Archive for February, 2019

Creating Community

February 28, 2019

Last August my wife  and family and I decided that we wanted to begin a new ministry outreach.  Some of our spiritual giftings are in the area of hospitality and helping people feel comfortable, welcome, respected, safe.  For years, I’ve been working in the recovery community locally, engaging each week with men and women committed to a year-long residential addiction recovery program.  I’ve had many joys in getting to know these people in their journey.

The difficulty is that for many of them, the relationship I build with them is viewed as part of their recovery program.  Thus, when they graduate from the program, I never see or hear from them again.  In one sense that can be good and fine.  Some are from out of town and head back to their own areas to continue their life of recovery.  Other times, I know they’re still local.  I give them my contact info, but I think there’s the idea that I was part of their recovery program and now they’ve graduated from that and moved on.  Yet the life of recovery – modeled after the life of Christian faith – is grounded in relationships and community.

So we decided to begin inviting small groups of 3-4 clients from the women’s program over to our home for dinner each week.  Over the course of two months all of the women came over.  Our  goal was simply to provide community and relationship.  To give them three hours to be in a home where there are no expectations other than being together.  They can relax.  Sometimes they help in preparing dinner or setting the table.  They help in clean up after we enjoy the meal together.  Often times there are board games or video games for them with our kids.  Each night is slightly different based on who is with us.

It was great.  We enjoyed it and the ladies enjoyed it.  Our goal was that this would be an ongoing thing.  Never an expectation or requirement but always an option for them.  But once all of them came over, the staff assumed that was the end of it.  After some further conversations  and explanations, we started up the dinners again this month, and have another one tonight.  Again, good experiences.  Not always easy, but certainly fascinating.

But tonight was a first.  One of the ladies who attended one of our very first dinners last year called my office up.  Normally she plays softball on Wednesday nights but due to rain, the game was cancelled.  She remembered coming for Wednesday Bible studies at our church, and I think in part because of the different kind of relationship she experienced briefly in our home, she felt comfortable reaching out.  I picked her up and brought her to our regular Wednesday night, informal pot-luck dinner at our church and then she stayed for Bible study afterwards.  She indicated she planned to start coming to our Thursday dinners at our house next week.

It  was a very affirming moment.  Building relationships is long, slow work.  Our congregation recently was blessed to have some missionaries to Turkey come by and speak with us for a bit.  He described a relationship with a couple and family, and the ups and downs of that relationship and how God the Holy Spirit brought others into the relationship as well to move it along.  Eventually the couple became Christian, which changed their lives and led now to the curiosity of their children about the faith, having seen how much happier their parents were in their new faith.  At the end of his sharing I asked him how long this relationship had been going on.  How long had he and his wife been working with this couple.  Loving them.  Caring about them.  Getting to know them and allowing themselves to be known.  Ultimately being able to share the love of Jesus Christ.  Well over 20 years, he responded.  Over 20 years for that relationship to grow and develop!

So little baby steps are a huge blessing.  To see that in opening ourselves and our homes, we can leave impressions, make impacts on people that may not be recognizable initially.  Not for weeks or months or years.  Sometimes not for decades or lifetimes!  It was a further confirmation of the direction my family and I are being drawn in through ministry.  It’s exciting and invigorating even as it’s exhausting.  But it’s nice to hope that it’s making a difference.  Slowly.  One person at a time.

Two Cultures

February 26, 2019

I spend a lot of time thinking about the shape of the Church in the coming years.  As our culture continues to move away from any sort of consensus about much of anything, let alone an interpretation and understanding of reality and humanity that calls us to limit ourselves rather than indulging ourselves in every manner possible, what will the Church look like?  Will the Church be able to adapt?

I’m convinced that adaptation will mean the recreation of the Church from an institution that presumes everyone else agrees and should support it to one that acknowledges it is very much alone in a sea of competing ideas and beliefs.  In this regard it will be no different from the first century of the faith.  However there must first come a transition where the Church finally acknowledges that this is the case and begins to act like it.

A lot of congregations acknowledge the first part to one degree or another, but the second part – changing practice in response to this understanding – that’s a lot slower in coming.  The result is inevitably shrinking congregations and dying congregations.  Congregations that – if they can’t replenish their membership through births among their members – won’t be able to sustain their larger-scale church models in a time when congregational size overwhelmingly will be much smaller than ever before (with the obvious exception of a small percentage of mega-churches).

Part of making the second change, starting to act like we aren’t the default option, requires first an understanding.  I’ve talked with plenty of congregations in varying situations of comfort or distress.  All of them talk about mission, all of them talk about evangelism.  Most of them don’t really mean it.  Those that actually mean it are really talking about reaching out to disaffected or former church members of one denomination or another.  Their concept of evangelism basically boils down to fishing in an aquarium.  This isn’t bad, but it needs to be recognized.

Bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ who aren’t already Christian or formerly Christian to some degree requires a further awareness of what we think it looks like.  I think oftentimes when congregants talk about evangelism or bringing people to Christ, what they really imagine is bringing people to church.

Isn’t that the same thing you ask?  No, it’s not.  Bringing someone to faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who died and rose again in order to save our eternal lives is one thing.  That is the cultural shift from unbelief to belief, from faith in something or someone else to faith in the triune God of the Bible.  Many Christians assume this means bringing that same person into the Church.  Their church.  Their church culture.

Sharing the Gospel isn’t the same thing as sharing church.  Sharing the Gospel is much different from then presuming that new Christians will value your existing experience of the faith and expression of the faith.  Yes, new Christians become part of The Church, the gathering of all the saints past, present and future in Christ.  But that doesn’t require them to adopt our church culture.  The Christian Church around the world has many common features that look and feel very different based on the culture of the area and people.  This culture naturally influences Christian culture and church culture.  That influence can be good and beautiful or problematic, but it’s going to happen to some extent.

If people don’t have a churched background or mindset already, we have to recognize that when the Holy Spirit brings them to faith, they’re going to need to plug into a worshiping Christian community.  We call this a church, but that is now shorthand for a lot of things that aren’t necessarily part of being a Christian, but have come to be viewed that way by generations of Christians in a similar cultural context.  Oftentimes, the Christians in that shared cultural context expect that new additions to the body of Christ will assume those cultural contexts.  They’ll step in and keep things going the way they have been for generations and decades.  But this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is necessary for a particular congregational culture, but not necessary for the new Christian.  This isn’t a situation where we have to define one perspective as bad and the other good, but we ought to acknowledge that there might be significant differences.

If we want to talk about bringing people to Christ, about actively working with the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus with others, we need to be careful that this is what we’re sharing rather than our particular church culture.  One emphasizes the objective, historical reality of the incarnate Son of God.  The other tends to focus on programs, things to do, a community to be a part of.  These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are not the first thing.  Faith in Jesus first, then the other things.  And when it comes to the other things, it is possible that a new convert to Christianity will emphatically affirm their faith in Jesus, yet struggle to adapt to a particular church culture.

This presents opportunities to form new church cultures that preserve core aspects of the Christian life as lived by people over 2000 years – worship, study, fellowship, love and care for neighbors, etc.  But how these are accomplished might look very different.  How resources are allocated might look very different.  Still faithful to God, not not easily compatible with one another.

I think this is part of the disconnect many congregations are experiencing right now, why so many struggle.  They expect that people are just naturally going to understand and desire to be an active part of a church culture, when they may not, even if they have faith in Jesus Christ.   Being able to recognize the larger changing cultural landscape will ultimately be crucial to the adaptation of the body of Christ to new cultural values and perspectives.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

February 25, 2019

Once upon a time British miners used to take caged canaries into mines with them.  The canaries would die if there was carbon dioxide in the mine.  Because they were so sensitive, it would alert the miners to a dangerous situation before they themselves would succumb to the lack of breathable air.

The canary is still alive this week, despite some pretty life-threatening rumblings in American politics.

New York passed legislation ensuring that abortions remained legal in that state even if Roe v. Wade was overturned in the future.  Not only this, they made abortions easier to obtain, no longer requiring a licensed doctor to perform them.  And they extended thee legality of abortion to the third trimester, theoretically up until labor and possibly into labor.  A similar bill in Virginia nearly passed their legislature, while their governor opined on radio about a situation where a mother and a doctor might discuss – after giving birth, while the baby is “kept comfortable” whether or not the baby ought to live.

The term for that is infanticide.  And this governor apparently thinks it is a viable possibility.  This governor outraged many people in our country with that suggestion.  However the pressure to remove him from office is not related to that comment, as staggering as it is.  Rather, it has to do with yearbook photos from decades ago that surfaced of him in blackface.

But the canary is still alive.

The idea of infanticide has now been publicly floated in our political culture at a very high level and the canary is still alive.  It wasn’t killed by an overwhelming response in our country against it.  Now, at the national level many of  our current lawmakers have refused to vote for a bill that would have clarified even further existing laws that make infanticide a criminal act punishable by law.  Rather than vote for a bill that would have required reporting of any such actions by anyone present, and once again stating that doctors as well as parents would be held legally accountable if they knowingly or intentionally caused the death of a baby born alive after a failed abortion attempt, many lawmakers voted against it.

Some claim that this means nothing, since the bill  really didn’t add much to the existing laws.  Infanticide is already illegal in our country, and this bill would just mandate reporting of any infanticide that might happen.  Say,  in an abortion clinic.  Like, maybe, Planned Parenthood.

The takeaway from this should be crystal clear.  The Democratic Party’s commitment to abortion is not just protecting a woman’s right to her body, while hoping that there will be less and less need for such services (through better contraception, sex education, and other things – not through more responsible sexual choices!  Let’s not be radical here!).  The Democratic Party is now stating publicly that it supports the death of a baby.  They’ve pushed past their own arbitrary definition of human life beginning when a baby is viable outside the womb – definitely third trimester stuff.  It isn’t even really a life after being born – even when professionals are trying to kill it first.

So  when is that baby a human being?

Is there going to be a mass exodus from the Democratic Party for crossing the line?  Are those who deluded themselves into believing – contra science as well as Scripture – that a baby inside a woman isn’t really a human being until some sort of arbitrary timeframe – going to now desert the party for crossing the line clearly into supporting the possibility of infanticide?

Will they kill the canary of infanticide, and perhaps the canary of abortion at long last?  Will they stand up and prove that going down this path is political suicide?  Will they demand that their party protect human life in all stages and forms?

Maybe not.  Maybe they’re the canary that’s dead.


Reading Ramblings – March 3, 2019

February 24, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Transfiguration of Our Lord – March 3, 2019

Texts: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 99; Hebrews 3:1-6; Luke 9:28-36

Context: Transfiguration Sunday observes the Christ’s transfiguration – a few moments during his Incarnation (also referred to as his humiliation) of transcendent glory. It is Jesus, but not the simple, ordinary, human Jesus. He is that but more. Amplified. Glorified. Why, we might well ask. We have no reliable answer. Is Jesus receiving emotional support from Moses and Elijah, encouragement for the rough road ahead? Is this simply a means of further convincing the disciples of his divinity? Is this a visualization of what the life of prayer is, participating with all the saints in the presence of the glory of God? Is this God the Father’s love bursting forth in pride and joy at his Son’s obedience and faithfulness? Perhaps all of these, and perhaps many more things as well we won’t clearly know now, or perhaps ever. But God the Father’s Word remains instructive – Listen to him!

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – Moses and the Lord have a rocky relationship, one that ultimately prevents Moses from entering the Promised Land with the people of Israel. But he is afforded a supernatural look at the area God’s people will possess. Then he dies. He has the unique distinction of being buried by God so that nobody knows the place of his burial, and nobody can venerate his tomb. By Jesus’ day, the Samaritans are awaiting the miraculous return of Moses to usher in a new age. For the Jews, Moses remains the greatest of Old Testament prophets. Yet his role only points forward to the greatest and last of the prophets, Jesus. Moses is the tool of God to save God’s people from slavery and genocide. Jesus is God’s Incarnate tool to restore creation from the grip of sin, Satan, and death.

Psalm 99 – This psalm proclaims the majesty and sovereignty of God. He is over all peoples as well as spiritual creatures (cherubim) and creation itself. Cherubim are winged angelic creatures, mentioned repeatedly in Scripture (Genesis 3:24, etc). Beyond their winged nature we don’t have descriptions of them, although some presume that Ezekiel’s vision in 1:4-28 concerned cherubim. Whatever their precise nature, while they would appear fearsome or powerful to mortals, they are inferior in power to God. But earth, humanity and the cherubim are all exhorted to give God praise for his justice and righteousness. We are further exhorted to praise based on others who served and praised him, such as Moses and Aaron and Samuel. They are mentioned for their obedience, for their calling on his name, and for his answering them. Yet they were not perfect (v.8), a reminder to us to strive for obedience while ultimately trusting in his gracious forgiveness. While the last verse would likely be interpreted in later times as referring to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the reference here is non-specific, and might refer to Mt. Gerazim, Mt. Moriah, or Mt. Sinai.

Hebrews 3:1-6 – In addressing his Hebrew audience, Paul (the alleged author) draws on Moses as point of comparison as well as to distinguish Jesus. Jesus was faithful just as Moses was faithful. Yet Jesus’ glory is greater because of Jesus’ identity as the eternal Son of God as well as Jesus of Nazareth. Moses was a faithful servant to God, although imperfectly. Jesus is a faithful Son, and is perfectly faithful. So naturally Jesus should displace Moses as the object of veneration. Jesus should be who we constantly refer to and look to for example as well as strength and forgiveness. Moses’ identity and work foreshadowed the perfect work of Jesus. Frankly, I think it would have made sense to include the following five verses as well, which elaborate on the implications of what Paul has just said. The Israelites rebelled at times against Moses and against God. Moses was just a man, after all. And God was unseen. Their rebellion cost them their lives in the desert. But continuing to rebel against the Son of God will have much graver consequences.

Luke 9:28-36 – Jesus is transfigured, and his inner circle of disciples glimpse him in his heavenly glory, that exceeds even that of two of the greatest figures in the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah. Their discussion focuses not on the past but what is about to happen. Indeed, we might well imagine that all of heaven’s conversation is oriented towards this very same topic! All of salvation history is about to culminate in Jesus’ victory over Satan, sin and death. What else could they possibly want to talk about?! Yet Jesus’ disciples don’t understand this, and Peter, struggling for something to say or do in this amazing moment, offers for them to all stay here, rather than proceeding on towards Jesus’ victory through death and resurrection. Small wonder God the Father speaks to both identify Jesus clearly, and direct his disciples to listen to him.

Since no words of Jesus are recorded in this scene, God the Father’s directive is more general in nature. They are to listen to Jesus constantly. Not to anyone else. Not to each other. Not to their own inner voices. Only to Jesus. He will be the source of truth and clarification. And He will, when his work is done, send the Holy Spirit to speak of him, as directed by God the Father, so that they might better understand and see the scope of Scripture as pointing directly to him.

Note Luke’s use of the word exodus, sometimes translated as departure in verse 31. The choice of that word is likely intentional, drawing his listeners minds back more naturally than ours perhaps to the greatest event of the Old Testament, the Exodus from Egypt. This isn’t manipulation on Luke’s part, but rather part and parcel of the event as Jesus and God the Father orchestrate it. Jesus is on a mountaintop meeting with Moses, similar to how God the Father meets with Moses on Mt. Sinai. The presence of God the Father is indicated both in his speaking as well as in the cloud that envelops the mountain. God used Moses to save his people, a real historical event, but an event that also foreshadows in small what Jesus will accomplish on a universal scale.

Elijah is one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, mighty in power just as Moses was and as Jesus is. But again, the signs Elijah was given to use in his ministry pale in comparison with Jesus’. Between Moses and Elijah the entire Old Testament – the Law and the Prophets – are both represented, as both point ultimately forward to Jesus and what He will do.

God the Father’s Word stands today – He points you and I to the Word made flesh, to not just see Jesus in his miraculous glory but to listen to all that He said, all that was recorded from him and passed down to us in the Bible. There is no greater conversation topic than what Jesus accomplished and the blessings of that accomplishment passed down to each and every person.

Picture Perfect Extinction

February 20, 2019

This report on the extinction of the first species of mammal (at least sofar as we know) struck me as curious.  I’m wondering if this species is truly extinct, or only extinct in the wild?  Because, if scientists are so convinced of global warming and the inevitability of rising water levels, and if those rising water levels were being measured, and it seemed obvious that this habitat was at great risk, why didn’t they save some of these critters to keep in a zoo for breeding, etc.?

As is, it reads like a publicity stunt of sorts.  I lament the extinction of this animal (or any of God’s creatures), but I also wonder about why steps aren’t being taken to protect endangered species from rising water levels.  Surely there was room in a zoo somewhere – several zoos  no less – to ensure this species survived?


The Center Court View

February 19, 2019

As our society continues to spiral out of control in how to understand men and women in terms of gender and sexuality, ideological voices seek to codify new definitions and ways of doing things grounded not in reality but rather in wishful thinking.  In no area is this more apparent than the issue of transgenders participating in sports.

Ideologically, it’s attractive to say that men and women are no different physically, and therefore a man who identifies as a woman has no advantage when competing against actual females.  I remember an argument I had with a student of mine in an online college course over a decade ago.  I made some comment in regards to the physical strength differences between men and women and she took issue with this. Women are every bit as strong as men, she insisted.  I acknowledged that certain muscle groups in women might be stronger than equivalent muscle groups in men.  I acknowledged that women who train hard will be stronger than the average man who doesn’t train hard.  But that all other things being equal, men are still the stronger sex.  She wouldn’t have any of it.  To her, equality between men and women extended to physical equality, and no amount of studies or other data would convince her otherwise.

This sort of mindset is driving decisions to ban any sort of discrimination, including sports.  Males who identify as females are competing in female athletics and many are proving – not surprisingly – to be much stronger and faster than their actual female competitors.  I’ve  seen complaints about this in the mixed martial arts world, so it doesn’t surprise me that other actual athletes  – rather than politicians – would be criticizing it as well.

And they’re being criticized for saying out loud what anyone with an ounce of common sense or actual experience in physical contests between men and women could tell you: men are stronger.  A man may psychologically identify as a woman, but his body is still a man’s body despite whatever surgeries or hormone therapies he might undergo.  The irony is that those  who are speaking out against allowing transgender men to compete against actual women include not just conservative people  (like myself), but also people on the opposite end of the ideological and sexual spectrum.  People like Martina  Navratilova, an amazing tennis player who came out as gay almost 40 years ago.

She is being condemned by people who are driven by ideology rather than reality, who hope to reshape the world into what they would like it to be rather than what it actually is.  And in the meantime, actual real people are being hurt and deprived of the honors that are appropriate to them and their gender.

When I was a kid in the height of the Cold War, we used to make jokes about the Olympics and the athletes that came from Soviet bloc countries like East Germany.  We joked because of the stereotype that their athletes were so much bigger and stronger and powerful than many other countries, particularly the women’s teams because they often seemed suspiciously like men.  How surreal that what once was considered cheating is now being supported and legally mandated by some in the misplaced name of a misguided equality.

Book Review: Pollution and the Death of Man

February 18, 2019

Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology

by Dr. Francis Schaeffer

I picked up some books at the used book store a looooong time ago.  Lost them, forgot about them, and rediscovered them recently and plucked the top one up.  While I’m a big admirer of Schaeffer’s practical theology and philosophy, I had forgotten how painful he can be to read.  It isn’t that the concepts are too technical or complex, but more that writing is just not his forte.  It’s one thing to think big thoughts, but an entirely different thing to communicate them in understandable terms!

But this book, after an initial rocky start, really is far more accessible than some of Schaeffer’s other writing.  The topic hasn’t gotten any less important in the last 50 years, and while his thoughts on it are something that anyone well-versed in the Bible might piece together on their own, it doesn’t seem to be a topic or a treatment that has attracted much attention.  Some of Schaeffer’s observations in this book are fantastic in that they apply in so many areas beyond ecology, yet they apparently elude so many Christians.

Schaeffer really hits his stride in Chapters 4-6.  He grounds Christian ecology on, logically enough, the creation account in Genesis.  He argues that Christianity is unique among religions and philosophies for providing the baseline argument of why we should treat nature kindly and gently: because God created it. Most other religions and philosophies argue for a certain treatment of nature that is far more anthropocentric – we should take care of nature because it benefits us, specifically, as human beings.  Schaeffer argues powerfully that such an anthropocentric view is dangerous, as is the other extreme – pantheism.

Schaeffer goes on to offer a compelling description of man and his place in creation, separated by a gap not only between himself and his Creator, but between himself and all the rest of creation.  That, endued alone with the imago dei, man is unique in creation but not separated from creation.  He is both unique in the imago dei and not unique in that he also is a creation.  Schaeffer offers an exploration of this and how man should treat nature.  The example that stands out is that man is free to rid his home of ants.  This is a necessity (at least most people would view it as such!) and so many does this.  But when he encounters the ant on the sidewalk, he steps over it.  The ant has a right to his antness in his proper habitat, just as man does.  And man does not have the right to arbitrarily destroy nature when there is no need for doing so.  And if there is a need to do so, man can choose to limit himself (in terms of time and profit, primarily) so that nature is not unnecessarily destroyed more than needs be.

This is really helpful reading.  It prevents us  from erring in the traditional way, but claiming that as God’s highest creation the rest of creation exists only for our own use or pleasure.  No, creation has a right to exist in itself, though man has the right to utilize nature towards his needs and ends, so long as it is done without losing sight of nature as a creation of God, just like mankind itself.  And it prevents us from erring with the pantheists or the materialists.  Pantheists see all things as divine and ultimately degrade humanity in the process.  Materialists do the same thing but because they lack any sense of divinity, rather than suffering from too great a sense of it.

Finally, Schaeffer rightly asserts that Christians should be living out these truths as witness to our culture and the world around us.  That our individual and corporate lives should be governed by decisions of self-limitation in order to preserve and respect the rest of God’s creation.  Powerful thoughts for Christians and their families and congregations!




Reading Ramblings – February 24, 2019

February 17, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – February 24, 2019

Texts: Genesis 45:3-15; Psalm 103:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:21-26, 30-42; Luke 6:27-38

Context: The readings two weeks ago led us to consider that the Church consists of those God has called to faith. Last week’s readings led us to remember that the central message of the Church, the central fact it should point to, is the reality of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead – as He prophesied, and which fact authenticates his claim to be nothing less than the Son of God come to save us from our sins. This week’s readings lead us to consider a mark of the Church, which is a place where forgiveness is taken seriously. Worked at. Practiced at. Prayed for and about. Encouraged and exhorted. Some might say this is the hallmark of the Christian faith, the epitome of faith put into action.

Genesis 45:3-15That’s all easy for Joseph. God chose him specially. Of course he could forgive his brothers. But I’m not like him! We look for ways to distance ourselves from Joseph and his forgiveness. Hated by his brothers, nearly murdered by them, sold into foreign slavery where he spent years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit – his forgiveness here looks unreasonable, unearthly. But his forgiveness is grounded in an awareness of God at work in this world. It is a decision on Joseph’s part to trust that what his brothers actually did mean for evil, God actually used for good, and Joseph’s privilege is to see that and proclaim it. Forgiveness is not an emotional state but an act of the will, an act of deliberate faith to trust that God is at work in the world and can work good out of even the worst situations and intentions. It is not excusing or nullifying the evil that we are capable of, but an insistence that the grace and love of God can, will, and must be the last and final word of triumph over all such evil.

Psalm 103:1-13 – How can we cultivate a constant awareness of God’s goodness and forgiveness to us that should naturally spill over into goodness and forgiveness to others? This psalm offers a wonderful example! The psalmist calls us first and foremost to remember God’s goodness to us, personally. Our relationship with God should be grounded by a perception that whatever goodness and joy we have in our lives is ultimately from him. But before this, we should affirm that God has forgiven our sin. This is the fundamental healing that must come first before any other healing. It is the acknowledgment that my failure to live up to being the kind of person I think I should is not simply a private disappointment, but an echo of the affront my sin is to the God who created me. What I excuse as typical or common is in fact fatal, left untreated it is a rejection of God’s forgiveness in Christ. The fact that everyone struggles with sin is not an indication that sin is not serious. It is testimony to our dire condition, a condition so dire that we begin to accept it as normal or even healthy! As we consider God’s goodness to us individually, we should also remember his goodness to others, which we are privileged insight into through the Bible. If I don’t perceive God’s goodness personally in this specific moment, I can remember his past goodness to me and his goodness to others. What a beautiful psalm about the forgiveness of God that should strengthen our resolve to forgive others!

1 Corinthians 15:21-26, 30-42 – Paul continues his line of thought regarding the resurrection. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we can expect to likewise be raised from the dead, since in Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated. Jesus is the first fruits, and we in faith will likewise rise. Our own resurrection will wait until Jesus’ return and his final victory over all his enemies, including death. Immediately we want to know more. What sort of resurrection will it be? What sort of body will I have? Paul dismisses such speculation. God will determine what our resurrected body will be like. But we can be sure it will be an appropriate body. We won’t be turned into animals or plants or angels, but will be raised as human beings. Our bodies will be different, but in like kind. Similar, but different. Perfected. Not prone to the frailties and weaknesses of our current bodies either physically or in terms of sin. While the specifics are not ours to know, we can trust that God the Father who created us in the first place will raise us to a new life in Christ.

Luke 6:27-38 – Conventional wisdom says to like and love those who like and love you, and to kick to the curb anyone who doesn’t affirm and reinforce everything you enjoy or think is important. Life is too short for that kind of negativity is a frequent mantra on social media. But in Christ we are not to withhold love from anyone, even those most difficult to love and least deserving of it. We do this not because of them, but because of the One who first loves us. As Christ forgives us, we are not at liberty to withhold similar forgiveness and love from others. This doesn’t mean that we forego justice or allow abuse to proliferate. But it means that justice is administered in love, always desiring that the convicted would receive the grace and forgiveness of God regardless of the sentence they must serve here and now. We love our enemies not to condone evil but in the hopes that they would turn from their evil. We love our enemies not to earn points with God, but as an extension of the life of repentance and forgiveness we are called to lead. As we remember constantly our own need for forgiveness, we are led to see others in a more merciful light.

Some scholars interpret this section of Luke -as well as the beatitudes that precede it – as catechetical in nature. Jesus is teaching people what the Christian life is. It consists of a way of being (vs. 17-26) as well as doing (vs.27-36). Emotion is not enough – the Christian wills herself to act also. Early fragments of Christian liturgical materials from the 4th-5th centuries AD include prayers for those opposed to the worshiping community, including those who disagreed with them theologically or held non-orthodox doctrines.

Vs. 29-30 provide concrete examples of what a believer should do when faced with persecution. If someone has the ability to injure them and are acting out, the Christian is to submit themselves fully to that persecution. If someone is willing to strike them, they should allow them to strike them again. If someone is willing to take their outer garment that was necessary for survival on chilly nights, they should offer the under garment as well. This behavior is not rationale, but it is behavior that is anchored in the implicit assertion by Jesus here that people will persecute them. Make no mistake, Jesus is saying, if you think that following me is going to make you friends and win you acclaim, you are wrong. Following me will lead to persecution, so prepare yourselves for it. We should remember that Jesus is not asking us to do anything more – or less – than what He himself did during his arrest and eventual crucifixion.

Fishing in the Aquarium

February 15, 2019

Last week’s Gospel reading was Jesus and Peter, some empty nets and a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11).  The net result, so to speak, was Peter’s recognition (undoubtedly he had a similar response at the wedding at Cana in John 2) that Jesus was something more than just an ordinary rabbi.  In response to Peter’s confession of sinfulness, Jesus conveys the equivalence of absolution in telling Peter to get up.  There are things to be done, and Jesus is the one who is going to make Peter capable of doing them.  And there in the boats in the hot mid-day sun on the Sea of Galilee, as the fish pulled up and weighing the boats down undoubtedly began to grow rather pungent, Jesus tells Peter that from now on he will be catching men.  People, not fish.

That fishing was going to be real fishing.  Not on the Sea of Galilee but throughout Judea.  It was real fishing because while they were casting nets and lines among God’s chosen people, they were bringing them into something new and different.  Not sacrifices and festivals but the presence of the Son of God, the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.  Everything was changing, and people needed to be brought from where they were and what they knew (or thought they knew) into the new reality unfolding around them so that it might unfold within them.

Our congregation had an outreach Sunday a few weeks ago.  Like many congregations, we watch our members grow older and our numbers begin to shrink.  In response, some of our leadership determined that we needed to be intentional about inviting people.  A date was set, a brunch was planned, and we had multiple visitors that day.  More than I expected, frankly.  It was great.  And now we’re in the midst of follow-up and hoping that they will return and become part of the community permanently.

I’ve felt guilty, as I’ve talked about with my wife, because I don’t believe that ultimately this sort of thing is the answer to our congregation’s long-term viability.  I would never say we shouldn’t.  In fact, we shouldn’t need to have outreach Sundays because people should always be thinking about inviting people to church!  Yet I don’t feel that this will solve the long-term challenges facing the vast majority of Christian congregations of all stripes around our country today.  Long-term challenges that are being encountered in very short-term timeframes.

Am I just a pessimist?  Many would say so.

But my wife pointed out that invite-a-friend Sundays are useful for inviting Christian friends, neighbors, and family to come to church with us..  People who might not have a church home at the moment, or maybe have been away from church for many years but still consider themselves a Christian.  They haven’t rejected Christ or the Bible or the Christian faith, but they’re out of the habit of Christian worship and might need a little nudge (or a big kick in the rear) to get them back where they should have been all along.  In other words, we’re reaching out primarily to people we already know and people who are very likely already Christian.

It’s like fishing in an aquarium.  Fishing among fish that have already been caught.

And the problem with that is that very quickly you deplete the aquarium.

Our culture is in the midst of a massive shift.  It has been for decades and now we’re really seeing it pick up steam, as what was once marginal issues for fringe elements of our culture has become front and center and mainstream.  That shift is driving people away from church.  It is convincing parents that they should not force their children to come to church but rather let them make up their own minds.  The result is predictable.  If faith is not a core matter to the parents, it isn’t going to be for the kids either, barring some sort of miracle.

And what is rapidly happening is that the number of fish in the outreach aquarium of pre-existing believers not already in a congregation is shrinking.  Ideally, congregations everywhere should be struggling to reach these people and draw them into Christian community where they can be nurtured and cared for and discipled in the faith.  Hopefully, there are a lot of nets and a lot of lines being cast out there.  Either those folks are going to be drawn into Christian communities (hopefully!) or they will refuse to be.  Either way, the pool of available fish in the aquarium will continue to rapidly shrink and there are going to be fewer and fewer fish to replace them.  If fewer and fewer people are going to church in the first place, there will be fewer and fewer people with a Christian background or upbringing or even just a familiarity with some Biblical or doctrinal basics that, for one reason or another, quit going to church and wind up in the aquarium, hopefully to be reeled back in at some point.

What the Church needs, in my opinion, is not to quit fishing in the aquarium, because by all means, those people need to be brought in and plugged in to Christian community.  But more and more the Church needs to retrain itself to fish out in the wild.  On the lakes, in the streams, out on the ocean.  Casting out nets and throwing out lines to draw in people who have very little or no Christian or church background or experience.  The Church needs to go back to what the apostles and the early Church had to do – preach the good news to people who didn’t know it already because they’d never heard it.

For that type of fishing, an outreach Sunday isn’t the right tackle.  Not the right sort of bait.  If someone knows nothing of the Bible or church, has never heard the Gospel, that the Son of God took on humanity in order to suffer and die and rise from the dead to reconcile us to God, then a Christian worship is not going to make any sense.  All the shorthand and lingo that Christians take for granted is going to go right over these other people’s heads, or going to hit them between the eyes in an offensive manner.  Worship is  an action appropriate for those who have come to faith and who are learning what that means for  their life.  It isn’t ideal for someone who has no clue.

Some congregations might be inclined to say that fishing in the wild doesn’t sound very appealing.  They don’t have the gear for that.  They’ve not worked with that kind of bait before and don’t know what sort of weights to use or the right time of day for that kind of fishing.  But the reality is it doesn’t matter if you think you’re equipped.  You’re going to have to learn how to do it because the aquarium will be depleted at some point, and either you’re learning how to fish in the wild, or you starve and die.

Most congregations and Christians, in my opinion, prefer to take their chances.  We’ll just be the best aquarium fishers out there, and we’ll get all those fish, and we’ll keep going longer than the others!  I can’t say it’s not a reasonable strategy, but  I’ve rarely seen a congregation go all in on that, follow up their preference with action in a meaningful, sustained way.

But I’ve really never seen a congregation that wholeheartedly decided it was time to put their emphasis into fishing in the wild.

Locally, in their own community and city or neighborhood.  I’ve never seen a congregation that realized that missionaries are now appropriate for their city, not just for some distant group of people living in the forest somewhere and speaking a different language.  But that’s the kind of fishing Jesus called Peter and the other apostles to.  Wild fishing, but local fishing.  There wasn’t an aquarium at that point.  They had to learn how to preach and teach the Gospel.  They had to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to be at work preparing their hearers ahead of time and working in their hearts and minds during and after their preaching and teaching.  They had to learn to see the people they had grown up with and worked next to and even worshiped next to as people who needed a missionary, fish needing to be brought in to the Good News.

Fishing in the wild is hard and frightening.  It takes  getting used to.  But it’s part of being faithful, and I believe that congregations will need to recognize it and begin adapting themselves to it.  And quickly.  Because as rapidly as you see our culture shifting and changing before our very eyes? As rapidly as you see people deny truth and embrace death as victory, that’s how quick the aquarium is being depleted.

That’s how quickly you’re going to need to start fishing in the wild, locally.


Unexpected Kindness

February 15, 2019

I can count the number of times I’ve run into a parishioner while I’m practicing or competing in the bar pool league – in an actual bar – on zero fingers.   I’ve invited a parishioner to join me for a beer and a game of pool, but never bumped into one.  Given the demographics of my congregation, age-wise, it just isn’t very likely, and so it hasn’t happened in the eight years I’ve been playing.

Until this past Tuesday evening.

I had just arrived at the bar we’d be competing at.  I showed up early to practice, and because it’s one of my favorite bars to play in because of the number of tables, their overall good condition, and the general ambiance of  the place.  Low-key.  I know the bartenders and they know me – or at least what my drink of choice is.  I enter, do a cursory scan of the place, find an open table, open my drink, and start setting up my gear.

She started speaking when my back was turned, and I turned around surprised to see one of my parishioners.  One I haven’t seen for a while.  Turns out, she and her husband relocated to Montana recently.  He’s been retired for a few weeks now.  She suspects she’ll follow suite in a few more weeks.  She raved about the beauty of the state, but more importantly, the culture.  Born and raised in California, she confided that she no longer feels welcome in this state.  Her faith, her values – all those things are mocked and derided by the representatives in government whether local, state, or national.  To live in a place where Christianity is more part and parcel of the atmosphere is an amazing experience she confides.

There might be, for some pastors, a moment of panic.  To be caught in a bar.  Drink in hand.  Tsk tsk.  But then again, for the past eight years my parishioners have known about my hobby.  They’ve heard a few salient stories about passing conversations and encounters with the many different folks I run into.  It’s no secret, but it’s still an environment where I don’t expect to bump into parishioners.

I’m happy for her and them, asking questions, glad to know why she hasn’t been around recently.

She pauses, and after a moment, says You don’t always get the chance to tell a pastor you’ve appreciated them.  But I get to now.  And she proceeded to say some very kind things.  Encouraging things.  Affirming things.  A 10-minute conversation in a bar where I never expected to bump into anyone from my vocation, only to be surprised and gifted in an unexpected way.

It was a good night.  We won.  I won.  I moved up the rankings in my division,  Poised to break into the top ten rankings if things go well the last few weeks of the season.  All nice things, but not as nice as someone going out of their way to say some good things about what I do.  I’m glad she did, and that she and her husband are happily settling into a place that appreciates who they are.