Archive for December, 2017

Catholics & Relics

December 15, 2017

Another interesting Catholic article, this time dealing with the very old practice of having relics in the altars (or other areas) or Roman Catholic churches.  Now, unlike other Protestants (perhaps) I don’t have a problem per se with the idea of relics.  But I do find it interesting that this gentleman argues that there is a Biblical precedent for this practice, referring to Revelation 6:9.

I find this a fascinating theological move!  If you read Revelation 6:9, you come away with the very definite impression that these are not relics being referred to, but living people.  Not physical people – but their souls.  These are two major differences between the Biblical text and the practice of relics.  Living spirits vs. dead bodies (or parts of bodies).

I like the Catholic theology that informs their architecture and much of their worship (essentially the same worship that many Protestants celebrate).  But I think it’s a rather large leap to go from living spirits to dead body pieces in the same breath.  At least I understand a little better their rationale for this, even if I’m not comfortable with their Biblical justification for it.

 

Long Life

December 14, 2017

You know how some people want to dismiss the Bible – or at least the beginning of it – because it talks about people living incredibly long times?  Like hundreds and hundreds of years?  That’s ridiculous.  Nobody lives that long!

Presented for your consideration, though, this 500-year old shark.  Or perhaps it isn’t quite that old – people aren’t entirely sure.  But it could be that old, and it doesn’t seem to be surprising people too much.  So perhaps the idea that human beings once lived a lot longer than we do now isn’t such a far-fetched notion after all?

 

Choosing Exile

December 13, 2017

I had the privilege of sitting with a group of congregational leaders last night.  They weren’t my congregational leaders.   This congregation is nearly 100 miles away from me. I didn’t know any of them before last night, and I had only met the pastor via phone and text last week.  Yet here I was sitting in on their council meeting as they grappled with exile.  When a Seminary prof began one of my first Sem courses by emphasizing the noble task – a kalou ergou in the Greek – we were aspiring to, I had no idea that this could also apply beyond the realm of purely pastoral parish ministry to the less defined world of polity organization and hierarchy.  Yet here I was, functioning as a pastor to another pastor and another congregation, being with them and encouraging them in a hard moment to choose exile.

That’s how their pastor described it at one point.  The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years.  We won’t be wandering nearly that long.  It was a good analogy, though perhaps not an overly comforting one in the moment.  They’re saddled with a building in desperate – perhaps mandatory – need of repair and renovation.   With bills they aren’t able to pay.  They have struggled and clawed to keep their ministry alive and moving, but are up against walls they cannot avoid or break through.

Choosing exile is a hard thing.  Stepping into the unknown.  I’m not sure if I’ve really thought about that aspect of the Biblical exodus.  The descendants of Abraham had a choice to make that dark and terrifying night.  In the midst of inky blackness and the Egyptian wails of loss and mourning, they could either get up and trickle into the alleys and streets, meeting others shuffling through the darkness with their bread troughs on their heads and sleepy children in arm.  They didn’t know where they were going, only that they were leaving.  They couldn’t imagine what it would mean, what life would look like from day to day and week to week.  All they could do was decide whether to head out the door or stay huddled inside.

Many congregations can’t handle that decision.  They put it off and put it off and put it off until there really isn’t a decision to be made.  Until the choices don’t exist any more, or until there is nothing left but bad options.  When the neighbors are gone and there is nothing but the sound of crickets and the waiting to see who will be the last one left to turn off the lights when all is said and done.  When there is nothing but bitterness about how things have worked out and a scrambling search for someone to blame.

But last night a sat with a group who, amid tears chose exile, an uncertain future  In so doing, they opened up all sorts of unseen doors.  Possibilities they have no way of knowing about and yet to be revealed.  But it’s hard to leave what you know, even when what you know isn’t really all that it could be.  It meant a great deal to them.  It had impacted their lives in various ways and created a sense of loyalty that made their vote last night seem like betrayal and treachery on the scale of Judas.

But in exile, step by step and day by day they will learn by new means about the Lord they follow and the myriad ways He works – always for the good of those He calls (Romans 8:28) but not necessarily in ways we would like or even want.  Day by day and step by step the inky darkness and the wails of loss will give way to a new day and new possibilities.  New challenges as well.  My prayers are with them as they move down this road together but not alone.  The hardest part always seems to be the choosing, at the moment of the choosing.  Only later do we realize that was perhaps the easiest part of all, and the most necessary for all that would follow.

My prayers are with them as they prepare to enter a wilderness they’ve never known, trusting in the Lord to lead them, providing them what they need and when they need it, forming them continually more and more into his people and his image.  May they serve as guides and inspirations to the many other councils struggling with similar choices and fears.

 

Advent Lessons

December 12, 2017

Advent.  Adventus.  Coming.

These words are my stock and trade this time of year.  This is the Christian life in general, but in Advent we focus on this reality.  We are a people who are waiting and anticipating  a coming, an arrival, a return.  We all nod in agreement.  We’ve been through this before.  Sometimes for years and years and decades and decades.  This is who we are, yes.  This is what we do, yes.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

But sometimes – perhaps oftentimes – this feels perfunctory to me.

Yes, come Lord Jesus come.  But in the meantime, I have presents to order and bills to juggle during the Christmas season.  I have obligations at work and the additional obligations of social functions and other activities after work.  I have children who want to hang Christmas lights outside and a tree to purchase for inside.  I wait but I forget that I’m waiting because there is so much to be done.  And while the reality of my waiting does impact not just what I do but how I do it, at times the anticipation factor seems very, very muted.

But I’ve learned a lot about waiting this Advent.  More perhaps than ever before.  In the last week and a half our part of the country has been ravaged by fires.  They seemed to erupt all at once, in multiple places throughout the southern and central portion of our state.  Power outages and fast moving flames created an uneasy tension and fear.  How far would the fire spread?  While other fires around the state were quickly contained, the one nearest us raged on, growing to the fifth-largest in state history and threatening multiple communities, including our own.

For the last week and a half I’ve fumed in frustration trying to find reliable and updated information to keep my family informed as well as my congregation.  There have been discussions with my wife and family about what-if scenarios.  Every night and morning I’m scanning multiple sites to try and cobble together a picture of the situation.  I want to ensure that my parishioners and my family are as safe and informed as possible.  It’s easy to get lost in an emergency and panic.

I know what waiting feels like.  Waiting for news updates.  Waiting for reliable information.  Waiting to hear if someone in the affected areas is safe.  Every day is shaped by the reality of wanting to know the best information and make the best choices possible.  Every day is marked by wanting to be prepared.  I don’t know if the fire will come, but I know it might and I want to be ready for it.

Advent.  Adventus.  Coming.

How much I have to learn still about waiting for my Lord.  Craving his Word each day as the guiding power that sustains and centers me, allowing me to make wise decisions and good choices.  How gracious He is in leading and teaching me, calling me day by day always back to his promises and his Word, always waiting for me to remember what I am waiting for.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

 

More Tax Fun

December 11, 2017

Just in case the Congressional tax plan hasn’t been interesting enough for you, you might be interested to learn that in October a judge (for a second time) ruled that the clergy tax exemption on income designated for housing is unConstitutional.  This has enormous repercussions for religious organizations of every kind, as all are blessed to have the income their religious leaders spend directly on housing-related expenses excluded from taxes, saving religious groups a considerable (though probably not outrageous) amount of money.

The judge ruled that the clergy housing allowance is unfair in that it essentially is an endorsement of religious organizations (while not an endorsement of a particular religion), and as such is unfair as secular organizations and individuals do not receive a similar or equal benefit.  The ruling has been appealed, and defendants will argue that this is more an issue of preventing complicated and unnecessary entanglement of the State with religious organizations, which could lead to a breach of the separation of Church and State.

Certainly there are plenty of folks who think the status quo is Constitutional and should withstand this legal challenge.  Recommendations are that congregations continue to designate housing allowance for 2018 onwards until the case is finally resolved by an appeals court or the Supreme Court, recognizing that if the appeal is unsuccessful, it is possible (if not likely) that housing income will become taxable retroactively to the October ruling, as opposed to being implemented effective of the final court outcome.  This would place ministers of religion in a painful financial situation in having to pay back taxes on perhaps multiple years of housing allowance.

This ruling – at least thus far – applies only to housing allowances, cash given to ministers of religion to secure and maintain housing arrangements.  It does not affect a church that owns a home which it allows the minister to use (a parsonage).  Should the revocation of ministerial housing allowances stand, I’m sure there will be a massive upswing in the number of congregations that provide parsonages rather than housing allowances to their ministers.

All of which would spell the end of many small religious groups unable to cope with the additional burden of needing to pay their ministers enough additional income to offset the negative tax impact.  None of this is surprising given our cultural climate and the sudden reduction in the perceived benefit of religious organizations to society and culture as a whole.

YFA – December 10, 2017

December 10, 2017

Your Family Altar

A Weekly Devotional Resource

 

  • Sunday – Reflect on Today’s Sermon & Service
  • Monday – Old Testament Lesson – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
    • By what power will the speaker accomplish these things (v.1)?
    • What should our reaction be to the promises of God (vs.10-11)?
  • Tuesday – Epistle Lesson – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
    • How are we to test things of the Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17)?
    • Who do we trust for our sanctification (v.24)?
  • Wednesday – Gospel – John 1:6-8, 19-28
    • What was John the Baptist’s purpose (v.7)?
    • How did John accomplish his task (vs.19-28)?
  • Thursday Psalm 126
    • What great things would people say God has done in your life?
    • What things from God are you glad for in your life?
  • Friday Luther’s Small Catechism – The Second Commandment
    • Other than profanity, what are other ways God’s name could be misused?
    • What are some appropriate ways to use God’s name?
  • Saturday – (LSB #344) – On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry
    • How can you listen to the Baptist’s cry today (Stanza 1)?
    • How can you prepare your heart for Christ today (Stanza 2)?

 

 

Closing Church

December 10, 2017

I just had a call from a parishioner asking if we were having Church this morning.  She heard that another congregation in town had cancelled worship due to the fires raging in the mountains nearby and threatening some of our outlying communities and nearby towns.  I assured her that while we might have fewer folks that decide to venture out, we would indeed be meeting for worship.

I understand that some folks won’t want to come out with it raining soot and ash and the air filled with smoke.  Some of our members with frailer health or breathing issues should stay inside.  But I also know that most of our folks will still venture out for groceries and other necessary errands, and if they’re able to do that, then they can probably come to church as well.

And frankly, should.

Not out of some sort of holy obligation, but as a tangible means of coping with the fear and dread we’ve all been dealing with at one level or another for the past week.  People have been anxiously wondering and watching.  How close will the fires get?  Will I be evacuated?  What will I do if I have to leave my home?  What would I take with me?  What if I lose everything?

Of course, we tend to worry without actually doing much about it.  We’ve watched the news all week but haven’t packed any emergency bags yet.  We haven’t stocked up on food or water just in case.  We continue more or less about our daily routines, but we look out the window more often and we check the news more frequently.

It’s in just such a climate of fear and anxiety that the Gospel needs to be proclaimed loudly.  We are not to be people of fear!  It’s natural and reasonable to be worried but we are to take active steps against such worry.  We should sing and pray and gather together to offer encouragement and remember that we aren’t alone, and if worst comes to worst we will endure together.  We are to be people who point towards our Lord’s return, who live our affirmation of this reality in tangible, visible ways.  There are a lot of things that can and maybe should be cancelled during this state of uncertainty, but I don’t think Church is one of them.

Come and be uplifted and renewed.  Come to receive the assurance that your God is with you and will continue to be with you regardless of wind conditions and which direction the flames turn next.  He will be with you as you clean your car next week or as you sift through the ashes of your home.  He will be with you to death’s door and beyond.  You are his.  He has marked you in baptism.  He hasn’t forgotten you – not for a second!  And for these things it is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to him!

Reading Ramblings – December 17, 2017

December 10, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday of Advent ~ December 17, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Context: Advent holds together the twin focii of the first and second coming of the Christ. The emphasis begins with his anticipated second coming and gradually melts back into the memory of his first coming, with the second and third Sundays of Advent serving as transition points. Last week John the Baptist took center stage in the short Gospel reading from Mark. In John’s Gospel this week, John the Baptist begins to recede and the figure of the Messiah emerges into the foreground, though not by name but only by function. Not until next week – the final week of Advent – is the connection firmly made between the anticipated Messiah that John the Baptist encountered to the baby Jesus in the manger who is also John the Baptist’s relative. Our Advent waiting for Jesus’ return mirrors the waiting of God’s people for his first arrival, and our waiting for his return has meaning, purpose, and real expectation based on his first arrival.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – Isaiah prophesies about the servant of the Lord, the one who will perfectly fulfill the Lord’s will. This is revealed initially through a first-person speech of this servant in vs. 1-4, who more fully reveals his identity as the Lord himself in v.8. While the term servant doesn’t appear in these verses, the purpose and power indicated clearly link the person speaking with the servant figure already introduced in Isaiah 42 and later. In verses 1-4 we are introduced more specifically to this servant’s purpose, a hope-filled list of ministration to the suffering and devastated that will lead them from mourning to gladness. Indeed, these weak and suffering ones become oaks of righteousness (v.3), a truly amazing transformation. They are not just personally transformed, but they become the means of restoration of God’s creation. Verses 8-11 reveal the identity of the speaker as the Lord himself, an interesting turn of events! The suffering servant of the Lord also is the Lord! The injustices God’s people have suffered are detestable to him, and He will restore their fortunes so that their relationship to God as his people will be obvious to everyone.

Psalm 126 – The psalm fits perfectly with the Old Testament lesson, a plea for God to do what He in fact is promising to do. God’s people suffer and are in need of restoration. But this need is expressed first in terms of a previous restoration. In other words, God’s people ask from God something they know He has done for them in the past. The allusion is most likely the Exodus, his rescue of the Israelites from slavery and genocide. This memory of God’s salvation of their ancestors, envisioning the joy and laughter as though they had shared it firsthand, is a witness to the power of God and the special relationship Israel has with him to all the powers of the world. It was accomplished on a global stage. On the basis of this rescue, his people are bold to ask him to save and restore them again. This is our Advent prayer as well, that as our Lord came once before to save us and restore our relationship to our Creator, that He would come again to finalize that reconciliation eternally. We can be confident that our prayers are heard and will be answered in God’s perfect timing.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – We read the first portion of 1 Thessalonians 5 at the end of the last liturgical year. Here we are directed again in how we are to wait for our Lord’s return. While we may wait through difficult situations we are not to give up hope nor confidence in our Lord’s care and coming, therefore we are to continue rejoicing in the good gifts God bestows on us as part of our life of prayer and communion with him. We are to be thanksgiving people, for we have received all things in Christ Jesus! As such, we are to allow the Spirit to lead and work in our lives, immersing ourselves in God’s Word (both Old and New Testaments!) and making sure that the Word of God forms the basis and rule for our lives. In all of this we are led to abstain from evil as we are able to identify it. Paul ends his letter with a prayer for the Thessalonians, that God the Holy Spirit would purify them and make them holy (sanctify) them completely, indicating a current process that continues by faith in Jesus Christ to life in eternity after death, when the sanctification will be completed. Paul’s prayer is that the hearts and minds of these people would be protected from the attacks of the evil one and from their own sinful natures, so that their faith in Christ might not waver. In case they are uncertain if they possess this strength of faith or are capable of accomplishing it through force of will, Paul clarifies. It is God who will do this. There is to be no doubt of whether it can happen or not because God himself is the one who will do it – they need only rest in trust and faith in him rather than pushing him away and rejecting him. So you and I endure to the end not because of our character or strength of faith but because of the faithfulness of God whose love and care we need never doubt.

John 1:6-8, 19-28 – We were introduced to John the Baptist last week in Mark’s brief mention of him. Clearly John the Baptist was quite a powerful figure in his day and the years after both his ministry and Jesus’ ministry. It could be that there were more than a few people who thought that John the Baptist was the Messiah rather than Jesus, something that Mark clarifies by identifying John the Baptist with the Elijah figure prophesied in Isaiah. St. John also takes quite a bit of time here at the beginning of his gospel to clarify John the Baptist’s own ideas about himself. There is to be no doubt of John the Baptist’s relationship to Jesus, no confusing his powerful ministry with the greater and more powerful ministry of Jesus. The Baptist’s role is to prepare the way. He isn’t Elijah in the reincarnation sense, so I can understand why he says he isn’t. He may not even fully realize that he is the Elijah-figure of prophesy. That may only be a conclusion he more fully understands as time goes on, after his arrest.

What matters here is who John points to, a man lost in the crowd perhaps as he speaks with the Pharisees. A nobody, yet He is greater than every one who ever has or ever will walk the earth. The Gospel leaves us craning our necks, trying to see that face in the crowd, the one who hasn’t begun his ministry yet but will within a matter of days. He looks vaguely familiar. Why yes, He’s the baby from the nativity set. Not just a baby, but the very savior of the world, who will accomplish his task through a brutal crucifixion and a miraculous resurrection from the dead.

We dare not isolate the baby in the manger from the man along the river or the man hanging on the cross or the man appearing alive from the dead to his bewildered followers. We dare not separate the Incarnation of the Son of God from his return in glory to usher in final judgment, the final purging of evil from creation, the final reconciliation of heaven and earth. It is only these other aspects of Jesus that make the baby in the manger noteworthy on any level beyond his slightly stunned mother and father.

Keep in Mind…

December 9, 2017

I think this article does a good job of identifying some of the major changes in the post-Christian Church landscape.  It isn’t the congregation your grandparents grew up in, for certain.  Certainly the Church needs to emphasize basic Biblical and doctrinal teaching more than ever before since many people in the pew may not know – or agree – with the teaching and preaching from the pulpit, at least in all regards.

Fired Up

December 7, 2017

A good portion of the back country mountains to the east and slightly south of us is on fire.  The Thompson Fire has generated a good amount of publicity nationwide since it erupted on Monday night.  As of this morning they are beginning to evacuate people from the town where we used to live.  Not close to where we used to live – not that particular neighborhood – but closer.  And that means the fire is getting closer to us and where we are now.  Again, not terribly close, but closer.  If the fire were to reach the mountains around our town, we personally would likely be safe from mandatory evacuations, but some of my members wouldn’t be.

Getting information is difficult.  The official fire site (above) is not updated very regularly, and we often hear information that isn’t posted on the site so we’re not sure.  It’s frustrating that good information isn’t readily available in a more reliable way.  Still, we have as good an idea of what is happening as possible.

All of which has made for some interesting conversations with our kids the past couple of days.  They’re old enough to be aware of the situation, but not old enough yet to conceptualize how to respond and prepare.  We’ve had conversations about what we would do if it got closer or if we had to leave our home.  We’re working today to identify the important things we would need or want to take with us if we had to leave quickly.  All good life preparation stuff.

It has also prompted the discussion that if we were to have to leave, it would be the kids and my wife leaving, driving away towards safety with family in another state as opposed to cooling their heels for days or longer in a hotel or imposing on friends.  I would want to stay behind.  Most of our congregation is older.  Many of them have family and friends that could help them and ensure they had a place to go.  But not all of them.  I’d need to make sure that they were safely evacuated.  And then it would be a matter of trying to minister as best possible to those people in the area dealing with loss and uncertainty.  Emergency shelters.  First responders camps.

Frankly,  I can’t wrap my  head precisely around what I would need to do if I stayed, I just know I would need to stay.  There aren’t courses in Seminary about what to do in the case of natural disasters.  You sort of feel it out as you go, I guess.  But the first thing that’s clear is that I need for my family to know that I’ll be careful and that they should go when they need to.  I think we’ve communicated well.  I don’t think it will be necessary, at least I pray it isn’t.  But if the time should come, we’ll part ways just as we’ve lived our days together – trusting that God is in charge and watching over us, and knowing that we are safely in the arms of Jesus at all times.  Not that this means bad things can’t or won’t happen, but even if they do, we’ll be together again.  It isn’t the end.  There is  hope and it is in that hope that we make our plans and preparations.

It’s surreal, looking out the window at the thick smoke that fills the air.  Knowing that the dusting of white on the ground isn’t snow.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  In hell, perhaps.  Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  For Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

May He be your comfort as well.  In fires and earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, life and death, tedium and banality.