Friday, December 29, 2017

A Japanese Christian Who Survived the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb

This is an outstanding documentary from NHK, Japan's public television station. It revolves around Koko Kondo, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb drop of August 6, 1945. Kondo was eight months old when that happened. A Christian, Kondo was the daughter of a pastor. She is the wife of a pastor.

She is a thoughtful woman who lives with a hard-earned cheerfulness.

Her perspective on nuclear weaponry and her personal journey to forgiveness, reconciliation, and love moved me.

By the way, for those who may be interested: I am aware that the Japanese military under Emperor Hirohito initiated the Pacific Theater of World War 2. That notably began with Japan's invasion and brutal rule over China, even before the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The record also includes the savage treatment to which American POWs were routinely subjected by their Japanese captors.

Little of that is mentioned here. But I still think it's worth watching and that you'll find it interesting.

This was released a few weeks ago and appeared on NHK World-English.

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

Are you welcoming the stranger?

A woman who, before moving to another community, was a member of a church I once served as pastor, told me that she, her children, and her grandchildren worshiped with a Lutheran congregation in the town where they now live on Christmas Eve. She said that it was wonderful to once more sing Silent Night by candlelight. But she also said that nobody greeted her or her family or asked anything about them.

Reading that broke my heart.

It's sad and ironic that on a night when we remember that the Savior of the world had to be born in a barn "because there was no place for" Him or Mary or Joseph (Luke 2:7), we Christians can forget to be hospitable. (Not to mention forgetting plain good manners.)

If there's any group of people who should be committed to welcoming strangers on Christmas Eve, it ought to be Christians who confess a Savior who had "no place to lay his head" (Luke 9:58) and who themselves are told by God to see themselves as strangers just passing through this world (1 Peter 2:11).

God's Word is clear that, in response to God's gracious acceptance of us in Christ, disciples of Jesus are to practice hospitality toward others.

Referring to an Old Testament visitation experienced by Abraham and Sarah, Hebrews 13:2 tells Christians: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

Jesus takes this command of hospitable behavior even further when He says in Matthew 25:31-46, that when we serve the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, or imprisoned, we really serve Him. We are then, as Martin Luther put it, to be "little Christs" who serve Christ in others.

The Savior Who welcomes us into His kingdom simply because we trust Him to renounce our sins and place our faith in Him, a gracious welcome we don't deserve and can't earn, commands that, in return, we welcome and reach out to the stranger with His good news.

Of course, many Christians fail to welcome those who are "strangers" to them for fear that they might be embarrassed before people they feel they should have known. I've heard this excuse many times.

But tell me: Before who would you prefer to suffer embarrassment, a person to whom you may have to admit a faulty memory or the God Who calls you to love your neighbor as you love yourself?

Better to suffer a little embarrassment in telling people you encounter, "I'm sorry if I've met you before and can't remember, but Merry Christmas." (Or, "Happy Sunday." Or, "How are you today?")

It's always best to err on the side of love, of grace, of welcome.

It's always best to get over yourself enough to not be afraid of being embarrassed by your humanity.

If you seek to live in daily repentance and faith in Jesus, you belong to God's eternal kingdom. What's a little embarrassment compared to that?

So Christians, greet those who are strangers to you when you see them in worship.

And I want to say to those who aren't church regulars or who are non-believers who may have come to a church worship service and been treated like you weren't there: I beg you to forgive us and to give a church near you another chance sometime soon. We aren't perfect, although we follow a Savior Who is. We're a fellowship of recovering sinners. We pray that you'll worship God with us sometime soon.

And Christians, if you've neglected to greet those who are strangers to you not because you failed to recognize those strangers, but just because you didn't want to talk to someone you didn't know, repent of this failure to love neighbors as you love yourself and ask God to help you to be a loving, welcoming disciple of Jesus the next time you encounter a stranger.

We all fail to do God's will in different ways in our lives. But the Lord Who judges the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12) bears grace for those who seek to love as they've been loved by God.

So, welcome the stranger.

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

Christmas: For You! (AUDIO)

Here's the audio for the message shared during the Christmas Eve candlelight services, which happened at 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00pm in the building of Living Water Lutheran Church this past Sunday night. (We also had a Family Christmas Eve service, featuring the Christmas story for children, at 3:00pm that day.)

Below are the pictures that are referenced in the message.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Best Movies About...Being a Pastor?

Althouse links to a Washington Post article that's based on the response of twenty-four people to the question, "What's the best film about your profession?"

That got me to thinking about movies that depict my own work as a pastor.

Film pastors seem mostly to fall into several categories:
  • clueless innocents 
  • fire-breathing moralists (who are unrepentant hypocrites) 
  • sociopaths 
  • money-grubbing manipulators 
  • sexual predators
There are and have been pastors for whom these descriptions fit, of course. But it's odd to see how consistently these stereotypes are portrayed in films and TV shows.

Some of my favorite portrayals of clergy appear in:

1. The Keys of the Kingdom starring Gregory Peck. Peck plays a priest packed off to China as a missionary who remains faithful despite the suspicion among his superiors that he's a failure. Thomas Mitchell plays Peck's spiritually skeptical friend, a relationship that's portrayed without a hint of heavy-handedness or sentimentality.

2. Bishop's Wife with David Niven as the spiritually-struggling bishop. This is one of the best Christmas films of all time. The movie isn't entirely satisfying though, ending with a Christmas Eve sermon that's more American civil religion than it is Christian.

3. Alias Nick Beal, with the aforementioned Mitchell as a district attorney standing off against an evil Ray Milland. George Macready turns in an interesting performance as a clergyperson who helps call a friend who has lost his spiritual compass to account and to renewal. Released in 1948, I had never seen Beal until this year. It's a great film, a seemingly forgotten classic. (The film's title song is an embellishment on Martin Luther's most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.)

4. Luther with Joseph Fiennes in the title role. Martin Luther, of course, was a theological genius, but he was, at heart, a pastor. He was also imperfect. That complexity of character comes across in this movie.

On television, Father Mulcahy of MASH is a variant of the clueless innocent type. Over the course of the series, Mulcahy's character was given greater depth than in the early seasons. (This is the opposite of what was done with Radar O'Reilly, who moved from the early episodes in which he was portrayed as sort of a sly conman to being an Iowa naif.)

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Not enough faith to be an atheist

A colleague of mine shared the quote cited below from Lee Strobel over on Facebook.

As a former atheist whose struggle against Christian faith led me to believe in Christ, I can identify with Strobel's thought processes as he engaged in a similar struggle.

In the end, as was true for Strobel, after considering the evidence, from the Scriptures, from reason, and from the sciences, I simply didn't have enough faith to be an atheist.

Strobel's quote:
To continue in atheism, I would need to believe that nothing produces everything, non-life produces life, randomness produces fine-tuning, chaos produces information, unconsciousness produces consciousness, and non-reason produces reason. I simply didn't have that much faith. 
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Christmas: For You

[This was shared during four Christmas Eve worship services with the people, family, and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 2:1-20
Have you ever had this experience?

You go somewhere special or spend special time with someone you love, then later regretted that you hadn’t really taken the time to savor it?

Hadn’t taken the time to just let the moment penetrate the recesses of your memory?

Or allowed yourself to think, “This is so special, I need to always remember exactly what I’m thinking and feeling and doing”?

Life tears by and we often fail to mark the special times in memory and reflection.

The next-to-last verse in tonight’s Christmas gospel lesson tells us, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

The word translated as treasured is, in the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel, a compound word that means gathered together. Mary gathered together the events of that night and pondered or, in Luke’s original words, threw them together.

In other words, Mary made a point of noting and remembering everything that happened on the first Christmas.

Then she threw them together in her mind, turning them over, seeking to see what they all meant, how what was happening all jibed with God’s centuries-old promise of a Savior-Messiah and with the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would give birth to that Messiah.

Mary collected her memories and thought about their significance.

This is what I want to ask you to do over the next few minutes.

The Christmas story, as recorded by Luke and Matthew, is so familiar to us that we forget not only the details, but also their meaning.

We take Christmas for granted.

This Christmas, I beg you to not do that.

Christmas is one of the most important events in human history--and in our personal histories, surpassed only by Good Friday and Easter Sunday, neither of which could have happened had Christmas not happened.

Tonight, we consider and praise God for the moment when God the Son took on human flesh and took up residence in this world, not as a king or a president, not as a celebrity or a tycoon or a general, but as a baby born in a barn to an impoverished and unmarried couple who hadn’t yet consummated their union.

If you want a picture of just how much God loves you, Jesus in the manger will do.

It says even more than what we might think at first, in fact. Take a look at verse 7 of our gospel lesson, please.

The stage had been set by God. God had revealed through the prophets more than seven centuries earlier that the Messiah, the Son of God, God-enfleshed, would be raised in a home of descendants of King David, and that He would be born in Bethlehem, David’s city. God had orchestrated events so that Mary and Joseph would be in Bethlehem when the baby was born. God had even put it into the head of the Roman emperor to order a census in Judea so that Joseph and Mary would have to be in Bethlehem, their ancestral home, to be counted.

And then, the birth happens. Verse 7: “...and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

What must Mary have thought when she placed her newborn in that manger?

For sure, one thing that she must have thought about was the depths of God’s love, the lengths He was willing to go to in order to rescue you and me from sin and death. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” Jesus would tell Nicodemus decades later. And this Son would die and rise to set all who trust in Him free of the shackles of sin and death, to set you and me free to be the people God made us to be when He lovingly formed us in our mothers’ wombs. All of this had to be have been part of Mary’s pondering.

But she must also have considered the significance of the fact that her son’s first crib was an animal feeding trough.

In the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel, there were two words that could be translated as manger, table, or crib. One of those words was παχνί. The other was φάτνῃ (phantne).

When the second word, phantne, is used, it seems to usually refer to a certain kind of manger. Let me show you a few pictures ancient phantnes.

As you can see, these mangers were hewn stone, not comfortable surfaces to sleep on.

With hay in the manger and the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, it may have been a bit more comfortable.

Still, Mary would have known that this Child did not come into this world to be comfortable. He came to bring comfort, the comfort of God to a human race fallen into sin and its consequences, death.

Maybe Mary thought of words she often heard read in the Nazareth synagogue, Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for…”

This baby came to pay for our sins, yours and mine, with His shed blood and His earthly life, on the cross.

And maybe Mary thought of something else as she saw her first-born in that hard manger, of something else hewn from stone.

It may have been dawning on her that the only way Israel and the rest of the human race could be saved from sin and death was for an innocent human being, also God, to bear our punishment for sin, to die, so that when God raised Him from the dead, He could raise all who repent and believe in Jesus, would have everlasting life with God.

Jesus had come to die and rise in order to be our advocate in the halls of heaven. As God’s Word says: “...this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).

Mary may have begun to understand all of this. And if the idea was just dawning on her that night in Bethlehem, it would have been made clearer to her in a short time. Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Simeon, an old man who identified Jesus as the Messiah warned Mary of the suffering her Son would endure and the stone tomb in which He would be laid, when he told Mary: “...sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.” (Luke 2:35, Good News Translation)

As I told the Church Council this past week, there is a whiff of Good Friday in that stone manger, a foreshadowing of the tomb where Jesus’ lifeless body would be lain.

But, listen: There’s also the scent of Easter because the tomb of stone couldn’t contain Jesus and His grace for sinners any more than the news of His birth, His death, and His resurrection could have been contained these past two-thousand years.

Thank God that sin and death met their Conqueror that night in Bethlehem!

The Child has come to rescue you from sin, death, and purposeless living.

He’s come to cover your sins in His amazing grace and make you new.

He’s come to stand with you, by you, and for you as you trust in Him and call on His name.

He’s come to make sense of your living and give you life beyond your dying.

Jesus came into our world, precisely and specifically, because He loved not just the human race as a whole, but because He loved and loves you in particular.

His birth, death, and resurrection all happened for you.

And one day, He will raise all who trusted in Him from the dead. I pray that includes you and everyone whose lives we touch with the good news of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

This is the Christmas truth that I hope you will ponder and savor tonight and tomorrow as you celebrate the miracle of this night: This Child, the Savior of humanity, has come for you.

For you.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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

On Glory and Bragging

“The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (Jesus, in John 7:18)

Jesus only ever sought to glorify God the Father. Those who seek glory for themselves are filled with lies when they boast and commend themselves to others.

God, forgive me for bragging. Help me to remember: Whatever good I’ve done has come from You; whatever bad I’ve done has come from me.

Just as I ask You to forgive me for and to prevent me from bragging, I pray You’ll help me to not fall for the lies of braggarts who claim glory for themselves. You alone are worthy of glory! In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Call to Persist

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on the morning of December 24, as we commemorated the Fourth Sunday of Advent.]

Luke 1:26-38
In Christian history, Mary, the mother of our Lord, seems to have been thought of in one of two ways. One way has been to see her as a super-saint, imparting perfection to her perfect son, Jesus. The other has been to see her as a more or less clueless surrogate mother. As we see from today’s gospel lesson, both views are wrong.

Mary was a forgiven sinner--a saint like all who believe in the God revealed in Jesus. She was an ordinary human being with an extraordinary faith from which we can learn much. And she was an ordinary human being with a sometimes shaky faith, as we see in today’s gospel lesson.

And because of the doubts and fears with which she sometimes wrestled (here and here), Mary can also be a source of comfort to we ordinary saints who sometimes wrestle with doubt, uncertainty, or fear.

Mary could, I think, readily identify with the man who, when Jesus told him, “everything is possible for one who believes,” replied honestly, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24)

And she also, I believe, could easily understand the feelings of Moses back when, at a burning bush in Midian, God called Moses to go to Egypt and lead God’s people to the promised land. Moses saw the personal danger in such a mission and, in the face of God’s persistent call, told God, “Pardon Your servant, Lord. Please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13).

In today’s gospel lesson, God calls Mary to do something dangerous: Although a virgin, she was to brave the condemnation of those who, when they saw she was pregnant, would conclude that she’d committed adultery and be justified under Judean law in stoning her to death.

Yet, despite the dangers, her fears, and her misgivings, as we know, Mary persisted. She kept trusting in God and gave birth to Jesus.

Now, this is no small thing. In those days, abortion had no stigma attached to it.

And in the larger Roman world under the rule of which first-century Judea lived, it was common for unwanted babies to be abandoned in a wilderness where animals and the elements would do their worst to the child.

In a world in which such options existed, who knows what temptations may have accosted Mary?

Of course, had Mary refused to give birth to the Savior, God could have found another way to bring salvation into the world. The Lord with the power to cause dumb stones to praise His name if no human was allowed to do so (Luke 19:40), would have found a faithful virgin to receive the Son the Holy Spirit intended to conceive within her. But God chose Mary and, as we will see, she accepted His choice.

Let’s take a look at exactly what happened in our gospel lesson, Luke 1:26-38. Verses 26 and 27: “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy [Elizabeth was expecting John the Baptist], God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”

Why a virgin?

Well, consider this: What if the baby about to born to inherited twenty-three chromosomes each from Joseph and Mary? Not only would the child have inherited Joseph’s brow ridge or Mary’s eyes, he would also have inherited what every one of us inherits from our parents: Sin.

As King David confesses in Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

If a sinless human being was going to make atonement for our sin by sacrificing Himself on a cross, that human being couldn’t be born in the usual way. God the Father would need to create the human race all over again.

The Holy Spirit Who once hovered over the chaos to create life and Who was the very breath of God breathed into the dust to make the first man, that same Holy Spirit would now have to bring new life--the new Adam--into the being.*

It’s only through Jesus, this new Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), that God could usher those who trust in Jesus into His new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). For this new creation to get its start, God needed a virgin’s womb.

Verse 26: “The angel went to [Mary] and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”

The word translated here as troubled is, in the Greek in which Luke originally wrote his gospel, “διαταράσσω.” Literally, this means, “distressed to the very limit, upset to the core of one’s being.” What’s interesting here is that Mary’s distress isn’t that she’s seeing an angel. Her distress is what the angel Gabriel tells her: “You are highly favored!” he says to Mary.

Listen: If you want an easy life, you don’t necessarily want to be one of God’s favorites.

When you’re one of God’s favorites, one of His chosen ones, chosen not because of anything good you’ve done but because you dare to turn from our own ways and dare to surrender your life to Jesus Christ--to believe in Him, God is going to make you part of His mission and purposes in the world.

You’ll be called by God to share His grace with others, speak His good news to the lost, the spiritually dead, and stand with the lonely, the despised, the neglected, the poor, the victims of the world’s injustices.

As the apostle Peter tells we believers in Jesus: “ are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

The apostle Paul puts it more plainly in 2 Corinthians when he says that if we have been made new by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus, we are Christ’s “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

When we confess faith in the Savior Who saves us by His grace, God gives us a job.

All of us.

No exceptions.

For the disciple of Jesus, cruise control, spectator-only faith is not an option.

The angel’s words had Mary confronting that truth and she was overwhelmed. She may have felt like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, who tells God, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?”

Mary was agitated to her core.

By God.

By what God was calling her to do.

When is the last time you let God agitate you to the very core of your being?

When is the last time you read a passage from God’s Word and sensed God telling you to do some hard thing you didn’t want to do?

When is the last time you were in a Sunday School class, a small group, or worship and sensed that God was telling you to trust Him in doing something that could entail rejection, heartache, or sacrifice?

If you’ve ever experienced these feelings in the face of God’s call on your life, you know what Mary was feeling as she heard Gabriel’s words.

And if you haven’t experienced feelings like these in a while, it’s probably time that you stop and listen for God to agitate you in your discipleship again!

The Church needs to be filled with disciples agitated by God’s call on their lives!

And, in the end, this is what is so remarkable about Mary. She submitted to the agitations, the uncertainties, the pain that would come to her as she said, “Yes” to the Savior Jesus. She submitted to them because she knew that eternity belongs to those who trust God and seek to do His will.

This past Wednesday, as some of you know, one of my seminary professors, Merlin Hoops, died. Merlin Hoops didn’t always have an easy life.

A daughter has developmental disabilities.

His wife is afflicted with a degenerative disease that has bound her to a wheelchair for many years.

Along the way, as some of you have heard me say, ill-informed Christians told him that the tragedies that befell him happened because he was not a faithful Christian.

But not once did I ever see Dr. Hoops lash out at anyone.

Not once did I see him be anything less than a gracious and encouraging Christian disciple, a loving pastor, a dedicated prayer warrior.

He saw his work as husband, father, pastor, and teacher as holy callings to which God had called him and so far as I ever observed, never once wavered in his discipleship. He laid his suffering before the Lord and found strength and peace in the One Who had claimed him as His own in Baptism.

Mary, as a faithful member of God’s people, also found strength and peace in the God Who sent Gabriel to her. Despite her agitation, after she’d heard God’s plan to enter the world in the Person of Jesus, the Messiah, she was ready to sign on. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she told Gabriel. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)

In the coming year or in whatever time God gives to us on this earth, individually and as a congregation, when the faithfulness to Christ to which God calls us, causes us to feel agitated, afraid, or uncertain, don’t throw in the towel and give up on the whole discipleship thing. Instead, throw in with Jesus. 

In the face of the agitation, tell God, “Lord, may your word to me be fulfilled in me and through me. I am the Lord’s servant.”


*The words for Spirit, breath, and wind are the same in both the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written and Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. In Hebrew, the word is ruach; in Greek, the word is pneuma.

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