Saturday, April 16, 2011

Psalm 32 is one of my favorites...

...and these thoughts on it are good.

Here's Psalm 32, as rendered by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation:
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer...

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin...

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance...

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.

Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bonhoeffer on How We Should See Others

True, challenging, and freeing all at the same time:
"Nothing that we despise in others is entirely absent from ourselves. We often expect from others more than we are willing to do ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others - and especially to weaker brethren - is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men's sake."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer "After Ten Years: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943"

God's Presence, Intimidating Blessing

At Saint Matthew, the congregation I serve as pastor, we're spending a year reading the Bible together. This week, we'll be starting on the Old Testament book of Numbers. It's a tough read! As my colleague and seminary classmate, Ken Pollitz, once told me, "You have to bear down pretty hard to get through Numbers." But it has real value and contains the Word of God.

Read what David L. Stubbs has to say about it:
One of the lessons of Numbers is that encountering God and the things of God is no light thing. God desires to bring blessing to his chosen people, to all nations, and to all creation, and central to this blessing is the gift of God's presence. For us sinful mortals, however, the warmth of God's life-giving presence is also a burning fire that tests us and ultimately cleanses us to make us holy. All this, in fact, is blessing.
I like that.

Hiding in Plain Sight

"Sin detected can contrive all manner of veils to cover its nakedness." (Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters in The Holy Thief)

Peters' (Pargeter's) Brother Cadfael mysteries, set in twelfth century Shrewsbury, England, is brain candy, but good diversionary reads. She was a beautifully descriptive writer and along the way often shares little gems of insight like the one above.

Tax Day Thought

"Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.'' (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Justice)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beautiful Day!

The church garden is starting to come to life again. This is what it looked like earlier this gorgeous spring day!

Misogyny, Murder, and Accountability

Our small town has been shocked and saddened by the kidnapping and murder of a young woman, the mother of three small children. Charges of kidnapping have been lodged against her estranged husband, William Inman, Jr., and his parents, William, Sr. and Sandra. Since Sandra was the one who told authorities where the young woman's body could be found, it's widely expected that murder charges will be brought against at least the two men. Sandra, it's expected, will face a lesser charge as part of a plea bargain.

The body of Summer Inman, who was kidnapped on March 22 outside of a local bank where she worked as a janitor, was found little more than a week later in the septic tank of the church building where her husband's parents were married in 2004. She had been strangled.

Evil is real.

The evil that led to Summer Inman's murder was of a particular kind and it grew for a particular reason.

A story from WBNS TV in Columbus presented these facts about the family with which Summer had lived before moving out and filing for divorce:
Neighbors said Sandra and Summer Inman were rarely seen outside of the home, and when they were, they were both dressed entirely in black.

A close friend said it became clear to her "that the men had taken over the women" in the family.

Those who knew them said William A. Inman considered himself a religious leader and conducted church services in an outbuilding at their home.

Neighbors said he would often go door-to-door, soliciting donations for what he called "Mercy Ranch," a plan to turn his home into a place for the wayward and homeless.
It appears that the older William Inman had set himself up as a religious dictator overseeing his own misogynist kingdom.

Two particular forms of evil seem to have caused the years of hellish living and horrible end to which Summer Inman was subjected.

First, there is the evil represented by the presumption of anyone announcing on they have a call from God. This is what William (Bill) Inman did.

Nobody is authorized to hang up a holy shingle on their own initiative. An individual can swear up and down that she or he has a call from God to pastoral ministry, or any other ministry, but swearing won't make it so.

Recently, the members of our congregation, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, have begun a venture of reading the Bible in the course of a year. We have daily readings and once a week, folks get together to discuss the readings. During the week after the discovery of Summer Inman's body, we read portions of the Old Testament book of Exodus in which God calls Moses to act as intermediary between God and the people and then, the people call Moses to act to this same role. The will of God about Moses' role was confirmed by believing people. The will of God as to whether a person is to be a leader among His people will always be reflected among His people.

Lutherans have always believed in this "dual nature" of the call. A potential pastor's sense of call must be affirmed by the Church. Otherwise, it's just a feeling on the part of a would-be pastor and feelings are never a sufficient basis for Christian decision-making.

There's a lot of authority associated with being a pastor. It's not like the authority of a political or military leader or a business executive. It's the authority associated with God's Word and God's Sacraments and no one should dare to enter this ministry unless the call from God is confirmed by the Church. That never happened with Bill Inman. He simply took what wasn't his to take.

That in itself is a flashing light signaling possible trouble. If someone is that presumptuous with God, it's hardly a stretch to think that he will be at least that presumptuous in claiming authority over people that is not theirs.

The second evil in this case is the utterly un-Biblical and un-Christian male domination practiced by the two Inman men.

From the beginning, Scripture makes clear the utter equality of women and men. When Genesis recounts the creation of humanity, it says:
So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them, male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Both the man and the woman were created in God's image, each in equal relationship with their Creator.

Later, in the New Testament, Paul, often wrongly accused himself of being a sexist, says plainly that, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28).

When Paul first came to faith in Christ, a woman was among those who "catechized" him in the faith. Where the culture allowed it, women served as leaders in churches founded by Paul.

Even passages in the New Testament sometimes trotted out by those who try use Christianity to justify sexism backfire in their faces. For example, Ephesians 5:21-33, which some claim commands husbands to be lords over their wives, actually, on a close reading, can be seen to command husbands and wives to live in mutual submission. Husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, which, is a clear call for the husband to give himself utterly and sacrificially to their wives. After all, Christ went to a cross for His Church.

People who fail to maintain their connection to Christ's Church, who are accountable to nobody, can rationalize anything: misogyny and kidnapping and, if the hints and allegations prove true, even murder. 

It's evil and you can be sure that, barring some uncharacteristic repentance (and, at the prompting of God's Holy Spirit, such miracles can happen), there will be a horrible reckoning because the God revealed first to ancient Israel and ultimately, in Jesus Christ, is a consuming fire.* To trifle with Him, to claim His authority without His permission, is a fearful thing.

*See here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Join Forces to Support Military Families

Go here for more information.

I've heard from reliable sources just how committed Michelle Obama is to providing support to America's military families, people we should never forget, people who make extraordinary sacrifices each and every day.

During our congregation's Sunday worship services, we have a group of military personnel we frequently hold up in prayer and we encourage our members to pray for them by name each day. That's a good start.

But there's so much more that all of us can do to support military families. Go to the linked site to learn more about what we can do.

Who's the Boss?

"It’s important to remember that we may be wrong even though life is good."

We live in a time when we resent being told what we should and shouldn't do, even when the one doing the telling is the sovereign God of the universe. We need to get over that!

Sarah's Got a Brand New Car

Actually, it's a used car. (Or, as they like to say, a "pre-owned" car.) But you couldn't sing any of that like James Brown: "Papa's got a brand new bag." This is a post title you can sing.

And for Sarah, it is a new car.

Bonus Track: From Our Short North Foray

A few days ago, I shared about our most recent trip to Columbus' Short North. Here's a bonus video, showing the randomly arranged wares (mostly chairs) at one store there, complete with two Hitchcockian cameos by yours truly, along with a terrible videographic faux pas at the end.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trusting God

"Trusting God," or maybe more imperatively, "Trust God!," is the theme that emerges from several inspiring things I've read over the past week or so.

First, there's today's installment from Our Daily Bread, called The Penny Syndrome. Never underestimate what God can and will do through you when you trust Him!

My colleague and friend, Pastor Glen VanderKloot, in his daily devotional, shared thoughts from John Ortberg's fantastic book, The Me I Want to Be. You can find them here. God has an adventure planned for you; live it!

Also, inspired by the Bible, Bill Hybels' book The Power of a Whisper, the experiences of many faithful Christians, and his own walk with Christ, Glen has been sharing a sermon series on the power of God's communication with His people. I've linked to previous installments. Here is the link to the sermon of April 3. 

And here is Glen's sermon from yesterday, April 10. As you read it, put aside your skepticism and world-weary wariness. Glen is an intelligent, knowledgeable man who trusts in Jesus Christ with every fiber of his being. I'm excited by the vision for his congregation that Glen here shares! As many of us  were reminded by the first Bible lesson for worship yesterday, Ezekiel 37:1-14, by the power of His Word, God can give new life to dead, dry bones. Pray for Glen and for Faith Lutheran Church of Springfield, Illinois as God brings the vision of renewal into being! 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Greatest Privilege and Responsibility

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins, tells about his interview with the late Admiral James Stockdale.

Stockdale, unfortunately, got pegged for an oaf after his 1992 run as Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate. It’s an undeserved reputation, though.

While being held as the the highest-ranking US officer in the so-called Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp during the War in Vietnam, where he was tortured more than twenty times in eight years, Stockdale applied his brilliance and self-discipline and courage to survive and to help others do the same.

When Jim Collins met Stockdale, the Admiral was doing some studies in the field of Philosophy at Stanford University, where Collins taught. In preparation for their meeting, Collins read Stockdale’s memoirs of his POW experiences. “As I moved through the book,” writes Collins, “I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak.” And then he thought, “If it feels depressing for me [to read about it], how on earth did [Stockdale] deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

When Collins met Stockdale, he asked the admiral about that. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale replied. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins let that astounding statement sink in for a while and then asked Stockdale who, of his fellow prisoners, didn’t make it out. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” That seemed to contradict what Stockdale had just said about never doubting the end of the story. Confessing his confusion, Collins asked Stockdale to explain.

Said the admiral: “The optimists...They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Writes Collins: “Another long pause...Then he turned to me and said, ‘This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’” I’m going to repeat that last sentence: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Here’s the point of my sermon this morning: The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope.

You see, God has come into our lives in the Person of Jesus Christ, shared human life with us, gone to a cross where He took death, the rightful punishment for our sins, and then rose from the dead, promising that all who turn from their sin and hold onto Him as their only God and Savior will live in joy with Him forever.

Twice this past week, I presided over funerals—one for my uncle and another for a woman who lived just a few doors from this church, who I had never met until this past Monday in the intensive care unit of Hocking Valley Community Hospital but, as a housebound person who listened to our worship service every single Sunday, considered Saint Matthew her church. At both gravesite ceremonies, a benediction reminded the grieving of the hope that believers in Jesus Christ have: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our brother, we commend our sister…”

Following Jesus brings hope because, through Him, through what He has done for us and through our belief in Him, we live in the certainty that we know how the story ends. And it doesn’t end at the grave!

But that doesn’t mean that we’re called to be what Stockdale called optimists.
In my thirty-five years as a Christian and nearly twenty-seven years as a pastor, I’ve seen those kinds of Christians--the optimists--come and go. They’re like fireworks. When fireworks are first lit, they're beautiful. The colors and the noise and the spectacle are dazzling. And you think, “Wow!” But they always burn out as quickly as they ignite.

Christian firecrackers are those people who get all excited about having God in their lives and love the warm and fuzzy feelings they get as they first fall in love with Jesus. They feel like they could climb the highest mountains without rest stops. But then they hit snags. The snags can be as small as “not getting anything out of worship today,” as though worship was about them. Or another snag may be feeling that God isn’t there because He doesn’t give them what they want when they want it, as though a Savior Who, the Garden of Gethsemane, begged that He wouldn’t have to drink from the cup of crucifixion yet prayed, “Not My will, but Thine be done,” would turn the sovereign and almighty God of the universe into a cosmic kewpie doll.

Authentic followers of Jesus Christ—Christian disciples—are more like the fire in a winter fireplace. They may burn with varied intensity over time and they may sometimes need to be stoked. But unlike the firecracker Christians who act as the source of their own flames, authentic, maturing Christians know that it is Jesus Christ Who sets their faith on fire and keeps it going.

The Christians who keep on living with the hope that is the right of every follower of Jesus are the ones who understand that life on this planet may sometimes be brutal, but still are focused how the story ends. And that knowledge imbues their lives with peace and certainty even in the face of the chaos and uncertainty that can befall each and every one of us!

Our Old Testament lesson for today records a vision God gave to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s ministry as a prophet took place from 597 to 571 B.C. Long before Ezekiel was born, God’s nation of Israel had torn itself in two. The northern kingdom, called Israel or also Samaria, for its capital city, had long ago been conquered by the Babylonians, a people who lived in what is today Iraq. Then, in about 587 B.C., the nation of Judea, the southern kingdom, with its capital city of Jerusalem, and the nation from which Jesus would come many centuries later, was also conquered by the Babylonians.

The common practice in those days was that a conquering nation would capture the conquered country’s ablest and most prominent citizens and send them back to the conquering nation to be slaves. This is what happened to Ezekiel.

It’s difficult for us to imagine how shattering this experience was for the people of Judea. Judea was more than just their homeland. It was also the center of their worship. They always believed that God’s presence on earth was to be found in the Holy of Holies tabernacle at the Temple in Jerusalem. When they prayed to God, they did so facing that tabernacle wherever they were in Judea or in their synagogues.

Now that the Temple was all-but-destroyed and they were far from it in an unholy land, they wondered if God could hear their cries?

Did God care what happened to them?

Was God out of their lives forever?

Could God reach out to them with His compassion and power?

The optimists of Ezekiel’s day all died of broken hearts. They didn’t remember that they belonged to the God Who has charge and always has had charge of the ends of our stories, even in the bleakest of passages. Like us, the people of Ezekiel’s day needed to be reminded of that.

So, God showed Ezekiel a vision. In a valley, God put Ezekiel in the midst of dead, dry bones. “Okay, Zeke,” God said, “start reminding these people of how the story ends for people with faith in Me. Remind them that death and humiliation are not the ends for those who follow Me. Proclaim My Word of hope to them!” You know how the story ends: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” sprang to life again.

God is still in the hope-giving business. A man I’ve told some of you about came to my house in Cincinnati one evening. We’d been acquainted, but I didn’t really know him. Nor did I know what he wanted to see me about. He was successful, financially well-off, handsome, articulate.

But as we spoke, he began to weep. “Three weeks ago,” he told me, “I watched my sister nearly die. She thinks she was saved by the medicine. They helped, I’m sure. But that wasn’t all. I watched my parents and others pray. I listened to them read the Bible in the hospital room. For the first time in my life, I really saw God.”

And, he reported, it wasn’t just because his sister had recovered that he was sure he’d seen God. You see, he’d seen God most in the depths, in the valley of dry bones, or, like the people of Bethany that day Jesus came to visit, in Lazarus’ tomb, where the stench of death was its worst.

He’d seen the hope that comes from God.

He’d seen how God gives life when all seems lost.

He’d seen the end of the story and so, been given an inexplicable hope even as he acclimated himself to the possibility that his sister’s earthly life would soon end.

My heart pounded in my chest as I listened to this man’s story. “What do you want now?” I asked him. “I want to give my life back to Christ,” he told me. And in the living room of my house, the two of us kneeling together, this man who had been baptized as a child and like a prodigal son, had wandered from God, surrendered to Christ once again. God gave new life and new hope to dry bones.

Christians still weep as Jesus did that day in Bethany recorded in today’s Gospel lesson. They wrestle with the seeming absence of God as surely the people of Judah did during their Babylonian exile.

But they have a hope that allows them to face life--and death--with hope. The day before he died, my uncle was visited by a friend at the hospital. The friend wanted to know how Uncle Jim was. My uncle lifted his hand and said several times, "I'm going up. I'm going up."

Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, Who went to a cross and rose from the dead is our surety that we have a hope that can never be destroyed. Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” and all who believe in Him, even if they go down to the dust in this world, will never die. No matter what, we know that the direction of our lives is up to God.

The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope.

May you live in that hope every single day. Amen