Friday, November 10, 2017

Some People Never Know by Paul McCartney and Wings

This song has been running around in my head all day long.

It's an obscure track from a largely forgotten and mostly forgettable debut collection from McCartney and his original Wings band.

The song goes on way too long. (When you're a superstar, your label allows you to be self-indulgent.)

But it's a lovely melody and has beautifully simple lyrics. I love the words of the second verse:
Like a fool I'm faraway,
Ev'ry night I hope and pray
I'll be coming home to stay,
And it's so, some people never know.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thanks to our veterans, including my Dad!

Thanks to our veterans for your military service.

That includes my father.

Below, first, a picture of my dad from his days serving in the Air Force. In the other picture, Dad is seen with his Honor Flight sponsor this September.

Washington, by the way, is Dad’s favorite place. As he told me before the flight, “Any time you can go to Washington, you should do it.”

It was to stoke my patriotism and love for our country’s system of government that he and Mom took me to DC for the first time when I was five. They took us all to many places to foster our love for America: Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Lincoln’s home and burial place in Springfield, Illinois, FDR’s home at Hyde Park, Mount Vernon, Monticello, and many spots here in Ohio.

Referring to my first trip to Washington, I wrote this to Dad before his Honor Flight:
“I know that you also took me because you love our country...not in that jingoistic, nationalistic, we’re-always-right-and-everyone-else-is-always-wrong way that is so sickeningly popular these days. You taught me to revere what this country is really about, a place where our freedoms are guaranteed as much by our mutual accountability under the Constitution and our laws as they are by the military in which you once pledged your allegiance to our country and its laws, even the ones we don’t like. (I remember you pointing out to me when I was little that the oath you took is the same one always taken by our Vice Presidents.) 
“When it became clear to me that you loved Eisenhower--and spoke to me of shaking his hand as he left Europe, where he served as NATO commander, to come back home to run for president in 1952, I came to like Ike too. After lots of study, he’s still one of my own personal Mount Rushmore presidents, along with Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. But that started with you! 
“One of the lessons I also learned from you about patriotism is the necessity of civilian commanders-in-chief in our presidents. Even Eisenhower resigned his commission before running, since our military officers should always be apolitical...And you also taught me--and Ann’s dad, a navigator for B-24s in the South Pacific during World War 2, agreed with this--that generals like MacArthur, glory-hounds who don’t care about the non-comms he sent into battle, need to be reined in or drummed out! 
“Anyway, Dad, thank you not only for serving in the Air Force, but also for being such a great citizen, a great American, a great dad, a great husband, and a great guy. As you go to Washington this time, it’s exciting to me that you’ll get to see the Korean and World War 2 memorials. I find both to be deeply moving and I think that you will too. “My only regret is that I won’t be able to make this trip to Washington with you.”
Thanks to all the veterans who served our country in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard. And thanks to the vets who, like Dad, came home and taught their kids about our country and its history.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

What Skipping Worship Does to Your Kids

A really good piece triggered by the comments of a well-known church researcher. The money quote:
Maybe the reason why our children have no love for Christ is due to the fact that we as parents do not show any love or passion for Christ, evidenced by how we prioritize our time both on Sundays and during the week. When television, sports, school, hobbies even family itself are elevated to a place of idolatry and replace the vital Christian responsibilities, then we tell our children that Christ is secondary to all these things. 
 [I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Happy Birthday, Martin

It was on this date in 1483 that Martin Luther was born. Luther was far from perfect. His antisemitism, though reflective of the mores of his time, were unaccountable from a man who, in so many ways, was more of God than of his time. But his reforming work, pointing the Church and all to Christ alone, Word alone, grace alone, faith alone makes him an important figure.

I am sure that I had heard the Word about Christ many times in my life; but it wasn't until I'd heard it expressed and explained in a Lutheran key that Christ got hold of me and I was made new in Christ. Every day, I thank God for that.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Remembering Kristallnacht: No More Scapegoats or Easy Answers!

Today, November 9, is Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. The day remembers that on November 9 and 10, a series of violent acts, pogroms, were unleashed against Jews throughout Nazi-ruled Germany and the territories it controlled.

We commemorate this awful event not only to memorialize the innocent victims of antisemitism, but also to act as a solemn reminder.

Kristallnacht and the Holocaust happened when people looked for handy scapegoats to blame for their own misery and grievances.

Post-World War One Germany suffered under the weight of vengeful indemnities charged against it by those who won the war. Then, the Great Depression hit, making things even worse for the Germans.

Along came Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, with their militant nationalism, promises of future greatness, and simple prescriptions for what ailed Germany. Life would be better for Germany, the Nazis claimed, if they could get rid of the Jews. The Jews, Hitler said, didn't belong in Germany. The Jews, Hitler said, took money that belonged in the hands of Germans.

Kristallnacht reminds us to be wary of the easy answers, of blaming others for our problems, of viewing people different from ourselves as inherently threatening. The easy answers of Nazism unleashed the most destructive war in human history.

What happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s is all the more tragic because Germany, of all places, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, should have known better.

The Church of the Reformation, Lutheranism, taught, as Scripture teaches, that all human beings are sinful and that all human beings are redeemable.

It taught that the God of love cared enough about every human being that He took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, Who paid the price for our sin, and Who gives everlasting life with God to all who turn from sin and follow Christ. Christians are called to lives of humility, love of God, love of neighbor.

The Reformation was the seedbed from which the entire notion of personal worth, and with it democracy, grew.

The authenticity of people's Christian faith is tested when adversity strikes. It's then that easy answers and scapegoating, instruments of Satan himself, tempt us away from humility, repentance, faith, and love. It's then that we're tempted to think that we are the righteous ones and that "the others" fall short and need to be conquered or destroyed.

When Hitler and the Nazis spoke the devil's words, Germany's faith in Christ was largely found wanting. Today, we celebrate the Lutheran Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in the name of Christ, resisted easy answers and scapegoating and instead, stood with Jesus Christ. But when the pressure was on, they were the exceptions and not the rule.

Today, many Americans feel aggrieved. The world economy has changed. We are learning that as a mere 6% of the world's population, we can't always get our way. We see our nation becoming more diverse, more like the melting pot we were always taught that it was and that frightens some. And we see a few "other" people who cause great heartache in our country through acts of violence.

Nazis, Klansmen, and nationalists, parading as patriots and even as Christians, "wolves in sheep's clothing," to quote Jesus, offer up easy answers and scapegoating. Our country's problems, they say, have been caused by "the others." They use Nazi slogans like "blood and soil." They say nice things about thugs and bullies, who they mistakenly think are strong, people like Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte. They think that at least dictators maintain order, just like Germans once said that Hitler was sort of bad, but he kept the trains running on time. They said that as though the benefit of on-time trains outweighed the slaughter, the injustice, and the tragic, useless war that he, with his easy answers and scapegoating, unleashed on the world.

What ails America and the world today and what is needed to resolve our ills can only be seen when we accept the hard answer, when we quit blaming others, when we accept that we are not entitled.

What ails America is us. 

As Romans 3:10-12 tells us, echoing passages from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

This is the verdict of God over every human being who refuses to acknowledge their sin and that because of it, we deserve the eternal condemnation of God. Accepting this hard answer about ourselves as individuals, as families, and as nations is the fundamental first step to healing what ails us.

The second is found is Acts 16:31. There, the jailer of the apostle Paul and his associate Silas asks what he must do to be saved from sin and death. Their answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

That is not an easy answer. It entails taking responsibility for our failings, a willingness to be corrected by God, the courage to trust in God and not our own thoughts or feelings. It entails daily surrender to our loving God and daily seeking His help to love our neighbor not only as we love ourselves, but also as Christ has loved us: sacrificially, compassionately.

Life without God is filled with easy answers, scapegoating, broken promises, dog-eat-dog days, constant fear, imprisonment to sin and death.

Life with God is filled with worthy challenges, personal responsibility, working together as community, courage, liberation from sin and even from death, facing persecution and the accusation of naivete. So be it!

"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23)

We must remember the lessons of Kristallnacht and its intrinsic call to repent and believe, to trust in the God Who first revealed Himself to Israel and has now revealed Himself to all the world in Jesus Christ. No more easy answers! No more scapegoats! No more hate! Only the God of love we meet in Jesus. That's Who we more than ever.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

If it helps, this is how I pray

People sometimes ask me how I pray. So, below, I've quickly typed out much of what I prayed this morning.

Each day, I have a basic list of prayer concerns, specific people for whom I pray, who, in the interests of confidentiality and privacy, aren't included in what you see below. But this will give a rough idea of the conversational approach I take to prayer, whether the longer prayers I offer at the beginning of the day or the shorter ones I offer throughout the day. This is the gist of what I prayed about this morning.

The shorter prayers I offer throughout the day are always prompted by circumstances or just as a person comes to mind. For example:
  • I'm about to visit someone who's ill or dying, for example, and I ask God to give me the right words and the right silences with which to help those people and their families. 
  • I have to make a decision and I ask for wisdom. 
  • I'm going to have an important conversation and I ask that God will leave me open to His guidance. 
  • I go to the store and I ask to be a positive witness for Jesus, overtly or not, in my interactions with other customers and the employees. 
  • As I preach, I ask God to help me get across His Word.
Another thing: Intimacy with God doesn't mean that God is my buddy. God is not my buddy. Or more to the point, I'm not God's buddy.

God is eternal, almighty, utterly holy, other.

God is, as Jesus says, my friend, but He isn't my buddy. I'm not God's equal and being conversational, open, intimate, and real with God does not connote that He's my pal or an indulgent co-conspirator in my sin.

Just because God loves and understands that I am dust doesn't mean He approves of everything I think, do, and feel.

God's intention is to change me for the better and I come to Him to submit to the frequently painful process of being transformed, to willingly lay aside anything that keeps me from following Him, no matter how painful that can be, so that I can embrace the free offer of eternal life with God and wholeness through repentance and belief in Jesus.

A relationship with and belief in Jesus is the essential component of prayer. It's Jesus, God the Son, Who empowers us to approach God as our Father. And it's only by virtue of His righteousness that we dare to even speak with God. "Until now," Jesus told His first disciples and all subsequent Christians in John 16:24, "you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."

To pray in Jesus' name doesn't mean appealing to a good luck charm.

It means to submit to the will of God the Father as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane before His arrest and crucifixion.

It means surrendering to the wisdom and goodness of God.

It means asking God to do what is best, even if it's not the solution I would choose.

It means inviting God into the middle of the circumstances and situations for which we pray.

It means acknowledging the truth that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, the only path to God (John 14:6).

In prayer, I submit to the God I have only come to know through Jesus and the Bible's faithful witness about Him.

Below, is some of what I prayed this morning. If it helps you to pray, that's great. If it doesn't, just forget you read it.
Dear Lord, I ask You to forgive me my sins for the sake of Jesus. [I listed the sins of which I am aware.] And God, bring to my mind as I spend time with you today those sins of which I'm unaware so that I can repent for them. And forgive me and guide me in all parts of my life.

Grant that today my life will give you praise and glory and that I will in no way bring dishonor You.

Protect my family and me from all danger and harm. Protect us from temptation and sin. Protect our characters and our reputations. Extend these protections to the churches we’ve served, to our friends, and our extended family.

God, get our country through its muddle over guns and violence. End the romance with violence that exists in our country. Guide lawmakers everywhere with Your wisdom.

Send workers into the harvest: Disciples who will carry the good news of new life from Jesus for all who repent and believe in Him. Grant this to happen in every nation of the world. And protect your disciples who carry the gospel with all of the protections I ask for my own family, our friends, our church, and me. Use every means You deem right to connect Jesus and people.

Heal those wounded in the shooting in Sutherland Springs. Give comfort to those who mourn.

Help the people affected by hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida. In the midst of recovery and relief, grant that those who don’t know You will be met by compassionate witnesses for Jesus who can help them follow Jesus to life. Forgive us in the states of the US, and I include myself, for treating the conquered Puerto Rico like a stepchild.

Help the people impacted by the wildfires with the same help and protections, Lord.

Give the Holy Spirit’s guidance, confirmed by Your Word, to our congregation on how to proceed with the building project. After a season of prayer, I’ve reached my conclusions, Lord. But guide us all, I pray.

Guide all political leaders and decision-makers with Your wisdom, whether they follow Jesus or not. You’ve done just that in the past, guiding Cyrus of Persia, who didn’t believe. Bring these people into contact with You, Your Word, and Your wisdom and make them open to where You lead.

Father, give peace.

Lord, peacefully bring down the thugs of this world, the dictators and autocrats: Putin, Kim Jong-un, Duterte in the Philippines, and would-be thugs and dictators around the world. Remove the curse of their reigns, as You have done before in history.

Guide me in all of my decision making today. Grant that my words, thoughts, and actions will glorify You. Give me opportunities to share Jesus with others and to make disciples.

As I dig into Your Word this morning, show me what truth You want me to see and what You want me to do in response to that truth.

In Jesus’ name.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, November 06, 2017

You Might Be a Saint...Really

[This is the message that was shared during both worship services yesterday, All Saints' Sunday, at Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Revelation 7:9-17
On this All Saints’ Sunday, a modified rerun, from three years ago. But, since God inspired the message in the first place, I’m hopeful that it will still speak to the primary question of this day: What is a saint?

To find out, we’ll turn to today’s first lesson, Revelation 7:9-17. Revelation is based on a series of visions given to the apostle John about sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection.

Beginning at chapter 6, John sees Jesus, the second Person of the one God, open the first six of seven seals.

With the opening of each seal, John sees this old creation moving closer to its inevitable end. He also sees glimmers of the new creation that the risen and ascended Jesus will fully usher in at His second coming, when He returns to this world to claim His kingdom from our enemies: sin, death, and the devil.

Jesus’ return will bring celebration and relief to all who have turned from sin and who have believed in Christ. But, as the last verse of Revelation 6 points out, the return of Jesus won’t be universally welcomed, any more than He or His people are universally welcomed today.

Those who have rejected Christ, will ask the caves, mountains, and rocks for help. “‘Fall on us,’ they will beg, ‘and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb [the Lamb being Jesus]!’ For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:16)

Then, just before the opening of the seventh and final seal, John is allowed to see two scenes which he records in Revelation, chapter 7.

The first scene comes in Revelation 7:1-8, right before today’s lesson. The location of this scene is this world. God assigns four angels to hold back the final destruction of the old creation. “Don’t damage the earth,” God tells the angels, “until we’ve marked all of the servants of God with a seal on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3) (This is the seal of the Holy Spirit which every baptized person receives on the day they’re made new by water and the Spirit.)

Then the numbers of those sealed for salvation are counted out. The total comes to 144,000. Now, the Bible is not saying that just 144,000 people out of all human history will be part of God’s eternal kingdom! The number 144 is derived from multiplying the 12 tribes of Israel times the 12 apostles Jesus chose to lead the post-resurrection church. For John, it would have been a number implying perfection and completeness. And, tacking three zeroes onto the back of 144, making it 144,000, would be a bit like one of us talking about “a gazillion” people showing up at yesterday's women's retreat or for the Black Friday sales at Macy’s or Target.

Then comes Revelation 7:9, where John writes, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count…” This is no little crowd of 144,000! It’s a multitude! It’s a crowds so big that “no one could count” it!

I find this incredibly moving because on a starlit night 4000 years ago, an elderly man to whom God had promised the impossible struggled to believe that God could overcome decay and death to give him a son and a future to his descendants. The man’s name at the time was Abram. (Later to be changed by God to Abraham, a name that means “father of nations.”) To Abram, the promise seemed too good to be true. So, God reassured Abram in Genesis 15:5: “[God took Abram] outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” “I will give you a son, Abram,” God was saying. “And not only that, your descendants will dwarf the numbers of stars in the sky."

The multitude from every nation that John is shown in His vision of heaven after the life of this old world has come to an end are the descendants of Abram, the very descendants God had promised on that starry night so long ago.

They were, in the words of John in his gospel: “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13).

This multitude comes to be numbered among Abraham’s descendants not by genetics, but by faith in the God Who ultimately revealed Himself to Jews and Gentiles in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus says in John 14:9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” The Father, God the Father, the same one Who made Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of nations, not because their bodies were capable of making children, but because God’s Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, can make new life in all who turn from sin and entrust themselves to Jesus.

Jesus, God the Son, is the God Who gave Abraham that promise four millennia ago.

And He is the God Who promises that all who turn from sin and believes in Him become descendants of Abraham. They are saints. We are the saints!

Reading about the vision that the risen Jesus gave to John shows us that God has never changed. In God, there is, James 1:17 tells us, “no variation or shadow due to change.”

God has always wanted to rescue His fallen, dead children from sin and death and to give them life.

And His plan has always been the same: to give eternal life in His new creation to all who will trust, not in their own achievements, smarts, money, shrewdness, health, or anything else, but who trust only in Him.

Saints are those who trust God to give them the free gifts that come to all who follow Jesus: gifts like forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and the power to live each day for His purposes.

But if sainthood is a free gift from God, we must not think for a moment that sainthood is easy.

We see this from just four words in our lesson from Revelation today. The first two of those words appear at the beginning of verse 9: “After this.” After what, exactly? John saw the multitude of saints after an event that’s mentioned in verse 14. That’s where you can read two more important words: “great tribulation.”

Now, despite the propaganda the comes from those who misconstrue Revelation, "the great tribulation" does not refer to some endtime cataclysm. The great tribulation s the common experience through which every believer in Jesus goes in this life.

Life in this world is the great tribulation. We live in a world filled with beauty and wonder. But with its beauty and wonder marred by human sin, death, and even the suffering of the saints, this world, at its best, can still only give us nothing more than a glimmer of the beauty and wonder—the perfection—that await all who persevere in following Jesus as their only God and King to the end.

After completing life in this world, the saints who have kept on trusting Jesus, will be met by the Savior, Who will make them clean forever, Who will dry their tears, Who will feed their hunger and quench their thirst for the righteous life that only He can give, and He will welcome them into the new creation for which each of us were made.

For now, we live in an in-between time in which, as Paul writes Romans 8, both we and the whole of creation wait with eager longing for Christ to reveal Himself and His children. But the truth is that life in this world is hard. Even in the best of times, life can be a struggle.

And sometimes, our struggles are made even harder because we believe in Jesus Christ. How much easier the lives of Christians would be if we just went along with the world instead of rooting ourselves in the truth and grace of God revealed in His Word. Of course, along with that ease would come death, because life is only found in Christ!

The devil tests, tempts, and tries the saints. And every believer in Christ will, eventually, bear the scars—physical, emotional, or relational—that come to those who put following Jesus first in their lives. Mark it well: Follow Christ and He will most certainly thwart you in some of your most heartfelt desires because He’s less interested in giving you momentary happiness than He is in fitting and forging you and your character for eternal life with Him.

The ancient saints living in exile, the victims of injustice, would cry out to God, “How long, O Lord?”

Their pain was echoed for me in the words of a saint and friend battling cancer who told me, “I just can’t seem to catch a break.”

In this life, we’ve all been there...or will be. Our own personal “great ordeals” may include persecution, chronic or fatal illness, disagreements over priorities with those we love or with whom we work, or the conflicts that happen within us when a sin tantalizes us and we know that we must choose God’s way and not our own.

What is a saint?

Saints are people who trust their whole lives to Jesus. Sometimes haltingly. Always imperfectly. At times, speaking for myself anyway, resentfully. Always buttressed by daily repentance and renewal.

But no matter how saints’ hearts may wander, they always know to come back to Christ.

They know to Whom they belong and they know where they’re headed.

They know that this life is not perfect.

But they have a purpose in this life: To live for and to let the whole world know about the Lamb Jesus, Who will, after the last page has been closed in the last chapter of this world's story, welcome all who have trusted in Him to His new creation.

In the meantime, dear saints of God, trust in Jesus. Know His love for you even in the midst of life’s greatest tribulations and know for a fact that, if you remain steadfast in following Jesus, like saints before us, you will be in Jesus' everlasting kingdom.

If we remain faithful to Christ, you and I will one day join our fellow saints, along with God’s messengers, the angels, in singing and savoring the glories of our loving God and all who have persistently, perseveringly, enduringly followed their Savior in this world will hear the Lord say to us in the next world, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34) Amen!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church.]