Sunday, December 19, 2010

A - Advent 4 - Isaiah 7.10-17

Did you know you could try God's patience. Ahaz did it. God gave him a command, to ask for a sign, some visible and tangible evidence that God would do what he said, that God would keep the promise that he gave and Ahaz pretended to be pious. "far be it from me O Lord to put you to the test." A pretty thin attempt to be humble and righteous. And God was not impressed. He saw through the King's attempt to brown nose and gave him a sign any ways.
"The young woman will conceive and bear a son and will call his name Immanuel. And by the time the boy is old enough to know right and wrong the kingdom would fall to the Assyrians."
You see, Ahaz was a wicked king. He worshipped false gods. He even sacrificed his own children to those gods, to the Baals. (2 Chronicles 28) He was not faithful to the Lord and therefore the Lord would give him over to his enemies in judgment for the sins he had committed. The words of Isaiah the prophet are a warning. A call to repentance. A call to turn from sin and believe. But Ahaz heard without listening. He listened without understanding. And the words of Isaiah came true. The Assyrians came and took the kingdom of Judah from Ahaz so that he received his just reward. He was punished for his sin.
That same message of warning and punishment that same plea for repentance could be spoken today. Indeed it must be spoken today.
If you go back and read the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles, chapter 28 you can find out all about King Ahaz. He was a wicked king. He walked completely in the ways of the world. The world of Ahaz was an idolatrous place - all kinds of false gods that people worshiped and prayed to. 2 Chronicles tells us that Ahaz even burned his children in the fire to these false gods. A reference to the ancient practice of child sacrifice. Sounds rather barbaric, at least until we remember how many children have been killed in our own day and age as their parents peruse the gods of wealth, a career, a reputation. Our age is just as wicked as those that came before us.
But God knows. He knows the condition of His world. He sees what is going on. He sees the sin and wickedness in men's hearts. It is nothing new. And so while he sent Isaiah to speak words of repentance to King Ahaz, he sends His Christians into the world to call for repentance. And that includes you. As you go off to work, to school, to college campuses. You are called to be a witness to the truth of the word of God.
(And by the way, usually the image we have of this involves brash bible thumping or picket signs. Often Christians forget that they can make a ready defense of the Christian faith in a logical and well reasoned way with sound rational arguments. The world does not necessarily hold the intellectual high ground - we however often give it up to them.)
The world needs to hear that there is a God. That there is a creator. That the words of the Bible are true. The world needs to hear the implications of this. That if there is a creator, then it is true that there is a judge. There is a judgment day, when this creator will return to call each of us to account. We need to be ready for that day, and therefore, like King Ahaz, the world needs to repent. Turn from sin and turn to the Savior. Because God is merciful and he has provided a way of salvation.
This text that was one of warning and judgment for Ahaz, was not just warning. There was a promise tucked away in there along with that call to repentance. A promse of a savior. A promise about Jesus.
"A young woman will conceive." This was a sign for Ahaz. A woman he knew would have a son and name him Immanuel. And Ahaz would see the boy grow and could watch the Lord's promised events unfold as the child grew. But that child who served as a reminder of God's judgment was also a sign of God's mercy. That boy would point ahead to another boy who would be born years into the future. Born to another young woman, this one a virgin. And Isaiah's promise would come to roost in the life of this second child in a greater way than the first.
Matthew the author of the Gospel text for today helps us to understand that these words spoken by Isaiah find their greatest fulfillment, not in the time of Ahaz but in a future time. Matthew's ties those words to Joseph and to Mary. Mary, the virgin who conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus the boy who was Immanuel - not just by name, but by his person.
Immanuel, the name Immanuel, in hebrew literally means "God is with us". Now this is true in a general sort of way. We believe that when we worship, as we pray, as we have our devotions God is present with us. But with Jesus it was different, it was more. Jesus was literally God with us. God among us. God present in the flesh with His people. The God who is bigger that the universe and holds all power and authority reduced himself to human stature. The God who will come again to judge the living and the dead on the last day. This God, the True God. The Only God.
Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, is exactly what this world needs. Our world that is so misguided and wrong headed, our world that insists on heading in the wrong direction needs this child. Our world needs the forgiveness that he came to provide. Our world needs the salvation that is found nowhere else in all of heaven and earth. Our world needs Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.
You see, the miraculous birth of this little baby was a precursor to the greater miracles that he would accomplish later in his life. Of course there were the healings, the walking on water, the mastery over the wind and the waves, the release of those held captive by the devil. But the greatest work of this Christ child, this God with us was his death. His vicarious atonement, where he was our substitute, where he took God's judgment for our sin so that he could pay the price for our sin. And then, to prove that this work was done, he was raised from the dead. Because he was victorious over our sin, he was also victorious over death. Death, the wages of sin, now has no power because of what Jesus has done. The boy, the baby born to a virgin, has saved us.
The Christ has come. Immanuel, God-with-us has come. He came at Christmas born to be our savior. But he is coming back. And when he returns he will come with judgment. In the days of the wicked King Ahaz God enacted judgment through the Assyrian army. When he comes again he will do the job himself. So the world needs to be ready. The world needs to be prepared. We have God's salvation. We have Jesus who died and suffered that judgment in our place. May we speak as clearly as Isaiah. Amen.
And now may the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gifts from the Giver - Christian Congregations and Stewardship Programs

Churches need money. It's a fact of life. There are bills to pay. There is payroll to meet. There are laborers to hire, insurance to pay, office supplies to purchase. There is postage, missions programs, Bible Study and Sunday School materials to purchase. The list is virtually endless. As an "institution" that exists, in some part, in the Kingdom of the Left Hand, churches need to set budgets and plan for income. To that end, churches are dependent upon the generosity of their membership. Enter the "Stewardship Program".

Being a pastor, there are almost daily offerings of new stewardship programs that come across my desk. Some are slick, with nice websites and full color brochures. Some, in the vain of good stewardship, are more spartan. Each will make lots of promises. Each comes with multiple testimonials. Each promises to increase giving at your congregation.

Now this is not necessarily bad. The Bible talks about money. It talks about Christians giving their money for use in the church. In fact, God even wants Christians to give their money in the church. The problem, however, with many if not most of these stewardship programs is that they find the solution not in the Spiritual power of the Word of God, rather they locate that power in the worldly means of the law.

There is a song that plays in high school gymnasiums and reception halls called the “Cha Cha Slide”. The song calls out for those on the dance floor to “Slide to the left, Slide to the Right”. I think the church dances sometimes with two left feet. We are of the Right Hand Kingdom but also in the Left Hand. We spend too much time in the left hand and not enough in the right. It shows up in our stewardship programs.

Businesses and corporations live in the Kingdom of the Left. They exist to generate revenue by selling a product so they can pay their bills, expand their influence in the marketplace, and earn income. Often Churches mistake themselves to be a business. They view their pastor as their CEO who guides them into the market place as they seek to generate revenue (offerings), increase market share (expand membership), and grow their bottom line (“build the ministry”). Stewardship programs are often geared toward this crass commercialism.

Yet, even those that are more spiritual do share a similar flaw. They, like their secularized counterparts, view the main goal of the stewardship program to be the growth of the bottom line and ultimately the good of the institution. Stewardship Programs promise that your church will have more money. The pastors offering the testimonials claim that their church saw an increased revenue of so many thousands of dollars over a period of time. Pastors encourage their members to give because the church needs their money and unless they give the church will shut down and their programs will not continue. Congregation Inc. should not exist for the sake of itself. It should exist for the sake of the Gospel, to preach the Gospel for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, for the sake of the sinner. Remember, Jesus did not come to seek and to save the local congregation. He came to seek and to save the lost!

A second flaw of Stewardship Programs is that they confuse various doctrines of Scripture. Namely, stewardship programs often confuse law and gospel. Stewardship programs confuse Biblical Stewardship with the Doctrine of Vocation.

I believe the confusion is accidental. I believe that pastors are hesitant to preach the full force of the law against sins that have to do with people money. People don't like the Sunday Sermon to hit them in their wallet and often will complain when it does. Pastors want to soften the blow so they will preach that stewardship is also about your time and your talents in addition to your treasure.

Scripture already has a doctrine that has to do with your time and your talents. It is the Doctrine of Vocation. The Doctrine of Vocation teaches Christians that they are a kingdom of Priests called into service of their God and their neighbor. Christian serve their God in their calling as parents and workers and employers and employees. By virtue of their vocation they already serve God. They don't need to be told that they can only serve God at Church (and heaven forbid, in worship!). To do so confuses law and gospel and creates fear and terror in the conscience of the Christian.

A third flaw of Stewardship Programs is that they deny the power of the Gospel to change the hearts of Christian to become generous supporters of the congregations ministry. The power to change selfish and self serving sinners into open handed and generous givers lies in the life giving Word of the Gospel. Christian give because they are moved by the Spirit to acts of love and

Christians hold on to their money because they are sinners. Christians are selfish and greedy and they want to keep their money for themselves. Christians are also idolaters who fear the economy or job loss or disasters instead of God and they look to their money to save them. Only God according to His Gospel can calm the fears of the fearful and only God by means of the Power of the Spirit working in the Means of Grace can create generosity out of greed and idolatry.

Instead Churches fall to the temptation to treat stewardship as information. They say that Christians need to be "trained" to give. They give Christians "principles for giving". They believe that ff they have the right information then the appropriate stewardship will follow. If this is true than the power for Christian living lies in the human heart, the ability to change lies in our ability to make the right decision. No wonder so many congregations and ministries flounder.

Christian Stewardship is a spiritual matter. It is a matter of faith. Christians struggle with stewardship because we are sinners, we are selfish and we are idolatrous. The Word of God provides Christians with the solution to sin. It is the Gospel. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. It is God's Gifts of Word and Sacrament that washes away our sin and then create in us a desire to share those lesser gifts with our neighbor who needs them. Instead of sewing sparingly, let us sew with generosity and read the blessings our God has to give.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Back to School clothes for my blog

So there's a new layout and design. With all the kids getting dressed up for school to start, I though my blog could use some new duds.

The Dad Life

Yes, I have been gone for a while. Who knows how many of you actually read my posts or how often you check back, but this is pretty funny. And, yes... this is my life.
Not a bag gig... dawg.

Monday, August 9, 2010

My Own Convention Recap

There are a few things that have been on my mind. I got back from Houston about three weeks ago. I was privileged to attend the LCMS convention. Was a good convention. Other than the heat, the long sessions and the umpteen points of order, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Got to room with an old friend. Got to reconnect with several others. Made a few new friends. And got to witness the election of President elect Matt Harrison. (a very dramatic moment, btw) For those things, I couldn't be happier.

But there were a few things I think worth commenting on.

For starters, I was not terribly enthusiastic about the devotional theme chosen for the convention; “One People Forgiven”. “Forgiven for what?” is my question. Obviously I have no problem with forgiveness. I need it every day, first from God, then from my neighbors. But I kept feeling like we were asked to confess sins I am not convinced we all had committed.

The “sin” was typically had to do with disunity and infighting. We were told we needed to be reconciled. Yes, but for what? There seemed to be this idea that the thing that divided us was disagreement over adiaphora – things like politics or structural and governance. This was the BRTFSSG convention. It was hinted at that those who were opposed to structure and governance had a spiritual problem. By inference, then, the sins necessary to confess were those disagreeing with the structure.

Our disunity and disagreement is not over structure. There are honest to goodness doctrinal differences. There is false doctrine within the synod. False doctrine needs to be confessed. False doctrine needs to be repented of and true doctrine believed by faith. The structure, etc. needs to be debated and scrutinized with our best human reason. Bottom line; I felt we were asked to confess sins that were not sins, and the false doctrines that are sinful were overlooked so we could “move forward”.

That was the first thing.

The other thing that troubled me was the response of many of my confessional brothers as the convention was winding down.

As the convention wore on, it became clear that the confessionals were winning the elections by significant numbers. The old guard was out and new blood was in. The candidates supported by Jesus First seemed to be loosing. The confessional candidates kept winning. The numbers and margins are quite striking. Occasionally I heard my confessional brothers taking credit for this. Honestly, I found this somewhat arrogant and foolish.

I am a big fan of Matt Harrison and I am glad that he has a team to work with who will be supportive of his vision and direction for the synod. But no one person can claim credit for this. In my mind there are a handful of contributing factors that made it happen, none of which involve the planning and preparation of those taking credit.

The first was the cancellation of Issues Etc. In previous conventions, LCMS confessionals have had their hats handed to them several times over. This was in part because they were divided and disorganized. Each party supported its own “confessional” candidate and then divided their votes between them while everyone else voted for Kieschnick. But then, a few years ago, a popular and effective voice of confessional Lutheranism in Missouri was canceled by the LCMS higher ups. Official explanation cited “business and programmatic reasons”. But nobody bought it. Issues Etc is a solidly confessional and doctrinal program that takes positions contrary to the direction the Synod leaders wanted to go. So the show was canceled. This was a severe miscalculation. It was assumed the program would die a quiet death and fade into the background. It did not. It came back a few months later independently funded and free from the restraints of the LCMS bureaucracy. Now the host and producers could say and do what they wanted. They could even speak against the direction of the synod. If the show was a problem while it was affiliated with the Synod, it became a bigger problem after it was independent. In addition, it made a lot of people angry. The fans of the show were sad to see it go away. Even the nominal fans recognized its cancellation was an injustice. Cancelling the show gave Synod bureaucracy a black eye and it gave the confessionals had a rallying cry. The cancellation of Issues Etc was the first step in the LCMS power shift.

The second factor as I see it is the fact that the Synod is financially troubled. It is no secret that Synod has been losing money. Contributions to the synod continue to go down. Spending and programs and either maintained or added. The Ablaze initiative has also seen its financial problems with huge fund raising costs and limited success. It was easy to see that the Synod needed a new financial plan. Bureaucracy acknowledged this. The BRTFSSG was convened around the purpose and intent that the Synod be streamlined so that overspending and waste could be eliminated. In addition, the Synod decided to sell KFUO FM. KFUO has been a symbol to many of the forward thinking evangelistic outreach of the LCMS and there was a good deal of synodical pride attached to it. Selling it was unpopular. I am not sure that the convention was willing to fix blame on anyone, after all the past decade has been financially challenging for everyone. But I believe the convention felt the Synod needed a new financial direction.

This brings me to the last point. All of these factors add up to serious dissatisfaction, but that alone wouldn't go anywhere were it not for the fact that the Confessionals were able to put forward a gifted man to take the position. They found that in Matt Harrison. Matt had all the key ingredients necessary to win the election. First, he is solidly and confessionally Lutheran. He has written ample papers and books and essays and each one comes from a confessional Lutheran perspective. He is missional and merciful and evangelistic and pastoral. Confessional LCMSers were able to rally behind him in a way that they have not in previous conventions. In addition, He is a solid manager. In a decade of financial deterioration, his World Relief and Human Care successfully administrated hundreds of millions of dollars and even floated loans to the synod at large to keep it from going under. Finally, he is likable. He is good in front of a crowd. He is humble, warm & friendly, he takes time for people. He has a bushy, trademark mustache that hides a broad smile while he strums away on his his banjo. The guy probably likes babies and kittens too. He was a guy who couldn't miss.

Lots of people in their post convention analysis wanted to take all kinds of credit and pat themselves on the back for their hard work and diligence. Hard work and preparation are good and necessary, but they don't get you anywhere without the God who provides daily bread for the hungry soul. Psalms says that the horse is made ready for the day of battle but the victory belongs to the Lord.

I believe there were a number of things that set the stage for the direction the convention went. We didn't have any control over any of these things. Rather the Lord provided a “perfect storm” of financial turmoil, unpopular management decisions and a solid alternative candidate for the job. In my estimation, this is what won the day.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Tyrrany of "Cause & Effect"

Every child, somewhere during their toddler years, learns the lesson of “cause & effect”. You fall, it hurts. Pull a dog's tail, you get bitten. Touch something hot, you get burned. And so it begins. And that lesson terrorizes us until the day we die. “Cause & effect” teaches us lessons – avoid the dog's teeth, precarious balancing acts, and open flame. Especially when it comes to faith, we mistake these lessons for wisdom. We mistake these lessons for faith.

Foolishly we believe that faith bears a “cause & effect” relationship. Sin, get punished. Repent, get forgiveness. Doubt, loose blessings. Believe, get blessings. We think it's all “cause & effect”. It isn't. “cause & effect” is law. Faith is gift. Faith is gospel. Faith is freedom.

Consider the example of joy. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. It is a gift that God gives for free through His Holy Spirit. It is ours because he has given it. Yet, we so often find ourselves less than joyful. We want joy. We don't have joy. We try to get joy “cause & effect” style.

As a child I learned to sing a song, “The Joy of the Lord is my Strength”. In that song I was taught to sing, “If you want joy you must sing for it. If you want joy you must sing for it. If you want joy you must sing for it. The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Don't you see it? “Cause & Effect”? Sing and you will get joy. The reason you don't have joy is because you didn't sing. You missed out on the effect because you forgot the cause.

The truth of the matter is that the fruit of the Spirit, joy included, is a gift God has already given. Sin, fear, “cause & effect”, worry, doubt, unbelief; these thing rob us of joy. We are too foolish to see it. So we keep singing and singing, and shouting and shouting, and praying and praying, all the while fearing and fretting that we have no joy. How foolish! It is already yours! Confess your unbelief, your sin, your wretchedness and seek Jesus.

Jesus commands us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His Righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” When we seek Jesus the Holy Spirit gives us “all these things”. That includes Joy. It includes peace, patience, kindness, self control, faithfulness, gentleness. These are gifts from God that he gives for free because He wants to. He gives them in Jesus. It's not because we have sung, shouted, prayed, believe hard enough to get it. It is because He is good and He loves to give it!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Seminary or Bust

Seminary kicked my butt. And I am happy to admit it. I am a better pastor and my congregation is better fed because of it. I arrived at seminary thinking I was special, that I had what it would take to light the world on fire. Seminary cured me of these notions.

My first quarter introduced me to Dr Horace Hummel. Dr Hummel kicked my butt. I had never worked so hard hoping only to pass. Second year introduced me to Dr Norman Nagel. Dr Nagel obliterated me. And I love him for it. He broke down my legallstic and limited notions of God's work and tore the roof off my understanding of the Gospel. I got to know Dr Jeff Gibbs who introduced me to the sheer joy of exegesis. I got to know Dr Fueherhann who brought thoughtful analysis to my own history as he opened up the ideas that string from generation to generation. I can personally say with no hesitation that I can see farther and clearer because I stand on the shoulders of these and other men who were my teachers during my years at the seminary.

There is currently a movement in our synod to to deprive burgeoning pastors of the treasure trove of seminary education. Through various programs such as the Specific Ministry Program, men can become pastors with little to no residential time on our seminary campuses. In my mind this is sentencing us to poverty.

Think of it this way, suppose you were the owner of a 5 star restaurant famous for its culinary delicacies. Would you turn your kitchen over to someone who studied at home via the internet? Would you want a chef trained from a video series? Or would you want a chef mentored by the world's foremost and best chefs? Would you want a chef who spent time being trained and personally tutored by those who know the craft inside and out?

It is true that there are some pragmatic reasons for moving away from a residential seminary training program. Seminary training is expensive. A three year residential program is inconvenient. Non residential programs provide an easier means for capable men to become pastors. However, at the same time there are those who resent their seminary training. They arrive, as I did, thinking seminary was a hoop to jump through. They are resent their instructors, seeing them as unreasonable and harsh for their expectations. They get through their time at the seminary with a minimum of work and effort and then brag about leaving their Greek New Testament and their Book of Concord on their shelf. I thank the Lord that he moved me to repent of these sins and see the error. Yet I fear that our current "seminary lite" programs are a capitulation to those who deny the fruitfulness of seminary training. I am afraid that our 5 star restaurant could soon become a Denny's.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Everyday Miracle

In the second chapter Acts, Saint Luke records an astounding miracle. As you may well know, Acts 2 records the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. As they prayed in the upper room, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and then went out into the streets to preach, each one in a language that he had never learned or studied. Usually when we think of miracles in Acts 2 this is the one that comes to mind. But there is another. If you keep reading to the end of the chapter you will find that Luke records another miracle.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (ESV)

When you stop to think about it, this is an astounding miracle. It was only a matter of weeks before that these very same people, the residents of Jerusalem, were gathered together at the trial and execution of Jesus. They were threatening to riot if Pontius Pilate did not hand Jesus over to them so that they could murder him. And now, only about a month and a half later they have been transformed from murders into philanthropists. They have opened their hearts and their hands to share what they had in common with all those who had need. This is nothing short of a miracle.

So, one must ask, what changed?

The best answer, the only answer, is Jesus. Jesus changed everything. To begin with, Jesus died. Not for his own crimes but for theirs. And even though they were murderers, he did not hold their crimes against them. Secondly, Jesus rose. Following his death, he demonstrated his authority over death by defeating it. Death had to let him go because he fulfilled death's penalty. Thirdly, he ascended. Jesus, the God-man ascended into heaven to sit on heaven's throne and to send His Holy Spirit. Fourthly, Pentecost came. The Spirit came. He came to the Apostles and then he came into the hearts and lives of those murdering Jerusalemites through the preaching of Peter and the apostles.

Luke tells us they were cut to the heart. The Holy Spirit convicted them of their sin. Luke tells us they asked the apostles what they should do. They were told to repent and to be baptized. The murderers repented. The sinners were baptized. They received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then, they were filled with the love of God for one another so that they gave of themselves generously and saw to it that no one was hungry and that no one had a need.

This community of Christians in Acts was truly a Spirit directed community. They were moved in their love for God to love each other. There was no need for taxes or dues or fees because they willingly gave as each one was able to each one who had need.

For us who are Christians 2000 years and a few thousand miles removed we might ask if the same miracle happened here? Yes it has. The same Spirit has come to us as we have gathered together to break the Bread of Christ's Body. The same Spirit flows through the living waters of Baptism. The same Spirit is alive and active in the preaching and hearing of the Word. This Spirit turns us from murderers and sinners and idolaters to lovers of God and one another.

Has the miracle of Pentecost moved us to the same works and gifts of love? Yes. Consider the gifts that are given each Sunday as Spirit filled Christians open their hearts and their hands to give their offerings so that they might be used to offer gifts of love to the families in our church and local community? Is that Holy Spirit who would prompt us to these gifts ever resisted through sins of greed and selfishness? Yes. Are these sins that we need to repent of? Yes. Does the Holy Spirit bring us to forgiveness? Yes.

We are baptized Christians. In our baptism the Spirit has united us to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This gift continues to be given to us brand new each day. Every night we go to bed confessing the sins of that day and every morning we wake up completely new with a clean slate. Every day we live in the knowledge and assurance that we are redeemed sinners, loved by God.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Numbers Are In

Those who follow LCMS politics might be interested to know that the nominations for Synod President have been counted. Occasionally I write for a website called Cross Focused Leadership for Missouri. This site has posted a review of these nomination tallies. The review is pasted below.

The numbers are in. LCMS congregations have submitted their nominations for the office of president, those nominations have been tallied, and the numbers have been reported. For the office of president, Matthew Harrison 1,332; Gerald Kieschnick 755; Herbert Mueller, Jr. 503; Carl Fickenscher II 5; and Daniel Gard 3. Those numbers tell an interesting story.

For the last nine years Gerald Kieschnick has served faithfully as our synodical president. Those years have been challenging and at times controversial. Yet through the challenges and even through the controversy, support for President Kieschnick has remained consistent. Even though some have questioned his approach, congregations have opted to give him the benefit of the doubt, backing him with their support through their nomination. For example, President Kieschnick received 1,055 nominations for the 2007 convention. The next closest was John C. Wohlrabe Jr. with 607. That is a difference of more than 400 congregations.

The latest round of nominations tell a new story. As the Synod faces organizational and financial challenges in addition to the doctrinal stresses of the past decade, congregations are nominating a new leader to lead us through these difficult waters. Rather than renominating our current President, who has sought to address these challenges through structural change (via the recommendations from The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Government), congregations are instead nominating a man who maintains that our problem is not structural, but relational. Our biggest problem is not that we need to become more efficient, like a business. Our biggest problem is that we have lost the ability to talk through our differences, like a family. Congregations appear to be in agreement that the structure will work just fine and the financial situation will improve if we stop brushing our issues under the rug and do the hard work of getting together to discuss those things that divide us.

Take another look at the numbers. Whereas in previous years and based on nominations the synod has given its nod to keep going with the direction Gerald Kieschnick had set, this year the margins are quite different. Kieschnick does not enjoy such a wide margin of support. In contrast, Pastor Matt Harrison, who has outlined a plan to bring the family back around to the table, has suddenly received 1,332 nominations.

So what has changed? In the past three years, Matt Harrison has demonstrated great leadership. This leadership has been evident as he spearheaded relief efforts in New Orleans following Katrina, and more recently in Haiti. He has shown himself to be a man proficient in our Lutheran Theology. He has demonstrated a knowledge of our history as a denomination and is conversant with our Missouri Synod source materials. He has a pastoral heart. In addition to his leadership, he has also provided a plan to help lead us out of our challenges and problems; financial, organizational, and relational!We are encouraged that more congregations of Missouri are putting their support behind the man who wants to keep the conversation “all in the family”. This bodes well for our synod.

We hope that delegates to the convention listen to the congregations, elect Matt Harrison as our President, and elect men and women in all offices who support his vision for cross-focused leadership for Missouri.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Vocation and Basketball

It was one of the most exciting moments of the 2010 NCAA Basketball Tournament. Greivis Vasquez, the star of the Maryland Terrapins took the ball the length of the floor and scored to take a one point lead with 6 seconds left in a hard fought contest. The Spartans in-bounded to ball to Draymond Green. Green took the ball to the other end of the floor, dished to Korie Lucious who drained a three pointer as time expired.

I’m a Spartan. I love college basketball and I love the Michigan State basketball program. I have for years. I am also a basketball player (or at least I was). I have played a lot of basketball. I have played enough to know that success in basketball or in any sport is in part physical, God-given ability but it is also psychological and even spiritual. You get the ball in your hands with seconds left on the clock and you know what’s at stake: the game, the tournament, the season, Sportscenter (okay, Sportscenter was never on the line for me personally). You get a lump in your throat. A twitch in your spine. A twinge of excitement and nerves. And then you let the ball fly.

What makes it go in? At times we will claim it’s “divine intervention”. I suppose there might be some of that; after all if God directs military contests (Proverbs 21:31) he can also direct the athletic. But there is something to be said for the psychology and the nerves and the confidence that goes into that shot. There are a lot of things that can throw off your concentration and throw off your game. Not the least among them is sin.

Having the ball in your hands with the game on the line provides ample opportunity for the Old Adam to suit up and call for “the rock”. Sinful pride begs for glory and fears shame. I have had the ball in my hands with the game and glory on the line. I have felt that twinge of excitement and nerves. I have felt the urge for glory. I have felt the fear of shame. Many a shot has bounced from the rim with those thoughts in my mind. The game, for the glory of the self, is sin.

If you saw the post game press conference. Izzo and his team talked about playing for each other. Korie Lucious told the injured Spartan star, “I’ve got your back.” Even the left hand kingdom understands the negative effects of pride and selfishness. How much more the right hand! The Gospel moves the Christian to confess that pride. The Gospel sets the Christian free from that pride; free to serve. Free to work. Free even to play.

Lutherans hold to the Doctrine of Vocation. Set free by the Gospel the Christian works for the good of the neighbor. That holds just as true on the basket ball court as it does anywhere else. The game is not for glory to me, but for service to my neighbor; for the good of the team. When I finally figured this out, the doctrine of vocation actually made me a better player. It kept my head in the game. If I had the shot, I took it. Why? Because a good shot helps the team to win. If the other team was on a break away and someone needed to get back on defense, I did it for the good of the team. If I could make a pass that would set up a teammate, I looked to get them the ball. Why? Because I was set free my Old Adam who kept trying to get in my head to mess with my game.

Now, let’s be real. Coach Izzo probably doesn’t understand the doctrine of vocation. The Michigan State Spartans likely don’t understand the doctrine of vocation. But they played, not for themselves, but for the team. Kalin Lucas was on the bench with an Achilles tear. Chris Allen was on the bench with a sprain in the arch of his foot. The normal go to guys were out so Draymond Green stepped up for the team. Korie Lucious stepped up for the team.

Some people say doctrine is boring. Some people say doctrine is abstract and useless. Doctrine sets us free – not just in some intellectual and inaccessible sort of way, but in real, everyday life ways: in the work place, at home, and even on the basket ball court.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chasing Sheep

I suppose its true in any other profession, but it seems that pastors are good at professional one-up-manship. Pastors like to tell tales about the stuff they have going at their parish; building programs, stewardship, average worship attendance, etc. etc. etc. It is easy (for me anyway) to come away thinking that I need to get moving and make my congregation more like theirs.

It is way too easy to get sucked in.

I was recently reading on a friend's blog a posting by Matt Harrison (find it here) and discovered a quote that I found both inspiring and at the same time helpful.

Our vocation is not to save the ninety-nine, but to seek the one. One at a time. One here and one there. One child cared for. One person nursed to health. One life saved. One hurting soul comforted with the name of Jesus. One man loved. Our vocation is not to change Haiti, or to change the whole world, or to change the economic realities with which Haitians wrestle. Our vocation is to act and make a life-changing difference one at a time. And acting one at a time, we find that over some hours, over a few days, and over a couple of weeks, the flock of those helped in the name of Jesus has grown to be surprisingly large.
Pastor Harrison is talking about the parable of the Lost Sheep from John 15 and applying it to the needs of the people in Haiti following their devastating earth quake. He points out that Jesus went after the one. One at a time. One by one. This has been for me a profound insight.

There is always that pressure to be the church that has the budget surplus, that has the great attendance, that has the busting-at-the-seems programs. (I suppose I might confess it is easy to covet...) So churches always try to become this by implementing policies and adopting programs. "If they haven't attended in 3 years, drop them from the roles." "Let's write a series of form letters." "Let's hire a consultant to tell us how we can fix ourselves." These things don't work, or if they do work they have worked the wrong thing. Faithful pastoring doesn't mean you have budget surpluses and rear ends in the pews. It means that you preach God's Word; law and gospel. Week in and week out. And, when necessary, one at a time.

Instead of cleaning up the roles, instead of lopping off the dead wood, I have resolved to seek one. Reach out to one with God's Word. Rightly divide it. Mercifully apply it. And who knows, maybe after a time the flock will have grown quite large.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Contemporary Worship and the Gospel of Relationship

I recently had the opportunity to attend the LCMS Model Theological Conference on Worship. During the conference there were a schedule of worship services that were intended to be examples of different styles of worship; the first was entirely traditional, the second was traditional liturgy accompanied by a praise band, the others began to rearrange portions of the liturgy, substitute custom elements for those prescribed by the hymnal combined with a greater array of contemporary worship songs.

As I was observing the different worship options, one thing that was pointed out (ironically by one who practices contemporary worship) was that during the traditional worship service the pastor was impersonal. The man and his personality were divested from the service. And, sure enough, as the contemporary worship forms were in use the personality of the pastor was on greater display.

This alerted me to an interesting reality; in classical Christian worship (ie. “traditional worship”) the personality of the pastor is muted. The man is there, but the personality of the man is inconsequential and it is unnecessary. What is important is that the man is present mainly to be the one who points the worshipers to Jesus. Who he is, how funny or clever he is, is ultimately of no effect. The thing that makes the worship service work has nothing to do with the man. It does have every thing to do with the Word. The man speaks the words and promises of Jesus. The man holds out the forgiveness of sins given by Jesus. The man is merely a vessel, empty and worthless except for the words given him by the Gospel.

Contrast this to contemporary worship. There is of course a continuum in place here, there are extremes. Let's consider Lakewood Christian in Houston an extreme. The thing that makes that worship work is the personality of the pastor. Joel Osteen's personality is fully on display. He is clever. He is witty. He tells stories from his own life, about his relationship with his wife, his children, his parents. His jokes and his stories draw the people in so that they are included in his life. Thus the effectiveness of the worship is directly connected to his personal life. The personality of Joel is the key for making the whole experience work.

In former posts I have mentioned what has been termed a “gospel of relationship”. As I have defined this “gospel”, one thing it does is reduce the Christian life to a relationship. The gospel takes on less of the character of forgiveness and instead is defined according to relational categories. It is emotive (a feeling), it is subjective, it is personal to an extreme. Jesus is discussed as a friend or even a lover, God is a daddy, the Holy Spirit is sensory.

If the gospel is truly reducible to "having a relationship with Jesus", it is then only subjective and relational. Therefore the entire worship service must be structured around those things that are subjective and relational. Take, for example the music. The music style is akin to the genre of the rock ballad, a genre that communicates feelings and ideas of love to the listener. The lyrics of the songs fall in step so that they carry the freight of a love songs to Jesus. (I could swap out the name “Jesus” for the name of my wife in many of the songs and sing it to her without changing anything else). Often during times of prayer there is “mood music” softly playing in the background. Many of the sermon topics have to do with either your “relationship” to Jesus or you relationship to your spouse or to someone else (eg. “Making Your Marriage Work", "Christians and Sex", etc.).

Very often, the pastor and his personality is the lynch pin. If the pastor is clever, funny, if he knows how to work the crowd, then the service works. People are attracted, seekers come to check it out and then come back in the following weeks. It is not enough for the pastor to simply point the way to Jesus and His objective means of forgiveness, the pastor has to be a performer and an entertainer.

Perhaps this is why there is so often an awkwardness to Lutheran contemporary worship. The forms don't fit together. In Classical Lutheran worship the pastor is a vehicle. The personality of the pastor can get lost in the liturgy because Christians haven't come to see the pastor. They have come to see Jesus. Granted, Jesus is hidden. He hides himself in the Word. He hides himself in, with, and under the bread and the wine. He hides himself in the proclamation of the absolution. But that is where Jesus is. Evangelical worship denies that Jesus actually and physically arrives when Christians gather to worship, so there is the need to conjure him up. Ambiance created through the right music, the quick wit and appropriately timed jokes of a clever pastor provides just the right stuff to set the mood for the romance with Jesus to begin.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Baptism vs Pietistic Self Delusions

I recently learned of the infidelity of a former colleague. I am troubled by the news - both out of heartfelt love and concern for my friend, and also because of the dishonor done to Christ and His preaching office. The damage on both counts is great and I mourn the loss.

When we learn of such infidelity, there is always the temptation for judgment. We pretend that we know better. We tell ourselves we would never do that. We pretentiously select the character flaw that we assume contributed to their demise. This is naive and unrealistic. Sinners fall into sin because they are sinners. And we are all sinners. Any one of us could just as easily fall into the same sin at a given moment. After all, who among us has not felt in some moment of weakness the bitterness of life and its great pressures weighing heavily on us? Who among us might not have fallen at that moment had the opportunity presented itself? It is only the grace and mercy of God that preserves any one of us from duplicating these sins. Such occasion calls each of us to repent and beg the Lord for mercy.

While we are foolish to pretend to offer explanations, what is of concern is that there often seems to be an influence of pietism on such situations. Pietism has at its heart the notion that the individual is and can be better than they are. Pietism promotes a self-delusion of personal righteousness that one must hold on to at all costs. Because pietism is built on your moral improvement you have to hold out for your own goodness, you have to pretend on the surface that you are "pulling it off", that you are living the Christian life, that you are an example for everyone else to follow. As a result, pietism forces us to overlook the sin that lurks within.

Pretending we are righteous doesn't make the Old Adam go away. He's still there, still lurking in the shadows. Still waiting for his opportunity to get out and do exactly the sin he has been scheming. Pietism overlooks that Old Adam. It pretends he isn't' there, that he has gone, that we have wrestled him away. But then, when the moment of weakness arrives, the old man is provided with just the opportunity he needs to sneak out and surprise us with what we should have seen coming.

The only antidote against sin is the gospel. Confession and absolution. Daily drownings in the waters of baptism. Paul commands us to shine the light of God's Word into the deep, dark places of our hearts and walk as children of light (Ephesians 5). Covering up the sin in a pietistic self delusion won't due. Only turning the bright light of God's Word into our hearts can expose that sin so that we acknowledge it, confess it, and are absolved from it. The sinner does not have the strength to overcome his sin. The sinner needs Jesus!

The only confidence we can have is in the grace and mercy of Jesus. For all those who have fallen, there is the promise that He will not hold their sins against them. "Though their sins be as scarlet, yet they will be whiter than snow." For those of us who have been preserved from such a fall, the only confidence is Jesus - in turning our hearts in confession and repentance to Him and daily living in the forgiveness that He provides in His means of grace.

Lord Jesus, may the New Man of my baptism spring to life again today as I confess my sin to you. Amen.