists, is a problem, or is created by human beings. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn't a good thing for the planet, whatever your views of global warming.

Nathan Myrhvold is accustomed to thinking differently about problems. The former chief strategist and technology officer at Microsoft has several plans for dealing with global warming. One scheme, which seems plausible as he explains it, would call for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere with the equivalent of high-tech garden hoses at the earth's poles.

Now, being an Apple man, I treat just about anything that comes from a veteran of Microsoft-world with--I'll be honest--derision. I love the "I'm a Mac and I'm a PC" ad campaign by Apple, mostly because, having suffered long with a proliferation of PCs and then gotten first, an Apple desktop, which is still going strong after six years, and then, an eMac that has been fantastic over the two-plus years I've had it, the ads ring true.

But Myrhvold offered some intriguing ideas for dealing with global warming yesterday on CNN's GPS with Fareed Zakaria.

Zakaria's and Myrhvold's reference to a sort of post-Christian environmental Calvinism that insists that cleaning up the planet must hurt is, I think, interesting. Over the long haul, doing anything worthwhile entails costs. But if solutions are workable without hurting people in Third World countries, particularly, the lack of pain is no reason to immediately dismiss an idea.

Great words...

for my fellow recovering Christian megalomaniacs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams Discusses Family History of Abuse

Ireland's Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, in an interview in which he urges his brother to come forward to face charges of sexually abusing his own daughter, reveals the history of sexual and other abuse in his extended family.

If you watch the video which accompanies the linked article, you see the heavy-heartedness in Adams. But you can also sense that he truly feels that dealing with this horror is the right thing for his entire family.

Dealing with the ravages and the multiple impacts of evil isn't easy. But it is cleansing and ultimately, freeing.

Hopefully, other families that have been touched by abuse will emulate the Adams' response in these matters and also seek help, counseling, and justice.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Let's Agree to Disagree...Not This Time!"

[That's the title of this piece, written by Pastor Jaynan Clark, president of the WordAlone Network, one of several groups committed to the renewal of Lutheranism in North America. What she writes is worthy of prayerful consideration. The article first appeared on the WordAlone web site this past Monday.]

It seems that whatever saying you want to use to express extreme consequences fits the current situation facing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“Pandora’s box has been opened.”

“The tangled web woven to deceive has been revealed.”

“The floodgates have been flung wide.”

“The little boy’s finger has been removed from the dike.”

Church leaders came out in support or ordaining persons in homosexual relationships and of accepting homosexual relationships as not sinful.

It happened three months ago when the ELCA churchwide assembly decided to put God’s Word up for a vote it, in effect, removed itself as a church, not just a Lutheran one but as a Christian one, in the minds and hearts of believers and unbelievers across the globe.

Ecumenical relations are strained to the point of rupture, ethnic/multicultural ministry has been disrupted and church after church is breaking off its relationship with the ELCA in search of new relationships and renewed mission.

All of this was done for what, for whom?

The argument has been made that it is in order to include those who have been excluded until now; to become a church that doesn’t just talk about full inclusion but practices it. I’ve heard it said by bishops in recent presentations explaining the assembly’s actions and the “good news” that now gays and lesbians can be “fully included” in the church that had excluded them from “fully serving” in the past.


I’m quite sure that Lutherans preach, teach and confess that through baptism we are fully entered into the ministry of the laity, the priesthood of all believers, which is of equal value and of parallel importance to ordained and lay professional ministries. Therefore, all the laity are “fully serving God.”

It seems that the vote in August changed even more about what we teach, preach and confess than it first appeared to. Either this is all just talk after the fact—to try to convince church attendees and givers to keep attending and giving because this was no big deal, only an act of justice and equal rights—or God really did make changes to His law and those in the ELCA, who wish to, may believe something new and different about ordained ministry than before.

Remember that gays and lesbians were not excluded or precluded from serving as ordained ministers in the ELCA. They in fact, it could be argued, had a higher calling, a calling to celibacy, to great self-discipline, to pick up very heavy crosses to follow the One calling them into service in His church.

Service that serves Him and not the self.

And, as with all ministers, they accepted the call to exercise chastity as witnesses to being called into ordained or professional lay ministries and to reject whatever sins the desires of the flesh oriented them toward. This was a shared standard for all hearing the calling to public ministry regardless of sexual preference or martial status.

Arguments over “orientation” continue to drone on in public forums and writings when that, in fact, has never been the issue and should have no bearing on the present predicament. We confess that we all are born into the state of original sin. We all have predispositions to sin against God and our neighbor.

We all declare independence from God’s will for our lives and try to make our own selves “gods.” This sin, in any form or habitual behavior is not to be held up as exemplary and blessed. But is to be confessed and, by the grace of God, denied as a desire of the sinful flesh requiring self-restraint. It is not to be celebrated as self-expression.

The reason all of this is such a big deal is that none of this is about sex or even homosexuality. This vote has no more to do with the homosexuals than the vote in 1999 had to do with the Episcopalians. What was put up for a vote both times was the authority of the Word of God and whether the church has the right or even the calling to mandate teaching and practice that are not scriptural and that conflict with our Lutheran confessions.

The voters this past August decided to “unsin” that which has been regarded as sinful behavior (homosexual practice), give a word of blessing where there is no scriptural, confessional or historical basis for it, hold up as exemplary in public ministry that which has been prohibited not only by the Bible but also through all church teachings and 2000-plus years of history (not to mention social and cultural prohibitions and glaring lessons in history of empires that fell as a result of sexual promiscuity.)

Who gave authority to the church, this human institution, to “unsin sin”? The true church where the Word of God is preached purely and the sacraments administered rightly is calling “foul.” This usurped authority has done nothing less than engaged in warfare against the very basics of the Christian faith. This warfare against our faith has ushered in a new religion that elevates the self and its authority through its own conscience, identity and desires to the position of “god.” This is a matter of significance that knows no bounds historically, geographically or temporally.

There are eternal consequences for leading Jesus’ flock astray.

Satan is honored and revered when God our Father, in the person of Jesus Christ, is denied His lordship, sovereignty and “way.” To now give the impression of false security—that this will not affect you and is a matter that we can disagree on and yet live in harmony and peace by appealing to a false, fabricated unity that trumps truth—is unacceptable and necessarily must be addressed and rejected.

Clearly there seems to be a realization by some of the leadership in the ELCA that they underestimated the response if they changed the teaching and practices of the ELCA on human sexuality, marriage and ordination. We now hear the appeal from the ELCA that it won’t affect you or your church if your conscience is bound in such a way as to disagree.

Really? Look around and listen because it already has.

It already has affected every last church that is a part of the ELCA and the ripples go way beyond that to other Lutherans, other Christians and to the unbelievers who can’t believe the church would stand for this—by not standing at all.

We also hear how those of us who oppose the changes are the ones bringing schism, division and conflict into the church.

Well, right back at you with another old saying, “That dog won‘t hunt.”

This is becoming an endless game of Hot Potato. Who is to be left responsible for the division and schism and conflict? I’m reminded of the quote by Mignon McLaughlin, an American journalist and author, “Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

The 28th Article of the Augsburg Confession is quite clear. That final article of our confession is entitled “The Power of the Bishops.” I will cite two paragraphs from the whole:

Parish ministers According to divine right, therefore, it is the office of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine and condemn doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest. All this is to be done not by human power but by God’s Word alone. On this account parish ministers and churches are bound to be obedient to the bishops according to the saying of Christ in Luke 10:16, ‘He who hears you hears me.’ On the other hand, if they teach, introduce or institute anything contrary to the Gospel, we have God’s command not to be obedient in such cases, for Christ says in Matt. 7:15, ‘Beware of false prophets.’ St. Paul also writes in Galatians 1:8‘Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.’ and in II Cor. 13:8, ‘We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.’

. . . . . We are bound to follow the apostolic rule which commands us to obey God rather than men. St. Peter forbids the bishops to exercise lordship as if they had power to coerce the churches according to their will. It is not our intention to find ways of reducing the bishops’ power, but we desire and pray that they may not coerce our consciences to sin. If they are unwilling to do this and ignore our petition, let them consider how they will answer for it in God’s sight, inasmuch as by their obstinacy they offer occasion for division and schism, which they should in truth help to prevent.

It seems quite clear to the majority of witnesses that schism results from the actions of those who import a teaching that is contrary to Christianity, one that drives the sinner into themselves, into their sinful desires and expression rather than calling them out of themselves and to their Lord and Savior whose calling it is to deny themselves, take up the Cross and follow Him.

It is truly sad that those who hold to the historic and faithful teachings of the Christian church are now the ones left searching for new church homes or working to build new ones. It has all the makings of a tragedy and yet is so biblical that with it—preaching, teaching and confessing only Jesus Christ—will come persecutions in many forms of denial, rejection and disregard. However, none should be led to despair; for many now are experiencing a deeper sense of identity in Jesus who reigns over them and their lives rather than looking for their own ‘gods’ inside themselves.

The ELCA’s new religion of “Selfism” has all the marks of many of the old heresies of the past, such as gnosticism and enthusiasm. But the ELCA added the hedonism, humanism and narcissism of this post-enlightenment, post-modern age that has outgrown any need for absolute truth and any authority beyond that of the individual. Embracing this new religion and making it official within the ELCA is a very serious matter that can not be ignored or merely a point of disagreement as we individually appeal to our consciences.

A further result of the assembly vote was the redefining of conscience to now mean being bound to the self and its desires rather than being captive to the Word of God as Luther’s conscience was in his last stand that was based on the Word and sound reason. The redefining of this historic Lutheran stand only has further confused the true issue. It has taken the topic further inside the self/sinner while attempting to give comfort where there is no basis on which to do so.

Captivity to the Word of God and being bound to Jesus Christ alone produce our true Christian freedom, which drives us from our selves to our Savior. The definition of despair is to be driven deeper and deeper into the self and isolation and away from the forgiveness of God. That is not a blessing to be given by the true church of Jesus Christ, but a curse.

That which can not be tolerated or ignored or regarded as adiaphora (an indifferent matter) needs to be addressed as a matter of grave importance not as one to “agree to disagree about.” Further, it is necessary that it be rejected and therefore not be passed on to the faithful and unbelieving as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, it must be identified rightly as contrary to God’s Word and therefore not “good news” at all. Here we stand today and we can do no other.

Every church and individual member has been affected now by this decision. The questions to be asked and answered seem to be, “Why would you stay in the ELCA, how does doing so help your mission and ministry,” together with, “why would you leave the ELCA and how would your mission and ministry be damaged by doing so?”

For many it has become very difficult to find any reason at all to stay—beyond personal relationships. Here the division that Jesus Himself spoke about seems uncomfortably inevitable because truth has been compromised for a false, fabricated unity.

A line has been crossed. That is no mere saying but a reality and so we pray that God will again draw straight with our crooked lines. We ask the Lord to realign faithful Lutherans and Christians in this time of great renewal and reawakening by raising up His faithful church, fresh and new in our midst, for His sake and in order that His church may make disciples again by telling His true story.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parsley Up to His Old Snake Oil Gig

Central Ohio snake oil salesman and embarrassment to Christianity, Rod Parsley, is pulling an Oral Roberts. One day after the death of the grand-daddy of the heretical "prosperity gospel" movement, Parsley was proving that there's no swindle like an old, proven swindle.

According to this report from The Columbus Dispatch, Parsley has gone to the airwaves, telling those who pay attention to him that his personal ministry empire is in financial trouble. It's the worst attack from the devil he's ever encountered, RodPar says.

Now read what Parsley said next:
"I believe as you sow your seed today in faith, God will reward you, I know he will, in a supernatural harvest in the area you need it most..."
When Rod tells his viewers "sow your seed today in faith," he means "send money to my organization." And the promise? In exchange for that, he says, "God will reward a supernatural harvest in the area you need it most..."

This, folks, is "works righteousness," the opposite of Biblical faith in every way. We cannot earn the blessings of God. They are free gifts from a God Who is gracious. That is what the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, teaches. We may block God's blessings from our lives through willful disobedience, careless heedlessness to God, or (are you paying attention, Rod) blasphemy, speaking falsehoods in or misusing God's Name. But we cannot earn God's blessings.

Nor can we give money in order to buy our way out of the hardships and pain that come in life on this planet. Jesus says that God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). No one is exempt from the possibility of hardship. But God blesses us with His presence, strength, and promises even in the midst of our hardships.

Christians are to give, of course, and sometimes, sacrificially. But we're to do so not in the expectation of reward. We're to do it in gratitude for what God has already done for us, especially what He has already done for us in Jesus Christ on a cross and from an empty tomb. The New Testament book of Ephesians says:
For by grace you have been saved [from sin, death, and the devil] through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
As to Parsley's promise that after giving money to him, donors will be blessed in an area they need it most, God has already covered that. Jesus teaches us, you know, to pray for our daily bread, a petition that calls us to acknowledge that, God already gives all of us what we need.* This is why Martin Luther says of the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer--"Give us this day our daily bread":
God gives daily bread, even without our prayer, to all people, though sinful, but we ask in this prayer that he will help us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanks.
Parsley's appeal for money is an old scam, designed to leverage money from the pockets of the desperate who need to remember that while the faithful use of our money, first of all for God's purposes and Christ's mission for His people, is a serious matter, we don't give in order to get something from God. We give because we've already gotten the greatest gift of all: new life as a free gift for all who dare to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

If you happen to be on Rod Parsley's mailing list and he drops you a line promising you special blessings if you send some money his way, how about doing this? Take whatever insert might be in the mailing and scrawl across it, "Dear Rod: No Deal. God has already blessed me in Jesus Christ. Sincerely, A Christian Believer." Then send the return envelope without any cash, but with a promise to pray both that God will guide Parsley and his ministry and that Parsley and his ministry will actually be open to that guidance.

Many ministries are facing tough financial times these days, as are a lot of people. We're coming out of the worst econcomic crisis since the Great Depression. While I definitely believe that the devil is active in our world, the fact that Parsley's ministry is short on cash doesn't mean it's under demonic attack.

Instead of making false, unbiblical promises in exchange for cold, hard cash, Parsley should pray for God's help, then, simply, explain what needs to be done, and finally, be prepared to maintain what is essential in his ministry--probaby a lot less than he thinks is essential--and to cut what God seems to be saying is unnecessary.

Don't expect Parsley to do any of that any time soon. And don't expect him to drop his heretical "prosperity gospel" talk either. That's how he built his empire.

*There is, of course, a human problem with sharing God's bounties with the world, attributable to sin. The earth produces more than enough for all. It's just that some hoard or use too much and cause others to go hungry, naked, or thirsty. This must change! Read Matthew 25:31-46