Friday, February 16, 2018

Of Sacraments and flu shots and whether Church compassion is a thing . . .

The Church's proper work is Word and Sacrament.  That is the work that she is given to do.  That is the work that she alone can do.  And if she does not do it, nobody else can.  It's the stuff of eternity.  What the old ones called "the medicine of immortality." 

This work of the church is so central to her very identity that the "church" who doesn't do them cannot rightly be called "church" at all.  They may be a spiritually-minded group of compassionate people.  They may be social activists intending to change the world.  They can be anything but the Church, because the work of the Church is Word and Sacrament. 

But does that mean the Church does no other work?

In America at the moment, there is a flu epidemic.  Many are dying, many, many more are sick from an illness that could have been avoided with a simple vaccine.

Except that, this year, the vaccine doesn't quite work the way it should.  It's not perfectly effective at blocking the particular strains of the flu that are going around.  And yet, doctors are still urging people to be vaccinated.  Why?  Because an imperfect solution is still better than no solution.  Even getting an imperfect vaccination against the flu improves the prospect of the flu season's severity being lessened. 

There will never be any shortage of crisis in the world.  Sin and brokenness will continue to destroy lives and damage relationships.  No matter what is done to help, it will always be an imperfect solution.  Temporary.  Fleeting. 

And yet the Church will see, and the Church will act.  It will act because she has the compassion of her Lord.  The compassion that Christ felt over death and destruction, the compassion that moved Him to actions of healing, of restoration, of equity--that is the compassion the Church feels, because she has His heart.  She acts in this world, knowing that her aid is temporary, fleeting, imperfect . . . but she acts because a temporary solution is better than no solution.  A loving hand in the moment of need may not fix the whole of one's life, but it darn sure helps in that moment.

But because the Church has Christ's heart, she is always first and foremost about the things that matter not for this life, but for eternity.  Think of Jesus Christ: every person He healed ultimately got sick again.  Every act of restoration would be eventually overturned by the brokenness of the world.  Even those He raised from the dead would ultimately one day again die.  But every miracle, every healing, every teaching of Christ had one thing in common:  they were fulfilled in His cross.

The cross alone gives complete healing.  The cross alone gives complete restoration.  The cross alone is the ultimate, lasting, and perfect solution.

And nothing that is done on this earth has any lasting value unless we also have the cross.

So the church engages the world. She offers physical comfort.  She corrects injustice.  She feeds the hungry.  Befriends the lonely.  Silently holds the hand of those who mourn.  Sits with the afflicted. 

But as she does so, she knows that these are temporary solutions.  Band-aids.  And so she always and ever does what she alone is given to do.  She always and ever treasures her sole and unique possession. 

She treasures the cross.  She clings to the gospel.  And through her, God gives the cross of Christ through Word and Sacrament.  In those--and those alone--we have the complete, perfect, and eternal healing that God would give us. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Confessions of a pastor: Why can't I be more like them?

Confession:  As a pastor, I get jealous of other pastors.  I envy them.

There.  I said it.  And I'm glad I did.

It's not that I envy pastors that preside over large churches.  Good heavens, no . . . drooling longingly over church attendance statistics is SO yesterday.  And it's not that I envy pastors who preside over really active churches that have dozens of programs or ministries.  No, both of those aren't "pastor envy," they're "church envy."  And frankly, church envy isn't so much a problem for me.  When I see churches that are really doing solid work, I'm glad for them.  I praise God for them.  And while I'll investigate what they're doing and why, I don't necessarily feel any need to emulate them.

No, it's not churches I envy . . . it's pastors.  Not their ministries, not their lives.  But their gifts.  I see how God has gifted them, and I envy that. 

I talk with pastors who are always out and about in the community, and I envy their easy way of striking up conversations, their networking skills.  I talk with pastors who have decades more experience than I do, and I envy their wisdom and patience.  I talk with hard-charging, no-nonsense pastors who just think it, do it, and take no prisoners, and I envy their ability to get things done without worrying about fallout.  I talk with learned pastors and envy the depth of knowledge they have.  I talk with loving pastors and envy their limitless compassion. 

Every pastor I meet has a special giftedness that I always seem to lack.  And for every pastor I meet, I wonder, "Why can't I be a bit more like that?"

I'm keenly aware of my shortcomings--okay, let's be honest, my failures--as a pastor.  I'm aware of them because I keep them all locked in a tight little box and shove that box into a dark corner of my mind so that I muffle their howling accusations.  It works, mostly.  Until I meet another gifted pastor, and a ghostly echo from that box supernaturally drifts to my mental ear, "See?  THIS is what you lack!  THIS is what keeps you from being the best pastor you can be!"

Insecurities.  Fears.  Failures.  It's a constant game of comparison that, if I allowed it, would cripple me with indecision, a scattered ineffectiveness from trying to be everyone else.  Either that, or I'd have to deliberately blind myself to my own shortcomings by constantly criticizing everyone else's, unfairly weighing their weaknesses against my strengths simply so that I could feel superior.

But perhaps there's a better way.

Perhaps I could learn to better trust in God.  Perhaps I could learn to better trust in grace.

Who has carried me throughout my life, using my experiences to shape and mold my personality?  God has, certainly.  And who has gifted me with a blend of gifts; some strengths that I can intuitively rely upon, some weaknesses that I must watch over?  Again, the answer is  God.

And who has placed me here, in this place, at this time, knowing full well my strengths and my weaknesses, and said, "Be My voice and My hands here, now, to these people"? 

God has.

And who is the voice that sows discontent, that accuses, that causes fret and worry and doubt?  (Hint: It's not God.  Not this time.  Oh, no.)

But there is one who speaks louder and more true than that smaller, wicked, lying voice.  This One is the one who, when He sees my shortcomings become failures--when He sees me being inattentive to my weaknesses, when He sees me trying to rely upon my strengths, when He sees me envy others for their gifts instead of praising Him for theirs as well as my own--this is the one that speaks over me and says, "I know full well your failures, for I have made you.  And I fully forgive your sins, for Christ has saved you." 

The grace of Jesus Christ fashions.

The grace of Jesus Christ forgives.

And the grace of Jesus Christ calls.

There's no doubt that we must pay attention to who we are and what we're here to do.  Strengths are great to have, but weaknesses can't be ignored without them growing into sin.  But envying the gifts God has given to others is nothing other than a failure to trust His gracious wisdom in making you who--and placing you where--you are.

Perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . we can learn instead to trust Him to use us where we are.  To trust Him to use us for who we are.  And to trust Him to forgive us for all that we are not.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A call to inaction

The Church of Now, if it is anything, is a place of action.  It is a force that propels ever forward.  It is a rousing call to action, and her members hear that call and obey.

How often do we hear the increasingly strident calls of "Now!"?  Change must happen NOW.  Justice must be given NOW.  The church needs to grow NOW.  Our people need to become missional NOW.  "Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel NOW?"




Now.  Before it is too late, act.  NOW.

And yet, what happens when things do not or can not happen now?  What happens when the Church of Now is called to be the Church of Wait?  "The worldly church . . . wants to see something.  Now it wants us to wait no longer.  It wants to go to work by itself, act by itself, do by itself what God and the prophet are not doing.  What is the use of the priest, what is the use of the church, if they are only left to wait?  No, our church ought to have something.  We want to see something in our church.  We do not want to wait."--Dieterich Bonhoeffer

The Church of Now cannot abide inaction.  It is disquieting.  It is unsettling.  Now requires action.  Now requires busy-ness.  Now requires a swarming beehive of activity.  It demands that actions be taken, that words be spoken.

But faith, more often than not, hears the "Wait." 

There are times when our eyes see and our hearts cry, but still the Lord says "Wait."  There are times when we long for change to come, for the dawn to break anew, for physical health or for spiritual healing to be finally given, and still the Lord says "Wait."

"Wait.  Be still.  I am God.  I am your God.  I am your good God.  And I ask you . . . wait."

Wait.  Listen.  Believe.  Trust


Waiting is not truly inaction, of course.  Waiting is fully active: full of a trusting hope, a longing faith, a praying confidence.  Waiting faith knows that the Holy Spirit blows when and where He wills, and that His word does not return to Him void.  Waiting faith knows that all things work for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.  Waiting faith knows that human strength can force, manipulate, and coerce "good" behavior, but that only the Lord can change the heart.

And waiting faith knows that, even when we become so anxious that we cannot help but act, jumping ahead of the Lord and summoning action by the very force of our own will . . . that even then God's plans are not thwarted, that His Word still remains secure, and that His promise of grace and forgiveness in Christ still stands, and that His Holy Spirit will manage to carry the church triumphantly down through the ages.  And, in the end, despite our follies, our childish wanting of all things NOW, even the gates of Hell will not be able to overcome His holy Church, and He will give us the fullness of His good gifts.  In His way.  In His time.

If we will but wait. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Christianity, "Christianity" and Russel Brand

Relevant Magazine--a popular and influential shaper of Christianity and the church--recently published an article praising actor Russel Brand's sobriety and the spirituality he discovered through addiction.  The article is very much worthy of reading and reflection, as it is a strong indicator of what the Western Church--on the whole--values and believes about religion, spirituality, and Jesus Christ.  Link is below.

The Second Coming of Russell Brand Fifteen years after embracing sobriety, he’s now talking about how culture can stop its destructive patterns: by following Jesus.

To start with, I'd like to say that I'm incredibly glad Brand has gotten clean. No human being should have to live through the hell of addiction. It is truly a demonic thing.  And frankly, whatever method a person can use to get out of addiction is a good thing.
Furthermore, Brand--and the article--are spot-on in their assessment of our Western materialism-addicted culture. In spite of the increasing number of Americans that claim to be "spiritual but not religious," the sheer amount of money spent during the Christmas season confirms that, on the whole, Americans still really, really, REALLY like to have stuff.

But where Brand--and the article--go awry is in their understanding of what "Christianity" is. There are themes that Brand picks up on that are good (such as forgiveness, etc), but on the whole his "Christianity" is little more than a vague and Christ-less spirituality that is expressed through some common Christian terms and practices.  

And what is evidenced in the article indicates that what is missing is crucial. Brand looks upon the "Christianity" of a 12-step program--and thus at God--as a means to an end. Namely, Brand looks to the 12-step God as the means by which he can get and stay clean.  But that means what is missing is the cross.  Neither Brand nor the article speaks of the objective reality of forgiveness won through Jesus Christ, nor of the free gift of life and salvation in Him.  Simply put, Jesus Christ is the means to God's plan of salvation for us, not the means to achieve our plans for ourselves.  

Various troubling quotations:

"Instead of focusing on unhealthy patterns centered on self-fulfillment, the message of the Gospel offers an alternative: caring for others and helping those in need."--This is flatly, grossly, unbiblical. The message of the Gospel is free salvation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life in Christ. While there is no doubt whatsoever that we have a Biblical command to care for others, it is not Gospel. Christ does Gospel, we do not.

"And after exploring faith, the teachings of Jesus have led to a revelation: The Kingdom of God can be ushered in on Earth, but only if we free ourselves from all of the trappings that distract us from it—the same ones Jesus Himself warned us about."--Again, this is a gross misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God. It is more in line with Schliermacher than the Scriptures. The Gospels present Jesus Himself and His appearing as the Kingdom. There is no Kingdom without authentic Christ.

The repeated use of the phrase "what this means to me."--I know that even in the Church we tend to speak like this. But truth and meaning are firstly objective; Divine reality--what a thing MEANS, period--and then only secondarily are such things applied to oneself. This is not so much a failing of Brand as it is of the Church that allows and even encourages such an emphasis upon the subjectivity of faith.

But the article--and Relevant itself--seems to uphold Brand's particular spirituality as an authentic and imitation-worthy expression of Christian faith, rather than a lamentable missing of the mark. And that is, perhaps, the most troubling thing to me of all.


What Brand well understands, though, is the inherent death of the world's system. He knows that because he experienced the fullness of it, and so was given the good grace to see it for what it is. In a very real way, he repented--turned away--from that system and is now free from addiction.  To quote the Scriptures, Brand is "not far from the Kingdom." God be praised for that, and God grant that Brand be given an opportunity to come all the way into it.  

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

I'm tired

I'm tired.

I know all the reasons why I'm tired.  Some are from necessity and the result of choices I've made and the way in which I've structured my months and weeks and days.  Some are the result of requirements of my vocation.  Other reasons yet are the result of when I've failed to structure, to plan, to sufficiently control my own calendar.  Either way, though . . . I'm tired.

This is not a complaint, and certainly not a whine.  I've been tired before. Much, much, MUCH more tired than I am right now.  And I'm certain I'll become wearied again in the future.  I don't know of a single person in the world that wouldn't say the same thing.  We're all pretty much in the same boat, regardless of our vocation: Things stack up and we'd like it to just stop for a bit.

And there it is, the thing I'm really thinking about.  I'm not so much concerned about being tired, but whether or not I'll be able to stop, to rest, to breathe.  Being weary isn't bad at all, but the question that comes unbidden to my mind is, "Yes . . . but for how long?"  Honestly, I get a bit selfish and want MY time back, I want MY control.  Sure, I'll put in my hours, but then just leave me alone and let me have my free time, like any normal human being.

Except "normal" people don't get that, either.  They volunteer, they serve, they give.  Their evenings and weekends get eaten up just as much as mine, and probably more so.  They have cares and concerns that weigh on their minds throughout the entire day.  And the daily demands and requirements of vocation do not and cannot stop.  In other words, there is still good to be done.

My prayerbook this morning had me pray this: "Enlighten those who teach and those who learn; renew their strength that they may not grow weary in their work; let their lamps burn bright in the days of darkness; and their hearts be strong in times of disappointment."  And the Scriptures themselves double down on that in Galatians 6:9, "And let us not grow weary of doing good . . ."

But when you're tired, you see such things and become more tired yet.  You think that, somehow, you must summon the courage and will to keep on doing good, because people need you.

Except they don't.

Need YOU?  HA!  They don't need you any more than they need me.  It's true.  When we start to believe that we have to keep on going because people need US . . . well, honestly, then at that point we have a greatly over-inflated sense of our own worth.  We believe that what we need to do is give out a piece of ourselves, as though somehow a piece of me is going to fix whatever issue there is.

They don't need a piece of me.  They need a piece of God.

And yes, it is true that God uses my hands, my feet, my voice to bless others.  It's true that He uses me, and it's true that He uses you.  And yes, it's also true that He uses us to give to others.  And yes, if that's all there was to it, we'd be giving away ourselves all the time, and be dang tired for it.

But it doesn't really work that way.  What we give to others doesn't come from ourselves, but from God.  We only give what we have first been given.  And whether that be peace, wisdom, advice, comfort, money, or anything . . . we don't have it to give unless God first gives it to us.  I don't have to manufacture some solution or strive to come up with an answer, I only need to give them what God has just placed in my hand to give.

When I get weary of giving, of doing, of serving . . . maybe it's because I've begun to believe that those things come from me.  That the gift from my hand is my time, my presence, my money, my, my, my . . .

Perhaps instead I should remember that the gift in my hand was placed there by God only moments before.  Perhaps I should instead remember that it is He who gives.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Hard, bitter, costly . . . and good?

On Fridays my prayerbook leads me to pray for all those who are broken:  the sick, the enslaved, the troubled, the dying, and the like.  And then it closes that section with this prayer:

"Relieve and comfort them all, O God, and make us, too, to rejoice in every experience, however hard, bitter, or costly, by which we are schooled in humble faith and in charity with our fellow men."

I find this last petition to be a prayer I need to have on my lips constantly, as it is the one that is the hardest to learn.

I can easily pray for those who are broken, that God would  heal.  I can easily pray for those who are crushed, that God would lift up.  And I know that through their sufferings God will work good for them and for others.  I know this.  This is true. This is Biblical.

But when it comes to my own sufferings . . . well, I'd prefer to just avoid them.  No matter that I can look back and confirm that the lessons God has taught me through trial and tribulation have benefited others many times over.  No matter that can guarantee that the memory of my own personal suffering has on multiple occasions caused me to pause my busy day and grieve with another in empathy.  No matter that I can assure you that my once proud and haughty faith that sought to dominate others has been refined as through fire into a much more simple, humble faith that seeks to serve others.

All of these things I know.  All of these things I preach.  And yet, when I find myself under duress, I just want it over.  Over and done with.  No lessons learned, thank you very much. And if you please, God, just return me to my comfortable life.  Now, if you don't mind. 

Teach me, O Lord, to trust you in the valley of shadows as readily as I do in the quiet pastures.  Teach me, O Lord, to rejoice in the work you accomplish through suffering as readily as I do in the pleasant gifts you give. 

Teach me, O Lord, to pick up my cross and follow you.

Teach me, O Lord, to be a Christian.

Monday, October 02, 2017

How to be an amazing preacher . . . or not

Consider this a confession: 

Yesterday's sermon did not work well.

There, I said it.  I had an inkling of it going south earlier in the week, but thought that I corrected that in further edits and writing.  I thought it was going to turn out well.

But no.  I can only describe the sermon as a "hot mess" . . . except it wasn't particularly hot.  I cast the net too broadly, I failed to connect points logically, I focused more on the pretext of the sermon than the text itself.

I mean, it happens.  Anyone who does regular public speaking knows that the goal isn't to smash a record-breaking home run every time you step up, but instead to just consistently hit.  If you can nail a solid single every single time, that's actually quite excellent and admirable.  And almost immediately after preaching, I was doing a post-mortem in my mind.  I know why it happened.  I know what to do to prevent it from happening again.  I know all sorts of things and can identify all manner of problems and solutions, and still I kick myself for failing to be a star player.

Except, see, I'm not supposed to be the star.  The best pastors aren't stars, but shadows.  Because when you look at a good pastor--and I mean a really good pastor--your eyes will naturally slide off of him and onto the One who is the true source of light.  No pastor should ever outshine Jesus.  Every pastor should strive to stay in His shadow.

Oh, I like the spotlight, though.  The complement, the thank-you-for-an-excellent-sermon, the eyes upon me as the spiritual leader, the speaker of wisdom, the prophetic voice.  I love that.  But that part of me needs to die, and die repeatedly.

Because, you see, you need Jesus.

And I ain't Him.

And never will be.

So praise God for the one thing that I'm sure I was quite clear on yesterday:  Jesus Christ makes all things new.  Jesus Christ is the one to look for forgiveness.  For grace.  For renewal.  Jesus Christ is the one to believe upon.  Praise God that in the midst of a mess of a sermon, the one thing needful managed to still come forth.  Praise God that Jesus Christ and His Gospel was still, ultimately, the star of the show.

Lord forbid that I'd ever want to outshine Jesus.  Lord grant that I preach a serious clunker every now and then to be reminded of my proper place.