Archive for September, 2016

The Kids Are Not All Right…

September 28, 2016

…and it’s our fault.  How’s that for a bitter pill?

Thanks to Ken for pointing me to a Washington Post article that references a new Pew Study demonstrates a correlation between children of divorced parents versus children of parents who remained married.  If your parents divorced when you were younger, odds are greater that you’re not Christian now, even if you (and they) were then.  Examining the report itself reveals other interesting tidbits as well that are worth your perusal, including:

  • A five-fold increase in the religiously unaffiliated – from 5% of the population in 1972 to 25% today
  • Every single age group demonstrates growth in religious unaffiliation
  • If you were raised without a religious affiliation, odds are you will remain without one as you age

Lots of other interesting tidbits in there as well if you enjoy that sort of thing!

In regards to divorce, we need to quit believing the lie that divorce really isn’t that big a deal for the kids.  It’s a huge deal.  It may still be necessary in some situations, but we can never pretend that it isn’t a big deal for everyone involved.  For those who have divorced, we give thanks for the forgiveness of our Lord and Savior, and we seek in whatever ways we can to address the faith lives of our children, knowing that the divorce can severely impact their faith.  Parents in the midst of divorce should also take seriously working actively not just with counselors but with their pastor to ensure that their children are ministered to during this bewildering time.  And pastors need to be proactive in reaching out to families in their congregation if they know that divorce has occurred or may be on the horizon.

There’s too much at stake to just pretend everything is going to be all right.

 

 

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Zombie Church Apocalypse

September 27, 2016

I’m a fan of the zombie movie genre. What is impressive is that, despite several generations of zombie movies and books, the people in the movies are always caught by surprise.  Very few of them survive the zombie outbreak despite the fact that many of them presumably are familiar with the basic concept.  Our capacity to remain rooted where we are despite intellectually understanding the need for drastic action is apparently rather impressive.

That came to mind yesterday listening to our District President discuss the state of the Church in our part of the country.  In the last 16 years, out of roughly 330 congregations, we’ve gone from 10 congregations not being able to afford to Call a permanent, full-time pastor to well over 40.  We continue to mirror the steady decline of American Christianity.  So we gather in conferences like this one to exhort each other to keep preaching the Good News.  Which is what we do.  We listen to the statistics, we nod our heads sagely and shake them in disappointment.  And then we go back to our offices and sanctuaries and do the same thing this week that we did last week, and the same thing next week as we did two weeks ago.  Our capacity to remain rooted where we are despite intellectually understanding the need for drastic action is apparently rather impressive.

We know what will happen if we don’t move.  But we’re stuck, rooted in our routines and traditions, unable to even imagine what something different would look like.  Unable to come to grips with the loss and destruction of much of what we’ve loved, and certainly our comfort.  We continue to placate ourselves and one another that maybe it’s not really as bad as all that.  Maybe they’ll find the cure.  Maybe it won’t come down to leaving what I’ve known all my life for something radically different that ensures I remain alive.

Those are the folks who inevitably end up eating brains or taking a bullet to the head by the end of the movie.  Tragic, of course, but what can you do?  There isn’t enough time to grieve.  Grief becomes a luxury that pales compared with the very real work of staying alive.  And the Church will continue to watch congregations falter and collapse.  Tragic victims of many different circumstances, but likely all at some level to do with not being willing or able to act radically enough, quickly enough, to stay alive.

I don’t know for sure that this is the common thread.  It’s comforting to think so because then it means that perhaps I and my congregation will not suffer the same fate.  But it’s possible to act decisively and quickly, but in the completely wrong direction.  It’s possible to turn a blind corner and be overwhelmed.  Motion itself is not the answer.  And so I can’t take easy comfort in being willing to move, but I still ought to try.  So I tell myselves and others that any movement at all towards the future is better than standing still where we are.

I just need to remember that when I get back to my office.  And continue to figure out how to communicate that to the people around me in my congregation.  The world is changing.  The odds of us being able to remain the way we like and are comfortable with are pretty slim.  Let’s figure out what we need to survive, and what will help us rebuild.

Culture & Theology

September 26, 2016

It’s that time of year again, and I find myself sitting in the opening sessions of the annual Pastor’s Conference for my part of the country.  Perhaps 150 other pastors sit in a large ballroom with me to listen to our District President update us on issues facing our District.  He is followed by a distinguished man preaching on the importance of holding in proper balance and tension the beauty of our God-given diversity and our commitment to theological unity.

It just struck me as unfortunate that pastors need to be told that someone doesn’t have to look and act like them in order to be a Christian.  Our commitment to the core Bibilical truths (as summarized in things like the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed) don’t require that we all do things the same way.  We don’t need to sing the same songs.  We don’t need to use the same instruments if we play the same songs.  While there is great value in historic liturgy and tradition, there is also great beauty as that history and tradition is adopted into a new culture, translated not just linguistically but artistically as well.

I am sad if this is where we are.  Where we have to be told that we don’t have to make people like us to make them Christian.  That we don’t have to – and indeed shouldn’t – confuse Christ and culture.  We can make decisions that don’t identically match what someone else is doing in another culture, but preaches the same Good News towards the same ends.  We can have unity and diversity and diversity in unity.  We can and we should.

I sorta figure that is what eternity is going to look like.

Reading Ramblings – October 2, 2016

September 25, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: 20th Sunday after Pentecost – October 2, 2016

Texts: Genesis 14:14-20; Psalm 116; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Matthew 26:26-29

Context: ** We continue our alternate text selections for the remainder of the liturgical year in order to preach through Luther’s Small Catechism ** Having studied God’s guidelines for living (the Ten Commandments) and explored this God as He has revealed himself to us (the Apostle’s Creed), and having learned how to pray from him (the Lord’s Prayer) we turn our attention to the gifts God continues to bestow upon his people in the form of Sacraments. First up for consideration would normally be Holy Baptism, but since this is a Communion Sunday at our congregation, and because we have a baptism scheduled for next Sunday, I’ve opted to swap the order and deal with Holy Communion first.

In our denomination, we have two main sacraments and a sort of half sacrament. We define a sacrament as something commanded by God, which conveys his grace and forgiveness, and which utilizes a physical element. Baptism uses water. Holy Communion uses bread and wine. The other sacrament – confession and absolution, doesn’t have a physical element beyond the word confessed and the word of absolution, which is why it occupies an awkward place in our sacramental treatment.

Holy Communion has long been held as a gift of God. In it we receive the physical body and blood of Jesus, in with and under the bread and wine set aside for this purpose. The Words of Institution uttered by the pastor are not an incantation, but rather a setting apart of the wine and bread on the altar for God’s use, distinguishing those elements from any other bread or wine that might be lying around at the moment. The bread and the wine remain, but Christ joins us with his body and blood through those elements. Not in tangible ways, but in a way that is every bit as real, despite not being able to see it under a microscope. We take his words literally, something that other Christian denominations may not do, and which alters their understanding of what is happening in Holy Communion, and why we do it.

Genesis 14:14-20 – Jesus consecrates bread and wine used during the Passover Seder meal, but this is hardly the first time that bread and wine are mentioned with special significance. All the way back in Genesis we meet Melchizedek, the mysterious priest-king who meets a victorious Abram and offers him bread and wine. Certainly these would have been expected elements of any meal, but the fact that only bread and wine are mentioned here, and specifically in the context of this priest-king make it reasonable to think that something more is going on here, a foreshadowing of what Christ will do in the upper room at the Last Supper. St. Paul in writing his letter to the Hebrews picks up on this interesting connection, no doubt thinking of Psalm 110 and Christ’s fulfillment of this psalm.

Psalm 116 – This is a psalm of Thanksgiving, a first-person expression used in a communal worship to express thanks for God’s deliverance. The psalm has been divided into separate psalms before (in Greek and Latin Bibles, as well as in certain liturgical settings) but makes the most sense as a single psalm. It develops the theme of love for the Lord, which is an unusual start for a psalm. Love calls on the name of the Lord (v.4), love rests in the Lord (v.7), love seeks the ongoing presence of the Lord (v.9), love fulfills the vows it has made to the Lord (v.14), and love serves the Lord (v.16). Mention of the cup of salvation (vs.13-14) make it particularly meaningful in two liturgical settings – first as one of the psalms recited at Passover meals, and then for Christian Eucharist services.

1 Corinthians 11:17-34 – These verses are critical to understanding the traditional Christian practice of closed or close Communion. This practice restricts participation in the Lord’s Supper to those who have been fully taught (catechized) in the faith and understand the significance of this meal and what and who they receive in it. Some traditional denominations still utilize this practice (Roman Catholic and conservative Lutherans, for starters), although more frequently in other denominations the practice is to allow anyone who wishes to commune to do so.

Paul makes it clear here that there are ramifications to receiving Holy Communion. What is intended as a great blessing and good can also wreak great harm to those who are undiscerning about what is going on. While this can’t be boiled down to an IQ test, it does require that Christian communities take seriously the sharing of this holy meal. What is at stake is not fellowship or a feeling of inclusion, but rather the coming of our Lord in a way unlike any other in this lifetime. Few people want to talk about Paul’s clear implications – receiving the Lord’s Supper inappropriately can lead to physical ramifications including death. Perhaps we should take more seriously who we invite to this meal, and ensure that what they receive is the blessing of our Lord’s presence as intended, rather than a moment of judgement.

Matthew 26:26-29 – Matthew records Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Experts in Greek argue about the semantics of these words. Is Jesus speaking metaphorically or literally? How can we understand him literally when what He says seems so incredible? The Church has long believed these words to be literal – that in partaking of the bread and wine offered to them, Jesus’ disciples and therefore us as well receive his actual body and blood. He does not cut off a finger and offer it to us to gnaw on. He does not slice a vein and bid us drink. Rather, He offers the reality of his body and blood in with and under the bread and wine. Christians have come to different conclusions about what this means, but regardless, we need to take these words seriously, particularly in light of St. Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 11. Jesus clearly expects that the reality of what happens at that meal 2000 years ago will remain a reality for you and I 2000 years later. It is the establishment of a covenant in his blood rather than our obedience, and it brings with it the forgiveness of sins. What a beautiful thing we receive when we hear those same words today, and come forward to taste the grace and forgiveness and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior!

Against Terror

September 23, 2016

Thanks to Lois for sharing this article.  The Pope recently convened religious leaders of various faith backgrounds at Assisi to make a united stand against terror.   I wonder if any of my denominational leader’s were present?  I presume not.

Much discussion rightly revolves around the issue of what can various denominations or even religions do together, without attempting to ignore the very real differences between them?  I think this is along the right lines.  Pretty much every religion and most philosophies should be able to agree that the killing of civilians for political ends is wrong and should be opposed (assuming we ignore those pesky verses in the Quran that strongly suggest the contrary.  Hmmmm).  They should be able to agree that their adherents should be exhorted to work towards this end.

I was glad to see that the various groups prayed in different locations rather than participating in a common service of prayer or worship.  That’s a good reminder – while we may agree on a few things, we disagree on many others.  Let’s figure out how to work together where we can without glossing over those disagreements!

Standard ESV

September 22, 2016

I’m frequently asked which Bible translation I prefer.  I like the English Standard Version – the ESV.  I think it offers a good balance between fidelity to the original languages and readability in English.  I like it even more now, as the final ‘tweaks’ to the translation have been made.  The ESV intends to remain unchanged and fixed, much like the King James Version, and much unlike many other translations and adaptations of the Bible which are subject to regular ‘updates’.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Alabama Slammer I

September 21, 2016

Unlike many folks, I didn’t start drinking until I was legally old enough to.  Not growing up in a household where there was a lot of drinking, and not having friends who were into the party scene made this fairly easy and natural.  One of the only drinks I can remember from those early days of imbibing (other than my unnatural fondness for grenadine) was the Alabama Slammer.  So a recent acquisition of a bottle of sloe gin and Southern Comfort dictated that I look up how to make this drink.

There are multiple variations on this drink (as with many drinks!), which might explain why I remembered it differently than this one tasted.  However, this one is very good:

  • .5 oz vodka
  • .5 oz Southern Comfort
  • .5 oz amaretto
  • .5 oz sloe gin
  • Orange Juice

Mix all the ingredients together and pour over ice.  It’s a sweet, mellow drink that goes down remarkably easily.  Be warned!  Other versions of this drink use a bit of lemon juice instead of the orange juice, which is more like what I remembered from many moons ago.  Vodka also seems to be optional in other variations.  I’ll test out another version next week and let you know which is best.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

One Nation, Under….?

September 20, 2016

A lot of my time in discussion with other pastors centers on the state of the Church in America.  Or more particularly, our particular congregations.  How do we get more people there?  How do we reach out?  Why aren’t people coming to church?

Most of the time the conversation fixates on what we do.  What kind of music and worship styles should we employ?  What outreach or evangelism strategies are the best?  I guess we have to talk about these things.  How do you talk about massive cultural change?  What are your planning strategies for increasing numbers of people who just don’t see church as necessary or relevant, even if they consider themselves to be Christian?  But the battle lines are a lot deeper than many people want to admit or are able to cope with.

Yet this is what we have to prepare ourselves for.  More accurately, it’s what we currently have to live with.  We tend to think of this in gloomy terms, as it directly challenges the health and viability of many congregations.  But in larger, historical terms, it’s nothing new.  In fact, things today are a lot like things were for the early Church, in terms of a dominant non-Christian or anti-Christian culture.

There remains an opportunity to demonstrate to the larger culture the wisdom, the Truth, and the blessing of living our lives as Christians regardless of what the laws of our country change or restrict in terms of worship places and spaces.  As our culture increasingly embraces a variety of forms of death, Christians have the opportunity to affirm and live out the life of Christ within us.  We shouldn’t be afraid, despite the fact that our traditional ways of being the Church may not be as readily available to us.  It should help us focus on what really matters.  It doesn’t change our fundamental calling each day in Christ – to love God and to love my neighbors.

 

Out of Options?

September 19, 2016

Someone posted this article on Facebook.

I dislike the fundamental assertions of this article and I think they’re erroneous.  It equates accepting refugees with being a Christian, as though accepting refugees is the only Christ-like solution to this bad situation.  It removes the refugees from their context, allowing us to ignore the underlying issues that are creating refugees.  It makes a shallow appeal to emotion in lieu of really examining a complex and heart-wrenching situation. It ultimately ignores the well-being and best interests of the refugees themselves – and it’s difficult to argue that you’re loving your neighbor like Jesus if you aren’t actually paying attention to what your neighbor wants and needs.

I suspect that most of these refugees don’t want to be refugees.  They aren’t looking to create a new life out of nothing.  They had lives already – established lives uprooted, disrupted, and destroyed by a brutal civil war in Syria.  The loving, Christ-like thing to do is help these people return to and rebuild their homes and lives in safety, rather than to set them up in a completely new and different culture where they and their children and perhaps their grandchildren as well will be cultural outsiders.

Could it be that the most Christ-like thing would be to center our attention on stopping the civil war that is killing and displacing these people?  That the most Christ-like thing to do would be to help them rebuild their lives and schools and infrastructure there, where they call home, rather than assuming they should recreate their lives in our culture and infrastructure?

Certainly, we need to address the real and current needs of refugees in crisis. But this should be a temporary measure, sustained until peace is established at home and they can all return there.  It’s a shame that there isn’t an equal emphasis on Christians leading the charge to resolve the conflict in Syria.  I think that would ultimately be the best Christian witness of all.

 

 

Reading Ramblings – September 25, 2016

September 18, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2016

Text: Jonah 3; Psalm 7; 3 John; Matthew 7:7-11

Context: ** We continue our alternate text selections for the remainder of the liturgical year in order to preach through Luther’s Small Catechism ** The final petition of the Lord’s prayer is a general plea for deliverance from the works of evil that surround us in this world, and particularly against the plots and schemes of our enemy, Satan. He seeks our undoing constantly. Unable to hurt God, he seeks the suffering both temporary and eternal of God’s beloved creations. So we pray for deliverance. We pray that whatever befalls us in this life, we would remain steadfast in faith in Jesus Christ until the very end, receiving the victor’s crown even in the moment when Satan seeks to tear us away from God eternally.

Jonah 3 – Jonah arrives at long last in Nineveh and preaches as he is told. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian empire, and as such an enemy of Jonah and God’s people. Nineveh is in the grip of evil, and destruction awaits unless it wakes up and changes it’s ways. It seems like a long shot, yet miraculously, the city responds. The king himself demands change and repentance. The destruction poised over them is averted. They are delivered from evil – their own rebellious evil against God, as well as the evil of destruction. God does not desire to destroy. His intent is always that we turn from evil, that we allow ourselves to be delivered from it to our own benefit and blessing.

Jonah is angry with God for calling him to warn Nineveh, and then sparing Nineveh when it repents. We are not to make the same mistake with our enemies. There is no one whom God does not desire salvation for. While we may need to protect ourselves from our enemies, we are never free to quit praying that they be delivered from evil and into faith in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 7 – The heading of this psalm makes it historical and personal in nature, relevant to some incident of David, of which we have no Biblical record. Perhaps, based on v.4, it involves someone with whom David has had dealings as a friend or ally, but some sort of misunderstanding has occurred, leading his former friend or ally to now become his enemy. The psalm begins as a request for protection and deliverance from a powerful foe. David asserts boldly that he is not to blame in this situation. He is apparently being blamed or held guilty for something of which he is innocent. So strongly is his assertion that he calls down death on his head if he is found dishonest in this matter (vs. 3-5). He asks to be vindicated according to his righteousness, which might sound rather bold or foolish (v.8). However David is not claiming to be without sin, but rather that in this particular matter, with this particularly adversary, he is guiltless. He calls on God to bring the situation to an end and to vindicate him. He does not specifically pray for the destruction of his adversary, only that his adversary cease pursuing him. The psalm closes with a warning – those who work evil will fall prey to it themselves (vs.14-16). Seeking unjustly the harm of another person can only end badly. David can make this request of God because of God’s own righteousness (v.17). David knows that God will sustain the righteous cause, and so he is able to give God praise even while still dealing with this difficult situation.

3 John – We are unsure who Gaius is, but he appears to be a lay person of means who has provided hospitality and assistance to Christian missionaries. The Apostle John first commends Gaius for his faithfulness (vs.2-4), and then for his Christian charity (vs.5-8). John then references some disagreement with a local church official, Diotrephes. This may have been the bishop or pastor of Gaius’ congregation, and the source of a rift that results in John and his associates being unwelcome there. John expresses his intent to come anyways and expose what Diotrephes has been doing. As a more positive example, Demetrius is lauded for the good reports that are given of him. We are not to emulate evil, the practices and means of those who secure power for themselves or act contrary to the will and work of God. Ends do not justify means, and we are to avoid evil methods even if they appear to lead to good ends. Faithfulness to good and the fleeing of evil are signs of fellowship with God.

Matthew 7:7-11 – Chapter 7 concludes the first extended teaching of Jesus that Matthew records, which began back in Chapter 5. Here, the Christian is exhorted to prayer. We are assured that in doing so, our heavenly Father hears and responds. It sounds like a blank check, but we must consider what it is that we would pray to our heavenly Father for. Is there anything we have not already received in Christ? The temporary things we ask for – health, safety, enough to eat and wear – these are things which we are promised perfectly at Christ’s return, and things which our Lord provides to us here and now, though sinfulness in ourselves and those around us may preclude us from receiving what He sends.

God the Father is then compared to a human parent. Despite the human parent being broken and sinful, we are still able to hear the needs of our children and respond appropriately to them. How much greater then, should we expect that our heavenly Father should respond to our requests? As we request deliverance from evil, is there any doubt but that God will hear and honor this request, and that despite what might happen to us, He will be with us every step of the way, empowering our faithfulness in the midst of any trial or evil?