Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thoughts on Homosexual Marriage

The idea of expanding marriage to include homosexual relationships is on the forefront of society’s conversation about what it wants to be. As a Lutheran Christian pastor, I cannot simply ignore the public conversation. This is a seismic shift in society. I share my thoughts as a step in my ongoing contemplation of the integration of my personal faith and my role as a citizen in the United States of America.


Let me begin by saying that I remain convinced that God’s design for marriage is a life-long covenantal relationship between one man and one woman based in love and providing an earthly reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. Were anyone to ask me what the Bible says about homosexual marriage, I would answer confidently that the scriptures indicate than God’s design for marriage is monogamous, heterosexual and deeply sacrificial toward one’s spouse. Jesus indicated this when he preached against divorce in Mark 10:1-10 saying that God’s design was one man married to one woman and no divorce. However, before I answered this question I would include the caveat that I am often shown how my own life does not live up to God’s designs when I read the Bible.

I find it very difficult to make a case from the Bible for anything but the traditional covenantal heterosexual view of marriage without taking a hatchet to the scriptures (some would disagree with me quite strongly). Because I am bound by my office as pastor to follow what I believe the scripture teaches, I could not officiate in good conscience a homosexual marriage ceremony. I do not say this without some pain because some of the people nearest to my heart are homosexual.

There. That’s out of the way. If someone wants to discuss with me the Christian theology of homosexuality, let’s talk some other time.

The question with which this essay is concerned is this: “How do the scriptures inform my attitudes and actions as Christian and a citizen of the United States of America, where we believe that all people are created with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”


There are conflicting studies about promiscuity rates among homosexuals vs. heterosexuals. I can’t see how a discussion of promiscuity relates to a discussion of homosexual marriage. But if we consider promiscuity a factor, would the assumed high promiscuity rates among homosexuals be an argument for or against homosexual marriage?


As recently as seventy-five years ago, procreation was a concern to be encouraged by the laws of the land because large segments of the population could be wiped out at any time through war or disease. Further, we needed more people to accomplish more work. While scientific advances haven’t completely eliminated these concerns, they have been drastically reduced from where they have been at any previous time in human history. As medical, farming and production technologies continue to improve, it is more and more difficult to reasonably argue that we need to encourage heterosexuality because we need a bunch more humans on the planet.


You might find the very idea of homosexual physical love so appalling, disgusting and unnatural that it ought to be banned from the face of the earth. However, I find cooked spinach appalling, disgusting and unnatural, so I think it ought to be banned from the face of the earth. Truly, I can’t stand the sight, smell, texture or taste of it and I cannot conceive of a normal, sensible person liking cooked spinach. Whose idea of disgusting is right? I think you take my point.


What if? That’s a slogan used to sell lotto tickets too! What about three people in a committed union? What about a woman and her cat? Yes, what if? But what if we brought forth on this continent a new country conceived in liberty? Could people rule themselves without a king? I think the “what if” argument is the closet door open in your room at night. There just might be a monster in there so let’s not take any chances.

That being said, the slippery slope is a real phenomenon. For instance, the social security number was established simply to maintain records of those working in jobs covered under the social security program. Over the years, the SSN as a tracking number (though not technically as an ID) has become widespread and it is now difficult to live without a SSN. (For instance, since 1983 you must have a SSN to open an interest-bearing bank account.)

So slippery-slope arguments need to be acknowledged but not taken as a given future condition.


The moment I argue society’s acceptance or rejection of homosexual marriage based on my faith, I am on dangerous ground. We do not want our government establishing a religion we want because, of course, they might later establish a religion we do not want. By seeking to impose on others a definition of marriage based on my faith, I am paving the way for someone else to impose legal restrictions on my behavior based on their faith. I certainly don’t want my wife to be forced to wear a burka because one day the majority of people in America believe that the burka is God’s highest design for women’s dress.


We do, indeed, make laws about what we as a society believe is right and wrong. However, the best and most solid laws have an ethical basis in the rights of each person involved in whatever situation is addressed by the law in question. Running a red light has ethical implications because it puts others at risk. Stealing is taking another’s property without legal authority or their consent. These can be argued from an ethical standpoint without relying on divine revelation regarding moral behavior. Homosexual relationships do not violate ethical principles that require respect of the other’s rights. Nobody is harmed or in other ways treated against their own will when two people of the same sex engage in a committed relationship of love and support that includes the sexual expression of that love.


Jesus reminded us that the restriction of outward behavior does not move the heart toward God. To paraphrase Jesus’ connection between adultery and lust in Matthew 5:27-28, “You’ve heard it said that a man shall not lie with another man as with a woman, but I tell you that if one man looks at another with lustful intent, he has already committed homosexuality in his heart.” So, even if homosexual marriage remains illegal, that law written and enforced will not change one person’s heart. It may even be counterproductive with respect to our task of drawing people toward the redeeming love of God.


As I already mentioned, I think it’s dubious at this point in history to claim the procreative purpose of marriage as a “state’s interest” in preserving heterosexual marriage. One could argue that the heterosexual marriage relationship ought to retain its primacy simply because of the biological morphology and clear interdependence of the male and female genitalia of the human species. (Arguments do sound better with big words, don’t they?) In this argument, the state has an interest in preserving community notions of reality. The division of the human species into two genders, “male” and “female,” is a biological reality. One could make a case that society in general has an interest in maintaining a legal system based on clearly observable physical – one might even say, “scientific” – reality and ought, therefore, to preserve the primacy of male/female relationships. However, a society conceived in liberty must make room for people who do not hold to the “standard” view of life.


The scriptures clearly speak for justice in the courts, care for the poor, fighting against the abuse of the powerless by the powerful. While these can be argued ethically without reference to divine revelation, there is alignment between the scriptures and widely acknowledged ethical principles. As those called by God’s grace into his kingdom, we have a double- duty to speak to and act on these issues as citizen-legislators in a free society and as Christians who operate out of love for our fellow people.


Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If I don’t want others seeking to enforce their morality on me (and I certainly don’t!), then by reciprocation, I ought not desire laws that enforce my morality on them.


God pays us the great honor of freedom. As Christ walked the earth, he spoke the truth in love. He wooed. He cajoled. He pleaded. But he never forced. If we are Christ’s ambassadors to the world, ought we spend any time or effort trying to enforce outward behavior that does not violate ethical principles, such as not harming others? We would be more like Christ if we displayed unconditional love for all, desiring the best for each person, proclaiming the God who loves us and has reconciled us to himself by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. Of course we call people to repentance. But we don’t try to force them (we can’t, really, anyway). Then as God touches their hearts (after all no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him [John 6:44]) let the Holy Spirit do its work through the means of grace.


Politics is the art of compromise and civilization is the process of being civil with those you with whom you disagree — people of different backgrounds and beliefs living together peaceably. If we ought not encode our moral views in the laws of our land unless they can be argued ethically without recourse to divine revelation, what do we who love everyone and desire that all come to Christ do with the thorny societal issue of homosexual marriage?

What if we could trade homosexual marriage for a repeal of no-fault divorce laws? In my opinion, no-fault divorce laws have done more damage to the institution of marriage than legalizing homosexual marriage would. Divorce is a breach of contract. Yet in the unique instance of divorce, our courts choose not to consider who broke the contract or use the idea of fault in disposing of marital assets, deciding child custody, etc. The dissolution of a marriage has become a non-event. Would you trade the strengthening of the marriage institution for the broadening of the laws about who can marry whom?

Under current laws in most states, it is time-consuming and complicated to formulate a legal relationship with another person of the same sex that equates to marriage. Furthermore, homosexual couples who enter into this multileveled contractual arrangement that approximates marriage have to defend and substantiate their relationship while heterosexual couples claiming that relationship don’t. This affects things like access to a partner in emergency circumstances (think ICU), inheritance, etc. Can you imagine a homosexual couple at a time when one is in ICU, possibly at death’s door, and his or her partner of 20 years is not allowed visitation because he or she is not “family”? How can that be right, loving or compassionate?

You may not think homosexuality is right, but isn’t it better as a society to encourage people to live in committed relationships, even if you don’t agree with the morality of those relationships?

As I consider the subject of homosexual marriage, I come to the following thoughts and conclusions.

• Society does have a stake in promoting long-term stable relationships. People are more productive, peaceful, healthy, happy, etc. when they are in long-term committed relationships. The statistics on heterosexual marriage are clear and I assume that similar results would be found if and when long, committed homosexual relationships are studied.

• For a biblically conservative Christian, homosexual marriage will never be the moral equivalent of heterosexual marriage. But heterosexual marriages often don’t reflect the character of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, either.

• Our job as Christians is not to create the kingdom of God on earth as we see it through the force of law. Our job is to share the good news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them and to urge people to repent — turn to God in the grace offered in Jesus Christ and seek to follow God’s ways through the power of the Holy Spirit.

• Laws do not change hearts.

• The love of a homosexual couple is every bit as real and compelling as the love of a heterosexual couple, even if conservative Christians see the homosexual aspect of that love as departing from God’s plan.

• While I think one man, one woman, monogamous marriage is God’s design, I don’t think homosexuality should be singled out as a special and unique form of ungodliness. I think it just feels more foreign to the average person than lust, greed or gluttony.

• The more homosexuals I know, the more it seems strange to call them that. In fact, it seems strange to define a person primarily by their sexual orientation over and above other attributes such as kind or generous (or not).

• Can’t I live in civil community with others who think differently I do without trying to enforce my values on them?


My conclusion, at this moment, is that civil marriage and Christian marriage should become separate institutions. Even though I think homosexuality is a brokenness (acknowledging in the same breath that I, myself, am also full of brokenness), I fully support some sort of marriage relationship equivalent for homosexual couples. I think the best idea is to use the term “civil marriage,” because this reflects what we ought to be: civil toward each other. Let a justice of the peace or some other civil representative perform the ceremony of civil union/marriage/whatever and let pastors perform the ceremony of Christian marriage by which we seek to enter into that relationship that is, at its best, supposed to echo and reflect the love between Christ and the church.

That’s what I think at 3:56PM on December 11, 2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Parade: epilogue

This morning I woke earlier than my early alarm was set for. That's pretty natural for me when a big event is happening. I was late leaving the house. I thought the YMCA (where some of our sound equipment is stored because that's where we meet for church) opened at 7 a.m., so when I arrived there at 7:40 (20 minutes behind schedule) and found the doors locked, I was "surprised." Turns out the Y opens at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings! Yikes! But someone let us in to get our stuff. As I was rifling through our sound equipment, I could not find the extra microphones and cords I was looking for. That's when I remembered that we moved all the extra mics to our storage garage a few miles away in the opposite direction of the parade that I intended to be at by 8 a.m. (The parade route is at least 25 minutes from the Y.). So I drove to the storage garage to get the extra mics (getting further behind schedule). Earlier in the morning, I had remembered that the power supply and sustain pedal for the keyboard were in a cabinet that John B. was working on, so as I headed to to the storage garage, I called John B. to see if I could stop by to get the stuff that was in the cabinet he took. He told me... wait for it... he returned the cabinet to the YMCA! I just didn't see it there. So, after I got the mics out of the storage garage, I headed back to the YMCA to get the power supply and sustain pedal for the keyboard. Then I realized that I had forgotten to bring some folding chairs. So I called John B. back and he met me en route to the parade with a couple of folding chairs.

Meanwhile, I had told everyone that I would be there at 8 a.m. and they should show up at 8:30 a.m. because I didn't know how long the registration would take. My great team showed up anywhere from very early to on time. I didn't arrive until 8:50 a.m. (sorry, team!)

We set up a full band's worth of equipment on the trailer: keyboard, full drum set, mics, guitars, etc. Everything went pretty well until we discovered we didn't have a power cord for one of the speakers. Oh, well.

It all came together in the end. The music went well. We all dressed Hawaiian style (the theme of the parade was "Christmas Vacation.") We had banners on the side of our truck promoting our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. We even improv'd some music along the way. And we all had a great time.

Public thanks in no particular order to Mathew, Melanie, Megan and Macy Trout, John, Zach and Zoe Gerbi, Todd and Jan Purcell, Tina Lovelace, Parker Lovelace, Anya and Lilia Rallison. And thanks to Merle Kroepllin for loaning us the trailer and Dale Nichols for loaning us the truck.

Friday, November 30, 2012

"I am nervous about the parade tomorrow"

"I am nervous about the parade tomorrow." I said this to myself, to my wife, and now I am saying to to you.

The Journey of Life worship band is going to be riding a flatbed trailer tomorrow morning in the St. Cloud Christmas parade. We will be singing the songs that we are going to be singing at our Christmas Eve candlelight service. I know it's going to be great fun, but I am nervous. I've never done anything like this before. Things are kinda coming together at the last minute. So I am nervous.

That is the point of this blog post. Not my nervousness, but my naming my nervousness and sharing it authentically with others (like you!).

There can be a temptation for a leader to hide his or her nervousness, to stand up and charge forward like the future can be predicted and everything is under control. Well, the future cannot be predicted with certainty — only probability — and not everything is even within my sphere of control. So I'm feeling rather vulnerable as we prepare for the parade tomorrow.

Having read and listened to some of  Brené Brown's work recently (her blog is ordinarycourage.com), I thought I'd try on admitting vulnerability and nervousness rather than simply hiding behind a stoic facade, just to see what it feels like. A little earlier today I said to myself, "Man, I sure feel nervous about tomorrow." When I arrived home this evening, my wife asked me how I was feeling and I said, "You know, I'm feeling quite nervous about tomorrow." Not that I'm running away or anything like that. But I decided to be courageous and openly admit what I was really feeling.

You know what? It feels pretty good. It feels right. It feels true. It feels like I'm letting people know me instead of presenting them an airbrushed cardboard cutout of some idea of who I think I ought to be and then worrying about what other people think while I try to maintain the false image I project.

Here's what I experienced:

Admitting my nervousness to myself somehow reduces its power over me. When I openly admitted to myself, "Man, I am nervous about tomorrow," instead of simply trying not to be nervous, somehow my nervousness changed character. It was like it moved from my heart out to my skin. I am still nervous, but the feelings of fight, freeze or flight that accompany anxiety in varying intensities moved away from me. It was definitely good to say intentionally, "Man, I am nervous," instead of saying subtly to myself, "Man, I've got to stop being so nervous."

Admitting my nervousness and feelings of vulnerability creates space to share another feeling I am feeling: confidence. I don't know exactly what tomorrow will hold, but I am confident that as the worship band works together, we will handle whatever happens in the morning with grace and good humor. Our worship band is full of great people! I am also confident that God causes all things to work together for those who love him and are called according to his purposes. So even if we totally crash and burn, that doesn't mean God's purposes won't prevail, which is the point anyway.

Sharing my nervousness with my wife also created the opportunity for her to show love to me, which she has done wonderfully from a glass of red wine, to dinner, to three Oreos in a bowl even as I write this. The courage of honest interaction made a place for our relationship to grow.

Having the courage to own, name and share my nervousness today lessened my own anxiety, allowed me to express confidence in my team and my God, and created a space for love to to be practiced in my marriage. My prideful spirit isn't too excited about being vulnerable by sharing my nervousness, but look at all the good that comes from it!

So, I am feeling nervous, vulnerable, excited and confident about the parade tomorrow. I sure hope the sound system works like it did when I tested it!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thank you, OnBeing

I want to publicly thank Krista Tippett and OnBeing.org for posting the unedited interviews that Krista conducts with her guests. I have two reasons for this gratitude:

First, I really feel like I get to "know" the guest a little better. I hear the banter, off-the-cuff remarks and extra stories that don't make it into the produced one-hour radio version of the interview. It is a richer experience for me.

Second, they don't edit out the technical difficulties. This week's show with Brene Brown had a major technical issue right in the middle of it. As a pastor who leads a weekly worship service that all-too-often suffers some sort of glitch, it's liberating (and in a twisted way, even encouraging) to get to listen in while pros try to solve unanticipated malfunctions. Of course, the listener never hears the glitches on the produce show. That is part of the point of producing a finished show.

I recommend "OnBeing" to everyone. It's a thought-provoking and kind conversation about the big questions in life.

Emmanuel = Love

Merry Christmas! As we move into Advent and Christmas, we celebrate the unfathomable mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, in Jesus Christ.

To those who will listen, creation speaks of God’s power and creativity. Romans 1:20 (ESV), “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” An awe-inspiring starry sky, a powerful waterfall, a living cell performing its metabolic dance —these things tell us to seek their maker. This is exactly what civilizations around the world have done throughout human history.

But who is the maker? What is the maker like? What is our relationship to the maker? That is where Jesus comes into the picture. Jesus, the child whose birth we celebrate on Christmas day, “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” (Hebrews 1:3)

This is Good News beyond the wildest hopes of humanity as they seek God on their own. People who believe in one God typically imagine God as an authority figure who must be satisfied (or manipulated) or a disinterested creator who built a toy universe and now lets it play out just to see what will happen (if he even cares).

The idea of God being most accurately represented by a baby boy born to a poor girl and being laid in a feed trough because his family was travelling when he was born is nearly unthinkable. To use a well-worn phrase, it rocks our world. What does this mean that creator of our unfathomable universe presents himself to us as a newborn child?

It means Love.

Our creator desires so much to be known to us — to be in relationship with us — that he enters our world in our way, an infant. Surely this is, to use another well-worn phrase, mind-blowing.

Consider what this means for you. For God so loved YOU that he sent his only son… You are the object of radical, unstoppable love from God. You meet God when you meet Jesus. Again, this is Good News beyond hope because when we look at the life of Jesus, we see a man who was truthful and trustable, desired the best for every person he met and, when push came to shove, was willing to die in our place.
In Jesus, from the newborn babe in the manger to the travelling rabbi to the man on the cross dying a criminal’s death, we see that the core of the God who created the universe is Love.

In this broken world, the news that God’s heart is a heart of Love is the best news that we could hope for. Gaze at the baby in the manger and see the creator of the universe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Why on earth would he do that?

The answer is Love for us.

To contemplate the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, without response is unthinkable. How can one possibly consider what God has done to be known by us and to reconcile us to himself and not be changed? Christmas is a celebration of God’s sacrificial love. Our best response to the inconceivable gift of the baby Jesus who grew to be Christ on the cross and the risen Savior is to reflect his character to the rest of the world.

Our best response is Love for others.

Celebrate Christmas by practicing love!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chasing Turkeys

I was running after a turkey down a long red hallway with lights on both walls every so often. Every time I reached out my hands to grab the turkey, it eluded my grasp. As I ran, the hallway stretched longer and longer. The lights flashed by as I ran ever faster but never fast enough. I wanted, no needed, to catch that turkey. Suddenly the hallway branched into many hallways and a turkey was running away down each branch. I stared wildly from hallway to hallway trying frantically to decide which turkey to chase. My eyes searched for some clue, some reason by which to decide which turkey to chase. But all the hallways were the same. And it seemed every time I looked there were more hallways with more turkeys. Panic grew inside me. The turkeys — I needed to catch them all and I couldn’t even catch one. I collapsed and began to weep. As I knelt sobbing, my tears collected around me into a great puddle. The burden of my impossible duty crushed me utterly, my sense of failure overwhelmed me and my despair was complete.

How long I sat in personal darkness I cannot say. The water of my tears lapped about my legs and I looked up. I was kneeling in the water on the gentle shore of a quiet pond. The sky was clear blue. A delicate breeze lightly ruffled the surface of the water and caused a barely perceptible waving among the trees. I felt a prickly sensation all over my skin, almost an electric vibration. I’m sure it doesn’t sound so in the telling but it was exceedingly pleasant. Quite suddenly I noticed that the hopelessness of the hallway had fallen from me. The pleasant tingling continued to lift me into peace.

“The turkeys,” I muttered. From behind me, a voice at the same time sober and spirited, said, “Ah yes, the turkeys.” 

I stood and turned with a start. A man was standing a few paces from the water’s edge, tranquil in his bearing but filled with energy in his being. He was fully present with me but his eyes were as deep as the universe and seemed to see everywhere at once. I looked and saw dancing joy within him.

I stepped out of the water and walked toward him. My legs were dry as though they had never been wet.

“Sir,” I said, “you know of the turkeys?”

“I do,” said he.

“I needed to catch them and could not,” said I.

“Needed?” said he. There was a tinge of sorrow in his eyes, though the joy was never in danger from the sorrow. Threads of joy ran even through the sorrow.

“I thought I needed to catch the turkeys.”

“Yes, you did think that, didn’t you?”

“Did I not?”

“No, my son.”

“Why were the turkeys running?”

“So you could chase them.”

“And not catch them?”

“The turkeys were never to be caught and kept as though yours. You were created for a joyful turkey chase! Grabbing, clutching, feathers flying, falling, laughing, and jumping up to run again!” His eyes lit up and he started laughing just thinking about the spectacle!

His infectious joy set me laughing, too, as I saw myself through his eyes chasing a wild, wing-flapping bird down the hallway enjoying the chase rather than worrying about the catch.

We laughed in waves for several minutes, trading verbal pictures of crazy turkey-chasing follies.

The laughter finally subsided and I looked again into his eyes. “Then where did I get the idea that I was supposed to catch and keep the turkey for my own?”

“Not from me.”

“Will I ever get the chance to chase the turkey again, the way I was supposed to? To run down the hallway and enjoy the chase for its own sake free of the burden of catching and keeping?” I asked. Though I felt wistful that I might have missed a joyful opportunity, it was impossible to be sad in this man’s presence.

“Can you trust me with your chase? Are able to enjoy the crazy chase and not be caught up in catching the turkey?”

Again, it was the eyes that did the most work on me – inside of me, really. “Yes,” I said, “I am able.”

“Enjoy!” he said.

I felt the warmth of the sun on my cheeks and opened my eyes to a beautiful Thanksgiving morning. The smell of freshly brewing coffee drifted in from the kitchen.  As I lay in bed, I remembered Ecclesiastes that chasing after the stuff of the world is chasing after the wind.  Then I remembered 1 Timothy 6:6, that godliness with contentment is great gain. I resolved anew to let this Thanksgiving be a day on which my heart would be alive with gratitude and instead of chasing after earthly things, I would enjoy the journey that God has given me with the people he has placed in my life.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Stroll Down the Reformation Hall in the Museum of History

October is a great month. The weather begins to turn. Harvest decorations come out. We just begin to turn to the holiday season with anticipation. October is also a special month in the Lutheran calendar. We celebrate the Reformation. There is a lesson for all of us in the Reformation story, but first let’s take a stroll through the halls of history. We will be in the Middle Ages hall, from roughly AD1400 to AD1600.

A quick glance up the hall reveals it is a great time of intellectual fervor. Big changes are afoot! In 1492, Columbus sails the ocean blue. Leonardo Da Vinci begins painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508. In the 1530’s, Copernicus’s idea that the Earth is not the center of the solar system — let alone the universe! — began to gain currency.

The first picture we encounter is a corrupted Catholic church. There are still good people in the church, but the hierarchy has gone really bad. Clerical offices (which meant a good living at the time) were for sale, as was forgiveness of sin through a certificate, called an indulgence, which one could buy from the church. Many popes in the middle ages were known to have mistresses. The Catholic Church severely punished people who teach against them, including burning heretics at the stake.

The next picture is of the political times. The rulers of what is now Germany would like to get out from under Vatican control, including Vatican taxation. The Turks are beginning their attempted conquest through Eastern Europe. The Vatican has a formidable army that could have been sent to Germany were it not for the Turkish threat.

Finally we see a picture of reformers. The first two are John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Germany, both of whom were condemned by the church. Then there is a particularly stubborn monk named Martin Luther who, after years of trying to live a life worthy of God, discovered in the scriptures that it is God himself who makes sinners worthy through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther is surrounded by others whose names you might know: Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, King Henry VIII, John Knox, Phillip Melanchthon and many others.

As we look at the detail near the center of the reformers, we find a document dated October 31, 1517. This is the document which Martin Luther nailed to the public bulletin board (the door of the church, in this case) in the university town of Wittenberg. In this document, Martin Luther called for new debate on the sale of indulgences, asserting that not only were they not effective in bringing forgiveness, but they were driving people away from the true forgiveness that God offers repentant sinners in Christ Jesus. This document sparked heated religious controversy, including death warrants, that lasted more than fifty years.

Down the hall we begin to see pictures of new church bodies, including the Lutheran church. The expression on the faces of the reformers in these pictures is bittersweet because though the reformation succeeded, their intent was not to break up the church, but to call the church back to Christ.

The lessons of the Reformation are numerous. Take care with what you come to believe and why — nobody starts out trying to become a heretic. Stick with your convictions. It can be helpful to have powerful friends in high places whose interests dovetail with yours. God is at work. Examine your own life to see if you need a little reformation yourself. Building programs can be big trouble if not kept in perspective. The truth will win out when people are courageous enough to continue to proclaim it in the face of threats (this does not mean that people will not possibly suffer and die in the process). I'm sure there are many more lessons. Perhaps you can share with me what you learn from the Reformation story.

Celebrate Reformation Day in your life by reading the scriptures (you might try the book of Galatians, one of Luther’s favorites) and allowing yourself to be pulled into the tender mercy of God who forgives penitent sinners for Jesus’ sake.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Learning to Speak like a Christian, Not Just Talk Christian-ese

NOTE: This one is a bit long because I felt it important to include the full text of the scriptures I referenced. I hope you find the included Bible verses helpful.

The scriptures tell us that words are serious business. Read what Jesus has to say about the words we speak, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36–37 (ESV)) But it’s not just judgment. Words are serious in how beautiful and valuable they can be. The scriptures tell us that, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11 (ESV))

As we examine the scriptures, you might notice that there is no prescription for a Christian to litter their speech with Christian-sounding phrases such as, “Praise the Lord!” The only place I can find where words are prescribed is when Jesus taught his disciples to pray with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. But there are many descriptions of how the people of God speak, both positive and negative.


Christians speak with praise to God. (Psalm 34:1 (ESV) I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.)

Christians speak graciously. The roots from which the Greek word for “gracious” is derived include concepts of giving and joy.  (Colossians 4:6 (ESV) Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.)

Christians speak words of blessing. (Romans 12:14 (ESV) Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.)

Christians speak gently. (Proverbs 15:1 (ESV) A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:4 (ESV) A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.)

Christians speak encouragingly. (1 Thessalonians 4:18 (ESV) Therefore encourage one another with these words.)

Christians speak with patience and kindness. (1 Corinthians 13:4–5 (ESV) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;)


Christians do not speak dishonestly. (Proverbs 6:16–19 (ESV) There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: …a lying tongue, …a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.) Note that the phrase, “there are six… seven,” is a way to highlight something. It’s like texting in ALL CAPS WITH MULTIPLE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!

Christians do not speak deceptively or manipulatively. Christians are straight talkers. (Proverbs 4:24 (ESV) Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.)

Christians don’t need to go on and on when they are speaking. (Proverbs 10:19 (ESV) When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.)

Christians do not speak crudely. (Ephesians 5:4 (ESV) Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. Colossians 3:8 (ESV) But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.)

Christians do not speak boastfully, arrogantly, rudely, irritably, or resentfully. (1 Corinthians 13:4–5 (ESV) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;)

It’s not simply the words themselves that are important. Words can be empty. Matthew 6:7 (ESV) “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.

The intention of the speech is just as important as the words used. The Bible tells us that people can utter the right words without their heart being in the right place. (Matthew 7:21 (ESV) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.) People use words to hide their true motives and manipulate situations. (Psalm 55:20 – 21 (ESV) My companion stretched out his hand against his friends; violated his covenant. His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.)

It turns out that our words are not the real problem. The way we speak is really a diagnostic tool to discern the deeper condition of our hearts, like a thermometer helps to discern the inner temperature of a body.

Jesus teaches us that if our words are problematic, the words are not the real problem. If you have a speech problem, you really have a heart problem because your words flow out of your inner life. (Matthew 15:17–20 (ESV) Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”) (See also Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45)

Honestly, it’s not really a question of if you have a speech problem, but when you have a speech problem. When you have a speech problem, your heart is not in the right place. So your heart is where the treatment needs to start.

The Bible gives us a very clear course of treatment for spiritual heart problems.

Step one is confession. When we run from or conceal our sin, we are blocking the cleansing and renewal God wants to give us. (1 John 1:8–9 (ESV) If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.)

Step two is repent. The Greek root for “repentance” indicates that we turn our thinking around. We let go of our selfish thoughts and embrace God’s thoughts. Jesus called it losing your life for his sake. (Luke 24:45–47 (ESV) Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.)

Step three is live in faith. Faith trusts God’s promise that forgiveness is complete in Jesus, that we are God’s children and live in God’s love. (John 3:16 (ESV) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.) It is this forgiveness and love from God toward us that will empower us to speak like a Christian as a natural consequence of what’s going on inside of us.

For all those who want to really speak like a Christian instead of simply adopt Christian-sounding phrases, here are four steps for speaking like a Christian.

One, consider the person before you speak. Often our speech degenerates when our view of the other person degenerates. As much as you may not like or feel hurt by (or whatever) the person to whom or about whom you are speaking, pause to remember that the other person is dearly loved by God… as dearly as you are. (1 Timothy 2:4 (ESV) [God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.) Reflect on God’s kindness toward you as you consider the other person. (Ephesians 4:32 (ESV) Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.) Picture that person as dearly loved by God in whatever way helps you. Imagine a little glow around them. See a shaft of light piercing the heavens and landing on their head. Picture them at the foot of the cross.

Two, listen first. The scriptures tell us that it is quite foolish to answer before you have all the information. (Proverbs 18:13 (ESV) If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. Proverbs 29:20 (ESV) Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.) James tells us that Christians are “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (James 1:19)

Three, consider your words before you speak. This may seem obvious, but the Bible tells us to think about the words we are about to say and then choose, based on scriptural teaching, wisdom, love and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whether we should actually utter the words we are considering. (Ephesians 4:29 (ESV) Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Proverbs 15:28 (ESV) The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. Proverbs 12:18 (ESV) There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.) James goes so far as to tell us that controlling our tongue is a core part of new life in Christ. (James 1:26 (ESV) If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.)

Four, speak with restraint. The scriptures tell us that it is wisdom not to overflow with words. (Proverbs 17:27 (ESV) Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Proverbs 10:19 (ESV) When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.)

The idea of speaking like a Christian does include the words you use, but it has nothing to do with adopting Christian-sounding, pious phrases. It has everything to do with a repentant and grateful heart that rests in God and seeks to spread the love of Christ to all people in all situations.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Do You Have Marigolds in Your Garden?

Do you have marigolds in your garden? After the marigolds come into full bloom, anyone can see them. But between planting and sprouting, the gardener simply has to trust that the seeds are still where they were planted. "Yes, I do have marigolds in my garden," the gardener will say, even though there is no visual evidence and no one would know without being told by the gardener. When the plants first begin to sprout, it's very difficult to discern what type of plant it is. The gardener knows what kind of seeds were planted. The people who have been told by the gardener know what to expect. Perhaps a few very astute and educated observers would be able to see that the tiny shoots are marigolds. As the first few shoots grow, the type of plant becomes more evident. So between planting and sprouting, the gardener and those who have been told simply believe that the seeds are there and will sprout.

This belief affects behavior. If you have planted marigold seeds in your garden, you don't walk on the dirt even if you can't see the flowers at the moment.

The scriptures paint a similar picture of those who have faith — it affects their behavior. James 2:18 - "But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."

We can compare history to a garden. We live in a time of God having planted his promises in the history of the world. Just as a garden begins to put out a few sprouts in the beginning, we see in Jesus Christ the first sprouts of God's ultimate plan to heal the world. The prophets proclaimed that one day the blind will see, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear and the dead will rise. These happened when Jesus walked the earth. We recognize these as the first sprouts of God's plan to restore creation because the gardener, our loving God, has told us in the Bible.

Most of history — most of the present — looks more like a dirt patch than a garden filled with flowers of peace, forgiveness, redemption and joyful life. But that is what people of faith know will be coming because we trust the gardener. And just as planting seeds affects the gardener's behavior (the gardener does not walk on planted flower beds!), so knowledge of the coming redemption of ourselves and the world affects our behavior.

So, metaphorically speaking, do you have marigolds in your garden? Act like it!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Prayer and the Fifth Disciplne

Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management , says there are four classic disciplines in a learning organization:
  • "Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively." (p. 7)
  • "Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action." (p. 8)
  • "Building shared vision is the practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance." (p. 9)
  • "Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together." (p. 10)
In his book, "The Fifth Discipline," Mr. Senge adds one more discipline that is vital for an organization that wants to learn and grow:
  • Systems thinking - The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other 4.
Systems thinking can be described as not only recognizing all the parts of any given system, but recognizing and accounting for the way the components in the system interact. One game they use to help students begin to engage in systems thinking at MIT is called "The Beer Game." In this game, teams students work either as a beer retailer, a beer wholesaler or a beer manufacturer. What happens most often in the game is that as very mild fluctuations in beer demand are introduced, there is a stronger reaction at the wholesale level, which causes an even stronger reaction at the manufacturing level. In the game, each team makes what appears to be reasonable decisions in isolation. But because of a reinforcing feedback, those common sense decisions result in wild fluctuations through the supply chain with empty shelves at one point and a full year's worth of beer inventory in a retail cooler at another point. These fluctuations happen because each team is thinking about their own situation rather than considering the entire system of retailer, wholesaler and manufacturer.

Systems happen all around us. (Yes, I will be getting to my point about prayer!) 

When you fill a glass of water, a system is taking place. Your eyes see the empty glass under the faucet. You adjust the water faucet valve which starts the water flow. As the glass fills up, you see the water line approaching the amount of water you want so you turn off the valve, which shuts off the flow of water. Simple? Yes. But not always.

Filling a water glass is essentially an immediate feedback system. At the beginning of the system, you want things to be different, so you start opening the water valve. As the water flows, you probably open it even more because you don't want to wait for a slow trickle of water to fill the glass. This is reinforcing feedback. Then as you approach the desired amount of water, you begin to turn the valve off because you don't want further change in the amount of water in the glass. This is stabilizing feedback. A system can essentially be diagrammed as a circle with every element either reinforcing the previous one or stabilizing it.

Reinforcing feedback tends to increase whatever is going on. If one person raises their voice, then the other person raises their voice, then the first person raises their voice even more, and so on into a shouting match. Each person's decision to be heard by increasing their volume provided reinforcing feedback into the system. Stabilizing feedback tends to counter whatever is going on. Change in organizations often encounters significant stabilizing feedback.

There is one more component to every system as you go around the circle. (Hang with me. I'm almost to the prayer point!)

The water system works easily and simply because the feedback from each component (water level, your eyes, valve position, water flow) is nearly instantaneous. This is not always the case. Have you ever tried to adjust the water for a shower that has a long bit of pipe between the water valve and the shower head (for instance, those hand-held show heads)? Have you ever ended up with the water too hot and had to turn it back down, and then back up, and then back down, as you slowly got the water to the desired temperature? The reason this happens is because of the third variable in every system: delay.

Systems with no delay respond immediately and tend to be easier to handle. Systems with more delay require more discipline in thought and reaction.

There is a delay or "lag time" in every system. Sometimes it's measured in tiny increments, like the search time on a computer's hard drive. Sometimes there is a great deal of lag time in a system, such as the long-term effects of government policies. This is what makes things like environmental policy so difficult. There is a great deal of lag time in our effect on the environment but, since the things we do often create reinforcing feedback, we could be causing major damage and not know it until it is well beyond our ability to adjust for with reasonable measures.

Now, to the prayer point!

If you think of prayer as a system of communication and action between God and you, you will get frustrated if you don't acknowledge delay in the system. God has clearly told us that there can be significant and intentional delay in the system. "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (2 Peter 3:9 ESV) This delay does not mean that God does not care. It is a function of all that God cares about and that God's idea of what is important in what time is not necessarily the same as ours. (I encounter this with my own children — they "need" something right now! I don't perceive the situation the same way they do, which frustrates them.) God doesn't see time as we do. God could say what Aslan says to Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when she asked if she would see him again soon, "My child, all times are soon to me."

So, be a "Fifth Discipline" prayer. Understand systems thinking. Pray, trusting God to keep his promises but expecting variable lag time because that's what God told us to expect! You are talking to a God whose foolishness is wiser than man's wisdom, whose weakness is more powerful than man's strength. Don't let your trust in God waive because of the lag time. Put your prayer in the system and trust God's response in his time and way..

There is more valuable reflection to be had with regard to systems thinking and prayer, but that's enough for now. Pray on, my friend!

I discovered that I have something in common with Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful companion through the entire adventure of “The Lord of the Rings.” In the final paragraph of the tumultuous trilogy, Sam’s wife, Rose, welcomes him home and sets his little baby, Eleanor, in his lap. From this position, Sam utters the final words of the entire three-book series: “Well, I’m back.”

I feel a kinship with Sam as I write to you. I have been on a four-month journey away from my church family and this blog. Now, at the close of my sabbatical adventure, I am once again settling down to my duties as pastor of Journey of Life Lutheran Church. With a deep breath, placing my hands on the keyboard, I think exactly what Sam thought: “Well, I’m back.”

The sabbatical was quite an adventure in ways both big and small, in both my observable life and my inner life. It was less than I thought it would be and more than I thought it would be. I look forward to sharing sabbatical reflections as this blog comes alive again.

It was a great journey and it’s great to be back! My whole family missed Journey of Life terribly. It’s good to be home.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Easter Changes Everything!

Easter Sunday is, for me, the most encouraging holiday of the year. On Easter God not only proved his love for us, but his power to give us what he promises, by raising Jesus from the dead. If Jesus really was raised from the dead, that changes our whole world-view. Easter not only confirms God’s existence, but it also shows us that he keeps his promises. Easter changes everything!

Therefore, as we read the Bible, we can see that God is the giver of good gifts. In Jesus God has given us all we need for life. Here are five big needs we have that are met by the gifts of God, (gifts that are signed, sealed and delivered by the resurrection of Jesus Christ). That is why Easter changes everything.

Psalm 138:3 says, “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.” (Psalm 138:3 ESV) We all need power, motivation, inspiration, encouragement. Jesus often went away by himself to pray. He knew that power to live on comes not from having a “religion” (a system of rules to follow), but from living in a relationship with God. Through the Holy Spirit, God gives us power to live on. (Acts 9:31)

Everybody needs people. One of God’s first observations was that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Scientific research tells us that relationships are important for our health. People who have close relationships live longer, feel better and have lower stress. God knows that you need people. That’s part of what God gives us in belonging to a church.

Belonging to a church is an important gift from God to encourage us. “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (Hebrews 10:25, NIV). “But encourage one another daily.” (Hebrews 3:13, NIV) As a gathering of people who openly acknowledge God’s grace on their lives, a church is a place where deep, true friendships can form. What a gift! Friendship changes our lives.

We live in a constantly changing world. Expert advice about health and well-being (and many other areas of life) seems to shift every year. God offers people stability through the timeless principles of life he gives them in the Bible. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 ESV)

Every one of us has unique talents, training and experience. Romans 12:6 says, “We all have different gifts” that we can use. Each of us has an important role to play in the world. No one is unimportant. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Corinthians 12:12,18, NIV). There is nowhere you can become more you than in the church. One of the basic purposes of the church is to help you discover yourself and use your gifts and talents. God wants you to be all that you can be.

You have a purpose. The Bible says that the very hairs on your head are numbered. You are not an accident. “…you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalms 139:13, NIV) There is a reason for your being here.

Easter changes everything. God wants to give you great gifts, but there is one catch. You must put Jesus in charge of your life. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25, NIV)

When we look at the Bible and the Christian faith, we all face a problem that scientists face in experimentation called ‘expectancy.’ We see what we expect to see. The challenge is to look at the Bible and hear God’s message to us independent of our preconceived notions about the Christian faith. Most of us know people who bear the name “Christian” but have spoken or acted in ways that were disrespectful, hurtful, or downright mean. Don’t let someone else’s misrepresentation of Christ keep you from receiving the wonderful gifts God wants to give you.

Jesus, himself, presents the face of God to us mortals. Easter is the guarantee of that truth. Easter changes everything!

Happy Easter!
Pastor John

Friday, March 23, 2012

Receiving the Kingdom of God like a Child—What It Is and What It Isn't.

A brief reflection on Mark 10:13-16

People were bringing their children to have Jesus bless them. The disciples rebuked the people for this... then Jesus rebuked the disciples for rebuking the people! Mark tells us that Jesus was indignant. Then Jesus took the moment to tell anyone who would listen that, "...whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."

The big distinction that needs to be made here is between childlike and childish. The Kingdom of God, the Bible tells us, is righteousness (being right with God), peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Childlike faith grows out of implicit trust in God, which leads continually to peace and joy. Childish beliefs are the things we work to help our children grow out of if we want them to be good people.

  • Trusting
  • Inquisitive
  • New to the world
  • Unfeigned
  • Humble
  • Playful
  • Self-centered
  • Immature
  • Foolish
  • Blaming
  • Demanding
  • Know-it-all

Of special note is the idea of inquisitiveness. Atheists of the more evangelical variety use this passage to denigrate faith by claiming that having faith means turning our minds off. "Unquestioning," they would say. This is a complete misunderstanding.

We should indeed have the unquestioning presumption of God's love for us just as small chlidren never question their parents' love for them. But children are always asking question. They are information sponges, learning machines, junior scientists (who are mostly experimenting on their parents!). If children don't inquisitively interact with the world around them, parents begin to worry.

So receiving the Kingdom like a child does not mean turning our minds off and asking no questions. Nor does it mean that we think God is going to rescue us from our own foolishness.

Receiving the kingdom like a little child means that we trust unquestioningly in God's boundless love for us demontrated through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Secure in that foundation, we let our minds and spirits come alive, engaging this wondrous and mysterious life, understanding that we have been given freedom to learn, try, fail, succeed and grow.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

From Lent to Love

Another Ash Wednesday has come and gone. Here we are in another Lent. So what do we do with Lent 2012? Is this a bigger and better Lent than last year? Is it new and improved? Is this Lent 2.0? (Or, perhaps, 45.0 in my case?)There is a cereal called “Shreddies” that’s been sold in Canada and the U.K. for nearly 70 years. It’s equivalent to our “Shredded Wheat.” Simple, square, wheat biscuits. Beloved and boring. In 2006, an intern who was trying his hand at advertising after an unsuccessful stint on the improv’ circuit, came up with the idea to tilt the square Shreddies on a 45º angle and call it “New Diamond Shreddies.” His work group burst into laughter. They seized the idea, turning it into a full-blown (and award-winning) marketing campaign. The marketing campaign included the usual focus groups and consumer testing. The funny thing is that many of the people who tested “New Diamond Shreddies” remarked on the difference between the old cereal and the new cereal. Evidently when you are expected to find differences in a new and improved product, you find differences that aren’t even there.

The truth is that we don’t need a new and improved Lent. Lent is really a call to foundational truth. Lent reminds us that the wages of sin is death. The wages of our sin is our death. The wages of my sin is my death. That’s not new and improved. It is venerable and classic. Lent is a time to remember — a time to dust off the book of what might have been without Jesus and have a good, long look.

The purpose of this Lenten look is not so we can feel bad again, but so that we can be reminded that we are saved by God’s grace, not by the goodness of the lives we lead.

Most of us live pretty good lives, pretty decent lives. We are generally kind and reasonably generous. We are not given to grudges and revenge. We are not unfaithful to our spouses. We are usually polite and generally honest. In short, we’re pretty good people. And that’s why we especially need Lent.

It can be pretty easy for pretty good people to feel pretty different from people who aren’t so good. That’s why we need Lent.

In the following encounter recorded in Luke 7:36-50 (ESV), Jesus links forgiveness and love:

“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering, said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

You and I are people who have been forgiven much. Lent is for remembering that fact. When Jesus said he didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners, he wasn’t saying that some people don’t need forgiveness. He was telling us that we all need him. He was calling to mind Ecclesiastes 7:20 (ESV): Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

The “New Diamond Shreddies” campaign did, as a matter of fact, result in a significant increase in sales. Not because they were a different product than before, but simply because people took a new look at the old cereal. People were talking about it (in some cases arguing about it). But the silly campaign caused people to look again.

So, maybe (if I can write this without sounding blasphemous or offensive), the “New Diamond Shreddies” campaign represents the best analogy for Lent: Taking another good look at the same thing we always look at, the Gospel — forgiveness of sins and life everlasting through Jesus Christ.

In Lent we remember that we are the sick who need a doctor, the unrighteous who need a Savior. We take time to look in as honest a mirror as the Holy Spirit will grant us to remember that we are part of the “all” who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Of course, sorrow can be part of this process — sorrow over the brokenness we discover not only around ourselves but inside ourselves. But in 2 Corinthians 7:10 (ESV), the Bible tells us that this can be a Godly sorrow: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret.

The Lenten sorrow is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance, which leads to love. We remember that we are forgiven and are therefore compelled to love. The one who does not love the fellow human who is seen cannot love God who is unseen. (1 John 4:20) The one who is forgiven much loves much. (Luke 7:36-50) This is how all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 3:35) And now abide these three: faith, hope and love — but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

The end result of a good Lent is not sorrow, but love. The outcome of our contemplation of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ is that we are renewed in the profound depth of God’s love for us. That love energizes us to love those around us unilaterally, to seek their good unconditionally, to love others as Christ first loved us and gave himself up for us.

In Lent, we especially remember that the front door of heaven has a sign on it that says, “No Sinners allowed,” and we remember that that means us. But, upon closer inspection, we see that there is a note taped underneath the sign that reads, “Welcome home, my beloved. All is forgiven. Please share the good news. — Love, Jesus.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Here Comes the Love Month

Okay, it’s Valentine’s Month. No, that’s not a misprint. What else happens in February? So let’s talk about love.

It’s great to feel “in love” with someone. Swept up with emotion at the thought of them. Dreams of their presence distracting you from work. It is a truly wonderful feeling that the Bible almost never addresses. Even when that kind of love does play into the biblical stories, it doesn’t always produce good results. More importantly, it is not the love the Bible tells us is at the core of God’s being and calls us to make the core of our lives.

That love is described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

This may seem like the standard “love” post — and maybe it is — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. This is a core truth of life. The truth will set you free. How you define “loaded” words in your life (for example, “love,” “forgive,” “peace,” “success,” “enemy”) will have a huge impact on the real course your life takes. Since the scriptures tell us that “love” is the greatest thing and identify it with the core of whom God is, let’s take the time to get it right. At the end of this article I will give you an important and practical suggestion on loving others.

Love, in the sense in which it defines the life of a Christian, is not a feeling. It is a decision about how to treat people. Look at the passage above. You will see that each and every word describing what “love” looks like is a matter of choice in your life.

I am not saying you will never feel impatient. I am saying that if you love someone you can choose not to be impatient with them even though it can be hard. I am not saying you will never feel envious of someone. I am saying that if you are going to be a person of love, you can reject that feeling when it comes over you and instead choose to be happy for the person for whatever precipitated your envy.

Love in the biblical sense is a practice. It is a decision about whom you want to be and how you want to act. Jesus said that we are even supposed to love our enemies. He never said to feel warmly affectionate toward them. He did say to give them a drink if they are thirsty.

Notice that love does not depend on the other person. It depends on you, on how you choose to treat people. Here’s what Jesus said about being kind to those who are kind to you: Big deal! Everyone does that.

So, why should you make the choice to love other people irrespective of how they are treating you? There are at least two good reasons:

First, love toward others is the appropriate response to God’s love toward us. The parable of the ungrateful steward depicts a man who, after being forgiven a crushing debt, went out and threatened another man over a tiny debt. When the original lender heard what had happened, he reinstated the huge debt and had the man thrown in jail until he repaid every penny.

God’s love for mankind is the core story running through the entire Bible. God loved the world so much he sent Jesus to be our Savior. In Jesus we are completely forgiven. God sees us as his children not his servants. In response, God expects us to treat others as he has treated us. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) This is not a grudging love. It comes from a heart that receives God’s amazing love and lives in humble gratitude. As we live in and absorb God’s love for us, the cleansed and redeemed soul says, “I have received so much love from God, how could I not love those around me?”

Second, loving others is the best thing for us. Consider the opposite of the words used in 1 Corinthians 13 and think about whether they indicate a happy and peaceful state of mind: Impatient. Unkind. Envious. Boastful. Arrogant. Rude. Selfish. Irritable. Resentful. Seriously, who would choose this anyway? Choosing love means choosing your own happiness and peace.

Here is the practical suggestion: become bilingual.

There is a concept called “love languages” that can help you in many ways, including demystifying some of your relationships. Have you ever thought you were being kind to someone only to have them get mad at you? Sometimes that’s because you are simply not speaking their language.

Dr. Gary Chapman describes five love languages: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Physical Touch (hugs, pats on the back, etc.), Quality Time, and Receiving Gifts. Each of us best receives love in our own love language. If you are an “acts of service” person, inside your head you might respond in your mind, “big deal, talk is cheap, show me how much you care” when someone gives you words of affirmation. Likewise a “words of affirmation” person will be less readily able to interpret acts of service (for example, making lunch or cleaning out the car) as evidence of love.

So, your job, as someone who has devoted themselves to a life of love, is two-fold.

First, learn other people’s love languages and show them love in their language. If their love language is acts of service but yours is quality time, show your love by doing an act of service rather than arranging for time together. It won’t feel quite right to you at first because it’s not your love language (“exactly how does making a sandwich show love?”), but it will begin to feel right as you receive responses indicating the other person received the love you want to communicate.

Second, be willing to receive love in a language other than your own. If your spouse’s love language is acts of service and she does something nice for you, be willing to hear her love language and understand that you were just shown love, even though your love language is not acts of service.

This is other-centered love in the image of God’s love. Picture a marriage, a family, a church, a community where people live out biblical love in awareness of other people’s love languages. This is a picture of the redeeming, renewing love of God in Christ Jesus infecting and transforming our lives. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Jesus Sits on Plastic Chairs (reblog from Donna Olmstead, 1/16/2012)

I finally found a church that works for me. It’s a Loosely Structured Lutheran called Journey of Life – ever after to be referred to as JOL. Some people wouldn’t consider it a church at all, because there’s not a pew, stained glass window or hymnal in sight. We gather in a grade school cafeteria, sit on molded plastic chairs and read the service from a large screen with computerized text.

Our organ is a violin, two guitars and a set of drums. Pastor John plays one of the guitars. Sometimes other people join in with flutes. The words to the hymns are on the screen, which is great until I sit behind a tall person. If we sang traditional hymns, that wouldn’t matter at all because I have 98 percent of them memorized. (Inevitable after going to church since I was an infant.)  Instead, we sing contemporary Christian music. That means there are one or two verses and you repeat the last line at least a dozen times. I like some of the songs, but it’s nice when occasionally we regress to “Rock of Age” and “Amazing Grace.” Then it doesn’t matter whom I’m sitting behind.

I suppose I could sing the old hymns if I attended a traditional Lutheran church. The kind where you look out over a sea of gray hair, but one of the things I like about JOL is the mix of ages from newborn to me. And I’m getting used to the casualness. There are as many jeans as there are slacks, and dresses and suits are close to nonexistent. I used to think that dressing up for church showed respect, but now I’m pretty sure that God just wants us to show up on Sunday. Pantyhose optional.

Some people probably show up to find out what kind of snacks there’ll be on the table with the Keurig coffee maker. The one-cup kind that always makes me smile when I remember a church we used to attend in Michigan. There was an old woman named Lydia who took command of the kitchen and insisted on making the coffee each Sunday. (Lutherans pretty much live on coffee.) Lydia made terrible coffee. So weak it almost wasn’t brown. But Lutherans aren’t confrontational except for that one little incident with the Ninety Five Theses, a door and some nails. So we just drank the coffee and smiled. The coffee at that church probably improved immensely when Lydia went up to the Big Kitchen in the Sky.

One of the things I like about JOL is Pastor John’s announcements that visitors shouldn’t feel obliged to give an offering and that anyone can take communion if they believe that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. He also explains how communion is offered (he handles the bread end of it and there are cups from which you sip or dip.) That’s one of things that always causes me a little anxiety when we travel and visit other churches. Everyone seems to have a different way of giving communion, so I watch closely before my turn comes around. (One of the side effects of emphysema is stressing out over things that should be nonconsequential.)

Another thing I really like at JOL is that Pastor John isn’t a preacher. He’s a teacher. The kind that you used to wish taught more than one subject when you were in college. His sermons give you something to think about when you leave church. And that something isn’t about burning in hell or having to do good deeds to be saved. Right now we’re on a series of psalms. And I have the feeling that we’ll never look at them in the same way once he gets done with them.

Anyway, despite the plastic chairs and the music that can get a little repetitious at times, I feel as though JOL and I are a good fit. And that’s comforting after going for years feeling as though I was just an outside observer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fresh Starts and New Beginnings

Ah, New Year’s Day… that arbitrary turn of the calendar that gives us hope for the future. This year things will be different. This year I will lose some weight. This year I will get my finances in order. This year I will really make progress in straightening out some things in my life.

Here are two questions to think about as we dip our toes in 2012:
1) What do you want to change in your life this year?
2) Why did you wait?

I don’t mean to be snarky with question 2. There are legitimate reasons to use New Year’s Day as a potential turning point. We need periodic, intentional points of reflection in our lives. Holidays such as New Year’s Day in the U.S. offer wide cultural support for pausing to think about our lives and consider turning point decisions.
One of the counselors interviewed in “The Art of Marriage” (the monthly marriage study that is currently underway) said that the cross of Christ offers, “fresh starts and new beginnings.” That sounds like New Year’s Day. But the Bible tells us that every moment offers a fresh start and a new beginning.

One day while Jesus was teaching, some religious leaders flung a woman at his feet saying that she was caught in the very act of adultery. They reminded Jesus that according to the law of Moses she should be stoned to death then asked what they should do. (Uh... Where was the man? How did they catch her in the act? This time I do mean to be snarky!) The scriptures tell us that Jesus bent down and drew in the dirt. Then he said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one the accusing crowd dispersed, starting with the older people. Jesus looked up and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers?” She said, “They have all left.” Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.” (Luke 8:2-11)
Talk about fresh starts and new beginnings! This is Jesus’ way. He does not gloss over the wrongs. He calls sin, “sin.” Then he offers the forgiveness that only he can offer, sending us on our way free of our past guilt. The freedom from guilt is meant to free us to live the high life of love rather than be dragged down by our past.

On the cross, Jesus bore the punishment of our sin. We are free from guilt and shame. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says to each of us. Now as we go our way, we are free to live out our lives with peace, courage, even joy in the face of an unknown future, in the face of unloving people around us, in the face of all the things that neither reflect nor support a life of faith, hope and love.

In Christ, every moment can be a fresh start and a new beginning!

Paul writes about his own spiritual journey, a journey that includes things in his past that he regrets. He displays the attitude of those who trust Jesus’ words, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 3:13–14 (ESV)

New Year’s Day can certainly function as a time for reflection on your life and a decision to move forward. But please don’t let New Year’s Day be the only point of reflection in your life or your once yearly time when you decide to move forward. Every day in your journey through life is a day in which God can bring new things into your life. New growth. New peace. New adventures. Fresh starts and new beginnings.

Here is something you might adopt to help you move into a life that is a fresh start and new beginning every moment. Each night as you lie down at end the day, repeat Jesus’ words, “Neither do I condemn you.” Follow them with a brief prayer of thankfulness. Each morning when you rise, remind yourself of Paul’s words, “One thing I do, forgetting what is behind, I press forward toward the prize for which Christ has called me heavenward.” Then have a moment of prayer listing the things you expect to encounter that day and entrusting them to Jesus.

Every moment of realization, every new thought, every encounter with scripture or another human being can be a fresh start and a new beginning. Even right now as you are reading this!

Happy New Moment!
Pastor John