Thursday, July 26, 2018

Recommendation with Caveats

Several months ago, during a meeting of our denomination's Life to Life Discipleship Team of which I'm a part, a colleague mentioned that he and his congregation had read and considered a book together: I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude That Makes a Difference by Thom S. Rainer.

Our congregation had read and retreated over a book Rainer co-authored several years ago, Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples, which had a huge impact on our mission, thinking, and ministries. We're still living out the implications of Simple Church nearly four years later and I'm sure that it will continue to help frame our thinking on what the Bible teaches the Church is to be about: being and making disciples.

So, when my colleague mentioned I Am a Church Member, I was intrigued. I immediately picked up my smartphone and ordered the Kindle version and read it before wheels touched down back home from the meeting.

I'm sold on what this little volume--only six chapters, 79-pages long--can do to Biblically charge our thinking about what it means to be part of Christ's Church.

In fact, starting in August, a neighboring congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, will be joining our congregation, Living Water Lutheran Church, in a six-week consideration of the teachings in I Am a Church Member. On Sunday mornings, Pastor Dona Johnson will preach to her flock and I will preach at Living Water on Biblical themes raised by the chapter of Rainer's book for that week. (We'll ask our folks to read the featured chapter in the preceding week.) Then, on Tuesdays during this period, we'll all get together to discuss the chapters. It should be fun.

But, having said all of that, I need to warn the people who read Rainer's little classic of a few quibbles I have with him.

First, Rainer assumes throughout his little book that pastors are men, usually with spouses and families. That may be true in his tradition. But I believe, on Biblical grounds, that God calls men and women into pastoral ministry.

When Jesus ushered God's kingdom and His new covenant (or new testament) into the world, one of its features was (and is) how women and men have an equal place in God's eyes. This isn't a modern sociological statement; it's Biblical.

Unlike all the other teachers of His day--male teachers, Jesus did something completely different: He talked with women to whom He was unrelated in public. It was scandalous. There are many instances of this in the gospels. It's indicative of the fact that Jesus trusted women to hear His message and be changed and shaped by it, just like men.

And in a culture that insisted that the testimony of women on any subject was invalid, Jesus chose women to be the first to proclaim (to preach!) His resurrection Easter Sunday morning.

The apostle Paul knew and appreciated this about Jesus and His Kingdom. While Paul sometimes bowed to the social conventions of communities and regions in which he founded new churches, a strategic concession, he was also known to relate to church communities in which women were leaders (think Lydia). And it was a husband and wife team that gave Paul his Christian "seminary training." No wonder that Paul wrote:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Even Paul's understanding of marriage, as expressed in Ephesians 5, often maligned as placing women in positions of inferiority, really, as you consider what he says, conveys the idea that marriage between husband and wife is to be a relationship of mutual submission and surrender.

Second, Rainer sometimes seems to have an inflated sense of the human capacity for living righteously in our own power.  The New Testament teaches that none of us is righteous in our inborn impulses. We're born in sin and our desire is to do what we want to do without regard to God's will for us. We are incapable of being righteous; God makes those who believe in Christ righteous. It's the only way human beings can be righteous. I am saved (and I am sanctified or made holy) entirely by God's grace through faith in Christ--a faith only made possible by the Holy Spirit, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3.

God gifts Christ's righteousness to those who, at the prompting of the Spirit, are able to repent and believe in Jesus. Ephesians puts it this way:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork...(Ephesians 2:8-10a)
So, a few things I find in I Am a Church Member make me twitch a bit.

For example, in a little affirmation or pledge he asks readers to make near the end of one chapter, Rainer writes: "Because my pastor cannot do all things in his [sic] own power..."

But Jesus teaches something more radical than that: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

One of the hard lessons I have learned as a Christian and as a pastor is that all my good intentions and efforts are meaningless, are inevitably darkened by my own sinful nature unless the God I know in Jesus is the power behind it. Believe me: Your pastor can do nothing righteous, good, or godly in his or her own power. (Neither can you.)

Another example: In a chapter in which Rainer calls on church members to commit themselves to live out a belief that the life of a church community is not about our own personal preferences (rightly, I might add), he writes: "...these commitments are not easy. In fact, without God's power they may prove impossible." (Italics mine.)

Once again, I turn to the more radical phrasing of Jesus in John 15. I am able to do all things in Christ only in the power of Jesus Christ. That's why I scrawled out "may prove" from Rainer's text and amended the sentence to read: "In fact, without God's power they ARE impossible."

Quibbles. But important ones I think.

But even with these caveats, I recommend I Am a Church Member.

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

Food for Thought: Hosea 14:9

"Who is wise? Let them realize these things. 

 "Who is discerning? Let them understand. 

"The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them."

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Turtleneck Tuesday #1

We begin a new feature here on the blog, Turtleneck Tuesdays, in which we'll unveil the pictures of two prominent turtleneck wearers who prove the proposition that only the cool people wear turtlenecks.

Turtlenecks can be casual. But they also represent a great alternative to ties with dress shirts for work attire. At work, they certainly look better and more professional than wearing unbuttoned dress shirts worn with sports coats or suit coats that I see on TV so much any more. Not so much: It makes wearers like they were too lazy to wear ties or pull on a turtleneck, content to look like slobs.

By the way, why is it so hard for me to replenish my supply at Land's End each year? I love their turtlenecks because they ride high and tight on your neck and cling at the cuffs. None of this saggy stuff. But they sometimes have to back order my winter purchases of turtlenecks.

Here are two cool turtleneck wearers:
  • The late Steve McQueen, seen below on the left, who exemplifies movie cool even today. This pic is taken from one of his big hits, Bullitt.
  • Cornell Belcher, prominent presidential pollster, a guy you see frequently on TV. Belcher often sports t/ns during his TV appearances and always looks good. How could he not? It's a turtleneck, man!

Growing Up

Here's the journal entry for my quiet time with God this morning.

Look: “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.” (Hosea 11:3)

Eight-centuries before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Hosea was used by God to call God’s people to repentance and faith. If they refused to respond to God’s grace, their faithlessness, idolatry, and injustice would catch up with them; they would be overrun by powerful enemies and be sent into exile. Ephraim was the largest of the tribes of Israel and was sometimes used, as here, to describe all of God’s people, the entire nation.

God uses different metaphors to describe His relationship with His people. Sometimes, God is portrayed as husband to a faithless wife. Here, God is the nurturing father who raised His people from infancy, who now in their adolescence, have spurned God. They’ve forgotten their father, even if they sometimes still invoke His name (Hosea 11:7). They’ve forgotten that it was He Who taught them to walk, Who brushed them off and cleaned their skinned egos and hearts when they stumbled.

Listen: How easily we forget God when everything is going well. There may be no atheists in foxholes, when adversity and pain target us. We often are prayerful and pious in our desperation. But when things “smooth out,” we forget about the One Who steadied us and set us on the paths to healings of all kinds. We forget about the One in Whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

But if we disconnect from the God Who, in Jesus Christ, gives us “ the full” (John 10:10), we walk away from life. We walk into death Arrogance and the myth of self-sufficiency sets in. “My people are determined to turn from me,” God says of His people in Hosea 11:7. Then, when hard times come or times when we face the consequences of our idolatry and hard-heartedness, as they do inevitably come in our fallen world, we blame God for not taking care of us. Or we disavow His existence.

But this verse speaks of God’s tender feelings for His people, the same tender feelings that Jesus says God has for all the people of the world (John 3:16). He wants a relationship with us. He doesn’t want us to remain perpetually infants. God wants us to grow in our relationship with Him, in our faith. It’s we who choose either to walk away from God or to remain spiritual infants. God wants to have a grown-up relationship with Him, one in which He empowers us to live in the freedom from sin, death, and idolatry that is our childish default mode, in the freedom He gives to us to love Him and to love all of our neighbors.

To those who have been made God’s people through Jesus, Jesus says, “I  no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

I talk with my father almost every day. I honor him as my father. I respect him. But now that dad is 88 and I’m 64, our relationship is as much one between two old friends as it is as between father and son. We have many shared memories and interests. We strive to be good to each other. That’s a little bit like the relationship God wants to develop with believers saved through Jesus, I think. God is always God: our Creator Who is infinite, eternal, perfect in love, justice, and power. To honor and worship Him as our only God and King is to give Him His due. But the One Who gives me life also wants to be my Friend. He wants me to get over myself and place myself in His hands and at His disposal so that He can make me over into the adult child of my Father that I’m intended to be.

This process of renewal, which is called sanctification, is a gift of grace from God by which He makes us over in the image of Jesus...if we will only be with Him and let Him love us and change us and show us the way. This is the process that happens, the apostle Paul says, when we all “...who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

God wants those to Whom He gives life and gives life again in Christ to grow into the men and women He meant for us to be when He first gave us life. He wants us to be able to say, along with Paul: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Respond: Today, Lord, help me to grow up: to let go of my hubris and pretended self-sufficiency, to ignore the calls of this world’s false gods: security, acceptance by others, popularity, power, ease, comfort, stuff I don’t need, and a thousand other things I could mention. Help me to keep my eyes, my attentions and my intentions on Christ alone and so have my views of the world and my daily activities changed by the freedom only You give to believers to become all that You make us to be, all that Christ died and rose to set us free to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen

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

Monday, July 23, 2018

Millennials Like Libraries

Libraries remain important, relevant, and necessary.
"All told, 46% of adults ages 18 and older say they used a public library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months..."

The Freedom to Act (AUDIO)


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

True Repentance

Today's journal entry from my morning quiet time with God. 

Look: “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears...For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,  and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:4, 6)

Hosea was called to speak God’s Word to Israel (the northern kingdom formed after King Solomon’s death, later to be known by the name Samaria). The people had prostituted themselves by worshiping false gods, ushering in an era of injustice, thievery, and general immorality. This idolatry drew them away from God, though they were part of God’s people. When they got into trouble, they sought the help of foreign kings, displacing God as their King.

This scenario, in turn, led to poor crops and poverty and vulnerability and eventually, cataclysmic results.

In chapter 5, priests and others call the people to what amounts to an inauthentic repentance. They’re in trouble; so they call on the God of their ancestors. But God knows that this is pro forma, like the false repentance of King Saul, who only sought forgiveness because he had been caught and humiliated by his sin. It’s the false repentance of Judas, who only felt foolish for being taken in by the priests with whom he’d made his deal to betray Jesus.

In these verses from Hosea, chapter 6, God calls Israel’s bluff. He says that like the dew that covers the ground in the early morning but soon disappears with the heat of the sun, Israel’s “repentance” is fleeting, gone before the pressures of everyday living.

Israel has a utilitarian “relationship” with God. They view Him as being like all the false deities with whom they prostitute themselves. They’re all like good luck charms, pieces of metal and wood to whom they ascribe supernatural powers that they can take advantage of if they go through the right motions, say the right words, invoke the proper formulae. These are deities they can control through their own behaviors, deities bound to dance to their tune if they jump the right religious hoops or climb the right religious ladders. So, they keep offering their sacrifices to God (and the false gods) while ignoring the will of God, God’s call and command to worship only Him--with their whole lives--and to show mercy to others.

The Living God of the universe isn’t like the dumb idols we manipulate for our purposes. He’s living, just and gracious, and He can smell a rat. He knows when we’re trying to game Him.

True repentance involves grief over breaking God’s heart, which is what we do when we unrepentantly sin.

True repentance entails a genuine desire for the help of God in turning away from our sins, even our favorite ones.

True repentance involves surrender to the only One Who can overcome our sin and the death it brings.

True repentance involves embracing God’s grace in the confident assurance that God loves nothing more than having a relationship with His people.

True repentance is a gift from God and it’s the means by which He covers us in His love and forgiveness.

When we are truly repentant, we don’t expect that God must or will shield us from the earthly consequences of our sins. Shielding will sometimes come and when it does, we need to thank God and ask God to help us use the earthly freedom the shielding brings to honor God. But a murderer who repents for sin and comes to authentic faith in Christ will not expect that earthly authorities will forgo prosecuting them. Similarly, a gossip who repents can’t expect that the time bombs of their hurtful words might not sometimes be detonated in their earthly lives and relationships. Yet repentant sinners will be empowered to face whatever comes knowing that they are now one with God.

Listen: When we see Jesus on the cross, we see, in ways that the people of Hosea’s day couldn’t, just how merciful and loving God is. God came into the world in human flesh, bore our sins on the cross, then rose from the dead to open up forgiveness, eternity, and a relationship with God to all who trust in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to turn to Him and the Good News of new life that His death and resurrection offer us and to turn from sin. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

Repentance should never be pro forma. You can’t game God. But you can have new life and the power of the Holy Spirit to live differently today than you did yesterday, to be enabled to live as a grateful forgiven sinner who, in the Holy Spirit’s power, acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Even then, while living in this present world, we stumble. We sin. But the God Who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8) is quick to forgive those who refuse to game God or themselves about their sins and their need of God to live like human beings rather than as self-serving monsters.

Respond: Lord, I recognize that sometimes my confession of sin to You are pro forma, perfunctory. So too can my worship of You, simply words I say or sing. I don’t want to game You, Lord. I am willing, though not anxious, to accept whatever earthly consequences for my sin that you deem appropriate. But I want to be daily cleaned by Your grace, daily made new by You. Help me to be utterly honest with You, Lord, so that I can experience Your mercy and Your “saving help” again. So that I can be the faithful disciple of Jesus Christ that You call me to be, that I want to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen

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

The Freedom To Act

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on Sunday, July 22.]

Mark 6:30-44
The story of Jesus’ feeding miracle, the subject of today’s gospel lesson, is so well-known to us that we may not confront two important questions I want to address this morning:
  • First, did it happen? 
  • Second, what difference does it make?

You often hear people question whether Jesus performed the miraculous signs attributed to Him. Some even question whether there actually was a person named Jesus of Nazareth. 

On this latter point, you only have to turn to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus wrote major works on the history of his people. He wasn’t a follower of Jesus. But in his history of the Jews, Josephus talked about Jesus: How Jesus won a large following with His preaching and teaching, how the movement that gathered around Jesus continued after His crucifixion. Even today, historians consider Josephus a credible source, his histories being constantly proven by new archaeological discoveries.

But did Jesus actually perform this notable miracle? 

Consider this: All four of the gospel writers include a narrative of this amazing event in their books. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John published their gospels, many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were still living; such eyewitnesses could have corrected misimpressions they thought were in the gospels. But they didn’t. Early second-century church leaders also wrote of speaking with eyewitnesses, people who told them how Jesus performed this miracle. So, I think that we can confidently say that Jesus fed a horde of people in a miraculous way.

So, what does it mean? 

What does it mean for us

To answer those questions, we need to look at the incident more closely. Please take a look at the lesson, Mark 6:30-44. It begins: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’”

This is the only time that Mark uses the word apostles. It’s a Greek compound meaning sent ones. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has sent out the twelve to preach, teach, and perform signs. They’ve been working hard. 

But Jesus now wants them to get some quiet time to reflect and rest. We all need time to rest, recharge our batteries. And, as believers, we need time to reflect through prayer and the consideration of God’s Word. We need these things because, as our lesson shows us, such quiet time can be hard to come by. Life gets in the way.

Verse 32: “So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”

When Jesus and the twelve crossed the sea, they learned that the Jesus groupies had beaten them there. 

But Jesus wasn’t angry. He had compassion for them because they were like aimless sheep who had no leaders. 

Of course, they had political leaders, like Herod Antipas. But Herod’s recent execution of John the Baptist showed that he and his henchmen were really about themselves. 

They had religious leaders, too. But they were, as their conspiracy with Herod and Pilate would soon prove, in league with the self-seekers in the government. 

Neither Herod nor the priests nor the scribes nor the Pharisees were authentic leaders. They were pretenders.

In a sometimes frightening world, people crave leadership. We want--we need--someone to show us the way through the challenges of our lives. 

There are always would-be dictators and authoritarians offering counterfeit leadership, of course. They're people who seek and keep power by telling us that what’s bothering us is not them or us, but all those other people out there: Samaritans, Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Egyptians, the others

The only real leader this world has ever seen is Jesus Christ. Jesus led not with an iron fist, but with compassion

Paul says of Jesus that “being in very nature God, [He] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,  in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11) 

The only leader the Christian has is Jesus Christ

And the only kind of earthly leader we should follow, even as we pray that God would guide all leaders, both the authentic and the pretenders, is a person who follows Jesus Christ

The fact is that we all need the one true leader, the one true God in the flesh, Who has died and risen for sinners like you and me--because of the compassion He has for each one of us--so that when we trust in Him, we have a life with God that will survive this world and can never be taken from us!

Verse 35: “By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. ‘This is a remote place,’ they said, ‘and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?’”

The apostles are thinking, “Hey, what about our quiet time, Jesus? We have some wowser stories to tell you about our preaching and casting out demons and stuff. Send this crowd home, Lord!” They make it sound that they’re concerned for the crowds when they tell Jesus that if He sends them away, they can go get something to eat. But Jesus tells them simply: “You give them something to eat.”

This is a word to today’s Church, to you and me

Are you concerned about the millions who don’t yet have an eternal relationship with the God we meet in Jesus? Give them something to eat; share the gospel, pray for people to share the gospel with people who will go to hell without a saving relationship with Jesus. 

Are you concerned about an injustice? Then do something about it. Don’t wait for a church program. Don’t wait for the pastor. Follow your leader, Jesus. Allow the compassion He planted in your life to be expressed. 

You have Jesus’ permission to be compassionate. 

In fact, you have His command to be compassionate. 

Pray. Serve a neighbor. Write an email to a public official. Work at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Volunteer for one of our ministries. Join a group.

You give them something to eat,” Jesus says. You be about your mission as a Christian. Jesus died and rose to set you and me free from sin and death to do just that while we walk on this earth. It’s one way we can give Him thanks and glory for His grace.

After the accounting department reported to Jesus that, among the crowd, they could only find five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus demonstrated what a servant leader does with the compassion for others that God stirs in believers.

Jesus had people sit in groups of hundreds and fifties, just as Jethro told Moses to organize the people of ancient Israel facing the frightening uncertainties of the wilderness centuries before. Then, Jesus has the disciples distribute this food. We’re told that this throng ate “and were satisfied.” There were even twelve baskets left over. 

And then, Mark writes this: “The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.” (Mark 6:44)

This last verse is significant for two reasons: 

  • (1) 5000 is the number of men in a Roman legion of soldiers; 
  • (2) Because there were women and children who were fed that day, Jesus fed many more than 5000.

What does this tell us? 

The first thing it tells us is that there’s a place for military might in our fallen world. Not everyone trusts in Jesus and so, doesn’t have the power and impulse for love that Jesus plants in His disciples. That's why in this fallen world, God rules in two ways: by grace in the lives of those who trust in Him, by governments in the lives of those who don't trust in Him. Christians acquiesce to God's ordination of governments for the good of their neighbors. (This all describes Martin Luther's two kingdoms understanding of the Bible's teachings on these matters, by the way.)

A friend of mine, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of NATO, is originally from Logan, Ohio and a son of the congregation I formerly served as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church. In the Army, his nickname is Scap, but those of us in Logan knew him as Mike. I got to know him on his visits home. He's the kind of commander who never asked those who served under him to do anything he wasn't willing to do, like jumping from airplanes in Afghanistan and Iraq when he was a two-star general. Mike is performing an essential service, leading American forces in, among other things, protecting this country in Europe, so that our children will never have to suffer attack by our adversaries, the Russians, here. 

But, here's the deal: No army in the world can protect us from our greatest enemies: sin, death, and ourselves

Only Jesus can

And Jesus looks to enlist legions of people who have been saved through His compassion, expressed on the cross, confirmed at the empty tomb, to be an army of believers who live out His call to love God and to love all of our neighbors just as He has loved us.

The second thing that the last verse of our gospel lesson tells us is that, because Jesus is our leader and has saved us by grace through faith in Him, we need not be afraid in the face of the world’s challenges. The disciples couldn't imagine how they were going to feed 5000 people. But they did what Jesus commanded because they trusted in Jesus, they believed in Him. We too can act on Jesus' command to share Him with the world through our lives, deeds, and words.

And we can do that with absolute confidence. Why?

Because we already belong to God for eternity. 

Because neither Satan, nor sin, nor death can intimidate us

Jesus once referred to the miraculous works He performed and told Philip: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things [by which Jesus here means, more works] than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

In Jesus, we have the power and the commission to feed those who are hungry for food, hungry for the good news of new and everlasting life for all who believe in Jesus, hungry for God’s truth

We don’t have to have all the answers or have everything figured out in advance, any more than the disciples did on the day, on Jesus’ command, they passed out the few bits of fish and bread they had. 

We simply need to follow Jesus. 

We simply have to believe in Jesus


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