Saturday, May 21, 2011

Forever Young

See here.

Check out Psalm 92:
It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High;

to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night,

to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.

For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!

The dullard cannot know, the stupid cannot understand this:

though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever,
but you, O Lord, are on high forever.

For your enemies, O Lord, for your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered.

But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil.

My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.

The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.

In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Christians Having Being Christians

Earlier today, a bunch of folks from Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan and friends had a being Christian!

This was "pick-up, sort, and deliver" day for our PPSST! Community Food Drive.

The letters, PPSST, stand for pasta, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, soup, and tuna. Here's how PPSST unfolded:

On Saturday, May 14, members of Saint Matthew distributed empty sacks provided to us by the Kroger store in Logan, with a note attached. The sacks were left at 700 Logan doorsteps. The attached note told folks that the following Saturday, May 21, sometime after 11:00AM, we would pick up sacks filled with the PPSST items.

Of course, members of Saint Matthew also added items they wanted to give as well.

After we picked up the items today, their expiration dates were checked, then sorted and boxed.

Then, we took the items to Hocking County Job and Family Services, which works with the unemployed and needy persons in our community. This dedicated government agency knows the needs of people and will distribute the collected food to persons on their clientele lists. Any additional food items we might receive beyond today will go to the Clearing House Assistance Program (CHAP) emergency food bank.

This is the third year that we've undertaken this particular servanthood project. As usual, it was a lot of fun!

This year, it acquired an additional letter; it used to be PSST! But it's still a great practical way for us to join our neighbors in sharing the love of Christ with others.

We've distributed empty sacks and picked up filled ones in different Logan neighborhoods in each of the first three years. The response has been great everywhere we've gone.

On a monthly basis, Saint Matthew members donate food items to CHAP. That, PPSST, and other undertakings are all examples of how we strive to obey Jesus' great commandment to love God and love others.

[Phyllis is a blur as she sorts items.]

[Some of the boxes filled with food taken to Job and Family Services.]

[By the way, this is some of what I had in mind when I wrote about Christians getting on with the business of living, here.]

When Will the World End? Who Cares?

Though they may disagree on particulars, all Christians believe that one day, Jesus will return, bringing an end to this universe and fully establishing the new heaven and the new earth the Bible talks about.

That's why many of us, including we Lutherans, confess in the Nicene Creed, the most widely accepted statement of Christian belief in the world, that Jesus "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."

But anyone who claims to know the day, month, hour, or year of Jesus' return either is, at worst, a counterfeit Christian or, at best, a misinformed one.

A quick look at words of Jesus cited in three of the New Testament books--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--known as "gospels" will show this. Jesus says:
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:31-32)
For an attentive Christian, these words raise a question which, ultimately, we may find unanswerable: If Jesus is God enfleshed and if He and the Father are one, as He teaches and as we believe, then how is it possible for the Father to know the date of Jesus' return without Jesus knowing it?

I personally can only speculate that as part of God's risk of subjecting Himself to temptation and sin and being human in order to bond with the human race for whom Jesus came to die and rise, it was decided that God the Son would be walled off from any unfair advantage over the rest of us in matters like knowing when this world will end. It may be a topic for discussion in eternity one day, though I suspect that by then, it won't matter much to us.

But the real take-away from Jesus' words is that He claimed to have no knowledge of when He would return to close the curtain on life in this world.

And why would that be? Because it's not important to know.

Following the words of Jesus cited above, He also says:
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Jesus' point is clear. Don't waste time speculating. Don't waste money on billboards and ads in major newspapers saying you know the date of Jesus' return. Nobody, no matter how convinced or convincing they may be, knows. Our job is just to be ready for His return.

And who is ready?
  • All who have taken up Jesus' offer on the free gifts of forgiveness of sin and everlasting life by turning from sin (repenting) and entrusting their lives to Him (believing).
  • All those who, out of gratitude for the free gifts of Jesus, seek to live out the great commandment (love God, love others) and the great commission (make disciples, new followers of Jesus, by sharing the true story of what Jesus did through cross and empty tomb for everyone).
I don't know when Jesus is returning. Nobody on earth has a clue about that. But you'll be ready if you let Jesus be the ultimate boss (Lord) of your life. Now, trusting in Him, get busy with living!*

*This is exactly what the members of our congregation, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, are going to do--get busy--as we conduct our community food drive today. Sharing Jesus in practical ways is one of the things we Christians need to be about, not speculating on when the world will end.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Have Faith

"I wish I had a faith like yours," a man told me one Sunday. "It makes me feel guilty that I don't."

"Don't ever wish you were someone else, especially not me," I answered. "I believe in Jesus, for sure, and I'm grateful that He went to the cross and rose from the dead for people like me.

"But I'm just a forgiven sinner. And every day I still do, say, and think sinful things, things that don't show love for God or love for others. I have to go back to God every single day, asking Him for forgiveness and for help in living like a Christian."

The man said that he understood all that. What he wanted was a stronger faith. He wanted to be more sure about Jesus.

With a clearer grasp of what the man was getting at, I then shared with him one of the most important truths I've learned on how to appropriate faith in Christ, as well as on how to enjoy a deepening relationship with Christ.

"Here's what I've found," I told him. "You have to live into faith. No amount of praying, reading, or thinking will get you there, as important as those things are. Faith in Christ is a gift from God. All you have to do is grab hold of it. And you can grab hold of it when you live your way into it."

As many who have read this blog or heard me preach know, I was an atheist when my wife and I first married. Marrying an atheist wasn't the smartest thing Ann could have done. She was a Lutheran Christian and it would be hard for her to build a strong marriage with a husband moving in a different direction from the one in which she moved.

But early in our marriage, mostly to get Ann off my back for sleeping in late on Sundays, I started going to worship with her at the Lutheran congregation of which she was a member.

I liked what I saw and experienced there. The members were real, down to earth people who dealt with real issues in their lives and also had real faults. What I learned from them, as I've told others, is that the church--any church--is a hospital for hypocrites, a place for sinners to come and be nudged toward a new way of life by the God we meet there.

I found that whatever tough times or personal flaws of character the members of Ann's home church dealt with in their lives, they kept coming back to Jesus. They kept seeking healing and the power for living morally better lives in the hospital for hypocrites, the church.

In worship, they confessed their sins, heard God's Word of forgiveness and new life through Christ, and tried to follow Jesus in their everyday lives.

In spite of myself, I found that I wanted to be like these people. I wanted to have faith in Jesus. But I really didn't know how to get it. (I was also too embarrassed to tell even my wife that this was what I wanted. I guess I didn't want to appear either weak or ignorant.)

Then, without knowing that this desire to have the faith was percolating in me, the pastor of Ann's church stopped by our apartment one evening. "Would the two of you take over as leaders of the junior high youth group?" he asked.

I had never admitted to the pastor that I was an atheist. But I was still on the roll of a Methodist church in which I'd been confirmed. So, I tried to use that as a an excuse to say, "You know," I told him, "I'm not even a Lutheran." He wasn't buying it. "We won't hold that against you," he said with a smile. Left out of defenses against taking on this task, I retreated, certain that Ann would put a stop to the whole thing. "Ann just told him, "We'll do it." "Well, if Ann wants to do it," I told him, "I guess I could try to help her."

This was a turning point in my road to faith. My wife and I were suddenly supposed to provide some spiritual leadership to young people. That entailed getting to know the kids and providing them with an environment in which it was safe for them to talk with God and interact with others in their own unique Christian way.

I started doing things that were needed for me to play my role with some sort of authenticity and effectiveness. I...
  • showed up for the evening youth group gatherings
  • hung out with the kids
  • listened to what was happening in their lives
  • helped plan activities
  • listened to their Bible devotions
  • tried to pray, though at first seemed a little weird to me.
Later, I began to more seriously do things that would help me understand what I was doing alongside my wife when we hung out with the youth. Among other things, I...
  • attended worship regularly
  • began to read the Bible (I couldn't believe I was doing this. But I was...and enjoying it!)
  • started attending adult Sunday School class and adult Bible studies
Notice the progression: I moved from activity to appropriation of the faith; from living the Christian faith to actually believing it.

If you want Christ in your life or if you want to enjoy a deepening faith relationship with Christ, I recommend following this pattern. If you're not a Christian, find a church and, without expecting to be a leader (in fact, always expect and aspire to be a servant), volunteer to be involved in some ministry the congregation does. It might be...
  • helping collect food for area needy
  • corresponding with a child sponsored by the congregation through organizations like World Vision or Compassion International
  • driving an elderly person or a family with young children to church or to doctor appointments
  • joining in whenever the congregation does a community kindness outreach
  • if you're a musician, offering to play your instrument (it could be brass or woodwind, strings or piano, guitar or bass, harmonica or bongo drums, whatever) for worship or for other gatherings 
  • volunteering to go on a church mission trip, whether it's in town or to impoverished Third World locations
  • helping the homeless
It could be a million other things like these.

But whatever it is, if you want faith or you want a deeper faith, find a worthy Christian ministry and get involved.

Live into your faith and the living Jesus will live in you in ways that bring you confidence, hope, and...a deeper faith.
As long as you haven't landed at a church filled with institutional gatekeepers or where your particular talents are wildly out of sync, I believe something incredible will happen to you. As you live as a believer in Jesus, God will turn you into a believer in Jesus.

If you're a member of a congregation, this will entail getting off your tail. It will mean getting in the game. Suddenly, I think you'll find, that a faith you once found boring or meaningless will come alive. Jesus will come alive to you.

I have seen this work in countless people. But how? The answer, I think, is that Christian faith is not about us. It's what God has done for us in Jesus. And it's about sharing forgiveness, hope, and new life that comes from God with others. Living into Christian faith--serving others in Christ's Name before we fully understand what that means--gets our minds off of ourselves, cultivating the belief that, no matter what, God is with us.

Freed from the slavery to ourselves, God's Spirit empowers us to trust in Christ and to get on with the business of living.

When that happens, the Spirit has an open will on which to imprint new ways of living and thinking.

Live into Christian faith and it will grow inside of you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Want to Know Why N.T. Wright's Books Are So Great?

Whether writing for general audiences, for clergy, or for Biblical theologians, the qualities of deep reverence for God and thorough scholarship are apparent in the writings of N.T. (Tom) Wright. This short post tells you why. Humility before the Lord and the world has made Wright a powerful spokesperson for Christ in this confused and confusing age.

Here is a link to the N.T. Wright page on Amazon. Laypeople, clergy, and scholars alike will really enjoy his 'For Everyone' commentaries on the books of the New Testament. They're great for anyone wanting to understand the New Testament.

"Why your best try is such a miserable failure"

Matt Johnson presents Martin Luther on our unfree human will.

This Just In: I AM a Dork

My dorkiness was confirmed today (once again) by the fact that I was psyched to rip into the package containing the latest volume in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. There had been a delay of several months since the publication of the last book and in an email to me about two months ago, a spokesperson for the company wasn't certain when the next installment would be released. He assured me that, as a subscriber to the series of books, the next volume would be sent to me as soon as the ink dried. So, it came as a happy surprise for me to see it in my mailbox today.

Of excitement may have been deepened by the fact that a note on the packaging indicated that the new book's subject is the Old Testament book, Song of Solomon (aka: Song of Songs), a sometimes saucy celebration of the marital love enjoyed by husband and wife.

Whenever I read or think about Song of Solomon, I remember the episode of M*A*S*H in which Father Mulcahy, visiting the wounded and sick, comes upon a soldier reading the Bible intently. Delighted, Mulcahy asks the young man what book of the Bible he's reading. The soldier says, "Song of Solomon." Mulcahy grabs the Bible from him and says that it might be a bit too much for him to read right then.

But, back to my dorkiness. Anybody who is serious about understanding Scriptures will be well helped by all the commentaries in the Brazos series. I own all the volumes published so far and each one has deepened my understanding of the Biblical books covered and helped me in thinking about their theological, practical application. I've been especially helped (so far) by Stanley Hauerwas' volume on Matthew, Risto Saarinen's on The Pastoral Epistles and Philemon and Jude, and David L. Stubbs' work on Numbers.

God Can Heal Our Wounds Today

Thanks to Pastor Deb Grant for this.

'Healer of Our Every Ill,' #738 in With One Voice, comes to mind here. It was composed by Marty Haugen. You can find clips from the hymn here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Only Way to God

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

John 10:1-10
There’s a common belief held by many in our culture these days. You hear it all the time, whether in barber shops, on TV talk shows, or at church meetings. It’s the belief that all religious convictions are equal in their ability to lead people to God. You don’t need to give your sins or your life to Jesus exclusively, some people assert. They say, “All religions are headed to the same place.” Is that true?

Not according to Jesus! And in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses two illustrations to point us to Who He is and to the relationship with God that you and I…and every person on the planet…can have only through Him.

But before considering what Jesus has to tell us today, we should set the scene. How is it that Jesus came to speak the words we find in John 10:1-10?

It all started when Jesus gave sight to a blind man in John 9. That caused a controversy because Jesus dared to do this loving deed on a Sabbath day. Jesus’ action made some of Jesus' fellow Jews--the Pharisees--so angry that when the blind man He healed said that Jesus must be from God, they threw the man out of the temple, no longer considering him a faithful Jew.

Of course, at one level, the Pharisees were nothing like people today who claim that all religious beliefs lead to God. The Pharisees believed that only by abiding by their extensive lists of religious rules could one be right with God. But, based on what God has revealed of Himself in both the Old and New Testaments, both the advocates of anything-goes spirituality in the twenty-first century and the Pharisees of the first century have one big thing in common: They are equally wrong. Accepting the assertions of either group will lead us away from God and the life God offers only in Jesus Christ.

Over the centuries, starting with a people to whom God gave a land and a promise, God has revealed Himself and His plan for the human race. From the beginning, the plan for a right relationship with God and for a life with Him that lasts forever has been the same. We are to give our lives back to the Giver of our lives and give our lives only to Him.

Genesis says that Abraham, the patriarch of Biblical faith, believed in God and God’s promises and that God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham was right with God because he entrusted his life to God. He believed in God.

The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that through the centuries, God revealed Himself through the prophets of Israel, but in these last days, God has revealed Himself definitively in Jesus. If we want to live with God, we need to listen Jesus.

All who turn from sin and believe in Jesus, God the Son, have the same blessings enjoyed by Abraham: rightness with God and life with God.

It isn’t because God is an egomaniac or because God wants to establish an exclusive club that the first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods” or that God commands exclusive fidelity to Jesus Christ.

It’s that God wants to give us life and only He can give it. Indeed, He will only give us life and, as Jesus puts it in today's Gospel lesson, life "abundantly," through Jesus Christ and our faith in Him.

All other roads are dead ends, literally dead ends.

So, in today's lesson, Jesus says that He is the shepherd of God’s sheep. Only Jesus can lead us into God’s sheepfold. People who try to get into the kingdom of God by other means are—whether through good works, other religious beliefs, or all manner of cosmic niceness—are, Jesus says, thieves and bandits. Look at verses 2 to 5 of the Gospel lesson printed on the Celebrate insert:
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.
In this illustration, Jesus is the shepherd. God the Father is the gatekeeper.

For just a second, think of God’s kingdom as a show everybody (including you and me) wants to see. The problem is that the gatekeeper—God the Father—will issue tickets to only one kind of customer: People who are absolutely clean and clear of sin.

That would leave us all on the outside, pining for a relationship with God because, as the Bible says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Standing there in our sins, we would be without hope except for one thing: Jesus, the shepherd of the sheep, tells the gatekeeper, “It’s OK. She’s with me. He’s mine. You can let them in. I paid for their sins on the cross, the sacrifice of a sinless human being who didn’t deserve death on behalf of all other sinful human beings who deserved death.”

All who repent and believe in Christ are ushered into God’s eternal kingdom—long before their lives on this earth have ended, if they dare. Even now--even today--if you dare to trust in Him, you are living in Christ's eternal kingdom. As our second lesson from Peter reminds us, until we rise again, we live in a fallen world where suffering and challenges happen. But if suffering is a reality that can and does come to any of us, it's better to go through this life with Jesus leading us than to try to go it alone.

Those who heed Jesus’ voice live each day knowing that whatever our sins, deficiencies, and shortcomings, we belong to God forever! He is our ticket into eternity!

Like sheep attuned to the shepherd’s voice, when you dial into God through a relationship with Christ, you begin to know His voice. It brings incredible comfort, hope, and energy, straight from God, into your life!

Sometimes that voice will come with direction we'd rather not hear or will call us to do things we'd rather not do. I was the first person in my seminary class to interview for a call. It was for an associate pastor's position. There was another candidate who would be interviewing. Her candidacy made mine a long-shot because she had done her internship at that congregation. But my interview went well and, before Ann and I headed back to Columbus, the senior pastor told me he would be in touch in a few days. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into a month, and still no word from the senior pastor or the congregation.

More than a month after the interview, I was scheduled to be at the district convention, where, along with all the recently graduated seminarians, I would be trotted onstage to be introduced. In the evening, a service of Holy Communion was held in a college auditorium. We had just finished confessing our sins when I looked to see that senior pastor. "Mark," he said, "God wouldn't let me take Holy Communion until I came to apologize to you. I'm so sorry I never contacted you to let you know that the other candidate received the call. I didn't want to tell you that, so I kept putting off contacting you. Would you please forgive me?"

You see, that senior pastor was known by the Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus. And he knew Jesus. So, when Jesus called on him to make things right, that's exactly what he did.

The Shepherd speaks to His children in other ways too.

A member of this congregation recently told me that after her husband died, she was sobbing in her bed one night, seeking comfort, when she sensed a hand on her shoulder. So real was the touch she felt, that she reached around to feel for the unseen hand. No hand was felt, but the touch was no less real. In that quiet exchange, one of Christ’s sheep heard His voice of comfort and healing. She was comforted because she is one of Jesus’ sheep. Jesus knows His own and His own know Him!

A friend of mine has pastored a Lutheran congregation for decades. In spite of his faithfulness and innovative leadership, the congregation hasn’t grown. It’s actually declined in membership, attendance, giving, and activity. Day after day, year after year, he has prayed and worked faithfully, sharing Christ, leading people to deeper levels of faithfulness. But things have only gotten worse.

Then one day last year, after a long time in prayer, he sensed God asking him, “You pray for this renewal to happen, for new people to come to faith in Christ. But have you prayed that all the evil in the world that conspires against that happening be kept from this church, kept from its people, kept from the places where worship and education and planning happen?” No, my friend told God, he hadn’t done that in prayer. “Do it now!” God seemed to tell him forcefully.

And so, my friend went all through the church facility, praying in every room, asking God to take control of all that happened there, to displace Satan and all evil from every inch, and to fill the building and the people of the church with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the power and truth of the Word of God!

Things haven’t yet changed in that congregation. But my friend now knows they will change. That’s because after he had prayerfully surrendered himself and his congregation and prayed that God would prevail over all evil that assailed them, the good shepherd assured him that all he had prayed for would come to pass.

God gave him a vision of a sanctuary filled with joyful people excited to be in God’s presence, excited to give themselves in worship to God on Sunday morning in anticipation of using their whole lives to worship God through the week. The voice of the shepherd spoke to my friend and he was filled with comfort, renewed hope, and holy energy!

But Jesus uses another image in our lesson to describe Who He is; He says that He is also the gate to eternity.

Years ago, Ann and I went to a party and realized after we got back home that we’d locked ourselves out of the house. Long story short, with Ann’s help I was able to push myself through a first-floor window that we had left partially opened. I was halfway into the house by this route, my arms and torso inside, my legs still hanging outside, when a thought crossed my mind: How would I explain this to a policeman? After all, if you belong somewhere, you don’t have to break in. You go through the front door.

Jesus is the front door, the only door—the only gate—to life with God, to the abundant, everlasting life that God wants to give to all people. You can't get into God's kingdom in any other way! “No one comes to the Father except through Me,” Jesus says elsewhere. “If you know Me, you will know the Father also. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.”

The real quest of the Christian life is to get to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This “quest” isn’t an onerous task. It’s a joy like falling in love.

That’s why I hope that every member of Saint Matthew will not only regularly worship and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, but also join us, even belatedly, in reading the Bible in a year.

I hope that every member will be in Sunday School. (Yes, every member.)

I hope that we’ll all make prayer a daily habit.

I hope that you’ll help us share Christ in a very practical way when we collect those filled grocery sacks next Saturday during our PPSST! Food Drive.

These are all ways to follow the voice of Jesus, ways to enter more deeply into a relationship with God that only comes through Jesus.

This past week, at the graveside of our friend Betty, we heard her confirmation verses. Betty chose them sixty years ago when she was confirmed at the age of 23. They're words of Jesus from Matthew 10:32-33:
"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” 
Freedom from sin comes only to those who turn away from the dead-end ways of the world and trust the only One Who can give us forgiveness and new life, Jesus, the good shepherd and the gate—the front door—to eternity.

Let yourself get to know Him better.

Trust in Him and in His Word alone.

As you do, you’ll hear His voice over the din of an often-confusing world and He will lead you to a life prepared for you, a life that here will sometimes bring inexplicable challenges, but also a life that never ends, a life filled with the presence of God, today and always.

The Shepherd is calling you today. Follow Him…and live!