Monday, December 31, 2012

Three from Taliesen

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen in Spring Green, Wisconsin, was on our itinerary when we took a short jaunt to Minnesota, for a wedding this past summer.

We didn't have time to tour the actual house. But the visitor center was designed by Wright and we did visit there.

The setting is beautiful.

Wright was, of course, a raging egomaniac and, apparently, many of the buildings he designed have not stood up well to the elements. But his work is always intriguing, even the appointments he created for the interior of the visitor center.

Indulging a Favorite Pastime

Ann and I went to visit our son at the seminary he attends this past year. In the basement of one building is a spot where faculty members and students leave books they want to sell.

Purchasing is done on an honor system: Each book contains an envelope with the mailbox number of the owner. You put what the book is worth to you into the envelopes and drop them, sealed, into the campus mailbox.

Ann snapped these pictures of the two of us scanning the treasures.

Both of us found some gems that day!

From the Garden at Adena

Thomas Worthington created a beautiful set of gardens for his home, Adena, near Chillicothe, Ohio. Here are a couple of bad videos I took when Ann and I went to Adnea this year.

Important Spot in Ohio History

At Adena in Chillicothe, the home of Thomas Worthington, "the Father of Ohio Statehood," is a sight that will be familiar to any Ohioan. The story goes that after a night-time of working, Worthington and others, who had been working on the state's first constitution stepped outside and saw rising over the southern Ohio hills, a beautiful sunrise.

It inspired the State Seal of Ohio. In its earliest incarnation, the seal pictured the hills as mountains. But while we don't have mountains in Ohio, parts of our state do have gorgeous hills. The seal was revised to reflect that.

A trip to Adena is always interesting and fun!

Conflict-Free Wisconsin Capitol Building

The demonstrators were nowhere to be seen at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison when we arrived a few days before their contentious recall election surrounding the state's governor, Scott Walker.

Ann Takes a Spin

Ann takes a spin on her Schwinn. This was before we got the basket and the bell.

The New Bike I Bought This Past Summer

No speeds or fancy brakes, just a red Schwinn, like my wife's. Hers is pink, with a basket and a bell. Are we going through our second childhoods?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

How to Find Jesus

Luke 2:41-52
Five days ago, we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Today, our Gospel lesson revolves around an incident that happened when Jesus was twelve years old. I guess my parents were right: They do grow up in a hurry!

But if it seems crazy to be talking about Jesus at the age of twelve today, keep in mind two things.

First, this is the only incident from Jesus’ childhood beyond Matthew’s and Luke’s birth and infancy accounts that we have.

And second, in Luke’s telling, this incident really is recounted immediately after his account of what happened in the temple in Jerusalem eight days after Jesus was born.

In fact, looking at what happened when Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ earthly parents, took Jesus to be circumcised and dedicated to God at the temple when Jesus was eight days old can help to explain much of what is going on in today’s Gospel lesson.

You remember that back then, the holy family was met by two elderly Jewish believers, Simeon and Anna. Each of them had been waiting and praying for the coming of the Messiah promised by God hundreds of years earlier.

Simeon, you’ll remember, rejoiced when he saw Jesus. He joyfully prayed to God (I’m reading from the old Revised Standard Version): “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”

Now, please open your Bible to Luke 2:34-35 to see what Simeon’s follow-up to these celebratory words was: “Then Simeon blessed [Joseph, Mary, and Jesus], and said to Mary His mother, ‘Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Just in case Mary entertained any illusions that the child conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit to Whom she had given birth would be a normal son, Simeon was evidently sent by God to remind her that this was emphatically not the case.

As God-in-the-flesh, God’s ultimate self-disclosure to the world, Jesus would inevitably arouse the hostility of a world of people hell-bent on being their own gods and lords, their own kings and counselors.

Simeon thus foreshadows Jesus‘ cross for Mary. The freedom of human beings from slavery to sin, death, and futility can only come through the sacrifice of the perfect representative of the human race. New life comes only to those who believe in Jesus Christ because only the crucified and risen Jesus Christ can take the weight of sin and death off our shoulders, swallowing them both up in the resurrection victory He shares with those who repent and entrust their lives to Him!

Now, any parent can imagine how Mary and Joseph must have reacted to Simeon’s prediction. When bad things happen to or are predicted for our kids, our first reaction as parents is denial. We want to block the unpleasant prospects from our thoughts and shiels our kids from them.

And, under such circumstances, there’s one thing we crave more than anything else: normalcy, routine, an ordinary life.

That was what Mary and Joseph craved. Luke 2:39 says: “So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth.”

Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in their hometown. They raised the rest of their family. Joseph taught Jesus a trade. Mary and Joseph, along with the people of Nazareth, saw to Jesus‘ instruction in the faith.

The very ordinariness of their lives may have lulled the parents into thinking that, as special as Jesus was to them, maybe Simeon was wrong. Maybe the cross could be avoided. Maybe the sword would never pierce Mary’s soul.

But what Mary and Joseph experienced in today’s Gospel lesson should have torn their denial and their dependence on the ordinary to pieces.

Look at our lesson, Luke 2:41-52. At the outset, we’re told: “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.”

Joseph and Mary were devout Jews who every year traveled the long miles to Jerusalem from Nazareth, to the temple for the Passover. Jesus was raised in a home in which, whatever fantasies Joseph and Mary may have entertained, God was the number one priority in life. Parents and grandparents today are called to provide nothing less than this same foundation to their children and grandchildren.

The text goes on: “And when [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem [though Jerusalem is south of Nazareth, they “went up” because Jerusalem sets at a higher elevation] according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days [the Passover lasts a week] as they returned the Boy Jesus lingered in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances.”

Are you thinking that Mary and Joseph were bad parents?

In Mary’s and Joseph’s defense, it should be said that in those days in Jewish culture, people really did feel that it took a village to raise a child. Their assumption that their twelve year old was with some of their family members or neighbors from Nazareth, is understandable then.

Less so, maybe, is that they were one day into the journey before they started looking for Jesus. Maybe Jesus had always shown Himself to be such a “miracle child” that they didn’t give His absence during the day of travel much thought.

Whatever the case, the moment they realized their child was missing, they sprang into action.

 Go to verse 45: “So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple...”

We’ll come back to “three days” shortly. But, to me, what Luke says here surprises me. Why did it take Joseph and Mary three days of searching before they went to the temple to look for Jesus?

The temple was the most prominent landmark in Jerusalem, the focal point of the Passover celebrations from which they’d just come, and Jesus was a boy who was, we’re told in Luke 2:40, “...strong in the Spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.”

Shouldn’t the temple have been the first place they looked?

Maybe. But the temple may have stood as  a harsh reminder to them both of the prophecy of Simeon. Their son’s affinity to doing the will of God may have been fearful thing they just wanted to avoid acknowledging.

And, I must admit that I too, often look for Jesus in the wrong places.

I look for Jesus to be where I want Him to be, rather than going to the places and circumstances and death of favorite sins He wants me to embrace.

But the hard fact is that God did not take on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ to make us comfortable in our sin, self-will, and life lived on our own terms rather than God’s terms.

Jesus came to invite us to crucify our old selves in repentance and experience new and everlasting life by believing with complete surrender to Him. And even Mary and Joseph needed to repent of their sin of wanting Jesus on their own terms and to, instead, believe in Jesus with total surrender. So, they had something to learn from Jesus in Jerusalem that day.

In verse 46, we’re told that Jesus was “sitting in the midst of the teachers” [Sitting was the posture of a revered teacher in those days. Twelve year old Jesus is sitting, teaching the foremost religious teachers of first-century Judaism!] “both listening to them and asking them questions” [Teachers always used the interrogative method in those days, asking questions in order to teach. Again, Jesus is teaching the religious teachers of His people!]

“And all who heard Him," we're told, "were astonished at His understanding and answers. So when [Mary and Joseph] saw Him, they were amazed...”

Then comes this word of reproach from Mary, for which Jesus must quickly correct her. “...His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought You anxiously.’”

Mary has sunk so deeply into routine, it seems, that she has forgotten Who Jesus‘ real Father is and where Jesus‘ real home is.

Jesus says to Mary: “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”

Folks, what Jesus says of Himself is no less true for those of us who confess Him to be our Lord and God.

We may love and cherish our families, but when we come to faith in Christ, God becomes our Father. That's why Jesus teaches us to call God, "Father."

And this present world, shrouded in sin and death, is not our home. We pass through this life, as Peter writes in the New Testament, as “aliens and strangers.” We have a better homeland. [See Hebrews 11:13-16.]

And, like Jesus, out of gratitude for His forgiveness and love, no matter what our jobs, we are called to be about Father’s business: loving God, loving neighbors, making disciples for Christ.       

In verse 50, we’re told that Mary and Joseph “did not understand the statement which [Jesus] spoke to them.” And this is where the “three days” comes in.

Three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, you’ll remember, two unnamed disciples ran into Him, risen from the dead, on the road to Emmaus. Their minds, it seems, were so fogged by the normal expectations of life--like the normal expectation that dead people stay dead--that they couldn’t believe the reports they’d heard of Jesus’ resurrection and then didn’t recognize the risen Jesus as He walked beside them on the road!

But just as the twelve year old Jesus revealed Himself as the Son of God to Joseph and Mary three days after they’d begun a frenzied search for the One they’d come to see as their son, the risen Jesus would reveal Himself as the conqueror of sin and death to those confused followers of Jesus on the first Easter.

Listen: It’s so easy to lose track of Jesus and Who He is. If that could happen to Mary and Joseph and to the disciples who had watched Jesus perform miracles and heard His teaching, it can happen to you and me.

But it’s not as if Jesus has gone to heaven without leaving us a forwarding address. He wants to be with us now and in eternity.

Like Joseph and Mary, we need to know where we can find Him.

And so, Jesus gives us reliable means by which we can be in His company twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week:
  • We can go to His Word, in the Bible, and His Word proclaimed in personal conversations, Sunday School lessons and Bible studies, and from pulpits. 
  • We can go to the Sacraments--Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--by which He comes to us and fills us with God's forgiveness, new life, and the Holy Spirit.
  • We can go to the fellowship of Christian believers who pray with and for one another, encourage one another, hold one another accountable to the truth revealed on the pages of the Bible, and support one another in good and bad times. 
  • We can go to prayer in Jesus‘ Name. 
  • We can go to worship with the people of God in the Church. 
  • We can go to service done to glorify Jesus. 
As we begin a new year, it’s good to remember that it is no mystery where Jesus can be found.

Through the eyes of faith, look for Jesus in these places, and, whatever your circumstances, His grace and love will find you. Amen

[This message was shared today during the 10:15 worship service with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Worth Remembering: Saint Matthew Youth Mission Trip, 2012

We served others in Jesus' Name, sweated, worshiped God with ninety of our closest friends from other states (and Logan, too), sweated, showed off our talent, sweated, prayed together, sweated, studied the Bible together, sweated, served one another breakfast and dinner, and we also sweated.

Snow in the Church Garden II

You can hear my wife washing a pot in the kitchen and the wood floor creaking beneath my feet as I shift around.

A beautiful sight...wonderful if you don't have to drive in it!

Snow in the Church Garden

Like much of our region, we got snow overnight here in southeastern Ohio. This was taken from our house, looking onto the church garden.

[You can click on the image to enlarge it.]

Friday, December 28, 2012

Do Tote Bags or Charitable Deductions Encourage Giving?

Here's yesterday's installment of The Daily Stat from the Harvard Business Review:

DECEMBER 27, 2012
Why You Don't Like Donating to Charities That Offer Thank-You Gifts

Research participants were willing to donate 38% less, on average, to public broadcasting if the U.S. nonprofit offered a thank-you gift, in this case a pen, say George E. Newman and Y. Jeremy Shen of Yale University. A promised gift of a tote bag brought intended donations down 17%. A thank-you gift creates ambiguity in the donor's mind about whether the donation is supporting the charity or is a quid-pro-quo, the researchers say.

Source: The counterintuitive effects of thank-you gifts on charitable giving

Frankly, thank you gifts have never enticed me to make a contribution to a not-for-profit organization.

In fact, they act as a reverse incentive on me, making it less likely that I will give.

Rightly or wrongly, I have a visceral reaction that goes something like this: If they can afford to give me something for my contribution, maybe they don't need my money. Maybe, I think, they could save a few bucks and lower their cost of operation by not buying thank you gifts.

Now, I'm sure that at least some of the thank you gifts offered by not-for-profits are donated by corporate sponsors who, in turn, are able to write the donations off on their taxes.

But that raises another issue. Even though taxpayers, individual or corporate, would be crazy not to take advantage of the charitable deduction of our tax laws, I'm not a fan. There are several reasons for this.

First, there's a matter of principle: I think that giving ought to be based on genuine commitment. I give to my church because I believe in the mission off the Church to make disciples for Jesus Christ. I give to other not-for-profits because I believe in what they're doing, not because I get a tax write-off.

Second, I don't think it's right for the taxpayers of the United States to effectively subsidize my charitable contributions or the charities I support. I believe that every taxpayer should expect to put her or his money where their commitments.

Third, and this is in a way my most serious concern, I stew about the possibility of coercion from some governmental entities over charities that have become dependent on the charitable deduction used by their benefactors.

For example, in some European countries, churches are still affiliated with the state. Pastors of the official state churches are, in effect, government employees. As Western culture comes increasingly to reject the very notion of sin, some clergy are being charged with "hate speech" for implying that there are, as I believe is revealed in the Bible, objective standards of right and wrong from God.

We have no official state churches in the United States, thank God. But with shifting mores, what might happen to the giving of congregations whose not-for-profit status is revoked for speaking God's truth in love to a culture that increasingly views truth as a pliant and personal thing? Would those who give to their local church be inclined to give less because they could no longer get a charitable deduction on their income taxes?

Maybe. In any case, I prefer that the possibility of such leveraging over the missions of churches and all other not-for-profit organizations didn't exist.

In 1 Corinthians 9:15, in the New Testament portion of the Bible, the apostle Paul says to a group of first-century Christians: "Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."

Thank yous are nice, though unnecessary for the committed giver. But thank you gifts are utterly superfluous, cheapening the entire transaction.

And, I will keep taking my charitable deduction each year. I'm not nuts. But I wouldn't shed any tears if this provision of our tax laws went away either.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Keeping on the Right Track

In my life I've learned that whenever I begin a task (or even a day) drawing on the strength and inspiration of God, cognizant of my own weaknesses and deficiencies and my need of God, things go well.

But when I begin a task with little thought of God, confident in myself, I bungle.

The irony is that the more I rely on the God we know in Christ alone, the more confident I feel.

Check out Joshua 7:1-13, from the Old Testament, and then read today's installment of Our Daily Bread.

Never make a move without reliance on God. He keeps us on the right track!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Speak Life!

I love this track from the newest TobyMac LP, Eye on It. Speak Life is all about using our speech to lift others up and not tear them down. With so much negativity and pain in the world, much of it caused by our misuse of the gift of speech, the song is a great reminder.

Of course, it's naive to think that we can successfully resolve to use our mouths the way God intended. Our experience with busted new year's resolutions should tell us that. Our sin gets in the way. We get in the way.

That's why Jesus warns us, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in Me and I in them bear much fruit [by which Jesus means when we believe in Him and are so connected to Him, we're supplied with His life and goodness, and so life and goodness spring from us], because apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

If we are to "speak life" and not death to the world, enlivening others with the love and goodness that comes from God, we must retain our focus on Jesus Christ, God the Son, Who has brought love into our world. (We need to keep our eye on Him!)

And when our attention wanders onto the lost, dead pathways of this self-centered world, we need to return to Christ, turning from sin and trusting Him with our past, present, and future.

I love Paul's words in the New Testament book of Philippians: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8).

 Think Christ.

Trust Christ.

Then, you'll speak life!

 (And if you're the praying type, ask God to help me practice what I just preached.)

Remembering Valley Forge

The Valley Forge National Park has a tremendous set of web posts delving into the history of the critical, life-threatening encampment of the fledgling United States Army under the command of George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

You can read the first profile of the people involved in this encampment, which began on December 19, 1777 and continued through a bitterly cold winter, here.

 If you've never been to Valley Forge, I recommend a visit highly. It helps make vivid all the sacrifices made and hardships endured by Washington and his army in order to simply keep the fledgling American republic alive and to pursue the war of survival and attrition needed to make independence from Great Britain possible.

Got Any Unused Gift Cards?

If you're like me, just one day after this Christmas, you may have realized that you still have holiday gift cards left over from last year that you haven't used fully.

Holiday gift cards can be a sweet deal for retailers since, in some states, after the sale, recipients leave hundreds of redeemable dollars unclaimed and in the retailers' coffers.

Other states however, don't let retailers get off so easily.

In any case, use your gift cards! The money's been spent already. So, you may as well take advantage of it.

Check out the following, from today's Harvard Business Review Daily Stat:

DECEMBER 26, 2012
Americans Carrying Around Big Money in Unused Gift Cards

The typical American home holds an average of $300 in unredeemed gift cards, according to an estimate reported by Rocky B. Cummings and Joseph Carr in the Journal of State Taxation. These cards are often misplaced, accidentally thrown out, or only partially redeemed. Between 2005 and 2011, $41 billion in gift cards went unused, the authors say. But retailers don't always benefit: Many states require issuers to report unclaimed balances as abandoned property after a prescribed period of time.

Source: Holiday Gift Card Season is Upon Us—Has Your State Been Naughty or Nice?

UPDATE: Just had a brainwave. If you have unused gift cards, instead of letting them lapse, as they might do with some merchants or in some states, why not donate them to a local charity, like a food bank, homeless shelter, battered women's shelter, or a Boys and Girls Club? You won't miss the money and you could provide agencies with tight-budgets and big missions with the ability to purchase needed items!

Happy Second Day of Christmas!

Happy second day of Christmas! Or, if you like, Happy Saint Stephen's Day

Since on the Christian calendar, Christmas just began yesterday, I thought that it might be helpful to re-run an old tried and true post I first wrote at least seven years ago, explaining the Church Year. Hope you find it helpful.

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anybody else. Nor does keeping it "save" a person from sin and death.

But the Church Year is one of those customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also help believers to grow in their faith.

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holiday (that word, by the way, contracts two words: holy day) that Christians began to celebrate.

This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jews like Jesus, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week.)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. The theme of Advent is waiting. This season remembers more than the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. It also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in our own lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. Advent's blue, the color of the sky, reminds us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing about The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. Our current date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day we commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus to a house in Bethlehem. It was there that Mary and Joseph lived with their Child for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave gifts to one another.) The Epiphany Season is composed of between four and nine Sundays after January 6. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, which always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration, on top of a mountain, accompanied by three of His disciples, Jesus' image was transfigured by the luminescence of heaven and God spoke, confirming Jesus' identity and mission. On the two bracketing Sundays of the Epiphany Season, the color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others, shining the light of Christ on those around us.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Just as spring is a time when the earth is renewed, at least in the northern hemisphere, so Lent is a time for spiritual renewal and precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days.

The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as, out of gratitude for the undeserved gifts of God's love and forgiveness given to us in Christ, we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday, along with Maundy Thursday, are times when all are especially reminded of the need for repentance.

Near the end of the Lenten season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is used in entirely different ways today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate, related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another.

Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is one of the most moving worship services of the year. At our congregation, as is true of many churches, we have a service called Tenebrae. This word comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons, revealed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, on the Sunday closest to November 30, with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lessons during its year are often taken from John.

Through my years as a pastor, I've felt free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," looking at Biblical texts not appointed in the lectionary, in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world. But the lectionary does provide a well-rounded diet of Biblical material which, when looked at in a disciplined and devoted way, can help Christians develop a deeper faith.

[The image above, showing the cycle of the Church Year, comes from Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas: D-Day for the 'Lion of Judah'

Luke 2:1-20
Andrew Greeley tells the story of a little girl who hated Christmas because of the fuss and rush of the season. Her mother explained to her that the true meaning of Christmas had nothing to do with the December frenzy, that it's Christ Mass, the celebration of Jesus' birth. The girl said, "That's great! It's just too bad that Christmas has to come during the holidays!"

Sometimes, our holiday traditions and habits get in the way of our experiencing what Christmas is about. But what is Christmas about?

On a mountain in the desert some 1400 years before the birth of Jesus, the presence of God descended from heaven to communicate the moral law for the human race--what we know as the Ten Commandments--to His chosen people, Israel. But the glory of God was so overwhelming, so intimidating, so blazingly terrifying, and so perfect, that the people of Israel turned to the leader God had chosen for them, Moses, and said, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

The Bible gives consistent witness to this sense that God is so searingly perfect that any human being who would dare to stand in God’s presence naked in their sin, uncovered by the saving grace that comes to those who repent and believe in Him, will surely be destroyed.

That’s why the Bible describes God as holy, meaning different, unique, set apart.

That’s why the Bible calls Jesus, God in the flesh. “the lion of Judah” (Revelation 5:5; see also Hosea 5:14).

It’s why when Jesus, revealed His deity in all His glory to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, His visage took on a brightness that nearly blinded the three disciples by Christ’s holiness and perfection.

It’s why both Old and New Testaments describe God as “a devouring [or consuming] fire” (See Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).

Now, folks, I am not bringing all of this up to frighten anyone. As a minister of Word and Sacrament, there are a lot of things I wish God had never said or done because then I wouldn’t have to talk about them and it would make my life a lot easier and people wouldn’t find it nearly as annoying to have me around.

But the truth must be spoken. We live in a world that has turned the “lion of Judah” into a tame lap cat. It's a world that has turned God, “the consuming fire” into a comfortable blaze in the hearth. In the minds and in the ways many live their lives, no matter what they say with their lips, they have whittled the infinite, almighty God of the universe down to a size they can manage.

The world does this, even we Christians sometimes do this, though we wouldn’t put the choices we make in these terms, in order to free ourselves from worshiping the one true God of all creation and so that we can, instead, worship our gods of choice.

People are worshiping false gods when they justify their selfish choices by saying, “I have to look out for myself.”

People worship false gods when, as well-meaning parents, they put their children, rather than God, in first place in their lives.

People worship false gods when, despite knowing that sexual intimacy is a gift God has reserved for husbands and wives united in marriage with the blessing of God, they instead do what feels good or feels right to them, replacing their judgment for the judgment and the will of God.

And what does this all have to do with the true meaning of Christmas?

In Luke’s telling, we see that, among other things, Christmas is an important battle in an ongoing war for our eternal lives.

Luke begins by saying: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

One scholar writes:
Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He became ruler of the Roman world after a bloody civil war...he proclaimed that he had brought justice to the whole world; and, declaring his dead adoptive father to be divine, styled himself as "son of god."...Augustus, people said, "was the ‘saviour’ of the world." [They said he] was its king, its "lord." Increasingly, in the east [the very region in which Jesus was born], people worshiped [Augustus] a god. 
In the midst of this world, where many of God’s own people had forgotten all about God, the true Son of God, the real Savior Who came to bring God’s justice to the world, the only deity worthy of worship had come to claim all who turn from sin and trust in Him for His kingdom of love and grace!

The first Christmas then, was D-Day, the opening salvo in God’s final push to liberate us from the gods to which we often choose to enslave ourselves.

We use the gods of this world--momentary pleasure, money, sex, drugs, alcohol, pornography, popularity, selfish pursuits--to anesthetize ourselves against the world’s grim realities, only to find that these things we use to exercise control over our lives really have become gods that control us.

The only one capable of destroying the power of sin, death, and futility over our lives and freeing us to live as the fully human beings God made us to be is the baby who invaded our world on the first Christmas.

The God Who came to us at Christmas didn't come to anesthetize us against the world's realities. He came to give us the strength to face those realities and to give us the certainty that, finally and eternally, He will create a new and everlasting reality in which death is eradicated, tears are dried, and we live with God, in what Luther's Small Catechism calls, "righteousness, innocence, and blessedness."

If the sad events in Newtown, Connecticut a few weeks ago tell us anything, it is that, though the ultimate defeat of sin and death were made inevitable by Jesus’s death and resurrection, this world is still enemy territory.

This world, as is, isn’t the place God intended for the creatures He made in His own image, Who are, in the Bible’s phrase, “the apple of [His] eye.” You and I weren’t made to live with tragedy, poverty, disease, heartache, war, or death.

This old creation, Paul says in the New Testament book of Romans, groans as a woman in childbirth awaiting the beginning of the new creation the crucified and risen Jesus will bring fully to life when He returns one day.

But, for now, sin, the sin within us, the sin around us, and the sin that is incited by that fallen angel, Satan, has the world in its grip. Sin tests us. It tries us. It tempts us.

That is why the Lion of Judah, the consuming fire, the Lord of lords, and King of kings entered our world at Christmas.

He has come to liberate us from the power of sin and death over our lives.

Jesus once told a grieving friend, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live.”

He said in another place, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

And this is not sweet by-and-by stuff! The hymn we sing at Christmas reminds us that, “where meek [meaning humble, surrendering] souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

The New Testament tells us, “If anyone is in Christ Jesus [in other words, if anyone dares to lay aside their gods of choice and the sins they love and take up Christ as God and King over their lives], there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” That's true of every baptized, believing Christian today, in this present imperfect world.

That doesn’t mean that everything in this life will go perfectly if we worship the God we know in Jesus as our only God and Lord. We still live in a fallen world.

But the God Who invaded this world at Christmas and has already conquered sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus, has promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (See Deuteronomy 31:6 and Hebrews 13:5)

He also promises, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

And, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you...”

Friends, tonight, let me tell you that I know for a fact that Jesus is good for all His promises!

This sorry old sinner has experienced His forgiveness.

I have known His love when I knew how unlovable I really was (and still am).

I have been given His strength when I was at the end of my rope, overwhelmed by illness or a sense of my unworthiness.

I have seen the bankruptcy of life lived in service to the gods of this world or to the sin in my soul and I have known the fullness of a life lived in surrender to Him.

I have been empowered to live the life the master designer designed for me to live when I have laid aside my own plans and schemes to follow the better plans God has for every one of us.

I still sin.

I still lose my way when I should be following my Savior.

But I know this: Life with Jesus is better.

Life with Jesus is really life.

Following my own drumbeat or other gods is a waste of time, a waste of life that can only lead away from God.

So, tonight, I invite you to do as the shepherds did on the first Christmas: Follow the Lion of Judah, the protector and redeemer of your soul, the King of the universe, the perfect Lord of all.

Follow Jesus!

You will never regret it.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ready to Celebrate

Snapped this picture of the Saint Matthew Senior Choir awaiting the arrival of the first group of celebrants for 'Follow the Light' last Saturday evening, December 15. Groups of people walked to seven different downtown Logan churches, each helping guests to celebrate Advent and Christmas. All proceeds from the sale of tickets for the event went to support the new Inspire Shelter, a place for the homeless in our community.

By the way, if you're going to be in southeastern Ohio this evening, you're invited to celebrate Christ's birth with us during our 11:00 PM candlelight worship service. For more details on our location, go to the church web site, here.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ryan Freel

A utility player who fielded two infield and three outfield positions while hitting for a lifetime average of .268, Ryan Freel will never be considered for entry into baseball's Hall of Fame. But Freel, who played in Cincinnati for six years, is one of my all-time favorite Reds. He played the game with reckless and joyous abandon.

Just a few weeks ago, I was talking with my Dad, like me a Reds fan, about Freel, surfing the web for his career stats as we remembered his hard-nosed play.

Freel died on Saturday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was only 36. The news saddened me.

And, as is inevitable in such circumstances, one wonders what drove this young man to take his own life.

Of course, that's even more true of those who actually knew Ryan Freel, like Anthony Castrovince, who filed this piece.

May God bless the family and friends of Ryan Freel with the comfort, hope, and peace that belongs to all who know and trust in Jesus Christ!

Logan Christmas Lights II

Logan Christmas Lights I

Taken tonight.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

What If the Newtown Shooter Had Been Black, Muslim, or Latino?

Katelin Hansen writes of the Newtown shooting and other recent mass murders:
There is a double standard that exists around the explanation of such events. It would not take very many mass shootings in which the perpetrators were black, Muslim, or Latino before we would hear comments about “violent cultures” and the ‘moral bankruptcy‘ of an entire group.
Think that race should have nothing to do with it? Maybe not. Yet when the perpetrator isn’t white, race is routinely injected into the narrative. And no matter how many white male mass-shooter we’ve had, we still live in a society that fervently fears Black men.

This is the danger of maintaining cultural white male default. We are blind to the ugly aspects of a culture that is perpetually considered ‘normal.’ If these shooters were black men, there would be a collective shaking-of-heads at their ‘inherit violent nature‘. If Latina women were committing mass shootings at a similar rate, the media would certainly be asking what the cause of it might be. But after the Newton shootings, we will see no law enforcement policy changes that will increase the racial profiling of white men.

It is a chilling aspect of white privilege to be able “to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group” (Chauncey DeVega). Time and again, the white men who commit these mass shooting are framed as “lone wolves” and “outliers,” with little examination or reflection on a broader cultural responsibility.
Hard as Hansen's assertions may be for people in the white community to take, she raises important points. White Americans, by and large, expect "those people" to behave violently while viewing the spate of mass murders perpetrated by young white men as aberrations.

I'm not suggesting that all young white men are murderers or wannabes. My own son is a young white man presently studying to become a Lutheran pastor.

But I am suggesting that the profiles of mass killers bear chilling similarities suggesting that they are drinking from the same cultural waters, are falling through the same mental health system cracks, and are imbibing the same lionization of the violent misuse of firearms and the US Constitution's second amendment.

However government deals with these matters with policy, the Church, it seems to me, is bound to address their spiritual dimensions in several ways:

First, we must find ways in which we can reach out to loners. One of the things I noted in the first parish I served was that in that rural community in northwest Ohio, there were fewer people who were marginalized. People who in other locations would have been seen as "weridos" were simply accepted members of their families and churches.

You see, the people in that highly Lutheran area thought that, just as the grace of God given in Christ could accept them as they were in order to help them to become what they could be as children of God, it was important to extend similar opportunities for grace and significance to others.

It worked. There seemed to be far fewer mental health issues than I have observed in the other settings in which I have done ministry: small town Michigan, suburban Cincinnati, small town southeast Ohio.

Abraham Lincoln was once criticized for being charitable to his enemies. But Lincoln asked, "Haven't by befriending them destroyed my enemies." A community that finds ways to incorporate and love and, when necessary, find treatment for "loners" will erase their loner status, making resentful, antisocial, violent behavior less likely.

Second, we white Christians must accept that the culture of violence has infected the young people who come to our predominantly white churches. We need to offer them wholesome, life-affirming activities that spread the love God has given to the world in Jesus Christ. This, actually, is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work as a pastor.

Third, we who proclaim the gospel must be honest in showing that the problem of sin is common to all human beings and it was this very problem, which threatens us with eternal death, which Jesus came to destroy through His death and resurrection and our faith in Him. All have fallen short of God's intentions for human being. Christ is God's way to wholeness and a lifelong process toward renewing purity.

Fourth, we need to be in constant prayer that God will bring an end to this scourge of violence that afflicts America, in all our communities.

Therefore, fifth, we must empower our church members to spread the good news that sin and death need not have the final word over our lives. "All who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved," the Bible promises. "For God so loved the world," Jesus told a man named Nicodemus, "that He gave His only Son [Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). Christ comes to transform those who surrender to Him from enemies of God to friends of God. No Christian ever feels alone. "I am with you always, even to the close of the age," Jesus promises believers in Matthew 28:20.

Who knows what goes on in the minds of potential mass killers? One suspects a kind nihilism, a belief that nothing matters. Or a belief in their own rights to act as kinds of supermen who can play the role of a cruel god, deciding who gets to live. Or maybe they believe that, in the end, nothing matters but making a splash.

Whatever the case may be, it's difficult to refute Hansen's observation that the bulk of these mass killers are coming from the white community.

Consequently, those of we Christians in congregations composed of largely white populations have a role to speak God's truth in love. Who knows, it may be that for a time just such as this, we have been called to reach out to the young white people in our communities and assure them that as children of God for whom Jesus Christ came to die and rise, their lives do matter, they have value and needn't prove it in violent and antisocial ways.

Beyond that, churches should work closely with the mental health community and parents in helping to identify young people who need the extra doses of Godly TLC our churches can provide and in helping those young people get the counseling that qualified mental health professionals can offer.

[Thanks to Geoff Talbot of Seven Sentences for linking to Hansen's blog post over on Twitter.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why None of Us Knows When the End Will Come

There probably hasn't been a year I can remember since I was conscious of the things people talk about, that there hasn't been some new prediction of the day on which the world will end.

As a Christian I know to disregard such talk even when it comes from misguided Christians.

Christians believe that there will be a day when the risen Jesus Christ will return to finally and fully establish His kingdom. The old creation will be brought to an end and Christ's new creation will bloom to full flower. Preparation for that day is, in fact, a key theme of the Advent season we celebrate before Christmas, a season that starts on December 25.

But we have it from Jesus Himself that speculation about when it will happen is pointless. Jesus says: "...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son [Jesus Himself, God the Son], but only [God] the Father" (Mark 13:32).

This statement is mysterious on several levels, of course. Christians believe that God has revealed Himself to be one God in three Persons. The New Testament speaks of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and Christians have come to use the shorthand term, the Trinity, to describe God's three-in-oneness. But in the words above, Jesus seems to be saying that there are some aspects of their work that each Person of the Trinity keeps to Himself.

Be that as it may, there is no mystery about Jesus' fundamental point, which is that to speculate about when this world will come to an end is pointless. That day is shrouded in a mystery we're not meant to know.

In the meantime, Jesus goes on to say, we have work to do. "Beware, keep alert," Jesus says, "for you do not know when the time will come...Keep awake!" (Mark 13:33-37)

Our work?
  • *To entrust ourselves--including our past sins, our present decisions, and our future destiny--to Jesus Christ alone. "This is the work of God," Jesus says, "that you believe in Him Whom He has sent" (John 6:29). Jesus is the One sent by God the Father (cf. John 3:16-18)
  • *To use our talents and gifts in ways that are productive, expressing love for God and love for others, including our families, and that glorify the One Who gives us our gifts. (Romans 12:1-2)
  • *To tell others about God becoming one of us in Jesus, Who died, taking the punishment for sin we deserve, and rose again in order to open up new, everlasting life with God to all who turn from sin and believe in Him. (Matthew 28:19-20)
The end--whether of this world or of our own lives--will come when it comes. When we follow Jesus, we're set free from trying to micromanage or control life, set free to live, not stew over what some dead civilization might seem to have predicted or what some new "wise man" may claim to know. If Jesus doesn't know the day, they don't know either.

Get busy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Where Was God Last Friday in Newtown?

An acquaintance from another part of the country wrote the other day to ask what she could tell her friends who wonder about where God was when the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded last Friday.

Here's a response I shared with her. It was written "on the fly." If you find it helpful, that's great. If its rambling nature puts you off, I apologize. Like all of us, I am still reeling from this horrible tragedy and continue to pray that God will comfort and help the survivors and all who grieve.
Dear _____,
Your question and others associated with the Connecticut tragedies have been coming up in my interactions with people ever since Friday, as you can imagine. I don't have any easy "answers," but a few thoughts.

This tragedy has particularly struck us all because twenty of those who died were children. In a sense they, along with everyone who was at the Sandy Hook school last Friday and will be haunted by these events for the rest of their lives, were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. In this, they don't differ from the hapless victims of the Holocaust, of the bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the killer tsunamis of a few years ago.

It's heartbreaking!

When considered in this way though, I'm bound to conclude that in this fallen and imperfect world, unspeakable things can sometimes happen. In Romans, Paul talks about how, though through Christ, we have a certain hope that "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay an will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God," right now all of creation and we ourselves groan, like women in labor, for that moment when Jesus returns and all who have trusted in Him will live in a new world, where suffering and tragedy are no more. (Romans 8:18-25)

Paul, a man well-acquainted with suffering and grief, starts out these thoughts by saying, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

Jesus says, "In this world you will have trouble. But take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). With these words, He encourages us to know that until we rise again with Him in eternity, we live in a place in which we are all subject to the possibility of such tragedies.

But we also have promises:
  • Jesus says, "I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20). 
  • Romans 8:31-39 contains the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 
  • Hebrews 13:5 quotes the Lord as saying, "I will never leave you or forsake you." 
  • And in John 14:8ff, Jesus told the disciples apprehensive about talk of Jesus' "departure," "I will not leave you orphaned." 
  • He then goes on to promise that He will send His Holy Spirit to all who call on Him.
For me, the question of where God was last Friday when this tragedy occurred is wrapped up in the story of Christmas. The prologue to John's gospel (John 1:1-18) talks about the God of all creation Who entered into our lives, then suffered what we suffer so that, through His death and resurrection, He could buy us out of our slavery to suffering and death and decay and sin for new and everlasting life with God. All who are "in Christ" are part of His new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), but truly we only see it in this world through a mirror dimly right now (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Because of God's compassion for those who don't yet know Christ, God allows this imperfect world to continue to creak along. (2 Peter 3:9-10) This should incite us Christians to be about the business of sharing Christ and His love with everyone we know!

The Old and New Testament refer to Jesus as, "Immanuel," "God with us." Evil happens in this world. Innocent children suffer. (I think of how Herod killed all the babies two years of age and younger after Jesus' birth.) But God is with the suffering in their suffering, I believe. The Lord Who wanted the children brought to Him and Who said that we adults needed to have the credulous trust of children, I believe is most especially with children, who aren't yet cynical enough to disbelieve, when they suffer. I have been with too many suffering children and watched how they have latched onto Christ and inspired others by their faith to believe otherwise.

The Bible also often described God as bearing "compassion" for people. This is a compound word meaning "to suffer with." God, I believe, suffers with us and that our suffering too is part of what He bore on the cross, its power to deny us life with God destroyed forever by His suffering and death. Hebrews 4:15 specifically refers to Jesus' ability to be compassionate toward us in our sins, but I think the passage also contains the promise of His "understanding" and presence with us when we suffer. It says: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin."

I guess what I'm struggling to say in all of this, is that there are no facile explanations of why God didn't miraculously intervene in the attack of last Friday morning. But I believe we aren't promised that this imperfect, sinful world is going to be easy: the innocent will suffer, marred minds will carry out evil deeds. These things have been ongoing realities in human history since Adam and Eve fell into sin and brought this alienation from God and neighbor into the human gene pool.

But I also believe that God is with those who suffer and grieve, giving them a peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:4-7).

And I also believe in the resurrection of the dead, that all who have trusted in Christ will be saved from sin and death and futility and live in the peaceable kingdom with God for which we were made.

In Matthew 24:12-13, Jesus says: "And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures [believing in Christ] to the end will be saved." Though the world is filled with mysteries beyond explanation, this is true: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will rise again. And Christ is with us.

I hope that these rambling words help in some way. God bless!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Agatha Christie, Ian McKellen, Michael Jecks, and 'Democratic Art'

Ian McKellen reprises his role of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings films in The Hobbit, projected to be the first of three films chronicling the prequel time before the Rings adventures.

In an interview with TIME, McKellen pronounced that the one playright in whose plays he's acted that he hates to be Agatha Christie, the noted mystery writer. McKellen claims, "I've done a couple of plays--misery, rubbish. No sense of what human beings are at all."

Coincidentally, in a recent Twitter exchange with contemporary British mystery writer Michael Jecks, we agreed that Christie's characters are somewhat thinly developed. I tweeted Jecks:
...have you read much of Agatha Christie? I just finished one of hers. She writes puzzles...
...People seem more like caricatures. Yet I find her mysteries addictive.  
In the meantime, Jecks wrote back:
Hah! You beat me to that one! Yes, but they are fun and entertaining. Turn off mind etc...
...Yes puzzles: no characterisation really, which is why actors love her. They can stamp their own mark very easily! I enjoy 'em...
Jecks and I may seem to be saying the same thing as McKellen about Christie's work. But I don't think that's entirely so.

You see, the lack of deep character development, at least in the supporting cast of characters--suspects, mainly--in Christie's stories doesn't necessarily denote "no sense of human beings at all."

Clearly, she had a tremendous understanding of the human beings for whom she wrote her novels, stories, and plays.

She understood that in a workaday world of confounding mysteries, there's nothing more appealing to our egos or to our desire for order than a mystery in which we join the hero in resolving matters and setting things right.

The proof of how well she understood these things about us is in the enduring popularity of her work, even though much of it takes place in a Jeeves and Wooster world long gone.

Christie, like Alfred Hitchcock, also understood something primal in all human beings: Our terror that, at any moment, our well-ordered world could come crashing down on us.

So, while Christie's characters may be plastic, her understanding of the characters of those who read or viewed her works was anything but. In this, she remains lastingly insightful.

And this is why her work is more vital, more infused with character, than McKellen's dismissal of Christie would have it.

Years ago, I remember reading an essay by Ralph Gleason in Rolling Stone about the music of Bob Dylan. Much of Dylan's work is filled with Dylan's penchant for, in a phrase by Joan Baez in a song about her relationship with Dylan, "keeping things vague." Cryptic language, the meaning of which is ambiguous, can initially drive a hearer away from Dylan, not to mention the thinness of Dylan's voice and the usual sparseness of his arrangements. But those who stick with listening to Dylan are rewarded richly. Dylan's music, Gleason said, represents a "democratic art," work to which each listener brings her or his experiences, fears, and hopes. Dylan, at his best, doesn't tell you what to feel. He takes you to a place and lets you feel what you feel. That, asserted Gleason, is democratic art.

In a way, this is precisely what Christie did and still does. Actors in Christie plays or in scripts based on her stories, as Jecks pointed out, love the freedom of infusing the characters with whatever meaning or quirks they can. Readers are given the same freedom when they sit down to read a mystery by Christie.

In essence, Christie invites us to become her co-authors, to flesh out the characters she trots before us in our imaginations.

I read other authors to find fully realized characters in more realistic life situations. But that doesn't mean, as McKellen says, that Agatha Christie had no sense of human beings at all.

I find, in fact, that she knows me, anyway, very well.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

After the Newtown Tragedy: People Get Ready!

Luke 3:7-18
We have all been disturbed by the events that took place in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday.

And many of us in this sanctuary, I know, have been moved to pray God’s comfort for the families of the victims, for an end to the scourge of senseless violence that afflicts our country, and for the mental health of persons who would contemplate such terrible acts.

In the days and weeks ahead, there will likely be renewed debates about things like mental health spending, school security, and guns. And I hope that as Christian citizens, we all will inform ourselves and pray God’s guidance and wisdom for our leaders and for ourselves in these debates.

But all of the issues I just mentioned are topics for political discussions and as one called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, I have no call from God to say what God wants governments to do or not to do about these matters.

However, I do know and I can say with the absolute authority of God’s Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit what God wants every human being to be about today, tomorrow, and every day they have life on this earth.

It’s summarized in the words of an old Impressions song written by Curtis Mayfield that Bruce Springsteen sang during this past Wednesday’s 121212 Concert for the victims of Hurricane Sandy: People Get Ready!

That, in fact, is what this season of Advent is all about. It’s not just about getting ready for Christmas. After all, there are twenty sets of parents and grandparents and families who thought when they sent their little ones off to school on Friday morning that they were ready for Christmas. But no Christmas plans, no treasure picked up at ToysRUs, no planned holiday vacation could be preparation for what they faced this past Friday or what they will, in some ways, face every day for the rest of their earthly lives.

Advent is a reminder each year to get ready for the coming of Jesus because, whether at the moment of our own deaths or, should we still be around when it happens, at the moment when the risen Jesus returns to the earth to finally and fully establish His eternal kingdom, each of us has a rendezvous, an appointment, with Jesus.

Are you ready?

This is NOT a sweet by-and-by kind of question. God isn’t interested in creating porcelain saints who are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.

In the face of the kind of evil we saw this past Friday, in fact, no person is likelier to have a practical impact on everyday living than the believer in Jesus Christ prepared to meet their Lord in eternity.

This world needs people whose minds and lives are set on Christ and eternity.

That is the theme of today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 3:7-18.

The lesson picks up where last Sunday’s Gospel lesson left off, with John the Baptist preaching repentance.

Repentance, as mentioned last Sunday, has (or at least starts with) two components.
  • First, sorrow for sin. 
  • Second, trust that, because of what Christ accomplished for us by His death and His resurrection, the sins for which I’m sorry are forgiven. 
You aren’t really repenting from God’s point of view unless both elements are present. Judas, for example, clearly was sorry for having betrayed Jesus‘ innocent blood. But his suicide bore clear witness that he didn’t trust the gracious God he knew in Jesus to forgive him.

On the other hand, there are no doubt Christians who, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, subscribe to “cheap grace”: “the grace we bestow on ourselves...forgiveness without...repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession...”

Look at our lesson. In verse 7, John sees all the people who are coming out to be baptized as a sign of their repentance. He doubts their sincerity. “Brood of vipers!” he calls them.

Sounds like, “Children of serpents!” to me and we know about the serpent, the embodiment of evil who, in the garden tempted Adam and Eve into sin.

John goes on, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

We think of wrath as an Old Testament word and words like grace and faith as New Testament words. Not true.

The Old Testament tells us, for example, that Abraham, the very first member of God’s chosen people, the Jews, was saved by God’s grace through his faith in God. It also says that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and even the book of Revelation, with its visions of the eternal future that belongs to all who trust in Jesus, speak about wrath.

Wrath is the anger and punishment God metes out against those who willfully violate His will by sin. Wrath isn’t irrational or irresponsible on God’s part, as though it describes God being out of control. Quite the contrary! Read the ten commandments and you’ll find that there is no mystery about  what behaviors God calls sin.

But just as God’s mercy and grace can come upon people suddenly so, both Testaments say, can His wrath. When you and I come face to face with Jesus at a moment over which we have no control or say, we will, as I’ve mentioned before, either stand naked in our sin, susceptible to the rightful wrath of God, or we will stand clothed in the righteousness of forgiven sin through our faith in Jesus Christ. “Who warned you to flee from God’s impending wrath?” John asks the crowds.

And it’s here that John brings up a third important element of repentance. Look at verse 8: “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

John thought that the crowds composed of his fellow Jews, fellow descendants of Abraham and Sarah, were just going through the motions. “Sure, we’ll do this baptism thing,” John might have overheard some in the crowds saying, “but after all, we’re already part of God’s people. We’re OK.”

Folks: The modern counterparts of the crowds who flocked to hear John preach and to be baptized by him aren’t the rising percentages of people in our society who claim to have no religious belief whatsoever, but the Christians who casually mumble their creeds, fill up the offering plate, sing a song, even receive the body and blood of Jesus and then, a split second later, conduct business, care for children, talk with a spouse, deal with other people, engage in gossip as though Jesus’ shed blood on the cross and His resurrection from the dead to give us life mean absolutely nothing.

You see, the third essential element of repentance is authenticity.

A dying world that produces tragedies like the one we saw in Connecticut this past week needs nothing so desperately as the witness of Christians who confess that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, that the God we meet in Jesus can fill our lives with a peace that passes all understanding, and that all who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live for all eternity in a perfect kingdom without violence or sin with God.

Truly repentant people regret their sin, embrace Jesus’ forgiveness, and then authenticate their trust in Jesus by the way they live their lives.

When we truly repent, truly turn to the God we know in Christ for life and meaning and purpose, God plants the seeds of new life in us and, as we, in Martin Luther’s phrase, live in daily repentance and renewal, the fruits of repentance--the results of living intimately with Jesus as our Lord and best friend--will be seen in our authenticity as Christians.

Don’t misunderstand. Being authentic believers in Jesus does not mean being perfect. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. That includes me. Just ask Ann.

Take a look at verses 10 to 14 in our Gospel lesson. John has, in effect, just warned the crowds confident about their family relationship with God simply because their parents were charter members of First Lutheran Church in Jerusalem that pretty soon, God was going to chop down their family trees, that the only people who can be confident about their relationship with God are those who turn from sin, trust in Christ, and live as God’s children.

“What shall we do?” the crowds ask John in verse 10. “If you have two coats, give one away to the person with none. If you have an abundance of food, set aside some for those who don’t have food.”

Tax collectors, people who had a notorious reputation for taking more money from people than they owed and skimming the extra for themselves, asked John in verse 12, “Teacher, what shall we do?” “Don’t steal any more,” John in effect says. “Collect what you’re supposed to collect.”

Then in verse 14, some soldiers, probably soldiers in Herod’s guard, asked, “And what shall we do?” Soldiers in those days often shook people down for protection money. So, John tells them, “Don’t intimidate people. Don’t make false accusations against people. Be content with your wages.”

You see what John was telling these people?

He wasn’t saying that they all had to go Iraq and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

He wasn’t telling them to undertake extraordinary acts of religious devotion.

He was saying, “If the repentance you offer this morning is for real, then dare to live with authentic trust in the One Who is so great I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal...

Turn from sin.

Trust in Christ.

Then, in gratitude for the gracious gifts of forgiveness and new life Christ gives to those who believe in Him, live ethically.
  • Love your neighbor, even the neighbor with whom you share a marriage bed. 
  • Hug your kids and grandkids. 
  • Pray for those who hate you. 
  • Give to those in need. 
  • Invite others to know and follow Jesus.”
I have no satisfactory explanation for why tragedies befall the human race other than the fact that this isn’t heaven. Sin and death are on the loose. Yet Jesus died and rose to ensure that their days are numbered. As Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” 

And I can say that we will be ready for whatever this life brings and ready for heaven itself when we turn from sin, trust in God’s forgiveness, and live authentically as God’s children.

Our children will be ready for anything when we teach them to do these same things.

Truly, this world needs nothing today so much as people whose minds and lives are set on Christ and by their faith in Christ, are ready for eternity.

May we be those people. Amen

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

News Purveyors: Don't Give Mass Killers the Fame They Crave

I would love for all the major media outlets--conventional network news departments, cable news channels, and internet news publishers--to engage in an act of collusion behind an idea mentioned on this evening's PBS NewHour by David Brooks.

When tragic events like today's Connecticut shooting happen, don't identify the alleged killer, don't display that person's image, don't dig up their Facebook page, don't track down people who know them, don't publish any of their rants.

Refuse to give killers, like the one alleged to have perpetrated today's rampage, publicity.

People who do things like this often desire a kind of dark fame for their evil actions. When some sick people see that mass murderers get saturation coverage, seeming to hold an entire nation hostage for days, it likely incites them to go for their own twisted glory, too.

There are undoubtedly many factors contributing to the number of mass murders we have experienced in recent years. But, I beg the major news outlets to stop one of those factors in its tracks: Don't give mass killers the fame they crave.

Prayers for Sandy Hook and for the US

Please pray for all the families affected by today's tragedy in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. I'm asking that God will comfort them.

I'm also praying that God will end this scourge of deadly violence that afflicts the US.

Above all, I'm praying that God will produce a new birth of faith in Christ, Who empowers us to love one another.

To that end, I pray, as Jesus taught, that God will send workers into the harvest, people willing to share Christ with those in desperate need of Him (Luke 10:2).

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Repentance Road

Luke 3:1-6
Sometimes, when I’m driving or riding with Ann on the Route 33 bypass around Lancaster, I think about all that was involved in building that piece of highway. There were hills that had to be blasted through and dug out, low areas to be filled in by dirt and gravel. And all of it was done in order to give us straighter, clearer paths to the places we want to go. We owe a lot to the the road builders who clear the way for us.

Our Gospel lesson for this morning tells us about a road-builder we call John the Baptist. According to Luke, the writer of the book from which our lesson is taken, John fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, written at least five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Luke cites Isaiah 40:3-5; they make up verses 4-6 of our Gospel lesson. John the Baptist, Luke tells us, is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Long before John was born, God had defined his mission in life. He was to be a road builder who would create a clear pathway for “all flesh” to “see the salvation of God.” John’s job then, was to clear the way for people to see Jesus, the only one Who can save us from death, futility, and sin.

How did John do this? And what does it have to do with us?

Please turn to our Gospel lesson, Luke 3:1-6. Luke writes: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests...”

When Luke first wrote his gospel account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, there was no single agreed-upon calendar. So, if you were trying to record an orderly account of events, you couldn’t say, “Back in such and such a year...” You said things like, “When So and So was king.” From what Luke tells us with this list of kings and priests, scholars believe that John the Baptist’s ministry began in 28 or 29 AD.

But Luke wants us to know more than just when John the Baptist began his ministry. He wants us to know why John began his ministry. Take a look at Luke 1:52. Mary, the virgin God chose to be the mother of Jesus, tells Elizabeth, then in the sixth month of her pregnancy for John that “[God] has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich He has sent away empty.”

The world kowtows to the Ceasars, the kings, the wealthy, and the powerful, but people who believe in the God revealed to all the world through Jesus Christ know Who’s really in charge.

They know too that God is at work even when most people think that God has disappeared.

Even when despots and superstars are “getting away with murder,” God is still moving the world and all who trust in Him toward a certain destiny, ensuring that at a time both the Old and New Testaments call “the day of the Lord,” all will be made right.

Despots will get their comeuppance and those who trust in the Lord will step into the joy of their inheritance from God.

Now, please go back to our Gospel lesson, starting in the middle of verse 2: “the word of God came to John the son of Zecharias [or, Zechariah] in the wilderness.”

These words are a clear signal of what kind of person John is. You see, a scan of the Old Testament prophets’ books shows us:
  • For example, the prophet Hosea’s book begins, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea the son of Beeri, in the days of...the kings of Judah...” 
  • Joel’s book starts, “The word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel...” 
  • Even the book of the reluctant prophet Jonah starts out, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai...” 
The Old Testament prophets were people to whom a special word from God came, just as a special word from God came to John.

The word the prophets were expected to spread was often a message that people didn't want to hear, but needed to hear if they were going to have right relationships with God.

The lives of the prophets were, as a result, often difficult. Many prophets were killed, just as John the Baptist would be, not because God had abandoned them, but because they were being faithful to the word God gave to them.

And people then, no less than today, didn’t want a God Who told them what to do.

No one should ever want to be a prophet.  But if God calls you to be a prophet, you dare not turn your back on God or on the word God has given to you. As Jonah learned when he tried to avoid preaching God’s Word to the people of Nineveh, even when you book a Mediterranean cruise in the opposite direction from where God tells you to go, God will find you and send you where He wants you to go.

For anyone, prophet or ordinary person like you and me, who wants God in their life, surrender to the will of God is the only viable option. That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray that most dangerous of all prayer petitions:  “Thy will be done...”

In Luke 3:3, we read, “And [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission [or the forgiveness] of sins.”

Out in the wilderness where God had once spent forty years preparing His people to enter the promised land, John preaches the message that he’s been given by God. It’s simple: “Repent.”

This is how John the Road Builder did his job of creating a pathway by which people could see God’s  salvation given in Christ.

Repentance, to this day, remains the only roadway by which we can find salvation from sin and death, the only roadway by which we can have peace with God and peace within ourselves.

The Bible teaches that all of us are born in sin. That’s why God sent Jesus into the world. He took our sin on His own shoulders on the cross. He rose from the dead to tear down the walls of sin and death for us and to allow us to enjoy peace and intimacy with God.

But sin can set people down pathways so far from Jesus that even if they’ve been churchgoers all their lives, they can’t really see Jesus any more.

To see Jesus, the arrogant must be laid low and the lowly must be lifted up.

We need a straight, clear path to the salvation God wants to give to all people through Christ. John pointed people (he points us still today) to the pathway of repentance as the way to salvation through Jesus.

To many people today, repentance is a dirty word. I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It said, “I was born right the first time.” No being born again for the driver of that truck, thank you very much; no acknowledgement of any need of renewal because of the wall of sin between God and us.

For others though, repentance is a great word, a joyful word! That’s because true repentance is made up of two elements. First: It means to be sorry for my sin. Second: It means to trust that when I lay my sins at the foot of Jesus Christ and His cross, He will forgive me and I will be at peace with God. The believer in the God we know in Jesus is filled with the assurance voiced by King David in Psalm 103: “ far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us!”

Imagine two people, each headed for the same destination. One takes a mountain path, following ever upward through switchbacks and hairpin curves, sure that she’s headed in the right direction, only to find herself at the pinnacle of a mountain, nowhere close to where she intended to go.

The other person, with the same destination, descends into a deep valley, slogging around and through swamps and streams, equally certain that he’s going right, only to find himself mired in mud, his destination nowhere in sight.

These two people illustrate the lives of people who have lost their ways in life, far from the God we know in Christ.

The only way off the mountain paths of egomania that lead us away from Christ is through repentance. The egomaniac must say, “You’re right, Lord. I’m not in charge. I’m not God. I’m not entitled. Forgive me and let me be Your child.”

Similarly, the only way off the lowly paths of self-condemnation is through repentance. The lowly person says, “You’re right, Lord. I’ve been expecting too little of my character, I’ve thought too little of myself, and so, given myself a pass for engaging in sin that dehumanizes me. I thought that who I am and what I’ve done I didn’t matter. But You died and rose for me; I know that I matter! Forgive me for denying the truth about myself and lift me up to live as Your child.”

And then the repentant person, lowly or arrogant, trusts Jesus to be as good as His promise to give life, peace, hope, and the power to live with purpose to those who believe in Him.

Romans 8:1 says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those who repent--tell God that they are sorry for their sins and trust Christ to forgive them--know what that passage is saying. Though we are sinners who deserve condemnation, Christ sets the repentant free to live as the human beings we were all meant to be!

Chances are that if you’re like other Christians (including me), you follow Jesus well sometimes. But sometimes, you lose your way. You sin and maybe you find, as I find, that the more I sin, the easier it becomes to sin again and the harder it can become to really worship God or to have peace with God, even with ourselves.

This is why repentance is so important. It clears away the blindness of our sin, helping us to see how deadly our sin is. It helps us to see the God we know through Jesus, the love He has for us, and the life He gives to those who turn their backs on sin and follow Him.

It was while repenting that David wrote in the psalms in the Old Testament, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

John the Baptist was a road-builder. But the road to life with God and the second chances of God is open even today to all. We travel the road of repentance when we turn from sin and trust in Christ alone for life. May this be the road we travel each day.

[This was prepared to be shared during the 10:15 worship service at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, today. Thanks to Jim for sharing it with the congregation as I fight the creeping crud!]