Archive for October, 2014

Wet Bar Wednesday – Conversations

October 29, 2014

I was 9 when my dad got me started.  First it was beer.  Then it was marijuana.  Then it was meth.

It’s hard to remain composed when you hear this sort of thing.  I hear it often.  Men and women whose lives have been at least partially damaged, devoured, destroyed by drugs and alcohol and who can trace their paths in this regard back not just to the examples they witnessed in their parents, but by their parents actively leading them into that lifestyle.  It makes me want to vomit.  It makes me burn with a white-hot rage against the power of evil and how it corrupts and twists people God created in his image into mangled walking corpses.  I try not to hate the parents of these people, but I certainly hate the sin and evil that worked through their words and actions.

And I want to make sure I don’t do the same thing with my kids.

It seems like a ludicrous concern, but it’s a reminder that what I consider to be harmless may not be.  Because I work with people in recovery from various substance addictions, they often ask me what the Bible has to say about drugs.  It’s a complicated question to answer.  We have decided that certain substances are illegal and others aren’t.  Those decisions are arbitrary.  When people want to argue that pot isn’t any more dangerous than alcohol, I have to point out to them that the logical ramifications of such an argument are not that we should legalize pot, but that we should criminalize alcohol.  We tried it once and it didn’t work very well.  It seems as though we’re going to give the other direction a try now.

I enjoy cocktails.  I enjoy the social lubrication they provide, the way they give my hands something to do as I talk with people.  Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of smoking.  I can’t say, I’ve never tried.  But I have to recognize that sometimes we start down roads not because they’re self-destructive but because they are comforting.  I’ve heard smokers say that they started smoking to be socially accepted.  I can certainly understand that motivation, even if smoking never appealed to me.

I look at my kids and realize that they are growing up in the presence of alcohol.  I argue that this can be a healthy thing.  It isn’t a mystery, isn’t something forbidden and hidden away.  They like to joke about my margarita-fetish, Dad’s happy juice. And I’m pretty positive that it’s a healthy kind of joking, both in terms of my enjoyment and their awareness of it.  But I can’t know for sure it will always stay that way.  I’m not worried about becoming a lush, but I do need to remain aware of actively teaching my kids about alcohol, not simply discussing recipes with them or joking with them about it.  As they get older – and my oldest is nearly at that point – chances increase that they’ll be faced with opportunities to drink with friends.  I want them to be able to handle that pressure if and when it arrives.  To understand that there isn’t anything inherently cool or necessary about having a drink, and that having a drink doesn’t make you a better or cooler person.

I hope that by being frank about alcohol, by answering their questions and hopefully setting a reasonable example of moderation, they’ll be well-situated for dealing with it when they are old enough.  But I can’t know for sure.  I can’t know for sure that they won’t have the personality that latches on to this with a vengeance and never lets go.  At the back of my head I have to wonder, fearfully, if someday they’ll say to someone trying to help them rebuild their lives that My dad got me started on alcohol.  I had my first sip of wine when I was nine.

It’s a terrifying thought.  Then again, most of parenting is terrifying if you stop to think about it long enough.  Maybe that’s why some people drink.

One Logs in Every Minute

October 28, 2014

Hopefully you know that your computer tracks much of what you do online.  What sites you visit, which specific things you click on.  Cookies have been around for years, and while we’re told that they are a source of huge convenience to people, I’ve never really bought that line.  I don’t care if a particular web site remembers me or not, nor do I care whether that web site customizes displays based on my previous visits to that site or to other sites.

I feel this little article might justify my ostensibly Luddite preferences.  Your browsing history might mean you aren’t getting the best deal possible.  This is a compelling reason to clear your browser cache of cookies on a regular basis!

The Devil You Know

October 27, 2014

Another Facebook friend linking to this interesting article on how where we worship influences and affects our faith life.

I’ll begin by saying that the basic premise – that where we worship matters – I agree with, to an extent.  I believe that where we worship can have a big impact on our understanding and living out of our faith lives.  However, the problem I have with the premise beyond that very limited caveat relates to history.

Basically, the Church has been in the business of adapting to culture since the beginning.  Understanding that where people worship can matter a great deal, the Church has opted – or been forced – to make use of culturally relevant but spiritually diverse (or even oppositional) spaces from the beginning.

Where did the very first Christians meet?  In the Temple courtyards in Jerusalem.  They continued to utilize their traditional place of worship – the Temple – even though the substance of their faith had been radically transformed through the person and work of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus the Christ.  They also met in the homes of believers.  There were no ‘churches’ as Chad defines them in this context.

It could be argued that this was necessity, that they had no other option.  That’s fine – I won’t bicker too much on that point.  Regardless of the necessity of such an arrangement, despite being in an area that was dominated by the very betrayers and executors of our Lord, what happened?  The Church grew.  The Church didn’t simply grow, the Lord added to their number day by day (Acts 2:47).

In recent years this has become a key verse for me.  American Christianity’s obsession with evangelism as the ultimate spiritual gift and act is in many ways flawed, and this verse highlights the source of that flaw for me.  The early Christians didn’t necessarily focus on evangelism.  But they did center their lives of faith in Word and Sacrament.  That centering in Word and Sacrament flowed out into other aspects of their lives, so that they found themselves gathering together socially and lived with “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Their faith influenced how they lived, and God the Holy Spirit brought people to them.  I think the Church today could learn a whole lot from these few simple verses.  Let those called as evangelists evangelize, by all means!  But for those who are not gifted with that ability, let’s quit beating them over the head about inviting their neighbors to church and instead encourage and praise them as they live out their lives of faith.

But, to the topic at hand, despite the locales the early Church met in, the Church grew because the focus and emphasis of the faith was on the right thing.  God didn’t tell the Church to build a church before He added to their number.

That evolution to ‘churches’ as we think of them today by and large wouldn’t happen for another 300 years.  Christians remained a small and often times persecuted religious sect for 300 years.  They couldn’t have churches.  They made do with what they had – their homes, or catacombs, or what have you.  Only after Christianity became the darling of the Roman Empire was it possible to have churches.  Many of those first churches were pagan temples.  Christians didn’t have much control over the architecture – they were given a building to use and they adapted it to their purposes.  I suspect that most Christians today would have a hard time with the idea of converting a Satanic temple into a Church.  Particularly if we have problems with the idea of adapting something like a movie theater to worship purposes.

Fast forward another 1200 years or so, and what do we find Martin Luther doing?  Adapting contemporary music and songs to Christian use.  Utilizing tunes that people already knew and putting Christian lyrics to them.  He jumped on the bandwagon of a new-fangled communication medium called printmaking, and the Word of God was suddenly available everywhere, to nearly anyone who could read (which was admittedly a small minority).  What else did Luther do in culturally adapting the Word?  He translated the Word into German.  He argued that the Word could and should be translated into the language of the people everywhere and in every situation.  That sounds like a lot of cultural accommodation by Luther, yet we don’t blink an eye at it (well, Lutherans don’t, at least!).

But it’s ironic that Lutherans can be some of the least flexible people these days when considering the possibility or necessity of further adaptation.  

Those hymns we love to sing?  They were composed in particular times and places, and they reflect the cultural norms of those times and places, whether in the language they use, the meter and tone and style of the music, or in the instruments they were designed to be played on.  Each came into existence fairly recently, overall – within the last 500 years, and many within the last 300.  Are those examples of cultural accommodation?  Taking what people were already familiar with and putting it to God’s use?  I think so.

Can this be a tricky process?  Of course.  Can we err?  Most assuredly!  Will there be confusion by some in the process of utilizing secular spaces or sounds or visuals to communicate the Gospel?  Undoubtedly.  Does that mean it shouldn’t be done?  Judging by Christian history, our answer has to be no.  It takes good, faithful minds and hearts to discern this process so that the Word is not compromised, and Christ remains the center of all things.  Whether this happens in a movie theater or a 1000-year old cathedral, whether it involves drums and synthesizers or a pipe organ – these are ancillary issues.  Not unimportant, but secondary or even tertiary.  Arbitrarily putting our feet down and saying that nothing more can change, that everything that can be changed already has been and no further innovation or adaptation is possible is a misreading of Christian history, and ultimately distrust of God the Holy Spirit’s incredible power to work not simply in and through us, but when necessary (which is often), despite us.

Where the people of God are focused and centered on Christ and living out their lives of faith, the Holy Spirit will continue to add to their number.  Maybe one or two at a time.  Maybe hundreds or even thousands at a time.  Either way, individual congregations always have, do, and will continue to adapt to ensure that those people being brought into saving faith by God are welcomed and integrated.  This is our privilege and duty in all times and places.

Even if that means movie theaters.

Reading Ramblings – November 2, 2014

October 26, 2014

Date:  Narrative Preaching #18— All Saints Day / Homecoming—November 2, 2014

Texts: Ezra 1:1-7; Psalm 147; John 14:1-10

Context:  All Saints Day is the celebration and remembrance of all those who have preceded us in to glory.  It is a day to remember those who are no longer with us, but who are not dead.  They live in Christ, awaiting the Father’s timing for the Son’s return in glory.  While we are rightly grieved at this separation, this should be a day of joy and celebration, for our separation is only temporary.  It is a day to remember the hope which we cling to in the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth—that death no longer has power over us.  In faith, we are promised eternal life in the presence of our God.  This is a homecoming we look forward to eagerly, grateful for those who have passed on to us in word and example the faith that sustains our journey still. 

Ezra 1:1-7 — Ezra is a descendant of a priestly family, and he returns to Jerusalem with the blessing of Cyrus of Persia, who controls what once was the Babylonian Empire.  The Jews are permitted to return to their city, and Ezra concerns himself with the reintroduction of the laws pertaining to the Mosaic covenant, as well as to the rebuilding of the Temple.   All of this likely takes place in the mid to late 5th century.  God’s people have been in exile for a long time.  Their homecoming will be bitter-sweet.  But through it all the power and grace of God sustains his people and draws them into closer relationship with him through his Word.

Psalm 147 — This psalm exhorts us to give praise to God!  Each of the three major sections (vs.1-6, 7-11, 12-20) begins with an exhortation to praise the Lord.  Each section then details reasons why God is worthy of our praise.  Verses 2-3 focus on God’s restorative power with his people, while verses 4-6 emphasize the Lord’s power over all things in nature, and therefore his power on behalf of his people.  Verses 8-9 emphasize his care for his creation, while verses 10-11 distinguish that God is not impressed with the things that impress us—power and strength—because He is unmatched in these qualities, and indeed the source of such qualities throughout creation.  Rather, what the Lord seeks is faithfulness, not arrogance.  Verses 13-14 talk about his care for his city Jerusalem.  Verses 15-20 emphasize the power and efficacy of God’s Word.  When God speaks, reality is created and shaped.  Verses 19-20 conclude with an emphasis on the Word of God in Scripture as a rule and norm for our lives.  Such verses would be highly appropriate to the people of God as they returned from their exile!

John 14:1-10— John begins his account of the Last Supper at 13:1.  Our Gospel for today occurs during the Last Supper.  Having just predicted his betrayal by one of his trusted disciples, and having just told Peter that he will deny his Lord three times that night, Jesus seeks to reassure his disciples.  As such, He shares with them part of what his departure will accomplish on their behalf.

Regardless of the very disturbing events of the coming hours and next few days, the disciples are to remain calm, secure in their faith in God.  Verse 2-3 deal again with the reality of Jesus’ upcoming departure through his execution, but likely also have in mind his extended absence that begins with his ascension.  If we worry about Jesus twiddling his thumbs in heaven, this is not the image He gives us.  He goes with a purpose—to prepare a place for those who follow him in faith.

Thomas in verse 5 is very candid.  He does not understand what Jesus is trying to convey.  Jesus’ answer makes it clear—He is the way.  He is the path to the Father, because He and the Father are one.  Verse 7 stands as a primary imperative for mission, for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world.  Jesus is the way to the Father.  We do not get to choose how we come to the Father.  He must draw us to him, and He does this through the person and work of his Son.

In verse 8, Philip demonstrates ongoing confusion.  Yet there is an easy solution!  If Jesus would grant them a vision of God the Father, then that will help them.  It will be enough—but enough for what?  Likely enough to have peace, as Jesus begins his exhortation.  Or it may be in reference to the journey language that Jesus employs in verses 3-7.  Philip is one of the first disciples Jesus calls (John 1:41-51).

Jesus clarifies—seeing him is seeing the Father.  Not that the Son and the Father are identical in every respect, but rather when seeing Jesus, we see embodied what it is that God the Father wants from us.  We see his heart towards us when we look at Jesus.  We are unable to peer behind the curtain and discern God at work in each day, or each situation in our lives or the world around us.  We might easily panic or despair, had God the Father not given us his Son to keep our eyes on.  Are we unsure of the Father’s love?  Look to Jesus.  Are we unsure of the Father’s power to save and preserve in a dangerous and hostile world?  Look to Jesus.  Jesus acts in unity of purpose with the Father, perfectly and fully obedient to the Father’s direction.  This is who we should strive to be as well—obedient to what our heavenly Father has called us to.

But since we are unable to be perfectly obedient, we must fix our eyes on Christ as the source of our hope and salvation.  As the source of forgiveness when we fail in our obedience.

The texts speak of homecoming, something very appropriate for All Saints Day.  Not that we were somehow pre-existent with God the Father, but rather we are promised unity and fellowship with our God, the unity and fellowship that creation was designed for and with and in.  Those who have died in the faith already await we who will follow.  Whether we join them on the day of Jesus’ return, or before that in death, we look forward first and foremost to being in harmony with our God, and secondarily to a joyful reunion with loved ones now departed.

Good Words from Houston

October 24, 2014

As a follow-up to the situation in Houston I mentioned recently, here is a good letter from a Lutheran pastor and denominational leader in the area.  He does a good job of articulating an appropriate response both as a Christian as well as an American.

Lutheran Reading List

October 23, 2014

If you’re looking for a few good books to dig into, check out this list.

While it claims to be for Lutherans, I would argue that any Christian would benefit from reading these works.  If you want to make it more enjoyable, I would recommend reading with other people.  It will help keep you accountable, and give you someone to bounce questions off of when you’re reading through some of the more challenging suggestions!

In a different vein, I just finished up a historical survey of Lutheran work among African-Americans.  It’s a relatively dry read.  I picked it up to see if there was anything to be gleaned in terms of how Lutherans have engaged with different peoples in the past.  It was only vaguely helpful in that respect.  But it was interesting to see just how far back both Lutheranism as well as Lutheranism among different people groups goes.

Ensuring Insurance

October 22, 2014

I love my congregation.  I am so blessed to be so loved and cared for by a group of people like this.  I wish that all my colleagues could experience such love and care in their ministries.  I know that not all of them do or have.  I try not to ever take for granted this blessing I’m experiencing.

But for some time now, I have repaid the kindness and care of my parishioners by freaking them out.

Not that this was my goal, it just worked out that way.  More and more disenchanted with traditional healthcare insurance plans and their skyrocketing costs, and infuriated by Obamacare’s insistence that all insurance policies include coverage for abortifacient prescriptions and devices, with the full blessing and support of my wife we opted out of traditional health insurance, opting for a Christian, medical cost-sharing program.  I’ve written about it a few times, and so far, we’ve been thrilled with it,.  Every month we send a check not to a company but to an individual or family dealing with a health care expense.  We know that our participation in this plan is more in keeping with Biblical principles that our current society is making it harder and harder to live by.

Of course, we’re pretty healthy, and haven’t had a healthcare issue in the last two years that would require us to avail ourselves of the program.  Perhaps if and when we do, we’ll discover some of the drawbacks or problems with the program.  I hope not, but I acknowledge that this is a risk that we take.

My parishioners see this risk as well.  And while they’ve certainly been willing to let us continue along this path, I know it has caused more than a few of them to really worry whether or not my family is adequately protected.  Since most of my parishioners are a few years older than I am, they know firsthand how health issues tend to crop up more often as you get older.

I’ve made it clear that I don’t want to participate in a plan whereby I am paying for someone else to get an abortion.  Thus far, Obamacare has allowed exceptions for religious organizations, allowing their in-house insurance programs to be exempted from such requirements.  I’ve argued from the beginning that this is only for a matter of time – and probably not much time.  At some point in the near future, I fully expect our government to rescind the exemption.  Lawsuits will ensue, and eventually churches will lose.

The exempted plan available in my denomination remains exempt (to the best of my knowledge).  But it’s also EXTREMELY expensive.  So when my Elders this year proposed putting us on the plan, I didn’t feel it was the best use of the congregation’s resources and opted to stick with our current medical cost-sharing program.  I promised them we could revisit the issue next year, because I know that it worries them and that they are acting in love.

But I just found out today that California, where we are blessed to live, decreed in August that women have the right to abortion – chemical as well as surgical (cutting up the baby inside the mother and sucking out the pieces and parts) – as part of “basic healthcare services”.  Seven California-based insurers MUST provide for such coverage immediately.  As near as I can tell this doesn’t yet affect plans outside of California, but I’m willing to bet it won’t be long until some way is found to force such plans to include that coverage.  Even plans that might be exempted from Obamacare’s provisions.

I first found out about it here, following a Facebook friend’s link.  I found the same information echoed in this article, then this one.  Finally, I went to the California’s Department of Managed Healthcare web site, and there on the main page were links to the letters sent to the seven California-based insurers.

Interesting that I haven’t heard of this elsewhere.

I maintain that more and more, Christians are going to be forced to opt out of services and plans that we have participated in for years (may even have helped start, theologically if not logistically), as those services and plans force us to violate our Constitutional rights.  Does this mean that more and more, we may not have access to the best options out there?  Of course.  is that lamentable?  Certainly.  Should we be surprised?  Not at all.

The early Christians lived out their faith in extraordinary ways, dying if necessary rather than capitulate to the demands of their society when they conflicted with their religious beliefs.  They were willing (though not eager, by and large) to die for their stance, and many of them did.  The rapid-fire way in which our elected officials and agencies are pummeling religious freedom in our country ought to alarm us all – Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists alike.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Strictly History

October 22, 2014

Drinks come and go from the fashion spotlight, but I found this little article interesting for showcasing the drink preferences of each American president.  There are several recipes interspersed that I’ll have to try – or maybe you’d like to.  Enjoy!

Your Tuesday is Irrelevant

October 21, 2014

Because seesaw.

Meanwhile, in Idaho…

October 20, 2014

As though the fun in Houston with pastors being ordered to turn over sermons to the courts wasn’t interesting enough, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, there is an uproar over the city’s threat to press charges against a wedding chapel that is violating the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.  The wedding chapel declined a request to conduct a same-sex marriage.  Now the couple who run the chapel is suing the city, and the city has issued a preliminary response to the lawsuit.

As is typical, none of these stories actually link to the anti-discrimination ordinance at the center of this situation.  After some poking around I came up with this draft of the legislation.  The bill is clearly not aimed at religious institutions, or those institutions associated in significant manner with religious institutions.  So the question becomes whether or not the wedding chapel is a religious institution or not.  The couple that runs it are ordained ministers.  But does that make their wedding chapel a church?  They have filed for religious institution status, a move that would exempt them from the anti-discrimination law.

But is that really fair?

They aren’t operating a church.  They’re operating a for-profit business that provides a religious marriage ceremony.  I presume they don’t do anything else that churches do – hold worship services, offer other Sacraments, or do anything that anyone would reasonably call church-related.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m firmly against government telling business owners (or corporation owners, for that matter) whether or not they can follow their religious beliefs in operating their business.  I don’t think that bakers should be required to take an order for an event that they believe is morally and spiritually wrong.  This is part of my larger belief that business owners shouldn’t be forced to accept every single client that happens to wander into their establishment.  It’s their business.  Pun intended.

But the headlines about this story are misleading.  Just because the owners of the for-profit wedding chapel are ordained, it is being equated with forcing ministers to violate their religious beliefs, and I don’t think that this is the case.  I think it is a case of where devout Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, or what-have-you) are going to need to reconsider their vocational calling in light of current political and cultural trends.  The idea that you can follow your faith and be a business owner is increasingly being challenged and denied.  I agree with some pundits who say that this trend will continue until it affects a Muslim business owner.  When that happens, there’s a chance that the tide will be reversed because it’s far less culturally acceptable to push Muslims to violate their beliefs than it is to push Christians to do so.

All that being said, I can easily see how these sorts of regulations are drawing the noose tighter and tighter around actual churches (or mosques, or synagogues), and how it is happening far faster than I expected.  I can see how these sorts of ordinances will be used to push actual houses of worship to conform to cultural expectations (after non-church, religious institutions like hospitals and schools have been).

I don’t think the owners of the wedding chapel should be forced to marry anyone they choose not to – regardless of the reason, quite frankly.  But I don’t think that this is the frontal assault on ministers and churches that it is being touted as by many folks.