Archive for the ‘Vocation’ Category

Covering the Bases

July 2, 2020

As I continue to work slowly through a book on improving my preaching, the next chapter deals with different ways a speaker/preacher connects with the people they are speaking to.

Ethos listeners prioritize the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. If there is a strong connection with the speaker the message will be heard better. Likewise (though not explicitly stated in the book) if the relationship is strained or not good between the speaker and the listener, the listener is going to have a harder time connecting with what is being said. Sometimes this is referred to as an issue of integrity or character on the part of the speaker or the hearer’s perception of their integrity or character. Reaching people who react well based on ethos involves reminding them of this shared relationship. Speaking about we and us as opposed to them or you. Referencing personal stories or the impact of the sermon topic or verses on you personally.

Logos listeners focus on the cerebral or intellectual content of a sermon. They want to be presented with ideas to chew on and mull over or be challenged by. They’re most engaged when learning something new, and sermons that include a focus on information sit well with this group.

Pathos listeners react on the emotional level. They love real-life stories or anecdotes, but they also are most attentive when they are part of the sermon, and can connect what is being preached to their lives.

Ideally every sermon should have some of each aspect in it to best reach as many of your hearers as possible. And that seems reasonable. I can certainly confirm that people who are not in a good relationship with me have a harder time hearing what I say in the sermon, and are more apt to take things the wrong way (or at least in a way I wasn’t intending). Likewise I believe a good preacher should be teaching in a sermon. Not like I would teach a Bible study class, but there should be elements where I’m sharing what I’ve learned rather than just rehashing what I’ve heard all my life from others. The familiar can be comforting but if that’s all I give, people get bored. Or at least I get bored! And I’ve seen firsthand how a good story can really draw people into the sermon.

I like to think my sermons involve all three of these ways of preaching, though certainly the balance will vary from week to week. I also find myself hearing St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth emphasizing how we should also be careful not to be too calculated in how we speak the Word of God. Ultimately the power in a sermon is God’s Word and the Holy Spirit at work in that Word. While I want to be a good and effective preacher I also realize I can only control this to a certain extent, and there are limitations to my abilities so that I shouldn’t rely on them.

At the end of the day (Sunday?) I hope people have heard the Word of God applied to their lives in a concrete way. I’m experienced enough to know this can happen when I personally think my sermon stunk. And it can not happen when I think my sermon was a home run. I resonate well with those masters of the preaching craft who insist that if the sermon stinks, it’s my fault. But if the sermon is really good, then God gets the praise and glory. That’s how it should be, not as an excuse for me to neglect my duties or be shoddy in my preparation, but as a means of keeping my humbled and my community focused on what is important – Christ crucified.

Preaching Progress

June 30, 2020

About ten years ago – oh wait, it was really just this past February! – I began a book on improving my preaching.

Then the world fell apart.

But the book remains on my desk open to the chapter I have been working on sporadically for several months. Chapter 2. I did say sporadically, didn’t I? Intermittently? More not than often? Anyways.

Chapter 2 has me go through past sermons over the last several years to determine when parts of the Bible I primarily preach out of. He divides Scripture into different sections –

  • Genesis-Deuteronomy (Pentateuch)
  • Joshua – Esther (History)
  • Job – Song of Solomon (Wisdom Literature)
  • Isaiah – Malachi (Prophets)
  • Matthew – Acts (Gospels/Acts)
  • Romans – Philippians (Pauline Epistles)
  • Hebrews – Revelation (General Epistles & Revelation)

What I learned in this is my system of saving my sermons does not lend itself to an easy examination of what texts I primarily preached from. So I had to open every single individual sermon to determine what I preached from. Which is incredibly time-consuming, and so I didn’t go through five years of back sermons. I made it through about a year and a half and I’m going to call that good.

I preach primarily on the Gospel texts. This makes good sense as I believe the Gospel should predominate in worship. However I often incorporate the Old Testament lesson or the Epistle reading or even the psalm into the sermon as well, so that even while I’m preaching mostly on the Gospel readings it isn’t exclusive to the other readings. I guess this is good. The author’s idea is that you should have a balanced use of Scripture in your sermons over time, an idea I agree with in principle so long as the Gospel predominates.

Ready for Chapter 3, I guess!

Racism Is Sin

June 4, 2020

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Rushing Back to Church

May 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating Risk

May 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Grasshopper Myth

May 22, 2020

The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANF: Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus

May 20, 2020

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

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

Some notable inclusions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Everything Is Political

May 13, 2020

I opined earlier this week about the goal of restarting church worship without polluting the effort with agendas beyond what is best for the people of God in a particular community setting.  As opposed to other religious groups who are issuing press releases and petitions and doing press conferences, I think a congregation’s leadership needs to assess what is best for their members and  make their decisions accordingly.  Quietly.  For their members, not for the public.  For their members, not in a desire for publicity and gaining members.  For their members and not for political reasons.

A reader wrote to say that in their opinion the entire COVID-19 handling is a political issue.

And I agree completely.

Politicians of all stripes and persuasions are attempting to use the COVID-19 situation for personal betterment in their careers as well as jockeying for control of and for their political parties and agendas.  I don’t believe anyone is innocent of this, and of course the media reports on this in a particular light and with particular agendas as well.  COVID-19  has been, is now, and will continue to be handled politically.  The Church should strive to recognize this and adjust her actions and check her motivations constantly, but politics will inevitably be a part of those decisions at one level or another.

Because everything is political.

This is both good and bad.

As creations of the personal God of the Judeo-Christian Bible, we are designed to be political.  Genesis 1-2 informs us we are creatures, so we are not at the top of the food chain in terms of ordering our lives.  We were designed for a particular political order, an order where we lived in harmony and obedience to the Creator’s design for ourselves and one another and the world around us.  We were designed with a need for an order, an order woven into the very fabric of creation.  Politics in this sense is not an evil or even a necessary evil.  It’s how we were created – with a need to be ruled, and an ability to determine either obedience to or rebellion against that rule.

In rebelling against this in Genesis 3, we opted against obedience and for an effort to establish our own rule.  At best, we thought we could improve upon our Creator’s design of us.  At worst, we sought to displace our Creator and supplant him and his design with our own.  We sought self-rule in the purest and most disastrous sense.  In doing so, we broke the design of the Creator and have ever since been struggling to adapt ourselves to this broken creation – and politics is no exception to that.  Perhaps it is the most primal embodiment of that struggle.  Who will rule and how will they rule?

God made it clear our replacements for his perfect rule would not be pleasant.  Creation itself would now be in rebellion as well against the stewardship  of humanity (Genesis 3:17-19).  Our very bodies would be in rebellion, leading ultimately to death (Genesis 3:16).  And though designed to be in perfect partnership with one another, that partnership was now damaged greatly by sin, resulting not in cooperation but a struggle for  dominance and control of one another (Genesis 3:16).

So everything is political, a struggle for control whether well-intentioned or blatantly self-serving.  We struggle for control  of ourselves and others on both individual and group levels.  This is true in the Church as it is in the larger culture and society.  No action, no goal, no plan can ever be claimed to be completely without sin, completely without some small trace of that primal selfishness that dominates our lives in ways large and  small.  The goal or plan might be laudable.  It might be the best possible plan, but in some way either in the plan or implementation the sin inherent in every one of us will make it’s way into and through the plan.  We must do the best we can, hopefully with the humble acknowledgement that the closer we try to adhere to the original plans of the Creator, the better off everyone will be ultimately.

But our aim is poor, since even that is affected by sin.  So it is that those claiming to act on our behalf and for  our well-being are not immune to the sins of pride and ego that lead them to apply their own policies and directives unevenly, to stray even from their self-crafted processes and mechanisms.  The temptation is almost overwhelming, and again this happens in the Church as well as in the secular realm.

So yes, I want to try and avoid other motivations as much as possible.  But of course that  won’t be perfectly possible.  That should lead me to a humility and willingness to listen to many voices.  It will also necessarily lead me to searching out my sin in the situation and repenting of it, and finally lead me to trust in that forgiveness not as a justification for doing whatever I feel like and indulging my sinfulness, but in a freedom that allows me to move forward making those adjustments to my attitude or my practices that are closer to the mark of the Creator’s plan, even if never a bullseye.

Everything is political because we are designed as political creatures.  We just  need to remember that we were not designed neutral in terms of politics.  We were designed to exist best under a particular rule, and to exercise our roles with one another in light of that particular rule.  Only by keeping that original rule in mind to the best of our ability can we hope to even hit  the edge of the target, let alone the center.

Don’t Tell Me I’m Brave

May 12, 2020

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.  Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. “

 ~ C. S. Lewis ~

Trying to navigate the tricky line of when and how to reopen our country for life is complicated.  As articles  such as this point out, there are widely divergent views.  As articles rarely point out, it isn’t necessarily an either or situation.  Maybe we aren’t faced only with massive loss of life due to the pandemic or total economic and political meltdown due to the pandemic.  Maybe we’re faced with both.  Maybe we’re faced with neither, but rather a  milder mixture of the two.  Only time will tell, and we have to make the best choices we can.

But in the aforementioned article I find it fascinating that fear is now cited as a reason for not opening things back up again.  People are afraid, the logic would seem to go, and pushing them to return to work is going to cause them actual pain and damage.  We’ve all been traumatized, in other words.  Shell-shocked.   PTSD.  Whatever you want to call it.  As a nation we’ve been bludgeoned into a fragile psychological condition that now needs to be tended to softly and gently through continued government payouts rather than the cold, harsh reality of economic (particularly capitalistic) mechanisms.

That’s part of my fascination with what our media has done over the past two months.  You can argue about whether it was at the bequest of (some) of the political powers that be or whether it drove (some) of the political powers that be to their current stance on how to move forward.

First, yes.  People are afraid.  Some of them are terrified.  Nearly all of them are nervous.  If not for themselves than on behalf of others.  But that fear has been driven by our media and our politicians.  I’ll be lenient in granting that initially that fear might have been justified when we didn’t really know what was happening other than that a lot of people were dying in China and Italy.  But the fear went beyond that, and continues to go beyond that.  Fear is what should keep us locked in our houses.  Fear is what should keep us behind face masks.  Fear is what should keep us six feet apart from one another.  Fear is what should prompt  us to isolate not just for ourselves but out of fear we might somehow expose someone else to the virus who would be more vulnerable.

But this fear has been stoked steadily for two solid months.  Only recently have headlines in newspapers begun to mention other topics.  Still COVID-related stories are the majority of what we see and hear in the news.  Fear is natural, but people have been made afraid as well.  When fear is  all you push, don’t be surprised that people become fearful.  But also don’t then use  that fear to justify furthering policies that will only reinforce and strengthen the fear.

Now fear is not a glamorous thing.  It never has been in human history, but here’s part of the weirdness.  We’ve been made to feel as though our cowering in our houses is somehow brave.  We’re doing brave work as we lose our jobs and our businesses and fall back on unemployment and welfare.  That’s brave.

But it’s not.  It’s sad.  It might be necessary to some extent.  But  it’s not brave.  In part because very few people chose  to lose their job or their life’s work.  We were forced to stay home.  Ordered to.  Threatened with fines or imprisonment if we disobeyed.  We were shouted at through bullhorns and from helicopters over the beaches.  We were stigmatized by our fellow citizens.  This is not bravery.  At best it can be called obedience, but simply following orders is not necessarily brave in and of itself.

How can this be?

Because while we are told we are somehow brave and strong for ordering our food to go, we have also been inundated with real images and definitions of bravery.  Doctors and first responders get most of that glory.  They’re on the front lines, we’re told, fighting against the Coronavirus to keep us all safe.  That’s the definition of bravery.  It’s not an incorrect definition, either.  And that definition gets extended to a far lesser extent to those who work in essential industries.  Grocery store clerks and Amazon warehouse employees and all the other people who keep working so that those who have the ability to work at home or are already retired can order their food and groceries delivered and feel brave.  We’re told what bravery looks like, and it shows us that we ourselves have not been brave.

But we could have been.  And we could still be.

But it’s going to take the same mechanisms to change us that were used to create the fearful, nervous population we’ve become.

If the media and the politicians quit trying to paralyze us with fear and instead do what America has traditionally done – turn people loose to be heroic.  To go back to their jobs and bring their employees back.  Wear masks.  Avoid hugs and social distance.   So be it.  But be brave about it, not fearful.  America exists uniquely in history because it empowers people rather than disarms them.  You want to launch a business?  Go for it.  There’s no issues of pedigree or governmental control that should be able to stop you.  If you succeed, you might become wealthy and others might benefit from your drive and the product or service you offer.  If nobody wants what you’re offering, you’re free to change directions and try something else.

There’s the risk of failure to be sure, but the potential rewards of even moderate success are almost unheard of in massive portions of the rest of the world.  And people from all over the world still yearn and dream to  come to America to have this  freedom.  The freedom to be brave.  The freedom to succeed.  Even the freedom to fail.

Quit scaring people  into staying home while lauding the virtues of those who don’t.  Yes, they’re essential all right.  But in employing those terms you’ve just decimated the vast majority of your population with the reality they aren’t essential.  What they have to offer isn’t as good as or necessary as what doctors and nurses and policemen offer.

But this isn’t true.

Those people  are able to offer what they offer because other people offer things those people need.  Bookstores to order books to either grow in their knowledge and skill or relax and unwind and escape from the stressfulness of their career.  People who can cook great meals because doctors don’t have time to.   People who create spaces for people to relax and be together in like restaurants and coffee shops.   In myriad ways people contribute to the greater good, and to draw a  line with a magic marker that says these people are essential (whether they want to be or not) and the rest of you aren’t is just another way of instilling fear.  Destroying self-worth.  Turning people fearful.

Life is full of risks.  Full of dangers.  We have nowhere near the level of control we’d like to have, or even think we have and this is true of individuals as well as governments.  A great deal of the fear at play in our culture right now is driven by coming face-to-face with mortality, with the idea that we can die at any time and not necessarily be able to stop it.  We are mortal and frail.

That recognition leads to one of two courses.  One is fear.  Hiding and cowering and trying to protect ourselves from anything and anyone that could be dangerous.  Only to discover  that everything and everyone – even ourselves – can be dangerous, can’t be had or enjoyed without risk of harm physically or emotionally or psychologically.  Safety is an illusion because keeping yourself safe from one set of things opens you up to risk from another set of things.

The other course is to develop bravery.  Courage.  A willingness to go out and do what needs to be done, or to do what you’re able to do.  Knowing you might fail, but knowing you might also succeed.  Being rewarded for your willingness to take risks or innovate rather than simply do what other people tell you to do.

Fear is natural.  But fear can either be cultivated and nurtured or it can be weakened and sapped.  More than any previous challenges in or to our nation, this is the crossroads we stand at.  Do we remain fearful, waiting for others who are brave and strong to rescue us?  Or do we pick up our shovels or rakes or cable crimpers or bar  code scanners or measuring cups and set about rescuing ourselves and, in the process, rescuing one another as well?  Do we not only tell stories about knights facing great dangers, but encourage one another to put on their armor and mount their steeds and head out onto the field of battle for themselves?

Life isn’t fair, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t safe.  What equality, what comfort, and what protection we’ve been able to create is only because of generations of men and women just like us doing what needed to be done and doing it well.  Demonstrating not just bravery and courage but also how essential they are.  Why should we wait for someone else to tell us we’re needed or not needed?  Isn’t that how great swaths of governments around the world and throughout history have operated?  Telling people what they had to do or how they had to do it instead of letting the people figure it out for themselves?  Isn’t that why people want to come here, become Americans?  So they can make those decisions for themselves?  Be free to work hard and reap the benefits of that hard work?  Fail but learn from that failure and grow stronger and wiser for their next effort?

This is the home of the brave, according to our national anthem.  It’s time we remember that.  Claim it.  And start acting like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which Way Forward?

May 11, 2020

Now two months into the COVID-19 lockdown, more and more people are beginning  to recognize we can’t continue like this forever.   You can see it in lots of ways.  There’s more traffic now than there was a month ago.  Yes, people are wearing masks and social distancing and giving each other the stink eye if they get too close, but people are out more and more.  There are also more official determinations that we have sheltered in place long enough.  Articles like this one show a growing determination that things need to begin shifting back to normal.

On a personal level, I agree it’s time to start reopening things.  I have little doubt that even when things open back up more fully, people are still going to keep their distance.  Perhaps those plexiglass shields in front of cash registers will remain for weeks or months or maybe they’ll never come down.  It’s hard to gauge the psychological impact of two solid months of fear.

I totally empathize both with small business owners as well as employees who understand keenly the need to get back to work or risk losing their businesses, homes, and who knows what else.  Very simple economic realities dictate whether or not businesses can remain shuttered indefinitely and people can cling to  unemployment perpetually.  The answer is pretty clearly no.  The question is how to deal with this reality.  Do we open things back up and let  people go to work again with reasonable precautions, or do we rely on the government to continue spending our nation into a hole to demonstrate how the State is our salvation?

But my issue is the church.  This is my vocation, my profession.  How do congregations determine what to do?  When to do it?  How to do it?  It’s a difficulty congregations and pastors and church leadership has been dealing with for two months now, and there is a range of responses.

I know some pastors who have continued to lead public worship on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes more  or less as they always have.  Sometimes in multiple, smaller services.  Some have opted for virtual church, streaming their services and providing online or telephone consecration of elements for Holy Communion in peoples’ homes.  Others offer drive-by Communion.  Some offer parking lot worship where people gather in their vehicles, and either bring their own bread and wine for Holy Communion or are provided individually packaged elements when they arrive.  They tune in on their cell phones or car radios to have church together.  Some, like me, provide devotional resources and teaching and sermon materials to their parishioners through e-mail or YouTube.

It’s a mixed bag.  Hard decisions.

I want to reopen church for worship.  But why do I want  to?  That’s the question I’ve grappled with for weeks.

Although I empathize with what the pastor in the opening article is doing, I don’t want to do that.  I won’t hold a press conference.  I won’t issue a press release.  I won’t agree to a television or radio interview.  I’m not making announcements to the general public, because this is not about the general public.  This is about my congregants.  Or at least it ought to be.  Publicity shouldn’t be my motivation.

Politics shouldn’t be our motivation either.  Church is inherently an anti-political institution.  Or perhaps an trans-political or ultra-political institution.  Christian churches – whether sprawling mega-churches or tiny little places – are places where the powers of this world are described for what they are.  Transient.  Temporary.  Blessings from God for the time being at best, the worst of sinful devils for the time being at worst.  Usually somewhere in between.  They are to be respected insofar as they keep the peace, but they are not to be looked to as saviors.  Psalm 146 offers a fair assessment of the powers and institutions of this world.

So I don’t feel it’s the work of the Church to pit itself for or against a particular political party or system or set of decrees.  As an American citizen I may seek to do that and rightfully so, if unfortunately.  But as a pastor and as a congregation, I am ultimately not concerned with these things.  My concern is the Gospel and helping my parishioners remain focused on the Gospel here and now, in this world, regardless of what political party is in power or what economic system is in place.  To help them see how their identity in Christ transcends and also transforms their lives as citizens of a particular geo-political entity.

And I don’t  want fear to drive a decision.  Either the fear of losing religious liberties or the fear of possible infection and sickness and death.  As a Christian my life is not to be characterized by fear, and as the Church we are to live out this to the best of our ability.  Whether the State takes away religious liberties or gives them is ultimately irrelevant as their decrees are not what for the basis of my identity in Christ or how that identity is lived out.  Ample examples throughout history and around the world remind us that Christians don’t disappear just because religious rights are curtailed or eliminated.  We might have to change how we do things, but the faith goes on, and that faith is inherently communal and will find ways to be so.

And fear of sickness and contagion should not keep the Church from being together.  Not  if there are precautions that can be taken and common sense to be implemented.  The Church cannot keep people safe or guarantee their lives any more than the State can.  Unlike the State, the Church can and should equip people to live their lives in the joy and freedom of Christ and not in fear of sickness or death, even as we employ our God-given minds to make choices that are reasonable and prudent.  It is not in my power as a pastor to ensure  that none of my  members get the Coronavirus.  At most, I can and should take reasonable measures to ensure that if and when they gather, we are minimizing that risk.

So if my congregation is to begin meeting again, I want to be as clear as possible in my own mind that this is not a political move.  It is not a move motivated by fears either political or financial or perhaps even theological.  It is not motivated by a desire for personal or congregational attention or notoriety.

Rather, it is only and always about Christ,  and when we make a decision to start meeting again it is because life in Christ is communal.  The talk of family and brothers and sisters and a heavenly Father is not simply metaphorical – it’s real and true even if we may not always experience it as such because of sin.  Church is essential, though it might be true Church is not essential economically or to the State (although I’d argue that the Church actually is essential).  When we begin meeting again it will  be to embrace our identities in Christ once again.  To celebrate his gifts of life and health that are only that, gifts.  Gifts we did not bring into existence on our own and which ultimately remain in his sovereign hands regardless of what measures we do or don’t take to ensure or longevity.

So I pray for all those pastors who wrestle with this issue, an issue that is not nearly as neatly and simply defined by government mandate as the State – or the Church – might be inclined to believe.  And I pray for the people of God around the world who must navigate this together as well, and pray they can be in open discussion and prayer with their religious leaders to try and find the best path forward for them, in their context.