Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

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!

Book Review: Small Church Essentials

June 8, 2020

Small Church Essentials by Karl Vaters

This was lent to me by a member along with the previously reviewed The Grasshopper Myth. Both of these books cover a lot of similar material, and spend the bulk of their time pushing the basic point that size is not the sole determinant of a congregation’s health or success. While the last several decades have seen large congregations and mega-churches held up as the pinnacle of faithful pastor leadership (if you’re doing a good job, obviously you’re going to get bigger, right?) this is not only not necessarily true, it is overwhelmingly true less often than not.

A lot of pastors need to hear this because both implicitly and explicitly the goal of being a large congregation is out there in pastoral ministry. And when you’re struggling to care for a small flock on a small budget it’s easy to look longingly at the lush grass of a mega-church where money isn’t a problem and there are enough programs and staff to utilize a massive campus every day of the week.

Vaters makes the much-needed point that while large congregations are all well and good it is fallacious reasoning to presume that all congregations should become large or that small congregations are somehow deficient. Different sizes provide different dynamics that appeal to different people, Vaters argues, and properly so.

Vaters than gives advice for building on the strengths a small congregation likely possesses in terms of friendliness and intimacy, both good suggestions. He warns about the dangers of allowing a building to dictate what a ministry can and can’t do – a problem I’ve witnessed in multiple congregations and always to unfortunate results.

This is a handy book for both lay people and pastors to help alleviate the shame or disappointment that can come in comparing a small ministry to a large one. Better to focus on what small congregations can do well (and there are several things) rather than on what they can’t do.

Racism Is Sin

June 4, 2020

Earlier this week I sent a devotional to my congregation based on the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 28:16-20. I urged them in this season of unrest and disquiet and anger and fear to remember Jesus’ promise that whatever we face we will not face alone. I encouraged them to take these words to heart rather than allow the anger and demands of the culture around us to drive them to sin in terms of anger or fear. But after I sent that message I found myself asking the question why I didn’t write to them telling them to begin working for peace?  In the midst of chaos and hatred and confusion on a variety of levels  and fronts, shouldn’t this be the message of a pastor to his people?  Work for peace?  Demonstrate for peace?


This is the proper message, but demonstrations are not only in the streets.  Some are called to demonstrate in the streets, to exercise civil disobedience.  Never out of joy but always in the hopes of change.  Change as it inevitably is and must remain this side of heaven  – imperfect, fleeting at best, flawed more than not.  Sin must be called out for what it is and when confession and absolution are not enough, it must be dealt with through courts and penal systems.  Always with the prayer of repentance and forgiveness in Jesus for all involved, not simply the accused.  Some of you may well demonstrate for change and so long as you do so without hatred and malice this is your privilege first as a Christian and secondarily as an American.


Some of you will demonstrate for peace in other ways.  Quiet ways, by some  accounts.  With yourself.  With your spouse.  With your children and grandchildren.  With your neighbors.  We are called to be imperfect vessels  of peace to all people and at all times, even when retired or less mobile than we once were or would like to be.  Whether with our doctor or the grocery store clerk or the bank teller or the gardener, we should meet all people regardless of race or gender or creed with the love of Christ as Christ himself has welcomed us with his love.  There are no exceptions to this and no excuses for  refusing to follow it.  


You also demonstrate for peace when you refuse to allow yourself to be agitated or manipulated by the media or  various talking heads.  When you refuse to allow yourself or your faith to be  co-opted by others.  When you insist on spending your time in God’s Word and meditation on whatever is true or honorable  or just or pure or lovely or commendable or excellent.  When we refuse to allow ourselves  to be stirred to hatred on the pretext of righteousness we demonstrate for peace.  In your living room  or the driveway or at family reunions or in the quiet of your own heart.  


As we will hear in the Epistle lesson this Sunday, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  That’s you and I and George Floyd and Derek Chauvin.  Christ died for all of us because we are all ungodly.   All have sinned and fallen short.  Justice should be pursued and in this sinful world that means sometimes criminal and penal systems must be brought to bear to punish those whose sins are more  egregious.  These systems are themselves comprised of broken human beings and therefore imperfect but they are what we must deal with until our Lord’s return.  We can and should work for reform and change where we identify it is necessary.  But we should always remember systems will never end sin and if we put less faith and trust in them we will be less shocked and outraged when we find that sin exists in even the  most well-intentioned systems and solutions. 

The cure to racism and all sin is not a system but a Savior.  

So yes, work for peace because I can guarantee you somewhere in your lives is a place where more peace is needed.  Advocate for those in your life who are ostracized.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Give thanks that forgiveness is available to anyone and everyone in Jesus  Christ, and look towards the horizon constantly for his  return.  Be skeptical of easy answers.  Ground yourself  not in slogans or platforms or bumper stickers but in the Word of God that alone brings us the Son of God in whom alone are we promised real and true and lasting peace in this life and in eternity to come.

Poetry and Pentecost

May 30, 2020

My favorite poem for Pentecost, by T.S. Eliot:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

Rushing Back to Church

May 27, 2020

Our congregation will be gathering for worship this coming Sunday for the first time in about 10 weeks. It’s the longest I’ve ever gone without worshiping, either as a parishioner or a pastor. I can safely say the say for the majority of my members. Though some remember living through polio quarantines earlier in their lives, those were of a far more limited scale. For most all of my folks this is the longest they’ve had to go without Church in their lives.

But for those for whom weekly worship isn’t part of their routine, it might seem as though the push to reopen churches is a curious thing. Hence an article like this one, characterizing the push for a return to worship as a rush.

I thought it was interesting the article drew a distinction between Christian activism on this issue and comparative silence from Jewish and Muslim Americans. I can’t verify whether that’s true or not, since I’m not in the communication chains for those groups. If it is true, perhaps the issue is different definitions of what worship is.

I’ll hypothesize here – for lack of better certainty – that in Jewish and Muslim circles weekly worship is seen primarily as social and educational. A time to be with friends and family and a time to grow in their understanding of the faith. That might be in very loose terms or very traditional and religious terms. Weekly gatherings are, in that sense, somewhat optional. They aren’t receiving something in weekly worship they couldn’t receive in other forms on their own, in private, through the Internet or Zoom meetings. Of course they miss the in-person fellowship, but maybe they aren’t missing anything else.

For Christians, the historic understanding is that worship is more than just educational and more than just fellowship. We love to gather with our church family, to be certain. We look forward to catching up with one another, planning brunch afterwards, hobnobbing over coffee in the fellowship hall.

But the most important thing about Christian worship is we claim things happen there that don’t happen in other places – at least not in the same way. Which makes Christian worship – at least for those who understand the historic practice and theological underpinnings – essential and necessary, not simply a pleasantry we can do without as the mood strikes us. Granted, a lot of Christians have exactly that latter opinion of worship. Tragically even Lutherans – and even some of my parishioners – have that perspective.

Traditional worship understands worship as a time when God gives to us. This is the proper emphasis – what God gives to us. We respond in thanksgiving and worship, but the initiative is on God’s part, not ours. He gathers us in order to give us his gifts. Those gifts come in two forms – Word and Sacrament. We hear his Word and receive his grace in the Sacraments, and this happens only in worship as He gathers us together.

Yes, the Holy Spirit is always with us. Yes, we can read the Bible at home and have his Word. Yes, we live in his grace and forgiveness at all times, and so, strictly speaking, don’t need to receive the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution. We don’t have to have Holy Communion as another means of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can exist in the faith without them. But it is neither safe nor healthy to do so for extended periods of time. Actually engaging in corporate confession is much more powerful than whether I remember to confess my sins before I fall asleep at night. Hearing the declaration of a Called pastor/priest that my sins are forgiven is much stronger than just reminding myself of that reality.

And of course Holy Communion is a corporate event – unless overriding other issues prevent someone from receiving it as such. Jesus instituted it as a corporate event and the Church has understood it should be celebrated as such. Am I forgiven and in the grace of God whether I receive the Eucharist or not? Of course. But to taste forgiveness, to smell it, to gather around the Lord’s table with my brothers and sisters in Christ? That’s a worship thing.

For Christians – at least those who understand worship as it has been designed and practiced for centuries – worship is essential. We come together to be strengthened, to receive the gifts of God before heading back out to our homes and neighborhoods and classrooms and workplaces. It grounds us in our identity in a way watching online or on the television can’t and doesn’t. We can pretend it does, but we’re wrong – and there’s certainly no shortage of psychological studies to back that up. Being together in person is different than being together virtually. It’s how we were designed and made, and while we might like to think our iPhones replace that, they haven’t. If anything, they’ve highlighted just how badly we need it!

Evaluating Risk

May 26, 2020

Yesterday Governor Newsom announced religious institutions would be permitted to resume worship and other services. Stipulations and requirements are of course, well, required. Our congregational leadership has been preparing for this for some time and we’re ready to roll. But of course there is inevitably – and appropriately – the nagging question of whether it’s safe to do church again.

Lots of voices weigh in on this. My ecclesiastical supervisor issued a notice today encouraging pastors in his jurisdiction to not rush back to holding worship services again, but to make sure they have properly followed the instructions outlined by the Governor to protect their parishioners. Judicious advice. And while I’m sure there are a few hard-headed pastors out there who are hell-bent on starting worship again without any consideration for their parishioners, I trust they are a very small minority. I trust most pastors care a great deal about their parishioners and shudder at the thought that, perhaps, regardless of preparations and precautions, one of them might happen to catch something at church that leads to serious illness or death.

Should we sing? Should I wear a mask? The what-ifs abound. Despite very low occurrences of COVID-19 in our county it’s still a concern. Given the age of my parishioners the concerns are not unwarranted. Now, as always, I desire that worship not be an associated cause of death for anyone. Now that we know about a new virus, are additional concerns warranted?

Part of that concern is due, no doubt, in part to early reports of super-infection events concerning churches, reports that no doubt led to not just a shutdown of religious institutions but added ammunition for shutting down most institutions in general. Perhaps the first and most widely cited such event occurred on March 10th, a week before the statewide shutdowns started, and occurred at a small Presbyterian church in Mt. Vernon, Washington. Sixty some members of the church choir assembled for practice and within short order more than 40 of them were infected with Coronavirus and at least two died from it. Truly a horrific event that would haunt a pastor for the rest of his or her life.

But what if there was more to the story? What if it wasn’t simply a matter of a church choir? What if additional details weakened the link with churches and singing? Does that eliminate the possible risk to my people? No, it doesn’t. Are individuals and churches more informed and aware and in a better condition to practice reasonable cautions now than we were two months ago? Undoubtedly.

Still the effort to link houses of worship – particularly Christian ones – to COVID-19 spread and as justifying continued restrictions and modifications to worship persist. Consider this story from just last week. The headline makes it sound like this just happened – some crazy church someplace met in defiance of orders and now look what happened! Confirmation bias from the headline alone is pretty powerful.

But if you read the story, it has to do with a church event back in early March. March 6-8 to be specific. Not just a worship service but a multi-day children’s event. The article doesn’t indicate whether it was a retreat style event with children sleeping at the church. But it’s clear it’s not just a typical church event, and I’m guessing there’s more than a good chance that many of those present were not members or attenders of the church. Yet the headline and lead off of the article stresses the need for churches to either remain restricted or modify their services to protect the public.

But there is still risk. I argue there has always been risk. I have members paranoid about deranged shooters showing up, and certainly that’s a risk. We have flu season every year and for many of my folks the flu could be every bit as fatal as the Coronavirus, yet we continue to have church. Over the years many members have fallen, suffered seizures and other health crises during worship. Does that mean church should not meet? Does it mean Christians should be afraid lest injury or illness or death strike during worship?

At the end of the day, we know quite a lot. We know that one of two events is going to bring life as we know it and experience it personally to an end. Either each one of us will die, or our Lord will return to bring creation history to fulfillment and usher in something much greater and larger and better. Barring the occasional Enoch or Elijah, I can guarantee that one of these two events will affect every single one of my members. What we don’t know is the when and how.

But the Biblical injunction in uncertain times is always the same – don’t be afraid. Don’t be an idiot, either, but don’t be afraid.

God’s words to Abram in Genesis 15? Don’t be afraid. What did Moses command the Israelites, caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army? Fear not. God’s command to Joshua as he takes over Moses’ role as leader of the Israelites? Be courageous. Jonathon’s words to David as he fled Saul under threat of death? Don’t be afraid. Elijah’s words to the widow and her son who were preparing to die of starvation, when Elijah asked her to use the last of their foodstores to help feed him? Don’t be afraid. God’s message to Joseph in a dream after Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant before they were fully married? Don’t be afraid. The angels’ words to the shepherds before announcing the birth of the Messiah? Fear not.

Followers of Christ are not to be people of fear, and this takes tangible expression in how we live our lives and make decisions. Risk and danger are all around us – will we live in perpetual fear of drunk drivers or nuclear missiles or contaminated drinking water or COVID-19? No. We will use the brains God has given us and we will trust in our God, knowing that He has conquered all things in Christ and even our own health and death has been conquered by Christ. We don’t seek to die, but if and when we do we do so in the confidence we will live again.

Christian worship is the expression and articulation of this faith and anticipation. As we join our voices of praise with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we proclaim the dead are not gone but saints with Christ in glory, as we one day will also be. And that all of us will stand with Job and gaze upon our Redeemer with our own eyes.

So as churches open – and bookstores and movie theaters and sporting events eventually – we live our lives using the brains God gave us. This may mean we wait a little longer than others before showing back up for worship or using our season tickets to the Lakers. If that seems wisest given our own health condition, so be it. But each person will need to eventually make a decision whether they will live in fear or not. I can’t make that call for them, I can only try to show what it looks like to live confidently in my own life. Failures and all.

Book Review: The Grasshopper Myth

May 22, 2020

The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters

Much of church culture in the United States over the past 20 years or more has been dominated by the discussion of size. Mega-churches worshiping thousands of people have become the emblem of church success. Borrowing our economic ideas that bigger is always better, it only makes sense that a bigger church is better than a smaller church, right? More faithful? More impactful? Lots of different ways of describing it. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of churches are small churches (defined by Vater as under 350 members but more realistically under 250 members).

This book premises that bigger isn’t always better. Vater does so without denigrating mega-churches and large churches, which is good and right, while providing inspiration and a new way of thinking to pastors of small congregations. Is the pastoral goal to grow a small church into a large church? Why? At what cost? What are small churches good at that large churches can’t be? Vater poses these questions in an easy-going style.

This is sort of a cheerleader book. Vater doesn’t make any specific propositions about how to do small church, but does a good job at encouraging pastors and congregations not to feel bad about themselves just because they’re small. It’s an important work in that respect, and I trust it might be helpful to many, many pastors and congregants and church leadership teams trying to figure out what the Holy Spirit might want them to be if they don’t have a million dollar budget and rock-star musicians and 300 programs running each week.

The shame is that a book like this is necessary at all, that we’ve so blindly swallowed questionable economic premises (bigger isn’t necessarily better for companies either!). But we have, and so books like this are a helpful corrective.

Vater has two other books, the next of which is Small Church Essentials. I’m reading that next. I’ve only just started the introduction, but his warning list of signs of an unhealthy church (regardless of the size) is certainly something pastors and congregants alike need to keep their eyes out for:

  • Inward focused
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousy
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

I don’t normally read these types of books, but I was asked to do so by a concerned congregant. I appreciate their concerns and hopes, as they are mine as well. Hopefully the books will offer some tangible help. Interestingly enough the author is already on the slate to do a special workshop on this topic in Los Angeles for my denominational polity. Apparently some people are finding what he has to say helpful!

ANF: Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus

May 20, 2020

The ongoing saga of my life-long effort to read through all the Ante-Nicene Fathers’ writings….

The first volume of the ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) set concludes with a collections of quotes and paraphrases of Irenaeus from fragmentary documents as well as other authors.  These 55 snippets are various in nature, some conveying complete thoughts and others without much meaning in and of themselves but clearly part of larger works which have either been lost to history or remain to be discovered or translated.

Some notable inclusions:

Section III – contains a remembrance of Polycarp’s visit to Rome during the papacy of Anicetus.  They disagreed on the proper day to observe Easter, yet refused to let their different traditions cause a rift between them.  So firm was their commitment to unity rather than division that St. Anicetus allowed St. Polycarp to preside over the Eucharist celebration in the Church in Rome.  The translator references the Council of Arles in 314 AD as commemorating this by decreeing formally that the holy Eucharist should be consecrated by any foreign bishop present at its celebration, but I can’t find corroboration for this assertion.

Section XIThe business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.  (as quoted by John of Damascus, likely from a work of Irenaeus entitled Miscellaneous Dissertations, which is referred to by Eusebius).

Section XVI – There may be some uncertainty as to  whether this is really from Irenaeus or not, but in treating the topic of the Fall in Genesis 3, Irenaeus lauds Eve not as the weaker of the the humans but the stronger.  She resisted Satan’s temptations for some period of time, even arguing with him, while Adam ate immediately when she offered him the forbidden fruit without any objection or apparent misgivings.

Section XXIV – He asserts that Matthew’s Gospel was intended for Jewish readers.

Section XXXII – Quotes a tradition from Josephus, that Moses was not just brought up on the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace, he served as a general in a military effort against the Ethiopians.  Because of his victory he married the daughter of the Ethiopian king.  The translator offers this tradition as perhaps an explanation of St. Stephen’s words  in Acts 7:22, emphasizing Moses’ esteem and wisdom before being selected by God to confront the Pharaoh.

Section LV – A fascinating commentary on the mother of James and John asking Jesus to grant her sons special favor  in glory (Matthew 20:17-28).  Usually, commentators look poorly upon her request, coming as it does so immediately upon Jesus’ prediction of his upcoming suffering and death.  It seems to be the height of not  just pride or grasping for  honor or glory, but terribly poor  timing!  But Irenaeus looks at it differently.  He instead praises their mother.  While we often focus on the first part of Jesus’ prophesy, that he will be tried and condemned to death and be flogged and crucified, the mother hears only the last words.  So firm is her faith – according to Irenaeus – that she considers the tribulations and sufferings of Jesus truly as inconsequential compared to the glory they will bring to him and his followers.  Precisely because she makes the request at this particular point, rather than after the resurrection is a praiseworthy demonstration of faith on her part!  The Saviour was speaking of the cross, while she had in view the glory which admits no suffering.  This woman, therefore, as I have already said, is worthy of our admiration, not merely for what she sought, but also for the occasion of her making the request.  

With this, I’ve completed the first volume of the  Ante-Nicene Fathers.  Thank you again too Lois for her generous gift.  At this rate, I may indeed finish them before I die – just barely!