Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Yes,the Press Is Biased

September 16, 2020

Great article linking to another great article about woefully inadequate press coverage of anti-Christian vandalism and other kinds of attacks – here in the United States (obviously there’s little interest at home in the press for anti-Christian activities elsewhere – we’ve known that for a long time).

The Christian Life and Social Media

September 12, 2020

Thanks to Chuck for sharing an article with me about a missionary pastor in the United Kingdom facing calls for his deportation and the burning down of his church because he expressed views on Facebook offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of which is pretty predictable these days, but once again raises the purpose of social media for Christians. Social media has become ubiquitous and touted as a place of self-expression. However self-expression is routinely being attacked when it doesn’t conform to minority opinions about sexuality and gender issues, not to mention politics in general.

I deleted my Facebook account about a year ago and I haven’t missed it for a single moment. Not one. The concept that was so attractive 13 years ago – being able to stay in touch with people in your life you might otherwise lose touch with – is not the reality. It’s now a place to scream your views and heap abuse on those who disagree with you – even if those people by some miracle are still friends with you on Facebook, surviving the common calls several years ago to purge ourselves of anyone who disagrees with us. I observed a few strange things, to say the least.

Colleagues who are pastors and literally make their Facebook identity their professional one puzzle me. Don’t you have any people in your life you relate to as other than a pastor? Does every single one of your family & friends have your vocation as pastor as the primary means of interacting with you? It seemed odd to me, at the very least. I know a lot of people through a lot of different venues, and my vocation as pastor only comes into play in a certain number of them. As such I tried to keep that in mind on the rare occasions I would post anything. I wanted to be aware of and considerate of not just what I said but how I said it.

I found (and continue to find it odd when I hear about it through my wife or other people) that someone who emphasizes their vocation as a pastor on social media feels as though advocating for a particular political party or platform is appropriate on social media. Again, are the only people they’re friends with on Facebook people who share their opinions on everything? If so, why the need to say something in the first place? And if not, why say something that could be deeply hurtful to people who love you but disagree with you?

Particularly for clergy I find this an egregious misuse of social media. It is a blurring of the line between being who we are and being honest and authentic, and the divine directive to operate with love in all things and to be very cautious of what we say or do – even if we’re right – that might hurt or cause another person to wander away from or further away from God. And when those social media comments call into question the very faith of someone who disagrees with a social or economic or political policy? Good grief people – what are you thinking!?

Some might argue that we have to raise our voices in social media as well as everywhere else, that otherwise Biblical Christian faith gets overwhelmed and drowned out by the discordant clamorings of any number of other ideas and ideologies. It would be good to remember that as near as we can tell the Christian faith did not grow and spread by screaming and shouting at random passersby, but in small acts of love and interpersonal giving and even sacrifice. Tragically the Church is more accustomed these days to thinking in terms of market share rather than trusting the power of God the Holy Spirit to work through the least of his sheep towards not just the transformation of culture but the salvation of souls.

Jesus directs his followers to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. I tend to suspect that if we are to place the emphasis in the proper place, it should be on the latter rather than the former. There is no shortage of serpents in this world – wise or otherwise. But there can never be enough doves.

I’d urge Christians to reconsider social media in general. What does it accomplish? How do you feel when you’re scrolling through your feed? What sort of emotions and responses does it stir inside of you? Is your social media experience true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise? Or are you more often stirred to irritation or anger or offense or lust or sorrow or shame? I won’t advocate for dumping social media, but I do advocate for proper, appropriate, and critical/thoughtful use of it. Simply the fact that you’ve been using it for a long time or everyone else is using it hardly justifies something that may be personally harmful to you.

Yes, anti-Christian rhetoric is on the rise in social media and elsewhere. Yes, it is horrible that people threatening bodily harm, economic injury, and destruction of property are sanctioned and not seen as a threat whereas someone simply stating a contradictory belief is viewed as a dangerous threat to be eradicated. Yes it is unfair. Yes it is wrong. But simply mirroring those tactics and that rhetoric is not only not going to be ineffective, it’s outright disobedient to how we are called by God to deal with a very dangerously sinful world. Not just a sinful world around us but a sinful world within us. Giving reign to that internal sinfulness is just as dangerous or perhaps more so than the dangerous sin around us. We are called first and foremost to be obedient to what God has called us to, regardless of whether this accomplishes the other social or political or cultural ends we would like it to.

Speak the truth but speak it in love. I’m increasingly skeptical of whether that’s possible through a megaphone or social media.

Pastors in Pandemics

September 9, 2020

The message came early in the evening during preparations for dinner. A member who had fallen and been hospitalized had slipped into unconsciousness. They were non-responsive and not expected to recover. They were coming home for hospice care, and would I come to pray with the family?

It was my first home visitation in six months.

I can’t describe how good it felt to spend time with a parishioner in their home. Preaching and teaching has been enough of a struggle these past six COVID months. But actually spending time with people where they live is another aspect of pastoral ministry I really miss. Not chit-chatty social calls but spending time in prayer during important moments, whether it’s after the birth of a child or near the end of someone’s life. To be where people live, to – COVID be damned – breathe their air, that’s when and where you learn the most about people. People may appreciate a sermon or enjoy a Bible study but when you’re with them one-on-one in their home, real connection can be made. Relationship is strengthened and deepened.

Pastor’s are uniquely privileged in this respect as we get to be with people in their homes without at least some of the angst caused by hosting a social visit. Few other professions meet with people in their homes (at least under good circumstances!). As a seminary professor once drilled it into our heads, it is part of a noble task. I try not to take my privilege lightly.

The home is the primary locale for life. I suspect American Christianity has missed a great opportunity in trying to position the church buildings or grounds as the most important space in people’s lives when it’s obviously their home. Sometimes ministry needs a different and larger space but ministry began in the home, whether it was Adam and Eve in the beginning or Jesus and his disciples having dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And unless the home is recognized as just as much the abode of God the Holy Spirit as the sanctuary, the sanctuary will eventually dwindle in significance.

I wish it was a happier occasion for this first visitation in six months. Then again, praying over (and with) someone who has lived a long and vibrant life and has a deep and abiding trust in Jesus as their Savior is a really good thing. To know that he’s now at peace, awaiting the final Day, the great reunion that won’t ever end, that’s not a bad thing. Not by a long shot. It’s an honor and a privilege to remind people of that even in their grief. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Encouraging Community

September 7, 2020

She came in person to ask for help.

We chatted for a few minutes in the office. She was new to the area. She made a bad decision and purchased a car “as-is” from a private seller for $2000. Then she found out the car needed another $2000 in repairs. Perhaps our community could take up a collection to assist her. She had documentation she was enrolled in a city safe-parking program – she could sleep in her car in a designated lot somewhere in the city where she wouldn’t be hassled and would hopefully be safe. She was homeless, but not without resources and was open to assistance. She had applied for employment. Her area code was on the East Coast, but she declined to divulge where she was from.

I told her I’d make some calls and get back to her. I knew I wasn’t willing to try and come up with $2000 for her. But perhaps I could get her a free second opinion on the repairs, or perhaps a discounted rate on the repairs. I called a congregational member in his final year of law school to see if she might have any Lemon Law recourse in our state. I apprised my Elder of the situation to get his feedback. He thought the congregation could provide some limited assistance from a benevolence fund we have set up, but was skeptical of extensive help – and rightly so. When she called back later in the afternoon I didn’t have more information and told her I’d be in touch the next day. When asked, she was pretty confident the seller of the car wasn’t going to be of any help in defraying expenses.

The next day I had word back from the law student that her options were slim. When she called – very proactive! – I explained the situation.

I am asked for help on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes it’s by phone. Sometimes they stop by the office. Sometimes they want $20 in gas or help with food. After nearly a decade of working in the recovery community here, I’m more aware of both the myriad issues that can drive people to ask for help as well as some of the local resources available to assist them. So rather than reaching for my wallet I often refer them to one of these resources. They invariable are uninterested. Usually that’s the end of the encounter.

But I’ve also taken up the practice of suggesting they join us for worship, that they meet our community. After all, I’m convinced that the underlying issue for many people in dire need is a lack of community. For whatever reason(s), they don’t have people around them who know them and care about them and can be of help. We can try to target mental health or housing or substance abuse or any number of presenting problems for homelessness, but without a community, any solution is going to be temporary at best.

So I invited her to worship with us on Sunday and said I’d talk with her then about how we could help. At the very least I’d be willing to purchase her a bus pass so she could get around if her vehicle proved unreliable. She thanked me and said she’d be there. She remained calm and didn’t argue or protest.

She actually came on Sunday.

Forty-five minutes early, but she was there. She was greeted by various people in the congregation as she sat enjoying the sun on the hottest day of the year. She listened to the musicians warming up. I walked her out and got her a bulletin and made an introduction or two. Just a few moments before worship started there was a knock on my door. In the hallway was my wife and this woman, both smiling and talking. The woman asked again for financial assistance. She had spent the previous night making a list of her most pressing needs. She had a line on someone willing to help her out with her car repairs, and the biggest need she identified was fees to have a background check run on her and to apply for work as a home health care assistant. I told her I’d cover those expenses the next day.

I assumed she was leaving before the service started, once she had a pledge of assistance. But to my pleasant surprise she stayed through half the service. I had committed to help her and I was going to do that whether she stayed or not. But her willingness to participate at least somewhat was very heartening.

However the next day was Labor Day and her potential employer was closed.

Tuesday she was in touch again and we coordinated to meet at a notary and then at the employment office. I paid her fees for her and she thanked me. I cleared it with my wife first – who agreed it was a good thing to do and had appreciated meeting the woman on Sunday morning. I notified my Elder of what I was doing.

I don’t know if we’ll see her again. I’m hoping we will. She indicated she had some sort of church background but didn’t elaborate or explain. But she read through our statement of faith regarding Holy Communion. And she engaged me on part of it she misread as saying we needed to be worthy to receive Holy Communion. I clarified it was a warning against receiving it unworthily – presuming our deserving of God’s grace or in denial of our sinfulness. She seemed satisfied by this. She left shortly after I started my sermon, but by that time she’d been there for nearly an hour and a half, so I can’t entirely blame her.

I think people were friendly and let her know she was welcome so I hope she’ll be back. I hope she’ll appreciate that she was responded to not simply in terms of a financial need but in terms of community and a place to belong and be safe. I know the odds of this all working out are slim. That doesn’t bother me in terms of money spent. It worries me for her and her future. Because what she needs ultimately isn’t just a job or a reliable car but people around her who love her. And more deeply than that, she needs a relationship with the God who created her and loves her more deeply than anyone else ever can or will. Maybe we can be a part of that story, her return to faith or nourishment in the faith or whatever it is. I can’t control that part of her story, I can only seek to be faithful and open to whatever part in her story our congregation can fulfill.

Times are hard all over right now. We can and should be open to the needs of others, even when we’re trying to socially distance and protect one another. One of the ways we do this is through hospitality. It’s a curious word that is difficult to work with in our American culture that, even before COVID-19 struggled with hyper-individualism and a heightened level of distrust and fear of anyone beyond immediate family members.

So hospitality is complicated for us. We like the idea but frequently because we define it improperly. A seminary professor teaching on 1 Timothy 3 once glossed over hospitality as being nice. A recent article in a denominational publication mentioned ordering food via GrubHub or tipping additional when picking up food during our COVID-19 pandemic as forms of hospitality. But being nice isn’t hospitality, although a host will be nice as they are being hospitable. And being generous is not being hospitable, though a good host almost by definition is a generous one. Hospitality involves a relationship established when an outsider is invited to become an insider. Into the home or family or community. And we struggle with that as American Christians.

Yet we’re called by God to be hospitable (Isaiah 58:7, Genesis 18, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2, Hebrews 13:2, just to name a few) both by exhortation and command as well as by example. So being of help to people isn’t necessarily just a matter of writing a check or handing out some cash. That may be part of the equation as well, but we have the opportunity to establish a relationship that goes beyond giver and recipient, beyond excess and need, and instead that crosses the chasm between insider and outsider.

It doesn’t always work and hosts can’t force people to be guests, can’t force people to receive hospitality, and can’t force people to come in from the outside. But we can and should create that opportunity when and how the Holy Spirit prompts us. Because there’s more going on than a meal or repairs for a vehicle. God the Holy Spirit is at work seeking to draw all people back to the God the Father who created them and God the Son who redeemed them. The Holy Spirit’s care and concern goes beyond the immediate to the eternal, and beyond the physical to the totality of a person’s body and spirit. And the Church and the people of God are the place where the Holy Spirit’s work should be most prominent and eminent and palpable.

My decision to help this young woman financially was practicing generosity. But the invitation to her to join us and meet more of our folks and potentially find connections that would stick and begin to form a network of support, a community, a home – that’s part of hospitality. That’s part of trusting you are a piece of someone else’s puzzle in the hands of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to bring wholeness to a broken world. And miracle of miracles, in doing so, we find that those we open ourselves to are pieces in our own puzzle.

Sermons, Technology & Catholicism?

August 24, 2020

Since the onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic, I’ve struggled with technology to provide sermons online for my congregation. You’d think with a background in technology this wouldn’t be so hard, but my professional technology background was never in audio/video production. It’s been an unpleasant learning curve, to say the least. In no small part made steeper by my frustration at lack of resources. Undoubtedly a change in attitude on my part my transform all of this from an irritation to an opportunity.

Or I could convert to Roman Catholicism, I suppose.

Part of my technology woes have to do with YouTube’s refusal to allow me to upload videos longer than 15 minutes, even though I’ve authenticated my account and done everything they’ve said to ostensibly allow much longer video uploads. This means I have to decide if I’m going to gauge my sermon lengths to fit inside a 15-minute format, or if I’m going to say what I feel like I have to say even if it takes longer than 15 minutes.

Now that my congregation is meeting outdoors, this takes much of the pressure off as many of my parishioners are there on Sunday mornings and don’t need it posted to YouTube.

The Roman Catholic approach (at least in the Santa Fe diocese) is a lot simpler – preach shorter sermons. In fact, priests there are being warned if their sermons consistently are longer than five minutes in length, they could have their preaching privileges revoked. This is their attempt to mitigate the risk of in-person worship, by all but eliminating the sermon.

My Protestant (Lutheran) background finds this a terrible solution. If worship is essentially God’s gifts to his people in Word and Sacrament, then to minimize the Word portion does a disservice to the people of God. While shorter services and sermons might make sense for a limited period of time, or in addition to or as alternatives to a longer preaching service, to simply not provide the Word to God’s people for months on end strikes at the very heart of what and who the Church is.

So I’ll go on struggling with technology and trying to find better solutions. And I’ll continue to find ways to bring the Word to the people of God in weekly worship. And I’ll resist the temptation to convert to Catholicism.

Book Review: Martin Luther

August 11, 2020

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World

by Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is a skilled writer, able to communicate clearly and maintain reader interest while plowing through the details of a person’s life. He demonstrated his skill in this to me first with his book on Bonhoeffer, and this biography of Luther doesn’t disappoint either even if it is more limited in depth due to the greater distance in time between Metaxas and Luther.

Although diehard Luther scholars will likely see this book as too cursory an overview, Metaxas does an admirable job of sketching Luther’s life not simply in terms of timeline and biographical details but also in contextualizing the events for the reader to better appreciate their impact at the time as well as on history ever since. Metaxas allows the Luther neophyte to glimpse the startling impact this monk had on Western Civilization in general as well as the Church. In doing so Metaxas adds to the Luther corpus that moves Luther from being sidelined as of importance only to the Church and Church history and alongside secular historical figures who also impacted Western civilization in profound ways.

Metaxas weaves excerpts from Luther’s writings and contemporaries of Luther seamlessly into the narrative, and his extensive citing or referencing of other Luther scholars demonstrates the seriousness of his own research into those who have undertaken similar works before him. His references are never obstacles to the flow of his narrative, and you can easily ignore the extensive footnotes in the back of the book if you’re so inclined.

My only criticism is that at the end of the book, as Metaxas moves from biography to interpretation of Luther’s larger legacy, the author briefly confuses his own ideas about Christians and Christianity in the West today with Luther’s actual thoughts on the subject, particularly on the issue of obedience even to injustice or unfair rulers. Metaxas’ closing arguments sound as though Luther endorsed rising up against unfair rulers when, as Metaxas clearly demonstrated earlier in his book, this was exactly the opposite of what Luther argued.

Clearly the idea of enduring suffering and injustice is so difficult to Western (and particularly American) minds that even a great biographer like Metaxas can momentarily forget how counter-cultural the call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-45) is.

Luther’s great witness was his willingness to suffer death if necessary in defense of the truth of God’s Word. He never considered himself above the temporal law but always subject to it. This further underscores the miraculous confluence of political and economic and religious currents orchestrated by God the Holy Spirit that Luther and the Gospel he set free once again might endure.

Say What?

July 22, 2020

One of my all time favorite sites is Get Religion, a site that critiques how the press reports on or draws religion into news stories. And they don’t disappoint with this article about a headline a couple of weeks ago condemning churches as essentially Coronavirus hotbeds. I remember seeing the headline and thinking it was excessive, to say the least. This article does a good job at breaking down the bias, the lack of any kind of support and the false contextualization, all in an effort to malign churches (probably) and Trump (definitely).

Be careful what you read, folks. Or more importantly, be careful how you read. Think about what’s being said in a context larger than the sentence or paragraph or article it’s embedded in.

Theological Discussion?

July 9, 2020

I’m working through Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther biography. I’ve long passed the section where Luther calls for theological debate on the matter of indulgences, often described as the “nailing” of the 95 Theses. Luther had concerns and called for theological discussion. Discussion did not ensue but rather a heavy-handed insistence by the Roman Catholic hierarchy that Luther simply do what they told him to do. The result was an unfortunate further rending of the one holy Christian and apostolic church as many congregations confess in the Nicene Creed regularly.

While Lutherans are proud of this heritage we could be better emulators of it. In light of what I posted yesterday from the Russian Orthodox Church regarding California’s surprise ban on singing and chanting in worship services, I decided to check the regional resource board for our denomination in terms of COVID-19 resources. What I found was an entire page of links. But every single link was to an outside secular source. The CDC, WHO, and various California and other state web sites regarding COVID-19 best practices and requirements.

It struck me as odd that as our region of our denominational polity struggles with not just rising case reports of Coronavirus but also secular policy that directly impacts the very nature of worship, there were no links or calls on our regional website for theological discussion on the matter. Our denomination has by and large said this is all a Romans 13 issue and the appropriate response is obedience to the dictates of the State. But rather than a simple top-down decision on this matter the body of Christ could benefit from some active discussion on the topic. I don’t necessarily disagree with our denominational stance. It’s certainly a good way of avoiding legal entanglements and negative publicity. But I’d like to think there could be some proactive theological discussion regarding worship and how singing and chanting play into it not just in terms of tradition but in terms of theology.

It’s a shame if the denomination that insisted on the freedom of the Christian in the Gospel of Jesus Christ 500 years ago is unwilling to see an ongoing necessity for both celebration and discussion. At the very least, posting some theological materials that discuss the issue and offer perspectives and exegesis to assist members and clergy and professional staff understand the nuances of our stance better would be helpful.

It just seems ironic the only thing we officially have to say on the matter isn’t something we’ve said at all – we’re simply repeating what other people are saying. People who aren’t necessarily theologically trained or even inclined. I don’t expect people outside the Church to be able to give this a lot of thought. I do have some pretty high expectations for the Church in this regard, though!

Well Said

July 8, 2020

A succinct and well-stated summary of the absurdity of banning singing and chanting in worship services while sympathetic ears and blind eyes are turned towards riots and protests around the country. It is only unfortunate that it needs to be said at all.

Bible Study

June 12, 2020

After three months it’s time to start leading a new Bible study as our congregation continues the slow process of restarting our community after months of self-quarantining and self-isolation.

Someone asked me if it would be difficult to restart such a study in an age of Coronavirus and masks and social distancing and fear. But I’ve never not enjoyed studying Scripture. It’s perhaps the most personally fulfilling aspect of making the work of God my vocation. It is never unrewarding to go to the Word of God. To grapple with it, to dissect it for meaning, to understand it contextually and to see how contexts thousands of years old are as pertinent and necessary today as they were then.

For me, putting together a Bible study is not a simple process. Since I first started leading Bible studies in my early college years, I’ve never been content with off-the-shelf studies. Never content to follow along what somebody else created, to be guided by their questions and interpretations. I’ve always preferred to wrestle with the text personally and to access the thoughts and ideas of other men and women throughout history who also sought to understand and apply these same texts.

So for me, preparing a Bible study is a lengthy process that requires many resources and a process of learning the texts better myself, which should in turn assist not just the Bible study but preaching and counseling and applying the Word of God in all manner of unanticipated ways. As another portion of his Word becomes a greater portion of me, the effect is always good, always rewarding, always exhilarating.

I’m starting a book study of 1 Corinthians, a letter written by St. Paul to a congregation he started in the Greek city of Corinth. And for this study, I’ll be utilizing not just the English and to lesser extent Greek texts, but also the following resources to varying degrees:

  • The New International Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians by F.W. Grosheide, Eerdman’s 1980
  • Concordia Commentary: 1 Corinthians by Gregory J. Lockwood, CPH 2000
  • The New International Greek Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians by Anthony C. Thiselton, Eerdman’s 2000
  • Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 4 by John Lightfoot, Hendrickson Publishers 1853
  • Africa Bible Commentary edited by Tokunboh Adeyemo, Zondervan 2006
  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eerdmans 1979

I’m looking forward to getting to know this letter much better. It has a lot to say about the life of faith both individually and communally, and I trust we’re going to have some interesting discussions along the way!