Archive for April, 2021

Making Way

April 14, 2021

….and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. – 1 Kings 19:16

Preach the Gospel. Die. Be forgotten. ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This was part of the Old Testament reading this morning in chapel. Not the Zinzendorf bit, of course. That would be highly unusual in our culture of success and leadership, a culture that even the Church assumes in what it says and what it chooses not to say. Yet the Word of God continues to creep in when we aren’t vigilant and expose our foibles and send our idols tottering.

Elijah the last of the faithful prophets, on the run from a murderous queen after a victory that even by our social media influencer standards would be impressive, putting to death 450 false prophets of Baal after God shows his reality and presence in power and authority. Elijah despairing that he has been a failure. That he’s no better than the ones who came before him, who were also unable to turn the hearts of the people back to God, or curb the ambitions and apathy of the kings of God’s people. Hiding in a cave.

What would God say to this guy, this faithful man who has done much and suffered much and who, in his own words, has been very jealous for the Lord? What sort of half-time pep talk might we look for? A rousing, inspiring speech to reinstill Elijah with vigor and hope and purpose? To put him back on the path to personal fulfillment and professional success? How might God show Elijah his despair is out of place and what spiritual secrets to job satisfaction might the Lord of hosts reveal?

…you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It’s easy to pass over those words. Easy to focus on the first part of God’s response, which is for Elijah to anoint two new kings who are going to kick ass and probably not even bother to chew bubble gum. Promises of swords and judgment. Probably not overly inspiring to Elijah, though. Kings come and go. Elijah’s fathers were proof of that. And those final words probably occupied Elijah’s full attention. You need to anoint your successor. Your time is coming to an end.

I’ll admit I’ve never been one for reveling in youthful exuberance. Being a student both of history and an enrollee in the school of hard knocks, I’ve never been prone to Stuart Smalley-style encouragements (go ahead and look up Stuart Smalley on YouTube if you like, but I’m sure it would be considered quite inappropriate these days), and I’m a anachronistic hold-out against the modern acquiescence to ubiquitous therapy. Zinzendorf resonates with me and getting older has only confirmed his maxim.

And perhaps that maxim is useful to us as well in a culture hell-bent on exhorting and encouraging and affirming generations of people to goals they can’t possibly accomplish in carefully curated social media magnifying glass they can’t possibly compete with or sustain.

Odds are you aren’t going to change the world. Odds are you won’t reach the top of your profession. Odds are you won’t complete everything you set out to do. This is not a failure on your part. After all, who among us is really much better than our fathers before us? And what metric are we going to grab to determine that?

This isn’t a call to apathy or listlessness or despair. It’s a call to realism. A call to quit looking in the mirror, or more accurately to quit comparing the mirror to the fitness model or the wildly successful day-trader or the latest celebrity phenom. It’s a call to value and appreciate what you do accomplish today, what you do contribute, and more fundamentally, simply that you are. The real metric of self-esteem isn’t what we do at all, it’s simply that we’re here at all. We exist. We are created. And inextricably linked to this reality of created, unique existence is the reality of redemption not in what we accomplish but what our Creator accomplishes on our behalf through his Son, Jesus.

At that point we can deal with our finitude. We can deal with ordinariness, averageness. We can deal with moments of failure as well as moments of success. We can come to grips with the fact that someone is going to come after us and pick up where we left off and maybe finish some of those things we weren’t able to, and that in one way or another, we’ve done that for someone ahead of us.

Reading Ramblings – April 18, 2021

April 11, 2021

Date: Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021

Texts: Acts 3:11-21; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-49

Context: As we continue in the season of Easter (and every Sunday is really a celebration of Easter, regardless of the liturgical season) the readings emphasize the effects of the resurrection reality. Though a bit confusing as the readings from Acts also follow Pentecost, Pentecost is linked to the death and resurrection of Jesus, as Jesus explained to his disciples in John 14. The readings in 1 John show the continued impact of the resurrection on the longest-lived of the apostles, while the assigned Gospel text continues the story of that first Easter Sunday.

Acts 3:11-21 – What a difference from cowering in fear on Easter Sunday! Peter and John – empowered by the Holy Spirit – speak boldly to the crowd that gathers around them to marvel at the healing they have just performed. The disciples have healed in the past, but now they heal and also preach in the name of the resurrected Christ. Note the tone of their speech – they are not angry or bitter. They recognize Jesus’ prophetic fulfillment. The Holy Spirit has opened their minds to Holy Scripture as Jesus promised. Peter’s message remains the same from his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) – he calls people to repentance. Rather than rejecting Jesus people are now to repent of their former rejection and embrace his identity and purpose as the Messiah of God. There is nothing we can do or add, no reparations to be paid. Acknowledge if we had denied Christ before, and accept him now. This is the essence of faith, the starting point for an adult who comes into contact with the Gospel. Of course baptism would follow next, as Peter makes clear in Acts 2 and Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 28. But for the adult who the Holy Spirit brings to Christ it begins with repentance and acceptance!

Psalm 4 – There is an urgency in how this psalm begins, an urgency based on some great, pressing need, perhaps to do with the unfair or dishonest treatment of others (v.2). Yet the psalm transitions quickly and unexpectedly into a declaration of confidence. Whereas the speaker called for God to hear him in v.1, v.3 is an affirmation that God definitely has listened and does listen to the petitioner. Despite the sinfulness of the world and the sometimes overt persecutions of God’s faithful, we should never lose hope or sight of the reality that we belong to God, and that designation cannot be altered by the machinations of even Satan or his powers. We belong to God, and God listens to us! Verse 4 offers some confusing options for translation, with the most common option following the Latin translation and talking about anger. Despite this, the psalm (and the verse) has little if anything to do with anger, whether within the specific situation of the speaker or as a more general theological position on the potential for righteous anger. Likewise in v.5 the idea of right sacrifices could be interpreted several ways, whether in the cultic definition of the Old Testament or more spiritual sacrifices (a la Psalm 51), or even a somewhat vague reference to the propitation of the Son of God on our behalf (likely part of why this psalm was chosen for today!). The conclusion is the same – we are to trust God, not ourselves or others. So the psalmist concludes in confidence. Yes, his situation is still uncertain, but he trusts in God. So much so that he has no trouble falling asleep (v.8) because he knows it is God himself who provides his safety.

1 John 3:1-7 – John rightly emphasizes God’s love for us, a reality much of modern American Christianity reverses in emphasizing our love for God. What love we have for God is only because God loves us first, and therefore is hardly the appropriate option for extended emphasis. The reality is that because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, we who the Holy Spirit has brought to faith in this are really and truly children of God here and now, not simply in the creative sense of God being the Creator and therefore we are his creations, but in the redemptive sense of being brought into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Our identity in Christ is a reality here and now, and furthermore a reality that will likely alienate us from the world around us. The world around us that does not know God will deem us to be the misfits, but when our Lord returns it will be shown to all that our clinging to Christ and being conformed to him is actually the deepest of realities and identities. This is our hope as we cling to God’s Word as the normative guide to our lives rather than tacking our sails to the shifting and unpredictable winds of culture. First and foremost in this conforming to Christ is the acknowledgement that sin should have no place in us. Contrary to psychology and culture that deems whatever we want or like to be intrinsically good as such, Scripture defines right and wrong, and further warns us that our ability to judge right and wrong for ourselves is not only flawed and broken, but tends to opt towards wrong rather than right! Therefore we must cling and trust to God’s Word as the only source of absolute truth in a world where truth is redefined more and more radically and quickly!

Luke 24:36-49 – People don’t die and then rise to life again very often. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, at least in terms of documented accounts of such things, a few handfuls at most can legitimately be described as miraculous restorations of life. To presume that people 2000 years ago accepted the idea of rising from the dead as a less sensational event than we do today is ridiculous, and the disciples’ shock in this passage is a good reminder. Despite having seen Jesus do a variety of impressive miracles in his lifetime (including restoring life to other people who had died), and despite his explicit descriptions to them beforehand of what would happen – including his resurrection – they are not at all expecting to see Jesus alive again. Jesus must demonstrate this reality to them. They are not hallucinating. They are not seeing a ghost. They are not being deceived by some spiritual power. Jesus invites them to explore the signs of his ordeal. It is interesting to me that beyond the physical wounds of his crucifixion, Jesus does not seem to evidence any of the other mistreatments He received. He does not direct them to examine his scalp for the scarring from his crown of thorns. He does not bear the evidence of the brutal beating the Romans gave him prior to his execution. Only the marks directly associated with his death are present and presented as evidence. Even this extraordinary opportunity was not really enough to convince them, and so to further make it plain that He truly was bodily resurrected as a man, Jesus eats.

We must think of the resurrection in such blatantly physical terms. Jesus is recognizable, and He is able to substantiate his identity further, and He is also able to demonstrate that He is thoroughly physical and human as well – so shall we be. Our hope is not to float as spirits in the afterlife, nor to flit from cloud to cloud plucking harps. Our hope and confidence is that as our Lord was raised bodily from the dead as a human being (albeit also as the Son of God – something you and I will not be!), so you and I will be raised physically from the dead for a physical eternal life. While this will not happen until Christ’s return, and therefore may involve a period of waiting wherein we are spiritual but not yet spiritual and physical (Revelation 6:10), our final hope in eternal life is to be what we were created to be – human beings. Perfected and immortal. But very much creatures.

Changes

April 10, 2021

In a couple of hours I will officially change jobs. Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – was my last official day with the parish I’ve been pastoring for nearly eleven years. And this morning I will be installed into a position I accepted nearly two months ago, have nearly completed initial orientation and training for, but still isn’t official until I’ve been installed.

I’m staring at piles of boxes in my office as I write. I’m 80% done with packing things up, waiting now to figure out where we’ll be living for the next few months until my family and I are able to deploy to the field I’ll be serving. We’re leaving the United States and I’m leaving traditional parish ministry, both for the indefinite future. I’ve accepted a position as a regional theological educator for my denomination in Southeast Asia, working as a support and resource to partner church organizations in that part of the world. I bring to the task a curious mixture of parish pastor experience as well as experience as a collegiate educator and corporate trainer. It’s an unusual mixture, accumulated in reverse order from many of my colleagues who pastor first and then go on to teach.

Change is hard for people and I’m no exception, though my tolerance for it is higher than some. Apparently that’s a valuable trait in overseas work, where daily routines can be fluid, to say the least. I leave behind the joys of preaching and teaching in a predictable cycle for the uncertainties of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and participating in the work of the Church in a different capacity. While there’s the exoticness of relocating to the other side of the world, there’s also sorrow at leaving literally one of the most perfect climates on earth for a much hotter and more humid climate. I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in my life that I can learn enough of a language (four of them, at present) to achieve short-term academic objectives, but now I have to become fluent in a fifth language. And not just ordinary fluent, but theologically fluent.

It’s exciting. Slightly terrifying at times. Oddly comfortable most of the time. I’m grateful I don’t have to do it alone while also realizing my family will need to negotiate most of these same challenges. Together we’re confident we can do it. We do believe God the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, opening doors and facilitating the transition. We also realize that’s no guarantee of success (at least in worldly terms). Finding that balance between humility and excitement is a day-by-day process.

I’ll be continuing to blog, though the topics may take on a decidedly more international slant. The same issues of culture and faith and life that I began writing here with fifteen years ago continue to be a source of continued fascination. And I’ll try to keep it mixed up a little bit with less weighty observations. Perhaps I’ll have time to resume work on some of the longer-term projects I’ve launched here, such as completing my study of the Bible’s treatment of alcohol, and finally finishing my analysis of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I plan to keep up with the Rambling postings each Sunday, as hopefully I’ll continue to have preaching opportunities, even if those become sparser as time goes on.

I hope all of you will keep in touch here as well. Your comments and questions have been the best part of blogging, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to dialog.

Guess I should go finish packing the last two boxes of my theological library. It will be fascinating to see where those boxes get unpacked!

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Reading Ramblings – April 11, 2021

April 4, 2021

Date: Second Sunday of Easter – April 11, 2021

Texts: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 148; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Context: Easter is a season as well as a specific date. Our Lord rose three days after his crucifixion, and this unparalleled event in human history is given a liturgical season to better flesh out more of the nuances and implications of this reality. At eight full weeks it is the longest liturgical season of the Church except for Ordinal Time which is not reallly a season in the same sense of the word. The readings continue to declare our Lord’s resurrection, with the Gospel relating events that occurred later that first Easter Sunday and afterwards. The Old Testament and Epistle lessons flesh out how the resurrection affects not just those first witnesses but all who hold in faith to the veracity of that event and the implications promised by our Lord. The resurrection is not simply a get-out-of-hell-free-card at the end of our lives, but transforms every moment of our lives into something richer and deeper, leading towards a particular reality that will last forever.

Acts 4:32-35 – The implications of the resurrection on the disciples and the early Christian community were profound. It fundamentally changed the way they looked at and experienced day-to-day life. Some would rightly point out that this passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us what they did, it does not dictate what we must do. This is a true and important distinction, but it is also a quick and easy way to grapple with the reality of this transformed community. Because they had seen personally or trusted the testimony of the apostles that Jesus of Nazareth was no longer dead, just as He had prophecied would be the case, their priorities and lives altered dramatically. How they viewed and treated one another was now no longer dictated by socio-economic and cultural distinctions but rather by the reality they were united for eternity through baptism into Jesus Christ. That eternal fraternity had very temporal implications as well. Could one part of the body live in luxury and excess knowing another part of the body did not? Would not one part of the body care for in very practical ways the well-being of another part of the body? This was not faceless charity or a social agenda, but rather people who saw each other differently now that they saw Christ differently. These are challenging verses for American Christians, but we should think seriously about how they apply to us individually (as opposed to congregationally or as a geo-political entity or on any other level of scale that eliminates or automates our conscious and active participation) today.

Psalm 148 – This is a beautiful psalm of praise, in which every aspect of creation is called to exalt and praise the Creator. What strikes me upon this reading is v.6 – the heavenly bodies of stars and sun and moon are called to praise God specifically for his decree. What is this decree? It is the decree of creation in Genesis 1. God called these entities into existence through his Word and sustains them. Perhaps more specifically, we might wonder if his decree is to be thought of as his approval, declaring his created entities to be good (Genesis 1:14-18). As such, God continues to sustain his created order despite the Fall into sin, a Fall that extends beyond humanity to include all of creation (Romans 8:18-23). But He doesn’t simply sustain us in perpetual sin, rather He has raised up a horn for his people (v.14). God has, does, and will save his people, and for this He is to be praised as well. Creation praises God simply because He has created it. God’s people praise God because not only has He created them, He has saved them!

1 John 1:1-2:2 – Another aspect of the resurrection of the Christ is that the forgiveness of sins is a very real thing, available not through sacrificial rites as the Jewish people understood them. Those rites were given as foreshadowing of the final and perfeft sacrifice of the Son of God on behalf of the people of God. This is God’s Word of life, the Son of God made flesh, which is not only a declaration of life to be heard but an embodiment of it to be touched. It is the blood of the Word made flesh which forgives our sin. Confession of our sin accesses the blood of Jesus Christ. Failure to confess, as though we did not sin and have no need of forgiveness, is to live in darkness and self-deception, cutting ourselves off from the forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ. Sin is to be taken seriously. We are to seriously resist it, and we are to soberly repent of it, that we may walk in the light of God in whom there is no darkness.

John 20:19-31 – Fear gives way to amazement, which gives way to proclamation, which gives rise to doubt, which is put to flight in confession, which is received with blessing. The progression of this short set of verses is a visceral demonstration of the power of the resurrection. Fear of the world – whether from religious oppression or pandemic or political chaos is overcome in proclamation – we have seen the Lord! This naturally should create doubt. After all, to die and rise again truly is miraculous! How can we be sure? Isn’t there a more rational explanation? For centuries such alternatives have been proffered, but each requires a greater suspension of disbelief than the simple but astounding reality of resurrection. The heart of the Christian message is Christ crucified and resurrected, and it is here that doubt must be either clung to tenaciously or abandoned to embrace confession. The eyewitness accounts are credible. The reasons to doubt them rest not in the quality of the testimonies themselves but rather our attachment to a purely material explanation of the universe which leaves no room for God and no room for miracles and ultimately no room for life itself. Confession acknowledges that such a tenaciously materialistic view is in itself an act of faith, certainly no less so than embracing the simple testimony of simple people saying what they saw and heard and touched with their own senses. Independently corroborated and certainly, given the outrageous nature of the claim, easily demonstrable as false if such were the case. Yet the tomb remains empty 2000 years later, and we are confronted with that powerful confession – we have seen the Christ! And that confession of faith draws us into the direct blessings of the resurrection both here and now as the other readings have pointed to, as well as eternally. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!