Obituaries

I usually check the obituaries every morning before I go to the church.  I want to see if there is anyone listed who could be connected to a member of my congregation so I can be what they call proactive if that happens.  Some obituaries are long and filled with all sorts of details of the person’s life.  Others are short on information.  But all of them mention the people who are grieving the impact of the death of a loved one on their lives.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is the decline in the number of people with a church affiliation.  We used to at least see that someone was “of the Protestant faith”, but now we don’t even see that.  Instead all we find are that they were alive and did stuff, now they’re dead and we’ll have a party to talk about them.  It practically breaks my heart to see how many people are going to spend their eternity outside the presence of God–frankly, in hell.

When I perform a funeral (and I only perform funerals–never life celebrations) my sermon is always an evangelistic sermon.  I know that there is almost always someone in front of me who does not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and at least on that day they’re going to hear the Gospel.   As someone else wrote recently, a funeral is not about the deceased and it’s not about those who remain–it’s about Jesus and His substitutionary death on the Cross and His resurrection from the grave, the first among many.  If I know the deceased was a believer we’ll close the service singing Victory in Jesus.

What do you want your obituary to say to the world about you?  Do you want it to recount your successes in this life?  Maybe you want it to say how much you loved your family or your dog and how much you liked playing golf or bingo.  I guess an obituary can have many things in it without going over the top.  But I pray that the one thing it will say to the world is that you confessed with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believed in your heart that God raised Him from the dead that you might be saved unto eternity.

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Have We All Gone Mad?

As fall creeps in on us the TV is filled with ads for the new movies coming to our local cinemas.  Yesterday I saw one for the newest addition to our American culture–the assassin as hero.  This is, by my count, the third motion picture this year to glorify people who kill other people for a living.  Adding in television series’ that feature blow-em-up, shoot-em-down and then go out for a beer after work story lines, we seem to be a people entertained by violence–the more the better.  If we add in the gratuitous sex scenes and the elevation of perversion to a positive good–well, back to my title–have we all gone stark raving mad?

What is behind this degeneration of our culture?  Why is there no serious “push-back” from people against our glorification of what we have called sin for thousands of years?  What has caused our people to be enamored of things which were either shunned or at least disliked by virtually everyone not too many years ago?

I have a tentative answer for that, but it’s only tentative.  I believe we have become too individualistic in this country.  We have too much democracy, too many “rights”, and not enough community.  When I was in college I was a convinced libertarian.  I borrowed my motto from a 19th century English woman whose name I now forget–I don’t care what people do as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.  While that position modified as I grew older, and modified even more as I became a better Christian, it still fit in with a lot of my opinions.  I have even voted Libertarian in several presidential elections.  But I now see how wrong I was.

Society functions best when there are constraints on individual behavior such that good is promoted and evil is denounced.   In this country we have experimented with removing those constraints and the results are horrible.  Looking for statistics that indicate 21st century America is a just and good society is like looking for snallygasters–you can’t find them.  Forty percent of babies are born out of wedlock.  Half of all marriages end in divorce.  Nearly half of the American people pay no federal income tax, essentially riding free on the national train.  Our desires for the novel and the new are all consuming.  Millions of babies have been murdered in abortion mills.  Celebrities have more followers than Christianity.  You all know how this can go on.

In the book of Hebrews the author tells us we are not to cease to meet together–in other words we’re not to cease going to Church.  But I believe we can extend that idea a bit–we are not to cease to see ourselves as part of a larger community that has interests extending beyond our personally perceived well being.  We have thrown aside all reason and inherited attachments to the seasoned and the accepted and replaced them with our own “feelings” and desires.  We have become people whose inner sinfulness now knows no external boundaries.  The America our ancestors sought to build is gone and I have no idea how to put that rabbit back in the hat.  I suspect it’s too late for that.

But I do know this–no matter how degenerate our culture becomes, the Church of Jesus Christ will prevail.  He has promised that not even the gates of hell could overcome the Church.  Hard times are coming for the Church.  We must put aside all thoughts of America being a Christian country.  It’s not and it won’t be.  We must be ready for persecution, for it is coming.  And we must believe the promises of God that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Worship II

I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately and this is the second offering in this blog-series (!)  Anyway, I mentioned in my first blog that true Christian worship is not about us doing something for God but about God doing many things for us.  Today I want to think about how He does for us in the worship service.

First, God has chosen to work through what we call the means of grace.  The means of grace are the Word preached and read, and the sacraments.  There are many other things that are good gifts from God, but they are not means of grace.  For example, confession is not a means of grace.  The absolution given after confession is a means, but it is so only because it is drawn directly from God’s revealed Word in Scripture.  An absolution that requires some work to be done, such as found in Roman Catholicism, is not a means of grace because it is not an application of grace but an application of Law.  Neither is prayer a means of grace, but rather a means of communication.  Of course prayer can give us comfort, but the grace of God shown forth in justification comes by the revealed Word only.

We must remember that what we know of God is only what He has chosen to reveal to us.  His method of revealing Himself is in His Word found in Scripture.  And therefore the written and spoken Word must be at the very center of all true worship.  While I see true and God given grace at work in the services of our Reformed brethren, I find it somewhat sad that the only text read in many of their churches on a Sunday is the text the preacher is expounding.  The Word of God from Genesis through Revelation is the means God uses to bring us to faith.  And the Holy Spirit uses the preached Word to bring faith to people. “But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10: 14, 17)

The Sacraments of Baptism and Communion are also means of grace because they apply the Word of God through external means to enact and strengthen the faith of God’s elect.  “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)   “Baptism … now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)  The question of why some who are baptized are not saved is always a sticky one until we learn to think about it rightly.  Baptism, the Word and water, saves because it works faith in the heart of the elect through the Holy Spirit.  It does not save those who are not elect.  In the same way Holy Communion strengthens faith in the hearts of those elect who believe, but it also works to the condemnation of those who receive it without faith.  That is why Communion is  only for the baptized.

So God, who has elected those who will be saved, has also chosen those means through which their faith will be birthed and strengthened.  There are no other ways because God has chosen only these.

The Ways We Worship

I’m preparing a few lessons for the adult Sunday School class on Lutheran worship–why we do it the way we do.  Now I’m perfectly aware that not all Lutherans organize their worship lives in the same way, and that’s generally okay with me.  But there are some things that I think must not be left out if our worship is to accomplish its principle goals.

Before we discuss the “ingredients” of proper worship we should probably say why we gather for worship at all.  Couldn’t we just be independent Christians happily reading our Bibles and meeting occasionally with friends to pray?  Well, the writer of Hebrews seemed not to believe that to be a good idea because he tells us we are not to cease to meet together as some have done. (10:25)  So Biblically  speaking, we are to gather with other Christians for worship.

There’s a funny web site called the BabylonBee which spoofs things in the Christian world that need spoofing.  One of the recent posts there referred to the many Bibles in America with heretical handwritten notes in the margins.  That is indeed a reason not to stay away from organized worship–we can err in our understanding if we lack proper teaching.  Satan would love nothing better than to have us all stay home on Sunday and develop heresies in our living rooms.  When I was ordained one of my clergy friends gave me this advice–if you believe you’ve discovered some new Christian truth that has been unknown heretofore–it’s most likely a heresy.  And his advise was quite wise.

In addition to avoiding heresy we also gather for worship because we need to worship.  We don’t worship to please God, we worship in order to be fed with His Word and strengthened in our faith.  The principle service done on Sunday mornings is not our service to God, but His service to His gathered people.  That’s what the Gospel is all about.

The traditional pattern of Lutheran worship makes this quite clear.  We gather before the Lord and confess our sins, after which the pastor assures those who have confessed that, if they are in Christ, their sins are forgiven–not at that moment and not just for what they’ve done in the last week–but forgiven because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary 2000 years ago.  And we say Thanks.

Then God’s Word is read that we might know and understand His saving grace even more.  And we say Thanks.

Then the pastor expounds on that written Word, bring its meaning and purpose to the lives of the gathered people of God.  And again we say Thanks.

Then God provides us with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, truly yet mysteriously present under the elements of bread and wine.  Our faith is strengthened and our hopes fulfilled.  And we say Thanks.

Then finally, at the end of every service we receive a benediction which sends us on our way rejoicing and saying Thanks.

I’ll write more about our worship lives in the weeks ahead, but I wanted to start by saying Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Looking Back

The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you.  Now there is some wisdom in that statement.  An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future.  And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future.  God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.

Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced.  As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.

That’s been true in my life also.  I was raised in the church and taught its importance.  But then  I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell.  But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway.  Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.

The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday.  There have been times of success and times of failure.  Times of growth and times of decline.  There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving.  The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely.  A lot of things can happen in 191 years.

I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons.  My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith.  We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century.  We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery.  Looking back will teach us something.  It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.

Vacation

We’re leaving on Wednesday for a 2 week vacation.  For 2 weeks I will read books, visit with our daughter and son-in-law, go to a Revolutionary War battlefield, tour a plantation and eat out a lot.  I’m sure I will enjoy myself and I pray I will come back rested and ready to take up ministry with new vigor and enthusiasm.

The idea of taking vacations is relatively new in our world.  I’m pretty sure that my ancestors who came to these shores in 1737 never had one–they were too busy just trying to stay alive.  That’s the way the most people lived for most of history.  Some still live that way.  I think about that and feel sort of lazy for taking time off when there is still work to do.  And then I remember Jesus.

Now we couldn’t say that Jesus took vacations as you and I understand that term, but Scripture does give us more than one instance in which He went off to be alone with His Father in prayer and meditation.  And while the Lord taught His disciples whenever He could, He did take them away on several occasions from the crowds and the ministry they did among them.

Don’t get me wrong–Jesus doesn’t tell me to go take 2 weeks at the beach.  But what He does model for me and for you is the need we all have to put down our tools and rest in the arms of God.  The Lord who made us and shared for a brief time this body we inhabit, understood the importance of rest for anyone who has hard work to do–whether that is physical labor, mental labor, or simply showing love to our neighbors.  Without rest our work will be subpar and it will end early.  The word “burnout” was coined in the 20th century, but it existed long before that.

So I encourage everyone to find a place and a time where you can relax and feel the presence of the Lord anew.  And when He has refreshed you with the living water that will never dry up, then you can be His good and faithful servant.

Filing

I hate filing.  It’s boring and I can always find an excuse for doing something more “important.”  So for quite some time, rather than filing my sermons neatly in appropriate folders I’ve just been dropping them in a drawer, rendering them fairly useless if I want to look up something that I may have already said–or just about anything else for that matter.  So I’ve hired my granddaughter to put my files in order.

This got me thinking about what else I may be failing to keep in order.  Is my spiritual life organized and in the process of deepening?  Are my prayers as full as they ought to be?  Is the rest of my labor at church focused or is it just a hodgepodge like my files were?  Am I being the type of pastor God wants me to be to the people here at St. Paul’s or am I failing to be that which I should be just because I’m too lazy to do what needs doing?

My wife and I are going on vacation next week and I want to spend some time pondering how I can be a better servant, a better pastor, a better subject of the King of kings.

Now I suspect many who read this are just as likely as I am to avoid unpleasant tasks.  No one wants to do boring things and no one, especially, wants to do hard things.  But putting them off just makes more trouble down the road, and there won’t always be someone like my granddaughter to pick up the slack.  So here are a few questions for you to ask yourself this week:

+How go things with your soul?  Is your life a good reflection            of the life of a follower of Jesus?                                                            +What work for God and His people have you been putting              off?                                                                                                                  +Are you simply drifting in your spiritual life, showing up on            Sunday for church but not doing to much else?                              +Are you praying for anything other than your self and your          immediate loved ones?

There are a lot of other questions you could ask, but you get the idea.