Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thoughts on the Buckeyes Loss to Tennessee Last Night in NCAA Tournament

Of course, I was sad to see the Buckeyes men's basketball season come to an end last night. But Ohio State put up a great fight against Tennessee, who feature imposing front-line players and stifling defense. (See here.) As Buckeye fourth-year junior David Lighty said, the shots just weren't falling.

At least that was the story offensively. Most important of all, probably, was how effectively the Volunteers bottled up Buckeye three-point threat Jon Diebler, who may have had his poorest shooting performance since the Buckeyes' game against Penn State in Columbus back on February 3. (That was a game the Buckeyes won 75-62. But the final score was more lopsided than most of the game had been. The contest was nip and tuck most of the evening. The turnaround moment, ironically, came when Diebler, who had struggled all evening long, hit a three with 1:29 left in the game. But there was no such turnaround moment last night!)

Once again, as has been true of every year he's been a collegiate head coach, Thad Matta did a masterful job this season. With a short bench, the Buckeyes made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Matta has proven year after year that he is more than a great recruiter; he's a guy who can mold a winning game plan around varied personnel. As an Ohio State grad and lifelong Ohio State basketball fan, I feel that the university is as fortunate to have Matta at the helm of men's basketball as it is to have Jim Tressel coaching football!

I would love to see national player-of-the-year Evan Turner return next year. But I doubt that it will happen.

And who could blame Turner for going to the NBA? The injury he sustained earlier this season--breaking several bones in his back--demonstrates how vulnerable to injury an athlete can be. A few inches difference in the impact point of that injury and Turner might have been far more seriously injured. At least in the NBA, Turner will be paid for taking such risks and be able to afford any long-term care afterward. The risks are simply too great to expect him to come back with the Buckeyes for his senior year.

But, WOW! Turner has certainly added another great chapter to the annals of Ohio State basketball history.

Next year, with two of the top high school recruits in the country and a terrific returning cast of characters, Ohio State's basketball team will be outstanding once again. A Big 10 championship and a deep run into the NCAA tournament are clearly possible.

I'm excited!

"To show your love for God, share your love with others"

See here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sweet Sixteen!

Go, Buckeyes!

Good News from Pastor David Wayne

This first was posted nine days ago, about the same time I got word through Facebook, but I wanted to (belatedly) share it here: There is good news regarding the cancer of my blogging colleague, Pastor David Wayne. Thank God! Please continue to pray for David. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning to Pray (Fifth Midweek Lenten Devotion)

[This was shared during the final Wednesday Midweek devotional worship for Lent at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]
James 1:12-16
Luke 4:1-2a
Tonight, we’re focusing on the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.”

Someone has said that the easiest thing to empirically prove about the witness of Scripture and Christian belief is the reality of sin and evil. The Bible asks us to accept as matters of faith, among other things, the existence of God, Jesus' birth to a virgin, the divinity of Jesus, Jesus’ resurrection, the true presence of Christ's body and blood "in, with, and under" the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and eternity as a reality that will be experienced by all who repent and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

But it requires no leap of faith for us to believe that each of us is a born sinner or that, except for the God-man Jesus, sin is indemic to the human experience. Each of us can testify to the reality of sin and evil from what we see in the headlines, in our homes, and in our own hearts.

Ann’s and my home pastor used to tell us, “If you doubt the existence of original sin, put two 2-years olds in a locked room with a single toy.”

Our natural impulse is to be completely wrapped up in ourselves, to love ourselves but not God, and certainly not neighbor.

Our inborn desire to be in control of the universe, to “be like God” as the serpent put it to Eve in the garden of Eden, is something we all share, no matter how hard we may try to conceal it from others...or ourselves.

But after the Christian has prayed that
Jesus encourages us to pray for what may be the biggest miracles of all!

Jesus teaches us to ask our Father to “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” or as a modern translation of the prayer puts it, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

Think about that: Jesus is teaching us to militate against our inborn impulse to do be our own gods and ask God for the power to not do every selfish, willful, destructive, hurtful thing which, inside of us, we want to do! That the Holy Spirit would actually move us to even pray for such things is a miracle, let alone give us the power to mean the requests and actually contemplate living them!

Of the sixth petition, "Lead us not into temptation," in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther makes the same point as Jesus’ brother James makes in the words I read from the New Testament a few moments ago. Luther writes, “God tempts no one to sin, but we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory.” Here, Luther underscores the fact that, in this petition, we ask God for a miracle.

But that’s OK; God is in the miracle business!

On the First Sunday in Lent each year, we remember that Jesus, though sinless, shared the very human experience of being tempted to sin. As an often-quoted passage of Hebrews reminds us, in Jesus, our high priest, “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Jesus’ successful resistance of temptation in the wilderness--along with His life-long avoidance of sin--was a miracle, in its way.

Jesus didn’t take the easy way out.

He didn’t take the selfish way out.

He endured in His faithful obedience to the will of God and because Jesus endured, He can help us to endure faithfully in the face of temptation and evil.

But we can do more than endure. The God Who has shared our life experiences has also conquered our temptations, our sins, and death itself through Christ’s cross and empty tomb!

Whenever we ask God to “deliver us from evil,” we express our conviction that no matter what temptations bedevil us and whatever sins we need to confess in Jesus’ Name, those who entrust themselves to Jesus can be raised above all evils.

During our lives on this earth, God will minister to those who truly seek to walk with Him, just as God sent His angels to serve Jesus in His wilderness of temptation.

To pray, “Deliver us from evil” is to pray for more than the power to resist evil in this life. In Matthew 24, Jesus talks about what this world will be like as its life draws to a close. There will be an “increase of lawlessness,” Jesus says, and “the love of many will grow cold.” “But,” He goes on, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

It was no doubt with passages like this in mind that Luther wrote of the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“Deliver us from evil”: “We ask in this inclusive prayer that our heavenly Father would save us from every evil to body and soul, and at the last hour would mercifully take us from the troubles of this world to Himself in heaven.”

In teaching us the sixth and seventh petitions, as is true of all the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to trustingly live in the glory of two transcending Christian realities: Surrender and Triumph!

When by faith, we surrender to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit makes it possible not only for us to confess our faith in Jesus’ Lordship, but also to be empowered to relate to God as “our Father,” our intimate and loving parent. We can speak honestly to God about our desires, our hopes, our troubles and temptations, our requests.

Last Sunday, I mentioned that I've been reading John Ortberg's new book, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God's Best Version of You. Today--after I thought I had finished this sermon yesterday--I got to a chapter where Ortberg talks about this whole business of surrender to God. To the world, he points out, surrender is equated with defeat. But for the Christian, surrender is the first step to life.

In fact, when a movement among Christians called the Oxford Group birthed Alcoholics Anonymous, it presented twelve practical steps to freedom from addiction, all of which are rooted in the Bible and Christian belief. The first step to freedom for the addict is admitting that they have a problem too big for them to control or overcome.

That is the first step to freedom from sin and the freedom to truly live for all of us. Surrender is a hard pill to swallow for us, especially for we men, who are seem to liberally imbibe the myth that if we're not in control, we're less than human.

But as Ortberg points out, when we play God, when we think that we must have things under control, we walk down the road of disappointment and unhappiness. That's because, my fellow recovering control freaks, when we presume to be in control of our worlds, we take responsibility for something over which we have zero control: the outcomes of life.

When we surrender our lives to God, God gives us the freedom to live day by day, working, loving, and living faithfully and leaving the outcomes in the hands of God.

That's a relief and that's liberating!

The child who surrenders to the Father in faith also shares in Jesus’ triumph over temptation, sin, evil, and death.

The person who asks their Father to deliver them from evil is claiming their share in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Surrender to Jesus Christ brings triumph as God sets us free to be our true selves, our best selves!

We usually end our prayers, of course, with the word, Amen. Amen is more than a religious way of saying, “Over and out.” Let Luther have the last word tonight:
Amen means Yes, it shall be so. We say Amen because we are certain that such petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him. For He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us.
When we say, "Amen" in our prayers, we take Jesus up on His offer of new life to those who surrender to Him and walk in the triumph of new life for all who repent and believe in Him!

Lord Jesus: Teach us to pray as You have taught us and live our lives in surrender and triumph in Your Name. Amen

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Something About the Doxology of the Lord's Prayer

Tomorrow evening will bring the last of our congregation's Wednesday Lenten midweek devotional services. We've been considering how we can deepen our prayer lives by looking at the Lord's Prayer and tomorrow, we'll focus on the sixth and seventh petitions: "And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil."

Of course, in Lutheran circles at least, we don't usually conclude praying the Lord's Prayer with these petitions. So, some might wonder why I’m not going to talk about, what is for us, the last part of the Lord’s Prayer: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen,” the phrase we call, the Doxology.

There are several reasons. First of all, I’ve run out of Wednesdays in Lent. Of course, there is one more Wednesday, next week. But we’ll be worshiping together at Saint Matthew on the evenings of Maundy Thursday (April 1) and Good Friday (April 2) next week. People don’t need to overdose on sermons in any seven-day period!

But another reason is that, as you can see for yourself by reading both Matthew and Luke, the doxology was not part of Jesus’ prayer. Our Roman Catholic friends are technically right for not including “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen” with the Lord’s Prayer. (These words are part of Roman Catholic worship, though they're not offered immediately after the seventh petition of the Lord's Prayer. Lutherans who try to "blend in" while attending Roman Catholic Masses often unintentionally “out” themselves by moving onto the Doxology when other worshipers have closed their mouths. That results in red faces for we Lutherans and knowing laughter from the Catholics.)

As John Brokhoff explains in his book, Pray Like Jesus, the words of the Doxology “were added by the church early in the second century to round out the prayer for use in worship.” The words themselves are borrowed from two passages of the Old Testament. One is Daniel 4:3:
How great are [God's] signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his sovereignty is from generation to generation.
The other, from a prayer of King David, is 1 Chronicles 29:11:
Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.
When I first became a Christian through the ministry of a Lutheran congregation some thirty-four years ago, I remember being surprised to see the words, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen,” called “The Doxology” by Martin Luther in The Small Catechism. I thought the Doxology was that thing that the Methodists I grew up with sang when Christians got together for potlucks (and which we sing as our Offertory at Saint Matthew). You know, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow…”

But, it turns out that there are lots of doxologies. The word, doxology, is a compound from the Greek in which the New Testament was originally written: doxos means glory and logos means word. A doxology is a word of glory to God.

So, though Jesus didn’t teach the prayer as ending in this way, whenever we use the doxology with the Lord's Prayer in our worship together, we begin by asking that God’s Name will be hallowed and we end by hallowing His Name ourselves with our praise.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Flash Prayers

[This is the article I've written for the April newsletter of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

And [Jesus] said, “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.” (Luke 11:46)

Let’s be clear: In this passage, Jesus wasn't addressing lawyers like those we know today. The lawyers He criticized were experts in not only Biblical commands, but also in the hundreds of human-created laws that were produced in the centuries before Jesus showed up. Pharisees and lawyers (also known as scribes) loved to lay the burdens of these laws on others, Jesus is saying, but they were none too keen to help anyone with the burdens these laws imposed.

I’ve been thinking about that during the Lenten season this year. On Wednesday nights during Lent, we’ve been focusing on prayer by taking a close look at the model prayer Jesus taught, the Lord’s Prayer. (You can find the prayer, presented in slightly different forms in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.)

Of course, one of my aims during Lent has been to encourage people to pray more.

But I haven’t wanted and I don’t want to tell people, “You’ve got to pray in a certain way.” If I lay more burdens on people, I’m no better than the scribes and Pharisees Jesus criticized.

The great news is that we Christians don’t have to pray (though Jesus does command prayer), but that we get to pray. Through prayer, we can be drawn closer to God, praise and thank God, confess our sins, and make requests, among other things.

But not everybody should or can pray in the same way.

I have a friend who’s a committed follower of Jesus. He also has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). I tease him that his brain has synaptic connections where I don’t even have brains!

For Joe (not his real name) to be forced to spend an hour every morning in prayer with a journal in hand would be torture. His mind would flit in a million different directions. He wouldn’t get much praying done. In the end, he would only resent God. Joe isn’t going to pray the way some “experts” (modern day versions of the “lawyers” Jesus criticized) say they should.

Joe’s challenge—and the challenge of every Christian—is to learn how to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) in ways consistent with their own personalities and circumstances.

In his wonderful book, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, the late missionary and educator, Frank Laubach, talked about how he offered “flash prayers.” Walking down a street, he might see a man who looked despondent; Laubach would silently pray, “God help that man.” In India, where he lived and worked for years, he might see a young mother and her brood of children; Laubach would ask God to encourage them. He might see a beautiful sunset or healthy vegetables in the market and simply thank God for these blessings.

Laubach also suggested that Christians could offer these “flash prayers” throughout their days: when waking in the morning, when taking a shower, and in all the brief in-between times in our daily schedules. By this method, we can cover our world and our lives in prayer.

As Laubach describes flash praying, it can even be a lot of fun. He remembers sitting in the back pew of a Mumbai church’s sanctuary one Easter Sunday. He had expected to be inspired and encouraged. Instead, the preacher gave a sermon, which Laubach said, “was hopelessly bad.” What could Laubach do for the poor congregation suffering through this sermon? He decided to pray for all the people he saw sitting in front of him, looking at the backs of their heads as he did so.

As Laubach tells it: “To my astonished joy, every person, almost the moment I prayed, either turned, or bowed his head, or passed his hand over the back of his head. I have never before nor since experienced such a one-hundred per cent response.”

That last sentence should be a cautionary note. We shouldn’t ape what Laubach did on that particular Easter Sunday. He admits that the response he got that day was unique. (Besides, who wants to be burdened with new prayer laws?)

But I do think there’s an important principle to be gleaned from his experience and from his “flash prayers.”

You can pray all day long in Jesus’ Name, in the silence of your heart, no matter what you’re doing at work, at home, with friends, at the ball game, or wherever. And when you do offer prayers like these, God will hear your prayers. I promise.

Try it.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Mark

txt me i luv 2 hr frm u

Over the weekend, I told the kids in Catechism class that I didn't even have texting ability on my cell phone. (Our family had it blocked on our phones.) They couldn't believe it and tried texting my phone only to get the message, "This phone does not receive text messages."

But there's someone you can "text" and always get through. I love this!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lives That Say, "Thank You"

[This was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

John 12:1-8
Years ago, a nearly full-sized replica of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall toured the country. During its Chicago stop, a TV reporter asked one man who had gone to see the wall why he was there. “Because,” the man replied, running his fingers across one particular name, “when I was in Vietnam, this man saved my life.”

As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I can readily understand that man’s emotions. You and I are privileged to know Someone Who sacrificed His life to save ours. Jesus Christ, true God and true sinless human being, died on a cross for us, accepting our punishment for sin, so that all who repent and believe in Him live with God forever.

Jesus’ death on the cross should engender endless gratitude in those of us who have been baptized and who believe. But that true story from Chicago compels me to ask myself: Do I have as much gratitude to Jesus for saving my life as that veteran had for the man whose name he reverently touched on the Vietnam War Memorial?

Our Gospel lesson from John causes me to ask the same question about my gratitude and belief in the God we know through Jesus.

The lesson records an almost bizarre incident that happened just six days before the Passover Feast that would see Jesus’ arrest and subsequent execution. At the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, his friends in Bethany, Jesus is having dinner. In the midst of it all, Mary walks over to Jesus, falls before Jesus, and pours a costly ointment, imported from India, onto Jesus’ feet. She dabs the liquid with her hair.

If this scene is strange to us, it would have been downright offensive to the people of first-century Judea where Jesus lived. For one thing, washing or anointing feet was slave’s work. For another, a woman was never to let her hair down except in the presence of her husband. And of course, the cost of the ointment, the equivalent of about one year’s wages, would have made her gesture almost incomprehensibly extravagant to some.

And though, in a short time, Judas will betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver—roughly one-tenth the value of the ointment Mary uses on Jesus’ feet, Judas says the money that selling the ointment could have raised, rather than "wasting" it, could have been given to the poor.

Jesus upbraids Judas. Mary, Jesus knows, is grateful for what Jesus has done for her family: in the preceding chapter of John's Gospel you can read about Jesus bringing Mary’s brother, Lazarus, back to life. She knows that is but a preview of coming attractions for all who believe in Jesus, because it was to Mary that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in Me, though they die, will live!”

I’d like to talk about four valuable lessons this incident teaches us. In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to:
  • do whatever good we can do,
  • whenever we can do it,
  • for whomever we can do it.
  • And for God’s sake, we should never worry about either what it costs us or about the limitations of our abilities.
Let’s consider each one of those thoughts in turn.

First, in response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do whatever good we can. In his new book, The Me I Want to Be, John Ortberg, talks about how we pastors can sometimes crush the spirits of our congregations without intending to do so. He writes,
A mother with three preschool-age children hears her pastor talk about [the fact that he loves] God so much that he is up very early every morning to spend an hour of quiet time, but her children simply will not cooperate. What she takes away is that she ought to be doing the same thing and so she does spirituality by comparison, living under a cloud of guilt. It never occurs to her that the love she expresses to her children might ‘count’ as a spiritual activity. It never occurs to her that perhaps she is serving God more faithfully than the very pastor who may be neglecting his wife and children in the morning so he can have that hour of quiet.
In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do what we can do and not compare ourselves to others.

We know that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were people of modest means. There were no servants helping with this dinner they were serving. Yet they had this expensive ointment, something for which they’d probably scrimped and saved for years. Putting it on Jesus’ feet was an extravagant, unnecessary, and altogether loving thing for Mary to do. She did what she could do. That’s our call too: to do what we can to thank and praise Jesus.

In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do good whenever we can do it. Bishop Thomas Clary tells the story of a conversation that happened after the meeting of a board on which he served. People were telling stories about their most embarrassing moments. One man, Frank, talked about his dad, a fisherman who loved the sea and was devoted to his entire extended family. As the Bishop tells it:
[Frank said,] "When the weather was bad [my Dad] would drive me to school. He had this old truck that he used in his fishing business...[It made lots of noise, announcing its presence wherever it went.]...As [Dad] would drive toward the school, I would shrink down into the seat hoping to disappear...[so I wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of my schoolmates]...[Dad] would drive right up in front [of the school], and it seemed like everybody would be standing around and watching. Then [Dad] would lean over and give me a big kiss on the cheek and tell me to be a good boy. It was so embarrassing...Here I was twelve years old, and my dad would lean over and kiss me goodbye! I remember the day I decided I was too old for a goodbye kiss. When we got to school and came to a stop, he had his usual big smile. He started to lean toward me, but I put my hand up and said, "No, Dad." [Frank explained that he was too old to be kissed by his father. His dad’s eyes teared up.] He turned and looked out the windshield. "You’re right...You are a big boy, a man. I won’t kiss you any more."

[Then, Bishop Clary says that as he remembered his embarrassing moment,] Frank got a funny look on his face and the tears began to well up in his eyes as he spoke. "It wasn’t long after that when my dad went to sea and never came back. It was a day when most of the fleet stayed in, but not Dad. He had a big family to feed. They found his boat adrift with its nets half in and half out..."

[There was a pause.] Frank spoke again, "Guys, you don’t know what I’d give to have my Dad give me just one more kiss on the cheek, to feel his rough old face, to smell the ocean in him, to feel his arm around my neck. I wish I had been a man then. If I had been a man, I would never have told my Dad I was too old for a goodbye kiss."
In response to Jesus’ love, like Mary, we’re to do good whenever we can. That includes giving and receiving genuine love even among the people to whom we seem prone to subject our worst behavior, our families.

In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do good for whomever we can do good. Max Lucado tells the story of a friend’s visit to Walt Disney World. This friend had been at Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom. There, he was part of a huge crowd where, in one corner, a beautiful girl was playing the part of Cinderella. In an opposite corner of the castle was a boy of about seven, holding onto the hand of his older brother. The younger boy was small for his age, his face terribly deformed. He watched as “Cinderella” showered attention on all the other children around her.

But then something wonderful happened! Cinderella saw this little boy just standing there watching wistfully. She politely but resolutely walked through the crowd of adoring children right up to the little boy. She knelt down next to him with a smile on her face and then leaned forward and kissed him. The joy that overtook that little guy bespoke his gratitude.

When we do good even for those the world deems unlovely, the joy of heaven enters our world. It enters us!

In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do whatever good we can, whenever we can, for whomever we can. And for God’s sake, we shouldn’t worry about the cost. Mary didn’t worry about the cost when she poured that expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet! ! When we truly value Jesus and what He has done for us, no cost is too great. Whatever it costs us in time, effort, money is worth it in order to tell Jesus Christ thank You for the gift of eternity!

And we shouldn’t allow our limited abilities to prevent us from thanking Jesus either. An old joke goes this way: A man happened to walk by a building that was on fire before firefighters arrived. A woman on the second floor called out to him and asked, “Will you save me?” The man said that he would and proceeded to walk away. “Where are you going?” the woman asked hysterically. “I’m going to get life-saving training. I’ll be back as soon as I graduate.”

Many Christians are like that man. They feel that they’re unable to be good Christians—they haven’t read the Bible enough, or they don’t pray enough, or whatever. But just as you don’t need a college degree to show your spouse, or child, or friend, or parent that you love them, you can show your gratitude to Jesus without having special training.

Mary, in our Bible lesson today, apparently wasn’t much of a cook; Martha was the one in the kitchen…again. (And who knows what Lazarus was doing, if anything!) But, grateful for Jesus’ love, Mary soothed Jesus’ aching feet at dinner. She anointed Him for burial.

There’s no reason for us to worry about the things we can’t do. God doesn’t hold us responsible for the things we’re incapable of doing. God only holds us accountable for what we can do.

The most important ability that Jesus is seeking in us is availability. Just make yourself available to Jesus because He loves you and because you love Him back.

As people grateful for what Jesus has done for us, our call is clear. We’re to do whatever good we can do, whenever we can do it, for whomever we can do it. And for God’s sake, we should never worry about either what it costs us or about our abilities.

If we truly want to tell Jesus thanks for the cross and the empty tomb, then we, like Mary who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, will find our own ways each day to tell Him, “Thank You!” And as we do, we will be truly alive. Amen!