Saturday, October 27, 2018

After Pittsburgh and Pipe Bombs...What?

Racism, xenophobia, antisemitism: convenient lies that people choose to believe in order to “explain” why things aren’t as they “should be” in their lives. They're the sinful cesspool into which people dip their cups to both slake and feed their resentments, fears, and pretensions.

When these hateful, irrational lies get injected into the mainstream of a culture, sick, deluded people use them to justify violence like shooting up schools, churches, concerts, and synagogues. It becomes thinkable for some to send pipe bombs to people they don’t know, they don't like, and toward whom they harbor bitter feelings. 

I’m sick and disgusted by it all, aren’t you?

We DO need prayers at this time. But they must include more than just petitions for healing for the injured and comfort for the grieving.

We need to pray that all of our leaders of all political persuasions will not add to the stew of resentments, ineffectual policies, and spinelessness before the power of lobbyists waving campaign contributions that have led us to where we are today.

We need to pray that we will become kinder and gentler in our civil discourse. Free speech is and ought to be guaranteed in our country. But when, because of our lack of self-control, violence enters accepted daily speech, we encourage violence.

We need to pray that people will enter authentic relationships with the Prince of Peace and the Author of love, Jesus the Christ. The cheap political moralism "preached” in many Christian pulpits is not of God and not the gospel. The gospel is the good news described by Jesus in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

Every human being is a sinner in need of the freedom from sin and death that only Jesus has won for us through His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His resurrection. 

The gospel tells me that I am no better than my neighbor, that we both are loved and valued passionately by God, that we both need to repent, that we both need to entrust our lives to Jesus for a grace that takes me as I am and leads me to become what God will make of me fully in the resurrection. 

And this Gospel incites me, a sinner saved by God’s charitable love (His grace) and not by my "virtue" or "goodness," to love my neighbor as I love myself. 

Prayer that we will live in authentic relationship with Jesus and that God will help all disciples of Jesus to share His gospel with others is the most practical thing we can do personally to address the lies that lead to so much violence in America.

I agree with those who are tired of hollow, idle, meaningless expressions of "thoughts and prayers." If you're going to pray, mean it. And if you pray in Jesus' name, don't be surprised when God makes it clear that you need to be part of a solution, not just a trafficker in sanctimonious cliches.

In the end, to overcome the sickness of hatred and violence that seems to be part of our everyday lives, it's our souls that must be transformed. And that transformation can only happen through the faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel. 

This is our most desperate need at this hour. 

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

Friday, October 26, 2018

My Great Grandmother's Continuing Influence on My Life

Many have heard me speak of my great-grandmother. I adored her.
When I was a little guy, growing up in Columbus, she lived across the street from us. She always spoke to me as though I was a grown-up and helped to spark my interest in history and politics, among other things. 
She was a devoted follower of Jesus and often when I barged in on her unannounced, she would be reading the Bible, which she read through completely thirteen times in the course of her life. She often spoke with me about Christ and her faith. She spent hours and hours with me, which is fairly remarkable when you think about it, remarkable that she had such patience, remarkable that I so loved our time together.

When she was hospitalized after suffering several strokes, she asked if I could come to see her. That was when children under 15 weren’t allowed to visit the hospitalized. But the doctor gave the go-ahead and I was happy to see her.
She lived for only a short time after that. (My grandparents brought her to be with them before she passed and I got to see her the night before her death, though the strokes had robbed her of her memory of me.) I was comforted on the morning after her death when my mom told me that grandma was then walking the streets of gold in eternity. She died when I was eight and, without doubt, she remains one of the most influential people in my life.
Her influence goes beyond the interactions I had with her when I was a little boy, though. Unbeknownst to me, my great-grandmother called me her “little preacher.” She was a woman of prayer and I’m sure that she included me in her praying.
I became an atheist in my teen years and remained so into my early twenties. But then, through the witness of a church family and another elderly woman who took me under her wing and showed me what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, I came to faith. After that, I sensed God’s call to pastoral ministry.
I am certain that the prayers of my great-grandmother, long gone by the time I came to faith or became a pastor, remained lodged in the heart of God, Who is eternal. He heard her prayers and eventually, through my hearing of God’s Word which loved me to faith, they were answered. 
Never give up on prayer in Jesus’ name because He never gives up on us and He never forgets our prayers!
I’m thankful for the life, witness, and prayers of my great-grandmother. She wasn’t perfect, but she was faithful and she’s one of the people God used to bring me to life through Jesus Christ. 
This picture shows her just as I remember her, obviously taken shortly before her death at age 76 in 1962. My dad gave this picture of her to me yesterday.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Lifted Up!

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." (1 Peter 5:6)
God is teaching me that as I submit myself to Him through Christ, He makes it possible for me to cast, not just my anxieties, but also my grief, hopes, sins, desires, pains, and ambitions on Him. He empowers me to live with confidence, peace, and hope.
Through the crucified and risen Jesus, all of this is daily happening to me, a common, garden (of Eden) variety sinner! I find that only one word, unfortunately, over-used these days for far less reason, that can describe all that Jesus is and does for us: AWESOME!
When I place my whole life under Jesus, He lifts me up to be and do more than I could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20-21). That's truly awesome!
[I'm an ordinary guy. I serve as pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, October 22, 2018


Our absentee ballots went in today. Being informed and voting are basic acts of citizenship, I think. And voting is a privilege.
As a Christian, I ask God to always help me to not vote for my perceived self-interest, but for the good of all, and to think not of immediate gratification but for the good of future generations.
No political ideology or political candidate is perfect. No party is more “Christian” than another. So, as a Christian, I simply ask God to give me wisdom, good sense, and other-mindedness when I vote.
My agenda in voting isn’t to bring the kingdom of God to my community through the coercive instruments of laws. The kingdom of God only comes to people through the proclamation of God’s saving good news about Jesus. But, as a Christian, I am directed by God to be a good citizen and a caring neighbor. Voting is one basic way to do that.
It also seems to me to be a fundamental act of patriotism, like paying our taxes or getting vaccines, basic acts by which we fulfill our parts in the social compact that is America.

Not Retaliating When We're Attacked

[Below are reflections on my quiet time with God for today. It should be made clear that the words written by the apostle Peter on which I reflect here don't apply to governments, who have the responsibility of protecting their citizens, although I think it does apply to those who serve in government who confess faith in Jesus Christ. Peter's words apply to anyone who claims to follow Christ and who is part of His body, the Church. To see how I approach Quiet Time, see here.]

Look: “...if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:20b-23)

Later in this letter, Peter will tell the Christians of Asia Minor, then facing rejection for their faith in Christ, out of reverence for Christ, to “...Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)

But in the verses from chapter 2, Peter is making it clear just how costly and how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It may mean that we suffer for doing good, things like loving our neighbor or sharing Christ with them. When our faith engenders criticism, rejection, or even persecution, we’re to always be prepared to explain the bases for our hope in Christ, but, like our Savior, never retaliate. That's true even when we're slandered, ridiculed, marginalized, or harmed. We’re to simply place ourselves and our witness for Christ in the hands of the Father to Whom Jesus entrusted Himself.

Listen: This passage causes me to reflect on the ways in which I have “retaliated” against people who have criticized me. I fear that sometimes, I’ve gone beyond simply staking out my position, explaining my faith in Christ or where it has led me, instead, attacking others. Sometimes the “attacks” were so subtle that only God and I know about it. But I can’t live by a “no harm, no foul” ethos.

Retaliation is not of Christ. He faithfully bore suffering, refusing to meet fire with fire, though nobody in history had more reason to retaliate against those who falsely accused Him (or more power to retaliate) than Christ. By refusing to strike back and instead, submitting to the Father, He was able to fulfill His mission of dying and rising for the rest of us who deserve punishment and death for our sins. My call is to trust in the Father Who saw Jesus through and raised Him up on Easter. Through my faith in Jesus, I can trust that the Father will, on the last day, raise me from the dead and give me life in eternity.

Response: Forgive me, God, for relying on anything other than You and for wanting to counter-attack, prove others wrong, or secure a superior position. 

Help me to follow Christ confidently, but without arrogance. 

Help me to be able always to share my hope in Christ and my points of view rooted in Christ. 

Help me to admit when I’ve been wrong. 

Help me also not to retaliate, not to be hostile, not to engage in behavior or words that dishonor You or the cause of the Gospel. 

Today especially, help me to remember to seek Your wisdom for all I say and do so that I can give You glory and not give any human being a rational, sustainable reason for rejecting Christ. In His name I pray. Amen

Jesus Talks Money

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on October 21.]

Mark 10:23-31
I recently was told that in the Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--Jesus speaks about money in 288 verses. The number seemed a bit inflated to me because, often when Jesus tells a parable involving money--like the parable of the dishonest steward or the one about the unforgiving servant, He’s only using a story involving money to tell us about other things, like the importance of being wise in our dealings with others or the need to forgive others as God forgives us for Christ’s sake. 

Even last week’s gospel lesson found Jesus speaking about money only as a way of warning us against letting anyone or anything get in the way of trusting Him alone as the way, and the truth, and the life. 

But this week, Jesus takes the subject of money head-on, tackling it for what it can and is for many people in our world, the single-most death-dealing idol of all.

So, let’s take a look at today’s lesson, Mark 10:23-31. Verse 23: “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’”

The rich man who had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life had just walked away, saddened that Jesus told him to sell all that he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow Jesus. It was a stunning moment. Here was Jesus, a powerless, penniless street preacher telling a man whose wealth meant that he was accustomed to getting his way that if he wanted eternal life, he would need to get rid of his favorite god and instead rely entirely on Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life.

The disciples must have viewed this encounter uncomprehendingly. Jesus looks at them and says, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” And then, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” The two statements differ. The first one says that it’s hard for the wealthy to get into the kingdom, to have eternal life. The second one tells us that it’s just hard for anyone to get into the kingdom.

“Wait a minute!” we might say. “I thought that we gained entrance into God’s kingdom as a free gift of undeserved grace (or charity) granted to those who turn from sin (or, repent) and trust, believe in Jesus. Can something be free and difficult at the same time?” 

Of course it can be! The life of Christian discipleship is both free and difficult! The only way we can, day in and day out, take hold of the life and salvation that Jesus offers is to let go of our favorite personal insurance policies: the things we use to validate our worth, prove our significance, make us feel secure. 

Our old selves, with their sinful obsessions, selfishness, and idols have to be crucified so that our new, eternal lives can happen. Truly, if we’re going to live with the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus, we must submit to the daily destruction of our safe, ego-centered worlds so that God the Holy Spirit can undertake the construction of our new, never-ending lives

Jesus tells us elsewhere, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) 

The gift of new life from Jesus is free, but taking it can involve painful separation from the things, the ways of life we love, as the rich man with whom Jesus had just spoken learned. 

A man once told me about an affair he’d had and the decision he and the woman with whom he’d had the relationship to end it. “We loved each other deeply,” he told me. “It wasn’t physical. She accepted my imperfections and affirmed my worth and potential.” The two of them ended things because they knew continuing would displease God and violate their marriage vows. 

Leaving behind our favorite sins in order to grasp the gift of new life reserved for those who follow Jesus is hard. We can’t keep unrepentantly following our sins if we want to follow Jesus. The gift of life Jesus offers is worth any sacrifice, including the sacrifice of our sinful rebellions against God. “If anyone is in Christ,” the apostle Paul writes, “the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Jesus goes on in verse 25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 

I’m guessing that Jesus reverts to talking about money because He sees the disciples’ shock at his assertion that money has the potential to drag us into hell, away from God. Their shock is understandable: In first-century Judea, where Jesus lived, wealth was regarded as God’s affirmation of the rich person’s faith. Wealthy people were thought to be more righteous than poor people. 

Such thinking didn’t end in the first century. A friend once told me about going to a couples’ Bible study, most of whose members took it as a given that people were only poor because they weren’t right with God. Yet Proverbs 28:6 tells us, “Better the poor whose walk is blameless than the rich whose ways are perverse.”

Wealth in and of itself isn’t the problem, of course. It’s how we view it, whether it controls our decision making and priorities or not. Theologian Richard Foster says that money is a power; either we will control it or it will control us. 

The apostle Paul doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil of course, but he does say that, “...the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10) 

It is exactly against the grief of separation from God that Jesus warns us today. Jesus asks us to imagine a large camel threading the eye of a needle, then tells us that those who carry their wealth around as their security blanket, their god, cannot possibly make into the kingdom of God

How important is money in our lives? One way to determine that is to see how generous we are, not just to the church and other not-for-profit entities, but in our everyday lives. Speaking personally, I pray to be more generous, less concerned with getting or keeping and more concerned with giving away. 

Jesus says: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) That applies to us all, whatever our incomes.

Verse 26: “The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’” 

“If a rich man can’t be saved,” the disciples ask, “what hope is there for anyone to enter God’s kingdom?” 

Life with God is only possible because of God’s grace given to us in Jesus. Wealth may allow us to get more medical care and buy better food before we all eventually die, Jesus is saying, but it’s impossible to buy life with God. 

Yet God makes it possible for anyone to be saved from sin and death, saved for life in God’s kingdom: By entrusting our entire lives to Jesus the Christ

As the Bible reminds us: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Verse 28: “Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’” 

Despite common folklore, Peter and the other fishermen were probably themselves wealthy people. Franchises to fish the waters of Galilee were rare and expensive in the first place and those who did have those franchises made lots of money. We know from the Gospel of John that two of the twelve, James and John, were part of a family fishing business that employed others. So, Peter’s question is more than a disinterested theological inquiry. He’s like the overachiever looking for extra credit. “We’re OK, right? We left everything behind to follow You, Jesus.”

Jesus doesn’t answer Peter’s question directly. Instead, Jesus points the disciples--including you and me--back to faith, back to turning away from the love of wealth that will keep us from claiming the gift of eternal life through Jesus. 

Verse 29: “‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—[free and difficult] and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’”

The God we meet in Jesus, crucified for our sins, risen for our eternal salvation, offers infinitely more to those who worship Him and Him alone than all the wealth of this dying world possibly can

It’s out of consideration for the overwhelming grace of God in Christ, offered to rich and poor alike, that Paul wrote to the first century church in Ephesus: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)

The world may put those who dare to be Jesus’ disciples on its bottom rungs, but we know that in the upside-down kingdom of God, the “first will be last, and the last first.” If last place is where we can be with Christ, now and in eternity, that’s exactly where we should always want to be. Amen

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