Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Leave Many in Military Advocating Equality for Women in Combat

This past week, I spent time visiting with a woman who worked at the Curtis-Wright airplane plant in Columbus during World War Two. She wasn't a Rosie the Riveter, but Blanche the Solderer. (I know the designation isn't alliterative. But her name really is Blanche.)

The World War Two experience no doubt planted seeds for the modern Women's Movement, which took off in the 1970s and has resulted in opening so many professions previously closed to women. (Although we have a long way to go in US society, especially in terms of paying women as well as their male colleagues doing the same jobs.)

This article says that the US military's experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have seen women taking on more combat roles. For traditionalists, especially those outside of the military, this may seem inappropriate. But if a woman can do the job, why shouldn't she be in combat? Our military leaders seem to agree with that sentiment.

Two Helpful Primers on the Health Care Debate

If you're like me, busy working ten hours a day or so, the claims and counterclaims in the current "discussion" over health care reform may lead you a bit confused, with little opportunity to check the veracity of the claims.

Here are two overviews of the health care reform issue and the arguments advanced by its advocates and opponents.

One from The New York Times and the other from The Wall Street Journal.

What interests me is that the Times piece, coming from a paper generally considered more liberal in its bias, seems to mete out equal shots to both Democrats and Republicans for their bullet points in their current August Congressional recess slugfest.

Both papers make many of the same points about key provisions of the one Senate bill and the two House bills currently under consideration and which, eventually, on passage, would have to go through a reconciliation process.

The Journal's overview.
The Times' overview.

There's so much misinformation and, seemingly, disinformation out there. But these two balanced pieces helped to clarify things for me.

I hope that they do the same for you.

[This is being crossposted at The Moderate Voice.]

Life with God is free...

but to continue to run with God requires us to tap into the power for self-discipline that God gives through Christ.

Every sin of which I am aware which I have committed since turning back to Christ thirty-three years ago has been blowback from my failure in the area of self-discipline. I would get to taking God for granted and thoughtlessly cruise through my days thinking, not overtly, but at some level, "I'm a good person. I'm a Christian. I'm safe from temptation and sin," only to find myself doing and saying things that were sinful. I was too busy to pray. Too busy to read Scripture. Too busy to surrender my days, hours, and minutes to Christ. Too busy to care for my body by sleeping right, eating right, or exercising right.

Life with God is a free gift which all people can have by faith in Jesus Christ. Yet gratitude and a desire not to misuse and so, lose, that gift should compel us to a self-discipline that focuses on our life-giving God always.

Lutheran Old Testament scholar Ralph W. Klein, in comments on Proverbs 9:1-6, tomorrow's first lesson for many Christians in worship around the world, "The slogan 'God loves us unconditionally' is only half right. God loves us with the expectation and hope that love will transform us into believing and righteous people."

As I've explained many times here, Christians are never sinless this side of the grave. But when we fail to place all our faculties at God's disposal every day, we too easily veer off on paths far from God. Sin takes hold of our lives. The warning God gave to Cain, after Cain had murdered his brother Abel, holds true for us:
"...sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." [Genesis 4:7]
That's why Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 are so important:
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. [1 Corinthians 9:24-27]
See today's piece from Our Daily Bread dealing with this passage, here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 39

Yesterday, we said that two of the tools the Holy Spirit uses in sanctifying believers in Christ is "the holy catholic Church" and "the communion of saints."

But how does this communion, the Church, come into being? Very simply, through the Word of God.

Before you skip ahead, thinking you know what I mean in talking about the Word of God, hold on.

When you saw that phrase, Word of God, you probably immediately thought of the Bible. And, of course, Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God. My own Lutheran tradition says that the Bible is the "authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice." The Church dares make no claims about the will of God that aren't supported by what is revealed about God's will in the Bible.

But the authority of the Bible, its "Word-ness," isn't self-referring. The Bible can be claimed to be the Word of God only because it faithfully and unerringly presents The Word of God, Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity.

Employing language that would have been familiar to both his Jewish audience steeped in the Torah and to his Gentile audience knowledgeable of Greek philosophy, John wrote in the overture to his Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Word of God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, 3through him. And without him not one thing came into being that has come into being. 4In him was life');" onmouseout="return nd();" and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, to his own home');" onmouseout="return nd();"> and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, the Father’s only Son');" onmouseout="return nd();"> full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,It is an only Son, God, or It is the only Son');" onmouseout="return nd();"> who is close to the Father’s heart, bosom');" onmouseout="return nd();"> who has made him known. [John 1:1-5, 10-14, 16-18]
The entire Bible is the Word of God because, it displays the Word of God: God the Son, Who was a the Second Person of the Trinity when God created the universe and Who entered the world to give new life to all who believe in Him.

Paul, obviously writing about the Old Testament, the Bible he knew in the first century, said that, "all scripture is inspired by God [breathed or Spirit-ed by God] and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" [2 Timothy 3:16]. Inspired by the same God Who inspired the Old Testament writers, the Church has come to see what we call the New Testament as on a par with the writings to which Paul referred.

That phrase, inspired by God, is key to understanding the uniqueness of the Bible. Without the inspiration of God, the Bible wouldn't be the Word of God. It would just be writings on a par with a Sue Grafton mystery, the latest issue of People magazine, or a report on pork bellies.

To describe anything as being inspired by God is to say that it's God-breathed. It's infused with the Spirit of God.

In the Old Testament Hebrew, the word translated as spirit, which can also mean wind or breath, is ruach. In the first of two creation accounts found at the beginning of Genesis, God's ruach--breath, mighty wind, Spirit--moves over a primordial chaos and life comes into being. In the second creation account, God breathes His ruach--Spirit, breath--into stuff and human life comes into being.

The Greek New Testament word, pneuma, has the same multiple meanings as ruach. Before His crucifixion, Jesus promised that He would not leave His followers orphaned; He would send the Holy Spirit. This Spirit breathes new life--the life of God--into believers. The Holy Spirit is the One Who imparts faith and the power to live to Christ's followers even today. Christians today live the truth of what Jesus talked to Nicodemus about:
...Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. same Greek word means both wind and spirit');" onmouseout="return nd();"> Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You Greek word for you here is plural');" onmouseout="return nd();"> must be born from above.” anew');" onmouseout="return nd();"> The wind same Greek word means both wind and spirit');" onmouseout="return nd();"> blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ [John 3:3-5]
Fine, you may say, but what does all of this have to do with the Church? Sometimes, sadly, it seems very little. When you consider all of the strange and even sinful things that the institution we call "the Church" and indivduals who identify themselves as Christians do in the world, you can't help wondering if anyone is paying attention to the Word of God, be it Jesus or the Bible, at all.

But if you've read the Bible, the reality of sinning, erring Christians won't surprise you. Yesterday, remember, we said that one definition for saints is forgiven sinners. The Church, as I've said elsewhere, is a fellowship of recovering sinners, people learning to give up their addictions to self or to the things they can see, hold, control, or manipulate, a gathering of people learning to rely totally on Christ. But we Christians are only learning these things. Sometimes even the most well-intentioned of believers forget. They sin. Or they err even while making good-faith efforts to follow Christ.

There are even, Jesus warns us, pseudo-Christians who hang out with the Church folk, but who are really far from God. That's a point of Jesus' parable about the wheat and the weeds. Out of kindness, in the hope that true faith in Christ will take hold in all people, inside and outside the Church, Christ lets the weeds grow beside the wheat. But there will be a reckoning.

In the meantime, old believers are sustained and new believers are created by the powerful Word of God, the good news about Jesus presented by words and actions. Paul writes: comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of [or the word about] Christ. [Romans 10:17]
The Church, not a building or an organization, but a living organism, is brought into being by the living, Holy Spirit-sustained Word of God. The Church happens wherever Jesus Christ is truly proclaimed. The Church happens wherever the Spirit blows and brings refreshment to those desperate enough to receive the Word of God.

Les Paul on YouTube

Via Newsweek. Paul, the 94-year old musical genius and inventor, died today. His impact goes way beyond his own work because what he did facilitated the genius of everyone from Chet Atkins to Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton to Phil Keaggy, George Benson to The Edge,

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 38

In the last installment of this series, I said that the primary work of God the Holy Spirit, is to sanctify believers, make them holy, set them apart for God. We said that, this side of the grave, no believer in Jesus Christ is perfectly holy. All Christians are works in progress.

That fact led Martin Luther, the one-time priest and Biblical scholar who inadvertently started what's called The Reformation, to say that believers in Christ are "the Holy Spirit's workshop."

The Apostles' Creed says that the first tools used by the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification, to facilitate our transformations, are "the holy catholic Church" and "the communion of saints."

The first thing to notice here is that Christian faith is not an individualistic "Jesus and me" proposition. God does care about us as individuals, of course. But we were created to live in a community with God, our neighbors, and all creation. This community God meant to be bound together by love. Not the syrupy, sentimental mush that is often portrayed as love by popular culture, but a tough and unconditional commitment to be the best and do the best for the other.

According to Genesis, the first human beings lived in the community God wants for us. The "self" of Adam and Eve weren't important; they were elevated, enhanced, and defined by their relationships with God, each other, and God's creation. Being part of something bigger and greater didn't diminish them; it lifted them.

Then, all hell broke loose. It happened when the first humans thought to transgress the boundaries God had established for their own well-being.

And what was the first consequence? The two humans, who had previously walked naked, unaware of how their bodies or lives might be misused, hid from God, alienated, afraid that God would see them for what they had become, rebels against the community for which they were made.

When confronted by God, Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. Community was distorted.

God's project ever since then has been, first, to lay the groundwork and then, to create the means by which all humanity could once more be reconciled to God and to others.

It began with the descendants of Abraham, the Jews, God's chosen people to whom God would teach the hard lessons of grace, community, repentance, and renewal, among others, and to whom He would make the promise of a Savior Who would finally and ultimately fulfill Israel's mission to be a light to all nations.

Jesus became that light and through His death and resurrection, made it possible for all people to be reconciled to God, beginning the process of becoming a full partner in God's community of love once again.

Today, when we're baptized, we become part of "the holy catholic Church" and "the communion of saints." We're no longer naked in our sins, alienated from God or others, or ticketed for death. We're welcomed into God's family, covered by grace, and called to love all with the tough-minded commitment with which God has always loved us.

In the Church, we become part of something bigger than "I," yet each individual part is elevated by a sense of self-worth and indispensability. This is what the first century Christian preacher Paul was describing when he wrote, "we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another..." (Romans 12:5).

Paul writes elsewhere:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks*, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
Notice the words I've italicized above. When we are baptized, we become part of a family of believers, who are nurtured by the Spirit, pulled by the Spirit, and broken by the Spirit, away from our inborn addiction to self and toward community.

That happens in the Church which, the Creed, first of all describes as holy, meaning set apart, and catholic. The word catholic comes from the Greek, literally meaning according to the whole. No matter how many ways we human beings try to slice and dice the Church, all who confess Jesus Christ and receive Holy Baptism and Holy Communion as intended by Christ, are part of one body. We Christians are stuck with each other for eternity.

Church translates the word found in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, ekklesia. This is a compound word meaning, roughly, called out. Christians, not by their own effort but by God's efforts alone, have been called out--or fished out--of the death-bound ways of the world into relationship with Christ, the life-giver, and which, in turn, changes our relationships with others.

The church is "the communion of saints." The word communion, more strictly, means community. The Church is an eternal fellowship that isn't confined to the buildings of brick, wood, or cardboard in which believers may meet in this world. The Church, in fact, is a community of saints, a good Bible word that simply refers to all who trust in Jesus Christ.

All saints are sinners and, in this world, don't get over their penchant for sinning. But saints are forgiven sinners who, day in and day out, turn to the God revealed in Christ, asking for the power to resist temptation and forgive as they've been forgiven, among other things.

The creation and sustenance of "the holy catholic Church" and "the communion of saints" is the work of the Holy Spirit, work the Spirit has been doing for more than two thousand years now.

More tomorrow.

*Here, Paul is referring to everyone who isn't a Jew, Gentiles.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Considering This Coming Sunday's Bible Lessons

Most weeks, I try to present some background and thoughts on the upcoming Sunday's Bible lessons being used at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor. Since we use the lectionary, or lesson plan, associated with the Church Year, like many other churches throughout the world, I hope that these brief looks will help others get ready for Sunday worship, too.

The Bible Lessons: 11th. Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Prayer of the Day:
Ever-loving God, your Son gives himself as living bread for the life of the world. Fill us with such a knowledge of his presence that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life to serve you continually, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

General Comments:
1. This day, the focus of the lessons is wisdom as opposed to foolishness. Wisdom is the way of following the God ultimately revealed to us in Jesus. Foolishness is self-will, self-aggrandizement, and self-congratulation. Wisdom is the way of life. Foolishness is the way of death. Wisdom relies on God for discernment; foolishness is self-reliant.

2. Three passages of Scripture that may help to understand the themes for this day:
There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death. (Proverbs 16:25)

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
A Few Comments on the Lessons
Proverbs 9:1-6:
Proverbs, we're told, is composed of wisdom given to Israel's third king, Solomon. (You'll remember that on becoming king, Solomon asked God not for wealth or power, but for wisdom. God was impressed. Solomon was known as the wisest person in the world. He also became the most powerful king in the world. Sadly, Solomon became confused about the source his wisdom and power and countenanced idol-worship and the abuse of his people. After his reign, Israel divided.)

Most of Proverbs is composed of short, seemingly unrelated proverbs or pithy statements of wisdom. Here, though, the verses are connected into a kind of wisdom narrative.

v.1: Wisdom is often personified as a woman. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for wisdom, sophia, is also a woman's name.

I haven't checked it out, but the house built on seven pillars would seem to suggest completion or perfection. The rabbis and the Old Testament saw seven in this way because God's creation was complete by the seventh day. (Of course, the ancient rabbis also thought that humanity fell into sin on the seventh day, meaning that a new day, a first of a new week, was needed.

We see how seven was seen as the number of perfection when Jesus told the disciples that His followers were bound to forgive those who had harmed them not just seven times, but seven times seven (or, some ancient manuscripts have it, seventy times seventy times). The idea: There should be no end to our willingness to forgive; we're to forgive as we've been forgiven by God.

v.2: Wisdom has set a table for all who are willing to eat. The meal, of course, is God's wisdom.

v.3: Wisdom has seen to it that the invitations have gone out.

Calling out from "the highest places in town" would be a good way of ensuring that everyone gets a chance to hear the invitation. (Jesus, you'll recall, was "lifted up" onto the cross and He says that all who look to Him, like ancient Israel was once told to look upon a bronze serpent for the cure of poisonous bites, will be saved from sin and death forever.)

v.4: Here and in verses 5 and 6, we see that wisdom can erase simple-mindedness, being without sense, and immaturity, all of it to be replaced with "the way of insight."

Wisdom is calling all to be enlightened by the wisdom that comes from God.

v.5: Interesting that bread and wine are mentioned. It would be pushing too hard to see the Sacrament of Holy Communion foreshadowed here, I think. But certainly, bread and wine were staples of ancient diet, not so different from us, pointing to the fact that God makes Himself present in the plain, ordinary places of life.

v.6: Wisdom's invitation says that what she offers is more than mere information or head-knowledge. Knowing the ways of God is of the utmost practicality, affecting the way we "live" and how we "walk" through life.

Psalm 34:9-14
v.9: If we reverence God, nothing that need will be lacking. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

v.10: Lions, the kings of jungle, can be in want, but not those who trust in the Lord.

v.11: Certainly, God is infinitely bigger and better than we are. We should have an understanding of what I've often called the basic facts of life: "God is God and we're not."

But I believe more than simple fear is referenced here. An incomplete equation for this passage might be: REVERENCE=FEAR. But it is incomplete, because if your knees don't knock a bit at the prospect of facing almighty God, you're none too wise!

vv.12-14: If you desire a pleasant life with God, then you should be all means, refrain from behaviors that disrupt the peace of families, churches, communities, and nations, following these proscriptions:
  • No gossip or derision
  • No false witness
  • Renounce evil; embrace good
  • Make peace with others your aim
Think how elevated the lives of our families, churches, communities, and nations would be if we accepted these four guidelines for wise and godly living! (In political debates, especially, we could disagree without being disagreeable, something I'd love to see more of on the cable news networks and from the media chattering heads of all political persuasions!)

Ephesians 5:15-20
v.15: As in the first two passages, we see wisdom not as head-knowledge, but as a way of life commended and commanded by God. "Be wise!" we're told.

v.16: The "days are evil," with people looking out for number one. Because that's the way the world lives, that's the path of least resistence for all of us. But the writer of Ephesians says that God has called us to live subversively, embracing God's wisdom, not that of the evil days in which we live.

v.17: This entails having a clear understanding of God's will for all humanity. This is not so obscure as we, often in a play for eluding God's authority over our lives, tend to make it. God calls us to believe in His Son, Jesus; to love God and our neighbor; to live in love with our Christian family, the Church; to tell others about Christ; to serve our neighbors in Christ's Name.

v.18: The writer moves onto a specific issue, drunkenness, which he memorably sets in opposition to life guided by God's Holy Spirit. It's Holy Spirit versus spirits here. Instead of being filled with alcohol, be filled with God.

It's worth mentioning that the selection of passages taken together here indicate that God certainly doesn't condemn drinking wine or alcohol, but condemns it to excess. Sin happens when we misuse God's gifts or use them more than they should be used. Of course, if a person is an alcoholic, they should totally refrain from the use of alcohol.

vv.19-20: The Ephesians (and we) are told to replace our drinking songs with hymns, spiritual songs, and praises to God sung from our hearts. In all circumstances, we're to thank God in the Name of Jesus for the blessings we've received.

John 6:51-58
We're now in the third of five straight weeks when the Gospel lessons are drawn from John 6. Here, Jesus feeds 5000 with a few fish and scraps of bread. The crowd He has fed hunt Jesus down because, as He tells them, they see in this miracle not a sign of Who He is or of the new, eternal life He can give to them, but as an end in itself. They want Jesus to be a king they can manipulate for their own ends. In this, they reflect the foolishness of this world, which the world takes to be wisdom. Jesus instead, calls them to see the sign in His miracle and to embrace the long-term wisdom of living for God, rather than short-term gains that, at their best, can only sustain us to our graves.

v.51: This verse came at the end of our Gospel for this past Sunday. Jesus is "the living bread...from heaven."

Partaking of this bread, which means not just receive Holy Communion, but also embracing Jesus as Lord and king over our lives, will bring life.

v.52: Jesus' fellow Jews are scandalized. Whether, at this point, they understand Jesus to be claiming deity for Himself or not, they do perceive that He is claiming, at least, to be the way of life sent down from heaven.

It's totally wrong for this or other passages in John or Acts to be used as justification for antisemitism, as it often has been in history. For one thing, the word translated from the original Greek of the text, is more aptly rendered as Judeans, more a geographic and national reference than a strictly religious one. Judea was what was left of the former southern kingdom that came about as a result of the split of Israel following Solomon's reign. (The northern kingdom was Israel or Samaria.)

For another, Jesus was a Jew or Judean. Those who claim to love Christ and disdain the humanity of Jews or try to blame "them" for the death of Christ on the cross, can't be taken seriously as Christians. The New Testament makes clear that it was the sin of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, that put Christ on the cross.

vv.53-56: Those who receive Christ, abide in Christ and Christ abides in them. This, clearly, refers to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We Lutherans take Jesus quite seriously when He says in institution of the Sacrament, "This is my body...This is my blood..." Quite literally, in mysterious ways we cannot understand, we take in the very body, blog, and person of Jesus, when we receive the Sacrament. His life, the one that embraced our death and that rose to give us eternity, lives in us.

God enters the person who receives the bread and the wine. What could be of more practical benefit in facing life's daily realities than that?

v.57: Father and Son pulse with eternal, perfect life. Partaking of them by faith gives us life. Failing to do so brings death.

v.58: Jesus, the living bread from heaven, is superior to the manna that God gave to His people in their wilderness wanderings.

GAD or God?

That's the question that this devotional piece from Our Daily Bread asks today.

You might also be interested in this four-part sermon series on Overcoming Worry, which I shared with the people of my former congregation, Friendship Lutheran Church in Amelia, Ohio, in 2007:
Worry, the Static That Clings
Four Steps to Overcoming Worry
Affirmations, Action Steps from a Psalm

John Schroeder on What It Means to Die to Self

Yeah, I know it seems sort of selfish to cite a post that quotes one of my sermons. But John says things that go way beyond what I said and his thoughts are worth considering.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 37

I was visiting with a woman recently. Just before I left, she asked me, "What does sanctified mean?"

As I drew a deep breath to answer, she explained why she asked. "Just as my grandmother died years ago, she started singing hymns. My mother said she was sanctified."

Of course, I had no way of knowing what her mother meant when she used the term. Different Christian traditions use sanctify in different ways.

But, at its simplest, the word sanctify, which comes to English from the Latin language, means to make holy, that is, to be transformed to live in sync with the holiness of God.

Just as we have nothing to do with creating ourselves or our world, which is the work of God the Creator (Father), and nothing to do with becoming free of sin and death, which is the work of God the Redeemer (Jesus Christ, the Son), sanctification is the work of God the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification is a "now" phenomenon in the lives of believers in Christ. That makes the Spirit's work different from that of the Father or the Son. God has already made or created us. Christ has already died and risen for us. Those are accomplished facts. But becoming part of God's set-part family, trusting in and growing in our faith in Christ, and living eternally as part of God's forever kingdom is a process that unfolds in this world and is brought to completion in eternity.

It's a process full of fits, starts, sputters, stops, and restarts, in spite of our deepest desires to be the good people God made us to be and we want to be. (See here.) The old self that trusted itself rather than Christ reasserts itself all the time and must be battled daily through repentance and submission to Christ. No Christian on this side of the grave is fully sanctified, fully set apart for God and God's will for human beings.

C.S. Lewis well illustrates how we can be both holy, set apart from God, yet not fully sanctified, in his Chronicles of Narnia novel, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There, a boy named Eustace Scrubb, described by his cousin as a "rotten stinker," falls prey to his greedy, selfish nature and becomes, on a mysterious island, a dragon.

In this state, Eustace realizes how horrible he has been and how much he wants not to be separated from others. After some days, Aslan, the lion who is a Christ-figure in Lewis' stories, violently releases Eustace from his layers of dragon skin, reducing him (or elevating him, as the case may be) to his better self, the self he wanted to be and, in his self-delusion, imagined himself to be even when he was a "rotten stinker."

But then, Lewis writes this:
It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that "from that time forth Eustace was a different boy." To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.
When, by the power of God's Spirit, we, who want mostly to believe in ourselves or in what we can see, control, or manipulate, come to faith in Christ, we are in relationship with Christ. Salvation is ours. But the cure for all that separates people from God and from other people, has only begun.

When we turn to the Bible, we notice that "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). But we also notice that though the direction of believers' lives are changed, they're far from perfect. Paul, the great evangelist of first-century Christianity, could be capable of petulance, keeping record of perceived wrongs, and an unwillingness to "let bygones be bygones."

For example, Paul once got into a major disagreement with his one-time mentor in the faith, a man whose nickname, Barnabbas, meant son of encouragement. The two were planning on going together on a missionary journey. Instead, Paul and Barnabbas decided to go their separate ways after an argument over Barnabbas' desire to take a younger believer with them, someone Paul felt had let them down on a previous mission. Barnabbas was willing to give the younger man a second chance; Paul wasn't, at least not then. (Read about it here.)

Yet, nobody familiar with the arc of Paul's life, from a rabid opponent of Christian faith willing to see the first followers of Jesus martyred or excommunicated from the Jewish faith into a loving, self-sacrificing teacher of the good news of new life for all who believe in Christ, would say that Paul was unchanged by the grace God gives in Christ. Paul was in a state of becoming, a new creation who, throughout a life of prayer and study and service in Christ's Name, was being sanctified, made holy, set apart as a child of God.

That process of becoming, of sanctification, is the work of the Holy Spirit. It's like the backwoods Christian, about whom I first read in Bruce Larson's book A Call to Holy Living, who said, "I ain't what I was and I ain't what I'm going to be. But thank God I ain't what I was."

The work of the Holy Spirit is sanctification. In the next installment, I hope to address how the Spirit does that.

It's a Blast!

From today's daily emailed inspirations of my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot:
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Thought for the Day

Putting my life in the hands of the Destiny Maker has been
an absolute blast. I've learned that he's smarter than me,
wiser than me, and stronger than me. He has a great view from
above and he loves me in the most radical way.

Mike Breaux "Making Ripples" pg 43

Ecclesiastes 9:1 NIV

So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous
and the wise and what they do are in God's hands,
but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.

Lord, thank you for loving me and taking care of me.
Help me to always trust that you know what is best.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Feeling a Tug?

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

John 6:35, 41-51
As you know, in Lutheran churches we follow a plan of Scripture readings called the lectionary. That usually ensures that you and I consider a regular and varied diet of Bible readings.

But sometimes, even the lectionary can get us stuck in ruts. For example, this is the second week in a row that finds us looking at a Gospel lesson from John in which Jesus is talking about Himself as “the bread of heaven” or “the bread of life.” We’ll have three more Sundays of the same thing.

Folks, that’s a lot of bread!

So, in the interest of presenting all of us with a more balanced spiritual diet, I’m not going to talk about Jesus as the bread of life, the One Whose body (and blood) we receive in the bread (and the wine) of Holy Communion.

Instead, I want to talk about something else that Jesus mentions in our Gospel lesson for today. It’s where He says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…”

That’s so important, I’ll say it again. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me…”

I’m going to ask you to be patient with me while I give you a little Bible background, which, once it’s unpacked, I think may help us understand what Jesus is saying in these fourteen words. Jesus’ words here aren’t as simple or as inconsequential as they may seem at first.

In the original Greek of the New Testament, that word translated as drawn, is elkuo. Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen points out that the same word shows up in four other places in the Gospel of John:
  • At John 12:32, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw (elkuo) all people to myself."
  • At John 18:10, in the garden of Gethsemane, the site of Jesus’ arrest, the Gospel writer says, “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew (elkuo) it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear...
  • At John 21:6, where we read about the risen Jesus meeting His disciples—they on Peter’s fishing boat and Jesus on the shore broiling fish. It says, “[Jesus] said to them, 'Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul (elkuo) it in because there were so many fish.”
  • And, from the same incident, in John 21:11, we’re told, “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled (elkuo) the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.”
What we learn from these instances of the word elkuo is that coming into a relationship with Jesus Christ, coming to trust in Christ and following Christ into eternity with God, and continuing to trust Christ through the challenges of life isn’t some gentle drawing to Christ, like our translation has it.

It would be better to picture Jesus saying in today’s lesson, “No one can come to me unless dragged to me or hauled to me like a fish in a dragnet by the Father who sent me…”

If any of you were ever dragged to worship or Catechism or church camp or a mission trip or youth group or Sunday School class when you didn’t want to go, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Your parents or, as was true for me, your spouses, dragged you to some of these places, putting you in proximity to Jesus Christ. And the result is that many of the dragged or hauled come to faith in Christ.

Now, this business of God the Father hauling us, dragging us, or pulling us to faith in Christ really flies in the face of how we see ourselves as human beings. Ask the average person why they do or don’t believe in Jesus and they’ll say something like, “Everybody has free will.” But that isn’t true. You and I aren’t born with a free will!

That’s why most Sundays, you and I confess to God that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

We all arrive in this world with an inborn mistrust of anything we can’t see, control, or manipulate. Sin is our inborn separation from God and the life that only God can give us.

That's why one of the first words any baby learns to say is, "No!"

The Bible says, “I was born in sin.” Martin Luther wrote an essay called “the bondage of the will.”

And Erik Erikson, one of the most eminent psychological thinkers of the past century, noted that as babies fresh from the womb, we immediately deal with an internal conflict from which we can only be dragged out by those we encounter the most, usually our parents: whether to trust or distrust.

We aren’t born with a free will. And left to our own devices, we will never choose to do things God’s way. It’s only when God pulls us into a relationship with Christ that we’re set free to be the people God made us to be.

As many of you know, I have some personal experience of this. As a teenager and early twenty-something, the last thing I wanted was Christ or the Church.

But then I met and married Ann and she dragged me to church. Then, I got pulled onto church council at our home congregation. I got dragged into running the Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I hadn’t wanted to believe and I hadn’t wanted to do any of these things, but God kept tugging at me and with each tug, I found myself falling more deeply in love with Jesus Christ, more dependent on Him, more joyful about my discipleship.

And the tugging didn’t stop there. I remember a few days after someone at our home church told me, “You ought to think about going to seminary and becoming a pastor,” I was riding somewhere with my then-boss, the executive director of the United Way of Franklin County, where I had been a fundraiser and was by then, a kind of administrative troubleshooter. He mentioned that a noted author was coming to speak at his church. That got us off onto a discussion of pastors generally. As a result of one person telling me that I ought to consider going to seminary, I had been praying, “God, I don’t want to be a pastor. Don’t make me a pastor. I don’t want to do that!” I felt justified in those prayers as the executive director and I agreed, while driving around that day, that most pastors were impractical, lazy, shortsighted killjoys. I didn’t want to be one of them! I resisted and yet, within three years, I was in seminary.

It turned out to be one of the best things I ever did in my life. But that decision didn’t spring from my exercising my free will. It came from a struggling time, God dragging me to the life He had in mind for me, and me finally praying, “Not my will, Lord, but Your will be done.”

The God Who may have first tugged you to Christ at the baptismal font when you were just a baby wants to keep pulling you into a closer walk with Jesus, often against your will.

So, how might God be pulling at you this morning? Is there some ministry in the church to which you feel God has been tugging at you recently?
  • We need Sunday School teachers and worship-time nursery attendants.
  • We need people willing to help the property trustees in sprucing up our property, making Saint Matthew a more inviting place to first time visitors.
  • We need more choir members.
  • We need help with the Drive Through Baby Shower on August 22.
  • And as always, we need all of our members to be intentional and regular about reading the Scriptures daily and praying daily, inviting their nonchurchgoing friends to worship and other activities of the church daily.
Not everyone is called or gifted by God to be involved in everything that God commands the Christian family to do. I learned that, as some of you may know, at my former parish. I had energized the congregation to get involved with the building of a Habitat for Humanity home in New Richmond, down on the Ohio River in Clermont County. A good number of our folks volunteered and every Saturday for several weeks, I went with them to help with the building. One Saturday, as we were getting ready to pack up, one of our members approached me and said, "Mark, we all have our gifts. Construction isn't one of yours. Please stop coming here on Saturdays before you get yourself or somebody else killed." I decided I had a gift for publicizing Habitat homes, not building them!

On the other hand, I've also learned that we shouldn't poor-mouth ourselves. God may empower us to do things we know we can't do. All of my life, really, I have struggled with stage fright. The first four years or so of my ministry found me waking up every Sunday morning sick. I continue to battle this problem to some extent. And yet, for twenty-five years, God has answered my prayers and helped me to lead Sunday worship, weddings, funerals, meetings, and other public events.

So, how do you know when that tug you’re feeling is from God?

Let me suggest that you ask a few questions about the things you think God may be calling you to do in your life.
  • First: Will it draw you closer to Christ?
  • Second: Does it express love of God and love of neighbor?
  • Third: Is it something that needs to be done?
  • Fourth: Is it something you want to do?
If you answer yes to the first three questions and no to the last one, chances are God is tugging at you.

Then comes the point at which you must ask yourself, “Do I really believe it when I pray, ‘Thy will be done’?”

God wants to draw us closer to Jesus Christ as we grow in our faith. It’s by being drawn closer to Christ that we also grow closer to being the people we were made to be, people set free from our bondage to self-will, set free for joy for all eternity. Amen