Saturday, July 06, 2019

The Point of Life

In recent weeks, a friend of ours posted on social media, “What exactly is the point of life?” Another friend replied, “The point of life is whatever you make of it.” THAT was typically American advice. It was also TOTALLY WRONG!

From the standpoint of Christian faith, the point of life is clear and it’s not what we make of it.

The point of life is to live in sync with the God Who made us and who sets all who trust in the crucified and risen Jesus free from sin, death, and futility AND to share Him with the world. In other words, we live for Christ and watch what God, in His grace and infinite creativity, MAKES OF US!

More succinctly, the purpose of our existence is to be and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

In being and making disciples of Jesus Christ, we fulfill the purpose that God, the One Who crafted each of us in His image, has for our lives.

Our call as Christians is to seek to live in the gracious will of God and so be set free to be ourselves.

I wish that the sin and timidity that resides in me and every human being could more fully grasp that truth. It would make such a difference in our lives: We would live in the freedom of forgiven sin, learn to love others as we love ourselves, and have God-given joy that cannot be taken away from us.

But sadly, most people, including most Christians, thrash through this life with insecurity, worry, fear, and despair, lamenting that they haven’t got a clue to the answer to the question God has already answered, “What exactly is the point of my life?”

The most effective way to combat global climate change?

Plant a trillion trees worldwide:
The most effective way to fight global warming is to plant lots of trees, a study says. A trillion of them, maybe more. 
And there’s enough room, Swiss scientists say. Even with existing cities and farmland, there’s enough space for new trees to cover 3.5 million square miles (9 million square kilometers), they reported in Thursday’s journal Science. That area is roughly the size of the United States.

The study calculated that over the decades, those new trees could suck up nearly 830 billion tons (750 billion metric tons) of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s about as much carbon pollution as humans have spewed in the past 25 years. Much of that benefit will come quickly because trees remove more carbon from the air when they are younger, the study authors said. The potential for removing the most carbon is in the tropics.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

How Emily Dickinson Writes a Poem

Nerdwriter is great in explaining how we use our words and why. Here he looks at Dickinson's oblique directness.

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

Parallel Parking Tires

I love them!

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

Thursday, July 04, 2019

What I'm thankful for on this Fourth of July

On this Fourth of July, I’m thankful for what makes America unique: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

I’m thankful for the principles they embody, the people who wrote them, and the thirteen original states that bravely set out to be what had never been, a national republic.

I’m thankful to those who have understood these two documents as ideals to live up to and enact.

I’m thankful that my immigrant ancestors and I have been privileged to live in a land whose founding documents allowed them to a live in freedom, a freedom undergirded by mutual commitment and accountability.

I’m thankful for the patriots who have committed blood, brains, and braun to keep America moving, often slowly and arduously, toward the ideal of an indivisible republic with liberty and justice for all. We’re not there, but the commitment to the quest for such a republic is there in our founding documents.

I’m thankful that, despite ourselves, God has graced us with women and men of every nation who, forged together as Americans around our twin founding compacts, have brought our nation and world great good.

I’m thankful for the humble prophets among us who have called us to do better, to be Americans. May their courageous number never be in short supply.

I’m thankful to God for those who have protected America.

I’m thankful to God for America: for what it is and, more importantly, for what it has the potential for becoming if we will embrace the historic call of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

And I refuse to despair when, from time to time, the nation seems bent on yielding to a “survival of the fittest” despotism. I still believe in the American Experiment, a land that seeks to be a place where, paraphrasing Emma Lazarus, whose words appear on the Statue of Liberty, the “poor, [the] huddled masses yearning to breathe free, [the] wretched...the homeless, tempest-tost” from this land and others can be formed into a people known as Americans, a people who seek freedom and opportunity as much as for others as they do for themselves, day in and day out, people of the Declaration and the Constitution.

Happy Fourth of July, friends.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

"Friend, your sins are forgiven"

"When Jesus saw their faith, he said, 'Friend, your sins are forgiven.'” (Luke 5:20).

When we turn to Jesus with helplessness and such trust as the Holy Spirit has engendered in us (1 Corinthians 12:3), the fear of not being good enough (which we're not) is gone.

So too is the need to "prove" our worthiness because the death of God the Son on the cross proves our infinite and eternal worthiness, despite our sins and imperfections, in the eyes of God. When we turn to Christ, we live, we are forgiven.

I was telling a group at church last night about the professor who, at the beginning of the term, told the hard-charging students in his graduate course that they were all getting A's. That drove some people crazy: How would they prove they deserved an A? Was it fair for them not to get a better grade if they did more and better work?

But what they found was that because they knew they already had A's, they were set free to do their best work, set free from the anxiety of being perfect. They learned more than they'd ever imagined possible.

At the end of the term, the professor explained that this was a picture of God's grace: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

God approaches the human race with an attitude of grace, love, and forgiveness. This is how He looks at us even when we have our backs (and our lives) turned toward Him.

But when we turn to Him--

away from ourselves,

away from our "clan,"

away from our achievements,

away from our supposed goodness and merit ("all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" Isaiah 64:6),

away from both self-loathing and self-aggrandizement,

away from the little godlets, the idols of our choosing, be they human beings or sticks of wood or money or houses or power or fame--

when we turn to Jesus in helplessness and trust, we receive the forgiveness, new life, peace, hope, and permission to be our best selves that He had for us all the time.

"When Jesus saw their faith, he said, 'Friend, your sins are forgiven.'”

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. More importantly, I'm a sinner who daily claims God's forgiveness and the mantle of sainthood He has in mind for me despite who I am by turning to Jesus.]

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Journey of Here and Now

[This was shared during worship this morning with the members and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 9:51-62
Christian journalist and thinker Philip Yancey has advice for Christians. “We do well to remember that the Bible has far more to say about how to live during the journey [through this life] than about the ultimate destination [beyond this life].”

That’s good advice. Jesus sets those who believe in Him free from sin and death not so that they can wait smugly for the days they die and get to be with Him. He sets us free so that, having the assurance that we belong to God forever, we can live this life differently and so that, through our lives and witness, we can invite others to join us in our journey with Jesus through this life.

In Matthew 24:13, Jesus tells us that the destination of an eternity with God only belongs to those who start living in that eternity through faith in Him today. “[T]he one who stands firm to the end [that means to the end of this life] will be saved [for the next].”

And the apostle Peter makes it clear that we are saved by Jesus not just for eternity and not just for ourselves, but for now and for others. “[Y]ou are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession,” Peter tells disciples of Jesus, “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” [1 Peter 2:9] Our call in this life, today, right now, is to be and to make disciples out of gratitude for the grace through which God has saved us from ourselves. That’s our path, the journey Christ has marked out for us.

Our gospel lesson for today finds Jesus beginning the decisive final leg on the path, the journey that God the Father has marked for Him. Take a look at it, please, Luke 9:51-62. It begins: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”

In the Greek in which Luke composed his gospel, that verse more literally says: “Then it came to pass, in the fulfillment of His ascension, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Ascension here doesn’t refer here to the day forty days after Jesus’ resurrection that He ascended to heaven. It refers instead to His overall mission of going to Jerusalem to suffer, be crucified, to rise, and then to ascend to heaven. 

Jesus has set His face to complete the journey that began with His birth at Christmas, to buy sinners out of our slavery to sin, death, and the devil through His death, resurrection, and ascension. 

Yesterday, we saw a re-run of an old Law and Order in which Detective Green, always a straight-shooter, faces a murder rap he doesn't deserve in order to spare someone else prison time. He turns to the prosecuting attorney who has unraveled what was going on and asks, “Why are you doing this?” “Because,” the prosecutor answers, “we thought you were worth saving.” 

You know, sometimes, on rare occasions, God graces us with clear pictures of ourselves. We see, when all self-justification and rationalization are cast aside, how we have marred ourselves and our characters with our sin and selfishness. We may see that we are, in many ways, damaged goods. 

But listen: The God Who made you and all that exists thinks you, along with every other human being without exception, are worth saving. You are worth saving

That’s why Jesus set His face to journey to Jerusalem. 

That’s why He calls us to journey with Him today.

But not everyone thinks they need saving. Or if they do think they need saving, they believe that they, or the gods of their choosing, or a particular way of life will save them. Verse 52: “And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.”

The Samaritan villagers didn’t welcome Jesus any more than had Jesus' fellow Jews in Jerusalem had at His birth or would in Holy Week, any more than the Romans would, any more than most people in the world today welcome Him for Who He is--God and King and Savior. Isaiah prophesied well of Jesus in the eighth-century BC: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” [Isaiah 53:3]

But the Samaritan villagers who spurned Jesus weren’t the only ones who didn’t understand Who Jesus is or what the journey of Christian discipleship is about. Verse 54: “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.”

Luke says much more than that Jesus rebuked James and John. In the original Greek, he quotes Jesus as telling the two that they’re spiritually confused: “Οὐκ οἴδατε οἵου πνεύματός ἐστε ὑμεῖς”: “You don’t know of what spirit you are!” In other words, Jesus was saying, “If you guys want to torch people I came to save, you’re following the spirits of hell rather than the Holy Spirit.” 

For the person who journeys with Jesus, hatred for or indifference to those who may disagree with us are not options

If we insist on hating Muslims or atheists, or those who disagree with the Bible’s teaching on things like sexuality, how can we possibly introduce them to Jesus Christ? How can a Christian being hateful introduce others to the loving God we know in Jesus? 

Our call isn’t to torch others, literally or figuratively, but to touch them with the gospel of Christ, through our prayers, our faithfulness, our love, our witness. 

Though by this time James and John have been with Jesus for some time, they still don’t understand what it means to journey with Him in this life.

They weren’t alone in their lack of understanding about being disciples of Jesus. 

Verse 57: “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’” To follow Jesus means accepting uncertainty. It means accepting that He may be calling us to venture outside our comfort zones so that we may learn to rely on Him alone.

Forty years ago, the last thing I wanted to be was a pastor. I remember telling my boss at the United Way, at a time I was furtively beginning my journey out of atheism to life with Christ, “I have no use for pastors.” That’s what I’d been taught by my grandfather and it was what I still believed. Within three years, I was in seminary, no longer able to resist the path that God seemed to have in mind for me. 

Thank God, not everyone is called to be a pastor, but He calls every Christian to journey away from what makes them comfortable to do what points others to Christ

To what uncomfortable place is Jesus calling you today?
Verse 59: “[Jesus] said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But [the man] replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ [In Jewish custom, there was no higher responsibility than taking care of a parent’s burial...preferably after they died.] Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’” The call to follow Jesus is to set our faces toward whatever He may call us to be and do. Sometimes families will understand. But only sometimes
Verse 61: “Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” 
All farmers knew in the centuries before air conditioned tractor cabs outfitted with GPS guidance, that if you looked back while sowing or plowing, you’d either have crooked rows or torn up crops. To journey with Jesus is to look to where He’s leading us and not to torment ourselves over the sins and mistakes of our past and not to look back nostalgically on a lost past. 
When we turn to Jesus, we realize again, damaged or goods or not according to the world or our own dark imaginings, that we are children of the King. We belong to the One leading us through our individual journeys of discipleship, now and forever. 
Following Jesus can be uncomfortable and it would be impossible to do if following Jesus didn’t also mean journeying with Jesus by our sides, here and now, every day
To Christians on their journey of discipleship, the apostle Paul wrote, “...he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 4:6] Through all the days of this life, with their challenges and joys, tragedies and triumphs, may this be our one certainty as Jesus’ disciples: As we set our faces toward Jesus, He will bring the completion and fulfillment that He has in mind for us
And though I sometimes forget it, that’s all we really need to know. Amen