Reading Ramblings – May 9, 2021

May 2, 2021

Date: Sixth Sunday of Easter ~ May 9, 2021 

Texts: Acts 10:34-38; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-8; John 15:9-17 

Context: We near the end of the Easter liturgical season.  The readings become more and more pointed – what is the response of God’s Easter people, how do we live who wait the return of our Lord in glory in power?  We live in obedience.  Freed by our Lord’s victory over sin, Satan and death we throw ourselves into lives of obedience, no longer in terror of the Law’s convicting power – that power has been broken by Christ.  Rather, obedient in the joy of forgiveness and in the acceptance that obeying the law is not simply a matter of personal moral piety but rather of loving our enemy and our God.  Far from being free to determine what love should be or look like, we recognize that the essence of love has always been woven into the Law.  We embrace the Law as the only certain means of loving our neighbor and God properly until we are safely restored to eternal perfection. 

Acts 10:34-38 – Stunned at what God has revealed to him in his vision as well as the words and reception of Cornelious, Peter breaks forth in praise to God.  What was once a curious intellectual string to toy with is now a reality – God truly does not show favoritism, but truly has meant what He has been saying since Genesis 3:15 and his call to Abraham in Genesis 12.  God intends fully to extend his grace and mercy to any who will receive, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality or tribe.  The Jews should have been the first to receive and give thanks, but it was never intended exclusively for them.  Jesus is Lord of All!  This has been clearly demonstrated over and over again as the Holy Spirit of God pours out power and healing and faith on any and all who will receive it, and Satan has been powerless to stop it.  By orchestrating the sacrificial death of the Incarnate Son of God Satan has unknowingly made the Holy Spirit of God’s presence a new reality in creation. 

Psalm 98 – The Lord deserves a new song.  Not because He has done new things, but because the things He has done are marvelous.  Specifically, his strength and power (as symbolized in his right arm and hand) have accomplished salvation for him.  This does not mean He has saved himself – God has no need of salvation!  But rather the salvation He purposed to work on our behalf is what He has accomplished.  This salvation is now made known to all those it is intended for – to the nations, all peoples.  His chosen people have by no means been forgotten or omitted in all of this – it is to their glory that He has brought his salvation – his Incarnate Son – into creation!  So all creation is summoned to join in this song of praise of their king.  All creation should react in praise to the creator and redeemer because God will restore justice to the earth.  Evil will be dealt with once and for all, and heaven and earth will be reunited in peace because of the mighty work of God on our behalf! 

1 John 5:1-8 – We’ve read through the majority of 1 John since Easter.  It is a glorious hymn of praise to God for making us his children, showing us his love, and calling us to obedience as we await our Lord’s return.  There were no shortage of  strange ideas running around at the end of the first century.  People reworking the Gospel of Jesus Christ, altering it to accommodate reason, common sense, even other religious and philosophical beliefs.  And perhaps the most offensive of the Gospel details was the idea that God could be one and yet three, Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.  That God should be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Against this sprang up myriad alternative suggestions, primarily reducing the Son to the level of First-Created rather than co-God as John makes clear in the opening chapter of his Gospel.  So here, John reminds his hearers and readers that they do not simply profess faith and love in a God, but specifically in a God the Father and God the Son.  By extension, this means we love all those who make such confession.  Those who confess Jesus as the Son of God, the promised and prophesied Messiah of God are bound together in our identity as children of God, and we are to love each other as John has repeated throughout his letter.  This love, furthermore, is defined by obedience to the commands of God rather than coming up with our own definitions of love.  Our faith and obedience has overcome the powers and evils of the world, grounded in the testimony of God the Holy Spirit himself concerning the bodily incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the means by which God’s mighty arm has accomplished salvation for you and I! 

John 15:9-17 – Continuing from last week’s Gospel reading, again taking place during the Last Supper, Jesus comforts his disciples with his upcoming departure and emphasizes to them the important aspect of how they must be obedient in love.  How many books have been written and seminars given trying to give Christians amazing ideas about what the Christian life consists of!?  How many programs?  How many calls to poverty or chastity or any other aspect of the Christian life.  But Jesus himself emphasizes love and obedience.  The two go together.  You can’t disobey the Word of God and claim to love your brother or sister in Christ.  Nor can you claim to love God if you refuse to obey his Word.  These two are inextricably linked.  His disciples need not seek lives of adventure in service of the Gospel – they won’t be able to avoid them!  And if you and I want to seek out such adventure but leave behind the call to love and obedience, we are missing the mark entirely.  We are to love and obey.  For most people, this is more than enough to keep them fully occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week without ever needing to seek out greater challenge.  How many husbands and wives struggle simply to love one another?  Or to love their children?  How many have abandoned true love for the glories of becoming a social media influencer, spouting hate in the name of love?   We did not choose Christ, and we do not necessarily choose the life of obedience and love we are to live.  But we are to remember in all things that Christ chose us, and therefore we can trust and follow his Holy Spirit’s leading and guidance in whatever manner that takes in our lives.   

Reading Ramblings – May 2, 2021

April 25, 2021

Date: Fifth Sunday of Easter ~ May 2, 2021

Texts: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 150; 1 John 4:1-21; John 15:1-8

Context: To appearances, Satan and the world continue to gain the upper hand over Jesus and his followers. Stephen has just become the first Christian to die for his faith. Yet Luke does not take the modern route of exploring the pathos and victimization, feeding our narcissistic obsessions with bad news so inculcated in us through decades of steady news broadcasts and newspaper headlines, all aiming to woo our eyes long enough to make a buck of viewership and subscription numbers without really providing any substantive news at all. Instead, Luke turns away from Stephen’s body and Saul’s affirmation to show the Holy Spirit of God is hardly put back or rattled. Philip is guided to witness to an incredibly influential man who in turn receives faith in Jesus Christ through baptism. The Holy Spirit does not measure successes the way you and I have been taught to, and unless we shift our focus from body counts to actively allowing the Holy Spirit to cultivate real love in our hearts for our brothers and sisters closest to us in the faith, we miss the working of God here and now and imminent as we twiddle our thumbs and lament how if only the Holy Spirit would make it clear what He wanted, we would obey! He has made it clear. We just aren’t very excited about what it looks like – or costs.

Acts 8:26-40 – It would be over a century and half before Tertullian observed The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. While Tertullian didn’t have to offer his own life to martyrdom, he undoubtedly witnessed and heard reports of many others who did, and observed the rather counterintuitive effects of such deaths. So we should not be surprised Luke does not spend great time bemoaning Stephen. After all, he is now with his Lord! And the persecutions arising in Jerusalem? Dispersals? Far from sounding the death knell of the Christian faith, the Holy Spirit continued to draw others to faith. Philip is led to safety outside of Jerusalem, and in the process gives witness to a foreign government official. We can rest assured that while victory may not be advancing as we would like it to – on our terms and timelines – the Holy Spirit of God patiently works away in God the Father’s perfect timing that as many as possible might be saved.

Psalm 150 – A read of the first psalm – and many other psalms as well – might understandably lead you to believe God’s first and foremost concern is our obedience to his will. But this is only a necessary first step. Only after we displace our own sinful hearts and minds with the guidance of the Spirit-breathed Word of God are we freed for our ultimate purpose, which is the praise of God. All of creation is intended to offer God the Creator the worship and praise He rightly alone deserves, and we are to be unrestrained in the means by which we do so – undoubtedly a vexation to those who believe only organs and hymnody are appropriate praise instruments! One day we will praise fully and completely but we begin praise now. The Church should be the place where the praise of God is anchored not just in a commitment to his Word, but by extension to what that Word demands of us. Tragically many Christians are more prone to emphasize a narrow legalistic understanding of God’s Word while ignoring far deeper calls to obedience in love, as John will do in his letter. This is not something we can do. It is only something God the Holy Spirit can work in us when we let go of our worldly understandings of success and how to accomplish it and are called to humble love of our brotehrs and sisters in our worshiping congregation. It remains a tragedy to me that people who eagerly eat up the Word of God in the context of a Bible study can in the next moment show complete and utter lack of love for a brother or sister in the faith just because there is a difference of opinion between them!

1 John 4:1-21 – Although everything after v.8 is optional, you really need to read the whole chapter to get a full feal for how important John sees this issue. He does not call his Christian readers to victory, or coach them in worldly leadership mantras to be more effective. Instead, he calls them to love one another. Not hypothetically, but the men and women right next to them day after day and Sunday after Sunday. I’ve quit counting the number of times good and pious Christians implore the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom and guidance for the future, but completely ignore John’s rather pointed instructions here. Not all ideas or spirits are good. They must be tested. And if anything we do or say leads us contrary to Christ we can be dead certain we are not in his will! This may mean we don’t get our way, but John understands that what Christians are first foremost to do is give witness to the abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit, not to fight with one another for power and control. How can this be God’s will? Only because it is not in us to accomplish it! Only in submitting ourself to the Word of God and the expressed desires of God the Holy Spirit can we ever hope to get better at loving one another, and in the process give witness to the transformative power and presence of the God who chooses to work victory from the wreckage of defeat.

John 15:1-8 – It should not surprise us that what St. John tells us lines up perfectly with Jesus’ teaching. Obedience is what matters, and obedience consists of resting in Jesus. It is a passivity, as opposed to endless idols of proactive leadership so prized culturally since the days of Iacocca. We are not called to acccomplish anything but to deliberately abide in the vine, Jesus Christ, as his faithful branches. He will take care of determining what fruit and of what sort we will produce. And He will hold us in his love when the Father prunes us, putting us through painful and difficult times that better prepare us to produce the fruit of obedience down the line. Against the world that promises everyone can be a leader, a world changer, the Christian faith calls us to place our worth and value in the Savior who has accomplished the most important work on our behalf already. Metrics of success or failure, profitability, security, ROI, or any number of other numbers so highly prized by the world mean nothing in the Christian life and can actually lead us to start withering and not producing fruit because we are not abiding in Christ and his Word but rather are obsessed about what it is we contribute, what we accomplish. To abide is the constant process of recognizing we are pushing our own agendas, repenting, and returning to the Word of God for assurance of our forgiveness in the resurrected Christ and our position of simply being in him, allowing him to fill and nurture us and in his timing guide us towards his will.

Reading Ramblings – April 25, 2021

April 18, 2021

Date: Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021

Texts: Acts 4:1-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Context: We continue with the after-effects of Easter, moving from related accounts of the first Easter day to broader considerations of life in light of the resurrection. If death is no longer the end, life takes on a very new meaning and scope. Our world struggles today in fear because trust in God and the anticipation of resurrection which were once commonplace throughout the West has been replaced by self-confidence and trust in whatever powers can provide us with the highest likelihood of personal happiness and long life. Science and the worship of science (scientism) has rapidly become the defacto God for many people. And any threat to the length or quality of our life takes on massive proportions as a source of fear. Against this fear people might be willing to cede great amounts of personal liberty or rights once cherished and unique (within the American context) solong as the exchange results in greater measure of self-satisfaction in the moment. For the Christian, our life here is a gift from God, who alone knows the details of our life and alone holds all these things not simply in his hands but in his hands for our ultimate good. The Christian is free to be sacrificial with his life- not because he does not value this life but because he knows this life is only the beginning. Our Good Shepherd has so much yet in store for us beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death!

Acts 4:1-12 – The timidity and fear of the disciples so evident in the events of Holy Week through Easter Sunday is nowhere to be seen now. Emboldened by their witness of their Lord and Savior resurrected from the dead and equipped with the Holy Spirit of God there is now a boldness where before was only fear and confusion. This boldness is not a disregard for earthly authority or conduct but a greater confidence in the blessings through faith in Jesus as the Christ. So Peter can witness boldly, not to degrade or insult or mock the religious authorities but to make clear to them where his faith and trust now reside. In doing so he invites them to re-evaluate their actions and motivations both past and present, and to come to faith as well in the resurrected Son of God. The leaders cannot deny what the disciples are doing in terms of healing and preaching and teaching, but they need to discern the source of their power. The answer is simple – Jesus is the source. The Holy Spirit strengthens Peter and the others to give faithful witness to this even though they could be subjected to the same fate as Jesus. But once the tomb is shown unable to contain us, what confidence and joy fill their hearts and spill over into lives of loving service, obedience and witness!

Psalm 23 – Perhaps the most beloved and memorized passage of Scripture, this psalm describes the goodness of our one, true Good Shepherd as Jesus describes himself in John’s gospel. This shepherd leads us and cares for us and protects us not only in this life but leads us into the joy and security of life on the other side of death. The relationship of the Good Shepherd to his sheep does not end but continues on until our needs are met perfectly and eternally at the table set before us, where our enemies can only watch but never disrupt the celebration. In this context, the Valley of the Shadow of Death is seen to be just that – only a valley, rather than a pit. Our Shepherd accompanies us even here, leading us through it and to the other side, providing comfort when all seems lost. All has not been lost! Our lives should be lived with an eye on this approaching valley but more importantly with an eye towards what lies beyond.

1 John 3:16-24 – Love is sacrificial, and the love of Jesus Christ is made most manifest in his sacrifice of himself for us. But his tomb is empty – death has no power over him and by extension those who place their faith and trust in him. As such, the Christian not only can but should contemplate sacrificial love for brothers and sisters in Christ, emulating our Savior in being willing to sacrifice that others might live. However this level of sacrificial love is not all we are called to – we are called to live sacrificially as well as die (if so called to) sacrificially. We should have an active eye towards the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, willing to give in love to them who are in need. This is not a call to generic philanthropy or generosity but a specific word of encouragement and instruction to those in Christ. We must first love one another, or else our witness of love to anyone else is hollow at best.

John 10:11-18 – Jesus compares himself to others in this world who would seek the trust of God’s people. All others fall short, either out of malice (v.10) or out of human frailty (or perhaps malice here as well, vs. 12-13). Jesus is the one and only Good Shepherd, who can and does love his sheep both perfectly and sacrificially. His ability to be the Good Shepherd is rooted in the relationship between He and the Father, and his flock (the Church) should emulate this close relationship, trusting in our Shepherd even when things are difficult, as Jesus did in Gethsemane the night of his arrest. Against a world that demands comfort at any and all costs, we are called to faithful confidence that our Good Shepherd knows us and leads us rightly. This is not an easy call to heed, and Jesus understands this firsthand. Yet just as his trust and obedience to his Father’s plan was vindicated in his resurrection, so you and I as we are called to follow where we may not wish to follow will be vindicated on the last day as we too are resurrected and our faith and trust are shown to have been well-placed. All of this extends beyond narrow personal self-interest. Despite evangelicalism’s emphasis on a me-and-Jesus level of faith, the faith we are called to Biblically is always much larger. My own faith is bound to the faith of others, some very different from myself, separated by geography or time and at present all but unrecognizable. But one day we will all be gathered together into one fold! One day we will all be seated at the celebration feast on the far side of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. What an amazing experience that will be, hearing our Lord being praised in so many languages and dialects, with so many different instruments and rhythms and tones! All of which will blend perfectly togther in harmony for eternity, not because of our own skill or mastery but because of the loving and perfect orchestration of the one Good Shepherd.

Making Way

April 14, 2021

….and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. – 1 Kings 19:16

Preach the Gospel. Die. Be forgotten. ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This was part of the Old Testament reading this morning in chapel. Not the Zinzendorf bit, of course. That would be highly unusual in our culture of success and leadership, a culture that even the Church assumes in what it says and what it chooses not to say. Yet the Word of God continues to creep in when we aren’t vigilant and expose our foibles and send our idols tottering.

Elijah the last of the faithful prophets, on the run from a murderous queen after a victory that even by our social media influencer standards would be impressive, putting to death 450 false prophets of Baal after God shows his reality and presence in power and authority. Elijah despairing that he has been a failure. That he’s no better than the ones who came before him, who were also unable to turn the hearts of the people back to God, or curb the ambitions and apathy of the kings of God’s people. Hiding in a cave.

What would God say to this guy, this faithful man who has done much and suffered much and who, in his own words, has been very jealous for the Lord? What sort of half-time pep talk might we look for? A rousing, inspiring speech to reinstill Elijah with vigor and hope and purpose? To put him back on the path to personal fulfillment and professional success? How might God show Elijah his despair is out of place and what spiritual secrets to job satisfaction might the Lord of hosts reveal?

…you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It’s easy to pass over those words. Easy to focus on the first part of God’s response, which is for Elijah to anoint two new kings who are going to kick ass and probably not even bother to chew bubble gum. Promises of swords and judgment. Probably not overly inspiring to Elijah, though. Kings come and go. Elijah’s fathers were proof of that. And those final words probably occupied Elijah’s full attention. You need to anoint your successor. Your time is coming to an end.

I’ll admit I’ve never been one for reveling in youthful exuberance. Being a student both of history and an enrollee in the school of hard knocks, I’ve never been prone to Stuart Smalley-style encouragements (go ahead and look up Stuart Smalley on YouTube if you like, but I’m sure it would be considered quite inappropriate these days), and I’m a anachronistic hold-out against the modern acquiescence to ubiquitous therapy. Zinzendorf resonates with me and getting older has only confirmed his maxim.

And perhaps that maxim is useful to us as well in a culture hell-bent on exhorting and encouraging and affirming generations of people to goals they can’t possibly accomplish in carefully curated social media magnifying glass they can’t possibly compete with or sustain.

Odds are you aren’t going to change the world. Odds are you won’t reach the top of your profession. Odds are you won’t complete everything you set out to do. This is not a failure on your part. After all, who among us is really much better than our fathers before us? And what metric are we going to grab to determine that?

This isn’t a call to apathy or listlessness or despair. It’s a call to realism. A call to quit looking in the mirror, or more accurately to quit comparing the mirror to the fitness model or the wildly successful day-trader or the latest celebrity phenom. It’s a call to value and appreciate what you do accomplish today, what you do contribute, and more fundamentally, simply that you are. The real metric of self-esteem isn’t what we do at all, it’s simply that we’re here at all. We exist. We are created. And inextricably linked to this reality of created, unique existence is the reality of redemption not in what we accomplish but what our Creator accomplishes on our behalf through his Son, Jesus.

At that point we can deal with our finitude. We can deal with ordinariness, averageness. We can deal with moments of failure as well as moments of success. We can come to grips with the fact that someone is going to come after us and pick up where we left off and maybe finish some of those things we weren’t able to, and that in one way or another, we’ve done that for someone ahead of us.

Reading Ramblings – April 18, 2021

April 11, 2021

Date: Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021

Texts: Acts 3:11-21; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-49

Context: As we continue in the season of Easter (and every Sunday is really a celebration of Easter, regardless of the liturgical season) the readings emphasize the effects of the resurrection reality. Though a bit confusing as the readings from Acts also follow Pentecost, Pentecost is linked to the death and resurrection of Jesus, as Jesus explained to his disciples in John 14. The readings in 1 John show the continued impact of the resurrection on the longest-lived of the apostles, while the assigned Gospel text continues the story of that first Easter Sunday.

Acts 3:11-21 – What a difference from cowering in fear on Easter Sunday! Peter and John – empowered by the Holy Spirit – speak boldly to the crowd that gathers around them to marvel at the healing they have just performed. The disciples have healed in the past, but now they heal and also preach in the name of the resurrected Christ. Note the tone of their speech – they are not angry or bitter. They recognize Jesus’ prophetic fulfillment. The Holy Spirit has opened their minds to Holy Scripture as Jesus promised. Peter’s message remains the same from his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) – he calls people to repentance. Rather than rejecting Jesus people are now to repent of their former rejection and embrace his identity and purpose as the Messiah of God. There is nothing we can do or add, no reparations to be paid. Acknowledge if we had denied Christ before, and accept him now. This is the essence of faith, the starting point for an adult who comes into contact with the Gospel. Of course baptism would follow next, as Peter makes clear in Acts 2 and Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 28. But for the adult who the Holy Spirit brings to Christ it begins with repentance and acceptance!

Psalm 4 – There is an urgency in how this psalm begins, an urgency based on some great, pressing need, perhaps to do with the unfair or dishonest treatment of others (v.2). Yet the psalm transitions quickly and unexpectedly into a declaration of confidence. Whereas the speaker called for God to hear him in v.1, v.3 is an affirmation that God definitely has listened and does listen to the petitioner. Despite the sinfulness of the world and the sometimes overt persecutions of God’s faithful, we should never lose hope or sight of the reality that we belong to God, and that designation cannot be altered by the machinations of even Satan or his powers. We belong to God, and God listens to us! Verse 4 offers some confusing options for translation, with the most common option following the Latin translation and talking about anger. Despite this, the psalm (and the verse) has little if anything to do with anger, whether within the specific situation of the speaker or as a more general theological position on the potential for righteous anger. Likewise in v.5 the idea of right sacrifices could be interpreted several ways, whether in the cultic definition of the Old Testament or more spiritual sacrifices (a la Psalm 51), or even a somewhat vague reference to the propitation of the Son of God on our behalf (likely part of why this psalm was chosen for today!). The conclusion is the same – we are to trust God, not ourselves or others. So the psalmist concludes in confidence. Yes, his situation is still uncertain, but he trusts in God. So much so that he has no trouble falling asleep (v.8) because he knows it is God himself who provides his safety.

1 John 3:1-7 – John rightly emphasizes God’s love for us, a reality much of modern American Christianity reverses in emphasizing our love for God. What love we have for God is only because God loves us first, and therefore is hardly the appropriate option for extended emphasis. The reality is that because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, we who the Holy Spirit has brought to faith in this are really and truly children of God here and now, not simply in the creative sense of God being the Creator and therefore we are his creations, but in the redemptive sense of being brought into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Our identity in Christ is a reality here and now, and furthermore a reality that will likely alienate us from the world around us. The world around us that does not know God will deem us to be the misfits, but when our Lord returns it will be shown to all that our clinging to Christ and being conformed to him is actually the deepest of realities and identities. This is our hope as we cling to God’s Word as the normative guide to our lives rather than tacking our sails to the shifting and unpredictable winds of culture. First and foremost in this conforming to Christ is the acknowledgement that sin should have no place in us. Contrary to psychology and culture that deems whatever we want or like to be intrinsically good as such, Scripture defines right and wrong, and further warns us that our ability to judge right and wrong for ourselves is not only flawed and broken, but tends to opt towards wrong rather than right! Therefore we must cling and trust to God’s Word as the only source of absolute truth in a world where truth is redefined more and more radically and quickly!

Luke 24:36-49 – People don’t die and then rise to life again very often. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, at least in terms of documented accounts of such things, a few handfuls at most can legitimately be described as miraculous restorations of life. To presume that people 2000 years ago accepted the idea of rising from the dead as a less sensational event than we do today is ridiculous, and the disciples’ shock in this passage is a good reminder. Despite having seen Jesus do a variety of impressive miracles in his lifetime (including restoring life to other people who had died), and despite his explicit descriptions to them beforehand of what would happen – including his resurrection – they are not at all expecting to see Jesus alive again. Jesus must demonstrate this reality to them. They are not hallucinating. They are not seeing a ghost. They are not being deceived by some spiritual power. Jesus invites them to explore the signs of his ordeal. It is interesting to me that beyond the physical wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus does not seem to evidence any of the other mistreatments He received. He does not direct them to examine his scalp for the scarring from his crown of thorns. He does not bear the evidence of the brutal beating the Romans gave him prior to his execution. Only the marks directly associated with his death are present and presented as evidence. Even this extraordinary opportunity was not really enough to convince them, and so to further make it plain that He truly was bodily resurrected as a man, Jesus eats.

We must think of the resurrection in such blatantly physical terms. Jesus is recognizable, and He is able to substantiate his identity further, and He is also able to demonstrate that He is thoroughly physical and human as well – so shall we be. Our hope is not to float as spirits in the afterlife, nor to flit from cloud to cloud plucking harps. Our hope and confidence is that as our Lord was raised bodily from the dead as a human being (albeit also as the Son of God – something you and I will not be!), so you and I will be raised physically from the dead for a physical eternal life. While this will not happen until Christ’s return, and therefore may involve a period of waiting wherein we are spiritual but not yet spiritual and physical (Revelation 6:10), our final hope in eternal life is to be what we were created to be – human beings. Perfected and immortal. But very much creatures.

Changes

April 10, 2021

In a couple of hours I will officially change jobs. Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – was my last official day with the parish I’ve been pastoring for nearly eleven years. And this morning I will be installed into a position I accepted nearly two months ago, have nearly completed initial orientation and training for, but still isn’t official until I’ve been installed.

I’m staring at piles of boxes in my office as I write. I’m 80% done with packing things up, waiting now to figure out where we’ll be living for the next few months until my family and I are able to deploy to the field I’ll be serving. We’re leaving the United States and I’m leaving traditional parish ministry, both for the indefinite future. I’ve accepted a position as a regional theological educator for my denomination in Southeast Asia, working as a support and resource to partner church organizations in that part of the world. I bring to the task a curious mixture of parish pastor experience as well as experience as a collegiate educator and corporate trainer. It’s an unusual mixture, accumulated in reverse order from many of my colleagues who pastor first and then go on to teach.

Change is hard for people and I’m no exception, though my tolerance for it is higher than some. Apparently that’s a valuable trait in overseas work, where daily routines can be fluid, to say the least. I leave behind the joys of preaching and teaching in a predictable cycle for the uncertainties of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and participating in the work of the Church in a different capacity. While there’s the exoticness of relocating to the other side of the world, there’s also sorrow at leaving literally one of the most perfect climates on earth for a much hotter and more humid climate. I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in my life that I can learn enough of a language (four of them, at present) to achieve short-term academic objectives, but now I have to become fluent in a fifth language. And not just ordinary fluent, but theologically fluent.

It’s exciting. Slightly terrifying at times. Oddly comfortable most of the time. I’m grateful I don’t have to do it alone while also realizing my family will need to negotiate most of these same challenges. Together we’re confident we can do it. We do believe God the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, opening doors and facilitating the transition. We also realize that’s no guarantee of success (at least in worldly terms). Finding that balance between humility and excitement is a day-by-day process.

I’ll be continuing to blog, though the topics may take on a decidedly more international slant. The same issues of culture and faith and life that I began writing here with fifteen years ago continue to be a source of continued fascination. And I’ll try to keep it mixed up a little bit with less weighty observations. Perhaps I’ll have time to resume work on some of the longer-term projects I’ve launched here, such as completing my study of the Bible’s treatment of alcohol, and finally finishing my analysis of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I plan to keep up with the Rambling postings each Sunday, as hopefully I’ll continue to have preaching opportunities, even if those become sparser as time goes on.

I hope all of you will keep in touch here as well. Your comments and questions have been the best part of blogging, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to dialog.

Guess I should go finish packing the last two boxes of my theological library. It will be fascinating to see where those boxes get unpacked!

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Reading Ramblings – April 11, 2021

April 4, 2021

Date: Second Sunday of Easter – April 11, 2021

Texts: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 148; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Context: Easter is a season as well as a specific date. Our Lord rose three days after his crucifixion, and this unparalleled event in human history is given a liturgical season to better flesh out more of the nuances and implications of this reality. At eight full weeks it is the longest liturgical season of the Church except for Ordinal Time which is not reallly a season in the same sense of the word. The readings continue to declare our Lord’s resurrection, with the Gospel relating events that occurred later that first Easter Sunday and afterwards. The Old Testament and Epistle lessons flesh out how the resurrection affects not just those first witnesses but all who hold in faith to the veracity of that event and the implications promised by our Lord. The resurrection is not simply a get-out-of-hell-free-card at the end of our lives, but transforms every moment of our lives into something richer and deeper, leading towards a particular reality that will last forever.

Acts 4:32-35 – The implications of the resurrection on the disciples and the early Christian community were profound. It fundamentally changed the way they looked at and experienced day-to-day life. Some would rightly point out that this passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us what they did, it does not dictate what we must do. This is a true and important distinction, but it is also a quick and easy way to grapple with the reality of this transformed community. Because they had seen personally or trusted the testimony of the apostles that Jesus of Nazareth was no longer dead, just as He had prophecied would be the case, their priorities and lives altered dramatically. How they viewed and treated one another was now no longer dictated by socio-economic and cultural distinctions but rather by the reality they were united for eternity through baptism into Jesus Christ. That eternal fraternity had very temporal implications as well. Could one part of the body live in luxury and excess knowing another part of the body did not? Would not one part of the body care for in very practical ways the well-being of another part of the body? This was not faceless charity or a social agenda, but rather people who saw each other differently now that they saw Christ differently. These are challenging verses for American Christians, but we should think seriously about how they apply to us individually (as opposed to congregationally or as a geo-political entity or on any other level of scale that eliminates or automates our conscious and active participation) today.

Psalm 148 – This is a beautiful psalm of praise, in which every aspect of creation is called to exalt and praise the Creator. What strikes me upon this reading is v.6 – the heavenly bodies of stars and sun and moon are called to praise God specifically for his decree. What is this decree? It is the decree of creation in Genesis 1. God called these entities into existence through his Word and sustains them. Perhaps more specifically, we might wonder if his decree is to be thought of as his approval, declaring his created entities to be good (Genesis 1:14-18). As such, God continues to sustain his created order despite the Fall into sin, a Fall that extends beyond humanity to include all of creation (Romans 8:18-23). But He doesn’t simply sustain us in perpetual sin, rather He has raised up a horn for his people (v.14). God has, does, and will save his people, and for this He is to be praised as well. Creation praises God simply because He has created it. God’s people praise God because not only has He created them, He has saved them!

1 John 1:1-2:2 – Another aspect of the resurrection of the Christ is that the forgiveness of sins is a very real thing, available not through sacrificial rites as the Jewish people understood them. Those rites were given as foreshadowing of the final and perfeft sacrifice of the Son of God on behalf of the people of God. This is God’s Word of life, the Son of God made flesh, which is not only a declaration of life to be heard but an embodiment of it to be touched. It is the blood of the Word made flesh which forgives our sin. Confession of our sin accesses the blood of Jesus Christ. Failure to confess, as though we did not sin and have no need of forgiveness, is to live in darkness and self-deception, cutting ourselves off from the forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ. Sin is to be taken seriously. We are to seriously resist it, and we are to soberly repent of it, that we may walk in the light of God in whom there is no darkness.

John 20:19-31 – Fear gives way to amazement, which gives way to proclamation, which gives rise to doubt, which is put to flight in confession, which is received with blessing. The progression of this short set of verses is a visceral demonstration of the power of the resurrection. Fear of the world – whether from religious oppression or pandemic or political chaos is overcome in proclamation – we have seen the Lord! This naturally should create doubt. After all, to die and rise again truly is miraculous! How can we be sure? Isn’t there a more rational explanation? For centuries such alternatives have been proffered, but each requires a greater suspension of disbelief than the simple but astounding reality of resurrection. The heart of the Christian message is Christ crucified and resurrected, and it is here that doubt must be either clung to tenaciously or abandoned to embrace confession. The eyewitness accounts are credible. The reasons to doubt them rest not in the quality of the testimonies themselves but rather our attachment to a purely material explanation of the universe which leaves no room for God and no room for miracles and ultimately no room for life itself. Confession acknowledges that such a tenaciously materialistic view is in itself an act of faith, certainly no less so than embracing the simple testimony of simple people saying what they saw and heard and touched with their own senses. Independently corroborated and certainly, given the outrageous nature of the claim, easily demonstrable as false if such were the case. Yet the tomb remains empty 2000 years later, and we are confronted with that powerful confession – we have seen the Christ! And that confession of faith draws us into the direct blessings of the resurrection both here and now as the other readings have pointed to, as well as eternally. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Fear and Loathing in the Confessional

March 30, 2021

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

The work of the Church is declaring the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to those wracked with guilt and desirous of change. Often this gets abbreviated to just telling people about Jesus, but the crucial matter is what you tell them. If you tell them only that Jesus loves them, and never tell them of their sin and need for forgiveness, you haven’t shared the full story. If you only introduce them to the historical figure of Jesus without ever telling them why this historical figure matters to their lives unlike any other historical figure, you haven’t shared the full story. For someone who can see their sinfulness, their need for sin and forgiveness, the most beautiful part of the story is that this is exactly why Jesus is relevant to them. This is what Jesus brings them that nobody else can. And the Church is to be the place marked by both the proclamation of this reality and the actual forgiving of sins.

So when the Church (or a particular parish or priest) refuses to offer forgiveness to those desiring it, there’s a serious problem. An issue in one Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey recently due to the pandemic. Due to complications arising from properly disinfecting surfaces in the confessional – the small cabinet traditionally used in Roman Catholic churches to screen the penitent from the priest and allow them to confess their sins and receive absolution – a priest refused to allow un-vaccinated people to come to Confession, one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church.

People are understandably somewhat frightened and weary of COVID. But refusing to absolve repentant sinners is a gross failure of an ordained priest, and one rightly corrected by ecclesiastical supervisors.

The irony here is that the prohibition against any un-vaccinated person coming to Confession was ostensibly for their own “protection”. However to not receive forgiveness is a far greater danger to a person’s well-being than COVID, with potentially eternal ramifications!

Now, I’m not Roman Catholic and I do not necessarily agree with their traditional practice of Confession, or their understanding of the need and role for penance in receiving forgiveness. But if you’re going to tell people their forgiveness is dependent on Confession, and forgiveness is the means of eternal life, and then you refuse to hear their confessions, there’s a dangerous problem at play here!

Thankfully the situation was rectified quickly.

Silencing Dissent

March 29, 2021

Thanks to Ken for this Wall Street Journal article discussing how social media companies censor religious speech and even eliminate accounts and access to their platforms when it disagrees with vaguely defined rules against fake news or simply contradicts the cultural narrative they prefer to reinforce and support. This means affirming the inherent value of all life (contra abortion or euthanasia) or other traditional and ancient religious views may be grounds for content being banned or deleted. The appeal process in such a situation is by no means clear or guaranteed to result in a restoration of access or content.

A good reminder that while free speech remains a Constitutional freedom, when private companies hold monopoly-level power over digital communication that freedom becomes a technicality. Private companies are not bound to respect freedom of speech and are free to impose their own limitations on what sorts of statements and content are permitted. While they will find politically correct descriptions for these limitations, the effect is further limiting the expression of viewpoints held by a large (perhaps even majority) proportion of our nation.

Again, I urge people to reconsider supporting these platforms and their monopolies through continued membership and usage, whether it costs you anything or not. Between the blatant bias against conservative, traditional Biblical Christian beliefs and the increasingly egregious collection of personal data, the corresponding benefits of such social media giants (and other tech companies such as Google) become questionable, at best. It’s ironic and sad that Google, a company whose motto was originally Don’t Be Evil has come to represent some of the most questionable practices in terms of gathering data on the people who use it’s products.

Making wise choices is not easy, nor is it guaranteed to be easy or inexpensive.