Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Curmudgeonly

October 12, 2018

That’s how this post will make me sound, I’m sure.  Though if you’re a regular reader you probably drew that conclusion a long time ago.

But particularly, my grumpiness has to do with the efforts of congregations these days desperate to try and improve their image in their community.  Often times this is tied to declining membership and a desire to appear welcoming to the community.  Task forces and committees get together to come up with ways and means for engaging  with the community.

This is one of those vague, nebulous phrases that takes on a life of its own and won’t seem to go away.  I think it assumes that the reason Christian congregations are – overall – shrinking in size and growing older demographically as fewer young people bother to attend is that the community doesn’t know they’re there or views them as disconnected.  To disprove this, congregations seek to show up in their community as involved entities, demonstrating love and care for the community.  Oftentimes this comes in the form of providing services the community might want or view favorably.  It could mean providing help to the less fortunate.  It could mean supporting and promoting local artisans and small businesses.  It might even extend into the political arena  to some degree.

Through community engagement, a congregation will benefit from greater exposure and an improved public opinion about them.  I suspect that’s the basic goal.  The further, often unstated goal is that there will be people in the community impressed enough with the congregation’s engagement to begin attending.

It sounds nice  and good.  I can’t completely fault it, as much as I’d like to.  I guess I don’t fault the idea of being part of a community, but I question whether a congregation is able to do so as opposed to individual members doing so.  And I definitely question whether community engagement accomplishes the goals it sets out to achieve.

I  don’t think there are a lot of people in our communities who aren’t already active members of a church (or mosque, or synagogue) who sit around each week  lamenting that they have no idea where to find other like-minded believers to gather with.  Before the Internet we had phone books where you could easily look up pretty much every major church (or mosque, or synagogue) in your community.  It might have just been a single line or a full-page ad, but you could find them.  It’s even easier now with the Internet and Google.  If people want to know you’re here, they will figure it out.  I don’t think that publicity or exposure is a major challenge Christian congregations face and that accounts for falling attendance.

Similarly, I don’t think the community will have a much changed opinion about a congregation that engages in the community.  It seems like every cause or event now has sponsorship placards and signs all over it.  It’s easy to shell out a few hundred dollars and have your name slapped on a flyer listing supporters.  So easy, in fact, that I never pay any attention to it.  The only reason I might pay attention is if it’s something that I disagree with or find objectionable and I want to know who’s supporting it so that I don’t support them in some way.  But if it’s a good thing?  Hey, everyone should be supporting this, so it’s no big deal if one particular church is supporting it.  If I’m going to church already I’m not going to change churches just because I see a church supporting something I like (at least that shouldn’t be the reason I change churches!).  If I’m not attending church already, I’m probably not going to just show up randomly at a church I see on a flyer or a sign for an event.  I’m far more likely (statistically) to go to a church where I know someone and where someone has actually extended an invitation for me to attend.

So while the community might be happy to have support for a particular cause or event, I don’t think that support is going to result in new people showing up for worship.

Particularly if you’re a conservative, traditional sort of congregation that doesn’t support abortion, euthanasia or same-sex marriage.  More and more these churches are going to be seen as anathema.  Not simply out of touch with the times but actually evil and wrong.  More and more, younger generations wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.  What if their friends saw them?  What if their employer knew they went to a church that didn’t support abortion?  More and more faith is going to become a cultural and therefore professional liability.  People will choose churches – if they go at all – that won’t cause them difficulties in seeking that big promotion at work, or cost them the chance at public office.  Even President Obama learned that lesson once he was more permanently fixed in the public eye.

Communities will be happy to receive whatever congregations are willing to give them.  Well, that’s not actually true.  Communities are going to be less and less interested in receiving the one thing those congregations should give them – the Gospel.  The truth that there is real and true and objective good and evil, and that there are eternal ramifications to these things.  That by default we’re in the camp of evil rather than good, and that we can’t extricate ourselves by any words or actions or feelings or thoughts.  Our only hope lies in the Son of God who suffered and died for our sins, received the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness, and offers resurrection hope and life in his own empty tomb.

That’s the unique gift a Christian church can offer the community.  The one thing the community can’t get anywhere else.  The only things that really truly matter.  Truth.  Hope.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Life.

I wish I heard more congregations and Christians talking about how to get those things, that message out into the  community instead of how to get the community to like us more for doing things that anybody or any organization could do by writing a check or fielding a few volunteers to wear t-shirts.  The Church’s job is not to get our community to like us.  The Church’s job is to witness to Christ crucified and resurrected.  More and more, that message is going to be offensive and will engender hatred rather than social  media likes.  It’s going to prompt vandalism and protests and angry letters to the editor.  Not because we want it to, but because we have an enemy at work stirring up hearts and minds and confusion in opposition.  That’s real community engagement, loving your community so much that you’re willing to tell them the things they don’t want to hear.  Offering the real assurance of forgiveness and grace if and when they come to repentance.  Feeding them with the Word of God that conveys eternal life and sustaining and nourishing them with the sacramental gifts of God.

Why can’t we create some great t-shirts for that?

 

 

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Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

The idea has been brought up in the last nine months that perhaps our congregation should have women Elders.  Our denomination traditionally has fought against this practice, although it is technically permissible through the careful wording of language in a congregation’s Constitution (which must be vetted and accepted by our polity in order for a congregation to be truly affiliated with the denomination.  So, as a pretty traditional and conservative Church body, we stand with the predominant Christian practice of the last nearly 2000 years and do not generally permit women Elders, and never women pastors.

There are exceptions, of course, to allowing women to be Elders and interestingly enough our two closest daughter congregations both allow it.  This is one of the reason some of my parishioners are asking about it.  Other reasons include some people growing up in other denominations that allow women pastors and Elders.  And of course our cultural climate for the last 50 years has really stressed that if women are to be considered equal to men, they must do identical things to men.  This is  not an option for strident feminists.  A woman should get a college education and join the workforce and stay in the workforce.  The maternal instinct should be shunted to the side as much as possible, and certainly a woman who truly upholds the equality of women should never opt to be a stay-at-home mom.  Equality requires that we be identical, our culture says, and our parishioners are hearing this message loud and clear and internalizing it.

So it was that I received a short note asking me why I didn’t think women were worthy to be Elders and bringing up two New Testament women who some think were not just Elders but perhaps even pastors – Priscilla  and Phoebe.  After clarifying that this is not an issue of worthiness or capability, but rather a matter of maintaining God’s Word to us that our value and worth is contingent not on what we do or don’t do but rather on the fact that God the Father created us, God the Son died for us, and God the Holy Spirit seeks after every last one of us, here is my quick treatment of Priscilla and Phoebe.

Priscilla – Our knowledge of Priscilla comes from four places:  Acts 18, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19.  These passages tell us she was married to a man named Aquila who were Jews and tentmakers like St. Paul, had been expelled with other Jews in Rome likely in association with the Emperor Claudius sometime between 41 and 54 AD (probably 51-52 based on the reference to the proconsul Gallio).  These events are referenced as well by several Roman historians.  They are Paul’s travel companions from Corinth (where he meets them in their exile) to Syria.  They remain in Ephesus while Paul continues his travels, and it is in Ephesus where they meet Apollos and expounded or proclaimed to him the Christian faith more fully.  They are also in Rome and are referred to by Paul as co-laborers or co-workers in Christ.  They are said to host a church in their home in Corinth.
What do we learn from this?  Aquila and Priscilla are valued and trusted friends and co-workers with St. Paul.  Together they are credited with laboring on behalf of Christ, including the further education of Apollos.  Priscilla is not singled out in any of these things, but is treated as a partner with Aquila.  The reference to them as co-workers in Romans 16:3 is not a theological or church term, but a common expression of someone working together.  It doesn’t mean that they were necessarily doing the same things, but that they worked together.  Paul makes it very clear that there are many ways to serve Christ in the church (1 Corinthians 12), and not all of them are the role of Elder or Pastor.  The fact that Aquila and Priscilla serve Christ does not mean they are doing the same things Paul is doing.  And the fact that they host a church in their home does *not* necessitate that they were the leaders of that church.  Paul nowhere makes that assertion, and I most frequently hear that interpretation of the texts by people who already have made up their mind that women ought to be pastors or Elders/leaders in the Church and go off looking for texts to support their point of view.  An objective reading of the verses about Priscilla do not, I believe, lend themselves to this interpretation.  Particularly when we recognize that nowhere else in Scripture are women understood to serve in official capacities within the priesthood or Church, and that Paul specifically cautions against this elsewhere.
Phoebe – She has only one mention in Scripture – Romans 16:1-2, where Paul greets her as a deacon in the Church and a sister in Christ.  He instructs the Roman Christians to receive her and to be of whatever assistance to her they can.  Some scholars presume that she might be the person carrying Paul’s letter to the or perhaps even reading it to them.  Once again, he clearly has respect and appreciation for her and her work on his behalf and Christ’s.  But once again, there is nothing specific in what Paul says about her or  her work that would lead us to assume – again especially in light of Paul’s other words on the topic of women in leadership – that she is a pastor or an Elder.  Deacon is a Greek term typically interpreted as servant.  Because of Paul’s usage of the word, it has come to have a more specific, Church meaning as some sort of professional Church worker.  I assume this is why some translations don’t use the word deacon in Romans 16:1 – to avoid some of the confusion that has evolved regarding the word vs. the church function.  The question then hinges on how Paul uses the word deacon, and whether we can or should interpret this to be strictly or even primarily any sort of pastoral or spiritual oversight role.
Paul uses the word deacon in six places:
  • Romans 16:1 – in reference to Phoebe without further clarification
  • Philippians 1:1 – mentioned along with the overseers of the congregation, implying perhaps that deacons – while serving an important role – are not the leaders/overseers of the church –
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-12 – Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers as well as deacons, indicating fairly clearly that their duties were not the same.  The qualifications of a good deacon are considerably fewer in number and scope than the qualifications to be an overseer.
Once again, a straightforward reading of these verses would not lead us to think deacons were the same as overseers/pastors/Elders, but rather serve another function within the Church that bears mentioning along with overseers/pastors/elders.  Again, most arguments that Phoebe was essentially a pastor or elder are made by people who seem to have their minds made up on the subject already, and who are also blatantly ignoring Paul’s other teachings on this topic (most notably, 1 Timothy 3:12).  Towards that end, there are a few other references that are often brought up such as Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3.  They are also acknowledged and praised and thanked by Paul as co-workers working closely with him in his ministry, but not said to be doing the same things he is.  Also frequently mentioned is Galatians 3:28.  But it is clear contextually that Paul doesn’t mean that these differences don’t exist.  There clearly are still men and women, still Jews and non-Jews, still those who are enslaved and those who are free.  His argument has to do with the freedom we have in Christ as opposed to the constraints often endured culturally or societally.
The argument that women were leaders in the early Church requires a backwards reading of today’s ideas of equality and feminism into Scripture.  The argument today is that equality means doing the same things – and this is never the Scriptural definition of equality.  The argument today is that if women are not doing the same thing as men, it is tantamount to oppression by men and a betrayal of their gender by women, neither of which is Biblical (or frankly even logical!) in the least.
Biblically, our value and worth come from the fact that we are creations of God the Father and bear his  image, not what we do.
For 2000 years the Church has tried to give witness to this Biblical truth.  We are created equal but different.  Oftentimes that message has been confused or warped by sinfulness.  It has certainly been used inappropriately as a tool for oppression or suppression of women by men.  But the fact that we misuse it sinfully sometimes does not deny the essential truth behind it.  Frankly, our misuse of it only further heightens the validity of the situation.  In Genesis 3 God tells Eve that part of the effects of sin in her life and the life of her gender will be a constant struggle with men for control, and that more often than not, women will lose that struggle.
It has nothing to do with ability.  Men and women are equal before God, and have equal and intrinsic value and worth.  They have different giftings and abilities as well.  I  know women who would be far better pastors than some guys I know!  But that doesn’t mean we are free to arbitrarily define or redefine Biblical reality.  Even if we don’t understand the reason, we are to remain faithful to God’s Word to the best of our ability.  Women voluntarily recognize this authority and submit to it – it is not a means for men to exert control over women.
The LC-MS acknowledges that, despite 2000 years of church history, sometimes congregations feel compelled to make women Elders.  We tend to resist this as the Elders traditionally carry authority similar to the Pastor, and so confusion can be started.  If women can be Elders, why not Pastors?  So the LC-MS has discouraged the use of women Elders.  Yes, there are LC-MS congregations (locally!) who have women Elders, and loopholes exist Synodically that allow this.  Does that mean we should do it?  The fact that a loophole exists does not mean that it must or even should be taken.  The larger question is how does our congregation sees herself in 2000 years of Christian history and practice, and what are the overwhelming arguments put forth that women should be Elders here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Is that an adequate argument against a pretty strong and consistent Scriptural argument against such a practice?  Should we go ahead and permit women Pastors as well?  The LC-MS draws a very firm line on this one!  But if women are up helping distribute Communion, isn’t that similar to being a pastor?  The questions continue and flow out from there.
So, it is not a matter of capability or  worth, but an attempt to hear what God’s Word says.  There are some who will abuse God’s Word to make women inferior to men.  They are sinful and wrong who do this.  Women are every bit equal to men, but that very equality requires that women be women and men be men, rather than attempting to take on one another’s roles.

 

A Luxury Denied

September 21, 2018

I’m an introvert.  A quiet person.  I don’t like crowds.  I prefer one-on-one interactions.  I dislike small talk.  I’m very private and not very expressive of my emotions.  The idea of people looking at me is uncomfortable.

I’m also a pastor.  And this means that despite my preferences, I don’t always get things they way I want them.  People are always looking at me.  I am expected to deal with large groups of people as necessary.  My quietness and privateness needs to be tempered with the understanding that my parishioners need to know me at some level.  My vocation requires that I give up some of my preferences because of the role I serve in my faith community.

This sounds easy enough until it comes to the issue of grieving and loss.

A colleague of mine suffered a tragic and unexpected loss this week.  His wife died unexpectedly.  She was on life-support for a few  days but it was apparent that it was the machines keeping her alive after her accident and that no recovery was to be expected.  When they took her off the machines she died.

It was three days before the other pastors in our area knew about the situation.  The information came from another associate that works closely with this person, and came with the tag line we hear often – the family asks that everyone would respect their privacy during this difficult time.

That’s not-so-secret code for don’t call, don’t e-mail, don’t inquire, don’t offer help,  don’t stop by.  It’s the equivalent of a No Soliciting sign on a front door, intended to keep others away.

I understand the motivation.  I understand the desire to hunker down alone to sort things out and come to grips with a situation.  It will be my instinct as well.

But it’s an instinct my vocation requires me to fight, as I think this brother should as well.

Ministers serve a public role.  One of the aspects of that role is to serve people in times of grief, in times when they deal with the loss of a loved one whether expected or unexpectedly.  We’re expected to be there in whatever way the family can allow us to be, as a source of comfort not in and of ourselves but in who we represent.  It’s one of those times when a Christian minister is supposed to embody the presence of Christ.  It’s a palpable reminder that they aren’t alone, and that by the grace of God the deceased is not alone either.

And as such we need to recognize it is our responsibility to model this when we ourselves suffer.  We aren’t superheroes who don’t need the comfort of others.  We aren’t omniscient and perfectly and always aware of the presence and love of Christ.  We aren’t immune to the agonizing desire to know why, or the brutal accusations  of the conscience or our Enemy, telling us if only we had done such-and-such, or not done such-and-such, this wouldn’t have happened.  The deceased would still be alive.  We would not be aching.

We need to model an openness in times of grief and loss, even (or perhaps especially) when it is counter-intuitive.  We need to model a grief that allows itself to be embraced by the community of faith, supported in prayer and in presence.  If we want our people to understand this and to commit  themselves to this for themselves and their loved ones, we need to show  that we aren’t above it either.  We need it just as much.

I grieve for my brother and his loss, but have no way to express it.  That’s difficult.  And as an introvert (as I think he is as well) I recognize that he doesn’t want those expressions.  Might not be able to handle them.  Has no response for them.  That’s fine.  A response isn’t necessary and we need to accept this.  A perfectly composed reception is not necessary or expected.  But I need to be willing to allow people to grieve with me and for me in my loss.

I encourage you not to try and keep others at arms length in the midst of grief and loss and tragedy.  I understand why you’re inclined to.  Truly, I do.  I see it a lot.  But struggle against it, to find a way to allow others into and alongside your grief.

And I pray for the grace and strength of God the Holy Spirit to follow this advice myself if and when it becomes applicable.

 

 

 

A Deeper Loss

September 19, 2018

I work with the recovery community in town.  For years I’ve been teaching and mentoring people as part of their commitment to a year-long recovery program.  It’s some of the most enjoyable time I spend each week, speaking the Gospel to people who still aren’t sure what it is and whether or not it is for them.  And since the beginning of August my work in that community has deepened through opening our home to some of the women in recovery for dinner each week.  It has created a closer relationship with some of them, participating together in a less formal, non-programmed time each week.  It has allowed them to get to know my wife and children, and for us to get to know them better.  A little bit about their families as they experience our family life.

My family looks forward to Thursday night every week.  They’re excited to meet new people, to share themselves around the table or playing xBox games together.

But it makes the pain of losing one of those people we’ve broken bread with that much more acute.   And tonight I found out that one of the first ladies we had over had to leave the program today.  She was past the halfway mark in the program.  She was sweet and kind and seemed to be taking everything to heart.  The grief of the ladies tonight who met with me for Bible study was palpable.  The tears were real.  And in a way I haven’t ever really before, I felt that anguish at a deeper and more personal level.

This is the challenging and painful work of relationship.  Of getting to know people and caring about them and wanting the best for them.  It is the visible face of sin and evil, those powers and forces, those addictions and other issues that drag us away from love and hope and back into dangerous waters.  We prayed tonight for her, and I prayed not only for her but for the women who mourn her loss as a sister in recovery.  And while my words in the prayers weren’t explicit, they were  words for my own hurt as well, and for the hurt of my family when I share with them in a few minutes.

I don’t know the details of this woman’s departure.  It was a second infraction, a second violation of the rules against  drugs or alcohol while on a home pass.  I don’t know if she’s back in full-blown addiction.  I pray not.  I pray that what she’s learned in the months before will give her tools to help protect herself.

But if nothing else, she’s isolated.  She’s away from her recovery community, and unless she establishes herself in regular recovery community through AA meetings, that isolation will grow and the odds of her relapse into addiction are agonizingly high.  Nearly overwhelming.

And addiction or not, her departure is not the equivalent of her losing faith in Jesus Christ, either.  Our faith is not determined by our sobriety, though  it can be severely impacted by the lack thereof.  I don’t treat this woman as a lost soul, necessarily, but I pray for her spiritually most of all.  It isn’t just recovery community she needs to be a part of, that might form the difference between a life of hope instead of a life of addiction, she needs to immerse herself in Christian community as well.  A place where she knows and is known, where she can be loved, supported,  encouraged.

So that’s what I pray for her tonight.  Grateful for the eight women who drive out for Bible study with me but who wept and had trouble focusing because of their fear, their loss,  their anger.  And I give thanks for the Good Shepherd who insists on pursuing the lost sheep, whose Spirit does not rest until she is  found and brought safely back home.

May that be so for Ash, Lord.  Tonight and every night after.  Amen.

Reinventing the Wheel?

September 6, 2018

I received a mailer at work and at home for a new church starting up in our community.  They will be meeting at the local community college campus, and the theme of the mailer is hope.  They are apparently intending to bring hope to our community, which doesn’t sound like a bad goal per se.   Who couldn’t use some hope in this divisive culture?

I go to the website listed on the mailer.  There’s not much information.  Their values are summarized in three rather generic sentences that emphasize the grace of Jesus Christ for everyone, their intent to value gathering together (interesting that they choose the word fight to indicate how they hope to accomplish certain things like unity), and that they value the larger community.  Encouraging statements but generic to the point of uselessness.  I doubt they’d bother starting a church here if they hated our community, and I doubt they’d start a church here if they didn’t value being with other people with similar ideals and beliefs.  And their mention of Jesus is so cursory as to indicate almost every and any stripe of not just Christianity but also Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Bahai or Buddhism.  There is no doctrinal statement or indication of denominational or other church affiliations.  Most of the About page is taken up with winsome, professional photographs of the Lead Pastor and his family and the Worship Pastor and his family.  The site includes cool gifs or videos of recognizable local places, but there is literally no more information about who these people are, where they come from, what they believe, or why they want me to join them.

I’ll assume that these are earnest, honest, well-intentioned Christians.  There are at least 50-60 Christian congregations in our community already.  How do these people see themselves fitting in?  What do they offer?  What differentiates them doctrinally from  these other congregations.  They must have some financial resources behind them if they’re bringing two families of five people each into the community and setting up shop.  What might be accomplished if they partnered with a local congregation instead of working separately?

It’s sad to think that people might show up at a new church in town with absolutely no information about who they are or what they believe.  It’s sad to think that a flyer might be the impetus to visit, or just the fact that they’re new and have young, photogenic families.

Six or more years ago I participated in a church fair on the campus of a local Christian college.  The idea was for local congregations to come out and provide information to the students about their congregations and programs, so that students could find places to worship in town.  I showed up with some handouts with information on our beliefs as well as opportunities we offered each week for study and worship.  My table looked pretty sparse compared to many others, replete with boom boxes, big boxes full of sunglasses and bouncy balls and other trinkets to give away.  Needless to say interest was pretty slim in my table, but where they were giving stuff away, there was sure a crowd.

Is that how you choose a church?  Is fun and hip the only metrics that matters now?  Or am I just bitter, being neither particularly fun nor hip?

I can’t help but think how much stronger the body of Christ would be as a whole if we learned to work better together, rather than setting up new shops all the time.  Is it so foregone a conclusion that a new infusion of ideas (rather than doctrines) could occur in a congregation, or that an existing group would never be willing to take in and work with people who are hungry and eager to share the gospel?  Are new congregations established because we actually have doctrinal differences we can’t get past, or simply because new is easier and more attractive?

Sad, but perhaps true.

 

Calculated Risks

August 30, 2018

Every Thursday night now, for the past month, we’ve started taking calculated risks.

We don’t think of it this way, but that’s certainly part of it.  What we think of is just inviting people into our home for time and dinner, and this in itself isn’t too unusual.  Practically every night of the week we have one or more people outside our immediate family breaking bread with us.

But our Thursday guests each week are a little different – we try not to think of them that way, though others might.  They come from a local rehabilitation program, clients of a one-year residential treatment program for women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.  We’ve had a dozen of these women to our home in the last month, in groups of three.  These women span the cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic spectrum.  They come from all over the country, from backgrounds either urban or bucolic, nightmarish or right off the set of Leave It to Beaver.  Yet each one for various reasons has found herself in the grips of serious addiction.

That grip pervades all of a person’s life, eventually.  What becomes optional, then manageable, then functional, finally becomes out of control.  Jobs can’t be held.  Families can’t be held together.  Jail and even prison are not unusual locations either short or long-term for some of these ladies.  Working in the recovery community as  I have for roughly the last seven years, I know these things.

We opened our home to these ladies to give them a taste of something they aren’t able to access very easily or often – home.  A place where they aren’t defined by their addictions of  the past or their recovery at the present or the uncertainty of their futures, but where they’re just friends invited to join us around the dinner table, or to play video or card games with our kids.  Where they’re free to just laugh and be.  No expectations.  No duties (other than helping with dishes a little bit!).  Last night the kids  led us all in making homemade spaghetti noodles for dinner.  It was a lot of work and didn’t go entirely as planned – at least initially.  But everyone had fun and enjoyed themselves.

There are risks with being open with people.  A friend of my wife’s – a fellow home-school mom – pointed that out to her the other afternoon.  She was concerned that we might be allowing people with criminal records into our home.  She was concerned for us, of course, and I appreciate that.  Nobody wants anyone else to get hurt, after all.

But life is full of calculated risks.  The challenge is that everyone uses slightly different variables in their calculations.  We don’t find the risk unbearable to have these ladies in our home.  Someone else would.  My wife and I have discussed the need to talk with our kids about being careful with people (not these people, specifically, but people in general) as they more and more find themselves in the world and negotiating the world on their own.  Not everyone can or should be trusted.  Not everyone is safe.  There are people out there who will hurt you and take advantage of you.

But in addition to teaching them how to be safe, we have to demonstrate to them how to make sure that the quest for safety doesn’t replace the very necessary calculation of risks with the goal of being as open as possible.  The goal should be openness as much as we can.  I think Scripture calls us to this.  It’s a means by which we love our neighbors.  But if we let it, our fear of being hurt can overwhelm our calling to love and serve one another.  We can quit bothering to really calculate the risks and simply opt for a very insulated life.  Ultimately this not only isolates us, it fosters attitudes towards others that aren’t just uncharitable, they’re unChristian.

What’s your risk calculation?  At what point do you draw the line?  We all draw lines – we all have to as sinful people in a sinful world.  Lines aren’t in and of themselves wrong, and I don’t fault people if they draw a line closer in than I do, and I try not to feel guilty when someone else has a line much further out than mine.  But how do I pray and work to extend those lines out as far as possible?  How do you strive to share yourselves with others?  These are important questions for people of faith to ask themselves in a media climate the fosters only fear and distrust.

Our answers to these questions can make huge differences, both in our own lives and the lives of those around us.

Book Review: Who Broke My Church?

August 7, 2018

Who Broke My Church? 7 Proven Strategies for Renewal and Revival

by Kent R. Hunter

I don’t know where I got this book.  I’m sure that it’s a good book for someone, but not for me.  In fact, I went through and purged my Amazon wish-list of any books I’ve put on there over the last fifteen years that propose to help you transform your church from icky to successful.  It’s not that this isn’t a good desire (depending on how you define terms), but the reality is that none of these books seem to accomplish what they claim to.  Either that means that millions of people are reading them and then ignoring everything they say (which is completely possible!) or that what they say isn’t ultimately as guaranteed (“proven”) as they think it is.

This is an encouraging book in some ways.  The language is peppy, sprinkled liberally with quotable slogans and catch-phrases, and with ongoing references to other current writers on the Church or leadership or any number of other topics.  Perhaps it’s encouraging to people to read books like this, and perhaps there are people who have seen substantive change in their congregations as a result.  I just don’t know any of them personally.

Some of his insights are helpful, such as differentiating between being a servant or a volunteer.  Other things were less helpful, such as insisting that no church can survive or thrive unless they update everything to match what people in the larger culture expect.  Suggesting that Jesus came to model a new way of doing ministry is more than a stretch.  And  if you’re going to make that stretch, why is it that nobody ever advocates for a itinerant ministry model, since that’s how Jesus did it?

Read the Bible, and if you read it well enough and long enough the strategies that this author (or most any other author, frankly) advocates will be obvious enough.  Or they won’t be.  One thing I find interesting with reading the early Church Fathers is how little – as in not at all – they talk about growth strategies or evangelism programs.  They talk about unity, about believers committing themselves to one another.  But not about how to improve worship attendance.

Hmmmm….

Book Review: The Benedict Option

August 6, 2018

The Benedict Option:  A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

by Rod Dreher

I was directed to this book by a respected writer, teacher, and theologian,  Gene Veith.

I agree with Veith that this is an important book.  I wish that it was more important than it is, but it is important at the very least.  Dreher asserts that Christians have lost the cultural war and therefore will lose the struggle to legislate Christian morality.  These losses have already occurred cannot be undone (likely for several generations) and should be acknowledged as such.  While there is a place and necessity for Christians to continue to voice their beliefs in the public and political realm those voices will be increasingly marginalized and perhaps even criminalized.

What are Christians to do, then?

Dreher argues far more eloquently than I have that Christians need to acknowledge this, quit moaning about it, and get on with planning how to ensure that Christianity is passed down to our children and grandchildren, so that it survives this new Dark Ages and is ready to re-emerge into a changed political and cultural landscape an indeterminate number of years, decades, or perhaps centuries down the road.

The metaphor Dreher chooses for this is St. Benedict of Nursia, who in the sixth century created a rule for monastic life still in use today, which Dreher sees as informative not for a new wave of monks and nuns but rather ordinary Christians seeking to preserve their faith in an increasingly hostile and intolerant culture.

This sounds fascinating to a Lutheran like me who views monastic life as impractical at best.  Unfortunately, Dreher only references Benedict’s Rule in passing and without much specific quoting.  I’d rather thought I’d find a copy of the Rule in the book itself, but it isn’t there.  Dreher seems more to see in St. Benedict a prescient figure for his time, which is certainly what Christians seem to need now.  Dreher is not advocating monasticism in the traditional sense, or a withdrawal of Christians from culture and society, but rather that Christians need to take steps to intentionally preserve the Christian faith in their families and communities, steps that most people will likely find extreme to say the least.

Communal living (whether under one roof or in a network of like-minded homes in a neighborhood or town) is a major aspect.  Reconsidering our devotion to the public schooling system (as well as private schools) at all levels, and considering home schooling utilizing the classical educational model is another strong recommendation of Dreher’s.  Strategizing as to what career options will likely remain open to Christians in an era where corporations are increasingly mandating employee adherence and support of codes of conduct that may violate their Christian beliefs is another major issue.

Dreher recognizes what we all sort of know in our gut – that the changes of the last 40 years have been nothing short of monumental, tectonic even.  Everything has changed and is going to continue to change and not in a way convenient or even permissive of traditional Christian teachings and ways of living our lives.

Dreher intends to sound the alarm to rouse Christians to radically reconsider the assumptions they have accepted about how life ought to be lived and how the life of faith should be lived out.  I know Dreher intentionally avoids many specific recommendations as he understands that Benedict Communities are going to come in all shapes and sizes and he doesn’t want to curtail holy imagination towards that end.  But a bit more in the specifics arena would likely be helpful to folks who are otherwise bewildered by the picture he paints of the future.

Read this book.  Read it as a family.  Read it as church communities.  And begin to look for folks who understand just how different the coming generations of Christians are going to need to live in America.  There is no returning to the halcyon days of mid-20th century America as a Christian nation (if that was indeed accurate).  We need to prepare for a future even more difficult than the present.  God is good.  The Holy Spirit is with us.  The Church will never be eradicated, but individual Christians and corporate Christian entities are going to have an increasingly difficult road ahead.

Let’s work together to figure out how to keep moving down it and through it.

Steps of Change

July 30, 2018

Yesterday my congregation made the first of what will likely be multiple steps towards substantive  change in their ministry condition.  They voted to allow a long-term lease to expire about a year from now.  Doing so will mean the parting of ways with a Christian organization that has had long-standing ties with our congregation over the last  30 years or so.  It was a mutually beneficial relationship, in the early days ministerially as well  as financially.  In later years, the primary benefit to both parties was financial.

Parting ways will  mean that we’ll lose almost a third of the income  that makes  up our annual budget.  Nothing to sneeze at, to be sure.  While we’re  blessed to be finanicially stable to operate without this income for  several years, it isn’t a situation that is tenable for the long term.  In other words, now there will be some tangible pressure on the congregation to determine what they want to do in terms of ministry, and what is necessary to accomplish it.

That excites me.

The lease arrangement was comfortable.  It provided reliable income, but required nothing of our people in terms of mission or ministry.  Now  they have the duty and privilege of charting a course for the congregation that hopefully will continue long after they have gone to glory.  Rather than choosing comfort for a few more  years at the cost of the ministry’s future, they’ve opted for the harder road that could lead to substantive change.  Perhaps even sacrifice.

These are good things, in my estimation.  Not easy things, but good and important.  The next year will be pivotal in determining what our course forward will be and how we accomplish it.  I look forward to seeing the Holy Spirit’s continued leading and guiding.  We’ve been here for over 100 years.  What a privilege to work with these people to ensure that  we continue to minister in our community and beyond for as many more years as possible – perhaps another century!

The Miracle Whip Jar

July 16, 2018

In the cabinet in the sacristy where we keep the wine and wafers for Holy Communion locked up there is a Miracle Whip jar.  I am no expert on Miracle Whip jars, but I suspect that this is an old one.  At least 30 years old.  Probably more in the neighborhood of 40 years old.  Possibly 50 years old.

It does not have mayonnaise in it any longer, in case you’re worried.

When a package of Communion wafers is opened but not all of them are needed for that Sunday’s consecration, the remainder are put in this jar to keep them as fresh as possible.  Frankly, this to me is an oxymoron, as there are few things in this world as un-fresh as Communion wafers.  The  irony is more than tragic,  in my opinion.

So for 30, or 40, or 50 years, the people who set up Communion for my congregation have used this jar.  This jar pre-dates my pastorate considerably.  There is a possibility the jar is older than I am.  But I almost invariably smile when I unlock the cabinet and see it there.

It’s a reminder to me.  This is not my church.  As pastor, I don’t own this place, I don’t get to dictate what happens here.  In matters of theology and practice I of course have a distinct voice.  Not infallible, though.  Not necessarily.  But in other matters of the life of the church and the future of the congregation, I am not the one who should call the shots.  This congregation has been around since 1915.  They have had a variety of pastors, some better and some worse, depending on who you ask.  I pray to be one of the better ones but also realize that I am always a slipped word,  an angry outburst, a prideful disdain away from becoming one of the worst.

I came to serve and I continue to serve, as our Lord served his disciples, washing feet – even the feet of the one who would shortly betray him.  I have my ideas about things, my dreams and hopes and worries and visions  for this place and these people.  But my first job is to serve.  To serve as long as God keeps me here.  As long as the people will have me.  As long as I’m physically and mentally and spiritually able to.  Not in a glorious way, always, but in a necessary one.  Like an old empty mayonnaise jar.  Knowing that, barring some monumental mistake, there will be another man in my office someday, another man opening the sacristy cupboard.  Just as there were other men before me opening and closing the lid on that jar.

May whatever  the future holds be pleasing to God and a blessing to his people – past, present, and future.  And whether my ideas carry the day or someone else’s, may I keep perspective with the help of an old mayonnaise jar and continue to do my job as faithfully as I can.