Vacation and Worship

My wife and I returned yesterday from a two week vacation.  I’ve found as I’ve aged that it pretty much takes two weeks for me to really feel rested, one just won’t do the trick.

While we were gone we worshiped twice at a church in South Carolina.  We’ve been there before and we have always heard the Gospel proclaimed in that place. It’s good, especially for pastors, to spend time under someone else’s teaching.  For those of us who preach regularly it gives us an opportunity to hear maybe another perspective on a text or another take on a topic.  For those who spend Sunday morning in the pews it’s also gives them a view of something a little different from their regular Sunday morning fare. (Let’s face it, pastors, we all have our hobby horses and our styles and, since none of us are Jesus, none of us are perfect preachers).

I confess I don’t understand those who think that a family vacation also means a vacation away from Sunday worship.  Every time we enter a sacred place, we enter into an immediate interaction with the God of the universe.  And every place where the Gospel is proclaimed in its purity is indeed a sacred place–whether in a store front or pole barn or a 200 year old church like the one I serve.  As Christians we should long for that weekly fellowship before the living God with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And yet so many of us use excuses for why we aren’t in church on Sundays–vacation being one of those excuses.

Sometimes picking a church to attend on vacation can be a little dicey.  We generally don’t know the congregations or the pastors in the places we visit.  We’re not always sure what is being taught there.  So I have some suggestions.  First, pay attention to the denomination.  That won’t be a sure fire answer to the question about what we can expect, but it will help.  Of course there are orthodox congregations and pastors in even the most unorthodox denominations as there are unorthodox congregations and pastors in the most orthodox denominations.  Still, the denomination is a generally good guide.  Second, don’t pick a church solely on the time of service, whether early or late.  Going to the local “community church” because it’s time fits your schedule best is a roll of the dice at best.  Third, be open and friendly to the people who are members there.  I know the people are supposed to be friendly to visitors, and I hope they are everywhere, but visitors shouldn’t just be passive receivers of greetings–after all, these are people of our family in Christ.  Finally, make a joyful noise unto the Lord and learn something about Jesus.

Happy vacation worship.

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What We Preach Matters

I am a big advocate of expository preaching.  This style of preaching involves going through the Biblical text verse by verse (or something close to that).  I most often preach straight through a book of the Bible.  Right now I’m preaching through Deuteronomy and I must admit it is occasionally taxing my ingenuity because it is not always easy to make sermon material out of some of the laws.  I started this method some years ago because I believe many people miss too much of God’s Word when we stick solely to the assigned texts for the church year.

I read an article recently which reminded me of the danger of expository preaching–I could miss the proclamation of the Gospel.  For example, if I proclaim God’s Word from Deuteronomy this Sunday but fail to connect what is taught there to Jesus Christ who was crucified and risen for me, then I have debased the pulpit,, for Jesus and Jesus alone is our Savior.  The Old Testament speaks in progressive revelation of the One who would rid us of the stain of our sin, and it is our duty to bring that out in its fullness.  What the Law meant to people in 1800 BC is irrelevant in the light of Christ and I must make sure the people in the pews before me understand what the text means now that the fullness of the revelation of God has been made known to us.

Preaching is a great privilege but it also carries with it great responsibility.  As James points out, those who teach in the Church will be judged by a higher standard.  We who have been given this privilege must remember we have been called to speak of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Our opinions on most things don’t matter.  Historical information may be interesting, but it is of little purpose if it does not contribute to the proclamation of Christ for us.

Like many other things, preaching styles are subject to fads.  Recently there was this experiment with telling stories rather than preaching sermons.  From reports on sermons I’ve received, it seems to be pretty much a failure because it strays from the Word too easily.  But even the best preaching style can fail miserably if the preacher forgets why we’re really here and Who we really serve.

School Shootings Aren’t The Problem

Terrible things have been happening in our country.  Multiple attacks made on schools by young people have made everyone nervous and every politician is fighting to get in front of a microphone so they can “deplore” and “promise change” and fix what so far seems unfixable.  Everyone has a program or a policy that they claim will solve the problem and absolutely every single one of those programs or policies will fail.

Of course guns are said to be the culprits.  But guns are inanimate objects.  They are incapable of doing anything on their own.  If you lay a gun on a table and never touch it nothing will happen except a layer of dust will decorate it.  Guns are not responsible for shootings, people are responsible for shootings and if we outlawed all guns of all types people who wanted to kill would find another way to do it.  My understanding is that a bomb can be made from things any of us could buy at a hardware store.  What are we going to do–outlaw fertilizer?

The problem we are facing is one caused not by the availability of weapons but by the desire of people to use those weapons.  There is the problem.

We are all born sinners.  I believe that any one of us is quite capable of committing an evil act, given the right circumstances.  A well ordered society which promotes behavior that encourages community and interpersonal relationships that are both deep and continuing will have fewer outbreaks of violence and evil than an atomistic society that speaks only of “rights” and hardly ever of “responsibilities”.

Friends we live in that very atomistic society in which everyone proclaims their “rights” (real and imagined) frequently and loudly.  American culture is today sick unto death.

I have no hope for the future of this nation if God does not send another Great Awakening among us–an Awakening that will last through multiple generations so that the rot that invests our public and private lives will be beaten back and replaced by (dare I say it) personal virtue and public responsibility.

The politicians can’t fix what is wrong with this country.  The courts can’t fix what’s wrong with this country.  The schools can’t fix whats wrong with this country.  Don’t waste your time looking to them.  If this nation will survive at all it can only do so when Christians begin to take God’s Word seriously–when the Sermon on the Mount becomes our standard–when a biblical worldview guides our lives–when we who claim to follow Christ begin to live His way, showing the world around us the superiority of God’s way of life in this world.  All too often it’s hard to tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians in how we live, how we speak, how go about our work, how we behave.

So let those who claim to follow Christ be the difference.  Even if we can’t save America, we can witness to the One who can.

Lutheran Pietism

It’s said that when the early German settlers came to this country they often brought two books with them–Luther’s translation of the Bible and Johann Arendt’s book True Christianity.  True Christianity was the opening statement, if you will, in the movement that became known as Pietism.  Since that time this movement has been hailed as a saving force for Reformation theology and demonized as a substitution of personal feelings for Biblical truth.

I’ve been asked to write a little about Pietism and I’ll admit that I think it has overall been a good thing, but like any system established by people, it has its flaws and dangers.

The early Reformers did not spend much time on systematizing their theology–they were too busy dealing with the immediate problems and dangers they were facing.  In the generations after Luther’s death, Lutheran scholars began to work on theology in way Luther had not.  Indeed, some of the most famous ones began to again use the methodologies of the Scholastic scholars Luther so disliked.  That, combined with the increasing Rationalism of the age, led many Lutheran clergy to treat faith as a series of doctrines which, once learned and professed, would lead to salvation for the believer.  There was little discussion of what that should mean for the life of someone who professed Christ as Savior.

Arendt’s work was meant to encourage Christians to do more than simply recite statements, but to allow Christ to change their lives, to alter the way they saw the world and behaved in it.  It was, in effect, a call to sanctification in the life of a believer.

A generation later Philip Spener wrote a new introduction to True Christianity which came to be called the Pia Desideria.  This is often cited as the beginning of the Pietism movement.  It was a powerful movement in Germany and Scandinavia for several centuries.  Many of the Lutherans who came to American brought this as part of their religious understanding.  The great organizer of early American Lutheranism was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who was trained at the University of Halle, the center of German Pietism at the time.  Later on Scandinavian immigrants brought their version of the movement to the Us.

At its best Pietism was a holistic movement which taught both good doctrine and a life of piety, a faith life that showed itself in good works.  At its worst Pietism could become overly fixated on the importance of a a personal response to  Christ leading them to a semi-Pelagianism that substituted a person’s willful acceptance for Christ’s saving election.  It would therefore be wrong to completely identify piety with Pietism.  One can without a doubt live a pious life without being a Pietist.  Works of piety are not part of a movement, but of a lifestyle.

On the whole Pietism had a lasting impact on Lutheran thought and life, especially in the United States where Lutheranism has remained a dynamic religious movement even as it has shed part of it’s ethnic identity

 

What About Us?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m thinking about the nature and current state of the Church in the 21st century.  Just to let you know up front, I am a committed congregationalist.  I believe, as we say in the AFLC, that the local congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.

That said, we must now answer what the nature of a true congregation might be.  First and foremost, a true congregation is one which gets the Gospel right.  There is no true Church where the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us is not frequently and properly proclaimed.  One of the worse things that can be done by a preacher is to assume the Gospel is known and remembered among the people in the pews.  Because the Gospel is so contrary to what our sin soaked minds can create, we must be reminded over and again just how we are justified before God.  Our natures want to earn heaven so that we can be like God–the very sin our first parents committed.  But that is impossible and so it is only through grace giving faith that salvation is possible.

If a congregation is to be Church, it must also be a living congregation.  That is, the local congregation will not be Church if it is simply a gathering of friends or a club, or doers of good deeds or a group of people who gather in one place but neither share concern for one another and the trials of our lives.  If a congregation is to be Church it should be a place where people of all sorts gather together for Word and Sacrament, share with one another our walk in this world with all of its joys and trials, and work together to build up the Kingdom of God on earth.  Anything else would be a false “church”.

In my opinion huge congregations can be many things, but they fail at being the Church because they lack the closeness and shared life together that is required to be a free and living congregation.  The former Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, wrote a book in which he argued that no parish should have more than 300 members.  If there are more than that, there is not a true community because of the inability to know one another in any meaningful sense of the term.  It’s also just about the place where a solo pastor would no longer be able to do his service well.

There is another problem that comes with a large congregation–it is easy for people to hide there and not engage in the life of the Church.  A living congregation, a true Church, has a place for the service of every member.  There is no room for spiritual hitchhikers, every member in service ought always to be a goal of the true Church.  Now some of our members might be physically or mentally unable to serve in most respects.  But prayer is a service; telephone calls to shut ins is a service; buying flowers for the chancel is a service; and the list could go on.  The point is that a living congregation is one in which all  members know that they are a contributing part of the Kingdom of God–they are the Church.

What Is The Church

Our congregation is at the  beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead.  That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world.  With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.

The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion.  For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc.  But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong.  So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]

Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been.  Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church.  Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.

That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture.  The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers.  Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.

Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church.  At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur.  But what about relationships outside the congregation?  What is the role of the Church there?  What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?

In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God.  I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”.  That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.

 

By Our Fruits

I’m teaching through 1 Thessalonians right now and I’m using multiple commentaries as part of my preparation.  One is the popular Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay. (Look, I know there are some problems with his theology, but that doesn’t mean there is no good fruit there.  F. F. Bruce considered him a Christian brother so who am I to deny that assessment?)

Anyway, Barclay has this sentence in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of men it produces.  The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men.”

That raised the question for me–have I been one of the best of all men this week?  Could people see Christ in me when they looked at my ways.  Frankly, the answer is kind of mixed for me.  Some see the caring pastor,  but others see the guy who can be angry and dismissive.  Some see a model of the faith, others see a man who is less than perfect in his family relationships.  Some see a busy man who works hard, and others see someone who has a tendency to put things off until the last minute or find excuses for not doing what needs doing (apologies to Garrison Keillor).

Sometimes I think we are often too ready to use the idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner as an excuse for failure to grow in sanctification.  In chapter 4 Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us that, “this is the will of God, your sanctification …”

So I ask you, friends, when someone looks at your life, do they see that faith in Christ produces the best of all men (and women)?