Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

It’s Not You, It’s Me

May 14, 2018

At some point in trying to think through change, I would hope that any rationale person would struggle for some amount of time with the simple dilemma – Am I the problem?  Is my seeing the need for change really the problem, rather than the inability or unwillingness of others to change being the problem? 

This has to be a reasonable part of the equation.  We all look at things a certain way, conditioned by our experiences and knowledge and a myriad of other criteria that psychologists (social and otherwise) build careers off of pinpointing.  What if there really isn’t a need to change, and I’m just creating turmoil where none needs to exist?

Important, but confusing.

 

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Death and Comfy Chairs

May 9, 2018

Today I got to sit down with Chuck.

Every Wednesday I’m privileged to sit down with Chuck for about an hour.  We meet in his study, where I sit on a lovely leather love seat and he in his office chair, his dog oftentimes expectantly moving back and forth between us as we talk without rush.  We are comfortable as we sit, remembering and laughing and talking about past, present and the future.  Especially the future.

Chuck is dying.  He knows this better than anyone, and I think it affords him in the midst of this process a clarity of thought which is breathtaking at times even as it is heartbreaking and jubilant.  As a follower of Jesus Christ death is an unpleasant visitor but neither completely unexpected nor totally to be feared.  He won’t, after all, be the final visitor.  He comes and we go  and then we part company with him again, never to have to share his cold congeniality ever again.  Chuck trusts this.  And as he sits in his comfy chair he is comfortable thinking about the future both individually and on a larger scale, and taking the stance of one who is curious, not cowardly.

Comfy chairs have not been a major part of Chuck’s life until recently.  More often pick up trucks and chain saws.  Shuffling ordnance off the coast of Vietnam during heavy shelling.  Chuck and death have crossed paths on more than one occasion, as he’s happy to admit with a twinkle in his eye that defies the ravages of illness in his body.  He has time and need of comfy chairs now, at the last.

We talked about the future, about the decisions that congregations are sometimes called to make about the future and how to approach it, and I know such conversations are no stranger to Chuck either.  He’s spent his life trying to help people make decisions about life and death, individually and on a larger scale.  He knows firsthand the difficulty of such a decision, and all the amazing blessings that can flow from it.

We talked about drug and alcohol recovery.  How hard it is to start.  How much harder it can be to maintain it.  The statistics are sobering (pun intended).  Chuck ran a special program for inmates at the county jail to help put them on the path to real recovery.  That program won all sorts of accolades from people local and statewide for the impressive statistics racked up, particularly the percentage of graduates who were still clean and sober five years later.  The interesting aspect of today’s conversation was that long-term recovery is harder for women than for men, when I would have thought it just the opposite.  Even in his prestigious program, only 39-41% of the men were still clean and sober five years later.  But only 31-32% of the women were.

One of the reasons for that is  that women often have children.  Children, who were taken away by the courts at some point because of Mom’s addiction and related issues.  Once Mom has completed a requisite or voluntary treatment program, she wants to get her kids back, and the courts are eager to give them to her.  The problem is now she has left the program (often times a residential program) and now has her kids with her.  How is she as a single mom (which the majority are effectively, if not actually) going to get a job as well as a place to live while watching her kids or ensuring that they are getting to and from school?  Is she going to make enough to feed all of them and pay rent?  The pressures mount.  It’s easy to slide from an apartment after not making rent into a pay by the week or day hotel which is even more expensive.  Maybe you start selling dope again to help pay the bills.  Maybe you have a few drinks to try and sleep at night because you’re so worried about all of this.  Maybe you prostitute yourself.  In any event you’re back in environments that foster addiction and substance abuse.

The only real option for people entering recovery is half-way houses or sober living houses.  But these are often not much cheaper than other housing options, and kids aren’t allowed to live on site so that makes it undesirable for a woman trying to reunite with her kids.

We talked about how wonderful it would be if there was a place that a woman could go to after completing residential rehab.  Rent would be free for a period of time to help give her time to lock in a job and start earning money.  She would  be able to have her kids come and live with her.  And in exchange for the free rent, there would be requirements – attending regular recovery meetings, regular drug/alcohol checks, curfews, limitations on who can be on site.  But also required classes on parenting and other life skills.  Bible studies and required church attendance.  And ideally a strong Christian on site not simply keeping watch on everyone but also building relationships with the ladies and helping to connect them to their church family.  After a period of time fractional rent would be paid each month, incrementing gradually to full rent, and perhaps to a decision to move out into fully independent living.  He spoke with amazement, and I could see lists of organizations flitting through his mind, all the people who understand what needs to be done and could be done and the many beautiful things that could come out of it, but don’t have anyone to share that vision with and no way to bring it to fruition themselves.  All the people who would gladly lend a hand or even a few dollars to make it real.

In the span of 20 minutes or so, this beautiful vision sprang into being.  It started with a need as well as a desire, and sprouted out as we tried to think of how not simply to meet a need, but to meet the ultimate need that all people have, which is to be anchored in relationship with the God who created them and died for them and offers them hope and strength and comfort not just temporarily but eternally.  A beautiful vision of what could be rather than fearful worry about what might be.  A looking forward to something different rather than an obsessing about the past or the familiar, but which grounds itself both in the past and the familiar as the only means of making something new and different possible.  Within short order we had a rough, verbal sketch of what this all could look like and incorporate.

Of course a sketch isn’t a finished product, but it’s something that you can hang up on the refrigerator, or pass between friends in comfy chairs to help start sharing a dream or a vision, to help see areas that need a bit more thought or other options that could be included.  Eventually it requires getting up out of comfy chairs to start working with pencils and calculators.  It requires the hard work of determining what it would take to reach this dream, and further, determining what each person is willing to contribute towards realizing it.

Dreams and visions often start in easy chairs, in quiet contemplation.  Some start from the perspicuity of a life drawing to an end; new vistas opening up and familiar terrain suddenly transformed and illuminated in their light.  Visions can start in easy chairs but will eventually require the dreamers to stand up and stand together to determine if this is a way forward they’re willing to pursue and encourage and support others in as well, or if it’s a good idea but not the right idea for this particular time and place.  But by that point we’re up out of our chairs and on the back patio or in the office and we might as well look around to see what other visions are being discussed and find out if perhaps one of them is right.

Because comfy chairs, like death itself, should never be permanent.

Laughing at Satan

May 4, 2018

One of the nice things about pastoral ministry is that there can be a variety of things and issues that you are called to attend to.  This suits my ADHD personality very well!

I’ve been called on several times over the past decade to do house blessings.  Sometimes there was a concern about a new apartment or home and what or who might have lived there before.  It’s a beautiful opportunity to think  and pray about what happens in a home and each room of a home, and invite God’s blessings and presence to infuse and direct everything that happens there.  I enjoy doing these.  And I enjoyed doing one two weeks ago in response to some reports of possible apparitions appearing to some of the members of the family.

But that didn’t put an end to the apparitions, and in fact things seemed to escalate until this week I was trying to provide wisdom and counsel in a situation of possible demonic oppression and possibly possession.

This is an area that Lutherans are not known to shine in, frankly.  The Roman Catholics tend to be the go-to source on dealing with demonic powers, and my initial attempts to locate resources were failures.  Fortunately I have a friend and colleague with many decades of experience in counseling church workers and dealing with a myriad of issues at play in their lives.  He was able to direct me to the following resources which I am ordering to help learn more about this topic.  A buddy forwarded me this anecdotal resource, a collection of some of Martin Luther’s writings on the topic.

I have to admit I like Luther’s basic approach.  What does Satan want us to do, in regards to him?  I think C.S. Lewis said it well when he said that the goal of Satan is to make us magicians or materialists – to drive us either to obsessing about demonic activity and being terrified by it, or by driving us to consider the spiritual topic all bunk and fluff, glancing skeptically at any notion of the demonic but also, more importantly of the divine. Either one is desirable but each has drawbacks, and the combination of the two is preferred.  When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians.  On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics.  (The Screwtape Letters).

Or, to quote Verbal (Kevin Spacey) from The Usual Suspects, The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

Biblical Christians will acknowledge based on Biblical authority that demons (as well as angels) exist and are assumed to be active in the world.  We are called to acknowledge a spiritual realm that works around us and in us just as we acknowledge our personal natures as both physical and spiritual.  We are called to reject philosophical (as well as, but different from, economic) materialism – philosophically the notion that there is no spiritual realm and there is only the material realm.  We are called to be on guard against an enemy we cannot see, who is not flesh and blood, and who is supported and aided by a host of spiritual entities united in their hatred of God.  Being unable to hurt God, they seek to destroy what God loves – his creation.  Which includes us.

That’s kind of terrifying.

Except we aren’t called to be terrified.  We’re called to be wise and discerning.  We’re called to be on guard.  But we aren’t called to be terrified.  And this is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God promised Eve in Genesis 3:15 that one day one of her descendants would crush the serpent’s head, even as the serpent struck his heel.  One day one of Eve’s descendants (a human being) would destroy the power of sin introduced into the world through Satan (the serpent), but that the serpent would seek to destroy him and his work.  But whereas the human’s blow would be fatal, the serpent’s would not.  Satan sought to derail God’s plan of salvation in stirring up opposition to the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, and culminating in his betrayal, arrest, execution, and burial.  Under the terms of the Law, that should have been the end of it, but Satan’s estimation.  The tomb is the indignity from which there is no escape.

However Satan forgot or misunderstood that the Law condemns to death only the disobedient, only those who fail to perfectly live out the will of God the Father as revealed in his Word.  Jesus, without sin (Hebrews 4:15), could be put to death physically, but could not be kept their by his moral guilt.  Satan sank his teeth into the heel of God’s Son, but God’s Son crushed the serpent’s head in the process.

So what is to be the Christian’s response to the reality of a mortally wounded Satan and his minions in the world?  That’s what I like about Luther’s approach.  As I started my research to try and figure out how to do an exorcism, I presumed that it would be a complicated affair.  Should I have a cross or crucifix?  Should I make commands in the name of Jesus?  Should there be candles or incense or holy water – things that under normal circumstances I dismiss as superstition or aesthetics, but which maybe have special use or power against demons?  Am I preparing to enter a battle where I contend with the spiritual?

Naw.

We are called to resist and protect ourselves against the machinations of the spiritual world (James 4:7, Ephesians 6:10-17, 1 Corinthians 10:13, Romans 12:21, 1 Peter 5:8-9, etc.).  We are called to remember that we share in Christ’s victory and therefore have already overcome the powers of evil (1 John 4:4, Isaiah 54:17, Romans 8:37, etc.).  There are accounts of people casting out demons (Acts 16:18, etc.) , and there are also accounts where even Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out demons (Mark 9:14-29).  We have victory over evil spirits and need not fear them, but we may not always be able to make them do what we want.

But we don’t have to grant them any more power or influence than absolutely necessary.  We don’t have to make a big deal about it, puff it way up, blow it out of proportion, or grant that they have any real power or authority.  We can make ourselves and our environments inhospitable.  If God the Holy Spirit chooses to chase them off, thanks be to God.  If the spirits grow tired or annoyed at their lack of influence, thanks be to God.

Our power is not in things – not even in things that are helpful like crosses or rosaries or Bibles.  Our power is in the Word of God and our faith and trust that God’s Word is to us and for us, tangible in the spilled blood of the Word made Flesh, tangible in the tomb that was filled for three days and then empty forever.  God’s Word and assurance to us is our power.  We let that Word do what it will.  We dwell on that word rather than on anything that would lead us to obsess over the hypothetical powers or methodologies or names of evil spirits.  C.S. Lewis said the devil can’t stand to be mocked.  Luther seems to have been of the same frame of mind.

That’s helpful to me.  Hopefully it’s helpful to you.  Whether you’re seeing things or not.  Whether you’re feeling the presence of evil or not.  Be aware.  Be watchful and on guard.  But most of all be in the Word of God, trusting in that Word rather than any other, so that no matter what does or does not happen, your life in Christ is secure.

 

Shepherds and Sheep

April 23, 2018

These things have been on my mind a fair bit the past week or so, since these were prominent themes in the readings  (John 10:11-18, Psalm 23) for this past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.

I’ve been trying to think of analogies that would be easier for people in America in the 21st century to link to then shepherds and sheep, but what I find is that there isn’t an easy one that comes to mind.  Particularly as Americans, we largely disregard and further reject any forms of such persistent leadership.  We may have bosses or supervisors or employers, but these are recognized to be temporary, and subject to our dismissal at any time (through quitting our job).  The leadership of the father in a family unit has been steady denigrated over the past 40 years to the point where it is not only widely viewed as irrelevant but inappropriate and even offensive.  I struggle to find any suitable replacement analogy in our culture today.

I suspect this is not a good thing.

The Christian life is one of sheep and shepherds.  Jesus is, of course, ultimately the Good Shepherd.  Yet Christian leaders from the apostles on down are charged to imitate Jesus’ shepherd role in regards to God’s people.  Jesus commissions Peter in John 21:15-17 to continue the work of shepherding God’s people, as an extension, no doubt, of how Jesus shepherded Peter and the other disciples.   They are to do for and with others what Jesus has done for and with them.  Their efforts of course will fall short of the perfection of Jesus’ work with them, but the spirit of the work is to continue, and this ultimately presumes a degree of authority.  And it is authority that Americans have problems with, including in the Church.

That this authority is intended not just for the Apostles but rather for all leaders of God’s people is made clear by Peter himself, in 1 Peter 5:1-11.  His appeal presumes multiple things:

  1. there are sheep the faithful in Jesus Christ, therefore
  2. there are and need to be shepherds which naturally
  3. exercise oversight – willingly rather than grudgingly and
  4. this oversight is for the benefit of the sheep, not the benefit of the shepherds and
  5. not as a means for satisfying personal desires for control, or as an excuse to insist on doing things your particular way but rather
  6. consists of leading in large part by example rather than coercion, a method that may be effective in the long-run but is not nearly as easy or simple as demanding obedience, and therefore requires that
  7. shepherds should exercise humility, even as they carry out their duties as shepherds

Sheep need shepherds.  Jesus acknowledges in his Good Shepherd discourse of John 10 that there are shepherds who are unfaithful or more concerned with personal gain than the welfare of the sheep.  But these realities of a sinful world full of sinful sheep and shepherds don’t alter the fact that sheep still need shepherds.  And the fact that the shepherds are also themselves sheep doesn’t seem to preclude Jesus and the Apostles for maintaining this motif.

How does this dynamic play out in a culture where everyone is expected to be or encouraged to be their own – and largely only – shepherd?  Certainly it can and does lead to a lot of confusion in the sheep pens and pastures that are the Church.  Certainly it will lead to the idea that shepherds in Christ are really no different than supervisors or employers – that people are free to reject their leadership in search of a preferred leadership style.  Or it may lead to the notion that the sheep are really the ones calling the shots – all of the shots, and that shepherds are only there to affirm and carry out the will of the sheep.  And certainly it does at times lead to shepherds who abuse their authority for their own benefit, or insist on a vision the sheep have no ability or interest in following.

But sheep and shepherds remain, 2000 years after Jesus observed them day in and day out and saw fit to utilize this motif, and despite the fact that sheep and shepherds are both equally scarce these days for the vast majority of people and Christians.  Which means we have to keep trying to figure out how to be faithful shepherds and sheep.  Together.

Acknowledging Mistakes

April 3, 2018

One of the hardest things for people to do is acknowledge that mistakes have been made.  It seems so harsh and judgmental.  So in the interest of avoiding pointing fingers (especially at ourselves!), we often times continue down a path that was started years ago simply because the idea of changing course seems too depressing or offensive.  The result is that there are times when we end up someplace we never wanted to be, yet claim that there can’t possibly any alternative options that might begin to lead us where we’d prefer to be.

The Church is like that sometimes, just like families and cities and nations and PTA boards and any other gathering of people can be.  But it’s vitally important to be able to say This isn’t working and move down a different path that might lead us to different outcomes.

I agree completely with this brief essay, and the conclusion that separating children from their parents in worship is – while aimed at a good goal – a big mistake.  Parents do need breaks, but there are a variety of ways that breaks can be given without removing children from worship until they’re 18, at which point they are expected to become adult members and proponents of the congregation, to be involved in something they’ve actually been excluded from all of their life.

There are other ways to help parents without removing the children.  Parenting is hard work, to be sure.  But it’s work that has to be done and it has to be done in Church just like it has to be done at the grocery store and restaurants and everywhere else we take our children.  Church as a community should be able to find all sorts of ways to assist parents in receiving the message and worshiping without breaking up the family to do so.

This essay has apparently sparked a lot of controversy.  But we need to remember that we can decide that something wasn’t a good idea without demonizing the people who initiated it – with good intentions and towards good goals.  We just have to be able to say that it was a mistake and we need to change direction.  Too much is at stake not to.

 

True Spirituality – Section 1 – The Law and the Law of Love

January 24, 2018

This is the second in a series of posts analyzing Francis Schaeffer’s book True Spirituality.  You can find the first post here.

If we’re going to talk about what it means to live the Christian life, a life of true spirituality as a Christian, then we have to acknowledge that the only way such a discussion has any value is if those engaged in it are actually Christians.  It makes no sense to explore what the Christian life might look for anyone other than a professed Christian.  The challenge then becomes what is the definition of a Christian?  There are certainly no shortage of options.

Is being a Christian defined by your membership and participation in a particular expression of the Body of Christ, like the Roman Catholic Church or a Baptist Church?  There are folks in both those parts of the Christian body that would answer yes to this question, but I disagree that such positions are Biblically supported.  I can appreciate Rome’s argument that they are the one true Church because of apostolic succession, but apostolic succession isn’t a Biblical definition of what makes one a Christian, though it certainly is a nice tradition to be able to point to.

The Biblical definition of a Christian is one who looks to Jesus of Nazareth as both the human son of Mary and the divine Son of God, through whom alone we receive forgiveness and therefore reconciliation with God the Father.  Put more simply, I believe that my only hope of reconciliation with God the Father despite more moral guilt is the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.  Nothing I do or say can improve upon or add to what Jesus did.  I can only accept it as being done for me, or I can reject it.  Accepting it makes me a Biblical Christian.  Rejecting it makes me something else.

All of this is wrapped up with that concept of moral guilt just mentioned.  I’ve not met anyone – of any philosophical or religious bent – that thinks they are perfect, completely free from flaw or moral guilt – a violation of some universal or personal standard of behavior.  Everyone I’ve ever talked to has been willing to admit that they aren’t the person they think they should be, let alone the person others think they should be or that any particular philosophical or theological tradition thinks they should be.  We all fall short.

Some will  say that there are no greater ramifications to this than a limited sense of disappointment or harm to others, that there is no Higher Power to be offended by these failures or that any possible Higher Power simply isn’t offended.  For such folks, the idea of the necessity of a Savior is confusing and complicated.  What do I need to be saved from?  What are the long-range ramifications of my moral failings?

The Bible asserts that there are long-range ramifications that can potentially be eternal.  The Bible asserts that there is a higher power, and that our moral failures and corresponding moral guilt is first and foremost an offense against this God, and only secondarily an offense against ourselves or others.  Your real problem isn’t your love of gossip, or your uncontrolled temper, or your lust or greed or whatever – your real problem is that these things are an offense against a holy and perfect God, the creator of all things including you, and the definer as well as the embodiment of the moral law you have violated (whether accidentally or intentionally).   Your lust may be a danger to yourself and others, but it is first and foremost an offense against the God who created you as well as the others that may be involved in your lust.

Having violated this moral law, having offended against the demand for perfection issued by a righteous and holy God, I have no way of making up for my violations.  I can neither stop them completely, nor in any way make up for past violations.  Saying sorry doesn’t cut it.  And I have nothing to offer the all-powerful Creator of the Universe in exchange or compensation for my offense.

Therefore, if there is to be any hope for reconciliation, it must be initiated by the very God whom I offend, and on his terms alone.  The Bible gives us the unlikely good news that God has indeed initiated this very thing, and details the specifics – accepting the death and resurrection of the perfect and holy Son of God as a gift to me, despite my sinfulness.  In faith, I receive the offered perfection of the Son of God and dressed in his blood-soaked clothes, I can stand before God and be pronounced holy and perfect and clean.

This is the starting point of the Christian life – my acknowledgement that such is my predicament and such is my hope and confidence for salvation.

I would argue this has nothing to do with emotion, though emotion may well be appropriate  at the moment these truths break through to one as real and true.  It doesn’t matter whether I feel saved or not.   What matters is whether this is my honest profession of faith.  Am I trusting God and his Word to me or am I not?

You can’t just act like a Christian, you have to be one, and being one requires your trusting the promises of God rather than rejecting them in favor of some alternative.

All that being said, what we have said is that accepting the promises of God the Father in God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit is the beginning of the discussion of and actual living out of the Christian life.  But it is only the beginning.  Schaeffer compares this to our physical birth.  Our physical birth is necessary as the condition for our existence in the physical world.  In that respect it is the most important aspect of our lives because it is the absolutely essential starting point of our lives in this world.  But from another perspective, it is the least important moment because once it’s done, it’s over with.  New things become of primary concern once we have been delivered into the physical world.

So our spiritual birth through profession of faith in Jesus  as our Lord and Savior is both the most and least important part of our Christian life, depending on your vantage point and what it is that you want to talk about.  Just as nobody would claim that, once being physically born there is nothing more to living life in the physical world, nobody should claim that the moment of placing one’s faith in Jesus for forgiveness of moral guilt against a perfect and holy God is the end of the story of the Christian life.  Theologians distinguish this act of putting our trust in Jesus as our savior as justification, and the living out the Christian life now made possible because of this faith as sanctification.  Being broken and sinful (despite being forgiven), we are ever tempted to switch these two around, putting the cart before the horse and making the living of a Christian life a prerequisite for saving faith in Jesus.

The question for the new (and old) Christian is what next?  For an adult convert to Christianity this may most often take the form of a list of things once considered acceptable but which are not acceptable now that this person claims is a follower of Jesus.  But the Christian life is not simply a matter of Thou Shalt Nots.  Naturally there are those Christians who realize this and may react against the list of requirements and insist that they should be done away with.  This might be appropriate, unless what one is really getting at is the desire to do the things prohibited by the lists of Thou Shalt Nots.  If your ultimate goal is just making the Christian life easier, or more palatable to non-Christians, you’re headed down the wrong path just as surely as those who make the Christian life all about following zealously the Thou Shalt Nots.

Luther dealt with the Law and the Christian life in this way:

A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to  none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.

That is because behind the Law – the Ten Commandments and every other instruction from God to his people whether universal or particular –  there is a deeper Law, the Law of Love.  The Law that says my ultimate concern is less the minute attendance to the Law, but how my attendance to the Law expresses love towards God and neighbor.  Jesus was rather critical of the Pharisees who gloried in their self-righteousness but lacked love for others (Matthew 23:4).  The Law is not given to make us miserable, but rather to show us how to love our neighbor and our God.  The spiritual life of a Christian should be a realization of this more and more, which of course transforms the reason why we seek to obey the requirements of the Law.  Not out of peer pressure or a sense of self-righteousness, but because we trust that in observing the Law, we are more apt to be loving God and our neighbor.

Thus obedience to the Law is always primarily an inward, internal thing.  It may well manifest itself externally, but this is not a good indicator of the inward rationale.  I may not kill someone, but that doesn’t show whether I really love them or am simply afraid of going to prison.  So as we consider the Christian life and Christian spirituality, we need to distinguish between an external, loveless adherence to the Law (which Jesus was constantly criticizing others for) and an adherence to the Law motivated primarily by love for God and love for neighbor rather than out of fear or a desire to be accepted by others.

To move towards this is to intentionally cultivate a trust and reliance on God for all things and in all things.  The ways that I sin against God and against others tend to happen when I am not trusting God and resting in his provision, but rather out to procure for myself, on my terms, what it  is I think I need or want.  Thus the Law against coveting is really the first Law broken before any of  the other nine are!

The Christian is called to trust God’s promises that as St. Paul writes in Romans 8 for those who love God all things work together for good.  That means both in my blessings as well as in the areas that I wish were different.  Both in my victories as well as my struggles.  Both in my satisfaction as well as my malcontent.  If I don’t have something that I think I ought to, or that I really want, I have to trust that, rather than resorting to sinful means to procure it, I need to trust that  God the Holy Spirit is perhaps using my lack or want for his purposes, which are always good (unlike mine!).

In the Christian life, therefore, each moment I have a decision to make – will I give thanks to God for his good gifts, or will I focus rather on what I don’t have and cultivate a sense of bitterness or entitlement that quickly leads me to coveting sinfully and then sinning in thought, word, or deed?  Part of Christian spirituality then is to deal with life moment by moment, opting intentionally to trust that whether I am particularly pleased about something or not, God the Holy Spirit is still capable of working all things towards good.  I am never justified in sinfully violating God’s will in me.

Another way of saying it might be this:  The Christian confesses a faith and trust in an all-mighty and all-knowing God, and also an all-loving God.  God has created every individual in the context of a struggle between good and evil.  Every Christian is called to resist evil as they are enabled, to fight against it in their particular context or vocation.  But trust in such a God means that we ought to trust him to put us where in this struggle He knows best.  And that we trust that his decision is not arbitrary but ultimately for our best and good.  This should assist us as we strive (like St. Paul) to be content (trusting of God) in all things.

Finally, if we are to begin describing the Christian life we can’t simply speak in terms of what is forbidden, the Thou Shalt Nots.  Rather, we must speak both in those negatives but also in positives.  Not only what we in our sinful brokenness are restrained from but the blessings we are promised, the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit and the fruit they produce in our life.  The Christian life cannot be described simply by what we don’t do, but I think that for many people (Christians included) this is the first way we think of it.   I’m a Christian so I don’t fool around before I’m married.  I’m a Christian so I don’t kill people.  These are all well and true, but they are external aspects of an internal spirituality, and they are ultimately only part of the story.  If the negative aspects of the internal Christian life – the Thou Shalt Nots have an external  manifestation, then it should be equally expected that positive, cultivated aspects of the internal Christian life will also have external manifestations.

 

True Spirituality – Preface

January 23, 2018

This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up….And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.  Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.  

1 Corinthians 8:1b, 11-12

This is part of the Epistle lesson assigned for this Sunday.  It’s a powerful passage, and it has much to do with several different issues that have been raised in our congregation in the past three months.  At heart it is a reminder that our goal is not to be right, but to ensure  that what we do is not injurious to the faith of a brother or sister in Christ.  Throughout my life this has been a lesson I have been trying to learn and share with others in Christian community, a lesson that is rarely well-received and is often the first to be forgotten the moment there is a disagreement about something or other.  As our community strives to make decisions together, and as my community struggles in part with depression and other aspects of living the Christian life, these verses and others from Paul are so very helpful to me.  They don’t necessarily make things easier, but that’s not Paul’s point.

I pair these words with these words from Francis Shaeffer’s introduction to his book True Spirituality:

Gradually I saw that the problem was that with all the teaching I had received after I was a Christian, I had heard little about what the Bible says about the meaning of the finished work of Christ for our present lives. 

The Christian faith is not simply a moral code.  Nor is it simply the guarantee of a happy ending after death.  Rather, it is an assertion that how we live here and now has purpose and meaning both to ourselves and the world around us.  We do what we do (and refrain from certain other things) not out of a legalistic coldness but out of the understanding that the Biblical teachings about how to live have a definite impact not just on ourselves but on those around us.

What a beautiful thing to remember.  In joy or in sorrow, in conflict or in harmony, our goal is to reflect the love of Christ in our lives to one another.  That this is not only a goal but an expectation – something that can be achieved (little by little and of course imperfectly always) here and now, today.  Not by some sort of mystical escape to  a mountaintop away from the issues of daily life, but in that daily life itself.

While I reviewed this book a while ago, I’m going to start blogging through it – something I haven’t done a lot of for years.  But I want to capture my thoughts as I go through it again to create a study for our members (or anyone else) that will help them deal with the why and how and what of the Christian life, and how it affects everything we do and say and think and feel.

Good Listening

January 15, 2018

Sunday Evening Happy Hour continues to grow into an eclectic gathering of people.  In addition to 20-something college graduates planning the next phase of their lives we have other people from the community.  One such category is people we know through the home school community.  Another is colleagues and work-mates of the people who have come to call Sunday nights at our house home.

A few weeks ago we had a co-worker of one of our regulars come.   She was surprised that it was mostly people younger than her, and while she seemed a bit awkward about this initially, I was able to sit with her and have an extended discussion that covered a lot of ground about her life.  And last night we had a young woman who works at the local hospital and is pursuing a career as a doctor come after many months of invitations by another of our regulars.  By the end of the night she told her friend I want to come back here every week!  She met some new people, played games around the table with the group that includes our kids, undoubtedly got drawn into some conversations, and of course marveled at the wonder that is our oldest son’s popcorn.  Mostly I hope she found a place where she didn’t need to prove anything, she could just be.

I guess I can understand the appeal.

Over the past two years we’ve also regularly had the international students who live with us participate in these events, and my family is always excited when they do.  Some of course have robust social lives of their own during their stay in our town, but others are on the quieter side and are often home on Sunday nights.  The Japanese girl who lived with us since September was a regular attender.  She got to experience American food and drinks, listened in on a wide-ranging spectrum of conversations and had the opportunity to ask questions as well as share about how things work in her country.  She also witnessed a very emotionally-charged theological discussion, and hopefully got a glimpse of how Christians try to make sense of the Bible in their lives and communities.  Coming from Japan she described herself as a nominal Buddhist, but like many young Japanese we’ve met, she really doesn’t know or understand much about Buddhism beyond the ritual level.  She goes to the temples or shrines on certain occasions, reflexively engages in motions of gratitude, but doesn’t have any real connection to the why of these things.  But as she lived with us and experienced larger community on Sundays, she at least saw that Christians her age are looking for ways to truly connect what they believe with how they live.  Not always perfectly, and certainly not always in harmony, but still searching.

But she’s no longer living with us.  And last night we had a new student with us – a 68-year old woman from Brazil.  She’s never been to the United States before.  Or Europe.  Or even anywhere outside of her home country.  She lives in a small town (8000 people if we understand her correctly) deep in the heart of the country and teaches English there.  Her accent is thick and it requires careful listening to understand her at times.

So in the swirl of people and laughter, eating and music and games, she sat on our couch with my wife, and they talked.  One of our regulars stopped me at one point and pointed.  She’s really good at that! I smiled and nodded.  She meant how my wife could sit and patiently listen and seek to understand and be understood with another person despite significant language and cultural hurdles.

Another regular told my wife later I don’t see how you can do that.  I don’t have the patience for that.  I used to, but I don’t any more.  It’s an honest statement.  While most people would like to believe that they are good listeners who are willing to take the time to successfully hear and be heard, the reality is that most  people aren’t.  It’s hard work.  It takes time.  It can be painstakingly slow progress at times.

But there is also the issue that many people come to conversation primarily for what they can say, and less so for what they might hear.  It’s not as though they have a pre-formulated agenda of topics they want to discuss (although some people definitely do that!).  But once a conversation begins to circle around a particular topic, they organize their thoughts, opinions, experiences, sift through them for the ones they think are most pertinent, and then wait for the first opportunity to insert them into the conversation.  These are not bad or rude people, but I think it’s how we’re culturally formed – particularly these days when we’re used to just shouting out our ideas at random people on bumper stickers, tweets and status updates.  We listen more selectively, and unfortunately I think more shallow-ly.  When we have time or inclination.  And even then we don’t necessarily listen (and are not necessarily required to listen based on the types of pronouncements people make), but scroll through rapidly.  Perhaps looking for something interesting that we can respond to.

These dynamics become clearer when dealing inter-culturally and through language barriers.  If the goal is to say what I want to say, such conversations rapidly lose appeal because the odds of me being able to say what I want to say and have it be understood quickly are pretty slim.  The emphasis is more heavily on the listening component because I can’t assume that I will or have heard the other person correctly.  And then I have to listen again to ensure that they’ve heard and understood me.  I have to study facial expressions and body language to help clue me in, since nobody (regardless of culture!) likes to look foolish or stupid and so we tend to nod our heads as though we understand even when we don’t.

But I think the same dynamics are often at play conversationally with people who speak the same language.  Some people like to talk.  Other people prefer to listen.  Relationship happens when these dynamics balance out, and that can take a long time – months or even years – to happen.  One of our regulars said to me the other day (after attending regularly for the past year or more) I don’t think I’ve ever really talked with you.  I don’t really know you at all.  But I’d like to.  I nodded and smiled.  They’re a talker and I’m a listener.  But given the proper time and space and motivation, our natural bents can be moderated.  Talkers can (and do want to!) listen.  And yes, listeners can (and do want to!) talk.  It might take a long time for those variations in personality to be identified and then consciously altered to accommodate the other, but they can be.  Deeper relationship can form.

But it takes patience on everyone’s part, and part of Christian community’s purpose is to be a place where patience as well as intentionality is modeled.  Where people can see when someone is really good at something, and then recognize that perhaps it’s an area they can work on in their lives, or at least praise and encourage other people in.  Listening is hard for some people.  Just like talking is very hard for me.  But together, each can learn and better appreciate the other and what they have to offer.  That’s part of the heart of Christian community, and an important witness to a world around us.

A&tCL I

January 4, 2018

This is the first of what will likely be many entries, all introduced by this entry and focused on the topic of Alcohol and the Christian Life, which I will treat both individually and corporately as The Church.  I’ll use the same title for each one (A&tCL), incremented numerically so it should be easy for you to search and find the related posts.  Or you can read the next post here.

I’ve just finished combing through the entire Old Testament for references to wine as translated by 12 different English Bibles.  There are roughly different 20 Hebrew words in some way associated with wine or wine making, of which 11 seem to be pertinent to the drink itself (as opposed to machinery like a wine press, which I’m not addressing in this study) and occur in some form in the Old Testament.  There are at least 183 verses in the Old Testament that mention wine in some way.  Depending on which translation you’re using, there are roughly between 23,000 and 27,000 verses in the Old Testament.

Nearly every book of the Old Testament mentions wine.  Only the following books don’t:

  • Joshua
  • 1 Kings
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Nahum
  • Malachi

The first mention of wine is with Noah in Genesis 9.  So my first take-away is that wine is a prevalent part of Israelite/Hebrew/Jewish life, and by extension, human life.  It pre-dates the flood because Noah knows how to plant a vineyard and harvest and ferment grapes, which means he knew how to do that (likely) prior to the Flood.  The fact that it is mentioned throughout the Old Testament and spans roughly a millenia of divinely-inspired writing means that wine was a consistent part and presence of life for God’s people and therefore, by extension, just about all people.  This isn’t a judgment yet on whether that presence was good or bad, simply an acknowledgment that in some way or another it was present and being acknowledged in God’s inspired Word.

I’m using wine as the basis for this study because it is far and away (other than water) the most frequently mentioned beverage in the Bible and I believe that it is a good metric to use in determining what the Bible has to say about alcohol consumption in general.

The next stage is to examine each of the 11 Hebrew words that I’ve culled from the Old Testament books.  The goal is to understand any important differences or nuances between the words that might affect usage or reveal intent in choosing certain words for certain purposes.   Could it be that fermented/alcoholic wine is forbidden while non-alcoholic grape juice is not?  This kind of comparison of the words will hopefully enable me to pick up on this if it is the case.  I’ll be looking for patterns in the choice of words used by authors in similar situations.

I do this with no small amount of dread and trepidation.  I was required to learn Hebrew in Seminary (along with Koine Greek).  But I am by no means a Greek or Hebrew scholar.  In a decade of official ministry I can count on one hand the number of times where my knowledge of these languages has been inadequate or crucial to any particular ministerial or evangelical act or conversation, yet I carry a guilt that daily (or even annual!) study of these languages is not part of my ministry.  For the Hebrew study portion of this project, I’m referring to The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDAG) as my starting point.  I haven’t touched this book in over a decade.  It still smells and look new (if dusty).  I don’t pretend that my level of work is going to be very impressive, but I trust it will be good enough for my purpose.  I welcome (and will seek out to the best of my ability) wiser minds to weigh in on these words and their usage if it seems prudent or helpful.

I have two other resources sitting on my desk at the moment as well:

  • Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon – this appears to provide a more succinct definition of words, but doesn’t link to Strong’s Concordance numbers, which is the referent that e-Sword uses, so I likely won’t use this resource as much.  I inherited this from a retired pastor and it was the lexicon used by my seminary years prior to my time there.  I am gratified to see that his copy looks pretty new as well, despite being several decades older than mine!
  • A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament – again, very brief and not linked to Strong’s Concordance so it will be harder for me to use this because my Hebrew is so bad to begin with.  I picked this up at seminary as a companion to the BDAG and is in equally pristine condition.

Strong’s Concordance is shorthand for The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.  First published in 1890 by James Strong, this has become the go-to open source for Biblical word study.  It is an index of every single word that appears in the King James Bible.  This means that it’s usefulness is limited, but it is a helpful starting place for me to get a handle on the Hebrew without having to reteach myself the language completely.  It functions as a link between my word search and the resources listed above.  It is integrated into e-Sword and I have a hard copy of it as well.

For what it’s worth, there are plenty of books I’m sure on this topic (though a brief survey of our denominational publishing house  was pretty disappointing).  But in order to try and ensure minimal theological bias (or at least a known theological bias compared to an unknown one!), I’m taking on this task.

All right.  Time to hit the book(s)!

 

Alcohol & the Christian Life

January 3, 2018

Last week I was called an alcoholic by someone who has never met me or spoken to me.  Based on circumstances of their life experiences with addiction (first and second-hand) and the fact that I drink alcohol and also serve alcohol to other people from time to time, and based on their interpretation of Scripture, they concluded that I’m likely an alcoholic and that I’m leading others (including my children) into alcoholism.

Today – at my request – I sat down and spoke with that person, as well as her daughter and mother.  I was informed initially that they agreed to the meeting only to share their perspectives and experiences with me so I would understand where they were coming from.  Fair enough.  I arrived prepared to listen to their personal experiences.  However when I arrived, I was informed that their purpose had changed, and that their intent was to convince me that alcohol is evil and an inappropriate thing to either enjoy responsibly personally or to offer responsibly to another person as part of hospitality and generosity.  Especially for a pastor, and especially if a congregation was supporting this activity in some way.   And then to demand that I agree to certain things and that the congregation I serve agree to certain things.

All of this not because anything bad has ever happened at Sunday Happy Hour.  Not because anyone who has ever visited has complained about the presence of alcohol  or the way in which I serve it.  Not because of any actual problem at all.  Simply because some of these folks are convinced alcohol is inherently evil, and some of the folks are convinced that a pastor and a church should never utilize alcohol in any sort of public ministry (other than Holy Communion, I assume) because of our larger alcohol culture.

It hasn’t been a fun week.  Hopefully your end off 2017 and start of 2018 was more enjoyable!

My denomination prides itself on refraining as much as possible from saying things definitively that Scripture itself is not definitive about, just as we strive very hard not to ignore anything that Scripture is definitive about.  We are imperfect in this to be sure.  But if you hold that all of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) then you have to at least try.  So in dealing with the accusations and demands that have been made, my main concern is to go to Scripture and see what it has to say.  I don’t really care if a Happy Hour ministry is unconventional.  There are lots of unconventional approaches to ministry – ask any missionary.  Some mission approaches have elements of risk to them, but that’s not my primary concern at this point either.  Risk is not in itself sinful.  My primary concern is whether involving alcohol in a Christian function is sinful.  And to figure that out, I go not to personal experiences or popular practices or Twitter or Facebook but to the Bible to see what the Bible has to say.

And certainly on the issue of alcohol, Scripture has a lot to say.  Hundreds of verses that refer to wine in one way or another.  And we have to pay attention to all of it rather than just cherry-pick the few verses that support our position.  That’s how I’m attempting to deal with the things I’ve been called to my face as well as in other discussions that I’m not privy to.  I go to Scripture to make sure that I understand what it is saying to the best of my ability, so I can provide my congregation and family both corporately and individually with good theological guidance.  Any of you who wish to weigh in on this topic here are free to do so (including the folks directly involved with this who are likely still reading).  As long as you’re respectful, I want to hear what you have to say and I’ll post it in the comments section of the appropriate post so others can see and hear what you have to say and weigh in as well.

To start my study on this topic, I’m utilizing a basic multi-translation Bible tool called e-Sword.  I’ve been using it for years instead of paying big bucks for the more professional programs that I wouldn’t use very often.  E-Sword is available either as a downloadable program or an app (both free!).  I  think it’s a very good baseline tool for casual interaction with the original languages as well as multiple English translations.

I’m using a public domain derivation source for the Hebrew (Old Testament) verses, and the Textus Receptus and Westcott-Hort translations of the Greek New Testament in addition to the Septuagint (Old and New Testaments in Greek).  While these may not be the best translations, I trust that for basic word study purposes they’re serviceable.  If any of my colleagues out there have anything pertinent to share as a warning about these translations, feel free to let me know.

To start with I’m doing a basic search across multiple (12) recent and historic English translations for every occurrence of the word wine in Scripture.  I’m then going through every single verse individually to see what the original language word is that is being translated as wine.  Since different English translations sometimes translate differently (duh!), I’m getting an interesting cross-section of Hebrew words that are sometimes –  but not always – translated as wine by some, but not all, English translations.  I’m only through Isaiah but there are so far eleven different Hebrew words that are sometimes translated as wine and/or strong drink.  Some of them have only been used once or twice, but there are two that far and away have the most occurrences.  It will be interesting to see how many different Greek words are used in the New Testament!

Once I’ve done that, I’ll research each of the words, trying to determine important differentiations or nuances that govern their usage and occurrence.  That will help me when I attempt to clarify the use of the word within not just the single verse but the overall pericope or section of Scripture.  Sometimes the context is a warning.  Other times it’s a celebration.  Other times it’s a divine promise.  I want to be able to clearly lay out all the different contexts that wine and/or strong drink is referred to in Scripture.

Then it shouldn’t be too difficult to group these contexts into more general categories.  Does Scripture clearly and unambiguously prohibit wine and drink from God’s people?  If it doesn’t (which is my assumption and understanding going into this study), then what should God’s people draw from Scriptural discussions of alcohol?  If it does unambiguously prohibit God’s people from alcohol, I’ll have some major thinking to do about why my particular polity and a good chunk (if not majority) of Christian scholarship through the centuries has ignored or avoided talking about this.

Then the discussion becomes one regarding the role of God’s corporate people – The Church – with alcohol.  Is alcohol something that should be condoned in the lives of God’s people grudgingly or reluctantly, but strictly forbidden in the corporate Church?  All of which drives towards the ultimate question – is it sinful for a Church to sponsor or engage in a ministry where alcohol is served to people, even if it is being done in a prudent and careful manner?

As part of these discussions, there has also been an argument made that alcohol itself – the fermented byproducts of fruit and other organic materials – is inherently sinful in and of itself.  It isn’t part of God’s goodness in creation, but rather something the Devil has injected into the mix.  Again, what does the Bible say on this topic and how do we determine practice based on what Scripture says?

The issue of alcohol is a complicated one because, as I’ve often noted on this blog, it can be so destructive in people’s lives.  My working presumption is that rather than just avoiding the topic and practice completely, the Church can and perhaps even should model what responsible alcohol consumption looks like.  If our culture dominates the discussion about alcohol and dominates it with an insistence that it should be enjoyed to excess more often than not (legal disclaimers aside), is there a place for the Church to say not simply no, but rather not so much?   Again, my working practice has been to say yes, and Sunday Happy Hour is a place where this has and does happen.

There are certainly Christians who insist that alcohol cannot be partaken without sin, or that the odds of sin are so great that it should just be prohibited.  Some of their Biblical arguments towards this end rely on arguments that wine in Scripture isn’t wine like we think of today (fermented and alcoholic), but rather grape juice – negligibly fermented, essentially non-alcoholic freshly squeezed grape juice.  Just in my preliminary foray into the word study it’s clear that the Hebrew is able to make this distinction (but more often than not does not – or doesn’t appear to use it purposefully).  Do their arguments have linguistic merit?  Or is it an attempt to justify their theological conclusions and doctrines by reinterpreting Scripture to their liking?  Is that what I’m doing just because I enjoy cocktails?

Time will tell, but I’ll keep all of you informed as I move along the process.