Archive for September, 2017

Sunday School or Bust

September 28, 2017

Our congregation doesn’t have a Sunday School.  Are we still a church?

It’s an interesting question.  Our particular denomination (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) has always emphasized education.  Martin Luther developed the Small Catechism specifically so that families could educate their children, one another, and themselves about the essentials of the Christian faith and Christian life.  And ever since Lutherans arrived in America in larger numbers in the 19th century, education has been a prime focus.  This takes shape as Sunday School in the congregation, and pre-schools, primary and secondary schools, and a world-class set of universities.

But we don’t have Sunday School at our church for two reasons.  The first reason is that nobody really wants to lead and teach it, and the second is that we don’t have very many children.  We’ve made efforts at Sunday School over the past few years but they’ve always fallen by the wayside fairly quickly.

This has led some in our congregation to a state of angst.  After all, the traditional wisdom is that a congregation grows through families.  If you don’t have children in the congregation, you aren’t going to have the next generation of participants and leaders in the congregation.  A congregation without children, in the eyes of many, is a congregation headed towards death.

I understand and empathize with that angst to a certain extent.  I went to Sunday School, after all.  But the fact remains that we have only three children in regular attendance on Sunday mornings, and they happen to be my children.  My wife teaches them all week – both in the home schooling sense and in the Christian faith and practice.  I support her in not wanting to teach them in a Sunday School format on Sunday morning as well just so we can say we have a Sunday School.  It isn’t her responsibility to do that, and if nobody else wants to head it up, then we don’t offer it.

Yet, despite the prevailing wisdom (or at least accumulated experience) regarding Sunday School and children, our congregation is growing.  It has grown at a steady pace for the last seven years, despite the fact that our congregation is primarily made up of people over 70 years of age and therefore we have certainly conveyed a fair number of people into glory!  If a lack of children and Sunday School is tantamount to congregational suicide, we’re certainly not going gently into that good night!

The Church ultimately exists to equip the saints of God.  To teach them the faith as given to us by God himself in the Bible, and centered on the gifts of God in this Word, in the Sacraments, and most centrally in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God, Jesus.  To show Christians how to live the Christian life.  To absolve them of their sins when they fail and are repentant.  To confront them with their sins and the risks associated with them when they are not repentant.  The Church exists, then, to give the people of God the gifts of God, that, sustained by God’s gifts, they may enter into glory eternally.

There are a lot of ways to do this.  And if you happen to have kids in your congregation, Sunday School is a really good and important idea.  I would argue that the primary importance isn’t for the kids, though, it’s for the parents.  The primary importance is that if the kids are in Sunday School, then the parents should be in adult Bible Study digging deeper into the Word of God and fleshing out the application of his Word in their lives for the week ahead.  How do I be a good spouse?  How do I be a good parent?  How do I be a good neighbor?  How do I be a good employee or employer?   And how do I model and teach and live out the life of Christian faith in a way that my children will see it and emulate it on their own once they leave my care?

It isn’t that Sunday School isn’t beneficial to kids, but it isn’t essential.  What is essential is parents who are grounded in the faith and encouraged and supported by the congregation to parent their children and love their spouses and neighbors with the love of Christ.  A congregation doesn’t need to offer Sunday School to accomplish these things.  But I would argue that it does need to offer and expect people to attend adult Bible study regularly.   I’m fine with not having Sunday School at our church for the reasons listed above.  I wouldn’t be fine with a congregation where nobody felt like studying the Word of God and learning how to apply it more and better was a really, really, really important part of their lives.

I understand that parents want Sunday School for their children for any number of reasons.  But I disagree that Sunday School – and nowadays it’s not just Sunday School but children’s programs on a larger scale – should be the primary criteria for determining which church to belong to.  Yet I’ve had plenty of conversations – or not really conversations, but just comments – by people visiting our church over the years that what they are most looking for is programs for their kids.

And because of that weird chicken and the egg dynamic, they don’t come to our church because we don’t offer extensive programming for children.  Because we don’t have any kids.  While our members like the idea of having kids and young families in worship, they so far haven’t indicated a desire to serve as Sunday School teachers and leaders yet.  Nor have they determined that they want to invest substantial money in hiring someone to launch this, not knowing whether or not it will draw kids and young families.  Like many communities, there are larger congregations around who can offer fantastic children’s programs that we can’t compete with in any way.  If children’s programming is going to be the main criteria for someone deciding to come to our church, we can’t compete with those folks.

Nor, I would argue, should we.

Rather, I think congregations should focus on the resources and giftings that they have, regardless of what those might be.  Maybe it’s a very loving and caring and welcoming community that can form bonds with visitors quickly and follow up with them so that they feel welcomed and an important part of the community quickly.  Maybe it’s strong educational offerings.  Maybe it’s a rich and vibrant worship service and environment.  Maybe it’s outreach and care for the elderly in a community.  Figure out what you’re good at and focus on that (always assuming, of course, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the grace of God are always front and center!).  Or figure out what you really think is important, what people are willing to commit not just their time but also their money and prayers towards, and pursue that.  The Holy Spirit is active and present!  Take seriously the idea that He gifts congregations and individuals differently!  Embrace that, rather than lamenting what He hasn’t give you, at least for the time being.  Don’t let Sunday School – or any other particular program – become the equivalent of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12.  If God has gifted you to be good at it, then go and do it and give the thanks and glory to God!  If He hasn’t, figure out what He has gifted you for and give thanks and glory to God!

Worrying about any one particular program – or the lack thereof – is probably not the key to a congregation’s longevity and viability.  The Holy Spirit works in unpredictable ways!  While our culture may write off anyone over 55 as more or less irrelevant, those people are children of God whom Christ died for.  They can respond to the Gospel just like a five year old can.  And improbable as it might sound, a congregation of mostly post-retired folks can continue to grow and thrive in the grace of God the Holy Spirit.

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Challenging Vocations

September 27, 2017

As a ‘bonus’ for now being a vice-president, I got to hang around for an extra morning of meetings today!  Truth be told, I would probably have had to stay anyways, but still.  It’s a painful sort of gratitude, if you ask me.

Our District President was welcoming and providing some training to the Circuit Visitors (which was another of my titles – along with Grand Poobah – until very recently).  These pastors serve as the most local representation of the larger District and ultimately the District President, and are his go-to guys for helping out with situations good and bad that happen throughout the District.

He shared that currently there are 19 congregations in our District that are in the process of Calling a pastor.  Normally that number is higher but there were a lot of Calls and installations that occurred over the summer so the number is momentarily lower.  There are also another 40+ congregations who can’t afford to Call a full-time pastor.  He discussed how, due to the very high cost of living in coastal Southern and Central California, it is increasingly difficult to find pastors able to come here because they’re afraid they aren’t going to be able to afford to live here.  While our District provides guidelines to congregations to assist them in paying their pastors a living wage, some estimate that at least half of the congregations in the District are paying below the District recommendations, either out of necessity or ignorance.  He then commented that his word to guys considering Calls to this area is to advise them that they need to expect that their wives will have to work outside of the home to generate additional income so their family can survive.

And that reality sticks in my craw.

Culturally, of course, the idea of women working outside the home has been championed not as a choice that a woman might avail herself of based on her interests and abilities, but rather a necessary demonstration of the equality of women.  Because feminism quickly jumped the rails ideologically, it defines equality between men and women as women doing everything that men do.  This assumption is remarkably misogynistic, ironically – that what a man does should be the basis for generating respect and therefore is the definition of equality.  Rather than demanding equality for women as women – in whatever vocational direction they prefer to go – feminism insists that only by working outside the home does a woman have any real worth, and that opting to work at home as a mother and spouse is demeaning and a betrayal of women everywhere.

How is the Church to respond to this redefinition of equality?  Rather than being created equal, we are only equal in terms of what we do.  I don’t have an issue with a woman or a wife working outside the home.  I don’t view them as inferior to men in their productive capacities in the workplace at all.  Nor do I espouse the mentality of men who assume or assert that a woman’s place must be in the home.  But I do have an issue with an ideological assumption in our culture that women will or even must work outside the home – whether for ideological reasons or economic reasons.  And I worry about a Church culture that goes along with this because it’s economically advantageous.

I’m blessed to serve a congregation that pays me enough to live on so that my wife can work in the home – raising our children, educating our children, and being a partner par excellence.   I say regularly that she has the harder job of the two of us, and I’m mostly serious.  And just like a man working by the sweat of his brow in a field or an office, the burden of responsibility she bears in her work takes its toll on her.  Only an idiot presumes that a wife not working outside the home isn’t working.   And only an equally ignorant person would assume that just because there isn’t a paycheck made out in her name every two weeks that the work she provides is worth any less than her husband earning a paycheck.  My paycheck is also hers.  Only by working together can we earn it.  We support one another.  This is our equality, that we support one another in complementary and different ways – not that we do exactly the same sorts of things.

This is the Biblical understanding of the relationship between men and women, a relationship that was damaged significantly in the Fall (Genesis 3), but is being restored in Christ, to the point where Paul can cryptically share that marriage is actually a representation of the relationship between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32).  It is an equality that celebrates our differences and complementary natures that express themselves physiologically, psychologically, theologically, and in all sorts of other -allies that I’m too lazy to list.

So for the Church to say to a husband and wife we want you, but we want to force you both to work outside the home rather than honoring and supporting the roles that you have found work well for you and your family is dangerous to me.  We lament the demise of the family but are unwilling because of fear of cultural backlash to look at how the redefinition of family and gender roles has contributed to this.  We marvel that our kids and grandkids aren’t in church, yet we entrust their intellectual and social formation primarily to an institution that is now actively working against encouraging or even just respecting a life lived in faith.  We presume that the constant mantra of buy, buy, buy must be answered with dual incomes.

Again, this is not a diatribe against women working outside the home!  But it is intended as an alarm to a church that demands this.   The work of the Church should not come at the expense of the family.  The family is the original and first Church, and the Church would do well to remember this and promote and support the family in every possible way, rather than seeking to put the family in service to the Church.  I would far rather, if I had a congregation of young parents, that instead of spending all their time at congregational functions and events they would spend time together at home intentionally as a couple and a family.  That they would take on the major responsibility for raising their children in the faith and nurturing faith in one another.  The Church should stand ready to assist in this, but it is a dangerous turn when the Church ends up putting programs ahead of the relationships those programs should serve.

I will be having conversations with our District leadership in my new capacity to explore and discuss this issue further.  There isn’t much to be done about it officially since our congregations are self-governing.  But we certainly can and should, I believe, adopt an attitude that challenges congregations who make these sorts of assumptions and place these sorts of expectations on the families they wish to serve them.  Sacrifices for the Gospel shouldn’t surprise us.  But it ought to surprise and dismay us when the Church is the one demanding the sacrifice.

 

Aquaponics 1

September 26, 2017

We try to eat healthy, and more and more we have developed concerns about the things that are in the food we eat, and most particularly in the meat.  We’ve considered various options for doing some self-sustainable food production.  Gardens were of limited success as people lost interest in them and would forget to water them.  Chickens seemed challenging given that we have two medium-sized dogs.  I suggested raising rabbits for meat but my wife has firmly nixed this idea.

What if we did aquaponics, I suggested.  Aquaponics creates a self-sustaining ecosystem based on fish and plants.  Fish are raised (sometimes for food, which is our intention, and sometimes not to eat) and their water is cleaned and filtered by pumping it through growing beds where the ammonia and nitrogen of the fish waste is filtered out through growing medium, which in turn allows plant roots to access these nutrients.  The only ongoing input into the system is food for the fish and additional water to offset evaporation.  Even with evaporation the total water usage is supposed to be far less than growing a vegetable garden in a piece of land (unless you get a lot of rain and don’t need to water the plants on your own, I suppose).

The family loved the idea.  We like the idea of growing more of our own food and thus ensuring that it is free of pesticides and herbicides and hormones and antibiotics and whatever else gets into our food these days.  We also like the idea of learning together how to build the system.  It could be a business opportunity for the kids as they get older, consulting and building systems for other people as well as potentially – if our system grows large enough – sustaining a business to local restaurants eager for local, healthy fish.

There’s a lot of information on the Internet about how to do this.  It isn’t complicated, beyond getting the system created and connected with PVC piping, pumps, drains, etc.  I’ve decided to chronicle our journey in case it’s helpful to others.

Step number one was to ensure that our water was as healthy as possible.  We’re on city water, which provides a certain level of filtering and treatment, but which results in chlorinated and fluoridated water.  While the fluoridation may not be a big deal, the chlorine is.  So last week we had a plumber remove the salt-based water softening system that came with the house when we bought it, and installed a two-stage water filtering system instead.

Just that step alone has taken nearly a year of research!

There are so many options out there!  Some systems – like the one in the house when we bought it – can cost thousands of dollars.  Or you can go online or to Home Depot’s web site and find filtering systems for under $100.  How do you make a decision?

Mainly, it seems to depend on where you’re getting your water – and thus how much sediment filtering you need – and what you specifically hope to filter out of the water.  We examined filtering systems, not water softening systems.  Some options combine the two or allow you to custom-design systems that do both.  We decided we didn’t want the softening, just the filtering.

Because we’re on city water, the particulates and sediment in the water have already been filtered out to certain standards.  Municipal water sources should publish annual water quality reports available online or by direct request from your water supplier.  Had we been on well water, I would have opted for a three-stage filtering system to filter out more of the sediment, but a two stage option seemed to be fine for a city water connection.

I investigated a system that would filter out fluoride as well as chlorine, but it was significantly more expensive.  There’s plenty of debate about the role of fluoride in our drinking water, with very little consensus or evidence to back up the various perspectives.  I decided we could buy a counter-top filter specifically designed to filter fluoride to replace the Britta filter we currently use, which doesn’t filter fluoride.

Finally, I decided on the i-Spring whole home two stage filter, sometimes referred to as Big Blue.  More specifically, it’s model WGB22B.  Rationale:

  • Reasonably priced
  • Reasonably priced filters
  • Large filters that will hopefully last a bit longer than some smaller models (hopefully 6 months considering the size of our household and the hardness of the city water)
  • Filters chlorine
  • 5 micron filtering
  • Good water flow rate (up to 15 gpm)
  • Certified to NSF/ANSI standards
  • Includes a sediment filter as well as a carbon block filter that handles the organic filtering as well as chlorine filtering
  • Good ratings on Amazon

Now that we have this in place, we have improved water which will be healthier for the fish.  Chlorine is an unhealthy thing for them that would need to be removed.  While it can be removed to some degree with time and agitation, we decided we wanted to benefit from chlorine filtering for ourselves, not just for our fish!

The next step will be to purchase the tank that will hold our fish.  I’m planning on either a 55-gallon drum-style, food grade plastic barrel that we might cut in half to create two tanks, or a larger, 275-gallon food grade IBC tank.  I’ll keep you posted as we take our next step!

Bigger or Better?

September 25, 2017

At a recent gathering of brethren, the typical discussion topic for those engaged in professional church work came up – what to do about dwindling weekly worship attendance and churches that are small and struggling?

The participants in this discussion came from large churches, depending on your definition of large.  But they were seriously concerned about small churches.  Congregations barely able or not able to Call a pastor.  Weekly worship levels in the low double digits.  Or even single digits.  Groups of Christians sitting on property worth millions of dollars but unable to engage in outward-oriented ministry because of budget difficulties and a lack of manpower.

These are all valid concerns for a variety of reasons.  But what to do about it?  There was a consensus that we should encourage congregations to work together more, to share resources and ministry opportunities.  But how to get congregations to do this?  How to get pastors to do this?

One of the suggestions was to change the way we talk about our numbers and metrics.  Instead of focusing on worship attendance at just our congregation, we should instead report the aggregate number of people in our denomination in worship in any given week as though it were our own.  So instead of saying that we worshiped 20 last Sunday, or 100, or 200, we would report that we worshiped 22,000 or so.  Which might be the number who worshiped at all of the congregations in our region combined.  The idea was to give hope and encouragement while also fostering a greater sense of the larger Church, of a given congregation being not an island, but rather part of a larger body.

I commend that goal wholeheartedly, but I am somewhat uncertain about the continued emphasis on metrics and numbers.

In a culture where bigger is better, the idea of reporting a large number is an indicator of success, and people want to be successful and associate with other successful people, and this can buoy the spirit of a small congregation and create an environment that others want to be a part of.  Or something like that.  Because at the end of the day, all this talk about working together and collaboration and partnership is a matter of numbers.  If so many congregations weren’t struggling to keep the lights on our make payroll, we wouldn’t be needing to talk about collaboration (though I would argue we still should).

Numbers and economics were driving the conversation that took place in that boardroom.  And God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Holy Spirit-filled men and women were genuinely concerned that for many of their colleagues, numbers and economics were bad and continuing to get worse.  They wanted to help.  They still do.

But I don’t think reporting larger numbers is going to help.  The decline that is most prominent in small and vulnerable congregations is part of a larger-scale cultural decline in regularly Christian worship that even large churches are struggling with, though their struggle may be with plateaued worship attendance instead of declining attendance.  But if projections are correct, this cultural decline is going to continue.  Rapidly.  And even the big churches will be affected by it somewhat.  Aggregating our worship attendance won’t be a big psychological help if the number continues to shrink.  And I worry that changing the way we talk about worship numbers isn’t really going to build collegiality and a greater sense of unity amongst our various pastors and congregations.

Attendance isn’t the number that we need to look at.  Our economics are the numbers we need to look at.  Does it make sense to still define a successful or viable church by the fact that it owns a piece of property with a church building on it?  Particularly in our part of the world, where real-estate is so incredibly expensive, wouldn’t redefining how Church looks give a better opportunity for people to be excited about what Church does?  Not every congregation may need to ask this question.  Financially secure or large congregations may well reasonably decide it makes best sense to stay put in the facility they own.  But for many others, accessing the capital tied up in the ground under their feet could enable them to initiate additional outreach and ministry opportunities to reach more people.

How we have learned to do Church in America over the last 200 years or so may not work so well in the future.  Especially if some of the benefits the Church enjoys here are removed – tax exemptions in particularly.  A change of tactics is necessary but it goes deeper than just getting people to work together to the issue of how to work together, and what we’re working together for.

The New Testament doesn’t talk about numbers much.  There are a few mentions in Acts about the miraculous number of people who are led to faith in Jesus Christ.  Those numbers are descriptive – here is what happened by the grace of God the Holy Spirit.  They aren’t prescriptive, in terms of this is how big your church should be.  We have to stop listening to corporate marketing and sales models that are tweaked slightly for churches.  I had an e-mail the other day from someone with a program for fine-tuning our web and social media presence to generate a 32% increase in worship attendance within a year.

I don’t believe it.  But even if I did, I’d want to question why that’s an issue for me.  Is it to share the Gospel with that many more people, or is it to buoy the budget?   We need to be brutally honest about what our motivations are when we talk about these things, because people are going to suspect that our motivations are selfish and money-oriented.  Why?  Because that’s the way the rest of our culture and society function.  They’ll assume the Church is the same way.  And if that’s really at the base of all our talk about the Gospel, they’re going to smell it pretty quickly.

I’m worried about small congregations as well.  I want to encourage congregations of all sizes to be more collaborative, to partner, to share resources.  I understand very well how difficult that can be at first.  But I believe that it is a privilege far more than a necessity.  In learning how to work together as the Body of Christ, we can present Christ more authentically to the culture around us.  That’s what really matters, trying to follow the Holy Spirit as He guides us through challenging and perplexing times, but not through situations and circumstances that are new.  These are issues the Church has faced throughout the last 2000 years in various places.  We should be humble and wise enough to be willing to learn.  Together.  Regardless of the numbers.

Reading Ramblings – October 1, 2017

September 24, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017

Texts: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-10; Philippians 2:1-18; Matthew 21:23-32

Context: The distinction between justification and sanctification is crucial. What God the Father does through God the Son to save us sets in motion a process that only finishes in eternity – our being made into the holy and righteous sons and daughters of God the Father that we are made through faith in God the Son. Yet we are always looking for ways around this, either to blame others for our sin or to claim a righteousness based on our works rather than on the work of Christ. Both are futile, and leave us exposed to the wrath of God that demands our faith and trust in what He has done on our behalf.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – We are prone to looking for excuses for our sinfulness. We want others to bear the responsibility for our transgressions. Modern psychology has convinced us that we can’t truly be held responsible for our own problems, yet God says otherwise. Rather than helping us to place blame elsewhere, God holds us responsible for our own sin. Just because we were influenced or affected by others does not remove our moral culpability before a righteous God. Instead, we are called to repentance and to changed lives made possible by the power of God the Holy Spirit who leads us to God the Son, Jesus Christ, as the source of our justification – our being made right – with God the Father. God’s goal is always straightforward – that we would choose life in him rather than death on our own terms.

Psalm 25:1-10 – If this sounds familiar it’s because we recited it on Pentecost Sunday, just a few short months ago. Verses 1-3 are a plea for help in a difficult situation, ending with the acknowledgment that those who trust in God will not be put to shame. Verses 4-5 ask for the Lord to guide and lead the petitioner in the right ways, while verses 6-7 are a plea for mercy and forgiveness. Knowing God’s will and being able to perfectly accomplish it are two separate things. Verses 8-10 are an affirmation that God indeed will lead and guide his people, and that the Lord will act in love and faithfulness to his people. Forgiveness goes hand in hand with seeking the Lord’s leading and guidance out of sin and towards a life that is more in keeping with his ways.

Philippians 2:1-18 – We are prone to think of ourselves first, but as followers of Christ we are to follow his example of humility, even humility to the point of death. Paul exhorts the Philippians towards this goal acknowledging that he himself takes pride in their successes towards this end and would lament their failures. Despite his imprisonment, he can still look to them as a source of encouragement and hope, and they should consider themselves as such for mutual rejoicing.

Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus deals with challenges to his authority by forcing his inquisitors to examine their own consciences. The goal is repentance, not simply avoiding a question. Jesus is not shy in other places (notably John’s Gospel account) of giving his authority as God the Father. But here He gives an opportunity for repentance. Matthew gives us a glimpse of the thought processes involved by the religious leaders. To acknowledge John the Baptist’s authority would condemn themselves because they did not submit to him. But to deny John the Baptist’s authority would expose themselves to the judgment of the crowds, who were convinced that John was a prophet sent by God. Without a convenient answer, they opt to avoid the question and so does Jesus.

Jesus then tells a parable to demonstrate the position which the religious leaders have just placed themselves in. They are like the second son, who claims to be obedient to his father and yet is not. Likewise, the religious leaders claim obedience to the law of God while rejecting the authoritative voices that God sends to them – notably in John the Baptist and Jesus himself. But those who are all too aware of their sinfulness and need for grace – they recognize God’s calling to them in John the Baptist and Jesus. While their lives have previously been in offense to God and a rejection – for whatever reason – of his call on their lives, they have come to repentance, seeking baptism from John and now listening and heeding Jesus. As such they are more obedient and therefore better sons and daughters of their heavenly Father than the religious leaders who promise to be obedient and then are not.

Repentance and the the corresponding forgiveness of God the Father cannot help but create change in our lives. We are not free to dictate to others exactly how this will look, yet Scripture provides plenty of examples of the sorts of things we should expect. What we cannot expect is to repent and be forgiven without any need for change in our lives. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the grace of God. It is not simply an intellectual shortcoming but a matter of unfaithfulness to the one who has set us free to live for Him rather than for ourselves.

If You Give a Moose a Muffin…

September 22, 2017

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this children’s book while after reading this blog post.  Apparently a news reporter interviewed a Nazi who was publicly assaulted, and the writer of the blog post was angry that they did so because it could make Nazism sympathetic and end up leading others to follow that ideology.  The alternative, the author insists, is that you never give a Nazi a platform.  Never allow their message to go out.

At first it makes sense.  I don’t like Nazism.  As a student of history I’m well acquainted with the evils perpetrated by that ideology.  I don’t want there to be more Nazis.

But the more I thought about it, I realized why this approach didn’t sit well with me.  It presumes that the hearers/viewers are helpless, passive, and incapable of understanding either the context of the interview or the ideology that the Nazi might espouse.  It presumes that viewers/hearers need to be protected less they fall under the sway of this virulent ideology.  It reminds of the way some conservative Christians choose to raise their children – by trying to shelter them from the junk in the world and never expose them to anything that hasn’t been thoroughly sanitized.

In both cases the result is the same.  By failing to prepare people for the ideologies they will encounter in our increasingly hyper-connected world, we make possible our worst fears.  The way to protect people against whatever charm Nazi ideology might utilize is to teach them about Nazism.  Teach them about history.  Teach them about the Holocaust.  At the same time teach them about democracy, and in particular teach them about the beauty and value of free speech.  Then, if they view or hear a Nazi who was the victim of a crime talking about their ideology, they will be able to distinguish the value of free speech and protection from assault from Nazism.  They’ll be able to say I disagree completely with what this person espouses, but at the same time they deserve protection under the law and the right to speak, because that is the democracy we live under.

Which is different from the censorship that the Nazis used to control what people thought, and which mirrors, ironically enough, what the blog author espouses.  In a democracy people should be educated so that they can make good decisions.  Not everyone can or will.  But it is better to risk that some should not make good decisions, than to deny everyone the freedom to make a decision.  An educated nation will be able to reject ideas and principles that are incorrect.  Maybe not immediately, but eventually.  Hopefully.  But that requires education.  It also happens to require a strong moral common ground, something that has been decimated by many folks who also argue that some groups shouldn’t be allowed to speak freely or aren’t entitled to the same rights that they themselves are.

Reject Nazism.  But don’t destroy democracy in the process.  Nobody is better off with an insulated, poorly educated population who relies on censorship to keep away things that they would prefer not to deal with.  Nobody is better off under such circumstances.  Other than those who happen to be championing them and insisting that their ideology is the one that should be implemented.

A Sweet New Year

September 21, 2017

We were privileged to attend a Jewish Rosh Hashanah service last night (Shana Tova!) at the invitation of friends of ours.  It was my first such opportunity, and a memorable one.  The synagogue was beautiful, and there were many folks on hand for the first of the High Holy Days.  It is a Reform Judaism synagogue, something I wasn’t aware of initially but became very clear as the service went on.

Similar to Christian worship, there was music and ritual.  There was no direct reading from Scripture, though the ‘ark’ containing their copy of the Torah was opened several times during the night for festive singing – but never to actually read what it had to say.  Fascinating!

Two moments stand out – the sermon and the after service address from the congregational president.

The sermon was delivered by an intern, a 5th year student at a Jewish Seminary in Los Angeles.  The topic was hope.  He opened with a quote, in which he told us he was going to replace the word hope wherever it appeared in that quote with the name God.  He then reread the quote with the original word hope in it.  And then he basically invited people to consider that both the word hope and the name God both made really good sense in the quote.  He then went on to preach a sermon without ever mentioning God again.  I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t mention Jesus, but he never mentioned God.  It was clear that his expectation was that many folks in the room didn’t actually believe in God, but certainly could believe in hope.  He ended his sermon with snippets of current events and the actions of individuals in the midst of tragedy and challenge as the basis for his hope for the coming new year.

It was one of the most hope-less sermons I’ve ever heard, because it grounded our hope in ourselves, despite his mention of equally jarring moments recently where humans demonstrated that they are not people to place hope in or expect hope from.  The upshot I guess is that at least some people are capable of and demonstrative of actions of hopefulness, so let’s just focus on that despite the fact that the news overwhelmingly favors the preponderance of less helpful actions.

The address by the congregational president at the end of the service was also notable.  He was extremely well-spoken and as I understand it is a man of some renown in our area.  He spoke of growing up being ethnically and ritually Jewish.  He didn’t necessarily believe any of it, but he had done the appropriate things that a Jewish person should do.  Until an event 30 years ago in the area jarred him into a sense of urgency to be more involved in Jewish leadership.  Not the faith, per se, but rather acting on behalf of Jews in the community.  He recounted his family’s personal brush with the Holocaust in Germany, and stated strong resolve to help this particular congregation remain strong and secure into the future.

Secure.  There’s a fascinating term both for Judaism and Christianity.  Certainly a review of Jewish history will quickly reveal that security has rarely lasted very long in any given place.  That since their dispersal from the Promised Land by the Romans in 70 AD, the Jews have truly wandered out of necessity.  They have settled, only to be forced to move at some point later.  Until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jews have never enjoyed a very secure anything.  The fact that the state of Israel is only 70 years old only underscores this further.

Christians also have endured a great deal of insecurity.  While enjoying a privileged place in Western culture for many centuries, that security is eroding rapidly.  Elsewhere in the world security for Christians has been far more tenuous and unpredictable.

And in both cases, Scripture, the Word of God to his people, has explicitly stated that this is how things are going to go.  We might expect many things in this world based on the promises of God, but temporal security isn’t high on the list, or on the list at all.  I’ll be the first to come to the aid of someone else – Jewish or otherwise – but I won’t pretend to tell either of them (or myself, or my wife and kids) that safety and security are something we should just take for granted, or something that we can control.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to be secure.  That’s human nature both individually and communally.  But for God’s people, that security is tempered with a greater understanding that the best that security can do for us here and now is ensure a somewhat smooth life for 100 years at best.  Even temporal financial and physical security doesn’t save us from Death.  Our greatest hope and goal can’t simply be security.  It has to lie elsewhere.  And for God’s people, that place has always been God.

It must be so difficult to lead a congregation of people rooted in a shared set of past experiences but not a shared interpretation of them.  It must be weird to have a liturgy that repeatedly talks about God, but have to remind people that if that makes them uncomfortable they can just close the book and think about something else.  God isn’t the source of discomfort!

I walked away from the evening grateful for the experience but aching for those people, so close to God historically and even liturgically, but for many very far away from him actually, personally.  I ached that they might hear and know truly good news in a God who has made them specific promises that are not dependent upon the actions of random people around the country or world, and are not dependent on their own contributions.  I ached for these people who have inherited not just a culture and a set of rituals but the revealed Word of God, and yet choose to keep that Word locked away, who consider it something optional at best.  This people through whom God brought the Savior of the world into creation, this people that God remains deeply committed to through his promises to Abraham and Moses and David.

I pray for them a sweet new year (a traditional expression associated with Rosh Hashanah), and as such, a new year rooted in closer experience with the Creator of the Universe and the Son He brought through them to give us real and lasting hope.

 

Who to Promote

September 20, 2017

I was raised with solid middle-class, middle-America values.  Children should be seen rather than heard.  Or maybe it was heard rather than seen.  Frankly, the preference was probably that we were neither seen nor heard.  In any event, the idea of self-promotion of any kind has always been anathema to me.  It isn’t that I don’t crave recognition.  I do.  But perhaps as a means of controlling that monster inside of me I’ve tried to avoid the spotlight as much as one can do from the front of a classroom or the front of a church.

I dreamed of being a writer but have abandoned that in a post-literate age where anybody can get published inexpensively.  Some of the folks that follow this blog seem to do so out of a concept of mutual self-promotion that eludes me.  I hope for fame, but expect that I won’t have to be the one telling people how awesome I am in order for that to happen.  It will just, someday, but broadly recognized and I won’t have to push for that recognition.

Is that too hard to ask?

My job is not to promote myself –  my job is to promote Christ, to make him known to as many people in as many different facets as He gives me time and opportunity.  But in order to put his name out there, it can be easy to be put mine out as well.  Given time and a bit of temptation, the desire for my name to be glorified can quickly eclipse the desire that his name be glorified.  On the flip side, excessive self-deprecation and equally result in his name not being shared as broadly as possible.  I’m wondering how to put out his Word without necessitating the inclination most people have (not entirely incorrectly) to want to know more about the messenger.

I’m being asked more and more to share my preaching and teaching with expanding audiences, particularly via the Internet as well as more localized outlets such as pre-recorded and live radio options.  It’s something I’ve been hesitant to do  because crafting a message for an audience unfamiliar with me, my congregation, my theology, etc. is a lot more complicated than just videoing a sermon and putting it online.  In a day where it’s customary to take things out of context, I want to think carefully about what I say before facing criticism either from those who don’t share my belief, or those who think they share my belief to a greater/stronger/more accurate extent than I do.

It’s also a lot of work, and being basically lazy, the idea of taking on additional work is unattractive.

But more and more I’m being led to see that this bears investigating further.  I went to lunch today with a gentleman who had the main intent of convincing me to think more seriously about radio and podcasting and other means of speaking to a larger audience.  Of course my ego loves this, and I have to try and put that down while still hearing what is being said and considering it as objectively as possible.  We have such Good News to share with a world that is so incredibly hungry for good news.  If we need to be reconsidering and reevaluating how we do Church in a rapidly changing culture, I can’t simply say that I’m not willing to consider other avenues for sharing the Gospel and helping people to understand it better.  Prayers are appreciated!

Rosh Hashana

September 20, 2017

I’m so excited, as I’ve been invited (along with my family) to attend Rosh Hashanah service tonight at the local synagogue.  I’ve been fascinated with Judaism ever since reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and going on to read most of his other works, including his beautiful Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews).  Obviously the strong historical and theological linkins of Christianity and Judaism lend themselves well to this fascination!

But I’ve never been able to attend a service before, and I look forward to this opportunity!  Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and occurs 10 days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Bullseye

September 19, 2017

Part of the challenge and risk and reward of having a public presence online is that you never know who is going to stumble across your stuff or how they’re going to react to it.  So it was only a mild surprise when someone posted to a Facebook page I have for campus ministry.  The actual flow of events seems to be that this person found the page, liked the page, and then came across one of my posts there and freaked out.  The post was an open invitation to our Sunday evening happy hour.  I don’t think that anyone locally is likely to find the page and the invitation and request info, but I posted it more in terms of letting whomever know the kinds of things we were doing.

I have no idea who this person is beyond the little Facebook tells about her.  She isn’t apparently local, but has taken it upon herself to call me to repentance for offering a weekly happy hour.  Based on the destructive role of alcohol in the life of her family, she clearly sees it as a sin that should never be encouraged.

She could just be a bored troll hoping to start angst.  But I presume she’s sincere and so I take the time to respond to her and engage her concerns.  It’s not the kind of interaction I created the page for, but it is interaction, a chance to share the Gospel or apply the Gospel to our daily lives.  And I don’t know who else might see the interaction so I want to do so in love along with a good application of Scripture.  Her concerns are valid, based on her experiences.  The difficulty is balancing that something might be harmful and therefore sinful to one person, but not be harmful or sinful to someone else.

Maybe others will be drawn into the conversation.  What I hope this woman realizes is that her concerns are real, but not necessarily the best basis for condemning something as sinful in someone else’s life.  Especially someone she’s never met.