Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

Breaking Good

February 8, 2021

The Supreme Court Friday determined the State of California could no longer enforce bans on indoor worship. This is good news for people of faith – Christian or otherwise – who over the past nearly year have by and large been unable to worship indoors and required to meet virtually or in parked cars, separated from one another by varying degrees of frankly arbitrary directions enacted by executive fiat rather than a due process of legislative evaluation and feedback. Good intentions to curb the pandemic, but good intentions which look at only the material, physical side of the suffering and ignore and even exacerbate the emotional, psychological, and spiritual sides.

Of course, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Some religious groups may opt to continue worshiping outdoors because they believe it safest for their members. Others will joyfully be back inside tomorrow – or today. This will be another test for congregations – to determine what the best course of action is for them and their people regardless of what congregations around them might be doing.

Further, while indoor worship cannot be banned any longer, additional limitations – such as stronger language prohibiting singing or chanting – may may outdoor worship the preferred option for many congregations, especially if (like ours) the weather makes such an option reasonable. Good news in this case comes tempered by additional restrictions which may ultimately make it less good.

Back in June when the first stay-at-home order was lifted, I pushed easily to have us move back inside. We had already polled our members on this and their response was nearly unanimous that they wanted to return to indoor worship. We didn’t yet realize the staying power of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seemed the most reasonable course of action. Eight months later, the option to return to indoor worship is more complicated for me.

Firstly, we’re blessed to live in an area where the weather is temperate year round, rainy days are rare and snow days are practically non-existent. It might be nippy at mid-morning still – in the 50’s – but workable, particularly when the sun is shining and there isn’t a breeze. As such even though my congregation is comprised almost exclusively of post-retirement adults, they’re not only willing but able to handle outdoor worship with some layers of clothing. The seats aren’t terribly comfortable, but they weren’t happy with the 50-year old cushions on the pews inside either!

More than a few people have commented how much they like being outside. A change of venue perhaps, or the ability to enjoy our glorious weather a little more than they might otherwise. Because a small group of dedicated volunteers has committed to coming early to set out chairs and set up the sound board and microphones and electronic keyboard, our outdoor worship really is a beautiful setting, even in a parking lot.

The pandemic certainly appears to be affecting our county more in the past couple of months than it did the rest of the previous pandemic period. While I still personally know very few people sickened by COVID, the reported numbers for the county are far higher than they used to be. Those numbers have dropped dramatically in the past two weeks or so, but they’re still comparable to earlier rates we considered high.

While many of my parishioners have either begun or completed their vaccination cycles, some of them won’t. None of our members have had COVID at all, despite our continued in-person worship whether outdoor or indoor. Some dismiss the media frenzy about COVID and point to the overwhelming recovery rates from COVID, despite the fact they are in the highest vulnerability demographic. Some of our folks may not feel comfortable worshiping indoors again knowing not everyone is going to be vaccinated, but that will likely be a minority and moreover that shouldn’t matter if they themselves have received the vaccine.

Our denominational leadership at global, national and local levels has maintained a position since the pandemic began asking local congregations to adhere to all applicable restrictions and instructions from health officials. Our denomination does not see doing so as in any way restricting our ability to worship our God (since we can do so virtually, outdoors, or with other reasonable adjustments), and a failure to abide by instructions runs us afoul of admonitions to civic obedience in Romans 13. Every individual congregation must make their decisions in this regard for themselves, and the range of responses is a rather wide spectrum.

Thrown into the mix are varying ideas of what our obligations are to one another in terms of safety and Christian love. Is it loving our fellow-parishioners to return to indoor worship knowing if they contract COVID they are more likely to have complications from it – complications which could prove lethal? What is the duty of a Christian congregation in the pursuit of safety? Christians around the world routinely choose to worship together despite a host of very real dangers in terms of arrest, imprisonment, capture, or worse. Christians the world over and throughout history have prioritized Christian worship and fellowship as worth risking their lives for. How does that reality and history impact decisions we make today in relative safety and comfort? And how do our decisions balance the reality that we proclaim a God who created all things and sustains all things and is more than able to keep us safe, with the recognition that this God also gave us our brains and we should therefore use them?

So the possibility of worshiping indoors again is more complicated this time than it was eight months ago. At least for me. But I remain steadfast in maintaining that regardless of the decision made, it is the duty and privilege of that local body of Christ – my particular congregation – to keep loving one another. Even if we’re not thrilled with the decision. Even if we would have preferred to stay outdoors or return indoors. Our personal preferences don’t outweigh direct Scriptural commands to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ in our patience and willingness to sacrifice our personal rights if it in any way might endanger the faith of a brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14-15). It sounds simple but it turns out to be quite challenging for many people. Pandemics apparently don’t make it any easier, either. I trust we’ll make a good decision. Maybe not perfect, but one our people can work and will work with in love for one another and their God.

Continuing the Squeeze

January 16, 2021

Political pressure to redefine what freedom of religion and the First Amendment mean in our country continues. Those who feel this can be easily defined and resisted in terms of political parties would do well to be more observant.

In North Dakota this week a bi-partisan bill was introduced which would eliminate protection for clergy regarding Confession, ostensibly, though the wording of the bill itself is disturbingly less specific. Senate Bill No. 2180 removes a clause exempting members of the clergy from mandatory reporter requirements regarding suspected child abuse or endangerment.

Traditionally our country as part of freedom of religion has respected particularly those sacramental aspects of religious practice. A long-standing aspect of Roman Catholicism as well as several other mainline Protestant denominations centers on the confession of sins and the declaration of absolution by a duly installed minister or priest, with or without penitential requirements. Those who are baptized followers of Jesus Christ are either required or encouraged to confess their sins privately and specifically to a priest or pastor, who may require the confessor to perform a penitential act, such as recitation of prayers or the rosary, as part of absolution – the wiping away of in the eyes of God of sin(s). Confession is Biblical (James 5:16, John 20:19-23), and the Church has long stood by the practice that whatever is shared in confession is private, exempt from reporting or other recriminations beyond the penance potentially imposed by the priest. The idea being that the forgiveness of God is separate from (and superior to) whatever other forms of justice we may rely on here. The Church should not be seen as part of a temporal system of power or justice but rather unique, an outpost of the Kingdom of Christ. A priest might encourage a parishioner to present themselves to the authorities, but the priest should not do so themselves, either of their own volition or under the compulsion of the law, else people refrain from being open and honest in their confession.

California attempted a similar measure last year ago that failed. The impetus in both situations was the alleged protection of children, the idea being that priests who might have been guilty of pedophilia and child abuse might have confessed their sins and received absolution, and had those confessions been subject to mandatory reporting laws (a relatively recent legal innovation) the abusers might have been stopped earlier. It sounds like a reasonable rationale, although I’m not aware of evidence indicating mandatory reporting would have been of much use – meaning nobody has proven that abusers were confessing their abuse.

As I noted a year ago, confession is a core element of historic Christian practice. A priest/pastor and parishioner might engage in any number of different conversations, any of which could lead to a guilty party turning themselves into authorities. Eliminating the protection of confidentiality from the practice of confession and absolution is a stark intrusion into the practice of the Christian religion. Under the assumed benefit of protecting children, Christian life and practice is severely disrupted. The fact that such a disruption would likely go unnoticed by the vast majority of confessing Christians is not the issue. Rather the basic issue is whether freedom of religion is maintained, or whether continuing political pressure to modify it and make it more compatible with contemporary (and transient) cultural preferences is advanced.

Tragically, I assume it will only be a matter of time before the protections of the confessional are stripped away. This will not be to the benefit of our society or culture as a whole, but rather another step (and hardly the last) in the denigration and eventual dismantling of religious freedom in our country.

Book Review: Steps of Transformation

December 21, 2020

Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps by Archimandrite Meletios Webber

A friend of mine in the midst of recovery shared this book with me as she is converted to Orthodox from more traditional evangelical Christianity.

This is an excellent resource for anyone trying to understand addiction and the people embedded in addictive behaviors. It essentially is a series of reflections – some theological and others more clinical in nature – on addiction, addicts, and finally the Twelve Steps. Arguably the book’s strongest feature is the introductory sections on addition and people in addiction. The author does a good job of plainly explaining many of the thought processes involved in addiction that are so puzzling and infuriating and heartbreaking to those who love and care for them. Recognizing that traditional tools for dealing with other people (communication, rationality, honesty, etc.) are practically ineffective with people active in their addiction can be hugely comforting, and hopefully will direct friends and family to support groups such as Al-Anon designed for those who aren’t addicts themselves but have addicts in their lives. The author spends almost no time at all on these organizations but those with addicts in their lives would likely benefit immensely from a support network of others in similar situations.

Bible verses are quoted throughout and there are attempts to find examples of each of the Twelve Steps in Scripture, often in the parables of Jesus. References were also made to Orthodox saints and writers which, as a non-Orthodox Christian were curious to me and spurred me to outside research for more information.

Some of his language early on points to a perceived or real hostility among Orthodox Christians of the Twelve Steps as an alternative to Orthodox Christianity. Webber works hard to demonstrate why the Twelve Steps insist upon being so vague and non-specific about higher powers and the God of our understanding, which was helpful for me as I have been critical of the Steps for this in the past. Keeping perspective that the Twelve Steps are first and foremost focused on helping someone leave behind drinking or other addictive behaviors is critical. But at the same time Webber argues that the Steps offer a deep spirituality, however it is a depth I often see lacking (at least externally) in many of the recovery people I work with regularly. The steps are easy to pay lip service to, since many of the changes are -as Webber admits – internal and deeply personal and subjective. They’re hard to measure in any quantitative or qualitative fashion beyond whether a person is remaining sober or not.

This is a great resource for anyone with an addict in their lives, but it will make most sense to those who also are Christian. While aimed at Orthodox readers it is not done so in a way that is exclusive or which prohibits other Christians from benefitting.

As is generally the case in practical theology, there are aspects I think he should have mentioned as differences rather than focusing so much on trying to show the Steps as consistent with Orthodoxy, or at least not contradictory. For instance, his discussion in Chapter 12 of Steps 8 and 9 (making a list of all people we have harmed and being willing to make amends, and then actually making amends where possible) completely ignores the limitations of these steps compared to the deeper healing offered in Confession and Absolution. Many addicts have criminal backgrounds in the not-so-distant past. Sponsors are not protected or exempt from being subpoenaed and forced to disclose things a person in recovery may have admitted to them. A list of persons harmed and needing amends made to could be used against an addict when obtained from their sponsor, and for this reason some addicts are very honest that they can’t put everything down.

The rite of Confession and Absolution is however (at least for the time being) still recognized by the State as a sacred place, the contents of which cannot be disclosed and which a recognized priest or minister cannot be forced to disclose to others. Although there are active efforts in various places to begin undoing the private nature of Confession, at least for now Confession can offer a much deeper healing in that it can allow the recovering addict to be fully, brutally honest. And of course, making amends is not the same as seeking the forgiveness of God. Only in Confession and Absolution can the promises of forgiveness in faith in Jesus Christ be articulated by another human being and, perhaps, finally truly heard and accepted in a way not possible with generic corporate confession or through the Twelve Steps.

Again, I strongly recommend this book to those with addicts in their lives, or those who care for those with addicts in their lives. Certainly it should be required reading in seminaries where future ministers are trained in practical theology. Webber speculates that perhaps addiction has become a far more common occurrence in our time and place as opposed to in Jesus’ day. Perhaps that is true, both in terms of our psychological climate as well as the increasing availability and cultural acceptance of more and more addictive substances, as well as the increased anonymity possible in a culture where the family is fractured. If these things are true, it will become increasingly important that pastors and religious leaders be more familiar with the nature of addiction and the addicted mindset.

Control

December 2, 2020

Thanks to Steve for his response to a previous post. I’m going to respond to his comment in this post out of convenience from a text-editing standpoint, and because the point he raises has been voiced by various people in different but related contexts. Steve wrote:

Would you really gather inside for worship wearing a mask and sitting 6 feet apart if the state allowed it? You would be devastated if a parishioner became ill after attending such a service. From a practical perspective it’s just not safe and too risky. Let’s be honest, this rant is about the separation of church & state.

This is about my sixth take on a response (I deleted the first five!), and I’ve probably written a few thousand words before deciding to opt for the less-is-more approach. I take Steve’s questions in good faith and pray these responses will be received the same way.

Yes, I would really gather inside for worship if it was not expressly forbidden by the State. We did so for over 100 years prior to COVID. We did so in June and July and again in October and most of November when we were allowed. This is a Church, I’m her pastor, and it’s my job to provide the Word and Sacraments of God to the people of God. I’ve been blessed to do this for the last 13 years or so without having to explicitly question the means by which we did so under the rubric of whether it was safe or not. Of course it was safe enough – it’s what we’d always done! The only thing that called our traditional ways of doing things into question was COVID and subsequent restrictions on houses of worship.

We are blessed to reside in a county with some of the lowest infection rates of any county in the nation. We’ve adhered to CDC and state stipulations and guidelines, even as those have flexed and changed and changed again over the past nine months. None of our members has had COVID, thankfully. I could say this is because of the precautions we’ve been instructed to take but I’ll never know that for sure this side of eternity. The precautions as a whole seem reasonable and so we abide by them. What is unreasonable is when exemptions are made for some businesses with far closer exposure and fewer precautions while houses of worship are by and large arbitrarily restricted. I’ve heard of two outbreaks allegedly linked to houses of worship in the last nine months. I’d encourage anyone to research those further and judge for themselves if they are good enough grounds upon which to base a large policy restricting a Constitutionally guaranteed right. In San Diego strip clubs are allowed to operate while churches are restricted. I pray that recent Supreme Court decisions will begin to help state leadership re-evaluate their mandates. Not every church can, should, or will allow people back inside for worship during the pandemic. But that is a decision the congregation should make, not some official with no direct knowledge of the particulars.

Not only have we met when legally allowed to do so, my people have wanted to meet. I haven’t forced them. We have some who won’t or shouldn’t attend and I understand that completely. I’m supportive of those who don’t feel able to worship to stay home. Nearly all of my members want to meet, but not all of them can. If the majority of my members desire to worship and consider the risk one they are willing to take, it is not my job as pastor to tell them they can’t, that I refuse to provide them Word and Sacrament because it’s not safe to do so. Safe is a slippery word.

I would definitely feel bad if a member got sick. Would I take personal responsibility if they did? No. I am not the one who ensures their health and safety. We come to give worship and praise to the God we claim is in control of all things, including COVID. I don’t presume this means we can hug and kiss and sneeze into each others’ faces with impunity, but at least my witness of faith needs to be that God is the only one who keeps us safe. Therefore if my members are willing to gather, I will feed them the Word and the Sacraments. We’ll use the brains God gave us to try and do so reasonably given the circumstances, but I will not deny them the option. I also will use the brains God gave me to listen critically to what my elected and appointed leaders tell me. History shows them to be far less reliable than God!

This may sound callous at first, but let’s play it out a bit. I had a member (recently deceased) who went through a bad period of falls whenever she would come to church. She wore high heel shoes well into her 90’s, and as her balance and vision betrayed her she would regularly fall. Outside on the patio. Inside on the carpeting. Should we not have met because she was getting hurt and refused to wear more sensible shoes? Should I have turned her away in the parking lot for her own protection?

I can’t keep people safe. I can do what seems good and right and salutary by any number of different standards Biblical and otherwise as an effort to love my neighbor. But I can’t keep them safe. That’s not my job. I have to leave that in my Lord’s hands. Again, I don’t say this lightly or flippantly, but faithfully. I have to trust God to keep me safe every time I make a hospital call. I’ve been around people in all manner of infectious states (pre-COVID) and trusted ultimately in my God to keep me healthy and safe. I still put on the gowns and masks and gloves when told to do so, but my trust goes deeper than those things. As Christians, we are called to this level of trust, to remember we are not the ones in control of our lives.

In regards to not safe and risky, I believe that’s a decision each group of believers has to make for themselves based on their circumstances and their understanding of God’s Word. Christians met illegally and under threat of death for 300 years in the Roman Empire and for decades in Communist China and the former Soviet Union. They are still persecuted and executed around the world for their faith. And yet in all these places and times Christians have prioritized worship. They took precautions, I have no doubt. But they often made the decision that despite the risks and despite a definite lack of safety they would gather together to receive the gifts of God in his Word and Sacraments. This meant many of them were arrested, tortured, disfigured, and executed. This did not discourage other Christians but oftentimes emboldened them. We hold up and honor those Christians who were willing to take risks and suffer the consequences rather than renounce their faith or opt for a safe alternative. How can we be critical when Christians continue to seek God’s Word and Sacrament today?

Perhaps the issue is not whether Church is a safe place (it’s not – spiritually and otherwise!), but whether Americans value worship as much in an age where the Word and worship is a click away – a television station or a radio station or a YouTube channel away. Maybe the deeper question is how technology has impacted our valuation of human contact and community, leading us to believe that technology can fill these needs in our lives. That in an age when everything else is self-serve and an Amazon delivery away, worship ought somehow to be the same – on our terms and for our short term comfort. Perhaps a deeper question is how our avoidance of death through a cult of youth and beauty and exercise has left us vulnerable to the rawness of a world we do not control.

Barring the return of our Lord first, all of us are going to die. The Church is here to teach people how to live as well as how to face death. To give hope and assurance that COVID or cancer or substance abuse or abusive parents or any number of other tragic events do not have the last word on us even if they kill us. If we’re going to glorify doctors and nurses and grocery store workers and other front line workers, we should no less glorify the God of Church for sustaining his people to proclaim the Word of God and provide the gifts of God to the people of God. The Church does no one any good by acting as though a few more days or months or years of life is more important than eternity. There is no other organization that bears witness to this truth! And just as I want doctors and nurses and teachers to stand by their posts and do their jobs despite the risks, those of them who are Christian need to be sustained by the Church to do so, to know that what they do has meaning and value and their lives – if sacrificed in love of neighbor – are not lost or wasted but eternally anchored in the Son of God who overcame COVID and death. Their non-Christian colleagues need this same support and truth, they just don’t realize it yet.

So yes, I will meet inside again as soon as my people are ready to. The cold and damp weather is just as dangerous to them as COVID. So is the isolation and distance that has plagued our country and world for the last nine months. I’m in no hurry to die, and I’m in no hurry for my people to die. But if they face death – and we each do every day – they should be prepared to counter that fear and anxiety with hope not grounded in the fiat of a government official but in the resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Christ. To the best of my ability I will model that courage, and give my brothers and sisters in the faith the opportunity to model it as well, even as we use our best judgment to love and care for each other.

Book Review: Come In, We Are Closed

November 17, 2020

Come In, We Are Closed by Tyrel Bramwell

I’m a bad philosopher. By which I mean I dislike the Socratic method, where you allegedly reach truth via conversation. It’s not really that I dislike it, but rather dislike reading it. Whether I’m reading Plato’s Euthyphro or Come In, We Are Closed, what sounds like a good idea and methodology – and can be in person – turns into a terrible read. Terrible not because of the ideas expressed but because invariably one person does all the talking and the other person agrees or pitches perfect slow, arcing soft balls to get hit over the stands and out of the park.

So it isn’t that this book is bad, it’s just bad as a conversation. For me. This book is great in that it provides many of the essential arguments for close(d) Communion in a very easy to read and digest format. The problem is that none of the reasons for open Communion are discussed, or are discussed barely as straw men arguments easily dismissed.

I believe and agree with close(d) Communion. I’d just like to see the discussion deal with the arguments raised against it by other denominations. Otherwise, the reader walks away now convinced by the book, until they happen to run into someone who doesn’t hold the same opinion and presents their arguments.

In this book, the entire seen of a diner with a waitress and a carafe of coffee and other customers is pointless. I wondered if he was going to draw a new metaphor or something from this elements of the story, but he doesn’t. I wondered if there was a reason for the old man’s disheveled and decrepit appearance, but there really wasn’t one offered. In the end these narrative bits were a distraction and then a disappointment from the theological content.

For me. Because, as I’ve often confessed here, I’m a jerk.

So, if you’re not me, read this book. I’m considering ordering copies of it for all of my parishioners because it does that good a job of presenting the Biblical evidence in support of the doctrine and practice of close(d) Communion. I wish he had included a short outline that consolidated all of the Biblical references, but that will be easy enough for me to create. Granted if you don’t hold to close(d) Communion you likely may not appreciate the arguments made here, but in that case I hope you’ll touch base and recommend an equally good and sound writing summarizing the arguments against it!

COVID and Traditional Churches

September 28, 2020

There is much fear and worry in ecclesiastical circles about the lasting impacts of COVID and virtualized worship on the future of congregational ministry. This article references a prediction by leading church demographic and data purveyor Barna Group, that 20% of congregations will close. One in five congregations are at risk to close in the next 18 months, partly due to the effects of COVID.

The hand-wringing is not entirely unwarranted, but in my opinion what we’re talking about in all of this is an acceleration of a pre-existing, pre-COVID trajectory. I remember a prediction by a denominational leader years ago that just in our part of the world (US Southwest) there would be a decline of up to 50% in the number of congregations in our particular district by 2050. It might once have seemed like a far-fetched prediction, but between COVID and skyrocketing cost of living particularly in California, it hardly seems unlikely.

Christianity in America will not die. Not all individual congregations will die. There will continue to be a minority of mega-churches with thousands of active members. There will continue to be far more smaller congregations with less than 200 members. But a great number of very small congregations will close. They were going to close anyways, barring a miracle, but they’ll close sooner because of COVID. You don’t need to be a Barna researcher to puzzle that conclusion out.

Because of COVID and declining giving rates. Because of COVID and the final realization of many traditional church members of what has been the case for a while now – they don’t perceive a need for a church building and the scant programs most small congregations can barely afford. The greying of traditional mainline denominations has been noted for decades, but as long as those aging members were coming (and tithing), many doors could and would stay open. But with many older Americans frightened to go out of their homes let alone assemble at church in a group for worship, and with those fears likely to linger on quite a while after the Coronavirus is no longer a pandemic those traditional denominational congregations are going to start shutting down.

This is further accentuated by the realization of many Christians that they can tune in to live-streamed services from literally anywhere in the world. I have members who, in addition to listening or reading my weekly sermons, tune in to a German-language service from Germany. Others tune in to live-streamed services from larger congregations with a technology staff and the equipment to do live-stream well, to say nothing of a bevy of musicians and choirs and vocalists to further enhance the experience. Members of smaller congregations may find these more robust services more enjoyable and beautiful, and if their ties to their in-person churches have weakened (or were already tenuous pre-COVID), this extended time of suspended services might finally sever the habit of gathering weekly in person for a small and perhaps not-overly inspiring service, whether because of music or preaching!

Not all of this is bad, it simply is. Hard and difficult to be sure, but not necessarily terrible. It means we are in the midst of a shift in what Christian worship life looks like, a shift somewhat unprecedented since early in the Church’s history. The shift from being an underground or outlawed religion to being a state religion was massive but in what was presumed to be a positive way. The shift away from congregations prioritizing a large communal worship space will be a challenging and unpleasant one for many because we assume any decrease in size to be negative, a sign of failure. We see no strategic advantage in closing a congregation, even though we’re used to businesses making such decisions all the time. This double-standard is confusing at best.

Making a strategic decision to rework ministry is not a bad thing. It’s Biblical (Matthew 10:16). But the vast majority of the congregations referred to in Barna’s prediction will not close strategically. They’ll close because they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done any longer. They will close feeling as though they’ve somehow failed, or God has somehow failed them. And that’s both sad and wrong.

Christian communities need to rethink not only what they need in terms of space but what the relationship of those spaces are to the community around them. The national trend towards decreasing Christian worship levels is not going to change any time soon. Which will leave more and more congregations with more and more space to take care of – space they either aren’t using themselves or are leasing out to others to use and to pay the bills no longer payable by member giving alone. All of which ultimately leads discussions of buildings and property and leases to eclipse discussions of mission and ministry. Again, it isn’t that this isn’t already happening on a wide scale, but COVID is going to accelerate it dramatically.

Not all of these changes will be for the good. Assuming digital church is somehow adequate or even good is dangerous and misguided even if it’s convenient and popular. Worship together, anchored in the ancient command of the Sabbath, is inherently a call on us away from our lives and schedules. It inherently places everything else in our lives in a subordinate role, at least nominally. Anything that upends this more than it already has been upended is ultimately not faithful or obedient, even if people like it. I’ve argued for a long time that Christian communities need to rethink their definition and expectation of the Sabbath, and that it might even be worth considering worship on a separate day of the week so the Sabbath can truly return to the day of rest and a direct consideration of the providence of God more fully.

At the root of all this is not COVID, but rather a continuing realization that many churches are unable to make the Christian faith relevant to life as a whole. They are unable to foster a Christian world-view, and instead settle on a much narrower view of the faith centered on participation in worship and weekly programming. In a world brought closer together by technology and with directly adversarial attitudes throughout educational systems, young Christians need to see how faith connects all of their life together, rather than just being something they do on Sunday mornings. If our culture was ever somewhat homogenous, it certainly isn’t now and believers of all ages need to be equipped to understand this and see how their faith in the resurrected Son of God is more than sufficient not simply to cope with the world around them but to make sense of it as well.

Yes, churches are going to close. This is sad at one level but perhaps necessary at some level. As those churches close, I pray the congregations that remain are able and willing to reconsider some aspects of what it means to be the Church in the 21st century. Not that we abandon doctrine or worship or anything like that! But perhaps the way we physically conceive the Church to be needs to be revised, and perhaps this is a good thing that can challenge the cultural perception of the Church as antiquated in everything from their carpeting to their doctrine. The Gospel always remains the Gospel and the center of Christian life and practice. We just need to be willing to trust that as we make adjustments on the periphery.

Grace and Judgment

September 23, 2020

In traditional seminary/theological education, there are four main fields of study:

  • Historical theology studies the history of God’s people and the Christian faith
  • Exegetical theology deals with the study of Scripture, and includes learning Hebrew and Greek towards this end
  • Systematic theology encompasses and studies Christian doctrine
  • Practical theology explores the Christian life and the application of doctrine and tradition to the lives of people here and now and includes the role of preaching

Although I enjoy the logical aspects of systematic theology, even in seminary I understood that doctrine is all well and good but essentially useless if it can’t be applied. To know there is a truth has little value unless that truth is connected in some way to daily life or certain situations. I trust the quadratic equation is true – but it is of little value to me personally as I’ve had no need to know or use it in my life. I’m glad others can and do, and I know that must benefit me in very tangible ways, but my thoroughgoing ignorance of that means I ascribe little practical, personal value to this undoubtedly crucial truth.

For us Lutherans, the go-to in terms of systematics study is a guy by the name of Franz/Francis Pieper. He wrote the current definitive text used by Lutherans in studying systematic theology. I can number on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to look at his 3-volume (I don’t have the fourth volume which is an index of the previous three) Christian Dogmatics, but it’s a handy resource on those occasions where I need to talk about a complicated topic

One such topic which has arisen in several quarters recently is the relationship of salvation and grace to the issue of final judgment. It makes people nervous to know that we will stand before Christ for judgment, and it also seems a bit odd, since we know we are forgiven in Christ already through faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. And granted, it’s not a pleasant idea to know our dirty laundry might be aired before all creation. Couldn’t we just sweep that under the rug, since it’s all forgiven in Christ anyways?

I tend to address this topic with the assertions that yes, we are forgiven. Yes, we will participate in Judgment Day along with the rest of creation. And even if all our bad deeds are on display, it will only be for an instant, and only to glorify God whose forgiveness is so immense, his grace so abundant, that the worst of our sins in thought, word or deed are nothing compared to the immeasurable sacrifice of the Son of God on our behalf. But I decided to do a little brush-up with Pieper on the specifics.

The issue of judgment comes, perhaps fittingly, at the end of his last volume (Volume III) starting on page 539 in case you want to follow along at home. He lays out the following basic tenets of the faith:

  • Judgment is linked to the return of Christ (Matthew 25:31)
  • All persons will be subject to judgment – including “men, pious and wicked, dead and living, and besides mankind also the evil angels” (Revelation 20:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10; Acts 10:42; 2 Peter 2:4)
  • The norm of judgment will be the works of men (2 Corinthians 5:10). In other words, our eternal fate is determined by our works, but not necessarily in the way we tend to think about these things. It isn’t as though (as with Islam), all our good deeds are piled on one side of a cosmic scale and all our bad deeds on the other side and our good deeds need to outweigh our bad deeds to merit eternal joy. Rather, good deeds is a technical term/concept, defined first and foremost in terms of our relationship to God and in particular to God the Son. Only in right relationship to God can anything we think, say or do be considered good. Apart from proper relationship to God, good does not exist, by definition. Oh, there’s the ‘good’ we define in terms of our relationships to one another, but even those definitions can’t ultimately be separated from their source in God, otherwise they’re arbitrary fads or fashions and can’t really be said to be good in any substantive way. Whatever we know of good, we know because of God. Whether we accept that or not makes a great deal of difference!
  • Consequently, using Matthew 25 as a basis, believers will be judged, but only their good deeds will be considered, since their bad deeds are indeed forgiven and forgotten (Malachi 7:19). In Jesus’ story in Matthew 25, only the good deeds of the people of God are mentioned, not their bad deeds.

Thus sayeth Pieper.

There are those who would argue and say that’s not much of a judgment, and therefore the bad deeds of God’s people must also be mentioned. Pieper doesn’t see this as reasonable, but rather the improper conclusion of trying to hold together two Scriptural teachings – 1) all people (including believers) will be judged, and 2) believers are not judged. How do we hold together these seemingly contradictory statements?

Pieper harmonizes these two statements with the use of another Lutheran theological/systematic idea – Law and Gospel. The Word of God is either Law or Gospel, either condemning us of our sin or freeing us from our sin through the grace and forgiveness of God. Therefore, in condemning us of our sin the Bible reminds us that all will be judged. This should spur in us a serious assessment of ourselves, a daily acknowledgement of our sinfulness, and a daily seeking of refuge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As this happens, we are no longer under the judgment of God and the Gospel must immediately be spoken, assuring us our sins are indeed forgiven and forgotten in Christ and won’t ever be held against us or even brought up on Judgment Day, again citing Matthew 25 as evidence.

I’m not all together certain Matthew 25 can be relied on exclusively as the clinching argument in this matter, but I’m willing to roll with it until I encounter a compelling alternative argument. For the believer in Jesus the Christ, we are to have peace, trusting in his forgiveness. However that exactly plays out on Judgment Day is a matter of technicalities – we know the end result is our being welcomed into the presence of God eternally. Towards that end we must continue to take sin seriously, never making the mistake of ceasing to recognize it or acknowledge it as such. Not because we won’t be forgiven, but because eventually our sin could cause us to reject God because we love our sin too much.

The Christian Life and Social Media

September 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastors in Pandemics

September 9, 2020

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

It was my first home visitation in six months.

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

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

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

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

Encouraging Community

September 7, 2020

She came in person to ask for help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She actually came on Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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