Monday, November 29, 2010

When life gets "Rocky"

2 Corinthians 4:8-9  8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

I know the Rocky films are from a bygone era, but they still tell a compelling story.  One that makes me think.

Think about the two really good ones, Rocky 1 and Rocky 2.  The most endearing feature about Rocky Balboa—the characteristic that garnered him the most praise—was not his fighting ability; that was regarded as being amateur level at best.  No, the thing that amazed commentator, spectator, and opponent was that Rocky kept getting back up.

That’s the part of the story that amazes me, as well.

It had to hurt, lying on the canvas, knowing that the pain would subside if he just stayed down.  It had to hurt, knowing that he wasn’t really winning the fight but just wearing down his opponent’s fists with his face.  And it had to hurt, bleeding and broken and one eye swollen shut, fatigue setting in, muscles unwilling to cooperate, brain nearly incapable of forming a cohesive thought. 

And still he got back up.

Why?  Why not just quit?  Stay down?  Throw in the towel?  Everything would be so much easier if he would just lay on the mat for a measly 10 seconds.  No one would think ill of him.  Everyone would agree that was the sensible thing to do.  Perhaps even the wisest thing to do.

And still he got back up.

When I see him struggle back to his feet, grasping the top rope for support, I still cheer every time.  Every.  Single.  Time.  Because I see a man with nothing to prove other than he can take a hit and get back up again.  I see a man willing to take enormous amounts of abuse and pain and suffering if it means he can take a stand for a principle; the principle that you cannot beat me until I give in.

I see Christ.

I see Christ in me.

There are great patches of time when life hurts, and hurts bad.  When confusion and pain and anxiety and uncertainty all conspire to force you to the mat, to make you swallow the bitter pill of defeat.  But those times cannot beat you while you still cling to Christ.  They cannot beat you until you decide to stop clinging to Him and instead weakly accept defeat. 

Yes, you’ll look to all the world like you’re still losing.  Beaten and bloody.  Hardly able to form a coherent thought.  Swaying on your feet . . . but standing in Christ.   

2 Corinthians 4:8-9  8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Are you hard pressed on every side?  Christ supports you, and therefore you cannot be crushed. 

Are you perplexed?  Christ loves you, therefore you do not need to despair.

Are you persecuted?  Christ has bound Himself to you and will not abandon you.

Are you struck down?  Christ has redeemed you, and therefore you cannot be destroyed.

Christ is in you.  He is with you today.  And today He will help you get back up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What I signed up for

My dear Lord Jesus,
Thou art mine; therefore, I wish to be Thine.
All that I possess,
 my body and my soul,
my strength and my gifts,
 and all that I do,
my entire life,
shall be consecrated to Thee,
to Thee alone. 
Lay on me any burden Thou pleasest,
I shall gladly bear it. 
Lead me anywhere,
through sorrow or joy,
through good fortune or misfortune,
                   through shame or honor,
through favor of men or their disfavor,
 grant me a long life, or should I die an early death,

 --I shall be satisfied with anything. 

Lead the way, and I shall follow.

-C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, pg 78

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Learning from others

It's common understanding that we learn from others.  Teachers are the "others" that kids learn from.  Experienced parents are the "others" that new parents learn from.  We learn new ideas, material, information, and habits from watching, listening, and heeding the instruction of others.

Oftentimes, those "others" will actually be quite similar to us.  They'll have the same tastes and desires.  We'll probably share a common ethnic or religious background with them.  But what's often underestimated is the value of learning from someone who is truly "other".  Someone outside your circle.  Someone who doesn't think quite the same way you do, someone who doesn't necessarily have the same goals or values.

As I prepare a sermon, I try to get as much data as possible in my head regarding a certain Bible text.  My typical plan is to first translate from Greek or Hebrew and then begin to consult commentaries.  And as a LCMS Lutheran, I simply can't recommend Concordia's Big Blue Book (technically, they are the "Concordia Commentary" series) commentaries enough.  They are scholarly, faithfully Lutheran, and richly profitable for Bible study and sermon preparation.  But the only problem is that there aren't enough of them.  Not yet.  It will take years, maybe even decades, before the entire Bible is covered by this excellent series.

But that very lack is what drove me to realize afresh the value of learning not only from within a circle of shared backgrounds, but from outside it, as well.  In my search for valuable and time-honored exposition of the Scriptures, I stumbled across an online version of John Calvin's Biblical commentaries and found them to be *gasp!* profitable for my studies.

Yes, you heard that correctly.  A Lutheran--an LCMS Lutheran, no less--has learned to value God's truth that is expounded by John Calvin.

I find value in John Calvin because he's from outside my circle.  It's not because I always agree with him; I don't.  It's not because he is a better exegete or scholar than any other man in the history of the Church; he isn't.  But it is because reading Calvin forces me to think critically.  As I read his exposition of Scripture I become aware of how his theology drives his understanding and application of Scripture, and the difference between our theologies draws me into a dialogue with the centuries-dead theologian that sharpens my Lutheran grasp of Scriptures even as it hones my appreciation for the rich diversity of people who are nevertheless knitted together into the Church, the mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

"All truth is God's truth."  I am grateful for a man like John Calvin who brings me gems of God's truth.  Because where he agrees with Scripture, Calvin speaks God's truth.  Where grace is upheld, where Christ is honored, where Law and Gospel are rightly divided, John Calvin proclaims the pure truth of God.  But he does so as if in a different language, with different words and phrases than I am used to hearing.  And the beauty of hearing God's truth in Calvin's tongue is refreshing and comforting; like seeing my home in a satellite picture; like hearing a favorite hymn in a different language.

Always remember that you can learn from others outside your circle, from others who don't talk or think quite the same way you do.  It will keep you humble, it will keep you kind, and it will keep you in constant awe that no matter where genuine truth is told, you will be hearing God's truth.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Pastor, heal thyself

One of the curious, yet recurring, challenges of pastoring is learning to listen to your own words.  No, not in the context of hearing yourself speak, but in hearing the words of advice and counsel you gave to others be given back to you. 

It happens to me with frightening regularity.  I have studied and prepared a sermon meant to proclaim God’s counsel to my congregation, and deliver Godly, Scripture guidance, correction, and comfort.  Or at other times I have chatted with a friend and church member after worship or a meeting and addressed a concern of theirs with a Spirit-given Scriptural response.  And then a week, or a day, or perhaps maybe just an hour later I will be the one in a crisis of fear or doubt, and often—just often enough to notice—it will happen that somebody will give back to me the same counsel and comfort I had just given out to others.  My wife does it.  My parishioners do it.  Even my children have at times done it.

And in my geeky sci-fi mind, at that moment I can almost feel two alternate realities developing.  In one potential reality, I brush off the advice saying, “Yes, I did say that to you.  But my situation is different,” and thus unhinge a great evil within me that inevitably leads me into the worst of all sins: a pastor that believes God’s Word is intended for everybody else and not for him. 

But in the other potential reality, I wrestle with accepting my own advice.  A brief but epic struggle occurs within the depths of my soul as I determine whether I was passionately sincere when I first spoke those words I now hear given back to me, or if I was merely parroting a polite, Biblical-sounding lie.  My flesh wants to disregard my own words, but my conscience and God’s Spirit within me demand I must not.  And with heroic effort, my flesh is defeated and I humbly—and perhaps grudgingly, to be honest—accept the Godly counsel that has managed to boomerang itself back to me once again.

And I’ve realized something:  It’s not so much a matter of listening to my own advice as it is a matter of listening to God’s.  At one point, He spoke through me to give counsel to another.  Should it surprise me when He uses another to give that same counsel back to me?