Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

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.

Sermons, Technology & Catholicism?

August 24, 2020

Since the onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic, I’ve struggled with technology to provide sermons online for my congregation. You’d think with a background in technology this wouldn’t be so hard, but my professional technology background was never in audio/video production. It’s been an unpleasant learning curve, to say the least. In no small part made steeper by my frustration at lack of resources. Undoubtedly a change in attitude on my part my transform all of this from an irritation to an opportunity.

Or I could convert to Roman Catholicism, I suppose.

Part of my technology woes have to do with YouTube’s refusal to allow me to upload videos longer than 15 minutes, even though I’ve authenticated my account and done everything they’ve said to ostensibly allow much longer video uploads. This means I have to decide if I’m going to gauge my sermon lengths to fit inside a 15-minute format, or if I’m going to say what I feel like I have to say even if it takes longer than 15 minutes.

Now that my congregation is meeting outdoors, this takes much of the pressure off as many of my parishioners are there on Sunday mornings and don’t need it posted to YouTube.

The Roman Catholic approach (at least in the Santa Fe diocese) is a lot simpler – preach shorter sermons. In fact, priests there are being warned if their sermons consistently are longer than five minutes in length, they could have their preaching privileges revoked. This is their attempt to mitigate the risk of in-person worship, by all but eliminating the sermon.

My Protestant (Lutheran) background finds this a terrible solution. If worship is essentially God’s gifts to his people in Word and Sacrament, then to minimize the Word portion does a disservice to the people of God. While shorter services and sermons might make sense for a limited period of time, or in addition to or as alternatives to a longer preaching service, to simply not provide the Word to God’s people for months on end strikes at the very heart of what and who the Church is.

So I’ll go on struggling with technology and trying to find better solutions. And I’ll continue to find ways to bring the Word to the people of God in weekly worship. And I’ll resist the temptation to convert to Catholicism.

Book Review: The KGB’s Most Wanted

August 10, 2020

The KGB’s Most Wanted: The Story of Joseph Bondarenko, Russian Evangelist by Joseph Bondarenko

This was gifted to me by a parishioner who heard the author speak recently. The book is a powerful auto-biography of Bondarenko’s treatment in the former Soviet Union because of his faith. He describes things in a simple, relatable way that is easy to understand. His main purpose seems to be detailing events as he remembers them, rather than trying to impose any larger meaning on the events beyond the meaning given to us in Scripture of God’s mysterious ways of working. Bondarenko chooses to focus not on the barbarism of his jailers or the atheistic Communist systems, but rather on how God the Holy Spirit was always present and at work in even the worst of circumstances and situations, not just preserving Bondarenko’s life but leading others to or back to faith.

Bondarenko’s humility as well as his great faith in God is far more inspiring than the mistreatment he suffered by a system determined to break him and make an example of him. It isn’t that Bondarenko claims any great power for himself – he regularly gives all of the credit to God for protecting and sustaining him. Much as God defeated the efforts of Pharaoh in the Exodus story, God thwarts the intentions of various levels of Communist officials, regularly demonstrating his power through and despite Bondarenko’s weakness. Rather than breaking Bondarenko’s faith, others around him are brought to faith.

Preaching Patterns

July 25, 2020

The next chapter in the preaching improvement book I’m moving slowly through is on the importance of remembering the fundamentals of sermon preparation. It’s very easy in the hustle and bustle of other weekly activities to short cut these fundamentals. To rely on someone else’s work rather than your own. He outlines five fundamentals:

  • Study the Text – the grunt work of the sermon-writing process and the most easily short-cut because it isn’t necessarily obvious to your hearers how well you’ve done this (or whether you’ve done it at all). This step might include reading the text in the original languages for hints and clues translations might lose, consulting commentaries and other writers on the text, and other forms of help in understanding what the text is trying to tell us first, before determining what we want to say about the text.
  • Define the Thesis – clearly identify the main point you want to convey in a sermon. You can’t preach all the nuances of a text in a good sermon, so figure out what you want to hone in on. Identify that early to keep your sermon clear and understandable
  • Choose the Sermon Form – I don’t do this. For me, the sermon shapes itself in relation to the first two steps. Sometimes it’s built around a single exchange, an event or character study. Sometimes it’s more of a teaching sermon. Sometimes it’s highly emotional in nature. They tried to teach us sermon structures in seminary but I struggle here because I have been writing since I’ve been old enough to hold a pencil, and those instincts replace the structural definition step of sermon writing for me.
  • Develop Illustrations and Applications – find out ways to make the text and the message accessible and relevant to your hearers. Teach by all means, but show how the teaching applies, how it connects with the hearers. It’s too easy to simply toss out doctrines and explain a text contextually and historically and culturally without ever connecting it to Jesus and then connecting Jesus to the hearers.
  • Prepare Introduction and Conclusion – Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said. The basics of writing an essay in school are helpful in sermon writing as well.

Definitely good reminders. Preaching should require work and effort. Unfortunately it often doesn’t receive it. I feel I have a good grasp on the basics, though my former homiletics profs might disagree!

Listening for the Spirit

July 24, 2020

I take the Holy Spirit seriously. At least to the best of my ability. I know He’s at work, and that his methods and timings are not always ones I might expect. I don’t expect miracles in the Biblical sense, necessarily, but I do hold out the reality they could happen.

The first impression is important. As much as our culture attempts to convince us that first impressions are judgmental and flawed they remain necessary. In a sinful and broken world where trust is elusive and things and people are not always what we might want them to be, we look for clues to help guide us in how to respond.

His clothes appear clean, though he’s traveling with nothing more than a mostly-consumed bottle of Diet Coke and a jacket. He’s in his mid-to-late 30’s, I estimate. There’s a faint odor of unwashed clothes but it’s the stale odor, not the foul one. Not yet. I’ve learned in ministry that smells can tell you a lot the eyes might miss.

Yes, I have 15 minutes and I invite him in. He clearly has things on his mind though it’s impossible to tell yet what they might be. We sit in the front office and he begins to talk. Not disjointed, but the connections are sometimes complicated and slippery. He has ideas, ideas he’s trying to understand and more importantly trying to apply. He quotes passages from Scripture, demonstrates a familiarity with the Word of God and Christian concepts. But it’s also clear he’s spent time exploring many different sources and ideas, something he confirms later.

The intellect at work is not small. A good vocabulary, a line of reasoning that, while slightly flawed in terms of philosophical categories is still grappling with aspects of reality most people don’t spend much time contemplating – the interconnectedness of everything. How to make sense of the reality we are bound together in more fundamental ways than Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter might have us think. That these ties that bind us grounded in our shared creatureliness entail obligations to one another we are too quick to gloss over in our bid for Facebook and Instagram popularity or notoriety.

He asks for a pad of paper and a pen, quickly sketching and writing out things as he talks, helping him track his line of thought. It’s difficult to tell if he’s under the influence. If it is, it’s chemical as I don’t smell alcohol on his breath, no slurring of speech. Is there mental illness as well? Odds are good of that as well. He wants validation but grows fidgety when I’m talking instead of him. He’s trying to listen but clearly also figuring out what he wants to say next more than listening to what I have to say. Certainly no shortage of that these days in people who consider themselves sane and rational!

He continues trying to drive towards his point, what he really wants to apply in his life but it’s difficult for him. Minutes click by. Not unpleasantly. As I listen I also watch. Body language says a lot, like odors and clothing. Is he violent? His obvious agitation when I speak, when I try to validate aspects of his line of thought while offering tweaks and adjustments, identifying limitations to how far some of his ideas can be blended together, they convey that he’s really here to talk, not to listen, and perhaps it would be better to do that. Perhaps dialogue is too much to hope for in this setting.

Of course I wonder as well if he’s violent. Alone in the office, I try to size him up. Not a large man but size isn’t everything, depending on what substances he might be under the influence of. I know that letting him in and sitting with him like this entails a risk I’d prefer not to think about but have to. I try to stay loose physically and concentrated on him, watching for tell-tale signs that might give me a second’s warning if he becomes agitated. I don’t think he will. But my gut instincts, while right far more often than wrong are not perfect.

This is a child of God. I ache for him as he runs circles in his mind, looking for how to connect the loose ends, perhaps looking for the break in the circle that will allow him peace from these dog-eared ideas. I ache for whatever has diverted him from the channel of what we call normal and into whatever dry riverbed he’s ambling down.

I have another appointment that I’m now missing. Quick text messages to apologize. Yet this seems where I’m supposed to be at the moment, even though I look forward to my standing Friday engagement. Still, I’m apparently needed here and now with this man and his grasping for understanding and application. After an hour I beg off. I stand, move us towards the door. We’ll meet again next Tuesday, a day and time he writes in ink on the back of his hand. Hopefully it will be washed off before then. Less because I don’t want to see him again and more because I hope he’s washing himself well enough. What will kill a person quicker, unresolved mental ramblings or poor hygiene? Perhaps it’s a toss-up. A matter of how you define death.

I don’t think I’ll see him Tuesday. But it’s on my calendar just in case. Because we are bound together, he and I, this unlikely wanderer and this unlikely pastor. Bound together by a God who created both of us, redeemed us both, and offers to abide with both of us. Offers more to create a new and eternal relationship to one another. So I’ll put it on my calendar and be here just in case. Listening for the voice of God the Holy Spirit, knowing I may not realize I’ve heard it until long after it’s wandered down the railroad tracks and disappeared into the underpasses.