There’s a Hurricane Coming!

Our daughter and son-in-law live just west of Myrtle Beach, SC.  The governor of that state has just ordered an evacuation of that area.  Kate says they will probably stay unless the storm changes trajectory, which is now over 50 miles north of their location.  They’re going to ride it out as they’ve done before.

That got me thinking about how life in our degenerating culture is a lot like a hurricane.  It’s unpredictable.  I don’t know about you, but I am constantly surprised at the crazy things I read, hear and see in the world around me.  It’s as if everyone has gone bouncing off the walls insane.  I can’t even keep track of all that comes down the track anymore. (Not that I want to)

Like a hurricane our cultural shifts are often accompanied by a lot of wind.  People spend huge amounts of time talking about what to wear this week, what to listen to this week, who is the next big thing in the world.  And then, of course, there are those like me who spend a lot of time bemoaning all of this.  Lot’s of wind and words blowing around.

And then there’s the rain.  Way too much rain for the ground to hold, so it runs off and the streams flood and homes and fields are damaged.  I’ve been through several of these things and they’re never fun.

The culture of this country is indeed like a hurricane–unpredictable and over all destructive.  But just as my daughter and son-in-law intend to ride out hurricane Florence, so we, the followers of Jesus, must ride out the cultural thrill ride that is America in the 21st century.  We can’t control the culture, but we can live as examples of what a God focused culture would look like.  We can be the light in the darkness and the port in the storm for those God is calling out of worldliness and into godliness.  We can, indeed we must, be the people of God who are different.  If we try to imitate the culture in any serious way, it will take us over.  Only when we stand beside, and yet apart, can we serve God, to whom be all the glory, now and forever. Amen and amen.

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It’s Not Always A Rose Garden

There was a country song out many years ago called “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden”–in other words, I never told you life would be always easy.  Right now my wife and I are experiencing a “not-rose garden”.  We live in a condo and early Sunday morning the water heater in the apartment above us broke and water came down through our walls into our bathroom and kitchen.  Now the drywall has to be replaced and the bathroom redone.  We will have to leave our home for about 10 days to 2 weeks while the work is done.  The damage isn’t too awful and the repairs won’t cost us anything, but our lives are still being disrupted and made less than pleasant.

That’s the way life is in this sin saturated world we live in. Nothing is perfect, everything is distorted by sin and all manner of bad can happen to anyone–even saved saints of God.  Now some people try to tell us that if we just have true faith nothing bad will ever happen to us, we’ll all be healthy, wealthy and wise, to quote Benjamin Franklin.  There is a whole segment of the Christian Church that teaches what is sometimes called a prosperity gospel, which is indeed no Gospel at all but a bunch of malarkey thought up by people who are generally the only ones who seem to become wealthy.

Christians are not immune to the ills of this world.  What we are is forgiven and rescued from our sinfulness by the blood of Jesus, and that is worth far, far more than anything this world can give us.  Our future is assured because Christ did for us what neither we nor anything in this world could do.  That is what we hold to in times of difficulty.

But still–I can’t wait to get my place back in order.   🙂

Beware of Life Celebrations

I had an experience this week which really bothers me.  One of our members went home to the Lord.  This was not unexpected given her advanced age and health issues, but it was still painful for those of us who loved that person.

I was contacted by one of the person’s children and asked to refrain from speaking about sin or the fact that their parent had been a sinner during the service.   They wanted to keep everything “upbeat” and happy.  I said that the Gospel is only good news if you know what the alternative is–eternity in hell.  Sinners who know Christ as Lord and Savior are not bound for punishment but for an eternity in the presence of the Lord.  That’s what makes the news good for believers.  That, however, wasn’t good enough.  There could be no discussion of such things because they were a “downer”, I guess.  I also pointed out that funerals always have people in attendance who have not heard the Gospel and it is an important part of a funeral service to witness to those folks, especially when the deceased had a saving faith.

Well, none of this was good enough and so we’re not having a funeral.  The family is sponsoring its own celebration of life at a civic building.  That’s okay, I know where the deceased is and I rejoice in their salvation.

Despite being disturbed by this one incident, I have to say that I have been put off for some time about these so-called celebrations of life that have become popular.  I’m especially put off when they take place in churches.  Oh, I know that the family and friends want to hear good things about the one they mourn, and I have no objection to that at all.  There is a place in our service for a Life Sketch where that is done.  But there is also the proclamation of the Gospel in readings, prayers, hymns and a sermon.  What is taking place here is not about the person’s life in this world, however long that may be.  It is about the person’s life on the other side of the door–the really long part of life, not the short one.

St. Paul writes that we are not to grieve as do those who have no hope.  Grieving is normal, but it becomes abnormal when it is either stuffed down in our gut, kept and massaged in our minds, or when people try to assuage their grief with a big party.  Only faith in Jesus and in the eternal blessings bestowed on His elect people can truly give us hope filled grief, a bearable grief which has with it a true sense of victory over sin, death and the devil.

As a pastor I have responsibility for the care of the souls whom I serve.  I won’t allow that to be diluted by worldly views.  If that makes me a bad guy, I guess I’m a bad guy.  But I will always care much more about the long future of my parishioners than about their short past.

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.

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.