Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

When the Lost Find

April 13, 2017
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
Headin’ for the dance at the Arm’ry!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Rag-time, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital “T”
That rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool,
That stands for pool.
“Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man


I’ve been playing pool all of my adult life, which means countless hours spent in pool halls and bars.  I’ve seen a lot of things in those places, but there’s also a lot of things I haven’t seen, primarily because I don’t know what I’m looking at or looking for.  Pool halls and bars have earned their reputations at least in part, however, and just because I don’t see the sexual solicitations or the drug sales all the time doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening.

But there are also times when it’s pretty obvious what I’m looking  at, and then there are times when I’m reminded that I’m not seeing everything I ought to.  Not by a long shot.

I stopped in to a familiar bar with the best tables in town up the hill from my house the other day to snatch a quick few games of pool before an afternoon of meetings.  I knew a few of the guys playing there, and I quickly got my cues assembled and the balls racked and broke.  It was only after a few moments that I saw a girl I didn’t recognize chatting with one of the guys.  And as the game progressed I rapidly realized that the man was making pretty free use of her as she sat with her eyes glued to her smart phone.  Far more use than a casual acquaintance or even a good friend might, to put it diplomatically.

They disappear to his car for a few minutes and emerge in a haze of marijuana smoke and laughter.  But by this time I have to get back to the office.  I’ve packed up my cues and am on my way out of the bar, giving my regards to the guys I know and passing the couple as they re-enter the bar.  As I exit the cavern-like darkness of the bar into the blinding Central Coast sunshine, fumbling for my sunglasses,  I hear a woman calling Hey! after me.

You and I need to talk, she says as I turn in the parking lot to look back.  It’s the young woman the guy was with.  Her attire is eye-catching without being too over the top.  Faded denim jeans and a white t-shirt.  Her blond-ish hair has purple tints in it and her make-up is not light.  She’s probably in her late 20’s and the scent of her perfume alone is enough to nearly knock me unconscious.

I don’t imagine the conversation will be too long, as there can’t possibly be much to say.  Of the three guys at the pool table she was closest to, I paid her the least attention (by far!).  I assumed she just wanted to make sure I properly acknowledged her vanity, as it should have been obvious that I wasn’t interested in her services.

Are you really a priest? I mean, a real priest?   I assure her that I am, indeed, a card-carrying minister, realizing that the guy must have filled her in on that detail for some reason during their time together.  She’s taking her time now, sizing me up.  We’re blocking traffic in the parking lot so I move us out of the way.  I’m in a slight hurry, and not interested in playing around conversationally or otherwise.  But at length she asks What church?  I tell her the name and where it is.  She hasn’t heard of it.  Not surprising, I think to myself.  I start to search for a business card to give her.  My dad died a couple of months ago, and I’d like to think he’s with you.  When I look back up at her face she has tears on both cheeks that she’s wiping away.  I hope he’s with God, I respond after a stunned second.

In the bar I first saw a young woman who was so jaded in life that she didn’t care how men used her as long as they noticed her.  Then I saw a woman supporting herself with that attention and exploiting it.  What I had failed to see – in part because I didn’t want to pay too much attention to her – is someone lost.

My work in the recovery community has taught me a lot, but the one thing it has to keep teaching me over and over again is something that my faith taught me but is difficult at times to bear in mind.  People are more than the sum of their circumstances and choices.  They might be a train-wreck of addiction and crime and moral degradation, but it isn’t who they are.  It isn’t all they are.  And given the right circumstances and situations and the power of God the Holy Spirit, even the most monumental of train wrecks can be repaired.  The tracks cleared, the rubble swept away and a life of promise and possibility stretching into eternity put in place.

I hadn’t seen that with this girl.  So perhaps God the Holy Spirit sent her after me to make sure that I saw it.  I went to my car to search for a business card and brought it back to her.  By this point she was standing by a beat-up car lighting up a pipe of marijuana.  I recognized the young man in the car as someone who had been sitting at the bar earlier, and surmised it was her boss.  I handed her my card, wondering what he thought of the whole thing and realizing he probably didn’t think anything of it.  I wasn’t likely going to upset their arrangement.

I wasn’t.  I’m not.  But God the Holy Spirit, that’s another matter.  That’s a daugher of God the Father I was talking to.  That’s a woman The Son of God died and rose again for.  And while I may not want to look at her too long or bother to get involved too deeply, the Holy Spirit of God is after her.  He can do what I can’t.  He can lead her away from the pipe and the pimp and the random encounters in darkened bars in midday.  He can find the lost and lead them home and I pray that’s what happens with her.

It was a good reminder of the power and purpose of the Gospel.  One of the key reasons God gathers his people together, so that the Word might go out and reach the lost.  So that He might bring them home – the very people we don’t want to look at to closely or be seen talking to in the bright early afternoon sunlight of a busy parking lot.  It’s not a comfortable place to be, but it’s a necessary discomfort for somebody.  Perhaps even me.




Maundy Thursday

April 13, 2017

I was surprised when researching the history of Maundy Thursday.  I understand the idea that it is based on the Latin word for command, mandatum.  But I always assumed that this was in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus commands his disciples to take and eat, take and drink.  However the actual service is based on Jesus’ command in John 13:34.  And specifically, the term for this day became associated with Jesus’ demonstration of the kind of love He was commanding by washing his disciples’ feet.

This is a worthy commandment (nice of me to agree with Jesus, eh?).  It is incumbent upon all followers of Jesus to take it seriously.  But by making Maundy Thursday about this, about us and what we do to and with each other, it takes our focus off of Jesus, and that is problematic to me.  Each Gospel writer sees fit to spend a substantial portion of their account of Jesus’ ministry on his last week of ministry.  John spends five chapters alone on the evening of the Last Supper!  I can’t help but think that we are intended to look and listen to Jesus rather than look to ourselves on this night.

So I like this short essay that explains how Lutheran theology ‘hijacked’ Maundy Thursday a redirected the focus towards what Jesus gives to us – himself – rather than what we do to and for one another.

Book Review – The Christian Calendar

March 29, 2017

I love books and reading.  I enjoy browsing through used book stores for hidden gems.  I don’t do it often, and I don’t do it for long, but it’s enjoyable.  Ever since I was a kid, this has been an inexpensive indulgence for me.  The reality is that most of what I pick up isn’t all that great.  At least historically.  I’ve become a lot more selective in what I buy now, but I still take chances now and then which occasionally pay off.

Such is the case with The Christian Calendar: A complete Guide to the Seasons of the Christian Year.   It combines two of my favorite things – history and historical illustrations and photos – and combines them in an examination of the liturgical year.  The historical illustrations are great and drawn from a variety of sources spanning nearly 2000 years.

The book focuses on the traditional Roman Catholic lectionary and liturgical cycle (a one-year cycle rather than the more contemporary three-year cycle).  Brief commentary or exegesis on the Gospel lesson is frequent, and the helpfulness of these comments varies widely.  But the artwork is beautiful, and there are frequent notes of local customs (particularly English but also Continental) associated with various Sundays in the Church year.  The book concludes with a list of saints venerated on literally every day of the year.  Most are just names and dates of death, but there are more expanded biographies included throughout.

If you enjoy liturgical history and artwork and can pick this up second-hand, I definitely recommend it.  Don’t necessarily take the exegetical work too seriously, but it’s a nice book to have in your library.


Animals and Packs

March 9, 2017

If there is one thing that has become more and more clear to me over my time in ministry, it is the essential and central aspect of regular Christian community and worship.  I try to drive this point home in nearly every engagement with the people I meet, whether in jail, in recovery programs, in small group settings, as well as in my congregation.  This thing that we take for granted is where we are fed, nurtured, and protected.

And whenever we are away from it for very long, very bad things can happen to us.

Opus and Milo are our two beloved family dogs.  They turn four this month (we think), and they are brothers (we think) that we got through a rescue program almost three and a half years ago.  They are brothers in the fullest and best sense of the word.    They’ll lay next to or on one another.  They are always together.  They grow nervous and agitated if they are separated.  Their love for each other is tangible.

But they are still animals.

When they were younger, they would fight as all siblings do from time to time.  As dogs they fight with teeth and claw and growl and snarl, with flickering tongues and snapping jaws.  We feared for them in those early days, unsure how strong the animal in each of them was as opposed to the brotherhood between them.  We would quickly put an end to their fights, and over the years we’ve come to know how much they care for one another and look out for one another.  I even commented to the family less than a week ago that I no longer worried when they would skirmish with each other, trusting that their love and care for each other would keep them from really hurting each other.

We’re in the midst of a familial adjustment.  For all the time we’ve had them, we’ve kept them kenneled or in a large cage in the house whenever we left for any reason.  It was their routine when the kids shouted “In in in!” to run to their cage and sit, waiting for the door to be closed and latched and receive their treat.  They didn’t like us leaving, but they knew the routine.

Two weeks ago, I left two dogs in the cage and returned a few hours later to one dog in the cage and one outside of it, with no discernible explanation for this change.  The next day, by a freak chance, I discovered the reason.  I put the dogs in their cage as usual, preparing to leave for a few hours.  But I got caught up doing something else and didn’t leave the house right away.  So I heard when barking and a commotion began in the cage and went back to investigate.  I opened the door to the room just as Milo reached the top of the cage and launched himself out of it.  The cage is 4-ft high heavy gauge metal.  By using the corner of the cage, he had learned how to scale the metal wire and leap out.

Deciding that four years is old enough to not destroy the house in our absence, and not wanting to risk a broken leg from further efforts, I took down the cage and began leaving them out in the house when we left.  This was new for them as well as myself.  It afforded them time for deeper exploration of certain food-bearing areas of the house, namely the kitchen.  I returned home several times to see evidence that they had been exploring the kitchen counters and pulling off items of possible (edible) interest.  We learned to clear those counters before leaving.

In order to give them something to do, we got sturdy chew toys that you can put peanut butter inside and freeze.  The dogs can just barely get their tongues into the openings to lap at the peanut butter, and it occupies them.

But they’re still animals, and not just brothers.

So it was that last night when we returned home, we discovered that apparently in a fight over the delicious toys, Opus had torn Milo’s ear.  It’s not severe, but it was a little bloody and both dogs were clearly traumatized by whatever transpired between them.

I had assumed that the good behavior we helped reinforce in them by breaking up their fights would be enough to protect them from themselves and each other if we were gone.  But I was wrong.  It isn’t that they don’t truly love each other.  But the fact is that they remain animals as well as brothers.  And in the absence of their pack, their community, their family, their animal instincts got the better of them.  Greed.  Suspicion.  Anger.  Defensiveness.  These things are there all the time, but having their pack around them helps restrain them and bring them back into appropriate and healthier behavior quickly.

I don’t think they would kill each other.  Not intentionally at least.  But it’s clear that the animal instincts can rise to the surface dangerously quickly and with lasting results.  They need their pack just as we need them.  For protection not just from the world beyond but from each other and ourselves.  Together, we model the right behavior.  We teach, train, condition.  We demonstrate healthy love and discourage and prevent unhealthy love.

And these aren’t things that you learn and then can take on your own solitary way.  They are the way we learn to live, and we need the constant support and encouragement and structure of community to reinforce these things and ensure that our animal instincts don’t get the better of us or one another.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, but the sinfulness, the animal instincts, still remain within us and have to be watched over carefully.  We never outgrow the need for Christian community, just as our dogs never outgrow their need for a pack.

Satan understands this and so he spends a great deal of time – perhaps all his time – on convincing Christians that they don’t need Christian community.  They don’t need worship.  They can take it or leave it.  They can read the Bible and pray on their own.  They don’t need to be around all those hypocrites.  They’ve been confirmed and know what they need to know and can go their own way.  The language and tactics vary from person to person, but the goal is always the same.  Separate and destroy.

I don’t know many strong Christians who don’t engage in regular worship and Christian community (these are two distinct though hopefully overlapping things).  And while there are certainly weak Christians who do these things regularly, the promise by the power of the Holy Spirit is that they will grow in their faith as they engage in actively loving God by loving their neighbor in Christian community (as well as beyond).

I’ve begun telling young or returning Christians to put their Bibles away at home.  Don’t leave them out and fool yourself into thinking that you’re just fine without Christian community and worship just because you have a Bible at home and maybe even read it every day.  Don’t give Satan the opportunity to pull you away from the pack by convincing you that you don’t need it, that all you need is the Word.  You need your pack.  You need your family.  There are Christians around the world who would give anything for the luxury that we treat so lightly.

Don’t think that once you’re a professed follower of Jesus that you’ve tamed yourself.  You haven’t.  The animal is still there.  And he’s always hungry.


March 1, 2017

I was amused to read the front page story in our local newspaper about Ash Wednesday.  Apparently, it is only a Catholic thing.  As is the whole resurrection of Jesus thing.  Not a Christian thing, believed by literally billions of people world-wide, including Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The reporter was very diligent, talking to at least three if not four Roman Catholic priests in a 50-mile radius or so.  So, if you read the article and were under the impression that it’s only Roman Catholics who do this, you’re slightly off-track.  But it was a good attempt at reporting relevant news!

The Common Cup

February 22, 2017

Does your church use the common cup (chalice) or individual cups for the wine at Holy Communion?  How much do you think about how it’s done?

The common cup/chalice is the ancient practice of the church, stemming from Jesus’ words and practice at the Last Supper where it seems very clear that the disciples are drinking from a single cup that Jesus passes to them.  But around the turn of the 20th century, that began to change for many congregations.  For a tongue-in-cheek history, you could read this essay.

One of the major concerns appears to have been hygiene – how safe can it be to all drink from the same cup now that we know about germs and bacteria and the like?  Well, it appears to be a lot safer than we thought it was, or than we think it is now.  For a more official treatment of the topic, you could reference this LA Times article from a few years ago.   The fact that most Communion chalices were/are made from silver or gold means that they don’t host bacteria and other nasties on their own.  Combine this with the (slight) alcohol content of the wine, and the use of a clean purificator utilized in an appropriate way, and you have a very sanitary ritual.

In fact, the cleanliness traditionally began before the chalice ever touched anyone’s lips.  The Roman Catholic mass includes the lavabo, the washing of the celebrant’s hands.  In the ancient Eastern church, this rite took place just before the celebrant would put on the special vestments for Holy Communion (the chasuble).  The chasuble helps to draw greater attention to the high point of Christian worship – as we receive the body and blood of Jesus the Christ in with and under the bread and the wine.  In our Lutheran circles there are still some churches and pastors that utilize a chasuble, but it has fallen out of fashion with the majority of them.  In the Western church, the lavabo rite was performed also just before actually administering the elements, rather than prior to vesting.  The name of the rite comes from Psalm 25:6, which was read (through verse 12) as part of the rite.

So, in other words, in the oldest practices of the Church, the common cup/chalice has been a safe means of sharing in Holy Communion – certainly far safer than other traditions such as the passing of the peace or the traditional time of fellowship after worship.  I’ve just reinstated the use of the common cup/chalice in our congregation, offering it as an option for those who request it.  Most don’t, but more and more are beginning to.  And if they so choose, hopefully they’ll realize that it is relatively safe to do so!

Practical Immigration

February 8, 2017

Much has been said about hypothetical immigration and immigrants.  I prefer to wonder what my role can be in this complex issue.  Certainly leading a Christian institution, I would consider it our duty and honor to be a blessing if there were immigrants in our midst to minister to.  Particularly if those immigrants were actively seeking us out not just for material assistance but spiritual sustenance.  But how complicated the matter would become were politics also part of the picture – as it almost inevitably would be.

So I found this letter from the Lutheran pastor of a church in Germany who is dealing with this issue firsthand eye-opening and more than a little terrifying.  In Germany, those seeking asylum are evaluated as to their suitability for integration with German culture and society.  One of the evaluation points centers on their faith.  Christians are at least in theory given points in that they share a faith with the historic faith of German culture.

This creates a complicated situation.  How do you tell if someone is simply calling themselves a Christian in the hopes of improving their odds for acceptance permanently in Germany, as opposed to someone who genuinely has converted to the Christian faith?  It’s a question that the Church has had to deal with for two thousand years.

But in Germany, it is politicians and bureaucrats that are deciding who is and who isn’t Christian, and by some accounts, without an ability for themselves to understand what the basic tenets of Christianity even are for themselves.  The result, according to the letter, is that those who have converted to Christianity and received baptism in the Church are being declared non-Christian by the State and slated for deportation.  Despite the fact that some of them are enduring persecution for their conversion from militant Muslim refugees, and despite the reality that they will face greater persecution in their homelands for converting.

How do you sort out a Gordian Knot of this scope and scale?  As a pastor, my emphasis and priority would be on preaching and teaching the Word so that people might come to faith regardless of the repercussions in their lives.  But what a terrible thing to be blessed to proclaim Good News to a people who have been oppressed and persecuted for so long – by their prior fellow-adherents! – and then watch those children of God ordered for deportation.  How awful to be privileged to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to have these converts deemed non-Christian, oftentimes by people who are not even Christian themselves but have inherited the blessings of being born in a traditionally Christian culture!

What a terribly important ministry evolves then, the ministry of preparing these people for whatever may come down the road because of their conversion.  The ministry of distinguishing between the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the bad news that inheritors of Christian benefits won’t recognize these converts.

Is it a good idea to make Christianity a determination point for asylum seekers?  It’s a logical one I suppose.  Certainly there will be some percentage of people who claim to have converted but haven’t really, and who will take up their Muslim faith again as soon as they are safely settled for good.  But Christianity has always dealt with those who seek the status of the faith when it mingles with cultural and societal status and ambition.  The Church must be discerning to the best of our ability, but our discernment is necessarily imperfect and limited by sin.

How do I determine whether a person is Christian or not?  I begin by acknowledging this ultimately is not my job but Christ’s.  For the purposes of my work, I look for signs of the faith in a person’s life.  Have they been baptized?  Are they regularly in worship and hopefully also communal Bible study?  Have they been instructed in the basics of Christian doctrine as outlined in the Ecumenical Creeds?  I would not resort to some sort of Christian or Bible trivia game, asking for obscure details from the Bible or complex explanations of Christian doctrine.   If someone comes to me seeking Christian instruction, and after receiving it indicates that they believe this and wish to become a Christian and want baptism, I will baptize them.  If they continue coming to church (or I know they are attending elsewhere regularly), and if they are taking seriously the teaching of the Bible in terms of how they live their lives and make their decisions, then I acknowledge them as a brother or sister in the faith.  My evaluation of that may be off the mark, but it is an evaluation with some solid criteria to recommend it which relies on something beyond an overly simplistic mastery of basic data.

The Church’s long history of discernment on this issue might be of use to the State in seeking to determine who is authentic and who is not.  Again, the results will not be perfect, but they are likely to be better than having the State arbitrarily determine what makes a person Christian or not.

Well Said

January 16, 2017

It never fails to amaze me how Christians can presume that their emotions or even ideals give them permission to ignore the Word of God.  This is a well-written response to one such expression of personal autonomy instead of Christian obedience.

More on Ordinary Time

January 12, 2017

The seminary I attended was very good.  The education was fantastic.  But of course, even in four years there isn’t enough time to learn everything.  So I found this short article (I’d suggest not bothering with the cute little video at the end) to be very enlightening.  It helps explain why the Sundays right now are considered “Ordinary Time”, yet still are referenced in relationship to Epiphany Sunday.

I know.  I should probably get out more.

Tea Leaves

January 6, 2017

My denominational polity published a new examination of the state of Christianity (and particularly our denomination).

It’s a long, dense, statistics-packed paper that studies economics and societal factors to try and determine why Christianity and the LC-MS are declining in America.  The results are somewhat less than satisfying.  The most prominent conclusion is the declining birth rate in America (and the LC-MS) is probably the single-biggest factor determining smaller numbers of congregants and congregations these days.  Other societal factors also weigh in, as do economics, but all of these are murky and unclear compared to a pretty clear-cut population decline.  The biggest growth factor in our denomination – the largest source of new members – is children, and if people are having fewer of them, our churches are going to get smaller.

I’d like to say that it’s interesting reading but it really isn’t.  I also don’t care for the implicit premises – that our denomination (or any particular denomination or polity, for that matter) should be able to determine a way to continue thriving indefinitely.  Recommending that people have more kids may be meritorious on a variety of levels, but if it is being recommended as a way to maintain congregations and our synodical polity, then it seems ultimately very self-serving.