Archive for the ‘Vocation’ Category

The Apostles’ Creed

June 28, 2021

As I continue the transition from parish ministry towards eventual deployment as a theological educator overseas, my first opportunity to interact cross-culturally will come in August. I’ve been invited to lead a winkel consisting of a dozen or more Taiwanese pastors and church workers. A winkel is a Peruvian word that translates roughly to “fish slapper”.

That’s not entirely true. It’s actual an old German word with a variety of meanings depending on syntax, but in this usage it means corner or spot and is the traditional word in Lutheran circles for a gathering of pastors. These meetings usually include prayer, study, theological conversation, worship, the Sacraments, and general fellowship. I’ve been blessed to have been a part of the same winkel group over my nearly 15 years in ministry, and it was a good experience. Ideally it should be a place to be encouraged and strengthened by people who all are called to the ministry in similar capacities.

So I’ve been invited to share the teaching portion of a cross-cultural winkel. I’ll be doing it long distance as I’m still in the US. The topic I’ve chosen is the Apostles’ Creed, and more specifically, the First Article of the Creed. As such, I’ve been doing some reading and research on the Creed, and I’ll be sharing book reviews shortly.

But first and foremost, I’m reminded in this study of the importance of what you say about the Bible. The Apostles’ Creed has been in use for probably 1600 years at the very least, and the core tenets it summarizes are well-attested to going back to apostolic times. But the Creed is only as helpful as your view of the Bible. A low view of the Bible – meaning you don’t accept it (or at least all of it) as the inspired Word of God maintained in integrity through history and directly relevant and definitive for Christian belief and practice today – will mean you probably don’t think much of the Creed, since the Creed is based entirely on Scripture. If you have a high view of Scripture, seeing it as the reliable, inspired Word of God and normative for Christian belief and practice, then what the Creed says won’t be very surprising, although there is still plenty to think about!

So before you start studying the Creed, come to some conclusions about how you think about and interact with the Bible.

A Fine How-Do-You-Do

June 9, 2021

Remember all those banners and window signs and chalk drawings over the past year thanking our first responders and medical personnel for their service during the pandemic? Remember all those commercials about how these men and women in medical scrubs are heroes fighting to save lives?

Yeah, forget all of that because now we have a vaccine and if you don’t want to take it we’re going to fire you. That’s what nearly 200 health care employees in a Texas hospital system have been told – as they’ve been placed on a two-week suspension. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked to save lives, how you risked your own health or the health of your loved ones. All of that was just expected of you. But now we are going to dictate to you how you’re going to deal with your own health.

And if you disagree with us we’re going to smear you as people who don’t care about their patients.

The same people who have been saving lives for over a year.

Shouldn’t we be outraged by the brazen, callous language of a hospital system about its own employees? Shouldn’t we be outraged that these men and women who have been lauded as heroes for laboring to save lives at their own personal risk when there wasn’t a vaccine are now being smeared as selfish and uncaring just because there is a vaccine? A vaccine, mind you, with no long-term studies and that is more than likely – based on available current data – going to require additional boosters. And a vaccine that is being pushed and shoved despite the fact COVID case rates in the US (and around the world) have dropped dramatically.

I pray there are law suits brought quickly to stop this dangerous precedent. Not that it’s going to save these people from losing their jobs, most likely. But perhaps it will ensure that heroes are spared this unnecessary and outrageous treatment.

Mandatory Vaccinations

June 3, 2021

Interesting but pretty low-key coverage last week of an announcement from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that employers can mandate employees to get COVID vaccinations. Most news reports I read emphasized how employers could incentivize employees to get the vaccine, but the far more concerning aspect to me is that they can mandate the vaccine. No vaccine? No continued employment. How does that not qualify as “coercive”, something employers are supposed to avoid in their incentive programs? About the only part of the reports that make sense is that there will be a lot of lawsuits as employers and employees try to navigate whatever the EEOC is trying to accomplish but prefers to do so through the private sector rather than Federal decree.

What is the rationale for allowing employers this broad degree of control over the personal health choices of their employees? Will this be used in conjunction with future possible COVID-related shutdowns, so that companies that require their employees to be vaccinated will be allowed to continue operations while other similar companies with no such policy will be shut down if non-essential?

If an employer can mandate COVID vaccinations, what else can they mandate in the realm of personal choice regarding health care? Can they mandate flu vaccines? Under what conditions? The EEOC’s own website acknowledges that public health guidelines are subject to fluctuation, so what about companies that mandate the COVID vaccine (or any other vaccine) only to have public health guidelines alter or reverse? You can’t undo an injection.

Section K is the relevant section of the EEOC’s most recent COVID-related guidelines, and section K.1 stipulates that employers may require all employees to obtain vaccination as a condition for physically returning to a workplace. What this means is that in terms of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) there is no grounds as interpreted by the EEOC for claiming some sort of discrimination towards protected classes. It isn’t discriminatory of a company to mandate all employees be vaccinated. But that’s a rather narrow criteria for determining whether a company should be allowed to make such a requirement in the first place. All the EEOC is really focused on is whether such a mandate would be unfair to protected groups, and it’s pretty obvious that it wouldn’t be if it’s being applied evenly to all employees (instead of targeting certain groups) and accommodations are made for those who may have legally protected exceptions from such a mandate.

But shouldn’t all Americans be legally protected from being forced to get a vaccination (or any other specific health procedure) to keep their job? It might be easy to say from the outside that if you don’t like that particular policy, quit and go work someplace else. But anyone actually working (or who ever has actually worked for someone other than the government) understands that it’s hardly that simple. And if all employers decide to require such a vaccination, how does that impact personal liberties?

These are all questions unique to America. Many Americans don’t seem to understand this. It makes life as an American in America more complicated. But those complications are deemed warranted in order to protect something valuable – personal liberty. As we’ve learned after 9/11 and today in an age where fear is increasingly being promoted and used to drive people towards approving certain policies, personal liberty is difficult to obtain, easy to cede, and effectively impossible to take back once ceded. So these questions and issues are important to think through carefully, and to ensure that what is required of people either by the private sector or the government is as narrow and limited and carefully defined as possible. Precedents are being set in a time of panic, and once that panic is over the precedents will remain and will be used as justification for further erosions of personal liberty in the name of safety or convenience or whatever else seems effective.

GetReligion

May 22, 2021

That’s not intended to be proselytizing (though of course I would be the first to advocate not simply for religion but Christianity). Rather, it’s the name of a great web site dedicated to analyzing media reports on various subjects and topics to point out the “ghosts” in mainstream media – places where religion could have been brought into the report but wasn’t, presumably because liberal media has no interest in talking about religion, or when reporters simply appear to be ignorant about the religious dimensions of a story.

I’ve been following this site for over a decade and greatly appreciate their examination of the media. In case you’ve forgotten, give them a check out!

When Worlds Collide

May 11, 2021

Recently my wife and I were back in St. Louis for a series of orientations preparing us to deploy overseas as church workers in Southeast Asia. St. Louis is where I graduated from seminary. It’s also where two other couples from our small campus ministry in Arizona decided to relocate with us to experiment with intentional Christian community.

Communes.

It was an amazing experience that spanned three years and was filled with lessons, laughter, and pain. We learned a great deal about ourselves, about other people, about living in close proximity to others, and about what we would or wouldn’t do again in creating another communal living situation. Friends of ours a couple of decades further along in life wryly observed when we told them what we were doing that they had tried the same thing back in the 60’s, and they at least had drugs to help the process along!

But while we were back in March, we met up with one of the two couples who embarked on that adventure with us. They decided to make St. Louis their home. Dear friends that are always a joy to see again, and a friendship that was thankfully not destroyed in some of the difficulties of living with each other.

As we enjoyed dinner with them Saturday night, they mentioned how they had just been part of a podcast on communal living. A text exchange later and the woman who organized the podcast was scheduled to come out again the next day so we could be included in the podcast.

If you’re interested, you can listen to the podcast here. It’s a combination of the initial podcast that we weren’t a part of, as well as some components of our recording edited in. And it’s an interesting spectrum of perceptions and experiences. Who would have guessed that nearly 15 years later we’d be interviewed about our crazy idea and experience?! I take issue with the characterization of Christian community as a hippie venture, despite the fact that some Christians who have attempted communal living have been hippies, and in America hippies are the only other group who experimented much with it (and for very different reasons!). But that’s a small issue I wish more Christians were able and willing to see past.

Making Way

April 14, 2021

….and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. – 1 Kings 19:16

Preach the Gospel. Die. Be forgotten. ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This was part of the Old Testament reading this morning in chapel. Not the Zinzendorf bit, of course. That would be highly unusual in our culture of success and leadership, a culture that even the Church assumes in what it says and what it chooses not to say. Yet the Word of God continues to creep in when we aren’t vigilant and expose our foibles and send our idols tottering.

Elijah the last of the faithful prophets, on the run from a murderous queen after a victory that even by our social media influencer standards would be impressive, putting to death 450 false prophets of Baal after God shows his reality and presence in power and authority. Elijah despairing that he has been a failure. That he’s no better than the ones who came before him, who were also unable to turn the hearts of the people back to God, or curb the ambitions and apathy of the kings of God’s people. Hiding in a cave.

What would God say to this guy, this faithful man who has done much and suffered much and who, in his own words, has been very jealous for the Lord? What sort of half-time pep talk might we look for? A rousing, inspiring speech to reinstill Elijah with vigor and hope and purpose? To put him back on the path to personal fulfillment and professional success? How might God show Elijah his despair is out of place and what spiritual secrets to job satisfaction might the Lord of hosts reveal?

…you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It’s easy to pass over those words. Easy to focus on the first part of God’s response, which is for Elijah to anoint two new kings who are going to kick ass and probably not even bother to chew bubble gum. Promises of swords and judgment. Probably not overly inspiring to Elijah, though. Kings come and go. Elijah’s fathers were proof of that. And those final words probably occupied Elijah’s full attention. You need to anoint your successor. Your time is coming to an end.

I’ll admit I’ve never been one for reveling in youthful exuberance. Being a student both of history and an enrollee in the school of hard knocks, I’ve never been prone to Stuart Smalley-style encouragements (go ahead and look up Stuart Smalley on YouTube if you like, but I’m sure it would be considered quite inappropriate these days), and I’m a anachronistic hold-out against the modern acquiescence to ubiquitous therapy. Zinzendorf resonates with me and getting older has only confirmed his maxim.

And perhaps that maxim is useful to us as well in a culture hell-bent on exhorting and encouraging and affirming generations of people to goals they can’t possibly accomplish in carefully curated social media magnifying glass they can’t possibly compete with or sustain.

Odds are you aren’t going to change the world. Odds are you won’t reach the top of your profession. Odds are you won’t complete everything you set out to do. This is not a failure on your part. After all, who among us is really much better than our fathers before us? And what metric are we going to grab to determine that?

This isn’t a call to apathy or listlessness or despair. It’s a call to realism. A call to quit looking in the mirror, or more accurately to quit comparing the mirror to the fitness model or the wildly successful day-trader or the latest celebrity phenom. It’s a call to value and appreciate what you do accomplish today, what you do contribute, and more fundamentally, simply that you are. The real metric of self-esteem isn’t what we do at all, it’s simply that we’re here at all. We exist. We are created. And inextricably linked to this reality of created, unique existence is the reality of redemption not in what we accomplish but what our Creator accomplishes on our behalf through his Son, Jesus.

At that point we can deal with our finitude. We can deal with ordinariness, averageness. We can deal with moments of failure as well as moments of success. We can come to grips with the fact that someone is going to come after us and pick up where we left off and maybe finish some of those things we weren’t able to, and that in one way or another, we’ve done that for someone ahead of us.

Changes

April 10, 2021

In a couple of hours I will officially change jobs. Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – was my last official day with the parish I’ve been pastoring for nearly eleven years. And this morning I will be installed into a position I accepted nearly two months ago, have nearly completed initial orientation and training for, but still isn’t official until I’ve been installed.

I’m staring at piles of boxes in my office as I write. I’m 80% done with packing things up, waiting now to figure out where we’ll be living for the next few months until my family and I are able to deploy to the field I’ll be serving. We’re leaving the United States and I’m leaving traditional parish ministry, both for the indefinite future. I’ve accepted a position as a regional theological educator for my denomination in Southeast Asia, working as a support and resource to partner church organizations in that part of the world. I bring to the task a curious mixture of parish pastor experience as well as experience as a collegiate educator and corporate trainer. It’s an unusual mixture, accumulated in reverse order from many of my colleagues who pastor first and then go on to teach.

Change is hard for people and I’m no exception, though my tolerance for it is higher than some. Apparently that’s a valuable trait in overseas work, where daily routines can be fluid, to say the least. I leave behind the joys of preaching and teaching in a predictable cycle for the uncertainties of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and participating in the work of the Church in a different capacity. While there’s the exoticness of relocating to the other side of the world, there’s also sorrow at leaving literally one of the most perfect climates on earth for a much hotter and more humid climate. I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in my life that I can learn enough of a language (four of them, at present) to achieve short-term academic objectives, but now I have to become fluent in a fifth language. And not just ordinary fluent, but theologically fluent.

It’s exciting. Slightly terrifying at times. Oddly comfortable most of the time. I’m grateful I don’t have to do it alone while also realizing my family will need to negotiate most of these same challenges. Together we’re confident we can do it. We do believe God the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, opening doors and facilitating the transition. We also realize that’s no guarantee of success (at least in worldly terms). Finding that balance between humility and excitement is a day-by-day process.

I’ll be continuing to blog, though the topics may take on a decidedly more international slant. The same issues of culture and faith and life that I began writing here with fifteen years ago continue to be a source of continued fascination. And I’ll try to keep it mixed up a little bit with less weighty observations. Perhaps I’ll have time to resume work on some of the longer-term projects I’ve launched here, such as completing my study of the Bible’s treatment of alcohol, and finally finishing my analysis of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I plan to keep up with the Rambling postings each Sunday, as hopefully I’ll continue to have preaching opportunities, even if those become sparser as time goes on.

I hope all of you will keep in touch here as well. Your comments and questions have been the best part of blogging, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to dialog.

Guess I should go finish packing the last two boxes of my theological library. It will be fascinating to see where those boxes get unpacked!

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Fear and Loathing in the Confessional

March 30, 2021

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

The work of the Church is declaring the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to those wracked with guilt and desirous of change. Often this gets abbreviated to just telling people about Jesus, but the crucial matter is what you tell them. If you tell them only that Jesus loves them, and never tell them of their sin and need for forgiveness, you haven’t shared the full story. If you only introduce them to the historical figure of Jesus without ever telling them why this historical figure matters to their lives unlike any other historical figure, you haven’t shared the full story. For someone who can see their sinfulness, their need for sin and forgiveness, the most beautiful part of the story is that this is exactly why Jesus is relevant to them. This is what Jesus brings them that nobody else can. And the Church is to be the place marked by both the proclamation of this reality and the actual forgiving of sins.

So when the Church (or a particular parish or priest) refuses to offer forgiveness to those desiring it, there’s a serious problem. An issue in one Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey recently due to the pandemic. Due to complications arising from properly disinfecting surfaces in the confessional – the small cabinet traditionally used in Roman Catholic churches to screen the penitent from the priest and allow them to confess their sins and receive absolution – a priest refused to allow un-vaccinated people to come to Confession, one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church.

People are understandably somewhat frightened and weary of COVID. But refusing to absolve repentant sinners is a gross failure of an ordained priest, and one rightly corrected by ecclesiastical supervisors.

The irony here is that the prohibition against any un-vaccinated person coming to Confession was ostensibly for their own “protection”. However to not receive forgiveness is a far greater danger to a person’s well-being than COVID, with potentially eternal ramifications!

Now, I’m not Roman Catholic and I do not necessarily agree with their traditional practice of Confession, or their understanding of the need and role for penance in receiving forgiveness. But if you’re going to tell people their forgiveness is dependent on Confession, and forgiveness is the means of eternal life, and then you refuse to hear their confessions, there’s a dangerous problem at play here!

Thankfully the situation was rectified quickly.

A COVID Year

March 17, 2021

One year ago I was driving out of Las Vegas. My buddy had just placed third in the world in his division after a multi-day battle. COVID panic was setting in and already the shelves in Las Vegas grocery stores were bare of many common toiletries, basic medical items, and of course toilet paper and paper towels. I bought the last multi-pack of tissue boxes they had. My wife was texting me from home telling me to keep my eyes open as the supplies were all gone there.

We loaded up in my SUV for the drive home. Not just my buddy and I who had driven out together but another teammate hitching a ride back, as well as our billiards league president and his wife, who didn’t want to risk another night in Vegas and maybe having their flight canceled the next day.

As we left the city limits at dusk there was a storm in the distance to the east over the mountains, with occasional flashes of lightning. A beautiful, complete double-rainbow amazed us all from the same direction. And the radio station dedicated to people on the highway towards and from Las Vegas had their classic rock lineup interrupted so the Governor of Nevada could announce Las Vegas was shutting down. Hotels and casinos would cease all operations in just a few short hours. Everything was to shut down by his order. COVID was upon us and we needed to bend the curve of new cases to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

The drive home was pretty quiet. Inside the car we were all disappointed the world tournament was cancelled and none of us got to play in our team events. I suspect everyone was slightly in shock – Las Vegas could just shut down? Just like that? Outside the roads were quiet as well. We passed by deserted truck stops and hotels with empty parking lots.

A year later. My wife and I sit in a pub in St. Louis. Masks everywhere, even though regulations in the City have relaxed in the past week or so. Restaurants can seat people indoors if they maintain social distancing and limit the number of customers they allow in. Back home our county has dropped out of the most severe tier of COVID urgency. Things appear to be easing back towards normality but the news feed is full of warnings of a third wave of COVID likely as restrictions ease and a population exhausted by a year of isolation champs at the bit to get back out and be with each other again. Overseas Europe and Asia are reporting spikes in COVID numbers and renewed and more vigorous restrictions.

None of us thought we would be here a year ago. We hoped and prayed things would go back to normal in a few weeks. They haven’t. And if things keep on at the current rate, normality is a long way off. A new level of fear and paranoia grips people. The airports we flew in and out of barked at everyone to keep their masks on and stay six feet away from each other, but we were seated shoulder to shoulder on the airplanes (masked, of course). Now that the election is history all the news stations seem able to talk about is COVID. News reports are beginning to admit what was obvious all along but nobody wanted to say – the vaccines are an uncertain bulwark against the virus, and even if they function as well as intended, people are going to need to get used to annual booster shots, similar to flu shots. Frankly we’ll be lucky if we only need one booster a year. I’m guessing we’ll be told to get at least two.

The world has changed. Not for the better. You don’t hear much of the ridiculous blather that was pushed early on in COVID, about how we’re all in this together and we’re working together for the good of the people. We weren’t. We aren’t. We’re tired and exhausted. Some people are terrified still and others are throwing all caution to the wind. The toll this all has and continues to take will only unfold fully over the next decade of more, ensuring multiple generations of social scientists of all stripes have plenty to dissect and analyze and hypothesize about. And the list of core memory moments in my lifetime increases from Reagan being shot and the Challenger blowing up and 9/11 to include COVID and a year-plus of trying to be a source of assurance in the midst of chaos, of calling people back to the Word of God that transcends all things, and has itself sustained many, many generations through far worse disasters and atrocities than this.

We are still here. And those with the Word know where we’re headed. May we all have the strength and grace and peace of God to know He’ll bring us there in his timing and his way.